May 31, 2013

From Russia with Sexual Entrapment: an interview with Jason Matthews, author of "Red Sparrow"

Jason Matthews' novel, Red Sparrow, is set for release through Simon & Schuster very soon. To help promote the promising new spy thriller, a blog tour kicks off today, starting right here on Wag The Fox. To keep up with Jason along with the tour, you can find all the information you need by clicking here (you'll find a metric ton of information on the book and the author, including some cool video clips, one you can find at the bottom of this blog post). For now though, read through a brief interview I had with Jason about his new book and his thoughts on espionage as a whole. Enjoy.

Gef: It seems Russia can't help but be fertile ground for spy thrillers. Was there something particular that drew you to Russia for a novel? Since I'm someone with what amounts to a pedestrian understanding of Russia, I wonder if it's the mystique and/or bizarre nature of Vladimir Putin, or the outed spies from a couple years back, or something else.

Jason: All of the above.  Russia was always the main adversary, and they’re still competitors on the world stage.  Their intelligence services are among the best.  They ran (are running?) illegals inside the U.S. (and Canada?)  Russia still also supports rogue states like Iran and Syria.  The most interesting aspect of course is President Putin who is essentially re-creating the old Soviet Union.  This time, instead of the Soviet politburo and worldwide Communism, it’s corrupt oligarchs, the politics of gas and oil, repression of critics.  It’s a fascinating, ongoing drama.  

Gef: While technology has certainly advanced over the decades, would that be the biggest change with regards to intelligence gathering and espionage? Is there anything particular that might be regarded as a generational shift in how intelligence gathering is done?

Jason: Some of the obvious, big changes in intelligence work are instant global communications, the internet, cyber threats, and smaller stuff like face recognition software and identity tracing.  Intelligence targets have also evolved from the Cold War:  Now it’s global terrorism, financial intelligence, radical Islam, proliferation, and regional conflicts.  They pose collection challenges, and require a different kind of intelligence officer with modern skills, good language, and deep knowledge of the issues. 

Gef: It's always the case that people in a particular field will quickly spot the flaws in film depicting their line of work, whether soldiers, doctors, lawyers, or even some guy that runs a sleazy motel. Since you have three decades and change as an intelligence officer, any films that stick out in your mind for their misrepresentations--or even something they got spot on?

Jason: Hollywood usually focuses on the flashy, entertaining aspects of the spy game.  Real life espionage is not that exciting.  Movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Salt are pretty ridiculous, but others like Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) and The Kremlin Letter (1970) are very authentic.  The movie Argo was pretty realistic too.

Gef: Dominika Egorova, the protagonist, of Red Sparrow is a "trained seductress." That's a helluva way to make a living. I hear a phrase like that and my mind drifts to a James Bond flick. How prevalent would you say is the art--or science--of seduction?

Jason: During the Cold War the KGB used sexual entrapment as a standard technique, provided they could manipulate the target into a honey trap.  Western intelligence services usually avoided coercion in a recruitment because it is generally thought that a blackmailed source will be resentful and prone to fabrication and/or revenge. 

Gef: I imagine the research process must have been old hat for you by the time you sat down to write Red Sparrow. Assuming I'm right, was there a part of the writing process you found daunting as you wrote this novel? What was the biggest lesson learned walking away from it?

Jason: I found that I had to be pretty disciplined, writing every day, getting into a habit.  Then I encountered the usual challenges of character development, pace, dialogue, and suspense.  I’ve always appreciated good writing and engaging novels, but it’s an elusive goal.

May 30, 2013

Carnage and Cotton Candy: a review of Bill Crider's "Carnival of Death"

Carnival of Death (The Dead Man #9)
by Bill Crider
Adventures in Television Inc. (2012)
Available via 

Carnivals have been fodder for horror ever since Ray Bradbury wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes. But as menacing as the characters of Bradbury's tale were, Bill Crider decided his Carnival of Death needed something far more bloody.

The ninth installment in The Dead Man series has Matt Cahill working security for Cap'n Bob's Stardust Carnival, a rinky-dink midway that'd make most state fairs looks like Disneyland. Still, he's felt drawn there for some reason, and he's been waiting for signs of Mr. Dark's influence on anyone entering the fairgrounds. The one who starts seeing the signs first, however, isn't Matt, but the carnival's resident palm reader, Madame Zora.

