Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Blood Fugue,” by Joseph D’Lacey

"Blood Fugue," pure reading fun.

“Blood Fugue,” pure reading fun.

Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.

*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….

Blood Fugue, by Joseph D’Lacey
Wonderful vampiric fun!  A three-star winner, even if….

Even if?

Now what in the hell is that supposed to mean?  We’ll get to that later; for now, what’s “Blood Fugue” about?

Here’s the description from the back of the book:

Reclusive outdoorsman, Jimmy Kerrigan, finds himself battling a vampiric plague which threatens to destroy Hobson’s Valley, the isolated mountain community he calls home.  When his family, friends and neighbors fall prey to the “Fugue,” Kerrigan is the only one who can save them and prevent the disease spreading beyond the remote town’s boundaries.

Kerrigan is challenged beyond his limits when an innocent family of outsiders hikes straight into a wilderness he is responsible for.  Can he really save them and protect the town?  Can he defeat the creature who has caused the Fugue to mutate?  And, most crucially, when he learns the horrifying truth about his own infection, will he even have the strength to try?

Sound interesting?

It does!

At least for me.  This description, along with the great cover (a fantastic job done by The Cover Factory), not to mention having read D’Lacey’s breakout novel “Meat,” had me hooked.

But did it deliver?

It did!

With “Blood Fugue,” the author brings a utilitarian, dark fantasy read, complete with its own mini-mythos.

I couldn’t be happier.

Even if….

Eww!  There’s that ugly line again.  But what does it mean?  Here, it means prejudice, bias, and ugly competition.  And from all places, probably from the author’s other book–“Meat.”

But why?

I’m of the mind that when it comes to choosing particular authors, one of the things readers go for is “replication.”  That’s to say, readers want to–with a particular author’s work–replicate whatever experience they’ve previously had.  This is especially true within commercial or genre fiction.  Read (and enjoy) an author’s legal thriller, then, of course, one wants to read and enjoy said author’s next legal thriller.

Perfectly understandable.

But sometimes it can bite.

Example: What if a reader were to take on King’s “The Stand,” then “Under the Dome,” then the Dark Tower series … and finally come to something like … hmm, “Gerald’s Game,” or “Delores Claiborne”?

Would that reader be happy?  Moving from vast, sweeping, stories with enormous casts, down to something quite different, smaller in scope, and very intimate?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

How about reading any number of Koontz books, dark works of suspense, and then taking on his very humorous novel “Tick Tock”?

Reading other reviews–negative ones–about “Blood Fugue,” I couldn’t help but wonder where the hate came from, and this is what I determined, that, indeed, some readers might’ve been looking for another “Meat,” and found themselves disappointed.

One criticism stated that “Blood Fugue” felt slapped together … stood full of underdeveloped characters.  Is the charge true?  Certainly was for that critic.  And, yes, people are entitled to their genuine opinions.  One cannot classify such things as right or wrong.  The field is inherently subjective.

But know this, I reviewed D’Lacey’s novel “Meat,” and gave it a rare score of four-stars.  It’s a tale I’ll never forget, a book that more than deserves that great plug from Stephen King, and every other accolade received.  With “Blood Fugue,” I’ve scored the work with three stars, which means a work worth a reader’s time and money.  But with only three stars compared to four, does that mean it’s a lesser work?

The answer’s a resounding NO.

Author Joseph D'Lacey.  Horror Writer?  Suspense Writer?  Well, sure.  But for me, he's just one superb dark fantasist.

Author Joseph D’Lacey. Horror Writer? Suspense Writer? Well, sure. But for me, he’s one superb dark fantasist

Instead, “Blood Fugue” is a different work.  A different story.  To cite an analogy out of King’s “On Writing,” a different unearthed fossil.  And in my view, a work to be proud of.

All writing is risk.  All writing, all the time.  Therefore, writers need to be brave, need to be dragonslayers, need to be willing to do something different.  Need to give every a story its due, and to allow it its own glory, whether it’s a home run, or a well-played single.

With “Blood Fugue,” what I did receive was a novel where the pages turned, a story with little to no chaff, a suspenseful work with some genuinely creepy scenes, and with a wonderful re-invention of the venerable blood-sucker.

And with the work’s very-interesting-mythos, D’Lacey might’ve invented a world worth revisiting in the future.  Were the author to do so, I’d love to be there to go on another ride.

In the meantime, I am happy to know there’s D’Lacey’s sophomore novel “The Garbage Man” to hit next.

To purchase “Blood Fugue” on Amazon, click here.
To visit Joseph D’Lacey’s website, click here.

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Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Redheads,” by Jonathan Moore

Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Redheads,” by Jonathan Moore

Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.

*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….

 

A thriller?  A procedural?  A horror novel?  Just pure page-turning fun–from the dark side!

An author's debut shot hits a bullseye!

An author’s debut shot hits a bullseye!

Fishing through Amazon’s nearly endless supply of books, I came across this recommendation and took the plunge.  And why wouldn’t I?  Look at the cover, and the title.

Totally eye-catching.

Author Picture

Even authors need their downtime.

(Big props to cover designer Angela Waters.)

The next thing that grabbed was a plug on Amazon by author phenom Jack Ketchum:

“This is accomplished and exciting work, which at times seems to channel the best of Michael Crichton in its attention to believable, telling detail. Moore’s a major new talent, I promise you.”

