Archive for the 'Short Stories' Category

Review: Man v. Nature by Diane Cook

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

man v natureMan V. Nature: Storiesby Diane Cook is a fascinating book of short stories – the kind that keep you thinking long after you finish reading. The stories present impossible situations — truly impossible situations that you can’t imagine happening in real life. In “The Not-Needed Forest, a 10 year old boy is told he is “not needed” and is sent off for incineration. Huh? What parents would allow this? Why is it only 10 year old boys who are deemed “not needed”? Why not girls or 12 year old boys? It’s a completely improbable situation, but he waits on the front lawn for the bus and off he goes – how could that possibly happen? The way the characters navigate these strange circumstances makes for really intriguing reading.

In “Moving On” my first thought was that this was an impossible situation that some people might really be drawn to. Our main character is a recent widow, and after a very brief period of mourning, she is sent off to a sort of boot camp for widows and widowers. (Her home and all the belongings she shared with her husband are sold and the proceeds become part of her dowry.) She gets counseling to help her get over the loss of her husband as quickly as possible. She is encouraged to get in shape, learn new hobbies, make new friends, all with an eye towards attracting a new spouse. Her spouse will choose her (and her dowry) from among a batch of profiles and she gets no choice in the matter.

In another favorite, “Somebody’s Baby,” a woman comes home from the hospital with her new baby to find a man lurking in the yard — a man who plans to steal the baby. This is a perfectly normal occurrence; some families lose two, even three babies before the man moves on to other families, but when the new mother suggests protecting their children and fighting back, she is ridiculed and shunned by her neighbors.

I find myself thinking about these stories, even as time passes. What would I do if clothes and trinkets began turning up in my washing machine? Why would a woman become fixated on a perfectly ordinary weatherman? What mother wouldn’t want to retrieve her stolen children? I think  that’s really the measure of a book like this — how long do the stories stay with you? How often do you find yourself thinking about them? What new insights have come, weeks down the road? If a book can keep me thinking and questioning, I will definitely be recommending it to my friends, and I will certainly be recommending this one.

My copy of Man V. Nature: Stories was an advanced reader copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Flings by Justin Taylor

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

flingsFlings: Stories by Justin Taylor, a book of short stories, is interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying. The blurb on the back names Taylor “A master of the modern snapshot” and they might well be right. The book is like a stack of Polaroids, taken by strangers and with no context to explain them. (Think Awkward Family Photos.) They are fascinating, funny, vaguely disturbing, but by themselves, they aren’t enough to tell a story.

As always, I wanted to love the book – I love short stories, in particular, and I always want to love the books I settle down to read – but I found this one easy to put down. That’s never a good sign. While the stories were interesting, they weren’t absorbing and they weren’t satisfying. A good example is Mike’s Song, a story about a divorced father taking his adult children to a Phish concert. There is some hint that the divorce was his fault – probably something to do with his new girlfriend, Lori, who may or may not be cheating on him, based on some misdirected texts – and there is some random reference to a neighborhood boy who committed suicide back when his kids were in their teens. It is most definitely a snapshot. It’s an odd, awkward night with this family, full of tense undertones and secrets no one talks about. I can see why some people might be fascinated with it, the way you can be fascinated staring into a lighted window, watching the family inside and wondering about them, but in the end? I wasn’t drawn in. I didn’t care how it ended — which is a good thing because it doesn’t end, not in the sense that anything is wrapped up and resolved. We learn a few things about them, Mike learns a few things about his kids, but you don’t get any sense of what will come of that knowledge. We walk past the window and on to another one.

One story I felt was much more successful was After Ellen –  Scott leaves his girlfriend because she suggests getting a dog and he can suddenly see his whole life stretching out before him. The dog is just the start, the test before they have kids, get a house in the suburbs, a minivan, a carpool, etc., etc., etc. So he takes off, sneaking out while Ellen is at work, taking his half of their stuff, the car, and leaving her a note. He crashes in an expensive hotel with Mom and Dad’s credit card, and eventually finds a new place, a new gig as a DJ, a new girlfriend…and a dog. It goes somewhere. It has some resolution to it.

