Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Feed, (Orbit), by Mira Grant

I'm sick of apocalyptic zombie stories. If I read one more survival/siege story where everyone dies at the end or one lone character is left contemplating their last bullet while the undead claw at the door, I may very well resort to bestial cannibalism myself.

The end of the world bores me. What I'm interested in is the question of what happens to those who, by some miracle or blind idiot luck, manage to survive it. Mira Grant's Feed seems to be proof that she can read my mind, gifting us with a story that starts a full generation after the undead uprising, seen through the eyes of those who have never known a world where the dead didn't get right back up and start chewing on the living. In the course of doing so, she has written what is, in my humble opinion, the best zombie novel since the one by that Brooks fella.

It all started well-intentioned enough: someone had created a cure for cancer and someone else had created a cure for the common cold. Unfortunately, the two virally based cures interbred to create a new virus that irrevocably changed the way we live and the way we die.

But that was twenty years ago. Now, Georgia and Shaun Mason are the first bloggers to be hand picked to follow a presidential candidate as his campaign is plagued with tragedy upon tragedy (read: dead people keep attacking it). When they discover the truth behind these attacks, they stumble onto the most important story since the Rising but rooting out the truth will cost them more than they bargained for.

Feed is a relentless monster, an amalgamation of science fiction, medical mystery and political thriller with dead things. More important than the dead things, though, are the live ones. Contrary to the overuse of the phrase, it's incredibly rare to come across characters in a story that truly come alive, that feel like people who could actually exist, but when it happens it is something magical.

During the short time this book took over my life, the Masons became a part of me, as did many of the ancillary characters. When the inevitable losses occurred, they were felt and I grieved. Mira is obviously a writer who understands that horror doesn't come from the monsters themselves, but how they affect the characters and she wields it like a rapier aimed at the heart of the reader.

Further, I appreciate the way she approaches the subtext of zombies as an allegory for the constant and meticulously maintained state of terror in post-9/11 America. Feed, at its core, is about journalism or, more pointedly, about what journalists should be doing that they decidedly are not. She approaches this with a passion and rage that sings off the page and burns into the mind of the reader.

Also, the use of "Fictionals" in conjunction with straight news is intriguing, underlining the idea that fiction can, in its own way, provide as much truth as fact. Sometimes more so, by digging at the emotional and psychological roots beneath raw facts.

Feed holds its own as a politically motivated sci-fi thriller, moving along at a tight clip with its fair share of surprising but perfectly reasonable twists (no cheap shots here) without losing its heart as a story about people doing their best to bring the truth to the masses. Plus, there are zombies. I'm practically giddy with anticipation for the other two parts of the Newsflesh trilogy to come out.

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Anton Cancre is one of those rotting, pus-filled thingies on the underside of humanity that your mother always warned you about. He has oozed symbolic word-farms onto the pages of Shroud, Sex and Murder and Horrorbound magazines as well as The Terror at Miskatonic Falls, an upcoming poetry anthology by Shroud Publishing and continues to vomit his oh-so-astute literary opinions, random thoughts and nonsense at No, he won't babysit you pet shoggoth this weekend. Stop asking.

The Passage, (Ballantine Books), by Justin Cronin

The Passage is the third novel from award-winning mainstream author Justin Cronin, and the first in a projected trilogy set against the backdrop of America, post vampire-apocalypse.

The first twenty percent or so of the book covers the basics: a little girl abandoned at a convent, a Federal agent with a heart of gold, a gathering of twelve death-row-inmates-turned-guinea-pigs and the aftermath of a jungle expedition that raises more questions than are answered. This section, basically a prologue on steroids, culminates in the escape of an even dozen lethal criminals, all of whom have been deliberately infected with the Beta Test version of an engineered virus that could hold the key to eternal life, from the secret Colorado facility in which they are being held.

Then the blood-drinking starts and the virus spreads.

The second part, comprising the remainder of the novel, is a mind-jarring jump nearly a hundred years into the future. There are still humans, walled up inside a colony (in California, which seceded from the Union following the escape of the Virals), descended from children evacuated by the Army during the death throes of the nation. There's a bare-bones Constitution, a small Parliament-style government, and an existence eked from the scavenged remains of civilization.

When a strange young girl saves Peter Jaxon's life during a mission outside the colony, life inside the walls is disrupted, one of the original Virals incites several of the colonists to murder, and a small group risks everything to explore the origin of a radio signal from Colorado.

Colorado, where everything started.

