Upgrade by Blake Crouch: a thrilling sci-fi masterpiece details a near future where examining what it is to be human is vital for survival.
In Upgrade, the writing flows smoothly and efficiently as the story hits the reader impactfully.
The world building, character creation, and science are all too real.
The pace is tremendous – Upgrade does not let up!
And the ending is both moving and realistic, painful in its beauty.
The Following Review of Upgrade by Blake Crouch Spoiler Warning.
Imagine sharing a last name with your mother who was solely responsible for killing millions, unleashing an unrelenting pandemic of genetic mutation in the world, and who also made so many geneticists and biologists very training an illegal act deemed so by the Gene Protection Agency.
Logan Ramsay is an extremely intelligent man, but one who grew up dreaming of being his mother’s equal of off-the-charts genius.
And then he stands trial for her crimes against humanity and goes to jail.
The jealousy is gone.
Once freed he starts a family, and Logan enjoys nothing more than playing chess with his daughter and being a family man, when he is not paying a personal penance for the blood his mother spilt.
Out of jail, Logan is working for the GPA to bust illegal gene labs and dealers of illicit genetic material.
This is a world where lower Manhattan is under water, and a Las Vegas confidential informant has his own lab where he makes new species for the wealthiest of collectors, including a new dragon, and he is allowed to, by the GPA, because he hands over those illegal scientists that come to him with more nefarious intent for material and supplies.
When a lab bust becomes a trap and an explosion of an ice bomb sends shards of genetic altering virus irrevocably into Logan’s system, he receives one of the first human DNA upgrades.
Logan learns how to dial down the emotional parts of his brain in order to think more rationally, or work less distracted.
He can read heart rates, blood pressure, and faces so well that he can discern the truth and lies and anticipate many actions before someone does it.
He is stronger than he has ever been.
He can remember every detail of everything he has ever read or seen in his entire life.
His sister is upgraded as well. The two of them learn that from beyond the grave their mother infected them with a Scythe program to alter hundreds of parts of their DNA and improve their overall state so that they will act to save the dying world.
It is Miriam Ramsey’s dying wish. Before humanity dies as a species in a hundred years, she has gifted it with the means to save it from itself.
But will humans remain humans when they are all upgraded, or will they be something else?
And what could go wrong trying to infect and convert billions of people?
Logan sees the need for the world to change but not at such a cost as homo sapiens becoming something else at his mother’s whim, and then his sister tries to kill him.
She takes their mother’s research and flees.
The only two upgraded humans on the planet nearly kill each other over their ideals, a point that is not lost on Logan as he does not see the upgrade as a final solution to the doomsday clock.
End of Spoiler Warning.
Crouch’s research into genetic markers, DNA, and myriad aspects of the human brain and its actions is truly remarkable, and he writes with ease, inserting the research in a way that is accessible to those who are not scientists and also in a way that is natural as it is shared by the characters in the story.
And the messages are not lost in the science or the riveting plot.
This is one of those things that great science fiction authors, like Isaac Asimov or Michael Crichton often achieve in their works.
You invest deeply in Logan’s character and those around him, while the story whips into a frenzy and all the while science is at the center of what is happening.
With Upgrade, Crouch has written a brilliant tale that goes deep into what it means to be human and whether or not being human at a genetic level can or should save the species.
The Chain by Adrian McKinty is Electrifying! When I stumbled upon Adrian McKinty’s The Chain in the bookstore, I picked it up with mild interest. When I read the engrossing blurb from Stephen King on the cover, mild interest blossomed into moderate intrigue. I had never heard of the author but supporting King’s glowing endorsement of The Chain was a Best Novel of the Year award, a nomination for a Barry Award, and several pages of high praise and accolades from all the usual suspects in the book review scene.
The truth is, though, it had me with King.
Then I read the electrifying synopsis on the back.
Your phone rings.
A stranger has kidnapped your child.
The stranger explains that their child has also been kidnapped, by a completely different stranger.
The only way to get your child back is to kidnap another child.
