Monthly Archives: May 2017

Seventeen Stitches – Sean Eads (Lethe Press)

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I’ve read enough Sean Eads to know, upon starting his collection, that I was in for a mix of dark and disturbing tales. With Seventeen Stitches, however, Eads often dialed up both beyond my expectations.

I feel like I should preface that I rarely read horror, and when I do read horror, I shy completely away from zombies as something I know I will never enjoy. Given that many of the stories in Seventeen Stitches are ones I could describe as horror, and more than a few of those are also zombie stories, this collection left me more than a little off-balance.

But let me start in my comfort zones: a few of the stories that fall into speculative fiction more weird than horrific.

“My Father’s Friend” was a standout, where a young man who has long seethed with a hatred for his titular friend of his father—who denies his son anything remotely close to affection—learns that the friend in question is in fact a temporally displaced version of himself, and has to make the choice of whether or not to continue the cycle, given that this is one way he can earn respect and love from his father. The story bubbles with a grim tension and walks the edge of something almost nihilistic.

Of a similar tone is “Living in the Worlds Without You,” where another familial breakdown leaves the reader wondering—in the best way—whether or not grief or something off kilter in the multiverse is at play.

Bending weird further, “The Two Front Ones,” takes Capone-era gangsters, mashes them up with secret organizations, hidden secret plans, and the teeth of the son of an influential man as the McGuffin in question. Ditto “The Alamo Incident,” where a hunter of the beasts of the interior of the newly expanding United States comes face to face with one of the more peculiar “monsterifictions” I’ve ever read.

The weirder and darker the tales go, the more Eads seems to delight in pushing boundaries. I’m not sure I know another author who would make the fairy tale of the Gingerbread Man and cross it with a zombie apocalypse (which, of course, broke out from infected strains of bread dough).

Stepping more into the horrific, Eads presented me with one of the most chilling vampire horror shorts I’ve yet to have read (Previously a title held by Stephen King’s “Popsy”), as well as a succubus story with a dark psychological thrill, a cleverly retold mash-up for a werewolf tale, and even a bridge troll. Blood and guts are definitely on display in many of these tales, even before we get to the zombies. Beyond the gingerbread man story, the other zombie tales include an Oscar Wilde story—“The Revenge of Oscar Wilde”—which I think will test the limits of even the hardest lovers of the zombie genre (it ends the collection on what I can honestly say is the most unique note of all the tales, and not something I imagine most readers have encountered before). Also, there’s the darkly amusing notion of the best hope against zombies being an acting troupe in “To ‘Bie or Not To ‘Bie,” a story where zombies are paralyzed by a good theatre performance, and thus youths are trained as actors to entrance the zombies before beheading them.

For all that horror is not at all my cup of tea (and especially gore and zombies), I know I’m certainly in the minority. Eads has a penchant and talent for twisting the imagination toward the dark, and even those stories that build on familiar ground tend to tilt sideways mid-way. Though not something I’d suggest for readers of lighter speculative fiction fare, if you’re at all a fan of gazing into the darkness and considering what might gaze back, I think you’re a reader who’d be well served by Seventeen Stitches.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Rural Liberties – Neal Drinnan (Signal 8 Press)

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Rural Liberties begins with the death of Rebecca Moore, the most beautiful and talented girl in Moralla, New South Wales, Australia—“jewel of the Sapphire Coast”—a fading seaside town of 3500 people, 350 km south of Sydney, 550 km northeast of Melbourne, “somewhere on the way to someplace else.” The questions surrounding her death—why was she on the Princes Highway in the pouring rain at 4 AM, all but naked, with drugs in her system, and traces of semen on her?—are never answered to the satisfaction of her fellow townsfolk: instead, they provide the catalyst for everyone’s subsequent downward spiral into debauchery and enlightenment.

