Cactus FlatsI love Weird Westerns. So as soon as I read Lydia Schoch’s review of this book, I knew I had to check it out. And it’s everything a story set in the Weird West should be: cowboys, prospectors, gunfights with shotguns and six-shooters, and of course, manifestations of supernatural horror, which I won’t describe in detail here.

The description in the book itself is minimal, which in my opinion is a good thing. In horror, you want to leave things to the readers’ imagination. But, still there’s more than enough information to get a sense of what the protagonist, a deputy named Jed, is facing by the time he’s loading up with weaponry and dynamite and heading to an abandoned mine to confront the horror.

In the beginning, there were a few little things that didn’t sit right with me–like the prospector being named Pete, which is about the oldest western cliché ever, or the fact that Jed is unfamiliar with using a single action revolver. These are minor points, but I noticed them… and in the end, it turns out there are excellent reasons for details like these. I take my hat off to the author for how he managed the ending of this book; it’s very well done.

Like Lydia, I’d have appreciated a bit more world-building, but at the same time, I can understand why the story had to be focused and fast-paced. And it makes for a very satisfying adventure, even before the final plot twist.

This has all the elements a good short story needs: it’s fast, easy to get into, and it leaves you feeling really satisfied with the ending.   I think anyone who enjoys horror or adventure stories will like it, and if you’re a fan of the Weird West like I am, I’d call it a must-read.

Bone HungerThis is the second book in Rubin’s Benjamin Oris series. Oris is a medical resident in Philadelphia, working as an orthopedic surgeon. His strange experiences in the series’ first entry The Bone Curse are behind him, and he is well on his way to a successful career in medicine, as well as having a pleasant domestic life, being good friends with Sophia, the mother of his young son, Maxwell.

Unfortunately, he again finds himself caught up in bizarre events when he and Sophia discover a severed leg in the park one frigid January day. It’s especially horrifying to Ben because he recognizes the limb–it belongs to a patient he himself recently performed knee surgery upon.

Once more, Ben is drawn into a macabre mystery. Soon, patients begin vanishing and more severed limbs are discovered. With the help of his friend Laurette and a forensic psychiatrist, Ben slowly pieces together an incredible theory–one that implicates a member of his own surgical team, possibly even his attending surgeon, who is also accused of ethically-questionable medical practices. Although, complicating things further, the accuser is also far from being a reliable source.

Speaking of unreliable sources, sprinkled throughout the book are chapters told from the perspective of the killer. Readers of Rubin’s earlier novel Eating Bull will be reminded of the glimpses into the twisted mind of the murderer in that novel. It’s done just as effectively here.

There’s a great cast of suspects here. Of course I kept trying to guess who it was, my suspicion shifting among 3-4 characters. In the end, none of my guesses were correct. The supporting characters in general are fantastic–I particularly liked Derek, the forensic psychiatrist, and Fisher, the chairman of orthopedic surgery and a former Army doctor. He has a penchant for creative swearing that I found very entertaining. “Holy bastard on a birthday card” is one of the more mild examples. 

There are many memorable lines throughout–“No one’s willing to discuss the severed elephant in the room,” Ben muses at one point. And the pacing is great. After a gradual build-up, in the second half, the book turns into another of Rubin’s signature fast-paced, tension-filled thrillers, with a new twist coming every chapter. Mark Paxson once compared the pace of The Bone Curse to a hockey game in overtime, and the same could apply here.

And, by the way, while I don’t think it’s absolutely essential to have read The Bone Curse before reading The Bone Hunger, it will help a lot to familiarize yourself with Ben and his friends and family. Also, there are references to the events of the earlier book throughout.

All in all, this is another terrific medical thriller. I suppose a word of caution is in order for those squeamish about references to surgery, and of course, as the title suggests, the killer’s motives are based in some very unsettling desires.

I read this book in a little over one day from when I first got it. It is a fast-paced page turner, and by the second half, I just had to know what happened next. It’s a Carrie Rubin classic, full of clever lines and an intense climax delivered at breakneck speed.

[NOTE: This review is based on an ARC. The Bone Hunger releases today.]

ForbiddenI don’t read a lot of romances. Even less do I read modern romances. On those rare occasions that I venture reading any romance, it’s usually in a historical or fantasy setting. But this book caught my eye because it’s a modern military romance.

I’d never heard of a military romance before. But, we have military sci-fi, so why not military romance?

Forbidden Kisses is told from the alternating perspectives of two people: Layla Matthews and Ethan Parker. The two meet and quickly fall in love–unfortunately, so quickly that neither realizes the other is in the Navy. Layla is a petty officer, Ethan a lieutenant. Military regulations forbid a romantic relationship, but the two can hardly stand to be away from each other.

