Through the Doors of Oblivion, by Michael G. Williams

Short Take: That’s it, I’m moving to San Francisco.
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(*Note: I received a copy of this book for review.*)

Hello my beloved nerdlings! I’ve been in a bit of a funk on the reading/reviewing front lately. Do you ever get that feeling, where you’re craving a certain kind of food, and nothing else sounds good, but you just can’t put your finger on what the one tasty thing will be, so you try a bite of this or that, open and close the fridge fifteen times, maybe brush your teeth or get something to drink, but nothing is what you’re looking for? I’ve been like that with books for the last little bit, but after a weekend spent with friends and family, cooking, cleaning, carving pumpkins and laughing ourselves silly, I’m BACK, darlings!

I settled in with a big bowl of salty pumpkin seeds (I wait ALL YEAR for those things) and Mr. Williams’ new novella, and a few hours later, I am still not entirely sure what just happened, but I loved it. This book is WEIRD, y’all. 

So, say you’re a witch, living in modern-day San Francisco with your non-binary partner who’s also a witch, and it comes to your attention that the city is in danger of being destroyed by a demon whose vice of choice is greed. Sure, being a witch, you should obviously just cast a spell or two and shut the whole thing down, but let’s take it a step further: The components you need for a spell powerful enough to save an entire large city are pretty much impossible to get, namely, at least one item which was destroyed in the massive earthquake & fire that nearly killed the city in 1906.

Well then you OBVIOUSLY summon the ghost (or maybe just the idea?) of a great historical figure who can travel through time to get what you need, duh.

Enter His Imperial Majesty Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, and not to pile on the accolades, but also one of the most entertaining characters I’ve come across in a hot minute. Although Oblivion is a work of fiction, from everything I’ve read of Norton, Mr. Williams captured him perfectly. His imperiousness, occasional befuddlement (as when confronted by a nonbinary person or a flashlight for the first time) quickly followed by acceptance, and genuine compassion for the downtrodden combine to create a charisma that jumps off the page. He’s the hero we didn’t know we need.

From there, the story is a fast-paced romp back and forth in time, with a couple of great cameos by other historical figures, but this is no Bill & Ted adventure. For a slender urban fantasy to be so rich in philosophy, social commentary, humor, and evil tech bros is not something I’ve encountered in my decades of reading out-there stuff. Not to mention what a brilliant love letter to the city of San Francisco this book is.

Because Oblivion is only the first in a planned series, it remains to be seen if Mr. Williams will be able to keep the fun (especially with Emperor Norton, good gravy he’s marvelous) without the slightly manic energy of this introduction becoming tiresome.

But I definitely want to see where it goes.

Loved this book!!

A Fall in Autumn, by Michael G. Williams

Short Take: I still don’t like sci-fi. But I liked this.

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Sometimes, as a reviewer, I am asked to critique things that are outside of my comfort zone. A while back, I gave my opinion on a book of poetry, for example. Or maybe some extra-extreme gore, or some strange new erotica will make its way to my inbox (and no that’s not a euphemism you heathens).

I like to think that I’m game to try just about anything, but for some reason, I’ve never really cozied up to fantasy & sci-fi. I’m pretty sure that I have some unique form of mental laziness, because whenever I’m confronted with any slightly elevated level of world-building, my brain jumps to focus on that detail. What’s this thing? What does it look like? How does it work? And boom, I’ve lost track of things like character names and who’s doing what,.

This in turn leads to frustration as I’m trying to follow and form opinions on a story while ALSO trying to figure out what the heck that science-fictiony-thing is supposed to be or if this particular fantasy-thing will be important to the story later.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that when Mr. Williams contacted me to ask if I’d like to review his new sci-fi mystery novel, I very nearly said “thanks but no thanks”. However, the author had a two major things working to his advantage. #1, I had read and thoroughly enjoyed his “Perishables” (that review is around here somewhere), and #2, the man knows how to flatter a reviewer.

I’ll leave the details of the lovely emails he sent me out of this, but let’s just say that I was sufficiently moved to challenge my sugared-up synapses with A Fall In Autumn, and I’m not a bit sorry that I did.

