Review: “Forgotten Stars & Distant Seas” J.B. Rockwell

Rating: 5 out of 5

J.B. Rockwell’s Forgotten Stars & Distant Seas is mostly sci-fi, but it also contains a nice dose of horror in the latter half. Captain Tom Faraday has been dumped in a babysitting role–his ship guards a science vessel that’s working to terraform the most promising planet yet. He and Doctor Anthea Naisson–the head scientist–seem to clash, but it remains to be seen how well they can work together when needed. Unfortunately, it becomes necessary very quickly. A mysterious sensor flicker becomes a cascading sensor network failure, and before they know it, there are a lot of unexpected ships coming at them. When the AI system of Tom’s ship becomes compromised, everything is turned on its head, and Tom and Anthea end up landing on a possibly-livable planet–with no ability to leave.

Roughly the first half of this is nifty material about terraforming, ship AIs, Tom, Anthea, and some seriously pulse-pounding space battles. The world-building is great, and the action is every bit as good. In the second half, we get to see an alien planet, some colony ships, and the hope that they’ve found a new place to live. Yet as they explore, they discover the planet looks much more welcoming than it is.

The side characters are surprisingly well-drawn, given how many of them die at one point or another. It’s easy to care about what happens to them. There’s also some seriously intriguing world-building going on–both in the case of the background to the space battle, and in the case of the mysterious planet. Tom and Anthea are both grouches, and neither of them seems to particularly like people in general, but apart from a few clashes early on they get along pretty well. It’s a normal and enjoyable level of push-and-pull rather than the over-dramatized kind of thing you see in some stories. I totally understand each of the times that they can’t quite connect.

The ship AIs–Hadrian and Persephone–are also really fascinating. There’s a question of just how “alive” they are, and whether “emulators” just allow them to fake emotions to make them more interesting, or actually make them somehow emotional creatures. There are no easy answers, which I like.

This is a wonderful story that kept me glued to my e-reader. It’s at turns exciting, heart-warming, and horrifying. Rockwell is one author I’ll have to keep an eye on, clearly!

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Short Take: “Hooker,” M. Lopes da Silva

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The quality of the Rewind or Die books is variable; I’ve given everything from a 3 to a 5 for the ones I’ve read so far. Hooker (Rewind or Die), written by M. Lopes da Silva, gets a 3.5 out of 5. It’s fairly short. It’s a story about sex workers in Los Angeles and a serial killer stalking them, in 1984. Penny is a sex worker, while her older sister Sylvia is trying to study law. Sylvia ends up stalking the serial killer even as the killer stalks others, while getting help from a journalist named Crystal and a couple of other sex workers.

One thing I really love is that the serial killer is not centered in this tale. The author never even dignifies him with a name, nor a terribly in-depth description. He isn’t the important part of the story, and there’s nothing with which to lionize him. I also liked the positive depiction of sex work–that not everyone does it because they have no choice, and it would be a lot safer for sex workers if the work was legalized. It would also help if the cops didn’t ignore someone just because they’re a sex worker and thus have no perceived value. There’s not a single positive interaction with a male in this book, and I suspect that for female sex workers that’s pretty true-to-life. The police don’t even seem to be all that interested in catching the killer until he kills a john. There’s also a hilarious mansplaining incident that I quite loved.

Overall this was a good book, but the dialogue often felt pretty unnatural, and some of the characters were a bit stiff.

Content note: there’s a little bit of gore, but not much. Most stuff is off-the-page. There’s a nice lesbian relationship in here, though.

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Review: “Black Dogs Black Tales,” ed. Tabatha Wood, Cassie Hart

Rating: 4 out of 5

The anthology Black Dogs, Black Tales – Where the Dogs Don’t Die: A Charity Anthology for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand investigates the analogy of mental illness as a “black dog.” Sometimes the black dog is tangential; sometimes it’s the center of the story. The book also tries to provide a sort of safe space in which the dog doesn’t die, but if you really need to avoid any harm to dogs then don’t read “The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall” by Kaaron Warren–there are some rather callous puppy deaths in that story. There are also some poems and pieces of art, but I don’t feel qualified to comment on those, so I won’t.

