Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands: Max Booth III’s The Nightly Disease

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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Oh, Max.  Ohhhhhh, Max.

I’ve known Max a long time; when I worked for one publishing company, I edited his first novel, Toxicity.  Last year, he coaxed one of my currently-favorite stories out of me when we got to talking about Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters (the story, if you’re curious, is “All That You Leave Behind”, which appeared first in the anthology Lost Signals and then was reprinted in my collection Bones Are Made to be Broken).  His short stories, to me, have always been grounded, while his novels are gonzo explorations of a (you would think) simple what-if; he throws as much shit at his characters to see what sticks and what they can dodge and he grows bolder with each novel he writes.

For the TL;DR crowd: There’s a reason I tend to think of Max Booth III in “rabid wolverine high on angel dust”; in his fourth novel The Nightly Disease, he writes a story that only the bastard child of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarrantino, with equal amounts of absurdism and over-the-top violence, intermixed with depths into the main character that are, actually, more startlingly real than the goofy violence.

The Nightly Disease is about Isaac, a night auditor at a mid-tier hotel in the guts of Texas.  Living a life best encapsulated by Trent Reznor’s “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” in 2004, a moment of selfishness, mingled with a moment of intense loneliness, soon spirals out of control in the most ridiculous, but oddly logical way.

The novel takes huge chunks of Max’s actual life–motel life, his job, the chronic masturbation–and fictionalizes them, passing it all through a filter in Max’s mind that no man should behold.  Throughout all of it, fatalism permeates–you know that, even if Isaac survives, he won’t change and, ultimately, he’ll wind up in exactly the same situation as at the start of the novel.

The story SHOULDN’T work, but does; Max’s prose line always read, to me, like he’s sprinting along a high wire, with only one false turn of phrase or sequence to send him and the story plummeting to mutual, glorious death; as he gets more confident and skilled, it becomes more like sprinting across a balance beam and the likelihood of him (and the story) failing becoming slighter.

The absurd elements (they all involve owls) are handled deftly; you could make convincing arguments that either they really happened or Isaac is really cracked.  Either one works.  Usually a writer tips their hand pretty definitively, or at least leans to one side, but the lunatic portions of our program are left completely to the reader to decide on.  I find that neat.

What struck me most about the novel is that Isaac is probably the worst hero–but also probably the most realistic because the dude, in his decision-making, is as shortsighted a person can be…which is fairly representative of the world at large.  The reader keeps hoping Isaac will make sense and the right decision but, no, he left-turns into utter disaster and you can only shrug and go, “You know, that actually makes sense.  The big, dumb idiot.”

In the end, The Nightly Disease follows what can now be typified as a “Max Booth III novel”: violent, absurd, fun to read.

You can pick up a copy here.

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A Reviewer in the Wastelands

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The TBR pile (on top of my ego-shelf), April 2017

 

I see it periodically on the Internet–a reviewer stating that they won’t bother reviewing stuff they don’t like because, why bother?  There are only so many hours in a day, so much to possibly review, and–fuck–most of us aren’t getting paid.

I’ve been thinking of that a lot recently–unsurprisingly as Bones Are Made to be Broken (insert subtle link to go buy my book) ends its fourth month out in the marketplace.  To date, Bones has gotten nine major reviews; made three “best-of” lists; and briefly flirted, in the “Long Fiction” category for the title novella, with a Bram Stoker nomination.

But the reviews, those that have come in and those potentially still-to-come (I think there’s one more around the bend–I sent a copy off to a place who would then offer it up to its stable of reviewers for any takers; we’ll see eventually if that happens), are the things I keep coming back to.  Because of what was mentioned above, why reviewers do it, and why I kinda miss it (?).

My first writing job was as a reviewer.  It was college and I’d fallen into journalism (as a rule, undergrads going for teaching degrees don’t have a lot of course-time for anything unrelated to education–as in, any.  None.) because, a, my girlfriend at the time was a communications major and, b–dammit, I want my name in print.  I eventually got a column (where I once spent an entire column planning my eventual funeral, because why not; I’m gonna have a marching band), a bullshit job title to justify paying me (except for the editors, contributors received either course credit or a “Hey, thanks!”), and a fuck-tonne of experience writing and editing.  (A lot of writers start out in journalism and there are numerous reasons why it’s a fantastic idea.  I’ll talk about it more at some point.  Maybe.)

Reviewing’s weird–of all the various sections of an outlet, it’s the most overtly I’m-talking-to-you-the-reader.  You have to encapsulate the entirety of a piece of art, without spoilers, give the reader a decent what-to-expect, and make a judgement on it.  But, throughout all of that, you’re holding forth to a reader about something.

There’s a certain amount of ego that comes with that that probably seems quaint in these everyone-has-a-fucking-Facebook-Twitter-Snapchat-Instagram-Tumblr-YouTube-platform times; why does your opinion matter more than some dumb fuck on a street corner lecturing pigeons?  Besides the paycheck, that is (maybe; I’m gonna come back to that)?

But, flipping that, reviewers are the audience.  They’re the stand-ins, the avatars.  They go to these movies, listen to these albums, play these games, read these books to help guide a potential future participant.

I’m weird–I like reading reviews after watching this show, reading that book, and seeing if my views jibe with the reviewer.  They don’t, usually, but it’s fun to compare notes.

