Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog StarsThe Dog Stars by Peter Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Meager as it is. Nothing to lose as I have. Nothing is something somehow.”

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Hig doesn’t have much, but what he has is precious to him. He has his books of poetry. He has rivers to fish in. He has fuel to fly his plane. He has a furry co-pilot named Jasper. He has a garden. He has Bangley.

He used to have a wife. He used to have friends. He used to have the possibility of a long life full of happiness achieving all those things we are supposed to achieve.

He wasn’t supposed to be old at forty.

They say it was a weapons grade flu that got loose from a lab in England. Of course, they blamed it on India. The same way we call stickers in Kansas Texas Sandburs. If it ain’t good it had to come from somewhere else.

Nobody wants to be responsible for an apocalypse especially one that kills 99.6% of the population.

Hig doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that would survive the apocalypse, not because he doesn’t have skills or value, but because at his core he is a helluva nice guy. Too nice to do what needs to be done to stay alive.

Like kill people.

Bangley is a man who loves his guns and incendiary devices. The end of the world was a horror story for most people, but for Bangley it meant he could finally blossom into the man he always wanted to be. Don’t be fooled though, he has regrets as well.

They live up near the mountains. Hig lives in an old airplane hangar and Bangley lives in a house up on the hill with a good view of “the kill zone”. The house in front of the hanger is the bait. The place that people looking to score food, and weapons will attack first. They even leave an old dumpster out front to provide the attackers with a place to hide which actually just bunches them up so Bangley can pick them off like yellow ducks at a county fair.

Hig and Bangley disagree on tactics.

”Still we are divided, there are cracks in the union. Over principle. His: Guilty until--until nothing. Shoot first ask later. Guilty, then dead. Versus what? Mine: Let a visitor live a minute longer until they prove themselves to be human? Because they always do. What Bangley said in the beginning: Never ever negotiate. You are negotiating your own death.

What keeps them alive is their differences. It is one of those strange alliances that maybe doesn’t make sense when drawn out on a blueprint. Half the time they aren’t even sure they like each other, but the fact of the matter is Bangley is the relative you can’t hardly stand to break bread with, but you still... love... the stubborn SOB.

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Dogs are really something else. They are the only animal on the planet that absolutely loves humanity. They are loyal. They understand the hierarchy and consider their owner their King/Queen. They will kill and they will die for a human being.

I grew up with a pack of farmhouse mutts, but there is one dog that is a ghost in all my memories. He was part pointer and part who knows what. He was never trained as a bird dog, but he still would assume the stance of his ancestry whenever he would run across a quail or a pheasant. He was a lover, as many of our neighbors for miles around would remind us when they found themselves saddled with a bunch of black and white puppies. He had a groove along the top of his back where someone had shot him with a rifle. One time I found him on the edge of our property bloodied from a shotgun blast. I hauled him back in my red wagon to the house bawling my eyes out.

He recovered, scarred, but undeterred.

My best memory of Spot/Putz (He never was formally named, but should have had the name of a gladiator. Putz was short for puppy.) was one time when I was somewhere around ten. I was playing in the yard which was the size of a football field. Farm machinery surrounded the outer edges, but my dad had always kept the center open so he could hit my brother and I pop flies in the evening. Across the street lived this gigantic German Shepherd (I’m sure he was a normal sized shepherd, but when one is 10 years old a dog like that looks like ⅓ of Cererbus.) He was meaner than chicken shit (Not sure why we say that, but I will say that I have never fallen harder than the time I fell liberating eggs from a coop on a chicken shit slick floor.).

This German Shepherd saw me out in the yard and came racing across the street at me. I was caught in no man’s land. I was too far from any of the equipment to climb to safety or to get to the line of trees and lilac hedges that surrounded the house to hide.

I was about to become dog chow.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw this black and white blur. Putz was streaking from the line of hedges and he exploded through the Shepherd. I remember the meaty impact as he sent his chest through the legs of the Shepherd. The Shepherd cartwheeled into the air and landed on his side. Putz took off running for the hedge. I ran for a Combine (threshing machine for those not familiar with farm equipment terms).

A few days later Putz was chained in the yard for one of his many transgressions up in town. The Shepherd came to see him with a couple of Labs he liked to hang out with. He didn’t come by himself because he was a yellow bellied %*@^! The fight was a brawl, cage fighting at its worst. My Dad had to fire off a shotgun in the air to get the encroachers to leave, tails between their legs, limping.

So when Jasper dies, I understand how Hig felt. Jasper doesn’t get to go down fighting like a Valhalla inspired dream. He just passes in the night...from old age.

