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Review: FEEDBACK by Mira Grant (Newsflesh #4)

22359662It might sound strange when I say I’m very happy to be back in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, since it depicts a terrifying post-apocalyptic world following a zombie plague, but this author’s powerful, intense narrative always manages to draw me in, enthrall me and make me care and worry for her characters, so that every new installment in this saga is a highly anticipated and very welcome occasion.

A little background: some twenty years before the events at the core of this story, the dead started to rise. There is a well-thought out and scientifically-oriented reason for this: two independent studies were underway to find a cure for cancer (using a mutated strain of the Marburg virus) and the common cold. When both organisms were accidentally released, they combined into the Kellis-Amberlee virus, able to amplify its victims, i.e. transforming them into zombies, and since everyone on the planet was infected, even death by natural causes could bring amplification. Once the worst of the Rising is over, humanity finds itself in the grip of terror, forced to undergo blood tests before entering any enclosed space and to go through decontamination every time they are exposed to a live form of the virus, like blood or other bodily fluids.    The failure of the traditional media in reporting the facts of the Rising results in the emergence of bloggers as the most trusted form of information, and bloggers are indeed the protagonists of the Newsflesh series.

While the first trilogy (Feed, Deadline and Blackout) focuses on the Masons, a brother-sister team of bloggers, Feedback moves its sights toward a different team, although the story parallels –  both in content and in time-frame – the events of the first book in the series, with the bloggers following the last stages of the presidential campaign alongside a candidate’s entourage.   This might sound like the rehashing of an old plot, but it’s not, not by a long shot – and I must warn you that while this book can be read on its own, it contains spoilers for the first volume in the original trilogy.  Feedback complements the first three novels, and adds new insights and information, not unlike what happens when you observe a scene from different angles: since this is above all a story, or series of stories, about news people and the search for information and truth, no perspective can be deemed as superfluous or repetitive.

Aislinn “Ash” North is an Irwin, which in the post-Rising blogging community means the kind of journalist who goes out in the wild, facing the dangers of the undead to give her audience a sense of what the world outside is about.  She’s married to Ben Ross, the Newsie, the team’s writer of more serious, more thoughtful content: it was a marriage of convenience, since it helped Aislinn escape her native Ireland’s oppressive society, but it’s still based on a strong sense of companionship and respect, while their opposing approaches to news content keep the blog fresh and interesting. The other members of the group are Audrey Wen, the Fictional, who writes serialized stories, and Matt Newson, the tech-person who also publishes makeup tutorials.  They are a diverse and well-integrated group and while not at the top of the blogging pyramid like the Masons, they enjoy a good audience and hope to expand: this opportunity comes when they are enrolled by Democratic candidate, governor Susan Killburn, to report on her run toward the White House.  It will soon become clear that there are darker undercurrents in this presidential campaign and the team will discover, to their horror and loss, that the puppet masters are very powerful and will stop at nothing to bring their plans to completion.

What differentiates Feedback from its predecessors is the outward-directed focus on the post-Rising world: readers of the original trilogy will be already aware of the changes in life style, the need for constant blood tests, the bleach showers to remove any trace of contaminants, and so on. These elements are present here as well, but they take second place to a deeper investigation of the changes the Rising brought to society and people’s mind-sets.  Fear is the most powerful drive of the times, and with reason, since the threat of amplification always lurks around the corner, changing the way people must deal with everyday errands, the same ones we face without thinking about it, like entering an underground parking, or a supermarket, or boarding a flight.  So there are those who capitalize on that, as Ash notes at some point, with her irrepressible cheeky wit:

Fear wasn’t just an American pastime: it was a global addiction, and industries of every size existed to satiate it. Some of them were obvious, like the blood tests shoved in front of our faces at every possible turn […]

It’s a theme that was present in the previous books but takes center stage here, because that fear is shown as a useful tool – a lesson we need to be reminded of in these times when fear is used far too often in the same way. The fictional future and our present are therefore linked by this element that is also a commentary on the direction our society seems to be headed toward. As usual, Grant never preaches to her audience, but simply lets her characters’ dialogue connect the story to present-day issues, like a snippet of conversation about one of the candidates, a man who prefers to live in a secluded enclave, away from any contact with the rest of the world:

“The pre-Rising generation thinks of him as a visionary.”

“Everyone else thinks of him as a throwback,” said Rick. “He’s too reactionary, he’s too insular, he wants to build a wall across the Canadian and Mexican border. A wall. As if the damn fences in Texas and Arizona didn’t get people killed during the Rising.”