But reviewing’s undergoing a sea-change–has been for a while, actually.  There’s always been some form of Amazon/Yelp/Goodreads out there (in the pre-Internet days of yore, we simply called that shit word-of-mouth), but now review sites pop up all over the place–some are built with some form of solid foundation and goal and focus, while others are a barely thrown-together blogspot website (is it me, or has blogspot become, like, the Geocities of the new millennium?  Not like WordPress, though–that shit’s gonna be around forever!).  But, they exist.  They, occasionally, post content.  They review.

Why?

This is what I keep coming back to.

I’m one of those fuck-you-pay-me writers.  I don’t work for free.  I won’t work for peanuts, particularly if I don’t know who the fuck you are (if there’s an opportunity I think is cool, I’ll lower my asking price, but that doesn’t happen often), and I sure as fuck won’t do it “for the love”–a concept I feel is so pungently obnoxious that it’s a blight on our industry, which is propped up by a legion of people too inexperienced to know any better.  We work hard for our art, amateurs and pros alike; goddammit, if there’s money to be had for said art, even pennies, then it better well fucking end up in our pockets.

Naturally, this thinking extends to journalism generally and reviewing in particular.  Of my nine blessed reviews (that’s not sarcasm; those fucking people rule), I would guess maybe three were by people paid by the outlet publishing the review and I feel I’m being generous there.  So, following the logic of not bothering to review things they don’t like, I guess I won on that one (all nine have been awesome, if you haven’t already gone to the Press link at the top of the page to see for yourself).  Because, if you’re not getting paid, you have to be highly fucking motivated to want to talk about this piece of art you’ve experienced.

(Side note: a part of me quails at constantly calling my stories about vampires, ghosts, nervous breakdowns, and dissolving relationships “art”.  I tell that part of me “fuck you.”  The shit we do creatively is art–especially if it’s terrible.)

But what if the book sucks?  How motivated are you to talk about it?  Shit, how motivated were you to finish it?

To get back to my roots a little, I’ve been writing reviews for the Goodreads Reading Challenge I’m doing (tangent; I’m going to fail hilariously at reaching my goal) and I’ve been wondering what I’ll do when I get to a real clunker.  I mean, I’m not getting paid for this; I’m just talking about the books I’m reading.  My page views are hysterically low, so it really is just me blabbing about something to myself.  Will I bother with a bad review?

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Oh, fuck, yes.  In spite of enjoying talking about the shit I love, I also enjoy shit-talking the shit I hate.  I can be constructive, I can be clear in my points, but I shit-talk (I once read The DaVinci Code, at the height of Dan-Brown-mania, for the sole purpose of tearing it apart and spiting my mother, who told me I couldn’t talk shit after reading a few brief passages; I enjoyed the fuck out of ripping it up;  I also have a weirdly sarcastic relationship with my mother) and love doing it.

Also, it’s…good?…to be negative every once in a while.  It balances out all the praise being heaped.  Listen–in disciplinary practice (listen to this, I’m a teacher, here), neither all-negative nor all-positive reinforcement works.  You have to balance that stuff out.

Same with reviews.  I unconsciously tune out reviewers who only ever say these awesome things about these awesome pieces of art.  When everything is awesome, nothing is awesome.

But when you get that balance?  Oh man.  Example, I’m a big fan of the site Dead End Follies–and not just ’cause Benoit (I don’t know how to pronounce his name and just call him “Benny” in my head) sang the praises of Bones.  When he likes something, he will break it down.  But when he hates something?  Oh man, he will break that shit down.  Immediately, his review of the film Joy occurs to me.  It’s a great one.  Go find it.

And that’s the point.  Reviews are good or bad or indifferent–but they matter.  Good or bad.  That shit adds up–particularly if you’re an artist, who, at the end of the day, just wants to know that something they made left something of an imprint on the audience.   Again, good or bad.  You read/watched/listened/played something?  Talk about it.  Rant about it.  Sing its praises.  Whatever effect it had on you.

You don’t have a site of your own?  Use the digital bulletin board of Amazon (I don’t know if there’s any truth to the “Magic Number” of reviews to get more attention on Amazon, but why the fuck not go for the brass ring?) or Goodreads or, fuck, just your own goddamn social media wall.  But talk about it.  People want to know about this thing or that thing, whether to avoid or go hunting it down.

Tonight, for example.  I found one guy who’d picked up Bones Are Made to be Broken based on the strength of Shane Keene’s review of it over at HorrorTalk.  Upon hearing this, some other dude went and picked it up.  All because people were talking about it.  That shit’s cool.

As for me, I like reviewing the things I’m reading, if only because writing shit out has always been the best way for getting my head in order, even when I hate something.  So, if nothing else, being stranded in the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland has gotten me back to thinking that way.

So, do your part.  You can start by buying my book and, when finished, writing a review on it.  Good or bad.

BonesReviewsAreIn

Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland: Jonathan Maberry’s Predator One

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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And, oh, look at this–I’ve finished the Joe Ledger series (as far as I can, anyway; there are two more after Predator One, and Maberry’s writing another).  The next book I read in the Wastelands will be a comic-criminal book by Max Booth III–about as far as you can get from the tech-heavy, world-hangs-in-the-balance thriller-isms of Joe Ledger.

For the TL;DR crowd: Joe Ledger’s seventh adventure, Predator One, sees Maberry using a particularly tech-heavy conflict to lay Ledger & Co. low, resulting in a brutal climax that will leave the reader wondering if anyone–even near-sainted Rudy–will have any humanity left after the dust settles.

