Monday, February 26, 2018

Sign of the Unicorn by Roger Zelazny

(hb; 1975: third novelette in The Chronicles of Amber quintology)

From the back cover

"He who rules Amber rules the one true world. He who thwarts Amber invites the wrath of Amber betrayed.

"An unseen enemy of immense strength has seized a Prince of the Blood, and now threatens the perfect kingdom by striking at the very core of its power - the secret knowledge of Shadow.

"When Corwin summons forces to defend the throne, he finds himself challenged by royal conspirators, hideous demons, supernatural patterns and the ominous unknown that suddenly transcends all he ever suspected about the true nature of Amber.

"One of the most revered names in sf and fantasy, the incomparable Roger Zelazny was honored with numerous prizes—including six Hugo and three Nebula Awards—over the course of his legendary career. Among his more than fifty books, arguably Zelazny’s most popular literary creations were his extraordinary Amber novels."


Sign, like its prequel, The Guns of Avalon, picks up shortly after the last book left off. Corwin’s unexpected, easy victory during the finale of Guns has translated into an uneasy reign. Scheming siblings still eye the throne upon which he sits, a situation worsened when Caine ─ one of said family members ─ is murdered. What follows is a chatty, fantasy-themed murder mystery where Corwin tries to suss out who the killer is, before more bodies, including his own, drop. Sign is a good read if you do not mind a lot of verbal interaction between many people, less action than usual for a fantasy novel, and an abrupt ending that births new mysteries as it resolves others. Followed by The Hand of Oberon.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

(hb; 2017: nonfiction/humor)

From the inside flap

"Disarmed of falsehood, he was left only with the awful truth: John Hodgman is an older white male monster with bad facial hair, wandering like a privileged Sasquatch through three wildernesses: the hills of Western Massachusetts where he spent much of his youth; the painful beaches of Maine that want to kill him (and some day will); and the metaphoric haunted forest of middle age that connects them.

"Vacationland collects these real life wanderings, and through them you learn of the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, and which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison. There is also some advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

"Though wildly, Hodgmaniacally funny as usual, it is also a poignant and sincere account of one human facing his forties, those years when men in particular must stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weird dads that they are."


Vacationland is a funny, clever, profound, succinct, personal and overall excellent book, with Hodgman telling stories about experiences in life, many of them relating to growing up and growing older. If you are a fan of his overall work and persona, there is a good chance you may enjoy this.  This book is a milestone in his oeuvre.

Strange Highways by Dean Koontz

(hb; 1995: horror/speculative fiction/Christian novella and story anthology)

Overall review

This is a hit-and-miss collection. If you are not a fan chatty, overlong stories, or works that try to convert you to Christianity whilst being sold as mainstream horror tales, you might want to not read Strange. I’ve read a few other works ─ novels ─ by Koontz, and this, by far, is the worst book I’ve read from this author.


Strange Highways” (novella): A middle-aged alcoholic (Joey Shannon) returns to his coal-mining town of Asherville to bury his father and, beyond mourning his estranged relative, he finds a new reason to weep ─ and fear. Horrifying memories and truths from his past await him in nearby Coal Valley, where a vicious murder occurred, one linked to his family.

There is a lot to admire about this atmospheric, visually-rich short novel. The characters are well-written, most of the twists arrive at the right time, the pacing and the settings are excellent, when “Strange” stays on track as surrealistic time-traveling-to-a-dark-past work.

One of the main problems is that “Strange,” a 154-page tale, runs fifty pages too long. It is often in these extra pages where Koontz’s Twilight Zone-esque story is marred by in-your-face religiosity, between Joey and Celeste’s repeated church visits, Koontz’s ham-fisted symbolism and overt ‘without religious faith, Joey is lost’ dialogue. This might as well be a Christian novella of the week contender, with its ridiculous third-act/video game-esque character “reset” scenes and certain scenes where it suddenly morphs into vampire mythology nonsense.

If you are inclined toward Christian faith, there is a good chance you will revel in this story. If you are inclined to dislike overly Christian works, you may roll your eyes at the overbearing, plot-convenient “miracles” that even “Strange”’s extraneous “reasoning” cannot support. 

Koontz, in a collection-ending “Note to the Readers,” wrote that he usually does not write supernatural-themed horror works. Reading “Strange,” I can see why. He should stay away from them.

The Black Pumpkin”: A young boy is terrified when his older brother buys a creepier-than-usual carved pumpkin. Good Halloween tale.

