Category Archives: Reviews

Blog Tour: TUNNEL VISION by Susan Adrian – Review

Welcome to my stop on the Tunnel Vision Blog Tour! First, here’s what this book is about:

Tunnel Vision

Jake Lukin just turned 18. He’s decent at tennis and Halo, and waiting to hear on his app to Stanford. But he’s also being followed by a creep with a gun, and there’s a DARPA agent waiting in his bedroom. His secret is blown.

When Jake holds a personal object, like a pet rock or a ring, he has the ability to “tunnel” into the owner. He can sense where they are, like a human GPS, and can see, hear, and feel what they do. It’s an ability the government would do anything to possess: a perfect surveillance unit who could locate fugitives, spies, or terrorists with a single touch.

Jake promised his dad he’d never tell anyone about his ability. But his dad died two years ago, and Jake slipped. If he doesn’t agree to help the government, his mother and sister may be in danger. Suddenly he’s juggling high school, tennis tryouts, flirting with Rachel Watkins, and work as a government asset, complete with 24-hour bodyguards.

Forced to lie to his friends and family, and then to choose whether to give up everything for their safety, Jake hopes the good he’s doing—finding kidnap victims and hostages, and tracking down terrorists—is worth it. But he starts to suspect the good guys may not be so good after all. With Rachel’s help, Jake has to try to escape both good guys and bad guys and find a way to live his own life instead of tunneling through others.

four stars

The nitty-gritty: An addictive and exciting story with lots of mysteries to solve, government conspiracies, and just a touch of romance.

We’re in the parking lot of a park. There are trees everywhere: cottonwoods, aspens, oaks, all in full green leaf, the grass bright. The air is hot and still. It smells like summer.

The last time I was outside, it was the dead of winter. I breathe, deep.

This. Oh God, this. I can’t go underground again.

I didn’t know much about this story before I read it. In fact, this was one of those books where I completely forgot to read the blurb first, so for that reason the plot surprised and delighted me. Tunnel Vision isn’t without its faults, however. This story requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief, and that was my main stumbling block as I was reading it. However, Jake’s voice and the imaginative idea of “tunneling” kept me flipping pages as fast as I could. For a young adult novel, the protagonist is older than normal, so keep that in mind if you are a teen reader or someone who recommends books to teens. Jake is eighteen, a senior in high school, and is about to go off to college. His language is salty to say the least, so if F-bombs aren’t your thing, this might not be the right story for you.

However, I love that this story will most likely appeal to male readers in particular, and as a parent of a teen boy who is a very reluctant and picky reader, more stories like Tunnel Vision are sorely needed. Jake is a happy but driven senior whose biggest challenges are trying hard to get into Stanford and finding the courage to talk to Rachel, the girl he has a crush on. Jake has an unusual ability to clearly see the exact location of anyone in the world, as long as he is holding a personal object of that person in his hand. He calls his ability “tunneling,” and he’s kept it mostly a secret for his entire life.

But one night at a party, Jake gets drunk and unintentionally reveals his talent to everyone in the room. Unbeknownst to him, one of the girls at the party is a spy, and before long, Jake notices an odd car that seems to be following him. Soon after, he finds himself a virtual prisoner at a secret underground facility called DARPA, where he is put through a variety of tests to see how far his ability can go. The mysterious Dr. Liesel Miller and Eric Proctor convince Jake that he is “doing good” by using his tunneling ability to locate missing persons, hostages, and even suspected terrorists.

But it isn’t long before Jake realizes everyone is lying to him, and he sets out to discover the truth about DARPA’s real intentions. What follows is a thrilling adventure story full of intrigue and danger, and at the heart of it all, a boy’s search to get back the life he’s lost.

Adrian’s idea of tunneling isn’t necessarily original, but she’s taken the idea of holding an object and psychically gleaning information from it and flipped it on its ass. Just think about the things you could do with this ability, both good and bad. At first, Jake feels good about helping hostage victims or finding lost children, but he’s also made to tunnel into people like terrorists or children being forced to make bombs. The thought is that the outcome of being able to locate these people is a good thing, as his captors continue to remind him. I loved the double-edge sword that is Jake’s tunneling ability. He constantly struggles throughout the story about whether he’s doing the right thing, and luckily there is never a clear answer to his dilemma.

One of my favorite characters was Jake’s sister Myka, a super-smart twelve-year-old who goes to a special school for genius kids. Since their father died two years ago in a plane crash, Jake and Myka have become extremely close, and Jake has a special connection with her that relates to his tunneling. I loved Myka’s endearing combination of spunk and vulnerability. She loves her family above all else and is fiercely loyal to them. I also adored Jake’s Russian grandpa who he calls “Dedushka.” He’s got some secrets of his own and is one of the few people Jake can trust. I’m dying to tell you more about him, but I don’t want to spoil the story!

There’s a romance between Jake and a girl at school named Rachel, but it’s almost more of an afterthought. Rachel’s character wasn’t developed enough for my tastes, and she’s more or less relegated to the stereotypical “girl friend” role. Honestly, I would have loved the story even if she hadn’t been part of it.

My “suspension of disbelief” issue lies in the overly dramatic reactions of the DARPA characters, who treat Jake as if he is the country’s biggest secret asset, and they will do anything to keep him under their control. I get that his tunneling ability could be potentially dangerous if he were to get nabbed by the wrong people. But when the guns and handcuffs came out, I had a hard time believing such things would happen to an eighteen-year-old. Another thing that sort of bothered me was that through Jake, we get to peek into the minds of the people he’s seeing, but we’re never told anything else about them. Why is a woman handcuffed to a chair and being threatened with a knife? And whatever happened to her after that? We’re merely observers for a brief moment, and I wanted more information on these mysterious people.

But don’t let this deter you from reading Tunnel Vision. Some of my reactions to the dramatic parts of the book could be age-related, but for teen readers, this book is one hell of a ride. Adrian knows how to combine action and excitement with a wonderfully genuine family dynamic, all in one page-turner of a story.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.

