Laughter and Early Sorrow and Other Stories by Brett Busang

Candle-ends
Bill Lockwood


Laughter and Early Sorrow and Other Stories by Brett Busang

Laughter and Early Sorrow and Other Stories (Open Books, 2017) is a collection of nine intriguing short stories by Brett Busang. The book jacket describes the author as a “prolific essayist, a playwright, a painter, an ambivalent anglophile, and a failed ballplayer.” The collection is based on recollections and insights from Busang’s childhood and coming of age in Memphis, Tennessee during the sixties and seventies. His stories also have a touch of the fifties as well, as the first-person protagonist and narrator in “Year of the Falling Santa” insightfully says that “The sixties were just like the fifties until people started squawking about civil rights more audibly than they’d done before, or maybe it was just The Beatles.”

For someone like me, who had a similar growing up and coming of age, Busang’s stories resonate times and places that I can certainly relate to. The stories cover the rites of a boy’s childhood and young adolescence such as baseball, accordion lessons, backyard camping, summer camp, road trips before our interstate highway system was completed, stays at grandma’s house, and saying “damn” for the first time. The stories are told in the first person with the same unidentified male narrator and protagonist. It is interesting that adult female characters are significant characters in the collection and girls, although mentioned, are never really an important part of the action. Busang’s lead characters seem just short of the part of coming age where the sexes become really aware of each other.

It’s obvious Busang has a love of baseball, as do I. “The Great Walkout” is my favorite in this collection. The author shows very good knowledge of the game from the players point of view. A comment made near the end illustrates an insightfulness that Busang brings to all of his stories in various ways. After the opposing pitcher does a very un-baseball thing, the narrator expresses the wisdom that “Baseball is one of the few games I know that is actually designed for losers, and if you couldn’t live that way, you couldn’t play.”

The images he creates by his description of scenes is excellent. In “Moment Musicale” the narrator describes the “stability” of the suburbs where he lives to the city where he hopes to find “glamour, dissolution, danger” in “an alternative universe of unpainted clapboards and half-assed repair.”  Busang also shows his diversity in “Year of the Falling Santa” where the narrator attributes a couple poems to his grandfather, poems that Busang wrote as well.

The stories, however, are not always presented to us in simple, easy-to-read language. Busang uses complicated comparisons and “high language” in a very erudite—that’s a word I think Busang would use—style. His word choices challenge the reader to think as you read. But then, that’s not such a bad thing. His stories really capture a certain generation’s adolescent boys’ experiences, desires, and hopes through their coming of age. For the younger among us, this collection provides insight to mid-twentieth-century America. For those of us of Busang’s time and place, it is a real trip down memory lane.

*

Brett Busang was born in St. Louis but claims his publisher thinks he was born in Memphis. According to Busang, like many people whose birthplaces have been switched, he states that he’s geographically challenged which is why, when he decides to go somewhere he stays—as he has done in Washington D.C.—long past the time when its welcome mat is cleanly stitched and the only word it has ever needed etched, between all the needlework, in letters any guest might read from the curb. The condition of having been transplanted by others has, however, prompted a salutary reflex: “If they’re going to make up things about me, I’ll do the same for, and with, them. Having said this… are there any questions?” Busang is the author of I Shot Bruce (Open Books 2016), a novel about the fifth Beatle. His writing has appeared in print and in numerous collections, magazines, and journals such as the Loch Raven Review, Open Letters Monthly, The Bacon Review,  Cobalt Review, Overtime, Saranac Review, and Toasted Cheese.

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Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. He was an avid community theater participant in the early 1990s where he wrote reviews and feature articles for the Baltimore Theater Newsletter and the Bellows Falls Town Crier of Vermont. He was awarded the Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood has four published short stories and published his second novel, Megan of the Mists, in 2017 and recently published his third novel, Ms. Anna. He lives in New Hampshire.

Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

Candle-ends
Bill Gaythwaite


Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

Gray Davenport, the protagonist of Joe Ponepinto’s novel Mr. Neutron (7.13 Books, 2018) is a ne’er-do-well political operative with some scruples. He also has a chip on his shoulder. His life is as dull as his name. Like the subatomic particle in the book’s title, Gray’s existence lacks electrical charge. His good intentions haven’t amounted to anything and he is woefully unappreciated by his incompetent employers and a wife who splatters paint on the walls of their home and calls herself an artist.

But when an eight-foot-tall stranger bursts onto the political scene of the fictional town of Grand River, shaking up the mayoral campaign and mesmerizing the electorate, Gray decides to investigate. Who is this lumbering freak with size 23 feet and a sinister sidekick named Reverend Hand? What follows is part detective story and part political romp (with a smattering of science fiction thrown in) all of it served up with sly wit and laugh-out-loud observations. Ponepinto has a particular knack for depicting small town power brokers and their minions. When invited to meet with Grand River’s elite at a private club, a lair designed with too much leather and exotic wood, Gray can’t help but envision

a swath of land as seen from the air, clear cut of its forest, stripped to the soil; a phalanx of dead cattle laid side by side—all to provide these men something nice to look at.

