Past Reviews

by Cathryn Grant

It is hard to write good flash fiction. The space constraints prohibit any kind of real plot or character development. That being said, Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour does it fairly well. This is a short collection of roughly a dozen stories that are anywhere from one to maybe five or six pages in length that deal with the underside of suburbia. We tend to think of the burbs as a purified middle-class sanctuary from crime and deviant behavior, but what Cathryn Grant manages to do is use the seedy and unsavory to break down their pristine palisade. In loosely Poe-esque fashion, her short vignettes tell such tales as the murderous grandmother who disapproves of her grandson's hussy of a girlfriend or the battle between a homeowner and his impertinent, puddle-targeting newspaper carrier. They're interesting little pieces and are best consumed one or two at a time for quick entertainment. I give that last nugget of advice because I took the digested the whole work in one sitting and by the end I grew bored. That is not to say the stories or boring, but I think the constant start-a-story-end-a-story just grows tedious after a while. Most readers tend to be novel people and I think they will tend to shy away from an anthology-style work like this. However, if you're a literary reader (or if you like atypical story lines) I suggest you check this out!

by Vincent Pauletti

The Bounty Hunters is an odd duck. It is difficult to rate it either good or bad. I'm more inclined to give it a "not applicable," but that would involve me creating a new category. The premise of this work is that some Russian is assembling a cast of international assassins, bounty hunters and mercenaries for a mission that has its roots going back to Copernicus in the 16th century. First, let me begin why this is not in anyway a bad short story: the writing. From the very first page, author Vincent Pauletti immerses the reader in a vivid world of mercenaries and guns for hire throughout the world. I have never said this before on this blog, but I will say it now; this author could definitely be a NYT bestselling author right now. The characters in The Bounty Hunters, and there are roughly a half dozen of them from all over the world, each have unique personalities, and the author pulls off their dialects perfectly. I typically hate dialect in writing, but it is well done here. My personal favorites are those of the McManus brothers from Ireland. Additionally, Pauletti has a solid foundation of understanding for each locale his bounty hunters come from. I teach world history for a living so I can vouch for this. Now, why is this not a good short story? Well, The Bounty Hunters isn't really a story at all. It is a bridge between two novels, The Nostradamus Revelation and The Copernicus Connection. There is no plot to speak of, aside from an introductory scene for each bounty hunter where they get a call from "the Russian." After Pauletti introduces the reader to his cast, he includes the prologue and first chapter from the second book in the Omega Sector series, The Copernicus Connection. Perhaps in the context of the series, this short story has more relevance, but as a stand alone work I found it unfulfilling. That being said, I just downloaded The Nostradamus Revelation to my Kindle because I need to see what this Omega Sector series is all about. If Pauletti's writing is any indication, I may have stumbled upon a strong action thriller writer.

by Ernie Lindsey

Sledge is a fast-paced suspenseful thriller featuring author Ernie Lindsey's main character from his novel White Mountain. Private investigator Mary Walker was crippled five years ago by a serial cop killer nicknamed "Sledge" for obvious and uncomfortable reasons. In this short, we catch up with Walker, who left the force after surviving an encounter with Sledge to become a private detective, as she is conducting late night surveillance of a warehouse whose owner suspects his employees of stealing merchandise. Inevitably Sledge reappears, and Walker must confront the psychopath who crippled her and ended her career.

This book belongs squarely in the suspense and thriller genres and pulls off both fairly well. Once I began this piece I was compelled to finish it, especially after Sledge showed up in the narrative. This story has a bit of a creep factor too if you try to put yourself in the character's shoes and imagine what you would do in a situation with a sledgehammer-wielding maniac. Lindsey's writing in Sledge is not particularly stylistic and this has the advantage of resonating easily to the modern reader and not distracting from any of the action. Don't think that I am saying his writing is amateurish in the slightest, as it is very professional and polished. I believe that there is a certain style and tone that works with this genre, and the author nailed it. My one criticism of this piece is some of the dialogue, which I felt could be a little out of place given the dire situation. I think it falls into the familiar trap of the villain pausing to have an extended 20/20-esque interview about why he did it. Even though I'm not a huge fan of that method of exposition, Lindsey successfully manages to work in a fair amount of character development for a short story, and it makes me wonder what he can do with a full length novel. I expect that White Mountain (which calls itself A Mary Walker mystery and not A Mary Walker short story), will have a goodly amount of substance and plot, not to mention action. If you're a fan of Jeff Deaver, Patricia Cornwell, or novelists in that vein, I highly recommend Sledge.

