writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: Genre: Short Story

Review: Twelve Red Herrings – Jeffrey Archer

I quite enjoyed Jeffrey Archer as a teenager, so thought I should revisit this volume to see whether the writing holds up at all as an adult. It’s a collection of short stories, all of which contain a twist. While twist fiction is generally held to be a little hackneyed these days, it’s not something I mind personally. When you know there’s going to be a twist, however, it’s hard not to focus on predicting it, instead of just letting the plot unfold.

Trial and Error
Long and rambling, with unlikeable characters. The ending is slightly different from the one signposted in the story, but I actually felt like the alternative would have made for a better conclusion.

Cheap at Half the Price
Another set of unattractive characters, without the plot or the pay-off to make up for them.

Dougie Mortimer’s Right Arm
No real twist in this one, and not a lot of interest, either. Also, it has a first line that could’ve been great, but wasn’t. When you compulsively edit a story while reading it, it’s not a good sign.

Do Not Pass Go
This, like most of the stories in this collection, was supposedly based on a true story, and I’d very much like to hear that true story, because it’s quite an amazing occurrence. Although the very ending is a little pedestrian compared to the story, it’s nonetheless my favourite of the twelve.

Chunnel Vision
Predictable and rather annoying. It seemed like a short gag that went on for too many pages.

Shoeshine Boy
I found this one enormously dull. Long-winded and not much else.

You’ll Never Live to Regret it
I felt bad for not predicting the first twist in this one! Quite a clever tale, that might have bugged me a little if it hadn’t been based on a real life event.

Never Stop on the Motorway
Very predictable from early in the piece, but the tension was built well nonetheless.

Not for Sale
Quite a standard short story, but entertaining enough.

Timeo Danaos…
Another one about annoying characters. There’s really not enough plot to make up for them!

An Eye for an Eye
Not a bad tale. One of the better ones in the book.

One Man’s Meat
This one has four possible endings. I personally don’t think it was an interesting enough story to warrant that, although some may enjoy the gimmick.

All up, it’s a reasonable collection of short stories, but not one that changed my world. I’m not quite the fan I was as a teenager, but I’m not appalled by my past taste, either!

Review: Mirror Shards: Extending the Edges of Augmented Reality – Thomas K. Carpenter (ed)

Mirror Shards book coverMirror Shards: Extending the Edges of Augmented Reality is a science fiction anthology comprising thirteen short stories by new and established authors. Augmented reality, for those readers who are looking a little confused right now, deals with the idea of using technology to expand upon (augment!) the real world. Think GPS, but implanted into your eyes. The authors of the collected stories, however, have envisioned the implementation of augmented reality in a broad spectrum of ways, ensuring that readers will not grow bored as they make their way through the analogy.

“El Mirador” – Alex J. Kane
A tale of a tech-filled bounty hunter on the trail of a murderer. The second person narrative in this piece unfortunately made it difficult for me to get into it.

“Music of the Spheres” – Ken Liu
An engaging and thought-provoking exploration of the creation of disability through technology that is not available to everyone.

“These Delicate Creatures” – Melissa Yuan-Innes
The use of tech-enhanced theatre as political dissent is the focus of a clever tale of family and priorities.

“Bellow the Bollocks Line” – T D Edge
A short, but well-imagined, tale of a society in technological overload.

“The Sun is Real” – George Page III
One of my two favourites from the anthology, this piece looks at the use of augmented reality in a prison situation.

“A Book By Its Cover” – Colleen Anderson
One of the two definitely-not-for-young-readers stories in the compilation, this is a creepy tale of immersive entertainment and a woman who wants to be a part of it.

“Of Bone and Steel and Other Soft Materials” – Annie Bellet
An artificially-sighted woman takes on a boy’s kidnappers. A much better story than the title led me to expect!

“Witness Protection” – Louise Herring-Jones
In a futuristic version of the police-based crime story, a new spy device falls into the wrong hands.

“Stage Presence, Baby” – E.M. Schadegg
A singer alters her stage presence through technology in alien-occupied Earth.

“Gift Horses” – Karen Able
In this story, North America is controlled by OverSight, an augmented reality technology manufacturer. Unfortunately, I was left wanting more, as the story seemed to end just as it started getting interesting!