Then the book arrived and was about to be put in my ever-growing to-be-read pile, and act that would’ve relegated the reading experience to some months in the future.  So what happened?  I decided to thumb through the front-matter and came across an expanded plug by Ketchum that said (in part):

“The first hundred pages or so of this damn book kept me up until three in the morning, and then it just…got better.  …”

Yeah, right, Jack.

Like readers have never heard something like that before.

Thus the decision was made to start that night, at bedtime, to read a few pages, you know, just to prove that blurbs are just flavored praise.

Damned if Mr. Ketchum hadn’t called it.

I finished “Redheads” in three sittings, with that first night taking me through to page 120 (and then stopping only because of dire need of rest).

Here’s the book’s description:

A killer far worse than insane.

Chris Wilcox has been searching for years, so he knows a few things about his wife’s killer. Cheryl Wilcox wasn’t the first. All the victims were redheads. All eaten alive and left within a mile of the ocean. The trail of death crosses the globe and spans decades.

The cold trail catches fire when Chris and two other survivors find a trace of the killer’s DNA. By hiring a cutting-edge lab to sequence it, they make a terrifying discovery. The killer is far more dangerous than they ever guessed. And now they’re being hunted by their own prey.

My score for this book?

Three Stars … meaning a solid work worth the money and the read.

But it’s tempting to give it four.

Very.

Of a truth, this novel was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award.

Should it have won?

I don’t have that answer, but I do understand the nomination, and anyone that picks up this bullet-fast book and gives it a try is going to be hard-pressed to be disappointed.

I, for one, believe that Moore did everything right for this particular tale, the prose, the pacing, the delightful way he kept “the bad guy” in the shadows for so darn long.

Moore, for “Redheads,” I applaud you.

And for Jack Ketchum: Sir, apologies for doubting your words.

Jonathan Moore, another author to add to my must-read list!

Jonathan Moore, another author to add to my must-read list!

To pick up “Redheads” on Amazon click here.
To visit Jonathan Moore’s website, click here.

 

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Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Yesterdays Children,” by Jackie G. Williams

Poems that reveal ... that scar, that may heal.

Poems that reveal … that scar, that may heal.

Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.

*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….

YESTERDAY(‘)S CHILDREN … a three-star journey of pain and connection and regret and anger and a million other stabs….

Seeing this work advertised on Facebook, I was immediately struck by three things:

1) The fantastic cover.
2) The great title.
3) The missing possessive.

Writers tend to be a critical lot, full of bigotry and discrimination, if not of race (there is, after all, the current hub-bub about H.P. Lovecraft and his not-so-finer characteristics), then of ideas, or of genre, of what makes for good prose, and yes, what constitutes good poetry. Writers are opinionated, which is a good, for they need to have hills worthy of their blood.

And they, like George R.R. Martin, are the cruelest of gods, both old and new. Sadists and masochists. Who, even when shedding tears, hang characters from swaying ropes … and then throw stones.

They need to.

It’s a requirement.

Which is why, a prose writer and/or poet, must, above all–be brave.

Not everyone can do it. Not all have either the skill or the necessary spine. If people did, we wouldn’t need greeting cards. We wouldn’t worship writers. Or at least I wouldn’t.

Jackie G. Williams has both the skill and the spine. A brave writer. And one of those special ones who can transmit humanity, in its glory and pain, somehow, through squiggly lines on a page.

It’s a kind of magick. And, without a doubt, Williams is a magician.

First, the cons of the book.

1) Formatting could have been better.
2) Editing could have been better.
3) One might argue that illustrations could’ve enhanced the book … but with this, I’m now stretching. The words, without any question, paint many a dark and scarring picture.

In sum, it would’ve been quite nice if a publishing house, one with skill, had sunk some money, time, and effort into this work to really doll it up.

Am I right?

Why, yes!

Jackie G. Williams, author, poet, magician of the page.

Jackie G. Williams, author, poet, magician of the page.

I’m also one of those opinionated, discriminating writer/editor types (with his own set of flaws).

But here’s the proof of Williams’s magick.

On a whim, after seeing the work, I visited Amazon. I noticed the page count, a modest 43-pages, I took in the price, a mere bit of change, and I bought it, immediately adding it to my Kindle where 3,000 other titles sit. But then, expecting to just read a few bits, where I might pontificate on why I almost exclusively read “real” poets, like Kipling or Yeats, I started “Yesterdays Children.”

And read it, front to back.

YES–front to back.

Front to back.

And sat stunned.

“Yesterdays Children,” primarily deals with the horrors of drug use and abuse, but not just in a drugs-are-bad kind of way, for that would have made the work nothing more than a highly effective sedative. Somehow, Williams managed to tap into the humanity of her referenced victims and abusers, the driving demons, the inherent loss and regret.

I’ve a loved one living on the streets, a victim of mental health problems, bad decisions, and the death-grip of heroin. Perhaps this made me especially vulnerable to “Yesterdays Children’s” siren call. If so, fine. Having this predisposition, though, I also came to the table–great cover and title or no–ready to be skeptical, ready to find, perhaps, another “preachy” writer who just didn’t get it.

Author Jackie G. Williams more than gets it. “Yesterdays Children” proved it. I read it front to back. And I will be having other family members read it as well. Will the work entertain them? Certainly. But more important, through Williams’s powerful–even if dark–pixie dust … her words … these people will find a vicarious and carthartic way to express their grief and to expand their knowledge about horrors which are all-too-often all-too-real.

