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michaelbrent

Michaelbrent Collings

Because Life Is Too Short Not To Read Michaelbrent Collings is a #1 bestselling novelist and screenwriter. His bestsellers include Strangers, Darkbound, Apparition, The Haunted, The Loon, and the YA fantasy series The Billy Saga (beginning with Billy: Messenger of Powers). He hopes someday to develop superpowers, and maybe get a cool robot arm. Michaelbrent has a wife and several kids, all of whom are much better looking than he is (though he admits that's a low bar to set), and much MUCH cooler than he is (also a low bar). Michaelbrent also has a Facebook page at facebook.com/MichaelbrentCollings and can be followed on Twitter through his username @mbcollings. Follow him for awesome news, updates, and advance notice of sales. You will also be kept safe when the Glorious Revolution begins!

Zombie, Inc.

Zombie, Inc. - Christine Dougherty This is an INCREDIBLY difficult one to review. Part of that is because I am being chased by T-rex riding nuns right now (long story). Mostly, though, it's because of the mixed feelings I have for this book.

I cracked this bad boy open and immediately fell in love. It was a different view of "the zombie story." Which is rare. Set in a post-zombie-apocalyptic world, the threat has been largely contained - even commercialized - by the world's most successful business venture, Zombie, Inc.

The tone of the book was great. Each chapter begins with excerpts from the ZI employee handbook, and they add a wonderfully satirical tone. The story itself follows the adventures of two ZI employees, Carl and his trainee, Dill, as they go about the daily grind of dealing with zombie problems.

It took a good fifty percent of the book for me to figure out what the "story" part of the story was, and I didn't really care. The tone and the setup was that marvelous. I was enjoying the ride for the ride's sake, and didn't care about the destination.

Unfortunately, however, the destination was, for me at least, extremely wanting. The book was a five-star book until the last twenty percent or so. Great tone, incredibly inventive. Lots of opportunity for adventure and social commentary mixed with extraordinary aptitude. And then....

Have you ever seen a relationship where one person just quit? Just threw up his or her hands and basically screamed, "I don't love you anymore!" and walked out for no discernible reason? I almost feel like that's what the author did here. There is NO question in my mind she is incredibly talented. The setup was all there.

But where it had been a tightly-crafted plot in a wonderfully realized world, the last fifty pages devolved into what I perceived as a Hollywood shoot-'em-up. And don't get me wrong! I like those movies, too! But this ending just didn't belong with this book. This book deserved another two hundred pages, I thought. The finale could have been an apocalyptic showdown, but the way it all went down just seemed to come out of left field.

Worse, for me it left me cold. The characters were ones I appreciated and enjoyed. But the way they were dealt with failed to resonate. It, again, turned from a tremendously inventive story into a paint-by-numbers ending. And I was irritated. Not because this author is a bad writer, but because I thought she was a GREAT writer. And by the end I expected MUCH MUCH more.

So a five-star book brought down to three stars by the last quarter or so.

Would I recommend it? I don't even know. I'm that conflicted. Great tone, great setup. A lot of fun, an inventive take.

And a story that fell apart.

Sigh. Why can't life be easy?

Still, I have to thank the author for the good stuff, and for showing that there are different ways to do the "same ol', same ol'."
The Phantom Tollbooth - Jules Feiffer, Norton Juster Okay, so you meet a person on match.com or crazysingles.net or desperatepeopleneetnotapply.org or something and you go and there the person is. Gorgeous. Smiling. The profile said "Successful doctor. Lover of books and words and children." But we know those things lie, so how can you tell? What if this person is really someone looking to make a lampshade out of your face-skin?

Well, bring this book along with you. Present it to your date. If he/she says anything other than, "I LOVE this book," then the whole "lover of words" is a lie, and the "and children" part is probably a fib as well. You're definitely in face-skin lampshade territory.

The Phantom Tollbooth is, quite simply, THE litmus test for word lovers. The story is fairly simple: a little boy who is bored with life receives a gift that whisks him away to a magical world where he discovers he must rescue the princesses who were banished long ago.

Sounds fairly standard? Well, on its face it is. But the magic is in its details. Its whimsy. Its playfulness and imagination. The characters you meet, all of whom are plays on words and situations. From Tock, the watchdog (who is a literal dog with a watch embedded in him... but which ticks, not tocks), to the Humbug (never quite right about anything), to Officer Short Shrift, to Faintly Macabre, and many many more, the book is chock full of fun and creativity.

