Review of multiple short stories by Stephen A. North: “Forgotten”, “Nobody’s Hero”, “Undead In Vegas”, “Means To An End”, and “Stupid Train”
Stephen A. North has written several novels but he has a definite fondness for short stories. These stories, much like his novels, usually have flawed (sometimes very flawed) characters in them. They tend to be in a tough spot in life, and we drop in on them as things are coming to a head. Such is the case in Forgotten and Nobody’s Hero. Forgotten shares a brief bit of Private Henri Dragon’s experiences in Vietnam. Things are about to get ugly in a village where the Viet Cong have been spotted and he and his squad will be in the thick of it. Nobody’s Hero is a little more domesticated a story, where Sue is desperate to find a way out of an abusive relationship and is willing to do whatever it takes to break free.
In both stories, the author puts us in the middle of what is perhaps the most intense few minutes of two very different (but in some ways similar) people’s lives. I would dare say the titles of these stories are interchangeable. You don’t do the necessary things to be a hero. You don’t do them to be remarkable or remembered. You do the absolutely necessary things because living is better than being dead, even if we don’t think much of the lives we’ve led.
This is a gritty one, with no apologies made and none necessary by those involved. Not necessarily fun, but if you like North’s trademark run of bad luck type characters, this will suit you just fine.
Forgotten and Nobody’s Hero can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B086SKWJVW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1
Undead In Vegas is a return to zombie actioners for North, in a condensed format. His trademark sad sap, down on their luck characters are on display here, and not just with Wallace, the main character truck driver who has ended up in Vegas as the zombie apocalypse has kicked into gear. Wallace isn’t dislikable, but you may find him a bit of a sap with his efforts to be the good guy, or at least the nice guy here. Life has become pretty easy to discard when most folks are walking around trying to eat you, and Wallace seems pretty fatalistic. Still, he isn’t a man who likes to be without a purpose, or so it seems, even if the purpose of helping out a woman whose husband is a schmuck seems like a not so great idea. I might have felt a little more appreciation for the main character if he had a bit more desire to do something for himself earlier on and perhaps had prioritized things a bit different as the story progressed. Not that I’m not surprised at how he acted-you see people doing similar things every day. Fatalistically putting one foot in front of the other, grasping at what little bit of life is available why accepting the inevitability of death perhaps being right around the corner.
Undead In Vegas can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07YQ47RVZ/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3
Means To An End and Stupid Train might be my least favorite short stories of Mr. North’s, but at the same time, they might be the ones that make me grit my teeth and admit that both stories are the slap in the face you occasionally need to remind you that not everything needs to be either happy, or a short story needs to come to a smooth or perhaps satisfying conclusion. In a way, both stories end before they have the chance to get very far, to get warmed up, or to get rolling along to some predestined conclusion. Instead, they are both like starting your old, reliable car on a very cold winters morning and not waiting for the car to warm up, but instead pulling out of the driveway when there is still ice on the windows, and getting flattened by a speeding garbage truck the instant your tires touch the street. It would have been different if the car had warmed up, the ice scraped away, and you got to the highway before being creamed by an out of control semi, but either way, the end result is the same-just a lot more jarring.
The characters are not likeable, but the writing style from North remains consistent. His fondness for writing unapologetically hard luck and sometimes very unlikeable characters is something I appreciate. Tammy, in Means, and Lou, in Stupid, are perhaps best described as predator and prey, in their own worlds-destined to their fates because of who they are, innately. To expect, or hope for more, is perhaps foolish, or pointless. Thankfully, I can handle my fatalism in small doses, and these two are like taking a couple of shots of hard liquor. They burn going down but you can appreciate them after you get past the bitter taste left in your mouth.
Means To An End and Stupid Train can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B078K4RGDW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
Judgment Day is the fourth and final installment in the Days of Atonement series by Martin Berman-Gorvine. The book separates itself from the three previous books by a substantial distance in years and geography. The main characters: Amos, Suzie, and Vicky, are now in their forties and living far to the south of their old hometown of Chatham’s Forge, on an island in Maryland, where they are somewhat removed from the newest god to take over up north, Ba’al, and his High Priestess, Cindy, who seeks revenge against the Israel clan, which Amos’s band is now called. While Amos is the Headman, or leader, of this band that lives peacefully except for the occasional assaults by the punks that have followed them south, it is Vicky who has taken on the role of Rabbi and devoted follower of the Jewish God Amos’s family secretly believed in back in Chatham’s Forge when Moloch was the god in charge. The trio have formed a somewhat awkward family unit, with Amos married to both women and producing a large blended family. While he is admired and respected by the small community of more than a hundred refugees that have joined them over the years, Amos still retains the wishy washy and indecisive nature that has not only frustrated the women in his life, but this reviewer as well. He is a good man, but he struggles to make decisions and be an assertive leader, allowing one of his wives and a son to dominate their community with less violent, but similar rigid ritualistic expectations put upon the followers of the barbaric gods of the north.
While the group has been at peace for years, Cindy and Ba’al are prepared to get their vengeance against the Israel clan. At the same time, Vicky has become convinced that the Jewish God has taken physical form and their much smaller group is destined to go to war with the demonic gods, like Ba’al and Mote, the god of death. Amos struggles to keep his two families and two wives, who have been at odds with one another all these years, at peace and their community whole. It’s clear that is a failing effort, and war is coming.
This is a fitting, and somewhat surprising, ending to this series. I had my doubts as to how the author could effectively end this tale, given the direction it has been heading and with the world filled with so many dark and demonic gods, ghosts, and only hints of the benevolent, if somewhat absent deity of the Jewish faith. I felt satisfied in the end-that the author didn’t use a (pardon the use of the term) deus ex machina to bring things to a conclusion, as it were. The ending fits and while this alternate universe can seem somewhat baffling at times, it has its own logic to it, and the characters who survive are not left with easy answers or solutions to their lifelong problems.
While the big picture story of this series deals with a hell-wrapped apocalyptic world, the real story is more personal, dealing with the conflicts that face the challenging love triangle Amos, Suzie, and Vicky been a part of since their high school days came to an end. It is hard to say that any one of them is a hero or a villain in this piece. Instead, they are just three humans that have tried, and often failed, to do the right things for themselves and those they care about. This is not a tale of redemption or vindication for any one of them. It is a tale of realization-understanding who you are (for better or worse) and that while this particular story may end, the greater story continues to unfold endlessly into the future. Whether that is frustrating, or satisfying, is perhaps all in how you look at it. For me, this series was both frustrating and satisfying, like the characters, and like life itself. It is the same whether you live in the ‘normal’ world or (apparently) in a demon and ghost-infested post nuclear apocalyptic world.
Judgment Day can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Judgment-Days-Ascension-Martin-Berman-Gorvine/dp/1609752430/
I’ve read several novels by Stephen Kozeniewski and I can always rely on a different flavor of horror being explored in each. I know he has written some non-horror stuff, and I’d be curious if they have the same…edge to them, if that is the proper word. The author is fairly clinical with his precision in presenting a horrific idea and not being timid about seeing it through to its conclusion. All in all, The Hematophages fulfills that commitment, and should leave the reader disturbed and uncomfortable for quite some time after reading the last page.
I was able to read the prequel short story, Skinwrappers, before checking out this novel. While it gives a taste of the universe where The Hematophages takes place, it, for the most part, serves as a background piece, though the main character in the short earns a key role in the novel.
A few centuries down the line, the human race has expanded its reach to far distant planets. Paige Ambroziak is a grad student given the opportunity to go on a corporate funded expedition to explore an ancient seed ship humanity sent out in the early years of space exploration. Until recently, it was believed it was lost forever. It is outside charted space, hovering above what is called a flesh world, which is covered in an ocean of blood filled with strange monsters. This is a chance of a lifetime for Paige-promotions and prestige will follow this expedition, if she can manage to survive.
I don’t get exposed to a lot of space horror tales. Horror, yes. Science Fiction, yes. The combination doesn’t always come together in print for me, so the comparisons (done by other reviewers already) is mainly to Event Horizon, a movie that shares certain levels of intensity and some commonalities with this novel. Alien, or perhaps even Aliens, might share a tiny bit of DNA with this one as well, though in a more generic way. While I don’t get exposed to a lot of sci fi horror, I certainly enjoy the concept and this book does a pretty solid job of universe building to help set up the story. There are questions left unanswered about what has led the human race to its current status, though they aren’t necessarily critical to the story at hand. Getting to the meat of the story is what the author does, and we are presented with quite a few rather interesting characters besides the main one and get to understand their motivations fairly quickly. The horror elements are unpacked in pieces, though reading the description of the book provides some pretty strong hints as to what direction things are headed.
