Review: “Critical Point,” S.L. Huang

Pros: Still loving this series!
Rating: 5 out of 5

I absolutely love S.L. Huang’s Cas Russell books. In Critical Point (Cas Russell Book 3), Cas is beginning to integrate with the people around her. It doesn’t come naturally, but she’s working with Arthur and Checker and even has an office. She has Simon helping to keep her fragile identity from crumbling. Unfortunately, she’s about to find out that her friends have been keeping a lot of information from her. They know how dangerous she is, how unstable, and how willing to let the ends justify the means–so they’ve been hiding a lot. And it stings when she finds out. Arthur’s daughter Tabitha comes to Cas to tell her she thinks Arthur’s missing. The fight to find and save him exposes more ties to Cas’s mysterious past and the people who made her into the living weapon she is.

Cas is one of my favorite protagonists. She’s a math genius who’s been shaped and molded into being able to use that mathematical ability in fascinating ways. She’s tough, and she often thinks the ends justify whatever means she’s using; she’s perfectly willing to do whatever it takes to save her friends, even if it means doing things they can never forgive her for. She’s irascible and easily annoyed, she acts on split-second instinct, and she heavily rides the line of unlikable protagonist. Even her old friend Rio–an extremely dangerous man who believes the killing and torturing he does is all necessary in the service of God–is not entirely on board with some of her actions. (Just as a note, I swear I hear Rio’s dialogue in Chris Judge’s voice.) She’s trying so hard to develop a moral compass of some kind using Arthur as a guide, and it’s really interesting to read about.

There are plenty of mathematical shenanigans to enjoy, and the lineup of additional characters in this novel includes a woman who is unbelievably beautiful and a man who’s so frightening no one can avoid panicking when they see him. There are a lot of messed-up people in here, and we get to explore the ways in which being powerful can tempt a person.

As long as you don’t need your protagonists to be unabashed good guys, I highly recommend this whole series!

“You can be petty after we find him.”
He was right, but that didn’t mean I had to concede it. “I’m capable of multitasking,” I snapped.

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Review: “Edit,” Rick Chesler

Pros: Genuinely tense
Cons: Lots of holes and inconsistencies
Rating: 2 out of 5

SPOILER WARNING: This review does contain spoilers, because there’s a lot to talk about.

Rick Chesler’s EDIT takes place in modern-day Florida. Detective Rene Bravia and his partner do a wellness check and find a scientist, Dr. Archie Landis, dead in his home; his throat was apparently slit, and his “I’m Sorry” note makes it look like a suicide. Bravia has never seen anything like the weapon that was used, though–it looks like a giant claw. When he takes it to Dr. Rebecca Trout, a zoologist, for identification, she realizes it looks just like a T-Rex claw, only it isn’t fossilized! Soon after, Dr. Trout is called to the scene of two deaths in a national park; it appears that two people were killed by some sort of dinosaur/bird creature. Park Ranger Sara Cliff found the bodies on her first day patrolling. Soon Rebecca and Sara are on the run, trying to protect a family from what appear to be marauding dinosaurs!

I almost immediately soured on this book when very, very early on we run into the traditional, wouldn’t-happen-in-real-life, “Tell me again…?” If the response had been overly complicated that sort of thing might make sense, but there’s no way the character had forgotten the answer.

There are a lot of little inconsistencies in this book. Sara’s been on the job for a month, but this is her first day on the job (I think it’s really meant to be that this is her first day on patrol, but the idea that it’s her first day on the job gets repeated multiple times). The company that turns out to be working on genetic engineering projects starts out with one name (probably a placeholder from a former draft) and then changes into something else. Some characters hear “the first words” they’ve ever heard out of a character’s mouth, except that he said something on the previous page. There are kids in the RV that’s being attacked, but when the adult characters get up onto the roof, the kids seem to disappear, then reappear when the adults come back down. Sara seems to cross a body of water both first and last out of her group. Rebecca was hiding in the RV at one point, but then she’s magically back with the main group of people. Rebecca left her Prius near the scene of the first attack, but when the rangers drive past looking for Sara, there are no vehicles there. Nor do the rangers seem to notice Sara’s smashed-up vehicle, which should still be on the road. Sara does a little shooting, then later she tells someone she hasn’t yet used her gun and has a full clip of ammo in it. Despite all the running the characters do–and it’s a LOT of running–no one ever seems to run out of breath or energy or be seriously impacted by the exertion in any way. If there were only a couple of these I’d question my remembering of it or figure eh, everyone makes mistakes, but this is a lot of inconsistencies.

