Devil Music: We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Published: September 18th 2018
Publisher: Quirk Books
Genre(s): Horror, Rock and Roll
Format: E-Book
Length: 336 pages

We Sold Our Souls is sort of like a heavy metal concept album in novel form, but that doesn’t mean it’s the kind of slapdash narrative you would normally find on a long-player. Instead, it’s a propulsive read that rides on the momentum of a lost album full of revolutionary rock songs.

The author of that lost album, Kris Pulaski, is a washed-up former rock guitarist riding the desk at a Best Western. She’s stuck in that customer-service wasteland because Terry Hunt, the lead singer of her old band, Dürt Würk, sold her out, stole her music, and sued her into oblivion. It doesn’t help that the rest of the band hates her because of something terrible she did on “contract night” – the night the band fell apart in spectacular fashion.

When Kris sees a billboard for Koffin, Terry’s sell-out cash-grab nu metal band formed in the ashes of Dürt Würk, she’s at absolute rock bottom. She’s broke, friendless and soon-to-be homeless after her brother kicks her out of her dead mother’s house.

The billboard is the catalyst that sets off a bottomless store of anger she’d kept tamped deep down inside. She decides that it’s time to confront the former members of Dürt Würk and ask them why the events of contract night don’t line up in her memory.

This is a horror novel called We Sold Our Souls, though, so I’m sure it isn’t surprising to learn that something bizarre is going on behind the scenes and Kris gets caught up in its wake as soon as she gets back in touch with her old band.

I was so caught up in this book that I read the last 2/3rds in one marathon sitting, which I think is a pretty resounding endorsement. There are also two harrowing set-pieces that kept me on the edge of my seat and wincing.

I’ve read a few of Grady Hendrix’s novels now, and although this one isn’t as good as My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it delivers some solid scares while also painting a compelling picture of how music can save your life.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Modernized Space Girl: Barbarella, Volume 1

Barbarella, Volume 1Barbarella, Volume 1: Red Hot Gospel

Written by: Mike Carey
Art by: Kenan Yar, Jorge Fornés
Published: October 10th, 2018
Publisher: Dynamite
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: E-Book
Length: 126 pages

First, some caveats about this review of the new Barbarella comic written by Mike Carey: I’ve never seen the Jane Fonda movie, so I watched the trailer to get a feel for it because it felt like a necessary entry point.

I also read the first volume of the classic comics by Jean-Claude Forest so that I’d have a baseline to compare against the rebooted series. From a writing standpoint, I’d say that the two versions of Barbarella are on close to equal footing, but the art in the modern version just does not do the character justice.

Forest draws the classic 60s version in black and white with an almost sketch-like quality to the art. The suggestive lines are still evocative even if the style is a little dated. It might be interesting to read a remastered version with full-color art as long as it didn’t lose the style of the original. I think I would have preferred that over the rebooted version, or at least a new comic that more closely follows the classic style.

The first volume of the Mike Carey version consists of a three-issue arc drawn by the series artist, Kenan Yar, and a stand-alone drawn by Jorge Fornés. Both stories start with Barbarella’s ship breaking down, which I’m guessing is a running joke from the movie.

In the longer story, Barbarella crash-lands in the middle of a rebellion on a repressive religious planet where the church removes everyone’s genitalia to prevent them from enjoying sex (because pleasure is a temptation.) Naturally, Barbarella considers this a horrifying injustice and does everything she can to fight the church, stopping only at murder. The story is a bit forgettable. It doesn’t help that Barbarella isn’t driving the plot for most of the arc.

I’m also not a fan of Kenyan Yar’s art, which doesn’t capture the look of the character. The perspectives are oftentimes awkward, and Barbarella herself doesn’t have the cool elegance of the original. It’s a shame, because the cover art is uniformly great. The covers made me wish for an arc drawn by one of those artists.

The art for the standalone story was a much better fit for Barbarella’s style and personality. That story follows her as she books passage on a ship towing three bespoke planets to their destinations. When someone sabotages one of the planets, the story turns into a spin on an old-fashioned mystery. I liked it more than the longer arc, but it felt comparatively slight and a bit rushed.

I’m not sure if I’ll read more Barbarella. This volume was a bit shallow, and I don’t think I’ll come around on Yar’s art. I still might watch the movie, though, even if it is super-cheesy and somehow rated PG despite its reputation for innuendo.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Little Death of Reality: Alt-Life

Alt-Life by Thomas Cadène

Published: October 17th, 2018
Publisher: Europe Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: ebook
Length: 184 pages

Alt-Life is the story of what happens when two horny French people volunteer as beta testers for an all-encompassing VR experience that lets them escape from the polluted, dying Earth. Once you’re inside the VR devices, which look like giant red eggs full of undulating cilia, the system integrates with your body and you live out the rest of your life on the inside.

For the first year they’re inside the devices, Josiane and René are alone in an infinite world, testing out the system so that the rest of humanity can join them when it’s ready. They explore its limits and discover that there aren’t any as long as your device has enough memory. They also explore every possible sexual fantasy. Josiane sinks into endless hedonism, but René quickly becomes disillusioned with the lack of substance in his imagined encounters and loses his sex drive.

This, then, is where more existential questions come into play. If you can have anything you imagine with the snap of your fingers, does any of it have meaning or value? What does it mean to be rich or powerful in a virtual world? The arrival of other humans in the virtual world brings even more complications because, by that time, Josiane and René have changed in immeasurable ways.

While René and Josiane are inside their virtual world, we also get glimpses of the world outside. It’s obvious that the Earth has become inhabitable, presumably due to some kind of environmental catastrophe (sound familiar?) and humanity has created these bizarre organic VR devices as a way to preserve themselves in some form, even if that means living out the rest of their lives in an imaginary world.

From reading some of the other reviews of this book, it seems like the wall-to-wall sex was a bit much for some readers, but Alt-Life is about more than just sex. Instead, the author explores the nature of humanity and what it could mean to give up on “real life” and retreat into a virtual refuge. It just happens to be a particularly horny refuge.

I especially enjoyed the art style. At first, everything is minimalist, all solid colors and simple lines, but once Josiane and René start letting loose and playing with their abilities, there are huge panels full of bright colors and meticulous detail. It’s a beautiful book. My only criticism is that the dialog is lettered in a tight cursive, which makes it difficult to read.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Purchase at: Comixology

The Silliest Quest: Kill the Farm Boy

Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

Published: July 17th 2018
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre(s): Fantasy, Humor, Satire
Format: ebook
Length: 384 pages

Kill the Farm Boy is a silly book that sends up and undermines some well-worn clichés of the fantasy genre’s hero narrative. It asks questions like “What does it mean to be the Chosen One?” and “Who deserves to be a protagonist?” and then unloads goat poop on them. This succeeds with varying results.

I read most of the book on a three-hour plane ride, and at first I did enjoy it. Somewhere in the middle, though, it started to drag a bit, and I still hadn’t finished it by the time my trip was over. Instead, I switched gears and finished Meddling Kids, which I read at a snail’s pace over the last few months.

I think part of the reason that I lost momentum was that the book started feeling a bit muddled, as though the story underlying the jokes and satire wasn’t as robust as it needed to be. Also, I was no longer trapped inside a metal tube hurtling through the sky, so I had more things to distract me.

The main twist to Kill the Farm Boy is that the protagonist isn’t who you think it’s going to be after the first chapter. When the book opens, we meet an unremarkable farm boy named Worstley anointed as Chosen One by a sketchy-seeming fairy who also gives Worstley’s goat the power of speech. Worstley and Gustave, the goat, set off on a quest to do something or other involving destiny and then the story takes a decisive left turn that I won’t spoil here.

As the adventure continues, the cast of characters grows and we meet an oddball assortment of misfits and outcasts. Each one gets some time in the spotlight, but it’s sometimes hard to tell which character is driving the story, and I quickly forgot the aim of their quest after putting the book down for a few days.

The general silly tone also means that the stakes feel non-existent, even when characters suddenly and unexpectedly die. Every death plays as comedy. Also, there are several moments where it feels like the authors are summarizing something tedious to save time and jump ahead even though the book still feels like an overlong joke.

I definitely laughed or chuckled several times while reading this book, so it was an enjoyable read. I just wish there was something more interesting underneath all the silliness. Not every comic fantasy author can be Terry Pratchett, though they might try.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Infinitely French: Infinity 8, Volume 1

Infinity 8, Volume 1: Love and Mummies

Written by: Lewis Trondheim (Zep)
Illustrations by: Dominique Bertail

Published: July 10, 2018
Publisher: Lion Forge Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Digital
Length: 105 pages

If I didn’t already know that Infinity 8 is a French comic, reading it would make that crystal clear. It has a French feel about it, from the art reminiscent of Moebius, to the laconic dialogue scenes, to (most tellingly) the glimpse of casual nudity and the protagonist who wears a skin-tight spacesuit straight out of 1950s pinup illustrations.

It isn’t a very complex book, but I did enjoy it well enough. The main character, Yoko Keren, is an agent tasked with saving everyone on her ship from certain catastrophe. The captain of her ship is a massive alien who can roll back time eight hours to give them another chance to survive, but it needs her help to know what to expect. This means that Keren can fail up to a certain point, but she has to prevent the ship and captain from being destroyed before they can roll back time.

When Keren goes outside the ship to investigate an anomaly, she discovers a debris field full of dead bodies – a veritable floating space necropolis. Shortly thereafter, she is followed outside by a species of aliens who can’t resist eating the dead, and hijinks ensue. This mostly involves dead things exploding in chunks of gore and aliens chasing her because they want to kill and eat her. She handles all of this with aplomb and never seems particularly ruffled, even when coated with blood and gore or fending off the attentions of an amorous alien.

For some reason Keren is also obsessed with having a baby, constantly scanning everyone around her for their genetic suitability. Mostly this involves scanning aliens and telling them that they wouldn’t work. It’s a very odd detail to include.

I think mostly I enjoyed the art style and the deadpan conversations Keren has with the aliens she meets in space in the middle of a field of corpses. It’s all so very macabre and charming.

The series does continue after this volume, but it feels like it could wrap up here. This volume reads like a fairly self-contained story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would be interested in reading the rest of the series.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Self-Made Detective: IQ by Joe Ide

IQ by Joe Ide

Published: October 18, 2016
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hours and 8 minutes

Joe Ide’s debut novel, IQ, won’t revolutionize the detective genre, but it does tell an entertaining story about well-drawn and complex characters. It wasn’t the most exciting crime novel I’ve ever read, but I’d be happy to follow the future exploits of Isaiah Quintabe wherever they lead.

Isaiah – IQ for short – is a smart, talented guy whose life changed tragically when a hit-and-run driver killed his brother, Marcus, right in front of his eyes. Before his brother’s death, Isaiah might have gone on to college and great things, but that all fell apart in an instant.

After the accident, Isaiah withdrew into himself, living alone in the apartment he’d once shared with his brother and hoping that social services wouldn’t come for him. When his money ran out and it reached the point that he might lose the apartment, he offered a room for rent to a kid named Dodson in a moment of desperation. Their uneasy friendship would soon have wide-reaching affects on both of their lives.

IQ jumps back and forth between 2005, when Isaiah and Dodson take up a life of crime that escalates with deadly results, and 2013, when Dodson brings Isaiah a case to solve the attempted murder of a dissolute rapper by a hitman with an enormous pit bull.

The best parts of IQ are the characters and the world they live in. Isaiah and Dodson are friends first by necessity, but as they try to solve a case together as adults, it becomes clear that their friendship runs deeper than their youthful robbery spree.

The actual case feels a bit low-stakes because the potential victim is an asshole burnout rapper doing his best to alienate everyone he knows. It’s hard to have much sympathy for a millionaire too doped out of his mind to think straight. That said, the villain is definitely creepy, and the unique detail of having him breed and train pit bulls is off-kilter in a particularly LA way.

Isaiah is a bit of a DIY detective, almost entirely self-taught after he dropped out of high school. When he solves a mystery, it doesn’t feel like another example of the Smartest Guy in the Room throwing his weight around. Instead, he uses inductive reasoning and makes his best guesses at likely outcomes, not always with perfect results.

IQ is a quick, entertaining read, and the audiobook has an excellent narrator. I enjoyed the book, and I’ll probably pick up the sequel, but it isn’t at the top of my list.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I listened to the audiobook from Audible.

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Insert Gritty Reboot: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie

Written by: Anthony Del Col
Art by: Werther Dell’Edera
Published: November 28th 2017
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Genre(s): Crime, Graphic Novel
Format: Digital
Length: 162 pages

Maybe Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie would have resonated for me a bit more if I’d ever read Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Instead, I’ve only ever seen their cover illustrations and imagined the sort of squeaky-clean peril they might get themselves into. I think, though, that I still wouldn’t have gotten much from this too-serious gritty reimagining of the classic teen mysteries.

The introduction to The Big Lie admits that it takes inspiration from the revelatory Afterlife With Archie, a series that thrillingly juxtaposes familiar Archie characters with zombie horror to great effect. The problem is that The Big Lie only suffers by comparison.

Where Archie subverts familiar characters and tropes without losing the essence of the originals, The Big Lie tells a dour modern-day noir that slaps Hardy and Drew names on bland, interchangeable characters. It isn’t subversive because there isn’t enough substance there to subvert.

Instead, it confuses a grim, serious tone with maturity, suffers from some serious holes in logic, and hangs it all on a boilerplate storyline about corrupt cops, drug dealers, and unexpected murderers. I didn’t care about or relate to any of the characters, and I also didn’t much like the art.

If I was going to write a modern noir update of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy mysteries, I think I would ground it in story where they’re all still crime-solving kids, but the mystery has higher stakes. You could still flash-forward and show them as adults, but the core has to be about something that happened when they were kids.

Although I do like the idea of rebooting classic stories from a fresh new angle, I can’t recommend The Big Lie. It misses the mark in so many ways and delivers something both bland and uninteresting.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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That Which Unravels: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief by Augustus RoseThe Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose

Published: August 1st, 2017
Publisher: Viking
Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Hardcover
Length: 384 pages

I originally picked up The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose because the cover caught my eye, but the summary and a few blurbs from some of my favorite authors finished the sale. I started reading it soon after I bought it, and loved the first half so much that I enthusiastically recommended it to several people. Unfortunately, the latter half of the book feels messy, and the ending is a bit unsatisfying. I would still recommend it, but not without a few caveats.

The main character, Lee, is an intelligent and resourceful girl who finds herself backed into a life on the run after a series of mistakes and personal betrayals. Lee is the main reason the book works as well as it does for as long as it does; she’s a sympathetic and compelling character trying to find her way in the world under impossible circumstances. It also helps that I love stories about secret societies and histories that exist just out of view, and a character forced into the margins of society is the perfect person to explore that kind of world.

Like most high schoolers, Lee dreams of going to college, but she builds her funds by shoplifting and selling her classmates the goods. When the school finds her best friend’s drugs in Lee’s locker, she takes the fall and ends up in juvie. After a few excruciating months of bullying and stress, Lee escapes, and that’s when things get interesting.

Now homeless and friendless, Lee falls on the mercy of a strange organization called the Société Anonomie. They’re mostly known for throwing wild parties and dressing up in antiquated clothing, but they also run a house for homeless runaways where Lee winds up when she needs somewhere to sleep. It isn’t long before she discovers something more sinister going on at the SA house. In her haste to escape, she steals an object precious to the SA, and spends the rest of the book trying to decide what to do next. Should she run, fight, or give back what she stole in the hope that they’ll leave her alone?

There are a lot of things I loved about The Readymade Thief, which is why I’m sad that it doesn’t stick the landing. My favorite parts are when Lee is living in the houses of people on vacation, going on night-time excursions to abandoned places with her new friend Tomi and trying to figure out why the SA wants a stolen Duchamp readymade. Trying to solve a mystery is almost always the most engaging part.

I started having problems with the book when it became obvious that Lee could probably give back the Duchamp and the SA would leave her alone, but the story kept manufacturing reasons for her to stay invested. The real problem is that Lee doesn’t have a driving, personal reason to stop the SA. All she wants is for everyone to leave her alone so that she can live her life. She’s an interesting character, but she isn’t a crusading hero-type. The best she can manage is a quest for vengeance, but her plans all fall apart because she keeps doing stupid things without thinking.

The hoariest cliché arrives during the climax, when Lee finally confronts the villain. He monologues for pages, helpfully connecting the dots and explaining his organization’s true motivations. That device rarely works without feeling heavy-handed, and here it just misses the mark.

The best parts of The Readymade Thief help make up for its flaws, but the one downside of a shaky ending is that it’s the last thing you remember about a book. That’s probably why my criticisms are still so fresh in my mind. Even so, The Readymade Thief is worth a read, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for future books by Augustus Rose.

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The Fire Inside: Heroine Complex

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

Published: July 5th 2016
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Fantasy, Adventure, Superheroes
Format: E-Book
Length: 378 pages

I love stories about people with mundane jobs who exist in the orbit of someone extraordinary – like a personal assistant to a superhero, for example. It’s a fun mental exercise to think about what that might actually be like, what you’d have to deal with when your job function includes placating a petulant heroine when she isn’t out saving lives and stopping evil.

Evie Tanaka is in that exact position when Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn begins. She’s the mousy, reserved personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s Favorite Superhero – previously known as Evie’s childhood friend, Annie.

Evie has no social life outside of work and tries to keep her feelings on clampdown because of a tragedy in her past. It doesn’t help that her mom died a few years back and her father subsequently disappeared on walkabout, so Evie is also responsible for taking care of her bratty teenage sister, Bea.

Evie is just barely holding her life together until Aveda is injured and needs someone to take her place in public appearances. See, Aveda’s superhero powers come from a failed demon invasion that turned into an ongoing demon problem, and she isn’t the only person who was granted powers. Their friend Scott can perform little magic spells, including a glamour that will let Evie impersonate Aveda.

As soon as Evie goes out in public as Aveda, things go off the rails. Demons attack, and Evie is forced to use her own powers – flames that come out of her hands when she is upset or angry. She’d tried to keep them inside like her emotions because she was afraid of what she might do, but as soon as she lets them out, she finds it much harder to keep anything inside.

Heroine Complex is ultimately a story about a closed-off, repressed young woman learning to trust her own emotions and believe in herself. It’s also funny, full of well-drawn characters, and genuinely entertaining.

When I first picked it up and started reading, I assumed that it was a young adult novel, partially because of the cover, but also because of the writing style, which made the characters seem young. However, as I kept reading, it became obvious that the characters were all in their late twenties. Then there was the first of several fairly hot sex scenes, which made me realize that I’d been reading an urban fantasy all along.

This genre confusion didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of the book, but it did make me wonder why I immediately assumed it was a young adult novel. I really like the cover design, but maybe the cartoony style made me jump to conclusions.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend Heroine Complex. It’s the first book in a trilogy, each of which focuses on a different girl in the group – Evie, then Aveda, and then finally Bea. I’ll probably pick up the next two sometime soon.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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From Dead to Worse: Tortured Life

Tortured Life

Written by: Neil Gibson and Dan Watters
Art by: Casper Wijngaard
Colors by: Jan Wijngaard
Letters by: Jim Campbell
Layouts by: Eric Irving

Published: September 22nd 2015
Publisher: T Pub
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

Tortured Life reads like a hack novelization of a gore-drenched heavy metal concept album, and it’s about as well-plotted as your average double-LP. In fact, the art wouldn’t look out-of-place on a metal band poster, especially when the skull-faced villain shows up and starts killing people.

Rich seems like a nice, normal young man. He has a good job and a beautiful girlfriend, but then one day he starts having visions of how everything and everyone around him is going to die. When the visions don’t go away, his life quickly falls apart and he is left friendless and alone. The book opens on the day he decides to commit suicide because he saw his own death in the mirror.

However, unbeknownst to Rich, his nearness to death opens a door to the underworld, letting through both a helpful ghost girl and the murderous Bloodyman – that aforementioned skull-faced killer.

The ghost girl, Alice, sticks around just long enough to point Rich at some exposition before disappearing from the story until the end. The explanation for her absence is that crossing over to the world of the living is difficult and dangerous, so she can’t keep going back and forth, but it makes her feel even more like a lazy plot device.

When the explanation for Rich’s visions arrives, it is both incredibly convoluted and completely nonsensical. The revelation doesn’t tie in thematically to his visions of death, and Rich and Alice respond to the explanation by as much as throwing up their hands and moving on. The ending is ultimately both anticlimactic and dour.

To be honest, I also really wasn’t a fan of the art style. The book’s cover is eye-catching enough that it drew me in, but the interior art just didn’t do it for me. It’s slightly similar to the cartoony style of the Chew books, but seems ill-suited to Tortured Life’s bleak tone.

However, I think I would have forgiven the art if I’d liked the story and characters more. Tortured Life was an underwhelming read, and I can’t recommend it.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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