This is a book that, once you read it a few times, you can pick it up and open to a random page and just revel in the wordplay. A treat for anyone who enjoys the power of words, the things that language can accomplish, and the opportunities that follow when imagination is followed.
Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls - Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion I like Batman. A lot. He's that guy that makes you wish you could be a superhero. Superman is the one we all aspire to be (because he's the best, let's face it), but Batman is the one we actually feel like we have a chance to become. If only we work, train, focus.

We could be him.

And that's the largest part, I think, of why he endures.

The other part is almost as important: he is a legitimately great detective. Not merely a strong guy, not merely a combat expert. He follows the clues, he gathers the facts. He arrives at the logical conclusions.

And he does it faster than you or I - or the police in the real world - could possibly do so. Because he is the world's greatest detective.

That's why the best stories involving Batman mix both his humanity - his drive, his focus, his passion - and his great skills as a detective. They mesh emotion and ability. And to do this they generally must pull something from his past and embed it in a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

When it works, it is marvelous.

When it fails, it is scandalous.

When it does neither, it is eminently forgettable - and perhaps that is saddest of all.

The Court of Owls, for me, falls into this last category. With artwork that was good but failed to amaze, with a backstory that illuminated but failed to entrance, with a mystery that functioned but failed to intrigue.

It was all so pedestrian, compared to Batman's past works. I know that the New 52 is meant as a reset of sorts, a push back to zero. So perhaps it is unfair of me to compare this to other, better Batman capers of the past.

But the reality is that you can't reset history. The past will remain, no matter how many reboots are attempted.

And this reboot settled, for me, into the vast, sad chasm of mediocrity. Batman deserves better.
Kingdom Come - Mark Waid, Alex Ross, Elliot S. Maggin What happens when your heroes grow up? When they have children of their own?

What happens when their children don't share the same morals, the same worldviews, the same sense of restraint and self-control their parents did?

At once a cautionary tale for the world in we now find ourselves - a world in which our advances often outpace our ability to cope with them on an emotional or intellectual level - and a wonderfully rendered story of truly epic proportions about what it is to be "human," Kingdom Come ranks as one of my all-time favorites in this medium.

The artwork is superb, the story is tight to the point where sacrificing any one line will have repercussions down the stream of the story.

The stakes are high, not only on a world-level (will humanity survive as a species), but on the individual levels of the "heroes" who still seek to do what is right - if only they can figure out what "right" is. Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and especially Superman are cast in ways that are at once wholly new and completely in keeping with everything that has gone before. Unlike so many "retellings" that mostly demonstrate the story teller has no understanding of his/her subjects, Mark Waid tells a story about aliens, gods, and metahumans who, for all their abilities, are still the most human of creatures.

Cannot recommend this one highly enough.
77 Shadow Street - Dean Koontz I very much enjoyed this one. Okay, it wasn't on the same level with his best - say, LIGHTNING or WATCHERS or PHANTOMS. But it was highly enjoyable and while it did use some Koontzian tropes (the dude's been writing good quality horror/thrillers long enough to have his OWN tropes), he did it in such a way as to keep me interested and guessing. There was the tough lady with a heart of gold, dealing with a plate full of difficulties; the children who are wise beyond their years, one of them with developmental issues; the sociopathic killer; the moral man caught up in events beyond his understanding. Nanobots figure.

So, vintage Koontzisms.

But fun. 77 Shadow Street is at once a fairly complex place and a claustrophobic nightmare. Limited places to go, but open enough to get lost in. Good stuff for a horror yarn.

If you're looking for something to change your world, this isn't it. If you're looking for something completely new, this isn't it.

If you're looking for a heckuva fun tale, one that keeps you moving page after page, interested in the characters and the story... this is DEFINITELY it.
The Stand - Stephen King This and SWAN SONG by Robert R. McCammon are, I think, required reading for anyone interested in post-Apocalyptic fiction. Both deal with extreme end-of-the-world scenarios, both deal with bands of survivors coming together to find a way to deal with the harsh realities of a life beyond the one they grew up with.

Both are about, at their core, the question of good versus evil.

In the case of THE STAND, the bugaboo is Captain Tripps, a superflu that decimates the earth's population in a matter of months. Soon survivors are living alone, many of them unsure if there even ARE other survivors, scavenging foods from their neighbors' pantries, from supermarket shelves, from anywhere they can.

