Review: “Bloodliner,” Robert Jeschonek

Pros: Very out-of-the-box thinking; fascinating take on vampire physiology
Cons: Needs a continuity edit; a couple of iffy “messages”
Rating: 2 out of 5

Robert Jeschonek’s Bloodliner: A Young Adult Horror Novel is, like the other books I’ve read of his, very outside of the box. However, also like those other books, this doesn’t always entirely work. First of all, I found this book in a bundle of thrillers. What you need to know is that it is, first and foremost, humor/horror, not a thriller. If that isn’t what you’re expecting, you might not enjoy it so much.

Jonah is 18 years old and his parents died in a car wreck recently. His twin brothers were kidnapped five years earlier and were never found. He’s left without any family; all he has is his band, Crimson Wonder, a Jethro Tull tribute band. When a woman comes on to him and takes him outside to the alley between sets at one of his gigs, she nearly kills him–it turns out that she’s a vampire! He’s saved by Stanza Miracolo, a woman who claims to have been hired by his parents to trace his genealogy. She gets a bonus every time she saves his life, apparently, and it’s beginning to look like she’ll earn her pay. She explains that vampires are created when a weird little creature called a feratu burrows inside a host and then devours and replaces its heart. Soon he finds himself on the run from vampire Shakespeare and vampire Genghis Khan, while vampire King Arthur takes up his side–along with his previously unknown cousin, Mavis, who’s a pastor.

This book could have used a good continuity edit. Mavis lost her father a month ago and is thus taking over his church for him… except that she lost her parents years ago, which is why she’s angry at Jonah’s family for not taking her in when she was little. (I’m guessing the father she lost a month ago was a foster father, but this should have been specified.) She’s 19 years old when we meet her, but later she’s described as having bottled up her anger for 30 years. I also don’t understand why, on multiple occasions, certain characters who really should have recognized each other don’t do so. At one point a horse reacts badly to a vampire, but later on vampires are riding horses… which, also, they’re capable of flying, so why bother? I also believe at least one of the vampires was born too early for the timeline of who the supposed progenitor of the vampires was.

Content note that this book does get a little bit bloody in places, but you know, vampires. There are plenty of brutal fights to be read and they’re done well enough that they’re pretty much the highlight of the book.

There are a couple of love plots in here, and the humorous tone doesn’t jibe well with them. They feel like Jonah and Mavis are just having massive crushes rather than actual “love”. There’s very little chemistry between them and the people they fall in love with, and the massive age discrepancy is kind of icky. (At least, given that Jonah and Mavis are as young as they are. They come across as children compared to their crushes.) Also, at one point when Mavis and her love interest are having difficulties, she slaps him and says she wasn’t asking him, “I was telling you.” And just, if the genders were swapped it would be plain as day that this was abusive and controlling behavior, so frankly, this is abusive and controlling behavior and it should not be romanticized.

This book is highly original, but it just didn’t really work for me.

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Short Take: “To Be Devoured,” Sara Tantlinger

Pros: Excellent intense point of view
Cons: Very gross!
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sara Tantlinger’s novella To Be Devoured is, I must warn you, quite grotesque. So if that puts you off, just stop here.

Andi has made a special gift for her girlfriend Luna–a pair of wings made out of the wings of dead Luna moths. Luna, for her part, is disgusted with this gift of dead bugs. Andi has had a life full of death, bitterness, and fury. She’s obsessed with Luna. She’s obsessed with vultures and how they scavenge the dead, and desperately wants to become like them. She wants to taste dead flesh–not the kind you buy in a store–and that urge is only growing.

Content note for: f/f period sex, animal harm, animal death, general gore, and cannibalism.

The narrative is actually pretty impressive. The author truly gets into Andi’s mind, and manages to portray her inner voice quite convincingly. I liked how easy it was to dislike the nosy neighbor, even though he’s the only one who might notice and stop what’s going on. Andi’s point of view was intense and engrossing. This is a short, shocking story that I think many horror fans would enjoy.

