Review: “Recall Night,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Alan Baxter’s Recall Night: An Eli Carver Supernatural Thriller – Book 2, Eli Carver has spent the past two years laying low in Canada. When his ghosts come back to haunt him–all five of them–he gets a message from Carly that she’s cleaned up the situation back home and therefore he’s safe to come back. He sets out by train, and ends up meeting Bridget Carlson, a professional gambler who’s trying to escape the man who taught her–with all the money she stole from him. When she goes to pay off a mobster she owes money to–paying Eli to be her “bodyguard”–they get caught up in a mob war. After they save Mr. Lombardi’s life, and Bridget loses her money to one of the attackers, the mob boss manipulates them into going after his enemies, who have apparently kidnapped his wife, Cora.

I love Eli’s troupe of ghosts of some of the people he’s killed. There’s Michael Privedi, his childhood best friend, his first kill and the least antagonistic of the ghosts. There’s Dwight Ramsey, a racist weed grower. There’s Sly Barclay, a Jamaican gang member and drug dealer. (As you might imagine, Dwight and Sly do not get along.) There’s Alvin Crake, auto mechanic and asshole. And then there’s Officer Graney, a police officer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m pretty sure thanks to the ending of the last book that they’re all “real,” but Eli Carver still worries he’s just psychotic and they’re all in his head. Most of them seem to want to see him dead, but he still gets hints and warnings from them sometimes. I particularly appreciate, given the way things are going in the world right now, that Officer Graney isn’t an angel or even necessarily a good guy just because he wasn’t doing anything bad at the time of his death.

One amusing through-line is that Eli’s been reading some Japanese books and has decided he is a “ronin” and he should live by some sort of “code.” His ghostly entourage thinks this is hilarious, and love pointing out how he manages to rationalize so much killing as being within this code. He does go through some serious mental contortions to keep himself on Bridget’s side. Also, Eli is having to try to be subtle and inconspicuous in order to find out what he wants to know, and it’s pretty damn hilarious given how non-subtle he is.

This isn’t an incredibly long book, but it’s packed full of action, some confusion, and a heavy dash of the probably paranormal (between the ghosts and a character called “Papa Night”). I think the previous book was a little better just because I loved so much the experience of watching Eli try to remember who he was, with bits and pieces coming back as she went along. But this is an excellent read.

Content note for lots of killin’.

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Review: “Infested,” Carol Gore

Rating: 4 out of 5

Carol Gore’s Infested (Rewind or Die) is a great classic-style horror novel. Casey works for the Green Swamp Zip-Line Adventure and Campground. At the moment, she’s been helping Dr. Phillip Edwards release sterilized mosquitos that are supposed to help lower the population of mosquitos on the whole. It’s the result of a grant from a nearby university, and Casey hopes it will keep the man who runs the campground, Mr. Wright, from using damaging pesticides in the swamp. It’s bad enough that the chemical plant upstream has previously contaminated the local water. Then the unthinkable happens–a person is attacked by hundreds of seriously large mosquitos, and dies. Next there are humongous horse flies that eat an alligator alive. Unfortunately, Mr. Wright refuses to shut the park down, tries to victim-blame for one incident, and–oh yeah, he has ties to the chemical company! Can Casey and Phillip figure out what’s happening and make it stop before the entire town is eaten alive?

The characters are great. Casey has a troubled family, is often dismissed and overlooked by her boss, and just wants to be able to make a living in the swamp that’s always been there for her. Phillip starts out as the befuddled professor, but he has a certain strength to him as well. And might there be an attraction between the two? Mr. Wright is not as well-detailed, but he also isn’t the focus of the book, so I think it works well enough. Casey’s family–her depressed, pill-popping mom and her bully of a cop brother–turn out to have more to them than I expected, which was nice.

The swamp is great, and I love the descriptions of the overgrown insects. Centipedes, spiders, roaches, wheelbugs–they all start showing up in larger sizes and with disturbing appetites. It’s a classic horror-style monster romp with a great cast and a fun plot. There are some good surprises along the way, too, despite the fact that this isn’t an incredibly long book!

