The great comic novelist and book lover Noah Goats once told me, “Books lead on to books, and sometimes in strange ways. They all seem to be connected somehow.” This is a good example. After reading T.J. Brown’s excellent ghost story The Last Photograph of John Buckley, I looked to see what else he had written. And the first thing that grabbed my eye was the image you see at the right.

Well, I mean, how could I resist?

As the cover suggests, this is a raunchy, bawdy comedy. Emily Spankhammer is a young, widowed Southern Belle who runs a beaver farm. And in case you are wondering if that leads to many, many Are You Being Served?-style double-entendres, why, yes, yes it does. It is that kind of book, and I’m not ashamed to say it made me laugh.

In her quest to find love, Emily is aided by her spirit guide, a wisecracking pink unicorn named Sparkle. Despite his appearance, Sparkle is, shall we say, anything but pure or nice. As he explains to Emily, he has been forced by the Ancient Greek Gods into the role of spirit guide after his decadent hedonism indirectly led to the destruction of Atlantis.

I’m not doing it justice. Let me quote Sparkle verbatim:

“This is the realm of gods and monsters, you silly woman. They don’t have moral codes in that place. If you’d spent more time watching sword-and-sandal movies, you’d know that. This is the domain of passion, of jealousy, of revenge, blood feuds, and raging hormones.”

Sparkle and Emily’s relationship is a turbulent one. Actually, all her relationships are turbulent, whether it’s with a mechanic whose home is filled with fake owls, a circus ringmaster, or a Scottish Highlander. Are you getting a sense now of what a wild story this is?

The long and short of it is, it’s a hilarious, madcap adventure. It reminded me a little of Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolf and a little of Lindy Moone’s Hyperlink From HellIt’s not a coincidence that the best comparisons I can think of are indie books. This is what makes reading indie books so rewarding: these are the kind of unusual stories that publishers are too risk-averse to take a chance on, but are an absolute delight to read.

Now, I’ll admit that some readers might not see the appeal in it. If you don’t like raunchy humor, then it isn’t for you. But if you’re in the mood for a zany, somewhat off-color, fast-paced take-off of romance novels, you should give this one a try.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Earlier this year, I reviewed Zachary Shatzer’s The Goose Finder, and said it was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. So when I saw he released a new short story, I eagerly pounced on it.

And yes, if you liked The Goose Finder, you’ll like this too. As with the earlier book, I laughed out loud multiple times reading it. It has the same zany, absurd, laugh-a-minute style as it recounts the history of John Warbly, Chad Crackleman, Portman Humberson, and, of course, Old Man Cornwell, as they combine their musical talents and embark on a wild and tumultuous journey.

Once again, it’s really impossible for me to describe the book, so let me offer a few quotes. Here’s the description of Old Man Cornwell:

“He seldom spoke, and when he did it was usually in a confusing and cryptic way, often utilizing spiritual symbolism and references to ancient mythology. Sometimes he would imply that he was older than time itself, but when asked to further explain his meaning, he would simply chuckle and change the subject to the price of gasoline.”

Or this, when the band has its first hit:

“Despite insisting he wouldn’t let success change him, John instantly let success change him in numerous ways.”

Later, when the band breaks up, Portman takes up a new profession:

…writing political thriller novels, including but not limited to The President’s Secret Code, Senator/Spy, and The Shadow Government That Covertly Rules the Country and is Run By the Ghost of Warren G. Harding.”

I don’t mind telling you, I really, really want that last book to be real. Maybe Shatzer will consider writing it next.

Maybe none of this makes you chuckle, but if it does, I highly recommend checking this book out. It’s a short read, but given that there’s a laugh on every page, it’s well worth it.

[Audio version of this post will be available as soon as possible.]

This is a classic mystery, in the vein of Agatha Christie. We have a brilliant detective, Professor Edwin McGorgol, and his not-so-brilliant, but good-hearted sidekick, George Hockney. There’s a hotel full of suspects, snobbish rich types, a femme fatale, and an escalating series of crimes that put the pressure on them to solve it before it’s too late.

Oh… and did I mention they’re all birds? Well, they are. McGorgol is a sandpiper and Hockney is a seagull. All the characters are different types of fowl that suit their personalities perfectly. Also, the book is illustrated, which only adds to the charm.