While the first segment of the book initially seems like it could be pared down, possibly even stripped from the novel and used as bonus material on the publisher's website, by the end of the book what originally seemed like extra padding is absolutely essential to the story.

Cronin stays away from any mention of the `V' word (and truly, these aren't traditional lords of the night), though his Virals do drink blood and are long-lived and nigh-impervious to damage. The Passage reads much like Stephen King when he's being both expansive and good; the allure of the story isn't the Virals at all, but the interaction between Cronin's well-fleshed characters and their richly described world.

Even for those sick to death of vampires, The Passage will prove to be an addicting, and rewarding pleasure, and worth every bit of the hype it's received to date.

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Lincoln Crisler is a United States Army combat veteran and non-commissioned officer and the author of two collections of dark stories, Magick & Misery (2009, Black Bed Sheet) and Despairs & Delights (2008, Arctic Wolf). He lives in Augusta, Georgia with his wife and two of his three children. You can visit his website at

Friday, August 13, 2010

Drift, (Howard Books), by Sharon Carter Rogers

Drift is a unique novel. One I could not put down. This was partly due to the tale told, and partly due to the way the tale unfolded. Sharon Carter Rogers has a crisp writing style. Taut chapters, crisp dialogue, and developed characters kept me page turning, anxious to see what would happen next.

To write this review a reader needs to understand what makes up a Drifter. A Drifter is neither an angel, nor a demon, but someone who is always here. Divinely possible, and perfectly flawed, Boy is attached to a tether for a time. Some times last longer than others. Some are short--lasting days. And what is a tether? A person. One who can see and hear and touch the drifter, while others cannot do any of these things.

A Drifter, once out of sight is soon forgotten, both by the tether, and also to the Drifter. If prematurely separated, the Drifter's existence crumbles. It slowly, and painfully kills the Drifter without the relief of death.

Again. Unique.

In Drift, Baby Doll was adopted, or stolen really, as a child. Her deceased father--Charlie Murphy--held a high position in a mob-like organized crime syndicate. His title--The Executioner--carried with it all the power the name suggests. His suspicious death leads Baby Doll to Boy--the Drifter. Or maybe it is the other way around.

Bonded by an invisible link, the two are tethered to one another. And like any relationship, relies heavily on give and take. Boy needs a favor from Baby Doll. A simple task. He'd left something important at the home of his last tether. Unfortunately, he can't remember where it was his last tether lived, and more importantly, he isn't sure he can trust Baby Doll to help him.

Baby Doll needs tether's help for a more primal cause. To stay alive. With Murphy's death comes the threat of anarchy within the syndicate--a tipping of balance that Baby Doll set into motion. In order to ensure the demise of the syndicate Baby Doll needs what was stolen from her, or else order risks being restored and her involvement behind the scenes of the turmoil could cost her the very life she's been trying to save. Her own.

With the syndicate growing more suspicious about her involvement, and the police certain she knows more than she's told, Baby Doll is torn by questions that spin like a whirlwind inside her head: What to do next? Where to go next? And why in the world has she been tethered to Boy?

The tension in Drift builds and builds, chapter by chapter, page by page and word by word. With unexpected twists, crazy turns, and nail-biting action--Rogers' book will thrill readers. Touch them. And force them to remember the story for a long time.

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Thomas Phillips grew up with a reading disability and did everything he could not to read. It wasn't until he was in seventh grade that he finally read a book cover to cover. Now a voracious reader and prolific writer, he uses his accomplishments as a motivational backdrop for speaking at school assemblies. When he's not writing, he plays his guitar, is active in his church, coaches his children’s' Little League teams, and plots his next story. The Molech Prophecy is his most recent suspense novel.

The Killing Kind, (Leisure Fiction), by Bryan Smith

Throughout this modern day gore-fest, Bryan Smith invites readers to examine the build up to one of the bloodiest massacres ever to hit the USA from multiple points of view, projecting fear, loathing, delight, and pure dread through the eyes of both victims and assailants.

Robert really digs Goth chicks; the kinds with raven black hair and PVC corsets that make up his immense friend-list on Myspace. But just imagine his surprise when, whilst filling up his car, a classic Goth chick comes sauntering right up to him - and sticks a 38mm revolver in his gut. Roxie is undeniably gorgeous, but this rose has thorns; so when she orders Rob at gun point to follow a van full of preppy rich kids, then, well - who is he to argue?

