Pub Day Repost: Ghosts of You by Cathy Ulrich: The thing about murder victims is . . .

Ghosts of You

Ghosts of You

by Cathy Ulrich

eARC, 150 pg.
Okay Donkey Press, 2019

Read: September 23-30, 2019


This collection of 31 pieces of flash fiction shouldn’t work. This is probably not the sentence that the author and her publicist want me to start with, but hear me out. It shouldn’t, but it does.

Why shouldn’t it work? For starters, each story has essentially the same title. “Being the Murdered _____.” Earle Stanley Gardner got away with it, as did Lilian Jackson Braun—but I can’t see how anyone else does. Add Ulrich to the list.

Secondly, each story starts with the same sentence:

The thing about being the murdered [word/phrase from title] is you set the plot in motion.

Outside of “Once Upon a Time,” that should not be done (it’s arguable that it shouldn’t be done there, either). But it does work.

From these nearly identical launching pads, Ulrich spins 31 incredibly distinctive tales about what happens after various women are murdered. I should probably clarify a bit, about what I mean about the various women (and the blanks above). These stories focus on people like the murdered Girl, Wife, Lover, Homecoming Queen, Babysitter, Mother, Extra, Jogger—mostly the kinds of women you read about/see in the beginning of a murder mystery. Ulrich also goes for some unexpected types, e.g.: Politician, Mermaid, Muse, Chanteuse (she probably deserves extra points for using that word in the Twenty-First Century), and Taxidermist.

Their murders change the lives of those around them, those who knew them, knew of them, investigated their deaths both immediately and for years to come.

Now, as the word “plot” in the topic sentences indicates, these are primarily reactions to/depictions of/commentaries on the way that the homicides of fictional women are portrayed in Crime Fiction (or even “Literary” Fiction), TV, Movies, etc. I think it has a lot to say about those depictions, but I think there are a lot of weaknesses to Ulrich’s approach, too. Too often, her critiques are overgeneralized, inflammatory and outdated—while retaining a kernel worth chewing on.

Thankfully, the book is about more than that (or I’m not sure I’d have bothered to finish it). I frequently felt like my reaction to the stories was not what it was intended to be. When she’s telling a story (as abbreviated as they are), describing human reactions to situations that “tragic” doesn’t quite begin to apply to—these pieces shine. For someone who shuns self-help books, I’ve read a lot about grief in the last couple of years—these stories contain some of the best portrayals of it in all its varied expressions—that I can remember. If your heart doesn’t break a little at least twice while going through this collection, you need to go listen to some community singing in Whoville, so they can help yours grow.

Beyond that, there’s the obvious strength of the economy of words here—these stories are lean, without a wasted word, and are pound-for-pound some of the most effective stories I’ve read this year.

As with any collection, there are stronger pieces and weaker pieces—some that will satisfy some and other readers will be stupefied by or indifferent to the same ones. I do think there’s a better hit to miss ratio in this collection than I’m used to. For what it’s worth, “Being the Murdered Bride”, “Being the Murdered Student” and “Being the Murdered Mama” were the high-points for me.

While these are all very different (Ulrich almost never plays the same note twice), I don’t recommend reading too many in one sitting (I limited myself to three at a time, for example)—beyond that, you risk robbing them of their impact.

I heartily recommend this collection that works far better than it should. It’ll cause you to stop and think, stop and feel, and hopefully change your perspective on a few things.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author via Lori @ TNBBC Publicity in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


4 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Ghosts of You by Cathy Ulrich: The thing about murder victims is . . .

Ghosts of You

Ghosts of You

by Cathy Ulrich

eARC, 150 pg.
Okay Donkey Press, 2019

Read: September 23-30, 2019


This collection of 31 pieces of flash fiction shouldn’t work. This is probably not the sentence that the author and her publicist want me to start with, but hear me out. It shouldn’t, but it does.

Why shouldn’t it work? For starters, each story has essentially the same title. “Being the Murdered _____.” Earle Stanley Gardner got away with it, as did Lilian Jackson Braun—but I can’t see how anyone else does. Add Ulrich to the list.

Secondly, each story starts with the same sentence:

The thing about being the murdered [word/phrase from title] is you set the plot in motion.

Outside of “Once Upon a Time,” that should not be done (it’s arguable that it shouldn’t be done there, either). But it does work.

