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4.7 out of 5 stars
Dark Heart
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on 18 November 2011
Leo is a man convinced his on his way down to hell when he dies. He hated his father,envied his dead brother and cheated with his best friends girl. So when he drives his car into a lake and drowns imagine his surprise when he is rescued by an angel. From this original premise things get complex. A demon has seized the opportunity to reanimate in Leo's body and sets about killing people whilst Leo gets reincarnated in to the unfit body of his best friend. There's also a Bond poster that talks, kids going missing, a mystical dagger that was created kill with sinful impunity and an angel who tries to guide Leo into setting things right and reclaiming his soul.But as things go from bad to worse, he finds himself implemented for murder and realizes that everything is not as it seems.
This is a sterling novel.One that deals with religion in an abstract rather than preachy way. All the characters are flawed, sometimes selfish or blinded by emotion making them very human and thus believable so when unbelievable things happen the reader is more inclined to go with with it rather than dismiss it off hand as ridiculous and this is all to credit of a very talented author who must have a strange way of viewing the world.
I would say this is more a fantasy/mystery novel more than a horror. Although there is a limited amount, anybody looking for geysers of gore and lots of violence is likely to be disappointed. But none of that takes away the impact of the novel, it's just a little more subtle and thoughtful in the way it uses the usual trappings of these type of books.
This is a very clever book which provokes many vivid images, beautifully described and many emotional and psychological questions explored. Very impressive. Thank you.
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on 1 September 2012
A very well writen book that had plenty of twists and turns. I am certainly looking forward to reading another book by this author.
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On Leo's sixteenth birthday. something bad happened. Something so traumatic his mind fractured, and darkness filled the crack. Twenty years on and the crack is a canyon. The schizophrenic hallucination that offered sympathy has taken to mocking him, and the memory of that long-ago birthday claws at his darkest fears, overshadowing even the murder of his younger brother Davey. But just when Leo thinks life can't get and worse... Leo dies.

A demon returns after twenty years.

An Angel follows close behind.

Leo is caught in an age-old conflict, his past lying at the dark heart of it all.

Leo Stamp is not a happy man. He has beautiful home, a thriving business and a car to die for but he is haunted by the ghosts of his childhood. The death of his sibling weighs heavy on his shoulders and has stayed with him for decades. Alone at night he voices his anxieties to a poster of James Bond on his wall. He is seeking answers to the horrors have plagued his life. His mental state continues to deteriorate and by page fifty Leo is dead. When he is given the opportunity at a second chance at life that is when his troubles really start.

Leo finds himself essentially a pawn between two opposing forces that he doesn't fully understand. His potential tormentors/saviors are two men called Reuben and Michael. Each vies for Leo's attention, making promises of help and support. They lead him this way and that, playing on his emotions and mental fragility, to the point where Leo is unsure whom to trust. Leo's best friend John and John's girlfriend, Sadie are also drawn into the escalating series of events and this eventually leads to a climactic confrontation.

Darren J Guest's first novel is character driven piece. Leo is a tortured soul and the reader gets the opportunity to follow him as he attempts to cope with various psychological traumas as his world falls apart.

I liked that there aren't many characters and few locations as this helped to convey the novel's intimate nature. This is a story of one man as he battles with himself as much as the forces that are attempting to control him. Everyone feels the effects of Leo's actions and every move that he makes has repercussions.

A word of warning the story does touch upon some particularly dark themes, the murder of Davey and a number of other children particularly so. Coupled with descriptions Leo mental issues this makes for a novel that can be quite harrowing at times. In fairness though these elements are entirely necessary for the plot evolve the way it does.

You may be forgiven for thinking that a novel with fewer than three hundred pages would be lacking in depth but Guest has crafted a truly compelling tale. Leo is an everyman character. Realistically he could be anyone. Though there are supernatural elements this is also as much about the human condition and how a person's actions always have consequences. Guest takes time to explore the different levels of light and dark that inhabits us all.

I should also mention how much I enjoyed the little coda at the novels end, it hints that there may be more of this story that needs to be told. It strikes me that there is not only a history but also a wider scope to some of the characters, which could be explored. Dark Heart is a strong debut and I look forward to Darren's next book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 June 2011
Every now and then I like to take a punt on new authors, sometimes it pays of sometimes it doesn't. Darren was giving away free copies of this book from his blog. Being a tight fisted Scotsman,my ears pricked up at the mere mention of free.

