Baby Teeth is a Must Read

cover127477-medium baby teeth


Baby Teeth: A Novel by Zoje Stage (St. Martin’s Press, July 17, 2018) is every parent’s worst nightmare come true. Although seven-year-old Hanna displays the full spectrum of autistic behaviors like not vocalizing and destructive temper tantrums, she’s Daddy Alex’s little angel and Mommy Suzette’s devil in disguise.

Not unlike Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin” and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, this is more than a simple story about parental denial of their child’s murderous intent. It’s an extended metaphor of human fears, human limitations, and our failure to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

Just as there’s a good mommy and a bad mommy inside Suzette, there’s an evil, conniving, manipulative Hanna and there’s also the reincarnation of Marie-Anne Dufossete, a girl who was burned at the stake five centuries ago for witchcraft, for casting spells and poisoning people. Is Hanna possessed? Is the murderous Marie-Anne real? Or is she merely the sign of a personality split in a deeply-disturbed highly-imaginative seven=year-old?

As Hanna is expelled from school after school for violent behavior, Suzette is forced to home school her daughter. Hanna’s idea of fun, however, is to hurt other people, especially mommy. She plots to get mommy out of the way so she can have daddy all to herself. Alex, of course, refuses to believe Suzette when she tells him Hanna acts psychotic and needs professional help. When Alex is around, Hanna behaves like the loving daughter he wants her to be.

Stage effectively alternates chapters between Hanna’s POV and Suzette’s, allowing readers access to their innermost doubts and fears. It’s a brilliant kind of she said-she said non-verbal teeter-tottering that builds suspense all the way to the end and beyond.

Alex, born in Sweden (he insists his last name be pronounced Yensen, not Jensen), celebrates traditional Swedish pagan festivals, like building a Walpurgis bonfire on the night of April 30. He uses Swedish terms of endearment for both his wife and his daughter. Suzette, born in America of a Jewish mother and a mongrel father and raised by her grieving mother after her father’s untimely death, appreciates living in a multi-cultural household and learns enough Swedish to reciprocate. Hanna, too, knows Swedish as well as English, but she refuses to talk. She keeps her thoughts bottled up inside herself until they explode in violent outbursts directed at Suzette.

And when she does talk to Suzette, she speaks the French of a long-dead witch that was burned at the stake.

Baby Teeth is a must read for anyone who loves psychological suspense at its finest.



SF Adventure and a Romp Thru History

time shards

Time Shards By Dana Fredsti and David Fitzgerald (Titan Books, February 2018) is the fast-paced kind of rip-roaring sf adventure Doctor Who fans will love. It’s set in England and includes a time-traveling doctor of astrophysics called Merlin capable of regeneration when killed and whose companions this episode are a present-day American college-age girl named Amber, an American journalist from the 1890s who calls herself Nellie Bly, a British WWII-era SAS commando named Blake, a bumbling Oxford professor who’s both a coward and a fraud, and a displaced Celtic Druid named Cam who speaks only archaic Welsh or Gaelic, plus a smattering of imperial Latin.
Amber, attending a cosplay convention in England, is ill-prepared to survive the cataclysmic event that first shatters earth’s time-line and then jams broken pieces back together in random order. Now dinosaurs roam the English countryside, Cromwell’s roundheads burn witches at the stake, and giant scorpions prowl the woods.
Amber stumbles from one horror into another, only to be saved at the last possible moment by Blake or Nellie or Cam or Merlin.

Cam thinks Amber’s a faery queen when they first meet because of her cosplay costume. Although he’s technically two thousand years older than her, they appear to be the same age and he becomes enamored of her charms.   Stearne, a 17th-century roundhead witch-finder, believes her a witch because of her costume. He spends half the book trying to torture her or pursuing Amber and her companions to tie them all to stakes and burn them as witches.
The story is a wonderful blend of adventure and history lesson that’s a joy to read. My only disappointment came during the final pages when it was evident I would need to buy at least one more book in the series to learn all the answers and find resolution. Can Doctor Merlin restore the time-line? Will technology be the savior of mankind or its destroyer? Inquiring minds want to know, and I will buy the next book because I love the characters and care about what happens next.

4 Outstanding Stories in Dark Screams 9

Dark Screams 9


Dark Screams: Volume Nine edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar (Hydra, January 2018) includes three new stories and three stories originally published in Cemetery Dance Magazine. Since the editors of Cemetery Dance edit this anthology series, it’s easy to see how they’re able to put out dozens of anthologies in just a few years and edit a magazine, too. They have twenty-five years of reprints to choose from and only need to add three new tales to create an anthology.

There are four outstanding stories in this anthology.

Best of the bunch is “Torn” by Lee Thomas. Although it’s a reprint from 2012, it has a great plot embellished with all of the tricks of the storyteller’s art: fully-developed characters, multiple mysteries to solve, dire time constraints, apt metaphors, and believable personal conflicts between husband and wife, neighbors, and first responders. It’s the longest story in the book, and it’s an almost perfect story of human compulsion and how compulsion can tear a person apart. Sheriff Bill Cranston fights monsters to save his family and his town, and the monsters are a lot different than anyone expects.

Almost as strong but not as long, “The Blackout” by Jonathan Moore is an original supernatural revenge tale that reads like a police procedural. Detective Nakamura investigates the disappearance of a girl’s corpse during a storm that’s blacked out electrical power in Hawaii and finds more in the dark than he bargained for.

“The Dead Years” by Taylor Grant is a haunting tale of a modern-day Helen of Troy and the price of beauty. It’s also original to this anthology.

“Invitation to the Game” by Kelley Armstrong is well-written and suspenseful with a couple of nice twists. It’s also original.

“Summer of ‘77” by Stewart O’Nan and “Variations on a Theme from Seinfeld” by Peter Straub, both reprints from 2009, were competent but disappointing.

The four outstanding tales make Dark Screams: Volume Nine worth the price. Consider the other two stories an added bonus. Highly recommended.



The Perfect Spy Novel

Need to Know



Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (Ballantine Books, January 2018) is the perfect spy novel, told from the POV of Vivian Miller, an American CIA counter-intelligence analyst, who has just discovered her husband, the father of her four children, is an embedded Russian spy.

Has Matt been manipulating her since they met? Is their ten-year marriage a lie? When she confronts him, he admits being a spy but claims he truly loves her and the kids, has never passed anything she’s told him on to the Russians, and he urges her to turn him in.

Viv knows she should turn Matt in, send him to prison for life. But she also knows she needs him to help her take care of their children, needs his income to pay the bills; worries she’ll lose her security clearance if her boss learns she was married to a spy; and doesn’t want to live without the man she loves by her side.

The conflict is real, the tension palpable. The stakes continue to grow as Viv makes one bad decision, then another. She becomes a traitor to her country, deleting Matt’s picture from the computers at the CIA, and plays into Russian hands. They own her. If she doesn’t do what they ask, they will reveal what she has done and she’ll go to prison along with Matt.

When she refuses to insert a flash drive that will give Russia access to CIA computers, Russian spymaster Yury threatens Vivian’s children. Viv feels trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Is there no way out of the hole she’s dug herself into?

Vivian and Matt are complex characters readers can identify with, juggling personal lives with professional responsibilities. Which is more important: allegiance to spouse and children or allegiance to one’s country? Which vows take precedence: the marriage vows or the vows to protect classified information?

Impossible to put down, Need to Know is masterfully written. I recommend it highly.


Fascinating First Novel



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Abigail Ellery Hathaway is a survivor. She’s also a Woodbury, Massachusetts, police officer with secrets. In The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen (Minotaur/St Martin’s Press, December 2017), everyone has secrets. But not everyone is a survivor.

This is the story that won the MWA First Novel competition, and it’s easy to see why. It doesn’t read like a first novel. The characters are fully developed, the plot twists are foreshadowed but practically invisible, and the only speed bump in this mile-a-minute thrill ride is a lovable dog named Speed Bump.

Reed Markham is the disgraced FBI profiler who once rescued 14-year-old Abigail from certain death at the hands of a serial killer. Although Markham literally wrote the book on child abduction by serial murderers, one of his secrets is his wife really helped him write that book. Now she’s divorcing him, he’s fighting a possible addiction to alcohol, the FBI suspended him for making a mistake that cost a girl her life, and he’s not the hero everyone thinks he is.

When Abby grew up, she moved from Chicago to Boston, changed her name to Ellery (a tip of the hat to Ellery Queen?), became a cop, and moved to Woodbury where she thinks no one knows her past. Although Abby/Ellie hides her scars from prying eyes, she’s sure someone stalks her who has somehow discovered her identity.

Every year for the past three, a Woodbury resident disappears on Abby’s birthday. Every year, for the past three, Ellie receives a mysterious birthday card. Is it a coincidence?

With her birthday nigh and  Ellie still can’t convince Chief Sam Parker or Detective Jimmy Tipton there’s a serial killer loose in Woodbury, she goes over their heads and asks Reed Markham for help.

Everyone becomes suspect as  body parts and secrets are revealed. Was Abby so traumatized as a child that she’s now a killer herself? Is philandering Chief Parker so infatuated with Ellie that he’s stalking her? Is bumbling detective Tipton covering up his own crimes? Inquiring minds want to know.

Well-written and riveting, The Vanishing Season is a fascinating first novel by a writer to watch.



The Best Frame Story I’ve Read

The New Neighbors review



The New Neighbors by Simon Lelic (Berkley, April 2018) isn’t a ghost story. It is a lot like a ghost story, though, because main characters are haunted by skeletons in their own closets.

And it’s like a haunted house tale, because there are strange things in their new house that go bump in the night. There’s also a dead cat in the attic, for example, and a child’s treasure box. There are stuffed owls and strange pictures on the walls allegedly left behind by the previous owner.

It’s really a story about relationships. That fact is brought home right from the beginning by framing alternating chapters with Jack’s confessional letters to Syd, and then Syd’s written reply to Jack, using he said/she said as a device  for story reveals. It’s the best frame story I’ve read in a long time. You know what I mean by frame story, don’t you? Of course, you do.

