Review: “Before We Die Alone,” Ike Hamill

Rating: 4 out of 5

Oh boy. I’m not even sure how to start describing Ike Hamill’s Before We Die Alone. Dennis is a programmer, hardware guy, and project lead. He also has a friend named Adam who talks to him through the grating in the wall of his house, and a black bear at a zoo spoke to him once. One day Adam suggests he get a job with a company called puzzleBox that’s just around the corner from his home. Dennis goes in, and ends up going for coffee with his interviewer, Janice. At the coffee shop he’s attacked by the same bear who talked to him at the zoo. Meanwhile, there’s an asteroid coming that has roughly a 60% chance of hitting the earth and destroying all life. Apparently the bears could have deflected it, but they voted, and decided it was time for humanity to die. The black bear claims he voted for the humans, but a big ol’ brown bear says the black bear is a felon and thus can’t vote.

“We’re supposed to be neutral about the fate of worlds like this.”

Dennis seems to accept these things with remarkable equanimity, which lends itself to an intriguing character and whimsical feel. There are bears on the moon, there are guys running around in the city naked with spears, there are chimps, apes, and gorillas living on another planet, and Dennis eventually learns how to “fold,” allowing him to travel in strange ways. There’s a blueberry heist (he needs lots of blueberries to trade for information from the black bear).

There are some things that never get dealt with. Why was there a tiny heart wired into a computer chip? What was the deal with people saying Dennis had “the mark” after he got clawed in the chest? Was Hamill on acid when he wrote this book? It gets more and more surreal as it goes.

One oddity that I didn’t entirely like was that Dennis sometimes broke into the story with the phrase “For clarity” followed by an explanation of some everyday thing like cell phones, programming, football, cars, TV, relationships, DVRs, newspapers, and shoelace-tying. If you read the author’s notes after the book you find out this is supposed to be a sort of memoir, but there’s no indication of that when you’re reading the book. So I guess it kind of makes sense in that context, but there are times in the book where it happens all too often. Also, I think one time he may have said one of them out loud, because another person comments on his shoelace-tying narration. There’s just little sense to what he feels he needs to explain, and what he doesn’t.

This book is worth reading if just for the sheer weirdness factor. There’s so much I want to comment on, but I don’t want to spoil all the bizarre hijinks.

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Short Take: “You and I Shall Be as Radiant,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Rating: 5 out of 5

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s short story You and I Shall Be as Radiant introduces us to Feilin. She spent 50 years trying to track down a weapon that would save her planet from invasion, and found it just a smidge too late. She returns to her conquered planet by posing as a weapons merchant, and manages to locate her younger sister. How will she set about rescuing her–and can she even do so?

I love this author’s work so very much. Her language is poetic, and you can tell that every word is carefully chosen. I could read her stories over and over. Once again there’s an intriguing AI involved, that had been watching over the weapon and now journeys with Feilin. Can it help? Will it help? Feilin finds out that her people’s best and brightest children are being trained as child soldiers. But what can one person do?

There’s depth and nuance to all of the (few) characters despite how short this story is. It’s absolutely worth picking up for a read.

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Review: “Oblivion,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

Skyla Dawn Cameron’s Oblivion (Demons of Oblivion Book 5) is the conclusion to this wonderful series. Vampire Zara Lain accidentally kicked off the apocalypse in the previous novel, and now it’s really shifting into gear. Quarter-demon and whole-badass Peri is our main point of view character in this volume. She runs into an old acquaintance, who explains that things are about to get bad–particularly for her. She and her friends head to a bunker Zara has equipped and try to figure out how to stop the apocalypse from happening. There’s a rain of toads, the moon has become red, and a lake turned to blood. Not to mention that as the veil thins, there are demons of all kinds running around the city. Mishka’s also back–she was swept into Oblivion in the last book, and even though she really is dead, she’s determined to keep her son out of the clutches of the folks who want to use him to bring about the apocalypse. However, that’s going to require ducking her father, the half-demon antichrist.

We get to find out more than just “it’s the apocalypse” this time. It turns out there’s a very specific reason why all of this is happening, and it’s meant to achieve a similarly specific goal. I’m trying not to give anything interesting away, here.

The characters are still wonderful, particularly what happens with Peri’s relationships with the others. There’s definitely some dark stuff going on, and our unlikely heroes are having a bad time of things. You really get to see how far they can be pushed.

We finally get to see the dimension they’ve been referring to as Oblivion! It’s crazy in there. Enki, the antichrist and Mishka and Peri’s father, can shape it pretty much at will, and it seems to be alive in some sense.

I love that Cameron assumes intelligence on the part of the reader. There are some things that happen that refer back to other events in other books–some great payoffs for things that were mentioned earlier. She doesn’t explain them to death, and if you have a halfway-decent memory for the other novels (or read them recently), you’ll be fine.

Content note for blood and guts, but you should be expecting that after the other volumes in this series. Enjoy!

“Stop worrying.”
“It’s the apocalypse, Peri.”

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Short Take: “Rio Adopts a Puppy,” S.L. Huang

Rating: 5 out of 5

S.L. Huang’s short story A Neurological Study on the Effects of Canine Appeal on Psychopathy, or, RIO ADOPTS A PUPPY: A Cas Russell Short Story (Cas Russell Series) may sound whimsical with that title, but it really isn’t. If you’ve read any of the Cas Russell books–and you really ought to before reading this, because parts of it won’t stand alone–you’ll know Rio as a curious character who is absolutely psychopathic, but who channels that by doing “God’s work.” In other words, he lets out his desire to do harm by taking it out on bad people. He isn’t particularly interested in helping anyone–he just needs a channel for the worst of his impulses.

Serious content note here. Rio ends up finding an injured, starving puppy, and decides to take care of it. But in his own head he still has to deal with his desire to harm others, including the puppy. So there are things he imagines doing that some readers won’t want to read.

Really this is a short story aimed at current readers of the series who want to know a bit more about Rio and how he manages his desires versus his self-imposed “calling.” It won’t stand well alone, and it’s very dark. It is, however, very well-written, and really does shed light on Rio’s thoughts and impulses. He’s always been an intriguing character, and this satisfies the urge to know more about him.

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Review: “Survivor Song,” Paul Tremblay

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song: A Novel, it’s the zombie apocalypse. Well okay, not really. Anyone can tell you the infected people are very much alive and are not zombies. It also isn’t an apocalypse as far as the world is concerned–mostly just in this one part of Massachusetts. But as far as Natalie and Ramola are concerned, it might as well be a zombie apocalypse. Natalie is very pregnant, due in 15 days, and she was just bitten by someone who has contracted a super-virulent new rabies virus. The normal rabies virus takes a lot of time to work its way to the brain, so there’s plenty of time to receive life-saving treatment before that happens. This virus is said to make it there within an hour. The hospitals are overwhelmed, so Natalie goes to her best friend Ramola, who happens to be a pediatrician and who thinks she can get Natalie into the hospital. From there it’s a terrifying journey as Natalie fights to make it long enough for her baby to be born by c-section.

Some of the details are so spot-on with what we’ve seen with Covid-19, such as the lack of proper PPE. Obviously, since these patients become dangerous, there’s also some real differences. Ramola has to keep a very close eye on Natalie for signs and symptoms of the disease, while doing everything she can to get her to an operating room.

It becomes easy to see how people could do foolish things, risking many lives in order to save one or two. It really hits home how invested you can get in making this one miracle happen. Natalie is so amazingly strong for her baby, despite being frequently on the edge of a very understandable hysteria. Ramola is such a wonderful character as well, strong in a very different way from Natalie. She very much believes in order, and science, and rationality, but irrational things are happening all around her.

