“Upgrade” by Blake Crouch – Review

By: Angie Haddock


At first, Logan Ramsay isn’t sure if anything’s different.

The truth is, Logan’s genome has been hacked. And there’s a reason he’s been targeted for this upgrade. A reason that goes back decades to the darkest part of his past, and a horrific family legacy.

Goodreads


Ready for some sci-fi action?

I know nothing about DNA and genetic hacking beyond the basics we all learned watching the first “Jurassic Park” movie (shout out to Jeff Goldblum, just because). But this one was still a fun ride, and I think the author explains it just enough to keep you following the story.

The story takes place in the mid twenty-first century, so only a few decades from now. Logan’s mother used to be a leading geneticist, and she used her knowledge to try to stop a crop failure in China… but it all went awry, and billions died. Since then, genetic modifications have been outlawed. Logan Ramsay, our main character, works for the GPA – Gene Protection Agency – which watches out for any potential genetic work being done “under the radar.”

Needless to say, there are definitely still scientists working on genetic modifications. And there are still consumers interested in buying their work for various reasons.

What Logan doesn’t anticipate is that his own mother, who supposedly died years ago, is still alive and still working on an intense set of modifications… to humans. After he is unwittingly modified, he finds out that his older sister was also given this same “upgrade.” They find their mother’s suicide note (video, in this case), and learn that she wants to enhance humanity’s intelligence so that humans have a shot at stopping climate change before it’s too late.

His sister, Kara, sides with their mother. Logan does not. Seeing as they are both enhanced – both mentally and physically – this sets the scene for some hard-fought battles.

In addition to all the action, there are various ethical questions at play. There is the obvious one of free will, and people being modified who didn’t necessarily want to. But also, the modifications don’t work on some people, and instead they become ill. So, how many people’s deaths are an acceptable amount of “collateral damage?” And do humans really need more intelligence, or do they need more empathy?

Find the answers for yourself, as “Upgrade” hits shelves today, July 12th. I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley.


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“The Paradox Hotel” by Rob Hart – Review

By: Angie Haddock


For someone with January Cole’s background, running security at a fancy hotel shouldn’t be much of a challenge. Except the Paradox is no ordinary hotel. Here, the ultra-wealthy guests are costumed for a dozen different time periods, all anxiously waiting to catch their “flights” to the past. And proximity to the timeport makes for an interesting stay. The clocks run backwards on occasion—and, rumor has it, ghosts stroll the halls.

A locked-room murder mystery set at a hotel for time travelers—in which a detective must solve an impossible crime even as her own sanity crumbles.

Goodreads


One of my (many) book email lists mentioned that the publisher of this one, Random House, was auto-approving all requests for it on NetGalley. Even though I had some other things on the docket, I thought I was due for some sci-fi – admittedly one of my favorite genres. So, on a lark, I added it to my list.

It was slow-going at first. Like with many books in this genre, it took a while for me to familiarize myself with the world that exists in The Paradox Hotel. But once I got going, I read huge chunks at a time, often needing to keep turning more pages!

The story takes place in our near-ish future, in the northern United States (seemingly upstate New York), in a time when time travel is a common vacation activity. The Paradox Hotel sits near Einstein, which is the machine/portal used for time travel. People who use time travel for recreation are often the ultra-rich, so that’s who the hotel mostly caters to.

Einstein, for obvious (don’t eff up the timeline) reasons, is controlled by the government. But, being in debt, they’re currently looking to privatize it. There are four billionaire-types coming to the hotel to bid for it, and a snowstorm raging outside. All the makings of a classic locked room scenario.

January Cole used to work at Einstein, as a sort of “time cop” who jumped into the timestream to stop people from doing crazy things (like killing Hitler, the usual). People who time travel too much, though, become “unstuck,” and start having episodes where they see things that happened in the past – or in the future. Having reached level one of being unstuck, Cole was reassigned to be the head of security at the nearby Parodox.