There are a number of things about the presence of all of these dinosaurs and related events that don’t make much sense. Such as, the initial death of Dr. Landis that seems to set all of this off. Did he kill himself? If so, cutting your own throat with a claw seems unlikely. Did a beast that he took home with him (and why did BioGen allow that?) kill him? Well, nothing else in the home seemed torn up, so I’m going to go with a no. Did the company have him killed? Doesn’t really seem like their style, and even if it was, it would be a boneheaded move to leave the claw behind as evidence. Note that this is never resolved.

How is BioGen making money off of setting dinosaurs loose? I guarantee you, the CEO we meet should have been thinking of how to monetize the whole thing rather than just wreaking havoc on the Everglades. Also, why engineer entire flocks of bird/reptiles? Wouldn’t they just engineer a few? There are multiple flocks of these things out there.

At the end, the rangers claim that the threat has been “contained.” Now obviously there’s sequel bait and it hasn’t been contained, but it also makes no sense that they think it’s contained. I mean, they spotted whole colonies of giant worms. There are the aforementioned flocks of bird/reptiles, which aren’t exactly going to be contained by any fences. It doesn’t make any sense that anyone would accept this.

I also wish the author had used the thesaurus a little bit less, or paid a little more attention to the connotations of the words he used. There are some really awkward phrasings (“…the odorous revulsion characterizing the room…”) and some that just don’t make sense (“‘Slow down!’ Sara trilled”). I also wish the author would stop referring to women as “females,” especially in places where it makes no sense (“‘Come on in,’ came the female reply”).

There’s one really cool idea that comes up toward the very end and doesn’t have time to get addressed–a bit of an Easter egg tucked into the creatures’ genetic code. I found that much more interesting than the rest of the book.

Please note that this book is genuinely tense! There are plenty of escape scenes, fight scenes of one type or another, etc., and if the adrenaline is all that you’re looking for, I think you’ll enjoy it. If you’re looking for consistency, meaningful plot, and so on, then you might want to keep looking.

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Review: “Body Farm Z,” Deborah Sheldon

Pros: What an original setting for a zombie book!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Deborah Sheldon’s Body Farm Z takes place at a body farm in Australia–a place where scientists study how cadavers rot and decay under various circumstances. Detective Senior Sergeant Rick Evans and his partner, Detective Senior Constable Lawrence Garcia, are paying the farm a visit. Their request to do an experiment to try to solve a cold case has been approved! They’ve just helped to put the “donor’s” body into place when a strange cloud floats by. It’s oddly-shaped and -colored, and it releases little white snow-like seeds, or feathers, or something else that disappears as soon as it touches anything. But when those seeds touch their cadaver–she awakens hungry for flesh! Soon the entire body farm is overrun with dead people, dead pigs (often used because of certain similarities with humans), and more, and the freshest ones seem to retain a certain amount of cunning!

There’s a nice ensemble cast of characters, although I’d say main character duty was split between Rick and Helen, a student doing experiments at the body farm. Helen’s in love with another student, Alisha, but Alisha’s very straight and engaged to get married. Rick finds his partner insufferable and just wishes he’d stop talking now and then. Along for the ride are some of the staff and researchers, including a stoic and very helpful maintenance man, Magnus.

There’s one big, glaring question during all of this: is the rest of the world affected, too? No one really seems to be picking up their phone, although that could be a coincidence. Rick puts in a call for backup, claiming a terrorist attack, but it’ll take a good four hours for that backup to get there–if there aren’t more zombies out there to waylay them. I’ll say that there are questions that definitely go unanswered, but not in a bad way. I think the book included just as much information as it had to and no more.