by Lizzy Ford

The Mind Cafe is a thought-provoking short story with something to say. The main character, Rosie, is the creation of author Lizzy Ford and a person who would unfortunately be all too easy to find in real life. She suffered an accident in her past (she demarcates time in "BDA" and "ADA" -- "Before or After the Damn Accident") and has been left in the author's words "a human vegetable." Rosie is dependent on assisted living, aided by a rude young Guatemalan nurse who can barely speak a lick of English and has MTV playing constantly, which Rosie can't stand. Furthermore, Rosie's only form of communication is a "virtual keyboard" invented by her tech savvy sister that registers her eye movements and clumsily translates them into words on a screen. (I'm unsure if a device like this actually exists, but if not I think it was a clever stroke on the part of Ford. It's very logical and practical piece of technology that should be invented.) With not much joy to be had in the real world, Rosie slips into the Mind Cafe, a place that the reader, or Rosie for that matter, can't fully define. Is it a figment of her imagination or something more spiritual? In any case, Rosie, who while in her dream state has the body of her 24 year-old self except for her silver 60 year-old which she much adores, prefers her Mind Cafe to the MTV playing in her living room, and the narrative of this story focuses on her interactions with the people in the cafe. Some of the diners are important friends and family members and some are people she's never met. I don't want to spoil the conversations because they are the crux of the book, but there is one I want to mention that I thought was cleverly done. A psychologist whom Rosie has never actually met in real life and only knows from a book she read in college visits her to essentially act as her therapist. Interestingly, the man's face never really changes, no smiles or frowns, and that's because Rosie's only seen one photograph of him on the back cover of his book.

As far as being a story that asks philosophical questions (What is the meaning of life? Is death a blessing or a curse? etc) The Mind Cafe is excellent. As far as a fiction goes  I still think this is pretty good, but I think sometimes the writing gets a little murky. I found myself having to reread a few passages to understand exactly what it was the author was saying. I think fans of a more Literary-style fiction will be drawn to this as will people who enjoy contemplating philosophy. All in all, The Mind Cafe is a worthwhile read.

by Mercedes King

Encounter is a piece of flash fiction, more just a scene really, about the first chance encounter on a train between a young JFK and the Jackie Bouvier. From the outset I should say that while I study and enjoy history, especially presidential history, I'm not part of the group that's fascinated with Camelot. Anyway, the scene, told from JFK's perspective, is well written and makes the reader want to know more about the future president's life. I thought that the letter included from Jackie to her parents about the flirtatious young man she met on the train was I nice touch. I assume the letter was real correspondence, but it could be fictitious.

The problem with this piece is substance. It's length prevents any real plot from forming, and I think a lot of reader's will dislike that. But plot isn't the author's intention. Encounter is meant to be just a snapshot in the life of the future Mrs. Kennedy. This installment is part of King's series about the Kennedy's relationship, The Kennedy Chronicles, and I looked on Amazon and found that the other works in this series, while being short stories also, they are not nearly as short so perhaps they have a little bit better development. It should also be said that King has also authored a novel about an older Jackie Kennedy's role as the wife of an unfaithful husband entitled O! Jackie. Despite its shortcomings as a short story, Encounter does succeed in piquing the reader's interest, and I think it will prompt some to check out King's novel.

The Memory of a Salt Shaker
by Bernard M. Cox

The Memory of a Salt Shaker by Bernard M. Cox is a very interesting and engrossing short story. I was poking around the Kindle store looking for titles that might pique my interest when the simplicity of the cover caught my eye. So props to the designer and photographer, Saline Krauss and Robyn Oliver. The basic premise of The Memory of a Salt Shaker is that our unfortunately-named main character, Bert, is just returning to work as a CPA after three weeks bereavement following the death of his wife, Mira. He seems to be doing okay until the salt in his salt shaker begins giving him visions of memories of he and his late wife together. Interestingly, and this is what I think makes this story unique, the memories are from Mira's perspective so Bert gets to experience, for example, how she felt when they first met. Bert eventually figures out the connection between his visions and the salt, and as one would expect from a newly grieving husband he becomes more and more dependent on the last bit of his wife he can hold on to. The author reinforces this connection pretty well by describing Bert as taking "hits" of salt. This was a great story. The characters were lively and well-defined, and the narrative (particularly the visions) were very picturesque. I could see this being a movie with like Bradley Cooper and Olivia Wilde at the helm. Overall, the whole thing just felt organic. All of my praise being said, I do have a couple of issues with this story that keep me from giving a full five stars. The first is that Mira's connection to the salt shaker is not fully defined. Bert tells a psychic medium he consults that Mira stole the shaker from a diner during their honeymoon, but I was still left wondering why this was apparently her most treasured possession that she'd choose to "haunt" it. (Haunt may not be the author's intention but it's the best word I could come up with). The second issue I had was with the ending. It's not that the story had a bad ending, it just didn't work for me. I felt it was a little truncated and didn't fit with the direction of the rest of the story. But I know there will be plenty of readers who completely disagree. Anyway, despite a couple issues this is still a great 20-30 minute read that literary and perhaps maybe romance fans will enjoy.

by Craig A. Hart

The Diner is a short short story of only about 10 pages. However, Hart does a lot with such a short narrative. It would be hard to give any kind of summary of this piece, which is set in a lonely highway diner in 1930s rural Michigan, without giving away everything so let me just say this: have you ever been in a diner or a bar late at night and that one customer's small talk with the serving girl is just a little off and you think "I better watch this guy"? This story really nails down that feeling. The book's description hits the nail on the head by calling the tale "unsettling." This is a good, quick read for fans of historical fiction, specifically the 20s/30s, and of psychologically creepy fiction.

Who is Evelyn Dae?, Vol. 1
by Sara LaFleur

I discovered this author when she randomly started following on Twitter a few weeks ago through a fellow writer. My first thought was, "Cool! Another writer I can network with. Maybe I can read he stuff some day." But truthfully, with a busy teaching schedule and a new baby I figured that some day would be maybe this summer if at all. That was until this afternoon when I met my writing buddy for coffee and he raved about this "Who is Evelyn Dae?" novella. Seeing it was free on iBooks, I figured since I haven't read any light YA in a while I would have a little look-see at the Evelyn Dae book. Imagine my chagrin when the clock read 1:02 AM when I finished Volume 1 of this series.

Who is Evelyn Dae? follows some standard conventions of the YA format, as some other reviewers have mentioned, such as teenage angst, first kisses and puppy love awkwardness. Some would say they're cliche, but I argue that these are legitimate issues that form the foundation of the teenage experience. Lafleur does an incredible job through first-person POV to ground Evelyn in that experience in an organic and very human way. The reader cares about the main character. One characteristic Evelyn displays is a bit of a timidity if not wariness with regard to her actual identity. She is reluctant to reveal it to her friends and certainly not to any boys. Similarly, she keeps her cards close to the chest with the reader as well. At the end of Volume 1, we still don't know the answer to the title question of who is Evelyn Dae? I certainly have my guesses but have no idea. I respect the author for her patience in revealing things in her own time.

The story's format deserves comment and I'll touch on it before wrapping up my review. The plot is disjointed. The reader digests the story in 1-2 page increments that bounce between 2008 (Evelyn's freshman year) and 2011 (her junior year). As an aside, I thought the recent dates helped add to Evelyn's character as a modern millennial teen. Anyway, one would think the bouncing forward and backward in time to narrate this story would be difficult to follow, but it isn't an issue. In fact, reconstructing the timeline in your head is part of the fun. Perhaps with a longer, more involved novel this approach would be Ill advised but the simplicity of this story combined with the author's firm grasp of the internal timeline as well as the order in which events are given to the reader make this a non issue. I would even go so far as to say Lafleur had just written a traditionally linear story arc, Who is Evelyn Dae? would be less compelling.

In summary, this is a great read and I'm very glad Volume 2 came out this month. I think Lafleur has a knack for YA and if there is any justice in the world I'll see some of her work in my local bookstore.

by Dean Koontz

The cover and description of this book would have you think that it is traditional horror tale about a haunted hotel in the vein of Stephen King's The Shining, but in reality this is a sci-fi novel. Now, I like science fiction mind you, however, I like good science fiction. Koontz raises some interesting questions about the future of technology, but ultimately the plot is predictable and slowly trudges on.

Stars: 2/5

by Paulo Coelho

This is a short book -- only two hours in audio and read by Jeremy Irons! It's really a philosophical book written in a pesudo-parable style. The "manuscript" in question is supposedly one of those found with the Dead Sea Scrolls that records the sayings of a 'teacher' written during one of the crusades. The teacher is a foil for Coelho to pontificate on what makes life worth living, but I feel his thoughts on the adventure of life are very uplifting and inspirational.

Stars: 5/5

by Bill Bryson

This was my first foray into the wonderful world of the travel essay. I enjoy traveling and discovering new places very much, so hearing Bryson's adventures on the Appalachian Trail was sort of a mental excursion for me. Bryson writes in a light and humorous style, and he manages to blend (quite beautifully I might add) the shenanigans he and his travel partner get into with a more serious and informative discussion about the AT's history and the state of nature in America.

Stars: 5/5

by Beaird Glover

If Quentin Tarantino tried his hand at Bonnie and Clyde, this is what it would look like. Beaird Glover's SYD & MARCY is a gritty novella set in the American South. Sydney and Marcy are two broken lovers who have the grand design of one day moving to Hollywood and making it big. But they need money for such a trip and they go about funding their exodus the only way they know how: robbery, murder and fraud. Their lawbreaking eventually makes them the subject of local police, in particular a detective with a flair for vigilantism.

As badly as this duo wants out of their Appalachian backwater, they are very much a product of the region's (at least as it is commonly portrayed) low education, poverty and hillbilly culture. Having grown up with a prostitute of a mother, Sydney suffers from alcoholism and also the gambling addict's persistent belief that "today's my day," while Marcy displays definite psychological baggage, including apathy whenever she takes a life, all of which is related to her abusive father and contributes to her devotion Sydney and his unrealistic grandiose schemes. 

This book would definitely receive a hard "R" if it was a film, and readers should be aware for lots of language, frequent instances of sex and violence, and even incest and human captivity. I'm typically not a fan of this kind of fiction (I don't even really care for Tarantino to be honest) so it took a little while for me to begin to appreciate the story. Character development is the author's greatest strength. These characters range from depraved to disturbed, and in the case of Syd and Marcy, they really act as their own worst enemies throughout making bad decision after bad decision. While this can be frustrating for someone with common sense to read, it is refreshing to get away from fiction archetypes and see flawed characters making flawed decisions. This story's most noticeable weakness is that the ending seems a little rushed, and the resolution, while fitting, is only about half a page. As far as theme goes, I don't believe fiction always has to "say" something (sometimes a good story is just a good story), however I did detect some slight commentary on the part of the author on the impact of violent culture in media on youth development when he explains Marcy's blase attitude to taking life is related to her view that it is just acting.

All in all, SYD & MARCY is intriguing yet uncomfortable, and its length makes it short enough to not be an onerous commitment while long enough to be worthwhile investment.

Stars: 4/5

by David B. McCoy

"Oliver Hazard Perry: The Hero of Lake Erie" is a short bio on the life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry which can be read in one or maybe two sittings. It is for the most part well-written and informative. I learned a great deal, especially on Perry's early life. I definitely wish I had read this before I wrote "Waves and War," since there are a few factoids about the Commodore I learned from this book that I would have liked to feather into my story. Unfortunately, "Oliver Hazard Perry" was published four months too late. 

The book does have a few glaring issues that can't be ignored. The first is that despite having a sizable bibliography for a work of this length the author uses only a minimal amount of citation in his text. I feel that when writing a biography some kind of notation is a must. Also, for the actual Battle of Lake Erie, the author defers wholly to an inserted description provided by the park service at Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial. I would have liked to have seen the author tackle the battle and describe it in his own narrative style. 

All in all, this is a quality "on-the-go" style read, and I look forward to reading more of McCoy's "In Your Hand" digital history series. Someone already familiar with Commodore Perry and his role in the War of 1812 might want to seek something more in depth, but for the uninitiated looking to broaden their knowledge base, especially as we enter the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, this is a perfect choice. 

Stars: 4/5

by Ransom Riggs

This book was a refreshing read. It's been a little while since I've dabbled in YA Fiction since I've been on a history and historical fiction kick, but this was a good choice to get back into the genre.

No spoilers, so newbies to this series (yes, it is going to be a series) feel free to read on.

Our protagonist is Jacob Portman, who is a stereotypical teenage American boy. Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather's stories from his youth as a Jewish refugee who escaped the Nazis to live in a home for special (i.e. "peculiar" children) on an island off the coast of Wales. Jacob's grandfather's stories were accompanied with a collection of old photographs of his bizarre housemates: a girl with two mouths, a boy covered in bees and a girl levitating. Once Jacob is in his teen years and knows better, he believes his grandfather's stories were nothing more than cheesy fairy tales. But when Grandpa Portman dies and Jacob believes he sees the culprit, a hideous inhuman and non-animal creature, Jacob shuts down and enters therapy. As he struggles with what he saw, he begins to question his earlier assumptions about his grandfather's stories. 

Jacob, his parents and his therapist decide it would be good for the grieving process if Jacob and his father (Grandpa Portman's son) travel to the Welsh island for closure. Jacob, of course, has the ulterior motive of investigating the home where his grandfather grew up and trying to locate the old head mistress, Miss Peregrine, who used to run it. It would be difficult to continue to summarize the plot from here without giving away some spoilers, but it should be obvious to everyone that Grandpa Portman's wild tales are proved true and Jacob ends up meeting Miss Peregrine's peculiar wards.

This story falls into the vein of the superhero team story arc, which anyone who likes X-Men or the Avengers might enjoy. Any story with a band of superheroes or mutants or "peculiars" is bound to have some similarities. However, there are many different directions an author can go, and I feel Ransom Riggs offers an original and fresh take on what is becoming an overdone concept. What I like about the peculiars and their peculiarities is that they are relatively low-key, and most of them are not what we would identify as a "superhero." Olive, for example, cannot fly but rather she is as light as a feather and would float away if she wasn't weighted down. Her peculiarity can come in handy but it's also a handicap. I think if you liked Heroes or Alphas, you will appreciate this aspect of the book. 

I think the novel's biggest strength is the way the children live in the home. To describe it further would be to give away what I think is one of the book's most clever twists, but I'll simply say I did not expect the book to go in this direction when I picked it up. It offers some very interesting prospects for the next installment. By the same token, the cover and YouTube trailer sell the book like it is a bizarre and creepy paranormal tale and that's pretty disingenuous. I'd say the book is in reality closer to the sci-fi genre than to paranormal or horror.

All in all, the book was imaginative, fun and engaging. I gave it four out of five stars for story, characters and creativity. My holdout to giving it five stars was the writing. It seemed a little bland at times and left me thinking there were more compelling prose the author could have used. But like I mentioned earlier, I did pick this up after reading several historical fiction books so it's important to remember that the target audience for this book is teens and young adults. As a note on formatting, the book includes the creepy black and white photographs from Grandpa Portman's collection and I thought that was an excellent touch. I'd never heard of Ransom Riggs before this, and I think this was his debut work, but I was thoroughly impressed. I'll definitely be reading Book 2.

Stars: 4/5

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