Walking With the Dead

All my life I’ve been interested in the idea of death and its associated imagery. I was absolutely in my glory when I came across Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that celebrates the lives of lost loved ones. Full of skull imagery and bright colors, it felt tailor-made for me. Not to mention, the focus is on remembrance and it does a great deal to take the fear out of death and the uncertainty of the afterlife.

Two years ago, we had a string of deaths in my family during the months of July to December. Within months we lost both my paternal grandparents and my uncle. His wake was held on my birthday. I would love to say that more than anything the imagery of Día de los Muertos gave me comfort. What it actually did was give me a way to express my grief. A starting point for speaking with those who are uncomfortable with the idea of death. Additionally, it allowed me to grieve for as long as I wanted, without public judgement. You see, my crafting room has been sugar skull themed ever since I set it up. (Likewise, when I was a teacher, my room was adorned with several sugar skulls.)

My brother first introduced me to Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and I found it an amusing and enlightening way of looking at the death industry. (Take a look at my review here.) When I found out that she had another book coming out, I was absolutely going bonkers until it was released! From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death is, as well as being a gorgeous volume with captivating illustrations, a splash of cold water in the face of American death perception. Until reading this book, I had never really thought about what other countries and cultures did with their dead. Literally!

Each segment of From Here to Eternity focuses on a different region, and details her observation of and participation in the death rituals. Insight into the sometimes-baffling rituals comes from Caitlin speaking directly with the people involved. They are surprisingly open about the origins of their rituals and the way they feel about their dead. Caitlin is respectful at every turn, and in her the practitioners seem to find a kindred spirit.

Locales vary from India and Japan to Mexico and Bolivia. The rituals themselves are also varied. Some involve returning the body and the spirit to nature, while other involve keeping the memory of the deceased front and center by visiting the body yearly.

My favorite practice are the ñatitas. In Bolivia, people have dreams where skulls call to them. They retrieve the skulls which are placed in honor in the house, and become an intermediary between the living and the dead. People come and visit the ñatitas to ask favors that they may not feel comfortable asking of the saints. They can ask for protection, financial aid, or help within the home. As Caitlin points out, this is also an important function to this practice. Oftentimes, women are the ones housing, caring for, and petitioning the ñatitas. These women often feel removed from the predominantly Catholic region. The ñatitas give them a measure of control over their faith and a recourse for help when the Church may not intervene.

More than anything, reading Caitlin’s books has made me really start thinking about how Americans, myself included, react to death. I have seen firsthand the aversion to grief, the way that people don’t know how to comfort someone grieving. The way there seems to be an unspoken moratorium on how long someone is allowed to grieve, or how closely related to the person they have to be for grief to be acceptable. Reading about the practices of these cultures has also confirmed Caitlin’s point that our culture doesn’t really have many safe spaces to work through grief.

When my grandparents and uncle died, I cried almost nonstop at the funeral home during the wake and the funeral. It was horrible. Antiseptic. Generic. Heartless and soulless. After my uncle’s wake we congregated in my grandparent’s home, which was in the same city and empty because they had passed a little earlier. The house was riotous with laughter and stories, and the smell of Lebanese food. We passed around pictures and shared memories, sitting on furniture we recognized. In our own space. Our own bubble of shared grief. It’s true there were tears, but there was no condescension, no platitudes. I feel robbed knowing that there was an option to have their bodies upstairs in their own beds. Where we could care for them and say our goodbyes on our own. And hold our wake beyond the hours designated by the funeral home. My uncle’s wake went over the allotted two hours. It wound up being closer to three, and it was evident that the funeral staff was more than ready for us to leave. I was ready too, because the photographs and mementos of our family history felt out of place in that awful peach-colored room with the borderline 80s furniture. I agree with Caitlin. It’s time to take a closer look at how we deal with death, and time to have an honest conversation.

I can’t recommend Smoke Gets in Your Eyes or From Here to Eternity highly enough. Whether death scares you or not, and regardless of your religion or lack thereof, these books are thought-provoking. Even if the reader doesn’t necessarily change their view of death and the death industry, they’re certainly conversation starters.

A sequel I couldn’t put down!

In fall 2016 Suzanne Robb released Dead by Midnight, a clever supernatural mystery set in a town where supernatural beings live with otherwise normal citizens. Robb uses humorous snips from reporter Lucy Lane’s articles at the beginning her chapters to introduce readers to the various locations and people in the town. These are very tongue-in-cheek, and absolutely well written. (They are part of what helped to make Lucy one of my personal favorites.)

If you haven’t read Dead by Midnight, I urge you to stop reading this post. You’re going to spoil a great mystery with fantastic characters. Go and purchase the book (available on Kindle and traditional paperback) and start there. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

 

 

Since you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you’ve read book 1, and are now ready for the sequel.

I really envy you!

