Author: Lish McBride
A Firebug Story
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Ava and her friends Ezra and Lock are on a job–for the magical mafia, which, not their choice really but definitely their norm at this point. It ought to be a fairly simple task, present a sufficient show of force that the witch they’ve been sent to deal with pays up. Not too hard when you’ve got a werefox, a half-dryad, and oh, a girl who controls fire on your hands. But of course, things are never simple for these three.
I adore Lish McBride’s novel Firebug, so it was with delight that I discovered this digitally-released short story set in the same world and following the same three main characters. Chronologically within the story’s timeline, “Burnt Sugar” actually predates Firebug and gives us a good picture of an (honestly) pretty average mission for these three. Which isn’t to say the story’s average, by any means. It’s exciting and suspenseful, with a great sense of humor and some amazing friendships. Seriously, I just love these three and the relationship they share so, so much. And really, a plot that involves gingerbread houses, health-conscious witches, and a girl who can summon fire with just a thought–what’s not to love? Also, if you’re not familiar with this author/series and would like a sampling, “Burnt Sugar” actually provides sufficient information to appreciate the characters and what’s going on, while avoiding being a straight-up info dump. (Granted, if you’ve read Firebug, some of the information provided is unnecessary, but not annoyingly so.) I would definitely recommend this short story, honestly to a broad audience, although particularly to fans of quirky, funny urban fantasy.
Note: While this story is available for digital purchase, you can also read it for free on Tor.com at https://www.tor.com/2014/12/10/burnt-sugar-lish-mcbride/.
Author: Michael F. Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5
It all started when Grandma got killed by that huge grizzly. Or, well, Ray’s guilty conscience niggles that it may have even started before then, when he killed her avatar in the video game they were playing together and started the whole Rube Goldberg chain of events that led to her death. Whatever the case, it’s when her will was read that things started really getting ugly. Because apparently she left the entirety of her trailer park and reputed wealth to Ray . . . but only if he can figure out the Meaning of Life within the next month. Otherwise, he’s out of luck and his mom (who he’s pretty sure hates him) gets it all. No pressure.
I really wanted to love this book. The first chapter had such potential with its mad riot of dark humor–almost a dark take on Richard Peck’s style. But then everything just gets so depressing and existential–nihilistic almost for a bit. And then it turns into some zen self-help ridiculousness. I mean, it’s not all bad. Some of the zen self-help stuff is pretty common sense for having good relationships and a better life and stuff. But I don’t read a fictional story to get self-help relationship tips. Seriously. Good points: There is some solid character growth and change over the course of the book, which is always nice to see. There are occasional bits of humor or insight that are refreshing. And the author pulls off first person, present tense seamlessly. Extra points for that. So yeah, I don’t regret reading Ray vs the Meaning of Life, but I probably won’t read it again. It’s not the first thing I’d recommend for someone looking for a good story, either; although to be completely fair, it’s highly rated on Goodreads and has won some prizes. So maybe it’s just me.
Author: Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5
Harlowe and her friends have been there, done that. They’ve made a name for themselves as teen detectives. Solved cases adults wouldn’t touch, even some paranormal ones. But now they’re growing up, and Harlowe feels like they’re losing something, maybe losing each other. So in one last try to keep the group together and make it work, she brings them something special: a haunted house, tied to her own family history and possibly to her parents’ deaths, with a huge payout if they manage to find the original deed and find out who the house really belongs to. None of them can resist. But they aren’t the first who have ventured into the house. Who’s to say whether they’ll be the first to succeed and make it back out alive?
I really enjoyed In the Shadow of Spindrift House, a paranormal novella by Seanan McGuire, written under the pen name Mira Grant. Right off the bat, I loved the idea of teen detectives who have grown past the point where they can call themselves that, who have already had their popularity and are no longer cute. I mean, you see stories about kids going around solving mysteries and doing crazy stuff all the time. But what happens when those kids grow up? Are they able to adapt, or do they keep doing that crazy stuff . . . only now, it will get them killed or arrested or something? Just saying, it’s an interesting idea to play with, and I thought the author addressed it well, putting this solidly in a new adult fiction kind of genre. Only with lots of eerie paranormal stuff going on. I also liked the way the mystery and the atmospheric creepiness gradually built, tiny details adding up over the course of the story. The author also did a great job of creating characters and relationships that I cared about–enough so that certain parts of this story actually hurt, so fair warning there. There’s a certain lack of definition to some of the paranormal elements of this story, and I still can’t quite decide if there was enough definition, or if I would have preferred a bit more clarity. For instance, there’s a good bit of effort put into building the themes of nature and the sea, and we definitely can tell a lot just from that and from the historical stories that Harlowe and her friends uncover. But we never get a name for what we’re dealing with, or an actual explanation, or anything like that. So I guess I’d recommend this book for those who prefer things a bit more mysterious and open-ended. I would definitely recommend In the Shadow of Spindrift House, though, and I certainly intend to try more of the author’s writing.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Midnight, Texas, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Things are changing in the small town of Midnight, Texas. First, some big corporation comes in to renovate and reopen the Midnight Hotel, a move that makes zero logistical or financial sense as far as any of the locals can figure. Then one of Manfred’s clients dies, and Manfred is falsely accused of stealing her jewelry, leading to a small fury of reporters and police coming through town. Naturally, this comes at the most inopportune time, since the Rev has a young guest who is growing at inhuman rates; not the sort of thing you want photographed. Obviously something must be done–the only question is, what exactly?
Going into the second volume of Harris’s series set in Midnight, I find myself continuing to be enchanted by these stories. Day Shift continues in much the same vein as Midnight Crossroad, developing the secrets of this tiny community and showing their united front in protecting the town. Over the course of the story, more character backstory unfolds. We get to find out what several characters are or what secrets they’re hiding. . . but there’s still enough mystery to make me want to come back for more! The story continues to be told from multiple characters’ POV, with additional characters such as Olivia and Joe being added in this volume. The mix of characters is pretty unusual, but I find them charming–sometimes at the same time as I find them shockingly dark or heartless. I suppose the fact that several of them aren’t exactly human contributes to that side of it, although that’s another thing that makes this town and its residents so utterly fascinating. This book brings a good balance of that–the lives of its unusual citizens–and plot–the death of Manfred’s client, the whole kerfuffle afterwards, the hotel opening. Plus the tone is just really down to earth and readable. Recommended.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Midnight, Texas, vol. 1
My rating: 4 of 5
Midnight, Texas: a town so small that if it weren’t for the single stoplight at its main crossroad, the entire place might just blow away. It’s a quiet place that keeps its secrets, the sort of place no one moves to without a reason or a secret of their own to keep. Newcomer and internet psychic Manfred Bernardo finds that it’s the sort of place that suits him just fine. But the town’s quiet is shattered when pawnshop owner Bobo’s missing girlfriend turns up dead outside town and political extremists start stirring up trouble. And as he becomes part of the town’s inner circle, Manfred finds that they have their own ways of dealing with trouble.
I really enjoyed Midnight Crossroad, definitely more than I have Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. They’re set in the same ‘verse, but this book has a different tone to it. It’s not a romance or particularly a mystery, for one, although there are certain mystery elements. More so, it’s an urban fantasy with a noir-ish, small-town flavor that uniquely suits the particular story and characters the author brings us here. It gets kind of dark, and basically everybody has secrets (not all of which are revealed in this volume). But there’s also a lot of small-town southern charm. I really enjoy the various characters–they’re well developed and enjoyable. I liked that we get chapters from the perspectives of more than one person as well, although this particular volume clearly focuses of Manfred, and to a lesser extent on the witch Fiji. Midnight Crossroad is an engaging urban fantasy, er, rural fantasy (?) with an intensely dark yet comfortable to read style that I enjoyed a lot. Definitely recommended.
Author: Namwali Serpell
My rating: 3 of 5
Warning: Strong/offensive language
Will knows he’s done plenty of bad things in his life. But the things he’s gotten caught for, gotten in trouble for? He swears those were never actually him. . . .
In this contemporary retelling of Poe’s “William Wilson,” we are given an intriguing look into the mind of a very paranoid, disturbed individual. Everything is told in first person, with an older character in prison for the rest of his life looking back on how his downhill road all started . . . with a gravely-voiced doppelganger–same name, same clothes, even the same tattoo–that no one else seems to notice or remember. You’ve got an obviously unreliable narrator, and it’s interesting to see the persecution complex that builds in his mind throughout the story. There’s a strong use of dialect that adds quite a lot in terms of character development as well–though strong warnings for the language, including some racially offensive terms. I haven’t read the original Poe, so I can’t say how they compare, but “Will Williams” was an interesting character study, with a nice use of dialect, rising tension, and sense of madness.
FanFiction ID: 7968683
Status: Complete (3 chapters)
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Sam’s friends always tell her that she has the worst taste in men. But her newest boyfriend, Dr. John Watson, may be the worst so far. Or maybe the best. She’s not quite sure what to make of him, actually. When she first met him at her job as a bank clerk, he seemed so nice and normal. He still seems nice–polite, compassionate, competent. But he’s competent in the strangest situations. Like, normal people wouldn’t know how to respond in these situations, right? Sam certainly doesn’t, and ever since she’s met John Watson, she seems to keep getting dragged into stranger and stranger situations. And that’s not even taking into account all the people (who apparently know John far better than she does) who keep warning her away from him. Or the tall, dark, and creepy stalker who seems to be following John around everywhere.
I really love scifigrl47’s Sherlock stories in general. They’re well written, have a great sense of humor, and show a thorough and insightful understanding of the characters. The Secret Identity of John Watson in particular is an interesting case because it’s told entirely from an outsider point of view. And it proves a point that the author makes in the story notes quite brilliantly–the lives of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, to anyone not in the know, can only appear horrifying and bizarre. The brilliant thing is how this story makes the point. Sam and her friends are great characters–relatable and human and a great foil for the nearly superhuman existences that are Sherlock and John. And their theories on who John Watson is just keep growing more and more hilariously out there the longer they go. The whole thing is really quite funny. There’s some cute romance here too, although the humor element is certainly a greater focus. Fair warning for those of you who don’t care for OCs: this story is majorly focused on an OC and her relationship with Dr. Watson and Sherlock. Personally, I love outsider POV stories; they provide some great insights into characters that we often have grown too close to for us to see clearly anymore. And The Secret Identity of John Watson does just that to great effect and with great amusement. Recommended.
Note: You can find The Secret Identity of John Watson at https://www.fanfiction.net/s/7968683/1/The-Secret-Identity-of-John-Watson.