Short Take: “My Sister, The Serial Killer,” Oyinkan Braithwaite

Pros: So totally engrossing!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s short novel My Sister, the Serial Killer is such a fun read! Older sister Korede is a nurse at a hospital in Lagos. She’s in love with Tade, a doctor she works with, but she’s plain and gets overlooked by everyone. Her younger sister Ayoola is the pampered princess, able to attract pretty much any man she wants. And she sets her sights on Tade. First, though, Korede has to help Ayoola clean up after her last relationship–which means dumping the body of her previous boyfriend off of a bridge and scouring his flat clean. Just one big, glaring problem: this is the third boyfriend Ayoola has killed. The self-defense argument is wearing a little thin. And well, you know, once you hit three they label you a serial killer. Will Korede save Tade from her predatory sister? Will she continue to protect Ayoola?

The sense of place in this book is incredible. Lagos is fascinating, with its heat and its traffic and its corrupt police. The characters are similarly wonderful. As we learn more about Korede and Ayoola’s dead father, more details about the sisters start to make sense–especially Korede’s drive to protect Ayoola even as she resents her. She tries several times to warn off Tade, but Ayoola has made sure Tade believes that Korede is just jealous of her. She’s going to have to be more explicit if she wants to save him. Ayoola and Korede’s mother is so desperate to see the beautiful Ayoola married that she even lies to Tade and pretends Korede’s cooking is Ayoola’s.

The story is fascinating and engrossing. Korede and Ayoola’s family life is intriguing. Even the hospital where Korede is a nurse is its own universe, with a handful of forceful characters. I absolutely recommend this book to readers of all kinds.

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Review: “Dark Stranger: The Dream,” I.T. Lucas

Pros: Good chemistry between the leads
Cons: Too many other problems
Rating: 1 out of 5

I.T. Lucas brings us Dark Stranger The Dream (The Children Of The Gods Paranormal Romance Series Book 1), in which student Syssi has premonitions that come true. She’s had a premonition that the professor she works for, Amanda, will experience some sort of life-changing event. Meanwhile, she keeps having dreams in which she’s fleeing wolves, only to come face-to-face with a devastatingly sexy man. That man is Amanda’s brother, Kian. Just to make things complicated, Amanda and Kian are the immortal children of a living goddess, and the members of their “clan” have other immortal enemies. The only immortals on earth are from those two lines, so the best the immortals can hope for is quick trysts with humans, rather than lasting relationships. But Amanda’s convinced Syssi is a Dormant, blessed with some other goddess’s genes, meaning that if Kian could “activate” her (by sleeping with her, naturally), she could become immortal as well. Unfortunately, while the clan has successfully hidden among mortals for centuries, they’ve just been found by their enemies. Since the immortal genes can only be passed on matrilineally, their enemies are desperate to find and capture the clan’s women.

Apart from Syssi’s premonition regarding Amanda, her abilities don’t really come into play, which makes them seem sort of irrelevant. Especially as that particular premonition doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story in the first volume. Amanda’s research has to do with people who have paranormal gifts, but we don’t get into it much in here. I would have liked more detail since this is something so important to her.

It’s hard to believe any of these characters are hundreds–in some cases thousands–of years old. I mean, they don’t have to sound like they’re from the Victorian era or anything, but none of them sounds older than about 25. The narrative is also written in a very young-sounding manner, which again undermines any sense of age to the characters or clans. Also, they’re repeatedly described as predatory, which makes their moralistic stance on veganism a bit weird.

The narrative describes someone’s favored fight tactics instead of oh, say, showing them in a fight, even though the character got into a fight earlier in the book. Much less interesting.

Of course the guy with a dark complexion and long black hair has light blue eyes, because for some reason people seem to fetishize taking people who aren’t white and giving them blue eyes.

There are seven biomechanical wonders that look human and can even change their apparent gender, but apparently they’re rarely used for more than playing butler (making brunch seems to be a favored pastime). You’d think some sort of stunning god-tech creature would be more useful than that.

