Tag Archives: review

Short Tuesday #23: “To Build a Fire” by Jack London

This week I took a detour from the usual weird short fiction and went back to a classic. I think the last time I read “To Build a Fire” was in middle school English—I have distinct memories of some of the kids in class thinking the expression “like a chicken with its head cut off” was just hilarious. You can read the short story for free here…

I really enjoyed this short story! If you’ve never read it, the premise is that a man and his dog are traveling through the Yukon in temperatures of seventy-five below. The MC is quite arrogant, and his actions lead him to have problems starting a fire. It’s a classic man versus nature tale, where you’re just waiting for the foolhardy MC to get his comeuppance. I already knew what was going to happen, so basically just spent the first bit waiting for everything to go to pieces.

Really I read this because I’ve been working on my WIP, and the MC confronts a dangerous blizzard early on in the book. It’s nice to see how a master storyteller like London tackles a similar topic, in terms of the observations and details. It was also just a nostalgic read; this story may be more than a hundred years old, but it definitely holds up, despite one instance of racial language that would never fly in the here and now. Just as I’m not going to dismiss Lovecraft for the infamously named cat in “The Rats in the Walls,” so too am I not going to dismiss London. Hope that makes sense, though others might feel differently.

Anyway, I recommend this short story and had a fun time reading it, even though it’s very different from the other short fiction I’ve been reading lately. It’s the kind of short story that really sticks with you once you’ve read it, so for that I can only give it five stars. 🙂

ARC: The Warehouse by Rob Hart

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. The Warehouse debuts August 20th.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is a book about Amazon. If you’ve ever entertained the question of what the world would look like if Amazon continues going great guns and secures a bit more political power, then this is a must-read. This is a near-future dystopia, where devastating global warming and Black Friday massacres have ensured that consumers are unwilling to leave their houses—basically ever. Enter Cloud, who will drone-ship every product imaginable to your doorstep in the blink of an eye. Their workers live in massive company towns, where you get paid in Cloud credits, eat Cloud burgers, and sleep in Cloud-issued apartments. And if you don’t want to buy into the system, too bad, because unemployment is sky high, so how else you gonna make a buck, bro?

Enter Paxton and Zinnia, two new recruits to Cloud. Paxton is an entrepreneur whose small business dreams were squashed under the weight of pressure by Cloud to lower his production costs. Zinnia is a corporate spy on the most dangerous mission of her life: to figure out how Cloud is really producing their energy. Paxton has a job on the security team, while Zinnia only manages to secure a lowly picker role. If you have any sort of plot intuition, you can kinda see where things are headed from there, and it’s a wild, compulsive read that was hard to put down.

Listen, I like Amazon well enough. To give a personal example, my book is on Amazon in the KDP program, and I truly admire the innovation they have brought to the publishing industry by introducing the Kindle and an ebook marketplace to the world. Believe it or not, at least in the publishing sphere, Amazon has been great for the little guy. Print-on-demand and easy ebook distribution are threatening to topple the long-established gatekeepers of publishing, i.e., agents and publishers, allowing authors to be their own boss and have total control over their final product.

But that’s not to say that everything Amazon does smells of roses; you don’t get to that level of success without trampling over others. So if you’re a fan of dystopian fiction, I would definitely pick this up—it’s a fast, thrilling read that will ironically probably be topping Amazon’s book rankings.


Short Tuesday #22: “Waiting on a Bright Moon” by JY Yang

This week I went back to Tor.com to take a look at another short story by JY Yang. I read another short story by Yang earlier this year and LOVED it, so was very interested to read something else by this author. You can read the short story for free here…

So some of you may not know this, but I majored in Chinese language and literature in college and I’ve actually spent a lot of time in China. I no longer have a day job that requires me to use Mandarin, so I’m growing rustier by the day, but suffice it to say that I know a lot about the Chinese language and culture. Lo and behold, this story has a lot of Chinese songs and poems interspersed throughout, along with many details that draw upon Chinese culture, so this added a fun element to the piece for me. I will say, though, that some translations for the Chinese text could go a long way in bridging the cultural gap for an English-speaking audience. I can understand not including a translation for a language with many English cognates, such as Spanish or French, but Chinese is decidedly not that.