And I have to say, while this is obviously designed for kids, the mystery was still well done. I’ve read mystery novels for adults where the solution was more obvious than it is in this one. I had my suspicions, but I was still eager to see how it would all play out.

But the best part of all is the afterword, where we get the story behind the story, of how it all came to be. That story really made me smile.

This is a short book, but it packs lots of lighthearted humor into a small space. It’s a fun read for all ages. I highly recommend it.

[Audio version of this review available below]

There is of course a powerful recency bias that is well-documented, but offhand, this may be the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s certainly up there. Even when reading a really funny book, I rarely laugh out loud. I laughed out loud multiple times per chapter reading this.

I could try to give you a plot summary, but it just wouldn’t do justice to this madcap epic. Basically, there’s a mysterious virus that gives geese human-like intelligence and the ability to talk. This results in tensions between the world’s human and geese populations, culminating in two wars.

If this sounds insane; well, yeah, it is. But it’s a comedy! And that’s just the setup. The titular goose finder is a man named Harlan. Harlan is a gruff, hard, Clint Eastwood type of character, seeking to avenge the death of his brother in the Goose Wars by finding and killing every goose he can. He’s hired by a toaster tycoon to find (but not kill) one specific goose.

It just gets wilder from there. There’s a mad scientist building a time machine, a desert sorcerer, an old sea captain, a ruthless goose general, a couple of infatuated hackers… the list goes on. It’s totally crazy, and I loved every word of it. Each chapter had me laughing harder than the last.

I think humor is probably the hardest genre to recommend, because it is so dependent on personal taste. With a romance book, for example, everyone has a fairly similar general idea of what a romance should be like, and so even if it’s not to their taste, they still can tell what it was supposed to be. But with humor, you either think it’s funny or you don’t. If you don’t, then you’re just going to be like, “What the hell did I just read?”

But it’s a chance worth taking. Not everyone is going to get it, but the people who do get it are going to love it. This book was recommended to me by Noah Goats himself, a master of comic novels, and I’m so glad he told me about it. It’s an absolute hoot.

I try not to quote too much from the books I review, but for this one, I’m going to give you a few of my favorite lines. If you laugh at them, it probably means you need to read this.

“Some of the toughest bastards in the world had marched into City Hall to renew a fishing license only to come out deeply changed, haunted by the feeling that something had been taken from them.”

Here is one of the two besotted hackers, describing how they started dating:

“We met at an anarchy convention, which turned out to be a disaster. Horribly organized.”

Then there is one of the scientist’s speeches, which I actually found moving as well as funny:

“Why do things die? That’s just idiotic… it’s okay when bad things die, like spiders and naked mole rats, but not things like cats, dogs, or people. Especially people. People shouldn’t die, and it’s stupid that they do. It really creams my corn, I don’t mind telling you.”

Maybe none of that makes you even begin to think about the possibility of chuckling inwardly. If so, you should probably skip this. But if it makes you laugh, like me, then you should pick it up.

Underneath all the humor, there is actually a bit of a message about understanding and empathizing with those who are different. It’s not heavy-handed at all, but just a nice touch that makes the whole story feel essentially good-hearted.

A final note: there is some mild violence in the book that might be upsetting to some readers. It’s nothing graphic or explicit. It’s the literary equivalent of the violence in movies like Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of realism.

However, because this is a comedy, I feel an obligation to say something. Again, this is another thing that makes recommending a comedy tricky. One person’s hilarious joke may evoke uncomfortable memories for someone else. Unlike with, say, horror, where you can reasonably anticipate reading things that are horrific, I hate the idea of recommending a comedy to someone and having them instead find something about it upsetting, however benign it may appear to me. Particularly because it can be especially disturbing when something you take seriously is treated humorously.

This is a roundabout way of saying, if violence against geese, or gunfights, or grenades, are upsetting to you, this book might not be for you. If you want to know more about these details of the book, please feel free to email or DM me on Twitter. I’m happy to discuss.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Recently, during a chat with the Writers Supporting Writers group, I was talking about Lindy Moone’s novel Hyperlink From Hell. I asserted that as far as I knew, that was the only published work by this author.

