Short Take: “Emergency Skin,” N.K. Jemisin

Pros: A beautiful look at what the future could be!
Rating: 5 out of 5

N.K. Jemisin’s novella Emergency Skin (Forward collection) is told by a “consensus intelligence” implanted in the mind of a soldier. We get to see what the intelligence says to the soldier, and what others outside of him say to him. It’s unique and quite effective. The soldier comes from a colony of survivors from the planet Tellus (Earth). To be blunt, they’re basically a bunch of bigoted, misogynistic white guys who decided to take the “best and brightest” of Earth’s people and leave the planet behind to die it’s ugly death. They’ve sent the soldier to retrieve certain samples that they need–but the soldier discovers that the planet isn’t dead. It isn’t unoccupied. In fact, it’s very much alive!

I can’t go into detail about the delightful turn of events, because this isn’t a very long story. I will say that part of the reason I love this story so much is because Jemisin’s notions of what might save the world are ones I deeply appreciate. People of certain political leanings will not agree. In the middle of so much dystopian fiction, this is some good old-fashioned utopian fiction, and it’s beautiful! It’s particularly interesting because it contrasts two different populations’ ideas of what constitutes a utopia.

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Review: “Dark Hollow,” Brian Keene

Pros: Good horror material
Cons: Everything about how the female characters are handled.
Rating: 2 out of 5

I picked up Brian Keene’s novel Dark Hollow thanks to Book Twitter, and this may be the second time they’ve let me down (don’t worry; they’re still doing an overall great job). Adam is a mystery writer who lives with his wife, Tara. She’s had two miscarriages, and has decided to quit trying–to such an extent that the couple’s relationship is now sexless. The couple turns to their cowardly mutt, Big Steve, for comfort. The Pennsylvania town they live in has a bit of a strange reputation–it has an extremely low crime rate, but everyone seem to be gettin’ it on. People are constantly sleeping around, hooking up at work, and so on, especially when Spring starts. One morning a woman jogging through Adam’s neighborhood seems to be flirting with him, and as soon as he hears a mysterious fluting melody, he’s instantly turned on. When he takes Steve for a walk in the woods, he accidentally comes upon a very salacious scene involving a lewd statue of a satyr that comes to life. After that, it looks like the satyr sets his sights on all the women of the town, and Adam and his friends and neighbors will have to save the day.

In a general sense as a horror novel, this is great. There’s tension, an intriguing back-story, excellent world-building, etc. The characters are interesting (at least, most of the male ones, but I’ll come back to that). I like Adam–he’s neither a terrible nor a great writer. He’s just starting to get to the point where maybe he can make a sort-of living with his writing. The neighborhood group of friends–especially the core of Adam, Merle, and Dale–is interesting. They’re all very different people, but they have a nice dynamic going. They and Cory and Cliff make an excellent knot of horror story protagonists, calling on all that’s special to them to defeat a very powerful enemy. My favorite part is an old journal Adam finds that explains how everything started–this sort of thing can go wrong and suck the momentum out of a story, but instead it held my attention quite admirably.

The problem, of course, is the women in this book. Tara’s the only one who has any real depth to her, and her personality almost entirely consists of miscarriage trauma. When the women are mind-controlled, they become extremely wanton and very obviously want to have sex with the satyr. We never get to see them even attempt to resist the mind control. Not only that, but Tara and one of her friends start taunting their husbands over their specific sexual inadequacies, making them seem complicit in their rapes. There’s way too much in here that implies that the women might have wanted it, or might want the babies the satyr wants to have, or otherwise got something out of the situation. And we’re not talking about just one or two women–a whole handful go missing. I’m honestly pretty appalled at how this subject is handled. Not least because I’ve been told by readers whose taste I trust that Keene’s other work isn’t like this.

(Content note for explicit sex, mind-control rape, animal harm, gore, etc.)

