Tag Archives: featured guest

30Oct/17

A Matter Of Courage by J C Long

We recently had the pleasure of J C Long’s company at WROTE! To learn more about them and get links to their work, check out Episode 127: I’m Not Whitewashing Hong Kong

This was a joy to read, a book set in the backstreets of Hong Kong, where two fictional gangs mainly keep out of each other’s way until one is suspected of murdering a member of the other.

There was more than a whiff of The Fast & The Furious about this, with muscle cars, sassy side characters and a young man trying to prove himself in order to be accepted by the people he looks up to. And I loved it for that. The action scenes were well-written and not too long, and didn’t seem gratuitously shoe-horned in, adding sparkle to an already interesting plot. Show me a beefed-up Mustang and you’ve got me at the first rev, TBH. The family scenes provided grounding and balance, and the sex just added extra spice where needed.

I had no idea that besties jerked off together “just for fun.” It seemed that everyone knew about Winston and Steel, other than the two main protagonists, which got a little frustrating by the end when it was teased out to the max. (No spoilers.) Yet it’s so refreshing to read an M/M romance that is a) not set in the US and b) brash and ballsy but at the same time, adorable (and not in a “pass the bucket” type of way,) whilst not playing by the rules. The head of the “good” gang, The Dragons, is tough but fair, happily paired up with Noah, a cultured Englishman. I was kept guessing throughout the book as to whose side Noah was on, and it was clever touches like that, as well as the growing tensions between Winston and Steel, that made it such an enjoyable read.

I loved the way that all the gay characters are positive ones. The real issue Winston had was whether Steel was interested in him as more than a friend. Steel’s sexuality was fluid. He was a mesmerising character, strong yet vulnerable, with a deep sense of loyalty. I didn’t pick up any angst of whether friends and family would accept them being together. The world of the Dragons was an accepting place for a diverse selection of people. And that was a beautiful thing.

Finally, this book held a definite Asian flavour. It is easy to slip into the mindset that city life is the same all over the world, but it’s important to make the distinction between cultures, and I found that it worked here, from names of the characters to the attitudes and family rituals, and that gave the book its soul.

So this book had it all for me; a burgeoning romance between friends who actually like each other, ferocious street racing, the importance of family, tension between rival gangs, set against the colourful backdrop of Hong Kong. A great book.

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Winston Chang has spent much of his young life admiring the Dragons who have kept his area safe and fought off the gangs that would bring violence to their area. Now that he’s an adult, he wants nothing more than to join the Dragons and live up to those standards.

The opportunity presents itself when his passion and knowledge of cars is just what the Dragons need. One of their own has been killed and his death seems linked to his involvement with the illegal racing scene known as the Dark Streets. Winston is needed to infiltrate the scene and find out who is responsible and why.

Steel has always been Winston’s best friend, and Winston has always been there to get him out of trouble. Just as the stress in Winston’s life reaches its peak, the relationship between Winston and Steel begins to change in ways neither of them expected.

Will Winston and Steel be able to find the courage to face not only the unknown killer stalking the Dark Streets racers but also their growing feelings?

 

 

23Oct/17

Disease by Hans Hirschi

Hans M Hirschi was recently on our show to talk about his new novel. To listen to Hans’ Episode and find links to his work, go to Episode 133: Hits Close to Home.

This was bound to be a tough read, as any book about facing one’s one mortality is likely to be. Hunter has early-onset Alzheimers, which strikes pitilessly and without warning. The book is from his point of view, via a diary he writes to combat the gradual erasing of his memory. There are also post-death notes from his husband, Ethan, who makes sense of the increasingly paranoid and erratic course of Hunter’s thoughts, and the result is a beautiful, tragic and fascinating insight into the mind of a man facing up to his own death.

