Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: Demon Jack by Patrick Donovan

demon jack book cover

Demon Jack
by Patrick Donovan
Fable Press
Release Date: September 30, 2013
$12.59 (paperback, Amazon) | $3.92 (Kindle)
Pages: 328
Review copy purchased online

Plot Description:

Simple choice:

Stay dead and go to Hell,
Or sell your soul to a demon and keep breathing.

Fifteen years ago, Jack died and chose the latter. Now, a few years out of prison and living on the streets of Boston, Jack is perfectly content to keep a low profile and avoid his turbulent past.

Being a faceless “nobody” suits Jack just fine.

It’s working out until the only person he considers a friend turns on him, possessed by something far worse than the demon holding the contract to Jack’s soul. Now, he’s been recruited (some might say blackmailed) by an ancient order with roots in the Inquisition to hunt down whatever malevolent force is responsible for turning Boston’s homeless into ravenous killers. At the same time, someone from his past with a massive vendetta and nothing in the way of conscience, is looking for Jack, hoping to issue a little payback of his own.

Paired with a centuries old witch and the only person to survive the rampage thus far, Jack is in a race to track down whatever’s responsible for killing his people, all while staying one step ahead of the skeletons in his closet.

Review:

Jack, the protagonist, is a nice change of pace from the 6-foot-and-above lean-framed, muscle-bound hunky fighting machines that usually figure in urban fantasies (and paranormal romances, for that matter).

Jack is homeless. He’s partial to hoodies and dirty clothes as they’re all he can find. He’s also barely over five feet, which, for a guy, can be emasculating, but he Jack doesn’t let the limitations of his size get to him.

Jack is also not a well-oiled warrior. He has been around the block when it comes to demons and supernatural baddies, that’s for sure, but he isn’t the kind of protagonist who was forced into a life of hunting demons, or who is continuing a “family business” a la the Winchesters, so he’s missing that self-righteous “I’m a hero, I rock all the time” shtick that plagues so many urban fantasy protagonists, both male and female.

However, Jack is by no means a dull boy. He’s a refreshing change of pace. He’s also a very damaged human being who made a choice to live with a demon inside of him rather than to die. The demon inside of him, Alice, has marked him with thousands of tiny scars that do enhance his own abilities, but power always comes with a price, as they say.

It’s nice to have an urban fantasy protagonist that’s not just the same police officer/law enforcement official with conflicts between their work life and the supernatural life they lead. So, if you’re sick of those kinds of urban fantasies, then Demon Jack is a sign you’ve come to the right place.

The story, although fast-paced, takes its time to unravel what’s going on layer by layer and piece by piece, so you won’t find a break-neck speed here. As a result, there are more opportunities for characterization and character development to shine through along with the plot.

The main subplot involves Jack being found by an old vampire foe, Adam, who takes a girl, Lucy, with the ability to see supernatural creatures that others can’t, into a vampire against her will. Adam and his thralls (his obedient, unquestioning goons) are your standard, run-of-the-mill vampire, but they’re (thankfully) the kind that kill their prey and “turn” others, especially when it comes at great peril to someone else, like Jack. So, none of the sexy, sparkly variety here.

Although I felt the middle was where the pace slowed for me a bit as things got bogged down, especially the the introduction of the three “holy men” that Jack had to deal with, the big reveal from Alice on what the Big Bag that Jack is up against really is and why he should be a lot more terrified than he is, and the continuation of the Adam backstory and the vampire conflicts.

Still, the pace picks up again about three quarters of the way through, and although I thought this made it a bit of an uneven book in that respect, meaning that I thought the beginning and ending had great pacing but the middle lagged a bit, it’s still a good, strong read.

Essentially, the battle that Jack faces is much bigger than just his struggle to not get killed by Adam and his vampire minions, or the demonic activities that he gets involved with.

Although the Big Bad turns out to be one we’ve seen very often in recent years in urban fantasy and horror stories, author Patrick Donovan’s interpretation makes the demonic foe function in much the way it’s supposed to, and so that it serves its purpose.