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About the author:

susan adrianSusan Adrian is a 4th-generation Californian who somehow stumbled into living in Montana. As a child she danced in a ballet company and read plays dramatically to blackberry bushes. Later she got a degree in English from the University of California Davis and worked in the fields of exotic pet-sitting, clothes-schlepping, and bookstore management. She’s settled in, mostly, as a scientific editor. When she’s not hanging out with her husband and daughter, she keeps busy researching spy stuff, learning Russian, traveling, and writing more books. Tunnel Vision is her first novel.

Find Susan:  Author Website | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr |Blog

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Beware the Obscura: SHUTTER by Courtney Alameda – Review

Shutter 3D

Shutter by Courtney Alameda
Genre: Young adult horror
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Release date: February 3 2015
Source: ARC from Comic Con
Pages: 384

five stars

The nitty-gritty: An unexpectedly addictive story, with a multi-genre feel that’s got something for everyone. An amazing page-turner that shouldn’t be missed!

When I opened my eyes, I stared up at the ribs of the Golden Gate Bridge. Large, toothy holes were busted into the deck, and chunks of concrete dangled from rebar sinews. Graffiti covered the bridge tower. Dripping water pealed like death knells and the whole structure creaked, its bones fracturing. The sky overhead had the livid darkness of dead flesh, of twilight dying.

While I adore the cover of Shutter, it doesn’t really tell you the whole story. If you’ve heard that Shutter is a frightening horror story, well yes, it is that. But it’s a whole lot more. Mix together Ghost Busters and City of Bones, add a healthy dollop of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and you have an approximation of the Shutter reading experience. Alameda is a writer to watch, because not only is her prose really good, but she knows how to write an exciting page-turner. I knew when I started reading that Shutter was a stand-alone, but the more I got to know the characters and the world, the more I wanted it to actually turn out to be a series! Imagine how sad I was at the end when everything wrapped up, no dangling threads or cliffhangers to be found.

When I say “multi-genre,” I mean that it’s a combination of horror, urban fantasy, paranormal, and a bit of a romance as well. It also had the feel of a superhero story, since in Alameda’s world, ghosts and other “necros” as she calls her undead, are a part of everyday life, and it’s up to the Helsing Corps—a military-like group of “reapers”—to keep the rest of humanity safe. Micheline Helsing—and yes, you guessed it, she’s a descendent of Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing—is part of the Corps, and is a tetrachromat, someone who can see the different colored auras of ghosts and other undead creatures. Micheline’s special weapon against the undead is her DSLR camera, which she uses to “trap” the ghosts’ energy, in effect, killing them.

She’s aided by her crew, including Jude, a boy who can see someone’s death when he touches them; Oliver, a computer hacker and technical whiz; and Ryder, a reaper from the wrong side of the tracks who Micheline just happens to be in love with. Together they are usually an unbeatable team. But one night, something goes wrong when Micheline is trying to capture a ghost on film, and the entire crew becomes infected with a “soulchain,” a supernatural curse that will kill the infected in seven days unless the chain is broken. With a deadly deadline hanging over their heads, it’s a race to find and kill the ghost for good.

There were so many layers to this story, I almost don’t know where to begin. I guess I’ll talk about the world building first, which I found fascinating. Alameda takes the fictional tale of Dracula and turns it into fact, thus establishing a hierarchy of ghost hunters that descend from the Van Helsings, the Stokers, and other well-known family names from classic horror literature. Add to that the idea that Micheline is nearly the last of the Helsing line, and her father expects her to marry well and continue the family name, in order to preserve her abilities in future generations. Her childhood friend Ryder is not at all what Micheline’s father has in mind, and I loved the Romeo and Juliet romance between the two of them (although that romance does not overwhelm the story at all).

One of my favorite elements was the use of mirrors, and “antimirrors,” which separate our world from the world of the dead, which is literally on the other side of the mirror. Ghosts that are trapped in the Obscura, as this terrible place is called, cannot cross over into the land of the living unless the mirror is broken, and so the reapers take great care in protecting antimirrors. The world of the Obscura is similar to ours, yet dark and decrepit, and I loved Alameda’s descriptions of it.

The author also gives a plausible explanation for how a ghost’s energy can be captured on film. Her descriptions were technical enough that I completely bought into the concept, even though most of the techy stuff went over my head. Some reviewers claim that this idea is similar to that of a video game called Fatal Frame, but not being a gamer myself, I can’t say whether that’s true or not.

The action was nearly non-stop, and the story was so tense in places that I honestly could not stop reading. The entire thing takes place over the course of four days and nights, while the chapter titles count down the hours like a ticking clock. Alameda sets her story in San Francisco, and creates a fictional island where the Helsing Corps lives and trains as part of their duties. There was a very exciting escape scene when the gang is trying to get off the island, but I won’t tell you any more than that so as not to spoil the story for you!

In addition to all the action, Shutter has a surprising amount of emotional moments between the characters, which is just another one of those layers I mentioned earlier. Micheline and her father have a very tense relationship, and in the beginning I couldn’t stand him. But as the story goes on, we get a glimpse into the past and the reasons Leonard Helsing is so angry at Micheline. This particular back story was emotionally fraught and gave what could have been merely an exciting action story much more depth.

I don’t know what Courtney Alameda is working on next, or whether or not she intends to delve back into this compelling world, but I sure hope she does. I didn’t even touch on all the wonderfully drawn characters in Shutter, but trust me when I say I want to know more about each one, and I definitely want to spend more time with them. If you’re looking for your next addictive read, then folks, you’ve just found it. Highly recommended!

Big thanks to Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan for supplying a review copy. Quote above was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Filed under 5 stars, Reviews

Snark & the Supernatural: OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS by Kristi Charish – Review

Owl 3D

Owl and the Japanese Circus (The Adventures of Owl #1)
by Kristi Charish
Genre: Adult urban fantasy
Publisher: Pocket Star Books/Simon & Schuster
Release date: January 13 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 432

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A rip-roaring adventure story, an audacious heroine with a knack for getting into trouble, a little romance, and lots of supernatural creatures to keep things interesting.

“Have you learned your lesson yet, Ms. Hiboux?”  The pressure decreased on my chest and I gasped in sweet air.

