Hide by Kiersten White

Hide Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 24 May 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 8 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

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Get ready to run and scurry for cover in the intriguing new horror thriller from Kiersten White, Hide.  Kiersten White is a captivating author who is known for her young adult and tie-in fiction novels.  I best know her for her work on the extended universe of franchises like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where she recently wrote a series of novels about a new Slayer, which started with the 2019 release Slayer.  White is also making some waves this year with the new Star Wars young adult novel, Padawan, which follows a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and which is pretty high up on my to-read list.  However, her 2022 release that intrigued me the most was the thriller release, HideHide had a great concept to it and I couldn’t resist checking it out in the last week to see what it was all about.

Mack is good at hiding.  She’s spent her whole life doing it after it worked so well to save her life as a child while her family died around her.  However, after years of avoiding people, Mack is running out of options and money.  So when a strange challenge arises, Mack has no choice but to accept, even if it brings back terrible nightmares from her past.

A mysterious corporation is sponsoring a new and unique reality competition with a prize of $50,000 to the winner.  The challenge is simple: survive a week hiding in a creepy abandoned amusement park and don’t get found.  The last person left hidden is crowned the winner and gets enough money to change everything.

Competing against a group of similarly desperate and determined young people, each of whom is hoping that this game will turn their life around, Mack thinks the odds are in her favour to win.  However, there is something far more sinister going on than any of the contestants know.  As the people around her start disappearing, one by one, Mack and the rest of the competitors begin to realise that something else is in the park with them, something that is hungry and unrelenting.  Come out, come out, wherever you are.

This was an intriguing and fun book from White that I managed to get through in a few days.  I loved the excellent premise behind Hide and I think that the author produced a pretty good story that appeals to both horror and thriller fans.  While the book has a slightly slow start to it, once the competition starts I found myself getting pretty into it as I was very keen to see what happened.  White ratchets up the tension day by day as the competition continues, and I think that the increased level of threat and uncertainty that occurred helped to keep my attention and make me want to figure out what is going on.  There are some interesting revelations about halfway through the book that I thought were pretty clever, especially the reveal about what exactly is chasing them and why.  Once that happens, it’s a pretty high-octane fight for survival that results in some fantastic and compelling moments.  While there were still a few questions left over by the end of the book, I think White ended Hide pretty well and everything came together in interesting way.  I do wish that there the competition was a bigger part of the plot, as that could have been pretty cool, but I guess you can’t have everything.

White utilised an interesting storyline telling method to get Hide’s narrative across, which worked for the most part but had a few issues.  While the story is primarily focused around Mack, the book does quickly jump between the other characters in the book, giving some brief insights into their thoughts and history.  While this worked to keep you in the loop about every contestant, it was a bit random at times and I felt that it impacted the pacing of the story, especially when it jumped between multiple perspectives in a very short amount of time.  I also felt that the use of jumps resulted in some missing details in places, such as when some characters are removed from the contest without you realising it.  I did think that White did a good job inserting the background lore behind the events of the book into the story through a series of journal entries, and that part of the book was quite fascinating, although I wouldn’t have minded a bit of a deeper dive.  There is also quite a bit of social commentary chucked into the mix as well, especially when it comes to exploring the motives of the unsurprising villains, plus you must appreciate the strong LGBT+ elements thrown in as well.  The story itself had a mostly fine flow to it, and you do feel the fear and terror of the contestants once they realise what is going on.  All of this worked pretty well in the end, and I think that the story came across in a pretty accessible and compelling way.

White focuses the story on an interest group of protagonists, each of whom has their own reason to be there.  Due to the way that the narrative jumps around to examine different characters, you get a decent look into the heads of each of the competitors, as well as some other characters, and you soon get some insights into why each of them is there.  It soon becomes apparent that each contestant is pretty desperate and broken in their own way, which I felt added to the drama and intensity of the story.  However, due to the quick-fire change in perspective, the reader isn’t given a lot of time to bond with most of the characters, and their eventual fates aren’t too shocking or moving as a result.  The main exception to this is Mack, who you do spend quite a lot of time with.  Mack has a very tragic backstory (it reminded me of last year’s book, The Final Girls Support Group by Grady Hendrix), which becomes a major part of her motivations and trauma in Hide.  Watching her attempt to overcome her dark past and her reservations for being there is pretty intense, and there was some interesting character work there, as well as a potential for new friendships and romance.  A couple of other characters who survive towards the end of the book (I won’t mention who) are also developed to a decent degree, and I felt that some of the story arcs around them were pretty intense as well.  It was a little obvious which of them was going to survive and who was going to die, even with a few twists thrown in, although I did appreciate a few surprise changes in motivations that worked really well.  An overall interesting group of characters, I do wish that we could have gotten to know a few of them a little better though.

I ended up listening to Hide on audiobook, which worked as an excellent format to enjoy this interesting horror read.  Hide has a pretty short runtime of just over eight hours, so if you get caught in the story you can get through it rather quickly.  I felt that this format did help to emphasise the tension and the rising panic of the protagonists, especially as narrator Emma Galvin does a good job telling the story.  Galvin had an excellent voice that was pretty fitting to this setting and story genre, and she ended up doing a good job personifying the main characters.  I rather enjoyed the tone and intensity that Galvin brought to this audiobook, and I felt that this was a fantastic format to check out Hide on.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Hide and Kiersten White came up with a great story that I really enjoyed.  While I do think that there were a few missed opportunities and pacing issues in places, this mostly came together pretty well and I think fans of exciting novels with horror elements to it will have a great time with Hide.  An interesting book that is worth checking out.

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Throwback Thursday: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 14 May 2013, originally published 12 September 2006)

Series: Standalone

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday review I take a look at the zombie horror classic, World War Z by Max Brooks, a truly epic and outstanding read.

One of the biggest novels that I have been meaning to read for ages was the highly regarded zombie novel, World War Z, also known as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  Written by Max Brooks as a follow-up to his first book, the non-fictional The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z is a unique novel that fully examines a zombie apocalypse from multiple perspectives.  I had heard some great things about this novel, and I even enjoyed the movie adaptation when it came out (more on that later).  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to read it and I kind of figured for a while that it might stay in my to-read pile for a while.  However, it moved much higher up my list of books to check out after I read Brooks’s 2020 novel, Devolution, which was one of my favourite novels of 2020 (as well as one of my favourite all-time horror novels).  I had also heard a lot of praise for World War Z‘s awesome audiobook edition, so when my wife and I needed some entertainment during a recent cross-country road trip, this was our first choice.

Plot Synopsis:

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

Note: Some of the numerical and factual material contained in this edition was previously published under the auspices of the United Nations Postwar Commission.

Holy hell, that was an exceptional book!  I loved the powerful and expansive narrative contained within World War Z as Brooks attempts to fully encapsulate the entire experience of a zombie apocalypse in impressive detail.  Literally all the good things I heard about this book were true, and I loved his unique and very captivating way of capturing the horrors of this sort of experience, both from the zombies and other humans.  An exceptional and impressively inventive read, World War Z gets an easy five-star read from me.

I cannot get over how awesome and distinctive World War Z was as a concept.  Rather than a traditional novel, Brook’s masterpiece is written as an epistolary novel, written as in-universe oral history anthology of a zombie apocalypse.  The book, which was compiled by this universe’s version of Max Brooks, contained multiple testimonials and interviews, as Brooks seeks out and talks to multiple people who experienced the apocalypse and pulls together their various unique stories.  This book contains around 40 individual stories set out across five chapters which look at the various stages of the zombie war, from its origins all the way up to the postwar ‘new normal’.

At this point I need to make a quick note about the version of World War Z that we checked out.  There are a couple of different World War Z audiobooks out there, but for our trip we listened to the World War Z: The Complete Edition, which combines two separate audiobook adaptations of the novel, and contains all the stories from the original book.  I did look over a paperback edition of World War Z before I started this review, and it looks like our audiobook version covered the full stories well, although I did notice that some of the stories were shortened or missing minor parts.  In addition, the audiobook version did not feature any of the paperback’s footnotes, which contained technical details and notes from the author.  However, I don’t think I lost out on too much of the plot from some of these missing gaps.

I really fell in love with the various individual stories contained with World War Z as Brooks went out of his way to produce the most unique and moving tales that he could.  These are mostly standalone tales, although there are a few interesting crossovers as the book continues, with some character’s mentioning events or supporting figures from other stories in their interviews.  However, as you follow the stories within these five chapters (made up of Warnings, Blame, The Great Panic, Turning the Tide, and Good-Byes), you get a full sense of the entire war, and it quickly comes apparent how cleverly Brooks was crafting everything here.  I personally deeply enjoyed both the individual shorter tales and the much larger connected story of World War Z, and I was deeply impressed with the excellent writing style behind it.  Brooks is a true master of writing deeply personal, character-driven tales of survival, and you swiftly become attached to the various protagonists as they tell their unique stories.  The action within is gruesome, fast-paced and deeply terrifying, and there are multiple over-the-top descriptions of zombie and human violence that will stick with you forever.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have read in terms of storytelling and action, and everything about this tale is so damn compelling.

As I mentioned, there are roughly 40 separate stories contained within this anthology, each of which contains its own unique protagonist, supporting characters, settings and unique circumstances.  Naturally, with so many stories you have a bit of a range in terms of storytelling, with some being substantially better than others.  However, I felt that Brooks did a very good job of writing each of these stories extremely well, and there were none that particularly dragged the novel down.  There is a real mixture of narratives here, with particularly gruesome horror stories mixed in with more human-focused narrative, political plotlines, military thrillers, stories that balance on the edge of science fiction, and everything in between.  The spread of these stories works pretty well, with Brooks providing an entertaining mixture of storylines throughout the book so readers aren’t constantly bombarded by tales of horror or tragedy.  Instead, there are often fascinating, humorous and humanising stories thrown in amongst the horror.  This works to make the entire novel flow at a fantastic pace.

While pretty much all these stories are fun and tell some outstanding tales of the zombie apocalypse, there are a few that stood out to me as being a cut above the rest.  I had some early fun with the Stanley MacDonald storyline, which showed an amoral illegal surgeon in Brazil unwittingly transfer a zombie heart into a patient, which led to one of the earliest outbreaks in South America.  The Jesika Hendricks plot showed a brilliant, if very dark, take on ordinary citizens trying to flee the zombies only to experience the other dangers of surviving the winter in a desperate community.  There are several amazing and cynical storylines, such as the Breckinridge Scott and Grover Carison testimonies that showcase the capitalist opportunism that surrounded the initial outbreaks.  I also really liked the South African focused storyline around Paul Redeker, which showed a former Apartheid strategist using his stark and brutal plans to save the country from the undead hordes.  I loved the particularly inventive and clever testimony surrounding the character of Arthur Sinclair Junior, which focuses on how America was reorganised after the initial stages of the war, with the country setting its sights towards industry, construction and warfare, which really highlights the author’s impressive insights into the world.

