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Wednesday, March 29, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing post for Lisa Shearin's SPI FILES SERIES by adding a review of The Ghoul Vendetta, the fourth novel.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Monday, March 27, 2017


Author:  Jeaniene Frost
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3-4; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Harlequin
          The Beautiful Ashes (8/2014)
          The Sweetest Burn (6/2017)
          The Brightest Embers (11/2017) (FINAL)

Somehow this first novel in Frost's newest series slipped past me back in 2014. Fortunately, it's not too late to start reading the series because the second and third novels are not due to be published until June and November of 2017.

This ongoing post includes an overview of the world-building followed by my review of the first novel, The Beautiful Ashes. That review is followed by the publisher's blurbs for the remaining two novels.

     This world has no vampires or werewolves (at least not in the first novel), but it does have demons—lots of demons—who reside in a realm that parallels and mirrors the human realm on Earth. "Realms start out as duplicate reflections of our world, with everything we build here getting mirrored there...As reflections...They're not tangible yet. That only happens when demons get powerful enough to absorb an area. When they do, the place, along with everyone in it, gets sucked into a new realm in the demon world. So in effect, they swallow it. Then what's left in our world is an empty shell."

     Within the demon realm, there is a hierarchy of power and influence. At the top are the most powerful demons, each of whom has his or her own realm. Because demons can't tolerate being in the human realm for very long, they use willing humans, called minions, to do their dirty work on Earth, marking each one with their unique signatures. Although marked minions, unlike demons, can be killed, they are much stronger than humans. Demons use their minions to import humans into their realms for forced labor and sex.

     Ivy Jenkins, the series heroine is a rare human who can see the demon realm as "a dark, hazy double image" that appears over actual locations in the human realm. She can also see through all magical glamours. As Ivy puts it: "I saw things no one else did." Both of these abilities, along with several others, come from her supernatural genetic heritage. Unfortunately, Ivy has been told all her life that those abilities are symptoms of mental illness, and she has been medicated ever since she was a child.

     To balance out the bad demons, this world has the Archons (aka angels), who are supposed to be the good guys, but who seem to have their own agenda. Zacchaeus (aka Zach) is the Archon who serves as Adrian and Ivy's contact. His job is to give them orders, provide various types of assistance (if and when he decides it's appropriate), and rescue them when they are in grave demon danger.

     Adrian, Ivy's soul mate, is an Eric Northman clone (but superhuman, not vampire): tall, blond, handsome, muscular ("shoulders that could fill a door frame"), arrogant, and stubborn. Both Adrian and Ivy have magically super speed, and strength, along with a few handy magical fighting skills—all of which they have inherited from their separate ancestors.

                         NOVEL 1:  The Beautiful Ashes                          
     Sometimes, falling in love really is the end of the world. Ivy has always seen things that she cannot explain. Strange things. Otherworldly things. But when her sister goes missing, Ivy discovers the truth is far worse. Her hallucinations are real, and her sister is imprisoned in a realm beyond Ivy's reach. The one person who can help her is the dangerously attractive rebel who's bound by an ancient legacy to betray her.

     The fate Adrian has fought to escape is herebut he never expected the burning need he feels for Ivy. With destiny on one side and desire on the other, Adrian must help Ivy search for the powerful relic that can save her sister. Yet he knows what Ivy doesn't: the truth about her own destiny, and a war that could destroy the world. Sooner or later, it will be Ivy on one side, Adrian on the other, and nothing but ashes in between.
    As the story begins, Ivy's sister, Jasmine, has disappeared and Ivy is searching for her. Just as she tracks Jasmine to her last known location, two men try to abduct her. As it turns out, one is a demon minion and one is Adrian. Adrian (of course) wins the contest and takes Ivy to meet Zach. Adrian and Zach explain that Ivy's "mental illness" is really a magical ability to see into the demon realm. They also inform Ivy that Jasmine is being held in the demon realm and that the only way to kill the demon kidnappers and rescue Jasmine is with an ancient weapon that only Ivy can find and wield. As Adrian explains, "To take down demons you need one of three weapons, and the second and third ones will probably kill you...Problem is, the first weapon is lost somewhere in one of the demon realms." Since Adrian can find and enter the portals to the demon realms (and Ivy can't), he must accompany her so that he can physically wrap himself around her and carry her through one portal after another until she can locate and retrieve the weapon. Once they find it, Ivy will have to use it to kill the demons and rescue Jasmine. 

     As the rest of the story plays out, Adrian and Ivy have a few lust-filled physical encounters, but mostly just long passionate kisses, always immediately followed by Adrian stalking wordlessly away with a huge scowl on his face—never explaining his behavior to Ivy. As it turns out, Ivy and Adrian's fates are spelled out in a prophecy that forces Adrian to try (unsuccessfully) to stay away from Ivy. But that prophecy doesn't keep them from falling head over heels for one another at first sight. (Big sigh...Yes, we have yet another insta-lust couple.) Also predictable (but, utterly unbelievable) is this: Ivy, who is 20 years old, constantly mentions that she has had a number of previous boyfriends, but just as she and Adrian are about to consummate their sexual relationship, she reveals that she is (WAIT FOR IT!)...a virgin! Jeaniene Frost, You've got to be kidding!

