A Portrait of Two Difficult Books

8d15823f74e0f98c95f9941d90e22063I’ve already blown past my reading goal for the year on Goodreads1, so I thought it was time I started reading something that would offer a bit of a challenge.

I’ve done this in years past with books like Anna Karenina, Middlemarch and The Count of Monte Cristo, but I was in the mood for something more modern this time around, so I picked up House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Also, those books were only really a challenge because of their length and subjects.

Even in paperback, House of Leaves is a massive tome. My backpack feels about twice as heavy when I bring it to work with me. I haven’t made much progress, but so far the book is relatively straightforward, consisting mostly of faux-academic articles with digressive footnotes that occasionally ramble on for pages at a time. I keep flipping to the later pages where the formatting starts getting really weird, and I wonder what happens between here and there.

One thing that surprised me about the early chapters is that the most grounded part of the story is about a found-footage horror movie. It probably felt a bit more surprising and new back in the day.

I’ve also joined a book club at The Hatchery, a shared writing space that I was a member of for a while this year. So far it isn’t anything like my long-time club back in Austin, which was equal parts book discussions and hanging out with friends. The discussions at The Hatchery’s club are far more academic, and the book selections have trended towards Important Literature2.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManThe most recent book we read was A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, which I’d picked up once or twice but never actually tried to read. I managed to read it over the course of a week thanks to a cheap audiobook, but I didn’t really enjoy it much. Although I definitely respect the craft involved throughout, and I did enjoy a few scenes here and there, I was alternately frustrated with the stream-of-consciousness storytelling and bored by the excessive focus on religion3.

My disappointment is perhaps a little ironic, because I’m sure that House of Leaves is only building on literary styles and techniques that Joyce pioneered. Maybe it’s just that Danielewski eases you into the experimental parts with a long introduction. By comparison, the first chapter of Portrait is oftentimes completely random and disassociated without much prelude.

I’m definitely drawn to books with experimental narratives, so you’d think I’d be all in on a seminal work by one of the forefathers of literary experimentation, but it just didn’t work for me. My best theory is that I’ve read too many books that build on Joyce’s techniques, so what seemed revolutionary at the beginning of the 20th century just felt dated today. Also, maybe I’m just not a fan of disjointed narratives about the religious doubts of Irish schoolboys?

No matter what, I probably won’t pick up Ulysses any time soon. Instead, I think I’ll focus on getting to the weirder parts of House of Leaves.

Armada: Second Wave Slump

ArmadaArmada by Ernest Cline

Published: July 14th 2015
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 349 pages

The Last Starfighter is a very bad movie. The too-thin story is nothing but a delivery mechanism for a few minutes of primitive CGI, and I question the taste of anyone who could watch it nowadays without groaning.

Accordingly, if you operate under the theory that very bad movies are the ones that actually deserve reboots, there has never been a premise more ripe for a “re-imagining” than The Last Starfighter. The advances made to video games since the heyday of arcade cabinets are exponential, and the line between games and combat simulators has never been thinner.

Armada is Ernest Cline’s pitch for a Last Starfighter reboot, tailor-made for the inevitable blockbuster film adaptation. It improves on the movie in a few ways but introduces new problems; although it is more grounded and believable than the original, the plotting is slapdash and the pop culture references are overwhelming.

In Armada, Cline tells the story of Zack Lightman, a fatherless teenage gamer with anger-management issues and a high score in the titular game – a popular space-flight simulator/shooter. Zack’s late father was also a gamer obsessed with pop culture, but he also had a crackpot theory that all science fiction is part of a government plot designed to prepare people for alien invasions.

Zack obsesses over everything his father loved despite his suspicions that Lightman the elder might have been a little crazy. Although his obsession does eventually tie into the plot, it’s mostly just Cline’s excuse for peppering the dialogue with references to 80s movies. In fact, in the book’s most egregious moments, the characters quote dialog verbatim instead of having real human conversations.

