PJ O'Brien


It would not be fully truthful to say that the author was challenged to write a genre-bending mystery after losing an argument with ducks about the inevitability of violence. But it wouldn’t be fully false either.

O'Brien, a somewhat optimistic rurally-raised resident of a US city infamous for its violence and hopelessness, decided to test a theory. After inventing a country devoted entirely to fairness and peace, she added characters that had to abide by the framework of their culture. They were given horrors that plague real people and were allowed to respond as they saw fit. They had only to be true to their culture, retain essential elements of modern humanity, and be charming when not dealing with threats that could potentially end the world as they knew it.

After four books, they felt they had fully addressed the most essential questions of suffering, violence, love, and happiness, and still retain their sense of humor. And did they? That’s for you and the ducks to decide.

Smashwords Interview

Are the Sanctuary books a series of stories or one continuous narrative?
It could be considered either or both. The Sanctuary series began in 2001 as a spontaneous open-ended story told electronically to a very small group of people. It was meant to be soporific: a grown-up version of bedtime tales during a time of chronic insomnia-producing anxiety. I added to it for over ten years, weaving in requests and responses as any bedtime storyteller would. Over time, readership expanded beyond those I knew, and emailing new installments in response to requests was no longer practical. I experimented with a variety of ways for new readers to have access to what went on before and settled on dividing it into separate books when printed versions were still an option. But when I ultimately put the whole set of stories to bed years later, I tied all the major subplots together, so it could be considered an integrated narrative. I wouldn't try to read it all at once, though.
Are you trying to promote polyamory or group marriage?
This is the question I’m asked most often, along with a similar one: are you in a group marriage? The answer to both is no. The series was not intended to promote anything other than a good night’s sleep and ways to discuss divisive issues in a different way.

I heard frequent arguments about what a marriage or family should be when I was first telling the stories, so these questions became part of the culture and setting when mapping out how Sanctuary would be different from any other nation or culture that I knew of. Marriages of multiple spouses are uncommon, and those where both genders are represented with equal numbers and equal power are even more so. And while there are certainly cultural and economic pressures to marry in the modern world, I didn’t know of any location where there was a legal requirement to be married, with a forced assignment made to spouses if one refused. (Sadly, forced marriages probably do take place in some parts of the world even today, but I suspect it’s a cultural pressure and no longer in the legal code. I am open to learning more about that, however.) Once I had the bare outlines of a unique approach to marriage, I could see how it might under-gird a society where there were few resources, but a determination to maintain peace among people and their families.

The Sanctuary marriage model necessarily leads to family alliances and collaboration that shift over time. A lot of drama naturally emerges, but tenderness and comic relief do, too. Even if it doesn’t inspire musing as to why one’s cultures and perspectives evolved the way they did – and what the reader’s life might be like if things were totally different – my hope is that it might provide a distraction from everyday worries and entertain with something a little off the beaten path.
Read more of this interview.

PJ O'Brien's favorite authors on Smashwords

L L Watkin
Latest book: Feathers and Brass Knuckles.
Published July 8, 2023.
Lexie Conyngham
Latest book: The War, The Bones and Dr. Cowie.
Published March 18, 2016.
Allan Jones
Latest book: Compline.
Published September 20, 2023.
Michael Graeme
Latest book: A Lone Tree Falls.
Published December 4, 2022. (4.50 from 2 reviews)
Karen GoatKeeper
Latest book: At the Laundromat.
Published November 18, 2023.
Ulf Wolf
Latest book: The Cabinet Maker.
Published August 23, 2019.
Audrey Driscoll
Latest book: She Who Returns.
Published November 7, 2022. (5.00 from 1 review)
Jeff Fecke
Latest book: The Valkyrie's Tale.
Published December 27, 2008. (4.00 from 1 review)
Zen Cho
Latest book: The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo.
Published May 30, 2012. (4.86 from 7 reviews)
...and 18 more

Smashwords book reviews by PJ O'Brien

  • The Valkyrie's Tale on Jan. 01, 2014
    (no rating)
    As I noted in my goodreads review, this is a very nicely done book. I liked the weaving of the two realities and the mythic strands woven in (though I confess, I had to look up a couple of references). I generally get impatient with books that are a little too action-oriented at the expense of character development, but Fecke does a nice job of balancing both. Is there a sequel yet?
  • SCOTLAND ZEN and the art of SOCIAL WORK on Jan. 01, 2014
    (no rating)
    This book is charming, the characters are likeable and the story moves along nicely. There are a couple of more elaborate reviews on goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19110556-scotland-zen-and-the-art-of-social-work but since the author doesn't seem to have a page there, I'm posting a review here as well. Looking forward to seeing more...
  • Broken Promises on March 26, 2014

