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

Review of The Night Olivia Fell by Christina McDonald


Book Reviews

I went back to my favorite genre this week, reading the mystery The Night Olivia Fell.

The premise of this book caught my attention the moment I read the back of the book. Single mother Abi Knight receives the worst kind of middle-of-the-night call a mother can get: her daughter is in the hospital, having suffered a fall from a bridge. Olivia, Abi’s daughter, suffered major injuries, leaving her irrevocably brain dead. Under normal circumstances, a person with this sort of prognosis would be removed from life support and allowed to die. But these are not normal circumstances. Olivia is pregnant, and the fetus is still viable.

I’ll start with the things I struggled with while reading this book. First, and wholly as a matter of personal preference, I don’t like the imagery of someone not realizing they were holding their breath. I understand that this is a popular way to convey that someone is experiencing shock, fear, or even excitement. I just don’t find it believable. You know when you’re holding your breath. This image appears several times throughout the story, and I took notice.

The character of Abi can come across as irritating and unreliable. Several times throughout the story she experiences feelings she can’t identify. She is irrational, she is manipulative, she is a liar. But we are to accept those things as the actions of a loving mother. A single mother. We are never, ever allowed to forget that Abi is a single mother and everything she does is to protect the daughter she loves so much. Did I mention she’s a single mother?

The last thing that I struggled with was the phone calls. There is always a phone call that interrupts an important conversation or revelation. No one in this book is capable of sending a call to voice mail. And no one is able to pick up what they were doing or finish the conversation they were having when the phone call is complete.

This is not to say that I didn’t like this book. I did. It’s entertaining, the plot moves fairly quickly (if a little redundantly at times), and I really like that there were alternating points of view in the forms of different chapters designated as Abi and Olivia. It was a great way to get different perspectives on what was happening.

True to form, The Night Olivia Fell is, at its heart, a whodunit. And I must give Ms. McDonald credit where credit is due. I made a prediction on page 48 about who committed the crime, and I was totally wrong. Ms. McDonald creates enough honest misdirection to keep you guessing the whole way through. The final revelation makes sense in an “of course it was that person” sort of way, with many of the clues you should have seen revealed in said revelation. If I guess wrong in a mystery, it’s a good mystery.

I would say that there’s a reasonable argument that The Night Olivia Fell falls under the same domestic thriller category as The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. But there’s a difference here. This book has some characters with redeeming values. Abi, while irritating and subject to her own mistakes, is someone we root for. In the end she’s fighting tooth and nail for her daughter, and will not stop until she has answers. Olivia is a good girl, subject to the same issues and challenges all teenagers are subject to. Supporting characters balance the scales between kind-hearted and cruel.

In the end, The Night Olivia Fell is entertaining, a true mystery, and an easy, quick read. If you enjoyed Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan (read my review of this one here!), or 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher (the book, not the Netflix series)you’ll find The Night Olivia Fell an enjoyable read.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

May 31, 2019

Review of Fool’s Gold by PJ Skinner


Book Reviews

I’ve been reading some heavier stuff recently, and this week I wanted something a little lighter, a little more entertaining, and a little more adventurous. With Fool’s Gold, by PJ Skinner, I was not disappointed.

Sam Harris is a recent geology graduate in London in 1987. A chance meeting with Mike Morton – an “entrepreneur” who once fleeced Sam’s father out of a great deal of money – leads to an interesting job offer, a rarity given that jobs for geologists are in short supply, and even more so for women. Though the offer is shady, and certainly one-sided, Sam accepts, and travels to South America ostensibly to analyze geological sites for their potential as gold mines. The purpose of the field assignment soon changes when a treasure hunter drunkenly stumbles into their midst, offering each a chance to chase their own dreams, despite the dangers lurking at every turn.

Fool’s Gold is a terrific romp! It’s fun, it’s thrilling, and at its core is a heart made of anything but fool’s gold. Sam presents a fine protagonist, a young woman trying to make her way in a man’s field of study, and trying to find herself as well. She struggles in the first half of the book, having doubts and reactions to certain events (don’t worry, I won’t spoil them) that I did not agree with given how determined she is to compete. But in the end, she won me over. And the same goes for the cast of characters around her.

