True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik

Samantha Kolesnik’s True Crime is a gritty deep dive into an abusive household and the horrible consequences of that abuse. It’s all the more awful for the plausibility of it.
Suzy’s only escape from the horrific emotional, physical, and sexual abuse from her mother–and boyfriend(s)–is reading True Crime magazines that she’s fixated on. Her only allies in the cruel childhood she’s experienced are her older brother, the emotionally detached Lim, and the unseen girl, Alice, held captive in the basement by Suzy’s mother, speaking to Suzy only through the heat registers. Little does she know that she and her older brother, Lim, are soon to create their own story befitting her favorite magazine…as she smashes an ashtray into her monstrous mother’s head…and that is only the beginning.
As Suzy evades justice and Lim winds up in prison for the murders no one imagines Suzy could have been involved with, we find ourselves wondering if she can be rehabilitated with a second chance and a clean slate.
The animal freakshow scene was deeply upsetting and made me want to attack the spectators as well, and the later scene where Suzy discovers the dogs made me sad too. Acts of cruelty and violence against animals do more to get under my skin than the same sort of violence perpetrated against people. It seems that Suzy and I have that in common.
Jennifer Pickens expertly narrates the audiobook edition of the story, capturing the equal measures of naivete and cruelty of Suzy’s first-person narrative.

I grew up in an abusive household in a rural region. This story hits close to home for anyone with that sort of background. While it was my father, rather than my mother, who levied the abuse, it doesn’t change much. That the abuse from my father was physical rather than sexual isn’t much of a difference. The sexual abuse, instead, came from a slightly older girl who lived next door and who saw a six or seven year old boy as a suitable way to learn about the differences between boys and girls. I wanted to include a little warning, in case anyone is triggered by these sorts of things.

God’s Eye: Awakening by Aleron Kong

God’s Eye: Awakening is what you might expect from Aleron Kong, but with higher stakes and with zero fucks given, much like our nascent god, Zero Fell. Until volumes seven and eight of The Land, we didn’t really see much by way of consequences for the protagonist or his closest allies. This is clearly not going to be the case with the Labyrinth World novels. As much as Zero Fell begins his journey on Telos with generous sponsors and an appearance of a potentially–charmed–new life, that illusion is thoroughly shattered by the end of this first volume in the series.
Where the story of The Land is firmly rooted in a basis of standard RPG fare, God’s Eye establishes just as much of a basis in RTS as in RPG gaming. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out as future volumes are released and Zero more firmly establishes himself as a god in this new world.
Aleron Kong infuses this story with the same irreverent wit, pop-culture homage, and character-building you’ll be familiar with if you’ve enjoyed his previous work…but with a lot more violence and with a faster pace than the slow build-up to a major conflict we experienced with The Land.
This book manages to be darker, coming off the heels of the eighth book of The Land (which was substantially darker than the earlier installments, though that darkness really started taking root near the latter half of volume seven)…so that should serve as a warning for anyone who’s just looking for a fun read with light-hearted fantasy excitement.
The audiobook is competently narrated by Luke Daniels and I look forward to hearing more narration from him as this series progresses.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The City We Became is vastly different from the other books I’ve read by N.K. Jemisin. She manages to put the “urban” in urban fantasy in a way I’ve never seen from another author aside from maybe James Blish’s Cities In Flight (Okie) series. The urban fantasy tale is a huge departure from the straightforward fantasy I’d been accustomed to from Jemisin while adding a nice touch of cosmic horror into the mix.
Take a little bit of L. Frank Baum and a bit of Neil Gaiman and add a whole lot of the worldbuilding and myth creation fans of Jemisin are already familiar with, and you’ll end up with some idea of what The City We Became has in store for you. It’s as much a character study as a sweeping, grand fantasy tale…another thing fans of Jemisin should be expecting.
Jemisin fills this book to the brim with social commentary on a wide variety of topics from gentrification and art criticism to racism (overt and subtle) and mistrust of law enforcement. The six primary characters (representing the five boroughs as well as one individual representing the whole of New York City) take on lives of their own even as they come together and find their place in the synergy of a whole.
I will admit that I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I’ve enjoyed the Inheritance and Broken Earth trilogies, but it’s only the first book of a series that I certainly still enjoyed enough to read what’s still to come.