Considering that Feedback was published at the beginning of October 2016, the above quote takes a very special meaning, indeed.

Apart from these considerations, what I most enjoyed in Feedback are the characters: the group of protagonists here feels more approachable than the Masons were in the original trilogy, they appear more… human, for want of a better word.  The Newsflesh bloggers are all consummate professionals doing their jobs, granted, but Aislinn & Co. feel more in touch with the world, more interested in people than in the exploration of facts and the search for truth. It’s for this reason, I imagine, that Grant showed us more of the outside world in this novel: besides the cities and the convention centers, that featured in the first three books as well, we see some off-the-map communities on both sides of the spectrum, from the survivalists who want to keep away from the dangers of civilization, to mad Clive’s little domain ruled with intimidation and terror. We also see more interaction between blogger teams, and get a perception of what their community is like, how they view each other, be it with professional respect or envy and antagonism.  If I liked the Masons as protagonists, and cared for what happened to them, I grew deeply fond of Ash, Ben, Audrey and Mat – they felt more substantial, more flesh-and blood and less legend, if I’m making any sense. I found the reason for such a difference in a consideration by Aislinn herself:

[…] We’d never considered that letting ourselves be killed might be the answer. It wasn’t worth it. Maybe the Masons would think it was, but the Masons were zealots. They’d been born to the news and if they died making it, they wouldn’t think their lives had been wasted. I didn’t want that. I wanted to live  […]  and not become a footnote for the sake of a story than had never really been mine and had never been meant to be.

People, and what makes them tick, especially in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, are the reason for the continued success of this series, one that draws its horror from the darkness of the human mind rather than from the hordes of flesh-eating undead, that are just background “decoration” here, rather than the main props. Witnessing the cold-blooded exploitation, from those in power, of citizens’ frantic need for security is far more chilling than seeing senseless murders gleefully perpetrated with a barbed-wire-clad bat (yes, TWD, I’m looking right at you!) and it’s far more effective than any given quantity of blood and gore.

As long as Mira Grant (the alter ego for UF writer Seanan McGuire) will keep delivering these meaningful stories of the post-Rising world, I will be looking forward to learning more.

My Rating:


TV Review: STRANGER THINGS (Season 1)

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I encountered a great deal of online praise for this series, so that when I had the opportunity to watch it I jumped in eagerly, and with no expectations of any kind, since I knew very little about it. What I found is a small jewel of a story, one that ensnared me completely and led to a quick, compulsive watch.

The story and background have something of a nostalgic feel, thanks to the opening titles that are a clear call-back to the ‘80s – the time period in which the events are set – and to the soundtrack through which we revisit a few hits from those years. Moreover, there is a definite Stephen King vibe to the plot itself, a faint reminiscence of “IT” and “Firestarter”, with some “Carrie” overtones thrown in: which does not mean that the story is derivative, not at all, but rather that it wants to pay homage to the undiscussed master of the genre. And this is just one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, young Will Byers disappears without a trace while returning home after a day spent with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. Local police start the search for the boy, but it’s clear that they are not putting all their hearts and energies into it, so that his three friends decide to start looking on their own.  Meanwhile, a  frightened girl with weird powers manages to escape from a nearby secret government installation and connects with the three friends, who believe she might be able to help them find Will.   Something else escaped from the secret facility, however, some formless creature from an alternate dimension, and the missing people’s count starts to go up…

The undeniable truth that characters are everything comes to the fore here in Stranger Things, because each and every one of them gets the chance to shine and to add his or her own contribution to a very satisfying whole: to my surprise, the young kids were the ones who worked best in the economy of the story.  From my point of view, television rarely fares well with younger characters, either making them too “old” and adult for their age, or excessively playing on the cuteness factor; here, though, kids are kids, and in a delightful, naïve way that portrays them with accuracy, showing at the same time a richness of imagination that’s typical of that age and that is able to navigate the thin border between reality and fantasy with ease and profound belief.

When we first see them, before Will’s disappearance, they are playing at some board game, dealing with dangerous traps and terrifying fictional monsters with gleeful abandon. Once their friend vanishes and the mysterious Eleven literally lands on their doorstep, they are ready to acknowledge her weird powers with the same easy acceptance of gamers who are being offered a special card to play. This does not mean they walk into danger blindfolded, on the contrary their game-playing seems to have prepared them, both mentally and on a practical level, to face the hazards from unbelievable monsters, and uncomprehending adults, with enviable clarity.

