Audiobook Review: City of the Dead: Author’s Preferred Edition by Brian Keene

12 02 2018

City of the Dead

City of the Dead: Author’s Preferred Edition by Brian Keene

Narrated by Joe Hempel

Crossroad Press

Grade: B+

It’s really hard to review the audio version of a book you read originally over 10 years ago. When I first read The Rising and City of the Dead, the current wave of Zombie fic was in it’s infancy. Over a decade later, and I can now truly appreciate how truly cutting edge and influential this novel has become. Also, as I followed Brian Keene’s career, one thing that truly stuck out to me in City of the Dead was how personal this novel must have been for him. City of the Dead isn’t just a novel about inter dimensional “demons” inhabiting the bodies of the dead to eliminate life on this earth, it’s also an often heartbreaking look at a man reconnecting with his child and understanding what it means to be a father. Like most of Keenes’s book, while grounded in traditional tropes, it’s far from a traditional zombie novel. Fans of Keene will rejoice at having these new versions of The Rising and City of the Dead to embrace, and be slightly jealous of the new fans getting to experience these stories for the first time.

Joe Hempel has to take on the task of bring a world alive that is already alive in my brain. Like in most cases, Hempel’s interpretations don’t really match up with how I originally imagined them. Yet, often times, his choices were probably better. His voices for the Siqqusim were more human sounding then I imagined them, but that makes sense and actually makes the “zombies” even more creepy. Where he really excels is driving the pace of the action and building the tension, along with truly bringing to life the relationships between the characters. He has a smooth, crisp delivery style and never falls into the “deep dark horror voice” trap that is overused in this genre. While those new to the series should fully embrace Hempel’s performance, the toughest critics, those fans reliving the book, will be more than satisfied with his performance.

Audiobook Review: Ghost Walk by Brian Keene

30 04 2017

Ghost Walk

Ghost Walk by Brian Keene

Read by Chet Williamson

Crossroad Press

Grade: B

I have had a very sporadic love affair with Brian Keene. Well, at least his books. I’ve loved many of his books, particularly is apocalyptic novels, but have only read a few of his more traditional horror novels. Now that he has a deal with Crossroads Press to release his books into audio, I plan to flesh out my collection. My first foray into this is Ghost Walk, the loose follow up to his novel Dark Hollow. Ghost Walk is a serviceable one-off horror tale of a Halloween Attraction gone tragically awry due to supernatural interventions. Yet, where it truly excels in it’s place in Brian Keene’s larger mythos and in particular, the introduction of one of his reoccurring character, Levi Stoltzfus. One thing you learn quickly in Brian Keene’s scarred from their encounters with the entities from the labyrinth, and the implications of these scars ripple out beyond the ending of any particular book. Ghost Walk is old school horror that truly is horrific.

Chet Williamson is one of those narrators that isn’t always my cup of tea. He has more of the old school style akin to many of the originals big voices of audiobook Narration like George Guidall or Richard Ferrone. I’m not typically a fan of this style yet occasionally, with the right book it works. I though his performance in Keene’s The Complex was outstanding. I wasn’t as enamored here, but as the book played out, and things seemed to get more bizarre and crazy I fell under his spell. Williamson is strongest in this genre, and he delivers a solid performance that is suited to this book.

Audiobook Review: Symbiont by Mira Grant

5 02 2015

Symbiont (Parasitology, Bk. 2) by Mira Grant

Read by Christine Lakin

Hachette Audio

Length: 16Hrs 47Min

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror

Grade: B+

When Parasite came out, I was so excited. Mira Grant is like, the modern god of the scientific horror novel of some hyperbole. I loved the Newsflesh series, and was excited to see what she would do next. Plus, the book was about sentient tapeworms taking over their human hosts. Honestly, if you can’t get excited about sentient tapeworms taking over their human host then you probably aren’t my people.

Honestly, I should make that my online dating profile. Just list weird bizarre things that make me squeal and jump up and down in morbid glee, and if that makes you think I’m a bit weird, and the idea that being a bit weird is a negative aspect, well, you should probably pass on me.

So, Parasite came out. It was good….

I mean, I liked it but…

It really was pretty damn good…

OK, so basically, it wasn’t totally awesome, and I set myself up for totally awesome, so even pretty damn good was a bit of a letdown. So, I was less excited when Symbiont came out….

Symbiont, was pretty damn good. It’s hard to say whether I liked it more than Parasite or if my lessened anticipation just made it more fulfilling, either way, except for a few minor quibbles, Symbiont was maybe lightly brushing up against awesome.

Mira Grant has a great concept with this series, and Symbiont continues to explore it. Yet, despite the original concept, Grant storytelling has a traditional comfortable feel. This is actually a complement. Many authors today value style so high it gets in the way of a good story. Grant seems to know that no matter how unique the setting of concept, the story has to be accessible and compelling. While she spends a bit too much time on Sal/Sally’s internal struggles, she keeps the story moving forward with strong action and interesting characters. As Symbiont is the second book in series, the ending leaves a bit too much up in the air, which gives the take and incomplete feel, which, I guess is expected since the tale is, in fact, incomplete but I hoped for a bit more of a substantive ending. Symbiont moved the series in the right direction, giving us a greater glimpse of a world shattering around itself opening up space around the tale to give it a much bigger feel.