Miss Atilla the Hun”: Hopeful, entertaining and sometimes cheesy story about love, a schoolteacher and an invasive alien.

Down in the Darkness”: A man discovers that his cellar might be used as a site of vengeance. Good use of symbolism, solid work.

Ollie’s Hands”: Empathetic, sad tale about a lonely man with special abilities, as he tries to bond with a woman he rescued.

Snatcher”: Creepy-/EC-esque story about a thief who steals the wrong purse, one that will take him down. Predictable but fun.

Trapped”: Mutant rats escape from a lab and attack a woman and her ten-year-old son. Solid work.

Bruno”: Silly, alternate world-themed pulp detective tale. Offbeat, in a chatty way.

We Three”: Evolutionarily-advanced children usher in new genetic apocalypses, perhaps their own. Excellent, short, one of my favorite entries in this collection.

Hardshell”: Overly long work about a cop and a serial killer battling in a warehouse. This is another oddball story with science fiction infused into it.

Kittens”: Horrible, pointless story about murdered felines, with a dumb ending.

The Night of the Storm”: Four robots confront mythical creatures: men. This is a religious ‘God exists’ story with a chatty science fiction overlay.

Twilight of the Dawn”: A man’s son, who believes in God, dies. So, of course, God must exist, and anyone who doubts that is arrogant and must be stupid. That is the gist of this Hallmark Channel Movie of the Week in short story form, one that runs way too long.

Chase”: I forgot to take notes on this one. I recall, however, that it runs in the same religious vein as the two previous stories.

Waiting for the Punch by Marc Maron & Brendan McDonald

(hb; 2017: nonfiction/humor)

From the inside flap

"From the beloved and wildly popular podcast WTF with Marc Maron comes a book of intimate, hilarious and life changing conversations with some of the funniest, and most important people in the world like you’ve never heard them before. Waiting for the Punch features the stories and thoughts of such luminaries as Amy Schumer, Mel Brooks, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Sir Ian McKellen, Lorne Michels, Judd Apatow, Lena Dunham, Jimmy Fallon, RuPaul, Louis CK, David Sedaris, Bruce Springsteen, and President Obama.

"This book is not simply a collection of these interviews, but instead something more wondrous: a running narrative of the world’s most recognizable names working through the problems, doubts, joys, triumphs, and failures we all experience. With each chapter covering a different topic: parenting, childhood, relationships, sexuality, success, failures and others, Punch becomes a sort of everyman’s guide to life. Barack Obama candidly discusses the challenges of the presidency, and the bittersweet moments of seeing your children grow up. Amy Schumer recounts the pain of her parents’ divorce. Molly Shannon uproariously remembers the time she and her best friend hopped a plane from Ohio to New York City when they were twelve on a dare. Amy Poehler dishes on why just because you become a parent doesn’t mean you have to like anybody else’s kids but your own. Bruce Springsteen expounds on the dual nature of desperation to both motivate and devastate.

"Full of stories that are at once laugh-out loud funny, heartbreakingly honest, joyous, tragic and powerful, Waiting for the Punch is a book to be read from cover to cover, but it is also one to return to again and again."


Subtitled Words to live by from the WTF Podcast, this collection of transcripts from Maron’s garage-based Internet show, is laugh-out-loud funny, meaningful and sad in its many interview moments. The guests range from President Barack Obama to Jen Kirkman to Mick Foley to Lena Dunham (and numerous others). The topics include: Childhood, Success, Mental Health, Sex and Failure, and all the accompanying emotions these topics bring about. I did not read all the guest interviews ─ I am not a fan of certain people or otherwise curious about them ─ but I read most of the interviews, and the ones I read this made this a worthwhile, provocative (in a comforting way) book, one worth reading.

Essential Marvel: Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man by various artists and writers

(pb; 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, and 2006: graphic novel. Collects Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #1-31.)

From the back cover

"Spidey faces some of his most fearsome foes - including Tarantula, Kraven, Lightmaster, Vulture, Hitman, Morbius, Brother Power, Hate Monger, Beetle and the Enforcers! Guest-starring the Fantastic Four, Inhumans and Champions!"

Overall review

Spectacular is a fun, action-intense and occasionally ridiculous comic book. Many of its storylines loosely tie in with those of The Amazing Spider-Man. What separates Spectacular from Amazing is the former series, which debuted years later, shows a more mature Peter Parker, and Spectacular’s writing is often better. Spectacular Vol. 1 is worth owning.

