Summer's OverI’ve had this book on my TBR list for some time, but it was Lydia Schoch’s review that motivated me to read it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long—this is a fantastic collection of creepy short stories centered around California amusement parks.

Let me give you an idea of the strange and disturbing worlds the book presents: There are cultists who ride roller coasters. There’s a creepy family of Disney fanatics trailing people around Disneyland. (I may be in the minority here, but I think almost everything about Disney is creepy anyway, so this seemed quite plausible.) A trip to Knott’s Berry Farm and an attraction that transports visitors into an apocalyptic nightmare. A young man whose father takes him to a mysterious section of Seaworld with a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour. And finally, an opening day at Universal Studios that takes immersion in the world of movies to an extreme.

All the stories are short and engaging, with narrators who are instantly interesting and relatable. There is a smattering of typos, but nothing that obscured the meaning or detracted from the story.   

These are exactly the kind of short horror tales I enjoy: weird, mysterious, eerie and—with the exception of the Universal Studios one—not too gory. Think The Twilight Zone and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. While the stories are short, I felt each one gave me a good sense of who the characters were, while leaving a bit of a mystery to ponder as well.

Highly recommended for fans of weird fiction. And now is the perfect time to read it!

Spellbound SpindleThis fantasy novel begins with a group of magical beings known as “gem elves,” who are betrayed by one of their own, Marlis, who has become a servant of a dark goddess named Gadreena. 

Marlis slays one of the elves, and flees into the mortal world. There, she curses a child. The curse mandates that the child will fall into an endless sleep once they turn 16 years of age and touch an accursed spindle. 

The gem elves provide help to the family that raises the child, but they are unable to track down Marlis, whom they cannot sense in the mortal world. Eventually, sixteen years later, the gem elves and the mortal families are again drawn into conflict with Marlis, who has been hiding in another kingdom, and seducing their king with her dark magic.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, partly because so often it’s very slow-going. Refreshingly, this book, like Spicer’s other novels, moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t bog down. There are perhaps some elements that could have been more fleshed-out, and there is a rather large cast of characters. As Lydia Schoch noted in her review, it’s helpful to make notes of all the characters to keep track.

As with Spicer’s other books, I appreciate the sparse descriptions that allow the reader to imagine the world for themselves. 

My favorite parts were the chapters about Marlis who, though undeniably evil, isn’t simply a cardboard villain, but shows flashes of real emotion that make her understandable, if not exactly sympathetic.

This is a fun read, filled with references to mythology and legend, as well as some good old-fashioned sword and sorcery in the climactic showdown. A good book for anyone who enjoys fantasy.

Thank you so much for reading The Lurge Robot Factory Adventure. It was a ton of fun to write, and posting it in this chapter-a-week format seemed to work out well.

This is the first time I’ve written a detective story, and I’ll level with you: it was nerve-wracking for me posting it piecemeal. Every week, especially towards the end, I was thinking, “Oh no, what if people hate this next bit?” On the plus side, there was a plot hole that I thought of in early August, which I was able to address before the last chapter went up. In mysteries, especially, one  mistake by the author can ruin the whole thing.

To my great relief, people seem to have enjoyed how the story ended up. I posted the whole thing on one page, with a hyperlinked table of contents, here. There was an issue with the chapter menu I’d created with the blog posts–it didn’t sort the chapters properly, because apparently the algorithm puts “Chapter 10” between “Chapter 1” and “Chapter 2”. It looked silly, so I figured I’d better come up with a more convenient way to read it. I will also look into publishing it on KDP and/or Smashwords at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Once again, thank you all for reading and sharing the story on social media. You are, as always, the best!


HuralonI hardly know where to begin with this review. There’s so much I love about this book, from its well thought-out and detailed futuristic world-building, to its treatment of how the history of present-day Earth is reconstructed in the distant future, to the way it blends political intrigue, action, romance and just a dash of humor into an effective story.

The novel follows the crew of ESS Springbok, a powerful military spaceship. The Springbok becomes entangled in an battle precipitated by a powerful politician’s son. From there, the crew takes on a group of rough but honorable space marines, and sees more than their share of ground and space combat as they fight through more conflicts created by the political machinations of scheming politicians and bureaucrats.

The characters are great. There’s the honorable Captain Evander McCray of the Springbok and his lover, the lethal super-spy Aja Coopersmith. The villains are eminently hate-able, and there are other characters who are neither all good nor all bad. Captain Chahine, who commands a huge ship that battles the Springbok, was a particular favorite of mine.

