GLITTERATI, by Oliver K. Langmead

This is probably the weirdest book I have read so far, and even though I was somewhat prepared for this story – having been inspired to read it by the review of fellow blogger Tammy – still it turned out to be a very odd experience. Intriguing, but definitely odd…

The story is set in a somewhat dystopian version of our world, one that’s divided between normal, everyday people – although they are defined as ‘unfashionable’ or, worse, ’the uglies’ – and the glitterati, the fashionable elite whose only occupation and goal is that of looking fabulous (a word that recurs quite often in the book) by matching outfits and colors and appearance to the various days of the week, or situations or social gatherings. We observe this world through the eyes of Simone as he spends his days in what looks like a constant search for perfection, excellence, fabulousness. 

He and his wife Georgie are among the elite of this rarefied crowd, and Simone seems to have a knack for being a trend setter, but one day the “bubble” bursts as an inconvenient nosebleed mars his outfit of the evening: what might have been a simple – but fashionably devastating – accident turns into a new fashion statement when fellow glitterati Justine adopts it as her own, thus robbing Simone of the glamour of discovery. The Battle of Fashions between the two of them starts a no-holds-barred feud which includes the wearing of armor (fashionable, of course) and some dirty tricks. Simone and Georgie’s life is further complicated by the discovery of a child in their garden, a creature they literally don’t know how to handle, and a social downfall that will, however, change their perspective on life – and fashion.

Glitterati is a somewhat fun book blending a ferocious social commentary, which often veers into the grotesque, with a weird dystopian society that made me think of what The Hunger Games would have been if that story had been about fashion rather than survival – and a few of the outfit descriptions you can find in the book made me think of some Hunger Games characters as they were portrayed in the movies (think about Effie Trinket and you will see what I mean).  But the story is not all fun and foolishness, because there are some very dark elements in there: for example we learn that the Glitterati can have unpleasant memories removed, so that they can’t mar the perfection of one’s style and appearance by unexpectedly surfacing and upsetting their psychological balance. Even an event as mundane as a glass cut on the hand can be removed from memory, although the scene about the wound treatment is something that fell quickly (and quite inexplicably) into horror territory, and which made me wonder about the hows and whys of this bizarre world.

And here is where I was slightly disappointed by Glitterati, because as fun and entertaining the book is, there is no explanation about how this world came to be or what caused this almost unbelievable social divide in which the elite of the Glitterati does not need to work or to have money for their needs and seems to exist only to be admired. Granted, the novel is indeed a compulsive and absorbing read, but once you reach the end the questions start to pop up in your mind, making you challenge the basis of the whole scenario – and you find out that the story is sorely lacking in that sense, particularly when you get a fleeting glimpse of the true role of the elite during an ominous conversation between Simone and his lawyer, but nothing follows that tantalizing glimpse.

Still, it’s impossible not be become invested in Simone’s (and Georgie’s) journey as it turns from a never-ending run of dressing, partying and consumption of drugs into something more… human (for want of a better word): their relationship, as stylized and formal as it appears from their dialogue and interactions, speaks of a deeply rooted and genuine affection, turning them into what feels like a team, while the rest of the characters appear as if they all live in a self-centered fog of narcissistic admiration.   The changes they undergo – Simone in particular – develop in an organic, believable way and even though the ending seems a bit hurried, there is a glimmer of hope for a future in which they might be a little more real and grounded as people and not as the posing mannequins they have been at the beginning.

If you are looking for a story that’s way out of your comfort zone, but which will both entertain and horrify you, Glitterati might very well be the right choice: it might lack a bit of depth, but it will keep you enthralled from start to finish. And that’s not a bad thing at all…

My Rating:


SQUID GAME (Netflix series, Season 1) – #SciFiMonth

All right, I’m going to push the envelope a little bit here: talking about Squid Game, the Netflix series that became an instant success and is the focus of very animated discussions all over the web, might sound a bit “out there” for SciFi Month, but I reasoned that its deeply dystopian overtones (think Hunger Games on steroids) and some details from its premise might make it an intriguing candidate. So here I am…

