Firefly: The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove: Narrated by James Anderson Foster

The Magnificent Nine confirms the placement of these Firefly novels–or at least this particular installment–as falling between Objects In Space and the Serenity motion picture. The previous book hadn’t made any specific mention of the events in that episode and thus could have fallen before or after that final episode of the tragically short-lived series.
The crew of Serenity is floating adrift, between jobs and looking for work to keep themselves afloat when a message arrives from an old friend of Jayne’s. There’s trouble on the distant, dry–almost desert–world of Thetis. Jayne’s former lover, Temperance, is desperate to find help for her small village. A cruel, savage bandit going by the name of Elias Vandal threatens the survival of all residents of Thetis who won’t bow to his reign or join his cultish band of raiders and criminals.
Though there’s no money in the job, it’s the right thing to do, and the crew of Serenity naturally makes their way to Thetis. This group of nine mismatched compatriots is hardly the collection of soldiers or heroes Temperance was expecting, but they might be precisely the heroes the planet needs.
While the previous installment, Big Damn Heroes, provided us with a fair bit of additional backstory for Captain Malcolm Reynolds, this book supplements what we know of Jayne Cobb before his time with the crew of Serenity.
It’s a satisfying story that could have made for a pretty fantastic episode or two of the series.
The narration from James Anderson Foster is just as good as it was for the previous book–and hopefully will be for the remaining handful of Firefly supplemental novels.

A Baptism for the Dead by Charles R. Bernard

Charles R. Bernard has crafted an immersive piece of historical fiction with A Baptism for the Dead. Spanning the decades between the 1840s and the 1870s, we experience snapshots of the expansive fields of unsettled Nebraska on the approach to the South Pass through the Continental Divide in what would become Wyoming, raging blizzards in Northern Michigan, and the early years of Salt Lake City…and those snapshots feel three dimensional.
Throughout the story, we occasionally follow Left Hand, an indigenous woman who has the unfortunate path in life of hunting monsters. The introduction to her character is a fascinating glimpse of a forest haunted by ghosts and a cavern of sickness and monstrous residents.
The bulk of the story begins as we witness Leonidas Pyburn and his two sons–following the fateful path previously taken by the Donner-Reed Party–headed West to embrace the call of Manifest Destiny in the form of the emerging gold rush in California. Encountering a frantic, haunted sexton along the way, their own journey takes a turn not altogether better than that experienced by the previously mentioned Donner Party.
The survivors of that grisly, horrific encounter go drastically separate directions, both in life and in a cartographic sense. While Leonidas continues West to seek fortune and power, his son determines that his fate awaits him to the North, with the Mormons who passed through the region previously.
As secrets and magic bring the father and son together again, two decades later, we learn that there are more than carrion-eating ghouls to be afraid of in this vision of the American West.
Bernard succeeds in blending occultism, conventional spirituality, social commentary, history, and family drama into a captivating novel that contains more than enough gore and Western aesthetic to appeal to fans of the Splatter Westerns being published by Death’s Head Press.

Off Season by Jack Ketchum: Narrated by Richard Davidson

I was a teenager when I first read Jack Ketchum’s Off Season in an already used paperback edition I’d found in a second-hand store or at a flea market. At the time, the book seemed truly graphic and bleak in a way most horror novels didn’t approach. Of course, most of my reading up to that point had been Stephen King, Peter Straub, Robert R. McCammon, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, and other more commercially accessible authors. Of those authors, Barker and McCammon were the two who most closely approached what I was reading from Ketchum.
If I enjoyed the bleak and hopeless tone of that edition of the book, I was sure to be in for a treat with the less censored edition released this century.
A good deal of the change to this story only arises in the final stretch of the story, but those relatively minor changes in terms of text produce massive changes in the outcome of the narrative. Listening to this audiobook edition of the novel, I understand why Ketchum was dissatisfied with the edits his publisher demanded. This was a story that pulled no punches and held nothing back, laying bare the callous inhumanity of the world we live in and the indifference of the universe itself.
A tragic hero becomes altogether more tragic in this edition of Off Season, and the story benefits from that transformation.
Those who read the original edition of this book may have wondered just how much worse a vacation to Northern Maine could have gone in the fall of 1981. Ketchum answers that question in this restored iteration of the tale. As the vacationers in the cabin are beset by the wild, raving tribe of barely human cannibals, you might notice some scenes that carry a bit more potency and illustrative violence…but the core of the story remains the same until you reach the end.
Richard Davidson’s narration is great, though there are times when it seems as if the Maine accents are a bit more of a caricature. It makes for an enjoyable listen just the same.