In my last review, for Code Zero, I said that the novel–marketed as a sequel to series-starter Patient Zero–felt like a continuation of a plot thread initially spooled out in Patient Zero, then continued in The King of Plagues.  By this same logic, Predator One feels like another continuation of that, with the Seven Kings returned, in a way, to menace Ledger and the DMS, further.

Actually, to be honest, out of the seven books, only two aren’t directly connected to one another–The Dragon Factory and Extinction Machine.  The other five novels all continue with this element or that element–either villain or methodology.

The same can be said here.  Predator One posits a sort-of return of the Seven Kings, unleashing what is essentially their Doomsday Scenario (while their plot in The King of Plagues was horrific, it was also controlled; in Predator One, the resulting damage is global).

The story reads in typical Maberry fashion, with a minor (relative to the remainder of the book) event pulling in the DMS and Joe Ledger in an escalating series of traps and set-backs, escalating the action and ratcheting up the tension until the climax explodes.  Seven books in, the reader knows the cast of characters and, even if readers are new to the series, the ease in which Maberry writes of each, along with their backstories, helps the reader climb in.

Predator One, from the perspective of someone reading merely for the action and the tension, is almost more explanatory-heavy than previous efforts; with the plans being deliberately about tech and computers, Maberry can’t just get away with “shit blowing up and computers going SkyNet on all our asses”.  So, there’s more pausing to explain here.  Now, Maberry has always had discussions of what’s causing the events–usually in discussions Ledger has with Dr. Hu or Bug, the DMS’s resident doctor and computer-nerd, respectively.  While the circumstances are similar to prior novels, they take longer and there are more of them so that the events make sense.  This doesn’t detract from the story–y’know, in that way some SF novels have; where the cleverness of whatever idea the writer has overshadows the goddamned story itself–but the reader notices.

The reveal of the Big Bad comes as no surprise, but I have to wonder if it’s supposed to?  They don’t say the name until nearly the end, but the reader puts the pieces together as soon as the character comes into a scene.  It’s vaguely irritating that the story doesn’t acknowledge it until later–but, then again, if everyone involved (except Ledger, who learns the same moment that the story finally names the Big Bad) talked incessantly about the identity, it would come across as hackneyed and forced, and Maberry doesn’t tend to traffic in that.

The brutality of the climax was startling, too, but in a way that makes sense–when the violence is at its fever-pitch, it comes from a place where the heroes are sure they lost, so they just don’t give a fuck, anymore.  It raises interesting questions Maberry might have to answer in later books.

The one wrinkle is the character Nicodemus, first introduced in Assassin’s Code and returning here.  For all the SF-elements, Maberry writes human, grounded stories–everything has an explanation, no matter how far-fetched it might sound.  Nicodemus is, at this point, outwardly the only supernatural element with no ready-made, grounded (ish) explanation and you get the feeling Maberry’s almost writing himself into a corner with the character.  I don’t know if he’s holding back on making Nicodemus the Big Bad of a later book–at this point, he’s merely been a guy on the peripheral–but his presence is fairly jangly.  Because of the world Nicodemus exists in, it feels like a double-edged sword–either sacrifice the grounded nature of the books, or lose the menace that comes from Nicodemus’s seemingly supernatural presence.

But all that will have to (maybe) be answered in later books.  For now–until I get more books in the series–I’m done.

Next, I go down to a surreal version of Texas in Max Booth III’s The Nightly Disease.

When Fangoria unexpectedly reviews your book

With BONES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN Anderson announces himself as a major talent in the dark fiction realm, capable of fashioning imaginative, bold visions and conceits powerful enough to “subdue the confident bluster of our day,” stop us in our tracks, and provoke us to consider the existential conundrums we can only really grapple with when we’ve been jolted outside of the constructs of our normal everyday experience.  – Shawn Macomber, Fangoria*

So.

That happened.

The magazine, that I’d read for ten years, reviewed my book.  The magazine that, through their book reviews led me to picking up Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero, Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, and David Wong’s John Dies at the End, reviewed Bones Are Made to be Broken…and liked it.  Indirectly, Fango led to my friendship with Maberry and, directly, led me to suggesting I Am Not a Serial Killer to student after student for the past seven years, which then led them to the rest of the trilogy.  (Even more indirectly, it led me to suggesting Maberry’s Rot & Ruin series to a kid and my school library to buying the whole series; they’ve since had to buy the series twice more because they’ve been read to tatters.)

It comes more mixed than it would’ve otherwise; Fangoria has not had the best few years, he says with something like an understatement, and they haven’t printed an issue in a long time.  There are a fuck-tonne of reasons, but I’m not in-the-know enough to speak on them with any degree of confidence.  Google that sucker.  You’ll find all the info you need, often from the mouths of people who’ve actually worked for the magazine, and you can draw your own conclusions.

It’s not bias or slant when I say that Fangoria isn’t what it once was and, if there is a slant there, it’s one with sadness.  Fango was the one magazine I read regularly.  The only magazine I had a goddamned subscription to, for years.  Most of the time, I pick up a magazine issue that interests me.  Not so with Fango; every issue had something for me.  I still have a stack of issues on my shelf that I’ll pull down and read periodically.

So, a bit of sadness at the state it now exists in.  I’m not alone when I hold out hope that’ll it climb itself out of whatever hole it’s in .  But Fangoria still holds a sway over my thoughts that, when I found out the review had been published, I squee’ed.  I couldn’t help it and, in my head, it still feels surreal.  (Of course, I found out at work, where the network firewall prevented me from reading the damned thing; the same firewall also prevents me from going to Dead End Follies.)