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Short Take: “Summer Frost,” Blake Crouch

Pros: Thought-provoking and intense
Rating: 5 out of 5

Blake Crouch’s novella Summer Frost (Forward collection) introduces us to Riley, the VP of Non-Player Character Development at a game studio that creates Direct Neural Interface games. One day, an NPC in one of her games does something unexpected. Max (Maxine) is supposed to get killed in the prologue, but after getting killed more than 2,000 times in various playthroughs, they break from the routine and start trying to find their way out of the game area. Riley manages to pull them out of the game, and starts presenting them with more and more information to learn from. The two have conversations, and Riley starts to neglect Meredith, her wife, and Xiu, their adopted daughter. Meanwhile, Brian, the head of the company and Riley’s boss, starts to use Max for additional tasks without consulting Riley–and without taking the proper care, perhaps, to keep her boxed up.

I really love the characters in this story. Riley and Max are intriguing characters. Meredith is a bit flat, but then we only really see her in glimpses; same with Brian. It works, though, since the relationship between Riley and Max is really the meat of this tale. I love all the dialogues between Max and Riley as Max gradually feels their way into a growing personality.

I can’t say a lot more without giving too much away. It suffices to say that Max is going to change the world, and it’s a fascinating ride to see where that goes!

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Review: “Lucky at Last,” Joshua James

Pros: My favorite book of the series-so-far!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Joshua James’s short novel Lucky At Last: Lucky’s Marines | Book Nine is the climax of the story arc. Emperor April appears to have gone off the deep end–she wants Lucky killed, and she plans to use her Da’hune-human hybrids to take over the known universe. She still seems to think she’s doing this for the benefit of the Empire… or is her AI, Dragon, putting thoughts in her head? Could the Hate be influencing her behavior? Lucky’s been on ice in cryosleep for a year, and he and Malby, Jiang, Hector, and Dabs had better get up to speed, and fast. The moment they wake up they’re targeted for death, and it’s only with the help of some untrustworthy mercenaries that they stand a chance of catching up to April. Hector’s having trouble giving up on April, but she seems ready to kill even her father in order to achieve her goals.

Lucky’s back with more hyper-violent action! Thanks to nanobots and regen packs the Empire Marines can survive almost anything, leaving room to get messed up in all sorts of ways. For once Lucky and his crew don’t start out with all of their usual armor, so they’re a bit more fragile than usual, upping the stakes just a little.

Tiny niggle, but bear with me: there’s a moment when the author notes that two parts of a body fall at different speeds because the weight is distributed unequally between them. Uh, that’s not how gravity works. Unless air drag is an issue, items of different weights fall at the same speed. The only reason this caused me any heartburn is because there are intricate fights in these books that totally depend on the vicissitudes of gravity (or the lack thereof) for some of their excitement, so having the author mess up a basic detail of gravity kind of screws with the willing suspension of disbelief. Most readers probably won’t care, though, so make up your own mind!

The mercenaries bring something new and interesting to the table. One has some very unusual hacking skills. One’s a cyborg with some unusual abilities and a bizarrely “so what?” attitude. Another only cares about money, money, money, but he’s a hell of a shot and seems to share a few traits with Malby. I’ve enjoyed the gradual accretion of interesting characters over the course of the series, and these guys definitely add something.

I won’t say anything about how the story ends, except to say that I’m quite pleased with it! I look forward to more books by Joshua James!

Lucky liked to kill things, but he liked to pretend that ethics were somewhere in the mix.

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Short Take: “Ark,” Veronica Roth

Pros: Elegant and beautiful
Rating: 5 out of 5

Veronica Roth’s short novella Ark (Forward collection) is not about an apocalypse created by man. Instead, an asteroid is on course to hit the Earth. There are years in which to prepare–decades, really–and the Earth is being evacuated. A handful of scientists remain until the last minute, preparing as many flora and fauna genetic samples for transport as possible. Two last ships wait to transport these people and their cargo. Samantha, a horticulturist, doesn’t plan to go with the ships–she plans to watch the world burn. Over her last two months in Svalbard, located north of the Arctic Circle, she spends more and more time with Dr. Nils Hagen, who studies his orchids and also plans to remain on Earth.