There is an excerpt of a follow-on book included at the end of the e-book. It appears to pick up sometime later, on a different continent, with different characters. And despite the fact that I really enjoyed this book, there was nothing in that excerpt that appealed to me, so I’ll probably skip it. Your mileage may vary. [Note added later: apparently the other book is by a different author. That makes more sense.]

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Review: “Island King,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Original combination of ideas with some great tongue-in-cheek humor
Cons: Hangs together a little loosely in some places
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s Island King is a fun little adventure with some interesting tongue-in-cheek humor about reality TV. (Unlike Fiero’s Pizza [review], the humor worked in this one). Matt and Tien were part of a reality TV show called “Island King,” and they’re returning to the island of Tapiberu for a reunion episode. Tien was the winner of their season, although Matt feels he should have won. When they arrive on the island, Tien is surprised that they aren’t greeted by a camera crew and the producers. Matt thinks this is just the start of whatever curve balls will be thrown at them and determines to immediately find shelter, food, and water. Meanwhile, Audra and Odell are looking for some sort of treasure, and they’ve found a scuttled ship that now holds… nothing. Odell is sure the treasure’s been buried on the island. When the captain of their boat gets a message that there’s some local unrest and says he’s leaving, Odell talks Audra into going to the island with him. On the other side of the island, on the neighboring, larger island, Brooke witnesses an explosion and a wave of people cutting off heads and capturing her fellow tourists. An athlete, she swims to nearby Tapiberu to try to get away from the deadly attack.

The question of whether any given thing was arranged by the producers goes on for a while; apparently the production company has a history of throwing monkey wrenches into things and even breaking the fourth wall occasionally. So when the various people come together, and encounter Don and Hillary and their camera crew, and witness what appears to be the destruction of the boat on which the rest of the TV crew was waiting, no one’s quite sure what’s real and what’s fake. Don and Hillary start suspecting each other of being in on something the higher-ups are up to. Matt seems to have gone a little bit ’round the twist, and views everything that happens as part of some sort of TV show plot. He’s sure that Brooke is an actress, and that the mysterious tunnels Audra and Odell find are there for him and Tien to explore. This is a lot of fun, even as you want to give Matt a shake and tell him to snap out of it.

There are tunnels with traps and puzzles. There’s a paranormal presence on the island that only eventually becomes clear. There are some sort of terrorists(?) running around making things much more dangerous. It makes for an intriguing adventure novel.

It feels a little loose around the edges. There are details that only kind-of get explained. We’re left wondering for quite some time why the bad guys seem to be so set on chasing down Brooke, to the point where they even ignore some of the other people for a while. The ending has a bit of a problem of scale, where something really large seems dependent on something really small (trying not to spoil anything here). Some of the details could have been tightened up a little.

Hamill’s books cover a wide range of subjects and formats. They vary widely in quality, but I keep coming back to them because his books are always interesting.

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Short Take: “Ritual,” Steve Stred

Pros: The worldbuilding seems interesting
Cons: The depravity kind of seems pointless
Rating: 3 out of 5

Steve Stred’s Ritual (Father of Lies Trilogy Book 1) comes with a warning: if you need trigger warnings at all, don’t read this book. I half agree with this–it’s depraved, contains gore, death, rape, etc. But then I know there are readers who would be fine with all of that yet would have other triggers they wouldn’t want touched. It just comes across as a boast–no snowflakes allowed!

The plot is simple. Brad, who is not a fan of either surprises or chaos, lives an extremely orderly life, spending much of his time reading his Bible. But he’s just been chosen by his cult to be the Chosen One. He has just a little time to get things in order and rehearse a bit before he will hopefully help to bring Sheol, a dark dimension, to the world.

The book reads rather like a third-person diary, following Brad through all the little quirky details of his life. We know what he eats for breakfast, the details of his job, and how much he dislikes the guy who works next to him. He has to pick up the cult’s robes from the dry cleaner and rehearse with the Father. There are little warning bells woven into the story as to what’s coming–things that Brad doesn’t see as unusual or doesn’t pick up on. It’s a neat effect.

