Creepier than a Whorehouse Kiss by Fred Zackel

This is a short story done right. It’s gory, terrifying, and cleverly subverts Asimov’s laws of robotics in a way that makes my skin crawl. I wouldn’t recommend Creepier than a Whorehouse Kiss for everyone, but if a mix of Blade Runner and horror appeals to you, pick up a copy and read it.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues with the story. Some of the phrasing is awkward, and the line it ends on should have been stronger. Despite that, this work gets top marks from me for several reasons. First, the author understands the key to writing a good short story is to pick one thing and focus on it. Second, he doesn’t waste words and writes in a tense, quick style that damn near made me squirm out of my chair. Third, it stuck with me.

I’ll start with what I didn’t like. Some of Mr. Zackel’s phrasing is awkward. It’s not terribly frequent, but there is an occasional sentence that stands out as having a particularly roundabout structure, or at least a phrase that doesn’t quite fit in to the right place. Fortunately, the pace of the story is quick enough to drive through these sentences without getting caught on them. There were also a few errors here and there, or words that didn’t quite fit. Unfortunately, the story ends on one of these awkward lines, which takes away from the final gut punch. That’s one of the tricky parts about any short story: each sentence matters much more than it would in a novel, and especially the last one in a clipped, vicious story like this one.

Now, on to the good parts. The entire story sticks to the same trajectory. The main character hunts down rogue robots who range from bank robbers, druggies, rickety hobos, to horrific serial killers. It’s a focused exploration of what would happen if a bunch of corporations flooded the market with knock off robots lacking the required morality or ethics programming, and there’s one obsession of theirs in particular that the author focuses on and builds the story around. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was horrifying.

The entire thing is told in the first person, and the author uses it quite well to flesh out the world and the character’s thoughts in quick snippets that never interrupt the flow of the narrative or action. Normally I’m not a fan of knowing what a character is thinking, but in the first person it works much better, and here the author hits the right film noir tone to really make it work. What’s better, the main character isn’t particularly likeable. Although you can understand why he is the way he is, with a great deal of justification, he’s still a bitter man a bad day away from breaking.

The writing style itself helps to ratchet up the tension. The author uses quick, clipped sentences in sparse paragraphs to flesh things out, and then when the action hits he sticks with the same sort of sentences but uses more of them. It has the effect of turning things into a chaotic, tense jumble. I found myself reading the story faster the further I got into it in a manic sort of way, which fits quite well with the subject matter. I normally don’t talk too much about technical writing in my reviews, but he had a few particularly clever uses of parallel structure as well. I felt like I learned a trick or two reading this story and observing how Mr. Zackel put it together.

On the writing alone, I wouldn’t give the story top marks since there were a few issues, but the way the author explores the subject matter is fascinating. The broken robots aren’t an allegory or analogy. They’re something entirely different, their own thing, and that really makes the story work. There’s one section in particular discussing how the robots want, need, and use money just as much as people that flies in the face of how robots are usually presented in science fiction, especially those modeled after Isaac Asimov’s. Again, it reminded me a bit of Blade Runner, but Mr. Zackel’s take on the entire thing is unique, well presented, and something that’s been rolling around in my head since I read the story.

All of that being said, this is first and foremost a gritty horror story that’s disturbing and gory. The author knew what he wanted it to be, executed it well, and kept it rolling around in my head once I finished reading it. It’s a nuanced take on robot-human relations that makes for a great read.

If you’ve got a buck to spare and the inclination to read this sort of story, get a copy from Amazon here and enjoy yourself. It’s quick, brutal, and thought provoking.

 

The Northland Chronicles: A Stranger North by Henry J. Olsen

The Northland Chronicles: A Stranger North is a post-apocalyptic action piece focusing on the adventures of John Osborne, a bearded, six-shooter toting ex-soldier with a bionic arm. The novella has several problems, however, that prevent it from drawing the reader in. The pacing is off, John has an inconsistent and puzzling personality, Mr. Olsen tells the reader what the characters are thinking, and the ending doesn’t quite gel with a work of this length.

The problem with any novella is that it has to strike the delicate balance between being a short story and a novel. Short stories generally have one point that every single word in the story builds towards. There’s not much room to flesh things out, and even a handful of excess paragraphs can foil an otherwise good tale. A novel, on the other hand, has to do more work to build a sense of place, give the reader periodic breathers, and incorporate a more nuanced plot structure.

