Review: “Tomorrow’s Precious Lamb” by Monica Valentinelli

2 of 5 stars.

Included in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, this short story is told through the food-deprived haze of Officer Mike Francis who is jittery with the only sustenance he could find–two energy shots. He is working the night shift, which is when the zombies make their daily emergence. The protagonist’s distracting hunger provides an interesting tint to the POV and comparison to the implied hunger of the zombies.

The officer answers an APB about a domestic abuse situation that involves a 12-y.o. zombie that takes him into the privileged neighborhoods where they don’t want for food in these lean times. It is also often the case that the privileged do not want their zombies put down–a turned child may be protected behind a wall of denial and excuses. True to form, the corpulent, arrogant man who answers the door at the McMansion denies that his daughter is a zombie and doesn’t want her harmed despite laws that all zombies are to be put down, burned or blown up.

The story’s premise is handled well, despite the lack of nuance in setting up the contrast between the officer and the unnamed man-of-the house. From there, the story breaks down into a muddle of unanswered implications. The zombie-daughter is said to have volunteered, for what is never made clear. The wife is present and in a state that is never explained. Most confounding is the father. His actions and intentions seem to waver between guiltily implicating himself in the state of his daughter [or the entire zombie apocalypse] and lashing out at Officer Francis. Terms such as necromancer and scientist are thrown about without resolve. Even the officer’s hunger-haze cannot account for the lack of answers provided by the story’s end.
 
 
 
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Review: “Makak” by Edward Lee

2 of 5 stars.

Included in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, this short story draws on the voodoo/Obeah view of zombies as priest-controlled, reanimated minions. However, I found the depiction of these zombies, both confused and confusing. Indeed, they are dead with many of their internal organs removed and no need for food or sleep. They also seem not to feel pain, as one inadvertently burns its fingers with a cigarette without noticing. However, they feel sexual pleasure, or derive pleasure from the memory of past sexual experiences as they go through the motions of sex. They also have memories and independent thoughts, even rebellious thoughts, though they are unable to resist an order from an Obeah priest. The amount of autonomy and ability enjoyed by the zombies seemed contradictory.

The story is set in the jungles of Peru on a drug plantation. A small-time American drug dealer, Hull, has gone to secure a new supply of cocaine for his business. He is unfamiliar with Obeah and zombies though he notices weirdness that he cannot explain. Hull is not the only narrator, however. Later, the story shifts to a zombie to give a first person POV. This is where I struggled to grasp the parameters of this story’s world-rules. Where does life end? Where does the zombie-life and consciousness begin and end? Where does the influence of the Obeah priest begin? After a lifetime of grotesque sexual abuse, and with considerable independence of thought and action, why would a zombie crave sex to remember what it felt like to be alive?

The story is not too short when it comes to the narrative of Hull. Perhaps it falls too short in defining the fantastical elements surrounding him. He is an outsider and does not need to fully understand what is going on. The change in POV to an insider should have been more illuminating.
 
 
 
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Review: “Dead Giveaway” by Brian Hodge

1 of 5 stars.

Included in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, this short story heavy-handedly lampoons modern daytime television entertainment. Monty Olson is a shallow, still-living gameshow host that only cares about keeping in front of the camera and his fame. The audience of the gameshow is the undead masses that now outnumber the living. The undead’s idea of entertainment is not very sophisticated, to say the least. The television executives are also undead, but somehow of a different type. They have thoughts, but only care about ratings. It’s their morals that are called into question.

Taking potshots at the entertainment industry and the people who comprise it is too easy. The metaphors for both the mindless masses and the unscrupulous television executives being zombies is both overly simplified and inconsistent. There’s not a single character with depth included in this story.
 
 
 
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Review: “Chuy and the Fish” by David Wellington

3 of 5 stars.

This very short story is included in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran. As the title implies, this story is about man vs. nature. Chuy is working a shift as a watchman on Governor’s Island off the coast of Manhattan, after the city and most of the mainland has succumbed to a zombie apocalypse. The story covers one evening in his life. In particular, I found the opening lines to be quite evocative:

Rain came down so hard it was tough to tell the difference between the water and the air. It scoured the esplanade, a million soft explosions a second, and it battered the weeds that pushed up through the cracks in the parking lot asphalt.

Like most zombie stories, the focus is not the zombies, but rather the survivors. The group on Governor’s Island is comprised of jaded former New Yorkers. Their disconnect from nature could explain the calling of anything residing in the ocean, a fish. More importantly, individuals must decide what they are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the group’s survival.
 
