REVIEWS


by RK Biswas

Not-Everything-Lovely-and-Strange-Is-a-Dream-Front-Cover-260x390

Not Everything Lovely and Strange is a Dream
by Shellie Zacharia
Published by Monkey Puzzle Press
38 Pages

The title of this slim collection, plucked from one of the stories – “Fairy Tale Perhaps,” sets the tone right at the beginning. The reader is about to enter dreamscapes that are not exactly dreams. Imagination flies slantwise. Often reality is a glimpse through the corners of one’s eyes, where boundaries blur. The sixteen pieces flash and shimmer; flit past. Some leave, a sense of disquiet trailing behind them.

In the first story, curiously and also aptly entitled “She Calls it Storytelling,” a woman makes up stories about her guitar. Her husband isn’t fooled and tells her so. But that doesn’t stop them from playing the game, letting the music grow.

In the second – “The Artist’s House” – a voyeur spies on an intimate scene between an artist and her lover. The piece is a paragraph long sketch that reveals a lot about the artist. The narrative raises two questions in the reader’s head: who is spying on the artist, and why?

“Metamorphosis,” the third piece, is a fable about a woman. On the surface it seems to be another story about a woman emerging from a bad relationship, but something about it, makes one look again, and that’s when one catches a glimpse of the blossom, gets a whiff of something floral, and sweet. What remains behind is a picture of hope.

“Fairy Tale Perhaps,” true to the title it provides for the collection, is surreal and sublime. A sleepless man, at once a poet and dreamer, manning a 24-hour convenience store, gets a visitation. But this strange encounter is hardly a dream, or so the writer wills us to believe. For the protagonist, it is a life altering experience.

“Thirteen Sentences and One Fragment” is literally made up of thirteen and a half sentences. The protagonist falls in love with a poet, who tells her that her sonnets need not rhyme. This is a beautifully written piece, neither poetry nor prose, but something in-between, lyrical in its device.

In “Two Women in Blue,” one woman dyes her hair blue for a boy/man at a music store, holding on to hope as she offers up a strand. While the other in need of a new colour for her bedroom, gathers courage enough to ask the man behind the counter about his. Two separate pictures, but the narrative makes them part of the same canvas.

The seventh story – “After Your Big Sister Calls You an Immature Nuisance” is a list story much like list poems.

The eighth, “Call Becca” is about over-protective older sisters who can’t accept the changes in their brother’s life. This piece is written more in the style of a conventional narrative, but what makes it blend in with the rest is the pathos, left behind like skid marks of a reversing car.
In “Sid’s Music Cavern,” a woman (in search) drives north and wanders into a music store, and there, where the story ends, is where her song begins.

“Follow” is an allegorical tale of a pair of flip-flops leading a woman towards romantic adventure.

A young woman spends time with her grandmother, who she hasn’t seen in a long time in “Wind Chime.” Both have aged, changed, and their shared memories need bridges. This is a quiet story; one that conceals a sob and cracks hearts open like pistachio shells.

The twelfth piece in the collection – “Two Short Pieces in Which Birds (Real and Imagined) Appear” needs, in my opinion, a better title. The narrative comprising two parts – “Sleeping in the Summer Rental” and “Paper Crane” – are more prose poem than flash fiction. Delicately written, like water colours through words, they capture dreams and portray dreams of hope through bird motifs.

“Yesterday My Dog Talked” is a surreal piece, strange like a fall through Alice’s rabbit hole. But the dog, a teller of tales fantastic, desires something very ordinary.

“We have a Bear” is the story of a couple, who could be elderly and going through an empty-nest-syndrome or childless. The bear is real though, as real as deep need and/or vacuum can be. There is a taste of honey in the narrative; for didn’t Shelley say: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought?”

In “Of Course I will Return It” the narrative begins from the title itself. But what is it that the protagonist intends to return? In the story she describes the life of a woman whose blue bicycle she intends to take; an easy thing to return. One comes away with the feeling that there is more to it, and there is something else that needs to be returned.

The final story has a title that sounds like a story in itself – “This is not the Start of a Joke: A Monkey and a Banana were riding a Tandem Bicycle.” Here, Zacharia shifts away from the dreamscape tone of the preceding stories, and gives us a tightly woven narrative about budding romance, spiced with humour. The conclusion works well, both for the story as well as for the collection as a whole:

“We ride off into the sunset,” he said.

She looked at the sky. Orange. Pink. “Let’s ride.”

And ride we do, with the trail ends of each piece still fluttering somewhere in our minds. After all, this was a strange and lovely cruise, at the end of which one is left contemplating as the narratives merge with the horizon.

