Mind Fuck
Manna Francis
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There are no bad guys or good guys. There are only better guys and worse guys.
One of the worse guys is Val Toreth. In a world in which torture is a legitimate part of the investigative process, he works for the Investigation and Interrogation Division, where his colleagues can be more dangerous than the criminals he investigates.
One of the better guys is Keir Warrick. His small corporation, SimTech, is developing a “sim” system that places users in a fully immersive virtual reality.

A minnow in a murky and dangerous pond, he is only beginning to discover how many compromises may be required for success.
Their home is the dark future dystopia of New London. A totalitarian bureaucracy controls the European Administration, sharing political power with the corporations.
The government uses violence and the many divisions of the feared Department of Internal Security to maintain control and crush resistance. The corporations fight among themselves, using lethal force under the euphemism of “corporate sabotage,” uniting only to resist attempts by the Administration to extend its influence over them.
Toreth and Warrick are more natural enemies than allies. But mutual attraction and the fight for survival can create unlikely bonds.

What an appropriate title.

I’d never really appreciated BDSM stories before, in fanfiction, yaoi, or original novels. Too often, the author uses the kink as a quick and dirty means of injecting angst and drama into an otherwise drab story; some authors can actually manage to turn the kink to advantage, most authors can’t. Also, it’s not something I personally enjoy. A story written merely to explore the kink bores me quickly. I’m also not particularly fond of sci-fi dystopias; it’s depressing, and I don’t want to read about it. I wasn’t expecting much when I ripped open the shipping envelope to find out what LdD had sent me this time.

Manna Francis’ MindFuck blew my expectations out of the water.

The story never gets too technical and Francis is especially good at explaining what little tech there is, so the scifi-nonlovers will still be able to read this story – I can easily imagine it taking place 20 or 30 years into the future instead of, say, 200 or 300 years. Francis preserved a sense of familiarity through the small details of the characters’ personal lives, while using the larger aspects of the setting, such as the corporations, the government, and the I&I, to foster the sense of strangeness. The balance of known and unknown was quite masterful, actually.

The mystery was another thing that showcased Francis’ deft touch. There weren’t any sudden shifts between the sleuthing and the characters’ personal lives. She kept up a relaxed, intriguing flow so that I was able to follow easily, with an attitude of “Oh, wow, what happens next?” instead of “How far ahead will I have to skip through the boring plot-stuff in order to get back to the part I actually want to read?”

But, by far, the most fascinating aspect of this story was found in the characters.

Warrick is a gentleman. Toreth is a sociopath. Warrick has a dream of beauty and idealism that is just within his grasp. Toreth enjoys his job of finding criminals and torturing them. Warrick treats everyone with courtesy. Toreth gets a kick out of fucking with people. Warrick is moral. Toreth has no appreciable conscience.

The balance of power between these two men is at once fascinating, addictive, beautiful, and appalling. Warrick is a control-freak, with a firm grip on his world and his place in it, yet Toreth only needs to use a certain tone of voice and Warrick is writhing in his chains, begging for more. Toreth is an expert at playing people, controlling their reactions and divining their motivations, and yet Warrick terrifies him on a level he can’t consciously understand. There is no clear line in their interactions, no real demarcation between Dominant and Submissive, other than in “the game.” Through the entire story, one must ask oneself, “Who’s mastering who?” The answer is, as far as I can discern, “Neither one.” And that seems a far more realistic portrayal of the dynamic than I’ve read in far too many other (wretched) stories.

My sympathies and interest are usually reserved for the bottom in any story, and I do adore Warrick. I ache for him, considering what Toreth puts him through, and I admire him for his inner strength and grace. He’s in my Top Five Favorite Bottoms list because he’s a perfect model for everything I find most alluring in a bottom.

But I have to admit… this time, it was Toreth who did it for me. He’s emotionally stunted, ruthless, selfish, arrogant, cruel, and emotionally weak. There is absolutely no escaping what a horrible person he really is. And yet…

And yet he cares for his administrative assistant, and not just because she threatens to leave his office in a shambles should she ever transfer away from him. He’s usually fair to his subordinates. He believes that his job is necessary and for the good of his community, even if he’s despised by the very people he’s supposed to be helping. He’s a natural leader because he leads by example instead of rhetoric. He is, ultimately, a very cheerful sociopath. And he hums off-key when he’s happy.
He’s a sociopath, but dammit, for the length of the series, he was MY beloved sociopath, and that made him special!

Would I have changed anything? Well… no. I know that’s not particularly helpful for the prospective reader, or informative to the author, but it’s also true. I can’t think of a single thing that left me unhappy. The editing was superb, the characters were engrossing, the story was absolutely satisfying while still lingering painfully in my subconscious. Exactly what I like most about reading. There are a lot of eBook authors who have had their works printed which I thought were an outrageous waste of time and money. MindFuck is so much not one of them, it seems a sacrilege to compare it to those wastes-of-a-good-tree novels. Reading the story online is fine and dandy, but there is a certain beauty, a satisfaction of the spirit, to holding the edited print version in my hot and greedy little hands. This is one of those books whose value far outstrips its cost.

I highly doubt that I and LdDurham are unique in being addicted to the Administration Series, so I fully expect that anyone who reads MindFuck will immediately hunt down the rest of the series. There’s a reason why it was sold out of its first printing, and I predict that the second and probably third printing will be likewise gobbled down. Manna Francis deserves to have her name shouted from the rooftops.

This is, by far, the most enjoyable, addictive, and amazing story that I have ever come across in all my readings. And Manna Francis is one of the greatest storytellers.

I first stumbled onto this story years ago while searching for original gay fiction. There was a small online archive, so I started in the A’s. I was so lucky I did because the Administration Series was what I found. I became obsessed with all of the stories in the series and with the characters and with the world. I spent hours, late into the night, just trying to fit in just a few more paragraphs before I needed sleep. Four hours, three hours, two hours before the alarm was set to go off.

Imagine my elation when I heard that the first story would be published. Through the roof, my friends, through the roof. I was incredibly excited to be able to reread one of my favorite stories.

Mind Fuck has an incredibly intelligent plot. It plays out like a sci-fi mystery blockbuster with sex added in. Manna’s voice is so clear, so focused in telling the tale, that I could see the story unfold before my eyes. The mystery in it is good. It is multi-layered and clever. Toreth puts things together slowly, with small breaks in the case and with tiny pieces of dumb luck.

The technology used in this book, the setting, and the people, are all portrayed realistically and believably. Not once was I ever left questioning anything. From IIP forms that were annoying and needed to be filed and yet never looked at by superiors, to a world with CEOs needing to know self-defense from threat of corporate kidnappings. Manna knew her world and she made me know it too.

What makes this book so addictive are the characters. The main characters, Warrick and Toreth, are absolutely enthralling. They are characters that cement the story and make it perfect. And the sex scenes between them are not only hot, but important to the story as well. There is nothing gratuitous in or about the sex scenes. They are there to fully flesh out the characters and the way they relate to each other on one level, while their discussions and arguments show how they relate on another. The reader should know that the sex is very D/s, with tiny shadows of S&M. I’m not into S&M, but in this, the light touches of it only heighten the D/s and make it hot, make it real. Which is exactly what Warrick is looking for.

I recommend this book for any reader who enjoys a gripping story, a story that is intelligently written, and with characters that make you believe they are alive somewhere. This is not a book you can read in one sunny afternoon. Expect many days of trying to squeeze in as many sentences between phone calls, work, dishes, and appointments. And expect that Toreth and Warrick won’t disappear once the book ends.

Big cheers to Casperian Books for having the foresight to pick this book and its series up. They seemed to have treated both the author and her material with respect and their work is quality. I will definitely be paying more attention to them as a publisher and getting more of their books. Excellent work.

Touching Evil
Rob Knight
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Greg has a special talent he’d give anything to be rid of. After an accident many years ago that left him in a coma, Greg woke up to find that he could touch things and know what had happened to them. Too bad he can’t control the talent enough to keep it from overwhelming him.

The only good thing his gift has brought him is Artie, an overprotective cop with a psychotic cat and a great bedside manner. When a sociopath targets Greg as his new victim will Artie’s protection be enough? And can they stop the killer before he ruins their lives forever?

Reading Touching Evil was kind of like watching a very thrilling movie on a tv with bad reception. There were so many things I liked about this book. I cared very much about the main characters. There were moments when I flapped my hands and squealed “Eeeeek!” There was humor, horror, and hotness. There’s a cat. There’s food – lots of it, in fact. The villain was truly, madly, deeply villainous. I am extremely appreciative of authors who are willing to go that far to make the monsters that scary, that… well, monstrous.

In particular, I was quite impressed with Greg. I’ve read books where the main character might as well be a girl in a het romance, and I’ve read books where there’s nothing girlish about him, but I’ve never seen anyone as unique as Greg. For instance, he’s the first main character I’ve seen with his body-type: very tall and very thin. I’ve seen this body type a few times on the street, but never in a romance… not in a man, at least. Also, Greg is far from perfect in his personality. He does extremely stupid things, he has difficulty coping, he flips out into hysteria – nothing that’s really too ridiculously over-the-top, just more extreme than usual. A lot of this is the result of being a psychic, but a lot of this is just Greg’s personality; I got the distinct impression that he was high-maintenance even before he became psychic.

To only a very slightly-lesser extent, I was also impressed with Artie, another atypical character. The most extraordinary thing about both of these men is how ordinary they seem to be. There’s nothing particularly eye-catching about them, they’re not “OMG hot!” You could probably find an Artie in any precinct in the country, you could probably have found a pre-psychic Greg at almost any elite cocktail party. You wouldn’t likely find a post-psychic Greg anywhere, that’s how well Rob Knight managed to convey how excluding and scary and horrible it must be, to be that sensitive.

I loved Duke. Absolutely and totally. Partly because he is as unique as the humans. Partly because I was impressed with how well Rob Knight caught the perplexed/amused/infatuated spirit of a cat-lover in Artie. Every cat-owned person in the world would easily identify with the relationship between Artie and Duke, and it adds yet another facet to the realism of the characters.

The villain? He’s revealed in increments to the reader, although we see more of him than Greg and Artie do. He’s truly creepy, crazy, frightening, and bloody. Like everyone else, he’s utterly, recognizably human. He’s evil in the way that only real people can be evil.
The food thing was mildly distracting, but I didn’t really notice it as much as LdDurham did. Same with the sex. Probably because I’m totally willing to skip entire pages if necessary.

And yet, despite how impressed I was with the story and the characters, I had a great deal of trouble reading this book. I almost concluded that I didn’t like it. I almost don’t like it. The narrative style that Rob Knight used in writing this book is a turn-off. It’s confusing, distracting, and clumsy. This is why I compare it to the TV with bad reception: who really wants to work that hard to get through the fuzz and static just to watch a movie? And who wants to wade through confusing prose in order to find a good story? I didn’t appreciate it at all.

I do recommend this book, simply because I thought the story was worth it. But I add a very strong warning: if you’re not the kind of reader who is willing to invest yourself in order to find the story, then you’re not going to like it.

This book should have been named “Touching Dinner” because the star of this story was definitely the food. I think in nearly every scene without the psycho killer, there was eating of, discussion of, or the making of food. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had been all over the salad and turkey. But no, these guys were all about the deliciously bad for you stuff. If you are on a diet, I strongly suggest you don’t read this book. I know it pissed me off more than once when I was left with a craving for big ol’ biscuits with honey and butter, or fried chicken, or home-baked bread.

Let me tell you, this book is very hard to review. This is my first brush with Knight so I can’t say whether this was an experimental piece for the author or not.

The characters were definitely engaging enough. Greg’s “gift” is played pretty realistically, except for one major flaw. One of those “the story couldn’t have been told if we took care of it” type flaws: Greg could have just worn gloves to avoid a lot of fallout. But then, you know, there wouldn’t be a story, so we’ll just leave that under the rug.

Both Artie and Greg are extremely likable characters. And they fit really well together right from the get-go. The growth of their relationship was really well done, very realistically portrayed, and emotionally satisfying for this reader.

Now here is where I try to explain what went… off. I can’t say it was wrong, because it wasn’t quite that. The book opens with Greg having touched something and seeing something really bad. Like, “It puts the lotion on its skin” feeling bad. It immediately caught my attention, had me immediately in the moment. It was written in a stream of consciousness style that was really engrossing because it kept you off-balance and guessing.

The problem was that this style of writing never stopped. There was no break from it. The entire book is written from either Greg’s, Artie’s, or briefly, the killer’s point of view. Not just their point of view, so much as we are in their heads. It’s at its worse when we are in Greg’s head because Greg is also in Artie’s head. I was never quite sure who was thinking what or feeling what. Add to this a distressing lack of the word “said”. There were nearly zero dialogue indicators. In short bursts of dialogue this is fine. But an entire book? A four-page conversation with actions in between? I spent most of my time counting back lines of dialogue to figure out whose turn it was to be speaking.

Reading this book was a chore. I have never seen a greater collection of fragmented sentences in my life. I am sure it was done for effect, but it got old and tiresome very, very quickly.

The murder mystery aspect to it was exciting in that it was pretty freaking creepy. Unfortunately, the author didn’t showcase this to its best because the reader only got flashes of the exciting creepiness in between dinners, breakfasts, snacks, and sex. They had sex nearly as much as they ate. It would have been great if I could have figured out who was feeling what, who was doing what, or who was saying what.

The climax was very exciting from Artie’s point of view. When it came to the final confrontation with Mr. Psycho, I felt like the author chickened out and we only get the very fragmented view from Greg, which was damn near nothing. It was exciting, but I really wish Knight would have pulled back a bit, let me out of Greg’s head, and allowed me to see what the hell was going on.

The conclusion, though, was very well put together, very realistic, and very believable. And yes, it ended with them eating.

So, do I recommend this book? I think I do. The story was good. It just got lost in the fragmented writing style. But it was there. I think someone who is perhaps more accustomed to, or who enjoys, more experimental writing would enjoy this book. Heck, maybe a lot more people would enjoy this book. Maybe I’m just bitter because I still haven’t had the sushi it left me hungry for. Oh, or the fried chicken and biscuits. Or omelets. Mmmm… jambalaya…