So, as the guests arrive, Cole is put on the spot to make sure things are all up to their high security standards. But there’s a dead body that only she can see – leading her to believe the murder hasn’t happened yet? – and problems with the internal security camera footage, in which large portions of data seem to have been erased.

The story, like so many involving time travel, gets twisty and weird. And sometimes philosophical. There is a lot of action, small incidents that add up to bigger issues, clues left along the way, and three dinosaurs on the loose inside the hotel. And all the while, Cole’s mental state is deteriorating, leading us to wonder how much of any of it is even real.

But aside from the actual story, the atmosphere of the hotel plays an important part in this book. There’s an element of “we’re all in this together” that seems relevant to the times we live in – the lower class hotel staff often being pushed around by their wealthy customers inspires them to stick up for one another on multiple occasions. The staff like to think of themselves as an extended family, and they are certainly a motley crew.

The colorful characters are part of the charm, I’d say. But I also did like the story, even though it was complicated at times. If you’re the type of person who could get through “Inception,” for example, I think you’d enjoy this story. If movies or books similar to that give you a headache, this one might not be for you.

This twisty sci-fi action adventure comes out today, February 22nd, 2022.


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The LitenVerse by Nino Cipri – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When an elderly customer at a big box furniture store slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but our two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

-“Finna,” on Goodreads

To test his commitment to the job, Derek is assigned to a special inventory shift, hunting through the store to find defective products. Toy chests with pincers and eye stalks, ambulatory sleeper sofas, killer mutant toilets, that kind of thing. Helping him is the inventory team — four strangers who look and sound almost exactly like him. Are five Dereks better than one?

-“Defekt,” on Goodreads


This is actually a series of two (so far) novellas, “Finna” and “Defekt.” They both take place in the same root location, which is a fictionalized/surrealist version of Ikea. Specifically, these stories take place at a store – LitenVarld – outside of Chicago. They also take place on overlapping days. But we’ll get to that…

“Finna” was released in 2020, and centers on Ava and Jules. Ava, much like the famous line from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” “wasn’t even supposed to be here today.” She had arranged her schedule specifically to avoid seeing her recent ex, Jules, at work. But, a character we don’t meet in this book named Derek has called out, and so Ava heads through the cold MidWestern February to do a job she hates.

A customer comes to the service desk saying she can’t find her grandma, and Ava inexplicably feels for the young lady. Then things get weirder, as she learns that it is not entirely uncommon for wormholes (maskhals) to open in LitenVarld. It happens frequently enough that there are policies in place – and Ava, as the employee with the least seniority, has to go into the wormhole to find the missing grandma. Unfortunately for her, Jules volunteers to go with her.

The two go into various parallel universes looking for the missing grandma. In some, they are in different versions of the store. But they also find themselves in a jungle, and in the water. They encounter threats from other beings, as well as from things that should be inanimate objects (in our own universe, at least).

I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say… different people return than the ones who went in.

“Defekt” allows us to finally meet Derek, and we even learn why he called out on the day Ava came in for him. He spends most of his day off asleep, but then comes back to work the next day – the day after the wormholes had opened – to find a whole new slew of issues at the store.

Specifically, a specialized team has been called in to eliminate defective merchandise – furniture that has come alive – and Derek is chosen to work with them. What’s even crazier is that everyone on the team is a different version of Derek. Are they clones? Is he manufactured to be a “company man?”

Both stories explore the ideas of belonging, finding your “people,” and sacrificing your life – or deciding NOT to sacrifice your life – to your job. Overall, it’s a zany surrealist satire that does not hold back on its disdain for minimum wage corporate jobs that demand assimilation to the corporate culture.


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“The Watchers: The Tomb” by Carl Novakovich – Review

By: Angie Haddock


John Gideon, a former homicide detective turned P.I., has dug too deep and discovered the truth about the world while searching for the only family he has left. John and his new partner, Beth May – a spell-wielding demon who has turned her back on Hell – are humanity’s last hope to stop a collective of Fallen Angels known as The Watchers and a hierarchy of demons from breaking the first of the Seven Seals of Revelation.

