Review: “Return of the Phoenix,” Heath Stallcup

Pros: Standard but decent storyline and a couple of decent characters
Cons: Slapstick humor bits; inappropriate humor bits; forced humor bits; writing so-so
Rating: 2 out of 5

Heath Stallcup’s Return of the Phoenix: A Monster Squad Novel (Volume 1) is one of those novels that seems so-so when you’re reading it, and then suffers more when you look back on it.

The “Monster Squad” series is about a government program to develop super-soldiers who spend their time fighting the hidden supernatural enemies–vamps, werewolves, trolls, zombies (although those don’t show up in this novel) etc. It’s a little weird, because most of the novels I’ve seen with this plot frame have been urban fantasy/romance novels, which have a specific feel to them. This had much more the feel of, well, non-romance urban fantasy. Although it still has the standard werewolf one-true-mate trope, and it does have some sex in it.

Rather than having one or two major ‘this didn’t work for me’ bits (other than the sense of humor, which I’ll get to in a minute), there were a lot of little things. It’s easiest just to say that the writing quality wasn’t very good. Characters lacked believable depth, or were ridiculous in their behaviors; characters’ plans had holes in them; the book ended at an annoying place; etc. One (military) character, upon being captured by the enemy, volunteered an amazing amount of sensitive information before they even asked him about anything, yet didn’t even seem to realize it.

The sense of humor also had a lot of little problems rather than one big one. Sometimes it’s forced and over the top. Sometimes it’s slapstick. Sometimes it seems rather inappropriate (there’s a plot involving setting up a homophobic, ranting politician for blackmail involving a transsexual–without going into the whole thing, I’ll just say that I think a number of people would find the way it was carried out to be offensive).

On the whole, I think there are enough books that fit any of a number of the aspects of this one, but are written better, that you might as well not settle.

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Short Take: “Last Another Day,” Baileigh Higgins

Pros: New venue; decent characters; good writing
Cons: It’s good but not great
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Baileigh Higgins’s Last Another Day (Dangerous Days – Zombie Apocalypse Book 1) stands out among the other Kindle Unlimited zombie firsts I’ve been sampling. This may seem like a small thing, but I love that it’s set in South Africa. Finally, a new location! It alters some of the common assumptions and character actions, automatically bringing a sense of the new.

The writing is good, with basically interesting characters (although they could have used more depth still). There’s a sense of family that permeates this narrative; it’s a nice difference. Rather than have a focus on weaponry or battles (although those are present), the focus is on community, staying alive, and being human. There’s even a burgeoning serial killer in the midst to keep things unusual.

Most of the book is smack dab in the middle in terms of quality, so this is a short review. All things considered though, if you’re like me and have a weird obsession with zombie novels, this might not be a bad one to try out.

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Short Take: “Outbreak,” Joshua C. Chadd

Pros: There is an audience for this; some good action scenes
Cons: Everything else
Rating: 2 out of 5

Joshua Chadd’s Outbreak (The Brother’s Creed) (Volume 1) exists to please a very specific kind of audience, and that audience has a huge overlap with those who play zombie first-person shooter games. The only parts of the book that come alive are the loving descriptions of weaponry and how it’s used.

‘”Hey, look at us,” James said, pointing at their reflection in the glass screen door as they stood there, holding their ARs.
[cue long and loving description of both men with their military gear and weapons]
“We look badass!” James said.’

That’s pretty much the theme of the entire book. There’s nothing new in here other than the weaponry fetish. The characters are flimsy, the dialogue is awful, and even though I got to read this for free through Kindle Unlimited, it wasn’t worth the time spent. I only finished reading the book so I could review it, and there isn’t much to say.

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Review: “Indexing: Reflections,” Seanan McGuire

Pros: Such a wonderful and unique take on fairy tales
Cons: Some slow parts
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Seanan McGuire’s Indexing: Reflections is a follow-on to her Indexing, which was a wonderfully unique book. The general premise is the same: In this world, fairy tale incursions into the real world have the strength to warp reality. There’s a secret government bureau whose sole purpose is to put a stop to these incursions. Sometimes they even recruit people whose stories have become ‘active,’ or, preferably, those who’ve averted the scripted ending to their tale. That doesn’t mean the narrative doesn’t pull at them, however, and they can end up getting pulled into other people’s stories as well. Sadly, fairy tales don’t tend to be kind to supporting cast.

Reflections is more of a coherent novel than the original Indexing, which was a bit of a cross between a novel and an anthology. An old enemy is chaining story incursions together in ways that cause new and unique–and terrifying–consequences. Henry and her team are in the crosshairs, and she’s going to have to learn how to control her Snow White story rather than avoid it if she wants her team to survive the experience. We also get to find out a lot more about Sloane (the Wicked Stepsister) in this installment, as the bad guys decide that they can turn her the rest of the way over to villainy.

I thought Reflections was a little bit slow for me, but it’s still a fantastic book. I just can’t get over how unique and new McGuire’s ideas can be. She’s my new favorite author, and I’m thankful she’s as prolific as she is. I’ll have to alternate reading more of her books with other authors’ so I don’t become the-reviewer-of-Seanan-McGuire-books!

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Review: “Indexing,” Seanan McGuire

Pros: So, so very creative and fascinating
Rating: 5 out of 5

Seanan McGuire’s Indexing is one of the most creative books I’ve read all year (and I read a lot of books). In this world, fairy tale incursions into the real world have the strength to warp reality. There’s a secret government bureau whose sole purpose is to put a stop to these incursions. Sometimes they even recruit people whose stories have become ‘active,’ or, preferably, those who’ve averted the scripted ending to their tale. That doesn’t mean the narrative doesn’t pull at them, however.

Indexing follows one particular team as they rush to take care of a strangely increasing number of incursions. Henry (Henrietta) runs the team; she’s a Snow White whose tale is in abeyance. Sloane, a Wicked Stepsister, has to constantly resist the urge to poison Henry with some sort of apple-related ploy (it’s rare for a villain to be an agent, but her tale is special). Jeff, their team’s archivist (researcher) is part of a tale involving shoemakers and elves, and is completely in abeyance. Andy has no connection to the narrative at all, making him fairly resistant to its pushes and pulls. Demi is a Pied Piper who gets activated as a last-ditch effort to save potentially the country itself from a particularly virulent Sleeping Beauty scenario. It’s a group of misfits who love and hate each other, and build up into a sort of oddly functional family.

This is somewhere between a novel and an anthology. Many of the chapters can stand alone as stories on their own, but a continuing narrative does develop later on. These days, when so many urban fantasies involve the same types of supernatural characters who can do all the same sorts of things and work through all the same story archetypes, it’s fantastic to find something unique. In general I can’t get over how good Ms. McGuire’s books are, and in specific this is one of the best that I’ve read so far (still going, though). I absolutely recommend it to anyone who’s a fairy tale or urban fantasy fan. The ways in which the agents interact with stories is something utterly new and wonderful.

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Review: “Come Sundown,” Nora Roberts

Pros: interesting ranching business; gets pretty dark in spots; good characters
Cons: slow; too similar to some of Roberts’ other books; gets pretty dark in spots; too many characters
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Nora Roberts’ Come Sundown covers several types of ground. It’s a thriller/serial killer (and rapist) mystery, it’s an exploration of a family ranch/resort business and the family that runs it; and it’s a romance. Although there are a lot of important characters (too many, in my view–I couldn’t keep track), the most important ones, I’d say, are Bodine, Callen, and Alice. Bodine is the ‘big boss woman’ and has quite a hand at organizing a business. Callen left town when Bodine was a teen, and now that he’s back he has his eyes on her; it isn’t hard to tell that it’s mutual. Alice is Bodine’s aunt–she ran away as a teen, and hasn’t been seen since; unfortunately for her, that isn’t by choice. Just to make things a little darker, just after Callen returns home a couple of women are found dead. Callen’s old enemy is a Sheriff’s deputy now, and he’s determined to make charges stick to Callen.

The material in which we see what’s happened to Alice is very dark, involving blunt scenes of rape, so keep that in mind when you decide whether this is a book for you. In contrast, we can see from the start that Callen and Bodine will come together, along with perhaps a couple of other duos. It’s less about will they/won’t they, and more about how will they. It’s fun to see, since each couple is very different.

Lately it seems like Roberts is deeply into extended families and their dynamics, interesting businesses and how they run, and wedding preparations. If you’ve gotten a little tired of this, then this book will feel slow and a bit boring. If you haven’t gotten tired of it, then I expect you’ll enjoy the book quite a bit. It’s very reader-dependent in this case.

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Review: “Devour,” R.L. Blalock

Pros: Likable characters that you come to care about; plenty of variety in action
Cons: I probably would have shifted some of the end elements around. Maybe.
Rating: 4 out of 5

R.L. Blalock’s Devour (Death & Decay) (Volume 1) is the third zombie/survivalist book I’ve read this week. Zombie stories tend to hit two of my soft spots: bio-thrillers and gritty horror. One of the fun aspects of reading three in a row is that I get to do the compare-and-contrast thing. For instance, the two earlier this week ended up being a two-star and a three-star, while this is a four-star. One of the biggest differences is the characters. I got tense when the characters were threatened. I didn’t want them to die and empathized with the situations they were in. For some of the less likable characters I could still empathize with their viewpoints. That’s pretty impressive considering some people tend to get stripped down to their worst in bad situations. This was more of a story of people vs. zombies rather than people vs. people. Also while there were definitely survivalist elements, the main character wasn’t a survivalist, hadn’t trained for the end of the world, and was going on gut instinct. As much as I like following survivalist plots, I’ll take characters I can empathize over that any day–this is just a better story than the last two.

If it were me writing this I’d probably have shifted some of the end elements around. The only thing I’ll say (don’t want to ruin anything) is that I tend not to be the biggest fan of cut-off endings. If I remember to keep an eye out for it I probably will buy the second book when it comes out, though, which says a lot. I rarely manage to keep track of multi-book series unless the multiple books are already out.

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Review: “Harvest of Ruin,” Arthur Mongelli

Pros: Plenty of survivalism to track
Cons: Unlikable characters; plodding pace; repetitive TV style
Rating: 2 out of 5

Harvest Of Ruin: A Zombie Novel is another entry (by Arthur Mongelli) that focuses on survival and survivalism more than the zombies themselves. Sure, there are huge herds of the things just like on Walking Dead, but the bio-thriller side of things gets so glossed over that I think I won’t bother tagging it. There’s a college student, Will, who’s trying to get from New York back to his rural home, hoping it’ll be empty of zombies. There are two married couples with their kids–long-time friends–trying to get out of their city. And there’s a rural town trying to figure out why they’re getting so many cases out in the middle of nowhere. (Sort of. They mention trying to figure it out, but it isn’t a plot-driving source.)

This isn’t a short book, so the pure, constant tale of scavenging food, evading zombies, etc. gets very repetitive. It feels like a season of a TV show, except that in Walking Dead there’s more variety going on. In contrast, Harvest of Ruin feels plodding. It doesn’t help that the characters really aren’t very likable. In particular, the female characters are shrewish, shrieking harpies, or walking nipples for magically keeping babies quiet (this guy has a serious nipple fetish), or stupid, or likely to get themselves and others killed. This strikes me as having been written by the sort of person who has to keep defending himself as a ‘nice guy’. (Oh boy. Better ready myself for incoming.)

Although I didn’t see anything up front mentioning that this was first in a series, it is. I wouldn’t be interested in reading the next book; for you that’s something you’ll want to think about before deciding whether to read this one.

Note: Part-way through the book I posted on facebook:

The only good part of this book so far: the effect of collision-assist on trying to ram through a bundle of zombies.

Now that was hilarious!

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Review: “Side Effects: Book One: First Days,” Dusti Dawn Rose

Pros: Detailed prepper/survivalist tale
Cons: Rough; slow; sometimes confusing or inconsistent
Rating: 3 out of 5

Side Effects: Book One: First Days (Volume 1), by Dusti Dawn Rose, tells the tale of Em and Drew, along with Em’s roommate Anna, a little boy, and a few others who get sucked in along the way. The zombie apocalypse has happened, but Em’s father has been prepping her and her best friend Drew for the end of the world since they were children. Em decides to take Anna, and they pick up a 4-year-old at an accident site. Em and Drew seem to take the idea of the zombie apocalypse happening remarkably in their stride. They take it equally in stride when the kid claims to have prophetic dreams and visions.

It’s clear that the real meat of the story for the author is the prepping and survivalism. Those get loving drawn out over a fairly long space, whereas the zombies and the bad guy humans are almost afterthoughts. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to read something more like that. On the other hand, First Days glosses over so much that the rest becomes unbelievable. There should have been more amazement or disbelief on the parts of the characters when things like prescient dreams and actual zombies entered the story. Instead the author raced right past those.

When I hit the end there’s a little preview of book two. I was very ambivalent as to whether I cared enough to read it or not. Some of the characters had some decent depth (especially Anna), but overall I didn’t care enough about the characters or their travails. It’s clear the author has some skill, but that skill also needs polish and honing.

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Link: Prime Day

Haven’t quite gotten to the review-writing again, although I’m sort of starting to do some cooking and I only have a few boxes left to unpack. Here’s something useful in the meantime. Prime Day is on July 11, with a huge number of discounts and sales:

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