Zora can't really tell you your future. It's just a schtick she learned. Until Matt showed up, that is. Then things got weird for her, as her premonitions started coming true, and the things she was telling patrons weren't concocted from her imagination, but true visions that increasingly scared the heck out of her. Things come to a head as one night at the carnival sees employees and patrons alike turning vicious and violent against one another, with Matt and Zora caught in the middle.

I really liked the setup for this installment, and Madame Zora was a nice twist in the supporting character department, with her having a more direct relationship with the plot and the outcome. The outcome though, particularly the big climax that sees a couple of the carnival goers infected by Mr. Dark going on a rampage felt a bit out of step with what I'd call the Dead Man canon. I don’t want to spoil things with specifics, but if you read this book then you'll probably know what I mean.

All things considered, Carnival of Death keeps the pace for the series moving strong, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Matt Cahill winds up next.

May 29, 2013

Wish List Wednesday #138: Caitlin R. Kiernan's "The Drowning Girl"

WLW is a recurring blog segment in which I highlight a book I have on my wish list. Sometimes it's a new release, sometimes a beloved classic, and sometimes it's a hidden gem.

At the start of the year I got my first chance to read a book by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Granted, it was a comic book, but still. It was enough to convince me I needed to read more, and one of the books that's been recommended again and again is her latest, The Drowning Girl.

Published by Roc last year, the novel is narrated by a gal nicknamed Imp (Indian Morgan Phelps), who may be one of the most unreliable PoV characters ever, as her otherwise mundane world is populated by an array is mythical beings. Her grandmother committed suicide. Her mother committed suicide. And with Imp possibly a schizophrenic, there's the chance she may be on her way to a similar end.

It sounds pretty wild, and nearly unanimously positive reviews lead me to suspect I won't be disappointed should I get my hands on it. So, I've added it to the wish list and will be keeping an eye out for it down the road.

Have you read Kiernan's work before? If so, any recommendations?

May 27, 2013

A Reaper in Time: a review of Lauren Beukes' "The Shining Girls"

cover may vary
The Shining Girls
by Lauren Beukes
384 pages
ISBN13: 978031621685

The Time-Traveler's Wife meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hmm.

I try to avoid this-meets-that descriptions, but there are times when they work. The one above, which appears on the plot description on Goodreads, is serviceable, even though it doesn't come close to doing this novel justice.

The Shining Girls revolves around two opposing forces: a serial killer who gains the ability to travel through time in order to track his victims; and the one woman to be brutally attacked by him and live to tell the tale. Harper is a deranged vagrant from the 1930s who discovers a derelict house that seems to call to him. A special room leads to any time beyond the day he first discovers the house, decorated with the names of each girl he is destined to kill and seemingly random mementos strewn about the room. Kirby is one of his would-be victims from the 1980s, who barely survives the attempt on her life and spends years obsessing over the event, determined to seek him out and learn his uncanny ability to evade capture, studying journalism and taking an internship with a Chicago newspaper in order to find her attacker. Piece by piece, as a grizzled crime reporter turns sports journalist tries to keep her from falling too deep into the apparent hole she's digging for herself, Kirby finds clues that lead to an impossible answer.

How Harper comes to discover the house that ultimately allows him, even compels him to kill (at least in his own mind), is vague at first. It's his actual journey through the years, hunting his way through the various eras of Chicago in a seemingly random manner, that is so captivating. He is not a genius by any stretch of the imagination. Harper is simply a broken and wholly disturbed man endowed with a remarkable ability to evade capture. He finds his victims years, sometimes even decades, earlier in their lives than when he finally tortures and murders them. In Kirby's case, when she's a young girl. He gives her a cheap plastic pony as a give and tells her he'll see her again. And it's that inevitable moment when he does that adds such dread, as Kirby's storyline begins in the next chapter as an adult, years after surviving his assault. But for readers, that gruesome moment doesn't come until much later in the book, as their lives wind their way towards a third and final encounter.

Time travel is tricky business, what with those pesky paradoxes and all, but Lauren Beukes' temporal house of cards winds up quite sturdy. When you hit the final page, then look back at the story as a whole, you're going to marvel a little bit at how she constructed the whole story while maintaining its organic pacing and riveting conclusion.

