Review: Lost at the Con

In the interests of full disclosure, the author of Lost at the Con, Bryan Young, is a writer friend of mine from the Origins Author Library. I’ve invited him to submit to the anthology I’m putting together. I try my best to review all books as fairly and honestly as possible, but bias happens. I didn’t pay for this book, either; I purchased it for zero dollars during a promotion where anyone could download the ebook for free. I was not, however, asked to write this review or compensated for it.

Lost at the Con is a novel about a journalist, Cobb, who is sent on-assignment to a science fiction convention in Atlanta, Griffin*Con, which is obviously meant to be an analog for Dragon*Con, the largest fan-run science fiction convention in the United States. The novel is written in a gonzo journalism style, which is to say, it gives the journalist a narrative voice rather than reporting in a traditionally dry, objective manner.

The first few chapters were slow for me because Young spends a lot of time setting up the world of Griffin*Con. If you’ve never attended Dragon*Con, you’ll appreciate the descriptions of the hotels, convention layout,  costumers, etc. But as someone who has attended the convention before, I didn’t need so much detail, so these sections bored me a bit. If you’ve been to Dragon*Con, you can probably skim these parts.

There’s a second reason I had a hard time getting into the first few chapters of Lost at the Con. Cobb works for an editor he hates, doing a job he despises, living with a girlfriend whom he allows to be unfaithful (to clarify, I have no problem with open relationships, except when one partner is obviously unwilling–as is Cobb, here). He is a self-admitted alcoholic who spends the first half of the book searching for his next gulp of booze. He complains about everyone he meets and everything around him. He is, in a word, pathetic.

But I kept reading, because as much as I hate to admit it, I saw some part of myself in Cobb. I think everyone probably does (though some readers will be reluctant to admit it). We’re all wage slaves, or hate our bosses, or we’re trapped in emotionally stunted relationships, or we’re drinking way too much to numb the pain. Cobb felt familiar. He represented the worst parts of myself, the parts I’d like to jettison. Reading about those parts of myself is not easy, but generally when a novel taps into self-loathing, that’s a sign that the work is exploring universal themes and there’ll be some payoff at the end. Fortunately, Lost at the Con does not disappoint in that respect.

It becomes increasingly clear, as Cobb’s adventures at Griffin*Con become more bizarre and entertaining, that he’s not only representative of the reader’s own weaknesses, but that he’s also unhinged. He has a really difficult time telling reality from his slightly paranoid imaginings. Once I realized this, parts of the novel made a lot more sense, like his  completely unreasonable fear of a cosplayer dressed as Steampunk Abraham Lincoln.

In the end, Cobb experiences what a lot of geeks experience at science fiction conventions (or, if you’re me, writing conventions): a sort of nirvana, bliss, a clarity of purpose and motivation. Young foreshadows the ending quite a bit, and this experience is very familiar to any geek who has attended a convention, so it feels…not predictable, but right, like “Of course this is the ending, it has to be. It’s the only ending this book could have.” Cobb hits bottom in a big, flamboyant way, and from there he can rebuild himself–better, faster, stronger, much like Steampunk Abraham Lincoln improved on the original. The convention takes the place of an ancient religious rite, the kind where a person’s soul is washed and renewed, past transgressions are forgiven, and the future is full of endless possibilities.

So my advice to you, dear reader, is that even if you find the beginning of Lost at the Con a bit slow, the action builds, and it wraps up with an ending I found surprisingly resonant. Just don’t be shocked if it makes you crave a science fiction convention! Sadly, the next Dragon*Con is almost a year away, but I can recommend some others to keep you busy in the meantime–like Ohayocon!

Review: Haunted

Please click here to read my review of Haunted: Eleven Tales of Ghostly Horror on the Innsmouth Free Press blog!

This  review was difficult for me to write, because I really like and admire several of the people involved in the anthology–Monica Valentinelli, Bill Bodden, Chuck Wendig, and Jason Sizemore–but I didn’t love every story. Ultimately, I decided that I had to be honest and trust in the professionalism of everyone involved. I remember back when I wrote my first review for IFP and balked at saying anything negative, dancing around the things I didn’t like, and one of the fantastic editors at IFP told me to buck up and just be honest. Readers appreciate honest reviews, and anyone worth their salt wasn’t going to blacklist me because I dared give my opinion.  Most importantly, however, I don’t want readers to skim or discount my reviews because they are so unswervingly positive that they become entirely unreliable, which would reflect badly not just on me, but on IFP, as well.

That said, this is just MY opinion. You might read this anthology (which was, overall, quite good) and love every single story. Or love the stories I didn’t like and hate the stories I loved. Taste is, luckily, subjective.

