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. 🙂

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is military sci-fi blended with horror. It has a bit of Starship Troopers, a bit of Doom, a bit of Aliens, and is altogether an intense experience. It’s a short story, only about a 20 minute read, but is it ever action-packed.

The main character is Lyn, a mercenary who is part of a team trying to evacuate colonists from the titular planet. The planet has come under attack by creatures known as “Clickers”. Demonic, sadistic entites that are also very difficult to kill, they leave death and devestation in their wake.

Lyn tries her best to rescue as many colonists as she can, but the fight is hopeless, and soon, becomes a struggle just to survive. Lyn does, but at a heavy price. And eventually, it becomes clear the Clickers are not her only enemy.

The book is fast-paced, dark, and brutal. There are no happy endings here; more of a grim kind of satisfaction. It’s creepy, violent, and dark. Everything a good sci-fi horror story should be, in other words.

This is a sequel to the original Universal Dracula film from 1931. It stars Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular vampire, although he is going by the name Alucard to avoid arousing suspicion. (There is a reason for this in vampire lore, but as a disguise it’s barely better than “Mr. Hilter.”) He is invited to New Orleans by a Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. Soon after his arrival, her father mysteriously dies, leaving his estate to Katherine and her sister Claire. (Evelyn Ankers)

Katherine’s boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) is alarmed at her strange behavior, and enraged when he learns she has married Alucard in secret. He tries to shoot Alucard, but hits Katherine instead when the bullets go through his target. He flees in terror and grief, but after he confesses to the crime, returns to the estate with the police to find Katherine still apparently alive.

I say “apparently,” and I think you probably know why I said “apparently.” I’ll spare you the description of the part where they consult vampire experts to work it all out, and skip right to the bit where Katherine confesses to Frank that she truly loves him, and only wanted to obtain immortality. She asks Frank to join her as a vampire, and tells him how to destroy “Alucard” by burning his coffin.

However, Frank is not the type to be tempted by the dark powers. He is much more of a Frodo than a Boromir, and so he does the only thing his conscience will allow: burns both Alucard and Katherine’s coffins. The film ends with him staring solemnly at the flames.

How much darker is this than your typical old monster movie? Usually the good guys kill the monster and save the damsel at the end. Not here, though. I remember the first time I saw it (on television, late one Halloween) I was stunned at the bleak ending.

Also, the New Orleans setting works really well. The scene where Katherine meets Alucard one night on a swampy river is a particularly eerie one.

Speaking of Katherine, I really liked her character. She’s clearly an intelligent woman, seduced not so much by Dracula’s charms, which are minimal, but by the prospect of eternal life. It’s a classic trope, but it’s a classic because it works.

And here we get to the implicit “moral” built into the vampire legend. The vampire is a human which has obtained immortality, but at the price of their soul. The implication is that mortality is the burden we must bear, and seeking to subvert it, particularly at the cost of others’ lives, is an unnatural perversion. The vampire is fundamentally parasitic, since it can only live by consuming the blood of mortals.

So, bottom line: don’t trade your soul for immortality! It may sound like a good idea, but trust us; it isn’t. This is the fundamental theme of a huge amount of fiction. And so, this is obviously what makes the vampire myth so effective.

Thanks for your time, fellow horror fans, but I think we’ve pretty much cleared this one up easily. I’ll just show myself out.

<Columbo voice> Oh, uh, there is one more thing. How do you know if you’re trading your soul? Come to that, how did this Count, uh, Alucard did you say? How did he get the idea to trade his soul in the first place? Was he the first vampire? If so, how did he do it? If not, who was the first vampire? </End>

I’m asking these questions as a study of the literature, of course. But also as a student of history–what inspired this myth to begin with? Do we know? The story of Dracula is obviously iconic. But where did it come from? And why?

More questions than answers, I’m afraid. Our work is not done, but take heart; I feel sure that we are hot on the trail.

If you described this book to me, I’d have said it sounded too clichĂ©d. A mysterious monster killing people all over Whitechapel, and a private detective hired to track it down? It all sounds too much like a mashup of Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula for me.

But Lydia Schoch recommended it, and I trust Lydia. And my trust was vindicated, because this turned out to be a very fun Halloween season short story. It is very short, taking only about 20 minutes to read, but in that short space the author created a whole satisfying plot arc that largely makes sense. Well, almost. There was one thing that didn’t make sense to me. But I can’t get too much into it without spoiling the book. However, it was a minor plot element that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

The Victorian atmosphere is well done and the characters are engaging. It’s true, it doesn’t break any new ground, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a good, solid monster story competently told, and that’s what this is.

