Before I get started, I want to make a request/invitation. This is my tenth stories review and the comments have been disappointingly meager. I urge everyone out there, readers and especially the authors, to comment on my comments.
Ordinarily it is a good idea for an author to decline comment on reviews, especially negative ones from critics. But I'm not a critic, I'm a reviewer. The difference? A critic will beat you to death and enjoy it. A reviewer will beat you into a temporary coma and sincerely regret it afterwards.
As N.K. Wagner noted in a recent interview with Duotrope, Page and Spine tries to foster emerging writers. These reviews are a part of that. Every time (at least I hope it's every time) I offer a criticism, I supply or imply a remedy, much like I do in my review of Baptism below.
So please, feel free to offer me feedback. I can use it as much as anyone. Tell me if I hit the mark and my observations were helpful, or if you think I'm full of Shiitake mushrooms. And now, awaaaay we go...
I like the title of Benjamin Thomas's story, We All Fall Down. After reading the story, the title inspires the mental picture of chess pieces falling down, but also people doing likewise.
A fallen chess piece cannot rise by itself, and so very often people also need a hand to rise again. Is Rob offering his help to Carl with the big problem? Is he going to try to convince him, through the metaphor of chess, that he should not give up? Or is he simply going to teach his brother to play better and go out "on top?"
My college creative writing teacher would have dubbed this a vignette rather than a real story. But I like it anyway.
Although it seems there will be a second game, both Carl and the chess game were the first inspiration for the title to this month's review.
I was not impressed with Enduring the Waking World by Brenda Gornick. The writing itself was fine, but I found the story to be unoriginal. It combines a very old theme—a child living in the fantasy world of books—with a dreary stereotypical lower-class family life of fighting and uncaring parents. There was one good touch—sort of a subjective bonus. How many assumed that the broken glass was from a bottle of booze?
Please Feed Me, Mon Cherie by Sarah Etgen-Baker was ...interesting. I hated this story! It made me feel stupid and I seldom need any help with that.
Who or what is the narrator? It/she/he wants to be fed. Fed what? More clothes? Attention? Or is this a little closet of horrors, where visitors disappear without a trace? No, I don't really think that, but the repeated mandate to "Feed me" did remind me of The Little Shop of Horrors.
The first time through I thought perhaps the narrator was her reflection on a mirror on the inside of the closet door. Or perhaps just her imagination speaking to herself. But then Mlle Amelie addresses the narrator as "monsieur" after twice calling him(?) "mon ami." And then the narrator gives us, "Plus the metallic embellishments tell me that you’re unique, and I’ll be the talk of the town for sure!” So, the narrator will be seen by the town?
The issue is further confused when the genteel commentary and use of French honorifics is suddenly discarded for modern American street lingo: “I know this is gonna sound harsh, but it’s just an old dress, right? Keep the memories, not the clothes.”
I'm so confused.
Sarah, please comment and tell me who or what is speaking to us. Perhaps the editors will give you a spot in The Reading Lamp for you to explain it in detail to everyone...unless I'm the only one who didn't get it. Or perhaps it's a ladies' thing?
But it seems to me that the mademoiselle is the only real person in this story, and at the end she is clearly done (at least temporarily) with the entity that has been speaking to itself for our benefit.
Drinking Rooms by Kevin Richard White is the one story that does not support the review title. You can't win 'em all.
I've almost been there. In college we had a group that would hit the bars regularly, and we'd have fun. We'd drink and sing and tell stories, but we were never the expansive boisterous and loud group that White portrays. And I was the only wannabe writer in the group, so I guess I wasn't really there. Not exactly. But I can certainly relate to the mood of this band of brothers.
There are sixteen paragraphs in this work, and six of them start with "We drank." I got the theme. Then the conclusion deflects the attention from the drinking to the author's narration and the dreams, but his memories—nostalgic memories—are about the drinking. And the love. If he doesn't mention it, we probably won't realize it. But he loved those times and that band of brothers he drank with. That is why the nostalgia.
Like We All Fall Down, this is not technically a story. There is no plot, no problem to solve, no character development, not even a specific setting. It is a scrap of memoir; as such, it works.
As I was writing this I was reminded of the lyrics from the 1968 Mary Hopkins recording, "Those Were the Days," and so I looked up all the lyrics. I have to wonder if this fictional(?) journey into nostalgia was inspired by that song. This whole piece could be viewed as a prosaic interpretation of those lyrics. That's not a criticism. But those of you that have never heard that song, you should check out the lyrics, and the tune. Then a quick look-up on Wikipedia will reveal the interesting history of that recording.
Possessed of a Fierce Violence by Alexis A. Hunter is a story about a lady with some serious issues. But not so much as the men she encounters.
This is a story that really pushed the title of this review to the forefront. She is one, and they are done.
It says in the brief biographical note that Ms Hunter likes writing dark fiction. This is an excellent example. It is dark in all its details.
This is a well-written story. I do have one quibble. The second encounter is only barely believable. She breaks his hand by slamming her thighs together? Maybe, if she catches the hand just right between the medial condyles of the femur (the knobby bones on the insides of the knees). But then she is able to dislocate or break his fingers without him doing anything? Doesn't he have another hand? I'm sorry; I'm totally against a man committing violence on a woman, but in a situation of self-defense, I would think a man would punch her in the head.
On the other hand, the last episode is done very well. I can just see the tip of the ball point pen stabbing into his throat, leaving tell-tale marks of blue ink next to the wounds, and the same for the wounds on his hands. What young man would expect such an attack from an old woman?
The Baptism by M.J. Cleghorn doesn't really support the review title, but it doesn't necessarily contradict it either.
Big Ed is one and Oscar is one, and at the end one of them is finished, as is a tradition of fifty years.
There is little to criticize here, but I did find two little things, one with the writing and one with the story. The writing first: "The fleet had not returned and the fishermen’s wives began to gather at Zenia's— big Ed’s wife— house."
This is really awkward wording. It would be much smoother to use two sentences for this information. One possibility: "...the fishermen's wives began to gather at Zenia's house. Zenia was Big Ed's wife and her house was the preferred gathering place at times like this."
As far as the story is concerned, Big Ed has been living and experiencing weather there for over forty years. It seems barely credible that the wind and slippery conditions would surprise him. Falling and breaking his leg is an important story part, but the surprise factor is not only unnecessary, it subtracts from the genuineness of the story.
The broken leg shows the stoic stubbornness of Big Ed and, by connection, the entire village population. His devotion to his friend, Oscar, is that important, and no one even considers trying to dissuade him from taking the baby to the baptism where Oscar, at least in spirit, can still fulfill his role as godfather.
A Misfortune of Obtuse Defiance by Soren James is a story of Forrest Gump with bad luck instead of good.
As Forrest said, "Being a idiot is no box of chocolates." That's from the book. And Forrest wasn't a runner, either. He was a big hulking man—more like Lenny in "Of Mice and Men." Despite that, much of the movie was true to the book in tone and attitude if not in detail.
This story represents what might have happened to Forrest under less fortunate circumstances. The people that possess average or above average intelligence can get along pretty well in society. They tend to gravitate to their level of competence and do all right. Those having acutely sub-normal intelligence are usually provided for by the state. Little is expected of them, professional educators and administrators do their best to find places for them where they can fit in and be productive.
But that in-between group, like Forrest Gump, like the narrator here, they tend to be expected to do more and better than they actually can, and then inspire criticism and anger from others because those other "normal" people can't or won't understand that the person simply does not understand.
The author has done an excellent job with the first person narration here. It allows us to see and sympathize with the thoughts and feelings of the nameless storyteller. That's a nice touch too. There are opportunities in the story for him to reveal his name, but he doesn't do that. This poor slow unfortunate doesn't really need a name. What would he do with one? So for the reader he is simply this stupid man of indeterminate age that is prone to accidents because of his failure to understand.
That previous paragraph was written before I examined, for the third time, that last sentence. Then, my perception changed.
This is a perfect example of how a single comma can alter the meaning of a sentence...and perhaps an entire story. That last sentence reads: "So stupid people give me money to go away."
Now, consider if it was written like this: "So stupid, people give me money to go away."
The second option actually fits the rest of the story. He continues to bemoan his stupidity. But that's not what the author wrote! He wrote it with no comma, meaning clearly that the people that give him money to go away are stupid. Suddenly he regards others as stupid, which undermines the sincerity of his self-evaluation.
Were the deaths of his brother and father really accidents? Or is this story more like the testimony in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart?" Is the witness self-deluded, or is he trying to deceive us?
Or perhaps the lack of a comma at a critical place means nothing at all, and it means what it means to each reader, depending on their own perceptions.
So, with the exception of Drinking Rooms, all these October stories feature a person (or entity) that is very much alone, at least for a while, and an air of finality.
Maybe that thought is a little spooky...perfect for the month of Halloween.
Writer Jenny Harp is a New Zealander grandmother who lives in the United States with her husband and loves God, life and family.