Review: Trackers 2: The Hunted by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

Trackers 2: The Hunted
$13.29
By Nicolas Sansbury Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As much as I love Nicholas Sansbury Smith's Extinction Cycle books, his new Trackers series feels like a breath of fresh air with its lack of sci-fi horror creatures (and, mind you, I do love me some sci-fi horror creatures an awful lot). The drama and action in these books are spurred 100 percent by human actors and motivators, keeping the plot completely grounded in reality. With his other series, there's a certain element of the fantastic that helps provide a friendly buffer for escapist thrills, but Trackers carries with it a measure of authenticity that's all the more chilling.

Five days ago, North Korea launched an attack against the United States (in the book, I mean. But depending on when you're reading this, it could be true), collapsing much of American society with a massive electromagnetic pulse blast and nuking Washington, D.C. While the Korean threat continues to lurk in the background of The Hunted, the main narrative thrust concerns the dangers of homegrown American threats, specifically an Aryan splinter-ground calling themselves the Sons of Liberty. As with Trackers, Estes Park is Ground Zero for all the bad news, and Sioux tracker Raven Spears and Major Nathan Sardetti are again on the front lines and trying to hold together what's left of their society.

Smith's storytelling skills are front and center with this book, and he's crafted one heck of a page-turner. I had to force myself to slowdown at times, but the pacing of this book is so rapid-fire all you can do is try to keep up. It's like this sucker runs on rocket fuel, and boy does it ever burn hot.

I liked the first Trackers book a lot, but this one is even better. I attribute a lot of this to Nazi punching. There's a lot of skinheads in this book, and it's a real treat to read them getting their just deserts. I was whopping with joy as they got the snot kicked out of them, or met the business end of a rifle or axe blade. It's just such good stuff, and a perfect remedy for our current American climate where some people are actually questioning whether or not it's OK to punch Nazis. Pro-tip: It is ALWAYS OK to punch Nazis. In fact, there are few things more patriotic than Nazi sleaze getting the crap kicked out them by Real American Heroes, and Smith writes those scenes with his usual action flair. It's great!

This book gets all 5 Nazi-punching stars. And if you liked the first Trackers book, you're going to be in for a real treat with this seriously gripping second installment.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the author.]

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Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood [audiobook]

The Handmaid's Tale: Special Edition
$25.95 $25.95
By Margaret Atwood, Valerie Martin - essay
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

By all accounts, I really should have liked this book more. Picture a dystopian near-future America where Christofascists have taken over, turned the country into a monotheocracy, and enslaved women into a life of servitude and procreation. It's certainly a timely read in the Age of Trump and Republican desires to set the country's clock back a couple hundred years (best-case scenario), that's for sure. There's rebellions, an underground railroad helping women escape, mysterious colonies where the "impure" women are banished, brainwashing camps, might makes right mentalities, etc.

It sounds great, right? Only problem is, all the things that are most interesting about this world are swept under the rug and largely ignored. Atwood hints at them, but never dives any deeper than that. All the suspense and drama is forsaken for a narrative about dull, servile domesticity. And while that may be the point, it makes for one hell of a slog to get through.

My only previous experience with Atwood was 2015's The Heart Goes Last, which I also didn't care for. She may be a hell of a writer, but unfortunately it seems she is just not for me. Conceptually, she crafts some mighty fine ideas, but the execution is sorely lacking. I need more suspense, drama, and action to keep me interested.

The Handmaid's Tale is just too slow, too plodding, and too mundane to do much for me. Perhaps I simply expected too much, given the acclaim, awards, and fannish devotion this book has inspired in so many other readers? Now that we're getting close to 100 days in Trump's America, a dystopia come to life if I've ever seen one, there's really very little that's quiet about it. We've got neo-Nazi's running rampant both within and outside the White House, daily threats of war and a serial sex offender President who, during his campaign, kept asking why we don't just use our nukes, in between demanding protesters be beaten and mocking the disabled, religious crazies stockpiled to the rafters of Congress, and women's rights being threatened on a daily basis. There's nothing quiet and mundane about any of this, and yet Offred's future enslavement is so very, very prosaic and quaint. I wanted something that would rile me up and make me shake my hands in fury. I wanted heroes to rise up against the tyranny and fight back. I wanted a rebellion to root for!

