I don’t know if this is the book you deserve, but it’s the book you need. (That’s clever, you see, because there are a lot of Batman references in this book… ahem, anyway.)
Blake Twenty-Three by Slade Grayson begins with a message the literary world needs to hear: “Just have fun.” We often forget reading and storytelling is supposed to be something we enjoy. Many of us get so stilted and wooden with our critical analysis and pushing our nerd glasses up on the bridges of our noses that we overlook an integral part of the reading experience: escape. If one-half of storytelling is information conveyance, the other half is signal quality. Maybe “integrity” is the right word there. I don’t know, but what it boils down to is a measure of enjoyment.
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Sometimes, people come here and say, “oh, you do reviews. Well, I wrote a novel, and I have a blog. Why don’t we swap reviews?” It’s true that reviews are the life blood of any indie writer (have you reviewed Carrier yet?), but I write reviews here because, in addition to being an author, I’m also a reader. And sometimes, a good story gets me so hot that I have to tell people about it. I’m human. It’s only natural.
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I love The Walking Dead. The TV series is perhaps my favorite of all time. Everything about it resonates with me. I love it so much, in fact, that I go to places just to hear people talk about it.
Among super fans, I am not a super fan, because that kind of love takes a special kind of attention that I just can’t devote to anything that isn’t my wife, my work, or my dog. But in the scheme of things I’m a fan of, The Walking Dead is near the top.
This past Sunday, April 3, AMC aired The Walking Dead’s season six finale. I was more amped for it than any TV event in my life. For the first 89 minutes of the 90-minute (minus lots of advertising) episode, it was a 10 out of 10, one of the best episodes the series had ever created. But something happens in the final seconds that completely undermines everything the show had done in the second half of season six, and it’s a terrible shame.
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I’ve been reading Craig DiLouie’s work for a while. I believe his career is worth watching. Last year, he published Suffer the Children, which I fell in love with, and it was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Craig has unquestionably made his mark on horror.
But there comes a time in every artist’s career where they get fidgety and want to try something new. That’s what Crash Dive is.
In the grand scheme of Craig’s progression as an author, Crash Dive feels almost calculated. It’s a relatively short novel. It’s hard-and-fast in a genre that he clearly has a strong affinity for. It’s somewhat safe, but he’s testing waters (he even writes in an afterword that, if Crash Dive gets a good response, he’ll turn it into a series … also, pun intended).
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Reading Rich Hawkins’ novella, Black Star, Black Sun, is a bit like waking up and finding the world has already been consumed by fire, and the final embers are burning the ashen remains. It is a fearless journey into an abyss of despair.
Why would anyone want to read that? Because it’s hauntingly beautiful.
We begin with Ben Ottway returning to his hometown, a small village in England, after the mysterious disappearance of his wife, but this is no thriller with plot twists you can see coming a mile away or that are surprising because they’re utter nonsense. Ben’s wife is gone, and the point is his world has ended, yet he fights it and remains hopeful.
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Amid personal distractions, big events, work, and other happenings, I didn’t get to read as much in 2014 as I would have liked. But I did read some really good books that I connected with in ways that either surprised me or continue to affect me. Please note, I read some really good stuff this year, and these are just the books that struck a personal nerve.
Without further ado, here are my favorite novels that I read in 2014.
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When I picked up Autumn Moon by Slade Grayson, I was excited because I couldn’t remember the last time I had read a werewolf novel that I enjoyed. Autumn Moon is enjoyable, satisfying, and so much more. It contains a world full of almost-magical intrigue and allure and a narrative that keeps moving logically and naturally to a fulfilling conclusion.
I think the thing I appreciated most about Autumn Moon is it seems self-aware. I’ve come to this novel with the knowledge that it will contain werewolves, and Slade never is coy with that idea. It might seem disingenuous to treat the revelation of the shapeshifters as some great mystery, and while there is a moderate surprise, it isn’t overdone. Mainly, it seems to be for the characters’ benefit, not for ours, a case of dramatic irony that is handled expertly.
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The pitch for Joe Hill’s Horns is almost too coy. One morning, Ignatius Perrish wakes to find he has grown horns. Weird. It’s this one strange development that’s supposed to pull you in with mystery, and going into it, I worried it would be a bit too hokey. Having only read Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box before, I just wasn’t sure what kind of mileage was there, and I worried it would flounder and ultimately be unsatisfying. But as I read Horns, I decided this focus on Ig’s sudden and inexplicable “mutation” was deliberate, like a sleight of hand from a magician. Where as Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is a genuinely good supernatural thriller, Horns brings something entirely new to fiction, and it’s an interesting mixture of the horror and thriller genres.
It could almost be a spoiler to tell you that this story goes places, and while it may seem to linger at times, it’s all necessary and all satisfying when the payoff comes. But, Horns finds its heart in a murder/mystery. It is almost an injustice to simplify it so much, but after reading Hill’s first two novels, I think this is where he may distinguish himself as an author, which will prove to be a difficult thing to do given his father is the king of horror.
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Despite what you may read elsewhere, Suffer the Children is not a novel about vampires. In a strict sense, there is little in the way of monsters. Compared to Craig DiLouie’s earlier work, there are significantly fewer zombies and bullets, less blood mist and cordite in the air. The action is subdued. Your ears will not ring from explosive charges. But there’s a lot of heart. You can all but feel it thump as you turn the page (or press the e-reader button).
Where Suffer the Children distinguishes itself is not in attempting to recreate or contrive a monster myth, which is something many authors are trying to do these days because the prevailing thought is that doing so is the key to success. In fact, Suffer the Children succeeds in innovating a classic monster myth. And it surely is interesting, but what makes it truly intriguing is that Suffer the Children is about the *people* first. This is something that makes Craig DiLouie somewhat of an exception in the horror genre. His books aren’t about zombies. They aren’t about vampires. If there are monsters in his novels, they are the monsters *within* the people that are expertly and lovingly conceived. He makes you sympathize with and fall in love with his characters. Many of them have humanizing and redeeming qualities. And when he’s finished showing you these people and what makes them as intriguing and sympathetic as a friend or even a sibling, when he’s dug his author pen into your chest, piercing your still-beating heart, that’s when he twists it.
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The idea of a viral outbreak isn’t exactly new, but The Flu by Jaqueline Druga is anything but typical. It maintains a level of distinction even beyond the apocalyptic and outbreak thriller genres.
A particularly deadly strain of the flu escapes a facility in Alaska, and by chance and relayed through expertly executed dramatic irony, the virus makes it to Barrow. Then it hitches a ride with a journalist to LA, and well, you know how this goes. Druga spares us an attempt at building suspense through being coy here. We know there’s an outbreak, and she spends only enough time to set it up and make it feel legitimate and authentic without feeling tiring or exhaustive.
Meanwhile, in the small town of Lodi, Ohio, people are going on about their lives, feeling safe from the events they’re hearing about on the news but which are thousands of miles away. And here is one note of distinction for The Flu. Unlike a typical thriller, Druga features a strong character element, ultimately making the story exceptionally relateable. Titling the novel “The Flu” is almost a tactic in misdirection in that this is not so much a story about a viral outbreak as it is about lovably crafted characters and how they fare in the face of that challenge. You might think this isn’t such an important distinction, but it is. There’s depth here. Druga makes us fall in love with the people she’s created, and as a result, we feel their pains as they suffer, their joys as they succeed. As a result, The Flu is an exceptionally powerful entry in the genre.
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