It would not be fully truthful to say that the author was challenged to write a genre-bending mystery after losing an argument with ducks about the inevitability of violence. But it wouldn’t be fully false either.
O'Brien, a somewhat optimistic rurally-raised resident of a US city infamous for its violence and hopelessness, decided to test a theory. After inventing a country devoted entirely to fairness and peace, she added characters that had to abide by the framework of their culture. They were given horrors that plague real people and were allowed to respond as they saw fit. They had only to be true to their culture, retain essential elements of modern humanity, and be charming when not dealing with threats that could potentially end the world as they knew it.
After four books, they felt they had fully addressed the most essential questions of suffering, violence, love, and happiness, and still retain their sense of humor. And did they? That’s for you and the ducks to decide. The books have earned a Rat of Approval I'm Okay award, of which the author is prodigiously proud.
And why aren't there four books listed here on Smashwords? There will be soon. They're undergoing formatting and revision tweaks and will be released in the coming months, along with a free guide to the Sanctuary world and its cast of characters. In fact, those who list any of their books in their Smashwords library can get a coupon for another in the series simply by contacting the author and asking for one.
Where to find PJ O'Brien online
Absolution: Sanctuary Book 3
by PJ O'Brien
In Book 3 of the series, the prosecutions relating to the coup attempt are winding down. Civil liberties are restored and there is a renewed movement to end mandatory marriage and abolish the monarchy. Master Tehv, the son of the assassinated king, leaves the palace to assist at his uncle’s training camp for the kinetically uncoordinated. His cousin busies himself tracking a mysterious stranger.
Grave-climbing: Sanctuary Series Book 2
by PJ O'Brien
"Grave-Climbing" continues from where "Surviving Sanctuary" left off. Violence erupts once again in a land that has forbidden it. As tensions rise, a university professor is suspected of destroying historical records, a father is pressured to cut ties to a beloved daughter who has eloped, and an otherwise rational young man worries that his new wife’s seizures are of a diabolic origin.
by PJ O'Brien
On a spring evening in 1982, a thousand people are killed in Sanctuary, a country founded by genocide survivors and devoted to pacifism. Decades later, Brian, a congenial and underemployed American, goes there to look for the sister of a former girlfriend who disappeared while visiting there. As he looks for clues and tries not to marry anyone accidentally, he learns he may be a target too.
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Smashwords book reviews by PJ O'Brien
- The Valkyrie's Tale
on Jan. 01, 2014
As I noted in my goodreads review, this is a very nicely done book. I liked the weaving of the two realities and the mythic strands woven in (though I confess, I had to look up a couple of references).
I generally get impatient with books that are a little too action-oriented at the expense of character development, but Fecke does a nice job of balancing both.
Is there a sequel yet?
- SCOTLAND ZEN and the art of SOCIAL WORK
on Jan. 01, 2014
This book is charming, the characters are likeable and the story moves along nicely. There are a couple of more elaborate reviews on goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19110556-scotland-zen-and-the-art-of-social-work but since the author doesn't seem to have a page there, I'm posting a review here as well.
Looking forward to seeing more...
- Broken Promises
on March 26, 2014
In Broken Promises, the interestingly-named Hazel has been living a relatively comfortable life in New York City. She lives close enough to Central Park for daily visits, attends private school, and the family manages on her father’s income and investments. A reservist in the Marines, her father is unexpectedly called to active duty. Just before he ships out to Iraq, he rashly promises Hazel that he’ll be home in a year. It's a promise that couldn't realistically be kept, which everyone except Hazel seems to know.
When her father is killed in action, she is intensely angry. Despite their close relationship – or perhaps, because of it – her anger is directed almost solely at him and the broken promise. She refuses to talk about him or join her mother in mourning. Instead, she becomes focused on how to maintain her life as it's always been.
Hazel’s efforts to supplement her mother’s meager temporary income with babysitting can't stop the family's downward slide into financial crisis, particularly when they learn that there is little left from the investment accounts. She does what she can, learning to cook and taking on household tasks like shopping, in hopes that she won’t have to leave her school and her friends. But the reader knows long before Hazel does that nothing she can do can hold off the inevitable. All the familiar aspects of her life must change.
This is a first novel, for the writer and a series. The story is compelling, despite the occasional phrasing in the beginning. Once the author found her stride, the story flowed very smoothly. I occasionally raised my eyebrows at names and social media references that seemed a little anachronistic or unusual, but acknowledge that it’s been awhile since I’ve had interactions of any length with someone in middle school. It could be that I’m terribly out of touch with the world as experienced by adolescents of today. In any case, I am invested enough in Hazel’s story to want to follow it in the next book of the series, so I’ve added Old Promises to my reading list.
- The Nostalgia Effect
on March 30, 2014
The Nostalgia Effect is a very unique and interesting book. It contains elements of romance, psychological drama, and speculative literature, and offers some intriguing dilemmas to ponder. The protagonist, Jennifer, wakes up in what appears to be eight years in the past. However, there are differences from the past she remembers. She’s still married to her first husband and her father is married to a woman she doesn’t recognize.
She has no idea what happened, and wonders which life is the real one and which must be some sort of delusion. The author, E.J. Valson, does a fine job of keeping the reader guessing whether there is a psychological issue at play or some bizarre merging of parallel lives and time threads. Either way, Jennifer has to learn to navigate a life that seems similar to her own, but isn't quite it.
What I felt was unaddressed – if the scenario truly was one where Jennifer was in the wrong life thread for whatever reason – was what happened to the Jennifer of the thread that our Jennifer suddenly appears in. Our protagonist never seems to worry about what might have happened to her counterpart or what the effect of her appearance in the present reality will be. She and those assisting her seem to think that all will just suddenly stop and not exist anymore once she's returned to her own reality. It’s strange enough that she would be ok with that, but those who help her out must be extraordinarily noble. Since no one really knows the hows and whys of what happened, one would think that some of them might be a little uneasy. But they're not. The concern is for her and getting her where she needs to be safely, and the reader has no sense of what they think about this and whether they ever wonder what it means for them.