The bad guys are known as the Devout Order of Mortdh Brotherhood, or DOOM; otherwise called “Doomers”. I snickered. That’s right out of a comic book. Naturally they specialize in abduction and rape. And when they take women, they give them a choice between serving as manual labor (maids, etc.) or prostitutes: “[G]iven the choice between manual work and prostitution, most opted to work on their backs.” So the author’s position seems to be that women are so lazy they’d prefer to be raped rather than work? You know, I was going to give this book a 2/5 because the leads have great sexual chemistry, but I refuse to give anything greater than a 1 to a book that makes this implication. Since her Amazon bio indicates the author is female, I guess we’ll have to blame this one on internalized misogyny.

Kian goes back and forth on whether he should sleep with Syssi more times than I can count. The two of them are relentlessly drawn to each other, and actually have a lot of chemistry (the best part of the book), but Kian just can’t seem to make up his mind. One moment he’s all sure that she “belonged to him alone,” and then he’s holding her at arm’s length. Sure, his (eventually disclosed) reasons make sense, but it’s overdone. When Kian’s considering Syssi’s naivete, he feels the need to think about how the kind of women who want one-night stands (his usual “type”) are “somewhat overripe, often even rotten.” Way to slut-shame, and, ewww. Definitely doesn’t endear either Kian or the author to me. (Sleeping around apparently doesn’t make him an “overripe” slut, though, because godly hormones or something.)

SPOILER WARNING: In an utterly overused trope, the only gay character exists to be quickly killed and mourned. END SPOILERS

Content note for sexual content, very mild dominance/submission, and themes of rape. There’s more I could get into, but at this point it would be beating a dead horse.

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Review: “Until Dawn,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Great good guys-under-siege monster story
Cons: I want just a little more this time
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s novella Until Dawn is a sequel to his Until the Sun Goes Down [review], which is one of my favorite Hamill stories. In that tale, a man is stalked by mysterious monsters until he’s infected and starts to become like them. Before he’s taken too far under, he lets his neighbor Amber know how to kill him, and she does. Now Amber is attending Jennifer and Aaron’s wedding at a hotel in Maine. She has almost convinced herself that the previous events never really happened, but she still habitually carries sharpened stakes and flashlights with her everywhere, as well as seeds she can toss on the floor to force the creatures to stop and collect them. It turns out to be a very good thing indeed that she does so. On their way home from the wedding, Riley and Nick stop at a railroad crossing, and Riley is lured away into an attack. Nick goes back for help, and Amber goes back with him and deputy Ricky to find Riley. He’s injured, and they take him to the hospital, then return to the hotel where things are starting to get scary.

If you’ve read a lot of Hamill books, you’ll find some interesting Easter eggs here. Deputy Ricky is from Hamill book Accidental Evil [review], so he has history with things that go bump in the night. Couple Liz and Alan are from Migrators [review], and thus are at least open to the idea that there are strange things that exist in this world. This story shares that aspect with its prequel: the main characters don’t waste time insisting that the supernatural doesn’t exist.

Until the Sun Goes Down was a slow, spiraling tale of one man’s horror. Until Dawn is an ensemble tale of good guys under siege in a large and complex building. They’re two different types of horror, but each one is quite enjoyable.

There are some speculations by the main characters about what’s going on with the “vampires”/lizards/whatever-they-are. Why hasn’t this infection wiped out extensive portions of the population if it’s so virulent and unstoppable? Why have they suddenly attacked en masse now? Is this something new in the world? I have to admit, I would have liked even a little more of a hint about where this was going.

This is a fun series, and I definitely recommend it.

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Short Take: “Until the Sun Goes Down,” Ike Hamill

Pros: This may be my favorite Ike Hamill yet!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s novella Until the Sun Goes Down may be my favorite of his books so far. The main character (you know, I’m suddenly not sure we ever got his name? Maybe I’m just getting old and forgetful) is heading for his Uncle Walt’s house. His mother is dead, his wife Kimberly is dead, and now his Uncle Walt has died as well. He needs to clean out Walt’s remote Maine house so that he can sell the place. But first, it’s the worst of the summer heat, and he stops by the neighbor’s house to make sure he’s okay in the heat. The windows are all closed tight, which can’t be good, and the front door isn’t latched. When he goes inside he finds the neighbor half-dead on the kitchen floor and calls the paramedics. While waiting he tells the man a childhood story involving make-believe vampires… only to have the man volunteer that there are vampires in the cellar. Our hero is all too happy to leave that house once the paramedics arrive–later he finds out that the man suffered from anemia.

