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CBR4 #47: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

I'm not sure why it surprised me to find out that the guy who is responsible for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a graduate of my alma mater. To be honest, it actually makes perfect sense--that kind of weirdness is one of Emerson's keystones. In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the author once again turns preconcieved notions on their ears.

This story is about a side of our sixteenth president that is rarely spoken of: his lifelong quest to hunt and destroy vampires. Beginning as a child when a vampire killed his beloved mother, young Abraham trains for what he sees as his life's purpose: to be a hunter of the undead. He joins up with a moral vampire, who helps him reach his potential and seek out the most ruthless bloodsuckers to slay. He also begins his political career, starting his rise toward the highest office in the land.

In AL:VH, Grahame-Smith takes on a more difficult task. Instead of inserting new things into a pre-existing work, he's written somethin…

CBR4 #46: The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

There are some books that I read and by the time I'm finished with the final page, the tale is already slipping out of my head. I intellectually know I read it, and if prompted I could probably give a reasonable summary of the action, but that's about as far as it goes. Then there are other books that stick with me. Books that I find myself thinking about days, weeks, months, or even years later. Books whose characters become like old friends, about whom I find myself thinking at the oddest times.

The Hotel New Hampshire falls into the latter category.

It's the story of the Berry family, a group of odd ducks led by patriarch Win. Win is a dreamer, who leads his family on an epic journey from rural New Hampshire, to Vienna, to New York City, and back again. The family consists of Win, his wife, his father Iowa Bob (football coach and weight-lifting enthusiast), eldest son Frank (lover of uniforms), spitfire Franny, narrator John (who is in love with his sister), gentle soul …

CBR4 #45: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

I really should stop reading these books about troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They only seem to make me feel angry, upset, and hopeless about the situation there.

David Finkel spent the majority of 2007 and part of 2008 following a battalion of Army Rangers as they participated in the "surge" in Iraq. It focuses mostly on their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich (by the end referred to by his troops as "Lost Kauz") and his struggles to try and be successful at a task that seems doomed to fail. They are tasked with improving the situation in Baghdad by patrolling, setting up outposts, and making inroads with the local people. Instead, they spend most of their time avoiding IEDs, being shelled, and trying to navigate the bureaucratic nightmare that accompanies trying to accomplish anything.

Meanwhile, soldiers--ones we have been introduced to and have followed for pages or even chapters--die. Or are horribly maimed. Or are psychologically broken…

CBR4 #44: The Road to Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

This book was my first experience with Lovecraft, and I'm not sure I'm all that thrilled with him. It consists of a number of short stories, spanning the length of his career. They're all supposed to be dark and spooky, though some are more successful than others.

There were a few stories I liked. "Herbert West: Reanimator" was pretty good--it's a tale of an experimental scientist gone made--but it was clearly originally published as a serial, since at the beginning of each section the author goes back and recaps everything that JUST HAPPENED which gets a little annoying. However, a lot of the stories were either unnecessarily long ("At the Mountains of Madness") or not very interesting. He also, earlier in his career, had a tendency to pull the "Up the tension, up the tension, up the tension...AND THEN IT TURNED OUT HIS MOTHER WAS AN ALBINO GORILLA THE WHOLE TIME! The End" bit more than was acceptable. I mean, I like a good twist ending, …

CBR4 #43: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

Remember what I was saying about how I love Stephen King, but I sometimes wonder why I bother?

Stories like The Wind Through the Keyhole are why I keep coming back, no matter how many times old SK burns with with terrible endings or ass weasels or giant spiders. This is a good, solid fantasy novel. There are no tricks, no nonsense. Just a really great story.

This book takes place during the events of the Dark Tower series, in betweenWizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. It's not really tied in to the plot of the series--it's more like an interlude within it. Roland the Gunslinger and his ka-tet find themselves trapped in a building, waiting out a very bad storm. While they wait, Roland tells Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy a tale of his youth. Then, within that story, he tells a scared young boy another story, the tale of Tim Stoutheart. All the stories are reflections of the larger through-lines of the series, but this is also probably the only one that could be read as a s…

CBR4 #42: Dreamcatcher by Stephen King

Oh, Stephen King. I love your work so much, but there are times when I wonder if you're worth it.

