Writer of Horror Fiction

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Review of Stephen A North’s “Down in the Gutter Like Me”

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


Review of Stephen Kozeniewski’s “Skinwrapper”

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


Review of Austin Case’s “Wild, Dark Times”

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


Review of Jonathan Crayford’s “Legacy of the Sky Pendant”

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


Review of “Oblique” by Neal Vandar

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.

You can find Oblique here: https://www.amazon.com/Oblique-Neal-Vandar-ebook/dp/B07HFCVM48/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1543355005&sr=1-1&keywords=oblique+neal+vandar


The Will To Survive, available now!

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.
The Will to Survive


Review of Tim Long’s “Shards of Reality”

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


Review of Stephen A. North’s “Tusk and Sedation Dentistry”

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


Review of Stephen A. North’s “Dead Tide Rage”

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


Review of Mark Tufo’s “Zombie Fallout”

It has taken me far too long to read the first Zombie Fallout book by Mark Tufo.  Tufo is one of the most prolific zombie writers out there, with nine books in this series plus spinoffs including a series of werewolf stories that take place many years after the zompoc.  Naturally, I’ve heard of Tufo for years.  This particular novel has nearly 1800 reviews on Amazon, which is a staggering number considering it was self-published.

This book has some similar characteristics to other notable books in this genre.  It is in a journal format, though the author strays from sticking with the main character’s perspective for certain portions of the book.  While this isn’t a major issue, it does point out the flaw in this type of storytelling-things the main character doesn’t know must be shared by other characters or in third person and it feels like a bit of a disruption when another voice jumps into for a chapter or two.

The prologue makes it clear the zombie apocalypse is about to get into full swing when a vaccination for a new strain of flu ends up bringing the dead back to life.  From there we switch over to narrator Mike Talbot, ex-Marine and family man, while he is getting ready to take a shower in his house.  This is interrupted when zombies show up on his front lawn and his family starts to freak out.  Mike is sort of a prepper/gun nut who has been fascinated by the idea of zombies for a long time, but it’s clear he isn’t prepared for the sudden all-out assault taking place on his neighborhood and threatening his family’s existence.

Things move pretty fast from the get go, with rescue trips to save family members and friends while Mike and his neighbors work to barricade the walled-in neighborhood from impending doom.  The story is, in many ways, pretty routine zompoc stuff, though the author throws a few curve balls into the mix.  This includes the idea that these zombies perhaps aren’t undead, but infected and still with a spark of life, and more importantly, perhaps a spark of intelligence.  There is also a hint of the supernatural, including a bit of prognostication and mental telepathy thrown in to give things a bit of mystery.

Overall, I can see why this series has been so popular.  Tufo uses snarky humor and heavily descriptive verse to describe the gore, the smells, and the overall madness engulfing his character’s life.  Despite some of the more odd things about Mike, he is, for the most part, just a family man trying his best to protect his loved ones in a time of ultimate danger-something very relatable.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t have some issues with the story or how it’s told.  Many of my complaints have been pointed in other reviews.  Though the story is fun and I’m intrigued as to how some of the more unique elements the author introduced here will be expanded upon in future volumes, I felt that many characters outside of Mike are somewhat one-dimensional.  This is in part due to the fact that a diary format is somewhat limited in stepping away from the single perspective it showcases.

Women in particular are given short shrift in this book.  Mike’s wife is somewhat of a stereotypical shrew who naturally is the only person on the planet he is afraid of, yet at the same time she appears to be helpless and lacking in common sense.  Despite having lived with a prepper for many years, she has no idea how to even load a weapon.  Neither does Mike’s daughter, for that matter, who, like her mama, has a mean temper and a stubborn streak a mile long.  Another woman who agrees to go a supply run outside the safety of the walls of Mike’s neighborhood does nothing more than cower in the truck while everyone else takes care of business.  All I could remember about the wife of Mike’s best friend was that she was a lousy shot-there is little else shared about her.

Mike is a funny character and his internal monologues and flashbacks are sometimes very amusing as he tries to make light of a desperate situation.  At other times his perspective is best described as a bit…off.  Comparing the horror of possibly being forced to shoot a loved one who has been attacked by a zombie to the more meager fear of speaking in public for the first seemed somewhat dismissive.  The obsession Mike has with his Jeep Wrangler and not using this durable off-road vehicle during the zombie apocalypse because it might get scratched plus having his family be fearful of his wrath if they use it even under desperate circumstances seemed a bit lacking in focus.  Mike would do anything for his family, and that comes across on almost every page, but there are occasional lapses in perspective like those above that seem a bit disjointed given the situation.

