Holiday Book Review Bonanza
Hey folks. I happen to have my birthday in August, and I got gifted some money from the lovely Sarah Davis (She of Inside Voices fame (fantastic book, click on the link to see what I mean)), so I loaded up my kindle with Indie Author books, and got ready for the summer vacation of a lifetime.
And I had a blast.
Above you can see the 14 books I read before heading back to Austria, well-fed, windsurfed/ sailed/ volleyballed out, and I was going to write individual reviews, but honestly, I have a pretty small (but loyal) audience, so I thought I could do the individual books a better service if I put all of the reviews together in a compilation, and told all of the authors their books were up together. I'm hoping to get more eyes on all of the books.
To make it easier, I've broken the books down to individual reviews. You can click on the individual book photos below, and go directly to that section to read my review. You can also read your way through all of the books, of course. If you do, you are a rockstar. I, and all of the authors on here, salute you. Reading reviews takes time. You rock.
But we knew that already, I mean, you're on my website 😃🤜🤛 Check out some of my past reviews, and subscribe to the newsletter whilst you are here.
All of the reviews are honest, they range from 3 to 5 stars out of five (in this instance). All of the reviews will be posted on Goodreads, Bookbub, and Amazon. It's happening this week, I also work!
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Ok. Let's get to it.
Girl on fire - by Gemma Amor
Gemma Amor’s “Girl on fire” is, simply, a rage story. It starts so innocuously, Ruby Miller driving away from home, away from her life. A new start, a new life, full of promise and purpose, until she crashes her car and dies, burnt to death, screaming and burning, melting in agony, a literal fiery death to her dreams of freedom. Only, she doesn’t die and wakes transformed. She is a girl on fire, the flames of her supposed death are hers to control, and use as she sees fit.
The premise here is great, there’s a touch of magic, or paranormal here, a hero origin story – superpowers that arrive that are never really explained, although we become aware that others have been “blessed” with abilities later in the book. The focus here is not on the how, or why, but rather on ruby’s chosen use of her powers. Gemma weaves one-line facts about her abusive past into the novel, one-line smacks to the face – never expanding on the theme, merely letting the reader come to conclusions – subtlety and deftly done. Ruby’s story is one of repressed rage, and now, with her new condition, she wants to set the world on fire.
It’s a great premise, the powerful woman dispensing justice, but the reader is aware that she has also been consumed by hate and revenge, she is on fire against the world, and though we can understand and sympathize with her story, we cannot justify the burning of the world because of it. Amor settles the story down with the introduction of a love/friend/something interest (loved the POV of Helen), though the relationship could never go toward love, Ruby is too consumed in her hate.
Ruby is captured, (wisely – on the part of Amor, the break was needed) and escapes, at which point we have a swap of pov to view Ruby and her actions from afar, to be on the receiving end of that force of nature. At the close, Ruby lives up to her Phoenix tattoo, and Amor leaves the story open for a sequel.
Ok, so what did I think of it? Loved it. It has a certain comic quality about it – the cover is lush, it reminded me of DC’s Vertigo line, and this story could certainly have found a home on that range. The wronged hero, revenge-driven, it’s pure testosterone. Gemma’s writing remains fresh, fluid, evocative. You can’t help but click straight over to amazon and buy another book to savor. There are Easter eggs in here, a reference to White Pines (I believe, having read the blurb to that book and having it waiting patiently on my kindle), so for Amor fans, there are gems hidden to find. It’s devoured in one sitting, unstoppable, you can’t gulp it down quickly enough. I read this on my drive back home and missed the journey back through Croatia, it took all of my attention – a perk of having a son old enough to drive :D
5⭐ ‘s out of 5, this is definitely one to get. Can’t wait for White Pines, Gemma.
Children of the dark - by Jonathan Janz
This book was probably my favorite of my holiday, a fantastic coming-of-age horror novel that incorporated so many elements of the genre, that it was just a mad rush to finish. Un-put-downable doesn’t begin to describe how I read this book. I absolutely devoured it. Buy this today, if you haven’t got it already. 5 stars are not enough.
So - what made it so good? Well, it’s got that Stephen King’s IT feeling about it, kids coming of age, falling in love, dealing with trauma at home, friendship, threats, a serial killer on the loose, a creature in the woods, a dormant evil feeling to it all, it’s just like all of the best elements from the genre collected in one horror novel. Who wouldn’t love this? The character work is outstanding. The budding relationship scenes are just heartfelt. The character arc’s are praiseworthy. The violence is brutal and satisfying. The world-building – look, I can’t say it enough –
Go buy this book. Do it today.
