This was a great month of reading, and I have some wonderful books to share. All but one of these books are written by indie authors, and I have to say, the talent in this community is amazing. Every month, I’m impressed almost beyond words. I hope everyone is up for some great reading.
February’s reviews include my 4 and 5-star reads of two dark short story collections, an international thriller, a romance novella, paranormal/occult fiction, a Christian thriller, experimental fiction, and an Edgar Allen Poe retelling.
Click on the covers for Amazon global links.
At the End of it All by Suzanne Craig-Whytock
Have you ever, while reading a collection of stories, jotted down your favorites to mention in a review? And when you finish the book, you realize that you just jotted down the entire table of contents? That’s this book.
Craig-Whytock is a marvelous writer of short stories, and I couldn’t wait to read her new batch. I wasn’t disappointed. Each offering packs a powerful punch, especially if you’re looking for skillful storytelling, lots of variety, and a dark twist. The 27 stories in this collection are short, some closer to flash fiction, and the book is a little over a 2-hour read which I inhaled in one sitting.
The stories have a mesmerizing touch of darkness, but this isn’t necessarily horror, at least not the gory kind. There’s a mixture of creepy paranormal tales like “Amphitrite,” which ends poorly, and “Night Terrors,” which ends well.
The impact of chaos on children and their disordered thinking is evident in a number of stories, and my favorites were “Misophonia” and “Resurrection.” Revenge is satisfying in “The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep.” And madness rears its head in “Shelf Sitter.”
There are wrenching tales of indifference as well as those that reflect deep empathy, such as “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and “The High Seas.” Then there are tales of death and loss that pull at the heartstrings like “Fist Full of Dirt,” and the intense (tissue-alert) tear-jerker that I just loved: “Heading for Shore.”
The author also includes a three-part story “Nomads of the Modern Wasteland.” I wouldn’t have minded if this dystopian story had a lot more parts! And finally, one that left me chuckling: “Mr. Death comes to Town.”
See what I mean? So many stories to enjoy. Highly recommended.
Feeling Human by Sheri J. Kennedy
Jac has a hyper-sensitivity to the emotional energy of other people, a barrage so intense that he spent much of his youth screaming. His life settled down when his mother abandoned him at his grandfather’s isolated ranch, leaving yet another set of psychic scars on his young mind.
When his grandfather dies, Jac inherits an alien book that steals his body and installs his consciousness in the mind of another person, then another and another, passed from body to body through touch. Thus begins a fascinating journey through the lives of multiple strangers, male and female, young and old, loving and lost, where Jac learns to understand the depth and complexity of human lives and emotions.
The alien rationale for the book’s existence was a little convoluted for me, but that part is only a few pages. Once Jac begins his journey, the book is riveting and extremely well written without the slightest confusion, a feat since Jac is constantly switching hosts. Along with Jac, readers get to observe each host’s thoughts and emotions, but we also get to feel Jac’s reactions.
Every character is deeply drawn, and the result, for me, was a pervading sense of compassion. Except for one unusual case, Jac is incapable of communicating with or influencing his host. His role is to observe and learn, and often he’s transferred to the next person before we find out what happened with the last. I really liked all the open-ended possibilities. They relate beautifully to the ongoing stories of real people we come across every day as we go about our business.
I can’t help but think that the construction of this book was an ambitious undertaking, but the author pulls it off with flying colors. The genuine humanness presented in the array of characters, their circumstances and emotional experiences, is moving. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy a deeply human story and want to try something different. (KIndle Unlimited.)
A Peril in Ectoplasm by Teagan Riordain Geneviene
This was a super read. Daphne is a medium, engaged to a Spanish count, cared for by her loyal housekeeper Maisy, and plagued by the demanding Mrs. Smith, a grieving mother who insists that Daphne contact Smith’s deceased child. Under pressure from her fiancé, Daphne proceeds with multiple seances even though something isn’t right and each contact drains her health. A young woman joins the household with a connection that just might hold off the forces of darkness and save her employer’s life.
The pace is snappy, and I read this book in two sittings. Geneviene writes vibrant characters and these are no exception, their personalities distinct and engaging. Maisy was my favorite, an eavesdropper who, despite her station, is a powerful ally to Daphne. Even Count Crespo, who isn’t particularly likable, is nuanced.
Descriptions are rich with a strong sense of place, in this case, a mansion in Coral Gables, Florida. This writer is also talented in applying details and dialog that point to a particular era, and I found the read highly visual. I have no qualms about recommending this book to readers who enjoy paranormal/occult stories with fun characters and a fast-paced plot.
With this Heart by Jacquie Biggar
Romance fans are going to love this novella. It’s got bridesmaids, beautiful dresses, and wedding plans. It’s got cute kids, loving dads, and even a baby Bambi. But there’s also some drama, and despite the best of intentions, happily ever after isn’t guaranteed.
Jaden and Annie are engaged, and with their wedding a few weeks away, Jaden takes his ten-year-old son, Chris, fishing. He wants to enjoy some bonding time with the child he didn’t know he had. What starts out as an adorable outing ends up as a harrowing experience, and worried about her son, Annie loses it. The wedding is off.