Just in case you have not heard about Squid Game, it’s a story set in South Korea (where it was produced) and deals with the harrowing experiences of a group of people recruited to participate in a series of games whose winner will take home a huge jackpot. The players are all individuals with great financial problems: there is the addicted gambler weighted by debts he cannot pay and living on the shoulders of his old, ailing mother; the promising young market trader who fell into the embezzlement trap; the runaway from North Korea desperate to bring the rest of her family over; the Pakistani immigrant struggling to make ends meet because his employer has not paid wages for some time; the petty criminal lord who skimmed too much from his bosses, and so on. And also a few others animated by different drives, like the old man who’s dying of cancer and is unwilling to simply wait for the end to come.

What these players don’t know, is that they will be taken to an unknown location (we learn later it’s a remote island) and that losing any one of the six scheduled games will result in physical elimination: yes, they will be killed without mercy, which puts a horrifying spin on the competition, made to look even more appalling when, after the shocking first elimination, many are willing to go away and allowed to do so, but not before being shown the amount of money already accrued. The expression on many faces at that point, the sheer element of assessment and desperate greed on them as they ponder these terrible odds, chilled me even more than the actual scene of the mass killing in the first game.

And what’s worse is that as the episodes move forward, so does the cruelty of the games which force the players to actually kill their opponents or drive them to their death, pitching them one against the other despite the alliances and friendships that were tentatively forming among the various groups. Not to mention that there is a number of rich and bored individuals who are watching the “show” and betting on the players’ survival as if they were racehorses, which adds a further layer of grotesque unreality to an already heavy mix.

Given this premise you might wonder about the huge success that Squid Game is enjoying, and I wondered myself, coming to the conclusion that it must be because of the human factor involved, of the psychological study offered by these people placed like rats in a maze and observed (both by the fictional spectators and by the ones behind the screen) for their reactions to the extreme situations they are facing.  The message seems to be that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in life, that circumstances can turn even the friendliest, most gregarious person into a merciless killer, and that after a while the money becomes only a vague goal, eclipsed by the far simpler need for survival: in the end, the winner of the competition has been so changed by the experience that money loses all its attraction and remains unspent in the account where it was deposited.

There are also some elements that made me compare Squid Game to another darkly dystopian series, Black Mirror, where the otherworldly coexisted with the grotesque: the backstage of the games’ fields is made to look like a psychedelic dreamscape with its bright, highly saturated colors and mazes of stairs and passageways through which the players are led – truly like sheep to the abattoir – by masked and armed attendants, while classical music (mostly Strauss’ Blue Danube) plays in the background. 

Another unsettling visual is that of the coffins in which the losers are incinerated, shaped like black boxes tied with an incongruous pink bow. The game themselves are versions of children games, like tug-of-war, marbles or that game (I don’t know its name in English) where one player turns its back to the group who can advance until the count of three and must stop at three as the first player turns around, with penalty inflicted on those still moving. It’s the dichotomy between the original innocence of these games and their deadly consequences in the series that offers the real horror here, compounded by the realization that the players joined the game to escape from the adversities of their lives, only to be met with a deadly struggle that makes those adversities look like a picnic by comparison.

In the end, despite the heavy atmosphere and the cringe-worthy situations depicted in each episode, I can say that I appreciated Squid Game – not enjoyed, of course, because using that word feels like blasphemy, but I was hooked from start to finish and it made me think a great deal about the human mind and soul, what drives us and the extremes we can reach when facing drastic, life-threatening circumstances. And any story that can make me think is always a good find…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from


THE PHLEBOTOMIST, by Chris Panatier

To call this novel ‘surprising’ would be a massive understatement: what began as a story set in a dystopian future soon turned into something else, something very unexpected – and this sudden twist ended up enhancing my enjoyment of the story, to which I happily sacrificed some sleep just to see where it would lead me in the end.

War-torn Earth of the near-future is in a sorry state indeed: after the first bomb, named Chrysalis with a notable display of gallows humor, many others fell, unleashing destruction and death. The people now living in the Grey Zones, the ones where radioactive contamination struck more heavily, are in constant need of blood to survive and, if lucky, to recover, therefore a national program of blood donations has been instituted, driven by Patriot, an organization that coordinates the distribution of blood to the needy.