This is a very gradual, slow wind-up of a story, and for once I didn’t find that the least bit off-putting or boring or anything like that. It’s a masterwork of a gradual buildup of tension and fear. It’s extremely internal, and we really get to know both the best and worst of our protagonist. There are only a few other characters that show up, but even the police have personality and interest.

One of the things I find interesting about this character is the fact that he doesn’t waste any time telling himself that there’s no such thing as vampires, or denying the evidence of his senses. He pivots swiftly into doing whatever the hell he can to stay alive.

This is a delightful horror read with a nice dose of strangeness–these are no ordinary vampires!

I like the strangeness of Uncle Walt’s house and the idea that anything is possible here, but it’s not a comforting thought at three in the morning.

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Review: “The Complex,” Brian Keene

Pros: Fascinating story of neighbors having to work together
Cons: No resolution, no questions answered–unsatisfying ending
Rating: 3 out of 5

Brian Keene’s The Complex is an intriguing tale. One day, a bunch of armed naked people who don’t seem to speak walk out of the woods next to the Pine Village Apartment Complex and start killing everyone they can find. They’re nominally led by a grotesquely obese man whose head sways back and forth like a metronome, leading young Caleb to call him “Tik Tok”. The residents of the various D-block apartments band together to fight off the mob. They include a horror writer (of course), a single mother with her six-year-old son, a young trans woman, an older cat lady and her four cats, a couple of druggies, a Vietnam vet, a married couple, and a serial killer called “The Exit”.

Mostly I find myself rolling my eyes every time a fiction author–particularly a horror writer–makes a main character a writer. I think it’s just that it gets done to death, although at least in this book the writer takes an unexpected turn. The druggies are mostly what you’d expect. The Vietnam vet and the single mother with her kid are good characters, but nothing particularly unexpected; same with the married couple. Stephanie, the trans woman, is one of my favorite characters. The old cat lady is particularly delightful; she’s determined, gutsy, and creative in her methods of defense. The Exit is also fascinating–he’s a non-white serial killer, and he believes that each death he has caused is a necessary sacrifice to close a door between worlds that would otherwise allow in dark beings from beyond. He develops a fair amount of depth as the story goes on.

Tik Tok’s obesity is played purely for disgust, and I found that annoying. Poking fun at the fat guy is the easy play, and the rest of this book is better than that. I wish Keene had skipped that part.

SPOILER WARNING: Many questions go unanswered. Why are some people affected and others not? What’s the source of this strange behavior? Who or what is Tik Tok and how is he in charge of the deranged mobs? How far has this thing spread? How does the story end? Is The Exit a loon or are there really doorways between realms that could let alien things inside our world? The ending is rather abrupt and just doesn’t tell us much of anything. END SPOILERS

The story is an interesting commentary on how little we tend to know our neighbors in this day and age, and I don’t typically need everything wrapped up in a tidy bow by the end, but I did want something more than we got.

Content note for slurs, animal harm, and gore.

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Review: “Dead Astronauts,” Jeff VanderMeer

Pros: Incredibly hallucinatory and weirdly addictive
Cons: Incredibly hallucinatory and confusing
Rating: 4 out of 5

I’m not entirely sure how to talk about Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts: A Novel I read his Southern Reach trilogy and LOVED it. This… I mean, I’m glad I read it, and it’s certainly beautifully constructed, but I still feel like I have no real idea what actually happened in it.

The Company had tick-engorged itself across all timelines.

There’s a City, and a Company, and various timelines in which they exist. There are three rebels called Grayson, Moss, and Chen, all of whom are no longer entirely human. There’s biotech, and nanites, and a wolf-sized messianic blue fox that can travel between (worlds? Timelines? I’m not wholly certain). There’s a dark duck with bladed wings, and a Leviathan that can use its fins to walk from holding pond to holding pond in search of food. There are portals, and a desert, and the Company giving orders to the dark bird to kill its enemies. There are people filled with cancer and plastic dying off and leaving behind a rapidly shrinking livable world. There’s a salamander who saves a homeless girl named Sarah, only for her to become a part of Charlie X’s experiments. (I think. I got a little lost in there.)