Roughly 9,000 years in the future, private eye Valerius Bakhoum has just been hired for an entirely different kind of case. Alejandro, a gorgeous and enigmatic golem, believes that he witnessed an atrocity committed by a mythical being. He’s willing to pay top dollar for what’s likely to be a wild goose chase, and Valerius is not in a position to turn down a paying gig.

The search leads to some fascinating, twisty places, both in the literal surroundings, and the more ephemeral intersection of science and belief, all in a city that flies through the air.

Because I don’t read much SFF, I base my opinion on the same things I would for a thriller – how the plot moves, are the characters genuine, and so on. There’s one major difference, however, in that I ask myself “Are the SFF elements necessary, or is it a gimmick?” By that I mean, does the magic or tech actually play a part in the story? Or is it “Ok, I want to do a slasher story, but check it out! This one happens IN OUTER SPACE!! The bad guy kills everyone but like the blood FLOATS AROUND!”

So I’m very happy to say that the world-building in Fall is crucial to the story. Don’t get me wrong, his human touches are perfect. Valerius is complicated and imperfect, scruffy-souled and contradictory, a good-ish guy willing to do bad things. And it’s the people (even the enhanced and hybrid ones) that highlight the author’s keen eye with regard to humanity and our tribalist tendencies. It doesn’t matter how advanced we become, “us vs. them” will always be A Thing.

I genuinely loved the twists and turns in Valerius’s search for the truth, and his vulnerability with Alejandro. In a world where everyone carries literal and/or metaphorical knives, those bits of beauty and vulnerability were all the more moving.

My only wish is that Mr. Williams had slowed down just a bit in the in a few spots. We’re dropped squarely into the middle of an action scene on Autumn, and although the chase itself is fun, I felt slammed with so many ideas at once (Mannie? What’s a Mannie? Mag Cab? Artie? Air-reactive sake? And so on) that my brain refused to just chill out and enjoy what was happening. (What’s a golem, exactly? Like a robot?  Why do the differing religions have to both have S-names, I keep mixing them up….)

I felt like I was back in school, and the teacher was saying “Nerd, we went over this a while ago, don’t you remember?” whenever some new term was tossed out without explanation, like I SHOULD understand this, but when I would check the info-cupboard, it was bare. And that is most likely due to my own shortcomings as a reader – SFF books just aren’t always accessible to someone who doesn’t read much SFF.

But when the author took his time, and explained things, DUDE. It was so freaking cool. Like, the tech that keeps the city aloft legit blew me away. And with time, the context clues spread over multiple scenes chiseled away the stumbling blocks and let me just enjoy the story (and let me tell you, my beloved nerdlings, the story is SO GOOD).

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some exotic future booze, because I’m too snowed in to do anything but day-drink today).

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Perishables, by Michael G. Williams

Short Take:  A hilarious satire of modern society, featuring a vampire and a bunch of zombies.

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Withrow Surrett is not your typical sparkling boy-band-looking vampire.  He’s middle-aged, obese, living (or unliving, if you prefer) in the suburbs, a cranky Mr. Wilson to humanity’s Dennis the Menace.  It’s during one of his Homeowners’ Association dinner meetings (right in the middle of the jellied beef loaf, actually) that the zombie apocalypse begins.

The undead – excuse me, the OTHER undead – are frightened of Withrow and avoid him, even as they attack any humans they encounter.  So Withrow is left with a choice – save all these bothersome people, or let the zombies remove the annoyance once and for all.  In the end, his love of a good fight wins out, and he and his massive Doberman, Smiles, dispatch the zombies in their neighborhood quickly and effectively.

The zombies are also trying to take over at Mt. Ares Baptist College, where Jennifer McCordy works in a basement closet-turned-office as a systems administrator.  While the baseball team is looting the cafeteria, and camo-clad students are exercising their god-given Second Amendment rights on anyone who might or might not be a walking corpse, Jennifer joins forces with her boyfriend Tim and professor Everett Plank to fight the zombies using the best weapons at their disposal: a bunch of old computers.