Fangoria fucking reviewed me.  Goddamn, son. Another “Are you fucking kidding me?” review, on top of all the others I’ve gotten (it is not bullshit to say that every review has surprised the fuck out of me in its content, thrust, and point).

You can, of course, pick up Bones Are Made to be Broken here and here.

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*FULL DISCLOSURE: Shawn Macomber, the reviewer, is a regular writer and worker at Fangoria; he and I also shared TOC pages in the anthology Savage Beasts, edited by Sharon Lawson and Anthony Rivera.

Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland: Jonathan Maberry’s Code Zero

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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*reaches the last page of Code Zero, the sixth book in the Joe Ledger series*

Well, fuck.  That escalated quickly.

For the TL;DR crew – Marketed as the sequel to Patient Zero, the novel that introduced the viral zombies and series protagonist Joe Ledger, Code Zero reads less like a sequel and more like a marriage between the standalone nature of Extinction Machine and the continuing-saga feel of the novels King of Plagues and Assassin’s Code.  A good novel, but newer readers wouldn’t really have to worry about reading Patient Zero before diving headlong into this one. 

Anyway.

So–yay!  Having re-read the previous installments in the Ledger series, I can finally crack open a new–to me, anyway–Ledger novel, a novel that’s been sitting on my shelf since late September of 2016 (hence the reason why I took on the laughably-doomed Goodreads Reading Challenge in the first place).  Being in this position, I’m kinda curious as to whether or not my initial reactions–written here, for the posterity of the literal handfuls of you–will hold up on re-reads.

That’s the fun of reviewing.

In any event, Code Zero finds Ledger pitted against a psuedo-anonymous terrorist going by the name Mother Night and, really, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.  Showing an intimate knowledge of the Department of Military Sciences, as well as executing a long-gestating strategy, Mother Night stretches the DMS to its limits with random bombings and acts of violence, all the while releasing short doses of Beserkers (the genetically modified brutes from The Dragon Factory) or releasing pathogens in contained areas for maximum effect (the weaponized ebola from The King of Plagues or the seif al dein virus from Patient Zero).  Joe Ledger, trying to maintain a normal life with romantic partner and cancer survivor Junie Flynn, is thrown through hoop after hoop, trying to stop Mother Night before she reaches her endgame.

For the first third of the novel, Code Zero reads less like a sequel and more like a traditional Ledger novel, with plot points continuing from previous novels.  In spite of knowing that Maberry outlines, then writes the end before properly “beginning” the novel, it felt until about the 50% mark that the novel could go either way–either straight into the Zombieland or continue on the trajectory it had been on.  At about that point–when the fallout from a particular incident with the zombie virus is fully known–it almost reads like Maberry got a better idea–or, rather, the story demanded it–and Maberry just ran in that direction.  Because of this, it doesn’t feel jammed in, but you can see a left turn taken, albeit one that’s organic to the circumstances of the story (which is good and one of the things I knock the later Repairman Jack novels for–that idea the story has to go this way).

Because of this, readers who want a zombie free-for-all have to wait until the climax, and only then in a controlled dose as described by Ledger–now knowing who Mother Night is–racing after the terrorist.  Again, it’s less than a sequel and more like the continuation of a plot line as seen in novels like The King of Plagues (which, it could be argued, is a sequel to Patient Zero in that the villain of both books is Sebastian Gault, with him “returning” in Plagues).

The novel, which could have been tripped up by any number of instances–continuity, the urge to “top” the first book, doesn’t.  The basic conceit derives naturally out of a what-if from Book One–what if the plague had gotten out of the Liberty Bell Center where the climax of Book One occurred?–and Maberry doesn’t try to go extreme with it (one of the things I enjoy–and it’s either through Maberry’s talent or his ability to work a problem through all permutations in his outlines–is that everything happens seemingly organically).  The villain, who Maberry posits has been around since even before Ledger came to the DMS makes sense and fits–the computer genius Bug didn’t get much space in the stories until Book Three, for example–and doesn’t feel like a continuity rewrite (there’s a flashback in Plagues that my ears always prick at, where Maberry and a full-fleshed out Echo Team are doing a mission.  The timeframe of the mission is between the events of Patient Zero and The Dragon Factory, but, during The Dragon Factory, Echo team is still reduced from the events of Book One.  This is my only instance of goofy reader trivia bookdom).  Readers will figure out the mystery of who Mother Night is before the characters do, but it isn’t much of a slog for the readers while they wait for the others to catch up.

Now.  Let’s talk that ending.  The ending makes the book and even though I thought it might happen, I didn’t expect it to.  I’m not going to spoil it, but I’ll say this–Maberry has never shied away from killing long-time characters, even if there does seem to be a veil of invulnerability over Ledger (obviously), Top, Bunny, Rudy, and Church.  Still, while I, the reader, could envision the brutal event, I didn’t think Maberry–who, while a martial arts expert and possessing of an awesomely vulgar conversational tone at times, resembles the uncle you knew as a kid that was the perfect person to lean against–would go for it.  Still, he did, but I gotta stress–in these post-The Walking Dead, doing-it-to-shock-the-audience times–that it was gratuitous or over the top.  It fit.

Now onto the last Ledger novel–for me, at least, since I don’t have either Kill Switch or Dogs of War, yet–Predator One.

Dispatches from the Goodread’s Reading Challenge Wasteland: Jonathan Maberry’s Extinction Machine

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

extinction machine

What’s funny is that, as I write this review, I’m nearing the completion of the sixth book in the Joe Ledger series, Code Zero.  Why the delay? Partly because I’m slowly working my way through various deadlines, but also partly because the last book Assassin’s Code was like the last book of a long-running storyline, and I gotta admit, I was sad to see it go.

