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Day Shift (Midnight, Texas, #2)Day Shift by Charlaine Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Not sure whether this should be a full 4 stars or 3.5, but I enjoyed the second Midnight, Texas novel a bit more than I did the first. I suspect part of my appreciation might be due to my disillusionment with the TV series, which I doggedly watched all of but was relieved to see gone.

Day Shift is a strange but pretty effective combination of urban fantasy (well, very small-town fantasy) & cozy mystery. The actual mystery (no spoilers) is familiar enough, involving inheritance & murder. The fun comes in watching Midnight's mostly supernatural residents trying to help out one of their own, solving the case in the process.

It's more obvious in this novel than in the first that Midnight is in the same "universe" as Bon Temps, LA (Sookie fans rejoice), though I'm not sure I caught all the references. At some points, I felt as though character background was becoming more important than the case, but was willing to forgive. The writing seemed wittier than in the first novel, too.

Recommended for urban fantasy fans who prefer more focus on mystery, though I'd advise starting with Midnight Crossing. This is definitely a series, with references to the first book in this one.









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The Christmas HirelingsThe Christmas Hirelings by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This Audible audiobook (short novel length) is a holiday treat for folks who can't get enough Victoriana in their Christmas.

First published in 1894, this is a slightly predictable but still enjoyable tale of country house holidays in Cornwall, with all the requisite trimmings. Brooding, aging lord of the manor with complicated family problems? Check. Disowned & widowed daughter? Check. Desperately ill child with sickbed drama? Check . . . It's all done with a certain amount of wit, however. And who couldn't use a happy ending these days?

Recommended for incurable Anglophiles, Dickens fans, Janeites (slightly wrong time period, but similar social commentary) -- & anyone up for Victorian holiday fiction, melodrama & all. It was free from Audible when I acquired it, & I'm glad I did.



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Passages: The Best of New Myths Anthology Vol. 1, is now available in both print & e-formats.

This nearly 400 page spec anthology from Scott T. Barnes, the editor of New Myths online, offers 25 stories and 8 poems relating to new stages of life. The TOC features many award winning-writers, from Rhylings to Stokers to Writers of the Future.

I am proud & happy to have "In the Absence of Trees," my flash fiction collaboration with Marge Simon, included in this exciting project.

For full TOC, or to order from Amazon:


https://tinyurl.com/yb3h97ok
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Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4)Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Murderbot Diaries as a whole are as much about an AI evolving towards humanity as they are about solid space opera. This concluding volume is no exception, though Wells kicks the geek factor up a notch. Murderbot's hacking skills have always played a part in the narrative -- beginning with its origin story! -- but they really come to the fore in Exit Strategy. Not being particularly versed in these things myself, I got a little confused from time to time. Murderbot's final set-piece fight, however, showcases these skills in a way any SF fan is likely to cheer.

As usual, Murderbot's own snarky-yet-sympathetic voice carries the plot. And a good thing, too, because I found that plot more than slightly convoluted. The time between releases of these novellas seems just long enough to let the reader lose track of significant details, though Wells is good at weaving in reminders. That said, don't even attempt to start this series anywhere but at #1.

This final volume (or is it?) of The Murderbot Diaries brings the series' plot arc to a satisfying conclusion, though an open-ended one. And, as ever, this installment seems pricey for its length. I'd definitely recommend checking your local library's collection first.




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bleed-through
the embassy's
fresh paint


-- Ann K. Schwader
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Beastly Boys and Ghastly GirlsBeastly Boys and Ghastly Girls by William Cole

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This was one of my favorite childhood library books (I think I must have checked it out at least half a dozen times), & I couldn't resist revisiting it recently via inter-library loan.

I'm happy to report that it's as strange as it ever was. This is a truly dark little item, with children's verses from some unexpected sources (A.E. Housman? John Ciardi?) as well as the classic ones (Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Gellett Burgess, Shelley Silverstein). The line drawings by Tomi Ungerer are a treat in themselves.

Some of the offerings seem a little dated. The book was published in 1964, after all, & most of the poems are older than that. Many are cheerfully morbid. The rhymes are infectious, however, and might actually tempt a young reader into liking poetry. Or even writing some.

At least that's how it worked with me.









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The Silence of the GirlsThe Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I wasn't completely sure whether to give this one 4 or 5 stars, but finally settled on 5 for its sheer emotional power. Yes, there is rather modern British dialogue & slang (but, hey, we already know the PBS Roman Empire speaks British English, why not the ancient Greeks?). Yes, it is occasionally disconcerting when the plot shifts viewpoints between Briseis (first person) and her captor Achilles (third person). And even at the end, I was never completely sure who Briseis was telling her tale to. Other than me, of course.