Two other fantastic World War Z storylines set in Japan focus on two unique individuals, one an “otaku” (a computer-obsessed outsider who tried to live entirely online), and a blind “hibakusha” (a person affected by the atomic bombs used in WWII).  Both characters were outsiders in Japan before the zombie war, but the zombie invasion changed their entire lives and led to them becoming renowned warriors and survivors against all the odds.  These two storylines are extremely compelling, and I loved the way that the author utilised unique subsections of Japanese society and tried to imagine how those sorts of people would survive the zombies.  There was also a really intense storyline, told by Admiral Xu Zhicai, that details a Chinese submarine’s attempt to escape the zombies with their families, which turns into a brilliant, powerful and occasionally disturbing tale of survival, loyalty and family.  I also must mention the Terry Knox testimony that details the actions aboard the International Space Station and the Darnell Hackworth story that looks at the US army’s canine units that helped scout and herd zombies (yay for mini dachshunds, the real heroes of this book).  However, out all the testimonies featured within World War Z, my favourite had to be the ones focussing on soldier Todd Wainio.  Todd battled the zombies at multiple stages of the war, and his multiple entries paint a pretty grim picture but are easily some of the best depictions of the horror of the zombies and the challenges faced by the armed forces.  His first testimony about the army’s initial inability to combat the zombies is very chilling, and it was fascinating to hear about the changes to his training and equipment as the military adapted to fight this new and strange enemy.  I am honestly just scratching the surface of these testimonials here, as pretty much all of them were great in their own way.  However, the ones I mentioned here were my personal favourites, and I had a blast listening to them and seeing how they fit into the wider narrative.

For me, one of the main highlights of World War Z was Brooks’s incredible inventiveness and insights when it came to envisioning a potential world-wide zombie apocalypse.  Thanks to his amazing range of stories, Brooks showcases a vast global catastrophe that impacts everyone no matter where they are.  I loved his depiction of how the apocalypse emerged, and rather than a continuous attack that pretty much destroys everything in a single day, Brooks imagines a gradual catastrophe that is initially ignored and mishandled before it spreads uncontrollably.  This is covered in the early chapters of the book with some substantial skill, and you really get to see how and why everything falls apart, with appropriate zombie violence included.  While there is an understandable focus on America, I found it fascinating to see how Brooks imagined different countries would deal with this crisis, with different culturally informed strategies, and there are even some compelling references to real-life figures (the Nelson Mandela facsimile reacts in a very different way than you’d expect).  The author really dives into all the details of a zombie attack and examines all the pros and cons of various strategies humans could utilise, from fleeing, staying in defensible positions, or fighting back.  There are some brilliant testimonies that cover all of them, and Brooks’s dark depictions of unprepared or overconfident humans failing to understand the threats in front of them and paying the price for it are shocking, bleak and captivating.  Brooks also comes up with some truly unique and clever problems or impacts of the zombies, many of which are referenced or experienced by multiple characters, including floating zombies, marine zombies, feral children who survived without their parents, looters, civil wars, and even crazed humans pretending to be zombies.

These intriguing insights from Brooks’s imagination are further expanded on in the later chapters of the novel, where the author explores how the world order changed because of the zombie war.  Again Brooks dives into multiple countries here, and it was fascinating to witness which countries the author imagines will be destroyed by the zombies and which would thrive.  I really enjoyed his examinations of the way that America needed to reorganise itself and its subsequent battleplans, which were perfectly covered by several of the best characters.  Seeing countries likes Russia, China, Japan and more change in drastic ways a result of this apocalypse was really cool and compelling, especially as the author covers it in such a reasonable and logical manner.  Countries like Cuba and the West Indies thriving due to their isolation was pretty fascinating, and they stood as an interesting contrast to more prominent countries that were disadvantaged or never stood a chance thanks to their socioeconomic issues or unsuitable landscapes.  I loved some of the unique issues that some countries experienced, such as the infested Paris catacombs or the mystery around North Korea, and they leave some intriguing afterthoughts as a result.  Brooks also cleverly examines other unique impacts that the zombies are having on the world, such as extinctions (goodbye whales), changes in global relations, and long-term problems, and I was deeply fascinated and enthralled by all this impressive thinking.  All of this compelling insight and imagination really enhances the stories being told by various characters, especially as they all impact humanity’s potential survival, and I really lost myself in the author’s powerful and impressive vision of a zombie apocalypse.

While World War Z is primarily about survival and the wider impacts of a zombie apocalypse, Brooks also takes the time to cover a few interesting themes.  In particular, he uses this novel about zombies to examine humanity.  While there is a certain overlying theme about the indomitable human spirit and our ability to triumph no matter the odds, there are some very noticeable depictions of the worst parts of human nature.  I found his initial depictions of most people ignoring or ridiculing the slow rising zombie threat to be pretty realistic (keep in mind that this was written 14 years before COVID).  There are also some major critiques about corruption and government incompetence in the face of disaster that I also found to be very intriguing and insightful.  Many of the early chapters that talked about military attempts to fight back had some interesting parallels to the wars in the Middle East, and I really appreciated the author’s clever critiques of these conflicts through the medium of a zombie war.  I felt that Todd’s testimony about the first major battle of the zombie war was a great example of this, as he regales the reader with how politically motivated leadership and incompetence led to a massacre.  All of this added a thought-provoking and entertaining edge to many of the storylines in the novel, especially the earlier testimonies, and I felt that Brooks did an amazing job bringing some of his own insights and critiques into his writing.

As I mentioned a few times above, I listened to the extended audiobook adaptation of this novel, which I personally felt was the absolute best way to enjoy this epic read.  Running at just over 12 hours in length, we absolutely powered through the World War Z audiobook during our road trip, and it served as an excellent entertainment for a long drive.  I often find that having a story read out to you really helps you to absorb everything about the story, and this was particularly true with World War Z.  Not only did the narration allow you to focus on all the details of the testimonials, but the horror elements and action felt a lot more intense, especially when you were dragged into some of the more gruesome scenes.  I also feel that the audiobook version of World War Z had a better flow than the paperback novel.  The testimonials with the audiobook are a lot more separated out, treated as a new chapter each time the narrator changes.  This is very different from the paperback version, which throws multiple testimonials in a quick fire manner, with everything crammed together into the five chapters.  As such, I really felt the audiobook helped to highlight the uniqueness of each testimonial and you really got to focus on each story a lot more.

However, easily the best thing about the World War Z audiobook was the truly impressive voice cast that were featured within.  Brooks, a voice actor himself, recruited a crack team of international actors to fill out his cast, including several A-listers, who give some outstanding and amazing performances.  All these actors really dive into their various roles here, conveying the emotion, fear and insights of their protagonists, and their great voice work definitely enhanced the already cool stories of their characters.  I deeply enjoyed all their voice work throughout the audiobook, and I know that I enjoyed several testimonies even more because of the talented actors voicing them.  This cast is led by Brooks himself, who voices the interviewer, asking all the questions and meeting all the various figures the novel is set around.  Brooks does a really good job here, and his calm, collected interviewing style and additional narration helps to set the scene for the entire novel and moves the other character’s stories along at a great pace.

Aside from Brooks, there are a good 40 or so voice actors featured in the World War Z audiobook, and I was pretty impressed with all their performances.  Some standout early performances include a brief appearance from Nathan Fillion as Canadian soldier Stanley MacDonald; Paul Sorvino, who gives a very fun performances as the sketchy doctor Fernado Oliveira; and Martin Scorsese, who gives an unrepentant portrayal of corrupt businessman Breckinridge Scott.  Other great performances include Kal Penn as Sardar Khan, an Indian soldier who serves an excellent witness to an act of heroism; the late, great David Ogden Stiers, who brings Ukrainian solider Bohdan Taras Kondratiuk to life perfectly as he watches a great act of evil from his government; Common as dog trainer Darnell Hackworth; and Rob Reiner as “The Whacko” a radical politician/former Vice President who shares his strong opinions in a very fun outing.  I really need to highlight some intriguing voice performances from Simon Pegg, who does a pretty good Texan accent in the role of Grover Carlson; and Alfred Molina, whose Australian accent was pretty accurate (a rare talent).

The performances of Masi Oka and Frank Kamai really brought to life the two Japanese characters I mentioned above, as does Ric Young for Chinese Admiral Xu Zhicai’s elaborate testimony.  I also really need to highlight the brilliant work of Alan Alda in this book as he voices pivotal administrator Arthur Sinclair Junior.  Alda, whose voice I have loved since M*A*S*H, perfectly inhabits the role of this intriguing figure, and I loved hearing his narration of how America’s economy was changed.  However, out of all the voice actors in World War Z, my favourite was the always impressive and remarkable Mark Hamill, who voiced standout character Todd Wainio.  Hamill was one of the main reasons why Todd was such a great character, and I loved his outstanding performance as a former ground soldier recounting all the horror of the front line of the zombie war.  There is so much weariness, trauma and cynicism in Hamill’s voice as he narrates Todd’s testimony, and you really feel the character’s resentment and anger.  The way that Hamill describes all the gruesome gore and zombie violence was just so great, and his impressive range and tone helped to really enhance the insanity and horror of the moment.  These voice actors, and the rest of the impressive cast, are extremely epic here, and they turned this production into something extremely impressive.

A quick final note about the World War Z film.  Until I read this book, I really did not appreciate how wildly off-book the film adaptation was.  None of the true magic from the original story appears in the film at all, as they turned it into a generic action flick rather than a clever analysis of how a zombie apocalypse would change the world.  While I did enjoy the World War Z movie on its own, it is a terrible adaptation, with only small elements from the book appearing in the film.  While I can appreciate that this is not the easiest book to turn into a film, they didn’t even try.  I really do hope that someone does a proper adaptation of World War Z at some point, as it frankly deserves a lot better than what it got (perhaps a television series with each episode recreating one of the testimonies).

As you can clearly tell from the massive essay above, I deeply enjoyed World War Z by Max Brooks.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have ever read, and it definitely deserves its epic and highly regarded status.  Brooks’s distinctive and brilliant story was just plain amazing and I loved the outstanding combination of smaller testimonies coming together into one connected and thought-provoking tale.  The author cleverly examines every single aspect of a potential zombie apocalypse, and you find yourself not only loving the insane horror elements, but the fascinating political and social impacts that come with such an invasion.  Best enjoyed in the full audiobook format which features so many impressive voice actors, World War Z comes extremely highly recommended and I cannot hype it up enough!

World War Z Cover 2

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The Sandman – Act 1 (Audiobook) by Neil Gaiman and performed by a full cast

Sandman Act 1 Cover

Publisher: Audible Original (Audio Drama – 15 July 2020)

Series: The Sandman

Script: Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs (script adapter)

Director: Dirk Maggs

Cast: Neil Gaiman, James McAvoy, Kat Dennings, Taron Egerton, Riz Ahmed, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, Michael Sheen, Justin Vivian Bond, Arthur Darvill, William Hope, Mathew Horne, Reginald D. Hunter, Sue Johnston, Paterson Joseph, Josie Lawrence, Anton Lesser, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes, Tom Alexander, Stephen Critchlow, Blake Ritson, Oris Herhuero, Karen Batke, Ray Porter, Michael Roberts, Kerry Shale, Andrew James, Simon Vance, Sandra Dickinson, Ellen Thomas, Cathy Tyson, Sandra-Mae Luyx, Amaka Okafor, Shey Greyson, Laurel Lefkow, Harry Myers, Mack Keith Roach, Laurence Bouvard, Toby Longworth, Daniel Weyman, Samantha Beart, Cliff Chapman, Felicity Duncan, Julia Winwood, Nicholas Boulton, John MacMillan, Tracy Wiles and Adam Thomas Wright.

