THE DARK ABOVE by Jeremy Finley

The Dark Above
(William Chance & Lynn Roseworth Book 2)
By Jeremy Finley
St. Martin’s Press — July 2019
ISBN: 9781250147288
324 Pages — Hardcover


Sequel to “The Darkest Time of Night”, “The Dark Above” continues to answer questions from the first book while expanding the cast of characters and venturing further into the SF/paranormal. I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you haven’t read Finley’s debut novel. However, the two novels make for a satisfying whole and quick enough read, so starting now wouldn’t require much commitment beyond the norm.

For those who haven’t read “The Darkest Time of Night”, it begins with the disappearance of William, the seven-year-old grandson of a US Senator and his wife Lynn. With William at the time of his disappearance is his brother, who now in shock only speaks four words of what occurred in the woods between their house and their grandparent’s: “The lights took him.”

These words, along with circumstances and location of William’s vanishing lead Lynn to bittersweet and fearful memories from her past – taboos from her childhood growing up beside the woods, and work she did as a young wife as secretary for a secretive professor in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois. A past where she became involved with a group investigating reports of UFOs and alien abductions, stories that time and again spoke of beams of light.

Starting much like a conventional crime mystery / political thriller, “The Darkest Time of Night” soon reveals conspiracies and sci-fi elements strongly reminiscent of the The X-Files, a relation that the novel even references. “The Dark Above” continues that trend, with development of the SF themes into a further paranormal realm. In publicity and reviews, some have also referenced Stranger Things for comparison to this series. Yet, similarities to that more recent show go no further than use of ‘government conspiracy’ and characters with powers. Both also were in The X-Files though, and the tone of these novels remain closer to that than any of the real themes/setting of Stranger Things.

“The Dark Above” begins years following William’s recovery by his grandmother Lynn and her friend Roxy at the close of the first book. Now grown up, William still struggles to come to grips with his experiences, the missing memories, and the guarded, public revelations his grandmother has made amid remaining secrets and uncertainties. Failing to return to college, William has run off to escape media attention and find some distance from his family. But, he finds himself unable to run from nightmares, and knowing the dangers he represents according to what Lynn has learned.

Events soon expose William back to the world and into the sights of media, hostile government agents, UFO/alien conspiracy believers, and the clandestine group that his grandmother once worked for long ago. Other select individuals returned by the aliens begin to show signs of activation, unleashing global calamities. As William flees danger and tries to discern who he can trust, his connections to the others who have been changed by the aliens grows stronger, leading them together.

In the meantime, Lynn and Roxy want to find and help William, but Lynn’s daugher (William’s aunt), who has taken her father’s seat in the Senate places her in uneasy alliance with the government agencies who want to control William at any cost.

“The Dark Above” thus ends up reading like a Koontz-like thriller with fast moving action and intrigue alternating between the points-of-view of William, his grandmother, and his aunt. A key strength of the first novel was featuring a pair of elderly women as the main protagonists. While they are not lost here, the dominance of William in this half of the story removes that. Nonetheless, change can be nice, and the switch to a grown up William helps keep the schtick of Lynn/Roxy from getting worn.

The twists and turns as multiple groups hunt William works well, with him not clear if any of them are telling him the truth, lies, or somewhere in between. Things begin to slow, however, as William discovers the group that controlled Lynn’s work in the past. In one chapter, through a series of letters in the group’s possession, both William and the reader learn the facts behind the past, going back to his great-grandparents and Lynn’s childhood that briefly appeared in the prologue to the first book.

“The Dark Above” thus fills all the unresolved questions set up from the start of the book, and while it’s ending implies that more books could follow, it still nicely wraps the series up to satisfaction as a cohesive pair. I enjoyed, but didn’t particularly love “The Darkest Time of Night”. With the expanded cast and increased action/pace of “The Dark Above”, I actually prefer the sequel a little more. However, these novels really sit best together as a sum greater than their isolated parts.

