Review: “The Luminous Dead,” Caitlin Starling

Pros: Intense!
Cons: Mild confusion
Rating: 5 out of 5

Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead: A Novel is an intense psychological thriller that I couldn’t put down! Gyre is a caver, but she’s lied about how much experience she has. She lives on a dead-end planet where most of the work is hard labor, and this is one way for her to get the money to go off-planet and find her mother. She discovers as she descends that she doesn’t have the full team backing her that she assumed she’d have–she has only Em, who is distant and tells her the bare minimum of what she needs to know. There are many things to worry about, from the presence of Tunnelers (no one knows what attracts them) to unexpected flooding to rockslides. This job could literally kill Gyre, and she starts to worry when she finds the body of a previous caver. Can she get Em to tell her what this quest is really about? Can she get home alive?

The relationship between Em and Gyre is what really makes this story sing. For a significant period of time they are each other’s lifeline, and they’re each going through a kind of crucible. They change each other, and develop a remarkable relationship. The little bits of sci-fi influence allow unusual circumstances to arise, as the highly-developed suit Gyre wears becomes both a help and a hindrance, and also allows Em to influence her actions in certain ways.

The natural dangers keep things tense. Gyre navigates strong currents of underground water, climbs along barely-there shelves, and is exposed to mysterious fungal spores. She’s pretty sure once or twice that she sees someone else, and when she discovers that one of the equipment caches is missing, that possibility suddenly becomes all too real. Tunnelers, of course, are a danger–they can cause cave-ins and create whole new landscapes underground. Hallucinations also become a problem eventually.

My only (very mild) negative is that I got a bit confused toward the end with the different camps and different routes being cut off or opened up. There was also one plot thread that didn’t entirely get wrapped up, but I think that’s okay. It didn’t really need to be.

All in all this is a wonderful psychological thriller, and I’ll have to read more by Caitlin Starling!

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Review: “Into the Dark,” J.A. Schneider

Pros: Second half
Cons: First half
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

J.A. Schneider’s INTO THE DARK is a thriller/mystery about art history teacher Annie Lamb and her psychiatrist husband, Ben. Before Annie married Ben, he was married once before–and his wife committed suicide. Now, as Annie tries to help Ben’s troubled older son Colin, and watch over her and Ben’s young daughter Emma, she starts to suspect that maybe Ben’s wife didn’t commit suicide after all. The problem is, there are multiple suspects. Perhaps Ben, who’s started to act oddly, killed his wife. Maybe Colin killed his mother. Or perhaps it was one of the people from the community garden she was volunteering at. No matter what, events in Annie and Ben’s marriage are getting out of hand.

Even though I’m not fond of slow beginnings, I would have liked even a few more pages of context to start with. We dive right into Annie being paranoid and Ben being a manipulative jerk, so it’s hard to buy into this supposedly happy-until-now marriage. The characters are also, as a result, fairly unlikable. Annie develops possible feelings for homicide detective Connor almost immediately, which again doesn’t jibe with the idea that until very recently, Annie’s marriage has been largely a happy one. The first half of the book just feels a bit discordant because I can’t quite get a handle on that never-shown status quo of the marriage.

About halfway through the book, it turns into a much more interesting thriller. There are multiple possible suspects, which always helps. We know Ben is up to no good, but there are multiple possible motivations for why. As Ben starts to unravel, Annie and Emma’s safety becomes uncertain, ratcheting up the tension. The feel is delightfully claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing, which is pretty much what you want from a thriller.

The characters didn’t wow me, although in the second half they become more interesting and gain more depth. Pia, Annie’s best friend, never really moves beyond the artsy, loudmouthed best friend stereotype, and Connor is the concerned, hovering, well-meaning homicide detective who takes a personal interest. I think my favorite part of the book is seeing how Ben tries to cajole, manipulate, and trap Annie as he goes.

All in all this was a fun read.