From these nearly identical launching pads, Ulrich spins 31 incredibly distinctive tales about what happens after various women are murdered. I should probably clarify a bit, about what I mean about the various women (and the blanks above). These stories focus on people like the murdered Girl, Wife, Lover, Homecoming Queen, Babysitter, Mother, Extra, Jogger—mostly the kinds of women you read about/see in the beginning of a murder mystery. Ulrich also goes for some unexpected types, e.g.: Politician, Mermaid, Muse, Chanteuse (she probably deserves extra points for using that word in the Twenty-First Century), and Taxidermist.

Their murders change the lives of those around them, those who knew them, knew of them, investigated their deaths both immediately and for years to come.

Now, as the word “plot” in the topic sentences indicates, these are primarily reactions to/depictions of/commentaries on the way that the homicides of fictional women are portrayed in Crime Fiction (or even “Literary” Fiction), TV, Movies, etc. I think it has a lot to say about those depictions, but I think there are a lot of weaknesses to Ulrich’s approach, too. Too often, her critiques are overgeneralized, inflammatory and outdated—while retaining a kernel worth chewing on.

Thankfully, the book is about more than that (or I’m not sure I’d have bothered to finish it). I frequently felt like my reaction to the stories was not what it was intended to be. When she’s telling a story (as abbreviated as they are), describing human reactions to situations that “tragic” doesn’t quite begin to apply to—these pieces shine. For someone who shuns self-help books, I’ve read a lot about grief in the last couple of years—these stories contain some of the best portrayals of it in all its varied expressions—that I can remember. If your heart doesn’t break a little at least twice while going through this collection, you need to go listen to some community singing in Whoville, so they can help yours grow.

Beyond that, there’s the obvious strength of the economy of words here—these stories are lean, without a wasted word, and are pound-for-pound some of the most effective stories I’ve read this year.

As with any collection, there are stronger pieces and weaker pieces—some that will satisfy some and other readers will be stupefied by or indifferent to the same ones. I do think there’s a better hit to miss ratio in this collection than I’m used to. For what it’s worth, “Being the Murdered Bride”, “Being the Murdered Student” and “Being the Murdered Mama” were the high-points for me.

While these are all very different (Ulrich almost never plays the same note twice), I don’t recommend reading too many in one sitting (I limited myself to three at a time, for example)—beyond that, you risk robbing them of their impact.

I heartily recommend this collection that works far better than it should. It’ll cause you to stop and think, stop and feel, and hopefully change your perspective on a few things.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author via Lori @ TNBBC Publicity in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


4 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories by Nick Kolakowski: This collection of short fiction is a great display of Kolakowski’s strengths #IndieCrimeCrawl

I’m going to be kicking off my involvement in #IndieCrimeCrawl with the latest from Nick Kolakowski. About a year ago, he emailed me to take a peek at his novel Boise Longpig Hunting Club, a fast, energetic, visceral read. Then came his Love & Bullets Hookup Trilogy — which was as entertaining as you could want. Now it’s time for his new short fiction collection, which I pre-ordered the instant I heard about it. One of the best things about Indie Crime Fiction is the depth of strong voices with perspectives you don’t find every day. Nick Kolakowski is a prime example of this. Check out all of his work, you’ll be in for a treat.

 Finest Sh*t!Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories

by Nick Kolakowski
Series: Loose Rounds, Book 2

Kindle Edition, 202 pg.
Final Round Press, 2019

Read: June 14 – July 3, 2019

           With a feral yelp, Raoul worked the dial until he landed on a station thundering drums and guitar, a solid backbeat for Luis and Jesus slicing and shoveling mounds of peppers and onions and pig. The music blasted the asphalt amphitheater of the parking lot, signaling that the truck was officially open for business.

The first customers drifted toward them. Give me your hungry, your nearly broke, your masses yearning for lunchtime deliciousness, Jesus thought as he wiped his hands on his apron and prepared to meet the first of the lunch rush. And I’ll give you two tacos for three dollars.

That’s from “Taco Truck,” one of the ten short stories that appear with a novella in Nick Kolakowski’s latest collection, Finest Sh*t!: Deviant Stories. There are tales of revenge, heroism, thwarted revenge, and people driven to extremes no one should be driven to — even some SF. Essentially, like with the best of Crime Fiction (no matter when it’s set) we have people in desperate situations (sometimes of their own making, sometimes out of their control) doing what they needed to.

