Food of the Gods by Em Dehaney

Food of the Gods by Em Dehaney
Publisher: Brave Boy Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Short Story (133 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A perfect corpse floats forever in a watery grave.
A gang member takes a terrifying trip to the seaside.
A deserted cross-channel ferry that serves only the finest Slovakian wines.
Gods and monsters.
Mermaids and witches.
Blood and magic.
Love and death.
From the dark and decadent mind of Em Dehaney come eight tales of seafoam secrets and sweet treats.
Nothing is quite what it seems, but everything is delicious.
This is Food Of The Gods.

First impressions don’t always tell the whole story.

Framing “Here Be Monsters” as a conversation between a child and their grandmother about what Earth was like before the monsters arrived and began destroying everything was the perfect way to introduce such a grim future for humanity. Children can understand much more than adults sometimes give them credit for, and the main character of this story was no exception to that rule. They understood the drastic events that nearly caused humans to go extinct incredibly well even if they had no idea what a rainbow was or that people used to be able to grow food in places called gardens. I enjoyed figuring out what daily life must have been like for these characters as I read their conversation and slowly pieced together what must have happened in their not-so-distant past.

“Bellarmine” told the tale of an abusive marriage from the perspectives of Nathaniel and his wife and victim, Elizabeth. They lived at a time in history when there was no social support for women in this situation, so Elizabeth had to figure out how to handle her husband’s violent attacks on her own. As intrigued by I was by her predicament and the clever plot twists, the character development wasn’t strong enough for me to get to know either of them well at all. Nathaniel’s personality was particularly one-dimensional. I strongly disliked him due to all of the awful things he did to his wife, and I certainly wouldn’t expect that to change no matter what his backstory might have been. With that being said, it would have been helpful to have more details about why he behaved so horribly. This was something I noticed play out in a few other stories in this collection as well. While I adored Ms. Dehaney’s writing style overall, the character development issues did lead to me giving her book a lower rating than I would have otherwise chosen.

Mikey’s life changed forever on the day he found a baby shark in “The Mermaid’s Purse.” His childhood was full of neglect and abuse, so I was curious to see how he’d keep such an exotic pet alive despite the fact that he didn’t even have enough food or other necessities for himself. It was truly satisfying to see how hard he worked to keep him and new little friend going no matter what was going on around them. The ending was perfect. It tied together all of the loose ends of the plot nicely, and it also left me wondering what would happen to Mikey next.

Food of the Gods should be read by anyone who is in the mood for deeply creative science fiction.

Totem Poles by Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker

Totem Poles by Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (25 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The saucer aliens are here. They’re healing the planet. They’ve got to be stopped.

At the Publisher’s request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Are these aliens truly friendly, or is there a darker purpose to all of the kind things they’re doing for humanity?

Mr. Sterling and Mr. Rucker are both talented writers. They have writing styles that are simultaneously poetic and conversational. There were several times when I needed to stop, chuckle, and reread a sentence not because I didn’t understand it the first time but because I wanted the pleasure of reading it again.

I would have liked to see this story go into far more detail about why Kalinin, one of the main characters, was so certain that the aliens were cleaning up the pollution on Earth for nefarious purposes. He leapt to that conclusion without having any evidence to support it. As much as I enjoyed the rest of the plot, it didn’t make sense to me to be this paranoid about cleaning up the environment when the aliens had given the humans absolutely no reason to assume that they meant harm to anyone.

The paranormal elements of the plot weren’t something I was expecting to find at all. Ghosts and flying saucers aren’t generally included in the same storyline in this genre from what I’ve observed, but I was pleased with how the authors combined those two ideas. It ended up making perfect sense for them to coexist in this particular universe because of how much effort was put into showing all of the ways they intersected.

It was confusing to switch between the perspectives of so many different characters due to how short this story was in general. I was never able to get to know any of them well. As soon as I began to form an impression of their personalities, a different narrator would take over in the next scene and I’d have to readjust to other characters all over again.

The final scene tied up all of the loose ends of the plot nicely. While it was something I saw coming in advance, it was still interesting to see if my predictions would turn out to be correct and how the characters would react to what their futures held. I was quite satisfied with the ending when it was all said and done.

