THE DESCARTES HIGHLANDS

(Eric Gamalinda; 300 pages; AKASHIC BOOKS; 2014)

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This story had me so confused for the first few chapters, I almost gave up on it; written in three distinct voices (and styles) and covering (at least) two different time periods on at least three continents (and an island nation or two), it took a while to get my head around what was happening, when it was happening and to whom. At some point, I noticed that the chapter titles… really weren’t; each character’s story had its own title; that’s when I went back to the beginning and figured out exactly what the heck was going on. Sometimes I can be a little slow on the uptake, but once I get on board with a concept, I can generally roll along rather nicely.

Author Eric Gamalinda (photo credit: ROME JORGE)

Author Eric Gamalinda (photo credit: ROME JORGE)

The story follows the paths of two young men, born just hours apart in neighboring huts in a poor village in the Philippines. Both men are unaware of the existence of the other or the reasons for their adoptions; their father, an American named Andrew Breszky, told their mothers (who didn’t know that Breszky was the other child’s father) that he was going to sell the babies for adoption and send the money back to the village to save their families the embarrassment of, not only being unwed mothers, but also giving birth to an American child. One of the boys was adopted by a woman in New York, the other by a couple from the south of France. The title of the story comes from the region of the moon where Apollo 16 landed in 1972, the year the boys were born; the mother in New York would give her adopted son letters from his father, with the return address listed as “Mister Breszky, the Descartes Highlands, the Moon.” Interspersed with his sons’ stories, the story of political prisoner Andrew Breszky unfolds, allowing the reader insight into the psyches of the two men, desperately seeking a long lost clue to who they are and why they act as they do. THE DESCARTES HIGHLANDS is a psychologically taut drama that unravels right in front of you, much like the relationships and mental stability of the two sons. Filipino author Eric Gamalinda spins a tale of lies and loneliness, of longing for the truth and for an acceptance that always seems to be at arm’s length; the acceptance is there – from parents, from girlfriends and lovers – but the pair can never quite trust their own feelings… to believe that what is being offered to them freely doesn’t come with some sort of string attached. Yeah… the story can be a bit confusing and, occasionally, mind-numbing in its intricacies but, if you stick with it, following the ups and downs, the in and outs… I guarantee that you will be richly rewarded. Gamalinda’s storytelling and bleak imagery is disturbingly realistic, his dialogue frighteningly authentic. It’s time that you put on your thinking caps and delve into THE DESCARTES HIGHLANDS.


BLACK LOTUS

(K’wan; 128 pages; INFAMOUS BOOKS/AKASHIC BOOKS; 2014)

BLACK LOTUS

Halfway through the first chapter of K’wan Foye’s new novella, BLACK LOTUS, I knew that this story must be made into a movie and that the lead character, Detective James “Lone” Wolf, is destined to be a franchise hero. The edgy, no nonsense persona immediately put me in mind of a cop with a cool Odafin Tutuola (Ice T’s LAW AND ORDER: SUV character) vibe with a hair-trigger anger-management problem like Fin’s SUV colleague, Elliot Stabler. Toss in the swaggering confidence and well-earned street cred of a John Shaft and this character is a no-brainer superstar property; in fact, almost immediately, my mind’s eye put Richard Roundtree in the role of Wolf. Wolf’s backstory puts him at the top of the anti-hero heap and, of course, it doesn’t hurts that BLACK LOTUS is an absolutely riveting read.

BLACK LOTUS author K'wan (publicity photo)

BLACK LOTUS author K’wan (publicity photo)

The story opens with the brutal murder of a well-loved priest, an action that sets in motion a series of events that will force Wolf to face the demons that have haunted him since his last case as a homicide detective, the disappearance and murder of a small boy. Wolf had since moved to the narcotics division and, having just busted (and busted up) a few dealers in and undercover sting, his mentor and former captain in homicide contacts him for help in tracking down the priest’s killer. The detective reluctantly agrees, but only after the captain promises to make some of Wolf’s questionable past actions disappear from his record, specifically, the stigma that he murdered his former partner (a claim which was unsubstantiated and, of which Wolf was ultimately cleared). From that point, Wolf is thrown into a web of lies, deceit, betrayal, political intrigue and the answer to the murder of the little boy so many years before. Along the way, the Black Lotus killer leaves a trail of mayhem and retribution. The story is an edge-of-the-seat nail-biter that packs a surprising amount of action and character development into the short 128 pages. With no shortage of suspects, the twists and turns lead to an unexpected ending that, ultimately, is one of the most satisfying in recent memory.

