Review of Flammable by Cathleen Maza


Short Story Reviews

A woman made of straw and a man made of fire. An underdog love story for the ages. Or is it?

In FlammableCathleen Maza creates a beautiful world where love conquers all when Lillian, a straw woman, goes to great lengths to be with Jared, the man of fire she has fallen in love with. He is everything she isn’t supposed to have. And she is all that he could destroy. But what is life without taking a few risks, especially in the name of love?

I absolutely love the idea of being drawn to something so very bad for you. Stories like this are always chock-full of action-consequence, and watching these choices be made can be truly delightful. And Cathleen does a wonderful job of creating that impending sense of doom that we think might come. Does it, in FlammableYou’ll have to read it to find out!

There were two elements in this story that I wish had been done differently. The first is that I wish Cathleen had edited out some of the language that hedges the sentences. Rather than say “he found her intoxicating” she says “he found her almost intoxicating”, or “For seemingly the first time in their relationship…” rather than “For the first time in their relationship…”. I found myself wondering why, when the rest of the writing is so strong, so definitive, Cathleen hedged on these sentences.

The other point that got me is that Flammable is found in a collection of short stories called Same Problems, Other WorldsIt’s a wonderful collection and I highly recommend giving it a read. However, about three quarters of the way through the story, one of the characters is travelling to Europe, which unequivocally sets the narrative directly on Earth. Up until that point, I was very much enjoying the idea of these very human problems being experienced by an alien race.

Overall, this story is a fable about love, choices, and consequences. And if you choose to read further, you may find a statement about the role women play in society, which I thought was a nice touch and was delicately delivered. Check out Cathleen Maza’s Flammable in the collection Same Problem, Other Worldsright here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Michal Grabolus via Unsplash.

July 16, 2019

Review of Watch for the Lights by Kaliann Brill


Short Story Reviews

An old man spinning a yarn at a bar, a story that almost no one believes. A tale which causes the other patrons to roll their eyes. Michael was one of those patrons, one who resigns himself to listening Jack and his story. But once Jack begins, Michael is helpless but to be drawn in, the sheer horror and tragedy of the story impossible to resist. And we, the reader, are drawn in too.

Kaliann Brill’s Watch for the Lights, is a Stephen King-esque short horror story. It’s not blood and guts and gore. It’s more creeping, more look-over-your-shoulder, more hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck. It’s these kinds of horror stories, the ones that  make me feel like I’m being watched, that I truly enjoy. This was delightfully eerie and ominous, the way a good horror story should be.

There are some big writing issues here. It’s a little difficult to figure out who is talking in the first couple of paragraphs. There are repeated words and phrases – which is somewhat of a pet peeve of mine, particularly in short stories. There are typos and awkward phrases. However, the story itself is impossible to resist. It’s takes an excellent concept and a delicate hand to write a horror story that does not exist in obvious cliches, and Kaliann has the chops for it. This story is in need of a strong editing, but it’s worth checking out because the story is that entertaining.

I really wish I could give Watch for the Lights a better official rating. But I can’t discount the typos and errors despite how much I loved the story. Check out Kaliann’s story here, and leave her some love!

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

Photo courtesy of Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash.

July 15, 2019

Review of Desertion by Andrew Pullins


Short Story Reviews

An elfish soldier walks in on a horrific act of violence perpetrated by his fellow soldiers. He must choose the next course of action: one will surely see him promoted, the other will save his soul.

Andrew Pullins’ Desertion is, at its heart, an exercise in morality. It forces the reader to contemplate the value of a human life, and what it means to choose right, even at sacrifice. It’s a well told story, set in a fantasy world, but riddled with real-life problems.

Andrew’s writing is good. The story moves at a steady, clipped pace and is complete in its story arc. There are words that could use synonyms, with more than one paragraph containing repeated words. And the end feels a little spoon-fed. I think the ending would have been a little more satisfying if the consequences of the main character’s actions weren’t explicitly explained to me.

Andrew does well to create a complex and dangerous scene. I would have liked to see more of the fantasy world come into play, rather than fantastical creatures being the main characters. The fantasy aspect felt secondary.  But there is beautiful imagery in the story as well. My favorite description was “eyes as cold as the steel in his hands’. This was evocative both of the danger of the man’s weapon and the hardness of his heart.

I will say, reader beware. The act of violence that sets this story in motion is of a sexual nature. I don’t believe it is an author’s responsibility to give “trigger warnings”, but as a reviewer who does not overwhelmingly care for such scenes, I’ll give you the heads up.