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Review: “Silenced,” Nicole Givens Kurtz

Pros: Interesting worldbuilding
Cons: Rough writing; needs another edit
Rating: 3 out of 5

Nicole Givens Kurtz’s Silenced: A Cybil Lewis Novel (Cybil Lewis Mysteries) introduces us to Cybil Lewis, “private inspector and all around snoop”. This story takes place in the not-too-distant future. There are flying cars (“wautos”), laser guns, and moon colonies. The US has been divvied up into quadrants, and DC is “the now ruined former capital of the United States”. Cybil has an “inspector in training,” Jane, whose aunt is Mayor Christensen of the Memphis Quadrant. The mayor’s daughter Mandy is missing, and the regulators (the futuristic version of police) have been unable to find her. Cybil doesn’t want to work for the mayor, but she accepts the job for Jane’s sake. The two head down to Memphis to try to figure out what happened to Mandy.

The worldbuilding is really interesting. There are little mentions of things that fill out the picture, like cheese being incredibly rare due to cattle mutations. Some restaurants use robot servers. Most phone calls include video. It all adds up to give that futuristic vibe. It reminds me a little of the near-future world of J.D. Robb’s “In Death” books, but with less glamour and more constant grit.

Unfortunately, the writing is rough. The pacing is bumpy. The writing is often awkward (the book starts off with nearly two pages just about how it’s cold out and Cybil has to keep her jacket open so she can get to her gun). The side characters often seem to mug for the camera, with even polished, politically savvy characters prone to stuttering and similar issues when emotions get high. This book also seriously needs another edit. There are a lot of words that just aren’t used right, and some clear errors that got missed.

There’s some off-screen sex. It was hard for me to find lines like “I was panting like a mutt in heat” sexy, though. (Ugh.) Content note: sexual assault and mention of rape. I was also rather surprised at how casually statutory rape is treated. Cybil interviews Mandy’s 23-year-old boyfriend (Mandy was 16) and even comments on his “wholesomeness”. Ick! Okay, I just realized that they never actually give the age of consent, but I still wouldn’t see a 23-year-old going after a 16-year-old as run-of-the-mill. It deserved at least a little bit of comment.

Cybil sometimes seems to miss obvious possibilities or jump to weird conclusions. I can’t go into most of them because it would give plot details away. Other than that, the plotting is interesting and sufficiently convoluted without going too far.

I’m ambivalent about this book. On the positive side, it has strong women of color in it, which is wonderful. And like I said, the worldbuilding is great. I just wish the writing was up to snuff. Luckily, this is the sort of thing a writer can improve over time, so it’s probably worth giving later books a read.

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Review: “Hollow Kingdom,” Kira Jane Buxton

Pros: Delightful characters; very quotable!
Cons: Gets very introspective!
Rating: 4 out of 5

Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom introduces us to Shit Turd (S.T.), a crow raised by a human named Big Jim. He spews profanities and rides Big Jim’s bloodhound Dennis like a horse. He’s also inordinately fond of Cheetos. One day, Big Jim’s eye falls out, and Big Jim deteriorates from there. S.T. steals a bunch of medications from a pharmacy (everything from antibiotics to Summer’s Eve) and tries to use them to help Jim, but nothing works. Eventually he and Dennis must leave their home in search of answers, food, and a cure for Big Jim–for all the humans, actually, because S.T. is in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Along the way, he discovers that he has a role to play in the newest phase of domestic animals’ lives.

The narrative is, for the most part, quite delightful. It’s hugely quotable, which is so much fun.

Big Jim and I shared a look, or sort of three-quarters of a look, because now, obviously, he only had a single eyeball.

S.T. is by turns hilarious and rather adorable. His is the most unusual narrative voice I’ve ever seen for a zombie apocalypse. Things do, however, take a bit of a downturn part-way through. S.T. becomes incredibly introspective as he has a crisis of identity and faith, and it goes on for quite a while. I found it didn’t hold my attention, so for a while in the middle of the book I kept putting it down. It’s well worth picking up again, however, because the more active storyline does get going again!