Poetry is the ballet of writing. The most difficult of writing disciplines.

Jackie G. Williams, amongst other things, is a poet.

I read the book in a sitting.

Will be passing it on to my loved ones. Will “Yesterdays Children” connect with everyone? No. No work does. But at 43-pages, and barely over a buck, this author is all but giving away this work, verily this gift.

Hope she sells a million-plus copies.

To the author:

Dear Ms. Williams,

I’m stunned. Wish I had words. And I’m supposed to be a writer. Thank you so very much for this great piece of work.

All my best,

Rob M. Miller

Ready to purchase your own copy of Yesterday’s Children?  Click here.

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Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Underground,” by Craig Spector

Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Underground,” by Craig Spector

Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.

*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….

A risky book. A reader’s book.  A writer’s.  A streamlined horror epic!

Underground ... a compelling page-turner, with not a single wasted word!

Underground … a compelling page-turner, with not a single wasted word!

“Underground,” by Craig Spector, a three-star winner! (Which means that I LOVED IT.)

Craig Spector, of course, stands as one of the greats in the horror community’s pantheon of writing gods, a pillar, and who—it can be argued—along with John Skipp, fathered the sub-genre of splatterpunk. True or not—and it’s more true than it isn’t—I can’t deny the impact his works have had on me over the years, back-in-the-day, taking me through high school and beyond, and repeatedly knocking my socks off with “The Light at the End,” “The Scream,” “The Cleanup,” “The Bridge,” and more.

“Underground” has been no different.

And yet it was!

Here’s the book’s description:

Once upon a time there were seven good friends. They were the forgotten little brothers and sisters of the Big Chill generation, born in the turbulent year when the flames of Watts lit the City of Angels and napalm kissed the war-torn skies of Vietnam. They called themselves The Underground. For Justin and Mia, Josh and Caroline, Amy, Seth, and Simon, there was nothing but drugs and music, combined with boundless cynicism and a deep yearning for something that really mattered.

As graduation rolled around, they knew they would drift apart. By Labor Day weekend, there was just enough time to throw one last private party. But where? Creepy old Custis Manor was temporarily uninhabited. So they motored out to the moldering southern plantation, ready to party the night away.

They could not have known that on the other side of the mirrors, something watched: a

My first visual of Craig Spector and John Skipp--back in the day.  It actually gave me a nightmare.  An image to never be forgotten.  Now how cool is that!

My first visual of Craig Spector and John Skipp–back in the day. It actually gave me a nightmare. An image to never be forgotten. Now how cool is that!

corrupt, voracious force, neither fully living nor truly dead. It was a soulless spirit of evil that had spent more than two hundred years cultivating its terrible powers.

It was the Great Night. And Custis Manor was its domain.

In one terrifying night their lives were forever shattered. One died. One disappeared. The survivors were scarred both inside and out. For twenty years, they couldn’t face the truth of what had really happened.

Until now.

One has gone back, and through the mirror. And now the remaining friends are forced to confront the demons of their own pasts and a greater nightmare beyond their comprehension. Together they must face the Great Night, lay waste to its vicious legacy, and free the thousands of souls still trapped there, as the reunited Underground meets the Underground Railroad of souls.

Does the above description do its job?

Tantalize a potential reader to give the work a shot?

I believe it does. It also sounds a tad bit familiar, if not in plot, then in concept. Seems to be part of the natural progression of writers—at least in the spooky fiction realm—to want to pen a tale about youth wasted on the young, of jaded or otherwise damaged adults reuniting to right past wrongs, or otherwise “fix” something done in their—the assembled squad’s—collective past.

When this kind of story is done well, there are some real gems to be had. One cannot help but think of Stephen King’s “It,” Douglas Clegg’s “You Come When I Call You,” Golden’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” or Peter Straub’s superb “A Dark Matter.”

Does Spector’s “Underground” deserve to be mentioned with this kind of company?

YES.

But the book is different (as if that would be a surprise, which, of course—duh—it isn’t). What was a surprise—and a welcomed one—was the risk(s) the author took, and the challenge to be overcome.

“What challenge?”

Craig Spector ... handsome f***er.

Craig Spector … handsome f****r.

To overcome Craig Spector.

For the author, this might not have been a problem at all. This may just be part of my imagination. But often, for the very successful, for the lofty celebrity, be they a writer, an actor, a singer, a person’s previous work can become a speed-bump for future projects. Why? Because once a consumer gets satisfied with a work, once something has been consumed and enjoyed, the consumer often doesn’t want something new or different, but, instead, longs to have that previous experience replicated—again and again and again.

In my imagination, this must put a tremendous amount of pressure on an artist to keep doing the same ol’ dependable same ol’.

It makes money.

Makes consumers happy (not to mention publishers and agents).

Provides job security.

Of course, it can also produce hacks, can (and does) typecast, and can erode an artist’s willingness to … just do something different.

“Underground” is different. It’s different structurally, and with its prose.

The writing, itself, could almost be called literary. Almost. But not quite. The work is too accessible, too easy to read, the pages whizzing by too fast, to be anything quite as pretentious as literary. On the other hand, the prose does sing; despite the work’s ease-of-read, this writer can tell that the author labored to put down that just-right-word, just-perfect-line, just-right-paragraph, for page after page after page.

Yes, I know. This should be a given. After all, isn’t that a writer’s job? It is. But, unfortunately, it isn’t a given, and sometimes, even for the greats, one can get a sense of somebody just phoning it in. With “Underground,” however, this was certainly not the case.

