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Review of Grackle by Alexis Lantgen


Short Story Reviews

I think I’m going to change the way I do reviews a little bit. I’m going to start putting links to the stories I’m reviewing at the beginning of my posts so you all can read them before you read my review if you so choose.

Here is the link to Grackle, by Alexis Lantgen, featured in her short story collection Saints and Curses. Be aware that the following review may contain spoilers.

A woman is turned into a blackbird when she confronts her abusive boyfriend.

Grackle gripped me from the very beginning. Jane is confronting her abusive boyfriend, and as expected, the worst happens. They live in a world where magic is very real, and he attacks her, despite the public place they are in. Somewhere in the melee that ensues, Jane is hit by a curse and is turned into a grackle, which, as I found out when I looked up the definition, is an American songbird in the blackbird family.

First, witnessing a person confront their abuser is something that hits very close to home for me. I think Alexis described this as accurately as possible while also being quite delicate with the details. As the story unfolds we get a larger view of the abuse that Jane has been surviving until she works up the courage to finally leave. The consequences of that departure are very real for her, and her life is completely changed as she must now learn to live confidently on her own, as well as literally survive as a bird.

The world that Alexis creates in Grackle is incomparable. I’m unsure if Jane is magical in this story or not, but her boyfriend clearly is, as he takes out a wand and casts a spell to try to harm her. There are magical beings, including “security gargoyles”, which I thought was delightfully appropriate in the setting. One can also purchase magical items of varying quality – drug store charms are referred to, which implies that there are designer and professional items of magic that can also be purchased for more money. I think the world building in this short story was absolute perfection, with the world being close enough to ours to be relatable, but with clear differences and expansions due to the presence of magic. This was very well done!

As I said, the element where Jane is escaping an abusive relationship hits close to home, as does the scathing indictment of health care that Alexis includes. When Jane is first transformed into a bird, she reflects that it would practically bankrupt her to seek medical intervention to return her to her human form, and that even the lowest form of acquiring money – selling your soul – doesn’t pay as well as it used to. I think this passage is both brilliant satire and insightful condemnation.

As we see Jane grow and change through her experience of learning how to survive as a bird, the message becomes more and more clear. In a different passage, Jane meets Ki, a raven, who offers wisdom and comfort. He shows Jane that she has it within her to change herself back into her human form, and that the curse that binds her is only as strong as the energy she feeds it. In slow steps, we see Jane accept who she is and take steps to change and grow with both direct and symbolic examples. A final act of heroism finally brings Jane to the confidence she needs to return to her human form and follow her dreams, and the story ends on a positive note. The final message is nothing altogether new, but it is incredibly important: everything you need is inside you somewhere, you just have to find it and accept it.

Alexis did such a fantastic job with this story. I didn’t notice any grammatical or punctuation errors, and the story moves at a brisk and captivating pace. Her characters are well developed, particularly for a short story, and the complete arc leaves me completely satisfied with the length of the story (I usually feel like I’m missing something and want stories to be longer). Grackle is the first in Alexis’ short story collection Saints and Curses, and sets the bar pretty high. I can’t wait to check out the rest of the stories! If you haven’t already, check out Grackle, by Alexis Lantgen, right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Cassie Burke via Unsplash.

November 14, 2019

Review of Behind the Leather Apron by Alana Turner


Short Story Reviews

I rarely do this, but maybe I’ll start doing it more. I have a lot to say about this story and I’m afraid I can’t do that without including spoilers. So, if you want to read the story first, check out Behind the Leather Apron by Alana Turner, found in Dark Visions: An Anthology of 34 Horror Stories from 27 Authors (The Box Under the Bed Book 2)

Read it? Okay, let’s jump right in!

A serial killer has contributed to an air of terror in the night. People are afraid to leave their houses. We see the killer eviscerate his latest victim, barely finishing before approaching his next intended. But his newest prey has a secret. One that she shares with him.

Behind the Leather Apron starts strong, with a compelling and vivid first paragraph. The writing is clear and well edited, and sets a creeping tone of fear for the reader, as well as setting the scene for the characters. Ms. Turner includes a recurring theme of darkness, which nearly becomes a character all its own. We’re at creep factor 11 here.

There were a few elements that I found to be distracting. At the point in the story where the killer sets his sights on his newest victim, he is finishing murdering and displaying his most recent victim. Paragraph after paragraph is devoted to the murdered woman’s blood loss, how it covers everything, making the murder somehow beautiful. In this description, it’s obvious that the killer must also be covered in blood, including his own, from a blow delivered by his victim. So it’s a little jarring to me that he immediately approaches a woman he describes as beautiful beyond compare.

Perhaps the fact that he is a butcher might offset that, but there’s no confirmation in the story that the killer is, in fact, a butcher by trade. He is obviously a butcher in the murder trade (as opposed to a strangler or a shooter), but whether his daytime profession is as a butcher remains to be seen. Regardless, approaching a woman in the night covered in fresh blood doesn’t seem to be the best way to earn someone’s trust enough to get them to leave with you. But I digress.

If you’ve read the story, then you know, based on the last few paragraphs of the story, that the narrator is a man. However, I had noted earlier in the story that we didn’t actually know this. Until this characteristic was revealed, I found myself captivated by the idea that this violent and sadistic murderer could be a woman. I wasn’t disappointed that it was a man, but I did think how unusual it would have been if it was revealed that the crimes were committed by a woman.

The writing in Behind the Leather Apron is compellingly sneaky (in a good way!). I find that I can picture the events of this story taking place present day, or at any time in the modern past. The strongest sense that I got of the time period is that this was taking place in the late 18oo’s, around the time when Jack the Ripper was active. Of course, the mention of Whitechapel certainly could have contributed to that, along with the fact that the murderer killed with a knife and displayed his victims. But there are a lot of crimes that could fit those similarities, so the fact that Whitechapel was mentioned didn’t exactly seal the deal for me on the time period.

I’m not certain if the main character is meant to be Jack the Ripper, but I hope it isn’t, and as the reader I choose to believe that it isn’t. I like the idea of a copycat, or that this murderer is Jack the Ripper’s inspiration. The elements of the murders being religiously motivated, as well as the murderer’s obsession with his mother, are interesting insights into the psyche that would certainly fit the Ripper, and many other sociopathic killers. I think I found the idea that this story could be taking place at any time period, including now, makes the story that much better. I’d be interested to see if other readers felt the same way.

I think the shining star of Behind  the Leather Apron is the writing itself. The tone and voice are so intentional, so calculating, that you get the feeling you’re actually in the presence of a violent sociopath, rather than simply sitting alone in the comfort of your own home. It’s quite a chilling effect, and one that should be applauded.

Even though I included some spoilers in this review, I’m not going to talk about the ending because I do want other readers to check it out themselves. All I’ll say is that I liked it, even if it was a little bit predictable.

Despite the issues that I had with this, I still found this to be an excellent story, one certainly deserving of being included in a horror anthology. I look forward to reading more work from Alana Turner. And if you haven’t read Behind the Leather Apron, I strongly suggest you do.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Avi Agarwal via Unsplash.

November 8, 2019

Review of We Card Everyone by Stephan Michael Loy


Short Story Reviews

A man visits a carnival fortune teller. Then all hell breaks loose.

Short and weird and chaotic and wild. These are the most efficient words to describe We Card Everyone by Stephan Michael Loy. You can read the story in under five minutes, but what a strange and unexpected less-than-five-minutes it will be. I’m not sure how Mr. Loy packed so much chaos into so few words, but it’s nothing if not entertaining and enthralling.

This story feels like it is supposed to have a deeper message, but I’m afraid that message gets lost in everything that is happening in the prose. Is this a statement about all our inevitable fate? About accepting death as a part of life? Something about the butterfly effect? Perhaps this is saying something about being more careful in how we interact with each other. I think the story can be expanded a bit more to develop the plot and clarify the whats and the whys. But maybe that’s the point. The short length contributes to the lack of answers, and maybe that’s the message, that there are no answers. I just don’t know.

What I do know is that, no matter what the message is, I would have liked to see it a little more clearly. I can compare searching for the message in We Card Everyone to looking at a Where’s Waldo? image. There is so much happening that you really have to examine every inch to find what you’re looking for.