    In Broken Promises, the interestingly-named Hazel has been living a relatively comfortable life in New York City. She lives close enough to Central Park for daily visits, attends private school, and the family manages on her father’s income and investments. A reservist in the Marines, her father is unexpectedly called to active duty. Just before he ships out to Iraq, he rashly promises Hazel that he’ll be home in a year. It's a promise that couldn't realistically be kept, which everyone except Hazel seems to know. When her father is killed in action, she is intensely angry. Despite their close relationship – or perhaps, because of it – her anger is directed almost solely at him and the broken promise. She refuses to talk about him or join her mother in mourning. Instead, she becomes focused on how to maintain her life as it's always been. Hazel’s efforts to supplement her mother’s meager temporary income with babysitting can't stop the family's downward slide into financial crisis, particularly when they learn that there is little left from the investment accounts. She does what she can, learning to cook and taking on household tasks like shopping, in hopes that she won’t have to leave her school and her friends. But the reader knows long before Hazel does that nothing she can do can hold off the inevitable. All the familiar aspects of her life must change. This is a first novel, for the writer and a series. The story is compelling, despite the occasional phrasing in the beginning. Once the author found her stride, the story flowed very smoothly. I occasionally raised my eyebrows at names and social media references that seemed a little anachronistic or unusual, but acknowledge that it’s been awhile since I’ve had interactions of any length with someone in middle school. It could be that I’m terribly out of touch with the world as experienced by adolescents of today. In any case, I am invested enough in Hazel’s story to want to follow it in the next book of the series, so I’ve added Old Promises to my reading list.
  • The Nostalgia Effect on March 30, 2014
    (no rating)
    The Nostalgia Effect is a very unique and interesting book. It contains elements of romance, psychological drama, and speculative literature, and offers some intriguing dilemmas to ponder. The protagonist, Jennifer, wakes up in what appears to be eight years in the past. However, there are differences from the past she remembers. She’s still married to her first husband and her father is married to a woman she doesn’t recognize. She has no idea what happened, and wonders which life is the real one and which must be some sort of delusion. The author, E.J. Valson, does a fine job of keeping the reader guessing whether there is a psychological issue at play or some bizarre merging of parallel lives and time threads. Either way, Jennifer has to learn to navigate a life that seems similar to her own, but isn't quite it. What I felt was unaddressed – if the scenario truly was one where Jennifer was in the wrong life thread for whatever reason – was what happened to the Jennifer of the thread that our Jennifer suddenly appears in. Our protagonist never seems to worry about what might have happened to her counterpart or what the effect of her appearance in the present reality will be. She and those assisting her seem to think that all will just suddenly stop and not exist anymore once she's returned to her own reality. It’s strange enough that she would be ok with that, but those who help her out must be extraordinarily noble. Since no one really knows the hows and whys of what happened, one would think that some of them might be a little uneasy. But they're not. The concern is for her and getting her where she needs to be safely, and the reader has no sense of what they think about this and whether they ever wonder what it means for them. It was quite a good story in any case and very unlike any book that I’ve read lately. Ms Valson has done an excellent job with her first novel, and I’m happy to recommend it.
  • Checkered Scissors on July 02, 2014

    Douglas Schwartz’s "Checkered Scissors" is a delightful read, especially for those who love imaginative fiction or who are plagued by bizarre dreams that lead them to muse about intriguing implications in their waking life. For the latter, if you can imagine what it might be like if everything you’ve ever dreamed, read about it, or experienced materialized into a physical dimension, and was left to simmer together and evolve for a long while before you entered it yourself, you’ll have an idea of the book's setting. Not only is the narrative itself interesting, but Mr. Schwartz manages to flesh out his characters to be multi-dimensional, even those that are cartoons, cameos, or figments of another character’s imagination. His villain is truly a villain, yet I occasionally sympathized with him in a way that I might with a bullied child who grows up to bully others after a terrifying and abusive childhood. This is not a horror story, but it could have been in the hands of another writer. It would make a very good movie, though a director might go for the easy way out and turn it into something shocking and grotesque. That would be a shame because I think much of its unique style would be lost. My only suggestion to Mr. Schwartz is to put his very fine preface and kind acknowledgements at the end of the book in an afterword. I understand the desire to put the book's creation in context and to express gratitude for all those who helped bring it to life, but by the time the reader has gotten through the table of contents, the title page, the long preface, and acknowledgements, impatience could well turn into frustration. Otherwise, I have no qualms about recommending the book to anyone. It’s an intriguing read for all ages and various genres. But here, I’ll leave you with some excerpts to help you get an idea: “He hated his creator for making him half man, half machine, and all monster. He never wanted to be a monster, but that’s how he appeared in the dream. The dream defined him.” “Tonight, Annabelle would take the place of the star role as Priscilla Pigg in Roaming Thunder’s production of 'Swine Women and Song', a farm-themed, musical, love story.” “If people considered him a monster and mad scientist, he didn’t bother to change his appearance. In fact, he improved upon his monstrous look. He blended his body with his chair so no one other than himself knew where his body ended and the mechanics started. He kept his head shaved and carved himself two spiral-shaped scars along each side to give the illusion of horns. For special occasions, he trained a swarm of hornets to swarm along his jawline like a buzzing beard.” All in all, "Checkered Scissors" is a nice escape from reality where one occasionally wrestles with ethical dilemmas, sympathizes with heroes and villains alike, and finds more fuel to fire their own imaginative dreams.
  • The Singing Loch on July 22, 2014

    This is a very nice "Let's escape from the soul-sucking modern urban world and move back to wild nature" story. My enjoyment of it was likely enhanced because I was at home in an urban area when I began it and ended it just after spending a day rambling in rural Orkney. But unlike the protagonist, I rather enjoy cities and find a lot in them that's vibrant, alive, and hopeful. I also love the outdoors and nature, so I could appreciate the pull of wild moors, breathtakingly beautiful mountains, and crystal lochs. In trying to decide whether I liked this book by Michael Graeme enough to give it four or five stars, I had to consider whether I was being objective, or mildly resentful for portraying cities as "grey", "soul-less", and lacking of meaningful human interaction. And though protagonist Scott Matthews was generally referring to London and Glasgow of the 1980s (the settings of much of the book), there was enough universalizing that I occasionally muttered to him, "Then move already, damn it, and stop whining! It's obvious that you're going to". The Singing Loch has a very nice narrative flow, well-drawn characters, and lovely descriptions of rural Scotland. It has just enough romance to give it a little charm, but not enough to detract from the more interesting tension between humans and their place in nature, and the competing interests of corporations and individuals where land use is concerned. I was all set to give it a five, but at the last minute switched to a four. That's not because of the (relatively minor) typos or the fact that I'd pretty much worked out the mystery on my own before the reveal. It's a free book currently on Smashwords, so I won't quibble on those. (And the typos are simply that and not grammatical atrocities; the author is obviously a good writer.) It's just that the city-lover in me found the last bit a little simplistic and preachy in its exhortation to humanity. I agree with much of what it said, but as I said earlier, I might have been a little annoyed on behalf of cities and their own bit of wild life. In any case, I liked it very much and recommend it.
  • The Mermaid Quilt & Other Tales on Aug. 05, 2014