 
 
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Review: “Abed” by Elizabeth Massie

3 of 5 stars.

This very short story appears in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran. It should be noted that this story is very graphic and for adults only. The entire anthology carries a warning that it is for adults only, which is likely due to this inclusion. The undead, as in most zombie stories, are not the real story. The story is how the living treat the living when the ethics of society have been stripped away.

Just about anything else I write here would be a spoiler due to the nature of the story. However, it starts rather benignly in a family home nestled between cornfields and woods in rural America. Meggie, the protagonist, is handed her favorite dress, freshly ironed, by her mother-in-law with whom she lives. The idyllic scene quickly devolves from there.

The writing is good; the scene becomes horrific. Sometimes, that combination can be quite unsettling. This is one of those cases. The story wandered so far beyond my comfort zone that I started to wonder if I did not believe the situation could get that bad, or if I just did not want to believe it could get that bad. And yet every couple of years, a real world headline will show just how horrible people can be to each other. These headlines don’t take the reader into the minds of the people experiencing the situation, though, as this story does. Read this story, forewarned.
 
 
 
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Review: “Aftertaste” by John Shirley

3 of 5 stars.

Shirley’s short story, “Isolation Point, California” was one of my favorites in the anthology, After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran. It was because of Shirley’s inclusion with this short story that I chose to pick up a second Guran anthology, Extreme Zombies. The two shorts are very different.

In this story, the gritty forgotten neighborhoods lost to drugs and prostitution are the breeding grounds for a spreading zombie menace. Through a series of characters, the cycles of addiction, violence and hopelessness are seen to escalate. The zombies take a back seat here; they are a byproduct, a symptom. The authorities do not see the actual zombies any more than they help the living in the areas rife with the drugs and poverty.

Jim stopped in the middle of the room, his gun in his hand, wanting to scream but not having the energy, still sick to his stomach, thinking that all this should feel dreamlike, but it didn’t now, not anymore . . . That was because there was a smooth and ordinary continuity between being strung out, crashing on crack, perceiving himself as human vermin . . . and being here, with the dying and the dead who move around.

A clear metaphor to early in the AIDS crisis seemed clear to me. The victims are the homeless, the addicts, and marginalized and the forgotten. Nobody from the outside is coming to the rescue in this gritty, urban psychological piece. I did like this piece, it just lacked the heart and conviction that I admired greatly in my first encounter with Shirley’s writing.
 
 
 
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Review: Red Rising

This is my pick for anyone looking for a great book to gift this holiday season. It is very well written. The 2nd in the series will come out in January. This book also won Best Debut Novel 2014 on Goodreads, a well-deserved win.

Jaffalogue

Red Rising
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book immediately after finishing The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1) by Patrick Rothfuss. Admittedly, that’s a tough act to follow. As a reader, I jump genres often so while I have read some sci-fi, I would not consider myself a sci-fi reader. That said, I enjoyed where this book took me and will definitely be looking for the next in the series to come out.

Early sections of the book had me thinking of The City of Ember (Book of Ember, #1) by Jeanne DuPrau, the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling [mostly due to the author’s notes] and The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The latter deserves comparison, though I was glad that Red Rising quickly established how it was different than a fantasy. The story felt organic and more fully filled…

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Review: “The Traumatized Generation” by Murray J.D. Leeder

4 of 5 stars.

Appearing in Extreme Zombies edited by Paula Guran, this short story is set roughly one generation into a zombie apocalypse. Many large cities are still inundated with the lumbering dead, while a few have become safe bastions for the living. In Calgary, walls and fences protect the city and vaccines have largely inoculated the local citizens against further development of new zombies. However, not all is well in the eyes of Land, a 7th grade teacher.

The military-run government now requires all citizens of a certain age to enlist in the war against the zombies as there are still many front lines. Political propaganda has popularized gladiatorial battles against the undead in a former Olympic arena. However, attendance at these theatrical events is compulsory for students of a certain age, regardless of the student’s or the student’s parents’ beliefs, concerns or objections.

I really liked the world-building in this short piece and the ending caught me partially by surprise which was an added bonus.
 
 
 
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Review: The Dystopian Nation of City-State: An Anthology – Origin, Corruption, and Rebellion

The Dystopian Nation of City-State: An Anthology - Origin, Corruption, and Rebellion
The Dystopian Nation of City-State: An Anthology – Origin, Corruption, and Rebellion by James Courtney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It cannot be emphasized enough that this anthology of vignettes is not a novel, nor the first in a series. It is an introduction to a well-thought-out, dystopian future nation in the form of vignettes that do not rise to the level of being short stories. The vignettes are character studies and scenes from across the Nation of City-State involving a smattering of mostly unrelated, or loosely associated characters. The effect is not unlike watching Sin City or Crash and waiting for the elements to coalesce into a larger narrative arc. That does not fully formulate here, despite the vignettes eventually starting to build on each other or pass a baton between themselves.

The strength of this collection, that rates a solid 3-stars, is the series of scenes firmly taking place twelve centuries into the future. After a few false starts and loose threads, the scenes start to trace a broad picture by leaving a dotted line to the next scene. For example, a character may catch a news report about an athlete at the end of a scene, the next scene may be about that athlete, and the subsequent scene has the new focal character pass the athlete on the street. This works, and it works well. Unfortunately, it takes a while for this successful pattern of world-building to emerge. The first two vignettes in the anthology take place a millennium prior, thereby delaying the entry into the book. These two moments are meant to serve as necessary history, but would have been just as useful as mythologized notions of history artfully dispensed throughout the anthology. Just as distracting is the third scene which is meant to be read as a government memorandum, but doesn’t read as such with its awkward history and civil engineering lessons. Again, these lessons could have been dispensed throughout to greater effect.

The anthology reads like an author’s background notes at times, and as world-building at other times. Clearly, a great story or series of stories can emerge from this background. I look forward to reading the finished product in the form of a novel (or series). The current form, however, was too scatter-shot for my taste and still full of errata which distracts from the immersive goal of science fiction.

There were a couple other distractions, too. There is a cult in the book, in which the cult members refer to themselves as a cult. That is a term I’d only imagine outsiders using to describe a group. From within, I expect to hear motivations and reasoning, no matter how whack. But I did not get a sense of any motivations from the cult. All actions were dismissed as acts of evil. But that is a hard concept to grasp. Evil, too, is an outsider’s explanation for inexplicable actions. From within, I’d expect to hear the crazy talk of true believers. I also found it odd, that in a memo between people within The Nation, the city was described as a futuristic city. This, too, is an outsider’s term, if not an anachronistic one. To the citizens, it is the only city that they know and clearly of their own time.

I received a free copy of this anthology through a Kindle-link on the author’s blog.
 
 
 
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Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things

The Slow Regard of Silent Things
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second Patrick Rothfuss book I’ve read having previously tackled The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1) which I liked (and rated 4 stars). I liked this one better despite Rothfuss’ hemming and apologizing for it, and his insistence that one should read his other books first. I respectfully disagree. I can be a bit stingy with the term poetic. And in no way does Rothfuss try to make this novella a poem. But it is decidedly poetic, and beautifully so.

Auri, a mysterious side character in Rothfuss’ better known series, is nearly the only character in this fanciful work. She is a broken, forgotten young woman living beneath a bustling city and university in what she terms, The Underthing. The Underthing is the sprawling subterranean network of sewers and forgotten basements and mechanisms that survives from a previous era of hundreds of years prior. Auri exists here like a battered bird that won’t leave its cage despite the door hanging from one hinge. She fusses and obsesses with every little detail she sees in perhaps one of the most poetic depictions of OCD, I’ve ever read. In her own words coming just pages from the end:

That was the only way. You did not want things for yourself. That made you small. That kept you safe. That meant you could move smoothly through the world without upsetting every applecart you came across. And if you were careful, if you were a proper part of things, then you could help. You mended what was cracked. You tended to the things you found askew. And you trusted that the world in turn would brush you up against the chance to eat. It was the only graceful way to move. All else was vanity and pride.

It’s true that little happens in this tale. That is not the point. The story tells six days in the life of Auri as she prepares for a meeting with a boy (whom we can guess to be Kvothe, the protagonist in The Name of the Wind). Her flickering moods and levels of light transform the spaces and objects around her. One such space, The Twelve, is variously called: the Yellow Twelve, the Gray Twelve, the Black Twelve and the Silver Twelve. The tale is watching Auri interpret and interact within this shifting world:

She knew the way of things. She knew if you weren’t always stepping lightly as a bird the whole world came apart to crush you. Like a house of cards. Like a bottle against stones. Like a wrist pinned hard beneath a hand with the hot breath smell of want and wine. . . .

Her place, beneath all things, is to see things as they are, in the moment that they are. And if, in that moment, the thing is perfect; she will know that too. “She knew the true shape of the world. All else was shadow and the sound of distant drums.”

Highly recommended.
 
 
 
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