the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for the ‘Mike Allen’ Category

Because I haven’t posted in, holy crap, like a week, you get a MASSIVE review today.  You’re welcome.

 

A Sinister Quartet (pre-order through Indiebound!) was originally planned to be a chapbook of two novellas by Mike Allen and C.S.E. Cooney.  Thanks to scope creep, and Allen and Cooney both having other stories that they loved, the project grew into a quartet of creepy dark fantasy and horror.   Something I’m only realizing right now, as I write this review, is that all of these stories deal with familial love.   Sisters saving brothers,  daughters saving parents,  a foster daughter being loved and supported by her foster mom, a woman coming to terms with the death of her beloved sister. If it wasn’t for family love, none of these stories would have the emotional impact that they did. (huh, maybe that’s why horror affects us so much? it is loss of those we love and watching that loss happen?)

 

Part of me wants to tell you to read this collection in the order the stories are presented, so that you can move from least dark and scary to most dark and scary: Start with Cooney’s beautifully rendered fantasy “The Twice Drowned Saint”;  then go to Jessia P. Wick’s “An Unkindness”, a dark fantasy of a sister trying to save her brother from the fae;  from there go to Amanda J. McGee’s “Viridian”, a contemporary gothic horror of isolation and obsession;  and from there go to Mike Allen’s absolutely horrifying and terrifying “The Comforter”.  If you go that path, you’ll slowly ramp up from “fun, sorta creepy” to “not sure I should be reading this before bed”.

 

But, on the other hand, maybe you should save Cooney’s story for last.  Because you see, the problem with reading her story first, is that you’ll be expecting everything else in this collection to be as good or better, and I’m sorry to tell you, but you’ll be disappointed. Let me put this another way:  on a scale of zero to ten, the Wick, McGee, and Allen are all easily a score of 7 or above.  On a scale of zero to ten, the Cooney is a twenty, easily one of the best things I’ve read this year.

 

As a compromise, I’ll save my thoughts on Cooney’s story for last.  Scroll to the end if you want to read that part first.

In Jessica P. Wick’s “An Unkindness”, the story opens with Ravenna concerned about the personality changes in her other brother, Aliver.  The two of them were besties when they were kids, why is he avoiding spending time her and sneaking out in the middle of the night all of a sudden?  She watches his bedroom door, only to see dark shadows doing impossible things. She follows him, only to lose sight of him.  He pushes her away,  he nearly begs her not to follow him, and being a bored, adventure-craving, lonely younger sister, she completely ignores his requests to be left alone.  Not only does Ravenna miss him, but she feels left out.   She follows him into their estate’s formal gardens, and when he dives into the fountain and doesn’t resurface, she follows.  What comes next is a wonderfully dark and creepy intrusion into a fae (?) world.  While reading this, I kept wanting to yell at Ravenna “don’t eat anything there!!!  You’ll be stuck there forever if you do!”.

 

The story is told in short chapters that have cute/funny/entertaining names, and I really enjoyed Ravenna’s voice. I won’t tell you much more, for fear of spoilers, but Ravenna’s experiences in the Fae lands (not sure if it is specifically Fae? I don’t remember if the author specifies it?) where a bucket of fun to read,  she’s not entirely sure what’s going on,  she doesn’t know if conversions will trap her, or why certain people do or don’t want to talk to her.   If you’re a fan of stories of “don’t make bargains with fairies!!”, you’ll get a kick out of “An Unkindness”.  And I do  love stories like this,  where people go to a Fae/Sidhe type world and have to manage to get out safely.  And it was cool to read a story about a sister wanting to save her brother!

 

It took me a little while to get my claws into Amanda J. McGee’s “Viridian”, but once I got into the groove of what was going on, hooo  boy was this a killer story!  Lori has moved to a small town in New England to start over after her sister Annie’s death.  She’s able to get settled into a small apartment, and she gets a job at the local cafe. A few locals are happy to befriend the newest member of their small, isolated town.  Maybe one day, Lori will finally feel grounded enough to come to terms with Annie’s death, and be able to grieve.  And then Lori meets Ethan, who sweeps her off her feet. A wealthy widower,  Ethan yearns for a woman he can take care of, someone who will bring warmth into his home, someone who will be there to welcome him home when he returns from business in the big city.

 

With gothic echoes of Jane Eyre (but a very, VERY different ending!),  I quickly found myself whipping through the pages of “Viridian”.  Lori twigs to the fact that something is very wrong, but she’s already in too deep, can she escape on her own?  Ethan’s house is so far out in the woods there’s no cell service, and she never did put snow tires on her call.  As he isolates her further and gaslights her, she feels her self confidence unravelling.  Personally, I didn’t like Lori. I thought she was too trusting, I wish she’d just get a therapist to help her with her grieving and guilt. But? It didn’t matter that I didn’t like her as a person, I wanted her to win!  I wanted her to escape Ethan and the other awful members of his household and his terrible plans for her!!  According to the “about the authors” in the end of the collection,  “Viridian” was inspired by “Bluebeard”.  But still. . .  reading this makes me want to read Jane Eyre.

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CP5_front-200x300Clockwork Phoenix 5, edited by Mike Allen

Available April 5, 2016

Where I got it: received review copy from the editor

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Some people describe anthologies as a journey.  I’ve been known to compare them to techno music. But  today, I’d like you to think about anthologies as restaurants – the stories are the dishes on the menu, and the editor is the restaurateur.   Some restaurants have great atmosphere, some restaurants you only like a few dishes on their menu, or maybe there is a great Sunday brunch, or maybe it’s just a super convenient location and the food is pretty darn good.  Think about restaurants you’ve returned to again and again. There was a reason, right?

 

Tom's_Bistro_outside

 

Some restaurateurs love attention for one particular dish their restaurant specializes in, or whatever. Maybe they are the King of Deep Fried Butter, or the Home of the Original Whiskey Waffles.  Maybe they did a Taco throwdown with Bobby Flay or something.

 

And then there is that secret restaurant.  The one all the locals know about. It doesn’t look like a fancy place,  but every dish you’ve had there has been amazing. Sometimes the flavors are complex, sometimes they are simple.  You go as often as you can, with the goal of trying every dish on the unique menu before the menu changes, because the chefs and owners are always trying something new and different, because the rules don’t apply here. There are no rules, there is no pretension, there is no ego, there  are no signs proclaiming fame or autographed photos of Food Network personalities.  But, omg, the food! It is perfection on a plate! And you feel better about yourself and your life and the world every time you go there.  Clockwork Phoenix is the name of this restaurant, and Mike Allen is the restaurateur.  One sublime dish after another, and yet I still have my favorites that I keep coming back to.

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unseaming Mike AllenMike Allen is editor of the speculative poetry and short fiction magazine Mythic Delirium and the acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix anthology series, and author of The Black Fire Concerto and his newest short fiction collection Unseaming.  All around super talented guy and lover of all things creepy and scary, Mike was at the top of my list when I was looking for someone to guest post about the joys of  reading scary books at Halloween time. Luckily,  he wasn’t offended when I said “hey, you wanna write about creepy stuff?”.  That’s how you KNOW this guy loves horror.

 

Continue reading, if you dare!

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Building My Own Haunted House
by Mike Allen

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At my house, every day is Halloween.

Little Red asked me to wax a bit about the pleasures of reading scary stories on All Hallow’s Eve — something I realized I couldn’t truly do, because I read scary stories all year around. And write them, too.

Anita, my wife, is often creating art in a similarly opened vein. My home office is full of skulls and plush monsters. (As well as piles of papers and books.) Halloween is simply when Anita makes the exterior decor of our house match the interior. We’re well matched that way.

 

Mike Allen

 

 

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Black Fire smallThe Black Fire Concerto by Mike Allen

published June 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the author

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On a filthy and horrifying Riverboat, young Erzelle has learned to stay hidden. So long as she plays her harp during dinner and stays small, there’s a chance she might stay alive.  Every night the guests arrive, and every night a mutated ghoul from the holds below becomes dinner. Erzelle will never forget her first night on the Riverboat, when it was her parents on that silver platter, their heads still alive.

One evening, a beautiful human woman is a dinner guest. Erzelle fears the woman will become dinner, but instead she joines Erzelle on stage to accompany her with a magical pipe that glows with runes. By dawn, the guests have been run off or slaughtered, Erzelle has been freed from bondage, and the beautiful woman, Olyssa, has realized her lost sister is nowhere to be found on the Riverboat.

Thus begins Mike Allen’s debut novel, The Black Fire Concerto. Exploding with magic, music, and violence, this short novel has the magical feel of an old school suspenseful fantasy adventure as filtered through the eyes of H.R. Giger.

Olyssa takes the orphaned Erzelle under her wing, and the two travel the wasted Earth searching for Olyssa’s sister. Along the way, she teaches Erzelle a concerto for harp and pipe and the child unwittingly becomes the sorcereress’s apprentice. Erzelle came to the Riverboat as a small child, she knows very little of the outside world, and all she saw on board were ghouls and horrors.  She and Olyssa escape a Temple of Grey Ones, befriend the vulpine Reneer, and through visions of an Antlered Man, Erzelle becomes dangerously involved in Olyssa’s family heritage.

Where did the Grey Ones come from? What’s their connection with the Vulpine community nearby? Who is the antlered man who Erzelle keeping seeing in her minds eye? She can’t possibly understand what he’s asking of her. The gift he gives her will save her life as it slowly kills her.

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Clockwork Phoenix 4, Edited by Mike Allen

Available July 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the editor (thanks Mike!!)

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What kind of stories will you find in Clockwork Phoenix 4? Only those are that are magical, imaginative, heartwrenching, just plain bizarre, forward-looking, backward-looking, biological, romantic, hopeful, darkly funny and openly frightening. All the words that describe the best speculative fiction you’ve ever read apply. In fact, if this isn’t the epitome of speculative fiction, I don’t know what is.