The book’s point of view also stood out as a winner. Why? Because it couldn’t have been

Underground--by Craig Spector, the French Edition.   What a great cover ... and from France!  Who woulda thought?

Underground–by Craig Spector, the French Edition.
What a great cover … and from France! Who woulda thought?

easy. (Well, it might’ve been for Spector.) With “Underground,” the author chose an omniscient third-person narrator, but one so unobtrusive, that despite the inevitable loss of intimacy offered by first-person or third-person limited, I still felt quite close and connected to the characters.

Another risk?

Yes, the structure. Though the book’s not short of dialogue and immediate scenes, overall, the work’s got a narrative engine propelling the plot, with plenty of (necessary) back-story provided.

In the hands of anyone but a craftsman, this would not have worked.

Next, the author pulled off writing a chaff-free affair. Unlike … say … Straub’s “A Dark Matter” (a monster of some 600-pages), Spector, not opting for an inches-thick tome with loads of elbow-room, instead produced a streamlined tale of only a mere 257-pages, and that, stopping on a dime, right where the tale needed to end—and not a word more.

Now that’s a feat.

Maximum story in minimum time!

With “Underground,” will every reader be happy?

No. Of course not. Such is the case with any work, by any author, but especially with books that are well done. And especially with works that are a stretch, a risk, something outside of the typical play-box.

With “Underground,” readers aren’t going to get “The Bridge” or “The Scream,” or some other vintage-esque Spector-work in competition with his other titles (or anyone else’s). Instead, one gets the chance to consume a story written by a mature writer at the top of his game, a work—that due to its quality—was probably produced more out of a labor of love (and if not love, perhapsnecessity) than anything as mercenary as simply wanting to make a buck.

For those that love to read, “Underground” does its job.

For those that love to read and love to write, there’s a lot to learn here.

All my best,

Rob M. Miller

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Rob’s Critical Book Review: “A Matter of Blood,” by Sarah Pinborough

 

Rob’s Critical Book Review: “A Matter of Blood,” by Sarah Pinborough

 

Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.

 

*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….

 

A horrific story of pure noirish delight!

A Matter of Blood--Book Cover

Have you read “The Unblemished,” by Williams, “Mr In Between,” by Cross,” “Straw Men,” by Marshall/Smith, or “The Dead Letters,” by Piccirilli? Then goody for you. Now do yourself a solid and pick up this book by Sarah Pinborough!

“A Matter of Blood,” by Sarah Pinborough, an award-worthy four star book.

Sarah Pinborough’s work has been around for a while, a decade-plus, and I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying some of her novels, specifically her Dorchester work, published through Leisure.  Amongst these, I’ve read:

  • The Hidden
  • The Reckoning
  • Breeding Ground

 

All three of these were courtesy of my belonging to Leisure’s Horror Book Club, where I would receive a couple of their dark fiction titles a month.  Lots of great work came through this venerable pipeline, and Lady Pinborough’s stories were a welcome addition.  The above listed titles were all enjoyable three star tomes, solid pieces well worth the money and the time to read.

Unfortunately, with there being a lot of fine writers and great stories, I lost track of Ms. Pinborough.  Like all story addicts, I’ve a to-be-read pile that never manages to shrink.  And … really?  What’s the problem?  I’ll read more of Pinborough later.

Later … later … later.

But, finally, I did!

A Matter of Blood.

Shopping at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, seeing this softback’s incredible cover, its great title, its even more enticing sub-title, and then to read that it was only book one of “The Dog-Faced Gods,” I knew I had to have it.  But even then, that damnable to-be-read pile interfered, and it was some months before I got to it.

But I did.

And WOW!

Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough … looking innocent. As if.

With the previous three novels that I had read, again, I had always been consistently entertained, but what a treat it was to read a book that displayed a massive jump in prose and storytelling.  No, the comment isn’t fair, and no this so-called jump isn’t new (if it’s even real), not with it now being 2014 and this tale coming out back in 2010.

But it was new to me.

Check out the blurb on the back of the book:

The recession that is gripping the world has left it exhausted, and deep in debt to The Bank, a secretive company run by the world’s wealthiest men.

Detective Inspector Cass Jones has quite enough on his plate: two schoolboys have been massacred on his patch, and he’s also tracking down a serial killer who calls himself the Man of Flies.  Then his brother shoots his own wife and child before committing suicide, and Cass is implicated in their deaths.  When he starts seeing silent visions of his dead brother, the DI goes on the hunt himself—only to discover that all three cases are linked.

As Jones examines his own family history, three questions keep reapearing: What disturbed his brother so badly in his final few weeks?  Who are the shadowy people behind The Bank?  And, most importantly, what do they want with DI Cass Jones?

Intriguing?

Yes.

Can't wait to read!

Can’t wait to read!

But even this tantalizing bit doesn’t do the book justice.  And, frankly speaking, all too often, I find these things in reverse, where a book’s actual story doesn’t live up to such back-cover teasers.  Such is the power of A Matter of Blood, a book which far surpassed my expectations.

Of a truth, A Matter of Blood is so good, that with this first offering of a trilogy, Sarah Pinborough, in my mind, is now right up there with the greats in this style of story, my list of writing gods whom I consider to be masters of what they do, such as Conrad Williams, Neil Cross, Michael Marshall Smith, and Tom Piccirilli.

