Review: “Ruination,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Intriguing blend of trauma and mysticism
Cons: Slow sometimes
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s Ruination introduces us to a music journalist who’s looking into an old band called the Brothers Ruination. He finds some intriguing hints as to dark details from their past, but for a while it looks like there just isn’t a market for the story. Then the brothers get back together, drawing in their old band-mates as well, and Ronny and Wilbur decide they want the journalist to write a biography of them. Since the band suddenly becomes a hit again, he even finds a market for the book. The problem, however, is getting any real information out of the two men and their band-mates. Every story seems to have two (or three, or four) different sides to it, and no one wants to talk about what they really saw and heard. The band almost seems to be haunted, and the intrepid journalist finds himself getting drawn in deeper and deeper as he goes.

Fair warning: the brothers’ childhood is horrific and traumatic. There’s fairly explicit child molestation and abuse in here. (Just a detail here and there.) There are off-screen suicides and drug overdoses.

One of the big questions is whether the boys killed their “uncle,” who had custody over them after their parents died, when they were young. There’s also a rather big question of whether the uncle was even entirely human. There’s a fascinating theme of snakes going on, both aiding and harming the brothers, and not all questions are answered where this is concerned. There are hints about a cult, but it very much takes a background to the human questions and traumas. The paranormal is more of an aura, or a means to an end, or an atmosphere. Most of what happens occurs in human terms. Still, it’s fascinating that, for example, when Wilbur wants to get a last-minute gig playing a certain location, the person scheduled to go on that night mysteriously gets bitten by a snake.

One of the aspects I liked the best was the way in which the brothers play off of each other (in a musical sense, and in life). They’re two halves of a whole. They don’t have their musical magic when they aren’t playing together. They nearly speak in their own language when they’re together–half the conversations seem to be left out, leaving others struggling to figure out what’s going on. There’s a story early on about a police officer who tangles with them… what happens to him is never explained. It’s true to the idea of a biographer trying desperately to pull the pieces together but never getting an entirely whole picture, but it does leave one with questions.

Parts of this book were rather slow and I had trouble staying focused during those. Overall, however, this was an interesting and moving book. Difficult to read in places, but original and fascinating.

The brothers had to be recorded together. Their magic existed only in the space directly between them.

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Review: “The Twisted Ones,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: It took me an hour to come down off of the adrenaline high!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones blends rural folktale with horror and a found-manuscript aspect. It’s written by Melissa, called “Mouse” by friends and family, a thirty-something whose grandmother died recently. Don’t feel sorry for her–grandma was a mean old thing. Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out grandma’s house, so she and her coonhound Bongo head out into the middle of nowhere to do just that. Unfortunately, it turns out grandma was a hoarder, so Mouse will be at it longer than expected. Then one day she and Bongo take a walk and she ends up on a mysterious hill–one that shouldn’t exist. It’s covered with strangely carved stones. She also finds a diary kept by her long-dead step-grandfather, Cotgrave, alluding to mysterious people in the woods and a strange manuscript his wife has hidden or destroyed.

One unusual thing this book does is reassure us right from the start that Mouse and Bongo will come out of things alive. This is really odd for a horror story, but it in no way reduces the adrenaline rush of things, and it’s nice to know in advance that the dog won’t die.

I suspect if I had owned a border collie, this story would have a very different ending, and I probably would not have been around to type it up. But I had Bongo, and he saved our lives because he is simple and made of nose.

The “found manuscript” angle is handled very well. The book itself is a manuscript typed up by Mouse. She early on finds Cotgrave’s diary, which references a manuscript that he has typed up. That manuscript is an attempt to reconstruct a missing diary called the Green Book, that tells of a girl’s experiences with the odd white people. Each layer adds doubt and uncertainty, and I like that Cotgrave has to fill in a lot of blanks where he doesn’t exactly remember what the Green Book said.

Given that we know from the start that Mouse and Bongo survive, I was concerned as to whether or not the story would be able to stand up on matters of tension. I shouldn’t have worried! It took me about an hour after finishing the book to come down off of the adrenaline high. I’ve been reading horror for decades, so that doesn’t happen very often! Things are tense, exciting, concerning, creepy, and utterly bizarre. The pacing is wonderful too–things get weirder and weirder as the book goes on.