Despite the criticism I have, the book is fun and certainly does a good job of paving the way for future installments.  Without leaving things on a cliffhanger note, there is enough mystery hinted at to keep a reader guessing and wanting to know what is next-in particular related to the supernatural elements of this tale.

Zombie Fallout can be found here:      https://www.amazon.com/Zombie-Fallout-Mark-Tufo-ebook/dp/B003A022YO/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1473094523&sr=8-1


Review of Holiday of the Dead

Holiday of the Dead is a rather sizable volume of zombie short stories that mostly stick to the theme of being on holiday, though a few seemed to stretch that concept a bit.  For us Yanks, a holiday means a day of festivities, while with the Brits it is what we call a vacation.  There is a pretty healthy mix of both types of tales to be found here.  It isn’t just a mix, but a mixed bag, with a few stories forgotten as soon as I finished them.  Fortunately, quite a few others were memorable and demonstrated the author’s ability to have some fun with the theme and with zombie fiction in general.  When you have a book filled with nearly forty short stories, things are going pretty well when you come away feeling that at least thirty were worth the price of admission.

Often I try to provide a mini-review of each story in an anthology, but not with a tome this size.  There are far too many to recount in detail.  Suffice it to say, you will get an assortment of traditional and inspired here.  There are some very recognizable names in the table of contents, well know writers of zombie and horror fiction, including Iain Mckinnon, Eric Dimbleby, Tonia Brown, David Dunwoody, Eric Brown, William Meikle, Joe McKinney, and Wayne Simmons.  A couple of special guests, John Russo and Tony Burgess, add tales of their own at the end of the book.

Perhaps Holiday of the Dead could have been pared down a bit, but overall it was an entertaining read with only a few minor speed bumps.  The most inventive tales should more than make up for any issues you may have with the handful that don’t resonate.  Stories like Change Is As Good As Rest, Naked Fear, Daddy Dearest, Home Is The Sailor, Home From The Sea, Burj, The Day The Music Died, Where Moth And Rust Destroy, and Crossover kept things popping, though quite a few others were just as fun to dive into.

Solidly entertaining zombie shorts with a few misfires, but more than enough undead goodness between its pages.

Holiday of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Holiday-Dead-John-Russo-ebook/dp/B004XJ7HZK/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=#navbar


Reviews of “Breathe” and “Chameleon” by Layden Robinson

Instead of two separate posts, since I read these two books one after the other, I thought it would make more sense to combine their review into one post.

Breathe is a collection of short stories from Layden Robinson that are very difficult to pin down.  Surreal horror with a perhaps bizarre slant might describe some of this work, though even that perhaps doesn’t quite encapsulate what these twelve shorts are all about.  Free form poetry?  Perhaps.  The utterings of a madman?  Quite possibly.

There is a preponderance of adjectives and adverbs slathered freely throughout these tales of nightmare and perhaps waking dreams.  Perhaps there are too many-some jarring and disruptive, as is the flow and pacing in much of these tales.  These are not stories for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.  Vampires, assassins, mannequins, giant tarantulas, and serial killers abound in stories of failure and perhaps redemption, though there are as many uncontrolled laughs bursting forth as there are profound meanings, or so it seemed to me.

It’s fair to say that this probably isn’t a book that will be everyone’s cup of tea.  It is something you have focus on, glean and decipher as you can, and determine what meaning there is for you.  I won’t lie and say I was satisfied with every story-on the contrary, some left me frustrated and exasperated.  Perhaps that is the point.  I wasn’t quite sure where to go with some of these tales.  Certainly, there is meaning to be found, but whether it will resonate for you will be determined if you are receptive to letting your mind get bent a little, then a little more, with each written word.

Check it out for yourself here: https://www.amazon.com/Breathe-Layden-Robinson-ebook/dp/B00LD8JYLE?ie=UTF8&ref_=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top

 

Chameleon is a standalone short by Layden Robinson that is as surreal and trippy as his short story collection, Breathe, though it is more cohesive and compelling from my perspective.  It is a magical journey of discovery-a quest, if you will, that is perhaps partly dream and partly reality, or maybe entirely acid trip.  Regardless, it is an adventure that challenged the main character at every turn and did the same with me the reader.  Demons, the devil, loss, tragedy, hope, peace, and redemption are things that come to mind here, though interpretations will vary.  This isn’t an easy story to review or even describe, except perhaps as an enchanting fever dream that pokes and prods at you because as soon as you think you have a fix on where it is going, it jars you and changes course.  The pace is brisk but the taste of each section, or compartment of this short story, leaves a flavor on your mouth, whether it be bitter or a vague hint of sweetness.  And then the taste changes when you turn the page once more.