In closing, “A Matter of Blood” is a cross genre work to please audiences across the board: sci-fi, fantasy, and certainly horror.  The magic, in part—if such things can be defined—is in the way that A Matter of Blood subtly blends these elements under the over-riding thread of well-crafted noir.

And this is just book one!

Read it and see what I mean.

If the sequels meet or exceed this opener’s high standards, down the road, this trilogy might well turn out to be one of Pinborough’s master works.

All my best,

Rob M. Miller

Book Three in the series of "The Dog-Faced Gods."  Oh, the hopes I have.

Book Three in the series of “The Dog-Faced Gods.” Oh, the hopes I have.

A side note to the author:

Dear Ms. Pinborough,

In 2010 the Stoker winner for best novel was Peter Straub for “A Dark Matter,” which might well be a perfect novel.  If one has to lose, it couldn’t be done under better circumstances.  Fortunately, such awards, as subjective as they are, do not minimize the merits of other works, and for those in-the-know, there really is no such thing as “losing,” least not for the tales we love.  In the case of “A Matter of Blood,” for this renewed fan of your work, you hit one out of the park.

No, I haven’t yet read parts II and III, but will, and with enthusiasm.  After all, I want to see what you’ve done … where you’ve gone with DI Jones, and what you’ve put down on the page.  Reading other reviews, it’s apparent, as always, that people have their differing tastes, but for this reader, with this book, you’ve made something … darkly wonderful.  Perhaps this novel was easy to write.  Maybe you were tapped into your muse and things just flowed.  In my imagination, however, you went outside of your box, took risks, stretched.  In my fantasies, the work might have even scared you.  Perhaps you wondered: Oh, my God, this might be good … might even be great.  Who knows but you.  And it’s no one’s business but yours.

Save for this: Whatever your process, compass, method, or manner of teeth-pulling, keep doing what you do.

Please.

All my best,

A renewed fan.

Sarah Pinborough, Dark Fiction Artist Extraordinaire

Sarah Pinborough, Dark Fiction Artist Extraordinaire

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Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Meat,” by Joseph D’Lacey

meat rector

Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.

*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….

Meat, by Joseph D’Lacey
A Genre-bending Nightmare

With certain books–like this one–a question might arise.  “Why review this novel?”  The answer doesn’t come as easy as one might imagine.  In this case, and with similar quality books, it’s tempting to pass the whole review-thang.

Why?

Because the book may seem too big a hit, too popular, already well-plugged (and in this case, by Stephen King, no less).  What could be the point of one more review?

On the other hand, this is a work I read and enjoyed.  And really, will one more review hurt anyone?

In this case, it just might.

“Meat” is a four-star (meaning award-worthy) novel.  It’s also one of those rare stories that is destined–once consumed–to stay with a reader.  Like, forever.  Some stories do that.  They not only entertain, but they … they leave their mark on a given consumer.

They scar.

Meat certainly does.

Here’s the book’s description, as rendered on Amazon:

Abyrne, the last enclave in a wasteland. All food is produced by Magnus Meat Processing and controlled by the Parsons of the Welfare. Richard Shanti, the ‘Ice Pick’, is Abyrne’s legendary bolt-gunner, dispatching hundreds of animals every hour to supply the townsfolk with all the meat they could want. But Shanti is having doubts about his line of work. When war breaks out between the corporate and religious factions, Shanti must sacrifice everything he loves in order to reveal the truth behind Abyrne’s power structures and fight for what he knows is right. In a world where eating meat has become not only a human right, but a sacred duty, what happens to those who question the nature of the food source? The townsfolk are hungry. The townsfolk must be fed…

With the above description, if a person hasn’t already figured out the mystery of just what this protein source happens to be, then such a reader is probably new to the realm of dark fiction.

Without giving away any spoilers, suffice it to say, that despite this reader “knowing” what

Joseph D'Lacey, artist extraordinaire.

Joseph D’Lacey, artist extraordinaire.

was up, almost from the git … I was still moved.  Still disgusted.  Still horrified.  Still amazed at how the plot, the characters, this future post-apocalyptic scenario (and town, and people) kept me reading and reading, pages turning and turning.

I was also surprised at how the work challenged certain areas of my thinking, about the food industry, about my own dietary habits, my views on … a number of things.

And this is one of the criticisms of the book, at least leveled by some.  That “Meat” is a manifesto, a piece of propaganda, a socio-political experiment.

Maybe it is.

Perhaps, like Nabokov’s book “Lolita,” it’s a practical joke on the reader.  An experiment to see if whether or not the prose is solid enough, can a reader be subjected to bevy after bevy of gross-outs.

Is the work more horrifying than “Make Room, Make Room,” by Harry Harrison, or the symbiotic relationship between Wells’s Eloi and Morlocks?  Maybe not.  But whereas those stories offer a safer and more oblique–more theoretical form of horrific realization, “Meat” SHOWS … EVERYTHING.

It rubs the viscera, bloody and raw, in the reader’s face.  Daring a person to put the book down … to return, perhaps, on another day.  Double-dares a person to only take on a few chapters at a time … anything to let story digestion take place a little easier on the stomach.

Yet the blood-and-guts, the smell, the touch, is not the real horror.  It’s the clinical, apathetic, business-like way that the carnage is conducted.

meat_finalIt’s horrifying.

But is this a book of horror?

Um, yes.

