Category Archives: Special Features

Guest Post: Virtual Reality Ain’t What We Thought It Would Be! by Nick Cole

soda pop soldier

Remember all those really cool movies from the 90’s and some from the 80’s that told us VR was coming and we’d basically be living out our fantasies inside a computer? Cool kids hacking their grades and the local bank in some alternate low-speed Mission Impossible setting. Or a big giant corporation that wasn’t just greedy, they were power mad.

All the SFX promised us was that we needed to be either suited up or digitally trapped inside these crazy worlds. Well, I think they got it wrong. Virtual Reality is here now and you don’t have to wear a full body suit and dorky helmet to participate.

Those movies kept trying to tell us that the VR experience would be total, immersive, better than life, and oftentimes quite dangerous. Even the breakout hit novel Ready Player One contemplated that people would be laying around in their own filth getting fatter and fatter while their online lives got wookie wielding a double bling light saber phat.

In books and the movies, I’ve always found the VR experience to be a bit of a rip off. Seriously, a guy is going to get downloaded from a computer into an immensely cool world for the old fish out of water “you can teach us what it means to be human” scenario? It felt like a too-easy plot device to tell that type of story.

The one in which a radical shift from the mundane to the fantastic takes place almost immediately. But that’s not the kind of Virtual Reality I wanted to write about in my new novel Soda Pop Soldier. But let me back up a sec… First off, Virtual Reality is here now.

That Ranger in WarCraft you’ve been levelling alongside your guild buddies, that JRPG you’re spending all your free time collecting power jewels in, even that smartphone game you’re tapping at furiously or competing with someone named NikkeiCutie on Words with Friends, that, all that is Virtual Reality.

Out there, in the datasphere, the interwebz, call it what you like, you’re living a whole life based on competence and reputation. You’re having shared experiences that are meaningful and affecting. You even have friends. That my friends, is a type of reality and it’s not just virtual. It’s a very real reality.

So I didn’t want to cop out easily and make my main character, PerfectQuestion, slink into a VR suit so he could dominate the digital version of a land war in South East Asia that I had set up for him in my book.

No, I wanted him to play games and compete the way I play games: Hunched over a computer, eyeballs screaming blue murder, and fighting for his life because in this future world where video gaming is a job, it means money and rent and a relationship, and some people might just want to kill you if you mess up their game.

Soda Pop Soldier is a noir ride through a future where games are more than just fun. Games are a way to control the power to tell people what to buy next. That is a very powerful power to wield.

PerfectQuestion fights by day in a Modern Warfare style digital battleground, and by night he’s logging into an illegal open source tournament called The Black. Think Diablo meets the seedier parts of Vegas. The superheated battlefield Question fights in by day, along with the gothic gloom of the fantasy World of Wastehavens at night, are as real as it gets for our hero.

There’s love, betrayal, loyalty, and friendship, and all of it’s attached to some pretty big motivations. For PerfectQuestion, gaming is as real as it gets. Check out Soda Pop Soldier this August 12th and come spend a few hours in the future of virtual reality video gaming. I think you’ll have as much fun there as I did.
Game On!

About the Author: Nick Cole is an Army veteran and working actor living in Southern California. When he is not auditioning for commercials, going out for sitcoms or being shot, kicked, stabbed or beaten by film school students, the author of The Old Man and the Wasteland and The Wasteland Saga can often be found as a guard for King Phillip II of Spain or a similar role in the Opera Don Carlo at Los Angeles Opera.

More about Soda Pop Soldier:
Soda Pop Soldier
by Nick Cole
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: August 12, 2014
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books A Million | Indie Bound
Pages: 368

Hitting the Reset Button on the Horror Genre

In my recent review of Josh Malerman’s horror novel, Bird Box, I mentioned that it was as though he pressed the reset button on the horror genre in a manner of speaking. While I won’t rehash the plot details (for that you can read my review), the basic premise is that people find themselves in a world where going outside will kill them because there are creatures who, once seen, cause humans to go berserk and off others but usually go to such a point of craziness that the only option becomes offing themselves.

Blindness is the only solution–blindfolds, patching up any windows or other things that reveal the outside world to the interior of a house, or should you be so “lucky”, suffering from the affliction of blindness (in some cases, the option to blind oneself is presented as a recourse).

