Review: “THEM Book One: Incursion”, M.D. Massey

Pros: New players in the game; gradual dissemination of more info
Cons: Still need to know more!
Rating: 4 out of 5

PLEASE NOTE: It’s nearly impossible to write this review of book one without giving away points from book zero. You have been warned. Also note that there is a book zero, which is considered volume one, therefore this book–book one–is volume two. No, I have no idea why someone would do that to their poor readers.

 

M.D. Massey’s THEM Incursion: A Scratch Sullivan Paranormal Post-Apocalyptic Action Novel (Volume 2) informs us that it’s been eight years since the bombs fell and somehow loosed zombies (and more) upon the world. We still don’t entirely know why and how and where the bombs hit, other than to introduce the EMP effect. We find out odd details here and there: We know that nos’ (nosferatu, vampires) have hard heads and sternums, so it’s much better to aim for the joints and thus put their limbs out of commission. ‘Scratch’ (Aidan) actually has a girlfriend, Kara–and she’s righteously pissed that he’s going to keep pushing further out, increasing the chance that he might never come back to her. I’d still like details on the effects caused by the nuclear bombs. Other than the EMP we’ve seen virtually nothing. Whatever happened to the specter of nuclear winter, or other expected problems?

There’s even a whole new taxonomy to learn:

  • Zombies: Slow but strong
  • Ghouls–Zombies 2.0–quicker, with thick skulls
  • Revenants: Undead humans who reason, and are strong, fast, and wily.
  • Vampiric Humanoids: These come in multiple flavors. Most prominent are the ‘nosferatu': quick, tough to kill, and creepy as all hell
  • “Atypicals”, such as lycanthropes (…and?)

In this volume there’s the post-apocalyptic standard “save the women and children from being raped” scene. At least this book doesn’t threaten rape in every other paragraph the way some do. We also meet some new characters: Gabby, who is young but shows great skill at dealing with zombies. Also Bobby, a lycanthrope who accepts Scratch as an alpha. A doctor is working nearby on super-soldier type experiments, and the doc would be happy to take Scratch on as a guinea pig. He spends a good portion of the book debating with himself as to whether he should do this or not. Meanwhile, there are civilians to rescue and monsters of the human variety inside a quasi-military compound.

“Being chased by zombies tends to change your priorities.”

Scratch gets some weird things going on, opposing forces fighting for control of him. At the same time, he’s gained a great deal of endurance and amazing reflexes. Still, that might not be enough to save him from what’s coming.

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Short Take: “The End of the Trail,” Louis Rakovich

Pros: Salt makes for an interesting backdrop
Cons: The pacing seems a little off; end came a tad quickly
Rating: 4 out of 5

Louis Rakovich’s The End of the Trail is a novelette, a very short piece of work, but it is interesting. The main character has no name, but has more prestige than his fellows, including, now and then, the ear of the king. One day he’s sent for, only to find out that the king is quite ill. The king’s young queen sends the man on an errand–find the witch who cursed him; take off her head if she won’t cure it. Then go to a second man who might have the power to undo the witch’s curse.

Nothing, of course, is quite what it seems–sometimes several times over. This is a short book, however, so there isn’t much more I can say without giving too much away. This is very fairy tale-ish in style, and I like the way the salt is used. If you have a half an hour to fill and like dark fairy tales, I’d give this one a shot.

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Review: “Bag Men,” Jackson and Traas

Pros: I like the variation in virus mutation; I also like one of the two PoV characters
Cons: Weird setup
Rating: 2 out of 5

Silas Jackson and J.R. Traas’s Bag Men is a zombie apocalypse novel that is kinda-sorta set after the virus. Really what’s happened is that the virus started out causing the typical rotting, shambling zombie, but has since mutated several times over the years and now creates “Sleepers,” or alive-looking zombies who gradually become homicidal. This book, in two parts, follows first one Bag Man (Steve) and then an Army Scout (Troy) working with a Bag Man (Morris). Sacramento has become a sanctuary for people, and they have harsh rules in place to keep the plague from spreading.

 

In the first part, we get Bag Man Steve’s take on the apocalypse, apparently written by Jackson. In the second part, apparently written by Traas, we follow the Army Scout, his partner, and Bag Man Morris. I hate to say this, but one writer (Traas) is noticeably better than the other (Jackson). Bag Man Steve is reduced to a walking lump of exposition for a goodly portion of the book. His girlfriend Abigail asks for an explanation of the virus “as if I don’t know anything.” Who the hell does that in real life? And in a book, you know what comes after that is going to be painfully stilted and boring. This wasn’t even necessary, since the author started off with a prologue that was an explanation of the virus. (Also, who finds talking nitty-gritty details of a virus to be foreplay?)

