THE COLLECTION OF THOUGHTS by Shutao Liao



THE COLLECTION OF THOUGHTS by Shutao Liao
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Poetry
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The poet found himself retreating to his own lodge as an observer after long tedious travel, writing down everything across his mind, to reveal a splendor of romantic emotions as well as a profound sense of beauty throughout the words between the lines.

An intimate journey to the kingdom of self salvation.

How does one live a good life? One answer to that question is buried in this book.

Many of these poems explored the differences between outward appearances and what is actually happening in someone’s heart and mind. For example, one poem warned readers not to be distracted by physical beauty because that is no guarantee that a person’s soul is also beautiful. I enjoyed taking note of the various approaches to this topic that were used and how each one illuminated things from another angle. This subject has been covered in poetry many times before, of course, but I thought the author did a good job of explaining why he thought it was crucial to separate what someone looks like from who they are on the inside.

My only piece of constructive criticism for these poems has to do with who the speakers were of them were supposed to be. Some poems had such similar voices that I was almost certain they were written from the perspective of the same character. On the other hand, there were other entries that were so wildly different in their tone and use of language that I couldn’t imagine they were from the same speaker. I’ve enjoyed collections that were written from many different voices as well as ones that were created to sound like the same person or small group of people were talking to the audience throughout them. If I’d known which way I should interpret this book, I would have happily gone with a higher rating.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this collection was how conversational and important it felt. Even though I’ve never met the author and was a brand new reader of his work, I still felt as though we were sitting in a quiet coffee shop somewhere talking about all sorts of meaningful topics. That is not an easy thing to accomplish by any means, but it’s something I enjoy being surprised by in this genre or any other. There is nothing like getting a friendly peek at someone else’s soul which was exactly what happened here.

THE COLLECTION OF THOUGHTS was a thought-provoking read.

Visions by Kaye Lynne Booth, et.al.


Visions by Kaye Lynne Booth, et.al.
Publisher: WordCrafter Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Paranormal, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

An author’s visions are revealed through their stories. Many authors have strange and unusual stories, indeed. Within these pages, you will find the stories of eighteen different authors, each unique and thought provoking. These are the fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, and horror stories that will keep you awake long into the night.

What happens when:

An inexplicable monster plagues a town for generations, taking people… and souvenirs?

A post-apocalyptic band of travelers finds their salvation in an archaic machine?

The prey turns out to be the predator for a band of human traffickers?

Someone chooses to be happy in a world where emotions are regulated and controlled?

A village girl is chosen to be the spider queen?

Grab your copy today and find out. Let authors such as W.T. Paterson, Joseph Carabis, Kaye Lynne Booth, Michaele Jordan, Stephanie Kraner, and others, including the author of the winning story in the WordCrafter 2022 Short Fiction Contest, Roberta Eaton Cheadle, tantalize your thoughts and share their Visions

From Kaye Lynne Booth, editor of Once Upon an Ever After: Modern Fairy Tales & Folklore, Refracted Reflections: Twisted Tales of Duality & Deception and Gilded Glass: Twisted Myths & Shattered Fairy Tales.

Not everything in life can be easily explained.

As odd as this may sound at first, I smiled at the kidnapping gone wrong in “Tourist Trap.” You see, the main character knew the men who were showing her good photography sites weren’t trustworthy, and she had a plan to handle every curveball they threw her way as they attempted to kidnap her for ransom. It’s always nice to meet protagonists who are that resourceful and intelligent, especially when there are so many plot twists coming to help a reader get to know her even better.

Ashling was shocked to realize she was missing a tattoo in “The Vanishing Tattoo.” Her reason for originally getting it is something other readers should discover for themselves, but I was immediately drawn into her reaction and emotions when it disappeared. I only wish there had been more world building so I could have determined whether this was as impossible in that setting as it would be in the real world or whether such a thing had been known to happen there before. It was a bit confusing for me as a reader to hear about something impossible happening without knowing the context of it all.