Length: 11 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Thanks to a lengthy and productive road trip, I have finally breached the realm of dreams and explored the iconic and powerful creation that is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.  In this review I check out the first act of its impressive full-cast audiobook adaptation.

Back in 1989, mind-bending author Neil Gaiman unleashed his most iconic comic creation when he introduced the complex and dark The Sandman.  Centred on the mysterious character of Dream, the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, The Sandman was a clever and intense hybrid of horror, fantasy and superhero storylines released as part of the Vertigo comic imprint, which was associated with the DC Comics universe.  This series was considered a revolutionary success and its unique and colourful story cemented Gaiman’s legacy in comic circles, as The Sandman and its spinoffs are still very highly regarded.

Now I must make a bit of a confession: I have never actually read The Sandman and it is a bit of a gap in my comic book knowledge.  I just never seemed to be in a position to read these comics despite hearing how good they were.  However, with the upcoming television adaptation of The Sandman set for release later this year, I thought that it was about time that I tried to check it out.  Luckily, the good folks at Audible decided to make this rather easy for me as they recently released a full-cast audiobook adaptation of The Sandman.  Not only was this a great opportunity for me to check out this cool comic in my favourite format, but this adaptation featured a truly remarkable cast of actors, with the production pulled together by the highly acclaimed Dirk Maggs.

There are many strange, unusual and powerful creatures inhabiting the universe, but only seven siblings, known as the Endless, are truly immortal.  The Endless, each a personification of a human concept, have their own realms and powers, with the most mysterious and unique belonging to Dream.  Known by many names, including Morpheus, he is the manifestation of all dreams and stories, and governs the Dreaming, the vast realm made up of creation’s collected dreams.  Unchanging since the dawn of time, Morpheus’s eternal life is about to get more complicated than he ever believed.

Summoned by a mystical cult seeking to capture his sister, Death, Morpheus finds himself trapped and powerless on Earth.  Stripped of his tools of office and placed within a magical cage, Morpheus is kept as a prisoner for over 70 years.  When he eventually escapes from his captors, Morpheus returns to his realm only to find it in tatters, with several of his servants missing and his own powers greatly weakened.  To ensure the continued stability of the Dreaming, Morpheus must endeavour to regain his full strength by recovering his lost tools of power.

However, this is no easy task as all three items have been scattered across the world and are now in the hands of several dangerous foes.  To obtain them, he will have to contend with human magician John Constantine, face down Lucifer and battle the malicious Justice League foe known as Doctor Destiny.  From dangerous demons to rogue dreams and even his own siblings, Morpheus will face great challenges and unique creations on his road back from capture.  But even if Morpheus does succeed, is he prepared for the full chaos his absence has wrought on the world?

I’ve been exceedingly foolish by neglecting The Sandman for so long.  This is such a unique and epic tale that contains powerful looks at revenge, change, human perception and the power of dreams and stories, and so much more, as Gaiman cleverly examines elements of the human psyche through the eyes of an elusive immortal.  The impressive and exceedingly memorable story contained within these early entries of The Sandman, are deeply captivating and I found myself really getting drawn into the amazing narrative and distinctive characters.  Throw in an exceptional voice cast and a brilliant audiobook production, and I honestly have no choice but to give this a full five-star review.

When I first heard about The Sandman audiobook I did wonder if it would provide a more abridged version of the narrative.  However, it appears that this production was a pretty faithful and full adaptation of issues #1-20 of The Sandman comic.  As such you get an intense and fully developed story that is guaranteed to grasp your attention and send your imagination into overdrive, especially by the two major storylines contained within these first 20 issues.  The first of these, the “More than Rubies” storyline, examines Morpheus’s capture by human occultists in the early 20th century, his decades-long imprisonment, his eventual escape, and his subsequent attempts to recover his tools of office to regain his lost power.  This storyline serves as a pretty awesome and captivating start to the entire production and it contains several distinctive and addictive chapters.  The initial chapters that deal with Morpheus’s imprisonment set up a lot of major storylines for the rest of the series, give you some fantastic early impressions of this world, introduce some key concepts and provide readers with their first compelling look at the main character.  From there, the story gets even more exciting as you follow Morpheus as he attempts to recover his items of power from some dangerous individuals.  This sets up some brilliant chapters as he deals with everyone’s favourite magician, John Constantine, in a horrific tale that provides readers with their first glimpse at the true danger of dreams.  From there, Morpheus goes straight to hell as he attempts to retain his helm from an army of demons while also dealing with the nefarious Lucifer in what is possibly one of the most entertaining parts of the entire production.  That is then followed by a particularly dark storyline that sees Morpheus forced to contend with damaged DC comics supervillain Doctor Destiny, who is using Morpheus’s own powers to destroy the world.  This initial main storyline is particularly good, with an amazing and captivating flow to it that is guaranteed to make you a fan of The Sandman.

The other major storyline of this first act of The Sandman sees Morpheus attempt to contend with a new dangerous threat impacting the Dreaming.  This threat turns out to be young woman, Rose Walker, who is a powerful Dream Vortex.  To fully understand her, Morpheus finds himself getting involved in her hunt for her missing brother, and soon finds himself in conflict with several of his missing creations, each of whom has their own agenda in the real world.  At the same time, Morpheus must contend with the machinations of his powerful siblings as they attempt to manipulate him for his own ends.  This second major storyline, The Doll’s House, is an extremely good follow-up to the introductory issues and continues several plot points, with several characters returning in interesting ways.  Indeed, as you traverse through this storyline, it becomes apparent how much the author set up in the initial major storyline, and this helps to make The Doll’s House flow extremely well.  This major storyline itself is pretty damn fun, and I liked how it split between Morpheus and several of the other major players, particularly Rose Walker and The Corinthian.  The entire thing goes in some rather interesting directions, from the traumatised dreaming mind of a young boy also containing several lost superheroes, to a serial killer convention where some of Morpheus’s most dangerous creations have arrived.  This entire storyline is pretty damn twisty and trippy in places, but it comes together extremely well and has some amazing high points to it.  I particularly enjoyed the sequences depicting the serial killer convention, which was both entertaining and disturbing in equal measures but which also has an outstanding payoff to it.  The Doll’s House ends the major storylines on an extremely high note and it will ensure that you will come back for the second act desperately wanting more.

Aside from the two main storylines, The Sandman also contains several filler arcs that take place around the main storylines, including all the stories contained in the collected volume Dream Country.  While I would usually be a little disappointed to have a gap occur between some of the main storylines like this, it worked really well.  Not only do these filler chapters serve as a bit of a palate cleanser, breaking up the major storylines, but they also provide a lot of additional context for the wider The Sandman universe by expanding on many of the supporting characters, such as Morpheus’s relatives or some of the strange people he encounters through his travels.  Each of these storylines lasts for a single chapter (an issue from the comic), and are fairly self-contained, coming together and concluding in short order.  Each of these filler stories is quite intriguing in their own right, especially as these stories are a little more metaphysical and often contain a dark, thought-provoking cautionary tale.  There is also an interesting range of settings and time periods for many of these stories, as some occur many years before the events of the major storylines, due to the immortal nature of Morpheus and his siblings.  I honestly enjoyed each of these separate storylines, not only because of the fantastic ways that they expanded The Sandman universe but because of the way that each story hit a different emotional note.  My favourite was probably Men of Good Fortune (issue #13 of the comic), a brilliant story that sees Morpheus and Death encounter a man, Hob Gadling, who is certain of his desire never to die.  Intrigued, Morpheus ensures his immortality and arranges to meet him once every 100 years in the same tavern.  So begins a fantastic story that skips across centuries as you see Hob continue to exist and change through the centuries.  Watching him achieve the highs and lows of an immortal is deeply fascinating, as is his compelling and deeply personal interactions with Morpheus as they discuss his experiences and his desires to stay alive.  The conclusion of this story proves to be particularly moving, and it helps to humanise Morpheus after several issues of him being emotionally distant.  Other interesting filler arcs include Morpheus meeting with Death and following her around in her complex and sad duties, another sees William Shakespeare, who years earlier made a Faustian bargain with Morpheus, debut A Midsummer’s Night Dream to a host of elven nobility in a touching performance.  All these filler arcs, and more, add a certain gravitas to the overall book, and I think that they really helped to enhance the major storylines they were set around.

I was really impressed with all these major and minor storylines, especially as the writing behind them was particularly powerful and brilliant.  Everything flows together extremely well and you can see that Gaiman is setting up a ton of fascinating storylines for the future, while also ensuring that the current plot points stand on their own and are extremely fun.  Everything about this story is interesting, and while the author does occasionally go in some zany, grotesque and unique directions, it generally proves to be entertaining and eventually fits back into the major storylines in a great way.  Gaiman seeks to create a massive and powerful epic that not is not only filled with action and excitement but which causes the reader to stop and think about certain states of being or metaphysical aspects such as dreaming.  This is often achieved, especially in the audiobook format, with distinctive and powerful dialogues that showcase the unique attributes of the characters and the dramatic and dangerous situations they find themselves in.

I personally loved how there were a range of different styles and elements featured throughout the plot as The Sandman didn’t conform to one particular genre.  The story could at any time jump from unique fantasy adventure to a deep character driven narrative or end up being a bleak and deeply disturbing horror tale.  For example, one of the best chapters in this act of The Sandman was a dark, disturbing and somewhat detached horror narrative they fit in right after a chapter involving the Justice League and certain Batman villains.  In this story the deadly Doctor Dee, having stolen Morpheus’s dream stone, holds several people hostage in a diner over the course of a day.  Throughout this day (which is counted down hour by hour for some impressive dramatic impact), Doctor Dee toys with his pets, diving deep into their personal lives and using disturbing elements from their past to manipulate their emotions and their reactions.  This results in several extremely disturbing hours as the bad doctor makes them experience lust, despair, hatred, animalist urges, religious zeal and more to entertain him as he waits, and it turns this chapter into a horrific experience in between some more action packed or fantasy issues.  This frequent change in genre really helps to make this first act stand out, and all the different storylines and elements work well with the overall dark gothic theme of The Sandman.  It also helps to make The Sandman a bit more accessible to different readers as there is something here for all fans of horror, fantasy and comics, although some basic knowledge of DC and Vertigo comics may be somewhat helpful.