When Zack sees a ship from Armada flying past his school, he thinks he’s going crazy like his father, and tries to write it off. However, we immediately know a few things that he seems willfully ignorant about despite his intimate familiarity with The Last Starfighter:

  1. He isn’t crazy. That was totally a real alien ship.
  2. He is going to get recruited by the military.
  3. Oh, and, his dad is totally alive out there somewhere. Duh.

All of this is screamingly obvious, but the book takes its sweet time getting to the point where Zack actually steps into a spaceship. I’m sure that once this is a movie, the pacing of this section will be better and it won’t feel like such a drag to spend time on Zack’s normal life, but here the first act of the story is deadly dull. I could definitely have done without the chapter-length walk-through of Armada’s in-game mechanics, especially because at that point the stakes were still nonexistent.

It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time setting up characters and situations that never really pay off. Zack’s anger issues just go away without him ever actually addressing them. His love interest gets one significant scene and then barely appears in the rest of the book even though she’s actually a pretty cool character. The overall effect is a book that feels underdeveloped and rushed, as though producing a movie-ready follow-up was the main priority here.

And, yes, the pop-culture references that Cline is known for do feel a bit heavy-handed. Somehow the same obsession with 80s culture worked just fine in his début, but here it took me out of the action almost every time. There’s also a weird scene where Zack describes how hot his mom is and admits to a mild Oedipal complex. These are all things that I think Cline would have fixed with another rewrite or two.

It’s a shame, really, because I genuinely enjoyed Ready Player One, and I was really excited for Cline’s follow-up. I think he has a lot of potential as a writer, and I could still see that potential in Armada even if I don’t think the execution is there. For example, the government’s recruitment plan makes a lot more sense than The Last Starfighter, and once the invasion gets underway, Cline introduces a new mystery that makes for a far more compelling dramatic question than whether Zack will get recruited.

Cline already has a lucrative deal for his third book, so it’s not like the shakiness of his craft on Armada is going to derail his career, but I hope he gets the chance to put a bit more love and attention into his next book.


Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Never Mind, Scribd is Terrible Now

scribd-thumbs-downShortly after I posted my glowing, enthusiastic review of Scribd’s service (especially the audiobook selection), they decided to blow up their entire business model and the app went swiftly downhill.

The two things aren’t necessarily connected, but together they were enough to get me to cancel my subscription and delete the app out of sheer frustration.

So, what exactly happened? Scribd decided that they were going to change their business model, but only for audiobooks. Instead of being able to listen to any book in their (at the time) extensive library, your $8.99 would get you 1 credit for an audiobook, which brings them in line with other digital audiobook services like Audible or Downpour.

It makes sense that they had to make this change, because endless audiobooks are probably not a sustainable business model, but it’s still disappointing. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing that changed, and Scribd seriously dropped the ball when it came to communicating the changes.

First, I received an email telling me that some of the titles in my library were going to expire soon. The email didn’t explain anything about their new business model; it just let me know that I’d be seeing expiration dates on some of the titles I’d saved. When I checked, it turned out that all the expiring titles were from Penguin Random House, which meant that almost all the audiobooks I’d added to my list were going to expire from the service. Naturally, I’d barely dented my list of books.

I don’t remember how I found out that their business model was changing to credits-only, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t through an email. In fact, I think I started seeing little flags for “credit required” on audiobooks I’d saved before I read anything about the changes. I did finally get an explanation when I went to the Scribd website, but I’m sure there were plenty of people who only use the app and had no clue what was going on.

As part of Scribd’s explanation of the changes, they claimed that some audiobooks would be available under their unlimited plan, but I could never find them. I have no idea what these “thousands” of unlimited audiobooks might be, because everything in my list was either expiring or required a credit.