The author does a solid job, as he has done with other stories he’s written, in ratcheting up the tension and dropping the occasional shock bomb on the audience. It’s always good when an author manages to zig when you expect a zag. There were, unfortunately, a couple of zigs where I expected them, that didn’t necessarily lead to disappointment as much as a knowing nod. The end result is a fairly satisfying tale with a few minor frustrations as to where the story led.
The author does not scrimp on gore and horrific visual imagery, giving us some disturbing things to think about and digest. With a starting point of a world with oceans of blood, it should be clear to the reader that we are in for some pretty twisted things that I would guess came straight from one of Mr. Kozeniewski’s nightmares. The author does not disappoint in escalating the grotesqueries and terror from there.
While others have used the Event Horizon comparison, and it is an apt one, one I will use, but only partially, is Greg Bear’s Blood Music. I won’t play the spoiler by sharing details of that tale, but would encourage a look at it for anyone who enjoyed this story. The short story Mr. Bear wrote that was expanded into a full novel shares a few elements of fear and horror with this tale (alien creatures and the potential for body manipulation), though only toward the end of The Hematophages. Still, I couldn’t help wonder what Kozeniewski might do if he chose to carry things beyond this story and how he would approach it vs. what Mr. Bear did when he expanded his short story into a full novel. I would guess Kozeniewski’s would be end up being a bit more on the dark side…
The Hematophages can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Hematophages-Stephen-Kozeniewski/dp/1944044558/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Down in the Gutter Like Me has, like a lot of Stephen A North’s work, a bit of a noir-ish flavor to it, with a down on his luck main character who isn’t squeaky clean by any stretch. Unlike a lot of his other works, this isn’t a character that gives the reader much of a reason to gain a sense of empathy for him. If you feel empathy for Guy Masters, I might feel a bit sorry for you, but more likely, I’ll just make every effort to steer clear of you (and make sure anyone I care for does as well).
Guy isn’t just down on his luck, he lives in the gutter, as the title of this short story infers. We are invited to join him down there as he stands in the dark one night, trying to peep through the window of his ex-girlfriend to get a look at her as she undresses while he wishes he had a handful of the painkillers he’s addicted to pop like candy…and it only gets seedier from there.
North has a knack for creating characters that are down on their luck. Bubbling with barely controlled rage, just beneath the surface. With most of what I have read, these characters are no choir boys, no boy scouts, but they have a moral streak that give the reader a reason to root for them and hope they find their redemption. Not so here, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This reads like the transcript of some news docudrama: a night of insanity perpetrated by a soul who isn’t just lost, but comfortable being lost-it doesn’t take much for them to do what the rest of us would call questionable or deplorable-little in the way of justification crosses Guy’s mind. He’s used to life sucking and he’ll make his own luck, no matter what kind of ugly he has to perpetrate for that luck to happen.
I guess you could feel something for Guy more than disgust. Perhaps it is that way for me because it’s pretty damn hard to imagine falling that far and that hard in life and being grateful those circumstances haven’t befallen me. We don’t want to be as hard, as cruel, or as vicious as life has been to him, or he has been to the world around him, so sympathy creeps in and we get tantalized by how wrong everything is that he does-never does he step onto the right pathway in this story and you get the sense he never has at any earlier point in his life. It allows us to take a quick glimpse into that type of vile world and step back, wash off the filth, and perhaps not feel so bad that some of the buzz Guy feels when he does yet another terrible thing didn’t instantly disgust us. After all, we’re not down in the gutter with him, living there. We’re just visiting for a little while…
Down in the Gutter Like Me can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Down-Gutter-Like-Stephen-North-ebook/dp/B082Z6STW7/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=down+in+the+gutter+like+me&qid=1577667634&sr=8-1
I haven’t read Stephen Kozeniewski’s The Hematophages, but this novella serves as a prequel. Based on what I have read, Kozeniekski has created yet another darkly creative universe where the horror is fresh, fantastical, and yet quite real and very disconcerting.
The main character is a teenage girl living on board a space freighter called the Blue Whale. She lives with her two mothers, and corresponds with a friend who is on another ship far off in another shipping lane in the galaxy. She is at an age where she is not yet ready to move into a career role on the ship, which is the only home she has ever known. While it is clear the corporation that owns the ship controls all aspects of its inhabitant’s lives, she seems pretty happy with her existence.
That’s when the ship gets attacked. In the space of a few words on the page, our main character’s life is irrevocably changed and we understand the grave danger she is in as she races through the ship and the scattered zero g carcasses of her crew mates, victims of the Skinwrappers, pirates whose methods and motives are ghastly. Relying on a voice inside her head to force her to remain calm while doing her best to hide from the interlopers, she struggles to survive this abrupt and grisly nightmare in deep space.
I’ve read several works from Kozeniewski and despite the fantastical nature of the environments he creates, there is a realness to them, a sense of place and time that puts you in the story. This tale is no different. While this is a novella, I would say it has the jarring feel of a short story that moves at a breakneck speed. You don’t know every detail of the world the characters inhabit and you don’t need to know them all to get a sense of their reality. The telling of the tale is precise, with little to no fat left on the bone. You’re moving forward, racing to a conclusion that is nearly impossible to guess at, and holding on to the ride the entire time.
While this tale takes place in deep space, it is as real and down to earth as a horror tale can get. Nothing but good old fashion humans doing ill to other humans, in so very many creative and unspeakable ways. Definitely worth a read, and an excellent appetizer to what I suspect is a pretty darkly detailed horror novel in The Hematophages.
Skinwrapper can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Skinwrapper-Stephen-Kozeniewski-ebook/dp/B07TNPP4NZ/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1S5ZWZ6IU6UWJ&keywords=skinwrapper&qid=1572196944&sprefix=skinwrapper%2Caps%2C168&sr=8-1
Wild, Dark Times by Austin Case is a very trippy journey into a world of magic and monsters that had my head spinning at times. Elizabeth Megalos is a bank teller and a former art student who is bored with her life until one of her coworker friends shows up at her doorstep and attacks her. She doesn’t just attack like a normal person, she attacks like a possessed lunatic. Moments later, in steps Eddie, who saves Elizabeth from the assault and then claims he is a sorcerer. Bewildered and somewhat stunned, she reluctantly follows Eddie as they flee and later head to a local native American burial ground. Here is where she witnesses more solid proof that Eddie does have magical powers and his urgent believe that she has something to do with stopping the impending apocalypse might possibly be true. Later, they meet up with Hugh, a college professor who is even more skeptical than Elizabeth about Eddie and his claims of magical powers, though he too is saved from certain death from a magical assailant. Things continue to get even crazier when they jet off to Europe to meet with some of Eddie’s magical friends, all in an effort to discover what apocalypse they are supposed to prevent and to figure out what role Elizabeth has to play in stopping it from happening.
The author keeps things moving along at a rapid-fire pace in a story which is described as occult fiction or urban fantasy. While those terms do a good job of describing the book, another descriptive word is the one I use in the first sentence of this review: trippy. The author clearly has an extensive knowledge of the occult and a history of magic from a wide array of ancient cultures, but he also knows his hallucinogens. That a variety of intoxicants would be used in tandem with magic to achieve desired results perhaps isn’t very surprising-communing with other planes of existence and the supernatural likely requires a much more fluid and open mind. Acid, mushrooms, and other hallucinogens play as much a role here as the magic itself and Elizabeth’s initial and a later experience with these drugs provide us with some very existential stream of conscious poetry that had me tripping just reading it.
The characters in this story are well developed-Eddie’s magical friends are musicians and artists who each have their own unique perspective and unique magical talents. Eddie is the only one who seems to have skills not restricted to a specific area of magic. He is also a mystery. He does not remember anything about himself before he met up with his friends a few years earlier. Each one of these friends encourages Elizabeth to regain her lost passion for art and to overcome the fear and self-doubt that challenge her at every step as she is coming to grips with being a potential savior of humanity. Especially since she has no magical abilities of her own.
Overall, this is a fun story with a far dose of humor peppered in with action, drama, and horror. While it was enjoyable, some of the dialog was awkward and stiff and occasionally the motivations of certain characters seemed a bit off. And if you are turned off by the use of hallucinogenic drugs, this probably isn’t a story you will fully appreciate. Otherwise, it is a magical adventure filled with some wild occult oddities.
You can find Wild, Dark Times here: https://www.amazon.com/Wild-Dark-Times-Austin-Case-ebook/dp/B07SHC8FRN/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=wild+dark+times&qid=1566439993&s=gateway&sr=8-1
The concept of transporting an average person into an alternate realm for high adventure has been around about as long as stories have been told. Authors such as Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs all took swipes at this concept over a century ago. Science fiction and fantasy writers have followed that route time and time again ever since. With the advent of table top role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu (among many others) in the seventies, the concept of transporting oneself into a fantasy realm took on a whole new meaning. Since then, more and more writers have embraced this concept, including the likes of Terry Brooks (Magic Kingdom for Sale), Joel Rosenberg (Guardians of the Flame), and Stephen R. Donaldson (Thomas Covenant). Time marches on, and more recently, a new subgenre has been gaining popularity, thanks mainly to the influx of MMOs, or massively multiplayer online games, such as Everquest, World of Warcraft, and numerous other computer (or mobile ap) based games where a player can craft a character in a strange fantasy world and join thousands if not millions of others endlessly questing for new adventures. This subgenre is known as LitRPG, though another variation is called Game Lit. Much like with their predecessors, the characters in these written works are tossed into a fantasy realm, though in this instance, it is a computer game universe. It may be a virtual reality, but it is with real world consequences-the characters are in true mortal peril with no reboots or extra lives to spare.
This is where J.E. Reed’s first novel, Running With The Wolves, lands. We are introduced to Kiuno, who wakes up one morning in a strange, primordial forest realm, separated from the real world where she lives in with her husband, working a regular job, and living a regular life. She can remember her life back home, but not her true name (Kiuno is her online ID-the one she created for the games she plays). Searching for anyone else in this wild and strange place, she comes across other survivors who are struggling to come to grips with this strange and dangerous place. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that she has somehow been thrust into a game she played with numerous others online called Chronopoint, where she was an expert at building alliances and facing enemies both human and inhuman. With that in mind, she forms bonds with others with the goal of finding her online friends (including her real life husband) and to discover a way out of this lethal place, which is made of ten different realms, each one far more dangerous than the one before.
While the story is filled with fantastic creatures and strange magic (Kiuno has to figure out how to manage the extremely potent and dangerous magic she possesses), this boils down to a story about survival and finding those around you who you can trust and build friendships with. Everyone you didn’t know before, when it was just an online game, is a potential threat that might be willing to kill you to survive and find a way to the tenth realm where they might find a way to get back home.
For a first novel, this is a very solidly written work of fantasy, with a main character that is well fleshed out and worth rooting for, along with the friends she connects with, both new and old, in her journeys. The editing is solid, though I did have a gripe with an overabundance of pronouns and some confusion, at times, as to who was speaking a given line-words are spoken but the actions in the same paragraph are that of someone else. Overall though, the writing and editing is crisp and the action moves at a rapid pace. It did seem a bit odd that Kiuno seems to be about the only female character of any relevance in this, the first book of what is likely a trilogy. There are other females, but none seem to take up more than a paragraph here or there, while there are numerous male characters to challenge and engage Kiuno in both battle and friendship.
Another minor criticism is that while each of these realms are quite perilous, with the introduction of several creatively fiendish monsters, it seems as though there isn’t a vast amount of difference from one realm to the next, except that each is inferred to be incrementally more dangerous. Much of the terror in this tale lies in the nightmares that Kiuno is going through-hoping her husband still lives while watching those around her die gruesome deaths as she learns how to control the lethal magic the realms has gifted her with. The monsters she faces represent only brief interludes on occasion.
The story does draw you in, despite the universe the author has created being a bit sparse when it comes to the fantastical (again, there are a few run-ins with some quite fantastical monsters, but they are somewhat limited). The hope is that as our protagonist and her band of loyal allies move deeper into the ten realms and closer to the ‘front lines’ where the war to find a way home is being fought, that there will be more to see, and more to challenge her beyond her own fears and insecurities.
Her closest friends are well thought out characters that I grew to both appreciate and enjoy, though the villains in this book were fairly uninteresting. While there are inhuman monsters that come in many shapes and sizes, none serve as more than a passing danger. The human monsters are a far greater threat and much more vicious, but unfortunately, none hold the reader’s attention for very long. As the author continues to shape this world and crafts more and greater challenges for the heroes of the piece, it is my hope that Kiuno becomes more of the natural leader her companions believe her to be.
Again, this is a solid debut novel and I look forward to checking out the second book in the series.
Running With The Wolves can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Running-Wolves-Chronopoint-Chronicles-Book-ebook/dp/B07CH47MVW/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1551067659&sr=8-6&keywords=running+with+the+wolves
The Legacy of the Sky Pendant is Jonathan Crayford’s first novel. It tells two stories, with the first being the tale of Marcus, who lives in the village of Soulwind. The village is under assault by dark strangers who have slowly engulfed the Kingdom of Termelanor and who intend on wiping out his village before marching on the capital. It will be up to Marcus to do whatever he can to save the village, whether that means fighting to the death or racing against time to convince the King of the dire threat they all face. The second tale takes place nearly a century later, when Cruise, a young man in the same village, is bound and determined to win the annual foot race that takes place there every year. His family is poor, and the prize money will go a long way in helping them fight their way out of poverty. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against him with an elite band of champions who come from the capital city every year to compete and always win.
What ties these two stories together is the necklace both characters wear. It is the mysterious sky pendant, with metal that fell to earh and seems to have strange powers that influence and give the wearer great strength in times of need.
It was clear from the first word of this book that this was the authors first attempt at writing a novel. There is great enthusiasm here, but there is a significant disconnect between the story he wants to tell and the story that ends up on the page. The primary issue, especially with the first story, is that it suffers heavily from the author telling vs. showing. The best way to describe this effect is to imagine having someone tell you about a book they read instead of reading it yourself. The author volunteers a great deal of information, whether it is truly pertinent to the tale or not, and in many places, it reads like an information dump. We are not experiencing the story through the eyes of the main character, or even as though we are there with him, watching breathlessly as he deals with countless life and death situations. We are reading a news report of what is happening to him. While this issue also hinders the second story, it is clear the author had already made great strides in his writing skills by the time he crafted the tale of the race and there is more of a sense of being present in the moment along with Cruise, rather than feeling like you are reading a book report on what is happening at the race and when he is training.
The book could have benefited greatly from an editor spending some time going over the story with the author. The dialog is often choppy and awkward, especially in the first story. While it does improve in the second part of the book, it still doesn’t feel quite natural. The stiffness subsides a bit the further we go, but it hangs with us to the very end. Many of the characters also don’t feel very real-in what they do or how they act. Simple caricatures instead of in depth, drawn out people you would take an interest in…perhaps except for Cruise and the man who chooses to coach him for his race, but even there, more character development would have been necessary for me to really invest or truly care what happens to either of them. The villains are obvious, the King is a simple-minded idiot, and so on. The plot is overly basic in the first story, and yet again the second story gains in complexity. The author invested quite a bit more energy in turning Cruise’s experiences with the race into something dramatic and worthwhile, though it still left needed more for me to really believe in it. Finally, an editor could have saved the author from his zeal for somewhat odd descriptors and an overabundance of adverbs. You cannot look at someone sarcastically, and yet that description pops up numerous time throughout the story.
I realize how brutal this review may seem, but I was asked by the author for a fair and honest review and to his credit, he knew what to expect since I shared many of my critiques with him before I had even finished the first part of the book. More than likely he will be surprised with my reaction to the second part of the book, which showed a few signs of someone getting closer to crafting a story that would draw you in and make you care for the characters.
The author wants to continue to improve as a writer and wants to continue this saga as a series. Hopefully he will also continue to sharpen his skills as a writer and seek out a professional editor and some brutally honest beta readers to support him on this path, because despite the many issues I may have seen with this work, I can also see potential in the author as a storyteller.
Legacy of The Sky Pendant can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Legacy-Sky-Pendant-Jonathan-Crayford-ebook/dp/B07K4DV13M/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1549575938&sr=8-3
Oblique by Neal Vandar, which is an anagram of the author’s actual name, Alan Draven, is his first foray into the mystery thriller genre. Much of what the author has written previously, under his real name, has been more in the horror/supernatural realm. While this story is firmly planted in reality, the characters and what happens to them does require the suspension of disbelief as they go through some pretty surprising events.
Our main character, and narrator, introduces himself by sharing an event that happened during his teen years, some twenty five years earlier. That was when he saved a female classmate who was being chased by a man in the woods. Acting quickly, the narrator bashes the man in the head with a rock, killing him. At the girl’s urging, they dump the body in a nearby river rather than notify the police to avoid any potential trouble. This event would have remained in the dark corridors of the main characters mind except the girl he saved has reached out to him recently, asking him to meet her for dinner at a local restaurant. Given that he hasn’t seen her since shortly after the gruesome event that brought them together so long ago, it seems a rather strange request. Stranger still, when they meet, things go awry very quickly when the narrator returns from the restroom during their meal to find the woman, and everyone else in the restaurant, dead at their tables, though there is no sign of foul play. Things only get weirder from there as our hero is pursued and assaulted by virtually everyone he comes in contact with, sending him on a quest to find out what is really happening to him and why he has been thrust in the middle of a murder mystery.