I ultimately had a difficult time connecting with this story. It’s another one of those short stories where there is a ton of worldbuilding, but in the “thrown in the deep end of the pool” style. In media res-style details are tough enough in longer works, let alone in short fiction. All the details, with very little seeded explanation, made the whole narrative feel ungrounded. I also think this would be a doubly challenging story for readers who do not have any sort of background in Chinese; there are no translations provided for the Chinese text, and many Chinese cultural and historical touchpoints are thrown in without explanation. For example:

Only the starmages have the ability to defeat the Starmage General. But their suits have a limiter that stops them from performing the Seventy Two Transformations, and that is under the Starmage General’s control.

In the above quote, this was the first time I was hearing anything about the “Seventy Two Transformations.” In fact, this is the only time the transformations are mentioned in the entire story. However, a quick Google search revealed that the transformations are performed by a character in Journey to the West, a Chinese literary classic. I happen to think it’s cool that these referential details are included, but a little seeded explanation or context would be appreciated.

I also don’t understand why the author chose to put the whole piece in second POV. It’s a bold move that didn’t seem to add much to the story, and I’m curious to know the rationale behind the decision.

Whew, Short Tuesday has gone on a bit longer than I anticipated! To sum up, this was an interesting read, especially for someone with an interest in Chinese language and culture, but there were many aspects that took away from the story as a whole.

Short Tuesday #21: “A Forest, or A Tree” by Tegan Moore

This week I returned to Tor.com to take another look at their original short fiction. “A Forest, or a Tree” by Tegan Moore caught my eye—I mean, how could it not, with that frightful (in a good way) illustration. You can read the short story for free here…

This short story was a fun ride, following a group of girls hiking in the woods. Predictably, one of the girls falls sick and spooky things start happening: the GPS equipment is malfunctioning, a creature is spotted in the woods, one of the girls starts hearing strange noises, et cetera. It’s a story everyone’s seen a million times before, but there’s a reason for that: it’s a universally spooky tale that takes hold of your imagination.

I do think that the author tried to incorporate a bit too many threads into the story. There’s a barely-explored racial element, as well as a shallow conversation about memes and copypasta serving as modern myth. The story also ends pretty abruptly just as circumstances have changed and events are coming to a head—I wanted a more fulfilling conclusion. There were also some small niggling details that brought me out of the story—a character saying twice that her friend needs to stop reading so many “subreddits,” for example (instead of “Reddit posts,” which is how any actual Reddit user would phrase this). So these things bring the story down to three stars for me, but I still found it a fun read.

A Tale of Two Forests: Contrasting The Devouring Gray with Here There Are Monsters (ARC)

Thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Fire for sending me a free advanced reader copy of Here There Are Monsters for an honest review. Here There Are Monsters debuts August 6th. For full disclosure, I requested a review copy of The Devouring Gray and was denied, and then purchased The Devouring Gray with my own money. This in no way affects my opinions of the book.

The Devouring Gray was on my top ten TBR list for 2019, as I’m sure it was for many others. The marketing campaign for this book was pretty intense, and I was fully on the bandwagon. A small town setting with a Stranger Things comp? Sign me up, please.

Can you hear the “but” coming? I’m going to cut to the chase: The Devouring Gray was really disappointing to me. As has been the case with some other YA books I’ve read lately, this book could have done with a lot more page-turning plot and a lot less navel-gazing. Yes, I know that YA by its nature tends toward the introspective, but this book has… not much going on? I showed up for the malevolent presence lurking in the forest, but there’s actually not much forest action. The main character, Violet, is a Mary Sue to the core, and the characters flitting around her are boring. There is so much backstory that it feels like we are constantly playing catch up. Seeding of foreshadowed information and pacing were a further problem in this book, as well as awkward, confusing phrasing.

“Justin didn’t understand how it was possible to be simultaneously proud of May, relieved she’d known what to say, and jealous that he hadn’t. But he was.”

