Review of Hiraeth by Ian Donnell Arbuckle


Short Story Reviews

Nathaniel appears every bit the unremarkable high school senior – neither a stand-out in any arena, nor the type that gets bullied. He’s average. He flies under the radar. He’s rarely noticed unless he chooses to be.

But Nathaniel has a secret, one that makes him special, even magical. And the only person who knows about it is the girl he has a crush on: Ivy. Ivy has her own secrets, though she wears them for anyone who puts in the effort to see. Very few people put in the effort.

Hiraeth by Ian Donnell Arbuckle starts with protagonist Nathaniel saying that the anecdote he is about to relate is the closest he’s ever come to being intimate with a girl. That doesn’t mean what you think it means, and I think Mr. Arbuckle did a fantastic job of turning the concept of intimacy on its head and talking about it in a different way. At this point, and much through the first half, Ivy feels dangerous. There is a creeping sense that she will be Nathaniel’s undoing. What’s even better is that I felt the anxiety I imagine Nathaniel would feel, and yet I was just as helpless to resist as he is. I was as reluctantly drawn in and committed as the main character, and I could do nothing but continue on to my own doom.

The ending was a little muddled for me. I read it multiple times and I still had trouble figuring it out. I thought I understood the rules of Nathaniel’s magic, but based on how the ending reads I’m not sure I do. If I were to make a suggestion it would be to add a little more detail throughout to help clarify the mechanics of the magic, so that we know what’s at stake when something goes wrong.

Hiraeth has some truly beautiful language in it. The scenes of description are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story that you don’t feel like someone is describing something to you. You are simply seeing it. There were a few lines of word play that made me smile, most notably, “Her name was Ivy and she grew on me.” I thought that was delightful. And my most favorite piece of description came when Nathaniel found refuge in the girls bathroom, where he says, “Sometimes, on my own time during school hours, I liked to slip in there, just because it felt ever-so-slightly wrong. It wasn’t the perverse thrill of being discovered, because I knew I couldn’t be, but to sit in an empty place that was not meant for you – well, I recommend it.” That small and private feeling of satisfaction knowing you’re breaking the rule, but only a little, was so expertly delivered that I too, felt a wonderful guilt for being there with him.

One part high school story of unrequited love and one part exercise in magic realism, Hiraeth  leaves the reader both curious and nostalgic. At multiple points in this story I was left to wonder what was happening, and where the story was going. In the final scene, few of these questions are answered. I felt I was missing something, in more than one way.

That may very well be the point. As I found out, the word “hiraeth” is a Welsh term with no direct translation that describes the feeling of missing home (yes, I looked it up .#unashamed).  After reading the final scene, I did feel a confusion about the order of events, which at least partly stems from that questionable grasp of how Nathaniel’s magic worked. In fact, even Nathaniel doesn’t fully understand it.

But more than that, the entire story is imbued with this sense of longing, mostly for a halcyon, more innocent time. The sense throughout the story is that Nathaniel is at some level aware that his innocence is fading, culminating in the final scene where he literally has to say goodbye to what appears to be the last vestiges of his childhood.

This was one of the most unique pieces I’ve read so far, and the story touched me in such a way that I can’t help but overlook its small blemishes. I highly recommend Hiraeth by Ian Donnell Arbuckle, which you can read right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of George Hiles via Unsplash.

October 2, 2019

Review of The Magic of Rembrandt by AR Jung


Short Story Reviews

Magic. Mystery. Suspense. Romance. And a dog.

That’s all you need to know about the plot of The Magic of Rembrandt by AR Jung. It’s a beautiful tale about what our pets – specifically our dogs – do for us. It’s sweet, it’s sad, it’s compelling. But most of all, it’s heartwarming.

The Magic of Rembrandt has some flaws. The sentence structure could use a little work to help with fluidity, and there is so much detail given that the reader is not responsible for using their own imagination. But I think the hardest part is that there does not seem to be a sense of order in the way we are given information, particularly back story. Much of the information that we receive comes in the form of almost afterthoughts during the action of the plot. Its importance is subjective, but its placement in the story feels odd.

