Review: “Lost Mission,” Joshua James, Daniel Young

Pros: The last quarter gets tense and interesting
Cons: The pacing is all off; so-so characters
Rating: 3 out of 5

I’m a big fan of Joshua James’s “Lucky’s Marines” books, so when I saw he had co-authored the novella Lost Mission (Oblivion) with Daniel Young, I got right on that. It’s the first book in the “Oblivion” trilogy. Lee Saito is a United Earth Federation (UEF) captain who’s being sent on a “peace” mission to the Alliance of Independent Civilizations (AIC–folks who emigrated from earth). However, he’s being sent on a warship that’s bristling with new tech, which he feels sends the wrong message. How’s he supposed to end a 20-year war with the biggest warship the UEF has? Before leaving earth, he and his wife, Beverly, have one last party. Their son, Ben, who’s also in the Navy, is running late and finds himself at the scene of a terrorist attack–one of many that night. Cultists touting “the abyss” and “the Oblivion” manage to kill quite a few people, including Beverly. Lee leaves for his mission anyway, something that Ben, who’s been terribly injured, will never forgive him for. While Lee heads straight into an ambush, Ben finds something on a mysterious data drive that indicates his father’s mission is in terrible danger. He tries to tell someone–anyone–but no one believes him.

There’s a bit of a dropped plot thread from the beginning. There’s a bit about how people with built-in HUDs have “life feeds”, which are basically a recording of their lives uploaded to the internet or whatever they have. It’s something the police can access. Ben finds a few hours of his life feed are missing at the beginning of the book, which he comments just shouldn’t happen, and then it’s never brought up again. Even if it’s going to come back in a later book, it would have been nice to see some indication that it wasn’t a throw-away line.

The prose feels too… careful, for most of the book. It just kind of tiptoes along, and the pace never seems to vary. It’s the narrative equivalent of a monotone. The presence of a couple of infodumps doesn’t help this. The entire tone is monotonous for much of the book. After the hyperactivity of Lucky’s Marines, this is a disappointment.

The characters don’t entirely appeal to me. Lee Saito is probably on stage the most, and yet he’s like a slice of Wonder Bread: bland and uninteresting. Whereas Ben Saito is obnoxious and not entirely likable. Probably the only point-of-view character I liked was PFC Ada Ericsson (a marine).

There are aliens in here, but they seem like they’re meant to be much creepier than they actually are. I feel like this is an attempt at Aliens-style military SF-horror, but it falls woefully short on the horror aspect. Maybe an improvement in pacing and tone would have fixed this. It also would have helped to have more attachment to the characters.

The basic story is good, and I’m still waffling on whether I want to read more of the series since the pacing does pick up in the last quarter of the book. I’m tempted to think that most of what I liked about this book was just the fact that it hits my horror/SF itch, rather than any inherent goodness.

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Short Take: “The Last Conversation,” Paul Tremblay

Pros: Absolutely riveting
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

In Paul Tremblay’s novella The Last Conversation (Forward collection), the unnamed protagonist wakes up in the dark. He hurts. He has no memory of who he might be. A voice comes on over a speaker–that of Dr. Anne Kuhn. She says that he must remain in isolation due to his compromised immune system, and that she will help him to remember, help him to redevelop his muscles and his faculties. Day after day she walks him through mental and physical exercises, refusing to tell him who he is, who he is to her, and what’s going on outside–other than the fact that they’re the only two present in the Facility, and that there’s a pandemic going on outside. She seems devoted to returning him to himself. One day, it’ll be time for him to emerge.

This is haunting and immersive. It’s told in the second person, and it’s really easy to get caught up in the main character’s point of view. He’s learning so much, and recovering so well, but what from? There are some questions Anne won’t answer. There are times when she changes subjects. She’s clearly hiding something–but what? The unveiling of things is engrossing, and made me shiver. Obviously I can’t go into much more detail on a short novella; it suffices to say that I was riveted through the end!

“This is how it starts.”

