Audiobook Review: Travel by Bullet (The Dispatcher, #3) by John Scalzi

Title: Travel by Bullet
Series: The Dispatcher, #3
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator:  Zachary Quinto
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: September 1, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 3 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Audible and New York Times best-selling “Dispatcher” series returns with a brand-new mystery, performed by Zachary Quinto.

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called “dispatchers,” who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed… but the stakes are still life and death.

I hadn’t been aware that a third Dispatcher audiobook was on the way, so I was surprised in the best way to see it available on Audible this month!

In the sci-fi/speculative world of the Dispatcher series, death has become much more optional. Death by natural causes is still death, but if someone is murdered, in 999 cases out of 1,000, the murdered person pops back into life with a “reset”, waking up someplace they feel safe — usually their own home — back in the condition they were in several hours earlier.

In this brave new world, professional Dispatchers are trained and licensed to turn natural deaths into murders, all for the sake of saving lives. A person on the verge of death from cardiac arrest, for example, gets a professionally administered bullet to their brain, and (unless they’re that 1 in 1,000 exception), they end up totally fine. I mean, they should probably go see a doctor ASAP for that heart condition, but they’re alive and have a chance to remain that way.

In Travel by Bullet, things have changed yet again in all sorts of interesting ways. The role of Dispatchers has been around for about 10 years at this point, and our main character, Tony Valdez, is tired. The world has been going through the pandemic for the past couple of years, and new laws have been instituted that give families the right to demand a dispatch for their dying relatives, meaning that Dispatchers are now employed full time in hospitals and are kept incredibly busy.

The problem is, for someone on a ventilator approaching death, a reset by dispatch isn’t really going to fix things. The patient will wake up in their own bed in a condition from a few hours earlier, but as in all dispatches, they travel without anything but their bodies — no clothes, and most importantly in these cases, no equipment. Often, desperate families who demand a dispatch are dooming their relatives to pain and confusion and inevitable death, but without the benefit of hospital staff to ease the journey. Tony spends much of his time trying to talk families out of using his services, but at the end of the day, he is required by law to perform if that’s what the family wants.

His daily grind is interrupted when a friend and fellow dispatcher is brought into the ER, on the verge of death and asking specifically for Tony. Tony knows that this person has been involved in the shadier side of dispatching, and the circumstances of the accident that brought him to the hospital are very sketchy.

Tony reluctantly gets drawn into his friend’s mess, and ends up at the center of a conspiracy that draws in the Chicago PD, the FBI, mobsters, VC billionaires, and assorted hoodlums. Tony becomes increasingly threatened as he struggles to keep his friend safe while not alienating other allies or putting his life and livelihood into grave danger.

It’s all very quick-paced and complicated, with crypto-wallets changing hands, billionaires behaving horrendously, and Dispatchers being used in some truly awful business settings (as well as providing the “travel by bullet” concept that gives this story its name).

In my review of the 2nd book, Murder by Other Means, I wrote:

At just barely 3 hours, this audiobook is perfect for a quick entertainment. The action is fast-paced, and the narration is terrific. The vibe is noir, but with enough weird elements to let you know you’re living in a Scalzi world. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a Dresden book (minus the magic) — it’s that kind of smart, quick urban storytelling.

The same is absolutely true here! (Sorry, I don’t usually quote myself…)

Travel by Bullet is slightly longer, but still under 4 hours. Actor Zachary Quinto is marvelous when it comes to voicing Tony and handling the storytelling. His narration absolutely nails the noir vibe of the entire story, and it all just works.

I would recommend starting with the first book in this series, The Dispatcher, in order to get a good feel for the world of dispatching and its rules and quirks — but since they’re all relatively short, you’ll speed through them in no time!

Note: Travel by Bullet is an Audible exclusive as of now. The first two books in the series were also originally Audible-only, but were later released in print format too, so I’d assume that eventually, this one will be as well. For now, though, if you want to experience Travel by Bullet, Audible is the only option.

