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REVIEW: Various Novellas That Caught My Fancy

I read a lot of novellas or stories that are even shorter than that. Torquere, for instance, regularly puts out stories that are 10 pages, or 20, or 30, but I don’t bother requesting them because how could I justify a review? But I figure if I review 3-4 shorts in one post, then I wouldn’t have to try to say too much about a short story and I could review more of them. Because I very much enjoy short little stories I can read in one sitting. When they’re done right.

So here goes:

Vampire's Prisoner“Vampire’s Prisoner” by Scarlet Blackwell. Torquere Press. $2.99. 61 pages.
Alex Somerville is a thoroughly unpleasant individual in late Victorian England who wants fame and fortune from writing a paper about vampires, so buys one from a newspaper ad. The vampire, Rafael LeFevre arrives caged but damaged, having been exposed to the sun on his captive journey. Alex feeds the vampire blood from a supply from the local medical college and watches while he gets better. He falls heavily in lust, despite fucking his servant Jonathan rather comprehensively. Rafael seduces him, tops him, comprehensively fucks him…and the rest is for the story to tell. Alex is an asshole, Rafael is inscrutable, Jonathan has depth that is never explored. The sex is hot and consciously tinged with class-based D/s that could be much hotter if its implications were fully explored. But the ending is unsatisfying precisely because it feels truncated. Short stories or novellas are difficult to get right, and this is an example of a story that should have been longer. Although it’s probably worth $3 for the hot, D/s-inflected sex.
Grade: C

The Cellmate“Cellmate” by Rachel West. Dreamspinner Press. $3.99. 75 pages.
I was intrigued by the premise of “The Cellmate”: Andy’s first night in jail for drunk driving is unexpectedly interrupted by his cellmate entering his bed and having sex with him. It’s not rape because Jesse explicitly asks and Andy explicitly agrees. But Jesse claims he’s not gay until he tells Andy the reason he’s in jail in the first place: he pled guilty to raping the man who had actually date-raped him (it’s complicated and well-explained in the story). Andy and Jesse fall in love, have a grand old time in jail with a magically-replenishing stash of condoms, until Jesse’s released. Andy then magically makes up with everyone in the whole world, finally gets out himself and he and Jesse live HEA. For some completely messed up reason, I like prison stories, especially m/m prison. And while I know that they’re complete fantasies, I like them to be a LITTLE more true to life than this. The fact that they’re in jail with the privations and loss of privacy is never really dealt with in any realistic way. When he tells his story, Andy reveals himself to be an utter asshole and I couldn’t really find it in me to wish him an HEA, let alone the ending he does receive. Yes, he realized the error of his ways, etc., but the unbelievability of the ending (prisoners can’t earn money from anything they produce while in prison, for example, and sentences like his are rarely commuted, no matter what the victim says) stretched my willingness to believe in anything else the story was trying to sell me.
Grade: D

Nap Size“The Bank Job” by Lisa Worrall. Dreamspinner Press. $2.99. 45 pages.
Rob is discontented with his life. He’s stuck in a dead end job as a bank teller in Wilmington. The only bright spot is his new boyfriend. On just another day at work, his bank is held up by a robber who not only successfully robs all the people and the bank, but also finds time to fuck Rob senseless. This is a cute little story but could be much cuter in execution in the hands of a more skilled writer. There’s a lot of telling, not showing, and a lot of pointless dialogue that could be a little more sparkling. I enjoyed the idea and some of the writing, but could see it being more well-written.
Grade: C

Like I said, short stories/novellas are difficult to pull off right. They’re an opportunity to play around with some cool plot bunnies that might not work in a longer story. But still, difficult to do right.

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

Editorial note: I swear that the image associated with The Bank Job is what appears on the Dreamspinner website.

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

14 Comments

  1. Joan/SarahF
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 13:24:45

    I think image for third book is their generic image for “Nap-sized dream” stories, which are all of a certain length. I think.

  2. LVLMLeah
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 13:59:38

    Short stories or novellas are difficult to get right, and this is an example of a story that should have been longer…….

