Poor Advice by Lou Gaglia

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Poor Advice (and Other Stories) by Lou Gaglia

Poor Advice (And Other Stories) by Lou Gaglia

Poor Advice (And Other Stories) is a zany collection of short stories written by Lou Gaglia. The characters are a mixed group of average Joes and a few Janes with troubles that are reminiscent of characters from a Woody Allen film. Indeed, there is a Woody Allen-ish tone in many of Gaglia’s stories and characters; some of whom are as quacky as they come.

Take the woman from the story “The Lady with the Red Van.” The setting is a gas station. “The lady” pulls up in her red van and fumes when she has to wait for another customer to move their vehicle. Meanwhile, another conflict regarding “matches” is in progress that creates two dueling conflicts. Gaglia balances this story beautifully with a protagonist whom I liked very much—a bystander, a philosophical modern Plato-in-khakis who doles out wisdom to a young, sheepish, and very perplexed gas attendant. The story escalates. I don’t want to spoil it so I will say no more. (However, I feel compelled to admit that at the time of my reading that I was a little afraid of her and I am presently mindful of how I park my car at the pumps.). And this is one of the first stories in Poor Advice

I have so much more to say.

Quackiness aside, the stories are also steeped in realism, The characters have jobs, they love, they hate, and they wonder—they think about life’s biggest questions which sometimes appear disguised in ambiguity as well as in absurdity. Gaglia’s fiction is as strange and as real as just about any truth I had related to me in a cafeteria line, bus depot, at a wedding or in front of public bathroom sink by people I know, don’t know (or don’t want to know) that have relatives with names like Uncle Marv and my cousin, Beryl. Gaglia is pitch perfect with character development in the short story form.

He also writes masterfully with selective vocabulary. Gaglia is a true wordsmith. A thumbs-up on well-chosen language: accouterments, somnambulism, soporifically, aplomb, hubbub… (I think my IQ may have increased a bit after reading.)

Also noteworthy are the many long and winding sentences like this hook line in “The Ventriloquist”:

His name is Sal, and him and his wife—my crazy sister Rita—live downstairs from me and my wife, but you’d think their apartment was just some rest stop since they know their way around my place easier than their own and have become experts at cleaning out the refrigerator.

Again, well chosen words and interesting sentence structure that together build a small universe, a hallmark in the short story form. I counted 51 words. This impressed me so much that I thought about diagramming that particular sentence, something that I haven’t done since my elementary years. I didn’t have paper and pencil available at the time as I was inside a pick-up truck driving on a rainy late winter afternoon on Route 84 somewhere in Connecticut south of Hartford, so instead I decided to map it out in my mind and that was more mentally satisfying than any crossword puzzle or sudoku problem that I had ever encountered. Thank you, Lou.

Shall we talk adverbs? In “With Doleful Vexation,” Gaglia had some good times creating a plethora of dialogue adverbs: magnanimously, bashfully, brazenly, histrionically, soporifically, and officiously…

This sentence is a favorite: “Glad to meet you, my friend,” he said televangelically. Instantly, I have an image of a man with a smile like that of another man in a pinstripe suit and shiny shoes holding a microphone, standing in front of a pulpit and a rainbow of stained glass depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. Gaglia does this again and again throughout his stories, making this reader pause and wonder and smile. It was almost like reading a script. Moreover, each character has a voice that is individual and unique; their dialogues are terrific, full of colloquialisms and mannerisms and vernacular.

In “Hands,” a young man addresses the object of his affection in a letter that reveals much about him bit-by-bit in those winding sentences I mentioned earlier that seem like a one-sided dialogue practiced in front of a mirror. In “Letters from a Young Poet,” another young man goes to Italy and writes home to his sweetheart and once more in “Correspondence” another young lovestruck character’s “positive” and “negative” letters to Karen showcase more word play.

Structure is also worth mentioning again.

