Remnants edited by Stephen Coghlan

Strange clouds on the horizon herald the coming of the swarm. The undulating masses of the hoard cannot be stopped. Terrifying creatures roam the Earth, seemingly with no aim but to devour all that stands before them. Experience the end of the world as we know it with these fourteen tales of horror, survival, and hope. The world ends in a frenzy of death and miasma of terror, but what will become of the remnants of humanity?
Fourteen tales of post-apocalyptic survival horror! (taken from Amazon)

Remnants is a collection of stories about a world ravaged and left for dead, with only a few leftovers- remnants, if you will. Instead of focusing on the horrific monsters that have violently changed life as humans know it, these tales focus mainly on how the few survive and who they become. The stories showcase tenacity, an unwillingness to lay down and die, and the best- and very worst- of humanity. Although, in some cases, humanity has long since left the building.

The concept behind Remnants is not a new one; post-apocalyptical stories like this have been created before. However, where this anthology is different is in its execution. Instead of full stories, there are short vignettes, brief glimpses in time. Some stories are touching, others incredibly brutal. Like humanity itself, the stories have a sliding scale of morality, with some unwilling to cross boundaries that other characters don’t even see as existing.

I found the examination of humanity to be fascinating. Like most anthologies, some stories worked better for me than others, but this was a collection that I consistently enjoyed. While some readers might wish for a little bit more focus on the monsters themselves, I really liked that following the survivors were the main event. Although in some cases, I could argue that not all the characters alive had actually really survived.

Each story added something to the overall atmosphere of the book. The first story, “Resistance” by Stephen Coghlan, set the tone for Remnants. It’s also a good lead-in, preparing the reader for stories that range from bizarre to emotional to disturbing or almost grotesque. The main storyline might be centered around one event, but the way each author tackled it was completely unique. I was never in danger of losing interest at all.

There were a couple of stories that were really unique in their telling. “Heatwave” by Aaron Lee takes a rather coldblooded look at the fallout, in which there is a blog that keeps tracks of death “statistics”, that the blogger utilizes to try to understand the nightmare that they’re living in. I thought this one was both fascinating and chilling.

“First Swarm” by J.D. Sanderson followed two photographers and their experiences, which left me mulling over whether viewing something through a camera lens helps expose truths otherwise denied, or if it allows the photographers to separate themselves from the reality of what they’re seeing. Short yet powerful, this was one of my favorite stories in the collection. The creativity behind both “First Swarm” and “Heatwave” are what elevated them above some of the other stories in this collection, although they were all well written.

Remnants is one of the stronger additions to post-apocalyptic fiction that I’ve read recently, with the grimdark and horror aspects working incredibly well. Thought provoking and just flat-out cool, this is not a collection to miss. I highly recommend it.

Review originally published in Grimdark Magazine, found here.

Tales From Alternate Earths 3

Step into fourteen new worlds that might have been…

What if the Ripper had kept killing, Hitchcock had directed Titanic, or an alien attack forced two adversaries into an unlikely alliance?

Visit worlds where wartime experiments unlocked genetic potential, where magic and magical creatures flourish, and where two detectives solve crimes in a world where Rome still rules.

The third Tales From Alternate Earths arrives with more stories and more award-wining authors. Discover these worlds if you dare! (taken from Fantasticfiction)

Thank you to Inkling Press for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Tales From Alternate Earths Volume 3 will be available on September third.

This collection takes “What if?” in new and exciting directions. What if the historical events we all (should) know unfolded differently? What ripples would they cause? How would our world be different? The creativity behind these musings and the skill of the writers blew me away.

Short story collections can go either way for me. Sometimes I just can’t connect with the shorter lengths. However, Alternate Earths 3 used the shorter formats to excellent advantage, shining a laser focus on unique ideas. While the entire book is strong, there are a few stories that stood out to me.