Chameleon can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Chameleon-Layden-Robinson-ebook/dp/B00KHB71QI?ie=UTF8&ref_=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top


Review of Tonia Brown’s “Badass Zombie Road Trip”

From the title of this book, Badass Zombie Road Trip, I had a vision of an apocalyptic ride across undead highways in a classic car (maybe a convertible Caddy or a hot rod like an old Road Runner).  Even the picture used on the cover reinforced that vision.  Alas, it was not meant to be.  What I got instead was a tale of Jonah and Dale, best buddies, on the run to chase down a lost soul before the devil does them in.  Not a bad trade off, especially when Candy, a beautiful hitchhiker, is added to the mix.  She adds a bit of spice to the testosterone mix, especially since Dale, the Lothario of the duo, has his sights set on her as his next conquest, while Jonah, the meek and mild member of the pair, is falling hard for her in his own modest way.

The threesome has to make it cross country after a poorly thought out (and devilishly influenced) detour into California, where Dale soul is taken from him by Lucifer himself, collecting on a debt incurred during his childhood.  To save his friend, Jonah ups the stakes and tosses his soul into the mix if Satan will give them a chance to reclaim Dale’s soul.  Unfortunately for both of them, the Devil doesn’t play fair, so Dale is not only soulless, he’s lifeless too-though he can move around and talk…and he’s hungry for a bit more than junk food.

Jonah and Dale’s relationship is an interesting dynamic.  Dale is overwhelming, loud, obnoxious, and a letch, while Jonah is quiet, intelligent, sincere, and innocent.  They seem to fit together well, though Dale’s bullying tended to rub me the wrong way and I wanted Jonah to stand up for himself a bit more.  And that is where Candy, the intriguing hitchhiker who gets the boys into even more trouble, comes in.  She is beautiful, somewhat mysterious, and triggers strong interest from both of them.  Plus, she adds her own brand of trouble to the story that keeps things hopping.

Overall, the journey is an entertaining one, though it grinds through a few scenes.  Dragging a zombie across country that needs to feed on something…substantial…every now and then is definitely a cause for concern and plenty of misfortune.  The Devil is cunning and likes to cause as much woe for our road warriors as possible, which keeps things popping.  The dark humor here works and so does the relationship between the three main characters, who seem to mesh well, even when they’re causing each other major grief.  This is a quick read, and a fun one.

Badass Zombie Road Trip can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Badass-Zombie-Road-Tonia-Brown-ebook/dp/B006ZAJ4M4/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8


Review of Martin Berman-Gorvine’s “All Souls Day”

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.

All Soul’s Day can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/All-Souls-Days-Ascension-Book-ebook/dp/B018F3CGWS/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1451876254&sr=1-4&keywords=all+souls+day


Review of Steven Pajak’s “Mad Swine: Regeneration”

Mad Swine: Regeneration completes the trilogy with the aftermath of the journey of the surviving members of the Randall Oaks subdivision near Chicaog who chose to head to Finnegan Farms in the dead of winter.  Lead by the narrator, Matt Danzig, those that make it to the farm work hard to establish a new life for themselves with the hope of going back to their suburban haven they left behind to retrieve those who stayed behind.  But with one of the worst winters on record and the ‘crazies’ still out there, it isn’t a journey they will be able to make for some time to come.

My reviews of the two previous books categorized them as such: the first book was predominantly action-man vs. zombie and man vs. man.  The second book focused more on character development, with Matt becoming less of a Rambo and more of an everyman doing his best to keep it together so those who are counting on him can do so as well.  This final act blends both action and character development together better than the other two books managed to do, with a quick paced, action-filled completion to the story that also continues to provide the reader with more reasons to grow attached to Matt, his older brother, and the group of people he is responsible for both at the farm and back at Randall Oaks.

The infected/zombies in this book take more of a back seat than in the prior books, with the focus being more on the living menace that has been creeping around the periphery of the barricaded and sheltered places Matt and his group have called home.  They are beginning to discover that they are far better organized and dangerous that anyone had assumed when those make a brazen assault on the farm.  While I would say that once again, the author has not brought a lot to the table that makes this story different or unique compared to the rest of the zombie subgenre, he has continued to refine his writing skills and given the reader a sharper, more well defined and compelling set of characters with each book.

Of course, there are a few pieces of criticism to share as it relates to Regeneration.  One in particular has to do with timing of Matt’s return to Randall Oaks.  It is tremendously coincidental that he arrives mere hours (though it seems like minutes) before a surprise attack rocks the gated community.  It seemed a bit rushed and a convenience to move the story forward at a quicker pace.  Another frustration I had is with the lack of development of the main bad guy, who had potential to be much further fleshed out, especially based on the limited details shared about him.  He seemed to be a rather twisted individual.  The book could have afforded him a few more pages to shape him into more of a worthy opponent to Matt and his team and to move him away from a more generalized baddy.

