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Book Reviews and Recommendations
Spotlight on: Jeff Strand
Jeff Strand, Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) (An Andrew Mayhem Thriller)
A week after a misguided stint as an amateur (unlicensed) private investigator (videotaping an adulterous couple in the act) doesn't work out, Andrew Mayhem, who is in immediate financial need due to some bad decisions, finds himself about to make another one. The price: $20,000. The job: To simply retrieve a key. No big deal, right? Well, this key is a little hard to access -- someone else has it, and he's buried in a pine box in a shallow grave in the park.
What happens with the key search sends Andrew off on another unexpected investigation as he and his best friend, Roger, try to find out who was really behind everything. Their search takes them to the home-made horror film experts at Ghoulish Delights and puts Andrew squarely in the clutches of The Apparition in his search for "the killer."
This is no ordinary killer, but one who has a maliciously creative streak, leaving mysterious presents on the hood of Andrew's car, and sending Andrew all over town on a scavenger hunt, with each clue telling him what to do next. Meanwhile, Andrew (who tries to be a good husband and father in spite of his ineptitude at most other things), is also trying to take care of his two children while his wife recovers from a broken leg in the hospital. Could life get any more difficult for a guy who's just trying to make ends meet without having to get a real job?
Author Jeff Strand is perhaps best known for his skill at balancing humorous and horrific elements in one tale (although his novel Pressure, with its high-intensity mainstream-thriller plot and characters, may change that for good if it gets the audience it deserves). Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) is part of the reason for that reputation, and it showcases his rare talent wonderfully. [For more examples of his peculiar ability, also look for the short-story chapbooks Two Twisted Nuts (with Nick Cato) and Socially Awkward Moments with an Aspiring Lunatic.]
Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) is a pure joy of a novel. I finished it in a day and a half. Although Andrew has little confidence in his own abilities ("I suck as a detective" is his mantra), he has a terrific sense of humor about it all. The consistent thread of sarcasm is what carried me so quickly through the book's 200 pages. Every character seems to be a smartass, Andrew's daughter Theresa perhaps most of all.
There is a chuckle on every page of Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary), even the pages that will turn your stomach with their gruesome descriptions, making Strand the Terry Pratchett of horror (call it "humorror" -- or don't). Strand is not only funny but obviously very intelligent. (How intelligent? He even manages to slip in a sideways reference to his children's book, Elrod McBugle on the Loose. How's that for cross-merchandising in narrative form?)
I loved every page of Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary). I was always surprised by the plot's twists and turns, could never predict where Strand's narrative was going to take me next, and was a willing participant the whole way. (Just to let you know what kind of sick freak I am, my favorite part was the puppet show.) I assumed that the momentum would eventually die out, but was pleasantly surprised that it never did; Even when things got a little on the improbable side near the end, it was all just part of the fun. In fact, there was enough leftover momentum to carry me right to the bookshelf and the second novel in the series, Single White Psychopath Seeks Same.
Jeff Strand, Single White Psychopath Seeks Same (An Andrew Mayhem Thriller)
The second entry in author Jeff Strand's highly popular humorous horror series from Mundania Press starring Andrew Mayhem, Single White Psychopath Seeks Same, takes up Andrew's adventures eighteen months following the events of Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary), with his agreeing to do another favor for another strange woman he meets in the local coffee shop (will he never learn?). Word has gotten around about his exploits, which led to the previous book, which, in turn, made him rich and famous (the former of which was quickly turned around by a bad investment strategy), so $600 for playing bodyguard for a night sounds pretty good (at least when compared to getting a real job).
After his ineptness makes that career path moot, and while trying to improve his marriage with a little parking-lot nostalgia, Andrew and his wife Helen find themselves face-to-face with a serial killer known as The Headhunter and his scimitar. During the struggle, Helen shows herself to be quite a hand with a car jack.
The Headhunter's eventual defeat brings Andrew in contact with Craig Burgin, whose wife is missing. He wants Andrew to accompany the private detective hired to pose as The Headhunter to New York. When Andrew bring Roger along for the trip, Roger gets to play hostage when a last minute mix-up forces Andrew to pretend to be The Headhunter.
Things really get going when Andrew and Roger arrive at the Alaskan mansion of Daniel Rankin, independently wealthy homicidal maniac and entertainer. Rankin's home has been designed as a hedonistic center of slaughter, where he and his friends can kill with impunity, and Andrew is expected to join the fun -- unless he wants to be part of the show. Andrew Mayhem gets to be quite a bit more heroic, and somewhat less bumbling, in this one. Single White Psychopath Seeks Same is slightly less funny, but considerably more horrific than Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary). The tension is always high, as Andrew is determined to save the hostages even while he is trying to stay on the good sides of a group of bloodthirsty pleasure-seekers. I think it's actually a better novel all around.
