Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: October 9 to 21, 2015
Recommended for: fans of sea monsters and snarky prose

Harrison Squared is perfectly autumn and perfectly Halloween, which is why I’m now putting up a short write-up that I wrote awhile ago. Out of season. In spring. Over 2 years after having first read it.

Anyhow, this is another fun read by Daryl Gregory. I’m convinced he can write anything and I hope he does–write everything, I mean–because he’s got a great way with words, well-timed humor, and a way of turning familiar, tired, old tropes into something new and exciting. They’re still tropes, but he makes them fun to read.

This is my 4th Daryl Gregory book (Afterparty, We Are All Completely Fine, Raising Stony Mayhall), and I still find him exciting. It’s still exciting to see his name on the new release list, and I’m still trying to make room in my reading schedule for his latest, Spoonbenders.

Every autumn, I try to plan a vaguely Halloween-themed reading list, but rarely follow through because I’m a mood reader, forever destined to follow whatever the mood calls for. So I pick up whatever that “feels right.” Some years I get lucky and end up with vaguely autumnal books, and other years I get typical YA paranormals (because people keep recommending them). This year, though, I’ve been lucky in my picks. Almost every book picked up from the beginning of October to now goes quite well with Halloween. They all have that quintessential chilling undertone that I always associate with this time of the year, and this book is among the best of them.

In short, I was thinking about this book today and so just wanted to briefly recommend this book to anyone queuing up their autumn reading list. There’s a good blend of creepiness and humor, and the characters and setting are a lot of fun. If fishy dodgy small towns, open water, Lovecraftian sea creatures, and urban legends are any interest to you, I would highly recommend this book.

She looked up at us. “Who are you?”

“I’m Rosa Harrison,” Mom said.

“This is my son, Harrison.”

“And his first name?” She stared at me with tiny black eyes under fanlike eyelashes.

“Harrison,” I said. Sometimes—like now, for example—I regretted that my father’s family had decided that generations of boys would have that double name. Technically, I was Harrison Harrison the Fifth. H2x5 . But that was more information than I ever wanted to explain.

[…]

Dr. Herbert waved. This gesture was made a bit threatening due to the fact that he was holding a scalpel, and the sleeve of his coat was streaked with blood up to the elbow. His uncovered eye blinked wetly at me. “Have you taken biology?” the doctor asked.

“Freshman year,” I said.

“Oh,” the doctor said. He sounded disappointed. Suddenly he brightened. “Have you taken cryptobiology?”

I grinned. “In my family, cryptobiology isn’t a course, it’s dinner conversation.”

“I like this boy!” Dr. Herbert said.

[…]

This was the problem with a small school in a small town. Not only did the students all look like each other, they’d all developed the same nervous tics. It made me wonder about inbreeding. Take off their shoes, and did they have webbed feet? Was the weird-looking fish boy who’d stolen my book just a relative on the more damaged branch of the family tree?

[…]

Oh no, I thought. Physical Education.

And then I realized it was even more horrible than that. The boys began to pull on swim trunks. This wasn’t just PE; it was swimming.

Some of the boys glanced at me. I stood there, holding my backpack, not moving. I was not about to get naked in front of these ignorami. I waited until one by one they made their way out the far exit. When there were just a handful of boys left in the changing room, I went out to the pool.

[…]

I stood up and stifled a yelp. The pale shape coursed toward the edge of the pool at tremendous speed. At the last moment, the water broke, and the creature threw itself onto the deck. It slid a few feet, then threw out its arms and rose up on its belly like a walrus.

It was a man. A bald man, fat and white as a beluga. He smiled. “Who’s ready for laps?”

[…]

“When the supernatural turns out to be real, it’s not super natural anymore—it’s just nature. Yes, it may be strange, uncanny, or frightening. It’s always scary to find out that the world is bigger and more complex than you thought.”

[…]

They were all sure they’d fulfilled their holy duty and that the destruction of the human world was nigh.

Cults. They always thought the glass was half-doomed.

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Review: Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read: March 11 to 26, 2015
Read Count: twice in a year, which is unheard of for me*
Recommended by: Tor
Recommended to: people who like smart sci-fi thrillers

This is one of those rare books I wouldn’t mind if there’s a sequel. Actually, I would love it if there’s a sequel, but currently there’s nothing planned. But how do you know that? you might ask. It’s because I’ve asked and the answer is no. Well, it’s actually “I don’t know yet” which looks promising but it usually means no. “Good news” though, the book has been optioned by HBO. Normally I’m indifferent to book adaptations, but this time I’m sort of interested in what HBO will do with the source material.

I’ve been trying to write about this book for months now, but couldn’t figure out how without giving too much away. So I went back with the intention of skimming it, but ended up plowing through half the book in one sitting. It’s just as good as I remember, maybe even better this time around because I know how the story ends. It’s more than just a good book. It’s unlike any I’ve read in the genre because it’s the kind of book you come to expect from Daryl Gregory if you’ve read him before. He’s one of the few writers today who can spin a fascinating genre-blending tale that plays with tropes while challenging them, and there are so many things he gets right that any story in his hands is sure to be great.

So what is this book about? Kinda hard to sum up, but simply put: it’s a parable set in the not-so-distant future about a road trip, faith, belief, and drugs. A wild combination which makes for a wild ride with lots of action and a great cast of memorable characters, but it’s not all fun and games though. Dark subject matter, such as addiction and PTSD, are explored with some depth throughout the story, but despite the seriousness of these things, the story is a fast and easy read because the writing is in no way preachy or weighed down–it’s actually a lot of fun with quite a few funny moments in between the action. What I like most about the direction Gregory took with this book is it’s never too serious or takes itself too seriously, but the execution is always clear and poignant with just enough ambiguity to leave you thinking about a host of things long after the journey is over.

The story opens with a nameless teenager joining a cult and taking a drug called Numinous which lets her communicate with a higher power–God, or what she imagines as God. It’s an enlightening experience unlike any she’s ever had. God not only listens to her, but he also responds. It’s a relationship, one that quickly becomes addicting. Then she is institutionalized. With her connection to God cut off, she commits suicide. Lyda Rose, one of the original creators of Numinous, is also institutionalized in the same facility. When she hears about Numinous, she suspects someone from her old research group has been illegally distributing the drug again. So she and her girlfriend Ollie break out of the ward to stop the production. The trip takes them from Toronto to New York and all over the US, tracking down the person or people behind Numinous’ untimely resurrection.

A little background: in this not-so-distant future, 3D printers, called chemjets, can print any kind of drug and any combination of drugs you can imagine. In theory, anyone with some knowledge of pharmacology can use these chemjets to whip up a party drug, but in the hands of a group of young mad scientists, chemjets can work miracles. They can create Numinous, a neural pathway-opening dose that lets you commune with deities. It’s addictive and destructive but in the most fulfilling way which is one of the many unexpected side-effects and consequences of Numinous that Lyda Rose and her team didn’t anticipate.

So who is cooking up Numinous again and what are they planning to use it for? The mystery will keep you guessing until the very end as Lyda and Ollie track down members from her old research group for answers.

Another thing I love about this book is the cast of characters, not only Lyda and Ollie but the characters they meet along the way are a lot of fun too. Ollie herself is a former federal agent with strange lethal abilities and questionable knowledge. There’s Bobby the emergency roommate whose soul lives in a plastic toy chest he wears around his neck. There’s Lyda’s former drug dealer, a savvy business man operating on college campuses under a frat-boy disguise. There’s Dr. G, a snarky semi-omnipotent sword-wielding avenging angel that only Lyda can see. Then there are the territorial hijab-wearing pot-dealing grandmothers and their thugs in Toronto. And of course Lyda’s old friends and their deities, all of which are too spoilery to mention in detail.

Everything about this book is a lot of fun, more fun than you’d expect from a story about mind-altering chemicals, religion, and sanity. The writing is especially a lot of fun, as evident here.

There was a scientist who did not believe in gods or fairies or supernatural creatures of any sort. But she had once known an angel, and had talked to her every day.

[…]

A BS in any neuroscience without a master’s or PhD was a three-legged dog of a degree: pitiable, adorable, and capable of inspiring applause when it did anything for you at all.

[…]

Fayza leaned in, squinting, as if she didn’t hear me correctly: one of the library of power moves that adults used to signal that other adults were fucking idiots.

[…]

Love at first sight is a myth, but thundering sexual attraction at first sight is hard science.

[…]

I’ve always been a sucker for the beautiful and the batshit crazy.

 

* I’m going through a reading slump which is nothing new. This happens at the end of every summer. I’ve come to expect it around this time of year, but it feels a little different this year, a little more prolonged. Don’t know why. Maybe it has something with N. K. Jemisin and her Inheritance trilogy, or maybe it’s The Birthgrave. These books were quite good, quite out of this world (literally), and I’m still not quite over them yet since they left me with a sort of brain-scrambling effect that makes it hard to move onto to new worlds with new characters and new adventures. So I went back to an old world and familiar characters. Don’t think they’ll cure my slump, but they got me reading again and that’s a start.

Review: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: August 17 to 18, 2014
Read Count: 2
Recommended by:
Recommended for: fans of subtle horror

So very good. If you’re curious about Daryl Gregory but don’t know where to start, consider this novella. It’s short enough to not waste your time and long enough to give you a good sense of his writing.

This story is much more than the sum of its parts, and its genius lies in the subtle writing and unassuming storytelling style, and it’s one of those stories you should go into knowing as little about it as possible, so as to experience it fully it as it unfolds.

Daryl Gregory would like you to imagine a world very much like our own with one significant difference: supernatural monsters are real and they manifest as symptoms of psychological disorders. Only a select few can see these monsters or know of their existence, and these people are usually victims of uniquely disturbing traumas. Dr. Jan Sayer, a psychiatrist and believer, pulls together 5 individuals with similar experiences for a therapy group hoping that by sharing their stories they can alleviate some of their pain and perhaps make peace with their traumas together. It starts as a series of therapy sessions and then unfolds as a series of events that test the merit and mettle of each character, even the good doctor herself.

We’re different from other people, she’d said. We only feel at home when we’re a little bit afraid.

This is easily one of the best character-driven stories I’ve read in awhile, and the writing is as close to perfect as a mix-genre novella can get.

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* * * * some spoilers below * * * *

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Review: Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: May 04 to 26, 2013
Read count: 2

5 stars upon finishing, but now that I think about it, it’s more like 4 or 4 ½, depending on my current mood of interpretation.

John “Stony” Mayhall is a living dead miracle who defy all odds, logic, laws of physics, our understanding of anatomy and physiology, our sense of “living” and “death,” etc. He lives despite not having that spark of life, he grows despite not having proper bodily functions, and he ages despite time not being a factor that should affect him. And he thinks, not only intelligently, but deeply and ponders questions like, “What is that spark of life?” and “How am I moving and thinking but not really living?” Important questions (for both the living and living dead).

One cold blizzard evening, Wanda Mayhall and her daughters come upon Stony and his birth mother by the side of the road, almost frozen and certainly looking dead. Stony’s mother doesn’t make it, but miraculously he does. The Mayhalls bundle him up and bring him back to their farm and then realize what he is, a zombie baby. He seems almost like any average human newborn, except for his gray skin and inability to eat or sleep. Wanda decides to keep and raise the baby on the farm, instead of informing the authorities.

Stony grows despite all the things mentioned in the above paragraph and learns to live as human. However, there’s always something missing or feels not quite right in his life and he doesn’t realize what it is until he meets other living dead and live among them. Then to his disappointment, he finds out he’s not quite like other zombies either because he was raised by a human family, which brings up that age-old question of nature vs. nurture.

This is mostly a story of a boy coming of age in the late 60s/70s in a time of intense persecution. It’s alternate, yet family history. The War in Vietnam never happens and the Cold War never happens either. Instead the US government is fighting a silent war against an unstoppable viral outbreak that, if spread again, can spread at an alarming rate. The world Stony lives in is a world that traps itself in a police state for fear of another outbreak, and while people comply with zero-zombie-tolerance laws and regulations, there are some who help the living dead as part of a network that runs all across the country.

The zombie virus causes the infected to die a physical death while exhibiting all the classic zombie traits, like a bout of fever, mindlessness, a hunger for human flesh, and a gray skin tone. The infection is passed on through saliva entering the bloodstream. After 48 hours, the infected regain control of themselves and a majority resume whatever state of mind they were in before the infection, though there are a few who never recover. The living dead can die and be killed, but they don’t feel pain or heal themselves. Though no exception to the limitations of zombies, Stony is a special case because he grows and achieves a level of body awareness that’s never been seen before. He comes to understand why “the stick” moves and what actually makes it move.

It’s fun to see Gregory’s interpretation of classic zombie lore and how he develops them further. I’ve always had an appreciation for sci-fi / fantasy writers who can incorporate real-world science into their imaginary worlds. Gregory does it in a believable way. I hope this is where the zombie genre is heading–less mindlessness and flesh-eating; more focus on thoughtfulness, the science of viruses & outbreaks, and zombie physiology.

What keeps this story from a 5-star rating is the unusually huge jumps in time. There are a couple that jump over a decade or so, and that’s just too much time lost (from a reader’s perspective). Other than this one minor thing, I really like the direction in which Gregory takes his zombie story, and I hope he’s planning to write more.

Original review can be found here.