All posts by laelbr5_wp

Forget You Know Me by Jessica Strawser

Liza witnesses, via Skype, a masked man entering her friend’s home while her friend is upstairs tending to a child. She drives all night to make sure she’s okay after her friend doesn’t answer the phone, but Molly, the friend, dismisses the idea that a man came into her house, and she break’s Liza’s heart. Returning home to a life-changing event sends Liza back to her hometown, where no investigation is proceeding for the mystery man. Strawser digs deep into the fears of a married couple in multitudes of trouble, the evolution of friendship, and a reluctant return to one’s roots. She brilliantly intertwines the consequences of the characters’ actions as they rush headlong into premature conclusions. This novel is a great look into love resurrected and the ability to access romantic love after a trauma. Strawser is a talented storyteller. I was fortunate to receive a copy of this wonderful book from the publisher Macmillan through NetGalley.

Flash Fiction Friday: And Yet I Do Not Own a Cat

John beckoned me over to look at mom’s birthday gift, a photo of all of us kids. She’d hung it on her dining room wall above her grandma’s buffet. I looked in the bottom right corner where he pointed.

“Is that a cat?”

“No way. I don’t own a cat. I’m allergic.”

“It looks like a black cat.”

“If it were, I would be dead. You know my allergy.”

“I do. That’s why it seems so weird.”

I looked closer. It must be a shadow, but it sure did look like a black cat. His eyes were glowing green from the flash.

Shelley took a selfie of us, with her hand held in front to show off the engagement ring, for her parents, who lived across the country. After texting it to them, her dad called, concerned.

“Daddy! Isn’t it exciting? Wait. What? There’s no cat. No, no, Tim’s allergic. What? Of course, I’m sure.” She hung up and went to her text. There was indeed a black cat on her lap, her arm just above its head, engagement ring accentuating her smile. What the hell?

Now I lie in bed, the creature sitting on my chest. It’s weight feels so real, yet my allergies are not activated by its presence. I cannot go to sleep. I cannot move. My phone is in the living room.

Family by J. California Cooper

From a cosmopolitan family are beget descendants who are stolen for slavery in the American South, bringing dear reader to Fammy, who begets Clora by a black man because she wanted a black baby for her own, after enduring her master’s rapes and the selling of her children. She takes her life, as does Clora, when she envisions the future of her daughter Always. Yet Clora persists as a spiritual entity, watching her family throughout their lives. This is the story of Always, unable to follow her siblings in their escape by passing for white, who rises above her veneer of subjugation, fully prepared to live free after emancipation. Clora witnesses her family branch out again across the globe.

Cooper explicitly presents the vicarious existence of slaves, and the various ways that could procure a safer passage, as well as the intricately convoluted familial connections betwixt white masters / mistresses and slaves. The hint of dialect bumps through both races, showing the blending of cultures based on proximity, and religion also bleeds across the barriers, represented by Clora’s routine references to the Christian God. This novel offers a valuable lesson in how the foundation for systemic racism was laid and on what our country was built, in spite of the whitewashed American dream. Read it with a careful eye toward the small references and unspoken understandings between characters.

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman


Daphne Maritch inherits the yearbook that the class of 1969 dedicated to her mother, their teacher. Attending every class reunion of that year’s class, her mom dashed off judgment calls in that yearbook, while alienating her family further. Daphne has no use for it and tosses it in recycling, only to discover her neighbor has rescued it and has documentary plans for it, focusing on her mother’s life. In her attempt to repossess it, Daphne learns exactly how much she didn’t know about her mother, and how much better her father knows her than she realized. Secrets explode, Daphne explodes…romance ensues.

Lipman creates a character whose complexity makes her less endearing than interesting, leading dear reader to enjoy her ups and downs from outside the emotions, yet still root for her as she makes terrible life decisions. Choices made by all family members in the past reverberate in the presence, causing confusion and offering challenging choices. The integrity of the characters remains resolute as they fluffercate over “9/10 of the law” and “right to know.” This is an absolutely FUN story, whipping back and forth in allegiances, and up and down in storyline. I was fortunate to receive a copy of this fabulous book from the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through a Goodreads giveaway.

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

A sleeping sickness befalls the little college town of Santa Lora, CA, starting with Mei’s roommate Kara, prompting a quarantine of their dorm. Quickly overwhelmed, the hospital sets up the children who succumb in the public library. The patients wake up in random order with time span and chronology confusion, or they never wake up—dying or coming to consciousness days, weeks, months after succumbing. Mei becomes part of the relief effort by those immune to the illness. Thompson Walker brilliantly moves in and out of the epidemic containment through cordon sanitaire and the sleepers’ astonishingly realistic dreams. Graphic descriptions of virtual long lives lived for decades and anomalies that persist after awakening draw the reader into the deep wells of grief and confusion of those who wake to a lesser reality. The frustrated anger and desperation of family and friends prevented from contacting loved ones is credibly shown by such irrational actions as climbing the quarantine fence and rushing the police. The author references other such unusual occurrences, and how conspiracy theories can easily form from a frightening epidemic never diagnosed by doctors. It brings to mind the sleepy sickness brought on by the Spanish flu epidemic of the early 20th century, whose victims remained catatonic for decades. I was fortunate to receive a copy of this well-written, wonderfully told novel from the publisher Random House through a Goodreads giveaway.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

Anna Roux’s life changed drastically when her husband moved them from Paris to the American Midwest. Her profession as a dancer fades to history, and she disappears inside herself, despair manifesting as anorexia. In a holiday visit home, her family’s shocked reaction to her appearance prompts her husband to commit her to a strict program at 17 Swann Street, where Anna learns the hard way to eat again. There’s so much more going on than Anna feeling fat, so much involved in succumbing to an insidious disease. Zgheib carefully maneuvers through the complexity of her character’s inner turmoil. As a contributing factor as well as an integral part of Anna’s support system, her husband is explored through his emotional roller coaster, denial, and finally, tough love response to her illness.

This story paints a detailed description of a unique life with an unfortunately common disease, where one cannot point to any one action as a causation. Readers with no connection to this illness still will reel from the pain of a young woman who feels out of control of her own life, who cannot reconcile her less than desirable circumstances with the love she feels for her husband, sympathizing with her as she is forced to confront the voice of anorexia telling her that she is not enough. The slow, challenging journey is well told by a talented writer. This is a must-read for the awareness and understanding it brings. If anorexia has touched your life in any way, offer this story to friends and family. Even if it hasn’t, read and share for the compassion invoked.

Yara Zgheib’s poetic and poignant debut novel is a haunting portrait of a young woman’s struggle with anorexia on an intimate journey to reclaim her life.  

The chocolate went first, then the cheese, the fries, the ice cream. The bread was more difficult, but if she could just lose a little more weight, perhaps she would make the soloists’ list. Perhaps if she were lighter, danced better, tried harder, she would be good enough. Perhaps if she just ran for one more mile, lost just one more pound. 

Anna Roux was a professional dancer who followed the man of her dreams from Paris to Missouri. There, alone with her biggest fears—imperfection, failure, loneliness—she spirals down anorexia and depression till she weighs a mere eighty-eight pounds. Forced to seek treatment, she is admitted as a patient at 17 Swann Street, a peach pink house where pale, fragile women with life-threatening eating disorders live: women like Emm, the veteran; quiet Valerie; Julia, always hungry. Together, they must fight their diseases and face six meals a day.
Every bite causes anxiety.  Every flavor induces guilt. And every step Anna takes toward recovery will require strength, endurance, and the support of the girls at 17 Swann Street.

Yara Zgheib is a Fulbright scholar with a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a PhD in International Affairs in Diplomacy from Centre D’études Diplomatiques et Stratégiques in Paris. She is fluent in English, Arabic, French, and Spanish. Yara is a writer for several US and European magazines, including The Huffington Post, The Four Seasons Magazine, A Woman’s Paris, The Idea List, and Holiday Magazine. She writes on culture, art, travel, and philosophy on her blog, “Aristotle at Afternoon Tea” (http://www.aristotleatafternoontea.com/).

Buy The Girls at 17 Swann Street:
Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Books-a-Million

Indie Bound

Powell’s

Storyteller Showcase: Brian Barr…author extra!

I’ve been working on a fantasy collaboration with my friend, Shawn Michael Vogt, and I would love to share the introduction with you. It’s set in a fantasy world I created called Akasha, and it features Shawn’s character Kitsune no Akuma, a swordsman who dons a living fox mask, and a bounty hunter character I created who is named Jacquin. The story is called Overkill in the Chaos Cathedral.

Excerpt:

Jacquin the Jackal cut through the final bandit’s throat at the bottom of the steps, then ascended towards the Chaos Cathedral.

Overhead, blood rain fell in scarlet summer tears, thunder cracked, and lightning crashed from the fuschia skies as the ancient constellations sparkled in their fabric. The storm added to the Chaos Cathedral’s already intimidating structure, strange and mystifying in sight with its ancient vermilion stone composition and obsidian spires. The Cathedral’s bell tower sung, as if announcing the bounty hunter’s arrival. Those stairs leading towards the Chaos Cathedral were archaic, decked with cracks and broken ends, shaky under Jacquin’s boots of gold.