The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham by Brian Keene & Nick Mamatas

Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas answer a question no one ever thought to ask with The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham. What if Hunter S. Thompson, instead of joining the campaign trail during the 1972 presidential primaries, traveled to the fictional town of Arkham, MA, where he experienced the horrors H.P. Lovecraft described in his writing?
I’m honestly a bit sad that I didn’t know about this book when it was originally released ten years ago. The cover art for that edition is definitely superior and so perfectly captures the blend of cosmic horror and gonzo journalism one is destined to find if they crack the spine and open this book. When I say they’ve perfectly captured this blend of otherwise disparate things, I’m not joking. The Thompson pastiche doesn’t come across as being satirical or heavy-handed. As someone who’s read essentially everything Thompson had published, the style is unmistakable…and these two authors nailed it, including the unrelenting disdain for Nixon. I’ve never read any other work from Mamatas, though I’ve always sort of intended to (it just falls by the wayside). but I’ve enjoyed a good number of Keene’s books in the past, and nothing from his other work mimicked the style and texture of another author in this way.
Feeling as if he’s going to be crushed under the weight of both snow and an endless barrage of unwanted fan letters, our eminently unreliable narrator determines that he needs to escape from his Colorado compound. He can’t go West. That’s where all of this awfulness began. Instead, he chooses to go all the way in the opposite direction. Looking at the map on the bus station wall, he picks Arkham as his destination. A short while later, he’s waiting for the bus to arrive as an ethereal tentacle caresses his leg….and you can sort of guess where it goes from there.
The biggest difference between this fictionalized version of Hunter S. Thompson and the traditional Lovecraft narrators is the capacity to take in stride things that should drive any sane man mad. The moral of the story is that when you’re never quite sure that a thing you’re seeing isn’t just another hallucinatory episode brought on by the surplus of illicit substances you’ve carried with you, it’s far easier to cope with unearthly horrors. In that sense, it could be argued that there would be no better guide into the realm of eldritch horrors. It could be argued that a man with Thompson’s psychology is uniquely suited to document this descent into the unknown.
This is an odd book in so many ways, but it’s equal parts amusing and horrifying; it’s disturbing in both its depiction of cosmic horrors and the antisocial, drug-addled mind of our protagonist.

