Review: Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Review: Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, October 3, 2018

Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Table of Contents
“What I Understand Now” by Lauren Ferebee
“Words I’ve Redefined Since Your Dinosaurs Invaded My Lunar Lair” by Stewart C. Baker
“Three is a Sacred Number” by Carrie Cadwallader (reprint, not reviewed)
“I Will You Back to Time and Space” by Dafydd McKimm

Lauren Ferebee‘s “What I Understand Now” feels like a modern fable. In this story, the unnamed narrator stands in for Millennials and Generation Z (I believe) while Molly, her affluent friend who opens the story knowing she’s already dead, represents something of an idealized life. A typical southern belle who did all the things the narrator dreamed of, who thenbecame the thing she felt she should be even though she doesn’t want it. And, beyond all that, there’s this feeling of loss tied to forgotten memories and lost chances. I may be reading too much into it (probably), but it’s a quick read that’s well worth your time.

“Words I’ve Redefined Since Your Dinosaurs Invaded My Lunar Lair” by Stewart C. Baker is a fun story with a neat little twist at the end. Told through the eyes of “Doctress Death,” the story is essentially her rambling monologue to her frenemy, “The Paleontologist.” It’s simple and feels loosely based on Jonathan Coulton’s “Nemeses,” but it’s a fun story. And, like I mentioned earlier, the ending is a nice twist.

“I Will You Back to Time and Space” by Dafydd McKimm is a surprisingly tight story for one where the premise is about extradimensional gorillas appearing one day to follow people around wherever they go. The story really gains traction when the narrator’s daughter is born and, unlike everyone else on the planet, she doesn’t have a gorilla. I just re-read that and it seems ridiculous, but by the third paragraph McKimm manages to make the gorillas seem quite blasé and normal. They fade into the background and let the real story, the one that dragged sudden tears from me as I read the ending, blossom and shine. In short: I cried at the end of a story about extradimensional gorillas.

Review: Weirdbook #40, August 2018

Review: Weirdbook #40, August 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, September 22, 2018

Weirdbook #40, August 2018

Table of Contents
“Iconoclasm” by Adrian Cole
“Have a Crappy Halloween” by Franklyn Searight
“The Dollhouse” by Glynn Owen Barrass
“Early Snow” by Samson Stormcrow Hayes
“Elle a Vu un Loup” by Loren Rhoads
“Bringing the Bodies Home” by Christian Riley
“Restored” by Marlane Quade Cook
“Nameless and Named” by David M. Hoenig
“Playing A Starring Role” by Paul Lubaczewksi
“And the Living is Easy” by Mike Chinn
“The Prague Relic” by Paul StJohn Mackintosh
“The Circle” by Matt Sullivan
“Sanctuary” by John Linwood Grant
“The Giving of Gifts” by Matt Neil Hill
“The Santa Anna” by Jack Lothian
“The Dread Fishermen” by Kevin Henry
“Blind Vision” by Andrew Darlington
“The Thirteenth Step” by William Tea
“This Godless Apprenticeship” by Clint Smith
“Waiting” by John W. Dennehy
“Pouring Whiskey In My Soul” by Paul R. McNamee
“True Blue” by Darrell Schweitzer
“The Treadmill” by Rohit Sawant
“The Veiled Isle” by W. D. Clifton

Weirdbook #40 is loaded to the gills with twenty-four stories ranging from science-fiction to generic fantasy to modern historical fantasy. There’s a heavy lean in this collection toward Lovecraftian horror that I didn’t always appreciate. Many of these stories just seem to stop short of providing what I’d usually consider the requisite emotional punch of a successful piece and even more are so close to being really good that it’s almost depressing when they fall a hair short.

Some of this failing may be due to some rather glaring editing mistakes throughout. From missing capitalization in the From the Editor’s Tower note to complete missing phrases in several stories, the mistakes are rampant enough to draw a sigh and amuttered, “well, there’s another one.”

That said, there are stories in this collection that’re well worth the purchase. Case in point: out of the twenty-four pieces in this collection, I’ve added seven to my recommendation list.

