Book Review: Bent Heavens

I read Oliver Twist recently, and this is billed as a sort of retelling or heavily inspired by the Dickens work. I remember Oliver and Company and other Oliver Twist retellings that I’ve enjoyed, so I look forward to investigating this book.

The Book(s)

Bent Heavens
Author: Daniel Kraus
Amazon Link

There’s a bunch of body horror in this one, but that’s not the most “shocking” bit of this: it’s that a lot of the crazy stuff is done by children. If you don’t want to see children making reasonable but really gruesome and evil decisions, this isn’t for you.

While the book is YA, it’s probably not for a younger YA (more high school than middle grade reader). It’s definitely on the more intense end of YA. Also, if you’re a parent who thinks they might want to let their kid read this, I’d strongly suggest getting the kid to read Oliver Twist or an abridged version first. Definitely makes this book more worthwhile from an artistic perspective.

On With the Review!

Though at first this seems YA due to the youth of the characters, this book quickly turns everything around and becomes clearly adult with its dark, sinister plot and disturbing characters. While I loved the sense of dread present throughout the book, I would rather put up front that this book is in no way for everyone.

That being said, I loved this book. Kraus designed a set of believable seniors in high school and gave them typical concerns and societal pressures. He used these societal pressures to force the characters into performing their actions, and the characters responded marvelously. Something I found incredible was how these kids get a new, alien hunting extra curricular, and their school and social lives suffer for it. Olivia Fleming must choose between either avenging her father by pursuing information from an alien, or she can choose cross country. I was stunned by how Kraus led Olivia to make her decision.

Artistically, Bent Heavens was chock full of allusions, and the whole damn thing was an obvious allegory for Oliver Twist. I mean, come on – Olivia, with a dead father, and Oliver? The compass from the father? It was obvious. But Kraus didn’t focus on the nonsense extraneous parts of Oliver Twist, just the good parts I’d have kept if I’d made an abridged version of the Dickens classic.

And now, spoilers.


Liv Fleming got caught up with her childhood friend, Doug, when Doug’s traps catch an alien. The rural setting and long-term closeness of Doug made it more reasonable that Liv would have kept hanging around that creeper despite his… creeperness. That Liv’s dad liked Doug and taught them both ways to fight the aliens was also sheer genius. Like Dickens did in Oliver Twist, Kraus put together the weird societal pressures of rural Iowa to make something reasonable in the world of the fantastic.

Next, the torture. Oh my God, I did not see the alien torture coming. It made sense once I got there, and the fact that Doug perpetrated it didn’t surprise me at all. He convinced Olivia to join him, reminiscent of Oliver Twist falling prey to criminals, and the insane gorefest just kept going. I do think that this part may have gone on too long or too far, but two kids torturing an alien in a shed in their backyard was something I’ve never seen before. Usually they talk with it, or hide it from the government in a friendly way, or the alien abducts them. Never do they choose to torture it in attempt to get revenge for another dead person.

Now, the super duper SUPER spoilers.


The alien wasn’t an alien.

By the time the twist was revealed, I kind of knew something wasn’t right and that somehow Liv’s dad wasn’t dead. I actually thought the aliens had turned Liv’s dad into an alien, but I didn’t expect THE GOVERNMENT MADE HIM AN INSANE CANCER MONSTER who thought he was being experimented on by aliens. HOLY EFFING CRAP BATMAN. The sheer madness of the Cold War like villainy and uncaring. The fact that Kraus used society’s racist tendencies to keep the secret a secret. It was amazing.

Once Liv found out that the creature they’d been torturing in her backyard was her dad, she went to save him by killing him and ending all the pain. There was more to it, including a fight with Doug in which Liv sadly became a damsel in distress, but in the end the conspiracy was completed and the story ended pretty similarly to the allegorical Oliver Twist.

Overall, the story was pretty great. Recommend for readers who enjoy suspense horror or dark fantasy/sci fi.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

We’ll see.

Book Review: Collective Darkness

One of my stories recently got accepted into Collective Fantasy, which will be published by the awesome Collective Tales Publishing. As soon as I got the approval, the publishers swept me off my feet with kindness and just amazing community. I saw they had a previous book come out, Collective Darkness, and that it performed REALLY well on Amazon.