You are now part of The Chain.
Needless to say, intrigue exploded into giddy excitement that bubbled with urgency, like a pebble of potassium dropped into a glass of water. I wanted to crack the spine and dig in right there in the M section of the general fiction aisle.
Now, when I read a book review, I typically prefer to know right out of the gate what the reviewer’s overall consensus is before wading through a detailed breakdown. So, I’ll give you the cash value straight out: I enjoyed this book very much! Go and read it!
With that out of the way I will now provide a slightly more nuanced analysis. I think it was around fifty pages into the story, when I thought to myself that McKinty’s writing is not necessarily that smooth-as-butter prose that rolls off the lips like poetry or like curse words in French. His sentences tend to be short and punchy, a lot like the style of Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher series.
That being said, I still could not. Put. It. Down.
The story raced forward, like a Ferrari on the Autobahn. There was no boring lull in the middle for character development or plot thickening. Short, packed, chapters of backstory were quite skillfully inserted into the rapid moving plot and didn’t so much as slow the locomotive down as it charged toward the exciting conclusion!
The characters were realistic. Flawed. Human. You can’t help but root for them the moment you meet them. There is also the deeply conflicting theme in this story that forces you to ask yourself the question: How far would you go to save your child’s life? These kinds of gut-wrenching moral dilemmas, that Mr. King himself is the, well, the king of, are so fun and probe the reader to turn each page with simultaneous curiosity and trepidation.
Immediately upon turning the last page I checked online and confirmed my suspicion that, yes, the film rights have already been purchased. But don’t wait for the movie! The book is ALWAYS better!
If you are looking for an easy, quick, and fun thriller to sink your teeth into, look no further than the M section in your local bookstore and pick up a copy of The Chain.
Nat Cassidy’s Mary: An Awakening of Terror – After losing her job in New York, a chance call brings Mary back to her hometown to take care of her sick aunt Nadine. However, this is not a welcome change of pace as Mary has been suffering in silence from ghastly visions of her own body decaying and the town brings up painful memories from the past. It does not help that Mary soon finds herself surrounded by the ghosts of murdered women, thrusting her back into her past to discover why they are plaguing her and the mystery behind the mangled apparitions that are inexplicably drawn to her.
What makes Nat Cassidy’s Mary such an enticing read is the author’s ability to balance shocking material through a strong character.
The following book review contains mild spoilers for Mary’s character..
Certainly, the book has elements of body and supernatural horror with Mary having visions of her body decaying while haunted by the ghosts of past victims, yet these subjects become disturbing because of who Mary is as a person and not because of the sensational imagery Cassidy is so skilled at crafting. Instead, Mary’s life of extreme introversion, always trying to make herself as small as possible, transforms these visions into a personal reflection of suffering.
The result is a very approachable form of horror storytelling, where it is easy to get wrapped up in the mystery of Mary’s background and her internal struggles. These elements are equal to indulgences in macabre material in evoking a sense of dread from the reader. This broadens the appeal to not just the hardcore horror readership.
To touch on the more horror-heavy elements, Cassidy brilliantly taps into the paranoia of his character, and the description of bodily decay or mangled ghosts manages to both play on Mary’s own insecurities while being very graphic in detail. This is a case where psychological horror would fit the bill better in describing the horror elements, despite it being very focused on elements that may seem more apt in horror that is hyperfocused on the degradation of the body and mind.
This is further echoed in the relationships of those around Mary, as the visions, arguably, play a secondary role in her own internal strife. Monologue plays an integral role in the story, and Mary’s interactions with the townsfolk and her overbearing aunt, Nadine, create a sense of tragedy in the character that rivals the intensity of terror.
This approach also does lead to the one negative in the work. Mary is a difficult character to empathize with at times as her immensely introverted nature gives the character a slightly nihilistic edge (at points).
As the story progresses and more is revealed about her past these ruminations begin to make sense, yet Mary is a hard character to connect with on a personal level–even as an introvert myself. This may vary by reader, and as the book reaches its conclusion after a few meticulously constructed twists this becomes an afterthought.