However, none of this mattered while I was reading this very different, very lovely, & very brutal take on the Trojan War. This is war from the captive's view, and not just any captive. Briseis, a young royal woman from a Trojan city, was Achilles' personal prize -- and the the cause of his refusal to fight after Agamemnon took her away. Most of the novel is told from her POV, and it's every bit as harsh (& conflicted) as you'd imagine. Although Barker never gets gratuitously graphic, there's no question here about what happens to women in war.

If you've read the Iliad, you know the plot already. What matters here -- other than some breathtaking writing every so often -- is how women, mostly enslaved, figured into that plot. And how some men were decent in spite of the situation, and how many weren't.

Recommended (strongly) for Mary Renault fans, and anyone else looking for a different view of classical war. Or, probably, war as it still is.





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Winter Tide (The Innsmouth Legacy, #1)Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A very different & character-driven Mythos novel, set in America's Cold War era. Aphra Marsh, the tale's first-person POV, is about as far from a standard Lovecraftian narrator as one can imagine, but perfect for this complex story.

Spy-hunting, Red Scare paranoia, and deadly serious practitioners of both dark & (semi?) white magic all figure into this one, along with references to America's Japanese internment camps. Race relations of the time also inform the plot -- as does the status of women, and the very perilous status of non-straight folks (male and female). That's a lot of (justifiable) social commentary, but it never quite gets in the way of the pure fun of a well-crafted Lovecraftian world, Miskatonic University and all.

The references here go way deeper than your standard Call of Cthulhu gaming chrome. Emrys has obviously done her research (both Lovecraftian and historical), managing to tie in most of HPL's major Mythos tales, plus one or two I wasn't expecting. I'll definitely be putting the sequel, Deep Roots, on my Want to Read (or perhaps listen to) list.

Recommended for Lovecraftians open to social comment and history in their Mythos fiction. I'm not sure that those completely unfamiliar with Lovecraft's work would get the most out of this novel, but they might still appreciate the world-building, history, and magic.











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strict liquid diet
organic and gluten-free
the undead live well


-- Ann K. Schwader
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A Night in the Lonesome OctoberA Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This dark & frothy bit of holiday entertainment really stands up to rereading.

Broken into 31 dated chapters, this outwardly straightforward tale of a ritual to be performed (or stopped) under a rare full Halloween moon is anything but. Zelazny gives the reader a dazzling cast of characters from literary horror and horrific history, adds a generous dose of Lovecraft, and turns up the paranoia every chapter.

There are so many in-jokes and literary references, it's a bit hard to keep up. However, Zelazny never fails to keep his primary characters sympathetic (which is a trick, since one of them is the Ripper!) and worth worrying about. Then there's Snuff, our narrator with a dog's-eye view of it all. . . .

Highly recommended for dark fantasy or horror fans open to being amused & spooked at the same time. Lovecraftians are likely to have a slightly better experience, or at least to get more of the jokes.





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The Black Company (The Chronicle of the Black Company, #1)The Black Company by Glen Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I liked this one a lot more than I thought I was going to. Started reading it because I understood it to be a "classic" of its kind (the beginning of grimdark), and because I was curious. Kept reading it because I simply could not stop, & because I came to care very much about the characters. I will definitely be reading more in this series, as time allows.

This is the trench view of epic fantasy, as narrated by the combat physician Croaker. The reader's appreciation of Croaker is key to this novel . . if you don't like him, or his voice, or his very conflicted view of the mercenary trade, you aren't going to enjoy this read. And I don't blame you, though I did find myself liking him. He's an oddly moral individual trying to do his best for his brothers in the Black Company, though he's not lying to himself or the reader about what some of these brothers are like. When horrible things happen (which they do, but not in graphic detail), he is not accepting. He takes action when he can, avoids when he can do nothing more, but never sees evil as anything other than what it is.

The Black Company doesn't offer elegant prose, or a particularly complex plot. However, unlike my experiences with some modern grimdark (first 1 1/2 Game of Thrones novels in particular, after which I gave up), I found myself able to keep reading and caring about the world Croaker was chronicling. Recommended for folks who enjoy the grand old Weird Tales style of fantasy, without too many bells & whistles, or really gratuitous nastiness.





