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The Coming StormThe Coming Storm by Michael Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is another right-sized Audible Original I obtained as a free item for members. It's a deeply frightening, well-researched look at weather forecasting in America, & how data all of us pay (through taxes) to obtain is becoming more & more privatized. Loaded with good science and fascinating personalities, & narrated by the author in a clear though sometimes overly dramatic fashion. Although Big Data is a major part of the narrative, I never felt bored or confused. Lewis weaves his information into anecdotes, rather than dishing it out in indigestible lumps.

There is some political commentary here, but nothing overt or extreme. Recommended for the scientifically curious, or anyone interested in how high-level decision making actually affects ordinary Americans (farmers in particular) in risky situations. I'm not sure the length justifies spending a whole credit, but it's definitely something to pounce on as a discounted or free item.






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The PowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This was an effective & unsettling listening experience, at least partly because the book did not deliver what I was expecting. And that's probably a good thing.

I'd heard The Power described as a feminist dystopian novel, sometimes compared to The Handmaid's Tale. For me, at least, this wasn't accurate. Rather than being centered on the USA, or triggered by abusive religion, this is a global dystopia triggered by a truly science-fictional concept. (I suspect everyone reading this knows the concept, but no spoilers from me.)

The book offers multiple sympathetic viewpoints from diverse characters: an emotionally scarred African-American girl "savior," a politically driven American mother with a troubled daughter, an ambitious male Nigerian journalist, a vengeful young woman from a British criminal clan. Within the novel's framing story (again, no spoilers here), the setting is disturbingly modern, complete with Eastern European chaos and social media trolls. When the author's SF concept changes just one thing, the world begins to fall apart with alarming rapidity.

In the end, this may be less a feminist dystopia than a human dystopia, more about humans & power than humans & gender. It's a thrilling listen (or read), but I can't say the ending gave me a lot of hope or warm fuzzies. Recommended for those ready to accept a solid dose of SF plus a touch of dark fantasy in a thought-provoking novel.




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The Garden of Blue RosesThe Garden of Blue Roses by Michael Barsa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I suspect that many fans of the modern Gothic would give this one at least four stars. It has pretty much everything one expects, with a few extras. Creepy family in privileged country-house life? Check. Mysterious death of parents? Check. Dark family secrets several layers deep? Check. Seriously unreliable narrator? Double, triple check.

Unfortunately, the famous horror-writer father who haunts (figuratively? literally?) so much of this story just did not work for me as a character. Most jarringly, this writer made his name as "the Master of the Slasher who writes in rhyming couplets." There are numerous quotations from his work throughout the book, and almost all of them felt forced. This poetry simply did not strike me as being something that would sell horror novels -- though, again, YMMV. Like much else about this character, these quotations seemed over the top.

That said, there's a lot to admire about this novel. In addition to the skillfully wrought Gothic atmosphere, the plot plays with reality vs. fiction in a completely disorienting way. Despite the intrusion of those couplets, suspense builds steadily, even when the reader is fairly sure whodunit -- if not why -- early on. This is a thoroughly stylized tale, but an absorbing one for those who are willing to let it unfold at its own pace.




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The Labyrinth Index (Laundry Files, #9)The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This ninth & latest entry in the Laundry Files is narrated by Mhari Murphy, head of the Lords Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs, and thoroughly cynical PHANG. (Yes, PHANG means exactly what you think it does -- but if you are not familiar with Charles Stross's Lovecraft-flavored version of vampires, this is not the place to start. The Laundry Files are definitely best read in order. Begin with The Atrocity Archives. )

The overall mission this time takes Mhari & several other unhappy Laundry operatives to the USA, where the whole country has forgotten its President. An occult American intelligence service is also trying to bring back Cthulhu from His watery grave -- thus annoying Nyarlathotep, currently in charge of the UK. And potentially destroying our planet.

Are we having fun yet?

Yes, we are. Or at least I was. Stross is at his wittiest & snarkiest when describing some aspects of the US, though he never lets the snark overshadow the dark. This Lovecraftian post-apocalypse spy thriller delivers pretty much everything fans of this series expect, though I found personal relationships occasionally overshadowing the action. Mhari's POV still works for me as a female reader, & I'll be preordering the next Laundry File when it's announced.





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Night Has A Thousand EyesNight Has A Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a deeply strange novel, located somewhere between noir & weird fiction. It plays by most of the "rules" of a hardboiled detective story, yet refuses to allow the world to make sense of itself at the end. In fact, it suggests that we cannot make perfect sense of the world, because nothing we do will change what is fated to happen.

After getting bogged down in the lovely but maddeningly leisurely prose -- more than once -- I was tempted to give this one only three stars. However, the sheer creepiness of the experience bumped it up one. Removing free will (or even threatening to remove it) from a plot that is at least half police procedural makes for an unsettling read, & Woolrich manages the trick seamlessly. I only wish he'd taken fewer pages to do so.

Recommended for vintage crime / noir fans looking to widen their horizons, and anyone with the patience to let the full effect of this one sink in.



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Verses for the Dead (Pendergast, #18)Verses for the Dead by Douglas Preston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The series returns to its FBI roots in this adventure, with Pendergast required to take on a partner before investigating some particularly disturbing Florida homicides. The partnership goes about as well as one would expect, though Special Agent Coldmoon (Lakota Sioux) is a welcome addition to this "universe." I'd welcome his reappearance in future cases.

There's the usual amount of off-the-wall eccentricity on Pendergast's part, though somewhat less than the usual dose of weird/paranormal in this case. It's more or less a straight serial killer hunt, with an exceptionally twisty backstory. Aside from the appearance of the brother of a deceased character from previous novels, there's not a lot of "mythos" in this tale. No one in Pendergast's household makes an appearance, & none of the story takes place in NYC.

Preston & Child deliver the thriller goods, once again, but I can't say that I found this to be an exceptional entry in the Pendergast series. (Yes, I've read all of them.) Fans of these mysteries will find it worthwhile, however.



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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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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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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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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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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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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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Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of SuspenseNight-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I checked this out (in Kindle format) from my local library simply to read "Night-Gaunts," & found myself unable to stop. I'd read a certain amount of Oates in the past, but never a full collection of her tales . . .wow. Definitely a mind-altering experience, though one has to get used to her ambiguous endings. In most cases, the reader is never going to be 100% sure how a particular story ended -- though this is not the same as a story dribbling away into nothing. These definitely end, but with a lot of uncertainty for both the reader and the characters.

The title tale is actually the final one (yes, I read it first), & will probably work best for those with some knowledge of H.P. Lovecraft's life. I didn't agree with all the author's plot choices in this one, but enjoyed it anyhow.

The other five stories do not have a Lovecraftian flavor (at least, they didn't to me), & could probably be appreciated by anyone with a taste for slow-burn creepiness. These are, indeed, tales of suspense rather than horror. Most of the horror is hidden between the lines of breathtakingly elegant prose. All six tales are reprints, but from such obscure sources that most readers won't have encountered more than possibly one of them before.

Highly recommended for fans of quiet/literary horror & suspense, and a great summer read for those of us who find our tastes running to darkness this time of year.





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