All in all I really enjoyed this book. I did have one complaint: at one point Casey takes it upon herself to make her mom go cold turkey from pain pills, alcohol, and anti-depressants, all at once. Any one of those without the supervision of a doctor could go incredibly badly, much less all three!

Content note for gore and some seriously scary insects!

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Review: “Beneath the Rising,” Premee Mohamed

Rating: 5 out of 5

Premee Mohamed’s cosmic horror novel Beneath The Rising bowled me over. Right from the start we’re presented with a highly unusual friendship of sorts. Joanna “Johnny” Chambers was born to a wealthy family, and possesses an inhuman level of intelligence; every aspect of people’s lives has been touched by her creations and inventions. Nick Prasad is the same age, but he was born to a poor family and he’s nothing more than… ordinary. Yet somehow, no matter how long they go between visits as she country-hops and he works stocking groceries in a store, they always come back together again. Nick has a feeling he’s kind of in love with Johnny, but he’s also aware that he doesn’t really know what love is at this point in his life (they’re just past high-school age). One night Johnny builds a device the size of a shoebox that can deliver endless energy. But it changes everything. Suddenly she and Nick spot a dark being in the distance watching them, and then it threatens Nick, wanting him to get the device for it. Before long, there are horrifying creatures entering our world, and Johnny may be the only one who can stop the invasion that’s coming from another dimension–with Nick’s help.

The book immediately establishes itself as being in an alternate timeline from ours by mentioning the day two planes almost crashed into the World Trade Towers. Most of the changes we see are due to Johnny. Her solar panels adorn roofs around the world, she has a drug that treats dementia, and she cured HIV. As the book goes on, there are other little signs of the results of her genius. It’s fascinating.

Just when you’re starting to think that no matter how brilliant Johnny may be, there’s no way she could have done all that she has, more detail comes on board. And in a world where there are people who’ve been alive for a thousand years, hidden spells that can lock the Ancient Ones out of the world, and frighteningly powerful beings can walk into our world, it begins to make sense. Everyone thinks Johnny is the ultimate scientist, but she may be more magician than scientist.

Johnny and Nick end up racing around the world to find what they need to prevent the Ancient Ones from overrunning and destroying our world. Everything is arrayed against them: the police, since they’ve been tagged as runaways. Members of various secret orders, who have a few bones to pick with Johnny. Deadly creatures that will do anything to stop them.

The relationship between Nick and Johnny is what really makes this book. I don’t recall ever seeing a cosmic horror novel in which so much fascinating space is spent on a friendship. From the time they met (when they were both shot during a hostage crisis–they have untreated PTSD), to the upcoming end of the world, their friendship has been a delicate thing. They have in-jokes and they enjoy ribbing each other–something I’ll guarantee Johnny can’t get from anyone else. They’re tied together by a couple of near-death experiences. At the same time they’re torn apart by class, intellect, racial, and wealth differences. Add to that the weight of being virtual children who have to save the world with very little help… yeah, it gets pretty hard on them.

This is such a wonderful book. I really hope to read more by Ms. Mohamed someday!

The familiar song of envy and resentment and adoration and excitement of having Johnny back in town.

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Review: “Manifest Recall,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 5 out of 5

Alan Baxter’s paranormal thriller Manifest Recall (Eli Carver Supernatural Thriller) starts out in a moving car, with Eli Carver behind the wheel. He has no idea where he is, how he got there, or why he has Carly in the passenger seat with her hands tied. Gradually pieces come back to him. He was a hit man for mobster Vernon Sykes. Carly is Vernon’s stepdaughter. Every time he comes closer to remembering anything recent, he blanks out again. Carly seems surprisingly okay with being kidnapped, but she’s decidedly not okay with Eli blanking out and stuffing her in the trunk. As Carly tries to help Eli remember what happened without going over a mental cliff, Eli racks up a body count. He’s also haunted by the ghosts of five of the men he’s killed, all of whom seem ecstatic at the idea that he might get himself offed.