Novella review: Rizzio by Denise Mina

One more for Novella November!


Title: Rizzio
Author: Denise Mina
Publisher: Pegasus Crime
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the multi-award-winning master of crime, Denise Mina delivers a radical new take on one of the darkest episodes in Scottish history—the bloody assassination of David Rizzio  private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, in the queen’s chambers in Holyrood Palace.

On the evening of March 9th, 1566, David Rizzio, the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered. Dragged from the chamber of the heavily pregnant Mary, Rizzio was stabbed fifty six times by a party of assassins. This breathtakingly tense novella dramatises the events that led up to that night, telling the infamous story as it has never been told before.

A dark tale of sex, secrets and lies, Rizzio looks at a shocking historical murder through a modern lens—and explores the lengths that men and women will go to in their search for love and power.

Rizzio is nothing less than a provocative and thrilling new literary masterpiece.

Who knew a crime story from 1566 could be so compelling?

In the skilled hands of Denise Mina, the story of the real-life murder of David Rizzio comes to life, full of political scheming, betrayals, and intricately choreographed action sequences.

From the very first paragraph, it’s clear that this will be a powerful, masterfully told story:

Lord Ruthven wanted him killed during this tennis match but Darnley said no. Lord Darnley wants it done tonight. He wants his wife to witness the murder because David Rizzio is her closest friend, her personal secretary, and she’s very pregnant and Darnley hopes that if she sees him being horribly brutalised she might miscarry and die in the process. She’s the Queen; they’ve been battling over Darnley’s demand for equal status since their wedding night and if she dies and the baby dies then Darnley’s own claim to the throne would be undeniable. They’re rivals for the crown. She knew that from the off. He wants it done in front of her.

How’s that for cold-hearted brutality? I love how this opening paragraph tells us so much about the situation, the motivations, and what’s at stake, with just just a few brief, stark sentences.

This tightly woven book traces the events immediately before and after Rizzio’s murder, exquisitely painting a picture of the precariousness of women’s power, the deadly nature of the battle between religious factions, and the inability of these scheming, devious men to recognize that women matter.

While the short length of this novella means that everything unfolds quickly, the writing is immersive and detailed enough to give us insight into the minds of the key players and to make the situation remarkably clear.

While I know the basics about Mary, Queen of Scots, I clearly don’t know enough, and reading this novella has piqued my interest all over again. One of my tasks in 2022 will be to find a good non-fiction book about her life and reign — I know there are plenty of novels and TV/movie depictions, but I also know that most, especially the on-screen versions, take a ton of liberties with the historical record.

I’d heard good things about Denise Mina previously, but this is my first time reading one of her books. Her writing and use of language is so on point and keen here, expressive but with nothing extraneous.

Rizzio is a quick, sharp tale of historical murder, and the terrific writing makes it sing. I came across this book after hearing two beloved authors, Susanna Kearsley and Diana Gabaldon, recommend it during an interview, and I’m so glad I followed their advice and gave it a try. Highly recommended, for crime fans as well as fans of historical fiction.

Audiobook Review: Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi

Title: Murder by Other Means
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator:  Zachary Quinto
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: September 10, 2020
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 3 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From Hugo and Audie Award-winning author John Scalzi comes an exciting sequel to The New York Times best-selling, number one Audible hit The Dispatcher, performed by the incomparable Zachary Quinto.

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense…and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

If you’re looking for a quick audio listen that’s a noir/sci-fi treat, you have to check out this new audiobook by John Scalzi!

Murder By Other Means is the newly released sequel to The Dispatcher. Both are terrific. These Audible Originals are written by John Scalzi, narrated by Zachary Quinto, and just so much fun.

In the world of these books, death has been (mostly) defeated. For some unfathomable reason, as of about 10 years earlier, anyone who is murdered instantly zips back to life back in their own home, naked, and completely unharmed. This is not true, though, for natural or accidental deaths (basically, anything non-murdery). Die without murder, and dead is dead.