     Neither Adrian nor Zach bother to tell Ivy why Adrian keeps trying to stay away from Ivy, so she wallows through a number of angst-filled interior monologues during which she replays her unhappy childhood and wonders why Adrian seems to love and hate her—at the same time: "Why did he keep pulling away at the last minute? Was it the secret he thought was too terrible to reveal? He wasn't a demon or a minion, and he worked with an angel, so how bad could it be?" Adrian doesn't give Ivy the facts about the prophecy and their ancestry until about halfway through the book. He finishes his explanation with these words: "You're the light I can never have...and I'm the darkness you'll never succumb to." Yet, even after Ivy thinks she has all the facts, she really doesn't. In a subsequent scene, Zach and Adrian have a strange reaction to something that Ivy says, and Ivy muses, "Something significant had just happened, and as usual, I was the only one who didn't know what it was. Also per usual, none of them were going to tell me about it."

     I'm sorry to report that Ivy and Adrian are pale imitations of Cat and Bones, Frost's terrific lead characters from her NIGHT HUNTRESS SERIES. In that series, Cat is a fully developed, strong, independent woman, and Bones is her equal-status partner. But poor Ivy gets treated like a child. Both Adrian and Zach continually keep vital information from her. They tell her only what they think she needs to know to carry out her next mission, and they never explain the whole situation to her until nearly the end of the book. At one point, Ivy accidentally discovers that demons can't enter the human realm during daylight hours. In response, Adrian says, "Didn't I tell you that?" and Ivy responds, "No, you didn't...along with a lot of other things..." Ivy sums up the situation with Adrian like this: "He was danger wrapped in secrets tied with a bow of bad intentions, and it was totally unfair that no one had made me feel this way before."

    Frost's treatment of Ivy is probably the most disappointing part of the series for me, because she did such a great job creating Cat that when she fails to give us a strong, independent heroine, the reader can't help but feel let down. 

     Although the Jasmine/demon conflict is resolved, the book ends in a cliff hanger. Remember, there are three ancient weapons, so I assume that the next two novels will deal with situations in which Ivy must find and wield each one in order to save the world as we know it. She also has to figure out what to do about her convoluted relationship with Adrian.

     I was prepared to love this series based on the NIGHT HUNTRESS and NIGHT PRINCE novels, but (as I said previously), I was very disappointed by the manner in which Frost portrays Ivy. In addition to Ivy's poor treatment by her hero, the plot was predictable, and the primary villain, Demetrius, was a one-note bad guy with absolutely no depth whatsoever. I'll read the next novel in the hope that Frost will do a better job with her heroine and her plot, but if that doesn't pan out, I'll probably stop reading the series. 

     Click HERE to go to this novel's page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

                    NOVEL 2: The Sweetest Burn                   
     The second novel in Jeaniene Frost's BROKEN DESTINY SERIES finds Ivy and Adrian rekindling their alliance—and passion—as the struggle for the fate of the world begins.

     Conquering a supernatural realm turned out to be easier than getting over a broken heart. But her initial victory has made Ivy a target for revenge, forcing her to reunite with the dangerous—and dangerously sexy—Adrian. Ivy isn't sure which will be harder: finding the hallowed weapon that will repair the crumbling walls between the demon and human realms, or resisting Adrian, who's decided that come hell or high water, he will make Ivy his.

     At first, Adrian tried to resist his feelings for Ivy. Now, determined to break the curse that dooms their love, he's vowed to save her and to have her. If only he can persuade her to forgive his past sins. But defying destiny—and surrendering to the smoldering desire between them—will bring consequences and sacrifices they never imagined.

     Click HERE to go to this novel's page where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.

                    NOVEL 3: The Brightest Embers                    
     You can run from your destiny, but you can't hide. Ivy thought that she and Adrian had conquered their fates. Yet with thousands of innocents still trapped in the demon realms, she's determined to locate the final hallowed weapon and harness its unparalleled power to free them. But the last relic nearly put Ivy in the grave—there's probably no coming back from this one.

     Adrian's dark lineage has made him the most powerful of his kind, yet even his incredible abilities might not be enough now. Instead, the treacherous fate he has fought so hard to escape might be the only way he can save Ivy. Their scintillating bond has been tested before, but never with so much on the line. Now fate will come head-to-head against true love, and nothing they've endured can prepare Ivy and Adrian for the unthinkable choices they'll face.

     Click HERE to go to this novel's page where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Charlaine Harris's "Midnight, Texas" makes it to prime-time TV.

Click HERE to view the official trailer for Charlaine Harris's Midnight, Texas premier on NBC. Mark your calendar for Tuesday, July 25th at 10:00 P.M. (9:00 on the west coast).

Click HERE to read my reviews of the three novels in the MIDNIGHT TEXAS TRILOGY.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

NOVEL: George Saunders: "Lincoln in the Bardo"

Author: George Saunders
Series: Lincoln in the Bardo
Plot Type:  Historical Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Humor—3   
Publisher and Titles:  Random House (2/14/2017)

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                     
     In his long-awaited first novel, American literary master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voice, Lincoln in the Bardo is an experience unlike an otherfor no one but Saunders could conceive it.