If it was just a matter of the service’s value changing, I might have continued paying for my membership… but then the app turned into a buggy mess, and that was more than I could take. I was trying to finish Armada before it expired, but the Scribd app started doing this infuriating thing where the beginning of the next section of book would start playing before the current section finished, so I’d have dueling Wil Wheatons and no way to fix it while driving. It didn’t help that I’d already had to delete and re-install Scribd several times because of changes to the service and unstable app updates.

Once it became clear that the Scribd app was a complete shit-show, I deleted it and submitted a cancellation request. It’s entirely possible that they’ve fixed some of the bugs in the month since I cancelled my service, but when I weighed what Scribd was offering – inconsistency and instability – versus my long-term experiences with Audible, it was no contest.

The Audible app and service are both far better than anything Scribd now offers in the audiobook space, so it wasn’t long before I’d restarted my full Audible membership and picked up a copy of John Scalzi’s new space politics adventure story.

First Impressions of The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount CharScott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char is dark, weird and funny. It’s basically the perfect book for me. I knew I was going to love it within a few sentences, and so far it hasn’t disappointed.

The main character, Carolyn, has penchant for brutality that constantly surprises me, too. Where other books would establish that the main character had done terrible things but they were all in the past, Hawkins gleefully undermines those expectations. Carolyn behaves in ways that are utterly inhuman without necessarily making her an unlikable character. Of course, it definitely helps that other characters in the book are much, much worse.

My only real criticism so far is that the book’s cover completely misses the mark. It feels like the kind of cover you’d see on your average literary thriller sent straight to the bargain bin. I’m sure it happened because the book already feels impossible to sell from what I’ve read so far, but it’s incredibly unfortunate because I would not have picked this book up off a shelf without first understanding the completely bat-shit premise.

I’m only about 15% through at this point, so it’s possible the book won’t deliver on its early promises, but who can go wrong with chapter titles like “Buddhism for Assholes”?

An Unwelcome Quest: The Book That Reviews Itself

An Unwelcome QuestAn Unwelcome Quest by Scott Meyer

Published: February 10, 2015
Publisher: 47North / Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Fantasy, Comedy, Adventure
Format: Audiobook
Length: 11 hrs and 46 mins

Scott Meyer’s Magic 2.0 series is fantasy with a science-fiction hook: a computer hacker named Martin discovers an all-powerful file that lets him control reality, so he travels back to medieval times and pretends he is a wizard. This fails spectacularly when he meets all the other hackers who had the same idea.

An Unwelcome Quest is the third book in the series. The first two weren’t perfect by any means, but they were at least funny and light on their feet where this one quickly wears out its welcome. It’s a huge shame, because this series was exactly what I was looking for when I wanted to have a few laughs during my commute. One definite bright side is that Luke Daniels continues to bring his A-game as narrator. Also, I occasionally enjoyed the last quarter or so after gritting my teeth and slogging through the fairly dire middle.

I think the only reasons I made it through this installment in the series are because I wanted to know what happened to the characters and the fact that I received a review copy. Unfortunately, one of the first big changes in An Unwelcome Quest is that the events take place almost entirely in the magical world instead of jumping back and forth between modern times and the past. This means that treasury agents Murph and Miller don’t even appear during the story. Their presence is sorely missed. Meyer also splits up his cast of heroes into two groups, with Martin – the main character in the earlier books – relegated to a supporting role in an ensemble.

The book opens with Todd, a psychotic ex-wizard, escaping from prison. He kidnaps half of the characters and forces them to run through a badly designed RPG campaign. When Martin and the remaining wizards realize their friends are missing, they rush to the rescue and run through the same campaign in slightly different ways. Both sets of wizards bicker endlessly at every turn, and the effect is more sour than funny. It doesn’t help that Meyer includes constant explanations and recaps at every turn, in case you weren’t paying attention during the previous chapter. This repeats ad nauseam.

There is also a running joke that all the enemies in the game have the same basic attack pattern, which does nothing but undermine the already very low stakes. In fact, the villain explicitly the wizards that the obstacles they face will only annoy them without actually killing them until they reach the climax. That final sequence is basically the only part of the book where it feels like the characters are in even mild danger.

