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Battle Ground: Pretty much what it says on the tin

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

THE DRESDEN FILES is a weird series, even for urban fantasy. My go-to example for non-aficionados is a wizard riding a polka-powered zombie T-rex through downtown Chicago, and that's not even the wackiest thing that's happened. So it's saying something when I have to acknowledge that the series is in a weird place right now. Maybe I should call it weird plus. Weird squared?

For once, though, when I say "weird," I'm not talking about the content so much as the form. The DRESDEN books have generally followed a pretty straightforward formula: Harry Dresden (wizard private eye, basically) is minding his own business when life ambushes him with at least two crises at once. In the process of juggling his A and B stories (and trying to figure out which is which), Dresden uncovers some kind of complication or dastardly adversary. After a heartfelt discussion with a friend over his doubts that ... Read More

Hatch: Oppel’s alien invasion remains full of action

Hatch by Kenneth Oppel

Hatch (2020) is Kenneth Oppel’s continuation of his MG alien invasion tale that began with Bloom. Oppel maintains the fast-paced excitement, keeping his focus on the three young protagonists Petra, Anaya, and Seth, while adding a few new characters as well. Fans of book one will not be disappointed, save by a killer of a cliffhanger ending. Inevitable spoilers for book one ahead.

In the first book, aliens were softening up Earth and preparing it for their impending invasion by seeding our planet with various deadly plant species that weren’t just dangerous to touch or eat but were actively carnivorous, though their biggest danger was a growth rate that was quickly obliterating humanity’s food crops.... Read More

Bloom: A scary plant pandemic that now seems possible

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel

Three kids battle an invasive plant in Kenneth Oppel’s latest middle grade fantasy. Bloom (2020) is mysterious and thrilling all the way through. Our heroes are:

Anaya, who’s allergic to almost everything.

Petra, who’s allergic to water. She used to be Anaya’s best friend until Anaya betrayed her.

Seth, the new kid in town who’s being fostered by farmers.

When black weeds appear suddenly and grow tall overnight, nobody knows what they are, even Anaya’s botanist father. The townsfolk pull out and chop down the weeds but they just come back the next day. Nothing kills them.

It’s soon discovered that these weeds are growing all over the planet and causing sev... Read More

Attack Surface: All too scarily plausible

Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow

Attack Surface is Cory Doctorow’s newest book in a loose series that begins with Little Brother, though one needn’t have read the other two (thus “loose”) to follow and enjoy this one. It’s a taut techno-thriller, though I’ll admit to glazing over at times in long sections of techno-speak.

The novel is two-stranded. In current time, Masha is a computer security expert working for a transnational company who sell their services — hacking, surveillance, tech manipulation and control, etc. — to anybody willing to pay with no attempt to distinguish any of their clients’ morality/ethics. Which is why we first find Masha helping an old Soviet-satellite country’s dictator surveil and jail those annoy... Read More

Hilda and the Midnight Giant: A return to Hilda’s world

Hilda and the Midnight Giant by Luke Pearson
The second in Luke Pearson’s HILDA series of graphic novels once again returns to the Scandinavian countryside and the adventures of Hilda, a blue-haired little girl who lives with her mother in a remote cabin. She spends her days wandering about with her sketchbook, exploring the natural world and the mysterious creatures that live within it.

Mother and daughter are relaxing at home one evening when stones suddenly fly through their windows, and a little voice announces that they’re to leave the premises or be forcibly evicted. There’s no sign of anyone, though Hilda grabs a broom and starts sweeping the invisible intruders to the door — where she’s stunned to see a giant looming over the house.

That’s two mysteries for the price of one, and being as... Read More

Dark Ark (Vol. 1): Forty Nights: A ship of horrors

Dark Ark (Vol. 1): Forty Nights by Cullen Bunn (writer) & Juan Doe (artist)

Dark Ark is a wonderfully disturbing horror story about the flood of forty days and forty nights. But this story is not about Noah’s ark. This is about a different ark — one that we have never heard of. Noah’s ark saved the natural creatures for the new world, but the dark ark saves the unnatural creatures. It’s a great premise that allows Cullen Bunn to put a bunch of vampires, monsters, and other unholy beings together in one place.

Issue one gives us the backstory, which explains why these creatures do not go ahead and feast on the animals in Noah’s ark: The counterpart to Noah on the dark ark is a sorcerer commanded by Satan, or some such demonic being, to build this ark. If he does not, he and his family will suffer eternity in hell. However, if he successfully builds the ark and saves the creatures aboard, maki... Read More

The Trials of Koli: Feels like a middle book, but a good one

The Trials of Koli by M.R. Carey

M.R. Carey’s The Book of Koli was one of my favorite reads this year. I loved everything about it and was eagerly awaiting the sequel, The Trials of Koli (2020), which was, thankfully, released only a few months after The Book of Koli appeared. There will be some spoilers for The Book of Koli in this review, so beware.