“You can't metabolize the loss. It is in the cells of your face, your chest, behind the eyes, in the twists of your gut. Muscle, sinew, bone. It is all of you. When you walk you propel it forward....Then it sits with you. The pain puts its arm over your shoulders. It is your closest friend, steadfast. And at night you can't bear to hear your own breath, unaccompanied by another. And underneath the big stillness like a score, is the roaring of the cataract of everything being and being torn away. Then, the pain is lying beside your side, close. Does not bother you with the sound even of breathing.”

We all have to have reasons for getting out of bed in the morning. Hig’s universe had shrunk down to the space that Jasper occupied. When he died the Dog Stars stopped orbiting. There was only one solution. Hig needed to expand out his universe beyond just the continued day to day survival with Bangley. If he had been in Australia he would have went on a walkabout, but since he was a pilot with a 1956 Cessna at his disposal he went on a flyabout.

The rest of the story can only be found between the pages of Peter Heller’s book. Although I would like to mention that the flutter a man feels at seeing a woman’s shape, those hips, the way they walk, even at a hundred yards brings out the pointer pup in all of us. :-)

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There is nothing that adds to my own enjoyment more than someone telling me how much they loved a book. Thank you Gloria! Your words expressing your joy for this book certainly enhanced my own. I also want to dedicate this review to a black and white mutt named Putz who gave me my first lessons in courage, boldness, and squeezing every drop out of life. I’ve been on a bit of an apocalyptic reading binge of late. For those that have followed me for a while you well know these binges do happen from time to time. I am not depressed as a worried friend recently asked me. I find well written apocalyptic novels strangely uplifting.

***4.25 stars out of 5***

The Menagerie of Apocalyptic Reviews.

On the Beach by Nevile Shute

No Blade of Grass by John Christopher

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Drop

The DropThe Drop by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A couple days after Christmas, Bob, a lonely bartender finds a nearly dead puppy in a garbage can. When the bar he tends is robbed one night, Bob's life circles the drain. Suddenly, a cop named Torres is asking about a decade-old murder, the Chechens that own the bar want their 5,000 dollars back, and a lowlife named Eddie Deeds wants ten thousand dollars for the dog Bob found in the trash. What's a friendless bartender to do?

I've made no secret of the fact that I like my crime books lean and mean. The Drop is certainly that.

Dennis Lehane spins another yarn of Boston's less than sparkling neighborhoods. The Drop, named after Cousin Marv's drop bar, is a tale of secrets. Who killed Glory Days? Who robbed Cousin Marv's? Why does Bob never take communion at church?

Since The Drop started it's life as a short story, it a slim tale and a departure from most of Lehane's more recent work. It could easily be mistaken for an unearthed pulp tale from the days of yore, a slim volume with very little filler. Make no mistake, though, The Drop is pure Lehane. It's pretty amazing what he does to establish a neighborhood in so few pages.

Bob is a likeable loser and I instantly liked him when he pulled Rocco out of the trash. While I was enjoying the tale, I wasn't looking forward to having my psyche shattered if something happened to the dog over the course of the story. As for the humans other than Bob, I wasn't overly concerned if any of them should happen to meet his or her maker. For a short novel, Bob sure has a lot of wolves nipping at his heels. Torres, the Chechens, Deeds, possibly Marv, the poor guy has a lot on his plate.

While I didn't enjoy it as much as the Kenzie and Gennaro books, The Drop shows that Lehane still knows how to spin a crime yarn. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

A Classic Noir Novel from Vern E. Smith

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This dark, gritty novel is the only one ever written by Vern E. Smith, which is really too bad. If the guy was capable of writing books like this one, then fans of crime fiction are that much poorer for not having more of them.

Originally published in 1974, the book is set in the seedy underworld of Detroit where dope addicts struggle to find their next fix and the dealers jockey for position on the supply chain. The Jones Men are the heroin dealers and the current king of the hill is Willis McDaniel. But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and all that sort of thing. There are always other ruthless and ambitious men ready to kick the king out of the way and wear the crown themselves.

At a party one night, McDaniel carelessly makes a remark about a big incoming shipment of dope that he's expecting. The word filters through the drug community to a kid named Lennie Jack who's fresh home from the war in Vietnam and looking to step up in the world.

Lennie Jack and a couple of buddies hit the exchange and make off with McDaneil's shipment. McDaniel, naturally, is furious both because of the dope he has lost and, even more important, because the robbery makes him look vulnerable in a world where the most dangerous thing that can happen to a drug kingpin is to look weak.

