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Burnt Tongues: An Anthology of Transgressive Stories

Edited by Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas, and Dennis Widmyer . Medallion, $14.95 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-60542-734-8

Twenty fictional vivisections shock, disgust, and unsettle in this hallucinatory anthology. The devastation of malicious gossip inspires attempted suicides and helplessness in Neil Krolicki's "Live This Down," featuring a miscarriage at a pool party. After a shower, readers will be thrown off balance by the paradoxical culpability and hope of an animal abuser's redemption in Chris Lewis Carter's "Charlie." Matt Egan's "A Vodka Kind of Girl" and Tony Liebhard's "Mating Calls" face the pain of relationships, while Jason M. Fylan's "Engines, O-Rings, and Astronauts" blurring lines between victim and victimizer amid the terror of school shootings. And flickering pumpkins leer at human frailty and (again) suicidal tendencies on Halloween in Terence James Eeles's "Lemming". Attacking morality, formula, and "political correctness," these acts of literary terrorism provoke, belittle, challenge, and confound, satisfying Palahniuk's demand for "[discovering] a way of saying something, but saying it wrong." Irritating and uncompromising, they force readers to "read close, maybe read twice," as they slaughter sacred cows left and right. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Upgraded

Edited by Neil Clarke. Wyrm, $16.95 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-890464-30-1

Longtime magazine editor Clarke (Clarkesworld), inspired by the experience of becoming a "cyborg" after getting an implanted defibrillator, decided to explore new takes on cyborgs, and this anthology largely succeeds in presenting interesting twists on the concept. The best is Helena Bell's haunting "Married," in which an experimental technology called "Sentin" gradually replaces an entire body, causing a woman to question her husband's humanity. Yoon Ha Lee's "Always the Harvest" overcomes a simple plot with magnificent world-building and turns of phrases like "A braidweave splendor of limbs." The anthology ends with a typically brutal Peter Watts story ("Collateral") followed by an unexpectedly gorgeous and humanistic one by Greg Egan ("Seventh Sight," about the implication of enhanced vision on aesthetics), ensuring that even the pickiest readers are satisfied. There are plenty of other highlights—including excellent stories by A.C. Wise and Chen Qiufan, the latter translated by Ken Liu, who also contributes an excellent tale of his own—and few missteps worth noting beyond an underwhelming contribution from headliner Elizabeth Bear. Clarke's first themed anthology will leave readers hoping for more. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Beautiful Ashes

Jeaniene Frost. HQN, $14.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-373-77905-5

Frost's fast-paced paranormal romantic thriller is a pure stunner. Ivy is already overwhelmed by dealing with her parents' death and the disappearance of her sister, Jasmine. The last thing she needs is Adrian, an undeniably handsome stranger, telling her that the visions that she's had since childhood are completely real and Jasmine has been kidnapped by demons. Soon, Ivy is on an epic adventure of Biblical proportions. She comes from the line of King David and can see into demon realms as well as destroy demons. Adrian isn't a demon, but he's the sworn enemy of the Davidians. Nonetheless, the attraction between them is too intense to ignore. As Ivy searches for the one weapon that might let her save her sister, she slowly comes to grips with her place in this archaic and never-ending war. Frost (Once Burned) skillfully balances passion and peril in an attention-grabbing story that's exciting from the first page. The mythos is intriguing and inventive. Readers will hungrily anticipate the next installment. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Wrapped Around Your Finger

Alison Tyler. Cleis, $16.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-62778-063-6

Tyler wraps up her intensely erotic BDSM trilogy with this searing tale of sex, submission, and seduction, leaving readers with more questions (and more true, messy, real-life emotions) than ever before. Samantha is an erotica writer whose need for submission drives her. She's found herself the perfect Dom in Jack, the stoic lawyer who knows exactly how best to torment her, and who sows chaos and complication in her personal life to ensure that she'll never grow complacent. The two have a partnership that many in the vanilla world consider extreme or even abusive, but a peek into Samantha's mind and heart reveals someone who thrives on submission, and whose relationship is both consensual and safe, if often challenging. Less satisfying is the plot, which revolves around Jack's craving for non-monogamy but almost entirely omits mention of his other lover, Alex. Even fans of kinky alpha males will find Jack a bit cold and distant, but those with a taste for power exchange will be rewarded. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dark Spies

Matthew Dunn. Morrow, $26.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-230946-4

Dunn's exciting fourth Spycatcher novel (after 2013's Slingshot) finds Will Cochrane, the extraordinary agent who serves both the CIA and MI6, in the Norwegian Arctic, where his job is to protect Ellie Hallowes, the "CIA's best deep-cover officer," and her Russian informant, code name Herald. When armed intruders interrupt the meeting between Ellie and Herald at a log cabin, Cochrane, who's on guard nearby, receives orders from his superiors via remote phone not to interfere, even though he can see one of the armed men is about to shoot Ellie. By electing to try to save Ellie's life, he threatens a secret operation known as Project Ferryman, and his only choices are to flee or to face his handlers. Cochrane's few allies are almost helpless as he treks back from Norway to Washington, D.C., against incredible odds and obstacles. The powerful men behind Project Ferryman pull out all the stops to get Cochrane, as does the wily Russian SVR officer known as Antaeus. Great action sequences and a clever if complicated plot make this a satisfying read. Agent: Luigi Bonomi, Luigi Bonomi Associates (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Reign of Evil: A SEAL Team 666 Novel

Weston Ochse. St. Martin's/Dunne, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-25005-600-9