We also get to know Josh and Luis, two young men who seem happy to be in the zombie apocalypse, but maybe aren’t as macho as they think. It seems like they’re going to fall into a stereotype of false bravado, but they become so much more than that.

We do see one group of self-appointed militia, but this is no white-guy gun-nut fantasy to be catered to. They’re out of their league.

While reading this book I felt an unease that turned to dread as it pooled in my stomach. I shed a few tears, I’m not ashamed to say. This is a surprisingly realistic look at a type of disease that could happen and could really wreak havoc on society, even if just in limited ways or limited areas. Highly recommended.

Content note for mild gore.

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Review: “The Only Good Indians,” Stephen Graham Jones

Rating: 5 out of 5

I just finished reading Stephen Graham Jones’s horror novel The Only Good Indians and my heart is still racing. Four men made a mistake ten years ago: they hunted elk where they weren’t allowed to be, and one of those elk was pregnant. They’ve never entirely forgotten the incident–and neither have the elk. Lewis, who moved away and married a white woman, starts having visions of a woman with an elk’s head. He becomes convinced that she’s coming for revenge, and that she must have taken over the body of either his wife Peta or his colleague at the post office, Shaney. Ricky is already dead–no one thought there was anything strange about one more Indian getting beaten to death outside of a bar, but he saw the elk before he died. That leaves Gabe and Cassidy, both of whom still live on the Reservation. Gabe has a basketball-star teenaged daughter, and Cass is thinking of proposing to his girlfriend, Jo. But soon, the past will catch up to all of them.

I thought the book was a little low-key at first, and while I thought that I understood what sort of violation the four friends committed, I had a little difficulty seeing it as being that big of a deal. But wow, Jones really does make you feel it well before the end.

Lewis’s story is amazing. Is he seeing the Elk Headed Woman? Is it his guilty conscience? If she is real, is it Peta? Is it Shaney? Is it someone else entirely? The narrative builds up so gradually, expertly creating just the right atmosphere, and then suddenly you find yourself reading with a hand over your mouth and your eyes wide open. This book has some of the best pacing I’ve ever experienced.

The characters are fantastic, not a one of them is a caricature or stereotype. Gabe and Cass are still fuck-ups, but they have their genuinely good moments. Lewis tried his best to offset the harm he did to the elk and her calf, but now he thinks it wasn’t enough (he speculates a bit on why this might be, but I don’t think we ever really know, and that’s fine). The worldbuilding (sounds strange for something nominally set in the real world, but he’s still building the details of a place many of his readers won’t be familiar with) is fantastic. It acknowledges the truths behind some stereotypes while also showing us that there’s so much more to it than that. Both the Blackfeet and the Crow are represented here.

There’s definitely a content note for animal harm and death, not just in the expected places. It’s hard to read, but belongs in this story in a certain sense.

I can’t recommend this one highly enough. I’m still having trouble moving on to start another book because this one is stuck in my head!

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Review: “Devil’s Creek,” Todd Keisling

Rating: 5 out of 5

Todd Keisling’s novel Devil’s Creek manages to pack in a whole lot of horror! In 1983 Kentucky, Father Jacob Masters of the Lord’s Church of Holy Voices plans a sacrifice to his dark lord under the earth. He has fathered six children on six women, solely for this purpose. The children’s grandparents raid the church and steal the kids away, leaving the church to burn and killing Father Jacob. The six half-siblings become known as the “Stauford Six,” and they never really fit in in the town of Stauford. Jack, one of the Six and a successful artist who makes bank from his nightmares, returns to town when his grandmother, Imogene (Genie), dies so that he can settle her estate. Only Genie is the last of the grandparents to die, and it triggers a return of Father Jacob.