If serial killers are a cliche, and let's face the fact that they kind of are at this point, Lauren Beukes has remedied that with what might be the most original twist in quite some time. If any of you mystery and thriller readers out there are at a loss on what novel to read this summer, The Shining Girls ought to be near the top of your lists.

May 24, 2013

Writing Like Crazy: "Requiem for a Rodent" Available Now

cover art by Dave Windett 
My latest short story, "Requiem for a Rodent", was published this month in Kzine #6 (Kimota Publishing). This is a Kindle-exclusive publication, released three times a year and features short stories in several genres.

My short story happens to fall somewhere in the thriller category with a touch of offbeat horror. When you're dealing with a dead hamster, it's bound to be offbeat, am I right?

The full table of contents looks like this:

  • "Requiem for a Rodent" by Gef Fox
  • "A Bedtime Chocolate" by Nicole Tanquary
  • "Seeding Day" by Michael Siciliano
  • "What It's Ajar" by G.A. Rozen
  • "The Judgment of the Peacemaker" by Diana Doherty
  • "Real Predictions" by Regina Clarke
  • "Self-Aware and Living in Bradford" by J.Y. Saville

If you feel so inclined, you can get yourself a copy from the Kindle Store by simply clicking here. And if you happen to enjoy what you read, by all means, leave a review to help get the word out.

May 23, 2013

The Top 5 Gangster Movies: a guest post by Carl Alves, author of "Blood Street"

The Top Five Gangster Movies
by Carl Alves

5.  Gran Torino – Although the main characters in this movie aren’t gangsters, I felt this movie belongs on the list because there is a heavy gangster element that is critical to the movie.  Gran Torino is the kind of movie that tugs at your heartstrings, not exactly what I look for in gangster movies, but in this case it works so well.  In the twilight of his career, Clint Eastwood gives the performance of his lifetime as a crotchety old man who befriends and mentors an Asian teen, who is in danger of falling into a life of crime.  The dynamic between these two characters is memorable, and the movie is deep and moving.

4.  Goodfellas – Much like the Godfather movies, Goodfellas has memorable lines given by great characters that will live on in popular culture for years.  Based on the real life of mafia informant Henry Hill, this movie is a slicker and cooler version of The Godfather.  In a world of forgettable movies, this one resonates long after you watch it.  It’s been a good while since I last saw Goodfellas, but I can remember almost everything about it.  As good as Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta are in this movie, the one who really steals the show is Joe Pesci, who plays mobster Tommy Devito.

3.  The Godfather I – The original movie is the godfather of all gangster movies so to speak.  It has everything you can possibly ask for in a mob movie.  There is drama, memorable lines, and career defining acting performances.   Marlon Brando is the quintessential mob boss in his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone.  James Caan brings life to Sonny Corleone.  Mostly, this movie captures the heart and soul of the mafia at the peak of their power.  It is also one of the most realistic portrayals of how the mafia operated.  It is easy to immerse yourself in the world created in this movie.  The best way I can describe this movie is that it’s epic.

2.  The Godfather II – It’s the rare sequel that can exceed the original, and deciding between which of the original Godfather movies is no easy task, but there were two reasons why I liked this one better.  The first is the backstory of Vito Corleone, which was thoroughly captivating.  The second is the acting of Robert De Niro.  De Niro is the king of all gangster actors, and this was his best performance in a long and decorated career.  

1.  THE USUAL SUSPECTS – This movie is sheer brilliance.  Everything about The Usual Suspects is subterfuge.  After having watched the movie a couple of times, I still don’t have a good handle on what really happened.  The writing was phenomenal.  The acting of Kevin Spacey was even better.  The movie carries the viewer through so many twists and turns that it can make your head spin.  The reveal at the end of the movie is the greatest in cinematic history with the possible exception of “I am your father, Luke.”

A little bit about Carl Alves: After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from Boston University and later an MBA degree from Lehigh University, Carl has worked in the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries.  His debut novel Two For Eternity was released in 2011 by Weaving Dreams Publishing.  His short fiction has appeared in various publications such as Sinister City, Alien Skin and Behind Locked Doors anthology.  He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and has attended the Penn Writers Conference.  You can visit his website at

Carl's new novel, Blood Street,is available now. For more information on the book, click here.

