Review ~ The Ramshead Algorithm and Other Stories

This book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review. (And trust me, if he knew about the extended metaphor in this review, he probably would have thought twice about asking…)

Cover via Goodreads

The Ramshead Algorithm and Other Stories by K.J. Kabza

Ramshead Jones has a billionaire father, a dysfunctional family, and a shocking secret nestled in the hedge maze in his backyard: Earth’s only portal to hundreds of other realities. When Ramshead’s unwitting father decides to rip the hedge maze out, Ramshead is forced to use dangerous magic to move the portal before it’s destroyed, too—unless the deadly maze of other family secrets that come to light destroys him first.

In THE RAMSHEAD ALGORITHM AND OTHER STORIES, sand cats speak, ghost bikes roll, corpses disappear, and hedge mazes are more bewildering than you’ve ever imagined. These 11 fantasy and science fiction stories from KJ Kabza have been dubbed “Sublime” (Tangent), “Rich” (SFRevu), and “Ethereal” (Quick Sip Reviews) and will take you deep into other astonishing realities that not even Ramshead has discovered.

Cover design and interior illustrations by Dante Saunders. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Ages ago, I reviewed a Best Horror of the Year anthology that included Kabza’s “The Soul in the Bell Jar” (also included in this collection). I’ve been a fan ever since.

What Worked
Short story collections are like a box of chocolates. Sure, looking at the glossy bonbons, you don’t know which is going to be coconut cream and which one is, uh, pink, but you do roughly know what you’re getting when you buy a box of Whitman’s or Russel Stover. Such is the case when you pick up a collection or anthology—a certain quality author or editor is going to provide certain quality stories, despite inevitable pink cream equivalent. The way to avoid that is to buy a better box of chocolates. The Ramshead Algorithm, my friends, is a box of top-end Godiva.*

Every story in this collection is excellent. I had read over half of them in the past between Kabza’s self-pubbed collection Under Stars and some of his more recent publications. I decided to reread them in order to have the full experience of the collection. I noticed certain details (gardens, hedge mazes, ruins, and oceans) that repeat throughout as well a theme of searching and finding which I might have missed if I had only read the new-to-me stories.

I believe in my review of Under Stars I mentioned how well-done the world building is and I want to reiterate that. The short story form necessitates brevity, but every detail in these stories creates the world, whether the flash fiction-sized “All Souls Proceed” to the novella “You Can’t Take It With You.”

What Didn’t Work
My one and only beef was that I had scheduled out the stories from this collection not realizing that the final one in the collection “You Can’t Take It With You” was indeed a novella of a hundred pages. My entire reading schedule was messed up and it was basically my own darn fault.

So, there is nothing that didn’t work.

(Btw, “You Can’t Take It With You” is what Ready Player One would be without the nostalgia nods every .5 seconds. And this story is the better one.)

Overall
Readers might be interested to know that Kabza is a LGBTQ+ writer and some of his characters are LGBTQ+ as well. If your doing a diversity-in-reading challenge, sure, go ahead, this is a great collection to add to your pile. But, please, don’t let that be the only reason you decide to read The Ramshead Algorithm. Read it because who doesn’t want a box of Godiva?

* Okay, I’ll admit it, I have pretty middle class tastes and Godiva is what comes to mind when I think of classy chocolates. With a little googling, Godiva does make it to many “luxury” lists. Plus, most people have heard of Godiva while many of the other Swiss/French/etc. chocolatiers don’t really roll off the brain. But if you have a favorite high-end chocolate, go ahead and substitute it.

Publishing info, my copy: PDF, Pink Narcissus Press, 1/16/18
Acquired: 10/10/17
Genre: fantasy, science fiction, a dash of horror

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Deal Me In, Week 50 ~ “Gentlemen”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Gentlemen” by Craig Spector and John Skipp

Card picked: 10
From: The Architecture of Fear, edited by Kathryn Cramer

The Story
Generally, this anthology has been a little light on stories that centered on architecture—actual buildings. Maybe I had an out-sized expectation of how the hauntings would play out; I often fall victim to my own disappointment. “Gentlemen,” though, does not disappoint. It’s haunted place: a dive bar bathroom. Not only do Spector and Skipp take advantage of the low hanging gross-out fruits, but provide a truly eerie setting.

Alas, the story was a bit lacking. David, our hapless protagonist, is in love with LeeAnn, but is firmly in the friend zone. This story was written in 1989 before the term “friend zone” was much of a thing. LeeAnn calls on David whenever her romantic relationships go south. And on this particular night, she calls David to a bar filled with awful people and having a curious bathroom in the basement. While he seems to become infected or possessed by the forces that exist in the bathroom—that urge him to BE A MAN—there’s a social aspect that is lacking. David’s bad behavior can be explained away by whatever has taken over, which is actually not very scary.