Blood donation has become mandatory: according to Patriot’s newscasts, each day there is a quota to be filled so that the needy people in the Grey Zones can be saved, and every adult must contribute. To implement the scheme, wages and food distribution are linked to blood donation so, in short, citizens can either supply their quota, or go hungry.  What’s worse, the value of an individual’s blood depends on its type: the O group being at the top of the chain, since they are universal donors, and the AB negatives finding themselves at the very bottom, given the diminished demand for their blood. In other words, if type O citizens can live a moderately comfortable life, AB-negs exist on the very threshold of starvation.

Willa Wallace is a phlebotomist, working in one of the many blood-donation centers where citizens go to fulfill their “civic duty”, her only focus that of providing for her grandson Isaiah, the only surviving member of Willa’s family after her daughter died from anaemia  due to far too many blood donations. One day, however, something brings her out of her self-imposed shell: the fall of a blood-carrying drone leads her to a momentous discovery that will forever change her life, as well as her knowledge and perception of the world.

And no, I’m not going to tell you what this discovery is, because this is the huge twist I mentioned at the beginning and it’s only right and proper that you find out on your own… 😉

Plot being off-limits, I can concentrate on the characters, starting with Willa: she is a… narrative exception, in that she’s in her sixties and a grandmother, as far from “hero material” as one could imagine, which makes her transformation into a rule-breaker and a warrior quite surprising but at the same time very believable, because she gets there by degrees, arriving at such changes from the sum of her experiences, her wisdom and the care-giving core at the basis of her personality and chosen work. It’s this last element, the compulsion to keep her grandson (and later on other children) safe that transforms her from nondescript older citizen into a determined, and sometimes ruthless, fighter –  and I loved to see Willa literally take up arms and show no mercy to those who wanted to harm her own.

Grandma Willa is not the only compelling character in The Phlebotomist, though, because she is flanked by two other wonderful figures: Lock (short from her nickname “The Locksmith”), a middle-aged ex marine who fights Patriot’s influence from several underground locations, and who teams with Willa once the grim reality of their world is revealed. I loved Lock’s devil-may-care attitude in the direst of situations, and the way she always seems ready to provide a technical solution to their problems – or an explosive one. And finally there is Kathy, a teenager the two women have rescued from an appalling situation, a girl who had to grow beyond her years and is not afraid of fighting and killing, but still shows some heart-breaking frailties.  This triumvirate of women of different ages, from different walks of life, is the true heart of the story and the force that drives it to the end.

There is another character I want to mention, one who complements this very unusual group and one I felt for very strongly: Everard, one of Lock’s associates and the main caregiver for a group of orphaned children that the outlaws are trying to raise despite many difficulties.  Again I can’t say any more about his story-arc because of spoilers, except that it touched me deeply and showed in no uncertain terms how hideously cruel this world is.

The world in which this cast of characters moves is both terrible and intriguing: humanity always found ways to fracture itself into separate groups, to establish various levels of classification and worth, and here it’s the very essence of life that creates these differences – blood is blood, it’s the substance running in the veins of every human being on Earth, and yet this dystopian society has found a way of using it to create breaches inside society, sometimes pitting humans against each other, because in Willa’s world blood muggings are a dire reality.  There is no authorial comment about this situation, but it’s far too easy to extrapolate one from the story, and to have to acknowledge the sad truth that we are still unable to go past more or less artificial ways of classifying ourselves within a system of values…

Unless I’m mistaken, The Phlebotomist is its author’s debut novel: with such an impressive start I can only look forward to read more of his works soon, especially if he will choose to return to this world – the ending is an open one, and that hopefully leaves room enough for a sequel.

Highly recommended.