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Review: “A Lush and Seething Hell,” John Horner Jacobs

Pros: Deliciously eerie
Cons: Slow
Rating: 4 out of 5

John Horner Jacobs brings us A Lush and Seething Hell: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. It includes two novellas/short novels, both in the vein of cosmic horror. In “The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky,” poetry lecturer Isabel Certa meets a famous poet called simply “The Eye” (he wears an eyepatch). The two are both from a country called Magera, but they’re living in Spain. When The Eye has to go back to Magera for a time–not a wise choice, given the political situation there–he pays Isabel to house-watch for him. There she discovers that he’s been translating an old and mysterious manuscript. Since she’s a better translator than he is, she starts to do the translation as well, while also reading the manuscript he’s written about his experiences translating the manuscript. It’s clear that he had some very odd experiences while working on the manuscript, and she starts to have them as well.

In the second story, “My Heart Struck Sorrow,” Cromwell is a man who works at the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, collecting and documenting folk music. He has just lost his wife and child, and has distanced himself from his lover. He is sent with a coworker, Hattie, to examine a bequest they’ve received. They find a number of old acetate recordings along with the journal of the man who collected them. He seemed obsessed with finding rumored extra verses of “Stagger Lee,” and his experiences on the road become stranger and stranger. Some of his recordings, too, are equally bizarre.

Both stories, obviously, deal with found manuscripts and hallucinatory weirdness. I found both stories slow to start and had trouble getting into them. It’ll depend on your taste as a reader–many readers are fine having the setting slowly detailed before starting to get to anything unusual. I tend to prefer my genre trappings a little more up-front and center. It’s up to you whether this book is likely to appeal to you in that area. Certainly those parts of the book are quite well-written.

The characters are really interesting. I’m not entirely fond of some of them (I really didn’t like Cromwell much, for example), but they have a fair amount of depth and interest to them. I would have liked a bit more of Hattie in the second book; she just seemed like a more intriguing character.

I loved the creepiness factor once it crept in! I was glued to the page as soon as things got weird. Jacobs’ treatment of the bizarre is wonderful–it slips in and grabs hold of you before you know what’s happening. I did think the end of the first story was a little abrupt, but it was still good. All in all this is a great book.

Content note for racism, torture, and sexual content. The second story mostly takes place (via the manuscript) in 1938 in the American South, so there’s a whole lot of racial tension.

There are no endings, just beginnings.

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Short Take: “You Have Arrived at Your Destination,” Amor Towles

Pros: A bizarre look at the future of engineering offspring
Cons: The ending
Rating: 4 out of 5

Amor Towles’s novella You Have Arrived at Your Destination (Forward collection) is the next book in Amazon’s Forward Collection. It’s a tale about Sam and Annie, who want to use the most high-tech fertility clinic ever, Vitek. Vitek advertises that they don’t let you select individual traits–they let you select the “contours” of your child’s intelligence and temperament, based on your own background, your genetic traits, and wide-ranging data analysis of how children are born and raised. Annie has narrowed the profiles down to three possibilities, and Sam visits Vitek to watch three short films detailing the expected general three-act arc of their lives. Each child appears to encounter difficulty. One is too nice and gets taken advantage of. One has a hard time of things but becomes a best-selling author. And the third is an asshole, but eventually learns the error of his ways. Sam thinks he begins to see a pattern, and starts to believe that certain details are a negative commentary on how Annie views him.

I absolutely loved most of this story. The films are intriguing. Vitek’s representative, HT Owens, has some fascinating theories about the three-act structure of a life, and what makes it worthwhile or not. Toward the end, some notions come into play that hint at so much more going on… only to stop suddenly without (I felt) sufficient resolution. I wanted another handful of pages, and felt like this story ended prematurely. It’s frustrating to have such an interesting story pull up short at the end!

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Review: “Full Throttle,” Joe Hill

Pros: Left me a bit shaken
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Joe Hill’s collection Full Throttle: Stories hit me a little bit harder than I was expecting. The stories range in genre and style; the predominant genre is horror, but there’s some sci-fi in here, one story that was really just sad, and one that was kind of funny. In the introduction Hill explains that he’s always been more interested in villains than heroes, and it shows. Most of his protagonists do things you don’t expect protagonists to do. Some of them are outright villains. Some of them just have major flaws. Sometimes there’s an antagonist who would normally be the hero. It gives the stories a very original vibe.

Content note for explicit language, racism, animal harm and death, and blood-and-guts.

