The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

This historical novel is a ghost story set in a maze of nested aliases. At its core, it questions the concept of identity. Who are we? Does that change depending on who we’re with? Who are we when we’re alone?

Arthor Crandle is a man fallen on hard times, a grieving father with an estranged wife. He’s travelled to Providence, Rhode Island to take a position as a personal assistant to a reclusive writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Once installed in the house, supposedly shared with a few other mystery tenants, he is consumed by the mystery of his employer’s past and drawn to the gregarious young actress living in the apartment downstairs.

In the well-established Lovecraftian tradition, Baker’s narrative is suffused with a gloomy nihilistic dread. Set in Spring – my least favourite season, muddy and cold – it rains constantly, the ocean is a repulsive set piece reeking of sewage, and the people are dour and suspicious. One gets the impression that nothing in this story will end far from where it started, and even if it did, nothing much will change as a result, because we are simply too insignificant to move that cosmic needle.

Arthor goes about his work, maintaining the household, transcribing handwritten manuscript pages, and communicating with H.P. primarily through letters. All the while Crandle is unravelling, seeing a ghostly little girl in the garden at night, hearing screams from the study, and encountering an oppressive malevolence stalking the halls. His one source of solace in a storm of confusion and despair is Flossie, the actress, though she too grows more and more insubstantial as the days press on.

It all comes back to the names, the aliases. Baker skillfully uses names as metaphor for the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Who are you? Using beautiful language and clever subtext, she builds a new mythology around an already somewhat mythical figure, and slowly, mercilessly, strips it away.

4/5

The Nightshade Cabal

Strange things are afoot in 1880’s Halifax, the likes of which you’ve never seen. Isaac Barrow – full time technomancer and inventor, part time investigator, and, I think, aspiring curmudgeon (if he lives long enough) – is thrust head first into the thick of the action against the sinister necromantic Nightshade Cabal while searching for a missing young lady.

Isaac is a resourceful fellow, it must be said, clever yet fallible, with both old friends and new watching his back, but that might not be enough to see him through when his poking around dredges up enemies possibly higher than his pay grade. But that’s half the fun, seeing if he’s up to the challenge. The other half is, of course, immersing one’s self in a magical, steampunk infused Halifax. A place of light and darkness, shadow and intrigue.

A fabulous first novel for Chris, well worth picking up. And of course, be sure to check out a pair of short stories featuring our stalwart technomancer: “A Murder at Carleton House” in Enigma Front: Burnt (Analemma Books, August 2016) and “The Wolfville Horror” in in Enigma Front: The Monster Within (Analemma Books, August 2017).

I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Isaac Barrow, and for that I’m glad.

5/5

About the Author: Chris Patrick Carolan

Chris Patrick Carolan is an author, editor, and hovercraft enthusiast whose stories have appeared in the Enigma Front anthology series (Analemma Books, ExitZero Books), 49th Parallels: Alternative Canadian Histories and Futures (Bundoran Press), Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Coffin Hop Press), and Alchemy & Artifacts: Tesseracts 22 (EDGE Science Fiction).

Publisher: The Parliament House

Bunny, by Mona Awad

My name is Octoclot, and I read literary fiction. I read more literary fiction than genre fiction. I’m a snob and I’m not sorry. That said, there’s nothing better than sinking my tentacles into the juicy unicorn that is the literary genre novel, and Bunny fits that bill perfectly.

I’d read Awad’s previous novel, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and didn’t much like it. So I wouldn’t have read Bunny if I hadn’t attended a reading and fallen in love with Awad’s voice. Seriously smooth. I’d also recently read The Secret History (yes, I’m late to most parties), and the parallels intrigued me. I mean, Bunny.

Samantha is a scholarship student enrolled in a creative writing program at an elite liberal arts university (shades of Tartt and Ellis). Desperately poor and lonely, she’s recruited into a cult of beautiful women in her workshop that dress like little girls, eat miniature food, hug for hours, braid each other’s hair, and call each other Bunny.