    Like I said, short stories/novellas are difficult to pull off right. They're an opportunity to play around with some cool plot bunnies that might not work in a longer story. But still, difficult to do right.

    I see you gave two C's and a D.

    This is the dilemma with short stories, mini stories and such. I've struggled with the grading system on it because sometimes I feel like why did the author even bother to publish if they couldn't or wouldn't develop the story enough to do it justice?

    I read a lot of shorts in the f/f genre because that's all there is often, and it's the same thing. Very few authors are capable of doing a short story justice and yet many put out what are like you say, “plot bunnies” that might not work in a long story but are left with Swiss cheese holes and or what is one long sex scene. Disappointing to say the least, quite often.

    Sometimes it takes longer to buy and download a book than to read it, so there had better be something redeeming about the book.

    I wonder, would you bother reading any more of those authors' books?

    And had the author developed the stories a bit more, would you had a more favorable impression?

  3. Joan/SarahF
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 14:08:54

    @LVLMLeah: Hmm, interesting questions.

    I’ve tried a couple of Scarlet Blackwell and try to like her. I think she was the best of the group, and I think I would have enjoyed this story a lot better if it had been longer. But…somehow her writing doesn’t click with me.

    The other two: the Cellmate was very well-written (showing not telling, good emotional depth) but the plot holes were too much for me and the shiny-happy view of prison life was a bit much. I’d be interested in seeing something from her that wasn’t so high-concept, I think.

    The “Bank Job” was just badly written. A good story, badly done, so no, I’m not interested in more from that author.

  4. Author On Vacation
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 19:19:58

    I really love good short stories, I harbor tremendous respect for authors who write shorts well. It’s not as easy as it looks for sure.

    I think a significant challenge with writing short fiction in the romance/erotic romance genres is that the short story form doesn’t lend itself to the genre very well. I don’t think it’s an accident that Edgar Allan Poe (arguably the father of the short story) wrote primarily in the horror genre. Shorts lend themselves well to ghost stories and horror stories.

    Romance (love stories) tend to be much more complex and detailed. Compressing a love story to short format, say, less than 1,000 words, is tough. If the author’s including erotic love scenes in the story, that eats more word count.

    Short stories tend to revolve around a single event and explore a particular theme. Elements often frowned upon in lengthier fiction (i.e. “info-dumping” and “telling, not showing”) are commonly used in short stories in order to compress the work. There is usually only one P.O.V. character. Repetition (in order to reinforce the theme or keep readers’ attention) is another common device utilized in shorter works and frowned upon in novels.

    I took a few classes about short stories and fiction/film comparisons and it made a huge difference in how I evaluated short stories. I can see how readers craving all the detailed goodness of a novel might feel short-changed by a short story. The reading experience is very different.

  5. John
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 19:48:05

    @Author On Vacation: True, short stories are different than novels. That being said, they still read somewhat like one.

    I like short stories best in anthologies. I find that the running themes and stuff usually make things seem more uniform, and plus you get enough of them together to get some really, really good ones.

    You bring up a good point on romance, especially this genre of romance, being a hard one to short story. Most romance authors who DO publish shorts seem to have them more with novella length ones than just a few tens of pages. I mean, a few tens of pages isn’t much time to fully develop a couple and have them get it on.

  6. Jenny Schwartz
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 20:19:08

    I find short stories and novellas that tap into an author’s existing world work really well (or can do) — a comment prompted by the fact I’ve just picked up a secondhand copy of a collection of Anne McCaffrey’s short stories and the Pern story was excellent.

    Some of the love stories L M Montgomery wrote also worked well, short though they were. I remember the plot twists years later.

  7. Debra
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 20:33:36

    I find that authors who write really good regular length novels are better at short stories than some authors who only write shorts.

    I like shorts/novellas because I can read them quickly for that brief escape in between doing things at home and such. The trouble is finding good ones.

    I usually find new authors through anthologies with an author that I know well, but even those sometimes dont work out.