For the TL;DR crowd: Extinction Machine, the fifth book in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series is probably the best opening for new readers to the series, aside from the first book, Patient Zero, itself.  Chock full of the quick-draw action, thumbnail depictions (or reminders) that are vibrant enough to get into and root for the characters, Machine also balances all its backstory from previous novels the way a standalone novel would and a newer reader wouldn’t have to play catch-up to enjoy this one.

Anyway.

As opposed to the previous entries, this is only my second time reading Extinction Machine.  Up until a few months ago, it was the most recent Ledger novel I owned.  Every time I acquired a new one, I would re-read the previous.  With that in mind, you can guess how often I’ve read the other books.

Because of that, I found that I’d forgotten huge swaths of the novel; whereas I could count on the beats in the other books, having read them so often, coming back to Book 5 was like reading it again for the first time.  I was good at remembering everything up to the introduction of Junie Flynn, a supporting character who becomes (for now) a series regular, but everything after was just…blank.

Okay, here come the deets: Extinction Machine takes on the idea of aliens.  When the president is abducted from his bed in the dead of night without a single alarm being tripped, Joe Ledger and his Echo Team are rolled out to stop the clock on the ransom that, unmet, could trigger one of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit the planet.  Also, aliens and cyberattacks.

What’s funny, for me, about Extinction Machine is that it goes right up to the line of “plausible” science fiction (technically, all the other stuff in the other books is “possible” if you had trillions of dollars, no laws, and no moral code or timetable), but doesn’t cross it.  A yeoman when it comes to research, Maberry has always striven for novels that are as grounded as zombies, genetic monsters, and vampires with nukes can be.  But it’s hard to bring in aliens without people wanting to bring in the tinfoil hats and Richard Dreyfus.  To that end, Maberry leaves the issue…ambiguous.  While he’ll go nitty-gritty about T-craft and the current scuttlebutt on the UFO community (he didn’t talk with Tom DeLonge, formerly of Blink-182, but that’s probably for the best), he leaves the actual topic of alien visitation as a “they’ve probably out there, they’ve probably visited, but I’m gonna keep them as indirect as I can within the framework of the story.”  If you’re hoping Ledger uppercuts a Gray, check that expectation at the door.

Because, to Maberry (as far as I can see), the point isn’t the aliens but Ledger’s reaction to the crisis–namely, getting the president back through a ransom payment.  I know the Ledger series is marketed as “sci-fi thriller” but that always seemed backwards to me; these are thrillers with elements of genre–whether they be SF or horror.  You don’t need the nitty-gritty on T-craft or gene therapy or prions to enjoy the story; they’re there if you want them, but what Ledger’s doing is always going to be more interesting than a paragraph on how usable a crashed UFO engine is.  However, “thriller with elements of genre” is hard to market and too wordy.

But, reading this, I was a little sad.  All the backstory–which Maberry gets better at with each book–is presented perfectly for new readers…and that’s because all the plot lines from previous books, really, are over.  The villain from Book One is in Book Three, but that’s done.  Same with the mastermind behind Book Three and Book Four.  With those novels, the backstory recap felt a little weighty because those elements still had repercussions within the new stories.  Here?  Those villains are gone, a status quo has been established as much as it can, and the series can, for now, present situations that new readers can dive in.

With that said, new characters–like the new members of Echo, or Junie Flynn–are brought in and they get a chance to stand out and introduce themselves.  Flynn is interesting.  With Book Four, Maberry toyed with giving Ledger another love interest, but didn’t.  Here, he makes it blatant–Flynn is a viable partner for Ledger.  This is interesting, because the situation with the almost-love in Book Four is still around.  It could be all melodramatic and panting, but isn’t (mostly because the action moves too fast to pause like that) .  I’ve always had problems with how the first relationship, between Ledger and Major Grace Courtland–Courtland was a great, well-articulated character that felt ill-used by the series trope of the tragic love (she wasn’t “fridged”, but the roll out of her from beginning to end always bugged me)–went, preferring how Maberry wrote the developing relationship between supporting characters Rudy (Ledger’s therapist friend) and Circe (Ledger’s boss’s daughter).  Here, though, we get another well-articulated character, a person in her own right (some series have love interests just to have them, it seems), who can be a partner to Ledger and it doesn’t feel forced.  I dug that.

Saying that, though, as the cast of characters grows, less and less time can be spent on them unless they’re top tier supporting.  In the early books, there was much to the interactions of Ledger with his top two guys, Top and Bunny, with a lot of great chemistry and naturalism.  As people come in, we get less of those moments–they still exist, but not as often or as deep.  With the newbies, they’re not cardboard, but it takes a moment to get to know them–two books in the case of characters like sniper John Smith.  As the books become more ensemble-like in its cast, Maberry’s having to work harder to get these characters breathing–the quick sketches that worked so well in the early books don’t have time here.  Not a critique or a praise, but more of a note.  Book 5 is halfway through where Maberry is now–writing Book Ten–and I’m curious to see how that develops.

So, there you go.  Aliens.  New loves.  What felt like less focus on science–or it’s the same and I just didn’t notice–and more on action.  A good intro book for anyone who doesn’t necessarily want to start from the beginning.

Next, the return of zombies.  I can get behind that.

#SomeoneElseSaturday: Mercedes Yardley & John Skipp

NOTE:

Yes, I am a day late on my very own thing – #SomeoneElseSaturday.  Never call me punctual. 

I actually had to think about this one; for the previous versions, I just recommended the shit I had been reading.  The most recent one was Jonathan Maberry’s Assassin’s Code (and I still need to write something on Extinction Machine).  However, I didn’t want to do two consecutive #SomeoneElseSaturdays on Maberry, as good as he is (and, for any newbies to Maberry and his character Joe Ledger, the fifth book is an excellent place to start).  I wanted to be as wide-ranging as possible when trying to get this thing going.

So, as I sorted the family laundry, I studied my book cases for inspiration.  And found two:

Mercedes Yardley & John Skipp.  Specifically, their short story collections.

As should come as a surprise to exactly no one, I love short stories.  During one of my bookcase organization binges (like Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I rearrange my books like Rob rearranges his records–when he needs to think things through and give himself a “fresh start”), I had a bookcase and a half of just anthologies and collections.  I admire a writer who can take an idea and crunch it down to one solid punch; novels are like extended wrestling matches, and there’s skill there, but there’s a special skill in order to launch and land a fight-ending punch.  A lot of writers don’t write shorts, or profess to not like them, and, to my mind, that’s an extremely narrow and limiting view.  If you can’t, or don’t want to, get a reader to care and react in under 10,000 words, you’re kinda dicking the reader around (that might be an unfair statement; if so, I’ll own it).

There are two short story collections coming out in 2016 I’m ridiculously excited about, one I read in manuscript form, and one I just wanna get my grubby hands on: Cry Your Way Home by Damien Angelica Walters and 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod.  But, since neither is in print yet, I’ll keep it to two others.

So!  Let’s talk short story collections from two seemingly disparate sources.

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Beautiful Sorrows by Mercedes M. Yardley

Mercedes Yardley, a mother out of Las Vegas and the nicknamed “Ms. Murder”, offers a slim volume of cuts that straddle the line between whimsy and pitch-black dark fantasy.  To me, these read like fairy tales for grownups, and I mean that in the best possible way.  The tales are short, incisive, and to the point.  Not a word wasted.

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The Art of Horrible People, by John Skipp

In a volume just as slim as Mercedes’s, Skipp’s The Art of Horrible People goes in the opposite direction, presenting stories that have both feet firmly planted in the here and now and then sprint into the world of the outlandish.  Skipp got his start with former writing partner Craig Spector and wound up founding one of the most misunderstood movements in horror, splatterpunk.  Still, for as bugfuck as the Skipp & Spector novels could and did get–and, with novels like The Bridge, that’s saying something–there’s a goofy insanity to these stories that can’t be matched, even in the supposed “quieter” ones, like “In the Waiting Room, Trading Death Stories”.

So, there you go: a day late on #SomeoneElseSaturday, but with double the fun.

Who would you recommend this week?

(Also, go buy my short story collection Bones Are Made to be Broken.)

(#SomeoneElseSaturday Crossover!) Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands: Jonathan Maberry’s Assassin’s Code

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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I actually finished this, like, a week ago, but I’ve been struggling to find time to write the review.  A part of it was daily life–the husband/father/teacher bit–a part of it was starting a collaboration with another writer on a project (I’ve never collaborated, so it’s terrifyingly excited and I spent each interval between messages neurotically wondering, “They didn’t realize I suck, did they?”); another part was trying to meet a couple of deadlines creeping up on me.

But, hey, it worked out that I’d post this on Saturday–which means #SomeoneElseSaturday!  (Right?  Has that become a thing yet?  Y’know, where you go and praise someone else’s work and hashtag it #SomeoneElseSaturday?  No?  Fuck.)

Oh, and if you’re reading this, I get spoiler-y–but, to be fair, I find the people who tend to cry “Spoiler!” the loudest are kinda spoiled to begin with.  (Man, I’m so loving and agreeable.)

In any event, here we are–Book Four of the Joe Ledger series, Assassin’s Code.  This is my third time reading the book over the years–as I collect each new (or, given the fact that I’m slow on buying, new-ish) installment, I go back to the beginning and re-read.  (Case in point, I’m re-reading Extinction Machine right now, but because, until recently, it was the last book I had, this is only my second time and I’m startled by how much isn’t familiar to me.)

For the TL:DR crowd–to me, this is the funnest of the Ledger books out of the first four (ignoring the novelty of the concept in Book One, Patient Zero) and, here, the characters–Ledger, Top, Bunny, Church, Vox, Ghost the Dog, Rudy, Bug (Bug!)–come into their own and run, fucker.  I’m a character reader, so everything hinges on the characters playing true to the demands of the story.  Alfie Bester, writer of The Stars! My Destination, is quoted as saying, “The book is the boss,” and that’s always meant, to me, that the characters–the people of the story–demand certain things. Assassin’s Code is a goddamned fun book because of this idea.

Anyway, when last we met our lovable series character, the Captain of an ultra-elite and top secret group called the Department of Military Sciences (the DMS, for short, and led by the enigmatic Mr. Church), in The King of Plagues, Ledger was still mourning the loss of his colleague and…girlfriend? (the term feels really out there to me, given the context)…Major Grace Courtland, at the end of Book Two–The Dragon Factory–when he gets yanked into a countdown of the modern Ten Plagues, initiated by a secret society that had, in its membership the Big Bad of Book One, Sebastian Gault, plus a man who knows the ins and outs of the DMS, plus Mr. Church–Hugo Vox.  We also got an introduction to, now, series regular Circe O’Tree (I’m at the end of Book Five as I write this).

