Short Take: “Come Closer,” Sara Gran

Pros: What an intriguing take on possession!
Cons: The pacing is a bit off
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sara Gran’s novella Come Closer brings us into the lives of married couple Amanda and Ed. Ed is in finance; Amanda is a successful architect. One day, a proposal that Amanda drops on her boss’s desk turns out to be filled with insults. When she goes home, a weird tapping sound starts up in the loft she and Ed occupy. She takes up smoking again almost accidentally, starts becoming crabby and picking fights, and then loses time. She takes a quiz for likelihood of whether a person is possessed or not, and her score keeps increasing with each time she takes it. She decides to seek out help, but the particular demon that’s after her may be too strong for any help that’s out there.

The one real problem I had here was with the pacing. It seems to be uniformly quick and even, lacking the variation that makes for real surprises and rests and so forth. I feel like the emotional impact of the story could have been greater if that issue was fixed. Also, the fact that Amanda spent a long time not fighting what was happening to her robbed the story of some of its potential tension.

I love the fact that this is a possession story free of any trappings of Catholicism. The typical exorcism story steers these tales in a specific direction, and by avoiding that entirely this one remains fresh and interesting. I found myself wanting to know even more about the mysterious demon haunting Amanda. There also seems to be quite a population of demons walking amongst us, and that’s an intriguing bit of world-building!

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Short Take: “Halloween Fiend,” C.V. Hunt

Pros: Interesting premise
Cons: Most of the characters didn’t appeal
Rating: 4 out of 5

C.V. Hunt’s horror novella Halloween Fiend introduces us to Barry, who lives in the dying town of Strang. He works at the grocery store while trying to care for his ailing father. The town has an uneasy peace with a fiend they simply refer to as Halloween–each house with someone still living in it leaves a “treat” out for Halloween each night, such as a guinea pig. Halloween collects these things, and then once a year he claims a human who’s been chosen via a sort of raffle at the fall festival. Barry seems to have caught Halloween’s attention, and the fiend is taunting him. When the fall festival comes around, the town decides that this year they’re going to include a couple of carnival rides, and they tap Barry to host the two carnies who have to remain in town. The sheriff seems to have it in for Barry, and almost seems to want to catch him failing in his task to keep the carnies from hearing about their situation.

None of the characters really appeal (except perhaps for the waitress Barry has a thing for, who dresses up as Freddy Krueger for Halloween and frankly would have made a much more interesting main character). Some of them don’t have enough depth to explain their actions, either. For instance, I have no idea why on earth the sheriff would suddenly have it in for Barry, nor do I understand why the town would risk hosting the carnies, who are virtually certain to not want to stay hidden away while everything is going on.

Other than that, however, this is a really neat book. Halloween is an interesting entity, and the town with its secrets–probably doomed to die with its population–is worth exploring. Content note for animal harm. If you’re looking for a fun little monster story with a touch of rural horror, give this one a try!

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Short Take: “The Festering Ones,” S.H. Cooper

Pros: Engaging and original
Rating: 5 out of 5

S.H. Cooper’s novella The Festering Ones is a short piece of cosmic horror that’s a lot of fun. Young Faith went on a hunting trip with her father, only to see him pulled beneath the ground by a monster. No one believed her of course, or so she thought–when she went through her dead mother’s things years later, she found research notes that indicated her mother did believe her. Those notes lead her to a mysterious cult called The Gathered, as well as two other women who are missing loved ones: Janice and Sasha. The three of them jet off to Florida, where they find a second cult devoted to a rival entity. Faith discovers that her time looking into The Gathered has marked her, and these strong women are pulled into a deadly battle.

I love the main characters. They’re three imperfect-yet-strong women, determined to do what they can for their loved ones. They go through hell and we can only hope they’ll come out the other side intact. Faith is an excellent lead. She realizes she’s in over her head, but she isn’t willing to sit down and give up.

The worldbuilding is excellent. There’s a whole ecosystem of entities and worlds and monsters. The author doesn’t derail the story to talk about them–she lets them come out naturally in the tale. The cultists themselves are also a bit unusual. They aren’t your stereotypical nut-jobs at all, which I love. Faith ends up in contact with one of them, and the dynamic is intriguing.

This book may have my favorite ending of a horror novella ever!