INFAMOUS BOOKS founder Albert Johnson, AKA Prodigy (publicity photo)

INFAMOUS BOOKS founder Albert Johnson, AKA Prodigy (publicity photo)

BLACK LOTUS is the fourth title from the Infamous Books imprint, which is curated by Albert Johnson, better known as Prodigy, of the iconic hip-hop group, Mobb Depp. He brings a street level grittiness to an audience that has never before been afforded a viable voice in the literary world. And, make no mistake about it… this is literature – a uniquely American form of literature that should be read and treasured. BLACK LOTUS and other Infamous titles are available at all the usual places or direct from akashicbooks.com. Treat yourself… you won’t be disappointed.


MASTERS OF THE GALAXY

(Mike Resnick; 216 pages: PS PUBLISHING, 2012)

Masters of the Galaxy cover

MASTERS OF THE GALAXY is Masters… Jake Masters. Okay… that was lame. Jake Masters is a hard-boiled private dick with a heart of gold and a not-too-well-hidden soft spot for the underdog, much in the vein of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. The difference here is that Jake works on an out-planet of a galaxy-wide Democracy and his clients tend to be alien governments, alien crime lords, or just your average everyday alien. This book collects all four Jake Masters novellas (roughly 50 pages each) and a brand new short story to sweeten the pot.

Guardian Angel” introduces us to former cop turned detective Masters, as he’s hired by a distraught mother to bring back a wayward son. The father, the head of a criminal empire exiled on another planet, is the most logical place for Jake to start his search. Once our hero figures out that the son has very good reason to hide (in an interplanetary circus, no less) from both Mommy and Daddy, he takes the young man under his protective wing. It is, as they say, all down hill from there. “Guardian Angel” is an excellent way to kick things off as the detective work is believable, the action exciting and the outcome… not even close to what I was expecting!

Some of the detective and mystery genre’s best tales come from stories called “locked-room mysteries.” Even though “A Locked-Planet Mystery” works on a much larger scale, the feel is the same. A retiring corporate head has been murdered at his solitary retreat on an otherwise uninhabited planet. The solar system’s sole police force is located on the only inhabitable planet, four worlds away and they don’t even know what a murder is. The head of the police force, a being characterized by the detective as “a purple beachball with legs” comes to Jake for help. Everyone at the retreat has good reason to want to see the murdered being dead and, with the help of the beachball (who has an unpronounceable name that Jake shortens to “Max”), ferrets out the murderer in the best “locked-door” manner. Max is a fairly likeable character and since, as mentioned above, Jake Masters is really a softy, he takes the alien under his wing and makes him his partner. The fact that he was kind of a blank slate and an entertaining sidekick makes the third story, “Honorable Enemies,” a bit of a let down, as the case sends Jake to the “Alien Quarter” of his home planet, Odysseus, to search for Max’s killer. Along the way, he meets an alien crime lord and a potential rival kingpin, a human from a planet called New Warsaw. As both vie to have Masters as an integral piece of their empire, Jake only cares about avenging the death of his friend. There are plenty of twists and turns in “Honorable Enemies,” as alliances are made and broken on almost every page.

If the Frame Fits… “ is a very entertaining piece of political intrigue, as a primary peace negotiator of a planet outside of the Democracy is murdered at a Democracy embassy on a planet nicknamed “Purplehaze.” Security issues and a general distrust by and of the three distinct life-forms at the embassy make Jake’s job even harder than the close-mouthed bureaucrats who hired him. As he is wont to do, Masters enlists the aid of a being from each of the alien races involved in the peace negotiations. The story is rather fast paced and, like the rest, is one fun read.