Story arcs

"Twice Stings the Tarantula!” [#1] ─ “And There was Lightmaster!” [#3]: A mysterious man hires the Tarantula, a South American assassin, and Kraven the Hunter to kidnap civic leaders and a college professor ─ leading the Tarantula and Kraven on a collision course with Spider-Man. This three-issue arc introduces Lightmaster, a head-blaster of a bad guy.

The Vulture is a Bird of Prey!” [#4] ─ “Spider-Kill!” [#5]: Spidey squares off against the Vulture and Hitman, the latter a gun- and gadget-using professional. Behind the scenes, Mr. Morgan works a protection racket and keeps Hitman in work.

On the Peter Parker’s-friend front, Flash Thompson continues to be concerned about the sudden reappearance and disappearance of his Vietnamese friend, Shan Shan ─ she was last seen in The Amazing Spider-Man, issue #109.

The Power to Purge” [#6]: Spider-Man and Johnny Storm (a.k.a. The Human Torch) battle Michael Morbius (a.k.a. the Morbius the Living Vampire) on a college campus.

Meanwhile, Flash Thompson obsesses over his kidnapped friend, Shan Shan.

Cry Mayhem ─ Cry Morbius!” [#7]: Morbius the Living Vampire, in part controlled by a mysterious being ─ the Empathoid ─ returns. Morbius kidnaps Glory Grant, a Daily Bugle co-worker of Peter Parker’s. Morbius’s reasoning: to lure Spider-Man to him. The living vampire succeeds in doing so. This is the Empathoid’s first appearance in Spectacular Spider-Man.

And Only One Shall Survive!” [#8]: The web-slinger, now possessed by the Empathoid, fights Morbius, who wants to end the mega-destructive threat of the alternate world creature. But not all is at it seems.

While this happens, Flash Thompson rescues Shan Shan from her captor ─ only to receive a heart-rending blow.

. . . Like a Tiger in the Night!” [#9] ─ “Tiger in a Web!” [#10]: Spider-Man must contend with another college campus protest. While doing so, our hero must recover a stolen and priceless document, the Erskine Manuscripts (named for the scientist who wrote them, and created the “Super Soldier” formula that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America).

A more immediate concern for the wall-crawler is the appearances of the tough-to-beat White Tiger (also seen in another Marvel title, the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu), and a group of criminals, known as the Black Hand.

A Life too Far” [#11]: While trying to retrieve an anti-venom vial to save a boy’s life, the web-slinger is forced to confront Medusa from the Marvel series the Inhumans, who has the vial for her own desperate reasons.

Brother Power, Sister Moon” [#12] ─ “The Final Rage!” [#15]: Spider-Man, Razorback (a.k.a. Buford Hollis) and Flash Thompson try to eliminate the global threat of Brother Power (Achmed Korba, a former Vietnamese smuggler) and the Hatemonger (Korba’s animalistic puppeteer), who have taken Shan Shan and Bobby Sue Hollis (Razorback’s sister) into their cultic thrall.

Parts of this story are crazy fun, others feature dumb character interactions. This is Razorback’s first appearance in Spectacular Spider-Man.

The Beetle and the Badge!” [#16]: Sad tale about Joey Macone (a NYC cop) who gets caught up in a dust-up between Spidey and the Beetle. This issue has a PSA feel to it.

Whatever Happened to the Iceman?” [#17] ─ “My Friend, My Foe!” [#18]: The web-slinger and the Angel (a.k.a. Warren Worthington III), formerly of the X-Men and the Champions, combat a brainwashed Iceman (a.k.a. Bobby Drake). Iceman is being controlled by a physically crippled villain, Rampage, also called Stuart Clarke.

This issue ends on a cliffhanger note, with an appearance by lovebirds Flash Thompson and Shan Shan.

Again, the Enforcers!” [#19] ─ “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” [ #20]: The Lightmaster (a.k.a. Edward Lansky) hires The Enforcers (Fancy Dan Montana and the New Ox) to fight Spider-Man, before Lansky enters the fray. Unfortunately for the bad guys, the White Tiger ─ also called Hector Ayala ─ is in the same area at the same time. (The Lightmaster was last seen in issue #3.

Still Crazy After All These Years” [#21]: The Scorpion ─ once a P.I. named Mac Gorgan ─ comes gunning for the man who helped turn him into a villain: J. Jonah Jameson. Of course, Spider-Man is there to save the day.

By the Light of the Silvery Moon Knight!” [#22] ─ “Guess Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb” [#23]: Spider-Man and Moon Knight meet each other, then tangle with Cyclone, who has been hired by M [a.k.a. the Masked Marauder], leader of the Maggia.