Reading a book for the first time is a special experience. Even more so when it deals with a really strange murder mystery. In Apocalypse by Midnight, Chief Elliot Jorgensen, Lucy, Zach, and Buddy are trying their best to get back to a normal life after catching the serial killer in book 1. Zach and Lucy are dating, Sheriff Elliott is drinking heavily and trying to avoid any meetings with the mysterious mayor, and Buddy is enjoying life as an undercover house pet.

Bodies start showing up in strange places around town, and it has the mayor worried. These aren’t just any citizens, they’ve all got ties to the elusive and reclusive Private Acres. Elliot and Zach have to find a way to solve the crime without letting tenacious Lucy get too close. Despite her best efforts, Lucy still isn’t in the inner circle of people who know about Fantasy Land, and those who stumble onto the knowledge have a way of meeting a mysterious end. Unfortunately, neither Elliott nor Zach are any good at lying, and Lucy finds her way into the case despite their best efforts.

As if this weren’t enough chaos, Zach’s friend Riley comes back from a trip as an unconventional vampire. He can’t stand rain or molasses, and even though he’s dating the woman of his dreams, he has certain…physical setbacks. Lucky for him Gretel doesn’t seem to mind. What she does mind is Lucy – whose curiosity is mistaken for an interest in hurting Riley. Zach and Riley are trying to get their friendship back on track, but that’s hard to do when Zach realizes goofy Riley may just be the killer.

Gretel’s brother, Hans, works security for Private Acres, but he’s not overly fond of nosy girlfriends, half-assed vampires, or witches. In fact, the only things he seems to care for are his sister, and anything sugary.

As the mystery of the bodies is unraveled, Zach, Elliot, and Lucy find themselves in a race against the clock. This isn’t any regular serial killer mystery – it’s only the beginning of a plot that will cause the apocalypse. As if that weren’t hair-raising enough, just when the group needs each other the most they begin to splinter off into factions, driven by an unnatural paranoia.

I was on the edge of my seat while reading Apocalypse by Midnight, wondering if the group would get it together in time to solve the mystery, or if the apocalypse was all but unavoidable. Not to mention – just what kind of monster leaves such a strange crime scene?! I thought I knew the habits of every kind of monster out there, but Robb has one again created a delightful surprise for the reader.

If you had asked me a couple of years ago if I was into mysteries, I would have told you no. That’s no longer the case. The By Midnight series is, in large part, what has changed my views. I’ve started branching out into other mystery books, even when there is no supernatural element. I can think of no greater compliment for an author than that reading their books has opened up new avenues for the reader. Getting me to turn from supernatural and horror stories is no small feat, but Suzanne Robb has accomplished just that. The mystery elements and plot twists in her story were so satisfying that I didn’t want the story to end, and I am pleased that she is keeping the series open to more titles in the future. (On a side note, if, like me, you can’t get enough of wily Lucy Lane after reading the series, you can follow her adventures in between books at All Things Strange and Unusual.)

 

 

Voyeurs Wanted!

I have always had a bit of a thing for the macabre, whether it’s creepy old buildings, abandoned cemeteries, or dusty old antique shops. I’m also interested in the history of mental heath care, which at times has more closely resembled torture than treatment.

When Dipper sent me a link to The Order of the Good Death, I was intrigued. Through The Order, Caitlin works to bring a better understand of death to people. She is a proponent of making death a more natural part of our culture again, instead of it being cold and distant. Caitlin believes that if the family has more involvement in the funerary process, it helps the grieving process, and allows us to take an honest look at death and dying. Unfortunately it’s an experience none of us are going to avoid.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is an account of Caitlin’s first experience with death and the way it shaped the woman she would become. She writes about how she became part of the funeral business. When she first starts out, her ideas of a more commercialized, and almost candy-coated funeral home are well-intentioned, but not necessarily practical. As she gains more experience in the field and insight into the ways in which we mourn, she eventually comes to believe the direct opposite. Caitlin becomes an advocate of family involvement, believing that it’s healthier to confront death as a natural part of life. Having experienced three funerals close together a year ago, I can completely understand where she’s coming from. Spending time taking care of the body and preparing it for burial or cremation is a very intimate process.

She also explores different death rituals from other cultures and time periods. Rituals like mummification weren’t just done for the hell of it, but had meaning for the people involved and the community as a whole. Caitlin points out that over the last few decades we as a culture have developed a deep phobia of death, and have driven to make it almost impersonal. She also advocates exploring more than just the standard burial or cremation. There are now other options such as turning your cremated body into the container for a tree seed, or the pros and cons of donating your body to science. She also points out on numerous occasions about the damage done when we turn our backs on the natural process of dying.

While all of this may sound purely clinical, it’s a frank and intimate discussion about death, written by a witty and insightful narrator who has personal experience in the field. She also livens up her narrative by interjecting stories from her own career, be they humorous or sad. It’s well worth looking into both her book and her website.