Now, there may be people who really appreciate these kinds of snapshot stories; apparently, I’m not one of them. The book, for me, was like seeing Waiting for Godot: I spent the whole time waiting for something to happen, feeling like there were clues and allusions that I was missing. There’s a fair amount of graphic sex in the stories that seems sprinkled in at random, more for shock value than anything else; for me, it didn’t seem to serve the story. While I enjoyed some of the writing and found interesting bits in most of the stories, overall, they left me unsatisfied. It was easy to put the book down and walk away because even the stories I finished felt unfinished.

My copy of Flings: Stories by Justin Taylor was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Rage Against the Night, short stories by Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub and more

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

rageFolks, it pays to troll the Daily Deals and links on Amazon’s Kindle pages. That’s where I picked up Rage Against the Night, edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings, with stories by all your favorites — Stephen King, Ramsey Cambell, Peter Straub, and more. The book is a fund-raiser for Rocky Wood, author, president of the Horror Writers Association and an expert on the work of Stephen King. Rocky has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and all proceeds from the sale of Rage Against the Night will go to Rocky.  When you can buy a great book at a low price and have the money go to a terrific cause, how can you pass that up?

“In this anthology, you will find stories of brave men and women standing up to the darkness, staring it right in the eye, and giving it the finger. These are stories of triumph, but triumph doesn’t necessarily come without cost. “

It’s truly a great tribute. There are terrific stories here! One of my favorites is “Afterward, There Will Be a Hallway” by Gary A. Braunbeck. It’s the story of Neal, a man who takes care of the things that people leave behind, their personal effects. It has a profound effect on him and it connects him to the dead and their world. In the theme of this collection, it is a sad story, but one that is also full of hope.

“Blue Heeler” by Weston Ochse is another great story, about a young boy’s unusual and (mostly) unseen friend. Unraveling the mystery behind his friend’s strange imprisonment will expose secrets that will break his family apart. “Like Part of the Family” by Jonathan Mayberry is a fun take on the classic detective story. Even though I could see the twist coming, I loved getting there.

I could go on and on, telling you about every story in the book, but you’ll have more fun discovering them for yourself.  My copy of Rage Against the Night came from my personal library.


Review: Four Summoner’s Tales by Kelley Armstrong, Christopher Golden, David Liss, Jonathan Maberry

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

four summoners talesFour Summoner’s Tales starts with an interesting premise. If you could truly raise people from the dead, of course, there would be people willing to pay you to do it, to bring their loved ones back. But wouldn’t there also be people willing to pay you not to do it? Could you blackmail that trophy wife, whose 90-year-old husband just left her a fortune? Could you hold a country hostage, threatening to bring back a despotic leader? Four great authors were presented with the idea and their stories made for great reading.

The stories are set in different time periods and locations – a remote, 19th century village; a modern-day Texas border town, under siege from the Mexican drug cartels; war-torn Afghanistan and London in the early 1700’s. In each story, the Summoners have a slightly different motive, although profit and revenge figure prominently. Some revel in their ability, while others find it compelling but troubling.

My favorite of the stories was “A Bad Season for Necromancy” by David Liss. Liss is a terrific author – I loved The Whiskey Rebels – and this story is set in merry old England. A social-climbing young man masquerades as a gentleman, and he uses his ability in a very unusual way. It seems to me he could have just as easily used it for paying customers, to bring back their loved ones, but he wanted revenge.

The most difficult for me was “Alive Day” by Jonathan Maberry, set in Afghanistan. A black-ops team stumbles into what is basically a temple to an ancient goddess, and they are completely unprepared for what they find. I found it a little difficult to follow, and I didn’t feel the connection to the premise as clearly. It was still an interesting story, but it didn’t fit as well, at least for me.

This was a very quick read – I finished it somewhere over the ocean, between Detroit and Amsterdam. (It’s amazing how much of my reading is done on planes.) It’s a perfect fit for those who like a touch of the supernatural, without the trappings of zombies, vampires and shape-shifters, too common in many books today.

My copy of Four Summoner’s Tales was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. For more information and a Google Preview, check out

Review: The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories

Friday, January 13th, 2012

“The universe is not made up of atoms; it’s made up of tiny stories.”

It’s a great beginning to a very tiny book. The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 by hitRECord and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Actually, the great beginning was the end paper. It’s full of tiny drawings and all the detail and work that went into it are just amazing.

Then, there are the stories — they are truly tiny. Maybe a sentence or two, with a drawing to go with them. They are sad and funny and wonderful.

My favorite, which I have stolen for a tagline on my favorite forum, reads:

“Okay, I’ll admit, I have a few skeletons in my closet; but they weren’t skeletons when I put them there.”

They’re all like that — little gems that you want to read out loud and share with people. The book is tiny enough that you can read it at a long stoplight, but you’ll be smiling for much, much longer, remembering it.

The book is from hitRECord, a collaborative art project. It’s a production company where people log in, upload their stuff, the directors combine it with other cool stuff or the artists grab the cool stuff and remix it. When they get something they think is finished, they sell it, like The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, and split the profits 50/50 with the collaborators.

Now, I consider myself a creative person, but I don’t think you’ll find my kind of creativity (my book  reviews, my knitting, my recipes) on their site. But I think it’s a terrific idea and I am more than happy to lend my voice to it here. (I’m also happy to buy cute stuff on their website — put your credit card where your mouth is.)

My copy of The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories tote bag? That, I bought for myself.

Review: Blood and Other Cravings, edited by Ellen Datlow

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

I was very excited to receive this collection of stories. This is the third Ellen Datlow collection I’ve read, the second that I’ve reviewed, and I think she does a great job of choosing really interesting stories that all play to a theme. Blood and Other Cravings isn’t your typical book about vampires. These aren’t necessarily creatures that suck your blood and hate garlic, but they are creatures who steal something essential from you. They draw something — energy, will, love, vitality — from you and leave your diminished. They aren’t terribly happy stories, not surprisingly. Two of them were so cruel that I found them deeply disturbing. But all in all, this is a very good collection.

It’s always tough to review a book of short stories. Where do you begin? What if you love some stories and hate others? This is pretty easy review, though: most of the stories were quite good. I didn’t love the collection as much as I did Naked City, but I think that is partly because of the subject matter. Talking about something that sucks the life out of you — even if we’re not talking about your blood — is not cheery. But the stories aren’t all doom and gloom, they just aren’t as funny as in some of the other collections.

I particularly enjoyed “X for Demetrious” by Stephen Duffy. It is based on the true story of a man who was found dead in his apartment, surrounded by lines of salt, bottles of…waste, and cloves of garlic. It is a distressing look at a mind that is caving in on itself. I was also thrilled to see a story from Kathe Koja — I reviewed her novel Under the Poppy last year and loved it. “Toujours” is not a vampire story, but it is a story about losing the thing that sustains you, having it taken away from you. It fits right in, in its own way.

I also really enjoyed “Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow” by Richard Bowes. I could easily understand the appeal of the mementos of “Myrna’s Place” and other, similar establishments, the feeling that you knew a little something that the world at large did not know. I have always found there is nothing quite as enticing as being in the inner circle, knowing the secret stuff that others can’t guess at — very, very alluring. And if you can profit from that, why not?

There were two stories that I found very disturbing. These were stories of cruelty that haunted me for a bit, a look at being the vampire that was not at all appealing. The first was “Mrs. Jones” by Carol Emshwiller. A lonely woman makes a discovery that lets her get something she desperately wants and also gives her a mean little triumph over her equally lonely sister. But what she is willing to do to get it! It brought out all my protective instincts. The second story was “Mulberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan. It’s a little difficult in the beginning, purposely so, to sort out exactly what is going on, but once you do…shiver. Again, you can’t help but feel a deep sympathy for the poor fellow, with his gentle protests. I found it much more distressing than the stories of more forthright violence.

Overall, this is an excellent collection. There are stories that look at the theme from a variety of angles. There’s a bit of humor (“The Baskerville Midgets” by Reggie Oliver) and a couple of good scares.

My copy of Blood and Other Cravings was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: In the Dunes by John Leahy

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

This story comes at a perfect time. As I posted earlier today, my current book is Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, full of stories about fae and other wildfolk, most of them taking place in urban environments. In the Dunes, a story/novella by John Leahy, runs along similar lines. Two good friends, on a golfing vacation in Ireland, find out that you ignore the warning signs at your peril, because you don’t really want to know what’s in the dunes.

Reviews like this are tough! The story is only 46 pages — not a lot of material to work with — and I would hate to spoil any of the surprises. It’s got a couple of themes I like to it: the silent, knowing townspeople, the perfectly innocuous nature of the warnings, a very surprising turn of events and time to lament your mistakes. After all, it’s no fun if you don’t have some time to savor the inevitable bad end!

My one criticism is that Leahy needs to work on writing in an Irish brogue. One character’s accent is spelled out for us, but it isn’t thick enough to seem truly Irish, and the spelling didn’t seem to match the pronunciation in my head. Perhaps he needs to hang out a bit in an Irish pub and try to translate what he hears. It’s an excellent excuse for a trip to Dublin!

Leahy has a few published stories to his credit and I hope he continues to write. This is a fun, spooky little bit of fiction and it should be nestled in amongst some other similar tales. That would make for a very pleasant bit of reading.

For more information on John Leahy, check him out on Facebook.

2011 – Novellette In The Dunes available under publisher Lillibridge Press
2011 – Novella Harry Wall’s Man available under publisher Melange Books.
2011 – Short story SpiderGirl167 available under publisher Writing under pseudonymn Mia Ryan
2010 – Novella Indomonu available under publisher Damnation Books.

Review: Forgetting English by Midge Raymond

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Forgetting English is a slim volume of haunting short stories. These are stories of loss, of deep emotion, and of women trying to find their way forward. The language is lyrical — poetic in places — and the stories were lovely to read. Author Midge Raymond provides a very short but entertaining collection.

“The lanterns bob gently as they drift out to sea, some extinguished by waves or by the splash of other lanterns swimming past. Paige sees shapes of light hovering above the water — probably the mist in the air, or the effects of Abbey’s hash, or of the tears that suddenly rise in her eyes — but she stands still and watches for a long time, until the lights and voices fade away.”

My favorite of the stories is “The Rest of the World,” perhaps because it’s about a businesswoman on the road, a situation I am pretty familiar with. There is a definite feeling of disconnectedness when you’re on the road, especially in a strange country. Our traveler is in Taipei, dealing with unpleasant business while she deals with a crisis in her marriage. In her first hotel room, a man has left a message on the voicemail for another woman about a dinner date — and our businesswoman meets him instead. I love that idea, even if it’s something I’d probably never do. Through years of business travel, our traveler — whose name we never learn — has lost her connection to her husband, but maybe she is finally making a connection to herself.

“I’m not sure why I hope Kyle will call, except that I long for the familiarity of his voice. It reminds me that I’m still anchored to the world, a feeling I tend to lose when I travel, a feeling I’ve lost almost completely since losing him. I’m away six months out of a year, and when I’m home, I’m usually gearing up for another trip or coming down from one.”

This is not a long book — only 10 stories, less than 150 pages — which made it a quick read. The problem I had with it is that the stories are very much alike. The similar themes and mood, as well as Raymond’s style of storytelling, sometimes made the book feel like one long story. The writing is excellent and I was easily caught up in the stories. I hope that she expands on her themes and adds some additional stories. I would gladly read more from this author.

For more about Midge Raymond and her writing, check out her website.

My copy of Forgetting English was a review copy provided free of charge by the author.

Review: Video Verite by William Petrick

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Video Verite is a selection of short stories that explores our connection to the media.  Our lives are filled with images, but not all of them are real.  In a culture overrun with advertising, reality shows and celebrities famous for getting their faces on tv, how do we know what is truth and what is fiction?

William Petrick’s stories touch on various aspects of media culture, although the connection was not always clear to me.  In “Turn Around,” a couple in the midst of splitting up head to the airport, while in “Perfect View,” a little vacation rock-climbing has the potential for tragedy.  Others are more clearly connected — in “Video Verite,” “Sins of the Father” and “Shooting Harlem” there are definite connections to television and video and the truth of what we see on the screen.