Steve of course has lots of classic books (why always the classics? Why not graphic novels, cookbooks, zombie fiction–anything other than the stereotypical ‘classics’). He has the gorgeous sexy girlfriend, etc. (I’m getting a few Mary Sue vibes here.) Also,

His soul shivered in fear like a thin dog in the cold, raging in vain at the terrible thing called life.

Really? I’ve never met a dog that seemed to be ‘raging in vain at the terrible thing called life’. But I certainly can note purple prose when I see it, and it didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story.

One of the things the sanctuary does in order to make sure the virus doesn’t get in is by doing monthly “vettings”. Given that apparently this virus can cause an outbreak in no time flat, why only monthly? I mean, I get that it takes manpower and all that, but once monthly should be completely ineffective. Worse still, apparently if you don’t show up you won’t get someone knocking on your door until at least two vettings have passed without you showing up. In that amount of time the whole place should be overrun.

Part two, written by Traas, was in general much better and more fun to read. The main character is Troy, an Army Scout. He goes out with his partner and a Bag Man named Morris. Morris is a complete dick with a god complex; how the hell did he end up as a Bag Man? Or perhaps more importantly, why is there even a designation for ‘Bag Man’ when it seems like Bag Men are just glorified Army Scouts who don’t have to answer for their actions? At any rate, Troy is an interesting character and he kept my attention throughout the story.

I still have a few minor issues. Obviously these people know what the word ‘zombie’ means, but supposedly most people don’t know to go for the head. Hey, we’ve all known that ever since vampire movies started to come out in volume, which means a looong time ago. Also, why is it that bad guys can never just be threatening or just be insane–why must they always confirm their bad guy status by threatening to rape any ladies present?

There were some good parts in Traas’s story, but they got overwhelmed by setting issues and the poor quality of narrative in Jackson’s part.

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Review: “THEM Book Zero: Invasion”, M.D. Massey

Pros: Some interesting new twists
Cons: Definitely need to know more!
Rating: 3 out of 5

I don’t know why I’m so hooked on zombie fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction right now. I guess I’m going through a phase. As you can see by the looong subtitle, M.D. Massey’s THEM BOOK ZERO INVASION: A Scratch Sullivan Paranormal Post-Apocalyptic Action Novel (Volume 1) hits pretty much all of my buttons.

Aidan is an ex-soldier who’s spent time in Afghanistan; he came home with a case of PTSD. I think this is portrayed well at the start, but the PTSD kind of faded away with very little explanation after that. A zombie invasion has started, although so far we have no idea how, why, or courtesy of whom. But wait, there’s more! Some mix of countries has started a nuclear war–we have very little info about this at all (just a need to avoid populous areas). I’m pretty sure that was mostly included to justify the EMP that’s knocked out everything from cell towers to cars. But we’re still not finished! There’s something running around that skitters like a spider, is terribly fast and destructive, and certainly seems to be a vampire judging by the way it sucks down blood. But where on earth did that come from? I enjoyed much of this zombie tale, but there are currently too many questions left open. Hopefully the sequel will have some answers.

 

The characterizations range a bit. The main character, Aidan, doesn’t seem that different from other zombie tale protagonists (military background, tough and practical), yet he can set that aside to help others when he feels he has to. Naturally he’s a loner and has access to a large quantity of guns. Just about the only thing he failed to have was the semi-requisite sexy girlfriend picked up along the way (nice change of pace!). About the only thing that didn’t seem so familiar was his merciless push forward to find his parents. I was fond of that plot. The teenager he picked up was a bit better than the usual–he’s more than just a burden to make things harder on our protagonist. He has a strong influence on Aidan, especially later in the book.

The first-person narrative started out a little slow with plenty of rumination. Things did eventually pick up. I was disappointed with the Army “safe zone”–it really seems like we’re going back to a 1980s view of military lately. They’re always up to something, and it’s almost always a pretty obvious “they’re eeeevil” kind of thing.

There were a couple of incidents within the military compound where I couldn’t understand how so many shots could be fired without immediately attracting attention. Aidan’s escape seemed too easy.

This book was entertaining enough that I’ll probably read the next installment, but I hope some of these (rather important) questions will get answered!

