Friday, May 4, 2012

The Promised Shore - Vic Rubenfeld


Author: Vic Rubenfeld
Date: 2011
Setting: uncertain- perhaps early 20th century- see commentary
Availability: Buy The Promised Shore on Smashwords


Story: A young man, Nolan, and his friends, find a mirror resting on the ice in the middle of a frozen lake. Nolan and Halstead walk over the ice to retrieve the mirror, and each sees a glimpse of some hidden portion of their soul. Taking the mirror back to the group, Malcomb also is shown something beyond his mere reflection. Isabel and Adrian choose to look at each other’s reflection and see such things as young lovers might find in the depths of their beloved’s heart.

But the mirror clouds, and this one brief vision is all that is revealed. Nolan, however, is not content to let the search for meaning end.

Commentary: This short story really needs to be read a couple of times to understand what’s going on, and there is room for more than one interpretation. Is the mirror magical, or was the timing simply right for the young people to briefly see past their shallow existence?

Nolan could be symbolic of the few people who strive throughout life to find meaning.

The story is written in long, complex sentences, with antiquated language. This adds somewhat to the sense of mysticism, but does make it difficult to read. You need to get your mind into the grove of the style for it to flow. Once you do this, however, it works well for the introspective nature of the tale. There is a sense that this happened in a past age. The language and the characters’ names suggest this.

However, later in the story a photograph is introduced, which is jarring. Suddenly, we are forced to accept that this is a relatively modern setting. The clothing in the photograph rather exactly dates the story, and then the characters’ names no longer made sense for that era. Personally, I had a hard time with the photograph. Before that, the story could have been in almost any time or place, or even any world– perhaps it was fantasy. After that, I began to struggle with the mechanics, and forgot to follow the thread of meaning.

One nice touch is that early on, Nolan sees himself in a regular mirror and barely recognizes the person. This sets up the reader for the value of what the mirror from the ice reveals.

Author info: Vik Rubenfeld Created the hit CBS TV Series, EARLY EDITION, which starred Kyle Chandler as a man who received tomorrow's news today. Vik is also a Director of Market Research. He is married and lives in Los Angeles. Vic Rubenfeld's web page


Rating:
Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 6

 



Monday, March 26, 2012

Afterward - Edith Wharton


Author: Edith Wharton
Date: 1910
Setting: early 1900s
Availability: Read Afterward on line, free


Story: A young American couple buys a fixer-upper home in the English Countryside. They are looking for an old place with character where they can create their own mark. They also really want a house with a ghost. The house they buy is somewhat lacking in this regard. It may have a ghost, but supposedly people never know the ghost is there until much later.

Mary and Edward (Ned) Boyne fix up the place comfortably, and have no financial worries due to Ned's business successes in the States. Their relationship is loving, and everything is nearly perfect in their lives. One afternoon, they take a hike and are high on a hill near their home when they spot a man walking up their driveway. Ned, thinking he recognizes him as one of the workmen he wants to talk to, rushes down to catch him, but it's too far. The man has disappeared before Ned gets there.

Meanwhile some business news seems to be disturbing Ned, but he won't tell Mary what it's all about. She can only wonder at the lines in his brow and distracted air. Then one day, a letter arrives, and Ned is suddenly relieved, telling Mary that something he was very concerned about has now worked itself out, and all is well again.

But is it?

Commentary: "Afterward" is a psychological ghost story of the Victorian era. One should not begin reading this expecting some modern horror tale. Probably the most familiar ghost story of this time period is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This sort of tale was very popular at the time, and in fact, Wharton published an entire book of them, Tales of Men and Ghosts. They are meant to give you a shiver and things to think about, not leave you shaking in your seat, afraid to answer the door.

The suspense builds as Mary (and sometimes a third-party narrator) tells the story of what happened leading up to the crisis with Ned, when she realizes that the ghost has indeed been there, but she did not know it until long afterwards, just as predicted.

Mary's typical role, for that time period, as a woman who knows little of her husband's business, contributes to the suspense. It is ironic that the ghost they finally were able to find was not in the house all along, but was attached to them, personally. There is also more than a suggestion of the philosophy that the thing we want most will sometimes bring us great sadness, if we obtain it.

Author info: Edith Newbold Jones, 1862- 1937 wrote her first novel at the age of eleven, but her mother thought this was an unacceptable profession for a lady, and trained her to act properly in high society. The Joneses were so well off it has been suggested that the maxim "keeping up with the Joneses" was based on this family. When Edith decided to write for a living anyway, her society friends refused to acknowledge what she did. This insider knowledge of high society served as material for her many books and stories with ironic criticism of that time period.

In 1885 she married Edward Wharton, whose mental health deteriorated until she divorced him.

In 1920, she wrote The Age of Innocence and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, the first woman to be so honored.


Unusual Words:
coign- a high sloping hill (in this context)

Rating:
Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 7

 



Thursday, February 16, 2012

Shotgun Wedding - Steven Thor Gunnin


Author: Steven Thor Gunnin
Date: any time
Setting: a small-town chapel in Hobb's End
Availability: in the anthology Consequences

Story: Jake, wielding a shotgun, is determined that the preacher is going to make his wedding to Peggy legal. Not everyone agrees that this is a good idea.

Commentary: "Shotgun Wedding" is a very short story, and yet it manages to get in several good twists and a play on words. If I say much about it at all, I'll be giving too much away. The coarse speech pattern of Jake is totally believable. On the other hand, there are some repetitious or awkward phrases that detract from the readability, and one break in point of view.

On the whole, the story works well, and provides the reader with an interesting take on the title phrase.

Author info: Steven Thor Gunnin is a graphic designer who writes in his spare time, and is a big fan of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead). He has had other stories published in Elements of the Soul

Consequences is available as a paperback, or in ebook format.


Rating:
Language skills 5
Depth of meaning 5



Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Kidnapped Santa Claus - L. Frank Baum


Author: L. Frank Baum
Date: 1904
Setting: Laughing Valley, where Santa Claus lives
Availability: Read A Kidnapped Santa Claus on line, free


Story: Santa Claus, along with ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, lives in Laughing Valley, but in the mountains beside the valley are caves where five demons reside. Their caves are connected in a linear fashion. First is Selfishness, then Envy, Hatred, and finally Malice. However, from each of those caves is a narrow passage leading to the cave of the Demon of Repentance. There is no way out of the mountain tunnels except by his cave where there is a little door into the sunshine, which he will open if you come his way.

The demons did not like Santa because he made children happy, and then they did not come to visit the demons’ caves. So on Christmas Eve, the demons capture Santa and take him into the mountains. They try to tempt him to be selfish or envious, and they are sure that the children will receive no toys for Christmas. However, their plot doesn’t work out quite the way they intended

Commentary: Although this is a children’s Christmas story, there is plenty in it to make an adult think. The obvious point of interest is the concept that Repentance is a Demon. Santa has a conversation with this one, where Repentance points out that he is not needed unless one has first made friends with one of his evil friends.

There is an underlying question that is never addressed as to whether toys brought on Christmas can really make a person happy. The story begins with some philosophy, “To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content.” It seems to me that this contradicts the whole premise of making children happy with gifts, since material things will never bring contentment. The internal message of the story seems confused to me.

Another concept presented is that there will always be evil in the world, but we can make choices about what to do about it. This theme is much more consistently developed.

This story isn’t on the current list of best-loved Christmas classics, probably partly for the dark theme. Although, one could point out the “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” is similar and has become standard holiday fare. Although the author is well-known and respected for his children’s stories, I think this one leaves something to be desired. It has been called one of his “most beautiful stories” by a biographer, but I don’t really see that.

Nevertheless, I would be willing to read it with older children and ask them to talk about it.

Author info: Lyman Frank Baum, 1856-1919, was born in Chittenango, New York, and early in life developed a love of writing and the theatre. In fact, his love for theatre kept him poor throughout his life as he continued to write, back, and produce plays that couldn’t succeed financially. He is best known for his children’s fantasy, especially the Oz series, of which he wrote 16. Many of his plays were destroyed in a fire. Not many children's stories remain classics for over 100 years, but Baum’s Wizard of Oz has stood the test of time.


Unusual Words:
knooks and ryls- magical good characters invented by Baum in the book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, they are carried over in to this story.

Rating:
Language skills 6
Depth of meaning 6

 



Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Digital Rights - Brent Knowles


Author: Brent Knowles
Date: 2011
Setting: A space station colony, 2180
Availability: Buy Digital Rights at Smashwords


Story: Humans have colonized space so long that there is a real disconnect between those who live in space and those on Earth. There are even third-generation colonists who have never been to earth. People have android Assistants who carry out many tasks, and the androids are programmed by pulling information from people's actual brains. This technique has been used so long it is standard procedure, but there is always the possibility for abuse.

One of the supervisors, Rutgers, may have been taking personal information from people. Isabel (Izzy), an engineer, suspects this, but thinks it's both none of her business and fairly harmless. She thinks he is just creating a virtual game as a diversion. She has enough problems of her own, as she keeps receiving messages from a "ghost," a section of one of her past Assistants that should have been long dead. She eventually has to confront both Rutgers and the ghost.

Commentary: Digital Rights is science fiction, and won first place in the L Ron Hubbard "Writers of the Future" contest in Q3 2009, for fantasy and science fiction. This award has been running since 1983. That should tell you something about the quality of the story before you ever begin.

I don't mind science fiction, but I'm not a huge fan, unless the writing is really good. Digital Rights kept me interested. I was hooked right away, and I didn't stop reading until I finished, despite its being fairly long for a short story at 12K words. There are a number of really good things about the story.

In the first place, Knowles plunges you right into the scene. There is no setup, and you have to figure out where they are and how society has changed by the descriptions of what is being done and how it's being accomplished. And he gives you the information to do this, so you feel that you are right there. Eventually he gives out the fact that it's the year 2180.

The mix of familiar technology with speculative processes and machines is well done. As any culture evolves some things change completely, while other archaic forms and items persist. All of the invented machines and techniques seem plausible while e-mail and wearing green on St. Patrick's Day are still around.

This may be personal preference, but I like a sci-fi story to have some twist that makes me think about the nature of reality, or what makes us human, or what sort of "creatures" might actually populate the universe. I'm not very interested in stories that are just space wars, or romances, or B-westerns in airtight suits. Digital Rights does a good job of making me think.

Digital Rights is the best sci-fi story I've read in a while. You can take that at whatever value you want since I don't read lots, but I do read some.

Author info: Brent Knowles is a writer, programmer, and game designer. He has been living in Edmonton, Alberta for the last ten years, and is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s computer science program. He worked at the role-playing game studio BioWare for ten years (Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age), during most of which he was a Lead Designer/Creative Director. Now he writes full time. He has been published in a variety of magazines including Neo-Opsis, On Spec, and Tales of the Talisman. See Brent Knowles blog


Rating:
Language skills 7
Depth of meaning 7

 



Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Night the Ghost Got In - James Thurber


Author: James Thurber
Date: 1933
Setting: 1915- the author's childhood home
Availability: Read The Night the Ghost Got In on line, free


Story: Told in the first person, a boy hears someone walking around the dining room table. He is upstairs, just getting out of the bath. Realizing that no one should be downstairs, he wakes his brother, who refuses to go down with him to check it out. The boys accidentally wake their mother, who of course, assumes that the walker is a burglar, not a ghost.

What ensues is a hilarious comedy of errors. But "none of us ever heard the ghost again."

Commentary: Thurber is one of my all time favorite authors. Most of his short stories are humorous, and they range from tongue-in-cheek to tales that will make you laugh out loud. "The Night the Ghost Got In" is very short, but it succeeds in its goal of being funny.

The point of this story is, of course, not whether there really was a ghost, but the crazy reactions that occurred as a result of hearing sounds that could not be accounted for. In fact, Thurber tells us in the second sentence exactly what is going to happen. He says "Its advent caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door, and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrolman." The beauty of the story is that, even though he's just told you the entire plot, you have to keep reading to find out how a ghost could have caused those bizarre events.

The stories Thurber tells of his childhood are at least partially fictionalized, but this story is based on definite facts. Thurber did hear this "ghost" walking around the table in the dining room, the year he was a junior in college (1912). He researched the house, and discovered that other owners had also heard the same sounds (choosing to move rather than live with it), and that there had been a man, 45 years previous, who had paced around the table in nervous frustration before running up the stairs to shoot himself.

If anyone wants to write humor, they would do well to study James Thurber's writing. He is a master of timing and of tweaking a story so as to make it funny rather than just exposition.

His stories are self-illustrated. Thurber's cartoon style is sketchy but unique, and anyone who is familiar with it will instantly recognize a Thurber cartoon.

Author info: James Thurber, 1894-1861, grew up in Columbus, Ohio. His father was often out of work, and his mother was a great practical joker. It is believed that many of his story ideas came from observing his parents. Playing William Tell with his brothers, as a child, James lost one eye. This forced him into more mental pursuits, rather than sports, and he turned to writing as a creative outlet. His collections of short stories are still well-read. Thurber is one of the classic American humorists.


Rating:
Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 7

 



Monday, September 19, 2011

Summer Heat - M. Lori Motley


Author: M. Lori Motley
Author web: M. Lori Motley
Date: 2009
Setting: anywhere, in the present day
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul
 :

Story: Wayne lives a life of squalor and of supporting himself by aiding with crimes. Although he is probably not bright enough to be the mastermind, he helps his friend, Frank, strip cars for hot parts. He bums money off his sister, Debbie, who keeps a filthy dog kennel. Debbie doesn't have many scruples about who buys her puppies.

Nothing disrupts this system until the night Frank brings in a Cadillac Escalade that belongs to a local bad boy known as Mad Dog, who is clearly higher up the food chain than either Frank or Wayne. Wayne is fearful and insists that Frank get rid of the car without demolishing it.

Although Frank is apparently successful, Wayne is sure that Mad Dog Hatcher knows they are connected with the temporary disappearance of the vehicle.

Commentary: "Summer Heat" successfully places us squarely in the middle of a hot summer in one of the backwaters of life. When she describes the crisp, dust-covered leaves around the junkyard, we can picture the scene. The people, their speech and actions fit smoothly into this setting.

The story explores the themes of guilt and personal responsibility. Although Wayne manages to stay one step removed from actually participating in the most serious crimes or bad decisions, he's right there in the center of the story. Is his attempt to escape it all effective? Is it even a valid means of escape?

Although I thought the ending was a little weak, "Summer Heat" certainly would lend itself to a discussion of appropriate behavior with teens. A lot of young people on the edges of making bad choices would probably identify with these characters.


Author info: M. Lori Motley's most prolific writing genres are sword & sorcery, contemporary and urban fantasy, horror, dark fantasy, comedic fantasy, and paranormal & fantasy romance.



Learn more about Lori at M. Lori Motley.

 

Rating:
Language skills 6
Depth of meaning 6