Mike Resnick (uncredited photo)

Mike Resnick (uncredited photo)

Author Mike Resnick has truly captured the feel of those old mystery books and film noir movies, as well as the essence of a really great science fiction yarn with this series. As such, I really wish that he’d fleshed out the new short story, “Real Jake,” more. As you can probably guess from the title, there’s a Jake Masters imposter leaving a trail of upset life-forms in our hero’s home base of Homer. The story’s good, I just wish there was more! For a fast-paced mash-up of sci-fi and detective mystery genres, you absolutely cannot go wrong with MASTERS OF THE GALAXY.


GUTSHOT – WEIRD WEST STORIES

(Conrad Williams, editor; 319 pages; PS Publishing, 2011)

Gutshot

The title says it all, though the first story (“Passage” by Alan Peter Ryan) seems to be a rather traditional, if a bit gory, Western. There is, I suppose, an underlying sense of the sinister and it could be interpreted as a tale of demon possession. Maybe that makes it more of a traditional Horror story featuring cowboys and Indians. James Lovegrove’s “The Black Rider” is more straight forward with its message… even if it does blur the line regarding what is considered “Western fare.” It is a fun read, though a bit obvious.

The Alabaster Child” is a post-apocalyptic tale that hearkens back to Old West stories of gold rushes and prospectors and claim-jumpers. Just to mix things up a bit, Cat Sparks also tosses in an odd little sub-plot involving slave trade. While there’s really nothing overtly horrific about it, it definitely gets high creep-factor points from me.

The Ghost Warriors” comes from the always fertile, generally warped mind of Michael Moorcock. Maybe the most well-known story here (by, certainly, the most well-known author featured), it was originally published in Moorcock’s 1997 collection, TALES FROM THE TEXAS WOODS. Most recently, it saw print in 2007’s THE METATEMPORAL DETECTIVE, a series of 11 stories starring Sir Seaton Begg, the dimension hopping head of the British Home Office’s Metatemporal Investigation Department (got all of that?), which fits quite well within the framework of Moorcock’s career-spanning “multiverse” (including, I’m certain, the Blue Oyster Cult songs “Black Blade,” of which a similar weapon plays an integral role here, and “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”). The story here reads like a standard masked hero Western, with the Masked Buckaroo (!) on the trail of a raiding party of Apache led by a supposedly long-dead Indian legend called Pale Wolf. This is the first tale in GUTSHOT to overtly feature any weird or supernatural overtones and is, as is generally the case with anything by Michael Moorcock, a great read.

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

Zander Shaw’s first published work, “Blue Norther,” is as fine a piece of Old West ghost story as I’ve seen. A tale of love, revenge, redemption and – ultimately – death. As Shaw says, “As a child, the most crushing thing that I learned was that everybody dies. That my parents would one day leave me affected me profoundly, more so than the impact of my own mortality. My mother and father died within ten months of each other in 2009. I wrote this story for my five-year-old self.” His five-year-old self must have been scared to close his eyes after reading “Blue Norther.” The next offering, “In the Sand Hills,” is a “geographic” Western by Thomas Tessier. Set in modern day Nebraska, it’s kinda like a “force of nature” horror story, though in the strictest Western sense of things, it’s about a hired gun sent out to bring back the ornery galoot that stole the payroll from his boss. The term “psychological thriller” comes to mind when reading this one.

If the last story was a “geographic” Western, then Stephen Volk’s “White Butterflies” is a “philosophic” Western. Staying in modern times, the scene changes from Nebraska to a setting that just screams “Western.” I’m speaking, of course, about Kazakhstan. The modern day fortune-hunters, seeking their wealth in the form of fallen rocket parts, is most assuredly the philosophic descendants of the dreamers who traveled to the American West in search of gold and riches. The claim-jumpers are more brutal but, like the Old West, Kazakhstan is a very brutal place for dreamers.