Ponepinto has a lot to say about influence peddlers and shameless manipulation within the political process, but he keeps the message light here, as the jokes and zippy double entendres keep on coming.  Moreover, Gray’s examination of the monster-like candidate soon becomes a journey of his own self-discovery and transformation. Ponepinto juggles the various twists to the plot with considerable skill and energy, leading to a surreal and satisfying ending.

Given our fractured and shocking political climate, where truth is stranger than fiction (almost on a daily basis) any attempt at cutting satire can seem like overkill, but Pontepinto’s funny, incisive book is a welcome contribution to the discussion.

*

Joe Ponepinto is the founding publisher and fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review, a nationally-recognized literary journal that has had selections reproduced in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, Best Small Fictions, and other notable anthologies. His stories are published in Crab Orchard Review, Fugue, The Lifted Brow, Lumina, 2 Bridges Review, and dozens of other literary journals in the U.S. and abroad. A New Yorker by birth, he has lived in a dozen locations in the U.S., and now resides in Washington State with his wife, Dona, and Henry the coffee-drinking dog. He is an adjunct writing instructor at Seattle’s Hugo House and Tacoma Community College.

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Bill Gaythwaite is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. Bill’s flash fiction piece, The Girl in the Movies, was published in Toasted Cheese in December 2013. His short stories and essays appear (or are forthcoming) in Subtropics, Grist, Alligator Juniper, Toasted Cheese, The Summerset Review, Superstition Review, Lunch Ticket and elsewhere. Bill’s work can also be found in the anthologies: Mudville Diaries and Hashtag: Queer. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. wgaythwaite[at]hotmail.com

Necessary Lies By Richard Edgar

Candle-ends
Shelley Carpenter


Necessary Lies by Richard Edgar

Necessary Lies (2018) by Richard Edgar is a timely LGBTQ novel that addresses the allusion in the title concerning a global lack of diversity and acceptance. The novel is told mostly in dialogue form with shifting first person characters in a constant and purposeful panoramic flashback structure. It also holds an interesting posse of quirky characters that Edgar calls “the misfits” who are high school outliers from back in the day that evolve collectively into the modern day protagonists in the story.

The premise of Necessary Lies is biological. It is a science fiction fantasy that dabbles with the ethics of genetic parenting. It leads the reader deeper down a muddy and somewhat murky rabbit hole to the 1990s and early 2000s popular culture known for its discrimination and uncivil behavior toward a specific group of people living nontraditional lives: the LGBTQ population (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning).

One of the main characters, Sarah, speaks to this when she says, “We are a family of secrets, we tell the truth except when we don’t.”

The story begins in 2014 and indeed reflects this idea. Edgar dangles a mystery at the beginning and cleverly uses a teenage character, Miranda, to share her gay parents’ stories as well as her own thoughts on the subject of being different. Miranda says, “Sure, we were the only gay people in the school, and that was so weird that nobody knew what to say to us, so pretty much nobody said anything.”

It was a time when there were few if any ungendered public bathrooms in the U.S. and people were just beginning to ask the question: What are your pronouns? And coming out wouldn’t get you killed although it might still get you beat up or fired. There are moments of dialogue that grapple with the inequity and cruelty of being an outlier and other moments when the prose is so clearly in the character’s head in a stream of consciousness style of writing of inner dialogue which is the main voice for several characters. Edgar hits it out of the park.

The character Sarah has another great quote that is repeated in the story several times: “Work hard, do your homework, cheat a little when you have to.” It is more than a cute tag line but a credo that these characters live by.

Other characters walk the gender line. Sarah’s wife, Lia, comments about a seven-year-old boy named Doug who has a playdate with their daughter, Susie:

I try to do what transpeople ask, I mean, some of my best friends… Aaaand that sounded horrible. I have to say I was devoutly hoping this was a phase Susie would grow out of for our convenience more than for anything in her own psyche. And for Doug, well boys who want to be girls get the snot beat out of them, more often than not. Which is sad, but if he’s really transgendered and knows it at age seven, it’s a hard life he has cut out for him. I hope his family is supportive.

Among the many misfit characters is Mo, a transgender person who I think is one of the best written characters in the novel. Mo talks about herself and her trans friend, Cris, in a funny and sad, down-to-earth way:

Cris and I are kind of like peas in a pod, except we’re complete opposites. When we were in high school, Cris was a girl and I was a boy. Then I was a man for a while. Now I’m a woman. Is Marine a gender? I was that for a while, too. Now, I’m a vet. Cris gave up on femininity, and I think that if men and women can’t understand each other, M2F and F2M transpeople have even less chance. But Cris is more F2X or something. Anything not female, he says. Not male either, she says.