McDaniel launches an "investigation" into the theft and before long, the blood is flowing like a river. It's a brutal world where mercy, trust and security are unknown commodities, where today's ally may be tonight's enemy, and where it's every man for himself.

Smith writes a very compelling story set in a very believable world where, before the days of Escalades and Lincoln Navigators, the dealers drive tricked-out Cadillacs and dress like Super Fly. The Jones Men is a trip back in time that any fan of nourish crime fiction is almost certain to enjoy.

The Cutest Little Foul-Mouthed Beasties Ever

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest BestiarySquirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Awww, they think they're people! KAWAIII!!!

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is not your typical David Sedaris, self-confessional book. It's a collection of short stories in which animals have, for the most part, human conversations.

Fun, fairly light stuff with a bit of clever dashed in now and then as always found in a stew of David Sedaris stories. Light reading, yes, pleasant and positive? Not always...


What else could be expected from Sedaris? Dude's got a dark sense of humor. These stories might be fictional, they might not be self-referential, but they're pure Sedaris.

Listening to his previous books on cd and having seen him live has given me a taste for hearing his voice put to his words ( well as totally making us besties, even if he doesn't know it yet.) The way he narrates them adds a good deal of flavor. That flavor may be a bit sour or a tad reminiscent of bile even, but I find small portions of it absolutely delicious. Clearly I need to go eat.

Rating: 3.5

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Gamebook Geekdom

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (Fighting Fantasy, #1)The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"NERD!!!"...There. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, allow me to continue...

I bought this Dungeons & Dragons style game book years ago in a shop on (or maybe just off) the high street in St. Albans while on honeymoon in England. And to answer the obvious question that follows...yes, my wife is an unusually understanding woman.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is apparently a classic of the fantasy adventure gamebook sort. *shrugs* What did I know? When I picked it up I thought it was one of those old-school Choose Your Own Adventure kind of books. Alas no. This lays out a "dungeon crawl" (ancient gaming style in which adventurers enter a maze-like setting often underground in a tomb or highly fictionalized castle dungeon) in which the adventurer (created by you) journeys through in an attempt to pick up treasure and not get killed by monsters and traps.

With the physical book, you're suppose to write shit down, like maps, and keep track of "hit points" or items found in the dungeon, which I honestly wasn't interested in doing, so I only flipped through the book, read a few passages and never played it.

Fast-forward seven years to a technologically wondrous time known as the 2010s and low-and-behold what should I find but The Warlock of Firetop Mountain as a free ebook, an ebook which kept track of all the extraneous crap for you! "Wow," I think I might have shouted in my head as I moved on to more enriching reading material. Ah but it stuck in my craw, so I ended up getting it a few days later for my Kindle and finally played/read the damn thing.

The adventure is contrived to the extreme! Sure it's fun enough to tramp through the dungeon hoping you make the right choices as you come up against goblins and ghouls, but if you step back and think about it a moment, the whole premise is ridiculous, even for fantasy standards! Why would a super powerful and highly intelligent warlock create an incredibly convoluted, deadly maze and sit in it all day, everyday just waiting for some fool to stumble into it and die? Anyone in solitary confinement all that time would welcome visitors!

There's a number of other nonsensical encounters seemingly thrown into the game in order to add color to the story, like an old man calmly sitting in a rocking chair in a room set up like a cluttered cottage which is surrounded by deviously trapped rooms, orcs up the wazoo, a minotaur's labyrinth, deadly sandworms that pop out of the banks of a highly impassable Styx-like river, etc etc etc. How is the poor old man suppose to get his shopping done stuck in the middle of all this dangerous danger?!

As implausible as it all is, it's what fantasy is all about: fantasy. Suspend belief and enjoy the adventure!


Not all fantasy artwork is created equal. Some of it sucks ass. The illustrations in this one are actually pretty good. Check it out...


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Sunday, November 23, 2014

What's a Girl Gotta Do? Laugh.

What's a Girl Gotta Do?
Sparkle Hayter
2014 Open Road Media/ 1994 Penguin

reviewed by carol

Before there was Stephanie Plum and Isabel Spellman (a review of mine), there was Robin Hudson. I discovered Robin long before Plum came around, and for those who became disenchanted with Evanovich’s kooky series, there’s a lot more to love here. With her ingenious poison-ivy window defense system and her homemade personal defense system (“I still had two backup systems in my purse, a bottle of cheap spray cologne spiked with cayenne pepper to approximate Mace and a battery-operated Epilady, which I realized after one use was a better offensive weapon than feminine aid“), she’s ready for any eventuality.