But it’s also undeniably a work of science fiction.  If for no other reason than for the period of time in which the story takes place, which is some undefined point in the future (ala McCarthy’s “The Road”).

The work’s also a character study.  A sociological study.  Hence, the charges ofpropagandistic writing.

How does this critical reader define this genre-bending novel?

Meat,” by Joseph D’Lacey, is a fairy tale.

A not-so-modernistic-as-it-might-seem fairy tale.  And one of the grimmest sort.

It’s masterful.

Compelling.

Heart-rending (if not flesh-rending).

It’s a must-read by any horror aficionado.  In short order, I’ll be taking on the rest of D’Lacey’s catalogue.

I suggest others do the same.

Just have a strong stomach.

All my best,

Rob M. Miller

Winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, D’Lacey is best known for his shocking eco-horror novel MEAT. The book has been widely translated and prompted Stephen King to say “Joseph D’Lacey rocks!”.

When not realising his fantasies on paper, he dabbles in Yoga and continues a quest for the ultimate vegetarian burger recipe.

He lives in Northamptonshire with his wife and daughter.

Be sure to visit Mr. D’Lacey at his website.

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Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Bird Box,” by Josh Malerman

Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.

*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….

The Bird Box--by Josh MalermanAmongst the many books I had the pleasure of getting my hands on at the World Horror Convention in Portland, Oregon, this year, one was Josh Malerman’s breakout novel “The Birdbox,” a gorgeous-looking hardback with a great cover and a simple title that doesn’t give away the goods.

Was I disappointed?

Quite the contrary. 

This book, a four-star award-worthy effort, delighted from beginning to end, a tome finished in one short, and one longer sitting.  With the war taking place between self publication, indie, and legacy publishing, it’s nice to see a company like HarperCollins—whether they’re good or bad—pick up a new author and work like this, support, and distribute this book. 

It’s my fervent desire that the author makes a mint, but more-so, that his work gets as wide a distribution as possible.

The story? 

Here’s the book description given on Amazon:

Written with the narrative tension of The Road and the exquisite terror of classic Stephen King, Bird Box is a propulsive, edge-of-your-seat horror thriller, set in an apocalyptic near-future world—a masterpiece of suspense from the brilliantly imaginative Josh Malerman.

Something is out there . . .

Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman, must-read breakout author.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now, that the boy and girl are four, it is time to go. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motley group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos. But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted?

Interweaving past and present, Josh Malerman’s breathtaking debut is a horrific and gripping snapshot of a world unraveled that will have you racing to the final page.

High claims, yes, but I found them to be true. 

Interestingly enough, in one interview, Malerman claims he doesn’t view the story as apocalyptic.  In this case, he’s wrong.  The story is.  But unlike many such tales, where the world is shown to be falling apart, with entire regions and cities devolving into ruin, the “Bird Box” opts for something far more intimate, a microcosmic view into the life of one dominant character and her band of fellow survivors.  It’s this intimate approach that enables a reader to identify with the character(s), the maddening situation, and the myriad stressors associated with living in a world where “seeing” can and will cause certain death.

Cormac McCarthy landed a Pulitzer for his novel “The Road.”

Did he deserve it? 

Probably.

Who am I to say?

But with the “Bird Box” (as different a book as it is), a chaff-free, superbly edited work, that starts and finishes right where it needs to, a work that had me reading into the wee hours, a story plugged by none other than the writing god Peter Straub, I can honestly say I enjoyed it just as much.

 

An office to die for.

An office to die for.

In the world of horror, where I can consistently feed on standard tropes of werewolves, vampires, zombies, and demons (and yes, I still love all of ’em), what a treat it is to dine with something different. 

For avid readers, whose bookshelves are like mine, overrunning, e-books are a boon.  Cheaper, certainly, but also a space-saving prize.  With “Bird Box,” though, take my advice, and get the book, the real book. 

And get it in hardback.

Note to the author:

Dear Mr. Malerman,

Thank you for an incredible story.  As you surely know, no writer pleases everyone.  But your work certainly pleased me.  With the “Bird Box,” thank you for your bravery as a craftsman, for taking the risks you did with your prose.  Thank you for not fully opening the closet door with the story’s boogeymen.  Thank you for the rocks you threw at your characters, and for the stones that hit—even if painfully.  And for those that came close.  Thank you for writing a work I never felt compelled to skim.  Thank you for Malorie, for Boy and Girl, and even for—gulp—Gary.  The one thing I will not be able to thank you for, is if you quit. 

May your horrors stay limited to the written page.

All my best,

Rob M. Miller

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Rob, off the cuff: Why have beta readers?

Why have beta readers?

Typically, a beta reader is a non-professional reader (yes, I know, I would love to get paid to read) who “test reads” a written work before it’s submitted to market, for the supposed purpose of finding any spelling, grammar, or punctuation glitches, plot gremlins, character problems, as well as positives with all of the same.

Sounds like a good idea.  A kind of test drive. 

Who could argue with such a practice?

But there are considerations.

First, there’s the ethical dilemma involved.  If there is one.

Without blinking an eye, it would appear that many writers, who more-than-likely believe they should get paid for their work (and they should), have no problem with what appears to be free editorial service. 

If a beta reader can tell there’s serious issues with a manuscript, what are they supposed to say?  It’s hard to imagine a vague answer getting anythingbut a writer then asking: “What do you mean?”