Some of the stories are quite interesting.  “The Captain” is the story of a military man trying to do the right thing.  “Perfect View” has Paul stomping off to prove a point (and nearly get himself killed in the process), while poor, clueless Amy sits idly by, sketching.  These were quick reads, short enough to finish the book on the flight between Cleveland and Newark (1 hour, 20 minutes – I know that flight well).

The trend these days seems to be to smaller books – this one is less than 140 pages.  The stories themselves are very short, some only 3 or 4 pages long.  It all lends to the feeling that the book is somehow incomplete.  Many of the stories felt unfinished to me.  For example, in “Shooting Harlem,” a producer is sent to film the story of a young black girl who has received an important scholarship.  The news team is looking for a particular kind of story – poverty, depression, an escape from the ghetto.  When they don’t get that story, when they find a nice, middle-class family, they’re at a loss to know what to do.  That’s interesting, so far.  But then the producer just walks away, goes back to his newsroom.  What did he learn?  Did he confront his prejudice?  Was it shared by his colleagues?  No answers to those questions, and those were the ones that interested me.

The book also paints an unattractive portrait of women.  There is only one story told from a female point of view (and that woman is more than a bit nuts), and it ends with everyone in handcuffs.  There are bitter ex-wives, women nagging men to talk about their feelings, resentful girlfriends who don’t want their fellas to go out with the boys.  A pretty tired stereotype, in my opinion.

Video Verite and Other Stories is the second published work by William Petrick, an Emmy Award winning documentary producer and director.  My copy was a review copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Dark End of the Street, edited by Jonathan Santlofer and S. J. Rozan

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

The premise behind The Dark End of the Street is simple:

When we proposed this book to writers from both banks of the stream dividing crime writing and literary writing, we thought we had a particularly alluring idea.  Write your heart out on the twin subjects of sex and crime.  Define each however you want, take any approach you like.  What writer could resist?

The result is a terrific collection of stories from some of my favorite writers.  Editor S.J. Rozan (author of one of my favorite mystery series), introduces the collection and provides a particularly chilling story, “Daybreak”, near the end of the volume.  Great writers and great writing are the rule here, and there is a little something for everyone.

They really did let the authors define sex and crime any way they wanted.  Some stories would barely garner a PG rating, a couple are far more racy.  The crimes are different, the criminals are different, and the approaches they take are all over the board — that’s what makes it such a fun read.

The first story I fell in love with was “Scenarios” by Lawrence Block.  I love his work (P.I. Matthew Scudder, among other great novels).  For everyone who has ever read a mystery story and thought “oh no!  not that again!”, this story lets you think through all the possibilities.

The very next story was also a great read, but in a totally different way.  “The Hereditary Thurifer” by Stephen L. Carter is the story of an Episcopal priest unraveling a mystery.  The story never goes in the direction I think it will, a mystery and a main character full of surprises.

“The Story of the Stabbing” by Joyce Carol Oates takes the theme of sex and death in a new direction – not so much about the crime itself as it is about the person who witnessed it.  “Tricks” by Laura Lippman is a great story about a conman and his next victim.

My favorite story of the bunch is “Midnight Stalkings” by James Grady (Six Days of the Condor).  I should have seen it coming.  I didn’t and I was thrilled.

The book is full of great authors:  Patrick McCabe (author of Winterwood – marvelous and twisted), Janice Y. K. Lee (The Piano Teacher), Michael Connelly (9 Dragons), Lynn Freed (The Servants’ Quarters).  Each author has their own slant on the book’s themes — they all come at it from a different angle, but it’s easy to follow the threads from story to story.

I realize that this is a review full links, but if you aren’t familiar with these writers, you should be.  Click on the links, look at their bibliographies, find yourself some great new books.  If you’re a fan of mysteries, definitely check out S. J. Rozan — I have several of her novels featuring Lydia Chin and Bill Smith.  They’re an unusual detective team and the stories are terrific.

My copy of The Dark End of the Street was an Advance Reader Copy provided free of charge.