One of my favorite stories in this volume is the first: “Black Cloud Sunshine” by Dan Roberts. Young Liam is hanging out reading near the woods when lightning strikes and a wildfire starts. His dog, Ebony, is determined to see him safely home. L.L. Asher’s “Shifting in the Black” is a story in which I don’t entirely understand what’s going on (except that with the help of a giant dog, John rescues children in danger), but I also felt that I didn’t really need to understand in order to appreciate the story. That’s pretty rare. Tabatha Woods’s “Night Wolves” introduces a woman who lost her sister Emily not long ago, and the mysterious dog that accompanies her to the graveyard every day. E.E. King’s “The Honeymoon’s Over” is a really excellent story about a dog and a couple of hit-and-run accidents. I don’t want to give anything away so I won’t say more! Galina Trefil’s “Use a Shovel” is a difficult-to-read depiction of spousal abuse, but the ending is wonderful.

J.C. Hart’s “The Dead Way” sees a young girl begging her mother not to go down the dead end street where their dog disappeared to. Matthew R. Davis’s “Vision Thing” gives us shades of A Christmas Carol as a mysterious woman attempts to show a man how useless his life is on Halloween night. Melanie Harding-Shaw’s “Synaesthete” introduces us to a person who sees creatures behind people’s eyes. P.J. Blakey-Novis’s “Fossil Bluff” takes place in Antarctica, where researchers encounter a yeti-like monster. M.E. Proctor’s “Black and Tan” is a very bizarre story of a marriage going bad, and a wife who’s determined to adopt a dog her husband doesn’t want. Alan Baxter’s “Yellow Dog” is a tale of a homeless man who gives a dog a sandwich, and I enjoyed it.

Kaaron Warren’s “The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall” is a story I mentioned above, that has a decent amount of animal death, including puppy death, in it regardless of the book’s sub-title. I really found the main character to be fascinating, however, and the bizarre world in which she lives is intriguing. It’s a bit bizarre and surreal and sad at the same time. Ian J. Middleton’s “Park Life” is a look at the more traditional black dog of mental illness, with a twist. John Linwood Grant’s “Grey Dog” is a Carnacki story with a grey dog who seems to be waiting for a man to die. Hari Navarro’s “I Am Become” was too confusing to me toward the end; it starts off great but just gets so odd after a certain point. I really have no idea what was going on at the end. Justin Guleserian’s “Redbone” is a surprising story about a police officer with a search-and-rescue dog who’s called in to search for the mayor’s missing wife. Octavia Cade’s “The Feather Wall” is a disease-apocalypse story centered on a ranger who’s stranded on an island alone with his dog, protecting endangered wildlife. This story meanders and never entirely seems to settle, but it was nice.

There are no stories here that particularly bothered me or annoyed me–all of them are solidly good. This is a delightful anthology, whose profits are going to an excellent cause. I definitely recommend it!

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Short Take: “Operation Yukon,” William Meikle

Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Operation: Yukon is the 11th book in his wonderful S-Squad series. These are fun military-versus-monsters tales with a squad of Scottish lads who get a reputation for being monster magnets. I urge you to read the whole series, because it’s just so delightful.

This entry is a little different: Wiggins (Wiggo) has been recently promoted to Sergeant, and this tale is told in a first-person point of view narrated by him. (Before we were largely focused on the captain.) He has a new corporal to deal with, and that corporal doesn’t seem entirely ideal for the unit. Their unique experience with monsters gets them sent to Canada to look into a joint Canadian/UK research team that’s gone silent. They don’t even make it as far as the research station, though, when they find some dire wolves that look awfully familiar from their trip to Siberia. And the town they come across has become a hunting ground.

The critters the squad is going up against are tough and formidable. There are also some interesting characters about, my favorite being Sheriff Sue. It’s fun to see Wiggo teach the new guy a few lessons, but of course there’s more depth to the corporal than that as well. It’s a relatively quick read, but there’s still room for triumphs and heartbreak, strategy and tactics, cigarettes and coffee.

Content note: slurs (the new corporal doesn’t think very highly of gay or Black soldiers, which is a pity seeing as how they’re on his team–but don’t worry, Wiggo isn’t about to let him disrespect his squaddies). Also there is monstrous-animal-harm and -death.