Furthermore, Mary is a complex character, and even if there is a lack of connection on a level that evokes empathy/sympathy she is a fascinating persona that reflects the immense talent of Cassidy in bringing Mary to the pages.
This release certainly takes some intense twists in the story, and while I would love to explore how the elements of horror transform to even switch from the early genre of supernatural horror into something deeply sinister, the narrative is best left to be discovered by the reader. Regardless, the book will certainly draw in readers of both horror and mystery with how it develops–that experience is definitely best left as unspoiled as possible.
Coming away from “Mary: An Awakening of Terror“ the only critique I could muster was how Mary does not always feel like an empathetic character. Though, whether this was the point is moot when looking at the exceptional skill Cassidy has to weave a mystery with heavy macabre tones that keep the pages turning. A deeply disturbing read that works for both fans of horror and mystery, “Mary“ is a unique exercise in terror where social interactions hold as much weight as a bloodied apparition–a must-read!
The Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman A+ Areté Editions deliver the seminal follow-up to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” and both the Neil Gaiman novella and the letterpress treatment of the stories by Areté are pure gold!
The Case of Death and Honey: The Numbered Edition by Areté may be the finest, most awe-inspiring book I own.
As a huge fan of Gaiman and a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, I sensed the special editions of both the story that Doyle wrote to inspire Death and Honey, as well as the The Case of Death and Honey book itself would be truly special.
The tale woven by Neil Gaiman is one of emotion and legend, and it is written in the Victorian Holmes period and then the early 20th century, and though his style is his own, it greatly emulates the feeling that Doyle wrote this himself.
And having the world’s premier bookbinder Rich Tong, of Ludlow, the true pioneer and great artist in the field, produce the white goatskin binding full of gold to adorn the gilding bands and the intricate artwork of bees and magnifying glass and golden honey, of course, made this such an incredible, stand-out production.
But it is what is within the book that matters (more on the fine press treatment later), and The Case of Death and Honey is a mysterious treasure of Sherlock Holmes stories.
The following book review of The Case of Death and Honey will have mild Spoilers* starting now:
In a tragic, yet predictable – and realistic – future for Mycroft Holmes, the famous detective’s brother, who was essentially the backbone of the British government, calls Sherlock to him as the morbidly obese Mycroft lies on his deathbed in his early middle years.
He speaks to life, living it, and charges Sherlock with a final problem to outshine all the rest in his career: find the fabled and oft searched means to ward off death with not a metaphorical fountain of youth, but a real solution to the problem.
The very foundation of this comes from Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” that Gaiman takes us to with a direct letter to Watson instructing his friend to change his account to make the creeping man who had been onto some form of youth concoction able to literally scale walls as though he had taken on a monkey-like form.
By making the original story more far-fetched it would dissuade others from keying in on the aspect of eternal youth.
Sherlock Holmes endeavors to beekeeping for years and then searches until as an old man he finds a rare bee and an extraordinary beekeeper.
End of Spoiler* Warning.
The characters in the story are mainly Holmes and Old Gao and his angry bees of the misty hills.
They are all extraordinary in their own ways.
The writing of Sherlockian prose could not be better suited for this tale of intrigue.
Gaiman’s The Case of Death and Honey could be the best farewell the detective for hire will ever receive in fiction.
And so onto a review of both the Numbered Edition and the Fine Edition of The Case of Death and Honey crafted by Areté Editions.
First the more affordable fine editions, signed by the artist only, are a soft red cloth and adorned with gold on the cover in a great frontispiece of art by the illustrator of the books, Gary Gianni.
Gianni crafted more than 40 pieces of art for the book and they are done in the traditional black and white style, like Sidney Paget that Holmes’ tales were originally published with in The Strand, and these were made into plates to stamp the pages with the images. They look so so good!
The paper is thick and two-color letterpress – red and black – is used throughout (by Hand & Eye Editions).
And bees and leaves adorn the pages as letterpress accents randomly throughout the text making for one heck of a premier printing production.