     February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

     From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state―called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo―a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

     Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation.. formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction's ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voicesliving and dead, historical and inventedto ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end? 

                    AN IMMERSIVE VIDEO EXPERIENCE                    
This illustration (by Renaud Vigourt) from
The Atlantic's review of the novel (March 2017)
will give you a sense of the surrealism of the story.
That's Willie in the lower right corner facing off
against the graveyard spirits who view him
an object of great fascination and as
a new listener to their sad, personal stories
    Click HERE to view a fascinating immersive narrative video by Graham Sack that will give you a feel for the cacophonous chorus of voices of both the living (President Lincoln and selected citizens) and the dead (the spirits who reside in the graveyard). This video will be particularly valuable if you have trouble at first with Saunders's montage or collage form of story-telling because Sack gets the voices exactly right. Be sure to drag your mouse completely around the screen. (The circular dial at lower right serves as a guide that indicates your current perspective.) As you move your mouse, you will be able to get a 360-degree view of the scene. It's very dark (because, of course, there was no electricity back then), but the spirits stand out clearly.

                    AN EXCERPT                    
     Click HERE to go to this novel's page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. The print excerpt begins with chapter 1 and is more substantial than the audio excerpt, which includes only chapter 2. 

                    MY REVIEW                      

     I'll begin with a quotation is from Jason Sheehan's NPR review of the novel"Lincoln in The Bardo is not an easy book, but it gets easier with the reading. At the start, it jags, loops, interrupts itself a thousand times. Somehow, the whole thing together feels staged like a terrible student play that just happened to be written by an absolute genius working at the ragged edge of his talent. But there are moments that are almost transcendentally beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep. And it is told in beautifully realized voices, rolling out with precision or with stream-of-consciousness drawl, in the form of dialog attributed in a playwright's style or historical abstracts cited with academic formality, pulled from sources invented or real, to speak about the party, about Lincoln, about grief or the war." 

     The novel, which Saunders calls a play, is written as a series of monologues (some quite brief, others longer) with attributions afterword. Saunders employs several types of voices. For commentaries from real people on real events, he quotes from real and invented primary sources, turning the quotations into a running commentary. Interestingly, these eyewitness descriptions of people and events frequently contradict each other. For example, Lincoln's eyes are described as being "dark grey," "luminous gray," "gray-brown," "bluish-brown," "blueish-gray," "blue," and "greyish-blue." This is a perfect example of why law enforcement agencies are generally skeptical about the validity of eye-witness testimony.

     Most of the primary-sourced quotations are real, but some are invented. They describe Lincoln and his family as if the speakers were standing together in a group, each giving his or her opinion. Depending on the chapter, these sources describe the fancy dinner, the family's grief at Willie's death, public opinion about the war, and other general topics. Here  are some of their descriptions of Lincoln himself: 

"The first time I saw Mr. Lincoln I thought him the homeliest man I had ever seen." (In "My Day and Generation" by Clark E. Carr.)
"He was never handsome, indeed, but he grew more and more cadaverous and ungainly month by month." (In "Lincoln's Washington: Recollections of a Journalist Who Knew Everybody," by W. A. Croffut.)
"After you have been five minutes in his company you cease to think that he is either homely or awkward." (In the Utica "Herald.")
"The good humor, generosity and intellect beaming from it, makes the eye love to linger there until you almost fancy him good-looking." (In "Way-Side Glimpses, North and South," by Lillian Foster)
     And then there are the invented voiceswhose names are written all in lower case. These are the voices of the inhabitants of the Oak Hills Cemetery. These ghosts tell their stories and are so familiar with one another that they complete each other's sentences. They provide a worm's eye view of death and the beyond.
"Now, together, we became aware of something." (hans vollman)
"In his left trouser pocket." (roger bevins iii)
"A lock." (hans vollman)
"The lock. From the white stone home." (roger bevins iii)
"Heavy and cold. Key still in it." (hans vollman)
"He had forgotten to rehang it." (roger bevins iii)
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Time magazine in which Saunders explains his methodology:
Time's Question: You've been called a "slipstream" writer, incorporating sci-fi or fantastic elements into otherwise realist fiction. Has reality caught up with this kind of wacky realism?
Saunders's Answer: I use those elements as a way of honing in on the emotional truth of a situation. When I look at what my life has actually been, to just represent what literally happened is to shortchange the emotional range that I've experienced. In other words, just a straightforward "realist" representation of life seems to leave a lot of stuff on the table in terms of the real confusions and emotional complexities and beauties and terrors that are experienced even in a relatively bourgeois life like mine. I...[try] to get at what life feels like, but knowing that, to do that, we might have to swing a little wildly. Because life itself is so beautiful and insane.
     Here's my advice: Just keep reading. If you relax and let the voices speak to you, their words will begin to coalesce into a humorous, heartbreaking, fantastical experience that you will remember long after you have turned the final page. 


     In February 1862, the country is beginning to realize what this war will cost them, and they are flooding the President with letters of hate, disgust, and heartbreak as they lose their family members―husbands, fathers, sons, brothers―on the battlefield. Lincoln despairs as he contemplates his next move. Then, his beloved son Willie contracts typhoid fever, a killer disease that causes tremendous suffering in its victims. Lincoln accepts the doctor's promise Willie is doing better and will recover, so he and his wife go ahead with the extravagant state dinner already planned for the evening. But as dawn nears, Willie breathes his last breath, and his parents are overcome with grief. 


     As his family mourns, Willie finds himself in a "stone home" (a crypt) in Oak Hills Cemetery in Georgetown surrounded by the ghosts/spirits/shades of those buried in that cemetery over the past decades. This ghostly gathering is based loosely on the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the bardo: a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death. Here, Saunders uses bardo to mean a transitional period during which the spirit of a dead person continues to hold onto life in the "previous place," while resisting the regular prodding of mysterious spirits to move on to the acceptance of death.

     Each ghost has his or her own "sick-box" (coffin) and "stone home" (interment site), but at night, most of them roam the graveyard telling each other their life–death stories from rote memory. All are unable to move on, mostly because they are tied to their previous lives for various reasons and do not accept the fact that they are deceased. Many of their stories contain details about what they will do when they recover and return to the "previous place." None of them ever use the word "death." 

     Some of the humor comes when one ghost tries to hurry another along by reciting that person's story at a faster pace or by making eye-rolling comments to other bystanders about the content or the story teller. At one point, a spirit starts her story with the words, "I will be brief" only to hear another spirit scoff, "I doubt it." The sad stories of guilt, infidelity, disappointment, and loss are recited in a manner reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. (Click HERE for a list of links to free on-line copies of Spoon River in a variety of formats.) While Masters' Spoon River is poetry and Saunders's Bardo is a novel, both are truly plays (and Saunders calls this work just that). 

     Periodically, an event called a "matterlightblooming" occurs, an explosive phenomenon in which some spirits succumb to the temptation to leave the graveyard and enter the afterlife, disappearing with an indescribably loud flash and crack. 

     The cemetery has graves on both sides of an iron fence. Inside are the upright, white citizens, while outside are the bodies of slaves and unacceptable white people. In several raw scenes, several of the graveyard inhabitants from both sides of the fence savagely vent their feelings about racism, slavery, and various and sundry ways of sinning.


     When Willie awakens in the vault, he immediately finds three friendly spirits who appoint themselves as his mentors and guides: 
The Reverend Everly Thomas, a kindly but verbose man who knows much more about what happens in the afterlife than anyone realizes.
Hans Vollman, a printer, whose spirit manifests as naked in reference to the fact that on the very night he died, he was planning to fulfill his long-awaited consummation of his marriage to a much-younger woman.
Roger Bevins III, a young man whose spirit manifests with many eyes, noses, and hands, probably in reference to the multitude of sensory experiences he missed because he mostly denied his predilection for men, and, thus, denied himself all sexual relationships (except for one, which ultimately led to his suicide).
Illustration of Lincoln in the
Oak Hills Cemetery by Adi Embers
from Slate's review of the novel.
    They all encourage Willie to move along to the afterlife because life in the bardo is very dangerous for children. (This demonic aspect of Saunders's story is, for me, its single weak point.) 

"Strange here, he said.
Not strange, said Mr. Bevins. Not really.
One gets used to it, said the Reverend.
If one belongs here, said Mr. Bevins.
Which you don't, said the Reverend."

     But then, they witness something marvelous when Willie's father comes to the graveyard, unlocks the door of Willie's tomb, pulls out his "sick-box," and gathers Willie into his arms. Every spirit in the graveyard is mesmerized, crowding around the open door in amazement. They are used to people occasionally making brief, perfunctory visits to graves, but this living loved one actually cradles the corpse of his deceased son in his arms and talks to him with great love as if he were still alive. Hans Vollman says, “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community….People were happy, that was what it was; they had recovered that notion.” “It was cheering. It gave us hope,” says Reverend Thomas. And Roger Bevins adds, “We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.”

     After a lengthy visit, Lincoln leaves but promises to return, and this causes Willie to linger past the danger point, thus causing the other spirits to unite―for the first time ever―to save Willie from a terrible demonic fate. They follow Lincoln and enter his body, concentrating on trying to coerce him into returning immediately so that Willie will accept his fate and move on to the afterlife.

     As the spirits inhabit Lincoln's body, they pick up on his thoughts, most of which are consumed with grief and death―over his son and over the thousands of dead soldiers, with many more deaths to come. The two events
the child's death and the soldiers' deaths become, for Lincoln, inexorably linked. In the end, Willie's death foreshadows all of the war deaths on both sides
 and the grief that will decimate so many families. The graveyard ghosts represent a cross section of societythe pious and the perverted, the drunkards and the teetotalers, the virgins and the prostitutes, the slaves and the slavers, the mindful and the ignoranta microcosm of the living world, both in 1862 and in the present day.

     Saunders's text emphasizes Lincoln's abundance of empathy for both his supporters and his enemies―the southerners who wished for his failure and the northerners who, in their grief, wanted him banished from office (or even dead). 

     A major point of the novel is the letting go. Willie and the graveyard ghosts need to release their grip on the "previous place" and go on to whatever comes next. The President needs to let go of his grief over Willie's death and his fruitless agonizing over the war deaths, both of which have stalled his ability to plan future strategies. He has to stop being the grieving father of a dead boy and take back his role as father to a divided nation on the verge of collapse.

