Brief Book Reviews — Cinched: Imagination Unbound

This not-so-brief installment of Brief Book Reviews drops just in time for publisher and contributor John Hartness’s birthday. Thankfully, Cinched: Imagination Unbound, the anthology he convinced me to buy at JordanCon in Atlanta, deserves a glowing review as much as this man deserves a round of applause for pulling together yet another amazing collection.
Hartness01

The stories featured in Cinched are loosely bound together by the obvious theme, reinforced by the covers on both editions, along with an Amazon link to the Kindle edition. Unlike the recurrent theme, however, most of the tales themselves are tighter and more well-structured than any cinched corset. I attribute much of this to the fact that Hartness is known for drawing together talented teams of creative contributors, many of whom brainstormed their ideas with him at conventions and literary events across the American Southeast. These professionals delivered stories of varying quality, of course, but every single one entertains without letting the central theme get in the way of telling a compelling, even scary story.

Cinched_first ed

Personally, when I was first told about this idea for an anthology, I expected a series of bodice-ripper clichés and simmering scenes of soft core erotica. While enough tropes are used to satisfy fans of bodice-ripper tales and sexuality seeps into many of the stories, these are simply two tools found among the vast kits used by these authors to craft their contributions to Cinched. While their chosen genres range from what first appears to be a simple heist story to what has become standard Steampunk fare, each tale features an element of the paranormal or supernatural, usually associated with a corset or someone wearing a corset. This lends a dark, sometimes grim tone to much of the anthology, albeit with a touch of whimsy or irony common to some of these authors’ storytelling styles.

Normally, I try to keep a Brief Book Review abbreviated, but in the case of an anthology, I felt obliged to say something about each of the thirteen stories. These comments are in the order in which each story appears in Cinched and may contain some light spoilers.

Cinched_back

“Basque of the Red Death”  by Eden Royce is a haunting Southern Gothic piece set in Charleston in the chaotic years of social readjustment following the American Civil War. Royce’s handling of the corset theme will leave the reader traumatized while still cheering for the protagonist despite what fate has in store for her.

“Cazadora” by Andrea Judy reads like a Weird West tale that could have happened in a world where magic and monsters descend on a less racist Little House on the Prairie. The corsets in this story are a central focus of the magic imbuing certain characters and play an interesting role in the main character’s ultimate fate.

“Snake Bite” by Misty Massey is another Weird West installment with a dark tone. However, it reads like a revenge tale on the order of High Plains Drifter and will leave you loving the lengths to which the main character will go to avenge her family. The corset contained within this story was my favorite thanks to its detailed description and the insidious purpose for its creation.

“Escape” by Kimberly Richardson is a brutal (if beautiful) story of torture, judgment, and perception. I enjoyed the delicious twist in this particular tale, especially since it reveals as much about the reader as the characters.

The content and setting of “The Circus” by Emily Leverett seems obvious from its title, but you would be wrong. So wrong. This wonderfully scripted story blindsided me, giving it the best twist in the entire collection. I would tell you more, but no spoilers here.

Dave Harlequin’s “Homecoming” feels like a modern Dear Reader letter at first, but settles into a touching, often funny tale about a man who has lived entirely too long and has come to terms with his impending demise. The twist here contains too many spoilers, but I will say that “Homecoming” obviously involves corsets and the supernatural.

“The Blue Lights” by M.B. Weston continues this author’s tradition of crafting tales that pull the reader along on a journey that does not slow its pace or fully satisfy the constantly rising dramatic tension until the final unforgettable scene. Set mostly among the dank, wet moors of the United Kingdom, this Victorian story incorporates elements of a whodunit with native myths of spirits wandering the moors in the form of blue lights. Weston’s use of a corset here is as haunting as the tale’s main character is haunted.

For the sake of full disclosure, I had the privilege of beta-reading “A Gift for Death” by R.D. Stevens years before its publication. Though I enjoyed the rough draft version, her polished piece of vampire fiction set among the French countryside is far superior. While this may be one of the author’s first stories to be published, it is no less skillfully crafted or well-written than those contributed by long-time veterans in the field of genre fiction.

“High Fashion Hell” is publisher and editor John Hartness’s contribution to Cinched. It features Quincy Harker, Demon Hunter, a recurrent character created by the author. Harker is irreverent, often foul-mouthed, and a joy to watch work as he tries to solves a mystery at the local Ren-Faire. John’s use of many real-life vendors and featured events roots readers in the story and provides rich world-building in this fun, raucous ride.

“Tighten the Laces” by Herika Raymer is a smart, satisfying heist story set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. Between the rising suspense and the sense of urgency provided by the incoming storm, this tale is a real page-turner that does not disappoint. I love that a cautious, intelligent main character does not suddenly become dumb or reckless for the sake of dramatic tension. Without spoiling anything, Raymer finds other ways to keep the reader intrigued in the events unfolding in the story. From the first scene where our protagonist is tasked by a mysterious benefactor to locate a cursed corset to the final reveal of the closing scene, I enjoyed every moment of Raymer’s tale.

Nico Serene’s “The Shadow Fatale” is a fatalistic tale of a superhero who seeks to emulate her idol, without realizing the full consequences of her actions. I am not usually a big fan of superhero fiction, but Serene’s story quickly became my favorite part of this growing genre. Ultimately, “The Shadow Fatale” is as dark as the title character’s costume, which incorporates a sinister, possibly sentient corset to satisfy the central theme.

“Bone of My Bone, Flesh of My Flesh” by Sarah Joy Adams is much like “Homecoming” in the respect that it is a refreshing surprise, like a Russian Nesting Doll containing a solid gold figure at its core. Set in a whaling village in late 19th century New England, Adams’s story is as much a classic as Moby Dick while embracing the nebulous magical realism of physical transformation seen in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Wallace’s Big Fish. Like its main character, this tale has as much heart as a whale while leaving the reader wondering if we are witnessing a grieving woman’s spiral towards madness or a magical creature returning to her people to search for her missing husband.

While Gail & Larry Martin’s “Lagniappe” is the anchor tale in Cinched, it is a featherweight compared to the narrative and dramatic weight of the story before it, which I felt would have been a much more fitting conclusion to this anthology. Labelled as a Storm and Fury Adventure, this Steampunk story is set predominantly in the American South and features two handsome, swashbuckling agents who work for the Department of Supernatural Investigation, along with the help of a female airship captain. While their target, a treasure belonging to a Confederate blockade runner, contains a corset that ties into the central theme of the anthology, the item does not feel fully integrated into the story, relegating it to the status of a McGuffin in a buddy cop plotline accentuated with Steampunk elements. It’s an enjoyable, familiar romp, but does not feel as integrated with the theme and tone of the rest of the anthology.

Overall, Cinched: Imagination Unbound does exactly what Hartness charged me to do when he signed my copy at JordanCon. Not only does this anthology free readers’ minds from their preconceptions about bodice-rippers, it challenges their imaginations to think of corsets as more than sexy torture devices that accentuate figures and costumes in a way that stimulates the observer. In fact, many of these stories torture their characters as much as any corset ever worn by man, woman, or even monster. And as a reader, you will enjoy every minute of it, so do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Cinched, another winner from Falstaff Books.

You can find it on Amazon using the following link:

 

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOHN!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brief Book Reviews #1: Edible Complex by Brett Brooks

Polonius tells us, “Brevity is the soul of wit”, and in our modern society brevity is more important than ever. Especially when it comes to social media marketing and pitching products to a society with a short attention span. To this effect, I have instituted a new series on my blog with the apt, if not-so-original, name “Brief Book Reviews.”

Edible Complex Cover_Brett Brooks.jpg

Sticking with my love of alliteration, I have decided to start this series with author Brett Brooks and his novel Edible Complex.  Everywhere one looks these days, zombies surround us. They’ve become a bigger and bigger part of pop culture ever since George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. With the mainstream popularity of The Walking Dead, zombies are enjoying a high-water mark. In fact, Broke Guys Productions joined this craze several years ago when we wrote a feature-length screenplay entitled Night of the Living Rednecks.

In those properties, and in all the best zombie media, the undead are treated as a metaphor. In our version, we’re commenting on the meth epidemic in the Southeast. Kirkman seems to be saying that one should not fear the sheep in society (the Walkers); instead, one should fear the wolves (the Living). In Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead, he’s commenting on out-of-control materialism and consumer spending. Brett Brooks’ novel is no different, yet so different.

In Edible Complex, the zombies are quite peculiar, even finicky creatures. They’re not a fan of human flesh, unless provoked. They possess a herd mentality, following alpha zombies and the trends set by them. One day, the zombies may crave cereal. The next, cabbage becomes popular. This presents a challenge to those tasked with meeting the ever-changing demands of the undead hordes across the globe. With this take on zombies, Brooks’ crafts a wonderful metaphor on modern marketing and how it affects trends in pop culture and consumer spending.

He does so with wicked wit, a clean writing style, and an excellently paced novel filled with characters who are three-dimensional, possessing complex motivations. No one feels like a true villain. Or a real hero. They are people doing their best to follow their inner truths, which sometimes places them at cross purposes with the other characters. The conflicts feel natural, not forced. The same with the plot development, climax, and resolution.

In a world filled with zombie media, be sure to check out Brett Brooks’ Edible Complex for a funny, thought-provoking story in which zombies are not only a reality, but a key demographic.

Edible Complex is available on Amazon (Kindle and Paperback formats) and Audible.

Memphis Comic & Fantasy Con is This Weekend!

And yours truly will be there. Come find me at the Dark Oak Press table to purchase your signed copies of Finders Keepers and Sands of Sorrow. I’ll be selling both Cycle of Ages Saga novels at a steep convention discount. If I’m not there, I’m likely in a panel. Check the website HERE for more information on panels, guests, vendors, and more.

 

cropped-MCFC-2015-header-JD-_001

 

As part of a special promotion for Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention, I’ve listed my latest Kindle release, a short story entitled “The Devil & Klaus Kristiansen”, for FREE from Thursday, November 19th to Monday, November 23rd. You can download it from Amazon by clicking HERE.

DevilKK_Cover_2015

From the Slushpile: The Devil & Klaus Kristiansen (Part I)

Let’s start October off on the right foot with a new blog feature, “From the Slushpile.” I’ve decided on this title as many of the stories that I will share in serial form here were either too extreme for the publishers (as in the case of our first story), did not work for the publishers/editors, or simply did not find a home in print for one reason or another.

I’ve held onto these for some time, even though they continue to get good reviews from select people who have read them. And I cannot afford to pay a cover artist for each story so I can place them on Kindle. As a result of being a broke guy with dark, eclectic, and often whimsical tastes in fiction, you will have the opportunity to read these on my blog in serialized form. All for free. Well, mostly free. I will ask for a small sacrifice of your time, attention, and if you’re being constructive or complementary, input while these tales reel out for your perusal. But be forewarned, not all of these stories made it to final formatting. There may be a few errors hiding in the text.

This story was written for Seventh Star Press’s Southern Haunts 2, although it was deemed too extreme for their PG-13 rating. I was asked to cut my drug references, sexual situations, adult language, and graphic violence. I doubt there would have been much of a story left at that point, so I pulled the submission. The submission guidelines called for a story about demons, based on a real life event in a real place. So I chose to fictionalize a story about an occurrence in Jacksonville, Alabama that I cannot fully explain to this day. Without further adieu, I bring you the beginning of “The Devil & Klaus Kristiansen.”

### \m/ ###

The college party at the Wind Song Apartments, located in a real Hellmouth, a rather picturesque college town called Jacksonville, Alabama, stretched into the early hours of the morning. Until the flabby arm of Johnny Law saw fit to end it. As with so many events in my life, it started with revelry and ended in tragedy.

A few others and I sought the nearby refuge of our friend Klaus Kristiansen.  We clustered into his cluttered, cramped apartment to smoke the kindest of the kind and drink the stoutest of the stout. But most of all we talked.

As we became comfortably numb, time like topic became relative. Quite relative indeed. Our numbers dwindled as the sun crept toward the horizon outside of Klaus’s smoky den until only he and I remained. As we sat on the edge of consciousness, the conversation turned to the ephemeral, the heady stuff of dreams. We each shared our disparate visions for the future of humanity before discussing our own personal versions.

We saw ourselves as crafting our reality based on something we’d seen with our sleeping minds’ eyes. As a result of his dreams, King Klaus Kristiansen sought a path of conquest, using his inborn abilities to create a modern version of a medieval fiefdom that would allow him to reign supreme over lesser men. As an extropian and staunch believer in the power of the human spirit, I sought to help my fellow humans cast off the shackles of pyramidal control structures and evolve past the limited thinking produced by a society based on the specter of scarcity. He called me a fool. And I called him a fascist.

One might ask why I was friends with such a person, someone I knew to be diametrically opposed to most everything I believed. I’d listened to my medicine father’s songs and stories as he taught me the indigenous ways of my people, the ways of the pipe. Though I heard his cautionary tales of all the mysteries of creation, both great and small, I didn’t believe them at the time. It took confronting the forces of darkness and losing the battle for someone’s soul to make me a believer.

I’d met Klaus Kristiansen when he’d come to attend school in my hometown, a sleepy but sinful town nestled among the foothills of the Appalachians. The self-described Rock ‘n Roll Satanist claimed to be the grandson of an SS Colonel who helped Hitler develop the world’s first flying saucers. In short, Klaus was larger than life, an id, an ego, and superego wedged into leather pants two sizes too small. A man most would call crazy, or comical, if it wasn’t for the .40 caliber Glock stuck into his waistband.

As a keen observer of human behavior, Klaus fascinated and infuriated me, in the fashion of a noisome bee, unsure if it’s simply annoying or actually dangerous. He could be elegant, chivalrous, and noble one moment and selfish, sadistic, and cruel the very next. He vexed most people. But I took his offer of friendship as a challenge.

We had reached a philosophical impasse, as we often did in our debates. The conversation hit a lull. Blue smoke swirled in the stale air between us. And then a knock at the door cut the tension with the ease of a razor’s edge. Paranoia replaced my concern for my troubled friend’s post-apocalyptic vision for humanity’s future. Who could be knocking this time of the morning? Was it the police again? If so, we were going to jail.