Dreamcatcher is not an utterly terrible book. It is not nearly as painfully dull as The Tommyknockers, but it is not good either. While it has its moments, there is also a lot of unnecessarily gross gore, and the plot is...not good.

The book is the story of four friends--Henry, Pete, Jonesy, and Beaver--who come together once a year at a remote hunting cabin to spend time together and celebrate their childhood friendship. Although they've grown apart, they are also bonded by more than just the times they spent together as kids--they have a fifth friend, Duddits, who is very, very special. Although Duddits appears to be just a man with Down's syndrome, he is actually a LOT more. While the group are spending time out in the woods, a man wanders into their camp, displaying some very odd symptoms. Pretty soon, the four find themselves involved in a situation that could have effects…

CBR4 #41: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Eleven years ago, James Stark's friends cast him into hell. Unfortunately for them, he's escaped. Now he's roaming the streets of Los Angeles--armed with supernatural weapons, hellion spells, and the skills picked up from spending more than a decade doing battle in hell's arena with the worst the underworld had to offer--looking for revenge on the people who cast him down and in particular the ones who killed the woman he loved.

With the help of an immortal alchemist, a literal talking head, a mysterious man who sells very mysterious things, an angry angel, an underground doctor, and a video store clerk, Stark discovers that he's not the only one with an axe to grind...and that the fate of the entire world may just hang in the balance with only him to save it.

I like this book a lot. It reads like a Jason Statham movie--blood, guts, action, magic, fights, and funny one-liners. I enjoyed all the characters, though some were not fleshed out as well as I'd like, s…

CBR4 #40: Coffin County by Gary Braunbeck

The town of Cedar Hill is one of those places. It's a place like Derry, Maine or Bon Temps, Louisiana or Sunnydale, California; it's a place where things are not quite right, nor have they ever been. The town--since its founding--seems to draw tragedy and death like a magnet. From a massacre of the early settlers right up until the explosion and fire at the coffin factory that destroyed an entire neighborhood a few years ago, the people of Cedar Hill have become accustomed to bloody surprises.

Police detective Ben Littlejohn finds himself chasing another one of Cedar Hill's deadly mysteries when he's called to the scene of a mass murder in a diner. The murderer has left his fingerprints all over the scene, and Ben hopes it will be an open-and-shut case. Of course, that's not how it works out. The fingerprints are but the first of many indications that things have gone wildly askew. Soon, Ben is confronted by inexplicable new tombstones appearing in the cemetery, an…

Life Lessons: 2012

I recently celebrated my 31st birthday, and late in the festivities, I was asked for five life-lessons I have learned in my 3+ decades of living.

Here's what I came up with:

1. Don't make terrible decisions. Of course, not every terrible decision is obvious in its terribleness at the time it's made. But let's admit it: some of them totally are. If something seems like a terrible idea, DON'T DO IT. Or at least think it over further. A lot of the stupid things that have happened to me over the years were preventable, and at the time I was doing them, I KNEW they were bad ideas. So, you know, stop doing that.

2. In the words of the most fabulous RuPaul, "What other people think of me is none of my business." I'm still working on this one, but it's an important step. Learning to live without constantly worrying about how other people perceive me is not easy, but it's definitely been beneficial. As we all know, haters gonna hate. The trick is to sa…

CBR4 #39: Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

I have recently had to admit to myself that I have become a Trekkie. Mind you, this DOES NOT mean that I am going to put on some go-go boots, pick up a phaser, and go stand in line to catch a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy. But when you live with a person who has to have Star Trek playing in order to go to sleep at night, you pick things up, whether you want to or not. Now, I don't know much about the original series, since The Boyfriend does not understand camp and thus does not enjoy the original. I have, however, seen pretty much every episode of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine (ugh), and Voyager at LEAST once, probably multiple times. I'm not aware of every piece of trivia, but should the conversation turn to Klingon battle philosophy or the plight of the oppressed Bajorans, I can hold my own. I have even been known to say things (out in public, no less--how embarrassing) like "We are not the Borg! Just because one of us knows something doesn't mean we ALL know it!&quo…

CBR4 #38: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manfesto by Chuck Klosterman

I suspect that Chuck Klosterman (much like fellow Chuck, Palahniuk) is one of those authors that you either love or hate. Either you love him--because the thoughts that he's writing down mesh perfectly with the things that you have already been thinking, and the conversations he's having are things that you either already discuss or wish you could, and the connections he's making are connections you've either already made or at least understand completely--or you hate him--you find him a whiny first-world hipster who wastes entirely too much time thinking about 90s sitcoms, soft rock, and Axl Rose.

