Spies! Teenage hackers! Nuclear secrets! And above all else, 1990s nostalgia!
All these things are in Phillip McCollum’s short story A Nuclear Family. I can’t really explain how they all fit together without spoiling the whole deal, but what I can do is praise McCollum’s gift for telling a tale. Remember, this is a man who once wrote 52 short stories in a year.
The same blend of teenage tech culture and mysterious goings-on uncovered by the youth of California that formed the theme of McCollum’s TheAlmost-Apocalypse of Apple Valley are present, but in a more potent, concentrated form. McCollum’s skill at concisely telling a good story is on full display, as is his way with words:
“I was way past wondering if what we’d done was a smart thing–it wasn’t. The question, now, was did we do the dumb thing smartly?”
A question familiar to anyone who has ever been a teenager, I’m sure.
A Nuclear Family is a gripping and suspenseful short story, that keeps you off balance from the start and doesn’t let up. It’s like a Hitchcock movie, updated to the ’90s and in literary form. A Phillip McCollum Special, through and through.
This is a cybercrime techno-thriller about a hacker who finds himself entrapped in an elaborate blackmail scheme. He’s forced to recruit old friends from his past in an effort to save himself.
What I liked most about the book was the setting. It’s a classic cyber-dystopia, with omnipresent surveillance and ongoing threats of pandemics. The atmosphere was creepy and disturbing, without being distracting.
Also, the technical details of all the hacking and counter-hacking were well done. I could follow what was going on without getting bogged down in the details.
I did struggle with some of the characters, in particular the protagonist. Let’s just say that, while he is the victim of a crime, he is far from innocent of wrongdoing himself. This made it hard for me to feel much sympathy for him.
However, if you can get past that, the book certainly makes for a fast-paced and exciting page-turner. Also, that cover is spectacular, isn’t it? Makes me think of Ghost in the Shell a little.
Books require a higher level of investment from the audience than, say, movies do. As readers, we have to do some of the work of imagining things for ourselves. I think it’s accurate to say that while you and I may read the same book, we don’t necessarily read the same story. Your way of envisioning it will not quite match mine, much the way a computer program may be handled differently by different compilers.
This subjectivity is a key element of the written word as a medium for fiction. A really good book takes full advantage of this curious feature, inviting the reader to use their imagination to fill in details, or even to come up with their own interpretations of the entire story.
Fatal Rounds is just such a book. The central character, Liza Larkin, is a pathology resident at a hospital in Massachusetts. She has chosen the hospital specifically because she has become suspicious of one of the hospital’s surgeons, Dr. Donovan, who attended her father’s funeral, much to the horror of Liza’s schizophrenic mother.
Liza’s obsessive investigation of Dr. Donovan brings her into possession of evidence that implicates him in a number of deaths. Her highly atypical mind gives her an unusual ability to concentrate on her goal, and she becomes fixated on bringing Donovan to justice.
That’s the basic plot of the book. But the real meat of Fatal Rounds is in subtle details and ambiguities. It’s not so much about what happens as it is the reader’s interpretation of what happens. That’s why I don’t want to talk too much about specifics; lest I color your reading of the book with my own views.
No joke, this book reminded me of one of my favorite works of fiction of all time, “The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers. If you’ve read that story, you probably can see what I mean. If you haven’t… well, let’s just say Fatal Rounds is a great demonstration of the philosophy of fiction that I acquired from reading “Repairer of Reputations.”
This book is a great medical thriller, but more than that, it’s just a flat-out great story, and I highly recommend it to anyone, even if medical thrillers aren’t a genre you typically read. It gives you some things to chew on long after you close the book.
Another fast-paced thriller from Geoffrey Cooper, the fifth in the series. This time Brad Parker and Karen Richmond are drawn into investigating a sex trafficking ring with connections to a major medical institute.
Strictly speaking, you can read this book without reading any of the previous Brad and Karen books. But, unlike the others, I have to say I think you shouldn’t. The way the characters develop is an important element of this book. So, I don’t think it’s possible to fully enjoy this story without already being familiar with the dynamic between the two leads.
And Brad and Karen really are likable characters. It’s always a pleasure to open a new book in the series, because they are an excellent team, besides being a cute couple romantically. <Insert “name a more iconic duo” meme.>
And so if you have read the other books in the series, you’ll be glad to know that this one is just as enjoyable as the rest. I highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys thrillers. It’s action-packed and interesting. Check it out if you haven’t done so already.
This is a dark paranormal thriller. I don’t want to say too much about the plot. Just think Rosemary’s Baby meets The X-Files. It tells the story of Moire Anders, a woman who finds herself waking up in the middle of the night in the park, with no memory of how she got there. Eventually, trying to figure out what is happening leads her to uncovering a sinister conspiracy, of which she is the primary target.
Anyone who enjoys a good, creepy mystery will probably like this. There are some pretty disturbing elements, which I can’t discuss too deeply without giving away plot elements, but if you’re accustomed to stories like those I mentioned above, you probably can guess what’s coming.
In other words, this is definitely a departure in tone from Painter’s other books, which tend to be light-hearted fantasies. It’s a significant enough difference that the ebook is only available via the author’s Payhip website, and not on other sites that recommend through algorithms. (A paperback version is available through Amazon.)
I understand this decision, from the author’s perspective. One doesn’t want readers who are used to magical comedies seeing a book by the same author and being unwittingly plunged into a world of sinister scientists conducting fiendish experiments on unsuspecting and unwilling people.
At the same time, though… this is something about the modern entertainment market that bothers me. It rewards taking the safe path, putting out similar stories again and again, rather than risk-taking. Painter has decided to boldly experiment in her fiction, but the market is against her.
Therefore, we will just have to adjust the market and change the incentives. So! If you like eerie, mysterious thrillers with some strong horror elements, and in particular if you enjoyed X-Files (or better yet, the old Coast-to-Coast AM radio show), give this a spin. A quirky comedy, it most certainly ain’t, but it’s a good, creepy story all the same.
This is a military action-thriller novella. It follows a young woman named Keira Frost who, after escaping from an abusive step-father and living homeless in Chicago, eventually joins the U.S. Army and applies to serve in an elite CIA unit.
Keira’s backstory is told gradually through flashbacks, interspersed with the main plot arc which follows her first mission with the unit and its overbearing leader, Ryan Drake, who seems to relish every opportunity to berate and belittle his team’s newest member.
The story itself is rather interesting, as the premise is that the team is on a mission into the Chernobyl site in Ukraine, in order to extract a spy planted among Ukrainian separatist forces, who is warning of a Russian plot to seize Eastern Ukraine. (This book was published in 2018.)
But, things are not quite what they seem. (They never are in thrillers, though, are they?) And what seemed to be a straightforward mission turns out to be anything but.
I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s a quick read and a pretty good story, although I suspect the ending will prove to be divisive. Some readers might not be able to suspend disbelief enough to accept the dénouement. Others may find it ingenious. I can see arguments for both.
All told, it’s nothing ground-breaking, but if you enjoy fast-paced military thrillers, this one will certainly fit the bill.
Another excellent entry in the Brad Parker and Karen Richmond series of medical thrillers. (See my other reviews here, here, and here.) This one begins with a post-doctoral researcher receiving a note at her late uncle’s funeral, which contains shocking information from the deceased. But before she can act on it, she is murdered, and the note taken from her.
From there, it’s up to Brad and Karen to once again unravel a tangled web, and they gradually find a scandal that goes back decades, and that someone will stop at nothing to keep buried.
As in previous books, Brad and Karen are likable protagonists, and this book gives us a chance to see new aspects of them. There’s one scene where Brad is forced to use a gun to defend himself and Karen. It’s something that does not come easily to a lifelong academic, and I really liked how this haunts him afterwards.
And as always in this series, there are a lot of glimpses into the struggles for power at the uppermost levels of academia. The allure of prestige and power that comes with academic achievement are always in play, and some people are driven to desperate acts by them. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but there is a bit where, to help finally crack the case, Brad’s knowledge of how a scientist would think proves to be key. I really liked that.
I highly recommend this book, and the series as a whole. Besides being extremely entertaining thrillers, they also have a theme running through them about corrupting influences that even some of the best and brightest people can succumb to if they’re not careful.
Oh, and one other thing… the food in this book! Cooper’s descriptions of the delicious New England fare that Brad and Karen dine on while they’re working never fail to get my mouth watering. 🙂
This is the third book in the Benjamin Oris series. I’ve reviewed the previous installments here and here. If you haven’t read those books yet, be warned that there are certain plot elements of this I can’t discuss without giving away information about the earlier books.
The Bone Elixir begins when Ben Oris learns he has inherited a hotel from his great aunt Clara. Ben, who has his hands full with raising his son and working as an orthopedic surgeon, hardly needs this; but over his holiday break, he decides to go check the place out.
The Abigael Inn is a venerable old building in western Massachusetts. As it’s closed for the season, initially the only people there are Ben, the hotel manager Mandy, and her young son, Jake. But as Ben makes the rounds of his new property, he begins to find things like hidden rooms, containing very old books of unsettling legends and fairy tales. Among these are handwritten notes and demonic drawings. There is also a mysterious room in the basement that adds to the feeling of unease.
Soon, Ben’s grandparents, Frederick and Elizabeth “El” Claxwell arrive. They are a charming couple, and delighted to meet their grandson, from whom they had been long separated due to their estrangement with Ben’s mother, Harmony. Despite Ben’s reluctance, they encourage him to keep the hotel in the family.
And Ben finds part of himself wanting to as well, since it’s certainly a picturesque old place, and once his lover Laurette arrives to spend the week with him, it becomes in many respects very pleasant.
Still, there are odd things. People in the nearby town regard the place with suspicion, particularly a local bookshop owner and the town mystic. The latter is an eccentric woman mockingly dubbed “Ana Bananas,” but nevertheless her warnings about the hotel set Ben on edge.
That’s the setup. From there, let me just say it’s a good old-fashioned Gothic horror story, full of family secrets, ghosts, long-concealed crimes, and nightmarish horrors from realms unknown and unknowable. In the tradition of any good haunted house story, it’s slower paced than the first two books, which moved at breakneck speed. This one is more of a gnawing dread that gradually builds to a crescendo.
It’s probably just because of my love for Gothic horror, but this is definitely my favorite book in the series. It reminded me of some of the best Lovecraft stories, particularly “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” It’s creepy and atmospheric and full of good lines. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Rubin has a Chandleresque gift for turning a phrase. For example: “His new role as her boss fit about as well as Spanx on a horse.” Now isn’t that a vivid image?
I recommend the entire Ben Oris series, and this book is a perfect capstone to it. That said, you don’t have to read the whole series to enjoy this one, I don’t think. Or maybe that’s just because we’re so close to October 31st, and this, in my opinion, is such a perfect Halloween read, I think everyone should give it a try. I read it in one day, because I couldn’t put it down once I started. So, if you get it at the time this post is published and your schedule allows, you should be able to finish by Halloween, and if you do, I think you’ll be in the right mood for the holiday.
This is a fast-paced thriller. It starts out as a police procedural muder mystery set in the near future, when technology has begun to dominate our lives even more than it does today; a world where the sky is thick with drones and almost all cars are operated by AI.
Officer Dan Harper and his partner Domingo “Dom” Delgado are investigating a body found at an abandoned quarry. Despite all their high-tech police gadgetry, they are unable to ID the victim, even with the help of Dan’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Natasha Hendrickson, a forensic pathologist.
Returning to the crime scene, Dan and Dom find themselves in a shootout with a gang of mysterious thugs who seem to appear out of nowhere. After sustaining injuries in the fight, the two officers are sent to the hospital. However, another attack, this time by a huge drone gunship, makes them realize that they have stumbled on to something big.
From there begins a globe-trotting adventure in which the two officers flee from their mysterious pursuers while trying to figure out who is behind it all. Gradually, they uncover an incredible conspiracy and a powerful technology that is controlled by power-hungry maniacs.
The book is gripping and suspenseful. I won’t give away too much about the technology, but let’s just say that the nature of it means nowhere is truly safe. The action scenes are frequent and thrilling, but there is also plenty of time for character development, especially when Dan and Natasha are forced to work together again.
Lurking underneath all the shootouts and chases, though, is a thought-provoking take on how technology changes us, and changes society. The surveillance state it has created, the way we’ve become dependent upon it for almsot everything, and most of all how its unforeseen consequences can shape our very minds. This is a thriller that leaves you with things to ponder after you close the book.
In summary, it’s really, really good. The blending of old-fashioned police work with advanced technology reminded me of one of my favorite mystery novels, Surreality, and the plot is full of twists and turns. It’s a longish book, but I quickly found I couldn’t put it down. It mixes philosophical musings on scientific ethics with pulse-pounding action very nicely.
Pick it up. Heck, maybe even go ahead and get the paperback version… you’ll understand why after you read it. 🙂
Gorman has also written a novel, American Chimera. I am reviewing it here, and you will note I am doing it in a slightly different style–that is, I am following the typical format Gorman uses for reviews. I’m doing this partly for fun and partly as a respectful tribute to what is quickly becoming a favorite book review site. If the author happens to read this, I want to make it clear that this is intended purely in the spirit of an homage from a fan.
On to the book itself.
Author: H.R.R. Gorman
Available for free at the author’s blog here.
And before we even dive in to the story, I have to pause to talk about the cover. What a masterful piece this! You know, perhaps, that I love yellow/gold on book covers, and combined with the lovely Art Deco aesthetic, it made me instantly interested. That this is a science-fiction book set in the future makes me like the retro-futuristic touch all the more. For that alone, this belongs to the canon of what I call early 21st-century techno-decadent art.
American Chimera is set in 2087 in the aftermath of a horrific war. It combines the elements of multiple genres, including sci-fi, horror, political thriller and a healthy dose of dark comedy. It is also told in an unusual style–much of the story comes in the form of the testimony from prisoners held at a secure government facility, relating their own perspectives on what happened as a result of a remarkable discovery a couple of them made one day.
Like all dystopian sci-fi, American Chimera uses its surreal premise to explore political and philosophical issues. There are dark themes woven throughout the story: prejudice, militarism, religion, climate change and more are all addressed in these pages. Most prominent of all are the ethics of experimentation on living beings: the central premise of the story has to do with bio-engineered super soldiers, in a world where populations are already suppressed through forced sterilizations. This book takes the reader to some dark, dark places.
But it’s never done in a heavy-handed way. The characters in this book, (with one minor exception) all feel like real people. Even the ones who appear at first impossible to relate to–from the seemingly-soulless government interrogator to the central character, who is the product of a perverse experiment–all become human and relatable as they tell their stories. At times, the book has a Rashomon-like quality, as the same events are told from different perspectives, revealing different facets and details.
The plot moves along nicely and comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. There were a few sub-plots I wished could have been tied up more neatly, mostly because I loved the characters so much I wanted to hear more about what happened to them, but nevertheless, the overall story comes to a definite resolution.
Ah, now this is a feature of Gorman’s reviews that I don’t use: a numeric rating system. It would be a step too far to appropriate Gorman’s Discoball Snowcone scale. There’s a fine line between paying admiring homage and shameless copycattery, but that would cross it.
And yet… the form does demand a number be assigned, even though that’s not my usual style on this blog. I struggle to reduce my feelings for a book to quantitative terms. I would give both The King in Yellow and Right Ho, Jeeves five out of five stars or whatever, and yet this does not imply that I think anyone who enjoys the one would necessarily enjoy the other.
Besides, is there any such thing as a perfect book (5/5), or a perfectly imperfect book (0/5)? I had a few minor quibbles with American Chimera (see below)–what implications should that hold for its numerical score? While every single element in the book might not be exactly what I’d choose, the overall impression is of a magisterial, brilliant, thrilling and surprisingly poignant work of genius that quickly proved impossible to put down. What score, exactly, reflects that?
Enough of this navel-gazing! “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius said. As a special, one-night-only event–my rating, in classically Gambrellian terms:
The story begins with two poor rural people discovering a mysterious egg that has fallen out of the back of a truck. The couple, Brett and Janie, are under the influence of some mind-altering substances, and suppose that what they’ve found is a dragon’s egg. However, it soon hatches, revealing not a dragon, but a gigantic spider–a spider that wails like a human baby.
Desperate for help, they take the creature to the local vet, who, against her better judgment, helps them treat the being they ultimately name Daenerys–Dani, for short.
Dani soon makes it clear that she has the mind of a human girl trapped inside the body of a spider. Brett and Janie do their best to raise her by painstakingly convincing the local community of her friendliness. It helps that Dani is a sweet, good-natured soul–but even that doesn’t win over everyone, such as the local preacher.
All this is told through the framing device of a government interrogator, bringing each of the witnesses in for questioning at a remote government prison in Nevada. Brett, Janie, the veterinarian, the preacher, Dani’s best friend Stacy and more are all questioned about how this remarkable series of events occurred.
It’s a critical problem, because the United States has recently emerged from a war known as the Chimera War, in which North Korea created monstrous ape-like chimera super soldiers. The war ended with a treaty banning such abominations, but of course–as always happens–governments carried out such research anyway. After all, there could always be a “chimera gap.” However, if such research became widely known, it would inevitably spark another war.
What stuck out to me most is how real the characters are. Everyone feels so believable and so interesting. And, with a few exceptions, most of them are basically good people. Sometimes they do awful things, but it feels like they are doing them because this monstrous system they are in forces them to do it.
The best illustration I can think of is a scene where Stacy’s aunt Jen is returning home from the war. Stacy and Dani have gone to greet her, but when Jen sees the spider-girl, she is horrified; knowing it’s a chimera, and realizing that after all she suffered, all her comrades died for, their own government has cynically betrayed everything they thought they were fighting for.
What’s astonishing about this part is how you can empathize with both sides–Dani, who is after all just a normal person trapped in a fiendish form, feels bad that she’s perceived as a monster. And yet it makes sense Jen would react the way she does.
All the characters are like this, leading to a world that feels incredibly well-realized and believable.
Well, I should say almost all the characters. There’s one fairly minor character, a football player at Dani and Stacy’s high school, who is kind of flat.
I understand why he’s in the story, because on his own, he’s quite funny in a sad sort of way. He’s a completely self-absorbed narcissist who can’t even manage to reveal useful information when subjected to interrogation, simply because he’s so oblivious to anything outside himself. And there’s no question, many of his lines are grimly amusing.
It’s just that he feels like a caricature. An entertaining caricature, to be sure, but in a book otherwise populated by real people, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
That’s one of two minor criticisms. The other is that the ending–while extremely effective and generally satisfying–felt a little bit rushed and didn’t tie-up all the other characters’ arcs as much as I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not like this doesn’t come to a satisfying end, because it absolutely does, but, because all the characters were so good, I would have liked to hear more from them. But maybe that would be true no matter how long the book was.
It’s funny–I’ve written quite a bit here, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that makes this book so interesting. There are so many layers, I feel like I could write a whole review focusing on just one aspect of it. So many deep themes, so little time.
It’s a dark, disturbing and violent book. Not for the faint of heart, as the disclaimer at the beginning makes clear. And yet, at the same time, I think everyone should give it a try. This is one of those supremely strange but incredibly good books you find sometimes, like The Master and Margarita or Hyperlink from Hell. Above all, don’t be put off just because one character is a giant spider. I am a card-carrying arachnophobe myself, but even I ended up rooting for Dani.
And the book is free to read on the author’s blog! Let me repeat: free! Can anyone doubt the sheer love of writing an author must have, to weave such a magnificent tale and put it out into the world for free? Oh, read it already, my friends! For this is the art of storytelling in its purest form, and should not go unrecognized. If you like sci-fi, or dystopias, or horror, or political thrillers, or just plain good fiction, please read American Chimera.