Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop by John Brhel and J. Sullivan

Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop by John Brhel and J. Sullivan
Publisher: Cemetery Gates Media
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Horror, Paranormal, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (156 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Retired stage magician Dr. Marvelry prefers to stock his antique store with strange and occult items. He has always enjoyed meeting odd people and hearing their stories, the legends attached to mysterious objects. A phonograph that seemingly replays a tragedy. Fertility dolls that are more than decoration. A bedeviled mannequin. These are just some of the relics this eccentric shopkeeper has collected over the years.

No two customers will have the same experience in his curiosity shop — some walk away satisfied, others are never heard from again. But one thing is certain – when you purchase an item at this store, you often get more than what you paid for.

Follow Marvelry and his hexed objects through twelve tales of suspense, magic, terror, and transformation. Meet his new assistant, fellow illusionists, and some irregular characters along the way. Whatever macabre artifact of the human psyche you’re seeking – you’ll find something special in Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop.

Every antique has a story to tell if you know how to listen to it.

Brent and Kevin Buckley’s experiences in “The Victor Talking Machine” was a wonderful introduction to this collection. Their happy relationship contrasted sharply with the strange phonograph they’d just brought home. I enjoyed seeing how they reacted to all of the weird things going on around them. It made me curious to find out what would happen next, especially once both characters agreed that something needed to be done about their situation.

There were a few tales that would have benefited from having a little more attention paid to their endings. “The Letterbox” was one of them. Josh, the main character in it, accidentally found an antique letterbox that used to belong to his grandparents while browsing Marvelry’s shop. Since Josh had just purchased his grandparents’ old home, he was thrilled to begin outfitting the house with some of its former possessions. I was completely fascinated by what happened after the letterbox was installed in the same spot where it used to hang when the main character’s grandparents lived there. With that being said, I was a bit thrown off by how quickly the storyline ended. There was so much tension being built up that never had a chance to be fully resolved. If not for these missed moments in some scenes, I would have given this book a five star rating as it was otherwise a thrill to read.

In “The Painter’s Premonition,” an artist named Justin got more than he bargained for when he brought home an old easel. The foreshadowing was fantastic in this one. While I did have a pretty good guess about what the twist ending might be ahead of time, it was still a lot of fun to see the main character slowly move closer and closer to the conclusion. I also appreciated how much effort the author put into describing the paintings that Justin was making. Those details made me eager to know what he would paint next and if my guess about the meaning of his work was correct.

Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop was delightfully eerie. Give it a try if you’re in the mood for something spooky.

Tales from Valleyview Cemetery by John Brhel and J. Sullivan

Tales from Valleyview Cemetery by John Brhel and J. Sullivan
Publisher: Cemetery Gates Media
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Paranormal, Horror, Holiday, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full Length (184 pages)
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Welcome to Valleyview, where bodies lie buried but an ancient curse never sleeps. A father hears strange voices on his daughter’s baby monitor. A trio of gravediggers faces a swarm of supernatural creatures. A group of teenagers puts a mausoleum legend to the test. A husband and wife take a stroll through a corn maze that they’ll never forget.

Tales From Valleyview Cemetery contains seventeen interconnected tales of terror — legends of a town and cemetery entrenched in occult practice, macabre history, and a demon elemental waiting for his people’s return.

Death doesn’t always bring peace.

This isn’t your typical anthology. It was fascinating to see how all of the short stories were connected to each other. I liked the fact that I got to experience the same places and people from different points of view. Sometimes my opinions of them completely changed once they popped up in a new tale and showed me a new side of their personality or history, so it was really interesting to guess who I might meet again as I kept reading.

I would have liked to see more details included in this book. There were times when I had trouble imagining what the characters were experiencing because everything was described so quickly and sparsely. This was especially true when it came to what the ghosts and other supernatural creatures looked like. While I could picture some of them quite well, many others were harder to bring to mind because I had so few clues about how they looked or what they sounded like.