There are so many elements in the book that ratchet up the tension, right from the get-go. Bullies that menace their way through the book to add additional threats, just as real as the underlying ones. Parents that are selfish, a treehouse, a serial killer, incompetent police, being locked in a cage, a choice between love for a sister and your best friend – this has everything, including a wonderful first love realization and fantastic female representation. It’s magnificent. I can’t possibly do this justice in a review, just go to amazon right now and buy the damn book.
I bought another Jonathan Janz book immediately after finishing this one. You will too.
All the stars. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Perpetual Dread - by Brian Bowyer
I studied Theatre as a degree, and as a part of that degree I had to study past masters and styles of theatre, and a part of that study was Epic theatre – as advocated by Bertolt Brecht. Why am I mentioning this here? Because that is exactly the style of writing that Brian Bowyer employs to best convey his own style of extreme horror. It is a deliberate removal of extravagance, of unrequired description, and a focus on the minimalistic conveyance of an idea. Taking the core element of any sentence, and stripping it down to the basic fact of what it needs to say, as a blunt representation of exactly the idea it needs to convey. So – Brian strips all of his sentences down to minimal statements, so as to best convey horror – extreme horror – by removing the reader (to an extent) of emotional empathy.
And it is brilliant.
Admittedly, I am very new on the scene, and I am still finding my place at the horror table, but I knew, even before I attempted to read a book by Brian, that he wrote extreme horror. It was, in fact, one of the main reasons I took so long to attempt to read him – I thought – am I ready for this? So, I can’t say that all of Brian’s book as written in Epic Theatre style (or should we now call this “Epic Horror style?”), but the series of short stories here follow that rule. It works so well because it makes reading the unreadable, possible. It allows us to read the true horrors Brian showcases, with a layer of emotional removal. We are horrified at the thing happening before us on the page, but are somewhat softened from the full blow of it landing on us because of the cold unemotional presentation of that horror, and the fact that we are not emotionally committed to the characters? Make any sense?
Another thing Epic Theatre/Horror does, is remove any other possibility – everything that happens is the only way it can happen. There is no other choice given – characters accept their fates because there is no other possibility. Brian’s short – “Body snatcher”, is a great example of this – the presentation of the culprit being a “Ghoul” is taken straight away as fact – no other possibility exists, and the opinion of the father is taken as fact, it IS a ghoul, it can be nothing else, and his limited knowledge of what a ghoul is and can do is then gospel. There is no room for any other interpretation – Brecht’s theatre and Bowyer’s Horror demand – it is dictatorial – and we lap it up, it is always easiest to be told something than to question it. Even the MC in the story is robbed of emotion at his own death, it happens to him as if it is happening to someone else, presented as fact.
It’s quite unlike anything I have read from any other author and sets Bowyer on his own pedestal. It allows Bowyer to examine elements of horror unexplorable by other writers. All of the stories are covered in trigger warnings, there isn’t a story here that doesn’t deal with trauma and repeated trauma. This is not an easy read. But it remains readable.
Tattoo magic was a break from the Epic style, it flowed more like a normal short, and was welcome in the middle of the book as a breather, one of the highlights for me. Other highlights were Gift and a curse, Like father, like son, and Scarlett.
I can recommend this book, tentatively, on the understanding that all of the trigger warnings are represented in it. You have to know what you are setting yourself up for, but Brian has managed to explore the unexplorable, represent the unrepresentable, and deliver the undeliverable. It is not a book you can claim as emotionally gratifying, but horror has so many faces, and this creature cannot be ignored.
Brian, hats off to you, mate. 4⭐ ‘s out of 5.
Reception - by Kenzie Jennings
This is Kenzie’s Debut novel, and it lives up to all my expectations. I had read (and loved) her novella “Red station” Book 7 in the Splatter Western Series by Death’s head press, so really wanted to read this one for a while, and settled down in my hammock ready for absolute mayhem.