Unfortunately, in this story the author never quite finds the balance he’s shooting for and ends up caught in a mix of a short story and a novel rather than a novella. Too much happens in the story, which clutters things up. There are more characters, places, and the like than there really need to be, and one in particular gets several chapters to herself that don’t serve to advance the narrative. They flesh out the setting a bit, but not enough to justify their inclusion.

On the other hand, although the author thoroughly describes everything, the world never develops to the point that it feels real. He injects a lot of technical detail about survival in the woods that, although interesting, doesn’t contribute much. Additionally, there are routine information dumps about the Desolation (a mix of nuclear war and plague) and how it changed the world. These tend to break up the action or drag out scenes longer than necessary, and given the sort of story this was the details really didn’t matter. It’s enough for the reader to know that something wiped out the civilized world. In a novel, it would have been worthwhile to explore the subject and there would have been room to do it, but here there simply wasn’t enough space.

The main character, John, has an irregular personality that prevents the reader from ever getting a sense of who he really is. The prelude to the adventure pitches him as a sociopathic killer, essentially murdering someone because the man is a drunken jerk. Later in the story, however, he easily adapts to small town life and expresses a clear willingness to go out and help someone he’s hardly met. There’s never really an arc that takes him from one point to the other; he starts as a vicious loner and ends up a small town hero without the reader ever feeling like the necessary ground has been covered. His personality also tends to change scene to scene. It feels less like different aspects of the same character and more like different characters altogether.

This isn’t helped by the author’s tendency to tell the reader what’s going through John and everyone else’s heads. The author regularly has the characters deliver quick, italicized thoughts in the middle of the action that gives away what they’re thinking, or he uses descriptive language that does the same thing. It’s too direct, and it takes the life out of the characters. For me, I have most of my fun figuring out the characters and being surprised by them, so being outright told what kind of people they are and what they’re thinking takes that away. Also, it never really helps clarify John’s back and forth personality.

The end of the novella leaves too many questions open and immediately sets John on the path to his next task. There’s no sense that something has been accomplished or that feeling where, as a reader, you can close the book, take a deep breath, and feel like things have settled up for the time being. Instead, the status quo is much as it was before the story took place, and the reader is left without that critical sense of resolution.

It’s similar to an ongoing TV show that keeps dropping a handful of new twists at the end of each episode so the viewer never has a chance to catch up. That’s not to say that the structure is necessarily a bad one, but in this case the novella was too long to really make it work. Had it been short, perhaps around 10,000 words, or part of a book being released as a serial one fairly brief chapter at a time, it would have worked better.

Mr. Olsen’s work ends up caught between being a short story and a novel and never finds the happy middle ground. The author gives too much of the wrong sort of information about the characters and the world, which clutters up the story and breaks up the narrative, and John seems like a different character scene to scene. The story has an interesting premise, but it never becomes what the author wants it to.

If you want to give it a quick read, you can pick up a copy from Amazon here, or a copy from Smashwords here.

Kindreds: An Alliance of Bloods by Tani Mura

Ms. Mura uses her book to discuss critical topics such as racism, gender roles, the balance between democracy and authoritarianism, and religion, and she does all of this in the context of an action-adventure in the distant future. Most of the story is through the perspective of Raine, a young woman bent on finding her own path.

The subject matter is the greatest strength of Ms. Mura’s work, but she deals with it too directly and leaves out the fun of the readers conducting the analysis for themselves. Also, she tends to give away what the characters are thinking and feeling, which takes away some subtlety and nuance from the story that I’d have like to have seen. The ending also left too much open. It felt more like the conclusion of a chapter than a resolution to a novel. Despite the issues with Kindreds, it was an entertaining book that made my heart race a few times, presented an unapologetically strong female lead, and dealt with issues that’ll be important as long as there’s a human race.

The biggest problem with the work is the presentation of the ideas that Ms. Mura deals with. More often than not, characters have long monologues or philosophical debates with each other directly presenting contrasting viewpoints. In addition, there is a lot of time spent in the characters’ heads listening to them ask rhetorical questions and reason their way through these ideas in the context they appear in the world. It brings the issues into focus, but it does so at the expense of letting the reader organically work his or her way through them.