It’s clear that this is the author’s first attempt at a novel in this style and genre. This isn’t a disparaging critique as much as it is an indication of his enthusiasm for the genre. Influences abound here, with Hitchcock being the heaviest. Another movie from the same era, Charade, also appears to have left its mark upon the author. Weird occurrences, odd coincidences, and mysterious strangers fill most of the pages, almost to excess, with each reveal opening a door to another deeper and darker mystery. It would be easy for the narrator to hold to the belief that he should trust no one, but that would be limiting, especially since it’ll likely be hard for the reader to even trust him.
There are, of course, deceptions galore, some of which might irritate and annoy the reader because what they believed to be true is in fact, a double-cross or plot twist. Naturally, there is plenty of action, ominous characters of all sorts, and journeys back and forth across the map so our hero can figure out who is after him, who wants him dead, and who, perhaps, are his allies. The geography is kept purposefully vague. All we know is the story takes place in the United States and there are some shadowy people involved belonging to equally shadowy organizations.
There are a few elements that the reader might find a bit fantastical or plain hard to believe, but the author does a good job of fitting most of the puzzle pieces together by the end of the story. I say most because there are at least a couple that felt a bit forced, but I was willing to forgive those missteps for what I felt was an entertaining, and very twisty read.
Overall, a decent tale from an author new to the genre. Hopefully he will continue to refine his style here and come up with some new twists and turns in his next thriller.
Day of Atonement is the third book in Martin Berman-Gorvine’s Days of Ascension series. Amos and Suzie now have their own band of survivors living in the wilderness near their old hometown of Chatham’s Forge, where the goddess Asherah has built her empire several years after the events after the last book. Vicky remains with her two old friends, a castoff who continues to be punished by Asherah’s wrath after her time as a priestess. Asherah’s bloody reign has put women in control of things in Chatham’s Forge, where men are now considered drones-little better than slaves who do the bidding of the female population. Asherah’s priestesses have punished those who served Moloch as well as those who were once popular, such as cheerleaders and jocks, who are now considered the lowest of the low in this new world order. At the top of the heap are the nerdier castes-Irene is a skilled poetess at the high school that has been elevated to a position of high status. Molly, a classmate of hers, reveres Irene, but as a cheerleader, she is treated like dirt by everyone. Despite the stark difference in their status, they are thrust into the spotlight together as targets of the vengeful goddess’s wrath. Banished, they come across Amos’s small band in the wilderness, who are struggling to survive and find a way to defeat Asherah like they defeated Moloch years before.
Day of Atonement may have skipped ahead a few years, but in many ways things remain the same with different players. Asherah is, in many ways, no different than Moloch-she is perhaps even more blood thirsty than him. It is clear there are other gods spread across the landscape, and even more craving to return to power who can easily be summoned by willing servants who wish to destroy anyone who will stand in their way. All the while, Amos is struggling to understand the God his Jewish parents secretly worshipped during the reign of Moloch and where that faith fits into this demon-cursed world.
Going into this book, I believed it likely that this would be the third and final act of a trilogy, but it is clear the author has more ground to cover with the demonic deities he has unleashed. As this book progresses, questions of faith and devotion-not only to a demon (or god), but to one’s own self, are front and center. As Amos and his crew see hints of the God once believed in by their parents perhaps still having power, more questions abound. Vengeance, righteousness, faith, and truth are among the many ‘big picture’ considerations for the characters to focus on. What price your immortal soul? Are you willing to give it up for a bit of power or perhaps revenge on those who have wronged you in the past? Big questions. For some, the answers are easy, but for others, like Amos and Suzie, the struggle seems endless.
I am not sure where this series is headed. It has been an interesting journey thus far and the world seems to be getting larger for the characters who inhabit it. More demons, more power, and more temptations to face down. Amos, Suzie, and Vicky’s dynamic as the three main characters still remains troublesome-each of them have their own inner demons to conquer and they tend to go from being strong and confident characters the reader can admire to petulant children who whine and complain incessantly from chapter to chapter. Molly and Irene are a welcome addition to the mix as they bring a different and vital new perspective. Still, it’s clear the original trio will continue to drive the story. How they come to grips with the immortal powers that swirl around them will determine the fate of many, if not all, of the people in Chatham’s Forge and beyond.
I continue to be entertained by this creative story. The characters are challenging and not always likeable, but they continue to grow and transform along with the story itself. It will be interesting to see what fate, and the growing cast of immortals, has in store for them.
Day of Atonement can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Day-Atonement-Days-Ascension-Book-ebook/dp/B07BTGLYKN/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1530988241&sr=1-1
We return to the world of Chatham’s Forge in the second book of The Day of Ascension series, Day of Vengeance, where Amos, Suzie, and Vicky appear to be the only survivors of their efforts to annihilate Moloch and free the town from the demon’s influence. They soon discover this isn’t quite the case, although many of those who apparently came away unscathed physically have suffered in other, much more terrible ways. Others who weren’t living in the town, including the ‘muties’, have also survived, and are ready to exact revenge against those who made them suffer under the rule of Moloch.
Our trio of main characters discover a bigger and even more dangerous world than the one where they lived behind the walled protection of Moloch, with hints of other beings of great supernatural power roaming the world and one in particular which is hungry to fill the vacuum of power left by the departure of the patron demon of Chatham’s Forge.
Overall, the characters have grown and gotten tougher as well as more mature-at least this is the case with Amos, though Suzie has seemingly inherited some of his whininess from the first book. Vicky takes an interesting and far different path, and we are introduced to several new characters, both good and evil, whose personal sagas add to the overall flavor of this tale.
There are plenty of new developments and again the world has grown much bigger, though the story continues to focus mainly on Chatham’s Forge and the surrounding woodlands. There are indications that other demons, like Moloch, have sheltered other towns in the region and forced the members of those communities to follow their evil rituals to remain alive. The demon world becomes less hidden as well, with the introduction of a new and compelling potential replacement for Moloch. The author has set the table for an intriguing third act.
Overall, a solid second addition to this series. While the main characters depth have expanded, I felt that Vicky, in particular, seemed a bit too easily manipulated and Suzie a bit scattered with her jealousies, but those are more or less minor quibbles. Amos has grown-still immersed in self-doubt but stronger and more determined to be the hero people are starting to expect him to be. The writing is crisp and the story is quite unique. I was ready to gripe about women not having Adam’s Apples because the author refers to a woman with one here, but then I discovered they do, just not as prominent as the ones men have. One other minor distraction (yes, being nitpicky) is when an older character reflects back on when they got to cruise around town in their Mustang before the world went kerplooie, which wouldn’t be possible since the first Mustangs came out in 1964 and the old world ended in nuclear fire in 1962. Still, a minor distraction only.
I’m very interested to see what happens in the third installment in the series (trilogy?) and look forward to diving into it. This is the most sincere form of flattery there is for the second book in a series that I can think of.
Day of Vengeance (The Days of Ascension Book 2) can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Day-Vengeance-Days-Ascension-Book-ebook/dp/B0756S656T/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1527865747&sr=8-2
Not too long ago, I shared that I had the privilege to be a part of a writing project where the proceeds would be going to support hurricane relief. The Will To Survive is a labor of love for editor Felicia A. Sullivan, who brought together the talents of everyone who contributed to this project: those who write, those who format, and the artist who created the awesome cover.
The book is available both in kindle and paperback format. I have a paperback version of the book and with 22 different short stories, it weighs in at a pretty hefty 345 pages.
The two charities being supported with this work are: One America Appeal: www.oneamericaappeal.org and Global Giving-Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund: www.globalgiving.org/projects/hurricane-harvey-relief-fund/. Please consider picking up a copy of the book, but also consider directly donating to these worthy causes. You can find the book here: The Will To Survive.
The description on the back reads as follows:
When normal life collapses, peril waits around every corner, and one small slip could mean certain death. In THE WILL TO SURVIVE, unique and brilliant voices bring to life stories of post-apocalyptic danger sure to make the heart race, the flesh creep.
NOTE: THE WILL TO SURVIVE is a collective effort by a great group of authors, born from the desire to help their fellow citizens suffering the devastating effects of multiple hurricanes. Every short story has a survival element, and 100% of the proceeds are being donated to two charities, One America Appeal and Global Giving Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
Twenty-Two stories of tragedy, hope, and survival in one volume. It’s the end of the world. Do you have the will to survive?
Another way you can help us continue to build awareness and generate more interest in this book is to read it and write an honest review on Amazon and anywhere else you can post a review. My story, “The Collective” is nestled within the pages of the book and its a story that I have always felt was one of my more compelling. Nope, no zombies to be seen, but one that really focuses on the value of life, the value of living, and choosing whether it is worth going on when everyone else that you love is gone.
Please check this book out. It’s a great cause and if you enjoy TEOTWAWKI fiction, you’ll love it.
Shards of Reality is a story written in a new fantasy subgenre that I haven’t been exposed to previously called LitRPG. Given that I spent several years buried in the world of Norrath via Everquest, the Sony Online Entertainment massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for short), this seems like a natural extension into the realm of literature for me to check out. This of course means I haven’t been exposed to other LitRPG works before reading this book so I don’t know all the tropes or rules involved.
Of course, if you’ve read fantasy, you are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of leaving our reality and entering an alternate fantasy universe, whether it be something along the lines of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever or Magic Kingdom for Sale. Those are tales not attached to any sort of game, though Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame series took that step with a Dungeons and Dragons type game where the characters/players are involuntary thrust into the world where they role played warriors, wizards, and rogues. LitRPG takes this a step further, at least with Tim Long’s new series (this book is Enter The Realm Book 1) by making it so those entering the realm realize they are still actually in the game, not some alternative universe, and this game is an MMORPG, similar to the likes of Everquest or World of Warcraft. Furthermore, the game elements stay intact. There are still levels, experience to gain, stats to get from weapons and spells, mana pools to be used when casting spells, hit points, and all the lingo gamers are familiar with, like ‘Ding!” when a character gains a level, “mob” which is short for mobile, or a non-player character that you can attack, or in many cases, a monster, and plenty of other bits and pieces of jargon.
Our main character, Walt, is a game tester and slacker who has been thrust into a version of the MMORPG his company made and runs, Realms of Th’loria. He has no idea how he got there, and when he discovers another co-worker, Oz, is there with him, they set out to figure out what the heck is going on. While Walt is intrigued by the idea of being in the game he has played for years, he isn’t his favorite high level character that took him years to build up, he is instead a “noob” or a level one character with no skills or weapons. Oz, who is even less happy with this situation, is in the same boat. Being familiar with the game environment and monsters gives them some advantages, though they quickly realize that this is a rundown, grungier version of the world they have played in their virtual reality helmets back in the real world. After hooking up with another co-worker who is stuck in Th’loria with them, they discover that this isn’t just a different version of the game they’ve played, but that there is plenty more mystery involved with this place, and why they’re here. Of course, this is the first of a series of books, so more questions are posed than answered as these unwilling heroes of the realm are forced to venture forth to gain the experience needed to provide them with a few answers and the skills they need to survive.
I’m not sure how much I like the comparison and contrast between LitRPG and the more immersive, for lack of a better word, fantasy realms that people from our world end up stumbling into. The idea of looking at a weapon and knowing its stats because they are emblazoned on the hilt, having a HUD inside your skull that shows your health, mana, and how much experience you need to hit the next level does take a bit away from the fantasy aspect of it for me, though I appreciated being in the know as a former gamer, as it were. Reading this book made me nostalgic for those times, a decade ago, when I was grinding experience and was the leader of my own guild of players in Everquest, all of us striving to get better loot and gain levels so we could unlock new skills and go on even tougher adventures. Of course, we weren’t trying to escape the game like our main characters here, and their whining complaints, especially Oz’s, was a bit annoying, though realistic; a character on a screen getting hit and taking damage is a whole lot different than feeling it when a dagger gets shoved into your back.
Overall, this story was fun. Someone who hasn’t gamed in an MMORPG may feel a bit confused at points, and for those who want full-fledged escapism from reality, they might find this type of book a little bit too self-aware, but if you enjoy the idea of being thrust into an adventure and a mystery to boot, the LitRPG subgenre and Shards of Reality in particular is something to check out.
Shards of Reality can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/SHARDS-REALITY-LitRPG-novel-Enter-ebook/dp/B075RSCJZ3/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
Like a Man and Purchase Order #2113-21A are a couple of quick, tightly written shorts by Stephen A. North, who has bounced back and forth between apocalyptic fiction and science fiction with his prior novels and shorter works. These two tales fit in well with his other stories, both with rough and tumble main characters coping with nightmarish circumstances and impending end of the world doom.
Like A Man takes place in Rio De Janeiro set in the present, and appeared in an apocalyptic anthology the author contributed to several years ago. I’d read the story then and enjoyed it for it’s surprising, startling transition from a sun drenched flirtation between a body guard and his boss’s girl to the sudden, abrupt, and brutal end of the world sequence it proposes with the alien creatures burrowing up from the depths of the earth.
Purchase Order #2113-21A could be an addendum to the universe Stephen created with his Drifter novel. A future filled with enslaved soldiers doing the bidding of others, it has a flavor of Blade Runner/techno near future gloom, though with an even darker glimpse of how ugly humanity can potentially become then either of the Blade Runner movies.
These are two quick shorts that definitely speak of larger worlds and potentially more involved stories if the author chose to expand them. As they are, they are good, quick bite-sized bits of apocalyptic goodness for those looking for a quick fix.
Like a Man and Purchase Order #2113-21A can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Like-Man-Purchase-Order-2113-21A-ebook/dp/B0756W8NXG/ref=la_B002K8VVMG_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507757852&sr=1-1
Tusk and Sedation Dentistry are two horror short stories with dentists as their main characters. Tusk has us sitting down next to the young, beautiful neighbor of an older dentist who enjoys regaling her with tales of his adventurous youth. You see, he has countless trophies from trips abroad adorning his office walls. But one particular trophy, an oddly elongated tooth, has caught her eye and she is insistent on hearing how the good doctor came across this strange artifact. Though reluctant, the dentist begrudgingly shares his journey of dark discovery.
Sedation Dentistry is like the sickly sweet dessert after devouring a darkly delectable meal. Weighing in at only a couple of pages, this tidbit reveals how tremendously horrifying dentistry might be. Spending every day starring into the deep, dank abysses that are people’s bacteria infested mouths and then being forced to stick your fingers inside those vile maws must be a nightmare for some. Even worse must be the secret fear that those horrible ivory pillars could come slamming together at any second to grind the flesh off the bones of your fingers…
These two ‘toothsome tales’, as the author describes them, are a quick, painless read, poured through faster than it’ll take you to go through your next six month checkup. Tusk leads us into a chultun-an underground chamber on the Yucatan Peninsula where our dentist friend is hunting for treasure with a couple of comrades. This dark lair shares some disturbingly similar characteristics to the open, steaming holes that are the mouths he deals with as a dentist, including the sharp, pointed teeth. Sedation Dentistry fooled me in the first couple of sentences, with its description of a cavernous, plague infested mouth that was as ominous as the caverns found in Tusk.
Quick easy reads for those chomping at the bit for a taste of horror.
Tusk and Sedation Dentistry can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Tusk-Sedation-Dentistry-Stephen-North-ebook/dp/B074PTDDJD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504145557&sr=8-1&keywords=tusk+and+sedation+dentistry
The Sanguinarian Id introduces us to Hael, a child found abandoned and left for dead in the woods outside of an asylum in England in the late 1800s. Taken in by the doctors there, they are fascinated by this little girl who remembers little of her past and appears to be supernaturally resilient and strong. They search for but fail to find anyone who knows who she is, which is completely satisfactory to Dr. Strauss and especially Dr. Mendelson, who run the asylum. They have spent much of their time experimenting and torturing their mostly female patients and have devious plans for Hael as well.
This story combines elements of gothic horror with a journey of self-discovery. Hael doesn’t truly understand what she is, but begins to grasp the truth while doing her best to escape her nightmare existence. Despite her efforts to escape the clutches of the mysterious and purely evil Mendelson, it appears that their destinies are firmly intertwined long term.
The first part of the book takes place in Hael’s childhood years, and the author has given it a strong flavor of gothic horror like we get from the classics of the era: Dracula and Frankenstein. The latter half of the book leaps forward a half century when we are thrust into the middle of World War II Germany, where Hael continues her lifelong quest for redemption and revenge.
The story is intriguing, pulling us deeper into the dark underworld Hael both lives in and tries to make sense of-she has been abused, beaten, terrorized, and violated throughout her life. In turn, she has worked to extract revenge on those who have done this to her and those she cares for, while trying to find some sense of self. She lives both in the real world painted black with despair and misery the Nazi’s have unleashed, and in the supernatural world-a world filled with pure blood and half-blood vampires and other monsters far worse.
This is the author’s first novel and in many ways is an impressive bit of storytelling, especially for someone who is barely into adulthood. The depth of research and understanding it must have taken to develop this world and underworld filled with supernatural characters and creatures must have been substantial. The author has developed a vibrant, bloody, dark, grim world and a character that successfully manages to give the reader someone to both respect and care for, while also fearing them and the dark acts they are capable of doing.
There is a fair bit of tell vs. show in this story and the dialog, at points, is a bit awkward. The main character’s use of the word “bitch” on multiple occasions as an insult to her male enemies in the World War II era felt a bit out of place, though that is a minor complaint. There are some awkward turns of phrase here and there while some of the story transitions are abrupt. We go from knowing little to nothing about the monsters that inhabit this world early on in the story, to Kael having extensive knowledge of them later on. We did not get to join her on that journey of discovery and it felt a bit like an opportunity lost.
Despite these quibbles, this is a strong first entry in this potential series of books and a very promising start to the career of the author, who will continue to refine her writing style and sharpen the dialog with the more stories she creates. Her foundation in storytelling is solid and I look forward to seeing more from L.M. Labat in the future.
The Sanguinarian Id can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Sanguinarian-Id-L-M-Labat/dp/1937769445/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Dead Tide Rage continues the saga Stephen A. North started with Dead Tide back in 2008. This is the fourth installment in the series, which tells the stories of a wide assortment of folks in the days following the start of the zombie apocalypse in the Tampa Bay area. There is no telling if this is the actual end of the road for the saga-while some characters disappear from the tale here (and have been doing so since the first book), there continues to plenty more to carry things forward. This isn’t any sort of spoiler. The author has never pulled his punches when it comes to the fate of those who inhabit the pages in this series. And of course, if you are reading this review and haven’t checked out any of the prior installments, I would suggest you start with Dead Tide, or DTR won’t make a huge amount of sense.
The author changed the tense with the third installment of this series to past vs. present and he sticks with past tense with DTR. Regardless of the tense used, there is an immediacy found in each book of the series-things move at a fast clip. You are in deep in the action, regardless of what character’s perspective you are subjected to in that moment. Many of them are familiar by now, but there are a few new additions to the cast. If it has been a while since you’ve read Dead Tide Surge (the third book), the author has provided a dramatis personae at the beginning of the book as a quick refresh. Keeping up with everybody can get a bit confusing, but if you have made it this far, you likely have a good handle on who is who. There are plenty of folks that have survived long enough that you probably have your favorites, and the ones you are hoping die an ugly and brutal death. It should be noted, there is plenty of diversity-women, men, and children of different races and socio-economic classes, coming together or falling apart on a daily (and hourly basis) regardless of who they were before the zombies rose. No one comes away clean in this tale. Of course, this means the story isn’t locked into any single group’s survival-there really are no permanent groupings anyway-things change far too quickly and the ensemble cast drifts on and off each other’s radar unless they make a conscious effort to stick together…and even that doesn’t work out all that well too often.
The reality of a review of a fourth book in a series is that you, the reader, likely have made up your mind about this series by now and you are reading this because you want to see if this book matches up well with the others that came before. My answer to that is yes-this book fits seamlessly with the others, like a new puzzle piece. Again, there is no telling if the puzzle is complete-the outer edges aren’t quite straight. I almost feel as though the author could call it a day with this book or write four more books in the series if he chooses. As with most apocalyptic tales, the idea of a happy ending is pretty subjective. Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” I’m not sure Stephen A. North has decided where to end his story, or if he is all that interested in a happy ending for his characters. But the ride, so far, has been a pretty interesting one.
You can find Dead Tide Rage here: https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Tide-Rage-Stephen-North-ebook/dp/B073HR3TFL/ref=la_B002K8VVMG_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1499300622&sr=1-1
Kings of the Dead came out six years ago, and as was quite popular at that time with zombie genre books, was written in a journal format. The popularity of that format has died down in recent years but with my attempts to read many of the books I failed to read in years past, I am reminded once again how many authors chose to go this route. I’ve shared the advantages and disadvantages of this format in prior reviews, and of course, this book is no exception. I do give credit where credit is due, of course. Author Tony Faville remains true to the format, not moving to a third person narrative at any point, which some authors tend to do when they feel the relentless need to reveal things the narrator doesn’t know and thus can’t share with the reader. To avoid this pitfall, Cole’s journal is written in by others when he is not available at certain points in time, which fills in those gaps in the story there would otherwise be if limited to his perspective alone. This adds a few interesting twists to the story as Cole himself reads these entries, left as notes for him upon his return to his journal. It serves as smoother tale because the author didn’t suddenly change writing styles, which I appreciated.
The story is fairly standard zompoc fare, told from the perspective of a man with former military and medical experience, who has prepared with a group of friends for the end of the world as we know it for several years as a hobby. Zombies crop up when the vaccine for a new strain of the flu ends up reanimating those who have taken it. The zombies are mainly the slow shamblers here, with a mix of faster undead joining the fray as the story and timeline moves forward.
This is a fairly personal story. Like some of the other journal written sagas, there is a good chunk of the author’s personality shining through the narrator. This is a story of someone who is a fan of the genre writing a story of survival they have envisioned for themselves and their friends. It does add something to the telling of the tell-a pseudo autobiography envisioned by the author were there a zombie apocalypse. Authors are guided to “write what you know” and Tony does so here, having the personal knowledge related to weaponry, medical skills, and other related topics that would have an impact on survival in an undead world. Credit to the author for not ‘over doing it’ as I have seen a tendency of some to do when it comes to slathering their pages with an excess of demonstrated expertise in a particular area that rapidly turns into overkill. The flow here is more natural and the while the reader will know the author knows his stuff, they won’t be blasted with it on every page.
While the survivors hunker down, attempting to build a new home in their region of Oregon for much of the first half of the book, the story becomes, in time, more of a road trip as Cole, the narrator, ponders the meaning of existence in a dead world and chooses to take a journey of discovery. Cole struggles with the loss of friends and trying to find a reason to carry on, but there are also glimmers of hope that give him, and the reader, reasons to carry on.
There are some rough spots in the story and some of that comes from the format-we don’t get to discovery something happening as it happens, but written as a report done the following day or in the hours following the actual event, which dilutes some of the emotional resonance. Still, there is definite emotional potency here, especially as related to the people Cole deeply cares for and will do anything to try and keep safe, which in the an undead world is a very difficult thing to do.
As is the case with many journal oriented zombie tales, there is not necessarily a main focus outside of survival written on its pages-survival of the body as well as the spirit. As such, it meanders a good bit, but the ending was quite satisfying and unlike many of the books of a similar make and model, the author doesn’t demand that you read three or four more entries in a series to make his point. This book does so succinctly and with quiet grace.
Overall, if as a zombie genre fan you aren’t burnt out on the diary approach to zombie fiction, Kings of the Dead is a solid addition to your library.
Kings of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Kings-Dead-Tony-Faville/dp/1934861839/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
Every once in a while I like to break out of my normal routine and do something a bit different. I watch horror films-quite a few, in fact, but I have only posted a review of a couple of them on my blog. I stick to reviewing horror novels, and primarily independent stuff from independent authors and smaller presses. After all, the “big” stuff gets along just fine whether I review it or not, while the smaller, lesser known works get a boost from every review they receive-good, bad, or indifferent. Recognition and awareness is key to gaining a wider audience. Especially if you are trying to turn your ‘little’ project into something bigger. So I thought I would do my part and check out a short film by a guy named Jim Rothman (twitter handle: @ScytheJim), who is working hard on getting the crowdfunding to turn a fifteen minute short into a full length horror feature. Jim shared his film with me for the promise of a fair and honest review. And unlike so many other reviews I do, where I can only give you the link to go purchase your own copy, I am sharing the link so you can watch the film, in all its glory, for free, right now, without spending another dime! Ain’t that somethin’?
Naturally, Jim is looking for donors to help fund this project, so while you don’t have to pay to watch the short, you might consider a contribution if you like what you see and would like to see more. And Jim tossed in a bit of an extra for anyone who decides to donate $50 at supportscythe.com if they do so on Monday. Whoever pledges $50 for the Baseball Cap and Blu-Ray package (again, ON Monday) will also get an autographed copy of the script. Not too shabby a deal. So, what’s all the hubbub about? Well, you can watch the movie here: Scythe Short Film.
Okay, so we’ve gotten all the promotional stuff out of the way! On to the review:
The setup with Scythe is fairly traditional slasher fare. Two college aged girls are sitting in an apartment, one, Amy, lamenting what kind of impact she’ll manage to have on the world at large while she studies for exams. She fears no one will remember her-that she will leave no impression on anyone else including future generations. The other girl, offering up another hit off the joint they’ve been smoking, gives Amy a pep talk about how she will end up doing great things, just before our main character decides it’s time to walk home. Next, we see the second girl turn on the television to watch a news report that a imprisoned killer has escaped and is on the loose in the local area.