There are also some great references to history sprinkled throughout. Captain McCray’s interest in piecing together Earth’s history starts out as just an amusing bit of comic relief, but it ultimately becomes key to the climactic battle sequence when, inspired by Hannibal’s use of elephants, he…

Ah, no; I can’t spoil it. Because it’s brilliant. An ingenious bit of world-building that becomes important to the plot, that’s all I’ll say.

I do quibble with the number of times that secondary female characters are forced to suffer at the hands of the villains. Female characters who exist just to let baddies prove their badness is a bit of a pet peeve of mine; although I can hardly argue with its effectiveness in making readers hate the villains.

Apart from that, this is basically a perfect book for me. It came recommended by Audrey Driscoll, and as with Lorinda Taylor’s Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars series, I’m so grateful to her for bringing it to my attention. It’s another wonderful example of how to do sci-fi, using an imaginary futuristic world both as a vehicle for exploring deep ideas about society and human nature as well as envisioning new technologies. And it does all that while still telling a gripping story with memorable characters.

If you like sci-fi, especially military sci-fi—and I know many people who read this blog do—you have to read this book. It’s a gem of the genre, pure and simple.

Now, I have a question only an economist would ask. And the fact that I’m even asking this question is a testament to the world-building here.

The citizens of the Egalitarian Stars of Elysium use the barter system. Supposedly, this makes them more advanced than the primitive Madkhal, who use fiat currency. We’re to believe that nanites and additive manufacturing eliminate the need for currency in such a developed civilization.

Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but I have trouble buying this. (No pun intended.) If their manufacturing capabilities are really so good as that, then they haven’t made fiat currency obsolete, they’ve made trade obsolete. Either people have items of different worth for trading, or they don’t. If they do, than they need a reliable medium of exchange and store of value to express it. If they don’t, then they don’t need to trade. If you and I both have the ability to produce for ourselves everything that we need, we have no reason to trade with each other. Tell me if I’m wrong about this.

Again, it’s a credit to how invested I became in this universe that I was even thinking about this issue. So don’t let it stop you from buying—or, for that matter, bartering for—this fantastic book.

TLRFA-Epilogue

“You know, Venus,” Sandra, sipping chablis from her coffee mug, her feet propped on the couch. “I owe you an apology.”

After wrapping things up with Mrs. Lurge and McIntyre—both of whom had exchanged apologies for assuming the worst about the other—the two detectives had been lounging around the office chatting and making a impromptu toast with a bottle of wine they discovered in the back of the office fridge. 

“How do you figure?” said Venus, swishing her wine around in her glass. “You cracked the case, and saved me and Max from ten different kinds of embarrassment.”

“She has a knack for that,” Max added. “Sandra, I know I always say it, but you never fail to dazzle me.”

“Do you always say it? You could say it a bit more and I wouldn’t mind,” she said with a grin, but her expression turned serious again as she looked back at Venus. “No, it’s true; I should have figured it out much sooner than I did. The only reason I didn’t was because of the fact I was so paranoid and so jealous—I saw you as a threat, you know that?”

“A threat? Me?”

“I did. I thought, ‘well, great, Max has brought in this babe to replace me,’ when I should’ve just taken you at your word. And you know, I think it distracted me-I let myself get off my game.”

“Well, you more than made up for it,” said Venus.

“Thank you. Now, you know what would hit the spot right about now?”

“Hmm?”

“Pizza. I seem to recall you mentioning something about cheese pizza.”

Venus practically jumped out of her chair. “Yes! Great idea!”

 “Well, how’s about it, Max?” Sandra asked. “Can you put in the order?”

“What, with company money?” he asked reproachfully. “I don’t know, ladies—I’m already letting you drink on company time.”

“Oh, come on; we’ve earned ourselves a treat after last night!” said Venus.

“Well, yes, but you know I can’t be too much of a spendthrift.”

Sandra winked at Venus. “Well, all right then, let’s just talk about somethin’ that’s been on my mind lately. Somethin’ you said the other day, Max, about this case—it was ‘close to home’ I believe you said.”

“I believe I did.”

“Well, y’know, I been thinking: you’re always doing a million different things, wearing all these hats at once, seems like you know everybody who’s anybody.”

“And you’re wondering just where I am—where does a suave, sophisticated fellow set up a base of operations to juggle all these things at once, right?”

“Well, sorta, yeah,” she said. “But actually—well, no sense beatin’ around the bush: I was wondering if you, uh, let’s say, know anything about a network-distributed crime-fighting artificial intelligence. Charlie said they’d been working on something like that at the Lurge place back in the day. Before that kind of thing was outlawed, of course. That sounds like something you would maybe have, uh, heard about. I mean, an AI like that would be in a predicament similar to Venus’, and would probably feel a heap of sympathy for her. So I was just curious.”