Christine Lakin gives a solid performance. Basically, she does her job and does it well. She has a pleasant voice, and is technically proficient. In all honestly, I really don’t remember much specifically about her performance. It won’t stand out as one of those amazing performances that remind me why I love audiobooks. Mostly, she just got out of the way of the story. Sometimes this is the best thing for a narrator to do. I think Symbiont could have benefited from a narrator that took a few more risks, but it also could have turned into an utter disaster, so I’ll take it.

If you liked Parasite, and don’t mind a few of Grants particular peccadilloes, than you will probably be quite satisfied with Symbiont. Just remember that this is just book two in a series, so don’t expect to feel like anything has actually been accomplished.

Audiobook Review: Code Zero by Jonathan Maberry

31 03 2014

Code Zero (Joe Ledger, Bk. 6) by Jonathan Maberry

Read by Ray Porter

Macmillan Audio

Length: 16 Hrs 3 Min

Genre: SF/Horror Thriller

Grade: A+

In the latest Joe Ledger thriller by Jonathan Maberry…. well, awesomeness happens, Horrible, tragic and often fatal awesomeness, but still… you get the picture. It’s very hard for me to actually review a Joe Ledger novel and this is why I don’t really try. In the last novel, Extinction Machine Maberry took the X-Files to the next extreme, and in the series debut Patient Zero Maberry reminded us why zombies are goddam fucking scary. Really, if god created an author solely for the purpose of putting my worse fears and fanatical likes to paper, Maberry is a robot uprising away from divine perfection. This is why you have to take my review with a grain of salt… an awesome grain of salt. In the latest, Code Zero Maberry has topped himself by returning to some of his previously traveled paths and amping them up with blue meth. One of the standout aspects of Code Zero is that Maberry gives us an alternate view of past events at the Department of Military Sciences through a new set of eyes. Because of this, we got a chance to revisit, if briefly, some beloved fallen comrades. Maberry also manages to create a new kind of bad guy, maniacal in her own way, yet quite different from what we have seen in the series. As with every other book in the series, Maberry doesn’t cut his hero any breaks. Joe is again called on to literally save the world while the potential of tragic personal sacrifice lingers over his head. As a reader, I don’t know how much more I can take, and I am surprised the Joe’s fragile psyche has held up as long as it has. Again, Maberry’s intense action is cinematic in scope. The scenes come alive in your head. Each scene is huge, but Maberry keeps it contained and intimate guiding us through the chaos like a master director. My only negative is that I still haven’t bought in to Joe’s latest love interest. Maybe it’s a residue from the loss of a past love, or perhaps the incongruousness of the relationship. While the relationship is conflicted, it lacks conflict and part of my brain agrees with Violin when she says he needs a women more in his world. Yet, Maberry does use the relationship effectively, adding levels to the story. My other quibbling complain is that, despite his move to the West Coast, Maberry once again releases potentially apocalyptic danger onto the Philly area, but since it’s Willow Grove, I’ll forgive him. (Suggestion: Croydon could use a nice dose of Captain Trips.) The release of a Joe Ledger novels is my Christmas and Code Zero is a gift that doesn’t disappoint.

It must be a great feeling as an author knowing you have a narrator that doesn’t just get what you’re doing but manages to deliver every line with authenticity and emotional impact. Ray Porter, with a simple pause, or a stumbled line, milks every moment of this book to make you truly feel it. His reading raced my heart, gave me chills down my back and had me hiding in the bathroom so people at work didn’t think I had a pet related tragedy. If there is one series to point to and shout “This is how audiobooks should be done” (which admitted I would absolutely do given the right motivation and perhaps one too many Yuengling lagers,) than it’s Ray Porter’s reading of the Joe Ledger series. Take it from this fanboy, I would totally recommend getting a full physical before listening to Code Zero to make sure your heart can take it.

Audiobook Review: Parasite by Mira Grant

12 11 2013

Parasite (Parasitology, Bk. 1) by Mira Grant

Read by Christine Lakin

Hachette Audio

Length: 16 Hrs 11 Min

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror

Quick Thoughts: In Parasite, Mira Grant takes a bizarre concept and makes it horrifically realistic through well researched science. Full of fascinating concepts, wonderful characters and plenty of dark humor, Parasite is a truly compelling listen.

Grade: A-

In the start of a new series, Mira Grant once again blends genres, taking a concept that seems almost bizarre on its face, grounding it well researched and surprisingly realistic science creating a scenario that is more horrific than traditional supernatural horror. While the story is utterly unique, Grant revisits many themes that made her Newsflesh series stand out, skewed family dynamics, untraditional romantic bonds, a society that adapts to drastic scientific change and characters that break away from norms in delightful ways. In PARASITE, a revolutionary change in health management, developed as a responsive to the Hygiene Hypothesis, has genetically engineered Tapeworms controlling and monitoring the health of individuals. Sally Mitchell received one of the top of the line, early prototypes of the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard, due to her father’s high level position as a Government Scientist. After an accident that leaves her seemingly brain dead, Sally miraculously recovers, despite a nearly total loss of memory. Now, Sally must undergo regular testing by SymboGen, as well as her parent’s obsessive protective care, while she attempts to live a normal life. When a strange sickness begins to affect some with the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard, Sally finds herself pulled between her family, the man she loves, and the shady company that may have saved her life.