I think it’s generally better to present a world and ideas to the reader without judgment. Everyone knows that murder is bad, and if it happens in a story, we’ll not look too kindly on the character responsible. But, when the other characters all discuss it openly in sweeping terms of human philosophy, and when we’re outright told it’s bad, it makes up our mind for us. There’s nothing left to think about, so events that would normally hit with much greater impact lose most of their force. That’s not to say the story wasn’t enjoyable, but most of the time the author told me what the issues were and what to think about them. It would have been better if the characters had simply taken action based on their unstated beliefs and left me to work it out on my own.

Also, there’s always the risk that dealing with any big idea such as authoritarianism too directly as a philosophical debate between characters will come across as preachy. I agreed with just about everything the author had to say about the subject, but that was the problem. It was more what the author had to say about it than the characters. They were very much vehicles for a debate rather than participants in it. Every time Ms. Mura showed me the awful things that can happen due to racism, I never had time to let it sink in before one of the characters jumped in and gave a small speech on the matter.

There was also the issue that half the time the author tells the reader exactly what the characters are thinking or feeling, and the characters tend to think ‘aloud’ in terms of italics. This is a style that I really don’t enjoy, and it takes a lot of the pleasure out of reading for me when I know what people are thinking, why they think that way, and what they’re going to do about it. I enjoy being surprised, and there’s nothing quite like having a character do something you never thought he or she was capable of that forces you, as a reader, to reassess your initial opinion of the character. Again, it strips mystery and intrigue from the story.

It’s a testament to how strong a woman I felt Raine was that the ending didn’t leave me satisfied. She literally didn’t get the last word; instead, one of the male characters told her something rather life changing at what I consider one of the worst times possible, and the book cut off there. I really enjoyed watching her overcome the challenges she faced, and to end it on a note where she doesn’t have complete agency, and doesn’t absolutely own everything that’s happened to her, really didn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the book, especially the finale.

Despite the issues with the book, I enjoyed it. It was easy to read, well-paced, and there were several moments that got my pulse racing. I spend a lot of time working with fiction in one capacity or another, so it’s saying something when I have to set a book down and pace around for a moment to get the twitches out of my system. There was one moment near the end of the book when something happens to Raine that provoked a visceral response from me. It was a solid effort, and there aren’t enough fantasy and science fiction novels with strong female leads for my tastes. Raine is, if nothing else, a character the reader can respect, and that speaks volumes.

If you want to pick up a copy, you can get it from Amazon here. It’s worth a read, and even if most of the issues are presented too directly, they’re ones worth thinking about. And, for a younger reader, the direct presentation may not be quite the issue it was for me.

 

Arthur Pong And His Smelly Song by Jose Fernandez

Although children’s books are a bit of a departure from what I normally review (I’m certainly a man child but I don’t have any children of my own), this particular one was a pleasant surprise. The subject matter is something my nephews would pop my eardrums laughing themselves hoarse over, and the book has a positive core message. I’d have liked for more time to have gone into the art itself, but the characters all have a distinctive style that works well enough.

First, this is a book about farts, but not any farts. No, these are the sort that the titular character, Arthur, has finely crafted into a symphony described as angelic. That was enough to get me snickering, but the author proceeds to walk the reader through the juxtaposition of the quality of Arthur’s performance with the horrific smell methodically wiping out his neighborhood. It had me laughing, and I’m a law student averaging no more than five hours of sleep a night. That’s an accomplishment, and I can only imagine when parents and children are involved this book will make for a raucous occasion.

The core message of the book is simple, direct, and the sort of things kids should hear at least five times a day. In summary: you should do what you love without worrying about what other people think regardless of how embarrassing or unusual it may be. There’s no conflict in the book: Arthur passionately blows a symphonic movement out his hind end, and his neighbors, though laid low by the stench, adore the music.

The other thing the book shows that I think is important is his family supporting him by serving large helpings of beans and, ahem, engaging in what I assume can only be rehearsals. It sends a good message to a child that it’s right for his or her parents to support him or her. There’s also a message to the parents, very reduced but one that’s worth remembering: they should always make sure their child feels supported and accepted, no matter how outlandish his or her behavior.

I would have liked to have seen more from the art, but there is a distinct style and the characters are drawn in an amusing manner. I feel the story is entertaining enough that the art certainly won’t detract from it, but a bit more refining, perhaps some more color (although not too much), and a bit of background drawn in here and there would help flesh things out and make the book as visually engaging as the text itself is.

In short, the book is entertaining enough to make a jaded law student snicker at fart jokes aimed at a five year old, it has a good core message, and the art, although not as fleshed out as it could be, does a sufficient job and has a distinct, consistent style throughout the book. You can pick up a copy on Amazon here.