Through a beautifully-woven story-line, we get to know Hunter and his family, including his and Ethan’s daughter, Amy. We learn of the difficulties gay couples face when wanting to have children of their own, the way the law is pitted against them in all aspects of their lives, and the terrible dilemmas some face when a loved-one’s life comes to an end. This isn’t just a book about Alzheimers, but about the choices that many straight people take for granted, that are, more often than not, denied to gay couples. It’s about when death can deal a cruel blow, and sometimes a merciful one, and about choosing how to die, whilst still of sound mind and body.

The book is also massively about family. How one family deals with a child’s disappointment on learning there is no Santa Claus, is one of my favourite passages. The author has an incredible talent for conveying pain, sadness, and joy in just a few words. I couldn’t put the book down after the first page. It was as if I knew Hunter and Ethan personally. The way the reader is drawn in to the story, which can be a hard-sell in this world of romance and HEA’s, is masterful.

There were a couple of sentences that jolted a bit, which seemed slightly out of place in Hunter’s reminiscences, but then I realised it was because his memories were becoming mixed with hope and fantasy. It is a disturbing read, sensing Hunter slipping away, being replaced by this paranoid, tetchy and confused individual who is more child than man. Ethan, his husband, admits the difficulties he has in coping, without sugar-coating or over-dramatising the agonising choices he will be faced with.

Finally, this is a love story, between two people who know they will be parted sooner than either of them hoped, and how they deal with that, knowing that their struggle is made all the more difficult because of who they are. I loved Hunter’s humanity, Eithan’s loyalty, and Amy’s stoicism. It is a beautiful, sad yet ultimately life affirming read. Recommended.

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When journalist Hunter MacIntyre is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, he realizes that his life is about to change, not to mention that he’s been handed a certain death sentence.

Alzheimer’s is a disease affecting the patient’s loved ones as much, if not more, than the patient themselves. In Hunter’s case, that’s his partner Ethan and their five-year-old daughter Amy. How will they react to, and deal with, Hunter’s changing behavior, his memory lapses, and the consequences for their everyday lives?

Disease is a story of Alzheimer’s, seen through the eyes of one affected family.

29Sep/17

The One Thing I Know by Keelan Ellis

WROTE Podcast alumni, Keelan Ellis, has recently been with us to talk about her new novel, and what happens when media events force an author to change their story. To catch up with Keelan and get links to her work, listen to Episode 131: I Have A Playlist For That!

This first book in the B-Sides series is a change of mood for Keelan Ellis, whose paranormal romances I am familiar with. Set in the 1970’s music scene, it concentrates on the relationship between two men, one a studio musician, Henry, who has been offered his dream job, and Terry, the band’s front man, who is still reeling from the death of Dell Miller, the band’s creative life force.

I wasn’t really sure about this book at first. The lightness of touch which makes this author’s previous books so easy to read is absent, and in its place is something much grittier. It is a romance, but there are dark elements; drug use, addiction, inter-band squabbling, soulless sex just because its available, as well as painful stints in rehab speak true of the rock n’ roll lifestyle, which really isn’t as fabulous as people like to think it is.

I had to read back a few times to remind myself that this book was set in the 1970’s. The sense of period was lost in places, with only mentions of Rolling Stone magazine and the Beatles to pull it back. As both are still relevant today, it wasn’t entirely successful. Also, Henry seemed genuinely sweet and honourable, and I found it incomprehensible that he would just drop his knees the first time Terry demanded it. For me, it was a jarring moment that made it difficult for me to believe they would find their HEA, and it took a while for the romance element to find its equilibrium again.

But despite those elements which pulled my focus away from the central story, it was a very enjoyable read, well-written and researched. It’s so refreshing to read a romance novel that doesn’t make paper cut-outs of its characters. The reader actually sees Henry and the Vulgar Details working, doing their thing, practicing their craft, not just looking great in tight jeans and sweaty hair. It definitely isn’t all about limousines and mountains of coke (although there’s plenty) but about cleaning up vomit, paying for trashed hotel rooms, having to get on stage with crashing hangovers and fighting a grief that cannot be expressed.