Thoughts On American Polarization

We are polarized.
Our culture is playing a high-stakes game of tug-of-war with the Overton Window and the view through that window in America has been growing progressively more right-leaning and red over the years. The talking heads fanning flames of fear will tell you that America is being consumed from within by “communists” and “socialists” whenever there’s even a tiny concession made concerning basic human rights or the recognition that homosexuals, transgender people, women, or any sort of minority group haven’t been receiving a fair shake. The reality is that we’re nowhere near moving left in this country. Even the Democrats tend to disregard the most left-leaning members of their party.
In large part, this is due to Democrats not being progressive enough in their policies and largely being unwilling to play the same rhetorical shell game with facts and truth that the other side has become expert at playing. There’s an unwillingness to think big or take big risks within the bulk of the Democratic Party whereas the Republicans have no problem with lining up behind a man who represented the worst extremes of right-wing politics in America because they assumed that it would get them just a little bit closer to their ideal positions of power and authority. The most progressive members of the Democratic Party, on the other hand, have to fight tooth-and-nail to receive even marginal representation when it comes to matters of policy. There’s a bit of simpering cowardice and a lack of boldness within the bulk of the Democratic establishment, and it’s been that way for decades.
So yes, we are indeed polarized in several key aspects. That’s a hard truth of American politics. It does present a challenge.
The worst part about it all is that we’re not quite as polarized as it superficially might seem.
There are a lot of points where individuals on the left and those on the right are in total agreement. The focus is never on those things in our political discourse, especially through media of all kinds (whether we’re talking about mainstream media–and that does include Fox and OAN, though I see a lot of people trying to pretend otherwise–or social media). This division is cultivated by keeping people on the left appearing as crazy socialists to those on the right and the folks on the right appearing to be mentally deficient bigots in the eyes of the people on the left. These descriptors are certainly true of some individuals, but they aren’t representative of the bulk of either group.
This is going to devolve into a rambling diatribe, I’m sure. I know myself well enough to see that on the near horizon. I apologize for that being the case. I can only hope you’re able to keep up with me along the way.
I do lean Socialist in my political views. It can easily be inferred that I’m pretty far left of the Democratic Party (as a whole). I don’t dispute this at all. This is not to say that I think the Federal Government should become a nanny state or that I feel like D.C. should be the focal point of a new religion.
I’m not a nationalist, after all.
I believe the role of the US government is to serve the best interests of the American people. That’s it. That’s the sole purpose of it. Politicians are our servants, meant to act in our best interests. This is not what is happening.
What we see today, from the vast majority of our political figures, is a government acting in the interest of those who fund their reelection campaigns and provide them with hand-outs. They’ll toss some superficially pleasing and inoffensive concessions our way once in a while, as long as it doesn’t cost them too much by way of campaign funding…but that’s about all we get for the price of admission we pay by voting and participating in the democratic process.
This is not the way it’s supposed to be working.
We all know it’s wrong…right and left, center and fringe.
The only people who don’t seem to know it’s wrong are the ones directly benefitting from the oligarchy we’ve allowed to grow within our nation like an unchecked tumor.
This is not being written for the people who subscribed to the QAnon conspiracy. There’s no getting through to you if you believe Donald Trump was the literal savior of America (or the world). You’re too far gone for me to have any hope of reaching you. This is not for the militant leftists who somehow believe that we’re going to overthrow the American neo-fascist government and usher in a utopia of communal living and worker-owned industry overnight. Though people in those aforementioned groups still recognize that things are wrong with the political arena in America, they’re choosing to cling to fantasies and wish-fulfillment rather than reality. That’s a whole different conversation for a different day.
It’s also a conversation I don’t care to have.
Most of us aren’t bigots. Or should I say that all of us are bigots, just not quite the way the term gets tossed around?
I know that’s difficult for some people on the left and the right to acknowledge…but it’s true.
No, most people aren’t homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, or religiously intolerant beyond a tiny extent.
That tiny bit of bigotry…well…we all have it. We’re all ignorant, some more than others. We’re all biased in different ways, larger and smaller. We’ll never find any sort of resolution as a society if we can’t come to terms with the fact that we are all wildly imperfect.
The only thing we can do is come together. The more we meet new people and interact with others who aren’t like us, the greater the chance that we can overcome those cultural biases deep within our psychologies. I’m no less guilty of this than anyone reading these words.
For most of us, our biases are minimal…though no less problematic. These things can be overcome. I honestly do have this much faith in my fellow human beings. I’ll admit that I could be overly optimistic here, but I believe most of us are better than a lot of us think we are.
This is not to say that systemic racism is not a real thing.
It is.
This is not to say that there is a profound undercurrent of homophobia and transphobia within large segments of the population.
There absolutely is.
This is not to say that sexism in America (and a whole lot of the world) is not a real cause for concern.
It most assuredly is.
There are, without question, awful people out there who believe terrible things about other people based on either their ignorance or contempt.