The shifting points of view indeed give Necessary Lies a real panoramic viewpoint as each character reveals something more. And by the way, Mo turns out to be a major player. Edgar’s story is a coming of age and coming out story wrapped up in a great big multicultural rainbow ribbon. The characters come and go quite literally and return with a vengeance in a showdown worthy of old Hollywood.

*

Richard Edgar is a scientist living in Boston, writing a variety of speculative fiction. He got his start, writing under the pseudonym Ana George, in the writing contests right here at Toasted Cheese. He hung around long enough to be drafted as an editor, under the handle Broker and he is still hosting weekly writing chats and writing articles on the craft of writing. In 2003 he became interested in writing longer fiction, and got involved in National Novel Writing Month, where the goal was to write a fifty thousand-word novel in its entirety within the month of November. After multiple attempts, some successful, a few readable stories emerged, including the recently published Necessary Lies.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

A Fire Without Light by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


A Fire Without Light by Darren C. Demaree

Darren C. Demaree’s timely collection of poems in his latest book, A Fire Without Light (Nixes Mate Books, 2017) is brave, empathetic, and soulful. The poems shine a bold and searing light into the universe of Trump America. The poems were a surprise to me because they are very different from the other collections I have read and reviewed. They were also very exciting to read—an honest, poignant reaction to the political aftermath of an election that for many Americans felt surreal and unbelievable. In fact, my first thoughts were of George Orwell and his dystopian prose.

Demaree’s collection filled me with wonder. There were moments that took my breath away—and still do as I still ponder the poet’s prose during my daily ride to work as I drive by this one giant blue Trump election sign still intact and seemingly weathering its open, wild, and wintry environment quite well. My imagination takes over and I wonder: Has it been replaced since the election? Its message certainly seems appropriate to date.

Also noteworthy is structure. I liked the structure of the collection. The poems have the same title as the front cover, but slightly differ with the addition of numbers and are interestingly not in numerical order. The first poem begins with #3 and the last ends with #702. More than seven hundred poems composed about one subject. Wow! I wondered about that and then about the order, but was soon distracted by their content.

“A Fire Without Light #10” immediately caught my attention as it evocatively addresses a fire as it burns through a forest:

Blunt limbs, refusing to bloom, refusing to be kissed
by the wind, you hold no webbing to catch my heart.

I came to a full stop when I finished and quietly shuddered as I turned the page. Number 10 disturbs me now as I look out my own sunny window to the surrounding pines and wonder about that burning forest, what or whom the fire truly is, and if there may be any trees left in four years.

In “A Fire Without Light #4,” I returned to thoughts of alternate universes and dark places of the twentieth century:

Imagine the outcome is camps. Imagine the outcome is
walls around those camps. Imagine the outcome is love
shredded by barbwire around those camps. Imagine a
fire without light consuming all of us that do not see
the light and cannot lie about seeing the light. Imagine
I could escape. Imagine I choose not to. I know what
happens in a world like this. I did not think I would
have to stop imagining it.

Yet, among some of the disturbing ideas and imagery there is a beauty that transcends. A beauty in metaphor that Demaree brings to the surface in that earthy way of his that evokes such response in me:

“A Fire Without Light #325”

Bark and saw, I read the phrase “peaceful ethnic cleans-
ing” today, and I lost my posture for a second.  I crawled
into my own heart and I died for a second. I went into
the basement to look at all of my own secrets that I
always manage to metaphor into something awake yet
still hidden, and I pulled them down around me…

I know that place the poet speaks of and from. I went there, too, for a moment as I read and reread those beautiful words and thought from the private chambers in my own heart. I remembered the long-ago places I used to go and their keepsakes that only I know. And I felt safe, untouched. And I wondered if one day I might discover an inedible truth and die there, too. The poem continued to speak to me:

I had to remove whole parts of my person to live
in the world I wanted to…

I ached as I read this line. I thought about the words. I thought about the poet, his pain and his message, and the people he speaks of. Americans who are Americans but not Americans (on paper). It hurt.

“A Fire Without Light #86”

There are dead men still running on anger
and racism. There are dead women kept on budgets by
those angry and fearful men. We have universities, but
nobody thinks about islands when they live in a land
without tides…

The words are meaningful, timely. And again I think about how they could also have been written a hundred years ago and have an equal effect. There is light in Demaree’s prose as well, as he also speaks about a return to normal and hope:

“A Fire Without Light #23”

We don’t need more light. We need to breathe. We need
our leaders to not be dragons. Wrong. We’re all dragons
now. We need to learn what to do with all this fire. We
need to secure the safe places.

 

“A Fire Without Light #40”

Timelessness isn’t a thing. Everything ends. Even the
memory of the end will be lost immediately.
What we hold is a small burning. The hope is that there
is enough light to see each other’s faces through the
heat, the smoke, and the vernacular of the elements.
I don’t see anyone right now, but that doesn’t mean this
moment is over. That isn’t what it means at all.

