From the Gut Book Reviews

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Ted Fauster | 1400 Bourbon Road, Apartment 219 | Cross Plains, WI 53528

Honest reviews. No favoritism. I’ll read any fiction but romance. Books read and reviewed as they come in. Current backlog is about six weeks. E-books welcome in MOBI format; please email them here. Printed books read first.

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HOUSE OF WINDOWS | A book review by weird speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

HOUSE OF WINDOWS

by John Langan

A book review by weird speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

I’m a sucker for a good haunted house story.

HOUSE OF WINDOWS delivers.

Here’s the thing: if you’re looking for a quick, jump-scare read then you can pass on this one. The language in this book is slow and syrupy, like sipping an artisanal whiskey cocktail before a lazily rolling Victorian fireplace, Labrador on the rug, snow falling gently outside the windowpane and everything. This is a book best enjoyed in sessions, which is exactly how I digested it.

The writing has a pleasingly potent literary style. It is intentionally measured but not slow. Langan quite effectively takes on the voice of widow Veronica Croydon, whose marriage to a lauded professor forty years her senior was in itself something of a scandal. When her husband goes missing following the death of his son, Veronica is immediately suspected.

We learn all of this in a most unique way. Veronica bumps into another English professor at a dinner party who also happens to be a horror novelist. Unable to evade a discussion, he becomes the unexpected co-narrator of a ghost story told by a haunted widow through the filter of an unassuming yet transfixed author. And so the tale begins.

HOUSE OF WINDOWS drips with drama and intrigue, both of which build so exquisitely slowly it is at times almost unbearable. But that’s what a good writer does: leaves you wanting more. It becomes clear very early on that we’re not going to get spooked just yet, because Langan is the variety of writer who believes in the haunted landscape of the human spirit, centering it front-stage for us to examine in minute detail, before delivering the goods. This, in my humble opinion, is what makes all the subsequent scares so goddamn satisfying!

To read this book is to understand the ghosts that can haunt not only one relationship but several generations. It is a study of the degeneration of family, of things best unstated, of the ineptitude of the human mind to truly comprehend the damage one human being can do to another until it is far too late.

You’ll get your scares. Just be prepared to sit down by the fire and hear the whole story first.

TF

THE WEIGHT OF MEMORIES | A short story review by weird speculative fiction writer Ted Fauster

“The Weight of Memories”
by Cixin Liu

A review by weird speculative fiction writer Ted Fauster

This is a piece of short speculative fiction by Liu Cixin, whose name is also shown in publications as Cixin Liu. The original piece was written in Chinese and translated into English by Ken Liu.

The Weight of Memories begins as a conversation between a mother and her unborn child. What it evolves into becomes something so much more potent.

Liu provides a soft backdrop against which he paints a very clear picture that is both bold and brilliant. What begins as something sacred and dreamy, almost magical, slowly transforms into an unspeakable act so shocking it’s nearly impossible to imagine.

What I felt was shame, near the end. The shame of pretending to know the outcome of such a fantastical experiment. And I believe that’s Liu’s point. In our endless quest for knowledge and new achievements, are we losing bits and pieces of our humanity along the way? When does a human being stop being human? More importantly, will we ever be able to predict the outcomes of our endless thirst to improve?

The Weight of Memories is a brilliant and tragic piece of short speculative fiction that will open your eyes and make you question even the best of intentions. A shocking glimpse into the future.

ABSOLUTELY GOLDEN | A book review by weird speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

ABSOLUTELY GOLDEN
by D. Foy

A book review by weird speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

It’s the summer of 1973. No cellphones. No Internet. No worries.

And no clothes…

ABSOLUTELY GOLDEN follows the slow but steady cosmic awakening of Rachel, a mousy, middle-aged schoolteacher who, years after the numbing death of her husband, has allowed herself to be drawn into the parasitic orbit of obnoxious hedonist, Jack, a disgustingly charming character written so perfectly by Foy I could not divorce myself from the thought of Jeff Bridges carrying its weight. A bit of a stick in the mud, Rachel agrees to attend Camp Freedom Lake, a nudist colony in Northern California with Jack, and his ecdysiast “cousin” Jenny.

