Review: Practitioners by Matt Hayward and Patrick Lacey

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Practitioners
By Matt Hayward, Patrick Lacey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Authors Matt Hayward and Patrick Lacey inject fresh life and more than a few sparks of originality into some familiar and well-worn tropes in Practitioners from Bloodshot Books, genre-hopping with apparent ease to flesh out a novel that feels like a dream come true.

On the trope side of things, we have police officer, Henry Stapleton, who is reeling from the death of his wife and is fueled by revenge. Thankfully, Hayward and Lacey upend our familiarity with such a heavily trod character almost immediately. Stapleton, it turns out, is completely off his rocker and his vivid recollections of finding and torturing his wife's killer are psychotic breaks with reality. What's more, he's having waking dreams that lead him to a spate of fresh corpses. His attempts to control his lucid dreaming send him even deeper down the rabbit hole, straight into a paranoid nightmare that could reshape and destroy reality.

Practitioners is a novel all about escalation. The more things Stapleton tries to fix, the worse things get. While Hayward and Lacey embrace the initial noir aspects of their pseudo-cop drama, their story stretches beyond any one genre, preferring to take an everything but the kitchen sink approach. Equal parts cop shop, horror, and fantasy, Practitioners is a hefty blend of cross-genre scares that admirably chugs along without losing sight of its cataclysmic destination.

Stapleton's journey from police officer to dream warrior comes off far more plausible than it should, which is a credit to how well the author's have constructed this story. It helps that Stapleton is initially presented as a bit of a suspect character and we're never quite sure how crazy grief has made him. Hayward and Lacey slowly weave in the supernatural elements, giving us small doses that are just enough to jilt expectations, while embellishing Stapleton's waking-world life with enough paranoia, New Age mysticism, and investigative do-right to prepare us for the headlong dive into madness. This is a book that starts off small and personal and blows up in a wildly cataclysmic and bloody climax that presents a war on two different fronts of consciousness.

It's heady stuff to be sure, but the authors make it all look disconcertingly easy. Practitioners is a highly successful collaboration and the styles of Dublin-based Hayward and Massachusetts-native Lacey mesh seamlessly. I didn't notice any peculiarities in syntax, cultural oddities, or awkward turns of phrase that occasionally occur between authors writing together from opposite sides of the pond.

If I must voice one complaint, though, it's that the various dreams and dream worlds Stapleton journeys through never quite felt strange enough for me. Through it all, there's a certain linearity and even almost-normalcy to it, despite even the occasional appearance of strange creatures. While there's a healthy dose of oddity to the surrounding events that prompt Stapleton to travel between his neighbor's dreams, I wish some of the dream states he found himself in were even more unusual. More often than not, the authors rely on presenting dreams that are either alternate realities where the dreamer engages in particular sexual fetishes or the book's setting of Bellville is depicted as an apocalyptic wasteland. While this latter depiction of Bellville is well-rendered, I could have done with a bit more variety in the various dreamy landscapes. It is also possible I'm simply too inured to stories of my wife's crazy dreams.

While I loved Practitioners and its pulp-noir and chaotic creature-feature sensibilities, few things within Stapleton's lucid dreams are as weird as my darling wife's dreams after she's had Chinese food. This is perhaps too high a bar to set, though, as even the most wildly inventive and creative writer would have a tough time competing with some of my wife's doozies in dreamland. Personally, it's rare that I even remember any of my own dreams, so it's entirely possible my wife is just weird and Practitioners depictions of dream-life are more common and realistic than my spouse's anecdotes would lead me to believe. So, as far as complaints go, this one is certainly nothing to lose sleep over.

Hayward and Lacey pack in enough freshness and a few honestly earned surprises to make Practitioners a book I can easily recommend. It really did hit all the right buttons for me between its awesomely designed cover by Rachel Autumn Deering, and a highly cool concept and well articulated vision from the authors, one that exists on multiple planes of reality and features some neat-o fantasyland magic and killer monsters. I mean, who doesn't love killer monsters?

[Note: I received an advanced review copy of this title from the author.]

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Review: The Switch House by Tim Meyer

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I try to approach each book I read with an open mind, but with the hopeful expectation that it will, at the very least, be a decent read. I want to let the author do their thing and then judge for myself how well their story worked for me. Overall, I think I'm pretty good about selecting titles that should work for me based on their synopsis. Sometimes I'm disappointed, sometimes I'm pleased. The best, though, is to discover a work, particularly from a new-to-me author, that proves itself to be positively exceptional.