The book is short and sweet. If there’s one thing I find tiresome in many romances, it’s when the two people who are obviously perfect for each other break up for contrived reasons. Happily, there’s none of that here–it’s just a story of two people in love, caught between the age-old struggle of passion vs. duty.

There is a part of me that would have liked to see the two of them try to control themselves while on a ship out at sea. (It’s high time–or is it tide?–that the nautical melodrama made a comeback.) But as it is, the two have plenty of romantic encounters while ashore.

It’s a fun book. It’s nice to read about two good-hearted, nice, decent people in a wholesome relationship. Especially in a time when escapism is very welcome, having two co-protagonists who are easy to root for is really pleasant to read.

Oh, and if you’re wondering if Layla and Ethan figure out a way to overcome the rules prohibiting their relationship? Well, read the book and find out!

Hannah the HuntressThis is a fast-paced, supernatural horror adventure laced with film, TV, and literary references. Hannah and her friends are teenagers in a small-town that is abruptly attacked by monsters of every description–zombies, vampires, witches etc. Fortunately, they are assisted by the wizard Merlyn Morningstar and Hannah’s mother Sarah, both of whom have seen a thing or two in their day.

There are violent, bloody battles, punctuated by snappy, sometimes fourth wall-breaking wisecracks. There are sword fights, and wizards’ duels, and at least one extra-dimensional excursion.  I think the overall concept may be an homage to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but having never watched that, I can’t be sure.

One thing I particularly liked about the book was the depiction of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Especially the monster: Colonel Karl Hesse, a Prussian soldier in life, before falling into the mad doctor’s clutches. He’s portrayed as a towering, powerful and heavily-armed one-man army. I adore the description of him lumbering up a hill clad in his old cavalry uniform.

In fact, one of my complaints is that he’s not in the book enough. Although, this may be unfair, because I’m not sure I could get enough of him even if he were the protagonist.

The action is, as I said, very violent. Most of it has sort of a cheesy, comic-book or low-budget horror film vibe for most of it, although there is one scene, very close to the end, of true horror that is very disturbing. Indeed, as this book is the first of two, and ends on a real cliff-hanger, I am hopeful that the wrongs done in this scene may be righted in the subsequent volume.

Now, apart from the violence, which was rather more than I typically enjoy but your mileage may vary, there are a few little technical issues. There’s a bit of a formatting oddity on Kindle that makes paragraph breaks appear randomly. This was slightly confusing at first, as I thought a new section was starting when it wasn’t, but I quickly got used to it. There are also a few typos, although by no means a huge number for an indie book. As I always say, that’s the beauty of e-publishing–you can always go back and fix these things.

But don’t let these minor nitpicks dissuade you from reading it. If you’re a fan of supernatural horror, and the zombie genre especially, this is a book you will enjoy. And if you like the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, you definitely shouldn’t miss it, as this tackles the classic story in a very clever way.

TEThis is a departure from the kind of book I normally review. I mostly focus on reviewing modern indie books. This book was published in 1974, and while it isn’t exactly a famous book, it’s reasonably well-known. (375 ratings on Goodreads.)

So, why am I reviewing it? Well, I picked it up on a lark after seeing the cover and decided to give it a try. It’s sci-fi, which I like, and it follows a team of researchers exploring a distant planet.

The protagonist is researcher Ian Macauley, an introverted and extremely intelligent man who is part of the new rotation of scientists journeying to the world of Sigma Draconis. Supervising the team is General Ordoñez-Vico, an authoritarian martinet with little appreciation for science and a great deal of paranoia. Ordoñez-Vico is authorized to make a recommendation to the Earth authorities on whether the mission should continue, and all the science team walks on eggshells to avoid enraging him.

This makes their already difficult task more complicated, as they are facing the incredible challenge of reasoning out what befell the race of beings known as the Draconians, an intelligent race which went from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a very short period of time–and then to extinction shortly thereafter.

The science team is an international coalition of researchers–brilliant people from various fields and all different backgrounds. And even so, they all find themselves turning to Ian for inspiration, as his brilliant, empathic mind–which he likens to a “haunted house”–tries to unravel the mystery.

The characters are well fleshed-out and believable. There’s a romantic subplot between Ian and Cathy, another member of the team, and it doesn’t feel tacked on at all; it seems completely believable and emotionally consistent.

There isn’t much “conflict” in the typical sense; it’s really a mystery. The main plot is centered on uncovering what happened to the Draconians. Some readers might find the middle section of the book a bit talky–it’s a fairly realistic depiction of scholars arguing over theories–but personally, I liked it. It made for a compelling intellectual exercise, and while it’s sometimes a bit verbose, it makes sense that scientists would have discussions like this.

Another terrific concept is the method Ian uses to try to get “in the minds” of the extinct race. I won’t spoil it, but it really is ingenious.