I think the antagonist needs a little more “stage time”. By the end we know what he wants, and we know, in a broad sense, why he wants it. But I want more. I want to know his specific intentions and motivations, particularly the change in those motivations from the beginning to the end of the story (read it and you’ll know what I’m talking about). I want to feel his antagonism and the threat he poses to the protagonists. I want there to be more instances of danger and escape, of magic and relief.

The concept and the plot of The Magic of Rembrandt are solid and have a lot of potential. I truly believe this could be developed into a full novel, should the author choose. I enjoyed the theme, and there are passages where suspense and tension are developed gracefully and tactically. And as I said, there are a lot of elements that I want to know more about, that meant I had no choice but to keep reading.

I really want to give The Magic of Rembrandt 4 faces. But, at this stage of the story’s evolution, I just can’t. It feels a bit like a middle draft, rather than the final piece. This story is ripe for development, though, and I think, with some work, it would be an excellent addition to a pet-themed anthology. Read The Magic of Rembrandt by AR Jung right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Mariyan Atanasov via Unsplash.

September 25, 2019

Review of Goodnight by Jason Nadler


Short Story Reviews

A couple having a late night conversation, reminiscing about their adventures through a life of love. Goodnight is a beautiful piece written by a talented author.

Goodnight by Jason Nadler was a competition piece of flash fiction, for which he won 2nd place. And it’s clear why. The complete story arc is beautifully delivered via a late night conversation. Without spoiling anything, I will say there is a deeper layer as to who the two characters are, but even if there wasn’t this would be a standout piece.

There is a single line, spoken by the male character, that I felt could have used more work. When “he” (he has a name, but again, I don’t want to spoil anything), is recalling the memory that the female character is discussing, the line he delivers feels out of place. The entire story is a conversation, and this single line stood out as not feeling natural to the dialogue. It just didn’t feel like how the character would talk.

Regardless, this story is well-written, beautiful and a little sad. Goodnight by Jason Nadler is flash fiction done right! If you need a quick break, read Goodnight right here!

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Jeroen Andel via Unsplash.

September 18, 2019

Review of The Spider’s Spinning by Marian L Thorpe


Short Story Reviews

A man is inexplicably drawn to an architectural wonder of a house, only to discover that it’s foundation – both physical and metaphysical – hold darker secrets than anyone knows.

The Spider’s Spinning, by Marian L. Thorpe and published at BewilderingStories.com, starts with the promise of something creeping and uncomfortable. It’s a warning of sorts, both for other characters in the story and for the reader. The narrator seems to be begrudgingly telling his tale, knowing what is to come, hoping for the best but truly expecting the worst.

I thought Ms. Thorpe did a wonderful job of setting the initial tone. It was delicately created and I was forced to ask myself where she was going with this. I loved that the opening allowed for a number of directions, and I was immediately drawn in.

What follows in the bulk of the The Spider’s Spinning seems to be an education in architecture. It’s clear that Ms. Thorpe has extensive knowledge on the subject, and I liked that it was incorporated so integrally into the story. However, I was somewhat disappointed that, while the detail was impeccable, the tone and atmosphere was smothered with the weight of it. Rather than the house becoming a character in the story, driving that initial sense of foreboding, it seemed as mildly interested in itself as the narrator seemed to become. There were some definitely creepy elements to the structure being discussed in the story, elements that I would have loved to see developed and focused on, but they seemed to become regarded by the characters as pieces of passing wonder rather than features to be wary of.

I like the idea that the narrator is unable to stay away from the house, giving up everything in the end for it, almost like a toxic lover. It reminded me of Stephen King’s Rose Red, or The Haunting. This piece has wonderful potential, and I think making a stronger connection between the architectural elements and the feelings they are meant to provoke will take this story to the next level.

Check out The Spider’s Spinning by Marian L. Thorpe, right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

September 16, 2019

Review of The Back Pew by Mallory Kelly


Short Story Reviews

Crazed killers dressed as clowns are terrorizing a town. Detectives Shirley Adoms and Dan Carter are on their trail, but the killers seem to be one step ahead. And innocent bystanders are paying the price.

Such is the premise of The Back Pew, book three in Mallory Kelly’s Clown Conspiracy  short story series. And there are no secrets here. Based on the title of this book and series, you’re going to get exactly what you’d expect. And you won’t be disappointed.

The first paragraph of The Back Pew sets the tone for the whole piece. It’s dreary and ominous. I dare say it’s gothic. Despite the fact that the first scene is supposed to be a fundraiser party for the church where the bulk of the action takes place, nothing can wipe away the sense of impending doom. It’s an excellent start that grips you from the very first sentence.

Ms. Kelly never lets up on the reader. Even in the brief moments of hope sprinkled in, the story never lets the reader believe that the last moment of horror was the truly the last. There’s more to come, and Ms. Kelly delivers each time.

Extra points for creativity where the murders are concerned. Creepy clown killers are quite in style right now, but Ms. Kelly imbues the pastiche with unique twists, interesting plot lines, and, best of all, gruesome and terrifying slayings. This story evoked every clown nightmare I’ve ever had, then pumped them full of steroids. This is horror done right.

This is the third story in a series, and I have not read the first two stories, though now I’m going to. What’s wonderful about this is that I don’t feel as though I’ve missed anything by not reading the first two installments. The Back Pew establishes quite effectively what the detectives are doing and what the situation is, and Ms. Kelly gives us the background information that we need with an expert hand. There was never a moment where I felt like I was missing something.

Though it was longer than I was expecting to devote to a story this afternoon (short story is a bit of a misnomer – I’d place this squarely in the realm of novella), I simply couldn’t put this down. I had to know what happened. I tend to want thriller/suspense/horror stories to be made either shorter or longer (usually longer), but in this case I think Ms. Kelly did an excellent job with length. It’s short enough to read in one sitting (it took me about 90 minutes to read, while also doing some chores), but long enough to feel really satisfying. If you’re into creepy clown killers, The Back Pew, and I suspect all the books in Mallory Kelly’s Clown Conspiracy series, is not to be missed. Check out The Back Pew right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Robert Zunikoff via Unsplash.

September 10, 2019

Review of The King’s Mask by Melody Wingfield


Short Story Reviews

A man learns that a just king comes at a price.

That’s all I have to say about the plot of The King’s Mask by Melody Wingfield. This is a wonderful short piece that pays a bit of homage to The Man in the Iron Mask, though with a different twist. Ms. Wingfield deftly uses symbolism and double-speak to set up an atmosphere that is both creepy and a tiny bit hopeful. The setting of frivolity at the royal ball adds the perfect antithetic setting for what is to come.

But I think the best part of the whole story is the system of politics that the “first king” set in place. I won’t spoil it, but Ms. Wingfield developed a fantastic system that is both simple and elegant. This system defines the story and brilliantly sets the stage for each character’s motives. I thought this was wonderfully well done!

The only element that I wish had been a little more developed is the scene where the main character receives his mask. The first section of the story spends a fair amount of time detailing that the main character’s appearance is, at best, plain, but is probably much worse, given the emphasis that is placed on his voice (he’s a minstrel). When he receives the mask, a glorious and beautiful piece, I would have liked to have seen more contrast between the mask and the face, and a little more ceremony in the main character putting the mask on. This moment, which feels like it should be very meaningful, feels glossed over in a short paragraph. Admittedly, there could have been a word count limit, as this piece was entered in a competition (taking 3rd place, great job!!) so I’m inclined to believe this was less an oversight and more a difficult decision Ms. Wingfield had to make – a choice I’m not unfamiliar with. Given that I’m not sure anything else in the story could have been cut, I can live with this part.