Throttle is, quite appropriately, co-authored by Joe Hill’s father, Stephen King. I say appropriately because it has the feel of an old-style King story. The protagonist is Vince, a long-time member of biker gang The Tribe. He, his son (Race), and the rest of the gang are running from an unintentional slaughter–one that they committed. A truck driver seems to take an interest in them, and things get wild from there. This story beautifully shows all the different sides of humanity.

Dark Carousel takes place in the 90s, and the characters are in their late teens. They take a walk on the pier, ride the quirky carousel with its salvaged animals… and then roll the carousel operator whom they believe stole Nancy’s money. In the world of horror, no sin goes unpunished.

Wolverton Station introduces us to Saunders, also known as “the Woodcutter” for how easily he chops workforces down to size. Unfortunately for this woodcutter, the wolves he’s about to meet are no ordinary wolves. This story is almost more humor than horror, with its wolves in humans’ clothing, but it’s quite fun.

By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain is kind of wistful, and sad. A very imaginative young lady and her friend find a dead dinosaur by the water, but when they send their siblings to get an adult, no one wants to believe. I kind of felt sorry for the girls’ mother, who has to put up with quite some shenanigans from her children!

Faun is one of my favorite stories in this book. The characters are big game hunters, and Stockton invites Fallows to a one-of-a-kind hunt in another world, where they can shoot at and kill mythological creatures. At first I was annoyed by the trope of the grizzled animal king seeming to communicate forgiveness to the man who kills him, but it works out perfectly in the end. (Sorry I’m being vague; I don’t want to give too much away.)

Late Returns features John Davies, driver of the library’s BookMobile. He recently lost his parents and his job, and this gives him a way to cope. However, sometimes patrons seem to come to him from the past, in need of a little something before they die. This is a very lovely story, and I particularly appreciate the ending.

All I Care About Is You is another of my favorites from this book. Iris’s father can no longer afford the finer things in life, but he tries to give her a thoughtful birthday gift anyway. She’s bitter about not being able to have the birthday celebration she’d planned since the previous year, but she does her best not to let her bitterness show. Then the battery gets stolen from her transportation, and she ends up paying a “Clockwork friend” for an hour of service so she can get it home. Chip–the “friend”–figures out a way to give her a happy birthday after all. The (sci-fi) worldbuilding in this one is fabulous, and Iris and Chip are great characters. The ending left me floored.

Thumbprint has as its main character Mal (Mallory Grennan), who served at Abu Ghraib and knows quite a bit about “enhanced interrogation techniques”. After she steals a man’s money and wedding ring, threatening messages start showing up at her house. She knows someone’s after her, but she doesn’t know who or why. This one is a bit tough to read, as we see glimpses of her life overseas as well as the things she did there.

The Devil on the Staircase has laborer Quirinus Calvino discover a mysterious gate that leads to a purported stairway to hell. After he kills a man, he flees down this staircase, only to meet an even more mysterious boy. There’s racism and race-based violence in this one, and the ending was a bit mild for my taste; it felt like the story leading up to it demanded more.

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead sees Blake and her family stop to see a circus–one in which the performers seem to be trying to flee and there are zombies eating people. The entire thing is framed as Blake’s tweets during the events, and it really works. I was wondering how the ending would be handled as things went downhill, but it was perfect!

Mums is another favorite of mine. Jack’s mother, Bloom, tries to get herself and her son away from Jack’s father, who is a right-wing conspiracy nut who hoards guns and teaches Jack to make improvised explosives. Unfortunately she has a history of alcoholism, mental illness, and arrests, which makes it all too easy for Jack’s father to remove her from the situation. Afterwards, a mysterious old lady sells Jack some flower seeds, which he decides to plant over his mother’s grave. The story gets more and more surreal, but it never flies off the tracks. I absolutely love where this one goes. It’s chilling and satisfying all at once.

In the Tall Grass is the other entry co-authored by Stephen King, and it’s a tense one. Cal and Becky Demuth (brother and sister) stop to help a child who’s lost in a field of very tall grasses. Unfortunately, the grass separates them and soon they’re every bit as lost. Strange things are afoot, and it can’t end well for our heroes.

You Are Released hit me the hardest out of all of these stories, but I honestly can’t tell if I’d call it a “favorite.” It takes place on a passenger plane in American airspace, and opens with an announcement that Guam has been nuked. From there we bounce back and forth from cockpit to business class and coach, listening in from different angles as various characters deal with the unfurling drama around them. It references the current political climate, and it makes its apocalypse seem all-too-real. It felt real as I was reading it. I had to go do something entirely different after I finished reading this story so I could get it out of my system. It’s that powerful.

