Today’s book review, of a short story collection, is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey. If you’d like your book reviewed or to send me a book review of another author’s book, see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.
Twenty Short Stories: Settling a Score by Michael Ross
Synopsis: What does it feel like to take another person’s life? Will the good deeds we do come back to us in different forms? Should we always trust our instincts? Is it ever too late to turn back? These are of some of the questions posed in this imaginative collection of short stories involving amongst others; a public executioner, a super hero who’s half man-half wolf, a failed celebrity writer, a disillusioned taxi driver, a father and daughter facing the end of the world, an ugly journalist, and a policeman seeking justice. Some of the many characters in this intriguing and imaginative collection of stories where all the characters have a tale to tell. A collection that will surely leave a mark on the reader.
This collection is available via http://www.amazon.co.uk/TWENTY-SHORT-STORIES-Settling-Score-ebook/dp/B00G4E5038 and http://www.amazon.com/TWENTY-SHORT-STORIES-Settling-Score-ebook/dp/B00G4E5038.
Review (of the eBook, using Mrs Kindle’s text-to-speech function)
The collection, as the title implies, has twenty stories (listed and reviewed below). I love titles and often with short story collections, I pick and choose the order in which I read them, leaving the most intriguing to last (these being the third, twelfth, thirteenth, fifteenth and seventeenth).
That said, I left it to Mrs Kindle to read the collection to me so did, on this occasion, read… or rather listen to… them in order but with all but one in the second half of the collection I didn’t mind at all:
- Circling the Square: A sad Eleanor Rigbyesque tale (with an interesting twist) spoiled only by the mention of chocolate black eyes. I’ve never known chocolate to be black (perhaps the darkest of dark, but I’m a white chocolate fan) but it does make a change from the clichéd chocolate brown.
- The Good Part of a Rotten Apple: An eerie futuristic story of ‘the change’ that reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (crossed with the Hunger Games) and I can see this story becoming a novel. A clichéd ruby red (perhaps I’m just not a fan of overused colours?) but the story was so good that it’s forgiven.
- Popeye’s Ugly Brother: An intriguing title and great first line, although the ‘looks like a basset hound dragged through a puddle’ had me smiling. Like to preceding two stories, this is also in first-person viewpoint (a journalist and the story’s title character who has a ‘face for radio and newspapers’) and it works well, especially the subtle humour amid a tragedy. I did guess the ending but only a page before it came and it was still a satisfying one.
- Over (The Story of Giovanni Falco): Remaining in first-person, this is a story within a story; the main character is an author – always a winner with me – and had a distinctly ‘Limitless’ feel about it. I get the impression that Michael Ross is a movie fan. (cliché alert: ‘right as rain’ and ‘stiff as a board’) The story has a strange ending. It’s not that the story wasn’t strange (it took me longer to get into it than the other three) but it switched from first-person to third person (you’ll see why when you read it) and the ending felt flat.
- No Turning Back: Staying in third person (about a character called Sarah Templeton) was another short and anything but sweet tale with just one pick: a ‘forcefully’ and ‘forced’ (unintended – I assume – repetition). I hadn’t expected the ending so I read the story again and upon a second read the clues are there but I’d be surprised if anyone guesses the ending. The only annoying aspect of this story is having her full name more than once when it’s not needed more than that. Also, there’s a ‘nods his head’ where we don’t need ‘his head’ because we don’t nod from any other part of our anatomy but that’s a trivial pick.
- I Likes Waving: This has been written from the point of view from a character with mental issues, a little like Forrest Gump, although we soon learn that there was an ‘incident’ (mentioned a lot) and he’d previously been a bank manager. This style of writing though, doesn’t quite work and the purposeful misuse of the verbs (as implied by the title) becomes a little irritating, which is a shame but by the end I don’t feel particularly sorry for him when he tells us what happened after the incident. (cliché alert: ‘quick as a flash’).
- The Spaceman (a country legend): Set in a zoo, I really liked the explanation for the title’s nickname, not what I thought. There’s little dialogue in this collection up to now and some in this story felt a little wooden (too fully-formed). We should all read out writing out loud and because I ‘read’ this eBook via Mrs Kindle’s text-to-speech function (a posh English woman) the dialogue clunkiness was more noticeable. (cliché alert: ‘twinkling eyes’, ‘at the end of the day’ and ‘hit a brick wall’). My favourite character is Bob and while I didn’t initially warm to David, he grew on me as he came to care about Bob. I thought I’d guessed the ending about midway through the story but certainly wouldn’t have got the final twist. A clever story despite the switches in point of view (there should only be one character’s thoughts without a section break).
- Lady Jane and I: The titled character is who I thought she was and it made a change to have a historical piece rather than contemporary. It’s a very interesting story written from an unusual character’s (first-person) point of view. I love the main character (and Jane although she doesn’t actually say anything) and the ending is superb.
- A Photographic Memory: Back in third-person viewpoint, the first couple of paragraphs reminded me of the film ‘One-Hour Photo’ but it soon changed to an interesting detailed look from our male protagonist’s eyes at his girlfriend. Another unexpected ending, reminiscent of the film ‘Remember Me’ (maybe I watch too many movies). My only pick is that ‘crumbles’ should read ‘crumples’ (my mum once told me that only biscuits crumble).
- A Face I Cannot See: An interesting journey for our protagonist, ending up at a specific house. My only pick was the ‘a thirty-eight year old woman’. Using ‘a’, our main character implies that he doesn’t know her (and her identity is never revealed) so how does he know she’s thirty-eight? He knows the instrument (whose tune played is one of my favourites) is a present from his father (the character?) so it becomes clear that he must know them, especially as he knows the exact location of a woman’s unseen scar, but anything that makes the reader question, and therefore potentially pulled out of the story – and this is a good one – should be considered carefully. An author’s note at the end of this piece tells us that this story then went on to form a novel (‘A Face Not Seen’) so if you enjoy this story (as I did), you should investigate.
- Living a Good Lie: Set from late 2010 to 2013, this is another first-person crime story, told from the murderer’s point of view (my favourite to write from). I liked the term ‘chromium cold’ but some jarred at me (‘disappeared off the face of the earth’ and ‘her eyes, windows to the soul’ (especially having come soon after ‘My soul shimmers with joy.’)). This character is Dexter-like but I don’t warm to him as much, although, like the TV show, I approved of what he was doing.
- Swapping Tigers: A sweet tale with several twists and a great ending. Clichés included ‘eyes nearly popped out of his head’, ‘losing money hand over fist’, and a couple of coffee-brown eyes… and a ‘quiet whisper’ – is there a loud one?
- Smiles with no Teeth: An unusual story with an endearing Native American Indian character, spoiled only by the full use of her name (the story’s title). Full of lovely description.
- No Man’s Land: Starting with a reference to the First World War, we’re brought up to date. The switch from Sammy’s point of view to David’s confused me a little then we switch to David’s brother Bill (and mention of their older brother) and I wondered the connection but then we find out at the end and it’s brilliant – poignant, very much like the end of Blackadder Goes Forth. The only things that leapt out at me was the mention of a ‘Blackberry iPhone’ which are two different phones, ‘as black as death’, ‘shaken to the core’, ‘read it from cover to cover’, and the occasional use of continuous present tense.
- The Smell of Toast: This is a story of a sister, Susan, visiting her brother, Martin, who’s let himself and his house go. Cliché alert: ‘put two and two together’ (and the ‘totally’ in ‘totally bewildered’ isn’t needed, ditto ‘utterly’ from ‘utterly defeated’) and it surprised me that Susan didn’t know where the airing cupboard was. I loved the description of Martin realising that the boniness is him arm not his sister’s fingers. You can’t help but endear to the characters especially when you find out why Martin has lost interest in life.
- Vantage Point: Set in a fictional town, we get a brief tour before settling on the story titled property, once owned (and named) by a Captain Bartholomew and the character reminisces of his time spent there. Like some parts of the town, the house has been left to its own devices. We usually write about what’s around us but rarely about what’s not and here we have a (little too long – sets of three often work best) list of what’s missing in this house. An enchanting story with the wonderful line, ‘If there were tears they would fall now.’ and a super ending.
- One Pound Tip: A funny (peculiar) tale with an antagonist (taxi customer) we’re bound not to like and the ending is a pleasing one, although I had to read the story twice to ‘get’ it (as I had with ‘No Turning Back’) thinking it back in the 1920s but the conversation about the Mondeo car confirmed it contemporary. Another great line though, ‘This man is ugly, his face chiselled by life…’
- Psychic Wolf: The homage continues with mention of Gotham City and Metropolis, and this is a story about a paramedic who anticipates when emergencies will happen. It’s been years since I saw Michael J Fox’s ‘Teen Wolf’ but it reminded me of that character. (cliché alert: ‘drive like the wind’)
- The Endless Possibility of Truth: Another story from the criminal’s point of view but this time there are no redeeming features of this main character. There’s an interesting passage with very short sentences which when read by the reader would be short and sharp but Mrs Kindle pauses after each one so slows down the action but it works well and it adds to the suspense as I thought it was the criminal targeting his victim but I was wrong and there’s a definitive ‘ah’ at the end of that section. The ending confused me in this story (as did the story itself in parts) especially where our final character is at ‘the top of the bus’ (on a double decker?) but there’s a rear view mirror – there wouldn’t be on the top deck – perhaps this should be ‘the front of the bus’. (cliché alert: ‘the weight of the world rests on his shoulders’ and more sparkling eyes, we had twinkling earlier, and a typo here ‘pulled him though bad times’ – another reason why having someone else or even Mrs Kindle reading out our story helps)
- Not Long to Go: The title felt suitable as a final story and this is another sci-fi type piece with the main character called ‘J7’ and has a Matrix feel about it. A fascinating story with a timely ending. (cliché alert: ‘as free as a bird’)
A general pick is that the description and dialogue* from most of the characters were on separate lines so at times, it was a little confusing who was saying what. (*and the dialogue was preceded by a colon rather than a comma)
Oh, and titles don’t need full stops (periods) after them, they just are what they are. The characters’ names are easy to follow and distinctive from one another, always a bonus in my er… book, although it’s always worth googling (other search engines are available) your characters’ names (when you give them surnames) because Popeye’s Ugly Brother’s Toby Jones shares his name with a well-known actor (most famous for playing Truman Capote).
There are lots of Britishisms in this collection (Tesco, Wessex News, ITV) which anyone (I’m a fellow Brit) will enjoy, even if they’re unaware they’re Britishisms.
In some of their stories there was the use of continuous present tense (e.g. is clattering rather than clatters) which detracted from the quality of the rest of the writing (other than the picks listed above).
After the end of the collection, Mike invites feedback so if you read these stories do send email him (email@example.com). I hope this review helps too.
An intriguing mixture of stories with some great titles. Other than clunky dialogue and a small proliferation of clichés, it’s a brilliantly well-written collection and one that fans of movies and TV series will undoubtedly enjoy.
Rating: 4 out of 5 (only because of the stilted dialogue and clichés. I’d have given it four and a half stars on Amazon if I could.
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page). She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has six others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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