There was a long pause, during which Venus and Sandra exchanged knowing grins and raised their eyebrows expectantly.

“What kind of pizza did you say you want?” Max said at last.

THE END

TLRFA-11

“Where in the wide world is she?” Max demanded.

“She said she needed to get something,” said Venus. “She said she’d explain when she got here.”

Max gave an exasperated sigh. “All right, well, let’s get this show on the road.”

“I hope you will start by explaining why you’ve brought that man here!” Mrs. Lurge was seated once more in the Pallindrone Agency office. This time, however, the opposite guest seat was occupied by Mr. McIntyre. His secretary was there, as well; she hovered nervously behind McIntyre.

“Yes—why have you brought me here?” McIntyre growled. 

“Max has his reasons,” replied one of the policemen who stood guard by the door. 

“He always does—and usually, he’s got another lady with him to run these things.” said the other.

“Guess he traded up for a new model,” the first one whispered in reply.

“Sandra will join us shortly,” Max said, in a tone of rebuke. “Now, Mrs. Lurge what I am about bring up will be painful for you, but I’m afraid I need to ask these questions. First of all, were you aware of your husband’s relationship with Miss Ritter?”

Mrs. Lurge’s face, previously flushed with anger, now turned very pale. “Yes,” she croaked after a pause. “Yes, I was.”

“And his payments to her?”

She lowered her gaze, away from the table on which Max’s comm. base station was located. 

“Yes… that too.”

“Why did you not tell us this pertinent information before?”

“Well, you can see, surely, it’s very embarrassing to…”

“Yes, of course,” said Max, “And yet you know that we were being sent in pursuit of truth, and to find truth, we must have all the facts. Which leads me to another point: why didn’t you tell us that you had been made sole head of Lurge robotics prior to your husband’s death?”

“Well, it… didn’t seem important.”

“Not important! And why not?”

“Surely all the details of my client’s divorce are not pertinent, and I object…” began the attorney.

“Objection overruled,” said Max blithely, and went on. “And why were you so named?”

“The fact is,” the widow said, and now tears were beginning to form in her eyes. “It was Lothar’s idea. He said I’d always been more passionate about the factory than he was.”

“I can affirm that it was at Mr. Lurge’s insistence that the change was made,” the lawyer added. 

“Thank you. Now then, Mr. McIntyre,” Max said, causing the aforementioned to twitch in his seat, “You acknowledge that you were at the Lurge robotics factory on the night in question?”

“I, uh, well,” he said, glancing around for Suzanne. “Yes, I was. At Lurge’s invitation, I should note.”

“So you claim, although we have no proof of this. But you never entered the factory?”

“No—I stopped outside, about halfway, and turned around.”

“Why?”

McIntyre paused. “Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t like the look of it. Weird noises, you know, coming from the place. It felt odd to me, I couldn’t imagine what Lurge needed to tell me, and I got cold feet.”

“Mm hmm,” Max said. “Understandable, and in light of subsequent events, a good decision. All indications are, the robots were running amok in the factory, and yet,” here Max paused significantly, “The robots could only be activated from Mr. Lurge’s office, and only deactivated by a voice command from factory employees.”

“Well,  they obviously malfunctioned!” Mrs. Lurge exclaimed. “After what this woman,” she gestured somewhat frantically Venus, “told us about last night, it’s obvious they weren’t working properly.”

“Which would lead us to believe that Mr. Lurge’s death was an accident, yes. And yet you, Mrs. Lurge, have gone to some trouble to tell us that it was Mr. McIntyre who killed him.”

McIntyre’s eyes bulged, and he rose from his seat with an expression of fury. “What!” he snapped, “How dare you! How dare you—”

“Calm down, Mr. McIntyre,” Max said coolly. “Getting agitated will only drag this out.”

Mrs. Lurge was sobbing now. “All I know,” she gasped between anguished moans, “Is Lothar was convinced you were up to no good. He was always on about it.”

McIntyre’s expression of rage only deepened. “Listen here, you—” 

“Sorry I’m late!” Sandra called out, breezing into the room, “We had to make a quick stop!”

Trailing behind her, looking a little pale but with the remnants of his familiar smirk, was Charlie. 

Venus gasped. Mrs. Lurge, unaccountably, seemed comforted by Charlie’s arrival.Mr. McIntyre exchanged a puzzled glance with Suzanne. Lurge’s lawyer looked bewildered. The policemen merely waved subdued “hellos” to her. 

Finally, Max spoke. “What took you, Sandy? We’re just about coming to the end of the line here.”