I fall into the first category.

People have been recommending Klosterman to me off and on for years, but somehow I never got around to reading him before. (Sometimes, when a whole bunch of people recommend a book and tell me "Oh, this is SO YOU!" I find that reading the book turns out to be a disappointing experience which just makes me think my friends don't k…

CBR4 #37: Dark Echo by F.G. Cottam

I love ghost stories. LOVE them. The problem is that I insist ghosts have a purpose--I don't like when an angry spirit shows up somewhere and is just evil for no reason. I like ghosts to have back-story. I want them to have history. And in a ghost story, I want the characters to find that history. I want to uncover it as they do--I want to feel like I too am racing to try and put the pieces together before it's too late. Dark Echo was an excellent example of everything that I want in a ghost story.

Martin Stannard is a disappointment to his father, titan of industry Magnus. Martin had a talent for boxing, but wasn't a successful boxer. He tried to enter the priesthood, but couldn't stick with it. He is a nice enough guy, and successful in his own way, but his father has never been quite satisfied. Therefore, it's rather a shock to Martin when his father tells him that he is going to purchase and restore an antique sailboat, which the two of them will then sail acro…

CBR4 #36: Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William M. Bass and Jon Jefferson

I have read quite a few of these books by top-notch medical examiner/forensic pathologists, and there is quite a bit of room between the best and the worst. Some are procedural, some are poorly organized, some are either too personal or too clinical, and some are just boring. Death's Acre isn't any of those things. It's a really excellent, interesting, and educational book, with a little bit of everything. And it's held together by a narrator with a wonderful, avuncular, self-deprecating voice.

Dr. Bill Bass created and oversaw the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm," where dead bodies are used in experiments (related to insect activity, decomposition, etc) to advance the cause of forensic science. The work done by Dr. Bass and his students has helped solve and successfully prosecute murder cases all over the world. Knowing how long it takes for a dead body to break down under a specific set of conditions can be the key to setting an innocent man free o…

CBR4 #35: Catch Up 2: Electric Boogaloo

In my ongoing attempts to catch up with my blogging for the Cannonball Read, here are five more mini-reviews on books I have read (I was going to add "recently" to this sentence, then realized that I read some of these in July, which is no longer considered "recent". Oops).

1. Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris: These books just keep getting stupider and more outlandish, but I still keep right on gobbling them up. They are the literary equivalent of Velveeta, but I just can't quit them. In this entry (allegedly the next-to-last in the Sookie series), there is a mystery, and some complications, and some stupid vampire politics, and stupid faerie politics, and Sookie Gets In Trouble Yet Again! Her relationship with Eric is down the tubes (boo, I really liked Eric) and there are just waaaay too many characters. I'm kind of glad this series is ending, because I think the author's been tired of it since somewhere around book eight. I'll read the final one wh…

CBR4 #34: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Sometimes I think that as much as I love his supernatural brick-sized books, Stephen King's real talent shines best in novella form. Some of my very favorite of his work are novellas (The Bachman Books and Different Seasons, particularly) and while I enjoy his more extensive work, I think that the shorter form reins him into telling tighter stories. After all, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" is a novella, but the story is epic.

In Full Dark, No Stars, King presents us with four novellas and a short story.

In the first tale, "1922" a man makes a confession and regrets the choices he made in his life. This may or may not be a supernatural story (it depends a lot on your interpretation of it) but it is definitely disturbing. It's tough to decide whether to condone or condemn the main character, and I'm sure that the side you take will color your view of what happens and your interpretation of the narrator. This one has some great historical co…

CBR4 #33: The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

Have any of you been watching the BBC's Sherlock? I just watched the first two episodes of series two and they were SO GOOD. The fact that Benedict Cumberbatch didn't get an Emmy for his portrayal of Holmes was galling, and the fact that Martin Freeman wasn't nominated for best supporting was equally annoying. The episode "Scandal in Belgravia" just gutted me. The chemistry between the leads is riveting. If you haven't seen series one and two, you really should. (I haven't watched S2E3 yet--it's the Reichenbach Falls, and that's bound to be a tough one. Particularly since it's going to be FOREVER before series three finally arrives.)

