A Fall in Autumn, by Michael G. Williams

Short Take: I still don’t like sci-fi. But I liked this.

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Sometimes, as a reviewer, I am asked to critique things that are outside of my comfort zone. A while back, I gave my opinion on a book of poetry, for example. Or maybe some extra-extreme gore, or some strange new erotica will make its way to my inbox (and no that’s not a euphemism you heathens).

I like to think that I’m game to try just about anything, but for some reason, I’ve never really cozied up to fantasy & sci-fi. I’m pretty sure that I have some unique form of mental laziness, because whenever I’m confronted with any slightly elevated level of world-building, my brain jumps to focus on that detail. What’s this thing? What does it look like? How does it work? And boom, I’ve lost track of things like character names and who’s doing what,.

This in turn leads to frustration as I’m trying to follow and form opinions on a story while ALSO trying to figure out what the heck that science-fictiony-thing is supposed to be or if this particular fantasy-thing will be important to the story later.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that when Mr. Williams contacted me to ask if I’d like to review his new sci-fi mystery novel, I very nearly said “thanks but no thanks”. However, the author had a two major things working to his advantage. #1, I had read and thoroughly enjoyed his “Perishables” (that review is around here somewhere), and #2, the man knows how to flatter a reviewer.

I’ll leave the details of the lovely emails he sent me out of this, but let’s just say that I was sufficiently moved to challenge my sugared-up synapses with A Fall In Autumn, and I’m not a bit sorry that I did.

Roughly 9,000 years in the future, private eye Valerius Bakhoum has just been hired for an entirely different kind of case. Alejandro, a gorgeous and enigmatic golem, believes that he witnessed an atrocity committed by a mythical being. He’s willing to pay top dollar for what’s likely to be a wild goose chase, and Valerius is not in a position to turn down a paying gig.

The search leads to some fascinating, twisty places, both in the literal surroundings, and the more ephemeral intersection of science and belief, all in a city that flies through the air.

Because I don’t read much SFF, I base my opinion on the same things I would for a thriller – how the plot moves, are the characters genuine, and so on. There’s one major difference, however, in that I ask myself “Are the SFF elements necessary, or is it a gimmick?” By that I mean, does the magic or tech actually play a part in the story? Or is it “Ok, I want to do a slasher story, but check it out! This one happens IN OUTER SPACE!! The bad guy kills everyone but like the blood FLOATS AROUND!”

So I’m very happy to say that the world-building in Fall is crucial to the story. Don’t get me wrong, his human touches are perfect. Valerius is complicated and imperfect, scruffy-souled and contradictory, a good-ish guy willing to do bad things. And it’s the people (even the enhanced and hybrid ones) that highlight the author’s keen eye with regard to humanity and our tribalist tendencies. It doesn’t matter how advanced we become, “us vs. them” will always be A Thing.

I genuinely loved the twists and turns in Valerius’s search for the truth, and his vulnerability with Alejandro. In a world where everyone carries literal and/or metaphorical knives, those bits of beauty and vulnerability were all the more moving.

My only wish is that Mr. Williams had slowed down just a bit in the in a few spots. We’re dropped squarely into the middle of an action scene on Autumn, and although the chase itself is fun, I felt slammed with so many ideas at once (Mannie? What’s a Mannie? Mag Cab? Artie? Air-reactive sake? And so on) that my brain refused to just chill out and enjoy what was happening. (What’s a golem, exactly? Like a robot?  Why do the differing religions have to both have S-names, I keep mixing them up….)

I felt like I was back in school, and the teacher was saying “Nerd, we went over this a while ago, don’t you remember?” whenever some new term was tossed out without explanation, like I SHOULD understand this, but when I would check the info-cupboard, it was bare. And that is most likely due to my own shortcomings as a reader – SFF books just aren’t always accessible to someone who doesn’t read much SFF.

