Red Poppies:
Tales of Envy and Revenge

   by S.P. Miskowski

YouWriteOn, 2009, Paperback
First collection

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S. P Miskowski has won two Swarthout prizes for short fiction and received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships for short fiction and drama. Her play about cyberbullying, "my new friends (are so much better than you)" was nominated for the prestigious American Theatre Critics Association/ Steinberg New Play Award in 2009. She is currently writing a horror novel about mother-daughter relationships.

Read an interview with S. P. Miskowski

" Then she said: She didn't care what the pottery guy did, now. In fact, she hated him. In fact, she was thinking about suing him. I still don't remember what she wanted to sue him for, but it was something like harassment in reverse because he "entrapped her emotions" and she "responded in good faith" and her passionate nature was "taken advantage of" and "the distress was compounded by his fake interest in art."

Reviewed by Carol Reid

Envy is a tawdry tyke of an emotion-- dishonorable and despicable, without the high drama of the other mortal sins. Manifested as revenge, it rarely satisfies. The opening story, Red Poppies, is a rambling narrative in which the narrator, Hazel, seems to find a new niche in her haphazard life. She becomes a housecleaner-companion- muse to multi-medicated Paula, the narcissistic wife of "middlebrow corporate liar" Thomas Livingston the Third.

Miskowski has a knack for manipulating the reader's sympathy toward the characters she creates. It's difficult not to feel an uncomfortable mélange of contempt and empathy for Paula, and frustration and empathy for the malleable and foolish Hazel, whose shallowness, in the end, is equal to that of her employer. There are funny and pathetic moments in this story but the sometimes flat voice dulls the effect. This piece in particular could have been greatly improved by a ruthless edit of dead-end paragraphs and extra complications, such as the arrival of the Thirds' adolescent son.

In A Personal Recommendation, Sadie takes up mugging when family financial troubles threaten to waylay her college and career plans. Neither the motivation nor the protagonist are convincing in this story. The back-and forth-structure, as a device to tie together plot threads and create suspense, doesn't succeed here and the concluding acts of violence don't have the feeling of inevitability that would have made this story work. But, as in Red Poppies, secondary characters shine and the scenes in which a larger-than-life college professor misunderstands Sadie's plea for help add a nice dramatic effect.

You Never Know is a deft, darkly funny blend of rural depravity and skewed family values. A film crew takes up residence in the Bowers' home, planning to film a documentary about homeowners victimized by tax laws, little realizing the resourcefulness of the little clan. Here the narrative voice is wry and cunning and succeeds in winning over the reader, despite the horrors to come.

In Next to Nothing the well-to-do are again the target of the narrator's barbs. This is a scathing portrait of an inept caterer and her fey clientele. There are some great lines here, such as, "Nancy likes to tell people she knows 'a thing or two' about food. I've been here a couple of years now and I would say that figure is accurate." But the general tone of the story is so petulant that the reader is hard-pressed to care about the little food allergy incident which brings the house down.

Idiot Boy is the shortest and perhaps the strongest piece in this collection. It's easy to connect with this story of sibling rivalry and escalating resentment toward the enterprising and brainless Leon, whose latest great idea is to steal neighbors's electricity. All the world ignores and forgives Leon his many sins-- everyone but the exasperated narrator.
"Mother stand next to me at the patio window, watching her stupid son. 'Now, this is where all that electronics training will come in handy, ' she says, because she doesn't even know that Leon flunked out of the Dixon Academy after two weeks."
Taken individually, these stories display a flair for quirky characterization and a sharp sense of humor. As a themed collection, too much similarity in narrative voice, repetitive phrasing and the emotional limits of envy and revenge weaken the whole.

Read a story from this collection in Identity Theory

Carol Reid is an associate editor for the Emprise Review.
Carol's other Short Reviews: "Crimini: The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction"

"Passport to Crime: The Finest Mystery Stories from International Writers"

Richard Matheson "Button, Button: Uncanny Stories"

Andrew Porter "The Theory of Light and Matter"

Fran Friel "Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales"

Kathy Page "As In Music"

Christopher Fowler "Old Devil Moon"

"Home of the Brave" edited by Jeffery Hess

Tom Lee "Greenfly"

Jack Swanson "Hello Walls"

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If you liked this book you might also like....

Elizabeth George (ed) "Two of the Deadliest"

Mitzi Szereto (ed) "Getting Even: Revenge Stories"

What other reviewers thought:


Ripley Patton