Review: Alive

AliveAlive by Scott Sigler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This young adult, dystopian novel is the start of a trilogy, but stands alone perfectly well. With plenty of directions the story can go, appreciative readers will likely read on with the series without a cliffhanger necessary. As a work of science fiction, many questions are left to be answered, but the seeds are there.

The story [taking place across just a couple days] opens with a young woman waking bound in a dark coffin. While the sensory deprivation doesn’t last far beyond breaking free, the information void lingers throughout the novel as Em is ever on the verge of remembering things from before the coffin, but never able to illuminate these memories. As she is joined by other kids is the same informational void the mystery grows.

The only early clues to what is going on are the names etched into the coffins, the thick dust atop everything, a vast hallway littered with bones and the symbols inscribed on their foreheads. It’s not a lot to go on. One more thing, every child thinks it’s their twelfth birthday. But their bodies say otherwise . . .

Promotional comparisons are made to The Hunger Games–but this lacks the institutionalized sado-tyranny, Divergence–but really only in the forehead symbols, The Maze Runner–but pleasantly this is not an inane game, and Lord of the Flies–we have a winner. I’d throw in The City of Ember, for being a book about exploration and trying to figure out what the real circumstances are through the veneer of inevitable mythos. Like Lord of the Flies, kids need to organize themselves–yes, but moreso it shows how, with a lack of knowledge and understanding, human nature is such that it fills in the gaps with explanations that veer toward the supernatural, religious, magical, and monstrous. This is the heart of the story. This is what makes it worth the read in that it does this so well.

The sub-plot about leadership is a huge distraction and verges on tedious. It could be a better theme if Em could actually formulate internal arguments toward her instinctive feelings toward people. But this does not happen, and it’s a huge miss in this novel. If a reader doesn’t like this novel, here’s why.

One minor point that I appreciated was the diversity of the children. Race and gender were non-issues and at times undefined. What makes this story different from LotF, is that the kids lack cultural knowledge, too. They are blank slates at the start (and thus the mythologizing for answers). Human tendency is to organize, and race and gender stay out of it for these kids without our social baggage. They look to the forehead symbols, but even that is questionably arbitrary.

I received my ARC through Netgalley.

[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “The Screams of Dragons” by Kelley Armstrong

4 of 5 stars.

Old World folklore of the otherworld Fae meets modern America in this tale as a grandmother fears her grandson is a changeling, but her accusations fall on deaf ears.

Bobby Sheehan has always dreamt of castles and golden fields. His mother’s rural American village of Cainsville, feeds his imagination with its many gargoyles and town elders that dote on Bobby and his imagination. He also has friends there in Rose and Hannah unlike at school where he is ostracized for being in his own little world.

One day his dreams change–he dreams of dragons screaming. He tells his paternal grandmother about his dreams, leaving out the bit about dragons, and she comes to the fearful conclusion that he is not her grandson but rather an imposter from the Fae world. She starts to torment and abuse poor, innocent Bobby. His parents overlook it. His younger sister goads the grandmother into doing it more. The grandmother also fears the entire town of Cainsville and keeps the family from going to the one place Bobby feels safe.

One day, he takes matters into his own hands with his grandmother . . . and the dragons scream.

This sad tale of abuse and ostracization starts to pick at the edges of reality as dreams solidify and supernatural senses seem to emerge. Actions have consequences, as do inactions.

“The Screams of Dragons” appears in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Subterranean Press Magazine, Spring 2014.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “(Little Miss) Queen of Darkness” by Laird Barron

1 of 5 stars

This muddled tale told in three acts is conveyed through the warped lens of Ed, a self-described “L.A. girl trapped inside an L.A. boy.” There’s drugs and booze and possibly a demon-summoning with a powerful ring.

After the blood has pooled and bodies stacked, there still isn’t a coherent storyline on what happened to whom, where and when. Mostly, it’s just affected bitchiness whether L.A. or queer or L.A. queer. When 3-4 sentences are used to describe the shade of red in a girl’s underwear and outfit, and a single sentence relates that the narrator’s boyfriend is sent off by an adversary, never be seen again, something is seriously lopsided in the narration. Or the wrong character is doing the narrating.

“(Little Miss) Queen of Darkness” appears in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Dark Discoveries #29.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Dreamer” by Brandon Sanderson

4 of 5 stars.

This fast-paced, compact story makes efficient use of Manhattan to set a supernatural chase scene. Like a scene out of The Matrix, Dreamer jumps from one body to the next as he chases Phi, who uses the same body-jumping ability, all in an effort to keep Phi from getting to Longshot holed up on a highrise rooftop.

When Dreamer gets ambushed by Phi, and shot, Dreamer’s consciousness mad-scrambles its way into the next available host–unfortunately, the closest body is that of an elderly lady not physically able to keep up the pace of pursuit. Phi had lucked out in finding an armed body . . .

While not exactly a fresh scenario, the pacing and twists are fun and appropriate. The brevity of the story is also important, as a longer form could have dulled quickly without a deeper plot.