Hence, the rise of a profession known as Dispatchers. Say you’re going into surgery for a risky procedure — well then, keep a dispatcher on hand, so if things go wrong, one quick bullet in the brain will send you home again. There’s the 1 in 1000 chance that the dispatching won’t work, but most people are willing to take that chance.

In these audiobooks, our main character is Tony Valdez. Time are tough, and there aren’t as many legit dispatcher jobs these days, so when Tony is offered something that’s not entirely by the book, but that pays piles of cash, he does the job. And then things get screwy. After witnessing a robbery at his local bank branch, complete with dead and not-so-dead bodies, Tony is implicated, and when one of the investigating detectives ends up dead too, things go from bad to worse.

Tony has to figure out how to clear his name, get the cops off his back, and solve a puzzle regarding a slew of deaths in the city that can’t be murder… but they sure seem like they are.

At just barely 3 hours, this audiobook is perfect for a quick entertainment. The action is fast-paced, and the narration is terrific. The vibe is noir, but with enough weird elements to let you know you’re living in a Scalzi world. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a Dresden book (minus the magic) — it’s that kind of smart, quick urban storytelling.

Murder By Other Means includes enough stage-setting that you can listen to it without being completely lost, but it makes a lot more sense to listen to The Dispatcher first, to gain a full picture of what life in a death-less world feels like.

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

Title: The Dry
Author: Jane Harper
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 31, 2016
Length: 328 pages
Genre: Crime fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A small town hides big secrets in this atmospheric, page-turning debut mystery by award-winning author Jane Harper.

In the grip of the worst drought in a century, the farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily when three members of a local family are found brutally slain.

Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk reluctantly returns to his hometown for the funeral of his childhood friend, loath to face the townsfolk who turned their backs on him twenty years earlier.

But as questions mount, Falk is forced to probe deeper into the deaths of the Hadler family. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret. A secret Falk thought was long buried. A secret Luke’s death now threatens to bring to the surface in this small Australian town, as old wounds bleed into new ones.

The Dry is a twisty tale of murder and secrets set in a rural Australian community, where drought has dried up farms and rivers and brought the entire town to the brink of natural and economic ruin.

Federal Investigator Aaron Falk is drawn back into the web of gossip and lies in the town of Kiewarra when he returns home for a funeral — the funeral of his former best friend, who appears to have slaughtered his wife and son before turning the shotgun on himself. It’s horrifying and ugly, and the town is roiling with unhappiness.

At the same time, Aaron’s reception by the town is hostile. Twenty years earlier, he was suspected of murdering a classmate and was forced to flee with his father in the face of threats and aggression. The people of Kiewarra have a long memory, and no one — especially the dead girl’s family — wants to see him back among them.

But Aaron and the local police officer both believe something is off about the deaths of Luke’s family. Something about the crime scene just doesn’t add up, so Aaron stays to help pick through the witness statements and other bits and pieces of clues. Meanwhile, his memories of the events of 20 years earlier are coming back strongly, and he’s finding himself plagued by that unsolved mystery as well.

I was very caught up in the story of The Dry and just could not stop reading! The murder itself is gruesome and terrible, and it’s shocking to see how the different pieces fit together. Aaron is an impressive main character, smart and determined, but also flawed and haunted by his past and his regrets.

It was fascinating to get a view of the small-town politics and power plays, and I found the description of the drought-ridden environment and its dangers really powerful. Who knew that a scene with a lighter in it could be quite so scary?

I’m rating this book 3 1/2 stars, because I did enjoy it quite a bit, but also felt certain pieces of the mystery were a little on the obvious side. Given that I don’t normally gravitate toward crime stories, I was surprised that I liked The Dry as much as I did!