Anyway, I told you that as a lead in to The Italian Secretary. This is a Sherlock Holmes novel, and as such it is not a bad addition to the genre. Holmes and Watson are called to Holyrood House in Scotland by Mycroft Holmes. They're asked to look into several deadly incidents that have occurred at the house…

CBR4 #32 - The Catch-Up (Five Books)

I've decided that I am going to go ahead and just do blurbs on some of the books I've read over the past several months. That way at least I can get it out there that I have not allowed my brain to turn entirely to mush. Plus, maybe I'll find while I'm writing the short bits that I have more to say than I realized. For the moment, I am going to count this as one giant entry for CBR4.

1. Dead Man's Song by Jonathan Maberry - This is the second book in the Pine Deep series and picks up right where the first one ends. The story of things going terribly wrong in the small town of Pine Deep continues hurtling along. The main characters are finally starting to draw together and get things figured out, while still trying to fight off vampires, the undead, and the difficult memories of things that happened the last time things went wrong in town. This is still mostly a set-up for the final book in the trilogy, but it feels a lot less like non-stop exposition.

2. Far North …

CBR4 #31: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

I've seen a lot of people reading this book, and have read some very good reviews about it. Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to the hype.

This book is divided between two subjects. The first is the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The second is Chicago-based serial killer H. H. Holmes, who took advantage of the chaos caused by the fair to lure scores of women to their deaths in his "murder castle." Although these two subjects effected one another, and occurred at the same time and place, they don't mesh together as well as one one hope in this book.

The parts about the World's fair are very interesting--the amount of work and effort that was undertaken in such a short period of time are breathtaking, although there is the standard amount of ridiculousness that surrounds any very large project helmed by a forced committee (witness the 9/11 memorial museum, which is still incomplete eleven years after the event). Still, they managed to erect a miniature …

CBR4 #30: Nevermore by Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter is mostly known for his true-crime accounts of serial killers. However, with Nevermore he introduces one of my favorite characters of the year: Edgar Allen Poe, narrator and detective.

Through set of rather interesting circumstances, Edgar Allan Poe (pre-authorial success--he makes a rather small living writing book reviews, most of which are scathing at best) finds himself faced with the angry author of a book he has reviewed: famed American frontiersman Davy Crockett. Crockett and Poe are polar opposites, but they wind up ensnared in a perplexing murder mystery which they must work together to solve.

Poe is both exactly what you would expect and delightfully beyond what you could imagine. His voice is so deliberately and agonizingly over-the-top that it is hilarious. For example, an early passage from him runs thus:

Before I could summon this agonized yell (an act which would unquestionably have alarmed the entire neighborhood and occasioned me a great deal of embar…

CBR4 #29: Blood Groove by Alex Bledsoe

The basic plot of this book involves the Baron Rudolfo Zginski, a vampire who was captured and killed in 1915...well, not exactly killed. Badly maimed would probably be a better way to describe it. Due to circumstances beyond his control, he rises to find himself in 1975 Memphis. He has to figure out where he is, what's going on, and how to work things to his advantage. Along the way, he meets up with some young (and rather poorly trained) vampires, whom he teaches the ins and outs of being undead. He also must deal with a mysterious plot to destroy vampire-kind.

The plot of this was interesting and moved at a good pace. Baron Zginski wasn't a bad main character, though I will admit that I bristled a little at the way he treated some of the women who surrounded him, particularly his living meal-ticket. The younger vampires were more likeable, and I wanted to know more about all their back stories.

I think the most interesting thing about it is the idea of waking up aft…

CBR4 #28: Hollywood Nocturnes by James Ellroy

I hadn't read any Ellroy before this, but it totally grabbed me. Hollywood Nocturnes is made up of six semi-interlocking short stories set in Ellroy's favorite haunt--post-war L.A. In one story, a musician decides to solve his problems by having himself kidnapped. In another a mob enforcer is entranced by a woman who dates the two most powerful men in town. A series of murders on the African-American side of town isn't necessarily what it it seems to be.

The characters are mostly anti-heroes--in fact, some of them are pretty terrible--but they all have their own special charm. I was particularly fond of Buzz Meeks and his story.  The stories are quickly plotted, and detailed enough to be satisfying without running over. Ellroy's prose is clipped and slightly brutal, but also lovingly arranged, I and I enjoyed it in the same way that I enjoy some of Stephen King's literary gymnastics.