Dark Magic is a novella about two groups of magicians: the “Maestros of Magic” and “The Carnival of Conjurors.” The latter begins making a sensation with some truly spectacular performances that seem unbelievable to the Maestros, who investigate and eventually discover that the secret of the Conjurors is in fact real black magic.

What follows is a series of daring episodes of theatrical sabotage, as the Maestros try to thwart their rivals. It’s fast paced and exciting, although still with a few moments to catch your breath and learn something about the characters, all of whom are quite well-drawn, considering how short the book is.

If I have a quibble with the book, it’s that it seemed like the Maestros were a little too willing, too quickly, to jump to some rather dramatic conclusions about the Conjurors. Yes, they turn out to be correct, but even so, it seemed a tad rushed. 

That’s a minor point, though. Overall, this is a very fun story with an absolutely perfect ending. I half-guessed it before it was revealed, but even so, it worked quite well. I know I say this about a lot of things, but if you like Twilight Zone type stories, you’ll love this.

I like magic shows and supernatural mysteries, so in that regard, this book was perfect for me. There are a few ways in which it was not perfect for me, however:

  • I’ll try to say it without spoiling anything, but there are a few references to women meeting violent ends.  Nothing particularly graphic, but most readers know that I’m always uncomfortable with female victims as the hook for mystery stories. Give me Stephen Leacock’s “body of an elderly gentleman, upside down, but otherwise entirely dressed” as the victim and I’m much more comfortable. But again, I want to be clear this is not a criticism of the book, by any stretch.
  • One of the characters suffers from extreme arachnophobia, and this is a major plot point. I’m not quite at the “extreme” stage–I can look at a spider without screaming and running away–but I don’t like them. If the Thought Police ever took me to Room 101, there would certainly be spiders in place of rats. So, reading about them can be a little creepy, although I could really empathize with the character who feared them.
  • I also am mildly claustrophobic. Mostly, this relates to elevators and an irrational fear I have of being stuck in one. And once again, this book includes a scene with a claustrophobic character who is trapped for some time in a confined space. 
  • Finally, I know I have at least one reader who is not a fan of chainsaws, and there’s one critical scene involving a mishap with one of those. 

To be clear, I’m in no way objecting to these things being in the book. Rather, I’m complimenting the book, because it’s such a good story I kept reading despite these things, and found it to be quite a satisfying story overall. 

The book description says the author is familiar with the world of stage magic, and that certainly seems to be the case–the descriptions of the life of a touring magic show feel very authentic. 

This is a perfect read for the Halloween season–creepy, weird, and tinged with dark humor. 

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a deeply strange book. It is set in an alternate future in which the Roman Empire still exists, and has evolved into a starfaring civilization. There is also a strong mystical element involving something called the Godstream, which is evidently some powerful, magical energy which grants great power.

And of course, as in the original Roman Empire, there are political machinations aplenty as various noblemen and women scheme for power. There are betrayals heaped upon betrayals, and ever-shifting alliances.

The first half of the book I admit was pretty dense, with lots of world-building I found hard to understand. It may just be my own literal mindedness; but I initially struggled to form a clear picture of what was happening. I did get strong Dune vibes, though, which is on balance a good thing. (Maybe with the exception of imitating Frank Herbert’s technique of frequent italicized thoughts to deliver exposition. But hey, if it worked for Herbert, it can’t be all bad.)

The second half of the book turned into more of a classic adventure type story. If not for the occasional references to philosophy and mysticism, I practically would have thought I was reading a Henry Vogel novel. There is a brave hero fleeing from two competing groups of villains, a beautiful slave woman he rescues in the process, and a wild battle in a gladiatorial arena.

This gladiator scene was the highlight of the book for me. The star is the gladiator Deimos. It’s the only chapter he’s in out of the entire book, but he has a complete story arc in that one chapter.

After that, there’s more mysticism, although it seems less esoteric this time, and more intrigue, back-stabbing, and a final battle. The ending feels satisfying, even though there were still some things I didn’t fully grok.

What to make of this book? Well, at times it was heavy-going. Partly, that’s because of all the Latin terms the author uses to create the setting. I liked this, but at the same time, it made it hard to keep track of who was who. Those more familiar with Roman naming customs may not find this to be a problem.

Then there’s also the mysticism element. I think the author was trying to make a point about philosophy, or maybe even about the nature of divinity, but I admit I couldn’t tell what it was. Again, that might be indicative of my own lack of understanding rather than a problem with the book.