I absolutely recommend that you pick this up. If you’re already a fan of Kingfisher and wondering how this holds up, it’s every bit as good as her other books, just heavier on the horror!

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Short Take: “Ghost Revolution,” Michael Anderle, Michael Todd

Pros: Still an intriguing world and characters
Cons: Anti-climactic and lacks resolution
Rating: 3 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Ghost Revolution (Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Book 12) is the final volume (book twelve) in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. Billie learns that Marcus is in danger, so she heads off to rescue him. When her old employer realizes she’s still quite alive, they send fifteen agents out to the Zoo in order to kill her.

It’s particularly unfortunate, given that this is the final book in the “Soldiers of Fame and Fortune” series, that it’s so anti-climactic. Sure, Billie has to deal with fifteen agents sent to kill her, but they’re all so comically inept that she mows through them without any tension whatsoever. It’s hard to see how the agency ever commanded her loyalty when all of its people are so stupid and ridiculous. I would have much preferred for the fights to be longer and harder. There are several incidents in here that really should have been boss fights, but instead they were quick-and-done.

The series started off with Holly as its protagonist, and her new work and company should have been in the center of the close of that series. Instead, the authors seem to be so enamored of Billie that they’ve let her take over the stage almost entirely. Thus things with Holly feel unresolved. Don’t get me wrong: I love Billie as a character and think she’s great. I just think the authors fell in love with her to such an extent that it harmed the other parts of the series.

The authors have other series set in the world of the Zoo, but I’m not sure whether I’ll read any further. It’s an enjoyable series, but I was disappointed in the ending.

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Review: “Sefira & Other Betrayals,” John Langan

Pros: Entertaining
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

John Langan’s anthology Sefira and Other Betrayals includes eight stories–a mix of previously published works and original stories–on the theme of betrayal, in the genre of horror. This is literary horror, and while at times it can be a bit thoughtful and slow, there’s always something interesting going on.

Sefira is a tale of a woman hunting down the succubus with whom her husband betrayed her. Lisa is undergoing a mysterious transformation as she follows the demon, her eyes turning black, her teeth turning to glass. Despite her anger toward her husband, she’s trying to sever the curse that will destroy him if Sefira has the opportunity to eat his organs. She’s a fabulous protagonist, bitter and strong, determined and independent. I absolutely love this tale. The author has a perfect sense for just what dribs and drabs of information he can slip in–and how–to keep the reader constantly experiencing revelations without getting confused.

In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos explores a character who was forced out of the military due to her part in the torture and death of an Afghan civilian. She’s employed by an old colleague who’s now part of a private security firm, to help capture Mr. White, a mysterious figure who aided and informed the torture. Of course, Mr. White is not at all what he seems. I appreciate that this story in no way implies that this being is ultimately responsible for the torture; in fact, it was the characters’ carrying out of that torture that was responsible for his interest. The blame lies squarely on the humans involved. The ending is quite intriguing.

In The Third Always Beside You, a brother and sister suspect their father is having an affair. They manage to scare up the truth, but the consequences are… unsettling. This is kind of a ghost story, and it’s subtle and engaging. This story is largely “normal,” with little paranormal to it until the very end. The relationships between characters is very central to all of these stories.

The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons takes place in the 1880s. A writer named Coleman is going to see a man named Mr. Dunn, a former arms dealer who is now heavily into spirituality. Along the journey Coleman meets Cal Earnshaw and his wife Isabelle. Earnshaw is dying, and Dunn has promised to prepare him for his journey to the next life. But when the group arrives at Mr. Dunn’s home, Coleman finds mysterious, inked paper balloons that float about and seem positively repulsive when he tries to touch them. He and Isabelle become progressively more worried about what Mr. Dunn is doing with Cal. This is a nifty story with a nice arc to it.

Bloom is a fascinating bit of cosmic horror. Rick and Connie find a cooler by the side of the road. It sort of looks like the kind of cooler that organs are transported in, but inside of it is an organ like no other. Both of the spouses start having strange dreams, and this all seems connected to research Rick’s father had been doing when he developed Alzheimer’s and seemingly went off the deep end with his theories. This is a delightful piece of cosmic horror and while this story is complete in itself, I’d have loved to see more about what happened next.