I love the six siblings–they have a complex web of relationships. Susan wants to follow her father. Zeke is a misfit who ends up providing drugs to the chief of police. Jack is an artist; Stephanie is a radio DJ playing “the Devil’s music” despite the protest much of the town has kicked up. Chuck is a lawyer, and Bobby became a reverend. Bobby’s the only one who had a child, rebellious 15-year-old Riley. These people definitely have depth to them. There’s a certain closeness to them–the Stauford Six against the world–and yet lines are drawn between them. Riley is stoked to meet his Uncle Jack, and spends a lot of time with his Aunt Stephanie, who handles his rebellion much better than Bobby does. All six have been severely traumatized, and each of them has handled that differently.

Father Jacob has his sights set on the world this time around, starting with the population of Stauford. The god beneath the earth that he follows is definitely not of this world. My only mild bit of cognitive dissonance came from some letters found in a book of Imogene’s research notes, regarding a strange idol found beneath the church. There’s a letter from a professor at Miskatonic U, and even mention of the Necronomicon. Since the author had done such a brilliant job of making this book feel real, that pulled me out of things a bit. That’s seriously the only negative I had in the entire thing.

Content note for child abuse and rape, sexual content, a brief bit of animal harm, incest, and racial violence/racism.

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Review: “Exhumed,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

Skyla Dawn Cameron’s Exhumed (Demons of Oblivion) (Volume 4) manages to be, if anything, even darker than previous installments in the series. Nate has awoken from his stasis after six years. Unfortunately, it turns out to be true that warlocks who are turned into vampires suffer insanity when they wake up. He’s in some sort of fugue state, and for the moment he’s obviously a danger to himself and others. But of course, there’s no spare time for Zara to focus on him. Somebody’s trying to hire Zara for a job and doesn’t want to take no for an answer. An enemy from her past returns and threatens to upset the entire apple-cart. She seems to have a mysterious admirer who sends her flowers and helpful notes. And Armageddon is back on the table.

Nate and Zara’s relationship just got a lot more complicated. Oh goodness. It’s hard to read; I cried once. Okay, twice. Cameron really lays on the emotions, and despite Zara’s narcissism I honestly hurt for her a couple of times. It also ends up being the backdrop on which her relationship with her… employees… evolves. All of them are here: Nic with her girlfriend Peri, Ryann, and Ellie. Even her relationship with Peri is developing into something beyond hate.

Don’t worry though–it isn’t all tears. There’s still plenty of snark, and Zara pulls off some very satisfying kills. She finally meets up with that super-secret shadow government organization, and she decides she’d like to join. Or maybe blow them up? Eh, she’ll make it up as she goes.

There isn’t a lot I can talk about without spoiling some surprises that I’d rather not spoil. Suffice it to say, this is one series that starts out fantastic and just keeps getting harder to put down.

This time there’s a content note for child death, sex, torture, and rape.

NOTE: There are a couple of novellas that are recommended reading between Exhumed and Oblivion. You can find them for cheap at Skyla Dawn Cameron’s website. They’re very good, and I highly recommend them. 9Crimes includes a handful of Nate-PoV stories, including the flip side of what Zara (thought she) saw happen between him and Mishka. Damaged sees Zara dealing with the emotional fallout from Exhumed–also with demons accidentally summoned by some stupid college kids playing with an evil book.

“There’s a vampire, a quarter-demon, ex Venatores Daemonum member, and a psychic. Now that I have a warlock, I have a complete set to sell on eBay.”

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Review: “Blood Shot,” Tanya Huff

Rating: 5 out of 5

Tanya Huff’s Blood Shot: Stories from the Blood ‘Verse (Blood Series) is an anthology of short stories from her “Blood ‘Verse.” It involves characters from both the main vampire novels and a spin-off series centered on a wizard. I know I read a couple of the Blood stories ages ago, but I don’t really remember details, and I’ve never read the Smoke stories. So I can tell you with some certainty that yes, you can read these stories on their own. While I’m sure I missed some references, I never felt like I didn’t understand what was going on.

