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.
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.
Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (2014) Floating In and Out of Suffering; told through an experimental narrative, a young mother on the verge of death is visited by the voice of a young boy asking to scan her memories, to find when the ‘worms’ first appeared.
Spoiler Warning* For The Fever Dream Book Review
This leads the woman, Amanda, to recount the last few days at a vacation home, her run-in with another mother with a dark story, and the reflections on her own role as a mother of the young Nina.
All the while, the reader is slipping in and out of the story between conversations with the young boy. Fever Dream is a surreal and deeply disturbing tale of sickness and the trials of motherhood.
The most terrifying thing in Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel is the complete breakdown of a mother’s ability to protect her child as she slowly begins to lose control of her body.
The novel speaks often of this concept of an invisible tether that binds the mother to her child to always keep a safe distance in case anything happens. The way that Schweblin explains the way Amanda keeps this in mind, releasing it or drawing it tighter depending on the scenario gives a constant sense of pervasive unease as she longs to draw her child close but lacks the ability.
As someone who has not experienced motherhood, it is an effective way to convey the invisible bond that you experience with your own family or friends who have kids.
Fever Dream cuts to the most intense fear any parent can have, not just losing one’s own kid but losing the ability to protect the one you cherish most.
Adding to the sense of dread is a story steeped in obscure folklore, soul transference, and an idea of an incompatible disease defining a small town controlling the way it runs. There are certain scenes introduced that show the area that Amanda chose to stumble on has built their town around acceptance of the death of mind and body due to some disease that afflicts their children.
The way the prose tackles the story, flowing in and out, allows quick glances into key moments in Amanda’s nightmare.
For a short novel, Samanta Schweblin manages to convey suffering on a large scale, both personal and cultural suffering.
The land is poisoned to its core and Amanda gets involved in an inescapable nightmare of a lifetime of others feeding into superstition.
After a car crash, Ogi awakens to find himself barely alive, caught in a vegetative state unable to communicate or move. After learning from the doctors that his wife did not survive the crash his sole surviving family member, his mother-in-law, begins to take care of his every need. However, when she discovers her daughter’s notes that point to past transgressions of Ogi. The mother-in-law begins odd obsessive behavior which aims to push Ogi to the brink of insanity — left to slowly rot with minimal care.
Being judged for one’s own actions can be a horrifying experience in itself, let alone adding in the nightmare of being trapped in a broken body unable to defend oneself against the onslaught. Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is a horror/thriller existing in this realm of perverse uncomfortableness, having a caregiver slowly transform into a menacing force with full control over the life of another.
The book has been compared to books like Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Stephen King’s Misery.
And one can push even so far as to say it challenged the depressing body horror of titles like Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.
While the book does capitalize on the unease and horrors that come with captivity, both in one’s own body and by an exterior force, The Hole is unlikely to reach the same level of accolades heaped upon the previously mentioned titles. However, that does not mean the book is without merit or that it pales in comparison of a familiar formula.
*Slight spoilers ahead
Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole, undeniably, excels at capturing the waking nightmare of slow, meticulous abuse at the hands of another. Ogi’s internal struggles, a mix of reflecting on the past and trying to rationalize the current scenario he is in, paints a really tragic portrait. This is also heightened by the character’s humanity, as a man who is aware of the mistakes he made and is still trying to do well. As his mother-in-law learns of his marital problems the reader is aware of the narrative, as she understands it, is very one-sided.
Furthermore, Ogi is aware that his actions were wrong but also that his wife was not without blame. This is approached in a very mature practical manner, as Ogi explores the harsh reality that sometimes people just drift apart. Notably, the image he had of his wife when they first fell in love faded as they changed, him finding her dull and uninspiring is not so much born out of cruelty but two people drifting apart. Ultimately, The highlight of the novel has to be Hye-Young Pyun’s exploration of Ogi as a character through internal dialogue, painting the portrait of a man who does not deserve punishment, yet can also be seen as deserved from a third party.
However, where The Hole begins to slightly falter is in the development of other characters and dialogue, the change from self-reflection to being present in the room with others never holds the same profundity of Ogi stuck in dark ruminations. The mother-in-law, though intimidating feels more like the embodiment of justice over being a character unto herself.
There are also moments of narrative convenience, and even the set-up of the mother-in-law finding the notes of her daughter seems a bit contrived, in the sense she meticulously collected and recorded any argument, action, or negative word that she felt reflected her husband poorly. His status among peers and not having any family of his own also feels shoehorned in to capture that sense of isolation in an immediate fashion. It does make the situation grave and more tragic, yet Ogi can feel very one-dimensional at points due to the ambiguity of the situation and his lack of personal life beyond his wife.
Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is a deeply engaging read, that will draw fans of thrillers in with its frightening scenario and dread-inducing prose in exploring internal dialogue. It does feel a bit rough around the edges and some of the scenarios feel contrived and underdeveloped, but the overall experience is one of extreme discomfort that is certain to make the right reader squirm in all the right ways.
Jean-Luc & Anna Lise by A.G. Cullen Book Review Written By Lisa Lebel
Jean Luc & Anna Lise : A Novel of The Napoleonic Wars, by A.G. Cullen is a harrowing tale following three main characters through the harsh realities of the French Revolution.
The following Book Review of Jean-Luc & Anna Lise has Spoilers*
The novel opens with Jean-Luc and his dearest friend Adrien, on the day that enemy soldiers come to Colmar to execute their village priest. Shortly after this shocking event, Adrien’s sister, Anna Lise, is born. After only a short glimpse of their joyful beginnings, Jean-Luc and Adrien vow to join the emperor’s army once they are old enough – and thereafter embark on a journey that is all the more heart wrenching in its reality of the times.
Despite this book weighing in at a shocking 668 pages – at first glance one may assume this to be a ponderous tome of a novel. However, A.G. Cullen manages to have this tale be fast-paced and compelling throughout the entirety of the novel. The gut-wrenching horrors of the Napoleonic War seen through the eyes of one solider, brings to life the shocking reality of the times. While it is so easy to distance ourselves from what we read in the history books, this tale delivers an unflinching account of the life of a solider in 19th century Europe. Through the eyes of Jean-Luc Calliet, A.G. Cullen shows readers what it was like to be young and in love, while your country and comrades are falling to pieces all around you.
One of the more poignant takeaways from this novel was living with the horror and moral conflict of being ordered by your captain to commit unspeakable acts or be killed as a traitor yourself. Experiencing the shock of realizing your comrades in arms are sometimes more of a danger than the actual enemy, and seeing your fellow soldiers commit unspeakable brutalities is something that reading a historical account of the war simply cannot provide. Attempting to travel through a war-ridden country without being molested is nearly impossible, and there is equal danger no matter who you’re fighting for.
This novel is outside of this reviewer’s wheelhouse and likely not one I would have picked up on my own randomly, but I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. Readers may find this similar to the Outlander series, with none of the time travel aspects or ridiculously sappy romance elements. But, in the respect of following individual persons through historical events – it definitely shines in that aspect. While Outlander is geared mostly towards women in the overly romantic setting as well as time travel – most of the action and intrigue of seeing actual historical events play out through the eyes of individuals is drowned out by these aspects. Jean-Luc has none of these distractions and gives an actual historical depiction of the life of the solider during these distressing times. Interspersed between chapters are also illustrations and maps of where the wars or battles are taking place, which is certain to remind readers that the events depicted in this novel did indeed occur, adding gravity to the tale.
In closing, Jean-Luc & Anna Lise is an excellently written novel that is both compelling and heart wrenching, and certainly worth checking out!