In “At Mountains, Majesty,” a wanderer named Ahlam discovered something spectacular that had been created and then abandoned many years earlier. He and his family didn’t have a permanent home thanks to how unstable human society was in the future, but he hoped his discovery might help to change that. I loved the creativity and hopefulness of this tale. While the characters were in a tough situation, they had multiple reasons to believe their luck was about to change. That’s the sort of science fiction I always enjoy discovering.

Visions was a satisfying anthology.

The Tower’s Peculiar Visitor by Lesley-Anne McLeod


The Tower’s Peculiar Visitor by Lesley-Anne McLeod
Publisher: Uncial Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Romance, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Jane Gladwyne enjoys her work, and she enjoys her life as a general secretary and governess at Kenning Old Manor. When she is told of the propensity of the ancient Red Tower, part of the ruined Kenning Castle, to allow people of other times to arrive in 1825, she is at first disbelieving. The household at Kenning Old Manor accept this oddity as fact however, and eventually Jane too acknowledges the impossible reality. She is thankful the Red Tower is not her responsibility, but that of Caleb Debray, son of the estate steward.

When a visitor from the future arrives in the Tower however, she is seconded to Debray as his assistant. And the fact of time travel is all too real, as between them, Jane and Caleb attempt to conceal the visitor’s origins, curtail his activities, and cope with his ebullient personality. The task brings them into constant contact and, as they become better acquainted, a warmth grows between them.

When the visitor’s actions endanger the family that owns Kenning Old Manor, Caleb and Jane must protect the household. When the traveler’s suggestions endanger Jane’s peace of mind, she must make difficult decisions. And when the visitor’s presence threatens Caleb’s future happiness, he takes decisive action.

Eventually the explorer decides to travel on, risking his life again through the Tower portal, and Caleb cannot be sorry. But the visitor’s arrival and his presence have changed everything for the inhabitants of Kenning Old Manor. Balance and normality will be difficult to recapture, and happiness could be elusive.

Nothing remains the same forever.

It was intriguing to read a time travel novel from the perspective of characters who must suddenly cope with a visitor who is so uninformed about their culture and way of life. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything like it before, and it made me look at time travel in a new light. What may be exciting to the person travelling to the past can also be puzzling or even sometimes irritating to the individuals who must explain everything and have their routines thrown out of order.

I struggled with the slow pacing, especially later on once the main characters had all been introduced and the visitor from the future began to settle into rural life in 1825. While I wouldn’t expect this storyline to move as quickly as something set in the present day, there were plenty of opportunities for more conflict and adventure here that never came to fruition.

The world building was solid and dependable. Jane lived in a time and place when change happens slowly and, with the exception of the turning of the seasons, one day was generally more or less just like the one that came before it. Ms. McLeod explained the benefits of this sort of society nicely, and I enjoyed the subtle touches she added to explain certain social mores that are no longer culturally relevant for the average reader today. While they weren’t strictly necessary for understanding most scenes, they added a vibrant undercurrent to the plot that made me curious to find out what would happen to these characters next as Zeke accidentally disrupted everything.

The Tower’s Peculiar Visitor was a thoughtful read.

Obsidian by Rebecca Henry


Obsidian by Rebecca Henry
Publisher: Finch Books
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, LGBTQ, Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Sometimes the truth has to be revealed in order to recieve love.

Ninth grade is everything Zinnia didn’ t want it to be at St. Hopes. Her life back in the city feels empty and Liv’ s groupies of popular girls are suffocating Zinnia with their daily taunts. As Halloween approaches, Zinnia craves the comfort and security of Ambrosia Hill and desperately wishes to be back with her aunts but especially Billie, the girl with the green eyes, who Zinnia can’t get out of her mind. Right when Zinnia thinks she won’ t be able to wait until the summer to see Billie, her mom shocks her with a spontaneous announcement. They are leaving for Ambrosia Hill to visit the aunts. But can Zinnia surrender her truth to accept love?

Everyone needs a place that makes them feel like they belong there.

Some of the most memorable scenes were the ones that explored the many different options that were available to a witch. Not only did young witches decide whether they wanted to be on the side of good or of evil, the powers they had could vary quite a bit from one individual to the next. This meant that it wasn’t easy to predict in advance what someone in this group was like even in small ways like whether it would be safe to walk through their garden. I was fascinated by the diversity here and gobbled up every last description. It made me think of all of the Halloween stories I’ve read and watched about witches and wonder what a film based on this world might be like!