Review: Hungry For Your Love

Almost a year ago, Steve Saus and I exchanged books. I gave him a copy of the horror anthology Historical Lovecraft and he gave me a copy of the zombie romance anthology Hungry for your Love, edited by Lori Perkins. I had heard Steve read his story from the anthology, “Kicking the Habit,” at least twice, and enjoyed it, but for some reason I hesitated to read the rest of the anthology.

I have to admit, it was probably because of the word “romance” on the cover. There, I’ve said it: I’m a snob. I’ve read enough romance stories that made my toes curl (and not in a good way) that I was wary of the anthology, even though Steve’s story was heartfelt, sweet, and genuinely romantic, without the trite and insipid qualities that drive me to dislike that particular brand of  romance that uses a formula and spits out identical stories with little literary merit. Yet, I was still nervous. I kept pushing the book to the back of my review queue.

Then I reviewed Hot and Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance for Doctor Fantastique’s. Despite the word “romance” right there in the title, the anthology was good. The characters were well-developed, the settings were unique, and the romance was actually romantic. I didn’t want to chuck the book out the window. I wanted to read more!

And so it was that I finally picked up Hungry for your Love and gave it a fair shake. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

When I said that the anthology was a zombie romance anthology, I wasn’t kidding. The protagonists vary from humans surviving the zombie apocalypse to actual rotting, brain-eating zombies, and everything in between. There are, of course, a few stories that aren’t my cup of tea–but that’s to be expected in every anthology and I’m not going to elaborate on the stories I didn’t love. The fact is, however, that choosing a favorite story is nigh unto impossible because they are all just so good, and even the stories that weren’t my favorites were well-written.

The second story in the anthology, “Revenants Anonymous,” by Francesca Lia Block, blew my socks off. It’s the personal account of a zombie woman who finds love at an addicts meeting for the life-challenged. The romantic interest is a dark-haired singer/songwriter with a guitar–and what girl doesn’t want to date that guy, even if he’s undead? The love between the two zombies ends up being sweet and poignant and even a little inspiring, and Block does a great job of conjuring the “life feels so much more alive” emotion that happens at the start of a new relationship after a long dry spell. The sex scene is described with tenderness and just enough detail to be sexy without being pornographic.

“My Partner The Zombie,” by R.G. Hart, is a noir-style tale about a pair of private detectives, one of whom happens to be a zombie. I enjoyed solving the mystery along with the detectives, laughed at the application of “Zombie Away” (a chemical solvent that does exactly what it sounds like it should do), and ultimately smiled at the happy ending. Happy endings are rare in the zombie fiction genre, but it seems to me that even in a zombie romance anthology the stories should have happy endings–or, at least, mostly happy.

Deetra, the protagonist in “Undying Love,” by Regina Riley, is a witch-for-hire. When a man walks into her magic shop and asks her to locate someone, she is unexpectedly attracted to him. Unfortunately, he’s also a zombie, but that doesn’t stop Deetra from developing a huge crush. Riley has a real knack for dialogue. I was only a few pages in before I was swooning for the zombified hero right along with Deetra. I don’t want to describe too much about this story and give away the details, but one scene made me cry actual tears. If you’re looking for erotica, you should look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for an emotionally moving, deeply romantic story, this is it, right here.

“Julia Brainchild” is a weird little story that almost defies description. The protagonist cooks brains for a television cooking  show, and his thunder is stolen by the beautiful and charismatic Julia Brainchild. He becomes increasingly obsessed with seducing his sexy co-host, leading to a strange ending that is simultaneously happy and tragic. That might make it sound like this story, by Lois H. Gresh, is not good, but it is, just not in a traditional way, which is pretty brilliant. It’s nice to have a surreal little gem with a twist ending nestled in with all the other stories, like the prize at the bottom of a cereal box.

And of course, I love Steve Saus’s story, “Kicking the Habit,” which I mentioned before. It’s about as romantic as a story about zombie lovers can be. I have to admit that it is, however, even better read aloud by the author, so if you ever have a chance to hear Steve read it, you should.

Mercy Loomis’s “White Night, Black Horse” is a story about traditional Voodoo zombies, which was a nice break from the Romero-style undead ones. Stacy Brown’s “The Magician’s Apprentice” is about the love we sometimes overlook or neglect because we are too infatuated with someone flashy to notice the genuine affection of someone more modest. And “Last Times at Ridgemont High,” by Kilt Kilpatrick, is a clever parody of the high school angst film with which we’re all familiar. I was impressed with Kilpatrick’s ability to lead my expectations in one direction and then completely surprise me.

The book concludes with two strong stories, “First Date” by Dana Fredsti and “Later” by Michael Marshall Smith. “First Date” is a sexy adventure story with an incredibly erotic sex scene, perhaps the most erotic in the book, as if we were building to this climax all along (hurr, puns). “Later” draws the book to a close with a sweet, lyrical tale of love that refuses to be lost, even in death. This story was perfect to close the book, as it’s probably the one that haunts me the most after putting it down. Smith has a real way of composing images that linger in your mind.

All-in-all, Hungry for your Love is well worth the cover price.  There’s a little something for everyone–adventure, sex, love, and even romance. And shockingly, there’s not a formulaic tale in the whole lot. Thanks to this book,  I daresay I might pick up more horror-romance, and that’s saying a lot from someone who, not two months ago, was a genre snob. So well done, Lori Perkins and company!

Review: Hot and Steamy

Please click through to read my review of Hot and Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance on Doctor Fantastique’s!

Because I believe in fully disclosing potential sources of bias for my reviews, the book was sent to me by Don Bingle, my friend and fellow author, who has a (really unique) story in this anthology. Hot and Steamy is also edited by Jean Rabe, who is the organizer of the Origins Author Library, in which I will be participating this year. I tried to be as honest as possible in this review, but bias happens.

Review: Steampunk’d

Please click through to Dr. Fantastique’s to read the full review!

In the interests of full disclosure, this book and one other were sent to me by my friend and fellow writer Donald J. Bingle. The anthology was edited by Jean Rabe, who organizes the Origins Author’s Alley, of which I was lucky to be a part last year (and hopefully will again this year). And one of the stories mentioned in the review was written by Paul Genesse, editor of the Crimson Pact series, in which I have two stories (and hopefully will have a third).  I did my best to provide an unbiased review, but it’s important to recognize the sources of potential biases, or so I learned in anthropologist school.

Review: One Buck Horror, Volumes 1 and 2

Clicky click to read my review of One Buck Horror, Volumes 1 and 2, over at the Innsmouth Free Press site.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have had two stories rejected by OBH, one before I wrote this review and one after. Take from that what you will–I tried to be as unbiased and honest as possible. All in all the review is pretty positive, but hopefully OBH will take some of my comments to heart and we’ll see some more diversity in the stories offered in future volumes.

If you want to read more about the husband-and-wife team that edit OBH, here’s a brief, funny interview you might enjoy.

Factotum, Part Three of The Foundling’s Tale

Factotum is a novel by DM Cornish, an Australian writer I greatly admire. It’s number three in a set called “The Foundling’s Tale” (or alternately “The Monster Blood Tattoo”) the first two being Foundling and Lamplighter. Years ago I picked up the paperback of Foundling because I was attracted to the cover, which featured characters drawn by the author, and which appeared quite steampunk. (This was back in about 2009, I think, when my interest in steampunk was a fledgling thing yearning for exploration.) Fortunately for me, some of my favorite novels are young adult literature, so I wasn’t put off by the label–and neither should you be!

I was immediately caught up in the visionary world of Cornish’s Half Continent, where the sea is vinegar, monsters and man fight a daily war, and the making of potions  is both chemistry and magic. The story centers around Rossamünd, a boy with a girl’s name,  an orphan trying to make his way in the world.  Though a thousand YA books begin with this rather cliché premise, Cornish takes the premise and turns it on its head. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me on this.

The thing that most impresses me about Cornish’s writing, the thing that keeps bringing me back to eagerly devour another tome (and tomes they are!), is the language.  Cornish loves words, and it’s obvious; he digs up ancient little-used words and creates new ones to produce a world that is described, by turns, as either antique or wholly new, something both familiar and entirely avant-garde.  Eventually reading these novels immerses you in the world, so that it seems strange, upon emerging back into reality, that your friends don’t use the word “cruorpunxis” to refer to their tattoo, or that you don’t know any lightning-calling “lahzars” or see monster-fighting “teratologists” on the news each evening.

My only criticism of the novels is that they are sometimes a little too erudite and descriptive. A page-long description of a minor character (who will quickly be forgotten in the next chapter) is accompanied by a sketch. Cornish’s sketches are beautifully rendered, but I wanted more of them depicting the main characters and the nickers and bogles (two types of monsters) that inhabit the world, with fewer of the unimportant side characters who aren’t maintained throughout. I also didn’t think it was necessary to describe every detail–right down to the placement of every mole and spoor–of the minor characters, especially if we’re also being provided a sketch. This type of description, however, definitely reminds the reader of a novel written a hundred years ago, when such was the norm, and this may have been the point. Mood is certainly an overlooked factor in much modern writing, and Cornish achieves the desired effect handily.

Though I’m not sure it’s quite as good as the previous two novels in the series, Factotum remains a lush, beautifully written masterpiece.  Don’t let the YA Lit label fool you; this series is dark and compelling, full of violence and intrigue, rife with believable characters and heartbreaking choices. Highly recommended, and a favorite series of mine. Though the Foundling’s Tale was billed as a trilogy, I’m yet hoping for a fourth installment. Fingers crossed!