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Review: “Tapetum Lucidum,” Sisters of Slaughter

Rating: 3 out of 5

I’ve really enjoyed the short stories that I’ve read by the “Sisters of Slaughter” (Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason). Their horror novel Tapetum Lucidum didn’t stand up quite as well. Some teenagers looking to have one last blast go out to an abandoned cabin in the woods, where they drink and do drugs. One, Jeremiah, likes spending his time carving walking sticks, and he finds some really interesting branches from an aspen grove. Unfortunately, when that wood is cut, it frees hungry predators who were laid to rest in that grove. Nothing can satisfy their unnatural hunger for flesh and blood, and soon they threaten the whole town of 9,000 people.

The basics of this as a monster horror story are good. There’s lots of great action, plenty of gore, and tons of deaths. Unfortunately it’s the details that don’t quite work out.

There are far too many named characters in here. On the plus side, this means there are plenty of people for the monsters to torment and kill. On the minus side, this makes it impossible to keep track of who half of these people are. Most writers find a balance point by introducing some of the characters just in time for them to get killed in their individual vignettes. In this novel, we’re supposed to keep track of who most of these characters are. Some of the characters do have a surprising amount of depth to them given how many characters there are, such as the alcoholic father of a teen who’s killed early on, and the religious mother of a teen who’s pregnant. Also, there ain’t no way a town this size can support a mayor in such cushy style (cocktails, cigars, golf, estate, butler who comes with the position, security details).

Some of the dialogue feels fairly stilted, sometimes oddly formal, and mostly similar from character to character. Sometimes the scenes switch without any kind of indication except that suddenly the narrative is mentioning different names (which isn’t sufficient, given how many characters there are to keep track of). There are at least several places where there are blips in the description, such as this one:

He walked back over to Lulu’s and strutted in… He shook away the sentimental feeling and walked quickly up the street to Lulu’s.

SPOILER WARNING: The whole thing has something to do with a tribe of indigenous peoples who, as I understand it, cannibalized some of the colonists and whose spirits were then bound to the aspen grove by other indigenous people. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the monsters who were once indigenous peoples seem to be depicted as bloodthirsty savages. There’s also the standard “we have to go to the wise old native guy to find out what to do” sequence. However, the fact that a handful of indigenous people from the area come to help (without single-handedly saving the day) is a bit new and different. End of spoilers

This isn’t my favorite recent book, but it’s decently tense, and I would read more by these authors.

Content note for animal harm and death, general horror story gore, alcoholism, some drugs.

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Review: “Campfire Macabre,” Various Authors

Rating: 5 out of 5

I rarely give multiple-author anthologies a 5 out of 5, but Campfire Macabre earned it. It’s filled with an astounding number of flash fiction horror stories–500-1000 words long each. If you enjoy both horror and the short-short story, you should absolutely read this book.

The anthology is divided into several themed sections. The first is “Spook Houses,” followed by “Supernatural Slashers,” “Witchcraft,” “Within the Woods,” and “Cemetery Chillers.” This is a great way to provide both some variety in story and topic, while keeping things themed enough to please those of us who like themed anthologies. The haunted house section includes wasps in the walls, the creation of a haunted house, a woman’s sacrifices for her music, and a haunted lighthouse. The slashers include an urban legend tale, a critter with a lot of teeth, a giant crayfish(!), a dead woman’s special recipe being made by her widower husband, a really interesting summoned demon tale, and a hungry pregnant woman. Witch stories involve some revenge, some favor-seeking, some desperate spells, and an old woman who keeps stealing her neighbor’s milk deliveries. Woods tales tell of a baby found in the woods, a mysterious giant tree, and an old abandoned freezer. Cemetery tales include multiple ways and types of life beyond the grave: I know that sounds pretty basic, but there are some powerful stories in here.

So many of these stories are quite wonderful; I’ll just touch on a few of my favorites plus a few notes here and there.

A couple of these stories could do with either being a bit longer to wrap things up, or being re-written to be much longer stories on the whole. For instance, I really hope Sonora Taylor decides to write a longer version of her haunted lighthouse story, “Keepers of the Light.” I felt like it needed (and was worth) more depth; that there was more story there to be experienced. On the “just a bit longer please” end of the spectrum is Adam Godfrey’s “A Busy Season,” in which a pregnant woman has some interesting cravings. I really wanted to see where this was going! As for Sara Tantlinger’s “Dewdrops and Blood,” I desperately wanted to know what mistake had turned the local Puca against the characters.