Pretty routine set up, and in some ways, what follows is also pretty routine. Where this film ended up resonating for me, in its brief time on my computer screen, was in the build up of tension that takes place after Amy begins her walk home and is warned, via cellphone by her friend, of the escaped maniac on the loose. The filmmakers allow the energy to build, through the music, the surrounding environment, and through the main character’s expressions and body language. Amy’s fear ebbs and flows based on what is going on around her, and that was what yanked me along with her through her harrowing journey.
In a film like this, even in short form, its as much what you know as you don’t know, and playing the guessing game about what will happen next. We all do it-when will the slasher appear, and when will they administer the coup de grace? If it’s predictable, it’s usually forgettable. But when you guess wrong and you get that adrenaline rush because you’re startled, taken off guard, or even pee yourself a bit…that’s the payoff. And for a short film that was produced in an effort to show the capabilities of these filmmakers and the promise of something greater, the payoff was there for me. Much of it was in the promise of something greater rather than just what happens on the screen. In other words, I took the bait right off the hook (or off the Scythe, in this case, har har).
The production values (I have a friend who always looooved to use that term when describing a film-it made him feel all refined and movie savvy, I suppose) were solid. The acting was decent and the music, as I already mentioned, blends well with what is happening on screen. Whatever the budget they had to make this promotional piece, it didn’t feel cheap, shabby, or hastily constructed.
The bottom line for me is not that this little film was mind altering or in and of itself a great standalone film. It’s fun and entertaining, certainly, but more importantly, serves its purpose. That purpose is to draw you in enough to want to see what the creators could do with the budget necessary to make a full length version of Scythe.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it out yourself. If you like it, promote it. If you really like it, consider tossing a few coppers in the direction of the filmmakers so you can see even more of Scythe. And if you don’t like it…well, it was just 15 minutes out of your life, now wasn’t it?
All Souls Day provides the reader with an alternate history: what if the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into war? What if the nuclear holocaust that followed laid waste to much of what we know, except for one small town in Pennsylvania that was protected by the power of the ancient demon, Moloch? In exchange for its protection, which shelters the townspeople from the burnt and irradiated outside world, the demon demands a virgin sacrifice each year, on the anniversary of the war, November 2nd, which gives this book its title.
This set up paves our introduction to the two main characters. Suzie, who is a ‘nice girl’ and cheerleader at Chatham High, and Amos, a ‘nerd’ who secretly has fallen for Suzie. This is their senior year, over twenty years since Moloch took over and the sacrifices began. As a nice girl, Suzie has the chance to be chosen on the night of her Senior Prom as the next virgin Moloch takes, while all Amos wants to do is moon over a girl he can never have. Despite their differences, the two make a connection and along with some of their friends and some other members of their community, will try and stop the cycle of sacrifice and demon worship that has cursed their suburban paradise for far too many years.
The story is certainly creative, with a town somewhat frozen in time. It is the mid-eighties when it takes place, but without any technological advancements, the town is reliant on horse-drawn carriages, farming, and slave labor from outside the wall Moloch has put up. Muties, or mutants, are brought in by the small army Chatham’s Forge has formed, when they go out into the wastelands. The high school, and the town by extension, has crafted a caste system, where you are assigned a rank once you enter high school. So ‘nice girls’ are allowed to date ‘jocks’ but never ‘nerds’. There are also ‘jesters’, ‘punks’, and ‘sluts’. And instead of a traditional bible-belting preacher spreading the word of God, everyone worships Moloch. The demon protects the town through his human servant, Pastor Justin, who exacts punishment on the faithless and disloyal. The parallels between religious zealots of our day, whose devotion to their god goes as far as to sacrifice and kill for that deity, and these Moloch worshipers, are pretty straight forward.
Told in first person, the story switches between Suzie and Amos through most of the story, with later additions coming from their friends and other townsfolk introduced throughout the book. Some of the timelines are a bit out of whack, especially in the final pages of the tale, but they all come together in the end. The story runs through Suzie and Amos’s senior year and the months that follow their prom up to All Soul’s Day in November.
The story was very creative and extremely fresh. If I have to point out a gripe, it had to do with Amos’s character, who does gain a bit of redemption here and there for being picked on as a nerd, but struck me as an incessant whiner and despite some of his actions, a major wimp. The caste system created by the community exaggerates the stereotypes most of us experience in high school. So despite the fact that Amos doesn’t need glasses to see, he is required to wear prototypical nerd glasses and the predictable nerd attire. The abuse heaped upon him is almost ritualistic and both his fellow students and teachers participate in the fun. The author has done a great job of fleshing out the caste system and having virtually everyone who never experienced the world prior to the Nuclear War that started the reign of Moloch accept their caste almost without question. Still, as much as I can appreciate Suzie’s determination to revolt both in mind and body against being a nice girl and the horrors that Chatham’s Forge has to offer, Amos perpetuates his stereotype and yet still stumbles into almost everything good that happens to him despite his cowardice and incompetence. If they had an ‘emo’ caste, he would be its leader. Still, you can’t help yourself in rooting for him, Suzie, and their friends whose desire is to either escape, or annihilate their little slice of hell on earth.
All Soul’s Day is the first book in The Days of Ascension series by the author, and while we aren’t quite left with a cliffhanger, it comes pretty close. The author has created an intriguing world and it should be interesting to see what is out beyond the borders of Chatham’s Forge.
Beneath The Mask is a recreation of a prior Stephen North story, a re-envisioning of his first book with the same title. Sergeant Alex Cray of the Florida National Guard is dealing with what appears to be a biological attack on the Tampa Bay area. He and the rest of the soldiers facing the situation have seen people dying from some sort of plague that leaves them with sores on their faces and a homicidal streak that borders on madness. It is clear that this situation is spreading to other parts of the country and globe and even more shocking, it is perhaps coming from something beyond our world.
Strange events unfold with little explanation around Alex. While the citizens in the area are desperate to survive, there are others who appear in the area that look human, though they seem transformed and almost alien in their physical perfection. Sergeant Cray is forced to kill to defend himself and the various people he comes into contact with that he feels are worth saving as things continue to deteriorate around him. At first he fears the plague that has permeated the area and like the rest of the soldiers, is supposed to continue wearing his MOPP suit-the protective bio-containment outfit that prevents airborne viruses from infecting you. But it doesn’t take him long to realize that life behind the mask is no longer worth living. After stripping his containment suit, Alex is forced to continue stripping away other masks that civilization has put in place for him. He puzzles over the deterioration of his and others humanity while seeking answers as to what the truth is behind the strange people and strange vessels that have arrived in the area that look like nothing anyone on earth could have created.
Beneath The Mask has been transformed from a traditional first day apocalyptic tale of survival into a story that combines elements of this and that of a futuristic thriller. The author wrote another story, The Drifter, which had a noir/Blade Runner type flavor to it, though it mostly takes place elsewhere and else when and there are hints here that these two sagas will be tied together in a series of adventures, as elements from the second book have bled through here, in Beneath The Mask.
Stephen North’s writing preference is typically first person, present tense, and this story is written in this format. While there are some challenges with this style, because the reader can only see what Alex sees and hears in each instance, it steeps you in the moment, dealing with everything the main character faces with no additional time to react. There is no time to debate whether to pull the trigger or to leave someone for dead when things are constantly shifting and moving all around you. The story is not driven by one particular objective, although Alex’s instant to instant reactions are shaped by the strange realities he has discovered and must come to grips with, which drives him to focus on certain objectives-most of which have to do with staying alive. His alliances are also driven by gut instinct and the desire to retain a kernel of humanity within him, even while he is forced to do mostly unspeakable things to keep himself and those he cares for alive.
The author has created the start of a rollicking adventure tale that has the potential to transcend timelines and realities. Alex does seem almost too reactionary in this story-pulled by outside forces in different directions on a constant basis, rather than focusing on anything beyond moment to moment survival. Of course, the author puts a steady flow of roadblocks in front of him to provide him with all sorts of adventures, but he is almost philosophically detached from one of the only overriding objectives he returns to throughout the book-the desire to see if his parents are still alive. Of course, there are far greater missions for Sergeant Cray to involve himself in, but I would have liked to see him push a little harder in an effort to achieve this objective. Despite this minor concern, the author has created an all-to-human hero that fails as much as he succeeds, still tries to do what is right even when nothing he does seems to matter, and still is able to fight to retain a grip on what makes him human even if at times there seems to be no good reason to do so anymore.
Beneath The Mask can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Beneath-Mask-Drifter-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00QL64P8A/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1421418407&sr=8-3&keywords=beneath+the+mask
The Undead Haze is the follow up to the author’s first novel, The Undead Situation, where we were introduced to self-proclaimed sociopath, Cyrus V. Sinclair. Cyrus is the narrator here, as he was in the first book, and thus we get to see the world only through his eyes. His claim of being a sociopath are dampened from the get go here, even by his own admission. In reviewing the first novel, I made it clear that it was debatable whether he was truly a sociopath. But since the story is told by the main character, we only have his proclamation to go by as to whether it is true or not.
Here, it becomes clear that Cyrus’s feelings for Blaze, the woman he lost track of before the end of the first book, don’t jive with that of a true sociopath. It is more likely that Blaze is closer to a text book definition of sociopath, at least based on how she acted and reacted to others, including Cyrus, the first book. The majority of this novel is spent with Cyrus wanting to find Blaze because of the feelings he has developed for her. Naturally, because of the state the world is in, there are some tremendous perils brought on by both the living and the dead. Cyrus crosses paths with someone who has the potential to help him find Blaze, if she is still alive, though he will have to go through hell on earth in the process.
Much of the criticism I saw in reviews of the first novel were due to Cyrus’s proclamation that he was a sociopath when there were aspects of his personality that left that up for debate. Much of the criticism I have seen in reviews of this novel are due to the fact that Cyrus shows far more vulnerability and humanity than a sociopath ever would. He works hard to convince himself that he has no need for others, that he is still using them, and is purposefully callous on occasion, but he shows far more fear, a willingness to open himself up to others, and more of a desire to help others than ever before. Again, since both stories are told in first person, all the reader has to go on is Cyrus’s proclamations about himself, rather than based on any truth that may have been revealed had his story been told in third person. The only thing for certain is that Cyrus V. Sinclair is a bit more complicated than a one word description of his personality type.
The Undead Haze, is in some ways a more complicated story, like its protagonist has become, than the one found in the first book. Cyrus is forced further and further outside his comfort zone. He is beaten and bloodied for long stretches of this tale. He’s weak, vulnerable, and at the mercy of others who he must rely upon. He is obsessed with another person, feeling something akin to love, which becomes the driving force in his life. This is what drives this story and will likely determine whether a reader likes this book more, or less than the first one. Cyrus is still, for the most part, a disagreeable character, but one who is far more human than before. He questions whether or not what he seems to becoming is who he truly is, rather than the sociopath he believed himself to be in the past.
Naturally, this is a character driven story, with the events that unfold on its pages being secondary to how Cyrus experiences them. There are traditional zombie slow movers with a mix of fast movers (those that have recently turned) which are one threat to Cyrus, but they are not the worst danger for him. It the human dangers that are far worse.
The author’s writing has gotten sharper and she has nurtured Cyrus into something far more complex than the one dimensional, smug jerk he was in the first book. While in many ways he is still irredeemable, he has expanded greatly beyond what he was to begin with in this book. It will be interesting to see where he ends up going in the third act of his saga.
The Undead Haze can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Undead-Haze-Situation-Book-Volume/dp/1618680730/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1420788356&sr=1-2
The Tether. The name drums up an image of something that holds you in place, latches on to you, and links you to others that are also connected in a similar fashion. The Tether in The Phone Company is the name of the latest mobile device being offered by the eponymous organization to their customers. PCo, for short, didn’t make the Tether, but they have taken full advantage of its endless capabilities as a device to connect everyone to each other. Just sign up, get connected, and work to become one of the Top 12 of the PCo family. Its aps are remarkable, giving its customers almost magic-like abilities to peak into the world of their neighbors, to control machinery, and to retrieve virtually any information instantaneously.
PCo has set up shop in Cracked Rock, Montana, building a data center on the cemetery where the town founders have been buried. While there are protests about what they have done, most of the citizens are too excited about the free phones being offered to students and other members of the community to have a problem with it. Cracked Rock is a town that is hurting. Several years earlier a boy went on a shooting spree at the local middle school, tearing the town apart. While this was happening, Steve, one of the teachers in the high school, avoided his kids being victims because they were facing another nightmare at the local hospital: the death of Janice, his wife, due to lung cancer.
Steve and Bill, his best friend and a deputy sheriff in town, are about the only two members of the community not thrilled with the new Tethers and the increased presence of PCo. Both are given free Tethers as public servants, but Steve would rather stick with his old phone that both he and his wife used years before and Bill isn’t interested in agreeing to the background check the Tether requires to grant him access to all the neat law enforcement tools it has to offer.
It doesn’t take long for this thriller to migrate to more of a supernatural horror, with strange events occurring all around town. It seems that everyone is discovering unique aps on their phones, like JJ, Steve’s son, who discovers he can inhabit the bodies of soldiers and rebels doing battle in a variety of wars across the globe. Sarah, Steve’s daughter, realizes she has a popularity ap that not only gauges her popularity against the other girls in her high school, it also provides guidance on what she can do to claw her way to the top of the list.
If you have read the author’s previous work, The Pen Name, it becomes clear very quickly that both these tales inhabit the same eerie world. The mysterious publishing company from the first book pays a brief visit here, and the main character from that tale had been laid off from the phone company prior to being sucked into his own mystery. The author’s prior work seemed a bit more subtle as the world around the main character unraveled in bits and pieces. In Cracked Rock, things seem to tumble down the rabbit hole in a more abrupt fashion, though everyone seems fairly happy with the results. The mysterious Provider, who is behind the all-consuming need to be connected, is spoken about with a reverence bordering on religiously zealotry by the faithful.
This story, like its predecessor, has flavors of Lovecraft mixed in with King and begins as a thriller that migrates more into the realm of supernatural horror before the story is complete. The writing is solid though Steve, the main character, doesn’t feel as strongly developed as Ben was in The Pen Name. Perhaps because it felt like Steve didn’t seem to sense what was going wrong all too quickly in the pages of the story. He seems to be more of a passive reactionary to a great deal of what is happening, at least until everything has gone off the rails entirely. He is unhappy, discontented, but slow to engage with Graham, the ever present PCo representative, and all too willing to hope for the best.
Overall, The Phone Company is still a very intriguing story. It pokes and prods at how worthwhile it is to live in a world where we are hyper-connected to one another, where there is an ap for everything and our lives are on display for everyone via social media. We bemoan our loss of privacy and yet cannot look away, or stop contributing to the deluge of information shared with one another. The book takes that in a supernatural direction, turning the need for connection into a religious fervor that devours everyone who submits.
The Phone Company can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Phone-Company-David-Jacob-Knight/dp/1503361993/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1420306490&sr=8-1
At Hell’s Gates is the initial horror volume in a series anthologies produced with the proceeds going to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. The overall theme of this series is general horror, but this volume leans heavily on zombie apocalypse related tales from authors with books already out on that subject matter. The stories told here are tied in with their other works, giving a short story that sometimes lies at the periphery of the world they have created or serves as an new slant on characters a reader of those works is already familiar with.
Overall, the work here is solid and the writing entertaining. This book serves more as a sampler platter of various author’s works rather than standalone tales except in a few cases, although little is lost in translation if you hadn’t read any of the books from the author’s bibliography. For example, I have read Stephen Kozeniewski’s work, The Ghoul Archipelago and his short here is based on the world we see in that novel, but I have not read anything from Stevie Kopas, but her tale of murder and insanity stands on its own quite well, though it is a part of a bigger world the author has created in her novels. The only criticism I have of the layout of this work, at least in the e-version, is that the introduction of the authors comes after the stories, when the ‘teaser’ description of the story and how it relates to their greater works should have come prior to each tale. A minor quibble, but one worth mentioning.
Anthologies are always a mixed bag, and some stories grab you more than others. That is inevitable with such a wide assortment of writing styles, authors, and story types, and such was the case here. I didn’t dislike any of the stories, but a few stood out and will remain with me for quite some time. The aforementioned author’s tales fall into that group, as well as stories by Paul Mannering, Tim Marquiz, Frank Tayell, and Jacqueline Druga. Their stories made the leap from the page into my imagine more so than any of the others. Of course, anyone who enjoys a good zompoc tale will likely find a good primer for a larger series of books by various authors to check out-with traditional slow moving zombies as well as infected and fast moving, talking zombies being found within these pages. And while some of these stories weren’t as compelling as standalones, they did intrigue me enough to perhaps take a closer look at the bigger stories being told.
With future volumes having specific themes, it is more than likely that the stories will be standalone tales of horror rather than shorts tied into a larger saga as was the case here. This is a solid start to a promising anthology series with the proceeds going to a very worthy cause.
At Hell’s Gates can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/At-Hells-Gates-Volume-One/dp/150254539X/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top