The Switch House is a slim novel that absolutely rocks right from the get-go, firing on all cylinders the whole way through, catapulting readers from one crazy violent encounter to the next. Tim Meyer takes a no-holds-barred approached to the scenes of bloody mayhem, and there were a few impactful moments that made me wince. He also proves strikingly adept at crafting psychological horror, and one big reveal in the book's climax wrung me dry, my heart lurching as I mentally screamed "HOW COULD YOU?" at one character.

Meyer uses tragedy as the framework here, building his house of horrors around it, revealing additional levels of complexity with each chapter. Bereft over the loss of their child, Angela and Terry sought an escape from their normal lives by auditioning for, and winning a spot in, the reality show, Let's Switch Houses! Returning to their normal lives isn't easy for Angela, especially after she spots a hole in the bathroom wall that peers into...well, elsewhere. She begins having vivid nightmares, realizing that whoever lived in their home during the swap did some very dark things there.

There's so much I want to say about this book, but I fear that so much of it would dive headlong into spoiler territory. I will say that The Switch House is twisty as all get-out, and is the kind of read that will have you questioning the reality of the events and the characters depicted here. I found myself flip-flopping a few times on whether or not Meyer intended this to be a straightforward narrative and on the reliability of Angela's viewpoints. I think I have my answer, but I suspect yours may be quite different.

Despite its short page count, there's an awful lot to digest here. The Switch House is slim in pages, but filled to the brim with concepts and ideas. Meyer pulls in cosmic horror, psychological horror, chaotic and frightening depictions of hell, plenty of paranoia, and bucketfuls of bloody mayhem. It's a rare thing indeed when I finish a book's prologue and already find myself questioning whatever life choices I've made that I'm only just now discovering Tim fucking Meyer. How the hell have I not read this guy before? That's gonna change real fast, I can tell you that right now.

[Note: I received an advance reader's copy of this title for review.]

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Review: Suspended in Dusk II, edited by Simon Dewar

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his foreword, Simon Dewar discusses the themes behind the period of dusk, noting that this is a moment of change, a "time between times", when light turns dark, when good can turn bad. It's a flashpoint for life and death, an instant where the inevitable can turn on a dime, where one's greatest fears or greatest hopes can be realized, a time when people are forever altered and either ruined or reborn. Collected in Suspended in Dusk II are 17 stories that realize these instances of change, to varying degrees. Some are poignant, others are subtle, and all work together to make this a seriously strong anthology of dark fiction.

Much of this strength lies in this anthology's commitment to diversity. Plenty of hay has been made, in certain social media circles, over the lack of inclusiveness in certain high-profile anthologies recently announced and how, in 2018, certain publishers, editors, or compilers could release an all-white male anthology and completely ignore the breadth of voices dark fiction has to offer. Suspended in Dusk II makes no such mistake, giving readers a number of strong voices from across the gender and sexual spectrum. Dewar has collected here several powerful women, writers whose names may be instantly recognizable and lesser-known talents who deserve to become household names, people of color, authors with a wide range of religious affiliations or no religion at all, from a handful of continents. Each, of course, are storytellers first and foremost, but their works carry a certain depth and breadth of experience to challenge publishing's oftentimes default homogeneity.

Take, for instance, Dan Rabarts's Riptide. Rabarts is a New Zealand author, and his story of loss and revenge is built upon the foundations of Māori mythology as a bereaved father and widower battles a taniwha. Gwendolyn Kiste tackles issues of childhood abuse and sexual trauma through an allegorical tale of monsters. Karen Runge, too, tackles similar subjects and their fetishization in this anthology's opening story, Angeline. It's a powerful opener, and Runge's writing is flat-out wonderful. I haven't read Runge's work previously, but you rest assured her novel Seeing Double will be in my hands soon.

Suspended in Dusk II runs the gamut of dark fiction. Not every piece included here is a work of straight-up horror, although it's certainly an element common to most of the stories here. Some are more subtle horrors drawn from the tapestry of life, or death in the case of Bracken MacLeod's story of an injured hiker. Christopher Golden's The Mournful Cry of Owls is a fantastical coming-of-age story, and an incredibly well-drawn one at that, told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl about to celebrate her Sweet 16, as she passes through the dusk separating adolescence from adulthood and the secrets in between. Others carry overtones of the apocalypse, such as Paul Tremblay's There's No Light Between Floors, a sort-of 9/11 event with Lovecraftian overtones, and Ramsey Campbell's Another World. Campbell's in particular is an excellent use of a decidedly foreign perspective, whose central character encounters our modern world through the filter of religious extremism. Letitia Trent takes her own tract on another world, giving us an encounter with infected, rabid children cast out into the wild and fenced off from society.

