C1PHER by Monica E. Spence


C1PHER by Monica E. Spence
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (100 pages)
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Revolutionary War re-enactor Mary Banvard must travel to West Point during a thunder storm to authenticate papers concerning Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of West Point. Poor visibility causes a terrible car accident​, and she blacks out. When a masculine voice awakens her, she discovers everyone around her is wearing Colonial clothes. Odd. Who is this guy with the queue and the glasses who looks so worried?

Robert Townsend looks like a Quaker shopkeeper, but he is Culper, Jr., General George Washington’s most important spy. When Lady Mary Banvard, his fiancée, awakens following a carriage accident, she begins ranting about missing papers and traveling through Time.

Together Mary and Robert stumble upon a threat to their lives, their happiness, and the security of American generations to come.

Studying the past is one thing. Suddenly waking up in it is quite another.

The dialogue was fantastic. There were several times when I chuckled out loud at the things Mary said after she mysteriously found herself living back during the time of the Revolutionary War. She has a sharp wit, and it shone through the conversations she had with Robert and other characters during her adventures. The only thing better than this part of the plot was how funny it was to see how everyone responded to the things she said that made sense in our times but were unintelligible a few hundred years ago.

I would have liked to see more time spent developing the romance in this story. The characters involved in it were so different from each other that I needed more examples of what they shared in common. They were both fascinating people. I simply wasn’t totally sure that they would make a good couple because of how often their personalities and interests conflicted each other.

Mary was such an interesting woman. I loved her spunky attitude and how unflappable she was when she found herself in the middle of a crisis. She’s the kind of smart and steady person I’d want to have around if there were some kind of emergency. Her calm approach to even the strangest situations she found herself in made me adore her from the first scene to the last one.

C1PHER should be read by fans of light science fiction and historical romances alike. This is a nice blend of both of those genres!

Cape Zero: The Fall by Nicholas Woode-Smith


Cape Zero: The Fall by Nicholas Woode-Smith
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (122 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When social recluse and all round introvert, Peter Swart, manages to survive an attack by an insane homeless man, he soon discovers that Cape Town is not going to remain the holiday destination that it was previously regarded.

In the wake of a failed government state of emergency, society crumbles in South Africa as a virus turns people into violent cannibals. Within a day, the already compromised military collapses. Cape Town becomes a dark zone and its residents are forgotten.

With violent mobs roaming the streets, social anxiety and doubtable sanity thrown into the mix – will Peter be able to survive the apocalypse or, worse yet, the necessity to live with other people?

No one is safe when the undead rise.

The zombies in this story were nicely written. I liked the thought Mr. Woode-Smith put into how these creatures move and behave in this universe. He added some logical developments to their mythology that made me shudder. As much as regular zombies scare me, this version of them is even more frightening. I liked the scenes describing what it would be like to accidentally stumble across one of them because of this.

Peter’s character development was confusing to me. The way he behaved suddenly and completely changed about a third of the way through the plot. The medical explanation that was hinted at in the storyline didn’t make sense. Had it actually been the reason for the dramatic change to his personality, I would have expected there to be references to it beginning in the first scene. It’s definitely not the kind of condition that anyone would be able to hide, especially in an environment as stressful and chaotic as the one he was living in.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this story was how the characters reacted to being in such a dangerous world. The fact that so many of them chose to work together to create a safe place to live made me smile. That doesn’t always happen in this genre, so I was glad to see folks working together so cooperatively this time.

There were multiple grammatical and punctuation errors. Some of the sentences were hard to understand because of how unusually they were written. It often wasn’t clear to me exactly what the author wanted his audience to get from those sentences. The storyline itself was interesting, but this book would have really benefited from another round of editing.

The characters in this tale had a refreshing amount of common sense. I appreciated the fact that they always remained cautious around the zombies and never let down their guards when they were in an unfamiliar situation or away from home. This doesn’t always happen in the horror genre, so I’m happy to meet characters who are so sensible.

Cape Zero: The Fall should be read by anyone who really likes zombie fiction.

The Bucktown Babies by Janine R. Pestel


The Bucktown Babies by Janine R. Pestel
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (124 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Johann Gunter, a former priest, whose sister has been taken by a demon, travels to a small farming community where there is an alarming outbreak of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Knowing this is the work of a demon, he prepares to fight the monster and, hopefully, save the town. Before he can finish his investigation, however, he finds out his cover has been blown, and an unlikely person steps up as an ally. “The Bucktown Babies” is the first book in the Father Gunter Demon Hunter series.

Sometimes the innocent suffer more than anyone else.

Johann had an sad and interesting backstory. I appreciated the fact that the narrator waited quite a while to share it with the audience. Not knowing what it was that originally drew this character into such an unusual line of work kept me curious in the beginning. Finding it out eventually was also important, though, and I’m glad that the author made sure her readers had a strong understanding of this part of his past.

This story spent a lot of time telling me what was happening instead of showing it to me. The premise was incredibly interesting, but I had a hard time getting into the plot because there weren’t enough details to draw me into the scenes. Even what should have been the most exciting sections were described so vaguely that I had trouble picturing what was happening in them and what it would be like to be standing next to Johann at those exact moments.

Why would a demon decide to prey only on babies? This question haunted me as I read. The nice thing about this part of the plot is that it was so open to interpretation. There were passages early on that supported just about all of the theories I came up with to explain why this might be so. This made me eager to push on and find out which one of them might be correct.

There were some things I didn’t understand at all about the demon. For example, Johann’s plan for getting rid of this creature was much simpler than I thought it would be based on how distressed he was at the news of the demonic infestation in the opening scene. Other scenes shared the same kind of information about the demon. It seemed contradictory to me at times, so I would have really liked to see more time spent explaining why the main character was distressed about this case.

The science fiction and mystery elements of the plot were balanced wonderfully. It actually took me a while to figure out how to classify this tale because of what a good job it did at mixing these genres together seamlessly. The mystery tag won out in the end, but only barely. This is the sort of thing that can appeal to more than one audience due to how much care it took in making sure that the storyline included the best from both of the genres it was playing around with.

I’d recommend The Bucktown Babies equally to fans of both of these genres.

A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs and Other Stories by Andrew Kozma


A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs and Other Stories by Andrew Kozma
Publisher: Kozmatic Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal, Historical, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (44 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs is a collection of weird, speculative fiction containing four stories of people exploring strange places and situations, from a newly-discovered civilization of six-foot-tall talking slugs to being haunted by a man in a dark chocolate suit. Whether waking up in a prison camp or navigating a city full of copies of themselves, the characters in these stories are bent on understanding their world, even if that understanding also means the end of the world they thought they knew.

If you like the strange side of science fiction, keep reading.

The main character in “Stammlager 76” lived in a prison camp and was gradually forgetting everything about the life he’d lead before being imprisoned there. There were so few details about what was going on in that camp that I had to read this twice before I understood what was going on. Once I figured it out, though, I really appreciated how much Mr. Kozma left up to his audience’s imagination. This is the sort of thing that works really well with his writing style because of how many different ways the ending can be interpreted.

“The Man in the Dark Chocolate Suit” was about a man who was trying to keep the man in the dark chocolate suit from haunting him. I absolutely loved the beginning of this story. Trying to figure out how I should interpret the identity of the strange man who was haunting the main character was just as much fun as attempting to guess how their conflict would end. With that being said, I really needed more hints here. None of the theories I came up with about what was going on were confirmed or denied. It would have been nice to have them narrowed down somewhat.

In “We of the Future are the Ghosts of the Past,” a man watched himself die over and over again. He then realized that the entire city was filled with copies of himself who were all experiencing the same event simultaneously. What I liked the most about this one was how calmly the protagonist explained an incredibly bizarre and dream-like situation. I didn’t want his saga to end. All of my most important questions were answered, but I was still fascinated by what this kind of experience would be like.

Not every vacation is necessarily an ideal one. The most interesting thing about “A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs” for me was how unexcited Roger was at the prospect of visiting a faraway land full of large, intelligent slugs. His vacation only fascinated me more as time went on because of how many contradictions there were between what the advertisements for Slugland promised and what the actual destination was like. The beginning and middle were full of questions that the ending only partially answered. I would have liked to see a little more time spent on explaining how everything tied together. I’m still not entirely sure that my theory about Roger’s fate is the correct one.

A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs and Other Stories should be savored. There is a lot of meaning to be sucked out of these tales if you take your time with them.

Gangs of Galis by Nicholas Woode-Smith


Gangs of Galis by Nicholas Woode-Smith
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Short Story (23 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Galis City, crime-ridden capital of Zona Nox, was formed in the desperation of war. For mafia boss, Danny Marzio, this desperation is opportunity. Where the rest of the city sees grit and dirt, he sees glitz and red lights.

For Danny, crime is a business. Violence is just a part of the job. But when one of his men is assassinated, Danny realises that Galis cannot stay like this forever.

In the flames of a perpetual gang war and the shadows of conspiracy, Danny Marzio sees an opportunity. He doesn’t want to be an emperor, but to ensure the survival of his business – he is willing to do whatever is necessary.

Gangs of Galis is a thrilling crime sci-fi prequel to Fall of Zona Nox.

Sometimes law and order comes from the last place you’d expect it to.

The descriptions were vivid. I especially liked how Mr. Woode-Smith showed the audience what was going on in the very first scene when Danny discovered the body of one of his men, Michel. Despite the fact that the main character was looking at a bloody murder scene, there was something eye-catching about the way the author described Michel’s last pose. It was the perfect sendoff to a character who sounded like someone Danny had depended on for a long time.

The plot needed more development. I had so much trouble following the storyline the first time I read it that I had to read it again in order to understand what was going on. There wasn’t enough time spent explaining how everyone knew each other or why Danny was trying to unite all of the various gangs that ran Galis City. I felt like I got bits and pieces of the puzzle instead of the whole thing, and that made it hard to understand even though I was fascinated by the premise.

One of my favorite parts of this tale were the futuristic curse words the characters used. They were creative but also easy to figure out once I paid attention to how the characters used them. While they didn’t sound anything like modern curse words, they served the exact same functions in conversations. This made it easy to understand what the characters were talking about even without any kind of translation going on.

If you like gritty science fiction, give Gangs of Galis a try.

Max and Rosie by Arnold Greenberg


Max and Rosie by Arnold Greenberg
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (49 pages)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Max has been in love with his wife Rosie ever since she sat next to him in their Chaucer class nearly forty years ago. Now she is dying of Alzheimer’s. He devotes himself to taking care of her, bringing her tea and toast each afternoon, going to the park to feed the ducks, and reminiscing.

When he can no longer care for her alone, he hires Robin as Rosie’s live-in nurse. As time passes his attraction to Robin grows. They share meals, movies, and confidences while Rosie fades further away. He dreams of kissing Robin and telling her how he feels—but wonders could she ever feel the same about him. When Rosie dies, Max dreads the day Robin will move out. What will he do without her vibrant ways, her sweet smile? What will he do without her?

Some people say age is just a number. Does this rule also apply to falling in love with an adult who is much younger than you?

Max was such a likeable guy. His devotion to his wife was plain to see, especially as he adjusted to how quickly Rosie was losing all of her memories. Watching him grieve the loss of their relationship as she forget who he was and all of the happy years they’d had together made me blink back tears. I wanted more than anything for him to somehow find a happy ending for himself.

There were pacing issues when it came to the development of the relationship between Robin and Max. Nothing happened between them for a long time, so I was surprised by how quickly things started moving once they began to explore the possibility of becoming more than friends. This didn’t seem like something either one of these characters would do because of how thoughtful and methodical they were in the rest of their lives. I would have really liked to have more hints about their shifting feelings earlier on so that the later development of their relationship wasn’t so sudden.

I liked the fact that the main characters in this tale all had well-rounded backstories. Knowing how Max and Rosie had spent the last thirty-seven years together was just as important as hearing about Robin’s childhood and learning why she decided to become a nurse. I felt like I got to know all three of them incredibly well because of how much time the author spent tying their pasts to the lives they were currently living.

Max and Rosie should be read by anyone who is in the mood for something bittersweet.

Graphite & Glitter by Shae Connor


Graphite & Glitter by Shae Connor
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (75 pages)
Heat Level: Spicy (F/F interaction)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

All that glitters might just be gold.

Adrienne Michaels’ best friend is getting married, and Adrienne’s not feeling it on the night of the bachelorette party. Then she meets Tessa Smith, bass player for an all-female glam rock tribute band. After a one-night stand worthy of the hottest rock star fantasies, Tessa surprises Adrienne by asking her on a real date, and Adrienne soon finds Tessa’s side gig pales in comparison to the down-to-earth music geek beneath the glitter. Tessa even helps Adrienne through a family loss, but when Tessa gets a sweet job offer in another city, Adrienne has to make a choice: let her go, follow her halfway across the country—or become part of the reason for her to stay.

It was only supposed to be a fling.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this book was the dialogue. Whether it was main characters or one of Adrienne’s friends talking, everyone was always on point when it was their turn to speak. There were a few times when I had to stop reading and let myself chuckle for a minute before diving back into the plot because of how humorous and realistic all of those conversations were.

I would have preferred to see a little more character development when it came to Tessa and Adrianne’s personalities. The plot showed how they behaved when they were at work, but I never quite got the same sense of their personalities when they were in less formal situations. As much as I liked them, I would have loved to know more about who they were when they let their hair down and completely relaxed. Those sides of their lives remained a mystery. I would have given this book a perfect score if I’d known the main characters just a little better.

Adrianne and Tessa were perfect for each other in every way. They were both so witty and flirtatious that I couldn’t wait to see what kind of playful comeback they’d come up with the next time they met. I also loved the fact that they had so much in common. This made it easy for me to understand why their relationship moved as quickly as it did. They agreed on so many different things that it simply wasn’t necessary to talk a lot of that stuff out. It was nice to have that foundation set so firmly while I waited to see if these characters would end up together for longer than one night.

Graphite & Glitter was a beautiful love story. If you’re in the mood for something funny, hot, and romantic, definitely give this tale a whirl.

The Wickedest Town in the West and Other Stories by Marilyn Todd


The Wickedest Town in the West and Other Stories by Marilyn Todd
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Historical
Length: Short Story (123 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Sometimes, wishing someone dead is not enough.
Sometimes, you need to make it happen.
Always, there’s someone there to make you pay.

From one of the best mystery short story writers of her generation comes this sparkling collection of ten chillers and thrillers, where justice takes many forms. Whether you’re a witch (“A Taste for Burning”), a soldier in the trenches (“Michelle”) or a demure churchgoer (“The Wickedest Town in the West”), you will always know that justice is served.

Sometimes justice arrives right on time.

One of my favorite parts of “Room for Improvement” was how casually Mr .Cuthbertson requested help with speeding up the process of his divorce. This isn’t something I’d generally expect to happen in a mystery, so I was incredibly curious to find out why he wanted a divorce, why he was so nonchalant about it, and what he expected the main character to do to help. The more I learned about their unusual plan, the more I wanted to know.

There were so many things I enjoyed about this collection that I really wanted to give it a much higher rating than it received. The only thing holding it back was that almost every single tale in it had so many characters that I had trouble remembering who everyone was or how they knew each other. “Open and Shut Case” was one of the biggest examples of this. The main character, the Great Rivorsky, is a magician who had travelled for years perfecting his illusions and other tricks. When one of his companions died, he was immediately placed at the top of the suspect list. I was mesmerized by the premise of this story, but the plot included so many different people that I couldn’t keep them all straight. This made what was an otherwise interesting read hard to follow.

In “A Taste for Burning,” a community blamed all of their their troubles on a newcomer named Alizon and then burned her at the stake. Figuring out why she was chosen as the scapegoat and who might have been the instigator of that was fascinating. No sooner would I come up with a new theory about what really happened then the plot would twist again and make me reconsider nearly all of my assumptions. I also liked the fact that Alizon’s death was described in such precise detail. While some of the details made me wince, it was important to face exactly what happened to her in order to understand why the people who murdered her worked so hard to cover up their terrible acts later on.

I’d recommend The Wickedest Town in the West and Other Stories to anyone who is in the mood for some clever mysteries.

Eccentric Symmetries by Nancy Springer


Eccentric Symmetries by Nancy Springer
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Paranormal, Historical, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (148 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Eccentric Symmetries, 20 fantasy short stories spanning the forty-year career of author Nancy Springer, showcases tales ranging from the quirky to the transcendent. Including mythic tales of long ago and far away such as award-winner “The Boy Who Plaited Manes,” this collection also contains wry, sometimes humorous contemporary fantasy stories such as “Rumple What?” and “Snow Spawn,” plus mystic magical realism in which cabbage roses grow down from the ceiling (“Mariposa”) and hard-edged future fantasy stories such as “We Don’t Know Why,” a tale of failing “angels.” Like our lives, the stories in Eccentric Symmetries are mostly off-kilter, even laughable, but sometimes achieve a luminous moment of perfect balance, an epiphany. In this carefully selected collection, every fantasy reader should find something to love.

Magic can be found everywhere you could possible imagine.

In “Who’s Gonna Rock Us Home?” Jephed Shue was dreading the idea of being assigned to work for the government for his entire adult life so much that he ran away from home. I was fascinated by the idea of a society choosing occupations for every young person and couldn’t wait to see what his life would be like after he refused to accept his assignment. The more I read about Jephed’s adventures, the more I wanted to know. He has such a stubborn personality that I was never sure how he would respond to the next challenge that crossed his path.

While I enjoyed how all of them began, some of these tales ended so abruptly that I didn’t feel satisfied by how everything was wrapped up. “Gilly the Goose Girl” was a good example of it. The storyline followed a princess named Gillianna who decided to switch places with her maid in order to avoid being married to someone she’d never met before. I was fascinated by this impulsive decision, but it would have been nice to see more time spent on wrapping up the ending. The final scene explained what happened to her, but it didn’t go into hardly any detail about it. I would have preferred to see those events play out in real time instead of condensed into a single paragraph.

One of my favorite stories in this collection was “You Are Such a One.” The main character in it was a middle-aged woman who found her life boring and repetitive. One day she discovered her dream house while out on a drive and struck up a friendship with the caretaker of that place. He told her something that she never would have guessed in a million years. What I liked the most about the plot was how careful it was when it came to which clues it gave the audience about what was happening. Telling too much about it would have spoiled the ending, so I was happy that the narrator was so cautious about that. I surprisingly didn’t figure out the twist ahead of time, although it made perfect sense once everything was revealed.

Eccentric Symmetries should be read by anyone who is in the mood for fairy tales that are set in all kinds of unusual places.

Call of a Succubus by April Garrus


Call of a Succubus by April Garrus
Publisher: eXcessica
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal
Length: Short Story (19 pages)
Other: F/F, Toys
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A woman has needs, but they can be hard to fill in the depths of space. Tiris Longsword, one of the greatest bounty hunters in the galaxy, is alone and unsatisfied. Too busy for men, and too frustrated for toys, she is desperate. When Oriel appears, she promises Tiris something more…something unearthly.

Tiris is conflicted. Who is Oriel? Where did she come from? Should she give in? Can she hold out? Will her life ever be the same?

Spaceships can be lonely, dull places. How will Tiris find a way to pass the time?

Tiris was such a great character. I loved how tough, calm, and assertive she was when she was on the job. She’s definitely someone I would want around in an emergency. There are very few things in life that she’d find overwhelming or confusing. What made her even more appealing to me was how she reacted when she finally stumbled across something that defied all of her expectations or logical explanations about what was happening.

There were a few big plot holes that were never explained. A character briefly appeared in the first scene only to never be heard from again. Based on how he was introduced, this wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It would have been nice to have more information for why he was included in the storyline for such a brief period of time. The other part of the plot that I found confusing had to do with where, exactly, Oriel came from and how she found Tiris. I kept expecting Oriel to go into more detail about it and was surprised when she didn’t.

The dialogue was funny and realistic. I especially liked seeing how Tiris reacted when she realized that there was a stranger on her ship. She was just as flabbergasted and alarmed by her new visitor as I expected her to be, and I giggled throughout that entire exchange. It couldn’t have been a better conversation or one that was more appropriate for their personalities.

One of the main characters in this story is a woman who is also a hermaphrodite. It wasn’t something I was at all aware would be part of the storyline when I started reading it, but I found it interesting.

Call of a Succubus was a wild ride. Give it a shot if you’re in the mood for something short and hot.