Or if you'd care to just go ahead and buy it direct from Amazon, you can CLICK HERE

May 21, 2013

Chasing Tale [5/21/13]: E-readers for Everyone? I'm not Convinced, Yet.

Chasing Tale is a regular look at the books that I recently added to my to-be-read pile. Some are advance review copies, some I bought from one store or another, and others are freebies from promotional offers that caught my eye.

I finally saw a TV ad for a free e-reader, this year. Well, almost. One of the major telcos added the enticement for a free Kindle to new customers who signed on for a multi-year contract with a particular smart phone. Now, if you have the coin for that, the free e-reader is probably as much of an enticement as those old football phones were for subscribing to Sports Illustrated, back in the day. By that, I mean not very. Still, the prices of e-readers are getting better and better--but are they in the price range of the poor?

Look, there are more people in the western world living at or below the poverty line than we might care to admit. Books have always had a bit of a class system to them. I mean, if you were poor, you weren't likely to be rushing out to pay in the neighborhood of thirty bucks for a brand new hardcover. You either waited for the paperback, or hit up your local library or used-book shop. The availability of books to communities at large is possibly the most noble and pivotal ingredient for a civilized society. Eh, hyperbole, perhaps, but there are days when it feels threatened. It's not like buying an electronic device (let alone multiple for a household) just to to be able to read is an added expense that cash-strapped families are all that keen on facing in the future.

I can appreciate the doomsday scenarios bandied about by critics of e-books and digital publishing. Physical books have attained an almost ubiquitous presence in the western world. Hell, we use them to prop up wobbly tables, that's how prevalent they are. Now, with e-books becoming the new normal, the diversity and availability of physical books appears to be contracting. It's the idea that books could become less accessible to those who can't afford gadgets and gizmos that troubles me.

I hear some folks talk about publishers as the gated communities that keep would-be authors out. But, what if e-books become a gated community that keep would-be readers out?

This is all just muddled humming and hawing, but I'd like to know what you think. Oh, and maybe let me know what interesting books you've collected recently. Here's what I've got:

Lee edited by Cameron Ashley and Andrew Nette - If you don't know the name Lee Marvin, then you should remedy that. A group of authors banded together to write noir-ish tales, all with Lee Marvin as the central character. Yeah, I didn't waste any time buying this one.

Grifter's Game by Lawrence Block - If I'm going to read a Lawrence Block novel, why not start with the first one ever published under his own name. I took a peak at his afterword and I'm definitely looking forward to reading this, now.

I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle - There was a movie adaptation of this book a couple years ago. I remember this only because the trailer made it look hackneyed and wretched. Still, the book got rave reviews, and Doyle is a recovering Simpsons writer, so when I spotted it at my local library's fundraiser book sale, I got it.

The Mountain King by RickHautala - Is that a sasquatch on the cover? It'd be cool if it was. In any case, Cemetery Dance had this ebook on sale for a buck not too long ago, and I figured I could add one more of Hautala's novels to my digital shelf.

Kill Whitey by Brian Keene - The title for this one drudges up memories up Homie the Clown for some reason. Neither here nor there. Cemetery Dance published this book too, with the introductory price of a dollar, and with Keene's name on the cover, I couldn't buy it fast enough.

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale - It had been several months since I bought a book from The Book Depository, and they ended up sending me a 10% coupon. This was the first book that popped into my brain, when trying to decided what to buy. I'm already a fan of the man's work, and this is supposed to be his best yet. Sold.

More Forensics and Fiction by D.P. Lyle - I only have a handful of books on my shelf that are resources for story research, and research is an aspect of writing I wish was more convenient. Pipe dream, right? Anyway, with a need for some info on forensics, I was pointed towards Douglas Lyle and his books, and found this one.

Nightsiders by Gary McMahon - Another DarkFuse novella, this one from Gary McMahon, and it looks like it has a haunted house. I already like it.

Meat Camp by Scott Nicholson and JT Warrenc - Finally, a low-key literary exploration on industrial meat production--sorry, what's that? It's not? It's a blood-and-guts horror story about teens in the woods? Oh ... Well sh*t, that works, too.

Walk the Sky by Robert Swartwood and David B. Silva - This short western novel came out just a short time after Silva's tragic passing. It sounds gritty and gruesome as heck, and with a western backdrop, I'm sure I'll find plenty to like about this one.