My Rating:


STORM OF LOCUSTS (The Sixth World #2), by Rebecca Roanhorse


Last year I encountered a new Urban Fantasy series that felt quite different from the usual format, and its first installment,Trail of Lightning, encouraged me to keep an eye out for its sequels: book two of Rebecca Roanohorse’s Sixth World Series is just as engaging as its predecessor but it also left me with mixed feelings, because while I loved what the author did with the characters – both the old and the new ones – part of the storyline felt less defined and at times too… convenient (for want of a better word) to be completely believable.  But let’s proceed with order…

The rising oceans have changed the face of the world, and one of the few places where life is still possible is Dinétah, the former Navajo reservation now walled off from the rest of the world. It’s not a totally safe place, though, since ancient gods and monsters – both old and new – share the territory alongside humans. Maggie Hoskie is a monster slayer for hire, and in recent times she also became a god slayer when she vanquished Neizghání, the lightning god who used to be her mentor and lover.  It’s now a few weeks after this happened at Black Mesa, where Maggie also had to kill her friend and love interest Kai Arviso, whose healing powers brought him back to life but not back in Maggie’s life, so she’s trying to deal with the aftermath of it all – trying being the operative word…

When she’s called in for help against the dangerous cult of the White Locusts, she learns that the “resurrected” Kai is either their prisoner or a willing adept, and to get to the core of the matter she teams up for a search and rescue mission with two of the Goodacre siblings and a young girl with clan powers, Ben, who has been entrusted to her care. Gathering human and godlike allies along the way, the group ventures from the borders of Dinétah into the Malpais – the devastated outside world – discovering that the White Locusts and their charismatic leader Gideon are planning something that might mean the destruction of all they hold dear.

The narrative elements that made the first book in this series stand out are still here: the walled-in enclave of Dinétah where humans and supernatural beings coexist in this weird world whose face was literally changed by the rising oceans; the fascinating cultural and social milieu of Native Americans that brings a new, intriguing perspective to the genre; the land itself, with its harsh, unforgiving beauty. Maggie remains a fascinating character, her hard-won independence, her self-sufficiency still there but now tempered by the realization that opening herself to other people does not threaten those qualities but rather enhances them. And here comes the biggest change in the interpersonal dynamics of the overall story, because it transforms what early on was a one-woman battle into a group effort and a delightful quest that takes us outside the borders of Dinétah and into the Big, Bad Outside World.

Much as life in the Diné enclave might look difficult, the Malpais proves to be dangerous, and deadly: in the best tradition of post-apocalyptic stories, Maggie and her team encounter an organized gang of slavers and organ traffickers whose settlement of Knifetown has a definite Mad Max quality, complete with what looks like a deranged overlord, while the mention of the neighboring Mormon Kingdom and its theocratic rule  fulfills the worst predictions of what could happen with the collapse of civilization. It’s therefore hardly surprising that in this kind of background a cult like that of the White Locusts could easily gain supporters, won over by their leader’s Gideon seductive power and his promise of a new, better world.

Storm of Locusts sees Maggie traveling through these dangers with a crew of allies – friends – that, with the exception of reformed bandit Aaron, is dominated by women: Maggie herself, who’s trying to change her ways and not resort to mindless killing as a way of solving problems, and who is acknowledging her newfound connection to humanity and somehow finding that she enjoys it; Rissa Goodacre, who begins the journey with huge moral reservations toward Maggie and then slowly changes her outlook recognizing there can ben mutual respect and friendship between them; the cat goddess Mosì, whose feline indifference offers some of the lighter moments in the story; and young Ben, the best addition to the series because of what she comes to represent for Maggie.

Ben is a teenager who just suffered a grievous loss on top of earlier childhood trauma, the one that woke her clan powers: Maggie sees much of herself there, and where at first she somehow resents being saddled with the responsibility for the teenager’s safety, she starts to see her earlier self reflected in Ben, recognizing the signs of the downward spiral she traveled in the past, and decides to spare her the same hurtful journey by giving the young woman the support she needs to come to terms with what she is.  Despite the tragedy in her recent past, Ben’s character is an engaging counterpoint to Maggie’s, thanks to her youthful enthusiasm and drive that little by little manage to erode Maggie’s hard shell and bring her closer to her forgotten humanity.

