Friday, November 12, 2010

Healing Scars - Jo Brielyn

Author: Jo Brielyn
Author web:
Date: 2009
Setting: anywhere, in the present day
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: Cassie, and her 10-year-old son Matt, are doing Christmas shopping with money Matt has earned shoveling snow. They don’t have very much to spend on the holiday, and Matt understands this, as much as a child can, but he really would like a brand new bicycle.

To escape from crowds, and the difficult shopping decisions, they go to the park and make snow angels for an hour, simply enjoying each other and having fun. They are startled by a homeless woman who has been watching them, and also enjoying the angels they have made.

We are well into the story before we realize that Matt’s father died in a house fire, and that Matt, himself, is badly scarred. Cassie hates the way that other people look at her son, since she is so grateful that he was spared, when she had first thought that both the boy and his father were dead.

The homeless woman, Rose, notices Mattie’s scars, but after a quick double-take just treats Matt normally. Matt loves Rose’s dog, and seems completely oblivious to the woman’s ragged clothes and layers of grime.

Rose encourages Cassie to tell her about the fire.

Commentary: This story offers counterpoint and harmony on the various types of scars that people can carry. Mattie’s are physical, but Cassie and Rose have their own kinds of emotional scars to deal with.

Cassie looks normal, but is struggling with her immense losses at the young age of 25. Rose is philosophical about her lack of family, friends or material possessions, but she is shunned by most of society. Mattie is the most outwardly scarred, but seems least damaged in his soul.

The story is told mostly in the present tense.

Author info: Jo Brielyn is a free-lance writer, mother, and host of the Creative Kids Ideas blog and blog talk radio show. She is an Air Force veteran, and holds a degree in Workforce Education and Development from Southern Illinois University. She loves writing for children, and creating educational and creative opportunities for them. Learn more about Jo at She is currently writing a fiction story for middle-age children

Language skills 7
Depth of meaning 7


Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Outstation - W. Somerset Maugham

Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Date: 1924
Setting: Borneo, in the 1920's
Availability: Read The Outstation on line, free

(note: there are numerous typos), or order a Maugham anthology below

Story: A British gentleman, Mr. Warburton, is in charge of an Outstation in the colony of Borneo. We learn that he is there because he tried to live a life rubbing elbows with the peerage in Britain, which was a little above his station. In so doing, he gambled a lot, and lost all his money. The standard solution to that problem, at that time, was to go to a distant colony.

In Borneo, Mr. Warburton has managed to create a nice little slice of the world, very much to his liking. He gets along well with the natives, and although he is revealed to be a snob in many ways, he does not feel that way toward the Malays at all.

The story opens as his new assistant, a young Australian, Alan Cooper, arrives by boat. Mr. Warburton has misgivings before Cooper even arrives. He has been the only white man in the area for years, and he’s quite content with that situation. But he greets Cooper politely, recognizing that travel is a dirty business, shows him to his bungalow, and invites him to come to the main house for dinner.

Mr. Warburton dresses for dinner, as is his custom, in full British formal style. Cooper shows up in his dirty, casual clothes. The clash between these two men’s attitudes toward civilized life begins, and goes downhill from that point. Cooper does not respect the natives at all and does not want to listen to Warburton’s recommendations of how to get good work from them. Cooper reads Warburton's newspapers, enraging the Brit, and finally calls Warburton “a snob” to his face, which is just the final straw.

Commentary: This is a realistic tale where there is no clear hero and villain. Each of the men has good qualities and serious failings. Warburton represents everything that is both bad and good about the British Empire of the 19th Century. Although he tends to think that he is better than most other white men, Warburton does not think of other races as inferior. Cooper represents the brash, new attitude toward life where no class of persons is better than another. But he is clearly racist, and treats the Malays as little more than slaves.

The inability of these two men to come to any sort of compromise leads to a self-imposed isolation from each other, at this outstation, where they should be looking for ways to find things they have in common. Once each has thoroughly offended the other, there is no way to extricate themselves from a descending spiral of attitudes and actions that leads to the tragic conclusion.