Jack and Syd are only a little suspicious when they acquire their new house for a song, because they’re unwilling to look a gift horse (or gift house) in the mouth. Why should they?

And when all that could possibly go wrong suddenly does, Jack and Syd naturally blame each other and not the house. Jack also blames Bart, his best friend and co-worker. And his nearest neighbor, Elsie’s father.

Syd, of course, blames Jack.

Elsie is the teen girl next door Syd befriends because, like Syd, her father physically and mentally abuses her. Elsie reminds Syd of Jessica, her younger sister, who committed suicide when Syd left home in her teens.

The New Neighbors is also a murder mystery, a whodunit, as well as a nearly-perfect frame story. Brits love a good mystery, don’t they? Almost as much as they enjoy a good ghost story or haunted house tale.

Both Jack and Syd have been insecure since childhood, and that leads them to withhold information and tell lies. And makes it easy for them to wind up in a hellish situation. Relationships are always complicated anyway, aren’t they? But being deprived of parental love while growing up only makes matters worse.

The New Neighbors is a bloody good read. Very highly recommended.



New Addition to Great S&S Series

The Brghtest Fell


The Fae don’t play nice. October Daye should know that by now, being half-human and half Faerie. But where her mother’s concerned, Toby can’t think logically. In The Brightest Fell (DAW, September 7, 2017), Book 11 of the October Daye series, Hugo-Award-Winning Author Seanan McGuire sends October in search of a long-lost half-sister. When mother politely asks Toby to put her PI skills to work to find August, she refuses.

Amandine, one of the Full-Blood Fae and Daoine Sidhe, isn’t used to being refused and won’t take no for an answer. To force her younger daughter to obey, she imprisons Toby’s fiance, Tybalt, plus another of Toby’s friends and takes them both hostage. Many of the characters from previous novels in this series, both friends and former enemies (including Simon Torquill from Rosemary and Rue), aid October’s quest into deep faerie to retrieve sister August.

Readers of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files will love McGuire’s Daye tales as much as, if not more than, Dresden, because Harry is currently missing, burnt out, or presumed dead while Daye becomes more and more immortal—and memorable—with every new novel.

Both urban fantasies have first-person narratives riddled with self-deprecating humor as well as suspense. Both heroes are PIs (private paranormal investigators). Harry’s entry to Faerie is Chicago; Toby’s is San Francisco. Both have half-siblings as antagonists who become occasional allies. Both frequent a restaurant where preternatural folk gather: Harry’s is a local bar; Toby’s is Borderlands Cafe and Bookstore. But the two heroes are actually as different as Knight and Daye, because Dresden’s story is told from a male viewpoint while Daye’s is decidedly feminine.

Ever since Spenser reinvented the sword and sorcery genre with the publication of the Faerie Queene in 1590, English-language writers have been embellishing on his themes and characters. Although the fairy tales most Americans are familiar with originated as Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or Germanic folk tales as retold by Victorian writers like J. M. Barrie, Spenser’s heroes are not entirely forgotten. The heroic quest of Britomart—the heroine’s journey—accompanied by her faithful squire, becomes Toby’s journey-quest on faerie’s Babylon Road (much like Dorothy and her companions following the yellow brick road into the Land of Oz to find a wizard), accompanied by Simon and Quentin.

What is it that attracts us to Faerie Tales? Is it a memory, embedded deep within human DNA, inside our very blood, of a long-ago time when magic was real and women ruled the world? Magic is a Ma word, you realize, because the first true practitioners were women. Magic flows from the Mother to her children through her blood, her breast-milk, and her songs. Men have no magic of their own except what they inherit from their mothers.

Magic lives in the blood. True magic is blood magic, and true enchantment is lyrical.

Magic is never free. There’s always a painful fee to be paid when employing magic to acquire what you desire. In fact, the Fae are sometimes called The Fee. They are sometimes also known as The Fates or as The Furies, but that’s another story.

Fae Magic always smells like it’s composed of a mixture of the alchemical essence of a living plant combined with something else, like rosemary and rue, and it also has a shape one can touch, a thread to ravel or unravel.

Toby’s unique gift, inherited from her mother, is her ability to smell or taste magic. She can differentiate odors like artists differentiate shapes and colors. She can track scents like a bloodhound or a Cu Sidhe (a Faerie dog). She can also retrieve memories from the blood of others, even the dead.

The October Daye novels may seem confusing unless you understand the familial connections of characters. McGuire includes a helpful prologue in this novel to help you understand. Faerie is not unlike medieval Europe where all the royals are related by blood and bastards of kings and queens abound. Bloodlines become important for more reasons than one. There are Firstbloods and Purebloods and mixed bloods (part fae and part human) known as Changelings. October is a Changeling (daughter of Amandine and a human), while August is a Pureblood (daughter of Amandine and Simon Torquill). Descendancy shouldn’t matter in modern-day America, but it sure did in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland during the late Elizabethan period (and in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros of Game of Thrones fame). McGuire boldly explores the meaning of family—blood families, marital families and extended families of choice—in her Daye  novels.

The Brightest Fell is very highly recommended, as is the entire October Daye series.