Of course, things don't stay "easy" or uncomplicated. There is a supernatural being called The Walkin' Man who is calling people together in the remains of Las Vegas, organizing them into a city, a population, a CIVILIZATION. There is no question that The Walkin' Man and his deputies are deeply, purely evil. They run a fascist government that brooks no dissent, no question.

At the other end of the spectrum is a loose group of (often bickering) survivors led by a counsel of men and women who mostly want to do what's right... but mostly have no idea what that right thing is, either. They are led spiritually by an old woman who is essentially a prophetess, a seer with one foot in this world and one foot in the beyond. This, of course, The Walkin' Man cannot abide, and the stage is set for a confrontation that will unreel in ways you won't see coming.

This is a huge book, ranging from around 900 pages to over 1200 depending on if you get the original published version or the unabridged version (both are worthwhile). But though grand in scope and vision, the central questions are small and simple, and resolved in one moment in a jail when an old man looks upon evil.

HIGHLY recommended.
Swan Song - Robert R. McCammon One of the all-time great post-apocalyptic novels. The other one is Stephen King's THE STAND, and both come to largely the same moral conclusion, though by following completely different roads.

In Swan Song, the world has been obliterated by nuclear war. It is never clear whose "fault" it all was, nor is that really of import. What matters is what happens to the survivors, small groups of people who gradually draw into two types. And unlike most post-apocalyptic novels, it isn't so much the "good" versus the "evil" as it is the "barely surviving" versus the "evil." Evil here is in the form of armies that march across the land, raping and pillaging in order to maintain their own forces. One of them in particular, the Army of Excellence, is at the core of the story. Run by a has-been Air Force colonel who found a second chance to matter when the hail of fire fell from the sky, and a young man with a warped sense of reality (he basically believes he is living his own version of a Dungeons and Dragons game), it epitomizes everything wrong with the world, not just now, but all the bad choices that led to the nukes in the first place.

Then there are the others, those who go from place to place, hoping desperately to find somewhere untouched by the nuclear winter, a place with good water and food to eat. And all in vain.

Or so it seems. Because one of the itinerant scavengers is a girl named Swan. And it seems she not only may have the power to save herself, but to bring the world to rebirth.

Of course, because Swan is essentially a Christic figure with no observable character flaws, so author McCammon heightens the stakes by giving her a Devil to contend with: a thing that looks like a man, but can change his shape at will, has super-strength, and a host of other powers that enable him to walk the world, spreading hopelessness and crushing the will to live wherever he finds it.

Swan Song, without becoming preachy, becomes a treatise on the forces of good versus evil, on the powers of light and darkness. There are a few problems with the technical side of the writing - not least of which that McCammon switches points of view often and seemingly without reason or rhyme, leading to some confusion to readers - but they are easily forgiven in light of the book's overall value as a story... and more than that, as a Tale. Adult content, so be warned, but HIGHLY recommended.
Variant - Robison Wells Okay, so first to...

THE GOOD:

This was a real page-turner of a thriller. Yes, it is marketed as a "YA" book, but really those kind of distinctions are the product of marketing companies and booksellers (who need to know what shelf to put different books on). I appreciate the need for genre distinctions, and I appreciate that they help me zero in on the kinds of books I'm looking for from time to time, but I do also feel that they limit us from accepting books that might tickle our fancy if they didn't have a genre label that disagreed with us. Variant is a good case in point: yes, it's about a high-school-age kid. Yes, it's from his point of view, yes he's the hero. But really, I don't think this is a YA book so much as a straight-up thriller.

The hero gets a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, which thrills him for a boatload of reasons. He's an orphan, stuck in the foster care machine with no real hope of a future. So acceptance at this kind of place is a dream come true.

Until he actually gets there. And finds out that, while getting into the school IS just as difficult as the brochures claimed, getting out is even more difficult. Impossible, in fact. No one has ever left the school - at least, not alive. There are no teachers, no support staff, no adults at all. Just students who have a quasi-civilized gang system in place, watched over by the school's "administrators" who are more than capable of punishing from afar.

Our hero's goal is simple: to stay alive. To learn. To escape.

A lot of fun, and a book that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime, with some fun surprises thrown in to boot.

Why only four stars? Well that leads me to...

THE BAD:

A story is a specific thing, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end has to resolve things - at least MOST things. And more and more books, particularly those in the YA section, seem to be simply STOPPING rather than legitimately ENDING. That is to say, they have a larger story, which is broken up into two or three or four or however many books. The first book gets through a large hurdle (in this case, the school escape issue), but never really RESOLVES the larger story - i.e., who was behind it all, and why, and what is the larger purpose, if any. Similar problems can be found in other big hits like James Dashner's THE MAZE RUNNER.

Again, I liked this book - a lot. I liked THE MAZE RUNNER. But when I get to the last page, turn it (or swipe my Kindle) and see only blank nothing, I feel a bit upset. It's meant to be a cliffhanger, but for me it has the opposite effect: if the storyteller can't truly end this part of the story - that is, provide a solid resolution to the major issues at play - then I'm not likely to pick up the other bits of story that come in the guise of "part 2," "part 3," "part Googly-Woogly," etc.

That being said, I'm still giving this one four stars because that's something that bugs ME and won't necessary bug everyone. Further, it did keep me reading, and I did buy everything that happened. I just wished there had been more of an ending to the ending.

The Dark

The Dark - Jason Brant I really enjoyed this! A fun "popcorn" book that I'd say was the equivalent of a good summer blockbuster. If you're looking for something to change your life, this ain't it. BUT it's a heckuva lot of fun, with engaging characters and a plot that carries you along well. The baddie is enjoyable, brings good threat, and (most important sometimes) kept me coming back to it. I mean, this is a book that I actually kept sneaking back to read in odd moments, and considering that I get a huge number of books shoved at me through my work, that's a pretty big feat in and of itself.

I'll definitely be looking for more by this author!
Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill Okay, I know I'm in a minority, but I just couldn't get into this one. There were some good moments of creepiness, some cringe-worthy scenes, but nothing that really got into my noodle. More important, this book just didn't make me care enough to want to finish. There are a lot of books that I relegate to the back of the toilet: books that I'm going to read in quick three-minute chunks now and again while I'm - ahem - engaged with other "business." Books that I don't much care if I finish in one month or one year or one decade. But there are precious few that I just put to the side of my bed and think, "I'll get to that later"... and then never do. This was one of them. It was competent writing, don't get me wrong! That's why the two stars: because there was nothing overtly "wrong" about it. But I just didn't like it. A lot of people did, and I can see why, and that's fine. But it's like carrots: a lot of people like THEM, and there's nothing wrong with THOSE people. There's even a lot that's objectively GOOD about carrots.

But I don't like 'em. And I don't have to. Because that's part of the fun of being a grown-up.

So take this review for what it is: a purely subjective look at a book that didn't do anything "wrong" - other than simply fail to connect with one of its audience. I like horror, I like ghost stories, and I don't have a problem with flawed characters. But in this case the hook was okay, the characters uninteresting, and the ghosts uninspired (to me). I'll read more Joe Hill because he knows how to write, so perhaps the next story will knock me down with its awesomeness. And that would be great. But this one... meh....
Dracula - Bram Stoker A classic. So many people are going to write about this there's probably not a lot new that I can add, other than to say that this is one of the books that every horror writer and every horror reader should have in their DNA. From the journal entries to the plot to the characterization to the settings, this book nails it on every point. One of the moments that sticks with me every time is the realization that once Dracula has sucked your blood, it's not enough to chase him away... eventually you'll die, and even if it's at the end of a long life, once you pass through that veil, you're his. Chilling, and on a level that so few of horror's modern "masters" can even come close to. This is truly one of those pieces that "started it all."
America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't - Stephen Colbert I like Stephen Colbert. I find his humor to be less mean-spirited than his colleague/cohort Jon Stewart, and he seems to take himself so completely lightly that even if you disagree with his satirical points, you can smile at his jokes. I liked his book I Am America quite a bit.

That being said, this one fell flat. It was quite a bit nastier, with a lot of obscenity and vulgarity that didn't serve the jokes or make them stronger. Maybe it was just too much of a good thing, but a lot of the book seemed flat, repetitive.

I still like Colbert, I still think he's got a great comic timing and a lot of what worked in the book worked WONDERFULLY. But what didn't... fell flatter than a pancake that's fallen under a steamroller.

See? That's not very funny. Not everyone is funny all the time. Hopefully his next book will make me laugh a bit harder.
Jumper - Steven Gould Obviously, based on the stars, I didn't like this. Why? Well, part of it was that I saw the movie first. And I LIKED the movie. The movie was a decent action flick, with an okay (not great) love story - albeit one where the hero and the heroine jumped each others' bones mostly based on nothing more than each other's good looks - and some fun characters.