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

El Camino de Rojo,” by Gary McMahon, is Clint Eastwood meets Stephen King at Satan’s desert resort. McMahon’s story feels and reads the most like a “true Western,” with its year long trek for vengeance, stopping along the way to bathe in the gore and blood… the kind that can only come from a truly dark and evil place. In a book of great stories, this one (to this point, anyway) is the centerpiece that binds them all. A masterpiece of short story telling.

A good portion of the stories in GUTSHOT seem to deal with those looking for an easy score or that big payday that’s just over the next rise. Such is the case with Joe R Lansdale’s “The Bones That Walk.” The twist here is that the protagonist of the piece knows that he’s already ruined his life for something that he wasn’t even sure ever existed. While, on the surface, Lansdale’s story appears to be the standard “hero buys a treasure map” type, it turns into something more. But that would be telling! Amanda Hemimgway comes as close to poetry as you’re likely to see in a collection like this with her piece, “Ghosts.” She says that, rather than writing a Western parody with gunslingers and vampires, she ended up “ …writing a pocket history of the West from the viewpoint of all its ghosts… “ Works for me.

Christopher Fowler’s “The Boy Thug” is, in Fowler’s own words, “an odd one.” It takes the idea of outlaw gangs to its base level, introduces a psychological angle and a cute kid to the mix, and stuns you with the ending. Fowler says that while he was having problems with the tone of his tale, he visited Northern India. “By melding the two attitudes (Wild West and the Indian frontier), the story came in one clear run without a single word change,and was one of my most satisfying writing experiences.” Likewise, it has been one of my most satisfying reading experiences. “Kiss the Wolf,” from Simon Bestwick, is another modern day yarn. A story of apocalyptic proportions, with dark riders, cannibals, witches (well, one, anyway) and… but, you should read for yourself. I don’t want to spoil the fun!

Mark Morris gets all psychological and philosophical (and maybe even a bit metaphysical) with “Waiting For the Bullet,” a story of four adventure seeking Brits in the wild and wooly United States. The story unfolds as a cross between WESTWORLD (although no robot Yul Brynners are involved) and a rock festival with a little temporal disturbance tossed in, as well. The moral of the story is, basically, the old war-time maxim of “You can’t dodge a bullet with your name on it.” Paul Meloy explores the Lakota Indian legend of the mischievous imp Iktomi and his cunning adversary, Coyote, in “Carrion Cowboy.” The story has the feel and flow of one told by the tribal elders to the youngsters as they sit around the fire, which is part of its charm and why it works better than it would in a standard Anglo writing style. SPOILER ALERT: There’s a part of the story that is strictly horror movie fare, as it explains why zombies (and other dead things) prefer the taste of flesh.

Some Kind of Light Shines From Your Face” is part Greek mythology, part Oklahoma dustbowl and Hoover shantytowns and part women’s empowerment. Gemma Files’ tale reminds us that the old gods never truly die and that legends can be true. Peter Crowther (publisher and editor of PS Publishing) and Rio Youers are a formidable tag team on the excellent “Splinters,” a story of love and loss, life and death, faith and resurrection and the healing powers of music on the tortured soul. Oh, yeah… there are zombies and a shoot-out, too. Really, though,“Splinters” is, when all is said and done, a magnificent love story.

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

All Our Hearts Are Ghosts” continues the sentimental vein, as Peter Atkins delivers another tale of love lost and revenge taken. Set in 1934 Los Angeles, the story is not so far removed, chronologically, from what we’ve come to know as the “Wild West.” It’s a story that offers the type of poetic justice thing that the movie industry loves. So, of course, that means that there’s a shoot-out on a dusty Main Street of a long-dead ghost town.

Sarah Langan’s “Beasts of Burden” is like an Old West version of THE OMEN… well, sort of. The child of Satan is orphaned and taken in by a farrier, a man with seemingly magical powers when it comes to caring for a horse’s feet and… soul. As the child grows, he learns the craft but is haunted by the voice of his father and the lost souls of men, women and horses. He also learns that the word “horse” has more than one meaning, especially to one such as his dear old dad.

What God Hath Wrought” is an historical piece, but only in the sense that it is set in Utah and centers around the Mormon Church (kinda). Adam Nevill uses certain points in the history of that church to move his story to its ultimate conclusion. The starting point is their exodus from Illinois in 1846 and ends at the “Great Dead Sea” in Utah, two years later. As it turns out, the Church is mere periphery to the actual focal point, a vampiric shaman called Prophet Lehi. Another great story of revenge in the Old West. Finally, we have Joel Lane’s“Those Who Remember.” Set in modern (or slightly future) times, it’s a ghost story with, again, revenge as its basis. Unfortunately, the tale falls flat for me; the premise too shaky to be very engaging. Not a great way to end this collection, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re talking about one mediocre story out of 20… that ain’t bad at all!

Conrad Williams, Editor (publicity photo)

Conrad Williams, Editor (publicity photo)

Conrad Williams, the editor of GUTSHOT, has taken an odd angle that allows the authors of these tales as much latitude as possible with a genre that is due for a grand revival. I’m not saying that this book is the salvation of Western fiction, but it sure won’t hurt the future of the genre.


THE SHERLOCKIAN

(Graham Moore; 350 pages; TWELVE/HATCHETTE BOOK GROUP; 2010)

the sherlockian

I picked this one up for next to nothing from the close-out/overstock section (kind of like a cut-out bin, but for books) of a large national book repository. Let me say here and now that next to free, this is my favorite way to acquire stuff. It allows me to take chances on things (usually records, but also books, DVDs, comics and certain food stuffs) that I otherwise wouldn’t touch with a medium-sized poking instrument. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose but, at the end of the day, those losses are minimal with a huge potential for the win keeping me coming back (kinda like a junkie or an habitual gambler). The first line of Graham Moore’s debut novel, THE SHERLOCKIAN – “Arthur Conan Doyle curled his brow tightly and thought only of murder.” – had me convinced that I’d totally blown nearly three bucks here. 350 pages later, I closed what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable – if somewhat predictable – murder mystery, encompassing three centuries and two continents.

To be more precise, THE SHERLOCKIAN is actually two separate mysteries, one based marginally on fact (a lost diary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and a murder believed to be prompted by the discovery of that same diary) and set in the present; the second is a fictionalized account of Sir Arthur’s early 20th century consultations with Scotland Yard (in the form of a serial murderer sought by Conan Doyle and his friend, Bram Stoker after the Yard drops the investigations, believing they have solved the initial crime). The lost diary plays an integral part in both plots, obviously, or this book would have been presented as two shorter stories, unconnected by anything but vague subject matter.

Graham Moore (Sterling Andrews)

Graham Moore (Sterling Andrews)

The stories that Mister Moore weaves are certainly intriguing. Without giving away too much, I’ll tell you that the fictionalized history (and contents) of the very real lost diary involves Conan Doyle and Stoker’s ultimate solution to the 1900-era murders and a threat to Sir Arthur’s life. The modern part of the story involves members of the Baker Street Irregulars, a worldwide organization of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts (called “Sherlockians,” thus the title). As they are holding their annual meeting, everyone is excited about an upcoming presentation by one of their better known members, who claims to have the lost diary – the Holy Grail of Sherlockian lore – in his possession. This inevitably leads to his demise and sends the Irregulars’ newest member, Harold White, off to solve the mystery, side-by-side with a beautiful journalist. Along the way, they are followed by shady characters and confronted by Conan Doyle’s grandson (in reality, Sir Arthur’s children had no offspring, so the character of Sebastian Conan Doyle is completely fictitious). Both stories take twists and turns that would make Conan Doyle proud (and maybe a little dizzy) and are, ultimately, more fulfilling than my initial perception would have allowed me to think possible. The historical data and the use of the Baker Street Irregulars backdrop make the intertwining stories much more enjoyable, as they lend a feeling of realism and truth to what is essentially a work of fiction.

To date, I believe that this is Moore’s only novel, though he does seem to be highly sought-after in the movie industry. For more on Graham Moore’s THE SHERLOCKIAN, check out www.thesherlockian.com.