This book made me immediately set out to get my hands on more of the auth…

CBR4 #27: Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

I know, people. I know. At this point I am so far behind I can never possibly catch up. But doesn't mean I shouldn't put forth SOME effort while I have the chance. Let's just pretend that I don't have 35+ books sitting un-reviewed and focus on one book at a time.

I hadn't wanted to read Game Change for a while. I mostly find political rhetoric exhausting and infuriating. I'm not especially good at political conversations, since I'm not very good at pulling out well-sourced facts in the face of (what I consider to be) woeful misinformation. I usually end up sputtering "Well I read somewhere that that's not true!" and then eventually getting so angry and frustrated that I have to give up. My brain contains a LOT of information (you should see me play Jeopardy) but knowing exactly where it came from isn't a strong point. And if you're going to be discussing things of this level of importance, you should be able to source your facts. The o…

CBR4 #26: War by Sebastian Junger

I've been putting this book off for a while, but decided to finally read it in honor of Memorial Day. It was worth it, and the only reason I give it four stars instead of five is that I have no desire to read it ever again.

There is quite a bit of military in my blood, though I'm a generation removed from it. All three of my grandfathers served in the military--two in the Navy and one in the Army. One of my uncles served briefly, and at least one of my great-grandfathers served in WWI. I have a few friends who either have served or are currently serving in various branches of the armed forces. This book makes me realize that no matter how much I may want to understand their experiences, nothing I can read will ever make that truly possible.

Sebastian Junger spent fifteen months on and off embedded with troops in Afghanistan's Korengal valley, easily the most dangerous and fatal area in all of Afghanistan for American soldiers. He goes on patrols with them, spends time with…

CBR4 #25: The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

On its surface, this book sounded like something I would like. A movie critic/historian sets out to write a book about Tubby Thackeray, a silent-era film star who has been all but forgotten by the modern era. Unfortunately, it turns out that things would have been a lot better if Tubby had stayed forgotten.

The problems I had with this book were probably mostly personal. I didn't like the narrator at all--I found him to be something of a spineless twerp--and none of the other characters appealed to me either. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed that Tubby didn't crawl out of the screen Ring-style and eat everybody in the first 100 pages. Plus, I am very iffy about unreliable narrators. Although sometimes the effect can be used really well, in this one I found it extremely obvious and therefore a bit lame.

Some of the imagery was good, and I did appreciate the tone of ever-rising paranoia and tension, but there were long bits that consisted of the narrator arguing via message boa…

CBR4 #24: The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

In some ways, this is a stereo-typical noir parody. The detective, Eddie LaCrosse is an embittered cynic, just trying to get by and deal with his dark past. His office is above a bar people with tough characters and an even tougher barmaid. An old friend (who is now a pretty important guy) drops by with a problem -- it seems that his wife has gone crazy and killed their son. The friend wants Eddie to investigate and see if everything is as it seems to be (hint: it's not.) Eddie has to not only solve the mystery, but also confront some of the demons of his past.

Now take that story, and move it to a time of swords and horses. Eddie's friend is a king, and magic is involved in daily life. Eddie still has to solve the mystery, but now there are sword battles and curses and all the tropes of fantasy.

It's an odd cross between Sam Spade and Lord of the Rings, but it somehow works. The character of Eddie is great, and the mystery was intriguing. It's particularly entertainin…

CBR4 #23: What the Corpse Revealed by Hugh Miller

As you well know, I've read several of these medical examiner books, and frankly, I was least impressed with this one. It's not that it was bad, necessarily. There were several cases laid out wherein forensics were used to find out what had happened to the victims. The writing was clear and relatively easy to read. The main issue was that all the stories were second-hand--the author, unlike the authors of the previous works I've read on this subject, was not personally involved as a forensic professional, but is just documenting the cases of others.