It was quite a good story in any case and very unlike any book that I’ve read lately. Ms Valson has done an excellent job with her first novel, and I’m happy to recommend it.
- Standing Stones
on June 17, 2014
Standing Stones is a debut novel of historical fiction by Beth Camp. According to the author, she wrote it after a visit to northern Scotland led her to study the impacts of 19th century industrialization.
Standing Stones begins on the fictional island of Foulksay in Orkney and is told from several points of view. One is of the cash-strapped heir who wants to get out of debt by modernizing his holdings and trying new income-generation ideas. Sadly for the local population, he follows the lead of largely absentee landholders in the Highlands to evict crofting families to replace croplands with sheep. His new wife, an educated reformer from a progressive family in Edinburgh, is initially supportive of his ideas for improvements, but is ambivalent about his methods. She becomes even more so after the local clergyman – who must balance patronage of the gentry with the needs of his parishioners – convinces her to accompany him on a visit to displaced and starving families.
It is the perspective of the families themselves that is the primary focus of the narrative. Ms. Camp excels at descriptive writing. While reading, I could almost smell the salt air and feel the numbing cold in the fingers of the women as they gutted and salted the fish on the beach. Her portrayal of the grim challenges they faced was well-balanced between a sympathetic portrait of individuals and a broader scope of the socio-economic conditions. Consequences for actions are also broadly explored, including those who are beaten and tried for resisting. There is a very detailed focus for those sentenced to exile and transport to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania/Australia).
I recommend it as a very good read with only a few caveats. One is more of a personal inclination to want a little glimpse into the internal thought processes of characters who are struggling with decisions. Ms. Camp does a good job of portraying the challenges and stakes, but she seems to take the admonition to “show, not tell” very much to heart. I will concede here, as I have in other reviews, that I may be unusual in needing a bit more of the "tell". In Standing Stones, we often find out the decisions that major characters have made by their actions or from a dialog with characters who don’t ask the questions I might have if I were in their place. Those who prefer a story that moves along should have no problem with this book; those who like a little more interior reflection will have to use their imaginations.
The other caveat has to do with geographical places and names. For those who are familiar with the city of Selkirk, let me just tell you upfront that the name has been borrowed for the imaginary village on Foulksay. It is not the one you’re thinking of, so you don’t have to do as I did and run to the map and say, “Right, I knew it was down south; how the hell did they get there so fast? And why go?”.
Also, if you are from Orkney, or have strong opinions that it should be referred to either as Orkney or the Orkney Islands, but never “The Orkneys”, pour yourself a neat glass of Highland Park or Scapa and sigh affectionately, “Ah Americans and their sense of cultural geography!” And then take the book for the homage that it was intended to be. (And if I’ve been misinformed and you’re quite happy with “The Orkneys”, so much the better. The glass and the affectionate sigh work for my errors too, I hope.)
And finally, those of you descended from the victims of the Highland Clearances, who feel slighted because it was your ancestors and not the Orcadians who suffered more because of that ill-fated “reform” policy disaster, I understand and you’re right. Let’s raise a glass of Dalwhinnie or Talisker, assuming we can afford either, and drink a toast to your forebears’ grit and survival and the human will to carry on. Even better, go home to the Highlands in their memory, if you can arrange it, for the 2014 Homecoming celebration. But if not, just know that there really was one incidence of Clearances in Orkney, according to the author. So read Standing Stones for solidarity with all those who suffer from the stupidity of others. It really is a good read for making sense of all that.
- Checkered Scissors
on July 02, 2014
Douglas Schwartz’s "Checkered Scissors" is a delightful read, especially for those who love imaginative fiction or who are plagued by bizarre dreams that lead them to muse about intriguing implications in their waking life. For the latter, if you can imagine what it might be like if everything you’ve ever dreamed, read about it, or experienced materialized into a physical dimension, and was left to simmer together and evolve for a long while before you entered it yourself, you’ll have an idea of the book's setting.
Not only is the narrative itself interesting, but Mr. Schwartz manages to flesh out his characters to be multi-dimensional, even those that are cartoons, cameos, or figments of another character’s imagination. His villain is truly a villain, yet I occasionally sympathized with him in a way that I might with a bullied child who grows up to bully others after a terrifying and abusive childhood.
This is not a horror story, but it could have been in the hands of another writer. It would make a very good movie, though a director might go for the easy way out and turn it into something shocking and grotesque. That would be a shame because I think much of its unique style would be lost.
My only suggestion to Mr. Schwartz is to put his very fine preface and kind acknowledgements at the end of the book in an afterword. I understand the desire to put the book's creation in context and to express gratitude for all those who helped bring it to life, but by the time the reader has gotten through the table of contents, the title page, the long preface, and acknowledgements, impatience could well turn into frustration.
Otherwise, I have no qualms about recommending the book to anyone. It’s an intriguing read for all ages and various genres. But here, I’ll leave you with some excerpts to help you get an idea:
“He hated his creator for making him half man, half machine, and all monster. He never wanted to be a monster, but that’s how he appeared in the dream. The dream defined him.”
“Tonight, Annabelle would take the place of the star role as Priscilla Pigg in Roaming Thunder’s production of 'Swine Women and Song', a farm-themed, musical, love story.”
“If people considered him a monster and mad scientist, he didn’t bother to change his appearance. In fact, he improved upon his monstrous look. He blended his body with his chair so no one other than himself knew where his body ended and the mechanics started. He kept his head shaved and carved himself two spiral-shaped scars along each side to give the illusion of horns. For special occasions, he trained a swarm of hornets to swarm along his jawline like a buzzing beard.”
All in all, "Checkered Scissors" is a nice escape from reality where one occasionally wrestles with ethical dilemmas, sympathizes with heroes and villains alike, and finds more fuel to fire their own imaginative dreams.
- The Singing Loch
on July 22, 2014
This is a very nice "Let's escape from the soul-sucking modern urban world and move back to wild nature" story. My enjoyment of it was likely enhanced because I was at home in an urban area when I began it and ended it just after spending a day rambling in rural Orkney.