“The Cageless Zoo” – Thomas G. Carpenter
My other favourite, this piece is reminiscent of Jurassic Park. A family attends a futuristic zoo where predators are held through augmented reality instead of cages. Of course, something goes wrong.

“More Real Than Flesh” – Grayson Bray Morris
The other not-for-minors story in the compilation, this piece looks at the sex industry in the future.

“The Watcher” – George Walker
This engrossing piece tells of a DisneySub caught in border skirmishes between India and Pakistan. I felt that this story could easily be used as the basis of a much longer work.

With Mirror Shards, Carpenter has managed to put together a satisfying collection of science fiction writing that comprises a pleasing range of topics, ideas and literary styles. A professional and interesting anthology, it should be enjoyed by both regular readers of speculative fiction and those who like to dabble from time to time.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron book cover“Nature proves it to us very plainly, for she has made [women] soft and fragile of body, timid and fearful of heart, compassionate and benign of disposition, and has furnished us with meagre physical strength, pleasing voices, and gently moving limbs. All of which shows that we need to be governed by others; and it stands to reason that those who need to be aided and governed must be submissive, obedient, and deferential to their benefactors and governors. But who are the governors and benefactors of us women, if they are not our menfolk?”

With Florence in the grip of the Black Death of 1348, a group of seven women and three men retire to the countryside to escape the sickness and spend time in relaxation and frivolity. While there, they spend much of their days telling each other stories, ranging from very moral to very bawdy and from devious to munificent. Over ten days of storytelling, one hundred diverse tales are told.

The Decameron is a daunting book to pick up, given that it’s over eight hundred and thirty pages of 14th century writing. What’s more, it’s an equally daunting book to review, as it’s essentially a collection of short stories and it seems insufficient to review the whole – but just plain foolish to review all hundred tales separately instead.

Boccaccio’s work is of great importance to the literary tradition, but for me, as a historian, it’s the social setting of the tales and their underlying belief system that is most fascinating. In a sense, the stories themselves are of no great excitement to the modern reader, beyond the fact that they prove that some things really are timeless. There is an abundance of romance, plenty of trickery, smatterings of sex and the occasional moral for good measure. Usually, the guy will get the gal, but occasionally the gal will get the guy or they’ll both die horrible deaths.

Indeed, the predictability and repetitiveness of the stories is The Decameron‘s main downfall. It’s not a book that is easy to read in one go. After a point, I made the decision to read it a day (or ten stories) at a time, reading other books in between sessions, and my enjoyment increased greatly once I put this into practice. Many of the days involve ten stories told around a single theme, which tends to highlight the similarities in the collected tales. This didn’t bother me when it came to the themes I particularly enjoyed – the two days’ worth of tales of trickery, for example – but made the less-interesting themes seem to drag even longer.

The historical value of The Decameron is utterly priceless, however. Through fiction, the modern reader can learn so much about the society and social mores of Boccaccio’s time. The way in which the clergy is described was fascinating – both in terms of corruption and active sexuality. There are descriptions of political hierarchies, occupations, social groups, marriage rites, leisure activities and family routines. Each one of these hundred stories contains so much excellent information about 14th century Italian life.

Most intriguing to me is the way in which Boccaccio portrays his female characters. The quote above is uttered by one of the seven women in the prelude to her ninth story, which is a strong encouragement to husbands to soundly beat their wives. It’s an uncomfortable piece of writing, made more so by the knowledge that it is a woman who has been chosen as the moral’s advocate. And yet, elsewhere, Boccaccio’s women act in surprising ways. Women are portrayed as being smart, brave, strong, witty, loyal and accomplished. They are shown to possess healthy sexual appetites, rather than the common extremes of animalistic urges or chaste disinterest. Throughout the book, there is an obvious conflict between the accepted boundaries for women and the actual diverse natures of women, who may just as easily laugh at bawdy tales of lustful nuns as they may assert their own virtue.

The Decameron may be a daunting book to pick up, but it is worth the time you’ll spend buried in its pages. As a work of fiction, it is witty, romantic and perceptive; as a work of history, it is invaluable.

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