-Goodreads


This was a quick and easy-to-read romp through an alternate version of current day Chicago – a version that includes a few demons and fallen angels, and the havoc that they can create.

Chicago P.D. detective John and his partner, Walter, are initially working on a missing persons case. There are a bunch of them from the past few years, and they have something in common – the missing person seems to have little to no history. So, finding leads has been hard. They finally catch a break, and bring in a suspect linked to one of the victims – but then Walter starts acting funny. Before that night is through, both Walter and the suspect are nowhere to be found.

John quits the force, and opens his own private investigation firm. But it’s mostly an excuse for him to spend all his time looking for Walter. A friend who still works at the P.D. gives him a lead that allows John to find the missing suspect again. He ends up finding a lot more, including people who seem to wield inhuman/magical powers.

Enter Beth, who has secretly been keeping an eye on John for years. She is actually over 100 years old, and first started protecting the city with the help of John’s great-great-great grandfather. His family line is important to protecting the demons from unleashing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are imprisoned underneath a city water pumping station.

The POV shifts around within the book, which I found a bit odd. But, not hard to follow. The action is quick and keeps the story moving at a good pace.

This book is the start of a series, which the author intends to eventually be seven books long. He independently published this one in January, and then re-released it with Next Chapter Publishing in September. Currently, he is writing the third book while the second one is being edited.

You can find this book on Amazon, in both digital and paperback.


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“Dawn” by Octavia E. Butler – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before.

Goodreads


I read this with my online book club, as our last selection for our #DiverseSFF reads. I couldn’t let a whole six months go by without tackling some Octavia Butler – and I had never read her, myself! She is considered by many to be the mother of afrofuturism – or, black authors writing black and African stories and main characters in science fiction.

This one was not one of her earliest, although it is the first book of a trilogy. It was first published in the late 80s, and members of my group saw similarities to Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” series. I also thought it reminded me of the TV series LOST at some points. So, it’s probably safe to say that it influenced various things that came after it.

The story begins with Lilith waking up alone in a room. She goes through this scenario multiple times, with slightly different results. She has captors, who she can talk to, but she can’t see them initially. At one point, she is given a companion for a short period. She always ends up being put back to sleep, and being awakened again.

In the next portion of the book, Lilith finally gets to meet her captors – the Oankali. Earth was ravaged by a large scale war, and these interstellar travelers have taken many survivors onto their ship while working on rehabilitating the planet. While the humans have been in stasis, the Oankali have been studying their genetic code. Their species trades in this information, and has survived by integrating bits of other genetic code with their own – and vice versa. They tell Lilith that she had a genetic predisposition to cancer, which they have cured for her. While she eventually learns to communicate and live with them, she never fully trusts them – and sometimes thinks they did other experiments on her.

While she is living among the Oankali, Lilith learns that she has been chosen to train a group of humans to return to Earth. She does not want this position, but has no choice in the matter. And, of course, she does want to return to Earth herself. So, she learns what she is supposed to do.

In the next part of the book, she starts awakening other humans, and trying to teach them what they need to know to return to Earth. They don’t trust her, thinking she is too tight with their captors. The humans fight and break into factions – and it’s at this point that I start feeling the LOST vibes.

Those carry over into the last part, where the humans inevitably have to fend for themselves in a jungle environment to prove that they’re ready to go back to a wild and uncolonized version of Earth.

So, I’ve mentioned a lot of the major plot points here without going into the interior struggles and ethical debates that these events bring up. And those are really the things that make you think, even after you set the book down.

One of the key ideas that my fellow readers latched on to was the idea of consent… Lilith and her fellow humans are entering into a relationship with the Oankali in which they will be expected to trade their own genetic code. And, in reality, the Oankali have already taken it. So, how much agency do these humans have over what happens next? The Oankali think of themselves as saviors more than captors – the Earth was rendered inhabitable, after all. But the humans pretty much have to play by their rules if they ever want to see Earth again.