In the end, An Unwelcome Quest feels like an over-padded novella. There are entertaining moments here and there, and I did actually laugh out loud a few times. Unfortunately, getting to those good parts required slogging through a lot of tedium and redundancy. I might be willing to read another book in this series if Meyer somehow course-corrects, but it’ll take some pretty glowing reviews to convince me.


Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley. Of course, I ended up going ahead and buying the audiobook version because Luke Daniels is a fantastic narrator.

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

The Fade Out: Dark Stars

The Fade OutThe Fade Out, Volume 1: Act One

Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips
Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser

Published: March 10, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Noir, Mystery, Crime
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

The Fade Out is a tale of bad old Hollywood, when studios covered up all varieties of crime and young actresses faced near-constant sexual assault on the ladder to stardom. It definitely made me wonder how much has changed and how much has stayed the same since the 1940s, when this story takes place.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter with a few dark secrets who wakes up one morning after a debauched party to discover a promising young actress, Valeria Sommers, strangled in her own home. Charlie decides to get himself the hell out of there – hiding any evidence of his presence before he leaves – but when the movie studio he works for spins the murder as a suicide, Charlie’s guilt and horror only increase.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips love a good noir. I haven’t read all of their work so far, but The Fade Out is one of their most grounded stories. It’s an unflinching look at the seamy underbelly of classic Hollywood, led by a conflicted non-hero who struggles to figure out what to do. The book also particularly focuses on the ways women were horribly mistreated during that time period, both in and outside the film industry.

Brubaker’s dialogue crackles, Sean Phillips’ character designs are bold and spare, and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colors are the perfect accent that brings it all home. Charlie views the world through thick round glasses that dwarf his face. His writing partner, Gil, slumps his way through every scene, rumpled and dissolute. Valeria and Maya, her lookalike replacement on the picture, both have fresh, open faces and expressive mouths that make it easy to imagine them as long-lost Hollywood starlets.

Although The Fade Out starts with a murder mystery, it seems content to wander through old Hollywood, introducing a slowly expanding cast of characters without pushing Charlie into his ostensible role as citizen detective. It seems clear Brubaker is playing a long game and enjoying the scenery along the way.

My only criticism is that the third issue features so much female nudity that it verges on the exploitative. It’s clear that Brubaker is criticizing a system that puts women into situations that force them to use their bodies as currency, but the amount of naked flesh on display begins to undermine his point.

Even still, The Fade Out is an excellent slice of noir from creators working at the top of their game. Definitely worth checking out.


Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

Netflix for Books: Scribd vs Kindle Unlimited

Update, 10/5/2015: Scribd is terrible now.

People keep trying to make “Netflix for books” happen. It’s probably because someone out there thinks I don’t have enough to read. I was definitely skeptical about these services at first because I have always been perfectly happy getting too many books from my local library. However, once they started introducing options that included audiobooks and comic books, it wasn’t long before I gave a few of the all-you-can-read services a spin. Luckily, most of them offer a free trial month, so it was easy for me to get sucked in.

Kindle-Unlimited-Launched-for-iPhone-and-iPad-All-You-Can-Read-for-9-99-7-39-451298-2The first service I tried was Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s $9.99 a month offering. Unlimited offers both ebooks and audiobooks, and thanks to Amazon’s close integration of Kindle and Audible, you can take advantage of Whispersync and download some books in both formats. Unlimited offers a lot of flexibility because you can read ebooks on Kindles or in Kindle apps, and listen to audiobooks in either the Audible app (which is fantastic) or any of the Kindle apps or devices. One of the killer hidden features of Whispersync is that it works even if you check out a Kindle book from the library, and Audible discounts show up even if you’re just borrowing the e-book.

