All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern. On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is. But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

What’s not to love about a misanthropic robot that might destroy humanity, if only they didn’t create such wonderful holo dramas? I think that my favorite aspect of the Murderbot Diaries is that Eden could totally kill all humans, but, like, meh. In a world of highly skilled humans, we often end up doing only what is required in our job because there’s no incentive (other than losing our job) to do more. Oh how I relate to Eden and ter loathing of humanity. How many times have I been at work, and wished that I were Netflixing or reading a book instead.

In All Systems Red, we get the backstory of Eden and ter sordid past as an ineffectual murderbot. Ter really does care about the humans that te is expected to protect. Te doesn’t have to protect them, because of the hacked governor, but te does it out of a sense of professional responsibility.

I enjoyed All Systems Red, and look forward to reading more offerings by Martha Wells, especially more Murderbot Diaries. Five stars! Recommended to scifi fans and misanthropes everywhere.

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksura series, the Ile-Rien series as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins, and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novels are The Edge of Worlds in 2016 and The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, forthcoming from Tor.com. She was the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering’s Dominaria expansion in 2018. Her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, and her books have been published in eleven languages.

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Cradle of the Deep, by Deirdre Gould

The Keseburg once boasted a complement of fifty thousand. Generations of hardship, space hazards and disease have whittled it down to just under thirty thousand. That was the number when a small crew of resource miners departed on a routine asteroid run three months ago. But when they return home to the ship, all traces of their friends and family are gone. The Keseburg is silent, adrift, and running out of fuel. As they search the massive ship for survivors and answers, something else stalks them. Something that does not belong on the Keseburg.

The story of Issk’ath continues in Cradle of the Deep. What? You thought that the series was about the people aboard the Keseberg? ‘Fraid not. It was always about Issk’ath and its interaction with humanity, or at least the humanity that’s left. Issk’ath deals with guilt, called iterations in the narrative. Each time it does something that could be seen as inhumane, Issk’ath iterates. The parallel with humanity is not wasted here. Some people are wracked with guilt for minor infractions. Inter-generational guilt is a common theme in literature. But at times, Issk’ath is immune from its guilt – we’ve all encountered someone whose agenda precludes all other feelings, including guilt. But what is the nature of guilt, and by extension humanity? If a machine can feel guilt, then what is it about humanity that sets it apart from machine or even our genetic ancestors?

Like Traveler in the Dark, Cradle of the Deep focuses on a small cast of characters. Prior to this story, Issk’ath moves from permissive to overt action to “save” humanity from their frail casings. This causes much iteration, and sets us up for the crew of the Dolan to discover the Keseberg adrift with all souls lost at the hands (pincers?) of a homicidal robot. Can someone dying say no to termination under the claim of humane action? Can an otherwise able-bodied person choose to end their life for convenience?

The odd naming structure that baffled me in book one is gone from book two. It’s much easier to understand who is talking to whom in this story. Themes of predestination, choice, and rebellion are rife in this installment of Ex Situ. The narrative did suffer a little bit in this book, with some omnipotent head-hopping. I was able to follow who was doing/thinking what, but at least once or twice, I had to reread a paragraph when I got lost. The story was a fun read, and the ending worked well setting up book three without short-changing the reader. I’d give Cradle of the Deep four stars.

Deirdre Gould lives in Central Maine with her three children and husband. She’s also resided in northern Idaho, coastal Virginia and central Pennsylvania, but all of them just led her back home. The winters sure are cold, but that just means the zombies run slower. The area is isolated, but that just means the apocalyptic diseases don’t spread as quickly. And the storms are bad enough that no one thinks you’re crazy for “prepping.” It’s kind of ideal for a post-apocalypse writer when you think about it.

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Aftermath, by Kelley Armstrong

Three years after losing her brother Luka in a school shooting, Skye Gilchrist is moving home. But there’s no sympathy for Skye and her family because Luka wasn’t a victim; he was a shooter. Jesse Mandal knows all too well that the scars of the past don’t heal easily. The shooting cost Jesse his brother and his best friend–Skye. Ripped apart by tragedy, Jesse and Skye can’t resist reopening the mysteries of their past. But old wounds hide darker secrets. And the closer Skye and Jesse get to the truth of what happened that day, the closer they get to a new killer.

I knew that Aftermath, by Kelley Armstrong, would elicit strong emotions. It’s about the family of a school shooter after all. I found Skye and Jesse to be written well, and very relatable. The emotional arc of both characters was believable, and within the norms one would expect of people in this situation. The writer does an excellent job of disguising the antagonist throughout the book. I had my eye on a character, but as expected that character was only a red herring. I had correctly guessed who the villain was, but the author had me doubting myself before the reveal, and their was definitely a “oh no they didn’t” moment that is fortunately overcome right away. I wasn’t totally sure until the very end.

This is a story of emotional healing after a tragedy, and how something like a school shooting can affect those connected to the dead and injured. School bullying is forefront, and there’s an obvious theme of those responsible for protecting children seeming to fail again and again to do so. While gun violence is a pertinent topic here in the states, the book doesn’t advocate gun control or gun fetishism. I’m glad that that topic wasn’t shoehorned in. It could’ve easily been the focus of this story, but the victims and the families of those that died and the shooters were what this story was truly about.

I started reading Aftermath on a Wednesday evening, and couldn’t stop reading until I had consumed it all. Aftermath is a powerful story about love, loss, and redemption. Five stars, and highly recommended.

Kelley Armstrong has been telling stories since before she could write. Her earliest written efforts were disastrous. If asked for a story about girls and dolls, hers would invariably feature undead girls and evil dolls, much to her teachers’ dismay. All efforts to make her produce “normal” stories failed. Today, she continues to spin tales of ghosts and demons and werewolves, while safely locked away in her basement writing dungeon. She lives in southwestern Ontario with her husband, kids and far too many pets.

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Isolation

1100 words for this installment of Mental State. Prompts this week from #FFC2018, The Writing Reader, #SoCS, and The Daily Prompt.

* * *

The trio of teenagers gathered at the bus stop, Leonard laughed loudly, patting Steven on the back, who couldn’t help but smile. Ruby winked at him and he felt himself blush. The cacophony of footfalls ceased suddenly with David running up to them, out of breath. They stared at him, surprised, but ready to take action if needed. “About time you guys stopped,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “I’ve been chasing you forever.”

Leonard stepped forward and was the first to speak. “Why are you chasing us?”

David caught his breath and straightened. It was now David, Steven noticed, who looked extremely awkward; he was shuffling his feet and seemed unsure of what to say. Steven could guess what was coming. “Steven…” David began, but Steven surprised everyone, including himself by holding up his hand with his palm facing the newcomer.

“It’s okay, David.” David’s eyes were wide with shock; Leonard and Ruby watched Steven very closely. “I know you’re sorry. It’s all right. I just want us to be friends again.” David’s eyes widened. Steven felt a tightness swell in his throat. What was he doing? he thought.

David smiled. “Well, that was easier than I thought!”

Steven laughed. “Makes you wonder why you didn’t do it before, right?” he asked. He couldn’t help but smile. Having his friends back, even if only a few, was too good to ruin with past feelings. If they could let the past be the past, so could he.

* * *

Robert  watched the group step onto the bus together from the window of the now vacant classroom. He watched helpless as the door closed behind them. He swore, the volume of his outburst echoing off the high ceiling. He felt anger boil up inside of him and he bit his tongue. He tasted blood, then turned around and stormed to his desk and slammed his fists on it. What was happening? he thought, a morose wave of emotion flowed over him. Why was everyone turning back to being friends with Steven? Why were they forgiving him for what he did to Lindsay?

A little voice he barely recognized from before Lindsay’s death whispered in his head that maybe Steven didn’t do it, that maybe he was innocent. He couldn’t be; it wasn’t possible. Robert looked up with tears forming in his eyes. Shouldn’t he patch things up with Steven? Surely he should be friends with him again? Robert threw a chair aside, its clattering the next sound that echoed in the vacant space. Why was this happening?

Make Steven pay for what he has done, said another voice, one he had never heard before.

Robert spun around at the voice. “Hello?” he said, looking around, but no one was there. Had someone been watching him? But he hadn’t actually spoken, so how could they know what he had been thinking about? He glanced around the room and gathered his things, Robert left the empty classroom feeling disoriented.
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Drop by Drop, by Morgan Llywelyn

In this first book in the Step By Step trilogy, global catastrophe occurs as all plastic mysteriously liquefies. All the small components making many technologies possible—navigation systems, communications, medical equipment—fail. In Sycamore River, citizens find their lives disrupted as everything they’ve depended on melts around them, with sometimes fatal results. All they can rely upon is themselves. And this is only the beginning . . .

Drop by Drop is an interesting concept: plastics all over the world start to liquefy, and anything depending on plastics stop working. The idea is very much like the TV show, Jericho, and a non-zombie post apocalyptic story is a fresh read, so I requested it on Netgalley. The problem with Drop by Drop is that there is no plot. The story just meanders through a few years without a solid understanding of the flow of time. I think that the entire story spans a few years, maybe as many as four? The time shifts are abrupt, sometimes happening in the middle of a chapter. The vignettes are interesting by themselves, but linked together with no apparent ending to the story, the whole thing is an exercise in futility, but excessive head hopping soils even the interesting vignettes. Often I had to re-read a page or paragraph to figure out whom the section was about. Any time this happens in a book, I’m knocked out of the narrative, and any time the reader is knocked out of the narrative, it’s a chance that they’ll stop reading. I think that this story would’ve been better as a series of short stories, or even following a particular character through out the ordeal, perhaps in some sort of repeated chronology to show how different people and couples handle the plastic apocalypse. Very few of the characters are relatable, and although some backstory is filled in, the origins of most of the characters are nebulous at best. One of the biggest sins I feel a writer can commit is a bad ending, and Drop by Drop does just that: nothing is resolved, and a new impending doom is introduced to entice you to purchase book two. It took me five days to grind through a book that’s 336 pages, so you can imagine how frustrating it was to end in a cliffhanger. I kept hoping for a payout, but that wasn’t the case. Overall, I’d give Drop by Drop three stars, and with a $13 price tag for the ebook, I’d avoid this story entirely.

Morgan Llywelyn is an American-born Irish author best known for her historical fantasy, historical fiction, and historical non-fiction. Her fiction has received several awards and has sold more than 40 million copies, and she herself is recipient of the 1999 Exceptional Celtic Woman of the Year Award from Celtic Women International.

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The Good Twin, by Marti Green

Mallory Holcolm is an unfulfilled waitress and aspiring artist living in a Queens boardinghouse when she learns something astonishing about her past: she has an identical twin sister named Charly she never knew existed. Charly is a Princeton graduate, a respected gallery owner, and an heiress married to her handsome college sweetheart, Ben. Charly got everything she ever wanted. Everything Mallory wanted, too. And now it might be easier than Mallory ever imagined. Because Ben has reasons of his own for wanting to help her. It begins with his startling proposal. All Mallory has to do is say yes. But as their devious plan falls into place, piece by piece, Mallory learns more about her sister and herself than she ever meant to—a discovery that comes with an unexpected twist. A chilling deception is about to become a dangerous double cross. And it’s going to change the rules of Ben and Mallory’s game to the very end.

There seems to be a lot of animosity toward The Good Twin, by Marti Green. When I saw it on Netgalley, I requested it. I started reading it on a Friday evening, and read until it was done, finishing very early Saturday morning. It’s very compelling, and while some of the motivations for Mallory don’t quite pass muster, it’s an engrossing read. It was hard to find sympathy for Mallory, but I’m not sure what I would’ve done different. Charly was much easier to identify with – most of us have felt betrayed at some point in our lives, and Charly’s arc was, I think, a better read than Mallory’s. Part three is a little bit of a downer, and it felt rushed – almost incomplete. Overall I really enjoyed the story, and am awarding it four stars.

After receiving her Master of Science degree and New York State Professional Certificate in school psychology, Marti Green realized her true passion was the law. She went on to receive her law degree from Hofstra University and worked as an in-house counsel for a major cable television operator for twenty-three years, specializing in contracts, intellectual property law and regulatory issues. A lifelong New Yorker, Marti Green moved to The Villages, FL nine years ago, and now lives there with her husband, Lenny, and cat, Howie. She has two adult sons and five grandchildren.

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Turnabout

1150 words this week. I finally submitted my pirate story to Queen of Swords. There’s still four weeks left if you want to submit something. Today’s story is brought to you by prompts by Chuck Wendig, Liz Shaw, Linda G. Hill, The Daily Post, and Tara Roberts. I couldn’t work in Bree Salyer‘s prompt, but you all should participate in that too.

Steven’s next few days were surreal. After his talk with Ruby, he had come to one simple conclusion, and not even the voice could return to tell him he was wrong:

Ruby wasn’t lying. She really does believe me!

By day he did his schoolwork, usually with Ruby chatting at his side. Not a word was spoken regarding their talk and the kiss on the forehead; all Steven knew was that since then, the voice had made fewer appearances.

Everyone in the class still seemed to think Ruby was crazy, or that Steven had done something to her, but as time went on, Steven found he noticed – and cared – less and less. He couldn’t explain it. He didn’t know whether it was because of Ruby, luck, or if maybe he had just finally gotten over everything that had happened.

All he knew was that the voice was dying, he had stopped caring what people thought of him, and in an small way, he was… happy. There was no other word for it. He was beginning to feel happy. He was smiling slightly, and was feeling less depressed.

But how could that happen? Surely he couldn’t recover because one person was speaking to him? Then again, he knew that if Robert hadn’t gone against him, he would have never fallen into a depression. He’d suspected that the fact that he was all alone was the main reason he fell so far. Maybe one person really couldmake a difference.

Having Ruby as a friend made him feel almost normal again. They didn’t fight, and Ruby didn’t stare at him with accusing eyes the way everyone else did. It was almost as if, in some way, the old Lindsay – the one he had known before they started bickering and she admitted to hearing the voice – had come back into his life. She’d never replace Lindsay, that was impossible, but for the first time in a very long time, he felt a glimmer of hope for the future.

* * *

Ruby was getting more and more happy with her success. What was the oxymoronic expression? Cautiously optimistic. Despite that someone couldn’t be both of those words, it seemed to fit, regardless of proper English. Steven was changing before her eyes; he was getting better. She noticed he was no longer resisted her attempts at conversation, but was engaging her. She even saw him smile. It was only once, but she could tell that there were more smiles aching to be set free. Her success with Steven bolstered her resolve and gave her the courage she needed to keep facing the stares of the other students at Twin Oaks High School.

She couldn’t rely on support from her peers. Although no one said anything directly to her, neither did anyone attempt to find out what was going on. They seemed content on thinking Steven had somehow brainwashed her. She just knewthat there was no animus or malice in Steven’s heart, she just wished the others knew what she knew.

She tried to speak to a few classmates, but they all changed the subject and tried to talk about their unreasonable teachers or the latest gossip on who was dating whom. Anything but Steven.

On several occasions, Ruby tried to talk to Robert again, but he seemed so focused on ignoring Ruby and Steven. Robert was so convinced of Steven’s guilt, he was completely denying that there was any chance of innocence. He seemed sure, too, that Ruby was a lost cause. It made Ruby wonder if she could ever get Robert to consider anything other than the lies he held as truth. But like so many things out there, it was easier to hate, than to admit that he was wrong.
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