Some of Gaglia’s stories are like an artichoke in this regard. One of my favorite story structures from Poor Advice is “A Teen Tale” where there is a story-in-a-story (ergo, the artichoke). The main character is a writer who addresses three mystery editors in his conspicuously naive and inappropriate query letter, in which the writer-character embeds a story he has written in the main body of his letter. Cool. Gaglia also crafts his stories in multiple points of view: first person, third person and even second person. Second-person point of view is a particular point of view that is not easy to pull off, but Gaglia does it with style and wit.

Another element to many of the stories in Poor Advice is this sense of timelessness. The stories take place in the modern world but what decade? ’00s? ’90s? ’80s? ’60s? Maybe it’s the absence of technology in some. Yet one might argue after reading—is technology really missed? I would say: no. There is, however, a strong sense of place. Maybe that is why Woody Allen came to my mind early on. Many of the stories take place in New York—in Brooklyn, in Queens, and on Long Island. It is clear that setting is most definitely a strong motif. Though I’ve never lived in NYC, I’m a sucker for NY stories. Love ’em.

Here’s one:

After a two inning sampling of my new Brooklyn neighborhood’s little league, my old friend Mike, who I was seeing for the first time since our Long Island days, wanted to sit behind the backstop with the rest of the crowd and study their behavior, but I frowned and looked away, hoping he’d leave it alone, that we’d go over to the basketball courts instead and get into a three-on-three, or watch the old men play bocce.

(Wow. Can I come?)

This is the first sentence in “Little Leagues.” And what a sentence. In fact, it’s the first paragraph. The story goes on to see the two characters witnessing an ugly baseball game with Brooklyn parents shouting insults and sarcasm to the umpires, the players, and their coaches. Having attended scores of small town baseball games, I thought I heard them all until now.

I think that Lou Gaglia’s stories have a sense of nostalgia which I found to be at the epicenter of the collection—a nostalgia for the people, the places, and good times and the bad ones, too, that remind us of us, our old or other selves. (I miss Queens even though I’ve never been to Queens.) Poor Advice is an imaginative collection of stories for purveyors of the short story form as well as for readers who enjoy a new twist to the postmodern take on existentialism, rich and creamy with nostalgia, wit and humor, and surprise much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. My advice, dear reader, is not to sample Lou Gaglia’s stories, but rather to read ’em all!

*

Lou Gaglia‘s short story collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction. His fiction has appeared or will soon appear in Menda City Review, Forge, Toasted Cheese, Serving House Journal, Frigg, Halfway Down the Stairs, Rappahannock Review, Thrice Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner, first in New York City and now in upstate New York.

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

Orangutanka: A Story in Poems by Margarita Engle

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


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Orangutanka by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Renée Kurilla

Orangutanka: A Story in Poems (Henry Holt, 2015) is one of the latest works from award-winning author Margarita Engle. Engle, who writes young adult novels, poetry, and children’s fiction, has created an exceptional work in picture book form.

Engle weaves a story about a family of sleepy orangutans—all except one who leaves the family nest. The title, Orangutanka, is a word-play that encompasses the words orangutan and tanka, which is a traditional form of Japanese poetry. It is a free form of verse that includes emotion, metaphor, opinions, rhymes and simile. Organutanka has many of these elements in a lively prose filled with strong adjectives and verbs and onomatopoeia. Engle explains in a note to readers that Orangutanka is written in a “string” of tanka lines that follow a basic pattern of short-long-short-long-long lines. It is a sweet story that young readers will relate to and also enjoy hearing read aloud in its tanka form:

Towering green trees
shiver, sway, rattle, and shake
when orangutans
clamber toward colorful mounds
of bananas and mangoes

Inspired by a trip to a wildlife refuge in the Malaysian section of Borneo, Engle shows these large primates in familiar themes and, at the same time, provides scientific information including their endangered status in a fact section. Engle also invites readers to learn more about orangutans in a bibliography of books and online resources. She invites young readers to try an “orangudance” in the activity page that follows the story.

