Review: The Summer Job by Adam Cesare [audiobook]

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a recent blog post to promote the audiobook release of The Summer Job, Adam Cesare wrote about how it hasn't been as successful sales-wise as his Video Night but that he's still hopeful it's able to find the right audience. "While I’d never say one of my books is better than the other, I will say that The Summer Job feels more personal," he said. Following Cesare online, through his blog and social media, anytime The Summer Job comes up, it's obvious that this book has a very special place in his heart and that he is - rightfully - damn proud of the work he did here.

The Summer Job is a work of satanic folk horror that finds goth-punk chick Claire taking a job at the Brandt Hotel. Located in a small town a few hours outside Boston, the hotel is Mission's best-kept secret - a popular and well-regarded establishment, it's been highly praised by past guests. Or at least those who have lived long enough to talk up the perks of their accommodations. When Claire takes on the role of guest liaison, she thinks it's a chance to redefine her life and maybe reinvent herself. It's not until later, of course, that all the peculiarities of the Brandt and its staff start pointing toward much, much darker secrets...

Whether you read or listen to the audiobook edition, it's readily apparent that The Summer Job is a labor of love. I've read, maybe, half of Cesare's oeuvre thus far and I dig his style and startlingly clear affection for the horror genre a lot. The Summer Job, though, is Cesare operating a higher level. His characters and their story arcs are pretty phenomenal, and the writing is solidly on-point.

Early on, he describes a chef behind the pick-up counter at a restaurant as being window-boxed by the frame; it's a small thing to be sure, but the particular word choice and details provided are careful and deliberate, as are a lot of Cesare's other stylistic choices here. The ensuing description of the man's sweat clouding the metal counter-top, and the dialogue between him and Claire, make for a highly memorable and cinematic scene that cements exactly who these characters are, and more importantly that Cesare knows exactly who these characters are. He knows these people and he's smart enough to get out of their way and let them work their mojo. Through a bit of deft dialogue, he introduces Claire's friend Allison, along with her particular ticks that let you know right off the bat who this girl is, unnecessary abbreviations and all. "What are you doing on the Newb," she asks Claire, referring to Newbury Street, and calling her "babykins."

Cesare's operating in a character-rich environment here and we get to know most of his cast very, very well over the course of the book. This is both good and bad. Good because we become intimately familiar with Claire and the people of Mission, and bad because getting to know the employees of the Brandt means we can't fully trust any of them and we're constantly on edge waiting for them to freak out. Cesare does a fantastic job establishing Mission's behind-the-scenes power struggles, letting readers in on alliances, history, and secrets Claire isn't privy to. We worry about her, and Claire is pretty damn easy to sympathize with, even as we're never sure what those around her want or what they'll do to get it.

The Summer Job has a lot going for it, from its leading lady to the clashes between opposing forces within Mission, but reigning supreme over it all is narrator Stacey Glemboski. It didn't take me long to start searching out other titles she's narrated, knowing full well that I'm going to be looking for more of her work. She's an excellent narrator, shifting smoothly between male and female voices, accents, tones, and delivery. This isn't a long book, less than eight hours, but it's so easy to listen and sink into that it feels much shorter.

Between Cesare's writing and deft characters and Glemboski's reading, I was freaking hooked the whole through. The Summer Job was absolutely terrific, and also a necessary reminder that I really need to get my ass in gear and fill those gaps that I've missed in Cesare's work.

[Note: I received an Audible copy of this title from the author following my request through AudioBookBoom and I provided this voluntary review.]

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Review: The First Cut (Gushers Series, Book 1) by Chuck Buda [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do you like a little bit of horror in your pornography? Or maybe a lot of pornography in your horror? Because if so, hoo boy, Chuck Buda has got a doozy for you with the first in his aptly titled Gushers series, The First Cut.

What ever are a bunch of sex-starved high school seniors supposed to do as they bide their time for graduation and the start of college but form a secret society among themselves to get their rocks off? What seems like a good idea quickly escalates into something more as power-hungry Zoe leads them off into darker realms with some cult-like practices, with some support from her second-in-command Spencer, a young man with a strong interest in the Dark Arts, and a lot of hot tub orgies. A lot. Of hot tub. Orgies.