If the thought of an alien invasion fills you with a quiet sense of foreboding, Totem Poles may be right up your alley.

Where Would You Be Now? by Carrie Vaughn

Where Would You Be Now? by Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (35 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The world as they know it is ending, a new world is taking its place. Among the doctors and nurses of a clinic-turned-fortress, Kath is coming of age in this new world, and helping define it. But that doesn’t make letting go of the old any easier. “Where Would You Be Now?” is a prequel to the novel Bannerless, a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

How long would you survive in a world where even the most basic medical care is hard to come by?

Even the healthiest person can quickly run into serious trouble if they develop health problems in a place where medical professionals and proper treatments are scarce at best. Some of my favorite scenes showed what happens to characters under these circumstances. From what I understand, this book is the prequel to a series that will explore this universe in much greater depth. I was impressed by what I’ve seen so far, and I’m looking forward to digging more deeply into how this world works and why some characters worked so hard to provide medical treatment to perfect strangers despite not having enough supplies for themselves.

The world building was weak. While I wouldn’t expect a narrator to go into a lot of detail about how and why modern society has collapsed in a tale of this length, it would have been nice to at least have a brief description of what happened and why the characters no longer have any hope of getting help from the outside world. It was confusing to me to read about them running low on everything from food to medical supplies without knowing why they were in such a serious predicament or how long it had been going on.

Kath was an incredibly strong and compassionate woman. She ran towards the kinds of emergencies that most people would run away from, and she did it knowing that her safety was never guaranteed in those situations in any way. The more I got to know her, the more I liked her. While she lived in a dangerous world, she never allowed the uncertainty of her life to stop her from helping everyone she possibly could.

I’d recommend Where Would You Be Now? to anyone who loves post-apocalyptic stories.

The Chef and the Ghost of Bartholomew Addison Jenkins by Aletta Thorne

The Chef and the Ghost of Bartholomew Addison Jenkins by Aletta Thorne
Publisher: Evernight Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Historical
Length: Full Length (151 pages)
Other: M/F
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Halloween, 1982. MTV is new, poodle perms are the rage, and life just might be getting better for Alma Kobel. Her ugly divorce is final at last. Her new job as chef at Bright Day School’s gorgeous old estate is actually fun. But the place is haunted—and so is Alma’s apartment.

Bartholomew Addison Jenkins’ ghost has been invisibly watching Alma for months. When he materializes one night, Alma discovers Bart—as he likes to be called—has talents she couldn’t have imagined … and a horrifying past. Can you have a one-nighter with a ghost? And what happens if you decide one night is all you want—and end up ghosting him? Some spirits don’t like taking “no” for an answer.

First impressions definitely aren’t always accurate.

What a hilarious main character Alma was! She could find a funny spin to anything that happened to her, from surprise health inspections at work to her strange and complicated interactions with her ex-husband. Some of the things that happened to her would have seriously annoyed or even frightened a lot of people. I loved the fact that she was able to quickly shake so many of those memories off with her fabulous sense of humor.

The only criticism I have of this story has to do with how quickly the romantic relationship in it heated up. Both of the people involve in it were so cautious and meticulous in other areas of their lives that I never would have expected them to move as fast as they did. Yes, I definitely wanted to see them end up together, but it felt a little odd to me because it didn’t feel consistent with everything else I’d learned about them. With that being said, this is a minor complaint about something I enjoyed quite a lot.

The world building was really well done. I especially enjoyed figuring out what ghosts were and weren’t capable of in this universe. Since nobody was given any instructions after they died, Bartholomew had to learn what he could do and what the consequences of those actions would be on his own. Him slowly discovering his abilities and limitations as the plot moved forward made it difficult for me to stop reading. I always wanted to know more about what the afterlife was like for him.

The Chef and the Ghost of Bartholomew Addison Jenkins was as spooky as it was sexy. It should be read by fans of erotica and ghost stories alike.

Sanctity of Life by Jennifer E. Whalen

Sanctity of Life by Jennifer E. Whalen
An Enemy Loved Novel

Publisher: Lilac Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Full Length (156 pages)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Deep in the Black Forest of Germany, dark experiments have been taking place since WWII. Now the secrets are in danger of being exposed. Who will live? Who will die? Can it be contained?

