Cryptid Bits by Jess Simms


Cryptid Bits by Jess Simms
Publisher: Last-Picked Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Cryptids. At the movies and at the bar, cryptids. In china shops and running for office, cryptids. Cryptids, cryptids everywhere.

Mythical beings need to earn a living, too!

The world building was incredible. Getting glimpses of so many different residents, notable spots, and moments in time in this neighborhood gave me a well-rounded understanding of what it would be like to visit The Fairy District if it were a real place. If the author ever decides to write a sequel, I’d love to dive even more deeply into the many different species that call this area home and how they are being affected by human gentrification.

I would have loved to see more character development. Meeting the characters was a memorable experience, but there was never a lot of time to get to know most of them better due to how brief each section was and how many different folks there were to meet. Louise, a local mortician, was one such creature that I wish I could have had more time with as she seemed to have a fascinating life as an undertaker. This pattern was the only thing holding me back from choosing a full five-star review.

Some of this flash fiction was written in the style of online news articles or reviews of different businesses. What made these pieces even more unique were the comments included by various members of the community and visitors who had strong opinions about the event, business, or topic being discussed. I loved the originality of these sections, especially when it came to the many types of feedback that can be shared in such places. A kind commenter might be immediately followed by someone who had a harsher perspective, but the variety of it all made it feel incredibly realistic.

Cryptid Bits was delightfully creative. I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Wild Irish Yenta by Joyce Sanderly


Wild Irish Yenta by Joyce Sanderly
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Do killers, stock manipulators, and kidnappers stalk the Temple? After the body of Roberto Gomez is discovered in Temple Israel’s parking lot, Patricia Weiss, nee Reilly, exchanges her suburban-mom sneakers for gumshoes to investigate the supposed hit-and-run. Inspired by her police detective dad, Patricia feels compelled to uncover who killed the hardworking custodian and why. Before she can progress with her investigation or work on problems in her difficult marriage to a busy cardiologist, and his controlling Jewish mother, she is plunged into the Temple’s troubles. Her mentor Rabbi Deborah, who has guided Patricia through her own recent conversion to Judaism, disappears after delivering a controversial sermon in support of interfaith marriage. Despite her husband’s concerns, Patricia joins forces with her buddy Brenda. Designating themselves The Yenta Patrol, they unravel the mysteries.

Not everything is as simple as it may first appear to be.

Patricia was a memorable and likeable protagonist. She was insatiably curious about the world around her, and sometimes this led her to making decisions that her cautious husband disagreed with. I appreciated the way the author shared both of their perspectives on what are and are not acceptable risks to take in life. It made sense given the cultural differences between Patricia and Michael, and it also helped me to understand her as a character better. No one is perfect, after all, but this flaw was a good way for the audience to understand where she was coming from and why she assumed the world was a much safer place than her husband did. Novels that encourage readers to pause for a moment and think about the assumptions we all make in life before going on to reveal what happens when two people have opposite reactions to the same situation are part of the reason why I have continued to review books for so many years. Reading and reviewing are excellent ways to explore the world through other perspectives.

As much as I enjoyed learning more about Patricia and her relationships with everyone around her, I struggled with the slow pacing of this book. More time was spent exploring what various members of the synagogue thought about each other than pushing the plot forward with more clues about why Roberto Gomez died or why Rabbi Deborah disappeared. This made it difficult at times for me to remain engaged with the plot since it often took quite a while for the next important twist to be revealed.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the long process Patricia went through to convert to Judaism. There were classes to attend, holy texts to study, and cultural and religious traditions to start observing. What made it even more interesting to me was to see the wide range of reactions her conversion elicited from other members of her temple, from deep suspicions about her motives to total acceptance and everything in between those two possibilities. There was so much depth and emotion included in those passages that they sped up the reading process for me when they happened despite my earlier criticisms about the pacing.

Wild Irish Yenta kept me guessing.

Still No Kids & Still Ok: A Childfree Humor Book by Ellen Metter


Still No Kids & Still Ok: A Childfree Humor Book by Ellen Metter
Publisher: Browser Press
Genre: Non-Fiction, Contemporary, Humor
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

There’s less pressure these days to make lots of dimply babies. But what about the indecision that would-be parents experience as they consider the Baby, Yes or Baby, No choices? Or the subtle societal nagging that says having zero children will lead to a lonely life with only Netflix and a grizzled old guy with no teeth as your friends?