With the end of the world postponed indefinitely, Withrow is shopping for a Blu-Ray player at a Black Friday Doorbusters sale a few years later when a new breed of zombies attack.  He teams up with Jennifer, who’s now working retail, to save humanity yet again.

Michael G. Williams has a sharp eye for the absurdity of modern life.  He manages to deftly mock everything from Black Friday sales to cell phone addicts to religious hypocrisy to suburbia in the most perfect way possible:  by describing them with no embellishment whatsoever and a perfectly straight face.  He’s Stephen Colbert meets Stephen King.

The voices of both Withrow and Jennifer are entertaining, but they are also pretty similar.  Both of them are witty, sarcastic, and not so much into their fellow man.  While I really enjoyed the thoughts and observations of both of them, I would have liked to see a little more variety in narrative tone.  When Withrow and Jennifer team up, it’s because OF COURSE they would, they’re almost the same person.  I can’t tell if this was a conscious decision to maintain consistency, or if it’s just the author’s natural voice that he didn’t rein in.  It wasn’t too major of an issue for a fairly short novel, but I don’t know how well it would hold up over multiple books.  Which leads me to my next point.

As fun as Perishables is, it’s the first book in a series, and it feels like it.  There are a few characters that are introduced, and you get the sense that they’re going to be revisited and play a larger role later (Mary Lou, Seth), but they never do.  Although technically the story is complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it feels incomplete, like a setup for a larger story, which of course it is.  For me, that was a bit of a turnoff.  In my opinion, series work best if they work in one of a few ways.  Either each book is perfectly complete in and of itself and you don’t have to read the others to enjoy it (Sandford’s Prey series), or there are cliffhangers at the end that you just have to see resolved (A Song of Ice & Fire, The Dark Tower), or there is a central conflict that runs throughout (Harry Potter), or a combination of those.  I just didn’t feel like Perishables worked in those ways.

Finally, just as a sidenote, did anyone else get a Bentley Little’s “The Association” vibe from Mary Lou?  Just me?  Oh well, she was a great character regardless.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a can of mixed fruit.  Apparently you can use that stuff in all kinds of post-apocalyptic dishes.)

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Holiday Wrappings (Anthology)

Short Take:  Put a little something spooky in their stockings.

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Note:  I was gifted a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I have reviewed some of these stories previously, in Wrapped in Black.  So I’m going to break this review into two parts.  If you’ve read my Wrapped in Black review, you can skip the first one, as it’s a copy/paste of my original.

Stories I have reviewed previously, from Wrapped in Black:

UNTO THE EARTH by Patrick C. Greene:   Probably the story that I felt had the biggest shocker-twist-wait…what?? ending in the collection.  I’m not going to spoil it here, but trust me, it’s a GOOD one.  This story is also the one that screwed with my emotions a surprising amount for such a brief tale.

HÄXENHAUS by Nick Kimbro:  The medieval setting was a great backdrop, and the atmosphere was wonderfully realized.

BEAUTIFUL, BROKEN THINGS by Rose Blackthorn:  A tough one.   It seemed to take place in a futuristic version of a typical US city, but that wasn’t really clear, so some of the references  (like the drug Prizm) were awkwardly shoved in.  I liked the story, but think it would have worked better without being bogged down by the sci-fi aspects.

SHE MAKES MY SKIN CRAWL by Shenoa Carroll-Bradd:  Shenoa Carroll-Bradd is just not right. This is one of the most crazily-inventive stories I’ve read in ages, but damn did it make me queasy.  Some serious nightmare-fuel, but at the same time, so ridiculously out-there that you can’t help but love the craziness.

HAIR SHIRT DRAG by Gordon White:   The voice of the narrator (Jesse) is so completely matter-of-fact about himself and his life and the extent to which he is “over it” that you can’t help but want to listen to him all night.  I mean, come on: “I ain’t never read the Key of Solomon, but I read the Book of Kings. Rest of the Bible, too, back when Mama thought that’d help me fit in. It didn’t, I won’t, and, truth be told, I ain’t all that broken up about it.”  With three sentences, White has created an entire personality.  Oh yeah, there’s a story here too, and it’s a good one (seriously), but truth be told, I would read a whole novel of Jesse doing things like grocery shopping and making coffee.


