Review of multiple short stories by Stephen A. North: “Forgotten”, “Nobody’s Hero”, “Undead In Vegas”, “Means To An End”, and “Stupid Train”
Stephen A. North has written several novels but he has a definite fondness for short stories. These stories, much like his novels, usually have flawed (sometimes very flawed) characters in them. They tend to be in a tough spot in life, and we drop in on them as things are coming to a head. Such is the case in Forgotten and Nobody’s Hero. Forgotten shares a brief bit of Private Henri Dragon’s experiences in Vietnam. Things are about to get ugly in a village where the Viet Cong have been spotted and he and his squad will be in the thick of it. Nobody’s Hero is a little more domesticated a story, where Sue is desperate to find a way out of an abusive relationship and is willing to do whatever it takes to break free.
In both stories, the author puts us in the middle of what is perhaps the most intense few minutes of two very different (but in some ways similar) people’s lives. I would dare say the titles of these stories are interchangeable. You don’t do the necessary things to be a hero. You don’t do them to be remarkable or remembered. You do the absolutely necessary things because living is better than being dead, even if we don’t think much of the lives we’ve led.
This is a gritty one, with no apologies made and none necessary by those involved. Not necessarily fun, but if you like North’s trademark run of bad luck type characters, this will suit you just fine.
Forgotten and Nobody’s Hero can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B086SKWJVW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1
Undead In Vegas is a return to zombie actioners for North, in a condensed format. His trademark sad sap, down on their luck characters are on display here, and not just with Wallace, the main character truck driver who has ended up in Vegas as the zombie apocalypse has kicked into gear. Wallace isn’t dislikable, but you may find him a bit of a sap with his efforts to be the good guy, or at least the nice guy here. Life has become pretty easy to discard when most folks are walking around trying to eat you, and Wallace seems pretty fatalistic. Still, he isn’t a man who likes to be without a purpose, or so it seems, even if the purpose of helping out a woman whose husband is a schmuck seems like a not so great idea. I might have felt a little more appreciation for the main character if he had a bit more desire to do something for himself earlier on and perhaps had prioritized things a bit different as the story progressed. Not that I’m not surprised at how he acted-you see people doing similar things every day. Fatalistically putting one foot in front of the other, grasping at what little bit of life is available why accepting the inevitability of death perhaps being right around the corner.
Undead In Vegas can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07YQ47RVZ/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3
Means To An End and Stupid Train might be my least favorite short stories of Mr. North’s, but at the same time, they might be the ones that make me grit my teeth and admit that both stories are the slap in the face you occasionally need to remind you that not everything needs to be either happy, or a short story needs to come to a smooth or perhaps satisfying conclusion. In a way, both stories end before they have the chance to get very far, to get warmed up, or to get rolling along to some predestined conclusion. Instead, they are both like starting your old, reliable car on a very cold winters morning and not waiting for the car to warm up, but instead pulling out of the driveway when there is still ice on the windows, and getting flattened by a speeding garbage truck the instant your tires touch the street. It would have been different if the car had warmed up, the ice scraped away, and you got to the highway before being creamed by an out of control semi, but either way, the end result is the same-just a lot more jarring.
The characters are not likeable, but the writing style from North remains consistent. His fondness for writing unapologetically hard luck and sometimes very unlikeable characters is something I appreciate. Tammy, in Means, and Lou, in Stupid, are perhaps best described as predator and prey, in their own worlds-destined to their fates because of who they are, innately. To expect, or hope for more, is perhaps foolish, or pointless. Thankfully, I can handle my fatalism in small doses, and these two are like taking a couple of shots of hard liquor. They burn going down but you can appreciate them after you get past the bitter taste left in your mouth.
Means To An End and Stupid Train can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B078K4RGDW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
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.
The Tether. The name drums up an image of something that holds you in place, latches on to you, and links you to others that are also connected in a similar fashion. The Tether in The Phone Company is the name of the latest mobile device being offered by the eponymous organization to their customers. PCo, for short, didn’t make the Tether, but they have taken full advantage of its endless capabilities as a device to connect everyone to each other. Just sign up, get connected, and work to become one of the Top 12 of the PCo family. Its aps are remarkable, giving its customers almost magic-like abilities to peak into the world of their neighbors, to control machinery, and to retrieve virtually any information instantaneously.