One of my frequent complaints about horror stories regards the stories that make perfect sense right up until the ending, when the author decides to throw something in that suddenly clouds or confuses the issue, or sends the story off in a weird direction with no time to spend on it. Derek Austin Johnson’s “Final Girl” was one of these–I absolutely loved the story, but the ending got a little confusing.

Corey Farrenkopf’s “A Sleepwalker’s Hands” is a flash fiction about someone who keeps waking up to find people’s lost items in their bedroom. I absolutely love where this one goes. Hailey Piper’s “The Bird With the Clownish Plumage” is a wonderful, wild story about two kids dressed up as clowns on Halloween, and the feral clowns they encounter in the woods. “Heartwood,” by doungjai gam, is a really neat story about two girls making up spells in the woods.

“The Intern,” by Michael J. Moore, could have leaned into its seemingly stereotypical story of an older, married lawyer who slept with his intern after a few drinks, but it ended up being more interesting than that, and I loved where it went. Monique Youzwa’s “Waking the Dead” and Kenneth W. Cain’s “Shattered World” were particularly powerful, for very different reasons. One shows the strength of hatred, while the other explores the consequences of grief. S.H. Cooper’s “Hunger” similarly could have fallen into a cliche but turned out to be really fun.

Ali Seay’s “A Little Justice” sees a woman named Heather who’s driving through a snowstorm while trying to figure out how to break it to her boyfriend–who’s sitting next to her–that she knows he’s cheating on her. This may be the first time I’ve met another Heather in literature whom I could enjoy relating to!

If you enjoy most types of horror, you’ll find plenty of excellent authors and stories in here. It might introduce you to a few new names to look up!

Content note: suicide, homicide, blood, a couple of slurs, child death, and general horror story mischief.

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Queer Adult SFF!

If you’re looking for recent queer adult science fiction and fantasy, today I stumbled across this huge list of it! It’s assembled by author K.A. Doore: 2021 Queer Adult Science Fiction & Fantasy Books.

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Review: “The Ruin of Delicate Things,” Beverley Lee

Rating: 5 out of 5

Beverley Lee’s horror/paranormal novel The Ruin of Delicate Things is absolutely fascinating. Dan Morgan and his wife Faye recently lost their son, Toby. Dan just inherited a cottage from his Aunt Lucinda and thinks that going back to the town he spent summers in as a kid might help the two of them to reconnect. Lucinda’s caveat for Dan owning the cottage was that he never sell it. Once they arrive, things get a bit strange. Aunt Lucinda’s solicitor, Albert Jenkins, is a tad odd. The people in the village clearly don’t want Dan and Faye there. Dan starts to realize that he’s forgotten something, and that something bad happened that caused him to stop visiting Lucinda. When Faye is forced by a storm to enter the abandoned Barrington Hall, something takes an interest in her. And Dan is going to have to fight hard to keep what remains of his family together.

This is a fascinating story. There’s something unusual living in the woods that surround the cabin, and it doesn’t like people. Dan is a hard character to like, but engaging enough to want to see what happens to him and his wife. Their marriage is coming apart at the seams, and neither of them is handling it particularly well. In fact, there are very few “likable” characters in this story. Everyone has ulterior motives, or is hiding a terrible past, or doesn’t like outsiders, etc.

There are a lot of secrets hidden in the woods and in nearby Barrington Hall, and those secrets don’t like people. There are different gradations of evil and harm. There are mysterious creatures and an all-too-human evil. There are ghosts and other supernatural beings. There’s fascinating history. There are past trespasses and harms. The book has a building sense of danger about it, and it’s unlikely that all will end well.

In its own way, this is a story about respect, and what happens when you don’t respect others, respect rules, and respect the past. There’s a lot of originality in how things unfold, and it’s a fascinating tale.

Content note: animal harm/death (in some detail) and child death.

If you entered Barrington Hall, you never left alone.

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Review: “The Kelping,” Jan Stinchcomb

Rating: 3 out of 5

I love the concept of the “Rewind or Die” series of kind of classic-style horror novels, but the quality seems to vary a lot. I give Jan Stinchcomb’s The Kelping (Rewind or Die) a 3/5.