Once things start getting bloody and rapey, though, things just kind of seem to devolve into depravity that frankly felt a bit pointless. When we get to the end of the book ( this is book one in a trilogy), I was actually much more interested in the setup for book two. I think I would have preferred to start there.

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Review: “Genome,” A.G. Riddle

Pros: Delivers on the mysteries created in book one
Cons: Occasionally things don’t quite add up
Rating: 4 out of 5

A.G. Riddle’s Genome (The Extinction Files Book 2) picks up just a few weeks after Pandemic [review] ends. The pandemic itself is no longer much of a threat since the cure has been distributed. But the nanites distributed with the cure are still active, and the Citium is swiftly working to rebuild the software that will allow them to control the nanites. Drs. Lin and Peyton Shaw are working day and night in the Arctic, and Lin is still refusing to tell anyone the truth of what’s going on and what her ultimate agenda is. Desmond Hughes is still being held captive by bad guy Yuri and Desmond’s misguided brother Conner. They’re trying to get Desmond’s memories to return so they can find out where he hid Rendition, the final part of their plan to “save” the world. The Citium causes the internet to collapse while the rest of the world is still trying to recover from the pandemic.

This volume gets fairly intellectual and self-absorbed. Much of the space is taken up exploring Desmond’s memories, which involves his learning at Yuri’s behest how and why humans evolved as they did. This is pretty interesting material, but if you’re looking for an action novel, large parts of this book may disappoint you.

We do finally find out what Rendition is and does, what the Looking Glass is, what Lin’s agenda is, what Yuri’s agenda is, and what convinced Desmond to do what he did. Surprisingly–because frankly I thought nothing could live up to the hype–it is a fascinating set of revelations that measured up to everything leading up to them. I was a little disappointed by the very end, because there’s a brief, abstruse bit that confused the hell out of me and kind of took away from things, but overall the book was well worth reading.

I still think there are some coincidences from the first book that were never explained. One or two I could buy as a “wow the world is weird” sort of thing, but there were one or two too many. Most of these coincidences are ways in which Peyton, Desmond, and their families are tied together.

The characters are one of my favorite parts of this two-book series. Even the bad guys, like Conner, have nuance and good motivations. Lin remains something of an enigma right up until the very end. If you enjoyed book one, I believe you’ll find Genome to be a worthwhile follow-on.

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Review: “Fiero’s Pizza,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Intriguing!
Cons: Two tones that don’t mesh
Rating: 3 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s horror novel Fiero’s Pizza introduces Brian and Samantha, a young couple moving into a house and about to have their first baby. They eventually have a passel of little boys, only it seems like little bad events start adding up. The larger their family gets, the darker the clouds that seem to hang over them. Every Friday they order from Fiero’s Pizza, and their order is delivered by the mysterious Levi, a disfigured young man who drives a very memorable car. Eventually, they find they can’t escape Levi and his delivery of pizza–even when they don’t order, he shows up.

We never do more than scratch the surface when it comes to understanding Levi and Fiero’s Pizza. They seem to be an attempt at a kind of blend of humor and horror, but it doesn’t work. That blend works in books like Rabig’s Playing Possum and Baxter’s The Roo because they never take themselves too seriously. Most of Fiero’s Pizza is too serious to mesh with any kind of humorous patina. So there’s always this awkward juxtaposition of “bleak horror” with “but, pizza?”

There are little hints and clues about Fiero’s Pizza and Levi. There’s an old rock with an inscription on it. There’s some little bits of research Brian and Sam do. There’s an odd notion of a kind of supernatural parasite that’s living off of their family. But this all feels a little unfinished and isn’t wrapped up in any kind of satisfactory manner. Sometimes I’m okay with things being a bit vague, but since this story kind of relied on characters gaming the details, that didn’t work here.

I do like the characters and the overall concept. Sam and Brian are your everyday couple with difficulties and troubles. Their kids have personality, especially Red and Marty. There is one section that has Sam trying something called “attachment parenting” with Red that I found kind of difficult to read about.

General content warning for some mild gore. I wouldn’t not recommend this one, but it also didn’t wow me.

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Review: “Eden,” Tim Lebbon

Pros: Fascinating premise with wild action!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Tim Lebbon’s Eden shows us a world where “the Zones” are areas that have been given back to the planet. Pollution and other man-made problems were causing so many issues that as a kind of last-ditch effort to almost bribe the planet into not going too far downhill, these areas were cordoned off. They’re highly guarded by the Zone Protection Forces, or “Zeds,” and it’s not entirely unusual for infiltrators to get shot. At least one Zone has been infiltrated by human traffickers, and each zone seems to have something going on within its boundaries. Eden Zone is the oldest and most dangerous of zones. Those who go in either bounce and avoid it entirely thereafter, or never return at all. There’s an underground of adventure race teams who try to race across the length of each zone. No one has yet made it all the way across the Eden zone, and Jenn and her team aim to be the first to do it. The team leader is her father, Dylan. They’re accompanied by Aaron, Jenn’s boyfriend. Lucy, Gee, Cove, and Selina round out the team. Only Jenn has a secret agenda for coming to the Zone–she has reason to believe that her estranged mother, Kat, went in weeks ago and never made it out again. And she isn’t the only one with a hidden reason for coming. Meanwhile, Kat is still alive. Or… maybe not quite “alive” as one might think of it. Something has infiltrated her mind, something uniquely Eden, and it has an agenda of its own.

I enjoy the characters in here. They have a wide array of backgrounds. There’s a gay former cop, an environmentalist who just wants the chance to see an unspoiled wilderness, a former military man, and more. These people are highly-skilled endurance runners, and they’ve planned this trek very carefully. They’ve hired a woman called Poke to sneak them into the Zone, and she thinks they’re crazy for wanting to go in. She also seems genuinely afraid of the Zone. We also get a great peek into the mindset of people on all sides of the issue when the Zones were established through little quotations at the beginning of each section. It neatly establishes many of the issues and attitudes involved without the need for info-dumps or excess narration.

It’s been more than half a century since the Zone was established, but even that amount of time can’t account for how thoroughly all traces of civilization have faded away. Dylan’s old maps are hit-or-miss. Entire towns have been swallowed by nature. There definitely seems to be something amiss.

Then, of course, they start finding abandoned equipment, bullet shells, and bodies. There’s a ton of tension in this book. Early on we get a stealthy ride in a junker plane. There’s the intricate dance of trying to infiltrate Eden Zone. There’s the adaptation to the Zone, and then things go to hell and our heroes are fighting for their lives.

Content note for animal harm, although that’s hardly surprising in a book that’s at least partly man-versus-nature. The main characters might want to leave the flora and fauna in peace, but they aren’t going to get that chance! There are some neat ways in which tropes get twisted or neatly side-stepped, but I won’t go into that so as to avoid spoiling anything. This is a great book and I really enjoyed it!

Eden seems like a good place to die.

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Review: “Love, Death, and Other Inconveniences”

Pros: Some reasonably fun stories in here
Cons: A lot of repetition; poor showing when it comes to female characters
Rating: 3 out of 5

Normally when I review anthologies, I end up pointing out that one reason it’s tough for a multi-author anthology to get a 5 out of 5 is because it’s difficult for every single story to appeal to any given reader, which means most anthologies get a 4 out of 5. In the case of Love, Death, and Other Inconveniences: Collection of Horror Stories, it’s the other way around. Some stories are bound to appeal to any given reader, so that kept the rating at a 3 out of 5 instead of going lower. Honestly, I’m not really sure why this is labeled as a horror anthology. Quite a few of these are really drama rather than horror. Still, there are a few good horror stories in here.

The opening story, Blair Daniels’s “Let Me In,” is one of my two favorite stories in this collection (yeah, it’s not a good sign when I can only label two stories as favorites). It’s a beautiful little nugget of horror surrounding a mysterious break-in at a house. My other favorite is P. Oxford’s “Some Smells Shouldn’t Be Ignored,” in which an artist who just moved in with her boyfriend hears rats in the walls, and then starts to smell something horrid. A short, chilling read. Both stories go just far enough for maximum chills, and leave all the right questions unanswered.

The editor of this anthology must really love stories about men whose girlfriends (or wives) die and then have to help them move on from beyond the grave, because there are a lot of variations on that theme in here (two of them are even by the same author, and there are three of them in a row). The women in most of these stories serve as nothing more than agents of change for the men they leave behind. Another theme is that women who are sexually aggressive often turn out to be monsters. We’re really racking up the bad female tropes here. There’s also a story in which a female scientist seemingly randomly decides to give her scientific subject the best sex ever because… why, exactly? There’s a story about “The Devil’s Wife” that has an intriguing setup, but again, it’s another story of female-solely-as-agent-of-male-change.

At least “Letters From My Dead Wife” handles the dead loved one in a very different and much more original manner than most of the other stories do. “A House of Only Memories” by J.P. Carver is another dead wife story that has a little more of interest to it than some of the earlier ones. Tara A. Devlin’s “Last Room of the Cave” is yet another dead-woman-as-agent-of-male-change, but at least it has a monster in it and a really interesting secret.

Many of these authors have two, three, or even four stories in here, and I don’t think that was a great idea. In many cases it seemed pretty obvious that one of an author’s stories was noticeably better than the other(s). I really liked J.D. McGregor’s “Mile High Club,” for instance, but his other two stories didn’t really do it for me. (I felt like one was mostly just weird, and the other elided over some details that were necessary to the story.) However, two stories that I thought were quite good were both by Hayong Bak, “My First Relationship Was My Craziest” and “My Wife and Her Baby Doll.” Both went in fascinating directions.

Note one major formatting error: there’s a long duplicated passage in the middle of Grant Hinton’s “The Desert Stars.” I definitely saw this story as more of a thriller than a horror story. Hinton’s “Looking for Love” (involving some Tinder dating) definitely fit the horror milieu.

A couple of otherwise-good stories gave us too-confusing endings. I don’t mind some ambiguity or unanswered questions, but it’s possible to take that too far. P. Oxford’s “My Boyfriend And I Were Taken” falls into this category, which is a shame, because otherwise it was a good story.

I’d say the anthology as a whole was just okay. Luckily it has a few individual stories that make me glad I read it anyway.

Content note: sex, mild gore, sex with produce, reference to off-screen rape, and one incidence of animal harm.

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Short Take: “Crota,” Owl Goingback

Pros: Engaging creature-feature
Rating: 5 out of 5

CROTA is Owl Goingback’s short novel about a very fierce, old monster that emerges near a small town after an earthquake. Sheriff Skip has a run-in with it, but his second-in-command Lloyd refuses to believe it’s anything stranger than a bear. Game warden and shaman Jay Little Hawk finds its lair, has a vision of what exactly it is, and tries to warn Lloyd. Lloyd heads off into the caverns trusting that a gun can take down anything–and he’s very, very wrong. Soon Skip teams up with Jay and another, very old, shaman who has a reputation for being able to help with anything. Will it be enough to take on the Crota?

This is a great classic creature-feature horror novel. There are some not-very-likable people to see get killed. There are chills and thrills. There are some very nicely-detailed Indigenous ceremonies and legends that go into this. There’s a bizarre monster, and some satisfying blood and gore (content note for animal harm and death).

The narration is very vivid–it’s easy to picture what’s going on. The characters are interesting and have some depth to them. Even though we didn’t see her much I particularly liked Skip’s wife–for having so few paragraphs devoted to her, she has a surprising amount of personality.

I was a little disappointed that Skip’s disabled son had so little to do with the story, particularly given how things ended up (trying not to spoil anything here), but that was a minor issue. All in all this is a very satisfying horror tale.

Terror is a very personal thing.

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