"Over There" by Gary Warren Niebuhr, Hardluck Stories, Fall 2004
I think that bears repeating: Damn!
If this story doesn't hit one of the "Best Of" anthologies next year, I'll eat my hat. And it's a big, dirty hat. Just look at my picture, and you'll know what I mean.
I'm having a hard time coming up with words for this one.
The characters are so well drawn with so little (apparent) effort that I felt like I knew them. Mr. Niebuhr spends only a few sentences with Old Mrs. Jobim, but those sentences make her a living, breathing human being. And the relationship between Mrs. Jobim and her son, I could feel that as fully as I could have had I been standing there with them.
I especially liked the scenes sitting in the porch swing. I grew up in country like that, where every conversation, no matter how important, started off with the feeling that there really was no hurry. Made me feel nostalgic.
I also liked the way Mr. Niebuhr brought the personal life of the detective into the story. This could have been any detective with any personal life, or none at all. But the way his life connected with the Jobims' elevated the story one more step.
Anything else I say will be gilding the lily. If you haven't already read this story, click on the link above. You'll thank me for it.
"Inside Job" by Connie Willis, Azimov's Science Fiction, January 2005
This is a crime story. I've been surprised by the number of crime stories I've seen masquerading under the science fiction banner. It may be that they have always been there, but I just never noticed.
In any case, this story, a novella, actually, tends more toward fantasy than science fiction. I've noticed that Azimov's does tend to publish a couple of soft fantasy stories every month, while Analog sticks to hard science fiction.
Back to the point at hand. The story is about a psychic debunker, Rob, who runs a magazine called The Jaundiced Eye with the help of his beautiful assistant, Kildy. Kildy sics him on this psychic who is bilking people out of millions by claiming to be channeling an ancient sage called Isus.
Of course the psychic is a fake as far as Isus is concerned, but turns out to be involuntarily channeling H.L. Mencken, one of the most vigorous and vocal psychic debunkers of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Needless to say, this makes for some interesting performances.
The problem is how does Mr. Mencken convince a psychic debunker who thinks all channelers are fakes that he is real? This conundrum constitutes the crux of the story and kept me well entertained. A stickier question is how does Mencken convince Rob he is real without proving to the public at large that this particular channeler, unlike all the others, is not a fake?
Rob, the living debunker, is well drawn and absolutely consistent with his beliefs, even when he is convinced that Kildy is in league with the channeler. He knows he is falling in love with her. He wants to believe that she wouldn't do something like that. But all the hard evidence points to her betrayal of him. I kept rooting for Rob to accept her on faith, but that would be WRONG.
Kildy is a very smart lady. Does she manage to convince him and live happily ever after? Does Mencken make his point? Ms. Willis keeps the suspense high and resolves it skillfully.
Read the story. It's a blast! And particularly apropos given the recent resurgence of the Intelligent Design irrationality and the seeming increase in the numbers of "Boobus Americanus." (No, that does not refer to a body part.) But that's a rant for another venue.
"Inside Job" is a great story well told.
"Rope-A-Dope" by Paul A. Toth, Plots With Guns, Nov/Dec, 2004
OK, copper, put away the rubber hose. I'll confess.
I didn't get it.
I read the story from start to finish. When I got to the end, my first reaction was: "Huh?" My second reaction was: "Is that all?" My third reaction was: "So what?"
So, I thought about it for a while and read it a second time. I still didn't get it. There was one phrase that really caught my attention: "the whizbang bebop of ultracolor chaos spinning her wheels." It doesn't make any sense, but I liked it anyway. Unfortunately that was the high point. The story read well enough - except for the DIALECT. But I just didn't get it.
So, I went to bed. I got up this morning and read it again. Again, I didn't get it. Maybe there's something hidden in the DIALECT that I missed, because I skipped over it. In case you hadn't guessed, dialect is one of my Pet Peeves. In addition the motivations for the main character's deeds weren't clear to me, or at least didn't seem sufficient for the actions taken.
Maybe I'm just having one of my dense periods. My wife tells me I have those occasionally, well, more than occasionally. But I didn't get it.
Edwin the Confessor
"Edwin the Confessor" by Brian Richmond, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb, 2005
I've always been of the opinion that the first sentence of a story should be short and snappy with a hook to drag you in. I don't think Mr. Richmond is of the same opinion. If you tried to read the first sentence of this story aloud, you'd be gasping for breath before you got to the period. The one thing it does do is provide the hook - at the end of a VERY long line.
The story starts off being told in a third person voice that sounds remarkably like the main character telling his own story. When I try that I get hit with nasty comments like "authorial intrusion," so when I see the same thing in print it tends to annoy me. For crying out loud, just use first person and get it over with! Maybe that's just me. But after the first four paragraphs Mr. Richmond converts into a more conventional third person voice that's a lot easier to live with.
Aside from the beginning, the story is well written. The two main characters, Edwin Cunningham and the cop, McGrath are well drawn. McGrath is truly annoying. And that's a good thing.
The only thing about Cunningham that bothered me was when he suddenly asked for a lawyer after having spent 90% of the story trying to convince the police that he had killed his wife. Seemed a little jarring.
I did like the ending, though. A nice little payoff on the setup of what Cunningham had been telling the cops was his reason for killing his wife.
Overall a good story that could have been better.
Just a short note of thanks for all the nice things that have been said about what I'm doing here both in private emails and on the blogs of other important and talented bloggers. The hit rate is better than I could have hoped for and that makes me want to keep this up.
Feel free to comment and tell me what I'm doing right. If you have to, go ahead and tell me what you think I'm doing wrong. I can't promise I'll change the way I do things (it is MY blog, after all), but I do promise to read every comment and email.
Again, thanks to everyone here.
Edward at the Edge
"Edward at the Edge" by John Morgan Wilson, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January, 2005
I had hopes for this story. From a technical standpoint, the English language technical standpoint, I had nothing to criticize. The story was quite easy to read with no rhetorical speed bumps to throw me out of the author's world. Unfortunately I can't say the same for other issues.
In the early part of the story while talking about a gun, a nine-millimeter Ruger, lent to another character, the main character makes the following statement: "It's a nine-millimeter. Nice gun, blue plate, doesn't weigh much. Bought it on impulse from a catalog last year." My God, where do I start? Mr. Wilson has obviously never physically handled such a weapon in his life. Ruger makes more than one kind of nine-mil but you won't find one that weighs less than about 2-1/2 pounds. It's "blue steel" or "blued steel" not blue plate, and you can't buy such a weapon through a catalog these days. This pretty much ruined the author's credibility for me.
And it just got worse. The whole case, a rather vigorous murder, rested on forensic trace evidence supposedly left less than an hour ago that was actually deposited during an athletic sexual encounter a month before the murder. I don't know a lot about forensic science, but I've gotta think that if a CSI crew is good enough to detect trace evidence after the passage of a month and multiple cleanings, they'd have to be a little suspicious about finding no evidence that the accused had recently entered or left the house, not to mention the lack of gunshot residue on the accused's hands and clothes.
I have been told, on occasion, that I am a picker of technical nits, that the things I notice would not be noticed or cared about by 99% of the general public. I'm an engineer. Deal with it! I have to say, though, that in this case the nit was the size of an elephant.
You're a skillful writer, Mr. Morgan. Next time, please do your research.
"Rough Draft" by Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Jan/Feb, 2005
This story is a must-read for writers in spite this sentence: "Whirling flakes of confusion compacted into a hard snowball in the pit of his stomach."
It follows a man who, ten years previously, had published his first novel, which then won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards. He goes from a nobody to the pinnacle of his field with one book. This man, Mitchell Coren, never published another word. He traded the uncertainty of fame and fortune for the security and stability of a technical writer's job. He became a happy drone. He thought. Then somebody threw a monkey wrench into the works.
That man was an employee of a firm that explores "alternate universes for breakthroughs or useful discrepancies that Alternitech can profitably exploit." He comes back from one of his trips with a copy of the sequel to the award-winning book written by Coren's alternate universe doppleganger and wants to publish it.
What would you do if someone presented you with a book "you" had written that you had never seen before? That's Mitchell Coren's dilemma. Anderson and Moesta use Coren to explore doubt and fear as well as the risks, rewards and responsibilities of being a writer.
Go out and buy the magazine even if you don't read any other story in it. Then carefully cut the story out of the magazine and pin the pages to the wall above your monitor for easy reference during those dark hours we all experience.
"Cold Fire" by Cathy Myers, Hardluck Stories, Fall, 2004
Unlike most of the stories that I've reviewed so far, this one had no speed-bumps, nothing that threw me back into the real world. Smoothly written . . . I was going to say easy to read, but somehow that doesn't seem right. Easy in the sense that the prose flowed, but not easy emotionally.
This is a story that turned all of my expectations around. It wasn't until the ninth paragraph that I suspected Maxy was a woman. It wasn't until the twelfth paragraph that I knew she was a woman. The whole story was like that, the author leading you on, letting you make your conventional assumptions, then turning them around.
This is an emotional story, not of emotions expressed, but of emotions repressed. They are there, hidden beneath the surface, roiling and conflicting, but you don't realize it until the end. Then you get hit between the eyes with a 2x4.
This is a story that's going to stay with me a while.
"Marley's Ghost" by John C. Boland, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb, 2005
A nicely nasty tale of betrayal and revenge. The story, with its roots in events that occurred just after the fall of the Berlin wall, follows a retired spook and a couple of the people he knew when he was stationed as a "cultural attache" in Moscow.
The story is well written and reads smoothly although I have a couple of kvetches. In the fifth paragraph of the story Mr. Boland writes the following: "Oleg squeezed the cup onto its saucer with a rattle." Huh? Come on, I know from experience that sometimes the urge to transcend the mundane is irresistible, but please! What's wrong with "Oleg SET the cup onto its saucer with a rattle"? Clear, concise, and doesn't make the reader roll his eyes and lose his place.
The story transitions from present to past and back again several times. The first of those transitions is handled well, a gentle segue into Gorbachev's Moscow. The next transition from the past back to the present is a five-paragraph irrelevancy that could have been done away with entirely without harming the story one bit. There is another transition later in the story from the present back to the past that is annoyingly abrupt. I will admit, though that this could have been a printer's error, omitting the *** between paragraphs. Another of those occurred near the end of the story.
I enjoyed the story and was surprised by the ending. It is just subtle enough that you might want to pay particular attention to the last sentence to get the full impact.
I like subtle. Why is it that every time I try subtlety in one of my stories my editor slaps me upside the head and says, "This isn't clear enough." Oh, well. Maybe someday.
Nicely done, Mr. Boland.