Bonds That Bind: A Short Story Collection by Austin L. Wiggins.
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.
Most of these stories are about people who are alone and isolated, and/or lonely. The writing is flawless, and you can feel the pain, sadness, despair, and hopelessness, seeping from each character. With Bonds That Bind, Mr. Wiggins has compiled an array of men and women who bleed metaphorically and literally. Each story in the collection takes us inside the head and heart of someone who has nothing left to lose. They live within their self-imposed box of how they see the world and themselves.
Here is an excerpt from The Outsider, where a marginalized tuba player expresses his dissent the only way he knows how. “It took him until mid-afternoon to regain composure. With cloudy eyes, Derek glared at the tuba and scolded it for mocking him, but the cumbersome heap of brass pipe would make no apologies. Like his playing ability, the tuba had gathered a thin, palpable layer of dust that had been piling up since Christmas. ‘It’s been two months,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to start practicing again.’ By this small, noncommittal decision, the mere spark in Derek’s chest became a storm. The first notes blared like a horn of war, and they didn’t stop. He channeled the fury in his tempest heart, and it was only then that Derek knew he was angry.”
This collection includes a foreboding tale about a young man who joins his brother Dave in a failed quest for a fast buck (The Bird That Flew Overhead); an insurance agent who helps his brother, which results in his becoming a life-long target (One Man’s Sin); a meticulous office worker, George, who is oblivious about his home life until it’s too late (Radiance); a shunned tuba player (The Outsider); a lonely teacher with a bad addiction (Of Flowers); and a counselor who takes matters into his own hands (What Ails Us).
Bonds That Bind is not a feel-good, romantic, or inspiring set of tales. If it tried to be, it would have failed. The author doesn’t shy away from emotions or situations that are uncomfortable – all signs of a writer who knows what they are doing and isn’t afraid to reveal what we often sweep under the rug. The icing on the cake is that in spite of their flaws, thoughts, and deeds, Mr. Wiggins has captured traits and feelings with which readers’ can identify. Though we usually don’t go to the extremes of his characters, we care about what happens to each one.
City Lights & Side Streets by Patrick Brown.
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.
Patrick Brown has put together an interesting collection of short stories (and one novelette) that focus on family, friends, and lovers, and pushes ordinary life events to extreme confrontations with self or others. City Lights & Side Streets has a story about teens in the eighties, who take an unstable young man to a niece’s birthday party; a busy family of four who hire a scheduler; a young woman coming to terms with the loss of her father; a group of marginalized individuals and their misfortunes; and an extension of a previous series about a private investigator named Salem Reid.
Here’s a slice from The Scheduler, when Leo, the person Lesley convinced her husband to hire (and move in with them), to help make sure everything got done on time, is speaking to ten-year-old Jenny. “Your science project is due Friday. Spend an hour on it tonight, so you are not rushing on Thursday to get it all done. If there are any other supplies you need, tonight is the night to inform your parents, as I have allowed for thirty minutes of variable time. The weather looks clear for Thursday so your dad will be doing yard work and your mom has a tennis match at 6:30. Asking for supplies tomorrow will throw them off schedule! We don’t want that, do we? Jenny stared at our guest like he was from outer space, but Leo remained unfazed by the reaction our daughter had given him.”
All of the tales in this collection has some unexpected, or surprise, turn of events, which will catch you off guard… in a good way. Mr. Brown is very skilled at capturing moments, events, and describing people and places. All of his characters are well rounded and believable. The novelette (Lab Rat: A Salem Reid Novella) could be taken straight out of a detective film from the forties and fifties. Hard-boiled, but loyal, clever, and honest detective, has a private love interest and works with colleagues and friends to solve the crime. Some of the dialogue sounds like it could come straight out of Humphrey Bogart’s mouth in The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. When all is said and done, City Lights & Side Streets is well worth the ride.
I Avatar by Heather Harrison.
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.
I’ve said before that I don’t read much sci-fi, but every once in awhile something catches my eye, or yells in my ear. I Avatar is one of those yellers. The story, written by Heather Harrison, describes a time in the 20th century, and a character named Panama, who is suddenly reactivated in the year 2082. At first she’s not sure what has happened, but soon discovers that her handler is called Gina, and her name is now Sila.