Among the adults, the best performance comes from Joyce, Will’s mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder: the distraught desperation of a mother, ready to believe the unbelievable for the sake of her son, is depicted with amazing craft, never going over the top despite the truly crazy paths she chooses to travel. Close second comes Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), a man marked by a tragic past and walking the very thin line between duty and the need to do the right thing.

Stranger Things, before the tale of weird horror it is on the surface, is above all a tale about marginalized people having to face extraordinary events: Will and his friends are smaller kids, not exactly geared for physicality, and therefore the butt of cruel jokes and constant hazing from the school bullies; Joyce is a single mother, struggling to make ends meet and therefore looked on with suspicion by the closed society of a small town; Sheriff Hopper has a history of drinking as a coping mechanism against his loss, and does not enjoy the full respect of his deputies – the two best (or rather worst) examples of small-minded members of an inward-facing community. And finally Eleven, a child who was taken from her mother at birth because of her peculiar powers, raised and trained by Doctor Brenner (a very disturbing Matthew Modine) with a cold, practical efficiency that to me represents the true horror of the story, even beyond that of the blood-thirsty monster from the parallel reality.

The eight episodes of the first season of Stranger Things manage to concentrate a great deal of story and character development in such a small time frame, and to make the most of that time with a judicious use of pacing and the levels of tension. While the main events do reach a sort of conclusion, the door is left open for further developments – either in the same setting or a different one – and not all mysteries are solved: a choice I greatly appreciated and one that will keep me on the alert for the arrival of Season Two.

My Rating:


TOP TEN TUESDAY #4

TOP TEN TUESDAY is a meme created at The Broke and The Bookish, with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.

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For this last week of the year, the topic is: Top Ten Best Books of 2016

When the time comes to draw up a list like this, I find myself faced with some hard choices, because most of the books I’ve reviewed – and for 2016 they amount to a round 60, which is something of a record for me, given the limited time I can devote to reading – are books I liked quite a bit.

I spoke of reviewed books, rather than simply read, because some of the titles I picked up ended in the DNF  pile, and of these I reviewed only a few – those for which I felt a very strong need to share the reasons  I didn’t like them, although I managed to soldier on past the 25% mark that for me is the “make or break” point.   Which means there are a few more that didn’t even make the list because I could not connect with either story or characters and moved on quite swiftly.

So, of these 60 books, only 3 were abandoned before the end, and I had to pick my favorite 10 out of the remaining 57: as I said, not an easy feat, and that’s the reason I’m not going to list my ten favorite titles in any particular order of preference, but rather in the order I read them. It’s the most Solomonic solution I could come up with…

 

THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART, by Ben Tripp

ILLUMINAE, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

DREAMER’S POOL, by Juliet Marillier

A RED ROSE CHAIN & ONCE BROKEN FAITH, by Seanan McGuire  (I could not pick just one of them…)

MORNING STAR, by Pierce Brown

THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman

DARK ASCENSIONS, by M.L. Brennan

THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham

HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds

BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey  (forthcoming review)

 

Ok, the count really goes to 11 titles, but I can bend the rules a little if I consider that the books in the October Daye series are all parts of the same whole. Can I?

And what about you?  What are your favorite reads for this year?

Review: THE UNNOTICEABLES, by Robert Brockway

23168833When a book starts as strongly as this one did, with a story that’s attention-grabbing from page one, the disappointment for its failed promises hurts twice as much: this is what happened to me with The Unnoticeables, whose narrative arc… imploded (for want of a better word) two thirds of the way in.

The story runs on two different time tracks, separated by 36 years: Carey, living in New York in 1977, is a young man reveling in the time’s punk scene, spending his days getting drunk, stoned – or both – and generally causing any kind of mayhem he can think of; Kaitlyn lives in Los Angeles, in 2013, as a part-time stuntwoman, part-time waitress trying, and so far failing, to bring her stunt work to the next level.  Both of them are confronted by something that is both inexplicable and terrifying, something that possesses all the markers of a slowly spreading invasion.

The first inkling that something terrible is going on happens when Carey sees a girl he’s interested in being attacked by what looks like a man-shaped oily mass: the thing acts like acid, consuming the unfortunate girl and leaving only bloody remains behind. Moreover, in the area where Carey and his friends prowl, some peculiar individuals start cropping up: they  all appear good-looking and attractive, but as soon as one’s eyes leave them, their features blur and no ones seems able to remember what they look like.  Worse, whenever these people – dubbed by Carey “the Empty Ones” – manage to attract any given individual, the unfortunates disappear without a trace.