Koli is still on the run. He misses his mother and sisters but can’t go back home or he’ll be hanged. He continues to travel with Ursula, the strange woman who knows a lot about science, medicine, and technology and who is accompanied by a piece of “tech” that is able to diagnose illnesses, shoot down enemies, and other such han... Read More

Wolfen: There goes the neighborhood…

Wolfen directed by Michael Wadleigh

I well remember loving Whitley Strieber’s 1978 novel The Wolfen, back when it was first released. The book was atmospheric as could be and managed to do something that all good horror novels of its ilk should do: make the reader believe in the possibility of the supernatural. The book was most assuredly unsettling, and one that this reader has not forgotten, even 40+ years after experiencing it. But despite my love of that book, somehow, I never got around to seeing the film that was made from it, three years later. Released in July ’81, Wolfen (why the name was changed is a matter best asked of the Hollywood production team that doubtless spent hours wondering if the dropped “The” would lead to more ticket sales) turned out to be something of a box office flop, pulling in only $10 million after being produced for $17 million. Today, the viewer can only wonder why, as it is most assur... Read More

Verdigris Deep: Be careful what you wish for

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

A glance back at former reviews of Frances Hardinge’s work reveals that I have overused the word “weird.” Hardly the nicest word, and yet I meant it as a compliment. It’s a testament to my struggle to pinpoint what it is that makes Hardinge’s books stand out. Nevertheless, stand out they do.

Verdigris Deep (2008) is a weird book and, once again, that’s meant as a compliment. Ryan, Josh and Chelle get stranded in a forbidden village when they miss their bus home. Finding they have no money for the next bus they resort to pinching coins from an old wishing well hidden in the wood. What they don’t know is that the well is inhabited by an angry well spirit who doesn't react well to h... Read More

The Babadook: The horror from Down Under

The Babadook directed by Jennifer Kent

When the Australian horror film The Babadook was released here in the U.S. in November 2014, 10 months after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it was moderately successful at the box office and received almost universal praise from the critics. Somehow, I managed to miss the film back then (I happen to miss most new releases, actually, in my quest to see as many great classic/old films on the big screen as possible at NYC’s several revival houses), but have wanted to see it ever since, especially inasmuch as the film holds an almost unprecedented 98% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website! A recent showing on one of the Showtime stations has finally enabled me to catch up with this truly frightening picture, however; one that has grown into something of a cult item and cause célèbre since its release six years ago. I knew absolutely nothing about the film when I sat down to watch it t... Read More

Black Sun: A strong start to a new series

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun (2020) introduces a new series set in an ancient Mesoamerica that is a mix of partly-familiar cultures and original fantasy elements, creating a heady brew that rolls along smoothly even as it moves back and forth in time and amongst a quartet of POVs.

Those POVs belong to:

Naranapa: the young Sun Priest based in the holy city of Tova, head of the religious order that has kept peace for three centuries.
Serapio: a young boy groomed since his childhood as the “vessel” of the Crow god, bent on vengeance for his people’s massacre in Tova years ago at the Night of Knives.
Xiala: a ship’s captain and member of the Teek, a (seemingly) all-female people who wield sea magic known as The Song.
Okoa: a youn... Read More

A Deadly Education: Sharp character insights, fantastic originality

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I honestly had a very hard time with the beginning of Naomi Novik’s newest novel, A Deadly Education (2020). But based on my experience with her prior work, I kept going and though I don’t think this novel nears the strength of ones like Spinning Silver or Uprooted, I was happy I did.

El (short for Galadriel) Higgins is a student at the Scholomance, a sort of sentient, no-professors-here, boarding school for sorcerers. Students have various tracks of magic, the school presents them with lessons, supplies, and space. Which sounds nice and all, save that the school is f... Read More

Ring Shout: The horrors of racism and hatred made tangible

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

In Ring Shout (2020), P. Djèlí Clark melds two types of horror, Lovecraftian monsters and the bloody rise of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 Georgia, as a group of black resistance fighters take on an enemy with frightening supernatural powers.