I had to read it, if someone is giving away free books and I ask for one I'll always read it, it's only fair. The question on everyone's lips though is "was it worth reading?" The short answer to this is Hell Yes!!!!

On Leo's sixteenth birthday, something bad happened. Something so traumatic his mind fractured, and darkness filled the crack. Twenty years on and the crack is a canyon. The schizophrenic hallucination that once offered sympathy has taken to mocking him, and the memory of that long-ago birthday claws at his darkest fears, overshadowing even the murder of his younger brother Davey. But just when life can't get any worse... Leo dies.
A demon returns after twenty years.
An angel follows close behind.
Leo is caught in an age-old conflict, his past lying at the dark heart of it all.

That's all I'm going to say about the plot, yes I know it's a clichéd thing to say, but I'm not going to spoil anything by giving away any more details, the twists and turns are a joy to discover as you read this novel.

Dark Heart is the début novel from Darren J Guest, and as début novels go, this is one of the best. Dark Heart, is an excellent read, it is complex, enthralling, thrilling, but most importantly it feels as though it was written by a much more experienced author. Darren's writing is both tight and stylish, with a nice line of dark humour running through it. This is a complex story that deals with complex themes, yet Darren's writing never gets bogged down, as the story unfolds you are rewarded with some great twist, and a couple of what the hell moments.

I've been putting off the review for a while, mainly because I've been trying to decide what genre this book falls into. Yes it has angels and a bit of magic, but it's not an Urban Fantasy, yes there are horrific moments, but it's not a horror book. So I came to the conclusion, don't try and pigeon hole this book, what matters is that Darren J guest has crafted one of my favourite début novels of recent years, hell one of my favourite novels of recent years full stop. If this is what Darren produced as a first attempt, then I can't wait to read what he brings out next.

Trust me folks this book is worth your time and money.
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on 17 July 2011
At the beginning of this year one of my bookolutions was to keep exploring SF, YA and horror as I'd really enjoyed the first steps I'd set within these genres in 2010. So when author Darren J Guest contacted me to review Dark Heart I jumped at the chance based on the flap text above. The book sounded really cool and right up my alley, so when it also turned out to be a horror novel I was doubly pleased. And after reading the book I was even more pleased as I really enjoyed this further foray into horror.

Leo is a very interesting protagonist. Dark Heart is his story and while there is plenty of action and skulking about, the main meat of the plot is psychological. As stated in the blurb, Leo is fractured when he is sixteen and this is reflected in his behaviour; on the one hand he is an adult, but at the same time he is a scared teen. In Dark Heart we see him, literally and figuratively, face his demons. Leo has to look his past and his memories in the eye and deal with them, in the process healing himself and fully growing up. Guest handles this expertly and I thought his choice of hallucination for Leo was awesome; Connery's Bond is perfect for the wry, mocking manifestation of Leo's wiser, grown-up half. Together with Bond, Leo manages to face his memories, which allows him to make the necessary connections to solve the mystery of Reuben and Michael. Despite all of this, Leo doesn't come across as an unreliable narrator. The reader is put on the wrong foot a couple of times in the novel, but Leo is there right along with her and doesn't seem to be hiding anything.

The concept of Dark Hearts is quite interesting, though one would expect that more people - if not most - would be Dark Hearts, as almost no one is either purely good or purely evil. I also liked the idea of Heaven and Hell but Purgatory being reincarnation. I found this very cool, almost a hybrid of Christianity and Hinduism, which seems oddly fitting. It did make me wonder about other Dark Hearts however, do they get to choose, like Leo, or are they just shoved back into a new body waiting to be born?

The narrative is driven by two triangles: Leo-John-Sadie and Leo-Michael-Reuben. The first triangle is your classic love triangle and one wonders what Sadie would have made of the whole situation, as she's never made aware that the two boys are competing for her. Both Sadie and John, while very important to the story, are placed somewhat outside the narrative; we don't really get to know them, other than through other people, Sadie through Leo and John's memories and John through Leo and Mick, Leo's surrogate father. Michael and Reuben are equally enigmatic, though they take a far more active role in the book. In both triangles Leo is the linchpin and as such he is the one that is completely fleshed out. On the whole, the fact that the secondary characters aren't so much underdeveloped as they are just a bit thin - they could have had more meat on their bones - isn't a huge problem at all. It allows us to stay with Leo, who is the heart and soul of the book.

