L.I.F.E. in the 23rd Century

lifePat is a patriotic cubicle production tech who falls victim to a freak, one-car accident that the media spins into a terrorist attack. When he fails to die (martyrdom is so much more newsworthy), questions arise. Is he the most dangerous terrorist in the two-hundred-year war on terror, the “Chosen One” destined to lead the next American Revolution, or just a guy who’s removed his L.I.F.E. bio-mechanism to live off the grid?

Jason Richter’s “L.I.F.E. in the 23rd Century: A Dystopian Tale of Consumerism, Corporate Coffee, and Crowbars,” though crafted in the absurdist tradition, has serious concerns in mind, including wag-the-dog news coverage and the erosion of civil liberties. Richter’s fable is laugh-out-loud funny, but the humor is more like a hot stick in the eye than slapstick. Satire that cuts this close to the bone should carry a warning sticker.

Richter’s novel is the first release from Diskordian Press. I look forward to their future publications. (Five stars out of five)

Before It’s Done: The Sequel to After It’s Over

511ibipijlMichelle Alstead’s Before It’s Done is the sequel to her excellent novel, After It’s Over. Paige has a second chance with Kade, the love of her life, but “happily ever after” doesn’t seem possible. Too much has happened. As a teenager, she lost her parents. Later, she lost a baby. As an adult, she watched her cheating husband Ben die at the hands of his ex-girlfriend.

Those tragedies are behind her. Kade is ready to tie the knot, but Paige is afraid to set the date. Something bad is going to happen. Paige feels it.

And she’s right.

Meanwhile, Kade struggles to find a purpose now that he’s no longer in law enforcement. All he’s certain of is that he and Paige belong together. But when a new tragedy strikes, will their love survive?

Alstead is a gifted storyteller. Her prose and pacing are perfect, but what really makes her new novel such a great read is characterization. From internal dialog to conflict and ambivalence, her portrayal of good people struggling to find their way is riveting.

An interesting subplot in the novel involves Kade’s efforts to return to law enforcement, introducing new characters, and hinting at another book in the series. I can’t wait. (Five stars out of five)

The Goat: Building the Perfect Victim

81tb1ibjdvlGlenn suffers from species dysphoria—despite his human appearance, he identifies as a goat. Frank is a former high school bully turned savior who rescues Glenn from a pack of werewolves. Now, awash in a dystopia built on magic and rotting technology, it’s up to Frank to beat away Glenn’s remaining humanity.

Sound insane? Bill Kieffer’s The Goat: Building the Perfect Victim is a dark fantasy that melds fantasy, psychological horror, and biting social commentary. The resulting tale isn’t for everyone. The story goes to uncomfortable places, reminding us of one writer’s advice for writing complex characterization (“Poke a wound”). Expect a surprise ending, though the biggest surprise may be the love story that constitutes this tale’s twisted spine.

The Goat is an impressive fable—clever and subversive. Kieffer’s prose is playful, poetic and brutal in turns. Highly recommended. (Five stars out of five)

MERLIN’S LAST DAYS

51r7w+48GiLProfessor Merrell Anthony attains notoriety for his theories on archaeology and history, backed by a knack for unearthing ancient sites. Marianne Gallagher is a brilliant, beautiful student who finds herself inexplicably attracted to Merrell. Merrell has a secret—he’s living two lives at once; both in the present and in the 6th century, as Arthur Pendragon’s adviser. While the 21st century professor carries on a hidden affair with his student admirer, the outcome of the looming battle between Arthur and Mordred will decide determine mankind’s destiny. But Merrell isn’t the only person with secrets.

Merlin’s Last Days, Greg Krehbiel’s retelling of the Arthur legend, is a quick, tight read that does something surprising; the novella provides a fresh take on a story that’s been done to death. Krehbiel’s prose is clean and fast, matching the story’s pace. Better still, the tale has a firm subtext, including a most pressing and timely question: What can prevent the world from descending into chaos? Krehbiel’s story of a pagan mage fighting for a Christian king’s attempt to ascend the emperor’s throne in Rome has more on its mind than just a sword in the stone.

Fast moving, visual and timely. If you’re looking for fantasy with thematic bite, Merlin’s Last Days may be the perfect summer read. (Five stars out of five)

THE GIFTED: REBORN

Michelle Alstead’s The Gifted: Reborn opens with one of those classic lines that demands the reader’s attention:

I brought my mother back from the dead, and it’s a mistake that could kill us all.

giftedFifteen year-old Sarah Proctor is “gifted” with supernatural abilities. What she wants is a normal life, but between her abilities and the efforts of the Mallum—an evil race that wants to use her powers to their own ends—her life is anything but normal.

The Mallum possess an ancient staff that could enslave the entire human race. Sarah’s ability to channel energy from the earth could activate the staff. As the Mallum close in, Sarah will find herself with a choice—save the people she loves, or save the human race.

This is the second book in Alstead’s Gifted series. The first, The Gifted: Awakening Begun is good intro to Sarah Proctor’s saga, though the second book is enjoyable as a stand-alone. The story’s main strength lies in Alstead’s unerring sense of character. Sarah is, above all else, a teen. She walks the delicate line between compassion and chaos that any young adult reader (or parent) will recognize. The character-driven twists and turns are surprising; never contrived. Alstead’s prose is “gifted” as well. You will enjoy the sure voice and fierce pacing of this extraordinary YA novel. (Five stars out of five)

SOUL RETRIEVERS

Sea background - dark red moody sky with reflection in water

Bureaucracies are prone to error. In David Burton’s Soul Retrievers, innocent souls may be accidentally sent to Hell. Grieving relatives have a recourse—hire a specialist to return the innocent to Heaven’s gates. The job is risky, though. If the specialist dies in Hell, his or her soul is trapped there for eternity.

 
The protagonist, aptly named Getter, has a new assignment—he must retrieve the soul of a ten-year-old girl. But the already insane dangers of his centuries-old profession are worse than ever. Retrievers are disappearing, including Getter’s brother-in-law. And Getter seems to be the focus of a prophecy involving war in Hell.

 
Anyone who loves comic books will love the slam-bang pacing of Burton’s novel. This reviewer has become somewhat tired of the faux-Middle Ages setting so popular in fantasy novels. The shifting maze of traps and horrors that is Burton’s vision of Hell makes for a refreshing change. I enjoyed this novel immensely. Burton’s prose is straight-forward, with hints of noir. His imagination is part Dante, part drugs. Enter this bug-infested Hell at your own risk. (Four stars out of five)

PRINCE OF NIGHTMARES

Victor Teversham is staying at Ballador County House Hotel in the highlands of Scotland. The remote lodge serves gourmet food for dinner and nightmares for desert. The hotel has a reputation—patrons have horrific nightmares. (In a thrill-seeking world, that has become a draw.) Victor is curious about the nightmares himself, though he didn’t book the vacation. His wife made the reservation for him—just before she committed suicide.

PONIn John McNee’s novel, Prince of Nightmares, the scares are real. Good adult horror leaves the reader disturbed, and McNee is a disturbing author. Malicious forces are at work in the Ballador, and they’re not just nightmares. The mystery behind what’s at stake drives the story, punctuated by dark imagery, gore and some wonderful characterization.

Like most good horror authors, McNee isn’t satisfied with just scares. He digs into his characters, exploring the nature of evil in a way that transcends the usual horror themes. When Teversham asks, “Am I a good man?” the reader finds, not a book in hand, but a mirror. That may well be the most potent nightmare of all. (Five stars out of five)