Mr. Kurosawa stood below me, flashing his black tiger teeth and waiting for an answer.

The smart answer was yes, but I think by now we’ve established my character flaws.

“Fuck you,” I said.

I requested Owl and the Japanese Circus after reading some glowing reviews, and I’m so happy I did. What a fun story, and a great introduction to a sometimes off-putting but ultimately likeable main character. This is one hell of an action tale, filled with a large and colorful cast of characters, some human but most supernatural in origin. At the center of it all is Owl, a talented antiquities thief with a penchant for Corona beer and online video games. The story is told in first person from Owl’s point of view, which means the reader gets to be in the head of one of the most unique female characters I’ve come across in quite some time. The story is set on several continents, which makes the story even more exciting. Charish takes your typical supernatural creatures—vampires, dragons, and more—and gives them new twists, which to me made the story much more than just another urban fantasy.

The story gets complicated, as more and more characters join the fray, but the simplified version is this: Owl has recently procured an artifact for a Japanese gentleman named Mr. Kurosawa, who runs a Las Vegas casino called The Japanese Circus. But Mr. Kurosawa isn’t happy. Something is missing from the “egg” Owl stole for him, and Mr. Kurosawa wants her to find it. Owl cuts a deal with him that she will indeed find the missing scroll that is supposed to be inside the egg, if he will protect her from a group of murderous vampires she calls the “Paris boys.”

Owl immediately sets off for Tokyo to ask her friend Nadya for help, and that’s where her troubles begin. From that point on, it’s a race to find the scroll before one of the many supernatural denizens, who are also after the scroll, kill her first. Also helping Owl is Rynn, a hottie who Owl has a dubious romantic history with, as well as her trusty Egyptian Mau cat named Captain, who can smell a vampire a mile away. But Owl’s mission seems nearly impossible, as vampires, skin walkers, and other dangerous beasties do everything they can to stop Owl and her friends before they can find the scroll.

The pace of this story was practically non-stop. Owl reminded me of a female Indiana Jones (and many other bloggers have said the same thing), a woman with sometimes unbelievable physical skills who is well versed in ancient artifacts and makes her living stealing them for wealthy collectors. She’s on the run through most of the story, as she seems to have pissed off many people in her line of work, who all seem to be after her for one reason or another. I loved the cosmopolitan feel of the story, as Owl travels from Las Vegas to Tokyo to Bali and back, and always with her cat Captain in tow.  Some of the most exciting scenes were those that took place in Bali, in the underground catacombs where Owl is searching for the scroll. Charish’s attention to detail made these scenes feel authentic, and even though I knew she was adding her own supernatural elements to the details, I could easily imagine Owl running through dark tunnels, trying to escape vampires and snake monsters!

And speaking of Owl…I have to admit her personality grated on me for most of the book, and I often found her very difficult to like. She swears like a sailor, drinks Corona beer like it’s the last drink on the planet, and always seems to be pissed at someone. Owl is one of those people who leaps first and asks questions later, which lands her in a whole heap of trouble. It didn’t surprise me that over half the characters in this book are trying to kill her. She has a hard time trusting anyone, especially her sort-of love interest Rynn, and she never knows when to keep her mouth shut. And yet, there was something about her that I did end up liking, despite her flaws. She was definitely unique, and I honestly can’t wait to see what kind of trouble she gets into next.

In her spare time (and it was hard to believe she even had any!), Owl is a dedicated gamer who is deeply entrenched in an online game called World Quest. She regularly takes breaks from her real life to become Byzantine Thief, her online avatar, where she and another player named Carpe Diem search for treasure and try to avoid magical curses. I loved this story-line, and after some revealing information at the end of the book, I’m looking forward to her relationship with Carpe in the next installment.

I do have a few small quibbles, but nothing major enough to ruin the story for me. First, I had a hard time visualizing the “egg” and the scrolls that were supposed to fit inside it. I couldn’t imagine how a scroll could fit inside an egg, and so unfortunately, every time it was mentioned it pulled me out of the story while I puzzled the logistics of it. Also, some of the writing felt a bit unpolished, and several awkward sentences jumped out at me, but these could easily be attributed to Owl’s “rough around the edges” personality, since she’s telling the story.

Overall, Owl and the Japanese Circus was a blast to read. If you like your characters snarky and sarcastic, you’re going to love Owl. I’ll definitely be looking forward to reading the sequel, Owl and the City of Angels!

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Quote above was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews

The Devil Made Me Read It: HELLHOLE by Gina Damico – Review

Hellhole 3D

Hellhole by Gina Damico
Genre: Young adult horror/humor
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release date: January 6 2015
Source: e-ARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 352

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A hilarious, laugh-out-loud “deal with the devil” story that was a blast to read!

“Please call me Burg,” he said with a smile, his beard widening. It wasn’t a well-trimmed beard, but rather the feral, unkempt kind that resulted from a weeklong bender, with Cheetos debris sprinkled throughout. His forehead was tall, his brow cavemanlike. His hair probably had things living in it. And his horns, while white and polished and slightly iridescent, ended in ragged, cracked tips.

In short, he didn’t look like the devil. He looked like the kind of early forties, thrice-divorced alcoholic who owned a grungy car wash and had to become a sperm donor to pay rent.

Before I can begin my review, I have to indulge in a small rant. I was approved for Hellhole on NetGalley, and as sometimes happens, the Kindle version of the book was not available. This meant that I had to dust off my ancient, circa-2010 Nook Color in order to read it. The reason I switched to Kindle a couple of years ago was so that I didn’t have to use my Nook Color, which at the best of times is unreliable and at the worst is downright evil. But I was determined to read Hellhole, and so I struggled with a reader that freezes every fifty pages or so and has to be rebooted a couple of times before I can keep reading. I nearly gave up, but Hellhole was so entertaining, and I really did want to find out how it ended. I guess it’s appropriate then, since Hellhole is the story of a devil, that I was put through some devilish frustration in order to finish it. That alone proves that Damico’s latest is well worth struggling with—errr, reading.