For me, Sharon Tate took on the persona of this demure woman turned radiant folk hero. Understandably apprehensive but emboldened, Rachel begins her journey by dying her hair a magnificent shade of gold. Little does she know, her entire world is about to be transformed.

This book shines, capturing the Magnavox gleam of the early ’70s in all its daft and sometimes dippy grandeur. Up at camp, a quirky cast of comedic perfection appears from out of the woodwork, plying for the attention of the radiant new goddess that is Rachel. Still uncomfortable in this new role, but willing to try it on, Rachel finds herself growing and transforming into an entirely different creature, while coming to grips with some stark realities hidden beneath the crusted veneer of her previous life.

It becomes clear, early on, that Rachel herself feels invisible, pushed along by tidal forces beyond her control and slowly drifting out to sea. All she wants is to be wanted. And, for once in her life, to be truly seen:

[…This went on, like some diabolical Mobius strip, until one Oakland night–one very hollow West Oakland night, I might add–a man in a bar walked right through me, the way ghosts are said to walk through walls. Finally, I understood….]

ABSOLUTELY GOLDEN is a Shakespearean odyssey, gifted with a bounteous amount of Dickensian dialogue and inner monologue that drips like honey:

[…”There was once a man,” he said, “whose love went unrequited for years. He’d tried everything to win his beloved, from serenading her in the moony light to sending her gifts of silver and gold and other shiny things….”]

It also has its fair share of pulp ’70s denim chic:

[…”And that’s cool, too, man, he’s pretty funky for an old jive-ass cat like that you know, duck, I mean, what with his going around without any pants and that….”]

This book is heavily dosed with all sorts of off-the-wall good humor, as well. And it would be a crime to take it too seriously. But maybe, like, that’s whole point, man!

For what’s its worth, this is one righteous read, and I am down, Charlie Brown. And I do mean, I can really dig it.

BEYOND THE GREAT, BLOODY, BRUISED, SILENT VEIL OF THIS WORLD | A book review by weird speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

BEYOND THE GREAT, BLOODY, BRUISED, AND SILENT VEIL OF THIS WORLD
by Jordan Krall

A book review by weird speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

This was my first Jordan Krall, and it definitely will not be my last. More of an epic cosmic poem than a novella, this short read very quickly grabs your attention in the most improbable way–in the form of a swelling, disjointed narrative.

Told not only through an unreliable narrator, but almost entirely void of any guideposts whatsoever, the reader is cast into the emptiness of space (somewhere between Mars and Earth) and fed bits and pieces of a sprawling saga told via numerous viewpoints by characters who are all very likely suffering from what is revealed to be Barrington’s Syndrome (go ahead and google it; there’s nothing out there), an affliction similar to Asperger’s that is affiliated with interstellar travel .

The short version: If Syd Barrett and Stanislaw Lem were stirred together in a Petri dish, the result would be this novel.

There’s much more at work here than can be adequately vocalized, including the channeling of Vonnegut and Burroughs. It stands to reason I simply have to read this book again. And again. I very enthusiastically plan to.

The narrative is so overwhelmingly powerful and addictive. I literally absorbed the entire story in less than two hours. Upon finishing, I felt the same sensation I did after watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. In a weird way, I also felt like I had somehow just sold my soul to the devil.

[…We are losing our sight, anyway. We are losing nearly everything. Generation after generation, the information becomes watered down and distorted and then watered down again and again and again until nothing remains but a ghost behind a veil….]

Krall bends time and reality. His wordcraft is nothing short of stellar, and his timing is impeccable. This is a writer who wields words and cadence like weaponry, punching you in the face along the way, grabbing hold of you like an angry vagrant with a wild but very important, pretzeled story to tell.

The tumbling narrative pulls you relentlessly forward in a truly splendorous almost gravitational way that compounds and confounds the further it is allowed to go, which is to the very end.

It’s a short read. One I promise you will not soon forget.

THE GREEN KANGAROOS | A book review by weird speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

THE GREEN KANGAROOS
by Jessica McHugh

A book review by weird speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

What if junkies really are speaking to ghosts?

What if being an addict isn’t nearly as horrible as we often make it out to be? What if true happiness is something that can’t ever be forced upon a person?