Content note: Since this is an apocalyptic story (albeit an oft-humorous one), and the characters are animals of all kinds, there is of course some animal harm and animal death in this book. However, this book is nicely free of the usual content issue found in post-apocalyptics (rape and torture).

The “humanity bringing about its own end” theme is very heavy, right down to the fact that the zombified humans will, more than anything, focus on and chase down anything that’s an active electronic (particularly cell phones). This isn’t necessarily a negative–it’s appropriate to the book, but some people will like it and others won’t, so I mention it for that reason.

The narrative occasionally takes a side jaunt so we can see through the eyes of Winnie the Poodle, Genghis Cat, a polar bear, or the Mother Tree. Pretty much the only animals we don’t experience this way are the freed zoo animals, who definitely have a few roles to play in events. This is really interesting, and never lasts long enough to interrupt the flow of the novel.

Apart from the slow portion in the middle, I really enjoyed this book, and would heartily recommend it!

So there we were. A rejected crow with an identity crisis partnering a bloodhound with an IQ of boiled pudding. We were perhaps the most pathetic excuse for an attempted murder on the face of the earth.

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Short Take: “The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales,” Sonora Taylor

Pros: Four entertaining stories
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sonora Taylor’s short anthology The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales contains four brief tales of horror. I really loved her unusual serial killer tale Without Condition, so I had to give this collection a read!

In The Crow’s Gift, Tabitha is being bullied by schoolmate Simon. She’s also starting to make friends with a crow she calls Timothy, who brings her pretty pebbles in return for the crackers she feeds him and his friends. This one is simple, to the point, and delightful.

I Love Your Work sees Ann trying desperately to see her favorite author, Samuel Miller, at a book signing–but it seems like the universe itself is trying to keep her from getting there as one thing goes wrong after another! This is an entertaining little story that is simple-but-fun.

The protagonist of I Never Knew Your Name sees a certain stranger every day on their way to work, and for some reason these two just seem to click and always say hello. Then children start to go missing, and things get weird. This one’s a little surreal, and I might have liked just a little more information, but it’s intriguing as it is.

In All the Pieces Coming Together, Taylor returns to the world of serial killers. A fledgling serial killer picks up a woman at the bar, but finds he’s actually quite attracted to her. He decides to enjoy the night with her before killing her, but things don’t quite go according to plan.

I’m a serial killer–or at least, I would be if there were anyone around to kill.

That last story was my favorite–Taylor seems to be particularly good at presenting serial killers in new and unusual ways! This collection is a very brief read, but definitely enjoyable.

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Review: “The Pilot,” Michael Cole

Pros: Interesting military-vs-monsters story
Cons: Details that don’t add up right
Rating: 3 out of 5

Michael Cole’s The Pilot introduces us to Victor Seymour, a Navy SEAL who was discharged due to cancer, recovered, and became a mercenary. He and his team are manipulated into working for the government this time: they have to go to a mysterious island, rescue some hostages, and bring with them agent Cassie Hawk, who knows more about what’s going on than she’s saying. There’s an alien loose on the island–something the government calls the Pilot–and it’s extremely dangerous. It also has an agenda.

The alien Pilot is a cross between a Predator and an Alien. It’s a danger to all of humanity, and our heroes will have a hard time surviving its attention. The pacing of this book is quite good–the tension slowly builds, and about two-thirds of the way through it becomes wonderfully tense. That’s also the point at which the narrative became a bit smoother, as though the author had really hit his stride. Prior to that some of the writing seemed a bit stilted and awkward.

The book could have used another round of editing. There were a number of misspellings of the sort a spell-checker won’t catch (one word substituted for something one letter off). I’m also pretty sure that the author intended to say that the eight-foot-tall alien had 12 INCH fangs, not fangs “twelve feet in length”. It’s still hard to imagine fangs a foot long being at all wieldy, mind you.

The characters are an odd mix of stereotypical and non-stereotypical. For instance, I’m just shocked that the sole Japanese mercenary was inscrutable, nigh-silent, and proficient with a sword. The Korean soldiers the good guys encounter are used just as soulless cannon fodder, and everything the characters do to them (including torture in one case) is depicted as perfectly reasonable. (Content note for blood, guts, explosions, and torture.)