One of the core elements of Kenzie’s work that impressed me in that former novella was her character work, and that is here in spades. The “action” of the novel starts at more or less the halfway point, and I’ve seen other reviewers say they felt that was too long, but for me, it was wonderfully timed. I cared about the MC, Ansley, and her sister, Shay. Their sisterhood, their relationship with their parents, Ansley’s drug addiction, her fight to cope with everyday things, all of it was perfect – for this detail’s nerd. It’s a solid base, from which to spring the mayhem of the dinner slaughter. Loved it.
It reminded me of Tim Meyer’s Paradise club to an extent – a setup of something that is not what it seems, to have the main characters on the run for their lives, but I was a lot more emotionally engaged in this one. It’s Splatterpunk, make no mistake, something I can’t say I really enjoy (I don’t watch slasher movies, for this reason, it’s prolonged killing, and life is horrific enough) but yeah – I have to say I was thrilled in this, rooting along for the sisters and wondering how badly it could all go. The ending is a ball out of leftfield – great reveal, a smack to the senses, and made possible by the fantastic work Kenzie did in setting up a believable world, made so through the detailed and lovingly rendered character work she sets up in the first half, which is then all ripped apart by the reveal of the reality behind it all.
This flew by, and was a highlight of my holiday reading. All the stars, Kenzie. All the stars.
The last house on Needless street - by Catriona Ward
I was pretty excited to read this, I hadn’t heard anything about the book, other than a vague rumor that it made no sense until around 85% of the way through, at which point the reveals dropped like bombs and made it all make a mad sense. So exactly the type of book I like. So, I was anticipating – well – something a little more mind-blowing. It’s good. It’s well written. The flow is fantastic, voice is easy to read. But I was more or less on the right track right from the beginning. Drat.
If you want to see what I mean, check my progress bars in the review on Goodreads, where I write my thoughts, I don’t want to give spoilers here, the reveals are surprising, and I didn’t get it all correct, so it still left me impressed with the level of research and presentation Ward brings to the novel. The presentation of the cat, Olivia, was – I maintain – obvious, and I felt the explanation of the exact meaning and significance of the green boys – somewhat washed over, but make no mistake, this is a great mystery horror.
The breakdown of a serial killer’s mentality was fantastic, one is immediately aware that Ted’s pov has problems, unreliable narration, memory loss, etc. It makes for fantastic storytelling. Likewise, the sister of one of his victims, Dee, was great, you are really rooting for her. Her twist was indeed out of the blue, there’s no way to see that coming, and the scene in the water with the snakes gave me (pardon me) the willies lol.
This was a slower read, it seemed to take a while to get into my brain, I had to take long breaks to process it all. But it was a great resolution, and a fantastic take on the condition Ted suffers from. Plus, the poetry of the text is wonderful, the prose a delight to read. A literary approach, and appreciated all the more for it.
4 out of 5⭐‘s
Only the stains remain - by Ross Jeffery
Only the stains remain is the culmination of the progress Ross Jeffery has made in his writing career to date – his voice, honed from his depiction of human brutality in his stories Juniper and Tome, and his understanding of reader empathy which were developed in Milk kisses and the fantastic flash pieces of Tethered, has developed into a definitive, emotionally-wringing powerhouse of expression. "Stains" contains the fantastic-descriptive, almost lyrical flow that made Juniper such a joy to read, but does so whilst dredging the depths of how a low a person can be dragged, before they rise and bite the hand that abuses them.
"Stains" wastes no time in pulling the heartstrings of the reader. It clearly, upfront sets out the bleak story of Jude and Kyle, brothers united in abuse, through the eyes of the younger brother Jude. It makes clear that the Jude we meet first, the older, colder, changed man that has risen from the ashes of his life, has made it his life goal to avenge his brother and the sacrifice he made for Jude. This was never going to be anything other than a tragedy, a bitter tale, but a gripping one.
Honestly, this story took me by surprise. I was actually expecting something a lot more abuse-graphic, given the reactions from some other reviewers, and Stains is graphic, but mainly on the details of the revenge pain, Jude inflicts on his tormentors. This book works on the same principle as something like the punisher – the reader is incensed from the abuse the young child endured, it hardens our hearts and resolve, and demands justice. Payment in kind. And this is exactly the horror that is defining the horror novel world at the moment, and which needs no other monster, beast, or villain. Humans are monstrous enough.