And if you’re just looking for a few minutes of sheer bedlam, then look no further than We Card Everyone by Stephan Michael Loy. I love a story that makes you think “what did I just read?”, and this one definitely fits the bill. Check out We Card Everyone, by Stephan Michael Loy, right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Jen Theodore via Unsplash.

 

 

November 8, 2019

Review of A Canvas Dark and Deep by Robert Mitchell Evans


Short Story Reviews

A space mission changes the life of the captain, altering the perspective of our own existence and creation.

A Canvas Dark and Deep by Robert Mitchell Evans is pretty high science fiction mixed with the perfect combination of suspense, action and adventure, and philosophy. Captain Newman finds himself in a position of authority that none on his ship respects, on what is basically a mission of menial research. A discovery of a new means of space travel propels the captain and his crew not only into uncharted space, but also into the turmoil that presents when there are too many cooks in a very small kitchen. Everyone has their priorities and everyone believes their priorities are the main priority.

But Captain Newman defers to someone who isn’t in a position of authority, Dr. Amanda Hollingston. With no proverbial dog in the fight, she and Captain Newman proceed with research that others argue against for a variety of reasons. What he learns about our universe, what we learn, is so beautiful, and so filled with hope and promise that I am still reeling with its revelation. It’s so simple and obvious, and yet it takes a view of the entire universe to communicate it.

I loved this story. I absolutely loved it! A Canvas Dark and Deep was so entertaining, and so wonderfully executed that I can’t say much more than that about it (though I’m going to anyways). This story comes across as a blending of Stanislaw Lem’s SolarisRobert Zemeckis’ film Contact (based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, which I have shamefully not read), and Dennis Villeneuve’s film Arrival (which is based on Ted Chiang’s short story Stories Of Your Lifewhich, again, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read). At first I was a little confused with the scientific terminology, real and fiction, but once I acclimated I was completely enveloped and invested in the story. This is easily a new favorite for me!

Check out A Canvas Dark and Deep by Robert Mitchell Evans. Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction, I fully believe you’ll find something you love about this story!

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Thomas via Unsplash.

October 29, 2019

Review of First Prize Winner by Rahf AlRashidi


Short Story Reviews

A cautionary tale for anyone who creates.

First Prize Winner comes in a collection of essays and poetry called The Clouds Beyond Us by Rahf AlRashidi. This particular essay talks about an experience the author had wherein she won first prize for a piece of art in a regional competition. Touching on themes of talent (and negligence thereof), persistence, distraction, and imposter syndrome, Ms. AlRashidi delivers an honest view of her success, and the fallout that happens after.

I think everyone who creates can relate to the emotions Ms. AlRashidi writes about. And she poses an excellent theory regarding the aftermath of neglecting a talent – that if you neglect it long enough, it will, in turn, neglect you when you need it. As I said, it’s a cautionary tale to keep your gifts alive and well-fed, or risk losing them.

There are no surprises in this essay. The writing is straight forward and easy to read, with a few errors in grammar and syntax that are easy to overlook, and a couple of tense changes that are easily fixable with a keen eye. Reading this piece definitely made me feel less alone in the way I feel about writing, knowing that someone else out there has had similar experiences, but did not offer anything new, nor does it take any risks. At its heart, though, it is familiar, comfortable, and a pleasant read.

Check out First Prize Winner in the collection The Clouds Beyond Us by Rahf AlRashidi, right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Christopher Sardegna via Unsplash.

October 29, 2019

Review of A Vampire or a Victim by Claudio Capra II


Short Story Reviews

Part flash fiction, part epistolary short, part suspense. All existential.

A Vampire or a Victim is not what I expected. I thought I was going into a vampire short story. And, in an odd and esoteric way, I sort of did. If you broaden your definition of vampire. And short story.

What I ended up reading is an almost experimental piece that forces the reader to ponder the consequences of taking the life of another person – questions that are philosophical, moral, physical. In three paragraphs, Mr. Capra posits not only if you could kill someone, justified or not, but if you would enjoy it. It’s a very deep thought exercise. He then gives a scenario, and you as the reader begin to wonder, “is this a confession?” It’s short, but it’s haunting. It stays with you, and the longer you think about it, the more the layers seem to peel back.

On first reading I was confused, and little disappointed. But as I thought about what I wanted to say about the piece, I realized how nuanced and delicate the story really is. The story takes less than 3 minutes to read, but I know I’ll be thinking about this for the rest of the day. Check out Claudio Capra II’s A Vampire or a Victimright here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Oliver Roos via Unsplash.

October 29, 2019

Review of A Bridge Too Far by Lelia Rose Foreman


Short Story Reviews

Action and adventure mingle with suspense and terror in this science fiction romp!

Roogo is an expedition leader leading an ever-dwindling group of people through perilous and uncharted jungle. Bridges of mysterious origin dot the canyons, along with a countless variety of flora and fauna, each holding unique and deadly dangers. As the group is slowly picked off, Roogo wonders if he will ever get what’s coming to him.

A Bridge Too Far by Lelia Rose Foreman was an absolute delight. I found it to be a cross between Jeff Van Der Meer’s Annihilation and James Cameron’s Avatar. This story was filled with swashbuckling anti-heroes, moral conundrums, and of course, treasure! The story is well written, with enough fantastical elements to draw us into a science-fictional world, without being so esoteric as to be alienating. You don’t have to be a hardcore sci-fi fan to enjoy this one, just a lover of adventure.

I don’t have much more to say about A Bridge Too FarIt was and excellent read, very well edited, and very deserving of its place in the Northwest Indepentent Writer’s Association 2017 Anthology Bridges. Check out A Bridge Too Far by Lelia Rose Foreman right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

Photo courtesy of Andre A. Xavier via Unsplash.

October 28, 2019

Review of Room 1812 by Lee A Smith


Short Story Reviews

An alcoholic man believes he is the cause of a terrible tragedy. He resolves to end his own life to atone, an action he will take in hotel room 1812. But what he finds instead is a truth that was a long time in discovering, one that can only be discovered with the help of a friend.

Room 1812 takes a hard look at alcoholism, portraying it in a mostly realistic, if undoubtedly fictional, way. The story feels, to me, like it is written by someone who was or is very close to someone who struggles with alcoholism, but who isn’t an alcoholic themself. The story also has something to say about the themes of the afterlife, perhaps even Heaven specifically, angels, and faith. In the end, it’s a story about redemption.

It is not, however, a story without flaws. Superficially, the story needed one final line edit for typos and grammatical errors. This is easily forgivable because, who among us couldn’t use a final line edit in all our writing? The more difficult issues to deal with have to do with the main character – Peter. He didn’t seem very convinced about his own actions.

He decides he is going to end his life because he believes that, in a drunken stupor, he’s done something horrible. If he truly believed he deserved to die, I’m not convinced he would do it in room 1812 of a fancy hotel. His plans seem very ceremonious, even lavish. And with the rate at which he was ingesting aspirin, he would have passed out or vomited – mostly from the amount of alcohol ingested – long before the pills could do much harm. It seemed far likelier to me that he would have choked to death on his own vomit while passed out.

Nevertheless, Peter has a spiritual awakening while intoxicated – one that saves his life. This interaction, to me, was the best and most enjoyable part of the story. It’s very easy to be heavy-handed when writing fiction about faith, and Mr. Smith handled this delicately. I was satisfied with the experience Peter was having, and I was happy to see what happened in the aftermath.

I do wish, however, that the ending had been a bit more compelling. The denouement begins with a statement suggesting that it wasn’t all faith and hope and love for Peter from that night forward. I wish Mr. Smith had taken Room 1812 deeper into the struggle that recovering alcoholics live with on a daily basis. What we’re given, though, is a highlight reel of the good things – the changes Peter makes to his life, the community he finds, and eventually, the acceptance of his past. These are all very feel-good things, and I would certainly have been unsatisfied if all we saw were terrible things that happened. But I do think the ending was a bit rushed to give Peter’s journey to redemption, which started that night, the time it deserved to develop that final feeling of satisfaction for the reader.

Room 1812 has a strong premise and is full of promise. I think if it were a little bit longer and little bit grittier it would really be a heavy hitter. It remains firmly comfortable, and is a fine read for someone looking for a little faith and entertainment. Check out Lee A. Smith’s Room 1812 right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of OG Gonzalez via Unsplash.

October 28, 2019

Review of The Sable Lane Catering Company by Keith Anthony Baird


Short Story Reviews

I don’t even know where to begin with this one.

Casey Leidecker is a very successful caterer, who has earned a reputation for excellence in his work that results in a lavish lifestyle. But his work is very specific, and certainly not for everyone.

That’s all I can say about the plot without ruining it for Mr. Baird’s readers. This is most certainly a horror story, bordering on “torture porn”. The Sable Lane Catering Company is definitely not for the faint of heart. It set itself firmly on the edge of what I can tolerate as a reader, and I’m absolutely reeling from this Halloween-perfect story.

The Sable Lane Catering Company is the first story in Mr. Baird’s short story collection And a Dark Horse Dreamt of Nightmares, a collection of horror, sci-fi, and and supernatural stories. With a name like that it’s no wonder the first story is horror, and Mr. Baird delivers on all fronts. I wish I had selected a story from one of the other genres, because I’m totally creeped out! The theme of the one I read, though, is a simple one, and certainly one that has been done before (I even have a short story with a similar theme), but Mr. Baird truly leans in to the macabre and makes each scene visceral and disgusting. I’m not ashamed to say that there was one part that I had to skip over because it was simply too much for me. My face is tried from grimacing so much.

If you like this sort of story, filled with vivid imagery and the worst humanity has to offer, then The Sable Lane Catering Company is for you. The story is very well edited, with only a couple very minor typos noted. The style is clear and enveloping, and even though I did not want to, I couldn’t stop reading it. Check out Keith Anthony Baird’s The Sable Lane Catering Companyfound in his collection A Dark Horse Dreamt of Nightmares, right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Katarzyna Pracuch via Unsplash.

October 28, 2019

Review of One Hell of a Ride by Jacob Klop


Short Story Reviews

Justice never felt so good in this horror short by Jacob Klop. One Hell of a Ride is indeed just that.

Sylvia is a hospital worker, most likely a nurse but it’s never explicitly said. Her profession may seem noble, but her intentions for her patients are anything but. After being late to her train, she catches a new one, and as one might expect, it’s certainly not one she wants to be on.

Mr. Klop does an excellent job with his descriptions. In the first two paragraphs we meet the ever-late Sylvia, who is subject of a train full of passenger’s schadenfreude when she misses the train. Though she has no one to blame but herself, she directs her anger at each of the passengers, revealing at best a misdirection of emotions, but which turns out to be a certain level of narcissism. The best part about it is that we’ve all been there, and it effectively makes us want to sympathize with her, despite the fact that her misfortune is a product of her own behavior. She is human.

And that, in the end, is the best thing we can say about Sylvia.

This story went from creepy to horror in the best sort of way. At first I was skeptical, and Mr. Klop does an amazing job at keeping you guessing. Is Sylvia good? Is she bad? Which part of her memory is the part that she’s savoring? These questions contribute to the building sense of doom that is so expertly developed throughout. My heart was actually pounding at some points!

One Hell of a Ride is not perfect, though. The narration wanders into a grey area between third and first person on a number of occasions, and suffers at points at the hands of punctuation, or the lack thereof. There are a few times where it’s difficult to know if we are to be watching as omniscient observers or if we are meant to be inside Sylvia’s head. All of this can be fixed with punctuation and formatting.

But none of that distracts from the language. I’ll be the first to admit that, at least twice, I did a double take because I was shocked at the turn the story was taking. And some of the writing is truly fantastic. My favorite line was, “Twisted, gnarled trees in the distance pointed leafless fingers up to the slate grey sky.” This sentence rolls off the tongue (even if you’re reading in your head) and was such an eloquently delivered description that I could see it as if I were looking at a painting of it. These particularly well-crafted sentences are peppered in, and are a true gift to the reader.

One Hell of a Ride is a twisted take on an already somewhat gruesome fable, which I won’t name because I don’t want to spoil it. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this story is inspired by that tale. Either way, it delivers on horror, intrigue, justice, and most importantly, entertainment. Check out One Hell of a Ride by Jacob Klop, right here. (Note, if the link brings you to Mr. Klop’s home page, just click on the Short Story link and it will bring you right where you need to be.)

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Dodi Achmad via Unsplash.

 

October 2, 2019