It’s no surprise that based on the concepts of potentially sentient tapeworms that I would absolutely love this book. Well, I did, for many reasons. Mira Grant has become the closest thing to the modern day Stephen King for me, and author who manages to thrill and horrify me on a consistent basis. What surprised me most about Parasite wasn’t the well written action, the fascinating science, or the mind numbing high concept plot, it was the humor that Grant infused throughout the novel. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Grant’s novel managed to elicit several inappropriate laugh out loud public moments for me. Sally Mitchell as a character was fascinating, but also managed to be a bit awkward and frustrating at points. Unlike Georgia from the Newsflesh series, while Sally was impressive and strong in her own way, she was quite naive, and even at times whiny. Yet, Grant filled out her cast with characters that balanced Sally out. Grants characterizations are superb, and the number of memorable, crazy, yet fully fleshed out characters was impressive. I love how every relationship in this book is pushed in interesting ways. Sally’s unique relationships with her family, boyfriend, coworkers and even the scientists at SymboGen are not just peripherals of the series, but informed the story in wonderful ways. While I loved Parasite, it wasn’t the perfect novel. It suffered a bit from being the obvious first book in a series. While many questions are answered, the story didn’t have the feeling of being a self contained story that Feed, the first Newsflesh book, managed to have. The big reveal at the end of Parasite was only truly a surprise to the main character. Yet, despite this lack of closure and the telegraphed twist, Grant does a lot with this story and does it well. I’m quite excited to see where this story goes. Again, Grant has created a wonderful world, which offers her plenty of places to play in, and I for one really enjoy watching Mira Grant play.

This is my first experience with Christine Lakin as narrator, and she did an excellent job with the story. Lakin found the right balance between strength and self doubt that peppers Sally’s personality. She read Sally with a quiet strength that was almost stoic at times, allowing the moments of emotional flair to have more impact on the listener. You could just feel Lakin having fun as she voiced Tansy, one of the more colorful characters of the series. She captured the comic absurdity of the character without turning her into a cartoon character. He pacing was brisk yet smooth, allowing the action to push the narrative without being forced. At times some of the lesser characters came of a bit cardboard, but the more colorful standout characters in the book truly came alive in Lakin’s hands. Mira Grant continues to impress me, and I will be waiting trepidatiously yet with growing childish glee for the next entry in this series,

Audiobook Review: Lycan Fallout:Rise of the Werewolf by Mark Tufo

4 10 2013

Lycan Fallout: Rise of the Werewolf by Mark Tufo

Read by Sean Runnette

Published by Mark Tufo

Length: 11 Hrs 23 Min

Genre: Post Apocalyptic with Werewolves

Quick Thoughts: Lycan Fallout offers everything you would want in a Michael Talbot adventure, with a new menace, some new allies and a whole new timeline. Tufo fills his intriguing post apocalyptic world with strange new communities, some of his most visual action scenes to date and plenty of juvenile humor. Lycan Fallout is a worthwhile addition to his weird little Talbotverse.

Grade: B+

I have to admit, I was a bit hesitant about Lycan Fallout. With all these iterations of Michael Talbot, battling aliens, zombies, ghosts, dogknappers, vampires and other such horrors, I need a flow chart, Venn diagram, Commodore 64, two shots of whiskey and a 50’s era receptionist to keep it all straight. Yet, with all things Tufo, I have learned to just sit back and enjoy the ride, even when the car careens off the road, and crashes into something twisted and maybe a bit sticky. My other issue was that out of the great monster trifecta, zombies, vampires and werewolves, stories involving lupine shape shifters tend to be my least favorite, and probably fall under lesser beloved monsters like Triffids, squid demons, cats, alien parasites, and taxes as well. I’m not sure why I never get jazzed over werewolves. Maybe it’s all the weird mythology surrounding them or the fact I can never keep the various types straight, or possibly that women are less likely to want to spend time with you if you can’t morph into some sort of animal. Yet, despite my hesitation, I thought, heck, it’s Tufo. I highly doubt his werewolves would be all that sexy and at the very least, I should get enough juvenile humor to balance the whole werewolf thing out.

It’s more than a century since humanity won a pyrrhic victory against the zombie hordes, and half man/half Vampire Michael Talbot is living on his family estate, detached from society. Since the last member of his family died, he’s had no purpose and marks time by when Tommy, his 500 year old Vampire creator and surrogate son would bring him food. Yet, when Tommy and the witch Azile learn of a new menace to the struggling post apocalyptic communities of mankind, they need to find a way to get Michael once again invested in society. Together they hatch a plan to bring him out of exile and into the fight against the Lycans, involving a dog, some beer and baseball. Is there anyway Micheal can resist?

Lycan Fallout is a near future post apocalyptic tale told as only Mark Tufo can, which is straight on, in your face no holds barred storytelling. Fans of Tufor’s Zombie Fallout series will find much of what they like about that series, Michael’s not quite politically correct juvenile humor, visceral scenes of gore, the comradery of brothers (and sisters) at arms, a strange hybrid mythology mixing together as many horror tropes as possible, and plenty of action. Lycan Fallout takes a while to pull you in. Readers need to adjust to the changed world, the new timeline, and a moody whiney version of Michael Talbot, yet, when things begin to move, Tufo grabs the reader by the hair, and pulls them into the story. Mark Tufo, probably unlike any other author, can do things that annoy the heck out of me in a lot of books with over used scenarios and stereotypical portrayals yet make it work by his sheer audacity. Tufo is like that strange friend who constantly tells the same damn stupid joke, but manages to make you laugh at it every time. There was so much fun, cool stuff in Lycan Fallout. I really liked his post apocalyptic world. It’s not anything I haven’t seen before, with new communities, traditions and religions formed from the wreckage of our world, but displayed in an offbeat manner. Tufo constantly keeps the reader off balanced. He has theses moments where his writing almost takes on a poetic quality, and you’re thinking "That’s kind of deep" and then he follows it up with some crude scatological joke. It’s strange and disconcerting and uneven and joyous and a whole lot of fun. I think Lycan Fallout also showed some of Tufo’s maturity as a writer (if you can use the word maturity when describing Mr. Tufo). His action scenes were crisper, less weighed down by extraneous details, and highly visual. His plotting was cleaner, and he even managed some real solid emotional writing that did justice to his characters. Plus, his werewolves were actually kind of cool and even a bit scary at times. My only warning, if you are easily frustrated by series, this is the beginning of a new series, and not a standalone. If you are going to jump of the Lycan Fallout Wagon, be prepared for a long ride. Hopefully your ass won’t get too sore along the way.

As with all of Mark Tufo’s audiobooks, the narration is handled by one Mr. Sean Runnette. I sometimes wonder, with all the time Runnette has spent voicing Michael Talbot, if he hasn’t started becoming a bit of a germaphobe with inappropriately timed humor, a penchant for violence and a high likelihood to verbally abuse inept customer service people. This is the problem; I have trouble separating the narrator with the character, because he has become just as much a part of Michael Talbot as his love of guns and dogs. As always, Runnette’s performance is perfect for this series. He captures the personality of Michael Talbot perfect. One other thing I liked is how when some descendants of Michael’s friends show up, they have vocal similarities to their predecessors, without being carbon copies of them. There was just something comfortable about this, which helped the readers get over the fact that some of our favorite characters are no longer pat of the story. If you have yet to experience a Mark Tufo tale, particularly one surrounding his main character Michael Talbot, whether you want the zombie, alien or werewolf fighting version, I highly recommend experiencing it with Talbot’s true voice, as performed by Sean Runnette.

Audiobook Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

1 10 2013

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Read by Will Patton

Simon & Schuster Audio

Length: 18 Hrs 35 Min

Genre: Horror

Quick Thoughts: Doctor Sleep is an audiobook that will linger with me for a long time, a wonderful and moving story combined with one of the favorite narrator performances of all time. Doctor Sleep is a prime example of just how special the medium can be.

Grade: A+

I think it’s impossible for me to review anything by Stephen King without putting it into context of my history as a reader. Over the past few years he has released books, or had audiobooks released that tie in with significant moments in my reading history. Whether it’s a new Dark Tower novel, or an audiobook version of The Stand, it’s hard for me to write a review of listening to just that book. My experiences with any Stephen King novel is so tied into my past experiences because so much of his work informs and is informed by his other books. There are other worlds than these, and Stephen King’s books bend and weave through these many other books, wrapping a mutliverse up like a beautiful but uneven tapestry. This is why I approached Doctor Sleep with hesitation. I first read The Shining during my initial wave as a Stephen King reader. I was about 14 or 15 and devoured many of his early novels like Carrie, Christine and Cujo. These novels where straight in your face horror tales, some of which could have passed for modern Young Adult novels, which was perfect for me at that point in my life. Then I read The Shining. I’ll be honest, The Shining was never my favorite Stephen King novel. I didn’t have the same relationship that Jen from Jenn’s Bookshelves talked about in her brilliant post about her relationship with that novel. The Shining was a different kind of horror novel than I was used to. It was more subtle, a lingering horror that played around the edges and sneaked into your nightmares from side doors and shadows. It’s a much scarier experience than say, Cujo or Carrie, which hit you in the face with their horror, but it was also an adult style of horror. It scared me for reasons I didn’t understand.

As part of my preparation, I decided to listen to The Shining. I think I understand the brilliance of the novel more now. It still isn’t my favorite Stephen King novel, but I think it’s because the horror the Torrance family undergoes, and the secrets of REDRUM have become an iconic part of our culture that it’s tough to experience it today as King intended it to be experienced. Still, I was surprised by how much I missed within King’s characterizations of Jack Torrance. As someone from a broken home, who hadn’t yet understood what kind of man his father was, back when I first read The Shining, I felt sympathy for Jack Torrance and was almost resentful of Wendy. Now, I realize what a truly despicable man Jack Torrance was. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but any sympathy I had for the character is gone. King’s depiction of a selfish, self delusional man being manipulated by an evil that tapped into his true nature makes much more sense to me as an adult than it ever did a child. I am glad I decided to listen to The Shining. While I still had issues with it, and my feelings on the narration was that it was pretty much lackluster, and may not have done the story justice, it did make me even more excited to start Doctor Sleep.

Danny Torrance never believed he would give into the temptations of alcohol like his father, but years later he finds himself a drunk, full of regrets and about to hit rock bottom, when his old friend Tony, a remnant of his Shining, lead him to a small New England town. There with the help of a curmudgeonly former drunk, he joins AA, and tries to piece his life back together while working in a hospice where he helps the dying to transition to the next stage, Yet, his Shining isn’t fully dead, and on occasion he is reached out to by Abra, a young girl with perhaps the strongest power he has ever felt. When the True Knott, a group of not quite human travelers who feed off the essence of those with such powers, targets Abra, Danny Torrance, called Doctor Sleep by those who know him, must confront his past in order to protect this young powerful girl.

I often find it really hard to put my thoughts about a work like Doctor Sleep into words that effective portrays the experience I had listening to it. Unlike almost any other author, Stephen King has an ability to totally suck you into a world, where you become so enthralled in in, you never want to escape. Yet, this is hit and miss. There are times where I have struggled through a Stephen King novel like a junky trying to relive the experience of that first high, only to be disappointed. There are other times where you feel like if you just stand on your tippy toes, you may be able to lightly touch that feeling with the your fingers. Then there are times you are just transported into that world with no effort of your own. Doctor Sleep was this type of experience. From the first moments, I was pulled into Danny Torrance’s world, and the special magic of the written word that encompassed it.  Stephen King has created a tale that is both familiar and utterly different. While a sequel to The Shining, and dependent on it for back-story, it doesn’t depend on it for style or substance. King creates a whole new mythology for this world, and does it seamlessly like it’s what he intended from the very start. I found the True Knot to be one of his most fascinating concepts, a group of olderish road travelers riding the American roads in Winnebago’s and Recreational Vehicles who are in fact, a unique type of vampiric community. King does what he does so well, taking something that is seemingly innocuous and tapping into its hidden creepiness. He somehow makes you feel like you have always felt there was something just a bit off when you would see people like this, even if you never realized it on a conscience level.

Yet, the true heart and soul of Doctor Sleep is the journey of Danny Torrance. Danny’s journey feels like his father’s journey in reverse, a man giving into his inner goodness. Doctor Sleep is full of so many touching, self revelatory moments.  Ever since the infamous accident that almost killed King and very well may have ended his career, each novel, on some level, has seemed to be King trying to come to terms with his mortality and eventual journey into the irrelevance of history. Doctor Sleep feels like the natural conclusion to this journey. King seems to have finally found some middle ground with the haunting specter of death, and guides us through that discovery. What he has seemed to discover is that in order to accept death, you must come to terms with life. Doctor Sleep is about this, a man discovering his life, and finding his relevance through community and family. It’s also one heck of a wonderful tale, exciting and well told. I know this isn’t much of a review per se. Doctor Sleep affected me in a way where I can’t say, "Oh, I loved the witting here… what great world building or wonderfully developed characters.”  I’m sure the internet will be full of review analyzing and critiquing the novel for its literary value positively or negatively. For me, it was one of the more meaningful listening experiences I have had in a long time, and reminded me that when King is truly on, you should just give into the experience.

One of the interesting things about audio is that it’s easy to pinpoint how a bad performance affected your feeling of the novel, yet it’s not always as easy with a great performance. How much of my love for Doctor Sleep comes from Stephen King’s ability to tell a wonderful story and affect me on a personal level, and how much came from Will Patton’s amazing performance? In the end, I don’t think the answer is that important. In audio, sometimes the symbiosis between text and performance is so intermingled, it does a disservice to try to separate them out. As audiobook reviewers, we often talk about how a narrator’s performance can elevate the text, but less frequently we mention how the author’s words can elevate a narrator. I think Doctor Sleep may have been about as perfect a symbiosis between prose and performance that I have experienced in a long time. Will Patton’s performance was breathtakingly brilliant. His reading of Doctor Sleep will easily find its way into the pantheon of all time great audiobook performances, in my opinion. With a simple pause, or peculiar emphasis, Patton brings King’s words to full life. King will often use italicize and other tricks in his print texts that doesn’t always translate into audio, but Patton let you hear each word as it was intended in ways that even King may not have realized he intended them. Doctor Sleep is an audiobook that will linger with me for a long time, a wonderful and moving story combined with one of the favorite narrator performances of all time. Doctor Sleep is a prime example of just how special the medium can be.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: Niceville by Carsten Stroud

18 09 2013

Niceville by Carsten Stroud

Read by Ann Marie Lee

Random House Audio

Length: 14 Hrs 41 Min

Genre: Gothic Horror/Crime Thriller

Quick Thoughts: Niceville is Stephen King meets Carl Hiaasen, a dark fantasy meet absurdist crime thriller told in multiple subplots that come together in a phantasm of gothic horror, dark comedy, and long buried family secrets.  Stroud creates his story in layers, slowly blending many storylines, weaving them together in an intricate pattern that isn’t fully revealed until the stunning conclusion.