If we take the time to try and explain things to others without frustration and impatience, maybe we can come to better terms with one another. We might even be able to get through to some of the people who otherwise seem irredeemable.
We need to come together, sooner rather than later. If we can’t figure out how to do this, we’re going to continue being ground beneath the treads of those who benefit the most from us being at one another’s throats. Until we stand together, we’ll continue to find ourselves crushed, consumed, and disposed of.
We all see money being squandered on ridiculous corporate bail-outs while the middle class disappears below a rising poverty line. It’s fair to say that almost no one, regardless of party affiliation, sees something like that and agrees that it’s something good or right. We’ve been seeing it in D.C. a great deal since the pandemic started in early 2020. There was no hesitation when it came to bailing out Wall Street and corporations where the CEOs and board members had been seeing massive rises in profit while the employees receive barely subsistence wages. Money that was earmarked for small businesses, to keep them afloat during these troubling times ended up being approved as loans for companies that needed no assistance. People who were without work had unemployment benefits stripped away before anything had been done to improve their odds of returning to work. Politicians in Congress nickeled and dimed the actual voting population, trying to figure out just how little they could offer while still appearing to care just a little bit. And then, only a few short months later, they were doing the same thing all over again. They happily approved money for the people and corporate entities who fund their campaigns but decried payments (beyond a pittance) sent directly to people as socialism. We saw the same thing back in the recession more than a decade ago as well. We tossed money at banks and corporate entities while we allowed people to be swallowed up by debt and poverty.
We see these things happening while infrastructure around the country fails. Bridges and roads are maintained poorly, utility networks are neglected so that the providers can obtain record profits, some of those profits sure to be funneled into the coffers of the politicians who turned a blind eye or actively aided in deregulation under the guise of honoring the free market. Most of us see through these infantile rationalizations, but they succeed in these selfish grifts by counting on the polarization of our political climate to guarantee their base will still support them.
We squander countless billions of dollars on corporate welfare, regime-changing conflicts, and a war on drugs that has been a transparent failure since the beginning. All the while we’re told that it’s too costly to divert mere fractions of that money to programs that would improve the overall quality of life for American citizens…programs like universal healthcare or free access to higher education and trade school. We’re told that this is “socialism” and that we can’t afford it, while the rest of the civilized world succeeds in doing these things without becoming the socialist dystopias American politicians and media talking heads insist we would become. We’re told to worry about higher taxes when most of us are already paying more for insurance premiums and deductibles than we’d ever end up paying in increased taxes. We’re told that we should selfishly refuse to spend our money on someone else’s medical costs, even though that is precisely what our insurance premiums are for. The insurance companies don’t pay those bills out of some endless surplus of funds they generate for themselves, they utilize the money you and I are paying and divert that money to the medical costs of other individuals with the same insurance provider.
We’re told that raising the minimum wage in proportion with the cost of living (rate of inflation) and the degree of productivity will raise costs (creating a cascade effect of ever-increasing inflation rates) and force businesses to close their doors…but both of those things have been happening for decades while the living wage has remained stagnant. Some of these fears could be offset if we introduced universal healthcare, as employers would not have to dedicate funds to insurance companies for their co-pay portions.
We’re told that we should find nobility in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, often by individuals who come from families who passed wealth down generation by generation in the form of land ownership, business partnerships, or literal wealth. We’re told that America is a land of equal opportunity by these same people after generations of dominion have allowed their particular class to largely rig the game in their favor. As an individual who descended from a family who took advantage of the Homesteader Act back in the day. I’m familiar with the myth of Manifest Destiny. Those early Westward traveling settlers were handed parcels of land by a government that didn’t own the land in the first place…all for nothing more than working the land and making lives for themselves.
What is being given to us for our labor these days?
Insufficient wages, insurance that denies our claims when we need them most (while we make the higher-ups at these insurance companies sufficient money that they can buy politicians), and the sense of being beaten down beneath the feet of those who use our labor to elevate themselves?
Whether we want to admit it or not. We have these things in common. I have a decent job, as far as wages are concerned when compared to the difficulty. My insurance is pretty decent and not particularly expensive. There are plenty of us in this position.
For every one of us, there’s someone miserable where they are, and that misery is being compounded by the exploitation of the people they work for. It’s easy to claim they should just leave those jobs to find something else.
When are they supposed to find the time to look for new work while they’re still working the job they wish they could get away from?
What happens to them if they become ill while they’re between jobs?
What if the benefits aren’t as good but the pay is better?
These are concerns that could be entirely eradicated with something as simple as universal healthcare being in place. With guaranteed higher education or trade school, it provides the worker with better leverage as well.
Alright.
Fuck it.
I’ve babbled more than enough. I’ve probably lost the thread somewhere along the way…but I hope you’re able to follow along to some extent.