And it’s important to note the book also attempted to highlight the attitudes towards gay relationships in 1970’s USA. The general assumption is that the era was free love and peace for all, but in reality, that only applied to men and women. Gay men were tolerated, but there was still a massive stigma that meant Terry had to hide his grief for Dell behind outrageous outbursts, eventually ending up in rehab, and Henry lived in constant fear of his sexuality being found out, therefore jeopardising his career.

So yes, this is a rock star romance, but scratch the surface and it is so much more. I read this book a couple of weeks back but it has stayed with me, which is always a good thing. A meaty, satisfying read for those who want their characters with grit and depth, and a realistic romantic premise. A strong start to the B-Sides series.

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Talented studio musician, Henry Cole, is offered the dream job of touring with popular rock band, the Vulgar Details. Things aren’t all rosy, though, as he is hired to replace Dell Miller, creative force behind the band, who recently flamed-out in a car accident.

Henry is all too aware that he’s no replacement for someone like Dell. He’s not the only one who feels that way, either. Terry Blackwood, band front man, has been giving him a hard time even before the tour start. He seems to resent Henry’s presence beyond all reason. What Henry doesn’t know is that Terry and Dell’s relationship was both intensely close and fraught with conflict.

Terry’s grief over Dell’s death is overwhelming and threatens to destroy not only the band but his life. It doesn’t help that the new member of the band makes him feel things he doesn’t want to. Worse, when he sings, Henry sounds just like the man Terry cared so deeply for.

With so much at stake, everything could come crashing down around them and mean the end for the Vulgar Details. Or, just maybe, Henry and Terry will find the one thing they need most.

Sometimes redemption comes from the last place you expect to find it.

07Sep/17

When Heaven Strikes by F.E. Feeley Jr.

I was scared to read this one at first. The striking image on the front cover hinted at a plot concerning wild weather, but I could have been wrong. It could have been an allegory for the chaos that religious fervour can wreak on innocent lives. What if I was disappointed?

Turns out, it is both, and I wasn’t disappointed. First off, it is books like this one that make me love my job. After an easy-going start, the author draws the reader into the lives of Ted and Anderson, before focussing on the aftermath of a homophobic attack that has totally unexpected results. Both parts of the book are cleverly interwoven, yet easing towards an inevitable and dramatic climax.

As an inveterate storm-watcher, I was waiting for the tornado to hove into view, and it does, but I’m not saying when. Everything I was expecting to happen, didn’t happen. I really hoped the author wouldn’t succumb to the normal romantic tropes, and he doesn’t. I was expecting a book full of rage against the religious machine, but the outcome is more one of forgiveness.

This is such an elegant book. The sex scenes are beautifully choreographed, the progress of Ted and Anderson’s relationship feels totally real. Yes, love does happen at first sight. Then the reader gets sucked in by the secondary characters, the most surprising of which was the fire and brimstone preacher and his son. Again, expectations confounded at every turn.

In fact, this book IS like a tornado, throwing the reader into a spin. I loved that the ending made me cry. That is what books are supposed to do. Entertain you, anger you, make you feel. This book has all the feels, and much, much more. A masterclass in how to craft an MM romance, and support it with a plot that is so much more. A strong contender for my Book Of The Year.

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Artist Ted Armstrong lives a solitary and eccentric life. The survivor of child abuse disguised as religion, Ted has cut himself off from the world.

Then Ted meets Anderson Taylor, and it’s like being struck by lightning.

Anderson is a cardiac surgeon whose passion for his work has consumed him. He fears he’ll never find a partner—until he sets eyes on Ted. It’s happening fast, but both men know what they feel is right.

Confronted with an angry preacher, a scandal, and an act of God that threatens to destroy everything, their relationship will face its first true test.

04Sep/17

King Of The Storm (The Godhead Epoch: Book 1) by B.A. Brock

You can find out more about the mythical B A. Brock and find links to his work on Episode 124: Renewal, or Handsoap For The Masses.

