FIYAH Lit Mag Issue #1: A Review

I was breathless to read the first issue of Fiyah Lit Mag, but I forced myself to wait until I finished reading my current book. That was not easy, I promise you. I’ve felt this was needed for a long time.

Finally, I opened it. I’d kept myself away from reading other reviews of the mag, although I knew it to be astounding because I’ve seen the first seven words of Tweets about its stunning portrayals of POCs in speculative fiction worlds.

I’m with those Tweeters. Believe. But first, that cover:

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“Rebirth” is the theme of the first of what I hope will be many issues of this mag. And each author has wound it seamlessly into the story only they can tell. It reads like they all sat around a table, clutching their caffeinated beverage of choice, and brainstormed how to make readers stare at the page in fascination. Which authors? The ToC is below:

Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber — by Malon Edwards

Police Magic — by Brent Lambert

Revival — by Wendi Dunlap

The Shade Caller — by Davaun Sanders

We Have Ended — by V.H. Galloway

Chesirah — by L.D. Lewis

 

Edward’s “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber” is set in a futuristic world of robotics and impermanent death.

“Police Magic” shows us boys on a quest to find a way to end a dark magic taking over the world.

“The Shade Caller” and “We Have Ended” have alternate reality versions of Africa, but hold true to the storytelling traditions and lore.

In “Revival” you think you know what’s going to happen, but the story will take you of guard.

“Chesirah” gives us a strong female protagonist and the lengths she will go to for freedom, surprising even herself.

Each author’s voice is distinct, yet they all call out from within the African diaspora. Premises of freedom, expression, love, and sacrifice abound, dancing equally as well with tech implants as they do with magical creatures. Issue #1 sings, it shouts, it resonates with who we are and what we strive to be. It is the voice of Black spec fic.

It doesn’t shy away from where we’ve been, but its head is turned toward the future, feeling the wind coming off the sea of change on its scalp. And y’all know that feels good.

So pick up a copy of Fiyah Lit Mag, Issue #1. Read these stories of where Black Speculative Fiction is and where it’s going. You’ll want to come along for the ride.

Chalcedony: A Review

Chalcedony is Book Two in Constance Burris’ Everleaf series. (Psst: The series starts with Book Zero, Black Beauty, in case you’re thinking about picking it up. And I recommend you do. Just look at that cover. )

I am so happy to read about characters of color in a fantasy setting. Although Book One: Coal takes place mostly in the fae realm, Chalcedony includes both the fae and human worlds almost equally. Understandable as a main part of the plot revolves around the barrier between the worlds and if it’s being guarded well enough.

Chalcedony is a queenling in the fairy world—she won’t become a true queen until she has children. She’s wild and undisciplined and headstrong, which makes her an interesting character. I have my bias about Chalcedony from things that occurred in Coal, but Burris is able to make the reader’s allegiances waver from one character to another with great skill.

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Even so, a good portion of the story is still about Coal, which is a good thing. Reading about his growth as a character and his physical changes brought a heavy dose of classic fairy tale to the story. I’m also engaged with seeing his increased confidence as he moves through the human world, gaining allies, and an enemy or two.

Also, I enjoyed seeing characters from Black Beauty brought into the tale, providing some moments that lean more towards the horror genre, which I found exciting.

While Chalcedony is marked as a YA book, and Everleaf as a YA series, there are enough themes of betrayal, environmental concerns, and class and culture divides to keep adult readers hooked. I look forward to reading Book Three, where I hope to see some of the plot tendrils Burris has left dangling weaved into the story.

Dracula Arisen: A Review

I’m going to call Perry Lake a scholar of Dracula. While there are many who could, say give you details of a myriad of movies involving the blood-imbibing character, Lake is able to give you a deep draught of history with it.

Dracula Arisen is that draught.

This book is compilation of thirteen short stories, which make the connection between Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, one of the first Gothic stories to feature blood drinkers and Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. Lake has most certainly read and loved and been inspired by both pieces of literature.

But it doesn’t end there. He has researched the available information on Vlad the Impaler and several other characters to create a strong and vivid sense of place for this tale. One of Lake’s strengths lies in being able to capture the epic journey of an immortal creature and keep the sense of the mores of the time, which can be markedly different to our own. Inviting a vampire hunter and his son to a party where all of the other guests are vamps, for example.

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Arisen is meticulously researched and it is evident Lake has a love for the iconic character and his origins. The book chronicles Vlad’s parents dancing with the devil, to the dark shadow surrounding his birth, to his rise to power via his violent battles and the subsequent torture of prisoners. (Yes, how he got the moniker “The Impaler” is described in detail.) After his death, Vlad is revived by a mad doctor whose intent is to keep him as a servant. But soon, Vlad frees himself to journey toward the image of Dracula most of have today.