Darren C. Demaree’s  A Fire Without Light is about borders and division in this country. The collection is a kaleidoscope of earthy-political images that mirror the startling 2016 election, the chaos and civil unrest of this presidency that is America today. Demaree speaks directly to the why and wonder of it all.

*

Darren C. Demaree is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently, A Fire Without Light (2017, Nixes Mate Books). His eighth collection Two Towns Over was recently selected the winner of the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and is due out March 2018. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Nikolai Delov by James Dante

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Lockwood


Nikolai Delov by James Dante

James Dante’s second novel, Nikolai Delov (Omsk Publishing, 2017) is a fast-paced, riveting thriller set in the post-Communist Russia of today. As in his first novel, Tiger’s Wedding, set in South Korea, once again Dante’s picked another exotic and timely setting frequently in the news. Dante takes the reader immediately to a world where the shrewd and the lucky make their fortunes navigating unwritten rules among honest and corrupt bureaucrats and police, and forge alliances with dangerous rivals with mob-like behaviors.

Nikolai Delov, both the title and name of the protagonist, is a self-made trucking baron from Moscow. He has risen into Russia’s new business elite with his brother, running the family business started by their father after the collapse of the Communist government in the early 1990s. The story starts out revealing a familiar conflict between Nikolai and his son, Valentin. Nikolai wants his son to join the family business. The son is an artist with a vision of the profits that an upscale gallery might bring to the “New Russia.” He is not interested in his father’s business. Nikolai wants the company to expand into air transport against the skepticism of his brother and other senior staff. He sees them as “comfortable with the company’s success.” Nikolai wants much more.

Other characters are introduced. Nikolai meets the intriguing Inessa Zorina who has come to his office soliciting donations for a foundation and its shelter for victims of the Russian sex trade. Nikolai’s company makes a significant contribution, and soon Nikolai discovers that his company’s archrival is the major supporter of the foundation’s shelter.

Suddenly, the plot twists and Nikolai becomes involved in helping Inessa save a seventeen-year-old prostitute from a john in an apartment in a ‘bad’ section of Moscow. Nikolai and Inessa have an affair and fall into a complicated relationship. Although the driving force of the story then becomes the relationship, for a while Dante skillfully leaves you guessing as to which conflict is the major one. Is it with his son, with his brother and others in the company, the rival trucking company’s owner, or perhaps, is it really a love story told among the intrigue of new Russia?

As the story progresses, Dante shows a great sense of place, setting many scenes in locations differing from a fashionable restaurant in Moscow, to an upscale dacha in Odintsovo, to a strip joint in industrial Novosibirsk. Likewise, his keen attention to detail also showcases his knowledge of Russian culture and customs when the residents of Inessa’s shelter celebrate Christmas.

Although Nikolai and Inessa’s affair is predictable from the start, their relationship becomes interesting and multifaceted and complicated for both characters. They become involved with each other’s family. There is a bit of “Hollywood” when Nikolai saves Inessa from the ‘bad guys’ in a joint attempt to stop a sex-traffic operation using Delov trucks in Omsk, southeast of the Ural Mountains. Here Dante also keeps the reader guessing: Who is the real villain? Do Nikolai and Inessa go riding off into a Russian sunset? And then unlike a “Hollywood” ending where characters often remain stagnant, Dante’s characters show growth and introspection as the various subplots are wrapped up in the end.

*

James Dante lives in Northern California. He graduated from the University of California at Davis and majored in international relations. His fiction has appeared in Rosebud and Toasted Cheese. His debut novel was The Tiger’s Wedding. James presently teaches adult education classes. In addition to his website, you can find James on Facebook.

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Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. He was an avid community theater participant in the early 1990s where he wrote reviews and feature articles for the Baltimore Theater Newsletter and the Bellows Falls Town Crier of Vermont. He was awarded the Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood has four published short stories and published his first novel, Buried Gold, in 2016. His third novel, Ms. Anna, will be published in Spring 2018. He lives in New Hampshire.

Fermentations by Salvatore Marici

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Fermentations by Salvatore Marici

I had the recent pleasure to read Salvatore Marici’s collection of poems entitled Fermentations (Ice Cube Press, 2017). For me, reading a collection of poems is no light reading. Full disclosure: When I read poetry I like to sip. The poems are like fine wine meant to be savored. I read one or two poems daily. This allows the poems to sink in and to ferment inside me a little longer while I wonder about them and ponder meaning or just marvel at the poem itself from a writer’s standpoint of looking closely at its structure and language, to the subject of the poem which can be the smallest of ideas or an observation or a moment in time held up to the light. The poems in Fermentations left me with strong aftertaste of thought, most often pleasant and nostalgic, sometimes a little bittersweet and occasionally, the bitter without the sweet. I suppose that is what poems do. They make us think about things. The important things. It is as if we also hold ourselves to the light as we engage with a poem. The poem isn’t about me, but it is. For me, this was my daily sabbatical this past autumn as I delved deeper and deeper into Marici’s eighty-two poem collection. This is what I discovered.