In McHugh’s twisted speculative fiction tale of addiction and loss, the drug-addled Perry Samson lives and breathes for atlys, a drug so rich in its addictive properties it is served up laced into the very flesh of its donors at the Kum Den Smokehouse, an old whorehouse turned five-star restaurant in the futuristic Patterson Park of Baltimore. With an older brother already dead from drug use, atlys has destroyed not only Samson’s life but the lives of all remaining family members.

But… has it?

There’s a surprising amount of heart in this novel that really begins to radiate toward the end. The pacing is masterful, with an at-first jolting but expediently tuned shift not only in perspective but point of view that works to drag you deep into depravity, kicking and screaming, straight down the hell chute into Perry’s repulsive world. It’s necessary. This works perfectly to cement the mind of the reader in a location where it truly needs to be to digest what is about to come.

Ribbons of Burroughs and Dick are blended into the base flavor of this novel, with no punches pulled. Those faint of heart or weak in the gut may want to give this one a pass. You won’t find any apologies here. Even hardcore aficionados of weird speculative fiction will find themselves tenting their eyebrows from time to time. Perry’s world is a very dark and dangerous place. But it’s nothing compared to the dysfunction within his family.

Therein lies the dark heart of this tale, deeply woven within the woolen fabric of addiction. Whose fault is it? And to what lengths should we go to “help cure” someone clearly not interested in being rescued?

I became immersed in the language, reveled in being led down dark alleyways and through one destitute setting after another, peeling back the scabs. This is especially powerful when told via the vantage point of Perry.

[…God, the state of him. His body is skeletal, full of scarred divots, but his face is the worst. His chin is less prominent, and his cheeks are completely gone. Without fat in his face, it’s no more than sallow bone. I consider the possibility that he’s dead. After all, it wouldn’t be my first corpse conversation of the day….]

But it’s the heartfelt moments that ground you in the harsh reality of our hero’s predicament, that really make you question what you’ve been told and taught, the narrative forced down all our throats.

[…The good things before my addiction have either been erased by drug use or were never there in the first place. There were no family trips, no school functions she chaperoned. She made no costumes and baked no cookies. She never helped me learn my lines for school plays….]

In particular, Perry’s sister (Nadine), who is still friends with his ex, seems to have the deepest hold.

[…”I don’t want to see you anymore, Perry. Neither do Mom, Dad or Serena. We’re ready to write you off as another loss….]

Such is the coarse psychology of this book. Viewed from both sides, the path to a “cure” becomes a rapidly forking network of heavily weighted decisions.

The most refreshing aspect to THE GREEN KANGAROOS (I won’t give away the meaning) is the way McHugh unapologetically turns the table on who’s to blame. Is it the addict causing all the suffering in the world? Or should the ones who supposedly love them shoulder more of the responsibility?

Hell, is anyone to blame?

This book will keep you turning the pages. It’s also full of fiendish twists, and plenty of appropriately developed sci-fi and tech to get your weird glands salivating. Looking forward to the sequel.

AMERICAN MONSTER | A book review by weird fantasy & speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

AMERICAN MONSTER
by J.S. Breukelaar

A review by weird fantasy & speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

In Breukelaar’s first novel, those who “fall” are transformed into sentient planets known as brain worlds. AMERICAN MONSTER follows the disjointed (sometimes comical, often grotesque) efforts of one such celestial consciousness (KALI I8) as it struggles to free itself from its eternal prison by willing into existence as a kind of hunter/breeder known as Norma.

In effect, Norma is a demon. Although she doesn’t quite grasp this. She exists in a near-future devastated southern California region known as The Spill. Lots of otherworldly elements are folded (not blended) with very subtle hints of demonic possession and a kind of Matrix/Blade Runner universe gone rotten, resulting in a ripe, gooey slime that is so fun to squish between your fingers. This book hits the ground running and never stops.

From the very beginning, it’s made very clear what Norma is after. A horn. Driven on by the insatiable desire programmed into her celestial code by Mommy (Norma’s only connection to what she is, where she came from and why she exists), her only purpose is to combine with The Guy, which will somehow set off some sort of divine code that will free Kali I8. Mommy communicates with Norma via broken bits of discarded tech, berating, punishing and encouraging her along the way. Mommy is inescapable and always watching.

What Breukelaar has done is broken the mold of the traditional “man on a mission” novel. If this dark angel had been the one with the horn, I’m not sure the story would have been as satisfying. In fact, it might have been downright horrible to behold. To experience this techno tale of a fallen something-or-other, whose only purpose is to fornicate her way into oblivion, is incredibly refreshing. Norma is big, powerful and perfectly capable of bashing her way toward the end goal. This isn’t to say she is without fault, or that her crooked quest is simply a hack-and-slash walk in the park. Norma gets her ass handed to her. Several times.

In a way, Norma commits a cardinal sin. It’s not the sex, the killing, the stealing, the murderous rampages. Norma’s sin is something even more devastating, and it is one Mommy finds very hard to overlook.

For me, the most beautiful aspect of this story is how Norma consistently picks herself up and keeps going. She’s doomed to deal with her curse. But it is her eventual discovery of the ability to love that truly sets this book apart. I don’t know. Maybe it’s me, but women just seem to have a much better understanding of love and loss.

The language flows, while still retaining a satisfying visceral grit:

…He misfired his second round partly into pappy’s ass, so that the old man had begun to buckle, screaming, by the time she stove in the boy’s throat with her gel-armor elbow, rammed her fist into his face….

…The sun had gotten too big for Mommy, gave it a swollen head, or was it the other way around? Who had killed who? What had killed the First Beings?

I absolutely adored the thin veil drawn between the fierce aroma of the real world, the true America, and the ethereal transcendence of the astral spirit plane. I share a similar respect for the elegance deeply coded within not only the constructs of the universe but the way life perceives life, and in doing so imagines itself, warts and all, sinners and saints.

AMERICAN MONSTER is a masterfully coded techno/terror tale of cosmic horror and familial dysfunction.

Incidentally, Kali is the Hindu “mortal demon” and the source of all evil.

GOLD FAME CITRUS | A book review by weird fantasy & speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

GOLD FAME CITRUS
by Claire Vaye Watkins

A book review by weird fantasy & speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

Among the future devastation of a California being slowly gobbled up by enormous dunes of sand, two survivors (Luz and Ray) are squatting in the bones of a Hollywood mansion when they happen across a toddler in need. They rescue the child from the gang of addicts doing little to nothing to care for it, and take her along on an odyssey into the dune sea known as the Amargosa in search of some kind of a meaningful life.

The language in this novel is bleak but powerful, if not overwrought in some areas. I remember the term wickered being used to describe the structure a dead desert bush, which works brilliantly. There is, however, a shroud of doom and gloom that hangs heavily over this novel some may find hard to digest.

That said, I still thoroughly enjoyed the language. It serves the book very well, and while some have cited this specific attribute as the reason they disliked the novel, I have to wonder if the cover had contained the name Vandermeer if some of these reviews would have been so harsh.

GOLD FAME CITRUS is not for everyone, which IMHO is precisely the way a literary novel should be written, and this is very much a literary read. I can, however, list two factors that I did not enjoy

The first is the tempting inclusion of a kind of “ecology handbook” of the new desert, which includes allusions to all sorts of imaginative creatures that have arisen in this post-apoc world. But they turn out to be just that — imagined.

The second is the ending. I won’t give it away, but it just felt a little rushed and lackluster. Having endured (in a very pleasant way) the intentional dreariness and isolation, I found myself wanting so much more for our heroes. But, perhaps there was no other way for such a book to end.

GOLD FAME CITRUS was an enjoyable read, and a fine addition to any reader’s climate fiction shelf.

TF

ZANESVILLE | A book review by weird fantasy & speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

ZANESVILLE
by Kris Saknussemm

A book review by weird fantasy & speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

My agent recommends books to me all the time. This was one of them. To be honest, when I started reading ZANESVILLE I was a little spooked. There aren’t many writers I can say are clearly out of my league. Saknussemm is one of them.

This is speculative science fiction at its absolute finest. Hands down. Saknussemm writes with authority and a gleaming sense of style. This guy is clearly comfortable at the keyboard, and he really knows his stuff.

Now, I will admit that he and I share the same agent, but this should carry even more weight considering there’s probably a very good reason we’re both represented by the same person–our writing mannerisms are very similar. Kris also has been very helpful in guiding me toward my own personal style.