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Review: “Memoirs of a Synth: Gold Record,” Leigh Saunders

Pros: Lovely story and characters
Cons: A few details
Rating: 4 out of 5

Leigh Saunders’s Memoirs of a Synth: Gold Record introduces us to Brianna Rei. She’s a Synth, designed and engineered to be the “perfect specimen” of humanity. The Synths were created to act as emissaries and diplomats in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But when they returned home to Earth, humans were afraid of what they had created. They vilified them, accused them of atrocities, and tried to exterminate them. Some of the aliens the Synths met helped them to escape, and now they slip from identity to identity, finding ways to make use of their long lives, wealth of knowledge, and total recall. Bri manages, on a lark, to fall in with smuggler and thief Jerrold. An attraction sparks right away, but what really causes Bri to stick around is the fact that Jerrold’s been hired to steal an object connected to her origins. When the planning stages of their heist cause Jerrold to find out what Bri really is, events take a left turn.

This is a low-key heist story, in that we end up seeing a handful of cascading heists go forward. Steal one thing, betray one person to another, steal another item to trade for someone, rescue a person, go off to steal another item… it’s great, and each situation is new and interesting. However, this is more of a character story than a heist story. So the focus isn’t on incredibly complicated heists, but rather on all of the various character interactions involved. There are stints of survival story, hints of maybe-romance and sexual attraction, running around all secret-spy identity-switching craziness, appearance-altering, jail-breaks, and more. (Content warning for sexual assault.)

I love most of the characters in here, but oddly I felt Jerrod could have used a little more depth. We get to fully explore Bri’s uncertain feelings for him, but there are periods of time where he has to come to his own revelations and we don’t see him during most of those times, leaving his side of things a little bereft. Many of Bri’s allies, temporary or permanent, though, are fascinating to meet. In particular I like the lizard-aliens she hooks up with. I also like the fact that she establishes interesting relationships with alien races–that is, after all, supposed to be what the Synths are good at doing. Don’t worry though–humans get plenty of interesting personality, too!

There was one dropped plot thread. One side character leaves a message for Bri. Bri sets it aside to find a way to read it later, and… I don’t recall her ever getting back to it.

The details of the various alien worlds are great. This isn’t a book that’s focused on worldbuilding first and foremost, but the results infuse the pages. Some of it is serious, some quirky, and all of it suits the story.

I really enjoyed this book, and I’m glad I picked it up.

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Review: “Sunspot Jungle Volume One,” ed. Bill Campbell

Pros: Poetic; multicultural
Cons: Some confusion
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sunspot Jungle: The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Bill Campbell, is a large collection of stories with a fantastical bent to them, although the genres are not cut-and-dried. Like any multiple-author anthology, it’s unlikely the editor’s tastes will exactly match up with the reader’s, so you’ll probably find some stories better (or more to your taste) than others. That’s just the nature of the thing. It’s particularly the case here, I think, because there’s just such a wide array of genres and mixed genres and styles. There are a lot of stories in here, so I’m just going to comment on some that left a particularly strong impression on me.

N.K. Jemisin’s Walking Awake is a fascinating story about symbiotic beings that now “grow” human bodies to transfer themselves into, from the point of view of a woman, Sadie, who is caretaker at one of the facilities where bodies are grown. It’s a powerful story about freedom. Kamez Naam’s Water is a story in which people have ad-supported implants, and experience real-time manipulation of their desires. It somehow manages to make market manipulation gripping. Angela Slatter’s The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter introduces us to Hepsibah, who makes coffins designed to keep souls at bay. Blood Drive, by Jeffrey Ford, depicts a world in which students get guns for their junior year Christmas presents, and depicts an all-too-believable accidental massacre. K. Tempest Bradford’s The Copper Scarab is a bit of a steampunk Egyptian story about a woman who’s trying to unite her peoples. Geoff Ryman’s Those Shadows Laugh explores a society of parthenogenetic females, and manages to nicely explore some issues of marriage and ownership. There’s even an excellent Lovecraftian tale called A Model Apartment by Bryan Thao Worra, which explores some Hmong folklore. Charlie Jane Anders’s The Day It All Ended examines a remarkably entertaining and original look at how life as we know it might change.