     Please don't let the inventive form of this novel/play discourage you from reading it from beginning to end. Enjoy the commentary, both the real and the invented. Watch the contradictions emerge. Chuckle at the dark humor. Cringe at the malice and brutality. Join Lincoln in grieving for young Willie. Admire his great humanity under such extreme personal and national pressures. And finally, appreciate Saunders's magnificent creation.

                    THE AUTHOR                    
     George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time's list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

     Click HERE to view a video entitled "George Saunders Explains How to Tell a Good Story." Click HERE and then click on the white arrow in the blue box (top left) to listen to an NPR interview with Saunders and read a print summary of that interview.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing post for Jeaniene Frost's NIGHT PRINCE SERIES by adding a review of Into the Fire, the fourth (and FINAL) novel.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Friday, March 10, 2017

ANTHOLOGY: "What the #@&% Is That?"

Editors:  John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen 
Title:  What the #@&% Is That?: The Saga Anthology of the Monstrous and the Macabre
Plot Type:  Horror stories 
Publisher and Titles:  Saga Press (11/2016)

     I'm not ashamed to admit that what drew me immediately to this book was its title—a line straight out of Evil Dead, the Musical that keeps bouncing around in my head even as I write this review. (Click HERE to listen to that show-stopping tune.) I have been trying to get the book from my public library system for months, but even though my library is part of a consortium of 43 library systems across 12 different counties with 12 million items, none of those libraries purchased the book until quite recentlyand then, within the entire system, only four libraries purchased a print copy, and the consortium itself purchased just one electronic copy. I don't know why the libraries didn't purchase the anthology, but I suspect that the #@&%  title had something to do with it.

     The premise of this anthology is quite simple. In each and every story, a character exclaims, "What the #@&% is that?" In the stories, though, the authors use actual words in place of "#@&%," In each case, the answer is some type of monsterfrom hallucinatory black dogs to inanimate objects to a ghost or two. 

     There are more hits than misses in this anthology. I've marked my favorites with sparkling stars. And one last thing: Please don't skip over Douglas Cohen's entertaining introduction in which he takes us on his publishing journey from the first monstrous glimmer to the final product. 

     Fear of the unknownit is the essence of the best horror stories, the need to know what monstrous vision you're beholding and the underlying terror that you just might find out. Now, twenty authors have gathered to askand maybe answera question worthy of almost any horror tale: "What the #@&% is that?" Join these masters of suspense as they take you to where the shadows grow long, and that which lurks at the corner of your vision is all too real.

     Includes stories by Laird Barron, Amanda Downum, Scott Sigler, Simon R. Green, Desirina Boskovich, Isabel Yap, Maria Dahvana Headley, Christopher Golden, John Langan, D. Thomas Minton, Seanan McGuire, Grady Hendrix, Jonathan Maberry, Gemma Files, Nancy Holder, Adam-Troy Castro, Terence Taylor, Tim Pratt, An Owomoyela & Rachel Swirsky, and Alan Dean Foster.

                       THE STORIES                          
Title:  "Mobility"
QuotationJust one small episode in Bryan's terrible, awful, no good, very bad day: "Bryan mouthed the word acupuncture in horror with his cheek pressed against the tablecloth. In an act of great willpower, he lifted his head and looked over his shoulder. What he saw did not prove comforting. 'Are those knitting needles?' "
Summary and Review: 
In this surrealistic, horrific tale, Bryan begins with a pleasant dinner with his long-time fiancee and winds up in a sticky situation in a run-down, isolated dump of a house. What happens in between is mostly awful and truly ambiguous—all at the same time. There's even a nod to the most shocking scene in Stephen King's Misery. This story is not one of my favorites. I have the feeling that Barron was going for some deep metaphorical statement, but I just didn't get it.

Title:  "Fossil Heart"
QuotationClue to the title: "'What's that word you told me about the stars? The light we see that doesn't exist anymore?' 'Fossil light?' "'Yes...that's you. You're not really here. And I'm afraid by the time i find you, you'll be gone.'"
Summary and Review: 
Nan Walker has the ability to go back in time and change the past. Fourteen years ago, her first girlfriend, Chelsea drowned when her parents' car slid into a flooded creek. Only Nan survived, and she has been crippled with grief ever since. So far, she has only been able to go back in time several hours, but she is determined to stretch her abilities so that she can go back and recreate the accident, giving up her own life to save Chelsea. But Nan doesn't take into account the feelings of her current partner, Evie, who—by the way—has been dreaming of hungry black, shadowy dog-beasts ever since she met Nan. Just to make things interesting, we get two "What the #@&% is that?" exclamations—one from Evie and one from a cabbie. Once I figured out what was going on, this turned out to a nicely constructed, if horrific, story of grief, nonacceptance, and the vicissitudes of life.

Title:  "Those Gaddam Cookies"
QuotationFirst Lines: "Nobody could bake like Bubbah. The scent filled Jamel's nose, his mouth, and his lungs. He didn't just smell it, he felt it, an instantly peaceful sensation that whirled in his brain and chest. Chocolate-chip macadamia cookies...his favorite."
Summary and Review: 
In this slender slice of a story, Jamel and Rhea are on their way to Bubbah's room on their spaceship to find out why he has missed his shift three days in a row and why he is is not answering their calls. As they approach the room, a delicious aroma permeates the air. But why is Bubbah baking instead of working? Why isn't he answering their calls? And what is it in Bubbah's room that causes Rhea to ask the #@&% question? This is a short but entertaining story that moves along quickly to its weird and violent conclusion.

Title:  "The Sound of Her Laughter"
QuotationFirst Lines: "Two things for you to remember: First, that even the closest of married couples still keep secrets from each other. And second, that we all have pasts we don't talk about."
Summary and Review: 
Hail to Green, the story-telling master. Here, he introduces Alan and Cora, who have been married for almost a year and are still crazy in love with one another. When Cora inexplicably hears the name of Alan's ex-girlfriend announced over the loudspeaker at the train station (although no one else hears it), he is forced to reveal details of his past love life, which leads the curious Cora to the Internet to check up on the woman and then to a journey—all of which lead, inevitably, to disaster. Green's disasters are always fantastical, inventive, and unpredictable, and that's the case here. It's a great story with a punch of an ending. Click HERE and HERE to read my reviews of two of Green's urban fantasy series: SECRET HISTORIES (aka EDDIE DROOD SERIES) and the ISHMAEL JONES MYSTERIES.

Title:  "Down in the Deep and the Dark"
QuotationOops!: " one mentions the unavoidable conclusion that our cherubic six-year-old was outside slaughtering tiny animals in the hour before dawn."
Summary and Review: 
This is a spooky-old-haunted-hotel story with a twist. Our narrator's brother is getting married in said hotel, and she is the maid of honor. Her family isn't thrilled about the marriage for a number of reasons, one of which is that the bride is a single mother of a little boy. (Yes!...that little boy!) As the weekend progresses and the wedding begins, things fall apart literally and figuratively. This one is terrific in the suspenseful build-up, but it ends in a rather weak, fire-lit whisper. The story does, however, win the prize for the most colorful word substitution for #@&% in its obligatory exclamation (voiced by the narrator's eight-seven-year-old Gran).

Title:  "Only Unclench Your Hand"
QuotationFirst Line: "They're killing chickens again in the backyard."
Summary and Review: 
Our narrator is the daughter of a wealthy Manila family, and this is her coming of age story. She is spending the summer in the Philippine countryside with her uncle, a landowner—also wealthy (at least in comparison to the other people in the village). Life is relatively normal (except for the bloody chicken killing) until a local healer uses his magic to cure her chronic headaches. Then other magical events begin to occur, but these involve dark magic...violent, scary magic. Yap provides compelling suspense, quirky characters, and a somewhat ambiguous, but nevertheless satisfying, ending. (Yap's website proclaims that she likes ambiguous endings, so I should have taken that as a warning.) The weakest part was the line that contained the "What the #@&%" exclamation, which didn't flow naturally from its speaker. 

Title:  "Little Widow"
QuotationHeaven's Avengers: "We were hippies only in theory. In reality, we were working on an armed takeover of heaven. The Preacher thought if we meditated white knives into our minds, we'd hit heaven as a unified army, slashing. We wanted heaven for ourselves."
Summary and Review: 
The story begins with three sister wives who survive a suicide cult unlike any cult you've ever read about. As the teenagers calmly adjust to their new, "normal" lives, you wonder how this is going to become a horror story. And then...they visit the traveling carnival and things get dark and dirty, fast and furious, violent and vengeful. This one was just O.K. for me. I loved the three sisters, but the ending was kind of loopy.

Title:  "The Bad Hour"
Quotation—An unwelcoming town: "Half a dozen massive concrete blocks had been laid across the road and onto the soft shoulder. The blocks on the left and right had steel hooks set into the concrete, and heavy chains looped from the hooks to enormous pine trees on either side of the road. A dirty signpost reading STOP HERE FOR DELIVERIES had been plinked with bullets...There was no other hint that Chesbro lay ahead—only the certainty that whatever might be down that road, outsiders weren't welcome."
Summary and Review: 
A masterful writer presents a terrific story with a "Twilight Zone" vibe and a heartbreaking twist at the end. A battle-tested Iraq war veteran takes a long bus ride to see her former lover, a fellow soldier, in his tiny Vermont hometown. What happens next is an inventive and horrifying answer to the "What the #@&%" question. Sometimes the PTSD a soldier brings back from war manifests in a truly terrifying manner that is beyond the imagination of anyone but a horror writer as talented as Golden.

Title:  "What Is Lost, What Is Given Away"
QuotationFinal Line: "...I heard another sound, high-pitched, impossibly distant: Joel Martin, screaming—still screaming—for all he had lost, all he had given away."
Summary and Review: 
The basic ingredients: a high school reunion, a student/teacher romance that ended very badly, and magical math that disrupts time and space. This one starts out in a straightforward manner with a man attending his ten-year reunion and running into the teacher, who has had some hard times since his il-fated romantic interlude. Gradually, the story morphs into a spooky scientific theory based one of Jorge Luis Borges' stories, "The Aleph." Langan re-imagines the trope of the teacher-pupil affair and its unintended result (a child) in a truly original manner. The narrator has just the right voice—tentative, uneasy, disheartenedto tell this tragic tale.

Title:  "Now and Forever"
QuotationThe problem: "Then the sightings started. A pale creature lurking the corridors of the engineering module. Scrapings on hatches. Clicking sounds from air ducts. How it got aboard, we didn't know. You'd think something like the Fiend couldn't hide on a ship so small, but it was like a splinter of nightmare driven into the flesh of our reality."
Summary and Review: 
This is the story of a family marooned on a space ship far out in space. A couple and their son and daughter are the last survivors of a much larger group, the others having been killed—eaten by a murderous monster that somehow got on board. The author relentlessly builds the suspense as the father (our narrator) has to enter a dangerous part of the ship to retrieve medicine that could save his daughter's life. Will the fiend get him? Will it get his son? Will his daughter live? Can we trust that the narrator is telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth? This is a well-told story that is filled with nail-biting moments that sent chills down my spine.

Title:  "#connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere"
QuotationClues in the time stamps: "Something weird with time stamps. Can't focus on it much. Walls here DEFINITELY warm to touch. #connollyhouse" 
Summary and Review: 
I was certain that McGuire would give us a great story. This one is a terrific haunted house tale told solely through tweets and retweets as four ghost hunters enter the Connolly House on Long Island, a decrepit mansion in which seventeen peoplemostly childrenwere murdered more than a century ago. The tweeter is Boo Peep, and she is accompanied by her friends, Dead Hot and a pair of siblings: Scream King and Scream Queen. Their adventure begins when they enter the house and discover that it is icy cold inside, even though this is July. Boo Peep is tweeting the entire adventure out to her followers. Then, mysterious hashtags begin to appear out of nowhere to append themselves to Boo Peep's tweets: #somethingiswrong, #weshouldntbehere, #getoutwhileyoucan. Needless to say, the hashtags have it right, and the situation rapidly disintegrates into scenes of abject terror. What a great story! So inventive of McGuire to bring the twitter world into the horror genre. Note: Be absolutely sure to watch the progression of the time stamps on the tweets or you won't get the full goose-bump experience. Click HERE and HERE to my reviews of Mcguire's OCTOBER DAYE SERIES and INCRYPTID SERIES.

Title:  "The House That Love Built"
QuotationDead or alive?: "...when I pull up to my house, it's past three in the morning. I call it Schrödinger's House because when I'm present, my wife seems to exist in two states simultaneously: as Karen and as Angela." 
(A diversionary activity: Click HERE for a video presenting a scientific explanation of the reference to Schrödinger. Click HERE to enjoy Sheldon explaining it to Penny in the final moments of this Big Bang Theory video. Or, if you already know all about Schrödinger's cat, click HERE for a slightly disturbing, but satisfying, video in which the cat gets its revenge on Schrödinger.)
Summary and Review: 
The male narrator, a long-haul truck driver, tells the story in his first-person voice. He finds peace only when he's on the road because when he is at home, his two wives make his life very complicated. That's as much as I can tell you without spoilers, but, trust me, this guy, who (except for the two wives) seems rather normal at the beginning of the story, is way more unhinged than you can imagine. The horror in this story is hinted at rather than being spelled out in (metaphorical) bloody letters.

Title:  "We All Make Sacrifices: A Sam Hunter Adventure"
QuotationMeet Sam Hunter: "My office smells like Lysol and Jack Daniel's. The two smells are related thematically in ways that define me, sad to say. The Lysol for cleaning up some of the messes I've had to make. The Jack Daniel's for helping me try to forget."
Summary and Review: 
I have reviewed a number of Maberry's stories in various anthologies and have enjoyed them all. (You can type his name into the "Search" box in the upper left-hand corner of my Home Page to read my reviews of the stories in those anthologies.) Although hard-boiled PI Sam Hunter looks like "Joe Normal," he is not normal—and definitely not human. When a rich mob lawyer comes to his office begging for help in avenging his daughter's gristly murder, Sam finds himself in the middle of an unlikely and unexpected pack experience that promises to have a violent outcome. This story is an urban fantasy/noir detective mash-up rather than being pure horror, and in this case, that's a good thing—a great thing, in fact. Maberry, unlike one or two of the other authors in this anthology, provides a complete story package: a fully drawn protagonist and a compelling story line that plays out in a steady progression of emotion and horror, leading to the violent climax and epilogue that complete the resolution. This is my favorite story in the book. In fact, I enjoyed this story so much that I plan to read Maberry's story collection entitled Beneath the Skin: The Sam Hunter Case Files (published 12/2016). Click HERE to go to its page where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art. Sam and his family are also featured in Maberry's DEEP PINE TRILOGY. Click HERE to go to that Amazon page.

