Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants the Fire
by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants the Fire by Darren C. Demaree

I spent the summer months reading Darren Demaree’s recent collection of poems, Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants the Fire (Harpoon Books, 2019). One or two poems a day with my morning coffee in the quiet space of my kitchen. Abstract, evocative, organic and ethereal, Demaree’s poetry is primed with familiar images of family and home from the bathtub to the backyard, in a range of the spoken and unspoken words between husband and wife. The collection echoes an existentialism, a sobriety, and a quiet, soulful longing that moved me.

Emily as The First Question
Is a Blood Question

Gathered to the rivering, I asked Emily
to sit in the summer dark, alone with me,
the parts of me that were her enemy.

& in a field that held no crop, no rising
roots, she sat silently, listening to the water
flow away from us, the gravity of the land.

like the future escaping & like there is no cliff,
only the waving arms that have left.
I had three words, a question I thought

could save us from joining the escaping
light, joining the puff of dust that rises
with the hard landing, I should have asked

her to quit drinking with me, so I could stand
to kiss her without hating her a little bit
each time she came home buzzed. Already

aware that only the water can carry you to
the bottom of the framing I asked Emily,
whispered towards the land, are you scared?

The poems are a hodgepodge of this one idea. This one subject. This Emily personified. Emily who flows through the poet’s world like a force from nature lifting the poet up, up, and up, but also binding him to the earth evocatively in secular and divine comparisons to nature and the inner workings of the human heart.

Emily as Thousands of
Colliding Butterflies

Not 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,

no yellow.
From a blue
sky filled
with nothing

my love has taken
to darkening the sun

with the purest collision

of thundering color

& on impact,
the falling
of some wing.

Follow the grasses,
You will step on the parts

of her she had no need of.

Several poems remind me a little of the Romantic sonnets. This one seemed to begin before the first line. Well-turned words that Demaree uses to hint of something more. Perhaps something only Emily knows. I love that.

Emily as A Pin of Light

Yet women
are the moon,
elbowed.

cast in dark
as the context
for our light?

No. It is dark
all of the time.

Emily has spiked

the world
for me.

The fruit
of such air

breeds stars.

Another motif I’ve talked about before when reviewing Demaree’s collections is the visual aspect. Demaree uses white space expertly creating vertical and horizontal forms as he pairs words and phrases or stands them alone on the page sometimes in repetition in an elegant and very visual feast of letters, words, and punctuation. A few of the poems are also curiously populated with people’s names. Real people, not imagined:

Emily as Written by
William Elliot Whitmore.

Emily as I explained to Her Who the
Photographer Kevin Carter Was.

Emily as A One-Act Play
Written by Ted Brengle.

—Yes. I googled all of them. Then I wondered…

Having read several of Demaree’s collections, I’ve become familiar with his style and subject genres. He often writes about Ohio and quite often his poems seem almost duplicitous as they are layered line by line in inferential meaning. I placed a star in the margins and puzzled over this next one.

Emily as A Leveling of Ground

Across the snow,
the sea change of Ohio,
the axe splits wood

as an empty threat
to the whole world,
but then again, hands

can motion the life
right out of this thing.
Personally involved

in the end of the world,
what the living do;
is command the rags

& muscles to be easy
with pleasure,
to take the blanket

& pull it over all heads,
to kick legs
like a ornery child,

a knowing child
with a flat surface
to give in to an eyelid

I found Emily
that means I am ready
for the rest of you

to close your eyes as well.

This one stood out. The imagery is gorgeous and filled with lovely symmetry. I wrote one word in the margins: WOW!

Emily as A Book of Endings

For Leslie Harrison

I chose Emily, because I knew
that if she chose me
I could prepare for death

In a way made my desperation
to keep living something tangible.
Now, with each child we have

I am cemented in the panic
of living. Now, since she
keeps choosing me

every morning, I am able
to taunt mortality in a way
that will leave claw marks

in the fields of Ohio.
How glorious it will be
to be dragged from the living

& scream one name, to spit
one name at my weakening
grip, to expect the strength

to return to me just like
the thousands of other times
I’ve used her name to live longer.