This was a wonderful piece! I think everyone should give it read – it’s quick and enthralling. Check out The King’s Mask by Melody Wingfield right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Serkan Turk via Unsplash.

September 10, 2019

Review of I Have Seen Our Future by LJ Thomas


Short Story Reviews

A reconnaissance mission goes horribly awry when the soldier is accidentally launched into the future. How far into the future is unknown, but it is a future that does not look hopeful. Before the main character can figure out what’s happened, so that it can be prevented, the error is corrected and she is transported back to her present time with nothing but the visions of what is to come.

I Have Seen Our Future is not long, and it’s plot line is simple and easy to enjoy. It’s the implications that hit you in the teeth. And as you reflect on the story you wind up with more questions than answers. At least I did.

As always, I want to know more! I want to know the background and the intention of time travel. Is it for military purposes? Economic? Political? All of them? Is it something that’s available to every person, or a service earmarked and priced for the elite? What is the nature of the society that uses this technology? And why couldn’t whatever cataclysm that has darkened the future be seen and prevented? This is not an exhaustive list.

I truly enjoyed this story. It’s thought provoking and engaging, and is a fun story to experience. That’s not to say I Have Seen Our Future is not without it’s faults. With so much potential in the story and in the world created, I found I was disappointed that I did not know more, and a little distracted by my questions. As with many short stories, the ending is unclear. At the very least, I would have liked some consequence for the inciting error.

Ms. Thomas includes an author’s note which I read prior to reading the story. Don’t do this. Go in blind (or as blind as you can after reading this review) and enjoy the discovery and freshness of the story. Read the note after. Each of the links provided in this review goes straight to the story, skipping the note.

Ms. Thomas has created an expansive and rich world, filled with problems that we are already familiar with as well as with challenges we have yet to conceive. I hope that this is the prelude to a much longer work, because this story has me thinking, and I can’t wait to see what else she comes up with. Check out I Have Seen Our Future right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

August 27, 2019

Review of Some Assembly Required by Victor H. Rodriguez


Short Story Reviews

Pitched as a “cyberpunk noir” story, Some Assembly Required by Victor H. Rodriguez reads like a parable on the dangers of celebrity and power. Betrayal and murder are the order of the day, and Victor does not pull any punches when relating the details. From mildly uncomfortable to positively gruesome, Some Assembly Required is a visceral treat for those who enjoy that kind of story.

For me, this pushed the limits of my boundaries. I’m not a huge fan of violence and gore in stories (I’m a sensitive murder mystery writer, what can I say?). But I feel that Victor has used it appropriately to tell his story. There’s a shock value, which I appreciated. And while it was explicit and, for lack of a better word, gross, it was not gratuitous. The violence and destruction made sense within the context of the story. Reader beware, Victor does a fantastic job of making the scenes vivid and impactful.

Some Assembly Required (a very clever title) is told from the point of the view of a waiter, who bore witness to the events that transpired. Ultimately, it is told from the first person, however that’s not exactly how the story starts. The first several paragraphs come across as third person, with a POV shift in the form of breaking the fourth wall. I wasn’t a huge fan of that. I would rather have had the first person POV from start to finish, with no direct contact between the narrator and me.

I think the best part of this story is the satire of it all. Some Assembly Required is incredibly layered, and can be read as the cyberpunk noir it’s billed as, as a statement on the nature of politics and business as bedfellows, or, as I chose to read, a dark comedy on the false promises of power and wealth. While nothing in the story is funny, it’s the irony of the razor thin veil between real life and fiction that made me chuckle and say, “I see what you did there.”

Check out Some Assembly Required by Victor H. Rodriguez, featured in Years Best Transhuman Sci-Fi 2017 Anthology, edited by C.P. Dunphey.

Official Kristine’s BRF Review:

Photo Courtesy of Valentin Salja via Unsplash.

August 19, 2019

Review of Where The Grass Is Greener by Sam Wilkes


Short Story Reviews

Two privileged, white teenagers decide to track down an old friend from the wrong side of the tracks. One is looking for weed and an adventure. The other is looking for forgiveness. What they both find is a kind of truth about themselves and each other that excites one and terrifies the other.

Sam Wilkes’ Where The Grass Is Greener is a superb piece of writing that attacks with unyielding honesty the often delicate topics of race and racism, socio-economics, and the effects that parents’ beliefs have on their children. The first line hits you like a freight train. It’s put into context a few sentences later, but the tension it creates never, ever lets up.

Ward is character you aren’t meant to like. From the first moment we meet him we know him to be a callous and bored young man who has no concept of the word consequence. He is ignorant, childish, and has a certain perspective on life that belies his wealthy upbringing. I found him to be the scariest character in the story, as he comes across to me as the kind of person who is capable of unspeakable actions, particularly as a reaction to not getting what he wants. Spoiled brat does not even begin to describe him.

Daniel, his counterpart, is a much more nuanced character. He is also privileged, but he has an awareness about that privilege that allows him to feel compassion, understanding, and remorse. He appears to be at a philosophical cross roads in his life, a point where, for the first time, he is about to discover something very important about himself. If he can only disentangle himself form Ward’s oppressive influence.

My only critique here would be that it took me longer that I would have liked to figure out that Ward and Daniel were from families of wealth. It’s obvious by the end of the first section, but they refer to another character as “another trust fund kid” without establishing first that they are from the same class. Knowing their background ahead of that line would snap that passage into clarity.

In Where The Grass Is GreenerSam provides an atmosphere of anticipation that can be challenging to create. Throughout the story, there is this undercurrent of tension just waiting to snap. But the interesting thing is that I think everyone who reads it will experience that tension differently. Just like Ward and Daniel have a certain perspective on the events of the story, so too will readers based on their own life experiences.

Read Where The Grass Is Greener by Sam Wilkes, featured in Deep South Magazineright here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Alif Caesar Rizqi Pratama via Unsplash.

August 14, 2019

Review of Gloria and the Angel by Rebecca F. Kenney


Short Story Reviews

It’s Christmas time and Gloria is in dire straits. Raising two very small girls as a widow is difficult. And she won’t even touch the emotions tied to her husband’s untimely death during World War II. Gloria’s only concern is how she is going to manage next week’s bills. It’s a sad and desperate time. But the challenges she faces are about to get very complicated.

After Gloria saves her youngest daughter, Mary, from a creature of unholy provenance, a man in red delivers her oldest, Ellie, from certain death. The man is divine, and speaks of magic and belief like they’re resources Gloria has access to. When he casts his angelic sights on her, she is nearly powerless to resist. But the truth about who he is and where he comes from is too much for Gloria to overlook, despite the Christmas miracle she is about to receive.

Gloria and the Angel is beautiful. Richly told and engrossing, it’s a short story that I just wanted more of! Lucky for me, and all of you, it’s a companion piece to Rebecca Kenney’s larger Secrets of the Fae series. This story stands completely on its own, and delivers the magic of the Fae world without overpowering you with it. With accessible and relatable characters, the plot moves quickly and keeps you engaged. And Rebecca did a wonderful job editing the story for flow and ease of reading.

I think my only wish for this story (I can’t even call it a criticism) is that I wanted a bigger climax. The man in red is certainly not of a holy nature, but he isn’t exactly evil either. And when Gloria finds out who he is, I wish there had been a bigger struggle, more fireworks, a more protracted confrontation. But seeing as I couldn’t help but sympathize with the man in red anyways, his actions don’t seem out of character for him specifically (other’s like him would have taken much different action, I’m certain of that). The effect, though, is undeniable. I want to read more. I want to know more about this universe. And I desperately hope that these characters appear in the series.

Check out Gloria and the Angel by Rebecca F. Kenney right here!

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Maria Mekht via Unsplash.

August 12, 2019