Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Bad Mojo by Shane Berryhill

bad-mojo-berryhill

Bad Mojo
by Shane Berryhill
Ragnarok Publications
$3.95 (Kindle) | $12.56 (Paperback, Amazon)
Release Date: July 28, 2014
276 pages
Review copy purchased from the publisher

Plot Description:

Shane Berryhill’s first dark adult fantasy is the story of Zora Banks–a beautiful, Southern conjure woman of mixed race–as told through the eyes of her partner, Ash Owens, a pretty boy-redneck cursed with a monstrous alter ego.

When Tennessee State Representative Jack Walker hires Ash to find his missing, drug-addicted wife, Ash finds himself at odds with Chattanooga’s various underworld gangs–both the living and the unliving–as he and Zora become embroiled in a far-reaching occult organization’s grab for ultimate power.

Equal parts True Blood and Justified, BAD MOJO will prove a dark delight for fans of urban fantasy, Southern Gothics, paranormal romance, and hardboiled crime.

Review:

Our protagonist, Ash Owens, is a chip off the old block of Dean Winchester from Supernatural–a pretty boy who, even though it looks like he can’t do much damage, is anything but a pretty face and brings the fight to his enemies big time.

He’s sassy, brash, Southern, and doesn’t waste time getting to the point. He’s also unflinchingly honest to the reader, whether it’s about his feelings for conjure woman Zora, or whether it’s admitting that he’s a monumental jerk who doesn’t deserve her (which, to be fair, is mostly true.) Still, he’s a jerk that readers will like in spite of his garish behaviour.

He does, of course, have his redeeming qualities, otherwise the reader wouldn’t be able to get on board with him as the lead. He has a good, playful relationship with Zora’s daughter, and he’s generally on the side of good. But he’s also a “spook,” a vicious supernatural beast who has done some things in the past that continue to haunt him to this day.

Make no mistake–this isn’t a self-professed monster who feels sorry for himself. He struggles enormously to keep his inner beast at bay, which gets more difficult as the novel goes on, which came across as an authentic battle with himself, but he doesn’t get teary or mopey about it.

Now on to the conjure woman, Zora, whose name is indeed inspired by one of my favourite (and woefully under-read) authors, Zora Neale Hurston.

Berryhill’s Zora is a powerful conjure woman who works in hoodoo and doesn’t take any guff from anyone, especially not Ash. She’s also a woman who puts up a lot of walls around her and understandably so. She’s been hurt before, and doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her family. There’s an interesting backstory to why things are the way they are between Zora and Ash, and their history, but the author did a good job balancing this with the present narrative, as well.

Chattanooga, Tennessee is a refreshing change of paces from the Chicagos and Seattles that litter the urban fantasy landscape. Berryhill uses Chattanooga to its full potential here, and makes it spring to life on the page. I’m a huge fan of supernatural novels set in the South, and while Louisiana is at the top of that list, I’m glad that more urban fantasies set in the South are coming out that aren’t just the same retreads of New Orleans (Gail Z. Martin’s Deadly Curiosities, set in Charleston, NC, is another good example that comes to mind).

The bad guys. So, vampires are “vipers” with a snake-like From Dusk Till Dawn vibe, which was also a nice change of pace. Another thing I enjoyed was that the author has done some research into hoodoo and shows respect for the tradition. It also helps that he doesn’t hit readers over the head with endless descriptions and rules of hoodoo, and huge points to him for not confusing the tradition with voodoo, or trying to suggest that they’re the same.

The dialect. Berryhill’s approach to dialect was refreshing and a good example of what more authors should follow–one of the most common mistakes with the Southern dialect in fiction is this business of apostrophes for tryin’, buyin’, lyin’, etc., which is downright irritating, so I was glad to see the author’s more natural approach.

Although I wasn’t too crazy about the plot aspects that involved the missing senator’s wife, the interactions he had with vipers and other foes as a result were what I found most compelling and interesting.

In sum, Bad Mojo is everything a die-hard urban fantasy fan could want out of a compelling, page-turning story: a tortured but cool protagonist the reader can get on board with, a unique setting that offers elements of things we haven’t seen before a million times, good world-building and rules, and an exciting plot with conspiracies afoot at every turn. I hope there will be more books in the series so readers can enjoy more of Ash and Zora’s adventures.

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Book Review: Apartment 7c by David Bernstein

apartment 7c cover

Apartment 7c
by David Bernstein
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
$1.75 (Samhain Store) | $2.50 (Amazon)
Release Date: August 5, 2014
Pages: 62 | Format: eBook
Review copy received from the author in exchange for an honest review

Plot Description:

Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands

Eighty-two-year-old Beth Baker can hear the cop in apartment 7C beating his wife. Again. She’s also having dreams—or are they visitations—of her dead daughter, Alice, who was killed fifty years ago by an abusive husband.

The message is clear—Beth has to take care of the cop. But he’s a decorated detective and over two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle, so what’s a little old lady like her going to do? When things turn ugly and the cop threatens Beth’s own life, she realizes she needs to resort to extreme measures. Blood must be shed.

Review:
Beth Baker, an elderly concerned resident of an apartment building, and the main character of Apartment 7c, has been hearing mysterious things in Apartment 7c for a long time. She moved in recently, and became aware of a situation that the neighbours all seemed to ignore–a wife-abusing corrupt cop who beats his wife, Marcy. When she finds out what’s going on in 7c, it turns out she has a personal attachment to the matter, something in her own history that she has seen before and this time, she vows to do something about despite her age and physical limitations.

One of the saddest, most complex, and most disturbing human problems of society is women trapped by men who beat and abuse them. Bernstein exploits this to its full effect in Apartment 7c. It turns out that people used to call the police until they realized the abusive husband had them in his pocket so it was no use. Still, Beth becomes determined to stop what’s going on any way she can, even if it means sticking her own neck out.

Although I could have done without the “is she dreaming or seeing things or is this real” montages, I thought they served their purpose well enough. What worked better was the cop’s mental games with Beth, and their game of cat and mouse, only he didn’t expect the results he got. One of the challenges of short fiction is that writers don’t necessarily have as much room to go into the kind of depth they’d like to, but Bernstein does a great job conveying the nuances behind the characters while making readers question who’s right and who’s wrong, which adds more dimension to the tale.

Fans of Eli Roth should get a kick out of Apartment 7c. If you want to check out another horror read, a novel that deals with similar subject matter and interesting consequences, try Die, You Bastard, Die! by Jan Kozlowski, which I previously reviewed.

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Book Review: The Stolen by Bishop O’Connell

the stolen bishop o'connell cover

The Stolen
by Bishop O’Connell
Publisher: HarperCollins Voyager
eBook Release Date: July 22, 2014
$3.18 (Kindle)
Paperback Release Date: August 5, 2014
$6.29 (paperback, Amazon)
Pages: 336 pages
Electronic advance reader copy accessed via the publisher

Plot Description:

Tonight, for the first time in over a century, a mortal child will be kidnapped by faeries.

When her daughter Fiona is snatched from her bed, Caitlin’s entire world crumbles. Once certain that faeries were only a fantasy, Caitlin must now accept that these supernatural creatures do exist—and that they have traded in their ancient swords and horses for modern guns and sports cars. Hopelessly outmatched, she accepts help from a trio of unlikely heroes: Eddy, a psychiatrist and novice wizard; Brendan, an outcast Fian warrior; and Dante, a Magister of the fae’s Rogue Court. Moving from the busy streets of Boston’s suburbs to the shadowy land of Tír na nÓg, Caitlin and her allies will risk everything to save Fiona. But can this disparate quartet conquer their own inner demons and outwit the dark faeries before it’s too late?

Review:
Brendan is a “Fian” or part of the Fianna, ancient warriors of Celtic mythology (their leader was thought to be Fionn Mac Cumhaill, or “Finn McCool” in the English version). Early on we see Brendan has this Celtic ‘berserker’ mode that he goes in to if he’s not careful, and while it can help him destroy plenty of enemies, it doesn’t allow him to differentiate between who he’s aiming death blows at. His girlfriend, Aine, gets caught up in that when he’s in a skirmish with some nasty “Oiche” creatures, which are dark fae.

The story then flashes forward to the modern day in Boston. Brendan comes by the acquaintance of a woman, Caitlin, who witnesses her daughter, Fiona, kidnapped by some dark fae after suffering from an attack. They’ve taken her to Tir Na Nog, which is the realm of the fae and similar creatures. The fae have courts, including the Rogue Court but also the Dawn and the Dusk Courts. Caitlin finds out that no less than the King of the Dusk Court is hanging on to Fiona, but she doesn’t know why.

Reading through the book, I was Team Brendan all the way. While I did find Caitlin slightly difficult to like at some points as she tried to wrap her head around the situation, denied what was going on and that these worlds existed that she didn’t know anything about, eventually she comes around and tries to reconcile what has happened and exhibits a fierce mother’s determination to get her child back, no matter how high the cost, so she does have admirable traits.

The story is a good one. and I thought it was nice to see Celtic mythology elements in an urban fantasy (although several series, both adult and YA, have tackled Celtic myths quite a bit), and although there are hints of romance, it’s not a paranormal romance by any means, so urban fantasy fans can be rest assured that they’re not going to be walking in to a book that sounds cool only to turn out to be about a romance all along. At first when there were hints of a potential love triangle, that turned me off, but thankfully the author chose not to go that route.

Probably the best thing for me, apart from Brendan and how awesome he was in the book, was the world-building, which was fantastic. In many ways, the narrative follows the traditional fantasy conventions, but the mythology elements are definitely entertaining.

The ending is one of those that makes you say, “Oohhh, that makes more sense now” while still leaving the reader with a sense of curiosity about a few unresolved plot elements. Brendan’s friends, including a character named Dante, enhance the story and add more than the occasional bout of comic relief. He definitely knows more about Caitlin and her daughter Fiona than he lets on, so I will look forward to hopefully seeing him figure in the next book in some way (and according to a Qwillery interview, looks like a sequel is in the works, which is awesome).

Also, the author keeps things fresh by leading the reader’s expectations one way and then swerving them in some ways, which added to the overall “enjoyability” factor.

If you enjoy your Celtic mythology and like it to be mixed in with urban fantasy as opposed to epic fantasy, you’ll get a kick out of The Stolen. It has interesting characters, a compelling lead, intriguing world-building elements and mythology, swerving the reader’s expectations, and more, making for an all-around satisfying urban fantasy read.

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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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