A single light

The explosive conclusion of ‘The line between’.

A Single Light. Howard Pub Co, 2019.

‘A single light’ is the continuation of ‘The line between’. We left Wynter, the main character, running away from Magnus and the cult he was the leader of, with the world on the brink of a lethal pandemic no one knows much of, except it’s deadly. Herself, Chase, her boyfriend, and Truly, her niece, found shelter in Noah’s underground silo, west of the city of Gurney. It’s now day  14 of the 180 days their permanence will actually last. The three of them, along with another group of 61 people, are literally locked in: on the double doors that lead in and out there is a computer timer that will not open until the countdown ends, not even if tampered with. In that case, it will probably not open at all. 

Inside, Wynter became Winnie: this is the closest she can get to her real name without pronouncing it. They don’t know who might know something or not, and they can’t risk it.

In the bunker, the artificial lights are set to create the illusion of a passing day: there is the sunrise and the sunset, and a big, black screen that shows a starry night sky. It helps for a while, even if it displays always a bright, sunny June day, even when they are celebrating Christmas. At midnight precisely Noah appears on the screen. Since the door needed to be locked both from the inside and the outside at the same time, he was the one who got out. He now talks to his people from an office above surface. At 5.30 each day he records a message, that will be later broadcast to the people inside. But his latest video messages is cut short, and he appears to be leaving in a rush. The compound tries to find an explanation, decides to wait until the next day, and then grows impatient when, as midnight approaches, there is no sign of Noah.

Day 29, still no sign of Noah or the outside, while on the inside there is a raging war of speculations and different possible scenarios. The morale is low and the inhabitants, inevitably, start to panic and take it against each other. The tension is palpable, different people want different things, and the attempt of one of the guests to open the door while another guest tries to stop them, ends up with the death of one of them, Braden, reducing the number from 63 to 62. After a brief and summary process, it’s unanimously decided that Piper, the culprit deserved capital punishment. She is escorted inside the walk-in freezer and tied against a pole. But Jay, her husband, incapable of accepting the fate she chose for herself, gets into the freezer too. Only 60 people are now left in the silo.

Eventually, they find out about Wynter too. There is an article on someone’s phone, the last one before they locked themselves in, titled ‘MURDER SUSPECT DISAPPEARS WITH PROMISING RESEARCH’ but since there is no broadband, the image can’t be uploaded. They ask Truly, who confirms that yes, Winnie’s name is Wynter. It takes them a second to put two and two together and Wynter is sedated and locked in the pen that was built after the first of them died, to be used as a makeshift jail cell. Wynter is forced to tell her story – her life in the compound, how she escaped it thanks to the manipulations of her sister, who did it to save Truly, how she delivered the samples of the infected pigs’ brains to a vet, how she is escaping from justice but telling the truth. No one wants to believe she is innocent and that she means no harm. Chase gives his mates his phone and tells them to look at the pictures and some files he stored on them, proving Wynter is innocent. The reason why he knows is that he is a bounty hunter and his encounter with Wynter wasn’t casual at all.

The compound finally believes her, bus the fracture between Chase and Wynter is inevitable. It’s only fair that she starts to question all the things he said, including his profession of love. They settle for a polite co-existence, where they don’t speak to each other unless it’s strictly necessary.

The Open Day is closer, and they all start to make plans about how they will resume their lives outside, thinking what is expecting them out there and how to act when the doors open: will there be vaccines? Will it be a nuclear winter instead? A few days before the doors are supposed to open, an alarm starts ringing, and they all get worried. What’s happening? If the doors open before time who will cross them, friends or foes? They gather their weapons and wait. But when nothing happens, they decide to bolt into action and go out, forcing the doors open. It’s 3 in the morning in the outside world and four of them, including Wynter and Chase gear up to see what’s going on.

The first thing they notice is the absence of traces of Noah, or any of his neighbours. Chase and Winter set off to reach the nearest town, but along the way they only find desolation, not a single soul and spray-painted counts of victims in that particular house or church or if the place hosts infected people. It’s scary and disheartening, but they keep going. They eventually encounter Otto, a boy who, according to a message left by his dead father, is different but not bad. The only different thing about him, as they will soon discover, is the fact that he’s a mute, but he can actually interact with them, either by pointing at things or scribbling short messages on the notepad he carries around. They offer him to join them and he accepts. At a certain point Otto shows them a drawing he made of Noah. Otto is a local boy, and he knows about Noah and the silo. He’s also funny, smart and very sweet, and both Chase and Wynter take a liking to him, they kind of become a little family, until they cross a small gang dressed like vigilantes that shot him. As sad as it is, there is nothing left to do to save him and Chase and Wynter have to continue their journey.

It won’t be the last encounter they have with peril for the rest of the book, but eventually each problem will find its solution.

As in ‘The line between’, this book is packed with back to back action, plot twists, characters that we love and lose and amazing scenes that too often hit too close home. As Lee herself points out in the final acknowledgments, during the final edits of the book, her Nebraska home was hit by a bomb cyclone, delivering blizzards to the west and water to the east. As scary as the experience was, it did give her some writing material. As usual, her prose is neat and her dialogues witty, the pace is fast but never rushed and the characters are lovely, even though this instalment is perhaps a little less gripping that the other, probably because of the plot itself: the fact that Wynter and Chase spend more than half a book travelling, hiding and escaping chips away at complex descriptions and feelings. However, this book is yet another incredible page-turner, gripping from the first to the last page.