Sometimes science causes more problems than it solves.

The dialogue was well done. This was a fast-paced story, so there wasn’t a lot of room for lengthy descriptions or discussions. I liked the fact that the characters’ conversations were kept as short as possible. That was exactly how I’d expect members of the military and government to behave when they were trying to contain a threat to the security of their nation.

There were so many characters in this story that I found it really difficult to remember who was who. I kept mixing everyone up, and it only became tougher to remember who everyone was once the pacing picked up and the characters began to find themselves in dangerous situations.

One of the things I always like discovering is a character who makes intelligent decisions regardless of what’s happening around him. There were several characters in this book who had good heads on their shoulders. No matter how other people reacted around them, they always paid close attention to their surroundings and thought logically about what they should do next. I appreciated that.

The time jumps were confusing to me. Some of the scenes were set in 1945 while others happened in 1918. Since I was struggling so much to remember who all of the characters were, it was strange to suddenly meet new people or to see someone in a different part of his or her life than they’d been a few scenes earlier.

My favorite sections of this story were the ones that explained what was going on with the dark experiments in full detail. I’m a big fan of science fiction about medical advancements that don’t turn out the way their creators intended them to. The author did a good job at explaining why these attempts were having such poor results and hinting at what would happen if the scientists continue to push the boundaries of what the human body is capable of.

Sanctity of Life should be read by anyone who loves the idea of science experiments gone terribly wrong.

The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski

The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski
Publisher: Sinister Grin Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Action/Adventure
Length: Full Length (162 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Doctoral student Paige Ambroziak is a “station bunny” – she’s never set foot off the deep space outpost where she grew up. But when she’s offered a small fortune to join a clandestine salvage mission, she jumps at the chance to leave the cutthroat world of academia behind.

Paige is convinced she’s been enlisted to find the legendary Manifest Destiny, a long-lost colonization vessel from an era before the corporations ruled Earth and its colonies. Whatever she’s looking for, though, rests in the blood-like seas of a planet-sized organism called a fleshworld.

Dangers abound for Paige and her shipmates. Flying outside charted space means competing corporations can shoot them on sight rather than respect their salvage rights. The area is also crawling with pirates like the ghoulish skin-wrappers, known for murdering anyone they can’t extort.

But the greatest threat to Paige’s mission is the nauseating alien parasites which infest the fleshworld. These lamprey-like monstrosities are used to swimming freely in an ocean of blood, and will happily spill a new one from the veins of the outsiders who have tainted their home. In just a few short, bone-chilling hours Paige learns that there are no limits to the depravity and violence of the grotesque nightmares known as…THE HEMATOPHAGES.

There are no friendly aliens here.

I appreciated how much time Mr. Kozeniewski spent on the world building and character development before the plot sped up. Having such a detailed introduction to the strict, corporate-run society Paige grew up in made it easy for me to bond with her. Paige’s childhood had not been an easy one, but it had shaped her into a strong and self-reliant woman. I really enjoyed having such a deep understanding of how those early experiences shaped the person she became as an adult. They made her heroic acts later on in the plot even more exciting than they might have been for someone who didn’t have quite so much to lose.

My only piece of constructive criticism has to do with the plot twists. While I definitely enjoyed following Paige’s adventures, the fact that I could predict what would happen next so regularly did make me wish that I could have been surprised by what the characters experienced more often. It was a minor complaint about a tale that I otherwise had a great time reading, though.

Yes, there were many gory scenes in this book. It’s something that is to be expected when characters visit a planet that has oceans full of blood, after all. The violence served an important purpose to the plot, though, and I liked the way it was folded into what had been a much tamer adventure story in the beginning. I knew the characters so well at that point that I couldn’t stop reading until I’d found out what their fates were.

I’d recommend The Hematophages to anyone who is in the market for dark and violent science fiction.

One Night in Havana by Kathleen Rowland

One Night in Havana by Kathleen Rowland
Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (84 pages)
Other: M/F, BDSM (Biting)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A desperate competition and sizzling attraction leads to dangerous desire.

New York Marine biologist Veronica “Roni” Keane is attending the Havana Bay Conference in Cuba. Tomorrow only one grant will be awarded which will provide the winner with professional recognition, resources for a project, and living expenses for two years. She hopes to continue her deceased father’s work, but smooth operator, Carlos Montoya, has won many grants in the past.

Carlos, a freelancer for the Havana Port Authority, works to help protect Havana’s reputation as a bastion of safety. As international travelers flock to the island, attracted by its 1950’s time-warp and colonial architecture, the drug business is running rampant, particularly on Roni’s cruise ship. Something’s not right, and when her scuba tanks are tampered with, Carlos brings in the military police to investigate. For her safety, he keeps her close, but he craves her body.

Their attraction leads to a fun night with a bit of kink. But Roni finds herself in more trouble than she bargained for when the criminals blame her for alerting the military police and come looking for her. Can Roni trust Carlos to protect her? Will she stay in Havana if Carlos wins the coveted grant, or kiss her lover goodbye?

Sometimes danger can be the most powerful aphrodisiac of them all.

Ms. Rowland’s descriptions of the scenery were so vivid that they made me feel like I’d been to Cuba even though I’ve never actually been to that country in real life. The beaches sounded gorgeous at any time of the day or night. I also enjoyed the descriptions she gave of what Cuban culture is like. It wasn’t something I knew much about at all, so I was glad that she spent so much time showing how Cuba is different from other parts of the world.

The chemistry between Roni and Carlos never felt right to me. The plot didn’t spend very much time developing these characters, so it was hard for me to figure out what their personalities were like and why they were so attracted to each other. Having more details about who these people were would have made it a lot easier to root for them to end up together.

My favorite scenes were the ones that focused on why Roni’s scuba equipment was tampered with and how the authorities reacted to that. Not only were they fast-paced and exciting, they placed the main characters in so much peril that I couldn’t wait to find out how they might escape. I actually read the whole story in one siting because I couldn’t bear to put it down until I knew how everything would turn out.

If you’re in the mood for an erotic mystery, One Night in Havana is a good place to start.

Hungry by Nikka Michaels

Hungry by Nikka Michaels
Publisher: Evernight Publishing
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (34 pages)
Other: F/F
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Sydney Donnelly has poured her heart and soul into the bar she runs in an up and coming Portland neighborhood. When she receives a letter from the landlord that her block is going to be turned into expensive condos, she feels lost. Then a scheduled band cancels, but her friend and bartender, Mitch promises to find another group to play the show. When the band shows up, Sydney’s shocked, along with the rest of the bar when world-famous band Finnegan’s Wake plays her tiny neighborhood bar.

Natalie Summers, the lead singer and t.v. star of a quirky independent skit show on cable is talented, sexy and beautiful. She’s also a local, and grew up near Sydney’s bar. When Natalie and her band play a show that rocks the small bar, she also rocks Sydney’s world with her sexy, sultry songs. Will Sydney and Natalie connect or will they be left hungry for more?

Natalie’s only in town for a short time, but one night might be all that Sydney needs.

Sydney had a fabulous personality. I loved her assertive attitude as well as her compassion for the people in her neighborhood whose homes were in danger of being torn down and replaced by condos. She really cared about her friends and community. It showed in every conversation she had about wanting to protect them, and it somehow made me like this character even more than I did when I first met her.

I would have liked to see more time spent developing the ending to this tale. The beginning and middle had plenty of opportunities to shine, but the ending felt a little rushed to me. While it mentioned all of the things that needed to be resolved, it didn’t go into quite enough detail about them in order to make those scenes come alive in my mind the way they did in the beginning. I would have chosen a much higher rating if this hadn’t happened as I enjoyed the storytelling quite a bit overall.

The chemistry between Sydney and Natalie was really well done. The backstory between them explained why Sydney had such a strong reaction to Natalie the first time she saw her at Finnegan’s Wake, and their connection only grew more powerful from there.I don’t know if the author is planning to write a sequel, but I’d sure be interested in finding out what happens to these characters next if she does.

Hungry would be a good choice for anyone who is in the mood for something short and racy.

The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Fifth Course of Chaos by Edited by J. Alan Hartman

The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Fifth Course of Chaos by Edited by J. Alan Hartman
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Holiday, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (137 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Just when you thought it was safe to head to the table for Thanksgiving feasting, the Killer Wore Cranberry series is back with a fifth course of pure chaos!

The Killer Wore Cranberry has been acclaimed worldwide for its wicked combination of humor and Thanksgiving-themed mysteries, and this year’s installment is sure to carry on everyone’s new, favorite holiday tradition.

This year’s contributions come from 14 of today’s best and brightest short mystery authors that could be seated at one dinner table: Barbara Metzger, Arthur Carey, Earl Staggs, KM Rockwood, Herschel Cozine, Kelley Lortz, Bobbi A. Chukran, Lesley A. Diehl, Albert Tucher, Maryann Miller, Liz Milliron, Terrance V. Mc Arthur, Betsy Bitner and DG Critchley. And, back by popular demand, Lisa Wagner provides delicious recipes, proving that murder and mystery work best on a full stomach.

So have a seat, pick up your fork and knife (on second thought, maybe not the knife) and get ready to have so many laughs it’s criminal!

Sometimes there are far more dangerous things to worry about on Thanksgiving than accidentally choking on a turkey bone.

In “The Capo-Clipped Capon Caper,” Sam Spad was hired by the secret service to find out who stole the White House’s Thanksgiving turkey. The only thing better than discovering the funny and creative premise for this tale was finding out that it exceeded every expectation I had for it. Not only was the mystery incredibly entertaining, the characters were well-developed and the ending made me grin. I never would have guessed that any detective would have to work so hard to figure out who’d want to prevent the president from eating turkey.

I enjoyed all of the stories in this collection, but a couple of them would have been better if they’d focused on a smaller number of characters. “No Starch in the Turkey, Please” was one example of this. It was about a woman named Emily who decided to reconnect with her estranged family for the holidays after receiving a strangely formal letter from her mother about her father’s declining health. She soon began to wonder if something sinister was happening to her family. The premise itself was fantastic, but there were so many characters running around in the plot that I had trouble keeping up with what everyone was doing.

“Turkey Underfoot” was told from the perspective of a cat named Misty. Her humans were hosting Thanksgiving dinner for a grouchy, elderly relative who kept narrowly escaping attempts on his life during the course of the day. Not only was Misty a funny narrator, her understanding of how human society works and why her owners were trying to kill their relative was so different from how a person would interpret those scenes that I couldn’t wait to find out how it would all end. This was such a fun twist on the typical murder mystery that I’d recommend skipping ahead to read it first before diving into the rest of this anthology.

The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Fifth Course of Chaos should be read by anyone who is in the mood for some truly creative Thanksgiving mysteries.

The Raven Flies at Night by Janine R. Pestel

The Raven Flies at Night by Janine R. Pestel
Publisher: Creativia Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (154 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In the second book of the series, Father Gunter and his friend, Robert Durling travel to the town of Mountainview.

A demon’s presence in the town has the townfolk depressed, with suicides being a daily occurrence. After the duo meets Father Nelson, they receive an amulet that will aid them in their battle against the Mountainview demon.

But after a meeting with TV reporter Belinda Carstone, they learn of her mysterious dream, and a demon that abducted her many years ago. Soon, their adventure takes a completely new, terrifying direction.

Demon hunting is a messy and dangerous job, but someone has to do it.

One of my favorite things about Robert Durling and Father Gunter in this tale was how level-headed they remained in even the most volatile situations. No matter how violent their supernatural encounters became they never panicked or made reckless decisions while they were trying to figure out the best way to excommunicate the demons they keep running into in this series.

There were many punctuation errors. By far the most common errors were the overuse and misuse of commas. While I deeply enjoyed the plot itself, it was distracting to be interrupted by so many sentences that I had to reread a few times in order to understand. I would have given this book a much higher rating if this hadn’t been the case.

The demon’s method of killing people was creative. Most of the other horror novels about demons I’ve read have taken a completely different approach to the harm they cause, so I was fascinated by the idea of one of these creatures causing so many grisly deaths without actually touching any of their victims. The original twists on this genre like this one are a big part of what keeps me so interested in what will happen next to these characters.

As I mentioned above, this is the second story in a series. It can be read out of order or as a standalone work.

I’d recommend The Raven Flies at Night to anyone who loves modern horror.