Review: Camp Slasher by Dan Padavona

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Camp Slasher, Dan Padavona’s latest, is the type of book whose title lets you know exactly what you’re getting into.

Cut from the same cloth as horror slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp, Padavona unleashes merciless violence upon a group of people working to rebuild the defunct Camp Black Bear. While the group struggles with clearing out an infestation of wolf spiders and struggling with the dramatics of interpersonal conflicts, a deranged killer lurks in the woods nearby, watching and waiting for his perfect moment to strike.

It’s all pretty standard killer camp stuff, but it doesn’t disappoint, particularly if you’re a sucker for these types of stories. Padavona does find a unique entry point into the mayhem, though, by injecting a worthwhile subplot of police drama and investigation into the disappearance of a woman and a group of hikers.

I was a bit surprised by the focus on the police officers, actually, having expected Camp Slasher to focus entirely on Camp Black Bear. Padavona spends a fair amount of time on political intrigue – Sheriff Bracken McCain is up for reelection, and one his deputies, a slimeball appropriately named Craven, is running against him and working hard to undercut everything Bracken does along the way. There’s a goodly amount of conflict baked into their relationship and Craven is one of those love-to-hate characters.

In fact, there’s a number of loathsome men populating Camp Slasher that readers will be pining to see meet their gruesome ends. Padavona stocks Camp Black Bear with perhaps more than its fair share of dangerously entitled men that you just cannot wait to see maimed and butchered, and while it strains credulity just a bit it does lead to some wonderfully satisfying scenes of tension as things spiral out of control.

Credit where it’s due, Padavona knows how to write some grisly, violent scenes. This is evident right the book’s opening chapter, which, if it weren’t already clear from the title, lets you know this is a horror book that won’t be pulling any punches or shying away from the gory bits. Even tense scenes of potential violence are deftly executed. There’s an early scene involving a cabin full of spiders that had this arachnophobe squirming in his seat, all hairs standing on end, thanks to some colorful word choices and stage-setting on the author’s part that let me see and hear things a bit too well.

Deftly paced and loaded with plenty of drama that helps pave the way for a bit of the ol’ ultra-violence, Camp Slasher should help satisfy those cravings for some 80s-styled summer vacation pulp horror. If you’ve been missing Jason Voorhees, Padavona has a new maniacal woodsman to introduce you to.

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

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Review: Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

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Thin Air: A Novel
By Richard K. Morgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've long been a fan of Richard K. Morgan's style of science fiction writing and his return to the field after a decade-long absence is certainly welcome, with Thin Air doing much to remind me why I fell in love with this author's work to begin with.

Morgan writes sci-fi that is heavily, heavily influenced by hard-boiled mysteries. Beneath all the whiz-bang high-tech wrappings of interstellar colonization, cybernetic augments, and next-gen weaponry, there's a grizzled take on the classic PI - down on his luck, hard drinking, smartly armed, and chasing dames - and a planet-sized dose of noir. Thin Air is gritty, like a mouthful of coffee grounds and gravel, and just as grim and bloody as you could imagine.

On Mars, one lucky lottery winner has won his ticket back to Earth. Only problem is, he's dead, a complication that has triggered a planet-wide audit by the colony's Earth overseers. Hakan Veil is a former overrider - a genetically augmented warrior who has had his license to kill revoked and has been exiled to Mars. He's just murdered a local gangster, which has put him in police custody. He can make the charges disappear if he can protect the auditor, Madison Madekwe, and keep her safe from whoever's murdered the lottery winner. Veil makes the deal and finds himself up to his neck in organized crime, terrorist factions, killers, and political intrigue...and then things go even further south from there.

Thin Air is a densely packed narrative, and Morgan has done an excellent job building up the world of Mars and delivering a cast of deeply complicated characters. Loyalties are ever-shifting, and there's almost as many motives to the madness Veil finds himself lost in as there are Martians. The plot spins wildly upon each new revelation, and the scope of this particular story grows broader and broader. I have to applaud Morgan for being able to keep all the twists, turns, and back-stabbings straight, because there are a lot of moving pieces and characters to keep track of here. I honestly wouldn't mind seeing the notes and outlines he must have created to keep this story flowing as impressively as it does. Thin Air is a perfect example of how characters serve the plot, and the reasons behind their motivations are just as labyrinthine as the story Morgan is telling.