SPOILER WARNING: Go to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers. At one point in the book, the team is concerned that the Pilot will repair and use a damaged plane to escape the island. They’re convinced that because it comes from a highly technologically advanced civilization, it will be able to do this in a matter of hours. So one, they’re assuming that just because it’s advanced, it’s a mechanic. Which, huh? Two, they’re assuming that if you can operate advanced tech, you can automatically operate primitive tech. This is a plane built in a totally different cultural and technological context. I mean, how the hell does the Pilot know how to activate autopilot?? I’m pretty sure if you took someone who knew how to drive a Tesla and put them in a biplane, they wouldn’t know how to operate it simply because it was less advanced. All of this really made things fall apart toward the end. END SPOILER WARNING.

If you’re looking for a tense military-vs-monsters book and don’t care whether the details add up, this would be an engaging read. If you’re looking for sense, however, try something else.

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Review: “Patient Zero,” Terry Tyler

Pros: Good slice-of-life apocalypse stories
Cons: Small things
Rating: 4 out of 5

Terry Tyler’s Patient Zero: Post-Apocalyptic Short Stories apparently is an add-on to her “Project Renova” series. It’s supposed to stand alone, so I thought it might be interesting to read and give me an idea of whether I want to read the actual series. It’s a small collection of short stories set in a post-apocalyptic UK where a virus has wiped out much of the population. I found it mostly stood well alone. The stories aren’t about arc-plot; they’re slice-of-life stories about various people’s experiences during and after the end of things. Because of this they’re relatively low-key. The final story seems to break genre, which is confusing–the protagonist claims to have died and been reborn many times, which doesn’t fit in your average viral apocalypse, and there’s nothing in the other stories that hinted at anything like that. Also one of the stories is called “Evie: Patient Zero,” but there’s really nothing in there that explains the patient zero reference (although the afterword assures us that one of the other books does explain it).

The nine stories provide a nice range of characters and views of the apocalypse. Jared Green’s Uncle Owen gave him two vials of precious vaccine–but Jared’s no longer sure he wants to give the second one to his girlfriend, who’s cheating on him. Flora’s father figured out things were going to go badly and put a bunch of stuff by–but that doesn’t mean her family will have an easy time of things as society fails. Jeff was a prepper who went all-out having a bunker made and stocking it with everything he could need, but he failed to account for the boredom and loneliness.

Karen cared for her sister and her sister’s family as they died, but she remained immune. She laid a heavy burden on her sister as Claire lay dying, and now she’s trying to atone for that. Aaron, who also seems to be immune, set out to find anyone he knows who might still be alive, and ended up at his ex-girlfriend’s house. Meg is waiting for her prison guard husband to return so they can leave their home and go someplace safer, but he’s late.

Ruby, girlfriend to a drug dealer, starts to wonder whether she should really wait for him before getting the hell out of Dodge. Evie is having trouble holding onto her boyfriend Nick, but she’s also having trouble letting go. She just never seems to come first in his life. Martin is the man who’s lived many lives. I’m still utterly confused by this story’s place in the rest of this world.

The stories are interesting, and it’s an enjoyable book if you like viral apocalypses, which I definitely do. There isn’t anything amazing here, but it’s solidly good.

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Review: “The Devil You Know,” Terry Tyler

Pros: Great concept executed well!
Cons: Some stereotypes; a whole lot of misogyny
Rating: 4 out of 5

Terry Tyler’s The Devil You Know approaches the serial killer thriller from a new direction. In a British town, there’s a serial killer strangling prostitutes. Five people become convinced that someone they know is the killer. The reader, of course, knows it can’t be all of them. As the evidence mounts up, which suspect will prove to be the real killer? Is it Steve’s misogynistic friend Dan? Tamsin’s colleague and crush Jake? Dorothy’s civil servant son Orlando? Juliet’s abusive husband Paul? Or 15-year-old Maisie’s mother’s boyfriend Gary?