“You were supposed to have your crisis of conscience three months ago.”

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s The Executioner is stunning. The method by which executions for death row prisoners are carried out is very bizarre, but the situation that arises is so poignant. I also really liked Nadia Bulkin’s Girl, I Love You, set in a future where people can direct psychic energy to harm each other. It’s a fascinating look at the results of bullying and parental protection of one’s children. Karin Lowachee’s A Good Home introduces us to a world in which we’ve used androids for warfare–but the androids have become emotionally traumatized. One man decides to adopt one of these androids, and finds not everyone is as open to the idea as he is. Another favorite story is John Chu’s How To Piss Off a Failed Super Soldier. It gives us a great look at the life of a super soldier whose symbiotic implants don’t always do the right thing for him, and how this affects his relationships. Super Duper Fly by Maurice Broaddus explores the various stereotypes of black people in literature, and how one might break free of them.

“I’m the wise janitor. I come to impart wisdom and assuage fears.” Bags emptied the trashcan. “It looked like you needed some friendly, black, optimistic advice.”

Some of the stories are too surreal for me. I know there are people who like this kind of story, but they just feel unsatisfying to me. Kuzhali Manickavel’s Six Things We Found During the Autopsy is one of these. Same with Irenosen Okojie’s Please Feed Motion, which is a bizarre story about a prisoner and some statues. I take notes while I read, and Clifton Gachagua’s No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing is definitely not the only story that caused me to write simply, “huh?!” Many of the stories are also very poetic. I admit it, I’m a bit of a lug, and my mind doesn’t always wrap itself well around poetry and allusions and non-explicit imagery, so these stories didn’t work as well for me. If it’s something that works for you, then awesome.

One of the things I love most about this book is the very wide array of cultures, races, and sexualities represented. Be aware the book does contain explicit sex, rape, and torture, although not a lot of them. Overall I’m quite glad I read this.

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Review: “Cat Pictures Please And Other Stories,” Naomi Kritzer

Pros: Amazing combination of off-the-wall and ordinary
Rating: 5 out of 5

Naomi Kritzer’s collection Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories is absolutely wonderful. There wasn’t a single story I didn’t fully enjoy, despite the fact that I have little interest in historical fiction, and some of these fit that genre. These stories masterfully combine absolutely ordinary, believable, everyday details with crazy and creative flights of fancy, bringing the most amazing ideas to life.

The titular story, Cat Pictures Please, gives us a glimpse into the mind of an AI who’s trying to figure out how to interfere in people’s lives so as to improve those lives. It’s a hilarious and fascinating little piece. Artifice explores what might happen when someone makes the leap to trying to date an android, and how it would fit into their social lives. I love how this one ends. Perfection introduces us to a future in which one group of humans strives for genetic perfection. It’s so wonderful to see an image of the “perfect human” that isn’t blond, blue-eyed, and white, and the main character’s journey of self-discovery is believable and intriguing.

Ace of Spades introduces us to Natalie, a journalist covering a Chinese civil war. It’s an exploration into what makes people take risks. The Electric Foot-soldiers (“Peacekeepers”) allow distant controllers to do damage in a manner such that they don’t have to worry for themselves and can have a nice day off now and then. Natalie’s own diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease has allowed her to feel that she isn’t risking much by spending time in a war zone. This is a powerful personal story. The Golem takes place in 1941 Prague. Hanna and Alena create a Golem and ask it to protect the Jews of Prague, but there’s only so much it can do. When the golem realizes it somehow has free will, what will it decide to do? In Comrade Grandmother, Nadezhda decides to approach Baba Yaga to ask her to stop the Germans who are marching on Russia. The story unfurls in a series of difficult choices she must make. The Wall asks the question: if you could tell your past self to be present for the defining historical moment of her generation, what would she do? And how would it affect her life? We get to see the fall of the Berlin Wall here, but the story is really about the little and not-so-little ways Maggie’s life changes as she gradually comes to listen to her future self.