And now that that’s out of my system, on to the review! This was my first Gina Damico book, as I have not yet read her Croaked series. I have, however, been following her blog for a couple of years, and I adore her sarcastic and well-timed humor. Hellhole is just like her blog, except there’s a really good story to go along with all the funny moments.

Max Kilgore is a seventeen-year-old self-deprecating geek who lives in the town of Eastville (or “E’ville” for short!) and loves paleontology. His mother has chronic heart failure and spends her days in bed, waiting for the donor heart that could save her life. Max takes care of his mom, goes to school, and works overtime at the Gas Bag convenience store. But one night, after stealing a sparkly bobble-head cat from the Gas Bag as a gift to his mom, Max inadvertently unleashes a devil, who appears in his basement and refuses to leave until Max finds a house for him to live in.

Burgundy Cluttermuck, or “Burg” for short, is an unkempt devil with a penchant for junk food who refuses to wear pants. And he’s here to stay, unless Max can find him a house with a hot tub. Max agrees to the task, but only on the condition that Burg will “fix” his mom’s heart. But you know how deals with the devil turn out, and this story is no exception. With his new friend Lore to help him navigate the murky waters of trying to get rid of a devil, Max sets out to find a suitable house for Burg.

Aside from the humor, I loved the characters of Max and Lore, who are not your typical perfectly beautiful and talented YA characters. Both are flawed in the best ways, and for that reason they will resonate with both male and female readers. At seventeen, Max has never had a girlfriend, and his first tentative steps into romance are sweet and awkward. Lore is a sarcastic gem who turns out to be much smarter than Max, has birthmarks all over her face, and has hair that “looks like a volcano.” But she’s beautiful to Max, and that’s the important part. She works in a craft store called Just Glue It and wields a crow bar that she’s named “Russell Crowbar,” complete with glued-on googly eyes. Lore has some past experience with devils, as Max discovers, which makes her the perfect partner in crime (and yes, I do mean crime!) to help rid Max of his basement-dwelling problem.

I also loved over-the-top Burg, who is just about as lovable as a black widow spider. He’s got some interesting quirks, including the fact that he will only eat food that has been stolen. Burg did start to get on my nerves after a while, since he has a terrible habit of singing TV commercial jingles and using charming phrases like “screw the pooch.”  But I supposed that’s the point of a devil, to drive a person crazy!

Damico uses cats in an unusual way, and Max’s cat Ruckus plays an important part in beating the devil. I also loved a twist near the end that has to do with Max’s mom—but I don’t want to spoil anything for you. Damico fills her story with lots of clever twists and turns, and of course, the snappy and very funny dialogue that keeps this story humming. Teens, especially those that don’t easily fit in with the popular crowd, will surely connect with Max and Lore. Lots of fun and heartfelt too, Hellhole is a must read.

Believe it or not, no Nook Colors were destroyed during the writing of this review.

Big thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, for supplying a review copy! Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

And thanks to Audible.com, I have a taste of the audiobook for you! I know lots of you love audiobooks, so please enjoy this clip from Hellhole:

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Filed under 4 stars, audio clip, Reviews

Humorous Writing with Confusing Action: SEVERANCE by Chris Bucholz – Review

Severance 3D

Severance by Chris Bucholz
Genre: Adult Science Fiction
Publisher: Apex Books
Release date: November 2014
Source: e-book from publisher
Pages: 324

 three stars

The nitty-gritty:  A fascinating premise for a story, lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but ultimately a meandering plot that failed to hold my attention.

The trolley continued on its way, though by now Stein wished she had simply just gone up to the garden well and walked. The trolley seemed to bring out the worst in people, a symptom of mass transit systems which had survived the trip to the stars. A mass transit system within a mass transit system: Russian nesting dolls stuffed with awful, awful people.

I so wanted to love this book. Apex Books has published some wonderful stories, and I’m always eager to read new Apex titles. And the cover alone for Severance made me want to dive in, I mean just look at it! But somewhere along the way, I lost interest in the story, and I have to say it was difficult to read this one to the end.  I’m having a hard time pinpointing exactly why it didn’t work for me. Bucholz certainly has solid writing skills, and I especially loved his hysterical dialogue and the inner thoughts of his supremely funny characters. The plot had the potential to be great: a Generation ship called the Argos, hurtling through space for the past 239 years, will soon reach its destination planet, Tau Prius. But there is a plot afoot to derail this plan, which may send thousands of people to their deaths. It’s up to maintenance worker Laura Stein and her rag-tag group of friends to stop it.

It seems like an exciting and action-packed plot, and I kept waiting for the exciting part to come, but the story felt as if it were stuck on a big ship with nowhere to go, just like the people on the Argos. Stein (as she is referred to) works in the maintenance department, and her main job on the Argos is to…fix and replace heat thermostats on the ship. OK, so not the sexiest job on the planet—erm, ship—but I had high hopes that Bucholz would perhaps gloss over the details of fixing thermostats. But no, the reader gets many pages of Stein and Bruce moving about the deteriorating ship, searching for broken thermostats and replacing them. This goes on for quite some time, until the action gets going about half way through the story, when Stein discovers a group of dissenters on board who are trying to separate part of the ship.

Even then, I found the action repetitive, as though the characters were running in circles and repeating the same actions over and over. A non-violent first half (the only weapons around are stun guns, which can knock you unconscious but don’t kill) morphs into a very violent second half, as civil war breaks out, with the two sides fighting for control of the ship. I found myself unmoved by everything that was happening, for some reason, perhaps because I didn’t connect with any of the characters.

Laura Stein is the type of take-charge kind of female character I normally love, but I think the opening scene of the book—Stein sneaking through a heating duct and then spraying urine into someone’s bedroom for a prank—put me off her character, and I never did warm up to her. Bucholz delights in all types of bodily fluid humor, and he even invents a “Vomit Club,” a group of bored people who get together and try to make each other vomit. Hey, I’m not making this up, folks! Reading about people who go around the ship marking their territory by pissing on things is bad enough, but the Vomit Club pushed me over the edge. All of this is delivered with what must be Bucholz’s unique brand of humor, and while I did enjoy much of the snarky dialogue and funny quips between characters, the potty humor just wasn’t my thing.