The First Cut comes with a reader advisory warning, and Buda ain't messing around there. This sucker is explicit in its erotic endeavors and nothing is left to the imagination as Zoe leads all the boys around by their nether regions, and even a pair of the kid's parents engage in some secret extramarital shenanigans. There's plenty of taboo titillation throughout, but since this is a horror book some scenes veer pretty far from the Penthouse Letters style as these characters' hook-ups go from amorous to aberrant. All kinds of bodily fluids gush and spill and mix together as the group seek new thrills and new highs.

Cutting through all the sex and violence is a surprisingly sweet center in Aiden and Leah, the quiet ones of the group who find their friendship deepening and blossoming into something more meaningful as their closest friends grow ever more hedonistic. Their relationship isn't without its fair share of complications, obviously - being in an insane sex cult presents its own fair share of hurdles - but Buda makes good use of their position in the story as the moral middle, their mostly-normal relationship providing a necessary and much-needed break from the more extreme craziness.

Narrating all this madness is Lillie Ways, who delivers an even-keel and professional reading. She differentiates character voices enough to make those conversations lacking dialogue tags easy to follow, and keeps the book's 54 short chapters moving along a nice pace for its six hour run-time. All in all, The First Cut provides a pleasing, at times surprising, aural experience.

Readers looking for some hot-and-heavy erotic horror in the split veined style of the Hot Blood anthologies should have a good time with The First Cut. These cherry-popping cultists will do you right...just before they do you very, very wrong.

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Review: The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency #2) by John Scalzi [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Readers who enjoyed John Scalzi's previous entry in his latest series, The Interdependency, should find The Consuming Fire a fun romp. That said, being a second book in a trilogy, it does have a fair bit of middle-child syndrome, even if it is, overall, an engaging and fast-paced listen.

The Collapsing Empire, 2017's most appropriately named book release, set the stage for this series with its central premise of interstellar travel by way of the Flow (think rivers in space) and what will happen to these intergalactic civilizations when those streams begin to collapse. As The Consuming Fire picks up, more Flow streams are collapsing, setting off a political shitstorm between Emperox Grayland II and the ruling houses either hellbent on denying the science behind the Flow's collapse or usurping the throne in order to further their own power.

There's a dark vein running through the core of The Consuming Fire, what with its promise of civil war, attempted assassinations, and ENTIRE FUCKING PLANETS FULL OF PEOPLE being cut off from civilization and the resources required to keep them alive as the Flow disappears to condemn everybody to certain death. And yet, somehow, Scalzi avoids miring this series in prolonged, protracted portrayals of misery. The political shenanigans involving various houses competing for control of the empire recall a certain Game of Thrones In Space! element, but The Consuming Fire never devolves into violently brutal bloodbaths and Scalzi is hardly the sadist George R.R. Martin is, even though his plot promises the untimely deaths of waaaaaaay more people than Martin ever conjured to kill. No, somehow Scalzi manages to keep it all fairly light and, somehow, comical, even when bodies are hitting the floor.

Operating as an allegory to climate change and how the rich and powerful attempt to profit from science denialism in order to become even more rich and powerful, right up until the moment of complete and utter collapse, really shouldn't be this entertaining. Yet I found myself laughing frequently, thanks to Scalzi's wordsmithing, particularly at one point late in the book when a formerly human-now artificial intelligence jokes about dying in the flow.

“We have to talk about your sense of humor,” the formerly human-now AI is told.
“It was like this before. How do you think I died?”


Yeah, I couldn't help but laugh out loud at that one. A lot of this is due to Wil Wheaton's narration. The Collapsing Empire was my first introduction to both Scalzi as an author and Wheaton as a narrator, and I immediately fell in love with the both of them. It was apparent right from the start that Wheaton is a perfect match for Scalzi's work and sensibilities, and Wil just flat-out gets it. The Consuming Fire isn't just funny, it's goddamned snarky, and Wheaton does a fine job delivering snarkiness. Having been an actor since his childhood, he brings along that element of role-play to his audiobook narrations, injecting the reading with emotion and verve that really keeps things hopping along nicely.

The Consuming Fire is a worthy follow-up to the prior book, and while it doesn't advance the story of The Interdependency in huge leaps and bounds Scalzi does inject a few interesting wrinkles and side adventures for his cast of spacebound lords and ladies. Being the middle-child, its primary mission is to move certain pieces into place for the grand finale next book, and Scalzi does this really well, presuming that the next book, ominously (or at least tentatively, per Scalzi's February 2018 blog update) titled The Last Emperox, is indeed the last. Throughout this necessary bit of set-up, though, Scalzi at least injects enough new stuff, and even a few new mysteries, to make it a highly worthwhile listen. Plus, it's just damn good fun, and that's always welcome and necessary considering the time and reality we currently live in.