Now that Ellen Metter is nearly old enough to get “Save the Date” invites from the Grim Reaper, she’s ready to share an illustrated, light-hearted look at an intentionally childfree life, as well as an appreciation for those who do parenting with love, patience, and not too many screaming meltdowns.

Still No Kids & Still OK is for everyone!
It’s for those considering a stroll down the toy-strewn path.
It’s for those who said, “Hell, no, I won’t glow!” and never looked back.
And it’s for parents who will read this in the bathroom for about a minute at a time and appreciate and understand every word.

The author looks at such burning questions as:
“Who will support you when you’re old?”
“Won’t you be lonely?”
“You don’t have a teenager, do you? She’d never have let you out in that sweater!”
And, “Is ok really enough?”

Still No Kids & Still OK has the answers!

The author loves it when people have children since we need kids who grow up to create hilarious Netflix shows. But since parenting can be like flying a Boeing jumbo jet with squirrels in your hair, it’s best if the desire for children is strong. Like Superman strong.

And for those who hesitate to procreate? Ellen Metter gets it! The only doll she loved as a kid was Barbie since that doll seemed old enough to date. (With protection, of course.) Still No Kids & Still Ok shares illustrated evidence that a long and childfree life is often even more than Ok.

Parenthood should be a choice, not an obligation.

One of the things I liked the most about this novella was how deeply it encouraged its readers to think about every aspect of being a parent before deciding to have kids. There are pros and cons to any decision someone might make about if, when, with whom, or how many children they want to have. What works marvelously for one person might be difficult to impossible for someone else for reasons ranging from health to finances to what sort of support system one might have among many other options, so it’s important to have a realistic view of both the joys and challenges of what parenthood entails beforehand.

Sometimes this went a little off-topic with stories that did not seem to be related to the decision to be childfree. As interesting as they were, it was also distracting for me as a reader to be led in those directions instead of digging more deeply into what other options exist when having children is taken off the menu. I would have preferred to have fewer digressions along the way even though I enjoyed getting to know the author along the way.

People who choose not to reproduce are often stereotyped as folks who hate children. I loved the way Ms. Metter pushed against that stereotype by describing why it’s important to ensure that every child has their needs met and the difference between enjoying the company of kids under certain circumstances and wanting to raise one or more of them for two decades or so. There are many other ways to inspire and look after the next generation, from being a teacher to volunteering with at-risk youth to becoming the fun aunt or uncle in the family who gives tired parents a much-needed break for a few hours, and her inclusion of such alternatives was helpful.

I’d recommend Still No Kids & Still Ok: A Childfree Humor Book to readers who would like to understand why some folks choose not to have children just as much as I would to readers who are childfree themselves.

My First Birding Adventure – North America by Elya Baird


My First Birding Adventure – North America by Elya Baird
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Bring the world of birding indoors with My First Birding Adventure-North America!

My First Birding Adventure- North America was designed to replicate the outdoor birding experience. When outdoors, bird enthusiasts will go to various locations in nature, look for birds, and identify the birds they find using their field guide. This book brings the world of birding indoors as readers flip through nature scenes, search for birds, and identify them with the mini field guide at the back of the book.

Once the book is finished, complete the bonus activities or go outside with the field guide and see if you can find any of the birds in nature!

Calling all bird lovers as well as future fans of this hobby! I have quite the treat for you.

Bird watching requires patience and close attention to detail, so it only made sense that this picture book encourages both of those habits. This is something that is meant to be savored and returned to again and again as readers both young and old sharpen their identification skills. I’d recommend bringing it out on such excursions when possible in the beginning in order to have a quick reference for what to look for.

I liked the fact that Ms. Baird included so many hints about where to find this sort of wildlife, how to identify them, and how to tell the differences between males and females of the same species. This was a solid introduction to those topics that can easily be built upon as new bird watchers become more comfortable with quickly taking note of these things and learning how to identify lots of other types of birds, too.

The best portions were the ones that showed various nature settings and asked readers to quickly identify which birds they could see there and remember as much about them as possible. Sometimes one only has a moment or two to figure all of this stuff out in real life, so practicing ahead of time is an excellent way to get better at it while at a park, field, lake, or other natural setting. While it certainly isn’t possible to include every common type of bird in something like this, I thought the author picked a nice cross-section of possibilities for readers living in North America.