As far as the titles available on Unlimited, it’s best for independent books, Amazon exclusives and smaller publishers. I listened to the first two Wayward Pines books by Blake Crouch and then used the Audible discount for Whispersync titles to buy the first two Magic 2.0 books by Scott Meyer. I also read a Kindle single and a book on writing. If you want more mainstream books, Unlimited does offer a few good options like the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games, but you won’t find most of the big new bestsellers on Unlimited. If you really enjoy independent genre fiction, Unlimited is probably a really good deal, but ultimately this selection wasn’t enough to keep me subscribed.

scribd-e-booksOnce I cancelled Unlimited, I decided to try Scribd, which costs $8.99 a month and works on iOS, Android, Kindle Fire and web browsers. Scribd was originally an online document publishing platform, but they announced a subscription book service a few years ago and that has completely taken over the site. Although I was first drawn to Scribd by their comic book library, I haven’t actually read a comic on there yet. Instead, I’ve mostly used it to listen to audiobooks. I was definitely impressed with their audio and e-book libraries when I first joined, but when Scribd announced a partnership with Penguin Random House Audio, their audio selection grew exponentially.

If you’re a fan of audiobooks like I am, Scribd is more than worth the monthly fee. I actually cancelled my Audible subscription a few months ago and haven’t really missed it. It helps that I already own plenty of books on Audible, but Scribd is actually a strong contender even when compared to Audible’s full library. So far I’ve listened to Lucky Alan by Jonathan Lethem, Get In Trouble by Kelly Link, The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore and In The Garden of Iden by Kage Baker. I’m also currently reading At The Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. Some of those are brand-new books.

However, the Scribd app isn’t as polished as the Audible app. The default volume settings are way too quiet when I’m driving, for one thing. Although Scribd does offer some books in both e-book and audio formats, you can’t sync between the two automatically. Additionally, when you open a book, Scribd spends a long time syncing to their servers before the book actually opens. This happens even for books you’ve downloaded to your device. The e-book reading experience is at least as good as the Kindle app, but I’m not sure I’d ever choose it as my primary way to read e-books, just because I really prefer e-ink screens for text. That said, if they can beef up their comic book selection and work on improving the app, Scribd would be firing on all cylinders.

I’ll probably stick with my Scribd membership for the foreseeable future, although I may try other services if they seem like good options. I know that Oyster is fairly well-liked, but they’ve said they have no plans to expand into audiobooks, so that’s a deal-killer for me. No matter what, I’m sure I’ll buy and borrow books from every place I can get them. I can never have too many books, after all!

Wayward Volume One: Pretty But Empty

Wayward Volume 1: String TheoryWayward Volume One: String Theory

Story: Jim Zub
Line Art: Steve Cummings

Published: April 7, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Adventure, Magic
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

The art in Wayward Volume One is probably the best part of an otherwise cliché book. The backgrounds are gritty and realistic in a way that feels completely grounded, and the character art is bright and stylized. Unfortunately, all of that beautiful design is in service of story about yet another teenager discovering hidden magical powers and using them to fight monsters.

Rori Lane is half-Irish and half-Japanese, which means she speaks the language but has a head of bright red hair that makes her stand out in a Japanese crowd. The story opens when she moves to Japan to live with her mother after a (so far unexplained) falling out with her father. Her mother works long hours and is hardly ever home, but Rori seems to have nowhere else to go, so the arrangement works.

There are the occasional interesting details, but they feel more like window-dressing than real characterization. Rori’s mixed heritage means she’ll never really fit in, no matter how well she learns to speak Japanese. The author plays with that theme, but doesn’t dig deeper than a moment where her teacher tells her to dye her hair black so that people won’t think she’s a troublemaker. We also learn that Rori is a secret cutter, but the revelation feels completely arbitrary and gratuitous because it doesn’t have any impact on the story. Ultimately it just feels like a cynical attempt to add depth to the story.