Spider-Man Night Fever” [#24]: Maggia soldiers hijack a plutonium truck. Peter Parker, against his will, is taken to the Beyond Fever disco, where the Hypno-Hustler and the Mercy killers stage a robbery.

Carrion, My Wayward Son!” [#25] ─ “Till Death Do Us Part!” [#31]: Spidey, with help from the White Tiger and Daredevil, engages in extended conflicts with the Masked Marauder and his Maggia minions, as well as Tri-Man, a living biped bomb. Things get creepy when Carrion, born of a tragic misunderstanding, unleashes his clone-based horror on the web-slinger and those around him. This may be one of my favorite multipart story arcs in this collection.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny

(hb; 1972: second novelette in The Chronicles of Amber quintology)

From the inside

"Across the worlds of Shadow, Corwin, prince of blood royal, heir to the throne of Amber, gathers his forces for an assault that will yield up to him the crown that is rightfully his. But, a growing darkness of his own doing threatens his plans, an evil that stretches to the heart of the perfect kingdom itself where the demonic forces of Chaos mass to annihilate Amber and all who would rule there."


The first follow-up to Nine Princes in Amber picks up shortly after the ending of the first book. Corwin seeks to consolidate his seizing of the throne held by his cruel brother (Eric), with help from Ganelon (an exiled traitor-turned-minor-monarch). Along the way, he encounters two of his friendlier siblings, Benedict (who gives him temporary shelter) and Gérard (who reluctantly places faith in Corwin’s word), as well as Dara, Benedict’s curious, mysterious and seductive niece.

Like Nine, Guns is a fast-moving, action-packed urban fantasy, with its blink-it-and-miss-it transitions and explanations. Readers used to detailed, spell-it-out writing may be confused by and put off by Zelazny’s lightning-swift editing and character shifts. For the rest of us, the Amber quintology is a breath of fresh air, one worth owning. Followed by Sign of the Unicorn.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

(hb; 2017: science, nonfiction)

From the inside flap

"What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson.

"But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day.

"While you wait for your morning coffee to brew, for the bus, the train, or a plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.


Astrophysics is an excellent, wonder-minded scientific work that boils down its subject matter in a way that it is easily understood by those of us who are not scientists, those of who have little practical understanding regarding neutrons, stars, planets and other components of the universe. Tyson, through humor, relatable visual examples and everyday, non-science geek language, gives a sometimes mind-blowing overview of how we may have begun, and how our world, as we currently view it, may end (not necessarily a bad thing) ─ unlike some things and institutions, worthwhile scientists understand that expanding one’s knowledge, even as the universe expands around us, is a worthwhile and necessary pursuit.

That said, Astophysics is not a rush-through read. It is worth taking one’s time, a chapter or a few a day, to allow the scientific and often practical implications to fully take root in one’s awareness.

Most books I read are one-time events ─ I rarely re-read books. This is one of the few exceptions to my once-read rule, a book that I hope to pick up again in the near-ish future, to catch what I may have missed the first time around. For this and other reasons, Astrophysics is worth owning.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Thirst by Jo Nesbø

(hb; 2017: eleventh novel in the Inspector Harry Hole series – Translated from the Norwegian by Neil Smith.)

From the inside flap

"In Police—the last novel featuring Jo Nesbø's hard-bitten, maverick Oslo detective—a killer wreaking revenge on the police had Harry Hole fighting for the safety of the people closest to him. Now, in The Thirst, the story continues as Harry is inextricably drawn back into the Oslo police force. A serial murderer has begun targeting Tinder daters—a murderer whose MO reignites Harry's hunt for a nemesis of his past."


Warning: possible -- if mild -- spoilers in this review.

Thirst is a mostly excellent thriller that moves along at a breakneck pace, continuing plot threads from the last two novels, as well as bringing in previous villains ─ Valetin Gjerten and Svein “the Fiancé” Finne ─ to cause further mayhem. Like some of the better Harry Hole books, it is a character-rich, intriguing and plot-pretzelesque read until its disingenuous Thin Man-esque Reveal scene [hint: do not leave loaded weapons lying near the bad guy you are outing!]. This minor nit aside, this is a worthwhile entry in this long-running series.

14 by Peter Clines

(hb; 2012)

From the inside flap

"Padlocked doors. Strange light fixtures. Mutant cockroaches.

"There are some odd things about Nate’s new apartment.