REVIEW

Don’t be put off by the “Book One,” subtitle. This is a standalone story, told in the first person by Perseus himself.

Oh Perseus! You are a total fox, with an innate ability to stumble into trouble. The Perils of Perseus, perhaps? Lightning bolts from his talented fingers don’t save this young man from getting trashed at various points throughout this great re-imagining of a familiar tale. Yes, it has the obligatory recounting of Perseus fighting Medusa, and conquering the Kraken whilst rescuing Andromeda from the waves. Those tales are essential to the story of Perseus. But here it is expanded, as we follow our favourite demi-god from callow youth to warrior hero and devoted father.

Then the fantasy part kicks in, and this is where the real fun starts. Perseus is also a hard-lovin’, hard-drinkin’ guy, who falls in love with fellow student Antolios, and their love story weaves throughout this well-researched and lovingly-crafted novel. There is a LOT of meaty, succulent M/M sex, great well-rounded characters, and a a faithful adherence to familiar legends, as well as giving Perseus his own demons as he struggles with the responsibilities of being a demi-god.

The LGBT stance is solid throughout, even though Perseus does love Andromeda, and even (gasp!) enjoys sex with her. (FYI, MM romance fascists, this is plausible fantasy, so untie your knickers) but his heart and mind belong to Antolio. Perseus steadfastly refuses to accept his destiny for the sake of love, only to find that Destiny has a habit of rearranging things the way they ought to be.

This book had the ability to catch my breath, break my heart and make me laugh. There was an almost gleeful meddling with the normal romance tropes. This is no ordinary love story. The hero swashbuckles, screws and drinks his way through the pain of continually having to part with his true love, but he is also determined to be a good father and decent husband to Andromeda. It is when the human world and godly world collide, there are bound to be storms overhead. It is a complex story, handled with intelligence, and entertaining as hell.

The modern language (“no shit!” “Seriously?”) sits surprisingly well in the Ancient Greek setting, rendering this novel devoid of the pomposity that is sometimes found in stories of the Ancient Greeks.No doubt some scholars of the Ancient Greek myths will have a conniption at this.

And I say, good, because they are just myths, and we are at liberty to play with them as we please. I would hazard to guess that Zeus himself would be highly amused at the way his son is portrayed; as a sometimes drunken, lecherous, fiery and obstinate Demi-god with just as many problems as humans have, and an equal propensity for  trouble. Rather like his father, I’d imagine.

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In Epiro, a kingdom in Greece, Perseus is prophesied to be a great demigod hero and king, with a legacy that will shape the world of Gaia. When he was born, his grandfather exiled him, and his mother brought them to Seriphos, where she created an academy for demigod youth. Perseus trains there and waits for the day when he will be able to take the throne of Argos.

Despite potential future glory, Perseus’s fellow students think he is weak. By the time he reaches manhood, he has given up the hope of having any real friends, until Antolios, a son of Apollo, takes an unexpected interest in him.  Perseus and Antolios fall in love, but Antolios knows it cannot last and leaves Seriphos.

Perseus, grief stricken and lonely, rebels against the Fates, thinking he can avoid the prophecy and live his own life.  But when the gods find him, he is thrust into an epic adventure. With his divine powers, he fights gorgons and sea serpents, and battles against his darker nature. Perseus strives to be his own man… but the gods have other plans.

29Aug/17

The Stark Divide (Liminal Book 1) by J. Scott Coatsworth

REVIEW

WROTE alumni J. Scott Coatsworth has recently been on our show! To hear more about his collaborations with other authors and get links to his work, check out Episode 124: Renewal – Or Handsoap for the Masses.

The author gifted an ARC of this novel for an honest and fair review. Publication date October 2017.

Sci-fi can be a little po-faced at times, or quirky to the point of artifice. It can be difficult to strike the balance between intelligent story-telling and dumbing down the science-y bits for the masses. This author has been on my radar for a while. I’ve read some of his short stories, but never a full-blown novel.

