Kristine's Book Review Forum (get it?)

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

Review of Impetus of Faith (Chapter 1) by Alpana Chand


Short Story Reviews

To start, Impetus of Faith (Chapter 1) is not, in fact, a short story. It’s the first chapter of a book. There are at least 10 chapters, from what I could see on Ms. Chand’s website. That being said, I’ll go on, because I did find it to be self-contained enough to fit my fairly loose definition of a short story.

The story starts 10 months after some kind of tragedy. But the reader doesn’t really know this. The first words are simply “10 months later”. I struggle with this story telling technique because, while yes, it makes me want to keep reading to find out what happened 10 months ago, it also irritates me because I would be perfectly capable of understanding via the narrative that something happened in the past that lead to the scene I am reading. I feel this is a bit of spoon-feeding, and shows a lack of trust in the reader.

However, I forged ahead, and I’m so glad I did! This story details the aftermath of a tragedy that has befallen a couple. We meet Evelyn, the long-suffering woman who blames herself for the tragedy, though she does seem to be on the brink of self-revelation about the nature of what happened. I immediately sympathized with her, and there was no changing my mind after that.

Carter, the other half of this couple, seems all too content to let Evelyn take the blame. He arranges a therapy session for her, is unmoving despite Evelyn’s reticence at going, and is accusatory in his reasoning. “Someone has to be sane here,” and “You need a therapist,” are just two of the gems he uses, disguising his demand as care and worry for his partner. Instead, he is not only placing the responsibility of recovery solely on Evelyn, but is also absolving himself of any role he had in both the tragedy and the recovery. I do not like Carter.

Evelyn submits, and has a session with Dr. Avery. It is during this session that we learn what happened (which I won’t spoil), and we really come to terms with the idea that Carter is not a great person. We don’t know if what happened was intentional. But we, the objective reader, can see that the blame in the situation is unfairly placed on Evelyn.

All of this serves to create an interesting and vivid glimpse into a tragic situation. Ms. Chand does an excellent job of creating emotional turmoil and detailing scenes and interactions that make the reader feel viscerally uncomfortable. The tension, emotional and otherwise, is palpable. And then, there is the last line of the story. BOOM! I won’t say any more, but I will say I cannot wait to continue reading!

There are some grammatical and punctuation errors. The story seems like it could use a final line edit, and some of the setting descriptions fall flat. But the story is excellent. I’m drawn in, and I want you to be drawn in too. Check out Chapter 1 of Impetus of Faith right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Matus Hatala via Unsplash.

August 8, 2019

Review of Seeing at Night by Stephen Page


Short Story Reviews

At first blush, Seeing at Night by Stephen Page is a slice of life piece detailing a day in the life of Johnathan, a writer in a Spanish speaking country involved with a woman named Theresa. They have a housekeeper and a cook, and they have no children, but dote on the children of their household help.

For me, this sun-scorched piece carries something deeper, and perhaps darker. Though nothing in the story overtly points to anything other than a-day-in-the-life, there is a creeping feeling that something is lurking just around the corner. Or perhaps, just around the previous corner, out of sight but still lingering. Stephen creates a beautiful image of a sunny, somewhat lazy day, but to me, the image is bleached in a tragedy of which no one is speaking.

Imagery of new life pervades the story. There are children, baby owls, a calf, and saplings. But one of those saplings didn’t make it. The symbolism in the story, delicate though it is, seems to be screaming at me that the childless Johnathan and Theresa may not be childless by choice. Their interactions are halting, but whether that’s from a challenge in communication (both seem to struggle with each other’s native language) or because they are struggling to move on from something difficult, is unknown. Their lovemaking, though neither rough nor overly tender, is presented as almost obligatory. And the tense, sad eeriness, never addressed, is ever-present.

The story has some run on sentences, including a passage about Johnathan watering the garden that could have been described more elegantly. And there was some word repetition that I found a bit grating (thought it’s admittedly a pet peeve of mine). But there is a glossary included with the story to help those less familiar with the Spanish language to truly understand what is happening. I found that quite helpful, though having to check a glossary to look up words did sort of interrupt the flow for me.

The more I think about Seeing at Night, the better I think it is, and the more I like it. It reminds me of Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, and I can’t help but ponder the implications. Check out Stephen Page’s Seeing at Night right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters via Unsplash.

 

August 7, 2019

Review of Uncle by Albert van der Steeg


Short Story Reviews

What must it be like to be a child in the presence of a full-grown adult who suffers from mental illness? Is he strange? Eccentric? Dangerous? And why are all the other adults so upset?

These are the questions posed in Uncle, by Albert van der Steeg. His main character, a child, cannot understand his uncle’s strange behavior, nor why his father and aunt are so distressed about it.

Uncle is a very short read that touches on some very heavy issues, issues that children are not equipped to deal with. Reading more like a journal entry than a short story, the reader wonders if this is, in fact, a short memoir or essay piece. Regardless, Albert does a great job describing the discomfort and sadness experienced while being in the presence of a loved one suffering from mental illness. Understanding is difficult for children. Decision making is difficult for adults. And then there is the person suffering.

The story is a bit choppy, and I can’t figure out if it’s because the story mostly takes place from the point of view of a child, or perhaps because something was lost in the story’s translation. I would have liked to see details of the evening’s events as well as the aftermath broadened. I also think that the adult perspective at the end, explaining why the uncle suffers the way he does, is what really changed this from a story to journal entry, and that if the story had remained entirely from the perspective of the child, it would have remained firmly in the realm of short story.

Check out Albert van der Steeg’s Uncle, right here.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

Photo courtesy of JD Designs via Unsplash.

August 6, 2019

Review of The Cabin Jesus Built by AM Lewis


Short Story Reviews

A bus crash leaves a group of tourists stranded in the frigid cold on the journey to Santa’s Village (a real place in Lapland, Finland that you can visit!). With the bus driver dead and more children then adults, the worldly group of strangers must rely on each other, and on faith, to get them through the ordeal.

The Cabin Jesus Built is a longer short story that took me about 40 minutes to read. AM Lewis creates a tale of thrilling adventure, faith in the face of adversity, acceptance, and survival. Told from multiple points of view, this story is a companion piece, or more accurately a short prequel, to Lewis’ larger Firstborn series.

Lewis’ writing is excellent. With only a negligible handful of sentences that I would have written differently, the story flows evenly and at a consistent pace. I was both drawn in and impressed by the accurate portrayals of both adults and teenagers of a variety of cultures, and how each one perceives and interprets both every day events and the sudden turmoil the group finds themselves in.

The only thing I would have liked to see was a little more detail in the bus accident that leaves the group stranded. From the way it was written I thought the bus was merely sliding. It wasn’t until the revelation that the bus driver had died that the severity of the accident becomes more clear. I would have liked to see a little more of the chaos that must have ensued during and just after the bus’s descent and  crash.

To put this succinctly, The Cabin Jesus Built is one of the most beautiful stories I have every read. This story has obvious appeal to those of Christian or Jewish faith, but is really a wonderful story of hope, faith and love in all its forms.  No matter your beliefs, this is a heartwarming story told with excellent detail, perspective and forethought. It is sweet without being saccharine, and I think it’s a wonderful selection for anyone who is looking for a nice, relatively quick, and uplifting read.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Ryan James Christopher via Unsplash.

August 5, 2019

Review of An Elegant Solution by Trisha Lea


Short Story Reviews

An Elegant Solutionby Trisha Lea, provides an elegant parable to the hope attributed to the afterlife. We all think we’re going to heaven. The words, the atmosphere, the contrast, the sacrifice. It all combines to create this moody, self-reflective tone that causes the reader to reflect on everything from the existence of a soul to the possibility of redemption to the value of a hot shower. What are we heading for? How do we get there? Will it be worth it? And in end, what will it have all been for?

This story is brilliant and dark, well-written and a pure treat for the cynical soul. I could see An Elegant Solution being a companion piece to a larger, longer story set in the dystopian world Trisha creates. I would absolutely love to see a prequel that details the protagonist’s life leading up to this story.

I blissfully have not found any areas that I would say need improvement in this story. It’s beautifully crafted, without a single word wasted. If you are looking for a quick and snappy break from your everyday tasks, enjoy the fall into the world Trisha delivers in An Elegant Solution!

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Dominik Schroder via Unsplash.

July 31, 2019

Review of Touched by Angels by Florianne Humphrey


Short Story Reviews

Ailbe is under the oppressive thumb of a deeply religious mother. Everything that she does, and does not do, is because of God’s will. The worst thing Ailbe could ever do in her mother’s eyes is fall from grace – whatever that means. Touched by Angels by Florianne Humphrey makes a strong statement about they hypocrisy and hatred with which religion has treated non-conformers. Ailbe is a young teenager on the brink of womanhood, who is just beginning to question what it means to be touched by angels, and the consequences of finding her own way.

I had a visceral reaction to Ailbe’s mother and the fact that all of her actions are justified in the eyes of God. Even thinking about it in order to write this review, I find I’m uncomfortable. Being able to draw out this kind of response is the essence of good story telling!

But it doesn’t stop there. The first half of the story is told by a 13-ish year old Ailbe. The writing reflects that, as it reads as if it were written by someone just discovering the power of writing. At first I was a little off-put. But then I read the second half and the brilliance of Florianne’s writing becomes clear. In the second half, Ailbe is about 25, and the narrative is written as such. Not only do we get the perspectives of a younger Ailbe and then a more mature Ailbe, but the evolution, the growth appears all the way down into the writing style. Reading a story that is so immersive is truly a delight!

I did have to adjust my understanding of some of the language here. Being accustomed to American English and all it’s slang, switching to British English and it’s unique slang takes a minute to get used to, at least for me. But once you’re in, the story is wonderful.

Check out Florianne Humphrey’s Touched by Angels right here! And check out her other work on her website www.floriannehumphreywrites.wordpress.com!

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

Photo courtesy of Samuel Zeller via Unsplash.

July 24, 2019

Review of Simply, Bahadur by Antara Roy O


Short Story Reviews

Simply, Bahadur, the first short story in Antara Roy O’s collection, also titled Simply, Bahadur, is an interesting piece of writing set in a small town in India. On it’s surface, it is a story told by a teenager or young adult about her experiences with the family’s gardener/handy-man/everyman – Bahadur. He is at first portrayed as kind, wise, helpful and loyal, then evolves into mischievous and mysterious, next into dour and volatile, and by the end, back around around to quiet, demure, and, simply, Bahadur.

When I first read this story I was confused. The piece reads like a few memories jotted down, without a fully coherent story line. It’s three anecdotes with a single link – Bahadur. But it’s not until after you’ve finished reading it that the layers begin to show themselves. Through each anecdote the themes are loyalty, acceptance, love, forgiveness and family show themselves in equal measure, until you realize that this is a story about all the sides of a man, and the fact that in the end, he is accepted as, simply, Bahadur. This is a delicate and clever effect, and I’m impressed at Antara’s ability to pull it off.

Simply, Bahadur suffers from a few superficial issues. The flow is choppy at times, and the word “often” has been used with abandon (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say reckless). There is a scene where Bahadur is telling ghost stories, and the stories could have been a little more climactic. But all in all, this story keeps you reading, if for no other reason than to see where it goes. And you’ll want to see where it goes.

This story reminds me of a warped version of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, and I urge you all to check out Antara Roy O’s unique writing! Check out Simply, Bahadur in Antara Roy O’s short story collection, Simply, Bahadur.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

 

July 24, 2019