I am impressed with the picture book’s many facets. Engle created a book that contains many elements—narrative, poetry, science, and community-building—within its pages.

The illustrations are colorful and inviting. Renée Kurilla, who has illustrated many books for children, combines hand-drawn sketches and ink to lay out each page in a traditional form. The illustrations have strong elements of linear design that relate a sense of the vertical vastness of the rainforest as well as dimension, depth, and texture such as the bark on the trees, the patterns in the leaves and the even thickness of orangutan hair. The leaves, in particular, were combined with digital enhancements from Photoshop to create the shiny, spongy, organic effect. The lines also show movement such as falling rain and the swaying of leaves and the orangutans themselves, as they move about from page to page.

Another element to the illustrations is how Kurilla captures the orangutan and relates it to human emotion in facial expression and theatrically in movement. The orangutans’ hands in particular are human-like and Kurilla captures this in many gestures. My favorite is the hands up to the sky.

Color is also a dominant feature. The setting is painted in vibrant tints, tones, and shades. Kurilla used harmonizing colors to express the interior of rainforest, but also the time of day and the weather. Bright, cheery greens show the morning hours and as the day grows longer and as the rain begins to fall, the illustrations change to cooler, bluer tones that likewise relate emotion as well as artistic perspective. The rain itself is a key element to the rainforest as well as literal turning point in the narrative. When it stops, the colors appear ethereal, hinting of a warm afterglow and of twilight approaching.

Orangutanka belongs in the classroom library as well in a young child’s bookshelf.

*

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.

Renée Kurilla is an illustrator of many books for kids including Berkley the Terrible Sleeper by Mitchell Sharmat. Before transitioning to a full-time freelance career, she spent 10 years drawing, animating, and designing at FableVision Studios. Renée lives in a little house just south of Boston with her husband, her fluffy cat Timmy, and a forest full of animals. She makes books and also co-blogs on Simply Messing About. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @reneekurilla.

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

Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


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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

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


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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

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Beautiful Land

Alan Averill’s debut novel The Beautiful Land (Ace Books/Penguin Group, 2013) was the winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2012.

The Beautiful Land grabbed me from the get-go with its very first line:

Tak can’t answer the phone because the noose is too tight.

Being the empathetic reader that I am, I was concerned for this character and beginning to like him as he stood there on a wooden chair in a shabby urban hotel about to exit the world in a “low-rent suicide.” I got to know Tak in his final moments. His character is revealed incrementally by an omniscient narrator and Tak’s edgy stream-of-consciousness point-of-view:

Okay, now you’re being a pussy.
Just jump off the chair and be done with it already.
… Fine. Goddammit, just… fine.

I was only a page or two involved, but I needed to know what had brought this bright and funny young character in the Donkey Kong T-shirt to such desperation. Who is Tak? Why does he have a noose around his neck? Even though his suicide was well thought out, I still wasn’t convinced that this character really wanted to die. It seemed there were a lot of leftover things that Tak wanted or needed to do. I was curious, seduced. So I read a little more and a little more after that and found myself completely absorbed in Tak and the meaning of the creepy black dripping feathers on the novel’s cover and, of course, the sinister “machine.” By then, there was no turning back. I could not close the book. I knew too much. I was a captive audience.

It turns out that Tak—short for Takahiro O’Leary—is an explorer. He is the younger, millennial version of the 1980s TV survivalist character MacGyver who could be dropped from a helicopter onto an ice shelf in the Arctic Circle in the dark with string and a package of gum in his pocket and not only survive but thrive—catching the bad guy, too. Tak, like MacGyver, has exceptional survival reflexes and can think on his feet; a plan is always forming or in execution. He is also part Harry Houdini.

Tak is a star in a TV reality adventure show when he is contacted by the Axon Corporation which hires him to do some specialized errand running—time jumping across parallel timelines. This is where the Houdini part comes in. Tak betrays his employers and escapes off a jet plane mid-flight with a very important briefcase in tow. Because of this, he is chased through time and the pages of The Beautiful Land while he rushes to save the one person who means the most to him and while he’s at it, the world.

There is some really cool science fiction writing as well as a percolating romance spiced with lots of character-driven black humor. Tak never loses his senses of humor and irony even in his darkest moments. The same can be said of the supporting characters. They are thoughtful and very human.

The writing itself is well-crafted. Tak’s story is written in third person shifting between the points of view of the main characters. Present tense accelerates the plot and creates added tension. Averill is adept at showing. Character backstory revealed by the time-traveling mechanics serves dual roles: we learn about Tak’s family and his sense of purpose from the memories that run like a movie reel each time he time jumps. The plot moves at an exhilarating clip, taking fast corners but no short cuts. It is easy to see why The Beautiful Land won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award—riveting storytelling, science fiction/fantasy in great form.

*

Alan Averill began writing at five years old when he penned an epic tome about Bigfoot killing him with a log. He is the author of the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award winner, The Beautiful Land, and has also done writing and localization work for dozens of video games. His short story “Things Difficult to Say” appeared in the December 2008 issue of Toasted Cheese—a fact he’s proud of to no end. You can keep up with Alan’s ramblings at his blog or follow him on Twitter: @frodomojo.

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Shelley Carpenter is Toasted Cheese‘s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx by A.R. Cook

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx

The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2013) is a fantasy coming-of-age story appropriate for middle-graders and beyond. The storytelling is imaginative, vivid in description, complimented with sparkling prose and shining vocabulary that a teacher would love. A.R. Cook’s treatment of language is reminiscent of E.B. White (Elements of Style, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little) who once said in an interview with the Paris Review relating to his writing to a young audience that “…You have to write up, not down… They [children] accept without question anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly and clearly.” Cook clearly does this throughout her story. Young readers have many opportunities to stop and ponder word choice and appreciate the many beautiful phrases and well-crafted sentences found within the pages.

The setting is 1852 in a small hamlet outside of Paris, the magical city of light that holds more than just a dream apprentice job for newly-arrived, sixteen-year-old architect-protégé, David Sandoval. While meandering through an evening crowd filled with street dancers, jugglers, and entertainers, David is coerced by a young gypsy girl into purchasing a dagger. This purchase inadvertently sets him on a dangerous and noble path, traversing between two worlds. Mythical creatures beckon and pursue David as he becomes a reluctant player an ancient war between a maleficent goddess and an iconic creature, part-human and part-animal—the sphinx, who is the last of its kind and is at heart of David’s adventure.

David’s quest takes him through a gateway called the “Magic Curtain” to unseen places where he meets curious new friends and enemies along the way. Some of the supporting characters rival and, at times, surpass the young protagonist with their voice and charm: characters such as Kappo, the comical green, vampire monkey; Tanuki, the shape-shifting Japanese badger; and David’s wise, sea-dragon master, Yofune, who, like Yoda, counsels the young hero against prejudices.

“What defines monstrosity?” Yofune folded his hands… “Is it having a form that is not acceptable? Is it how sharp your teeth are, or if you have claws instead of fingernails? Or does it reside in some invisible shape, inside all of us, Sandoval-san?”

Cook balances these supporting characters with several antagonists that disrupt David’s plans. Unexpected cliffhangers and daring escapes propel the story to its climax. Interestingly, part of the story is told in flashback form that reveals a secondary theme. As David searches for something tangible, his journey is also internalized as he is forced to face his past disappointments and learn from them.

Readers who enjoy high fantasy epic stories will like A.R. Cook’s cross-genre debut novel that combines world culture, mythology, and magic within a historical context.

*

A.R. Cook is the book reviewer for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. 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 short story, Psycho Babbles. She has also written a short play, In the Cards, published by Heuer Publishing in 2002, and a short story, The Saintly Stew, published in the Georgia Museum of Art’s Kress Project anthology this year 2013. She likes sushi and sundaes (but not together).
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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com