This piece isn’t going to be a historical comparison piece about how the glut of offerings in the horror genre exploded in the 1980s when the genre had a boom and several micro movements within it such as Splatterpunk. Nor is this piece intended to be a contributor to the tiresome and never-ending debate of “extreme horror” vs. “quiet horror” and trying to get everyone to come to a consensus as to which is deemed the more “legitimate” form of horror. All this rather than accepting that horror readers have different tastes.

The reason that Bird Box works so well is that it presents the humans in this book with an enemy that they know is there, but they don’t know when it will strike. It’s an enemy they can’t see, yet they’ve experienced firsthand the damage that the enemy has done and has the potential to do to them, as well, if they get caught. It’s an enemy against which there’s no known cure, no solution as to how to stop them, get rid of them, kill them, or send them back to wherever it is that they came from.

Even worse, it’s suggested that this is an enemy that may not be able to control the fact that it has such an adverse reaction in the creatures who make the mistake of looking at it. There’s a similar principle behind the concept of the Panopticon that Michel Foucault talked about. Prison guards and wardens stood at the top of a tower from which they could see everything that the prisoners were doing, but the prisoners themselves, even though they knew they were being watched, could never confirm this for sure.

But the knowledge that they were being watched, the threat that they could be punished, not knowing when and by whom, was disturbing enough to prevent them from acting out, so to speak.

It’s one thing if you can see the enemy you have to kill, but it’s entirely another to have the knowledge that they’re always out there, but never knowing when for sure. When Malorie first arrives at a safehouse and finds a group of people there, after they let her into the house, they slam the door shut and feel all around her to make sure that nothing came in with her. This is their protocol to make sure a creature didn’t accidentally sneak in with someone who they decided to let in. This is the way they have to live in order to survive. They have no choice. They can’t afford to take any risks as being wrong would cost them all their lives.

If you go back far enough to the roots of fear, probably one of the first things man was afraid of was the dark. Heck, whole songs have been written about it. Movies. TV shows. Books. The fear of darkness is evolutionary and primal. Children are often afraid of the dark. The Bible talks about how wise it is to fear the darkness, because no good can come from it. The solution, it preaches, is to embrace the light.

How many works of horror feature monsters who don’t like the light, claiming that it burns them, because they thrive in the darkness, not wanting to be seen? Part of the fear of darkness is the inability to see, which introduces the fear of the unknown. Human nature thrives on being able to know something for sure, to confirm that what we’re touching when we’re stumbling in the dark hallway to get back upstairs, for example, is what we think it is. Adding sounds that we don’t recognize enhances the sense of more unknown elements. The more a human being is deprived of that knowledge, that confirmation that everything is okay, the more heightened their sense of fear is.

Think about why people used to be so afraid in medieval times of legends about werewolves and vampires. Of course, you could argue that people were also far more gullible back then and didn’t have anywhere near the amount of knowledge the average person has now, but the fear of the dark and unknown were all too real back then when superstitions were king.

Have you ever tried listening to those old radio shows from the 20s and 30s, sometimes called Golden Age of Radio, that used to be an endless source of entertainment for people who loved their thrills and chills before the advent of film and television? Have you ever tried listening to an old horror radio show in the dark, with the lights out?

Although a lot of radio shows relied on camp and over-acting, the effect of listening to an old radio show that was directed and produced well, and listening to it in the dark, is startling. It evokes the fear of the unknown and ignites our psychological “fight or flight” response, often prompting us to go with the “flight” mechanism, or wanting to get the hell out of dodge.

Bird Box is the kind of book that reminds us just how easy it is for our imaginations to take over in the absence of light, and when you don’t have the option of turning on the lights, so to speak. In other words, Bird Box isn’t just another generic ripoff of the same variation of something we’ve seen a million times before. Bird Box thankfully doesn’t feel anything like the same blockbuster we see over and over again in theaters starring the most popular action star of the day that audiences flock to with the hopes of a good scare.