Some of the plot twists were extremely well done. “All Hallows Eve” was by far my favorite example of a great surprise from these authors. The characters in were a snooty, young couple who decided to mock everything they saw at a rural Halloween carnival. When they were invited to find their way through a corn maze, I was sure I knew how their night would end. The fact that I was wrong about what happened next only made me more curious to know their fate. If you’re planning to read this collection out of order, this would be a wonderful place to start.

Give Tales from Valleyview Cemetery if you’re in the mood for something spooky.

The Inventors Game by Demetrius Sherman

The Inventors Game by Demetrius Sherman
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (27 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A writer gets an idea that could get him killed. Dr. Ormond Sacker is a writer who meets a strange but brilliant young detective. When the sleuth goes on a hunt for a missing inventor, the doctor joins him. A case to write about, Sacker thinks. But things turn deadly when the two come face to face with killers.

Sometimes there can be serious consequences for sticking your nose into other people’s business.

What I liked the most about Mr. Sherman’s writing style was how vivid it was. Whether he was talking about blood seeping out of a fresh corpse or the dull appearance of a old building, I felt like I was standing alongside the characters and experiencing what they were experiencing every step of the way.

The storyline was hard to follow at times because of how much information the author was trying to pack into the plot. There were times when I had to stop and reread a scene in order to get some idea of what the narrator was trying to hint it. While I appreciated how subtle and complex the clues were, I would have liked to have more time to absorb them. Everything happened so quickly and with so little explanation that I had trouble keeping up with the latests twists in the case.

I was fascinated by the dialogue for two reasons. The first one was that all of the main characters had completely unique speaking styles. The second one was that the characters didn’t speak out loud a great deal, so when they did start conversations I paid close attention to what they were talking about. Every word that passed through their mouths was important. It didn’t take long for me to realize who was talking and what they were trying to say even before I finished reading their dialogue.

Give The Inventor’s Game if you’re interested in a modern take on an old classic.

Go to Bed by Melissa “Brownie” Grant

Go to Bed by Melissa “Brownie” Grant
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (4 pages)
Other: F/F
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

What do you get when you have a sleepless night, a bottle of rum and two good friends? These are the ingredients of a captivating night. Join Carla and Justin as these two friends show you the meaning of nightcap.

There’s more than one way to unwind after a long, stressful day.

What I enjoyed the most about the dialogue was how realistic it was. The characters often shared a part of a thought before getting interrupted or deciding to say something else instead. Listening to them talk to each in such a casual way was such a fun way to get to know them. Both of their personalities shone through in how they decided to speak and what words they chose to use.

The pacing of the plot was uneven. I noticed this the most with the introduction. The narrator spent so much time setting the scene up and giving hints about her relationship with her lady friend that there wasn’t a great deal of space left in the story to describe what happened between them sexually speaking. This made the sex scene feel rushed to me.

With that being said, the chemistry between the two characters was definitely promising. I liked the fact that they knew each other so well that they could often finish each other’s sentences. It made me wonder how long they’d known one another and where their relationship might go next. While it made sense not to spend much time exploring their shared history in a tale as short as this one, I’d be interested to know more about it if the author ever decides to write a sequel.

Go to Bed should be read by anyone in the mood for a quick and intriguing read.

Vacations Can Be Murder by Jane DiLucchio

Vacations Can Be Murder by Jane DiLucchio
A Diega DelValle Mystery, #3
Publisher: Quest Books/ Regal Crest Enterprises
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (133 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When Diega DelValle and three of her friends go on an impromptu vacation in Talkeetna, Alaska, Diega envisions an enjoyable summer break from teaching along with time to heal from a break-up.

However, even before the friends arrive, this small town on the edge of Denali National Park becomes a less than idyllic vacation spot. Gail, a Talkeetna native, dies on the mountain. Melissa, Gail’s cousin and a former student of Diega’s, arrives in Talkeetna and raises doubts about the death being accidental.

Due to Melissa’s pleas for help, Diega and her friends are thrust into an investigation of a small town and its inhabitants-an unsavory pastime that turns deadly.

Not every vacation is necessarily relaxing.