I can see why it took Strand three years to follow the first Mayhem book with this one. There is an amazing amount of detailed planning and imagination present in Single White Psychopath Seeks Same, most of it involving the setup at Rankin's house -- if you can call a structure that has forty-eight bedrooms and is surrounded by a twenty-foot-high electrified fence a "house." Everything from a gladiator arena to a theme park is present here, and each one is described to the last detail, even the ones that are not yet complete (an extra bit of inspiration). While I was reading, I really believed that such a place could possibly exist. On the negative side, some of the situations were less believable than others, and the choice to shift to Roger's POV occasionally breaks up the flow and doesn't offer much of interest, but these are minor complaints of a book that I read in a single twenty-four-hour period. Now I just have to get my hands on a copy of the third volume, Casket For Sale (Used Only Once) -- I guess fans balked at the lack of parentheses in the second book's title -- and hope that Strand continues to write more books about this incredibly likeable and surprisingly relatable character.
Jeff Strand, Casket for Sale (Only Used Once) (An Andrew Mayhem Thriller)
Andrew Mayhem seems to have learned his lesson. He has stopped taking money from strange women in coffee shops to do vague odd jobs, has resolved to be more responsible, and has even gotten a (gasp!) real job. After the adventures chronicled in his previous two books (Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) and Single White Psychopath Seeks Same), a vacation is in order, but he just cannot seem to stay out of trouble. That is unlucky for him, but lucky for us, because Jeff Strand's Casket for Sale (Only Used Once) is another terrific blend of humor and horror.
This time the trouble is not really Andrew's fault, however. With his wife Helen, and their two children Kyle and Theresa, along with Andrew's friend Roger and his new girlfriend Samantha (who Andrew despises, though he doesn't know why) along, he made sure the camper's gas tank was full, and he even heeded the mysterious warning from the old man at the "Last Chance 4 Gas" station ("I want to check the expiration date on their beef jerky," Roger quips. "I'm guessing late eighties.") that Wreitzer Park (their chosen destination) is full of "bad, dangerous, and deadly elements."
After some argument that perhaps Andrew is being too responsible, they decide to turn back the way they came, but after about two miles, their passage is hindered by a green truck parked in the middle of the road. Soon after discovering that the truck does not intend to move, and that Andrew is going to have to drive the camper backwards until they get to another turnaround point, they are blocked at the rear by another green truck.
Looks like those bad, dangerous, and deadly elements weren't at Wreitzer Park, after all. It is just as they find out that the denizens of these oddly similar vehicles are named Ghoul, Troll, Goblin, Ogre, and Witch, that Andrew realizes that he has, despite his best efforts to the contrary, gotten his loved ones mixed up in yet another misadventure, one that will cause him to experience paralysis, limb loss, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a cyborg!
Echoing the choice to show Roger's side of the events chronicled in Single White Psychopath Seeks Same, Helen gets her turn at the keyboard in Casket for Sale (Only Used Once), and it is much more successful this time around. Helen is the most fascinating discovery in this novel; her turns in the previous chronicles consisted primarily of responses to Andrew's ineptitude, but here she comes to full flower, as the newly pregnant mother is forced to protect her children from a high-class killer dressed in red and named Medusa somewhere in the wilds of Georgia.
Casket for Sale (Only Used Once) offers the most intense time I have had reading a novel in years -- and I didn't think it could get more intense than some of the scenes in Single White Psychopath Seeks Same! If it weren't for the consistent thread of humor that runs throughout, and often helps to break the tension, that intensity would, I think, have been overwhelming. From the myriad scenes of torture to a mind-boggling drug experience involving a near filicide to an escape from a moving truck filled with modified corpses (a true white-knuckler!), Strand has let it all hang out in this final (say it ain't so!) appearance from Andrew Mayhem.
Jeff Strand, Socially Awkward Moments with an Aspiring Lunatic
"[On] the day that I turned thirty, I decided that I wanted to be insane. I'd tried three decades of sanity and it just wasn't working out. I was bored with my tedious, intellectual, clear-focused existence. I wanted to lose my mind." -- from Socially Awkward Moments with an Aspiring Lunatic
I am most certainly not a fan of the recent trend of binding a single short story, calling it a chapbook, and charging a sawbuck for it. But every once in a while, a story deserves to be seen on its own, and not lost in the shuffle of an anthology or a collection. Jeff Strand's Socially Awkward Moments with an Aspiring Lunatic is most certainly one of those.