On her website, under Death Positive, you will find a pledge you can sign if you wish to become part of the Order. It’s not a gimmick or a plea for funding. It’s an 8 point summation of the ideas of Death Positive, and The Order of the Good Death in general. If you’re wondering, yes, I signed the pledge. I agree with Caitlin – death is not something that should be hidden behind closed doors or pushed out of the cultural consciousness. It’s part of the natural balance – we are born, we grow and live and experience, and then we die. Asking questions about death should be encouraged, and we should work as a society to dispel the disinformation surrounding death and it’s processes.

I can’t praise Smoke Gets in Your Eyes enough. Caitlin is a solid writer who, pardon the bad pun, is attempting to breathe new life into our perception of death and dying. She is by no means disrespectful, and clearly has spent time researching her subject to the point of mastery. I am looking forward to her new book, From Here to Eternity, which will be released on October 3, 2017. If you’re interested in hearing her speak, check out the website. There are speaking engagements on the West Coast (which I would give my right thumb to attend!)

I finally found it!

Back when I was in high school, one of my English teachers kept a small bookshelf with different books for us to read if we had nothing to occupy ourselves with. One day I started a book that I didn’t get to finish, but wished I had. I’ve been searching for this particular book off and on for years, but it’s hard to find a book when all you can remember is that the cover was white, and some guy on a plane literally exploded with Ebola. Not exactly the best description to go by!

Surprisingly enough, Dipper recognized the book by my description. He told me I was looking for The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. He also forewarned me that it wasn’t the greatest piece of literature he’d ever read, but if I was that interested that it had stayed with me, I might as well read it.

A couple weeks ago my job took me to a local hospital that isn’t within the usual system I work. One of the unspoken bonuses of working in hospital systems is that most of the gift shops offer a cart of used books for sale. I love used books! On this particular day I was lucky. I found In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté, MD, which is about addiction. It’s a relatively thick book and sounds really interesting. I have some small experience with addiction, as my aunt was a very dedicated alcoholic.

The other book was The Hot Zone. At long last, I had found it! Granted, it was a severely beaten copy, but for 50 cents and charity at a hospital, you simply can’t go wrong! I purchased both books, and since it was a Friday, I was able to finish my current read at home and begin The Hot Zone.

The Hot Zone started off pretty confusing, because there was much talk of Marburg as well as Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan. Until reading this book, I don’t believe I was ever fully aware that there were enough strains of Ebola for one to be considered worse than the other. I also had no idea where Marburg fit into the equation. As it turns out, they’re all filoviruses. Filoviruses look stringy under a microscope, and cause hemorrhaging in people and primates. They’re also called “the three sisters” because of how they are related in terms of structure and effect on a living body.

The first part of the book went into the differences in the filoviruses, as well as some information on how they were discovered. I found that extremely interesting, but since I wasn’t expecting it to cover the different viruses, I was lost a few times and had to backtrack. In retrospect, I’m really glad Preston covered the viruses in the beginning, because I also got used to terminology that he would use later. For instance, I had no idea that when sick with a hemorrhagic disease, a body is considered to “crash out” when it is so completely consumed by the virus that it basically collapses, turns to mush, and spreads the virus. Preston also does a really good job of explaining the different levels of clearance when working with viruses. Level 4 is the killer stuff – Ebola, Marburg, Lassa. In other words, the nasty shit.

After this run-through and backstory, The Hot Zone shifts it’s focus to Ebola Reston. This strain was discovered in Reston, Virginia in a building that housed monkeys used in research. I don’t want to ruin the whole book for any potential readers, but I will say this. Once the story hones in on Ebola Reston, it’s easy to see parallels between the story and the 1995 movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr, Kevin Spacey, and Donald Sutherland. (While I’m at it – it’s a super cheeseball movie but one of my favorites. I highly recommend that you watch it!)

There are some parts of The Hot Zone that are really confusing, and I would have preferred if Preston followed a chronological timeline for the viruses in the beginning, rather than skipping around. As someone not terribly familiar with these viruses, it made understanding their origins difficult. However, once Preston switched to Ebola Reston, I found the book much better written and easier to follow. The pace also picked up, making it a page-turner. I appreciate the fact that Preston conducted several interviews with the people involved in the outbreak of Reston, as well as the other filoviruses, because it gave the book an edge. Instead of guessing how people felt or what their motivations were, he had knowledge from the interviews.

Overall I liked The Hot Zone, and it’s spurred me into a serious kick. I have purchased several other books on Ebola, HIV, and other diseases. I am also on a binge for virus-themed movies. Be forewarned – there will be a bit of a sidetrack into the viral for the next few posts!