Review ~ The Prestige

Cover via Goodreads

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another.

Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other’s ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magicians’ craft can command–the highest misdirection and the darkest science.

Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for generations…to descendants who must, for their sanity’s sake, untangle the puzzle left to them. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This is a reread for me. Sometimes, I get so caught-up in ARCs and the unread books in my “pile” that I don’t let myself reread intriguing books that I enjoyed the first time around. Boy, am I glad I decided to reread The Prestige.

What Worked
I first read it in 2010, about two years before my earnest interest in magic took hold. From the my standpoint as a slightly-beyond-layman, Priest knows his stuff magic-wise. Previously, I didn’t fully appreciate the differences between Borden and Angier’s performance philosophies. The division between dedication to theory and dedication to end-performance still exists in a world  that contains both Ricky Jay and David Blaine.

The voices of the two magicians (and Andrew and Kate in the modern wrap-around) are clear and distinctive. This is something I didn’t appreciate the first time I read the story. I also didn’t fully appreciate the crossing events in the narrative. Basically, we’re given two separate (and incomplete) narratives; first Borden’s and then Angier’s. And that’s it. Despite having two modern characters working to make sense of the narratives, readers are left to fit pieces together without any extra-narrative interference. It’s a nice puzzle of a novel.

What Didn’t Work
We won’t talk about the science…

Also, Andrew and Kate in modern times are the least interesting portion of the novel, aside from the rather tense last five pages.

Overall
I’ll echo what I said in my first “review” of The Prestige: I wish I had read the book before seeing the movie. The movie is much different (how did I forget that Angier started out as fraudulent medium in the book?), but there are two major plot points —the twists—that are paralleled. But now that I’ve also seen the film probably a dozen more times, I’m further impressed by how well the adaptation works. Stakes needed to be higher in the movie. So, kudos to Jonathan and Christopher Nolan for creating a story that is the prestigious twin  of the book.

Publishing info, my copy: mass market paperback, Tor (tie-in edition with a terrible cover, not the cover above), 2006 (orig. 1995)
Acquired: Paperback Swap
Genre: horror, science fiction

Review ~ Cabal

Cover via Goodreads

Cabal by Clive Barker

Cabal is the story of Boone, a tortured soul haunted by the conviction that he has committed atrocious crimes. In a necropolis in the wilds of Canada, he seeks refuge and finds the last great creatures of the world – the shape-shifters known as the Nightbreed. They are possessed of unearthly powers-and so is Boone. In the hunt for Boone, they too will be hunted. Now only the courage of this strange human can save them from extinction. And only the undying passion of a woman can save Boone from his own corrupting hell…

This novella is the basis for the Major Motion Picture – Nightbreed. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I rewatched Nightbreed during Readers Imbibing Peril, or rather I watched a longer cut which is sort of a director’s cut—there are several versions of the film due to the back and forth between Barker (who directed), the studio, and, later, fans. I’m a bit of fan of the movie and the concept of the Nightbreed and I got curious about the book. Again. I’ve owned the book in the past; bought it in high school and sold it in college, mostly unread, to a used store for end-of-the-semester cash…

What Worked
The movie, and the blurb above, focus mostly on Boone and his journey into accepting his new life/death as the destroyer/savior of the Nightbreed. One of the things I liked most about the book was Lori’s story. In the movie, there’s kind of a “love of a good woman” vibe. In the book, Lori is more motivated by her realization that there could be more than just being human. Also, lust plays a bigger factor in her decision than love. The Nightbreed movie glazes over the sex that is present in the book in a way that Barker’s Hellraiser movies doesn’t.

What Didn’t Work
I don’t remember why the book didn’t catch with me the first time around. The movie is fairly faithful to the text, even the theatrical version which is the only one I would have seen at the time. I’m guessing that what I really wanted then (and now) was more of the Nightbreed and was impatient with beginning with Boone. The Nightbreed are a group of monsters, some of which can hide their forms. What are their stories?

And what was with the title?

Cabal: (archaic) a secret intrigue.

Oddly, one of the things I like best about this book is that it leaves the story open to be a series…which Barker has never written. As readers, we never get the full idea of what that intrigue might be. (There are some comics that presumable extend the story, but I haven’t read them.)