Overall, Mad Swine: Regeneration is the most satisfying of the three books in the trilogy.  It does a solid job of continuing the character development that made Matt more human and relatable in the second book, while at the same time sharing traits with the first book and its love of action.  The author (or perhaps the publisher or his editor…) seems to like taking a few shortcuts when it comes to certain story elements.  The battle between the neighborhoods never showed up except in synopsis in the second book and the main villain seems somewhat under developed here in the final book.  It isn’t a major criticism, but worth pointing out.  I believe that adding those components could only serve to enhance the story.

This was a satisfying zombie trilogy, in particular to watch and see how the author continued to grow and refine his ability to pull the reader in and give them a reason to grow attached to certain characters.  The action and story is solid, and the pace is fast.

Mad Swine: Regeneration can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Regeneration-Mad-Swine-Book-3-ebook/dp/B011SJQ31Q/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8


Review of Eloise Knapp’s “The Undead Haze”

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


Review of “At Hell’s Gates, Volume 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


Review of Donna Burgess’ “Notes From The End Of The World”

Notes From the End of the World follows the exploits of characters Cindy and Nick during the initial days and months of the outbreak of the N-Virus. They are two teenagers who live in a small suburban town in South Carolina facing the onslaught of the dead coming back to life. But not in the way most stories in this genre are introduced, or how they usually proceed. This is more like a slow burn, where the virus creeps into their lives much like the shamblers do in the story.
Cindy and Nick go to the same high school and Nick is dating Cindy’s older, more popular (and stuck up) sister. The story is told in first person, predominantly from Cindy’s perspective, although Nick’s experiences is also shared in various chapters, giving insight into how his world is crumbling alongside Cindy’s. Even Cindy’s older sister shares the spotlight with a few select blog posts scattered throughout the book.
With most zombie apocalypse stories you can categorize them as either initial outbreak tales or sagas of long term survival in the months and years that follow. Some encapsulate both, but generally speaking, those that speak of the initial outbreak are sudden, abrupt, and show the world falling apart within days, if not hours. Not so with Notes From the End of the World. The N-Virus impacts the lives of everyone slowly, over many months, with the world not slipping into darkness overnight, but by dribs and drabs. And as is often the case, we see most people in denial, going about their daily lives even as select members of the population begin wandering the streets, ravenous for flesh. The police routinely deal with these shamblers, and funeral homes have gotten into the new business of setting up facilities where a loved one who has turned can be kept behind fences to be viewed by the living who can’t quite come to grips with reality. Cindy continues to go to school, even as the occasional zombie wanders the campus and less and less of the student body show up every day.
This is a YA zombie story, with Cindy’s unrequited love for Nick taking center stage along with the other heartaches that come from the steady loss of life around her. Initially, she is a volunteer at the local hospital, where the dread that comes with the undead being more prominent. Her father is a doctor who works at the hospital but does his best to shelter his family from the impending reality that the world is slowly, inch by inch, coming to an end.
Though Cindy is in some ways a petulant teenager, her character seems genuine here, in turns accepting the terrible fate that awaits her and everyone she cares about and at other times caught up in the jealousy surrounding Nick’s relationship with her sister and her love for him. At one point in the tale, Cindy is in a class at school when a discussion occurs between the teacher and the few remaining students asking why people are in such denial about the N-Virus and its impact and it is suggested that everyone is going through various stages of coping with grief that typically come from dealing with a long term ailment. But when soldiers indiscriminately start shooting both shamblers and the living who cross their path, it becomes clear to all that nothing will ever be the same again.
While this is a YA tale that focuses on Cindy’s affection for Nick and the difficult relationship she has with her sister, it brings an interesting variation to the telling of the traditional zombie tale that a wider audience should appreciate with the slow, shambling despair that comes with the inevitability of a plague of this magnitude. There is no immediate and harsh dose of reality that comes with an overnight transition from a normal world to the end of times. Instead, like a cancer spreading inch by dreadful inch, there is at various times denial, anger, and depression, with acceptance coming, as it usually does, far too late for most.
While there are some typos and some other grammatical errors here, they don’t distract from the overall enjoyment of this tale. A zombie fan who doesn’t like YA fiction might not be interested with this one, but others should find the author’s take on the advent of the zombie apocalypse rather novel.
Notes From the End of the World can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Notes-End-World-Volume-1/dp/0692300252/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1415559184&sr=8-1


Review of Joseph Souza’s “Darpocalypse”

Darpocalypse, the second book in The Living Dead Series by Joseph Souza, jumps ahead from the prior book in time and introduces us to mostly brand new characters who did not appear in the prior novel.  Dar, the suicidal teenager, is the only one who remains.  She has become the merciless leader of the Boston Commons compound where a group of survivors live thanks to her quick thinking in urging a city engineer to fence the area in before the surge of undead swept over the city.  Gritz, a Delta Force colonel, is the lone survivor in a failed mission to stop a nuclear power plant from going critical as the undead overwhelmed the area.  He has been put on a new mission by the President to get to Boston to find the “ghost” that is in the compound and bring them back to Washington DC to save the city from annihilation.  Annabelle is a washed up rock star performing for Dar on stage in Boston to entertain the survivors, and also goes out into the dead city to gather supplies because she is immune to the infection and more importantly, is a ghost who can walk among them.  Mike Brabas is a man on death row waiting to be executed until the dead rise, and then accidentally discovers that he too is a ghost.  Now his delusions of grandeur and terroristic tendencies have him pointed toward Washington D.C. with every intention of creating a new world order with him as its leader.

Darpocalypse is a total shift from the first book in this series.  It moves from first person to third and many of the things that happened and were significant elements of the first book have been pushed aside.  No longer do any infected animals appear here, although the infected humans still go through a transformation where they appear to have transcended into some sort of state of grace momentarily, speaking about the chosen or regrets they had in life, before transforming yet again into the ravenous monsters that zombie fans know and love.  The nuclear fallout pushing south from Maine appears to have had no impact on Boston either.  Dar still has visions of heading west to find her father and the first scroll-the journal her uncle wrote that might have the scientific information to save everyone who remains, though that is secondary to her efforts to rule what remains of Boston with an iron fist.  Thom, her father and narrator from the first book, has supposedly set up camp out in Washington State with a ghost of his own, though he is not a part of this book at all.

There were few redeemable characters in the first book except for some secondary ones.  This book also provides us with its share of the despicable, but mixed among them are far more likable people, which made it easier for me to root for someone.  In the first book, I found that very hard to do.  Annabelle, the former drug addled and suicidal ghost of Boston has found life in this deadly world, with her new found talent that allows her to hunt for supplies and be Dar’s right hand helping the people of Boston.  She cares for everyone and wants nothing more than to insure the survival of the camp.  Colonel Gritz is a bit too much of a super soldier-the perfect human weapon-but he is also someone who wants to do what he can to insure both the survival of the human race and save his country from the brink of annihilation.  Of course, Brabas is a despicable sociopath through and through, but the one character who I truly despised in this story was Dar.  I loathed her in the first book and didn’t think it possible increase my aversion to her any further, but the author somehow managed to turn up her loathsomeness to an eleven.  To be fair, as I mentioned in my review of the first novel, there is nothing wrong with despicable characters.  This is no indictment to either what the author has written or the story itself.  Admittedly, Dar in her cruel and disturbing way, is doing what she believes necessary to keep the people she is responsible for safe.  But in doing so, she is far closer in personality to most villains that live in tales of apocalyptic despair than any sort of hero.  She throws anyone who defies her into a pit filled with zombies to fight for their lives, along with anyone who enters her stronghold-they must all prove they can survive against the undead.  She picks and chooses who lives, and cows anyone who even looks at her cross-eyed into complete and utter submission.  Slivers of humanity sneak through on occasion-with her young son and when she reveals her desire to keep the whole of her community safe, but that only assures the reader that she is not some sort of demon, but still a human being.  A vile, hate-filled, wretched human being who is willing to sacrifice anyone who will stand in her way, which she believes is the only way to keep others safe.  Add to this the inexplicable fact that everyone, and I do mean everyone, bows down before her in a state of awe and fear when she is clearly some sort of megalomaniac who should be put down like a rabid dog makes her an even more disconcerting character.

Darpocalypse is a solidly told story that veers closer to the traditional zompoc tale than its predecessor, though it retains a few select supernatural elements that insure it stands apart from the rest.  Yes, the author has created perhaps one of the most despicable heroes in any zompoc book I have ever read, but he has wrapped an intriguing story around her that compels me to pick up the third book to see how this wild, intriguing saga concludes.  And if I wish for Dar’s ugly, brutal demise the entire time I am reading it, so be it.

Darpocalypse can be found here:  http://www.amazon.com/Darpocalypse-The-Living-Dead-Volume/dp/1618680838/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


Review of Stephen Kozeniewski’s “Billy and the Cloneasaurus”

 Billy and the Clonesaurus tells the tale of William 790-6, a clone who lives in a town filled with other William clones, in a world filled with even more William clones.  As with every other William clone, he is to be slurried, or decommissioned, on his first birthday, and replaced by the next iteration.  When an accident happens at the slurrying plant with William 789 and 790 is given another day to live, he spends it with his replacement and starts to resent the idea of his imminent departure.  Happenstance allows him to once again escape being decommissioned when his new iteration is tossed into the ‘whirling blades of death’ that are used to slurry clones instead of him and he is free to live for another year.  But Will, as he and every other clone call each other, finds himself a bit more curious than the average Will about the world surrounding him and the reasons every other Will does what they do for the corporation that controls everything.  790 sells dental insurance, and every other Will does everything necessary to make life possible for everyone else in town.  There are Wills who pick up the trash, there are Wills who run the gas stations, etc.  They hang out in their off hours drinking the same beer in the same pubs, watching the same Rugby games every weekend.  They are all the same level of docile worker doing whatever needs to be done to make the company profitable, and they have no reason to question why there are no animals and no one else left on the planet but other Wills, like themselves.  But 790 is starting to get curious, and after hearing another Will talk about a delivery run to another town and spotting something off in the distance on the side of the road that looks like a windmill, he feels the urge to check out this anomaly and see what is going on beyond his guarded, safe existence.  This leads 790 on a journey of self-discovery-learning why clones exist, why it appears that the exact same events are reported on at the same time every year, and what might have come before they came into existence.

Billy and the Clonesaurus is a dark comedy that tasted a bit like the movie Brazil in its own demented way.  It is grim future that 790 lives in, and as William 790 starts to call himself Billy as a form of minor rebellion against the status quo, he begins to realize the depths of the mystery surrounding him and the rest of the Wills of the world, or so he believes.  Escaping the town he lives in is only the beginning.  Beyond that, he has several shocking revelations and dreams of something better…something approaching freedom, not only for himself, but for every other William. 

While it may be hard not to laugh at the idea of such an obscene world, the thoughts of something like this occurring are also cringe-worthy and provide for good nightmare fuel.  As more layers of the deceit that have been heaped on 790 and the rest of the clones are peeled back, there are plenty of reasons to feel both revulsion and depression, because while the world that Billy lives in is filled with clones, the depths of the depravity he faces is very much a human characteristic. 

I’ve read the authors other works, both of which dealt with the undead.  While this story shares little with those other books, it has the same razor sharp edges to it that don’t show very much remorse when you get cut by them.  This is a trip into the Twilight Zone with a nod to the Simpsons with the story’s title.  It’s probably not a tale easily digested by everyone, but one worth checking out if you like your futures grim, dark, and yet surreal and just a tad bit looney. 

 Billy and the Clonesaurus can be found here:    http://www.amazon.com/Billy-And-Cloneasaurus-Stephen-Kozeniewski/dp/192504789X/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


Review of Shana Festa’s “Time of Death: Induction”

Time of Death: Induction introduces the reader to Emma Rossi, a nursing student living in southwest Florida when the zombie apocalypse begins.  While the prologue is told in third person and gives a hint as to who patient zero might be, the rest of the tale is told in first person from Emma’s perspective.  She works at the hospital that is first hit by the advent of the dead rising, but her shift ends before things get crazy.  Still, through the combination of a violent storm and the fast spread of the virus things crash down all around her at home, with her husband Jake and their little dog Daphne fleeing for their lives as their home is overwhelmed by the walking dead.

After a series of narrow escapes, Emma and Jake manage to hook up with a group of soldiers who have claimed a Target superstore as their barricaded base of operations.  But it is clear that while the location appears to be secure they are far from safe as the world around them crumbles in the blink of an eye.  When Jake disappears on a supply mission and things start to fall apart at the store, Emma is forced to race through one harrowing and tragic event after another.

While Time of Death: Induction doesn’t introduce any new elements to the zombie genre-the zeds here are slow moving, traditional Romero zombies and not the ‘infected’ or have any differing abilities, the author has created a solid, fast moving story of personal survival.  There is plenty of gore and death, and the addition of the little dog the main character wants to keep sheltered and protected will add a sense of impending dread for anyone who is an animal lover, since Daphne seems to get herself into more sticky situations than the main character.