The other characters aren’t given much more depth than their magical abilities, but at least Ayane – a magical “cat girl” – is entertaining and strange. The story rushes through Rori discovering her powers and meeting other powered characters so that it can get to the fight scenes. I don’t necessarily prefer stories that dwell on characters discovering a secret world in plain sight, but Rori starts out the book lost in another country and ends up leading a team of magical teenagers in a very short amount of time. Additionally, the dialogue is oftentimes very wooden, reading as if Zub is trying to imitate English poorly translated from Japanese.

Ultimately the art and colors are the only things I actually liked about this book. Without the art, you have nothing but a story that relies on nothing but well-worn tropes, limited characterization and dialog that is both wooden and unnecessarily vulgar. I doubt I’ll pick up another volume.


Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

Rat Queens: Everything’s Coming Up Tentacles

RatQueensV2_CoverRat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth

Story: Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art: Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic

Published: May 19, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

Rat Queens is a modern spin on classic fantasy tropes that plays within those boundaries while also subverting clichés, and does so with a light touch. It has a great premise: a group of rowdy adventurers in a fantasy world fight, fuck, and generally incite civic destruction. The twist is that they’re all women, and they work both with and against other adventuring parties with similar mixes of race and gender.

The character designs are great, and Wiebe has a fantastic sense of humor. The character development is especially well-done, and each of the women at the center of the story feel both fully developed and entirely unique. In fact, characterization is probably the strongest aspect of the series so far.

I definitely enjoyed the first volume, Sass & Sorcery, which was a story about the team as they dealt with a surprising betrayal. This second volume, The Far-Reaching tentacles of N’Rygoth, tells a story that focuses on Dee, a semi-lapsed member of a religion that worships Lovecraftian horrors. I get the impression that future volumes of the series will tell similar stories that focus on each member of the Queens, so this volume is probably a good template for things to come.

Unfortunately, although I did enjoy volume two, it wasn’t as funny as volume one, and the pacing felt a little rushed at times. It opens with the Queens fighting against invading inter-dimensional horrors, and doesn’t really let up much from there. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout – part of the invasion involves strange mind control that distracts the Queens with hallucinated memories while they try to fight – so we do get a bit more back story for the characters, but it still felt like this volume didn’t gel quite as well as the first.

There was also a significant change behind the scenes when the original artist, Roc Upchurch, got arrested for domestic abuse charges and Wiebe fired him from the series. Stjepan Sejic, the artist who completed the last few issues in this volume, has his own unique style, but definitely fits very well within the established Rat Queens universe.

Although I do think this volume had a slight dip in quality, I would still heartily recommend picking up the series, and I look forward to future issues. Definitely worth checking out.


Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

Get in Trouble: Heartbreaking Pocket Universes

Get in TroubleGet In Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

Published: February 3rd, 2015
Publisher: Random House
Genre(s): Short Stories, Slipstream, Fantasy, Surreal
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 57 mins

Kelly Link has a knack for expertly juxtaposing weirdness with the mundane, and it’s basically catnip for my reading soul. Get in Trouble is no different.

However, one thing I noticed as I read is that only a handful of these stories are terrifying, which is a change from the norm. Link never really writes flat-out horror, but she has a way with chilling details and building suspense.

Although her talent for disturbing atmosphere does still come into play, Link spends most of her energy creating real, lived-in characters that leap off the page. In many ways, Get in Trouble finds her in transition; it’s still odd and unsettling, but it’s also some of her most accessible work.

The audiobook version, narrated by a full cast, features both familiar and new voices, some of whom are better than others. Tara Sands, who reads Secret Identity, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Ish Klein, who reads The New Boyfriend, has a high-pitched voice and staccato delivery that actually adds to the strangeness of the story. The only narrator I had some trouble with is Susan Duerden, whose odd cadence and breathy voice was very distracting at first.

