Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews





David Towsey (

Jo Fletcher Books (


Thomas McDermott has left his family, and his community in the small town of Barkley, and gone off to fight in a war in which he has no conviction. When Thomas returns home, he will be a much changed man – Thomas is dead, a Walkin’, an abomination in the eyes of his friends and neighbours, an abomination that cannot be allowed to continue existing. When the religious fanatics of Barkley decide that the offspring of the Walkin’ must suffer the same fate as their parents, Thomas flees into the wilderness with his daughter – a posse chasing close behind – in search of a rumoured haven for the his kind.

Set almost 1000 years in the future, where the Earth is a desolate place, a shadow of what it once was. According to the histories, Automated Man has long since fallen from scientific grace, the cause of which has been lost in the mists of time. What is known is that one of that age’s greatest discoveries led to a mutation in a large portion of the population that caused the dead to return to life, the mind active while the body continues on a steady downward path of decay.

David Towsey introduces us to the town of Barkley through the sermon of the fanatical Pastor Gray, immediately giving us some idea of the mind-set that drives the people of this small town. In parallel to this, we meet Thomas as he awakens at the bottom of a funeral pyre pit, partially-burned and almost immediately fully aware of what he has become. When one of Thomas’ comrades, also newly risen from the dead, stumbles into town, we learn how the people of Barkley, under the leadership of Gray, deal with the Walkin’, and their families. From there, the course of the novel seems strangely inevitable, as Thomas turns towards home, dooming not only himself, but his teenage daughter, Mary. And yet, there are surprises in store as we watch the dynamics of the important characters in this small town: the pastor and his acolyte, the law man, the grave digger, the elder, and Thomas’ wife, Sarah.

There is a post-apocalyptic feel to the novel, though there is no evidence of any single catastrophic event that might have led humanity to this point. This is a world with no technology, a world that has reverted to a much simpler time and, as such, Barkley feels like it’s located in some remote corner of the Old American West. Without the documentation and transcripts that act as chapter leads, this might be an old-fashioned weird Western – The Walking Dead meets Shane – or a tale set in some fantasy world, like Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country. As it is, the actual location matters little; this is a tale driven purely by the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves.

At the centre of the tale is the McDermott family; not only Thomas and Sarah and Mary, but also Thomas’ extended family – his brother ends up joining the posse sent out to hunt Thomas down. It’s a tale of the inexplicable bonds that keep a family together and make it whole, the love that exists between husband and wife, and between parents and children. There is no surprise when Thomas’ first thought upon discovering that he is now dead is to see his family once more, regardless of how dangerous it might be for him, or the harsh words spoken between him and his wife before he left for the front. Around the family are the other characters – the law man who may be sympathetic to their cause; the grave digger who has no desire to see more death than is necessary; and, most interestingly, the religious fanatics who believe they have been sent by some god or other to rid the world of evil. There is a long tradition of these characters in the horror genre (I’m always reminded most forcefully of The Mist’s Mrs Carmody); here, they work very well, because there is a ring of truth to them, a sense that we might see them on the evening news ranting about whatever pet hate drives them ever onwards.

Your Brother’s Blood is the first part of a series known as The Walkin’. Despite the name, and the subject matter, David Towsey’s debut novel bears no resemblance to that other modern zombie staple The Walking Dead (even though I’ve now mentioned it twice in the space of a single review). These are not George A. Romero-style zombies with an insatiable lust for braaaaaaaiiiiins!, but people whose physiology refuses to let them stay dead, allowing them to carry on as if nothing had happened. In some ways, it’s an examination of how war changes men, with resurrection presenting a much more literal change than the psychological impact normally implied.

Beautifully written, Your Brother’s Blood is literary horror at its best. David Towsey aims not for cheap scares or toe-curling gore, but for an all-pervading sense of doom that grows as we progress through the narrative. A gripping storyline and characters about whom we care (whether we want to see them live, or die slow and horrible deaths) ensure that the reader will be drawn completely into this relatively short novel. An intense and timeless tale of family and love, it is a wonderful introduction to an extremely talented new voice in genre fiction, and a great start to what promises to be a future classic.

GUEST POST: Questions and Answers by DAVID TOWSEY

David Towsey Name: DAVID TOWSEY

Author of: YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD (2013)

On the web:

On Twitter: @D_Towsey

I’m very pleased to welcome David Towsey to Reader Dad, to celebrate the release of his debut novel, Your Brother’s Blood, the first book in his The Walkin’ series. My review of this excellent book will be live on the site soon, but for now, here’s David with some background on the series, and his writing process.

In YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD I pose a lot of questions. Questions are one tool in a writer’s arsenal when trying to draw a reader into a new world and meet new people; and once they’re there, to keep them turning the page. I can’t imagine there are any authors who don’t generate questions for a reader in their fiction – but I’d be interested to hear suggestions to the contrary. But there is tremendous variation between authors when it comes to answers.

It sounds basic, and that’s because it is. The setting up of questions followed by the gradual process of answering them is arguably the foundation of fiction. ‘How will character X defeat situation Y?’ etc, etc. There is a kind of contract between reader and author: if a reader is going to put themselves into a position of receiving the question then the author must, at some point, deliver the answer.