Something else I won’t spoil is the answer to how the Draconians went extinct. The ending of the book does explain that, in a way I found satisfying and logical. And there is a resolution for the human characters’ storylines as well. Though here I’ll risk a little bit of spoilage to note that readers should be warned: this isn’t an upbeat book. I won’t say too much, but don’t expect the sort of sci-fi story that ends with a victory parade and a medal ceremony, let’s just leave it at that.

There are a lot of elements of the horror genre in Total Eclipse. The premise of a team of scientists researching alien life in a remote and forbidding setting is a classic horror concept that runs from At The Mountains of Madness through Who Goes There? up to the Alien prequel Prometheus. Yet, this isn’t a horror novel, or at least not in a monster story kind of way. There is horror, but of a more subtle, realistic kind, and blended very closely with the wonder of exploring a new world, utterly different from our own.

The horror and the wonder mingle together to produce a profoundly weird and memorable mood. It’s something close to the feeling of sublime terror that the literary Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries sought to evoke with Gothic fiction, and yet at no point does it suggest there are magical or supernatural elements at work. The “science” in “science fiction” is definitely emphasized throughout.

And now–even though I promised I would try to stop doing this–a word about the cover. Or rather the covers.

The cover for the Kindle edition that I have is just whatever. It fulfills the minimum requirement of having the author’s name and the title displayed clearly and legibly, but other than that, has no artistic merit whatsoever.

The cover for the paperback edition, pictured above, is a major reason I bought this book. I saw it on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and I fell in love at once. Look at it–it’s beautiful. Mysterious, evocative and intriguing. To me, the style of art that went on the covers of these classic sci-fi tales was something of a high point for cover design. Modern photo editing software allows cover designers to create wonderfully realistic images, but these often fail to capture that unique blend of star-gazing romanticism and gritty reality that these older covers do.

close to perfectThis book is a transcript of a discussion hosted by indie author Kevin Brennan with Karen Choi and Dan DeLonge. Before you go off to search on those latter two names; they are pseudonyms. Both of them are successful authors, and because they are speaking frankly about the industry in this discussion, they are not using their real names.

In a way, this is too bad, because I really wanted to read their books after reading this discussion. But, it’s good that they were able to voice their honest opinions.

The discussion covers every aspect of the writing process, from inspiration, to getting the first draft down, to editing, to publication and marketing. Every writer will instantly relate to the points they make in here, and it’s well-worth reading for anybody interested in the craft of writing.

I won’t go into too much detail about what they say on each subject–the whole point of the book is to read the opinions of three writers on these topics, and it would be a disservice to paraphrase them too much. All I’ll say is that this book is a perfect illustration of one of the best things about writing: the community. Writing may be a solitary activity, but even we writers enjoy hearing the thoughts of others who know what it’s like to dream up a whole story and commit it to the page. This is a great way to do exactly that.

Cruise shipI’ve never been on a cruise. I probably never will now–I was a germaphobe even before the pandemic hit, and I’m guessing the industry won’t be as popular for the foreseeable future. But for some reason, I’ve always liked stories set aboard ships, and reading this book was a perfect way to take an imaginary cruise in the British Isles.

Sheila and Shane McShane, a couple in their mid-eighties, are worried for their daughter, Shanna, who has gone missing during a cruise. When the cruise ship line and the security forces in her last known stop are unable to locate her, the couple take it upon themselves to find her, retracing their daughter’s steps along the same cruise ship, The Celestial of the Seas.

The couple makes an absolutely wonderful pair of protagonists. Sheila is a gregarious, intuitive person, with a natural gift for reading people. She has a sort of sixth sense for a person’s “aura,” and this more than once helps her figure out people’s motives.

Shane meanwhile is a cool, logical type. An organized and precise engineer who likes everything to run like a well-oiled machine. My kind of guy. Together, they make a perfect match, and the way their skills complement each other, not to mention their easy and obvious affection, makes every step of their adventure a real treat to read.

The book is charmingly funny. One early exchange with a waiter on the ship made me laugh out loud. There are plenty of entertaining crew members and passengers aboard, from the good-hearted and unfairly mis-treated Raoul to the puckish amateur magician, Carson Quick.

Eventually, Sheila and Shane piece together what happened to their daughter, and in so doing are drawn into quite a tangle of sinister events. While the tone of the story is light for the most part, towards the end, there are some moments of legitimate tension. It’s not  ultra-gritty in the way that, say, a Carrie Rubin novel is, but it still felt high-stakes all the same.

In a note at the end, the author mentions that inspiration from the book came from a real-life family cruise. It’s easy to see–the descriptions of the ship, and locales they visit, from Dublin to Ghent, are rendered in great detail, so much so that I felt like I was there, whether “there” was the extravagant ship’s dining room or the gloomy dungeon at Blarney Castle.

This is a really fun mystery, filled with plenty of humor and some fantastic settings. I don’t know if the author is planning to do any more, but I know I’d cheerfully read another Sheila and Shane story.