But unlike the protagonist, I rather enjoy cities and find a lot in them that's vibrant, alive, and hopeful. I also love the outdoors and nature, so I could appreciate the pull of wild moors, breathtakingly beautiful mountains, and crystal lochs. In trying to decide whether I liked this book by Michael Graeme enough to give it four or five stars, I had to consider whether I was being objective, or mildly resentful for portraying cities as "grey", "soul-less", and lacking of meaningful human interaction. And though protagonist Scott Matthews was generally referring to London and Glasgow of the 1980s (the settings of much of the book), there was enough universalizing that I occasionally muttered to him, "Then move already, damn it, and stop whining! It's obvious that you're going to".
The Singing Loch has a very nice narrative flow, well-drawn characters, and lovely descriptions of rural Scotland. It has just enough romance to give it a little charm, but not enough to detract from the more interesting tension between humans and their place in nature, and the competing interests of corporations and individuals where land use is concerned. I was all set to give it a five, but at the last minute switched to a four. That's not because of the (relatively minor) typos or the fact that I'd pretty much worked out the mystery on my own before the reveal. It's a free book currently on Smashwords, so I won't quibble on those. (And the typos are simply that and not grammatical atrocities; the author is obviously a good writer.) It's just that the city-lover in me found the last bit a little simplistic and preachy in its exhortation to humanity. I agree with much of what it said, but as I said earlier, I might have been a little annoyed on behalf of cities and their own bit of wild life. In any case, I liked it very much and recommend it.
- The Mermaid Quilt & Other Tales
on Aug. 05, 2014
This short collection by Beth Camp includes the expected mermaids, but also introduces mythic sea women that aren't as familiar. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that those dependent upon seas and waterways for their livelihood, yet often endangered by them, would have similar themes in their lore. These themes are well represented in The Mermaid Quilt & Other Tales. There is fear, wonder, desperation, and occasionally playful joy. But despite some similarity in themes, the stories are told from a variety of perspectives, with each tale set in a different place and time, and evocative of the culture it represents.
In one of those serendipitous turns of life, I found myself reading most of these little stories by bodies of water. I don’t know if it was the cry of gulls or the reverie that I was lulled into by wind and waves, but I found myself very drawn into each of the myriad settings of a mythical water-dwelling woman and her interactions with humans. The stories read fast, but have some thoughtful, even dreamy, tones that are just perfect for firing one’s imagination when sitting by a quiet lake or walking along the shore at dawn. It led me to muse what the sea-woman of my mind might be like if I took all of my thoughts and memories of the ocean, merged them with my feelings about death and life, and gave it a human-looking face on an amphibious body?
- Stealing Salt
on Oct. 05, 2014
A very nicely woven tale of siblings dealing with loss and regret. Short and evocative, with engaging characters and a satisfying resolution. Just right for an October read.
- The Army of the Night
on Oct. 18, 2014
This was even better than the author's "The Scottish Movie". If you’ve read that book, you’ll recognize the broad strokes of this one's plot, which played a cameo in the longer novel. The setting and plot were offered there with a jokey nod and a wink, but the novella here is rather a serious work that can stand on its own.
It’s a quick and enjoyable read, especially if you like good historical fiction. The protagonist is one of Napoleon’s agents, though Napoleon himself and the Duke of Wellington play crucial roles. (Well obviously; how could they not?) But the emotional heart of the story centers on those who must kill, and those who will be killed, without either having much say in the matter. This includes men of various nationalities, and a small group of (Spoiler hidden). Seriously.
But it works. It’s pensive, but not a downer. Nor is it gruesome, despite the genre being an odd mix of historical military literature and a nod to Halloween. It’s quite short, and could be read between answering the door for trick-or-treaters on All Hallows Eve. But it could still put you in just the proper mood of contemplation for the Feast of All Saints the following day. As of now, it's free. Why not get it and save it for a full moon or stormy night? Or even just a quiet afternoon's reverie?
- Eaten: Season 1
on Oct. 25, 2014
Oh, where to even start? Imagine a food fight where foods are sentient and move on their own, and humans are just another class of society. And not even a highly ranked one, though they’re led to believe they still are.
I'm working on the assumption that this is an allegory, and I was afraid it was going to be a bit preachy at first. The city of New Eaton is controlled by foods that are highly processed, deep-fried, salty, fatty, greasy, or sugared. These ruling classes are referred to collectively as Gourmands (oddly enough for foods that one normally thinks of as mass produced to the tastes of the least common denominator). The society is dominated by a triumvirate oligarchy led by the evil Sodius. (See why I thought it would be preachy? And I’m a vegetarian with kitchen garden full of herbs. But, stay with me. It's not really about menu choices.)
Vegetables are the oppressed classes in this world. Those in the city hunker down in their squalid tenements and try not to call attention and abuse to themselves. But many live free in their native kingdom beyond the city boundaries. However, even those in their own lands are raided often, with prisoners brought to the city square where the Gourmands allow the humans to compete in a contest to see how many they can kill. If this is an allegory, it’s not a cute little one to read aloud to your young children. The competitive killing frenzy in the square briefly reminded me of the Prayvaganzas in The Handmaid's Tale.
Eaten is about socio-economic structures gone wrong. It’s a common theme in a very different setting here, though I wondered about possible inspiration from Animal Farm and even some of the ideas from Dune, especially when it came to recycling highly-sought elements from corpses.
Understandably, there are freedom fighters and sometimes out-and-out terrorists among the vegetables. And to be fair, there’s a milkshake who’s horrified at his society’s cruelty and takes great risks to try to stop it. And so by now, I hope you see my challenge in trying to describe this whole thing in a way that gives it due credit for re-telling the perennial struggle between power, economic well-being, and justice in a very creative way. Not to mention, a dystopian thriller that by its very nature reminds us frequently to smile and not take it literally.
After all, there are murders and plots of genocide, but then an off-hand note that the guard roughing up a prisoner happens to be an egg salad. There are those who take “the ends justify the means” approach to the loss of innocent life on both sides, though call me naïve for trying to hold a stalk of broccoli to higher standards. (No wonder they don’t call them Cruciferous anymore. They can be callous about blowing up civilians.) And the fruits, when they're mentioned at all, are those that don’t fit in with either group and don’t seem to want to be involved. They’re just, you know, out there somewhere in their own kingdom doing their own thing.