Okay, enough of the disclaimer. Now let’s chat like your average Joe Reader…

ZANESVILLE is strange. It begins by introducing a man with a half-meter penis who wakes up in a dystopian Central Park, where he encounters a myriad genetically altered/mutilated/enhanced people who claim to be fighting the all-powerful Vitessa corporation, a mega drug conglomerate that’s got the entire population of the world hooked on their yummy pharmaceuticals. Our well-slung hero has no memory of who he is, or what it is he’s supposed to do. A bizarre sequence of events sets him off on an improbable odyssey to find the answers to these questions.

Saknussemm pulls no punches. If you want a double-scoop of weird with some strange sauce drizzled all over the top, this is your book.

At times, the prose can get dense and even somewhat overwhelming. But this in no way impedes a reader familiar with the speculative terrain. Even so, I guarantee you’ve never read anything like this. You really will be taken on a very strange adventure.

If I were forced to come up with an elevator pitch, I would say ZANESVILLE was built on a framework not unlike the Blade Runner universe–except that practically everyone and everything is not at all what they seem. I’m serious, you’re going to encounter some weird shit in this book, but it all performs flawlessly.

ZANESVILLE challenged me, both as a reader and author. Once I caught on to the rhythm of the Saknussemm’s unique writing style, I was stupefied by how naturally the entire story unfolded. But you have to pay attention. Each paragraph (and I truly mean this) is packed with all sorts of interesting tidbits. It was like being led through a carnival sideshow spread across the entire country.

A good amount of suspension of disbelief is required, as well, as is a stomach for the very, very odd and at times borderline grotesque. Still, Saknussemm wields this power with skill and precision. There’s nothing in this book that doesn’t belong.

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books I pull out each year and read again. Its that dense and valuable. I’m sure I could read it several times and catch something new.

TF

I DREAM OF MIRRORS | Book review by weird fantasy & speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

I DREAM OF MIRRORS
by Chris Kelso

A book review by weird fantasy & speculative fiction author Ted Fauster

Why do mirrors exist?

I DREAM OF MIRRORS is the kind of novella best consumed with a picnic basket full of pharmaceuticals. Since this is both dangerous and illegal, I offer instead a comfy chair and a roaring fire. Perhaps a cold beer and a hammock? Cup of coffee and an Autumnal porch swing?

Doesn’t really matter. This is your dream, pal.

Kelso’s dream begins like your typical zombie apocalypse, with two heroes (Kurt and Kad) fighting off a mob of zombies as they race back through a desolate city with a bagful of fresh supplies toward the luxury apartment in which they’ve been squatting. Then everything goes full banana-nut-cake fucking weird.

The “city” has been taken over by one Miles Dunwoody, a charismatic cult leader type drawing everyone inexorably toward him with the promise of redemption and rescue from some unknown force that is coming to get you. Seems fairly straightforward. Once our duo reaches the safety of their honeymoon suite, however, the icing on the cake becomes smeared.

Kelso is cut from the same cloth as Burroughs, whose influence on this novella stands out in bold type. There’s even a bit of the cut-up process in here that makes it feel as if some scenes have been intentionally shuffled together then rapidly dealt blind. At times, you will feel like you are losing your grip on what you’re reading, which in my opinion is where this little book masterfully shines.

Much of the language is rich and poetic, a long burbling dream sequence full of misguided attempts at introspection, fear and self-doubt. (I kept imagining Jude Law as our humble narrator.) We see this weird world through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, and we don’t care. We know he’s disillusioned and lost and we love it!

Why is he here? Why does he exist? Is it time to throw in the towel and simply commit? To what? To Dunwoody? To a fluxing sense of self? To love?

That’s a whole lotta damn questions, and by the time you’ve finished the book you’ll likely have more.

This is a short read. I usually read very slowly, and I finished this book in just three sittings.

If you’re looking for your typical genre novel take a pass. This won’t make you feel all warm and giggly at the end. In fact, there are several points along the way that are so disturbing they’re difficult to surmount. This book gets dark–very dark.

If, however, you consider yourself a reader with a discerning palate, a connoisseur of the strange and unusual, then you’ve come to the right place. This is my first Kelso read, and I’m going to be snatching up everything else he’s written.

TF