All of the characters were incredibly interesting . I haven’t read the other books in this series yet, but I didn’t have any trouble figuring out who was who. Every one of them was so unique that I quickly formed mental images of them in my mind. From flirtatious to stoic, all of their personalities were delightful in their own ways. I also felt like I got to know several of the secondary characters nearly as well I did Diega herself which was wonderful.

There were pacing issues in the beginning. It took a while to introduce all of the characters and get them settled into the roles. While I enjoyed getting to know everyone so well, I would have liked to have at least a few clues about the murder early on. There was a lot of information to unpack in this case, and this reader would have preferred having more time to try to piece it all together before the plot thickened.

The dialogue felt natural. I liked the way the conversations flowed between Diego and her friends in particular. There were many references to things they’d done together in the past as well as to new developments in their personal lives. This made it easy to imagine that I was eavesdropping on a group of old friends as they chatted. I enjoyed that quite a bit.

I’d recommend Vacations Can Be Murder to anyone who is in the mood for a mystery that asks its audience to put in some work in order to solve the case.

Drawing in the Dark by Jeremy Baker

Drawing in the Dark by Jeremy Baker
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal, Historical, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (148 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

On a lonely mountain, deep in the high desert country of the American Southwest, a rifle-toting nun faces an unexpected test. A scientist makes an incredible discovery at the heart of a melting European glacier, and nine years later finds himself inexorably drawn back to the site. During the Siege of Bastogne, while facing overwhelming odds in the frozen forests of Belgium, a pragmatic young medic encounters a war he never could have imagined. The Florida Everglades exert an irresistible, supernatural pull on a dying man, the last descendant of a great Seminole shaman. A young girl, trapped in a waking nightmare and seemingly without hope, devises her ultimate escape using the most unexpected tools. A group of desperate men, almost out of luck and on the run, find themselves in an eerie Badlands town. Jeremy Baker delivers these tales and more, in a collection of twelve haunting short stories and one novella.

Even the most ordinary day can be full of surprises.

“The Standing Cave” was a thrilling introduction to Mr. Baker’s writing style. I couldn’t imagine what a hunter-gatherer could have to do with the science fiction genre, much less how Mrukk’s quest to hunt down the deer he desperately needed to take down to feed his tribe would be so important later on. When he discovered something extremely unusual on his hunt, I was more fascinated than ever. While I can’t say anything else about the plot without giving away spoilers, I can say that this was my favorite story in the entire book.

Some of this tales in this collection could have used more details. “Bumps War at Bastogne” was a good example of this. It was about a platoon of soldiers who struggled to survive in a particularly bloody battle with the Nazis. The main character had such a matter of fact way of describing even the most harrowing scenes that I was mesmerized by his recollection of what happened that day. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to these soldiers, so it was disappointing to see how briefly the last few scenes were described. There were so many more explanations that could have been added to them about what was going on, especially when it came to the ending.

In “Drawing in the Dark,” a young girl named Kara had the ability to make anything she drew actually happen. The government discovered her talent, kidnapped her, and forced her to draw all kinds of terrible things. What I found most interesting about this character is how maturely she was able to process what had happened to her. She was a child being forced to experience stuff that no child should ever have to think about, much less actually live through. The author captured her loss of innocence so heartbreakingly that I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next to Kara.

I’d recommend Drawing in the Dark to anyone who is in the mood for something creative.

Tales from the Lake Vol. 2 by Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Edward Lee, Tim Lebbon, Lisa Morton, etc.