Overall, I found it a tough but ultimately rewarding read. If you like deep sci-fi, with some adventure elements thrown in, I think you’ll enjoy it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

There is of course a powerful recency bias that is well-documented, but offhand, this may be the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s certainly up there. Even when reading a really funny book, I rarely laugh out loud. I laughed out loud multiple times per chapter reading this.

I could try to give you a plot summary, but it just wouldn’t do justice to this madcap epic. Basically, there’s a mysterious virus that gives geese human-like intelligence and the ability to talk. This results in tensions between the world’s human and geese populations, culminating in two wars.

If this sounds insane; well, yeah, it is. But it’s a comedy! And that’s just the setup. The titular goose finder is a man named Harlan. Harlan is a gruff, hard, Clint Eastwood type of character, seeking to avenge the death of his brother in the Goose Wars by finding and killing every goose he can. He’s hired by a toaster tycoon to find (but not kill) one specific goose.

It just gets wilder from there. There’s a mad scientist building a time machine, a desert sorcerer, an old sea captain, a ruthless goose general, a couple of infatuated hackers… the list goes on. It’s totally crazy, and I loved every word of it. Each chapter had me laughing harder than the last.

I think humor is probably the hardest genre to recommend, because it is so dependent on personal taste. With a romance book, for example, everyone has a fairly similar general idea of what a romance should be like, and so even if it’s not to their taste, they still can tell what it was supposed to be. But with humor, you either think it’s funny or you don’t. If you don’t, then you’re just going to be like, “What the hell did I just read?”

But it’s a chance worth taking. Not everyone is going to get it, but the people who do get it are going to love it. This book was recommended to me by Noah Goats himself, a master of comic novels, and I’m so glad he told me about it. It’s an absolute hoot.

I try not to quote too much from the books I review, but for this one, I’m going to give you a few of my favorite lines. If you laugh at them, it probably means you need to read this.

“Some of the toughest bastards in the world had marched into City Hall to renew a fishing license only to come out deeply changed, haunted by the feeling that something had been taken from them.”

Here is one of the two besotted hackers, describing how they started dating:

“We met at an anarchy convention, which turned out to be a disaster. Horribly organized.”

Then there is one of the scientist’s speeches, which I actually found moving as well as funny:

“Why do things die? That’s just idiotic… it’s okay when bad things die, like spiders and naked mole rats, but not things like cats, dogs, or people. Especially people. People shouldn’t die, and it’s stupid that they do. It really creams my corn, I don’t mind telling you.”

Maybe none of that makes you even begin to think about the possibility of chuckling inwardly. If so, you should probably skip this. But if it makes you laugh, like me, then you should pick it up.

Underneath all the humor, there is actually a bit of a message about understanding and empathizing with those who are different. It’s not heavy-handed at all, but just a nice touch that makes the whole story feel essentially good-hearted.

A final note: there is some mild violence in the book that might be upsetting to some readers. It’s nothing graphic or explicit. It’s the literary equivalent of the violence in movies like Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of realism.

However, because this is a comedy, I feel an obligation to say something. Again, this is another thing that makes recommending a comedy tricky. One person’s hilarious joke may evoke uncomfortable memories for someone else. Unlike with, say, horror, where you can reasonably anticipate reading things that are horrific, I hate the idea of recommending a comedy to someone and having them instead find something about it upsetting, however benign it may appear to me. Particularly because it can be especially disturbing when something you take seriously is treated humorously.

This is a roundabout way of saying, if violence against geese, or gunfights, or grenades, are upsetting to you, this book might not be for you. If you want to know more about these details of the book, please feel free to email or DM me on Twitter. I’m happy to discuss.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a literary novel about a young woman named Faby who lives in Vermont in the 1920s. Faby is obsessed with vaudeville acts that come to town. Every year, she attends with her sister and relishes watching the different acts.

One performer in particular who catches her eye is a dancer called Slim White, who bills himself as “America’s Favorite Hoofer.” Faby catches his eye as well, and after a quick fling one evening, Faby becomes pregnant. White, whose real name is Louis Kittell, seems willing to do the right thing and marries her, and the newlyweds start off on a trip across the Eastern United States, as Kittell moves from one town to another performing in various shows.

Normally, what I’ll find most memorable about a book is either the plot or the characters. I’ve just described about 80% of the plot, saving one semi-twist near the end, and while it’s certainly fine, it wasn’t what grabbed me.

As for the characters: Faby starts out as a naive girl, barely more than a child, and while it’s easy to feel pity for the situation she finds herself in, she’s a very passive type. Things happen to her, rather than her doing them.

And then we’ve got Louis: he’s basically a con man. A charming con man, to be sure, (think Robert Preston in The Music Man, or Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker) but still ultimately a con man. It quickly becomes clear to Faby that he lies routinely and often for no apparent reason. Given this, many of his later actions are not really surprising. He’s not an absolutely terrible person, and he does in some sense care for Faby, but he’s far from being a good guy, and much of the book is just waiting for the inevitable in that regard.

But even though the characters weren’t the most likable folks in the world, and the plot is straightforward, I recommend this book strongly to fans of literary fiction. There are two reasons: one, the writing is just beautiful. It reminds me of Mark Paxson’s, and his mentor, Zoe Keithley’s, knack for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that really make you feel what the characters are feeling. For that reason alone, this is worth picking up.

The other reason is the setting. The author clearly spent a lot of time researching the culture, the fashions, the technology, and the slang of the 1920s, and it paid off in a big way. And I loved all the references to vaudeville. Louis may be a lying scoundrel, but I can’t deny that his little tidbits about the vaudeville life are enjoyable.

There are numerous references to many then-famous performers, including a brief mention of Elsie Janis. Janis is little-remembered today, but she was known as “The Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Force” for her benefit shows in World War I. (She also hailed from my own stomping grounds of Central Ohio.  I once lived in an apartment built more or less on the site of her Columbus home.)

As you can tell from the above, I love history, and this book is like stepping into a time machine to a bygone era. I’ve read a decent amount of historical fiction, but it’s rare to find something that transports you so completely to another era. That, combined with the wonderful prose, are what make Telling Sonny memorable.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a classic space-opera style adventure. The protagonist, a starfarer or “starfer” named Riel Dunbar finds himself with a night of leave on his homeworld of Isvalar, a world home to an active nightlife. He meets up with another starfer, an adventurous soul named Cera Marn, and is quickly swept up with the roguish Marn into one wild escapade after another.

Basically, if you’ve enjoyed the other Litka books I’ve reviewed, it’s a safe bet you’ll like this one. There are fights with gangs of thugs reminiscent of Keiree, and Marn herself reminded me more than a little of Ren Loh, the daring, often inconsiderate and rebellious noblewoman from Beneath the Lanterns. She even uses Loh’s signature line, “Pff!” when dismissing our more risk-averse protagonist’s concerns. And of course, against his better judgment, he goes along with her. I can’t blame him; I’d do the same.

At times, I found the action a little hard to follow. There are so many new worlds, characters, and technologies packed into such a short book that it made my head spin a bit. But, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the overall tale. I liked Marn a lot, and she’s really what makes this story flow. Even if she turns out to be not quite what she appeared at first, I found her an entertaining character.

This is a novella, originally published on Kindle Vella, and the ending leaves room for plenty more adventures. I wouldn’t mind spending more time in the world Litka has created here, with its inter-gang turf wars and neuro-blade fights. It’s just a good old fashioned throwback to Golden Age sci-fi.

[Audio version of this post available here.]

I ended my review of the previous book in this series with the words, “Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.” Zombie apocalypse books aren’t a genre I normally read, but the characters and writing in His Name Was Zach were strong enough to hold my attention and make me pick up the sequel.

And what a sequel it is! The foundation Martuneac laid in the first book really pays off in a number of ways in this sprawling epic. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all the details, lest I spoil both books. But, I’ll do my best to give you the flavor of it.

Our protagonist is, naturally, Abby, the teenaged girl from the first book, who is struggling to survive in the harsh wilds of the Midwest, infested by zombies and small gangs of people struggling for self-preservation with varying degrees of brutality.

For reasons which I can’t say without spoiling the previous installment, but which will be obvious if you have read it, Abby can no longer rely on Zach, the man who raised her, and has to fend for herself. Her Name Was Abby picks up right where the first book left off, with an unrelenting post-apocalyptic world, full of violence, betrayal, and in general a reversion to the anarchic condition of life that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

This nightmarish world, in which no one can be fully trusted and the worst survive while the best perish, takes a major psychological toll on Abby, whose own hands are far from clean at the end of the first part of the book.

But then, she finds her way to something approaching civilization. And this is where the book takes a turn. For a long time, I’ve wondered why this series is categorized as “dystopian.” Maybe it’s me, but I don’t consider zombie apocalypse books dystopian. (I’m not really sure why. They’re certainly not utopian!) But once Abby reaches the West, she finds an area where the government remains in control.