This is a fun way to spend an hour. Biggar writes a good tale with engaging characters, and the kids in her stories are frequently irresistible. For fans of her Wounded Hearts series (which I’ve read end to end), it’s a welcome chance to visit with most of the characters of Tidal Falls and see how their lives are going. Highly recommended to romance readers looking for a quick read. (Kindle Unlimited)
Story of a Stolen Girl by Pat Spencer
Eighteen-year-old Darby Richardson and her college roommate get an invite to a private gambling club. Darby leaves to get breakfast with one of the patrons and disappears into the world of human trafficking and sex slavery. Her mom, Nina is beside herself with fear. She begins a relentless effort to find her missing daughter that includes law enforcement agencies, private investigators, social media, and television. Her story reaches the highest office of the US government, and yet no one seems able or willing to get the job done. The only recourse she has is to rescue Darby herself.
The book is a thriller with a definite time crunch. The action is frighteningly realistic but most of the coercion and brutality (and all of the rape) occur off-stage. There isn’t any graphic sex or violence, so readers can focus on the complexities of the investigation and ultimate rescue. It’s a tough subject, so I appreciated the way the author handled it.
The story does go into some detail about a drug called Devil’s Breath used in kidnappings. It’s scary stuff that leaves its victims compliant and without memories of what happened to them. The perfect drug for the slave/sex trade. And it was convincing enough to make me look it up. Yes, it’s real. That alone will give a reader the creeps.
This is a page-turner with a strong plot and engaging characters. I appreciated Darby’s guts even though she wasn’t able to free herself. Nina’s daring was admirable, and her ultimate plan wasn’t as easy to execute as she thought it would be. I liked that everything kept going wrong for her.
The author makes a strong statement about human trafficking with some frightening statistics about its prevalence in all corners of the world. One of her points is that this could happen to any family. She reinforces her warnings and outrage in an afterword with a call to arms. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy fast-paced thrillers. (Kindle Unlimited)
Vampire of the Midnight Sun by Priscilla Bettis
I read the two short stories in this book in under an hour, and it was a great way to pass the time. The first story, “Vampire of the Midnight Sun,” was my favorite, a thriller loaded with suspense as two friends are stuck in the Alaskan wilderness and attempting to walk to civilization. One of them is falling apart physically. The other is physically strong but desperate for human blood. The tension in this tale escalates until the last line. I was riveted and late to an appointment because I HAD to read to the end before leaving the house.
The second story, “The Fire Witch and the Cowboy,” deals with the threat of wildfires on the Texas plains. As a fire approaches the town of Dusty Bend, Henderson, the local coward, convinces the widow Vandermeer to let them use her train to fight the flames. She agrees, but they have history, and things don’t go as planned. I connected more with the characters in the first story compared to this one, but the tale is intense, the chaos easy to follow, and the fire scenes are truly horrifying. Readers who are looking for a couple of short horror stories can’t go wrong with this selection. Highly recommended.
Redemption: A Father’s Fatal Decision by Gwen M. Plano
Lisa and Trace’s father was an abusive murderer and an international criminal, but when he’s killed, they begin a hunt for answers about his secret life and the reasons for his death. While their mother recovers from gunshot wounds in the hospital, she feeds them clues, and together with their childhood friend Ryan, they begin unraveling the mystery, finding secret messages and puzzle pieces everywhere they look.
The trio has one ally, but otherwise, they don’t know whom to trust, including law enforcement. Their mother’s home is ransacked, their hotel room is bugged, and they’re constantly tailed. They make a good team: personable, supportive of each other, and easy to root for. They’re also smart, their efforts highly successful and conclusions rarely mistaken. At one point they’re referred to as “The Sherlocks,” which I thought was perfect since, for me, the read leaned more toward a “cozy” thriller than an all-out nail-biter. There’s plenty of tension, but modest danger and minimal violence.
This present-tense story is told from the third-person perspectives of the three main characters. The pace is speedy throughout the book with short intermissions for Lisa and Trace to reflect on their childhood and how it impacted their lives. Themes of family dysfunction, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness unfold in these moments, setting the stage for further revelations and a heartwarming conclusion. The book has a Christian slant during these scenes, but it’s not preachy. Recommended to readers who enjoy cozy mysteries, sleuthing, and thrills, and like a solid message about letting go and healing from the past.
What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
This is one creepy tale. It’s not in-your-face horror, but it definitely makes the skin crawl. The book is a retelling of Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which the author didn’t think was long enough and didn’t answer all her questions. I haven’t read the original and now I might.
Alex Easton arrives at the Usher home after receiving a letter that his childhood friend Madeline Usher is unwell. She not only looks on the verge of death, but her brother Roderick is also suffering, and the house…well the house is falling apart, damp and peeling, invaded by mold and a strange spreading fungus that looks like fish gills. There’s a creepy pond on the property as well as creepy animals dragging themselves around. Did I mention this book is creepy? It gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Alex enlists the help of an older woman who studies mushrooms and an American doctor residing in the home to care for Madeline. Time is of the essence to figure out what eerie malady is consuming the Ushers and their home, as well as to prevent it from spreading.
The writing is excellent and the pace moves along quickly. Alex carries the first-person POV, and he’s the driver behind finding answers to all his questions. The other characters are fully drawn with a range of distinct personalities. The biology of fungus gets a fair amount of attention, and I found it fascinating (and creepy, of course).
This is an entertaining, well-crafted afternoon’s read, and I highly recommend it to fans of Poe, and readers of atmospheric horror and plain old creepy stories.