Basically, this is a story split into three parts, threaded together by three generations of the same family. In the first part, we are introduced to the mothership, Dressler (or Lex, in ship-mind form, so the humans can relate to it.) Lex is critically wounded by a fungus that may or may not have been introduced intentionally, entailing a heart-stopping race to save her cargo from destruction before she is destroyed. Her cargo is the seed which will create a new world for humans wanting to escape Earth, which is slowly being torn apart by wars, big business and human fallibility.

Each part of the book is set a few years ahead from the next, so there is a real epic quality, a sense of journey, as humans attempt to start again, having screwed up the planet they were originally put on. Inevitably, the same old problems rear their ugly heads even in this Utopian worldly (called Forever.) This is a potent tale in an era where the problems the characters are coming up against are very familiar. Namely, the refugee crisis, capitalism and politics, power play, and wars that escalate, causing mass devastation. The fate of the dying Earth is very dark indeed.

In contrast, it is wonderful to see the birth and development of Forever, borne out of the asteroid Ariadne, where the seed was planted. And whilst this could easily be a bleak tale of a dystopian future, it isn’t, due to the ingenuity, compassion and generosity of the characters the author has created. The potential villain appears near the end, and is bound to have his day further down the series.

I loved the diversity of the characters, all without the common angst over who they are, or the usual mutterings of those around them. Some are gay, some are straight, some are trans. Get over it. It’s so refreshing to have a character that just happens to be trans, and yes, it is inevitable that their personal circumstances have a bearing on how they act around other people, but it isn’t a big thing. And the gay couple are in a long term, loving relationship. Again, that’s it. Accepted. Move on. We should have more characters in mainstream novels like this, which would go a long way to aid acceptance in the wider world.

Anyway, soapbox time over. This is a great science-fiction novel, and a cracking start to a gripping series. There is also a helpful glossary at the back. I’ve said this before with books. I just wish I had known the glossary was there before reading the whole book first! This would have been helpful to either, a) have it at the front or, b) mention it at the front so I know it’s there. It isn’t as easy to flip back and forth with an e-reader, but anyway, I was grateful for the added information. Not that there are a lot of unfamiliar words, but it does help to enrich and understand the world the author has created.

Finally, there are elements of everything here. An adventure, a rescue, the creation of a new world, machines with organic elements and Artificial Intelligence. The Lex character may or may not have the humans’ best interests at heart. That’s all I’m saying. In a word, this is a great novel, with awesome world-building and a plot that satisfies the sci-fi buff in all of us.

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The Earth is in a state of collapse, with wars breaking out over resources and an environment pushed to the edge by human greed. 

Three living generation ships have been built with a combination of genetic mastery, artificial intelligence, technology, and raw materials harvested from the asteroid belt. This is the story of one of them—43 Ariadne, or Forever, as her inhabitants call her—a living world that carries the remaining hopes of humanity, and the three generations of scientists, engineers, and explorers working to colonize her. 

From her humble beginnings as a seedling saved from disaster to the start of her journey across the void of space toward a new home for the human race, The Stark Divide tells the tales of the world, the people who made her, and the few who will become something altogether beyond human. 

Humankind has just taken its first step toward the stars.

24Aug/17

Welcome To Crash by Lina Langley

REVIEW

The magical Lina Langley was recently a guest on our show! To find out more about Lina and get links to her work, check out Episode 123: Why Is There Magic In it?

No doubt the M/M romance fascists will get their panties in a knot over this one, featuring as it does a man caught between two lovers, a scenario in which the ending will always be bittersweet.