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This Blog Kills Fascists

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In case you were living under a rock last week, let’s recap some of the big news events: Cesar Sayoc, a Trump supporter, mailed bombs to more than a dozen prominent Democrats critical of Donald Trump, individuals that Trump frequently named and labeled as enemy of the people in his campaign rallies. The week was then capped off with a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead and another nine injured. The shooter, a white supremacist named Robert Bowers, was arrested. In Kentucky, Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones, both black, were shot to death in Kroger after their murderer, Gregory Bush, was thwarted in his attempt to enter a predominantly black church. I can only guess what his motivations for seeking entry to a black church were, or who he voted for in 2016. I can only guess, but I feel pretty sure my hunches are solid.

While these and other more recent events were swirling through the news media, several indie authors in the science fiction and post-apocalyptic/dystopian communities were posting messages on Facebook and Twitter, helping to further promote far-right conspiracy theories like PizzaGate, or that the survivors of school shootings are crisis actors, or that more journalists need to be dismembered, or that Democrats were mailing bombs to themselves as part of a false flag operation in the lead up to mid-term elections, or posting in support of Donald Trump using Executive Orders to eliminate Constitutional amendments that favor non-white immigrants or encouraging him to use the United States military to slaughter migrants across the border for what amounts to shits and giggles. Sad to say, I had read and reviewed some of these authors’ works in year’s past, some of them positively as it happens.

If you’ve been following me here or on social media for any length of time, you‘re likely aware that I am not a Trump supporter. The United States has entered a particularly dark period in the wake of the 2016 elections, with the erosion of civil rights, calls for violence against protesters by Trump himself, the construction of concentration camps along the US-Mexico border to house children forcibly separated from their parents, a sharp increase in hate crimes, the appointment of a drunken rapist to the Supreme Court, reminders that white supremacists are very fine people, and on and on and on and on. Frankly, even just keeping track of our rapid race toward authoritarianism is exhausting…

 Trump supporters. Source: Reuters (Nov. 6, 2016)

Trump supporters. Source: Reuters (Nov. 6, 2016)

The rise of Trumpism has prompted me to do a lot of soul searching and I’ve become more politically active and outspoken in the build-up to the 2016 elections and its disastrous aftermath. I do not believe that anybody of good moral fiber can continue to support Donald Trump and this administration, and I will not allow my blog to become a platform for those authors who support him and promote insane conspiracy theories about false flag operations and the like, and seek to further erode the fundamentals of our republic. I will not allow this blog to support those who support racism, bigotry, and fascism. And at this point, in 2018, I do firmly believe that supporting Donald Trump is in every respect support of racism, bigotry, and fascism. If you support Trump, you’re clearly pretty goddamn comfortable with this kind of shit, and this blog is not a home for you and never fucking will be.

Now, prior to the rise of Trump I had (albeit inadvertently) supported some of the authors who now openly and casually promote far-right radicalism simply because I did not know, at that time, of their extreme political beliefs and their contempt and hostility toward their fellow Americans or our secular Constitution. Prior to 2016, it wasn’t really very cool to openly and proudly proclaim yourself as a bigot, racist, authoritarian nutjob, and such authors were able to fly under the radar, wisely keeping their Tiki torches unlit, with reviewers and authors like myself unaware of their radicalism. They didn’t have red hats to proudly out themselves with as traitors to the USA. But, in 2018, these folks are big fans of telling us just how proudly deplorable they are, reminding us that there is no bottom to how low they are willing to sink in order to stick it to the libs, up to and including support of homegrown terrorism and assassination attempts.

When I first began to become aware of some of these authors’ political leanings in the final years of Obama’s presidency, I made the conscious decision to discontinue public support of their works. I didn’t want to spend money on authors rallying against LGBT and women’s rights and supporting politicians shouting out loud about how rape was God’s gift to women, and I was certainly in no mood to review their works. I simply stopped reading them and stopped giving them my money, the same way I won’t give Orson Scott Card my money. I had left up those reviews of their various works, though, seeing no reason to eliminate such ties simply because of what I then saw as little more than differing political views at a time when our country was making some progressive headway and I could write off such kooks as being little more than fear-mongers and crazy old white dudes living in the past. I mean, they were mostly harmless right? I could quietly ignore them, and instead of buying their books I could just send some money over to ACLU instead. I read their books until their political leanings helped me decide they no longer worthy of my financial support.

Well, things have changed a lot in only a few short years. Those authors who were merely self-identifying as conservative, and who I was then foolish enough to accept at face value, are now promoting extreme levels of intolerance in support of a far-right agenda. Or, maybe they always were and I was too naive, too stupid, too privileged to clearly see them for who they were, and, in fact, truly are. Their views are no longer something so small and simple as mere political difference. This isn’t a disagreement over the utility of taxation or whether or not we should be allowed clean drinking water. This is, at the most fundamental level, good versus evil. This blog will not support those who are, in their hearts, evil.

I’m a firm believer that people will let you know who they really are, and that you should believe them. When somebody hops online to rant about how gay marriage causes hurricanes, it’s safe to say they’re just some backward moron. When somebody is taking to Twitter to attack the survivors of a school shooting, it’s safe to say that somebody is huge sack of shit. When somebody takes to Twitter to say that Obama mailed himself a bomb and is carrying out a False Flag attack, it’s safe to say that somebody is wickedly stupid and insanely detached from reality. These are people I will not support. Ever. I regret even having shown any modicum of support for these types of authors in the past, fucking blind as I was to the intense amount of hatred and loathing they carried for my country and its citizens. Supporting authors who are now condoning the murder of high school students and politicians is, in my view, supporting atrocity. I will not abide by that, and I’ve since begun removing my reviews of their works.

I will not name the authors that I have deleted from this site, but I spent a good chunk of time over the weekend weeding out reviews for these authors books. I do not want to be seen as providing a safe quarter to such extreme individuals, or helping to promote their works. And before any useful idiots in the crowd start crying “censorship!”, well… 1. Fuck you. 2. This is my blog and I can post and delete at will.

I will not condone or support those who condone or support tyranny, treason, murder, racism, and bigotry. Full stop. By having reviews, good or bad, of their works on this blog, I felt it was helping to potentially draw awareness to their works and support their careers as authors. Given their social media habits and outspoken alt-right beliefs, supporting them means supporting the erosion of the United States and our values as a nation. I cannot in good conscious support these authors or their radical beliefs. Knowing that name searches for these individuals could point directly toward this particular blog left me feeling dirty, so I sought to correct that.

I will not name the authors impacted here, but know that I have removed a handful of reviews from this site, Goodreads, and Amazon. Know, too, that in the future I will not knowingly review or support those authors whose beliefs run entirely antithetical to the basic human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If you’re pro-fascism, you have no place on this site. If you’re an author I have reviewed and I discover that your predilections side with terror and tyranny, I have no problem deleting those reviews and eliminating for you at least one avenue of attention. I will not aid you, and I will not support your or your work. This blog kills fascists.


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Review: Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries #4) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having already reviewed the previous three installments of Martha Wells's The Muderbot Diaries, I'm not sure I have much left to say about this series. In fact, there's a line toward the end of Exit Strategy that sums it up my general thoughts to this series of audiobooks as a whole pretty well (although since I listened to this in audiobook I'll have to paraphrase the sentiment): "It's a good story, even if the tone is a bit dry."

The dryness in tone largely stems from narrator Kevin R. Free, who does a serviceable job here but who, also, over the course of four books has yet to impress me performance-wise. The character of Muderbot strikes me as having more in the way of feelings and expressions, even as an artificial intelligence, than Free's interpretation allows. Free slips into some fairly monotone deliveries, which absolutely kill my attention. It's hard to pay much attention to a story when a narrator cannot engage you, and unfortunately I found myself mentally checking out and wandering away from Exit Strategy frequently.

Story-wise, Exit Strategy is simple, even for a novella. Wells brings back the cast of human characters from book #1 as Murderbot's investigation into the evil corporation GrayCris comes full circle and he returns to deliver evidence of this company's conspiracy to Dr. Mensah. Easy right?

Well, there's a few wrinkles here and there, but as with the prior episodes in this series it's mostly pretty straight-forward. Wells continues to provide some interesting doses of Murderbot's introspection and its interaction with other artificial intelligences and bots proves just as intriguing as its relationships with humans.

Murderbot continues to be a fascinating character in its own right, and even in this fourth novella Wells still finds new facets of this rogue SecUnit's personality and motivations. As far as antisocial killing machines who are addicted to intergalactic soap operas, Murderbot is a surprisingly charming character and with a full-length novel due out in 2020 I'm happy to know neither Wells nor Tor are finished with its story just yet.

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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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