While I don't like TOO much personal stuff intruding into the case histories (see this season of Bones for an example of a perfectly-balanced procedural tipped over into "crappy family drama") there is something to be said for seeing a glimpse of the forensic pathologist behind the mask. The kind of people who seem to get into this profession are often interesting characters, and have a lot to add to any story tha…

CBR4 #22: Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky

Strangely, this is another book I picked up due to my viewing habits. I am a huge fan of the film Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett. Although it's obviously very fictitious historical fiction, it's still a tremendous film full of amazing performances. My favorite character in it is definitely Sir Francis Walsingham, played by Geoffrey Rush as a cunning strategist and loyal ally. I figured that while he's obviously been made more interesting for the film, somewhere there must be a grain of truth to his role, and I bought this book to try and find it.

Walsingham was in fact one of Queen Elizabeth's most trusted advisers. He was a devout protestant who had spent a great deal of time outside of England, acting as an ambassador. He was a quiet, frugal person, a devoted family man and conscientious civil servant. He was also a master of strategy; he managed to place double agents, crack codes, use misinformation to achieve his goals, and handle a rather indecisive monarch. A…

CBR4 #21: Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West by Ann Seagraves

I am a big fan of westerns. I love the old ones--anything with Clint Eastwood on a horse will probably make me happy--and I like the newer ones, like Tombstone and the Coen brothers' excellent remake of True Grit. I am especially fond of HBO's (entirely too short-lived) TV show Deadwood. If you haven't seen it, I'd suggest you run out and get seasons one and two immediately (season three is...not as good.) The show is graphic (it's HBO, there are going to be boobs), the language is EXTREMELY salty, and some characters require the use of subtitles to get anything out of their dialogue. However, the acting is top-notch, the plots and dialogue are nearly Shakespearean, and Al Swearengen is about the coolest character to ever grace my television.

I told you that story to tell you this one:

Several of the characters on Deadwood are prostitutes. During the first season, pretty much the only women in the fledgling city are the hookers that were brought in to make money of…

CBR4 #20: San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires by Dennis Smith

In 1906, a massive earthquake struck the young city of San Francisco. While still suffering the aftershocks of the quake, fires broke out in several locations. Due to poor preparation and some very poor decision-making by those in authority, the fires would grow and rage out of control for days, destroying large swaths of the coastal city.

This book did a great job of explaining the events that led to the fires, as well as the context of how the city functioned at the time. Corruption in the local government was indirectly responsible for the lack of available water to fight the fire, and an unclear chain of command resulted in an unqualified member of the military taking charge of the fire-fighting process. His decisions to evacuate citizens (instead of allowing them to stay and try to save their homes), authorize the use of dynamite (by unqualified, untrained soldiers) to create firebreaks, and to declare martial law in the city resulted in the death of many people and the destructi…

CBR4 #19: Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a WWII U-Boat Attack by Tom Nagorski

In the fall of 1940, London was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live. The German blitz was raining down destruction on the heads of Londoners, and anyone who could manage to get out of town did so. Many wealthy families moved to their country estates, or at the least sent their children to stay with friends outside the city. Since this was not an option available to the poor, the British government developed a program which would allow children from low-income families to travel to Canada and remain safely across the Atlantic from the hazards of war. Many thought that having their children accepted into the program was a lucky break. Unfortunately for those whose children boarded the S.S. City of Benares, it became a nightmare.

The ship, which carried ninety displaced children (as well as chaperones, crew, and paying passengers, totalling about four hundred people aboard total) was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic, nearly 600 miles from shore. The…

CBR4 #18: The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan

[Okay, so I am about 16 books behind in my blogging. I wish I had better excuses (you know, like "I was in a shipwreck!" or "I was kidnapped by a cult!" or "The zombie apocalypse happened and I was holed up in a grocery store without wifi!") but really it's just that work has been busy and by the time I get home I really don't feel like spending any more time staring at a computer. However, today is quiet, and I figured I should probably make an effort at catching up before the hole is so deep that the mere thought of trying to dig out is overwhelming. That means the reviews will probably not be very long, but at least there will be SOMETHING getting done around here.]

It's tough to describe The Hawkline Monster. I suppose that the author's view of it as a "Gothic Western" is not exactly inaccurate, but at the same time it's not very descriptive. Then again, I'm not sure there's a word (or even a group of words) that …

CBR4 #17: The Tomb by F. Paul Wilson

Repairman Jack is a fixer. He isn't likely to fix a leaky sink or malfunctioning dryer, but he WILL help get rid of a stalker, deal with vandals who won't leave you alone, or track down property you might not want the cops to know is missing.