Before her untimely death, Rebecca had nursed dreams of leaving Moralla by starring on Aussie Diva, singing “Don’t Cry Out Loud” by Melissa Manchester. After Rebecca’s death, it falls to Briannah Saunders (the second most beautiful and talented girl in Moralla) to audition for Hot Sista, Australia’s longest running reality TV show, and thus place Moralla on the map. Briannah’s quest to accomplish this objective (working with and against Reece Martin, the creator of the Hot Sista franchise) is one of the major narratives of this novel.

Meanwhile, Tasmin Day and Guy Martin (Reece’s brother) arrive in Moralla and buy the property where Rebecca was gang-banged before her death (their real estate agent being Briannah’s mother Maxine), intent on turning it into a retreat center (the eponymous `Rural Liberties’) for relationship workshops and personal development. Naturally, once the property is developed and operational, it takes almost no time at all before rumors of orgies and Satanic rituals begin to circulate throughout Moralla; the town’s reactions to an eco-resort that provides workshops on Tantric sex provide the other major narrative of Rural Liberties.

Entwined in these two major strands are numerous other sub-plots, which are much more serious in nature, even if presented in a humorous fashion. Andrew Pritchard, consumed by guilt for his role in Rebecca’s death, spends his time building memorials to Rebecca and haunting OutoHere.com, a website devoted to people trying to kill themselves. Fifteen-year old Saul (Briannah’s younger brother and Maxine’s son) grapples with his sexual identity in episodes that are simultaneously cringe-worthy and laugh-out-loud funny. Summer Rae (arguably the most mature and self-actualized individual in the novel, but then she isn’t from Moralla) joins the staff at Rural Liberties and puts Tasmin and Guy (and their teachings) to test. Reading to the end is the only way to find out who finally ends up on top. So to speak.

Despite its beginning, Rural Liberties is no mystery, but rather a biting send-up of TV pop culture and its promise of instant fame, small-town gossip, baby boomer/Gen X/millennial (take your pick) entitlement, and 21st-century morality (or lack thereof). With its short chapters, satiric wit, and sensational story, it is the perfect summer beach read.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

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Gatecrasher – Stephen Graham King (Bold Strokes Books)

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I’ve long been a lover of Space Opera, but it was so rarely a place I saw myself represented that I drifted away from it over my years as a reader. I always felt a disconnect: how come we got to the stars, but there’s never a queer person in sight? Why can’t the cocky space pilot be bi? Why can’t the tech-smart engineer hook up with another guy?

Well, they can. Allow me to introduce you to the Maverick Heart Cycle.

When I first read Stephen Graham King’s Soul’s Blood, I fell in love with his trio of Lexa-Blue, Keene, and the sentient space ship, Maverick Heart (Vrick to the ship’s friends). Space Opera is difficult to pull off well. Balancing world-building, which so often includes linguistic nuances to show an evolution (or devolution) in culture, alongside the narrative itself is a tricky act.

In the first book of the Maverick Heart Cycle, Soul’s Blood, gender-neutral honorifics, sentient (and also agender) space ships, and a galaxy full of colonized planets were all juggled with ease. It took me no time to be hip-deep in the high-tension danger of a culture clash between a technologically-centred city and a nearby colony of more eco-centric and meditative genetically modified individuals with various telepathic and psychokinetic abilities. That our three heroes were an unlikely group to face off against a planet-wide potential war made it all the better. Keene, handsome gay technician with his sharp mind a potential romantic liaison on-planet; Lexa-Blue, a bisexual kick-ass pilot and gunner who I wish had her own television series; and Vrick, the sentient (and oft sarcastic) artificial intelligence ship that gets them to and from danger worked together, bent and broke rules, risked everything (and sometimes everyone) and came out on top, more or less.

When Gatecrasher came out? I had my ticket in hand.

The trio I’d come to love adventuring with get a few new additions in Gatecrasher, and they’re welcome recruits. We meet Ember, a con-man and thief, and his accomplice, Malika, who wears attitudes, personalities, and outfits with equal ease, as they pull off a high-tech robbery that drips with Space Opera technology and once again shows off King’s flair at worldbuilding so casually you’d barely notice it’s happening. This is a real gift of King’s prose: within a few words, you’ve got a picture of a whole world, an entire subcategory of technology, or some new facet of his universe. It never feels like an info dump. And when you’re dealing with a book about space gates, code thieves, virtual assassins, and mono-filament grapples, this gift gets a lot of use.

Much like Soul’s Blood, Gatecrasher introduces us to a new corner of the galaxy, raises the stakes, and then puts the group on a ticking clock to avert major disaster and death. The stakes feel all the more personal this time, which surprised me: I quickly found myself rooting for the new characters as they were introduced, and I had zero notion of who might make it to the end of the book. There were definitely going to be deaths but I didn’t want anyone to die. Similarly, there were a couple of twists to the narrative I didn’t see coming, and I love that feeling of genuine surprise that, on reflection, had clues enough not to make it feel like it came from nowhere, but instead had me grinning at the cleverness.

Now, where Soul’s Blood felt in many ways like Keene’s book (it was his romantic entanglement that got them involved in the narrative), Gatecrasher felt more like Vrick’s book, and this was a surprisingly welcome thing. In Soul’s Blood, Vrick came across as a fun, almost sidekick of a character, an AI who was surprisingly just “one of the guys” on their adventure, but in Gatecrasher, Vrick’s characterization evolves into being much clearer about just what it meant to be a non-human artificially intelligent construct.

Vrick is not human, and this shines through so much clearer in this book. His views on privacy, for example, are chuckle-worthy, and his processes of justification for what amounts to some pretty deep infiltration into private information comes across so perfectly this time. Vrick is easily bored, is a bit light on ethical consideration, and has the ability to go and look pretty much anywhere. This curiosity gets the crew in over their heads when they discover something hidden more-or-less in the middle of nowhere space, and they decide to go look.

Also, I can’t help it, every time Vrick refers to the human crew as “Meat” I chuckle like a twelve year-old boy.

Can you read Gatecrasher as a stand alone? Well, I’m a purist, and I’ll always suggest people start at the beginning, but this second book in the Maverick Heart Cycle does pull off a self-contained narrative. Yes, of course, events from Soul’s Blood are mentioned, but not to the level of a major spoiler. Were a reader to pick up Gatecrasher first, I don’t think they’d lose much in the way of the experience.

But get them both. Trust me. Queer space opera rarely comes with the whole deal. A blooming poly romance? Bi representation? Gender and race explored in a future society handled with real skill and attention? Stephen Graham King brings it all and it’s very welcome, from the opening scenes to nail-biting conclusion.

King is at work on more. I’m glad. I want to explore more of his galaxy with his awesome queer crew.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Scarborough – Catherine Hernandez (Arsenal Pulp Press)

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As we all know, working in the arts pays less than nothing most of the time. Most writers (and editors) have to have supplemental income, and with this aim in mind, I began substitute teaching last year. My school district is huge, encompassing white as well as “urban” neighborhoods, much like the landscape of Catherine Hernandez’s deeply-felt novel, Scarborough. I see the disenfranchised and immigrant children she describes daily. I feed the littler ones breakfast, like Ms Hina does. And I wonder if they can survive what’s been done to the country in which they landed.

Ms Hina is a recent university graduate whose first job is as a facilitator for a literacy program in a Toronto primary school, but any position involving children proves to be far more than its description. Among her charges are Laura, Bing, and Bing’s best friend, Sylvie. Laura has been neglected by her mother and obtained by her father, Cory, who knows even less about raising a child. Bing is a gay Filipino boy living with both parents, but his father is mentally ill. Sylvie is a Native girl whose family is struggling to find a place to live. Ms Hina slowly works past the prejudice of parents, careless bureaucrats, and the diversity of her children to forge a welcoming atmosphere for all.

However, any description of this novel will fall short. Just like the job it tracks, it’s more than the sum of its parts. A skilled writer, Hernandez uses all the emotion at her disposal to create deft, indelible portraits of these children and their parents. Once she has them onstage, she lets them interact with each other and shades those relationships as they develop organically. Nothing about Scarborough feels contrived or manipulative despite its range of emotions, and I never once heard the author instead of the characters.

Although all of Hernandez’s people are real and interesting, Laura’s father and Bing were particularly noteworthy. Cory aches to do right by his little girl and knows how she’s suffered from her mother’s inattention, but he simply doesn’t have the skills. And he’s too afraid to ask, automatically discounting Ms Hina because she wears a hijab. Bing is a fearless little boy who came out at an early age with the full support of his mother and extended family. But even with that love behind him, nothing can compare to the freedom he feels when he takes a Whitney Houston tape to karaoke and makes his statement to the world:

Just as the chorus began again, I jumped to my feet, ripped off my button up shirt and revealed my pink-sequined halter top. Everyone cheered. Under the auditorium lights, I felt the sweat on my arms both cooling and accumulating. Riding the wave of a sustained note, I felt my insides shine like a light beaming from my throat and through every finger. Truth. Truth. It felt like confetti. It felt like running. It felt like screaming. Me. Truth. Truth.

The details of Bing’s story are unimportant. We have all been Bing. We still are, really. It’s the screaming of that truth that’s important, now more than ever.

From Ms Hina’s epistolary battle with her supervisor to the tragedy of an apartment fire, Scarborough is an engrossing read that’s a lot like its cover. Hernandez sets us running down that subway corridor, anxious for what comes around the next corner. Heartbreak, to be sure. But also unexpected joys and big lessons. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Girl on the Edge of Summer – J.M. Redmann (Bold Strokes Books)

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Just as reliable as Fay Jacobs, although in a totally different genre, J.M. Redmann has long been a favorite of mine. Her Micky Knight series is one of the finest I’ve read, both in terms of the mysteries themselves and the characters. Micky’s breakup with long-time lover Cordelia was traumatic to some of Redmann’s fans, but those downvotes are only proof positive how close Redmann’s readers feel with Micky. Her latest, The Girl on the Edge of Summer, is a solid addition to the post-Cordelia series and one that might finally see Micky Knight ready to move on with her life.

In this pair of cases, Knight attempts to find information for a mother to ease her distress over the death of her young daughter, who killed herself because an older boy she had sexted with was threatening to make those pictures public if she didn’t have sex with him. Eddie isn’t hard to find, but he also turns up dead after a violent confrontation with Knight at the mother’s house. Even worse, Knight is suspected of the murder. Her other case involves archival work to solve the hundred-year-old murder of a member of one of New Orleans’s wealthiest families.

At their hearts, both cases are about vengeance as closure, maybe serving as examples to Knight that vengeance rarely closes anything and only leaves everyone open to more damage. Knight is on a different emotional edge this time, since she finds out Cordelia is now back in New Orleans. They haven’t yet run into each other, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to tell you they don’t meet here, either. But for an absent character, Cordelia is all over this book. That’s okay. Nine books in, Redmann knows the secret to a successful series is to make it dynamic, changing it up so it doesn’t get stale for anyone–especially the writer. Part of the enjoyment of this bunch of books for me is Micky’s slow climb back to something approaching normalcy after she and Cordelia call it quits. Is their story over? Doubtful. Am I waiting to find out? Desperately.

In the meantime, we get to enjoy some well-plotted mysteries, some life-and-death rescues, and some despicably seedy characters. Redmann works through her action scenes with precision and balance, never letting them drag or sputter. The YA characters here are also well-drawn. They sound like teenagers, not forty-year-olds, and they act age appropriately as well. But at the heart of it all is Mickey–mostly smart (but sometimes stupid), looking forward without forgetting her past, and trying to reassemble her life with some bent and abraded puzzle pieces.

I’ll certainly be reading the next installment. For maximum pleasure, you should start at the beginning of the series. But this also works well as a standalone, so you can read this one and pick up the others later.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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