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

Jesus and Magdalene by João Cerqueira

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Jesus and Madgalene by João Cerqueira

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Buried Gold by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Buried Gold by Bill Lockwood

I had the recent pleasure of reading Bill Lockwood’s novel, Buried Gold (Wild Rose Press, 2016), an adventure story that seems odd to call historical fiction, but historical it is as it takes place in the 1980s, which has become retro-cool within today’s popular culture. The location is Long Island, New York and the story moves back and forth through time as two plots intertwine: the main storyline and an old family mystery that takes place during the American Prohibition Era. Lockwood writes with authority and keeps the reader rooted in the eighties with references to famous people, music, and more. He does not miss a single beat in Buried Gold whose main characters are Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers.

The best adventures have mystery at their core. Buried Gold begins with a deathbed revelation that propels main character, Evie, a thirty-something mother, and her teenage daughter, Cindy, into motion. Lockwood also doesn’t waste any words as each chapter sets up the next one like carefully-placed dominoes.

The novel is told in incremental flashbacks about Evie’s family and how the treasure—a buried cache of ten-dollar gold coins came to be hidden. As a reader who loves setting, I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the story.

The 1920s and 1930s were a very exciting time in the American landscape. Indeed, it brings to mind the age of Gatsby, the glamour, as well the darker side where certain illegal activities operated in the shadows. Lockwood makes these events real. The long-dead characters are resurrected at the site of the old Oyster House where seafood was a front for a more lucrative family business—smuggling.

Some of Lockwood’s character’s shine in this regard. I particularly liked “Old Pete,” the crazy old man terrified of eels who worked for Evie’s great-grandfather, Captain John, back in the day. “I’ve seen it here on TV. In a barrel from the oyster boats. Buried like the pirates done. Yo-ho-ho…” Old Pete often babbled nonsensical talk but not everything he said was fantasy.

The characters of Evie and Cindy, the two main protagonists, remind me of an alternate universe version of the Gilmore Girls, another single mother and teenage daughter team from the popular TV show in the early 2000s who had many adventures and misadventures on the small screen. However, I admit that even though the characters are sympathetic, I had little empathy for Evie, who in her treasure quest manipulates and uses other characters to her own ends. True, she is an underdog character when compared to the villains of the novel, her older brothers who bully her and have this strange love/hate relationship with her. Yet, I stuck with her and as I read more and got to know Evie better, she made sense to me. I began to see that her moral compass appeared to be in sync with the lifestyle of the early eighties and the big events that influenced that time such as the women’s movement in the seventies when women began to assert their own agendas and careers—like Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut in space, and rocker Kim Carnes whose “popular song” (“Bette Davis Eyes”) Lockwood anonymously references as a possible personality reference to Evie. Both are well-placed footnotes early on in the novel.

In this regard, Evie is no different than anyone else of her generation except perhaps more determined. She has grit. She could be another Charlie’s Angel as she uses all she has to get the job done. Casual sex was a hallmark of 1980s, as well as excessiveness, decadence, and violence which again, effectively dovetails with the flashbacks to the Prohibition Era. And Evie’s world shares similar qualities all within the context of Lockwood’s story. Lockwood’s short historical introduction prior to the first chapter sets the mood effectively, laying the groundwork for the reader’s imagination.

Another notable point in Buried Gold is the description:

Captain Andy’s Fishing Station smelled like dead fish and gasoline, but the smell was overpowered by the view of the bay and the picturesque pleasure boats bobbing at their moorings by the restaurant next door.

I can only say that I’ve been to Long Island once or twice, but the way Peconic Bay is described, I might recognize it just from the detail alone. Moreover, the characters interact and move about with precision and the reader is firmly grounded in all aspects of movement, setting, and storyline.

The dialogue is spot-on, too. The language is as diverse as the characters. Not only can I hear them, but I can see them, too. The characters each have their appropriate share of grace; their humanity is present and they appear in the flesh. In the end, isn’t that what readers look for?

*

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 recently published his first novel, Buried Gold. He lives in New Hampshire.