    This short collection by Beth Camp includes the expected mermaids, but also introduces mythic sea women that aren't as familiar. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that those dependent upon seas and waterways for their livelihood, yet often endangered by them, would have similar themes in their lore. These themes are well represented in The Mermaid Quilt & Other Tales. There is fear, wonder, desperation, and occasionally playful joy. But despite some similarity in themes, the stories are told from a variety of perspectives, with each tale set in a different place and time, and evocative of the culture it represents. In one of those serendipitous turns of life, I found myself reading most of these little stories by bodies of water. I don’t know if it was the cry of gulls or the reverie that I was lulled into by wind and waves, but I found myself very drawn into each of the myriad settings of a mythical water-dwelling woman and her interactions with humans. The stories read fast, but have some thoughtful, even dreamy, tones that are just perfect for firing one’s imagination when sitting by a quiet lake or walking along the shore at dawn. It led me to muse what the sea-woman of my mind might be like if I took all of my thoughts and memories of the ocean, merged them with my feelings about death and life, and gave it a human-looking face on an amphibious body?
  • Stealing Salt on Oct. 05, 2014

    A very nicely woven tale of siblings dealing with loss and regret. Short and evocative, with engaging characters and a satisfying resolution. Just right for an October read.
  • The Army of the Night on Oct. 18, 2014

    This was even better than the author's "The Scottish Movie". If you’ve read that book, you’ll recognize the broad strokes of this one's plot, which played a cameo in the longer novel. The setting and plot were offered there with a jokey nod and a wink, but the novella here is rather a serious work that can stand on its own. It’s a quick and enjoyable read, especially if you like good historical fiction. The protagonist is one of Napoleon’s agents, though Napoleon himself and the Duke of Wellington play crucial roles. (Well obviously; how could they not?) But the emotional heart of the story centers on those who must kill, and those who will be killed, without either having much say in the matter. This includes men of various nationalities, and a small group of (Spoiler hidden). Seriously. But it works. It’s pensive, but not a downer. Nor is it gruesome, despite the genre being an odd mix of historical military literature and a nod to Halloween. It’s quite short, and could be read between answering the door for trick-or-treaters on All Hallows Eve. But it could still put you in just the proper mood of contemplation for the Feast of All Saints the following day. As of now, it's free. Why not get it and save it for a full moon or stormy night? Or even just a quiet afternoon's reverie?
  • The Queue on Jan. 22, 2015

    This is a very compelling short-story.
  • Little Book Of NOT Killing Yourself: Things You Need To Know First on Feb. 07, 2015

    This is a very brave and thoughtful book. I have to disagree with the previous reviewer's concern about it being free. It should be free and more readily available to those who need it. In the next revision, some formatting and font style could be tidied up, but the message is clear, heartfelt, and I wish all the best to its writer.
  • Life Begins At Forty on Feb. 22, 2015

    This is a short story that is actually the first episode - I think - of a series based upon one Russian family's experiences before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This first one draws a nice portrayal of the protagonist, his transitioning to a new phase of life when he feels he can no longer think of himself as young and to the upheavals and personal impact of post-communist rule. The story also introduces his wife and teen son, whose restrained but genuine caring provides a little circle of light and hope against the backdrop of bleak, gray, and cold. I liked it very much. It does have a very high adjective to noun ratio for my taste (almost 1:1, it seemed, though that's likely an exaggeration), but otherwise it's very well done. I'm downloading all the rest.
  • Love on Feb. 22, 2015

    This is another short and intriguing story by an emerging Russian author who is becoming one of my favorites. That's not simply because his short works are currently free on Smashwords, though they are. I've liked everything I've read from him so far. He has interesting ideas. This is not a schmaltzy romance. It's about single-minded devotion. I was sure I knew its allegorical references, but was pleasantly surprised when I guessed wrong. But it inspired me to muse for the rest of the day, taking his original setting and plot and going off in my own directions. It's my great hope that any of you out there with a talent for editing and literary translation will reach out to him somehow. I like much of his own translation into English, but he does need a little help to make sure he's getting the meaning he intended across. Please, any English majors out there, or any English teacher, or savvy English-speaking reader having the time and a talent for literary phrasing and an appreciation for the offbeat, please please please, reach out with tact and generosity and offer to help him polish it a bit. And if you're familiar with Russian literature, classic and new, or are fluent in it, so much the better. I do like this writer very much.
  • Sleepless in Sovietsky on April 01, 2015