The book... it was about a kid who, up to the midpoint, mostly just discusses (ad nauseum) his messed up father, his messed up childhood, his messed up life. I get it that you're abused, I get it that you have issues. That's a great dramatic tool. But you have to do more than talk about it. And literally nothing happens in the actual story until nearly the midpoint of the book. The MIDPOINT. Character development is one thing, but at some point it's just talking heads.

I was also surprised at the level of profanity and fairly explicit sexuality in a YA novel. There's a scene early in that involved an attempted rape at a truck stop that had me cringing.

All in all, I really wanted to like this series, really wanted to have a new set of books to dive into and enjoy. And I'm really disappointed that I got neither of my wishes.

Dark Duet

Dark Duet - Linda D. Addison,  Stephen M. Wilson I really enjoyed this book of poetry. Though billed as dark/horror poetry, there is a thread of sly humor that runs through much of it, both lightening what could otherwise have been a dreary tone and showing that the authors understand the tight relationship between fear and laughter.

One thing that I liked in particular was the readability of the poems. There are a great many poets who seem to think that the goal of poetry is to be obtuse as possible in order to force readers to consider it deeply. I disagree with this approach. Rather, I feel that the best poems are eminently readable, allowing the readers to comprehend story and image on the very first read... and then permitting them to glean deeper layers of meaning on later examination. Addison and Wilson managed this wonderfully. If you like horror, poetry, or just a good read, this one is highly recommended.

Endurance: A Novel of Terror

Endurance: A Novel of Terror - Jack Kilborn,  J.A. Konrath This was a tough one. On the one hand, it was a clever twist on the typical "cannibal hillbilly" tale that's been done to death in recent years. Instead of being just a bunch of inbred/mutated creeps in the forest who hunger for human flesh, they were a bunch of inbred/mutated creeps in the forest who hungered for something much more important. I don't want to give away what, exactly, but it was fairly clever, and made me keep going well into the book.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book left me a bit cold. There were numerous typos and grammar problems, which constantly jarred. More importantly, the story itself was one of those "horror" stories that seems to put its characters through a meat grinder for no other reason than to see them bleed.

There's a thin line between examining evil and celebrating it; between looking at the depths of human suffering in order to show the heights of human triumph... and just introducing new ways to torture people, without providing a compelling reason why, other than "because it'll be fun." I admit this is a totally personal thing on my part, but in this case the story seemed to lean toward the latter, and had (to me at least) a decidedly mean-spirited tone. I know that sounds strange - it was a horror novel, after all. But contrast this to, say, The Shining or The Talisman, stories that put their characters through the wringer, but also lead them into the light of redemption. Call me old-fashioned (I'll take it as a compliment), but I like a bit more depth to my horror.

Also a bit jarring was the fact that so many characters just happened to be in the exact place where they could fight their deepest fears. I get that this is a tried and true means of getting through a character arc, but at the same time it seemed overly coincidental and forced. And there was one last-minute revelation about one of the characters that came out of nowhere and seemed like the author just tossing one more curve ball at the readers because it would make us jump. Unfortunately, the twist wasn't set up properly or (to me at least) paid off well. It just made me like a character in retrospect much less, without adding much to the narrative.

On the plus side, I did read the whole thing. It was a fast, slick read, the kind of thing you could easily see made into a movie with a very hard R rating, something that would spawn endless direct to video sequels and play ad nauseum on SyFy and USA after two in the morning. The author is clearly talented and clever, and I'll give him another shot. This particular story wasn't to my liking, and if the next one has the same ugly tone (and typographical problems) that'll probably be it. But enough went right to warrant a few more dollars out of my pocket for another chance.
The I Inside - Alan Dean Foster This was a ton of fun; a great adventure story mixed with enough sci-fi to keep the setting and environment unique and fresh.

The basic story is about a man who has two problems: one is that he's fallen in love with a woman who is the epitome of unattainable, and two is that he suddenly finds himself doing things that no human being should be able to do - strange acts of strength, balance, and skill that are nothing short of superhuman.

Is he going insane? Is he even human?

This is one of those "popcorn" books that are just purely fun to read. Nothing too deep, and the ending lags a tad, but highly recommended nonetheless.