“Sorry I didn’t have time to explain, but I think there’s a fork in the road, Max. Where are we at?” she asked, pulling her desk chair over to join the group. She frowned when she noticed the chair was heaped with paperwork. 

“Well, Mrs. Lurge is unable to account for why she didn’t give us the pertinent facts when we were hired to perform this investigation. I was just asking her to explain her reasons for repeatedly accusing Mr. McIntyre, and again, she is unable to explain. The circumstantial evidence, meanwhile—“

“I didn’t kill him!” the woman burst out. “Oh, we fought, sure, but I would never, never…”

“Mrs. Lurge,” said Sandra, resting a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Calm down, please. You’re still our client, and we are here to help you, as long as doing so does not interfere with the course of justice. Now, I need you to watch something.”

Through her tears, Mrs. Lurge nodded, and Sandra held up her cell. Venus walked behind the sofa and looked over her shoulder. 

“Why, it’s that ghost video…” said Venus in confusion, her eyes flitting to Charlie, who was sidling over towards McIntyre’s secretary.

Again, they watched as the ghost hunter deployed his ectoplasmic aural spectrometer, and played back the weird noises it recorded. 

Mrs. Lurge looked at Sandra, baffled. “Yes—those ghost hunts were one of our biggest money-makers. Great publicity, too. Lothar was always happy to have them come in, any hour of the day or night.”

Sandra nodded and smiled. “Helped keep the company afloat, and then some, right?”

“Right…” Mrs. Lurge said uncomprehendingly.

“Sandra, where are you going with this?” Max asked. 

“All that ghost stuff—that was really what was keeping ya’ll’s bread buttered, wasn’t it?” Sandra continued. “But, did you ever really know how, Mrs. Lurge?”

Mrs. Lurge shook her head in bewilderment. “All I know is, it became a popular thing, especially in the last couple years or so.”

“Sandra… are you okay?” Venus asked hesitantly. “You look a little tired.”

Sandra shot her a devilish grin. She began to pace, taking a small tube of lip balm from her pocket and applying it liberally.

“Well, yes,” she admitted. “Something came to me as I was going home last night, right after I dropped you off, Venus. And I was lying awake into the wee small hours, thinking it over. And then I had to be up early to get Charlie here and check out my little idea.”

What idea, Sandy?” Max asked, a touch of impatience creeping into his voice.

“Let me back up a little,” Sandra said, pacing back and forth. “Mr. Lurge was making a pretty penny off of the Haunt-omaton tours. Except it’s not so pretty, once you factor in he’s making payments to keep his Miss Ritter up in style. So, he had to up the game a bit—needed to bring in even more revenue.”

 “Now, we must also remember that Mr. Lurge is trying to…” she caught herself. “That the Lurges are divorcing.  But he’s got to keep his Miss Ritter up in style, and giving the Missus half of the robot factory money doesn’t sit too well with him.” 

“So, what does he do? Well, a couple things. First, he enters negotiations to strike a deal with the state to turn the place into a ‘historical site,’ knowing that deal will go through right as Mrs. Lurge is taking over the factory.”

Every eye in the room was on Sandra; even Charlie’s.

“Now, that’s all well and good. He’s got enough socked away he can high-tail it outta town. And that’s where it it turns into a really black-hearted, mean-spirited, vile kind of a scheme.”

Sandra shook her head, and looked out the window thoughtfully. “Crazy. Imagine all the work; all the plotting—and to have it all undone by one simple little oversight.”

“Sandra…” said Max.

She turned back to face her audience.  “Here’s what Mr. Lurge did: he’s put his wife in charge of the company and he’s made arrangements to let the state run their operations. And what’s more he’s gone to some pains to ensure that if any fault is found with the product or the location, the blame will be on the owner.”

She raised an eyebrow at the lawyer. “Isn’t that so?”

“Erm, that is correct, yes.”

Sandra nodded. “And so he decides there will indeed be a fault with the product, in the sense that the robots will suddenly and inexplicably malfunction—and when they do, they will kill Mr. McIntyre—whom our Mr. Lurge invited over for a chat that night. One stone, two birds—Mrs. Lurge ruined, and Mr. McIntyre dead.”

Venus whistled under her breath as she followed Sandra’s explanation.

 Sandra nodded. “And so, Mr. Lurge goes to the factory, leaving the back door unlocked so McIntyre will enter that way. He waits in his office until late that night, and then, at the critical point, he’ll go down and activate the robots, and order them to cut Mr. McIntyre to pieces. Then he’ll flee the scene, with his rival dead, and the company in shambles!”