The story goes back and forth between the present and the past, where we see an ancestor of Stein’s who has uncovered the very plot against the ship that is unfolding in the present, as he tries to figure out a way to send a warning message into the future. I loved the idea of using genetics to accomplish this task, but it was never really explained very well, and in the end, I found the whole idea more confusing than interesting.

What I did enjoy was Bucholtz’s clever set-up of a future society of thousands of people who are trapped together and really have nowhere to go. Good jobs are few and far between, and those who can’t find a job join groups (like the aforementioned Vomit Club, among others). Drugs are readily available, and Bruce often uses one called Brash, a cool red pill that gives a person unreasonable courage in the face of danger. Many story details made me chuckle, including the ship’s “fake” homeless residents—the Fauxmless—so called because while there really isn’t any reason to be homeless on a space ship, the Fauxmless think it’s trendy. And although weird, I also enjoyed the idea of the potted meat plants that grew throughout the ship. (Yes, as in chunks of meat that grow on plants!)

Bucholz’s writing is spot on—he’s clearly a seasoned writer, as his job as a humor writer at Cracked.com proves. Severance is filled with often brilliantly funny parts, but for me they just couldn’t hold the story together. But do check out the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, where lots of readers really enjoyed this book.

Thanks to Apex Books for supplying a review copy.

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Filed under 3 stars, Reviews

Bloodydamn Good: GOLDEN SON by Pierce Brown – Reivew

Golden Son 3D

Golden Son (Red Rising Trilogy #2) by Pierce Brown
Genre: Adult science fiction
Publisher: Del Rey
Release date: January 6 2015
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 464

five stars

The nitty-gritty: Bigger, bloodier, and bolder, Golden Son lives up to its predecessor in spades.

To my left and right, the falling soldiers look like raging lightning bugs jerked out of some Carver’s fantasy. I admire the one to my left. The bronze sun is behind him as he falls, silhouetting him, immortalizing him in that singular moment—one I know I shall never forget—so that he looks like a Miltonian angel falling with wrath and glory. His exoskeleton sheds its friction armor, as Lucifer might have shed the fetters of heaven, feathers of flame peeling off, fluttering behind. Then a missile slashes the sky and high-grade explosives christen him mortal once again.

**Mild spoilers ahead, only for those who haven’t read Red Rising.

Pierce Brown has done it again. After blowing me away with his debut, Red Rising, he’s brought back his larger-than-life, over-the-top characters and put them in even more danger and horrible situations, and still somehow managed to bring moments of quiet and beauty to his story. Golden Son was a non-stop rocket ship ride through space (literally!) that paused only long enough for our characters to recover from their wounds. If you are the type of reader who loves military fiction, then you will most likely love this series. Strangely, I am not that kind of reader, and yet Brown’s books work splendidly for me. If it’s even possible, Golden Son delves even further into the violence and depravity of the human heart than Red Rising did. There’s a lot of killing in this book, and not all of it makes sense. (In fact, I would have to say most of it doesn’t, just like war.)

What Pierce Brown does to reel me in, though, is this: he fills his story with beautiful writing; lets his characters see past the blood and destruction to the beauty that lies underneath it all; and gives them something to believe in, a reason behind all the fighting and killing. He also gives us lovely relationships between the characters and makes them more than just killing machines. (Because honestly, sometimes that’s how I thought of Darrow and his friends.) Much of the tension in the story lies in the things that are not said between characters: meaningful glances, tacit understands, and dawning realizations. These relationships are subtle and complex and ever-changing, and they are the reason I love this series.

I don’t want to spoil the story by talking too much about the plot, but I will set up the premise of Golden Son. Several years after the ending of Red Rising, Darrow has been taken in by Augustus, the man who killed his wife, and the man Darrow has sworn to defeat. But politics are complicated in this very dense story, and after several betrayals, Darrow’s mission becomes clear: to bring down the Sovereign, the woman who rules over the solar system, who keeps the Reds down in the muck as the lowest of the Colors. Darrow, who was born a Red but changed into a Gold in order to infiltrate and defeat them from the inside, gathers his most trusted friends from the Institute and forms a plan that will ultimately free all the other colors from servitude.

But things are not always as they seem. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, alliances are made and broken, and only one thing is certain: you never know who to trust. And in order to be truly free, Darrow is going to have to start a war.

This is one of those stories where I can honestly say I never knew what was coming. Brown knows how to convince the reader that the story is going in a certain direction, and then he blithely pulls the rug out from under you. Just when you come to love a character, someone who seems to be allied with Darrow and his mission, that character either switches sides or proves to have never been on Darrow’s side at all! The result of this was that I became wary every time a character seemed worthy enough to be deemed a “good guy,” and so I found my expectations shifting.

One big difference this time around was the setting. Where Red Rising takes place mainly in a fairly small area, Golden Son expands into space. This book had much more of a science fiction feel to it, which I loved. Brown’s combination of futuristic weapons and space ships alongside characters whose dialog felt very much medieval at times, was an odd but strangely appealing contrast. My favorite weapon was the razor, a lethal sword-like contraption that is both flexible and rigid, depending on how you use it. I think more blood was spilled by razors than by all other weapons combined!

Some new characters make an appearance, and old ones return. One of my favorites was Ragnar, a “Stained” Obsidian who pledges to stand by Darrow no matter what. He was such a huge brute of a guy, and even Darrow was afraid of him at times, but I loved his steadfast loyalty. Darrow’s sort-of love interest Mustang returns, and I adored her in this book. Mustang has got to be one of my all-time favorite female characters. She’s brave, strong, loyal, and a really good liar. Plus she doesn’t take shit from Darrow or anyone else, which I appreciated.

The Howlers were some of my favorite characters in Red Rising, and they come back just in the nick of time to rescue Darrow from one of his many close calls. They reminded me of Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men, although I’ll say this for the Howlers (and all the other characters in Golden Son): don’t get too attached, because just like Game of Thrones, you never know who is going to get the ax next.