Hudson works at a 24-hour news agency, the All News Network (ANN), but has recently been demoted to the Special Reports unit after a series of journalistic mishaps. Her misogynistic boss Jerry Spurdle has assigned her to an undercover sperm bank investigation and has decided to involve himself by acting as her husband.  Unfortunately, while she’s suffering to get back into management’s good graces, she’s also navigating a divorce from her reporter husband after his affair with a younger woman. When a blackmailer threatens her with highly personal information, she isn’t sure who to suspect. She offers to meet the blackmailer at ANN’s annual’ Halloween party and “as one of my New Year’s resolutions was to try and offend fewer people in the next decade and thereby escape from the century with my life. I decided to go as Ginny Foat, a prominent feminist tried for murder and acquitted in 1983.” When the blackmailer is found dead, everyone at ANN is on the suspect list.

New York City plays a enjoyable role as backdrop, with references that have more to do with local culture than landmarks. Hudson lives in a dicey section of the East Village, which justifies her safety-conscious routine: “The sidewalks beneath me were black and buckled and there were little groups of junkies on every corner. There must be a lot of good, cheap smack around, I thought, because the junkies were friendlier than usual.”  Besides having to navigate her physical safety, she has more than her share of misunderstandings with the other tenants, particularly one that is convinced Robin works as a prostitute.

There’s a definite late 80s feel to this one; given that Robin works in television journalism, many of her references and snide remarks reference major news stories and television in general: “I’m only thirty-seven, but that’s a lot in TV years, which are rather like dog years.” I found them amusing, but then again, I was old enough to live through them. In fact, it’s rather interesting reading this again after so many years because it is so period (I think I found the series in the early 90s). Hayter is often coy about her background, but I was able to dig up one interview where she admits her first book was taken from experiences at CNN.

I love Hayter’s writing; the pace snaps along, with a great balance of reflection, dialogue and action. Narrated in first person by Robin, her voice is highly entertaining. Robin is a smart, eccentric and funny woman–just the kind of person I’d love to call a friend: “Because living well is not the best revenge, Bob. The best revenge, in my opinion, is huge crates of Depend undergarments delivered to his apartment door.” 

The mystery is quite clever, with unexpected turns in how it effects Robin. A usual mystery trope is played out quickly, and I found myself surprised at the plotting. Despite quirky characters and events, Hayter is able to bring tension to the plotting, just enough for the reader to not be entirely sure Robin will be safe, elevating it above a madcap adventure. Shoot. My re-read has reminded me how much I enjoy Robin. I’m going to have to make time for my favorite in the series, The Chelsea Girl Murders.

Originally released in 1994, it’s being re-released in ebook in 2014. Although I have this one in hardcover, thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media for providing an e-book to review and prompting a re-read of an old favorite.

Cross posted from:

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Richard Matheson
Tor Books
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Inch by inch, day by day, Scott Carey is getting smaller. Once an unremarkable husband and father, Scott finds himself shrinking with no end in sight. His wife and family turn into unreachable giants, the family cat becomes a predatory menace, and Scott must struggle to survive in a world that seems to be growing ever larger and more perilous--until he faces the ultimate limits of fear and existence.

My Review

After reading about white male privilege, racial oppression, and gender inequality, I found it interesting that I chose to read a book about a man who is losing his height at nearly an inch per week. Not only is he greatly inconvenienced because he can't reach high shelves, he is also losing his power and significance as a man and a human being and reduced to merely survival. It’s an adventure tale, and it has some horror and sci-fi elements. I like how the story didn’t feel dated, despite being written in the 50’s. Scott Carey was not always a likable character, but he was believable and I felt his anguish over every inch he lost and the changing relationship with his wife and daughter, his encounter with bullies, a child molester, and a predatory black widow spider. The ending is sad and surprisingly hopeful.

I enjoyed most of the other stories in this collection. Among my favorites were:

The Test - a story that explores how society deals with its aging population and one family’s moral quandary and emotional turmoil over an aging parent who must be tested to determine if he is fit to live. Sad, heartbreaking, and not entirely unrealistic.

Mantage was about a writer who, after watching a movie with his wife, wishes he could fast-forward through the drudgery and struggles of his life in order to achieve success faster.

Shoofly was about the battle between a harried businessman and the fly that lands in his office. There was so much tension in this story that I wasn’t sure who or what would die at the end. The ending was hilarious!

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dodgeball High

Dodgeball HighDodgeball High by Bradley Sands
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Justin Lucas, owner of a marvelous mustache that puts Tom Selleck's to shame, changes schools in the middle of his senior year, he finds himself at Lungville High, where everything revolves around dodgeball...

Dodgeball High is the latest book from that bearded madman Bradley Sands and is his most accessible book to date. It's also a hilarious send-up of team movies and the exaggerated importance of high school sports.

With Justin Lucas, Bradley Sands does an accurate job of capturing the awkwardness and insecurities of being an asshole teenager. Will he get the girl? Will his team win the most important (and lethal) dodgeball game ever played? Will he ever stop saying "just kidding" after every damn one of his jokes?

Dodgeball High reminds of a John Hughes writing a teen movie set in the dystopian future of movies like Rollerball. Lungville High's brand of dodgeball features chainsaws, explosions, and assorted gore and mayhem. Even still, Justin Lucas and his clueless douchebaggery are what kept me most entertained.

Not only is Dodgeball High pretty damn hilarious, it's a good introduction to both Bradley Sands and the world of Bizarro literature. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Fantastic Fantasy

Heraclix & PompHeraclix & Pomp by Forrest Aguirre
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heraclix is a golem...golem...


No, not Gollum. A golem is more like one of these...


Pomp is a fairy...




Yes, that's what I meant.

Together Heraclix and Pomp make quite the couple, an odd couple to be sure, but definitely a dynamic duo that brings the heart and soul to this fantastical novel!

Heraclix & Pomp is the sort of fantasy I've always expected, but never received from the likes of Neil Gaiman. If Gaiman had written this, our main character would've had a modern, slacker's sensibility. Instead, Forrest Aguirre has molded a hero out of the finest clay.

Heraclix the golem is created by a particularly nasty sorcerer to be used for his most heinous desires. Heraclix soon discovers what he is and then spends the rest of the book trying to find out who he is. In the process he shows his true, heroic colors.

Pomp comes from the Northern European fanciful notion of the pixie, the sprite, the forest nymph. But Aguirre doesn't just use this trope, he damn near reinvents it! He breathes new life into the fairy by inhabiting its skin. Want to know what it might be like to smurf about in a fairy's mind? Aguirre bestows that gift upon his readers. Once established he forces the outside world on Pomp and she responds like a champ.

Now and again I was surprised by the places Aguirre was taking me. In his capable hands the reader is transported to lands both corporeal and ethereal. Scene descriptions absolutely sparkle. Fantasy fans will drool over the lavish descriptions of demons and magic. This is not to say H&P is cover-to-cover perfection. There is the occasional stiff phrasing or overly chatty character acting like an exposition machine, but those instances hardly tarnish the overall affect.

And, yes, this book is affecting! I seldom become attached to characters within a single book. It usually takes a series. However, there were times towards the end that I was seriously pulling for these guys.

Sure, this is a fairytale, but it's not for kids. This is for kids-at-heart, full grown-ass adults that long for a real world filled with magic and all the horrors and happiness it can bring.

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Another Great Read from Sam Reaves

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is my favorite of Same Reaves' excellent series featuring the cab driving philosopher, Cooper MacLeish. In the first three books, driving a hack has found MacLeish getting into an awful lot of dangerous trouble and so he's now left the cab behind and taken what would appear to be a fairly safe and sensible job as the driver for a major Chicago real estate developer named Regis Swanson. This is a huge relief to Cooper's long-time girlfriend, Diana, who has suffered through his earlier troubles and stood by him when many other women might have bailed on the relationship.

Cooper and Diana are now newly married, but trouble seems to have a knack for finding MacLeish, no matter where he might be. A low-life scumbag sees a chance to rip off a group of drug dealers for a million dollars in cash. Naturally, the scumbag would prefer that the drug dealers not be hot on his trail, and so to throw them off the track, he frames Nate Swanson, the son of Regis, who owns a music club. The bad guys take the bait, track down Nate and kill him when he doesn't produce the money that he never had in the first place.

Regis Swanson is naturally devastated by the death of his son, and the bad guys now assume that Regis has their million dollars. This means that Regis and everyone around him, including Cooper MacLeish, are now in the line of fire. Much to Diana's consternation, her new husband refuses to just quit and walk away from the situation. He's determined to sort things out and provide some sort of justice, now matter how rough it might be. Naturally a lot of violence will ensue, and MacLeish may wind up risking everything, including his marriage and his life, before he can get things sorted out.

Again, Sam Reaves has created here a unique and very compelling protagonist, and he's built around him a very interesting and gripping story with lots of unexpected twists and turns. As always in these books, the city of Chicago plays a major role in the story and Reaves clearly loves the city and knows it very well. Crime fiction fans who have somehow failed to discover Sam Reaves should do themselves a great favor and hunt down all four of the books in this series. It's a winner from start to finish.