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Review: “The House that Hell Built,” Shaw, Keane, Bray

Pros: Well, it is a horror novel, which was what I wanted to read at the time
Cons: Time-bounced excessively; many misused words
Rating: 2 out of 5

Shaw, Keane, and Bray’s The House That Hell Built is a moderately interesting haunted house tale. In it, tourists go to stay in a reputed haunted house and and bad things happen. I know, that sounds like half of the horror stories out there. Still, that is the premise.

 

Just a short time in, I read these words:

“…roamed his leery, wisacre gaze over the newcomers…”

If you are a person with a decent vocabulary–i.e, most writers–you’re probably stunned by that one. You have to know what the words you’re using mean. This is an author who does not understand the word ‘leery’ nor the word ‘wisacre’ [sic]. I should have taken that as a sign not to read the book, but I was really in a horror story frame of mind, so I soldiered on. I’m sure you can understand that these are not the only words that get misused. (“…with defiled embarrassment…” is another one I happened to notice.)

The story keeps bouncing back and forth between 1967–when a family came to live in the house–and the present (when a bunch of tourists want to look through the local haunted house). It does it incredibly frequently, confusing the hell out of me. If the author really needed to show so much of the past (and frankly I think it just muddled the story to have so much past detail), then the better choice would have been to show each story in larger chunks rather than this constant back-and-forth.

It isn’t particularly necessary to go into the characters. I kept forgetting their names, and again, having those two time periods kept me confused. People seemed to resort to violence and killing awfully quickly; even the bad guy says “This must be a new record.” Unfortunately acknowledging the problem doesn’t fix it.

I don’t find myself wanting to read any of the authors’ other work.

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Short Take: “The Demon and the Witch,” Charles E. Gray

Pros: Interesting haunting tale
Cons: Chidren’s dialogue
Rating: 3 out of 5

Charles E. Gray’s The Demon and the Witch (Guardians Book 1) pits a young woman named Tara and a 15-year-old Michael against not just a magical enemy, but also a normal one: prejudice. Most of the town believes Tara is a witch and the swamp is haunted. They blame her for a handful of missing hunters. There are ‘soft spaces’ in the world that allow some people to move through to another universe, but sometimes this brings evil, terrible things along from the spaces between the worlds. Tara is from one of these worlds, and something very evil came with her. It brings the swamp to life, using all of the creatures there as its puppets. Snakes, frogs, alligators–everything pays close attention to what Tara does. When Michael stumbles into her life she decides to tell him; after all, it’s a tiring burden to carry. She can do magic, but she needs to sleep within a magical circle just to get a good night’s sleep. When she’s attacked (by actual people) in the town itself, sheriff Bill comes to her rescue, and decides to help her with her problems. At the same time, bad guys are trying to find Tara for their own reasons.

I had difficulty with how Gray handled Michael and Tara. Their conversation felt very stilted. Oftentimes Michael sounds more like a grownup than a teenager. While these two characters were reasonably interesting, the character I empathized with and cheered for was Sheriff Bill. He was by far the most enjoyable character in the book because he had a ton of personality to go around. If Bill hadn’t been around this would not have been nearly as interesting a story, and it isn’t a great indicator when your side character is so much more interesting than your leads.

This is a relatively short book, and more to come is hinted at by the end. I don’t plan on picking up the sequel.

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Review: “The River Is Dark”, Joe Hart

Pros: Great plot
Cons: Some stereotypes
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Joe Hart’s The River Is Dark (A Liam Dempsey Thriller) definitely makes me want to read more of his work. In this volume, Liam Dempsey, who used to be a police officer, returns to his home town. His brother Allan, a doctor, is dead along with Allan’s wife Suzie; they were killed by a vicious intruder. Two weeks earlier another couple was killed very similarly and their son Eric lost his arm to the killer. Liam is trying to find the killer without running afoul of local law enforcement, but luckily the sheriff knows he could use the help and is slipping him copies of reports on the sly. Liam teams up with Dani, someone he has a history with, and the two of them try to figure out what on earth the killer really wants.

 

There are some interesting characters in here. Allan seems to have been a stone-cold asshole, but he had friends and a wonderful, kind wife, so the implication is that he must have not have been completely terrible. I like Liam–he’s a bit hard and bitter, but Dani makes him smile again, and he has his weaknesses. Dani felt a bit flimsy and somewhat defined by Joe and his issues. There’s at least one total stereotypical bad guy. There’s another character who never grows past his stereotype, but I don’t want to give his issues away. The mayor is also a one-note bad guy. Hart doesn’t seem to have a handle on giving bad guys dimension.

Liam has some genuinely funny lines. Since I just finished reading a book that had much less good humor than it thought it did, I can appreciate that. There’s at least one injury he really should have gone to the hospital over. Of course it doesn’t take many pages before it seems to be swept away as a real problem.

There are a few awkward or absurd images:

He laid her gently on the bed and covered her with himself, a blanket of flesh …

Eeewwwww! Not the sexy or romantic image the author seemed to be going for. Not even a little bit. I read it to my husband, who at first thought it was a legitimate quote from a horror novel because it was so creepy/gross. On a different note, there are also some awkward transitions into Liam’s dreams.

The pacing is wonderful, and the book definitely gained in tension as it went along. Despite some small issues, it’s a good thriller.

The river is dark, and the night isn’t something to swim in.

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Review: “Beautiful Lies,” Lisa Unger

Pros: Riveting, complex
Cons: Breaks the fourth wall in odd places
Rating: 4 out of 5

Lisa Unger’s Beautiful Lies (Ridley Jones) (also available in a set with three other novels: Four Thrillers by Lisa Unger) is a thriller about identity, self-identity, and family. It’s told in the first person from the point of view of Ridley, who’s about to find out that she was… well, not adopted, exactly. But what she does figure out will stir up years of plots, unwise partnerships, and other things that could kill her if she doesn’t stop poking around.

 

I really like the characters in this one. They had depth and complexity. Ridley broke up with Zack not all that long ago, and is falling for Jake, her new neighbor. When she gets a picture left for her accompanied by the text, “Are you my daughter?”, she has no urge to pursue it. After all, she knows her parents quite well. Even if she does seem to be the spitting image of the woman in the picture. Of course her curiosity won’t leave her alone, so she goes off to talk to her probably-not-father, only to see him shot in front of her. The cops get involved, including a Detective who thinks Ridley’s a decent person in way over her head. Her curiosity and stubbornness, of course, lead her inexorably onward, no matter who tries to stop her. One of the people she knows even tries to gaslight her into giving up; it was depicted beautifully.

At one point I looked up from my reading and had that odd, disorienting sensation of wondering why the world hasn’t changed around you, because you’re so focused on the book.

It’s amazing how many little (and big) lies are holding up Ridley’s world. The only thing I had trouble buying into was the fact that she didn’t have a cell phone, because I’d think she’d need one too much.

My favorite part is that without giving up the pacing and questioning of a thriller, the author beautifully works in themes of identity, family, relationships, and secrets. We get to see both how weak and how strong these things can be, how resilient and how fragile.

“We don’t have control, we have choices.”

The story is told in first person from Ridley’s point of view. It’s jarring when she suddenly slips into second person, directly addressing the reader. I thought it was an unnecessary thing, mostly used for one extended scene when the author used it to virtually look in on someone else with a lame excuse of ‘this is what I learned later’.

This book was very interesting. I was sad to see what happened to some of the relationships in her life. I did appreciate that the author did not include a cliffhanger of any kind.

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Review: “My Dead World,” Jacqueline Druga

Pros: Finally, a zombie story with some differences
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Zombie and survivalism tales such as Jacqueline Druga’s My Dead World are becoming more and more ubiquitous. I’ve see a number of zombie tales that are clearly dashed out quickly by someone trying to jump on the money-train; most of them are hard to tell apart from one another. Even when you narrow it down to bio-thrillers, the disease is usually fairly straightforward and not particularly interesting. In this case, there are some fascinating changes to how the disease spreads.

Nila is our first-person point-of-view main character. While a lot of the other characters have relevant skill sets, she’s “just” a fast-food worker. She has two daughters (one really sweet and one slightly younger and rather twisted in her own way), and a husband named Paul. Her father set up the cabin the family retreats to, and her completely brilliant brother Bobby, who is high up in the CDC, sends her a satellite phone and tells her it’s time to start stocking the cabin. He promises to call when it’s time for them to leave, and when he does, the family (including Nila’s father and her step-mother Linda) heads out to the now-stocked cabin. When they get to the camp they find someone (Brian Cade) trying to take their things, but end up welcoming him into the fold–he’s an emergency services worker who’s probably the closest thing to a doctor they’ll find in that area.

Next door is Big Bear campground, and the owner, Boswick, is using it as a sanctuary for many of the people who camp there. He and his son Lev–an old friend of Nila’s–do what they can to keep the plague from spreading. It isn’t airborne–it spreads through bodily fluids. But the rate of infection at Big Bear is way higher than it should be. Lev is examining the infected and may have found out some unusual and important details about how they operate.

Meanwhile, Bobby promises he’ll join them just as soon as he can, even if it takes months for him to reach them.

 

I really enjoy this zombie tale. Sometimes authors advertise a book as a bio-thriller when the virus or whatever only takes up a few minutes of the book, or very clearly is used only as an easy excuse for what the author really wanted to write about. Instead, the virus causing this particular zombie plague is much more interesting. It has effects and details that have a large impact on the events of the story and that alter how the characters choose to act. Also, the rate of infection in the two camps is hugely different, prompting the characters to learn more about their new friends-turned-enemies.

I like the zombies; they have a bit of complexity all their own. The characters gradually come to realize that they’re fighting at least two types of zombies, and they have to figure out what on earth is causing that and how it affects them.

Of course there’s an ongoing argument as to how to handle people who come down with the infection, and that’s one of the biggest, toughest plotlines to read. It’s hard to think about–at what stage do you kill someone? If you wait until they’re all-zombie, you’re risking that they’ll infect someone else. But if you kill before then, aren’t you killing friends and family? It’s a tough question that doesn’t have a good answer.

There are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. I love the characters; they have a great deal of depth to them. I shed a few tears at one infection case. I loved some of the old hurts that come up, particularly between Nila and Lev.

If you’re looking for a zombified bio-thriller that’s a bit more interesting than the usual, and have an interest in survivalism/preppers, I think you’d enjoy this one.

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Review: “Adrift Two: Sundown,” K.R. Griffiths

Pros: Interesting group of characters; fascinating developments
Cons: There seems to be a big ol’ plot hole hanging out in the parlor
Rating: 4 out of 5

Please NOTE: I can’t describe the setup for book two without dropping spoilers from book one, so if you haven’t read book one first, you should wait to read this review.

In “Adrift”, we discover that there are nests of monsters referred to as vampires. Unlike the modern view of a vampire, these are clearly monsters and not humans. They have the horrifying ability to take over the mind of anyone who looks them in the face, and they use this ability to ‘have fun’ playing with their food. Note that this gets quite gruesome. Supposedly nothing can kill a vampire–but a panic attack prone newlywed, Dan, proves that vamps don’t have to be immortal. Unfortunately the three vamps on board the cruise ship Oceanus don’t return, which breaks the compact between vamps and certain humans, resulting in a vampire uprising. After all, the people on board the Oceanus were supposed to be a sacrifice to the vamps. In Adrift 2: Sundown, we’re chasing Herb and Dan from the previous book as they go to Herb Rennick’s family mansion–only to find that the vampires in the nearby nest are clearly quite well aware that humans managed to kill some of their kind, resulting in a global uprising. Herb and Dan join up with Mancini (from a compound in America), as well as Conny (police officer with a crowd-control-trained dog), among others. They’re fleeing across London trying to get away from the vamps who are attacking the entire city.

 

Dan is supposed to be some sort of special person called a “hermetic”, who can kill a vamp. For most of the book, the sole (and very handy) ability the hermetic has is his invulnerability to the vampires’ mind control tricks. Then he usually just used a cleaver like anyone else would. Dan does evince some abilities later in the book that make him more impressive. That said, there seems to be a big ol’ plot hole here. Sure, Dan can resist the mind control abilities, but he’s killing the vamps in a way that anyone who isn’t mind-controlled could. So why on earth don’t people use long-range weapons that don’t require looking into your killer’s eyes? Frag grenades. Rocket launchers. Dynamite. Assault rifles. Judging by the results of some character actions it would seem that vamps are immune to harm from large numbers of bullets being fired at them, which makes no sense coming from a creature that can be killed with a kitchen cleaver. The vamps are immune to fire, but plenty of attacks don’t rely on fire. Dan should not be the only person who can kill a vamp.

Mildly spoileriffic: at some point napalm is employed. This seems odd for a couple of reasons. One, wouldn’t a missile be easier? It’s hard to believe their first choice would be napalm. Two, you can’t tell me these special wealthy families watching over vampire nests for millennia haven’t made inroads into the government. In which case there should very much be someone there who can push them to use weaponry that will actually work.

I love the fact that vamps can’t even remotely pass as humans. No sparkles here. They’re all about appetite and playing with their food.

Dan’s role in things becomes much more interesting, but I’ll have to leave you to see that for yourself.

I still want to know what happens next, so book three, here I come.

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