She paused for breath. Every jaw in the room was hanging open. McIntyre looked at Mrs. Lurge. The policemen looked at each other. Venus looked at Sandra. Charlie looked at Venus. 

“Okay, Sandy,” Max said finally. “I’ll admit that what you’re saying does fit the observable facts, but here’s the thing: if you’re right, then all this just takes us back to what the police said from the beginning—nothing more than an accident. Unless you’re going to tell me Mr. Lurge decided to kill himself.”

Sandra gave a little chuckle. “Well, yes and no, Max. You’re right, it was an accident. But it wasn’t really a problem of faulty technology. More of an, ah, operator error. And that’s where all this ghost business comes in. Charlie!” she called, causing the young man to pull his eyes away from Suzanne.

“Tell us, if you would, how the Lurge infantry assault bots identify friend or foe.” Sandra prompted.

“What? Uh, well, they use a sonic sensor that detects voice patterns to recognize Lurge personnel.”

“And, if there’s some sort of interference?”

“Well, if there’s a strong signal that overwhelms them—yeah, then they go into attack mode. They think they’re being hit with sonic disruptors, like the enemy bots used in the war.”

“And, just to clarify for everybody,” Sandra added. “Those ‘sonic disruptors’ could emit noises that people wouldn’t hear. Just bots, right?”

“Uh… yeah.”

“Thank you very much,” Sandra said with a nod, and then reached into her purse. She extracted a small, silver disk which she set on the table. “All right, Chief of Security, now tell everyone what this is.”

Charlie assumed his smuggest manner. “That is a Lurge security device. Mr. Lurge told me he had ’em made special. Right now, it’s on battery backup, of course.” He glanced around the room, happy to be the center of attention. “Normally, there’s twenty or so like this, all wired into the Lurge factory power system—”

“Which, I should point out, causes the lights outside to flicker when the system is active.” Sandra interjected.

She then set her phone next to it, and pressed the button at the center. There was no immediate result, and the rest of the occupants of the room waited. She held out her phone, and pointed out that its signal strength was at zero.

“Max?” She said. “What do you think?”

There was silence.

“Max?” Venus asked.

Sandra released the button. “How about now, Max?”

“Ah, sorry, Sandy—I lost audio there for a minute. What did you say?”

Sandra was grinning widely now. “See, that’s the key: Mr. Lurge’s ‘security system’ was no such thing. It was actually a broadcasting signal, meant to lure in the spook huntin’ crowd. If we had an ‘ectoplasmic aural spectrometer,’ I have no doubt I’d have recorded a few ghostly voices just now. That’s why I was held up this morning—I grabbed Charlie and we dropped by the old factory again this morning to check it out. Sure enough, when the ‘security system’ and the robots come on at the same time—the bots go bananas.”

“Sandra, that’s… amazing,” said Venus. She ran through what she had just learned for a moment. “So Mr. Lurge found a way to capitalize on the ghost stories about the place.”

Sandra nodded. “No offense to our friend here,” she said with a nod to Charlie, “But I think that’s  why he wanted a guard who was, ah, inclined to believe in the paranormal. He knew he wouldn’t look into it too closely.”

“But, if what you’re saying is true, wouldn’t the bots have freaked out before now?”

Sandra shook her head. “See, those things are only powered up for demos, during the daytime or the scheduled Haunt-omaton tours. And the security system —the ‘ghost’ noise system, in other words—only comes on at night, when nobody but ghost hunters is coming near the place. Isn’t that so, Charlie?”

He nodded. “Yeah… that was what Old M… Mr. Lurge always told me. He said that as night guard, it was my number one job to keep the security system up and running.”

“Mm hmm,” said Sandra. “But what it was really securing was the factory’s reputation for being haunted. When these ghost hunters drop by, they’d get all kinds of weird noises. And so, the factory made a name for itself, and all the tourist money that came along with it. That, by the way, is why Lurge had to cut expenses on things like lights and heating and cooling—it takes a lot of juice to run something to broadcast a signal like that from one of these things.” 

Sandra set aside the little silver device, and then applied a bit more balm to her lip before she continued: “So, there really was no malfunction—Mr. Lurge’s robots performed like you’d expect them to, once they’re being hit from all around by a powerful signal. And so, his plan to ruin his wife, murder his rival, and run off with his mistress all blew up in his face. When he went down there to give his robots orders to take out Mr. McIntyre, they were already going haywire—and all because of a little parlor trick to rake in some extra cash.”

“Well… I suppose that makes sense,” said Max slowly. “But if that’s the case, I would have thought Venus would–ah, that is to say–I mean…” he trailed off, not wanting to say more in front of the others.

Sandra grinned again. “You think Venus would have heard the signal? Yeah, I thought about that too. But for all her outstanding abilities, she’s only human, Max. You can’t expect her to behave like a robot, for goodness’ sakes!”

Venus looked appreciatively at Sandra. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lurge and Mr. McIntyre were both blinking and looking dumbfounded. 

“But…” Mrs. Lurge said at last, “I just can’t imagine Lothar would do that.”

Venus looked her sympathetically and gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Am I right in thinking he did a lot of things you didn’t think he’d do? It can be tough to imagine what… other folks… can get up to.”

Mrs. Lurge nodded slowly.

“Well, personally, I don’t find it a bit weird that the old so-and-so would pull something like this,” McIntyre said. “What I don’t get is how he could have made such a mistake! I mean, really; how could he not have thought of that?”

Sandra spread her hands and shrugged. “Well, I can only hazard a guess, but Charlie over there said that one time Lurge told him, ‘there’s stuff in there I don’t understand.’ I think he was trying to scare the kid a bit, but truth be told, I don’t think our Mr. Lurge was all that savvy about robotics. He took over the company because he had a head for business, not technology. I think he thought the big money was to be made in other ways. After all,” she added, aiming her sweetest smile at McIntyre, “Doesn’t every businessman have to find creative ways to stay afloat?”

McIntyre swallowed and made no reply.

“So ultimately…” said Max slowly, as if summing the case, “Lurge’s greed foiled his vindictiveness.”

Sandra gave another little chuckle. “In some sense, I guess, two wrongs made a right.”

tumbleTumble is a short story about a young woman named Elle Winterson. Elle has lived a sheltered life, homeschooled, in a small rural house. She has no memory of her mother. Her father is the only other person she knows. Other than occasional trips to town, she is cut off from the outside world.

But one night, she is awakened by a strange noise, which makes her curious about the outside world. She begins exploring, and soon makes a strange discovery, which only increases her curiosity. And this in turn leads to more revelations which I won’t spoil here, except to say that it builds to a conclusion that makes the reader re-evaluate the whole story.

I loved the atmosphere, and I could really relate to the protagonist. I, too, was a homeschooled only child who grew up in an isolated rural house. This made the story extra-fun for me, as this isn’t a common life experience, and reading about a character with a similarly unusual background was quite a treat.

But I think anyone who enjoys stories that evoke feelings of isolation and mystery will enjoy this tale. Part of me wished it could have been longer–it feels like there’s more story to tell here; like it’s all part of a larger world that we readers are only glimpsing.  Nevertheless, it delivers a very satisfying ending.

TLRFA-10

Sandra fought to control her churning stomach. Charlie meanwhile was forced to surrender in his theater of the war on nausea, and ejected a foul-smelling pool on to his shirt front. Sandra staggered to her feet and approached the door, but it refused to budge.

“Why the hell won’t this open?”

“Why the hell should it?” Charlie gasped back. “You want that thing to come in here and kill us faster?”

“Kid, I’ll take my chances with some ghost any day,” she said. “Listen.”

Charlie did. At the closed factory door could be heard the metallic pounding of the assault bots battering the door. 

“How do I open the damn door?” Sandra growled through gritted teeth. 

“You have to… deactivate the motion security system,” he said finally. “The whole joint is locked down when the system is on.”

“Great. How do I do that?”

Charlie’s eyes darted from the increasingly-darkening parking lot outside, to the door behind him, which was beginning to creak and bend under the pressure of repeated blows from the assault bots.

“Tell her, kid!” Venus barked, attempting to struggled to her feet.

“Enter 123 on the keypad by my desk,” he blurted. 

“Oh, my God,” Sandra said. Despite everything else, she formed the thought What on earth did Lurge see in this kid? Shakily, she stepped to the desk and began to punch in the code. 

Her finger had just hit the “3” when the door to the factory gave with an ear-splitting shriek of metal wrenching from metal, and the assault bots began to surge into the breach, weapons raised.

Venus tried to stand, but collapsed to the ground. Charlie yelled “No!” in terror and threw up again. Sandra gripped the edge of the desk for support.

The infantry bots stood still, frozen for a moment. Sandra wondered if time was slowing, as it sometimes does during moments of life-threatening catastrophe. But then she realized the machines had in fact stopped, and were now lowering their weapons, and beginning to return whence they had come.

“Well, this is a break,” said Venus blandly, as the hulking machines marched away.

“I don’t get it,” Sandra said. “But I’ll take it.”

Charlie, who was still a shuddering mass on the ground, gurgled something about the Eidolon.

“Doesn’t look like it’s a problem to me,” said Sandra, jerking her head in the direction of the parking lot, where the lights were now blazing at full power, their reflections glinting off of the asphalt, still wet from the recent downpour.

Charlie looked around suspiciously.

“What in the name of all that’s holy happened in there, ladies?” Max’s voice asked. “Last I heard you where leaving Lurge’s office; after that it was all garbled.”

“Long story,” Venus said. “We’ll tell you on the way out of here.”

She had recovered enough to stand, and together she and Sandra advanced out of the door—which slid open as soon as they approached—and into the cool night air, Charlie following nervously behind them, glancing around as though expecting to be attacked at any moment. The two investigators were on edge as well, though they feared attack from physical entities rather than any phantoms. But nothing waylaid them as they crossed the wet pavement, and they reached Sandra’s orange hatchback without incident.

Sandra slid into the pilot’s seat, and Venus entered beside her. 

“Should we give the kid a ride?” Venus asked.

Sandra glanced at him dubiously, but jerked her head in the direction of the rear cargo area, indicating he could ride if he wanted.

“Wait a sec. There’s got to be a towel back there. Clean yourself up a little and throw the towel in the trunk.” 

“Thanks,” he said softly, squeezing himself in between the shopping bags, camping gear, beach supplies, and other objects that Sandra preferred to store in the car rather than carry into her home. “I didn’t want to wait alone for the shuttle tonight.”

After riding in near-silence to drop Charlie off at his apartment, Max began leading the discussion, planning their next moves.

“I’m going to set up a meeting with Mrs. Lurge at the office tomorrow,” he said. “We’re going to confront her with everything we’ve got, and ask her to give us a more thorough account of things. In particular, I want to know why she omitted telling us about the change in ownership.”

“She should probably have the family lawyer there as well,” said Venus.

“I have invited him, Venus. And I’m also going to bring a police escort there. I fear our Mrs. Lurge may be a, uh, flight risk.”

“Anything else we should know?”

“Yes—I think it’s appropriate to invite Mr.McIntyre as well. I want to give him a chance to hear Mrs. Lurge’s allegations against him.”

“How about Mr. Lurge’s gal pal, Miss Ritter? Have you tracked her down too?”

 “I’d like to, Venus, but unfortunately my sources indicate she’s skipped town. Apparently, she has a second home in the Bahamas.”

“Nice!”

“Oh, yes—my sources also discovered a series of fund transfers made from Mr. Lurge’s account to hers over the past year. Those can’t have gone over well with the Missus.”

Venus shook her head, then turned to Sandra, who throughout this exchange had been leaning against the window, her head propped on her hand, wearing a forlorn expression as she gazed vacantly at the empty road speeding along in front of them.

“Sandra? You’ve been awfully quiet.”

“Mm? Oh, well; you, uh… you seem to have things pretty well in hand.”

“You see,” Max chirped. “I told you she’d be a fine addition to our team, didn’t I?”

Sandra said nothing, opting instead to continue staring and idly biting a nail on her right hand.

They pulled to a stop, and the car descended to a landing outside the agency building, directly behind the sleek, red vehicle Venus indicated as hers. She opened the door to get out, and then said, “Hey, Sandra—can you come out here a sec?”

Sandra languidly stepped out as well.

“Max,” Venus said crisply. “We’re going to take our earpieces out. This is on personal time; girl talk, okay?”

“Understood, ladies. I’ll talk to you in the office tomorrow, 10AM sharp!” he said crisply.

 “What is it?” Sandra asked after they had both tossed their earpieces into the car.

Venus took a deep breath, and then began: “I just wanted to say thank you. Like I said, nobody’s wanted to hire me, what with the whole cyborg thing. So I try to keep it a secret, but of course a simple drug test gives the game away. It’s been years since I’ve been able to just… partner with somebody. Y’know, as an equal.”

Sandra laughed. “An equal? You did everything! You got the files, you were able to see what was what in that factory while I was stumbling around in the dark, and you saved my life. Without you, the whole thing woulda been a disaster.”

Venus smiled. “Like I said, glad to be part of a team.”

Sandra stared at her. Did she really mean that? Did this woman, who, in addition to being attractive, friendly, and intelligent, also happened to posses superhuman strength, really find it so strange she was wanted?

“This might sound weird,” Venus pushed on. “But once people find out about me, they treat me like I’m an alien or something. It was even that way in the Service, after the procedures. They didn’t look at me and see good old Venus, the chick who likes hats and rock & roll and cheese pizza—they saw a frickin’ battle robot like those things back there. So,” she said, becoming self-conscious. “I’m just saying, I know it’s been awkward for you, but, thank you.”

They stood for a moment, regarding each other. Venus bit her lip.

“Oh, uh, sure.” Sandra said at last.

“Well; see you tomorrow,” said Venus, smiling and walking to her car.

Sandra watched her go. What on earth was that about? She thought. I was totally useless. Some ‘team.’ I’ll be lucky to have a job for another month if this keeps up. 

Shaking her head, Sandra finally climbed back into her hatchback and stared ahead blankly.

“Voice Authentication,” the machine prompted. 

“Sandra Darcy.”

“Password?”

“Disco,” she said softly, and the car rose from the ground and zoomed off into the night.

Cactus FlatsI love Weird Westerns. So as soon as I read Lydia Schoch’s review of this book, I knew I had to check it out. And it’s everything a story set in the Weird West should be: cowboys, prospectors, gunfights with shotguns and six-shooters, and of course, manifestations of supernatural horror, which I won’t describe in detail here.

The description in the book itself is minimal, which in my opinion is a good thing. In horror, you want to leave things to the readers’ imagination. But, still there’s more than enough information to get a sense of what the protagonist, a deputy named Jed, is facing by the time he’s loading up with weaponry and dynamite and heading to an abandoned mine to confront the horror.

In the beginning, there were a few little things that didn’t sit right with me–like the prospector being named Pete, which is about the oldest western cliché ever, or the fact that Jed is unfamiliar with using a single action revolver. These are minor points, but I noticed them… and in the end, it turns out there are excellent reasons for details like these. I take my hat off to the author for how he managed the ending of this book; it’s very well done.

Like Lydia, I’d have appreciated a bit more world-building, but at the same time, I can understand why the story had to be focused and fast-paced. And it makes for a very satisfying adventure, even before the final plot twist.

This has all the elements a good short story needs: it’s fast, easy to get into, and it leaves you feeling really satisfied with the ending.   I think anyone who enjoys horror or adventure stories will like it, and if you’re a fan of the Weird West like I am, I’d call it a must-read.

Bone HungerThis is the second book in Rubin’s Benjamin Oris series. Oris is a medical resident in Philadelphia, working as an orthopedic surgeon. His strange experiences in the series’ first entry The Bone Curse are behind him, and he is well on his way to a successful career in medicine, as well as having a pleasant domestic life, being good friends with Sophia, the mother of his young son, Maxwell.

Unfortunately, he again finds himself caught up in bizarre events when he and Sophia discover a severed leg in the park one frigid January day. It’s especially horrifying to Ben because he recognizes the limb–it belongs to a patient he himself recently performed knee surgery upon.

Once more, Ben is drawn into a macabre mystery. Soon, patients begin vanishing and more severed limbs are discovered. With the help of his friend Laurette and a forensic psychiatrist, Ben slowly pieces together an incredible theory–one that implicates a member of his own surgical team, possibly even his attending surgeon, who is also accused of ethically-questionable medical practices. Although, complicating things further, the accuser is also far from being a reliable source.

Speaking of unreliable sources, sprinkled throughout the book are chapters told from the perspective of the killer. Readers of Rubin’s earlier novel Eating Bull will be reminded of the glimpses into the twisted mind of the murderer in that novel. It’s done just as effectively here.

There’s a great cast of suspects here. Of course I kept trying to guess who it was, my suspicion shifting among 3-4 characters. In the end, none of my guesses were correct. The supporting characters in general are fantastic–I particularly liked Derek, the forensic psychiatrist, and Fisher, the chairman of orthopedic surgery and a former Army doctor. He has a penchant for creative swearing that I found very entertaining. “Holy bastard on a birthday card” is one of the more mild examples. 

There are many memorable lines throughout–“No one’s willing to discuss the severed elephant in the room,” Ben muses at one point. And the pacing is great. After a gradual build-up, in the second half, the book turns into another of Rubin’s signature fast-paced, tension-filled thrillers, with a new twist coming every chapter. Mark Paxson once compared the pace of The Bone Curse to a hockey game in overtime, and the same could apply here.

And, by the way, while I don’t think it’s absolutely essential to have read The Bone Curse before reading The Bone Hunger, it will help a lot to familiarize yourself with Ben and his friends and family. Also, there are references to the events of the earlier book throughout.

All in all, this is another terrific medical thriller. I suppose a word of caution is in order for those squeamish about references to surgery, and of course, as the title suggests, the killer’s motives are based in some very unsettling desires.

I read this book in a little over one day from when I first got it. It is a fast-paced page turner, and by the second half, I just had to know what happened next. It’s a Carrie Rubin classic, full of clever lines and an intense climax delivered at breakneck speed.

[NOTE: This review is based on an ARC. The Bone Hunger releases today.]