In today’s society, fantastic, gritty, painful stories of abuse are now more common. And what’s more, stories dealing with revenge are viewed differently. An eye for an eye is no longer seen as something morally incorrect – we have more sympathy for the need for revenge than ever. It is a fundamental principle in the origin story of heroes. And as dark as DC superheroes can be, against real-life abuse survivors? Mental or physical or both? They are a whole new level of hero in my book.
So, revenge is ok. And horror does not shy away from showing detail. And that’s where Ross shines. The detail here of the killings is unflinching. Mesmerizing. Magnificent. It is a writer really coming into his own voice, finding the magic that raises his work above the rest and which demands all of the adoration it is going to rightly receive.
What a blazing voice Ross has developed.
The violence is brutal and unrepentant. The emotional wrangling of the main character, the guilt and shame, and the vengeance he shows leave no doubt that the author has a firm grip on the motivational and emotional state of all of his characters. The villains are painted in the dirt, dire morally repugnant characters. Jude’s brother, the martyr, painted as the victim, filling the shoes of a father figure, or better stated, what a father figure should be. The sense of dread Ross injects into the story, as layer upon layer of abuse smothers the brothers, is unrelenting.
And that’s how I’m going to leave the review. “Stains” is unrelenting. Beautifully, blindingly so.
5 out of 5 ⭐ ‘s isn’t enough, and I can’t wait for Hostage. Grab this, it’s going to be the stoker nominee to look out for this year, I guarantee it.
The house on Abigail Lane - by Kealan Patrick Burke
I was really excited to read this one, my first Kealan Patrick Burke novella, and was straight away really impressed. I keep notes on all the books I read, and here’s the one note I made after reading the book and realized I hadn’t made a damn note at all:
“Great. Plowed through this, educated voice, succinct, flow was fantastic. Written as a documentary, really nice style. The horror removed through reported speech, but that made it fascinating.”
This is a short-short, coming in at around 68 pages, it flew by. Every disappearance in the house presented after the event, the mystery of it all, and the anticipation of what might happen, and the whole “why” of it, make it read more like a mystery. It’s a great representation of a writer at the top of his game. I was left hungry for more from Mr. Burke, and am happy to follow suggestions. Do me a favor and leave them as a comment.
I can’t speak much of the Voice here, given it was mainly reported text, however, this was eminently readable, and a great introduction to Kealan’s work.
4 out of 5 ⭐ ‘s. Nice to meet you, Mr. Burke.
Something Estranged - by Edward Lorn
Something Estranged is a great showcase of E’s work, I’d watched Edward’s Youtube channel for a while and I think I recall it was his birthday, and I stick to my guns when it comes to supporting Indie Authors, so the opportunity presented itself and I snapped up this anthology.
There are a lot of shorts in this anthology, 14 I think, and the range is impressive and inclusive. The sheer diversity is a credit, and some of the stories are way, way out there. Some of the stories are a little tongue in cheek. Some of them are a lot of tongue in cheek. Lorn also hits hard when it comes to rape and revenge – the fantastic “Give him to us” is relentless in the tension Edward plucks from the air, and it’s one of the highlights for me. Likewise, “Untitled” was just straight-up fantastic writing. Hard emotional horror, Lorn smacks you with remorse and emotionally driven horror, it’s both impressive and horrific to read, the kind of story that you want to say “That was fantastic”, but know that the subject matter will never allow you to be able to say that, that you almost have to apologize for liking it so much. Great work.
Interestingly for me, a total subgenre of horror was showcased here, something I haven’t really come across before – that of horror self-irony. It’s abundant in horror films, the almost ridiculous way people get killed made somehow hysterical by the sure ludicrousness of it all. I am, of course, referring to Uncle boobs and her killer boobs. It took me a while to be able to understand the self-irony, Lorn made that possible but muddied the waters so-to-speak by making Uncle Boob’s life companion so damn likable, and used him to deliver a very real perspective on her character, which in turn added extra weight to boob’s character (not the boobs themselves). So a very human dilemma (massive breasts hindering the talent of the person that had them by overshadowing her character and abilities in the minds of small-minded men and women) transposed by killer breasts. I think the death by electrocution from the friction created by the breasts rubbing together, shot as a blast of electric death is a perfect example of what I’m getting at here. Or spinning breasts, almost Thor-like in presentation, his hammer replaced by the weightier boobies of doom – well – let’s say it’s a new one on me, but in retrospect, hilarious. Plus there were Easter eggs, WRB makes an appearance, I wondered if Guarino was being referenced as a name drop, etc
There were a couple of shorts here that missed my interest range, but the level of tension reached by my favorites – previously mentioned, made sure I’ll be checking out more of Lorn’s work.
Four ⭐ ‘s out of five.
The Balance - by Kev Harrison
This is a cracking short, Harrison is on a roll at the moment, his folk horror base has really found some love in the horror community, and this retelling/reimagining of the Baba Yaga folktale really lands – I breezed through this in an afternoon and was hungry for more! Luckily, Kev’s “Below” is releasing (Today!) so even if it’s less folk orientated, I have a Harrison-voiced novel to look forward to.
The Balance is centered on new Christianity fighting against the old religions, if they can be called that, even – basically a witch hunt. Kev hits home right from the first page with some teeth-grinding body horror and makes you watch as The MC’S brother’s broken bone is reset with only basic equipment and painkillers. Lovely. It ramps up the tension to the max, and then Kev adds emotional pressure in the form of guilt for the MC (Natalia). That tension is maintained by the brutal murder of a woman in the forest, who had helped the brother with a cure for the infected wound, her good deed taken as witchcraft. A re-imagining of the Baba Yaga personality. No chicken legs here.
I don’t want to go into the ending, there is a great twist I really should have seen coming (Kev masterfully playing my biases against me in assumptions about a core detail of Baba Yaga) which landed well, and the whole reason the novel is called “The Balance” is also well explained, again, spoilers would be required to explain that, so I’ll not go there.
Instead, I’ll just say that the world-building was fantastic, I was fully immersed in the world Kev created, it was a perfect mix of folklore and modern storytelling.
This gets 5 ⭐ ‘s, the most impressive Harrison story to date (in my admittedly limited experience). Can’t wait to descend BELOW.
The same deep water as you - by Chad Lutzke
The same deep water as you, is, at its heart, a coming of age story. The setting of the story, skateboarders who live in a town where a series of rapes are occurring, has all of the hallmarks of a great emotional horror book – something Chad does exceptionally well. Only here, to be honest, it isn’t (in my opinion) – horror that is – and that’s also great. I’m pretty broad-minded, I read stories, not always from the same Genre (I have more or less settled on horror recently), so the lack of horror in the book isn’t a detraction. I do have to say, however, that this book, as opposed to say Wallflower or Wormwood, didn’t have the same emotional connection to me. It’s also important to say that regardless of that lack of emotional attachment, Lutzke’s easy-flowing prose made this a book that I flew through. It took less than an hour to read, I believe. Almost unheard of.
The series of events in the book seemed to fall pretty much haphazardly - the MC is as much an observer as we, the readers, are. It is an observational drama, almost diary-like in its presentation. What happens, happens, the MC Jex reacts to what happens and works towards the betterment of his own character and personality. And it’s eminently readable – Lutzke pulls on our memories of the time, with music references, details that make us relate to the characters and their situations.
This book was over very quickly, the writing is fluid, the pace maintained, but I have to say that my emotional attachment was not really there. I’m not really sure that is the point here though. Chad has illustrated a segment of society, living, and learning, doing their thing in a slice of time, and it’s a story that screams attachment to a specific cliché – if you were a skateboarder, or on the outskirts of a skateboarding crew, I have no doubt you will love the book thoroughly. Likewise, the drug scene is well represented, although Rex shies away from partaking too much, money being the obstacle there. I was more or less bedridden in the ’80s, and due to damage to my hip, there was no way I was ever allowed on a skateboard – one slip and it would have been new hip joint time. So, whilst I couldn’t relate to the cliché, I appreciated the glimpse into the culture. And I love Chad’s writing. It’s sharp when it needs to be. He does relationship drama well.
Having said all that, this seemed to pass me by. The ending could go no other way, I think Lutzke gave enough foreshadowing that this read as a tragedy, but because of my lack of emotional involvement, and having known the author’s direction, the ending didn’t surprise me, though it still landed roughly where it should have.
It’s a fast-flowing, observational drama novella, and gets 4⭐ ‘s out of 5.
Tethered - by Ross Jeffery
This is a book that plays directly to the emotional experiences of the reader. It’s extremely hard not to find resonance in a book that depicts events and emotions the reader has, themselves, experienced. This is simply the tale of a relationship between a father and a son. The father is flawed but remains well-meaning in his love for his son. It’s a classic theme, one that many of us have lived through, judging by the reviews I skimmed. And it's great horror because this is horror we recognize.
Now to be fair, my own upbringing was from a father that had witnessed (and rebelled against) violence at home. My father was (and still remains) the total opposite. A bear of a man who had done a stint in the army to better control and understand his own strength, my father’s relationship to his kids and his wife was always loving. I don’t remember him ever even shouting at my mum, but he had his own personal hang-ups. He did and said some of the things written in this book, the ties to what a “man” had to be and how a “man” should act were ingrained deep in him from his own childhood, I believe. So, this story – let’s just say there’s a lot of integral themes in the shorts that struck a chord in this reader.
It’s beautifully observed psychological drama. I can’t say this is horror, it’s a father/son relationship story, but it plays wonderfully to the horror crowd, there are a lot of things in here that play to the open-minded horror reader – and leave you in no doubt that what you just read will stay with you for a long time.
The ramp-up of detail in the last few chapters leave you in no doubt that something terrible will occur, and the play of it is well-executed, the last father pov chapter exceptional. And leaves us all in no doubt that at least this father, in his own, warped, maladjusted, narrow-minded way, loved his son. And that’s just heartbreaking.
A solid 5 out of 5⭐ ‘s, Ross’ writing just keeps getting stronger, the observational-emotional content of this book knocks everything out of the park.
Slow burn on Riverside - by Chad Lutzke
This is a prequel book to “The same deep water as you” from Chad but is also a stand-alone.
The premise for it is obviously the same, a younger skateboarding MC - Jex, discovering himself and his sexuality, surrounded by drug-taking flatmates, and under the supervision of a sexual domineering landlady. It has different characters, but there is an almost instant nostalgia because the characters are earlier versions of what they will become, that knowledge informs the reader to a degree, and makes the paths those characters take to their older versions more interesting.
So - why didn’t this one land with me – more so than the sequel (See The same deep water as you)?
Given the age of the protagonist, the observational narrative focused on sex and drugs, and skateboarding. All ok, but as with the last book (or should I say, the book that follows this one), this seemed to be a collection of observations – I didn’t feel a goal was aimed for – there was no endpoint in sight – the story was the journey to nowhere in particular, given that Rex is something of a floater – I can’t say Loser, just someone floating through his younger years because he has the privilege of location and social structure underneath him. I get that for a lot of readers, the book invoked memories of that age, that era, similar lifestyles, but for me, I was reading for Chad’s voice, his prose, and hopefully, an emotional build-up which, for me, was not attained. There seemed no real ending to aim for, I was happy following Jex in his slow realization of what were good and bad influences in his life, but again, the reveal of a paranormal/drug-induced incident seemed not to really hit as hard as I would have hoped, and again, it was due to lack of emotional attachment.
I really like Chad’s writing – his flow and prose are very comfortable – it’s almost like comfort food, so obviously, I enjoyed the book, and I know I’m in the minority here, but for me, this didn’t rise above that.
Three ⭐’s out of 5. I still love Chad’s prose and am looking forward to skull-faced boy, my next Lutzke read.
The ruin of delicate things - by Beverly Lee
I can only really say that the time I spent in this book showed the level of my appreciation to both Beverley’s craft and distinctive, lush, atmospheric voice, which she employed to illustrate this beautiful tale of grief. I use the word illustrate deliberately, Beverley’s voice is something I can only compare to brush strokes. At times the descriptive quality of the narrative is so full of detail, it becomes the narrative itself. There were moments where the descriptions of the location in the story were so well realized, there was nothing left to imagine. It’s distinctive, and as such, I have to mention it first, regardless of the craft that has gone into this novel as well. Beverley, thank you, it was wonderful to spend time in your world.
Ok, so that aside, this story is one of grief. It is the core of the novel, and how that grief can destroy a person (or persons) to the extent that the grief itself is the only thing holding that life together. The story is very much a two-parter, the beginning paints the scene, is a slower read due to the detail and rendering of the protagonists, the village, the hall, the unspoken knowledge that surrounds all of the players in the game around the two MC’s – and then the horror begins in earnest in the second part, that turns the book on its head and into a survivor tale. And there are a lot of things ranged against the pair, to survive.
This isn’t a book to read in one sitting. There was way, way too much in it that I had to process – so honestly, though other reviewers have mentioned that they thought the start was too slow, for me that wasn’t the case, it was more that the voice itself dictated the pace. And that thinking time was required to process the story whilst basking in Beverley’s prose.
I’m picking up Beverley’s Vampire novels on the back of this, even though vampire stories are not really my thing (although Brian Keene’s “With teeth” certainly was).
5 out of 5 ⭐ ‘s for voice alone. Exquisite grief horror, Beverley. Thank you.
Sentinel - by Drew Starling
Sentinel is Drew Starling’s Novel Debut, although he has a plethora of short stories and novellas under his belt. It is the start of a series, following a fictional family that have arrived in a small town – Aaron, Ellen, and Caleb. The story is told in multiple pov, Aaron and Ellen both get turns as the driving force behind the story, as does Cheryl, a local cop, on her way to becoming the sheriff in charge of the local police force. A strange creature impinges on their lives and brings with it a set of paranormal problems, which sets the stage for Caleb (Aaron and Ellen’s child) being kidnapped and a showdown with the creature. Ok. So that’s the synopsis, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
Drew shows a great understanding of pace and flow, this was a breeze to read, so I can say that it feels very comfortable, and Drew has a really good understanding of both his characters and his audience – Female representation is outstanding, and honestly, is one of the forces that drive this book. I came across the book through Tik Tok, and drew has managed to make that media platform his safe place, his marketing, and promotion on that platform are a credit to him and his writing – he’s a nice guy, and this felt, right from the beginning, like I was reading a book from a friend – which is perfect marketing in my eyes. So – great job there, Drew.
Now, I’m a mean ol’ Austrian, so there are things in the book which set off my nerd radar and were thorns in the otherwise smooth exterior that is Sentinel. I’m an advocate of world-building, and a details nerd. So, there are things in here that were for me, obvious mood triggers, but which were not explained or examined. I get that there is a second book coming, but elements of the book were, in my eyes, non-sensical. I’ll go into detail about that below, but I want to say right up front here, that I get that’s because I’m such a nerd, no one else is going to notice those things, and the hope lives eternally that Drew will address those issues in the second book if someone like me raises them. So I’m the bad guy, but here’s some stuff I want to see explained in the next book (spoilers below):
· The Sentinel creature sends them a signal through their house phone, a message of “Open the gate.”. There is no gate in the novel, either metaphysically or physically. It is a message he goes to great lengths to give them but is never revisited or examined in detail. Neither Aaron nor Ellen ever questions the message further.
· Their neighbor is massacred (nice kill scene, Drew) by a violent creature. After he is dead, the Sentinel (one assumes) uses the telephone again to repeat the same message of “open the gate”, but uses this dead neighbor’s voice. How? He’s dead, and not killed by the sentinel, and therefore had nothing to do with the Sentinel. So how does his voice get used? And to what purpose? Why use the voice of a dead friend?
· Upon investigating an area of the death of the neighbor, the Sentinel whispers (is not physically there but uses telepathy) that that person should leave the area. The person is spooked and leaves, so job done. But if the sentinel can “whisper” a message directly into their brains, why was he bothering to use the telephone in the first case? And why leave an obscure message instead of telling them straight up “Leave the light off, so I can do my job!” – If the driving force behind the sentinel is a human, and the sentinel has any human intelligence and can convey a message, the paradox of the message he leaves to begin with as opposed to the message he should be saying is a little hard to accept as anything other than mood setting.
· This came across as the MC being primarily Aaron, but the pov MC switched halfway in the novel to be more about Ellen and Cheryl – and Aaron actually being more or less a floater, there but not there. It’s great to have two strong female MCs, this is playing to the audience's wishes, so why wasn’t that set up from the get-go?
Ok. So those are things I’d love to see answered in the next novel. Now having said all of that, the story carried me through my qualms. The relationship work here between all of the characters is really well done, Starling knows his relationship building.
All said and done, this was entertainment, “popcorn horror” - if you will, and is a great start to the series. I’m giving this a 3.5 rounded up to 4⭐ ‘s on Goodreads due to the great female representation here, and because it read so easily. I look forward to the sequel, Drew, and let’s see if you can answer some of those questions you left hanging!
The Author links
Gemma Amor Jonathan Janz
Brian Bowyer Kenzie Jennings
Catriona Ward Ross Jeffery