Author info: W. Somerset Maugham, 1875-1965, was born to an English family who served in the British Embassy of Paris. But his mother died when he was eight, and his father also died just two years later. Maugham was unhappy at school and developed a stutter, which he retained for his entire life.

Although his guardians had many ideas of an appropriate career for him, Maugham desperately wanted to be a writer. He did complete medical school, but soon thereafter, concentrated on writing. By 1914 he was already famous as an author.

Unusual Words:
prahu- a double-hulled sailing boat
topee- a pith helmet
Dyak- natives from the interior of Borneo, sometimes headhunters
songkok- a hat similar to a fez

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10


Friday, October 22, 2010

Unfortunate - Angel Sharum

Author: Angel Sharum
Author web:
Date: present
Setting: some port town
Availability: in the anthology Consequences

Story: Carl tells this story in the first person. He and his girlfriend, Sara, have just visited the fortune teller at the local fair. Sara always thinks it's great fun to have a fortune read, and has pressed Carl into trying it. He leaves the tent feeling very disturbed, having received the foretelling of a disastrous future. Although he doesn't believe in such things, he's clearly worried.

Some time later, when Sara leaves him, he recalls the first part of the prophecy. Events in his life continue to unfold in a way that could be either a fulfillment, or simply coincidental. Carl is concerned that the prophecy is becoming self-fulfilling. He sets about to guard against the final portion of the prediction, which is not revealed to the reader until near the end of the story. Can he succeed in preventing the disaster, or is he doomed?

Commentary:"Unfortunate" explores the mysterious question of why things happen to us. Do we bring them on ourselves, or are we controlled by some external fate, which can be known and foretold by seers? Does the mere power of suggestion force us into paths which inevitably lead to the events?

By telling the story in the first person, Sharum guides the reader on a journey through Carl's thought processes, as he considers these possibilities for his own situation.

Author info: Angel Sharum lives in Alabama, and writes non-fiction articles, fiction and poetry. After beginning with non-fiction, she quickly discovered that fiction is her true passion, and she likes to employ her "vivid and sometimes twisted imagination." She feels a special connection with her readers when she succeeds in making them think.

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

Language skills 5
Depth of meaning 5


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Liberty Hall - Ring Lardner

Author: Ring Lardner
Date: 1924
Setting: New York and environs in the 1920s
Availability: in various collections, see link below

Story: Ben Drake is a well-known writer of scores for musical comedies. He is a man who knows what he likes in terms of comfort, but he has trouble standing up to people who have differing ideas. When at home he can have “a decent light for reading in bed,... coffee, any time... “, etc. However, as celebrities, he and his wife are always being invited to people’s homes. Ben can tolerate dinner and bridge, but hates to stay overnight.

In fact, he is often so annoyed at the small impositions of staying at someone else’s home that he has devised a series of fake telegrams to be sent to him. His secretary wires one, 24 hours after he leaves for any visit, which contains some emergency message having to do with the current show. Ben can choose whether to ignore the telegram, or use it as an excuse to leave post-haste. After several stays at less-than-satisfactory homes, he decides to go on no more extended visits.

Then Ben and his wife make the acquaintance of the Thayers. Much to their surprise, they like this couple quite a lot, and accept an invitation to spend a week at their home, just after the opening of a play. The promise is that the Drakes can use their guest room, named “Liberty Hall,” and won’t be bothered by anyone at all. They decide to go.

Immediately, Mrs. Thayer begins insisting on having things done in a certain way to please Drake. While sounding like the perfect hostess, she is actually a tyrant. He likes his coffee black. She insists that he will love their fresh cream, and forces it on him. She takes away his favorite brand of cigarette, and insists that he will enjoy their more expensive brand better. This basic scene continues through a long litany of kindnesses. Mr. Thayer takes Drake on a tour of the shrubbery, believing that he will enjoy his walks more if he understands the botany. Finally, when Ben wants to use the piano to reinforce a tune he just thought up, Mrs. Thayer refuses to let him, because she says he’s trying to be polite and play for them. The examples go on and on. Drake just wants to be left alone, but seems powerless to exert his will beyond a vague mention of discomfort at the beginning of each incident.

Even his emergency extraction ploy fails him when the indomitable Mrs. Thayer intercepts the telegram. How can he escape from Liberty Hall?

Commentary:The story is told by Drake's wife in a conversational tone, with run-on sentences, and little asides. We are drawn in, as if we are being let in on a great, personal bit of humorous family gossip.

The story is funny on many levels. We’ve all suffered from too much “kindness” by those who think they know what we want, better than we do. Irony is at play in both the title “Liberty Hall” (yet they find no liberty there), and when we learn that Ben is a member of the “Lamb’s Club.” The sheer repetition of the various ways in which Mrs. Thayer manages to torment Ben will almost bring on the giggles.

On a deeper level, "Liberty Hall" explores class structure, and tyranny. Although the Drakes are famous and the Thayers are just admirers, the Thayers hold the upper hand because Ben seems unable to assert himself enough to insist on simple things which give him great pleasure. He’d rather run away and hide than act in a way which might be construed as impolite.

Written in the 1920s, the story is probably also poking fun at the concept of it being a man’s world, and yet women control men in so many ways.

Memorable quotes: "I really believe he would prefer to spend a week in the death house in Sing Sing than in somebody else’s house."

Author info: Ring Lardner 1885 – 1933, was an American sportswriter and author of satirical short stories. His favorite themes were sports, marriage and the theatre. Lardner grew up in Michigan, the youngest of nine children. His unusual name was a shortened form of Ringgold, bestowed on him by a father who admired the distinguished Rear Admiral Cadwalader Ringgold. He was a master of using vernacular language to create the ambiance for a story, and is credited with influencing such writers as Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tragically, he died at age 48 of tuberculosis.

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Love & Loss - Lindsay Maddox

Author: Lindsay Maddox
Author web:
Date: 2009
Setting: anywhere, in the present day
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: This tale follows the parallel stories of a college girl named Sara and another young woman named Lauren. Both have just found out that they are pregnant, but their reactions to this situation are completely different.

Sara is devastated, but Lauren and her husband have been trying hard to have a baby for years. They have previously lost three babies through miscarriage. This new pregnancy is a another chance, yet they are wary of becoming too hopeful of the outcome. The story line alternates between the lives of the two women, and eventually they become intertwined.

Commentary: The emotions of the two women are the key element of the action. Anyone who has ever wanted a baby will identify with this story. Themes are maternal love, and making good choices. I don't believe there are any secondary meanings in Love & Loss. It's a straightforward read, with a bit of a twist on situations that are all too common in our society where some women want a child desperately, while others prefer a career path.

Author info: Lindsay Maddox is a graduate of Western Washington University with a degree in Business and Marketing, but her true love is writing. That is, when she can find a scrap of time and energy left over from loving and caring for four small children, which includes a set of twins. She is the author of a popular blog, Silly Mom Thoughts, and is working on a novel for young adults.

Language skills 7
Depth of meaning 7


Friday, July 9, 2010

Flowering Judas - Katherine Anne Porter

Author: Katherine Anne Porter
Date: 1929
Setting: Mexico during the revolution of the 1910's
Availability: in various collections, see link below

Story: Laura is a young woman living in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. She is beautiful but reserved. Some feel that she is haughty, others that she is pure, or cold. Her tasks include running messages for the revolution including taking drugs to political prisoners.

This is not an action story, but rather a journey inside the thoughts of Laura. She is being courted by Braggioni, a leader of the revolution, yet he has a wife whom he treats rudely. Braggioni comes to her house to sing to her each evening. His singing, appearance, and actions repulse Laura, but she is afraid to antagonize him. Through her thoughts we learn of her dedication for the revolution, and of the many men who would like to ravish her. A young man comes and sings at her window each night, and follows her through the streets. Her reputation, however, is that she always says “no,” and maintains her virginity.

We learn that she teaches English to children, and outwardly supports the revolution. However, she yields to a desire to return to pray in church, secretly hoping that she is not caught. She remains “holy” by returning always to the word “no.” She also rebels against the worker ideal of the revolution by preferring hand-made lace on her collars.