The collection started out strong with “Gunpowder Treason” by Alan Smale. It takes a look at how things would have been had Guy Fawkes and company succeeded in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It’s told through an interesting perspective- that of a streetwalker. It made the story feel much more personal than if it had been told through multiple points of view.

“Ops and Ostentation” by Rob Edwards followed the indomitable Mrs. Constance Briggs as she encounters a certain man whose military mind has been spoken of often (I’m doing my very best to be vague, and hopefully I’ve succeeded). Her role in the events that unfolded was fascinating. That ending too! It was infinitely satisfying.

I was unsure about “Dust of the Earth” at first, but I ended up really enjoying how author Brent A. Harris wrote it. It’s told in a series of flashbacks which isn’t something I encounter too often. While it was disconcerting at first, I loved that the story ultimately focused on mental health, which is a subject that I am very passionate about.

“To Catch a Ripper” by Minoti Vaishnav gives a new angle on Jack the Ripper, and it’s the most interesting take on the Ripper that I’ve ever read. There were many things about this story that made me oh-so-happy, from the determined main character, to the intrigue and action. If ever this becomes a full-length novel, I’ll be in line to buy it.

I was delighted to see that Ricardo Victoria, an author whose writings I always enjoy, has a story in Alternate Earths 3. His story, “Steel Serpents”, was thought-provoking and incredibly smart. I’ll be thinking about this one for quite a while.

The collection ends just as well as it started, with a story that follows a couple of former KGB operatives. Author D.J. Butler had me hooked right away.

These are just a few of the stories that stood out to me; the entirety of Alternate Earths 3 was clever and entertaining. This collection is perfect for readers who want to be challenged, who like to muse on all the paths history could have taken. I highly recommend picking this one up.

Now for Something Different: Unique or Bizarre Books

Sometimes I enjoy a book that is really different, possibly even a little – dare I say it? – bizarre. I like to be surprised by books, and sometimes I want a book that challenges my expectations. Here are some utterly unique books that I’ve enjoyed.

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You is a story of music, obsession, violence, and madness by Scotto Moore

I was home alone on a Saturday night when I experienced the most beautiful piece of music I had ever heard in my life.
Beautiful Remorse is the hot new band on the scene, releasing one track a day for ten days straight. Each track has a mysterious name and a strangely powerful effect on the band’s fans.
A curious music blogger decides to investigate the phenomenon up close by following Beautiful Remorse on tour across Texas and Kansas, realizing along the way that the band’s lead singer, is hiding an incredible, impossible secret.
At the Publisher’s request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You is a book that goes straight past unique and right into weird. I mean that as a compliment. I would bet money that no one could possibly figure out where this book is going. It’s twisty and disconcerting and I was on board for all of it! You can find my review here.

Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire by G.M. Nair

Michael Duckett is fed up with his life. His job is a drag, and his roommate and best friend of fifteen years, Stephanie Dyer, is only making him more anxious with her lazy irresponsibility. Things continue to escalate when they face the threat of imminent eviction from their palatial 5th floor walk-up and find that someone has been plastering ads all over the city for their Detective Agency.The only problem is: He and Stephanie don’t have one of those.Despite their baffling levels of incompetence, Stephanie eagerly pursues this crazy scheme and drags Michael, kicking and screaming, into the fray only to find that they are way out of their depth. They stumble upon a web of missing people that are curiously linked to a sexually audacious theoretical physicist and his experiments with the fabric of space-time. And unless Michael and Stephanie can put their personal issues aside and fix the multi-verse, the concept of existence itself may, ironically, no longer exist.

I read this one with Beth from Before We Go Blog and we had a blast discussing the odd goings-on. I laughed so stinking hard! In a time where laughs are sorely needed, this one definitely fits the bill. You can find my review here.

Around the Dark Dial by J.D. Sanderson

Take a trip around the dark dial with eleven original and thought-provoking short stories that invoke the wonder and mystery of old-time radio dramas. Forget all that you know about modern sci-fi. In Around the Dark Dial, it’s all about the unexpected.

“Around the Dark Dial is a good old-fashioned science fiction, full of twists and surprises and the sense of wonder, but leavened with modern sensibilities-there’s a lot to recommend here, with stories ranging from the present day to the far future, from the promise of new technology to the dystopic future we all dread.” – David Wellington, author of The Last Astronaut

This collection of short stories by J.D. Sanderson was creative and fascinating. Each story was different and it really is unlike anything else I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. This was a different sort of science fiction, one that was very thought provoking. You can find my review here.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house―a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s CircePiranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.

Piranesi was beautifully written. It was also a little bit confusing. Author Susanna Clarke deliberately gives only bits and pieces of information. I was left with almost as many questions as answers. The prose was magnificent, though. You can find my review here.

“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander from Uncanny Magazine

This is by far the best fairy tale about dinosaurs that I’ve ever read. It’s also the only fairy tale about dinosaurs that I’ve read. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s odd and clever, and so much fun! You can read my review here.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

This story is so flipping weird, but I love it! It’s thought-provoking and one of the few “classics” that I think actually benefits from being picked apart in a school setting, just because it’s so fascinating to get other opinions on this one.

What about you? What “odd” books have you enjoyed?

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

Admission: I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty before reading the story the movie is based on. Shame on me! That being said, I liked the movie just fine, it’s just very different from James Thurber’s work. I thought the movie was a bit more hopeful than the story seems to be. The story itself made me feel a little sad.

The titular character of the tale is Walter Mitty, a little man who kind of feels swallowed by life. He mentally retreats into fantastical situations in which he is the hero. Every part of his life feeds into these fantasies until it seems like his real life is actually his fiction. It really does affect every part of his life: he doesn’t seem able to really connect with reality. His relationship with his wife is one where she’s sort of his caregiver, which he resents. It’s obviously put a strain on their marriage. She nags him an awful lot and speaks down to him, but in my mind it’s because she is worried. She’s been thrust into a role that she probably didn’t expect, going from wife to almost-parent. I could be reading way more into that, but that’s the impression I got. I think she misses her husband because he’s become almost inaccessible.

The writing is simplistic, which I think helped show the almost child-like avoidance that Walter uses when life seems overwhelming, or just unsatisfactory. Which of us hasn’t escaped into our own imaginations before? That’s what reading is, to an extent. The difference is the underlying melancholy that pervades Walter’s life. I really enjoyed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but wow, did it make me sad!

I have no idea why I waited so long to read it, but I’m glad I did. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a pensive little tale, one that is definitely worth reading.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

I just want to warn everyone that there will be major spoilers below. I’m sorry about that, but I need to discuss this disturbing little story somewhere. I am really hoping for comments on this one because I would love to hear other ideas on “The Lottery”. I need to be able to unpack this thing! This is my first read-through and, knowing Shirley Jackson, I really should have expected it to be disquieting. It completely sucked me in and I can’t stop thinking about it.

——HUGE SPOILERS BELOW——

“The Lottery” takes place in a small town, the sort of place where everyone knows each other. It follows the story of a lottery which the reader finds out is drawn annually, the winner ultimately being the loser, as they are stoned to death. I found it to be unsettling and engrossing, easily the best Shirley Jackson work I’ve read, and one that’s kept me thinking. There are themes of casual acceptance of violence and apathy toward change or improvement, which are chillingly still applicable today.

In the beginning of “The Lottery” the tone is almost lighthearted. The reader is given no clue that the story will end in such an upsetting way. The men talk about their crops; the children talk about school and eventually even start playing. The story says that “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones” . With the picture the author has painted of a lighthearted ceremony, I wondered at first if the boys are grabbing stones to skip across a lake, or to use as a fort. Only at the end is it revealed that those very stones gathered by the children were to be used to stone someone to death- possibly even one of the very children who gathered the stones. The lottery has taken on a familiar feel to the participants, and almost seems to signal the beginning of a season. Certainly, no one seems to be upset or even reluctant to participate.