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Review: “Gideon the Ninth,” Tamsyn Muir

Pros: Absolutely stunning!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb Trilogy Book 1) is a stunning blend of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I first became interested in it when I heard it described as “lesbian necromancers in space,” and that isn’t a bad description. Gideon Nav is an indentured servant to the Ninth House, the Keepers of the Locked Tomb, and she is determined to escape. But it’s the 10,000th year of the reign of the King Undying, and he wants the heads of the eight houses, with their cavaliers, to come to him and undergo trials to become the next group of Lyctors (insanely powerful, nearly-immortal necromancers). Thus eight pairs of necromancer and cavalier must make the journey to the crumbling planet of the First House. Gideon is forced into pretending to be the cavalier of Harrowhawk, the heir to the Ninth House, when her current cavalier flees from the task. Gideon is quite a soldier, but she’s never trained with a rapier and isn’t exactly up on all the little politenesses–Harrow ends up ordering her not to speak to anyone in an effort to maintain the fiction. When they arrive, they find the place being run by three odd priests and a bunch of walking skeletons. They’re told that the only guideline of the process to become a Lyctor–the only clue at all–is that they must not open locked doors without permission. But despite the seeming ease of that simple guideline, it doesn’t take long before people start dying.

Gideon is one of my most favorite main characters. She spends most of the story stalking around in a deep black robe with her face done up in skeleton makeup and her not speaking to anyone. The reason this is so wonderful is that Gideon is an absolutely irrepressible redhead who loves puns and crude humor. So when she finally busts loose it’s just a blast to behold. Harrow is really interesting as well; she seems at first to hate Gideon (Gideon is 18; Harrow is 17), but the relationship proves to be more complex than that.

The “lesbian” part of “lesbian necromancers in space” is comparatively subtle in this book in the series, although it’s also very straightforward. Mostly it shows up in Gideon’s tendency to notice other women’s hotness and get distracted by long legs. I expect it’ll become a bit more central in the next novel. I like the way it’s presented as absolutely normal and not anything worth explaining, excusing, or hiding.

The genre is really interesting. This is a space-faring society, so it’s science fiction. There’s necromancy, which reads like magic but clearly has some technological underpinnings, giving the story a distinct vein of fantasy running through it, especially because the aesthetics of the space-faring people are not heavy on technological doodads. Wood and marble, for instance, are much more common in the buildings of the First House planet than metal is. I’d also call this partially horror. There are certainly a lot of corpses, a variety of nasty monsters, and plenty of bloody death.

One trick I really like is the way in which Gideon talks. She uses very modern vernacular (e.g., “hug it out”). It works perfectly to show how she’s different from the important people around her, those who’ve been raised as royalty, and it gives her a very distinctive feel.

There are obviously some interesting things about Gideon. She’s an orphan and no one knows where she’s from. There’s one exceedingly unusual event from her past, and another event that proves she isn’t entirely normal happens in the present. Then something happens toward the end that kind of seems to contradict where those other details were going. The book is carefully-enough written, however, that for the moment I’m trusting the author to get back to that mystery in the next book.

My only problem with this book is that the next one can’t come soon enough. I stayed up until midnight reading, and that’s highly unusual for me!

In any case, both she and Harrowhawk turned up, gorgeously gowned in their Locked Tomb vestments, painted like living skulls, looking like douchebags.

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Review: “Honor Lost,” Ann Aguirre, Rachel Caine

Pros: Wonderful conclusion to the trilogy!
Rating: 5 out of 5

NOTE: A website glitch caused me to lose this review, so I’m recreating it partially from memory and partially from what I have on Amazon.

Ann Aguirre and Rachel Caine’s Honor Lost (Honors) is the conclusion to their wonderful Honors trilogy. Zara, Bea, Nadim, and the others have to stop Lifekiller, the god-king, from wiping out sentient species across the galaxy. He’s protected by the swarm of Phage, and he’s extremely powerful. Just to complicate things, crime boss Deluca sends Derry to kill Zara. He has the use of what is essentially an assassin bot. And EMITU, the med bot who travels with our heroes, seems to be developing a mind of his own.

The relationship that has slowly been developing between Zara, Bea, and Nadim comes to fruition in this volume. As a content note, there’s not-very-explicit sex of the f/f/sentient-space-whale variety. It’s an incredibly beautiful and original poly and queer relationship that I love. It’s been a slow-burn relationship over three books with a very soft space whale, and it’s been absolutely lovely.

There are some great tense scenes in here, and even though it all takes place in space ships there’s still some hand-to-hand combat. Chao-Xing has an excellent and unexpected role to play. Everyone gets a lick in, including Suncross and his pals, Bacia, the blobby creatures from the Sliver, and even some of Earth’s military.

I love what’s happening with EMITU, the medical bot on Namid. His snarky disposition–courtesy of Bea’s mischievous streak–is turning into something of a rebellious nature, and the crew is forced to interact with him a little bit differently than they have so far. He really comes into his own in this volume.

Some tragedy does strike in between the moments of glory. I shed a few tears toward the end. I love this series a lot, and I’m sorry to see it come to an end! On the other hand, there’s something to be said for writers who know how to write a story arc with a good ending and call it done at just the right point.

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Review: “Enter, Night,” Michael Rowe

Pros: Intriguing vampire story
Cons: Ends oddly; strange balance of details
Rating: 3 out of 5

Michael Rowe’s vampire novel Enter, Night is intriguing, but it has a bizarre structure that didn’t entirely work for me. Parr’s Landing is a tiny little Canadian mining town in the middle of nowhere. A mysterious man who hears a voice in his head is headed there, slaughtering people all along the way. Meanwhile, Christina Parr, her 15-year-old daughter Morgan, and her brother-in-law Jeremy are all heading back to Parr’s Landing from Toronto. Jack Parr, Christina’s husband, has died, leaving Chris and Morgan penniless. They’re forced to return to Jack’s mother, who is an absolute hag of a woman but who’s willing to financially support her granddaughter. As the Parrs try to eke out some sort of peace in the town that’s named after their family, an unholy evil comes to town.

One of the weird things is that sometimes Rowe puts a lot of detail into characters that ultimately do not matter to the plot. It’s confusing and sometimes frustrating. There’s an entire sequence that starts the book that felt almost irrelevant to the rest of it, like a separate novella written as a prequel to a novel.

The characters have a fair amount of depth to them. Jeremy is gay, which caused his mother to have him institutionalized when he was a teenager (the current story takes place in 1972, so this was quite a while ago)–the only thing she cared about was the scandal of it. Morgan is trying to navigate her own reaction to her grandmother (whom she’s never met before) and the way her grandmother is treating her mother and uncle. Her grandmother thinks Chris is a slut and a whore because she became pregnant with Jack’s child before they got married (and because Chris was of much lower social station than Jack). One of my favorite characters in here is Billy, or Dr. William Lightning, an anthropology professor and Native American who runs into some trouble with the police when he tries to warn them that he thinks a crazy, and deadly, man is headed their way. He and Chris make a connection. I also liked Finn, a 12-year-old neighbor who’s the first to figure out what’s really going on in town. Morgan, Billy, and Finn do a lot to make the story interesting.

Unfortunately, there are other things that didn’t work for me. The end of Chris and Morgan’s part of the story leaves so many things unresolved, and thus feels incomplete. Then there’s another section that feels like, again, a separate novella, again a prequel but set 300 years earlier, when the vampires first attacked this area. The story is interesting, but it doesn’t fill in the holes left in the main tale. It ends up feeling like there are two novellas and a novel in this book, and the novel isn’t exactly complete.

Content note for explicit sexual content (m/f and m/m), gore, and a whole LOT of anti-Native American bigotry. I know virtually nothing about the relevant groups of Natives, so I can’t say whether the depiction of them is at all on-point. But the man who narrates the final section of the book certainly thinks of the Natives purely as Savages, and while I’m sure that’s accurate to the time, it doesn’t make for enjoyable reading, and it definitely lends itself to stereotyping.

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Review: “The Cult Called Freedom House,” Stephanie Evelyn

Pros: Excellent ideas
Cons: Execution is a bit rough
Rating: 3 out of 5

Stephanie Evelyn’s The Cult Called Freedom House: Sophia Rey Book 1 has some very solid ideas and concepts behind it, but the narrative style is a bit rough. Cyrus and Penelope run a commune (cult) called Freedom House in California. They’re pulling various street kids into their “Freedom Journey,” including 14-year-old Samantha Watson. Officer Sophia Rey and Detective Salvino have heard rumor of a new cult starting up, and after the way the last one ended–with a mass suicide–they’re bound and determined to break this one open before it’s too late.

First, the good stuff. This is definitely more than your run-of-the-mill cult. I mean sure, there’s sex, but there’s also cannibalism and knives and secret underground rooms (how did Cyrus manage to get all of that dug out, anyway?). Cyrus turns out to have something more to him than just your average perv, thankfully. There are a few genuinely creepy moments in there. There’s also a hint of the paranormal (or maybe traumatized people hallucinate in this book? Hard to tell) to lend spice. There are some interesting twists and turns that I enjoyed, and the last fifth of the book is nice and tense.

Unfortunately, the narrative is pretty rough. It goes on at length early on telling us in-depth about each character and their background instead of working that background into the story at least a little more smoothly (hell, we even know about Sophia’s irrelevant stuffed animal collection from when she was five years old). Cyrus explains things to Penelope that she should already know just so the reader will understand them. Sophia’s chase of a drug dealer could have lent some early energy to the story, but it’s just summarized in retrospect. Sam jumps into the commune knowing nothing about it (literally Miles tells her it’s a commune, and she decides she needs to join), when her personality before that would seem to lend itself to some skepticism and need to develop trust over time. That would have been much more interesting than having her blindly and happily skip off into cult-land.

Some of the outward parts of the cult are a bit laughable. There’s a practice they call “pain yoga” which, from the description, is just yoga carried out in the dark and heat. Since “hot yoga” is already a thing in the real world, it was hard to understand what was supposed to be so creepy about this. It’s bizarre how pieces of the narrative like that one get very coy, while others are very explicit. It’s uneven at best. There are also parts (rubbing raw meat all over one’s body?) which are just yucky rather than the creepy angle I think the author was going for.

Dialogue is very stilted. Everyone sounds the same, and dialogue just doesn’t flow naturally. Penelope could have been a strong creepy figure, but she’s undercut by her deep need to please Cyrus and do whatever he says.

I wish this book could have gotten a thorough rewrite before going out, because I feel like it had the potential to be excellent. Maybe I’ll pick up another novel by the author a couple of books down the line.

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Review: “Golden in Death,” J.D. Robb

Pros: Excellent and enjoyable traditional-style “In Death” book
Rating: 5 out of 5

When J.D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts) Golden in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death, Book 50) picks up, a pediatrician–Dr. Kent Abner–is killed by a complex yet highly-targeted nerve gas attack. Eve and Peabody can’t find any enemies who’d believably have both the motive and the means, and they’re taken by surprise when a second death occurs: Elise Duran. There’s no apparent link between the two people–at first. The police are eager to catch this killer, because if he were to decide to make his nerve agent less targeted, he could kill innumerable innocent people. As it turns out, there is a link between Kent and Elise, but it lies a handful of years ago, and the link is through their spouses. It sends Eve poking around into the world of education that caters to the wealthy, and the lengths people will go to for money, prestige–and revenge.

This is probably neither the best nor the worst volume to come in on if you haven’t followed the series so far. It certainly involves a handful of the people Roarke and Eve have gotten to know over the course of the series, and involves quite a few people from Eve’s workplace, all of which Robb handles skillfully. But if you’re new to the series, you might feel a little adrift. The plot, however, isn’t overly complex or overly reliant on character histories, so it’s a good starting place in that way.

I rather enjoy the murder mysteries that are less centered on the main characters, so this is a wonderful callback to a time before we started delving seriously into Roarke and Eve’s childhoods and families. (Not that I didn’t enjoy those, but I think the books tend to be a little better when they aren’t focused on them.) There’s still plenty going on, and some enjoyable complications to the plot; there just isn’t a lot of outside drama overlaying the mystery.

As usual, I’m including a content note for both sex and death. Robb doesn’t pull any punches with her death scenes and the like, but this is not one of her darker or gorier books. I love the fact that this is a future (April 2061, to be precise) in which things like same-sex marriage go nearly unremarked-upon because they’re so normalized. There are ‘Licensed Companions’ which is legalized prostitution. The future may not be shiny and clean–as evidenced by the need for Eve and her department of homicide cops–but it’s hopeful.