Fermentations is an interesting mix of the earthly and the surreal. Marici invites the reader to enter the pages of his collection with his first poem, “Invitation to Enter,” whose subject was influenced by Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Gate of Hell. A beautiful bronze woman with grapevines tangling and coiling around her metallic head beckons the reader with gorgeous images of Italy’s past evocatively dressed. It was like looking through a keyhole and spying a beautiful new world:

She speaks four hundred years of
Olive, lemon groves
Grow on hillsides.
Wine pours from barrels in people’s homes.

Other poems also captured that strong sense of place. “Summer Wane in Upper Mississippi Valley” spoke to me of a similar time, my own time: a lovely October day in New England.

In a sky,
day paints Egyptian blue
an angel fluffs wings
whose breath wafts dry warmth
with specks of coolness.
Pockets of fading-green
spot crowns of trees like bubbles
above cartoon characters
filled with scripts
of leaves’ last wishes.
Fallen apples, pears
ooze hard cider, bees slurp.
They brawl in sugared air.

Salvatore Marici’s poems are also about people, such as the immigrant experience that also peppers the collection. “Concourse K Food Court” juxtaposes two very different locations—El Salvador and Chicago. It left me thinking about the people in the poem and my own people.

Mothers and daughters
wear polyester dresses
of whatever pattern and color
they could get. Aprons’ ties
secure their waists

as they cook on wood fires
or propane two-burner stoves
in their houses
or prepare on a grill
made from scrapped metal
before hungry customers

Corn tortillas layered with
chopped meat from unknown species,
shredded raw cabbage, red sauce dabs,
serve on brown paper
under the sun on bare Guatemala ground
whose dust whirls with a slight stir
where drivers drive old school buses
painted bright red and blue
wait for passengers
10 kilometers east of El Salvador.

While in O’Hare
five Hispanic women
middle age and younger
wear blue scrubs
uniforms of uneducated laborers
only one eats beans and rice
out of a recycled margarine tub.

The other lunchers bite burgers.
Their tongues lick salt sugar on lips.
They crunch fries broiled
in partially hydrogenated oils
melted like their culture.

Another poem, “Induced Earthquakes—Introduced Poisons,” echoed earthly environmental concerns recently overshadowed by politics in many places in the world. This poem spoke to me first with its humor and then with its serious content. It is a kaleidoscope of images and ideas that swirl and finally blend together into one idea that I found beautiful and honest and unsettling.

Colonoscopy doctor
shoots gas through tube
in ass bent to intestine.

Recovery nurse tells patient
Let it rip. Air rumbles.
Curtains between beds sway.

ground murmurs, shakes
when augers drill soil
then shake
pipes gush chemicals,
sand mixed with water
we could have drunk, used to irrigate.
Force blasts tunnel with cracks.
Fractured bedrock shifts. Fragments fall

in grinders. Sausage stuffers push
ground pork in flushed intestines
stretches casings thin.
E. coli finds pinholes, seeps.
More pressure tears walls. Toxins leak

into springs, drinking wells
from filth thrust in earth.

Indeed, Marici’s subjects range from beautiful vistas with evocative imagery to specific places populated by people. The poem, “Amid Life,” stopped me in my reading tracks when I realized that I had been teleported to a romantic and cosmopolitan Paris during the recent terrorist attacks.

Salvatore Marici’s poetry is an intriguing mix, much like a stone soup where one might find traditional ingredients and common themes to intriguing and surprising additions swirling in the broth that is Fermentations. Also, as I read I felt like an armchair traveler traveling laterally across the globe, vertically into the starry skies of space, and in and out of the doors of time to people and places that evoked (for me) a spectrum of nostalgia. And in those nostalgic moments I discovered a curious transcendence that speaks in hindsight of the human experience, its glory, its potential, and its self-destructive impulses. Bravo!

*

Salvatore Marici’s poetry has appeared in Toasted Cheese, Descant, Spillway, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, Of Burgers & Barrooms, and many others. In 2010, Marici was the Midwest Writing Center’s poet-in-residence. He is the author of three books: Mortals, Nature and their Spirits (chapbook), Swish Swirl & Sniff, and Fermentations (Ice Cube Press). Marici served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala managing natural resources and is also a retired army civil servant where he continued his work as an agronomist. You can follow his poetry events at salmarici.myicourse.com and on Facebook.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Megan of the Mists by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Megan of the Mists by Bill Lockwood

I had the pleasure of reviewing Bill Lockwood’s second novel, Megan of the Mists (Wild Rose Press, 2017) published this spring. The story is historical. Its setting is the Northern Ireland turmoil of the 1970s, a time in history that was interesting to me as well as a familiar subject on TV and in kitchen table conversations back in the day. For readers who may be unfamiliar with this time reference, Lockwood introduces the historical backdrop in his Author’s Notes on History and Myth in the first pages, detailing the struggle for Irish freedom from 1690 to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

In the novel, Lockwood explores this through two lenses: the Irish protagonist, of course, but interestingly, also the reader. He says, “For us Americans in the ‘Irish’ bars of this country the revolution and ongoing struggle in Northern Ireland was in the 1970s as romantic as the fairy stories of old.” In addition, he shares his own historical ancestry and points a finger to that “romanticism” in American settings such as Long Island that kindled and fueled Ireland’s politics in their rebel music, the stories retold, and in the many “donations” funneled from Irish-Americans to the IRA when the “hat” was passed around the bar.

Lockwood’s first chapter begins with a bang, full of action in Ulster. Shortly after, he introduces his main character, Megan. She is a lively young rebel who transports a mysterious contraband over the border: “I’m using my running talents for the nation.” She doesn’t know what it is that she carries in her backpack and is shocked when she finally does. The juxtaposition of this knowledge and the fact that she is a Catholic elementary school teacher is disturbing to Megan. She begins to come around to this idea when she experiences firsthand how deep the politics run in her community when she receives unexpected and unpleasant visits from the family of one of her students. Megan’s eyes are finally opened wide when she fully understands the oath of allegiance her boyfriend and handler told her after her recruitment: “Once you’re with us, don’t ever say no.”

Translation: She’s not helping them, she is one of them and they will never let her go.

“Here’s how they explained it,” Brian said. “Ya go in the pub, an’ ya sit it down by your chair, under the table, maybe. Then you pull that extra strap they got comin’ out the top. Then ya got ten minutes. Ya go to the loo an’ slip out the back door…”

Lockwood builds the story, cranking up the tension page by page, chapter by chapter, as Megan’s involvement becomes more personal when she is assigned to spy on people very much like her own. She is no longer a courier but an active player in the most dangerous game of her life. When she falls for a British officer in a northern “proddy” pub that she is assigned to case, the game becomes high stakes and takes a sharp turn that catapults Megan into more trouble and terror when the game moves to America.

Lockwood’s Megan of the Mists is plot-driven and with much of the detail focused on action. Megan’s backstory is revealed mainly through character introspection and in some of the dialogue. The only off-note is the resolution. Though satisfying, I would have liked to have seen it in play. I also think an opportunity was missed with the fairies mentioned so frequently throughout the novel. I was hoping this thread would have been further explored perhaps in Megan’s character development.

Overall, Lockwood’s writing is superb. He sets up the reader with historical fact and then grounds the reader in the setting with description and character movement that is clear and succinct. The dialogue is spot on. I heard the Irish brogues and slang clearly. Even when the story shifted from one continent to another, the voices continued to be distinct. Another hallmark of Lockwood’s writing was that, in essence, I could see movement as well as hear the characters: I was the proverbial fly-in-the-room hovering above them. I was there.

*

Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. He was an avid community theater participant in the early 1990s where he wrote reviews and feature articles for the Baltimore Theater Newsletter and the Bellows Falls Town Crier of Vermont. He was awarded the Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood has four published short stories and published his first novel, Buried Gold in 2016. He lives in New Hampshire.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

On Vacation

Candle-Ends: Reviews
TC Editors


Photo Credit: Michael Matti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Our reviews editor is taking a well-deserved vacation this issue. While she’s on break, here’s a reminder of our book review guidelines.

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Candle-Ends focuses on reviews of books by authors with a connection to Toasted Cheese. Examples include: an author published in TC, an author who has written for Absolute Blank or been the subject of an Absolute Blank article, and/or an author who has been an active forum member or host.

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We welcome submissions of reviews of published work by authors with an existing connection to Toasted Cheese. There is no restriction on the number of reviews you may submit.

If you are interested in writing a review but are not set on a particular book, contact our reviews editor and she can match you with a request.

To request a review, contact our reviews editor with the pertinent details about your book, your connection to Toasted Cheese, and your willingness to provide the reviewer with a review copy (print or electronic).

If you request a review, please consider helping out our reviews editor by volunteering to write one as well.

If you have a book you would like reviewed and you do not have an existing connection to TC, you can establish one by writing a review in exchange.

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The complete book review guidelines can be found here.

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Request or submit a review: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

Sure Things and Last Chances by Lou Gaglia

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Lockwood


Sure Things & Last Chances by Lou Gaglia

Lou Gaglia has done it again in his second collection of short stories, Sure Things and Last Chances (Spring to Mountain Press, 2016). His first collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction and the 2016 New York Book Festival Award for Fiction.That sets a pretty high bar for his second collection, and I don’t know if it is up for any awards. But, if I had any say, he’d get one for sure.