Again, and again, I looked for hidden meaning and mindset in Darren Demaree’s poems, but often come out on the other side of that perspective thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t be thinking quite so hard. A familiar reminder to myself. The poems are like the bubbling brook that appears mysteriously each spring and early fall in my backyard, flowing around the bordering pines and birch trees on its way to the river a short distance through woods. Should I be poking around the forest to find the source? Or rather should I just enjoy the sound of the running water from my kitchen window knowing that it will most likely be gone the next time I look? I think the latter. Poems are meant to be spoken. Poems are magical in that organic sense. And I learn something new about poetry and about myself when I read Demaree’s poems. I like that. Always have. So, somewhere midway through the collection, I stopped mining the words to find out who or what is Emily. It seems Emily is everything and everywhere. An omnipresence in the poet’s world. Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants the Fire is a tribute to this human idea of a divinity, a quiet grace that exists in all of us taking form in a person, in nature, or in the abstract. Pointing true north. A joy for the poet to tribute. A joy for the reader to behold, as well.

*

Darren C. Demaree is the author of eleven collections of poetry, most recently Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants Fire (June 2019, Harpoon Books). He is recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children. Twitter: @d_c_demaree

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

My Husband’s Lies by Caroline England

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


My Husband’s Lies by Caroline England

Reviewing books for Toasted Cheese is one of my greatest pleasures. It gives me the opportunity to read a range of literature—poetry, short stories, memoirs, and novels. I like to read. It goes with being an editor. My day typically begins early with a few chapters and a cup of coffee and the moon keeping me company, and often ends the same way except without the cup of coffee. Another pleasure I have is to write a second review for a TC author. I’ve written a handful of second and even third reviews thus far for a select group of authors who have stuck it out, persevered in their craft, hammering away despite the daily drone of life that most often takes precedence and yet have somehow managed to pick up a pen or tap on their laptop keys to produce something meaningful. And what’s more, rose again to the challenge of finding an agent or an editor who was willing to read it. I recently received a query from one such author: Carolyn England, whose short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, I reviewed for Toasted Cheese in 2013. Since then, England has written two novels with a third soon to be published. I was delighted to have a second opportunity to read her work and see how it has evolved.

Carolyn England’s second novel, My Husband’s Lies (Avon, 2018), is about friendship. Adult friendship. Although the book jacket hints of more: Everyone has a secret… and Do you really know your friends? England masterfully narrates her story in a third-person point of view that shifts between several characters often revisiting important scenes to show the reader a detail up close or an idea seen with more clarity through another set of eyes. The characters are interesting, robust, and believable in their complexities and imperfections. Nicknamed “The A-Team,” they share a common bond: a friendship that began in their teenage school years at St. Mark’s.

They are:

Handsome Dan Maloney, a Realtor married to Geri and expecting their first child; wealthy Nick Quinn, newly married to Lisa; golden boy Will Taylor; and intuitive Jen, a married mother of two and the only girl member of the A-Team. These characters and their significant others are reunited at a wedding in the novel’s exposition and each holds a secret that is hidden from the other characters. Chapter by chapter, England reveals the characters’ flaws, problems, and secrets through close narration, building tension and suspense.

These characters are real and very likeable despite their troubles. Here’s an elegant character sketch from Nick about his much older and beloved brother, Patrick, who just happens to be a favorite of mine.

The low sound of the car’s horn brings him back to the road and a stubborn stray sheep. He turns to Patrick, suddenly remembering how comforting it was to see his fair hair in the darkness when he was small and had a nightmare. Immediately there by his side, it was as though Patrick knew. Today his greying hair is hidden behind a suede hat with flaps. Give him a moustache and he’d look like a dashing World War II pilot rather than a sad fifty-year-old keeping his ears warm on a cold March morning. (p. 178)

The hallmarks of England’s writing are still there. Her storytelling is expressed keenly through dialogue sometimes with a slight change of tone or in the smallest movement. I could see these people and their stories play out like a film in my mind in a sublime economy of words that doesn’t give anything away.