"Of course, he has other things on his mind. He hates his job. He has no money in the bank. No girlfriend. No plans for the future. So while his new home isn’t perfect, it’s livable. The rent is low, the property managers are friendly, and the odd little mysteries don’t nag at him too much.

"At least, not until he meets Mandy, his neighbour across the hall, and notices something unusual about her apartment. And Xela’s apartment. And Tim’s. And Veek’s. Because every room in this old Los Angeles brownstone has a mystery or two. Mysteries that stretch back over a hundred years. Some of them are in plain sight. Some are behind locked doors. And all together these mysteries could mean the end of Nate and his friends.  Or the end of everything."


14 is a fun, if chatty, Lovecraftian (minus the racism) science fictionish/mystery novel with steam punkesque elements. The bad guys are obvious from the get-go, the apocalyptic aspects near the end run a bit long, but it is a good, hybrid-genre book that is worth reading, if you can overlook the aforementioned nits.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

(hb; 1970: first novelette in The Chronicles in Amber quintology)

From the inside flap

"Amber, the one real world, wherein all others, including our own Earth, are but Shadows. Amber burns in Corwin's blood. Exiled on Shadow Earth for centuries, the prince is about to return to Amber to make a mad and desperate rush upon the throne. From Arden to the blood-slippery Stairway into the Sea, the air is electrified with the powers of Eric, Random, Bleys, Caine, and all the princes of Amber whom Corwin must overcome. Yet, his savage path is blocked and guarded by eerie structures beyond imagining; impossible realities forged by demonic assassins and staggering horrors to challenge the might of Corwin's superhuman fury.' to 'Awakening in an Earth hospital unable to remember who he is or where he came from, Corwin is amazed to learn that he is one of the sons of Oberon, King of Amber, and is the rightful successor to the crown in a parallel world."


Princes is a fun, barebones and plot-swift urban fantasy novelette that wastes zero words, with characters who deftly adapt to shifting dimensions and identities with an aplomb that may put off some readers, who are used to “epic” [read: often overlong] works within the same genre. This is an excellent, scene-vivid, and sometimes humorous read, one worth owning. When reading Princes, you might want to make sure you have its first sequel, The Guns of Avalon, on hand, because Princes ─ with its not-quite-cliffhanger ending ─ is an opening arc in a five-book storyline.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Feverish Fiction Vol. #1 edited by Sophia Faun

(pb; 2012: horror microstory anthology. Published by Hyperpyrexia Press.)

Overall review

This is a solid, gory B-movie story collection. Most of the forty-two entries published here have something to recommend them. (In an anthology this size, there are bound to be a few tales that are less wonderful than others.) Worth checking out, this.

Standout stories

1.Devil’s Commisary” – Michael Faun: A demon cockroach attempts to elevate his staus through especially treacherous means. Fans of late Sixties rock ‘n’ roll may appreciate this story.

2.The Avid Collector” – Michael Bergamotte: The employee of a wealthy family recounts the horrible tale of the family’s deviant son.

3. Destiny of Lobster Boy” – Michael Faun: Short, sharp microtale about odious appetites and fast revenge, revolving around canries and a grotesque, wealthy man.

4.Through the Lens of Insanity” – Michael Faun: A questionable monacle inspires alarm and murder ─ are the visions it reveals real? Fun, supernatural crime work.

5.Destiny” – Michael Bergamotte: Memorable, excellent piece about a totalitarian government, a strange stone and a supposed criminal.

6.The Sodomite of Seville” – Michael Faun: During the Spanish Inquistion, demonic doings disrupt the religious-toned purge. Excellent, blasphemous and worth remembering.

7. The Dread at Scarfolk Cove” – Michael Bergamotte: Atmospheric, solid Lovecraftian microstory about a missing boy, a desperate father and an eerie seaside village.

8.Trent Must Vent” – Michael Faun: Darkly funny piece about a man’s “therapy sessions” and his Autophagic therapist (of sorts).

9. “Elixir” – Greg Cole: Youthful rejuvenation takes a messy, stinking turn. Fun microwork.

10. The Annual Olfactophilian Award” – Michael Faun: Laugh-out-loud, perverted read about panty-lovers.

11. Possession” – M.T. Mathieson: The supernatural and the criminal are merged int his one. Fun stuff.

12.The Killing Frequenzy” – Michael Faun: In 1968, a bullied student completes his odd, musical revenge. Especially entertaining entry in this collection.

<em>Sign of the Unicorn</em> by Roger Zelazny

(hb; 1975: third novelette in The Chronicles of Amber quintology) From the back cover " He who rules Amber rules the one t...