This is an outstanding collection of stories. I would absolutely read more by Joe Hill.

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Short Take: “Emergency Skin,” N.K. Jemisin

Pros: A beautiful look at what the future could be!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

N.K. Jemisin’s novella Emergency Skin (Forward collection) is told by a “consensus intelligence” implanted in the mind of a soldier. We get to see what the intelligence says to the soldier, and what others outside of him say to him. It’s unique and quite effective. The soldier comes from a colony of survivors from the planet Tellus (Earth). To be blunt, they’re basically a bunch of bigoted, misogynistic white guys who decided to take the “best and brightest” of Earth’s people and leave the planet behind to die it’s ugly death. They’ve sent the soldier to retrieve certain samples that they need–but the soldier discovers that the planet isn’t dead. It isn’t unoccupied. In fact, it’s very much alive!

I can’t go into detail about the delightful turn of events, because this isn’t a very long story. I will say that part of the reason I love this story so much is because Jemisin’s notions of what might save the world are ones I deeply appreciate. People of certain political leanings will not agree. In the middle of so much dystopian fiction, this is some good old-fashioned utopian fiction, and it’s beautiful! It’s particularly interesting because it contrasts two different populations’ ideas of what constitutes a utopia.

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Review: “Dark Hollow,” Brian Keene

Pros: Good horror material
Cons: Everything about how the female characters are handled.
Rating: 2 out of 5

I picked up Brian Keene’s novel Dark Hollow thanks to Book Twitter, and this may be the second time they’ve let me down (don’t worry; they’re still doing an overall great job). Adam is a mystery writer who lives with his wife, Tara. She’s had two miscarriages, and has decided to quit trying–to such an extent that the couple’s relationship is now sexless. The couple turns to their cowardly mutt, Big Steve, for comfort. The Pennsylvania town they live in has a bit of a strange reputation–it has an extremely low crime rate, but everyone seem to be gettin’ it on. People are constantly sleeping around, hooking up at work, and so on, especially when Spring starts. One morning a woman jogging through Adam’s neighborhood seems to be flirting with him, and as soon as he hears a mysterious fluting melody, he’s instantly turned on. When he takes Steve for a walk in the woods, he accidentally comes upon a very salacious scene involving a lewd statue of a satyr that comes to life. After that, it looks like the satyr sets his sights on all the women of the town, and Adam and his friends and neighbors will have to save the day.

In a general sense as a horror novel, this is great. There’s tension, an intriguing back-story, excellent world-building, etc. The characters are interesting (at least, most of the male ones, but I’ll come back to that). I like Adam–he’s neither a terrible nor a great writer. He’s just starting to get to the point where maybe he can make a sort-of living with his writing. The neighborhood group of friends–especially the core of Adam, Merle, and Dale–is interesting. They’re all very different people, but they have a nice dynamic going. They and Cory and Cliff make an excellent knot of horror story protagonists, calling on all that’s special to them to defeat a very powerful enemy. My favorite part is an old journal Adam finds that explains how everything started–this sort of thing can go wrong and suck the momentum out of a story, but instead it held my attention quite admirably.

The problem, of course, is the women in this book. Tara’s the only one who has any real depth to her, and her personality almost entirely consists of miscarriage trauma. When the women are mind-controlled, they become extremely wanton and very obviously want to have sex with the satyr. We never get to see them even attempt to resist the mind control. Not only that, but Tara and one of her friends start taunting their husbands over their specific sexual inadequacies, making them seem complicit in their rapes. There’s way too much in here that implies that the women might have wanted it, or might want the babies the satyr wants to have, or otherwise got something out of the situation. And we’re not talking about just one or two women–a whole handful go missing. I’m honestly pretty appalled at how this subject is handled. Not least because I’ve been told by readers whose taste I trust that Keene’s other work isn’t like this.

(Content note for explicit sex, mind-control rape, animal harm, gore, etc.)

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Short Take: “Summer Frost,” Blake Crouch

Pros: Thought-provoking and intense
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Blake Crouch’s novella Summer Frost (Forward collection) introduces us to Riley, the VP of Non-Player Character Development at a game studio that creates Direct Neural Interface games. One day, an NPC in one of her games does something unexpected. Max (Maxine) is supposed to get killed in the prologue, but after getting killed more than 2,000 times in various playthroughs, they break from the routine and start trying to find their way out of the game area. Riley manages to pull them out of the game, and starts presenting them with more and more information to learn from. The two have conversations, and Riley starts to neglect Meredith, her wife, and Xiu, their adopted daughter. Meanwhile, Brian, the head of the company and Riley’s boss, starts to use Max for additional tasks without consulting Riley–and without taking the proper care, perhaps, to keep her boxed up.

I really love the characters in this story. Riley and Max are intriguing characters. Meredith is a bit flat, but then we only really see her in glimpses; same with Brian. It works, though, since the relationship between Riley and Max is really the meat of this tale. I love all the dialogues between Max and Riley as Max gradually feels their way into a growing personality.

I can’t say a lot more without giving too much away. It suffices to say that Max is going to change the world, and it’s a fascinating ride to see where that goes!

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Review: “Lucky at Last,” Joshua James

Pros: My favorite book of the series-so-far!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Joshua James’s short novel Lucky At Last: Lucky’s Marines | Book Nine is the climax of the story arc. Emperor April appears to have gone off the deep end–she wants Lucky killed, and she plans to use her Da’hune-human hybrids to take over the known universe. She still seems to think she’s doing this for the benefit of the Empire… or is her AI, Dragon, putting thoughts in her head? Could the Hate be influencing her behavior? Lucky’s been on ice in cryosleep for a year, and he and Malby, Jiang, Hector, and Dabs had better get up to speed, and fast. The moment they wake up they’re targeted for death, and it’s only with the help of some untrustworthy mercenaries that they stand a chance of catching up to April. Hector’s having trouble giving up on April, but she seems ready to kill even her father in order to achieve her goals.

Lucky’s back with more hyper-violent action! Thanks to nanobots and regen packs the Empire Marines can survive almost anything, leaving room to get messed up in all sorts of ways. For once Lucky and his crew don’t start out with all of their usual armor, so they’re a bit more fragile than usual, upping the stakes just a little.

Tiny niggle, but bear with me: there’s a moment when the author notes that two parts of a body fall at different speeds because the weight is distributed unequally between them. Uh, that’s not how gravity works. Unless air drag is an issue, items of different weights fall at the same speed. The only reason this caused me any heartburn is because there are intricate fights in these books that totally depend on the vicissitudes of gravity (or the lack thereof) for some of their excitement, so having the author mess up a basic detail of gravity kind of screws with the willing suspension of disbelief. Most readers probably won’t care, though, so make up your own mind!

The mercenaries bring something new and interesting to the table. One has some very unusual hacking skills. One’s a cyborg with some unusual abilities and a bizarrely “so what?” attitude. Another only cares about money, money, money, but he’s a hell of a shot and seems to share a few traits with Malby. I’ve enjoyed the gradual accretion of interesting characters over the course of the series, and these guys definitely add something.

I won’t say anything about how the story ends, except to say that I’m quite pleased with it! I look forward to more books by Joshua James!

Lucky liked to kill things, but he liked to pretend that ethics were somewhere in the mix.

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Short Take: “Ark,” Veronica Roth

Pros: Elegant and beautiful
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Veronica Roth’s short novella Ark (Forward collection) is not about an apocalypse created by man. Instead, an asteroid is on course to hit the Earth. There are years in which to prepare–decades, really–and the Earth is being evacuated. A handful of scientists remain until the last minute, preparing as many flora and fauna genetic samples for transport as possible. Two last ships wait to transport these people and their cargo. Samantha, a horticulturist, doesn’t plan to go with the ships–she plans to watch the world burn. Over her last two months in Svalbard, located north of the Arctic Circle, she spends more and more time with Dr. Nils Hagen, who studies his orchids and also plans to remain on Earth.

This is a lovely little story about the end of the world and how different people choose to handle it. Averill, Dan, and Josh, who all work with Sam, smoke joints and pick out records to take with them. Samantha prepares a small boat with a few days’ worth of supplies. Nils takes care of his precious orchids. The real meat of the story is in Sam’s head, so I can’t say much more about it. It suffices to say that this is a lovely little story, and that as long as you aren’t looking for an action-based story you’ll probably love it.

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