Bird Box doesn’t give humans the “yeah, we’ve figured out what the monsters are and what hurts them, so now we just have to hunt and kill them all before they finish us up” plot. In fact, in one of the cheekiest and most delightful moments in the horror genre, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Anne Rice’s protagonist from Interview with the Vampire, corrects the journalist to whom he’s dictating his life story, telling him that actually he loves the light and he’s quite fond of it, unlike some of the monsters of a bygone era that came before him. So, the variation that monsters don’t mind the light at all has also been done, and done well, by some authors, some, of course, better than others.

But it’s refreshing to see a novel in which humanity doesn’t have all the answers, in which there is no safety plan, there is no Plan A (there’s not even a Plan C or D), and it’s up to who is the most determined to fight and survive and to make the bold step to go outside. Bird Box forces the reader to face the same fear as the characters in the book, wondering not only if they will survive, and wondering if the mystery of what these creatures are will be unravelled (not to mention, finding out why they have this effect on living beings and if they can control it or if it’s out of their control).

It also forces the reader to try to figure things out while being left in the dark. It makes the reader think but keeps us on our toes, never quite knowing which direction the book will go in. It resists the conventions of a usual plot structure and, as such, prevents the reader from making witty quips or guesses as to how it will all end, or if they do, this is one book that ensures the reader will be dead wrong.

And for that, I salute Mr. Malerman for such a finely crafted, quality, horror novel that has taken the genre back to its roots. He has explored old territory, previously seemingly forgotten, like it was buried ages ago and only recently uncovered in an archaeological dig. I praise the author for showing us that something that made us afraid since the beginning of time is still bone-chilling when executed well.

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Wild Fell Contest Sweepstakes!

Okay, folks, hopefully by now you’ve had a chance to read my review of Wild Fell by Michael Rowe and you’re convinced of how amazing it is. You’re in luck! TOR is offering a sweepstakes for a chance to win 1 of 10 copies available of the book, and it’s open to residents of USA and Canada!

Click here for more information on the contest. Sweepstakes ends at 12:00 PM Eastern Standard Time on March 4, 2014, so go to it and get those entries in, folks!

WildFell-cover

Blog Tour Post — Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

troop cover

The Troop
by Nick Cutter
Release Date: February 25, 2014
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
$29.99 (Hardcover) | $14.99 (eBook)
368 pages
Advance review copy received courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review

Plot Description:

Once every year, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a weekend camping trip—a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story around a roaring bonfre. Te boys are a tight-knit crew. There’s Kent, one of the most popular kids in school; Ephraim and Max, also well-liked and easygoing; then there’s Newt the nerd and Shelley the odd duck. For the most part, they all get along and are happy to be there—which makes Scoutmaster Tim’s job a little easier. But for some reason, he can’t shake the feeling that something strange is in the air this year. Something waiting in the darkness. Something wicked . . .

It comes to them in the night. An unexpected intruder, stumbling upon their campsite like a wild animal. He is shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry—a man in unspeakable torment who exposes Tim and the boys to something far more frightening than any ghost story. Within his body is a bioengineered nightmare, a horror that spreads faster than fear. One by one, the boys will do things no person could ever imagine.

And so it begins. An agonizing weekend in the wilderness. A harrowing struggle for survival. No possible escape from the elements, the infected . . . or one another.

Part Lord of the Flies, part 28 Days Later—and all-consuming—this tightly written, edge-of-your seat thriller takes you deep into the heart of darkness, where fear feeds on sanity . . . and terror hungers for more.

Praise:

“THE TROOP scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.”
– STEPHEN KING

Review:
Yes, you read that right–a Stephen King endorsement for a book by a horror author, and a Canadian one at that! (makes it even cooler). Although I did find it odd in the acknowledgements section that the author says something to the effect of being grateful for the King blurb (which every writer would give his or her right leg for), while being sure that King may not have actually read the book (which struck me as a bit odd). That notwithstanding, I want to say that Stephen King doesn’t give out endorsements to just anybody, and in the case of this book, the praise is apt and well-deserved.

Highly readable, but not just junk reading or a “mindless read” so to speak in which the reader can relax and doesn’t have to, you know, God forbid, think, The Troop is a highly intelligent and polished horror novel written in the style and quality of literary prose in some ways while at the same time being entertaining and engaging.

This is one of the most character-driven books although also being big on the overarching plot element that runs throughout the narrative, and the characters are what makes this book so memorable. Tim is a scoutmaster charged with leading five boys on an expedition in Prince Edward Island, which for those who don’t know is one of Canada’s smaller eastern provinces.

