Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Courts of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

(pb; 1978: fifth novelette in The Chronicles of Amber quintology)

From the back cover

"Amber, the one real world of which all others – including our own Earth – are but Shadows...

"For untold millennia, the cosmic Pattern sustained order in Amber and all the known worlds. But now the forces of Chaos have succeeded in disrupting the Pattern, unleashing destructive forces beyond measure... forces meant to reshape the universe.

"To save Amber, Corwin, prince of the blood, champion of the perfect realm, must undertake the most perilous journey of his life. A journey that will take him through all the terrors of Shadows to the enemy's last stronghold. A journey beyond the very edge of existence... to the Courts of Chaos."


Caveat: possible spoilers in this review.

After the revelations of The Hand of Oberon, the Trump card-holding siblings gradually join forces to defeat Brand, their Chaos-loving and Amber-wrecking brother. Keeping with the tone and structure of earlier books, this is a swiftly-plotted, lots-of-dialogue, twisty motives and happenings kind of urban fantasy. Its tone is more genial ─ well, as genial as Corwyn and his brothers and sisters can get ─ and its resolution is satisfying in its personal warmth. This is an excellent read, as are all the Amber books.

Fight Club 2: The Tranquility Gambit by Chuck Palahniuk

(hb; 2015, 2016: graphic novel. Sequel to Fight Club. Publisher: Dark Horse.)

From the back cover

"Some imaginary friends never go away . . .

"Ten years after starting Project Mayhem, he lives a mundane life. A kid, a wife. Pills to keep his destiny at bay. But it won't last long, the wife has seen to that. He's back where he started, but this go-round he's got more at stake than his own life.The time has arrived . . .Rize or Die."


Tranquility is an excellent read, just as incisive, transgressive (albeit in a quieter way) and entertaining as its source novel. The artwork suits the tone of Palahniuk’s distinctive writing. Certain segments and its ending may divide readers with its multipart, meta elements: I found it to be fun, a jab in the face to less self-deprecating and more “serious” works. If you are a Palahniuk fan and/or enjoyed the first novel, you might want to check this out.

The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald

(pb; 1951: third book in the Lew Archer series)

From the back cover

"In a rundown house in Santa Monica, Mrs. Samuel Lawrence presses fifty crumpled bills into Lew Archer's hand and asks him to find her wandering daughter, Galatea. Described as ‘crazy for men’ and without discrimination, she was last seen driving off with small-time gangster Joe Tarantine, a hophead hood with a rep for violence. Archer traces the hidden trail from San Francisco slum alleys to the luxury of Palm Springs, traveling through an urban wilderness of drugs and viciousness. As the bodies begin to pile up, he finds that even angel faces can mask the blackest of hearts. Filled with dope, delinquents and murder, this is classic Macdonald and one of his very best in the Lew Archer series."


Way is a superb, cinematic-in-it-descriptions P.I-investigative mystery. Archer, cynical but not heartless, finds himself in a familiar, tightly plotted situation: investigating a cast of mostly sleazy characters with secrets ─ truths that most of them are willing to keep hidden with lies and violence. Its ending, like the cap-lines of the two previous Archer novels, is striking and emotionally-resonant.

If you are looking for a pulp writer who imbues his work with smart, fast-moving storylines, a mix of familiar and fresh pulp elements, and sometimes surprising characters, MacDonald may be a writer for you to seek. Followed by The Ivory Grin.

David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones

(hb; 2017: biography)

From the inside flap

"Dylan Jones's engrossing, magisterial biography of David Bowie is unlike any Bowie story ever written. Drawn from over 180 interviews with friends, rivals, lovers, and collaborators, some of whom have never before spoken about their relationship with Bowie, this oral history weaves a hypnotic spell as it unfolds the story of a remarkable rise to stardom and an unparalleled artistic path. Tracing Bowie's life from the English suburbs to London to New York to Los Angeles, Berlin, and beyond, its collective voices describe a man profoundly shaped by his relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry; an intuitive artist who could absorb influences through intense relationships and yet drop people cold when they were no longer of use; and a social creature equally comfortable partying with John Lennon and dining with Frank Sinatra. By turns insightful and deliciously gossipy, DAVID BOWIE is as intimate a portrait as may ever be drawn. It sparks with admiration and grievances, lust and envy, as the speakers bring you into studios and bedrooms they shared with Bowie, and onto stages and film sets, opening corners of his mind and experience that transform our understanding of both artist and art. Including illuminating, never-before-seen material from Bowie himself, drawn from a series of Jones's interviews with him across two decades, DAVID BOWIE is an epic, unforgettable cocktail-party conversation about a man whose enigmatic shapeshifting and irrepressible creativity produced one of the most sprawling, fascinating lives of our time."