But when the author took his time, and explained things, DUDE. It was so freaking cool. Like, the tech that keeps the city aloft legit blew me away. And with time, the context clues spread over multiple scenes chiseled away the stumbling blocks and let me just enjoy the story (and let me tell you, my beloved nerdlings, the story is SO GOOD).

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some exotic future booze, because I’m too snowed in to do anything but day-drink today).

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Blood Echo, by Christopher Rice

Short Take: There is a LOT of story here, and all of it is good.

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Well, I don’t know about all of you, but I am OVER this cold weather. My shabongas are shivering over here, y’all. Which is why it’s a good thing that I found a tasty treat to get our collective blood pumping & temperature rising.

As I am sure any horror fan knows, Christopher Rice is the son of Anne Rice. I bring that up to shoo the elephant out of the room, because I’ve read & enjoyed a lot of Anne, but Christopher is an entirely different kind of writer. Don’t get me wrong, he’s immensely talented, but if you’re looking for new & improved Vampire Chronicles, this one ain’t it.

Before I dig into my review of Blood Echo, I want to point out that it is the second book in the “Burning Girl” series (and oh man, that name is the best). There are some series in which each book works as a standalone, but THIS IS NOT ONE OF THEM. If you haven’t read the first book (Bone Music), well first of all, you really should. It’s excellent. But be warned, if you go any further, there WILL be spoilers from the first book.

Got it? Onward!

Raised by serial killers, and turned into a superpowered weapon by a brilliant but unethical scientist, Charlotte Rowe is Having Some Issues. First off, she’s been recruited by a secretive group of billion-dollar corporations to relieve society of the worst of its predators. Although she likes the idea in theory, when a mission goes terribly wrong, she’s forced to reckon with her own potential for violence.

Then there’s Charlotte’s boyfriend Luke: Altamira sheriff’s deputy, total hunkola, and also Dealing With Some Things. Charlotte does her best to keep him from seeing her Hulk-side, and refuses to talk about the things she does, which puts a bit of strain on their relationship. And when some strange, seedy stuff starts going down in Altamira, well, his career is definitely not helped either. Toss in his master-hacker younger brother who’s on the run from the FBI, and we can say that he’s also having some family issues.

There are a few other great characters rounding out the cast: Cole Graydon, billionaire who inherited his Dad’s company and is probably in over his head, Dylan Thorpe, insane genius, Bailey Prescott, hacker extraordinaire, and Martin Cahill, a longtime family friend and recovering alcoholic who is exactly the kind of grizzled, laconic, blunt fount of wisdom you’d want in this (or any other) situation.

When Charlotte is out of town on a mission, Luke is pulled into a seemingly simple case: a badly battered woman wants Luke to arrest her on-again off-again boyfriend. Now, if you’re reading this review, you know what I like, and do I really need to point out that nothing that follows is even on the same continent as “simple”?

I’m just going to say that there’s a whoooooooole lot of other terrible stuff going on in idyllic-looking Altamira and let it go at that.

But what really makes Blood Echo work isn’t the awesome (but somewhat crowded) plot, or the characters’ interactions with each other. What really grooved for me was the introspection the main characters displayed. When Charlie is triggered, she can literally rip a man to pieces with her bare hands. Which, don’t get me wrong, is ALL KINDS OF AWESOME, and her unbreakable rule about only using her power on bad guys is great, and the fact that she really doesn’t want to KILL them, just make sure they are captured and punished is way admirable, but…. If she does what she does, and somehow uses just a teensy bit too much force totally on accident, is she really any better than the monsters she pursues?

Each character is forced to reconcile their ideals with reality, and to admit to their own blind spots, to own their own baggage. And Cole Graydon’s story at the end… well, I’m obviously not going to spoil it here, but believe me when I say, I’m going to be kicking that one around in my head for years to come.

And oh yeah, there’s a smidge of steamy stuff and a whole bunch of futuristic tech that has me paranoid and side-eyeing my laptop camera right now.

My one gripe is that there’s just SO MUCH, and so many overlapping groups. You have the billionaires pulling the strings, and their underlings, and Luke and his coworkers at the station, and Martin’s gang of AA guardian angels, and the OTHER billionaire who’s running the stuff in town, and his son Jordy & Jordy’s gang of buds, and so on and so forth. It’s all very well done, but my poor sugared-up brain was definitely getting a little cramped by the end.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a big old shot of anything hot – it’s not getting any warmer here!)

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An Anonymous Girl, by Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

Short Take: I am never doing one of those surveys for money again. Like, EVER.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

I don’t know about all of you, but I’m always up for making a few extra bucks, and one of the easier ways to do so (if you have lots of free time & a high tolerance for being asked the same question 50 different ways) are those online survey sites. What’s good/bad about those things is how mundane and standardized they are – no matter how you answer a question, the next question is the same for everyone. I’d venture to say that most in-person research surveys function the same way (I haven’t done those, it’s too people-y out there). But the most important aspect of research surveys of either flavor is that they don’t impact your “real” life at all.

Enter Jessica Farris. A struggling makeup artist in New York City, she rushes from job to job, scrambling to make enough to cover her bills, and to send money back home to help care for her disabled sister, Becky. So it’s obviously Too Good To Be True when she is admitted (read: scams her way) into a lucrative gig. Take a survey on ethics and morality, with a few follow up sessions, and make several hundred dollars per session.

What Jessica doesn’t know is that Dr. Shields, the psychiatrist running the study, has an agenda that goes far beyond academic research, and it doesn’t take long for the tasks to move from a computerized survey to real-world “experiments”. Go to this hotel bar. Wear a black dress. Flirt with this man.

Jessica (of course) becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the entire process, but she has already confessed her Darkest Secret to Dr. Shields and is now unable to extricate herself without risking her relationships with everyone she cares about. As she desperately tries to find a way out, the doctor is just as determined to keep the experiment going, using every type of manipulation in a psychiatrist’s toolbox (and WHOA, there are a WHOLE LOT).

I’m just gonna stop with the plot description right here. If you’re reading this review, chances are, you’ve read a lot of psychological thrillers, and you already have a handle on the whole cat-and-grossly-outmatched-mouse thing. So I’m just going to say that Ms. Hendricks & Ms. Pekkanen knocked that one out of the park. Dr. Shields is brilliant, obsessive, and ice-cold, and Jessica’s anguish and confusion as she dives, headfirst and unprepared, into a thorny tangle of relationships, betrayals and lies is palpable.

As far as villains go, Dr. Shields is a really, really good one. I’ve spent a lot of words in the past about the obnoxious “criminal mastermind” cliche, and although the not-so-good doctor is scarily smart and observant, her genius runs in one compulsive direction. There’s no “psychiatrist who is great at studying and manipulating people who’s also a master hacker, bomb maker, and bazillionaire who has a torture palace the size of a city block that nobody knows about” here.

I have to add, also, that the chapters from Dr. Shields’ point of view maintain an unnervingly clinical, detached tone. It’s chilling, and maybe does more for the story than the actions and plot itself.

In the end though, An Anonymous Girl suffers from, well, the end. It’s not terrible, but kind of predictable and handled in an abrupt way that focuses on one character and leaves several plot threads involving others hanging. I would’ve liked some kind of epilogue, an update on [spoiler]’s life after the climactic final confrontation.

In the end though, An Anonymous Girl is a fun, twisty little thriller, and the research/experiments angle is something new & different.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some grapes and brie – the snack of champion psychos!)

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Hunting Annabelle, by Wendy Heard

Short Take: Sing it with me now! “I see your truuuuueee colors shining through…”
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Hello to all of my nerdlings, and Happy New Year(‘s Eve)!! It’s that time of year, where we make a bunch of resolutions that will be forgotten by February, when the piles of Valentine chocolates arrive to wreak havoc with waistlines and willpower. Or sooner, if you’re me, and there’s still some Christmas fudge hanging around the house.

But at the same time, I can’t imagine a better poster boy for making resolutions than Sean Suh, the star of Wendy Heard’s delicious Hunting Annabelle.

The year is 1986, and Sean has a lot of issues. Like, a LOT a lot. Recently released from a mental institution after committing a horrific crime as a teenager, Sean now lives with his mother, a prominent neurosurgeon who loves, fears, and resents her son in equal measure.

A diagnosed schizophrenic and gifted artist, Sean spends his days at Four Corners Amusement Park in Austin, sketching random people and admiring the beautiful, colorful auras he sees surrounding them. It’s there he runs into Annabelle, and where the fun really gets going.

Over the next couple of days, Sean is charmed by Annabelle and her glittering, copper-colored aura, even as he fights his own worst, most violent impulses. It seems like he might be getting things under control, when suddenly, Annabelle is shoved, screaming, into a strange van and disappears.

Needless to say, Sean’s life quickly takes a turn for the desperate. Unsure at first if Annabelle is even missing, it doesn’t take long for the authorities to focus their attention on Sean, and he himself can’t even be sure that her kidnapping actually happened, or if it was another one of his delusions.

What follows is a somewhat by-the-book thriller, as Sean must Search Annabelle’s Past to find out Who She Really Is, and to try to save her (and himself) Before It’s Too Late.

But then…. Well, then there are a few really great twists and an ending that is absolutely dizzying. And while my curmudgeonly side is trying to poke holes and find alllllll the ways it would never ever work out that way, I’m smacked upside the jowls over and over again by Ms. Heard’s one brilliant, simple, perfect plot device:

She set the book in 1986.

Seriously, I caught myself repeatedly thinking things like “Why doesn’t Sean just Google Annabelle?” Uh, 1986, ya stupid nerd. “Wait, you’re telling me the FBI databases don’t show a pattern of [spoiler]?” Hello, 1986, lunkhead.  And so on and so forth. Simple, but extremely effective.

And the author maintains the illusion perfectly. From the color scheme that every home had (peach and aqua) to the fashions (shoulder pads, slouchy socks with snow-white Keds), to the music on the walkman (SO MANY FLASHBACKS!!), the mullets, the white pages and rotary phones, smoking indoors in public places, and a thousand other details, it’s seamless.

But the juiciest treat of all is that ending. THAT ENDING. I had guessed fairly early on who was behind Annabelle’s kidnapping, but the why of it, and the aftermath, well, chalk up another jowl-smack. Of course I won’t give it away here, but trust me, you are not prepared for where Hunting Annabelle takes you.

Now, time to break out some booze and snacks, cause it’s midnight somewhere, and I want to get a head start on my resolution-breaking.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a New Coke. Seriously, SO MANY FLASHBACKS.)

Loved this book!!

The Perfect Liar, by Thomas Christopher Greene

Short Take: Like a dip on top of a swerve that will knock you for a loop. Just trust me.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

I’m back! Have you all missed me? Life got a little weird there for a minute, but I have brought you all a deliciously twisted treat.

The Perfect Liar centers on married couple Susannah and Max, who have a really, REALLY great life. He’s a famous artist, raking in the bucks and traveling the country to give lectures while teaching at a prestigious college. She’s a devoted but fragile mother to her teenage son Freddie from her first marriage to an older man, who left her a widow at a cruelly young age.

So it’s a shock to both Max and Susannah when the first note shows up, a piece of paper taped to the door of their lovely, tasteful home that reads, simply, I KNOW WHO YOU ARE. And from there, oh my little duckies, the you-know-what hits the fan and splatters hither and yon in a most spectacular fashion.

This is one of those books that’s hard to describe without spoilers, but we learn early on that Max is harboring a Dark Secret, and that he will Go To Any Length to keep it hidden and let me just say that I was genuinely shocked by exactly how far he would go. And I’ve read Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk so let’s just assume that I know shocking when I see it. Max is scary-smart but not in an over-the-top mastermind kind of way – there’s a much more realistic type of manipulation and self-preservation at work here.

And things only get more intense when the second and third notes show up.

The Perfect Liar is told in alternating voices by both Max and Susannah, and the depth that Mr. Greene gives these characters is dazzling, especially Susannah. The descriptions of her fear and anxiety are so spot-on that I could feel my own adrenalin responding. And when her story veers just ever-so-slightly into highly improbable territory, well, by then I was so enamored of the character that I was happy to hop on that pony and ride it all the way.

And the final reveals, well…. WHOA. I would be a terrible reviewer if I didn’t acknowledge that as much fun as this story is, the last few scenes really stretched the limits of believability. But somehow, it works perfectly. The Perfect Liar unfolds in a way that feels organic, like each event or reveal is the natural result of the one before.  Would things happen this way in real life? Almost certainly not. But does the book hang together in a real way regardless?

Does this nerdy reviewer love snacks?

(Spoiler alert: uh, YEAH, on both counts. Feel free to donate chocolate and kettle cooked jalapeno chips.)

Finally, I just want to throw another neuron at Mr. Greene for his finely honed pacing. There’s a LOT of story in under 300 pages, it’s lean and tight and (unlike my reviews) there are no wasted words.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some alka-seltzer. Happy hangover/leftover day everyone!)

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Tell Me No Lies, by Alex Sinclair

Short Take: When Hell overflows, the dead shall walk the earth. Or maybe there’s a simpler explanation.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

It’s beyond a cliche to say that life can change in an instant, but it’s also very true. Every major event has that one pivotal second: the plus sign appearing on a pregnancy test, the mugger pulling out a gun, a gurgling sound from the lower abdomen.. We can all point to that one moment in our own lives just before everything takes a drastic turn and there’s no going back.

For Grace Dalton, that one moment comes when she and her beloved husband John are walking to their car after a lovely dinner celebrating their fifth anniversary. A pickup truck comes flying out of nowhere, and in seconds, John is dead in her arms.

The following weeks are a blur of grief, but eventually, Grace begins to return to her world, and that’s when things start getting weird. She sees John watching her, she passes out at inconvenient times, and sometimes does things that she has no memory of doing.

It also becomes increasingly obvious that John was involved in Something Shady.

Now, this all sounds like a really cool setup for a supernatural horror novel, in which John was a member of a Satanic cult and is currently screwing with Grace from the afterlife. However, this is not that book.

Tell Me No Lies is a paint-by-numbers thriller. The one major revelation is pretty easy to guess, and the rest of them aren’t really consequential.

Twisty plots are difficult to pull off.  I love them, but I’m the first to say that I’m not a writer, and the main reason is that I can’t think of any good ones myself. A swing-and-a-miss plotwise isn’t the worst sin an author can commit, but unfortunately, once Mr. Sinclair takes a turn to BadBookTown, he floors it.

One of the biggest issues I had was the barely-sketched characters. Grace is pretty meh, passive and dull through most of the book. Her best friend Jennifer is, quite simply The Worst. She swings wildly between “Let me be your friend and be there for you and do whatever you need me to do” and “You’re not grieving like I think you should, I’m going to take my metaphorical toys and flounce dramatically out of your life”, back and forth, sometimes in a matter of hours or even minutes. John is a cypher, of course, since he dies in the first chapter, but as information is dribbled out about his life, there are still a lot of major pieces left out of the picture.

There’s also another issue I had that I am hesitant to post, because it would probably be construed as a major spoiler. So I will just say that [spoiler] a crucial scene just doesn’t work. It’s too drastic of a change in tone, and doesn’t fit with anything that’s been shown to that point.

The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS (and a coffee and a BLT, because after hearing them mentioned so many times, I am craving them.)

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The Darkening, by Chris Sarantopoulos

Short Take: It doesn’t work, until it almost does.

The Darkening: A post apocalyptic horror novel by [Sarantopoulos, Chris]

(*Note: I received this book directly from the author.*)

Hello my beloved nerdlings! I’m a bit behind schedule for a whole bunch of not-very-interesting reasons but believe me when I say I’ve missed all of you terribly. Seriously, all of you. Well, except that one guy. He knows who he is. Anyway, let’s dive in, shall we?

I’ve said before that post-apocalyptic stuff isn’t my usual jam. I think it’s because I get bored when stories get bogged down in the mundanities of keeping life going – food, water, shelter, and so on. YES, I know that if something cataclysmic happens these things are going to be super-important but I am also about 98.736% certain that in such an event, I’ll be devoured early on. Being a pasty book-obsessed nerd doesn’t generally go hand in hand with being a good runner, you see.

But I digress. I was contacted by Mr. Sarantopoulos and the premise of his book got my attention, despite my general aversion to “multiple chapters of basic survival stuff” outlined above. In The Darkening, the enemy isn’t zombies, vampires, aliens, or the plague. No, in this highly imaginative story, humanity is destroyed by light. Not just sunlight, but ANY source of light results in a gruesome death. So anything – a flashlight, a candle, the flash from a gunshot, the teeny nightlight in the bathroom so you don’t kill yourself trying to pee at 2 AM – any tiny scrap of light means, well, lights out (heh).

As if that wasn’t bad enough, humans in the face of danger do what humans since the dawn of time have done, and turn on each other. And this is where we find our protagonist, John Piscus. He spends his days hiding in a very smelly basement and his nights scrounging for whatever scraps of food he can find while dodging cannibals, thieves, troopers who are rounding up the last humans for some nefarious purpose, and a dog who is far more suited to this life than he is.

John (not to be confused with another character named Jonathan – WHY would an author do this?) is a fairly helpless coward of the highest order. He would rather eat bugs, soil himself, and argue with the voices in his head in the stinky comfort of  his basement than venture out in search of resources most of the time.

It’s this early part of the book that’s the first big obstacle to enjoying it. It takes a dozen-ish chapters to get to any kind of description of what actually happened at the end of the world, and those chapters are repetitive and somewhat off-putting. John is unlikable and not in an anti-hero kind of way, he is just miserable. I grew impatient at the many, many descriptions of disgusting food and smells and the “wheezy voice” that’s mentioned over and over and over and over and over and then a few dozen more times.

I would’ve liked more backstory (although I understand why John was hazy on details of how and when everything went down), or at least more real information about the ruined world early on. “I’m John and I smell terrible and eat nasty stuff and hide a lot from vaguely defined groups of bad guys” didn’t feel like enough to prop up the first third or so of the book both before and after he meets up with the girl.

Ah yes, the girl….

It probably goes without saying that the next-to-last thing John needs is someone else to take care of, and the very last thing he needs is someone who glows, but that’s exactly what he finds. To put it mildly, he is not equipped to deal with this development. Although the glowing girl terrifies him, survivor’s guilt overpowers his fears and he finds himself caring for her.

Eventually, the girl persuades him to try to reach a rumored settlement where there may be friendlier people, who are willing to work together for everyone’s survival.

Once they actually end up in [spoiler], it’s multiple chapters again before there’s any real forward momentum in the story. I don’t want to give away anything, other than to say that there are a couple of really great twists, and some of the more annoying aspects of the early parts (wheezy voice I’m looking at you) are not only explained, they feel necessary.

Which isn’t to say that The Darkening is perfect. I felt like the ending was messy and incomplete, and it seemed like almost every chapter or scene was stretched out just a few beats too long. We’re in John’s head the whole time, and it’s not a fun place to be, and Mr. Sarantopoulos has a real fondness for his thesaurus. Not that I’m against googling unfamiliar words (especially curse words) but I was pulled out of the story a few times by that one.

But I can see some lovely glowing bones, deep inside.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a long, loving gaze into my well-stocked refrigerator. I see it in a whole new light (heh x2) now.)

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