Shakedown by Charlie Stella - Heath Lowrance's blog, Psycho Noir, has a 10-part retrospective on noir fiction with a ton of authors and recommended reading. While typing a bunch of the names into Amazon, I found this book in the Kindle Store for a buck. Nice.

Bank Shot by Donald E. Westlake - The Dortmunder caper novels were recommended to me a while back, and shortly thereafter I saw the second book in the series on Amazon for a couple bucks.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters - Remember those mashups from a few years ago that were all the rage? Well, I listened to Winters' contribution to the fad, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, but didn't like it all that much. Still, this apocalyptic novel earned itself an nomination for the Edgar award, with a premise I find intriguing, so I decided to add it to my digital shelf.

May 20, 2013

An Encyclopedia of WTF: a review of Roy Bainton's "Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena"

The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena
by Roy Bainton
Robinson (UK) / Running Press (US) (2013)
596 pages
ISBN (US) 9781780337951

If anything, I'm a skeptic. But, that doesn't preclude me from enjoying stories of some of the most absolutely bonkers stuff the world has ever seen--or at least claimed to have seen. Heck, my three biggest loves in genre are monsters, ghosts, and robots, and I pretty much get a heaping helping of all three in this book (replacing robots with UFOs, anyway).

This Mammoth Book tackles a myriad of subjects all relating to paranormal events, whether they be UFO sightings, hauntings, and even the Loss Ness Monster. While I have heard of quite a few of the stories touched upon in Bainton's exhaustive book, there was an equal number of tales that I have never heard about. For that, the book offers itself up as a near indispensable launch pad for casual fans of the unexplained. And all with Bainton's keen eye as a skeptic, himself.

After an introduction that catalogs humanity's apparent predisposition to believe in some truly outlandish things, the book dives into one of its meatiest topics: UFOs. In almost chronological segments, Bainton relays the history of that craze from almost the very inception of flying objects, which dates back much farther than I originally thought. From there, he moves on to other topics, including but not limited to: the afterlife, space observation and exploration, and cryptzoology. Various cases and mysteries are summarized, with plenty of sources cited in case curiosity gets the better of you, and you feel compelled to dig deeper on a specific subject.

Something I found astonishing was the statistics cited in the early chapters of the book on just how many Americans truly believe in the paranormal. A 2005 Gallop poll asked people whether they believed in any of ten paranormal elements. Those were: 1) extra sensory perception; 2) ghosts; 3) haunted houses; 4) telepathy; 5) clairvoyance; 6) astrology; 7) communication with the dead; 8) reincarnation; 9) channeling spirits; and even 10) witches. Nearly three-quarters of those polled believed in at least one of those ten things. That's absolutely astounding to me, as I would have guessed half--at best--before reading this book. Then again, America is a country where one in five were found to believe Barrack Obama is a secret Muslim, so maybe I was naive.

While few sections go beyond a couple pages in their accounts, Bainton does offer a buffet of trivia that should whet the appetite of readers. Bite-sized retellings of now infamous urban legends in the realm of the supernatural abound in this book, and I had a great time pouring over it from cover to cover. It may not be the definitive work on any of the topics covered, but what Bainton gives readers is more than enough ammunition should you choose to type in a few terms in Google to see what more you can come up with one your own.

With a smattering of dry wit, the book neatly avoids textbookery, and seems like the kind of book that would be great as ammunition on a living room's coffee table to spark a conversation, should the subject of seances or the Shroud of Turin come up.

May 17, 2013

Roswell That Ends Well: a review of Brandon Zuern's "The Last Invasion"

The Last Invasion (The Second Sam Truman Mystery)
by Brandon Zuern
Abattoir Press (2012)
68 pages

I might have known that the folks behind the Sam Truman series would flip the script with the second installment, switching from a decidedly fantasy-oriented story in Catch My Killer to the pulpy sci-fi pastiche of The Last Invasion. Who needs ghosts and zombies when you can have little green men.

Sam Truman, the hard knocks private eye, is still barely making ends meet with a father and mother step into his office imploring him to find their daughter. The teenage beauty had recently taken up with a greasy-haired biker and the leather-clad reprobate was the last one to see her. Truman takes the case and soon finds himself on the hunt for more than a missing daughter, as a peculiar band of soda-guzzlers may be behind the shenanigans.