Despite the chilling violence that has taken place for years and years, no one questions or objects to the sacrificing of a life. In fact, when one woman points out that some places have stopped having lotteries, a man claims that there’s “nothing but trouble in that”. This is where I started to see a little beyond the surface, and felt rising tension. This “turn”, so to speak, is one that has served Jackson well in her other works, and it worked wonderfully here. The villagers accept the violence without argument, even encouraging their children to participate. There is almost a duality shown in the neighbors. They can talk about doing dishes one moment, and plan on stoning someone to death in the next. However, the ultimate protest of the person who has “won” the lottery, coupled with the relief of those who have not, shows that no one is quite comfortable with the situation. Not one of them steps in, says anything against it, or even foregoes the chance to throw a stone, though. This shows an apathy and unwillingness to take steps to change or improve. The keeping of tradition is the most important thing, no matter that the tradition is violent and wrong. Even the disheveled state of the lottery box, which has not been fixed, shows a stoic acceptance and indifference- perhaps even an active resistance- to changing or stopping the violence.

“The Lottery” isn’t just a creepy little tale: it’s a commentary on the acceptance of violence, and an unwillingness to question the status quo. This unwillingness to change anything, or even examine whether change needs to happen is still echoed today. Seen through that lens, “The Lottery” becomes at once both fascinating and disturbing. Can you see why I can’t stop thinking about it?

Have you read “The Lottery”? (I kind of hope so, if you’ve read this post, seeing as I posted spoiler after spoiler). What did you think? Did you get the same things out of it that I did?

Backstories by Simon Van der Velde

Dreamers, singers, talkers and killers
; they can dazzle with their beauty or
their talent or their unmitigated evil, but inside themselves they are as frail
and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them?
Can you unravel the
truth?
These are people you know, but not as you know them.
Peel back the mask and see.

Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Backstories is available now.

Backstories is smart and enigmatic, encouraging the reader to be involved. Author Simon Van der Velde combines history and fiction to create something entirely different- the surprising stories behind famous figures. Instead of the public persona we all know, the veneer is stripped away to show the utter humanness underneath.

Interestingly, Backstories isn’t set up in any way that is run-of-the-mill. This collection of short stories isn’t a simple “this is their past” sort of book. Instead, it’s a mystery. The reader has to solve the puzzle: who is each story about? I have to be honest and say that a couple stories completely stumped me. It was fascinating to try and match up new details with what is already known about a person. It added a level of realism to what have always been almost unreachable, exaggerated famous (or infamous) people.

The writing is engaging and easy to connect with. It’s quite obvious that author Simon Van Der Velde put a lot of time and research into his book, but he left just enough to the imagination to encourage me to do my own digging. The little Easter eggs that were left throughout were clever and added so much to the story.

I went into Backstories expecting to be entertained. Instead, I was sucked in and ended up being incredibly invested in the “who was” aspect. Expect an engrossing book, one that will keep you guessing.

Where to find Backstories:

Amazon: Backstories

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black

Okay, okay, I admit: I grabbed this book mainly for the cover. It promised mythical, mysterious tales. Plus, it has the pretty illustrations! This book takes place in the world of The Cruel Prince. Reviews for the series: The Cruel Prince/The Wicked King and The Queen of Nothing.

Unfortunately, How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories (referred from here on out to King of Elhame because the full title is bit long) didn’t quite butter my biscuit. Holly Black is a talented author and I think I expected more than what I got.

First of all, it felt a little thrown together. Several of the short stories seemed a bit like scenes that were edited out of the original books. While they were interesting, they didn’t quite seem like full stories to me. Also, any scene involving the sexening and Carden made me dissolve into giggles. He has a tail for crying out loud! Hmm…that might say more about my maturity level than about the book itself. Luckily, I tend to skip sex scenes anyway.