The story begins in medias res, in an atmospheric and exciting prologue—a big kick start that introduces one of the characters in serious peril. This character is the linchpin in the story, set up with purpose for the reader to follow, like Alice’s little white friend flying down, down the rabbit hole. What is further interesting is that the character isn’t named. I loved that. I pondered whether or not this mysterious character was a reliable narrator. Great characterization.

After this initial scene, England uses flashback to explain the perilous event and then structures the remainder of the story in a linear timeline of events peppered with smaller flashbacks. England drops hints and clues, letting the secrets out piece by piece, like a giant jigsaw puzzle until the whole puzzle is laid out and then the fun begins: What will happen next? England shows all and tells nothing. Her prose is spot on and evocative, vividly told, page by page, chapter after chapter, layer on layer as she builds the characters’ stories with suspense from the get go and with it a mystery that leads, takes root, and grows into an exciting Hitchcock-style conclusion. Masterful storytelling.

*

Born a Yorkshire lass, Caroline England studied Law at the University of Manchester and stayed over the border. England was a divorce and professional indemnity lawyer and instigated her jottings when she deserted the law to bring upher three lovely daughters. In addition to the publication of her short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, England has had short stories and poems published in a variety of literary publications and anthologies. Her debut novel, Beneath the Skin (Avon Harper Collins), also known as The Wife’s Secret, was published in 2017. Carolyn England’s second novel, My Husband’s Lies, followed in 2018. Her next novel, Betray Her (Little, Brown) is soon to be published in 2019. Facebook | Twitter | Instagram.

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

Two Towns Over by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Two Towns Over by Darren C. Demaree

I’ve had the true pleasure to review Darren Demaree’s poetry over the years and his impressive collection Two Towns Over (Trio House Press, 2017) is one of his very best.

I especially enjoy reading his poems because they make me think. I always feel a little smarter after I swallow a poem with my morning coffee. I am no writer of poetry, but a humble reader. I’ve discovered in my time that the reader doesn’t have to be a poet to enjoy the form. That a poem isn’t about me, but in reality, it’s all about me, the reader. A poem is a personal. A poem is also a puzzle. And I so love holding on to the poet’s words for a little while, to look for and find meaning within its form, to gently poke at its construct, and sometimes make a personal connection.

Demaree’s prose speaks to this idea. His writing is thoughtful and elegant in its vernacular and unique style that I’ve come to recognize and expect. The subjects often transcend the poet’s world and speak to a wide audience, which is another hallmark of Demaree’s writing. The collection spoke to me quite strongly, and I think it will speak to many others. It is brave, political, and disturbing—no surprise. Two Towns Over takes the reader down deep into one of America’s darkest places, the living nightmare of the opiate epidemic, a real-life monster that Demaree names and calls out, pointing a finger with his prose at the ignorance and the static that fuel it.

These are some of my favorites:

Unless It’s My Own

I have seen
Mount Vernon
poorly spent

& I have heard
no talk about
Mount Vernon

& I am told
about Fredericktown
& Danville

all of the time.
The whole county
is on fire

& we’re arguing
about which
town uses

the least gasoline?
These drugs
are cheap

& they are magic
& it’s all happening
somewhere else?

No. That heat
doesn’t respond
to piss

& it’s already caught
the bottom
of your pant leg.

The poems are uniquely centered in the author’s home state of Ohio, a familiar subject in Demaree’s writing, but honestly, they could be about anywhere in the United States. Heroin has invaded every corner in every city, town, suburb in the United States as it is bought and sold in plain sight in and around Main Street, in a transforming trajectory that often leads home. Home is where the heart is and Demaree’s prose takes us there. Vividly. The poems are about the author’s world—the seen and the unseen—but they are also about our world, too.

Quick Root

Some plunges are wings
melting into the good black dirt
& feeding that dirt

With the un-writing
of a person’s book. Tongues
working past the failing bloom,

the drugs can subtract
you forever. They are taking
all of Ohio. It’s a burial

of the living. It’s the best
of us leeched to be lost
in the slight pull of gravity

& the claim each ounce
of each drug is making
on our once reminiscent flight.