In fact, I think at some point I’ll want to read more of this author’s work — my book group friends recommend her books highly! **Save






Book Review: No Fixed Line (Kate Shugak, #22) by Dana Stabenow

Title: No Fixed Line (Kate Shugak, #22)
Author: Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Mystery/crime
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

… though there is no fixed line between wrong and right,
There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.

It is New Year’s Eve, nearly six weeks into an off-and-on blizzard that has locked Alaska down, effectively cutting it off from the outside world.

But now there are reports of a plane down in the Quilak mountains. With the National Transportation Safety Board unable to reach the crash site, ex-Trooper Jim Chopin is pulled out of retirement to try to identify the aircraft, collect the corpses, and determine why no flight has been reported missing. But Jim discovers survivors: two children who don’t speak a word of English.

Meanwhile, PI Kate Shugak receives an unexpected and unwelcome accusation from beyond the grave, a charge that could change the face of the Park forever.

A quick word before diving into the review: The synopsis above is not entirely accurate. The details of finding the children are off. Kate gets something from a dead man, but not exactly an accusation. The whole thing is not quite right… just know that ahead of time if such things matter to you.

Anyhoo… let’s talk about No Fixed Line!

Kate Shugak is one of my favorite fictional characters, and naturally, I’m beyond thrilled to get a new volume in this terrific ongoing series — three years after the last book came out, and believe me, it’s been a long three years!

Kate is a Native Alaskan of Aleut descent, a former investigator for the Anchorage DA’s office who now works as a private investigator, generally at risk to her own neck in one way or another. She lives on an isolated homestead in the fictitious Niniltna Park, and associates with a wide array of quirky and unusual characters, from aunties to state troopers to law enforcement types to bush pilots and beyond.

The Kate books also feature a Very Good Dog. Mutt is half wolf, half husky, is Kate’s constant companion, and is truly one of the very best dogs in fiction.

In No Fixed Line, book #22, Kate finds herself drawn into a mystery after two young children are recovered from a plane crash in the remote mountains, leading to a complex conspiracy involving drug distribution and human trafficking. The case itself is harrowing and disturbing.

But beyond the mystery driving the plot, one of the main pleasures of the Kate books is the community that we come to know over the course of the series. I love the beautiful Alaska setting, the gritty reality of life in Anchorage as well as the more remote locations, and the variety of characters who represent the different factions and strata within Alaskan society, from tribal elders to oil and mining tycoons to isolationist homesteaders — it’s a unique and eclectic bunch. All are present and accounted for in No Fixed Line, and the web of politics and corruption and influence sneaks its way into all of the day-to-day concerns of the Park folks just trying to live their lives.

As in all of the books, Kate herself is marvelous — fierce and loyal and strong as steel, but with internal and external scars that she carries with her always. She’s incredibly devoted to her family and the wide group of people she considers hers, and will do whatever it takes to keep the people she loves safe.

I would not suggest starting anywhere but at the beginning of the series, with book #1, A Cold Day for Murder. It’s worth the effort, I promise! I binged the entire series a few years ago, and loved every moment.

No Fixed Line is an engaging addition to the Kate Shugak series, and leaves me hungry for more! Here’s hoping that #23 will come along before another three years go by.

Book Review: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, The Nowhere Child is screenwriter Christian White’s internationally bestselling debut thriller of psychological suspense about a woman uncovering devastating secrets about her family—and her very identity…

Kimberly Leamy is a photography teacher in Melbourne, Australia. Twenty-six years earlier, Sammy Went, a two-year old girl vanished from her home in Manson, Kentucky. An American accountant who contacts Kim is convinced she was that child, kidnapped just after her birthday. She cannot believe the woman who raised her, a loving social worker who died of cancer four years ago, crossed international lines to steal a toddler.

On April 3rd, 1990, Jack and Molly Went’s daughter Sammy disappeared from the inside their Kentucky home. Already estranged since the girl’s birth, the couple drifted further apart as time passed. Jack did his best to raise and protect his other daughter and son while Molly found solace in her faith. The Church of the Light Within, a Pentecostal fundamentalist group who handle poisonous snakes as part of their worship, provided that faith. Without Sammy, the Wents eventually fell apart.