In this tale, Jack finds himself tracking down a special necklace for a Bengali diplomat. He also is called upon (grudgingly) by his ex-girlfriend to help locate an elderly friend who has gone missing. Unsurprisingly, the two events are related. What might be surprising is how things end up shaking out.

I liked the character of Repairman Jack very much. He's interesting, with a distinctive voice and clear motivations. His girlfriend Gia was not as likable, but at least her motivation to make the choices she did was also clear. The side characters were also well done, including Jack's pawn-broker friend and Gia's adorable daughter Vicky.

Frankly, I did see one of the twists coming from fairly early on, but it didn't effect …

CBR4 #16: Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson

A nun, a rabbi, a lesbian, and a disgraced priest survive the vampire apocalypse...

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it's actually the plot of this pretty good little page-turner by F. Paul Wilson.

Whereas most books about vampires taking over the world begin early in the process, this one starts after it's all over but the shouting. The vampires took over Europe, then swept into the US, destroying the power structure and rounding up the people to use as cattle. Some humans have remained free, but they live in fear. During the night, they hide from the vampires, and during the day they hide from the "cowboys" -- humans who work for the vampires. Most people scrape out survival as best they can, with little hope that things will ever change. However, a small group led by Father Joe--a priest who was thrown out of his parish in disgrace--discovers the will to fight back.

This is exactly the kind of book I like. A group of people who seem to have very little …

CBR4 #15: Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry

Thirty years ago, something evil came to the small town of Pine Deep. The evil was stymied, but not destroyed. Now, most residents of "the Most Haunted Town in America" have forgotten what happened. Some of them still remember, though. And some of them are still very, very angry.

This was a pretty good book. I liked the protagonists--ex-cop Malcolm Crow, his girlfriend Val, and young "Iron Mike" Sweeney--a lot. They were were relateable characters, with emotions and reactions I found believable. Crow in particular was very cool. Val was a strong female character, mostly independent and smart. Even the antagonistic characters--dangerous convict Karl, Mike's abusive stepfather Vic, and (most disturbing) religious fanatic Tow-Truck Eddie--had their own motivations and points of view.

The main problem I had with this book is that it feels incomplete. I realize that it's the first book in a trilogy, but it felt like there was a lot of set up and very little pay-…

CBR4 #14: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

As much as I like them, I will admit that most zombie books are basically the same. Usually, they start out with things being normal, then the zombie apocalypse happens, the survivors are thrown into disarray, and eventually they band together and try to fight back after discovering that no help is on the way and the only people they can rely on are themselves. Lucky for me (and probably you too) this book is different.

This is the story of a man who is nicknamed Mark Spitz. Before the zombies took over the world, he was perfectly average. No matter what he did, he always ended up in the comfortable middle of things. He was neither very good nor very poor at anything. Then the world fell apart and it turned out that he was good at surviving, if nothing else.

When the story starts, Mark and his teammates Kaitlyn and Gary are employed as "sweepers". At the time, the government has been reestablished, and things are starting to proceed forward with all the grace and expediency …

CBR4 #13: Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti

This past summer, there was a lot of hullabaloo about hurricane Irene. The idea of a hurricane hitting all the way up in here in New England with any kind of strength seemed somewhat ridiculous. Hurricanes are a southern thing, right? Something that people in Florida and Louisiana and places along the coast down there have to worry about, not those of us in Boston! Turns out, that wasn't true this summer, and it certainly wasn't true in September of 1938, either.

R.A. Scotti has put together an informative, well-researched book about what happened when a giant hurricane struck along the northern Atlantic coast. Due to lack of communication between the few weather tracking bureaus at the time, no one expected the storm. It hit as a category five, with an unimaginable fury: destroying hundreds of houses, uprooting trees, derailing trains, killing numerous people, and changing the landscape of the New England coast forever.

The author tells the stories of several groups who manag…

CBR4 #12: Johnny Gruesome by Gregory Lamberson

(Here thar be spoilers, me hearties. Though if you read this review and are still tempted to read the book, I've clearly done it wrong.)

You may have noticed in the course of the hundreds of reviews I've done over the past few years that there have been very few books to which I've had a strong negative reaction. Mostly I can find SOMETHING likable about each story.  If a story has something going for it -- interesting plot, relateable characters, gripping language--I am willing to overlook a lot. I can suspend my disbelief if I think it might be worth it. I can even appreciate things that are bad, as long as they are bad with aplomb. (Hence my Nicolas Cage obsession, obviously.) Even things that I don't particularly like, I mostly feel pretty "meh" about. I don't get worked up into Lewis Black-style rage.