This story is greatly helped by the complex and exceedingly memorable characters featured throughout.  The most notable of these characters is the titular Sandman himself, central character Dream/Morpheus, an immortal anthropomorphic personification who lives in creation’s dreams and serves as their lord and master.  I loved how Morpheus is portrayed in this first act as the reader really gets to sink their teeth into the character and find out what makes him tick.  Gaiman ensures you get the most out of Morpheus by immediately showing him at his worst, imprisoned for decades by humans with his powers stolen from him.  While you don’t get a lot of insight into who or what he is at the beginning, once he escapes you find out everything you need about his motivations, responsibilities and personalities.  Gaiman initially paints Morpheus as a callous and detached being, removed from humanity and more concerned with his own needs and realm than the people he interacts with.  While it does make it a little harder to root for him in some of the earlier storylines, I think this coldness helped to stoke some real mystery around the character and you wanted to find out more about him and his past.  Once the first major story arc ends and you get into some of the filler stories, especially the one involving the interaction with his sister Death, you start to understand him a lot better and soon see that his a basically good person, just with some major personality flaws brought on by his immortal existence and purpose.  Don’t get me wrong, at times he is still a pretty hard character to like, especially when details about his love life are revealed, but he is generally a lot more likeable than most of the other immortal or non-human characters you encounter, and you get really invested in his continual struggles.  By the end of his first act you will become extremely addicted to his story arc, and I cannot wait to see how Morpheus’s narrative continues in the future.

Gaiman has come up with an eclectic and distinctive group of characters to support the story, with a fantastic combination of original characters, mythological figures and even a few established DC and Vertigo comic characters.  These great characters are featured to various degrees throughout the story, with some being continuously used, while others only get brief flashes.  All of them are pretty fantastic, and I loved seeing how Gaiman worked them into his brilliant narrative.  There are so many notable characters throughout this first act to talk about, especially as they were portrayed by some outstanding actors (more on that later), and I could honestly spend pages talking about all of them, however, in the interests of saving time I might just limit it to my absolute favourites.  I must highlight Dream’s sister Death; rather than a traditional mournful or skeletal figure, Death is shown as a cheerful young woman who bears great compassion and kindness to those she reaps.  This is a really interesting change to the usual personification of Death you see in fiction, and it works really well, especially as Death here serves as a great positive foil to her dour brother Dream and the other Endless.  As such, she swiftly becomes a favourite character to follow, especially with her many different appearances.  I also must mention Gaiman’s great use of John Constantine, everyone’s favourite drunk English wizard, who has a notable chapter towards the start of the story.   Lucifer himself is also brilliant as a brief secondary antagonist, and Gaiman lays some interesting story seeds here for him.  The comedic duo of Cain and Abel brings some fun to several stories, as does Morpheus’s servant, Matthew the Raven.  Rose Walker serves as an excellent protagonist of the second major storyline, and I enjoyed her very English protector, Gilbert, who has some intriguing scenes.  Finally, I was rather impressed with the great early antagonist Doctor John Dee, better known as the Justice League villain Doctor Destiny.  Gaiman went out of his way to make Doctor Dee as creepy and deranged as possible in this comic and he has some outstanding, if shockingly horrifying, scenes throughout the More than Rubies storyline.  He, and other great villains like The Corinthian, add some intriguing danger and a ton of depravity to the story, and I had an absolute blast getting to know all these great characters.

As I mentioned before, I chose to check out the full-cast audio adaptation of The Sandman rather than reading the original comics, and this greatly impacted my experiences of how I absorbed this unique story.  However, while I probably missed out on some brilliant artwork, I think that this audio adaptation was the perfect way to enjoy this elaborate and massive story.  As far as I can tell, the audio production faithfully adapts all the comic storylines throughout its run, with the movement and action of the comic page replaced with narration, sound effects and probably altered dialogue where necessary for the benefit of the listener.  While this is probably a little different than the comic, I think that it captured the tone, characters, and intent of The Sandman exceedingly well, and the resulting production is pretty damn impressive.  Not only does it feature some brilliant acting, but the production team makes outstanding use of a ton of cool sound effects and some moving music to create something extremely special.

While this audio production has many great features, without a shadow of a doubt its most defining aspect is the incredibly stacked voice cast who bring the various characters to life.  Someone clearly sold their soul to get the eventual cast for The Sandman, as some exceedingly talented actors are featured here giving some intense and powerful performances.  These great performances deeply enhance the entirety of The Sandman and turn this already outstanding story into something that you will listen to again and again.  This voice cast is led by the insanely talented James McAvoy, who voices main character Morpheus.  McAvoy is extremely good in this production, showcasing all his acting range to bring this complex character to life in all his dark, gothic and detached glory.  Thanks to the way he voices the character, listeners really get a sense of how ethereal and distant Morpheus can be, as well as the intense weight of the events of this story and the relationships he has formed.  You really get the full gambit of Morpheus’s emotions during this first act and McAvoy covers them all perfectly, embodying the character’s rage, sorrow, impatience and intense regret extremely well.  This performance really serves to enhance the character of Morpheus in this production of The Sandman, and McAvoy was the perfect actor to helm this entire series.

The rest of the voice cast is just as impressive, with several major celebrities featured here.  Taron Egerton has a notable time voicing the iconic John Constantine and his pretty damn good here, bringing the distinctive magician to life extremely well.  Edgerton brilliantly brings forth Constantine’s full emotional range throughout The Sandman, and you get a great sense of his cheeky demeanour which overlays his insane amount of guilt and despair.  This was a very good version of Constantine, and indeed after listening to this production, Edgerton would be my choice for Constantine if they chose to do another major movie with him.  In addition, Kat Dennings has a major role in this audiobook as Death.  Dennings is pretty amazing here, and she brings some real life (pun intended) to this major role, showcasing this character’s intense warmth and friendliness, as well as her exasperations when it comes to her brother.  Dennings really made this unique character her own, and I deeply enjoyed her performance.  I also had a lot of fun with Andy Serkis who voices Matthew the Raven, Dream’s messenger and servant.  Matthew is a fairly comedic role which Serkis fills perfectly, giving the raven a sarcastic and everyman feel that fit the lines really well and helped to make him a very distinctive and fun figure.

Other big-name actors include Bebe Neuwirth, who perfectly voices a prophetic cat with aspirations to change the world through dreaming.  Riz Ahmed is pretty terrifying as The Corinthian and you get some major serial killer vibes from his performance.  Arthur Davill has a great couple of appearances as William Shakespeare, while the legendary Joanna Lumley has an unfortunately short appearance as Lady Johanna Constantine, although she gets her time to shine in future productions.  Likewise, Michael Sheen has only a short appearance as Lucifer Morningstar, although he brings some incredible flair to the character, dripping style, venom and power.  Like Joanna Lumley, Sheen will get his time to shine in future instalments of this audio series, so don’t be too disappointed with his limited appearances here.  I loved William Hope as Doctor Dee, as he gives the villain some deep malevolence and insanity.  Michael Roberts and Kerry Shale are fun as Cain and Able respectfully, while Paterson Joseph has a great sequence as The Demon Choronzon.  I was also very happy to see that one of my favourite audiobook narrators, Ray Porter, was featured here, voicing multiple supporting characters.  All of Porter’s portrayals were very fun, although I think he was best as Gilbert, providing some fun British pomp to the character.  Finally, Neil Gaiman himself has a massive role in this production as the Narrator, which is pretty damn appropriate.  Gaiman is great as the narrator, with his distinctive voice perfectly moving the story along, as he describes events, actions and settings, as well as providing a massive dose of exposition.  I was really impressed with Gaiman’s continued performance here, and I honestly don’t know if anyone else could have done such an impactful and meaningful job of it.  I am honestly only just scratching the surface of this cast, as there are a ton of other actors featured throughout The Sandman in some way.  However, all of them are extremely good and their work on this show is just superb.

As you can no doubt tell from the elaborate and long-winded review above, I had an outstanding time with this audio production of The Sandman, and I am so very happy that I got to finally experience Neil Gaiman’s amazing series.  Everything about this audiobook was impressive, with an elaborate and dark narrative, gritty characters, fantastic performances and some incredible world building.  There is truly something for everybody here, as readers unfamiliar with The Sandman can easily jump in and learn everything they want to know about the series (I’m now ready for that upcoming Netflix series), while established fans will no doubt enjoy it performed by such a talented team of actors.  I had such a good time listening to this first act that once I finished, I immediately jumped into listening to the second act, which has an even better and expanded voice cast.  I will hopefully review that in a few weeks, but in the meantime do yourself a favour and listen to this incredible audio production of The Sandman, as you will not regret it.

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Death of the Black Widow by James Patterson & J. D. Barker

Death of the Black Widow Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 520 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for one of the trippiest and darkest thrillers of 2022 with Death of the Black Widow, the latest brilliant standalone novel from the all-star team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker.

Few thriller writers out there at the moment are as well-known or prolific as superstar author James Patterson.  Patterson has been absolutely dominating the thriller and crime fiction genre for nearly 30 years and has an incredible catalogue of works to his name, including his best-selling Alex Cross books.  In recent years, Patterson has released a torrent of works, including some solo books and several novels done in collaboration with other talented writers and even a few celebrities.  I personally have loved several of his previous collaborated books, including Lost (co-written with James O. Born) and 2 Sisters Detective Agency (co-written with Candice Fox).  However, one of the more intriguing authors he has teamed up with is acclaimed thriller and horror author J. D. Barker.  Barker, whose work I previously enjoyed on Dracul (co-written with Dacre Stoker), has already produced two intriguing novels with Patterson, The Coast-to-Coast Murders and The Noise.  I have been keen to check out this awesome writing team for a while (The Noise is currently sitting on my shelf waiting for my attention), and when I received a copy of their latest book, Death of the Black Widow, I made sure to read it as soon as possible.

It is a typical night in Detroit until former police officer Walter O’Brien and his comrades call in a bomb threat on a busy night club and use concentrated sniper fire to keep its patrons trapped inside.  When the police arrive on scene, Walter surrenders to them and offers them a simple choice: allow them to kill a single woman hidden within the club, or watch as the entire building is destroyed.  But who is this mysterious woman and what has driven Walter and his friends to such extremes?

The origins of these desperate actions date back decades to when a young Walter O’Brien is called to a murder scene on his very first night for the Detroit PD.  What he uncovers is a terrible and bloody crime scene: a scared and surprisingly alluring young woman has apparently escaped from captivity and skillfully bludgeoned her ruthless captor to death with a lamp.  Attempting to take her to hospital, Walter is shocked when she escapes from his custody, leaving an impression on him that will last a lifetime.

Years later, as a new homicide detective, Walter has a chance encounter with someone he believes to be same women from that fateful night.  Still obsessed with his previous encounter, Walter attempts to track her down, only to find a disturbing pattern between this mysterious and woman and several disturbing and unexplainable murders he is investigating.  But when his case takes an even more unusual twist, Walter finds himself thrust into something far bigger than himself.  A secret government agency is attempting to find this mysterious woman, and soon they and Walter begin to uncover a disturbing trend of murders going back years.  As Walter begins to lose himself more and more to obsession, he becomes determined to be the one to stop any more killings.  But what is he willing to do to stop the deaths once and for all?