Naturally, a cruel obsession lurks beneath the glossy cupcake frosting. In an MFA program fixated on the concept of ‘the body’, deconstructing it in their workshop to the point of meaninglessness, the Bunnies have summoned the power to create life, to create a boy, from a bunny. Though not exactly boys, they’re rough work, malformed drafts. Built to serve until required to ponder a sense of self and then they unravel (or explode, in the more gruesome scenes). They seem to think that Samantha, their unrefined, emotionally wooden newbie, has what it takes to do better, to create a real boy.

In this bizarre story described as The Secret History meets Mean Girls, the juxtaposition of the saccharine with the sinister evokes a dreamlike dread that’s hard to shake. Samantha is more disturbed that you think. The Bunnies, more hollow. The drafts, more calamitous. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel, an erotic horror novel, masquerading as literary fiction.

One of my favourite things about Bunny is the mythic references. We’ve got swans, lambs, wolves, and rabbits. The best part is the complete lack of subtlety. I mean, they go to Warren College for Christ’s sake, and there is almost literally a big bad wolf. Lit fic values nothing so much as metaphorical murk and obfuscation, and to see it explicitly splashed across the page in such an outsized way is terrifically fun. She also refers to poets as Lizard People. Seriously Mona, I feel seen.

And the end, oh the end! No spoilers, but the climax bricked me right in the heart. Let’s just say there are worse things than someone you love dying. And the more beautiful the lie, the more tragic the truth.

For this reader, Bunny was not about mean girls. Or classism. Or the ridiculousness of MFA culture. It’s about desire and loneliness, and the lengths we’ll go just to be loved. Without sentimentality, Awad suggests that perhaps that’s all we’re made for.

5/5

The Arby's S'mores Milkshake Experience

Sometimes Lola Silkysocks wants to go where nobody knows her name and the feature milkshake is orange. Where Picasso prints line the walls, an annoyed shift worker slouches behind the counter, and the place is usually a graveyard. Until it’s not.

After the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich catastrophe, I’d learned my lesson to not experiment at Arby’s, to just order my goddamn beef n’ cheddar and enjoy the fuck out of it under the sallow cubist gaze of the deserted dining room.

I do not peruse the menu. I know what I want. Noggy and I place our orders. The bored cashier asks if there’s anything else. I swear it’s another voice coming out of my mouth.

“I’ll have a S’mores Milkshake.”

As you may or may not know, Noggy has two glares. There’s affectionate exasperation or I suffer you to live, and they’re functionally identical. Though after the way I carried on about the buttered steak, you can guess which one this was.

How to describe the S’mores Milkshake? It makes you wonder things you never wondered before, like, “What are marshmallows supposed to taste like?” When a marshmallow forward milkshake prompts this question, you know you’re in shark infested waters and Terry is about to offer you a shrimp.

I slurp some more. There are chunks. I’m 60% sure they’re graham crackers. A vague thrill of chocolate runs through the whole business, though little more than it takes to lull you into a false sense of trust.

Meanwhile people are wandering into Arby’s by the dozen. Boomers ordering coffee, bougie boxing week shoppers, a mom berating her small child like she’s his parole officer. Arby’s employees leap into unprecedented levels of animation. The meat trays empty and full baskets of curly fries sizzle in their vats. Metaphysical laws are being broken. This is Arby’s. The very gates of Purgatory. No one comes here intentionally. But it is the season for Deadly Sins, and I’m heavily distracted by this confusing confection that is the S’mores Milkshake.

Eventually it had to happen. “Hey Nog, try this.”

In my defense, he didn’t have to drink the whole thing. But he did, and he can tell you the rest…

It should be obvious, if you’ve been paying attention, that Lola has this thing about trying ‘new’ and ‘possibly interesting’ items on the menu at our vintage Picasso adorned local Arby’s. Undeterred by the nightmare that was the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich, and ravenous after running for thirty days straight, she swore they couldn’t possibly fuck up a milkshake.

Yeah.

I should have known something was up when Lola had a couple sips, pushed it across the table, and said “Try this.” She had that look in her eye. That glazed look. The kind you get when you’re teetering on the edge of a coma. And it wasn’t so much an offering, as a challenge. Sadly, I can’t resist a challenge, or any eatable substance jammed in my face.

Well, I’m going to come right out and say it. It’s not that it’s… bad. And not that it’s… good. It’s just… sickly sweet. Like you used a Christmas elf to clean your teeth with and then washed it down with liquid marshmallow juice. While it does taste vaguely S’more’ish (as any combination of graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow tends to) it’s a pale imitation of the actual heavenly camping staple.

Regrets? So many. Within minutes, my stomach began to gurgle. Within an hour, I was little more than a perturbed sea cucumber, nastily expelling both my stomach and twenty feet of large intestine, while hastily scrawling my last will and testament on three sheets of toilet paper I couldn’t actually spare.

Will I drink it again? Uncertain. I guess that depends on if she thrusts it in my face next year.

Noggy and Lola went back and forth on a flame rating and ultimately split the difference between the not totally terrible flavour profile and post-shake warp core ejection.

2/5

Arby’s Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich

When it comes time for The Seventh Terrace Strategic Planning meeting, there’s only one place to go. Conveniently located directly across from Starbucks, midway between Purgatory Towers and the Factory. Yes, I’m talking about the much-maligned Arby’s. Willing our dreams into reality, one quarterly meatcraft gorging at a time.

Here’s the thing about Arby’s, kids. We’re not saying it’s the best. The menu is semi-monstrous. They have a weird selection of pseudo-Greek items for some reason, and their usual feature milkshake is orange. The ambience is total ass. Vinyl. Plastic. Wretchedly faded impressionist prints. But the primal satisfaction and sensual flavours? Curly fries? Half pound Beef n’ Cheddar sandwiches? They’re goddamn delicious, so stop lying to yourselves and the world. It’s okay to love Arby’s. We do, and we’re not sorry.

My point, and of course I have one, is that nothing that will make you want to throw up your hands and let it all burn like Arby’s new Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich.

WHAT. THE. HELL?

No one asked for fine dining, Arby’s. No one asked for anything with an identifiable organic origin or visible grain. No one asked for steak. We like our meat in grey-brown tatters crumpled under a blanket of hot cheese.

Arby’s has never disappointed me before, and when that happens, you really take stock of all the choices that led you to that moment. Staring down a ciabatta bun (I’ve had it with all the different buns, but that’s another review) piled with uniform strips of steak, lettuce, tomato, and a thin drool of garlic butter. If only it was vile. That would be easier to process emotionally. But it was fine. It was devastating. It was no Beef n’ Cheddar. My darlings, at this juncture I must remind you that Octoclot loves food and requires frequent feedings but I left this abomination not even half eaten on the tray. Not even Horsey Sauce could save it. Even the glorious curly fries couldn’t lift my spirits.

I can’t blame Arby’s. They’re taking risks, a quality I admire. This one is on me. There’s a time and a place to experiment with food, and Arby’s is not it. That steak sandwich broke my heart.

2/5

A Body of Work, Colleen Anderson

Colleen Anderson is one of those versatile authors who can write in any form and any genre and you know it’ll be solid, entertaining, and probably oddly disturbing, even if you’re not entirely sure how or why.

This collection from Black Shuck Books is case in point, sixteen short stories spanning the gamut of science fiction, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, and outright horror. As with any collection, some stories claw into your brain more than others, but I enjoyed them all, even the ones that left me thinking WTF.

My favourites? In no particular order: The Collector (I loved how the elemental magic worked, and I’m a sucker for soul reaping spirit stories), The Blade (who doesn’t enjoy a self serving intelligent sword?), A Book By It’s Cover (Virtual nirvanas are never what they seem and really, really be careful what you wish for, it might come true), Red (There’s ALWAYS a bigger predator in the forest), Season’s End/The Brown Woman (A pair of excellent Green Man tales), and The Book With No End (A little Indiana Jones, a lot ‘this is going in a very sinister direction and I’m not sure what direction that is.. exactly.’).

Great stuff – track down a copy, worm your way into your blanket tent, and prepare to be entertained.

4/5

The Author: Colleen Anderson

The Publisher: Black Shuck Books