Tag Archives: reviews

Review: Make Me No Grave; The City in the Middle of the Night


Make Me No Grave

by Hayley Stone

Hayley Stone is one of those wonderful, rare writes who can turn a phrase of great beauty and unusual insight, while never veering toward tiresome purple prose. I really enjoyed her writing in this book. I’m also a sucker for tough, competent women finding love with deserving men. This is a Western with magical elements that do play a significant part in the plot, so the novel does fall under (mildly) weird Western. My main issues are the slow pace at the outset and the sometimes muffled or diluted action scenes (there are a number of gun fights and hostage situations). However, I ended up rooting for the characters (Marshal Richardson and outlaw Almena Guillory). Their relationship was given enough time to develop organically, and this evolution was presented with care and nuance.


The City in the Middle of the Night

by Charlie Jane Anders

I loved the writing in this book. Smooth and engrossing, with lots of emotion, without ever being overbearing. Just enough description to help us imagine the world, never so much to weigh the narrative down. I love secondary-world sci-fi, and this one hit the spot. However, the ending was underwhelming (the book stopped at a non-event rather than a more resonant scene) and felt rushed. A few threads remained dangling, fueling hopes for a sequel, but the author says there won’t be one. Overall, an enjoyable read, with a cool interplay of societal issues in human settlements, alien life and tech, and unforgiving environmental forces, as told through engaging, fleshed-out characters.

Review: Siphon; The Warm Machine; My Sister, the Serial Killer

Siphon (Claybrook County Chronicles Book 1) by [Medina, A. A.]


by A.A. Medina

Very good plot, excellent pacing, fleshed-out protagonist and three other key characters, great connection to the backstory without ever bogging us down with infodumps. I felt the opening was a bit rough, but once it got going, it became really engrossing. In fact, and this is high praise from me, I didn’t skip a single word — I felt really invested and compelled to continue reading. The style is raw (explicit, like in raw poetry) and rich in texture, but never slows the story down.

If you read a lot of horror, you won’t find this book disturbing; if you don’t, you might be a bit ruffled, but I really don’t think it’s too bad. There is some blood and gore, but they’re necessary within the context of the story and I found them meaningful and well executed.

Overall, very well done.

The Warm Machine (Humanity Series Book 1) by [Rain, Seth]

The Warm Machine

by Seth Rain

This is a near-future pre-apocalyptic novel focusing on the questions of free will, the limits of technology, and the place of religion (and effects of religious zealotry) in a modern world. I like the central idea and am looking forward to the sequel to this fast-paced thriller. I felt the prose in the first half was a bit uneven and occasionally stilted, which interfered with starting to care about the characters and getting into the story. However, I am glad I stuck with it, as around the halfway point the novel finds its footing and it’s smooth, immersive sailing from there on. The flashback chapters on the relationship between the protagonist and his wife feature some of the novel’s best writing, showcasing the author’s mastery at invoking emotion that is the staple of his excellent short fiction. Overall, this was an enjoyable read and I am looking forward to more by Seth Rain.

My Sister, the Serial Killer: A Novel by [Braithwaite, Oyinkan]

My Sister, the Serial Killer

by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Taut and hard-hitting, with clear, fluid, unassuming prose, a compelling plot, and realistic, complicated characters. The tension between love (romantic and familial), violence, and loyalty gives this short novel its life force as the female characters make choices in a world where their options are severely restricted. I really enjoyed the sounds, hues, and textures of an urban Nigerian setting.

Review: Two Novellas by D.J. Cockburn

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Arctic Adagio
by D.J. Cockburn

I knew the author from his earlier novella Caresaway, which I really liked, and I wasn’t disappointed with his new work. Arctic Adagio (great title, by the way) is fast paced, well written, and a quick read (under an hour). This near-future murder mystery is well plotted, with engaging characters, clean and fluid prose, and a satisfying resolution.

The worldbuilding is done discreetly, through well-chosen details, and is quite effective. We leave being well aware of the crushing inequality and corruption that governs the world of Arctic Adagio. For example, a luxury cruise ship in this post-global-warming world where the world’s trillionaires hang out is named Ayn Rand. There are also interesting observations that enhance the story. For example, a trophy wife who came from poverty “…had yet to get the hang of authority. People born to it, like her husband, didn’t bother reminding me of it.”

Overall, a satisfying and swift Kindle read. Recommended.