If a detailed answer is needed, this amounts to editing, and a person should probably get recognized, if not paid.

Isn’t that what editors are for?

And if a beta reader is not an editor, their feedback as to S.G.P. matters, structure, character composition, and all the rest, might not be all that qualified. 

But perhaps there’s another reason for having friends, family, or Internet writing buddies taking a peek.  And this is one that I suspect to often be the case, that of a writer needing validation.  Some people to say, “Hey, you blew me away, can’t wait to read another.”

When this is the reason—and admittedly, it isn’t always the reason—I admonish said writer to toughen up and have some confidence!  A writer, especially a newish one, may surely feel scared, a bit intimidated, and yes, in dire need of validation.  It takes no small act of bravery to submit one’s work for public consumption.  On the other hand, the quivering writer would do well to take their writing hat off, and put their reading cap back on.  After all, with little exception, writers tend to be avid readers—which is code for addicted.  They’ve read hundreds, if not thousands of books.  And have paid money to do so.  I would ask such people, since when have you ever read a book and then not known whether or not you’ve liked it?  When was the last time you bought a book, and after reading it, couldn’t tell if your money and/or time wasn’t well spent? 

If there’s a brain in that writer’s head, and if they’re a writer, there should be, the answers are self-evident.  They have, if not gobs of experience writing and revising and submitting, more than enough experience to be able to read a piece of work—in this case, their own—and objectively determine whether or not it is any good—at least to them. 

Furthermore, as unique as people are—and they are—they are only about as unique as everyone else.  It’s a safe bet that if a writer loves a piece of work, then others will, too!

So again, why have a beta? 

Why have a beta when an author, with their own art, is already an alpha! 

Or should be.

Validation, again, is often the reason, which is fine.  But at some point, it would behoove such writers to toughen up, believe in themselves, and for better or worse, good or bad, accept that they are who they are, artisans of the written word.

Of course, a writer may very well use beta readers for other reasons, too.

Here’s one:

It sounds so … so official.  People do love their jargon.

“Hey, Joe Writer, how’s that story coming along?”

“Got the manuscript (here, “manuscript” sounds so much more writerly than “story,” doesn’t it?) out to my beta readers right now.”

Newish writers coming into crit-groups, live or online, as well as writing-oriented Facebook hangouts start to hear/read this “beta reader” term, can be quick in wanting to get-with-the-program. 

Here’s another: Editors can be very expensive.  So much so, a writer can feel—and with good reason—that they are priced out from such services.  The Editorial Freelancers Association has posted what they consider the going rate for such learned eyes on a page.  Give it a peek at: http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php.  Paying $30 to $40 an hour—EEK!—for simple proofreading alone might seem outrageous.  For many writers, after working their full-times and that weekend thing to make ends meet, there isn’t much left over for so-called professional editing. 

Who can blame them?

Bring those betas on!

For those choosing to use betas, are there any rules on how it should be done?

Well, no.  Nothing firm.  A writer has a lot of leeway.  More or less, the arrangement is whatever’s good for both the writer and the beta.

But here’s some pointers for writers to consider:

1) When submitting to betas, submit your best work.  Best in terms of content (story), appearance (which means “formatting”), and technique (craft).  Appreciate your beta’s time.  They should not have to spell check what should have been caught by both a spell-and-grammar check program, and a writer paying attention to detail.  Submit to your betas the way you would to a publisher, with work clean and formatted according to generally accepted practice. 

Proper manuscript format can be found in MS-Word’s document templates, or on the Internet.  For one online sample, consider visiting William Shunn’s site at: http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html.

2) If, for whatever reason, you’re planning on submitting a raw manuscript, meaning a first to early draft piece of work, possibly poorly structured and loaded with errors, be considerate and let your beta know, “Don’t worry about all the bugs; instead, focus on the plot (or the character(s), or the milieu/setting).”  

3) If a particular beta is not a writer, not an editor, but is an avid reader, encourage that beta to review the manuscript in that manner, as a reader.  A series of questions might be offered, such as the questionnaire developed by dark fiction author Tim Waggoner (http://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/2014/01/fiction-writing-assessment-form.html).

4) Keep your betas private, and do not volunteer their names to other writers, at least not without a test-reader’s knowledge and permission.  Later, of course, do thank your betas for their valuable time, if not inpublic or in an acknowledgement section, then personally.

5) There are betas and there are betas, and all are not equal.  But with that, treat them all with equal respect—and never blame them, not even to yourself, for any goofs not caught.  Typically, betas are not editors.  Typically, authors are not even editors.  Like with any written work, an author must take responsibility for their own baby.

All my best,

Rob M. Miller 

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Rob, off the cuff: But I can’t write X

… BUT I CAN’T WRITE X

In a closed Facebook group, in casual conversation, a writer–and a very good one–made an off-the-cuff statement:

“I love reading fantasy but I can’t write it. (Aside from urban fantasy.)”

With the above, is the line provocative, jarring, or controversial?  Not at all.  Perhaps it’s even something that any of us might write, or some derivation thereof.  Nonetheless, it caught my eye and I responded.

Below’s my sanitized response:

Dear [Author],

I bet you can and do write fantasy!

When it comes to such genre terms as this, i.e., “fantasy,” or “thriller,” etc., we’d do well to remember that these are relatively new, or newish terms.

They’re marketing terms.

But originally, writers of fiction, and especially of prose that contained any kind ofspeculative element, were called … yes, you got it:

fantasists.

