Friday, April 01, 2005

These Crowded Woods by Skye K. Moody

“These Crowded Woods” by Skye K. Moody, Wild Crimes edited by Dana Stabenow, Signet, Mass Market Paperback, $6.99

This story takes place in a large section of pristine woods inhabited by eight hermits. And a goat. The goat, Rosie, belongs to Winter Beacon, the oldest of the hermits and the longest in residence. Rosie, an ill-tempered beast on her best days, stopped giving milk when the woods became so crowded with hermits, putting a severe crimp in Winter’s breakfast cuisine.

The hermits begin dying one by one. The first to die, Wren, the nature photographer who wants to buy the entire woods, is found by the second to die, Marco, the telecommuting software engineer. The depredations continue in that manner: the person who finds the bodies is the next to die. There is no obvious sign of how the people are killed, but there is a mark left on the forehead of each victim along with signs that some superficial body part or other had been gnawed off.

The murders continue with each victim-to-be seeking out the help of one of the other hermits with varying degrees of success until only one hermit and the murderer are left.

The story is engaging and light without being what I would call humorous. The ending, however, didn’t live up to the rest. Ms. Moody is an accomplished writer and characterizes each of the hermits well, something not easily done for eight characters within a short story. She also keeps the mostly expository beginning of the story moving through a breezy, gossipy style and hints of what is to come, “getting ahead of the tale” as she puts it. But the ending just doesn’t work for me.

In short, enjoyable but ultimately disappointing.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Last Kiss by S. J. Rozan

“The Last Kiss” by S. J. Rozan, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

This is a story about a “Black Widow.” The difference being that in this case she’s doing the world a favor by targeting only lawyers. Unfortunately she doesn’t kill them she just ruins them. She lures them into making love to her, then talks them into making bad investment decisions for her. Later when she has enough ammunition she files charges against them with the Bar Association and the police. She’s looking for one particular type of attorney. One that will do what she really wants done.

Ms. Rozan tells the story from the viewpoint of the Black Widow’s latest victim. She draws him into her web just as she has done with at least four others, though he doesn’t know about them until after she springs her trap on him. She has finally found the right lawyer. He does what she has been waiting for. But the payoff isn’t what he expects.

This story is a textbook example of setup and payoff. In this case the setup is “a kidskin portfolio with a tiny silver lock” that she gives Our Hero at their first meeting. The payoff, revealed at the end of the story, is the contents of that portfolio. The contents show that the Black Widow is a demon for planning.

I’m not sure why I liked this story. I didn’t like it a lot. The language was a little too literary for my taste and seemed awkward in places, but nonetheless, Ms. Rozan has raised this story above the average.

In short, I liked it enough even though I’m not sure why.

The Last Kiss by S. J. Rozan

“The Last Kiss” by S. J. Rozan, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

This is a story about a “Black Widow.” The difference being that in this case she’s doing the world a favor by targeting only lawyers. Unfortunately she doesn’t kill them she just ruins them. She lures them into making love to her, then talks them into making bad investment decisions for her. Later when she has enough ammunition she files charges against them with the Bar Association and the police. She’s looking for one particular type of attorney. One that will do what she really wants done.

Ms. Rozan tells the story from the viewpoint of the Black Widow’s latest victim. She draws him into her web just as she has done with at least four others, though he doesn’t know about them until after she springs her trap on him. She has finally found the right lawyer. He does what she has been waiting for. But the payoff isn’t what he expects.

This story is a textbook example of setup and payoff. In this case the setup is “a kidskin portfolio with a tiny silver lock” that she gives Our Hero at their first meeting. The payoff, revealed at the end of the story, is the contents of that portfolio. The contents show that the Black Widow is a demon for planning.

I’m not sure why I liked this story. I didn’t like it a lot. The language was a little too literary for my taste and seemed awkward in places, but nonetheless, Ms. Rozan has raised this story above the average.

In short, I liked it enough even though I’m not sure why.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Third Party by Jay McInerney

“Third Party” by Jay McInerney, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

Alex presents himself as a tragic figure. He likes the image. He even moved to Paris because he thought the ambiance better supported the tragic look. He even tells the maitre’d at the place he goes for dinner that he is expecting someone to join him so he will get a more central table and thus be the object of curiosity and perhaps pity of all the other diners as he eats alone at a table for four.

But this time he is joined by Tasha and Frederic, people he’s never seen before that act as if they know him. He plays along to see where it goes.

Where it goes is an intense night of partying though the Paris clubs. Tasha can’t seem to decide whether she wants to make out with Alex or stick with Frederic, doing tongue massages on both. Finally things come to a head, so to speak, with Tasha and Alex in the back seat of Frederic’s car – while Frederic is driving. What happens next could have hurt an awful lot.

I guess I could give Mr. McInerney one star for a mildly interesting character study of a putz, a poseur with no apparent redeeming value to society. Unfortunately the guy is so unlikable, I can’t even bring myself to do that. Main characters, no matter how unlikable, should have at least one decent characteristic to give the audience something to hang on to, like loyalty or the fact that he likes animals. As near as I can tell, Alex has no positive qualities.

The plot of the story seems to be, will Alex get laid or get hurt? I didn’t care much one way or the other. Tasha apparently likes the taste of blood, though there are no supernatural aspects to this story. Other than Alex’s tragic posing and the bullshit philosophy in the last sentence, there’s not a lot to this story. Which, after rereading the sentence before this one, means there’s not a lot to this story.

In short, don’t bother reading this one.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Soft Spot by Ian Rankin

“Soft Spot” by Ian Rankin, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95

Dennis, the main character of this story, is a prison guard in HMP Edinburgh who has worked his way up the ladder to the position of prison censor. All the letters prisoners write, and all they receive, pass through his office. He reads each and every one, cutting out offending words and passages with a razor blade, devouring the pictures sent by wives and girlfriends before passing them on.

But Dennis isn’t content with just reading the letters. He copies the ones that interest him, the ones dealing with relationships, and adds them to his private files at home. You see, Dennis has a thing about relationships; has had since his wife left him ten years ago. Dennis is often tempted to involve himself in those relationships by offering advice, but so far has resisted the temptation.

One particular relationship interests Dennis particularly. Paul Blaine was a big time gangster on the outside. On the inside he is de facto leader of the inmate population. Blaine has a beautiful, much younger wife, Selina. From his letters Blaine seems very much in love with her. She also seems to be hopelessly in love with him, writing steamy and graphic letters. But Dennis thinks she is shamming. He believes that she is a gold-digger looking to take off with Blaine’s money.

This time he can’t stop himself from becoming personally involved. The whole situation is just too juicy. He starts following her on the weekends. He sees her hobnobbing with Fred, one of Blaine’s lieutenants. They seem quite chummy. In one of her letters, Selina had told Blaine that Fred was on an extended trip up north. Then one day a for-sale sign appears in front of her house.

That is the confirming act. Her letters have said nothing about selling the house. Dennis is sure she is going away. He doesn’t want her to go away. He wants her to continue to write and visit her husband. After all, as long as she is around, Dennis might have some chance of becoming involved with her personally.

Dennis decides that he has to tell Blaine what is really going on. The results are surprising.

Mr. Rankin does an excellent job in building up Dennis’s character. Dennis is a passive voyeur who, through a gradual progression, becomes so obsessed with his subject matter that he has to take action. Mr. Rankin also does a fine job in setting up the final scenes. When you read the ending you can think back and see exactly where the setups were: words, phrases and situations that you paid no attention to when you read the story, but without which the story would have been unbelievable.

In short, an excellent story with an unexpected twist.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Earthcore by Scott Sigler

Earthcore - A Podcast Novel by Scott Sigler, MP3 File, Free

Before I get into this, I've just got to wonder why a post saying I wasn't going to post for a couple of days got as many, or more, comments as a lot of my reviews? What's up with that?

"A Podcast Novel", that's not a short story, you say. Why am I reviewing this? Three reasons:

A) Because it is being issued in twenty installments, so each installment can be considered short fiction (though I don't intend to review each installment). This first installment could easily stand alone as a short story.
B) Because it is another instance of good audio on the web. My regular readers know what that means to me. (If you're not a regular reader, why aren't you?)
C) Because I want to. So there!

Earthcore by Scott Sigler appears to be a technothriller in the "Journey to the Center of the Earth" vein. Earthcore was originally issued as an ebook back in 2000 and was scheduled to be issued in paperback by iPublish until the imprint was shut down just before publication date.

Apparently Mr. Sigler got fed up with trying to flog his book through the regular channels and decided to do something a little different to attract attention. He has recorded the entire book and is releasing the audio files on a weekly basis for twenty weeks. You gotta admire the guy's pluck.

The first episode, the book's prologue, was released last week. About 24-minutes long, it tells the adventures of three geology graduate students in 1942 exploring a cave that one of the students, Samuel, believes is important to his research. The upper reaches of the cave showed signs of Neolithic occupation, but Samuel is more interested in the deeper reaches. He can tell that the cave leads deeper, much deeper into the mountain, but the access is blocked by an ancient rock fall. The strongest of the trio, Wilford Igo, the viewpoint character, is trying to clear a passage big enough for them to squeeze through by shoving one particular boulder out of the way. The trouble is that the boulder is heavy, and moving it in the wrong way could bring the entire rock fall down on them.

Once Wilford exhausts himself moving the boulder, Samuel and Douglas squeeze through the opening to explore deeper. They try to goad Wilford into going with them, but he is too tired. All he wants to do is rest, so they continue without him. Not long afterward, Wilford hears screaming. Douglas makes it back to the boulder where Wilford is, and things go downhill (so to speak) from there.

Mr. Sigler does a good job building suspense with this episode. As I said above, this prologue could stand alone as a horror story. I especially liked Wilford's very personal struggle with the boulder, though that portion could have profited by some judicious editing. It felt a bit overlong. The production values are good with some nice intro and outtro music by
The Transfer. Mr. Sigler, in addition to writing the book, performs as well and does a good job of it. This first episode is 11.4 MB in size, so if you have a dial-up connection, prepare to be patient.

In short, I liked it enough to subscribe to the RSS feed so I don't miss any episodes.