Wind is a sweet and poignant little fantasy story. Sisters Gytha and Dagmar exchange portions of their souls so that they might be imbalanced and thus capable of magic. But nothing is so easy about unbalancing your soul. Also, dragons! In The Good Son, a Fey man creates a life and a family for himself in order to woo a human woman, and discovers that he’s the one changed by the experience (I might have shed a tear or two). Scap Dragon is a unique fairy tale that goes back and forth between the narrator and an audience, as the narrator builds the tale and the audience shapes it. In it, a young woman named Heather finds herself in the position of trying to figure out how to stop a dragon from destroying the city. This is hilarious, utterly charming, and very clever.

In the Witch’s Garden is a sci-fi version of “The Snow Queen.” It manages a fairy tale feel despite the trappings of technology, and it’s quite beautiful. Cleanout also has a bit of a second-hand fairy tale vibe. A trio of sisters have to clean out their dying mother’s house, and they’re reminded of just how little they know about where their parents are from. In Isabella’s Garden, a young girl has an unusual ability to get unique things to sprout in the garden. Where she goes with this is utterly believable and delightful!

What Happened at Blessing Creek introduces us to a group of settlers who try to displace some Osage when they find a spot to settle. They have a Reverend with them who can bless the town, protecting it from both Indian attacks and the marauding dragons. When the town decides they want the Indians’ power over the dragons, though, they unleash something they can’t control. It’s nice to see a story involving Native Americans that doesn’t involve a white savior, and doesn’t try to sugar-coat what the settlers are doing.

Perhaps the most hilarious story in here is Bits. It involves a sex toy company that finds itself obliged to branch out when aliens come to live with humans and the inevitable intermingling occurs!

Honest Man portrays Iris, a very honest woman, and an immortal(?) con artist who has the second sight. The two of them develop an unusual relationship. My favorite story, though, is So Much Cooking, the final story in this volume. It’s presented as entries in a cooking blog, complete with some very delicious-sounding recipes. However, at the same time that the narrator is writing the blog entries, a very bad case of bird flu comes around. It ends up being a story, told mostly around food, of how a couple and a bunch of children they take in survive the apocalypse.

I can’t recommend this one highly enough. The combination of the everyday with the zany makes the most unbelievable situations plausible.

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Review: “The Goodall Mutiny,” Gretchen Rix

Pros: High anxiety; interesting mystery
Cons: Utterly bizarre style; small problems
Rating: 2 out of 5

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the experience of reading Gretchen Rix’s The Goodall Mutiny (The Goodall Mysteries) (Volume 1). Lieutenant Joan Chikage has just finished recapturing the beetles she’s been studying aboard the spaceship USS Goodall when everything goes strange. The ship falls silent of its normal sounds. Has the expected mutiny over the captain’s missing cat, Tiberius, begun? Some little fires appear to have been started; are her subordinates pranking her, or are they part of the mutiny? Come to think of it, where are her subordinates? Soon she discovers a dead crewmember, a hole in the side of the ship, and a murderous associate. Can she think of a way to use the cat to save everyone’s lives?

The narrative style hurt my head. It’s almost entirely thick musings in Chikage’s head, broken up by staticky bursts of a line or two of dialogue here and there. The only good thing it did was increase the claustrophobic feeling of anxiety; otherwise, it mostly just felt weird. Chikage obsesses over every teeny-tiny little gesture, tic, wobble, etc., no matter how urgent other matters may be. We’re expected to buy into her obsession over this mutiny right from the start when the only context we have is the ship going silent and her panicking so badly she vomits. There are whole paragraphs on sneezing in the middle of a survival story. It’s hard to see Chikage as remotely sane.