“During my first few weeks as an avatar, there was a lot of whining and crying involved. I can’t say I’m proud of how I handled it, but hell, give me a break. Finding out you died and were stuck spending the rest of eternity as someone’s video game piece sucked ass. On the positive side, at least I was able to think. Avatars are supposed to be dead, as in not retaining any emotions, feelings, or thoughts. I on the other hand, retained all three.”
It turns out that young gamers in the future (Gina) have the same kind of love interests as those nowadays, and Sila (Panama) is with Gina all the way (literally). There are some wonderful twists and turns in this story. The process by which one becomes an avatar is bizarre, yet believable. If you take an episode of Black Mirror and Westworld, and throw them in bed together, you might wake up with something similar to I Avatar.
30 by Arthur Butt. Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.
What a great opening line. “The day the human race died started typically enough.” Thus, begins 30. A perfect short story with a powerful punch. Mr. Butt has crafted an excellent end-of-the-world scenario, with an unexpected character, and unanticipated ending.
The tale is told in the first person by Artie, who discovers that nobody else is on the Long Island expressway, as he’s making his way to work. No one accept a lone hitchhiker. Artie picks her up, and learns that her name is Gaea (Greek Goddess for earth).
The story reminds me somewhat of a play I wrote a few years back, which was produced and performed in New York. It is called The Goddess of Cancer. The play has a variety of women with cancer, who meet her (cancer) in person and discuss their predicament.
30 doesn’t take long to read, but it will leave you thinking. How did everybody die? What are we doing to the planet? If we call this globe “Mother Earth”, why don’t we treat her like one? Arthur Butt has created a memorable short we should all digest and ponder.
The Boy With The Coin – A Short Story by Christina van Deventer. Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.
An old man tells his story about a boy he watches across the street, who finds something in the mud and then leaves. The man goes over and finds fifty cents atop a small mound. He is not sure when, or if, they boy will return to collect his find. In the meantime, it becomes clear that the narrator (an older man) has a strained relationship with his daughter (Allison), and doesn’t have long to live.
The Boy With The Coin is a well told short story that keeps the vague past present, and an edge to the tale that is palpable. Is forgiveness, or redemption, possible? Does anyone deserve, or not deserve, to die? Ms. van Deventer asks these questions in the context of the story, and with honest speculation. Does life and death “mean” anything? If so, are we responsible for our actions, or in-actions?
Here is an excerpt, with the narrator being reminded of his childhood joy of living, and present lack of such. “I don’t know what prompted me to cross the street to where the boy had been playing. Curiosity, I suppose. I was once a child myself, but I have long since lost my ability to find joy in the small things, the prizes among the dirt, and I wondered what the boy had found that could be of any consequence to his heart.”
Reprobates by Louise Blackwick.
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.
Nothing is what it seems when Marc Whitehouse and Chantal Innes check into the Totermann Inn to join the thousands coming to England to witness the once every 4000 years solar eclipse, which has all the planets aligned at the same time. Everything becomes disorienting and bizarre, as Marc tries to get some sleep in a room that has a window nailed shut, and a large rat he calls Chubby. There is also a mysterious elderly lady (Chantal Innes), who innkeeper (Rob Sequies) says, “practically lives here”.
Reprobates reminded me of the film Barton Fink, where John Torturro plays a screenwriter frantically trying to finish a screenplay. He doesn’t sleep for days, starts to see things, and begins to question his sanity. The twists and turns in his mind, as to what is real and what isn’t, are seen as he sees them. It also has elements of the movie Shutter Island, though I will not say anything further about, especially the ending.
Here are a few brief lines from Ms. Blackwick’s well written tale. “He couldn’t bring the last of his memories into focus; he couldn’t bring order to the chaos of his mind. He shut his eyes, allowing his mind to be flooded by the maddening sound of falling rain, the escape attempts of the fly and the squealing of a hungry Chubby. A little past midnight, Marc no longer looked forward to any future.”
If you enjoy a story that doesn’t give anything away, and keeps you guessing about what is going on, then you’re in for a treat with Reprobates. The author writes believable scenes, and takes readers’ inside the head of Marc, as he loses his bearings, and questions how he go to where he is, what his life is about, and why his father keeps coming back to visit him in dreams and visions.