Brown throws in some humorous moments between characters, but they are few and far between. This is mostly a serious book about war and its consequences and how war changes relationships. In Golden Son, war is a solitary thing, no matter how big your army. As Darrow says to his comrades right before the final battle, “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Oh, and did I mention the huge, shocking cliff-hanger? Oh just kill me now, Pierce!! When did you say Morning Star (Book Three) is coming out?

Huge thanks to Del Rey for supplying a review copy! Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

Read my review of Red Rising!

Read my review of Red Rising!

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WAR STORIES: NEW MILITARY SCIENCE FICTION Edited by Jaym Gates & Andrew Liptak – Review

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War Stories: New Military Science Fiction edited by Jaym Gates & Andrew Liptak
Genre: Adult science fiction anthology
Publisher: Apex Books
Release date: October 2014
Source: Finished paperback from publisher
Pages: 360

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A diverse and well-written collection that gets to the heart of what it means to go to war.

I always look forward to reading short story collections from Apex Books, and I’m thrilled to report that I enjoyed this one immensely. I don’t normally seek out books about combat and the military, but I was interested to see how adding a science fiction angle would affect the way I view stories about war. And I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Although I didn’t love every story, I did enjoy most of them, and flat-out loved four of them. I was also surprised to find that the ones I loved the most were written by unfamiliar-to-me authors.

Editors Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak did an amazing job of pulling together just the right combination of hard military, horror, and more reflective and emotional stories. The collection begins with a Nebula Award-winning short story by Joe Haldeman called Graves, which is eerily gruesome, a story that made me want to look away but compelled me to keep reading. It sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the collection, telling the story of a man who worked in Graves Registration in Vietnam, and the nightmares he suffers twenty years later after seeing a very unusual body.

The anthology is broken into four parts: Wartime Systems, Combat, Armored Force and Aftermath. There are twenty-three stories in War Stories, and for the sake of time and space, I am going to share with you my top eight favorites. That isn’t to say that the others aren’t good—they are. But sometimes you have to pick you favorites, and this is one of those times!

War Dog by Mike Barretta. This was my very favorite of the bunch! It’s a beautiful and sad story about a retired soldier who falls in love with a Dog, a genetically modified human. Set in a post-war Christian-ruled society, humans are threatened by fungal infected humans called “‘shrooms.” I loved Barretta’s writing, and I loved the way he captured the sadness and inevitability of war.

Suits by James Sutter. Wow, I loved this one too! Two innocent android “techs,” whose job it is to repair the huge suits worn in combat (think Avatar), get a harsh lesson in exactly what happens in war. This story was touching and emotional.

Ghost Girl by Rich Larson. A war vet tries to save a “ghost girl”—an albino—who lives with a robot who she claims is her dead father. It was brutal and sad and brilliantly written.

The Radio by Susan Jane Bigelow. A “synthetic” soldier is stranded after her unit is destroyed by a bomb and the Army appears to have forgotten about her. But some local residents take her in and give her hope for a new life. Sweet and moving.

The Wasp Keepers by Mark Jacobsen. In a post-war society, citizens are watched by mechanical wasps, who take brutal action at the smallest infraction. This story makes you think about the meaning of the word “freedom” and how it means different things to different people.

Invincible by Jay Posey. I wasn’t surprised how much I enjoyed this, since I’m a huge fan of Jay’s novels. In this story, a group of fighters are given new life every time they die. It explores the consequences of never actually dying, and the feelings of despair from a war that feels never-ending.

Light and Shadow by Linda Nagata. I loved this story! In a future war, soldiers wear special skull caps that block emotions in order to make them better in combat. But one soldier decides she doesn’t want to live her life without anger, and so she stops wearing her cap. Like many of these stories, this one explores human rights and how little freedom we really have.

Mission. Suit. Self. by Jake Kerr. I really enjoyed this story about a soldier who learns the hard way the meaning of the word “mission” when he decides to go against orders to keep a village from being destroyed.

Other stories in the collection are: In the Loop by Ken Liu; Contractual Obligation by James L. Cambias; Non-Standard Deviation by Richard Dansky; All You Need by Mike Sizemore; The Valkyrie by Maurice Broaddus; One Million Lira by Thoraiya Dyer; Warhosts by Yoon Ha Lee; In Loco by Carlos Orsi; Coming Home by Janine Spendlove; Where We Would End a War by F. Brett Cox; Black Butterfly by T.C. McCarthy; Always the Stars and the Void Between by Nerine Dorman; Enemy States by Karin Lowachee; and War 3.01 by Keith Brooke.

It’s also worth noting that this book was a crowd-funded project, as all 357 backers’ names are listed at the end!

If you love military fiction, you’ll love this anthology. And even if you don’t, you’ll love this anthology! War is not going away anytime soon (and won’t in the future either, according to these writers), and War Stories is a reminder of that. Each story will entertain you, but will also make you think and reflect about our sometimes tenuous relationships with other nations and races.

Big thanks to Apex Books for supplying a review copy!

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It’s All About the Characters: BROKEN MONSTERS by Lauren Beukes – Review

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Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Genre: Adult Thriller/Crime
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Release date: September 2014
Source: ARC from Comic Con
Pages: 435

five stars

The nitty-gritty: Top-notch writing and storytelling, a gripping and disturbing thriller, with finely nuanced characters that surprised me in the best possible way.

In the end, forgiveness is like letting go of a rabid cougar you had by the tail.

“This is America. Sex is worse than violence.” – Detective Gabi Versado

After reading so many great reviews of Broken Monsters, I finally pushed aside a toppling pile of review books and settled down to read it. And I’m so glad I did. This book surprised me, and then kept surprising the further I read. The deeper I got into the story, and the more layers I peeled back, the better it was. I am in love with Lauren Beukes, and I’m making it my mission to catch up on her backlist as soon as I can. This story is so much more than a police procedural/murder mystery. Yes, there is a seriously fucked up man who is killing people in bizarre and disturbing ways. And there is a tenacious detective who won’t give up until he’s caught.