And, of course, there is plenty of sex and violence to move that story forward - it wouldn't really be a Richard K. Morgan book without those elements appearing rather frequently in grisly, graphic abundance. Veil is a lab-engineering killing machine; murder is literally built into his DNA, so expect a no-holds barred approach to the action sequences here. Ditto the book's sex scenes. Veil may have been coerced into playing the role of a private dick, but of this latter, well, it ain't all that private and Veil isn't the kind of guy who lets nearly being murdered with a military-grade rocket prevent him from shacking up with the stripper next door.

After spending the better part of a decade crafting a trilogy of fantasy novels, it's pretty damn thrilling to have Morgan back in the game of telling ultra-gritty, hard-boiled futuristic noir. I've missed his contributions to science fiction, and Thin Air didn't disappoint in the least. This sucker is chock full of crime, conspiracy, action, and subterfuge, and Morgan is a goddamned master, at the top of his game right here. I just hope I don't have to wait another decade for his next work of dark sci-fi, but if it's as good as Thin Air, I certainly won't complain.

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of Thin Air from the publisher, Del Rey Books, via NetGalley.]

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Review: Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third (and penultimate) entry in Martha Wells's The Murderbot Diaries picks up immediately after the prior episode Artificial Condition, setting Murderbot off a new adventure with a new group of humans and bots while continuing its search for evidence against the evil corporation, GrayCris.

Having been binge-listening to The Murderbot Diaries, I have to admit the formulaic structure of these episodes is getting a bit creaky. Both Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol follow the exact same story beats - Murderbot sneaks aboard a ship, encounters and befriends an artificial intelligence aboard ship, then saves the humans. There's not a lot of room for surprise, and the similar length both of these entries share make these events feel very scheduled, the plot operating like clockwork in accordance to a rigorous three act structure. You could almost time the occurrence of both books' events right down the minute.

While the structure of The Murderbot Diaries is by now intimately familiar, Wells does find a few spots to make fresh. The character dynamics and personalities of Rogue Protocol are almost a direct inverse of the prior episode, with Murderbot attempting to hide from the ship's crew before facing its own natural instincts (or perhaps its base SecUnit coding is more accurate) to protect them. We get another view of human-AI interaction, helping to illustrate the diversity among even artificial man-made constructs. Some robots are forced into mortal combat for their owner's entertainment, while others are infantilized and treated more like pets. Actual equality between man and machine, though, is awfully rare and Murderbot at times struggles between its nature as a rogue unit and the expectations placed upon it by humans that view it as nothing more than a standard factory-line killing machine. This societal dimension of the story still has plenty of material left for Wells to explore, and it's been one of the highlights of the series thus far.

Kevin R. Free has settled into narrating duties, having found a comfortable style in the prior entry that he carries over to Rogue Protocol. There's perhaps little point in reinventing the wheel, narration-wise, three books into the series, and whether you dug Free's style or not thus far, you'll know exactly what to expect here. For me, it's a bit too gentle and even keel of a reading and the easy-listening nature of it makes my mind susceptible to wandering.

Rogue Protocol keeps on keeping on as the series builds towards its finale in book #4. Diving into this one right on the heels of its predecessor, though, makes the story feel a bit too repetitive as Wells eschews any narrative risks in order to deliver a safe story built in the exact same mold as book #2. If you've been enjoying this series so far, Rogue Protocol certainly isn't a deal breaker by any means, but it's not exactly fresh and exciting either.

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Review: Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Murderbot Diaries has thus far been an excellent introduction to the work of Martha Wells, a new-to-me author, and she is proving to be quite adept at serialized story-telling. Artificial Condition picks up shortly after the finale of All Systems Red, with the murderbot operating as an independent free-agent.

As a formerly-corporate owned SecUnit cyborg, Murderbot's memories were routinely purged, although a few still linger, particularly those surrounding the murder of 57 miners in the wake of a malfunction. Murderbot wants answers, and its journey back to the RaviHyral mining facility sees it taking passage aboard a bot-operated research vessel and getting hired on as a security consultant for a team of scientists.