PCo has set up shop in Cracked Rock, Montana, building a data center on the cemetery where the town founders have been buried. While there are protests about what they have done, most of the citizens are too excited about the free phones being offered to students and other members of the community to have a problem with it. Cracked Rock is a town that is hurting. Several years earlier a boy went on a shooting spree at the local middle school, tearing the town apart. While this was happening, Steve, one of the teachers in the high school, avoided his kids being victims because they were facing another nightmare at the local hospital: the death of Janice, his wife, due to lung cancer.
Steve and Bill, his best friend and a deputy sheriff in town, are about the only two members of the community not thrilled with the new Tethers and the increased presence of PCo. Both are given free Tethers as public servants, but Steve would rather stick with his old phone that both he and his wife used years before and Bill isn’t interested in agreeing to the background check the Tether requires to grant him access to all the neat law enforcement tools it has to offer.
It doesn’t take long for this thriller to migrate to more of a supernatural horror, with strange events occurring all around town. It seems that everyone is discovering unique aps on their phones, like JJ, Steve’s son, who discovers he can inhabit the bodies of soldiers and rebels doing battle in a variety of wars across the globe. Sarah, Steve’s daughter, realizes she has a popularity ap that not only gauges her popularity against the other girls in her high school, it also provides guidance on what she can do to claw her way to the top of the list.
If you have read the author’s previous work, The Pen Name, it becomes clear very quickly that both these tales inhabit the same eerie world. The mysterious publishing company from the first book pays a brief visit here, and the main character from that tale had been laid off from the phone company prior to being sucked into his own mystery. The author’s prior work seemed a bit more subtle as the world around the main character unraveled in bits and pieces. In Cracked Rock, things seem to tumble down the rabbit hole in a more abrupt fashion, though everyone seems fairly happy with the results. The mysterious Provider, who is behind the all-consuming need to be connected, is spoken about with a reverence bordering on religiously zealotry by the faithful.
This story, like its predecessor, has flavors of Lovecraft mixed in with King and begins as a thriller that migrates more into the realm of supernatural horror before the story is complete. The writing is solid though Steve, the main character, doesn’t feel as strongly developed as Ben was in The Pen Name. Perhaps because it felt like Steve didn’t seem to sense what was going wrong all too quickly in the pages of the story. He seems to be more of a passive reactionary to a great deal of what is happening, at least until everything has gone off the rails entirely. He is unhappy, discontented, but slow to engage with Graham, the ever present PCo representative, and all too willing to hope for the best.
Overall, The Phone Company is still a very intriguing story. It pokes and prods at how worthwhile it is to live in a world where we are hyper-connected to one another, where there is an ap for everything and our lives are on display for everyone via social media. We bemoan our loss of privacy and yet cannot look away, or stop contributing to the deluge of information shared with one another. The book takes that in a supernatural direction, turning the need for connection into a religious fervor that devours everyone who submits.
The Phone Company can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Phone-Company-David-Jacob-Knight/dp/1503361993/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1420306490&sr=8-1
Ammon’s Horn sounds like some kind of a mythological creation and while it a term derived from Egyptian mythology, it refers to part of the hippocampus for the purposes of this tale. It is an area of the brain that is impacted as someone is affected by the ‘noids, or a form of extreme paranoia.
The story introduces us to Danny, a police profiler in Chicago and Gemma, his star reporter fiancé as they start suspecting all is not well in the world. Multiple reports start filing in of otherwise normal people committing sudden brutal acts of violence and then remembering little to none of them, often shortly before they commit suicide. Digging deeper leads to a suspicion that these events aren’t just happenstance-a full moon or temporary madness, but something that is getting worse and spreading across the country, creeping from the east coast west toward California, where the President has retreated. When Gemma reports on it, plenty of people deny its reality, thinking it more groupthink paranoia rather than some sort of brain ailment having an external cause. She dubs the term ‘noids after a taxi driver, gripped by madness, almost runs over a pregnant woman and said he did it because he was all ‘noided out.
The story follows the initial run ins with the ‘noids that Danny and Gemma suffer through before they travel west at the urging of a mysterious government agent who knows a great deal about what is really happening and what dark secrets are behind this strange plague that has gripped the population.
Ammon’s Horn takes a very different slant on the end of the world, apocalyptic scenario, with its monsters and anyone around them not really knowing what they are; if they are infected or knowing if or when they might snap. Someone infected with the ‘noids can wreak tremendous havoc and then not remember what happened, leading to even more mayhem when it grips them again. This story has the flavor of a Stephen King thriller, with deeply drawn main characters that come to life on the page in vivid detail. The acts of violence are brutal and sudden, perpetrated by people who are, to a great extent, innocent as the brain inside their heads begin to deteriorate and play vile tricks on them. Danny and Gemma are interesting, well thought out characters, with Danny’s own paranoia at what is happening all around him keeping him guessing as to his own state of mind throughout the story.