As the tale progresses and more women die, the evidence against each person becomes stronger, although in all cases there seem to be extenuating details as well. All five people stay out late for dubious or false reasons. Paul seems to have all the personality traits of a serial killer as revealed by the experts. Dan has been accused of attempted rape, and Steve’s not so sure he believes Dan’s side of things. Tamsin seems obsessed with Jake, so it’s easy to believe that in her anger at his brush-off after their one night stand, she might be reaching to declare him the killer. Orlando seems like a fairly sensitive man, but he is an adult who shows no sign of moving out of his mother’s house, and he’s been lying about where he’s spending his time. Maisie thinks the photo-fit looks like Gary, but is he really a killer, or is he just your run-of-the-mill philanderer taking advantage of her mother?

Some of the characters are a bit on the stereotypical side. I will say that Orlando and his mother, Dorothy, are my favorite pair of characters. They’re the least stereotypical, and have the most interesting relationship between them. Orlando is much more than the stereotype of the man who never grows up and never leaves his mother. He and his mother have sly senses of humor and a rather beautiful relationship. My least favorite character is Dan. He’s pretty much the epitome of the hard-drinking lad who thinks all girls are asking for it. I really didn’t enjoy reading through his sections, because they’re just endless litanies of misogyny. Similarly, Paul is pretty much the stereotypical abusive (yet outwardly successful and charming) husband, and his wife Juliet–for most of the book anyway–seems the typical battered woman who does everything she can to avoid placing blame on her husband. Tamsin is the ultimate portrayal of the kind of woman who becomes obsessed with a man and sees a relationship where there is none (this doesn’t excuse the fact that Jake is an asshole who takes advantage of that, of course). It just seems like the author went too far into making the suspects the “typical” range of serial killer stereotypes.

One of the things I love about this book is the little connections that emerge. You might see Dan and Steve and their friends go to a certain bar, only to hear the name of the bar repeated in another section. Some sex-trafficking Albanians play several roles in different narratives. Certain neighborhoods show up more than once. The paper that Tamsin and Jake work for gets read by several other characters. There’s a very nice interwoven tapestry of suspects, witnesses, protagonists, police, and geography.

It is a serial killer thriller. Content note for rape, murder, physical and emotional abuse, misogynistic tirades, slurs, etc.

If you’re a fan of serial killer stories, you’ll find the concept of this tale to be new, interesting, and refreshing!

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Review: “The Gossamer Mage,” Julie E. Czerneda

Pros: Fabulous worldbuilding and characters!
Cons: Some confusion; a few things didn’t quite add up
Rating: 4 out of 5

Julie E. Czerneda’s The Gossamer Mage is an absolutely beautiful dark fantasy tale. Tananen is the only place in the world where magic is real. Men touched by the Gift of the Deathless Goddess become mages, learning to write Her Words in order to bring intentions to life. Women touched by Her Gift become daughters, and help to keep the land and its inhabitants safe. When mages use their power, they sacrifice a portion of their lives, growing old and dying well before their time. When a mage’s intention isn’t pure, focused, or skilled enough, he creates Gossamrs–living magic with will and a mind of its own. Maleonarial is exceptionally gifted. He has 300 bells in his hair–one bell for each use of his power–and yet still lives, although barely. When a village is attacked by monsters, the locals blame Mal, who’s been living as a hermit–however, it should be impossible for his creations to harm and kill. Both the Hold Lord and Hold Daughter of Tiler’s Hold send representatives to figure out what’s going on and put a stop to it.

