Summer's OverI’ve had this book on my TBR list for some time, but it was Lydia Schoch’s review that motivated me to read it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long—this is a fantastic collection of creepy short stories centered around California amusement parks.

Let me give you an idea of the strange and disturbing worlds the book presents: There are cultists who ride roller coasters. There’s a creepy family of Disney fanatics trailing people around Disneyland. (I may be in the minority here, but I think almost everything about Disney is creepy anyway, so this seemed quite plausible.) A trip to Knott’s Berry Farm and an attraction that transports visitors into an apocalyptic nightmare. A young man whose father takes him to a mysterious section of Seaworld with a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour. And finally, an opening day at Universal Studios that takes immersion in the world of movies to an extreme.

All the stories are short and engaging, with narrators who are instantly interesting and relatable. There is a smattering of typos, but nothing that obscured the meaning or detracted from the story.   

These are exactly the kind of short horror tales I enjoy: weird, mysterious, eerie and—with the exception of the Universal Studios one—not too gory. Think The Twilight Zone and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. While the stories are short, I felt each one gave me a good sense of who the characters were, while leaving a bit of a mystery to ponder as well.

Highly recommended for fans of weird fiction. And now is the perfect time to read it!

Spellbound SpindleThis fantasy novel begins with a group of magical beings known as “gem elves,” who are betrayed by one of their own, Marlis, who has become a servant of a dark goddess named Gadreena. 

Marlis slays one of the elves, and flees into the mortal world. There, she curses a child. The curse mandates that the child will fall into an endless sleep once they turn 16 years of age and touch an accursed spindle. 

The gem elves provide help to the family that raises the child, but they are unable to track down Marlis, whom they cannot sense in the mortal world. Eventually, sixteen years later, the gem elves and the mortal families are again drawn into conflict with Marlis, who has been hiding in another kingdom, and seducing their king with her dark magic.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, partly because so often it’s very slow-going. Refreshingly, this book, like Spicer’s other novels, moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t bog down. There are perhaps some elements that could have been more fleshed-out, and there is a rather large cast of characters. As Lydia Schoch noted in her review, it’s helpful to make notes of all the characters to keep track.

As with Spicer’s other books, I appreciate the sparse descriptions that allow the reader to imagine the world for themselves. 

My favorite parts were the chapters about Marlis who, though undeniably evil, isn’t simply a cardboard villain, but shows flashes of real emotion that make her understandable, if not exactly sympathetic.

This is a fun read, filled with references to mythology and legend, as well as some good old-fashioned sword and sorcery in the climactic showdown. A good book for anyone who enjoys fantasy.


HuralonI hardly know where to begin with this review. There’s so much I love about this book, from its well thought-out and detailed futuristic world-building, to its treatment of how the history of present-day Earth is reconstructed in the distant future, to the way it blends political intrigue, action, romance and just a dash of humor into an effective story.

The novel follows the crew of ESS Springbok, a powerful military spaceship. The Springbok becomes entangled in an battle precipitated by a powerful politician’s son. From there, the crew takes on a group of rough but honorable space marines, and sees more than their share of ground and space combat as they fight through more conflicts created by the political machinations of scheming politicians and bureaucrats.

The characters are great. There’s the honorable Captain Evander McCray of the Springbok and his lover, the lethal super-spy Aja Coopersmith. The villains are eminently hate-able, and there are other characters who are neither all good nor all bad. Captain Chahine, who commands a huge ship that battles the Springbok, was a particular favorite of mine.

There are also some great references to history sprinkled throughout. Captain McCray’s interest in piecing together Earth’s history starts out as just an amusing bit of comic relief, but it ultimately becomes key to the climactic battle sequence when, inspired by Hannibal’s use of elephants, he…

Ah, no; I can’t spoil it. Because it’s brilliant. An ingenious bit of world-building that becomes important to the plot, that’s all I’ll say.

I do quibble with the number of times that secondary female characters are forced to suffer at the hands of the villains. Female characters who exist just to let baddies prove their badness is a bit of a pet peeve of mine; although I can hardly argue with its effectiveness in making readers hate the villains.

Apart from that, this is basically a perfect book for me. It came recommended by Audrey Driscoll, and as with Lorinda Taylor’s Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars series, I’m so grateful to her for bringing it to my attention. It’s another wonderful example of how to do sci-fi, using an imaginary futuristic world both as a vehicle for exploring deep ideas about society and human nature as well as envisioning new technologies. And it does all that while still telling a gripping story with memorable characters.

If you like sci-fi, especially military sci-fi—and I know many people who read this blog do—you have to read this book. It’s a gem of the genre, pure and simple.

Now, I have a question only an economist would ask. And the fact that I’m even asking this question is a testament to the world-building here.

The citizens of the Egalitarian Stars of Elysium use the barter system. Supposedly, this makes them more advanced than the primitive Madkhal, who use fiat currency. We’re to believe that nanites and additive manufacturing eliminate the need for currency in such a developed civilization.

Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but I have trouble buying this. (No pun intended.) If their manufacturing capabilities are really so good as that, then they haven’t made fiat currency obsolete, they’ve made trade obsolete. Either people have items of different worth for trading, or they don’t. If they do, than they need a reliable medium of exchange and store of value to express it. If they don’t, then they don’t need to trade. If you and I both have the ability to produce for ourselves everything that we need, we have no reason to trade with each other. Tell me if I’m wrong about this.

Again, it’s a credit to how invested I became in this universe that I was even thinking about this issue. So don’t let it stop you from buying—or, for that matter, bartering for—this fantastic book.

Okay, this is a little different.

I normally review modern novels and short stories. This was written in the 14th century, and it’s describing events in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It’s not really a novel, and definitely not a short story. It’s more along the lines of something like the Iliad–a combination of historical account and mythology.

And of course, it was originally written in Chinese. In fact, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature. I read the 1925 translation by Charles Brewitt-Taylor. There are more recent translations, but I deliberately chose an older one because a translator can’t help coloring his translation with his own impressions.

Brewitt-Taylor was an Englishman, and his translation shows a rather Victorian sensibility. So this is looking at a historical-mythopoetic account of ancient China through the lens of an early 20th century Briton. What better way to view one past empire than through the eyes of another?

The book is vast and sprawling, covering numerous battles, political intrigues and other events. The core characters are Liu Bei and his brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Brothers by sworn oath rather than blood, the trio participate in countless battles and grand historical struggles.

7th century depiction of Liu Bei. Via Wikipedia.

Liu Bei is the closest thing to a hero in the story–wise, capable and humble, he usually manages to extricate himself and his brothers from a variety of dangers.

There are shifting alliances and Machiavellian intrigues on every page. (Can I say “Machiavellian” when the events depicted predate Machiavelli by about 1400 years? Discuss.) Also, huge battles and reports of troop movements that are pretty hard to follow for one as ill-trained on Chinese geography as I am. I have at least read Sun Tzu, who is referenced briefly here.

Also, note that the word “romance” in the title is being used in the classic sense, of a medieval legend. Think the stories of King Arthur. Because it’s almost completely devoid of romance in the sense we think of it today. Marriages are arranged strictly for political purposes, and wives and concubines are treated as property.

Of all the hundreds of characters, I believe there are three women who have actual lines of dialogue. These are all rendered in weirdly submissive third-person terms: e.g. a character will refer to herself as “thy unworthy handmaid.” It’s pretty shocking to a modern sensibility. But I suppose everything about life in ancient times would be.

The central theme of the book is the struggle for power. Constantly, nobles and generals are scheming for ways to take power, and to hold it once they’ve got it.

The exception to this is Liu Bei. Despite being supremely capable, he remains humble and unassuming. One would almost say unambitious, and yet he continually rises, by virtue of his ability to positions of command which he hardly thinks himself worthy.

As depicted in the legend, Liu Bei essentially embodies the Confucian concept:

“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”

This is sometimes paraphrased as, “To set the nation in order, first set ourselves in order.”

The real Liu Bei of course is somewhat more complex than the character of legend, although he still seems well-regarded by history.

That said, the most fun parts are the translator’s renderings of the condemnations heaped upon Liu Bei’s enemy, the villainous minister Cao Cao. For instance:

“Thus Cao Cao is the depraved bantling of a monstrous excrescence, devoid of all virtue in himself, ferocious and cunning, delighting in disorder and reveling in public calamity.”

The version of the book that I have includes the Chinese Hanzi next to the English translation. For fun, I tried looking up the words in the quote above with this miraculous site, to see if it would render Brewitt-Taylor’s translation back into Chinese in anything like the same characters. But the translation didn’t seem to match up with what I was seeing. Even with the hint, via Wikipedia, that this: 曹操 is “Cao Cao,” I still struggled to match what I read on the page with the translation.

However, learning Chinese is not necessary to use this book as a window into a fascinating period in history–several periods, in fact. Given its massive length, it will probably be a while before I tackle Volume 2, but I’m glad I read this one.

tumbleTumble is a short story about a young woman named Elle Winterson. Elle has lived a sheltered life, homeschooled, in a small rural house. She has no memory of her mother. Her father is the only other person she knows. Other than occasional trips to town, she is cut off from the outside world.

But one night, she is awakened by a strange noise, which makes her curious about the outside world. She begins exploring, and soon makes a strange discovery, which only increases her curiosity. And this in turn leads to more revelations which I won’t spoil here, except to say that it builds to a conclusion that makes the reader re-evaluate the whole story.

I loved the atmosphere, and I could really relate to the protagonist. I, too, was a homeschooled only child who grew up in an isolated rural house. This made the story extra-fun for me, as this isn’t a common life experience, and reading about a character with a similarly unusual background was quite a treat.

But I think anyone who enjoys stories that evoke feelings of isolation and mystery will enjoy this tale. Part of me wished it could have been longer–it feels like there’s more story to tell here; like it’s all part of a larger world that we readers are only glimpsing.  Nevertheless, it delivers a very satisfying ending.

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.