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

Not for Art Nor Prayer by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


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Not For Art Nor Prayer by Darren C. Demaree

I had the pleasure of reviewing a second and recent collection of Darren Demaree’s poetry titled, Not For Art Nor Prayer (8th House Publishing, 2015). The poems are structured in four categories with the first two parts being an existential and eclectic mix of adorations and adulations addressed to a milieu of real people on various subjects. They are followed by the Wednesday Morning numbered poems created on or about that particular day of the week and the collection concludes with the eternal odes to Emily that also appear in different forms in other collections by Demaree.

The “Adorations” were my favorite. The titles were numbered and varied. And I liked how they were tributes to friends, acquaintances and strangers. I especially like the poems addressed to strangers. I felt a sort of kinship with the poet as he described common people doing common things that most people can relate to doing or watching in progress—voyeurism, more or less. I admit it: I’m a people watcher. Here’s one I liked. I think I might have been there.

Adoration #90

for the manager at the Krogers

Yes, I saw, in fact I read it
out-loud to my daughter that we
we’re not supposed to ride inside

the cart, but with my son sitting
under buckle, we had no choice,
but to chance that she might, at some

point, stand up to reach for pancake
mix. The running and singing was
my fault. We were having such fun.

Other poems are not such visual eye-candy to me. Some I have no clue what they are about, but I like just the same. I like Demaree’s word choice and I like how the choices are gradients, words that belong on the far side of their spectrum of their meaning or that they are in an original, intriguing context such as the many comparisons and metaphors he creates. I’m no poet, but I know what I like. Here’s one with dueling images and sounds.

Water Always Leaves the Knife

For Tuscaloosa

How the chip
& hammer,
so paused in both,

that we live with the carry
& away
of that sun sum

of what fingers do
when it’s char
or the painted red faces

of about, of about
the town. Rats,
lost scorpions,

the full ribs
of such beauty
is blood, is fat, is ship.

I wrote in my annotation that I had no idea what this poem was about. It was like a secret. And I don’t think I’m far from the truth. I had the pleasure of meeting Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky a few summers back at Boston University’s Favorite Poem Project. I recall Pinsky reminding the audience that poetry is meant to be spoken. He also said in so many words that you do not have to understand the poem to appreciate it. You don’t have to take it apart to enjoy its essence. (And yes. I shared a favorite poem.)

Here’s another of Demaree’s poems I especially like:

Emily as the Cicada’s Song Crests

That sound, that was never there
before has now always been there
& if that sound is about to fade,
to grind deeper into the ground
of my subconscious, to the place
where I’ve left my almost children
& my almost arrests, the littered
moments where I was almost
a monster, will I be able to remember
the lovely things Emily said to me,
when we had to be louder than
a million magic bugs, singing their
only song, without waver? I will
know Emily as the woman next
to me, and I will love her for that.

I would have to literally dissect the poem to say why exactly I liked it aside from its natural imagery. Keeping with Mr. Pinsky’s philosophy, I think that to do so would be like pulling the wings off a butterfly to see how it flies. Instead, I will say that I like the way the words in the poem sound when I read the poem aloud, their alliteration and consonance sounds, how they float in the air for a moment, stirring and wonderful as the words take form and meaning deep inside me. Vocal-candy.

Pinsky in his book The Sounds of Poetry also discusses the idea of “the human body as the medium of poetry … how the reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words,” as well as the idea that poetry is the keeper of memory, that it is an immortal medium for expressing ideas and feelings swiftly and sensuously, and most profoundly meant to be shared with the deceased as well as future generations. It gives me the chills. Demaree’s poems contain this ideology in their lovely and sensuous details. The subjects are an organic blending of bodies and images from nature and beyond, full of desire and soul. Demaree creates infinite worlds visually and vocally using his art and the human breath as his medium.

*

Darren C. Demaree is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Nineteen Steps Between Us (After the Pause Press, 2016). Many of the poems have appeared in Toasted Cheese and numerous journals and magazines. 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.

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

Feeding by Cody L. Stanford

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Feeding by Cody L. Stanford

Feeding by Cody L. Stanford

Cody L. Stanford’s self-published (2015) young-adult novel, Feeding, is an edgy coming-of-age story told by a young gay protagonist, Tajo Borrego, in an interesting mix of mad-scientist science fiction and urban romance. The exposition begins in a declarative and confessional hook: “I know what happened to Daray Gillard. I’m sort of responsible for his disappearance.”