“We shall fight the 3, we shall live within the 7.”
“We shall be the Company in both the 0 and the 10.”

Climate change has swept across the world. Many places are contaminated with poisons and biotech and belching smoke. Humanity is dying out and the world is changing. This really isn’t a preachy book–honestly, it would have to be more straightforwardly coherent in order to be preachy. Instead it’s all about the many versions of reality.

The Three (Grayson, Moss, and Chen) are fascinating characters even though they’re as much forces of nature (or perhaps artifice) as they are people. I would have liked to spend more time with them; the story moves on to other pastures part-way through the book.

A fox is a question that must be answered.

The blue fox’s narration is particularly difficult to read in some ways because there are several sections where whole passages are repeated over and over and over. There’s one section that’s two sentences repeated over and over for 9 pages (kindle version). It’s… I mean, it sets a mood, I’ll give it that. And it allows you to understand certain things (like just how many times the blue fox has been killed and resurrected) without having to be told. But it’s still… challenging.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book for everyone; I think it will be very polarizing. It’s brilliantly constructed, and hugely original/creative, but hard to make sense of. Content note for animal harm and death.

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Review: “Endgame,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: Fantastic climax to the series!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Here we are, in the final book of Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series, Endgame (A Sirantha Jax Novel). Jax, Loras, Zeeka, Constance, and Vel have settled in on La’heng to try to find a way to distribute the cure to the La’hengrin. Unfortunately, the Nicuan nobles in charge of the government not only have no incentive to allow the change–they have every incentive to disallow it. It will free the La’hengrin from being passive slaves, and allow them to defend themselves. So every legal route Jax tries is stymied by the government. Once they’ve tried everything, it’s time to resort to guerilla warfare. They built an underground base, and now they’re going to furtively start freeing outlying communities until they build up a sufficient army. They raid food and weapons caches to further their goals. Meanwhile, Vel and Sirantha take on a new missioin: to infiltrate the Nicuan nobility and obtain important intel. Jax will have to put on a new face to play this role.

Jax and March are still having troubles. March is caught up in caring for his telekinetic nephew Sasha, and Jax has no interest in settling down. I love the fact that when March points out that she’s unwilling to compromise to be with him, she says “it’s not selfish to make the right choices for me.” Of course I want the two of them to get to be together, but it’s practically tradition at this point for female romantic leads to have to make the compromises that allow them to be with their loved ones, so I like seeing it pointed out that she also needs to do what’s right for her. Her relationship with Vel is also still evolving, and is becoming more complex, which is also not sitting entirely well with March. She’s also found out that her nanites are slowing the aging process, and that there’s no way of telling how long she’ll live.

This is definitely an action-packed finale. There are shoot-outs, hand-to-hand combats, bombardments, and skullduggery. Jax has to learn to be an entirely different person for a while, and Vel has become even more of a chameleon. Loras has become the leader of the resistance on his world, and he’s turning into a hard man indeed.

I found this to be a totally satisfying conclusion to the six-book series. As much as I would love to see more, this was a wonderful place to stop!

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Short Take: “Rebellion,” Joshua James

Pros: Can’t get enough of Lucky Savage!
Cons: Cliffhanger
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Joshua James’s novella Rebellion: Lucky’s Mercs | Book 2 is the second book in the series “Lucky’s Mercs,” which is a spinoff of “Lucky’s Marines”. James has specified that he’s tried to make Mercs stand alone, so you don’t need to have read Marines, and I think he succeeds (although go read Marines anyway–the whole series is awesome!). In this volume, Lucky and his crew take a simple crowd control job–go down to a mining colony and crack a few heads. Just his kind of work. Of course as soon as the group arrives everything goes off the rails. The Sheriff of the mining colony, who contracted them, knows Knives–and Knives insists that Sheriff Fang absolutely, 100%, cannot be trusted. The Cardinal Order is about, and while Lucky isn’t with the Empire any more, he and his people still have problems with the Reds. There’s something strange going on, and Lucky and his people will be lucky to get out with their hides intact.

We get to experience Spider’s origin story in this volume! It’s quite fascinating. All we know so far is that she’s an AI in a brain-dead human body, where normally AIs have to co-exist with a living mind. There are also hints that she has some unusual abilities.