The pacing of the story is fast, with the main character and various other survivors she is with dealing with one traumatic event after another as the body count continues to rise and hope becomes fleeting.  The writing is smooth with no significant editing concerns.  The author provides Emma with a strong voice-she is easy to identify with and appreciate as a regular person thrown into an untenable situation where she is forced to make one difficult decision time after time.  The story is heavy on the undead being the main challenge for the survivors rather than human confrontations, with the exception of a rather brief but intense interaction with some desperate outsiders to Emma’s group.  Beyond this, there are some arguments but they take a back seat to basic day to day and minute by minute survival against the undead.  While Emma and Jake are fleshed out characters, the secondary players were less detailed, which is often a challenge faced when a story is told in first person.  We don’t get to know many of the other characters too well before many are obliterated in the apocalypse.  This isn’t a stiff criticism but more of an acknowledgement that this is Emma’s tale and the story sticks closely with her worldview and perspective throughout.

This is the author’s first novel and this appears to be the first of a series or trilogy.  Shanna Festa has created an exciting, enjoyable tale of desperation and survival, and I look forward to checking out the second book when it becomes available.

Time of Death: Induction can be found here:      http://www.amazon.com/Time-Death-Induction-Volume-1/dp/1618682725/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


Review of Rebecca Besser’s “Twisted Pathways of Murder & Death”

Twisted Pathways of Murder & Death is a compendium of grim short stories, each with their own interpretation of the title of this work.  No one is safe here, with a rogue’s gallery of villains that range from the tragic to the demonic that all lust for blood, flesh, and the demise of all who cross their paths.

I read the paperback version of the book, which note that there are 4 bonus tales vs. the electronic version.  I will provide a brief synopsis of each tale without providing any spoilers.

Deadly Mistakes tells the tragic tale of a man out for revenge after a clerical error at a law office that lets a murdering monster free to slaughter his wife.

Turn of Events turns the tables on the traditional sad tale of domestic violence.

Stalkers Beware provides some new ideas of how to deal with all those pesky groupies if you are a rock star.

Hope of a Future takes a look at a bleak apocalyptic future where hoping for even the most simple things can make things even more grim.

Game Gone Wrong mixes science fiction with the very prevalent fear of the government watching your every move, and doing whatever it takes to find out what you know.

Mystery Meat is a simple tale of a meat packing facility trying to find out where several bins of prime cuts of meat came from that no one knows about…with morbid results.

Father’s Revenge is a succinct, blunt tale of a father’s revenge when his wife betrays him, as seen through the eyes of his daughter.

Innocent Blood starts out much like the previous tale, but with the desire for revenge going dreadfully wrong.

On Account of Bacon speaks of how unspeakable tragedies can occur for the most innocuous reasons…or in this case, thanks to a delicious breakfast meat.

Evil Mountain asks the question ‘what do you get when a werewolf, vampire, witch, zombie, and dragon walk into a poor, innocent villager’s hut?’  Nothing pleasant, I can tell you that much.

The Heart of Heroism tells the tragic tale of Billy Jack, a mentally handicapped man-child who simply wants to be a superhero and gets his chance when the zombie apocalypse starts up in the tenement he lives in with his overbearing father.

Historical Significance is a traditional ghost tale with a demonic twist.

Memories starts out asking the question ‘Have you ever heard a rabbit scream?’ and goes deeper down the rabbit hole from there.

Overall, this set of macabre tales are solidly written, though some are stronger and more compelling than others.  Each share a very fatalistic perspective, though they range from the gore splattered to the sinister.  Hope of a Future, Innocent Blood, Evil Mountain, and The Heart of Heroism were my favorites of the lot, while a couple of the very short tales didn’t do it for me, like Turn of Events and Father’s Revenge.  When the author works with more than a page or two, she is able to craft characters that are real, vivid, and accessible.

Twisted Pathways of Murder & Death can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Twisted-Pathways-Murder-Rebecca-Besser/dp/0615858163/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1401418967&sr=8-2&keywords=twisted+pathways+of+murder+%26+death (paperback) and here: http://www.amazon.com/Twisted-Pathways-Murder-Rebecca-Besser-ebook/dp/B00E1LPQZS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1401418967&sr=8-1&keywords=twisted+pathways+of+murder+%26+death (kindle).


Review of Rachel Aukes’ “Deadland’s Harvest”

Deadland’s Harvest starts off where 100 Days In Deadland left off, with Cash and company doing their best to survive in the wooded park where they have taken up residence.  This after the mayhem that closed out the first book and wiped out Camp Fox, the National Guard base where most survivors in the area had migrated to after the dead rose.  Clutch is still alive, but working on learning how to walk again after the injuries he suffered in the mayhem at the end of 100DiD.  The survivors are fewer, but the human dangers from the first book are no more, making the undead once again their main concern.

On a mission to save a group of refugees stuck in a building surrounded by zeds, Cash and Clutch discover that there are hordes of the undead roaming the countryside, moving south toward their current safe haven.  After flying a surveillance mission it becomes clear to Cash that these hordes are massive, with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of the undead in them and they are wiping out everything in their path.  Nothing remains except rubble and desolation.  And soon they will trample the park and anyone who remains there.

The survivors make a decision to seek the assistance of a riverboat captain, who has taken on other survivors on his boat that floats on the Mississippi river, out of clutching grasp of the zeds.  This leads to new complications and more human conflicts as the two groups struggle to coexist with one another while at the same time the hordes continue to advance on their position.

Deadland’s Harvest maintains the fast pace of its predecessor and the narration has a natural flow and feel to it.  While Cash has become a seasoned survivor who has been hardened by the trauma she faced in the first book, she has formed a family bond with Clutch and Jace, and will do anything to keep them safe.  While this story is told in first person, the author manages to continue to let the secondary characters tell their own tale and grow as the story progresses.  Avoiding many of the pitfalls that challenge the middle book in a trilogy, Deadland’s Harvest does a solid job of standing on its own, though with an intriguing promise of what is to come in the final act in this three part saga.

Kudos to the author for using the idea of massive hordes of the undead moving and migrating together, like other creatures who are avoiding the cold of winter.  I do wish there was greater detail on the hordes shared, as the concept was an intriguing one.  Also intriguing is the theme the author has carried over from the first book, which is to use Dante Aligheri’s works to set the stage for her story.  100DiD traversed the nine circles of hell while DH examines the seven deadly sins.  The final book promised to explore the seven virtues.  The reader need not know anything further about Dante to appreciate the story, just the fact that this is a solid zombie action tale.

Deadland’s Harvest can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Deadlands-Harvest-Deadland-Saga-Volume/dp/0989901815/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1400809307&sr=8-1


Review of Steven Pajak’s “Mad Swine: Dead Winter”

Mad Swine: Dead Winter does not pick up where Mad Swine: The Beginning left off.  In fact, this sequel provides a review of the events that happen directly after the abrupt ending of the first book with a relatively quick synopsis by the main character more than a couple of months later.  I stated in my review of the first book that it cut off abruptly with a cliff hanger ending that left me very curious as to what would happen next.  Unfortunately, the focal point on this story does not start out with, or even focus on, the war between the neighborhoods, only its aftermath, which makes me puzzle over whether the author wrote about the battles that occurred and either he or someone in his circle of advisors suggested he cut it and focus on the long term survival of the community that the main character, Matt Danzig, is leading through the apocalypse.  I would have liked to have read the story of the actual battle for Randall Oaks.

This criticism does not mean that the actual story that the author wrote here doesn’t have its own positive qualities.  In and of itself, the tale told here is solid, and in fact some elements of this book work better than the first.  The lack of ammunition and the desire to stay quiet and not draw the attention of the infected leave the survivors with more challenges and less ability to utilize the arsenal that the main character and narrator had at his disposal in MS:TB.  This makes for a more pure and raw survival story of average suburban folks vs. more of an armed military camp scenario that there was a taste of in book one.  Matt’s personal relationships are explored with more depth and there is a bit of romance thrown in as well for him after the trauma of losing his wife and children in the first book.  He is, understandably, reluctant, but the sense that everything could fall apart at any minutes does pervade his and everyone else’s reality in Randall Oaks.  The struggles with the bitter cold of winter and diminishing supplies are the main nemesis for the citizens of the community, with the infected playing a close second.  The competing neighborhoods are no longer a factor in this tale, but the urgency to figure out how to make it to spring without freezing or starving is crucial.  The infected, which were explained to not be the undead in the first book, continue to have all the traits of the undead in this one.  Where they slept in the first book like regular humans, they seemed to have moved past that stage here, where the virus or plague has further transformed them.  Another interesting and threatening aspect of their existence is revealed that seemed quite creative.  The theory that the undead will freeze in bitter cold comes somewhat into play, with the undead going dormant in the cold, but even more interestingly, when they get buried under snow they will still become alert when a living human presence is nearby, which makes for some very interesting ambush scenarios.

Overall, I think the author’s story telling skills have grown with this sequel, though I can’t deny my disappointment that I was not treated to the battle of the neighborhoods that the first book appeared to promise was on the horizon.  As a standalone, this tale definitely has its merits, and its focus on Matt more as a man struggling to lead people against nature and inhuman monsters is compelling, though it serves, like so many second books in a trilogy, as a transition between the sudden and abrupt actions of the first book and the potential threats that promise to inhabit the third book.  The hope is that both the personal struggles that Matt suffers through in the second book and the heated action and excitement of the first book will join forces in book three for a very compelling conclusion.

Mad Swine: Dead Winter can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Mad-Swine-Dead-Winter-Volume/dp/1618680463/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1399223763&sr=8-1-fkmr0