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
The Maggots Underneath the Porch is another gory, graphic tale from the mind of Patrick James Ryan, who loves crafting stories where the splatter is spectacular, the horror is shocking, and the payoff is quick and merciless. After reading his full novel The Night It Got Out and his anthology Blood Verse, I wasn’t surprised when this one had the same violent, gruesome flavor to it.
The Maggots Underneath the Porch takes place in the mid-70s in a small Indiana town where Jimmy Turner, a young boy who lives with his housebound grandmother, is coping with growing up, a love of baseball, and the tragic loss of his parents. On top of this, his grandmother has gone from being obese to completely immobilized, stuck in a chair in the family room. It has become so bad that a hole has been cut in the floor so she can cast away her garbage and also take care of bodily functions. She is coated in filth and flies when Jimmy’s Uncle Pete visits and makes an effort to get her better care and to support Jimmy, but things are quickly getting worse. Grandma is rotting from both the inside and out. Even worse, something is growing inside her guts…something rotten that wants to break free.
It’s pretty simple. If you love grindhouse gore, this is a novella for you. It is a quick read that provides some decent character development for Jimmy and his Uncle Pete, but the focus is on the action and the terror they and everyone deals with when they come face to face with the horror inside Jimmy’s house. The pace is fast and in several instances we are introduced to a character moments before they meet their gruesome end. This is not for the faint of heart or those without an iron constitution.
The author does tend to shade into the ‘tell vs. show’ arena here and there with how he spins his tale, but nothing that is too distracting from the story itself. After reading prior works, Patrick James Ryan continues to sharpen his story weaving skills. He loves playing on the nostalgia elicited by the good old summer days of kids playing baseball and spending their time out in the sun rather than inside playing video games. While I was not in my early teens in the 70s, I can appreciate what the story represents-a simpler time where Jaws was on the big screen, collecting beer cans was a fun hobby, and getting a wiffle ballgame together in the front yard was a blast. There is a lot of innocence to the kids that are Jimmy’s friends. Innocence that gets shredded and devoured once the horror begins. This is good B-Movie, grindhouse horror for those who love their stories full of pulpy carnage.
The Maggots Underneath the Porch can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Maggots-Underneath-Porch-Patrick-James-ebook/dp/B074VG8BTX/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1519435992&sr=8-1
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