Mike recently did an interview with me over at BSBB, and I asked him about the job of an editor. Among other things, he described it as being similar to being the director of a play. Did you recently see a play or a movie that was more than the sum of its parts? How about a musical that was only 2 hours long, but seemed to have weeks of song in it? That’s what Clockwork Phoenix feels like, like time has been frozen, allowing Allen to cram far more beautiful strange things than the laws of physics should permit in less than 300 pages. Allen is a dude who really, really knows how to direct.

I used to always read anthologies in the order the stories were presented. I started liking anthologies much better after I decided I’d read the stories in any damn order I wanted (usually starting with the shortest). I know Mike Allen put these stories in this particular order, for a particular reason, and by reading them out of order it’s like I’m going through his carefully curated museum backwards. To be even more contrary, the order I’ve reviewed a handful of stories in isn’t the order they were presented in either.

I’ve not read much from most of the authors in this collection, so I greatly appreciated the “Pinions” section in the back, where each other offers a short bio, and more importantly a little snippet about how their story came to be. It was very nice to read that Corrine Duyvis is an arachnophobe.

Here are my thoughts on a handful of selected entries. This is just the smallest taste of what awaits you within these pages. Where available, click on the author’s name to visit their website.

The Old Woman With No Teeth by Patricia Russo – The Old Woman has hired someone to transcribe her story, but since he keeps getting things wrong she interrupts and tells him what he aught to be writing down. Their interaction is hilarious, but her story starts out sadly. The Old Woman is very lonely, and wants a family. She goes into the city to find orphans who might want to be adopted, and instead finds another population that is in more dire need of being wanted. It’s a little jarring how the story goes from a fantasy-feel to a matter-of-fact feel, but in the end it all works out.

Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl by Richard Parks – what happens when two story cliches meet each other? Beach Bum is the mysterious guy the female protagonist always meets in the story, maybe to fall in love with, maybe to learn something from, maybe to be hurt by, maybe just to watch. Drowned Girl is the dead girl the investigator always finds, the mystery to be solved, the child to be saved. And who knows? Maybe Beach Bum and Drowned Girl can help each other out and learn from each other. It couldn’t hurt to chat with another cliché, could it?

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Clockwork Phoenix (anthology) Volume 3, edited by Mike Allen

published in 2010

where I got it: gift from a friend (and she got it autographed for me!!)

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This is Mike Allen’s third volume of beautiful and strange short fiction. In previous volumes, he showcased new works by authors such as Mary Robinette Kowal, Saladin Ahmed, Catherynne M. Valente,  and Tanith Lee. And volume three continues in this vein, offering an intriguing collection of short fiction by well known authors such as John C. Wright, Cat Rambo, Gemma Files and Marie Brennan, along with works by lesser known folks that I am thrilled to have gotten to know a little better.  The theme to these anthologies is “tales of beauty and strangeness”, and Allen has certainly chosen works that match that description.  Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, we can look forward to a fourth volume of beauty and strangeness, the surreal and the fantastic.

Anthologies tend to run hot and cold for me. It’s like buying an album (did I just date myself?). You buy the album for one song, and hope the rest of it doesn’t suck. I’m the same way with anthologies. Out of the fifteen  short stories, maybe 3 of them were just okay for me. And the rest? The rest were pure winners.

In no particular order, here are my thoughts on a handful of my favorite short stories in the collection:

Murder in Metachronopolis, by John C. Wright – one of the longer works, and purposely presented in an unusual way. Jake Frontino has been brought to the city outside of time, Metachronopolis, the city of the Masters of Time, to work for them as a Private Investigator. They’ve sent him through time on missions to stop terrible things before they happen – to kill the mothers of dictators, to foil marriages and stop meetings from taking place. The Masters of Time supposedly have no enemies, but Jake has met those enemies, been party to their plans for a coup. The story is written in numbered portions, so the reader immediately knows we are not getting the story in chronological order, we are not getting “the truth” in the right order. And you know what I did the moment I finished this story? I read it again, flipping the pages back and forth so that with the help of the section numbers I could read it in chronological order, in the order that things happened to Jake. And it was a completely different story. I love it when that happens, when I can experience the same story in a completely new light.
The Gospel of Nachash by Marie Brennan – This is a retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden. I’m a sucker for any kind of old testament mythology, so this tale was right up my alley. Among its other twists, is the story of the Expulsion is told from the serpent’s point of view.  The serpent, Nachash, was also a creation of God, was also in the garden for a specific reason. Nachash and God’s Daughter watch Adam and Chava’s lives after the garden, and they witness the birth of Chava’s two sons. How will this tiny mortal family populate the earth, with no other women? God’s Daughter has a plan, and Nachash is at the center of it. But that’s not the twist, oh no, Brennan’s got an ever better trick up her sleeve.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.