waiting-for-earl-to-dieI’ve been following Lydia’s blog for some time now, but I just recently read this entertaining collection of her short stories. Most of the stories have some science-fiction or fantasy element to them, and usually involve some unexpected twist or surprise ending. I won’t write about any one of the stories in too much detail, because I don’t want to spoil them.

My favorite story is the one entitled “Proof”. I don’t think it’s giving away anything to say that I had no idea where it was going or even really what type of story it was until I read the very last line, and then it all clicked into place, and I laughed at how well I had been set up.

Most of the tales in the collection are like that. Some of them seem like fragments of a larger story, still waiting to be fleshed out, because each has a thought-provoking premise.

The collection is small, and takes only about an hour to read. Some readers might be disappointed at the short length, but given that it’s available for free on Kobo, there’s really no excuse for not getting it if you’re a fan of short stories with a touch of irony to them. It’s a quick and fun read, and it left me eager for more of Lydia’s fiction.

Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

51lvbVGJfzLThe Seneca Scourge is a medical thriller with science-fiction elements.  It follows Dr. Sydney McKnight as she finds herself in the midst of a seemingly incurable influenza pandemic. Aiding the staff at her hospital is the mysterious Dr. Casper Jones. As the pandemic spreads, Dr. McKnight notices Dr. Jones behaving oddly.

As she investigates in between treating the ever-growing patient population, Dr. McKnight gradually uncovers the shocking truth about Dr. Jones.

That’s the spoiler-free synopsis. If you don’t want to know the plot twist, don’t read after the asterisks below. My spoiler-free review is that it is a very well-paced thriller that successfully combines fairly plausible depictions of medicine and viruses in the first half with science-fiction elements in the second half. If you like either medical thrillers or science-fiction (and especially if you like both) I recommend it highly.

Now, if you want to know more detail, with spoilers, read on.

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Surreality is a “hardboiled” murder mystery with a modern twist: much of the mystery takes place in the eponymous virtual online world.

Suspended Columbus Police Detective Keenan is tasked with investigating the virtual murder of Franklin Haines, one of the creators of the online game “Surreality” at the opening of his new virtual casino. You might think virtual murder isn’t such a big deal, except it also entails the loss of millions of real dollars.

Keenan, suspended for shooting and killing a murderer in an alley months before, is assigned to create an avatar in the world of “Surreality” and investigate the case. As he does so, he meets a variety of strange characters, including one expert hacker whose avatar in the virtual world is a penguin. He also encounters virtual thieves, thugs, prostitutes and other staples of noir detective fiction; all of whom practice their unsavory professions freely in the “pretend” online world.

But soon, the effects of the game world begin to spill over into reality; occasionally in lethal fashion. As Keenan moves back and forth between investigating virtual crimes and real ones that are bound up with it, he also begins to deal with his own demons.

I won’t spoil the whole mystery by summarizing the plot. It is complex and twisting, but not confusingly so. It is very much in the hardboiled detective story tradition, and competently done. I was able to figure out who the perpetrator was going to be a little before it was revealed, but it was an effective story even so.

While the dialogue is very snappy and never boring, even when explaining highly technical matters, the characters (especially Keenan’s friend and fellow officer Caliente) do tend to engage in snarky banter even in the most intense situations. I did not like that. In my opinion, professional police tend to be very terse and clipped when speaking while in action-they want to waste as little time as possible.

A related issue is that at times the mood of the story shifts too abruptly. It goes from witty wisecracks to investigating a homicide scene back to wisecracks again. The “serious” moments sometimes did not last long enough to work. My recommendation would be to have the story begin with the light mood, and steadily grow darker. The characters can start off bantering, and then become more intense to show that things are getting serious. (The neo-noir mystery film Chinatown follows this model.)

In spite of these issues, Surreality is a very strong, well-paced book. By mixing 1930s mystery tropes with a high-tech cyber setting, it creates a delightful atmosphere that reminded me of the “familiar-yet-alien” vibe of books like The King in Yellow or the game Deus Ex, which I love. There were many times when I would read something and think “I wish I’d written that!”

It also did not hurt that the book is set in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and much of the “real world” action takes place in areas I have often been to myself. Author Ben Trube is a graduate of the Ohio State University, as am I, and some of the scenes are set on OSU’s sprawling campus. Having seen much of it firsthand, I can say that Mr. Trube has a knack for describing buildings and scenery that I wish I possessed.

But even if you have never been to Ohio, you will enjoy this book if you like crime thrillers, or cleverly constructed plots in general.  I highly recommend it.