Book Review: A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters and the Macabre, DeAnna Knippling (2014)

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Stories within Stories

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book for review though Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering. She didn’t run away. We had–I had–been watching her for some time, listening to her tell stories in the grass behind the house. She would sit near the chicken coop and watch the white chickens pick at the dirt, pulling up fat worms and clipping grasshoppers out of the air as they jumped toward the fields.

Some of them were good stories. Some of them were bad. But that’s what decided it, even more than any issue of mercy or salvation or anything else. Crows are, for one, possessive of stories. And also by then I had pecked almost all the elders into coming to listen to her at least once, except Facunde, who was then mad and responded to nobody’s pecking, not that I had had the courage to exactly take my beak to her. “She is like a daughter to me,” I had pled with the others. “She listens.” They laughed at me, they rattled their beaks, they came and heard her and were convinced, or at least bullied into pretending they were convinced.

We took her on the same cold winter day that you traded your son to the fairies, the wind blowing in cold gray threads, ruffling our feathers. It had snowed a few days before that, a storm that had killed your husband, or so it was said. The wind had snatched the snow out onto the prairie, hiding it in crevices. It had been a dry year, and even though it was still too cold to melt the snow, the thirsty dirt still found places to tuck it away in case of a thaw.

I stamped my feet on a sleeping branch while the others argued. Some argued that we should wait for spring. So many things are different, in the spring. But old Loyolo insisted: no, if we were to take the child, we would have to take her then and there: there had been at least one death already, and no one had heard the babe’s cry for hours.

We covered the oak trees, thousands of us, so many that the branches creaked and swayed under our weight. I don’t know if you noticed us, before it was too late. You were, it is to be admitted, busy.

The girl played on the swings, rocking herself back and forth in long, mournful creaks. She wore a too-small padded jacket and a dress decorated in small flowers. She was so clean that she still smelled of soap. Her feet were bare under their shoes, the skin scabbed and dry, almost scaly. Her wrists were pricked with gooseflesh, and her hair whipped in thin, colorless threads across her face as the wind caught it. The house had the smell of fresh death, under the peeling paint and the dusty windows, and seemed to murmur with forgotten languages, none of which were languages of love or tenderness. Afternoon was sinking into evening. The girl’s breath smelled like hunger.

“Now!” called old Loyolo, at some signal that not even I could have told you. And thousands of birds swept out of the trees toward her. From the middle of it, I can tell you, it seemed a kind of nightmare. Wings in my face, claws in my feathers. The sun was temporarily snuffed out, it was a myriad of bright slices reflected off black wings…

DeAnna Knippling’s A Murder of Crows is, at its heart, a love letter to the art of storytelling. A collection of short stories which forms the backbone of a larger narrative, the sixteen tales here – macabre, horrific, sometimes surreal – are shared with a grieving young girl by the murder (flock) of crows who rescued her from her wicked, murderous mother. (Crows being both connoisseurs and collectors of the oral tradition, natch.) Their story, told between the lines and in the margins of the other sixteen tales, is the seventeenth piece in this delightfully dark anthology.

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Mini-Review: Wolverton Station, Joe Hill (2014)

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Cheeseburgers and Entitlement

five out of five stars

“I knew by the smell of you. You Americans have different accents – your southern accent, your California-surfer accent, your Noo Yawk accent.” Affecting an atrocious faux-Queens accent as he said it. “But you all smell the same.” […]

“What do we smell like?” Saunders asked.

“Like cheeseburgers,” said the wolf, and he barked with laughter. “And entitlement.”

When Saunders, aka “The Woodcutter” – a hatchet man for global coffee company Jimi Coffee – spots a wolf on the platform as his train pulls into Wolverton Station, he’s hardly surprised: his London trip has been plagued by protestors angered by the expansion of Jimi Coffee into British borders. Saunders’ M.O. is as ruthless as it is simple: find a quaint mom-n-pop store, set up shop nearby, and slowly but surely drive them out of business, even if it means running at a loss for months or even years. First Main Street, then the world. For this he earns a seven-figure salary, even as black and brown children labor in Jimi Coffee’s factories for mere pennies. The giant Uncle Sam effigy, complete with a larger-than-life, pink-as-a-baby’s-bottom penis? It comes with the ribbon cutting.