As with every short story collection, there are some of these short stories that really, really worked for me, and others that didn’t do much for me at all — that’s just how it goes. But even the stories that I didn’t appreciate had that Kolakowski quality that I’ve really come to enjoy.

The novella, The Farm takes up about half of the book. It begins in 1931 and ends in 2008, following one farming family through the generations. This family goes through wars, violent crime, financial hardship, betrayal — and more than a few of the more positive parts of life, too. There’s some poetry, too. I guess that qualifies as one of the more positive aspects, but I’m not always sure. In the end, I really liked this novella — but it took some effort to get into it. That’s probably on me. Kolakowski fits a novel’s worth of a family saga into this roughly 100 pages — which is quite a feat. There’s part of me that would like to see it developed into a 350-400 page novel to flush out some of the details, but I think he’s right to keep it brief. It alone is well worth grabbing the collection.

This collection covers all sorts of tones, topics and perspectives. As I’ve come to expect from Kolakowski, I wouldn’t have predicted anything that I found in these pages. My rating may be on the low side, but that’s just because I couldn’t really sink my teeth into anything — I typically rate short story collections low. But there’s gold in here — a little dross (but what I think is dross will probably appeal to others). If you’re not familiar with Kolakowski, this is a great way to introduce yourself to one of the strongest voices in Crime Fiction today. If you are familiar with him, you don’t need me to tell you how good these stories can be.

—–

3.5 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Not Everyone is Special by Josh Denslow: A Short Story Collection that’ll Gobsmack You at Least Once

Not Everyone is SpecialNot Everyone is Special

by Josh Denslow

eARC, 160 pg.
7.13 Books, 2019
Read: February 2 – 24, 2019

I’m not sure what to say about this collection of 15 short stories. They’re all really well-written — there was one or two I didn’t care for, two that I really liked — but they all showed skill, craft, and achieved what I think Denslow intended to achieve. But I’m not sure that I can muster up any excitement over the collection.

Some of the stories fall into the SF/Speculative Fiction category, but by and large these are “General Fiction” (whatever exactly that is). Some are comic, some are very tragic (I think you could make the case for all of the stories containing elements of both).

“Proximity” a bittersweet story about a young man on the brink of maturity (but resisting stepping over it) who happens to be able to teleport is one of the best things I’ve read in months. A great combination of imagination and story, that sadly, I read the same day I read the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and completely forgot about until I started flipping through this book again while writing this. (but, man, am I glad I remember it now…)

Then there’s “Mousetrap,” which starts with the line,

I want to find a not scary way to tell my sister that I’m contemplating killing myself, but I don’t want her to think that it has to do with the fact that she asked me to start paying rent.

And openings don’t get much better than that (the story lives up to it).

There are a handful of other really high high points in this collection. I can’t talk about “Dorian Vandercleef” beyond encouraging you to read it — but you really should. “Blake Bishop Believes in Love” is sweet, grotesque and unpleasant (intentionally so). “Extra Ticket,” a story about a teenager dealing (and not well) with grieving over a friend’s death would serve as a handy example of the concept of “poignant,” if you ever find yourself in need of one.

I might not be over-the-moon with this book, but I did like it. I can even see me being in a situation where I’d re-read parts or all of it (I don’t normally re-read short story books, but I’m not opposed to the idea). I would absolutely read more by Denslow — long form or short form. Not Everyone is Special is a good book — some of the stories might even be more than good. I’d absolutely encourage you to get your hands on this to judge for yourself. I promise you’ll find at least one story that’ll knock your socks off.

—–

3.5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Not Everyone is Special by Josh Denslow: A Short Story Collection that’ll Gobsmack You at Least Once

Not Everyone is SpecialNot Everyone is Special

by Josh Denslow


eARC, 160 pg.
7.13 Books, 2019

Read: February 2 – 24, 2019

I’m not sure what to say about this collection of 15 short stories. They’re all really well-written — there was one or two I didn’t care for, two that I really liked — but they all showed skill, craft, and achieved what I think Denslow intended to achieve. But I’m not sure that I can muster up any excitement over the collection.

Some of the stories fall into the SF/Speculative Fiction category, but by and large these are “General Fiction” (whatever exactly that is). Some are comic, some are very tragic (I think you could make the case for all of the stories containing elements of both).

“Proximity” a bittersweet story about a young man on the brink of maturity (but resisting stepping over it) who happens to be able to teleport is one of the best things I’ve read in months. A great combination of imagination and story, that sadly, I read the same day I read the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and completely forgot about until I started flipping through this book again while writing this. (but, man, am I glad I remember it now…)

Then there’s “Mousetrap,” which starts with the line,

I want to find a not scary way to tell my sister that I’m contemplating killing myself, but I don’t want her to think that it has to do with the fact that she asked me to start paying rent.

And openings don’t get much better than that (the story lives up to it).

There are a handful of other really high high points in this collection. I can’t talk about “Dorian Vandercleef” beyond encouraging you to read it — but you really should. “Blake Bishop Believes in Love” is sweet, grotesque and unpleasant (intentionally so). “Extra Ticket,” a story about a teenager dealing (and not well) with grieving over a friend’s death would serve as a handy example of the concept of “poignant,” if you ever find yourself in need of one.

I might not be over-the-moon with this book, but I did like it. I can even see me being in a situation where I’d re-read parts or all of it (I don’t normally re-read short story books, but I’m not opposed to the idea). I would absolutely read more by Denslow — long form or short form. Not Everyone is Special is a good book — some of the stories might even be more than good. I’d absolutely encourage you to get your hands on this to judge for yourself. I promise you’ll find at least one story that’ll knock your socks off.

—–

3.5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Scoundrels Among Us by Darrin Doyle: An Impressive Array of Short Fiction

I thought I had another week to get this up in time for the release — which was actually two days ago. This is why I’m supposed to trust what I write down (and consult that frequently) rather than what I remember.

Scoundrels Among UsScoundrels Among Us

by Darrin Doyle

PDF, 284 pg.
Tortoise Books, 2018

Read: July 24 – August 6, 2018


The trouble I often have when talking about collections of short stories is just how to do talk about the collection as a whole. After tossing around some ideas, I think the easiest way to sum up my reaction to these stories is with his simple question: What was he thinking?!?!

Now sometimes I asked that question incredulously, sometimes in awe, sometimes in confusion, sometimes in bafflement, sometimes all of the above. But I kept asking it. Some of these are incredibly short, some are on the longer side — told from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of tones. So beyond my one question, I don’t know how to address them collectively. I won’t go into detail on them all individually (that’s just too many), but let’s take a look at some that stood out.

The collection starts with “Insert Name,” a story about the struggles of nonuplets growing up and then transitioning to adulthood in a very unexpected way. It impressed me, and made it clear that this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill short story collection. By the time I got to the sixth entry, “Dangling Joe,” I knew a couple of things — Doyle’s mind doesn’t work the way most people’s does, and that I needed to toss out every expectation I had when I started each story. Whatever I was starting was going to be different from what had come before, and I needed to be ready for that.

The highlight of the book is “If the Invisible Man Dies and Nobody Sees it, Does He Really Die?” This is impossible to describe, but brilliant. He does so many things in this story — in addition to telling a compelling story — that I can’t sum it up easily. Give me 15 pages or so, and I’d be willing to give it a shot. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year.

My notes on “Twilford Baines, Buck Hunter Unbounded” were simple, “that’s really good.” I just re-read it to see if I could expand on that, and no, I really can’t. It’s a story about a man hunting deer, who is forced into some concentrated self-reflection, and it’s really good. Re-reading it tempted me to push this off another day to re-read most of the stories, actually.

“Slice of Moon” was a great read, but personally frustrating. I think if you read it, you’ll agree. I can’t think of anything else to say without ruining it. If not for “Invisible Man,” it’d be my favorite story in the collection (given how annoyed he made me with it, however, maybe it was more effective than “Invisible Man,”).

I invoked Flannery O’Conner recently, and hesitate to do it again, however, I’m compelled to. Except for the explicit sexual content (which wasn’t really necessary), “Reborn” could’ve come from the pages of Everything That Rises Must Converge. It was powerful and strange and I’m glad I got to read it.

Were there some in this collection that didn’t work for me? Yes. There were some real clunkers — but there was nothing I wasn’t glad to read. As usual, some of the stories that didn’t work for me will work for you. And the one’s that sent me over the moon won’t do much for you (you’ll be wrong most of the time there — especially if you don’t love “If the Invisible Man Dies and Nobody Sees it, Does He Really Die?”). One thing I think everyone who picks this up will agree is: Darrin Doyle is a great writer and you should read his stories. You’ll probably also ask yourself “What was he thinking?” more than once. Go grab it.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of this collection in return for my honest thoughts and this post — which I appreciate..