 

An Impressive Offering

Back in 2014 I had the pleasure of reviewing These Old Tales by Kenneth W. Cain. It was an anthology of his dark fiction. I still remember the tale of the man whose life is too good to be true, until he finds himself in a Chinese buffet run by a very shady proprietor. Every time I see shrimp at the grocery or on a menu, I hear “irucky shrimp!” in my head and I shudder. Suffice to say, Cain’s stories have a way of staying with you long after you’ve read them.

Which brings me to the subject of my current review. When I heard that Cain was publishing another anthology I couldn’t wait to purchase it. Previously I had read his works on my Kindle, but this time I was bound and determined to get myself a copy I could hold in my hand. I ordered Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction off Amazon as soon as I was able. When it arrived I held it as close to my face as I could in order to see the intricate detail of the cover. Laugh all you want – it’s true. The cover, like so many of Cain’s stories, is frightening in it’s subtlety. The tiny red glowing eyes of the child and the setting which evokes thoughts of a catacomb. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve come across Ben Baldwin’s cover artwork before, but I will be on the lookout going forward. It compliments the stories within the book extremely well.

From time to time I have found that when an author writes their own anthology it can be problematic in that the stories start to take on a formula. Cain defies this monotony by switching the perspective his stories are written from as well as their settings. Every story is unique but fits extremely well within the whole. There are several that I can tell will be staying with me for some time. Cain also varies the monsters in his stories. I was surprised when reading that a few of them were from the perspective of the monster itself, and often it can be debated who really should wear the mantle of “monster”. The human characters aren’t always the most horrifying and evil in the stories. The only aspect of Cain’s work that could be considered formulaic is that he enjoys leading the reader in one direction and then completely ripping the figural carpet from their feet. Rather than being disorienting or annoying, this tactic is one of my favorite aspects of his writing. Cain’s stories are interactive, in that I’m always guessing who the narrator and characters are and what the surprise will be. I can say that with Embers I never guessed correctly. I came sort of close in the story “The Bad Men” but I wasn’t quite on the money.

I loved Cain’s work back in 2014 and didn’t think it could get much better. I was delightfully wrong! Cain has honed his storytelling to a razor-blade precision that cuts deep every time. He’s more confident in his storytelling and it shows in that he’s willing to go even further into the odd and unfamiliar in order to scare his readers. Back in 2014 I compared his writing to The Twilight Zone. I almost would have compared it to Tales from the Darkside, but I think even that isn’t really getting to the marrow of the matter. Cain is in a class of his own. His stories are short, wickedly clever, and have a way of burrowing into your mind.

As a reviewer, I would be totally remiss if I didn’t speak to the quality of his characters. Cain doesn’t need to go in-depth describing every facet of his characters. Most of the time he lets the characters speak for themselves through their actions and choices. From the tiniest human to the most tentacled being, all of Cain’s characters are relatable and so realistic you can’t help but become immersed in their stories. One of my favorite characters is Boris, the anxiety-riddled bystander in “To Save One Life”. He knows the identity of a heinous killer and wants desperately to step in, but he’s not sure how much he can do to save the victims. The reader watches helplessly as Boris tries to figure out some method of intervention, and it’s impossible not to feel for his distress leaking off the page.

The girl in “Valerie’s Window” faces a terrible dilemma. If she leaves the safety of the house in which she hides, she risks being eaten by the undead. However, the house isn’t as safe as it should be, and she has a difficult choice ahead of her. Cain goes beyond the usual trope of being trapped with nasty people during the apocalypse to bring a multi-layered and heartbreaking story to life. I had to re-read parts of it because I couldn’t help but hope that I was wrong in my assumptions. I was correct, and I don’t envy the girl her choices one bit.

His story “Soul Tapped”, about a man named Henry who lives in a nursing home reminded me of one of my favorite movies. Like Bruce Campbell’s character in Bubba Ho-Tep, Henry is up against a supernatural foe that is hell-bent on killing. Henry tries to stop it, and in so doing finds out a truth more awful than he could have ever imagined.

For those who love a good Lovecraft story, there’s “The Water People”, in which a man spends his life researching the myth that there are tentacle beings inhabiting Chesapeake Bay. As is usually the case in these stories, he is proven correct with disastrous results. Cain’s parting shot, however, will leave your jaw swinging and your mind spinning. It’s anything but the usual fare.

Cain’s characters are anything but black and white. They are as multi-faceted as any real person you know. They are presented with difficult decisions and even worse situations, and they do the best that they can. Monster and man both are tested relentlessly, Cain never taking the easy way out. Some of the stories are predominately scary, some are predominately sad. All of them will evoke a range of emotions while you read and long after you’ve finished.