Well, clearly I don’t know very much. I thought I remembered looking for other works after reading Hyperlink. And yet, when I looked up Moone’s works recently, I saw this short story, published in 2014. I could have sworn it wasn’t there before, but perhaps I am mad, quite mad. (But at least I don’t sing choruses in public, yet.) Anyway, if you haven’t already pegged me as having all the reliability of an average Lovecraft protagonist, maybe you should start now.

But one point on which I want to be crystal clear is that this story is excellent.  It’s a short story, very short; but the setting is so evocative it instantly captured me. The mysterious town of Fogland, full of odd things and odd people, and one raven with a “screech impediment.” This is the second book I’ve read this year involving a mysterious raven who brings warnings to unsuspecting characters. It’s a trope that always works.

In addition to the bird, we have a newlywed French couple moving to their new home in Fogland, a shady realtor, and an impertinent little girl. How does it all fit together? Well, I’m not telling. Besides, you wouldn’t believe me. I’ve already led you astray once regarding the very existence of books by Lindy Moone.  Why don’t you instead go pick it up and read it yourself? It will only a take a few minutes, and fans of short fiction and weird stories with twist endings (think The Twilight Zone) are sure to like it. Besides, the cover is simply gorgeous!

This is the third and final book in the Cassie Black series. If you’ll recall my review of Book Two, I didn’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling Book One. And so now, I face the same problem doubled, because to describe the setting of this book risks spoiling the first two.

Hmm, what to do? Well, I think I’ll start by talking about an element of these books that I neglected previously: the food. To power her magical abilities, Cassie needs lots of sweets, and eats a steady diet of delicious foods throughout the series. I love Painter’s descriptions of her meals. In fact, the one that sounded best of all to me was a description of a salad in this book. Reading this series is sure to whet your appetite.

As for the rest of it? Well, Cassie is snarky as ever, and her sarcastic voice stays with her even into her final confrontation with the arch-villain. The supporting characters are once again enjoyable, and I was especially pleased with how the character arc of the ghostly Tower Warder Nigel turned out.

All told, this is a fun series for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures that don’t take themselves too seriously. Painter’s magical world is entertaining and populated with plenty of amusing characters. The Untangled Cassie Black is a fitting way to wrap it up.

This is a re-telling of the Ancient Greek myth of Perseus, son of the God Zeus, and his quest to slay Medusa. It’s told in a light, witty style, which readers of Pastore’s first novel, The Devil and the Wolfwill certainly enjoy.

Along the way, Perseus meets with various other of the Ancient Greek gods, including Hermes and Athena, and more than a few monsters. And as befits a hero’s journey, he grows from an unsure, often impulsive boy into a brave and wise hero.

I knew next to nothing about the myth of Perseus when I read this book. After finishing it, I looked it up, and in fact, Pastore has hewed fairly closely to the myth. He explains in his afterword that, while many modern re-tellings change things up, i.e. making the confrontations with the monsters more “Hollywood,” (my word, not his) he wanted to be faithful to the source material.

But while he does a fine job at following the ancient story’s plot, there’s still no question it’s a Pastore book, through and through. Fans of The Devil and the Wolf will hear the echoes of Meph and JR in Perseus’s banter with the gods, and the ending, while true to the original myth, has a poetic irony to it that is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the book. If you don’t already know the myth of Perseus, then please don’t look it up before reading this. My ignorance of it made the ending that much better.

But even if you are an expert on Greek mythology, you should still read this. Pastore’s treatment of the story is witty and humorous. It fits perfectly with the overall sensibility of the myth.

It’s always tough for me to review sequels. I don’t want to say too much about previous entries, for fear that someone who hasn’t read previous books will stumble upon the review and read spoilers. On the other hand, I can’t talk much about what happens in this book without referencing the first book, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny.

So, I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, and just say that it’s fairly essential to read the first book before you read this one. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Cassie Black and her snarky attitude are back in this one. If you enjoyed Cassie’s smart-aleck way of speaking in Book 1, there’s more of it here, only this time transplanted from Portland to the Tower of London.

My favorite aspect of the new setting is Nigel, the ghostly Yeoman Warder and aspiring tour guide, who continually gets his history of the Tower mixed up in comical ways. Most of the characters from the first book also reappear and develop further, including Cassie’s landlord, Morelli; to whom there is more than meets the eye.