From the get-go, you will realize that Tim has been infected with a zombie-like virus when he comes into contact with a strange man. It’s only a matter of time before he turns. The clock is ticking, and the tension mounts. He begins to act as though he’s possessed, making the reader uneasy at every turn.

On to the kids, Newt is a chubby but smart kid with self-confidence issues. Max is athletic, strong, and popular but he follows Kent’s lead. Kent is the most athletic boy and a bit of a jerk. Wherever he goes, he assumes he’s the leader, something he gets from his police officer father, who also walks around like he’s the boss of the town.

Ephraim is considered one of the “cool kids”, and he’s best friends with Max, but his father’s in jail because he broke Ephraim’s arm as a child and doesn’t remember. Rounding off the cast of main characters is Shelly, a shy, bookish, quiet boy that screams the possibility of being the one to worry the most about from the get-go despite his meek characteristics.

We get a mix of news articles and police evidence, as well as psychiatric journals and interviews, which mixes up the narrative technique in a good way and introduces plot elements that move the story forward in a creative and very effective manner. There’s one scene in particular that involves a scientific experiment that let’s just say makes it a good idea to remind you at this point not to be eating something when you’re reading it. I can’t remember the last time something genuinely terrified me as much as this scene. All I can say is I’m glad it was in a book and that I didn’t have to watch it in a film, because the images would have been even harder to shake from my head.

The court transcripts of the doctor responsible for creating the zombie virus in this book, which comes from worms to liven up the over-crowded genre, coupled with scientific journal explanations about these devourer worms and conqueror worms is also pretty terrifying.

Each character has complex sub layers beneath the surface. Each of them is distinct and unique and your emotions will be played with by each of them. Also? Not all of the boys are good. Shelly is downright creepy–let’s just say he could give the Joker a run for his money. He defines the term ‘twisted’.

Despite the fact that the reader knows from the outset that every single one of these people is doomed, the question becomes who’s the first to go, under what circumstances, and of course, who survives? Who makes it to the finish line? Does anyone make it out alive?

Shelly becomes a particularly necessary force because the primary villain of the book, who rightfully deserves the nickname Dr. Mengele 2.0, gets his equivalent of screen time only in one of the interview excerpts of the narrative. In other words, we don’t actually see him in action in the main story. His work was done well before the boys took their trip to the island. What’s interesting is that despite never seeing him interact with the other characters, he’s an enormously powerful villain.

I went into this novel not really knowing what to expect. Every horror novel that comes out is hyped as “the next big thing” and there are often more flops and disappointments than wins, but I can say without any exaggeration that every horror fan must read this book even if they’re not really fans of science-related horror or they think it won’t be their thing. It’s a gripping story that will win over even the most reluctant reader. This is the kind of book that will make horror fans say, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” After Christmas, there’s always the post-holiday blues to consider where readers have made it through most of the books they got for Christmas and don’t know what to read next. The Troop is what you should read next. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Readers must experience for themselves how truly good and memorable this novel is.

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Blog Tour Post: Elysian Fields by Suzanne Johnson (Book Review)

Elysian Fields Button 300 x 225

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This book review is part of the New Orleans Reading Challenge 2013, hosted by Midnyte Reader, which you can read more about here.


elysian fields cover

Elysian Fields (Book 3, Sentinels of New Orleans)
by Suzanne Johnson
$17.58 (hardcover, Amazon) | $15.79 (Amazon Kindle)
Tor Books
Release Date: August 13, 2013
Hardcover, 352 pages
Review copy received as part of the blog tour for Bewitching Book Tours. Don’t forget to enter the Goodreads giveaway that’s running until August 31, 2013.

Plot Description:

An undead serial killer comes for DJ in this thrilling third installment of Suzanne Johnson’s Sentinels of New Orleans series.

The mer feud has been settled, but life in South Louisiana still has more twists and turns than the muddy Mississippi.

New Orleanians are under attack from a copycat killer mimicking the crimes of a 1918 serial murderer known as the Axeman of New Orleans. Thanks to a tip from the undead pirate Jean Lafitte, DJ Jaco knows the attacks aren’t random—an unknown necromancer has resurrected the original Axeman of New Orleans, and his ultimate target is a certain blonde wizard. Namely, DJ.