Wow, now that was a fun and intense book.  Patterson and Barker have produced something very special with Death of the Black Widow, which was an utterly insane and awesome read.  I was actually a little surprised with how much I enjoyed this clever book, and I think I have very little choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

Now, I must admit that when I started reading Death of the Black Widow, I honestly did not know too much about the book, apart from what was in the synopsis.  From that and the name, I assumed that this was going to be a psychological thriller or a spy thriller.  However, while Death of the Black Widow does have thriller and murder mystery elements to it, and indeed it appears to be a purely crime fiction novel for the first few chapters, it actually turned out to be something entirely more complex.  Within the first 100 pages or so, you begin to realise that the authors are subtly including elements from other genres, and Death of the Black Widow soon starts to take on a distinctive horror vibe, with some incredible brutal killings done under extremely unusual circumstances.  While I was surprised by this, I cannot say that I was disappointed.  Instead, I felt that it was a brilliant move from the authors and one that played particularly well to Barker’s strengths.  This new genre combines well with the books existing thriller/crime fiction framework to create an intense and exhilarating read that is extremely easy to get into and very, very hard to put down.  I personally found myself powering through the last 350+ pages in less than a day, especially once I begun to fully understand just how clever and weird things were about to get.

I was really impressed with how Death of the Black Widow unfolded as a story, especially as Patterson and Barker went out of their way to make this standalone read as enticing and epic as possible.  The book starts in the present day and shows the older protagonist and his compatriots entering the end game of their confrontation with a mysterious woman.  This serves as a great setup to the rest of the story, which jumps back multiple decades to 1986, when Walter and the mysterious woman, known here as Amy Archer, first meet, and the strange and deadly circumstances behind their encounter.  The story then jumps forward several years to 1992, where Walter is investigating several strange murders when he has a chance encounter with someone he believes is Amy.  This results in an intriguing series of chapters where Walter deals with both the investigation and his growing obsession with this girl, before everything blows up terribly and the mystery becomes more convoluted and unusual with each new revelation.  This pattern continues throughout the book, with the story jumping ahead years at a time to show the multiple encounters between Walter and his obsession.  Each time period reveals some intriguing new angles and elements, and you find out new revelations about the woman the protagonist is hunting, resulting in the full truth about her finally being revealed.  The novel also keeps slipping back to the siege occurring in the present, with some new characters trying to uncover what Walter and his team are up to as the protagonists provide them with hints about who they are and what they are after.

I deeply enjoyed that the authors chose to utilise a split timeline for Death of the Black Widow, especially as it works extremely well to tell this outstanding narrative.  The switch between time periods and chronological length of the story really enhances just how mysterious the events of the book are and the powerful, life-altering impact they have on the protagonist.  There are many clever elements to the switches between the periods, and I loved the subtle inclusions in the present timeline that hint at the events in the past that the protagonist was yet to experience, and the full impacts of them.  There are also some fun summaries loaded at the front of each change between the past and the present that represent the protagonist’s notes on the case.  Not only can these be useful to remind the reader where they are, but it helps to highlight just how massive the case gets, especially towards the end of the book, as well as tracking Walter’s growing obsession (especially the last one).  This entire story is loaded up with brilliant reveals and shocking twists, and I was honestly surprised and very thrilled in some of the excellent directions that the authors took the story.  You will honestly have a hard time putting this novel down once you get past the halfway point, especially once the 1992 storyline comes to its shocking end, and the intense revelations and horrific scenes of the next few time periods ensures you will become unerringly trapped as you attempt to find out more about the antagonist and their past.  This entire story of obsession, murder and mystery concludes perfectly in the present, with some truly big moments, as everything comes full circle and twists that have been hidden in plain sight since the start come into the light.  This was such a great story, and I frankly loved every single second I spent reading it.

I cannot finish talking about this book without mentioning the excellent characters it contained.  Death of the Black Widow features an intriguing and unique cast, each of whom brings something fun and compelling to the story.  The most prominent of these is Walter O’Brien, who serves as the central point-of-view character for most of the story.  Thanks to how the book progresses, you get to see the entirety of Walter’s life unfold, from his young days as a rookie cop, all the way up to his present, when an older, dying Walter attempts to bring his great obsession to an end by finally catching the woman who has haunted him for decades.  This ensures you get a brilliant look at this character and it proves absolutely fascinating to see the various stages of his life and the continued impacts of his interactions with the woman he knows as Amy Archer.  One of the best parts of this is that you get to see the growing obsession that Walter builds towards this woman, as meeting her proves to be a defining experience for him.  Despite the fact that his interaction with her are relatively short, each time he meets Amy she changes his life in a different way and he soon becomes quite obsessed with her.  This obsession continues to bloom, even after certain revelations about her and her actions become known, and he is forced to fight his own feelings and observations throughout the entire book, especially once it becomes clear that this obsession is mutual and that Amy is drawn to Walter as well in a twisted romance that is so damn dark.  Watching this usually confident and capable person being haunted by this obsession proves to be powerful and captivating centre to this story, and you really feel for this protagonist as he struggles.  Walter ends up serving a great role as the central protagonist of this story, and I found his entire character arc to be extremely well written and cleverly exposed.

On the other side of the coin is the mysterious woman who serves as the titular Black Widow of the story.  Known to Walter as Amy, this woman serves as a shadowy and enigmatic figure in the book, especially as you have no idea who she truly is for most of it.  To avoid spoilers, I will not go into too much detail about her here, but I will say she was an exquisite and amazing character, and the authors did a remarkable job bringing her to life and fitting her into this remarkable story.  She is easily one of the most distinctive and memorable literary villains I have read for a while, and if they ever make a movie of this book (which they really should), I think a great actor could turn her into something very special.  These two characters, as well as some other great supporting characters (the members of Walter’s team in the present day, as well as some distinctive cops from the past timelines for example), prove to be the beating heart of this incredible story, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how their intriguing lives worked in to the plot of this book.

No doubt it, I was really, really impressed with Death of the Black Widow, which ended up being one of the most exciting and compelling reads of 2022 so far.  The outstanding team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker were absolutely amazing here, producing a clever and intricate thriller, loaded with unique characters, a deep obsession laden storyline and some excellent horror elements.  This was easily one of the most unique and memorable novels I have read in a while, and I loved every single second I was going through it.  A highly recommended read that will appeal to anyone interested in a dark and deadly read, you will not be disappointed with Death of the Black Widow.

Death of the Black Widow Cover 2

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Warhammer 40,000: The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill

The Bookkeeper's Skull Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000/Warhammer Horror

Length: 4 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready to dive back into the crazy and terrifying Warhammer 40,000 universe with the clever and exciting read, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by acclaimed author Justin D. Hill, which serves as a great entry in the Warhammer Horror sub-series.

Despite not being even halfway done yet, 2022 has already produced some epic new entries in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, including Steel Tread by Andy Clark, Reign by Nate Crowley, Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Krieg by Steve Lyons, just to name a few.  After these awesome reads, there was no way I wasn’t going to check out The Bookkeeper’s Skull, especially when it had such an intriguing name.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is an awesome book that forms part of a sub-series of Warhammer tie-in fiction known as Warhammer Horror.  This series unsurprisingly presents the reader with horror-based stories in its various universes and has already produced some very cool sounding reads.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is my first brush with this horror series, and I was very excited to read one, especially as it was written by Justin D. Hill, a fantastic author who has been impressing recently with several great novels, including his Cadia series.  I loved the unique and clever story that Hill came up with for The Bookkeeper’s Skull.

Throughout the Imperium of Man, many planets serve the God Emperor in different ways.  For the agri-world of Potence, its only duty is to meet the iron-firm food quotas levied upon it by Imperial hierarchy, ensuring that the armies of the Imperium are supplied with all the food they need to fight the aliens and the heretics.  The enforcers, implacable lawmen with the ability to deal out death on an arbitrary basis, roam the planet and the farms of Potence, ensuring that the populace and serfs do all there is to produce the appropriate amounts.

Rudgard Howe is a new enforcer recruit who has just reported to duty.  The son of the planet’s chief enforcer, Rudgard faces a deadly future which will eventually force him to kill his older brothers to claim his dying father’s position.  But before he faces his family, he must learn the ropes by journeying out to the farmsteads of the planet and ensuring they can meet their quotas.  Travelling with a veteran enforcer, Rudgard learns the hard truths about life in the Imperium and the necessities of justice in keeping the planet running.  However, no lessons will prepare Rudgard for the horrors awaiting the enforcers at their final destination, the far-flung farmstead of Thorsarbour.

Located out in an ancient and unknown region of the planet, Thorsarbour is a cursed settlement, with its overseers poorly led and its serfs living in terror of the strange presences they claim to feel.  Finding the settlement far behind its quotas, the enforcers attempt to whip the farm into shape, but between the unnatural feeling of the land surrounding Thorsarbour and the dangerous presence of a bloody sanguinary cult amongst the serfs, they have their work cut out for them.  Worse, a series of unexplained and brutal murders are occurring around Thorsarbour, each one accompanied by mysterious strawman placed near the body.  As Rudgard tries to uncover the cause of these mysterious deaths before they destabilise their work, the enforcers begin to discover something unnatural behind them.  Can they discover the culprit before it is too late, or will the horrors of Thorsarbour consume them all?

This was a really interesting first dive into the Warhammer Horror series for me and it is one that I am very glad that I undertook.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is an excellent novel that very quickly grabbed my attention with its clever storytelling and fantastic, fast-paced plot.  Hill manages to do a lot with this story in a very short amount of time as The Bookkeeper’s Skull has a pretty short run time.  Despite this, the reader is quickly and succinctly introduced to the main character and narrator, Rudgard, and the world of Potence, in a great couple of opening chapters, before dropping them right into the horror of Thorsarbour.  Once the narrator arrives then you are quickly struck by the unnatural and freaky nature of the location, as they encounter several of the unusual issues surrounding the farmstead.  Following the initial discovery of a multitude of bodies and death, the protagonists encounter one dangerous situation after another, as they contend with religious fanatics, terrified serfs and overseers, monstrous farm animals, mysterious strawmen, a strange and prophetic girl, and a mysterious force brutally killing off everyone in the compound.  Even with so much happening, the pace of this novel never slackens, and there is a very high death count as everything goes wrong in some very brutal way.  I was pretty hooked on this novel from the very start, and I loved where the story went, even if it did get a little predictable towards the end.  I had a fairly good idea of who was going to live and die from the start, as well as who the killer was likely to be (the title is very suggestive).  I do think that the novel slightly fell apart at the very end, as Hill chooses to leave a little too much mystery behind what sort of force might be ultimately responsible for the events of the book, but this was still an amazing story that I had a lot of fun with.

The Bookkeeper’s Skull turned out to be a pretty good Warhammer 40,000 novel, and I liked how it fit into the wider universe.  This novel is closely related to one of Hill’s other novels, Cadian Honour, which is also set on the world of Potence and features an older version of the protagonist.  I love it when a novel provides an interesting connection to an author’s previous work, especially one that provides some exciting context and personal history, and this was a great example of that.  Despite this, people interested in checking out The Bookkeeper’s Skull don’t need to have any pre-knowledge of Hill’s writing or any other Warhammer 40,000 novels to enjoy this excellent book.  Indeed, this is a fantastic introduction to both Hill’s writing and the wider Warhammer universe and could be an interesting first book to readers curious about either.