Title:  "Ghost Pressure"
QuotationThe Lithuanian nightmare: "...she's this thing, called a Slogutė or a Nakinėja...This creature that, like comes through the keyhole and oppresses people while they're sleeping."
Summary and Review: 
Gavia Pratt specializes in helping people die. Currently, she is in Toronto, vetting and coaching caretakers who assist mostly elderly people through the last days of their terminal illnesses. When one of her caretakers comes to her with a strange and unbelievable tale of a nightmare that is haunting her patient, Gavia has no idea that that nightmare will soon be hers to deal with. This story begins in a relatively straightforward manner, but once the nightmare story line is introduced, things get woo-woo rather quickly. For me, the final scene didn't quite gel, but maybe I just missed the point.

Title:  "The Daughter Out of Darkness"
Quotation—First lines of Dr. Seward's diary entry: "Some hold that there is more darkness in women. that they are the daughters of Eve; they are weak and easily seduced by the tantalizing power of evil. Some say that is why Dracula was able to scale the walls of my asylum and make Mina Harker his own."
Summary and Review: 
Holder's story comes in the form of a lengthy diary transcription authored by Dr. John Seward, who was one of Mina's suitors in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Seward runs a lunatic asylum in England, and he is a dedicated scientist. He loves technology and could be considered a 19th century tech geek. In his diary, Seward uses flashbacks and present-time sequences to tell the story of his failed first marriage to Eliza and his current marriage to Mary Holder (who provides a closing addendum to Seward's transcription). In essence, what we have here is Part II of Stoker's vampire story with a new blood-sucking villain and a feminist angle. I've never been an admirer of fanfiction, particularly when it's based on the classics, so this story didn't work for me. But if you are a devotee of Dracula or 19th century vamps in general, you might enjoy this fantastical story.

Title:  "Framing Mortensen"
QuotationFirst sentence, which sets up the conflict: "Once I had become wealthy enough to buy miracles, I used one to obtain the living head and shoulders of my longtime enemy, Philip Mortensen."
Summary and Review: 
Our narrator is out for revenge of the most painful and degrading kind. After magically getting custody of his enemy's head and torso, he places it inside a painting (more magic) within his very private study and tortures Mortensen in unspeakable ways. Usually, a story based solely on revenge doesn't end well for the vengeance seeker, so there is a certain amount of suspense as we hold our breath waiting to see what will happen next—to Mortensen and to his abuser. Not one of my favorites, but still, a well-told tale.

Title:  "The Catch"
QuotationNeal finally gets his answer to a lifelong question: "I know I'm a monster but still don't understand why."
Summary and Review: 
The protagonist, Neal McConnell is a mild-mannered research assistant at a university library, and in his spare time, he is a psychopathic serial killer with fastidious, meticulous "carving" techniques that reminded me of Dexter Morgan. Neal specializes in kidnapping college jocks and their girlfriends and then butchering them in his well-equipped secret "surgery." The first part of the story plays out as standard horror until Neal realizes that something about the female half of his current pair of victims is very, very strange. At that point, the tale takes a turn into the Twilight Zone. Although parts of the story are gory and, therefore, hard to read, I did enjoy the inventive double twist at the end.

Title:  "Hunters in the Woods"
QuotationThe bitter truth: "...the real reason the people in charge make games of life and death is...because they can and because it amuses them."
Summary and Review: 
In a nod to recent YA series in which dystopian societies pit young people against each other in mortal combat (e.g., Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent), two young men are dropped into an isolated northern forest with instructions that each man must kill at least one human or be killed themselves. Since they have pledged not to kill one another, their only hope is to find at least two people in this vast wilderness and then to have enough courage to murder them. This is another story that made me think of Twilight Zone. It's a creative take on dystopian fiction, with two sympathetic protagonists and a wild, if ambiguous, ending.

Title:  "Whose Drowned Face Sleeps"
QuotationSo, what kind of a story is this?: "This is a murder story. It's the story of how I killed myself." ... "This is a ghost story. Did I say that? No. It's a love story. But all love stories become ghost stories if you watch them long enough."
Summary and Review: 
The narrator (who calls herself R.) tells the story through alternating scenes of past and present events and stream-of-consciousness interior monologues. R. is not so much unreliable as she is unidentifiable. She takes us through her sad story of a failed love affair and repeatedly describes a death scene that varies in time and place, but always includes water. This one was a bit too woo-woo for me, but if you like getting lost in fantastical interior monologues, you'll probably enjoy the story. I did enjoy the authors' eloquent use of language. Here's my favorite: "...a voice as sweet and malicious as a drugged daiquiri." That brief simile tells you everything you need to know about the speaker, doesn't it?

Title:  "Castleweep"
QuotationFirst Line: "The walls weep, but only on nights when the moon is full."
Summary and Review: 
William Edward Cort, a wealthy, arrogant young American and Shelley, his latest girlfriend, are on vacation in West Central Africa when their guide, Yacouba, tells them of a centuries-old ruin with walls that weep. When Cort insists on traveling through the jungle to see the ruin, Yacouba—obviously frightened and sorry to have ever mentioned the ruinbegs him not to go. But you know the drill. The rich guy goes wherever he pleases because he's always in control of the situation. Except that his control doesn't extend to deserted, spooky ruins on a full-moon-lit night in the depths of the African jungle. Even though I knew from the beginning that Cort's trip would end badly, Foster does a great job of stretching out the suspense until Cort and the reader learn at the same time why everyone stays far away from this place.