Combatting an undead serial killer as troubles pile up around her isn’t easy. Jake Warin’s loup-garou nature is spiraling downward, enigmatic neighbor Quince Randolph is acting weirder than ever, the Elders are insisting on lessons in elven magic from the world’s most annoying wizard, and former partner Alex Warin just turned up on DJ’s to-do list. Not to mention big maneuvers are afoot in the halls of preternatural power.

Suddenly, moving to the Beyond as Jean Lafitte’s pirate wench could be DJ’s best option.

Review:

To say that I was dying to read the next installment of Suzanne Johnson’s highly addictive Sentinels of New Orleans series would be a gross understatement. After the events of River Road (you can read my review here), I was really antsy to find out what happens next and this book more than delivered.

Our protagonist, DJ Jaco, starts off in the French Quarter with increasingly volatile and troubled loup-garou Jake. They’re investigating a crime scene as a series of murders has been happening in the city that resemble killings committed in 1918-1919 by a serial killer who was never identified, but the local media called him the Axeman of New Orleans.

Things have (understandably) cooled down a bit between DJ and Jake because of his changing nature. The shift to loup-garou has had many negative effects on his life and he’s lashing out more and more at those closest to him. Jake is even moodier this time around and everyone expects him to still be the same easygoing, flirtatious guy he was before, but he’s not and he is having a hard time accepting that. I won’t spoil what happens after a sour confrontation between the two, but suffice it to say it kicks DJ’s life into overdrive and makes life even more complicated for her, as if she needs any more complications.

She summons famed jazz musician Louis Armstrong to help her with any clues about the Axeman, and it becomes evident that he didn’t just show up for no reason in the present day. There’s a shady necromancer working some seriously evil magic to shuttle the murderer back and forth from the past to the present. Soon enough, DJ becomes one of the Axeman’s most important targets, which makes things even worse for her.

DJ’s suspicions toward her best friend Eugenie’s boyfriend, Quince Randoph, continue in this book and we finally get some more answers as to what he is, what he’s doing, and what he wants with DJ. He also shamelessly flirts with DJ at every opportunity, much to her chagrin, as DJ is more interested in her former partner Alex Warin. Things intensify between them and for those readers who have been waiting for more to happen in DJ’s love life, they won’t be disappointed.

In addition, the Wizards Congress sends one of their guys, Hoffman, to teach her more Elven magic. Trouble is, he doesn’t like DJ very much and may be hiding more than he lots on about where his true loyalties lie. Fan favourite Jean Laffite also returns, as charming as ever. He thinks he can help DJ with looking into the necromancer doing the summoning of the Axeman. There’s also a major vampire character we’re introduced to, Etienne, who we’re told is in cahoots with Jean as they go way back. Etienne used to be a necromancer, but as the plot unravels more and more, it’s not necessarily clear if he’s the one behind the Axeman’s killing spree, but the author casts enough doubt on him that the reader will not be sure if he’s guilty or innocent until the very end.

As the story continues, the body count rises, and the Axeman gets ever closer to DJ. The tension between DJ, Eugenie, and Quince Randolph also increases until it finally blows up, but the reader will get a lot of interesting answers from the fallout.

If you were waiting for more explanations and an exploration of DJ’s Elven heritage and connections, this installment in the series is going to be your favourite. Although I’ve previously said in other reviews that one doesn’t see much of Elves in urban fantasy fiction, I think we’re starting to see more of them, and although I wasn’t expecting to find them in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, it’s a nice treat, and the storyline absolutely works.

The further into the narrative the reader gets, the more irresistible and unputdownable this book will be. Eventually things come to a head with the true master of puppets coming out, but he lackey strings are incredibly tangled, which will make the inevitable books that follow this series even more addictive than this one. Things end on a more positive note although, as mentioned, there’s definitely potential for more books in the series. If you haven’t picked up this series yet and you’re a big urban fantasy fan, or even if you don’t normally read fantasy but love a good yarn involving the Crescent City, you should most definitely pick up the books in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, and so far, each one is better than the one that preceded it. Suzanne Johnson has become one of my absolute favourite fantasy writers–this lady knows how to spin a good yarn ;-)

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