I was very impressed with how the author was able to meld horror elements into this Warhammer 40,000 novel to create a unique and impressive story.  Hill did a beautiful job of creating a powerful and creepy atmosphere for this novel right off the bat, especially as the opening chapter features a sinister and freaky toy/companion that the protagonist had as a child (seriously, WTF).  This dark atmosphere only increases as the book continues, especially once the characters arrive at Thorsarbour.  Between the brutal conditions imposed upon the serfs, the unsettling atmosphere, the undercurrent of fear, the crazed religious cult of self-mutilating fanatics, the graphic murders and the haunting presence of several otherworldly characters, you have all the elements you need for a truly impressive and memorable horror tale.  The pacing of the killings is excellent, and the reader finds themselves drawn in by their cruel and bloody nature as the bodies keep dropping in even more elaborate ways.  These killings also work well with the presence of the cult and the appearance of all the strawmen and other agricultural elements, and the book ends up with vibes reminiscent of films like The Wicker Man or Children of the Corn, especially with a pale and potentially psychic child talking about a supernatural figure responsible for the killings.  This ended up being an awesome horror read, and I find myself getting really drawn into the creepy story thanks to some of the freaky elements it contained.

This proved to be a particularly good Warhammer 40,000 novel due to the distinctive setting.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull takes place on a seemingly peaceful agri-world, which gives the reader some intriguing insights into this wider universe.  I loved the cool look at the various archaic ways that this spacefaring civilisation gets food and other resources.  The entire agri-world acts in a mostly feudalistic manner, with practically enslaved serfs doing much of the work on farmsteads.  The blend of gothic science fiction with modern and ancient agriculture elements works really well and it serves as a brilliant background for this darker tale.  Indeed, many of the book’s horror elements are derived from just how bleak and harsh the Imperium of Man truly is and just how badly they treat their own citizens (and they’re the good guys, apparently).  Hill paints some truly shocking pictures of the conditions on this world, including some very gruesome depictions of a rabid self-mutilating cult and some brutal scenes of violence that the enforcers inflict upon the people.  However, the most disturbing part of this world is Gambol, a being who is revealed to be a former criminal who had their arms and legs amputated, his mind modified by technology, and then dressed as a clown to become the protagonist’s childhood toy.  This disturbing figure, equipped with his festering flesh-plugs (shudder!), is sprung on you in the first few pages of the book and really helps to set the horror mood for the reader, as well as just how dark and horrific the Imperium can get (they do this sort of thing to a lot of people).  I loved how grim and dark Hill made this Warhammer story and you really get a sense of just how messed up everything is.

I quite enjoyed the character of Rudgard, who serves as the central protagonist and narrator.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is told from Rudgard’s point of view in a chronicle format, so you get a real sense of this excellent character both as an experienced enforcer and the young rookie he is in this novel.  This version of Rudgard is a young and inexperienced man who is trying to live up to his family’s legacy, which includes a cruel father, two murderous brothers and an insane mother.  Sent out on routine mission with veteran enforcer Tarrini, Rudgard quickly learns all the terrible truths about his job as he essentially becomes an executioner.  Because of his past and the terrible events of this book, you get to see Rudgard turn into the no-nonsense figure from Hill’s previous novels, and I liked the continued change in his character.  I enjoyed the excellent mentor/mentee relationship he forms with Tarrini, as well as the narrators continued comments attempting or excusing some of his actions.  These considered and compelling notations from the older Rudgard give some interesting context to both the younger and older versions of the character, and it is interesting to see how much he has changed and developed over the years.  While I did think that parts of his backstory were wrapped up a little too quickly, this was still a fantastic examination of a great character and I look forward to seeing more of him in some of Hill’s other works.

I made sure to grab the audiobook version of The Bookkeeper’s Skull, which proved to be an incredible way to enjoy this brilliant novel.  Due to the shorter length of the story, this is a relatively quick audiobook with a rough run time of four and a half hours, which can be powered through extremely quickly.  I found that the audiobook format was highly conducive to the powerful horror mood of the novel and I personally felt that it really enhanced the tension and fear that the story produced.  A lot of the reason why I enjoyed this audiobook was the excellent voice work from narrator Matthew Hunt.  Hunt, who has lent his voice to several Warhammer audio productions in the past, had an excellent voice for this audiobook, and I felt that he captured both the main character and the overall tension of this novel extremely well.  Hunt moved this audiobook along at a swift and compelling pace that really grabs the attention and ensures that you keep listening as events get darker and darker.  Throw in some fantastic and fitting voices (Gambol’s near childlike voice is pretty damn freaky, and I loved the sly and manipulative voice given to the cult leader), and you have an outstanding audiobook that is really worth checking out.

Overall, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill is an outstanding and epic Warhammer Horror novel that I had a brilliant time reading.  Hill came up with a clever and captivating story that does an excellent job combining freaky horror elements with the expansive and fun Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I loved my first taste of the Warhammer Horror brand and I look forward to checking out more of it in the future, as well as some more exceptional writing from Hill.

Amazon     Book Depository

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Horror Novels (Updated – 2021)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  In this latest edition of Top Ten Tuesday, readers get a Halloween Freebie, meaning that they can list whatever topic they want, although a horror or Halloween theme is encouraged.  So, with that in mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to update a previous list where I highlighted my favourite horror novels of all time.

Last year for Halloween I did a list where I looked at my top ten favourite horror novels.  While horror is not my favourite genre, I ended up producing a rather interesting list with some unique entries that I was pretty happy with.  I decided last year that I would come back and update this list every Halloween, especially if I had some new horror novels to add to it.  Well, in the last year, I had the opportunity to check out some excellent and intense horror reads, and I intend to try and find out if they can fit into my list.

To sort out this update, I took a critical look at the previous version of the list and made some hard decisions about whether any of the horror novels I read in the last year might fit in better.  I ended up making some changes to list, with new entries replacing some of the existing books.  While I was sad to see some of the previously featured novels removed, I honestly felt that the new entries are better horror novels.  This resulted in a fun new version of this list, and I am pretty happy with how it turned out.

Honourable Mentions:

Nights of the Living Dead edited by George A. Romero and Jonathan Maberry

Nights of the Living Dead Cover

 

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

An interesting read from earlier this year that got a lot of attention, The Final Girl Support Group focused on a group of final girls from alternate versions of classic slasher films who are targeted by a brand-new killer.  While this book is more of a thriller than a horror read, it serves as a clever homage to the slasher genre, and fans of horror fiction will love it’s compelling and reference laden story.

 

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company Cover

 

Awakened by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth

Awakened Cover

Top Ten List (unranked):

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep Cover

 

Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Patient Zero Cover

 

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

I had to add this brilliant and compelling horror/science fiction read onto this list.  The Dark is the latest novel from author Jeremy Robinson that focuses on an apparent demonic invasion of Earth.  Filled with gore, monsters and body mutations, The Dark gets pretty gruesome and scary in places, which blends perfectly with the intense action and Robinson’s quirky humour.  An outstanding read, this fantastic horror novel comes highly recommended.

 

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

The Anomaly Cover

 

Code Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Code Zero Cover

 

Later by Stephen King

Later Cover

Earlier this year I had the chance to read the latest novel from the modern master of horror fiction, the great Stephen King, the utterly compelling Later, which focuses on a young boy who can talk to the recently deceased.  While Later is primarily a character-driven story about a complicated youth’s life, it can get pretty scary in places, especially once the protagonist encounters true evil.  A deeply compelling read with some interesting connections to one of King’s most iconic horror novels, this is an excellent and unique book that is worth reading.

 

Star Wars: Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber

deathtrooperscover

 

Devolution by Max Brooks

Devolution Cover

 

Ink by Jonathan Maberry

Ink Cover

I have already featured several great books from Jonathan Maberry on this list, but there was no way I could exclude one of his latest horror reads, Ink.  While most of the other Maberry novels with horror elements focus either on zombies or Lovecraftian monsters, Ink features a particularly horrendous tale of a depraved being who steals a person’s tattoos and the precious memories associated with them.  Set in one of Maberry’s most iconic settings, Ink had a very disturbing narrative, and I deeply appreciated this unique and book that the author came up with.

 

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

A History of the Vampire Uprising Cover

 

 

That’s the end of this latest Top Ten Tuesday list.  I think that the new horror novels were great additions to the list, and I like how this latest version turned out.  Each of the above novels, both new inclusions and existing ones, are outstanding reads that come highly recommended to all horror fans.  I look forward to seeing how this list evolves once again this time next year, especially as there are some awesome sounding horror novels, such as Road of Bones by Christopher Golden and Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes, set for release in the next few months.

Waiting on Wednesday – Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out a fascinating upcoming horror novel from a bestselling author, with Road of Bones by Christopher Golden.

Road of Bones Cover

Christopher Golden is a compelling author who has been writing interesting horror and fantasy novels since 1994.  His extensive writing career has so far produced a fantastic collection of novels, short stories, and co-written books, across several different genres and series.  In addition to his multiple standalone novels, Golden’s has also written The Hidden Cities series with Tim Lebbon, The Veil series, The Shadow Saga, the Ben Walker series, and some great tie-in novels, including a ton of Buffy the Vampire Slayer books.  Despite this vast assortment of works, I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Golden’s work in the past, although many of them sound pretty cool.  However, I was pretty taken when I saw the synopsis for Golden’s next standalone book, Road of Bones and it is one I am quite keen to check out.

Synopsis:

A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin’s gulag.

Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.

Felix Teigland, or “Teig,” is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he’s stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.

A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.

I have to say that I really like the sound of this awesome upcoming novel, particularly after reading this bizarre and fantastic synopsis.  Having a couple of documentary makers get chased by a shaman and his ghosts across a Siberian wilderness/gigantic mass grave is a very entertaining and unique premise that has gotten me extremely curious.  I look forward to seeing how this intense sounding novel turns out, and I have a strong feeling that it will be an entertaining and extremely enjoyable read.  Road of Bones currently has a release date of 25 January 2022, and it should be a very fun novel to check out early in the new year.

Waiting on Wednesday – Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I look at an awesome upcoming science fiction horror novel that is sure to be an outstanding read, Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes.

Dead Silence Cover

Dead Silence, which is currently set for release on 25 January 2022, is an intense and compelling sounding novel with a killer plot to it.  This will be the first book I have read by S. A. Barnes, who also writes under the pen name Stacey Kade, and I look forward to checking out her writing style.  This upcoming book looks sets to be quite amazing and I will be keen to enjoy out a fun horror/science fiction hybrid.  Dead Silence will be set in the far future and will follow a salvage crew who discovers the fabled remains of a long-lost spaceship out in the black.  Naturally, the abandoned ship will be filled with currently unspecified horrors that will attack the crew and result in a captivating and deadly adventure.  I cannot wait to see what happens on this ship, and I have no doubt that this will be a great novel to check out.