But there is also an ensemble cast of characters, each with intricately detailed back-stories. Beukes could have chosen any of these characters to write a story about, so carefully and lovingly does she bring them to life. You may not like them all, but each one is a necessary piece of the puzzle. I turned the pages quickly when the action heated up, but I savored the passages where Beukes develops her characters. By the end of the story I seriously wanted to hang out with Gabi, sit down and have coffee with TK, and take Layla under my wing. (I have a fifteen-year-old myself, and boy did Layla’s story scare me to death!)

You won’t have to wonder for very long who the killer is in Broken Monsters. You’ll figure it out within a few chapters, as you are meant to do. Set in the gritty city of Detroit, the story is told through multiple points of view: Gabi, single mom to Layla and a dedicated detective who never gives up; fifteen-year-old Layla, who gets into some serious trouble along with her best friend Cas; TK, a reformed criminal who’s homeless but tries to help others like himself; Jonno, a middle-aged journalist looking for his big break; and Clayton Broom, a disturbed artist who is slowly unraveling.

When a grisly body is discovered—the top of a young boy fused to the legs of a deer—Gabi and her team go into high gear to solve the murder. Another body is discovered soon after, and Gabi begins to suspect a serial killer is at work. In the midst of trying to uncover clues, Gabi’s daughter Layla is starting to spin out of control. Layla and her friend Cas start chatting online with a pedophile, which leads them to make some very poor choices. Jonno and his new girlfriend Jen begin working on a video about Detroit’s underground art scene, but unintentionally end up in the thick of the murder investigation.

Beukes builds tension slowly, and it takes a while before all the puzzle pieces start to fit together. Eventually the characters’ lives begin to intersect in unexpected ways, but honestly, the journey was just as good as getting to the end. Each character has his own mini-story that runs parallel to the murder investigation, and Beukes weaves all these elements together seamlessly. I’ve heard other readers talk about what a skillful writer she is, and now I can see why. Not only is she juggling multiple storylines, but she’s done a bang-up job of it!

I’ve never been to Detroit myself, but in Broken Monsters, the city is just as much a character as Gabi or Layla. Beukes (who lives in South Africa) has obviously spent some time there, since the descriptions are so vivid and practically jump off the page. I loved some of the local slang, like the description of “Detroit diamonds”—the locals’ term for the broken car window glass that litters the city. Beukes doesn’t shy away from the less savory parts of the city—which is to say most of them—like poverty, the prevalence of crime and drugs, and my favorite, the sad and eerie abandoned factories that seem to be everywhere. But there is beauty in the city as well, an unexpected art scene that thrives among the destruction in back alleys.

The story is also about our obsession with social media and how damaging it can be. Jonno is a journalist who wants his fifteen minutes of fame, and he eventually gets it, but maybe not in quite the way he expected to. Beukes shows how internet news stories spread and change and grow into entities that cannot be contained. She cautions us about the potential dangers of social media sites, especially for children, but she doesn’t preach.

Throughout the story, chalk doorways begin to pop up near the murder scenes, and we’re given hints that something supernatural may be going on. Honestly, as much as I love supernatural in my novels, I would have been fine without it. But I did love the way you couldn’t really tell if those elements were real, or if they were all in the mind of our unreliable narrator.

This book is a stand-alone, but I dearly hope that the author decides to write more about these characters, so much did I come to love them. In any case, I guarantee that I’ll be reading another Lauren Beukes story very soon.

Big thanks to Mulholland Books for supplying a review copy.

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DEAD FUNNY: HORROR STORIES BY COMEDIANS Edited by Robin Ince & Johnny Mains – Review

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Dead Funny: Horror Stories by Comedians edited by Robin Ince & Johnny Mains
Genre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Salt Publishing
Release date: October 2014
Source: Finished copy from publisher
Pages: 199

three stars

The nitty-gritty:  A healthy dose of horror from famous British comedians, and a unique collection, but only moderately successful, in this reader’s opinion.

So, under normal circumstances, stand-up comedy and I don’t get along very well. It’s too bad, because I have some genuine comedians in my family (and by genuine, I mean they get paid to stand up and say funny things!) My sense of humor often clashes with those around me. My husband, for example, tends to enjoy telling me jokes, most of them pretty terrible. Hence my disdain of canned humor. So why am I telling you all this? I guess to explain my reaction to Dead Funny, a new short story collection from the respectable and always interesting UK publisher, Salt Publishing, whose books I’ve enjoyed immensely.

Co-editor Robin Ince says in his Introduction, “… remember that the goriest deaths will have been created while the writer was imagining their worst heckler. Interrupt at a comedy club at your peril, now you know you what goes on in the minds of the stand-up.”  I was very curious to read a collection of fiction written by comedians, because while I may not always enjoy stand-up comedy, I do love humor in my fiction. Glancing through the list of contributors, it didn’t surprise me that I only recognized one name, Charlie Higson. After all, I’m an American who doesn’t really follow comedy in the first place.

This collection is quite varied, both in subject matter and skill level, and I was surprised to discover that when comedians sit down to pen horror stories, the results aren’t necessarily funny. Some of them are very well written, but others read like comedy routines instead of short stories. Out of the sixteen stories in this collection, I really enjoyed five of them, I liked six others, I was frankly baffled by or did not like the writing of four of them, and downright HATED one story. (And I don’t think I’ve ever said I’ve hated something on this blog before!) So quite the mixed bag.

Here are the five stories that I thought were well-crafted and creepy and yes, had some black humor as well:

The Patient by Mitch Benn

A man whose wife and daughter were killed in a car accident abducts the man responsible and tortures him in his basement. A twist near the end was a nice surprise and made this one of my favorites.

Possum by Matthew Holness

This story was crazy and sick, but I thought it was really well done. A disturbed man who makes puppets tries to destroy one of them, but the puppet doesn’t go down quietly. I’m not sure I completely understood this story. The man goes back to his childhood home and tries to get his father (?) to help him destroy the puppet. It was just weird. But in a good way!

For Roger by Katy Brand

This was my favorite of the bunch. It had a fantastic Twilight Zone vibe to it. A man discovers a hidden diary in his attic, but strangely, the diary appears to predict the future. This story shows us that knowing what will happen in the future is not necessarily a good thing.

