Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: A Reader's Year in Review

With the year at and end, I wanted to turn the spotlight on you - the readers, the guests, and the visitors who have made 2014 such a success in the ruins.

To my very great surprise, the most popular post this year was my Most Anticipated Fantasy Reads post from earlier in the month. Apparently, a lot of you are fantasy fans, and you are really, really, really excited about what's coming in the new year.

As for book reviews, the top 5 posts that got the most attention this year are:

5. The Barrow by Mark Smylie
4. The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley
3. What Comes Around by Ted Bell
2. Challenger - An American Tragedy by Hugh Harris

and, coming in at the top spot, a bit of a surprise:

1.  Thriller Review - Warriors by Ted Bell

As for this year's guest posts and interviews, the top 5 guests that attracted the most views are:

5. Interview with Peter (Stoney) Emshwiller (author of The Host)
4. Q&A With Anne Rice (author of Prince Lestat)
3. Paul Kearney Talks Changing Gears and Genres (Guest Post)
2. An Interview with Tahir Shah (author of Eye Spy)

and, coming in the top spot, another surprise:

1. Art, Dreams, and Mazes by J M McDermott (GUEST POST)

Finally, while there are always regular posts like Waiting on Wednesday or my Weekly Update that get a lot of comments, nothing seemed to get people talking more than the first Insecure Writer's Support Group post of the year. Thanks to Alex for inviting me to co-host, and to all the other insecure writers who keep the theme alive.

A huge thanks to everybody who stopped by, contributed a post, offered up a title for review, or left a comment or two. You are what keep me blogging, and I look forward to enjoying an even bigger 2015 with you all.

Happy New Year!

The 50 First Pages Experiment

With some time off over the holidays, I'm doing some much-needed house cleaning in the Ruins, taking care of the towering TBR pile before it topples and totals our toddler. While I had the best of intentions, life (as is so often the case) intervened in some major ways that I won't bore you with here. The issue, for me, is that the longer a title waits for a review, the more pressure I feel, and the more pressure I feel, the less I tend to enjoy the reads - which isn't fair to anybody.

So, with the end of the year fast approaching, I made the difficult decision to make a clean break and start fresh with the new year. Over the past two weeks I indulged in a little something I call the 50 First Pages Experiment, giving each title 50 pages to make an impression. To be honest, it's probably one of the best decisions I've made. Without the pressure and the obligations I was able to really open up and make a fair and honest evaluation of the pile.
  • Backlash by D.L. Thomas: Despite an awkward opening paragraph, this quickly turned into an reassuringly familiar adventure tale. I felt it was light on description, especially in places where I really wanted to get a feel for the scene, and there was some info-dumping early on, but the dialogue was natural. It was a bit simplistic, and lacked the kind of edge I prefer in my adventure novels, but I can see the appeal.
  • Imora by Daniel Steeves Connaughton: I really enjoyed this. It starts out with a suitably epic fantasy feel, as a small group of thieves infiltrate a dragon's lair, only to draw her out into an ambush. From there it takes on a faery tale or folktale sort of feel as the dragon barters the promise of death for her own healing. The twist here is that the entire tale is told from the dragon's perspective. A novel concept, and remarkably well done.
  • SanClare Black by Jenna Waterford: While undoubtedly dark and violent, with some interesting cultural ideas, this is still a coming-of-age tale about characters who didn't make an impact with me. I've heard that the book does get more interesting in the second half, but I've also read that readers were turned off by the abuse of children, and I have to admit that gives me serious pause.
  • Sins of a Sovereignty by Jack Plague: This was an interesting twist on the typical epic fantasy, set in a world of racism, chemical warfare, and both magic and mechanics. It's clear from the start that nothing is quite what it seems, with betrayal and conspiracies everywhere. It's a very dark sort of fantasy, and one that looks realistically at the consequences of genocidal war. Sir Clark Pendragon is a damaged old war hero, but a perfect protagonist for such a world.
  • Miranda by Ayrich Mutch: As thrillers go, I'm not sure they get off to a stronger start than this. Action, drama, humor, and some legitimate mystery all wrapped around a young man with a double life and the dangerous woman who 'handles' him. The characters immediately leap off the page, and the dialogue is quick, crisp, and realistic. It's a very confusing, very paranoid sort of read, but that's precisely what a good spy thriller should be.
  • The Tinsal Deck by Elaina J. Davidson: This one didn't work for me at all. The immense depth of the tarot card readings turned me off right away, and the abrupt changes of perspective were jarring. Just not my style, I guess.
  • Sword of the Bright Lady by M.C. Planck: Like so many other reviewers have pointed out, reading this really is like reading the accompanying back story for a MMORPG, with fighting, collecting treasure, and gaining/losing levels. It has an interesting hero (even if it's all too convenient that he was a hobby swordsman in our world), but portal fantasy has been done to death and there's nothing in these initial pages to make it fresh or original again.
With that said, there were three titles that compelled me to keep reading. As a quick wrap-up, the titles that I would recommend to anybody with a little room upon their TBR shelves are:

To those authors I wasn't able to get to this year, I do apologize, and I thank you sincerely for sending your books my way.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fantasy Review: The Lost Level by Brian Keene

Booyah! The spirit of old-school lost world pulp fantasy is alive and well in The Lost Level. Even if he hadn't paid homage to his literary influences in the introduction, Brian Keene's fondness for that lost genre is evident upon every page. This is a story that truly has it all, from dinosaurs and Nazi spaceships, to nuclear-powered robots and alien greys, to razor sharp grass and carnivorous ponds.

Lest you fear The Lost Level refers to some kind of video game or virtual reality adventure, rest assured that Keene remains true to the early 20th century origins of the genre. It actually refers to a lost realm, just one more parallel world accessed through occult mystical portals - but the only one where the portals is a one-way trip. Actually, before we get to the world itself, I have to give Keene credit for the amount of detail he puts into the occult element. It really comes across as something Lovecraft or Howard might have written, relying on candles, pentagrams, and obscure chants.

As for our hero, Aaron Pace is the perfect sort of every man to anchor us in such a strange world. He doesn't have any special talents or skills, isn't ridiculously strong, and is neither overly handsome nor charming. He's an average guy, decent, loyal, and sincere. Understandably, he suffers a bit of a nervous breakdown upon realizing he's trapped, and he never loses his longing for home, but he makes the best of the situation. Kasheena, the beautiful tribeswoman, and Bloop, the anthropomorphic blue beast, are worthy companions, each of whom brings something unique to the story. They make for an effective trio, supporting one another against the dangers of the world as they attempt to take Kasheena home.

Along the way there are any number of dangers, both large and small. During his first few days in the new world Aaron is badly burned by the corrosive blood of a giant insect, nearly loses a leg to living, writing, razor-sharp grass, and watches as a pond comes alive to reach up and drag down its victim. Kasheena and Bloop teach him to beware the tiny little piranha-like hummingbirds, and together they watch as a giant robot battles a ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex. Amid all these dangers, both natural and unnatural, Keene also introduces us to a vicious race of reptilian humanoids who challenge the heroes at every turn.

What brings it all together is the way Keene links The Lost Level to our world, suggesting that it is responsible for everything from the Bermuda Triangle to disappearances. It allows for all manner of monsters and machines to inhabit the world, often in the most unexpected ways and places. It's a fun, imaginative story, well-paced, and full of surprises. While it's only the first in a series, it is a complete tale, but one that will leave you hungry for more.

Paperback, 186 pages
Expected publication: January 19th 2015 by Apex Book Company

Monday, December 29, 2014

Horror Review: The Baker Johnson Tales by Terry M. West

The Baker Johnson Tales is an ongoing series of short stories by Terry M. West, all of them dealing with Baker Johnson, the Black Room inherited from his grandfather, and their shared legacy of darkness.

The year is 1925, the science of parapsychologist is just beginning to read its height of popularity, and detective fiction has just entered its golden age. Enter one Baker Johnson, part flawed parapsychologist, part hard-boiled detective, and part grieving widower and parent. The Giving of Things Cold & Cursed is really more of a character study than a short story, but it's extraordinarily effective in introducing the premise, establishing the character, and hooking the reader with a cold, clever twist at the end.

Without giving too much away, Richard Johnson (Baker's grandfather) was a parapsychologist who investigated paranormal phenomena, collected the haunted objects at their center, and safely stored them away from the world in his Black Room. The problem is, Richard became rather senile and unstable in his later years, and his last act of coherent thought was to order that those same objects be given away freely, returning their darkness into an unsuspecting world. Baker has been called in to settle his grandfather's affairs, and isn't particularly pleased to discover the fabled Black Room empty - for reasons that become all the more chilling upon the final reveal of that cold, clever twist.

The atmosphere here is perfect for this kind of a tale, and Baker is a fascinating character. He's arrogant and cold, almost to the point of abrupt rudeness, but he knows how to read and observe people. He worked alongside his grandfather in collecting those haunted objects, and their absence haunts him almost as deeply as the loss of his family.

With Servant of the Red Quill, West picks up the story two years later, with Baker having become a poor, drunken, sullen recluse, rather than the dark sort of avenging hero we may have expected after the first chapter. While he has no interest in resurrecting the Black Room, much less ever filling it again, an unwelcome visitor drags him back into the world of parapsychology.

The initial battle of wills with a clever, manipulative lawyer reminds both the reader and Baker himself of the man he once was, drawing him out of the shadows of gloom, and thrusting him back to the edge of true darkness once again. The man he's been summoned to assist, Jeremiah Simms, is an old confidante of his grandfather and a fellow collector of haunted objects. What convinces Baker to take his case, however, is the demon that is haunting the old man's daughter - an affliction that tugs at his heartstrings, reminding him of his own lost daughter.

The haunted object in question is what initially prompted me to give these stories a read. Simms is in possession of a rare, handwritten manuscript from the Marquis de Sade, containing a tale that even his scholars never suspected to exist, written in a strange language. His daughter has been working on translating it, and the deeper she's gotten into the text, the worse her affliction has become. At the risk of saying too much, it all adds up to an exorcism the likes of which is rarely seen in fiction, and a climax that more than delivers on the tension and the fear that West so carefully stokes.

While The Giving of Things Cold & Cursed was a solid tease, it really did leave the reader wanting more. Fortunately, Servant of the Red Quill delivers admirably, not only rewarding the reader for having stuck with the character, but making us hungry for more.