As Jacquin placed his sword into its golden sheath, his brown eyes gazed from the gaping holes of his gold-plated half-skull mask, the cathedral proud on that hill. Jacquin the Jackal knew the chaote warlock, Lucius of Kane, was waiting for him there.

Lucius would know Jacquin as soon as the men met, Jacquin was sure, for the bounty hunter’s reputation preceded him just as much as the dark warlock he’d been hired to hunt. The Jackal was recognizable with that well-known skull mask that covered his shaved scalp, forehead, cheeks, and nose, with golden fangs hanging over his upper lip. He was also known from that blood-red cape that flowed behind his 6’1” frame, decked in golden armor, and the sharp spikes that lined his golden gauntlets and boots.

Jacquan the Jackal was known, and feared, as the greatest bounty hunter on the entire globe of Akasha. He liked to think that in Heaven and Hell he would be a frightening force as well.

Behind Jacquin were the corpses of the bandits he slain, littering the cathedral’s courtyard of sand and stone. They were great fighters, but not worthy, well-trained for robbery but lacking in strategic swordplay. Lucius of Kane, the necromantic mage, was an idiot for hiring them as sentinels to serve vigil at the cathedral’s gates. He should have stuck with more undead swordsmen like the skeletal bastards he sicced on Jacquin ten miles down the road, or the vicious hellhounds and violent winds he summoned to slow down the bounty hunter in his trek five nights before.

No worries. Jacquin didn’t need to think about those failed opponents now, not anymore. He was done with them. Lucius was all that was left. If the chaote was smart, he conserved enough of his magic power for Jacquin’s arrival.

Now that mighty cathedral waited, with its iron gates open, calling to Jacquin, the ringing bell in its highest tower mocking him. The skulls resting atop spikes were the only sentinels to serve vigil now, with the remainder of rotting meat cursing the air with a putrid stench. They grinned as skies of violet stretched overhead, clouds spinning in circular rings above the unholy place.

Jacquin stepped past the threshold of the ebony, scale-patterned double doors, which were already open for him.

In the darkness of that evil place, with its stained windows and empty hues, Jacquin could make the outline of Lucius at the alter. There was his man, his target, his coin, the warlock who committed the sin of dream murder. Lucius of Kane had entered Coral Deinera’s dream with the aid of his puissant chaos magic, depleting her essence to oblivion while she slept—Coral Deinera, the princess of Thorinia.

A death mage hiding under the protection of roughians, Lucius needed to die.

Jacquin was from the Micante islands, black as obsidian, wild as fire within his very being. He’d been raised in the ways of slaying sinners, those who felt above the law of the Joint Kingdoms. He answered to both the Kings of Thorinia and Drakia, on call whenever they needed a scoundrel to be punished, even to the point of disposal. Jacquin had no problem with getting his golden gloves bloody.

*

The man in the fox mask cocked his head, listening to the sounds of battle echoing up the stairwell. He looked down at the lifeless body laying at his feet, stabbed hundreds of times. There was no blood, but then, there never was.

His friends were always hungry, and he liked to keep them happy.

He reached down, pulling the last of his soul-daggers from the body, tapping it absently against the fox mask that covered his face. “Well, this is rather awkward,” the man in the fox mask said, seemingly to no one. And yet… “The bounty hunter made better time than I had expected. What to do, what to do?” He paced back and forth, only stopping to kick the body of the death mage.

“I have no wish to kill the fool,” the man in the fox mask continued. “He’s only doing his job. But I’ve slaughtered his target, and he won’t be at all happy about that, nor about the bounty that I’ve robbed him of. Perhaps, it’s best to just leave and let him sort things out.” His mind made up, he turned to leave, pressing the soul-dagger against his chest, the flesh yielding as the blade slid through, disappearing back into his body.

As his fingers began to trace through the air, carving a door out of the aether, his mask writhed into life, baring its teeth. Whispers filled his head, and he slowly dropped his hands, listening intently.  

He chuckled, shaking his head in amusement. “I like it, my love. But will it work?” The mask, his audience, mewled and the man nodded. “Fine, we’ll try it. I can always kill him if things don’t work out, I suppose…”

A growl from the fox mask was the only response its wearer received. The man stroked his fingers along the mask, and stepped back into the shadows, patiently waiting for Jacquin’s arrival.

Be on the lookout for the second book of my Carolina Daemonic series, Rebel Hell. It should be out this year.

The Other Boy by Ian and Rosi Taylor

Toby disappears in front of his father’s eyes as they explore the overgrown path to the pond near their new home in the country. With parents fighting to salvage their marriage, Toby struggles to rescue himself from another boy whose soul resided in that pond. His mother inexplicably attributes frightful incidents to the other woman…until she sees the other boy in her son’s face. Through dubious grammar and awkward phrasing, the story holds its own as a classic horror tale of possession based on location and opportunity, with unwitting recipients focused elsewhere. Fans of scary stories with creepy kids, wild English countryside, and ghostly bodysnatchers will appreciate this book. I was fortunate to win it in a contest from the publisher Dark Chapter Press.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

PI Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott share a moment right after her vows to Matthew, coloring their detective partnership. A disturbed young man caroms into Strike’s office to exclaim about a child murder committed decades ago. Being hired by a politician to spy on a colleague distracts them, but the possibility weighs on Cormoran’s mind, as Robin goes undercover in Parliament. The non-case of the wild story becomes entangled within the political investigation and a dubious suicide. Meanwhile, Robin’s husband shows his true colors, but her desire to be independent only prolongs the sexual tension between partners.

Galbraith keeps a fast, at times frenetic, pace throughout the story, with the main characters exasperatingly and credibly human in their complexity. It’s fun to see inside the heads of the good guys when they have fleeting thoughts that are unrealistic / unreasonable, such as when Robin finds herself drawn in by the charm of their client’s tall, dark, and handsome “bad boy” son, a person of interest. Fourth in the Cormoran Strike series, it’s easily a standalone for the case story, but adds layers of nuance to the partnership. The inevitable transition in the nature of the relationship will change the dynamics and sadly may be the beginning of the end, unless Galbraith finds a way to pull it off. Let’s hope she…whoops, “he” can do so!

I received a copy of this latest release in the series from St. Martin’s Press for an honest review.

Brian Barr Storyteller Showcase: professional story

I’ve always loved telling stories and writing since I was a kid. I would share ghost stories with my cousins and friends, write comics on lined paper, jot short stories, etc. I had a love for reading and fiction for as long as I can remember.

The first time I got interested in publishing or releasing my own work was when I saw my friend Matt Rowe releasing his own Xeroxed zines in a DIY punk fashion. I was impressed by Matt’s creativity in writing articles and poetry, and doing art; it awakened a need in me to create and put out my own work. At the time, I learned about different avenues, but it would be a while before I actually pursued serious publishing.

My books started to get published around 2014/2015. Carolina Daemonic was my first novel, released by J. Ellington Ashton Press, and I published Empress with Chuck Amadori through Comixology first. I published short stories, mostly horror, through a few small presses before my friend Jeff O’Brien got me into publishing stories on my own. I still publish with small presses and publishers, but I also like to release my own work. I mostly marketed on Facebook, where I was shocked to see so many writers, artists, and comic creators, and fans of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I also did a little local promotion, and El Burrito, my favorite restaurant which is no longer in business, sported posters of my work and helped sell my book. I did a local showcase at Richland Library, and also collaborated with a bunch of local authors for a Make Your Own Adventure book the library hosted.

Doing Empress with Chuck Amadori has been a great learning experience for me. Chuck taught me how to write comics to the point, and how to best outline my scripts without clutter. We worked with the artist Marcelo Salaza and the colorist Matheus Bronca, who are amazing, and currently we work with artists Sullivan Suad, Zilson Costa, and Geraldo Filho. Matheus still colors a number of our covers and helps with flats, I believe. Without them, our comic would not exist.

I’ve learned that in order to be more successful, specifically in the areas you care about, you have to be true to yourself and connect to the right people. Not all audiences will appreciate your work, so you have to find the right audiences for what you like to do. You also have to engage with them, and be a fan yourself, loving, sharing, and appreciating their work genuinely. You can do this if you really care about what you do and the people you network with, and it comes to a great advantage without effort. I’ve also learned to know when an audience or direction doesn’t work and to keep moving.

My brain-saving technique is to listen to my brain when I’m writing. Basically, if I feel drained and uninspired, it’s time to rest. When I’m in the flow, it’s time to write down every idea that comes to me, to store it, and to get in the zone as I write. Just let it all come out, then revise and revise until I’m ready to send it to an editor and release a story as a finished project. But there are times when I need to recharge and it doesn’t help to push at that point. Sleep gives me the recharge I need.