Black Hills Con 2021

This weekend has been a busy one for me.

In 2017, my friend and fellow author, Adrian Ludens, had asked if I might be interested in sharing a table with him at the local anime, science fiction, and pop culture convention. At that point, the local convention was SoDak Con–previously SoDak Anime Convention. Unfortunately, due to a planned and scheduled vacation in the Pacific Northwest, I was unable to partner up with him.

I’m sad to say that I might not have done so even without those prior obligations. At that point in my writing career I had only the novel, Unspoken, and my collection of short fiction and poetry, Errata, available. Both titles had been self-published and neither had been particularly successful or generated much by way of buzz or interest beyond people who knew me to some extent. I would have felt like a fraud, sitting there next to him. Adrian had sold probably dozens of stories to various publications and anthologies at that point…and who the fuck was I?

Since then, I’ve come a long way in feeling more comfortable and secure in calling myself an author. My next self-published novel, Innocence Ends, was more successful than both of the previous titles combined–and then some. Thanks to the sales associated with Innocence Ends, I was able to join the HWA (Horror Writers Association) as an Affiliate Member. My new novella, You Will Be Consumed, was published by a small press I respect and appreciate–in addition to since being adapted into an audiobook with a fantastic narrator doing the heavy lifting.

When the new convention–now Black Hills Con–was announced for June of this year, I reached out to Adrian and asked whether he might be interested in sharing a table with me. I was pleased to discover he was interested.

This would be my first time attending a convention of any kind as a guest and a vendor. I was never particularly big on attending conventions in the first place, being as anti-social and riddled with anxiety as I find myself to be when surrounded by crowds of any kind.

I neglected to request time off from work on Friday. Thus, I had to get up at 3:45 AM and begin my shift at the television station at 4:30 AM. I directed the hour and a half of Good Morning KOTA Territory from 5:30 to 7 AM and then KOTA Territory News at Noon from 12 to 12:30 PM. It had already been a long day, as you can probably imagine, before I pulled out of the parking lot and made my way to the hotel where the convention was being held.

I arrived at the hotel and was directed to the vendor room where Adrian and I would be sharing our table. I was pleased to see that my old friend, Tom Rasch, was at the table right next to us. Tom is a comic book artist/creator who has been active in that industry for quite some time, in addition to having done a good deal of video game character design back in the day. He was there to promote his various independent comic properties, Black Alpha and Salem Tusk in particular, as well as a documentary film that is detailing his efforts to bring these properties to life in the way they deserve to be realized. At some point in the relatively near future, he’s likely to have a Kickstarter campaign going live, and I’ll be sure to share those details here.

Needless to say, I felt a wash of relief, knowing that I had familiar faces right there next to me.

The next five hours turned out to be a great deal more fun than I suspected they might be…additionally, I managed to deplete a fair amount of the books I’d brought with me for the convention.

Using a trick I’d developed for coping with social anxiety, I carried my camera with me and captured photos of the events, separating myself from them by placing the lens in between myself and the rest of the world.

I was exhausted when I arrived home shortly before 7 PM on Friday. I ate dinner and took a nap before waking up and going to the gym around 10:30 PM. I have a difficult time breaking from routine, and I try to always go to the gym on Friday evenings, regardless of what my day consisted of.

On Saturday morning, I woke up at 6:30 AM and took a shower before taking the puppies outside and making sure my daughter was ready to go. We stopped for coffee and arrived at the convention location right at 8 AM as everything was getting started. I made my way to the vendor room–it was closed to all but the vendors until 10 AM–while my daughter went to watch Saturday morning cartoons that were being projected on the screen of the large conference room by the convention staff.

Most of the vendors weren’t there yet, so it was nice to just relax and chat with Tom while I put everything out on the table, including some creepy photo prints I’d brought with me to see if they might also sell. Adrian arrived not too long after.