Something that I found interesting (and a little bit of a bummer) was that the stories that were supposed to take place during The Cruel Prince felt a little revisionist. It was really odd because Holly Black wrote with such confidence that I did not expect her to feel the need to change anything. She is a very good writer and I truly hope she knows that.

That being said, I did really enjoy the three stories involving the troll woman. In two of them, she told Carden a different version of the same fairy tale. I liked that they changed based on both Carden’s age and what had been happening in the original series at the time. It showcased Carden’s character development. I won’t ruin anything by talking about the third of the troll woman’s stories. I will just say that I thought it was extremely clever.

The final verdict for me was: the book was not horrible, but it felt unnecessary. However, I am sure that my opinion isn’t the popular one and I would love to hear what you loved about The King of Elfhame and why. Tell me what I missed!

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa Albert

Before The Hazel Wood, there was Althea Proserpine’s Tales from the Hinterland…

Journey into the Hinterland, a brutal and beautiful world where a young woman spends a night with Death, brides are wed to a mysterious house in the trees, and an enchantress is killed twice―and still lives. (taken from Amazon)

The funny thing about The Hazel Wood (and its sequel) by Melissa Albert is that, for me, the best parts weren’t the main storyline. Nope. The best parts were the undeniably eerie fairy tales come-to-life that bled through into the pages of the books. I told my husband that if a collection of Hinterland tales was every published, I’d be super excited to read it. So, of course I had to snag a copy of Tales from the Hinterland!

These completely original fairy tales were about characters that crossed over from the fictional world into the real one in The Hazel Wood books. And they were as creepy as it gets without descending into full-on horror. Let’s just say that the majority of them did not end well for the “hero”. In fact, most of them didn’t have a hero per se. What they did have was a ton of creativity and a darker tone that sent shivers down the spine.

One thing that stood out to me was that the main characters were all female. There were naïve females, clever ones, even evil ones. But males were always in a supporting role. It was an interesting choice. It didn’t change my enjoyment of the book, either positively or negatively; it was just something I noticed.

Another thing that I really liked was that not a single tale seemed even remotely like an existing fairy tale. There were no Beauty and the Beast retellings, and Little Red Riding Hood didn’t make an appearance. The stories were 100% original. It was refreshing to see entirely new ideas (not that I mind a good fairy tale reimagining).

There wasn’t a single story that felt lesser than or out of place. My main complaint, in fact, is that the tone was similar in several tales. I am not even sure if that should be a complaint: that the stories fit well together. Hmm…something to think about.

There were three stories that stood out to me. One was The Door that Wasn’t There, which was equal parts creepy and sad. It’s about two sisters who were locked in a room to starve and what one of them does to survive (no, there’s no cannibalism. Ew!). The feeling that Melissa Albert created in this story was a little bit gothic and a whole lot of unearthly.

The second story that kept me enthralled was The Mother and the Dagger. This felt like your usual tale told to scare kids into coming home before dark- but with a twist that was uncanny and creeptastic. The way this one was written, like someone is talking to you, stood out from the other stories and drew me in. I loved the ending, which had an abrupt finality to it.

Finally, was Twice-Killed Katherine. That character was one of the bits of fairy tales that showed up in The Hazel Wood, and the one that I found the most intriguing. While the story didn’t go the way I expected, it was nonetheless fascinating and really cool to see the backstory the author had for her. That one also felt different in that what was left unsaid could have been stretched and expanded on to create an entirely separate novel in its own right.

Tales from the Hinterland was by far my favorite book that takes place in the Hazel Wood universe (so to speak), even though it’s not a straight-through narrative. It was eerie and intelligent, and definitely not a book to read alone at night. I wouldn’t necessarily call it horror- maybe horror-adjacent. Either way, it was really stinking good.