Yes, hunties, the main character CHEATS on his boyfriend. Get over it and move on, because this is a wondrous treat, an effortless read that I couldn’t wait to get back to. I read it over the course of three evenings, and was immediately in love with the characters. Damien and Levi’s relationship feels so incredibly real. Levi wants to keep their affair discreet because of their tutor/student relationship. His character felt familiar, a dreadlocked, groomed and decent man who has been chased and seduced by the Pan-like Damien, only to see the boy/man begin to crumble.

Damien is of age but eyebrows would still be raised if people found out. He accepts Levi’s insistence on secrecy but grudgingly. At times he seemed fairly young in attitude and speech, and then I realised that was because he hadn’t quite shed the arrogance of youth, and was unable to see the effect his actions would have on others. I liked him, though, because he was willing to accept that he had faults, and grow with them. His vulnerability and sense of guilt made him human, and who are we to throw the first stone?

Photographer John, wavering between gay and straight, is blown away by 21st Century Damien, although he does not know that Damien is out of time. John is suitably grungy, a tortured, grubby artiste fighting for recognition under the dominating wing of his mentor, a man who should be dead, but somehow isn’t.

This book wasn’t all about the love triangle, but about the circumstances around it. And what circumstances! The way the reader finds out what is happening to Damien, via his attempt to tell Levi about John, the time-bending twist; the horrible realisation that everyone around you thinks you are going insane; it was all wonderfully simple to understand but elegantly told. I really wanted all these characters to succeed in getting what they wanted. In less capable hands, a plot like this would be a hot mess, but without giving spoilers, I can safely say I enjoyed it right to the very last word. Definitely an author for those who are looking for romance with a piquant flavour of realist fantasy.

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At first, Damien feels lucky to land a job at an influential art studio, but it soon becomes obvious that something’s not right. His gorgeous boss, John, is interested, and he’d be the perfect man for Damien—if Damien wasn’t already in a relationship. It isn’t long before Damien is at the center of a love triangle, forced to choose between hot, punk John and his secret affair with his professor, Levi. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because something impossible is happening to Damien—and it’s having a drastic effect on his health as well as his perception of reality. 

Each time Damien goes to work, things grow more bizarre, starting with Sam—an artist who has been dead for years and now somehow… isn’t. Damien’s unusual circumstances also free him from the restrictions of monogamy—or so he thinks. Levi, who cannot believe Damien’s claims, fears for his sanity. John also has strong doubts when Damien reveals knowledge of a catastrophic event looming in John’s future. Whether the men he loves believe his wild claims or not, neither can deny Damien is languishing, and if they cannot save him, he’ll be lost. More importantly, they must convince Damien to save himself.

01Aug/17

Shax’s War (Brimstone Book 3) by Angel Martinez (Audiobook)

REVIEW

For the purpose of review, this is the second series I’ve started in the middle, and as such, I have to make the assumption that most readers will have already read the first books.

I’m reviewing this because it is the audio version, narrated by Vance Bastian. It doesn’t take long to realise that I have to give this audiobook my full attention. NB: It isn’t a book to be listening to with your kids. The voices of Shax and Ness are immediately captivating, so much so that even driving is probably inadvisable, especially during the love scenes which, though infrequent, are S-T-E-A-M-Y.

Martinez writes good sex, that’s for sure, but she also creates memorable characters, cracking dialogue and fantastic story-telling, bought to life by Vance’s narration. A cocktail of caramel, cream and tequila, garnished with jalapeño is probably the nearest you will get to tasting the audio delight of this book. As a novella, it is a fairly quick read, but as an audiobook it is a fat n’ juicy 3 hours plus.

The story is basically a rescue. Shax the demon and Ness the angel are an established, loving couple, despite their obvious differences. When Shax plays dirty during a Trauma Ball game, it sets in motion a chain of events that leads Ness into danger and Shax on a desperate mission to rescue him from bad humans who want to harvest various angelic parts for their own purposes (eternal youth, etc.) Meanwhile, Ness is getting through his ordeal with the aid of a friend called Leopold, a sweet, pink hedgehog….

