The Bat by Leslie W P Garland


The Bat by Leslie W P Garland
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Horror, Paranormal, Historical
Length: Short Story (83 pages)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

With “fake news” hitting the headlines, I thought it would be nice to look at “truth” and muse on questions such as “what actually is true?” and “what is Truth?” using a fantasy story as a foil for same.

In this coming-of-age story Thomas recounts the events of a term at school when his class returned to a new beautiful class teacher, a donation of stuffed animals and birds by an eccentric benefactor which he and his friends subsequently discovered weren’t quite as dead as they looked, an exorcism in which a bell-jar which had contained a bat shattered, and then things, which up until then had been strange, turned to being sinister and frightening.

In an attempt to understand what was going on, Thomas found himself reading up on Black Magic, Satanism, the early Christian Church, and the worship of evil, but instead of assisting his understanding this made him more confused than ever. Even a conversation with his local priest failed to resolve the problems he found himself wrestling with. What was true? What was the Truth? And of course, where was the bat?

An adult fantasy story for those who like to think about what they are reading.

The difference between good and evil isn’t always as easy to figure out as one might think.

One of the many reasons why I’m such a huge fan of Mr. Garland’s work is that it requires some effort from the reader in order to be understood. He’s the sort of writer who will give his audience a few important clues and then expect them to come to their own conclusions about what happened based on how they chose to interpret those clues. This was the perfect kind of storyline for this writing style because of how slippery people’s memories can be. Two people can remember the same moment in time in completely different ways depending on what their minds were paying attention to back then.

The character development was handled beautifully, too. At times I forgot that the narrator was remembering things that happened to him and his community decades ago because of how caught up I was in what young Thomas was experiencing and how much those events affected the way he saw the world. While I don’t know if the author would ever be interested in write a sequel about this specific character in this series, I’d sure like to read it if he does.

There was nothing gory about the horror in this tale, but that didn’t make any less frightening. I appreciated the way the fear sneaked up on me as I was reading. It wasn’t something I noticed at first, but I was pretty scared by the final scene. There is definitely something to be said for being scared by the threat of something terrible happening almost as much as I was by what actually occurred. Anticipation was one of the narrator’s biggest weapons, and he used it well.

The final reason why I gave this book a perfect score is that it wrestled with so many intriguing questions about faith, morality, grief, and what it means to be a good person without spoon-feeding any answers to the audience. I deeply enjoy philosophical discussions about these kinds of topics, and Mr. Garland gave me a lot of food for thought. I will be thinking about the various points his characters made for a long time.

This is part of the “The Red Grouse” series, but it can be read on its own or out of order.

The Bat chilled me to my core. It’s a must-read for anyone who loves though-provoking and intelligent stories.

Myth City by Anya Howard


Myth City: A Modern Retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Anya Howard
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (92 pages)
Other: M/F
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A modern Dystopian retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Romance author Anya Howard.

After a nuclear battle, globalism has claimed power over every aspect of human life. A select group of survivors have been given refuge in the technological haven called the City. Here, every aspect of daily life is dictated by the laws of the governing Elders. One brave woman dares to risk the severest repercussions when an attractive stranger arrives from a place the Elders claim cannot possibly exist. When this man’s skills with a musical pipe are sought by the Elders, the dismal world they govern will be changed forever by the simple breaking of their word.

There’s more to life than following the rules.

The world building was handled well. I really enjoyed learning about the different roles that people could have in the City. It was such a strict society that I couldn’t stop wondering how folks managed to live in that kind of environment for a whole lifetime. The more I learned about it, the more curious I became about how it might change after Graham, the attractive stranger, came to visit. The odd way the City was set up became even more clear when I compared it to how Graham liked to live.

This story would have benefited from another round of editing. I noticed multiple typos in it, especially when it came to run-on sentences and the misuse of punctuation marks. There were also some sentences that didn’t make sense because they were either missing important words or had extra words added to them in ways that weren’t grammatically correct.

The chemistry between Apple and Graham was wonderful. I liked the fact that their relationship was given so much time to develop before anything sexual happened between them. It made a lot of sense due to the rigid culture Apple grew up in. By the time they decided to finally touch, I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next or if they’d end up together for good.

Myth City: A Modern Retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin should be read by anyone who enjoys modern twists on classic fairy tales.

Taking Chances by Arnold Greenberg


Taking Chances by Arnold Greenberg
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (59 pages)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Catherine loves Martin, but is no longer in love. Two days after celebrating their thirty-fourth anniversary, she’s fascinated by the man sitting across from her in the park. He’s writing intensely in his notebook, and when their eyes meet, he stops writing. After a short conversation, he offers to walk her back to her office across the street, then invites her to have coffee after work. Captivated, she reluctantly agrees to go to his apartment where, much to her surprise, a secret year-long affair begins.

Though horrified that she has broken her marriage vows, is living a lie, and suffocating, she finds the courage to tell Martin she’s in love with another man. Breaking his heart is the hardest thing she has ever done but must take a chance and follow her own. When Martin dies, she feels responsible but painfully learns a person is responsible for one’s own happiness.

Is it a fleeting crush or something more permanent than that? Catherine is about to find out whether she’s ready to or not.

The conflict was handled perfectly. I read the whole thing in one sitting because I couldn’t wait to find out what Catherine would decide to do and how her life would play out after she began to feel the consequences of her choices. The tension rose so steadily that there was no way I was going to stop until I knew how her story ended.

There were a few things about Catherine’s affair that I would have liked to see explained better. She talked about feeling deeply conflicted about it in some scenes, but in other scenes she seemed completely at ease with her decision to cheat on her spouse. This was a little confusing to me because it didn’t match how she behaved in the rest of her life. I was fascinated by this part of her personality, though, and would have simply liked to explore it in more depth so I could have known if was a one-time decision or part of a pattern in her life.

With that being said, Catherine was a complex and interesting main character. She felt like a real person to me, flaws and all. Her love of hearty food and burning desire for a taste of the romance she’d read about in books brought a smile to my lips. There were so many times when I wished I could reach through the pages and give her some friendly advice. I remained intrigued by her even when she made choices that I wished she wouldn’t make.

Taking Chances was a thought-provoking tale that I’d recommend to anyone who is in the mood for an honest and unique take on modern love.

A Symphony of Heart Strings by T.E. Hodden


A Symphony of Heart Strings by T.E. Hodden
Publisher: Roane Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (50 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Meet Bob. Bob is the guy between the lines of every love story you ever met. The lucky chance, the twist of fate, the astounding coincidence that sets sparks flying. Never seen, but always there.

Today Bob is assigned to help Jenny find love. But there is something more than bad luck working against the quirky librarian. Bob might have to save her life, before he can help her find love.

And he can’t do that from the shadows…

You don’t need luck to fall in love. You need Bob.

The world-building was amazing. It honestly felt more like a chapter out of a full-length novel because of how complex and logical it all was. Everything the main character explained about his world made perfect sense, but it also left me yearning for more. I had never stopped to wonder what it would be like to be the entity who makes people fall in love, but now I can’t stop thinking about how such a system would have first been set up or what might happen to Bob next.

I would have liked to see a little more time spent developing Bob and Jenny’s personalities. I loved the shy and sweet parts of their personalities that were revealed, but I finished this book with a few lingering questions about how they behaved in general. There was so much time spent on creating the incredible world that they lived in and moving the plot forward that this part of the storyline didn’t get quite enough attention. With that being said, I still deeply enjoyed this tale. This is only a minor criticism.

The descriptions of the places Bob went and the people he met were so vivid. I especially enjoyed his descriptions of how humans are connected to each other and how he figured out which folks should be gently encouraged to get to know each other better. While I can’t say much more about this without giving away spoilers, there was some gorgeous writing in these passages that got Bob’s point across perfectly.

A Symphony of Heart Strings was both a beautiful love story and a thrilling urban fantasy. I’d heartily recommend it to fans of either of these genres.

Halfway by Lokesh Sharma


Halfway by Lokesh Sharma
Aspiration for Deliverance #1
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (175 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A few hundred people wake up in an auditorium with no memory of their past, scared and confused, struggling to remember who they are and how they got here. A voice draws their attention to the person standing on the podium, impeccably dressed, an air of calm confidence about him that suggests he has the answers to all their questions. As he starts explaining the situation, they slowly begin to realize they are in a futuristic realm called Enigma, where dead humans are reborn and brought to trials for the crimes they committed in their human-lives…

Death isn’t the end. In fact, it’s only the beginning.

The world building was really well done. I could tell that Mr. Sharma had put a lot of effort into developing how Enigma worked and what it would be like to live there. That entire realm ran like a well-oiled machine. It felt real to me because of how many details the author included about who was invited there, what they had to do while they there, and where they might go after their time at Enigma had ended. I was perfectly satisfied with what the narrators shared with me, but I also found myself wanting to know more about this unique place.

I had trouble keeping track of all of the characters because there were so many of them. While it was interesting to jump between their experiences in the afterlife, I would have preferred to focus on a smaller number of characters who were going through the process of being judged on what they did while they were alive. Having so many different characters made it hard for me to remember which backstory belonged to which individual in this book.

One of my favorite parts of this book was how little the main characters knew when they woke up in the auditorium. It was interesting to feel their confusion as they tried to figure out who they were and how they had all ended up in the same room. What made this scene even more memorable to me is how all of their questions were answered. Without giving away any spoilers, the narrator did a nice job of tying all of those pieces of the plot together in ways that made sense but also required the reader to do some thinking of their own.

The ending was quite abrupt. While I understand that this was meant to be the first story in a series, I would have liked to have some closure for at least a few of the conflicts that were explored here. There were many opportunities for the characters to grow and learn from their experiences that were never taken advantage of. Leaving everything hanging like that in the end made me feel unsatisfied.

With that being said, I would be curious to know what happened to Aparna, Dev, and the other people who woke up in Enigma because the pacing of their storylines were so fast and strong. I was always interested in finding out what would happen next to these characters. There was never a point where their adventures slowed down at all, and that was a good thing.

Halfway was a thought-provoking tale that I’d recommend to anyone who is in the mood to start a new series.

Touching Water by Viola Grace


Touching Water by Viola Grace
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (58 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Lydra wanted to live a life as a researcher and focus on solving mysteries of genetics. She never intended to become one of those mysteries.

Trapped in an experiment gone wrong, she ends up blue and powerless on her own world, so she decides to be a freak amongst freaks elsewhere.

Locals populate guardian Base Vidiaro, but Lydra gets by by doing her crime scene analysis until the day that the experiment that started on her own world takes its course. She goes from an anomaly to a hero and isn’t sure which she really wants to be.

Not every superpower is created equally.

Lydra was such an interesting main character. I was fascinated by the fact that she was so embarrassed over the color her skin after the science experiment she was participating in didn’t end the way she was expecting it to. It was knowing this fact about her that made her courage later on on the tale even more remarkable that it might have otherwise been. Facing what you perceive to be a weakness is never easy, but the way she handled it only made me like her twice as much as I did before.

The romantic subplot didn’t work for me at all. While I liked both of the characters involved in it quite a bit, I had trouble imagining them as a couple. The chemistry between them also never felt quite right. I could have seen them possibly becoming friends by the end, but I would have preferred to see more time spent developing their relationship before anything other than a completely platonic friendship was on the table. With that being said, I love romances that begin with a genuine and solid friendship, so I would have happily rooted for them if I could have seen more examples of why they’d make a good match.

The battles were nicely written. I especially enjoyed the fact that Ms. Grace spent so much time keeping them moving along smoothly. There was a lot going on during some of them, but I always remained on top of what everyone was doing and which science fiction or high tech devices were currently being used.

I’d recommend Touching Water to anyone who likes science fiction with a side of romance.

Today’s Special by Jonathan Dimmig


Today’s Special by Jonathan Dimmig
Publisher: Rogue Phoenix Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (77 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

What’s your version of an ordinary day?

For Thomas Danielson, it’s the constant strain of keeping the restaurant he owns from going under. His friends and family depend upon his success but the outlook is dismal. It demands his entire focus until tragedy strikes and his soul-mate is ripped from his arms.

Can Tom recover from the absolute worst event that could possibly happen?

A twist of fate crushes Tom’s world and sends him on a journey of discovery for what’s truly important in life. With guidance from friends, loved ones, and an unassuming chalkboard there just may be some hope in his struggles.

Nothing in life is guaranteed and we are sometimes forced to face the impossible. Tom’s story shows how, even in the darkest times, there is a ray of light shining though the clouds.

Food nourishes the body, but sometimes it also feeds the soul.

Thomas was such a kindhearted man. His character development was so nicely done that I felt like I knew him by the time the first scene ended. It came as a surprise to me, then, to discover how many other layers there were to his personality as the plot moved forward. Yes, he had his fair share of faults as well, but they only made me like him more than I already did because of how naturally they fit into what I already knew about him. He was such a well-developed character that I wish I could meet him in real life.

There were pacing issues in the beginning. As much as I enjoyed getting to know the characters so well, all of those introductions did slow down the development of the plot. This pacing would have been perfect for a full length book, but at times it felt uneven for a short story.

One of my favorite parts of this tale were the friendships all of the characters had developed in it. They had their shares of conflicts like anyone else, but their core relationships were strong and loving. The romance was sweet, but the friendships were the heart and soul of the storyline. There are some relatives that people are born having, but one can also become family through choice. This was a beautiful example of how that can happen.

If you’re looking for something sentimental and a little bittersweet, Today’s Special is a good place to start.

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.