Now, with proof that she and Sammy are in fact the same person, Kim travels to America to reunite with a family she never knew she had. And to solve the mystery of her abduction—a mystery that will take her deep into the dark heart of religious fanaticism where she must fight for her life against those determined to save her soul…

The Nowhere Child is a contemporary mystery with a premise that reminded me of some teen thrillers that were popular in the early 2000s. What happens to a person who discovers that the life she thought she knew is built on a lie? What if it turns out that your parents aren’t really your parents? How would you handle finding out that you were kidnapped, way back before you were old enough to remember, and that you have an entirely other family out there in the world?

Kim’s life is turned upside down when a stranger shows up claiming that she’s his long-lost sister. DNA testing quickly proves that they are in fact siblings. But Kim knows that her mother was a good, loving person — how could she be a kidnapper?

Kim agrees to go to the United States with Stuart to meet her biological sister and parents, to see the Kentucky town where she was born, and to try to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. What happened all those years ago? Who took her, and why? And how did she end up growing up in Australia with woman she believed to be her mother?

The town of Manson, Kentucky has its own creepy secrets, among them a formerly popular pentecostal congregation with an outsized influence on its members, including Sammy/Kim’s mother Molly. Church members bear their snake bite scars as badges of honor — those who survive, anyway. As the narrative switches back and forth between Kim’s present trip to Manson and the past, almost thirty years earlier, when Sammy disappeared from her home, the clues and connections start to add up. And while Kim/Sammy’s kidnapping happened so many years ago, there’s still a threat lurking in the town when she comes too close to uncovering the truth.

I enjoyed the story and the puzzle of trying to figure out exactly what happened to Sammy, and the description of the different family members, townspeople, and their secrets. Some of the threads between “then” and “now” seemed a little flimsy to me, but overall, the plot is pieced together in such a way that the answers aren’t too obvious. I had a pretty good idea of whose stories had holes and where the missing connection might be, but it was still interesting to see it all come together.

We never really see much of Kim’s life in Australia, and I would have liked that piece of her life to be better fleshed out, especially to have seen more memories of her time with her mother. It felt like an important piece was missing, to see how Kim was raised and what her relationship with her mother was like. Likewise, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why some of the people in Kentucky in the “now” timeline acted as they did, and even once we had all the answers about the kidnapping, I’m not convinced that the motivation for taking and keeping Sammy made a whole lot of sense.

There’s a truly disturbing scene toward the end of the book that absolutely made my skin crawl. I mean, super icky and scary. Let’s just say that if you have a problem with reptiles and rodents, you should proceed with caution!

Overall, The Nowhere Child is a good, solid read that held my interest, even when I didn’t quite buy every element of the story. If anyone else has read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!



The details:

Title: The Nowhere Child
Author: Christian White
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley





Book Review: The Outsider by Stephen King


An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when the King brand has never been stronger, he has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.


I’m a Stephen King fan, no question about it, but I sometimes find that his books don’t stick the landing. I’ll be absolutely fascinated, glued to my seat, on edge, for 75% of the book,,, but when the ending finally arrives and all answers are provided, I can find myself feeling a bit let down.

No so in The Outsider. This is one terrific (and horribly disturbing) read, start to finish.

From the start, the premise is tantalizing and well-executed. A horrible, disgusting crime is committed. There are reliable eyewitnesses who definitively ID the perpetrator, a beloved public figure in their small town. Terry Maitland’s fingerprints are all over the crime scene and weapon and the interior of the vehicle used to commit the crime. He’s seen leaving the area, covered with blood. DNA at the crime scene is his. Ralph Anderson, lead detective on the case, is so outraged and infuriated that he orders the arrest to be made in as public a way as possible. There’s no doubt that Maitland committed the crime, and the public is aghast and infuriated.