    Short, but quite good!
  • Extracts From a Journal, 176_ on April 01, 2015

    Very good; and a wee bit creepy.
  • Dora's Story on April 03, 2015

    As someone in our Goodreads' Fairy Godreaders reading group noted, this is a tale Charles Dickens might have told if he were a goat. But it's more than merely a Great Expectations story of the changing fortunes of Dora, a young doe with a lot of potential who's stymied by her mixed parentage and not a little bit of jealousy. It's probably meant for school-age readers, but it's a very good thing to read if you're a crunchy granola, back to basics, let's take charge of our food-sourcing kind of person who occasionally has a hankering to raise goats. You'll learn that it's doable, and can be enjoyable, but it takes a lot of help, support, and knowledge - not to mention a few tough choices about separating - even selling - kids from their mothers to be feasible. The author really does raise goats and has done so for a number of years. She's a retired science teacher, so I'm sure her facts on farming, animal husbandry, and general knowledge of the natural world are trustworthy. She has a lovely website where you can sigh over baby goats from afar. I got the feeling that she's not quite as up-to-date with current teens and their preferred technologies and conversation patterns, but then again, neither am I. There are a few confusing spots in the book itself in terms of dialog flow (especially during phone conversations) and some of the characters felt the need to notice racial identities that seemed to have no relation to the plot as far as I could tell. It wasn't meant to be derogatory, though one character did need to evolve in his ideas, but it just seemed to be a little apropos of nothing. Then again, I don't live in that area so perhaps this is part of the local experience. In any case, if you can imagine yourself out on Karen GoatKeeper's spread in the Ozark mountains, this seems like just the kind of story she'd be telling you, spinning out the next installment on the spot of the trials and traumas of a sweet and plucky little goat, to keep you from wandering away when you're supposed to be milking or putting out fresh feed.
  • Tales from a farm - the Wild Bird on April 15, 2015

    This is indeed a very charming story, with beautiful illustrations. There are also delightful photos of what I assume is the real wild baby bird that was rescued and hand-reared until it could care for itself. I imagine that children would love this story read to them again and again.
  • Blackboard Galaxy on April 17, 2015

    I was expecting a much longer work for some reason, but this ended being just perfect for a quick read before bed. A great sci-fi short story, and one that perhaps teachers anywhere could identify with.
  • Night of the New Russian on April 18, 2015

    Like all those I've read so far in this series of life in post-Soviet Russia, this short story is stark, well-paced, and evocative.
  • Losing One's Appetite on April 19, 2015

    Witty and well-done little short story!
  • The Last Supper on April 19, 2015

    A brief reverie that might bring a smile to those with lively imaginations who are faced with yams passed their prime.
  • 2AT0074 on April 19, 2015

    I agree with the previous review that this feels like an interesting beginning of a story that I'd like to read more of. This very brief portion sets the scene but rushes a bit. I think with a few revisions and a bit of grammatical editing here and there (nothing major), this could be very nice indeed. I'll check back from time to time to see how it's coming along.
  • The Day of the Nuptial Flight on April 26, 2015

    This is the fourth small work by Sarina Dorie that I’ve read, and I’m so hooked on her off-beat quirky settings that I’ve added more to my To-Read list. The Day of the Nuptial Flight is hard to describe but if you can imagine a tragi-comic nectar-in-cheek story about a drone who doesn’t fit in with his hive, interwoven with threads of a sci-fi short story of humans stranded on a world where they are small enough to ride caterpillars, you might have a sense of the setting. But that may not give you a full appreciation for the engaging writing style that spurs both smiles and sympathy for an unrequited devotion that not only dare not speak its name, it physically cannot.
  • Greener on the Other Side on May 03, 2015

    A nice jumble of fairy tale characters appear as cameos in this fun little short story. It's told from the perspective of a frog, who's become tired of hopping around to look for bona fide princesses to kiss him to break a witch's spell. Particularly disillusioned by young women who claim to be princesses in hopes of ending up with a rich handsome prince to marry, he decides to outwit the witch, outmaneuver her cat, and call on an assortment of accomplices to learn how to reverse the spell himself. Another terrific and whimsically twisted tale by Sarina Dorie.
  • The Reader on May 09, 2015

    This is a short compelling story that could be read in one sitting, if one is lucky enough to have been taught to read and lives in a world where it is encouraged. It strikes me as an updated Fahrenheit 451, but told from the perspective of one who is driven more by compulsion than courage. But I suppose that's probably true of most of us.
  • The Tent on May 17, 2015

    Well done; the tension builds at just the right pace and even the slight glimpses into each character are powerful.
  • Conversations with Wonka - Part One on May 25, 2015

    Charming, particularly if one enjoys day-to-day relationships with non-human housemates. It reads rather like verbal storytelling, which would be fine if the writer was a little more generous with commas and other punctuation. But it's nothing major, and it is free, so one can't quibble much.
  • Three Speeches on May 27, 2015

  • The Cow Mouse on May 27, 2015

    The drawings alone are worth five stars. And although the story ended predictably, it was quite nice in spirit. And I loved lines like this one: "Respectfully the mouse began to share her problems with the sea dragon because that is what you do when in the presence of a sea dragon." I shall remember that, if ever I come upon one...
  • The Draft on May 30, 2015

    Short, evocative, and nicely paced.
  • The Chinese Sailor on May 30, 2015

    This is an intriguing mystery told in convoluted layers of time at first, which took a little getting used to. The main story is set in contemporary Wales, but almost immediately the reader is transported to China several decades before. I'd almost forgotten the original Wales opening as I became engrossed in the multi-generational story of the Yeung family. Even so, I'd been fairly warned by the book's opening that this family was fated for undeserved ill-fortune; subsequent chapters bring us back to Wales to learn how it played out. This is an intelligent, thoughtful mystery with nice historical touches. I liked the pace of the unfolding narrative and the glimpses and clues that were just enough to get my ideas for suspects going without revealing too much. I particularly appreciated the balance in describing some cultural and linguistic patterns of both Wales and China, without falling into simplistic stereotypes for either. There were some minor typos here and there, but not out of the ordinary for anyone who doesn't have the services of a publishing house editor. I liked the book very much. As soon as I'd finished, I felt compelled to go back to the beginning and reread a nice chunk of it to make sure I had it all settled. I suspect the occasional shifts of time and perspectives is a stylistic signature of author Allan Jones, though I can't say for sure until I read the next in the series, which I plan to do very soon.
  • I Can't Say Goodbye on May 31, 2015

    Great story. Those who are vigilant about grammar will notice that some sentences don't have ending punctuation; in every other sense, it's very well done.
  • The Lemon Thief's Ex-Wife's Third Cousin on June 02, 2015

    "...a tangled knot of confused identities, alternate histories, unfathomable intrigues and sheer bewilderment in this short novel of the truth, the partial truth, and anything but the truth." Yep, that's pretty much sums it up!
  • Lost in the Dark on June 25, 2015

    This is a variant on the archetypal theme of being stranded in space, far beyond the reach of others. But unlike my impression of Weir's "The Martian"* and even Bowie's Major Tom, this intriguing little short story has a far more fragile person as protagonist. Those with claustrophobia or a fear of the dark will surely relate. *My impression is based on descriptions and reviews; The Martian is in my To-Be-Read queue, but I haven't gotten to it yet.
  • The Lonely Boy on June 27, 2015

    A very simple and charming little tale.
  • Ghost Connection on July 02, 2015

    A very sweet little story, despite the setting. The illustration is marvelous.
  • The Day the Music Died on July 07, 2015
    (no rating)
    Writing about a traumatic event isn't easy to do. There's a balance to strike between allowing readers to be emotionally involved without sliding into melodrama and hyperbole. This very brief story dances in between the two a little better than the blurb might lead one to think. It describes a reaction that I hadn't yet come across, but I wasn’t on a college campus during 9/11. But, it feels true to the setting and the characters, and I've yet to find someone who can truly describe the terror of perceived danger in a way that suppresses the snarks of sarcasm, born (one hopes) out of sympathy for those who are genuinely in danger. And frankly, I’ve decided that every attempt to understand the feelings of others is to be commended, even if the way the feelings are played out are less noble than we imagine ourselves to be. So this story, which I've just read on the tenth anniversary of UK's 7/7, does well enough to bring to life the human need for the company of others during trauma, and the equally strong desire to escape it.
  • As Far As I Know on July 08, 2015
    (no rating)
    I'm hoping this is meant as a little tongue-in-cheek perspective of someone who blames the near death of his species because of technology, while watching it on his television. If so, it's delightful. If it's meant to be taken seriously, I'd have to say "hmm...." as the narrator rides around in his tank, looking for radios, and eating canned food. But let's go with the spoof and say, "nice job!".
  • The Waking House on July 13, 2015

    I read this short little piece weeks ago and bits of it have stayed with me, particularly the ending sentences.
  • Malcolm Maloney, World Wide Plague on July 13, 2015

    Well, that explains everything! :-)
  • Two Psychics in a Typhus Epidemic on July 13, 2015

    Nice! It reads fine as a brief stand-alone piece, but I'd be very interested in reading more if it's ever expanded.
  • The Post-Apocalypse Dating Guide on July 13, 2015

    All the things your mother would tell you, unless she was busy undying.
  • Anniversaries on July 13, 2015

    Nice! At turns humorous and poignant, and the dialogue works well.
  • The Scottish Colourist on July 18, 2015

    This second book in the series is as good as the first. It builds upon the characters and storylines of "The Chinese Sailor", but could probably be read as a stand-alone. I learned some interesting facts about art along the way, and look forward to reading the next in the series, "The Falmouth Model".
  • The Bones of the Sea on Aug. 20, 2015

    A very good short story. A nice blend of realistic tough choices and unexpected consequences. The tension around the ethical dilemma build up perfectly.
  • Cairo on Aug. 26, 2015

    Quite good, and introduces a detective story protagonist who is not the usual run-of-the-mill (at least from my perspective). I can't decide if the ending of this short story rushed the otherwise measured pacing, and if it was enough to matter if so. For example, was the rude guy killed at the end, with barely a sentence to acknowledge it, or just punched out? It would definitely change one's perception of Kabir and his worldview to know. Was it left deliberately ambiguous? In any case, I plan to add writer Arun Krishnan to my list of newly discovered authors to read more by.
  • Suddenly, Zombies on Sep. 24, 2015

    This short story duo (with a micro story thrown in at the end as a bonus) was a treat to read. The first, "Two Things", has rather the feel of a "Shawn of the Dead" mixed into "Red Dwarf". I realize that's comparing a short story with a movie and a comic sit-com, but I can't think of anything else to relate it to. t's a little campy and manages to weave some suspense into the storyline. The second, "Escape from Ape City", evokes a light-touch romanticism, a bit of everyman as hero, and an admirable "let's all take care of each other" spirit that I'm a total sucker for. It sketches out a brief narrative involving ...(ok, don't laugh)... gangs of zombied apes the size of King Kong. (Ok, fine: laugh. Or at least smile.) But it works. At least it did for me. There's no real horror or gore, and it was over before my tendency to sympathize with every being (including zombie apes) could erupt to prevent me from enjoying it. The entire set was only 24 pages in my ereader and gave me a nice reading intermission when I had brief snatches of time to while away.
  • The Falmouth Model on Sep. 24, 2015

    In this third book of the Catrin Sayer art mysteries, author Allan Jones has definitely hit his professional stride. I love an intelligent mystery where I can immerse myself into a story and learn new things while I puzzle through clues. This series by Jones delivers that consistently, and the Falmouth Model goes further in allowing the characters to delve into new realms of detective work when dealing with art crimes, including cyber-attacks and the delicate protocols and politics necessary when working internationally to protect people and art. I've liked each book in the series and find myself saying "this is even better than the previous one" as I've picked up the next. It's certainly true in this case; I think it's the best so far. I'll likely remain convinced of that until the next book is written.
  • At Ancient Thebes on Oct. 10, 2015

    Excellent short story. The narration is very descriptive and beautiful.
  • The Computer That Cared on Oct. 10, 2015

    According to the blurb at the end of the story, this was actually written in the early 1980s, which explained the brow-furrowing references to dial-up and input cards. It's still a nicely told tale with enough emotional punch when conveying human notions of caretaking vs a machine's.
  • A Report on a Haunting and Other Stories on Nov. 22, 2015

    These stories reminded me a bit of Poe, in a more modern setting.
  • The Old Maid and Other Stories on Nov. 27, 2015

    “On the worst nights, like tonight, there is a third movement, a third sound. A soft moaning, in between coughs, which grows mournfully to a sob, a wail of such pain, such sorrow as to leave their skins crawling with horror at the sound of it. “This is the sound they hear tonight. A quiet, horrible sobbing which emerges, inexplicably from out of the darkness of the room in which they sleep. He wakes first and lies quietly for a while. For ten minutes, thirty minutes - at this time in the morning the passing of time is obscure and difficult to judge - he lies still with eyes open. As he listens, he feels her shift beside him, pulling the covers around her as she moves. He listens as her breathing softens and knows that she too is awake now, she too is listening. This always frightens him more than he imagines it should. It ought to be a relief, he tells himself. He should be glad that he is not facing this alone, is not, after all, losing his mind and imagining the whole thing. But it is not a relief. If anything it makes the fear stronger. It makes the thing real.” That excerpt comes from the second story “Cold Companion” in this three story collection by Rufus Woodward. I don’t know much about the author except that he tells good tales. I suppose they are to be considered horror stories, but they’re not gruesome or gory. They evoke a range of feelings from suspense to sympathy. The third story in the collection, which is literally titled “Ghost Story (Not Scary)” even made me smile at some of the lightly sprinkled humor. Woodward has a deft hand at description, narrative, and character-sketching and gives just enough of each to build the stories. He explores literary devices like tense and person in ways that aren’t jarring to read, but might have been a challenge to write. For example, the third story seems to be written in first and second person simultaneously, but after furrowing my brow and giving it a go, I fell right into it after a few lines. It was quite a wistful, touching thing. As the first person protagonist says at one point: “Whatever we were, where we lived, what we did, all of that is forgotten. None of it matters anymore. It’s all gone. We live here now, strolling up and down the deck of this ship, watching the passengers come and go, watching the staff work through their shifts. We see their little intrigues, their dramas, their day to day routines, but mostly we don’t pay them much notice. They don’t see us and, most of the time, we hardly even notice they’re there either. We keep to ourselves, you and I.” In short, Woodward has fast become one of my favorite writers, especially for weird, literary suspense. I stumbled on his work at random, and know nothing much about him. There’s little biographical information in his books or the sources for them, and some of the links I checked from the homepage link of his website were dead. Maybe he himself is a ghost or maybe it’s just a part of his shtick, but it rather makes him even more intriguing. I have one more short collection of his to read, and will just have to hope that he writes more.
  • The Shorecliff Horror and Other Stories on Dec. 17, 2015

    The three stories in this collection are different in style, but each are quite good. It's the third collection by author Rufus Woodward that I've read, and all of them have been excellent. He has a lovely way of spinning a story, turning a phrase, evoking emotional responses, and building suspense. Whether the setting is in contemporary times (as The ShoreCliff Horror, the first story is) or in the style of a mythic timeless fairy tale (as the last story is), the narrative voice matches it very nicely. Many of his stories have a very literary, almost poetic feel. Some (including those from other collections) remind me a little of some of Poe's. In fact, I thought of Woodward right away when I recently read about the Poe Museum's call for submission in Amy Sturgis' December 10 blog posting: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/9552053-four-calls-for-submissions If he reads this in time, I do hope Woodward considers it. He's a very gifted author and I'm very happy to have stumbled across him. He's certainly on my watch list for reading as soon as he publishes anything else.
  • The Hundredth Year of the War on Jan. 03, 2016

    This short story is very powerful despite its brevity. It's a tribute to all the Marlenes of the world, who stay curious, ask questions, and keep trying to do the right thing whether they're successful or not.
  • The Carnforth Double on June 09, 2016

    This latest book in the Catrin Sayers art theft detective series builds very much on the previous ones. Like the others, it’s engaging, intelligent, and allows the reader to follow Catrin across several countries to follow leads, trade information, and broker deals. Because I never studied art formally, I like how Allan Jones presents background information about paintings and artists in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story. In the case of The Carnforth Double, a thread interwoven with the main narrative tells the story of Rosalind Heaton, the portrait subject of English engraver and painter, Hamlet Winstanley. We gradually learn about Heaton, her time period, and the artist’s techniques as the book goes along. By the time Catrin and her colleagues discuss what a forgery of it must involve, there is no need for an unnatural dialog among the experts to discuss it on a level basic enough for the general reader to understand. We know enough ourselves by that time that we can listen in and follow along. I also like the way that Jones develops his characters and their relationships. There’s a quiet building of personal and professional ties across the series that is realistically paced. I’ve never had much patience with romance as the main focus of a book, so I appreciate the way that the growing mutual interest with Catrin’s colleague in another city gradually emerged without overshadowing the other aspects of her life and work. I take a little bit of delight in being one of the first to discover this series, though perhaps I'm just the first to write reviews. But I do hope that others join me, especially if they like art, a little bit of imagined history, and stories about a plucky Welsh policewoman who paints ceramics on the side.
  • My Stupid Racism on July 18, 2016

    This strikes me as a very honest and soul-bearing essay about the author's evolution of thought and empathy. Thanks very much to him for sharing it.
  • The Faeries on July 21, 2016

    I bought this some time ago and had quite forgotten about it. But I was going through my downloaded ebooks recently in preparation for a long trip and stumbled upon it again. It's a very nicely done short story. The tension builds and resolves at a good pace. The premise is interesting too, but I won't say much about it. I don't want to give anything away!
  • The Murder of Crows on July 22, 2016

    One could anticipate where the story was headed, but that didn't affect my enjoyment in reading it.
  • My Mama's Tamales on Aug. 03, 2016

    I can't decide how many stars to give this. The story was quite strong when it followed Rosario's early experiences and challenges in school. Her mother and brother were portrayed from Rosario’s point of view and one could easily see why she admired and idolized them. I loved the descriptions of her visits to Mexico, and her struggle to find a place for herself within the two cultures in conflict. However, I felt the ending was rushed. I saw that the author is defined in one venue as a romance writer, but other than a section near the end, I wouldn’t define the book that way. It’s more of a coming of age work of fiction. The romance seemed a bit rushed and overplayed, but that could be just me. I prefer relationships to be a thread finely interwoven in a narrative that could well stand on its own without it, and my limited experience with genre romances are that they sacrifice plot for portrayals of passion. Was Rosario’s immediate and rather out-of-character attraction to Aaron an understandable first love experience for someone who’d consciously put off relationships as a teen in her determination to go to college? If so, perhaps she felt it was safe in her senior year to give in to it. But his character seemed almost unbelievably idealized. His family members were just the opposite and were almost cardboard stereotypes. Perhaps the author wanted to set the stage for an exploration of subtler forms of bigotry, but to do that the characters would need a little more shading. As they are, they’re obviously bigots, despite their protestations. The book excels at describing the devastating effects that a cruel or indifferent teacher has on a student, in comparison to the life-changing influences that supportive and encouraging mentors can have. Rosario’s character develops quite a bit to come to terms with the conflicting cultural pressures in her life, and she certainly grows as a person. I suspect that she’ll always have some tendency to either idealize or negatively dismiss those she comes across, but that could simply be an apt portrayal by the author of a normal human. In any case, I wish her well, and would likely read more about her. I did download more books by author Mia Rodriguez from Smashwords, avoiding carefully those that seemed to be exclusively romances. :-) There do seem to be a range of works by her, so the exclusive genre label doesn’t seem quite right.
  • Snow White Gets Her Say on Aug. 07, 2016

    I loved the sassy voices in these stories, and the humor, even when making hard points. The original tales (along with variants from different traditions) are in the appendix for reference.
  • The Giving Plague on April 02, 2017

    The idea of our bodies being symbiotic communities of ecosystems has become more mainstream now, but still intriguing to me. That's especially true as it relates to our minds and behaviors. A few odd and often unrelated ideas occurred to me as I read this short story: - Rodents infected by toxoplasmosis from cats are said to lose their fear of them and thus more likely to become their victims. - There seems to be some correlation between the microbial colonies in our gut to our physical health, as well as to our mental and emotional health (e.g. chronic depression). - If social ills are caused by communities of humans not working well together for the optimal benefit of all, is individual ill health essentially caused by a similar benefit vs burden disparity among all the systems of our bodies? - Good scientist vs bad scientist stories remind me of other archetypal good vs evil stories. This one weirdly made me think of the fall of the mythic Lucifer (from the most angelic to the perceived most evil) to become (with and against God) the most protective of the notion of free will. Their relationships are ultimately a spectrum/symbiosis (and not a binary/dichotomy)? - How is free will affected by knowledge of the factors that consciously or subconsciously influence choice (.e.g addictions, compulsions, empathy, fear)? What is really a free choice in various circumstances under a variety of systemic pressures? -Is it better to have good will and intentions (but not act well on them) vs having scurrilous intentions that somehow result in good actions? And if so, should we add a twist to the philosophical notion: if there were no devil(s), would it be necessary to invent one? (Which I suppose we already do, early and often.) That's a lot of stray thoughts to be thinking while reading one very short story, but perhaps that's what made it so enjoyable for me. All in all, a nice archetypal sci-fi tale written ahead of its time decades ago and re-released as an ebook.
  • The Powys Deacon on April 02, 2017

    I enjoyed The Powys Deacon as much as I did the others in the Catrin Sayers series. I quite like the protagonist, a Welsh art crime investigator, who designs ceramics in her spare time. Catrin is admirably intelligent and knowledgeable, but not unrealistically or annoyingly so. She works and plays well with others, takes the lead when necessary during investigations and shares responsibilities with colleagues as she should. Despite being transferred or promoted around the UK from book to book, she manages to maintain healthy relationships. One can develop a liking for her friends, new and old, with some confidence that we will see them again in the future. And whether Catrin is assigned to work in Glasgow, London, Rome or Dubai, she's back in her native Wales often enough to keep me happily guessing at what a particularly elvish-looking place name might sound like. I would have given this 5 stars, but felt a jarring leap of time at one point. I was tempted to shake my ebook to see if some of the ones and zeroes were stuck in a crease, or had gotten clumped together somehow. Whatever it was made the plot suddenly jump ahead two years. I even missed Catrin's wedding, except for a flashback or two. But I was traveling for much of the time I read it, so I'll blame jetlag or sleep-reading or something. In any case, I'm looking forward to the next book in the series. I'm learning quite a bit, and am enjoying myself as I do.
  • The Friendship of Mortals on Dec. 11, 2022