As Ku Klux Klan members march down the streets of Macon, Georgia on the Fourth of July, Maryse Boudreaux, who narrates the story, watches from a rooftop with her two companions, sharpshooter Sadie and former soldier Cordelia “Chef” Lawrence, a bomb expert. They’ve baited a trap for the “Ku Kluxes,” who are hellish demons that hide in disguise among the Klan humans, taking over the bodies of the worst of them. The trap works, but the silver pellets and iron slags contained in the bomb aren’t enough to kill the three monsters that rise out of the wreckage ... Read More

White Zombie: The original zombie film

White Zombie directed by Victor Halperin

As I mentioned in my recent review of the 1936 nonthriller Revolt of the Zombies, this film was a belated follow-up of sorts (it is hardly a sequel, as many claim) to 1932’s White Zombie, the original zombie picture, but whereas that original had been an artfully constructed wonder, the latter film was something of a labor to sit through; a movie about the revivified living dead featuring terrible editing, laughable thesping, risible special effects and, worst of all, not a single scary moment to be had. The contrast between the two films, despite the fact that both were products of the Halperin brothers (Arkansas-born director Victor and producer Edward), is a striking one; a contrast that was only strengthened for this viewer yesterday, after watching the 1932 film once again. Released in July of that year, Whit... Read More

The Couch: A chip off the ol’ Bloch

The Couch directed by Owen Crump

In November 1960, filmgoers were presented with a very unique film, Girl of the Night. In it, we meet a call girl/prostitute named Bobbie Williams, played by the great Anne Francis in the screen role that she would go on to cite as her personal favorite of all her many performances. We learn about Bobbie via her visits to the psychiatrist (Lloyd Nolan) who is treating her, and these intimate encounters are alternated with glimpses of the young woman’s sordid daily life. Flash forward around 15 months, and another film would be released with very much the same modus operandi, but in this later film, the subject was male, and his life is shown to be more disturbing, as well as a lot more dangerous to the populace at large, than Bobbie’s ever was. That film was indeed The Couch, a little-discussed film today (not to be confused with the Andy Warhol film of 1964 that was simply entitled Couch) ... Read More

Love Me Deadly: Daddy’s girl meets the Deadheads

Love Me Deadly directed by Jacques Lacerte

When C. M. Eddy, Jr.’s infamous short story “The Loved Dead” first appeared in the April/May/June 1924 issue of Weird Tales magazine, with its necrophilic protagonist, it so shocked and scandalized readers that — or so it is told — sales of the beleaguered pulp magazine rose dramatically, thus rescuing it from financial failure. The better part of a century later, the subject of necrophilia is no less taboo and discomfiting. I have reviewed several films on various film sites that I have almost been embarrassed to admit having watched (such as The Worm Eaters, The Double-D Avenger and Please Don't Eat My Mother, among many others), and I initially thought that the necrophilia horror film Love Me Deadly,... Read More

King of Scars: Battling mortal enemies and demons in the Grisha universe

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

King of Scars (2019), the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s NIKOLAI DUOLOGY and part of the ongoing saga in her GRISHA universe, begins not long after the events in Crooked Kingdom. Readers should ideally have read both the original SHADOW AND BONE trilogy and the SIX OF CROWS duology before picking up this book; there are a lot of references to prior events and previously introduced characters. We return to the country of Ravka, setting of Shadow and Bone, where Nikolai Lant... Read More

Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror

Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror by Allison V. Harding

Unless you are an aficionado of the famous pulp magazine Weird Tales, or have read some of the many anthology collections derived from its pages, the chances are good that you are not familiar with the author Allison V. Harding. This reader had previously encountered the author in the 1988 collection Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies, which contained what is probably Harding’s most famous story, “The Damp Man.” I had hugely enjoyed this chilling tale and wanted to read more by this nearly forgotten writer, but there was one problem: No collection of Harding’s work had ever been compiled, and her appearances in various collections are few and far between. And this is somewhat surprising, given that, during the peri... Read More

Master of Poisons: A challenging book

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Master of Poisons (2020) by Andrea Hairston is an epic fantasy set in an African-inspired world that is facing environmental devastation. Fertile land is turning into poison desert, and void-storms are a constant threat.

Djola is called Master of Poisons because, when both men were young, he saved the Arkhysian Emperor with his knowledge of antidotes. He was rewarded with the title and a place on the Emperor’s council. Now, he thinks he might be able to save the land with a legendary spell, but he needs to find it first — and in the meantime, he recommends that everyone live more simply, to put less strain on the environment.