One last note: the link provided leads to a blurb page summarizing the story. To actually access the story, click on the link for the Google Doc. Check out Andrew Pullins’ Desertion here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Mark Boss via Unsplash.

July 13, 2019

Review of The Last Hour by Barbara Avon


Short Story Reviews

Two people waiting on a bench. It’s the basis of so many stories, and yet, each one is rife with possibilities. And Barbara Avon dives right in with The Last Hour.

In The Last HourBarbara creates the very snapshot of an everyday moment that roils with suspense and possibility. When two lives collide over a mundane experience – like waiting for something – there is every possibility that nothing will happen. But then again, there’s always the equal chance that something will happen. And it’s in that process of discovering which way the story will go, that we, the reader, get to experience the joyful agony of waiting along with the characters.

To create the suspense of the moment, elements of the story, and particularly of one of the characters, are left vague. In fact, I felt as though I was missing a key element of the story – namely, why the protagonist was there and why her journey (no spoilers!) was so important to her. I felt that this part of the story could have been developed a little more for clarity. But ultimately it is this vagueness, which admittedly at times feels a little too deliberate, which imbues the story with the creeping sensation that that mystical something is burbling beneath the surface. Originally I was left unimpressed by the parts of the story I didn’t know. But as I thought more and more about it, I think it’s that feeling of still waiting that is the brilliant aspect in Barbara’s story.

There are a few passages that were slightly less than graceful, and the story could use one last pass for those errant awkward sentences, but all in all The Last Hour is a fine outing that contains some very beautiful, powerful, and foreboding imagery. Without giving anything away, I particularly enjoyed the images of a passing neighborhood child dropping his ice cream, bare legs stuck to a plastic bench, and my favorite, a breath of hot air as the consolation prize for the lack of a desperately needed breeze.

A short and enjoyable read, check out Barbara Avon’s The Last Hour by clicking here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Thomas Le via Unsplash

July 11, 2019

Review of A Long Day at Work by Jesse Pohlman


Short Story Reviews

Happy Short Story Month! I’ve received a ton of stories via Facebook, Twitter and my website – so many, in fact, that not only am I going to have to do way more than one post a week (looking at at least one a day!) I’m going to extend beyond the one month! I’m so excited and so grateful to everyone who submitted (and keep ’em coming!). So lets jump in!

Today’s review is of A Long Day at Work by Jesse Pohlman.

Manuel is a contract IT technician in a not-necessarily-post-apocalyptic but definitely dystopian near future where religion has mutated into the worship of our eventual overlords – technology. Does that make Manuel a prophet? Not in his opinion. But he is the only one who can restore network connectivity.

I like the world Jesse builds in the first few paragraphs. People flock to these houses of worship to experience “heaven”, an exaggerated statement about the technology addiction that plagues us today. In fact, the entire story makes a statement about religion, society, and technology as a whole, and I love that Jesse has combined these elements into a future that may be more reality than fiction.

The ending felt a tiny bit rushed to me. Without spoiling anything, I think a couple more paragraphs to describe the dire consequences of losing Wi-Fi would have helped raise the stakes even more, building a little more suspense and making Manuel’s job and his opinion of his job stand out that much more.

I loved this story. It’s entertaining, it’s a quick read, and it’s so layered that there’s something for just about everyone in it. And it’s witty to boot! Check out Jesse Pohlman’s story A Long Day at Work over at his website https://jpohlmanwriting.com/ (I shortened the link for clarity, but the link goes directly to the story).

Official Krisitne’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Michael Prucha via Unsplash (click photo for link!)

July 10, 2019

Short Story Review


Book Reviews

Hello! I’ve gone in a slightly different direction this week. Rather than review an entire novel, I’ve read two short stories. Why? Because I love short stories, both reading and writing. And I think this will be a lovely way to shake up my blog. So, without further ado, here are the stories I’ve chosen. Both of these stories come from my 2009 edition of The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories edited by Laura Furman.

Tell Him About Brother John by Manuel Muñoz

Mr. Muñoz offers us a glimpse into the life of a man who has chosen to move away from his family and neighborhood, and all the complications that go along with returning for a visit. Much of the story revolves around the character known as “Brother John”, a child that a neighbor ostensibly adopted when the child’s parents disappear. Brother John becomes a child of the community and a person whom the narrator, whose name we do not know, is obligated to visit during his stay.

We learn a lot about the narrator’s family: a father who has suffered a divorce, brothers and sisters who appear ungrateful for their father’s supervision of their children, a hoard of nephews who are at the age where the words that come out of their mouth never move through a filter. It’s background information that serves to inform us that while this entire trip is obligatory, it’s not exactly a comfortable or welcome one.

