Short Stories Challenge

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Short Stories Challenge 2017 – Erase Me: Positron, Episode Three – Margaret Atwood (stand-alone)

Published March 23, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s Erase Me all about?:

In the latest edge-of-your-seat episode of “Positron,” the Byliner Serial by renowned author Margaret Atwood, the dystopian dark comedy takes its darkest turn yet, pitting husband against wife and the human impulse to love against the animal instinct to survive.

Stan and Charmaine should have known better when they signed up for Consilience, a social experiment in which it’s the lawful who are locked up, while, beyond the gates, criminals wander the wasted streets of America.

The couple understand that to break the rules in so strictly regimented a place is dangerous; but, driven by boredom and lust, they do it anyway and betray each other and the system. As comeuppance, Stan finds himself the sexual plaything of a subversive member of the Consilience security team and in no time is made a pawn in a shadowy scheme to bring Consilience crashing down.

Meanwhile, his wife, Charmaine, is being held indefinitely at Positron Prison for her own sins. How far she’ll go to regain her good name and position is anyone’s guess, especially Stan’s. When he winds up paralyzed and tied to a gurney in the prison wing where Charmaine works, injecting toxic cocktails of drugs into troublesome Consilience citizens, will she save his neck or her own? Will she “erase” him permanently?

In “Erase Me,” it’s every man–and woman–for him or herself. Erotically charged, morally complex, wickedly funny, and hailed as “shockingly believable” by “The Globe and Mail,” Atwood’s “Positron” stories remind us that when a totalitarian state gets its grip on the human heart, marriage can be murder.

What did I think?:

If you’re familiar with my blog and my reading tastes, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. She’s one of the authors where I am desperate to read all of her back catalogue and certainly intend to do so in the not so distant future. She has a talent for writing kooky, dystopian worlds that feel startlingly familiar combined with controversy and her trademark black humour. I was lucky enough to see Margaret speak when she came to the U.K. to promote her book, Hag-Seed, a re-telling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and long-listed for this years Baileys Prize For Women’s Fiction. I’m delighted to tell you that she was just as witty and intelligent as I had hoped for and it was fascinating to hear her speak.

But, I digress! Back to Erase Me. This is the third in Margaret Atwood’s Positron series which were released serially but have now been re-vamped in a novel by the author called The Heart Goes Last. I downloaded them as e-books when they were released one by one so I’m happy to continue reading them this way and then, of course, they count towards my Short Stories Challenge! If you haven’t come across this series before, you may want to check it out – the first is I’m Starved For You and the second, Choke Collar but I’ll try and keep this review as spoiler free as possible.

It follows Stan and Charmaine, husband and wife who sign up for a revolutionary new programme that involves two communities – a town Consilience and a prison Positron. By entering the programme they agree to spend some of their time in prison (with a paid job and relative comfort) and alternately in a home in the community, again with a paid job and guaranteed happiness. However, this programme is not all it seems. In Erase Me, we see husband and wife pitted against each other and their marriage and loyalty to Positron tested in the worst possible way. Neither Stan or Charmaine are able to contact each other and are completely unaware what the other is doing, thinks, etc so have to rely on a rogue element/double agent who are fighting to overturn the system and bring back democracy. Of course, they want the couple to be a part of it. But can Stan and Charmaine be brave enough to risk everything and return to a life that they were unhappy about in the first place? Especially as when they signed up for this experiment they were told unequivocally that there was no going back.

Okay, I have to admit when I first started this series of novellas I really didn’t know what to think! It was brash, funny, erotic in places (oo-er!) and I hadn’t the foggiest what was going on. By the end of Choke Collar however, I was fully invested in the story. The eroticism has been toned down, I must say if that’s not really your bag and I’m kind of relieved as the story seems to focus more on the characters and the system that they are involved in, which of course is what interested me and made me pick up the series in the first place! We don’t really see too much of Stan and Charmaine as a couple for one reason or another but I actually enjoy this more as we get to see their lives, thoughts and aspirations as separate individuals. Once again, Margaret Atwood comes up with a cracker of an ending and I am definitely intrigued now to see what is going to happen in the last part of the series – The Heart Goes Last (don’t be confused, it is the same title as the novel that has come out under her name!).