Kaitlyn, on the other hand, suffers from a more close-and-personal confrontation: at a party she meets Marco, former sitcom star and her teenage years’ crush. Accepting a ride back home from the man, she’s first appalled by his reckless driving and uncaring attitude, which make her think Marco is somewhat deranged, then he forces himself on her. More shocking than the sexual assault is its modality: Kaitlyn feels something metallic slide down her throat, and her strength and willpower being drained away.  Saved by someone who bodily extracts her from Marco’s car, she makes Carey’s acquaintance: older, probably wiser but still tainted with his old recklessness, he’s living like a borderline homeless, but he has information on the Empty Ones – and is willing to help Kaitlyn trace her friend Jackie who disappeared after that fateful party.

The novel’s chapters alternate between Carey’s past and Kaitlyn’s present with a relentless pace that makes the book a compulsive read while we follow their scary journey of discovery: the two main characters are the best and strongest elements of the story, their voices persuasively true and their dialogue or thoughts evenly balanced between stark, dramatic reality and sarcastic humor. Carey comes across as the best defined one, though: the outrageous style of life he and his friends are pursuing should make them offensive, and yet there is a sort of wild abandon in Carey, tinged with the somewhat lucid awareness of what he is, that managed to endear him to me, and to make me root for him – especially when his rough attachment to his friends comes to the fore, almost belying his devil-may-care attitude.

Once Kaitlyn’s disbelief at her new friend’s revelations evaporates, the two decide to go on the offensive to try and save Jackie, and they pursue Marco’s car in a mad motorcycle dash through the congested traffic of Los Angeles. They follow him to a mansion where a party is in progress, and though realizing that the place must be crawling with Empty Ones like Marco they decide to go in: this is where the story started unraveling and making less and less sense to me.  For starters, I could not figure out what the two were trying to accomplish knowing they were vastly outnumbered by people (if one wanted to call them that…) who could not be hurt, harmed or stopped in any way. And then the real madness kicked in…

What had started as a horror story about strange beings preying on unsuspecting humanity, and the slow infiltration of the Empty Ones in various facets of society (the most chilling example being Kaitlyn’s trip to the police station to denounce Marco’s assault), suddenly morphed into something best defined as crazily grotesque: the dangerous environment of the hellish party is only the front for what happens in the closed back rooms, where blood-drenched orgies lead to every kind of imaginable (and  unimaginable…) sex perversion, give way to a frenzy of horrific mutilations and killings, all of which with no apparent rhyme or reason, except maybe the author’s penchant for imagining and depicting the most revolting and senseless acts of destruction.

At that point, only the desire for some sort of explanation kept me reading on, despite the appearance of even more gory weirdness in the form of a strange contraption to which the Empty Ones’ victims were being fed, all in the name of a nebulous fight against entropy.  Sadly, whatever form of explanation, or clue to understanding the bloody mess this story had turned into, was not enough to save this novel from the downward plunge it had taken in my consideration.   I’m not even certain I entirely grasped whatever passed for explanation: the only thing I’m sure about is that I will not pursue this series further.

 

My Rating:

Review: THOSE ACROSS THE RIVER, by Christopher Buehlman

10772903Right after the great find that was “The Lesser Dead”, I wanted to read more of Christopher Buehlman’s work and settled on this shortish novel set in the era of the Great Depression.  Here the main character is former WWI soldier Frank Nichols, still haunted by nightmares about his war experiences: he lost his job as a history teacher after starting an affair with the young wife of a colleague with friends in high places, so that he and Dora – who divorced her husband to follow Frank – seem to find a break in their difficult situation when Frank’s aunt leaves him a small inheritance and the deed to a house in Whitbrow, Georgia.  Forsaking the aunt’s warning about selling the house and never setting foot in the place, the two decide to start a new life: Dora will teach at the local school and Frank will write a book about the cruel history of a nearby plantation, owned by one of his ancestors and the theatre of a bloody slave revolt.