The Crystal Ordeal: Legends of Leone, Volume I by M.G. Dekle

The Crystal Ordeal is a young adult fantasy novel following the adventures of Leone, a new graduate from the school for mages, and her companion Falchion, a graduate from the school for fighters. At its heart, the book aims to be a straightforward romp through a fantastical world with just enough mystery to keep the reader turning the page. While the author does a good job endearing Leone and Falchion to the reader, the pacing of the novel, a writing style that tends to give too much away, and an awkwardly built world prevent the book from coming together the way the author envisioned it would.

First, the pacing. Right from the get go, Leone and Falchion get caught up in events beyond their control and careen from one adventure to a next. While this is certainly not a bad structure, there’s never really enough time in the book for the reader to catch up. The instant one ordeal is done, another begins, and the reader never really has enough information to put things into context until the event in question is over with. Even then, a character just ends up narrating all of the important stuff that would have been much more fun for the reader to pick out had there been enough information. For a mystery of any sort to be engaging, a reader has to have enough information to solve it if he or she is particularly clever.

Additionally, the characters have a lot of adventures, but most of them amount to exciting things that happen while they’re travelling that don’t really add to the plot. There’s one section in particular dealing with a magic river and an underground water city being converted into a theme park that, while entertaining, doesn’t serve a purpose besides its own existence. Even though Leone and Falchion are running for their lives, it doesn’t feel like it. Instead, it feels like the plot is on pause.

The reader never really knows what the characters are heading towards. We get a destination, but no real sense of what may happen once Leone and Falchion arrive. Each time the characters get a goal, someone else gives it to them, so even though they work out the details of its execution they don’t feel as if they have much agency overall. Thus, the reader gets bogged down in a journey that’s significance isn’t readily apparent. All we know is important things are happening, someone told the characters to run for their lives, and theoretically it’ll all work out when they get there. It’s just not enough information to provide a context to make the journey interesting.

Concerning the writing style, M.G. Deckle has a habit of telling the reader exactly how everyone in the world thinks and feels at any given time. There are times later in the book that this makes sense in Leone and Falchion’s relationship, but overall it detracts from the story. There are very few instances in which the author actually shows the reader how people feel. Instead, we get adjectives like ‘shocked’ or ‘angry’ and adverbs such as ‘nervously’.

Further, there are paragraphs of what amount to inner monologues, of walking the reader through how a character arrives at a given conclusion, and of telling the reader what the character knows. In general, words like ‘knew’, ‘thought’, ‘believed’ and the like should be avoided. Anything that directly tells the reader a character’s mental state, rather than showing it, detracts from the sense of mystery and constrains the exercise of the reader’s imagination.

The last major issue with the book is the world itself. Almost everything the reader learns about the world comes in blocks of narration, or in narrative dialogue, that bops us on the nose. It’s clear that the author has a vision for this world and deeply cares about communicating it, but the way it’s presented via big chunks of description and the like tells readers about the world rather than drawing them into it.

Also, I never could figure out the technological development of the world. On the one hand, there are spotlights, sirens, and ice cream carts, on the other, a suicidal cauldron-jet propelled taxi service, and yet on another medieval weapons. The magic fills in some of the blanks, so everything that’s happening is feasible, but there’s no common aesthetic or uniting theme. It feels more like what the author believed was entertaining at any given moment than it does a unified vision.

Where the author succeeds is in endearing us to Leone and Falchion. The fact we never really get to figure out what they’re thinking and instead have it told to us doesn’t help, but in spite of that the characters are genuinely likeable, and they have that spark of charm and life that no amount of technical writing can accomplish. M.G. Deckle puts the soul there. If the other issues with the book hadn’t been as severe, Leone and Falchion could have carried it on their own.

One thing I wanted to see that I didn’t was a little bit of naughtiness. Over the course of the story, something happens that, for two teenagers, would lead to a lifetime’s worth of blushing. Nothing indecent mind you, just an ongoing situation that I felt the author didn’t have enough fun with. It was much more brother-sister than anything else, which really didn’t fit. I’m not suggesting anything graphic, but there was a big opportunity to do some subversive, amusing things that I feel passed by.

In summary, the book never quite comes together despite the charm of the two central characters. The author clearly has the talent to give characters a soul beyond the words on the page, and I’d like to see more writing from M.G. Deckle that builds on this solid foundation. You can pick up a copy from Amazon here.