Grade: A-

As a horror fan I learned early on not to trust the seemingly idyllic. Monsters and killers and the like are scary sure, but in a smack you in the face obvious sort of way. When I read a book, or watch a movie where some monster eviscerated a couple of stupid kids who decided to experiment sexually in their car in the woods, I am more annoyed by how these kids became a cliché, and feel they probably deserve to be gutted with a hook. It’s disgusting and bothersome, but not truly scary. So much of what goes for horror these days is really gore, set to be nauseatingly disgusting, but not something that will linger nibbling around your soul for years to come. What I truly find scary is the idyllic small town. You can have your monsters and demons sucking souls and torturing virgins. I’ll take my white picket fences and well maintained lawns. No matter how you dress it up, these seemingly idyllic towns are a simmering cauldron of witchcraft, interdimensional portals and dark secrets of gothic import.  You can make it all nice and pretty, with a throwback morality and small town charm, but I know that when you name your town Pleasant Gardens or Happy Valley, the only thing truly happy is the ancient being that lives beneath the surface of the town that subtly changes and influences its denizens to commit atrocities. I’m no fool. I’m from Philly, a city where brotherly love is typically the last thing on the table, so I know the more innocuous the town name, the greater the secret horrors that lie beneath it are.  Give me a town called Hell’s Gates or Cthulhu Hills, I will expect a strong community full of upstanding citizens who mind their own business unless a neighbor needs help, than they are quick with a kind word and a strong back. Yet, if your town sign says, "Welcome to Happy Town" I’m turning my ass around as quickly as friggin’ possible, you sick, sick bastards.

When a young boy goes missing, only to turn up comatose in an impossible place, CID officer Nick Kavanaugh is unsettled and begins to look into the high number of strange abductins that occur in the town of Niceville. A year later, a daring bank robbery and brutal slaughter of State Policemen sets off a series of events that shakes, Nick, his wife Kate and the citizens of Niceville to their core, events that have their roots in Niceville’s dark secret history. Niceville is Stephen King meets Carl Hiaasen, a dark fantasy meet absurdist crime thriller told in multiple subplots that come together in a phantasm of gothic horror, dark comedy, and long buried family secrets.  Stroud creates his story in layers, slowly blending many storylines, weaving them together in an intricate pattern that isn’t fully revealed until the stunning conclusion. It’s wonderfully done, full of so many fully realized despicable characters it was hard to pick which one you most wanted to get their due. While Niceville has plenty of likeable characters to cheer for, it’s the lowlifes and scumbags that steal the show. From the embittered women hating loser to the calm, cool and collected sociopath, each complicated scheme of one character finds a way to interact and derail the complicated scheme of another. While all this scheming, backstabbing and craziness is taking place, Stroud adds in a whole other level, a dark fantasy, both gothic and historic that is full on creepy to its core. Niceville has echoes of Stephen King’s Derry, but with a unique mythology all it’s own.  With all these balls in the air, you would think eventually the author would drop one, allowing it to all unravel into a messy clump of yarn, but he never does. Stroud manages to keep all his balls in the air, like a maniacal juggler laughing at you while you think he’s laughing with you.  Even though much of the story reveals itself slowly, I was never bored. While I was intrigued by what was happening in one area, I was equally fascinated by what could be happening in another. I was amazed that Stroud never lost me. Once I warmed to his story telling style, he had me enthralled and fascinated no matter what turn the story took, and I never once felt lost or confused, just filled with anticipation of what could happen next. Niceville was the rare story that managed to creep me out and make me laugh. Stroud creates some of the most memorable characters, and puts them through a a dark twisted wringer, yet still managing to pull out one heck of a multifaceted story.

The only area that left me a bit confused was the audio production. There was nothing truly wrong with Ann Marie Lee’s performance. I thought she had a strong grasp on the characters, and was quite pleasant to listen to. She moved the story along nicely, and never let anything drag. Her character voices were well delineated, which was quite a feat with so many characters. There wasn’t a single moment where I was confused to what character was speaking, nor did I need to be told by the author which POV I was in. Overall, I thought she did a good job with the Omniscient POV, where in many ways it felt like the true narrator was the town of Niceville. BUT… yeah, there’s a but. First off, I don’t think she was quite the right narrator for this novel. I am not sure why they cast a female narrator for a book where the majority of the characters where male, and snarky male scumbags at that. She did an amazing job with these male voices, but sometimes I felt the dark humor of the tale was muted by her performance. A narrator can alter the very feel of a novel by how they turn a phrase, and I think Niceville was full of a dark comedy that didn’t shine through Lee’s performance as much as it could have. I thought she had the creepy aspects down pat, but some of the absurdity of the tale lost its effectiveness. Overall, I came away thinking that Ann Marie Lee was an amazing narrator, just maybe not quite the right narrator for this story.

Audiobook Review: Joyland by Stephen King

28 08 2013

Joyland by Stephen King

Read by Michael Kelly

Simon & Schuster Audio

Length: 7 Hrs 33 Min

Genre: Stephen King with bits of Crime Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Joyland is a mood soaked coming of age tale of a young man’s last summer of childhood, discovering a strange home amidst the work and workers of a struggling amusement park. Also, there’s a murder mystery.  If you are looking for a Crime Fiction novel written by Stephen King, you may be disappointed, instead you get a Stephen King novel that includes a bit of crime fiction. While it doesn’t all work, what does work works beautifully.

Grade: B+

There comes a point in every Stephen King Novel where I can’t help but think, "Damn, this novel is very Stephen King." I have experienced this with other authors, most recently in Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, but the author who this sort of surreal realization of Stephen Kingness occurs the most with is Stephen King. It’s weird, I’ll be reading a novel, and there will be these seemingly pointless side trips that create a specific mood, that somehow end up coming back into play when you least expect it, and I just think, "Man, that’s so Stephen King."  Earlier this year, I listened to The Onion’s Book of Known Knowledge: The Definitive Encyclopaedia of Existing Knowledge. This complete guide to all the knowledge in the world allowed me to realize what I have known in the back of my mind for year. In their entry on Literature, they explained that there are three succinct categories of Literature: Fiction, Non-Fiction and Stephen King. Stephen King is his own genre, and there is nobody working within that genre who better represents it than Stephen King. Yet, even with this knowledge, I was a bit disoriented when I heard that Stephen King would be writing novels for the Hard Case Crime series. Hard Case Crime is a series of Crime Fiction. Crime Fiction falls squarely into the "Fiction" Category, and not the "Stephen King" category. Is it possible that Stephen King could step outside the Stephen King Genre, which I believe was named after him, and write something that wasn’t Stephen King or would this be too meta, forcing the earth out of alignment, dolphins to flee the planet, and the portal to the interdimensional ether to open up and swallow us like a shark snacking on plankton? Yet, just like almost every book within Stephen King’s bibliography, there came that moment in Joyland, where I was "Hey, this novel is very Stephen King." Earth is saved!

Devin Jones is a young college English student, intrigued by an advertisement for summer work at a North Carolina Amusement Park. Devastated by a break up, Devin becomes immersed in the culture of the park, and intrigued by the tales of a ghost who haunts one of the attractions. While looking into the murder of the woman who some believes still lingers at Joyland, Devin meets and older woman and her gravely ill son who opens the door to another side of the mystery. Joyland is a mood soaked coming of age tale of a young man’s last summer of childhood, discovering a strange home amidst the work and workers of a struggling amusement park. Also, there’s a murder mystery. That is the problem with Joyland. As a typical Stephen King tale of otherness simmering under the surface of a seemingly idyllic family attraction, Joyland is another masterstroke in King’s career. As a murder mystery, it falls kind of flat. Luckily, it really doesn’t matter. Strip away the investigation into the murder of a young girl, and its relationship to a series of other murders, Joyland is still a wonderful experience. The murder tale is a bit of a distraction that occurs within the pages occasionally. Whenever Devin would spend time looking into the murder, I was like, "Oh, yeah… that’s right, this is SUPPOSED to be a crime fiction tale." It’s not that the murder mystery was bad, it just felt tacked onto a story that didn’t need it to succeed. Sure, it was competently done, and offered a nice little twist, but the true essence of this story was in Devin and his relationships. King deftly develops these relationships, between Devin and his ex-girlfriend, his housemates and coworkers, and a young handicapped boy and his mother. These relationships are moving and intense and like the best coming of age story, transformational. King explores the world of the amusement park wonderfully, creating its own language, and a mood that doesn’t need to be paranormal to be full of magic. There is a definite feel of melancholy to the tale. King taps into the truism that you never truly realize something is the best moments of your life, until you reflect on it years later. Kin uses this familiar sentiments to develop a true kinship between Devin and the reader. It’s the grand master doing what he does best, with his little flourishes that bring so much to his tale. If you are looking for a Crime Fiction novel written by Stephen King, you may be disappointed, instead you get a Stephen King novel that includes a bit of crime fiction. While it doesn’t all work, what does work works beautifully.

I was excited when I discovered Michael Kelly would be narrating this tale. Kelly is one of those character actors that you often see in key supporting roles on TV, who always manages to make the most out of them, often stealing the show from the stars. Yet, I was also a bit hesitant. Sometimes when an actor I recognize narrates an audiobook, I can’t help but picture them in the role of the main character, and Kelly doesn’t look like a 19 year old college student. Luckily, this was never a problem. Kelly gives a wonderful rich performance that taps into the essence of the character. It’s soft, and understated at time, but manages to bring the mood of King’s writing to the surface. He voiced Devin in a hesitatingly unconfident manner, until those times when the character was truly in his moment, allowing a confidence to overwhelm him, Kelly did a good job with the characters, particularly in the carnie lingo and the varying backgrounds of the cast. His southern accents were soft and warm, feeling real instead of a caricature, and the various other accents all were appropriate to the characters. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more books narrated by Michael Kelly in the future. 