Overall
Barker always feels a little disjointed to me, but Cabal is a simpler story, not as deep in philosophies, but holds together better.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle edition, Crossroad Press, 2014 (original 1989)
Acquired: Amazon, 11/1/17
Genre: horror

Mini Reviews, Vol. 10

alt text The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James

On the heels of WWI, temp girl Sarah Piper takes work as an assistant to two ghost hunters; one posh, one rough, both scarred by the war.

This book was much too much of a romance for me. Sarah’s spends an overage of time believing that her beau (Matthew, the rough one) hates her for no real good reason and that she must never tell him how she feels for no good reason. The ghost story was passable, somewhat predictable. The Haunting of Maddy Clare was an audio book and the narrator’s portrayal of Matthew was disconcerting.

alt text Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Emily Carroll “tells” five stories of isolation and dread akin to Grimm’s fairy tales.

With a limited color palette and drawings that are by turns stark and detailed, these are new tales of old-fashioned creepiness. The stories and art evoke a coldness, a darkness that seems perfect for fall and winter reading. Through the Woods was an impulse pick-up for me for during readathon and it was the highlight. Might even become a yearly Halloween read.

Deal Me In Catch-Up, Week 41

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Tales from the Original Gothic” by John M. Ford

Card picked: Week 41: Q
From: The Architecture of Fear, edited by Kathryn Cramer and Peter D. Pautz

The Story
This story had so much potential. In an anthology about hauntings and houses, this offered up a ghost house: a house that periodically manifests full of its former occupants. A team of scientists and ghost busters anticipates the house’s appearance and decide to go in. So much potential.

The introduction to this story describes it as a “gestalt whirlwind.” I suppose that’s what this story is, but I couldn’t get through more than half of it. Six pages in, I had no idea what exactly was going on with our team of paranormal researchers.

 

Review ~ Dark Screams: Volume Eight

This book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Hydra via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Dark Screams: Volume Eight edited by Brian James Freeman & Richard T. Chizmar

Frank Darabont, Bentley Little, Benjamin Percy, Billie Sue Mosiman, Kealan Patrick Burke, and Glen Hirshberg share chilling tales of ancient evils and wicked desires in this spooky collection assembled by renowned horror editors Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Found it by searching for Glen Hirshberg at NetGalley, doubly interested because of Frank Darabont.

What Worked & Didn’t Work
Five of these six stories reminded me of the best episodes from late 80s/early 90s horror anthology TV shows (Tales from the DarksideMonstersFreddy’s Nightmares). Each had a great twist of an ending and variable levels of gore.

Frank Darabont’s “Walpuski’s Typewriter” sets the tone for the anthology. It’s a nasty piece of work (in a good way!) involving a writer and a demon possessed typewriter. Darabont is best known for his screen writing and adaptations; notably The Shashank Redemption and The Mist. I hadn’t read any of his prose. It did not disappoint.

“The Boy” by Bentley Little was the perfect followup. I found myself wondering if I was supposed to like Christine’s neighbors, especially as they make fun of a kid who supposedly smells. By the end of the story, I wasn’t sure who was worse. Christine solves their stinky kid problem, in a way that is probably more honest than her two-faced neighbors would consider.

With Benjamin Percy’s “Tumor,” we’re solidly back in the land of Tales from the Darkside. This is a simple short, tale, but full of gory glee.

A shift in tone happens in the latter half of Dark Screams, Vol. 8. The stories are more complex and a smidge more contemplative in their horror. The one story that didn’t work for me was right after the mid-point, “Twisted and Gnarled” by Billie Sue Mosiman. The story is told alternately through first person point of view of a serial killer, The Man, and a somewhat psychic mother, The Woman. The internal dialogue of both of these characters really didn’t work for me.

Quiet horror continued in “The Palaver” by Kealan Patrick Burke. Alluding to the stories of the late 19th century, this is a tale within a tale. Our narrator is the owner of the slowly failing Palavar Barbershop. He’s told a story of cosmic horror from the Great Depression that may or may not repeat itself in the 21st century.

The last story in the anthology is Glen Hirshberg’s “India Blue.” As with many of these tales, the “payoff” is at the end of the story, which means reading through one man’s endeavor to bring cricket to America. Not just cricket though, but America’s Rockin’ Professional Cricket, complete with cheerleaders and a showboat player who has been drummed out of respectable leagues. Luckily, the journey is possibly better than the ending.

Overall
Solid anthology. It’s release date is Halloween and it’s the perfect little reading treat.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/ePub, Random House Publishing Group, 10/31/17
Acquired: 8/17/17, NetGalley
Genre: horror