This was a well written, intriguing tale with some very compelling twists and turns including a jaw dropping ending that forced me to re-read it more than once to make sure I understood what had just happened. There are hints and clues throughout that will likely lead to a variant of reader’s paranoia about what is truly happening and who is to blame for the sickness that seems to have gripped everyone in its path.
Ammon’s Horn can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Ammons-Horn-Stan-Timmons/dp/161868096X/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1411316061&sr=8-1
Collapse: A Survival Thriller is a novella that tells the story of Matt Avery, a regular guy working in a downtown office building who gets caught up in the middle of a blackout and the riots that follow. With the roads jammed and roaming bands of looters and others who are looking for a reason to get violent, Matt is forced to take to the road on foot to get back home. With him is his hotheaded co-worker who feels that the rules of society no longer apply. Matt is a prepper and is prepared with survival items in his office, in his car he must abandon at work, and is focused on getting home to wife and child, where he has more supplies to ride out the storm. This short tale tells of the perils he faces and the preparations he has made so that he and his family could survive when things go bad.
I was provided a copy of this novella by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. The story is easy to read and I was able to finish it within a couple hours. The premise behind the tale is more generic than anything. The city is anonymous, the cause for the blackouts is limited, outside of hints at a failing power grid, and the riots are caused initially by a woman being accidentally shot by the police when they were trying to maintain order in the city. My interest in apocalyptic fiction mostly leans toward those with a fictional bent. Zombies, alien invasions, and nuclear holocausts populate many if not most of the apocalyptic tales I read. This is a far more straight forward and generically plausible meltdown of society scenario. While the author made an effort to give Matt and his co-worker some depth, both characters are, unfortunately, as generic as the background on the story itself. Outside of his knowledge of Matt as prepper, there is very little detail about him that made me interested in what was happening with him. His co-worker, a thinly veiled sociopath from the get go, acts as an obvious foil to the character, with his urges to throw off the shackles of the rules of civilization barely restrained from almost the beginning of this tale. Unfortunately, the story felt far more like an educational pamphlet on prepping than it did a story about real people. There are hints within its pages of an author with some potential to create something with more gravitas and emotion than this piece and I hope to see something like that in the future.
Collapse would be most interesting to someone who is looking for a beginners guide on being prepared for disasters, both man-made and natural. For a fan of apocalyptic fiction though, the story is a bit forced and fits too easily into the format of a guidebook on prepping rather than a story of people desperate to survive the rapid breakdown of society.
Collapse: A Survival Thriller can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Survival-Thriller-Scott-Carleton/dp/1624090206/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659728&sr=1-3
Ben Little is a struggling author whose writing career is going nowhere. The copies of his first book, which he ordered for the convention he’s attending, didn’t show up. Add on to that the fact that he hasn’t worked a day job since being laid off by the phone company several months back makes for a very depressing situation for him and his family. But Ben’s luck is about to change. A famous author who is also at the show happens by his table and chats with him and later, after Ben returns home with his wife, a publishing agent with an intriguing offer knocks on his door. The famous author from the convention wants to work with Ben on a novel, but to do so he has to sign a very long and complex contract with no time to review it. He’ll get a $5,000 advance and another $10,000 upon completion of the work, but he either agrees immediately or the deal is off. Nervous but knowing that this could be life changing-the debts have piled up and his son needs special care for some physical ailments he has-he signs the contract.
From that point forward, Ben is under the gun to write his chapters after being emailed outlines from the other author. The plan is to finish the book within a month, even though Ben’s first book took him years to complete. It seems a daunting task, but one that could be life changing for him and his family. Part of the contract he signed but didn’t read states that the agent for the other author will be taking him on different research expeditions to give him a better feel for what he is supposed to write about. But these trips entail some rather grim journeys that have Ben wondering what is really going on with his co-author and the strange German publishing company behind the contract he’s signed. There is blood, violence, and blackouts that leave Ben wondering what is happening to him during and after these surreal field trips. At the same time, his mind seems to be unraveling as he digs deeper into the mystery behind his publisher, his co-author, and even some of the other authors who have been ghost writers for the publisher.