Strand is perhaps best known for his skill at balancing humorous and horrific elements in one tale (although his new novel Pressure, with its mainstream-thriller plot and characters, may change that for good). Socially Awkward Moments with an Aspiring Lunatic showcases that rare talent wonderfully (with cover art by Keith Minnion that manages to have a similar effect, both funny and disturbing). Tired of pursuing a totally sane existence, the unnamed protagonist instead vows to start living a life of lunacy. At first, he has some difficulty -- when covering himself with spiders (to feed on his arachnophobia) doesn't work, he tries a horror film marathon but ends up watching "The Evil Dead twice because it was so cool." As a last resort, "I tried a bit of self-mutilation but it hurt too much." Seems this insanity stuff isn't so easy to come by.
Even when I simply practiced expressions of insanity in the mirror, none of them were convincing. I could successfully look like I was confused, frightened, sleepy, or suffering from testicular distress, but I couldn't look crazed. I remained completely miserably sane.But then he gets the idea to act like an insane person in the hopes that the craziness will result. But what do insane people do? "Well, for one thing, they tied women to beds and giggled with maniacal glee as they sliced off their extremities with a chainsaw." Perfect. Now all he needs is a date. And that's where Socially Awkward Moments with an Aspiring Lunatic really comes into its own, as we follow his pursuit of the perfect victim and the steps he takes to complete his goal. Strand doesn't leave out a single detail or thought process as he follows his protagonist through the tenacious pursuit of psychosis.
Even though the story itself is only seventeen pages long, I can say without a doubt that it is worth the money. Strand makes every word count in what is possibly his most tightly written story ever. Other authors would have attempted to expand this into a novella or (God forbid) a novel, but Strand knows that this story is best told quickly and simply. No embellishments are necessary when you've got a solid narrative as a foundation. Socially Awkward Moments with an Aspiring Lunatic is a full-bodied, character-driven story that even has some depth (not to mention a few surprises in store) -- just one more step in the development of an author whose name you'll be hearing a lot more of very soon.
Jeff Strand and Nick Cato, Two Twisted Nuts: A Chapbook of Testicular Terror
"Jake howled in pain. Ms. Duncan flinched as if she'd been struck. 'My God, are those ... are those real?' Ms. Duncan asked, seconds before she dropped to the floor in a dead faint."
Any man who respects those two huevos (or cojones or whatever foreign epithet you prefer) that make him what he is should run quickly in the other direction upon seeing this debut release from Novello Publishers. If the cover art from Caligula or the subtitle's promise of "testicular terror" doesn't get the point across, the stories in Two Twisted Nuts certainly do the job advertised. I read every page of this pair of stories by Jeff Strand and Nick Cato with my knees firmly pressed together.
Each author offers his own introduction to Two Twisted Nuts, with Cato telling how he suckered Strand into submitting a story to his upstart publishing company's first book, and Strand telling how he was suckered ... well, you get the idea. Jeff Strand is perhaps best known for his skill at balancing humorous and horrific elements in one tale (although his new novel Pressure, with its mainstream-thriller plot and characters, may change that for good). Both are put to good use in "Mr. Sensitive" as a lothario gets his comeuppance via his latest conquest's statement that he "really should be more sensitive."
"I'll work on that," he says on his way out the door. But he has no idea how sensitive he is about to become as every part of his body becomes ... but that would be giving it away, and it's only a dozen pages long, so that would be unfair. Suffice it to say that Jake sees the error of his ways, whether he likes it or not, and that the reader suffers right along with him.
Cato follows up with "Ball Breaker," which chronicles one film journalist's experience confronting a strange epidemic taking over all the men of Manhattan. From the first scrotal explosion, I was grinding my teeth in anticipation for what was sure to be a big finish. I was not disappointed, and in fact I was surprised by the turn things took on the final pages. Already a fan of Strand's work, I'll be on the lookout for more from Cato in the future as well.
Two Twisted Nuts fulfills its promise and then some. It's a fair bet that, while perusing its pages, you will appear in very much the same distress as the unfortunate subject on its cover. Fortunately, there are laughs to be had that break up the cringes into smaller, more tolerable servings. With thirty-two pages of testicle-themed fiction in its perfect-bound pages, it's no doubt that the title refers to the authors in addition to their subject matter, and if you must spend five hard-earned dollars on a book of stories about "the boys" getting bruised, at least you'll know that half the population is suffering in solidarity.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)