The science part of the SF in the second novel becomes utterly ridiculous, so much that it might be better to call this fantasy with aliens. I was able to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the silliness of the plot and the attempts to ‘explain’ things paranormal by throwing in nonsensical statements about DNA and genetics. Partially this is because I’m used to doing this already as a fan of The X-Files. It’s also because there are other aspects to the novel I appreciate, such as its turn toward the apocalyptic genre, where the key people returned by the aliens serve as symbolic Four Horsemen.

Together, “The Darkest Time of Night” and “The Dark Above” end up being an amalgam of popcorn genres, from drive-in ’50’s UFO flicks to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Fans of these kinds of genre elements looking for a thriller with some engaging characters and surprises – even amid the very cliched realm of UFO/alien lit – should enjoy these.


THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART by Ben Tripp

23705513

The Fifth House of the Heart
By Ben Tripp
Gallery Books – July 2015
ISBN 9781476782645 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


For fans of atmosphere and adventure stories with a paranormal twist, The Fifth House of the Heart is a marvelously fun summer read. This is one of those book equivalents to the summer blockbuster, and I could easily see it adapted as such for the screen. There is nothing particular intellectual to it, no grand social commentary, no character studies that pull at the heartstrings in explorations of the human psyche. What it does have is a well-told story that mixes horror with an international heist, using delightful characters and a dash of humor and gothic thrills.
Imagine that vampires have existed among us, for generations of human lives. Sure, it’s been done countless times before from Dracula to The Southern Vampire Mysteries. But what I haven’t seen is combining the immortality of vampires with inspiration from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. If one could live for centuries, amass global fortunes, and horde goods like a dragon in your lair, just think what priceless antiques one could then collect through the ages to enjoy beside the coffin where you rest, decorating the castle where you lurk.
 –
Admired antiques dealer Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang has gained fortune and glory traveling all over the world acquiring some of the finest artifacts known, including items long lost to history. Sax’s ego and success have been built through a secret edge: he knows that vampires exist and he has hunted and killed them to steal their ancient treasures. Now, late in his life, Sax’s arrogance and greed has caught up to him. A powerful vampire from his past has set sights on Sax, putting his loved ones at risk. Together with a misfit team of thieves,  vampire hunters, and a secret order of the Catholic church, Sax journeys to destroy the monster and gain one last score, into what may be a deadly trap for all.
Part of what makes The Fifth House of the Heart work well is the point-of-view of Sax: one part crotchety old man, one part big softie. He has a great sense of humor, even within the deathly serious situations that face him. Filled with guilt over the luck of his past despite cowardice, he finds moments of bravery, bearing acceptance of his faults and pride for his strengths.
I found Tripp’s take on the vampire myth particularly fascinating though. The vampires of The Fifth House of the Heart only superficially resemble the ‘classic’ European creature. Ancient and strong, but not undead or easily killed by special weapons, they are monsters that begin to take on the characteristics of that which they consume. Those that feed on humans will appear human, according to the gender they favor as prey. Those that feed on other animals will take on that form. In a blend of vampire and shape-shifting myths, Tripp writes the vampires as something truly terrifying, creatures that shine in the horror and gore of some action scenes of the novel.
There are many best-selling novels out there that are written primarily for their entertaining story and likable characters. Those in series tend to quickly become formulaic. Others remain popular despite unintentionally poor writing or scenarios that I think may actually lower a reader’s intelligence. (cough, Dan Brown, cough) For all its fun, The Fifth House of the Heart remains smart. Like most of the books from another horror writer – a guy from Maine who everyone knows – Tripp’s novel doesn’t abandon the essential cores to the art of good writing, even though art is not its purpose at all.
Aside from the plot, (anti?)-hero, and monsters at the novel’s forefront, Tripp also nails so many of the background elements. The secondary characters, historical details, sensory descriptions, and general gothic atmosphere all combine contextually as a foundation for the entertaining story that towers above. This is a book that I look forward to rereading again soon.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