    When I first read a sample from this book on a hot summer day, the writing style reminded me somewhat of Edgar Allen Poe. I was in the middle of several other books, so I added it to my reading queue with a mental note to save it for the fall. I’m sure I read descriptions and reviews of it when I first came across it, but when I picked it up months later, I’d pretty much forgotten everything about it. I slid easily into the story, adapting myself to the pacing and conversation style of the 1910s. It still reminded me a little of Poe’s writing, so I was prepared for some literary despair and dread, beautifully phrased. The Friendship of Mortals supplied this, along with an interesting glimpse into the world of university library staff and the struggle of young professional women of that era for autonomy and suffrage. And I loved learning about library cataloguers and wondered whether the demand for them has increased or diminished these days. As I read further, still very engrossed, I felt that there was something about this book that I should keep in mind, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. It added to the increasing dread as I began to suspect what one main character was up to and if the other could stop him from going too far. It was only when I was describing it over lunch one day that things became clear. I was asked by a surprised family member, “Are you reading Lovecraft? You have to be if it’s set in in Arkham. Arkham and Miskatonic University are in Lovecraft Country.” I wasn’t reading H.P. Lovecraft and the closest I’ve ever gotten to his country was Matt Ruff’s book of that title and the series based upon it. But that reminded me of what I’d forgotten from the reviews I’d read months before: it's a retelling of Lovecraft's Herbert West—Reanimator. I realized that the lives of the library staff and university faculty were about to get freaky. But it was Halloween season so I simply warned the characters and kept reading. I have to caution those who are looking for shocking amounts of blood and gore to go elsewhere for them. What horror there is in this retelling of the Herbert West series has humans at the source of it. I understand (through the magic of Wikipedia) that Lovecraft wrote the original as a parody of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and that it was not considered one of his better works (even by him). But my Lovecraft ignorance aside, I thought author Audrey Driscoll's exploration of it was very good. It managed to stay fairly faithful to the main plot points (as far as I can tell, again from Wikipedia) and manages to do so while adding depth, context, and development of characters like the narrator, who Lovecraft never names or provides much understanding for. This version identifies him as Charles Milburn and makes him a conflicted, relatable person and not a narrative device or sycophant for Herbert West. (I did want to shake him a few times, but understood that there were plot points that had to be followed.) Driscoll also does an excellent job in developing Herbert West into a complex person and showing various perspectives for his actions. He is still single-minded, narcissistic, and duplicitous in her telling of the story, but he is also thoughtful to his housekeeper and takes good care of his (non-dying) patients. You certainly wouldn’t want to have a near death experience around him or let him anywhere close to the body of a deceased loved one. (But anyone who’s read anything about the history of the medical profession through the 18th – 20th centuries might have the same unease about what others have done to advance knowledge or develop techniques for what they perceived was the ultimate good.) I could never completely trust or hate West, and often did both in the space of a few sentences. I also appreciated the character of Alma Halsey and sincerely hope that she has a bigger role in subsequent books in the series. All in all, it was a good read for me. I understand that some reviewers found it long or slow in some places, but I thought the pacing neatly matched the spirit of the time setting. While this could still be considered a zombie story since it technically has a few in it, it’s more along the lines of The Monkey's Paw. Like the latter, it’s ultimately about the dread of death, and the sometimes unexpected consequences of trying to control fate to undo the pain of loss.
  • The Herbert West Series Complete on Feb. 18, 2023

    This is such a multifaceted series of books that I don’t think I could do it justice in one review. I suppose I should just do reviews of each of the four books, but I found that I appreciated the interwoven themes much better when taken as a whole. I did read the first two separately as stand-alone books, but the storytelling style and narrative arcs lent themselves particularly well when seen more as a streamed series that one might watch. They’re all related, but each season (if you will) has its own point-of-view character and setting. This adds layers of understanding to events and actions, especially as those with conflicts interact. I’ll try to give an overall summary, at the risk of sounding too much like Grandpa in The Princess Bride when trying to interest his grandson into listening to a book. There are no pirates, fire swamps, rodents of unusual size, or sword fights, but the series does have faithful loyalty, revenge, obsession, secrets, the revival of the mostly dead (well, ok, all-the-way dead), horrors of WWI army hospitals, assault survivors finding their strength, knife-throwing, people adopting other personas, sailing, mutinies, the healing sounds of the sea, the stark beauty of coastal lands and gardens, simple acts of kindness, true love, miracles, fires, substance abuse, memories, amnesia, hallucinations, alchemy, magic, the emergence of the scientific method, botany, the scientific method warped by narcissism, obsessive love, triangulated love, redemption, the desire to shut out the rest of the world – and one’s responsibilities – to just live the limited moments together, and the world and nature having the last laugh. I’m disinclined in general – and in books in particular – to enjoy stories that revolve primarily around a single character, even if it’s a character I like. I prefer multiple points of view and several main characters. If the writing style of this collection had not been as good (the series title character’s POV doesn’t come until it’s half over), and I went solely by blurbs (Lovecraft re-animation retold), I might not have even picked it up. I could never make myself feel as strongly for the main character as I probably should have. I did very much appreciate the twist on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde theme (Dr. Hyde / Mr. Jekyll?). One often comes across stories where a seemingly good person with the best of intentions becomes twisted and cruel when given power when facing obstacles. I haven’t come across many that try to go in the opposite direction unless it’s designed to be a story of redemption. But this one does and does it well. And yet, it’s not a story of good conquers evil and destroys it completely. It’s more of what might happen when good and evil meld together and become something new. As I noted in my review of the second book, Islands of the Gulf, Volume One: The Journey, if there’s any chance that you’re going to read the whole series, I recommend that you get this collection of the four books rather than each individually. It’s much easier to continue a binge read as one book ends or to go back to check on an event told from a different POV if it’s been a while since a previous read. Either way, it’s a very unique collection of work, and manages to subtly evoke ethical musings but not in a heavy-handed way. If one is not inclined to muse, it reads just as well as a period piece set in the first few decades of the last century about the lives, losses, and loves of a handful of intersecting characters.