Book 1: Published June 28th 2014 by Pleasant Storm Entertainment, Inc.
Book 2: Expected publication: January 2nd 2015 by Pleasant Storm Entertainment, Inc.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Thriller Review: Mirage by Clive Cussler

Although I've always been a huge Dirk Pitt fan - Raise the Titanic was one of the first 'adult' novels I ever read - I've hesitated to check out any of Clive Cussler's other series. Last year I finally got around to checking out the Fargo Adventures, with The Tombs catching my eye with its promise of archaeologists, secret historical sites, and hidden tombs - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. This year it's The Oregon Files wooing me deeper into Cussler's shared universe, with Nikola Tesla and the Philadelphia Experiment convincing me to give Mirage a read. It's not quite up to Dirk Pitt standards, but it was certainly a solid techno-thriller.

While Juan Cabrillo has a touch of Dirk Pitt to him, he's much closer to a Jack Bauer, Mitch Rapp, or even a James Bond. He's strong, skilled, and extraordinarily well armed, with an endless supply of funds, arms, and technology behind him. He's the Chairman of The Oregon, one of the most advanced ships to ever sail the seas, but which looks like a rusted old freighter. The Corporation that own it is a government sanctioned private security firm that performs search and rescue ops, salvage jobs, and covert infiltrations into war-torn countries.

The story kicks off with the rescue of a high-profile Russian prisoner from the coldest, most inhospitable gulags in all the world. It's a well-orchestrated daring escape that almost succeeds. Before he takes his last breath, however, Yuri Borodin offers up a few cryptic clues that lead Cabrillo and team on a frantic chase around the world to stop a corrupt Russian official from loosing dangerous experimental technology on the world. Along the way we speculate quite a bit about Tesla's experiments, explore some rational explanations for the infamous Philadelphia Experiment, and quite literally bring the US to the brink of war with China.

It's a fast-paced tale, full of adventure and excitement, with some intriguing scientific and historical tidbits to hold it all together. There are, of course, last-minute escapes from impossible situations, but it all works. Nothing strains the bounds of credibility too much, with even the technology coming across as plausible, and Cabrillo is certainly a strong enough hero to lead a new franchise.

Hardcover, 401 pages
Published November 5th 2013 by Putnam Adult

From the Shelf to the Page: This Week in the Ruins

A quiet holiday week, but two very big posts and Donald and I counted down our top reads of the year.
Coming up this week? A pair of reviews, more tough travels, my 50 First Pages Experiment, and another WTF Friday.


Stacking The Shelves and Mailbox Monday are a pair of weekly memes that are about sharing the books that came your way over the past week, and which you've added to your shelves - whether they be physical or virtual, borrowed or bought, or for pleasure or review.

Nothing new on the review front this week, but I did have one new arrival in the mail. I won a copy of Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy's Greatest Science Fiction (edited by Guy Haley) from SF Signal earlier this month, and it arrived the day before Xmas. If you haven't seen this thing, it's a massively heavy paperback just chock full of sci-fi goodness. I've only had a chance to glance through it so far, but I really like the way it's laid out.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is another weekly meme, this time focused on what books are spending the most time in your hands and in your head, as opposed to what's been added to your shelf.

With some time off over the holidays, I doing some much-needed house cleaning in the Ruins, taking care of the towering TBR pile before it topples and totals our toddler. While I had the best of intentions, life (as is so often the case) intervened. So, with the end of the year fast approaching, I've made the difficult decision to make a clean break and start fresh with the new year.

Before I do that, however, I am going to do my best to give them all a fair chance to catch your interest. To that end, I've indulged in a little something I call the 50 First Pages Experiment, giving (as you might guess) each title 50 pages to make an impression. I'll be recapping them later next week, and hopefully a few will catch your attention.

What's topping your shelves this week?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Tough Travels – Kings

Every Thursday, Nathan (over at Fantasy Review Barn) leads the gang in touring the mystical countryside, looking for fun and adventure. His Tough Traveling feature picks one of the most common tropes in fantasy each week, as seen in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynn Jones, and invites us to join in the adventure. All are invited to take part, so if you're joining the journey late, no worries . . . we'll save you a spot in the caravan.

This week’s tour topic is: KINGS

KINGS come in four kinds: Puppet Kings, Bad Kings, Good Kings (rare), and Long Lost Kings.

Let's kick things off with a pair of favorite characters from Stephen Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen - Hood, King of High House Death, and Tehol Beddict, King of Letheras. Once a powerful Jaghut, Hood not only claimed the Throne of Death, but was rumored to be powerful enough to have become an Elder God (had he so wished). His high point, for me, was opening the gates and summoning ALL the dead to help his fellow prisoners of the sword Dragnipur fend off the forces of chaos. While Hood occasionally disguised his darkness with moments of black humor, Tehol did the opposite, hiding his genius behind the role of a fool (with the assistance of his manservant, Bugg). In a saga renowned for its brutality, Tehol single-handedly brought about the downfall of Letheras through a financial scam, borrowing every penny in the city and leaving its economy to collapse. Following some Bonehunter heroics, he was ultimately crowned king of Lether.

Sticking with the theme of dark epics, I've got to go with The Crimson King of Stephen King's Dark Tower Saga (along with Insomnia and Black House). He is the archetype of evil, the very embodiment of darkness in King's interwoven multiverse, with his ultimate goal being the toppling of the Dark Tower itself, thereby destroying all of the universes that revolve around it. Completely bat-shit insane, he ends up killing himself (along with everyone in his kingdom of Discordia), only to come back as an equally insane undead monster. Even before his monstrous resurrection, he was a shapeshifter and a chameleon, appearing to people as whatever or whomever they fear most, with his hypnotic blood red eyes remaining the only constant.

Keeping with the theme of terrifyingly insane kings, we have King Yoon of Andy Remic's Rage of Kings saga. An "insane, maggot-infested bastard," he is a man who refuses to protect his realm, gleefully murdering anybody who dares speak out against him, all the while indulging himself in the most decadent vices. When we first meet him, he is overseeing the construction of the Tower of the Moon, an immense phallic symbol commissioned after one of his drunken orgies to be the tallest structure ever built. Its construction has already bankrupted the kingdom and drained its men, but he wants more levels, more gargoyles, more everything. To make matters worse, he's in league with Orlana the Changer, a cold, cruel, stunningly beautiful sorceress with absolutely no regard for anything but her own motivations. She is the mistress of the splice - monstrous creatures formed by the imperfect, deliberately tortured splicing together of men and beasts - with Yoon only too happy to sacrifice the men and women of his kingdom to her splicing.

Finally, to change things up a bit, Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive offers us Elhokar Kholin, King of Alethka and nephew of Gavilar (whom everybody knows would make a far superior King. Having assumed the throne upon his father's assassination, Elhokar is both paranoid and insecure, seeing dire threats in the most innocuous of actions, and constantly lamenting the fact that he believes he's not a good king. While a little humility is good in a king, he cannot admit his errors to anybody but himself, and has a terrible temper when anybody else suggests that he may be wrong in something. There is a hint of potential in him, however, with his ability to see things in mirrors - twisted figures with symbols for heads - that may be akin to Shallan's drawings.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Donald's Top Ten of 2014

Yesterday we featured my personal Best of 2014, a collection of eleven 5-star reads that was heavy on the epic fantasy, but which also ventured into the realm of pure horror for a few picks. Today is Donald's turn, with a list that's heavy on the horror, but which dabbles in a little poetry. So, without further ado, let me turn things over to Donald Armfield!

My list, in no particular order, is mainly horror - my first read always. But this year I found Write Bloody Publishing, with poetry titles that catch your eye, and then riddle poetic masterpieces. The graphic novel Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight Vol. 1 blood splattering genius - I can't wait for the next installment. Honorable mention goes to Saga series (from Image Comics). I had about 250 reads this year, but this is my first posted list since I became an avid reader.

Boston Posh by Wol-vriey: Utterly bizarre, prostitutes and an alternate Boston. Fused into a novel you won't forget.

City of Insomnia by Victor D. Infante: Write Bloody Publishing picks poetry winners. If your in to poetry then check out their catalog.

Six Dead Spots by Gregor Xane: A new author on the scene, I'm following. With other titles such as  "It Came From Hell and Smashed The Angels" and his newest novella "The Hanover Block" Check him out on Amazon/Goodreads.

Nightcrawler by Tim Curran: Dark Fuse has tons of titles to-read and I snagged a copy of this. And was washed away with this lovecraftin/horror.

Mourning Jewelry by Stephanie M. Wytovich: Both of her poetry collections from Raw Dog Screaming Press are amazing. Horror poetry that peels your fingertips back.

Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight Vol. 1: If you are into horror graphic novels with that old school grindhouse style, double feature block. Then you need to check this out.

Suffer the Children by Craig DiLouie: Vampires meet "Children of the Corn" excellent read. Permuted Press also has a nice catalog to thumb through.

Chelsea Avenue by Armand Rosamilia: I joined a street team for Ragnarok Press and scored a copy of this super-natural horror. Must read!!

Flood Song by Sherwin Bitsui: I picked this up from library, while doing research on Native Americans. His poetry threw me for a ride, I was not expecting.

The Black Sun Epidemic by Jon R. Meyers: Published by Dynatox Ministries (a small chapbook press company, with an interesting catalog) You can Consume! more here, if your looking for something different to read. (http://dynatox.storenvy.com/)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best of 2014: A 5-Star Year in the Ruins

Apparently, I read (or attempted to read) a lot of books this year. According to Goodreads, an astounding 124 books successfully passed through the Ruins this year, and another 30 were abandoned along the way. Of those that made it through, 11 were perfect 5-star reads, which is actually 3 more than the year before. In chronological order they are . . .

Brian Staveley is actually responsible for the first and last 5-star reads of the year, with The Emperor's Blades back in January and The Providence of Fire in November. The first was the fantasy debut of the year for me, a book that reminded me of my first encounters with the likes of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. It managed to feel fresh and original, yet familiar at the same time. The second was a stunning follow-up that successfully built upon the character-driven adventure of the first book while expanding the history, mythology, and world-building to suitably epic proportions. It was a complex, complicated story, but that was precisely the kind of depth I was looking for.

Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire was something of a grimdark masterpiece, so I think we were all curious to see how the first book of The Red Queen's War would stand up. Prince of Fools turned out to be a different kind of grimdark - spooky, creepy, and entirely unsettling. Although there was a constant sense of doom hanging over our Jal and Snorri, Lawrence also sprinkled a little more easy humor throughout the tale, approaching the edges of a buddy comedy with Jal and Snorri. It didn't have quite the same biting edge as the original trilogy, but it already feels like it may just be a stronger, more well-rounded tale.

Veil of the Deserters was everything I was looking for in Jeff Salyards' highly anticipated follow-up to Scourge of the Betrayer - a rare sequel that actually manages to outdo the first. The stakes were bigger, the world-building taken to a whole new level, and the characters really came alive for me. We began to learn who Captain Braylar is, and what it really means to be Syldoon, and Arki really came into his own here as a force to be reckoned with in the army. It put that first story arc into a larger context, and opened up the larger tale that Salyards set out to tell. There's no doubt it was one of the strongest middle installments I've read in a very long time, but overall it was just a fantastic read.

Deadlock was a novel that got under my skin and into my head in a way that few authors can manage. Tim Curran made the most of the dim, gloomy, cold, claustrophobic atmosphere of he haunted ship, messing with the reader's senses with the suggestion of things heard, seen, and felt . . . and the intimation of what they might really be. It was a story that was chillingly methodical in the pace at which it built in intensity, carefully layering on the fear and the horror. The monster at its heart was worse than any simple spook or poltergeist, but the true measure of Curran's mastery was in the slow reveal of the monster and the madness.

Words of Radiance was a book about which I was ridiculously excited, but one about which I was a bit hesitant, given the frustratingly bloated mess with which he concluded The Wheel of Time. Brandon Sandserson described is a "an entire trilogy of novels bound together into one volume" and, as it turned out, that summed it up perfectly. There was definitely a lot going on, but very little in the way of wasted pages, and almost nothing of the narrative bloat I had feared. Upon turning the final page, I was left stunned and in awe by what Sanderson accomplished. He really did take the story to the next level, offering satisfying resolutions to several story threads, while spawning (and twisting) new ones beyond its pages. Things actually happened - events of consequence - all leading up to a climax that resolved the core plot line of this second volume in an incredibly satisfying manner.

There aren't too many books that make me take a step back and say "Wow" but The Mirror Empire was one of them. It had an absolutely amazing beginning - one of the best opening chapters I've read in a very long time - and just kind of steamrolled ahead from there. What Kameron Hurley crafted was definitely different, even challenging in places, but ultimately an epic fantasy in the truest sense of the term, with an incredible depth of imagination. It was ambitious, awesome, imaginative, and exhausting in equal measure. The novelty of it never wore thin, and the imagination never ceased to amaze. By no means a light read, it was precisely the kind of story you don't mind settling down to understand and appreciate.

City of Stairs is a novel that I almost gave up after the first third. In fact, I actually set it aside for about a month before picking it up for one last try. Suddenly, I found the hook, and it all came together for me, propelling me along in a furious read towards the conclusion. Although definitely steeped in elements of epic fantasy, Robert Jackson Bennett dabbled in a lot of different genres, successfully tying them all together in a surprisingly cohesive whole. It was impressive in both scope and range, with strong characters, an even stronger mythology, and some inventive conflicts and action sequences. As philosophical as it was entertaining, it may have taken a bit of work to get into, but it more than repaid the investment.

Given that I generally find short story collections uneven in terms of quality, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the horrors of Figures of Fear: An Anthology. This was a collection that had the same impact for me as King's Night Shift or Barker's Books of Blood, opening my eyes to a new favorite author in Graham Masterton. There were several common themes in the collection, including those of portals, hidden worlds, the consuming power of fire, and the consequences of our choices. I liked that he didn't cheapen things with big moral lessons, allowing his dark tales to be just that - dark - with dark conclusions and even darker twists to follow. Really, just an astounding collection.

With The Deep, Nick Cutter dragged things down to a whole new depth of horror. It was extraordinarily dark, doom-laden, and depressing . . . unrelenting in its horrors. It was a book that made the most of its cramped, claustrophobic, underwater atmosphere, making the reader sweat alongside the characters. Cutter did a better job of layering in multiple horrors than just about any author writing today. There was no down time, no softer moments, no humor to relieve the tension - just an unending series of horrors that get deeper and deeper under your skin. The ending seemed perhaps a tad too familiar, but I liked what Cutter did with it, particularly with the ominous final scene.

With their 14th entry in the Special Agent Pendergast saga, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child not only got their hero back to his prime, but got the story back to basics. Blue Labyrinth was an extraordinarily strong entry in the series, and exactly what I'd been hoping for. It wasn't the best Pendergast tale, but it was the best in a long time. The story was strong, there was some real danger/suspense, and the characters all got a chance to shine. Personally, the way it brought things full circle, especially in dealing with the fallout of the original museum adventures, put it way over the top.


With that said, either I've become much more adventurous in my reading, or I've become a lot more discerning in what I choose to spend my time with, because this year also saw 30 titles discarded along the way (compared to just 16 since 2010). I don't want to dwell on those titles (a 'Worst of' list just seems kinda petty), but I will mention my biggest disappointments of the year:

  • All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park was dense, thickly layered, and far too self-aware for its own good, a difficult read that attempted to be clever, but which was just confounding.
  • Consumed by David Cronenberg is a title about which I was incredibly excited, but I found it to be pretentious, meandering, and desperate to be hip, alternately boring and annoying me.
  • WereWoman by Piers Anthony was entirely too sophomoric and simple for my tastes. It felt like a wish-fulfillment fantasy where everything just sort of happens, dumped on the page with the bare minimum of description


Rather than end things on a downer, I also have to credit that new-found sense of adventure with introducing me to some indie/self-published authors I otherwise wouldn't have stumbled across. S.E. Lindberg and Justyna Plichta-Jendzio are two such authors I've been fortunate enough to encounter in the past, both of whom had 4-star dark fantasy follow-ups land on my e-reader this year. Seriously, take a look below - their stories are just as awesome as those cover promise.

As for new authors, Lyka Bloom certainly made an impact on me this year with a pair of solid 4-star reads. Her style of fetish-fueled erotic horror is certainly an acquired taste, but she's worth checking out if you're open to something a little different. Rubberwerks was darkly imaginative and erotically sinister, with the hive mentality of her faceless, featureless, latex dolls an original twist on zombies, while Inferno: Transmission had the feel of a slasher-flick revenge tale, a surprisingly effective tale of erotic horror that truly gets under your skin.

Monday, December 22, 2014

On Her Majesty's Behalf by Joseph Nassise (an excerpt)


     Major Michael “Madman” Burke stood with his back to the sea and stared out into the semi-darkness, watching for movement.  Twenty feet behind him the waves lapped gently against the gunwale of the fishing boat that had carried him across the Channel, the same boat that, God-willing, would bring him back again when the mission was over.
     What in heaven’s name had possessed him to volunteer for this?
     It had been nearly a week since the Germans had launched a surprise attack against the cities of London and New York.  Tens of thousands of canisters of a new strain of corpse gas, one that affected the living rather than the dead, had been dropped onto the streets of the metropolises, turning those who came in contact into one of the ravaging undead now known as Shredders.  
     News reports from the States indicated that New York had been cut off from the mainland, the bridges and tunnels blown to rubble.  Armed units now patrolled the shoreline adjacent to the island of Manhattan and two reinforced companies stood guard at the egress to the ruined tunnels that connected them, determined to keep those who had been infected by the gas from getting out into the rest of the country.  There was talk of firebombing the city into oblivion in the hope of eliminating the threat in one fell swoop, though how much of that was rumor and how much was reality Burke didn’t know. 
     London was a different issue entirely.  The nature of the surrounding terrain made it nearly impossible to isolate the city and its infected inhabitants.  To make matters worse, the municipal units that might have been called in to maintain order within the quarantine zone were unavailable.  Practically every able-bodied male was on the other side of the Channel fighting to keep the German menace at bay.  To add to the chaos, communication had been lost with those few military units, such as the King’s Guard, that were stationed inside the city.
     Allied command outright refused to write off the city’s population without making some kind of effort to save anyone who might have survived the bombardment.  Burke had seen the effect of the gas and didn’t have much hope that there was anyone still alive within range of the bombing.  There were some, however, much higher placed in the chain of command than he, who held to the theory there had to have been some people who where inside during the attack, people who had seen what was happening to those exposed to the gas and had then taken appropriate measures to protect themselves.  Burke, however, didn’t believe it - if the gas hadn’t gotten them, the Shredders would.  What he believed didn’t matter, especially in the wake of the destruction of one of the world’s foremost cities.  People simply refused to believe that there was nothing to be done and perhaps that was for the best.  In the wake of the attack, a makeshift rescue operation had sprung up almost overnight.  Aircraft had dropped millions of hastily printed leaflets onto the city streets, directing those who survived to make their way east along the Thames estuary where they could be picked up and transported out of the danger zone.  
     Every available boat was then pressed into service, from fishing trawlers to four-man dinghies.  Night after night they crossed the Channel like some kind of ragtag fleet, determined to save whoever they could from the ravages of the undead.  Burke had been helping with the evacuation effort for the last several days, searching for survivors along the coastline, until he’d been tapped for tonight’s little jaunt.
     He shrugged his shoulders, trying to get the heavy pack resting on them to settle more comfortably.  The pack was part of a new weapon straight out of Professor Graves’ lab, a weapon Burke had agreed to field test.  It had sounded reasonable when the process had been explained to him back at headquarters, but now, with the sea at his back and the possibility of an unknown numbers of Shredders in the darkness ahead of him, he was starting to second-guess the whole venture. 
     He glanced down at the shockgun, as Graves was calling it, and wondered briefly if it was going to work.
     From a distance it looked like an ordinary rifle; it wasn’t until you got close to it that you began to notice just how much it had been modified.  The barrel was much wider, closer to the circumference of a shotgun than a rifle, and at least three inches longer than one might expect.  A pair of capacitors sat on either side of a vacuum tube, which in turn rested atop the barrel in just about the spot where the breach would normally have been.  The shoulder stock had been replaced by a large metallic canister wrapped in rubber.  A power cord ran from the bottom of the canister to a small hand crank at his belt and from there around his waist and into the bottom of the rucksack on his back.  It might not be the strangest thing he’d seen come out of Professor Graves’ underground lair but it was certainly up there with the best of them.
     As long as it worked, he didn’t care how ugly it was.  Just to be safe, he had his usual Colt 1911 automatic in a holster slung gunfighter-style on his right thigh.  Neither of them were a satisfactory replacement for the Tommy gun he’d been carrying around for the last few weeks, but carrying both the shockgun and the Tommy gun had been too awkward and he’d been forced to leave the latter behind.
     He glanced over to where his two companions were just now climbing the short ladder from the deck of the fishing trawler onto the pier where he waited, noting, not for the first time, just how different the two men were.
     Private Nicholas “Nick” Montagna was a twenty-two year old Italian-American kid from Philadelphia, with thick-burly frame and dark hair.  Nick’s father had been a watchmaker and his talent had clearly rubbed off on the next generation.  Nick was a virtuoso with anything mechanical, be it an internal combustion motor or a tiny set of brass clockworks.  He was loud, boisterous, and far too overeager, but Burke knew they’d drum the latter out of him pretty quickly and so he wasn’t overly concerned.
     Private Levi Cohen, on the other hand, was a quiet, shy kid a few years younger than Montagna.  He hailed from a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and had been some kind of scholar before enlisting.  So far Burke had discovered that the man spoke English, Hebrew, French and Italian.  He wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Even though the kid was quiet, Burke got a sense of courage and unyielding determination from him.  Burke had a hunch he’d be as steady as a rock in the thick of things and that was just the kind of man he wanted on his squad.
     He waited for the two men to join him, saw the nervous look on both their faces, and decided a little pep talk might be in order.
     “All right, look.  We’re here to do a job; the sooner we get it done, the sooner we go home.  Stick close, keep your eyes open, and remember - as little noise as possible.”
     It wasn’t much as pep talks go, but Burke had learned that dwelling too much on the details just made the new men more nervous than they already were.  Short and sweet was best. 
     The mission planners had chosen Southend-on-Sea, a seaside community at the mouth of the Thames, as their designated test area.  The residents had been evacuated in the early days of the rescue operation, leaving a ghost town behind which provided plenty of room for Burke and his team to operate in.  Southend-on-Sea was roughly forty miles east of London, making it close enough for some of the more ambitious Shredders to have wandered onto its streets but not so close that the entire town would be overrun with the undead.
     Or so they hoped.
     Uncertainty over just what they would encounter once they came ashore was the primary reason they had docked halfway along the Pier.
     That and the mudflats.
     Southend-on-Sea might technically be on the sea, but at low tide it was isolated by over a mile of water too shallow to even row a skiff through.  As seaside vacations became more popular at the end of the last century, the town fathers had recognized that their beloved mudflats would keep them isolated and send seaborne traffic further south to Margate and other deeper-water ports.  Unwilling to see the probability of a prosperous future for the town falter, they’d pushed to have the Pier built in order to allow boats, both large and small, to have a convenient place to dock.  The Pier was an immediate success and it was extended several times over the years until it reached its current length of nearly a mile and a half.
     The pier was roughly twenty feet wide, with two rows of electric lamps bisecting its length equidistant from each side.  The mens’ boots struck up a steady rhythm against the wooden floorboards as they made their way along its length, the sound sending an eerie chill up Burke’s spine.  It was so quiet that their footsteps felt like an intrusion and he was worried that the sound would bring the Shredders out of the woodwork like flies to a corpse, but he and his men managed to traverse the distance without incident.
     The smell of the sea was sharp in Burke’s nostrils as he started down the length of the pier, the ocean brine a welcome respite from the stench of the unburied dead and the corpse fires that hung about the battlefield like a noose around the neck.  The sun had been up for a couple of hours, but the sky was filled with smoke from the fires that burned out of control in parts of London.  It filtered out much of the light, and Burke felt like he could taste the ash on his tongue as easily as he could taste the sea.
     A two-story brick pavilion with a sloping roof squatted like a spider at the end of the pier, guarding the entrance into the town, and Burke and his men approached it cautiously.  So far they hadn’t seen anyone, living or dead, but a building the size of the one in front of them could hide any number of horrors and Burke was determined not to walk into them blindly.
     Three sets of double doors provided entrance to the pavilion.  All of the doors were closed, though the glass in two of them had been broken out.  Burke headed for the nearest one after signaling for his two companions to wait where they were.  He crept forward in a crouch, not wanting to be seen by anyone through the broken window.  When he reached the door he flattened himself against the jamb beside it and then slowly rose up until he could get a glimpse of the interior.
     Vendor carts were knocked over, storefronts left open, the gleam of broken glass; plenty of signs that the building had been deserted in a hurry, but he didn’t catch the telltale flash of movement.
     “Follow me,” he said, “and stay close.”
     He reached out with his mechanical hand and eased the door open, praying all the while that it wouldn’t squeak, and then slipped inside.  A moment later Montagna and Cohen followed suit.
     They found themselves standing inside a large, open space.  Two rows of thick, round support columns that were designed to hold the weight of the ceiling ran down the middle of the space.  Between each column were three rows of iron benches; seating for those waiting to disembark on a particular vessel.  The walls around the interior space were lined with vendor stalls and small shops; a pastry shop, a butcher shop, a pub, a barber shop - various shops that sold curios and souvenirs and the like.
     Burke and the others had entered through the right-most door, putting them on one side of the open space.   They began making their way along the length of the building toward the exit doors at the far end.  Even from here they could see through the windows in the doors to the road beyond that led up a short hill to the town.
     That was their destination.
     They had crossed about half the length of the room when they heard a clatter come from inside one of the shops.
     Burke immediately stopped, holding up a clenched fist in a signal for those behind him to stop as he settled into a crouch.  The soft rustle he heard from behind him told him the others had understood. 
     He swept his gaze along the stalls on the side of the building where he’d heard the noise, searching for the source of the sound.  Most of the shops and stalls were in shadow and the dim light filtering in through the windows wasn’t making things easy.  Thankfully, whatever was making the noise wasn’t trying to be quiet about it; the clatter came again and Burke was able to pinpoint it as coming from the inside of a barber shop about twenty yards away. 
     Burke looked back at his companions who were crouched a few feet behind him, pointed at his eyes and then at the barber shop, indicating that he was going to take a look.  Both men nodded that they understood.
     One of the large columns providing support to the ceiling was a few yards in front of him.  It would give him both an unobstructed view of the entrance as well as a bit of cover should he need it, so Burke chose that as his destination and headed for it as quietly as he could.  He slipped in behind the column and peered cautiously around the edge just in time to see a Shredder lurch unsteadily out the door of the shop and into the main room.
     It had been just a boy when the gas fell; Burke guessed twelve, maybe fourteen years old.  Tall and thin, with a mop of dark, unruly hair that probably hadn’t wanted to cooperate much even when the boy had been alive.  Burke couldn’t see the creature’s green-grey skin in the building’s dim light, but the way it stumbled about, seemingly disoriented, was proof enough that it was no longer one of the living.
     Looks like we won’t have to go into town after all, Burke thought.
     He reached down and began to rapidly wind the hand crank on his belt at his hip.  He winced at the high-pitched whine the crank made as he spun it in its seat, but that couldn’t be helped; without the charge, the weapon was about as useful as a peashooter.
     Across the room, the Shredder began looking about, searching for the source of the sound, no doubt eager to rip and tear the flesh from his bones in the characteristic way that had earned those infected by the gas their nickname.
     The whine became a steady tone, indicating the gun was ready to be fired.  Burke made a mental note to tell Graves that he had to find some way of reducing all the noise.
     Nothing like having your weapon give away your position!
     Graves had warned him that the gun delivered quite a kick so when Burke was finished charging it, he held it the same way he would a room sweeper, with the stock tight against his waist and the barrel braced in his artificial hand.  Satisfied, he stepped out from behind cover.
     The Shredder spun in his direction the moment he revealed himself, but did not yet begin its inevitable charge.
     Burke didn’t intend to wait; he lined up the shot as best he could, braced himself, and pulled the trigger.
     The gun roared, the sound echoing in the enclosed space, as a metal spike about the size of a tent peg shot from the barrel of the gun, sparking with the electrical charge he’d just given to it. It flew through the air with a whistling sound, headed directly for the Shredder, and Burke was already starting to grin in victory when the Shredder twitched to one side and the projectile shot harmlessly past and ricocheted off the wall of the barber shop behind it with the crackle of a sudden electrical discharge.
     For a moment, the soldier and the Shredder stared at each other with almost identical expressions of surprise. 
     Then the Shredder screamed, a hideous shrieking sound, and launched itself forward in a frenzied rush.