Instead, there's none of that. We witness the occasional hanging, we get a few sentences to illuminate how this world came to be, and we get to accompany Offred on some of her regular shopping trips to buy chicken and soap. There's even a nice scene where she eats a piece of toast. Meanwhile, any opportunity for struggle or strength or triumph is strangled in the crib.

Claire Danes narrates the audiobook and does a fine job of it, given that the narrative itself is pretty milquetoast. This new Audible edition has some bonus material, which I skipped because I'd already gotten my fill on the material with the book itself.

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Review: The Blade This Time by Jon Bassoff

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Blade This Time opens with our Narrator waking in the tunnels beneath New York's subways. After escaping back to the surface, he wanders the streets until he comes across a wig shop with notice of an apartment for rent. The apartment was previously rented by a painter, Max Leider, who has fled the scene and left behind his clothes and paintings of the tenement across the street. The Narrator quickly becomes fascinated with these paintings, and the woman, garbed in funeral clothes, across the way.

I enjoyed what Jon Bassoff did in his previous books, The Incurables and Factory Town, the latter especially with its incongruous puzzle-box nature of storytelling. Unfortunately, I just didn't find myself all that interested in his latest effort.

The Blade This Time is too straightforward and linear, especially in comparison to the surreal, dreamscape narrative of Factory Town, and it was disappointing to have Bassoff spill all his secrets so early in the narrative. The book opens with a definition of a particular psychological disorder, which sets up the narrative nicely, but there's not many shocks or surprises to follow. This is a slow, psychological work of dark fiction, but it never really picks up or leads to any particular revelations, or at least none that aren't clearly, and disappointingly, telegraphed within the book's first few chapters.

Bassoff does a particularly fine job of writing those darker psychological compulsions that plague his characters, though. The Narrator's descent into madness is well-drawn, and there's a few terrific parallels drawn between him and the various characters he crosses paths with. But, for me, it's a lesser work in Bassoff's growing body of novels, and I kept wishing the plot would get more wrinkly and complicated than it does.

[Note: As a member of the DarkFuse Reader's Group, I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: Fairy Lights by Edward Lorn

Fairy Lights
By Edward Lorn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've only read a couple of Edward Lorn's short stories previously, but I'm a fan of the dude on a personal level. So, full disclosure time - I follow and occasionally interact with Ed on a variety of social media platforms, including Goodreads (his honest and candid book reviews is how I happened upon him in the first place), and I was thrilled to hear he had signed with DarkFuse for this release. This, however, has not impacted my view of the work, and the following is my honest review of the material.

Fairy Lights is a simple wrong place/wrong time horror in the woods story. Something dangerous is lurking in the forest, and a mother, her son, and his friend inadvertently stumble into the thick of things while on what should have been a fun weekend camping getaway.

This novella is a fun read, and it kept me engaged and entertained during my brief moments of lucidity as I battled to the near-death with the stomach bug from hell. It's also yet one more reason to add to the pile for why I won't ever go camping.

Lorn creates some pretty chilling monsters here, in both human form and otherwise. The violence is visceral and left me squirming a few times (one scene involving an arm and a machete is unlikely to leave my mind anytime soon). And the characters, thankfully, and for the most part, are pretty entertaining. The central leads are two teenage boys, and their snarky camaraderie reminded me of some of the circles I ran in during my youth.

My only real criticism is that the book feels a bit lopsided, and that's chalked up to the way plot is executed. There's a lot of sex and sexuality running through the book's first half, with hardly a chapter gone by without some reflection on penis size, pornography, or sex acts (consensual or otherwise). Some of this material felt a bit too extraneous in the grander scheme of things, particularly with its near-total absence in the second-half (granted, there is a reason, story-wise, for this, but I'm not going to spoil it). The second-half of the book, in general, is a lighter, almost breezier affair, as the characters deal with the fallout of the book's previous half and the nature of the threat becomes almost existential for a few of the survivors.

Despite a little bit of imbalance to the story as a whole, Fairy Lights is a fast-paced and entertaining horror romp.

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Review: Beneath by Kristi DeMeester

Beneath
By Kristi DeMeester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beneath is one heck of a book, for the most part. I'll state up front that the ending didn't quite work for me, and it felt as if DeMeester wasn't sure how to wrap up the events of her story in a satisfying way. This is a slow-burn horror book, but where there should have been a big finale, the story disappointingly fizzles out and slowly fades away. I would also advise that this very much a "me" issues, and might not be a "you" issue, so please don't let that deter you. Read it and judge for yourself!

The first 3/4+ of Beneath are absolutely terrific. I really dug the atmosphere DeMeester conjures with her cult of Appalachian snake handlers and the investigative reporter, Cora, sent on assignment to dig up some dirt on these backwoods folks and their sincerely held religious belief that poisonous snakes should bite small children to see if God will deem them worthy of saving. Cora is a dogged journalist, but also deeply scarred by her mother's religiosity and her youth. In the opening pages, DeMeester lays out a history of Cora's victimization at the hands of a pedophile priest. This history first compels her to stay far, far away from the assignment, until she's finally goaded into taking the story from her editor. Once in the small mountain town, she notices hints that Father Michael is not the charismatic preacher he plays at, and recognizes in him similar pedophiliac traits as the abuser of her youth. When he stares a little too longingly at one of his parishioners, a young girl named Laura, Cora promises to ruin Michael and expose his cult for what it is.

All of this is merely prologue, though, for a dark and squirming horror story that pushes Beneath into some very different material than what I had expected at the outlay. While the war of wills between Cora and Michael could have been compelling on its own, the author ups the ante even further with the inclusion of a supernatural menace, an evil that lurks buried in the earth itself. The plots takes a wonderfully realized twist that good and truly sank its fangs into me, and I was totally captivated.

DeMeester hit some absolutely terrific highs, even as she takes a quiet approach to unraveling the frights. There's plenty of action, but the story itself is never bombastic. The subdued approach is what makes Beneath so effective and infecting. At least, for me, right up until the end.

Beneath ultimately falls into a familiar trap. You know the one. You've probably seen it a thousand times in any given James Bond movie. The bad guys have the heroes cornered, and it wouldn't take hardly anything at all to kill them and win the day. And yet, inexplicably, for no good reason at all, the good guys get a pass and are allowed to just walk away.

Something similar happens here in the push toward the grand finale, and I kept scratching my head as to why it was allowed. It's an easy out, and I can't think of one good reason why it should have happened the way it did. Still, the story continues to chug along for a few chapters more, mostly so the bad guys can continue to play their mind games for a little while longer. But instead of giving us a satisfying closure, DeMeester again goes for those quiet somber tones, which has worked so well for the rest of the book but suddenly falls flat in its final pages.

While the story kept ramping up and up and up, I kept wondering how the heck it was all going to resolve. And well, frankly, it doesn't. There is a resolution, yes, but the book mostly just ends, with the story itself very much an ouroborus. I get the metaphors and character arcs that DeMeester was aiming for, but it just didn't satisfy me. Granted, as far as ending go, it works, but it isn't satisfying.

Ratings-wise, I'm really very torn on how to score this one (damn you, Goodreads, for not allowing 1/2 stars!). This book was very much a 4-star title for me, right up until the end, which knocked it down a bit. Taken on a whole, though, I can't stomach giving this book only 3 stars, because I liked it quite a great deal more than that. Call it 3.75, rounded up to 4 then. Beneath is definitely recommended, even if I have some reservations, and I'll certainly be on the lookout for more of Kristi DeMeester's work in the future.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher, Word Horde.]

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Why I'm Nuking My Facebook Account

I've been on Facebook since 2008. In nearly a decade, I've "liked" an awful lots of pages, groups, authors, books, movies, TV shows, creatives, news outlets, and on and on and on. As Facebook updates its newsfeeds to determine what content you see, and places a larger priority on advertising and sponsored posts and tracking your online trail to better determine your interests in order to advertise more stuff to you, it's become an Orwellian leviathan. 

None of this should be news to you.

For me, the impact was to slowly, but surely negate any and all reasons that I use Facebook. I got sucked in far too deeply, to the point that so much of my newsfeed was little more than postings from groups that were paying to capture my eyeballs. Actual human-interest content from those I follow was sparse, because Facebook made them sparse. I was seeing sponsored content more frequently than I was seeing posts from my own wife, or people I've been friends with (in either meatspace or just on Facebook) for years. Even those individuals I had marked as "see first" were still being bottomed out in favor of Facebook's advertisers and "suggestions" about whatever little bit bullshit they thought I would "like," or, better still, spend money on. If I wanted to see one of my Facebook friend's actual account, I had to search for it via the menu bar, otherwise I wasn't seeing it at all.

Last year, I attempted to go completely Facebook free. The site is an enormous time-suck, and part of that, obviously, was my own fault. Being an author, connected to other authors and the occasional anthology collaboration, though, made leaving Facebook difficult. I was kind of dragged back in due to secret groups for projects that were taking off at that time (and still am, in point of fact, so keep an eye out later in the year for news on a seeekrit! project), and ended up reactivating my account after a few months hiatus.

Things are going to be different this time! (he said, waving his hand in the air with defiant expectation.)

This time, I have a baseline for what I want to accomplish and how to do that. I'm not even going to try and quit cold-turkey since I know that's not really an option. What I will do, though, is acknowledge that change is necessary. Change in my own behaviors and interactions with the site, and a reasonable plan for moving forward.

The first step was to create a new account, something that could act as a blank slate, and one that I intend to keep reasonably blank for as long as I am able. This means cutting out "likes" on pages and groups that aren't completely necessary to my daily operations as an author. 

A lot of the stuff that I had liked on Facebook was redundant information, and served only to clutter whatever information the Facebook Gods deigned me to see. So, I will not be liking any sort of news agencies on Facebook. First of all, I think having Facebook as a primary news source is just a fucking awful rabbit hole to go down. Although I have a subscription to The New York Times and Washington Post, I will not be "liking" them on Facebook. It provides Facebook with too much information, and causes too many other third parties to rear their ugly heads in my direction. I have primary news sources already to rely on, and there's no need for me to utilize them on Facebook. And when I need real news, I can always YouTube John Oliver and Samantha Bee. (By the way, did you see this video from Vox? Pretty telling stuff, I think. And yes, I know, off-topic, but whatever. It's my blog, so deal.)

Nuking my previous Facebook account also serves as a bit of social culling. Honestly, there wasn't a heck of a lot of interaction from the vast majority of my Facebook friends. On the flip-side, I have made a few wonderful friends online and we talk or post on each others comments fairly routinely, or chat in Messenger, and are the type of people I'd get a beer with. I know there's plenty of users on there who wanted to friend me simply to boost their own numbers. I'm not a people collector, though. I have given my followers notice and put up a message on my prior account about the change. Those that want to follow me over to the new account are free to do so. Those that don't need not apply. The loss of ephemeral followers is no big loss at all, really, and only serves to further help streamline my new Facebook set-up.

So, fewer friends, no cluttering of liked pages or groups, and very little willful exchange of data between me and Facebook. I'm giving the site as little personal information as I can. A side aspect of this, one that I had not originally intended but have quickly adopted after doing some research last night, was reclaiming my data. 

And you know what? So far, it's working out pretty well. This project began yesterday, and I'm already noticing its impact. My newsfeed, for the first time in years probably, is actually showing me updates posted by friends. That's pretty novel.


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Review: Bleed by Ed Kurtz

Bleed
$16.47
By Ed Kurtz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Home-ownership is so much fun, let me tell you. If you ever feel like you have too much free time and too much money on hand, get yourself a house. Go on, get one. You can thank me later. There's always some damn thing or another to fix, and once you find one thing in need of repair, you can goddamn guarantee another ten issues, big and small, will erupt all around it. The roof leaks and needs to be repaired, while the sump pump is on its last legs, and the fairly new refrigerator just so happens it doesn't feel like working anymore, usually right after you've loaded it all up with fresh new groceries. And maybe, just maybe, there's an odd stain on the hallway ceiling outside your bedroom.

It's such a stain that captures the attention of Walt Blackmore, proud new owner of a fixer-upper farmhouse. Walt's a teacher, and just about ready to propose to his girlfriend, Amanda. Just as soon as he gets the house in order, and figures out what the deal with that stain is. He's tried cleaning it off, tried painting over it, even inspected the attic and failed to find the source, but nothing's working. The stain is still there...and the stain, well. The stain is growing. And it's also hungry.

And it seems to be driving Walt more than a little bit crazy.

Bleed, by Ed Kurtz, might be the single bloodiest book I can recall reading. This sucker practically drips blood, and I swore more than a few times that my Kindle was strangely squishy, but that might have just been from sweaty palms gripping the e-reader tightly as the story hauled me along. Or it could have been blood. Could be that freaky stain was spreading right through the wi-fi and through the Kindle itself...

So yeah, this is a gory, gory, gory book. Kurtz packs the pages chock-full of mayhem and murder, hardly letting a single chapter go by without somebody or something getting hurt, maimed, dismembered, butchered, or violated in some violent fashion or another. Some readers might find this off-putting, while others might find it too repetitive. I was OK with it...which is maybe not the best admission to make? But whatever.

I only have two complaints, really. One is the book carries on a little longer than necessary, but your mileage may certainly vary. Two, and here I'll issue a SPOILER warning: Walt is pretty much the blacksheep of his family, but we never really learn why. His sister, Sarah, calls him a sociopath at one point, but I kept wondering what happened in their familial history to make this the case. Amanda considers him eccentric, perhaps with a dash of social anxiety disorder, but nothing too severe. Her relationship with Walt was pretty good natured, and earned a few chuckles from me. Outside of their, on the surface, healthy couplehood, there's no reason to suspect Walt of being crazy aside from the impact of the paranormal, which comes a number of years after Walt split from his family. I really wanted to know more about his past with Sarah. Was it just bitter sibling rivalry, personality conflicts, or something deeper? There's a story there, but one Kurtz leaves regretfully unexplored.

This caveat aside, I had a ton of fun with Bleed. It's a great, vicious, stomach-turning bit of classic horror, and one that I suspect will linger with me for quite a while.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher.]

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Review: Final Girls by Mira Grant

Final Girls
$24.18
By Mira Grant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The horror genre can be a brilliant form of catharsis, both as a reader and a writer, and a basic way to engage our emotional centers. Horror scares us and it excites us, often while reflecting on societal fears, and can sometimes even make couples feel closer together (look up Dolf Zilmann's Snuggle Theory). But can it cure us? Can horror repair long-standing psychological issues, or fix broken inter-personal relationships? This latter scenario is the focus behind Mira Grant's latest novella, Final Girls.

Dr. Jennifer Webb has developed a next-gen system of therapy, using a potent combination of virtual reality, psychotropics, horror scenarios, and lucid dreaming. Her patient, Esther, a reporter sent to debunk Webb's work, is traumatized by a childhood scandal that ended with her innocent father murdered in prison. In order to present a well-rounded report on Webb's work for the pop-sci mag she works for, Esther will have to undergo a scary bit of therapy.

Mira Grant (pseudonym for Seanan McGuire) approaches horror much like Webb, delivering cutting-edge concepts coupled with scares (her Newsfeed series was a terrific and multi-layered combination of politics, science, and zombies). Final Girls is certainly a more cerebral dash of horror than an emotional one, and it's certainly a fun and easy enough read, but one that carries with it a sort of double-edged sword.

This is a fun novella, and I enjoyed the few hours spent reading it. However, it's brevity doesn't do the characters any real favors. I liked the whipsmart concept at play here, but I never felt truly engaged on an emotional level. There weren't any true surprises for me to gush over, although the overall, long-lasting impact of Webb's treatment on its patients is certainly worth savoring. While there's a rich vein of darkness running throughout, there's nothing particularly potent or memorable action-wise, and the characters are pretty thin. There just wasn't enough for me to latch on to in the personalities of either Esther or Webb, or the malevolent third parties seeking to undo the both of them.

Bottom line: this is a coolly executed bit of fun, but certainly one of Grant's more minor, shallower works.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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