So many little things never quite add up. There are little fires at the beginning that never get explained. One crewmember gets killed in a grotesque manner, involving being bound by ropes, and yet Chikage seems to think the death may have been “a drug-induced accident”. Someone claims to have seen people kill that crewmember, yet Chikage never prioritizes asking that person about those mysterious killers, even when it’s found that she and her subordinates are the only people around. Her priorities often seem skewed, in fact. Half the time I couldn’t figure out why she was fixating on one particular thing or another. There’s a moment early on when her crew seem to be capable of blending into the bulkheads, or at least some of them do?, but that never really comes back. At first things were so bizarre that I entertained the idea that the Lieutenant was hallucinating. She at one point comes to a hard conclusion that she’s going to have to leave everyone else alone while she goes to get her spacesuit, but it never occurs to her to send someone to get it. And why the hell did Praetor eat a bunch of beetles, anyway?

The mystery is kind of interesting, or it would be if I could have concentrated on it. Instead I just have a headache.

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Gifts to My Future Self, Part II

In Gifts to My Future Self, I explained that I’m trying out the Imperfect Produce weekly veggie box and the Rotten Fruit monthly seasonal freeze-dried fruit boxes in order to get myself eating better.

The Rotten Fruit Box took forever to get here, but don’t worry! There was an initial shipping delay due to overwhelming interest, and it turned out that the box shipped all the way from Portugal, so, long delivery time. It did get here though, and I love it. I have freeze-dried figs, blueberries, strawberries, and mandarin oranges. The perfect (delicious!) way to get some added nutrition along with my overnight oats. At the moment I’m adding the fruits last-minute, not hydrating them with the oats, because when I tried that with the figs it made them a little bitter. They’re also surprisingly good for snacking.

The Rotten Fruit Box

The Rotten Fruit Box

I’ve gotten two Imperfect Produce boxes so far. The first week I made a lamb and lentil stew with collard greens and spinach, had carrots and bell peppers with hummus, roasted some sweet potatoes, and ate some mandarin oranges. This week I’ve had roasted asparagus with bratwurst so far, I plan to make a daikon and carrot salad tonight, and I have both sweet potatoes and fingerling potatoes to roast and/or mash. I had my blood oranges with lunch today and plan to have the avocados with eggs once they’re ripe. I’ve ordered out less, which covers the costs of both services, and I’ve lost three pounds.

Imperfect Produce

Imperfect Produce

I definitely get that kid-at-Christmas vibe from getting unexpected things every week, which helps get me excited to cook. And the small veggie box is just enough to cover a week of dinners for myself plus several lunches, which means I’m eating a hell of a lot more veggies than I used to. I’m also using less honey in my oats now that I have the fruits to put in them.

So far, I label this endeavor a success!

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Review: “Queen of Roses,” Elizabeth McCoy

Pros: Fascinating main character
Cons: A bit slow
Rating: 4 out of 5

Elizabeth McCoy’s Queen of Roses takes place on a cruise ship–spaceship, to be precise. It is run by two artificial intelligences, Pilot and Sarafina. The AI that previously held Sarafina’s job went rogue and wiped its own personality. Sarafina used to be an accounting AI, but she thinks she’ll be able to handle running a cruise ship, even if it does require dealing with biologicals more than she’d like. Unfortunately for her, however, things get weird right from the start. Her owner is a skinflint, so the crappy technology on the cruise ship keeps going down. Thanks to some glitching cameras she manages to lose track of a young woman who isn’t supposed to be on board, and the woman’s aunt, Mrs. Selsda, who is a passenger, doesn’t seem too alarmed. Little things that Sarafina doesn’t know to pay attention to suggest Mrs. Selsda may also be up to something. There’s a group of children running amok, and a free AI, Loren, who’s a fiction author may be up to something as well.

There are plenty of layers to this sci-fi mystery. It starts out with just some weird occurrences and behaviors, leaving us to wonder which of several passengers or groups of passengers are up to something, and what. As tension slowly climbs we begin to see patterns emerging, but the question of who exactly is up to what remains unclear. The story does move slowly–it’s really a character study as much as it is anything else, and a fair amount of the narrative consists of dialogue. Sarafina is a fascinating AI, and her interactions with Pilot and Loren, as well as some of the crew and passengers, give her a ton of personality. We get to watch her grow and develop as she learns to do new things, interacts with other personalities, and encounters situations that are well outside of her normal operating parameters. All of the characters in here have depth and interest, and I cared about what happened to some of them. There is a whimsical tone to all of this as well.

I wasn’t one hundred percent satisfied with the ending, but it worked out well. The mystery was hearty enough for me to sink my teeth into, and had layers to keep me guessing. Plenty was going on, and there was enough good character material, that the slow pace was fine. It’s fun, intriguing, and just a little bit wacky.

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Review: “Twin Lakes: Autumn Fires,” Michelle Garza, Melissa Lason

Pros: Decent tale of demonic horror
Cons: Stilted, awkward style and laughable dialogue
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason’s Twin Lakes: Autumn Fires attempts to cross a tale of demonic killings and possession with an odd bit of rural horror worldbuilding. The “others” or “ancestors” are a group of pagans who escaped persecution by fleeing their home and coming to Twin Lakes, Washington. They live well past the normal lifespan and have certain unusual abilities. They settled in with some other unusual creatures, such as werewolves, and keep the human population of their town largely unaware of the strange things that exist in the universe. Liz, who was hitch-hiking, was attacked and nearly raped while passing through town. She stumbled across a dead body at a fire, where she made contact with something evil. The others in town aren’t so sure they should allow her to leave–they can’t risk anyone finding out that their town isn’t perfectly normal. But at the same time, they desperately need to track down a supernatural serial killer before the normal people notice that something’s amiss.

The language in this book comes across as stiff and stilted; it doesn’t flow naturally. Dialogue often gets cheesy and silly. The others come across as a bunch of cranky, gossipy, catty people rather than a nifty and intriguing society. Most of them also seem to think they’re better than anyone around them, which makes them obnoxious and unlikable. Even major ancestor characters, such as Dr. Michael Aaron, don’t exhibit much personality. The setup with the ancestors is also overly complex, and the lengthy explanations included just derail the pacing.

The climactic battle is a bit confusing. Also, the rhythms of it don’t feel natural. It’s just beat after beat after beat with no ebb and flow. It’s an extension of the stiffness that I noted earlier. I feel like reading this book aloud would pinpoint a lot of the awkwardness involved.

Standard horror novel content warning for some blood and gore; nothing too outlandish. As a standard horror book about demonic influence and serial killing this is maybe average. As an attempt at building up one of those rural horror towns for repeat visits, it fails in my eyes. The town has no real creepy atmosphere to it; the others are just too mundane and annoying. I’m afraid I don’t find myself wanting to make repeat visits to this town.

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Short Take: “Elysium,” Jennifer Marie Brissett

Pros: Interesting characters and world
Cons: Utterly confusing and surreal
Rating: 3 out of 5

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium is an odd, surreal story about Adrianne and Antoine, who are going through some marital difficulties. Or maybe it’s about Adrianne and Antoinette? Or brothers Antoine and Adrian? Variant after variant of the story emerges, each one further from “reality” than the last, until we’re reading not about standard relationship troubles, but about a war with enigmatic aliens, involving a dust that’s changing Earth’s inhabitants, a city beneath a city, and a mysterious message humanity leaves behind as it races to escape the planet.

I never really felt like there was a coherent story here. I understand that some readers like a surreal, inexplicable experience, and if that’s for you, you might enjoy this more than I did. However, when I read a story that never really comes together as a whole I tend to feel like I didn’t get much out of it. I would have preferred to just see the actual story of the world succumbing to aliens without the reality-hopping and character-flipping.

The characters are interesting, at least, although we don’t spend a lot of time with any one of them. The pacing is okay, allowing us longer glimpses of uninterrupted narrative as we go. For some reason elks keep showing up; no idea what that’s about. It is nice to have some non-white, non-cis/het characters to follow.

I wish I had better things to say about this book. It just never came together for me.

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