Shortly after arriving in Whitbrow, though, the couple starts hearing vague warnings about never walking in the woods across the river – curiously enough, the location of the old plantation – and they are faced with a strange ritual: every two months, the village’s inhabitants release two pigs into the woods, following a tradition that seems almost festive, if it were not for the historical moment’s privations and the need to provide for more urgent needs.  It goes without saying that the collective decision to bow to the time’s hardships will unleash an unstoppable chain of terrible events…

What’s fascinating in this novel is that the truly supernatural horror, whose origin is revealed a good way into the story, seems to take almost second place to a different, and more human-related kind of dread.  Whitbrow is a stagnant place, not only as a result of the Great Depression (even though its mark is deeply felt), but more as the product of an age-old torpor that has taken possession of the minds and souls of its inhabitants, and that quickly ensnares Frank as well.  The drive to write his novel is soon drowned in the daily visits to the local store, where he engages in endless checkers games with the patrons under the guise of gathering background information for his story, but in truth succumbing to the timeless inertia that seems to be the village’s modus vivendi.

Whitbrow’s dullness goes hand in hand with a deeply rooted distrust of strangers, of those who are different: this extends to both out-of-owners (their quick acceptance of Frank due solely to his family ties) and the truly different, like the homeless moving across the land and, of course, black people.  There are a few scenes where the animosity toward these “aliens” is shown in no uncertain terms: given the recurrence of this phenomenon in our present times, the unwillingness of some to extend human consideration toward the less fortunate “outsiders”, these pages take on a far more chilling flavor than it was probably intended at the time they were written…

And then there is the closing of the villagers’ minds to anything new, to the possibility of attaining something better in one’s life: Dora’s struggle to keep the children in school when their families prefer to steer them toward field work, is one such example. There is one situation in which she and Frank go to the home of one of her most gifted pupils, in the hope of offering her more advanced schooling, and the scene that Buehlman depicts is both historically accurate and vivid, as they are met with cold indifference and mulish refusal from the girl’s father, and a sort of hopeless compliance from the daughter:

[…] looked up from the chicken she was plucking in the kitchen and peeked through the doorway, but she did not risk a hello. I guess she never knew exactly when to speak in this house, but with her daddy it was good to err in favor of silence.

After these all-too-real evils, the apparition of the true horror seems almost mundane, even though the discovery brings forth an abomination that goes back a long time, something that has always dwelled near the village – ignored and maybe conveniently forgotten. And this is where the story’s magic fell somewhat short for me: from the opening’s chilling preview to the big reveal there is an increasing sense of foreboding that unfortunately loses steam once the proverbial cat (or rather critter) is out of the bag and the carefully crafted buildup flounders in a great deal of anti-climatic exposition that does not fully realize the expectations I nurtured up to that moment.

All in all it was still a good read, but I’m sorry I cannot rate it as high as the previous book I sampled from this author, even though this slight disappointment will not prevent me from exploring further Mr. Buehlman’s work.

My Rating:


Review: DARK ASCENSIONS (Generation V #4), by M.L. Brennan

23590296After finishing this book I went in search of information on the Generation V series, and the possibilities to keep on reading about Fort, Suzume & Co., and what I found did not encourage me greatly: there are two more books planned, but they have yet to… find a home, so to speak, and therefore the author is concentrating on a new series. Much as I’m sorry to have to say goodbye (at least for now – I’m an incurable optimist) to these characters and their adventures, I can take comfort in the knowledge that I can look forward to more stories from M.L. Brennan: given how much I’ve enjoyed the Generation V novels, I know that I will buy everything she puts on the shelves, sight unseen.

That said, let’s move on to the review for the fourth installment in the series…

Transition. This is the word that has been looming ever larger on Fortitude Scott’s horizon since we first met him, and here – in a book that is mainly concerned with transformation and passage – that transition has become unavoidable, in more ways than one.   Madeleine Scott’s failing health, something we have been aware of from the very first novel in the series, has reached the point of no return and her passing heralds a series of changes that involve the main characters, both singly and as a group.

Madeline’s death is one the most quietly moving pieces of writing I can remember: I kept thinking, as I read, that in less skillful hands it could have skirted into cheap sentimentalism, but instead it turned into something that was both tragic and intensely emotional: “I felt the bond shatter, like a fluted sugar sculpture that had been spun out like stained glass and is dropped to the floor. The death of the bond, and the death of my mother, cut through me, and the pain was unimaginable.”  Those scenes were further enhanced by a few touches that reminded me both of a pharaoh’s death and a Viking’s funeral – which were entirely appropriate for such a strong, commanding character.  The aftermath presents what is probably the most difficult challenge that the Scott siblings have faced until now: since Madeline refused to name her heir, her three children are forced to work together and reach decisions… by committee.  Considering the huge difference in their personalities, the ensuing stalemate is hardly a surprise.

All three of them have come into their vampire-hood in different ways, so that Prudence – the eldest – is the less interested (to be nice about it…) in the collateral damage resulting from any decision, and her first and only answer to any problem remains destructive violence.  The phrase “death by Prudence” used by Fort at some point might be humorous in intent, but it paints an all too clear picture of the Scott firstborn’s attitude.  As the middle child, Chivalry stands between his two siblings, acknowledging Prudence’s need for a strong response and Fortitude’s penchant for the softer approach. And Fort himself, not surprisingly, is the one who always advocates taking the less violent, more humane path.

Once more I asked myself, as I observed the interpersonal dynamics between the three, if Madeline’s choice of different upbringings for her children was some sort of experiment, her way to shape a different path for her successors – or even for the vampire community. If the ultimate goal was to attain some kind of balance, the trio’s first attempts at it are less than successful, the only agreement they reach concerning as mundane a matter as the interior décor of the mansion…  What this means for the future of the family, and the empire Madeleine built, remains to be seen, although Prudence’s way of resolving the first impasse is far from encouraging. And yet there is hope for the three of them because – despite the differences in personality and outlook – they share a strong, if often unspoken, bond of affection transcending the individual leanings, much as Prudence’s side of it still scares the hell our of Fort, as he sums up with: “My sister was never more terrifying to me than when she was showing her affection.”

Another, more compelling consequence of the matriarch’s death is the completion of Fort’s transition into a vampire: until now, he has been able to deny his nature (or at least to keep at bay its less savory aspects) by emphasizing his humanity and accepting only the “good” sides of being a vampire, like increased strength and more acute senses. But without Madeline to draw blood from (in what I always saw as a very twisted analogue to breast-feeding…), Fortitude has no other choice but to submit to his needs, to finally acknowledge that he must drink blood to survive.  Again, I want to praise Ms. Brennan’s choice of giving this very dramatic moment a completely different outlook from what I expected: Suzume’s presence, as accomplice and moral support, removes any shade of horror or grossness from the scene, and even gives to Fort’s first feeding a patina of rightness that both eases him into this new side of his life (without “post-meal remorse”, as Suzume labels it) while helping the readers keep their image of the character substantially unchanged.

Suzume is indeed Fort’s center of gravity, the true rock on which he can stand – which is sort of funny, given the kitsune’s unpredictable behavior – and she’s the one who provides much-needed balance to his constantly shifting world and perspectives. Their relationship is one of the best facets of this story, because it’s quite unconventional and free of any traditionally romantic overtones – and how could it be, when Suze unashamedly bills the Scott family for the time she spends in Fort’s company? Despite this “hiccup” and the constant hazing she inflicts on him during his working hours (just two words: Kitsune Karaoke – enough said!), it’s clear that Suzume is quite committed to Fortitude and their relationship, and seems pleased when he takes a stand about it. Her ultimate goal is to wake him up to the though realities of life, so that they will not overcome him. As she tells him at some point: “I just don’t want you to end up like a marshmallow Peep in the microwave of the world.

This fourth book in the Generation V series is a game-changer, one that leaves its readers with many questions about future developments, and therefore makes the uncertainty about the continuation of the story doubly frustrating. Nonetheless this is a series I would recommend strongly to both enthusiasts of the genre and to those who are new to Urban Fantasy, on the strength of its rich characterization and strong writing.

My Rating:


GIVEAWAY! A Whisper of Leaves by Ashley Capes

I’m very happy to share the news that Australian author Ashley Capes is hosting a giveaway of his novella A WHISPER OF LEAVES on Instafreebie: you will find the download link HERE. The giveaway starts today and will go on until August 25th, so hurry and grab your copy!

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The story, in short:

When ESL teacher Riko finds an old journal buried in the forests beneath Mt Fuji, a malevolent, untraceable force begins to threaten her at every turn.

But is it all in her head?

The more she studies the journal for answers, the more questions she uncovers. Worse, no-one takes her fears seriously and her best lead appears to be a belligerent old man, whose only care in the world is raking leaves deep in the forest.

With her grip on reality shaken and friendships strained to breaking point, Riko has to discover the truth about the journal in order to put ghosts of the past to rest, as strange events turn deadly.

If you’re interested, here is my review of the novella, but I urge you to go and read for yourselves this very moody, very peculiar story. Enjoy!

 

Review: THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman

20893407The first time I heard about this author was through reviews of his upcoming new novel The Suicide Motor Club, so I decided to try out his previous works and settled on this one whose main theme – vampires in the very urbanized context of New York city in the late ‘70s – sounded quite promising.  Well, it was more than that, a great deal more.

The vampire myth is one of the staples of horror fiction, one that underwent many permutations lately, from the humorous declination of a handful of movies to the angsty, overly romanticized version of a certain well-known saga, but for me the true vampire is the one that remains true to its first incarnation: the blood-drinking monster preying on defenseless humanity, and Christopher Buehlman’s vampires are exactly that – without frills or sparkly glamor.

The action takes place in 1978 New York and the story is told from the point of view of Joey Peacock, who was turned into a vampire in 1933 at the age of fourteen: 45 years later he’s living (if you can use that term with the undead, of course) with a community of his brethren in the abandoned tunnels of New York’s subway system. The group is led by Margaret, formerly a maid in Joey’s household, and she rules them with the iron fist of a queen of old: one of the most fascinating sides of this novel comes exactly from the dynamics of this vampire community and the different personalities of its members, who have somehow retained the characteristics of their lost humanity, integrating them into the changed necessities of their state as vampires.

For example, Joey – despite his decades as a blood predator – still remains the pampered, selfish teenager he was at the time he was turned, and the author’s skill in characterization shines through in the balance he achieves between the wise cunning of the vampire he is and the petty yearnings of the youth he was. There is a scene that drives home this duality and that stayed with me for some time, due to its chilling quality: Buehlman’s vampires have no need to physically subdue their victims, since they can exert some form of hypnosis that renders them docile and accepting, and that’s exactly what Joey does with a whole family, sitting with them in front of the TV, watching some mindless, mind-numbing show, as he feeds from each of them in turn as if from a box of snacks.

There is nothing romantic in these vampires, not in the way they cater to their own needs, nor in the way they live: despite the attempts at decorating their subterranean lairs, still the life they lead closely resembles that of the homeless with whom they share the tunnels. Darkness, dirt and decay are their constant companions, with no concession to glamor whatsoever – except the one they wear to move undisturbed and unnoticed through an oblivious humanity, made even more oblivious by the “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” attitude of the times.  This lack of any exotic overtone to Buehlman’s vampires is compounded by the creeping awareness that the undead are not immune from decline, that eternity is tainted by isolation, melancholy or peculiar forms of madness that are as dangerous as their human counterparts, as it happens with Night Fever:

You might guess it’s kinda like cabin fever, and, yeah, that’s close. Night fever is what happens when a vampire can’t take being in the dark anymore. […] It’s a disease of the soul.

The status quo is broken when Joey’s community becomes aware of a group of vampire children who not only prey on humans without the discretion necessary to keep their existence concealed, but also engage in gruesome rituals before killing their victims. Margaret and Co. are compelled to intervene, not out of a sense of compassion toward the murdered humans, but rather because of the threat of discovery, while Joey and his friend Cvetko – and older, scholarly-inclined vampire – also feel a need to protect these children, whose former innocence still seems to flash through their animalistic behavior.  And this will lead them on an unexpected path…

What I most enjoyed in this book is the way any expectations I had were twisted beyond recognition, starting with Joey himself: he warns the readers up front that he’s a deceiver, someone who cannot be trusted:

You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.

Still with me?

Too bad for you.

I can’t wait to break your heart.

Despite the warning – or because of it? – the atmosphere drew me in and kept me spellbound until the very last page: part of it is due to Joey’s peculiar narrative style, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a coherent tale, and part is due to the strong feeling of impending disaster that permeates the air, of looming danger that has no form or substance and yet is there, just out of the corner of one’s eye, unavoidable and at the same time utterly fascinating.

Buehlman dares his readers to go on, to see what’s around the next dark corner, while at the same time he warns them that things are not what they seem, but just like his vampires, once we have opened the book, once we have invited him in, there is not way we can escape the spell. Even when the story seems to have reached its end, before the last chapter named “Coda”, he warns us about proceeding no further, but by that time he has ensnared us so deeply that there is no other way than forward, and on to a shattering surprise.