Small Magic: Short Fiction 1977-2020 by Terry Brooks

Escape to worlds full of adventure and magic in the first-ever Terry Brooks short-story collection, featuring both new and fan-favorite stories from all three of his major literary worlds: Shannara, Magic Kingdom, and The Word and the Void.

Here are heroes fighting new battles and struggling to conquer the ghosts of the past. Here are quests both small and far reaching; heroism both intimate and vast. Here we learn of Garet Jax’s childhood, see how Allanon first located Shea Ohmsford, and follow an old wing-rider at the end of his life. Here we see Knights of the Word fighting demons within and without, and witness Ben Holiday and his daughter each trying to overcome the unique challenges that Landover offers.

This collection of eleven tales is a must-have addition to the Terry Brooks canon—a delightful way to spend time with favorite characters, and a wonderful reminder of what makes a Brooks story such a timeless classic. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Small Magic: Short Fiction 1977-2020 will be available on March second.

Terry Brooks is a giant among fantasy authors. Even if you haven’t read any of his works, chances are you recognize the name. He’s most well known for his Shannara books, although I personally like Magic Kingdom for Sale–Sold! the best. When I was given the opportunity to check out his short fiction collection, I jumped at the chance.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s Terry Brooks! Some of these stories add a new level to already established worlds and characters. His writing skill is on full display and is fantastic, as usual. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read any of his works, and it was fun to catch up.

On the other hand, some of the story additions were just odd. For example, the very first story was written for an anthology by Poul Anderson called Multiverse. It did not really make a lot of sense to make that the very first story, seeing as it was written for someone else’s anthology collection, and it alienated me a bit. If it was going to be in Small Magic, I personally would have preferred to see it pop up later on, after there had been some short stories that took place in worlds created by Terry Brooks.

My favorite story of the collection featured a cantankerous dragon. While I definitely felt that some stories were much better than others, I feel that most Terry Brooks fans will enjoy the collection, even if only for the sense of nostalgia it provides.

I personally didn’t love it as much as I was expecting, but it wasn’t awful. While Small Magic is worth checking out, I strongly suggest reading some of Terry Brooks’ full length fiction first.

Around the Dark Dial by J.D. Sanderson

Take a trip around the dark dial with eleven original and thought-provoking short stories that invoke the wonder and mystery of old-time radio dramas. Forget all that you know about modern sci-fi. In Around the Dark Dial, it’s all about the unexpected. (taken from Goodreads)

Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

This is a short story collection unlike any other I’ve read. Evoking a sense of the mysterious, each story had an underlying tension that kept me fascinated. Short story collections can be hit or miss for me; this was a definite hit.

Each story provided a unique take on the sci-fi genre. While there were stories featuring common sci-fi features, they were uniquely done in ways that felt fresh and new. There were what seemed to be hidden connections between some of the stories, more common themes than anything else. I enjoyed the thrill I got from seeing how one might be connected to another. Even the way the stories were ordered added to my enjoyment of the collection.

I particularly liked The Simulant for its take on AI. The humanity that author J.D. Sanderson gave to his Simulant was actually very thought-provoking. The ending gave off a sense of paranoia, much like a good thriller can. In fact, Sanderson knows just when to end a tale, leaving plenty of room for the reader to think and wonder, without suddenly dropping the plot. I don’t like books that stop abruptly, but I also am not a huge fan of things being overexplained. Sanderson tread the fine line between the two with skill.

My absolute favorite of the stories, though, was Caller Four. This one revolved around a radio show that covered the topic of alien abductions. The late-night scene, combined with the question of whether the alien encounter was really happening, made for an engrossing read. I loved how the ending brought the story full-circle. This one will definitely stick with me.

If you’re a fan of creative fiction, or if you enjoyed The Twilight Zone, Around the Dark Dial will be right up your alley. I highly suggest giving this one a go!

You can find Around the Dark Dial on bookshop.org (among other places). If you order through my link I’ll get a small kickback. More importantly, you’ll be supporting local bookstores.