The way Leo returns to life and the twist at the end had me completely surprised. The ending is superb, with Leo facing his version of Purgatory head on and leaving the reader hope for his salvation. Dark Heart is an awesome debut. The book was very enjoyable and a compelling page turner. If you are looking for a scary book with limited gore or horror of a psychological thriller bent, then Dark Heart is the book for you. It will be interesting to see where Guest goes from here, but if Dark Heart is anything to go by, it will be good.

This book was sent to me for review by the author.
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Darren J. Guest's debut horror novel, Dark Heart, is not quite what one might expect. Instead of telling one of the more violent, macabre horror stories, Guest opts for the more personal tale, one that is more emotionally terrifying than outright horrifying. Leo Stamp may be a disturbed individual, but Guest makes him, to our pleasure, a very very appealing disturbed individual. A mix of a tale of absolution, of age-old strife and with a slight bit of mystery, Dark Heart is touching book, and a very satisfying debut for Guest.

Honestly, this didn't have as much horror in it as I was expecting, but this was substituted with a dark, emotional and just as engrossing tale. Leo Stamp is a bizarre man, composed of much sadness and latent trauma, and when we meet him, he appears to be barely able to function in society anymore. Indeed, if his behavior with his best friend at the beginning of the book is anything to go by, Leo can't be said to be much in control of his life anymore at all. Yet Guest makes it clear that there is definitely a reason why he is like this, and Dark Heart is essentially this explanation as well as, more importantly, the tale of Leo's redemption - hence the subtitle of the book: The Purgatory of Leo Stamp.

Set in a small, quiet English village, Dark Heart transports you to a very eerie and private place inside of Leo's world. His disquieting mental and emotional state builds on to this to create a very heavy atmosphere for the novel. This makes everyone of Leo's emotions better felt by the reader meaning a wholly more personal tale than most. Dark Heart's value lies less in the sophistication of its intrigue than in the rich characterization of Leo Stamp. Usually I'm more of a `balance between plot and characterization' guy, but the way Guest told his story, I didn't mind it.

Dark Heart does have it's issue though, including being is a bit confusing at first. The nature of the mythology of the book (and I'm not really sure mythology is the best word in this case) makes it difficult to understand quite what's going on at first. Guest, also, doesn't seem too sure of where he wants to be taking the story, so in the first few pages he leads us in one direction before shifting the trajectory to a different, and final path. Thankfully, this shift occurs relatively early, and so the reading experience is unhindered.

However Guest makes up for this with strong, characteristic prose ideally suited to the type of story he tells. His writing approach allows us to get closer to Leo and engage with him through the difficulties he faces in the book. The very focused viewpoint is essentially a consequence of the limited scope, but it is perfect to give us the most intimate account of this tale as possible. Our restricted vision of things also helps keep us unaware of the true nature of some of the secondary characters, leading to an unexpected, but welcomed, reveal in the final act of the novel.

Dark Heart did not scare me or keep me on edge as much as, say, one of Adam Nevill's books, but Guest proves himself an adept storyteller capable and Leo Stamp an engaging character. Even when I thought I had this story figured out, it managed to surprise me with one final twist - for that it deserves much congratulations. For a debut writer, Guest makes an excellent first impression - his plotting has its faults but Dark Heart gives no indication that experience with further novels won't hone Guest into a more than fine horror writer. Let us hope he gets that chance.
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on 8 May 2011
This book gave me the kind of shiver I only get when I know I've found something special.

From the outset, the story upsets expectations.
Quite literally, anything could happen. And it does.
If I summarised the book, you wouldn't believe it.
But the story roots itself in the normal, the everyday, and carries you with it as the shocking, unbelievable and extreme turn everything upside down and inside out.
You put this book down and start thinking.
You can't help it. It stays with you.
The depth, the humour, the echoing sense of legacy - it certainly lives up to its title.

It's rare to find a book covering such metaphysical themes through grounded detail, deft characterisation and the rough, gritty bits of everyday life. Powerful insights into damaged minds, credible leaps into unreality and a literally epic power struggle makes this book the next ... hmm.
I honestly can't link this to anything I've ever read.
Kudos to Snowbooks, because how do you sell such a novel which can't be compared to anything else?

Dark Heart is an original work of an unusual mind.
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on 30 January 2011
I think it was February of this year when Anna Torborg, cover artist and editor extraordinaire at the small but might indie publisher Snowbooks, emailed me to see if I'd be interested in doing a cover blurb for a book she thought I'd really like. I didn't hesitate in my answer she'd already asked authors for blurbs for my books, so I thought to return the favor.

What I didn't expect was how rewarding a reading experience it was going to be. Dark Heart: The Purgatory of Leo Stamp is the first book for British author Darren J. Guest and to sum it up in a short sentence: it's a helluva read! I thoroughly enjoyed this book not because I'm a fan of horror or that I'm constantly looking for books that deal with our darker nature, and there's a lot of that in this book. Leo is a guy with a fair amount of wealth as the book starts out. He lives a relatively solitary life with few friends and there's this business of a James Bond poster on the wall that ... well... it talks to him. It analyzes him. It calls into question Leo's motivations and points out his flaws, and it does this using Sean Connery's voice. He's Jiminy Cricket on acid, seriously.

At first glance, you might think that Leo is mad - he does, after all have conversations with an old movie poster, but it doesn't take you long to realize that these conversations exist because Leo's heart is empty. He admittedly floats through life. He covets his best friend's girlfriend Sadie because of an almost moment years ago. He is a shadow of the person he could be and very early on in the book, he dies. That's when everything changes for Leo because he's going be engaged shortly in some heavy duty body swapping - and the real head spinner is the *other* body swapping that is about to happen. That's where things really start to take off because the person occupying Leo's body might just be a killer who is as old as time itself.

I truly can't reveal much more of the plot than what I've written because this book becomes a real page-turner and there are plot twists that will make your head spin. There's a shadowy character who forms an alliance of sorts with Leo. There's a race against time to stop further murders and there's this business of stopping the being that is currently residing in the mortal husk of dearly departed Leo.

This is a classic horror/suspense novel. It shines a light into the dark places that make up the human psyche. It challenges you to root for a hero who by all accounts isn't exactly someone with terribly redeeming qualities and it pushes you into wondering whether what Leo is experiencing might well be an out-of-control schizophrenic hallucination. This is the stuff of a great book, where the reader must suspend belief to reconcile fact from fantasy. Is Leo's purgatory in another body real or isn't it? Is this murderous person someone that deeply flawed Leo can stop?

I finished this book in a day, and that's rare for me because I'm a notoriously slow reader. It's a fresh take on horror because it doesn't lend itself to formulaic writing and predictable plot twists.

Give it a spin and buckle up. There's hair-pin turns in this one and you'll need your wits about you because the ending will make you wonder why the hell you didn't see it coming in the first place.
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on 31 May 2011
This was such a thoroughly enjoyable book, I literally could not put it down until I had finished it. Darkly funny and warmly human, the novel plays with our ideas of heaven and hell, and of sins and innocence. Leo Stamp is a glorious creation, a man who is ironically all heart, and yet finds himself dead and cast into a place where he is judged to be dark of heart. With the help of James Bond (yes, really) and the arrival of two angels and a murderous knife they both covet, Leo begins to understand what happened in his own terrible past and also what he must do to create a lighter future for himself and for his close friends. Is redemption possible? Can Leo change both the past and the present? A very imaginative and well written book. I'm looking forward to more novels by this writer.
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on 28 February 2012
Well, where to begin, I am personally a very slow reader and whilst on holiday recently I managed to get through 3 books, of these 3, Dark Heart I read in 2 days due to the fact that I just couldn't put it down, its such an invigorating book full of twists and turns that take you many places in the imagination of the author. I am not going to give away anything of the story but I can safely say that the general mix of horror with a pinch of comedy and biblical background makes it a beautiful read. I can recommend this book for just about anyone who feels themselves worthy of a good read.
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