Broken Nails by Susan Snyder

The first thing I will say about Susan Snyder’s Broken Nails is that it is far too short. You’re reading–and often re-reading–the poems, getting drawn into the almost nightmarish world she’s assembling with her words…and then it’s the end.
It’s over.
You’re not ready for it to be over just yet.
As painful and raw as the experience was, you sort of want to continue exploring Susan’s interior. She’s ripped herself open for you and left herself exposed, but then it stops.
This poetry collection is separated into three sections, each with a certain overarching theme. The second section, Reflection, was my personal favorite. It was also the most horrific in a number of ways. It’s sincerely a little bit painful as you allow the poet to paint you a portrait of a life that’s included no small amount of suffering.
This is not poetry for those who are looking for flowery nonsense. This is poetry that examines topics like murder, sexual assault, suicide, and Satanism…and if you’re interested in that, dive right in.

Freaky (2020)

Freaky succeeds in being the perfect response to the Wheel of Fortune before-and-after puzzle, “Freaky Friday the 13th.” My personal favorite before-and-after remains my brother’s “Zyklon Bea Arthur,” but that would make for a far less interesting movie when you think about it. That’s neither here nor there.
If you enjoyed Happy Death Day, The Hunt, and other Blumhouse productions with a horror/comedy bent…there’s nothing disappointing about this one. A mousy, grieving high-school girl swaps bodies with a notorious local serial killer after he fails to kill her with an ancient sacrificial dagger. I mean, what could be wrong about that?
In a strange sense, it’s a coming-of-age tale about mourning and family…only with self-aware stereotypes and meta commentary on the usual slasher tropes. There are some interesting and gruesome kills throughout the movie, beginning with a play on my favorite kill from a slasher movie prior to this one, which was the wine bottle scene from Sorority Row (the 2009 remake of 1982’s House On Sorority Row).
Vince Vaugh was spectacular as both the killer and as the high-school girl trapped in an adult man’s body. Seriously, it’s the best performance I’ve seen from him. Kathryn Newton was pretty impressive as well, transitioning from being a virtually invisible teenage girl to being a bloodthirsty murderer in a young woman’s body.
As much as I enjoyed this one, I will say that it doesn’t tread any new ground and there’s nothing particularly surprising about it (beyond the quality of the performances and the graphic nature of some of the kills). It’s a fun movie for the sake of being a fun movie.

Ark by Veronica Roth: Narrated by Evan Rachel Wood

Veronica Roth’s Ark, her contribution to the Forward collection, is perhaps the most emotive and well-developed character study of the things I’ve read from her. I enjoyed the Divergent series as an adult, enough so that I was disappointed the movies never completed the story even as the movie adaptations managed to disappoint in the liberties taken with the narrative. In only a small handful of pages (under two hours of audiobook), Roth succeeded in capturing a particularly satisfying, somber snapshot of the world weeks away from an unavoidable apocalypse.

As an asteroid approaches the planet, sure to make it uninhabitable for humanity, we join Samantha and a small group of orphan scientists in Svalbard, Norway where they are cataloging and collecting biological samples of as much plant life as can be salvaged. A similar project is simultaneously taking place in Australia, focused on animal life. These small pockets of humanity are all that remain on an evacuated Earth. The rest of the human population had already left aboard generation ships, while those dedicated to the flora and fauna catalog risk everything by remaining until only a matter of a few weeks until impact. As the time approaches to say goodbye, we manage to feel some small amount of the desolation and loss through the quality of Roth’s storytelling.

Evan Rachel Wood’s narration is spectacular. Her voice easily capturing the interwoven tone of sadness and hope of this short tale. I’d honestly love to hear her narrating more audiobooks. She’s got a terrific range and capacity to bring characters to life.

Corruption and Hypocrisy In South Dakota: or Great Faces, Rigged Cases

As could have been predicted, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg gets a pass for what should have been a clear-cut case of unintentional vehicular manslaughter (at the very least). After Ravnsborg killed a man in September, while driving distracted (clearly accurate based on the misdemeanors he was charged with), the Hyde County Deputy State’s Attorney finally announced that this asshole is facing a whopping three misdemeanor charges; using a mobile electronic device, driving in the wrong lane, and careless driving. Ravnsborg was supposedly sober at the time of the accident…based on an alcohol test performed 15 hours after the incident.

This man hit another human being with his car (while he clearly wasn’t paying any attention), called 911 to claim he believed he hit a deer, and went home to sleep…while another human being never made it home at all. Supposedly, if you believe the story released in Ravnsborg’s statement after he’d gotten a couple of good nights of sleep, the Sheriff had arrived and checked out the damage to Ravnsborg’s vehicle and sent him home. They claimed that they had both looked for the deer while somehow entirely missing the dying (or already dead) man in the ditch next to the scene of the accident. If that’s true–and I don’t believe it is–the Sheriff probably has no business being a Sheriff at all…he has even less business keeping his job if the story is a fabrication. The Sheriff was so kind that he even allowed Ravnsborg to borrow his own vehicle while the damaged vehicle was towed away.

None of this should really surprise anyone familiar with politics in South Dakota. This isn’t even all that dissimilar from an incident involving former Governor Bill Janklow back in 2004.

Even with eyes all over the state and the surrounding states closely watching this case and waiting to see the result of the investigation, there’s so much rampant corruption that this was almost a foregone conclusion.

Welcome to South Dakota, where accountability only exists if you’re poor or uninvolved with politics.

Hunter by Mercedes Lackey: Narrated by Amy Landon

Mercedes Lackey’s Hunter is the beginning of a trilogy that starts off feeling like it’s got a fair amount in common with a some of the more popular post-apocalyptic YA series; books written by Marie Lu, James Dashner, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and others. Though this novel does slip away from that feeling of being geared toward a young adult audience as it progresses, that feeling never quite dissipates altogether.

Lackey does manage to set herself apart from those other authors by deviating from the trend of dystopian science fiction and instead embedding within her post-apocalyptic America a dark fantasy environment that fans of her other books will recognize as being where she truly excels. My first experiences with Mercedes Lackey were thrilling, slow burn, dark fantasy standalone novels and series. She truly plays to her strengths with this first installment of the Hunter trilogy, and it pushes her into a whole different ballpark from those contemporary post-apocalyptic authors I’d mentioned previously.

We follow Joyeaux Charmand as she leaves the comfort and relative peace of her mountain enclave where she has trained to be a hunter, an individual capable of magic and the ability to summon “hounds” from another realm in order to combat a veritable plethora of monsters and creatures collectively referred to as “Othersiders” throughout the story. Borrowing from folklore from any and all cultures around the world, Lackey populates this version of America with creatures that may be familiar to some and unfamiliar to others (depending on your own cultural heritage or exposure to others). Joyeaux (Joy) is called to Apex, a massive, protected city on the East Coast where anyone with the skills to be a hunter are supposed to be sent for the purpose of training and employment by what is a strange military government.

It was after Joy arrived in Apex that I began to see strong correlations with The Hunger Games books, in that these hunters are treated as celebrities and forced to perform for cameras that are constantly monitoring them. That’s where the similarities disappear.

There is action, ample supernatural and fantasy elements, some horror, a bit of romance, a decent bit of intrigue and political thriller mixed into the narrative, and a great deal of character development. As an introduction to a trilogy, Lackey spends a great deal of time on the world-building, and she does an excellent job.

As I had picked this up as an audiobook, I feel it is worth noting that the narration captures Joy’s simpler perspective and relative (though not overwhelming) naiveté to a degree I found impressive. The voices are largely distinct and easily discernible as separate characters.