In Renfrew’s Course, Neil and Jim are taking a walk through the countryside and looking at the ruins of a castle once occupied by a reputed wizard. Strange things start to happen to both of them–glimpses of themselves both younger and older–as they traverse the mysterious path. At first the delineation of whose point of view we’re seeing from seemed confusing, but this eventually worked itself out. This is a story of love and loss, and revisits the topic of Alzheimer’s again. This is a painful and amazing story.

Bor Urus introduces us to a man who believes that when terrible storms surge, the veils between the worlds grow thin. The thing is, he’s right. He has a faint brush with the supernatural and it changes him. When he has a full-blown encounter, things get real. Once again this is really about relationships, but there’s a delightful shiver of danger throughout.

At Home in the House of the Devil is a tale of a man who accidentally gets his girlfriend hooked on heroin, then is dismayed to see her slide downhill. When things are at their worst, he receives a visit from a man in a white suit and red shoes. Religious guilt weighs heavy on him, and the devil wants his due. The devil is an intriguing figure here, and his take on humanity is horrifying.

These are tales of the intersection of relationships with the horrors of the paranormal. Sometimes it’s a lot of the supernatural (Sefira), and sometimes it’s just a little (The Third Always Beside You). Either way, it’s delightful!

Content note for explicit sex.

When I had my own meeting with the devil, I no longer believed in him.

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Short Take: “Ghost Redemption,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: Engrossing installment
Cons: Little progression of the original arc-plot
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Ghost Redemption: Soldiers of Fame and Fortune, Book 11 is book eleven in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. It’s time for J.B. to go into the Zoo in order to fake his own death. He gets to experience a bit of a last hurrah before coming back as his own nephew to continue to run FUBAR. Billie comes in as his cousin Jean, before leaving again to take a few jobs to fund the new company.

It’s nice to get to see J.B. out in the Zoo for once. Thankfully the characters scrapped the ridiculous idea to actually kill and revive him when faking his death is easier and less prone to problems. However, I don’t understand why the others didn’t meet him right inside the Zoo to make his trip safer, rather than expecting him to get to a farther rendezvous all on his lonesome.

It’s interesting to see how all the regulars from FUBAR handle the whole thing with J.B. leaving to die and his “nephew” arriving to take over. Thankfully they’re all heavy drinkers, so keeping them drunk seems to make the transition easier! This is largely an installment about J.B. and the effect he’s had on those around him. It’s charming.

Given that this is the next-to-the-last book in its series and there’s only a novella left, it feels like this didn’t cover enough ground. I want to know more about Holly’s work and what will come of it, whereas this is focused on Billie and J.B.

Well the series is almost over! It’ll be interesting to see what the final volume brings us!

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Review: “The Nobody People,” Bob Proehl

Pros: Great look at the coming-out of people with “superpowers”
Cons: GAH! It ends in the middle of things!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Bob Proehl’s The Nobody People: A Novel introduces us to “Resonators,” people with special abilities. Some are psychics. Some can fly or shoot energy beams out of their eyes. Owen Curry, who is particularly dangerous, can create a null that negates matter, capable of destroying anything–and he’s been recruited by a mysterious bad guy who’s using him as a weapon. Reporter Avi Hirsch is recruited to help engineer the coming out of the Resonators, as guided by Kevin Bishop, a psychic who runs a school for 500 very special teens. Avi’s wife Kay, an immigration lawyer, is recruited to help with the inevitable legal cases. But really, Bishop’s after their seven-year-old daughter Emmeline, who mysteriously knows things before they happen. Bishop and his colleagues do everything they can to ease the Resonators’ coming out, but their opposition is also collecting super-powered allies–and the world isn’t ready for the Resonators.

This feels to me a little like what we might have seen if the TV show “Heroes” had taken place primarily after coming out to the world (plus some introspection). The different abilities and approaches to things feel a bit similar. The superheroes here don’t wear capes or funny costumes–they just do what they do. And since a lot of them are teens, they use their abilities for fun as much as for necessity.

Avi sees himself as the heroic protagonist championing the Resonators, but the truth is they neither want nor need that much of his help. The author very neatly avoids the “white savior” stereotype here, and I for one am thankful for it. The Resonators intend to save themselves, and there isn’t much Avi can do to help.