DAY SHIFT, by Charlaine Harris

23281944Day Shift
(Midnight, Texas Book 2)
By Charlaine Harris
Ace Books – 5th May 2015
ISBN 9780425263198 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


 Though it’s the second book in a new paranormal mystery series by Harris, I didn’t have much problem getting into Day Shift without having read the first book that gives the Midnight, Texas series its name. Midnight is a tiny, one-traffic-light town with a collection of eccentric residents with closely guarded secrets who appreciate the relative quiet and privacy that their isolated Texas community provides.
If you’ve read the first book, you’ll be familiar with the Midnight residents, but if you’re new to them as I, you’ll find yourself being introduced to these handfuls of characters in the first few opening pages of Day Shift. This may be a bit overwhelming at first, but I quickly got steadied, and Harris does a really good job in providing new readers contextual reminders when these characters return to keep things straight. Likewise she summarizes past events and revelations from the first book sufficiently that a new reader won’t feel behind the news. She nicely does this info-dump of already established matters in pieces, largely unobtrusively.
Several of the town’s residents get their own point-of-view sections in Day Shift, but the main character Harris brings closest to the reader is Manfred Bernardo, a professional psychic whose powers have their moments of strength, weakness, or absence, but who always tries to keep his client experiences as professional and honest as possible. While on a trip to Dallas to hold client sessions, Manfred notices at a restaurant one of Midnight’s mysterious residents, Olivia, talking to a couple over dinner who turn up dead the next morning. Drawn into this through association, Manfred’s day goes even further south when one of his more wealthy clients dies during their psychic reading session.
Manfred returns to Midnight, but soon finds the media converging on his house after the deceased client’s son claims his mother has been killed by Manfred and that Manfred has stolen her valuable jewelry. The other residents of Midnight don’t appreciate the sudden inrush of attention, particularly when the arrival of the media coincides with the unexpected reopening of an old hotel by a strange national corporation who brings in a handful of workers and some elderly residents to live there. As Manfred scrambles to clear his name and enlists the help of Olivia in discovering whether his client’s son had a role in the woman’s death, the other members of Midnight continue about their own business, look into the new hotel residents, and help take care of a young, rapidly growing, boy that has been mysteriously given into the care of Midnight’s aloof Reverend.
Dedicated readers of Harris’ books will recognize a large number of characters from her other series. Having only read the first few of her Southern Vampire Mystery novels (and seeing True Blood adopted from them) I could pick up on references to Bon Temps, Sookie Stackhouse, and the appearance of a character from those books who briefly showed up on the HBO show as well. But it seems that Midnight, Texas is a tiny crossroads not just physically, but also figuratively within a shared-universe of multiple series by Harris. Manfred appears in her Harper Connelly novels, another resident apparently comes from the Lily Bard novels, and more. This surely makes the series a pleasure for Harris’ fans to read, enjoying the team ups and crossovers much like you get in comic books. However it also makes the Midnight, Texas books an excellent place to become introduced to Charlaine Harris’ paranormal mystery worlds.
While her other major series focus on a single protagonist through the books, this one deals with an ensemble cast, like a Robert Altman film – or more in tune with this genre, a lot like what True Blood became like in later seasons. Juggling multiple characters and interlocked stories can be tricky business. True Blood arguably suffered greatly in quality as secrets became revealed, characters added, and complexities propagated. Harris’ fans also seem divided on whether the multiple point-of-view writing and ensemble cast of Midnight, Texas and Day Shift work. For me, I enjoyed the characterizations and the flow of the novel, and didn’t greatly mind shifts in point-of-view.