All in all this is an intriguing murder mystery with enjoyable characters, clever twists, and fantastic worldbuilding. You can’t go wrong.

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Review: “Whiteout,” Adriana Anders

Pros: Fascinating struggle for survival
Cons: Changes tone toward the end
Rating: 5 out of 5

Adriana Anders’s Whiteout (Survival Instincts Book 1) definitely worked for me! It takes place in Antarctica. Ford “Coop” Cooper, a handsome (but not entirely neurotypical) glaciologist likes being there for the wide open spaces and the ability to get away from anyone and everyone. Angel Smith, a chef, decided to take the job for the summer in order to get away from her train wreck of a life. Angel has a crush on Ford, but Ford avoids her like the plague–he’s awkward enough at the best of times, and even worse when he finds someone attractive. One day, something goes wrong. Ford goes looking for a missing colleague. Angel hides while she listens to a supposed colleague, Bradley Sampson, kill one of the scientists over some research that he wants. Angel manages to hide some of what he wants before he and his people leave, and she and Ford get left behind. Unfortunately, as soon as Sampson realizes he doesn’t have what he wants, he’s going to come back for Angel and Ford. Angel and Ford have to come up with a way to get to the nearest station–a journey that will take three weeks if they’re lucky–and stay hidden from the bad guys, who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

This is an excellent novel on several fronts. It’s an engaging romance, in which two very different yet mutually attracted people have to feel their way through the growing feelings between them. It’s an exciting thriller, as teams of bad guys with guns go looking for our erstwhile heroes. It’s also a survival adventure, in which our heroes must somehow live and reach safety even as the Antarctic heads into its winter season. There’s more than enough going on to keep you occupied.

I enjoyed the romance. Angel and Ford are interesting characters, and their attraction to each other feels genuine and sweet. (Content note for explicit sex.) They can’t help but make a connection as they’re thrown together under adverse circumstances–the real difficulty is in working out what exactly they want from each other, and what they’re ready for.

The thriller side of things definitely works. There are teams of bad guys battling the elements as well, hoping for good enough weather that they can fly and use satellite imagery to help them find Ford and Angel. Bradley doesn’t handle the delays entirely well, while scientist Dr. Clive Tenny mostly hopes to stay out of Sampson’s way while preparing for the work he’ll do once he has the samples he wants and their mysterious payload.

The survival trek is also engaging. There are storms, terrible cold, and treacherous terrain. The duo is trying to take certain samples with them as well as everything else they’ll need to survive, and that’s a lot of stuff. The terrain both helps and hinders the plot by turns, and it’s quite engaging.

The tone of the book does change partway through; not all of it takes place in Antarctica. I think this is because the book is part of a longer series, though, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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Review: “The Roo,” Alan Baxter

Pros: So much fun!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Alan Baxter’s novella The Roo apparently started with a Twitter joke. There was some news article about an aggressive kangaroo, followed by Twitter jokes about turning it into a story, followed by one person making a mock-up book cover, and finally Baxter agreed to write it. I’m so glad he did!

The premise is simple: In a rural town in Australia, there’s a giant, demonic kangaroo on the loose. Its eyes are fiery, it’s more than seven feet tall, and it’s ridiculously muscular. Why, it could rip a person’s arms from their sockets! (And does.) This is a great, traditional gore-fest. The premise is simple: how do the townspeople stop the roo from killing them all? As they gather in the town and find that more and more people have gone missing, they resort to escalating levels of violence to try to stop the thing.

This having started as a Twitter joke, Baxter decided to use the names of the various people who encouraged him to do this as the names of all the townspeople. If you hang out in book Twitter you may find this fairly hilarious. I recognized quite a few names, and it’s like having entertaining cameos in B horror flicks.

Content note for plenty of gore, some very mild sexual content, over-the-top violence, a little bit of racism, and talk about domestic violence. Domestic violence is actually the surprise theme of this book, and brings a bit of unexpected depth to the various character interactions. Bill Catter’s wife went missing a few days before the book starts, and everyone thinks she left him because of his abuse. In most horror stories this would be the cue for him to die early, but this book makes things more interesting than that.

I absolutely recommend reading this if you’re an old-school horror fan. This is a relatively short and delightful read.

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