And then there’s Brother John. The narrator takes him out to lunch and is bestowed with a story that says more about the narrator’s own choices and shortcomings than it does about the experience Brother John is relating. The entire exchange is devastating and revealing, and finally offers the context the reader is missing from this square-peg-in-a-round-hole feeling that pervades the story. Now we know why things are weird, awkward, uncomfortable, and mostly, unspoken.

This story is an exercise in subtext. Some writers attempt this in their stories and wind up with a sense of cloying innuendo or simply an air of unfinished work. Mr. Muñoz hits the nail on the head here, acing subtext and using it as delicately as a master writer to make us feel what the narrator feels, and help us identify with what it means to go back home.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

 

This is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks

Daria is a Russian woman living in Finland with her “match made” husband, Paavo. She is lonely, has no job, and barely speaks Finnish. And her daughter Nika is missing.

Caitlin Horrocks offers a domestic suspense/mystery wrapped in the tale of a desperate immigrant woman. This story has layers upon layers, and the further we delve into the why and the how of Daria’s situation, the closer we come to the dramatic conclusion. Not the conclusion of what happened to Nika, although that is answered by the end of the story. The true conclusion in this story addresses the themes of cause and effect, the lengths that a woman would go to in order to provide for her child, and the choices many women are forced to live with in exchange for security.

Some might read this as a feminist piece, though I don’t think it’s meant to be. Others will see it as a very well written mystery, which it most definitely is. And still, some might view it as a parable, that perhaps the “sins” of the past never truly leave you, and that the truth may not always set you free. In a dark sort of way, this story comes full circle in that Daria makes a less than ideal choice to protect herself and ensure her daughter does not have to subject herself to the same choice. In the end, though, we see that what happens to Nika may be considered worse than anything that happened to Daria, and that the choices Nika will have to make will have much deeper and possibly disastrous repercussions through out her life. And the subtle truth that Daria comes to in the end, that perhaps none of this would have happened if Daria had taken a different route, is truly heartbreaking.

An excellent blend of multiple genres, this story offers something for everyone, no matter how deeply you read into it. Please note, though this review is vague to preserve the experience of the story and avoid spoilers, in the end there are no scenes of violence, sexual or otherwise.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

July 5, 2019

Review of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C Dao


Book Reviews

I’m back! Vacation was awesome and I was able to catch up, so here’s the next book on the list, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao.

Xifeng is a poor villager with beauty unsurpassed, a man who would go to the ends of the earth for her, and a scheming and abusive aunt with magical powers. When Xifeng has had enough of her aunt’s venom and beatings, she finally allows her man, Wei, to take her to the Imperial City to make a new life together. But Xifeng has secrets and ambitions of her own, and refuses to escape the prison that her aunt had made for her only to step into another by marrying Wei.

Xifeng uses her beauty and her unexpected education to secure a place for Wei in the Imperial army, while impressing the Crown Prince so much that he recommends her to be in the service of the Empress. Along Xifeng’s journey she is forced to make difficult choices between love and evil, and between happiness and destiny. But do not be fooled, Xifeng is no innocent blossom caught in the hands of fate. She is the preeminent anti-hero that you’ll hate to root for.

I chose this book because of it’s cover – it was pretty, and I’m not above judging a book by it’s cover (applied only to actual books). The summary on the back intrigued me, and I found that I was quite pleasantly surprised by the story. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, the first in the Rise of the Empress series, is packed to its binding with magic, intrigue, love, heroism, lore, sacrifice, and evil. It’s a wild ride that kept me guessing all the way through.

I loved that the protagonist, Xifeng, is not necessarily the “good guy”. She professes hurt and anger at the way her aunt treated her, but makes no connection or even excuses when her own actions mirror what she’s been through. But Ms. Dao has done such a wonderful job creating the character that in the end, reluctantly or otherwise, you want to see Xifeng succeed. She knows how to play the palace political games well, though she learns her lessons along the way, and uses everything at her disposal to overcome her obstacles. At any cost.

The secondary characters are well written as well. Though we don’t know everything that they’re going through, we know enough about them and their connections to Xifeng that you worry when they are hurt, and questions their blind loyalty. Wei is a man that any woman would have a crush on, and Shiro will make you smile all the way through both with his humor and his cunning. In the end, as you watch Xifeng make her way to her destiny, you realize that they will all become victims of her choices. But none of them is helpless either.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns will be a surprisingly satisfying read for fans of Game of Thrones, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and The Crown. I look forward to reading the next installation.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

June 28, 2019

Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman


Book Reviews

Get the tissues ready for this one, guys. It’ll get you right in the feels!