I could say more, but I’d be treading into spoiler territory, and I hate to do that for a new series. If you liked Mr. Tenpenny, you’ll like this one too. Both books are perfect for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures with a sardonic sense of humor.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. It’s a romance, but obviously in a sci-fi setting. The premise is that a company has created a lottery, the winner of which will receive a trip to Mars.

Recent divorcee Katrina buys one ticket, largely to appease her daughter Francesca. Francesca has been lobbying her to buy it chiefly because Francesca’s father, Katrina’s ex-husband Doug, is a spokesman for the lottery, and Francesa hopes that if Katrina wins, it might spark a reconciliation.

Both Katrina and Doug still have some lingering feelings for each other, although there’s no doubt they have major differences too. They are sort of an “odd couple,” with Katrina being super-organized and fastidious about cleanliness, while Doug is a spontaneous, rough-and-tumble outdoorsman.

And, fairly early on in the book, both Kat and Doug meet attractive romantic prospects. Ariel Anderson, a wealthy and influential woman, who guides Doug and Francesca on a trip to a horse ranch in Montana, is practically flinging herself at Doug. Meanwhile, when her robot maid, Minnie, begins behaving strangely, Katrina meets a handsome and eager young robot repair technician.

You probably won’t be surprised that Katrina wins that trip to Mars, but that’s only the beginning–from there follows a hilarious chain of events during the long voyage to the Red Planet. From a mystery involving a plan to breed horses on Mars, to the hilarious antics of Minnie the robot, to the rom-com hijinks as Doug and Katrina try to sort out their feelings, the book goes from one hilarious episode to another. There were quite a few moments where I laughed out loud.

And, incredibly, despite it being such a wild and unlikely set of occurrences, the underlying plot is actually a tight thriller. The climax caught me by surprise, but it felt satisfying and tied things up well.

Basically, this book was way better than I was expecting. It was funny, sweet, and clever. The characters are all well-written and enjoyable. If there was any flaw, it was that the antagonist’s motives were a little vague. But, it really didn’t bother me; the main thing is the satisfying resolution of Katrina and Doug’s arcs. Also, while the extremely-human behavior of some of the robots was something that might not normally sit well with me, I found it worked here. I think it’s because this is a comedy, and taking it in that spirit, the robots’ antics are some of the funniest scenes in the book.

Mars Madness is a delightful romantic comedy, with great characters and a wonderful premise. I recommend it highly.

This book begins with a clever hook: the protagonist, Cassie Black, is shocked when the corpses at the funeral home where she works start coming back to life. She quickly learns the reason for this sudden re-animation is that they have “unfinished business.” At first, she’s able to help put them to rest, but when the eponymous Mr. Tenpenny returns to life, putting him at peace proves to be a daunting task that sucks Cassie into a whole parallel world of magic and mystery.

The book is very much in the tradition of fantasy novels like Alice in WonderlandHarry Potter, etc. (There are a few references to the latter throughout.) It’s the classic setup of a seemingly ordinary person who finds themselves in another society where they are of immense importance. From there it’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Quest, through and through, but Cassie narrates her adventures with a smart-aleck, macabre sense of humor. The book is suffused with dark humor, of the sort at which Painter excels. 

Cassie can be a little difficult; I won’t lie. There are times when her anti-social personality and paranoia make her tough to relate to. Although, as is explained in her backstory, she’s had a hard life, shuffled among various foster families that treated her quite badly, so it makes sense she would be this way. And eventually, her instincts do point her in the right direction. (Sort of.)

I actually enjoyed the “real” world of everyday Portland most of all; it felt very vivid and interesting. I especially liked the officious government inspector who is investigating the funeral home where Cassie works, suspecting, (quite correctly) that something is amiss.

That reminds me: this is book one in a series, and it ends on a cliffhanger. So, there are a lot of threads that remain to be tied up in future volumes, and I look forward to seeing where it all goes. It’s a fun read for anyone who enjoys fast-paced, somewhat snarky, somewhat twisted fantasy adventures.

[This review is based on an ARC. The Undead Mr. Tenpenny releases today, February 23, 2021.]