But wait. Maitland has an alibi, and the more Ralph investigates, the more unbreakable the alibi seems. He was with other teachers at a conference out of town, and not only will they all attest to his being there, but he’s actually caught on video at the event at the same time of the murder. Can a man be in two places at one time?

By the time enough doubt has come up, more tragedies have piled on top of the initial murder. An out of town investigator is brought in, and soon, the trail seems to point to not only more crimes with a mystery double involved, but a fact pattern that can’t be explained by anything in the realm of what’s considered normal.


This book grabbed me from page 1, and just didn’t let up. If pesky things like work and sleep hadn’t interfered, I’d have read it straight through — it’s that good, and that compelling.

I was particularly delighted by the appearance of…




Holly Gibney, the memorable, remarkable, oddball heroine of the Bill Hodges trilogy, who has carried on with Finders Keepers, the detective agency she founded with Bill, even after Bill’s death at the end of the trilogy. Holly is brought into the investigation here on the recommendation of one of the Maitland family lawyers when a strange set of facts emerge about a family trip months earlier. Holly jumps in, unearths enough odd clues to start connecting some seriously weird dots, and ultimately is the one who gets the investigatory team to consider answers that lean more toward the supernatural than any of them could possibly have considered on their own.

I loved seeing Holly again. She brings a humanity to the proceedings that’s a breath of fresh air, and her offbeat demeanor and unlikely acts of courage are what’s needed to crack the case.

The entire cast of characters is well drawn and quite strong. Ralph is a great leading man, and I loved his relationship with his wife Jeannie. The lawyer, the DA, the investigator, the state policeman — all are quite good, and really emerge as individuals rather than stock characters in a legal drama.

But it’s the unfolding plot, with its mystery and creepiness and outright scenes of horror, that propels The Outsider at such a dynamic pace. I don’t want to say much more about what happens or why — but this is top-notch King, and you shouldn’t miss it.

A final word of caution for King readers: If you haven’t finished the Bill Hodges trilogy, but you plan to, you might want to hold off on reading The Outsider. The plots aren’t connected, but in conversations, Holly and the detectives discuss the cases she and Bill handled, and basically give away major plot point resolutions from the trilogy.


The details:

Title: The Outsider
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 22, 2018
Length: 561 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Library








Book Review: Head On by John Scalzi


John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi’s trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.


I loved Lock In (review), John Scalzi’s novel that introduced us to the world of Hadens and threeps as experienced through the eyes of new FBI agent Chris Shane. And when I heard that there would be another story set in the same world… well, excited isn’t even the word for it.

Here’s a quick refresher for those unfamiliar with the premise. Some 25 years in the past, a new strain of flu ravaged the globe, killing millions, and leaving a percentage of survivors “locked in” — fully aware, yet unable to carry out any voluntary bodily functions. Those in this locked-in state became known as Hadens, in honor of the syndrome’s most famous early patient, the wife of then-President Haden. As Haden’s Syndrome ravaged populations world-wide, enormous funds and resources were devoted to treatment, and the most significant innovations were the development of neural nets — basically, networking implanted in the brains of Hadens — and threeps — personal transport devices into which Hadens transport their consciousness, allowing them to move, interact, have jobs, and live in the world, all while their actual bodies are safely at home supported by life-support systems and caregivers.

Agent Shane is a Haden, who at one point was incredibly famous by virtue of his basketball star father’s enormous influence, popularity, and wealth. Now, Shane just wants a life of his own, out of the spotlight, pursuing a meaningful career and being a contributing member of society.

Okay, those are the basics of this sci-fi world.

As for Head On, I can safely say that this book lives up to the thrill-level of Lock In, presenting a whole new facet of Haden existence one year after the events of that book. In Head On, the narrative kicks off with a death on a sports field. But this isn’t football — this is the brave new world of professional Hilketa leagues, played by Hadens in threeps in a game that feels like a mash-up of rugby and gladiator combat. And just think about the weirdness of it all: While the players are superstar athletes with multi-million dollar endorsements, they’re also physically in their immobilized bodies at the same time they’re experiencing glory on the field. Hilketa players feel pain (league rules require them to keep their pain settings at a minimal level), but the physical damage — like having limbs or even heads ripped off — happens only to the threep itself.

The description of the game is both ridiculous and captivating — kind of like reading about Quidditch for the first time!

When a player dies after sustaining damage on the field, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on then just an unfortunate sports-related death. The FBI is responsible for investigating Haden-related crimes, so it’s Agents Shane and Vann on the job once again. The agents’ chemistry is just as entertaining as in the first book, full of quips and banter, as well as an astonishingly effective good cop, bad copy routine that never gets old.

The mystery of the death and the implied scandal and corruption within the Hilketa league are intriguing. The clues and schemes are pretty mind-boggling, and I’ll admit that by the time the story starts unraveling financial misconduct and corporate fraud, I did get a bit lost in some of the details. No matter. The important connections are built up piece by piece, so that by the end, it all fits together in a way that makes sense and gives us the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

Despite the murders and mayhem, there’s plenty of fun along the way, especially when it comes to seeing Shane with his Hadens roommates and all their goofy dynamics. Oh, and did I mention the cat? There’s a cat. And the cat becomes a crucial bit of evidence in a way that’s cute and clever and made me laugh.

A word about gender:

You may have noticed that I refer to Agent Shane as “he”… and that’s just not entirely accurate. Both Lock In and Head On are written in the first person, with Chris Shane as narrator.

And, I’m ashamed to say, it absolutely never occurred to me that the author never actually specifies Chris’s gender. I suppose I assumed that Chris was short for Christopher, back when I first started Lock In, and I pictured Chris as a male throughout my read of the first book. It wasn’t until I encountered this article prior to the publication of Head On that I even realized that I’d jumped to conclusions.

Again, John Scalzi NEVER SAYS whether Chris is male or female. Both are possible. And what’s really cool is that two versions of the audiobook are available, one narrated by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson. I downloaded the Wil Wheaton version back when I got Lock In, and wasn’t aware that there was any other version.

So now, as I was reading Head On, I couldn’t help hearing Wheaton’s voice in my head and consequently continued picturing of Chris as a male — but at least now, I stopped to think and reconsider certain scenes. Would the dynamic of Shane and Vann’s banter come across differently if it was between two females agents, rather than male and female? Is there an element of sexual politics implicit in the male/female working partnership that would have struck me differently if the gender differential was removed?

I can only imagine that the tone of certain parts of the story would feel very different to me if I’d been picturing a female lead character all along. So I’ve decided to put it to the test. Not right now, but sometime soon, I plan to revisit Head On by listening to the audiobook, and this time around, I’ll choose the Amber Benson version. Should be fascinating! And if I find that it’s a really different experience of the same story, I’ll be sure to report back.

Enough of my rambles…

Back to the review: I can definitely recommend Head On for anyone who enjoys science fiction with a touch of humor. While Head On doesn’t feel quite as revelatory as Lock In, in which the author had to build a whole new reality, it’s still quite an enjoyable, attention-grabbing read. John Scalzi is an amazing writer, and I hope he’ll continue to explore this world in future books.


The details:

Title: Head On
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 17, 2018
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased








Book Review: The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

Guest RoomThe Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian is a dark, disturbing look into the world of sex trafficking, as well as a meditation on love, marriage, and the tests a relationship can withstand.

Richard Chapman — 40 years old, a well-off investment banker with a beautiful Westchester home, a lovely wife, and terrific 9-year-old daughter — has the best of intentions when he agrees to host a bachelor party for his younger brother at his home. His brother is a careless, selfish sort with a bunch of equally immature friends, but Richard figures having the party at his house is better than ending up in a strip club. And sure, everyone espects that there will be a stripper showing up — but what they don’t expect is two beautiful, young strippers who seem willing, for a price, to do much more than strip. And they definitely don’t expect the two intimidating guys who seem to be the girls’ handlers, bodyguards… or something even shadier.

Things get out of control, and quickly. And before the night is through, one of the strippers has stabbed one of the guards in the throat, the other guard has been shot, and the girls have run off, leaving behind a group of shocked and terrified men, a house that’s a bloody mess, and at least one husband with a lot of explaining to do.

Richard’s world is immediately turned upside down. He has to explain to his wife that while he was tempted by the offer of sex (and in fact, went upstairs with one of the girls), he did not actually have sex with her. He has to face the fact that the girls involved may have been minors. He has to deal with the immediate tabloid headlines about orgies in the suburbs and the subsequent damage to his reputation. And on top of all this, he can’t get the girl named Alexandra out of his mind. He went upstairs with her, even took off his clothes, but was somehow so touched by her youth and vulnerability that all he wanted to do was protect her.

At the same time, each chapter ends with a segment told from Alexandra’s point of view. Alexandra is not her real name, but it’s the name she’s used for the past five years, ever since she was lured away at age 14 from her small town in Armenia by the promise of ballet lessons in Moscow. What she got in Moscow was not ballet, but rape, imprisonment, and forced sexual slavery. Deprived of all access the to outside world, Alexandra was brutalized and forced into a life as (as she puts it) a “courtesan” and a “sex toy”. She and other girls her age are kept locked up, kept pretty, and trained to please the endless stream of wealthy and powerful men whom they service. There’s no other word for it — it’s horrifying.

The intersection of Richard’s world and Alexandra’s world blows both of their lives apart. Richard’s marriage is in crisis, his daughter is disgusted, his home feels violated, and he’s been placed on leave by his banking firm, which wishes to distance themselves from the lurid, sordid details that the press is delighting in sharing. Richard’s brother’s friends are being shady, and while Richard is not in legal trouble, he has plenty of reason to worry about his future.

Meanwhile, Alexandra and the other girl, Sonja, are on the run, but without resources — no place to turn for help, no ID or credit cards, nothing but the clothes on their backs, the cash in their pockets, and the guns they’ve taken from the dead guards. They know that they can’t stay in New York, with the Russian gangsters who own them wanting them dead, but they have no experience being free or making their own way, and have no one they can trust.

To say that this book is upsetting is an understatement. I couldn’t put it down or look away, but it left me feeling so bleak and full of despair. The fact that Alexandra’s story is fictional doesn’t mean that these sorts of things aren’t taking place in the real world. The Guest Room provides a peek into the world of sexual slavery, and it’s grim and dirty and depressing as hell.

Which is not to say that The Guest Room is not a good read. It’s actually completely engrossing, and once I started, I couldn’t stop reading. The main characters are all so well-developed that we get to really understand them as complex people, not cookie-cutter characters. Richard screws up, but he’s still a good person. He loves his wife and child, and wants to do the right thing, and still, inadvertently, brings all sorts of horror and chaos into their previously perfect lives. Richard’s wife Kristin is humiliated and hurt, but she also loves her husband and values their life together. She doesn’t always do what’s expected, and the author avoids the more clichéd roads with Kristin by showing the deeply thought-out choices that she makes.

Alexandra is a tragic, fascinating character. Seeing the world through her eyes in the parts she narrates, we get to understand what hopelessness truly is. Her voice is distinct and feels very real, and it’s incredibly disturbing to enter into Alexandra’s intensely awful existence and understand why she thinks and behaves as she does.

The Guest Room is powerful, upsetting, and impossible to put down. Chris Bohjalian is a masterful writer who seems to be at home in any genre. This book is a crime thriller, but it’s also a character study and even, in an odd way, a story about what makes a good marriage. I can’t say that it’s a pleasant read, but it’s certainly a great one.


The details:

Title: The Guest Room
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: January 5, 2016
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley