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
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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Review: “Adrift,” K.R. Griffiths

Pros: Fascinating premise
Cons: An 80s depiction of military
Rating: 4 out of 5

K.R. Griffiths’s Adrift (the first book in the Adrift series) is quite good. I wasn’t as fond of his Wildfire series, but I expect I’ll read the next book in the Adrift series.

In Adrift, a large number of people are on the cruise ship Oceanus. It’s huge, and even includes an on-boat park. However, four brothers, Herb, Edgar, Seb, and Phil Rennick, plan to serve the entire ship up on a platter to three ancient monsters. It’s part of a pact between their family and the ancient “vampires”, where the humans periodically serve up victims to be the vampires’ food and toys. And the vampires have very dark impulses indeed. They can get into a person’s mind and completely mess that person up.

Meanwhile, there are other people on that boat who come into play. Dan is agoraphobic, but fighting his panic attacks to come on this cruise as a honeymoon with his new wife, Elaine. Herb is one of the Rennick family, but he isn’t entirely convinced of what they’re doing. Mark is a member of the security team on the ship–he’s used to being lazy, but under the new ex-marine head of security, Steven Vega, that’s unlikely to happen.

The Rennick brothers set off an EMP device, leaving the entire ship dead in the water. It should be easy for the vampires to clean up–eating the people until satisfied, then indulging their ‘darker’ impulses. The party line is that no one can kill a vampire.


Oceanus has an honest-to-god park on board. I wanted to see more done with that. If you go out of the way to put something major into the setup, it should play a significant role. I never felt that it did.

Most of the characters are great. I loved Dan and his fight to get back to his wife no matter how terrified he got. Herb’s kind of fascinating, as one Rennick who isn’t thrilled with the idea of killing thousands of people to sate the appetites of ancient beings his family has linked itself to. On the other hand, Steven Vega is the pure vision of 80s-era military man: overbearing, mean-spirited, sneering, and ultimately weak. It isn’t the 80s any more; we need more than that in a military or ex-military character. I had difficulty justifying some of the actions he took later in the book.

The bargain between the very alien vamps and the Rennick family and their affiliates supposedly keeps the vamps from going after everyone else on the planet, as long as they’re delivered plenty of juicy humans on demand. While I want to know more about the details of this, and how the hell that arrangement might have come about, I’m willing to wait for one of the sequels.

Of course we all know that when the party line says vampires can’t be killed, that’s as good as announcing the funeral arrangements. I have some questions regarding why that assumption was made and what the limits of it are. Again, hopefully something that’ll show up in the sequel.

I look forward to finding the answers to my questions in later books!

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Review: “Machinations,” Hayley Stone

Pros: Fantastic worldbuilding and wonderful characters!
Cons: I need to understand more about the machines
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Hayley Stone’s Machinations brings us into the world of a robot apocalypse. While there are traces of the Terminator story (hard to avoid at least in part), this is something new. This is the story of Commander Rhona Long, who died and didn’t stay dead. Rhona Long, who has raised morale through her communications, reminding everybody that even though life seems unwinnable, there is always hope. The tale takes place in Alaska, through two bases (McKinley and Churchill) and then into Juneau itself. It’s a world where life is fleeting and precious, but now that Rhona is back from the dead, the world both needs her and no longer trusts her.


Most unusual is the opening. Rhona has been horribly injured and is dying in the arms of her lover, Camus. Usually when a book immediately drops you into the frenzy of action that involves people who are in love, it can be difficult to empathize with the couple because you haven’t yet been shown why you should empathize with them. It’s hard to take the relationship seriously because for the reader, it only just started. But Machinations starts out with fighting, in which two people are also dealing with the guts of a relationship, and it absolutely worked. There was something so compelling in that relationship that I immediately felt it. Splendid job on the author’s part.

After Rhona dies and returns, those close to her have to decide whether they trust her and whether she even is Rhona. Not to mention, she needs to find some memories that seem to be eluding her.

I do have some criticisms of the revolting machines. First, why are the machines limiting themselves artificially? There’s just no need to put two eye-like optics on a robot’s ‘face’, especially ones that actually take out the machine’s vision if you can destroy them. Why aren’t the machines devising things like, oh, I don’t know, a ring of optics around the head for perfect 360-degree vision with redundancies? Why are the machines advancing on the cities, when most of them should have been in cities already. They should have been able to rise up from within cities, giving them an advantage in trying to kill as many people as possible. I’m also curious as to why the machines haven’t either placed a whole bunch of orbiting satellites criss-crossing the globe, or at least used the ones that are there. They should be much more aware of what the renegades are doing. Maybe there just needs to be a little more explanation as to why the machines behave in the way that they do. Although a lot of machines seem to now house AIs, where’s the boundary there? Why can the renegades use some types of machinery but not others? What makes one machine hostile and another one ‘normal’?

I love that Rhona has a nearly-inexhaustible supply of mischief, snark, puns, and (sometimes inappropriate) humor. Otherwise she wouldn’t have felt as different from similar types of characters in other books. She has a lovely, belligerent spark to her without being ridiculously single-minded. And it’s clear that she needs the help of her friends (among others) if she wants to have any chance of making it through the book alive.


NOTE: Free book provided by publisher for review
Expected publication date: July 26, 2016.

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Review: “Little Killers A to Z,” Howard Odentz

Pros: So much wonderful variety!
Rating: 5 out of 5

When I saw the concept of Howard Odentz’s Little Killers A-Z: An Alphabet of Horror, I was thrilled. Of course my mind immediately went to Edward Gorey, and that shaped my expectations. Instead, each of these stories is surprisingly distinct and different from all the rest. In most cases that would mean I’d somewhat-like an anthology, just because you’re virtually guaranteed to find a couple of stories in any collection that you’ll dislike. Not this time, though. I enjoyed every one of these stories.

In each short story, children end up killing people. Some of the children are monstrous or psychotic (or psychotic monsters–there is an element of the supernatural in some of these). Some are backed into a corner where that’s the only thing they can do to to save themselves. Sometimes it’s the lesser of two evils, or the end product of a very crazy revenge plan. Some of the children have disabilities or conditions that factor into their stories. Sometimes they seemingly come from perfectly reasonable homes. Despite the shortness of the tales, the children have a remarkable amount of depth to them. Odentz seems to excel as using a small amount of text to say a lot about a character.

I had trouble putting this book down, which is impressive because usually when reading anthologies I have no trouble putting the book down between stories. There was just such a perfect ‘feel’ to the stories that I didn’t want to stop reading them! One story was predictable enough to lose some of its power, but in general I was too glued to the page to notice many flaws.

Ultimately the methods of murder are myriad. Fern Baker was intimately familiar with them all.


Book provided free by publisher for review

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Short Take: “The Dunewalkers,” Ron Ripley

Pros: Interesting new themes
Cons: Weird that Paul showed up at a new place
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ron Ripley’s The Dunewalkers is book two in his Moving In series. (Here’s my review of book one, Moving In.) In the previous book, Brian and his wife Jenny had a nasty ghostly experience when they moved into a new house. Now they’re determined to help others with similar problems. Helping them are Sylvia and Jeannette (a teacher Sylvia and Leo had). They get a call for help from William Engberg, who just moved into a new house and has already met up with his ghost problem: Kathleen, who won’t let him leave the house.


This is a relatively short story, and I very much liked the ending (obviously, not going to spoil it by saying why). We get to find out a lot more about Leo and his past; he has left his journal and invaluable library in Sylvia’s hands, and bit by bit we learn about his life. This new story introduces entirely new aspects to hauntings.

Paul, the young bad guy from the previous novel, shows up. That felt a bit out of place. There are a couple of little things (like Brian pressing ‘play’ when he wants to record something). Pretty trivial stuff. I’m still enjoying the fact that this tale avoids a lot of the horror tropes: no children, no family dog, no teenagers–just adults doing their thing.

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Review: “Cold,” by John Sweeney

Pros: Came together very well
Cons: Starts out a bit confusing; why is Joe so dense about Reilly?
Rating: 4 out of 5

John Sweeney’s Cold (A Joe Tiplady Thriller) started out with enough plot threads and parallel subplots that I got a tad confused. However, the author deftly weaves all those threads together as the book gets further on, turning it into a fascinating thriller.

The narrative moves around a lot, taking place everywhere from Siberia to Utah. An old, retired general wants to find out what happened to his (presumably dead) daughter. Joe and his dog, Reilly, are chased by some very bad people with uncertain goals. When Joe gets captured, his captors most want to know where his dog is! A young woman named Katya joins Joe in his flight, and as they run they start to fall for each other. Reikhman is a cruel torturer with little patience and an unfortunately active imagination who tirelessly pursues our heroes.


It seems like Joe should have realized very early on that it was Reilly, the dog, that everyone was trying to catch–he started out only as a means to an end. People capture him and straight-out interrogate him about Reilly, and he still doesn’t seem to get it.

For those who want to avoid gore, read another book. The torture in here is graphic and, well, inventive. There’s torture of both humans and animals.

At first I felt a bit adrift, with so many characters, plot threads, and locations shifting and moving. Given how beautifully things were resolved, though, I can’t really complain. Unless I missed something (always possible), the author wrapped up the individual plots with skill. I think the pacing could have been jumped up a bit, but it seemed to be difficult to keep that up with so many characters, locations, etc. The characters, however, are quite good. One of my favorite characters is the retired general, Genaddy. I think people underestimate him because of his age (and because he doesn’t advertise being a retired ‘hero’), but there are also people who remember him and owe him.

As a thriller this is a little slow, but the extended plots at least partially make up for that.


Book provided free by publisher for review

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