These are just a few of the concepts that are ripe for debate within this story. At roughly 250 pages, it’s succinct and effective. If you are a fan of science fiction, you will probably find a lot here to chew on.


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“The Black God’s Drums” by P. Djèlí Clark – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Creeper, a scrappy young teen, is done living on the streets of New Orleans. Instead, she wants to soar, and her sights are set on securing passage aboard the smuggler airship Midnight Robber. Her ticket: earning Captain Ann-Marie’s trust using a secret about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

Goodreads


This one was my group’s #DiverseSFF pick for May. After many struggled with “The Brothers Jetstream,” we opted for something short for the next month – this one came in at 111 pages in paperback, or 3 hours 4 minutes on audiobook (I did the audiobook).

This was a fun romp set in an alternate-history version of New Orleans. In this story, the Civil War did not end in the rejoining of the United States, and there continues to be both a Union and Confederacy. However, New Orleans is a free port, where both sovreignties – and many from throughout the Caribbean – can come and go to enact trade. This feels fair for New Orleans, as they tend to consider themselves, culturally, their “own thing.”

One of the things that intrigued me about this one is that I would put it in the realm of steampunk, which I had never delved into before! There are airships, and Captain Ann-Marie has a mechanical leg.

Another fun aspect is that there is a mixture of religious and cultural beliefs that are woven through the story. (Again, totally fair for the ethnic diversity found in real New Orleans.) The main characters believe in orisha, which are a pantheon of gods and goddesses brought from African tribes to the New World. Our two main characters, Creeper and Ann-Marie, are imbued with special characteristics of two, Oya and Oshun.

And yet, they rely on some Catholic nuns for information.

Another interesting aspect in here is that The Black God’s Drums are actually an invention that allows the user to manipulate the weather. I know that in steampunk, we’re dealing with some theoretical contraptions, but this whole idea made me think of the current debate on geoengineering.

Overall, this was a fun, quick romp through a very diverse and lush alternate version of an already diverse and lush city. If you’re interested in mixing old traditions with outlandish science fiction inventions, you would definitely enjoy it.


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“The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan” by Zig Zag Claybourne – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Saving the world one last damn time. When the Brothers Jetstream and their crew seize the chance to rid the world of the False Prophet Buford other evils decide they want a piece of him too. A wild race ensues to not only destroy Satan’s PR man…but make sure no one else gets to him first. Mystic brothers. Secret cabals. Fae folk in Walmart — and the whale that was poured into the oceans when the world first cooled from creation. Adventure doesn’t need a new name. It needs a vacation.

Goodreads


This was the April selection for my group #DiverseSFF read, and… I think I was the only person to actually finish it.

I really wanted to like this one – and at some points, I did. But I admittedly had to push myself to stay with it at times.

The first thing that stood out was the language. The book has its own rhythm, or way of speaking. It’s not just that the characters speak in this rhythm, in the dialogue, but the entirety of the book is written in it. At first, it was fun and different. But after a while, it wore on me. This could very well just be my own mental state – I wasn’t feeling it as much as I thought I would.

(I think the author is hilarious on Twitter, but maybe the patois is more entertaining in shorter doses.)

Most of my fellow readers, however, seemed to struggle with the story. We jump right into the characters and action without much explanation. While this can be a challenge, we’ve dealt with this before (most recently, in “The City We Became“). Because the characters talk fast, and throw in all sorts of references to other things that have happened, it can be difficult to mentally tie all the things together. However, as I stuck with the story, and got more acquainted with the characters, this mostly resolved itself. Even if I didn’t have the clearest picture of what happened before, I was now tracking the most recent events – the ones within the book – and had a full picture of those. So I didn’t let it weigh me down. And, around the half way mark, they finally offer some exposition!

The story involves a diverse crew of “Agents of Change” who are trying to stop a big baddy named Buford, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of one of their crewmates. The action takes them to Atlantis, which is a real place.

Our main characters are the Brothers Jetstream of the title: Milo and Ramses. We also meet characters who are immortal (or close), vampires, Atlantideans, clones; people who can teleport, who can jump into different realities, who can communicate telepathically, and who can communicate with creatures of the sea.

To that end, we meet Leviathan about a quarter into the book. He is an ancient beast who lives in the Atlantic and is massive in both size and psychic ability. At this point, he appears pretty briefly, but he comes back for the final battle later.

I would call this fantasy – maybe even urban fantasy? – more than sci-fi. The action takes place on Earth, present day, but involves a lot of creatures and concepts that are generally thought to be fictitious (like the city of Atlantis, or vampires). There are some fun bits here and there – good lines of dialogue, colorful characters. As I said, I did like it in parts. But overall, it felt like it was trying to throw too many things at you at once.


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“Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

Goodreads


This is the third official full-length novel from Andy Weir, who is mostly known for having written “The Martian.” (Even if you didn’t read that one, you may have seen the Matt Damon movie version.)

If you’re familiar with Weir’s other works, you will find this to fit right in. It’s heavy on science (and math), and comes in just under 500 pages. It also focuses on a character who needs grit and ingenuity to survive his circumstances, and it’s full of humorous asides.

The actual plot is entirely different than that of “The Martian” or “Artemis,” obviously, but how much can I tell you without being spoiler-y?

The story goes back and forth between what Grace is doing on his spaceship, the Hail Mary, and what happened on Earth before the ship’s launch. In these flashbacks, both Grace and the audience learn what his mission is, and why he’s involved.

That second part turns out to be a bigger deal than you’d think. More on that later.

We learn that our sun is being attacked by a small organism that humans name “Astrophage.” It’s reducing the sun’s energy/light output, which puts Earth on track for catastrophe in approximately 26 years. (Even a slight reduction in the Earth’s temperature will cause crop failures in some areas, leading to collapses of food chains and extinction of various species. It’s like current discussions of climate change, except with everything getting colder.)

Grace is a junior high biology teacher. So how does he end up on a space mission? We learn first how he got involved in researching astrophage, which makes slightly more sense. As the preparations ramp up for figuring out how to deal with the astrophage problem, Grace stays with the team determining what to do next. At this point, he knows more about astrophage than anyone else, so this still makes sense. We don’t learn how he actually ends up on the ship until we’re 80% through the book, and… it’s a total gut punch.

While this mystery keeps you guessing in the flashbacks, the real joy of the book happens in the segments on the ship. Grace has traveled to another solar system that seems to also have astrophage present, to see what’s happening there and if it can help Earth in any way. He’s been asleep for most of the trip, but now has to find what he’s looking for – once he remembers what that is. This is not as lonely and boring as one might think, but I don’t want to give away what happens. Let’s just say it’s fun, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately pretty awesome.

I am a classic right-brained person who is not great at science-y things, therefore I took this one kind of slowly. I didn’t look up the things he was talking about, to try to understand the science behind it. I know Weir is known for doing a good job with this stuff, overall, despite fictionalizing where needed. I just kicked back and enjoyed the ride. And it’s totally one you can enjoy, if you like science fiction at all.

This is sure to be another blockbuster under Weir’s belt, and it comes out today, May the Fourth. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher, Random House, and Netgalley.

Also, if you’re a fan of Andy Weir, check out this interview on Goodreads.


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“I Hope You Get This Message” by Farah Naz Rishi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When news stations start reporting that Earth has been contacted by a planet named Alma, the world is abuzz with rumors that the alien entity is giving mankind only few days to live before they hit the kill switch on civilization.

Goodreads


This is a fast, fun YA read. The author is Pakistani-American, and I read this in March for my monthly diverse SFF read.

We are introduced to three main characters, and the chapters alternate between focusing on one of the three. Cate Collins, Jesse Hewitt, and Adeem Khan are all in their late teens. Cate hails from San Francisco, and has spent her life caring for her schizophrenic mom. Adeem lives in Carson City, and is more obsessed with his amateur radio hobby than doing his school work – much to his parents’ dismay. Jesse lives in Roswell, where he and his mom are barely scraping by.

Earth translates a signal discovered in space, and learns that a race from another planet – which humans name Alma – is putting humanity on trial, and determining its fate within the next seven days.

Much of the world devolves into chaos after this news sinks in. Looting is rampant, people trying to escape cities cause major traffic jams everywhere, and cell towers stop working.

But within this chaos, many people also start trying to reach estranged family members or other loved ones. Cate’s mom tasks her with finding her father – who never even knew of Cate’s existence. Adeem sets out to find his older sister, who ran away two years ago after coming out to her family and fearing they would not accept her. As tourists flood Roswell, Jesse stays put, and sees this turn of events as a way to make some money off people who are looking for hope.

Jesse’s dad was a failed inventor, and even though he passed away years ago, many of his materials are still gathering dust in their shed. So Jesse builds a “machine” to send messages to Alma. People line up to send messages, and Jesse makes decent money. He thinks he’s lying to people, and ripping them off. But a new kid in town sees it differently, and thinks Jesse is giving people hope, which is the only thing they really need.

Inevitably, these three stories start coming together. (I don’t even consider this a spoiler – by about 20% in, you figure out that they’re all going to end up in Roswell.)

Most of the book deals with the issues these kids are facing, and the interpersonal relationships between them and their families, friends, etc. But there are interstitial bits featuring the aliens, as well. The friends I read this with debated whether this was really “sci-fi,” since it was mostly teen drama. While I agreed that the bulk of the book falls more under that Young Adult scope, I can’t say it’s not sci-fi when there are actual aliens in it. Those parts may be small, but still – aliens.

And I will also argue that most good sci-fi is meant to examine the humans, anyway, right?


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“The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

Goodreads


This was my diverse sci-fi group read selection for the month of February. The book came out last year, and was immediately on my TBR, so I’m glad I finally got around to it!

We jump right into the action, with no explanations. There is a fairly long intro section, and we don’t reconnect with the characters in this section until quite some time later. This really threw me at first, so I went into the rest of this book with a “just go with the flow” attitude.

The action all takes place in New York City, in the current time. So, that helps. Of course, this version of NYC is being attacked by an avatar/being from another plane of existence who wants to take the space over for herself. But, each borough of New York claims its own avatar to fight back.

We spend a decent amount of time being introduced to each avatar, and learning why they are emblematic of the borough they represent. Each one has some encounter that tips them off to the problem going on, and lets them know that they have perceptions and powers in relation to this (that not everyone else has). Then comes the realization that there are others like them, and that they need to find each other and work together.

The avatars are a pretty diverse crowd – Black, Indigenous, South Asian, multiracial – and some are also within the LBGTQ spectrum. Only the avatar of Staten Island is Caucasian, of Irish decent. The female avatars are all feisty and forceful, as well, while one of the male ones doesn’t have any memory of who he is.

As they come together, there are some personality clashes. But the biggest clashes here are with the enemy – who often appears as a white woman, but changes form slightly depending on who she’s appearing to – and the people she has under her influence.

One major clash that really struck a nerve with me was between the staff of the Bronx Art Center (where our Bronx avatar works) and a group of Neo-Nazis who call themselves the “Alt-Artistes.” The group makes art that they deem edgy and provocative, which can be exploitative of women and minorities. Their entire purpose seems to be getting these pieces rejected so they can claim they’re being censored, and flaying the censoring parties on the internet. Under the influence of the enemy, they take this battle into the real world and actually attack the Bronx Art Center, in addition to their online hi-jinks.

Even though this was written over a year ago, this really felt similar to the recent crackdown of the alt-right on Twitter, and discussions around whether or not that constitutes “censorship.” (Like real life, I think it’s sad that it had to tumble over into real world damages before anyone really drew some lines.)

There are many themes in this one that seem equally as current. The tone of the book is often fast, sometimes fun, and sometimes full of anger. The language is one of the most fun aspects to me, but might not suit people who don’t like liberal use of cussing.

I did feel that the ending was a little fast. Overall, though, this was an interesting and often fun read, full of very vibrant characters.


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