Where character exploration offers the best elements in the story, I found that the plot felt less… solid, starting with the sensation that the questing team was never truly in danger: their experience in Knifetown, where it seems Maggie and Rissa might lose their lives and Ben be sold as a slave bride, is resolved fairly quickly by what looks like a deus ex machina set of circumstances. In a similar way, the swift conversion of outlaw Aaron, or the easy help offered by a divinity appearing as a crusty old man, look a little too convenient to feel completely believable.   And I’m still not convinced by the soundness of Kai’s motivations for joining Gideon’s cult, or by the mutual bond between Kai and Maggie, which does not offer solid vibes for me…

Still, whatever doubts I might have had about this second installment in the series were vanquished by the closing paragraph of the novel and its ominous promise of more interesting darkness to come: the next book might very well compensate for my partial disappointment with this one.


My Rating:


Short Story Review: DEATH OF AN AIR SALESMAN, by Rich Larson




Short stories by Rich Larson always proved to be fascinating reads, and this one was no exception, even though the core concept was truly depressing.  The future on this version of Earth looks quite bleak: pollution has reached such levels that the very air is contaminated and people must wear filter masks and protective clothing to stay outside.  Society has changed for the worse as well: people live in stifling cubicles called “sleepstacks” where they spend their rest hours laying down and watching videos, until it’s again time to go to work, moving like ants in a huge anthill.

Maya is an air seller: the company she works for bottles clean air that she peddles through the city’s milling throngs, hoping that her sale rates will make her win the lottery ticket granting the lucky recipients a vacation to one of the company’s air farms, where the sky is blue, the grass green and the air free and clean – or so the adverts say.  One day she notices a boy wearing a bright red scarf, a color that stands out in the dreary drabness of the city, and she does all she can to get his attention despite their conflicting work shifts and the thickness of the crowds, in the old, never tired game of “girl meets boy”…

What’s morbidly fascinating in this story is the depiction of the unnamed city, with its thick, murky air and the swarms of pedestrians moving to and fro in what looks like tired resignation. It’s easy to picture this urban sprawl where the only color comes from garish neon advertising signs, or the appalling image of a plaza “where there are still the husks of dried-out vines and shrubs spilling from cracked concrete planters” speaking of the death of any kind of vegetation and possibly of any hope for the future.  And yet there is a ray of light in the end, despite everything, because of the two young people meeting amid the devastation and daring to dream about the future.

A small ray, but I will take it gladly…


My Rating:


Review: OUR WAR, by Craig DiLouie


I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

My first encounter with Craig DiLouie’s work was through his previous novel, One of Us, a tale about children gifted with peculiar abilities, segregated from the rest of humanity and cruelly exploited.  Our War focuses on children as well, young people finding themselves enmeshed in war and having to fight, literally fight, to survive.

The premise states that an impeached president of the USA refuses to step down, starting a civil war between the opposing factions of his loyalist base and the Congress supporters who are asking for his resignation. The whole country is plunged in bloody strife and transforms into a series of war zones, with refugees trying to escape to marginally safer places, and bitter skirmishes happening along a very fluid, very dangerous battle line.

Ten-year- old Hannah and sixteen-year-old Alex Miller are brother and sister, running away from home with their terrified parents in search of an uncertain shelter from the warring parties: Alex, already a troubled teenager, runs from the family car in a surge of unfocused anger about the life he’s forced to leave behind, and ends up among the rebel forces loyal to the president, while the death of the father leaves Hannah and her mother to fend for themselves. When her mother is also killed by a sniper bullet, Hannah finds sanctuary with the Free Women militia, on the opposite side of the conflict.  Both kids, like many others, will learn how to wield weapons and kill – not just for survival but for a desperate need to find a place to belong in a world gone mad.