Anyone who loves Vance Bastian’s voice may find it hard to concentrate on what he’s saying, as opposed to how he is saying it. The audio quality is excellent and his narration first class, but because his voice is like a duvet made of honey and gossamer, seducing your ears, it almost upstages the book.

Almost, but not quite, because Martinez’s observations and comedic timing are pin-sharp and brilliant, as well as hilarious. I loved curmudgeonly Shax, angelic Ness and queenly Ivana, as well as Leopold, who may or may not be a figment of Ness’s vivid imagination. There are a few too many characters for me to follow properly, making the plot a little more convoluted than it probably needed to be. The problem with an audiobook is, it isn’t as easy to re-read if there is confusion, as you can with an e-reader or novel. But it’s a small quibble, because there is so much to enjoy here, it is almost an embarrassment of riches.

I recommend you listen at least twice, because you’ll find a lot to enjoy, not only from the sci-fi-tastic plot, action, adventure and colourful characters, but to wallow in the audial delights of the US’s male answer to the Cadbury’s Caramel Bunny. When a dream-weaver meets a cunning linguist, the result will always be a smorgesbord for the ears.

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Brimstone Series: Book 3
Next Book: Beside a Black Tarn
Preceded by: Fear of Frogs

The boys desperately need a vacation. With the not-quite-ill-gotten gains from the Frog incident, Shax takes the Brimstone’s crew to the exclusive resort planet, Opal, for some much needed rest and relaxation. The resort has everything a demon prince and his crew could want, but an incident on the Trauma Ball court sends Ness stalking off in anger and sends events swiftly spiraling out of control.

Shax will need every bit of his cunning and his legendary luck to save his Ness as he’s drawn into a web of criminal experiments and…pink hedgehogs?

Novella: 40,500 words/178 pages

THE BRIMSTONE SERIES
Potato Surprise: A Brimstone Prequel
Hell for the Company
Fear of Frogs
Shax’s War
Beside a Black Tarn

01Aug/17

Town & Train by James K. Moran

Speculative realist writer, James K. Moran, has been chatting to Vance on our show! To learn more about him and get links to his work, give Episode 122: Horror Is My First Love a listen.

REVIEW

A slice of small-town Americana, spliced with horror, is always going to be a satisfying mix. The two seem to compliment each other, as they do here when various characters who want to escape their hum-drum existence, accidentally summon a snorting demon from the gates of Hell.

The author has an interesting style, letting the reader get to know each character in short, sharp well-observed snippets, so you care about them before he starts killing them off. There is David, new-to-the-area cop and closeted bisexual, who is tasked with solving the mystery of the train and the disappearance of various townspeople. He’s seen it, but no-one seems inclined to believe him. And there is teenage dirtbag John, a bullied, wannabe metalhead who refuses to be a victim, courting his chief tormentor’s girlfriend. That tormentor is Cutter, soon-to-be undead metal freak responsible for most of John’s miseries. John wakes up by the rail tracks to see Cutter and his pals being whisked away to undoubtedly certain death.

The real villain of the piece is the titular demonic chuff that turns up at seemingly random times, after the sultry conductor “hears the townspeople’s call.” This was a bit tenuous, to be honest. I didn’t get a sense of rhythm or a build-up to when this would happen. The reason for it to turn up in the first place is also a little thin. After all, surely wanting economic wealth and growth for a town isn’t a bad thing? But doing anything to get it, including protecting odious individuals from just punishment IS a bad thing, which made sense. When people start disappearing, it is obvious that something strange is going on. When one person seems to be alive and normal, but isn’t, that is an idea that could have been expanded further before the confusing finale.  Yet the train is genuinely menacing, and there are some great atmospheric scenes that make up for hiccups in the plot.

Which was a little hit and miss. The subplot of Grant and his mistress ended somewhat unsatisfactorily, as most affairs do, and I couldn’t see the tie-in with the main plot. It was all a little too neat. The town pedo also didn’t seem to get the reward he was no doubt entitled to. Interesting that there was some attempt to make him sympathetic, but we make our choices, and for me, that didn’t work. In places, I found the denouement to be a little incoherent, especially towards the end, necessitating a couple of reads to make sure I understood it – I’m still not sure I do. Some major characters just seemed to disappear, without the neat ending. This seems a contradiction, but there are times when tying everything up is okay, and times when it isn’t. In this book, the lines are blurred.

Having said that, I loved the inventiveness of the plot, the building of atmosphere, the genuinely scary moments a la James Herbert or Stephen King. There are Koontz-esque scenes of banal normality set against an increasingly glowering backdrop, and a sense of impending doom as both David and John independently try to figure out how to prove that the town is being haunted by a ghost train from hell. And the characters, apart from the nasty ones, are genuinely likeable. Although David drinks WAY too much and still seems to function perfectly well.

So, a little uneven in places, but with characters to care about, and a genuinely frightening antagonist, set against the backdrop of a dying town overshadowed by  a stinking paper mill, this has atmosphere by the bucketload and enough scares to give a late-night shiver.

BLURB

In a small Ontario town, seventeen-year-old John Daniel wakes by the railroad tracks with no recollection of how he got there. Something called him from his bed. Officer David Forester, a recent transfer from Toronto, struggles to fit into the local police force, despite resistance from established circles. Both soon suspect a more pervasive and menacing collusion occurring in town when an antique steam train arrives late in the night. At the phantasmal engine, a conductor promises the desperate locals escape from their town dying with so many closed stores and shattered dreams–but there is no denying what the stranger really brings is the stuff of nightmares.

 

25Jul/17

Remains by J. Warren

Scholastic author J. Warren has recently been on our show! To find out more about what makes him tick, and get links to his work, listen to Episode 121: So That’s a Thing!

REVIEW

Told in the first person, this is a deep, dark and compelling book. Mike Kendall is a troubled man, on meds and having therapy to untangle the torments of his past, when he is told to go home to his folks for Thanksgiving. At the same time, bones have been found, which might belong to a boy he was friendly with in his teens.

The author has been very clever, as the whole way through the book, I wasn’t sure whether Mike was a good guy, or a bad guy trying to cover up past crimes (no spoilers.) For a while, I didn’t actually like him very much. He didn’t seem that caring towards his girlfriend, forever waiting for him to call her, or particularly sympathetic towards his sister, whose lesbian affair was alienating her from their parents. But I know that people with mental health issues can sometimes come across as unlikeable, so the author had hit the mark with Mike dead on. When we find out the reason for all his past torments, it seemed a little too easy, but there was enough to keep the mind ticking over with everything else going on around him.

It’s difficult to say much more without letting slip some of the many secrets the small town of Placeville holds, but I can say that there are many, and they are very dark indeed. I genuinely did not see the denouement coming, and I wasn’t expecting the satisfaction I felt at the very end. In fact, I read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

Anyone fascinated by the “small-town America seething with murky skeletons in the closet” genre, will love this. It is a Salinger-esque character study of one man, but also one place, the town, and the lengths it will go to, to remain normal on the outside. Again, I’m choosing words carefully, so as not to spoil anything. There are elements of horror, of murder/mystery, of sex (and one extremely well-written intimate scene, blooming into a fledgling relationship) and social commentary, as well as the complicated dynamics within a fragmenting family. Half-way through Remains I realised I didn’t want to put the book down until I’d finished it. It was a slow burn, to be sure, but well-worth the effort.

BLURB

J. Warren’s Remains is an insular story, almost claustrophobic as we first join Mike Kendall where he lives: walled up in his own mind. As the book progresses, Kendall is drawn back to his hometown of Placerville, when the remains of a long-missing boy are finally found, a boy Kendall had shared a complicated history. No matter how much Kendall tries to resist the underside of the mystery behind Randy McPherson’s disappearance, he must confront the lies that he has built his life upon.