The Last Invasion is a little punchier and a little pulpier than Catch My Killer, and you may not consider that a compliment, but I do when it comes to the Sam Truman character. He's a tongue-in-cheek send up of the hard-boiled heroes of yesteryear, set in a zany universe that seems set to reveal itself in a weirdly wonderful way with each unfolding adventure.

It's a story that could have careened into incredulity, but managed to keep things moving straight enough and fast enough to keep me engaged the whole way through. It lends itself as an introduction to Sam Truman as much as the first novella did, so feel free to test the waters with either book if you feel so inclined.

I already have the third and fourth installments in the series on my Kindle, and I look forward to checking them out in due time.

May 15, 2013

Wish List Wednesday #137: Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell"

WLW is a recurring blog segment in which I highlight a book I have on my wish list. Sometimes it's a new release, sometimes a beloved classic, and sometimes it's a hidden gem.

I may be a rabid reader, but there is an ungodly number of books that I should read that I have not yet gotten around to, and this is one of them. For as long as I've been lurking book blogs, Susanna Clarke and her historical fantasy novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, has been recommended as a must read.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, two famed magicians from England join forces to fight against France, only to have their friendship strained when one explores the darker side of wielding magic in the pursuit of victory.

Ah, this does sound like the kind of book I'd go for. Though, there are some folks who have had unkind reactions to the writing, specifically a shared aversion to footnotes, which seem to litter the novel. I'm no fan of the footnote myself, but I tend to ignore them most of the time, so I can't imagine they'd be that much of a hindrance, especially in a novel. As long as the story is compelling, Susanna Clarke can pepper every page with footnotes for all I care.

What about you? Have you read this book and if so, were the footnotes or other idiosyncrasies too much of a distraction for you?

May 13, 2013

This Old House This Ain't: a review of Greg F. Gifune's "House of Rain"

House of Rain

by Greg F. Gifune

DarkFuse (2013)

194 pages

ISBN13: 9781937771980 

It isn't all that often I find a book with an elderly person as the protagonist. So, right up front, I was interested in reading Greg Gifune's new novella, House of Rain.

Gordon Cole finds himself an old man isolated in a city he longer understands, long removed from his time in the Vietnam War, and grieving the recent death of his wife. The streets seem to grow more violent every day, as he witnesses the brutal beating of a homeless man by a group of teen boys, from the window of his tiny apartment. With the violence, comes the rain, and with the rain comes a shadow, which stalks Gordon as he wanders the rain-slicked streets.

The atmosphere is palpable, even in the quiet moments, with Gordon's hold on reality being questioned as he feels a specter from his past lurking in the shadows. It all weighs on his nerves and his conscience, with one particularly engrossing scene involving him attending a grief counseling group session. The tension in that one inches with each paragraph until Gordon is unsure which way is up.

Gifune paints with a palette of bleak colors to create Gordon's world. The horror comes in shifting silhouettes, like billowing smoke that gets into your nostrils while you read. For such a short novel, with a sparse cast of characters, the story feels grand in some regard. There were moments, specifically Gordon's consternation over the young thugs in his neighborhood, that reminded me of the really good Michael Caine film, Harry Brown, which dealt with similar subject matter in a more hard-bitten and angry approach. I wondered if House of Rain ran the risk of feeling too familiar, having seen that movie, but the early concerns were set at ease in due course.

Regret, remorse, loneliness, and revenge are just of few of the facets explored in this little novel. Each handled with the care of a very skilled storyteller.

I have four more of Greg Gifune's books on my to-be-read pile. Having read this one, I'm really looking forward to the rest of them.


May 9, 2013

Three of a Killing Kind: a review of Norman Prentiss' "Four Legs in the Morning"

Four Legs in the Morning
by Norman Prentiss
ISBN-13: 9781587673498

Four Legs in the Morning is a collection of three short stories, and I knew this ahead of time, yet there was some silly piece of my brain that was looking for the fourth story on account of the title. The title says Four, so why aren't there four? Despite the completely irrational sense that I'd been denied a story, the three I did read were a treat.

While each story is different, they each revolve around a university professor named Dr. Bennett Sibley. Sibley is a mild-mannered and seemingly well-liked presence around Graysonville University, but each story peels back a layer on people's views on the professor and what they see isn't quite so cozy.

"Four Legs in the Morning" is the first story with Leonard, a jealous junior professor at the university fuming over Sibley's perceived obstruction and antiquity, all while holing himself up in in Sibley's cabin the woods at the old professor invite. He's hoping for peace, quiet, and maybe a little inspiration. as he attempts to write his second book.

The next story called "Flannelboard" involves a student turned plagiarist who winds up volunteering for Sibley's at a library where the professor uses a flannelboard and hand cut figures of flannel to tell stories to children. The most understated of the three stories, but I thought the eery quality was just the right chord, making the story feel weird without really being overt in any way about it.

And finally, "The Mask of Tragedies" and a university administrator named Michael who is ill at ease over Sibley's influence within the university and an unsettling fascination with masks. As Michael seeks a way to slash Sibley's departmental budget, and maybe be rid of Sibley in the process, Sibley visits the Michael's wife and offers a gift. A little wooden hand-carved infant, a thoughtful gift in the wife's eyes, but ominous to Michael given their attempts to start a family.

There's nothing overtly horrific in any of the tales, but there's an unsettling allusion to Sibley's true nature that can send a shiver up your spine while you read. There's a bit of a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock quality to the stories that I enjoyed, though I was hoping there might be a little more in the way of connecting narrative of the three stories. Still, Norman Prentiss has an intriguing touchstone with Sibley, exploring the effects he has--or inflicts--on others. I wouldn't mind reading more of these stories.

May 6, 2013

The King of the Short Story: a review of Stephen King's "Just After Sunset"

Just After Sunset
by Stephen King
Pocket Books (2008)
539 pages
ISBN 9781416586654

Say what you will about Stephen King, but love him or hate him, the man is a talented yarn-spinner. And while I'll readily admit some of his novels are a little long-winded, his short stories move like muscle cars: ferociously.

In the introduction, he mentions how he wondered if he still had the chops to write a short story some ten years ago, so he sat down and gave it a shot. The end result was this collection that came out in 2008, with stories that sprouted from that challenge, and a few others from the past that had yet to be collected in a book. Stories like "Stationary Bike" and "The Cat from Hell" may already be familiar to fans, but there's plenty of original work, too.

"Willa" kicks things off with a couple stranded with others at a train station on the outskirts of a small town waiting for the train to arrive, but it feels like it's never going to get there. While King may say it's far from his best work, it was really trippy and had that cool, weird vibe I go for in stories, so I'd argue that it's far from his worst work, too. The next story, "The Gingerbread Girl," is about a woman grieving the death of her child and her newfound passion--or obsession--with running, and how it leads her into a deathtrap and may be the only thing that saves her. Just some good ol' fashioned heart-pounding suspense here, and I ate it up with a spoon.

A couple stories fell flat with me, those being "Graduation Afternoon" and "Harvey's Dream," but overall the book presses all the right buttons with me. Re-reading stories I'd previously enjoyed in other publications like "Rest Stop," about a harrowing encounter at one of those roadside toilet dens, as well as marveling at stories I'd never read before like "Mute," which appeared first in Playboy and concerned a man making a terrible confession, these were reminders that one of my all-time favorite author's place atop the bestseller lists is well-earned.

Depending on the story I read, I'd have that Twilight Zone vibe that I am attracted to, and other times there would be a visceral uneasiness where the subject matter goes from weird to all-too-real. I suppose the greatest stories would be the ones that balance both of those. Nostalgia may have me favoring his earlier short story collections, but I think this book and its deft way of capturing the mundane horrors of life are going to stand the test of time.

May 3, 2013

Chasing Tale in May [5/3/13]: That New Book Smell

Chasing Tale is a recurring look at the books that I recently added to my to-be-read pile. Some are advance review copies, some I bought from one store or another, and others are freebies from promotional offers that caught my eye.

Over the last several years, I've developed an affinity for those old, pulpy paperbacks. I think my nostalgia is kickin' in big time as I'm getting older. The pulp love has a lot to do with the visual and tactile esthetic. The eye-catching cover art and sensational blurbs adorn nearly all the dime novels I see. The only thing I don't really care for with those old books is the smell. It's not the case with all of them, but quite a few have a really strong must to them.

Some bookworms, however, absolutely love that old book smell. Yuck. If I have to get a whiff of a book, let it be a new one. Books hot off the press have a bit of that new car smell, if any smell at all. Gimme that. Hey, maybe I'm the weird one. Aside from some leather-bound hardcover occasionally drudging up a distant memory, there isn't a whole lot I can think of where I'm happy to breathe in the antiquity of a book.

Castaways that sit in the back shelves of shops and libraries, or stuffed in cardboard boxes on a basement floor have a nostril-pinching effect on me. Ugh. No thanks. Feel free to get off on that odor if you like, but count me out. I think it might stem from my childhood, when the only books around the house or out to camp were old, old books. I was a kid that grew up on hand-me-downs. Hell, books that found their way to me were lucky to still have covers and intact spines.

What's your take on it? Which books pass the smell test with you? Are you one of those people huffing hardcovers in the recesses of bookshops? If so, what's the appeal?

Speaking of old paperbacks, there are even a couple listed below. Have a look.

Worm by Tim Curran - A new novella from DarkFuse that immediately reminded me of that old 80s monster movie, Tremors, which I loved when I first saw it. Heck, I still love it. Here's hoping the giant worms in this book are at least half as memorable.

Vaporware by Richard Dansky - Journalstone has a new novel out this month. I'm not much of a gamer these days, but I still have a deep-seeded appreciation for games, and a horror novel set in that world strikes me as intriguing.

The Georgia Davis P.I. Series by Libby Fischer Hellmann - Sometimes, all it takes is a recommendation. In this case, I saw a tweet from Dave Zeltserman pointing out this three-novel collection on the cheap. I'd already seen recs from authors whose work I enjoy, but Zeltserman tipped the scales.

The Robert E. Howard Omnibus - I have been keeping an eye out for a complete collection of Robert E. Howard's short fiction and this was the best I could do, with an omnibus featuring 99 of the late author's stories. There is another collection with a couple dozen more, but this e-book was a heckuva lot cheaper.

Night Terrors (Savage Species) by Jonathan Janz - Samhain is publishing a serial novel penned by Jonathan Janz, one of the real up-and-comers in the horror genre. Novels in bite-sized installments aren't something I've had a whole lot of experience with, so this should be interesting.

The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan - Me and monsters, eh? Well, Constable has published this new book (Scribner did too, in the US), highlighting all the great monsters of folklore. Kaplan looks at the origins behind each famous creature and offers scientific explanations. Sounds fantastic to me.

Threshold by Caitlin R. Kiernan - I saw this book at a used-book store, and since I have been meaning to add a Kiernan novel to my to-be-read pile, I figured this one was as good a place to start as any.

Whiskey Sour by J.A. Konrath - I read a Jacqueline Daniels mystery novel a few years ago, and I told myself I'd go back and start from the beginning if I read another one. Well, here's the first book in the series, so there I go.

On the Lips of All Children by Mark Matthews - This short novel is due out through Books of the Dead Press, and an ARC snaked its way into my to-be-read pile. Not sure what it's about, but a horror novel with "Children" in the title sounds extra creepy to me.

Thief and Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura - When the folks at Soho Press sent me an ARC of Nakamura's award-winning novel, Thief, they slipped his newest novel that's due release next month. Both books look incredibly promising.

After: The Echo by Scott Nicholson - Scott started a post-apocalyptic series late last year, After. Well, the sequel is out now. I haven't even had a chance to read the first one yet, and I think the third book is due out later in the year. Effing workhorse, that Scott.

No Hope for Gomez by Graham Parke - People who sign up as lab rats for drug testing are a quirky lot, I'm sure, so I'm curious to see Parke's spin on that setup with one human guinea pig's trials and tribulations.

Unicorn Western by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant - How has there not been a western featuring a unicorn before now? Surely there's one in the old pulp novels of yesteryear--or some tween girl's diary--but for now I'll have to see how this one turns out.

Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub - I mentioned this book in WLW#86, but it kind of slipped from memory. Then, it showed up in the mail, along with a back issue of Cemetery Dance, courtesy of the CD gang.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson - I hadn't heard about this book until I saw the movie trailer--ain't that always the way? Anyway, I haven't seen the movie yet and it kind of faded from memory, then I saw a copy of the book at my local bookshop.