Though urban fantasies with a paranormal cast of characters, Harris’ main interest in a writer seems to be the mystery genre. Day Shift opens with a series of deaths, but only one of these crimes exists as a mystery for the length of the novel. In the grand scheme of things, figuring out who killed Manfred’s client is not as interesting as discovering why, and this criminal mystery itself pales to the myriad other mysteries hovering around Midnight. Harris uses the paranormal aspects of her world as mystery elements. The reader wants to know what secrets each townsperson is hiding, what their agenda is. There is the mystery of the hotel reopening, the odd young boy, the reclusive reverend, Olivia’s seemingly dangerous job, the identity of the elderly residents of the revamped hotel, the reason why the temporary gas station owners are staying… and many more. As in the Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, many puzzles involve trying to figure out what kind of paranormal creature a given character is. Some of these many questions were answered in the first book of the series, some in Day Shift, but many still remain. The town of Midnight itself seems to be something special, drawing ‘abnormal’ people in, protecting them in some way, but it also seems the town itself needs monitoring for the good of the world, kind of like Buffy’s Hellmouth.
It is easy to see therefore how readers will enjoy getting into this series or Harris’ work on a whole. It is pulp. Entertaining stories with a good dose of formulaic construction, lots of puzzles that extend across multiple books, carefully doled-out resolutions, and some easter eggs for dedicated fan appreciation. A former grad student in the lab I currently work in devoured the Southern Vampire Mysteries. They were the perfect easy read comfort to enjoy when the brain needs some relaxation. I have series that I enjoy like that too, in fantasy and SF and mystery genres. I tried the Sookie Stackhouse series, but found them tiresome. They were okay all, but they got old and repetitive on me fast. Partially this came from being already familiar with True Blood.
Midnight, Texas felt more fresh to me. Certain characters I enjoyed more than others so would be eager to see more of them, learn more about them. A few I found less compelling though, so I could also see tiring of this series with time. (Some really absurdly silly names didn’t help me wanting to read more about some characters). But this mixture of characters as an ensemble makes me think that Harris may be able to get better mileage out of this series before it gets stale to all but the rabid fan.
With pulp entertainment like this there usually isn’t anything deeper to discuss about the novels in terms of themes, but there is one interesting facet to the Midnight, Texas series that I picked up on that as I understand is generally present in Harris’ work: the diversity. Sometimes that diversity seems forced, but overall she does a good job of including many kinds of people/characters. But particularly with this, the town of Midnight, Texas is filled with a small number of relatively reclusive outcasts. They hold secrets, some really dark. But the various members of town are willing to withhold their tremendous curiosity of one another. They may question, but they don’t pry. They may briefly talk, but they don’t gossip. They respect one another and amazingly they support one another even when they may not know the full story. They are the personification of an accepting, reconciling community. When something threatens the town, or they discover that one of their own could be a threat to others they take care of the situation as needed, but they don’t judge, they don’t recoil. Because each knows that they have their own baggage and issues. This kind of community is refreshing to see.
So, if you’ve never read Harris, or only read a bit of her other series, I think Day Shift would be a fine place to start and see if it is something you’d enjoy. Or it may be easier to start with the first novel Midnight, Texas. I’ll gladly read the next novel in the series, but I doubt I’ll go back to read the first because the main plot and revelations I already discovered in this. If you are already a fan of Harris, you’ve probably already read these, or if not your reaction may rest on how well you take to its ensemble, multiple-point-of-view nature.
As a final note, Charlaine Harris is going on a book signing tour for the release of Day Shift. I had hoped to go to a local signing to ask some questions to go with this review. I haven’t heard anything yet, but I’ll put something up separately I guess if that does happen. You can check out her full schedule here and see if she’ll be in a city near you.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Ace Books as part of their Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