If my math is correct, the collection contains 57 poems. The poems are organized in four groupings beginning with the Sweet Wolf poems that are fixed mainly in the addict’s world. The town poems, whose titles are actual townships in Ohio, are interestingly interspersed with more personal poems from the author’s and addict’s points of view. And lastly are the odes to specific drug houses, which are also named places. These titles alone are thought-provoking in their context and in their number.

This poem spoke to me. It is familiar. It could be my town that Demaree writes about. Really anyone’s town. Small town America, but a twisted America reminiscent of the setting of a Stephen King horror story where something sinister has moved into the neighborhood and is feeding off the local population. People start dying and disappearing, especially the young, and there is nothing to do but carry on. The static is deafening even under the bright Friday night football lights.

Danville, Ohio

Some nothings
Are everything
& those moving

& robed communities
Stay waist-deep
In the generations

& when one, two,
three, four, five
children die

like characters
in a newspaper story,
the crosswinds

give up completely.
The brownies cool
all on their own.

The football games
get louder
because they must.

In the poem, “Sweet Wolf #4,” Demaree writes “the real power / is undressed / inside of us, / because that’s / how actual / monsters operate.” The Sweet Wolf poems capture this truth quite viscerally. The invisible enemy within. And the wolf is so sickly sweet. How else could it attract so many? Nobody dreams of growing up to be poor, homeless, a criminal, a drug addict. Demaree’s point of view often shifts as he continues to show the subject’s vantage point in dazzling psychedelic imagery, sometimes from the ground up.

This poem made me wonder about how many people made it home and were saved and how many more were so close to hope.

Sweet Wolf #25

The home
& the temple
are quite modest.

if you’re passed
out on the steps
that reach them.

Besides the bitter poignancy, some of the Sweet Wolf poems also gave me the chills. Especially this one that flashes the monster’s face and with it the overwhelming gravity of it all.

Sweet Wolf #12

Gestures to a mask,
did you know that if you
connect the location

of every drug-house
in the Knox County area
you will see my face?

The poem, “Jefferson Township, Ohio” explores the arc of the internal invasion and its devastation to communities in a simple, yet elegant elegy composed of pure metaphor.

The bees are here.
They’re in our veins.
We are the hive,

because we have
mislabeled the honey.
We’ve tasted too little

& we’ve tasted too much
& since we cannot
trust the beekeepers,

we have the whole
countryside to ruin
with our stingers.

Two Towns Over is an audacious and brave collection of poems filled with powerful, yet beautiful, poignancy and angst about the new American condition—communities such as those in Ohio that are currently being decimated by an insidious cycle of drugs that is gaining momentum coast to coast—and its devastating collateral damage to America’s heart and soul. Darren Demaree’s words fly high like a siren screaming to the mainstream static that this assault on what we hold dearest is not coming soon to cities and towns across America. It’s already here.

*

Darren C. Demaree is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently Bombing the Thinker, which was published by Backlash Press. He is recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

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

New Micro edited by James Thomas & Robert Scotellaro

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Tony Press


New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro

My math may be off but I think there are 113 stories in these pages, written by 88 different authors. But numbers here aren’t important except to note that not one of the stories is longer than 300 words. This is New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories (WW Norton & Company, 2018). People, let me say that editors James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro know flash fiction (just look at their editing and writing credits) and we are the better for it. This is the collection of the year.

You’ll find names you don’t know, names you do, and names that will surprise you. For that third category, I offer (the book does, actually) flashes by Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Edgar Wideman. Who knew?

But it’s not just name-dropping. Story after story grabs and grips and flat-out stuns. Sprinkled among my scribbled as-it-happened notes I found these words, frequently repeating themselves: perfect; heartbreaking; tough; yes; mysterious; haunting; scary (internally and externally); funny; sweet; and even everyday-life-yet-apocalyptic. And then there’s Wow! And Twelve Perfect Sentences! And Holy Shit!