The writing is good for the most part, particularly with the characterization of Jack as well as the dialogue. I was expecting something a bit more original than what turned out to be a supernatural conflict we’ve seen before many times, and that we’re continuing to see more of in books, film, and television shows, but it’s a book I would recommend to urban fantasy fans. I would say if you’ve enjoyed the Dresden Files novels from Jim Butcher, you should pick up Demon Jack and see if it’s up your alley.

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Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

bird box malerman cover

Bird Box
by Josh Malerman
Ecco (HarperCollins Publishers)
$16.43 (Amazon, hardcover) | $18.20 (Amazon Kindle) | $14.99 (eBook, HarperCollins)
Release Date: May 13, 2014
262 pages
Purchased copy of the eBook

Plot Description:

Something is out there . . .
Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.
Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, Malorie has long dreamed of fleeing to a place where her family might be safe. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but Malorie’s wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?
Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motley group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos. But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted?
Interweaving past and present, Josh Malerman’s breathtaking debut is a horrific and gripping snapshot of a world unraveled that will have you racing to the final page.

Review:
You’re going to hear from a lot of people and reviewers that Bird Box is a must-read, a must-buy, a “get it now and find out what everyone else is raving about” type of book. The buzz is certainly going strong, and there is indeed a lot of hype surrounding how good the novel is. It’s rare for such levels of buzz and hype to translate to a good novel, but in this case, believe what you hear, readers.

People now live in a world where they can’t open their eyes. Blindness is the only known cure to this plague of creatures (which are never identified, heightening their scare factor), but essentially, if you open your eyes–if you’re not boarded up someplace–you’re screwed. One of the common things people have mentioned in reviews of Bird Box is the element of gritty realism that’s rooted in the fear. This novel is very much a product of its times, an extension of the Digital Age and all its terrors, something that doesn’t seem so far-fetched or fanciful. The spread of information in this day and age is lightning fast, unprecedented, and information is everywhere. It’s not news that we’re bombarded with messages from the media every day. News is everywhere. The element of “hoax news” is also something that’s present in this novel, along with the notion of people not taking something seriously until it hits home. At first, a news story breaks of a man in Russia who goes nuts and kills the guy next to him in a truck. Then a similar thing happens with girls in Alaska.

Amid all of this confusion and spreading panic, our protagonist, Malorie, finds out she’s pregnant (it wasn’t planned). In his narrative, Malerman interweaves past and present timelines to reveal to the reader her journey, always with the question up in the air of whether she will survive or not. Despite the potential for “Disaster Movie” type of elements, Bird Box is “quiet horror” at its finest. It doesn’t rely on cheap thrills or theatrics. It doesn’t give readers what we’ve seen a thousand times before. It doesn’t try to tack on some Biblical explanation for humanity’s downfall. Another common thread in each of the reviews of this book you’ll see if mentions of how original it is, and while that’s certainly true, I would argue that Bird Box is effective because in many ways it has hit the reset button on horror. What I mean by that is Malerman has gone back, way back, to the roots of true terror, which is fear of the unknown. Primar fear. Man is terrified of what he can’t see. The dark. Blindness. While Hugh Howey also explored the idea of the inability to go outside in his book, Wool, choosing to take on more of a science fiction bent with the atmosphere being toxic and uninhabitable for humans, Malerman goes full throttle with the horror elements, placing the blame on not being able to go outside with humans seeing beings known only as creatures. And in a book like this, I thought it worked fine not to reveal to the audience what exactly the creatures are, whether demons or aliens or something else entirely.

Back to Malorie. This woman is, I would argue, a true representation of a strong female character. Forget all the urban fantasy or other “kickass chicks” you’ve encountered in books, films and television shows. Malorie has more strength, true strength, than any urban fantasy heroine any day of the week. The things she has to do to survive are things that a lesser human would not survive. This includes spending four years raising her two children, known only as Boy and Girl, to sharpen their sense of hearing for the inevitable day when she knows she will have to go outside again.

Bird Box forces readers to question whether we could survive in such grim, bleak, desperate circumstances, to have to live in a world where one has to be blindfolded and protected from the outside world in all ways. What’s outside–the creatures–can look inside, and it’s all over.