If you can buy into the premise that monsters such as demons, warlocks, and golems are out to destroy modern civilization, you'll have a rollicking good time with Ochse's action-packed third SEAL Team 666 novel (after 2013's Age of Blood). SEAL Jack Walker and the Triple Six team join their British monster-hunting counterparts, Section 9, after Walker's girlfriend, Jen, meets a horrific end at Stonehenge, brutally murdered by King Arthur riding a giant white stag. The military guys are aided in their battles by a sexy witch, Sassy Moore, whose magic wand proves more useful against the deadly wraiths than the usual SA80s, Glock 17s, HK416s, and Sig Sauers. Together and separately, the Brits and Yanks battle various supernatural creatures and their human minions up and down the British Isles, taking terrible casualties and inflicting serious damage before a series of exciting battles decides the outcome. That Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is attached to star in the forthcoming MGM SEAL Team 666 movie can only win the series new fans. Agent: Robert Fleck, Professional Media Services. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sad Peninsula

Mark Sampson. Dundurn (IPS, U.S. dist., UTP, Canadian dist.), $22.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-4597-0925-6

"This will hurt immensely," a brutal doctor tells Korean teenager Meiko in his office at a so-called comfort station in northeastern China circa 1943. In order to cure the girl of a sexually transmitted disease from the Japanese soldiers that rape and torture her each and every day, the doctor's about to inject Meiko with an arsenic compound that causes painful side-effects. The harrowing and deeply moving sections of Sampson's (Off Book) sophomore novel describe the traumatized life of Meiko, born Eun-young, as she survives atrocities and spends later decades "barren as a rock" as well as mutely suffering, poor and ashamed, on the margins of conservative, male-dominated Korean society. Alternating but equally engaging chapters describe Michael, a disgraced journalist from Halifax fleeing personal failures and squandered opportunities while "slinging English like hamburgers" at ABC English Planet, a rigid ESL school in neon-lit Seoul. Quiet and thoughtful, he wrestles his own demons as he observes the questionable antics of his fellow male teachers, who regard the young women of Seoul in the early 1990s as gifts to open and discard. Michael's awkward romance with Jin, a relative of Eun-young, bridges the two eras and gives the author ample opportunity to illustrate the enduring consequences of history. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Gray Mountain

John Grisham. Doubleday, $28.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-385-53714-8

Expect the expected in this tepid legal thriller from bestseller Grisham (Sycamore Row) that may be the debut of a series character. When Wall Street law associate Samantha Kofer loses her job in the 2008 financial meltdown, her mega-firm offers her the prospect of a return to long hours and dull work after a year's furlough as an unpaid intern for a nonprofit organization. Despite the volunteer nature of such work, Samantha discovers competition for the slots available fierce, and seizes the chance, after numerous rejections, to work at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Va., population 2,200. In the Appalachian coal town, Samantha finds herself a fish out of water in more senses than one. She needs to adjust to living in a community with fewer residents than her old office building, as well as dealing with real people's problems rather than document review. Grisham movingly portrays the evils of Big Coal and the lives it has ruined, and most readers will rapidly turn the pages, but the subtlety and full-blooded characters that mark the author's best work are sadly absent. Agent: David Gernert, Gernert Company. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Wallflowers

Eliza Robertson. Bloomsbury, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-62040-815-5

In Robertson's debut collection, her moody homeland of Vancouver Island and the nature of human independence set a tone of poetic grace. The impressive opener "Who Will Water the Wallflowers" follows a girl cat-sitting for the neighbors as flood waters force her, with the pet nestled in her housecoat, to scale the rooftops to safety. The brief but emotionally crushing "L'Etranger" finds a young female scholar in southern France contending with an irksome Ukrainian roommate until the woman reveals devastating news and abandons the home. The epistolary "Roadnotes," told in one-sided missives from sibling to sibling, is a subtle meditation on family and memory. "Sea Life" deftly illustrates the tragic and beautiful way humanity intervenes for a husband and wife at their beach community, even at the most inconvenient of times. In spots, Robertson's writing may be too precious and overly embellished—"Thoughts, Hints and Anecdotes..." is an interlinked barrage of artfully crafted, female-focused snippets of household tips, advice, observant mannerisms, and curious incidents. Overall, however, the collection shimmers with lush imagery as in the lovely closing story (winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize) set in British Columbia, where brother and sister triathletes find common ground while conditioning their bodies, but are unprepared for a tragic end result. Through the varying perspectives of loners, lovers, and misfits, Robertson distinguishes herself as a uniquely talented writer to watch. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Our Lady of the Nile

Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. from the French by Melanie Mauthner. Archipelago (Random, dist.), $18 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-0-914671-03-9

In Rwanda, the strife between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority is a constant source of tension. In Mukasonga's debut novel, this conflict is expressed through the microcosm of Our Lady of the Nile, a Catholic boarding school for young ladies. The young women who attend the school all come from wealthy and influential families, and their interweaving stories draw readers into a Rwanda where violence exists a hairsbreadth away at all times, and even money won't save them. Virginia and Veronica are two Tutsi girls in the lycee because of quotas, and they are keenly aware of the dangers they face as the Hutu majority grows more restive. They meet a strange white man who lives near the school and wants to draw them into his elaborate fantasies about the Tutsis. Among the other girls in their school is Gloriosa, the daughter of a Hutu politician, who constantly encourages anti-Tutsi sentiments. Gloriosa starts telling lies about being attacked by Tutsis and the retaliatory violence costs Veronica her life and Virginia her education. Though Mukasonga's characters are relatively distinct (for all being privileged teenaged girls), some lack overt motivation for their nastiness. Nevertheless, she fully draws readers into the tensions, spirituality, and culture of Rwandan life from page one. She helps readers without experience of the setting become immersed at once, feeling out the tribal tensions without being overburdened with exposition. This is a moving, nuanced portrait of fear and survival. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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