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.

Fermentations by Salvatore Marici

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Fermentations by Salvatore Marici

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

into springs, drinking wells
from filth thrust in earth.

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

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

*

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

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

Megan of the Mists by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Megan of the Mists by Bill Lockwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Sure Things and Last Chances by Lou Gaglia

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Lockwood


Sure Things & Last Chances by Lou Gaglia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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