Tom was hosting a panel on Saturday morning, sharing his experiences in the comic book and video game design industries and talking about his current projects. I attended some of that panel because I wanted to see at least some of it instead of spending all of my time sitting at the table.

Throughout the day, my daughter sporadically returned to the vendor space with different friends in tow and it was fun to see the teenagers enjoying themselves so much. My daughter also took advantage of the fact that Adrian had brought the rolling, steel table from a morgue with him.

The second day of the convention was a marathon, though slightly less of a marathon than the first day had been for me. We held our post in the vendor room until just after 6 PM when it was time to pack it in and head home. I returned home with only four of the copies of You Will Be Consumed that I’d brought with me, and none of my other books. All in all, I’d say it wasn’t a bad day.

It was great being able to spend time with friends I don’t often see in real life and to meet new people.

Before leaving the hotel, I gifted two of my photo prints to the two special guests of the convention–voice actors in various anime films–because someone had mentioned it was their first time visiting South Dakota, and I thought they might like something a little less tourist-oriented as a memento. One of the two brought over a signed art print that made my daughter’s day, because she had considered getting one until she saw the prices they were charging.

The other remaining photo print, I gifted to another of the vendors who had been awesome to talk with here and there.

As tired as I was, I must admit I was sort of sad to see the convention ending.

All things considered, I have to say I think my first experience as a guest of a convention was a success. I look forward to doing it again.

I have to thank the folks who organized Black Hills Con 2021, because they did an excellent job of making sure everything ran smoothly and that everyone was comfortable and taken care of. The atmosphere was a positive one and free of some of the toxicity and gatekeeping that I’ve heard about regarding similar conventions around the country.

Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk: Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini

Readers familiar with–and fond of–Chuck Palahniuk’s distinctive style of storytelling are sure to find Consider This: Moments In My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different to be no less compelling. This collection of insights and anecdotes was certainly no less captivating for me than Stranger Than Fiction or any of his other non-fiction material I’ve devoured over the years.
I’ve read several different books dedicated to the craft of writing and best practices to employ, some better than others. This book stands apart as being truly the most interesting. Shared as if we’re hypothetical participants in a kitchen table writer’s workshop hosted by Palahniuk, the reader/listener doesn’t feel any impulse to interrupt or make it a two-way conversation–though it strangely feels like a conversation at times.
Approaching the craft from a journalistic perspective rather than a creative writing perspective makes for a different set of rules and guidelines than many of these books provide while cementing some of the rules that are true, regardless of background.
Even if one doesn’t want to apply the rules and practices recommended by Palahniuk, they make for interesting experiments and elements to try out, allowing the writer to spread their wings in a different sort of environment.
The narration provided by Edoardo Ballerini was fantastic, and the bit from Palahniuk himself was a nice touch as well.
I can’t recommend this enough for anyone who wants to write, regardless of genre or industry.
Similarly, I have to recommend this to readers who want to experience a glimpse behind the scenes of one of the more peculiar and fascinating writers of my lifetime. His tales of book signings and road trips alone make this worth listening to or reading, even if you never have any impulse to put pen to paper or fingertips to keys.

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan: Narrated by Kate Reading & Michael Kramer

The Dragon Reborn, I recalled quite correctly, was one of my favorite installments in what I’d previously read of The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.
This is the book in which we receive a much clearer glimpse of the effect Rand al’Thor has on the world and people around him, largely through the events witnessed by his friends rather than from Rand’s perspective. It was a daring move, shifting the focus of the third novel in a series away from the protagonist, allowing the bulk of the tale to be told from the perspectives of Perrin, Mat, and Egwene. Though Perrin is the only one who knowingly pursues Rand, Mat, Egwene, and the others are drawn by the gravity of Rand pulling at the weave.
What we do witness of Rand’s journey to Tear–where he intends to prove himself and to embrace the prophecy that marks him as the Dragon Reborn–causes some small amount of concern that he is indeed going mad. While little attention is paid to the day-to-day travels as Rand journeys to take hold of his destiny, we are far from kept in the dark as to what he’s been doing as he manages to remain ahead of the pursuit from Perrin, Moiraine, Loial, and Lan.
As we bounce from one location to another, we are provided with a much greater perspective of what is happening throughout the world. We discover that the Forsaken have escaped from their imprisonment and taken up positions of power throughout the world. We learn that the corruption of the Black Ajah has grown within the Aes Sedai in Tar Valon. We learn of darkhounds and the soulless. We also discover that the Aiel have left the wastes and ventured secretly into the world that fears them, in search of the answer to a prophecy of their own.
The Dragon Reborn is a spectacular book, the best of the original trilogy, for sure. It is filled with intrigue, action, and suspense that marked Robert Jordan as a great storyteller.
The narration of this book is no less spot-on than the previous two installments of the series.

Passion & Pain by Chris Genovese & Carver Pike

This book, a collection of two connected stories, makes for a fascinating literary experiment.
I should first get it out of the way that Chris Genovese and Carver Pike are pen names for the same fantastic author, though I am vastly more familiar with his work as Carver Pike–being a fan of horror and not so much a fan of smutty, erotic, romance tales. The man behind those noms de plume is a terrific and skilled storyteller, so it’s no surprise that he’d be just as capable regardless of the umbrella beneath which he happens to be writing.
The Strings On Me by Chris Genovese introduces us to the character of Nick “Lucky” Luciano, a frat boy and a womanizer with a heart of gold. He’s not such a womanizer, all things considered…but it’s sort of the role he plays in his life within the fraternity.
A chance encounter brings Natalia to his attention and he is instantly captivated by this beautiful, mysterious, foreign woman. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem quite so enamored of him, but Lucky isn’t one to give up too easily.
At the end of this first erotic romance tale, things seem to be going well.
Cutting His Strings is where Carver Pike takes up the baton and races the story of Lucky and Natalia through the finish line…and boy does he bring it to a finish.
The romance takes on a darker quality as the story continues, with the erotica still heavily present. Natalia’s attitude and behavior seem to change like a switch has been flipped and Lucky is left dazed and dizzied by the seemingly unprovoked transformation.
We discover that Natalia is roommates with an ex-girlfriend of Lucky’s and that the impetus to end that previous relationship was entirely brought about by Natalia’s secret machinations. She’d been no stranger to Lucky when they met, and he barely had a chance to avoid becoming her prey.
More importantly, we discover that Natalia is involved with the sinister secret society, Diablo Snuff. You’ll be familiar with Diablo Snuff if you’ve read my previous review of A Foreign Evil, or if you’ve read the other three Carver Pike books that connect with the Diablo Snuff series. Once Lucky is snared by Diablo Snuff, the odds don’t look great for him.
Will he be lucky enough that his ex-girlfriend will be able to put the puzzle pieces together in time to save him? Does she still love him enough to invest that sort of attention and concern toward the peculiar nature of his relationship with her roommate?
You’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself.

If you enjoyed the Japanese horror flick, Audition, you’re likely to enjoy this book.

Room 138 by Jay Wilburn & Armand Rosamilia

Wilburn and Rosamilia together weave a disorienting tale. The individual narrative threads that make up Room 138 are as difficult to follow and keep straight for the reader as they are for our confused, terrified, and often paranoid protagonist, Hank Smith.
It’s hard to blame Hank for feeling paranoid, though. Waking up in a recently vacated hotel/motel room in a new year and a new city from where you’d gone to sleep would do that to a person. Just trying to imagine that life, where the month and date on the calendar keeps marching forward, while the year dances around to a tune you can’t quite hear…it’s enough to give someone a headache. With no recollection of who he really is, no concept of how long he’s been doing this same thing, and without the foggiest notion of why he’s even doing it…Hank keeps searching for abstract clues that he hopes will lead him to the next Room 138 and some illumination for the regions of his memory that remain in shadows.
If that sounds confusing to you, you’re in precisely the right state of mind to begin reading Room 138.
It’s a book that is equal parts a thriller, a science fiction fantasy, and a feverish, internalized mystery…but it’s so much more than those individual components.
It’s probably a good time to climb aboard and allow Mr. Train to guide you down the rails at breakneck speeds until the view beyond the window becomes nothing more than a peculiar blur of familiar objects twisted into alien shapes. Maybe you’ll be the next in line to join Hank and Savannah on their mission to save the world, one day at a time.