Read our review of ‘The line between’ here.

To find out more about Tosca Lee’s work, visit her website.


Sunset distortion

The debut novel by Californian author Paul Bahou

Paul Bahou, Paul Bahou printing, 2021

LA, summer. Georgios Hassan is wearing leather pants at noon on a Tuesday in a bar in West Hollywood. He’s a heavy metal musician that only answers to the name of Lazers (‘with a z’ he will specify more than once along the book). He and his band, the Killer Orca almost made it, back in the days, but then grunge hit and so did families and personal stuff and they simply fizzled away. They continued to play, but more for pleasure and a hobby rather than with the dream of becoming famous rock starts who toured the world. Despite a series of misunderstandings and some very bad arguments, Lazer kept on the rocker bad boy aura: he wears leather pants no matter what the weather, lives in his van at the back of a bar where he’s a a regular, and always has sunglasses on.

One night, while Lazer is going back home, ‘a bit drunk but not so drunk’ as per his words, he falls and passes out on the pavement. When he wakes up, he is in an anonymous and unrecognisable white room. He’ll soon find out he woke up on the John Smith Seven, a missionary ship part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day, a space ship. An embarrassed and inexpert young and pretty woman welcomes him. She introduces herself as Qiti, and explains that it’s her first day as a converter of humans to the religion. What kind of religion, asks Lazer. We are the Smormons, replies Qiti. They are Mormons – same beliefs, same way of spreading the word of God – but in space, instead of Earth. Hence the name.

While Qiti is still making sure Lazer is fine and she is explaining to him a few basic concepts, an alarm goes off, creating some panic on board. A multi-legged behemoth, with hooks instead of paws, is attacking the ship and its population. It’s not possible, thinks Lazer. I must have fallen asleep and when I woke up I was somewhere in Vegas, he tries to convince himself. But when he looks out of the window, he realises he’a not: outside the sky is black and it’s the only thing he can see, along with stars. He is in deep space. When he meets Qiti again and asks her what’s going on, she tells him they are under pirate attack and tells him to be careful, but the pirates still manage to capture Lazer, confirming they have the asset.

Once peace is re-established on board, Qiti starts doing researche on the space ship computer, and she finds out that her ancestors descend from the human race, but they have been abducted many years before and genetically modified by a superior species to be used as cheap mining labour. They are known as ‘the Olympians’.

In the meanwhile, Lazer is brought to the Galactic Union. When he asks what it is, the answer he has from a pig named Miley Katy Obama-Kardashian sounds like a series of squeals that make no sense for Lazer. Apparently, humans and the human world are very liked, studied, copied and highly regarded in the Galactic Union:

‘pretty much all of the planets in a million light-years in any direction that host interstellar life are members,” she replied with a wide wave of her hoof. “And all of them use Earth culture in some way. Well, except for maybe the Cloud People of Gomnitak 7 who don’t really have ears or eyes or brains, and they’re mostly made out of water vapor, so they’re kind of hard to interact with—snort.

From Miley Katy Obama-Kardashian, Lazer discovers that they are at the market and they will probably be sold, as pets if they are lucky, as food if they are not. But since he is a human, he will probably be kept alive, the pig reassures him.

In the meantime, Qiti is still researching Dr Quant’s old files and medical cases. She was one of the Doctors on board of the Star of Zeus, an old research ship, and kept a video logs of her research, but then she stopped. Why did she? What happened after? In one of the security footage, she sees that Dr Quant is checking on a patient’s vital, a little girl inside a preservation capsule that keeps her in a suspended state. There is a small accident, the ship loses energy and Dr Quant is forced to check on the panels manually to restore its functions. When she is back in the medical bay, the patient is awake and the video stops.

Lazer is auctioned and bought by a demon called Gorlack, who has no intention at all to keep him as a pet. All the contrary. Gorlack brings him home to his wife and two kids to actually serve him as a delicacy for dinner. Sadly, and quite suddenly, Gorlack passes away right before eating Lazer, since the man blows a puff of cigarette smoke in his face. For non-humans this is lethal. In the general confusion that ensues, Lazer manages to escape with a companion, an Octopus-like creature named Streek who had also been bought to be consumed by Gorlack and his family. They are rescued by a Clicklaxia ship, whose commander is Dex Rotho, an Olympian. Here, Lazer discovers that Qiti is a highly technological and particularly advanced computer, created to translate the information contained on an ancient piece of technology, the Bakuma Key. Eventually, Dax and a band of mercenaries at her command set sail to hunt this precious treasure and Lazer will go with them, crossing a nice and variegated array of different creatures.

This weird ensemble of superior race tech and human objects somehow may remind the reader of ‘Back to the future – Part 2’, where what we know and what we can only imagine blends majestically, just like in the pages of ‘Sunset Distortion’. The lightness of the narrative, the fast actions, the paced plot and the numerous encounters also bring to mind ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, where a human is suddenly catapulted in space without batting an eyelid, just like Lazer, whose adventures will lead to an explosive, no holds barred final battle.

On a personal note, I really appreciated the rock music reference!

‘Sunset Distorsion’ is available for purchase at:


Dealer’s Child

Book Two of the ‘Jade & Sage Thriller Series’ by Joanna Vander Vlugt

Dealer’s Child. Ozzy Imprint, 2021.

Oscar, a man in his 70s who needs dialysis three times a week, is bargaining with Edith, longtime friend and retired nurse, who is about to give him a lethal dose of fentanyl. He had a long, rich life, and waiting for a transplant will only prolong his misery.

It’s better in this way, he convinces Edith. 

She accepts, she has to, but she can’t stop feeling guilty.

The scene moves to Jade, a lawyer who successfully defended her ex-husband from a murder charge (in Book One, available here), only to find him brutally murdered six months before the beginning of our story. She is now struggling with bad dreams, her Vicodin addiction, her mental health and a counsellor that stopped her therapy sessions to get a better job, on the verge of her recovery. She lives with her new boyfriend, Osmond, an undercover policeman waiting for a new assignment. When he finally receives it, it’ not good news: he has to leave soon for Montreal, where the new assignment will take the best part of a year, if not longer. There isn’t much Jade can do, if not breaking up with him on the spot, ride her motorbike, and drive to her office, where she will bury herself in her job.

Sage, Jade’s sister, texts her she is coming over with a box of their deceased mother’s art, who was a painter in her 20s, but, for reasons unknown to the two sisters, stopped abruptly. Her work is still notable, and Sage insists that Jade should have a memento of their mother too.

In a flashback, the one of several happening during the narration, we discover that Edith and Genie were best friends at university and Genie knew Oscar too. Their connection was so strong that Edith was jealous of her.

Back to the present, Jade receives a phone call from Sergeant Stone. Charles, her father, is dead: cocaine overdose. It’s a double shock for the sisters. It’s already tragic enough to lose a parent, but losing him in such usual circumstances, is even more devastating. Since when did their father make use of drugs? Once the police are done at his place, the two sisters are allowed inside, and they are asked to point out anything missing or misplaced. They find pictures of Valentina Vane, another lawyer, who more than once rivalled Jade in court. They had no idea she was Charles’s lady friend.

Before his death, Charles was looking up newspaper articles from the 90s about unsolved murder cases that authorities believed to be drug-related. He also had articles about Oscar. Did he know him? The girls also notice that his cell phone and laptop are nowhere to be found, only the chargers, and, in the bin, there are pictures of Valentina and Charles. Was there trouble in paradise?

The police leave the scene and the girls remain to have another look. They have to break the news to Dr Vlasic, the kind, retired neighbour. It turns out that he has the laptop, he explains Charles gave it to him and that he was going to pick it up the day following the night he died. He also reports that Valentina and Charles had broken up, and the night before she’d showed up with two men to collect her stuff, but nothing had actually been removed.

In another flashback we see Jade as a child, visiting Oscar with her mom. Not long after Adam Malone arrives; he’s Archie’s son, Oscar’s best friend, his number two and a drug dealer too, a detail about Oscar that was already lingering in the air but that is finally out in the open.

The two kids are playing in Oscar’s garden, when a man kidnaps Jade. All the adults come out of the house and Genie shouts to Oscar ‘Go get our girl’. He does, Jade is safe, but that’s the last time Adam sees her. He finds her again 25 years later thanks to social media. We find him in his house with Oscar’s two bodyguards. Oscar has just passed away and Adam has a delivery for Jade. In the envelope he gives her, there are five thumbnails and two keys. Jade doesn’t even have the time to put the pieces together when another phone call disrupts her life: Charles’s old house, the one now belonging to her and her sister, is on fire. Not long after this event, Valentina sets up a meeting with Jade. A series of coincidences? Jade doesn’t believe in coincidences.

While listening to the recordings that Oscar left her on the thumbnails Adam delivered, Jade finds out that yes, Oscar and Genie had an intense and passionate love story, but that’s not the only thing unravelling from the recordings Jade listens to in this action-packed thriller, told with a superb narrative voice.

The story is fast, but never leaves the reader behind, wondering who is who and what just happened. Every event is clearly detailed and skilfully intertwined with the others, the use of flashbacks is fantastic, it gives Vander Vlugt the possibility to tell entire chunks of the story avoiding long, expositional paragraphs while continuously pushing the narration forward, feeding the reader new information, but never enough to have a clear look at the bigger picture. The main characters, Jade and her sister Sage, are fresh, vibrant, realistic and very relatable. The touch of supernatural that Vander Vlugt adds from the middle onwards is simply genius – Jade is capable of seeing and communicating with her defunct mother, who has a big favour to ask her. But will Jade accommodate her quest?

You’ll have to read it to the end to find out!

Dealer’s Child is available for purchase at:

For more information on Joanna’s work you can also visit her website:


Daughter of Hades

The latest novel by Mack Little – shortlisted for the Hawthorne Prize 2022

 Daughter of Hades. Inklings Publishing, 2021.

There’s a time, a place and a girl: May 19th, 1649, St Dismas Plantation, Barbados. Geraldine Dinny, a very young slave has to defend herself from her master’s advances, she runs away and now she fears for the worst.

Getting away from her master’s – hence her own – house, she faces a fork in the road: one leads to ma and pa and the comfort of her family, the other to a ship ready to set sail. She opts for the ship. Suddenly, while she is fleeing, a pair of hands grab her in the dark. Her fears are soon dissipated when she hears her twin brother Jimmie’s voice, commanding the stranger to release her and introduces him as Leixiang, Lei, a friend who will help them.

Cockpits, Jamaica, same day.