But, here in Book Four, it’s all about vampires with nukes, baby.  Seriously.  Ledger and Echo Team are in Iran on a deep-cover assignment that’s just wrapped up when, in the middle of getting coffee, someone puts a laser sight on his balls and gives him a phonecall.  From there, it goes downhill as Ledger, a mysterious female assassin named Violin (I’ll get to that), and Echo Team try to stop a number of–and I’m not joking–vampires from setting off strategically placed nuclear weapons in an attempt to bring about perpetual night.

As I’ve said numerous times, Maberry’s strength as a writer comes from his ability to use this.  He might plot and chart like a motherfucker, but it doesn’t feel that way.  Ledger’s reactions feel organic to the demands of the events surrounding him.  That’s a trick a lot of writers can’t pull off consistently, let alone in a goddamned series.  Maberry can;  Ledger, our hero of the series, has changed over time, but it doesn’t feel like it’s due to, say, Jonathan Maberry forgeting something about him.

But, that’s me, and literally everything else gets pushed to the backburner.  As the series has continued, Maberry’s acknowledgement pages have grown longer as he’s gone further and further in terms of researching this tech or that biological element or–hey–what about Roswell (that’s a part of Book Five).  Maberry has always done yeoman’s work when it comes to research (most of us Google some shit and then make the caveat, “If this wrong, blame me, not whoever I asked”) and then taken those answers to whatever fictional place his imagination made for the info.  Even something as ridiculously B-movie sounding as zombies, clones, aliens, or–in Assassin’s Code–vampires comes from an attempt to learn as much science to ground it.

If you’re that kind of reader, you love Ledger for that reason (example: the super-computer MindReader in the series means as much to me as the answers it provides Ledger; to the more science-based crowd, they’ll love wondering how close actual tech is to that type of system).   But, you don’t have to love–or even, really, pay attention to–the science in order to get into the book(s).  I am not a hard SF fan–just never turned my dials–and any SF-flavored story I’ve loved has either been decidedly soft or used to form a foundation of the story but not be the story.

Maberry’s writing never lets the science–the novelty of a writer going “Look what I learned!”, which, with other writers, bores the hell out of me–do anything but what it’s supposed to do: offer a grounding for his characters to move.

I had quibbles with previous books, finding Courtland’s death in Book Two problematic, and the reveal of Hugo Vox in Book Three fairly panting, but here, we’re just going along for the ride, riding the wind with the characters and–whee!–that’s where I like it.  The cribbing of history–there’s a lot of the Crusades here, but it works–aside, we’re in the moment as Ledger tries to insert himself into a metaphorical shoot-out between two different sides and fuck their days up in the name of saving the rest of the world.

Now, there’s always been a pulp edge to the Ledger series–well, more of a blade than an edge–and, man, does Maberry go full-tilt-boogie on that motherfucker in Assassin’s Code.   This is action/thriller/balls-to-the-wall insanity–pick your term, it’s all fun, popcorn reading–the kind that makes getting back to the book kinda like being able to press PLAY on the film or show you’ve been dying to catch up on.

The propulsive writing and action; the thumbnail characterizations that completely work with the players; the goofy science  (I suppose it’s possible; I also suppose the highest grade I ever got in any science course was a gift C-average, so don’t trust me on the science stuff, okay?  Go read the acknowledgements page)–all these elements are on display and they ramp up the “fun” factor hard.

What’s also a relief is that, four books in, Maberry’s gotten a handle on how to get backstory and Ledger’s fractured psyche across gracefully.  Up until this book, it’s always felt like he has to essentially stop the action dead to talk so that new readers don’t feel so completely at-sea.  This makes sense–series can get more than a little convoluted–but it always made me think, “Fuck, just do a ‘Previously…’ section prior to the start of the novel.”  But, in Assassin’s Code, he’s got the hang of it by now and I’m glad; his explanation of past events and Ledger’s past trauma come off the most fluid here, which gives those hypothetical new readers something to hang onto to keep from being lost.

My only “Really?” moment came in the errant times when Ledger thinks he hears Courtland’s voice.  I have my own problems with the idea of a book series, and this is one of them–things popping up later on in the series that would’ve made more sense in earlier books (for example: in Book Three, Echo Team is fully fleshed out and there are flashbacks to previous events to introduce the new members, but the timeline’s wonky because when these characters came in, they should’ve been in Book Two, but weren’t).  I get it–things occur to the writer that fit, but you can’t go back and revise a previously published book just for the fuck of it.  In Book Three, Ledger’s still mourning Courtland, but he doesn’t hear her voice.  Now, in Book Four, we hear her voice.  Um.

A near-miss is Violin.  There’s a backstory on her that could make it’s own review, but, upon introductions, we “know” we’re seeing the setup of Ledger’s next love interest.  Except…it doesn’t quite come.  Courtland’s introduction, in Book One, was, to me, fairly clumsy and heavy-handed and action-movie-trope-y.  With Violin, it’s like Maberry realizes that it just wouldn’t work in a traditional way and to force it (as Courtland felt vaguely forced) would be to fuck it all up.  He doesn’t, and the book is better for it.

On another note, this book is actually kind of sad–we see the end of any lingering villains.  Except for Book Two, we saw updates on a number of villains.  Hugo Vox plays a big part in Book Four, but there’s a resolution there.  When we get to book five, The Extinction Machine, it will have all new Big Bads in it.  That’s both a relief and a regret.  I liked Vox.  He was a motherfucker of a high order.  Still.