My First Birding Adventure – North America was exciting and informative.

Oddities by Thurdy


Oddities by Thurdy
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A dystopian vampire teenager, severed finger salad topping, disgruntled Teddy bears, and an army of Percivals. What do these all have in common? They are all trapped within the pages of this collection of stories, like a genie waiting to be released from a bottle. Oh, forgot to say, there’s a genie in there too, but not one like you’re picturing. This one is actually … well, you’ll find out.

So, for those of you who spend your life in a state of perpetual distraction, who want to buy everything in the art supply shop, whose co-workers don’t know you write poetry…

no more staring into the mirror wondering how nice it would be to have horns.

It’s time to grow a pair.

If you love delightfully weird and memorable tales that break the rules, keep reading.

“Author” showed what happened when Ruby tried to wander away from the storyline her author was writing and do something else with her time. I enjoyed the surreal feeling of this short story as the author and characters debated over who was actually in charge of what was going to happen next. It kept me guessing until the last possible moment.

As much as I enjoyed Mx.Thurdy’s creative writing style, I did find myself wishing that certain portions of this collection had been given more time to develop. “Review” was included in this list. It followed a food critic visiting a bizarre new restaurant that felt like something from a bad dream. Every course was worse than the last one, and I struggled to understand why the critic stuck around when they clearly didn’t have anything good to say about this establishment. As entertaining as this was, it never quite gelled together for me. That pattern happened often enough for me to choose a three star rating, but I do hope to read more from the author in the future as they are a good storyteller.

Honestly, I couldn’t blame Teddy, a bright purple teddy bear created after a human wished him into existence, for being so grumpy in “Wish.” I would have been just as irritated if I were in his uncomfortable position. While this was a short piece, it was exactly long enough to get its point across and make me smile as I got to know the main character and the conflicts he faced in his life. In the end, I was content to imagine what happened to him next after the final sentence ended.

Oddities put a unique spin on the science fiction genre.

Beyond Stonebridge by Linda Griffin


Beyond Stonebridge by Linda Griffin
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Romance, Paranormal, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In this sequel to Stonebridge, it is 1959, and Rynna Wyatt’s abusive husband Jason has fallen to his death after a fight with his bookish, disabled cousin Ted Demeray. The police would like to know exactly what happened, but it’s impossible to tell the whole truth.

Jason’s death doesn’t end his relationship with them. Rynna is pregnant with his child and traumatized by his abuse. She and Ted leave Stonebridge Manor to start a new life in Brenford, where Ted teaches at the university, but Jason’s restless spirit follows and haunts Rynna’s dreams. He wants her back. He wants revenge. And he wants his son. How can Ted and Rynna oppose his claims and finally put him to rest?

The past never truly sleeps.

Some of the most interesting scenes were the ones that highlighted the many social differences between the era this was set in and life in contemporary times. Let me give two examples of what I mean. First, men were not allowed in the delivery room at this point in history and were highly discouraged from supporting their wives earlier in the labor process either. Second, learning anything new took much longer back then than it does now that most people have a smartphone and can look up any topic in a few minutes at most. I’ll leave it up to other readers to discover the rest of the societal changes over the decades and how they affected the storyline in all sorts of ways, but I was intrigued by how such things have shifted over time.

I struggled with the slow pacing of this novel. So much time was spent discussing previous events in the lives of these characters that there wasn’t much forward motion for the storyline until I was more than a hundred pages into it. The paranormal themes took an even longer period of time to appear which surprised me. As happy as I was to reconnect with the characters and as much as I wanted to give this a higher rating, these issues made me hesitant to do so.

The romance was handled nicely. I enjoyed seeing how Rynna and Ted’s relationship had blossomed since I first met them and how they both adjusted to the beginning of their life together. They were a good match who shared the same values and many of the same interests, too. I was glad to see them both finally find some happiness after all of the difficult things they’d previously endured.

This is the second book in a series that I’d strongly recommend reading in order for character and plot development reasons.

Beyond Stonebridge was a thoughtful read.

The Man in the Cellar by Palle Rosenkrantz


The Man in the Cellar by Palle Rosenkrantz
Publisher: Kazabo Publishing
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Paranormal, Historical
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Holger Nielsen just wanted a quiet London vacation when he rented 48 Cranbourne Grove. But the rental agent forgot to mention he’d be sharing his new home with a very hungry cat and . . . the man in the cellar.

When Holger Nielsen stumbles on a murder, the obvious thing to do is report it to the authorities and get on with his life. But as the crime unravels, it isn’t clear whether it’s worse to be an accessory to murder or an accessory to justice. Scrupulously authentic, The Man in the Cellar is an insider’s tour of turn-of-the-century London and Denmark. But beware. Scandinavia hasn’t always been IKEA and Legos.

Introspection is required for this tale, and it will be richly rewarded.

I enjoyed the challenge of attempting to solve the murder alongside Holger’s efforts to do the same. The author did not make this an easy task, and there were plenty of clues along the way that were either not necessarily what they seemed to be at first glance or could be interpreted differently depending on how the reader wanted to understand them. As someone who has read quite a few books from this genre, I appreciated the mental challenge of it all. This was something that required paying close attention and using one’s deduction skills. That’s exactly the sort of mystery I love to read.

The character development was strong for the protagonists and supporting characters alike. This is not an easy task to accomplish by any means, but it makes for such a rewarding experience when it happens. Many of the people described in this tale were middle-aged or senior citizens, and it was interesting to see how the various generations communicated with each other as there were certain differences in what they considered appropriate behavior along the way. Not only that, but each individual had quirks or habits that made his or her reactions to specific scenes unique. Holger, for example, seemed to be a little wary of cats and eager to send them back to humans who knew what to do with such unpredictable little creatures as quickly as possible when I first met him. Learning about how everyone’s minds worked only made me more eager to keep reading.

This is one of those cases where a slower pacing works beautifully. There is definitely something to be said for getting to know the characters, clues, and settings well before moving on to the next scene. Including letters between characters, all of whom had their own special writing styles, was a smart way to encourage readers to pause and think about what they were reading and how much of it was new information versus a confirmation of things the characters may have already figured out.

The Man in the Cellar was an excellent example of the best the mystery genre has to offer.

Because of You by Fiona Brands


Because of You by Fiona Brands
Publisher: FriesenPress
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, LGBTQ, Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Liv and her best friends Travis and April have just started their last year of high school and things have gotten complicated—Liv has feelings for Travis, April is getting into trouble already, and Travis has a new girlfriend. But then Liv’s mom reveals a long-buried secret about Liv’s father, who took his own life when Liv was only two, and her life is turned totally upside down.

Reminded of unresolved trauma, Liv’s mom starts drinking heavily and Liv is haunted by the thought that her parents could have had good lives if they had never met. When Liv visits the antique shop of Travis’s grandpa, she discovers a grandfather clock they suspect can transport people back in time. As Liv’s life becomes increasingly chaotic, she’s forced to decide: will she travel back in time to stop her parents’ complicated relationship, or will she endure an uncertain future?

Whether platonic or romantic, love makes everything in life better.

I adored the close-knit friendships between Liv, Travis, and April. All three of them were kind and generous people who looked out for each other. Their banter made me smile, and I enjoyed seeing how they navigated their final year of school together as all three tried to figure out what the future might hold for them.

The pacing felt slow at times to me, especially in the first half of this novel. Based on the reference to time travel in the blurb, I was surprised to see so many chapters go by without a single mention of anything related to speculative fiction at all even though I later came to understand why the author made this choice. Some of the subplots also soaked up a lot of time in the beginning for reasons that I did not understand until much later or, in some cases, at all. The writing itself was nice, I simply felt that it could have been tightened up in the beginning so the characters could move on to the main conflict faster.

Most of the science fiction I read is harder and more definitive than this, so it was refreshing to see how lightly it was sprinkled into this tale. There were hints of it sprinkled here and there, but the majority of the scenes only contained moments that could happen in real life. This could be a good introduction to science fiction for readers who don’t generally read it because of that.

Because of You was heartwarming.

If We Were Stars by Eule Grey


If We Were Stars by Eule Grey
Publisher: NineStar Press
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, LGBTQ, Romance
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The final countdown begins in three hours.

Blimey. The last thing Kurt wants is to wear a space helmet, and, no, they didn’t plan on saving the world either—Not before their eighteenth birthday anyway. Who’d have thought friending a lonely alien would lead to the Cape Canaveral launch pad.

Best friends since they were ten years old, Kurt O’Hara and Beast Harris tackle the typical teenage challenges together: pronouns, AWOL bodies, not to mention snogging. A long-distance relationship with an alien named Iuvenis is the least of their troubles.

Kurt loves programming, people-pleasing, and yellow dresses. Most of all, Kurt loves Beast.

Beast adores elephants, protest marches, and Kurt. Rules?—Nah. Humanity’s way down on Beast’s list of to-dos.

Beast and Kurt, Kurt and Beast. The end. Exactly how their love turns into a scene from Red Dwarf is anyone’s guess. Spaceships? NASA at the doorstep? No biggie. As long as they’re together, Kurt and Beast can survive anything.

Except, apparently, lift-off. Because nobody considered sensory issues, did they? Nope. NASA never made adjustments for neurodivergent astronauts. Unbelievable.

Will science be enough to blast Kurt and Beast—unlikely superheroes—into space to save the planet? Or will it take something much more extraordinary?

Neurodivergence is a gift.

Some of the most memorable scenes were the ones that explored how autism affected Kurt and Beast’s lives in both positive and negative ways. It was interesting to read along as Kurt described their childhoods and how they struck a balance between finding ways to fit in when necessary while also remaining true to themselves. This is something everyone needs to learn how to do, of course, but it can be more challenging for people who stick out from the crowd and don’t always have an intuitive understanding of which rules to follow and which ones can be broken.

I struggled with the transition to a new narrator at the end of this book. Kurt was someone I enjoyed getting to know better, and their replacement didn’t have much time to become well-rounded due to how quickly they were introduced before the storyline began to wrap up. It was also disappointing to lose touch with Kurt just as they were about to meet the aliens and arguably have the biggest adventure of their lives, especially since earlier scenes had hinted that something tragic was about to occur.

The romantic subplot was nicely written. It fit into the themes of this tale seamlessly and made me hope that both of the characters involved in it would live happily ever after as they truly seemed like a great match for one another. This was a good example of how to include romance in a science fiction adventure in ways that enhanced both the science fiction and the adventurous elements of the plot.

If We Were Stars was a creative take on what it might be like to meet aliens.

Broken Hearts by Robert L J Borg


Broken Hearts by Robert L J Borg
Publisher: Luminosity Publishing LLC
Genre: Romance, Paranormal, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Is a cemetery the perfect setting for love to be found? Maybe. When Damian meets Elspeth at one, he’s certain she is his long-awaited soulmate. . ., but he’s been wrong before!

Damian Marshall had always believed himself to be a bit of a ladies’ man. He loved nothing more than dating women and enjoying their company, always hoping he would meet the love of his life. However, it never seemed to be. His love affairs would be short-lived, and two which seemed successful ended in divorce, where every time the broken hearts were always his own.

Just when he thinks there is no more hope in finding that perfect woman, he meets Elspeth, in the most unlikely of locations: a cemetery.

It is she who approaches him and strikes up a conversation. She coaxes out his life story, and he is willing to recount it all. By the end of it, they find themselves drawn to each other. Has Damian finally met his true soul mate or is it just wishful thinking? Only time will tell.

Relationships aren’t easy for everyone.

Some of the most interesting scenes to me were the ones that explored how society changed over the decades. For example, earlier in Damian’s life it was quite difficult for him to let people know that plans had changed if an accident or weather event prevented him from making it to the meeting point on time. This slowly became less common as cell phones made it possible for him to call others directly in an emergency instead of finding a pay phone and leaving messages at places he thought they might also try to check in at. It’s no wonder to me that cell phones and the Internet were such revolutionary tools, and I enjoyed finding all of the other examples of progress as well.

I struggled with the large cast of characters in this book. Women entered and exited Damian’s life so regularly that I often couldn’t remember who was who. While I’m pretty sure this was done to illustrate his personality and character defects, it also made the storyline hard to follow at times because of how many different people were involved and how little time they each had to make an impression on me. This was the only thing holding me back from choosing a higher rating, and I hope to read more from Mr. Borg soon.

The romance was unique and kept my interest levels high. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in the romance genre before, so let me tip my cap to the author for coming up with something fresh. While I did figure out the twist in it early on, it was still a great deal of fun to see how Damian reacted to it once he also knew what was happening.

Broken Hearts was a breath of fresh air.