Saturday, February 28, 2009

Castaways, (Leisure Fiction) by Brian Keene

Keene's homage to late friend and mentor Richard Layman moves at a blistering pace. A visceral, fast-paced narrative makes this an engrossing read, the type of novel that demands to be finished in a day or two. No moments or characters shine in particular, but it's an entertaining tale; suspenseful, full of gut-wrenching action: everything readers have come to expect from a Brian Keene novel.

They're cliché personified: the girl next door, the foul-mouthed mechanic with hidden substance, the determined mother, the alluring temptress, the uncouth redneck, the aloof “weird guy”, the nice guy hiding his inner geek, and the cold-hearted strategist willing to sacrifice anyone for his goals. They're among the cast of the popular reality television series Castaways, and on a deserted, remote tropical island they've gathered to compete for fame, glory, and most importantly: millions of dollars.

At first, it seems the average reality television show, full of physical challenges, shifting alliances, plots, blooming romance, simmering lust and sharp betrayal. Things change with reports of an impending tropical storm. Most of the crew is recalled from the island, but the cast, two cameramen and a producer are left behind to weather the storm's fury, because of course: the show must go on. What could spike the ratings better than the drama of a tropical storm?

However, this island isn't deserted...not at all. Something moves in the dark shadows, creatures that live deep in the island's caves. They're a dwindling race, slightly malnourished, whose stock has fallen to frequent birth defects. They are, however hungry...and not just for food, either. As the last crew member leaves for the safety of the ship anchored off-shore, the tropical rains moves in, and the real storm begins – one that will wash the beach red with blood before it ends.

Keene's versatility is already well proven, and “Castaways” shows what everyone already knows: that he's a storyteller at heart who wants to thrill and entertain. Perhaps most enjoyable is the ending, because it offers simple and reaffirming resolution for the reader, a rare and pleasurable treat.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Jake's Wake, (Leisure Fiction), by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow

In “Jake's Wake”, Splatterpunk veteran John Skipp and newcomer Cody Goodfellow team up to paint a bloody vista that will remain entrenched in the reader's imagination long after the last page. An effortless collaboration, the narrative is seamless, unified. There's no guessing where Skipp ends and Goodfellow begins. They meld their differing styles smoothly to fashion a story that hits the ground running and never lets up, not until its surprisingly spiritual last page.

Pastor Jake always promised his congregation he'd rise from the dead. A two-bit con man, former rocker-turned cable television evangelist, Jake's always been able to influence those around him. He has a nose for scams, wields an uncanny ability to bend weak wills to his own, and has left piles of broken lives – and bodies - in his wake. But now he's dead, run through the guts by a vengeful boyfriend, sent to the “other side” far sooner than he'd ever expected.

That's okay, though...because Jake's back. Maybe he never quite believed his own dogma; maybe he did. As a resurrected Jake climbs from his coffin during his wake, he realizes it doesn't matter, because he's back baby; back from the dead. It's time to usher in a new world, bathed in a baptism only Jake can deliver: one of never-ending blood. Tonight, Jake's going to collect his true believers and cut the fat from the meat – literally.

Skipp and Goodfellow land punch after visceral punch to the reader's mind and heart. There's more to this tale than torn bodies and spilled guts, however – though there's plenty of that, too. Couched in fun, bloody violence, terror and suspense are gripping questions about faith and fanaticism. What is true faith, and when does it cross the line? What separates a man of God and someone who believes he is god? And, when someone comes back...what do they bring with them? These are questions everyone can ponder, and along the way they can also pray to God their favorite televangelist doesn't die and come back looking for true believers.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

The Pines, (Leisure Fiction), by Robert Dunbar

Horror lovers expect many things: chills, journeys to places far and fantastic, an upset stomach. Monsters, both supernatural and everyday. Ghosts, demons...maybe even a goblin or two. A must, however, is quality storytelling. The genre absolutely ripples with those who craft enjoyable, thrilling tales, but it's a treat to encounter a work that's dark, brooding – downright frightening – and beautifully written. “The Pines”, by Robert Dunbar, is such a work. Boasting a vivid, literary voice, Dunbar twists the threads of reality and horror until the two are impeccably entwined.

Athena Lee Monroe never wanted to eke out life alone in an old, broken-down farmhouse on the edge of Jersey's Pine Barrens. Fate, of course, is a harsh taskmaster, so now Athena pushes numbly from one day to the next, working herself to exhaustion on a rag-tag highway ambulance crew. She struggles to provide for her mentally disturbed son Matthew, and she's locked in an adulterous affair she can neither stomach nor end. Her dead husband's sister-in-law Pamela helps around the house, but is inconsistent and self-involved. Her boss Doris is tough, caring, but distant, and her lover's partner – a gone-to-seed cop who mourns his own losses – is too locked in a drunken cycle of pity to help the woman he watches from afar.

While Athena and the others flail in emotional quicksand, something moves through the Jersey Pines; something feral, hungry, and merciless. It feeds on fear, pain, and meat. It lives for the hunt, and – like a demonic land-shark – it circles ever closer around Athena and Matthew. A connection has been forged between this beast and boy. Does it hunger for what Mathew has – a home - or for what he is, an enigmatic echo of a monster that defies the imagination?

The Pines” is truly an astounding work, a brooding tale told with haunting grace. The mystery of the Jersey Devil is intriguing, and the characters are real people with painful lives. We're not quite sure what to make of them as they try to make things right, fail, but still try again anyway. The narrative is rich, full of substance, and literary...very reminiscent of Mort Castle's “Moon Over Water”, though perhaps not as minimalistic in style. This is a work of art, and it only wets the appetite for its sequel, “The Shore”, and Dunbar's collection of short fiction, “Martyrs & Monsters”, soon to be released by Dark Hart Press.

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