Ami – Dinny and Jimmie’s cousin – lies awake in her bed, incapable of falling asleep. She can feel change coming soon. She knows Dinny is on her way there, her brother and grandfather are on the way to the port to pick her up. She is not worried about her cousin, though, there is something else nagging her. She finally falls asleep and she sees the ghost of a white woman standing in the doorframe of her room.

‘Beyond the stony shores and the roiling seas lies his destiny. His providence is greatness. Despair will be his destruction and the death of his soul’. This is what the woman says to her.

She is talking about a boy that Ami sees in this dream that is not really a dream. It’s a domestic scene: the woman is pottering around in her kitchen, a man and two boys sit around the table, eating. The person the woman is referring to is Pascal, Pax, her son. The man, Jean-Pierre, is the lady’s husband, and him, Pax and Ivan, Pax’s brother, are having a theological discussion, when they hear a loud bang on the door. On the other side there are two soldiers, and Jean-Pierre asks Ivan to take his brother and mother to Father Dominique. But his wife stays behind. Jean-Pierre is the brother of the Duke Renault Durfort, a member of the king’s council. He too could have status and prestige, if it wasn’t for his heretic religious views. The two soldiers are there to ruffle his feathers, but Jean-Pierre knows better and does not engage. When one of the two asks what they are having for dinner and he’s presented with a simple stew, he demands to have some meat in it, and Jean-Pierre obliges. While Jean-Pierre is out to buy meat as requested, one of the soldiers slaps Marie-Claire so hard that she falls, hits her head and dies. At this point Ami wakes up screaming.

Meanwhile, in France, Ivan and Pax go back home to find their mother dead. Pax grabs a butcher’s knife and kills one of the soldiers. Ivan grabs his brother and they flee. They go to Philippe, Ivan’s friend, to figure out a plan to leave all together.

It turns out that Ivan and Philippe are lovers, so for them running away was already an option. Unfortunately, they are robbed but they manage to escape. On the run and with no money, their only choice is to sign a contract with a brokerage agent. In the office, beside the agent there is also a blond, fascinating man that catches Ivan’s eye and Philippe notices it. When they are back to their room they have an argument that is soothed by a roll in bed and it all seems sorted when someone knocks on the door. It’s the man from earlier. His name is Captain Ford and he bought their contact. They board on a ship that sails towards the Caribbean, finally safe, but not long after their departure Philippe falls from the riggers he was tending and dies instantly. It’s a shock for Ivan who’s not sure if it was an accident, if Captain Ford is involved or if Philippe jumped.

The two ships eventually cross each other’s path, and so do their crews, in a whirl of revelations, deaths, prisoners, chases and separations that will not end until the very last page.

‘Daughter of Hades’ tells the fascinating and often painful history of the Caribbeans through the life experience of characters that might have actually lived it. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a time when young people were forced to work as slaves and tried to escape in search of a better life. Too often, though, we tend to forget about it, and that’s why this story is still relevant today. 

But ‘Daughter of Hades’ is much more than a lesson in Caribbean history and the impact slavery has on its characters. At its core, it is a fight for survival and revenge captured in its purest state, and a historical romance showing that people can find love even in the strangest of places, or the strangest of situations. There are times when the story gets lots because of the too many characters, but it’s a brilliant read that flows easily nonetheless, full of plot twists, some happy, some not so much, imaginative characters and historical accuracy. A great read if you are a fan of historical fiction.

Daughter of Hades is available for purchase on Amazon:


The Line Between

Brace yourselves and dive into this masterfully written (apocalyptic) thriller by Tosca Lee

The Line Between. Howard Books, 2019.

Alaskan exterior, June. A pig farmer calls his sow, Jill, but she doesn’t show up. He finds it unusual and walks deep into the forest to look for her. Eventually he finds a carcass, possibly a caribou, that has been badly bitten by a pig. Jill is nearby with a fresh litter of piglets. The farmer brushes the episode off thinking what they say about pigs is true: they eat everything. Two days later he finds her with her belly torn open and her piglets savaged around her.

The scene changes. We are no longer in Alaska, but in a mysterious compound that that appears to be some sort of prison. It is, in a way. A girl, whose name is Wynter, is escorted by two Guardians. Is she going to die? The whole set up looks like an execution is about to take place. Wynter keeps walking with nothing more than a plastic bag in her hands, no one around her talks, and she is having a million thoughts a minute, the most recurrent being ‘I am about to go to Hell.” Her sister Jaclyn and her niece Truly are standing not far, silent, eyes casted. Wynter wants to say something meaningful to Truly before whatever fate is expecting her, but the little girl runs away and she instinctively tries to get her. The efforts to kick her out of the compound are doubled and when she crosses the gates, desperation gets her. But there is a car waiting for her in the distance. Maybe it’s not all lost.

Suddenly, a step back in time. Wynter is 22 when she’s expelled from the compound, but the story goes back to the day she entered the compound for the first time. She was 9 and her sister Jacklyn was 12. Their mother, Sylvia, brought them there to escape from an abusive husband. Julie, her mother’s best friend, tried to convince her to find another solution and offered her help and shelter, but Julie refused, certain of what she was doing. They are going to leave at New Earth, an enclave in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, where they will find peace and freedom. When they arrive, they are settled in what will later be known as the guests’ house: all new arrivals are placed there when they enter the community. They are separated from all the negative things they brought with them from the outside (clothes, technology, wealth), given a strict set of rules to follow and accept a new lifestyle, made of prayer, blind faith in their leader and communal spirit. These are the ‘only’ things that Magnus, the New Prophet and spiritual leader of the cult asks his family. The inhabitants of New Earth are God’s chosen few, the only ones that will be saved when the world ends. And the world will end soon, Magnus insists. That’s why they must be prepared and extra careful with what they do, eat, think, believe.

After a trial period, Sylvia and her daughters are asked to stay. They are relocated from the guests’ house and separated. Jaclyn goes to the young women’s dormitory and Wynter to the girls’ one. Mom is moved to a barrow for single women that everyone calls the Factory and which the two girls aren’t allowed to visit. When their mother become sick, they are told only so they can pray and repent, because their mother’s illness is due to the negativity that still exists in their life. Sylvia dies of cancer anyway, and not because of the negativity in their life, but because she didn’t receive the necessary treatments.

During her permanence there, Wynter meets new people that want to enter the New Earth compound, and one of them is Shae. When Shae and her father arrive, Wynter is the one that welcomes them. She likes this new girl, they are the same age and she is magnetic. Shae is the typical rebellious teenager: five studs in each ear, smokes weed, her hair is half shaved half long, the ensemble giving her a feral look. There is something in Shae that Wynter feeds of. They listen to music together on Shae’s phone and look at pictures of her boyfriend and the ocean. It’s their secret, and for Wynter it’s very important, as she finally feels she belongs somewhere. It doesn’t matter what she does and how hard she tries, because she is never enough for New Earth. It takes her far longer than others to actually be allowed to go out the compound to work. As a matter of fact, the New Earth community is a corporation whose purpose is to save and trade ancient seeds and avoid their extinction. Some of the members are allowed to go to the nearby city to sell these seeds and other homemade products. But they need to be worthy, faithful and their outing has to be approved by the Elders and Magnus. After Shae and her father are asked to stay, she repents and confesses all the forbidden things she did with Wynter. Suddenly Wynter loses Shae, the little privilege she had and she has to spend a lot of time isolated, thinking about her sins. What she doesn’t see is that Shae is not a sudden convert, but she is only waiting for the right opportunity to escape. And she does. Shae is quickly assigned to outside work; one day she gets the petty cash from the sales and runs away.

Not long after Kestral, Magnum’s wife, dies. It’s a shock, especially because Kestral is the first person Wynter and her family met when they arrived and became a motherly figure when Sylvia passed away. Magnus, though, can’t stay unmarried. Soon his weeding with Jaclyn is announced. And so is Wynter’s wedding. With Shae’s dad. It’s another shocking news to absorb, but somehow Wynter manages to escape her fate, while Jaclyn becomes Magnus’s new wife and gives him a daughter.

Five years after these events, Wynter is eventually expelled for good.

In the car waiting for her outside is Julie, her mom’s best friend in a previous life. Behind the wheel there is Lauren, Julie’s stepdaughter. She remarried with Ken, Lauren’s father, when Lauren was one, but Wynter has no memory of that.

The outside world is a strange place, and Wynter must get used to a whole lot of new things, like the Internet, smartphones, driving, no rules to follow. She starts seeing a therapist too, and she finds out that New Earth International is on the radar of different watchdogs for being a cult, and that Kestral is not actually dead.

Back to the crazy pigs at the beginning of the story. Their farmer died and so did two of his friends. There’s a mysterious dementia-like disease spreading. A researcher finds out that the farmer liked to fry eggs and brains after a slaughter and when he examines the samples, he knows he’s onto something big. But after two days all his samples are gone.

The disease is spreading rapidly and it seems like people are virally going crazy. But it won’t be until the end that we find out about the link between the spreading dementia and New Earth, in an explosive end.

What’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that, at a certain point within the story Ken, Julie’s husband, instructs his wife to get extra supplies of food and petrol, use masks and gloves when she leaves the house, wash her hands regularly and disinfect everything. The book is dated 2018, something I had to check several times. The fact that it depicts very vividly what we’ve gone through over the past couple of years simply gave me goosebumps. 

Besides the incredible closeness to what happened in real life, this book is a concentrate of fast-paced action, ups and downs and witty dialogues. The theme of being part of a cult and subsequently escaping is discussed with simplicity and lack of judgment, while the rest of the story – when Wynter is out of the compound and does her bit to help save the world – is worthy of the greatest horror masters.

The line between is highly imaginative, with a captivating, fresh prose and a catchy two-part structure. One plot line starts in the present (When Wynter is thrown out of the compound) and moves forward, while the other starts in the past and moves back and forth. It never misses a beat, though, and each time the reader is provided with new bits of information that help put together the bigger picture, just like a puzzle. Tosca Lee is simply magistral in never losing a thread. A 5/5 book that’s difficult to put down.

To find out more about Tosca Lee’s work, visit her website


Blood Mark

A paranormal thriller by JP McLean (Dark Dreams Series, Book One)

Jane Walker is a young, strong and independent woman. She had an unfortunate childhood, though: her birth parents abandoned her, the first adoptive family she ended up with died in a tragic accident, the same happened to the second one. These two tragic events and the fact that Jane has a port-wine stain covering good part of her body and face compromised any further possibility for Jane to have an adoptive family, and she ended up in foster care.

During her childhood, and while in the system, she meets Sadie, a girl her age that immediately becomes her best friend. Sadie doesn’t think Jane is cursed and doesn’t care about Jane’s birthmark, but Jane is very conscious of it, she calls it her shame, and she wishes for it to disappear.

As if her life wasn’t already complicated enough, Jane is also affected by narcolepsy and when it happens, she is out cold, as good as dead. A bomb could hit her house and she wouldn’t notice. Sadie knows about it, and she is very protective of her friend. During these episodes Jane has weird dreams: they look like visions, a reel of events that happened in real life, but not to her. She doesn’t know the people she dreams of, she’s never met them, or, if she did, it was a brief, casual encounter with no meaning to her. These dreams are weird and usually leave Jane confused and more tired than before, but she accepts this condition as something she has no power over. Lately she is dreaming of Rebecca, a girl around her age, who seems to be under a lot of stress: she is narcoleptic too, she has weird dreams too, she attempted suicide to make them stop and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. While there, she started to see a doctor who seemed to help a bit. Jane is keen on knowing more about him: if he helped Rebecca, he might be able to help her too. But she must be patient: she can’t control her dreams, simply deciding she will have one, nor she can control the length of them, or how much she can actually see, like names or places. She can only hope.

Jane is not only her bad dreams and her tragic childhood: as an adult, she works in a plant nursery and one day her boss asks her to deliver some flowers to this university professor’s office. No problem, says Jane. She enters Nathaniel Crawford’s office like she would have entered any other place. Only to come face to face with some pictures of her birthmarks framed and well visible on the wall, for everyone to see.

Jane feels threatened and violated. Who is this guy? Why does he have pictures of her birthmarks? Is he some kind of pervert? Is she in danger?

All Jane wants is to talk to Sadie about it, but Sadie is busy with her own life. During the day she works as a waitress at a local restaurant, but to make some extra cash she takes the odd gig from Cynthia, a mistress she has been working with for a while. For the past three years, Sadie has been seeing a certain Doctor Kristan as part of this job. Doctor Kristan is very keen, almost desperate, to buy her out of the market, but as much as Sadie thinks that would be nice, she also likes the extra cash. And Cynthia would not let her off the hook so easily. And while Sadie doesn’t want to talk about it to Jane – too ashamed by the nature of her job to ask for opinions – Jane is busy making sense of this Nathaniel Crawford that told her that her birthmarks might be something else rather than port-win stains, that there might be a remedy.

There is another character intersecting the story, even if his connection to the events is not straightforward. His name is Dr Rick Atkins, we know he has applied for a top managerial position in the hospital where he works and he’s waiting for an answer, he has a bigger brother, Mickey, the joy of their parents and his constant basis of comparison despite Mickey’s many mistakes. Rick is ready to show them all: he will get the promotion, prove he is not an idiot and finally fix a mistake he made 24 years ago. We won’t know what until the end of the book.

In the meanwhile, Jane accepts to be seen by a specialist, a friend of Nathaniel. She might help her to get rid of the birthmark.

Showing anyone her marks was a rare event, but Jane found she didn’t mind in this instance, even if Ariane was stretching the definition of plausible. She pushed the scarf into her hair and studied Ariane’s reaction. 

Ariane moved closer.

“Fascinating,” she said. “May I?” She raised her hand. Jane shrugged. Nate stood to get a better look. Ariane’s touch was light, her fingers cool. “Exquisite.” 

“That’s a first. People aren’t usually so complimentary.” 

“Yes, I’m sure.” 


“That’s puzzling,” Ariane said. “Because my theory is that your parents arranged for the mark to be placed on you. To protect you.”

“Protect me?” Jane’s laugh came out in a derisive sputter. “Then my marks must be defective. I could have used some of that mojo growing up. Took more than a few beatings. Don’t suppose there’s a return policy?”

Ariane hid a smile. “It can’t be easy living with those marks. But they’re intended to ward off death, not prevent bumps and scrapes.”

Sadie shifted to the edge of her seat. “What did you say?”

“The markings protect her life.”

Until the birthmarks start to disappear.

In this captivating urban fantasy, McLean superbly ties together past and present events, magical elements, real life threats, and the evergreen debate of how changing something in the past during a time-travel may have an unknown repercussion on the present as we know it.

The plot is brilliant: complex but well managed by the author, who knows where the characters are at any given time where, what they are doing and why. There isn’t a single event out of check. Veil after veil, the plot is slowly uncovered and exposed, but in a majestic non-expositional manner, meaning the deus-ex-machina represented by the narrator or writer is very well hidden throughout.

The prose is neat, clear, fresh and well-paced, never a dull description or a useless adjective. It builds up until the reader finds out who Rick Atkins is and what he wants. The only flaw, if we were to be very picky, is the tension build-up: McLean could have perhaps pushed even more and let the mystery unravel at the end with a big bang instead of a very loud pop.

It still works great anyway, making the book a “I-need-to-reach-the-end-quickly” read. We guarantee it will keep you with your nose stuck to the page until the very end.

All books by JP McLean are available for purchase at:


Wolf at the door

A horror novel by Joel McKay

Wolf at the door, Joel McKay, Birchwood Press, 2022

Picture this: it’s Thanksgiving (or Christmas if you are in Europe), you are a teenager who must spend time with close family and some of their friends, relatives, and a bunch of neighbours that you can’t stand normally, let alone in the confined space of your home. What you really want to do, instead, is spending time with your besties, who are, just like you, going through similar experiences. Knowing that you are not alone cheers you up a bit. So, you put up with it the best you can, and become one with your cell phone – the only way you have to keep sane and in touch with your friends – and brace yourself for what’s to come.