The first collection of his stories was reviewed in TC’s Candle-Ends Reviews in 2016 following the journal’s publishing of his story “Flat Iron” in Toasted Cheese’s  March 2012 edition. “Flat Iron” is about a kid who has just returned to school following spending the summer helping his father care for horses at a New York race track where the kid falls in love. The story is one of the twenty-three stories in Gaglia’s second collection, Sure Things and Last Chances. Most of them have also appeared in various literary publications.

In a collection sometimes the stories are all related, and sometimes they are not. In Sure Things and Last Chances, the kinds of characters and what they face in life seem very much a unifying factor even though the stories themselves are not necessarily related to each other. Also notable are Gaglia’s characters that continue to be quirky, such as the mail room supervisor in “Penance” who is obsessed by killing ants at home. They are well-depicted by good writing, like the guy in “Private Eye” who says preposition when he means proposition and refers to two security guards as the “one with a mustache and the other without.” And they often find themselves in imaginative situations and storylines, such as the guy whose encounter with a pool hustler inspires him to find a Christmas gift that is unexpectedly well received by his father in “Winging It.”

There are some constants. Lou Gaglia’s stories are all set in the greater New York City area going on rare occasion to Upstate New York. And his characters are all the “little guys” of the world, not the rich and famous and certainly not the best and brightest. They are most likely the less successful, almost all are somehow losers who are often focused on insignificant details that overwhelm their lives. Even his most uplifting stories seem to have lost souls trying to find their way. And, in a broader sense, they are all the everyday man trying to find his place in an overwhelming world. The last line in his story “Private Eye” is a good clue as to how many of his characters see the world: “It is not safe in this world at all, even if your life is just nothing.”

Gaglia’s stories are brief little scenes pulled out of the various characters’ lives. That’s what short stories are—not long narratives that tell where they came from, but rather the actions that show development and where the characters are going. In these brief glimpses, Gaglia draws us briefly into the characters’ worlds really well. He crafts his New York with a great sense of place, and he leaves you rooting for these lost little people of the urban world.

One or two of the stories stood out to me, as they were a bit out of his mold. “Burned Widow” is very different from the others. First it is told from a woman’s point of view, the wife, whose husband is the quirky, loser character. In fact, he is not real. He is made of straw. This one is a fantasy, science fiction, or perhaps just a metaphor. The guy joins the Fire Department and is burned up on the first fire call he goes out on. The other story is called “Fifteen Submissions to The Gibberish Review.” Here, Gaglia quotes a few lines from the published works of famous authors from Tolstoy to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then he provides a humorous editor’s rejection for each one. It is very imaginative and should be well appreciated for anyone who has ever submitted anything for publication.

The final story, “About Beauty,” is about a guy who takes his daughter on a nightly walk through Chinatown in New York City and thinks about how much he loves it all in light of a job offer that would necessitate a move to upstate New York. It is very nostalgic, and one wonders, if here, Lou Gaglia is really talking about himself since he moved from New York City to upstate New York. Gaglia’s collection is definitely a good read.

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Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice (2015) and Sure Things & Last Chances (2016). His short stories have appeared in Eclectica, Columbia Journal, Loch Raven Review, Menda City Review, Toasted Cheese, and elsewhere. He lives and teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner.

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Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. He was an avid community theater participant in the early 1990s where he wrote reviews and feature articles for a Baltimore Theater Newsletter and later the Bellows Falls Town Crier of Vermont. He was awarded the 2006 Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood has four published short stories. His first novel, Buried Gold, was published in 2016. A second novel, Megan of the Mists, will be released April 5, 2017. He lives in New Hampshire.

Jesus and Magdalene by João Cerqueira

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Jesus and Madgalene by João Cerqueira

Jesus and Magdalene (Line by Lion Publications, 2016). The ambitious title intrigued me enough to give it a go. I wasn’t disappointed. João Cerqueira’s novel has elements of humor, theology, ecology, and ethics. It’s timing, perfect. So much so that I did wonder whether Cerqueira is picking a fight or just poking fun at contemporary society. The story of Jesus and Magdalene is biblical, common knowledge for many. However, Cerqueira gives their narrative a fantasy-twist as he reincarnates this ancient couple in an alternate, present day earth and through their eyes, holds a mirror up to the modern world.

What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? Cerqueira’s prologue contemplates this idea and spins it wickedly. “[H]e won’t have to be born from a virgin … in a world where paternity tests are commonplace.” “[T]he three kings wouldn’t come, laden with gifts, … [they] would be detained on suspicion of terrorism.” “Fasting for forty days and forty nights wouldn’t be repeated either … given how easy it is to call for a pizza.” What’s more, “he wouldn’t consider that looking is a form of adultery,” “Nor would he take a stance on … the Catholic Church[.]” Instead, he might be condemned because “if [Jesus] had married Magdalene nobody would be obliged to be celibate and none of this would have happened.”

I laughed out loud as I read the first eight pages, but please don’t tell my grandmother.

Cerqueira’s writing is witty with sarcasm and humor. Lots of humor. It is a black comedy of sorts that pokes fun at religion and science, but also has ethical undertones of a cautionary tale. The story opens with an environmental group, Green are the Fields, whose keystone members are none other than the twelve apostles. They are leaderless, but at the helm are Judas and Mary Magdalene who don’t always see eye to eye, but more or less tolerate each other, as frenemies often do when working together. I found it remarkable that Judas was made a heroic character who along with Mary Magdalene and the rest of the Greenies fight for Mother Earth.

The Greens, as they are also referred to in the story, are not an ordinary environmentalist group. They are an extreme environmentalist group wielding ecoterrorism as their choice of weaponry when people don’t agree with their green opinions—the dangers of GMO, in particular. They long to be respected by Greenpeace and there is talk of other present day activists in the real world that I have actually watched on television. Here, Cerqueira does a nice job blending fantasy with reality. Then Jesus comes into the story, an innocent, partially dragged into Magdalene’s agenda. As I read further, I understood that Jesus and Magdalene knew each other from a vague reference, but somehow the others don’t recognize him. Its like they all forgot they had past lives. Jesus, himself, seems like he has amnesia, as an omniscient narrator compares him throughout the novel to his prior deeds from the New Testament of the Bible. Yet, Jesus is still the patient, loving man, but in the modern setting his passivity doesn’t work well for him nor does it satisfy Magdalene’s lust for action and justice. In this light, Jesus is not as discernible as his followers who, in this reality, he now follows.

Contrary to Jesus, is Cerqueira’s Magdalene. She is fierce. She has shed her religious trappings in the modern world and believes like a zealot that “religion only serves to hinder scientific advances, to oppress women, and to divide men.” She also believes in the “noble cause” and fills her pride with the idea of giving without expecting profit. Did I mention she slapped Jesus in an argument over abortion? I like this Magdalene. She is surprising.

It is also notable that Cerqueira also fills his story with many modern references. There are so many facts pulled in and around the storyline from academia, popular culture, economic and historical references, technology, theology, science and social injustices such as the exploitation of third-world workers by multinationals in the chocolate industry. The outer-story ring is about GMOs and the reader is led through the inner rings of Cerqueira’s story to a central theme. Along the way, readers will continue to find many footnoted sources peppered throughout the novel as well as allegory and a few obvious clichés.

Among the historical sources is the Athens Charter on page 210 that stopped me in an “oh, this is interesting” kind of way. Created in 1933 by well-known architects and urban planners of that era, the charter was designed with the central idea that all of society should have the fundamental right to happiness found in the home and in the access to the beauty of the city. This idea inspired the development of the fictional “New Europe” community created for the multi-ethnic population that live on the outside of the bigger community of St. Martin in the novel and is another example of reality blending with fiction. What’s more, in the narration about New Europe there is mention of the ancient Greek Athenian society and Thomas More’s Utopia that are also held up for the reader to contemplate. Yet, in Cerqueira’s story, this new community is broken. The irony, however, is not wasted.

Indeed, I enjoyed all the abstract concepts—with so many ideas, modern and old, that Cerqueira presented and the thinking I did during my ascent to the main storyline. In fact, I had a moment of déjà vu. I felt like I was back in my undergraduate years, sitting in a philosophy or sociology class discussing hidden meanings along with deep thoughts related to society. In this light, I can see Cerquiera’s Jesus and Magdalene being college book—listed along side the likes of Sophie’s World and, of course, the classic Utopia.

João Cerquiera’s smart novel, Jesus and Magdalene, disrupts the contemporary narrative with its provocatively witty style and its ethical pushback, creating a unique space for itself in entertaining reading. It won the silver medal in the 2016 Hungry Monster Book Awards, was nominated book of the year in 2016 by the Latina Book Award, and recently won the silver medal in the 2017 Feathered Quill Book Award.

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João Cerqueira is an award-winning author of eight books: Blame it on to much freedom, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, Devil’s Observations, Maria Pia: Queen and Woman, José de Guimarães, José de Guimarães: Public Art. His works are published in The Adirondack Review, Magazine, Berfrois, Cleaver Magazine, Bright Lights Film, Modern Times Magazine, Toad Suck Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Danse Macabre, Rapid River Magazine, Contemporary Literary Review India, Open Pen Magazine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Liberator Magazine, Near to the Nuckle, Narrator International, The Transnational, Bold Type Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, All Right Magazine, South Asia Mail, Praxis, Linguistic Erosion, Sundayat6mag, Literary Lunes, Bombay Review Anthology.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com