In many places, I didn’t know what was fact and what was fiction. Which is a credit to Lake. Since the book is so flush with history, it got a bit too informative for me in places, at times reading almost like a textbook. As such, it was a good idea to have the book presented in short story format to allow for large passages of time and the inclusion of a rather sturdy number of supporting characters.

Arisen is a strong—extremely strong—work of historical fiction. There were times I felt engrossed in the story. Occasionally, however, I got a bit bogged down in what felt like information transfer as opposed to storytelling, which can happen if you aren’t as “into” a historical figure or a time period as the author.

Even so, I would recommend reading Dracula Arisen as Lake is able to create a sense of place and time for the reader that many authors struggle to craft. This book is a mastery of the epic form, which many writers shy away from due to the massive amounts of time, research, and the events that must be covered. The book is meticulously and cleverly written, powered by fact and events and doesn’t linger too long on emoting.

I rarely read what I consider to be plot-driven novels, so I had to approach this read differently, taking it in smaller bites instead of devouring it in a few sittings. But I’m glad I did as I found myself appreciating the scope of the book and Lake’s pinpoint accuracy in delivering it.

Gutted: A Review

I was excited to read this upcoming release from Crystal Lake Publishing, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories. I was also fortunate to get an advanced reading copy of the anthology. Crystal Lake is making quite a name for itself in the horror and dark fiction categories since their opening in 2012.

This year Crystal Lake walked away with two Bram Stoker Awards at Stoker Con in Las Vegas, one for Mercedes Murdock Yardley’s Little Dead Red and Alessandro Manzetti’s Eden Underground. One of the authors in Gutted, Paul Tremblay, also won a Bram Stoker Award at the event, and received a shout out from horror giant Stephen King on Twitter.

King isn’t the only giant around these parts. Gutted also features stories by Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, and Ramsey Campbell. Gutted also has its share of stunning interior artwork for each story and a stunning cover that speak directly to what you’ll find between these pages—withered loveliness faced with brutal decay.

Stephanie M. Wytovich’s prose poem “The Morning After Was Filled With Bone” set the tone of beauty in the grotesque, followed by one of the strongest stories in the collection, Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave by Brian Kirk. Kirk’s portrayal of a father desperate to help his daughter is at once alarming and moving, leaving you with a lingering disquiet.

Neil Gaiman’s story presents us with the problem in one of C.S. Lewis’ most well-known book series, leaving me with an image of the lion and the witch that I will never forget.

Mercedes M. Yardley’s “Water Thy Bones” shows the strong connection to the theme of this anthology and to Wytovich’s prose poem with its theme of the beauty, the clean purity of bone, prominent under paper-thin skin. It also echoes true love, acceptance of self and of a becoming that is painful, but essential. The story’s ending felt reverent, enduring and I got a freakish sensation that this was a truly beautiful ending.

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The next story is Paul Tremblay’s Choose Your Own Adventure style story, “Arrival”. I loved the CYOA books as a kid and Tremblay’s version doesn’t disappoint. Each decision the reader is presented with takes you to a different part of the house that the protagonist will explore. Once inside each room, hidden among description and a touch of character’s history is a ghost of a puzzle piece. I recommend visiting each room and not trying to opt out and leave the house.

“Changes” by Damien Angelica Walters portrays the tragedy that can befall a relationship when neither party wants to share their pain with the other. In this case, the relationship is between mother and daughter. Each character’s point of view is expressed with empathy and reading it, I knew if one of them had been a bit braver—a bit more open—the story could have ended differently. The real fear here is of rejection by someone you love when all others have already done so. It’s fear of reprimand and the determination to maintain a strong façade in front of everyone. Walters’ story was horrific, and all too probable.

If I had not read the Table of Contents first, I would not have guessed that “Coming to Grief” was a Clive Barker tale. It wasn’t the story you typically see transformed to film, rather upon rereading, it reminded me of “Human Remains”, one of the stories in Barker’s Books of Blood Volume Three.

I was drawn in by Kevin Lucia’s “When We All Meet at the Ofrenda” as it was full of familiar imagery and folklore. What is an ofrenda? It’s the objects put on a ritual altar, typically used in Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The protagonist, I felt for him too, being separated from his love. But not for long…

“Hey, Little Sister” by Maria Alexander caught my attention as well. To make things up to his beloved sister, a man gives into a bout of needful revenge. Afterward, he has to make an afterlife-ending choice.

