Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Even Forgotten Gods Get the Blues

Southern GodsSouthern Gods 
by John Hornor Jacobs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reviewed by: Dan

Bull Ingram is hired by Helios records head Scott Phelps to find two men: Earl Freeman, a missing employee, and Ramblin' John Hastur, a mysterious bluesman whose music can drive men mad. But what does Bull's job have to do with Sarah Williams, a woman who just fled her husband and fled back to Gethsemane, Arkansas with her daughter?

Sometimes, you read a first novel and pray the writer doesn't try for a second. This is not one of those novels. Southern Gods is a whole other animal. It's actually hard to describe. The closest comparison I could make would be to say it's like H.P. Lovecraft tried writing Gone with the Wind. It's mythos fiction but written in a more literary style with a Southern flair.

Bull Ingram is a brute of a man, a WWII vet who saw more than he wanted to overseas. He's a heavy for a small time mobster when he gets the call from Phelps. Sarah Williams is a woman tired of watching her husband drinking himself to death. I knew from the parallel nature of the story that they would eventually meet but the way they did wasn't something I would have guessed.

The Southern flavor is what makes the novel for me. Scott Phelps and Helios records seems to be a direct analogue of Scott Phillips and Sun Records, right down to the logo and the Memphis headquarters. JHJ makes good use of the 1951 Arkansas setting, from the peafowl to the segregation.

I have to admit, I wasn't completely sold on Southern Gods at first. It seemed to be moving too slowly for the first 40 or 50 pages. Then Ingram started getting closer to Ramblin' John Hastur and things kicked into high gear.

Much like Edward M. Erdelac's Merkabah Rider series, JHJ tries to fit H.P. Lovecraft's mythos into the same cosmology as the Judeo-Christian God, as well as many other pagan gods. I'd say he does a great job.

This is the point of the review where I justify not giving Southern Gods a five. Aside from the slow start I mentioned, it felt like the book had an identity crisis at times. While it was all tied together nicely at the end, I sometimes felt like JHJ wasn't sure what kind of story he wanted to tell. Is it Southern Gothic? Is it Mythos fiction? The end result was an inside the park home run for me but didn't quite mention to clear the fences.

The fact that he is able to tell an effective story about Hastur in 1951 Arkansas leads me to believe he's the real deal. I'll be ready when his next book hits the stands.

Also posted on Goodreads

The Stamp Collecting Hit Man Returns

Hit Me  

by Lawrence Block

Mulholland Books

Reviewed By Kemper
4 of 5 stars.

Back at the beginning of this series, professional hit man Keller would often fantasize about retiring and buying a house in one of the cities he visited while on the job, and circumstances beyond his control eventually pushed into that very situation.  When we last saw him, Keller was living in New Orleans under a new name and with a new job that didn’t involve murdering people for money.  It seemed as if Lawrence Block had written a happy ending for the guy, and it was a very satisfactory way to close out Keller's story.

So I was a little nervous when I heard that Block had a new Keller book coming out. It felt like there was a lot of potential to screw up an ending that I liked a lot. I should have had more faith in the writer who has brought Matt Scudder back from apparent conclusions several times.

Keller is happy in New Orleans with his wife and infant daughter. The construction business he got into has taken a hit with the housing bust, but he still has enough money banked to make ends meet.  Of course, a serious philatelist like Keller could always use more money for his hobby, and when an opportunity to resume his former job in Dallas coincides with a stamp auction he wanted to attend, Keller finds himself back in the murder-for-hire game.

Like most of the other Keller books, this is really a series of long short stories about different jobs that Keller works. (Note to TV executives, if you’re looking for another book series to adapt, check this out.  Each Keller’s story could be an episode.  I have some ideas.  Call me.)  In addition to his Dallas trip, Keller also takes a cruise, makes a homecoming trip to New York and tries to work a job around his appraisal of  a large stamp collection.

While this is as entertaining and engaging as the other Keller books, I gotta say that I was a little depressed while reading it.  Keller enthusiasm for his work always waxed and waned, but there was always the feeling that he was working towards getting out someday.  Seeing Keller back on the job when he really doesn’t need the money saddened me a bit.  I feared that it was making him seem more selfish and unfeeling than he’d been previously.

Fortunately, Block deals with this directly, and I still thought that Keller is a petty decent guy despite what he does by the end of the book.  It’s a testament to Block’s skill in crafting such a great character that I think I’d be more than happy to read another book if it was just Keller’s adventures in stamp collecting with absolutely no murder-for-hire.

Also posted on Goodreads.

Standard zombie fare, with a Mad Max flare

This Dark Earth
by John Hornor Jacobs
Gallery Books 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Reviewed by: Trudi

Liked it overall, but I did have my problems with it.

The Good:

1. The zombies aka zeds, shamblers, revs (short for revenants) -- there is nothing unique about Jacobs' zombies: they are slow, and gooshy, and stink. They are dangerous in hordes and are attracted to sound. All this we've seen before; nevertheless, the descriptions are remarkably vivid -- skulls shattering, teeth splintering, intestines bursting, and always the terrible, gag-inducing smell of rot.

2. The first 121 pages are a complete adrenaline rush. Action begins on page 1 and does not relent for a moment. We meet Dr. Lucy Ingersoll on the afternoon her hospital succumbs to chaos. An inexplicable virus is causing people to seizure, auto-cannibalize, attack, die and re-animate. Lucy is our entry point into the start of the end of the world. She assesses her situation and realizes she must abandon the hospital if she is to rescue her son, Gus, at home with his father. In her attempt to get to her family, Lucy crosses paths with Knock-Out, a giant of a man with a gentle and kind way about him. These 121 pages are strong enough to stand on their own as a rip-roaring novella of zombie insanity, replete with nuclear detonations.