“Iconoclasm” by Adrian Cole is an interesting psychological trip. Much like the title suggests, we follow the disillusioned Father of a local church as he goes through an intense supernatural crisis of faith. When a mysterious stranger arrives and challenges his view of God, our unnamed Father ends up stumbling into a series of events that end with him in the hospital and his church burned. Overall, it’s an interesting story. At times, the suspense is palpable and clinging and you find yourself reading rapidly to try and figure out just what is going on. While a typical trope in thrillers, I do find it interesting that the Father has very little impact on the story. It seems like he’s along for the ride with little to no control of the direction of things. In that respect, the story reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone… then again, that’s probably the point.

“Have a Crappy Halloween” by Franklyn Searight follows ten-year-old Robbie on his favorite holiday, Halloween. The story didn’t work entirely for me, in part due to some of the editing issues noted in the opening remarks. That said, I really wanted to love it. There seems to be an attempt to tell the story like a child would, with stream of consciousness switches in narrator focus and, in that, I’d say Searight succeeds. However, this storytelling style, combined with the looseness of the plot and the open-endedness of the conclusion, left me unfulfilled.

“Early Snow” by Samson Stormcrow Hayes is a pretty straightforward ghost-visits-person-after-death story. It’s not unpleasant, but it also doesn’t feel very inspired. That said, Hayes’s description and pacing is spot on; I just wish there was more to it.

In “The Dollhouse” by Glynn Owen Barrass, we get to know Concubine, a synthetic human on the run from an alien matriarch as she explores an old display town for other synthetic models. When she discovers a way to update the programming of all the synths in town, Concubine decides to enhance herself in a very literal way. Barrass really shines in his battle descriptions and I wish there was more of that. The ending of the story, like much of this anthology, is open-ended, though not unpleasant.

“Elle a Vu un Loup” by Loren Rhoads is a well-crafted Lovecraftian-style horror story. Just like some of the best Lovecraft, just as you start to get bored of the constant description, Rhoads hooks you again with a bit of mystery and drags you on.

“Bringing the Bodies Home” by Christian Riley tells the story of Otis as his plane carrying the infected bodies of eight soldiers crash lands in the middle of a galactic war. Riley masterfully crafts his world within a few short sentences while simultaneously hooking you into the fate of this rather distasteful pilot. My only concern may come from my read of the story: the plotting and pacing was such that I wrongly assumed this was a hardcore SF piece, but the ending clearly indicates horror. Honestly, this would make a fantastic first chapter in a future book (and I hope there is one!).

“Restored” by Marlane Quade Cook is a quick story about a vampiric painting. I’m unsure if this is another formatting issue or a style choice, but the story starts with a massive first paragraph that encompasses nearly half the story. The result threw me off despite some of the tight description in that paragraph. Overall, the highlight of the story for me was the ending since Cook has a knack for describing people in horrific pain.

“Nameless and Named” by David M. Hoenig digs into the Cthulhu mythos with this creepy tale. Much like other Lovecraftian horror, the story is written with lofty dialog and nearly purple prose, but it works for the overall tale. Altogether, it’s a pleasantly uncomfortable jaunt into one of the Great Old Ones’ temples.

“Playing A Starring Role” by Paul Lubaczewski falls victim to some of the editing issues of the issue. The opening starts off repetitive, with various grammar issues, and is riddled with tense shifts that made it hard to keep reading. One redeeming quality of the story comes in Lubaczewski’s dialog. It flows effortlessly and is used to define and round out each character in a way the description and story do not.

“And the Living is Easy” by Mike Chinn tells the story of Ash and Ama, two gods who, through some perversion of our sun, struggle through each day either confronting or avoiding its poisoned rays. I rather liked this story. The dialog between Ash and Ama was rich and full of character and each minute detail fit the overall narrative. Well worth a read.

“The Prague Relic” by Paul StJohn Mackintosh is a wonderful story with a realistic ending that I very much disliked (and isn’t a bad thing). Set primarily in World War II Prague, it follows the story of a trio of men set on finding an ancient relic, as the title suggests. I won’t spoil any more, but, suffice to say, the characters are magnificent, the magic is fantastic, the fight scenes are well-described, and the ending, as apt as it is, makes you want to throw the book with a howl. Well done, Mackintosh.

“The Circle” by Matt Sullivan is a wonderful (to use a word I feel would find a good place in this story) mindfuck. It starts as a basic fantasy getaway story with a, um, determined protagonist and ends with some multi-dimensional SF. Definitely a highlight in this issue.

“Sanctuary” by John Linwood Grant has the feel of an old tale told ’round the fire with a mug of ale and a grinning old storyteller. It details the events around a young woman fleeing the finmen—a race of mermen/mermaid-ish people—as she integrates into the community of Gorse Muttering. The almost blasé way most of the characters interact with the fantastic elements of the story are absolutely charming and hooked me over and over again. I think most of us are meant to relate deeply with Reverend Ralph, the latest transplant to the village, and I think it’s a device that works nicely in this modern fantasy tale.

“The Giving of Gifts” by Matt Neil Hill is, at its core, a story about caregiving. It digs into the stress and mental toll of caring for a dying loved one, while providing a tangible representation of the benefits. In this story our narrator, Richard, is caring for his catatonic brother, David. As the story progresses, we find that David somehow regurgitates small things for Richard—jewelry, drugs, and even old photographs. This conceit, while a bit unsavory, leads to a brilliant conclusion.

Jack Lothian successfully translates the horror of being lost and alone on the open seas in “The Santa Anna.” It starts with foreboding, sets the stakes high, then slowly and steadily tears you apart, just like the fog does here. Well done.

“The Dread Fishermen” by Kevin Henry is another Lovecraftian story for this issue. In this one Janet, with the help of an old salt, Noddy, tries to save her son’s soul from beasts in another dimension. While none of the Old Ones are called out by name, the descriptions throughout tie it into the mythos. Overall, it’s a pleasant read, though I didn’t feel the anxiety as much as I would’ve liked, especially since that seems to be Henry’s primary goal in this piece.

“Blind Vision” by Andrew Darlington is an interesting story. Darlington switches between first- and third-person and past/present tense throughout the story in a way that, I think, just works. The story itself begins as a believable romp through the Greek countryside and ends with a rather confusing deus ex machina. Despite that, Darlington’s use of metaphor and simile were pleasing and imaginative, making this worth a read.

“The Thirteenth Step” by William Tea has the feel of another Lovecraftian story… until it doesn’t. Our narrator, Jacob, heads home after his father’s death from the inexorable pull of his OCD, agoraphobic mother and, upon climbing the stairs, finds an extra step. This discovery starts a chain reaction that leads to an unexpected and wonderfully morose ending.

“This Godless Apprenticeship” by Clint Smith is written in an 18th century style, so it might not be as palatable to some as others written in a more contemporary style. That said, I have a soft spot for pieces like this and really enjoyed the lofty prose on top of a good old Victorian tale of terror. The ending is well done and, while heavily foreshadowed, unexpected. Great story.

“Waiting” by John W. Dennehy is a haunting story rooted in a tale about two boys left alone in a car while their mother goes into a bar. It has a very slow start and, honestly, I was confused where it was going until it all settled into place. The first half seemed too long, overall, but the ending landed well.

The story “Pouring Whiskey In My Soul” by Paul R. McNamee sets itself up in post-Independence America immediately following the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s interesting enough, with historically accurate depictions of characters and events, but the main plot—reanimated “zumbis” defeated by a surprisingly knowledgeable narrator—fell flat for me.

Okay. “True Blue” by Darrell Schweitzer is about sentient cars, overwhelmingly understanding and calm human beings, a finger bone in a trunk, and an incredibly strong marriage. It’s silly, weird, and funny. Inexplicably, I really enjoyed it.

“The Treadmill” by Rohit Sawant is a story I think anyone who has ever run on a treadmill can sympathize with. It’s good fun and worth reading so you can live vicariously through the narrator as he does something we’ve all wanted to do, but don’t expect a life-altering message here.

“The Veiled Isle” by W. D. Clifton is a fantasy story that reads like an evening of D&D. The main character is a hulking orc that can’t be beaten in battle, a beautiful temptress, and the helpless, yet still beautiful, slave. Some of the description is nice, but, if I’m to be honest, there’s not a lot here to like.

Review: Diabolical Plots #42, August 2018

Review: Diabolical Plots #42, August 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, August 20, 2018

Diabolical Plots #42, August 2018

Table of Contents
“Medium Matters” by R.K. Duncan
“The Vegan Apocalypse: 50 Years Later” by Ryan Dull

August’s issue gives us two science-fiction stories, but both break the traditional mold in favor of humor.

Ever wonder what it’d be like if an advice columnist gave out strangely apt life advice under the guise of paranormal conflict resolution? Well, you’re in luck because R.K. Duncan‘s “Medium Matters” is just that.

While the story begins with a pleading letter from “Cursed, in Kansas City,” the rest of the story is ultimately about the columnist, one Marissa Matters. There’s a consistent thread of humor throughout, which is fantastic because the reality hidden just behind the explanation that spirits are restrained by man-made laws (and, thus, can be issued a Restraining Order) isn’t at all. It’s a commentary on sexual harassment, abuse, and obsessive possessiveness that trails women throughout their daily lives.

There’s a chance I’m reading into the story too much, but I don’t think so. Overall, an interesting read with neat voicing that digs into an important topic.

Ryan Dull‘s “The Vegan Apocalypse: 50 Years Later” is essentially a piece of corporate meat-market propaganda detailing the ascendance of a relatively large part of the human population (the Beloved BillionTM plus almost a billion vegans… but they don’t count in the announcement).

In another time, where our current socio-environmental-economic situation doesn’t inspire a high level of anxiety and paranoia, I’d probably be laughing my way through the story. Ryan Dull has a way of taking corporate talking points and morphing them into a format that showcases just how ridiculous they are (i.e. McFactTM).

At the risk of forcing my own politics into this narrative, the way the story is written and the style with which Dull employs doublespeak tactics really struck a nerve as I considered it inside the U.S.’s current political/cultural narrative. If that’s the point of the story—and I believe it is—Dull is very successful in teasing out those anxieties and concerns with corny trademarked phrases and protein cubes.

The one major criticism I have for this story is it seems to stretch on for longer than I would’ve liked. As I neared the end of section four I realized there were five subsections and I hadn’t even begun that part.

Overall, worth swinging by and reading. Just don’t eat a burger while doing so.

Review: Apex Magazine #110, July 2018

Review: Apex Magazine #110, July 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, July 8, 2018

Apex #110, July 2018

Table of Contents:
“The Chariots, the Horsemen” by Stephanie Malia Morris
“When You’re Ready” by M. Ian Bell
“Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein
“All Clear!” by Hao He

Stephanie Malia Morris‘s “The Chariots, the Horsemen” is, well, quite beautiful. We first encounter our narrator as she “ascends”, or flies, for the first time during a church service. While you might expect this to be a welcomed miracle, it isn’t. Her grandfather forces her to the ground, chains her there, and treats her like some grotesque creature worthy of ridicule and spewed vitriol. As the story progresses, we start to see that he’s restricting her potential because of his own insecurity. It’s an allegorical tale of finding worth and beauty in yourself, even when those closest to you try and stifle the things that make you special. Morris ends “The Chariots, the Horsemen” with a victorious dash that brings everything to a satisfying conclusion.

“When You’re Ready” by M. Ian Bell takes you into the mind of an unnamed narrator as he crafts a simulated consciousness (simulant) through childhood, adolescence, and, finally, adulthood. The story truly comes to a head as the simulant meets his first real love. The narration is almost… sterile in its style through the first half of the story, as if it’s truly the scientific journal of this unnamed man. However, the further we get into the simulant’s life, the more that objective take breaks down and bleeds emotion, just as the simulant himself does.

The style and form of the story is just beautiful. The more I consider it, the more I realize how well everything is tied together, from narration, to plotting, to the infrequent dialog with Diane. It’s a wonderful piece.

“Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein follows Kerouac Jones on his journey to kill himself so he won’t die a slow death from Huntington’s disease. Written in an epistolary style, “Kerouac’s Renascence” feels more at home in a literary fiction collection than science fiction. The story is emotive and layered pleasantly throughout Kerouac’s time in Japan and most of the trip on the cruise ship, the Empress Polaris.

However, I found the ending to be rather unfulfilling as the speculative element, a bubble of space-time triggered by a volcano that results in the ship arriving in San Francisco twenty years later, seemed rather tacked onto the story. If I’m honest, I would’ve found the expected ending—Kerouac’s arrival in San Francisco and his subsequent death—much more fulfilling.

In short, it’s a well-written and thought-provoking piece, but the ending left much to be desired.

The dystopian world crafted by Hao He in “All Clear!” is complex and interesting. The cultural and technological layout and description is fascinating and very complete, from the anti-grav units keeping an aging skyscraper in the air, to the biological adaptations of the latest generation that allow them a sort of telepathy.

The story itself follows Zhang Dong as a group of fanatics and stoners break into his farming community. By allying with members of this newer generation, he is able to stop a coup and bring relative peace back to his home.

While I really enjoyed the world-building, I wasn’t as intrigued by the story and conflicts. Quite a few pieces were predictable—Zhang’s son, his friend Liang, and the conflict with his father—and it lessened the impact of the story for me. Overall, it’s worth reading for the world, but don’t expect too much in complex plot movement.

Review: Diabolical Plots #40, June 2018

Review: Diabolical Plots #40, June 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, June 18, 2018

Diabolical Plots #40, June 2018

“Tank!” by John Wiswell

Ever wonder what it’d be like to be a non-binary tank with social anxiety attending a con? Well, the wait is over. John Wiswell’s “Tank!” is a cute, and perfectly short, tale of the trials and travails of our tank narrator amongst thousands of cosplayed-up meatbags.

I have to be honest, there’s not a ton to this story, but I can’t help but like it. While simple, there’s a general moral of acceptance and tolerance threaded through the entire piece that’s very accessible, but little else.

In short: come for the non-binary tank with social anxiety, stay for the Cowboy Bebop puns.

“Withholding Judgment Day” by Ryan Dull

The premise of Ryan Dull’s “Withholding Judgment Day” is simple: as long as someone somewhere is thinking about Armageddon—I mean, really thinking about it—the End of Days won’t happen. In order to safeguard against the possibility that someday there might be an hour where the world doesn’t rave about the end of the world, the Order of Saint Elegius was founded. Every day is carved up into hour slots and every hour, three monks lose their minds expecting everything to end.

On this bright, beautiful day, the World Cup, a mourning monk, a broken alarm clock, and a humpback whale documentary start the Apocalypse countdown…

“Withholding Judgment Day” is a fantastically fun and well-written romp through a fictional, yet somehow very believable, day in the life of some under-achieving monks. Well worth a read; you won’t regret it.

Review: Salt Lines

Review: Salt Lines

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, April 30, 2018

“Salt Lines” by Ian Muneshwar

Before I dig in, I have to say this story wasn’t written for me. I’m a cis white guy and I don’t think the ending is meant to speak to me on the same level as it would someone like the narrator, Ravi. That said, there’s much to love here.

The tale follows Ravi as he’s chased by a jumbie, which is a somewhat generic name for spirits or demons in some Caribbean countries. Through his flight, we learn about Ravi’s upbringing as well as his current family life. All of these seem literally to feed the jumbie, until we reach the climax of the story. It’s this ending that lost me, but up until the last few paragraphs Muneshwar had me enthralled. As I said above, I don’t think I’m the target audience for this ending, so take that disconnect with a grain of salt (that’s a pun if you read the story).