Audiobook Review: Black Feathers by Joseph D’Lacey

23 07 2013

Black Feather (The Black Dawn, Bk. 1) by Joseph D’Lacey

Read by Simon Vance

Angry Robot on Brilliance Audio

Length: 12 Hrs 23 Min

Genre: Post Apocalyptic Dark Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: I found Black Feathers to be one of the most unique and well executed Apocalyptic Dark Fantasies I have read in a while. D’Lacey manages to create both compelling characters and fascinating worlds from two succinctly different times that manages to play off and influence each other in fascinating ways.

Grade: B+

I have been trying to figure out recently why I find horror books much scarier than movies. I recently gave in and watched the new Evil Dead movie, and I sat through and hour and a half of boring gore, cardboard performances, and gross-out scenes, all of which I found a bit disturbing but never really scary. Then I listen to a book where the scariest image is that of a bird, and, well, I’m a bit freaked out. Yet, let’s face it…. birds are scary. Sure, I’d rather meet a bird in a dark alley that demon possessed blood streaked women with a nail gun, but in a more conceptual ways, birds are scary, particularly dark feathered carrion eaters. First of all, birds fly. That seems like a simple thing, but I can’t think of any trait that less human than the ability to fly. In fact, I am easily creeped out by all flying things. They can operate in more dimensions than us. We can’t hide from them up or down or side to side. They can land on us, peck out our eyes, drop coconuts on our heads, then swoop away into the great beyond. It’s sort of freaky. There is a sort of brazenness to birds, a cocky assurance that while we may have opposable thumbs and the ability to reason, we can’t fly, and those avian bastards just know it pisses us off. The ability to fly gives them an ethereal quality, like that of spirits or souls, the ability to reach into the heavens and become closer to god. Books excel at taking these images, touching the long distant genetic memories, and allowing us to fill in the rest. Movies, well they show us an axe wielding maniac, and we know that soon blood will flow. Yet, once the blade cuts into out skull, there isn’t really much to fear anymore. With birds, we never truly know what those bastards are up to.

In a world of environmental breakdown a new group has arisen, immune form the old laws, looking to capitalize on the breakdown of society. Yet, they fear one thing, a prophecy of a child, stripped of everything he holds dear, sent to find the mysterious figure of legend called The Crowman. Generations later, one girl is given the opportunity to record this boy’s story, yet, her visions allow her to become more than simply a chronicler, but a tangible influence on the outcome of his journey. Joseph D’Lacey’s Black Feathers is an atmospheric dark fantasy that intertwines a gripping post apocalyptic world, with a malleable future that may a bleak vision of out destiny, or a new time where humanity finally learns to live with nature. It’s this very uncertainty that makes this novel more than your typical post apocalyptic tale. D’Lacey has creates two time streams that have become dependent on each other, where the revelations on one may have tangible affects on the other. To do this, he creates two characters, both very different sides to the same coin, the naive boy, Gordon, who is sent on a mysterious mission, and Megan, a young farm girl who is chosen by a dark force to tell his tale.  It’s a fascinating exercise in both world building and character development. D’Lacey has created two very recognizable characters, young people on a quest, yet plays off their stories in new a fascinating way. It’s easy to become instantly comfortable with these characters and this world, without understanding its true nature. D’Lacey forces you to challenge your ideas of the traditional evil forces in fantasy, and accept that one man’s devil may be another man’s savior. Yet, it’s not all an exercise in conceptual writing. D’Lacey creates a very plausible, and completing post apocalyptic world, as well as a more traditional regressed fantasy setting. This was one of these times where plot and concept were both equally engaging. Yet, a few little things bothered me. There is an overall message that I am finding more and more in post apocalyptic fiction, that the mass death of a large percentage of humanity will actually be a good thing. That a society free of technology, and more in touch with nature, is inherently a better one, and if it takes a mass apocalypse, than that is the price we need to pay to save earth. In many ways, in Black Feathers, the earth is the true protagonist, and the evil petulance destroying it is mankind. I understand, and even partly agree with the sentiment, but I also find it troubling.  My only other problem with the book it the abruptness of the ending. While Black Feathers is fascinating, it is not truly a complete tale, and doesn’t work well as a standalone. For those who find this frustrating, I would recommend waiting to more editions to the series are available. Yet, despite these concerns, I found Black Feathers to be one of the most unique and well executed Apocalyptic Dark Fantasies I have read in a while. D’Lacey manages to create both compelling characters, and fascinating worlds from two succinctly different times that manages to play off and influence each other in fascinating ways.

I may joke a bit about the almost shamanistic loyalty of many of Simon Vance’s fans, but in truth, there is a very good reason why so many people love his narration. The man is a true storyteller. Black Feathers is a great example of how talented Vance is at his craft. He doesn’t need to jump through any vocal hoolahoops, in fact, he barely sounds like he’s breaking a sweat, yet he manages to capture just the right tone in his reading. Vance creates just the right feel for Black Feathers. He creates a mood that is at times dark and mysterious, yet with an excited feeling of adventure. It’s like the soothing tone of your grandfather right before he tells you a scary story. His smoothness only makes the imagery and poetry of D’Lacey’s writing all the more affective. His characterizations come off as natural, from the sneering hunters, to the young boy and girl finally coming into their own through dark circumstances. It all just works well together, making Black Feathers a truly disturbing yet fascinating listen.

Note: Thanks to Brilliance Audio for providing a copy of this title for review.