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

NEXT SHORT STORY: On The Banks Of Table River: (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319) by Rajesh Parameswaran from the collection I Am An Executioner: Love Stories

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – The Adventure Of The Engineer’s Thumb by Arthur Conan Doyle from the collection The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes

Published March 13, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s The Adventure Of The Engineer’s Thumb all about?:

A young man comes to see Dr Watson in his surgery with a bloody cloth wrapped around his missing thumb. However, this was no accident. Why exactly would someone want to remove someone else’s thumb? It is for Holmes and Watson to find out.

What did I think?:

This is one of the very few mysterious cases that Dr Watson happens upon himself and brings to his partner, Sherlock Holmes, he of the incredible deducing capabilities and brilliant nose for figuring out clues. It is when Watson has left Baker Street, is married and has opened his own practice. One morning a young man comes to see him missing a thumb that he swears was taken “by murderous intent,” and has quite the story to tell Holmes and Watson as the good doctor rushes him to Baker Street.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, as usual for anyone who hasn’t read it yet but I’ll give you a quick overview. Our missing thumb man is Victor Hatherley, hydraulic engineer who set up his own business but work has been slow of late until a strange, sinister looking man by the name of Colonel Lysander Stark offers him twice what he has made in the past two years simply to look at a piece of machinery that he owns, fix it up and stay the night. For some strange reason, Victor must visit the property at midnight to see the equipment, must stay overnight as there is no way he could return home at that time of night and must keep everything about this job completely top secret before, during and after the work is completed. This is stressed to be of the utmost importance by the peculiar Colonel Stark.

Of course, in complex cases such as these brought to Watson and Holmes things are never what they seem and it turns out this piece of equipment has a use far beyond what Stark has told the engineer it is used for. When Victor discovers what its true purpose is, he becomes in very real danger of losing his life but manages to escape leaving just his thumb behind.

There are not so many breadcrumbs of clues in this adventure as compared to other Holmes and Watson stories I’ve read in this collection but in no way did this affect the excitement of the plot and brilliance of the writing. Colonel Stark made a wonderful villain of the piece and it all got terribly tense and frightening, especially close to the end. It’s also one of those stories where the criminals may not necessarily get their comeuppance which used to irk me slightly at the beginning of this collection but I don’t mind so much anymore as occasionally it’s quite interesting to end the story in this way with the “baddies still on the loose” so as to speak!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

NEXT SHORT STORY: Erase Me: Positron, Episode Three – Margaret Atwood (stand-alone)

 

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – Double Room by Ramsey Campbell from the collection The New Uncanny: Tales Of Unease edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page

Published March 10, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s Double Room all about?:

Double Room focuses on an older man who after losing his wife begins to hear strange and disturbing things in the hotel room next to him.

What did I think?:

I’ve only come across the author Ramsey Campbell once before and it was another short story, Getting It Wrong from the collection A Book Of Horrors. I did enjoy what I read there and was delighted to discover on opening a brand new short story collection, The New Uncanny, that the first story was penned by him. Like his previous short story, the author has a real knack for making the reader feel supremely uncomfortable word by word, page by page until the very satisfying and ominous finale.

As I mentioned, this is a new short stories collection for my challenge, after completing a previous book, Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell in 2016. All my reviews for the short stories there if you’re interested can be found in my archive, available on the main page under the author’s name. Back to The New Uncanny though – I have to admit to feeling a thrill when an editor of a collection does a little introduction at the beginning of the book. This one, edited by Ra Page was especially fun to read and he does an excellent job of describing the uncanny:

“…the uncanny is that which may be familiar, or ordinary, but somehow disturbs us, makes us uncomfortable, and in some cases gives us the full on willies.”

Double Room is a brilliant example of the uncanny and uses a trope often employed by those writing horror stories, that is the double or doppelganger that our main character finds himself confronted with. His name is Edwin Ferguson and he’s a man recently bereaved after losing his beloved wife after a long illness. When we first meet him, he’s trying to get off with a couple of girls in a hotel bar and is instantly unlikeable for the reader. However, when he goes upstairs to bed, our attitude might change to pity when he starts to experience a queer thing. Every move he makes, word he speaks etc appears to be mirrored by the same behaviour/sound in the adjoining room to his own. At first, it seems like a coincidence but it is not long before the echo of his own voice begins to terrify him and he alerts hotel staff who show him that the room is clearly empty (*shiver*).

I don’t want to say too much about the plot but it is safe to say that his guilt over his wife’s death (more specifically, his internal reaction to it when her death happened) is playing on his mind and becoming tortuous. The words that are being repeated back to him from the doppelganger, as they are muffled, could be mis-interpreted as something else and seems to suggest that Edwin was relieved for her eventual death. By the end of the story, I had done a complete revolution of my feelings against the main character and just felt terribly sorry for him. The mocking echo of your own “double,” was quite a frightening aspect to read about and I think the author did a phenomenal job with both the plot and the creep factor which certainly gave me a few goosebumps along the way.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT SHORT STORY CHALLENGE: The Adventure Of The Engineer’s Thumb by Arthur Conan Doyle from the collection The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes

 

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – Faithful Lovers by Margaret Drabble from the collection The Story: Love Loss & The Lives Of Women

Published March 5, 2017 by bibliobeth

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What’s Faithful Lovers all about?:

Faithful Lovers is about a couple who, after promising to never see each other again, meet up by chance in one of the places that they frequented.

What did I think?:

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any Margaret Drabble before although I am aware of her writing, in particular The Pure Gold Baby which I have a copy of on my Kindle but haven’t had a chance to get to yet. This is why I’m absolutely loving my short stories challenge, I’m coming across authors either I’ve heard of but haven’t read or complete unknowns and when I read a story such as Faithful Lovers, where the writing is pure class, it makes me so excited to catch up with her other works.

The title Faithful Lovers is quite ironic in a way as the couple, Viola and Kenneth are actually illicit lovers who are married to other people yet embarked on an affair. They tried to end things between themselves many times unsuccessfully but eventually managed to break apart for the sake of their marriages. When we meet Viola, she is walking down a street very familiar to her as it hosts a little cafe that the two used to meet in. She goes into the cafe, feeling incredibly sad and nostalgic and sits at “their” little table, ordering the same thing as she always had back in the day. Lo and behold, who should walk in but Kenneth himself who was coincidentally just passing but lets Viola know that he had been in here many times hoping to see her. The two realise that things never really ended between the two of them and they are still hopelessly in love with each other.

Obviously, I don’t recommend affairs to anybody but this was a touching, beautiful little love story that really had me rooting for both Viola and Kenneth. I warmed to them as characters and respected their decision to stop seeing each other but felt strangely glad that they still both felt the same way about each other, despite the long time they had been apart. I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic at heart (although I don’t admit it very often) but tend to steer away from the more cheesy romantic novels which normally leads to much eye-rolling and cringing, personally speaking! This story however was not cheesy or cringe-inducing in the slightest and it seemed like the world and fate had collided to bring these characters back together. Lovely, heartfelt writing that I thoroughly enjoyed and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more from Margaret Drabble!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT SHORT STORY: Double Room by Ramsey Campbell from the collection The New Uncanny: Tales Of Unease edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page

 

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – The Wishing Tree by Lucy Wood from the collection Diving Belles

Published February 22, 2017 by bibliobeth

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What’s The Wishing Tree all about?:

The Wishing Tree focuses on the relationship between a mother and a daughter as they struggle through a traumatic time and make an important journey that begins to build bridges between them.

What did I think?:

I’ve waxed on previously about stories in this beautiful collection that have been written so lyrically and have really touched something deep within myself. However, there are always going to be those stories that don’t quite hit the spot, so as to speak and unfortunately The Wishing Tree was one of those. On reading the title, I admit I was stupidly excited, expecting a story with a bit of a fairy tale element. Of course, the Cornish folklore that the author draws upon is present and the landscape she writes about is breathtaking and captured my attention in that way but for some reason, I just didn’t feel connected with the two main characters which left what happened between them at the end feeling like a bit of a “damp squib,” than a moving, tear-jerking incident which I think the author intended.

The story follows Tessa and her mother June who are on their way to visit an old friend, a trip they have made previously. The reader immediately senses that all is not right with June from the scar on her neck and the way her daughter refers to her. They have made this trip previously and on the first trip came across a wishing tree which they happen upon once more, filled with offerings that previous wishers have left on its branches. Tessa recalls how she was struggling to think of a wish the first time they visited and now regrets it. We get the feeling that there is a very clear thing that she should have wished for – her mother’s health.

Throughout the story, we get the impression that the two have quite a fractured and fragile relationship with June taking the typical role of “strong mother,” and Tessa being that child that always needed help (and indeed does still as an adult). Now that June is ill, the roles are having to be reversed even though June is fighting it with every fibre of her being. The story ends with Tessa finally being able to help her mother in the best way she can and June learning to accept her help.

There were a multitude of brilliant things about this story. First, the way it was written as with all of Lucy Wood’s stories – it was beautiful, descriptive and poetic, I could almost imagine every character and scene vividly. I did also love how she explored the relationship between Tessa and June and how we left them, albeit abruptly, with more hope for their future. Personally though, I felt quite distant from the two throughout the narrative and didn’t really feel like I knew them so the ending when it came, as a result did not touch me as much as it might have done if I had cared deeply about the characters. Strangely enough I also wanted the wishing tree to form a bigger part of the story and was perhaps a little disappointed when it didn’t! 😀

Saying that, I do think that this story will touch others, especially if they are struggling with an ill parent or have parental relationship issues of their own. For me, there are much better stories in this collection which had a greater impact and lasting effect.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

NEXT SHORT STORY: Faithful Lovers by Margaret Drabble from the collection The Story: Love Loss & The Lives Of Women

 

 

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – The Butcher Of Meena Creek by Dianne Gray from the collection Manslaughter And Other Tears

Published February 11, 2017 by bibliobeth

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What’s The Butcher Of Meena Creek all about?:

The Butcher Of Meena Creek follows the story of Maggie who is cooking some food at a town gathering and preparing to leave her abusive husband.

What did I think?: 

I’ve enjoyed the stories I’ve read in Manslaughter And Other Tears so far but The Butcher Of Meena Creek has to be my favourite by a mile. It really reminded me of a Roald Dahl short story in the way it was written and the little sting in the tail (or should that be tale?) by the exciting final lines. I can certainly see why it won a award, I finished it absolutely enthralled and immediately wanted to go back to the beginning and start all over again.

I don’t really want to talk too much about the plot for fear of spoilers. In fact, it’s best to go into this story knowing as little as possible but I’ll tell you the bare bones of the story. The story is told from the perspective of our main character, Maggie who is making some lasagne for a town gathering. The people in the town, including a hideous woman called Loretta treat Maggie with scorn and derision and like to make fun of the fact that she is in an abusive relationship. We soon learn that the last time Maggie made lasagne, her husband went crazy and she took the brunt of his anger, physically speaking. Larry is due to arrive at the gathering any minute and the townspeople are almost hugging themselves in glee so that they can all witness the fallout they are certain is going to occur.

Immediately, I felt sorry for Maggie who bears the evidence of physical abuse by her husband, clear for everyone to see. Despite the cruelty of the people in the town, she holds her head up high and continues to make the lasagne for everyone to enjoy. She is aware that her husband doesn’t look on lasagne as “real” food but she has a plan for getting away from him for good and I admired her determination to separate herself from him. Oh my goodness though, I was not expecting the turn that the story ended up taking and I was delighted (and shocked) with the end result. If you read one short story this year, please make it this one and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

imagesCAF9JG4S

NEXT SHORT STORY: The Wishing Tree by Lucy Wood from the collection Diving Belles

 

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – The Raft by Stephen King from the collection Skeleton Crew

Published February 4, 2017 by bibliobeth

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What’s The Raft all about?:

The Raft is about four college students who decide to celebrate the end of summer by swimming out to a raft on a remote lake. Unfortunately they come across a monstrous entity that puts an end to summer in a way they never could have expected.

What did I think?:

So, it’s Stephen King. If you haven’t been here before, I’m a bit of a fan. However, I like to think that I am perfectly honest when I think he hasn’t written a brilliant story – case in point, The Wedding Gig, also from this collection which I gave a shocking two stars. Luckily, Stephen King was back on top form with this latest story from Skeleton Crew, The Raft, which has to be one of my all time favourites of short fiction that he has written. It has everything you could ever want from a horror story and this is definitely where he gets his (often not accurate) reputation as a horror writer as this story is truly horrific. Not for the weak of stomach, I wouldn’t recommend this story for anyone who gets queasy at the thought of elaborate death scenes.

We have four college students – Randy, Deke, Rachel and LaVerne who are all drinking and having a good time at the end of summer. After a bit too much booze, they decide it would be a great idea to drive to a remote lake nearby and swim out to a raft placed in the middle of the lake. The boys are both having a relationship with the girls and a lot of it is posturing and ego but in the end, all four decide it would be a good idea even if Randy (whose perspective we hear from the most) is starting to regret the decision. Well, wise old Randy was right to be tentative because as the teenagers strip down to their underwear and one by one swim out to the raft, he notices a strange dark puddle in the water. It’s almost like an oil slick with a rainbow of colours amidst the darkness.

This is no ordinary oil slick however. It appears to malevolently come after the girls as they are swimming towards the raft. Of course, Randy’s fears are laughed at by the rest of the group but not for long as Rachel, transfixed by the colours in the darkness is compelled to topple into the water and is immediately gobbled up, albeit very slowly, limb by limb by the “oil slick.” This is now very dangerous territory for the group. They cannot swim to the shore as the oil slick is too fast and would engulf them. They cannot call for help as they are in a very remote area with little likelihood of someone coming by. They cannot even look at the oil slick for too long as the colours seem to have a hypnotic effect, inducing them to fall into the water and face certain death. This story is not likely to end well!

The Raft is Stephen King at his absolute greatest. As always with his writing, it’s not just a horrific event occurring. He really delves into the relationships between the members of the group – the bro-mance between Randy and Deke and the suggestion that ladies man Deke is also making a play for Randy’s own girlfriend which puts their friendship on very shaky grounds. As if they didn’t have enough to deal with coping with a carnivorous oil slick!! I did mention before though that the death scenes are incredibly graphic and I must emphasise that again. Anybody who doesn’t like too much blood and gore is definitely not going to get on well with this story. Strong stomach required! The only part that didn’t sit well with me is near the end of the story where Randy and LaVerne, overwhelmed with emotion, have sex with each other on the raft while the oil slick lurks nearby, awaiting its opportunity to strike. It didn’t strike me as realistic or necessary at all and made me roll my eyes slightly – for shame, Stephen King! It is my only gripe with the story mind you, but because of that, I sadly can’t give it the full five star treatment (otherwise it certainly would be) 🙂

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT SHORT STORY: The Butcher Of Meena Creek by Dianne Gray from the collection Manslaughter And Other Tears