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My most recent Cassie Barrett tale, "Pothunters," just received an Honorable Mention in Vol. 10 of Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year!


https://ellendatlow.com/2018/09/10/honorable-mentions-2017-best-horror-of-the-year-volume-ten-3/

"Pothunters" first appeared in Black Wings VI (PS Publishing, 2017) , edited by S.T. Joshi.

And I'm scaring my poor Corgi with my home office happy dance.
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The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The Audible version is read by the author, which really enhanced the experience for me. Gaiman's voice gives this dark, engaging modern fantasy a real touch of fairy tale -- something being told to a child, by the child we all were at one point.

Most of the plot points in this short novel would qualify as spoilers, but suffice it to say that Gaiman has captured the otherworldly feelings of an imaginative child, confronted by evil both of this world and utterly not of it. Charming without being cute or cloying, and genuinely touched by the shadows as all good fairy tales are. The writing isn't elaborately elegant, but it does the job of conveying the viewpoint of a bookish, sensitive narrator recalling a long-ago childhood.

Recommended for anyone interested in modern (not epic) fantasy, and willing to be dumped into the deep end of the tale right off.







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Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries, #3)Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Murderbot Diaries continue to hold my interest, improving with every installment. The plot of this third offering, though still action-oriented, focuses as much on Murderbot's relationships with humans (and another bot, who seems to be a sort of pet) as it does on Murderbot's own still-murderous combat skills.

This shift from full-out SF action ( All Systems Red) to action plus interpersonal focus didn't slow down Wells' dialogue in the least, either. Murderbot remains snarky and wryly observant of the humans around it, despite its own adventures & travels as a rogue SecUnit. One of its most poignant comments came near the end:

I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can't just stop.

I'm having the same problem with this series, so I was glad to see that my local library has The Murderbot Diaries #4 on order. With any luck, I'll be the second person to dig into it this fall.








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To celebrate, here's something from my last collection, Dark Energies (P'rea Press 2015).


***
Of One Who Dreamed


The old gods wake! From pole to pole, that cry
Disquiets midnight in a thousand tongues
Both common & unknown to prophesy
Some cataclysm. Since this world was young,
Its gods have come & gone; their praises sung
In temples or in battle, their rites kept
With incense or with sacrifice fresh-wrung
From writhing flesh. Yet elder powers slept
Beneath our seas. Beyond our stars. Adept
At camouflage, they shaped the waking dreams
Of one whose bleak imagination leapt
To correlate its contents -- into reams
Of warning left behind for all who sense
The stirrings of a darker Providence.



--Ann K. Schwader
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The PirateThe Pirate by Harold Schechter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A well-crafted nibble of historical true crime, circa 1860s USA. One of a series of novella-length pieces being offered to Amazon Prime members, in both Kindle & Audible format.

True crime fans & readers who enjoy sensational history would probably find the entire series of interest. I downloaded the series (in both formats) when it was first offered free. This first sample makes me glad I did.







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The Good HouseThe Good House by Tananarive Due

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A decent modern Gothic horror novel -- feels like Southern Gothic even though most of it takes place in the Northwest --with some really fascinating Vodou aspects. The story is female-focused with a sympathetic protagonist who refuses to be a victim. All good! This is the first Due novel I've ever read / listened to, and I was hoping to broaden my horror reading experience.

In some ways, the novel did this. Unfortunately, it felt much too long, even given that it was a generational story. Combine this with a nonlinear storytelling style (the entire plot zigzags back and forth, sometimes by decades at a time) and an unsatisfying ending, and you wind up with a book that's rather hard to get through.

I think I may have stuck with it because the Audible narrator was doing an excellent job. I'm not sure I would have been so persistent if I'd had, say, a paperback.

YMMV, especially if you're really looking for a chewy late-summer chiller.





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Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries, #2)Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a fine sequel to All Systems Red (which you should definitely read first, if you haven't), & expands upon Murderbot's world of humans, augmented humans, & bots of various flavors. If anything, Murderbot's observations about both humanity & itself are more pointed.

The plot of this one starts directly after All Systems Red. To avoid spoilers, I'll just say that it involves suppressed information, stolen files, at least a couple doses of good old-fashioned SF violence, & a transport with an AI every bit as snarky as Murderbot itself. Murderbot also goes through certain modifications to appear more human (at least augmented human), which gives him no end of psychological grief.

I continue to find these novellas great -- & thoughtful - fun, though the pricing problem remains. This time around, I checked out a Kindle copy from my local library.



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