The system of magic is truly interesting. The daughters are the only ones who can speak Her Words and live, but the mages are the only ones who can use intentions to create living magics. Those magics take the form of living things; so for example, magic can’t heal directly, but it might be used to create a plant which can be distilled into a healing potion. Elements such as the quality of the pen, ink, and parchment used can have varying effects on the magics. Since mages have to spend their youth and life to work magic, their magic is highly valued and compensated. But the inhabitants of Tananen are used to having nearly every aspect of their lives enriched by magic, so mages live fleeting lives. There did seem to be some inconsistency in how much of a mage’s life magic took. When the characters are throwing around magics later in the book, it seemed from the descriptions like each use took, if I had to guess, probably 1-3 years off of the mage’s life. Yet Mal started out with 300 bells, so obviously that can’t be true, even if he did have an unusual number. There was another mage depicted who was absolutely mired in the results of his magics, so again, a year or two for each use couldn’t possibly be the case. If the aging effects had just been subtler at the end the whole shebang would have made perfect sense. It also would have made the extravagant uses of magic more believable. Especially when mages apparently use magic so ubiquitously that even “no mage scribe used sparks to start fire.”

I really love the characters. Kait, one of the daughters, is a back-woods woman transplanted to a city hold as a potential successor to the Hold Daughter. She’s out of her element, but seems to have an unusual gift to detect certain types of evil–a gift that’s going to be needed! She’s concerned, however, because she no longer hears the Lady’s Voice in her mind. (I would have liked a little more information about what that was like before it vanished. I never got a handle on, say, whether it was a two-way or one-way communication, or what sorts of things the Lady talked about.) Mal is also a great character. He’s determined to find a way to destroy the Lady so that she’ll stop draining the lives of mages, even if it means no more magic in the world. He has interesting history with many of the incidental (and not-so-incidental) characters, and he has a whole lot of depth. There are plenty of intriguing, enjoyable characters to accompany the reader on her journey.

I found the narrative a little confusing at times. Some of the geographic description was hard to get a handle on. And there was just something about the wording in places that forced me to read sentences twice in order to figure out what exactly was going on–a kind of awkward wording here and there.

I really enjoyed this book, and I think almost any fantasy fan would. It does get a bit dark and bloody in places, so just be aware.

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Review: “The Third Mrs. Durst,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: The characters! The scheming! I’m floored!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

I came across Ann Aguirre’s The Third Mrs. Durst on Book-Twitter. Aguirre said she’d been told she should market it as “bisexual erotic murder ladies”, and that sounded like fun, frankly, so I gave in and grabbed a copy. I’m so glad I did! This is one of my three favorite books of the year-so-far. (What an incredible book summer it’s been!)

Marlena Altizer has run away from home, leaving behind her poor, junkie mother and her younger siblings. She and her friend Jenny Song manage to snag jobs as models, although the conditions aren’t always so great. Marlena has a long-term plan, however. She catches the eye of Michael Durst, a controlling, but very wealthy, man, and sets about reeling him in. While she does become the third Mrs. Durst, however, she has something in mind besides money. Soon it becomes hard to tell in this cat and mouse game: who’s the cat and who’s the mouse? Michael controls every aspect of Marlena’s life, and his behavior escalates faster than she had anticipated. She may have bitten off more than she can chew, but she’s a fighter–and she’s determined to have her revenge.

I could have shouted in triumph, but I’d been planning this for so long that I could never break character.

Content note for rape and violence. There’s also some (not that much) explicit sex, of both f/f and f/m variety.

The characters in here are fabulous. Marlena and Jenny are two incredibly devious women, and I loved them. They and Vin (Marlena’s bodyguard) could be considered unlikable in some ways–at least compared to your traditional thriller leads–but I didn’t care one bit. Aguirre plays off of the stereotype of the young country naïf who gets in over her head, but Marlena is anything but naïve. Michael is absolutely psychotic, over-the-top in his glorious madness, and it works. Vin could also have easily been the stereotypical bodyguard love-plot, but he wasn’t. Marlena definitely incorporates him into her plans, but he’s a really interesting character, and their interactions are fantastic. So many clichés get subverted in here, and it’s wonderful!

The cat-and-mouse game gets truly dizzying. Unexpected characters come into play. Allies and enemies are fluid things. My heart raced through so many close calls and I was on the edge of my seat. Frankly my cats were lucky I finished before it was their dinner time or they’d have been left waiting! I don’t think I could have put this book down. Now I just have to hope Aguirre writes more books like this! I’ll certainly be waiting to buy them if she does!

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