The ghosts are fantastic. There’s a great thread running through everything where you’re wondering whether the ghosts are real or a figment of his imagination. Sometimes it seems like maybe they know things he doesn’t, but it could be explained as him having subconsciously noticed or remembered something. By the end you may know which it is! The ghosts also fight amongst themselves, which is pretty hilarious.

Eli is an excellent character. He’s obviously not an admirable person, as early on we see him kill a cop who did nothing more than knock on his motel door. And, well, that whole hit-man thing. But we also see his first kill, which he did not want to do, but had little choice about if he wanted to live. When he isn’t blanking out he’s treating Carly pretty well. And as we find out more and more about him, he becomes all the more human. Never an admirable man, but one we can sympathize with. Carly, too, is intriguing. Eli’s first memory of her once he returns to full consciousness is that she’s the mob boss’s daughter, but it’s more complicated than that. She’s scared but tough, and does an admirable job of figuring out how to keep Eli from drifting back into his blackouts.

Eli goes after some bad people–biker gangs, white supremacists–but not for any altruistic reason. He needs information. He knows the only way to ever be free is to kill Vernon Sykes, and there are reasons why he needs to hurry in order to accomplish that. There’s plenty of shooting and mayhem.

I really enjoyed this book. I think this makes three I’ve read of Baxter’s, and each one is both very different from and yet equally enjoyable as the last.

Content note for discussion of rape and for lots of shooting and killing.

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Review: “Shadows in Death,” J.D. Robb

Rating: 4 out of 5

J.D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts) Shadows in Death (In Death 51) starts out as so many of these books do: with a murder. The victim was a woman from an important and wealthy family, and she was stabbed while in the park. Nothing valuable was taken, and there’s very little to go on until Roarke sees a familiar face in the crowd around the crime scene. Lorcan Cobbe is probably the closest thing Roarke has to a nemesis, and he deliberately let Roarke spot him. He’s an assassin with a very long and successful history behind him. Someone had the poor woman killed, and paid well to do it. As it turns out, Cobbe was also at the center of a case 20 years earlier that Feeney and Whitney were never able to close, and Interpol has wanted him forever, so the case becomes very big very fast. Given Cobbe’s history, it’s likely he’ll go after Roarke and those closest to him–Summerset and Eve. The big thing the New York police have going for them is the fact that in his rage toward Roarke, Cobbe has gotten sloppy and broken from his former patterns.

This volume pulls in all of the police cast we’re used to (pretty much). Absolutely everyone wants in on stopping someone who’s going after Eve and Roarke. There’s a brief drop by the school Roarke is opening, but other than that the non-cop side characters don’t show up much, and that’s fine. I think it works better when a novel focuses more on one part of Eve and Roarke’s busy lives at a time, or close to it. The new character (doesn’t it always seem like there’s one?) is an Interpol agent who’s basically a good guy, but can’t resist trying to poke at Roarke regarding some unsolved thefts from back in the day.

Eve, Roarke, and Peabody are pretty much what we’ve come to expect from them so far. The main thrust of the plot is trying to out-think and out-play a canny assassin. There’s no mystery to the guilty parties this time. I do love the part where Eve sweats the guy who hired Cobbe and backs him into admitting what he knows. I always love watching Eve and Peabody play bad cop/good cop.

Cobbe is an interesting character. He has ego and charm, but underneath it all he’s a brute who likes his knives a little too much. He claimed to be Roarke’s half-brother back in the day, and while everyone but him is certain he wasn’t actually fathered by Roarke’s old man, he has never given up on the idea that he’s the one who should have been acknowledged as the man’s heir and legacy. Ironically, the thing that is likely to prove his undoing is that while he’s a lone wolf by nature, Roarke has an extensive found family.

It isn’t as quotable as some of these volumes, but it’s still a solidly enjoyable book.

Content note for sex, violence, and animal harm.