“Dreamer” appears in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Games Creatures Play.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: The Shadow Revolution

The Shadow Revolution (Crown & Key, #1)The Shadow Revolution by Clay Griffith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grimy Victorian London colorfully comes to life from posh gentlemen’s clubs to seedy taverns, from the infamous Bedlam Hospital to decrepit sewer tunnels. A werewolf infestation has wheedled into the many strata of London society under alpha Gretta Altfather, while maniacal Dr. William White practices alchemical eugenics to create monsterous homunculi.

The common threat brings together a monster-hunting Scotsman (Malcolm McFarlane), a steampunk tinkerer (Penny Carter), an alchemist (Kate Anstruther), and a duo of magicians (protagonist scribe Simon Archer and elemental necromancer Nick Barker). Together with a small handful of friends, they take on the legions lurking in the dark and depths.

The tone of the story-telling is absolutely appropriate for the setting with echoes of prim Jane Austen in the educated bantering of Simon and Kate. That above all makes this opening book for the Crown & Key trilogy worth the read. It stands alone, but has left plenty to mull for the sequels also immediately available. There is generational history to dredge for Simon, Kate, and Malcolm that are sure to play larger roles as London splays open.

I received this novel through NetGalley.

One Book Two also has a fine review of this novel.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Emotional Dues” by Simon Strantzas

3 of 5 stars.

Life inspires art; art inspires life. This horror-laced tale shows both maxims in action.

Girder Schill, a down-and-out artist, uses painting to express and vent his abuse and rejection at the hands of his father. But customers aren’t clamoring for his angsty expressionist canvases. Not until wealthy patron Rasp buys Girder’s entire series. In need of the money, and wanting to skirt his agent, Girder takes a new work directly to the Rasp estate.

The butler, Nadir, is leery of the artist, but Rasp buys the emotional painting and commissions another. After a month, Girder returns with a new painting and doubles his prior price to which Rasp agrees readily, but also with a new proposal–for Girder to accept a stipend to paint yet another work while staying undistracted at the canvas-filled Rasp estate. Rasp seems to thrive off of the emotional vulnerability of Girder’s work, but Nadir is horrified as Girder accepts.

Girder temporarily moves in but starts to find canvases disappearing from the walls. Rooms of piled paintings are off-limits. And strange wet noises start to distract Girder from his task along with memories of his emotionally abusive father . . .

Often times, the unseen horror can be more powerful than the seen horror. The mind can play terrible tricks. That is the case with this story which ebbs in strength as scenes come into focus.

“Emotional Dues” appears in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Burnt Black Suns: A Collection of Weird Tales (Hippocampus Press).
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “The Quiet Room” by V. H. Leslie

5 of 5 stars.

When a member of a family dies, the absence is palpable, the silence roars. The situation is all the more complicated if relationships were unsettled before the death. This eerie tale perfectly composes the unsettling silence.

Terry finally has custody of his teenaged daughter, Ava, after years of spotty visitation and the death of his ex-wife, Prue. He purchases a 20-years-abandoned house in Ava’s school district to ease her transition. The only thing in the large 3-story house is a silenced piano in the ground floor music room to which Ava adds the urn of Prue’s ashes. Ava then retreats into the attic, claiming it over the empty bedrooms of the 2nd floor.

From here, sounds and silence take on a life of their own. Whispers behind closed doors. A music box that works and then doesn’t. A piano that does the same. A stereo that turns on seemingly on its own. The sounds of a house settling. And then no sounds–even from the old wooden stairs . . .

“The Quiet Room” appears in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Shadows and Tall Trees: 2014, ed. Michael Kelly (ChiZone Publications).

[Check out my other reviews here.]

It’s Not Novel, But I Like Anthologies

Admittedly, I’m a rather recent convert to reading anthologies. I’ve never seen them on bestseller lists or on anyone’s must-read list. In bookstores, if you’re lucky enough to know where they still exist, most fiction shelf space is devoted to novels, too. In my many decades of reading, I’d only bothered to read a handful of single author collections of short stories and novellas [Salinger’s Nine Stories, King’s Four Past Midnight and Barthelme’s 60 Stories come to mind.] BUT, no multi-author anthologies.

Why the hate? I seemed to be under the misguided impression that anything shorter than a novel was less than a novel.

Then, my brother brought a box of them home. I was jonesing on The Walking Dead [the show] and had already read the compendiums and there was a Paula Guran edited anthology on the shelf staring at me, Extreme Zombies, which included a George R. R. Martin short story. And another anthology on apocalypses, After the End: Recent Apocalypses–who doesn’t love the end of times? at least in print and movies. Recently, I read Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, and I keep picking at New Cthulhu 2.

I read them, and really liked them. Why? 1) They were introducing dozens of new authors to me. 2) By being themed anthologies, they were exploring a subject by showcasing the diversity within.

Since then I’ve read more, but I’ve learned that not all anthologies are equal. Not all are themed, clearly. Or even genre-based, oddly. Writers of the Future Volume 31 is mostly contest winners earning their inclusion. The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 is one publishing house’s Best Of list. Again, as a reader, a great way to find new voices. I’m about to start The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2015.

Chronology was more like reading a lit magazine in that it was not theme-based, nor genre-based, nor a best-of. There were some great stories, but ultimately I think I was disappointed that time was not a theme of an anthology named chronology.

What is your take on anthologies or short stories in general? Do you read them?

Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 by Rich Horton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This anthology promises the best in new stories and delivers on that promise more than not. I missed having a unifying theme to the stories that really explored a topic like my other experiences with Prime Books anthologies, but I’ve also never had so many 4- and 5-star ratings in one anthology before (17 of the 34 stories).

The strength of this collection is in the speculative fiction inclusions. All 7 tales I’ve rated with 5-stars take a look at the near future. Four question the nature of reality: Rajaniemi, Grant, Goss, and Reed. Four question the nature of self: McDonald, Swirsky, Grant, and Goss. The seventh, by Roberts, provides a scathing assessment of the politics of the legal, pharmaceutical, and medical industries.

I’ve taken the time to review and rate each story in the anthology:
Goss, Theodora–“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology–5 stars
Grant, John–“Ghost Story”–5 stars
McDonald, Sandra–“Selfie”–5 stars
Rajaniemi, Hannu–“Invisible Planets”–5 stars
Reed, Robert–“Pernicious Romance”–5 stars
Roberts, Adam–“Trademark Bugs: A Legal History”–5 stars
Swirsky, Rachel–“Grand Jete (The Great Leap)”–5 stars
Arnason, Eleanor–“The Scrivener”–4 stars
Bear, Elizabeth–“The Hand is Quicker–“–4 stars
Jennings, Kathleen–“Skull and Hyssop–4 stars
Johnson, Alaya Dawn–“A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i”–4 stars
Kelly, James Patrick–“Someday”–4 stars
Kunsken, Derek–“Schools of Clay”–4 stars
Ober, Damien–“The Endless Sink”–4 stars
Parker, K. J.–“Heaven Thunders the Truth”–4 stars
Parks, Richard–“The Manor of Lost Time–4 stars
Walton, Jo–“Sleeper”–4 stars

Also included:
Cooney, C. S. E.–“Witch, Beast, Saint: An Erotic Fairy Tale”–3 stars
Doctorow, Cory–“Petard: A Tale of Just Deserts”–3 stars
Esaias, Timons–“Sadness”–3 stars
Jablokov, Alexander–“The Instructive Tale of the Archaeologist and His Wife”–3 stars
Lee, Yoon Ha–“Wine”–3 stars
Newitz, Annalee–“Drones Don’t Kill People”–3 stars
Rosenbaum, Benjamin–“Fift & Shria”–3 stars
Russo, Patricia–“The Wild and Hungry Times”–3 stars
Watts, Peter–“Collateral”–3 stars
Anders, Charlie Jane–“Break! Break! Break!”–2 stars
Cornell, Paul–“A Better Way To Die”–2 stars
Crosshill, Tom–“The Magician and Laplace’s Demon”–2 stars
Link, Kelly–“I Can See Right Through You”–2 stars
Liu, Ken–“The Long Haul: From the Annuls of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009″–2 stars
Reed, Robert–“Every Hill Ends With Sky”–2 stars
Samatar, Sofia–“How to Get Back to the Forest”–2 stars
Valentine, Genevieve–“Aberration”–1 star

I received my copy of the anthology directly from Prime Books. This collection is highly recommended. Previously, I’ve reviewed three other Prime Books anthologies:
After the End: Recent Apocalypses–4 stars
Extreme Zombies–4 stars
Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep–4 stars
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Grand Jete (The Great Leap)” by Rachel Swirsky

5 of 5 stars.

This deeply intimate novella told in three acts revolves around an immigrant father, Jakub aka Abba, that lost his wife, Ima, 4 years prior and his dying 11 y.o. only daughter, Mara. It is highly recommended.

Act I–“Mara.” Mara barely recognizes her cancer-wasted body and face in the mirror. Her appetite is quickly slipping. Yet she tries to stay strong for her Abba who still hasn’t recovered from his wife’s, her mother’s, death. Mara finds comfort and refuge in her mother’s home dance studio and watching old DVDs of Ima dancing Giselle, Cinderella, and Coppelia. However, she is shocked to find that her Abba, like a sci-fi Gepetto, has constructed a life-like doll of Mara to capture her consciousness before she slips away.

Act II–“Jakub.” He cannot watch the videos of his deceased wife yet. He cannot even step into her studio. And now his daughter is dying–she looks like the photos of his grandparents freshly freed of Auschwitz. He takes comfort in his Jewish traditions, and the doll he has made–a modern day golem. Mara reluctantly allows the mind-capture. Taking inspiration from the story of Ruth and Mara/Naomi from the Torah, he names the doll Ruth and awakens her.

Act III–“Ruth.” She feels real. She is Mara. But a wasted remnant of Mara is still rasping for breath in the familiar bedroom upstairs . . .

“Grand Jete (The Great Leap)” appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 edited by Rich Norton and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Subterranean, Summer 2014.
[Check out my other reviews here.]