    My tastes closely parallel Joan’s so I will be skipping these titles lol.

  8. Author On Vacation
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 21:52:41

    @John:

    You bring up a good point on romance, especially this genre of romance, being a hard one to short story. Most romance authors who DO publish shorts seem to have them more with novella length ones than just a few tens of pages. I mean, a few tens of pages isn't much time to fully develop a couple and have them get it on.

    I agree. I think if romance short stories were possible, print publishers would have been producing more romance anthologies. Usually, romance anthologies contain 3 or 4 novella/short novel length stories.

    I’ve attempted writing two different short story erotic romances and both ended up novella length. The stories were just too “threadbare.”

  9. cs
    Sep 25, 2010 @ 09:37:13

    I sometimes feel authors take too much, and try to shove it a small amount. Or they under develop their characters, when the premise is pretty simple. It is a hard balance, but at the end of the day it is a story regardless of the length. We can forgive a lot on short stories, but they still have to read well.

    A.M. Riley wrote a short story “What to Buy a Vampire Who Has Everything” (or there about, can’t remember the exact wording of the title) and then she wrote two main novels after it. That short grabbed me, and I adored it, and at that time I thought it was a one off.

    Jamie Samms is my favourite short story writer, and L.F. Blake. Fluff pieces Amanda Young is another favourite of mine. Tory Temple is another good one, and Sara Bell writes some decent ones. I tend to get mixed up with everyone’s version of short, novella, novel. I mean I picked up a Willa Okati book at Loose Id, and it said it was a “Novel Plus” opened up the PDF and it was 164 pages (at $7.99). Odd.

  10. Joan/SarahF
    Sep 25, 2010 @ 10:10:02

    Authors who get short stories exactly right, IMO: Jaime Samms. I reread her “Statute of Limitations” regularly. Perfect perfect story.

    I also love J.L. Merrow and Lenore Black. I’ll snap up any anthology they’re in.

    And then one of the most sublime BDSM short stories I’ve ever read: Songs You Know By Heart by Dr. Noh.

  11. Author On Vacation
    Sep 25, 2010 @ 16:41:27

    @cs:

    I sometimes feel authors take too much, and try to shove it a small amount. Or they under develop their characters, when the premise is pretty simple. It is a hard balance, but at the end of the day it is a story regardless of the length. We can forgive a lot on short stories, but they still have to read well.

    I think a combination of factors impact a reader’s perception of a short story being “good” or not. Tastes vary.

    I agree completely that some shorter works appear to be an attempted novel squeezed into 10%-20% of a novel’s word count. Short stories are probably the most democratic literary art form.

    A common plaint readers make about a short story is, “This was so good, but I wish it was longer.” I’m unsure if this means A)the short story was a well-written, balanced short story and the reader enjoyed it and wished it was a novel OR B) the short story contains flaws (bad editing, bad storytelling, plot inconsistencies, inadequate or no character development) OR too many/not enough elements a particular reader enjoys reading.

    My biggest peeve about short stories are the “shortened ending effect.” Often in the final third or quarter of the story, an obvious, dramatic change in pacing occurs in otherwise “smooth,” well-balanced storytelling. Suddenly, everything is more rushed, the reader witnesses less plot development, everything is just hurried along to the ending.

    This is often the result of writers wanting to retain a particular word count in their manuscript. It results in sloppy product no matter how accomplished the author. Good writing can’t disguise the fractured effect.

    Another personal peeve … This sounds petty, but I find myself much less forgiving of poor editorial quality in shorter length works. I’m not the “grammar police,” but I just don’t believe editing a short story is as tedious as editing a novel. If there are lots of typos, misspellings, incorrect word usage, etc., it puts me off.

  12. cs
    Sep 25, 2010 @ 18:48:22

    @Author On Vacation: I have definitely used the line “I wish this was longer” I guess what I mean (when I use that line) is the story was a) really good, and I wanted to read more, and I’m all sad because it was a short or b) that it is good but just needed more development in certain areas.