Tales from the Lake Vol. 2 by Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Edward Lee, Tim Lebbon, Lisa Morton, etc.
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full Length (382 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

If you came here to read short stories about tranquil lakes, run to the nearest exit. Run as far away as you can from Ramsey Campbell, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, and our array of international voices:
Lisa Morton
Tim Lebbon
Richard Chizmar
Jim Goforth
Ben Eads
Jan Edwards
Hal Bodner
Raven Dane
Rocky Alexander
Glen Johnson
Aaron Dries
Mark West

Tales from The Lake volume two also includes the three winners from Crystal Lake Publishing’s Tales from The Lake Horror Writing Competition:
1st: Descending by John Whalen
2nd: Forever Dark by Jonathan Winn
3rd: Ripperscape by Vincenzo Bilof

Beneath this lake you’ll find nothing but mystery and suspense, horror and dread. Not to mention death and misery – tales to share around the campfire or living room floor. Dive beneath a frozen lake with Rena Mason’s “Winter’s Dollhouse”; allow Tim Lebbon to introduce you to “The God of Rain”; don’t go into the lake when Jim Goforth takes you to the haunting sit of “Lago de los Perdidos”; and never get in an elevator again with John Whalen’s award-winning “Descending.”

Cover by Ben Baldwin, and edited by Joe Mynhardt, Emma Audsley and R.J. Cavender, you can’t afford to spend another minute away from The Lake.

So dive on in.

The water’s just…right.

Even the most deeply buried secrets can eventually see the light of day.

In “Damned If You Do,” a man named John has started seeing a therapist in order to untangle his troubled home life. The problem is that he really doesn’t seem to want to revisit the past and figure out why he’s ended up in such a difficult situation with his wife. I was fascinated by the idea of a protagonist who is incredibly reluctant to allow the audience into even the smallest corner of his mind, and I only became more intrigued by John’s backstory as the plot progressed. The ending caught me by surprise in a good way!

While I enjoyed all of the stories in this anthology, there were a few that could have used little more polishing before being published. “St. Thomas of El Paso” was a good example of this. The plot followed a young man named Thomas who was kicked out of the orphanage where he was being raised when the priest running it discovered that the boy was gay. I was enthralled with the main character’s struggle to survive on his own as a teenager and young adult, especially once strange things began to happen in the small towns near his home. The ending felt rushed when I compared it to the beginning and middle, though. I would have really liked to see the narrator slow down and dig into the conflicts that had originally drawn me into the plot. There was a lot of material in there that wasn’t given as much room to grow as it needed.

What I appreciated the most about “Bone Wary” was how much time the narrator, Henry, took to describe his art studio and home to the audience. All of those details not only made me curious to find out why Henry spent so much time explaining them, they also paid off handsomely once I realized what his dark secret to all of his success was. This is the kind of tale that requires some legwork from the audience in order to understand what’s going on, but it’s well worth the effort.

Tales from the Lake Vol. 2 was a rewarding read. I’d heartily recommend it to any fellow fans of scary science fiction.

Screaming Down Splitsville by Kayla Bashe

Screaming Down Splitsville by Kayla Bashe
Publisher: Torquere Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Contemporary, LGBTQ
Length: Short Story (41 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet, F/F
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Screaming Down Splitsville takes place in an alternate 1950s where two groups of people with magical powers fight for dominance. Flip, a young lesbian, thinks her healing powers are completely useless. After her escape from a lab, she’s been grounded to a safe base, and while everyone else is on important missions, she keeps the fridge stocked and fixes the plumbing. However, when a chance coincidence sends her on a solo rescue mission, Flip has a surprising reunion with a woman from her past.

Unable to speak after a botched cleft palate surgery, Emma-Rose grew up half-wild in the Southern backwoods- until strangers discovered her magical powers and imprisoned her in a laboratory of torture. Her one salvation was the woman in the next cell, Flip. Now Flip’s returned, and according to her, they’ll both make it to safety. But Emma’s plans have failed so many times that she has no hope left to lose.

As the two women seek to evade their pursuers, their friendship rekindles, and they are forced to confront both enemies and insecurities.

Rescue comes in many forms.

Wow, what an intense story. Everything from the torture chamber to the big chase later on made it impossible for me to stop reading. The fast pacing worked well how energetically the plot was written. I simply had to know what would happen next and if Emma-Rose would get away from her captors. This is the kind of world I deeply enjoy discovering when I crack open a new book because of how much fun it is to explore.

The romantic elements of this tale didn’t work so well for me. They didn’t show up until very late in the plot, and there wasn’t much foreshadowing going on for them before then. I absolutely loved both the characters involved in this part of the storyline, and I was excited to see what would happen to them next. With that being said, I would have liked to see much more time spent building up the romantic tension between them before anything flirtatious happened.