Johnny Gruesome is the rare exception to that rule.

Eric is a senior in high school, and his best friend is Johnny Grissom. They have been best friend…

CBR4 #11: Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham's detective Albert Campion is not really very appealing. His decision to pretend to be stupid might be useful for the process of detection, but it doesn't make for a very pleasant reading experience.

In this mystery, Albert is trying to protect an American judge from the murderous intentions of the dangerous Simister gang. Nevermind that we don't really know much at all about the Simister gang aside from the brief mention in The Crime at Black Dudley. Suffice it to say that they are apparently very sinister and very dangerous. The American judge is clever but curmudgeony. His son is dashing and worried. His daughter is very beautiful and cries all the time. Albert's young friends with whom he secrets the judge are young, dashing, and worried, but in a much more British way. There is also a clueless art dealer, some colorful local people, and a chatty sneak thief. The characters are mostly entertaining, and I particularly liked Albert's friend Bidd…

CBR4 #10: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage is sort of a book about vampires. It's kind of like 'Salem's Lot, but on a world-wide scale. It's also sort of a book about post-apocalyptic life, and how humans will survive when life as they know it suddenly ceases forever.

There are three main sections to this story. The first takes place in modern times. In the mountains in Colorado, the government is working on a special secret experiment. A group of scientists brought back something potentially revolutionary from the Amazonian jungle. Unfortunately, it's more dangerous than they'd realized. And it's not helping that they're testing it on death row inmates. Agent Brad Wolgast and his partner are tasked with going and getting the inmates to volunteer for the trial, which doesn't bother him too much. When the next target turns out to be a little girl, though, he begins to have second thoughts. And that's right about the time things go haywire.

The next section is set a hundred yea…

CBR4 #9: Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner by Michael Baden

I know, I know--once again with the medical examiner books. I'm sorry, but I just can't help it. The whole process is so interesting to me. I'm consistently amazed at the amount of information a forensic specialist can pull from tiny bits of biological evidence.

Dr. Michael Baden is one of the more famous medical examiners in the country--he worked on many historic cases, including the investigation into the Kennedy assassination, John Belushi's death, and the OJ Simpson case. He's also had a television program detailing his work on HBO.

The book was well-written, and Dr. Baden tries to be educational without being too dry or boring. There are a variety of cases with a variety of outcomes, and each attempts to be illustrative of a specific technique or method.

Unnatural Death is a pretty good example of the genre, though it necessarily goes over some of the same ground covered by the previous works. I will say that Dr. Baden spends more time that I thought necessar…

CBR4 #8: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. The concept was interesting, some of the characters were really great. It just seemed like the author came up with a great concept and then kind of phoned it in for a while. The romantic part of the plot was not only distracting but kind of stupid. The fact that my favorite character in the whole thing was a German army commander doesn't really bode well, to be honest.

The basic plot begins when a German commander is ordered to move his troops to a fortified building that over looks a pass in Romania. The German high command is planning to move through the pass to the town of Ploiesti in order to both secure fuel supplies and set up a new "work camp", and they want to be sure they will have a clear path. The commander is uncomfortable with the order, uncomfortable with the direction things have been taking with regard to "work camps," and is frankly not feeling very optimistic about the building. The wa…

CBR4 #7: The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

In some ways, The Crime at Black Dudley is a very typical British country house mystery. A bunch of upper class people are invited to a party weekend at some god-forsaken, off-the-beaten-path estate. They arrive to find they don't necessarily know each other, and are a bit curious as to why they have been chosen. The house comes complete with creepy relative, hostile manservant, and a very weird family tradition. When a murder occurs, it's only the beginning of what will turn out to be a simply disastrous weekend.  The women weep, the men engage in fisticuffs, there are secret passages, hidden identities, and a few fiendish plots.

The main character is Dr. George Abbershaw, a mild-mannered physician who occasionally consults for Scotland Yard. The actual detective of the piece is Albert Campion, who both extremely intelligent AND extremely weird. Although Dr. Abbershaw in some ways functions as a Dr. Watson, he is less privy to Campion's actions and motivations. It's a…