Flash Fiction Online, #3 February 2008

We’re back with another issue of Flash Fiction Online, which is quickly becoming an excellent e-zine for the latest and greatest works of short prose.

“Souls of the Harvest” by Dave Hoing takes us into the farmlands, where a lonely old farmer, after receiving some bad news via a doctor’s visit, takes one more night to reflect on how, truly, without a doubt, he’s the richest of men. To say anything else could ruin the piece, which, from the looks of it, is shorter than the author’s accompanying bio. Still, the voice here is spectacular, and the tale being told is a profoundly touching one, economically assuring and deeply moving. Cheers to the FFO team for putting this one first in the current issue, for it absolutely stands above the rest.

Rating: 9 anonymous stars out of 10

I’d outright claim the dialogue to be somewhat stilted in “Apologies All Around” by Jeff Soesbe if it weren’t, in fact, mostly given by a robot. The doorbell rings, and Winston Sinclair (sounds like the name of a richly-endowed Simpsons character, eh?) assumes it to be a sales bot at the door, trying to make some money. But he is put off to discover the robot is there for another reason altogether: to apologize. The story is mostly talking heads, with a lot of information being squeezed out wherever Soesbe can manage it. At times, it came close to removing me from the piece, but as I read on and on it became clear that a solid mystery was about to unfold. The ending lacked a certain punch though, as if, suddenly Sinclair now realizing he’d fumbled his words was going to put things right by…building a…robot (!). Eh. The buildup was there, and the idea of accepting apologies via giving them was fun, but the story just didn’t resolve as strongly as it started.

Rating: 7.5 anonymous stars out of 10

“Masquerade at Well Country Camp” by Ann Pino does what flash fiction should ultimately always do: tell a complete story. Which is a tough thing to do when words are limited and each one needs to count immensely. Pino sets a scene that somehow, somehow, reminded me of a distilled concentration camp on the verge of dying out. Plus, there’s clowns. And strong, likable characters. As well as a unique bit of slang. The plot is not action-heavy, but rather emotionally draining. We watch these people attend this party, knowing what pain they suffer, not knowing why though, and all throughout we’re forced to wonder. I like that, vague as it is, and yet there is a fist full of closure at the end, which helps to wrap up a very solid issue of Flash Fiction Online.

Rating: 8.5 anonymous stars out of 10

Looking forward to the next one…

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Abyss & Apex: Issue 25, 1st Quarter 2008

The first issue of 2008 for Abyss & Apex is enjoyable. There’s a range of stories here, most of them fairly long. No flash fiction offered this time around. I enjoyed the weird pieces far more than the straightforward stories, but that’s just me.

Lindy finds bliss artificially in “Snatch Me Another” by Mercurio D. Rivera, as well as the ability to clone the shit heck out of anything or anyone thanks to her illegal Snatcher. There are consequences, of course, but they are mostly ignored. Who cares about punishment when everyone can own a copy of Starry Night? Alternate universes and multiple realities quickly play a factor, cutting a hard line between Lindy and her love Kristina as they try to live in a world that is constantly changing. It’s a world where stealing equates living… 

I can’t honestly say I understood a lot of what was happening here–or how these Snatchers came to be–but it’s a somewhat engaging story about just what it takes inside of a person to love another. Even to love another so much as to risk a complete breakdown just for a moment of happiness. Plus, cloning always adds a fun layer to things, especially when one realizes that for anything to be cloned in one world, something else must be stolen away in a second one. 

However, I did have a problem with the third scene, which is basically a “As you know, Bob” exposition dump with Lindy and Kristina chatting it up in bed like two robots built to tell all and to tell it profusely. Other than that, the story has some great moments laced with creepiness and uncertainty, and the ending seemed rather fitting for all that was going on.

Rating: 7 anonymous stars out of 10

“If Tears Were Wishes” by Ruth Nestvold has an excellent set-up. Brooke is in a public bathroom, gagged, and locked inside a stall that is being guarded defiantly by two men. They’re after her tears, tears she’d freely give to anyone that asked, tears that equaled wishes. But this was the first time they were going to be beaten out of her. The only thing keeping her sane is the hope that these cruel men haven’t captured her twin sister yet…

I loved how magical this piece was, not just in tone or premise. Nestvold’s lyrical and emotional prose is perfect for this tale of wishes, wants, and wonders. For such a short piece, it packs quite a punch. The story eventually switches off of Brooke and to her sister Crystal, who now must figure out exactly what happened in that bathroom. If only they could use their own tears for their own wishes, but it doesn’t work like that. The choices she makes and the actions she takes really move the plot along, and the ending is both fitting yet perfectly done. Stories that come full-circle are the best kind, and “If Tears Were Wishes” is a fine example of how to do one.

Rating: 8.5 anonymous stars out of 10

I gotta be honest; despite it probably having a clear premise, “Healer” by Phil Margolies confused me. I think it has something to do with healing. Duh, chimes the audience. It also has to do with a man’s destiny, the powers he contains within, and…children. Perhaps? Really, I read it twice and still don’t know what to say about it. I guess this one can be marked up as something that doesn’t work for me and my reading preferences.

Rating: 4 anonymous stars out of 10

Despite being told not to take the left path in “At Blue Crane Falls” by Brian Dolton, Yi Qin does and ends up at the titular place. It is whispered to be haunted. The conjuror in service of the Emperor quickly discovers she is unwelcome at Blue Crane Falls, and who she meets will reveal a truth she never expected.

Huh, this just wasn’t very interesting. The prose came across as mediocre, not well edited. Kind of clunky in spots, as well as too formal in others (I’m thinking about the dialogue here). There were a lot of ands where a simple deletion of said word and an insertion of a comma would make things read smoother. The premise felt like something I’ve read before; that, or it just feels far too common in these cultural stories that are dipped so far into honeyed lore that they are dripping with mortal gods, false sacrifices, and dramatic actions. Meh. Not for me at all.

Rating: 4.5 anonymous stars out of 10

Well, if you’re not offended by the narrator’s remarks in the beginning of “Quartet, With Mermaids” by Alan Smale then you’ll be in for a real treat of a story. It is about, if you haven’t already guessed it, a mermaid…by the name of Molly. She’s discovered off the coast of Norway.

This is a multilayered piece that is surprisingly fun. I’m not one for mermaids or unicorns or stories about how awesome cats are, but this one had a certain tick to it that made it more appreciative. It also helped that the language and tone of “Quartet, With Mermaids” is so raw and unfriendly. This is no lovey-dovey tale of a man who meets a mermaid and is soon showered in a rain of happiness. No, no. It takes a cue from reality, because really, in this day and age, if someone discovered a mermaid, you know that fish-with-arms would totally be thrown in a zoo to dance and perform for the public. And this is that story, told from a handful of perspectives, all wonderfully written and unique, offering new insights into a crumbling myth. Very impressive, and definitely one of the best stories of the issue.

Rating: 8.5 anonymous stars out of 10

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Still here, despite the silence

Been reading, as a reader is wont to do.

Coming up, a review of the latest issue for Abyss & Apex.

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Lone Star Stories: Issue No. 25, February 1, 2008

The 25th issue of Lone Star Stories is quite good, featuring stories about mechanical spirits, dissapointing legends, and cruel rituals. One of them didn’t quite do it for me, but the other two are must-reads.

Cars don’t kill people; people kill cars. “The Disemboweler” by Ekaterina Sedia takes this notion, tosses in some wispy spirits that thrive in everything electronic, and steers a man named Glenn on a path of self-reflection after the evisceration of his favorite ride. Also, he plans to catch the Bad Guy, the sicko doing these nasty deeds. Yes, yes he will. For no one gets away with murdering a microwave!

“The Disemboweler” is surreal fiction, often skirting the fine line of reality and fantasy, which makes this reader extremely happy. The explanation of why the Disemboweler disembowels is quite interesting, certainly a surprise I wasn’t ready for, and the use of language here is beautifully evocative. A world is presented, familiar and not, filled with appliances rife with spirits and emotions and life. And underneath all the darkness, a layer of wry humor, black as shadows but still there, smiling at the notion of a vacuum bodyguard. This one is a definite read for the current issue.

Rating: 9 anonymous stars out of 10

In “The Frozen One” by Tim Pratt, a student is visited by a being that, at initial appearance, resembles said student exactly. Right down to the wild hair and pimple on the forehead. This alien has come to share a message with the student, a parable if you will, a tale of “monsters and heroes and swords and shit.” It speaks of the legend of a warrior frozen in a block of ice unfolds, saying that when the magical city, dubbed The City (I’m noticing a naming pattern here in Pratt’s work; see my review for “The River Boy”), is attacked the ice would melt and release to them the Chosen One who could save them all. Only when the time comes for saving, the ice refuses to melt.

It’s a story within a story. The point, I think, is to downplay Chosen One theories and if so, it works just fine. It’s all about acting and not waiting for fate to take charge. I liked the tale well enough, but still couldn’t put to rest the fact that nothing really happens in it. The outer story is only really there to frame the second one. And instead of throwing us head-first into the plot, Pratt drops us with a cliffhanger.

Rating: 6 anonymous stars out of 10

Jokla is being punished in “The Oracle Opens One Eye” by Patricia Russo. Once she’s done being whipped, the priests take her out of the village and deposit her beaten body in a cave. Five years later, the woman lives a new life, working for the oracle of the cave, seeing to questions and donations from the devoted that come bearing sacrifices. Only she hates the oracle, hates the villagers that no longer meet her gaze, hates that she suffers punishment for a reason unknown to her. But she continues on, knowing that after seven years she’ll be able to return to her village. Yet, as the end draws nearer, the oracle grows ill…

Well-writen, “The Oracle” is a work of servitude. Jokla eventually begins to understand her role as the oracle’s go-to-girl, and it might’ve looked a bit predictable to believe that she was next in line when sickness fell upon the cave’s mistress, but that turned out to not be the case. An excellent piece that builds on expectations. It felt like a sword-and-sorcery tale, but never really blossomed into one. Jokla’s struggle is both internal and external, and there are heartbreaking moments where I wished that once, just once, after seven years of mindless torture, the gods would look down and smile upon her. But they don’t. And that’s a story worth reading about.

Rating: 8 anonymous stars out of 10

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Hub, #43

The 43rd issue of Hub, published the week of January 26, 2008, showcases action and flair with “Coffee Break” by Ian Whates. The story opens with one man’s desire, a yearning I’m positively sure everyone has felt at least once in their life (even if they are too young to want it or understand those decaffeinated pangs of lust):

All he wanted was a cup of coffee.

He being Bud Walker, that is. And nothing can stop him from getting his fix, nothing at al–oh, wait. An explosion? Yeah, that might work. Despite the story’s beginning mirroring eerily that of the film version for Children of Men, “Coffee Break” quickly rushes into alien terroritory. I mean that. The switch is a little jarring, especially considering that for half the piece we are focused on the mundanity of a hot drink only to spend the other half battling an off-planet race of terrorists. Still, it’s fun times, with Bud showing off his skills while never forgetting that every single bullet being shot at him was just another reason why he wasn’t able to enjoy that which brought him the greatest of great joys. If the story had been, say, any longer, this might’ve grown tiresome. Because the constant battle between what Bud wants and what is stopping him from it is really all that the story is about. The aliens are helon-like, which gives to mind a fun image, but otherwise everything else looked generic. Not generic bad, but nothing too showy.

But a quibble, still: the ending felt a little weak (not a coffee joke) though, or maybe just a bit predictable. I mean, conflict-resolution here is so obvious. The first sentence alone tells you what is wanted, and sure enough it is gotten, but it could have been a little more powerful. Regardless, “Coffee Break” is a fun piece of fiction, and won’t really take anyone too long to read so why not put on a pot, sit down at your pooter, and give it a chance.

And on a more random note, I wondered to myself how many times the word coffee appeared in this story. Surely it had to outnumber the mighty the, right? Huh. Consider me weird, I guess. Or maybe I myself just need my daily fix…

Rating: 8 anonymous stars out of 10

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ChiZine, #35

I’ve read a bunch of issues of ChiZine before and have always found the e-zine to be well-done. This is the first I’ve written of them though, so somewhere in here is an unseen comparison to previous issues which you readers out there have no clue as to how I felt about them. Oh well. Get on and get out. On to the stories… 

“Dust and Bibles” by Michael Colangelo takes place in a different Nevada than we know today. The story opens wonderfully, hitting all the senses just right and sticking me out in the desert where vultures circled above and the sun smiled down with pleasure. Okay, if anything, the story opens strongly. A man is driving away with a severed head in the passenger seat, as well as an evelope of cash. He’s also being followed, but he soon meets a man who lives his days by selling Bibles to all kinds of folks. Good, bad, upstanding citizens, murderers. But that doesn’t make him a saint.

Mmm, this is good. Really good. Things truly pick up once betrayal rears its ugly muzzle. The story has style, it has a voice, and it has a whole lot of hilariously disturbing dialogue referencing lady parts. The plot, in actuality, is fairly basic, but the characters and descriptions keep things moving. I particularly liked the Bible salesman’s outcome, in that it was not dragged out or overtly dramatic. Just what it was. A great start to the issue. For some reason, I pictured this as a piece that the Cohen brothers–you know, Fargo and No Country for Old Men–would love to film. It has all the right makings: iconic characters, violence, and plots for lots of money. I’ll keep my fingers crossed…

Rating: 8.5 anonymous stars out of 10

Lavie Tidhar’s “The Mystery of the Missing Puskat” was a bit harder to get. In it, a man named Densley who was raised on the American lore that film noir/pulpy detective work is above and beyond one’s call of duty takes on a case. He must find a little girl’s cat, her puskat if you will.

As is common with Tidhar’s work, the story’s language and tone is evocative, atmospheric, and–I hate to say this–somewhat unreadable at times. Sporadic clues are sprinkled throughout as Densley traverses into familiar and unfamiliar terrority, remembering bits of childhood nostalgia all while continuing to focus on the task at hand. I did appreciate Densley’s innocence, his doe-eyed wonder at detecting:

There is the butt of a cigarette lying on the ground. Densley is excited again; the case is going well.

It’s moment like these that make him a likeable character, make the story worth reading. Unfortunately, the ending is not worth the buildup. Sure, conflict is resolved and all that, but it’s fairly basic stuff, never anything that jumps out of the shadows to grab you, beat your head in, and release you back into the world. Man takes on case for lost cat, man searches for cat, man finds cat, man grow up on the inside. It’s been done before, albeit with different characters and places, but it just wasn’t rewarding enough for me to love.

Rating: 6.5 anonymous stars out of 10

A. C. Wise’s “Matthew” opens with a question, and a damned good one at that:

“Do you remember being dead?”

Rana asks this of Matthew as they sit talking over a cup of coffee. See, it’s a smart thing to ask, especially considering she’d been at his funeral only just the other day. The story can sort of be summed up with the notion that you really don’t miss something until it’s gone. In Rana’s case, she never really loved Matthew until he came back from the great beyond. But he’s not the only dead to return, as soon many more come knocking at doors citywide. And, surprisingly, it is not the dead that want answers, but the living. Rana included.

This is a subtle piece of dark fiction. It deals with human connectediness in a way more chilling than, say, a monster romp where a bunch of people band together to survive the unknown. Some dead come back to live, others don’t. This brings living people to their knees, wondering who deserves what and why. Many questions, not so many answers. I found the relationship Rana and Matthew grew into to be both chilling and fascinating, never a solid thing but never one so empty of love and emotion that it felt forced.

Rating: 9 anonymous stars out of 10

Poetry’s not really my thing, but for those that like it I doubt they’d not enjoy the pieces offered within from Leah Bobet, John Grey, Joanne Merriam, and Samuel Minier.

However, I’m very much looking forward to the next issue…

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Things To Come

I’m looking around for more online sites that offer free fiction. Speculative fiction, that is. Not too keen on stories about old people eating oatmeal and thinking back on the good ol’ days. Coming up, I’ll be reading the latest issues from ChiZine, Flash Fiction Online, and Abyss & Apex. I prefer e-zines, but if anyone knows how I can get a hold of .PDFs for print mags…please, e-mail me with that information.

Got a suggestion on what else I should take a look at?

The first person to suggest anything remotely erotic or involving fuzzy wuzzy polar bears gets ten beatings.

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