All Ove wants to do is die. Not because he’s suicidal. He just believes that when a person has no purpose, they don’t need to be around any longer. So he sets out to end his life. But, as with most things he’s experienced in his life, the failings of those around him to do anything correctly constantly prevent and distract him from completing his task. New neighbors, old friends, and a scruffy cat impose themselves on Ove’s life and routine to both hilarity and poignancy.

On its face, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is a story about a grouchy old man and the community around him. But in reality it is so much more. It’s as much an examination of how we think about our neighbors as it is a statement on the advancement of technology, the irritation and abuse of bureaucracy, and the nature of love and loss. But most importantly, in my opinion, it’s a treatise on the importance of forgiveness, love, and hope. And it will get you right in the heart.

This book was recommended to me by a friend in a writing group, and when I picked it up I was rather neutral about it. The writing style is straightforward and easy to follow, the chapters relatively short and mostly self-contained, and the plot elegant in its simplicity. All in all, a highly readable book, with some very funny passages, some very touching passages, and some very infuriating passages. I was entertained, but it wouldn’t say I couldn’t put it down.

And then I got to the last 40 pages.

Fredrik Backman brings you on an unassuming journey, lulls you into a sense of security, and then bursts you open and demands your emotions flow free. The very first section is tied back in, and you begin to understand why Ove is doing the things he is doing (aside from the attempts to take his own life). Those last 40 pages bring a deeper level of meaning to everything you’ve read in the previous 300 pages, making each experience that much more important, that much more vivid, and that much more meaningful. For most of the book, you, the reader, are an outsider, watching these experiences happen to the characters. And in the final salvo, Mr. Backman seamlessly draws you in so that you are as much a part of the community as any of the characters. The final events belong to you as much as they belong to the cast of characters that surround Ove, to his varying degrees of chagrin.

With the final page finished, I dabbed my tear-soaked face with my umpteenth tissue and fanned myself with the book. It is a rare occasion that a book leaves me in such an emotional puddle. Fredrik Backman is a writer who truly understands the nature of storytelling, and I look forward to reading his other works.

If you love a book that makes you really feel your emotions, that leaves you helpless but to shout in victory and despair in defeat, and makes you want to shake your neighbor’s hand, then A Man Called Ove is the book for you.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

June 14, 2019

Review of Criminal by Karin Slaughter


Book Reviews

I’m on a mystery/thriller kick the last few weeks, and I’m constantly reminded of why I love these genres! Karin Slaughter’s Criminal is the quintessential hard-boiled crime thriller. It’s gritty, it’s wild, it’s unpredictable. And as someone who revels in writing horrible villains, I confess that the villain in Criminal left me shocked.

Will Trent is an agent with the Georgia Bureau of investigation. His world is turned upside down when his boss, Amanda Wagner runs into him at Will’s childhood residence after prohibiting him from investigating the current missing person’s case. In the present day, we follow Will as he tries to understand Amanda’s motivations while simultaneously coming to grips with his own past. We also follow Amanda Wagner as she cuts her teeth as a police officer in atmosphere of sexism and racism in 1970’s Atlanta. Her past and Will’s present are inextricably linked by a violent murderer who has taken up his old habits once again.

I read this book in two days. It’s easy to read, the plot starts on high and never lets up, and I simply could not put it down. Her villain is the most despicable character I have ever read, and there were points where I felt like I was brought to the edge of what I could tolerate as a reader. Which only served to push me further. When I said gritty and shocking, I meant it.

I will caution any readers that there are strong elements of sexual assault, violence (particularly against women), sexism and racism in this book. While by today’s standards these scenes are criminal (no pun intended), they do set the tone to be immersive to the environment of the the 1970s in the south. In the acknowledgements, Ms. Slaughter reveals the extensive lengths she went to in order to accurately portray the time and the place. I truly felt the struggle, the horror, the frustration, and the redemption in the end of the small wins that lead to the present day story line.

Criminal is the first book written by Karin Slaughter (whom I get to meet later this year, btw!) that I’ve ever read. It’s the sixth in the Will Trent series, but it’s written in such a way that, for the most part, I don’t think I was hindered by not having read the previous five. There were a few small bits here and there that must reference previous novels and story lines, but it wasn’t enough to be distracting or make me feel like I was missing something. I do plan to do go back and read the series from the start.

I could not have been happier with this week’s selection. I can’t wait to read more! If you love crime thrillers and fast reads, or if you enjoy anything written by Lee Child, then Karin Slaughter is an author for you.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

June 7, 2019