Here’s what I found…

The Book

Collective Darkness
Editor: Elizabeth Suggs
Amazon Link for Kindle (though you need to go through their site for a print copy!)

This is a book of dark, creepy shorts. There are all sorts of horror inside, but little of it should really trigger people. As it says in the “disclaimer”, there is some descriptive violence, but honestly I didn’t think it was very extreme.

On With The Review

This is the first multi-author compilation I’ve read in which every story was at least 3 stars (and that 3-star was, without a doubt, not because of low quality – it was just because of my own weird tastes). Most of the stories were 4 or 5 stars. I’ve never given a multi-author compilation above 3 stars total before.

Part of what made this compilation so good was the consistently high quality of editing. I didn’t find any mistakes in the work, which is something I tend to find in at least one author’s story in these compilations. I bet it’s hard to get every story from multiple authors to feel like they’re all done well and edited to their best!

Another thing that made the compilation so good was the darkness that linked them. Though the theme was very vague, the creepiness factor remained the same for all the stories. Though they had disparate settings, characters, and even sometimes genre, the collection went together very well. The order in which the stories were presented was also perfect; it went together like an album of music.

When I review a compilation, I like to leave a review of 3 stories: my favorite, one that stood out, and my least favorite. This time, I’m proud to say, I even liked the least favorite!

The Favorite: Padua’s Eyes

HOLY MOLY. This story turned vampire stories on their head. Padua was a vampiric horse that helped her human rider seek vengeance for turning her father. Not only was the story an exciting bit of fantasy, but the journey that Padua and her rider Cordelia make is dark and filled with difficult decisions. I also loved the author’s choice of a German-inspired setting. Even though it was simple, the small hints and flicks of German inspired names, dress, and activity gave it just that little kick that made this story my favorite.

The Standout: Red Flag

This was a Southern Gothic tale, and I loved it. There were all kinds of little niceties about how being quiet and maintaining honor was important, even if it was never explicitly stated. Though I think some of the Southernness was a bit heavy-handed, the short as a whole made good use of the setting. The first line of the story, “Shane told me he’s going to kill somebody,” leads to a paranoid, macabre set of twists and turns. By the ending I knew what was going on and what needed to happen, but I couldn’t look away because it was so intense.

This was one of the stories in which violence occurs, but unless you’re really, truly bothered by it, the paranoia and creepiness is absolutely worth it.

Least Favorite: Crimson Snow

Honestly, this story wasn’t bad. There was mystery, a sense of dread instilled by the chilly setting, and a plot that had a beginning, middle, and end. It fit the book well. Even so, I guess it was my least favorite because the story blended reality and vision in a way that my brain, which was seeking easily digestible material at the time, decided it didn’t want to try so hard. Eventually some monsters show up, and I thought it was ok but wasn’t the more sociopolitical direction I’d thought the story was heading.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

It’s a new month! Stay tuned!

Book Review: We All Die In the End

Elizabeth Merry is a prolific blogger who writes fantastic stuff. Her prose is always delicious, and she’s so nice! And, despite that kind exterior, she offers this book of dark tales set in a seaside town. I was excited to read this and see what she had in store.

Many of these stories had been elsewhere showcased in other anthologies, so it’s also possible you’ve seen one before, but never packaged so neatly like this.

The Book

We All Die In the End: Scenes From a Small Town
Author: Elizabeth Merry
Amazon Link

This is a book of 19 shorts focused on various characters that live in the same seaside, Irish town. As a warning, some stories in the book are incredibly dark and many either contain or hint at emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. There are explicitly sexual things in the book, though not at great detail for each scene in which they appear. Because the stories are all shorts, however, any content that may be unacceptable to a reader can easily be skipped and other stories enjoyed.

On With The Review

Without a doubt, this collection of short stories was the most well-curated of any I’ve seen. Not only did the stories fit together well thematically, and not only did they have the same general setting, but they wove into each other by mentioning various characters that showed up later. For instance, the first story is about Arthur, but he talks about Jennifer and her dogs. Jennifer shows up in the next story, and they introduce other characters. Carmel works at the grocer’s, and Julia and Sadie down at the pub are mentioned repeatedly.

It. Just. Works.

Most of the stories make you think, and many contain complex social relationships that only reveal themselves in their fullness at the end. That being said, I sure wouldn’t want to live in this town – too many bad guys and terrible people! There weren’t many characters I could really get behind and root for, as many of them were morally gray or completely decrepit. Even so, they were all interesting, and Merry writes very well.

When I review collections of shorts, I also like to select a few stories to talk about in more detail.

The Favorite: Myrtle

I LOVED the Myrtle scene. Because the story was told with a narrator positioned just behind Myrtle’s shoulder and with Myrtle’s personality in mind, I couldn’t get a true physical description in my mind. That being said, when the little kid was afraid of her at the grocer’s, I immediately went to “completely insane cat lady” in my head. I was not disappointed. It went from crazy to VERY CRAZY in the span of no time, and Myrtle was just the best. I loved her, she was terrible, it went great.


The Standout: Angela

This was probably the most different from all the other stories. Though it took place in the same town, it felt somewhat cloistered away from the rest of them because of its focus on the nunnery and school. How it turned out was completely unexpected, and it’ll probably be the last story that goes fuzzy in my head.

Least Favorite: Eugene Curran

This one was the very last story in the book, and to be honest, I had to stave off writing the review for a few days because I knew it would linger in my mind and spoil what was otherwise a great collection. This one was the most horrifying and abusive, and I was never really sure what the storyline was except for being about Eugene’s abusiveness and baseless paranoia. It did, in a way, come full circle to the paranoia seen in the first story, but it enveloped the lives of others who were terrified and prevented from escaping domestic abuse. While abuse was present in other stories, this was the only one so deeply dark that I couldn’t get my interest up.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

It’s a new month! Stay tuned!



Suddenly there came a tapping at my chamber door. I shivered, knowing it’s Lenore knocking in the hall, wanting inside my door. She’s come in form of raven and ghost before, but her footsteps patting are heavy, plodding on the hallway floor.

Dare I open it? No – I can hear her moaning, pleading for entry, but as I sit profusely sweating, I fear the integrity of my door.

Now her arms are heavily banging, splint’ring down my chamber door. “BRAINS!” she cries, consumption eating at her zombie form. I scream, but no use waiting – she’s in, and I’m nevermore.


The prompt for the March 12th Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge was tapping, and like a good, “well-read*” American, I instantly thought of Poe’s “The Raven”.

*I’m really not well-read, not at all well-read considering that I’m trying to be a writer, so this is in quotes because I’m being sarcastic.

Run, Sinner

daylight environment forest green

The dogs barked. They were getting closer.

“Dear God, please save me.” She clutched a small rock tied to a thong and prayed they not sniff her out. She’d stolen a crust of day old bread for her kid brother, but that was illegal. Draconian laws still demanded her hands be amputated for thievery.

She pulled herself further underneath the poplar’s roots. The dogs’ feet splashed in the creek as they sniffed and snorted.

“Hoh!” a man’s voice called. The dogs looked up and ran back to him, the hunt called off.

She waited until they left, then ran for the next county.


This was written for Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt #132, Draconian.

Photo by Pixabay on

The Pillbox


I held Polly from going further up the hill.

She rolled her eyes and huffed. “You scared of the trees now, Papa?”

I pointed up the hill to a concrete pillbox. When she saw it herself, Polly put her hand to her mouth. She followed my lead and hopped into the scrub brush on our trail.

“Who made that? What are they doing?” she asked.

I grunted. “Gotta be that paramilitary group up the road. Those sovereign citizen people.”

“But they can’t do that – that’s Old Frank’s land, not part of the crazy compound.”

“Well, we better hope they didn’t see us. Otherwise they’ll be shooting soon to keep us from telling the government.” I crawled away, hoping my head was still beneath the treeline.

“We gonna tell on them?”

“Not to the cops, anyway. Let’s just pay Old Frank a visit.”


I’m not sure what the picture for Crimson’s Creative Challenge was this week, but I thought it looked like a pillbox on a wooded hill. And what better setting for a pillbox than a paramilitary compound full of sovereign citizens and other right wing terrorists? There’s not!

If you would like to learn more about my inspiration for the story, I strongly suggest the Slate podcast Standoff: What Happened at Ruby Ridge. I was skeptical at first because Slate is SUPER FREAKING left-leaning, but I loved their Nixon-focused podcast Slow Burn, so I gave Standoff a try. It, too, was excellently done.


group of people in a meeting

Photo by on

“What’s this two year gap in your resume?” The hiring manager pointed to circled dates on the paper.  “What did you do there?”

Joaquin clenched his fist.  “There’s a Finnish word – sisu.  It means to keep trudging through multiple adversities.”  He tapped the circled words on the resume.  “That’s why I’m here.  I want this job because I can overcome my past.”

The manager scowled.  “So you were traveling?  To Finland?”

“No, I…”  He coughed.  “I was in prison.”

“For what?”

“Drug charges,” he squeaked.

She handed Joaquin his resume.  “Thank you, but we won’t be needing your services.”


This week’s Carrot Ranch prompt, sisu, was uniquely difficult.  In fact, I took way longer to get together a response than I normally would.

Either way, the idea of constant, grinding attempts to get back up after repeated adversity resonates very strongly with what I think a writer goes through.  After my first submission and rejection from a journal, I’m realizing how hard it is to crack through that layer of rejection.  How much worse, I then wondered, must it be for someone who can’t get a job?  Someone who has such a black spot on their record as prison?

Hence the story.



photo of gold ammunitions on wood

I feel like a traitor.

There had been a military tribunal, and the officer acting as judge declared guilty.  Death by firing squad.

I take a deep breath while the soldiers line up.  What a way to die.  Every soldier was given a gun with a bullet, some blank while others are deadly.  But someone has the gun which will kill.

“Aim!” an officer shouts.

I struggle to keep my eyes open.


I pull my trigger, and the man drops.

Was it my gun that held the bullet that killed him?

Did the judge know he’d condemned me?


This was written for the March 4th Carrot Ranch prompt, “Fire.”

As a brief update, I am finally returned from my sojourn to Orlando and the ACS conference – maybe I’ll be more available again!

Photo by Ivandrei Pretorius on

Satan’s Nectar

grayscale photo of human lying on ground covered of cardboard box

He ran helter-skelter through the alleyway.  Blue lights and sirens haunted the main streets, white faces in black uniforms hunting for him.

He hid behind a dumpster just before a car pulled up.  The spotlight scanned the alley and, not landing on human form, moved on to the next alley.

The man sighed and opened his paper bag.  Was it his?  He’d stolen it from the liquor store, fair and square, but the police didn’t acknowledge his claim.  He popped the top off the liquor and sipped down some of Satan’s nectar.

It was better not to remember why he needed the drink, at least as long as the bottle lasted.


This was written for the Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #91, “Helter-skelter.”  I’d always known helter-skelter in its adverbial form due to the Don McClean song “American Pie:”

Helter-skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter

Which doesn’t really help you figure out much of the meaning from context in the first place.  So, I kind-of had to look up this word before I could write it!  Learn something new every day!

Soccer and Snowcones


“Jim!” I shouted.  The doofus left the field without me and Squidge – what could he be thinking?  After soccer came snowcones – that is the vow all the moms make.  To have a mom that broke this sacred tradition is to openly announce that one is uncool to the max.  “Where you going, man?”

He turned around.  “Uh, dentist, man.  Dentist, yeah.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Dude, your mom’s not even here.  Just chill – why you want to get to the dentist so fast?  Come get snowcones, bro!”

He pretended like he couldn’t hear me and kept walking.

That was a long time ago, though.  If I’d kept my mouth shut over a $1 snowcone, Jim’s shoes wouldn’t have been noticed the next day at school.  If I’d just let his dentist excuse fly, maybe he’d have more friends.

I hear there’s free snowcones in heaven, Jim.

(145 Words)


This depressing mutha was written for the Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers #200.  Thanks to Yinglan, provider of the picture! 

This was not a true story, but I think most people have those moments where they regret what a dirtbag they were when they were younger.  I know who my ‘Jim’ was.