Another antiquated term for storytellers at large was “fabulist.”

And, really, strictly-speaking, most horror writers are actually dark fantasy writers, anyway. Why?

Genre definition.

What is horror? How is it defined?

The lines do get blurry, don’t they? I don’t mind my own tripod of a definition, that of horror being divided amongst psycho-crazy tales, supernatural freakies, and B.E.M. stories (bug-eyed monsters), but, and again, strictly-speaking, what is horror about? The answer is the unknown.

Terror, on the other hand, is fear of the known.

Most horror stories, and if not most, then a significant number thereof, deal with things that quickly become known. There’s a vamp, a mummy, some spreading manmade or alien-brought infection.

Really, what’s the difference between a vamp next door, or a charging grizzly bear? One might even present a strong argument that dealing with a vamp would be easier. Both, though, are in essence dealing with the known; in this instance, that of monsters.

The lesson?

Amongst others, it’s that the unknown threat in the closet is horrifying, but once the light is turned on, whether said threat is a boogeyman, a bloodsucker, or a child-hungering hag, the tale’s now moved on to something known, or relatively-so; it’s become a monster-tale. A dark fantasy.

Peter Straub’s magnificent novel “Shadowland” can equally be called either or horror story or a dark fantasy.

Then there’s an even better definition of horror, that it is an emotion. With this, as a genre descriptor, the term suddenly has far wider implications than what would be had by marketing specialists.

I would argue that Steinbeck’s unparalleled work “Of Mice and Men” is a horror story, as much as it is anything else. For myself, a Bible-believing man–I find it horrifying that in this tale, the most loving thing that can be done for poor Lennie Small is to put a bullet into the back of the man’s skull.

In closing, for you, [author], yes, but for all of us, too, let’s understand genre terms, and their importance in marketing, but at the same time, let’s not let them define what stories actually are or are not within our ability.

Indeed, perhaps we as writers should consider excising the word “can’t” completely from our vocabulary, at least in terms of our self-imposed boundaries as writers/artists.

Sure, we all have our short- and long-suits, but as writers, we can! We really can. Just look at how many times we thought we couldn’t but we did.

Words have meanings. Let’s not have the business side of writing co-op our language. If we’re fiction writers, we lie in order to tell truths. And if we’re fiction writers, we’re fantasists and fabulists, dark, light, or otherwise.

All my best,

Rob M. Miller

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Friends and Family? Beta-readers? Why send your story to anyone other than an editor, agent, or a publishing house?

Recently on Facebook, an author had a question concerning beta-readers.  Then another writer asked the question:

I don’t understand. Who’s getting this final draft?  Family and friends?  Test readers?  If the ms. is ready to go, why not just send it to your agent or to a publisher? 

Below was my response:

Typically, turning over mss. to friends-and-family isn’t the best of ideas, but there’s certainly exceptions. Often what these people lack, besides objectivity, is the needed language–i.e., writer’s jargon–with which to help an author. Often they simply say:

“I really liked it.”

“What specifically?”

“I dunno … just grabbed me.”

Or:

“I’m not too sure about this one … didn’t seem to work.”

“Why was that, exactly?”

“Dunno … just didn’t.”

That’s not to say non-writers CAN’T offer a good critique, either. Many can. And some of these make for good beta- or test-readers.

Sometimes an author goes through a process of writing, revising, editing, revising, editing, on-and-on, till finally they’re exhausted and their baby needs a fresh pair of eyes. Then test readers are brought in. Later, perhaps a spell checker or proofer, finally an editor, and then maybe another proof, or even a fact checker.

Sometimes this process is done in-house, with an editor making several passes and then a proof reader or copy editor going to work. Sometimes these steps are streamlined, with an author turning over draft number eight to an editor, and afterwards, perhaps after a total of three passes (which is the minimum number I do) there’s a ready-to-be-submitted manuscript.

Some authors even turn in a draft and get it published, more-or-less as-is, like Dean Koontz, the ultimate anal author. This guy writes his mss. one page at a time, but then revises or perfects that single page upwards of 25-or-more times before going to the one, with this repeated, page after page. When he’s done with his so-called first draft, it’s not really a first draft, is it? Of course, in Koontz’s case, his obsessive compulsive bent pays off, with bestseller after bestseller (God knows I love his work, even if he does slip on occasion into purple prose).

What’s important for the author to know, any author, is that they have multiple options, and ultimately, that one great responsibility and opportunity, which is to make sure that whatever their final output happens to be, it’s in its best possible form.

For some writers, and this, I’m sure, isn’t applicable to Ellen, beta- or test-readers are used for something else, too: validation. And if this is needed, then it’s needed.

This, of course, is not always the case. Chuck Palahniuk, author of “Choke” and “Fight Club,” has used beta-readers from his closed writing group. My friend, author Lisa Leigh Lane uses them as well.

So, should they be used?

It’s a gray area.

What’s a given is that a writer should write, polish, and then submit. If they have access to talented beta-readers and it works!–fantastic. If a writer has done so in the past, and it didn’t serve much, then they might pass on that next project.

In the end, whether it’s a beta-reader or an editor, a sister, friend, or a crit-group, just make sure that the baby-in-question is going to be treated with respect. A review, whether by someone supposedly learned or not, in the end, is that person’s opinion.

Ultimately, it’s about what the author thinks, and about whatever they believe is best for their baby.

All my best,

Rob M. Miller

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