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Hard Truths

Alex Whitehall. Riptide, $17.99 trade paper (233p) ISBN 978-1-62649-847-1

In Whitehall’s adequate contemporary romance, Isaac, a closeted web designer, finds himself attracted to his sister’s fake date, Logan—a pierced, tattooed, and “olive-toned” man who claims to be an ex-con, intended to scandalize Isaac’s bigoted parents—at their family’s Christmas dinner. After Logan hits on Isaac, the men make a date, and Isaac gets to know Logan, who’s actually a fellow graphic designer. Their initial love connection is sweet, culminating in a passionate kiss that eventually leads to hot sex and Isaac’s first motorcycle ride. But their relationship suffers, too, because Isaac is afraid to come out to his parents. Logan doesn’t want to move in with Isaac if their relationship can’t be public, causing additional pressure on their otherwise storybook love affair. Whitehall (Magic Runs Deep) builds up Isaac’s justifiable fears at the expense of failing to sufficiently develop the supporting characters, especially Logan. The drama that ensues—some of it violent—is often contrived. Whitehall makes the salient, albeit expected, point about friends being “family” for LGBTQ folks rejected by their parents, but the central romance isn’t very satisfying. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Tuning In

Richard Roberts. Highcrest, $9.99 trade paper (270p) ISBN 978-1-948681-00-1

Roberts’s novel discusses some interesting science in a beautiful setting, but the lack of sympathetic characters keeps it from succeeding. Fraudulent marketing CEO Jeffrey Venn; his aggressive assistant, Lex Lee; telepath Jon Gunnarson; and neuroscientist Ella Sandström travel to Bhutan to create a mobile app that will make its users telepathic. Jon and Ella are sincerely invested in the project, while Jeffrey and Lex just want a hit that will bring in money. All are desperate for their own reasons, and all are in for a shock when they realize the app actually works. Ella and Jon team up against Jeffrey when he tries to use his newfound powers to convince the FBI not to arrest him, and to make his app go viral. Roberts gets very wrapped up in his interest in the science of telepathy, to the detriment of the plot; story lines involving Ella’s assistant, Jon’s financial issues, and Ella’s daughter all fall by the wayside. Despite an intriguing premise, there are too many threads left untied to form a cohesive story. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Detox in Letters

Cheryl Low. World Weaver, $13.95 trade paper (302p) ISBN 978-1-73225-460-2

Low’s engrossing second fantasy (after Vanity in Dust) returns to the socially stratified Realm, where magic is produced in refineries and the highborn stumble through a world of illusory meals, blank books, and parties. High society, deprived of the amnesia-inducing dust, is finally remembering its true history and power, and Prince Vaun, the youngest child of the remote, totalitarian queen, must navigate multiple loyalties and treasons as people he loves launch plots to overthrow the crown. However, his tangle of obligations, familial relations, and tender love affairs may undo the revolution before it begins. Despite pacing issues—an over-abrupt ending, a few too many duels and fêtes—this lush fantasy stays ferociously readable while offering a world that’s easy to love: unhappy people waking up to realize there’s more to life, and greeting it with curious wonder. This belle epoque–flavored series will appeal to readers who like their fantasy politics splashed with hope. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Epidemic of the Living Dead

John Russo. Kensington, $12.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-4967-1666-8

In this imaginative and twisted take on the zombie genre, the residents of Chapel Grove, Pa., live in constant fear of an outbreak of a plague that turns people into zombies. Dr. Marissa Traeger runs the local medical research institute and is looking for a cure to the plague. When infected needles disappear, she calls on police captain Pete Danko and officer Bill Curtis to investigate. The needles are now in the hands of junkies, and the plague breaks out at a heavy metal concert. When some of the victims arrive at the hospital, they attack, and four pregnant women are infected. The babies are born, but the mothers die. Marissa sees this as an opportunity and quickly gets the four orphaned children into her program. Years later, bodies begin to disappear from the mortuary, families are murdered, and the town’s teens go through radical changes during puberty. Bill, worried for his daughter, slowly begins to suspect that the four orphans, now teens, are behind these events. Fans of the zombie genre will love how Russo, screenwriter of Night of the Living Dead, twists the mythos and creates a new, frightening creature to infect the world. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The One Unspoken

Sarah Bryant. Curiosity Quills, $19.99 trade paper (351p) ISBN 978-1-948099-71-4

This first installment of Bryant’s Unspoken series promises ghosts, voodoo, and interracial romance in the antebellum South, but sadly doesn’t deliver. In New Orleans, a white girl, Sidonie, is raised by an enslaved Haitian woman, Adelis, and learns she can see ghosts. As an adult, Sidonie falls in love with a free black slaveholder, Gabriel, but their love is forbidden, not only by their culture but by Sidonie’s newly returned father, who’s promised her to another man. Bryant makes an attempt at historical accuracy, but the slaveholding characters are described as “flawed, but benevolent,” which only serves to feed historical misconceptions frequently used to defend slavery. Furthermore, Bryant mixes up Haitian Vodou and voodoo. The timeline is confusing, as flesh-eating zombies of modern America are conflated with the traditional zonbi of Vodou, and Jim Crow laws appear in the South years ahead of when they were actually enacted. The white author’s casual use of racial slurs completely dissolves any trust a reader might have left. At best, this is a disappointing start to a series that still holds some promise; at worst, it’s harmful in its propagation of racial and religious stereotypes. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The People’s Republic of Everything

Nick Mamatas. Tachyon, $15.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-61696-300-2

The 15 stories in Mamatas’s strong collection show impressive imaginative range, cutting across the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction and veering into territory that defies genre pigeonholing. In “Walking with a Ghost,” H.P. Lovecraft is resurrected as an AI and suitably horrified at being (like a character in his fiction) a consciousness trapped in an unnatural form. “Arbeitskraft” follows a Marxist organizer in a steampunk 19th-century England whose efforts to rally a partly mechanized working class are repeatedly undermined by capitalist mendacity. In “A Howling Dog,” an app for posts from community members turns into an internet echo chamber that morphs an urban legend into near-reality. Mamatas (I Am Providence) writes in a witty, sassy style that invigorates all of his narratives, from the social satire “Under My Roof,” about a family that declares its household a sovereign nation armed with nuclear capabilities, to “The Phylactery,” a poignant nonspeculative tale about familial and cultural identity. This collection highlights the work of a refreshingly versatile storyteller. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Tropic of Eternity

Tom Toner. Night Shade, $26 (380p) ISBN 978-1-59780-911-5

Toner’s bloated follow-up to The Weight of the World returns readers to the widest reaches of the Amaranthine Firmament, an empire in the 147th century, with the book’s massive cast spread out across several plots begun in previous books. In one of the main story lines, the gentle Melius giant Lycaste, first introduced in 2015’s The Promise of the Child, works with several allies in an attempt to thwart series villain Aaron the Long-Life’s attempts at revenge against the world that wronged him. Another important plot involves the search for the infant queen Arabis after she is abducted, with some chapters focusing on her kidnapper while others focus on her family’s quest to find her. Toner helpfully includes lengthy prefatory material, but new readers will still struggle to keep track of the numerous plots, characters, and places, especially as Toner skips around in time and space. Fans of the first two books will find plenty to love in the return to many familiar settings and characters, but those unfamiliar with Toner’s labyrinthine approach to storytelling will find this an inhospitable starting point. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A World of Horror

Edited by Eric J. Guignard. Dark Moon, $16.95 trade paper (332p) ISBN 978-0-9989383-1-8

In this expansive anthology, editor Guignard shows that fear and terror are embedded in every culture, collecting horror stories from across the globe. Characters’ closest family members are not what they seem in “Mutshidzi” by South African author Mohale Mashigo and “The Wife Who Didn’t Eat” by Japanese author Thersa Matsuura. In both pieces, the authors explore the surprising terrors that lurk in the mythologies of their respective cultures. In “The Man at Table Nine” by Englishman Ray Cluley, a restaurant customer’s curious method of eating causes uneasiness in his waitress. “Honey” by Ukrainian writer Valya Dudycz Lupescu hints at what might be lurking in the forests outside Chernobyl. Indonesian writer Nadia Bulkin traces an illness and a curse gone awry in “Things I Do for Love.” Guignard’s editorial prowess is evident throughout; he has selected works that are as shocking as they are thought-provoking. This breath of fresh air for horror readers shows the limitless possibilities of the genre. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature

Edited by Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem. Mandel Vilar, $24.95 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-1-942134-52-7

Though science fiction and fantasy were regarded with disdain in Israel until the late 1970s (as elucidated in the editors’ informative introduction), this anthology showcases an impressive array of 16 speculative stories by Israeli authors. Most show clear evidence of the author’s ethnicity and nationality; for example, Lavie Tidhar’s “The Smell of Orange Groves,” a moving account of a man’s efforts to be remembered by his descendants, includes references to the question of which robots are to be considered Jewish, mirroring a current real-world controversy, and also addresses continued Israeli economic dependence on foreign workers. Elana Gomel’s “Death in Jerusalem,” a dark fantasy with elements reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s occasional flights of fancy, features a woman who learns that her husband is one of multiple tangible incarnations of means of death, along with one responsible for the Nazi genocide. Those that focus on other themes, such as Guy Hasson’s stellar “The Perfect Girl,” are still thought-provoking and imaginative. The high quality of work makes this anthology enjoyable and accessible for any fan of speculative fiction. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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I Am Behind You

John Ajvide Lindqvist. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (416p) ISBN 978-1-250-08657-0

Four families and their vacation caravans are somehow transported into a seemingly endless grassy meadow in Lindqvist’s ambitious and frustrating novel of cosmic horror, the first of a projected trilogy. Their world now includes a bright sky, no sun, a lot of grass, three married couples of various degrees of happiness, two friends who are inching toward romance, two children, one cat, one dog, and whatever was in the caravans when they arrived. GPS maps show them in places they cannot possibly be, such as on roads that ceased to exist years ago. The radio works, but plays only songs written by Peter Himmelstrand, a real-life 1960s Swedish pop star. (In Sweden, the title of the novel is Himmelstrand.) Unsurprisingly, tensions in the group are high, especially since unpleasant, elderly Donald has a gun, and Molly, one of the children, is a budding psychopath. The characters, the group dynamics, and the unfolding mystery of what’s going on and why are well-depicted and engrossing, but the ending peters out in a futile attempt to remain emotionally satisfying while still leaving most events unexplained. A future book may shed more light, but the first installment makes it difficult to maintain enough investment in the story to want more of it. Agent: Anneli Høier, Copenhagen Literary (Sweden). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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