Anthemoessa by Phill Jupitus

In some versions of mythology, Anthemoessa was the island home of the Sirens. In this story, a  man (again with all the male characters!) who is trying to climb the corporate ladder, gets caught up in the siren song of two mysterious women, and unfortunately for him, follows them. This story was very well written and also very funny. This was the vibe I was expecting from all the stories in this collection.

Filthy Night by Charlie Higson

Another funny story that I really enjoyed! An aging horror actor visits the home of one of his fans, to see his movie memorabilia collection. I loved the surprise twist at the end (although I didn’t care for the punchy comedy “last line”). More humor than horror, but still very good.

I have to mention the story that set my teeth on edge, the one I didn’t like at all. It was called Dog by Reece Shearsmith. The writing was pretty good, and Shearsmith certainly has the talent to give us a gut-wrenching story. But unfortunately, it was about a psychopath who kills dogs, and since I’m a dog person, I just couldn’t stomach it. Perhaps the author meant to elicit such a response, and if that was his intention, then bravo!

So while the concept of having comedians write short horror stories was certainly a good idea, this collection only manages to sort of pull it off. But as Johnny Mains says in his Foreword, “It’s an experiment in terror. Not all of the stories will make you laugh. Some of them might make you vomit or be scared to go outdoors after 6 p.m.” Johnny, I believe you hit the nail on the head.

Big thanks to Salt Publishing for supplying a review copy.

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A Surreal & Dangerous Place: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer – Review

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This review is part of Sci-Fi November, hosted by Oh, The Books! and Rinn Reads!

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Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1) by Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Adult science fiction
Publisher: FSG Originals
Release date: February 2014
Source: Signed paperback from San Diego Comic Con
Pages: 195

five stars

The nitty-gritty:  A beautiful and strange story filled with uncanny mysteries and an overwhelming feeling of dread.

On the seaward side, another wall, an even stouter-looking fortification high on the crumbling dune, topped with broken glass and, as I drew near, I could see crenellations that created lines of sight for rifles. It was all in danger of falling down the slope onto the beach below. But for it not to have done so already, whoever had built it must have dug its foundations deep. It appeared that some past defenders of the lighthouse had been at war with the sea. I did not like this wall because it provided evidence of a very specific kind of insanity.

I’m late to the game in reading and reviewing this first installment of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, but I’m grateful for Sci-Fi November, which propelled me to make time for a science fiction story that I’ve been trying to read, amidst all my review obligations. I confess to never having read Jeff VanderMeer before now, and I feel like slapping myself silly for that! I even own several of his books, so I don’t have an excuse, other than the tired “I don’t have time to read everything!” VanderMeer is a seasoned author, having already written at least seven novels and countless short stories. He’s been an editor of anthologies and won such esteemed awards as the World Fantasy and Locus Awards, to name two. If you haven’t read anything by VanderMeer, I suggest you start with his latest, Annihilation. Although the term “new weird” is often mentioned in the same breath as his name, I didn’t feel as if this book fell into that genre, or if it did, it seemed to be an accessible kind of new weird.

Annihilation was odd and hypnotic and melancholy and it made me dizzy and exhilarated and sad. In some ways it reminded me of the television show Lost, where there are strange things to discover around every corner. If you’re looking for an action-packed plot, you won’t find it here. Rather, VanderMeer builds a kind of dreadful suspense by slowly giving us hints of the weirdness and horrors of Area X. Four women have just arrived at Area X, members of the twelfth expedition (eleven expeditions have come before them, and all have ended in death or disappearance). The biologist, the psychologist, the surveyor and the anthropologist have trained and been analyzed and deemed fit to be part of the expedition. Upon arriving in the lush and multi-habitat area, they set up camp and begin to explore, looking for clues that might shed light on what happened to the previous expeditions. They are given journals where they will each record their own experiences and reactions to Area X.

The story is narrated by the biologist, and the book is her journal. The story begins as the four explorers stumble upon a landmark that isn’t on the map they’ve come armed with—a “tower” that appears to have sunk underground, tunneling down into the earth with no explanation. The discovery of this tower—or “tunnel” as the other three call it—sets off a chain of events that will test the sanity of each member of the team. Wondrous and terrible things, real or imagined, are about to happen, because Area X is quite unlike any place you’ve ever experienced.

Much of what made this story work for me was the ambiguity of what is happening in Area X. Normally that would frustrate me, but VanderMeer manages—somehow—to draw the reader into the chaotic mindset of the biologist, making us question everything she sees and hears. From the unexplainable thing they see in the tower (I’ll let you discover that on your own!) to the wide variety of animal and insect life that lives in Area X, each new mystery is scientifically scrutinized by the narrator (she is a biologist, after all), as she tries to rationalize everything, even if there isn’t any rational explanation. In one of the stranger events, the biologist sees a dolphin swimming toward her that gazes at her with very familiar eyes. This completely creepy scene made me wonder what had actually happened to the people on the previous expeditions.

The story is divided between two main landmarks—the tower and the lighthouse—and I loved the way the two structures, one rising into the sky and the other tunneling into the earth, played off each other. Both are scenes of great violence, because terrible things have happened—and are happening—in Area X.

Despite the short length of the book, VanderMeer gives us lots of character development, as we get to see the other three members of the team through the biologist’s eyes, and even better, she gives us a peek into her own past. One of the most poignant parts of the story was learning that the biologist’s husband was part of the eleventh expedition, and that he is now dead. As she makes her way through the wonders and horrors of Area X, she reminisces on bits of her marriage, recalling the marital problems they were having right before he left, their early years together, and how utterly wrong they seemed to be for each other. At one point she says:

“…I loved him, but I didn’t need him, and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.”

By the end of the story, there was still so much left unresolved, so many mysteries still unraveled. What is the border, and why can’t they remember what it was like to cross it? What is the meaning of the strange thing they found in the tower? And how long, really, have expeditions been coming to Area X? Only the Southern Reach knows the answers, and I’m hoping for some myself in the next two books. Highly recommended.

Have you read the Southern Reach trilogy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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