The Pen Name could be categorized as a supernatural thriller or a flat out horror, dependent on your perspective. Regardless, it is a taut, mysterious story filled with scenes of slowly mounting dread intermingled with abrupt, jarring, and disturbing action sequences. There are dark, supernatural forces at work but at the same time there is a taste of conspiracy that feels more like big brother than the work of the devil or some other malignant being. Part of what makes what is happening to Ben so disturbing is the fact that while he feels like a puppet on the publisher’s evil strings, their efforts to push him into creating his most compelling writing through their terror tactics does just that. Ben’s life is eroding before his eyes, his mind deteriorating, but he is doing the best writing of his career. And as the noose tightens around his neck, he realizes that he must finish the story he has begun, both the one on the page and the one he is living through, no matter what the consequences.
The Pen Name is an easy to read tale that keeps you intrigued throughout. The story, and Ben’s mind, unravel slowly, and leaves the reader puzzling over what is real and what is imagined. There is plenty to second guess and puzzle over concerning Das Verlag, the publishing house whose main exploit seems to be running livestock slaughter houses…especially the slaughter of pigs. Of course, not all mysteries are revealed, though there are some nice twists in the end, but I guess if I had any sort of complaint it would be to have better understood what Das Verlag was all about…or at least a little bit more. Even so, this is a well spun tale and an enjoyable horror/thriller well worth checking out.
The Pen Name can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00EK599ZS/ref=cm_cr_thx_view
Z-Boat tells the tale of the Betty Loo, an ancient heap of a submarine contracted out for search and rescue missions several decades in the future. The world has changed since the early part of the twenty first century, with massive pollution, tremendous political turmoil, deteriorating food and water supplies, and in general, a pretty messed up world. People do live longer and food is genetically enhanced, but large corporations run things along with the new superpowers: North Korea, Russia, and Israel. There is little in the way of freedom anymore, and the human race is starting to die out because food is losing its nutritional value and clean water is scarce. Missions to explore the depths of the ocean to find new solutions to the world’s energy and bio related problems are believed to be one of the few remaining hopes to the long term survival of the human race.
We are introduced to a decent sized cast of characters in this story: the members of the Betty Loo’s crew that have been with her for the long haul and the new members of the team who have signed on to join them for a search and rescue of a sub that is at a depth the Betty Loo has never gone to and perhaps can’t handle in her semi-decrepit state. It is clear almost immediately that virtually everyone who has been hired on for this mission has ulterior motives, and no one has any idea who to trust. No one really knows who has hired them for the operation, as that information is kept secret, even from the captain, though several grim facts have been shared with him that make him realize that this might be the last mission the Betty Loo ever undertakes.
The cast of characters is colorful, with several ranking high on the intrigue scale. Ally, the ship’s pilot with the cloudy past, is the captain’s right hand and is probably as close to a main character as this ensemble piece gets. Ivan, the newcomer who appears to be in charge of divulging information to the crew on a need to know basis, is an ominous presence along with the doctor and research scientist who have found their way onto this mission with him. Each has their own agenda, which the author doles out in bits and pieces as the story unfolds. The author also shares with the reader the perspective of virtually every character as key things happen, often switching from one to another rapidly to make us aware of some of the motivations that drive the different members of the crew, both new and old.
Oh yes, there are zombies in this tale, but this book is more of a thriller than a zombie story, with the gruesome gut-munchers not showing up until more than two-thirds through the book. When they do, they provide the level of gory entertainment that zombie fans crave. I didn’t see the build up to their reveal as a negative here-there was plenty to keep the plot rolling along in advance of their involvement, and even after they make their appearance, the elements that made the book a dark thriller remain in place.
Z-Boat was an ambitious undertaking. It blends elements of both horror and thriller effortlessly, and also gives the reader a solid perspective of life aboard a submarine without letting the technical details of such an experience become overwhelming (or boring!). We are given just the right amount of detail on the Betty Loo so we understand how she operates when things are working and when they are falling apart without feeling like we’ve read a technical manual. The twists and turns of the plot challenged me to keep up, but didn’t leave me scratching my head, which in some ways can be both a good and a bad thing. As I mentioned, the author reveals a great deal about each of the characters and what they’re thinking, so how they act and react doesn’t generate surprise or shock as we dig deeper into the story, which makes this one more of a thriller than a true mystery in my mind. Of course, the zombies themselves are always unpredictable and insert plenty of surprise into the story, giving us a pretty decent body count in cramped quarters-both on the mysterious vessel sitting on the bottom of the ocean waiting for rescue as well as the Betty Loo herself.