    Oh! I totally agree with the rushed conclusion syndrome. That happens in novels, never mind short stories, but I guess it’s bad whatever the length. You can tell that these rushed endings, are due to length restrictions from publishers. Personally I just think it’s sloppy editing. I think either editors should scrutinise a little harder when editing, or publishers should give at least 5-10% over the “official” word count, for tying things of respectfully. It’s a shame when an author has a great well-balanced story, and then the ending is rushed — it ruins the whole thing (for me anyway).

    I also find this is an aspect of books which are apart of a series. I have noticed, that most series that I have read (in e-format) always have a really bad ending. Even though it is a series, it does not mean you just finish off with a flimsy ending. It makes no sense.

    That’s not petty at all, no one can forgive any author/publisher for releasing a book filled with grammar/typos. I think if the story is short (especially), then there is no excuse for anyone to miss anything. End off. I read a typo and it went something like this (during a sex scene): “Bryan sucked Bryan’s cock” — and I actually went ‘what?’ out aloud. These mistakes are just a complete nonsense, you don’t pay for a faulty product at the end of the day.

  13. Author On Vacation
    Sep 26, 2010 @ 11:16:38

    @cs:

    It's a shame when an author has a great well-balanced story, and then the ending is rushed -‘ it ruins the whole thing (for me anyway).

    I agree. I’m a very patient reader, and I am actually more satisfied with a book that may start off a bit slow or mundane and “work its way up” so to speak, in terms of inciting interest. Given the choice of a “slow” beginning working up to a great middle and bang-up ending and a book starting off with a bang and ending with a whimper, I’d rather have the slow start and build up to a fabulous finale.

    I haven’t read any ebook series yet, but I have read some series books that annoy me to death due to Awkward Ending Syndrome or to Cliffhanger Syndrome. IMHO, a “good” series book should tell a COMPLETE story. Readers should be able to read a single book in any series and enjoy a complete, satisfying experience from that.

    One of my favorite authors, Rachel Caine, drives me crazy with cliffhanger endings in her Morganville Vampires series. Often the endings leave me feeling like I read half of a book instead of a full novel. I’m addicted to Morganville so I cope by buying her novels as they’re released BUT I NEVER read the final novel until the next novel’s released. In other words, I’m always two stories behind. It creates the illusion that I “haven’t finished yet” instead of leaving me frustrated and waiting another six months or so to read the next story.

  14. cs
    Sep 26, 2010 @ 17:00:51

    @Author On Vacation: LOL. I’m not a patient reader at all, I really have yo have a solid beginning that catches me right away. However, unlike the ending, I can forgive a slow-build up. To be honest, you are right a story that just ends with a whimper, will be the last thing you remember.

    Totally agree with you, every book in a series must read like one solid book. If there is a cliffhanger so be it, hey I love good cliffhangers, just makes me want to read the book asap. An example I can give from a recent book, is characters met they had loads of sex, but they had demanding careers and didn’t live in the same city. So the author kind of left it as it was, they may meet up soon one day. I don’t know, for me that was just very lazy and really didn’t round of the book at all. I’m sure, anyone else reading this comment may shrug and say what’s so bad about that. I’m not saying it was bad, I just found it pretty flimsy and a cop-out. Not a strong ending to book #1 of a series. You have to make me want to read the next book. It didn’t, so I won’t be.

    My friend bought me one of her books for my birthday. I think it is the Morganville Vampire series. I haven’t read it yet. See if I pick up a series, and there are already ten books down the line it doesn’t matter, because if the first book doesn’t end well for me, I’m not gonna bother to pick up the rest.

    Ha, good idea! I don’t like feeling frustrated when a book has ended. During a book, I don’t mind — but not when it finishes. Good on you for holding out, it’s a shame readers have to resort to strategies to read a book peacefully. I’m not sure why authors leave their [series] book endings so open. There is nothing wrong with rounding it off.

    I like crime writers, they always have different stories in their series, but they always have the same characters who tend to have issues, and that is the same theme throughout their series.

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