Randy Stafford

Books

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Smashwords book reviews by Randy Stafford

  • Last Man Through the Gate on Jan. 22, 2012
    (no rating)
    Vagueness and mystery can be dangerous tools for a writer, concealments for laziness, muddled thought, pointless obscurity, an inability to solve the problems of a story’s construction. But when an author uses them well, they can paradoxically make a fictional world seem almost as real as ours. Taylor’s story is the latter case. The set-up for this story blends the old and the new as political refugee Codrin leaves the regime of Jastrevech for the Free States. While he departs via a high-tech dimensional gateway, he is greeted by musket bearing soldiers. And, almost right away, a malfunction of the gate puts an end to Codrin’s plans to have his family join him in a few months. Time, in the worlds of the Free States and Jastrevech, begins to proceed at very different rates. The pleasures of the mysteries Taylor unveils prohibit me from saying more. And, while the answers he gives are tantalizingly incomplete, one gets the impression there is a well-formed and real cosmos behind the glimpses we get. And I liked the way the names and political history of Jastrevech evoked an Eastern European flavor. Codrin’s journey – metaphorical and real – is well depicted. While Taylor cites other fictional inspiration, Codrin’s plight reminded me also of Poul Anderson’s classic “Flight to Forever”. Taylor has promised to return to this universe, and I am certainly interested in seeing more of it.
  • Last Man Through the Gate on Jan. 22, 2012

    Vagueness and mystery can be dangerous tools for a writer, concealments for laziness, muddled thought, pointless obscurity, an inability to solve the problems of a story’s construction. But when an author uses them well, they can paradoxically make a fictional world seem almost as real as ours. Taylor’s story is the latter case. The set-up for this story blends the old and the new as political refugee Codrin leaves the regime of Jastrevech for the Free States. While he departs via a high-tech dimensional gateway, he is greeted by musket bearing soldiers. And, almost right away, a malfunction of the gate puts an end to Codrin’s plans to have his family join him in a few months. Time, in the worlds of the Free States and Jastrevech, begins to proceed at very different rates. The pleasures of the mysteries Taylor unveils prohibit me from saying more. And, while the answers he gives are tantalizingly incomplete, one gets the impression there is a well-formed and real cosmos behind the glimpses we get. And I liked the way the names and political history of Jastrevech evoked an Eastern European flavor. Codrin’s journey – metaphorical and real – is well depicted. While Taylor cites other fictional inspiration, Codrin’s plight reminded me also of Poul Anderson’s classic “Flight to Forever”. Taylor has promised to return to this universe, and I am certainly interested in seeing more of it.
  • Deep Black Beyond on Feb. 19, 2012

    Bellet is a writer who has published in traditional venues, though only “No Spaceships Go” seems to be a reprint, so this set of five stories is free from amateurish mistakes. Unfortunately, for me, most of these stories never rose above the generic and two, honestly, puzzled me. Despite a concluding revelation of interstellar intrigue and revenge, which should be more interesting than it is, “Pele’s Bee-Keeper”, with its space shuttle crash, possibly by sabotage, and the rescue of its protagonist by a mysterious woman, never grabbed me. “The Memory of Bone” has a central idea, which if, taken seriously, has a goofiness which reminds me of a bad pulp story from the 1930s. I suspect its narrator, a spaceship captain in the brig and on her way to a court martial, is of the unreliable sort. Another peculiar story was “Beneath the Ice and Still”. Involving a frozen maiden found by a man in the ice of an alien world, it’s more like a setup for a story that never comes. I suspect another crazy protagonist. “No Spaceships Go”, with its young lovers watching rocket ship launches in a dusty New Mexico, reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury without the lyricism. But the complications of their story were mostly of the usual sort in these stories – class and the plans of parents, and the one somewhat unique complication, that they are gay teenage boys, didn’t do anything to elevate the story into memorable territory. However, with “The Light of the Earth as Seen from Tartarus”, Bellet escapes the gravity well of the generic or vague. This story of a dying billionaire paying for the resurrection of two brothers’ spaceship design and a trip, dead or alive, to Pluto was emotional and moving and realistic in not only its technical details but the human details of remorse and redemption and perseverance.
  • After Dinner Mint & Other Stories on Dec. 04, 2012

    These are slick stories, and this is a slick production. The prose is polished, glib, and smooth. The dialogue is particularly believable. There are no typos and no clumsy prose. Four of the five stories have fantastic elements and the fifth plays off such notions. In particular, two are engaging and light-hearted. “In the Snow” has Rita and her too serious boyfriend, a medical student, getting a surprise when she forces him to lighten up and make some snow angels. “Compliment” is a short-short about a man conversing with a beautiful woman – painted on a canvass. “A High Level of Achievement” has med students gradually revealing odd powers and an odd situation as they dissect cadavers. “After Dinner Mint” – an occasionally funny tale about an uneasy and hostile dinner party that ensues when parents meet a prospective son-in-law. “The Will” is also built around rancor – that of rapacious siblings gathering to see what they inherited. The youngest walks away sans the riches of the others, but that is not the end of matters. It is perhaps the highlight of the collection if somewhat predictable in the manner of the classic The Twilight Zone. Like the titular candy, these literary treats were pleasant enough but utterly forgettable. [Review copy provided by author.]
  • Tentacles: An Anthology on March 12, 2013
    (no rating)
    Truth in advertising. You do get tentacles in every story – and a lot of alien possession. There are four stories from three authors with none of the stories longer than 11,000 words with the shortest at 2,500. “Solar Pioneer” from Eva LeFoy starts out with that old reliable science fiction thriller hook – the rescue mission to the space station in trouble. (Ok, so it’s more than 10 years since they got in trouble. There’s a war going on.) There is a sole survivor. But that’s not all Coop, the rescuer, finds. For one thing, there’s those voices in his head … This story kept me involved even though it really didn’t go anyplace unexpected. “Zaural”, also from LeFoy, kind of starts out with the same hook – a rescue mission. Here it’s a full ship worth of rescuers and there are plenty of people on a colony world set up for political undesirables. But the nearby sun is gearing up for a particle storm that will kill the colonists so they are going to be mandatorily evacuated. First, though, the captain wants to find out why the Gramica, the local lifeform, killed a colonist and if they’re sentient. The longest story in the book, it has a couple of minor scientific puzzles and a surprising, ambiguous ending. To be honest, I’m not sure what exactly what went on with D. R. Larsson’s “Mr. Sweede”. I know it involves an alien who assimilates the body and memories of its victims. I think there’s something of a biter-bitten plot, but continuity problems in the description of the action confused me, and I don’t think this story works. Last in the book is the fun historical horror piece “The Sacrifice” by Haley Whitehall. In it, a poor, virginal, scullery maid is sacrificed to the Kraken by pirates. What happens then is both surprising and very human. So, three pieces of effective, light entertainment of the horror variety.
  • Tentacles: An Anthology on March 12, 2013

    Truth in advertising. You do get tentacles in every story – and a lot of alien possession. There are four stories from three authors with none of the stories longer than 11,000 words with the shortest at 2,500. “Solar Pioneer” from Eva LeFoy starts out with that old reliable science fiction thriller hook – the rescue mission to the space station in trouble. (Ok, so it’s more than 10 years since they got in trouble. There’s a war going on.) There is a sole survivor. But that’s not all Coop, the rescuer, finds. For one thing, there’s those voices in his head … This story kept me involved even though it really didn’t go anyplace unexpected. “Zaural”, also from LeFoy, kind of starts out with the same hook – a rescue mission. Here it’s a full ship worth of rescuers and there are plenty of people on a colony world set up for political undesirables. But the nearby sun is gearing up for a particle storm that will kill the colonists so they are going to be mandatorily evacuated. First, though, the captain wants to find out why the Gramica, the local lifeform, killed a colonist and if they’re sentient. The longest story in the book, it has a couple of minor scientific puzzles and a surprising, ambiguous ending. To be honest, I’m not sure what exactly what went on with D. R. Larsson’s “Mr. Sweede”. I know it involves an alien who assimilates the body and memories of its victims. I think there’s something of a biter-bitten plot, but continuity problems in the description of the action confused me, and I don’t think this story works. Last in the book is the fun historical horror piece “The Sacrifice” by Haley Whitehall. In it, a poor, virginal, scullery maid is sacrificed to the Kraken by pirates. What happens then is both surprising and very human. So, three pieces of effective, light entertainment of the horror variety.
  • Cemeteries of the Heart and Other Stories on March 31, 2013

    It’s not just cemeteries of the heart. It’s hostels of the heart, rehab centers of the heart, hospitals of the heart. These are fantastical tales on the snares of love and sex – and the need and, in one tale, the well-nigh commandment to connect with fellow humans in intimate ways. They are also often tales on how circumstances and our innate natures frustrate that connection. Palmquist knows how to keep your interest even if he doesn’t always know how to adequately end his stories. He almost never diagrams an ending out for you. They’re usually ambiguous, elliptical, and require some thought. And, in a couple of instances, I don’t think the endings work even after contemplation. He’s also given to some stylistic tics. Windows are often “yellow squares”. Guns are usually 9 mms. Texas, usually Houston, is the frequent setting. The title story is set in one of those horrific extrapolations of our present day, ludicrous and implausible, and there to make an emotional point via metaphor and not provide realism. In a future Houston of such rampant street violence that the hero routinely sees rapes and killings every day on his work commute, Palmquist’s work hell has the hero literally shackled to his desk where, if he looks out the window or flags from his duties (randomly creating tax code, a satirical bit I found very amusing), his masked boss flogs him. Deserted by his wife and son, he, in the tradition of dystopian stories, becomes the lover of a co-worker. “Lullaby” was one of my favorite stories. Its hero must cope with being newly widowed – by the deformed son his wife died giving birth to. He begins to think the child has defects of the soul as severe as those of his body. Constant appearances by his dead wife suggesting he just kill the kid don’t help. Or, maybe, stress has rendered him paranoid and crazy. I think I understand what’s really going on in “Parting Sorrows”. The story certainly conveyed the loneliness and desperation of its 60 year-old narrator who goes to meet the 22 year-old woman he has been conducting an online affair with. The ending is horrific in images and action, if not entirely clear in motives and cause and effect. Still, I liked this one too. “Aphelion” has a narrator who is having fugue moments after he sees a popup on his computer screen, a popup a complete stranger in a bar says shows him pleasuring himself while being strangled by a man. The plot hinges on, for me, an effective conceit, but I think the ending is marred by an unnecessary coda, making it the most unsatisfying story here. “Burn Victims” is another story of desperately seeking love and companionship, here a man and a woman each in their own ways mutilated. It has its own fantastical elements but a resolution much different than the other stories. “Flaming Butterfly” seems, perhaps, a tale of existential terror or, more precisely, existential judgment by unknown forces. The protagonist is dragged out of his bed one day, told his life makes no contribution to life on Earth, and then dragged through a portal where he works as a shackled field hand. I’m not sure I quite understood the ending, but the image, themes, and idea behind the story will definitely stick with me and make this another high point of the collection. The narrator of “Stanley” claims that a childhood with his beautiful sister sucking away all attention has left him unable to relate to women. (Or so he sees it. He may not be the most reliable narrator regarding his sister. This book features several narrators with questionable powers of reporting and explanation.) To compensate, he takes pictures of women in public – but only from their kneecaps to neck – and constructs fantasy faces and personalities for them. He starts seeing one of these fantasy constructs in person. In a book of mostly horror stories, “Taenia Solium” is the most straightforward. As you would expect from the title (which refers to a type of tapeworm that infects humans), it’s about parasitism and also effective. There a higher than average number of memorable stories in this collection despite some problematic endings. If I was going to quickly convey a sense of Palmquist’s work, it would be a Thomas Ligotti style writer cut with a modern sensibility of specific settings and realism which concentrates on the need, recognized or not, to have others in our lives.