About the Author

Joseph Nassise is the author of more than twenty novels, including the internationally bestselling Templar Chronicles series, the Jeremiah Hunt series, and several books in the Rogue Angel action/adventure series from Gold Eagle. He’s a former president of the Horror Writers Association, the world’s largest organization of professional horror writers, and a multiple Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award nominee.


About the Book

On Her Majesty’s Behalf
by Joseph Nassise

After a surprise attack on London and New York, the Germans introduced a new type of gas—corpse gas—a revolutionary weapon that resurrected the bodies of the dead.

For those who survived the killing fields of France, the danger has only just begun. Veteran Major Michael “Madman” Burke and his company have just been assigned a daring new mission by the president himself: rescue the members of the British royal family. But Manfred von Richthofen, the undead Red Baron and newly self-appointed leader of Germany, is also determined to find the family.

In the devastated, zombie-infested city of London, Burke and his men will face off in an unholy battle with their most formidable opponent yet: a team of infected super soldiers—shredders—who have greater speed and strength than their shambler predecessors. If they don’t succeed, all of Britain will fall into undead enemy hands.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

From the Shelf to the Page: This Week in the Ruins

The first week of December was an incredibly busy one, with more visitors wandering the ruins this week than we usually see in a month!

Coming up this week? A guest post from Joseph Nassise , my Top Reads of 2014, more reviews, more tough travels, and another WTF Friday.


Stacking The Shelves and Mailbox Monday are a pair of weekly memes that are about sharing the books that came your way over the past week, and which you've added to your shelves - whether they be physical or virtual, borrowed or bought, or for pleasure or review.

A quiet week, with just a few new arrivals.Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks by Andy Burns is a title I requested about a month ago, which explores "the groundbreaking stylistic and storytelling methods" that made it such a quirky, water cooler sensation a quarter decade ago. Servant of the Red Quill is a new Baker Johnson Tale from Terry M. West that promises a 1920s atmosphere, haunted objects, Marquis de Sade, and deadly demons. Finally, Tentacle Death Trip by Jordan Krall was a free Kindle read that I suspect you'll see in a future WTF Friday feature.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is another weekly meme, this time focused on what books are spending the most time in your hands and in your head, as opposed to what's been added to your shelf. I'm working hard to clear out my review queue before the end of the year, looking to a fresh start for 2015, so I'm giving several titles a shot this week:

A Play of Shadow by Julie E. Czerneda
The second Night's Edge tale sees Jenn and Bannan escape the magical confines of Marrowdell through the dangerous realm of the Verge.

Mirage by Clive Cussler
My first encounter with Juan Cabrillo combines the action/adventure of Clive Cussler with the technological mystery of the legendary Philadelphia Experiment.

The Lost Level by Brian Keene
I'm ridiculously excited by Keene's lost world adventure homage to the likes of Burroughs, Howard, and Wells . . . along with Mellick III and Lansdale!

What's topping your shelves this week?