The Bad:

The shifting character POV did not work for me. The first 121 pages grabbed me by my short hairs. I love the brutal immediacy of the story. Everything feels so urgent and perilous. I love Lucy and Knock-Out. Then the book shifts gears and we get Tessa's story. Okay, I'll keep following you. Tessa's story is sad and icky. But intense. I found her very sympathetic. Just as I was getting emotionally invested, the story shifts again. Now it's three years later and Lucy's 14-year-old son Gus takes over narrating. Then the POV shifts again and we have some chick Barbara sharing the minutes from the various committee meetings of the Bridge City survivors enclave (not the best choice). And there will be one more POV change before the novel concludes.

So many shifts in narration, from first to third person, lost me by the end of the book. It was hard to sustain emotional involvement with any of the major characters. The book ends up reading like a collection of interconnected short stories, and on their own, each of the chapters are actually quite strong. It's when you force them to act as a novel where things fall apart. That's when huge problems with pacing and characterization appear, along with a natural momentum towards a meaningful and satisfactory climax (of which there isn't one).

Despite these issues, there's something about this book that recommends itself. It's got that gritty, western kind of vibe going, a little Mad Max, a little The Road and of course Kirkman's The Walking Dead (it's just not possible to read about the slavers and Captain Konstantin and not be reminded of the Governor).

If you're craving zombies, and a bleak and desperate post-apocalyptic landscape, you could do a lot worse than This Dark Earth.The author has also written a weird, mash-up Lovecraftian novel called Southern Gods (check out Dan's review) that I'm very interested in trying out. It makes me think of Bubba Ho-Tep and everything that is awesome about that movie.

Also posted on Goodreads.

My favorite small press is having a sale!

***Moving Sale!***

Yes, it’s true, Livingston Press is moving into luxury suites on the campus of the University of WA! To help with this process we are having a huge sale—50% off any book on their website. And no postage or freight added!

A) Limit of one dozen books. B) Must be prepaid with check. C) Send your order and check to Livingston Press, Station 22, The University of West Alabama, Livingston, AL 35470. This offer applies to direct orders only and will be good through Summer Solstice (June 21) 2013.

Small press, big impact, very good read

Title: JANEY
Publisher: Livingston Press
Price: $17.95 paper
Available now

Reviewer: Richard
Rating: 4* of five...strongly recommended

The Book Description: The Twelve Labors of Hercules might seem an easier task than warming up to someone as caustic and misanthropic as Janey. If you hate her at the beginning, though, be warned: by the end you may very well fall in love with her.

Richard Matturro (author of four previous novels: Leslie, Luna, Perseus, and Troy) is a native of Rye, New York. He holds a doctorate in English with a specialization in Shakespeare and Greek Mythology. After sixteen years at the Albany Times Union, he now teaches literature in the English Department at the University of Albany, and lives on an old farm in the foothills of the Berkshires.

My Review: Author Matturro wrote three previous novels that were takes on classical subjects, and now gives us misery-guts Janey Heracles, a sculptress (she'd smack me one for saying that) and a general all-around Pain In The Ass of a woman. For those Louise Penny fans out there, think Ruth Zardo before menopause calmed her caustic wit down.

No, no lie not kidding not exaggerating. Serious.

Janey's Twelve Labors are nothing short of reinventing herself in her late forties. She's got a great gallery show to prepare a piece for, but to navigate her way to that Promised Land, she must unload her literal and metaphorical baggage: Sell the empty hotel her dead parents left to her and her conventional, estrangedish sister Laura; empty the said hotel of its Augean Stables-level hoarded crap; cope with her husband divorcing her; cope with a new man, DJ Bugs Mudge, bringing his gray-ponytail-having gerontological tantric sex and laid-backness into her life; cope with Stanley the Evil Gay Imp in whose adjacent studio to hers he makes paintings of naked boys that bring him, well, something he wants...but not enough to keep him from renaming himself Stanislav. Which Janey, with her usual People Person attitude, ignores and calls him, at every opportunity, Stanley.

I found the author's breaking the book into twelve two-chapter segments named after the Twelve Labors of myth a wee bit forced, but I think for many it might be a useful way of calling attention to the point of the book: Janey is, like her namesake, laboring mightily (if in her case more than a little unwillingly and for no clearly defined purpose) to master and contain her own power, her self-transformation, her life.

In a “review” of Janey's sculpture Pillars, created for her big gallery show, author Matturro sums up Janey's journey, and a fundamental insight into human nature and life results:

The Ionic column is polished smooth and gleaming white. The Doric is discolored, stained, chipped, and pockmarked, the object of a thousand injuries and indignities. Worse, there's a diagonal crack that threatens at any moment to split it in two. ...these are the dual natures we all share after a certain age. That ideal, upright pillar we wish we were, and that damaged, blemished old post that we are. And yet one is as necessary as the other for our “life support.”

...Art indeed may not change anything, and yet on some very basic level, life is insupportable without it.
(p183, softcover edition)

A very nicely phrased way to say something that, as readers, I suspect we all agree with; and as good a summation of the reasons one would want to read this novel as any I can write. I recommend the book to your readerly mercies.

*I requested this ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
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