I kept wondering where the animals were that the meat was taken from to create the cheeseburger and hotdog brutes. (All the thugs in this book are what you might order at a fast food restaurant, including the low ranking but vicious fries.) “Allegory, allegory!” I had to keep reminding myself. “Don’t overthink this!” But still, other than references to macaroons, who apparently are molls and expensive hookers, the story doesn’t dwell much on how the food people procreate or form relationships. They have spouses and children but….how, and maybe, why? (Am I weird to wonder how milkshakes would have sex? Or do their children just ooze out of their straws in asexual reproduction? Is so, why are they bothering to get married and live as nuclear families?) And if they’re processed into production, who are the processors? Perhaps in the next series, we’ll find that the classic sci-fi scenario is at play here, where the human controllers became the controlled.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder occasionally what the free, non-processed veggies actually ate since they didn’t seem to be … grounded … at all. And everything has to eat something, right? But other than the humans, who were deliberately kept chubby, immobile, and ignorant by the Gourmands to maintain their control, the foods in conflict didn’t seem to eat. Or maybe they’ve evolved to get all nutrients from air, water, and light since they no longer have roots.
I think this whole thing must have started out as an upset stomach, high-cholesterol, near heart-attack inducing nightmare that just kinda took off on its own. But I love the concept and the throw-out identifiers of various characters as chili dogs, mushrooms, onions, donuts, and the banana (Mr. Cavendish, who obviously has a backstory) as the plot bounced along.
So even if this started out as an allegory about the corporate distortion of human eating patterns and nutrition, it ended up being something quite different. And despite my questions above, I’m glad that author Michael La Ronn left basic descriptions of the characters vague. It gives the readers great fun in trying to imagine what an egg salad guard might look like, or to wonder what conditions might lead one milkshake to become a sinister murderous eugenic scientist and another to become a heroic humanitarian. (Shakeitarian?) Or why such two polar opposite shakes would be attracted to each other.
I found some of the dialogue flat and the personalities overly contrived. I almost said stereotypical, but I’m not sure that describing an angry stalk of celery who enjoys string whipping everyone in sight could be considered stereotypical. And of course, they would be contrived; they ARE contrived, allegorically speaking. La Ronn does know how to develop good characters and dialogue, judging from his Reconciled People: Stories, so I’m assuming his treatment here is deliberate.
I had no idea how to start this review nor any idea how to end it. I’m glad I bought it. It raised a lot of interesting questions, made me smile more than once, and provoked a lot of musing. I plan to continue with the series, in between my other reading. I do hope there will be more shading and complexity of the characters and dialogue that sounds more authentic, even if it is between a mushroom and a parsnip, or a carrot and a milkshake. After all, they’re discussing very serious issues.
- The Queue
on Jan. 22, 2015
This is a very compelling short-story.
- Little Book Of NOT Killing Yourself: Things You Need To Know First
on Feb. 07, 2015
This is a very brave and thoughtful book. I have to disagree with the previous reviewer's concern about it being free. It should be free and more readily available to those who need it. In the next revision, some formatting and font style could be tidied up, but the message is clear, heartfelt, and I wish all the best to its writer.
- Life Begins At Forty
on Feb. 22, 2015
This is a short story that is actually the first episode - I think - of a series based upon one Russian family's experiences before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This first one draws a nice portrayal of the protagonist, his transitioning to a new phase of life when he feels he can no longer think of himself as young and to the upheavals and personal impact of post-communist rule. The story also introduces his wife and teen son, whose restrained but genuine caring provides a little circle of light and hope against the backdrop of bleak, gray, and cold.
I liked it very much. It does have a very high adjective to noun ratio for my taste (almost 1:1, it seemed, though that's likely an exaggeration), but otherwise it's very well done. I'm downloading all the rest.
on Feb. 22, 2015
This is another short and intriguing story by an emerging Russian author who is becoming one of my favorites. That's not simply because his short works are currently free on Smashwords, though they are. I've liked everything I've read from him so far. He has interesting ideas.
This is not a schmaltzy romance. It's about single-minded devotion. I was sure I knew its allegorical references, but was pleasantly surprised when I guessed wrong. But it inspired me to muse for the rest of the day, taking his original setting and plot and going off in my own directions.
It's my great hope that any of you out there with a talent for editing and literary translation will reach out to him somehow. I like much of his own translation into English, but he does need a little help to make sure he's getting the meaning he intended across. Please, any English majors out there, or any English teacher, or savvy English-speaking reader having the time and a talent for literary phrasing and an appreciation for the offbeat, please please please, reach out with tact and generosity and offer to help him polish it a bit. And if you're familiar with Russian literature, classic and new, or are fluent in it, so much the better.
I do like this writer very much.
- Sleepless in Sovietsky
on April 01, 2015
Short, but quite good!
- Extracts From a Journal, 176_
on April 01, 2015
Very good; and a wee bit creepy.
- Dora's Story
on April 03, 2015
As someone in our Goodreads' Fairy Godreaders reading group noted, this is a tale Charles Dickens might have told if he were a goat. But it's more than merely a Great Expectations story of the changing fortunes of Dora, a young doe with a lot of potential who's stymied by her mixed parentage and not a little bit of jealousy.
It's probably meant for school-age readers, but it's a very good thing to read if you're a crunchy granola, back to basics, let's take charge of our food-sourcing kind of person who occasionally has a hankering to raise goats. You'll learn that it's doable, and can be enjoyable, but it takes a lot of help, support, and knowledge - not to mention a few tough choices about separating - even selling - kids from their mothers to be feasible.
The author really does raise goats and has done so for a number of years. She's a retired science teacher, so I'm sure her facts on farming, animal husbandry, and general knowledge of the natural world are trustworthy. She has a lovely website where you can sigh over baby goats from afar. I got the feeling that she's not quite as up-to-date with current teens and their preferred technologies and conversation patterns, but then again, neither am I. There are a few confusing spots in the book itself in terms of dialog flow (especially during phone conversations) and some of the characters felt the need to notice racial identities that seemed to have no relation to the plot as far as I could tell. It wasn't meant to be derogatory, though one character did need to evolve in his ideas, but it just seemed to be a little apropos of nothing. Then again, I don't live in that area so perhaps this is part of the local experience.
In any case, if you can imagine yourself out on Karen GoatKeeper's spread in the Ozark mountains, this seems like just the kind of story she'd be telling you, spinning out the next installment on the spot of the trials and traumas of a sweet and plucky little goat, to keep you from wandering away when you're supposed to be milking or putting out fresh feed.
- Tales from a farm - the Wild Bird
on April 15, 2015
This is indeed a very charming story, with beautiful illustrations. There are also delightful photos of what I assume is the real wild baby bird that was rescued and hand-reared until it could care for itself. I imagine that children would love this story read to them again and again.
- Blackboard Galaxy
on April 17, 2015
I was expecting a much longer work for some reason, but this ended being just perfect for a quick read before bed. A great sci-fi short story, and one that perhaps teachers anywhere could identify with.
- Night of the New Russian
on April 18, 2015
Like all those I've read so far in this series of life in post-Soviet Russia, this short story is stark, well-paced, and evocative.
- Losing One's Appetite
on April 19, 2015
Witty and well-done little short story!
- The Last Supper
on April 19, 2015
A brief reverie that might bring a smile to those with lively imaginations who are faced with yams passed their prime.
on April 19, 2015
I agree with the previous review that this feels like an interesting beginning of a story that I'd like to read more of. This very brief portion sets the scene but rushes a bit. I think with a few revisions and a bit of grammatical editing here and there (nothing major), this could be very nice indeed. I'll check back from time to time to see how it's coming along.
- The Day of the Nuptial Flight
on April 26, 2015
This is the fourth small work by Sarina Dorie that I’ve read, and I’m so hooked on her off-beat quirky settings that I’ve added more to my To-Read list. The Day of the Nuptial Flight is hard to describe but if you can imagine a tragi-comic nectar-in-cheek story about a drone who doesn’t fit in with his hive, interwoven with threads of a sci-fi short story of humans stranded on a world where they are small enough to ride caterpillars, you might have a sense of the setting. But that may not give you a full appreciation for the engaging writing style that spurs both smiles and sympathy for an unrequited devotion that not only dare not speak its name, it physically cannot.
- The Norfolk Probationer
on May 03, 2015
A very well-paced little mystery. I understand that it's offered free here to introduce potential readers to the setting, characters, and writing style. If so, it certainly worked for me. I'm ready to buy the others.
- Greener on the Other Side
on May 03, 2015
A nice jumble of fairy tale characters appear as cameos in this fun little short story. It's told from the perspective of a frog, who's become tired of hopping around to look for bona fide princesses to kiss him to break a witch's spell. Particularly disillusioned by young women who claim to be princesses in hopes of ending up with a rich handsome prince to marry, he decides to outwit the witch, outmaneuver her cat, and call on an assortment of accomplices to learn how to reverse the spell himself. Another terrific and whimsically twisted tale by Sarina Dorie.
- The Reader
on May 09, 2015
This is a short compelling story that could be read in one sitting, if one is lucky enough to have been taught to read and lives in a world where it is encouraged. It strikes me as an updated Fahrenheit 451, but told from the perspective of one who is driven more by compulsion than courage. But I suppose that's probably true of most of us.
- The Tent
on May 17, 2015
Well done; the tension builds at just the right pace and even the slight glimpses into each character are powerful.
- Conversations with Wonka - part one
on May 25, 2015
Charming, particularly if one enjoys day-to-day relationships with non-human housemates. It reads rather like verbal storytelling, which would be fine if the writer was a little more generous with commas and other punctuation. But it's nothing major, and it is free, so one can't quibble much.
- Three Speeches
on May 27, 2015
- The Cow Mouse
on May 27, 2015
The drawings alone are worth five stars. And although the story ended predictably, it was quite nice in spirit. And I loved lines like this one:
"Respectfully the mouse began to share her problems with the sea dragon because that is what you do when in the presence of a sea dragon."
I shall remember that, if ever I come upon one...
- The Draft
on May 30, 2015
Short, evocative, and nicely paced.
- The Chinese Sailor
on May 30, 2015
This is an intriguing mystery told in convoluted layers of time at first, which took a little getting used to. The main story is set in contemporary Wales, but almost immediately the reader is transported to China several decades before. I'd almost forgotten the original Wales opening as I became engrossed in the multi-generational story of the Yeung family. Even so, I'd been fairly warned by the book's opening that this family was fated for undeserved ill-fortune; subsequent chapters bring us back to Wales to learn how it played out.
This is an intelligent, thoughtful mystery with nice historical touches. I liked the pace of the unfolding narrative and the glimpses and clues that were just enough to get my ideas for suspects going without revealing too much. I particularly appreciated the balance in describing some cultural and linguistic patterns of both Wales and China, without falling into simplistic stereotypes for either.
There were some minor typos here and there, but not out of the ordinary for anyone who doesn't have the services of a publishing house editor.
I liked the book very much. As soon as I'd finished, I felt compelled to go back to the beginning and reread a nice chunk of it to make sure I had it all settled. I suspect the occasional shifts of time and perspectives is a stylistic signature of author Allan Jones, though I can't say for sure until I read the next in the series, which I plan to do very soon.
- I Can't Say Goodbye
on May 31, 2015
Great story. Those who are vigilant about grammar will notice that some sentences don't have ending punctuation; in every other sense, it's very well done.
- The Lemon Thief's Ex-Wife's Third Cousin
on June 02, 2015
"...a tangled knot of confused identities, alternate histories, unfathomable intrigues and sheer bewilderment in this short novel of the truth, the partial truth, and anything but the truth."
Yep, that's pretty much sums it up!
- Lost in the Dark
on June 25, 2015
This is a variant on the archetypal theme of being stranded in space, far beyond the reach of others. But unlike my impression of Weir's "The Martian"* and even Bowie's Major Tom, this intriguing little short story has a far more fragile person as protagonist. Those with claustrophobia or a fear of the dark will surely relate.
*My impression is based on descriptions and reviews; The Martian is in my To-Be-Read queue, but I haven't gotten to it yet.
- The Lonely Boy
on June 27, 2015
A very simple and charming little tale.
- Ghost Connection
on July 02, 2015
A very sweet little story, despite the setting. The illustration is marvelous.
- The Day the Music Died
on July 07, 2015
Writing about a traumatic event isn't easy to do. There's a balance to strike between allowing readers to be emotionally involved without sliding into melodrama and hyperbole. This very brief story dances in between the two a little better than the blurb might lead one to think. It describes a reaction that I hadn't yet come across, but I wasn’t on a college campus during 9/11. But, it feels true to the setting and the characters, and I've yet to find someone who can truly describe the terror of perceived danger in a way that suppresses the snarks of sarcasm, born (one hopes) out of sympathy for those who are genuinely in danger. And frankly, I’ve decided that every attempt to understand the feelings of others is to be commended, even if the way the feelings are played out are less noble than we imagine ourselves to be. So this story, which I've just read on the tenth anniversary of UK's 7/7, does well enough to bring to life the human need for the company of others during trauma, and the equally strong desire to escape it.
- As Far As I Know
on July 08, 2015
I'm hoping this is meant as a little tongue-in-cheek perspective of someone who blames the near death of his species because of technology, while watching it on his television. If so, it's delightful. If it's meant to be taken seriously, I'd have to say "hmm...." as the narrator rides around in his tank, looking for radios, and eating canned food. But let's go with the spoof and say, "nice job!".
- Forgotten Relics of a Lost Age
on July 08, 2015
Interesting little story! I particularly liked the glimpses it gave of the discoverers of the future as they sifted remnants of today. I'd definitely read more. Nice job!
- An Erk's Progress
on July 12, 2015
That was rather interesting!
- The Waking House
on July 13, 2015
I read this short little piece weeks ago and bits of it have stayed with me, particularly the ending sentences.
- Malcolm Maloney, World Wide Plague
on July 13, 2015
Well, that explains everything! :-)
- Two Psychics in a Typhus Epidemic
on July 13, 2015
Nice! It reads fine as a brief stand-alone piece, but I'd be very interested in reading more if it's ever expanded.
- The Post-Apocalypse Dating Guide
on July 13, 2015
All the things your mother would tell you, unless she was busy undying.
on July 13, 2015
Nice! At turns humorous and poignant, and the dialogue works well.
- The Scottish Colourist
on July 18, 2015
This second book in the series is as good as the first. It builds upon the characters and storylines of "The Chinese Sailor", but could probably be read as a stand-alone. I learned some interesting facts about art along the way, and look forward to reading the next in the series, "The Falmouth Model".
- The Bones of the Sea
on Aug. 20, 2015
A very good short story. A nice blend of realistic tough choices and unexpected consequences. The tension around the ethical dilemma build up perfectly.
on Aug. 26, 2015
Quite good, and introduces a detective story protagonist who is not the usual run-of-the-mill (at least from my perspective). I can't decide if the ending of this short story rushed the otherwise measured pacing, and if it was enough to matter if so. For example, was the rude guy killed at the end, with barely a sentence to acknowledge it, or just punched out? It would definitely change one's perception of Kabir and his worldview to know. Was it left deliberately ambiguous?
In any case, I plan to add writer Arun Krishnan to my list of newly discovered authors to read more by.
- Suddenly, Zombies
on Sep. 24, 2015
This short story duo (with a micro story thrown in at the end as a bonus) was a treat to read. The first, "Two Things", has rather the feel of a "Shawn of the Dead" mixed into "Red Dwarf". I realize that's comparing a short story with a movie and a comic sit-com, but I can't think of anything else to relate it to. t's a little campy and manages to weave some suspense into the storyline.
The second, "Escape from Ape City", evokes a light-touch romanticism, a bit of everyman as hero, and an admirable "let's all take care of each other" spirit that I'm a total sucker for. It sketches out a brief narrative involving ...(ok, don't laugh)... gangs of zombied apes the size of King Kong. (Ok, fine: laugh. Or at least smile.) But it works. At least it did for me. There's no real horror or gore, and it was over before my tendency to sympathize with every being (including zombie apes) could erupt to prevent me from enjoying it.
The entire set was only 24 pages in my ereader and gave me a nice reading intermission when I had brief snatches of time to while away.
- The Falmouth Model
on Sep. 24, 2015
In this third book of the Catrin Sayer art mysteries, author Allan Jones has definitely hit his professional stride. I love an intelligent mystery where I can immerse myself into a story and learn new things while I puzzle through clues. This series by Jones delivers that consistently, and the Falmouth Model goes further in allowing the characters to delve into new realms of detective work when dealing with art crimes, including cyber-attacks and the delicate protocols and politics necessary when working internationally to protect people and art.
I've liked each book in the series and find myself saying "this is even better than the previous one" as I've picked up the next. It's certainly true in this case; I think it's the best so far. I'll likely remain convinced of that until the next book is written.
- At Ancient Thebes
on Oct. 10, 2015
Excellent short story. The narration is very descriptive and beautiful.
- The Computer That Cared
on Oct. 10, 2015
According to the blurb at the end of the story, this was actually written in the early 1980s, which explained the brow-furrowing references to dial-up and input cards. It's still a nicely told tale with enough emotional punch when conveying human notions of caretaking vs a machine's.
- The Ballad of Tommy Tomato
on Oct. 10, 2015
A whimsical, goofy little short story that has the feel of a fairy tale, or a story told among family or friends when doing chores together. I'd give it 4 stars for the initial idea and down-home folksy feel, along with an "all's well that end's well" conclusion.
The ebook formatting drove me a little nuts and I spent a bit of time making it more readable for myself. There are minor grammatical issues that made me suppress an urge to go on comma patrol. The frustration led me to dock a star in the ratings, though I'm probably quibbling.
The story was free and makes no pretensions, so the formatting and other extraneous aspects didn't stop me from liking it overall. If someone read it aloud to me, or if it was a story told at bedtime, or around the campfire to while away the time, I would say it was just fine the way it is. The cover photo is a hoot and worth five stars on its own. Anyone who could look at it and not feel the urge to smile or make mental room for a story should dust off their imagination and give it a little sunshine.
- A Report on a Haunting and Other Stories
on Nov. 22, 2015
These stories reminded me a bit of Poe, in a more modern setting.
- The Old Maid and Other Stories
on Nov. 27, 2015
“On the worst nights, like tonight, there is a third movement, a third sound. A soft moaning, in between coughs, which grows mournfully to a sob, a wail of such pain, such sorrow as to leave their skins crawling with horror at the sound of it.
“This is the sound they hear tonight. A quiet, horrible sobbing which emerges, inexplicably from out of the darkness of the room in which they sleep. He wakes first and lies quietly for a while. For ten minutes, thirty minutes - at this time in the morning the passing of time is obscure and difficult to judge - he lies still with eyes open. As he listens, he feels her shift beside him, pulling the covers around her as she moves. He listens as her breathing softens and knows that she too is awake now, she too is listening. This always frightens him more than he imagines it should. It ought to be a relief, he tells himself. He should be glad that he is not facing this alone, is not, after all, losing his mind and imagining the whole thing. But it is not a relief. If anything it makes the fear stronger. It makes the thing real.”
That excerpt comes from the second story “Cold Companion” in this three story collection by Rufus Woodward. I don’t know much about the author except that he tells good tales. I suppose they are to be considered horror stories, but they’re not gruesome or gory. They evoke a range of feelings from suspense to sympathy. The third story in the collection, which is literally titled “Ghost Story (Not Scary)” even made me smile at some of the lightly sprinkled humor.
Woodward has a deft hand at description, narrative, and character-sketching and gives just enough of each to build the stories. He explores literary devices like tense and person in ways that aren’t jarring to read, but might have been a challenge to write. For example, the third story seems to be written in first and second person simultaneously, but after furrowing my brow and giving it a go, I fell right into it after a few lines. It was quite a wistful, touching thing. As the first person protagonist says at one point:
“Whatever we were, where we lived, what we did, all of that is forgotten. None of it matters anymore. It’s all gone. We live here now, strolling up and down the deck of this ship, watching the passengers come and go, watching the staff work through their shifts. We see their little intrigues, their dramas, their day to day routines, but mostly we don’t pay them much notice. They don’t see us and, most of the time, we hardly even notice they’re there either. We keep to ourselves, you and I.”
In short, Woodward has fast become one of my favorite writers, especially for weird, literary suspense. I stumbled on his work at random, and know nothing much about him. There’s little biographical information in his books or the sources for them, and some of the links I checked from the homepage link of his website were dead. Maybe he himself is a ghost or maybe it’s just a part of his shtick, but it rather makes him even more intriguing. I have one more short collection of his to read, and will just have to hope that he writes more.
- The Shorecliff Horror and Other Stories
on Dec. 17, 2015
The three stories in this collection are different in style, but each are quite good. It's the third collection by author Rufus Woodward that I've read, and all of them have been excellent. He has a lovely way of spinning a story, turning a phrase, evoking emotional responses, and building suspense. Whether the setting is in contemporary times (as The ShoreCliff Horror, the first story is) or in the style of a mythic timeless fairy tale (as the last story is), the narrative voice matches it very nicely.
Many of his stories have a very literary, almost poetic feel. Some (including those from other collections) remind me a little of some of Poe's. In fact, I thought of Woodward right away when I recently read about the Poe Museum's call for submission in Amy Sturgis' December 10 blog posting:
If he reads this in time, I do hope Woodward considers it. He's a very gifted author and I'm very happy to have stumbled across him. He's certainly on my watch list for reading as soon as he publishes anything else.
- The Hundredth Year of the War
on Jan. 03, 2016
This short story is very powerful despite its brevity. It's a tribute to all the Marlenes of the world, who stay curious, ask questions, and keep trying to do the right thing whether they're successful or not.
- The Carnforth Double
on June 09, 2016
This latest book in the Catrin Sayers art theft detective series builds very much on the previous ones. Like the others, it’s engaging, intelligent, and allows the reader to follow Catrin across several countries to follow leads, trade information, and broker deals.
Because I never studied art formally, I like how Allan Jones presents background information about paintings and artists in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story. In the case of The Carnforth Double, a thread interwoven with the main narrative tells the story of Rosalind Heaton, the portrait subject of English engraver and painter, Hamlet Winstanley. We gradually learn about Heaton, her time period, and the artist’s techniques as the book goes along. By the time Catrin and her colleagues discuss what a forgery of it must involve, there is no need for an unnatural dialog among the experts to discuss it on a level basic enough for the general reader to understand. We know enough ourselves by that time that we can listen in and follow along.
I also like the way that Jones develops his characters and their relationships. There’s a quiet building of personal and professional ties across the series that is realistically paced. I’ve never had much patience with romance as the main focus of a book, so I appreciate the way that the growing mutual interest with Catrin’s colleague in another city gradually emerged without overshadowing the other aspects of her life and work.
I take a little bit of delight in being one of the first to discover this series, though perhaps I'm just the first to write reviews. But I do hope that others join me, especially if they like art, a little bit of imagined history, and stories about a plucky Welsh policewoman who paints ceramics on the side.
- My Stupid Racism
on July 18, 2016
This strikes me as a very honest and soul-bearing essay about the author's evolution of thought and empathy. Thanks very much to him for sharing it.
- The Faeries
on July 21, 2016
I bought this some time ago and had quite forgotten about it. But I was going through my downloaded ebooks recently in preparation for a long trip and stumbled upon it again. It's a very nicely done short story. The tension builds and resolves at a good pace. The premise is interesting too, but I won't say much about it. I don't want to give anything away!
- The Murder of Crows
on July 22, 2016
One could anticipate where the story was headed, but that didn't affect my enjoyment in reading it.
- My Mama's Tamales
on Aug. 03, 2016
I can't decide how many stars to give this. The story was quite strong when it followed Rosario's early experiences and challenges in school. Her mother and brother were portrayed from Rosario’s point of view and one could easily see why she admired and idolized them. I loved the descriptions of her visits to Mexico, and her struggle to find a place for herself within the two cultures in conflict.
However, I felt the ending was rushed. I saw that the author is defined in one venue as a romance writer, but other than a section near the end, I wouldn’t define the book that way. It’s more of a coming of age work of fiction. The romance seemed a bit rushed and overplayed, but that could be just me. I prefer relationships to be a thread finely interwoven in a narrative that could well stand on its own without it, and my limited experience with genre romances are that they sacrifice plot for portrayals of passion. Was Rosario’s immediate and rather out-of-character attraction to Aaron an understandable first love experience for someone who’d consciously put off relationships as a teen in her determination to go to college? If so, perhaps she felt it was safe in her senior year to give in to it. But his character seemed almost unbelievably idealized. His family members were just the opposite and were almost cardboard stereotypes. Perhaps the author wanted to set the stage for an exploration of subtler forms of bigotry, but to do that the characters would need a little more shading. As they are, they’re obviously bigots, despite their protestations.
The book excels at describing the devastating effects that a cruel or indifferent teacher has on a student, in comparison to the life-changing influences that supportive and encouraging mentors can have. Rosario’s character develops quite a bit to come to terms with the conflicting cultural pressures in her life, and she certainly grows as a person. I suspect that she’ll always have some tendency to either idealize or negatively dismiss those she comes across, but that could simply be an apt portrayal by the author of a normal human. In any case, I wish her well, and would likely read more about her. I did download more books by author Mia Rodriguez from Smashwords, avoiding carefully those that seemed to be exclusively romances. :-) There do seem to be a range of works by her, so the exclusive genre label doesn’t seem quite right.
- Gabriel's Dilemma
on Aug. 05, 2016
This is probably one of the most intriguing, and most intense, stories that I’ve read in a long time. In fact, the tension built so well that I couldn’t even finish it during my bedtime reading last night. The sense of foreboding was that good. I read a sassy and fun alternate re-telling of fairy tales instead.
I did sneak back to finish it this morning when I was at my doctor’s office, waiting my turn for a routine blood draw. There’s nothing like steeling oneself for sharp objects stuck into tender flesh for inspiring courage.
I think I started reading out of the corner of one eye and hoped that I wasn’t speaking aloud when imploring the poor delusion-plagued child: “No, please don’t, honey; trust somebody, anybody! Stop, stop, turn around, please honey, please! Nooo!!!”
I swear that I was going to delete Gabriel and his Dilemma out of my existence and (every reading device the story sync-ed to) if he didn’t stop talking about himself and actually do something useful instead. That’s a lot of emotion from me, a very laid-back, phlegmatic, and somewhat lazy person. Author Ulf Wolf brought out all of this impassioned defiance and dread in me within a measly, well-crafted 13,660 words.
- Snow White Gets Her Say
on Aug. 07, 2016
I loved the sassy voices in these stories, and the humor, even when making hard points.
The original tales (along with variants from different traditions) are in the appendix for reference.
- The Terracotta Bride
on Nov. 27, 2016
A very interesting premise, and told very well.
- The Giving Plague
on April 02, 2017
The idea of our bodies being symbiotic communities of ecosystems has become more mainstream now, but still intriguing to me. That's especially true as it relates to our minds and behaviors. A few odd and often unrelated ideas occurred to me as I read this short story:
- Rodents infected by toxoplasmosis from cats are said to lose their fear of them and thus more likely to become their victims.
- There seems to be some correlation between the microbial colonies in our gut to our physical health, as well as to our mental and emotional health (e.g. chronic depression).
- If social ills are caused by communities of humans not working well together for the optimal benefit of all, is individual ill health essentially caused by a similar benefit vs burden disparity among all the systems of our bodies?
- Good scientist vs bad scientist stories remind me of other archetypal good vs evil stories. This one weirdly made me think of the fall of the mythic Lucifer (from the most angelic to the perceived most evil) to become (with and against God) the most protective of the notion of free will. Their relationships are ultimately a spectrum/symbiosis (and not a binary/dichotomy)?
- How is free will affected by knowledge of the factors that consciously or subconsciously influence choice (.e.g addictions, compulsions, empathy, fear)? What is really a free choice in various circumstances under a variety of systemic pressures?
-Is it better to have good will and intentions (but not act well on them) vs having scurrilous intentions that somehow result in good actions? And if so, should we add a twist to the philosophical notion: if there were no devil(s), would it be necessary to invent one? (Which I suppose we already do, early and often.)
That's a lot of stray thoughts to be thinking while reading one very short story, but perhaps that's what made it so enjoyable for me. All in all, a nice archetypal sci-fi tale written ahead of its time decades ago and re-released as an ebook.
- The Powys Deacon
on April 02, 2017
I enjoyed The Powys Deacon as much as I did the others in the Catrin Sayers series. I quite like the protagonist, a Welsh art crime investigator, who designs ceramics in her spare time. Catrin is admirably intelligent and knowledgeable, but not unrealistically or annoyingly so. She works and plays well with others, takes the lead when necessary during investigations and shares responsibilities with colleagues as she should.
Despite being transferred or promoted around the UK from book to book, she manages to maintain healthy relationships. One can develop a liking for her friends, new and old, with some confidence that we will see them again in the future. And whether Catrin is assigned to work in Glasgow, London, Rome or Dubai, she's back in her native Wales often enough to keep me happily guessing at what a particularly elvish-looking place name might sound like.
I would have given this 5 stars, but felt a jarring leap of time at one point. I was tempted to shake my ebook to see if some of the ones and zeroes were stuck in a crease, or had gotten clumped together somehow. Whatever it was made the plot suddenly jump ahead two years. I even missed Catrin's wedding, except for a flashback or two. But I was traveling for much of the time I read it, so I'll blame jetlag or sleep-reading or something. In any case, I'm looking forward to the next book in the series. I'm learning quite a bit, and am enjoying myself as I do.