And when I say “in control,” I mean police-state level control. This is where the book starts to resemble what I think of as a dystopia, as the reconstituted government under President Cyrus Arthur uses patrols of an elite military unit, the DAS, to terrorize the civilian population.

In fairness, we are talking about an outbreak of zombies here. You can see it would take a firm hand to reassert control in a situation like that. As other apologists for other tyrants have said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” In the case of President Arthur, “breaking eggs” includes a naval bombardment of San Diego. (This incident is only referenced a few times in passing, but somehow I found it one of the most haunting bits of world-building lore in the entire book.)

Abby quickly joins a resistance movement, where she meets a young man close to her own age named Hiamovi, the grandson of the movement’s leader. Abby is, understandably, slow to trust, but eventually she and Hiamovi fall in love.

Unfortunately, nothing good ever seems to last for Abby, and she soon finds herself infiltrating the DAS on an undercover mission that takes her into the very highest levels of the government, and into a relationship with President Arthur’s own son, Derrick.

And that’s about as far as I can go without spoiling things. It’s too bad, because what I’ve summarized so far is just the setup for a thrilling final act, full of suspense, action, and even a remarkable love triangle. It’s really well-done, and pieces that have been hinted at going back to the first book start to fall satisfyingly into place.

For instance: if, like me, you were wondering how the government was managing to keep firm control of the Western half of the country while the East collapses into zombie-barbarism; that question is answered quite clearly in the later parts of this book.

To recap: the first quarter of the book is pure survival-horror, brimming with relentless violence and a constant sense that Abby is living on a razor’s edge, kept alive by a combination of sheer luck and an ever-increasing willingness to betray her own moral code for the chance to see another sunrise.

Then the book transforms, fairly smoothly, from a zombie-horror book to more of a spy thriller. Spy thrillers are more my usual fare, so for me, this was a pleasant surprise.

So, would I say the book is a zombie book with some spy thriller elements, or a spy thriller with some zombie elements?

Answer: it’s neither.

Her Name Was Abby has another facet to it beyond the zombies and the cool high-tech espionage. It’s actually a surprisingly deep psychological portrait of Abby. More specifically, of how Abby tries to cope with all the horrific trauma she’s experienced from a young age.

Now, I get it: almost all thrillers have a Protagonist With A Dark Past™. Many, many books have a flawed anti-hero who is running from some kind of horrible event that has left a scar on their psyche. And it almost always feels forced and fake to me.

But Abby’s feels genuine. I can’t really explain it. Somehow, though, Martuneac conveys her mental state in a way that seems real. Her PTSD flashbacks are vivid, and the way she struggles with feelings of depression, rage, doubt, and guilt are all viscerally powerful.

Abby’s journey is a moving one, and whereas in the previous book she relied heavily on Zach to save her, in this one, she has no one else to turn to. As one character, one of my favorites in the book, says, “If your life is going to be saved, it must be you who does the saving.”

The book has many good lines, but I can’t quote most of them because they would also spoil important plot developments. In general, let me just say that Martuneac’s style of writing is very interesting to me. I do think most modern fiction critics would argue it relies too much on “telling” rather than “showing” and we all know the standard rule about that.

However, I’ve never been completely onboard with this rule. (Yeah, yeah; if you watch the Writers Supporting Writers videos, I’m sure you’re just shocked by this.) I know what people mean when they say it, but at best, it’s badly phrased. Because all fiction is actually telling, never showing. The art is in making people feel like you’re showing them something.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying Martuneac tends to use what I think of as an older style of narration that is often detached from the immediate thoughts of the characters. Some people might not like this approach, but personally, I found it kind of refreshing. There is such a thing as too much immediacy, and I feel like a lot of modern fiction has it. Probably because most writers have had the “show, don’t tell” rule drilled into them.

This is a really good story, and one that should have broad appeal. While I do think it’s better to read the series in order, I will say that if you like thrillers but are positively allergic to the zombie genre, you could start by reading this book without reading His Name Was Zach. That’s what H.R.R. Gorman did, and if it’s good enough for Gorman, it’s good enough for me.

And one more thing about Zach. Despite the fact he’s not in this one, his presence still can be felt throughout this book. Like Abby, I often found myself wondering what Zach would think of this or that. I’m always impressed when a character looms large even when not actually “in” the story as such.

I’d like to say a lot more about this book, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll want to check it out, and after you’ve read it, you can come back here and discuss it in detail.

[Audio version of this post available below]