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Book Review: Out of Tune, Jonathan Maberry, ed. (2014)

Monday, December 1st, 2014

A Solid Collection of Short Horror/Fantasy

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I receive a free e-copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Also, the story summaries may include spoilers, so skip them if you’d rather read the anthology with fresh eyes. Trigger warning for rape.)

Confession time. I requested a review copy of Out of Tune based solely on the merits of one of its contributors: Seanan McGuire. I devoured the Newsflesh trilogy (penned under the pseudonym Mira Grant) and thought that her contribution (“Each to Each”) was the single best thing in Lightspeed’s special “Women Destroy SF” issue (a magazine filled with awesome things, mind you). I recognized some of the other names, but no one struck a chord like McGuire. Additionally, my interest in old ballads pretty much begins and ends with covers recorded by my favorite folk singers – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie. I didn’t really have any expectations, good or bad, for this collection.

Overall, I came away pleasantly surprised. The fourteen stories in Out of Tune run the gamut: there’s lots of horror and fantasy, peppered with a little romance and some good, old-fashioned ghost stories. Some, like “Wendy, Darling,” incorporate elements of other, much-loved tales, while others have an air of historical fiction; here I’m thinking of “In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound,” which features Edgar Allen Poe as the incidental narrator. The authors’ respective senses of humor – whether wry, playful, or just downright wicked – are evident throughout. A few of the stories are remarkably poignant and painfully beautiful; “Driving Jenny Home,” I’m looking at you. As for the Big Bads, you’ll spot a number of usual suspects – ghosts, demons, mermaids, and wicked women – as well as villains less common to ballads, such as gods from Norse mythology.

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Mini-Review: Thumprint: A Story, Joe Hill (2012)

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Cliffhanger ending is cliffhangery.

four out of five stars

You received a two-hundred-dollar-a-month bonus for every month you spent in the combat zone, and a part of her had relished the fact that her own life was valued so cheap. Mal would not have expected more.

But it didn’t occur to her, when she first learned she was going to Iraq, that they paid you that money for more than just the risk to your own life. It wasn’t a question of what could happen to you, but also a matter of what you might be asked to do to others. […]

Two hundred dollars a month was what it cost to make a torturer out of her.

After her tour in Iraq, PFC Mallory Grennan returned to her childhood home in Hammett, New York – newly empty since the death of her father, also a war veteran, just ten hours before she set foot back on US soil. Whereas her father had saved lives as a medic, Mal denigrated them: you wouldn’t know it from the photographs, but she was part of the naked pyramid fiasco at Abu Ghraib. And that appears to be the least of it: as a cop in the army, she regularly humiliated and assaulted suspected insurgents.

Now her past has followed her home, in the form of mysterious thumbprints, blank ink standing out starkly against white paper, left in her mailbox, under her door, on her windshield. Mal’s wronged so many people, both in the Middle East and right here at home; which one of them hates her so much that he wishes her dead?

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Book Review: And They Lived: A Short Story Anthology Sabrina Zbasnik (2014)

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Love the Feminist Fairy Tale Retellings!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review though Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, minor spoiler alert for the story summaries below. I tried not to include any major reveals, but if you’d rather approach this anthology with fresh eyes, skip the play-by-plays.)

The description for And They Lived – a collection of nine short stories by Sabrina Zbasnik – sucked me in immediately: “And They Lived isn’t just a dark turn and modernization of the fairy tales. It gives power back to the powerless in the classic stories. Women are no longer the victims and their story doesn’t end with true love’s kiss.” Feminist retellings of fairy tale classics? Sign me up!

While the book’s synopsis says that there are eight stories included here, the review copy I received from the author actually contains nine tales:

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Mini-Review: “If at First…,” Peter F. Hamilton (2011)

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

A Crime Story with a Twist

four out of five stars

When tech genius Marcus Orthew’s Richmond research center is broken into by longtime stalker Toby Jensen, the case lands on the desk of Metropolitan Police Chief Detective David Lanson. Long since disillusioned by his job – which seems to be little more than filling out paperwork and verifying insurance claims – the Jensen case promises to be a career-changer. Literally.

In the interrogation room, Jensen makes some rather outlandish claims. Chief among them: that his boyhood friend Orthew is building a time machine. Instead of sending himself back in time, soon-to-be 50-year-old Orthew transmitted information – his consciousness – allowing his past self access to technologies and information that don’t yet exist. While the man is indeed a genius, his exorbitant wealth and success wouldn’t have been possible without the unfair advantages afforded him through time travel. And with continual use of the machine, he’s just a few buttons away from becoming a god among men.

While lieutenants Paul Mathews and Carmen Galloway dismiss Jensen as crazy, Lanson is unsettled by the circumstantial – yet creepy – evidence he brings to the table. Against his better judgment, Lanson gets a warrant for Orthew’s second lab…and that’s when his world goes sideways.

“If at First” is an enjoyable story with a couple of unexpected twists. What starts out as a tale from the hardboiled detective book quickly morphs into a science fiction/time travel story, and Hamilton continues to throw wrenches into Lanson’s narrative right up until the end. “If at First” would make a hella fun movie.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: None that I recall.

 

Mini-Review: “Last Woman On Earth,” C.V. Hunt (2013)

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Perfectly Grim & Melancholic

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for suicide and allusions to rape.)

“Last Woman On Earth” opens in a most unusual way: that is, with a brief primer on hanging techniques. The narrator is, as far as she can tell, the last woman on earth, and it’s a burden she’s long since tired of shouldering. She aims to kill herself, but not after enjoying one last sunrise and sunset from high atop the Seattle Space Needle.

In this distant future, the apocalypse arrives on the back of science: after generations of “pump[ing] their bodies full of contraceptives,” women’s reproductive systems have evolved into a state of persistent infertility. The declining birth rate affords men yet another excuse to exploit women – women’s bodies being the means of production, the very stuff of life – and women once again become the hunted. Kidnapping, rape, and human trafficking are at best overlooked in the name of saving the latest endangered species – us. So it’s no surprise when, during her final suicide trek to the West Coast, the narrator turns away from the only human she spots on the road – a man. It’s perilous to be a dwindling natural resource, after all.

For such a short story, “Last Woman On Earth” packs quite a punch. My only complaint? The author’s use of “rape” to denote something that is not rape (environmental degradation) – an especially egregious affront considering the theme of the story.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Mini-Review: “Wakulla Springs,” Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (2013)

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Not What I Expected!

four out of five stars

It’s said that the Wakulla Springs wilderness – including the fifteen miles of caves which cuts through the water’s depths – is home to a menagerie of creatures, both real and mythical: black panthers, rhesus macaques, the Clearwater Monster, the Skunk Ape, and a thousand-pound hammerhead known as Old Hitler. Yet “Wakulla Springs” is less a tale about monsters than it is the journey of one family (and, by extension, the evolution of social mores and attitudes). Beginning with matriarch Mayola, the story of the Williamses is inexorably linked to the Springs: by culture, tradition, and superstition – and a series of cheesy Tarzan movies shot on location in Wakulla County, Florida.

The plot’s surprisingly sparse, especially given the story’s length and description. (“Wakulla Springs” reads more like a novella than a short story.) Each of the four parts or chapters focuses on a different member of the Williams clan, and his or her experiences with Wakulla Springs and the exclusive, “whites only” resort situated on its banks. Cultural signposts indicate each segment’s particular timeline; while African-American Mayola tries to pursue her education in the Jim Crow south, by story’s end we meet her granddaughter, Dr. Anna Williams – a multiracial woman of African-American, white, and Cuban descent – visiting Wakulla Springs during sabbatical to study the encroachment of invasive species into the area.

It makes for an enjoyable and engaging read, even if most of the “monsters” we meet are of the human and institutional variety.

P.S.: Free Cheetah!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! The protagonists are pulled from several generations of the Williams clan, all of whom are connected to Wakulla Springs and the “whites only” resort located on its banks: African-American Mayola tries to pursue her education in the Jim Crow south, and by story’s end we meet her granddaughter, Dr. Anna Williams – a multiracial woman of African-American, white, and Cuban descent – visiting Wakulla Springs during sabbatical to study the encroachment of invasive species into the area.

 

Mini-Review: “Grace Immaculate,” Gregory Benford (2011)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Too Short!

three out of five stars

Sometime in the unspecified future, humans make contact with extraterrestrials: “The first SETI signal turned up not in a concerted search for messages, but at the Australian Fast Transients study that looked for variable stars.” Thus begins a multigenerational, excruciatingly slow exchange of information and ideas with an alien species that we humans nickname the “Hydrans” (for their physical similarity to earth-bound hydras). Naturally, the evangelical Christian community wants in on the action – particularly when it begins to suspect that these aliens might be (gasp!) atheists – and so a coalition of churches builds a seven billion dollar beacon in order to proselytize to these heathen, hive-minded extraterrestrials. Needless to say, things don’t go so well for the hapless Hydrans.

Benford plants the seed of what could be a very interesting story, yet it remains just that – a seed. “Grace Immaculate” is a very quick read, ending seemingly before it even begins. The ending is appropriately ambiguous, yet still quite unsatisfying. I’d really love to see this as either a longer short story or even a novella.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Mini-Review: W.U.M.E.: A short story, Marc Poliquin (2014)

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Contains the Seeds of a Chilling Dystopian Novel

three out of five stars

Kate Murdoch is seven months pregnant – and under contract with her husband’s employer. In exchange for covering all the fees associated with Kate’s pregnancy and delivery, Kate granted SnazzyCorp the right to imprint her baby Ben starting in the third trimester.

Developed by Carson Hill, the Wired Uterine Manipulation and Encryption Procedure – W.U.M.E. for short – is a way for corporations to cultivate brand loyalty while people are still in the womb. Hill’s assistant, Virginia Williams, served as test subject #1; when her child was born, the newborn immediately refused her mother’s breast in favor of ChemLax baby formula. Years later, and the procedure has taken off; instead of competing for consumers, companies wage war over access to fetuses on the battlegrounds of their mothers’ bodies.

When Kate has a sudden change of heart and attempts to break the contract, SnazzyCorp kidnaps her from her bed in the dead of night in order to subject her and Ben to forced imprinting. Ostensibly saved in the nick of time by a mysterious rescuer known only as Nate, Kate soon finds herself in an even more horrifying situation: imprisoned as a Carrier in the Factory, a clandestine human trafficking facility run by SnazzyCorp competitor GloboDiTech Ltd.

“W.U.M.E.” is a chilling science fiction dystopia in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale. It contains the seeds of a potentially great novel; unfortunately, at just twenty-one pages, it’s a little short on character development and world building for my taste. I would love to see the ideas presented here fleshed out in greater detail.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Mini-Review: Delivering Yaehala (A Fantasy Novelette), Annie Bellet (2011)

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Nine Moons, Two Unicorns, and One Scarred Young Woman

four out of five stars

Alone in the Namoh desert, Alila is immersed in the difficult and dangerous task of gathering frankincense resin from a cliff-side tree when “trouble [comes] in the form of a figure on horseback.” Tasked with lookout duty, her twin unicorns Gabi and Hezi are the first to sound the alarm. By the time Alila makes her way down to the injured rider, her horse has succumbed to his injuries. The woman is shaken but still alive – and noticeably pregnant, at that.

This isn’t any damsel in distress, however; Yaehala is the newest member of the Pashet’s Purdah, his “collection of perfect women.” She is a princess, carrying the heir to the Pashet’s throne. The Pashet’s First Serena hired mercenaries to kidnap Yaehala and cut the child from her belly so that she could claim the boy as her own, thus securing her place on the throne.

Though it goes against her better judgment, Alila decides to offer the princess passage to the sea, where she has ships waiting to ferry her out of the country. This is in no small part to make amends for past sins: accidentally killing her best friend and her unborn child in a fit of rage and grief. For this crime she was tattooed, mutilated, and banished to the desert, left for god to pass judgment on. She is “anathema. Marked. Forbidden.”

Yet, just as the gods sent Gabi and Hezi to heal Alila’s broken body, Yaehala offers her the chance to find forgiveness and redemption.

More a short story than a novella (or novelette), “Delivering Yaehala” is quick yet satisfying read that’s not short on suspense. One especially anxious moment sees Hezi and Yaehala taken captive by mercenaries (truth be told, my heart ached more for the unicorn than the woman riding her. I mean, c’mon! UNICORNS! Magical unicorns, with saliva that heals, muzzles that locate water, and horns that light up at night. The full nine!)

Another enjoyable story from Annie Bellet.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Project Unicorn, Volume 1: 30 Young Adult Short Stories Featuring Lesbian Heroines, Sarah Diemer & Jennifer Diemer (2012)

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Monstrously Beautiful

five out of five stars

Project Unicorn (“A Lesbian YA Extravaganza!”) is a ya fiction project created by the wife-wife writing team of Sarah Diemer (Love Devours; The Dark Wife) and Jennifer Diemer (Sappho’s Fables). Though the project is currently on hold, the idea is this: every week they post two free short stories on their website; these are gathered in a monthly zine, along with two previously-unpublished titles, which you can buy on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords. There’s also a quarterly edition that includes the contents of the previous three ‘zines, which is also available on etsy. As of this writing, there exist six zines and two volumes.

I first discovered Project Unicorn by way of “The Witch Sea,” an enchanting story about a witch named Meriel and the unexpected love she feels for a sea creature named Nor. A multi-generational feud has placed Meriel in the heartbreaking position of denying Nor that which she most desperately years for: the depths of the sea. I loved it so much that I promptly added all of Sarah Diemer’s titles to my wishlist.

The stories found in Project Unicorn, Volume 1 are every bit as magical as “The Witch Sea.” Beautiful, glorious, rainbow-hued magic. Accompanied by a menagerie of fantastical creatures – Kelpie unicorns, werecats, Victorian mermaids, kind-hearted witches, demons, even trees made human – the authors invite us to find and embrace the weirdness, the alienation, the darkness within ourselves. Those monsters staring at us through the glass of a magical compact? They are different from us, but…also the same. And that’s a wonderful thing. There’s light in the forest, yo.

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Mini-Review: Nevermind the Bollocks, Annie Bellet (2014)

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Ante up, potatoes!

three out of five stars

The first rule of Purgatory: never underestimate (or upset) Elsie the sexbot. Unfortunately for chief tech Diarmuid “Mick” O’Malley, he’s about to do just this, by declining her illicit request to smuggle her off-world. (As Elsie morosely points out, Mick will eventually be granted leave, even if it’s in a body bag; while she, the immortal android, is stuck there for eternity.) Until he remembers the likely spy who, masquerading as a doctor, snuck in on a transport ship earlier that day. Surely the Siberian Syndicate equipped “Dr. Moretti” with an iron-clad escape plan; and as one of just five people who know the exact coordinates of the priceless Ambrosia planet, Mick can trade his intel for two seats on the getaway vehicle. But when Mick learns that Moretti’s mission was of the suicide variety, the trio is forced to improvise.

“Nevermind the Bollocks” is a fast-paced scifi thriller. Though it’s far from my favorite story by Annie Bellet, it’s a fun enough read, and at zero bucks you can’t go wrong. Some of the slang (British? Italian Mafia? Future speak? A combination of the three?) rubbed me the wrong way, but Elsie is charming in her own weird way.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Forgotten Tigers and Other Stories, Annie Bellet (2014)

Monday, July 7th, 2014

For the Light-Bringers and Mist Dwellers

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program.)

Lightbringing tigers and ghost lions. Serpent-boys and magic-sniffing rats. Disembodied alien consciousnesses and genocidal spider aliens. Annie Bellet’s imagination is populated by all manner of strange and exotic creatures – many of them dangerous, others surprisingly not so; in Forgotten Tigers and Other Stories, she conjures them forth, breathing life into each before letting them skitter across the pages and into her audience’s imaginations.

An eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, and dystopias (occasionally all at once), Forgotten Tigers is comprised of ten short stories: seven of them brand-new, three previously published. (Though this is my first time reading each one.)

Forgotten Tigers – Easie unexpectedly stumbles upon an alien scout while scavenging in the dumpsters behind the Dupigny Technical College. When it tosses him aside like just another piece of garbage, something in Easie snaps – and he fires the opening shot in what might be a intergalactic incident.

The Crimson Rice Job – Imagine a nutritionally superior rice that’s so easy to grow that a gentleman farmer would be hard-pressed to kill it with neglect. Now imagine that all the patents are held by mega-corps whose bottom lines could only be hurt by a self-perpetuating rice seed. How far would you go to get this much-needed crop into the hands of small farmers in countries racked by poverty and hunger?

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Mini-Review: Of Bone and Steel and Other Soft Materials, Annie Bellet (2014)

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Of Bone and Steel and Whiskers

four out of five stars

The programs in her control panel remembered her training, even if she fought to forget.

Ryska is scavenging in an industrial area in the outskirts of Tynda when she unwittingly stumbles into the middle of a botched kidnapping for ransom. The target – a young boy named Toma, son of the famed “Railway Demon” – reminds her of the boys she couldn’t save back at the Lab: Misha. Luka. Gregr. Her brothers and friends. Though it goes against her survival instinct, Ryska vows to help Toma escape his captors (and if his father rewards her with a fat bag of cash, all the better). Luckily, she has something that her sighted pursuers do not: high-tech sensory whiskers that allow her to see in the dark, and specialized combat training from her childhood in the Lab.

A short thriller/science fiction/dystopian story, “Of Bone and Steel and Other Soft Materials” feels like a little novelette in a larger series, meant to provide some backstory for or additional insight into a much-loved character. As I read, I yearned to learn more about Ryska and her time in the Lab, or to find out what she did with her reward money; sadly, “Of Bone and Steel” is all there is. Still, it’s a fun little read, overall well-written and fast-paced.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Mini-Review: Destiny, K.C. Maguire (2012)

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Boy Buys Girl, Girl Evolves

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this story for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, the last paragraph contains a vague spoiler.)

“What’s the point of a new generation if we can live forever?” And there it is. My whole problem with the Transition. Truthfully, I always wanted kids. But Tara didn’t…and Destiny can’t. So what’s the point?

When Joe’s wife Tara leaves him after more than a decade of marriage, he does what many middle-aged, newly-single men of the future do: he buys a companionship android. At first glance, the T-26 known as Destiny might seem to be at odds with Joe’s longstanding resistance to the Transition – in which one’s consciousness is downloaded into a synthetic version of one’s body; everybody’s doing it! – but Destiny is a true android: preprogrammed with a variety of factory settings (Erotic, Housewife), she lacks any humanity of her own. Whereas Joe’s Transitioned friends are constant reminders of the crumbling wall between “human” and “machine,” Destiny is 100%, honest to goodness not-human.

Much like his plasma screen tv and toaster oven, Destiny is just another one of Joe’s toys. Until the day she isn’t. Destiny begins to learn. Evolve. Becomes sentient.

As Joe finds himself falling in love with an android, he must decide what’s more important to him: his humanity, increasingly rare these days – or eternal love.

Smart and full of heart, Destiny is a fun and quick read – a little too quick, if you ask me. I’d love to see this story expanded in novel form. The Habitat Facility is a nice touch, and it’s interesting to observe how Joe’s behavior parallels that of some nonhuman animals kept in confinement (pandas, for example, are notoriously reluctant to mate in zoos, leading to the rise of panda porn).

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Snow and Shadow, Dorothy Tse (2014)

Friday, June 13th, 2014

“This palace is a depraved place.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review from the publisher.)

Dorothy Tse’s Snow and Shadow is like nothing you’ve ever read. Fantastical, surreal, and full of unexpected gore, the stories found within these pages are as odd as they are beautifully written. While some of the pieces start off with both feet seemingly planted firmly in this world (“in a vein of apparently innocent realism,” to quote translator Nicky Harman) before veering off into another, dreamlike dimension, others flaunt their peculiarities from the opening sentences. As if the unusual and absurd plots aren’t enough, Tse creates further distance by giving the stories’ protagonists impersonal names: some are just “the boy” or “the girl,” while others are named after objects (“Leaf” and “Knife”) or simply referred to by letters (“J,” “K,” and “Q” are especially popular choices). While some of the pieces are a little out there for my taste, there’s no denying that Tse is a gifted and masterful storyteller.

The collection is comprised of thirteen stories:

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Book Review: Behind Dark Doors, Susan May (2014)

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

“The War Veteran” stands out…

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program.)

Susan May’s Behind Dark Doors is a collection of six short (most of them very short!) stories of suspense and horror:

“Hell’s Kitchen” – Game show contestant Gordon (named after Gordon Ramsey, natch) isn’t just competing for his own cooking show – but for his very life. (Hint: You don’t want to know what’s in the beef bourguignon.)

“Mitigating Circumstances” – Mom doesn’t want to hear that her delicious little baby boy Ben is a bully. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“I Hate Emma Carter” – When popular girl Angela bullies newcomer Emma, her hatred threatens to consume her.

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Mini-Review: A Matter of Survival, Linda Hull (2011)

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Expect the Unexpected

four out of five stars

When a small crew from Project EviroQuest accidentally crash-lands on Planet K24B, they decide to make the most of their stay. A secondary unit is slated to arrive in six months, bringing with it additional crew and supplies. Until then, the nine scientists and explorers set out to learn as much as they can about the plant and animal life on their new, temporary home.

One of just 143 planets within reach of Earth (at least given humankind’s current technological know-how), K24B is much like our own planet, with “an atmosphere almost identical to Earth.” But the animals dwelling within K24B’s plains, rainforests, deserts, and seas are as varied as they are unusual: Feathered cetaceans. Giant, human-sized spiders. Transparent snakes. Tiny green antelope. Birds as big as Pteranodons.

And zoologist Donna Rivera gets to discover, observe, and catalog them all! Alongside her mentor Regina Gilliam, to boot! Talk about living the dream.

Donna’s dream quickly turns into a nightmare, however, when the local fauna starts picking the crew members off in ones and twos and threes. Soon Donna and engineer Everett Jordan are the only ones left. Can they manage to stay alive until the reinforcements arrive?

But nothing is as it seems in this short story by Linda Hull.

A Matter of Survival is a quick, entertaining read that might be veer toward the fun-but-forgettable – if not for the unexpected ending. Normally I’m not a huge fan of this particular brand of plot twist, but it’s downright delicious here.

A matter of survival, indeed.

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Book Review: The Ink Slingers Guild Presents Into the Abyss (2013)

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

“Do you sparkle?”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

A group of writers who come together for “support, inspiration and the occasional kick in the arse,” the Ink Slingers Guild has published two anthologies of its members’ work to date. Into the Abyss features ten essays (and one poem) based on one of the writing exercises performed at every ISG meeting. The authors were given three words – gravity, innocuous, and perilous – and directed to create a story that touches upon each concept. The result is an eclectic mix of noir (“The Scarab”), fantasy (“The Scarab,” “Sending Sally Home,” “The Heart of Ballion,” “Beginnings”), science fiction (“The Room,” “Revelation”), supernatural horror (“Jimmy,” “Complications,” “Rain”) and young adult fiction (“Jimmy”).

The Scarab – 1929, England. A PI discovers a strange, beetle-shaped amulet that transports him to ancient Egypt – and helps him unlock his destiny.

Sending Sally Home – A sweet fantasy romance in which a young woman, mistaken for a distant royal relative, is transported to another world where she falls in love with the wizard tasked with keeping vigil for her. From the title to the whimsical setting, the tale has a vaguely Whovian feel to it.

The Heart of Ballion – Ballion is a world created by men, not gods, as a safe haven for refugees. Forced to flee their own worlds by the genocidal Overlord, people from the worlds over are welcomed to Ballion by the Sorcerers, who open the Border at the direction of the Tower. But Ballion is also under attack: the Blackfire Riders have found a way in and are systemically destroying the Keystones, the heart of Ballion. Sorcerers Thryn and Aliell must transform Ballion in order to save it.

(More below the fold…)