This is further complicated by ideas of satisfaction and individual preference, which is what makes the whole thing interesting. Some readers want all the answers and they want them now. Other readers only want some of the answers and are willing to negotiate when they get them. There is, I think, a minority of readers who only want one answer and are happy to have the other questions remain unresolved. I don’t believe any of these approaches are better than the rest, but I am definitely part of said minority.

‘I write books I would want to read.’ Heard that one before, huh? Bear with me; it’s a useful cliché for what I’m trying to say.

I like reading books that show me a world, resolve a particular narrative within it, but do not resolve that entire world. The example that leaps to my mind, and forgive me for choosing a film rather than a book, is THE MATRIX. Like many people I was blown away by the first Matrix film; I guess I was at the right age and the right demographic for it to have a major effect. Ignoring the kung-fu action and the cyber-punk aesthetic, both of which enthralled me, the ending of that film was possibly the most satisfying ending for me as a “reader” of SF texts that I can remember.

Neo is standing in a telephone box. The audience doesn’t know specifically who he is calling, but it becomes apparent he’s addressing the machine consciousness as a whole. He admits he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He hasn’t saved the world or defeated the villain – not completely. There are so many hinted at or inferred possible futures. It is a narrative that is both complete in terms of the contractual agreement the audience has made with the film makers, and incomplete in terms of the internal world of that narrative. So much so it spawned THE ANIMATRIX (which I greatly preferred to the following sequels, for reasons that are probably now obvious) and a narrative heavy MMORPG. After my first viewing of the film I came away satisfied I’d experienced a story, but also excited about other stories. I wanted to write a book like that.

In YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD I created a world but I only wrote one story. The story of a soldier, Thomas McDermott, that dies, comes back to life, and is desperate to see his family.

*** SPOILERS ***

The journey he takes with his daughter is the only question that is fully resolved by the end of the book. Neither side has won the war that killed him. The religious regime in the town of Barkley is undermined but still in place. The questions of what the world will do with Walkin’ like Thomas, or what caused them in first place, are left unanswered.

As the first book in a trilogy I sense YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD is being cut some slack. Readers that might otherwise dislike the open-ended nature of the book are reserving judgement. But with book two pretty much finished and being halfway through book three, I can say with some certainty that I’m still channelling that Matrix vibe that excited me so much as a youngster. I might be finishing the McDermott family saga in these three books, but this is not a resolved world. I still have questions, and so will my readers.

COLDBROOK by Tim Lebbon

coldbrook - Tim Lebbon COLDBROOK

Tim Lebbon (

Hammer ( / Arrow (…/arrow)


Far underground, deep in a remote area of the Appalachian Mountains, lies the Coldbrook facility where, for ten years, Jonah Jones and his team have been trying to open a doorway to a parallel Earth. Three weeks ago, they succeeded and have been watching “the breach” ever since, gathering samples and preparing for the inevitable moment when a chosen few will cross over to see what lies beyond. Before that can happen, something comes through from the other side; something that may once have been human. Unaffected by the electrical field designed to kill anything that comes through, the creature grabs hold of the nearest scientist and bites. Holly Wright, thinking fast, sends the facility into lockdown, but it is already too late. The creature from the other side is carrying a virus and has already begun to spread it. When one of the scientists breaches lockdown and makes it to the surface, he inadvertently unleashes apocalypse upon the world, as the disease spreads like wildfire. But there is hope: a girl, bitten but unaffected, may hold a formula for the survival of the human race in her blood. They just need to get her back to Coldbrook in one piece.

I first discovered Tim Lebbon around a decade ago when someone recommended that I read his collection White, And Other Tales of Ruin. I was immediately hooked, so it was with no small measure of excitement that I cracked open Coldbrook, Lebbon’s take on the zombie novel. From the outset, it’s easy to tell this is something different: there’s a reasonable explanation for the outbreak, and a plausible explanation for the rapid spread of the disease: these zombies aren’t the traditional variety, chasing braaaaaiiiiins for their tea; they are people infected with a deadly and aggressive virus whose one goal it forces them to pursue with single-minded intensity: to spread itself. They are fast and, perhaps most frightening of all, they are patient, prepared to wait quietly outside your door until you believe the danger has passed, or have no other option but to step outside.

In amongst all the fun horror and buckets of blood, Lebbon takes time to examine how individuals might react in the face of oncoming doom. Family plays an important part in the story, and it is through this lens that Lebbon contrasts the stories of Vic Pearson – who risks everything to get his family as far away from Coldbrook as he can – and Sean Nott – no less dedicated a father, but whose daughter is in France, unreachable, her fate a mystery. Here, too, a look at community, as the initial sense of “every man for himself” gives way to a concerted effort to reach safety in a larger group. Inside Coldbrook, Jonah and Holly find themselves facing a different set of trials, as we discover what lies on the other side of the breach, and the shadowy Inquisitor begins to shadow Jonah’s every move.

What came as a pleasant surprise as I read Coldbrook was the unsettling sense of fear that it manages to instil in the reader. This is, after all, “only” a zombie novel, and we hardened veterans of the horror genre should have seen it all before. But Lebbon has more than a few surprises up his sleeve and, despite borrowing from a handful of the genre’s classics – the most obvious echoes here are of The Andromeda Strain and The Stand – still manages to produce something original and scary. Lebbon sets out his stall early in the novel as he presents the moment of outbreak from the point of view of Jonah. What makes this interesting is that Jonah is not in the room with the zombie, and is listening to the events on the phone. Because he can’t see what’s going on, neither can the reader and it puts us on edge. It’s a feeling that persists throughout the book.

There is plenty to like here, and the good points far outweigh the bad – a number of coincidences that just seem too trite, too neat. Lebbon paints a believable picture of a world that is rapidly falling apart – burning cities, army quickly deployed and even more quickly overrun, airspace patrolled in a vain attempt to keep the disease contained – and populates it with a group of people that it’s hard not to root for, even if we don’t necessarily like them. The climax, always a tough nut to crack in this type of novel, is satisfying and thought-provoking. This is no read-and-forget pulp horror; there is plenty of food for thought here.

In a welcome return to pure horror, Tim Lebbon has put a fresh twist on an old trope, and come up with Coldbrook. Fast-paced, blood-soaked and zombie-filled, it still manages a coherent and engaging storyline with an unsettling edge. I’m not afraid to admit that this one made me wary of turning off the lights at night, which puts it a cut above most of what’s out there in the resurgent tide of zombie fiction. Lebbon remains a solid, reliable writer who deserves to be better-known outside horror. Whether you’re new to the genre, or suffering zombie fatigue, I can’t recommend Coldbrook highly enough to you. Read it, enjoy it and, while you’re at it, hunt down some of Lebbon’s older horror novels. You can thank me later.

OUTPOST by Adam Baker


Adam Baker

Hodder & Stoughton (


I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much I enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction. There is an abundance of zombie fiction on the go these days, and it’s one of the sub-genres of horror where people aren’t afraid to experiment and play with the tropes, which keeps it somewhat fresher than you might expect. So we find ourselves dealing with the rotting recent-dead of Romero’s Dead movies, as well as the virus-infected zombies of the 28 <Arbitrary Time Period> Later films, and those affected by unidentified radio waves, as in Stephen King’s Cell. To my mind, though, there has always been a bit of a gap in the post-apocalypse sub-genre, particularly when zombies are involved, and it always occurs to me in the form of a question when I’m reading such a book: the author focuses on a set of survivors who have lived through whatever disaster forms the setup for the story, and how they cope in the post-apocalyptic world, but what about those people physically removed from civilisation at that point in time? I’m usually thinking along the lines of the handful of men and women who are currently sitting on the International Space Station, but you get the idea.

Adam Baker’s first novel, Outpost, finally fills this gap. As the novel opens we find ourselves in the Arctic oil fields, bedded down on Kasker Rampart, an oil refinery manned by a skeleton crew of fifteen, awaiting their imminent return to society before the refinery is shut down, or relocated. Weeks before the ship is due to arrive to evacuate them back to Britain, they begin to see worrying news reports on the 24-hour news stations – people are turning violent, killing those around them; a trend that seems to be spreading around the globe. As, one by one, the channels begin to go off-air, leaving the crew with the uneasy suspicion that there might be no home to return to, they begin to make plans, driven by the fast approaching winter (and the months of endless night that come with it) and a rapidly dwindling store of supplies.

The bulk of the story is told from the point of view of Jane Blanc, a priest assigned to run Rampart’s chapel, a thankless job that sees her mainly ostracised from the rest of the crew and on the verge of suicide before things start to go wrong in the outside world. Jane’s development from these humble beginnings to the leader of the ragged crew is well-documented and very believable. We follow her as factions form within the crew, and alliances are made, broken, remade. For the first half, this is a zombie novel at one remove: there are no zombies here, but they are out there somewhere, of no danger to our characters. It’s a story of survival against all odds and the characters – and their development over the course of an unknown time period – are brilliantly realised.

Halfway through, the game changes, and infection intervenes, bringing with it a whole host of new challenges for the crew of Rampart. Yes, this is a virus-induced zombification, and it is never made clear how the infection started or where, exactly, it came from. Sure, there are hints, but it’s secondary to the main story here, and the direction Baker takes us means that we never need – nor want – to find out, because we’re too busy following what’s going on. Suffice it to say that the latter half of the novel is closer to the traditional zombie formula, but by no means a rehash of anything that has gone before.

The novel is told in clipped, matter-of-fact tones and short, snappy sentences of the type you’d expect to find in hard-boiled detective fiction. Along with numerous jump-cuts, this serves the plot well: it builds tension, and it helps to remove a sense of time – we have no idea if what’s happening is happening over the course of hours, days, weeks or months. We can guess at various points, but it’s next to impossible to pin anything down for sure. Baker has no such qualms with sense of place: you’re fully aware for the duration of exactly where you are. This is the desolate wastes of the Arctic and it’s cold! That’s not a fact you’ll forget easily as you read.

In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.

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