As with All Systems Red, Artificial Condition presents a pretty basic story enlivened by the character of Murderbot itself. In the prior episode, it was Murderbot's interactions with its human employers that provided a lot of that book's high points. Here, much of the fun lies in seeing how Murderbot relates and responds to the shuttle bot operator, ART (yes, ART is an acronym, but to reveal what it stands for spoils the fun of discovery!).

Wells does a fantastic job bringing the construct of Murderbot to life, exploring the various facets of its artificial intelligence. While Murderbot is a machine first and foremost - and the brief action scenes illustrate quite well the proficiency in violence for which it was built - it still presents an intriguing amount of psychological depth and self-awareness, filtered through a pretty unique perspective.

Returning to narrate is Kevin R. Free, who manages a livelier performance after a fairly monotone reading in the previous go-round. As far as listening experiences go, I haven't found his narration thus far to be completely engrossing, and while I'm not familiar with his work outside of The Murderbot Diaries I do appreciate the growth exhibited by Free over the course of these two novellas. Artificial Condition presents a better narration than book #1, but it's still sadly easy to mentally disengage from and let your mind wander.

Although this audiobook wasn't entirely successful in holding my attention and consistently captivating me, I still found myself enjoying it, even if I did have to rewind a few sections to see what I had missed during moments of distraction. Murderbot is a great, and surprisingly relatable, character, and Artificial Condition helps push the overarching narrative a little bit further forward. Now, onto Rogue Protocol!

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Review: All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Systems Red, the first installment in Martha Wells' The Murderbot Diaries and winner of the 2018 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Awards, is a heck of a lot of fun. This is a novella, so the premise is pretty simple - a rogue android has to help keep the humans who have contracted it for security alive during a planetary survey mission. Naturally, Wells inserts a few wrinkles along the way that point to something larger and more nefarious. A murderbot has to earn its pay, after all.

What separates All Systems Red from the pack of droid hero science fiction is the character of Murderbot itself. Murderbot has hacked the governor module that controls and dictates its behavior, making it a free agent, if not for the fact that it has to hide this tidbit of information from its human employers. Despite being fully self-aware and keenly intelligent, Murderbot is still listed as inventory in the Company that contracts it out for security services, so certain ruses must be maintained if Murderbot doesn't want to see itself reformatted and re-enslaved to its corporate masters.

Murderbot may not be human, although it does have some fleshy components, but it is most decidedly a person. Wells gives enough depth to Murderbot to make it sympathetic, relying on the android's personality and issues of human bias and notions of superiority in our historical dealings with artificial intelligences to give us a healthy degree of perspective on where exactly Murderbot is coming from.

And where Murderbot is coming from is decidedly simple - it hates humans and just wants to be left alone to watch its favorite downloaded television shows. Never before have I found an artificial intelligence to be so utterly relatable! While I can fully sympathize with Murderbot's ambitions, it's pretty damn hilarious listening to its encounters with its new human crew and their attempts to humanize a wryly grumpy killing machine, and how Murderbot responds to such showings of support and empathy. The scientific team it is charged with protecting is nicely drama free, but Wells manages to wring a good bit of emotive action out of how Murderbot and its crew respond to each other. Wells doesn't get deeply philosophical about the nature of life, intelligence, and free will, but she does raise a few poignant issues worth thinking about over the course of this short book.

Experiencing All Systems Red in audiobook format, though, leaves me slightly conflicted. It took me a while to warm to Kevin R. Free's narration, and while his reading here is serviceable I wish it were more engaging. Murderbot actually has feelings - it gets angry, its gets sarcastic, and it knows when it needs to be emotionally manipulative to draw out desired responses from the humans around it. Free's reading is dry and largely monotone; this makes for a dull listen despite Murderbot being anything but a dull character. I wish Free would have taken a livelier approach to the material, but I did eventually come around to his style - not enough to rave about his vocal showmanship, but enough that I'm still interested in pursuing this series in audio rather than switching over to print (at least for book two).

Although the narration didn't do the story justice, the character of Murderbot is most definitely one worth paying attention to and has me eager to sink straight into Artificial Condition next. I can't wait to see what further hijinks my new favorite anti-social killing machine gets up to!

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Review: Stranded by Renee Miller

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Stranded
By Renee Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anybody who has been following my reviews for a while likely knows that I have a particular fondness for arctic-based horror. Drop a group of folks in the middle of a freezing and inhospitable terrain where they are blinded by snow, frostbitten, and mentally at their wits end and at each other’s throats, and let the blood spill. I love shit like that, and Renee Miller clearly does, as well.

Stranded has all of the above, plus a mysterious monster rooted in indigenous folklore. While the creature is of the rough and tumble sort, this book's cast is heavily loaded with plenty of greedy human monsters to root against, too. Half the fun of Stranded is in seeing a lot of these bastards get their comeuppance, and Miller does a fun job of thematically arguing the point that greed is the root of all evil.

A handful of contestants are picked to compete in a brand-new reality show called Stranded, an extreme survival show where the stakes are raised with a bit of matchmaking. The players are whisked off to a remote, uninhabited arctic island in the Canadian north to seek fame, fortune, and glory, but a few of them have some dark secrets they’re hoping to escape. There’s a corrupt cop hoping to circumvent the investigation into her pay-off from pimps, and an unstable sex addict on the edge. Not to mention the show’s skeevy creator, producers, and crew who won’t let trifling nuisances like a spate of murders and disappearances wreak havoc with their guaranteed hit.

As I said above, there’s a lot of people to root against, and not many to root for. Stranded gets pretty dark and readers who need likeable protagonists to cheer on will likely find a few things to fret about here. Me, I’m good with nasty people meeting their nasty end by way of even nastier supernatural forces, and in this regard Miller delivers all kinds of violent fun. What I most appreciated, though, were the subtle layers of commentary about greed and its relationship to the monstrous force at play here. Miller doesn’t beat her readers over the head with preachiness or demands for her audience to repent, but there is a nice bit of thematic meat on this novella’s bones.

Most of all, though, Stranded is a fun, quick read, the kind of pulpy entertainment that’s right up my alley and hits all my sweet spots. It’s got blood-drenched snow, a terrible climate for its characters to endure or succumb to, and a nifty creature to boot. Renee Miller has crafted a brutal tale of monsters and madness, one that will make your blood run cold. Perfect for fans of The Thing, Stranded is arctic terror at its chillingly scary best.

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of this title from the publisher, Unnerving, to provide a publication blurb. I have chosen to review Stranded, as well, because I dug the hell out of this novella and hope you will too.]


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Review: The Pale Ones by Bartholomew Bennett

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The Pale Ones
By Bartholomew Bennett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bartholomew Bennett makes his horror debut with The Pales Ones, a slow-burn work of literary cosmic horror.

In this first-person account, we are introduced to a used book dealer who makes his way through the day-to-day patrolling the discount racks of charity shops for novels he can resell online. His dealings bring him into the orbit of Harris, another seller with a favor to ask and a spate of secrets to hide...

Bennett gives us hints of horror throughout The Pale Ones, small flashes of insight into that which lies beyond, hidden just out of view and slanted slightly askew from one's direct perspectives. At one point in their collecting of battered, broken spines and battered books, Harris talks briefly of magic and the secrets of illusion and revelation. It's a singular moment upon which The Pale Ones turns, shifting from a tale of shelf hunting into something more ambitious and deeper - if, that is, our narrator can be believed as Bennett begins to introduce some subdued moments of madness and hints of insanity.

You would think that a horror story involving books would be right up my alley, and while I appreciated The Pale Ones it's a bit too slow and uneventful for my tastes. I kept waiting for something big and impactful to occur, but Bennett keeps things decidedly quiet, taking a very soft and understated approach. There are elements within the narrative, though, that point toward twistier, thornier issues, the story wrapping around itself in Möbius strip-like fashion. It's interesting, if not deeply engaging; neat, but lacking any lasting power or splashiness to make it truly memorable.

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

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Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher [audiobook]

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Vox
By Christina Dalcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fair warning - all those fragile little white boys who are always complaining "why's it always gotta be so political? Ugh!" should probably skip this review and get back to complaining about Asian women existing in Star Wars or a female Doctor Who, cause it's gonna get real political up in here...

The simple fact of the matter is all art is political. Vox, by Christina Dalcher, in particular is fully informed by the current political trends in the USA. Dalcher explores the aftermath of the forceful rise of far-right Christian rule in America (a very real, very legitimate threat), where the presidency has become the puppet figurehead of a highly influential extremist evangelical preacher (rather than say, oh, I dunno...Russia.). Overnight, America changes as the Pure Movement sweeps through government, and in short order women are forced to wear bracelets that deliver electric shocks if they speak more than 100 words a day. Reverend Corbin believes a woman's place is in the home, and the US government begins removing women from the workplace, forcibly establishing its absolute patriarchal rule. Women are all but silenced and utterly removed from the day-to-day life of society.

In an interview with The Bookseller, Dalcher said her novel is not a call to arms, but "a call to pay attention. ... The fact is that our lives really can change in a heartbeat. We saw this with [Donald Trump's] executive order banning travel from Muslim countries to the United States. Everything changed very quickly." The rise of Trump has seen a radical and rapid shift in democratic norms bending toward authoritarianism (to see just how much his first year in office changed things, Amy Siskind's The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump's First Year looks worthwhile). Listening to Vox, narrated by Julia Whelan, over the course of a week that saw alleged rapist Brett Kavanaugh, nominated by serial sexual offender Donald Trump, appointed to the Supreme Court is a stark reminder of just how real the patriarchal rule in America is and how fully women's voices can (and will) be ignored, if not yet completely silenced.

Vox uses its allegorical limitations on women's voices to make some very important points, ones we should all be cognizant of and working to prevent (pssst...don't forget to vote November 6!). This is a highly political book that takes American gender wars to the next step, highlighting both men and women's complicity in this national silencing, the patriarchal "norms" of Christianity, and the sad fact that women really have become a punching bag in American society (to the point that Trump even mocked a sexual assault survivor and Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford during one of his recent rallies to stir up his base).

While it has plenty of worthwhile things to say, Dalcher's work ultimately exists in the shadow of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and oftentimes feels utterly derivative in its plot points and execution. So much of the story in Vox has been done before, and while Dalcher does insert a few original story beats much of the book merely feels like a reworking of Atwood's seminal novel.

Strangely, I actually liked Dalcher's book better thanks to some of her concepts and willingness to get into some of the nitty gritty. It's not the dull slog I recall The Handmaid's Tale being, and there's actually some moments of action. Dalcher posits her story from the perspective of a neurolinguist, although I would have appreciated a bit more focus on the impact of female children's communication development being so forcefully aborted. Imagine, if you will, a baby girl just learning to talk and babble, and then being electrocuted once she breaks the 100 word limit. Picture how stunted she would become once denied a voice. Dalcher approaches this topic late in the book in a very brief segment, but it's an idea I would have loved to have seen more fully explored.

And therein lies my main rub with Vox. Dalcher presents some intriguing ideas, but never truly commits to any of them. The shock bracelets present an interesting premise, but how women were subjugated and forced into wearing them is entirely glossed over. The impact on America's economy of losing half its workforce is all but ignored. We do get a few potent reminders of what the far-right Christian rule looks like in Dalcher's near-future, but we could have used more. There's a lot in Vox that feels half-baked.

Thankfully, Julia Whelan, an Audie Award winner, is fully committed as this audiobook's narrator. I first listened to Whelan earlier this year in her reading of Michael McDowell's The Amulet, so when I found out she was narrating Vox I couldn't miss the chance to listen to this book, as well. She does an outstanding job here, capturing those moments of high emotional intensity - you can feel the stress and worry, the excitement and fear, and those brief glimmers of hope that shine through this dystopian nightmare. Whelan is an excellent narrator and she kept me engaged throughout the entirety of Vox.

Dalcher shows some promise as a novelist in this debut, and I'll be curious to see how she develops as she steps out the shadows of Atwood's influence and discovers her own voice and original ideas. Vox, like A Handmaid's Tale, is certainly a product of its time and its era's politics, with Trump's regime and #MeToo clearly weaved into the story's DNA. Here's to hoping its more extreme ideas stay solidly in the realm of fiction.

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