“The Summer People” read by Grace Blewer
Fran and her (alcoholic, absentee) father are caretakers for vacation summer homes. Most of the time this just involves cleaning up after out-of-towners, but sometimes Fran has to deal with a different and far more dangerous type of summer people. This story starts out slowly, but Link steadily builds the danger and weirdness until delivering a punch of an ending. My only complaint is that the audiobook narrator completely ignores Fran’s accent.

“I Can See Right Through You” read by Kirby Heyborne
The Demonlover, aging star of a massively popular supernatural romance, reconnects with his former co-star/girlfriend as she films a TV segment about mysterious disappearances at a nudist colony. This story actually manages to humanize a celebrity couple who bear a very strong resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. That said, the story opens with a prologue that feels completely disconnected from the main plot, and the ending is both sudden and unexpectedly surreal. I enjoyed the middle, but I’m still not quite sure what to think about the rest of this story.

“Secret Identity” read by Tara Sands
Told in the form of a confession and an apology, this story relates the adventures of a sixteen-year-old girl who travels to a New York hotel to meet a man more than twice her age under false pretenses. When she arrives, she discovers that the hotel is hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and another for superheroes. Much to her dismay, everyone assumes she is there to audition as a sidekick. Easily my favorite story in the entire collection; the main character is sympathetic and relatable even when she does terrible things. I also loved how Link plays with the idea of “secret identity” throughout.

“Valley of the Girls” read by Robbie Daymond
Decadent rich kids fight and fuck and build pyramids to house all of their worldly goods while lookalikes called “faces” make public appearances in their names. This story felt a bit overstuffed – too many disconnected ideas and not quite enough character development. Either “faces” or the Egyptian aspects of the story would have been enough to carry it, but both together are a bit too much. Ultimately Link doesn’t spend very much time exploring the concept of “faces”, so it just ends up confusing things.

“Origin Story” read by Rebecca Lowman
A small-town waitress spends the night with her former boyfriend, a now-famous superhero, at a dilapidated Wizard of Oz theme park. They have sex and talk about life, slowly but surely revealing shared histories and the intimacies of a long friendship. As they speak, we get glimpses of the strange world around them, full of mutants and people with superpowers. This story was a little willfully confusing at first, but once I got into the world, I definitely enjoyed it.

“The Lesson” read by Cassandra Campbell
Tan and Harper decide to attend a wedding held on an island despite the fact that their surrogate, Naomi, is in danger of delivering their baby prematurely. This is definitely the most realistic story Link has ever published, but there are still a few quirky touches and moments of strangeness. I liked this story, but I spent the latter half waiting for supernatural occurrences that never arrived.

“The New Boyfriend” read by Ish Klein
Immy and Ainslie are best friends, but Immy kind of hates Ainslie for getting everything she’s ever wanted and more. Especially her “boyfriends”, which are actually lifelike robots entirely devoted to their owner. When Ainslie receives a new boyfriend for her birthday, Immy’s jealousy overwhelms her, and she takes drastic measures. This was probably my second-favorite story in the collection. The narrator’s flat affect and unreliability paired well with the creepy concept of a “ghost boyfriend” who might be possessed by a real ghost.

“Two Houses” read by Susan Duerden
Astronauts on a long-haul spaceship – the House of Mystery – tell ghost stories during one night of their years-long trip to Alpha Centauri. This story was a mix of sci-fi and the supernatural, and although it builds to a particularly creepy moment at the end, it mostly relies on atmosphere and not plot or character.

“Light” read by Kirsten Potter
This story is so full of strange details that it’s nearly impossible to summarize properly. An alcoholic woman with two shadows works security at a company caring for “sleepers” – people found randomly lying asleep on the ground. She visits pocket universes, sleeps with the occasional wolf-man, and fights with her troublesome twin brother, who sprung forth from her extra shadow. Although I did enjoy this story, the strangeness was at such a high level that it was kind of overwhelming at times.


Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley… and then I listened to the audiobook version on Scribd instead. It was worth it!

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound