If the Sun Spares Us by Brenda Marie Smith

If the Sun Spares Us by Brenda Marie Smith
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: post-apocalyptic thriller
Rated: 5 stars
Review by Rose

Two years ago, a solar pulse destroyed modern life. Bea Crenshaw organized her starving, suburban neighbors into a farming community. But now Bea’s gone, and her grandchildren must carry her legacy forward.

In the post-apocalyptic pressure cooker of Austin, Texas, 19-year-old Keno and his younger cousins struggle to ensure their community’s survival even as they’re forced to relocate to safer grounds. Northern Lights that don’t belong this far south grow increasingly intense, making Keno fear what harm the sun will cause next.

Even worse, a marauding militia called the Raiders is closing in, led by a deranged woman who preys on teenage boys. Despite Keno’s debilitating flashbacks from a firefight, he and his wife have a new baby to protect. Though Bea is dead, her spirit desperately searches for ways to shield her grandkids. When Raiders target two neighborhood members, the only hope lies in the community’s strength, Keno’s ingenuity, and the family’s fierce love for one another.

This is the third book in the Braving the Light series and picks up after the death of Bea, the family’s grandmother and matriarch who so ably prepared her family for an apocalypse she is sure is coming, even though she does not know how or when. You can read our five-star review of the second book here.

This third, and final, book of the trilogy does not disappoint. Once again, Ms. Smith presents us with a multi-generational story, told from the POVs of Keno, Milo, Mazie, and Bea. They are trying to relocate to a safer location, a move which causes dissension in the original camp. Add to that, they run into a paramilitary group which calls itself Raiders and is run by a deranged woman with a special affinity for luring in teenage boys.

Once again, it’s the characters and their relationships that really make this book. The characters come across as real people, with all their faults and foibles. They are mostly people who would want to sit down and have a cup of tea with.

The situations, also, ring true and is a future I could see all too well coming our way. The whole range of human emotions and human reactions are seen in the books, both good and bad.

I really recommend this series.

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Death Tango by Lachi

Death Tango by Lachi
Publisher: RIZE Publishing
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror
Rated: 5 stars
Review by Poppy

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

In a Utopian twenty-third-century New York City, where corporations have replaced governments, AI dictates culture, and citizens are free to people-watch any other citizen they choose through an app, this horror-laden Sci-Fi Thriller follows four mis-matched coeds as they attempt to solve the murder of an eccentric parascientist. Only someone or something able to navigate outside the highest levels of croud-sourced surveillance could get away with murder in this town. If the team can’t work quickly to solve the case, New York City will be devoured by a dark plague the eccentric had been working on prior to his death, a plague which, overtime, appears to be developing sentience.

My mind is officially blown! Death Tango was a un-put-downable read. Let me explain…

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started this book, but once I opened it and dove in (and you really do dive in–the author plops you right into the world with little explanation, which I actually appreciated) I was hooked. Yes, it took me a little while to sort through the world-building, which the author does effortlessly. She doesn’t do some dull, in your face infodump. Nope, she she shows you the world, as if it was just a normal thing and leads you through the nuances and differences from our own. So well done.

Honestly, her writing ability is what made this book stand out for me. It’s smooth and clean, vivid and clear and checks all the boxes. It truly, clearly shows the world, the plot, the characters. It played out like a movie in my mind while I read. It’s been awhile since I’ve read such a well-written novel, and I want to make sure to give a round of applause to the author, Lachi. So well done.

The story itself is intriguing, and I could see something like it happening as we all dive deeper into the idea of living virtually. It was alternately intriguing and awfully sad. I’m not sure I like her ideas of what society could become, but I completely understand how she got there. Her future is absolutely possible.

I got very deeply attached to her realistically written, three dimensional characters. The complexity of plot took some time to sink into, but that’s a good thing. I was challenged throughout to think, and to feel and to consider and ultimately to not only try to solve her “whodunnit” but just to soak in the environment and to be intrigued and horrified by the dark, horrific world she’s created that’s covered up by what should feel more utopian. I’ve always thought that human beings with their faults and flaws, with their basic humanity, would never be able to create a utopia, and in this book I’m proven correct.

There is good and evil here. Lachi doesn’t shy away from the dark, but she also shares moments of light. And the characters become friends which, for me at least, means I’ll happily read every last word about them.

Looking for a superbly written book with a complex but believable plot peppered with characters you’ll come to love? Don’t mind a little darkness and horror? Then pick this one up. I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed. I sure wasn’t.

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Survival by Shirley Bigelow DeKelver

Survival by Shirley Bigelow DeKelver
Climate of Fire Book 1
Publisher: BWL Publishing Inc.
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The year is 2045, global warming escalates, and wildfires are rampant. Vancouver has been devastated by an earthquake and tsunami. Those who have survived have moved north or taken up residence at Little Mountain, the highest point in the city. Food and water are scarce, there are more violent storms and rising temperatures. The ashfall from the volcanoes increases daily, making it difficult to breathe. Four young adults, Taylor West, Carlie Fleming, Mai-Li Wong, and Willie Arbuckle, and three children, twin brothers Rusty and Eddie Coleman, and Debbie, who has Downs Syndrome, have gravitated together, forming a motley crew of survivors, living in constant fear of the violent gangs.

Making a life-saving decision, they decide to walk to the Interior, hoping to find a better life. Inexperienced, they face unknown obstacles, daily hardships, and hunger. Traveling across the devastated Wastelands is fraught with danger with unexpected complications making the journey more treacherous than they ever imagined. Reaching a sanctuary and indeed their very survival hangs in the balance. Relationships are tested time and again. What will remain strong and what will shatter?

Nothing is guaranteed in this dangerous, new world.

Compassion can be expressed in many different ways. I enjoyed seeing how the characters wrestled with the thought of what total strangers should do for each other in a crisis and how much someone should be expected to risk their own safety to help others who may be injured, young, or helpless. These aren’t questions that have black and white answers in most cases, but they are good jumping-off points for all sorts of discussions about many of the scenes in this book. Sometimes I found myself wishing I’d read this as a part of a book club so I could discuss my thoughts on what certain characters should or shouldn’t have done in specific situations with other readers!

The main characters made odd and illogical decisions that I struggled to understand. For example, Carlie was given the chance to be rescued by the military in one of the earliest scenes, but she decided to hide instead for reasons that were never clear to me. This was the first of many examples of characters refusing to do simple things that would make their already-difficult lives easier without explaining why they thought those choices were the right ones. I don’t expect teenagers to always think things through the way an adult would, but this pattern of picking the hardest option for no reason happened so often that it did reduce my enjoyment of the plot in general.

I enjoyed the strong, steady pacing. Carlie and her companions regularly had new problems to solve on their journey whether they were minor ones like disagreements between certain characters or major ones like not having enough food or water. There was never a good time for me to stop reading and do something else. That’s the sort of conundrum I always like to have when I’m reading as it means that the author planned everything out evenly and made sure that their audience would have plenty of things to think about when we did eventually need to take a break and do something else.

Survival was adventurous.

How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? by Mac Barnett

How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? by Mac Barnett
Publisher: Candlewick
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When Santa arrives at a child’s house on Christmas Eve, does he go down the chimney feetfirst or headfirst? What if he gets stuck? What if there’s no chimney? Maybe he slides under the door, as thin as a piece of paper? Or is it possible he pours himself through the faucet? What happens once he’s inside? Whether it’s shape-shifting or impromptu laundry use, Mac Barnett’s iconic talent for earnest deadpan humor and Jon Klassen’s irresistibly funny art honor the timeless question with answers both ridiculous and plausible, mounting in hilarity as the night continues. Channeling a child’s fanciful explanations (and begging for further speculation), this latest collaboration by a New York Times best-selling team will find a secure spot among family holiday traditions.

A little magic is all Santa needs.

The creativity of this tale made me chuckle. I laughed out loud at an early scene showing the reindeer gently lowering Santa into a chimney head first, and the answers to this riddle only grew wilder from there. They reminded me of the way small children think about the world and how they can sometimes expect large things like a person to magically fit into small spaces with a little effort. It was delightful that the authors were able to tap into this portion of childhood and really dig deeply into the wacky side of how Christmas Eve visits from a magical elf might work.

As amused as I was by the premise, I would have liked to see a bit more character and plot development. Almost all of the pages were dedicated to coming up with all sorts of ways that Santa may enter homes even if there’s no chimney to climb down. I kept expecting the narrator to eventually share a solution that seemed more likely than the rest, and I was a little disappointed when that never happened.

With that being said, I did appreciate how the author wrote this to appeal to all sorts of children. Whether a little one wholeheartedly believes in Santa, is skeptical about the idea but still hopes it is true, or doesn’t believe at all, there were scenes in here to amuse a wide variety of audiences. I should note that this could easily prompt kids to discuss their differing beliefs about Santa if this is read in a mixed group of opinions, but I think that can be a good thing for everyone involved if handled well. Differences should be celebrated, not ignored!

How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? was a cute and cheeky read.

The Skull by Jon Klassen

The Skull by Jon Klassen
Publisher: Candlewick
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Holiday, Paranormal, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Jon Klassen’s signature wry humor takes a turn for the ghostly in this thrilling retelling of a traditional Tyrolean folktale. In a big abandoned house, on a barren hill, lives a skull. A brave girl named Otilla has escaped from terrible danger and run away, and when she finds herself lost in the dark forest, the lonely house beckons. Her host, the skull, is afraid of something too, something that comes every night. Can brave Otilla save them both? Steeped in shadows and threaded with subtle wit—with rich, monochromatic artwork and an illuminating author’s note—The Skull is as empowering as it is mysterious and foreboding.

Would you spend the night in a haunted house?

Otilla was a brave girl who I quickly grew to like. She was kind and sweet even when she was afraid. That’s not always an easy thing to accomplish, so it made me more curious to learn about where she came from and why she was running away from something that frightened her in the first scene. The more I learned about her, the more I wanted to know.

Some of the scenes in this picture book were pretty intense, especially since this was rated for ages 4 and older. I would be hesitant to read this with younger kids without first figuring out how much horror they can handle. Certainly some of them would love it, but I also felt that the talking skull’s biggest fear in life was much darker than what is typically written for preschoolers and elementary-aged readers.

Otilla’s friendship with the skull was sweet. Both of them had pasts they didn’t want to talk about and seemed to find difficult. It was rewarding to watch them figure out they had this in common and decide they were going to protect each other. Few things are better than having a friend who behaves so loyally!

I would have loved to see more character and plot development. The eerie setting had a nice Halloween vibe, but there weren’t a lot of explanations about who the skull was when it was alive and still had the rest of its body or how they were connected to the grand old mansion that was now slowly falling apart. As an adult, I was able to make certain assumptions about what the author might have meant based on subtle context clues, but I don’t think a lot of kids would necessarily pick up on enough of them to make sense of everything without help.

With that being said, I did enjoy the scenes that explained what the skull could and couldn’t do. For example, it could taste tea, but it could not keep tea inside of its mouth because it didn’t have a body or a stomach to digest it. There were multiple examples like this, and each one made me smile as I added more details to my mental file of what this character’s abilities and limitations were.

The Skull was a spooky Halloween read.

Saltwater Sorrows by Rhonda Parrish (editor)

Saltwater Sorrows by Rhonda Parrish (editor)
Publisher: Tyche Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery/Thriller, LGBTQ, Paranormal, Romance, Historical, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

Deep, mysterious, beautiful . . . dangerous . . .

Women and the sea have been tied together in myth and story from the beginning of time. Tales of women being drawn to the sea or being left on the shore, waiting for their men’s return, have been passed down through the ages.

But what mysteries lie beneath the sparkling placid waters? What power drives the wind and waves crashing against the shore? There is transformation and exaltation—magic—in the ocean and women alike. And both know that while the sea gives, the sea also takes.

Sink into the icy depths of the ocean with these stories by: E.E. King; Natalie Cannon; Morgan Melhuish; Paul A. Hamilton; Laura VanArendonk Baugh; Sarah Van Goethem; Adria Laycraft; Dino Parenti; B. Zelkovich; Lisa Carreiro; Lea Storry; Nikoline Kaiser; Elin Olausson; Chandra Fisher; Hayley Stone; V.F. LeSann; Catherine MacLeod; and Jennifer R. Donohue.

Safety isn’t guaranteed, but magic is.

Adelia lost multiple relatives to the sea in “Salt in Our Blood, Salt in Our Tears.” When she grew older, she attempted to figure out a way to keep her loved ones safe while they were on the water. I loved her determination and grit and couldn’t stop reading until I’d learned her fate. She wasn’t a wealthy or powerful woman, so anything she accomplished took every ounce of energy and luck she could scrounge up. This was one of my favorite instalments, and I’d love to read a sequel to it someday if the author ever writes one.

In “The Ghost of Violet Gray,” Arthur was distracted by a mysterious woman while surveying a beach to see how much damage the erosion on it was doing to the historic properties that lined the shore. The descriptions of the beach and the stately old homes that had weathered so many storms were beautiful. I would have happily remained in this tale for much longer, especially once my suspicions about how the plot might turn out began to be confirmed. This was a gorgeous snapshot of how the past can be honored by a community who also must adjust to an ever-changing coastline that can’t safely be used in the same way it was before.

“Glass, Paper, Salt” explored how a small group of strangers reacted to a zombie outbreak. The combination of references to zombies, mermaids, and the sea surprised me, especially once I realized how logically the characters were thinking about their longterm chances of survival now that their world was falling apart. This is one of those stories that works best if new readers walk into it unaware of what is coming. I only mentioned the zombies in this review because of how quickly they appeared in the text, but I will leave the rest of the creative plot twists up for others to discover for themselves. It was yet another excellent addition to this book.

One of the biggest reasons why I gave this anthology a full five-star rating was how beautifully different each tale was from one another. Some of them were heavy, difficult, but deeply meaningful reads, while a few were surprisingly light and airy given the dark theme. I wish I had the time and space to review every single one of them in this review. It was tricky to narrow down my selections to only a few! I’d recommend reading this with an open mind and while making as few assumptions about what might happen next as possible. There were so many gems included here.

Saltwater Sorrows was the perfect snapshot of the ever-changing nature of the sea.

How to Make Friends With a Ghost by Rebecca Green

How to Make Friends With a Ghost by Rebecca Green
Publisher: Andersen Press Ltd
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Holiday, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

What do you do when you meet a ghost? One: Provide the ghost with some of its favorite snacks, like mud tarts and earwax truffles. Two: Tell your ghost bedtime stories (ghosts love to be read to). Three: Make sure no one mistakes your ghost for whipped cream or a marshmallow when you aren’t looking! If you follow these few simple steps and the rest of the essential tips in How to Make Friends with a Ghost, you’ll see how a ghost friend will lovingly grow up and grow old with you.

A whimsical story about ghost care, Rebecca Green’s debut picture book is a perfect combination of offbeat humor, quirky and sweet illustrations, and the timeless theme of friendship.

It’s never too early to celebrate Halloween!

The nice thing about this tale was that it felt like Halloween but had a more generic autumn setting. This meant that it could be read in other cool, chilly months – or even not so chilly months – without me feeling like I was a reading something too out of season. There are spooky things to be found all throughout the year, after all, and it encouraged me to see what might make me shudder no matter when I might reread it.

There were some portions that I thought were far too scary for this age group. For example, one scene warned the reader not to eat their pet ghost and showed illustrations of ghosts who had been fried, baked, grilled, and otherwise turned into food. That could have been funny for older kids, but many of the little ones I’ve known would find it terrifying. If only the tone of that scene had remained lighthearted and playful like the rest of it was!

The portions that read like a pet care manual made me grin. Yes, of course there are similarities between taking care of a ghost and a more traditional companion like a rabbit, cat, or dog. This was a clever way to explain how hauntings work in this universe, and it makes me want to see what else the author has written.

I also found myself wondering why anyone would want to lure a ghost into their home in the first place. Most stories are about trying to get rid of the spirits haunting a person or a place, after all! It would have been help for the author to clarify what they were thinking there.

The last few scenes were unusual for this genre. It involved the main character growing old and their ghost reacting to that change. I don’t want to say much else about that to avoid sharing spoilers, but it could be a good jumping off point for discussions about aging and how families take care of each other.

How to Make Friends With a Ghost was creative.

Margaret’s Unicorn by Briony May Smith

Margaret’s Unicorn by Briony May Smith
Publisher: Anne Schwartz Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A perfect gift for the unicorn lovers in your life, this lovely and utterly transporting picture book tells the story of what every little girl wishes would happen to her: a girl finds and takes care of a lost baby unicorn.

Margaret’s whole world changes when her family moves to a cottage by the sea to be near her grandma. One evening, Margaret spots a mist over the water. No, that’s not mist…clouds maybe? No, they’re unicorns descending onto the shore! They vanish as quickly as they’d appeared, but accidentally leave behind a baby, tangled in the weeds. Margaret, lonely and in need of a friend, brings him home and cares for him through the fall and winter. Together, they chase the waves, stomp on frozen puddles, and build snow unicorns. When spring finally comes around, and the other unicorns return, Margaret’s takes her small friend back to his family… but these two won’t forget one another. And though Margaret misses him, she has made a new friend, and her new cottage is starting to feel like home. With all the feel of a classic, here is a picture book young readers will want to revisit again and again.

No act of kindness is ever wasted.

Moving can be a stressful experience, especially for kids who usually don’t have any input at all into where their family lives. I smiled and nodded along during the first few scenes as Margaret discussed how uneasy she felt in her new home. It set up the rest of the storyline nicely as she tried to adjust to all of the things that looked, smelled, felt, and sounded different from where she’d lived before.

It would have been nice to see a few more scenes dedicated to the care and feeding of a unicorn. One section discussed how strictly people needed to follow the rules of what to feed these magical animals, and some of them seemed like things that would be quite difficult to stick to over the winter given how limited the choices were and how many of them are hard to find when the growing season ends. If Margaret or her parents had mentioned more about this and explained how they found solutions for the trickiest portions of keeping their new guest hydrated and fed, I would have happily gone with a full five-star rating as I loved everything else about it.

With that being said, I adored the main character’s relationship with her unicorn. Margaret was a sweet kid who did everything she could to keep her new little friend safe and comfortable over the winter. This was something I’d happily read over and over again because of how beautiful the plot was, especially at the end when another spring arrived.

Margaret’s Unicorn was heartwarming.

The Captivating Flames of Madness by Jeff Parsons

The Captivating Flames of Madness by Jeff Parsons
Publisher: Hellbound Books Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Paranormal, Historical, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

This book’s title comes from the reality that – like a moth to the flame – we’re all just one event, mishap, or decision away from things that could change our lives forever.

What would you do if fate led you astray into a grim world where you encountered vengeful ghosts, homicidal maniacs, ancient gods, apocalyptic nightmares, dark magic, deadly space aliens, and more?
If you dare, why not find out?

Read for yourself the twenty-two gloriously provocative tales that dwell within this book – but be warned, some of my dear readers have experienced lasting nightmares…

Prepare for a wild ride.

Chelsea was a drug addict who had run out of money for her next fix in “Control.” After spotting an old woman who was earning a small sum by entertaining children with a marionette doll at a park, she thought she’d found the perfect victim. I loved the plot twists in this tale and how my terrible first impression of the main character evolved over time as Chelsea planned out her robbery and then put her ideas into action. This was a great example of how to write a character who was simultaneously a terrible human being and a fascinating one.

My reactions to these tales varied quite a bit. Some were truly wonderful, but others were hard for me to get into because of how few details were provided about what was happening in them and why the characters behaved the way they did. “The Variant,” which was about a lab specialist named William who was hired to create a variant of the Ebola virus that would be 100% lethal, was one of them. I struggled to understand why William agreed to work on such a deadly project, much less his reaction when funding for it was suddenly cut off. There was so much more I needed to know about this character and his work. This is something I’m saying as someone who has reviewed countless anthologies and short story collections for Long and Short Reviews over the years. Mr. Parsons is a good storyteller overall, and I hope I’ll be able to give his next book a much higher rating as there was a lot to enjoy about my first experience with his writing style.

Ellen was dying of cancer in “At Any Cost,” but she was given one final chance to be in a drug trial that might prolong her life. Her desperation for more time, or maybe even a cure, endeared me to her. The science fiction twist to her experiences is something best left for other readers to be surprised by for themselves. With that being said, I thought they were a clever way to reveal more of her personality just when I thought I more or less had her all figured out.

The Captivating Flames of Madness piqued my curiosity.

Space Ships & Other Trips by Raven Oak

Space Ships & Other Trips by Raven Oak
Publisher: Grey Sun Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Part II of this debut collection by multi-award-winning author and artist Raven Oak brings together speculative fiction stories from the past ten years of her career, ranging from space adventures with a dash of mystery and other near-future tales to post-apocalyptic stories and deep dives into the mind.

You’ll find closed-ship mysteries, foul-acting apps, talking cats, retail hell, and hacked programs in these ELEVEN speculative fiction pieces. Space Ships & Other Trips contains FIVE never-before seen stories for your enjoyment, including a tie-in story from Jeff Sturgeon’s The Last Cities of Earth universe.

STORIES INCLUDED: The Loss of Luna, Hungry, Mouth, Only a Bird, Q-Be, Hands, Ol’ St. Nick, Drip, Level Up, Scout’s Honor, and D.E.A.T.H.

How much hope do you have for the future?

“Only a Bird” explored what happened after some students found an injured bird outside of their classroom. The empathy they had for that creature was beautiful. I especially enjoyed their conversations that compared it to the robotic birds that had just begun to be released into the wild. This was a sweet and gentle story that could fit into so many different genres.

There were several stories in this collection that I thought would have been better with more development. “Drip” was one of them. As intrigued as I was by the protagonist’s struggle with insomnia, I had a lot of unanswered questions about the world they lived in. For example, I would have liked to know what was going on with all of the out-of-control fires they were worrying about as they tried to go to sleep. Was this an unusual portion of daily life in their world or was it something frightening that ordinary people had no choice but to deal with regularly? These sorts of questions about the world building kept popping up for me and influenced the rating I ended up choosing.

To be perfectly honest with all of you, eating out of a dumpster isn’t something I ever expect to read about in the science fiction genre. The fact that “Level Up” began with a scene about the main character doing this intrigued me, especially once she was interrupted a moment later just as she was about to enjoy an English muffin. There are so many plot twists I wish I could dive into, but this is one of those tales that works best for readers who know as little as possible about what is to come. What I can say is that it was creative and made me want more.

This is the second anthology in a series that does not need to be read in order. Just like with Dragon Springs & Other Things, be sure to read the author’s notes to learn about where her ideas came from!

Space Ships & Other Trips was full of surprises.