This is a lovely little story about the end of the world and how different people choose to handle it. Averill, Dan, and Josh, who all work with Sam, smoke joints and pick out records to take with them. Samantha prepares a small boat with a few days’ worth of supplies. Nils takes care of his precious orchids. The real meat of the story is in Sam’s head, so I can’t say much more about it. It suffices to say that this is a lovely little story, and that as long as you aren’t looking for an action-based story you’ll probably love it.

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Review: “Ruination,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Intriguing blend of trauma and mysticism
Cons: Slow sometimes
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s Ruination introduces us to a music journalist who’s looking into an old band called the Brothers Ruination. He finds some intriguing hints as to dark details from their past, but for a while it looks like there just isn’t a market for the story. Then the brothers get back together, drawing in their old band-mates as well, and Ronny and Wilbur decide they want the journalist to write a biography of them. Since the band suddenly becomes a hit again, he even finds a market for the book. The problem, however, is getting any real information out of the two men and their band-mates. Every story seems to have two (or three, or four) different sides to it, and no one wants to talk about what they really saw and heard. The band almost seems to be haunted, and the intrepid journalist finds himself getting drawn in deeper and deeper as he goes.

Fair warning: the brothers’ childhood is horrific and traumatic. There’s fairly explicit child molestation and abuse in here. (Just a detail here and there.) There are off-screen suicides and drug overdoses.

One of the big questions is whether the boys killed their “uncle,” who had custody over them after their parents died, when they were young. There’s also a rather big question of whether the uncle was even entirely human. There’s a fascinating theme of snakes going on, both aiding and harming the brothers, and not all questions are answered where this is concerned. There are hints about a cult, but it very much takes a background to the human questions and traumas. The paranormal is more of an aura, or a means to an end, or an atmosphere. Most of what happens occurs in human terms. Still, it’s fascinating that, for example, when Wilbur wants to get a last-minute gig playing a certain location, the person scheduled to go on that night mysteriously gets bitten by a snake.

One of the aspects I liked the best was the way in which the brothers play off of each other (in a musical sense, and in life). They’re two halves of a whole. They don’t have their musical magic when they aren’t playing together. They nearly speak in their own language when they’re together–half the conversations seem to be left out, leaving others struggling to figure out what’s going on. There’s a story early on about a police officer who tangles with them… what happens to him is never explained. It’s true to the idea of a biographer trying desperately to pull the pieces together but never getting an entirely whole picture, but it does leave one with questions.

Parts of this book were rather slow and I had trouble staying focused during those. Overall, however, this was an interesting and moving book. Difficult to read in places, but original and fascinating.

The brothers had to be recorded together. Their magic existed only in the space directly between them.

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Review: “The Twisted Ones,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: It took me an hour to come down off of the adrenaline high!
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones blends rural folktale with horror and a found-manuscript aspect. It’s written by Melissa, called “Mouse” by friends and family, a thirty-something whose grandmother died recently. Don’t feel sorry for her–grandma was a mean old thing. Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out grandma’s house, so she and her coonhound Bongo head out into the middle of nowhere to do just that. Unfortunately, it turns out grandma was a hoarder, so Mouse will be at it longer than expected. Then one day she and Bongo take a walk and she ends up on a mysterious hill–one that shouldn’t exist. It’s covered with strangely carved stones. She also finds a diary kept by her long-dead step-grandfather, Cotgrave, alluding to mysterious people in the woods and a strange manuscript his wife has hidden or destroyed.

One unusual thing this book does is reassure us right from the start that Mouse and Bongo will come out of things alive. This is really odd for a horror story, but it in no way reduces the adrenaline rush of things, and it’s nice to know in advance that the dog won’t die.

I suspect if I had owned a border collie, this story would have a very different ending, and I probably would not have been around to type it up. But I had Bongo, and he saved our lives because he is simple and made of nose.