This was a fun read that kept me wondering how things would turn out from moment to moment, especially when the undead showed up and threw another wrench into the works for the crew just trying to survive each other as well as the constant array of mechanical problems the Betty Loo keeps having as she dives deeper and deeper into the dark depths of the ocean.
Z-Boat can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Z-Boat-Suzanne-Robb/dp/1467945749/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325460500&sr=1-1
Alex Fletcher is a marine who left active duty eight years ago and is now a pharmaceutical rep with a bit of paranoia about the latest impending pandemic flu assault. The year is 2013, and he has vivid memories of the pandemic of ’08 and the less noteworthy panic that occurred in ’12 after a swine flu outbreak. Since he works for a pharma company that provides one of the leading flu treatments, it is essentially his job to pay attention to all the reports on how bad this new outbreak is likely to be. That plus the fact that he spends much of his time with doctors who deal with infectious diseases on a regular basis, he is hunkering down for what amounts to the viral equivalent of World War III.
Alex is paranoid, and under regular circumstances might be considered somewhat of a flake. He suffers from post traumatic stress after his time in Iraq, and his house is set up with all the fixin’s to prepare him for a long hold out against the flu with food, water, his own power supplies, and plenty of guns and ammo. His plan is simple: isolate himself and his family from everyone else and they will make it through the flu outbreak just fine, even as the world crumbles around them. Yep, Alex would be probably a bit wacky if it wasn’t for the fact that he is absolutely right about what is about to go down.
And despite Alex’s unheeded warnings to his neighbors to isolate themselves, stock up on food and water, things do go bad rather quickly for them, with food not getting delivered to grocery stores, hospitals getting filled up with flu patients, sickness running rampant and a danger of the power grid going out since less and less people are monitoring and maintaining it. Essentially, Alex has predicted a crash of catastrophic proportions, and that is exactly what happens. And with it, the natives get restless and turn their ire toward the most prepared member of their community. Alex has good intentions, but refuses to be sucked into communal expectations that he play ball and share all his food and every last flu treatment he held on to before quitting his pharmaceutical job. On top of that, scavengers have moved into Alex’s upscale suburban neighborhood in a desperate attempt to find food and shelter as riots and overall madness have driven them out of the bigger cities, and they are even more dangerous than the neighbors.
The Jakarta Pandemic is a well laid out story of one man’s quest to keep his family safe during a devastating assault on their existence. I read a lot of apocalyptic fiction, and while this doesn’t quite tip over into the realm of apocalyptic, it gives us a hefty dose of how the apocalypse could realistically occur in our world. It does share some similarities with some of the other stories I read in that genre in that it shows how desperate people can become, and how hard the choices are when your family is at stake and so is your survival. Alex reminds me of one of those guys on message boards who talks about how they’re prepared for the end of the world, whether it be by natural disaster, plague, or even zombies.
The action sequences are compelling in this book, though I wish there was more of them, and more drawn out tension between the main character and the people who confront him. A lot of the tale is spent with the build up to the pandemic and the slow, boring days Alex and his family spend cloistered inside their home. We are given only one perspective-Alex’s, and only find out what is happening to the outside world through his observations of the news on TV and via the internet. It does help provide a sort of closed off perspective, because we as readers know nothing more than Alex does from minute to minute about what is happening in the wider world or even outside his house as they get buried deeper and deeper into the Maine winter. Still, I did feel that parts of the story dragged and did wish for more of a psychological thriller showcasing more people like Todd, Alex’s on edge neighbor, and the man Alex dubs “Manson”. I felt like the scenes where Alex was dealing with them crackled with energy and craved more of that in this story.
The bottom line is that this was a well thought out, entertaining story, though I was left wanting more interaction between Alex and his key rivals. It is my understanding that this story was recently re-edited, so the typographical issues prior reviewers on Amazon brought up didn’t deflect from the story too much for me. The only real issue I had was when the author slips into present tense on occasion, which was a distraction when the rest of the time he sticks with the traditional past tense. Otherwise, the story kept my interest and was an enjoyable read about an intriguing subject that had a bitter and frightening dose of realism to it.
You can get The Jakarta Pandemic here: http://www.amazon.com/Jakarta-Pandemic-Steven-Konkoly/dp/1456309501/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309311567&sr=1-1