The mining station is under water, and the geography and topology of how it’s structured is integral to much of the action. It’s creative and fun, with plenty of tense moments.

I really can’t get into much more without spoilers. I’ll just say that there was one question I felt should have been answered a little better; there’s a cliffhanger in this volume (I hate cliffhangers!); and of course I’m giving you a content note for Lucky’s particular brand of Hate-fueled hyper-violence.

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Review: “Aftermath,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: Quite the emotional roller coaster!
Cons: Definitely a bit slow, but it works
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Ann Aguirre’s Aftermath (A Sirantha Jax Novel) is book five in the series about jump navigator Sirantha Jax, who somehow keeps getting swept up in great events. At the end of book four, Jax set out to change the beacon signals in order to keep the main portion of the Morgut army from reaching Conglomerate space. She struggles back to warn the Conglomerate pilots not to use grimspace to travel until she can teach people how to use the new signals, but she doesn’t catch everyone in time. Soon she finds herself on trial for mass murder, responsible for the deaths of some 600 people. Of course if she hadn’t done it billions would have died, but that doesn’t ease her feelings of guilt any.

This is definitely a somewhat slower, emotions-focused installment in the series. The relationship between Jax and March is complicated as always, particularly when he goes in search of his missing nephew. It’s Jax and Vel who take on the world together, becoming closer as they come to rely on each other. Vel’s the one who sticks around while Jax is on trial, and then again when Jax teaches others how to navigate the reprogrammed beacons. He’s the one who sees her through her attempts to return a clone of Baby-Z to Marakeq, and continues her efforts to free Loras’s people. It’s fascinating to watch their relationship evolve, especially after Vel shares his history with Adele with Jax. I’m glad there are such interesting characters in these books; since I’m so invested in them after the first four books I didn’t really have trouble with the slower, less action-oriented turn this book took.

I definitely cried at the end of this volume. There’s one more book in the series, and I’m so curious to see where things end. I can imagine a handful of directions it could go in. We do get to experience more of the worldbuilding in this book as well–there are details about the ancient aliens who created the grimspace beacons.

Content note for allusions to alien/human sex.

I can’t get into much more without spoiling details, so I’ll stop there. The series continues to be amazing!

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Review: “The Dark Game,” Jonathan Janz

Pros: Love the concept; adored the ending!
Cons: Couldn’t keep track of the characters!
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Jonathan Janz’s The Dark Game (Fiction Without Frontiers), ten writers have been invited to a competition at a famous, and reclusive, writer’s old mansion. At stake? Three million dollars and a big-time publishing contract. The author ran a similar competition 50 years earlier and the woman who won became hugely famous. Of the other contestants, no one ever heard a thing. Each of the writers invited to the retreat is at a different place in their careers. Some have barely started; one had a smashing debut only to fall flat on her face in the sequels. But what all ten have in common is their fierce desire to succeed–and their dark, sinful histories. When one of the writers sees a character from his new book show up in reality, the writers start to get an inkling that something is wrong. Before long writers start to disappear–apparently leaving the retreat in defeated silence, leaving their possessions behind.

I ran into a couple of things that left me with questions, but I’m happy to be able to say that my questions were answered by the end of the book. I was quite satisfied with how things turned out. And the ending–oh yes. All I’ll say is that it left me chortling in glee.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time differentiating between so many contestants. Maybe if they had been a little deeper as characters it would have worked, but despite their past sins, they didn’t feel as distinctive as I think they should have. I kept confusing Evan and Will in particular. Some of the nastier writers are a little unrelentingly nasty–mainly Anna and Bryan. Sherilyn is an exception–she just exudes personality. As the number of writers dwindle it becomes easier of course, and it’s interesting to see what happens when they start to realize something just isn’t right in the old mansion. I did find that some of the characters’ deaths were too quick and sudden–it felt like they should have been played for even a little more drama.

This book does indulge in the oft-used horror trope where the main character (nominally Lucy, although we get first-person accounts from a variety of characters) is a writer, and the story takes place in a dilapidated old house in the middle of nowhere. However, unlike the more cliché examples of this trope, there’s a very good reason why these characters are authors. I’ll just say it’s absolutely integral to the entire story, and I loved that.

All in all this is a really fun read. I think most horror enthusiasts would enjoy it.

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