Klaus shifted his black eyes from me to the door. As one hand slid his tray under the lip of the sofa, the other edged the semiautomatic pistol from its holster. Before he could draw the pistol, the Turtle entered in spectacular fashion. His Krameresque entry startled us more than his sudden rapping on the apartment door.

The Turtle–nicknamed for his smooth head and hunched back–made wild claims to various abilities, including but not limited to psychical and martial prowess. To us, he was simply a talkative, imaginative friend who happened to resemble a pink-skinned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. And this morning he provided the catalyst to jumpstart our flagging conversation. But Turtle became a catalyst of a different sort, for he too had been led by his dreams…to us.

“Guys, you won’t believe what happened to me last night,” he blustered, plopping down onto the sofa. Slender, almost waifish Klaus toppled over onto his side as the weight of Turtle’s bulky frame jarred the couch’s sensitive springs.

“You got laid,” I guessed, taking the sheen of sweat on his bald head as evidence of an evening of pleasant exertion. And as a virginal male, sex was always on my mind.

Recovering, Klaus quipped, “Only in his dreams.”

I laughed madly, and he joined me. The tension between Klaus and I evaporated as we shared a joke at Turtle’s expense.

“How’d you know it had to do with a dream?” Turtle shook his head in disbelief, his eyes bulging as he stared at us. “Creepy.”

“You’re creepy,” Klaus jibed.

“What had to do with a dream?” I inquired, too tired and too stoned to follow a madman’s riddles.

“What I came to tell you guys about. Though showing you might be easier.”

“Show us? What the hell are you talking about?” Klaus demanded.

“Exactly.” Turtle replied.

“Exactly?” I asked, flummoxed. Putting on my best British accent, I said, “That’s a bollocks answer, old chap. Spit it out before the Zulu overrun the bloody perimeter.”

“Hell!” Turtle exclaimed, almost shouting. “Well, a dream about hell anyway. And you guys were there. We were all there.”

“Thanks, man.” I retorted, sounding annoyed. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me I’m going to hell but didn’t expect it from the acid-dipped spawn of Flower Children.”

Turtle’s gypsy parents had travelled the length and breadth of the country during the Counterculture Movement.  His aunt and maternal grandmother had joined them, touring the nation from shore to shore on a tie-dyed school bus converted into a camper. The Turtle’s clan finally settled in the piney hills of Alabama before giving birth to our fantastic, if fanciful friend.

“And I’ve seen the Wizard of Oz, so suck it, Turtle,” Klaus added.

“You don’t believe in Hell?” Turtle asked. “But you’re a Satanist.”

“I believe in Hell as a metaphorical construct not a geophysical reality.”

“Yeah, what he said,” I seconded. “It’s a philosophy that involves not creating your own hell on earth. And the idea that you can only believe in yourself and your own power. It’s really an extreme form of humanism, a selfish, self-aggrandized one at that.”

“Damn right,” Klaus said. “It’s all about me. I create my own heaven or hell wherever I go, with whatever I do.”

“Something like that,” I said, “only you could be using that energy for the good of all mankind, instead of wasting it on pursuits that benefit no one but yourself.”

“Hippie.” Klaus hissed.

“Devil worshipper,” I quipped.

“Guys! Do you want to see what I was talking about? I can show you.”

Sighing, Klaus said with disgust, “Fine. Show me your version of hell, Turtle.”

And then he did.

*** TO BE CONTINUED ***

This story was written by Jeremy Hicks. It is his original content and cannot be used anywhere else without his expressed written consent. However, this blog may be shared, reblogged, etc. on social media for the purposes of promoting the author, his blog, and his other creative works. 

Any resemblance to persons living or dead, events real or imagined, etc. is entirely intentional. This is a work of fiction but draws on real events and references the real world at times. Any reference, product placement, or pop culture quote is not intended to impinge on any trademark, patent, and/or copyright; rather it is flavor text for the dialogue of characters raised within the context of our pop culture.

 If you don’t like these terms of agreement, go check yourself. You’re complaining about a #FREE story.

Sands of Sorrow Book Launch Giveaway

Does the subject line say #Giveway? Technically, excluding the bothersome but necessary hashtag, you’re correct!

Enter HERE for a chance to win a #FREE paperback copy of the Cycle of Ages Saga: Sands of Sorrow, the sequel to Finders Keepers, through #Amazon Giveaways.

perf6.000x9.000.indd

If you don’t win, you can still purchase Sands of Sorrow HERE.

If you haven’t read the first installment in the Cycle of Ages Saga, you can purchase Finders Keepers, HERE.

Please remember to share this with your friends and fellow readers. Thanks for participating!

May the Fates of Faltyr be kind to you, dear reader.