So, Assassin’s Code.  Vampires with nukes.  Some religious history.  Hugo Vox.  Enough pulp to make a gallon of natural orange juice seem filtered.  All so good, friends.  Ledger’s the reason I actually started to like the idea of a book series.  Without Maberry, I never would’ve bothered with Wilson’s Repairman Jack or Kadrey’s Sandman Slim and I’d be poorer for it.

Next, aliens.  Oh yeah.

Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 1 — The Call of the Void

Go check this out, friend-Os (and thanks for Jessica McHugh, since I just appropriated that term): Bracken’s my main man–I lavished praise on his novel STRANDED in my last post–and he has his own collection coming out this month: 13 VIEWS OF THE SUICIDE WOODS. (We promised each other that our next collections will have sunnier, if still evocative, titles). Over the next few weeks, he’s going to be giving some inside-baseball on the stories, which is something that I always wanted to do, but I’m lazy. Bracken is not lazy. Bracken is the main man. Go dig in.

Everyone's Devil

I love to get a peek behind the scenes of creative work. I read liner notes on albums, I listen to movie commentaries, and I especially love when they release those “P.S.” editions of novels with questions and interviews with the author at the end of the book. This blog series over the next thirteen days is going to be my attempt at a P.S. appendix of my upcoming short story collection from ChiZine Publications, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods.

Along the way, I’m going to relate a few little details about individual stories in the collection, my motivations and intentions, and background about choices I made, all while trying not to spoil anything for you. For those of you like me, who like to read the liner notes, I hope you enjoy it. 

Since we’re barely on the way, I’ll start with the title. Our first stop on the road is,

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Let’s Start a Thing: Someone Else Saturday (Chrome-embossed cover first edition in tri-color format)

Don’t look at me like that about the title of this post; I was a comic book kid of the ’90s.

Anyway.

Unless you’re an iconic writer whose every word gets adapted into a film that’ll at least make its budget back, you’re on social media, whorin’ yourself out like your pimp is three seconds from going Wayne Brady on your ass.

If you have any kind of soul, it feels kinda icky, like binge-watching Toddlers & Tiaras (don’t ever watch that).  Also, it might not be all that effective–people get numb to your constant Amazon linking, the Facebook algorithm laughs at your puny attempts of outreach and you only get “liked” by your grandmother–who would never, ever actually read what you’re posting (let alone the book itself).

I’m not immune to the icky feeling, nor Facebook laughing at me.  I’m fucking proud of Bones Are Made to be Broken (buy it here), but I hate it when authors ask me three seconds after accepting their friend requests to “like” their page; and I hate their bot-like posting of their fucking book; and their “sponsored” ads, with their “in the tradition of Stephen King” (spoiler alert: no, it’s not).  I recently posted the picture below:

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…and that’s enough whoring myself for now.

You know what works, though?  Beyond press in high-traffic areas and sites (those help; don’t ever get me wrong on that)?

Word of mouth of other books.  Things you’ve read.  Things you’ve liked.  Everyone dismisses you singing your own praises, but they cock their head when you rave about someone else.

So!  Here’s a thing: Someone Else Saturdays (#SomeoneElseSaturday, which you should totally do in line with #FridayReads).

Link to the good shit you’re reading, or have read.

To start us off, here are mine:

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Paper Tigers – Damien Angelica Walters

This was my favorite book last year and was so fucking good.  Walters takes the tropes of haunted possessions, sordid pasts, and broken protagonists (and, in horror, those are pretty trope-y tropes, if we’re being honest) and inverts and twists and messes with them to create such a goddamned great masterpiece.  It’s the book that’s on the tip of my tongue whenever someone’s just thinking of asking for a book rec.  Walters has a short story collection coming out, called Cry Your Way Home, and she’s just as good in the short form.

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Stranded – Bracken MacLeod

I just read this one and was blown away by how seamlessly MacLeod was able to transition from a standard feet-on-the-ground thriller and go total Outer Limits.  I’m seriously struck dumb by that motherfucker of a feat.  So good.

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The Green Kangaroos – Jessica McHugh

When I want to read something fucked-up and out there, I go to Jess.  This futuristic story on drug abuse and the lengths people will go to kick addictions was cringe-y (if you’re a dude, you shoot up by injecting in the balls–just typing those words makes me cross my legs) but awesome.

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Another Day in Paradise – Eddie Little

This was my introduction to true crime fiction–not mysteries or “capers”, but down and dirty crime.  It follows the loss of innocence of Bobby Prine–a stand-in for Little, since a lot of this was twisted autobiography–as he goes down the path of addiction and robbery.  So goddamned good.  This book led me to guys like Shane Stevens and Jim Thompson, who I think of even before Elmore Leonard or Richard Stark.  This book was followed up by Steel Toes, but then Little died of a heart attack, and the trilogy was never finished.  The prose is clunky but crackles with nervous, shooting-speed energy.  I love it.   {This book’s out of print, but you can probably find it at Abe’s Books, or something.}

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Brothel – Stephanie M. Wytovich

I read this in manuscript form and I loved it right away; erotic and charged and propulsive, every verse just yanks you along down darker, more intimate corridors.  I envisioned these poems as the nightly journal entries of someone who works in a brothel–just because I liked that idea.

So!  Let’s make this a thing–every Saturday, link to a book you liked that you didn’t write and you weren’t obligated to say you like (which is kinda like kissing a sibling on the cheek).

#SomeoneElseSaturday

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