MR. WICKER, by Maria Alexander

22545259Mr. Wicker
By Maria Alexander
Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, 16th September 2014
ISBN: 1935738666 – 236 Pages – Paperback
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press


You may recall the fabulous cover illustration of this from when Reading 1000 Lives took part in the Mr. Wicker cover reveal awhile back. Since then Mr. Wicker has earned a 2014 Bram Stoker Award nomination for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. In her debut novel, Alexander draws from mythological sources, particularly Celtic, to form a richly imaginative story that combines elements of fantasy, horror, romance, and historical novels.
In the throes of depression and instability horror writer Alicia Baum succumbs to suicide. Rather than offering any release, she finds herself in a timeworn library before a strange man who speaks of lost memories and a desire born from destiny to have her stay beside him, Mr. Wicker, in this mysterious realm beyond life where he can reunite her with all she has lost. Alicia, despite recognizing this sense of incompleteness within herself that has fueled her mental instability, chooses instead to flee from the uncertain strangeness of Mr. Wicker and his abode. Eternal rest ever elusive, Alicia awakens back to the reality of life, placed in a psychiatric ward under the care of doctors who would never accept her odd experiences.
But, Dr. James Farron has heard child patients in his care whisper in their dreams about the uncanny Mr. Wicker, and overhearing Alicia do the same draws him into serving as her advocate and protector, from her own mind and the corruption of hospital staff. In return he hopes to finally discover the secret to the Mr Wicker phenomena and save his patients.
A synopsis of Mr. Wicker‘s plot simply can not do its intricacies and many layers justice, and too much information can spoil the fun. In a way, Alexander has constructed the novel like a puzzle, and some pieces can be found outside of the novel proper on her website to uncover new secrets and connections. This construction fits well conceptually with the intermixing of genres that Mr. Wicker for the most part manages to handle rather well. She handles the balance between horror, fantasy, and romance rather well, particularly for a first novel. The story was originally envisioned as a film script and the fluidity of events amid the intertwined structure of character-history-reveal shows the marks of this.
My only major quibble is with the extended interlude toward the novel’s end that makes up the more ‘historical’ genre aspect of the novel. Revealing Mr. Wicker’s past, this section is actually one of my favorite portions of the novel in terms of the language and development on its own. But within the whole it ends up breaking the flow of everything around it, not fully integrated into the whole. Personally I can see this historical interlude working well on the screen, but within the book it felt almost a disruptive info-dump of revelation that may have felt more natural interwoven as all other elements of the novel are.
Rather than being the clear-cut villain as I expected, Mr. Wicker is in fact far more complex, full of bittersweet tragedy. The significance of his name will be familiar to anyone who’s seen either of the Wicker Man films or knows that aspect of Celtic history. I particularly enjoyed Mr. Wicker’s corvoid companions. While I knew of their place in Norse mythology, I hadn’t realized that the raven had similar counterparts in Celtic.
Alicia’s allure as a character arises from her opposing dualities. She is drawn alternatively between life and death, between the influence of Mr. Wicker and Dr. Farron, fear of her present mind and desire to reclaim past memories. Alicia has moments of strong independence and making clear decisions, but then also times where she foolishly blunders or shows utter dependence on a male character. Mr. Wicker and Dr. Farron are (selfishly in one case, more altruistically in the other) each intent on claiming her, either as a sort of property or as a case for care, respectively. For much of the novel Alicia permits herself to be defined in this way, but she ultimately reaches her own self discovery and road to follow, so I’d encourage any readers at first put off by this to stay with the story.
While extremely likable as a character, Dr. Farron is rather predictable and one dimensional, as are the secondary characters of the novel, particularly another doctor who serves as the moral opposite of Farron. To be fair, the unique development of Alicia and Mr. Wicker could also arise from this story’s origin as screenplay, where development of more than a couple characters is simply not recommended.
Ultimately fans of dark fantasy who enjoy a touch of mystery and romance will find Mr. Wicker worth a look, an intricate Celtic knot that Alexander has woven quite well for a debut. I think a tale destined from the start for the page rather than the screen will even more deeply reveal her magic and talent for storytelling.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Raw Dog Screaming Press in exchange for an honest review.