You walk downstairs and there they are, the worse congregation of humans only a mad man could have put together: Char Deerborn, your mum, wearing the necklace your great-grandmother left to her instead of your grandmother, skipping one generation and causing a ruckus in the family; Doug Deerborn, your dad, a weird and weak creature – the only man you know who took his wife’s name instead of the other way round; Tommy, your annoying little brother, going around with that stupid Michael Myers mask you stopped finding funny from moment one; your mother’s best friends MikeandMarleen, just like that, in a single world, because they are considered one single item even if they always look on edge around each other; Randy Richards, the bachelor, mortgage-free, retired neighbour, who’s a weirdo but despite seeing you smoking a spliff didn’t tell your parents; Uncle Danny, your father’s brother, recently released from jail who mistook you for a young cheek to hit on which you find simply disgusting; grandma Mable and grandpa Fred, your father’s parents, who are helping your mother in the kitchen even if she’s not their biggest fan because she thinks they are big-C conservatives who despise how her and your father are raising their family, but is civilised enough to hide it; last but not least there are Craig and Amy, the couple living across the road from you. Wait, they are supposed to be here, but they are not. They must be late as usual, perhaps because Craig, who is a huge videogame player probably lost track of time shooting some of his online friends, now delaying them both.

The bell rings. Here they are, you think, fashionably late. Now that we are all here, that torture adults call dinner can finally begins. On the other side of the door, though, there are grandma Judy and grandpa Owen, who decided to spend Thanksgiving with the rest of the family instead being stuck in traffic for hours due to a bad car accident on the highway. 

As soon as grandma Judy sees your mother’s necklace, it’s a battle of snipes and hasty comments: the house, the kids, the way your father is cutting the turkey, your mother’s dress. When Doug tries to redirect the attention to something else, voicing the fact that MikeandMarleen are talking about divorce, all hell breaks loose.

“So, Mike, Marleen, when are you guys filing papers?” he blurted out.
The dining room erupted. Fred and Mable. Charlotte looked up from her phone for the first time in fifteen minutes, finally more interested in reality than her digital friends. Tommy looked confused. Char’s rage had turned on Doug instead of her mother. Mike’s shoulders slumped. And Dan, well, had a strange little smile.

The only thing that can ruin the show is your little brother insisting he saw a monster. He’s just a child, after all, and right now adults have more important business to attend to. They dismiss him with few words and carry on trying to save what can be saved, but the damage is done and Mike leaves the house, or at least tries to. After six gin and tonics his reflexes are not top notch, and he smashes his car against a wall. While dealing with this new accident, the fold is attacked by a non-better identified animal, probably a bear (or so they’d like to think), but little Tommy insists on it being an Abiku, a demon that attacks the Yoruba people in Africa and eats children, and sometimes adults too.

No one wants to believe him, until the lights go off and the house is under siege, attacked by a mysterious monster with fangs and a thick fur that rapidly kills half of the family, relatives and friends and leaves the surviving ones in a state of petrified stupor and paralysing shock.

Wolf at the door is a short, scary novella that appeals to the most hidden fantasies of human beings. Who wouldn’t be happier to be under attack by a werewolf than spending time with their family at Thanksgiving/Christmas? Don’t lie, many of us are in this situation! The narrative is brilliant and very well built, considering there are 15 characters in total; each one is well rounded, their back story just enough to create conflict with the others and give the reader an accurate picture of the family dynamics. What makes this novella most interesting is the fact that the story arc is built around different parts of the dinner, so we have ‘Before dinner’, ‘Cocktails’, ‘The dinner’ and so on, creating a unique crescendo where events and relationships gradually unfold: we warm up with a cocktail while setting the scene, have the main meal, where we finally tackle the real problems and we end with dessert, where we savour the bitter-sweet success. 

Besides finding this structure very smart, I deeply appreciated the theatrical setting of the story, developed exclusively inside a single house and the surrounding garden: once place is out of the way, the focus can be transferred onto the characters and, most of all, the action, which we have plenty of.

One aspect that perhaps could have done with a little more attention is pace: it’s a horror story, and the best way to build tension is dilating time and enriching the prose with every single, little scary detail of whatever happens. Apart from that, we are not at all surprised this novella won Joel the 2022 Global Book Award gold medal for horror, we can clearly see why!

What creepy, brilliant story will he come up with next? We can only hope it’s soon enough… In the meantime, we will look out for the next full moon, hoping none of our neighbours and close friends are coming for dinner.


Melinda West: monster gunslinger

The first novel by KC Grifant

Melinda West: monster gunslinger, KC Grifant, Brigids Gate Press, 2023

“Somewhere here was the start of the Monster Massacre of Double Moon a hundred years ago, when the Edge appeared.” 

Melinda nodded, history lessons that Abel and Beatrice had repeated swirling in her mind. When trade opened across the plains and western oceans, newcomers from the Grand Isles arrived, some fighting to take over land from the firstcomers. But once the Edge appeared and its hordes of monsters took out a good chunk of residents, newcomers and firstcomers banded together to fight back. Since then, something changed about the Edge. The majority of creatures stopped straying into human territory, though there were plenty of exceptions, as evidenced by Melinda and Lance’s surplus of work.

Here’s Melinda: 28 years old, a monsters gunslinger who never missed a shot in her professional life, about to complete her last mission. With her, there is Lance: a sweet talker, great with weapons and ready to retire too. When we meet them for the very first time, they are fighting hard against a herd of critters that is attacking a village. The pair have been summoned by the local sheriff – ‘named Gatsum or Garry or something like that, Melinda couldn’t remember which’ – who is scared senseless, but also useless when it comes to fighting creatures that come from the Edge.

Melinda is about to take the final shot, when she stops: either the Sheriff gives them the money he promised, or she will walk. Gatsum or Garry or something like that agrees, however reluctantly. The mission is completed, money changes hands, Melinda and Lance collect some samples to take home to Aunt Beatrice, and they both call it a day on their life as monsters gunslingers.

Or so they believe.

While clearing up, Melinda notices something from the corner of her eye. It comes from a nearby mine, and her instinct tells her that, whatever it is, it deserves a closer look. Inside, in the pitch-black cave, she finds mother scorpion and dozens of her translucent baby eggs. But she also finds a stone, something as big as an acorn, silver as the moon, that hits her with a wave of vertigo as soon as she touches it, makes her fingers go numb and seems to whisper unintelligible words. Melinda collects two samples before blowing the mine off.

With one last look behind them, the two gunslingers start their journey home. It’s nice to be back to their village, reunite with Aunt Beatrice and Abel, an inventor who leaves next door and helps them in their line of work, relax, have an often dreamt of homecooked dinner and a real bed instead of beef jerky and camping for the night.

No one can imagine that this fragile euphoria will be broken so soon. Talking about their last mission, Melinda tells her Aunt about the mysterious stone she found in the cave.

“Eyestone” Beatrice gasps when Melinda shows her.

As soon as she pronounces these words, Abel becomes agitated and before he can add anything, a spider comes in through the window like a cannonball, quickly followed by many more and a red cloud of mist. Melinda is weirdly fascinated by it. There is something in there, a shape that slowly takes form, and, as unbelievable as it might seem, it’s the image of a man, but before Melinda can tell who he is, the light goes off, and when Aunt Beatrice gets the fire going, Melinda finds a spider right on her chest. Abel quickly swipes it away from her, but he gets bitten in the process, and passes out. It’s immediately clear that Abel is not just wounded, because he looks like he’s dead, even if he’s still breathing.

“What aren’t you saying?” Melinda asks Aunt Beatrice. The explanation is clear and simple: many years before, Abel was held against his will working on the railroads, and he would have done anything to get out of it. He actually did: he contacted a person that put a spell on him, a powerful one that let him see into people’s minds. In this way, Abel could persuade his guards to let him go. The spell didn’t stop working once he was freed and Abel used this power to bring peace in his country. But it also left him with a soul brighter than normal, and that is the problem: there are creatures, known as soul suckers, that feed on this type of souls. While Abel found a way to keep his aura hidden, the eyestone that Melinda brought back from her last mission neutralized this protection and left Abel vulnerable. The only hope they have to save him is to go after these soul sucker spiders and get Abel’s soul back.

And so, the journey begins. They will meet many more people, from Aine, the clairvoyant, to Angelo and Topaz the bounty hunters after Eloise, Harston the demon, and Eekuts, weird creatures similar to prairie dogs, or Snow Krakens, which are comparable to a twenty-foot octopus. They will face epic battles with Edge Raiders, a group of self-appointed guardians ensuring monsters from the Edge don’t stray too far. We will even descend into the edge itself with Melinda, a sort of Underworld where we look for our loved ones’ souls.

This book has everything one can ask for: a strong female leading character, monsters, irony, a supernatural setting, a fast pace, and a great narrative. KC is constantly in control of the narrative, she trickles new information at the right moment, just to give her readers enough to put some pieces together but not enough to stop wondering how it will all end.

I absolutely loved the prose: it’s clean, it’s linear, it’s concise but not clipped, even if it may have done with a few more descriptions, both of the environment and of the unnatural creatures. Apart from that, this book is an absolute jewel, a whirlwind of events keeping readers glued to the page and have them begging for more.

Which is, given how the book ends, highly likely.

And to be honest, here at Not For Vanity, we can’t wait to read the rest!

Get your copy now!

About KC Grifant

KC Grifant is a Southern Californian author who writes internationally published horror, fantasy, science fiction and weird west stories for podcasts, anthologies and magazines. 

Her writings have appeared in magazines and podcasts including: Andromeda Spaceways Magazine (cover story for issue #70), Unnerving Magazine, Aurealis Magazine, Fission Magazine, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Dark Matter Magazine, Tales to Terrify, the Lovecraft eZine, Sley House Podcasts, and many others. 

In addition to a Weird West horror novel, MELINDA WEST: MONSTER GUNSLINGER (Feb 2023), she has also written stories for dozens of anthologies, including: Chromophobia; Dancing in the Shadows: A Tribute to Anne Rice; Musings of the Muse; Field Notes from a Nightmare; The One That Got Away; Six Guns Straight From Hell; Trembling with Fear: Year One; Shadowy Natures; Beyond the Infinite: Tales from the Outer Reaches; and the Stoker-nominated Fright Mare: Women Write Horror.

In addition, she is a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), as well as the co-founder of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) San Diego chapter, an organization that helps to connect writers and fans of horror literature.

All books by KC Grifant are available for purchase at: