The Gruff Variations: Writing for Charity Anthology, Vol. 1

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The proceeds from this book go toward buying books and school supplies for underprivileged children through Writing for Charity (

The stories and poetry in this anthology were all inspired by the legend of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. More

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Review by: Martin L. Shoemaker on March 31, 2012 :
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am the author of one of the stories in this anthology. But I make no money from its sale. All of the proceeds go to charity. And I didn’t review my own story. So I’ve tried to make this a completely objective review.

1. "The Three Billion Goats Gruff: A Bulrovian Tale: Part I": This is an ongoing joke that starts the book out and then pops up again at various points throughout the book. It’s an interesting premise.

2. "A Starscape Slightly Askew": Wow. Right off the bat, they stretch that theme! This is why Nancy Fulda is awesome. It’s a story of three sisters, archaeologists all, who discover a danger that may be too much for them.

3. "Touch of Power": I'm a comic book fan. To be specific, a superhero comic book fan. Ironically, I read comics more for the words than for the pictures; and yet more ironically, I've seldom found prose superhero stories to be very compelling. (No, not even Wild Cards.) But Erik Peterson bucked the trend. This was a very nice superhero variation on the theme. I would like to know more about these characters.

4. "Haiku: The First Goat": I'm not really a haiku kinda person, so I can't say one way or the other here. It was pretty, which is my usual reaction to haiku.

5. "Bigger Than You Think": This is the story of a detective investigating an occult mystery. I liked everything but the ending. No spoilers here, but it's not the sort of ending I like.

6. "A Princess Predicament": Princess stories aren't my usual cup of tea. This one was OK, and a non-traditional princess story. It’s the story of three princesses – you’ll know them when you meet them – and their difficulties with a troll. I was a little puzzled when the troll's motivation switched, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

7. "Cold and Hungry": The story of three boys being hunted by an alien in a devastated city. Weird. Weird, weird, weird. I had to reread it when I was done, because everything I thought I knew was wrong. (And that's a good thing!)

8. "Trip, Trap, Tripping": A very, very amusing story of the troll’s life after he gets tired of goats trip-trap-tripping on his roof.

9. "The Ladies Billet-Gruffin": OK my biggest criticism here (sorry) is the editing: it was too close to "A Princess Predicament" in the book, and they're both princess stories. They're not very similar in other respects, but I just would've liked more spacing between them. As for the story itself... I thought the ending was a little obvious, but in a good way: this had very much the feeling of a classic fairy tale, and that includes the poetic justice of the ending.

10. "The Three Billion Goats Gruff: A Bulrovian Tale: Part LXII": The story continues, 184 goats and counting...

11. "Gruff Riders": Modesty forbids me from commenting on my own story; but boy, it was great to read my words here next to those of so many great writers!

12. "Bridges Dark and Distant": Darn you, Bill Ledbetter, I wish I'd thought of this twist on the theme! A perfect hard SF homage to the original concept! This is the story of three robotic probes that face an astronomical menace.

13. "The Three Princes of Grufflan". This is an amusing fairy tale with a nice classic feel but also a modern twist of humor. Three princes have to prove themselves worthy; but they have to do so as goats. I predicted the ending, which normally annoys me; but the writing was amusing enough that I enjoyed the ride.

14. "The Troll by the Footbridge: A Study in Four Parts". Another fairy tale, very classic in mood. It’s too short for me to describe without spoiling it, but it was incredibly moving. My congratulations and awe to Janet Kay Jensen.

15. "The Deposition of Harald Throckmorton, Esquire, the Troll Beneath the Bridge". The title pretty much tells you the joke, but the author plays it out well, with some good chuckles.

16. "The Wicker Warrior". This one didn't bowl me over, but it made me laugh in a lot of places. It's a bit of an inversion of the original story as well as a bit of a mashup of other fairy tales. A little girl lost in the woods on her way to grandma’s house must rescue some poor trolls from some mean goats.

17. "The Necromancer's Sons". An urban fantasy and a loose retelling of the original story, metaphorically at least. It opens with a necromancer joke which I promptly retold all day long.

18. "The Three Billion Goats Gruff: A Bulrovian Tale: Part CXIII": The story continues, 337 goats and counting...

19. "Sheep Dog". Brad R. Torgersen joins in with a noir-ish modern fantasy. I hard-boiled private eye investigates a murder, but powerful people want him to stop. I liked the story; but aside from one character name, I honestly couldn't see the tie to the original.

20. “Haiku: The Second Goat”: This haiku speaks to me more than the first. It precisely captures a problem I had with my own story: Why do we need the second goat?

21. "A Tale of Two Billies and a Troll" by George Nik. This is another "classic" feeling fairy tale, a nice twist on the original concept. The first part of it is told in the style of a storyteller sitting down at the fire with the kids hanging on his every word. George captures that feel perfectly! And then he switches into a whole different tone for the present-day part of the story. That nicely divided the story between what we heard and what we see.

22. "Primary". A nicely written story about a political candidate who keeps trying to live up to his ideals, but keeps falling short.

23. "The Chili Stoat Bluff". I loved the characters, but the storyline started to drag for me, and felt a little... odd. Then suddenly I realized where she was going with it, and I laughed out loud. It's actually an intricate puzzle story. Like Chekov's pistols, every little detail is there for a reason; and eventually Emma Nelson ties those details up in a perfect ending.

24. "Gruffs in Debt". A short but funny story of a troll who makes the best of a poor economy.

25. "A Mean, Mean Billy Gruff". A clever little poetic retelling of the story by Kristyn Crow, good enough for a live performance. I would love to hear her read it out loud.

26. "Bridge to the Meadow". A tale of three nannies and a bridge, and the man who occupies it. The ending is satisfyingly rousing. I found the nannies to be very distinct and believable.

27. "Indigestion". I laughed myself silly at this mishmash of fairy tale tropes. It's hard to describe them without spoiling them. The king's chef makes one tiny mistake, and all sorts of misadventures befall him as a result.

28. "The Three Billion Goats Gruff: A Bulrovian Tale: Part CCCIV": The story continues, 610 goats and counting...

29. "The Three Brother Cities". A haunting and poetic story of three cities which have been abandoned by humanity and which long for a new purpose. The scenes and images might've come from Bradbury back in his Martian Chronicles stage.

30. “Haiku: The Third Goat”. I don’t usually think of haikus as funny, but this one made me laugh. Look out, troll!

31. "Sold Out". OK, this is another one where the connection to the original story is so tenuous, I couldn't really see it. But at the same time, it's one fine story. Lisa Mangum has a gift for making her characters and setting very believable and vivid. I felt like I knew these characters. I saw some of the ending coming, but not all of it. It’s the story of people who hang out at storage units to bid on the contents of abandoned units; only this particular storage facility holds some very fantastic merchandise.

32. "Gruff Noir". An odd urban fairy tale with a good twist at the end. An urban guardian stalks the night, protecting those who don’t realize what threats they face.

33. "The Third Goat". An amusing retelling of the original story from the point of view of a troll who really would rather not be bothered by the whole thing.

34. "Three Billy Goats Who C Sharp: A Norwegian Folktale". OK, I didn't know what to expect from this one. See, I'm a .NET programmer; so for me, C# has a very specific meaning: a computer programming language for building .NET applications. But I knew that couldn't be what the title meant! It had to be something to do with music, right? Nope! My first instinct was right. Jared E. Stoddard has rewritten the original story as a C# program. And it even runs! (That is, it runs if you're patient enough to copy and paste it into a code editor and compile it.) It's a working simulation of the story, complete with random decisions by the goats and the troll, so it runs differently every time. And when it runs, the story it tells is amusing; but if you know how to read the code, that's even funnier! Like any good programmer should, Jared has spread liberal comments throughout the code, explaining the intent of the design; but then the actual code -- like any real program -- manages to veer from the design in unexpected and amusing ways. Let me give you just one small sample of what I mean:

// The troll bellowed, "I shall have you for dinner!"
troll.Speak("Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?");

The first line is what the designer intended; the second is what the programmer wrote. If you're a programmer, this is hilarious! (If you're not a programmer, I suspect you're scratching your head right now, and you'll probably skip over this story. You're missing out on laughs if you do!)

I contacted Jared off-line to report a bug in the program; but that bug turned out to be an error in my copy-paste job. (Like any good programmer might have guessed, it was a user error.) Jared has expressed some regret that he couldn't manage to turn out a story for the anthology, but rather had to write a program. I very respectably disagree. After all, isn't one mark of good storytelling that the story operates at multiple levels? Well, Jared's story works at the level of the design, and also at the level of the implementation, and then at a third level of the executing program itself; and buried in there as subtext is a fourth level, that of commentary on the mismatch between design and implementation. For those reasons, it's my favorite piece in the anthology; and I applaud Jared for writing it, and I applaud Eric James Stone for having the vision to publish it.

30. "The Three Deaths of Devin Ochre" by Juliana Montgomery. The set-up here is well-traveled ground: in the afterlife, a man gets a chance to make up for his past mistakes, but has trouble breaking his old patterns. But Juliana manages to surprise me, both with the way the story didn't end (the ending I expected would've really disappointed me, even though it's the classic ending to this sort of story), and also with the way it did end: a nice, poetic justice twist that I never saw coming.

31. "A Gift Freely Offered". This seems at first glance to be yet another classic-style fairy tale; and in the very end, it has a classic-style ending. But in the middle and even right up to that very end, it's not classical, it's complex and layered. No one is quite what they seem. The ones you should trust turn out to be almost as manipulative as the one you're supposed to distrust. Bad things happen to good people not because of random chance, and not because of bad people, but because good people are too rigid to bend their rules. The ending was entirely predictable by the time I got there; but everything else? Completely unpredictable.

32. "The Three Billion Goats Gruff: A Bullrovian Tale: Part CCCXXXIV". OK, the joke stretched out for a looooooooooooooong time; but in the end, it was laugh-out-loud funny.
(reviewed 15 days after purchase)
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