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by D.J. Cockburn

If you could cure depression at the cost of becoming a psychopath, would you do it? It turns out that, for many people, the answer is yes. But that’s not the most important aspect of this richly textured and well-written story. Caresaway is the name of a fictitious drug that, well, takes your cares away. We meet the drug’s developer, Edward Crofte, who was once a sufferer from deep depression and is now a successful and arrogant executive devoid of empathy. I don’t want to spoil the story, but let me say that the plot clearly shows what Edward has lost versus gained with the drug, how others respond to the drug and to him, and what people are ready to do (or not) to avoid feeling emotional pain.

Review: Tales from the Realm, Vol. 1

Aphotic Realm is an up-and-coming fiction magazine for the strange and the sinister, co-edited by Adrian Alexander Medina and Dustin Schyler Yoak. Tales from the Realm Vol. 1 is the “best of” collection for 2017, and it is simply excellent. Special kudos to Aphotic Realm‘s art director Gunnar Larsen, the creator of the anthology’s gorgeous cover, who consistently provides the magazine and the themed anthologies with eerie, breathtaking visuals.

The anthology offers something for every fan of dark fiction. There are mythical creatures, monsters, ghosts, and various undead; the kind of evil we cannot comprehend and the kind we can; bonds between people that transcend all obstacles and those that destroy us; foreign places, foreign worlds, and how oblivious we are to the perils; above all, the fragility, majesty, and darkness in us humans and in all we strive for.

Silencing the Bell by Gary Buller. Explores the consequences of inexcusable actions, guilt, and punishment.

Other Mother by Skye Makaris. A tale of a fairy who’s served royalty for generations, and the costs of those relationships to everyone involved. Beautiful and intricate.

Imagination by A. K. Summers. What happens when what’s inside our heads makes no sense to the rest of the world.

Rot Brothers by Simon McHardy. Relationships between siblings, mistakes, loss, and revenge.

The Trials of Man by Tevis Shkoora. A fantasy tale of a royal coming of age, and learning the hard way that the world is much bigger than himself.

The Wall’s End by Rudolfo Serna. The conditions on Earth have changed and so have humans, but will the modifications persist through generations?

The Forgotten House by S. J. Budd. Be careful what you wish for, because someone might acquire it for you. And not in the way you’ve envisioned.

Persistence of Memories by John Crain. A well-written sci-fi story of extraterrestrial exploration. It reminds us of that old saying that involves a feline and a thirst for knowledge…

Enid and the Owls by K.T. Wagner. A heartbreaking, dark tale of aging; how the world stops seeing that people matter in their twilight years.

The Yellow Door by Isha Ro. Precise and unflinching, a story of meaningless and perennial evil in our midst.

No Laughing Matter by Phil Temples. A detective story, with a hilarious, absurd premise that somehow, deep down, feels surprisingly…not absurd.

My Better Half by Mark Blickley. Funny and unapologetic, a tale of a self-absorbed man who has a lot to learn and a unique opportunity to do so, yet, being who he is, doesn’t.

Dinner Party by Ashley Libey. A tight sci-fi gem, with vivid characters and sharp glistening edges, literally and metaphorically.

Cajoled by Bronte Pearson. Even the seemingly safest places can be replete with danger when we’re vulnerable.

A Mother’s Love by Micah Castle. A beautifully crafted fantasy piece, revealing darkness within people and the protective power of love.

Provident Justice by Carrier Connel-Gripp. Teenagers, man; teenagers. Gripping, with a surprising and ultimately heartwarming resolution.

Number Seventeen by J. R. Heatherton. Gaslighting, ’tis all I will say. If you watch The Handmaid’s Tale, this story might give the same feeling in the pit of your stomach; it’s a mixture of incredulity, helplessness, and rage.

The Shape of Government Center by Gene Grantham. You know how parents ask, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you follow?” Now replace the bridge with the creepiest, spookiest building you know.

An Almost Cannibal by Morgan K. Tanner. A gentleman of good taste makes his fortune as a special kind of motivational speaker. This story features exquisitely vivid, stomach-churning imagery.

Black Lung Hay Fever by S. E. Casey. Set in a sleepy town, the story slithers, relentless, as if everything is business as usual. Terror emerges from the deceptive molasses of routine.

Truly, this is an excellent anthology. However, if you want to read just one story from it, I recommend Other Mother; I believe it is also the longest piece in there. I remember Other Mother from months ago, when I first came across Apothic Realm‘s website. The story blew my mind: gorgeous but unassuming prose, a number of well-crafted characters, relationships that feel organic even though the characters aren’t all human, and a fairly (pun intended) complex plot with several surprises. This story has a lot of heart but tries to keep a stiff upper lip. Also, you are guaranteed to notice the opening sentence.