People don’t think it be it like it is, but it do.

So The Devouring Gray is an unfortunate pass for me, and I will not be picking up the second in the series when it releases.

Which leads me to Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé. Whereas The Devouring Gray dragged on and on, this was a total binge-read. As is the case with Gray, this book presents a main character who has lost her sister—here, “lost” is used literally, as the MC’s sister has disappeared somewhere into the sprawling, ominous swampland behind their house. The language is surprisingly lyrical, atmosphere suffuses every scene, and the characterization and dialogue are perfect. What Gray failed to accomplish with its forest setting, Monsters presents in spades.

I want to also touch on the sister dynamic in the book, which is extremely raw and real. The younger sister who’s gone missing, Deirdre, is a girl in her own world, constantly rubbing her older sister, Skye, the wrong way. A fair warning that Skye is very harsh to her younger sister—if you are looking for a likable MC, this is not the book for you. But not everyone is likable, and it is okay to tell their stories. I suspect that it is for the “unlikable MC” reason that this has a lower score on Goodreads (currently 3.43).

I would describe this as a book that pushes the envelope in terms of the sister relationship, one particular plot twist, and the ending. How I’ve longed for good YA horror; thank goodness this author has arrived on the scene.

So if you were at all disappointed by The Devouring Gray, I really recommend giving Here There Are Monsters a try. I will absolutely looking out for future releases from the author, and the story will be staying with me for a long while; I may even pick up a hard copy.

The Devouring Gray

Here There Are Monsters

Short Tuesday #20: “Universal Horror” by Stephen Graham Jones

This week I dove in to Nightmare Magazine’s backlist once more, picking up “Universal Horror” by Stephen Graham Jones. You can read the short story for free here…

The premise of “Universal Horror” is a group of friends playing a drinking game on Halloween, where a little mummy trick-or-treater is coming around to the house a few too many times for comfort. Unfortunately, I had a difficult time connecting with this story—the whole thing felt a bit detached. I think that can partially be chalked up to the age and life situation of the characters. They’re grappling with some life changes and don’t seem to know how to handle them—break-ups, “getting old” (we’re talking thirty here), the question of whether or not to have a child. And while they’re trying to come to terms with all the important life stuff, the author is also heaping on a long-kept secret, not to mention the requisite dash of horror. It’s a lot of different threads all smushed together, and I didn’t find that any of the elements were strong on their own or in tandem.

Also, as a woman who’s twenty-nine, I’m not huge on stories about people in my age bracket coming to terms with the fact that they’re proper adults now. So many of these characters strike me as weak, nihilistic, and mopey—maybe that’s why I’m such a fan of YA. 😛 So this story is sadly not my favorite of Nightmare Magazine’s offerings.

ARC: The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. The Escape Room debuts July 30th.

Escape rooms—barely a thing five years ago, it turns out that friends and families really like to feel like they’re participating in a warm, friendly, Saw-like experience. (I kid—escape rooms are pretty awesome.) So it makes sense that having swept like wildfire across the globe, escape rooms have also infiltrated the subscription box business, graced the silver screen, and, at last, crawled their way into publishing.

The premise of the book is great—a bunch of investment bankers are lured to an elevator escape room, only to find out that the corporate team-building exercise they were promised is not what it appears to be. Yet great premises don’t necessarily make great books. A skillful writer could do a lot here, but the writing got in the way of the story at every turn. Each page was filled with wooden language and plodding narration. This is a real “I did X. Then I did Y. Then I did Z” experience, to the extent that there are actually a surprisingly small amount of detailed scenes in the book, given how zoomed-out our literary camera lens is. And when we do get some details, they always seem like the wrong thing. I don’t know how many descriptions of expensive investment banker wardrobes there were in this book, but it had to be… ten? Twenty? Fifty? Meanwhile, all you want is more cool escape room details, but it felt like there were only five clues to the whole room. For the vast majority of their time in the escape room the bankers just sit there, waiting to be let out.