Well done, viciously well done…

My Rating:


Review: THE GRENDEL AFFAIR (the S.P.I. files #1), by Lisa Shearin

17912981If the police are there to protect citizens from your run-of-the-mill bad guys, what happens when these bad guys are supernatural creatures? No need to invoke the famous Ghostbusters, because SPI exists precisely for this reason. Supernatural Protection and Investigations works to safeguard humans from scary creatures like vampires or ghouls or whatever, and to keep their existence as secret as possible.  Makenna “Mac” Fraser has been enrolled by SPI for her rare gift: she is a Seer, someone who can see through any disguise or spell cast by supernaturals to cover their non-human appearance.

Unlike other Urban Fantasy heroines, Mac is not a brooding, ass-kicking lady or someone with a dark, terrible past she’s trying to forget: she’s a rather ordinary person, holding a job as a tabloid reporter investigating the kind of fake monster sightings that the trashy press most enjoys, only to be contacted by SPI because of her peculiar characteristic. She has the quite uncommon ability to see the real monsters under the human mask they wear. She is also quite unprepared for the dangers SPI agents have to face each day and is quite straightforward about it, studiously avoiding to rush in where angels (or better trained operatives) fear to tread.  That was the first quality I appreciated in this character, the willingness to admit her own shortcomings and the reluctance to face unknown dangers, even though these are part of her job description: too often in this genre the spunky protagonist finds herself well in over her head and regularly needs saving, while Mac knows her limits and also knows when to take a step back and let her more experienced co-workers take over, with no qualms or inferiority complex whatsoever.

And what interesting co-workers she has! Starting with her partner Ian, a former cop who at first does not look too happy to babysit a rookie, but who quickly changes attitude once he understands that Mac does not intend to be just excess baggage but wants to be trained – as much as her own limits allow – so she can be an effective operative the others can depend on.  There are a few dark corners to Ian, some of which we uncover in the course of the story, and he comes across as a decent guy – again avoiding the cliché of the skilled agent looking down on the newbie and putting her through hell just for the sake of it. I also like the partnership and friendship vibes coming off Ian and Mac that might in future evolve into something deeper, but don’t seem in a hurry to do so – another overused trope happily avoided.

Then there are people like Yasha, the Russian werewolf, or Kenji, the computer-savvy Elf, or again Alain Moreau, SPI’s resident lawyer who’s also a vampire (there’s some not-so-understated subtext here, I’m certain…). But the most impressive of them all is Vivienne Sagadraco, the director who, as her name suggests is indeed a dragon. A dragon lady in every sense of the word, to be precise. This diverse and interesting cast animates a quickly developing and fast-paced story that mixes adventure and humor in a successful way, while continuing to raise the stakes until the very end: the kind of book that keeps you glued to its pages and at the same time makes you smile – and sometimes laugh out loud, mostly through Mac’s self-effacing jokes like this one:

There were entirely too many grave markers lurking just below the snow’s surface on that hillside, and my feet were doing a fine job of finding every last one of them. I’d made two face-down snow angels and one outright sprawl.

The story itself focuses on a complex plot to make the world aware of the truth about supernaturals in a most dramatic way, by unleashing the titular Grendels on an unsuspecting crowd on New Year’s Eve: from what we learn, the mythical creature vanquished by Beowulf does indeed exist and is even more dangerous (and prolific!) than its literary ancestor – the scenes concerning the hatching of the Grendel’s eggs make for some of the most terrifying and claustrophobic reading I can remember – and SPI finds its resources taxed to the maximum to contain and eliminate the threat.  If you enjoy breathless monster hunts through abandoned subway tunnels or multi-layered plotlines that finally converge into an explosive climax, with the added bonus of a crew of battle-hungry Scandinavian agents who enjoy a good, gory fight just as much as their Viking forebears did, this is indeed the book for you.

My Rating:


TEASER TUESDAY #8

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

After reading so many glowing reviews about Christopher Buehlman’s novels, I decided to try one of them and picked up THE LESSER DEAD, a story about vampires dwelling in New York’s subway tunnels.  These are vampires of the most classical and terrifying kind, feasting on preys they have previously charmed, i.e. hypnotized (sort of) and bent to their will.

I was lying back on the couch, holding Mrs. Baker’s arm in my lap, a sort of ugly orange-and-brow knitted couch cover under her arm because her wrist was bleeding and I didn’t want to get it on my faded bell-bottoms. I held the wrist up every once in a while to drink from it, wiping my lips with a paper towel.

The horror here does not lie on the act of feeding itself, but rather on the apparent normalcy of the scene: a family sitting in their living room, while the vampire sits among his subjugated captives, nibbling from them as if they were the kind of snack we all enjoy while watching TV.

Beyond chilling….