The first few stories are about Vicky Nelson, vampiric PI, and her lover, Detective Mike Celluci. In one story, Mike gets kidnapped and used against Vicki. In another, a mysterious singer brings the Hunger in Vicki to the fore. Then Mike ends up in the hospital when someone’s wish given to a Jinn goes awry. A rather different tale involves four teenagers who open a portal to another world from inside a mausoleum.

The rest of the stories are about Tony–one of a very few practicing wizards, and also the second assistant director on a vampire television show. Together with Henry, the vampire who turned Vicki, he has to rescue a missing girl. Next Tony’s tutoring a young woman in the art of being a wizard, and ends up helping out when she encounters something strange in her school. (I love the relationship between Brianna, the would-be wizard, and her sister Ashley, who are only sometimes at each other’s throats.) Finally there’s something going on at the set of the vampire/detective show that Tony and his partner Lee work on. A dead elderly man was found in the alley next to a hooker, and she develops an interest in Lee. I totally didn’t expect where this one went.

The characters and relationships are wonderful. I particularly liked hearing some of Vicki’s thoughts as she handles the fact that Mike is getting older and she isn’t–especially when she realizes she might have a way to prolong his life. Brianna and Ashley were the highlight of the book; they feud as sisters do, but they’re united in a couple of key ways. And Brianna has a bright future ahead of her!

All in all this is a delightful anthology, and it makes me want to go back and read all of the Blood and Smoke books.

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Review: “Lineage,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

Skyla Dawn Cameron’s Lineage (Demons of Oblivion Book 3) takes place about five or six years after book one, and some undetermined time after book two. This time our protagonist is Persephone (Peri) Takata. She’s an agent of Bravo Division, and her job is theft, sabotage, kidnapping, and killing, all at the behest of her superiors–one of whom would like to see her dead. See, she’s a quarter-demon, daughter of the antichrist, much like Mishka in book one. (Different mother, though.) Her husband and twin children were killed in the mass attacks on supernatural creatures in book one, and she’s been trained by and working with Bravo Division ever since in a plan to get revenge for her children. One of her superiors comes to her and says they’re going to give her some paid vacation–they’ve finally found a survivor of those mass attacks, who might have some insight into what happened: vampire Zara Lain. Peri sets off to find Lain, but seeing as she’s a sociopathic killer hell-bent on revenge, she bulls her way into Lain’s life and nearly gets herself killed several times over. Ultimately, Peri, Lain, and Lain’s other acquaintances decide to seek out the Veil, a rumored super-secret organization of powerful people.

Peri is a great character. Zara’s problem is that she’s a narcissist–everything she does is done with an eye toward “what’s in it for me?” Peri’s problem is she’s a sociopath–she almost entirely lacks the ability to empathize with others. It’s easy to imagine that this is a result of what happened to her husband and kids, but when you scratch the surface you realize there’s no way she could have been totally “normal” only to switch off when that happened, and that’s handled well. Peri ends up getting to know Zara’s “assistant,” the squeamish vampire Nicolette. The two of them are almost polar opposites, and thus their interactions are wonderful. Nic is the only person who seems to be able to reach Peri, and even that is sporadic and unreliable.

Now that Zara has Ellie (the psychic medium) on tap, you just know she’s going to milk that resource for all it’s worth. In order to figure out who was responsible for killing Peri’s family, they’re going to have to talk to Sean, Nate’s brother–who is perhaps the one responsible, and already dead (at Nate’s hand). Meanwhile, it seems like someone’s killing people to fuel demonic magic.

I was hooked by this one, and shed a few tears in one or two places. I can’t wait to read more Oblivion books!

Content note for suicidal ideation: Peri’s very clear that once she avenges her family, she plans to kill herself.

I sang “Happy Birthday” at his party…or would have if I was the kind of person who sang “Happy Birthday” instead of standing awkwardly across the room while thinking about stabbing people with plastic knives.

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