Book review: Her Name is Mercie by Chris Roy

The joy of writing book reviews is stumbling on good stories, well told. When the stories take your breath away, all the better! Here is my review of one Her Name is Mercie, a collection of short stories by Chris Roy.

“Mercie Hillbrook lives a simple, quiet life working as a gas station attendant. Then her parents are killed. Her home is taken. The people responsible are excused for just doing their job. When an attempt to get justice her way lands her in trouble with the law, Mercie realizes she still has something to lose: her own life.

Then she finds reason to believe her parents were murdered… and she doesn’t care anymore.”

My thoughts:

As the cover suggests, Her Name is Mercie is a dark and thrilling ride, the lead story, almost novella length, an edge of seat experience that demands to be read in one sitting. Roy does not let his readers stray from his pages. He has you right there with the action, living it, feeling it. Mercie and her sidekick are likeable characters, and through their eyes, from the initial story set up to the dramatic ending, Roy explores the theme of injustice. Hard and racy and thoroughly entertaining, ‘Her Name is Mercie’ contains a perfect story arc. The writing is vivid and controlled, Roy demonstrating poise and restraint even as he delivers the gruesome details.

All the elements of a good short story are present throughout the collection; with writing that is taut and punchy, sparse and edgy, and with plenty of twists and turns and unexpected and satisfying endings. There are moments of visceral horror yet the horror element is never overplayed. A good craftsman, Roy sets his scenes with acute observations and a minimum of detail and a healthy measure of wit.

The second story, ‘Re-Pete’ is a gem. Told from the perspective of a young child with OCD, the result of a ghastly and recent trauma, the tale is funny and absurd, and packs a delightfully wicked punch, if ‘delightful’ can be used in the context. Roy enters the mind of young Pete with sensitivity and compassion. Pete, like the other protagonists in the collection, deserves better than the life he has been given.

Themes of justice and corruption and revenge against wrongdoers dominate the collection. In Her Name is Mercie, Roy’s protagonists, the victims of bad deeds, step into their own power.

Roy clearly has a gift, invoking in his readers immediate and deep engagement. With this collection he has thrown down the gauntlet, meeting the challenge of originality and displaying prowess across multiple styles – spooky, sinister, surreal, brutal and ironic – each story is distinct. I look forward to reading more from this author.

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Book Review: Last Year, When We Were Young by Andrew J McKiernan

Here’s my review of yet another terrific collection of horror shorts, this time from award-winning Australian horror writer, Andrew J. McKiernan.

“WINNER: 2014 AHWA Australian Shadows Award, Collected Work

‘Last Year, When We Were Young’ brings together 16 tales that defy conventions of genre and style, every one with an edge sharper than a razor and darker than a night on Neptune.

From the darkly hilarious “All the Clowns in Clowntown” to the heart-breaking and disturbing title story, this debut collection from multi-award nominated author and illustrator Andrew J McKiernan pulls no punches.

“A troubling collection of weird and twisted tales. Sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying; always clever, always disturbing. Highly entertaining!” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of CODE ZERO

“McKiernan’s stories are hauntingly dark, evocatively written and viscerally compelling. With little regard for genre boundaries, McKiernan creates utterly convincing characters who will take you on a journey through fully realised worlds, and every journey is more than worth it.” – Alan Baxter, author of Bound and Realmshift

“These clever, compelling stories explore the dark edges of human existence. Utilising deceptive, often colloquial prose and an array of startling imagery, McKiernan has staked his own claim in a dark corner of imaginative fiction. Start reading him now; this guy will go far.” – Gary McMahon, author of The Concrete Grove

“McKiernan is a magician. He performs magic tricks in every story, spinning us around, making us believe one thing before showing us we were wrong all along. His stories are pure magic, staying with you like an echo long after reading.” – Kaaron Warren, author of Slights & Walking the Tree.”

My thoughts:

Last Year, When We Were Young contains some of the finest horror writing I have come across. Edgy, intelligent in conception, and delivered with poise in an easy and engaging literary style, McKiernan has penned a compelling collection of shorts brimming with darkness and menace.

My favourite is ‘Daivadana’, a story of  Mark Reynolds, a son sent to Tajikistan to do his father’s bidding and discover what is going on inside a new high rise development in a city rebuilding after war. He meets Jahandar and his son, Kurshed and through each, learns of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, its power and particularly its propensity for summoning evil. Here is one of those perfectly balanced stories, containing all the elements of a well-written thriller with all the elements of well-written horror, at once elegant, stylish, intriguing and fast-paced. McKiernan displays a deep knowledge of his subject and makes use of that knowledge to full effect, peppering his story with insights:

‘He realised, what really matters is not what colours the players wear, but who gets to hand out the costumes in the first place.”

Throughout this collection, the reader will encounter the weird, the unusual, the grotesque, the disturbing and the tragic. McKiernan never slips into horror for horror’s sake. Instead he exercises restraint. Each story is unique and strong, the reader taken to a variety of settings, the collection diverse and rich and haunting. Highly recommended.

You can find your copy here

You can find Andrew J McKiernan here

 

Review: Midnight Echo (12)

I’m delighted to share my review of Midnight Echo (issue 12), theAustralasian Horror Writers Association’s magazine.

Issue #12 features over 50,000 words of the finest horror from Australia and New Zealand, including fiction and non-fiction. This issue showcases the winners of the 2015 and 2016 AHWA Short Story and Flash Fiction Competitions, and is edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings and Anthony Ferguson.

My thoughts:

This issue of mainly short stories contains writing so polished it gleams. All the stories are taut and punchy, and many ooze that essential quality of the entertaining horror story, wit. The magazine is filled with originality composed by authors with suitably twisted minds. Of note is Angela J. Maher’s ‘Effigia Malo”, a gothic tale about images in an old book coming to life; and the bizarre and hilarious ‘Mechanical Cat’ by Rebecca Fung.

Most of the stories in this magazine could have found a home in any literary journal; on the horror spectrum they are soft core. The hint of dread is there in the atmosphere but the reader will find no gore or terror or slasherpunk, there is little to invoke revulsion and the paranormal receives the lightest touch. Many of the tales are set in domestic situations.

Two nonfiction pieces provide some interesting discussion. The first by Anthony Ferguson, ‘Mick Taylor and the Tyranny of Distance’, explores how much Australian horror is rooted in landscape. In the second, ‘A Shared Ambition’, Kyla Lee Ward discusses sources of inspiration in horror and the need for an abundance of ideas.

Overall, the stories set out to disturb rather than shock or revolt. I would recommend this magazine to lovers of literary fiction and appreciators of well-honed and perfectly written compositions as much as I would fans of the refined end of horror shorts.

 

Grab your copy here

Review: Stripped to the Bone: portraits of Syrian women by Ghada Alatrash

I’ve taken a short break from horror to review Stripped to the Bone: portraits of Syrian Women by Ghada Alatrash, a short story collection peppered with beautiful poetry, and set for the most part in Syria.

“Set between war-torn Syria and the West, Stripped to the Bone explores issues of identity, love, strife, courage and resilience in seven fictional portraits of Syrian women. Syrian-Canadian author and translator Ghada Alatrash is a Doctoral Student at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. One of her goals is to amplify the voices of the marginalized through her writings. She translated and published a collection of Arabic poems in English, entitled So that the Poem Remains.”

*******

Stripped to the Bone  opens with the natural yearnings of Zahrah, a single woman ageing and in need of a husband, who fills her heart with Hollywood movies to escape her edge of survival existence in a war zone. Then there’s the story of Reem and Mayyada, two women both unjustly imprisoned and forced to endure torture and rape. Here the abuse of a zealot brother is juxtaposed with the almost faceless and arbitrary violence of the prison officers, Alatrash making observations relevant to all women everywhere.

In Stripped to the Bone ancient traditions are portrayed alongside modern values and lifestyles as Syrian women hold on to what is precious and beautiful while adapting to modern ways. In ‘Hanaan and Salaam’ the author tackles homophobia, in ‘Lama’ multicultural relationships, as those Syrians who have fled their homeland adapt to their new lives.

Written in gentle, ironic and often sensual prose, this collection oozes intimacy. Alatrash infuses her stories with pride and anguish, pride in her culture and anguish over the cruelties meted out in the name of God and country. But above all, Alatrash is concerned with the unjust war Syria endures, a civil war with all too powerful interested parties, a proxy war involving America, Russia and Saudi Arabia and their various allies: a bloodbath. In this collection, the geopolitics of Syria forms a translucent backdrop, Alatrash leaving it to the reader to educate themselves if they wish. Of concern for the author is the impact all of the various injustices have had on women’s lives.

In ‘Um Jaad’, a story of a Syrian woman travelling to visit her sister in Homs who has just lost her little boy, Alatrash writes:

“More deafening than the screams was the silence of the world.” It was her sister “Who lived the pain of the atrocities erasing Syrians off the map.”

Interwoven in stories that invite reflection and at times confront the reader with harsh and horrifying realities, is beautiful verse, verse that depicts the Syrian soul, verse to savour and revisit time and again.

Stripped to the Bone is a questioning and intelligent book, at once romantic, poignant and passionate. A huge sadness pervades the collection, a sense of loss of culture, of heritage and of all that is meaningful and valuable and important in women’s lives. The reader will take away the thought that what continues to happen in Syria should never have begun. Timely and significant, Stripped to the Bone is a must read for anyone wanting to understand Syria from within, from the perspective of the everyday domestic lives of its women.

You can purchase a copy here

Review: Demons, Devils and Denizens of Hell: Vol 2

I’m thrilled to share my review of Demons, Devils and Denizens of Hell: Vol 2, and anthology of horror stories compiled by P. Mattern, edited by Ztina Marie and published by HellBound Books.

http://www.hellboundbookspublishing.com/demonsdevilsdenizens2.html

“Another anthology of otherworldy delights, tales of horror, dread and hellish inhabitants, – all lovingly compiled by award-winning author P. Mattern.

Our second journey into the darkest recesses of Satan’s pit has superlative tales of nefarious delight by: Andrew MacKay, Ryan Woods, PC3, Richard Raven, Dante Crossroad, Josh Schlossberg, Brianna M. Fenty, Paul Lubaczewski, Marcus Mattern, R.L. Chambers, Gerri R Grayson, John T. M. Herres, James Nichols, Feind Gottes, P. Mattern & Lynne Ligocki Gauthier, R.L.Chambers, Richard Alan Long, Jaap Boekestein, James H, Longmore, Savannah Morgan, DJ Shaw, Bill Evans, Sergio “ente per ente” Palumbo, Jay Michael Wright II, and the incomparable Stephanie Kelley.”

As a reader of short stories I’m hard to please. I’m looking for substance and depth. I want to know the author has thought long and hard about character, setting and life in general. I’m not interested so much in being shocked or horrified. I’m interested in how the author is pulling it off. I want to be impressed. Also, I want wit. I guess that makes me hard to please. Especially regarding an anthology, a book readers will delve into when the fancy takes them, sampling rather than reading from end to end.

I opened Demons, Devils and Denizens of Hell: Vol 2 not knowing what I was to be treated to, save each story was destined to be either revolting, terrifying or both. What I discovered was a delight. Demons, Devils and Denizens of Hell: Vol 2 brims with cracking reads; the hallmark of the volume, strong writing. From the thoroughly revolting, edge-of-seat horror-crime story ‘Duplicate Counterpart’ by John T.M. Herres, to the mysterious and compelling, and ultimately shocking ‘There Shall Be No Night’ by Josh Schlossberg, and beyond, there is much to savour between the covers of this anthology.

Each story is distinct. James H. Longmore’s ‘My Possession: An Introspective’, a presentation of the state of mind of a sales executive turned writer wrestling with his inner demon called Dave, provides incisive wit and dark hilarity. As does ‘Beauty is the Beast’ by Gerri R. Gray, her protagonist, Vanity de Milo, a macabre twist on the children’s fairy tale the story alludes to.

Quoting from ‘The Huntress’ by Savannah Morgan, gives a taste of the sort of writing to be found in the anthology:

“Guts and entrails fell out like gruesome chunky soft-serve ice cream from a dispenser on the fritz.”

No matter the genre, sentences like that make a reader like me tingle.

Feind Gottes foreshadows his dark tale, ‘Black Lodge’, with some powerful imagery:

“A simple black lodge in a forgotten wood where ghosts feared to haunt but memories were free to crush a man’s soul.”

Like the other stories in this anthology, Gotte’s tale grips to the very last sentence.

The authors of these dark tales have stretched their imaginations, brought to bear their wit and drawn on their many and varied insights into the human condition. Not only that, they’ve applied themselves to the task of writing, and writing well. The result is a must read.

Buy your copy here.

Check out more from HellBound Books here

Review: On the Job by Sandi Wallace

I’m delighted to present my review of On The Job by Australian crime author, Sandi Wallace.

 

 

“The highs and lows of cops on the job. The cases that make them, break them, bring them laughs, maybe even love. Police on the beat, working one-officer shops and seasoned detectives pursue a cunning home intruder, a full-moon prankster, false friends, vengeful partners. Adrenaline-charged car chases, unsanctioned surveillance, intense interrogation. The impact of a child’s tragic death. The import of unearthing what happened to an infant and her mother. Lives saved and crooks captured. This gripping collection of Sandi Wallace’s award-winning short fiction–“Busted,” “Silk Versus Sierra” and “Losing Heidi”–along with new and never-before released verse and stories, includes “Impact,” a finalist in the international Cutthroat Rick DeMarinis Short Story Contest. ”

As ever with Sandi Wallace, each story in On The Job has the reader settling into a relationship of trust from the first paragraph, confident that the journey will satisfy. Wallace is a courageous writer, tackling the confronting and hard-hitting with sensitivity and depth of understanding. Her protagonists, the cops ‘on the job’, are sharply crafted and authentic. Wallace’s storytelling draws the reader up close, experiencing the reactions of investigating officers as they solve crimes and bang to rights the perpetrators.

Little wonder the stories here have won awards. Wallace charms her readers with tales that not only grip, they present socially realistic worlds, especially of rural Australia. There can be no doubt the author has done her research. These are stories that linger, long after they are read, and after experiencing the works of Sandi Wallace I, for one, will never imagine rural Australia in quite the same way again. This collection does not disappoint.

Find the author here.

Buy here. 

I’d like to thank the author for my review copy.

 

Shopping List 2 – an outstanding horror collection

 

“HellBound Books Publishing brings you an outstanding collection of horror, dark, slippery things, and supernatural terror – all from the very best up and coming minds in the genre. We have given each and every one of our authors the opportunity to have their shopping lists read by you, the most wonderful reading public, and have the darkest corners of their creative psyche laid bare for all to see…

In all, 21 stories to chill the soul, tingle the spine and keep you awake in the cold, murky hours of the night…”

Mine is called ‘Ignominy’

About a year ago I signed up for a free online creative writing course as research for running my own. In those ten weeks participants were invited to write the bones of a short story. I came up with plain Jane on a train. Yeah, I guess I was feeling a bit cynical and detached as I was really just being a spy, but I jumped through the hoops and engaged anyway.

 

Then I tinkered with this Jane and her train journey, and the more I did, the darker the story became. The result is ‘Ignominy’, a dark tale about a train journey, describing where Jane has been, who she meets, and what happens as a result.

I ended up loving Jane so much I employed the same style in a novel-length work, which I am hoping will be published next year.

You can order a copy of this anthology, available in all formats, and enjoy all the other dark tales it contains here.

http://www.hellboundbookspublishing.com/shopping2.html

The anthology is also live on the HellBound Books Publishing app!

Enjoy!!!