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Review: “Terminus,” Peter Clines

Rating: 5 out of 5

Peter Clines’ Terminus has a relationship of sorts with his earlier novel, 14 [review]. There’s a group called the Family, and they’re essentially a doomsday cult with a twist: they’re looking to destroy a Machine that’s keeping their so-called “Great Ones” out of our universe. They believe the Great Ones will kill virtually everyone on the planet, leaving them in charge. They also clearly have some sort of physical relationship to the entities they seek: most of them are noticeably not-entirely-human. Murdoch, for example, has big eyes and webbed fingers. Murdoch left the cult when he was younger because he didn’t really believe in all of it, but he’s come back to help out his ex-girlfriend and childhood friend, Anne, who is now “the congregation’s” minister. She believes she has located a lost island where the Machine can be found, allowing the Family to finally fulfill their purpose by freeing the Great Ones to devour the world. A handful of Family members set out for this island together with someone called only “the specialist,” who must remain hidden until they reach the island. Meanwhile, Chase and Doug, two passengers on a cargo ship, are put ashore on a mysterious island to wait until a massive storm has passed by, accompanied by a couple of the crew members, Seth and Ayman. There they find homicidal humanoid (but not human!) creatures and a young man named Alex who claims he can save them.

Oh goodness, there’s so much good stuff that I can’t talk about without spoiling it! I’ll just say that there are wonderful Easter eggs for those who’ve read 14. This isn’t exactly a sequel, but it has some overlap. It’s been a while since I read that book and I managed to hang on through this one without re-reading, but it would be wisest to read the other book first.

The Family is so interesting because they have proof of most of their beliefs. Anne used to be a non-believer like Murdoch, despite the bizarre “deformities” among their congregation, but a “seraph” appeared before her and was killed, causing her to become a zealous believer. Murdoch’s only along because Anne asked him to come, and that goes in interesting directions. (Murdoch may be my favorite character in this book, right up there with the specialist.) Murdoch is assuming this will be yet another failed attempt to find the Machine they’re looking for, and is there to help Anne through that.

The Great Ones take this story into a wonderful cosmic horror direction, as do the seraphs and the cultists’ deformities. Yet there’s also a strong science fiction component in the Machine, which is made from out-of-date technology yet does amazing things. There are a lot of strange details about the island. For instance, the trees are in the wrong part of the world, and look evenly planted, not randomly grown.

There are a lot of amazing things that happen, so I’ll stop here in order to not give them away. It would be all too easy to endlessly babble about the wonderful twists and turns of this book!

Terminus has possibly the best “please tell me about your background” prompt ever:

“Are you going to tell me your sob story?”
“Because I forgot to sync my Kindle before we left port.”

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Review: “Mirrorstrike,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass, Nuawa, trained and shaped since birth to destroy the Winter Queen, won a tribute tournament and became the newest officer in her armies. Part of the reason she’s so good at what she does–and why the Winter Queen wants her–is that Nuawa has inside of her a shard of the Winter Queen’s magic mirror. Nuawa and General Lussadh swiftly developed a complex and lovely relationship, despite the fact that the Winter Queen holds Lussadh’s heart. In Mirrorstrike (Her Pitiless Command Book 2), the magistrate of Kemiraj–Lussadh’s homeland–has revolted against the Winter Queen. It’s time for Lussadh, with Nuawa’s help, to clean house. Nuawa gets to meet another of the shard bearers, Major Guryin, who is a chatty gossip who’d love to see Lussadh and Nuawa get together on a more permanent basis. Meanwhile, the Winter Queen has Nuawa tracking down an inventor named Penjarej Manachakul, who’s in hiding in Kemiraj. Nuawa finds out additional information about how her mothers expect her to take down the Winter Queen, and she’s trying to prepare herself, knowing that it’s highly unlikely she’ll succeed.

The author tends to write gender and sexuality in such beautiful ways. it isn’t just “oh this couple is same-sex” or “oh this one person is trans.” Frankly I don’t think that she actually has a single heterosexual male-female relationship in the entire book, and not because it was a small cast. She just does it so effortlessly–you can see it’s just a natural part of what she writes, not a studied attempt to do something different. (She particularly tends to write butch lesbian warlords, and I am here for that.) It’s nice to see the status quo get flipped on its ass.