After setting off, Rob gets to know Roxie pretty intimately, and develops a kind of twisted, lustful case of Stockholm syndrome. Beaten, confused, and scared out of his mind, he soon finds himself battling with a dilemma - does he really want to go back to his boring, drama-free life, or should he keep up with his psycho girl's plans?

Unfortunately, it's too late - he's been ensnared by Roxie, and she just isn't a girl you refuse. Whilst their journey towards the bloody beach bash continues, readers get to don a variety of new skins, and meet some crazy characters whilst inside them.

Turns out, Roxie isn't the only one lusting for blood - because Julie Cosgrove, an unsuspecting teenage girl, is even sicker than she is. Leaving her babysitting days behind her for a wild trip of gruesome self-discovery, Julie teams up with hill-billy corpse-raping Zeb, who "shows her the ropes". Unsurprisingly for Julie, this killing stuff is contagious - and soon, she just keeps hankering for more.

But what happens when these couples' journeys cross paths? And what abominable havoc do they wreak at the (allegedly) unsuspecting rich kids' party?

Written with an "in-your-face" confidence, this novel is not for the faint at heart. The omniscient 3rd viewpoint creates a refreshing insight into the lives and minds of these deliciously brutal characters, and the horrific bloodshed they cause. The novel as a whole speaks with a merciless voice that knocks all other horror novels clear out of the water; an eye-opening `must read' for horror fans.

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A. E. Grace is a literature geek, currently studying Creative And Media Writing at Middlesex University, UK. She is a film and literature buff, with a keen interest in horror. Her hobbies include writing, cartooning, books, and films.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

"Night Souls: A Department 18 Novel", (Leisure Fiction), by Maynard & Sims

According to the real Department 18 website (, we are to ignore the irresponsible scribblings of Maynard & Sims. Their books, such as the previous Black Cathedral, and the current volume, Night Souls, are complete breaches of Great Britain’s national security and are to be avoided, at the cost of extreme prejudice. Department 18’s mission to investigate and resolve supernatural phenomena is to remain hidden, and these stories are to be suppressed.

But, until the books are pulled from the shelves by MIB, we are offered a chiller/thriller that is a roller coaster ride worthy of an X-Files and John le Carré mash-up. With no hesitation, Maynard & Sims thrust us into the world of the Breathers, a race of psychic-sexual creatures living in the shadows of human civilization. To make things worse, they enjoy consuming humans in a most horrible fashion.

In a modern nod to conflicted antagonists (whatever happened to the arch-villains that simply wanted to eliminate humanity?), the Breathers are divided, and a war is brewing between them. As Department 18 becomes aware of their existence and the impending conflict, they race to figure out what is happening and why.

The mark of a successful series is the ability to pick up any volume and feel a kinship with the characters, even though their backstory may be a bit hazy. Maynard & Sims handle the carryover characters in this series by introducing new characters that learn the people and departmental history as the story unfolds. Well done.

With an continental setting, Night Souls is sometimes a juggernaut of a chiller/thriller novel where it’s necessary to flip back a few pages to keep track of the players. The story is complex and it feels like the book was designed to be read quickly. For the astute reader, there are a few refrigerator logic moments, but for the most part these are minimal.

The resolution may come a bit too easily, however, the overall story is certainly satisfying. In fact, the concept of the Breathers may be larger than a single tome, and if the files of Department 18 are breached again, the Breathers could make a reappearance. If they do return, they will, no doubt, be pissed off.

For the official record, this is not a book for the squeamish. There’s gore, sex, sex-gore, and gore-sex. Never too much, it’s dished out tapas-size, each a delectable treat that serves the overall narrative of the story. There are a couple of grimace-moments, for sure.

In the final analysis, it’s only a matter of time until Department 18 Special Forces take out Maynard and Sims by psychically stripping their minds and reducing them to two old pensioners hoping for someone to empty their drool cups. In the interim, it can only be hoped that they continue to tell more of these true stories behind the supernatural events which are so cleverly concealed from the public by Department 18.

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R. B. Payne is a dark fiction writer. His stories have appeared in Doorways, Dark Discoveries, Necrotic Tissue, and the recent Stoker-nominated Midnight Walk anthology. He is insanely enthusiastic about writing book reviews for Shroud magazine. But rather than continuing to blurb himself by pretending that someone else wrote this bio, he would prefer you seek out his stories and read them late at night. For the record, he lives in Los Angeles and lurks at He would love to hear from you as long as it’s not a beating heart delivered in a cardboard box.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"The Thin Executioner", (Little, Brown, and Co.), The Thin Executioner

The Thin Executioner” tells the story of overly thin, immature, and opinionated Jebel Rum, a young man on the brink of adulthood. To remedy being passed over for a chance at his father’s job as official executioner, Jebel embarks on a year-long quest to petition the god Sabbah Eid for invincibility so he can return to his home and claim the post. Although never overly graphic, the book begins deliciously with a thwack and a head plop.

Jebel’s story takes place in a well-described alternate world, yet immediately recognizable to readers. He is a young man with girlfriend problems, self-esteem issues, sibling rivalry, parental neglect, and way too much attitude. In other words, a perfect character in need of an epic adventure.

Accompanying Jebel on his quest is his slave, Tel Hasani, who is destined to be sacrificed to the god in exchange for Jebel’s invincibility. Their journey is filled with dangerous men, eerie places, fierce enemies, tricksters, and horrible creatures. Their path is bloody and through these events, Jebel begins to see Tel as something other than a slave – a man and a friend, perhaps?

Many will liken this story to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, which is fitting, as the author has drawn from this masterpiece as his inspiration. Like Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi, Jebel Rum faces hazard after hazard, has thrill after thrill, and most are filled with blood-curdling horror that results in eye-opening revelations about Jebel’s world, and ours.

For young readers, the story barrels through episode after episode, each offering a layer of maturity to Jebel until he is forced to grow up. For the more astute reader, enjoyment can be found in subtle (and some not-so-subtle) real-world parallels. This is an epic story like “The Odyssey”, or Jack Vance’s “The Big Planet”. The sense of atmosphere is often foreboding and, at each moment, the reader wonders either how did Jebel get into this mess, or how is he ever going to get out alive?

Darren Shan’s international reputation is well-deserved for the epic scale of his series books, and specifically for the success of tales such as “The Vampire’s Assistant”. Even though “The Thin Executioner” is a stand-alone tale, the characters are well-developed by the end of the first few chapters. As a result, the tale of Jebel Rum and Tel Hasani is thoroughly engaging and can be enjoyed by YA readers and adults alike.

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R. B. Payne is a dark fiction writer. His stories have appeared in Doorways, Dark Discoveries, Necrotic Tissue, and the recent Stoker-nominated Midnight Walk anthology. He is insanely enthusiastic about writing book reviews for Shroud magazine. But rather than continuing to blurb himself by pretending that someone else wrote this bio, he would prefer you seek out his stories and read them late at night. For the record, he lives in Los Angeles and lurks at He would love to hear from you as long as it’s not a beating heart delivered in a cardboard box.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Sculptor, (Kennsington Books), by Gregory Funaro

Gregory Funaro's first novel is a polished, page-turning thriller with an emphasis on the Renaissance art of Michelangelo, but with a deliciously perverted twist. Think "Silence of the Lambs" meets "The Da Vinci Code", with a dash of "Red Dragon" and you'll have a pretty good idea of the ride you're about to take.

The titular villain is beautifully rendered in blood and darkness with his eyes fixed on what he regards as the profound beauty of his transformational "art"-- in which his victims, at his hands, become representations of Michelangelo's most famous statuary. And he's using Dr. Hildebrant's book about the artist, Slumbering in the Stone, as a sort of guidebook in achieving his ends. The Sculptor even dedicates his first "statue" to her--the initial clue that begins the race to stop him.

FBI agent Sam Markham is somewhat reminiscent of 24's superman Jack Bauer in that he often seems to know even more about Michelangelo than Dr. Hildebrant does. Both Hildebrant and Markham are rendered well, but compared to the Sculptor, seem somewhat two-dimensional at times. What saves them is their wealth of knowledge about Michelangelo, which Funaro has woven into the storyline so deftly that it is positively absorbing.

Slumbering in the Stone is an interesting prop, in that both the villain and the good guys make liberal use of it; the Sculptor for authenticity and Markham and Hildebrant to try to anticipate his next move. The Sculptor is a brilliant, damaged, uber-organized killer with a defined order and reasoning behind everything he does. This is what makes the book so fascinating and so believable. It is genius pitted against genius, which is always a beautiful, rich thing to read. An interesting facet of this is it doesn't seem as if Funaro is making too much up--the book is so loaded with facts that it reads like a novelized version of a true crime case--in the style of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood".

All in all, a well-written and most satisfying read. The ending is tied up perfectly with no unanswered questions. This book will live on my shelf to be taken down and read again on some, forgive me, dark and stormy night.
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Carson Buckingham is a writer living in the great American Southwest and she reviews horror/paranormal suspense novels.