Synopsis:

At the edge of the solar system, no one can hear you scream.

The Aurora, a luxury space-liner destined for a cruise of the solar system, has been missing for twenty years. Among the hundreds of presumed dead were passengers from society’s finest – celebrities, tech giants, influencers. Every last one… vanished.

So when Claire’s crew picks up an emergency signal in deep space, the long-lost Aurora is the last ship they expect to find. The salvage claim could be their best chance at extraordinary wealth, but it might mean missing their transport back home, and nobody can stand another minute out in the darkest corner of the universe – nobody, except Claire.

Once onboard the ship, the crew realizes something is terribly wrong. Unspeakable horrors lurk in every shadow of the massive ship, and soon they each start experiencing violent hallucinations.

Claire must fight to keep her sanity and get her crew back to safety – before they all meet the same ghastly fate as the Aurora passengers.

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Amazon     Book Depository

Prepare for a literal journey into darkness with one of the most unique and insanely entertaining horror novels of 2021, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.

Jeremy Robinson is a bestselling author of science fiction and horror who has been producing some amazing novels of the last few years.  Since his debut in the early 2000s, Robinson has written a massive number of novels, including several fantastic sounding series, such as his Nemesis Saga, as well as a big collection of compelling standalone novels.  I have been meaning to read some of Robinson’s books for a while, especially as one of his series, the Chess Team novels, are part of a somewhat shared universe with Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels.  After seeing several mentions of Chess Team in Maberry’s novels, I got curious and had to have a look at Robinson’s catalogue of work.  I really love the sound of some of Robinson’s books, especially his Chess Team novels, which follow a special forces team at work against mythical threats, and the Nemesis Saga, which presents a new look at the Kaiju genre.  Before diving into these series, I thought it might be good to get an idea of Robinson’s writing style, and so I decided to read his latest standalone novel, The Dark.  I am extremely glad that I decided to check this out, as The Dark ended up being an incredible horror read that I deeply enjoyed.

Miah Gray is a messed up former army soldier, struggling with PTSD and other symptoms after his time in Afghanistan.  Now living with his mother, sister and stepfather in an upscale New Hampshire neighbourhood, Miah spends most of his time being the neighbourhood’s resident weirdo, avoiding his troubles with prescribed cannabis and holding out hopes that his crush, Jen, will notice him.  Managing to convince Jen to get high and watch a meteor shower on his roof one night, Miah thinks that his life is finally turning around.  However, nothing in his wildest dreams could prepare him for what is to come next.

Awakening the next morning, Miah and Jen are shocked to discover that the sun has been blotted out and the entire neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness.  With no communications, limited power, and no working artificial lights, Miah and his family attempt to adjust to the crazy events occurring around them.  All available evidence suggests that an obscure religious doomsday prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness is coming true, with the lore indicating that the only way to survive is to barricade yourself in your home and cover the windows.  Despite the blacked-out sun, Miah is dubious about this being a religious event, until a bright light from the heavens brands his forehead with an old Norse rune and an unholy army of demons invades.

Dark shapes are twisting their way through the neighbourhood, luring people outside and brutally dragging them away to an unknown fate, while even more terrifying figures lurk in the shadow.  Attempting to ride out the storm at home, Miah is forced into action when his parents are taken.  Leading a small group of survivors through the horrors outside, Miah attempts to save who he can while also trying to find a way to rescue those who were taken.  But as Miah and his friends flee through the surrounding demons and devils, a far more dangerous threat is waiting to assail them.  The rune on Miah’s head is starting to change him into something angry and inhuman.  Now forced to resist his own mind, Miah will need to dig deep than ever before if he wants to survive what is coming, even as it drags him straight to the gates of Hell.

Wow, now that was awesome.  When I started this novel, I strongly suspected I was going to love it, especially as it had a fantastic sounding plot, but I was unprepared for how much fun The Dark turned out to be.  Robinson has created an exceptional and dark horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your toes from the very start all the way to the finish.  I had an outstanding time listening to this book and there was no way I could give anything less than a five-star rating.

Robinson has come up with a pretty awesome story for The Dark, and I loved this unique horror tale.  The Dark has a great start to it, and the author manages to do a lot in a very short amount of time, thoroughly introducing the main character, Miah, while also setting up several of the other major supporting characters.  The novel’s big change from normal times to darkness occurs early in the novel, as soon as all groundwork has been established, so the protagonist can run right into the craziness.  It does not take long for events to go sideways, with danger and despair all around as everything goes to hell, literally.  The centre of the novel is extremely entertaining, as the protagonist meets a range of different people hunkering down through the apocalypse and slowly builds up a fun group of survivors.  At the same time, some of the characters, including Miah, are forced to face an inner evil that has been brought on by these dark events.  This internal battle for control and the elements that introduce it are very cleverly established, and it adds a fantastic new edge to the plot, especially as at times it seems like the only point-of-view protagonist is about to irrevocably snap.  All this leads up to an epic conclusion as the protagonist journeys to a very evil place and comes face to face with some startling revelations and immense horrors, as well as some interesting story threads for the future.

I felt that this was an exceptional story, and I deeply enjoyed the outstanding combination of action, horror and comedy that was expertly bundled throughout the novel.  It is rare to find a story that can alternately thrill, traumatise, and entertain in short succession, but The Dark does that in spades.  It was gloriously entertaining and there was honestly not a single moment in this book that failed to keep my attention.  The action sequences are crisp and fantastic, and you get a real sense of the intense violence happening all around the protagonist.  I also really loved the horror feel that this novel had, especially as Robinson is a master of building up tension and suspense.  Readers should be aware that there are a quite a few extremely gory scenes throughout the book, and Robinson does not hold back on the gruesome descriptions.  I liked how the author switched the tone of the novel around two-thirds of the way through, with the horror focus moving away from fear of the unknown to a more extreme and science fiction based narrative.  I did think that the sudden appearance of certain groups in the big finale were a bit coincidental and could have been telegraphed slightly better, but this really did not cut down on my enjoyment of the story, and I was still blown away with the cool action sequences that were featured in this part of the book.  This was a really good standalone horror story, and I was deeply impressed with the exceptional narrative that Robinson featured in this book.

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Dark were the cool monsters and horror elements that Robinson came up with.  The entire concept of the novel revolves around dangerous creatures who come out during an eclipse of the sun that covers the entire setting in darkness, while also wreaking havoc on human technology.  Not only are these monsters pretty freaky and deadly, but Robinson builds up an intriguing mythology around them.  Because the protagonists have no idea what they are facing, the entire phenomenon is attributed to a religious event, especially as there is a coincidental Christian prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness which will purge those who leave their house.  Once the monsters appear, the characters initially identify them as demons, due to their unique look, ability to replicate voices and their dark and disturbing laughter.  I found these attempts by the protagonists to understand what is happening to them to be really fascinating, and it involves some fun looks at mythology and ancient lore.  The character’s understanding of these creatures evolves and changes over time, as there are some new freaky bits of context, and I thought it was pretty cool the way that Robinson was able to adapt these horror elements.  I also must highlight the terrifying setting of Hell, where the protagonists eventually end up.  There are some pretty dark and excessively gruesome aspects to this location, and it was a very fitting location for the big finale.  Overall, I really liked the cool creatures and mythology that Robinson brings to The Dark and it was so much fun to see these monsters tear through a typical suburban neighbourhood.

Easily one of the best things about The Dark were the complex and impressive characters that the narrative was set around.  The most prominent of these was central protagonist and point-of-view character, Miah, a former soldier who returned from the war even more messed up then before.  Initially a bit of a weirdo loner, Miah soon evolves into a more heroic figure, especially as he takes the lead during the demonic invasion, saving several people he comes across and leading the survivors to either safety or battle.  Miah is a very deep protagonist, and I really enjoyed the impressive and powerful examination of his inner trauma and the mental burdens he carries after his time in the army.  Robinson really tries to make Miah as complex as possible, and he even works some of his own personal experiences with trauma into his protagonist’s psyche.  It was great to see him evolve throughout the course of the book, especially once he has the fate of several other people on his hands, and these events help him grow and overcome his previous experiences.  Miah is also an extremely entertaining protagonist to follow, especially as he has a great sense of humour, is constantly high and initially does not take anything seriously, even when all the lights go out.  This combination results in Miah doing some unusual things, including wearing one of his sister’s skirts for the first third of the novel (it’s weird, but it works).  Most of the book’s humour comes from his flippant narration of the weird events occurring around him, and even once stuff gets really serious, he still has plenty of fun jokes or odd observations about what he encounters.  I loved his outrageous outlook on the world, and I ended up really appreciating Robinson’s fantastic choice of protagonist.

Aside from Miah, Robinson also comes up with some other fantastic characters who go through these apocalyptic events with him.  All these characters are set up extremely well when they are introduced, and Robinson does a great job quickly examining their personalities and expanding on them throughout the course of the book.  There are several fun characters featured throughout The Dark, although my favourite two are probably Bree and Emma, two younger girls who end up part of Miah’s group.  Despite their youth, these two characters are extremely capable and quickly adapt to the weird new world that they live in.  This is in part due to them being branded like Miah, which slowly changes their personalities, turning them into something different.  Both characters react to their branding in different ways, with the eight-year-old Bree more swiftly losing her humanity.  It was pretty fun to see this young kid become more and more bloodthirsty as the novel progresses, and there are some great moments where Miah tries to control her.  It looks likes Robinson has some plans for both Miah and Bree in the future (Demon Dog and Laser Chicken for the win), and I look forward to them turning up again.

While I was checking out some of Robinson’s novels, one of the things that stood out to me was that all his novels have been converted to my favourite format, the audiobook, and that a good proportion of these were narrated by R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very talented and entertaining narrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed in some of Michael Mammay’s science fiction novels, Planetside and Colonyside (the latter being one of the better audiobooks I have listened to so far this year).  After seeing Bray’s name attached to The Dark, there was no way that I was not going to grab it on audiobook, which proved to be a very, very smart decision.

The Dark audiobook has a runtime of just under ten and a half hours, although I found myself absolutely powering through it, especially once I got into the story.  I felt that the audiobook format worked extremely well with The Dark’s first-person perspective, and the audiobook was able to progress at a really quick pace.  Bray really shined as a narrator in The Dark, and I loved the way that he presented the horrifying and intense events occurring around the characters.  Bray does an excellent job voicing the various characters in The Dark, and I particularly liked the way that he dove into voicing central protagonist Miah.  While I was initially a little dubious that Bray, who I have only previously heard voicing tough military characters, would manage with a more immature character like Miah, it ended up working really well.  Bray expertly gets inside the head of the main character voicing, and he quickly portrays Miah in all his doped-up, entertaining glory.  I think that Bray had a lot of fun voicing Miah (despite certain comments that the character makes about fancy audiobook narrators), and he did a great job presenting both the goofy side of the character and his more serious nature.  This ability to dive into Miah’s personality really enhanced the character and the overall story and I really enjoyed all the emotion that Bray threw into him.  I also liked some of the other voices that he did for The Dark, with all the characters ending up with some distinctive and fitting voices, even the younger ones.  This excellent voice work really helps to turn The Dark into an outstanding audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Dark.  Also, it has bloopers at the end, which were pretty damn fun.