I will say that I appreciated the back-and-forth POV chapter switches from first to third. The third person sections follow the entrapped bankers, while the first person sections track a rookie investment banker’s experience a few years prior. This variety of POV switching is a bold narrative choice, and with a more honed and experienced voice this could have worked beautifully—but because of the distant point of view, stiff language, constant head-hopping, and lack of escape room intrigue, I found myself dreading the third-person sections.

So I appreciate what this book wanted to be, and I’ll eagerly read a different thriller with an escape room premise. But Goldin’s take on escape rooms unfortunately missed the mark, so I have a difficult time recommending it.

Black Mirror Season 5 Review

Any other Black Mirror fans out there? Along with the rest of the world, I’m a pretty big fan of this show, though it’s always kind of a mixed bag in terms of writing. So I thought that now that I’ve seen all three episodes of season five and had a couple days to gather my thoughts that I’d put together some mini reviews for each episode. This post is chock-full of spoilers, by the way, so proceed at your peril if you haven’t watched the episodes yet.

Episode 1: “Striking Vipers”

The premise of “Striking Vipers” is that a man who has lost the spark of his marriage uses a VR fighting game to cheat on his wife with his best friend. This one’s a bit of a gender bender—the man’s friend, also male, uses a female character, so though the sex is heterosexual on the surface, there’s an underlying question of whether the two friends would enjoy a homosexual relationship IRL.

I enjoyed this episode, and it inspired a bit of a debate with my husband and some friends of ours (all big gamers) about what constitutes cheating. I think there was a bit of a missed writing opportunity here, though; I fully expected the husband to fess up to his wife and start having wild, raucous sex with her in the game, as opposed to the once-a-year sex-with-other-people compromise they came up with. I know some will disagree, but it feels pretty depressing for them to wait all year to have sex with other people, like it is some great treat to get away from each other. So overall this episode was okay, but I felt like the ending was a bit unsatisfying and would have liked to see things head in a different direction.

Episode 2: “Smithereens”

I enjoyed “Smithereens” the most of the three episodes, even though it dragged on a bit in the latter half. The premise is that a man kidnaps an intern who works at the social media company Smithereen and uses the hostage situation to demand to speak with Smithereen’s CEO. As is revealed later in the episode, a few years back the man was caused an accident that resulted in the death of his fiance; he had been checking the Smithereen app while driving, ultimately causing the crash. It’s because of the purposely addictive quality of the Smithereen app that the man wishes to speak with the CEO.

It’s the reasoning behind the man’s request that weakens this episode slightly. He admits that it was him who ultimately caused the crash, but still he finds a lot of grievance with Smithereen. This is the point where I started questioning the ultimate message of the episode. Yes, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are specifically engineered to be addictive, but this doesn’t mean that their users have no agency. Many things beside social media are addictive; if someone is an alcoholic and they cause a fatal accident while driving drunk, no one is calling liquor companies to complain. That fault rests with the individual.

So while I found this episode very engaging, especially how the government officials and Smithereen higher-ups worked to clarify and resolve the situation, the message of the episode was a bit muddled.

Episode 3: “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” also known as the Miley Cyrus episode, was decidedly the weakest of the lot—though this was not down to Miley’s performance, surprisingly enough! The episode follows two teenage sisters from a middle class family and a pop star who is at odds with her aunt, who is also her manager. The younger of the two sisters is a huge fan of the singer, so when the singer comes out with an Alexa-like toy, that’s the only thing the young teen wants for her birthday.

I was wholly prepared for this episode to delve deep into the ways that online personalities can simulate friendship. Think about it: the young, lonely teen girl is given a version of her idol that can keep up a conversation. There is such an opportunity here to explore how people find “friendship” with online personalities—for isn’t this the reason that streamers and vloggers are so popular? It’s because they are friendship (or even relationship!) simulators, to the point that some streamers might conceal their relationship status to keep up the illusion that they are single.

Yet instead the episode veers off into left field; the pop star’s maniacal aunt puts her in a drug-induced coma, then extracts songs from her brain for release. There are way too many “buys” in this episode; what I mean by that is that with speculative fiction the writer is given one unique, unrealistic aspect to explore that the audience will “buy,” and then of course the freedom to play with that “buy” for the rest of the story. Yet in this episode, we are asked to not only buy that a weak version of the pop star’s personality has been condensed into the toy, but also that the singer’s aunt is outright evil with no depth, that two teenage girls can hack into the toy’s “brain,” and that the aunt can prize songs from her niece’s brain and release them to the public with no audience blowback. Pretty unbelievable, right?

So while it was interesting to see Miley act, this episode just spiraled into ridiculousness and felt like a wasted opportunity.


Are you guys Black Mirror fans? What did you think of this season?

ARC: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Thank you to NetGalley and Delacorte Press for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. Wilder Girls debuts July 9th.

This is one of those books that grips you hard from the first sentence, sinks its teeth into you, shakes you around, then has you gasping for air on the floor by the time you hit the last page. Seriously, Wilder Girls is an insane, intense ride, and I hope beyond hope that it ushers in a flood of YA weird fiction and body horror. When I picked it up, I already had a sneaking suspicion that this book was going to be my kinda thing because Jeff VanderMeer, king of the weird, is one of the blurbers. I was not disappointed; this is a book to buy on release day and devour in twenty-four hours.

The premise of the book is that a bizarre, unprecedented plague called the Tox has infested an island home to an all-girls boarding school. The Tox causes those it infects to mutate, perhaps by growing gills, claws, an extra spine, etc. The schoolgirls and the sparse crew of staff members remaining on the island have developed a system of survival, but when one girl goes missing and her friend determines to find her, everything is thrown into chaos.

Wilder Girls pulls no punches. The prose is raw and has so much forward momentum that it is a very difficult book to put down. I will say that the discovery and explanation at the end of the hows and the whys of the Tox was a bit disappointing to me. It came a bit out of left field; I was hoping for something less scientific and more just “this weird, inexplicable thing is happening and we can’t figure out why and now we just have to deal with it.” My opinion when it comes to weird fiction is that explanations take away from the mystique.

But even so, I basically adored this book and would hope for a movie version if I weren’t so sure Hollywood would fuck it up. Unless maybe we can get a return to practical effects à la John Carpenter’s The Thing… How amazing would that be? A girl can dream…

I’ll definitely be awaiting this author’s next book, whether it’s a sequel to Wilder Girls (would actually be satisfied with there not being a sequel, just to preserve some ambiguity in the story) or something else.

‘Til Death Do Us Part by Amanda Quick

This book came to me on an author recommendation from a friend; as we browsed the romance section in Barnes and Noble, she started gushing to me about Quick’s characters and plotting. As we wandered from the romance over to the discount books, I picked up ‘Til Death Do Us Part, read the blurb, and waggled it at my friend, not even noting the author name.

“This sounds good.”

“That’s who I was talking about!” exclaimed she. “Amanda Quick!”

Oh. Maybe it was time for me to give this author a go.

And you know what, even though this may be the first romantic suspense I have ever read, I really enjoyed it! I’m quickly learning that I enjoy romance with a dominant subplot, which this book certainly has. The MC, Calista, finds herself terrified by a morbid stalker, who keeps leaving her memento mori trinkets—a tear-catcher, a jet-and-crystal ring, etc. She enlists the help of a writer of serialized detective fiction to help her identify her stalker… And, of course, they end up falling in love.

The plotting keeps you guessing, and the characters are well fleshed-out. I won’t say the prose is gorgeous, but it serves its purpose admirably, getting out of the way of the plot. As a writer, that’s a quality I truly appreciate, since I’m constantly reading books where sentence structure and word choice snag my inner editor, pulling me out of the narrative.

And the romance itself was very sweet, more about the falling-in-love aspect than the sexual aspect. I’m coming to recognize that my personal taste in romance is for less sex and more inter-character relationship building, and this book was perfect for me in that regard. As the book ended, I didn’t exactly long for it to go on, but rather wished for more of a similar thing… Which means that I will surely be picking up more of Quick’s other books!