If you’d like a few shorter stories that span a wide range of topics — a taster flight, it you will — I recommend picking from among Enid and the Owls, Persistence of Memories, The Yellow Door, Dinner Party, A Mother’s Love, Provident Justice, and Black Lung Hay Fever.

Overall, a great collection. I look forward to the 2018 anthology and suggest keeping an eye on Aphotic Realm — I predict exciting times ahead for this splendid new magazine.

Review: Drabbledark — An Anthology of Dark Drabbles

Drabbledark, edited by Eric Fomley, is an anthology of 100-word-long stories (drabbles) that slither and slide along the darkest edges of fantasy, science fiction, realism, and humor.

As a supporter of a crowdfunding campaign for a different publication by the same editor, I received Drabbledark in three electronic formats (pdf, epub, and mobi). I looked at the epub and pdf versions in detail, and the formatting is excellent. I read the entire anthology on the phone (epub); the layout is clean and beautiful. I am sure reading on a Kindle or a nook would be just as enjoyable.

The collection contains 101 drabbles by 86 authors. Most stories are original submissions, the rest are high-quality reprints. If you’ve never read microfiction, be forewarned that reading 101 100-word pieces requires considerably more focus than reading 10,100 words of a longer piece. A drabble is the double-espresso shot to a short story’s or novella’s 20-oz filter coffee. A well-written drabble can deliver great emotional impact and demands great reader engagement, because every word matters. Luckily for us readers, Drabbledark contains many well-written drabbles.

The collection covers a remarkable range of topics: ghosts and apparitions, goblins, vampires, curses, the devil in its many forms, human sacrifices, body horror, cannibals, psychopaths and other murderers, entrapment, real monsters and monsters within us (especially within children), mirrors (a perennial motif in dark fiction), dystopia, artificial intelligence, politics, aliens, genetic engineering, space travel, addiction, suicide, child abuse, and, thankfully, some humor. Some of my favorites from the collection include Body Jewelry, Poor Nathan, The Lady on the Bus, Lesson Learned, Feralization,  Suicide Hotline, Enchanted Leftovers, Inspiration Point, Ghosts of the Past, Midnight Imposter, A Small Misunderstanding, What Alice Wants, but this list is far from exhaustive.

In summary, I greatly enjoyed reading Drabbledark. Owing to the breadth of topics and quality of stories, which were presented within an elegant,  reader-friendly layout, I would highly recommend Drabbledark as a quick introduction to the genre of dark fiction. However, beware: a likely side effect of reading this ambitious anthology of blood-curdling gems is a frighteningly deep, almost otherworldly attachment to microfiction.

Review: Three Sisters of Stone by Stephanie Hutton


Stephanie Hutton is one of today’s best writers of flash fiction (short fiction under 1000 words in length). I enjoy her writing for its clarity and poignancy, and was excited at the news that her novella-in-flash Three Sisters of Stone would be published by Ellipsis Zine in early 2018. In the novella-in-flash format, each flash — itself a standalone story with a clear conflict-and-resolution arc — also serves as a building block in a much longer, more complex narrative. While flash typically addresses an incident that is focused in time and space, when woven together, these sparkling bits of fiction can create a vivid tapestry of longer periods and distances.

Stephanie Hutton’s novella-in-flash is a beautiful example of the form. The book tracks the relationships among three sisters who grew up in an abusive household: the bonds formed and broken, the damage seen and unseen, and how the three cope with the burdens of their trauma as they move into adulthood. Stephanie is a writer of great compassion and tenderness, observant and unobtrusive. Her narrator, Bella, the middle sister and the peacemaker, is torn between a painful need for intimacy and a fear that comes from years of torment. She is a trembling heartstring, a thread that connects the analytical and distracted Agnes, the exuberant but fragile Chloe, and their broken, withdrawn mother.

There are many beautiful and profound moments in the novella, and I would do them injustice by quoting them out of context. Instead, I will say that my favorite flashes include “Sardines”, “Outside and Inside”, “Room”; “Mask”, and “What Mother Never Did”. Also, among the many heartbreaking scenes, this one, between the adult Bella and her mother, hit me hardest:

‘I never did lay a finger on you,’ mother repeated, staring down into the milk swirling around dark liquid.

I shook my head in reply. …No, mother never did lay a finger on me. Or place two arms around me. Or lean her head against mine to kiss me goodnight. She never did lay a finger on me, and maybe that was the ache.

Stephanie’s lovely writing is a treat and her novella-in-flash will delight both the readers who appreciate flash and those who crave richly textured literary fiction in longer form.