Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson

Candle-Ends: Reviews
A.R. Cook


Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson

Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson

Dystopian, dire and terrifying, Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson (Amazon, 2013) shows readers what the end of the world may look like, not with a bang but with “no noise at all.”

What would you do if one day, you were driving home from work, and in the blink of an eye all the electricity—as well as nearly all the world’s population—vanishes? Mae, thirty-year-old single mother of baby Holly, is thrust abruptly into a dark and depraved wasteland, finding herself stranded in a world where she, her twin sister Darlene, and a group of wayward strangers are on the run from a malicious gang of men with no refuge in sight. The only thing leading them forward is a mysterious blinding light in the distance, a light that none of them knows will be salvation or their destruction.

I don’t usually pick up a dystopian novel these days. I find myself tired of bleak, dismal futures in recent books, but I was intrigued by the premise of Thirty Seconds. The story begins from the first-person perspective of Mae, and we share with her the confusion, fear and fierce love for her daughter. I wish the novel had been written entirely from her perspective, or had the first-person narration trade off between characters throughout. However, the story constantly jumps between Mae’s first-person narration to third-person, sometimes even switching from first- to third-person in the middle of a chapter. I was confused with the shifting back and forth and didn’t see why it was necessary to do so.

The characters are crafted well, each with distinct personalities and backstories. Mae is independent, tough and relatable, using her intelligence (although more often, a strange supernatural ability that she develops) to get out of deadly predicaments. Darlene is sympathetic and likeable, a woman who has unwillingly been a sexual target for men all her life, and where she could have been easily portrayed as a two-dimensional pretty woman, she was well fleshed out and a strong person in her own right. There is also loving father Ash and his young son Michael, tenderhearted “Dolly Parton-esque” Olga, world-beaten Sarah, and sweet elderly couple Edward and Honey.

MacPherson did a superb job creating distinguishable histories for each of her characters, and in a way I wish these backstories had their own novel(s)—I actually wanted to find out even more about them. My main problem with these backstories, however, is where they were placed within the book. In the second half of the story, as the climax builds more and more, suddenly we get someone’s history smack dab in the middle of all the action, and it goes on for several pages. This disrupted a lot of the pacing leading up to the end and took me out of the action.

As much as I love the concept of normal people acquiring unusual powers, I am on the fence about the characters discovering their superhuman abilities over the course of their journey. They came across as little more than deus ex machina for the characters to escape from otherwise inescapable scenarios. When the characters really needed to save themselves, then “poof,” someone got a new power surprisingly convenient to that given situation. One character’s ability, which was so out of nowhere and only seemed to manifest so a bad guy could be trampled to death by an elephant, actually made me laugh. Given the serious nature of the plot, some of the superpowers came across as silly.

Maybe what was the trickiest part for me to handle with Thirty Seconds was the dichotomy of tones. On the one hand, you have good guys with superpowers, child characters with lively energy and endearing innocence, and the hints of what may or may not be extra-terrestrial involvement—this all would point to a sci-fi action adventure. On the other hand, there are major adult themes in this story—I have incredible difficulty reading about rape (to both women and children), gratuitous violence, and physical abuse to a baby, even in a fictional story. But what else would you expect if moral human society was wiped off the planet? Just be prepared for some uncomfortable, gritty moments, I warn any readers with gentle dispositions.

Thirty Seconds, while not without its flaws, did keep me reading at a brisk pace—one could read this novel in one sitting and be engrossed all the way through. It had enough twists to not be predictable, and while it may leave the reader with more questions at the end than at the beginning, I sense there will be more books that will continue this plotline to come. I would certainly like to see more of these characters and what else this author has in store for us.

 *

Heather MacPherson was born and raised in Newport, RI. She has a B.A. in creative writing from Roger Williams University. She is a wife and a mother of one. Her days are spent working in the non-profit sector but her passion has always been writing. She started writing short stories and poetry in the fourth grade. Her writing has also appeared in Toasted Cheese. Thirty Seconds is MacPherson’s first novel.

pencilA.R. Cook resides in Gainesville, Georgia, and is the author of The Scholar and the Sphinx fantasy book series from Mithras Books, the young adult imprint of Knox Robinson Publishing. She has short stories published in the anthology The Kress Project from the Georgia Museum of Art, and the fairy-tale collection Willow Weep No More from Tenebris Books. Several of A.R.’s short stories and short plays have been awarded first place in various magazines, such as Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Writer’s Digest. From 2009-2013, A.R. was the book review columnist for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. You can contact her at scholarandsphinx[at]gmail.com or through her website.

The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Fang of Fenrir by A.R. Cook

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


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The Scholar, The Sphinx and the Fang of Fenrir by A.R. Cook

The Scholar, The Sphinx and the Fang of Fenrir (Knox Publishing, 2014) is the second book in A.R. Cook’s young adult series, The Scholar and the Sphinx.

In this installment, readers are reunited with young, scholarly protagonist David Sandoval and his companions, Acacia, the sphinx; Gullen, the Master Huntsman; and Tanuki, the shape-shifting Japanese badger from the first book, The Shades of Nyx (Knox Publishing, 2013).

The heroes face another epic adventure filled with danger and wonder inside and outside the “Magic Curtain” that separates the human world from the worlds of legend, myth, and magic. With new friends Babba, the old Russian witch and keeper of the iron forest, and Tyr, the Lawgiver from Asgard, David must gather his wits and courage to stop the giant world-eating-wolf Fenrir who has joined forces with a mysterious new adversary who has plans for David and Acacia.

Cook again borrows from world mythologies—Greek, Egyptian, Norse, African, Russian, and Japanese to create a host of protagonists and antagonists, alike. Giants abound as well as animals of colossal proportion such as Slepnir, Tyr’s eight-legged battle horse.

Most notably, Cook is an adept storyteller and mixes imaginative, vivid description with sparkling vocabulary much like a potion one of her characters might concoct. For example, meet Babba Yaga:

The other woman, round and squat, smoked a foot-long pipe, the bowl of which was carved to look like a crow’s head. Long tresses of silver flowed from her head and a long pointed nose protruded from the deep ravines of cracks on her face. She eyed David, not saying a word, and only puffed tendrils of white smoke in the air. The smoke curled into the shapes of birds and cats that danced around her wide-brimmed hat.

Besides their vividness, the characters are complex. Cook gives each a unique voice and manner. They are distinct and often humorous. Babba’s character in particular is a scene-stealer and compliments David’s seriousness and Gullen’s know-it-all-ness with her funny wit, her mannerisms, and voice. “What do I know? I’m just old lady.” An old lady is the least of who Babba really is and readers will enjoy getting to know this quirky character.

There is also a nice cadence and rhythm to Cook’s writing. I enjoyed the variety in sentence structure and punctuation that peppered each chapter, each page. I spied some lovely sentences like this complex sentence that utilizes both consonance and simile to describe the setting from chapter fifteen: “A drizzle drooled down from the overcast sky, the clouds as slate gray as the pillars around him.”

What’s more, Cook continues the exciting pace. Each chapter builds on the previous in a steep story arc that leads straight up to the last page.

The novel is structured in sixteen numbered chapters. It contains a prologue, a glossary of mythological characters and a section called Moments in History. The prologue was very interesting: a mystery narrator with three personalities relates the first book to the reader giving key information concerning character, setting, and plot—thus a reader new to the series could easily begin with the second book. The glossary and Moments in History were also helpful. I referenced them several times during my reading. These added appendices show forethought and that Cook really knows her readers and their needs.

*

A.R. Cook is the former book reviewer for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia and more recently has written reviews for Toasted Cheese. Her first young adult novel is The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Shades of Nyx (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2013). Her story “Derry’s Down, Deary” won the gold award in Toasted Cheese’s Three Cheers and a Tiger Writing Contest in the June 2013 issue. In 2011, she placed Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition for her play, Major Arcana, and in WD’s Science Fiction contest for her short story, “Psycho Babbles.” She has also written “Willow Weep No More,” published in the Tenebris Books’s Original Fairy Tales Anthology, and a short story, “The Saintly Stew,” published in the Georgia Museum of Art’s Kress Project anthology 2013. She likes sushi and sundaes (but not together). | Twitter: @ARCook_Writes | FaceBook: TheScholarAndTheSphinxSeries

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

Swish, Swirl & Sniff

A.R. Cook
Candle-Ends: Reviews


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Swish, Swirl & Sniff by Salvatore Marici

Salvatore Marici’s Swish, Swirl & Sniff (Ice Cube Press, 2014) is a lyrical road map, a journey from the ancient exotic to the homegrown fresh, in which the reader follows a seamless trail of poetry that feels both earthen and astral.

While this is a collection of poems, each with its own unique flavor and tone, there is a structured flow to its arrangement in what becomes a subtle story arc of Marici’s world. It begins with “Altitude Sickness,” dropping us right into a South American landscape:

The Andes squeeze Cuzco’s air.
Coca leaves fatten my red blood cells
and wobble.

Marici invokes a physical sensation that is both dreamlike and unsettling at times—the feeling of traversing an alien jungle. But even with harsh imagery such as “purple fruit on tangled green pads / … / and their guardian spines” and “Walls echo crashes / to a deafen gurgle” in the “Devil’s Throat” of the Iguazu River, there is still a hint of Marici’s lightheartedness and wonder. While the river’s turbulent cascades are painted as a celestial battle of warrior angels, the scene ends with the gentleness of a rainbow. Marici finds the aesthetic, and sometimes the joviality, of nature in its rawness and rage.

“Devil’s Throat” is linked to the subsequent poem through its title, “Cooking to Sympathy for the Devil,” a smooth segue into Marici’s love for food and cooking. We leave behind the Amazonian exotic for the domestic comfort of the kitchen, yet Marici retains the adventurous whimsy. Each poem in this section is a recipe in itself, as Marici describes each ingredient, texture and taste of what he is making, “Like a love potion / that comes out of a witch’s cauldron.” We also see the passion and intensity of the cooking, and how it is so deeply connected to his family, both past and present. Perhaps that is why this section of the collection was the most poignant for me—it was truly an exploration of his family and history, and how the food he loves is the bridge between his memories and his present-day life.

I appreciate the humor of Marici’s poetry as well. I have attended several poetry readings of the Georgia Poetry Circuit at my local university the past year, and there seems to be a need for the poets to tell us something profound, or to jar the audience with a dark exploration of the human psyche. But they often forget that comedy is a part of the psyche as well, and some of Marici’s poems such as “Cubs Suck” (I was raised outside of Chicago, Illinois, and I, too, rooted for the Sox) are nice little reprieves from some of the more somber and sensual pieces.

That is actually a perfect word to describe the collection as a whole—sensual—in terms of sexuality, artistic passion, and the five physical senses. The sexual tones are tenderly handled, more to convey a natural beauty or admiration for creative art:

The insides
of Samantha’s thighs
hug polished curves

sets the tone of the poem “Perfection,” which compares a cellist making music to romance. This is a recurring theme for Marici, as his poems about gardening, reading poetry or watching films have an air of sexuality to them—passion is passion, and the different types can often overlap.

The reuse of certain images throughout the collection also forms the story arc, as if these images are “characters” that symbolize an emotional entity of Marici. The moon, the locust tree in his yard, the “two-story cedar deck” (a place where he likes to observe the surrounding nature while partaking in his consumable comforts) become prominent in the last section of the collection, hinting that these things carry significant importance to the poet. When it came to the final poem “Saving a Buck,” in which the locust tree gets dismembered by a landscaper (this moment was foreshadowed in an earlier poem, when Marici watches a neighbor cut down one of his dying trees) I genuinely felt bad for the tree. For a tree. Because we see how much this tree meant to the poet, the beauty it had and how easily it was axed away. It is a sorrowful moment to end on, but it is also carries hope in what new life can grow from it, the insects, fungi, and “unstable sprouts [that] sit on top.”

I confess that I don’t always derive the full meaning or author’s intentions from poetry, but Salvatore Marici’s Swish, Swirl & Sniff is accessible to even the most poetry-adverse of readers, creating incredible canvases of verbal wordplay, colors, and scents.

*

Salvatore Marici is an author of two poetry books. The first was a chapbook titled Mortals, Nature, and their Spirits (Ice Cube Press, 2012). His writing has appeared in several anthologies, magazines and journals including Toasted Cheese. He was the 2010 Midwest Writing Center’s poet-in-residence. He has won and placed in several poetry contests. Marici served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and he is a civil servant retiree, who worked for the Army, mainly with the job title Agronomist. At both jobs, he managed natural resources. You can follow his poetry events at salmarici.myicourse.com and on Facebook.

pencilA.R. Cook resides in Gainesville, Georgia, and is the author of The Scholar and the Sphinx fantasy book series. She has short stories published in the anthology The Kress Project from the Georgia Museum of Art, and the fairy-tale collection Willow Weep No More. Several of A.R.’s short stories and short plays have been awarded first place and appear in various journals, such as Toasted Cheese and Writer’s Digest. A.R. was the former book review columnist for the Gainesville Times. Email: scholarandsphinx[at]gmail.com

Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


carpenter-2

Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

One of the oldest plots in the history of storytelling is the journey: someone leaves town or a stranger comes to town. The journey can be a physical journey or an internal one. The best stories contain both. Bob Zeanah’s mystery novel Work to Do (Moonshine Books, 2014) does just this. The novel begins in medias res setting up the chaos with the discovery of a body and the crux of the mystery: who done it?

Work to Do has elements of three sub-genres within the general mystery context: soft-boiled, police procedural, and cozy. It can be called a soft-boiled mystery because the murder and other violence is not graphic and happens mainly offstage, revealed through character witnesses. Some of the characters are police officers lending police language and procedural rules to the storyline and thus, Zeanah’s novel could be described in part as a police procedural mystery. Likewise, the characters in the small southern town of Romulus are all cozy types because they are likeable, interesting, curious, and sometimes quirky characters. In this way, Work to Do has elements of a cozy mystery, as well.

Soon into the novel two protagonists emerge—the mysterious Kelci who quickly becomes the underdog character, and the good-natured, tough sheriff nicknamed Sugar Bear who provides the internal structure of the novel. The remaining characters are a diverse population: the three owners of Neat Artsy Stuff—nature-loving Ramsey; Shelley, his twin; and Joe, Shelley’s shifty husband; Sistah Laney, the apple grower; the charming Reverend Al Manning; Bertram Parker “a new breed of lawyer that operated from a car, cell phone, and post office box”; several police officers with their own agendas and more. And of course, the victim, Burl Campbell—“killed with a hole in his head that matched the hole in his soul”—whom the reader meets postmortem and later in flashback.

Each character is unique and Zeanah gives them distinct voices one could pick out in a crowd, such as the Reverend Manning who frequently quotes Bible scripture in conversation and Sistah Laney who speaks her mind freely: “You here to know what I know about Burl Campbell.”

Sistah Laney and the other characters, some of whom are antagonists and suspects, each want something for themselves and distract the reader by creating red herrings that lead the reader down other storylines—a family history, a budding romance, theft, domestic abuse, and other police matters that may or may not relate to Burl Campbell’s murder. And this generally is how mysteries differ from most fiction. The reader must remain active, alert and watchful. As Sheriff Sugar Bear sifts through clues, puzzles, secrets and questions in Work to Do, the reader looks over Sugar Bear’s big broad shoulders, working the case with him invisibly like a silent partner.

It is also interesting that Bob chose to write Work to Do in a third-person point of view with an omniscient narrator. It is an effective choice as it gives the reader more access to inner thoughts and character development (related through backstory and flashback mechanisms) that also serve in establishing motives and, if the reader is paying close attention, the method and opportunity for murder, as well.

Zeanah’s writing is also noteworthy. He takes his time describing location, movement, and introducing characters:

A lanky deputy barely filling out his uniform stepped out of the patrol car. He wore youthfulness on his face that let the world know he was eager, and would say or do something immature and he would be forgiven because he showed pride in what he was doing.

This is where Zeanah excels. His prose is wondrous in its clarity and richness in detail.

Along with the initial chaos and red herrings, a mystery needs tension-building devices to drive the main plot. Besides murder, there is blackmail, theft, violence, sex, secrets, and lies that climax with the intersection of two plot lines.

Work to Do is the first in a series of Sugar Bear mysteries.

*

Bob Zeanah has spent his adult life writing fiction as a hobby. After retiring from a career in education, he turned to grant writing and also teaches classes in creative writing, business writing, and editing. Work to Do is his first published novel. Bob lives on the Gulf Coast of Alabama in a place well known for churning out quality writing.

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

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


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The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle

Award-winning author Margarita Engle breathes life into Cuban abolitionist poet Getrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814-1873) in her young adult verse novel, The Lightning Dreamer (Harcourt, 2013). Getrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known as “Tula” to her family and friends, is considered to be one of the foremost Romantic writers of the nineteenth century and one of the greatest of the women poets of that era. She wrote plays, poems, and sonnets in lyrical prose to boldly express her beliefs about the emancipation of slaves, interracial and voluntary marriage, the exclusion of women, and classism within the Spanish colony of Cuba. Engle creatively weaves together fact with fiction to conjure Tula—her voice and her world.

Thirteen is the age for dreams
of changing the world
by freeing my own heart.

Tula’s journey begins with the yearning to read and stealing quiet moments and books from her father’s glass-cased library and her little brother Manuel’s school bag. Interestingly, it is Tula’s mother who becomes her most ferocious opponent and strongest influence in Tula’s poetic narrative.

People assume that men
make all the rules, but sometimes
mothers are the ones who command
girls to be quiet
while they arrange
for us to be sold
like oxen
or mules.

At the convent library, a young Tula discovers the poetry of Cuban poet, José Maria Heredia (1803-1890), the abolitionist-poet and independista who was forced into exile. Though they never meet, Heredia becomes Tula’s invisible mentor and inspires Tula’s wild words to flow.

I think of my feather pen
as something magical
that still belongs
to a wing.

All I need
is paper, ink
and the courage
to let wild words soar.

Engle’s prose is laced with rich language and lovely metaphor as she conjures evocative and ethereal images—moonlit gardens with “the fragrance of jasmine and angel’s trumpet” and souls that “can rise and soar in dreams.” There is allusion present as well. Flying is a common element alluding to freedom and fulfilling one’s true purpose. “I rise up out of a nightmare and grasp a feather pen, feeling winged.” Tula’s abolitionist ideas grow from the seeds of her questioning and rejection of the social structures in place. “The punishment for shunning a forced marriage is being shunned.” Patience is also prevalent. Tula fans her fire with it as she waits to come of age and effect change: “…I do believe that someday silenced words will rise and glide.”

Engle narrates Tula’s story through other characters in several first-person points of view—Manuel, her brother and ally, who gives Tula the ink and paper to write her stories, plays and poems; Caridad, the old kitchen maid and Tula’s companion who still dreams of freedom; the nuns whose cloistered convent walls provide a sanctuary of books and the space to compose her poems, plays, and stories; and the orphans who are Tula’s first audience. Tula also finds friendship and love when she meets Sab, the troubled half-African freed slave whose story intersects with hers. Each chapter is titled with a character’s name and each new voice adds an emotional depth rounding Tula’s character and showing her exceptional courage, determination, and transcendence conveyed through the compassion and opinions of character witnesses.

From the first page, I heard Tula. Tula’s thoughts, her ideas and opinions are spoken in soliloquy form reminiscent of the stage that served as one of Getrudis Gómez Avellaneda’s political platforms. Tula’s voice is so vocal and her narrative so detailed and poignant that her story reads like a personal interview one might hear on NPR. Engle’s characters effectively create Tula’s world giving the reader a bright glimpse of nineteenth-century Cuba. The novel is broken into five parts and concludes with historical notes about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda and José Maria Heredia and selections from their prose.

*

Cuban-American author Margarita Engle grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. She is author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino, and The Lightning Dreamer, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award. Other honors include multiple Pura Belpré and Américas Awards, as well as the Jane Adams, International Reading Association, Claudia Lewis, International Latino, and MANA Las Primeras awards. Books for younger children include Mountain Dog, Summer Birds, Orangutanka, Drum Dream Girl, and The Sky Painter. Engle’s latest story, Enchanted Air, Two Cultures Two Wings (Atheneum, August, 2015) is a verse memoir about her childhood visits to Cuba. Margarita was trained as a botanist and agronomist before becoming a full-time poet and novelist. She lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the wilderness to help train her husband’s search and rescue dogs.

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

Drops on the Water
by Eric G. Müller & Matthew Zanoni Müller

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


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Drops on the Water (Apprentice House, 2014) is a collection of short memoirs written by father and son authors, Eric G. Müller and Matthew Zanoni Müller. The individual narratives are separated by sections detailing author and setting, closing with two final stories from each author and an Afterward by Matthew. Their parallel stories are told in tandem chronicling their early childhood, school years, and young adulthood in Western Europe, Southern Africa, and America.

I really enjoyed reading the two introductory stories where Eric and Matthew introduce each other to the reader. Also, the father and son authorship adds a cool dynamic to the collection because they often appear in each other’s stories. In Matthew’s story, “Dorian,” he knows something bad has happened and describes Eric’s anguish in the moments before he reveals it to Matthew. “His face was bright and open before us, guilty, ashamed of itself, and his big floppy dark hair was catching the light off the kitchen ceiling and his mouth was showing all his teeth, helplessly…”

Movement is a common theme as the Müllers moved frequently. Many of the stories have exotic settings such as the Swiss Alps where a young Eric learns about the power of prayer in “The Prayer”; “The Beach in Nicaragua where teenage Matthew jumps into the surf and learns firsthand about the classic conflict, man versus nature; and South Africa where Eric traverses the landscape and finds himself in trouble in “Busted.”

Family is also the landscape that both authors draw their experiences from. There is a strong sense of self from both Matthew and Eric as they move about. What does it mean to be German-American? A young Matthew grapples with this idea. Eric, however, seems content to be a global citizen. Time and maturity play key parts in Eric’s writing experience and Matthew’s, too, while both write from very different ages and vantages.

Their voices are distinct and so very personal. Many of Matthew’s stories are about being in the moment, what it felt like to be in that one place at that one time. In “My Grandfather’s Gift,” he is introduced to his German grandfather, Opa Willie, at the airport and they escape together in a charming game of airplane; later, an older Matthew visits him in Germany. In this moment, Matthew discovers isolation and fear in a bad choice:

I was scared because I was the bad person in the family now, and even though everyone was nice they all agreed that what I had done was wrong… It was scary now to be on the outside of everyone…

Matthew’s writing is honest and quite brave in that he hits the nail straight on, capturing the shadowy side of human nature with all of its angst and grace. He also layers his story with evocative detail and beautiful sentences:

The air would be dim and thick through the curtains and all that Texas heat outside, and the incredible emptiness he must have woken to in the mornings, the absence thick in the house, as though an explosion had gone off and left a stunned silence just hanging there. (“In Their Room”)

Eric is funny, ironic, full of wonder and wanderlust much like a character in a film—part musician, hippie, rebel, and poet rolled into one. In “Streaking,” he describes the thrill of running naked across a public mall. “I felt hunted. A strange thrill charged through my blood—the adrenalin-rush slashed my fear. The turbo jets in my muscles took over and I picked up speed. I became invincible—Superman!”

Aside from being engaging, Eric’s stories are also jam-packed with descriptive details and rich language. “We fumbled with our guns, reloaded and shot. Still it flew, defying each pop, bang and boom, the wide wings moving awkwardly, though it disappeared with uncanny speed behind a koppie. Gone… Shells ejected, we stared gobsmacked across the empty veld” (“The Pheasant”). And “By now I was utterly lost, though I scurried around the key of E flat major like a beheaded turkey, hoping to find my way back to the melodic path—anywhere along the way would do…” (“Debut).

Eric’s voice, though rich in humor and irony, also reveals much about the human condition such as with a friend’s apartheid revelation in “Confession to taking care of a beloved grandmother in “After Midnight to the “addictive” attraction of traveling barefoot for a year in “Barefoot to sweet introductions to his future young sisters-in-law via a keyhole in “Meet the Sisters.”

Eric and Matthew Müller’s stories have an intimate feel to them as if they are being told or retold to family and friends gathered around the holiday table or in front of a blazing fire. Indeed, I felt like such a guest seated in warm corner as I read each one. This calls to my mind the expression that we are the sum of our experiences or perhaps, better said from a writer’s standpoint, that we may indeed be the sum of our experiences, but we are also the sum of our stories and others’ stories, too. The Müllers’ Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing Up from a Father and Son echoes this idea. Moreover, how very precious and important these big and small moments are in our making, along with the people—near, dear, lost, and far away who populate them.

 

Eric G. Müller was born in Durban, South Africa, and studied literature and history at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Currently he lives in upstate New York, teaching, writing and playing music. Apart from Drops on the Water he has written three novels and a book of poetry. Poetry, articles and short stories have appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Gloom CupBoard, and various other journals, anthologies and magazines. Facebook: Eric Müller

Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and is an Assistant Professor of English at Berkshire Community College. His writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, NANO Fiction, decomP MagazinE, fwriction: Review, Toasted Cheese, Prick of the Spindle, Halfway Down the Stairs, MiCrow, Literary Bohemian, Hippocampus Magazine, and numerous other magazines and journals. Facebook: Matthew Müller Twitter: @matthewzmuller

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

Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

Compelling is the first word that came to mind when I began reading Ethel Rohan’s 10,000-word memoir, Out of Dublin (Shebooks, 2014). Her story begins with images from her childhood—plastic bags filled with belongings carted across country, summer camping by the sea, ice cream cones with “sticks of chocolate” and fizzy drinks, watching planes take off from the top of the family sedan, and good night kisses “laced with smoke and the tang of hard spirits.”

Rohan’s story is a non-linear narration. She time-travels back and forth, allowing the reader to see the chronology of her life through glimpses and remembrances: “As a girl I often danced alone, usually to the music in my mind, my moves stolen from TV and ballerinas inside music boxes. I was helium. Stardust.” Vivid scenes showcase characters that are rich and rotund, dressed and addressed and seen through lovely turns of phrase and metaphor.

“[Y]our tired, shaky, blue-veined hands serving up bowls of the steaming chicken soup to my sisters and me, and as we’d finished eating, … you said you’d put poison in the soup, that we’d all be better off dead…” Moment-by-moment and scene-by-scene, Rohan peels back the layers revealing the darker side of a loving family living, coping, and surviving their mother’s mental illness and more.

Motifs of skeletons and lost bones flow organically throughout the story alluding to fleeting moments of fragility and innocence lost— “Waiting through the days and nights for you to come home, for you to be found, I shook so hard I felt sure my skeleton would come undone, terrified you would kill yourself…” and later, “I tried to tell Dad the secret picking at my bones.”

The narrator’s voice is credible throughout the entire story and is especially heart-cut when she recalls the descent of her father into illness. “I yearned to hear certain things from him, like I love you. I’m proud of you. Thank you. I couldn’t bear the thoughts of a tracheostomy taking away his ability to speak, of the hope of his ever saying those things of the heart gone forever.”

Yet her story is hopeful. For this family happiness might be fleeting, but it abounds in moments captured with a beautiful cadence that transcends and small moments tantalizingly shown like the narrator’s father teaching her how to sweep a floor.

Dad had always said if you were going to do a job, do it right. He had taught me to sweep a floor, had maintained there was only one right way to do the job. Start in this far corner, he instructed, and work your way around to the last corner, tackle every inch, and a broom is better than a brush. He had also taught me how to waltz and to drive a car. Every time I went wrong at sweeping, waltzing, or driving, I would apologize and he would say, “Don’t keep saying sorry.”

 

I would never be great at the waltz and proved much worse at the driving, but I can sweep a floor like I’ve licked every inch. I have always loved to sweep floors, especially with a broom, savoring the sure feel of the wooden handle in my hands, the rhythmic scratch of the straw needles, the gathering pile of dirt, the making clean.

And not a word is wasted. “For a long time I didn’t sleep, thinking how I hadn’t sang, how I hadn’t gotten heard.” Rohan’s selections are alluring in their brevity, pulling in theme (such as isolation and silence) and emotion between the spaces.

Also noteworthy is how the language also changes throughout the course of the memoir. There are times when the narrator yearningly addresses a second person—her mother in flashback. Other moments are realized through a stream-of-consciousness style where Rohan narrates her backstory in a page-long sentence as if she is speaking her remembrances aloud in a hurried and held breath.

In Out of Dublin, Ethel Rohan lays it all out—bare and unflinching in its humanity. Monsters do exist in different forms and danger is everywhere “even in the smallest of things.” She keeps the reader on a need-to-know basis, curiously omitting the details of ordinary life milestones, as her story seems to be about her own childhood closure. With a quiet gratefulness, Rohan recalls the best and brightest and the worst moments of her coming of age, of the people and places she loves and the cement that binds family. She sifts and salvages the lost and gleaming pieces, the scattered and broken parts and leaves the reader totally engrossed until the very end.

*

Ethel Rohan was the winner of Ireland’s 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. Her work has or soon will appear in The New York Times, World Literature Today, PEN America, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, BREVITY Magazine, The Rumpus and Toasted Cheese. She is also the author of the chapbook Hard to Say and two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by the Story Prize. Rohan was a former book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books and received her MFA in fiction from Mills College, CA. Rohan was raised in Dublin and presently writes in San Francisco. She is a member of The Writer’s Grotto and PEN America.

Website: ethelrohan.com
Twitter: @ethelrohan
Cut Through the Bone: Official Book Trailer

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

 

Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


carpenter

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014), winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, is a collection of stories that are shots of life taken at various angles on Main Street. The stories are populated with average people who are stuck and struggle to rise. They are people who probably wouldn’t get a second look if one were to pass them by, yet certainly deserve the attention from Blakeslee’s telling.

Beginning with the first story, “Clock In,” the reader is immediately pulled into a one-sided conversation between a restaurant worker who addresses a silent new hire. The interesting part is that the story is told completely in monologue and in a second-person point-of-view narration. It is quite extraordinary because it is not easy for a writer to pull off as most stories are written in third-person or first-person narration. The coolest part is that the reader becomes a participant by default and has a more intimate experience as they might imagine themselves as a character in this thoughtful and finely-crafted flash story.

Story by story, character by character, Blakeslee’s range of emotional depth and voice tugs the reader from place to place. One tantalizing moment captured so elegantly was in “Welcome, Lost Dogs where the main character, an expatriate living in Costa Rica, experiences a deep catharsis as she grapples with her own humanity and finds meaning in loss:

There are three kinds of grief: the grief of the definite, for what once was and is now gone; the grief of the indefinite, where there are no answers and so the worst is suspected; and the grief of the inevitable, for what must be lost and whose future must be abandoned.

This beautiful theme resonates in all the stories.

The first two stories have a Steinbeckian feel and seem to point a bony finger at the setting as the reader glances beyond the characters at working class life, poverty, prejudice, and a vast loneliness that surpasses hunger. In other stories, characters appear to walk on the sunnier side of the street. They seem to have it all but are lost and broken from their sorrows and regrets like the widower in “Hospice of the Au Pair,” who self-medicates with sex and morphine and Blakeslee’s grownup child-singer-star in “The Princess of Pop who checks into an infamous hotel with dark thoughts on her mind. Darker still is the story, “Barbeque Rabbit”: a mother suspects something unsettling about her child and remains inert too long.

Another vantage point that Blakeslee captures with her lens is about couples—couples that struggle with the big questions in their relationships like the woman who is caught up in the downfall of her rich, sugar-daddy-like corporate fiancé in “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” She recalls the beignets; a simple pastry shared during happier times, and comes to a deeper realization of how important it is to live in the moment because the moment is all that matters. She states:

…even to walk around and eat beignets and watch the passersby was no longer a small thing, but rather the heartbeat of life itself.

Blakeslee’s close-up shots also reveal the afterimages and cracks in relationships not always visible to the naked eye such as in the May–September relationship of a new couple who are beginning to lose their luster in “The Sponge Diver.” In “The Lung,” a charming young man must choose between a part of himself and the love of his life. In “Uninvited Guests,” another character—a young mother—weighs a different set of choices. Most poignant of all is the engineer in the cover story, “Train Shots,” who suffers profoundly from the consequences of a tragedy that he unwillingly participates in.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s story collection is thoughtful and alluring and crafted with edgy elegance. Rich stories that chronicle everyday people and their hidden struggles as they travel along the avenues of hope, despair, and destiny.

*

Vanessa Blakeslee‘s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, Toasted Cheese and many others. She is the winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize and has been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Blakeslee earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.

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

As We Refer to Our Bodies by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


carpenterAs We Refer to Our Bodies (8th House Publishing, 2013) is a collection of poems by Darren C. Demaree, a recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations. Demaree’s poems traverse human spaces and natural places in the poet’s world—reminiscent of the metaphysical poets. Each poem is an elegy to the tangible and untouchable. Images of animals, people, and rural life are layered within a kaleidoscopic context of emotion and existentialism as the poet contemplates the big questions with swirling thoughts that reach beyond the unassailable boundaries of ocean, sky and earth.

First, they found me,

then it was proven

that I wasn’t there.
I was on the land,

then I was under
the thinnest ocean,

digging back & back
trying to outflank

the processional.

— Ohios, p. 37

The collection is organized in three sections: Directions for Leaving, Ohios, and Black & White Pictures. It is interesting that many of the poems have no titles. Is there more meaning in their absence? Does their absence relate something else, a seamless, unspeakable thought to ponder and track along the poems lines and borders?

There is lovely allusion and repetition of word. The frequent usage of the ampersand is also intriguing, perhaps suggestive of a backward glancing speaker?

                            … She’ll
dream of darkened roses
& their profound thorns.
She’ll dream shining lines
with no context & no end.
She’ll dream in orange
& mango & her lips will
quiver without knowing why.

— Black & White Pictures, p. 66

Burning is another theme that flows throughout the collection along with a strong sense of place, a searing passion for life and love and the land.

Finally, sex like a burned
corn field, raw & rough
& in the dirt, a story peppered
with the word “soiled.”

— Ohios, p. 19

The subjects of the poems are personified in gorgeous figurative language and loving metaphor. Bodies change shape and transform to and from ordinary objects, organic and manufactured, that represent more—a way of life or perhaps a longing for something or someone, and with it a sense that the poet may be lost in his own love and desire—as seen in the Emily poems.

Not as a bee, so close
to the ground, so nested
in the one, colored hive;

my love is a lunatic
with wings, a dynamo
in reds, in oranges,

— “Emily as Thousands of Colliding Butterflies” (p. 46)

There is also an ethereal feature to many of Demaree’s poems. A lingering sense like one has been traveling far in their dream. And then waking up and not fully remembering one’s dream but recalling only fragments, yet knowing the full feeling of the dream and what it meant to be in the dream: so poignant—so vivid—so alive.

There was sky where the stars had died
& each time we replaced one

the heat of falling rock would consume
us. I don’t remember the colors.
I don’t remember the weight of it.
I remember the burning, mostly.

— “Ways You Can Lose Your Heart #16” (p. 12)

Demaree’s reach stretches across the boundaries of the human heart, delving into its many fissures and secret chambers, bubbling up with sentiment and ferocity that disturbs.

Something opened its eyes when
you first did, nestled itself
next to you, in your crib & for

the rest of time will be nose-
to-nose with you, never yielding.

—Ohios, p. 23

As We Refer to Our Bodies is a stirring collection of poems that travels along the American landscape and taps the many veins of the human experience with a heroic passion and an honesty that is brutally eloquent and soulful.

*

Darren C. Demaree lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children. He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals including Toasted Cheese. He is the author of As We Refer to Our Bodies (8th House, 2013), Temporary Champions (Main Street Rag, 2014), and Not For Art Nor Prayer (8th House, 2015). Temporary Champions is a collection of poems about the 1982 title fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim. You can find links to more of Darren’s work on his blog and at Twitter: @d_c_demaree.

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

Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses by Caroline England

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses

Caroline England’s collection Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses (ACHUKAbooks, 2012) brings the short story form to its zenith. A dozen stellar stories are filled with prose that surprises and hooks the reader, very often in the first line. The collection is inhabited by characters that are lovelorn, nostalgic, tragic, the keepers of secrets and much more. Many of the stories are family stories that traverse the dark side of human nature. They often begin one way and turn in a surprising direction. “The Bees Knees” borders on the grotesque, while the Alfred Hitchcock-like ending of “Heart” is a stunner.

England employs first, second, or third person narration with a point of view that is quite intriguing. One such story, “Words,” is told in third person with very little dialog. It is dramatic as we see the protagonist from the watchful narrator’s perspective, sometimes wide-lensed and distant and sometimes internal, as the narrator omnisciently reports the character’s thoughts and feelings.

“Today is one of the many family stories. What makes this story so interesting, again, is the point of view. It begins innocently with first-person narration—“Today I wrote to Richard.”—but as the story reveals itself, it becomes complex and layered. England creates incredible depth through the clever use of several techniques. The narrator never changes yet there are shifting points of view that present other characters’ perceptions.

In his essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays” David Jauss writes, “point of view is more a matter of where the language is coming from than it is of person.” And that is precisely what is happening in “Today.” The story unfolds in poignant increments and the reader may not see the entire story—not see “it” coming—until the last page even though there are subtle hints along the way, changes in tone or character voice. There is a sublime economy of words—masterful storytelling.

Likewise, in other stories the narrators are present, yet they reveal little of themselves. Less is so much more. A turn of a phrase, a short sentence of dialog or just a word or two carries double meaning. Such is the case in “Nothing Broken: the “blackout blinds” (being blind to the outside), “virgin” (innocence), and the evocative “cheeses, orange, white, yellow, blue, some waxy, some curdled with deep red tomatoes and onion to match.” The cheeses are ordered from fresh to not-so-fresh, implying a descent or passage of time. The ripe tomatoes followed by the onion hint of a fertile lushness chased with something sweet and bitter.

Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses is one of the finest collections of short stories I have read—smart, provocative writing. It is a collection for readers and writers alike.

*

Caroline England prefers writing to dusting, ironing, vacuuming and washing-up. Born a Yorkshire lass, she studied law at Manchester University and stayed over the border. Caroline became a partner in a solicitors practice and instigated her jottings when she deserted the law to bring up her three lovely daughters. In addition to the publication of her short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, and her first novel, A Slight Diversion, Caroline has stories and poems published in Toasted Cheese and variety of literary magazines. Despite her best endeavors, Carolyn’s writing always veers to the dark side. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter: @CazEngland.
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Shelley Carpenter is Toasted Cheese‘s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com