The adult point of view comes from Aubrey, a dedicated journalist working for the Indianapolis Chronicle, and from Gabrielle, a Canadian UNICEF worker bringing some much-needed humanitarian aid in the war-torn country. Both of them are very interesting characters – Aubrey tries not to succumb to fear and cynicism, and finds an unexpected well of courage in the goal of showing the world what is happening to children enrolled in the militia, and Gabrielle braves the dangers of the war to pay forward the debt she owes to the man who saved her life when she was little – but the real focus of the story is, of course, on the two young siblings, on the other kids they meet in their respective groups and on the way the horrors of war can shape (and twist) a young mindset and soul.

My previous experience with Craig DiLouie’s work should have prepared me for this starkly lucid depiction of a country in the throes of war and the consequences visited upon its people, especially the young ones, but Our War went well beyond anything I might have foreseen, hitting me with unexpected strength: there is such a heart-wrenching quality to the story being told here, that I too often felt breathless with the chilling impact of it all.  The suddenness with which society crumbles, once the conflict starts, reveals how thin our veneer of civilization is, how the savage side of our collective mind is always lurking beneath that surface layer: what’s truly terrifying, in the devastated world depicted in this book, is that it looks all too plausible, that the way politics have changed in the last handful of years have made the scenario in Our War a troublesome possibility rather than a flight of the imagination.

The way we approach politics these days, no matter the country one lives in, has turned away from a debate, however heated, of ideas, to become a constant barrage of insults, viciousness and other unsavory ingredients that have corrupted what should be a healthy exchange into a free-for-all where the warped logic of “us vs. them” has replaced any other kind of interaction.  We seem to have become too easily enmeshed in the kind of mob mentality that sees those with a different outlook (be it political, religious or whatever) not as someone with a divergent perspective but as blood enemies to be crushed. The step from partisan shouting to civil war appears all too brief and too easily taken, and this story highlights with terrible clarity the kind of steep incline we might all slide down on one of these days if we don’t re-learn some mutual respect and the ability to listen without being deafened and blinded by prejudice.

Our War shows us the possible consequences of underestimating that danger, consequences that would be mostly visited on the vulnerable ones, like children: Alex and Hannah quickly lose the carefree innocence that should be their right as they learn how to kill.  For both of them, what started as a form of defense transforms all too soon into an offensive stance: in Alex’s case because he finds himself attached to a group of people where many enjoy senseless violence for the sake of it, and he becomes somewhat addicted to the need for their approval, so that the only way the young boy has to obtain it is to become as trigger-happy as they are. Hannah, on the other hand, finds shelter with the Free Women and also the sense of family she lost as her loved ones disappeared one by one, therefore turning herself into a killer means being able to defend her newfound family and the protection – physical and mental – they provide.

Our War gives us a bleak picture of a possible (all too possible…) future, one that must compel us to seriously consider the dangers inherent in the habit of turning our differences into unsurmountable chasms, when even the slight glimmer of hope we find at the end does not seem enough to dispel the darkness left by looking into this potential abyss. 

Still, I would not have missed reading it for the world…



My Rating:


Short Story Review: THE DEAD, Michael Swanwick




The zombie theme has been played, both in written stories and on the screen, with several variations as to the origin of the phenomenon, but always with the constant that shows the walking dead roaming devastated cities and preying on the living.

This short tale, however, takes a very different approach, postulating that the formerly dead can be revived by technology and set to work in many fields – in short they are turned into obedient, indefatigable, willing slaves.  No mention is made about the way this horrifying process is achieved, but we are allowed to see how these walking corpses (free from decay, and endowed with the ability to speak and interact with the living) are integrated into many aspects of everyday life: as restaurant waiters, chauffeurs, doormen – and even into other unsavory… occupations.

The process is however costly and the acquisition of a zombie workforce reserved to those with means – at least until this story gets well underway showing us how someone has found a way to mass produce them, especially since the many conflicts still raging around the globe are providing with an almost inexhaustible supply of bodies from the refugee camps.

One of the characters in the story is terrified by the kind of future this entails, even as he signs up with the corporation that will manage this new form of slavery: a future where the living will run out of jobs, replaced by flesh automatons, a future where both the living and the dead will be helpless under the thumb of those with power.  And like that character I know that such a possibility scares me far more than any zombie apocalypse I ever watched on TV or read in a story….