Craig is a dermatologist creating beautiful faces in the lovely town of Beachside. He’s a shoe-in for the Sea King Festival’s crowning of the Sea King, and his wife Penelope takes getting to be the Sea Queen very seriously. But someone seems to be trying to blackmail him about “that little cutie on the bike path,” and, well, Craig is a serial adulterer. Penelope knows, and seems to forgive him, although she wants him to stop. He’s tried, but he always falls into his old habits. After the Sea King festival, something strange starts to affect him–and he’s afraid it’s going to kill him.

The first half of this book or so was… shallow. Very surface level. I never really felt like I got a handle on any of the characters. Other than Craig, they all had one, maybe two traits, and that was it. Then he meets up with a man named “Dude Pelikan” who info-dumps a massive amount of information on him, and we’re shoved straight down to the depths with no real transition. The latter half of the book is much better and more interesting than the first, despite the massive info-dump on Dude’s part. I think this would have been a lot better as a short story that focused on the second half of the story and didn’t try to include so many unexplained, unfinished ideas (see the spoiler paragraph below for some of the questions I was left with).

SPOILER WARNING: There are a bunch of things that never get dealt with. What was with the odd cake Craig found? What was the deal with the “kiss” the mermaid in the attic wanted passed along to him before the festival? What about the small woman who waded into the sea, and why did she waylay Craig? Why did none of this happen to the previous “Sea King”? Was it really the kelp and odd “glaze” that did this to him, or was it that small woman, or was it because he didn’t get the kiss, or was it Penelope’s doing, or was it a combination of some of these things? Why would someone think that attempting to blackmail Craig would be the best way to get to talk to him alone? End spoilers.

This is an interesting book with a clever idea, but it really takes a while to get into the meat of things.

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Review: “The Girl Next Door,” Jack Ketchum

Rating: 5 out of 5

I finally got around to reading Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door after hearing a lot about it. There are some things you need to know if you’re thinking of reading it. One, it’s based on a true story, which makes it even scarier than it would be as is (Ketchum notes after the story that he actually softened the details a bit, which makes it even more horrifying). And two, you should probably consider this book to have all the content/trigger warnings: torture, rape, assault, sexual assault, slurs, and animal harm, at the very least. All of it explicit.

Teenaged Meg and her younger sister Susan lost their parents in a car accident that also disabled Susan. They’re sent to live with a distant relative, Ruth, and her sons. All does not go well. Ruth seems to have some very extreme viewpoints regarding women and girls, and she’s kind of off the rails as well, which results in Ruth “punishing” Meg and Susan in some very over-the-top ways for what are really small issues. When Meg tries to stand up to Ruth, Ruth loses it. She imprisons Meg in a concrete shelter in the basement and eggs on her sons and their friends to get them to help torture Meg. The narrator, David, isn’t as happy as some of the others to hurt Meg, but he also doesn’t do anything to stop it from happening until things have gotten well and truly out of control.

A couple of characters do try to talk to authorities, only for us to see how terribly the police can fail kids, who are largely seen as their guardians’ property. While the narrator is clearly the best of the group of kids, he’s still not a positive character. He’s just barely sympathetic enough for the reader to be okay with having him as a narrator, but he still waits a long time before screwing up the empathy and courage needed to do something.

Thankfully Ketchum doesn’t try to make him into an overly sympathetic character, because I think that would have backfired. If he’d waited so long to do something just because he was afraid, I think he would have been even less understandable, if that makes sense. The truth is, he’s fascinated by what’s going on. This is really the first time he’s gotten to see a naked girl, and he’s being given permission by Ruth to go a little wild. Although he doesn’t want to see Meg hurt, he kind of feels like Ruth–who’s always been a friend to the neighborhood kids–must have a reason for “punishing” Meg. He doesn’t want to upset his position in the local pecking order. He doesn’t know how to get the police to step up and do something. Yet none of this is meant to redeem him–he clearly isn’t that much better than his neighbors.

It’s particularly scary to watch how the town’s kids get sucked into what’s going on. Ruth is the fun neighbor who gives kids beer and speaks frankly to them. It’s just her own kids, David, and one or two others, but gradually more and more people get sucked in. It’s all a game to the kids at first. The fact that this is a “softened” version of a true story really makes you think about how on earth something like this could happen, how so many people could step over that line and stay there.

This is a very tough read, but it asks some very important questions.

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