New (to me) stories:   

DADDY’S GLASSES by Allison M. Dickson:  This is not a ghost story.  This is a story about family and secrets and guilt and love that just happens to have some creepy glasses in it.  As always, wonderful detail to character, voice, and place.

MY BOSS IS A VAMPIRE by Michael David Matula:  FUN.  Funny.  “Even with a monstrous paycheck, could she in good conscience work for such a monster? Could she take his blood money and buy a nice apartment and a ton of awesome shoes?  Probably. Yeah. That sounded exactly like something she’d do.”  Giggling while reading horror stories is a good time, y’all.

INSEPARABLE Solomon Archer, Ph.D.:  Trippy, atmospheric, and gory.  The story moves like a top that’s winding down.  It spins, and tips, and dips in a different direction, and rights itself, and spins a different way.  It’s the bad dream that you can’t quite wake up from, and can’t completely remember.

DADDY USED TO DRINK TOO MUCH by Michael G. Williams – wonderfully voiced, finely nuanced, a story of the sacrifices we make for our children, and the demons that all of us live with.  And a vampire.

THE CURSE OF KIRBY by Patrick C. Greene – his 2nd entry in this collection.  So let’s say you have the neighbors from hell.  And you happen to bump into a Goth-ish girl who can communicate with ghosts, and sort-of control a particularly strong one.  The results could be gory, hilarious, a bit heartbreaking, or even all of the above.  LOVED THIS.

VERMILION by Bryan W. Alaspa:  Ohhhhhh, the visuals on this were so great! The flood, the attacks, the explosions…. this is one of those stories that I’d love to see as a movie.

AIN’T THEY BRIGHT by Cecilia Dockins – Hospitals are creepy even when they aren’t haunted.  This story is a great, weird mix of medical lingo, emotional upset, and gore.  It’s not an easy or quick read, but worth the bit of extra effort.  The sadness of the ending was an unexpected bit of loveliness.

NIGHTBOUND by Patrick C. Greene – (Before I review this story, I’d like to point out that Patrick C. Greene is the only author to have three stories in this collection.  When I skimmed the table of contents, and saw his name over and over, I may have rolled my eyes a bit at the lack of variety (I will neither confirm nor deny this).  But after reading all three of his entries, all I can say is:  He’s just really that good.)

Nightbound may be my favorite story in this collection.  Breaking into an abandoned mansion and finding coffins in the basement seems like a vampire story cliche.  But the buildup is what elevates it.  There’s a whole other story here, about escaped convicts, a heist, bags of money, a sociopath, and a girl who’s prettier and greedier than she is smart.

Overall, this is one of the more solid short story collections I’ve read in ages.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and maybe a bit of mistletoe.  Happy Holidays!)

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Wrapped In Black (Anthology)

Short Take:  Sometimes you get your wish, and sometimes, your wish gets you…..


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Note:  I was gifted an advance copy of Wrapped in Black in exchange for an honest review.  So, below are my honest opinions!

I’ve said it before, I’ve never been a fan of the short story.  My preference for oversized novels is pretty well-known.  Lately, though, I’ve started to re-think my position.  Maybe it’s that I’m getting older, and my patience and attention span aren’t what they used to be.  Maybe I’m finally starting to see the beauty in a lack of excess, enjoying the idea of something smaller, but just as well-crafted – the lovely, personal tiny house versus the soulless McMansion.  Is reading a collection of short stories by very talented but not very well-known authors the same experience is diving into the latest thousand-page Stephen King tome?  No, it isn’t.  But that’s not to say it’s a lesser experience in any way.