Fahima is my favorite character! She’s a foul-mouthed lesbian Muslim gadget-guru (her ability is being able to “see” how machines will come together), and she just has so much wonderful personality! That is not to say that the other characters suffer from comparison; there are quite a few fascinating people in here. She also comes up with some wonderful ideas that help to shape the future–sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much.

The parallels with current events are obvious. People kill Resonators out of fear and hatred. (“Bigotries travel in packs that way.”) They want to place them in internment camps. One man even shoots his own son when he thinks the boy might be a Resonator. Resonators are forced out of–and into–neighborhoods. They’re put on trial for things that aren’t always cut-and-dried. They’re assaulted and raped. It can get hard to read at times.

My only negative with this book is that it wasn’t obvious to me when I bought it that it was meant to be the first book in a series, and I hate finding out the hard way that a book ends in the middle of things!

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Short Take: “Ghost Adaptation,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: Interesting developments
Cons: One odd plan; no Zoo excursions
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Ghost Adaptation: Soldiers of Fame and Fortune, Book 10 is book ten in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. Billie is carrying out a contract in Paris in order to acquire the funding to pay for weapons and ammo for her and Holly’s new venture. Holly is having a hard time getting over the loss of Trigger and Aki from her last trip into the Zoo, and she’s more than a little angry with the company that hired her as they continue to push her for results. Meanwhile, J.B., Billie, and Marcus are all changing from the serum. They aren’t just healthy–they’re younger. They’re more fit. J.B. might even be regrowing his leg! How will Holly keep the secret from blowing wide open?

I understand that having J.B. “die” so that his younger “nephew” can come take over for him is the only way they can figure to safely keep J.B. around. But why jump to actually killing him and using the serum to bring him back? They’re planning on having him go out into the Zoo to die alone anyway, so why not fake it? It’s an entire added and unnecessary level of complexity with additional things that could go wrong. It makes no sense at all that I can determine.

Don’t get me wrong–I love Billie–but she’s distracting a little from the original storyline. The only action scenes in this volume are from Billie’s spyjinks–nothing at all in the Zoo–and they’re only tangentially related to the plot. One of the scenes is truncated so much that Billie basically mows a room full of people down in a sentence or two–it’s anti-climactic. The plot barely moves forward at all in this volume.

This is probably the least amazing volume of the series so far, but I’m still looking forward to volumes 11 and 12.

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Review: “Archangel’s War,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Stunning, apocalyptic climax to the Cascade
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s War (A Guild Hunter Novel) is book twelve in the epic and stunning Guild Hunter saga! In a modern-day world where nine archangels rule the world and are served by angels and vampires, a mysterious building force called the Cascade is disrupting the world. Archangels are developing new powers. Archangel Lijuan styles herself as the Goddess of Death now, and she may well be unstoppable. Archangel Raphael’s human-born Consort Elena, a former Guild Hunter, has been encased in a chrysalis for months, with her lover asleep beside her. The Cascade is trying to turn her into a repository for Raphael’s power, but her essence, her soul, her personality will be burned away. In order to keep Elena as herself, Raphael forces her out of the chrysalis before her transformation is complete, leaving her wingless and skeletal. In China, Lijuan stirs again. A black fog envelops the land, and the ground itself is infectious to immortals. It’s only a matter of time before she rises to finish what she started, and her first target will be Raphael. Meanwhile, a handful of ancients rise early from their long sleep–hopefully the additional firepower will be enough to stop Lijuan!

The Legion also plan to act as a power source for Raphael. Singh manages to come up with a reason for Raphael to refuse their power that actually makes sense: it’s possible giving Raphael their power will kill every last one of the 777 members of the Legion! It’s so rare for an author to come up with an absolutely believable reason to put off using a weapon; I totally appreciate it.

Watching what happens to Raphael and Elena and the other archangels as the Cascade alters them is fascinating. I feel secure in telling you that Elena does eventually get wing-equivalents, since you can see them on the cover of the book. She has part of Raphael’s heart in her now–literally–so she’s gained a bit in power. She’s still mostly reliant on skill and instinct, however, and I like that; it’s her skill that’s gotten her so far, after all, and it’s important to her character.