That last comment actually came with the very first story, Pamela Painter’s “Letting Go.” The “twelve perfect sentences” arrived with Nancy Stohlman’s “Voodoo Doll,” and the “wow!” is thanks to David Shumate’s “The Polka-Dot Shirt”—but there are so, so many more jewels strewn among these pages. That one, for the moment, could be my absolute favorite, but there are probably twenty candidates for that honor. Or possibly fifty.

I did not love every single story but I’m glad I experienced each one, and I applaud the organization of the book. I’m sure each of us will find links between and among stories, as the tales occasionally talk to each other, or shout across from each other. Some connections we will all see, some will be ours alone.

A few lines that demanded I copy them into my notebook:

She’s got her clothes on, and the beginning is over.
—Richard Brautigan, “Women When They Put Their Clothes on in the Morning”

The snow falls and they can’t get warm, no matter how hard they make love.
—Michelle Elvy, “Antarctica”

They hated failure more than they hated each other, so they would do anything to keep their marriage from falling.
—William Walsh, “So Much Love in the Room”

My lover never noticed, and now at night he lies next to us, thinking that he’s the bartender.
—Thaisa Frank, “The New Thieves”

Flash fiction, in this case, defined as no more than 300 words, doesn’t always translate to great writing. We’ve all read “flash pieces” that don’t know what they want or where they’re going, other than “oh, this will be short!” The stories in the collection, brief as they are, will last a long time, and will be read and re-read often. The subtitle “Exceptionally Short Stories” reminds me that, yes, these stories are exceptional. This project was in good hands, and now, lucky for us, the book can be in ours.

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Tony Press tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His story collection Crossing the Lines was published by Big Table. Equinox and Solstice, an e-chapbook of his poems, was presented by Right Hand Pointing. He claims two Pushcart nominations, five stories in Toasted Cheese, about 25 criminal trials, and 12 years in a single high school classroom. He loves Oaxaca in Mexico, Bristol in England, and especially Brisbane in California.

Ms. Anna by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Ms. Anna by Bill Lockwood

Bill Lockwood has done it again. In his third novel, Ms. Anna (Wild Rose Press, 2018), Lockwood puts together a curious and salty mix of romance, danger and adventure on the high seas. Set in 1990s Mayaguez, Puerto Rico—the tuna canning capital of the world—Mayaguez is “a working port city… on the opposite end from the upscale shops and restaurants of old San Juan and very different from the Jimmy Buffet world that tourists might imagine.” Lockwood’s historical notes in the first pages provide a detailed history of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Key West that ground the reader in local history and lore before diving into the story’s exposition. A notable hallmark of Lockwood’s writing.

The story begins in action. Protagonist Anna pilots her father’s fishing boat and her namesake, the Senorita Anna, into the dark port of Mayaguez at the end of a secret cruise. Told in third-person omniscient narration, Anna’s backstory is revealed early on: “She and her father were ex-patriots from the mainland who had come to the island about five years ago…” Lockwood adeptly uses the exposition not only to chronicle the characters’ backstories, but also to foreshadow the major conflict. Pay attention, readers. Lockwood likes to drop subtle hints and red herrings.

Then along comes Max, the second protagonist, in Chapter Two. Max is an academic from a wealthy New England family sent to the Caribbean to investigate fraud in his family’s tuna canning business. Max’s character is immediately appealing because he is humble, friendly, and courteous—a very likeable underdog. Max talks to everybody he meets. He tells a cab driver about his stuffy family and another funny story about why they invited him to Thanksgiving Dinner:

I’m the black sheep… They only get in touch with me when they need something… They think I once worked for the CIA, and my skills at checking things out are useful to them… Of course I can’t tell you, or them, for that matter if I ever really worked for the CIA. The mystery of it all works fine for me…

Max is a very round character, much more rounded than the other characters, even Anna. He has another interesting exchange with a stranger on the plane to Mayaguez, a stranger that seems very like one of the other main characters the reader meets later in the novel. This stopped me as I wondered about the purpose of this early moment. Was it to foreshadow Max’s future? Or perhaps to show that Max isn’t as smart as he thinks and may have been played from the get-go? Both? Neither? It is no surprise that Max clashes with another important character, Senor Confresi, whom he is investigating and who may or may not be the villain in the story. This intriguing character is written well because even if he is a villain, Confresi has some truly likeable qualities much like Max: good manners, a pleasant appearance, charm, and genuineness in his interactions. Senor Confresi doesn’t lie, yet the reader knows he isn’t telling the truth either. This is good character writing.

Returning to the women characters. There is much more to be said. They are sexy, smart characters and familiar in their objectivity. Anna and Miss Parker are both noted for their appearance first and then their intelligence later, a sexist stereotype that continued well through the nineties and whose treatment is heightened by the hot, tropical setting.

Lockwood describes Anna:

At age twenty-two, Anna was a recent graduate in the class of 1991… She had on the school’s maroon T-shirt with the bold gold letters “RUM” across the front. That shirt, or others similar, and a bikini bathing suit bottom was all she usually wore for either of her two part-time jobs.

The variety of Anna’s bikini bottoms are also noted once or twice more which seems more of a distracting sidenote than an important detail.

Also noteworthy is that Miss Parker is compared to Anna from Max’s point of view.

A mainlander, about Anna’s age. She was dressed in a sleeveless flowered dress that had a very short skirt. Like Anna, she was barefoot and had a full tan as if she were frequently outside.

It makes sense that Max would compare them, yet he only speaks of appearances. And later, she is seen by a disapproving Anna “sunbathing on the bow of the ship without her top on.” Miss Parker stands out to say the least. She is cast as a sexy siren character. Although beautiful like Anna, Miss Parker is much more calculating and worth watching closely.

Lockwood’s characters are also reminiscent of noir: a stranger rides into town on a mission. The stranger is a detective-type, searching for something or someone and meets two female characters. One is innocent, a girl-next-door, and the other, a femme fatale—much like Lockwood’s Max, Anna, and Miss Parker, who reminds me of a leading female character from one of Ian Fleming’s novels. (I can’t recall which novel, but I do think she’d be an awesome Bond Girl.) Conversely, I do like how the two women play off each other with their similarities as seen through Max’s male gaze and how these women quietly control the plot. Both are important. And as stereotypical as these women characters might appear, Lockwood is true to the times in his treatment of their sexuality. He gets full points there.

Lockwood is also adept at building worlds in his evocative adventure story which is frequently peppered with Spanish language and local colloquialisms and customs. There is authority in the writing and a strong sense of place. When the characters are on the Ms. Anna, the reader can feel the sway of the ship and smell the salt. When Max is running for his life at the tuna factory, the reader can see Max trying to find his way out of the factory labyrinth.

Max describes La Salida, the bar where he first meets Anna:

The place would have been very dark except for the many slatted shutters that were open to let in any breeze that might pass through. Salsa music, similar to that in the cab, blared from speakers that seemed to be all around. Max noted that what little wall space was left was heavily paneled, with ropes, nets, lanterns, and other nautical ware hung everywhere. A group of obvious locals sat in groups or as couples at various tables scattered around. Max went up to a deserted part of the bar and climbed up on a stool.

Then along comes Anna and the story takes off. The reader is the cliché fly on the wall.

Ms. Anna wraps up nicely in the end. Lockwood takes his time as the story rounds the climax, allowing the reader to savor the falling action and see the effect that the resolution has on the characters.

*

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

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

Laughter and Early Sorrow and Other Stories by Brett Busang

Candle-ends
Bill Lockwood


Laughter and Early Sorrow and Other Stories by Brett Busang

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

Candle-ends
Bill Gaythwaite


Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Necessary Lies By Richard Edgar

Candle-ends
Shelley Carpenter


Necessary Lies by Richard Edgar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

A Fire Without Light by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


A Fire Without Light by Darren C. Demaree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Fire Without Light #325”

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

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

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

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

“A Fire Without Light #86”

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

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

“A Fire Without Light #23”

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

 

“A Fire Without Light #40”

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

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

*

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

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

Nikolai Delov by James Dante

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Lockwood


Nikolai Delov by James Dante

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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