This is one of the best collective-voices biographies I have read in a long time, a compilation of detailed and sometimes-wild quotes relating to Bowie’s numerous distinct phases, musical and otherwise. Life runs from Bowie’s childhood and art-focused adolescence to his last days in New York, when he released his final album Blackstar (2016), days before his death. This is an excellent read if you are a Bowie fan.

The Hand of Oberon by Roger Zelazny

(pb; 1976: fourth novelette in The Chronicles of Amber quintology)

From the back cover

"Across the mysterious Black Road, demons swarm into Shadow. The ancient, secret source of the royal family's power is revealed, & an unholy pact between a prince of the realm & the forces of Chaos threaten all the known worlds with absolute obliteration. The hour of battle is at hand. Now Corwin and the remaining princes of Amber must call upon all their superhuman powers to defeat their brother-turned-traitor before he can walk the magical Pattern that created Amber and remake the universe in his own image."


Having glimpsed the Courts of Chaos, Corwin continues sorting through the tangled motives and actions of his royal treacherous siblings and discovering how to defeat the Black Road, a dangerous path of Chaos.  Like its prequels, Oberon has little lag time between it and its prequel, Sign of the Unicorn, features a lot of dialogue, as well as barebones, fast-moving action and occurrences. In short: it keeps with the plot-propellant tone of previous Chronicle novelettes, with enough character-based twists to further make this an above-average fantasy read. Followed by The Courts of Chaos.

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier by Mark Frost

(hb; 2017: companion read to the Twin Peaks television/cable series. Sequel to The Secret History of Twin Peaks.)

From the back cover

"The return of Twin Peaks this May is one of the most anticipated events in the history of television. The subject of endless speculation, shrouded in mystery, fans will come flocking to see Mark Frost and David Lynch's inimitable vision once again grace the screen. Featuring all the characters we know and love from the first series, as well as a list of high-powered actors in new roles, the show will be endlessly debated, discussed, and dissected.

"While The Secret History of Twin Peaks served to expand the mysteries of the town and place the unexplained phenomena that unfolded there into a vastly layered, wide-ranging history, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier tells us what happened to key characters in the twenty-five years in between the events of the first series and the second, offering details and insights fans will be clamoring for. The novel also adds context and commentary to the strange and cosmic happenings of the new series. For fans around the world begging for more, Mark Frost's final take laid out in this novel will be required reading."


Dossier is a great companion read to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s three-season television series, Twin Peaks, as well as the 1992 film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. This book, with its cheeky commentary, simultaneously recaps key events in the series while filling in the plot cracks and personal details about its quirky, intriguing characters. If you are a fan of Twin Peaks and enjoy books, there is a good chance that Dossier may provide entertainment, information and a deeper understanding of this distinctive and increasingly abstract series.

The Nightly Disease by Max Booth III

(pb; 2016: Darkfuse edition)

From the back cover

"Sleep is just a myth created by mattress salesmen.

"Isaac, a night auditor of a hotel somewhere in the surreal void of Texas, is sick and tired of his guests. When he clocks in at night, he’s hoping for a nice, quiet eight hours of Netflix-bingeing and occasional masturbation. What he doesn’t want to do is fetch anybody extra towels or dive face-first into somebody’s clogged toilet. And he sure as hell doesn’t want to get involved in some trippy owl conspiracy or dispose of any dead bodies. But hey…that’s life in the hotel business.

"Welcome to The Nightly Disease. Please enjoy your stay.


Disease is a headlong-into-an-often-hilarious nightmare of customer service, predatory owls, unsavory characters and gory f**k-ups that straddles horror, speculative fiction, neo-noir, comedy and other genres with distinctive aplomb. Obviously, this is not a book for those seeking a happy-go-lucky read, or those who are easily queasy. Nightly is one of the best books I have read this year.

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.

<em>The Courts of Chaos</em> by Roger Zelazny

(pb; 1978: fifth  novelette in The Chronicles of Amber quintology) From the back cover " Amber, the one real world of which all...