My review of Amethyst mentioned wanting to see more character development for Zinnia and the people closest to her. While it still happened much more slowly than I would have preferred to see, I was pleased to take note of the subtle but important ways in which all of the main characters had evolved since I’d first met them. I hope that any possible sequels in the works will speed up this progress as this was the only thing holding me back from giving a full five-star rating.

Once again, I was thrilled with the world building in this series. The first instalment did an excellent job of showing how magic worked in this universe and what it meant to be a witch. It was wonderful to see all of that hard work not only acknowledged in the sequel but used as a foundation to explore these topics in even greater detail here. I highly recommend beginning with book one in order to fully appreciate just how much effort the author put into this. She couldn’t have done a better job at it.

Obsidian was a satisfying read.

First Steps, First Snow by Harriet Hodgson


First Steps, First Snow by Harriet Hodgson
Publisher: BQB Publishing
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Animals and nature add wonder to daily life. First Steps, First Snow connects young readers to nature, nocturnal animals, and fosters mindfulness.

Whether it’s changing seasons, changing scenes, or observing wildlife, nature adds wonder to our lives. First Steps, First Snow (based on a true story) describes a magical walk in the woods on a winter night.

The poem guides readers on the walk and encourages the observation of nature. Watercolor illustrations show nocturnal animals that live in forests.

At the end, the two children and the animals are all snug and sound asleep—a perfect bedtime story for readers of all ages.

Anything can happen after a snowstorm.

The quiet, peaceful storyline fit the theme perfectly. There’s nothing like being the first person to walk through the snow after a snowstorm. It’s something that almost everyone who lives in a climate that is cold enough for snow to fall will have personal experience with. The details might change a little depending on whether someone is in a forest, a backyard, or walking just down a street, but the relaxing nature of it remains the same everywhere. It made me yearn for winter.

One of the biggest strengths of this picture book was how open-ended it was. The characters never revealed their names or how they knew each other, so those details could easily be added in or changed according to reader preference. I love finding tales that allow for that sort of creativity and audience participation. Not everything needs to be figured out by the author ahead of time in cases like this one.

I smiled as I read the ending. It left room for a sequel if one is ever written, but it also wrapped up the current plot satisfactorily while once again leaving lots of space for readers of all ages to fill in the gaps if they wished to. The way it was written also made sense for anyone who prefers not to participate in stories in this way. Either way, it was the end of a happy day out in the woods which was exactly what it needed to be.

First Steps, First Snow was a heartwarming read.

The Sufficient Loss Protocol by Kemi Ashing-Giwa


The Sufficient Loss Protocol by Kemi Ashing-Giwa
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When an alien entity sneaks aboard a corporate spaceship, with no motive besides sabotaging the mission and murdering those aboard, commander Uzoma Ifiok launches an investigation—despite knowing that the real danger isn’t the one picking off her crew.

Who cares what happens to those pesky civilians as long as there’s money to be made, right?

Uzoma wasn’t someone I’d ever want to cross paths with, but they sure were an interesting protagonist. I was intrigued by their willingness to do anything for money, up to and including being a contract killer as mentioned in one of the earliest scenes. Their reasons for doing this sort of grisly work are best left up to other readers to figure out for themselves, but I kept trying to figure out where this person’s limits were and what might happen if they were pushed past their comfort zone. This was an excellent example of how to write an arrogant and unlikeable but also incredibly memorable character.

I did find myself wishing for more world building. Yes, there are companies in our world who get away with killing people for profit through faulty products and other such things, but the amount of murders mentioned in this short story made me wonder what on Earth – or, rather, in space – the governmental system in this setting was doing while the corporation who hired Uzoma continued to give this character orders that would lead to the deaths of countless innocent people. It would have been helpful to know whether their government was unable or unwilling to step in and how all of those deaths were explained to the general public.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that explored the assumptions we all make about things we’ve done a hundred times before. It’s easy to fall into a pattern and not necessarily pay attention to little things that might be different this time around. I liked the fact that Uzoma stuck to what they knew just like anyone else probably would in their shoes. As terrible as some of their life choices were, it made this character feel more human and relatable.

The Sufficient Loss Protocol was a wild ride.

Atticus Everheart, Fifth Grade Tutor, and Monster Hunter? by C.L. Colyer


Atticus Everheart, Fifth Grade Tutor, and Monster Hunter? by C.L. Colyer
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Nothing frightens Atticus Everheart more than monsters, thanks to his older brothers, who often threaten to feed him to the beastly creatures. Fearing that’s what they will do if he doesn’t replace the book he accidentally ruined, he takes a job tutoring a boy in his neighborhood. Although nervous about the job, Atticus soon discovers there’s a lot more in store for him than teaching. Never in a trillion years would he have imagined he’d be hiding from monsters, working with ghosts, or searching for werewolves and witches. He’s not brave, and he has no plans to change. Until he’s forced to.

Tutoring isn’t always as easy as it looks.

Ms. Colyer has a smooth writing style that makes her work a joy to read. She knew exactly when to explain things in a way that would make sense to her target audience as well as when to leave other details a little vague for the amusement of older readers or later chapters when all would be revealed. I appreciated her sense of timing and her willingness to allow some of her readers to be a little confused for a while in order to build tension for future scenes. This was my second time reading one of her books, and I hope to have many more adventures with her characters in the future.

In a review of a previous work of hers, I had mentioned wishing the author had spent more time on world building. It was delightful to see exactly that happen this time around. The plot didn’t require the characters to dig too deeply into why half-vampires existed in their universe, to share but one example, but it did give me exactly enough information about what sorts of supernatural creatures existed here and how ordinary humans reacted to the idea of them. Would I have liked to know even more? Yes, but it wasn’t strictly necessary for the storyline, and I walked away pretty content with what I did know. Sometimes it’s better to leave an audience wanting more, after all.

Kids don’t always interpret our world the same way grownups do, and that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy middle grade fiction so much. There’s something magical about seeing a character attempt to figure out an unusual and rare social convention or discover the meaning of a complex word for the first time. I had plenty of opportunities to do just that in this tale, and I relished every miscommunication and misunderstanding Atticus faced as he attempted to earn the money he needed to replace his brother’s book. Those moments were as funny as they were necessary for everything else that was about to happen to him.

Speaking of that, I was also impressed with how focused the writing was on its target audience. While adults can enjoy it, too, it truly was written for middle grade readers from the first scene to the last one. This isn’t something I see nearly as much as I’d like to in this genre, and it was refreshing to read a story that knew exactly who its audience was and never wavered from speaking to them in ways they’d best understand.

Atticus Everheart, Fifth Grade Tutor, and Monster Hunter? was a spooky and delightful read.

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A Feel Better Book for Little Worriers by Holly Brochmann and Leah Bowen


A Feel Better Book for Little Worriers by Holly Brochmann and Leah Bowen
Publisher: Magination Press
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Worries can feel like a BIG problem to a LITTLE kid!

A Feel Better Book for Little Worriers assures kids that having some worries is normal — everyone has them, even adults!

The rhyming narration helps little kids to identify a worry and where it might come from, as well as provides them with helpful tools to reduce and cope with worries.

Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers that expands on the cognitive-behavioral science behind the strategies and tools presented in the book, with more information on how you can help your little worrier to stay calm.

Not every thought should be listened to.

There was so much empathy in this story. That was exactly what I was hoping to find as it can be embarrassing for some kids (as well as some adults!) to talk about their mental health struggles if they don’t know how others will react to their concerns. Knowing that people will be kind and understanding about it is an important first step for many who are deciding whether they feel comfortable mentioning the scary thoughts that roll around in their heads.

I did find myself wishing that more time had been spent exploring what it feels like to be anxious. The symptoms the narrator mentioned were good ones, but there were a few others like headaches, stomachaches, and trouble settling down for bedtime that I thought were also important to include. Not every kid will experience them of course, but they’re common and troublesome enough that I think it’s a good idea for little worriers to know why they feel that way.

My favorite portions of this picture book were the ones that shared simple and effective ways to cope with worries. They were all easy things to remember that can help people of all ages who have anxiety. Honestly, I wish this book had existed when I was a kid because of how well it explained why some folks worry too much and what they can do to help themselves feel better.

A Feel Better Book for Little Worriers was a wonderfully reassuring read.

A Wee Boo by Jessica Boyd


A Wee Boo by Jessica Boyd
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

This heartwarming ghost story will make readers laugh out loud and sympathize with a ghost who is too cute to be scary.

Wee Boo is a ghost who wants nothing more than to earn her haunting license like all the other accredited ghosts. The problem? She’s far too cute to scare anyone! She’s given one last chance, with extraordinarily low standards: Boo doesn’t need to make anyone scream or gasp or shudder, she just needs one “whoa” to earn her place as a certified ghost. But she’s running out of chances and her final haunting is not going well―that is until she meets a baby. When Boo makes the baby laugh, she realizes something: although she’s terrible as a scary ghost, she might just make an outstanding imaginary friend. And a baby laughing in a crib at an invisible friend might just be enough to spook someone after all―the baby’s parents.

Even ghosts have to follow the rules.

Boo was utterly adorable. I loved her gentle personality and her belief that everyone she met was a future friend. She was such a kind spirit that being scary enough to finally earn her haunting license was the hardest thing she’d ever tried to do. I smiled as I read about her dilemma and wondered what else she’d try to fix it.

I loved the subtle messages this tale shared about the assumptions we make about how we should behave based on other people’s or other ghost’s in this case, expectations of us. Getting along with others is a good goal, but there are other things to consider, too. I can’t say much more about this part of the storyline without giving away spoilers, but I thought it was blended into the narrative nicely and had an important point to make for readers of all ages.

The plot twists were delightful for Halloween and beyond. They were straightforward enough for young children to follow but also included some extra layers of meaning to appeal to older readers. I always enjoy finding picture books that work well for both preschoolers and their siblings, parents, or caretakers who are reading it aloud again to the small ghost-lover in their lives. It takes talent to pull that off, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for what Ms. Boyd might release next.

A Wee Boo was the perfect ghost story for readers of all ages.

Jingle Bells by Nick Butterworth


Jingle Bells by Nick Butterworth
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Join some very enterprising mice in this funny, festive story from best-selling creator of Percy the Park Keeper, Nick Butterworth. Fastened with ribbon and jingly bell, this book makes a wonderful Christmas gift!

Christmas time, a happy time – or so it should be. But for two small mice, Lottie and Jack, Christmas Eve is overshadowed by one big problem… That Cat. How can they stop him from spoiling everything? Their friend, the wise rat, Ton Chee, has an idea involving a little golden bell … but will it work?

Not every Christmas is a perfect one.

What a peaceful farm to set this story on. I felt as though I received exactly the right amount of information about the farmhouse, barn, outbuildings, and yard. The most important portions of the plot involved what the characters were doing in these places, of course, but it was nice to have such a sturdy backdrop for all of their adventures. Things like this can be easily overlooked, yet they make such a big difference in how readers connect to a story. Good job on all of this, Mr. Butterworth!

I would have liked to see more attention paid to the bullying in this story. Angus the cat was consistently unkind to Lottie and Jack in previous obvious ways. I was surprised by how much Angus was able to get away with and found myself wishing for stronger consequences for these actions. The solution that was eventually shared was a good start, but it would have been nice to see it taken far enough for the cat to realize they were wrong and try to do something to make up for it. As much as I enjoyed the rest of the storyline, I’d want to have a conversation about more efficient ways to handle bullying afterwards if I were to read it to preschoolers.

With that being said, I did appreciate Lottie and Jack’s creativity in this area of their lives. There is definitely something to be said for seeking advice from wise folks and trying to fix a problem after listening to someone else’s ideas about it. I also enjoyed seeing how this issue tied into the magic of the Christmas season, but that’s something other readers should learn more about themselves.

Jingle Bells made me wish Christmas would arrive sooner.