I can’t recommend Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction highly enough. Normally I wait until I am done with a book before putting up a review, but I couldn’t wait. I have to finish “Parasite”, which is visceral, nasty, and totally engrossing. (And, it might be mentioned, somehow I’ve found up eating while trying to read this story three times, having lost my appetite every time!) Then read “Strip Poker, Crabs, and Blue Women”, “The Benefit of Being Weighty”, and the “Afterword” by Cain, and I will be finished. In many ways I wish Embers would never end because it’s so damnably enjoyable. However, considering Cain seems to enjoy these anthologies of dark fiction, I am hopeful that there will be many more volumes in the years to come.

If I may make one last suggestion, if you like what you’ve read in this review, not only should you pick up Embers, but his other books as well. You can find a full listing at his author site here, and it’s worth noting that he writes several types of books. He has offerings for middle grade, youngsters, and the seasoned horror reader just to name a few.

 

Not Your Average Monster {Anthology}

One of the things I love most about being a reviewer is that I get to talk to so many different people all over the country – and even people outside the country. I was talking with author Pete Kahle recently and he told me that he had started a publishing house called Bloodshot Books. I told him that if he needed any reviews, to let me know. He passed along a Kindle copy of Not Your Average Monster! A Bestiary of Horrors, along with some of the other titles. Along with the book came a warning about his story, which is featured last in the anthology. He told me that it was a gross-out. I don’t really think that was an adequate description! (To my absolute horror, I found myself attempting to eat while reading it, because I didn’t want to put the anthology down. Without giving too many spoilers, I’m really struggling with the thought of eating rice any time in the next month or so!)

{Before I go into the review proper, I want to make sure that my readers are aware if they want to read Bloodshot Books, they can either borrow them on Amazon.com with Kindle Unlimited or purchase them from Amazon.com in digital or traditional format.}

Not Your Average Monster is a page-turner filled with talent. I know I said a few paragraphs up that I love anthologies, but don’t let that weaken my claim. The monsters contained in the pages of this anthology defy title. The only other time I’ve encountered a lamia in horror literature or cinema was Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. Kahle managed to find not one, but TWO lamia in one story.

The remaining monsters in this tome don’t have a name. They seem to be pulled right from the shared human subconscious, from the days where we were little more than primitives scratching stick figures in caves by firelight. The monsters Kahle has collected come for you in sunlight, in darkness, but always with teeth and deadly intent. I’m not afraid to admit that they scared me so badly that I had nightmares. But you know, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly which monster did it. Was it the horrible two-legged beasts rampaging through a school as a little girl tries desperately to hide? Or the boojum, a nasty sort of beastie that one girl must defeat using the advice of the Parliament of cats, before it can come back and finish the job it started? Or the story of the family in the tunnel, who survive a horrific pile-up only to find themselves fighting shapeless monsters? Maybe it was the parasite hidden deep within a cave, stumbled on by some friends reliving their wilder days. It could have been the spirits summoned by human hatred and bloodlust to the carnage of a battlefield, to claim souls for their own.

Truth be told, I think it was all of them. There wasn’t a single weak story in this entire anthology, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what horrors lurk within. I don’t want to rob any readers of the terror and surprise waiting for them in Not Your Average Monster! A Bestiary of Horrors.

There is a second volume, Not Your Average Monster, Vol. 2: A Menagerie of Vile Beasts, which you better believe is high up on my to-read list! There are two main reasons I’m not jumping right into the second volume. Firstly, the stories are like a horror buffet. I don’t want to run through it all at once. Secondly, I’m well and spoiled for other anthologies, probably for the rest of my life. This is hands-down one of the best anthologies I’ve ever read. And, well, I lied, there’s three reasons. Kahle has not confirmed the intent to publish a third volume (to the best of my knowledge). I don’t want to go through everything now and be left like an addict without a fix.

Oh, and if you’re stuck for what to get mom for Mother’s Day? Well, here you go! Volume 1 and 2 make great gifts for your favorite horror hounds! Or for yourself, if you’re looking to sample the work of several extremely talented authors all in one place.

When God is All Too Human

I was given the opportunity to read a review copy of Mark Alan Miller’s book, Clive Barker’s Next Testament. I assure you, the title is correct. You see, Mark Alan Miller took a concept he and Clive Barker had tossed around and made it first into graphic novel format, now in novel.

The core idea is very simple. What if the God of the Old Testament came back? Add to that, what if He were a sociopathic bully who found his creations vile? I was hooked on the core idea for the novel before I was even offered to review it for this site since it ran closely with some of my own theological questions. Namely, why is the God from the Old Testament is the bad cop to Jesus’ good cop in the New Testament? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking in a fiction book for religious answers, but I thought it would be interesting to see what Mark Alan Miller and Clive Barker had to say on the subject.

The story starts out with Julian, who is rich, entitled, and a total egotistical asshole, searching the desert for that important missing “something”. What he finds is a pyramid buried in the sand. Inside the pyramid is Wick, or God of the Old Testament. Wick is shaped like a man, but colored wildly all over his body, hence his name The Father of Colors. Julian takes Wick back to his home and teaches him about life in the modern age. Not to mention spends a good deal of time exploring the carnal pleasures available to a human who has the divine at his disposal. At first Wick is a very willing student, but he very quickly decides that he wants to see some of these people for himself. At this point he demands Julian throw a dinner party and invite his friends.