Hart for AdventureBack in May, I wrote about Vogel’s Scout’s Honor, the first in his sword-and-planet Scout series. Hart for Adventure is a prequel to that series, and it fits in well. It follows Terran scout Gavin Hart, who crash lands on a world that appears deserted, finding only the overgrown ruins of an alien city.

Hart soon finds his way to a mysterious chamber where he is knocked unconscious and reawakens to find the planet around him teeming with life—not all of it friendly, as he soon discovers when he clashes with a marauding warlord and his hordes.

Hart, with his superior technology, quickly gains some allies, who see him as almost God-like. However, even these advantages, survival is no sure thing, especially once Hart uncovers the mind-bending and (not to give away too much) time-bending nature of the peril he faces.

The prose is crisp and the plot is fast-paced. There isn’t too much description—I would have liked a bit more—but there was enough to get an idea of the world where Hart’s swashbuckling adventures take place. 

If you’ve already read some of Vogel’s other Scout books, you’ll have a feel for this: daring good guys, evil bad guys, lots of sword fights and other Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque escapades. Like the other books in the series, it’s an unashamed throwback to that style of fun-loving old-fashioned adventure story. Don’t go in expecting deep, intricate world-building or characters—this is light, breezy reading that makes for perfect sci-fi/fantasy escapism.

This book was shorter than Scout’s Honor—more a sketch than the fully-realized world—but it works well as a prequel to the main series. If you haven’t read the other Scout books, this is a fine introduction to the series. And if you have read them and want more sword-and-planet adventures, this is a perfect way to get your fix.

[NOTE: This review is based on ARC of the book, received from the author.]

Fan Plan Meteor2020 is a perfect year to read this book. Lately, we’ve been getting a practical demonstration of Murphy’s Law in action, as well as the importance of preparing for a major disaster, and Fan Plan is an alternative history of just such a disaster: a meteor strikes the Yellowstone Caldera, setting in motion a chain reaction with the potential to create a super-volcano that will destroy life on earth.

Computers at the TransGlobal Oil corporation project the catastrophic results, and so the family that owns the company begins making preparations to allow their descendants to survive the coming apocalypse with some chance of rebuilding civilization.

The book then flashes back in time to tell the history of TGO. This is a tale of money, oil, family drama, the cynical machinations of wealthy western society, and sex. Shades of Dallas. Through it all, TGO gradually grows until it finally has the resources to prepare for the apocalypse. The family raises each generation to be prepared for the day when they inherit the responsibility of executing the “Fan Plan”–so named because it’s a plan for when “it” hits the fan, as the saying goes.

The latter stages of the book involve the latest generation of heirs to TGO becoming educated on the history of how societies rise and fall. The central theme of their education revolves around religion, and its ability to inspire and unite as well as to suffocate and destroy, depending how it is handled. Some readers might find these chapters a bit long-winded or preachy, too heavy on lecturing about history. I say this because I know every reader has their own tastes, but personally, as a huge fan of reading about cycles of civilizational collapse and rebirth, I enjoyed these sections quite a bit. And I learned some things too, so if you’re of a mind to study up on how nations fall apart, you could do worse than reading this.

There were a few technical issues with typos and formatting, but the new 2020 edition is much tidier than the 2013 original. (Again, this is one thing that’s great about eBooks!) The book reads in a smooth, conversational way–I could imagine that I myself was sitting around a campfire, listening to Hank, the character who holds forth in the later sections, educating his charges on history and philosophy. In fact, I listened to some portions of this book using my computer’s speech function, and it worked quite well.

Meteor Strike is the first book in the Fan Plan trilogy. They are available separately, but I read it as part of a collection that includes all three books.

A Feast for SightThis is a short story set in Painter’s world of Osteria. Osteria is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting in which many of the Ancient Greek and Roman traditions and beliefs have been revived.

A Feast for Sight is a story that fits this setting well. It deals with three oracles, who tell their clients the future–for a price. What the price is, I won’t describe, but the sensitive reader should be warned that it is quite macabre; and increasingly so as the story unfolds. I have only a little knowledge of Greek drama, but this seems entirely in line with the usual tone of the classic stories. The Greek tragedies are full of gruesome and unsettling elements, and this story is full of the same.

It’s also rather funny, in a very dark way, obviously. Fans of twisted humor will certainly enjoy the ironic ending. It has a very Ambrose Bierce-esque approach to humor in that regard.

The book is available for free through Painter’s website by subscribing to her newsletter. It certainly is effective as a promotional device, because after reading it, I was quite eager to learn more about the world of Osteria. And as a rule, I am not someone who enjoys stories as dark as this, but I have to give credit where due–the premise is interesting enough that it made me want to read more. A Feast for Sight probably won’t be for everyone, but for those who enjoy classic literature and dark humor, it will be a treat.