The Asian milieu is also wonderful, and for someone who has mostly read Western fantasy, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I love the feast held at Lussadh’s palace where people wear saris and eat poppadum and samosas. (I love it for more than just the clothing and food of course–you get to see the very strange fruits of treason!) The prose in general has a poetic and sensual feel to it, and often there are contacts between Nuawa and Lussadh that could be considered entirely chaste, but that are so loaded with meaning that they become very hot. Because of that, it doesn’t take much sexual material to make the relationship a very sexy one. Nuawa’s also having some difficulty with it because she’s never been in love before, and the mirror shard blunts the emotions.

One of the queen’s old retainers is trying to kill the shard-bearers, and both Lussadh and Nuawa end up in danger. There isn’t much action in these books, but when there is, it’s gorgeous and the author totally commits to it. It tends to come in sharp, sudden bursts.

I love every book and story by this author that I’ve read. I can’t wait to read more. (Hopefully with more butch lesbian warlords!)

Content note for sex.

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Review: “Winterglass,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Rating: 5 out of 5

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass has one foot in the realm of fairy tale retellings (The Snow Queen), and one foot in fantasy. Sirapirat came under the rule of the Winter Queen 50 years ago, much like other surrounding lands. Now it rests in eternal winter, and people are killed in the kilns to harvest souls to operate technologies such as heating houses, warming water, cooking food, and providing light. When Nuawa was 6, she was among those to be executed in the kilns. One of her mothers did something to her that enabled her to survive the kiln, even though her other mother died. Her living mother took her in pretending to be her aunt, and honed Nuawa into a weapon. Now the adult Nuawa is a duelist and gladiator in the arena, and occasionally a bounty hunter when she’d like a little more money. There’s to be a tournament soon, and the winner will become an officer in the queen’s army underneath General Lussadh al-Kattan. Everybody except the winner will die in the kilns. Nuawa makes sure she enters the competition, and she quickly catches Lussadh’s eye. Meanwhile, the Winter Queen and Lussadh are searching for those people who have a shard of the queen’s broken mirror inside of them–and Lussadh’s certain Nuawa is a bearer.

While there is a bit of action in here (there is, after all, a tournament to be had), it’s mostly elided in favor of a fascinating political plot and very excellent character interactions. It’s poetic, it’s entrancing, and although I often prefer more action-oriented fiction, I found this to be perfect as-is. The pacing is lovely. Tension underlies so many interactions, because once Nuawa catches the attention of Lussadh, and through her, the queen, any wrong move could get her killed.

Interested in queer material? The author has you covered. There’s plenty of representation here, whether the characters are bisexual, trans, non-binary, etc. It’s just a very natural and elegant part of the story. (Also, I think I can go ahead and tell you that you will NOT find the “bury your gays” trope in here, without giving anything away.)

Lussadh’s background is particularly fascinating. She was a prince of Kemiraj, and she collaborated with the queen to destroy the rest of her dynasty when the queen set her eyes on Kemiraj. Lussadh became both a general in the queen’s armies, and the queen’s lover. She’s also one of those who bear a fragment of the queen’s mirror inside of them. There are those who have not forgiven Lussadh for her betrayal, and one of them has plans to use Nuawa to attain eir goals.

The fantasy aspect of things is likewise engaging. Guns are a thing, but so are blades. There’s a bizarre aspect of the shadows of people and things sometimes being able to do or take damage, which is nicely slotted into the worldbuilding without any fanfare–it just is. There are curses that can be cast, and well, there’s the huge, obvious fact that the Winter Queen has locked multiple countries into eternal winter just through her presence alone.

This is such a lovely book, and I look forward to reading the sequel!

Content Note for sex and some quasi-animal harm (gladiator combat versus some very altered big cats).

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Review: “Graveyard Smash,” from Kandisha Press

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I enjoyed reading Graveyard Smash: Women of Horror Anthology Volume 2, but thought volume one, Under Her Black Wings, was a little bit better. Once again, I have to knock them just a little for having the foreword of an all-women-authors book be written by a guy; it gives the impression that the women can’t stand on their own and need a man to speak for them.