Dewar does a fine job balancing the tonal rhythms and themes of each story, giving the anthology a unique pulse. The stories dovetail between their similarities and differences, giving readers slight arcs across the narratives, book-ending them all between Runge's and MacLeod's wildly different, yet thematically similar, stories of a central figure cast out, either by choice or by circumstance, into the wild and left to survive by their own wits, suspended in a moment of dusk.

[Note: I received an advanced reader's copy of this work from the publisher, Grey Matter Press.]

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Review: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Brian Keene

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On his podcast, The Horror Show with Brian Keene, Keene has mentioned a few times that Darkness on the Edge of Town was partly inspired by Stephen King's The Mist. Commonalities certainly exist, but there's also more than a touch of King's Under the Dome, as if Keene and King had tapped into similar wavelengths and wrote their works concurrently, and likely unbeknownst to each other. King's Dome was published at the tail-end of 2009, and the first edition of Darkness was published by Leisure Books at the start of 2010, so clearly something was in the air, reaching into their minds from the beyond. I mention this only because there's a cool kind of synchronicity that can exist between creators and it fascinates and amuses me in almost equal measure that in being influenced by a much earlier King story, Keene wrote a somewhat similar story to a then-more current King tome (even if Dome itself is highly derivative of earlier, superior King books). For my money, though, Darkness on the Edge of Town is easily the better of the two.

As the title indicates, darkness is the predominate theme to this particular work. The town of Walden has been blanketed in perpetual night thick enough to blot out the stars. This darkness encases the town, and to leave Walden is suicide (but staying put could also mean certain death). Those who cross the city limits are never seen again, the violent cries of their death throes the final thing that is ever heard from them. Trapped within this small-town, madness begins to take hold as time loses all meaning and supplies begin to grow as scarce as hope.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is, suitably, a dark story. Darkness infests the town as much as it soaks the pages, and the people of Walden are driven toward their baser instincts, guided by their own inner darkness and personal torments. Keene slowly ramps up the violence, escalating from grocery store looters to gang-infested streets, home invasions, and rapes and murders that occur right in the middle of the street. It's bleak, but compulsively readable. I had to know what secrets the darkness held, and whether or not Robbie, Christy, and their neighbors were going to survive this endless night.

I also had to know if and how this book tied into the larger mythos underpinning Keene's narratives. Once the homeless man, Dez, made his appearance and began spouting off arcane craziness, my ears perked right up at the familiar concepts the fine folks of Walden brushed off as insane drivel. My patience was rewarded, and I can say that Darkness on the Edge of Town is most certainly one of the levels in Keene's overarching Labyrinth mythology. I got hints of it in the Clickers books he wrote with J.F. Gonzalez, as well as The Rising, City of the Dead, and The Complex, so I was absolutely delighted to see more of that mythology discussed and elaborated on here.

I'm a sucker for multiplicative Earth's and alternate realities and I dig the way Keene has merged scientific principles, like string theory and quantum mechanics, in a very layman way, with mythological stories to create a multi-storied overarching narrative to connect his works. Best of all, though, is that each of these works function independently. You need not have read The Rising to understand Darkness on the Edge of Town, but if you have you'll find some sweet name-drops along the way. This book in particular is a solid stand-alone, but it's made richer by the baked-in connectivity to Keene's other works.

While all that stuff is certainly cool to be sure, the story surrounding all these little Easter Eggs is just as good. I dug the characters and how they responded to the darkness encroaching upon both the town and their psyches. There's some great interpersonal dynamics at play, as well as some smaller examinations of mob mentality and how vicious and extreme human behavior can get in dire, pressing situations. Darkness is a bleak read on the whole, but a highly infectious one. Like Robbie and his neighbors, the darkness got into my head, too, and it forced me to keep turning the pages. Thankfully, I had plenty of light to read by.

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Review: Eat the Rich by Renee Miller

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Eat the Rich
By Renee Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ed is at the end of his rope - a bit of an asshole, frustrated by the dead-end rut his life has fallen into, and trapped by debt and a loveless marriage. He makes the decision to walk away from it all, to trade his home and wife for a life of homelessness and freedom. What initially sounds like a glorified camping trip, minus even those simple luxuries of a vacation spent roughing it, ends with Ed directly involved in an alien overthrow of Earth. Led by Dahl, the human-looking invaders have gone planet to planet, freeing the local populations from the tyranny of oppressive capitalism. As the title might indicate, the aliens have a little bit more in store for Earth's 1%. Freeing humanity from the scourge of inequality is great and all, but even more important is the simple fact that rich people taste delicious.