Wrapped in Black opens on the perfect note:  “Hair Shirt Drag” by Gordon White.  The voice of the narrator (Jesse) is so completely matter-of-fact about himself and his life and the extent to which he is “over it” that you can’t help but want to listen to him all night.  I mean, come on: “I ain’t never read the Key of Solomon, but I read the Book of Kings. Rest of the Bible, too, back when Mama thought that’d help me fit in. It didn’t, I won’t, and, truth be told, I ain’t all that broken up about it.”  With three sentences, White has created an entire personality.  Oh yeah, there’s a story here too, and it’s a good one (seriously), but truth be told, I would read a whole novel of Jesse doing things like grocery shopping and making coffee.

The downside to such a strong opening is that the rest of the stories will almost certainly suffer by comparison.  The next story, “Comes the Rain” by Gregory L. Norris is a good piece with some spooky touches that somehow seemed a bit hollow, more of a scene than an actual story.  Loved the nightmare Mary Poppins, but it just felt lacking.

“Number One Angel” by Allison M. Dickson is a similar type of work, in that the whole story happens in the space of a few minutes, but it felt more fleshed-out.  The author knows how to get into the head of a character though, and with a few well-chosen phrases, she gives us decades of history between Louise and her mother.

“Unto the Earth” by Patrick C. Greene is probably the story that I felt had the biggest shocker-twist-wait…what?? ending in the collection.  I’m not going to spoil it here, but trust me, it’s a GOOD one.  This story is also the one that screwed with my emotions a surprising amount for such a brief tale.

“Haxenhaus” by Nick Kimbro was also a stand-out.  The medieval setting was a great backdrop, and the atmosphere was wonderfully realized.

I adored “Stories I Tell To Girls” by Michael G. Williams, mainly because I loved the idea of the Book people, and am hopeful that one day they’ll open a chapter in my local library, and let me hang out with them.  But it’s also terrific at creating a sense of stories within stories, and complicated relationships, and pasts that become futures and… yeah, you’ll just have to read it.

James Glass’s “The Rising Son” is a tough one.  I loved the hints at the antagonist’s identity (some will recognize him at once). I don’t want to give too much away here, but it seemed like the author was going to go in a new direction, but instead, went for the expected one.  Beautifully written, though, and I will probably pick up his longer works.

“Beautiful, Broken Things” by Rose Blackthorn was also a tough one.  It seemed to take place in a futuristic version of a typical US city, but that wasn’t really clear, so some of the references  (like the drug Prizm) were awkwardly shoved in.  I liked the story, but think it would have worked better without being bogged down by the sci-fi aspects.

“Not This Time” by Mike Lester was probably my least favorite story in this collection.  It might just be that too much sugar has rotted my brain, but I couldn’t make sense of the story and relationships between the characters.  I had to re-read the ending several times to figure out what happened, and even then, it didn’t really stay with me.  I also couldn’t figure out if there was actual witchcraft involved, or just kids playing pretend.

“Into the Light” by Solomon Archer was more meaty than the other stories.  It had a bigger scope in terms of time period, characters, and actual physical action.  I actually wish someone would make a movie of this one, it’s fun and gory and fast-paced.

Shenoa Carroll-Bradd is just not right.  “She Makes My Skin Crawl” is one of the most crazily-inventive stories I’ve read in ages, but damn did it make me queasy.  Some serious nightmare-fuel, but at the same time, so ridiculously out-there that you can’t help but love the craziness.

Eric Nash’s “Pigeon” is a funky Rube Goldbergian (is that a word?) piece from the perpective of the Scorned Woman.   It’s an archetype as old as stories themselves, but with twists both digital and supernatural.  Fun, but the ending was a little flat.

“Pig Roast” by Aaron Gudmunson is the perfect ending to the collection.  Chet is the polar opposite of Jesse from “Hair Shirt Drag”.  He’s overweight, awkward, shy, and oddly attached to his mustard.  I sort of knew where the story was heading, but I wasn’t expecting the last few sentences.  YIKES.

Overall, this was a GREAT collection.  Every story was so unique that comparing them to each other isn’t comparing apples to oranges, it’s comparing apples to elephants to picture frames to knitting needles to meteorites.  And that’s the beauty of it – there’s literally something for EVERYONE.  You like in-your-face gore?  subtle metaphor?  killer birds?  Wrapped in Black has got you covered.


The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and one eye of newt.  Happy Halloween!)

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