Another reason why Bird Box is so effective is that it relies on good characterization and exploring what people do when they’re pushed past their limits rather than relying on high-octane, rollercoast type plotting. Malorie finds herself in the company of other survivors in a house that is slowly going mad from the inside out. The other characters each bring a new layer of complexity to the novel, keeping things interesting and the reader on the edge of his or her seat. Malorie doesn’t have time to wallow in self-pity or misery or any of the other things that afflict her. As if having to live and survive in a world with blindfolds, not being able to go outside, and all the rest isn’t bad enough, imagine having to do it while pregnant. The threat of impending delivery, knowing that she’ll have to have this child at some point but not knowing when and under what circumstances, also adds to the sense of doom and gloom in an effective way, ratcheting up the tension.

One of the interesting ideas that Malerman also explores is the effect that these creatures have on the already mentally ill, as well as animals. He makes suggestions, but whatever the case with these creatures, it’s clear that no one is immune. I won’t spoil for you the significance of the title, but when you find it in the novel, it will have a lot of resonance.

As I alluded to earlier, the worst feeling readers will get while read Bird Box is that the scenario doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Authors have been scaring people about the future for a long time, even before George Orwell penned 1984. An author really doesn’t have to try that hard to scare readers when it comes to the world we live in, which is a pretty scary place in many ways. The Digital Age in which technology reigns supreme and governs everything we do is downright terrifying in some ways. But still, perhaps the worst part–and one of the most fascinating elements–about these creatures, as one of the characters conjectures, is that they may not know they have these terrible effects on everyone but themselves. In other novels and films, there’s usually a panel of scientists trying to break down how the enemy works and how to protect humanity, but I found it more effective not to have any of that, leaving the reader in the dark but no so much so that they can’t follow along with what’s going on.

Now, it’s not all “quiet horror.” In fact, some of the gruesomeness, especially toward the end of the book, would make Dario Argento himself blush. Malerman makes a much more impactful statement with the mystery shrouding the creatures, as well as the ominous sense of making the reader wonder who will make it out alive. In most cases, children depend on their parents for survival, and while that’s certainly also the case here, Malorie depends on the children for survival as much as they’re depending on her.

So, reader, look to Bird Box as a kind of a renaissance for the horror novel, a celebration of the genre’s roots, something that feels familiar enough that we want to read it but different enough that we’re engaged and captivated, needing to know what happens next. If you want a real page-turner, something you won’t be able to put down and will want to keep reading compulsively, look no further than Bird Box.

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Book Review: Relic of Death by David Bernstein

relic of death book cover

Relic of Death
by David Bernstein
Darkfuse
$2.99 (Amazon Kindle)
Release Date: June 24, 2014
Review copy from NetGalley

Plot Description:

When two mob enforcers take care of a hit in the suburban countryside, they stumble onto a seemingly abandoned house. While searching the place, they find a simple leather briefcase full of what they think are priceless diamonds.

But things are never as they appear…

For the briefcase is a bringer of death. This ancient evil, once contained for centuries, is now unleashed. Those who come in contact with it will be granted their greatest desires at the even greater cost of their lives.

Review:
Bernstein’s latest book starts off in the back woods of New York state and two mobsters from Brooklyn who are up to no good. At 51, Sal is older than most mobsters. His daughter, Melinda, has breast cancer. Although it’s been caught early, there’s always a chance that things might get worse. He feels he should have it, not her. So, basically, he’s got a lot of things on his plate. He’s paranoid about any traces of DNA being tied back to him, so he carries around Ziploc bags in which to put his discarded cigarette butts.

They break into a high-security house in the middle of the woods and go into the basement where they find a safe, which Sal has a lifetime of experience cracking. What he finds inside is a briefcase filled with diamonds. But after the discovery, he starts to develop even worse paranoid thinking patterns, becoming convinced that only he must make off with them and that he should get rid of his partner, Bruno. The diamonds seem to have a supernatural hold on him.

The briefcase goes to a drug addict, then to a newly unemployed and soon-to-be-homeless woman, her disgusting landlord (disgusting is putting is mildly. There’s a reason Bernstein is good at gross-out horror), and each time it changes hands, with the exception of these three, who all see money in the briefcase, the ‘treasure’ inside changes depending on what the owner’s deepest desire is.

Eventually, the briefcase ends up in the hands of Gus, the son of the sleazy landlord, who it turns out has a cheating, manipulative, loathsome wife. She has shacked up with her lover, a high power attorney, and threatens to ensure she gets full custody of Jezebel, her daughter with Gus. This leads to the original owner of the briefcase with the high-security home in the first part of the book coming out of the woodwork so to speak. This leads to the big reveal of what the ‘relics of death’ are, how they work, why people see them and bad things happen when they come into possession of the briefcase.

A non-stop action thrill-ride, if you like your books with a breakneck pace that keeps you reading anxiously until the last page, pick up Relic of Death. If you’ve enjoyed his previous work, you’ll dig this one, too.

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Book Review: Witch Island by David Bernstein

witch island book cover

Witch Island
by David Bernstein
Samhain Horror
$3.85 (ebook) | $14.00 (paperback)
218 pages
Release Date: June 3, 2014
Review copy received from the author in exchange for an honest review

Plot Description:

“A witch’s curse from beyond the grave! ”

Witch Island used to be feared. Even the bravest would not dare go there. Legend said a witch had been burned alive at the stake, and upon her death she cursed the town. Terrified residents performed rituals to keep her spirit trapped on the island where she was buried.

Now, over a hundred years later, a group of high school seniors have decided to forgo the local graduation parties and have a small gathering of their own on Witch Island. They don t fear the legends. They scoff at them. But the group will soon learn these particular legends are nothing to scoff at. And Witch Island will prove far worse than they could have ever imagined. ”

Review:
Told through alternating sequences set in the past and as the story unfolds in the modern day, horror writer David Bernstein’s latest, Witch Island takes place in a small town in New York state where a witch was burned at the stake years ago. Unsurprisingly, the witch vows to curse and haunt the island forever, making way for the place’s eventual name, Witch Island.

In the modern day, we meet the main cast of university-bound young adults, including the central characters, Jim and Gwen. They each get their own “screen time” so to speak, revealing their concerns and what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Not to mention some skeletons in their closets that come tumbling out, some making a bigger impact than others.

Jim and his friends decide to head to Witch Island despite the fact that Jim’s brother died in a mysterious accident while there. Given the close quarters and the intervention of the malicious witch, it doesn’t take long for tensions to rise and for things to start going horribly wrong the minute they set foot on the island.

With a few swerves along the way and the witch playing her role as torturer and destroyer, the story comes to its inevitable close, but it does so kicking and screaming.

Witch Island is a bit raunchier than Bernstein’s other offerings, so if that’s your bag, you’re in luck. The violence factor is also quite high, so fans of his gruesome descriptions are in luck for that, as well. In some ways it’s a throwback to horror flicks of the early 90s like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the Scream franchise, so if you enjoyed them and films along the same lines, you’ll really dig Witch Island. Keep an eye out for my review of Bernstein’s forthcoming title, Relic of Death later this month.

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Book Review: The Vagrants by Brian Moreland

Vagrants-The72lg

The Vagrants
by Brian Moreland
Samhain Publishing
$2.80 (Amazon Kindle)
Release Date: June 3, 2014
Review copy received from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Plot Description:

” Beneath the city of Boston, evil is gathering. ”

Journalist Daniel Finley is determined to save the impoverished of the world. But the abandoned part of humanity has a dark side too. While living under a bridge with the homeless for six months, Daniel witnessed something terrifying. Something that nearly cost him his sanity.

Now, two years later, he’s published a book that exposes a deadly underground cult and its charismatic leader. And Daniel fears the vagrants are after him because of it. At the same time, his father is being terrorized by vicious mobsters. As he desperately tries to help his father, Daniel gets caught up in the middle of a war between the Irish-American mafia and a deranged cult of homeless people who are preparing to shed blood on the streets of Boston.

Review:
Horror author Brian Moreland’s newest offering switches locales and takes the reader to Boston, Massachusetts, with a prologue that foretells something bad is about to come down the pipeline. Our main character is Daniel Finley. He is a journalist who posed as a homeless person for six months to write a scathing exposé about the plight of poverty in America. Here, he meets people called Seekers led by a man known only as Mordecai.

Some of the homeless start defecting to the Seekers, which causes alarm bells to go off for Daniel. Mordecai seems to have the allure and mind control of a cult leader, thinking himself a messiah of the homeless who will deliver them to salvation. Or so he claims. But there’s a much darker, more twisted story than Daniel or anyone else could imagine. By the time his book comes out two years later, he’s only scratched the surface of what he went through when he nearly succumbed to becoming part of the Seekers.

Daniel thinks that with the book deal and author’s advance, as well as a loving girlfriend, Connie, that things might finally be starting to look up for him. He does an autograph signing that no one shows up to except for a man at the end who identifies himself as Professor Holloman, who teaches sociology at Harvard.

Holloman asks Daniel to come along with him to what turns out to be an abandoned subway tunnel where Daniel discovers unique graffiti. Subway tunnels, as it turns out, are one of the places that Seekers go to worship. Their temples, if you will. To add to the weird visions he’s been getting of vagrants he used to know, Daniel keeps hearing that they’ll find him again and that it’s time for him to join them. Holloman also says that there are more of these devotional places for Seekers in other big cities including New York and Philadelphia.

The second conflict in the book comes about when Daniel decides to pay his dad a visit in Southie, a rougher part of Boston. They haven’t spoken for several years and have always had a strained relationship, but Daniel’s dad helped him pay his way through college so Daniel wants to pay him back now that he’s making more money.

Trouble is there are faces from the past in this neighbourhood that Daniel’s dad had to get mixed up with and got into debt with—namely, Irish mobsters. The enforcers tell him in no uncertain terms that unless he pays a certain amount of money, they’ll return to make life very difficult for his father.

Unfortunately, Drake O’Malley, the ringleader of the Irish mob, is not the nicest guy to say the least. When Daniel says he can’t pay any more than Drake is demanding, Drake orders Daniel to force a group of vagrants out of a building he’s sold to some people in New York. That’ll only reduce the debt by half.

As the mystery unravels further, we discover there are Ancient Gods that Mordecai serves and, without spoiling anything, let’s just say it ain’t pretty. It’s not long before the mafia gets caught in the crossfire, including Drake himself.

Mordecai reveals his sinister plans and it’s up to Daniel to figure out a way to stop it all. The building that they’re in near the end of the book, it’s worth mentioning, was built over an abandoned subway, and also used to be a slaughterhouse. You do the math.

Although Mordecai’s basics and past were covered off, I would have also liked a bit more character development as he felt rough around the edges at times. He had a few inconsistencies, particularly with his dialogue. One minute he’s channeling Deepak Chopra and the next he sounds like a far more foul-mouthed version of Ralph Cramden. Despite that, he is a more difficult foe for Daniel to conquer than the mobsters on his tail, and he fulfills his role in the story.

With the other characters, I would have liked to see a bit more complexity. However, Daniel’s father came across as more nuanced and complex than he appears to be on the surface, which added nicely to Daniel’s woes.

Daniel plays the underdog the reader will want to root for and Moreland does a good job depicting how precarious it is for Daniel to retain the ability not to fall under the hypnotic sway that Mordecai has over others. But deep down, Daniel knows that Drake O’Malley isn’t his real problem and that he has a much worse one in the Seekers.

The ending wraps everything up for the most part, leaving a few tenuous threads loose, but otherwise it’s an enjoyable supernatural thriller. If you liked Moreland’s previous books and short fiction, you’ll enjoy The Vagrants. You’ll also like this book if you enjoyed the film The Departed and you like crime thrillers. Moreland’s best book in my mind remains The Dead of Winter, although it is indeed difficult for any author to top him or herself. Some books have a different flavour than others. Far from being one of those authors who just keeps on cranking out more of the same stuff, Moreland brings a fresh diversity to each one of his works, which is great news for his fans. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

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