Eat the Rich isn't quite the in-your-face work of message fiction I was expecting, and even mildly wanting, and while there is some exploration of the good and bad in contemporary capitalism Renee Miller is more focused on delivering a work of super-fun alien pulp horror. Economic politics may be the instigating premise behind Eat the Rich, but Miller is careful not to pound readers over the head with her personal opinions as she explores the ways in which certain ideas may appear superficially attractive but can quickly descend into madness. The denouement is very much a 'be careful what you wish for,' particularly in terms of utopian fantasy, let alone one involving life under extraterrestrial rule.

Of course, any kind of politics in fiction is too much for some reader's to handle, but if one were that worried about confronting opposing viewpoints or afraid of encountering even fictional liberal or conservative values in the first place, you probably wouldn't be looking at a book entitled Eat the Rich lest you're deliberately attempting to offend your own delicate sensibilities. And in which case, you probably shouldn't be reading horror or science fiction in the first place, both of which genres are present in this book in spades.

On the other hand, you have at least come this far in considering Eat the Rich, even if only superficially, and either have some kind of backbone, decent taste in fiction, and are either a cannibal or have a serious axe to grind, and so I encourage you to give it a read. It's fun, schlocky, gory entertainment, with sparse prose that makes for an easy breezy read. I quite enjoyed reading about Ed's encounters with various aliens, the police detective Marin, who is charged with investigating the murders of local elites, and the quisling Gopher who hesitatingly introduces Ed to Dahl. The relationship between Ed and Dahl, in fact, is reason enough to check out Eat the Rich and provides an interesting bit of meat and particular complications as the narrative progresses.

If I have any complaint about Miller's story, it's that it moves a bit too fast, with certain big acts getting glossed over. Some aspects of the alien invasion are told through second-hand sources, like news reports and characters telling other characters about things that occurred off-page. I would have preferred Miller to write about such instances directly, giving them a bit more prominence and a wider stage to play out on. On the whole, this is a fairly minor quibble, but it would have been nice to get some more face-eating action on page.

What action does make it to the page, though, and there is plenty, is highly entertaining. Eat the Rich is more Mars Attacks than in terms of alien invasion concepts, and Miller's focus is more on fun than extrapolations of sociopolitical dynamics. This isn't a book that will change the world, and maybe that's a good thing. After all, one person's utopia is another's dystopian nightmare.

[Note: I received an advanced print copy of this title from the publisher, Hindered Souls Press. It came delivered in a biohazard specimen bag, as somebody at this small press publisher is clearly a marketing genius. Alas, no bones or tissue samples were included.]

No rich people were harmed in the writing of this review.

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Review: Halcyon by Rio Youers

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Halcyon: A Thriller
By Rio Youers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Halcyon is my first novel-length exposure to Rio Youers, although I had previously read only a single short story from him in the anthology Seize the Night: New Tales of Vampiric Terror. In fact, it was that short story that made me eager to read more of Youers work, and Halcyon served as an excellent introduction to his long-form writing. I suspect, though, that a simple WOW! isn't quite satisfactory enough for a review, but it encapsulates my feelings perfectly.

For the first 30-50%, Halcyon is a bit of a dual narrative that ultimately meets in the middle. On one hand, you have a cult whose members are carrying out unrelated terror attacks in various American locales. On the other hand, you have Martin Lovegrove and his family, who are doing their best to cope with daughter Edith's night terrors. Her night terrors, in fact, are premonitions of violent incidents linked to Mother Moon's cult activities. As the story progresses, and without spoiling the nitty gritty of it all, Martin's family and Mother Moon's cult grow inextricably entwined.

Rio's writing is top-notch, and his storytelling prowess is honed to a knifepoint's edge, cutting bone deep at times. He lulls you in with a naturalistic style, and builds up his characters in ways subtle enough that even minor events carry the strength of a powder-keg's blast, but when he really goes for the heart and soul it's with unflinching brutality. Halcyon gave me two particular moments of tragedy in which I had to set the book down for a bit in order to regroup; it's been a while since a book has done that to me on an emotional-level, so huge kudos to Youers for that.

Beyond his excellent character work, I absolutely loved the concept of Mother Moon's cult, which felt perfectly real to me, as well wholly understandable, even a little bit sympathetic. Building off present-day American politics and disillusionment I could, perhaps too easily, believe why people would want to escape to Halcyon and Moon's promise of a simpler, back-to-basics lifestyle. It's more than tempting to leave behind our world of daily mass shootings and the instant-rage machine of social media to live off the grid on an idyllic island retreat, free of the daily grind, where you can reconnect with your family, know your neighbors, and enjoy the beauty of nature. Of course, there is that bit of fine print warning you to be careful what you wish for and if it sounds too good to be true, well then...

This is a book that's packed with suspense, tragedy, several moments guaranteed to ramp up your blood pressure, and plenty of horror from both the supernatural kind and the all too-real world around us. I really cannot recommend it enough, and I think this is a title that is just as deserving, if not more so, than some of this summer's much-hyped reads. Halcyon perfectly balances moments of soul-crushing despair with uplifting hope, reminding us that even in our darkest moments there's still some light to be found if only we look hard enough.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher, St. Martin's Press, via NetGalley.]

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BROKEN SHELLS: Reader Reactions

One of the coolest things as an author is hearing from readers about how much they've enjoyed your work. Being tagged in photos of your book out in the wild is not only awesome, but immensely rewarding. Now that we're half-way through 2018, people are starting to share some of their best reads of the year-so-far, and I've been shocked and delighted to see Broken Shells making the grade from some seriously voracious horror readers.

Sadie is a new reviewer for SCREAM Magazine and an incredibly prolific Bookstagrammer over on Instagram. If you're not following her, you should be! She's good people!

Inspired by Sadie, Mindi posted her current best books of 2018 and, again, Broken Shells was included!

I have to say, it's remarkable to see my little novella slipped in alongside so many heavyweights, as well as some of my own favorite authors and titles. 

Over on Facebook, author Glenn Rolfe tagged me to share the good news - Broken Shells was also among some of his favorites for 2018!

Meanwhile, over on YouTube, Rita has been bringing a number of author's covers to life with customized animations. She's been playing around with a few of my covers, and I'm wowed by what she's come up with. Check out her animation for Kealan Patrick Burke's design of Broken Shells:

She's also animated Mass Hysteria and The Marque - just click the links here to go check them out. Be sure to check out the rest of Rita's videos and subscribe to her YouTube page for updates!

If you've been enjoying Broken Shells, let me know! Feel free to tag me on Instagram if you've got photos of my books you'd like to share, or leave reviews of my titles on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, iTunes, etc. 


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Review: Sick House by Jeff Strand [audiobook]

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Sick House
By Jeff Strand
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My original SICK HOUSE audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

Usually, the haunted house and the home invasion story are two separate tropes within the horror genre, although it could be argued the two certainly have a fair share of overlap, particularly in terms of how the terror is delivered. In Sick House, Jeff Strand tears down whatever walls were separating these particular types of stories to deliver a tale of a home invasion from beyond the grave, one that is, in typical Jeff Strand tradition, laced with plenty of humor in between buckets of blood and gore.

Few authors straddle the realms of comedy and horror as well as Strand, and it can be a difficult balancing act to simultaneously make a reader laugh and feel grossed out. For Strand, though, it’s a natural talent and his comedic chops are firmly on display here. Paige, the thirteen-year-old daughter of new homeowners Boyd and Adeline Gardner, is quintessentially Strand, constantly trying her parents with her outlandish, ribald commentary that leaves Boyd demanding to know, “Why are you so comfortable with me?!” The dialogue between each of Strand’s characters is witty and tack-sharp, and it’s always a pleasure to listen to the character’s conversations unfold.

This lightness, however, is offset by moments to makes you squirm and, eventually, sheer brutality. Shortly after moving into their new home, the Gardener’s begin to notice that their freshly bought groceries rot with incredible swiftness, and soon several of them become ill. Odd occurrences mark their days with increasing rapidity until the ghosts finally make their presence known and the terror sets in. Strand delivers a number of extremely well-executed and shockingly violent set pieces as the Gardener’s struggle to survive, but it comes with a minor caveat. Some of the metaphysical shenanigans got a little too cartoonish for me, but I still found Sick House to be solidly entertaining overall.

Joe Hempel’s narration is wonderfully straight-forward, which serves to help keep the material grounded. I think that a less capable narrator might be inclined to ham it up and lean hard into some of the book’s slapstick elements, but Hempel acts as the straight man to Strand’s comedic stylings. Hempel and Strand make for a great double act, and I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Joe to not crack up at some of the material he reads here. Thankfully, the narration is smooth and flawless, uninterrupted by gales of laughter and gasps of discomfort, which is left entirely up to the audience to supply.

[Note: Audiobook provided for review by the audiobookreviewer.com]

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