The villain, Wilson Ortega, presents a good foil, and is written in such a way that you nearly excuse his behavior as both a product of culture and time. As we see Sam grow, we root for her against Wilson, and pray that he gets what’s coming to him.

I had fun with this one. It’s not too deep, and does quite a bit of character building in the first half. Given that this is the first in a series, there’s nothing wrong with that. And what I really like is that the author left plenty more room for these characters to grow.

This is a great book if you’re looking for a well-paced adventure to take on vacation.

Official Kristine’s BRF Review:

May 24, 2019

Review of Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich


Book Reviews

I bought this book simply for the title. I figured anything with a name as catchy as that would be an interesting read, no matter what it was. And I was not disappointed.

As it turns out, Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History, by Ben Mezrich, is a wild romp, made even more fantastical because it is a true story. I had a vague familiarity of what the book was about, more so in urban legend than anything else, and found myself quickly absorbed in the actual events.

You’ve probably heard the urban legend which I’ve mentioned: someone once stole moon rocks for the purpose of having sex with his girlfriend on them. The truth is just as outlandish.

Thad Roberts earns a position as a NASA co-op and has a promising career in the making. But, after being shown a vault deep withing the Johnson Space Center that held moon rock samples that were essentially considered trash (meaning they had been used in experiments and for demonstrations, rendering them unusable in further testing), Thad concocts an idea to sell them for what he perceived to be their true value, $5 million. The truth is they were practically priceless. Being an amateur, Thad settled for the ridiculously low price of $100,000.

And he might had gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for a meddling amateur geologist in Antwerp, Germany. Axel Emmermann, a hobbyist and member of the local geological society, receives what others perceive to be a spam email claiming to have the moon rocks. He alerts the American authorities and a sting is set up. In the end, everyone involved gets some form of comeuppance, and the rocks are returned to NASA.

The story is much more intricate than what I’ve summed up, and it’s in these intricacies and details that the true story lives. Mr. Mezrich weaves an enthralling tale, supported by numerous interviews with the people who were most involved. But the story is not portrayed as a hero’s tale, or really glorified in any way. While you almost root for Thad, given his upbringing and the challenges he faced along the way, you also pity him, for you know well in advance that his naivete and hubris will cost him everything. It’s the emotional journey you are in for with this book. And for the moments of sheer gall, luck, and brassiness of someone who already has earned everything anyone could ask for.

I have a hard time finding any fault with this book. It’s extremely well researched and edited, the story is enthralling and captivating, and it’s a complete story arc, with real consequences and a satisfying conclusion. And it’s made all the better by the fact that it’s all true. There is no hyperbole in calling this the most audacious heist in history.

I recommend this book if you want to read something that makes your jaw drop. Simple as that.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

May 17, 2019

Review of Hieronymus Jones and the Teacup Squid by Michael Palmer-Cryle


Book Reviews

I am so excited to review this book because it comes from a fellow writer friend that I met on Twitter!

Hieronymus Jones and the Teacup Squid by Michael Palmer-Cryle was a sleeper hit with me. I absolutely fell in love with this story, and when I was done I did everything I could to try to get the next book in the series. Unfortunately, Michael hasn’t finished it yet. Insert frustrated grumble here.

Hieronymus Jones is a young adult fantasy novel about a brilliant teenager (the eponymous Hieronymus, and yes, I enjoyed writing that) with secrets and abilities that alienate him from his peers. That is, until Gertrude “Gerty” Green walks into his life. And a mysterious and growing danger presents itself in his afternoon tea in the form of an angry squid. Hiero, as his new friend Gerty calls him, uses the substantial advantages he has at his disposal to understand and fight the cephalopods, while trying to navigate the twists and turns of his very first friendship. And Gerty, a loner in her own right, harbors secrets of her own, secrets that are not fully revealed in the story. It’s clear, however, that she plays an important part in what is to come in further books. What follows is an epic opening to a wonderful series about magic, technology, heroism, friendship, and the importance of identity, especially in the teen years.

The real gem of this book, though, is not the magical, evil creatures and the lengths at which Hiero must go to combat them. No, what really took a front seat for me is how absolutely relatable Hiero and Gerty are as awkward teenagers. I giggled with them. I cringed with them. I felt my heart beat fast when they held hands but didn’t know what it all meant. I cried out in entertained frustration that everyone else could see what was happening, but they couldn’t. I fell in love with both of them. Michael did a fantastic job of writing believable teenagers, with every awkward, bumbling interaction perfectly reminding me of every second of being a teenager.

As a reviewer, I have to be honest, this book is not without its flaws. In this case, it’s one major flaw – the editing. This book is in serious need of editing, mostly for punctuation. If I hadn’t fallen in love with this book so quickly and so deeply, I most likely would have abandoned it for its editorial sins. However, that should relate just how strongly I love and believe in this story. You’ll see from my rating below, that this is one of the rare cases where the story was good enough to overcome its editorial obstacles. And Hieronymus Jones does exactly that. If it weren’t for the editorial issues, I’d have given this book a full 5 BRFs!

Hieronymus Jones and the Teacup Squid is a delightful mix of Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Gadget and Percy Jackson. If you want a fun, entertaining, heart-warming read that’s friendly for younger readers too – and can overlook some editing issues – I fully recommend this book! I, for one, cannot wait for the next one to come out!

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

May 10, 2019

Review of The Hoax by Clifford Irving


Book Reviews

Lies! Ladies! Luck!

And a book?

This is what The Hoax is all about. In 1970, Clifford Irving concocted a wild idea – to publish an authorized biography of the eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes – involving his friend and fellow author Richard Suskind in the ruse. The only problem is that Hughes had been a recluse since 1958. Very few people, even in his own inner circle, had spoken to him via any means. This is what made the biography so sensational – Irving claimed that he was having secret, in-person interviews with Hughes, who wanted to tell his life story.

What follows is a series of lies, coincidences, half truths, and some wildly unbelievable luck. Peppered throughout the story is a recounting of Irving’s personal relationships with his wife, Edith, and the woman with whom he had long-term affair with, Nina van Pallandt.

From a crime caper standpoint, this book couldn’t have been more exciting. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but be drawn in, at times rooting for the antihero that is the character Clifford Irving. I marveled at what Irving and Suskind – at one point referred to as Irvkind – were able to get away with at the time. Had the unbelievable stories they imagined, and passed off as truth, been told today they wouldn’t pass a single second of scrutiny against the internet. But, such was life before the information super highway.

The problems with the book begin within the first few chapters, though. Clifford is a raging narcissist, an adulterer, a philanderer, and an unscrupulous liar. If this had remained within the context of the caper, I might have overlooked it for the sake of the story. But it’s not. These character flaws are most prominently displayed during his anecdotes of flagrant lying to his wife, Edith, placing her and his family at greater risk than he ever knew. The price she paid for loving him was prison sentences in both the United States and in Switzerland for the role she played in the hoax – which involved cashing checks from a Swiss bank account under a false name to fool McGraw-Hill into believing they were paying Howard Hughes. While Edith wasn’t exactly innocent in the plot, her actions, according to Irving, were a desperate attempt to keep her husband from his wandering lusts. After her release from prison, they divorced.

In the end, I didn’t feel like this book was an attempt to set any records straight. And though he said the words, I never believed that Clifford Irving regretted anything. He was simply sorry he got caught. His constant refrain that he didn’t believe he was committing a crime – that it was a hoax (and that somehow made it different, innocent) – might have been believable if he hadn’t repeated it so many times. Instead, I came away feeling a little used, a little cheated, and a little dirty.

After getting to know Clifford Irving, I can say I greatly dislike him. This was no confession or apology. This was Clifford Irving patting himself on the back, and an opportunity to cash in on a crime he almost pulled off.

If you’re into true life crime capers, and can stand 380 pages of a man who does nothing but betray his wife and a host of friends and supporters with absolutely no conscience whatsoever, you might enjoy The Hoax. The crime part of the story was actually pretty entertaining.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

May 3, 2019