Human nature being what it is, this goes about as well as you might e... Read More

The Strangler: See it for Victor

The Strangler directed by Bart Topper

I might be giving away my age here, but I am old enough to remember, young although I was at the time, the panic and news stories that were attendant during the scourge of the so-called Boston Strangler. Between June 1962 and January ’64, no fewer than 13 women, ages 19 all the way up to 85, were slain and, in some cases, sexually molested by the mad fiend. Finally, in October ’64, that fiend was apprehended and later confessed; a 33-year-old named Albert de Salvo. The incidents that shocked Beantown and the rest of the country would later be turned into a film, October 1968’s The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis as de Salvo. But that had not been the only film inspired by the dreadful doings. In April ’64, a half year before de Salvo’s arrest and at the height of the Boston panic, another film was released that perfectly captured the unease of the period. That film was simply called The... Read More

The Cabin in the Woods: An over-the-top thrill ride with too few explanations

The Cabin in the Woods directed by Drew Goddard

When The Cabin in the Woods was released in April 2012, it almost immediately became something of a sensation, a hit both with the critics and the public, ultimately going on to gross around $67 million at the box office, after having been produced for $30 million. Despite all that, however, and despite the fact that I am an old fan of a good horror movie, well told, I managed to miss the film when it was first run, and only caught up with it very recently, at home. And now, I am most regretful that I did not run to the theaters back when, as this really is a film that would have benefited from being seen on the big screen. It is an eye-popping film, loaded with suspense, action, scares, laughs, and amazing special FX; one that would have been ideal for seeing with a good audience. Not since 1996’s Scream, perhaps, has a motion picture so knowingly and winkingly toyed with the conventions of the... Read More

Spider Baby: See it for Carol

Spider Baby directed by Jack Hill

When I was a wee lad, many decades ago, there were two female images that would inevitably give me the jitters as I lay down to sleep at night. The first was that of Vampira’s ghoulish character, advancing toward the camera with arms extended, in a nighttime graveyard, in the film that I much later realized was none other than Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). (This image was apparently frightening to other viewers besides myself; it was later used in the opening credits of the great television program Chiller Theatre back in the mid-‘60s!) And the other image that used to give the young me the willies was that of Carol Ohmart’s recently deceased Annabelle Loren character, noose around her neck and floating at the window, in William Castle’s baby-boomer favorite House on Haunted Hill (1959 again). Even today, decades later, those two images can manage to give me the... Read More

Innocent Blood: Add Marie to the Pantheon!

Innocent Blood directed by John Landis

It strikes me that your garden-variety vampires, as depicted on the big screen, usually have very few scruples as regards their diet of necessity, and the victims that they utilize to assuage those nutritional needs. Typically, vampires are shown sucking on the necks of any likely victim to come along … especially when that victim might be an especially lovely and, um, toothsome female. Ethical considerations and qualms of remorse hardly ever figure with these conscienceless creatures of the night. Thus, offhand, I cannot recall another vampire in cinema history who has chosen his or her prospective victims utilizing such clearly defined moral guidelines, only to regret one of those resultant food choices later on, as Marie, the French vampiress in John Landis’ hugely entertaining, very sexy and often remarkably gory Innocent Blood.

When we first encounter Marie (played by French actress Anne Par... Read More

The Thing: One of the few remakes that I prefer over the original

The Thing directed by John Carpenter

It is a debate that my buddy Jack and I have been having for decades now: Which is the better version of The Thing? The original classic from 1951, actually entitled The Thing From Another World and directed by Christian Nyby (and, it is conjectured, Howard Hawks), OR the 1982 remake directed by John Carpenter? People who know me, and of my love for all things pertaining to 1950s sci-fi, as well as my dislike of unnecessary remakes, will perhaps be surprised to learn that I have always been the champion of the latter film. The original, I have long maintained, is a slow-moving, overly talky affair that is only sporadically punctuated by a few bursts of excitement. Its overlapping dialogue, although realistic, is often incomprehensible, and its central monster something of a letdown, as played by James Arness with clawed hands. But perhaps my central attack on the film is the fact that it is hardly in keeping... Read More

A Sick Gray Laugh: A disturbing, metafictional, transgressive tour de force

A Sick Gray Laugh by Nicole Cushing

A Sick Gray Laugh, Nicole Cushing’s 2019 horror novel, is disturbing, at times disgusting. It’s surreal, it’s metafictional and it’s often hilarious. And, really, that’s about all I have to say about it. If you like any of those things, or all of them, you should read it.

Oh, what? I should tell you about the plot? Okay. Noelle Cashman, our first-person narrator, is an award-winning horror novelist. Recently, though, she has started medication for her struggles with anxiety and depression and now, faced with a book to write, discovers she doesn’t want to write another novel. While parts of her life are getting much better — she joined a softball team, lost some weight, is eating more healthily — Noelle is distressed and intrigued by the steady encroachment of th... Read More