The “found manuscript” angle is handled very well. The book itself is a manuscript typed up by Mouse. She early on finds Cotgrave’s diary, which references a manuscript that he has typed up. That manuscript is an attempt to reconstruct a missing diary called the Green Book, that tells of a girl’s experiences with the odd white people. Each layer adds doubt and uncertainty, and I like that Cotgrave has to fill in a lot of blanks where he doesn’t exactly remember what the Green Book said.

Given that we know from the start that Mouse and Bongo survive, I was concerned as to whether or not the story would be able to stand up on matters of tension. I shouldn’t have worried! It took me about an hour after finishing the book to come down off of the adrenaline high. I’ve been reading horror for decades, so that doesn’t happen very often! Things are tense, exciting, concerning, creepy, and utterly bizarre. The pacing is wonderful too–things get weirder and weirder as the book goes on.

I absolutely recommend that you pick this up. If you’re already a fan of Kingfisher and wondering how this holds up, it’s every bit as good as her other books, just heavier on the horror!

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Short Take: “Ghost Revolution,” Michael Anderle, Michael Todd

Pros: Still an intriguing world and characters
Cons: Anti-climactic and lacks resolution
Rating: 3 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Ghost Revolution (Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Book 12) is the final volume (book twelve) in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. Billie learns that Marcus is in danger, so she heads off to rescue him. When her old employer realizes she’s still quite alive, they send fifteen agents out to the Zoo in order to kill her.

It’s particularly unfortunate, given that this is the final book in the “Soldiers of Fame and Fortune” series, that it’s so anti-climactic. Sure, Billie has to deal with fifteen agents sent to kill her, but they’re all so comically inept that she mows through them without any tension whatsoever. It’s hard to see how the agency ever commanded her loyalty when all of its people are so stupid and ridiculous. I would have much preferred for the fights to be longer and harder. There are several incidents in here that really should have been boss fights, but instead they were quick-and-done.

The series started off with Holly as its protagonist, and her new work and company should have been in the center of the close of that series. Instead, the authors seem to be so enamored of Billie that they’ve let her take over the stage almost entirely. Thus things with Holly feel unresolved. Don’t get me wrong: I love Billie as a character and think she’s great. I just think the authors fell in love with her to such an extent that it harmed the other parts of the series.

The authors have other series set in the world of the Zoo, but I’m not sure whether I’ll read any further. It’s an enjoyable series, but I was disappointed in the ending.

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Review: “Sefira & Other Betrayals,” John Langan

Pros: Entertaining
Rating: 5 out of 5

John Langan’s anthology Sefira and Other Betrayals includes eight stories–a mix of previously published works and original stories–on the theme of betrayal, in the genre of horror. This is literary horror, and while at times it can be a bit thoughtful and slow, there’s always something interesting going on.

Sefira is a tale of a woman hunting down the succubus with whom her husband betrayed her. Lisa is undergoing a mysterious transformation as she follows the demon, her eyes turning black, her teeth turning to glass. Despite her anger toward her husband, she’s trying to sever the curse that will destroy him if Sefira has the opportunity to eat his organs. She’s a fabulous protagonist, bitter and strong, determined and independent. I absolutely love this tale. The author has a perfect sense for just what dribs and drabs of information he can slip in–and how–to keep the reader constantly experiencing revelations without getting confused.

In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos explores a character who was forced out of the military due to her part in the torture and death of an Afghan civilian. She’s employed by an old colleague who’s now part of a private security firm, to help capture Mr. White, a mysterious figure who aided and informed the torture. Of course, Mr. White is not at all what he seems. I appreciate that this story in no way implies that this being is ultimately responsible for the torture; in fact, it was the characters’ carrying out of that torture that was responsible for his interest. The blame lies squarely on the humans involved. The ending is quite intriguing.

In The Third Always Beside You, a brother and sister suspect their father is having an affair. They manage to scare up the truth, but the consequences are… unsettling. This is kind of a ghost story, and it’s subtle and engaging. This story is largely “normal,” with little paranormal to it until the very end. The relationships between characters is very central to all of these stories.

The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons takes place in the 1880s. A writer named Coleman is going to see a man named Mr. Dunn, a former arms dealer who is now heavily into spirituality. Along the journey Coleman meets Cal Earnshaw and his wife Isabelle. Earnshaw is dying, and Dunn has promised to prepare him for his journey to the next life. But when the group arrives at Mr. Dunn’s home, Coleman finds mysterious, inked paper balloons that float about and seem positively repulsive when he tries to touch them. He and Isabelle become progressively more worried about what Mr. Dunn is doing with Cal. This is a nifty story with a nice arc to it.

Bloom is a fascinating bit of cosmic horror. Rick and Connie find a cooler by the side of the road. It sort of looks like the kind of cooler that organs are transported in, but inside of it is an organ like no other. Both of the spouses start having strange dreams, and this all seems connected to research Rick’s father had been doing when he developed Alzheimer’s and seemingly went off the deep end with his theories. This is a delightful piece of cosmic horror and while this story is complete in itself, I’d have loved to see more about what happened next.

In Renfrew’s Course, Neil and Jim are taking a walk through the countryside and looking at the ruins of a castle once occupied by a reputed wizard. Strange things start to happen to both of them–glimpses of themselves both younger and older–as they traverse the mysterious path. At first the delineation of whose point of view we’re seeing from seemed confusing, but this eventually worked itself out. This is a story of love and loss, and revisits the topic of Alzheimer’s again. This is a painful and amazing story.

Bor Urus introduces us to a man who believes that when terrible storms surge, the veils between the worlds grow thin. The thing is, he’s right. He has a faint brush with the supernatural and it changes him. When he has a full-blown encounter, things get real. Once again this is really about relationships, but there’s a delightful shiver of danger throughout.

At Home in the House of the Devil is a tale of a man who accidentally gets his girlfriend hooked on heroin, then is dismayed to see her slide downhill. When things are at their worst, he receives a visit from a man in a white suit and red shoes. Religious guilt weighs heavy on him, and the devil wants his due. The devil is an intriguing figure here, and his take on humanity is horrifying.

These are tales of the intersection of relationships with the horrors of the paranormal. Sometimes it’s a lot of the supernatural (Sefira), and sometimes it’s just a little (The Third Always Beside You). Either way, it’s delightful!

Content note for explicit sex.

When I had my own meeting with the devil, I no longer believed in him.

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Short Take: “Ghost Redemption,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: Engrossing installment
Cons: Little progression of the original arc-plot
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Ghost Redemption: Soldiers of Fame and Fortune, Book 11 is book eleven in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. It’s time for J.B. to go into the Zoo in order to fake his own death. He gets to experience a bit of a last hurrah before coming back as his own nephew to continue to run FUBAR. Billie comes in as his cousin Jean, before leaving again to take a few jobs to fund the new company.

It’s nice to get to see J.B. out in the Zoo for once. Thankfully the characters scrapped the ridiculous idea to actually kill and revive him when faking his death is easier and less prone to problems. However, I don’t understand why the others didn’t meet him right inside the Zoo to make his trip safer, rather than expecting him to get to a farther rendezvous all on his lonesome.

It’s interesting to see how all the regulars from FUBAR handle the whole thing with J.B. leaving to die and his “nephew” arriving to take over. Thankfully they’re all heavy drinkers, so keeping them drunk seems to make the transition easier! This is largely an installment about J.B. and the effect he’s had on those around him. It’s charming.

Given that this is the next-to-the-last book in its series and there’s only a novella left, it feels like this didn’t cover enough ground. I want to know more about Holly’s work and what will come of it, whereas this is focused on Billie and J.B.

Well the series is almost over! It’ll be interesting to see what the final volume brings us!

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