R.A. Busby’s “Holes” is a great tale. Kathryn has trypophobia, a fear of holes. She’s living in the middle of a pandemic, and her paranoia spirals in bad directions. A favorite of mine is J.A.W. McCarthy’s “Until There’s Nothing Left,” in which a girl has a bizarre ability to raise people from the dead–but it doesn’t always end well. She’s determined to bring her sister back. This story is so very poignant. Sonora Taylor’s “The Clockmaker” is another favorite. Nathaniel, an unremarkable man who makes remarkable clocks, is commissioned to make one out of bone. But the man who hired him wants more, always more. Another favorite is “Templo Mayor,” by V. Castro. When going on a tour of a very old temple, it’s good to have other people on the tour with you.

Catherine McCarthy’s “Two’s Company, Three’s a Shroud,” was fun but didn’t wow me. A town is running out of room in the cemetery, and they decide to start stacking coffins. This doesn’t sit well with the dead. Another story with a sense of humor is Yolanda Sfetsos’s “Love You To Death.” It takes place in the underworld, in a bar run by Hades and Persephone. It’s silly, and I didn’t like the depiction of Persephone, but it has a couple of good characters. Another fun story, Janine Pipe’s “The Invitation,” is an enjoyable story about Amber, who’s going to go to a party at the cemetery called “Graveyard Smash.” She’s not exactly going for an evening of fun, however–and her mother sends her texts reminding her to go armed!

Dona Fox’s “Waiting at the Dance” involves a widow, Alisha, whose daughter Jenny wants her to get back to dating. When Alisha goes dancing at something called “the widow’s dance,” things get a little bit strange. In Cassidy Frost’s “The Crumbling Grave,” Emilia asks homeless guy Dane for help regarding her abusive boyfriend. I didn’t entirely buy into some of the details of the ending, but it was an intriguing story. Michelle Renee Lane’s “Cicada Song” has Anna hearing voices that tell her to kill her annoying sister Sadie (“…killing her seemed a bit extreme”). I like where this one went.

Demi-Louise Blackburn’s “Smash and Grab” introduces us to two office workers who decide to start grave-robbing for extra cash. One of them is desperate for the money and drags the other along. It’s a bit predictable, but a nifty premise. Carmen Baca’s “The Child” involves three generations of women who have inherited magical “recipes” from their Aztec ancestors. Unfortunately, Atlaclamani’s ability with said recipes appears to outreach her moral growth. This story didn’t feel like it had a definitive ending. Another grave-robbing story is Ellie Douglas’s “Rewake.” Emma and Carl are cousins who are robbing graves to satisfy some guy they’re working for. Emma has a bizarre experience with a corpse and starts to change. The bad stuff happens right away, before we can come to care about the characters at all. The dialogue is very awkward. And Emma’s cousin notices things like the fact that her breasts have changed size without thinking much about it. It also doesn’t really have an ending.

I didn’t think that Beverly Lee’s “The Roll of the Dice” felt like horror, at least to me. It involves a man who’s seen an “imaginary friend” with no mouth since he was a child. The ending is strange, but I didn’t get much out of it. Tracy Fahey’s “Graveyard of the Lost” involves an archaeology student trying to find a grave that’s said to only be found when the tide goes out. This one was pretty good. Susan McCauley’s “The Snow Woman” introduces us to Eric, whose father is a professor of anthropology. He’s just had a 300-year-old mummy delivered to him. Legend has it that once set free, she’ll freeze the world. This was an interesting read; the characters were a little flimsy (eh, it happens in some short stories), but the events were great.

I wanted to like Ksenia Murray’s “Night of the Djinn” more than I did. Some goth kids are hanging out in a cemetery and decide to sacrifice a cat. One of the kids, Jade, refuses to let them harm the cat. Said cat happens to be temporarily inhabited by a Djinn, who decides to have some fun with the kids. It’s all very quick, without much variation in the pacing, and the Djinn gets the best of the kids simply by declaring a deadly “price” for each wish he grants. I feel like this could have been more than it was.