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 Rumjhum BiswasRK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. Authorspress, India published her short story collection—Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women—in December. Another story collection from Lifi Publications, New Delhi is due out in mid 2015. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Her poem Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

It takes nerve, attempting a clever riff on a classic story, and genuine wit to pull it off. I thought Simon Barker’s The Non-Opening Window (7/16/12) captured the mood and voice of Saki’s (H. H. Munro’s) original perfectly and seamlessly updated it.

Saki’s characters live to take the mickey out of the credulous, unwary, or overbearing. That plot device can go off the rails pretty quickly if not steered with exceptional skill.

The frothy meringue of Saki’s humor didn’t disguise his contempt for an often vapid and hypocritical society. We laugh, but we get the point too.

Barker’s story has gentler barbs. His hapless victim is on a first date arranged via the internet, not an already fragile young man recovering from nervous prostration, but the storyline is faithful to its source.

With this sort of humor, either you like it or you don’t. Commenters familiar with The Open Window mostly enjoyed what Barker did here. Nine out of seventeen loved it. Those who didn’t know Saki’s story were mostly left cold. A couple of readers seemed offended that Barker borrowed his plotline, though he gave his source right up front.

The story certainly provoked significant response—33 readers took the time to vote. But it ended up with only 3.2 stars.

Take a look at The Non-Opening Window. I hope you’ll find it as tasty a confection as I did.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

My kind of horror story: a quiet progression towards doom. Nothing’s harder to write. One false note in the voice and the mood vanishes; built-up tension can’t be reclaimed. I haven’t seen it done better than in Lydia S Gray’s In Return (1/8/12).

Gray states the impossible right at the beginning of her story, which takes confidence and nerve. She doesn’t answer any of our questions but we can’t stop following, wondering and dreading right alongside the narrator.

I love when the writer respects the reader’s intelligence, knows that life doesn’t tie itself up in neat resolutions.

The story earned a respectable 3.7 stars after 57 votes; twenty readers commented, most of them finding In Return creepy and effective. A few found it flat, and some wanted more details. I think it’s considerably underrated.

The inexplicable is at the heart of horror fiction. Yet readers sometimes accept rampaging zombies and the inconveniences caused by monthly full moons without a quibble, but insist on being told the “why” of less gory but more atmospheric stories.

Remembering it this long after my first read, and revisiting it, my pleasure in Gray’s story hasn’t diminished. I think In Return is worthy of a place in any anthology of great ghost and horror tales–alongside masterworks by M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood.

Take a look for yourself–see if you agree.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI’ve always thought the best horror stories camouflage themselves with deceptive ordinariness, luring you in until it’s too late to escape the bad place you’re heading towards. The quiet anguish of Rebecca Schwarz’s The Horses (6/2/13) left my heart pounding.

Schwarz takes a subject that usually gets the full-screen spectacular treatment, so to speak, and with simple details of a workman’s duties gives us a vista of infinite loss.

Seven people commented, out of a total of 21 who chose to vote; five of them were strongly positive though only I specified my rating (five stars). The story ended up at an overall 3.8 rating.

The danger in making one’s points obliquely is that many readers won’t be enticed by the clues you drop for them. I didn’t feel that Ms. Schwarz was making us work too hard.

But the story does ask us to think. I don’t believe “flash” is synonymous with “quick read.” I tend to linger over phrases and paragraphs, to stick with it until I’ve gotten all the marrow from a piece that’s shown me it’s worth savoring.

To give further details here is to give away the game. Take a look at The Horses and see why I found it unforgettable.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI loved Wilma Bernard’s Vegetarian (11/4/12).

This little gem takes readers on a creepy road trip from youthful awkwardness to utter insanity, and I didn’t feel any bumps along the way.

One of fiction’s grand purposes is letting us indulge in the seriously anti-social without tears. It’s always cheering to see the bad guys flattened by karma.

Sometimes the bad guy is just heedlessly crass rather than an archetype of villainy. That plotline demands even more skill from the writer, since readers are likely to feel uncomfortable about overkill.

Despite that, Vegetarian earned a very respectable 3.8 stars after 24 votes. Most of the ten commenters enjoyed it.

I was reminded of the voice in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Plath is not a writer I admire—I found her poetry, and her manner of death, self-indulgent to the extreme. But the first-person narrator of The Bell Jar has a nice sense of gallows humor as she describes her own descent into the tar pit of mental illness.

Bernard’s narrator isn’t quite as clear-eyed about herself, and doesn’t need to be. She’s painting a different sort of portrait.

Take a look at Vegetarian. Perhaps you’ll consider it the perfect little bite too.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

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