I reached out to the owner of Crystal Lake Publishing, Joe Mynhardt and asked how he managed to get the likes of Gaiman and Barker in his anthology. He said that it was thanks to the editors of Gutted who had a contact with someone close to Barker. (Lucky!) And well, they reached out to Gaiman’s agent and asked.

All of the stories in this anthology have a beauty, whether it is in language or tone or in finessing a hard-hitting theme to disarm the reader. It’s worth picking up this collection.

You can buy Gutted beginning June 24th from Crystal Lake Publishing.

Eidolon Avenue-The First Feast: A Review

I love short stories. Anyone who’s read this blog has likely heard me say that before. I read a great deal of anthologies. For me, even better is the single author collection. It gives me the voice and style of one author, but typically will get multiple settings and characters to enjoy.

For several years, it has been rare to find a single author collection of stories, as many publishers weren’t accepting them in submissions. Thankfully, that is changing.

Case in point, is Crystal Lake Publishing. They’ve recently released a single author horror collection titled, Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast by Jonathan Winn. Turns out this is the collection that keeps on giving. Eidolon Avenue is where a decrepit apartment building stands. Within those mired walls there are stories. Twenty-five to be exact. Five floors, five rooms per floor. The First Feast tells the first five tales.

From the cover, you’d never know this was a collection of five stories by the same author. Perhaps that is by design, as some readers of horror may not be on my wavelength of loving the short form of horror. In truth, these are five short novellas put together in one. The characters in each story are unrelated; the only thing connecting them is that they all live in that rundown, seen better days apartment building on Eidolon, which holds its own secret evil.

When Crystal Lake asked if I would review this collection, the publisher was careful to tell me as a female reviewer that one of the stories contained descriptions of sexual assault and would I skip it if it made me feel more comfortable. I appreciated the notification of the trigger warning and I did indeed skip one of the stories. However, I was reading this on an eReader, so I couldn’t help but see a few words here and there as I forwarded through the document. From those words, the trigger warning is well founded.

Eidolong Avenue

As with many anthologies and collections, the best stories in Eidolon are the bookends—the first and the last. I’ll comment on both of them.

“1A: Lucky” is an incredibly strong story to begin this book. It is an epic tale in and of itself, excluding the rest of the book. Rich in emotion, cultural mores, and soaked in Eastern magic and ghost stories. I loved this story. Lucky, a young girl, is anything but. She lives in squalor, cleaning and scrubbing for Madame. Each servant girl who shoes her any kindness mysteriously disappears after being called to a meeting with Madame.

Soon, it is Lucky’s turn to be called. During a ritual, Lucky chooses to accept a shadowy being into her soul. Surely, being strong and invincible is what a girl who has been a servant all her life would want, isn’t it? And she gets it, with disastrous results. Lucky soon grows into the most feared assassin around. But the shadowy power is growing too, and it wants payment for its services.

The final story “1E: Umbra” is also powerful and poignant. I have a hard time choosing which story is my favorite. Our protagonist is a young orphaned girl sent to live with her Grandmother, a hard-smoking shell of a woman whose only words are chosen to scathe and cut.

Umbra is left to fend for herself, existing on cheese sandwiches as most of the money the Grandmother keeps for her own purposes. In her room, she finds a small brown spot on the wall and she befriends it: talking to it daily, sharing her hurts, her pains, and her hopes.

The spot grows larger, and grows sentient as Umbra’s only confidante. But what is the brown spot? And how does it help Umbra with her problematic Grandmother or is it all her own doing? I loved the final reveal of this story. It was somehow horrific and satisfying as an ending to a visceral, visual collection. This was beautiful horror: an outcast and a creature story in one.

Maybe as a woman, the two female protagonists spoke to me more, but I agreed with whoever decided to place these stories and bookends. This collection is worth it for these two tales alone. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for the remainder of Winn’s collection of stories from Eidolon Avenue.

 

Flypaper: A Review

I picked up a copy of Book One of this series by C.K. Vile when it was free on Kindle.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Raised in a nightmare-like existence he now recreates in his books, Nick Dawkins wants nothing more than to be left alone. Podunk USA should be far enough away, but for his most passionate fans, the end of the earth is still too close. 

Danielle, a fan who manages to find him, shows up and his writer’s block vanishes. He’s inspired. Dreams he didn’t know he had are on the brink of coming true.

He should know better. He’s the teller of terror. There’s no room in his life for fairytales.

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I was on Twitter yesterday and I saw a tweet from author Sam Sykes that asked if people could get away from using “well-written” in reviews and instead tell exactly what was great about the book. Incidentally, I met Sam Sykes at Dragon*Con one year and he said I was the most polite person he’d ever signed a book for. (Random comment, I know, but I wanted this review to be a bit longer.)

While I agree with him, I’ve done it myself. ‘Well-written’ is a catch all phrase to describe well, just about anything the author’s done. So in this review, I said I would not use that term. So here it goes:

Flypaper is well-written disturbingly descriptive. It starts out similarly to several Stephen King storylines: a popular writer goes to a remote location to escape his oppressive fan base.

In this case Nick is frustrated with the attention from his popularity and it is starting to show when he makes public appearances. He retreats to a small town to write, but continues to be uninspired. And the attitude of the townspeople is less than welcoming. Much less.

Then he meets Danielle and his muse returns, even though she says she is unfamiliar with his work. But Danielle has ulterior motivations, and as her mental state declines, her lies come to light.

Unfortunately for Nick, obsessions can get…sticky.

C.K. Vile does a great job describing the reactions of Small Town USA and the mob mentality of some Internet message boards.

Where I had trouble was Nick’s reaction to Danielle once she started showing signs of…well, not being stable. There were several times where I thought, “Why doesn’t this guy just put his house alarm on and ignore his phone?” But I suppose being ‘that into’ someone makes you do—or not do—some strange things.

But as a thriller, it’s an enjoyable read. I did find myself wanting to finish it and as it is a short book, that isn’t a challenge.

Check out the book trailer here. And get your copy on Amazon.

May We Be Forgiven – A Review

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes is a book I picked up without it being recommended to me by anyone I knew and without my reading anything about the book. I was in a supermarket and I had a load of points on my loyalty card at the end of the year and I always spend them on books.

I read the back cover copy and thought the premise was interesting and I added it to my pile.

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The aforementioned book pile. I won’t promise to read these in order.

The book opens at Thanksgiving, a time intended to celebrate with family, but in many cases it can be a time of frustration when family tensions arise. Here is where we find Harry, the only one not participating in the current “discussion” at the table. Frustrated, he leaves the table, beginning to clear away the remnants of the meal, which he takes to the kitchen where his brother’s wife, Jane, is washing dishes. There, Jane kisses Harry.

This kiss is the catalyst for a firestorm of occurrences that left me stunned in places, incredulous in others. Strangely enough, Harry lets these occurrences happen all around him without truly seeming to be a participant in his own life. It was a bit—okay, more than a bit—frustrating to read about a protagonist who was so passive and unwilling or unable to make decisions that could impact his life.

My goal in reviews is to not give spoilers, so I’ll do my best to avoid that. But it’s challenging to do so with Homes’ book. Each character is so broken, so removed from the realities of life, that their actions to me felt surreal. Even so, it was like reading a nighttime soap opera in which you wondered, “What could possibly happen next?”

Harry’s brother George is a quintessential bully, who deals out cutting comments and lashes out with his fists instead of being able to communicate in any reasonable way. Sadly, the majority of men in this book fell into a similar category. (Except Harry, that is.) Their ways of thinking and doing were uncomfortable for me to read, only able to show jealousy and anger and violence, was so off putting.

Even when George commits a heinous crime, Harry is the one who seems to receive much of the hatred that should be directed at George. Harry bears the weight of all of this anger passively for the most part, but even when he expresses his frustration, he isn’t heard and doesn’t get the satisfaction of having his feeling acknowledged. To my horror, George gets off relatively lightly in this book and several people seem to want to help him return to normalcy.

Harry delves into online sex as an escape, meeting strangers for encounters. One thing I did appreciate in this book was that women were portrayed as having control of their sexuality and being active, willing participants in sex without any stigmas attached to it. Even so, I couldn’t relate to most of the women in the book because they all seemed to make decisions I found mystifying. I mean, who would let their recently orphaned nephew be taken to another state by a stranger?

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Harry, a historian, also has a fascination with Richard Nixon, a seemingly unusual hero for such a passive person. Harry’s obsession with him was to me a way of showing Harry as loving and admiring the “traditional male” and continually justifying it, even though he was being told it was history no one wanted to remember.

Finally, Harry seems to grow into a more active character when he takes on the role of caregiver, first for his niece and nephew, then for a local orphan, then for an aging couple. I found it interesting that Harry finds his happiness not in adopting the role of traditional male, but in taking on a role traditionally viewed as a female one.

The only characters in the book who seemed to be reasonable at all were the three children, who even though they all experience tragedy, are able to be resilient and rebuild their world in a way that not only suits them, but makes me feel like the world may be in good hands in the future.

Although it may not seem like it, I enjoyed the book. I wanted to know the fate of these characters. It read like a head on collision and I felt like a roadside observer once the paramedics have arrived. I can’t do anything but watch.