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts, by K. C. Parton

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts,
by K. C. Parton
Publisher: Matador Self-Publishing
ISBN: 9781783066803
196 pages, eBook
Published: 19th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

 After reading this collection I considered wether there was any significance to the chosen title Ten Short Tales About Ghosts as opposed to Ten Short Ghost Tales. I’m not sure as to an actual answer, but it did get me thinking in conjunction to my feelings about the collection overall. Namely that it truly is composed of stories about something, rather than being that thing itself.
In other words, the stories here are pastiche (even derivative), written with inspiration from – and in conscious homage to – classic English ghost stories in the vein of M.R. James (a writer who also inspired John Bellairs, one of my favorite Gothic children’s book authors). Parton’s stories are really about these old classic stories, they are not particular novel in their own right.
The real consideration to make if deciding to read this collection, then, is whether one is looking for stories that are hauntingly familiar and warming in a nostalgic way, or if true chills from unexpected directions are sought.
The ten tales (and one ‘bonus’ poem) here are hit-or-miss, though some will likely resonate with readers depending on their recollection of similar classic tales. The Last Train and The Heinkel were both relatively notable as well done homages. I personally found The Reader to be the most compelling story in the collection, familiar yet eerie and a worth James homage. I also enjoyed the opening story with the uncertainty (at least briefly) of whether the ghost was really present or not. This opening tale rung familiar in its similar tone to something out of the Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark children’s series.
The enjoyment of nostalgia faded rapidly, however, through stories that continued in similar charted territory with very little diversity from what would find in those classic English ghost stories of a hundred years past. Taken in smaller sips in a different environment than the airport where I read this may have altered my appreciation of the stories, but I found myself rapidly losing interest in their routine familiarity.
Two-and-a-Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the author via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Seduction, by M.J. Rose

15802432Seduction, by M.J. Rose
(The Reincarnationist Series Book 5)
Publisher: Atria Books
ISBN: 1451621507
384 pages, hardcover
Published May 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Rose has written several thrillers featuring the theme of reincarnation. What drew my interest to this was the inclusion of French culture and the paranormal, so I thought I would give this a try. After winning the giveaway for this new novel by Rose, I discovered that it features the same main protagonist as her previous one, so I found a copy of that to read. Sadly, I probably would have liked this more if I hadn’t done that.

One characteristic of these stories is the use of multiple plot lines that span different time eras that converge together at the end by virtue of the reincarnation theme. A difficulty of Rose’s previous novel was that she also included a present day political thriller into this mix as well, causing the work to lack focus. Here, this is improved, but at the same time, it loses the large-scale significance. As the continuation of the story of the protagonist, Jac, it also runs into the difficulty that the previous book deeply explored the link between memory and smell in relation to the perfumery business of Jac’s family. Here, a great deal of the magic achieved in Rose’s writing in this perfume-memory link is lost, the thread being replaced by the paranormal, occult themes related to the séances of Victor Hugo while on the Channel island of Jersey in exile.

In this paranormal theme Rose again shows her ability to compose some really beautiful prose. She is great with words, she crafts a decent thriller filled with mystique and some chills. However, the major problems I had with her last book in characterizations and achieving a believable voice for different time periods/cultures remains a defect in “Seduction”. While the present-day characters are rendered well, those of the other time periods are far less so, particularly Celtic characters from BCE in passages with word choices that simply appear anachronistic and jarring – albeit not ‘spoken’ in dialogue, it makes the overall tone of these chapters indistinguishable from those set in the present.

What really caused me to enjoy this less than the previous novel, however, was that the overall structure and reincarnation themes that are the central crux of the entire work were already familiar to me. If I had read all the other novels in the series I cannot imagine what new insight this would present. But for those that really like that formula, I guess they will love this just as much as Rose’s other novels. While her last novel piqued my interest with the poetic discussions and history of fragrances to balance out the reincarnation ‘preachiness’, the paranormal aspects in “Seduction” just weren’t strong enough in atmosphere or creepiness to catch such interest from me.

Two  Stars out of Five