The silky cloth helps make this book of the finest quality and it matches an edition of “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” that was made to accompany the story it inspired, and it is also beautifully illustrated.
For the Numbered books, the pages have gold on top of the page block, and gilded edges on the sides and the entire production just floors me.
In an oversized volume with a faux-wooden slipcase that has leather and a skeleton with dripping honey on the front, the raised bands on the spine, many of them, are all surrounded by real gold.
The leather goatskin binding is truly the nicest I have ever handled.
There is a tipped-in colored piece of art of Holmes and Mycroft discussing life by Gary Gianni that is remarkable and poignant and reading the story in such a manner is one of the most pleasurable experiences one can have.
They also produced an Artist Edition that I was not able to review but it looks awesome and included embedded original art in each cover.
WOW and A+ are too weak to describe the magnitude of the grandiose fine press treatment for this project.
Dissonant Harmonies Book Review: For Dissonant Harmonies, Bev Vincent and Brian Keene come together for a unique concept on their novella published by Cemetery Dance. It is, in fact, two novellas – one written by each author to a playlist selected by the other.
Both authors having discovered that they enjoy writing to music, the idea was born that they would choose a playlist for the author to write to.
The rules were that they could only write each perspective story while listening to the playlist chosen for them by the other author.
Dissonant Harmonies Cool title, but what does it mean?
Consonant harmonies are a combination of pitches in a chord which are agreeable or easy to listen to and make pleasing sounds. Dissonant harmonies are a combination of pitches in a chord which are relatively harsh and grating. These are often difficult sounds to listen to, and so the ear will seek out the resolution in the chords that follow. [Discovering music through listening – OpenLearn – Open University]
For those of us not well versed in music, I found a YouTube video that explained the effect. I wish I had looked this up before reading the book, since the effect is certainly unsettling, and definitely worthy of being featured in some creeptacular horror film.
Bev Vincent’s novella, chosen for him by Brain Keene, is titled The Dead of Winter, and the playlist for it includes a wide array of artists such as Ice-T, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Queen, Moby, Johnny Cash, and Alice in Chains.
Is there a better sound track for a horror novel called The Dead of Winter than When it’s Cold I’d like to Die by Moby?
The Dead of Winter takes place in Bayport, Rhode Island during (you guessed it) the dead of winter. The tale follows two estranged brothers that come together when Frank, a newly made police officer, hears of some troubling disappearances occurring in his hometown – and flies up from Texas to look into it further. His brother, Joey, finds himself helping in Frank’s unauthorized investigation, as the small town is pummeled by a particularly brutal winter storm.
When the two brothers discover tunnels dispersed throughout the town in the homes of the victims that only Joey can see, their search for answers continues in earnest – aided by the town sheriff. It seems something supernatural and evil is brewing, and Joey could be its next victim.
Brian Keene’s novella, The Motel at the End of the World, features a playlist chosen for him by Bev Vincent. Featuring some classic 70s and 80s such as Supertramp, Goldfrapp, The Alan Parson’s Project, Elton John, The Electric Light Orchestra, and Pink Floyd – to name a few, there are definitely a lot of angry male vibes in this soundtrack which pair well with the narrator.
The Motel at the End of the World is a monologue that tackles the phenomenon known as “The Mandela Effect.”
The narrator makes several compelling arguments that will have the reader Googling each case in point. Starting with The Berenstain Bears (not The Berenstein Bears…. apparently) and moving on to name other commonly misremembered quotes and events whether from The Bible, or Star Wars, or even Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
The result of all of these very valid examples of The Mandela Effect is certain to leave the reader feeling extremely unsettled, and questioning everything they ever knew. Just when Keene has you questioning your own sanity, this novella takes a diabolical turn. What if The Mandela Effect is actually the result of something much larger at play?
What if it’s the result of some sort of alternate reality? Like in an apocalyptic scenario taking place in a motel room with the reader left in the dark; this is a terrifying tale that is certain to stick with you long after reading.
Both novellas are equally compelling and terrifying, The Dead of Winter delivers an excellent small town supernatural horror yarn, while The Hotel at the End of the World has a significant Black Mirror feel to it and is a fantastically bite-sized supernatural thriller. These novellas gets 5 stars from this author, and this book is definitely one that I will be picking up for a re-read!
If you would enjoy hearing more about the musical aspect of this novella, head on over to An Empty Bliss Magazine, to hear our thoughts on the playlist for Dissonant Harmonies.
Barbara Comyns’ Who has Changed and Who has Died (1954) – Misery and Malice in a Small Village – The Willoweed family life is defined by misery made worse under the scrupulous eye of an embittered matriarch, Grandma Willoweed.
The cranky and controlling woman holds power over the family through an inheritance that they are dependent upon. Her son, Ebin, takes her abuse in order to keep a home while unemployed but often passes off his own insecurities onto his three children, Emma, Hattie, and Phillip, through insults and abusive behavior.
Consequently, when tragedy befalls the small town in the way of madness induced through sickness, the Willoweed’s become drawn to the situations for their own morbid and selfish reasons–both as a means to celebrate others’ downfalls and to escape their own misery.
Billed as a ‘tragicomedy’, “Who has Changed and Who has Died” is a deceptively bleak novel that hides under a thin veneer of dark humor.
In fact, those unfamiliar with prose or media that relies heavily on uncomfortable and amoral characters to push comedic elements will likely find the work entirely off-putting.
At the same time, the playfully crass nature of the work does not lie in shock value as death is never graphically conveyed, and instances of abuse spare morbid details. Instead, repulsion from the audience will come in the form of a moral repulsion from her character’s inner dialogue that is largely harsh, uncaring, and vindictive.
A prime example of amorality on display is Ebin’s observation of the passing of a woman in town instantly invoking a sense of disgust at how her sex appeal has declined in the throes of death over empathy for her suffering. This is just one of many observations that will make the readers feel repulsed by the family unit, particularly Ebin and Grandmother Willoweed.
Comparatively, the children of the family do maintain their innocence to a degree but even their broken-down spirit under the cruel matriarch transforms them into meek and awkward personalities to the point that their sorrows become rather mundane.
The work can be compared to a lot of ‘dark comedic’ literature from Europe that loves to focus on tragic characters, yet the book lacks any social commentary that gives it that edge that allows the work to at least be reflective of some societal woe.
The family lives and dwells in misery and carries few redeemable qualities, a fact that only compounds as the town delve into madness and people start dying.
Undeniably, Barbara Comyns is a deeply talented writer of demented prose, and the world she creates is really easy to get absorbed in despite the morbid, bleak nature of it all.
Where the book does carry redemptive qualities through the author’s ability to create characters that are deeply fascinating to explore, flaws and all.
Ebin Willoweed, who is perhaps the worst of the bunch, born of privilege has become petty, embittered, jealous, and often takes it out on his kids through weird mental games. Notably, his abuse of Phillip in beatings and abandoning him in odd places in a way to push him to be more masculine is an obvious pathetic compensation for his own emasculation at the hands of his mother. Despite Ebin being so despicable, Comyns still manages to make him an intriguing car wreck by meticulously defining his fallacies through both his own perspective and that of others in the family.
Make no mistake, as miserable as the book can be it is still a captivating read and worthy of exploration if you are one of those readers that find themselves mysteriously drawn to tragic and deplorable characters.
Furthermore, the light flairs of comedic prose through peculiar observations on how the family appears both to others and how they interpret the world is conveyed with a sharp intellectual wit.
There is an audience for this book, but it is one that you need to be willing to seek and be comfortable with.
Personally, “Who has Changed and Who has Died” did appeal to my own sense of dark humor and there were points in the book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
At the same time, the pain of those in the book seemed rather… meaningless.
Ultimately, this is what really pushed me away from the overall experience, at the same time I am really excited to check out more from Comyns because of the aspects that worked I adored, and am hopeful her other work will capture more of that magic out from underneath the morbid lense.