Braggioni warns her of a coming conflict between the revolution and the church and makes her load his pistol for use on that fateful day.

She tells him of young Eugenio who has chosen to overdose on the drugs she has delivered and to die in prison. Braggioni replies that Eugenio is of no consequence, and that he is a fool. But Laura is apparently secretly in love with Eugenio.

This is a complex and confusing story of external and internal conflict. Much has been written about what “Flowering Judas” means. It is often used as an outstanding example of symbolism. Yet, it’s not always clear just what the message is meant to be.

Certainly there is the conflict of the political purity of the revolution with the rigidity of the Church. Yet the Church stands for personal purity which the leaders of the revolution seem to completely lack. Laura feels the pull of all these forces within her, and tries to ignore committing herself by remaining aloof, and a virgin from genuine involvement. Then, she is confronted in a dream, at the conclusion, with her own evil. Will she embrace the holiness of Christ (the Eucharist) or accept the body and blood of Judas?

Author info:Katherine Anne Porter, 1890-1980, was an American author known for her short stories, and one best-selling novel, Ship of Fools. She was the fourth of five children, and her mother died giving birth to the fifth. Their father took the children to live with his mother, Catherine Ann Porter, and the child later adapted the grandmother’s name as her own. Porter did live in Mexico, and was involved briefly in the Mexican leftist movement in the 1920's. She reputedly wrote “Flowering Judas” in one evening, after visualizing the ending. She was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for her Collected Short Stories.

Unusual Words:
corridos- ballads

Memorable quotes:
"One woman is really as good as another for me, in the dark. I prefer them all." (Braggioni)

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Write a Short Story Yourself

I'm off hiking for most of the month of June, so it will be a few weeks till I write another review. Have you noticed that some of these stories are from a book called Elements of the Soul? This book is an anthology of short stories which won a contest at Accentuate Writers Services. There are monthly contests based on themes. I will have stories in two upcoming volumes, Elements of Love, and Expressions of Pain. Anyone can enter!

Why not try it? The link to the full rules is at the bottom of this post. Meanwhile... learn more about the book by watching this trailer.

Additionally, there is an Accentuate Forum, where writers support each other, and receive tips on opportunities. Joining is free!

Contest Rules and Themes: Accentuate Author Services
Accentuate Writer's Forum

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Last Caress - Steven Thor Gunnin

Author: Steven Thor Gunnin
Date: 2010
Setting: The present, some U.S. city
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story:A woman named Mary is holed up in an apartment building after some major catastrophe has occurred. She and her neighbor, Frank, are attempting to keep the threat from getting to them. A younger man, Mike, stops by. Although Mary can hardly tolerate Mike, she tries to be civil, since he is also one of the survivors.

Mary's husband, Jack, seems to be missing. But where is he?

I have to confess that I'm really ignorant of this genre, and did not ever realize that this was a tale about zombies. Therefore, I suspect that any comments I might make are meaningless. The story was creepy; in that it was definitely successful. If you are a zombie fan, this is sure to please.

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). Last Caress is Gunnin's first published story.

Language skills 5
Depth of meaning 4


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Impulse - Conrad Aiken

Author: Conrad Aiken
Date: 1950
Setting: Boston, 1950
Availability: in various collections, see link below

Story: A young man, Michael Lowes, is perhaps a bit too convinced of his own importance. He doesn't like it that his wife expects him to work hard, pay the bills, and pay attention to her. As is his custom he ignores his wife and goes for an evening of fun with his friends. During their game of cards they discuss why people should bother to control their impulses to do certain things. If you like a pretty girl, why not kiss her? If you want something, why not just take it? After their evening of fun, with a bit too much alcohol in his system, Michael decides to put their theory to the test. He slips a nice shaving kit off the counter of a drugstore into his pocket. His inexperience at thievery quickly lands him at the police station.

He tells them its all a joke, a simple experiment. All they have to do is call his friends or his wife, and they will vouch for him. Will they?

This story has a message for all of us. We've all thought that we work too hard for too little. We've all felt that our families were just too demanding. We've all wondered why we can't just have the things we want. Although we usually realize that to follow our impulses to work less, or take whatever we believe we deserve, will lead to destruction, this story points out how close to the moral edge we may each be.

Author info:Conrad Aiken, 1889-1973, was an American author, perhaps better known for his poetry. The received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1930. From 1950-52 he was the Poetry Consultant of the Library of Congress. His parents were wealthy and prominent New Englanders, but when Conrad was 11 his father shot his mother and then committed suicide. The boy found their bodies. His works were highly influenced by this incident, and were often psychological in nature.

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 9


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Fire - Jennifer Walker

Author: Jennifer Walker
Date: 2010
Setting: The present, near Nevada City, CA
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: A young woman, Heather, has agreed to care for some of a friend's horses. Her friend, Sharon, is attending a horse show, with part of her stable. It is an oppressively hot and dry summer. When Heather and another friend, Christine, head toward the ranch to do the chores they realize that there is a fire burning in the general direction of the ranch. The closer they get, the more they realize that the fire is really close, and the horses will have to be evacuated.

With information from the local radio station, Heather learns that animals are being taken to the fairgrounds, but it is 10 miles from the ranch, there are four horses to move, and Sharon has the horse trailer with her. She knows that somehow she must lead the animals to safety. Christine tries to find a trailer to come pick up the Heather and the animals, while Heather tries to beat the fire as it comes over the ridge toward the road.

Commentary:Walker knows horses, and this is not a wild ride to safety such as you might see in a B movie. There is real tension as Heather tries to get the group of horses to cooperate and be led together. She is forced to ride one of them bareback, which becomes very uncomfortable for both her and the old horse, Bella. Heather has a real love for Bella, as she learned to ride on her, when they both were younger. Will they beat the fire?

This is a straightforward story of suspense with "man" against nature. There are sub-themes of friendship, loyalty, and honoring of promises.

Author info: Jennifer Walker (see has been published in Modern Arabian Horse, Arabian Horse Times, and Sierra Style. Her first novel for young adults, Bubba Goes National, was published in January 2010. You can read a review of Bubba Goes National at Shared Reviews.

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 7


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Barn Burning - William Faulkner

Author: William Faulkner
Date: 1939
Setting: The south, just after the Civil War
Availability: Read Barn Burning on line, free

by Carl Van Vechten, public domain LoC

Story: The 10-year-old Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty) is called to testify before a local Justice as to whether his father had actually burned down their employer's barn. He is saved from testifying by the accuser's realization that a boy should not be asked to testify against his father. There is not enough evidence to convict his father, but once again, they are forced to move.

The boy is both an observer of, and integral part of this poor family. His father and mother, an aunt, stolid older brother, and lazy, bovine twin sisters are loaded into the wagon with all of their belongings. In four days time they have settled into another dilapidated house, working the ground for a rich landlord. The boy's father, perhaps on purpose, tracks horse manure across the owner's French carpet, and the carpet is brought to their poor home to be cleaned. In their ignorance, the carpet is ruined, and the father's resentment of those who have more once again boils to the surface.

Sarty knows he must choose his path for life. He is bound inexplicably by blood to be loyal to this family, yet there is a spark within him that knows right from wrong. He feels powerless to follow that urging.

Faulkner has a way of putting you both inside the head of the main character and maintaining narrative distance at the same time. In this story the perspective is the boy's, but the distance is created by occasionally telling the reader what the boy would think about this situation later, as an adult. And yet, he does not telegraph which decision the boy is going to make until the end of the story.

Short Story Masterpieces (Laurel Edition)Author info: William Faulkner was born and raised in Mississippi, and wrote provocative and emotional stories of life there. Many of his works were set in mythical Yoknapatawpha County (largely based on Lafayette County), and Colonel John Sartoris (for whom Sarty is named) was one of its founding fathers. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1949, and two Pulitzers.

Unusual Words:
quiring- like a choir, a chorus of voices
hame and logger-head- parts of a collar and harness for draft animals

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jasper - Lucinda Gunnin

Author: Lucinda Gunnin
Author web:
Date: 2010
Setting: an un-named city (possibly Detroit) in the present day
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: A young woman, Carrie, lives alone except for Jasper, a retired police dog. The dog was given to her by her Uncle Chuck, retired from the sheriff's department. Chuck has encouraged Carrie to always be alert to things which happen around her. He has also advised her to never date a cop.

Early one morning she sees a man unloading bags of trash into the dumpster at her apartment complex. Jasper seems unusually agitated at this activity, and the man himself seems suspicious, wearing gloves and a cap on a stifling hot day. Unfortunately, when Jasper barks, the man also sees Carrie. She decides to go take a look after the man leaves, and discovers body parts. Of course, she is dating a young policeman, and she calls him first, instead of calling 911 which leads to her being treated with suspicion.

Commentary:This story is completely believable. Gunnin's portrayal of the dog rings true. I've known several well-trained German Shepherds, and Jasper's actions throughout the story are consistent with everything I know. For anyone who lives in a city, this story is a nightmare come true.

This is not only satisfying, but is refreshing in that the story does not force the idea of the completely independent female who needs no help, or a man who has to be in charge. The dog's participation makes sense; it's not a Rin-Tin-Tin fantasy.

Author info: Lucinda Gunnin (see has been published in several magazines under her maiden name of Lucinda Morgan, and writes for the Heartland Women Newspaper, but Jasper is her first published fiction. She also won the Fall 2008 Writers Weekly 24-hour short story contest.

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 6


Thursday, April 8, 2010

To Build a Fire- Jack London

Author: Jack London
Date: 1908 (earlier version for youth published 1902)
Setting: The Yukon in the late 1800s
Availability: Read To Build a Fire on line, free

Story: A lone man and a dog are traveling on foot through the Yukon winter to reach another camp. The story takes place all on one day. He stops for lunch and builds a fire to warm himself as he eats. As he continues on he must avoid stepping through soft spots on the Yukon Trail under which springs still bubble with running water. The man is not as knowledgeable as he should be about the effects of sub-zero weather. He attempts to be careful, but his inexperience becomes a problem. The dog, although a companion, has been tamed by force not kindness, and sees the man only as a source of food and warmth, not as someone to whom he would be faithful.

This is a classic tale of the brutality of the northland, and man's attempt to conquer that environment.

I chose to review this well-known story first, because it is one of my all-time favorites. While most people probably interact with this story as though it were a foreign environment, one to which they have trouble relating, this story really grabbed me. As a person who was always more at home outdoors, easily building fires, and scoffing at the elements, "To Build a Fire" jolted me to my core when I first read it in 9th grade. Here was a grown man, dressed appropriately for the weather, being somewhat careful, and yet making fateful mistakes. Perhaps I wasn't quite as invincible as I thought I was, and I vowed to become an even better outdoorswoman.

London was an acknowledged master at tales of the far north, and his understanding of dogs. His best known novels are Call of the Wild and White Fang. He brought home to readers, seated near their warm fires, compelling tales of prospectors and hunters from the Yukon. With an economy of words he painted pictures of landscapes, weather, and the place of humans and animals within that framework. Many authors become forever linked to certain settings which are foreign to their readers. For the Yukon, those authors are surely Jack London, and Robert Service (poet).

Unusual Words:
chechaquo- a tenderfoot- one who had not yet spent a winter in the Yukon
niggerhead- a tussock of grass that becomes more humped up each year until it becomes like a small island which shows above the snow

Spoiler: click more to read commentary that may spoil your enjoyment of reading the story.

Welcome to My Newest Example of Overcommitment

I've wanted to start a blog of short story reviews for a long time. Receiving a copy of the Twin Trinity Media short story anthology, Elements of the Soul, is what has pushed me over the edge into actually doing it.

The material reviewed will be a mix of classic short stories and newer ones that fewer people have ever heard of. I haven't decided absolutely on a format for the reviews, so we'll see how that evolves.

Stay tuned for more developments, and an actual review.