Ms. Bashe did some interesting things with her flashbacks that made me smile. I barely knew anything about the two main characters in the beginning, and she didn’t reveal very much about them until several scenes had flown by. It was fascinating to get to know them so well before learning anything about their previous lives. I also liked seeing how the author tied even the smallest and simplest memories to what was currently going on in the characters’ lives. This isn’t something I’ve seen done very often in this genre.

I’d recommend Screaming Down Splitsville to anyone who enjoys a little romance in their science fiction.

King of Diamonds by K.M. Penemue

King of Diamonds by K.M. Penemue
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Length: Short Story (42 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Rhen makes his living two ways: performing card tricks for passing crowds, and thievery. Every four years, Vis-a-Vis, a four day festival, celebrates life and happiness, where all classes can be equal behind their masks. It’s a prime opportunity for thieves, but Rhen’s plans change when Lelan, his former lover, says they need to talk.

Though still feeling bitter with Lelan for leaving him, Rhen agrees, because if there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s playing the odds.

Sometimes love doesn’t work out the first time around. Maybe a second try will make things turn out differently this time.

The dialogue often made me chuckle. I enjoyed seeing what quips the main characters would come up with next as some of them were pretty clever. My favorite scenes in this tale were the ones that showed these exchanges between Rhen and Lelan. They were a lot of fun to read and also gave me valuable glimpses into their personalities and romantic history.

Unfortunately, the chemistry between Lelan and Rhen never felt right to me. They didn’t seem to particularly like each other as friends anymore, so it was hard for me to imagine how they’d work out if they decided to get back together. While I liked them a lot as individuals and definitely wanted both of them to be happy, it was hard for me to imagine how they’d find that happiness together because of this. It would have been helpful to have more information what about their relationship was like before they broke up so I could have had a better sense of what they’d originally seen in each other.

Festivals are magical for many reasons. Not only do they provide a break from our daily routines, they give people a chance to do things and go places that they wouldn’t normally think about trying. There was a lot of magic to be found in the Vis-a-Vis festival. The food and drinks sold there sounded nearly as amazing as all of the sights and sounds the characters experienced during those four days. I really liked the scenes that described what it would be like to be there because of how many of the senses the narrator used to describe what takes place during it.

I’d recommend King of Diamonds to anyone who really enjoys romantic fantasy stories.

Written in Stone by David Connor

Written in Stone by David Connor
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (79 pages)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

After the end of a bad relationship and the death of his dog, Geoffrey is left with a choice: live the rest of his life alone or start over. But starting over is easier said than done, and alone in the woods one night Geoffrey writes those very words on a rock.

To his surprise, when he returns later he discovers someone has replied. The lengthy written conversation that ensues over days leaves Geoffrey less lonely, and also quite hopeful and intrigued about the future and the identity of his mysterious new friend.

Sometimes life is full of setbacks. How many times would you be willing to pick yourself up and try again?

Geoffrey was such a likeable guy. His personality was so well rounded that I felt like I was talking to an old friend when I read his tale. He had his own fair share of flaws. Interestingly enough, they actually made me like Geoffrey even more than I originally did because of how human they made him feel. I wanted nothing more than for this character to find a way out of his loneliness and pain due to how deeply I connected with him on an emotional level.

The only thing I found a little confusing about this book was how many characters it had. Sometimes I mixed the secondary ones up because there were several of them and the narrator only occasionally remained me how everyone knew each other. It would have been helpful to either have fewer characters to remember or to know more about them. This is a minor criticism, but it’s still something that I found distracting at times.

I really liked seeing how the relationship between the two main characters developed. It moved just as slowly and cautiously as I’d expect from people who have had so many difficult experiences. The fact that the main characters were so hesitant about maybe falling in love again only made me root for them even more.

Written in Stone was one of the most romantic stories I’ve read in a long time. Give it a try if you’re in the mood for something satisfying.