My Rating:


Short Story Review: THE ATONEMENT PATH, by Alex Irvine




I came away from this short story reeling in horror, a horror compounded by the detached, almost clinical tone of the narrating voice.  The premise here is that young offenders are no longer sent to jail or rehabilitation centers, but rather directed toward the Path of Atonement, a way to make amends for their misdeeds.

At first it seems as if the Path simply compels these young people to serve the community in any way that is required of them, and that might sound like an enlightened, civilized way to make amends for youthful mistakes, but as the story progresses and the narrating voice adds details on the workings of the Path, is becomes hideously clear that there is more to it than one could imagine: from the distressingly effacing way in which the people committed to the Path speak of themselves and their journey it looks as if some kind of brain-washing might be involved, as are other even less savory practices.

But what sheds light on the truly horrifying side of this… correctional method is that those committed to it are seen as less than citizens, less than persons, and are treated as such – I can leave to your imagination what the consequences might be.  And that kind of mentality, and behavior, might be against the law, but is, in the very words of the narrator, “rarely prosecuted”, while “kindness is not illegal, but is frowned upon”.

I will say no more about this peek into a possible (and how possible? – one can wonder) future, this story must be read without prior spoilers that might lessen its impact on the reader’s mind, since it opens the way to an analysis of the ratio between crime and punishment, and how far it can go.

As hard as this short work hit me, I would not have missed it for the world, indeed…


My Rating:




I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Post apocalyptic worlds can come in a wide variety of flavors, most of them having in common the obliteration of the greater part of the human race: either by quirks of nature, pandemics, or climate changes, mankind finds itself vastly reduced in numbers and trying to survive in what is often a ravaged land – or a very unfriendly one.  This novel, however, starts from a different kind of premise, that the dramatically dwindling population is the consequence of a devastating decrease in birth rate, one that results in the progressive, unavoidable emptying of the world, so that vegetation and fauna retake control of a landscape in which humans are more intruders than anything else.

A few enclaves survive, however, either small groups living together for support, or isolated family units: the latter is the case for Griz, the narrator of this story, whose family dwells on an island off the Scottish coast. It’s a harsh life, one made of hard work and constant struggle against the failure of ancient machinery cobbled together ingeniously from the remnants of the old world and made to function without the aid of electricity or propellants, both things having disappeared together with civilization as we know it.

Still, it’s not a bad life, despite its tragedies: Griz’s twin sister Joy died several years before falling from a cliff, and their distraught mother, searching for her child, fell badly and suffered a head injury that left her absent-minded and incapable of fending for herself. Griz’s father, older brother and sister are a tight-knit family unit, occasionally trading with the next-island neighbors, and surviving through sheep farming, some scavenging in the abandoned areas of the mainland (they call it “viking”, from Viking raiders or old) and whatever forms of agriculture the island climate allows.  And of course there are their dogs, Jip and Jess – part of the family and Griz’s best friends and faithful companions.

Things change for the worse when a passing trader elopes with Jess: like humans, dogs have suffered in their reproductive abilities and female dogs have become quite rare in litters, so Brand – that’s the name of the trader – knows he will get a good price for Jess somewhere else.  Incensed for the theft, and the awareness that the whole family has been deceived by Brand’s easy manners and tall tales, Griz jumps on one of the family’s boats and launches in pursuit of the thief, intending to retrieve the stolen dog at any cost.

What follows is of course an adventure in an unfamiliar and dangerous world, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale and a lesson about never losing sight of your humanity, no matter how harsh and unforgiving the situation becomes.   And it’s a story about the bond between humans and dogs, as well, showing us that they are not just intelligent creatures who have stayed at our side since the dawn of time (Of all the animals that travelled the long road through the ages with us, dogs always walked closest), but also the kind of companions we can always rely on, their love and devotion coming straight from the heart and never filtered through self-interest or artifice.