While The Dark is a standalone novel that can be read with no prior knowledge of Robinson’s other works, it does have interesting connections that I need to mention.  There is a big reveal at the end of the book which ties The Dark together with a previous standalone novel that was a released a couple of years ago.  While I have not read this previous novel, it was a fun connection, and, after deeply enjoying The Dark, it got me in the mood to check out some of Robinson’s other books.  I also looked at Robinson’s website after finishing The Dark and there was a very interesting post about this that has made me appreciate this novel a little more.  Apparently The Dark is an entry in a wider joint universe, known as the Infinite Timeline, which already features several novels that Robinson has released in recent years.  The Dark is part of a sub-series within this universe, and it is linked together with the above-mentioned previous novel and an upcoming novel, Mind Bullet.  This sub-series will continue to become even more linked, eventually leading to another novel, Khaos, before it, and two other sub-series, made up of 11 novels in total, will have a big crossover in the 2023 novel, Singularity.  While this does not impact who can check out The Dark, I think it is pretty awesome that Robinson is attempting to create this massive joint universe, and it has really got me intrigued.  I am now extremely tempted to try and check out the rest of the entries in this joint universe before Singularity is released, and it should be a very interesting couple of years if I do.

Overall, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson was an epic and relentlessly exciting horror novel that I had an incredible time reading.  Thanks to its captivating story, complex characters and unique horror elements, The Dark was an outstanding book and it ended up being one of the most entertaining and compelling audiobooks I have enjoyed all year.  A definite must-read for anyone in the mood for a fun and intense horror novel, The Dark comes highly recommended and gets a full five stars from me.  I think I will end up trying some more of Robinson’s novels in the future, especially in their audiobook format, and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures and outrageous events he features in his books.

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The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 13 hours and 55 minutes

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling author Grady Hendrix presents one of the most unique and intriguing novels of 2021, The Final Girl Support Group, a compelling thriller that brilliantly explores the slasher movie genre.

Hendrix is an interesting author and screenwriter whose name I have been hearing a lot in the last couple of years.  The author debuted in 2012 and has gone on to write several fun horror-based novels, including Horrorstör, We Sold Our Souls and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.  Each of Hendrix’s previous novels had some fun concepts, and while I have not had the opportunity to check them out myself, I did read some very positive reviews for the previous two novels.  Hendrix’s latest book is The Final Girl Support Group, which caught my eye a few months ago.  What I found was a cool and clever novel that proved to be a compelling and addictive read.

We all know who the final girls are.  They are the only survivors of the vicious horror killers and slasher fiends in the movies, who manage to kill their monsters, avenge their friends, and walk off into a bloody sunset.  However, what happens to these final girls after they survive the worst days of their lives?  How do the final girls move on?

For Lynnette Tarkington, the horror of her defining moment never truly left her.  Twenty-two years since surviving terrible experiences, she is still barely able to leave her apartment, with paranoia and fear forcing her to see unimaginable danger around every corner.  Her only solace is the long-running support group she shares with five other final girls who have gone through their own traumatising events.  Together these women have slowly begun to put their lives back together one way or another, until the fateful day that one of their number fails to show up to group.

It soon becomes clear that their missing member has been murdered, a victim of one of the monsters they all fear.  As the remaining final girls go to ground, Lynnette finds herself under attack by someone who knows all about her and her escape plans.  Forced to improvise outside of her comfort zone, Lynnette discovers proof that other final girls are also being targeted.  When evidence suggests that Lynnette is responsible for some horrendous actions, she goes on the run to find out who is framing her.  Desperate, terrified, and still bearing the scars from all those years ago, Lynnette’s situation looks grim, but her latest monster is about to discover that you never count a final girl out.

As you can probably guess from the awesome plot of this book, The Final Girl Support Group is a very interesting novel that has some excellent elements to it.  Hendrix has come up with a clever narrative for this book, especially as it contains a very fun and compelling take on the classic slasher films.

The Final Girl Support Group has an excellent and deeply entertaining narrative which tells a very unique tale of a plot to kill the survivors of classic horror killers.  Hendrix does a really good job setting up each of the characters and the different world they lived in.  From there the story moves fast, as the protagonist experiences a variety of attacks on herself and her friends from all manner of directions.  The middle of the novel slows down a little and is extremely heavy, really examining the psychology of the protagonist and her friends, while also containing some excellent reveals and dark moments.  This all leads up to a very exciting conclusion, which was extremely intense and reminiscent of the films Hendrix is emulating and honouring.

Despite its roots, this novel was written more like a character-driven psychological thriller rather than a pure horror read, which I think worked extremely well.  The entire novel is loaded up with some cool twists, and the eventual reveal about who is behind the plot is pretty awesome and has some clever set-up behind it.  I loved the author’s inclusion of certain in-universe fictional articles and other inclusions, such as horror movie reviews, listicles and police transcripts, which helped to enrich the universe while also providing some interesting context to the various characters.  While I did have some issues with the middle section of the novel, mostly because of my feelings towards the main character, I felt that the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the outstanding conclusion really enhanced the entire overarching story.  An overall compelling and addictive read.

Easily the best part of this entire novel was the author’s examination of the horror/slasher genre as part of the plot.  Hendrix is obviously a massive fan of the horror genre, which is not too surprising considering he has actually written a couple of horror screenplays, such as the weird and disturbing sounding Satanic Panic, which I’m kind of keen to check out.  This love of horror is very clearly shown throughout The Final Girl Support Group, as this book acts as a major homage to some of the most famous slasher films of the last century.  The five other members of the support group are all strongly inspired by the final girls from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.  Each of these characters has a very similar backstory to the characters from these movies, and Hendrix takes the time to describe the events that made them famous, which are near matches to the films, with similar characters, events and sequels.  Even Lynnette’s story, which is shown in the most detail, bears a very strong resemblance to the controversial 1980’s slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its sequel (a somewhat more obscure film that I had never heard of).

As a result, this novel is chock full of references to these various films, as well as some other horror/slasher entries (there was one that sounded a lot like Leprechaun).  I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of the horror genre, and my knowledge of slasher films is limited, however, even I was able to pick up and appreciate most of the references, which was really cool.  Hendrix does a wonderful job of deconstructing the various films, and it was extremely compelling and fascinating to see the author explore the aftermath of the event, the psychology of the killers, and the concept of crazy film fans.  I deeply appreciated the way that Hendrix structure this unique world where all these slasher movies occurred, and it was very interesting to see stuff like the final girls getting the film rights to their experiences, or the acceptance that a killer will come back in one form or another for a sequel.  The author also explores the negative sides of the slasher genre, such as the fact that they can be rather sexist and exploitative, and that author manages to cleverly tie some of the violence of the novels into the alt-right and men’s rights movements.  I did think that the underlying message that all men are evil was plastered on a little too thickly (having every single male character be an ass was a bit much), but I suppose that was a pretty significant theme of these slasher films.  This examination of the horror and slasher genre was pretty damn amazing, and fans of these movies are going to absolutely love seeing all the subtle references and compelling homages.

While I loved the story and all the amazing slasher film references in The Final Girl Support Group, I did feel that the novel was rather let down by the characters.  I was not the biggest fan of protagonist and point-of-view character, Lynnette, and I am in two minds about how much I liked her.  I did appreciate the author’s depiction of her as extremely paranoid and traumatised, which felt very realistic and deep.  I also enjoyed her survivalist mindset, which reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 2018 Halloween film.  However, what annoyed me was at how incompetent the character was.  While I understood that the author was building towards the character having a breakthrough and becoming more dependable, I honestly think he really overdid the hopelessness.  Despite all her training and disaster planning, she manages to mess up every single action, interaction, or plan that she engages in, and is constantly outsmarted by the most obvious ploys or traps.  It was so frustrating to see her screw up again and again, and I found myself nearly yelling at the book every time she made a mistake.  Honestly, if Hendrix had dialled back these traits just a little, I probably would have enjoyed this novel a little more.  That being said, I did really appreciate the changes to the characters that did occur, and it was great to see her get some wins eventually.  I also enjoyed some of the twists that Hendrix set up around the character, which proved to be extremely compelling and place new light on her story.

Other members of the support group include Dani (whose story is like Halloween), Marilyn (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Julia (Scream), Heather (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Adrienne (Friday the 13th).  Hendrix spends a bit of time exploring these characters, and it was cool to see the exploration of all these classic final girls and the aftermath of their horrors.  I really enjoyed seeing how each of them moved on with their lives after their experiences, with the characters running the gauntlet from inspirational to depressing.  It proved to be extremely captivating to learn more about these characters, and I grew to like several of them, although Heather was pretty annoying (her issues relate to her more psychological experiences, and the character does redeem herself by the end of the book).  I did find myself getting frustrated with each of these characters at times, as they also make some classic horror movie heroine mistakes, such as not performing a double tap (rule one in a horror situation), and being so quick to disbelieve Lynnette, even after all their experiences.  There were also some noticeable issues when it came to portraying the character’s ages.  Despite each of these characters having their traumatic event occur in the 1980’s when there were teenagers, none of them act like middle-aged women, which seemed really odd to me.  However, in the end I was able to overlook some of these flaws, and I ended up enjoying each of the characters’ stories and development.

While I was tempted to grab a copy of The Final Girl Support Group as an ebook for a quick read, I ended up getting the audiobook version, which has a runtime of just under 14 hours and which took me about a week to get through.  One of the more interesting things about this audiobook format is the narrator, Adrienne King, who horror/slasher fans will recognise as the final girl of the original Friday the 13th and who also had a subsequent appearance in Friday the 13th Part 2.  I felt that this was a pretty brilliant choice, not only because King portrayed a final girl but because her own real-life experiences with stalkers mirrors what happens to the characters in this novel.  However, while I did think it was a very fitting choice, I have to admit that I was not amazingly impressed with King’s narration.  She did a good job keeping the novel going at a quick pace and providing some emotion and feeling to the story, but I didn’t like the way she voiced the characters.  There is some variation between some of the final girls, but I honestly found that King’s voice work highlighted some of the character’s annoying tendencies and it never fully drew me in.  Still, this audiobook format is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and it is worth checking out.  I am also sure that Friday the 13th fans will enjoying hearing King’s take on the novel, especially when she describes the various homages to her own film, including the similarities in the deaths between one of the characters and King’s final girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

The Final Girl Support Group was a fantastic read and is one of the more memorable and inventive novels of 2021.  Grady Hendrix does an outstanding examination of the final girl phenomenon in this novel and manages to craft quite an impressive and enjoyable thriller narrative around it.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of every aspect of The Final Girl Support Group, it is still a great novel to check out, and horror fans will love the excellent examination of the genre.  I am very glad I decided to check this novel out and I will have to keep an eye out for whatever unusual book Hendrix writes next.

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