Christy Aldridge’s “Don’t Scream (You’ll Wake the Dead)” introduces us to teenager Mike, who gets a job at a cemetery working for an undertaker. The undertaker calmly tells him that the dead sometimes walk, and that he should never scream, because that will get their attention. The rest is obvious. Dawn DeBraal’s “Thirty Questions” has Tawny’s dead cousin Cheryl come back to help her figure out who killed her in a hit-and-run. She never actually saw the person, but Tawny can ask 30 questions to help her figure out who it might have been. The ending was a bit too quick, and Cheryl’s dialogue was very stilted, and not in a “this is a corpse/ghost/whatever” kind of way.

Paula R.C. Readman’s “The Chimes At Midnight” sees Eleanor come back from the dead, only to find out that her murderous husband has taken yet another wife. Can the two of them work together to save the new wife’s life? The prose and dialogue are a little purple, but it’s basically a good story. Lydia Prime’s “South Dakota” is fascinating, particularly given the implications of the events on the world-building. I would love to know more about this place in which young Dakota meets a friend who looks exactly like her, but is trapped beneath the ice of a lake. She becomes determined to free this copy of herself. I also enjoyed Ally Peirse’s “Atmosphere,” except for one detail. Young reporter Vicky talks brewery cleaner Rob into taking her along on his job, since his Uncle Dave is out like a light. He has her doing Uncle Dave’s part, which is vital to his safety, when she has no training or experience in that. Things (obviously) go wrong in that area; it was really hard to imagine that he would have made that decision. The interesting part is what happens to them after that, and why.

Overall this anthology is worth reading, even if it isn’t perfect. But that often happens with anthologies–not all stories will match any given reader’s preferences.

Content note for some gore, cannibalism.

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Review: “Her Body and Other Parties,” Carmen Maria Machado

Rating: 4 out of 5

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties: Stories is a bizarre and arresting collection of short stories.

“The Husband Stitch” is one of my favorite stories in this volume. It’s about a girl’s journey from her teens, through getting married, having a son, and so on. Throughout it all, there’s a thread: she wears a green ribbon around her neck, and she won’t let her husband touch it. Despite the fact that this one ended up exactly where I thought it would, the journey was so striking that it was in no way a letdown at all.

In “Inventory,” a person goes through the inventory of past lovers: relationships, kisses, marriages, sex. In the background there’s an epidemic going on. It’s a narrow, fascinating context in which to view such a thing.

In “Mothers,” the protagonist comes home to find her old lover, named Bad, holding a child that she says is hers. Bad leaves the child with her, and she struggles to come to terms with it. Things got a bit weird for me in this one. It’s a bit tough to read, because there are a number of memories of her abusive relationship with Bad.

My other favorite story is “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU.” I’m sure I’d have gotten a lot more out of it if I watched the show, but it’s still fantastic (I do at least have the basics of who Benson and Stabler are and what they do). It’s written as an “episode guide” and the stories get stranger and stranger as the thing goes along. It’s kind of a wacky cosmic horror genre. Benson and Stabler have doppelgangers who are better at their jobs than they are, there are dead girls who haunt Benson, and there’s a heartbeat under the city that they both hear.

Benson starts sleeping with a crucifix and pungent ropes of garlic, because she does not understand the difference between vampires and murdered teenagers. Not yet.

“Real Women Have Bodies” is about a mysterious epidemic of women going incorporeal, as a backdrop for another relationship story.

“Eight Bites” is tough to read. It’s about four sisters who all decide to go in for bariatric surgery in order to lose weight–mostly about the fourth sister to go in. I did appreciate the ending.

“The Resident” is a story of a woman who is accepted to be a resident at an artists’ retreat. This story is a slow and bizarre descent into the depths of the protagonist’s mind. Too slow and amorphous for my tastes, but I think for a lot of people it will be perfect.

Finally there’s “Difficult at Parties.” I think I understand what happened in this story? Maybe? The protagonist has just gotten home from the hospital, and her partner, Paul, doesn’t seem to know how to handle her. Things come to a head when they go to Jane and Jill’s housewarming.

I think if you prefer slow, winding horror that’s largely internal, this will be perfect for you. For me it fell slightly on the side of too slow and too winding.

Content note for sex, lots of sex, rape, incest, and body dysmorphia/eating disorders. On a happier note, plenty of lesbian sex!

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