MERLIN’S LAST DAYS

51r7w+48GiLProfessor Merrell Anthony attains notoriety for his theories on archaeology and history, backed by a knack for unearthing ancient sites. Marianne Gallagher is a brilliant, beautiful student who finds herself inexplicably attracted to Merrell. Merrell has a secret—he’s living two lives at once; both in the present and in the 6th century, as Arthur Pendragon’s adviser. While the 21st century professor carries on a hidden affair with his student admirer, the outcome of the looming battle between Arthur and Mordred will decide determine mankind’s destiny. But Merrell isn’t the only person with secrets.

Merlin’s Last Days, Greg Krehbiel’s retelling of the Arthur legend, is a quick, tight read that does something surprising; the novella provides a fresh take on a story that’s been done to death. Krehbiel’s prose is clean and fast, matching the story’s pace. Better still, the tale has a firm subtext, including a most pressing and timely question: What can prevent the world from descending into chaos? Krehbiel’s story of a pagan mage fighting for a Christian king’s attempt to ascend the emperor’s throne in Rome has more on its mind than just a sword in the stone.

Fast moving, visual and timely. If you’re looking for fantasy with thematic bite, Merlin’s Last Days may be the perfect summer read. (Five stars out of five)

THE GIFTED: REBORN

Michelle Alstead’s The Gifted: Reborn opens with one of those classic lines that demands the reader’s attention:

I brought my mother back from the dead, and it’s a mistake that could kill us all.

giftedFifteen year-old Sarah Proctor is “gifted” with supernatural abilities. What she wants is a normal life, but between her abilities and the efforts of the Mallum—an evil race that wants to use her powers to their own ends—her life is anything but normal.

The Mallum possess an ancient staff that could enslave the entire human race. Sarah’s ability to channel energy from the earth could activate the staff. As the Mallum close in, Sarah will find herself with a choice—save the people she loves, or save the human race.

This is the second book in Alstead’s Gifted series. The first, The Gifted: Awakening Begun is good intro to Sarah Proctor’s saga, though the second book is enjoyable as a stand-alone. The story’s main strength lies in Alstead’s unerring sense of character. Sarah is, above all else, a teen. She walks the delicate line between compassion and chaos that any young adult reader (or parent) will recognize. The character-driven twists and turns are surprising; never contrived. Alstead’s prose is “gifted” as well. You will enjoy the sure voice and fierce pacing of this extraordinary YA novel. (Five stars out of five)

SOUL RETRIEVERS

Sea background - dark red moody sky with reflection in water

Bureaucracies are prone to error. In David Burton’s Soul Retrievers, innocent souls may be accidentally sent to Hell. Grieving relatives have a recourse—hire a specialist to return the innocent to Heaven’s gates. The job is risky, though. If the specialist dies in Hell, his or her soul is trapped there for eternity.

 
The protagonist, aptly named Getter, has a new assignment—he must retrieve the soul of a ten-year-old girl. But the already insane dangers of his centuries-old profession are worse than ever. Retrievers are disappearing, including Getter’s brother-in-law. And Getter seems to be the focus of a prophecy involving war in Hell.

 
Anyone who loves comic books will love the slam-bang pacing of Burton’s novel. This reviewer has become somewhat tired of the faux-Middle Ages setting so popular in fantasy novels. The shifting maze of traps and horrors that is Burton’s vision of Hell makes for a refreshing change. I enjoyed this novel immensely. Burton’s prose is straight-forward, with hints of noir. His imagination is part Dante, part drugs. Enter this bug-infested Hell at your own risk. (Four stars out of five)

PRINCE OF NIGHTMARES

Victor Teversham is staying at Ballador County House Hotel in the highlands of Scotland. The remote lodge serves gourmet food for dinner and nightmares for desert. The hotel has a reputation—patrons have horrific nightmares. (In a thrill-seeking world, that has become a draw.) Victor is curious about the nightmares himself, though he didn’t book the vacation. His wife made the reservation for him—just before she committed suicide.

PONIn John McNee’s novel, Prince of Nightmares, the scares are real. Good adult horror leaves the reader disturbed, and McNee is a disturbing author. Malicious forces are at work in the Ballador, and they’re not just nightmares. The mystery behind what’s at stake drives the story, punctuated by dark imagery, gore and some wonderful characterization.

Like most good horror authors, McNee isn’t satisfied with just scares. He digs into his characters, exploring the nature of evil in a way that transcends the usual horror themes. When Teversham asks, “Am I a good man?” the reader finds, not a book in hand, but a mirror. That may well be the most potent nightmare of all. (Five stars out of five)

AFTER I’M GONE

513LQbW-8CL._UY250_Got Christmas money? Have a Kindle? This is the book you are waiting for.

Let me start by saying that After I’m Gone is a romance with paranormal elements.

I write and read horror for the emotional jolt. When I delve into literary fiction, on the other hand, what I’m looking for is prose nuance and characterization. Reading Michelle Alstead’s After I’m Gone, I get everything.

Alstead’s book is about relationships (don’t revoke my guy card, please), with a paranormal twist (which serves my speculative urge). The prose is sharp and clean, though the fine writing is not the very best thing about the novel. Have you ever read a book and found yourself in love with the characters? Get ready.

The plot would appear to be familiar. Gabby’s husband Casey dies in a motorcycle accident. The trauma causes Gabby to miscarry. The tragedy carries the additional weight of past events, making the heartbreak more poignant. Then, the supernatural opportunity to change the past comes. But don’t think Peggy Sue will get married, or that Groundhog day will repeat. Alstead is too intelligent to serve up a platter of expectations. I was knocked out by the clever path the author cuts for the reader.

I don’t want to give away too much, because the book’s revelations are a pleasure. You’ll enjoy every moment you spend with Gabby. And the good news is, the author intends a series. Not a direct follow-up to Gabby’s story, but an exploration of peripheral characters—a guarantee of hours of great reading.

I loved this book. (Five stars out of five)

ZOMBIE MARKETING: THE EPIDEMIOLOGY OF BRAND AWARENESS

LarsonThis is a time of empowerment for independent entrepreneurs, who have access to global markets for the very first time. And in the wake of the Indy revolution comes the realization that the artists still must still reach an audience, and that connection must be made in the middle of a marketing blizzard. Bowker reports that in 2009, more than a million books were published in the United States. More than two-thirds of those books were self-published.

Jack Larson is an artist living in New Mexico. His book, Zombie Marketing: The Epidemiology of Brand Awareness, examines marketing strategies for independent creators. Larson comes by the zombie metaphor honestly—with art most often focused on the undead. His book is a brilliant examination of the use of social media for the modern entrepreneur. Prior to recent changes in the artistic marketplace, access to niche markets was too often impractical. Larson contends that now, “creativity and strategic thinking matter more…than a big advertising budget.”

Larson bases his approach to independent brand building on the World Health Organization’s five main phases of a pandemic. Want your art to go viral? Larson will tell you how. His approach isn’t a gimmick; any more than the viral marketing concept is merely metaphorical.

The book is every bit as entertaining as you might expect, given the approach. Better, the pandemic analogy is an effective way of approaching the subject. Along the way, Larson uses his own experiences marketing his art to illustrate simple (but profound) principles. His examples are designed to trigger ideas, rather than providing a bullet list of mass market strategies. As I read the book, I kept coming up with more and more applications—enough so, that I had to start listing them.

I would recommend Zombie Marketing: The Epidemiology of Brand Awareness to every writer, musician and artist. Whether you play guitar in a garage band or write for a big publishing house, you need to read this book. (Five stars out of five)

AWFULLY APPETIZING

Walter has the perfect job. He runs a funeral home, which allows him a quiet, secluded lifestyle, fitting his personality. The job has additional benefits—the food is good.

Walter, you see, is a ghoul.

51F9hb06j9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_That’s right, a ghoul. The carrion of night creatures. Leod Fitz’s Awfully Appetizing is a paranormal novel, book one of The Corpse-Eater Saga. Yes, there are werewolves and vampires, but taking center stage is one of the more outrageous protagonists in recent memory. Raised in a human home, Walter enjoys his solitary existence, but longs to fit in to the human world. Now, both home and health are at risk as Walter finds himself at odds with various paranormal factions. And someone—maybe everyone—wants him dead.

Though Fitz seems to relish the more horrific scenes, you may find yourself more surprised at the wit, owing much to Walter’s first-person voice. The political subtext is razor sharp, particularly when it recalls high school cliques. The prose is clean and the dialog is trigger-quick:

     The girl glowered at me, catching the rabbit mid-air. “I want a human.”

     I shrugged, “And I want a pony.”

 I don’t enjoy many stories in this genre. But this Winlock Press release had me from the first few pages. Funny, gross and clever, Awfully Appetizing  is an original. (Five stars out of five)