The dinner party guest is a true rogue’s gallery. The only people there who are not selfish, rich, and all around terrible people are Tristan and Elspeth. Tristan is Julian’s mostly-estranged son, and Elspeth is his fiancee. After meeting the attendees and spending some time humiliating them publicly, Wick decides he’s had enough. What started out as a weird social gathering quickly turns into a bloodbath. I have to admit that as bad as it sounds, the dinner party is pretty funny. The insults Wick delivers and they way they are taken by the recipients is pure gold. When the murder begins, nobody is worth saving, except Tristan and Elspeth.

Tristan and Elspeth escape the dinner party and go on the lam. Although they believe in Wick’s divinity, they don’t know what else to do. They want to be as far away as possible, and as quickly as possible. Terrified out of their minds, they begin a cross-country drive hoping to find shelter and safety on the East Coast. During their journey they see many indicators of Wick’s wrath, including but certainly not limited to every plane falling out of the sky, and the entire world communications network being wiped out. No phones. No internet. No radio. No TV. All gone in the blink of an eye.

Meanwhile, Wick searches for his new Rome, where he can rule and be worshiped and adored by his loving creations. Unfortunately, Wick finds neither new Rome nor loving creations. Everywhere he goes, people are obsessed with the restoration of their technology, as well as their own self-interest. The more Wick sees, the more he decides the world just isn’t worth his time. While speaking to a crowd, a young red-haired woman named Shauna distinguishes herself, setting Julian’s world tumbling even further. Julian wants to keep Wick to himself, but faces fierce competition from Shauna. She’s smarter, more adventurous, and not self-centered like Julian. Wick takes to her immediately.

As for the rest of the story, you’ll just have to read it yourself and see what happens. Truth be told, I’m not even done with the book, but I wanted to get some thoughts down while they were still fresh.

In the spirit of giving a totally honest review, I’m going to admit that there are parts of the book that I found deeply disturbing. It’s really awkward to read about God having a frivolous sexual relationship. I wasn’t sure what to think of that, as I’m not used to viewing God in that light.

Whereas I could understand that Wick would want to kill everyone at the dinner party, the seemingly endless massacres that followed didn’t make sense. I couldn’t see a justification for murder on such a scale. For instance, at one point, Wick gets pissed and just unmakes an entire crowd of people. GONE. Because they annoyed him with what I can only describe as their humanity.

The other issue I had was the fact that I believe God is omniscient, so therefore he wouldn’t have to search for new Rome, or wonder what the world was like. Then I remembered he had been trapped in the pyramid by the other two members of the Holy Trinity. Which bothered me as well, because I always thought the Trinity was in harmony.

Last night I was reading Clive Barker’s Next Testament and really digging into the text. I surmised from the introduction pieces at the front of the book that I was missing something crucial. Instead of seeing Next Testament for the satire it was, I was butting heads with the text over my own theological beliefs. Searching for some context, I looked for articles or reviews online. I found Ron McKenzie’s blog Thoughts and Scribbles and read his post NEXT TESTAMENT: The Gospel According to Mark Alan Miller. It tells the story of how Clive Barker and Mark Alan Miller came up with the whole idea, how it stemmed from a human canvas project Barker was working on. How he painted Miller’s body and when he stepped back and saw his work, he realized he had birthed Wick. From there, Barker and Miller came up with the story. Of course, this is in the introduction to the book as well. But additional insights from Miller accompanied this story. I was intrigued and kept reading. Then, it hit me.

I’ve always heard it said that we are created in God’s image. What happens if God is created in our image? If the divine more closely resembles humanity?

It was like a stick of dynamite went off between my ears.

I was bothered by the concept of Wick because he was too human. All of the restraint I expected from God was gone. Watching Wick not only ignore the 10 Commandments, but seemingly do his level best to go against them at every turn blew my mind. What I hate the most about the human race is what I hate about Wick. The wanton destruction of lives. The petty annoyances that turn into full-blown carnage. The hubris and the self-centered attitude. It upset me to see a God that embodies the worst traits of the human race, with seemingly none of the good.

Now, it’s like reading the book with totally new eyes. The revelation that what I hated most about Wick happens to be what I hate most about the human race, the arrogance, the wanton murder sprees, has allowed me to enjoy the book as the satire that it most certainly is.

If you have thick skin religiously, or are open to different interpretations, I highly suggest Clive Barker’s Next Testament. It’s at times humorous, sad, and difficult to read. It holds up a mirror to humanity that is all too uncomfortable sometimes. If you can withstand the tide of emotions, I highly recommend picking up Clive Barker’s Next Testament.

A Strong Finish

Disclaimer: I pride myself on being an honest reviewer. In that vein, I’d like you to know before reading this review that I had the pleasure of copy editing the piece before publication. As a copy editor, I didn’t change anything in the story, just made sure the events were consistent with the first two books, and sussed out any spelling or grammar errors. I neither made nor proposed any other changes to this story.

 

Having given you my disclaimer, let’s get into the fun part! Afternoon is the third book of The Daylight Cycle. Initially Kody Boye wasn’t sure he wanted to release it, because he wondered how it would stack up against the other two books. He was looking for another pair of eyes, and I volunteered. Afternoon picks up where the previous two books left off, and serves to tie in two seemingly unrelated storylines in a believable and exciting way. Rose, from First Light, meets up with Dakota and his crew of survivors from Sunrise. They band together with other survivors they have come across and on the surface everything seems safe, or as safe as it can be given that they’re living during the zombie apocalypse. They spend their time fortifying their space, scavenging for supplies in the surrounding houses and shops, and getting used to life after the fall of civilization.

Everything is going well until the survivors run into trouble during a supply run. One of their members is taken down by a vicious pack of zombies. Of the three that survive, one is scratched. What’s worse is that the injured survivor is Erik, Jamie’s childhood best friend. It’s just a small scratch and doesn’t even break the skin, but nobody knows whether or not it will cause infection. Jamie is desperate to believe that Erik will be ok since there was no blood. Dakota and Steve, as much as they’d like to hold onto hope, are skeptical. Jamie’s hope is put to the test as Erik’s health begins to spiral. Fevered, bedridden, and incredibly miserable, nobody can deny he’s sick. But the signs of infection aren’t presenting themselves quickly enough. Is it the zombie virus, or something else?

Steve and Rose manage to repair a radio enough they they can make contact with other survivors, if there are any left alive. As luck would have it, they manage to contact a college in Boise, Idaho whose science department is still laboring away at curing the disease. The decision is made to take Erik to the university, because his condition isn’t getting any better. Erik also feels a sense of duty – if he can be any help in curing the disease for others, than he wants to do what he can.

I’m going to be the first to tell you that I’m hoping Kody doesn’t stop with a trilogy. I understand authors want to expand, create new worlds and characters, etc. To that end, I’d be happy with a short story collection down the road sometime. I’m not quite ready to be done with Steve, Dakota, Jamie, Rose, and the other survivors.

Not to mention Kody has given the zombie apocalypse a wild spin that I’m craving more of – the plant walkers. You read that right. They’re dried up prune-looking zombies that smell like fruit, and undoubtedly dead, but maintain a small amount of intelligence and seem to abhor the zombies. It’s a concept I’ve never come across before, and I have to admit that I’m super curious. I’m anxious to see if the plant walkers are the gentle shepherds they seem to be, or if they’re something more sinister in disguise.

I found Afternoon to be a great way of tying the first two books together. It was great to catch up with Rose and several other survivors and see what they’d been up to while Dakota and his friends were traipsing across the country. I blew through Afternoon, despite editing it for spelling and grammar, because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Particularly when the group was at the university watching the doctor perform tests on Erik. I was tense the entire time, waiting to see what would become of Erik. Whether he’d be a glorified guinea pig in a dead world, or whether he’d be the answer to their plight.

Whether or not Kody decides to continue with this series down the road, or if this is the last book he’ll write with these characters, I’m 100% on board. The same goes for any other series he writes or has written. Kody has the ability to create characters who are realistic and varied. Some of the characters may more closely resemble the asshole sitting next to you in the cube farm than they do Mother Theresa, but regardless, they’re realistic. As are the relationships between the characters. Whether friends, partners, siblings, or strangers, Kody deftly navigates the different interactions without weighing down or taking away from the action.

Do yourself a favor and go pick up The Daylight Cycle, because each book only gets better!

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Since I am generally more of a horror fan than anything else, I admit that I miss out on great works by authors in other genres. Some months ago, there was a call for reviewers for an upcoming book by Scott Oden. I had never heard of him before, but Adrian Chamberlin (whose work I am extremely fond of) gave me the head’s up. I read the brief summary of the book and was immediately intrigued by the little I read about A Gathering of Ravens.

I responded to the call for reviewers, and was placed on the list. When the book arrived, I was extremely impressed. A Gathering of Ravens is a solid book, clocking in at 336 pages, and I found that there was nothing I would have cut out of the book. On the contrary, I would have added more to it in the form of a series, but that’s me being selfish. I didn’t want A Gathering of Ravens to end!

My apologies upfront, I will not be getting very in-depth with the plot summary. Oden packs many surprises and twists into his story, and I don’t want to deprive any readers of the joy of discovering those twists for themselves. The story begins with a young monk travelling to a monastery, guided and protected by a great warrior. They shelter for the night in a cave, coming face to face with a fierce skraelinger. (Fantasy fans might be more familiar with the term “orc”.) The skraelinger is none too happy to have anyone in his cave, even for a night. He allows them to stay, with the understanding that they will be gone come morning. When morning comes, things are not as cut and dry as they had seemed the night before, and the real journey begins.

As the reader continues, it is revealed that the story really belongs to Grimnir, the skraelinger. His quest for vengeance overtakes any other storylines and becomes the driving force of the story. His brother was murdered many years ago, and Grimnir had sworn to avenge him. Not only will Grimnir go to great lengths to make good on his oath, but everyone around him will be drawn into his quest, whether willingly or not.

A Gathering of Ravens is an amazing book. I was really upset when it ended, because there is, as yet, no announcement of it becoming a series. Oden is masterful in deceiving his audience. I was pleased to see the main character shift to Grimnir who is not likeable in a traditional sense, but has his own honor and code that he lives by. I have to admit that Oden threw me for a loop. At first he seemed to deal disrespectfully with the young monk’s Christian faith, but as I continued, I realized that much of what he wrote mirrors history. It’s no secret that the Crusades were a less than holy undertaking, no matter what they were intended to be. Oden also weaves in a deep respect for nature worship, and eventually shows that the two can co-exist and that a belief in both is no conflict. Don’t misunderstand me – Oden is in no way preachy. However, he is deft in terms of weaving the character’s various faiths and superstitions together. If anything, it adds to the three-dimensionality of the characters. They become all the more real because they are complicated, unpredictable, and a mesh of their various influences and cultures.

Oden is a master world builder as well. There are many places where it is difficult to tell if the events are real or fake. The locations in the story vary, from the very real England, to the mythical Yggdrasil, or World Tree. It doesn’t matter where the characters are, the setting always seems real.

The supporting characters are also well written and complex. There are no superfluous characters, and all of them are more than just a vehicle to move the plot along. Oden also manages to drop hints about the character’s pasts and influences, so that the reader seamlessly gets a feel for who they are without being tossed out of the action of the book for a “backstory session”.

Overall I am very impressed with Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens. It’s an amazing work of fantasy with a very real touch of both humanity and the weight of history. While reading it, I lost many hours of sleep because I didn’t want to put the book down. Oden has populated his strange world with witches, monsters, Vikings, warriors, cowards, and everything in between. It’s safe to say he’s gained another fan after writing this book!

A Strong Start for an Amazing Series

I recently read Kody Boye’s First Light, and I absolutely loved it. It’s book one of The Daylight Cycle series. (I’m currently reading book two – and whoa! Does he amp up the scares!) The central characters, Rose and Lyra, are flatmates in England. It’s Lyra’s home country, and Rose’s adopted country. They are typical college best friends, and their third flatmate Mary is the overly dramatic third musketeer.

The zombie takeover is well underway when First Light begins, although nobody knows that quite yet. The news stations are using words like “riot” and “civil unrest” to describe the outbreaks of violence in major cities. Rose and Lyra are worried that their proximity to an airport will cause them to encounter the violent protestors. Only a few pages into the book, Mary stumbles into the flat bawling her eyes out and bleeding. Apparently her on-again off-again boyfriend not only proposed, but proceeded to bite her. The girls hear a terrifying screech from the hallway while they are trying to calm down their hysterical friend. Moments later her boyfriend throws himself against the door and claws his way in. For Lyra, Rose, and Mary it’s a battle to the death. And it’s only the beginning.

As the story progresses, the girls find themselves in a variety of situations that they had no way to be prepared for. Including floating on a boat that neither of them knows how to sail, and fleeing from a country that’s using deadly force on anyone looking for asylum. Neither of the girls can really blame the country, because by then they know it’s a virus that spreads through bites and scratches.

First Light is an amazing book, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what exactly about the book is my favorite. Kody’s apocalypse is all too real. The freshly dead run, the long dead shamble. And the girls are forced to survive by whatever means they can.

I also really love how Kody portrays the friendship between Rose and Lyra. They’re incredibly real. They argue over what the best course of action is, and where they will be safest. They wind up eventually talking out their points of view, and though they have their rough moments, they are always fiercely loyal to each other. They are strong in their own ways, but also show their weaknesses.

The end of First Light finds Rose and Lyra making a choice that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Rose doesn’t believe they are safe in their current location, despite fortifications. Lyra, however, doesn’t believe that they are any safer outside the walls. The decision is a heavy one, and could possibly split them apart for the rest of their lives.

First Light is an amazing read from start to finish, and showcases Kody’s unique writing style. I recommend this book (and series!) to anyone looking for a solid story with relatable characters, realistic situations, and a helluva scary zombie element! (If you like what you read, I’d also recommend checking out his other books. He writes more than just horror!)