—–

4 Stars

Brief Cases by Jim Butcher: ‘Scuse me while I unleash my inner fanboy

If you’re a Dresden fan still working their way through the series and haven’t gotten to the end of Skin Game yet, DO NOT READ this post. Go catch up first.

Brief CasesBrief Cases

by Jim Butcher
Series: The Dresden Files, #15.1

Hard Cover, 448 pg.
Ace Books, 2018
Read: June 13 – 16, 2018

Being a wizard is all about being prepared. Well, that and magic, obviously.

Generally, when I start a book, my question is: how much am I going to like this? (Occasionally, the question is: I’m not going to hate this, am I?) But there are a few authors that I ask a different question with: How much am I going to love this book? Jim Butcher is probably at the top of the latter list, and the answers are typically: a lot, a considerable amount, and WOW, SO, SO, SO MUCH. I make no bones about it, I don’t pretend to be anything like objective. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not looking to convince anyone to give him another shot (but I’m willing to give it a shot if someone wants me to), but for many, many reasons, I’m an unabashed and unashamed Jim Butcher fan and Brief Cases gives several reasons why I continue to be one.

Incidentally, I started this collection assuming the answer would be “a lot.” It ended up being on the other end of the spectrum of love. I’ll explain that shortly.

This is not a novel (alas!), it’s another collection of short stories and novellas, like Side Jobs. It’s been awhile since I’ve read or thought about that collection much, but I believe that this is a stronger batch on the whole. I’ve only read “Cold Case” from Shadowed Souls before, so this was a lot of new material for me — and I enjoyed it immensely. It was great spending a few days in the pages and world of probably my favorite ongoing series.

Five of the twelve stories here were told from the point of view of a supporting character in the series. Anastasia Luccio told “A Fistful of Warlocks” about a little adventure she had in Dodge City, which opened the collection on a fun note; we got to know “Gentleman” John Marcone a little better than we wanted to in “Even Hand,” (which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the story). Molly got to shine in “Bombshells” and the aforementioned “Cold Case.” And Waldo Butters’ opening lines to “Day One” — the tale of his first adventure as a Knight — will go down as one of my favorite opening lines of 2018. I really got a kick out of all of these — “Bombshells” and “Day One” were probably the most effective for me, but I’m not going to complain about any of the rest. Actually, after reading “Day One,” I figured I got most of my money’s worth just for that one.

Which leaves us with seven others from Harry’s perspective — there are the three Bigfoot stories that were published in various collections and then in Working for Bigfoot. I’ve been kicking myself for a while for being too budget-conscious to get that collection when it came out, yet unable to bring myself to get the e-book. Thankfully, I have them now — and they were great. Not worth the $80 that used copies seem to go for now, but still pretty good. I really liked the characters in these stories and would gladly see them again. “Curses,” was a lot of fun; “AAAA Wizardry,” was a good story that I’m glad I read, but I can’t say it was great; and “Jury Duty” was okay, but had its moments.

Which leaves us with “Zoo Day” — the only original piece in this anthology, a novella about Harry taking Maggie and Mouse to the Zoo. And it was great. Just great. I know I’ve got a healthy dose of recency bias working here, but I think in 5 years if you ask me for my favorite pieces of Butcher writing that it will be in the Top 10 — maybe Top 5. Watching Harry try to figure out how to be a good dad, while watching Maggie try to not drive him away, while Mouse just wants the two of them to understand each other . . . it just melts your heart. Yes, there’s still supernatural and dark things afoot — many of which we’ve never encountered before that could really mess things up for all three of these characters (and the rest of the Dresden Files cast, come to think of it) — and there’s at least one scene that creeped me out in a serious way. But mostly? I just loved the characters interacting with each other. My “Day One” affection and excitement remain intact, but they pale compared to what I thought about this novella. My notes (again, recency bias may play a role here) read, “A little slice of perfection. I didn’t know a 50 page story could make me so misty-eyed and so happy all on its own.” But it did, and I feel the heart-strings being tugged again as I write this.

Simply, this was a joy for me, and I imagine most Dresden Files fans would feel the same way. If you haven’t read Jim Butcher’s books about a Wizard P.I. yet, and have somehow read this far into the blog post, you really, really should. This collection isn’t the place to start — but it’s a great place to hurry up and get to.

Loved it, loved it, loved it.

—–

5 Stars