As easy as it is to like Griz as a character, the moments in which this youngster truly shines happen in relation with Jip the dog: they are not merely friends and traveling companions, they look out for each other, care for each other’s well-being and share a bond that goes beyond the need for words, since they seem to understand one another through an unseen connection – not so much a connection of the mind, as one of the heart.  As Griz tells the thief, in a heated exchange about the lack of laws following the fall of civilization: “…but if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you. If we’re not loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?”. Jip and Jess are family and as such they deserve the same kind of faithfulness and love as the rest of Griz’s parents and siblings – and in those simple words we can find the essence of this story and of Griz’s journey.

A side of this character that will not fail to endear it to us bookworms is the love of stories, the pleasure Griz takes in being drawn into them and letting the mind wander along the “what if…?” path that we all know so well: strangely enough, Griz’s main focus is on post-apocalyptic stories, which to me sounds like a tongue-in-cheek sort of joke and also as a curious parallel, since it’s a sub-genre I’ve always been interested on.  For me, I think it’s a matter of superstition – sort of: as long as I can read about all the ways the world might end, I know it all remains firmly in the realm of fantasy; for Griz it’s a way to understand how the world truly ended: being born in the aftermath of it all means that any information has been filtered through second- and third-hand retellings and there is no certainty that things truly happened that way.  Then there is the pure joy of losing oneself in stories – not just dystopian ones, of course: life on the island, with its definite boundaries and the need for constant hard work, does not leave much room for the mind to wander, and it’s only through books that Griz is able to move across a whole universe of possibilities.

And when the journey begins in earnest, when Griz is alone in the wide world beyond the borders of the tiny island, it’s the knowledge gleaned through books that helps in the difficult business of survival or that makes the sights and wonders more relatable, either thanks to scientific information or – again – to stories read in the past. And so the deep forests of the mainland (something that the islands lack) make Griz remember passages from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; or the need to escape from confinement is fueled by recalling The Count of Montecristo, and so on.

Above all, this is a story about love, loyalty and steadfast determination, but it’s also a journey of discovery: of an unknown – and sometimes unknowable – world, but also of oneself and what it means to be human. You will find a wide range of feelings here: fear and delight, joy and terror, anger and compassion – this is the kind of book that will steal your heart, taking you on an emotional rollercoaster driven by a writing that at times becomes almost lyrical despite its deceiving simplicity.  I found much more than I expected here, and I would not have missed it for the world.

My Rating:


Short Story Review: BLACK FRIDAY, by Alex Irvine


(click on the LINK to read the story online)


Try to imagine the combination of the Black Friday madness in a shopping mall with the Hunger Games and you might get an idea of what this short, brutal story is about.  In a twisted, bloody version of Thanksgiving celebration, family groups engage in battle inside a shopping mall to acquire desired goods and eventually the prizes that have been hidden like Easter eggs in various locations.

The story follows the Anderson family – calling themselves The Mugs – composed by father Caleb and three teenage children, respectively fifteen, fourteen and twelve years old, as they furtively enter the Greenleaf mall armed to the teeth, ready to claim their goals. It becomes immediately clear that this kind of event is followed by television networks all over the country, as drones follow the progress of the groups and newscasters comment with various degrees of excitement as they would for a sports match – with the hideous difference that in this case the match involves the wounding or killing of one’s opponents. That’s where the comparison with the Hunger Games comes to the fore in all its chilling evidence, especially when it illustrates the backing and publicity-seeking of many sponsors…

The competition is ruthless and savage, and the mention of rules to be followed seems more like lip service to a hazy idea of fairness than anything else: these people are there to get what they want and to do so are prepared to roll over the opposition with any means at their disposal, while no one seems interested in forcing adherence to those rules. At some point we learn that


The more predatory teams would be hunting for the wounded, aiming to finish them off under the pretext of checking items off their lists. This is known as vulturing.


showing that the actual goal is not so much the acquisition of a particular object but rather the vicious joy of destroying other lives: that young people, children, are involved in this, trained from an early age to kill without the slightest qualm, and to do it efficiently, makes this story all the more petrifying, especially at the unexpected turn of events in the end.

This is not an easy read, granted, but I wonder if it might not prove helpful in giving some much-needed context – and a chance for reflection – in the running debate about guns…


My Rating: