Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Phoenix Island

Phoenix IslandPhoenix Island by John Dixon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carl Freeman has gotten in trouble one too many times. So when a judge orders him to a remote island boot camp for troubled orphaned youth (pretty specific criteria for entry there), at first it seems like a harsh punishment and environment to send a sixteen year old kid into. That is before Carl and his friends discovers that not all is as it appears to be on Phoenix Island and things go from harsh to hellish.

Thus begins (and I do mean begins) the story of Phoenix Island by John Dixon, a respectable if flawed first novel that also served as the basis for the short-lived CBS series “Intelligence.” Things ramp up pretty quickly and the reader doesn’t have to wait long for the ugly side of Phoenix Island to come to light. And that’s part of the problem. More on this in a moment.

Carl is likeable and maddening at the same time. He is a young boxer who has a short temper, but what really sets him off are bullies picking on the weak. Carl has a noble streak in him, and most of the times that he’s gotten into trouble have involved him stepping in to defend someone who couldn’t defend themselves. It’s a likeable if simple trait in an age where anti-heroes seem to be the order of the day. But he also tends to revert back to boxing metaphors for nearly everything, which becomes annoying. I understand that this is Dixon’s background, but he need to realize that not everyone is as into boxing as he is and the boxing metaphors become distracting.

The problem with his character come in with his naiveté. Carl, quite frankly, is not that smart. And this is where the above mentioned problem begins to rear its head. It quickly becomes obvious that something is very, very wrong on Phoenix Island. And yet Carl and his friends play along for a lot longer than someone with the aforementioned noble streak should. And as they piece it together, I felt myself wanting to scream at the page what is so blatantly obvious that they just don’t seem to grasp. This might be a way of trying to show that they’re inexperienced kids, but I found it frustrating and it starts to bring back the previously suspended disbelief very quickly.

Aside from the rather frustrating character flaws that seem to be extremely plot-convenient, the plot runs very quickly. As I mentioned earlier, things ramp up fast, so there’s not much of a preamble before the meat of the book starts. It becomes a roller coaster of action and espionage. As a side note, the reader would be well-advised not to get too attached to any of the characters as Dixon seems be taking a cue from George R. R. Martin, and Dixon does not shy away from the darker, more violent aspects of Phoenix Island.

With characters that are likeable but frustrating, a fast but oddly convenient plot, and a dark if somewhat unbelievable tone, Phoenix Island is an easy read and at the very least a respectable first book despite its numerous flaws. I understand that this will be the first part of a series, which based on the ending of this one can only illicit the response of “Well, duh!” I will be reading the second book and watching to see if Dixon learns from the mistakes he made with Phoenix Island. There is definitely a budding talent here, but he could use a little more refining.

Phoenix Island by John Dixon earns 3 brain chips out of 5.

Note: An electronic copy of this book was provided to this reviewer by the publisher for free through NetGalley. This has in no way affected the content of this review.

Book Review: The Last Christmas

The Last ChristmasThe Last Christmas by Gerry Duggan, Brian Posehn, Rick Remender (Illustrator)

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

It’s the end of the world. Actually, it’s after the end of the world. World War III has been fought, natural disasters have ravaged the earth. Roving gangs and mutant zombies roam the earth, seeking out the last of humanity. It’s “The Walking Dead” and “Mad Max” rolled into one. The North Pole is attacked by marauders, killing Mrs. Claus and leaving Santa for dead. Depressed, he makes numerous attempts at suicide before realizing he can’t die as long as one child still believes in him. So, Santa sets out to correct this…

This is the basic premise for The Last Christmas, a graphic (and gory) novel written by Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn, and illustrated by Rick Remender, supposedly conceived while the writers were playing Halo, according to the notes. I believe it. The whole book reads and looks like the thought train of smoking too much pot while staring at a box of Christmas decorations and imagining all their potential violent uses other than for their intended purpose.

The story is quite good and flows like smooth egg nog. Mostly. It can occasionally flows very quickly at times, almost too quickly, which gives it a jerky motion, but not overly so. Most of the time it ramps up appropriately rather than going from zero to sixty in a half second. The plot is also fairly entertaining, with some subtle twists, although it starts out a lot more interesting than it ends. While it starts out quickly with the apocalypse (it’s always a good idea to begin with the end of the world) and the rampages and the murder, it turns into a fairly conventional rescue and destroy story. It would have been nice to see some more risks taken as the story went on, but we can’t hope for everything. Plus, the very end felt like it was tacked on and unnecessary, and seemed like the creators were just saying “Hey, look what we’re doing,” and felt like it served no real purpose and wasn’t that funny.

While the characters are generally well drawn (in a literary sense, not artwise; I’ll discuss the art in a moment), occasionally motivations seem strange. Santa is clearly depressed over the apocalypse and the death of Mrs. Claus, but somehow the elves seem simplistic. They are supposed to be happy and helpful, so they are happy and helpful, no matter the circumstance. Well, they do become violent a little later, but it felt like they could have used some more fleshing out. Also, the motivations for some of the villains seem lacking. One of the main villains is a mutant who wears a judge’s robe, but this is never really explained or even capitalized on. It had a lot of potential that was never brought forth. At the same time, they serve their purpose for the plot, so it’s not a huge drag.

The art is quite pleasing to the eye. The drawings are quite beautifully done, and the ink is colorful and vibrant. It’s quite an interesting juxtaposition having a much darker story taking place in a bright and colorful world, but it’s one that helps maintain the humor. It is supposed to be funny, after all. A lot of the drawings also include subtle details that make you want to take your time and fully enjoy them, rather than just blow through them.

The Last Christmas is a good read, even if it falls far short of perfection. Even taking some time to enjoy the art, it’s a very fast read and gives a darkly funny Christmas story full of blood and guts and mutilations, just as Christmas should be.

The Last Christmas earns 3.5 slay bells out of 5.

Note: A review copy of this title was provided to this reviewer without charge through NetGalley. This has in no way affected to content of this review.

Book Review: 8-Bit Apocalypse

8-Bit Apocalypse8-Bit Apocalypse by Amanda Billings

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Jimmy is a loser. Stuck in a dead-end job at Chuck E. Cheese, he constantly listens to whisper videos on his phone to soothe his crippling social anxiety while he cleans vomit out of the play tubes. Then the apocalypse happens. A giant mutated Atari cartridge begins attacking Denver by bringing classic games to life, such as Centipede, Frogger, and Space Invaders (although “E.T.” is absent because that game was so horrible that the cartridge would likely self-destruct; seriously, it’s a cancer!). Now it’s up to Jimmy, who is the only one who has figured out what’s going on and knows how to play the games in order to stop the apocalypse.

This is the story behind 8-Bit Apocalypse by Amanda Billings, part of this year’s New Bizarro Authors Series. This is always a fun series and I look forward to it every year because it brings us new and experimental voices in fiction, and it’s always interesting to see what stories new authors can come up with and how they choose to tell those stories.

In 8-Bit Apocalypse, Jimmy is a very flawed but identifiable character. The reader can easily feel sorry for him and can root for him, although at times one might feel like they want to reach into the page and slap some sense into him. In that case, the novella length of this book is probably a good thing, as a character like Jimmy would have a very difficult time carrying a full-length novel. Most of the other characters are fairly two-dimensional and tend to simply stand there taking video of the events with their phones, but they don’t need more characterization for the purposes of the story. This is Jimmy’s story, and the other characters are there merely to give something for Jimmy to play off of.

The story is decent, if a a bit inconsistent. The action tends to get a little jerky and doesn’t have the smoothest of flows, but then again most of the action takes place within living Atari games, so this smoothness is relative. The ending seems very anticlimactic at first glance. But when one thinks about it (and it’s also explained within the text), it’s actually the most appropriate ending one can be given with this kind of a story and its theme.

I know that 8-bit anything is trendy right now, but it has a soft spot in my heart because I grew up in the age of Atari. Those games were simple yet had a certain elegance that stuck with the players and are remembered fondly to this day. 8-Bit Apocalypse is similar. The characters aren’t complicated, and neither is the plot (there’s not really any mystery or anything unanswered), and even seems a little by-the-book. At the same time, this gives the book a simple elegance that manages to stick with the reader for a while after they finish. Whether this will still be remembered fondly 30 years from now like the Atari games referenced within remains to be seen. But the book is simple yet satisfying in its own way, providing a solid story and characters that provide a modern literary look down an electronic memory lane.

8-Bit Apocalypse earns 3.5 whisper videos out of 5.

Book Review: The Mondo Vixen Massacre

The Mondo Vixen MassacreThe Mondo Vixen Massacre by Jamie Grefe

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Okay, I’m just going to say it: Jamie Grefe needs to lay off the caffeine, or cocaine, or whatever he’s on.

The Mondo Vixen Massacre is Jamie Grefe’s entry into this year’s New Bizarro Authors Series, a series I look forward to every year as it brings new and experimental voices in fiction. Grefe’s entry is…unique, to say the least.

The book begins with Tom Clay being graphically tortured in every way you can possibly imagine and then some. Vixens of every type have broken into his house, murdered his son, kidnapped his wife, tortured Tom, and left him for dead. But he’s not dead. Thus begins a bloody tale of rescue and revenge as he attempts to recover his wife from the vixens’ clutches and maybe find out why they targeted him and his family to begin with.

The first thing that you’ll notice is the writing style. Aside from just being graphically violent (Grefe shies away from nothing), the book is told in a stream-of-consciousness with constant action. Actually, it’s more like reading the transcript for a high-energy pitch for an action movie, music cues and camera shots included. This is where things get interesting, both potentially good and bad, like a Schrödinger’s novel. Before I get into that, I need to explain about the plot and characters.

The characters are there. They’re well-drawn for their purpose, but not much beyond that and can be a bit shallow and two-dimensional. As for the plot, it’s there although without a whole lot of mystery that isn’t easy to solve. Now, I need to go back to my point in the last paragraph, because again this is not necessarily bad, depending on your point of view.

The way the plot and characters serve about as much purpose as in a porn movie. They’re there mostly because the audience expects them to be, and they provide a reason to drive the action. But it’s really the action that takes center stage. Grefe seems to have taken a similar approach in having the plot and characters there to drive the action, which is his main focus and clearly what he had enormous fun writing.

And there’s the rub: If you’re looking for non-stop action (the massacre really is nonstop from page one all the way to the end) and don’t mind the plot and characters being more like decoration, figuratively and literally, then you will have a lot of fun reading this book. But if you require an in-depth plot, you will probably be disappointed. That being said, if you’re looking for non-stop action, be careful what you wish for. You’re going to need a lot of energy to keep up with Grefe.

The Mondo Vixen Massacre by Jamie Grefe earns 3.5 robo-vixens out of 5.

Book Review: The Church of TV as God

The Church of TV as GodThe Church of TV as God by Daniel Vlasaty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hate television. Well, I should actually say that I hate most television. There is very little that I like to watch, and I find the whole thing rather mind-numbing.

So, when I saw The Church of TV as God by Daniel Vlasaty was a part of this year’s New Bizarro Authors Series, it caught my attention. This series is one I look forward to every year as it brings us new voices in fiction to delight and challenge us.

Right away, the title grabs you, or at least it grabs me given how much I dislike television and really do feel like many people have turned their homes into TV shrines…okay, okay, I’ll stop with my own social commentary. The cover is brilliant, and it vaguely reminds me of the cover of Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Jeremy is a security guard at the Appliance Cemetery, a place where people go to bury their appliances that no longer work (yeah, Jeremy doesn’t really get it, either; I think someone just found a niche and filled it). Jeremy is befriended by a talking dog named Benjamin (yes, he’s just as confused by that as you are). Jeremy’s head is also turning into a TV. It’s a family thing, as it happened to his father before him. It’s because of this that he has drawn the attention of the man in white, the leader of a cult called the Church of TV as God. They think Jeremy is the chosen one whose destiny is to father their savior, the living embodiment of their deity, the Great TV in the Sky. Got it?

Okay, that’s a lot to take in, but it all ties together, I swear.

The characters are well-drawn. Jeremy is sort of a slacker. He doesn’t have any real goals in life other than existing, so when he is thrust into this situation, he has to break out of his character mold and take action. Benjamin is hysterical. While somewhat foul-mouthed, you can easily picture dogs saying the things he says. The cult followers are about as cultish as you can get, with a fanatical leader who believes his own doctrine. The most dangerous kind of cult leader. Overall, the characters work and play off of each other quite well.

The plot can be a little slow to get started. It takes a little while for things to really start happening. The action ramps up, but it does so in spurts. When it ramps up, it stays that way, but the pace doesn’t change slowly. It’s like slamming your foot on the gas pedal while you’re at a full stop. It feels a little jerky at time, but oddly not inappropriately so. The ending is…unexpected. Things don’t completely wrap up in a nice, neat little package. At the same time, it’s not necessarily the ending you want but it’s definitely the “ending” the book and the characters need once you give yourself some time to think about it.

As for the editing, well, I wish I could say it worked well, but there are enough grammatical and punctuation issues to be a problem. Technical errors bother me, as they are great for ripping the reader off the page. There are enough in here to interrupt the flow and be a problem for me, and I have to take the book down a notch for it.

Overall, The Church of TV as God is a good book with a well-drawn characters (and character development), a satisfying if occasionally jerky plot, and social commentary well-seeded into the story, which I have to give some prop for as seeding heavy social commentary into bizarro fiction in an appropriate way is not that easy. At the same time the occasional jerkiness of the plot may throw some readers off, and the technical errors are something you’ll have to be aware of and overlook to get your full enjoyment out of this book.

The Church of TV as God by Daniel Vlasaty earns 4 orange extension cords out of 5.