Pretty much everyone from the series puts in an appearance, from Raphael’s various vampire and angelic servants to a series of Guild Hunters, Elena’s family, and all the most powerful beings in the world. There’s a war that’s long, extensive, and creative. The climax of the Cascade is here, and it lives up to the hype! Much of the story deals with preparations and reactions, but once the war actually starts things definitely take off.

Content note for explicit sex between our favorite archangel and Guild Hunter, handled beautifully as always. I don’t know if there’s a book thirteen in store, but I really hope so! I should note that there’s plenty of Singh’s trademark snark and sexiness, but my favorite part may be the angels with grenade launchers!

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Short Take: “Ghost Resurrection,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: Gets intense!
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Ghost Resurrection: Soldiers of Fame and Fortune, Book 9 is book nine in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. Billie has a new agenda: she wants to use some of Holly’s resurrection serum to “rescue” her controller, Marcus, from their employer. Meanwhile, Holly decides that as long as she’s spending time inside the Zoo anyway, she might as well work on that contract from the company that has often employed her. Not only will it give her and her team a nice chunk of change, but it’ll act as cover for their forays into the Zoo.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Billie’s “rescue” of Marcus, because, umm, it isn’t like she asks first. Will he even be happy about it?

I lean toward annoyance when it comes to the character of Aki, one of Holly’s team, because, as usual, the single Japanese mercenary fights with a sword, which is such a cultural stereotype at this point. Luckily he’s at least partially rescued from his by his entertaining antics when drunk, as well as the fact that use of swords among the mercenaries is prevalent.

Note that the animal harm in this volume (not surprising given the characters are fighting vicious creatures) is a little more over-the-top. There’s plenty of blood and guts besides that, and things get quite tense! Things are looking interesting for the next book!

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Review: “All Hallows,” W. Sheridan Bradford

Pros: Truly fascinating characters; very original
Cons: So confusing and sometimes boring
Rating: 3 out of 5

W. Sheridan Bradford brings us the horror/urban fantasy novel All Hallows. Maren Glover is what you might call a witch, and she’s much older than you’d anticipate. She’s creating night worms, dangerous little creatures that can absorb a dying person’s soul and then settle into a child’s brain–where the soul within the worm helps to guide and protect the child. She just needs to work out the last kinks in the recipe. Meanwhile, her seeing stone guides her to a young woman with a baby. The baby is in danger, and Maren must choose between breaking her fast and devouring the baby for “the gift,” which will make her younger again, or saving the baby from a plot by another witch. Later on this All Hallow’s Eve someone takes out a bounty on Maren, and she encounters a number of dangerous creatures–a necrolich, a vampire, and a werewolf, among other things. Staying alive will take all of her wiles.

This is less a novel than a connected series of separate events. First we see Maren dealing with a child she wants to help in some way. Then she collects a soul for a night worm. Then she deals with Abby and her baby Kenna. Finally she has a string of encounters as various people come for the bounty on her. There’s no real arc to keep you holding on when things are slow.

And yes, there are slow parts. The first time hits when Maren is talking to a dying woman and feeding her magic cookies, and the author spends several pages on cookies. I was actually a bit impressed with that, frankly. The second time comes when Maren is sitting in a gazebo waiting for whatever her seeing stone has guided her to, and you kind of have to be patient to get to the good stuff. The third spot happens while Maren is sitting in the gazebo next to Abby and her baby Kenna, and we spend a while inside Abby’s head as she muses on all sorts of things. This one got actively boring. It’s a shame, because the later material is quite riveting.

“There is one house that needs cleansed,” Maren said. “Only one that reeks of a false god.”
“But they have full-size Snickers!” Uriah Lee protested.

The narrative is very dialogue-heavy in places, and it feels like the author is so busy making all the dialogue “clever” that he never includes enough context. I frequently felt quite confused, and felt like I was missing all sorts of stuff. The characters are quite unique and interesting, which is the one thing that almost made me want to read any further novels, but the confusion soured my read-through enough that I don’t think I’d enjoy the experience.

Content note for gore (there isn’t much of it, but what there is feels extremely visceral). Also bits of bigotry in Abby’s musings.

“There are fifty ways to build a cat, but the tried and true methods require ingredients that–speaking of which, I need four of your fingers.”

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