Tajo’s tale takes off somewhere in the middle and works its way forward and back to the very beginning with flashback, backstory, foreshadowing and cliffhangers that leave the reader dangling along with the characters. Yet, it is clear that Tajo is a trustworthy narrator who always knows what’s coming. He lets the reader in on a need-to-know basis and it is well-played as it adds excitement and a sense of urgency to the plot. The structure works.

I was intrigued by the conversational narration of this thirteen-year-old protagonist, who slipped in and out of first-person point-of-view, into second, and sometimes rounded to third. Indeed, Stanford has created a very round character in Tajo whose voice is loud and strong and full of teenage edginess and angst. His narrative is so close that it almost seems like he’s sitting across from the reader eating a hotdog and burping soda, oozing with wit and poignancy: “Pop looked at me sadly; probably picturing me in my dance tights and wondering where he went wrong. My father thought that way still, like there was something wrong with him because his son was gay.”

Stanford’s story take places in New York City and the setting creates a dramatic backdrop that is also reminiscent of epic monster movies like King Kong and Godzilla, who hide their giganticness in unlikely places and whose monster plots cleverly use their city settings to spike their stories with an even greater potential for terror and, of course, collateral damage. How does one hide a giant snake in a Queen’s apartment building? Stanford took his time with the setting, slowing down time in thoughtful detail. He describes the Queensborough Bridge:

The girders sloped down toward the upper deck of the bridge. I was riding a roller coaster on the back of a gigantic snake! I looked down to my left. The bridge traffic was still pretty heavy. Cars sizzled past and their colors flashed in the streetlights; white and red and black and silver, mixed in with the yellow darts of cabs. I heard trucks rumbling on the lower deck… Out past the pedestrian walkway, it was a long, long way down to the East River.

Thoughtfulness also extends to the characters. Meet the building custodian. Stanford takes an old cliché and gives it a fresh makeover:

And there he was passed out on the cellar floor next to that big old pile of junk, not far from the boiler and Daray’s den… The super. Everyone called him Vinnie, but his real name was Wienczyslaw Bogucki … Vinnie was fifty bazillian years old, and he started in on the vodka everyday by 10:00 a.m. His white hair looked like a dirty bird’s nest, and you could have made a map of Wrinkletopia out of the lines on his face, not to mention the glow of his boozy-red nose that would make Wrinkletopia look like it had just been nuked.

Tajo is a complex character who loves to dance:

Why do I dance? … Can you imagine what it’s like to be a bird and fly, to break free of gravity and soar up to the clouds? I don’t know a single kid who hasn’t dreamed at least once about flying over the towers of Manhattan, but ballet kids feel like we can actually do it… I love feeling my body move, using all these different muscles that I never knew I had. Aunt Lola took me to see Billy Elliot on Broadway… and when it was over, I was shaking so much I could hardly walk.

Tajo also claims to have no filter and the same is true for some of the other characters, my favorite being his potty-mouthed little sister, Tanna. She is a scene stealer. “Tanna had a dirty mind for a ten-year-old. I think she watched too much TV.” Tanna is also a major player in the story—a switch hitter. You never know if she is friend or foe. She is watchful and shifty. Likewise all of Stanford’s characters are robust and real and sometimes raw. Stanford doesn’t hold back. Some of the scenes are edgy and some are more than a little provocative. Tajo isn’t a perfect character and the things he does—although done for love—make him more appealing because sometimes good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Tajo does both. Stanford gets this and that is why Tajo, along with his fabulous supporting cast, is such a terrific teen character, so believable with his old-soul, wise-cracking, kid-cussing ways. Clearly, Stanford gets teenagers and is fluid in their speak.

The epicenter of the story is the relationship between Tajo and Daray, whose character is also full of heartache and whose transformation and its aftereffects eventually divide the boys. Cody L. Stanford’s Feeding is pure allegory as it symbolizes the darker side of love and the dangers hidden within the fragile teenage heart.

*

Cody L. Stanford lives in Kansas. He attended the University of Missouri at Kansas City and is fascinated by the arts, history, mythology, sexuality, and other elements that shape the forces and foibles of human nature. His stories and novels have been published in Midwest Literary Magazine, Aphelion, Gypsy Shadow Publishing, Storm Moon Press, Etopia Press, Collective Fallout, Blood Quarry, The New Orphic Review, and Toasted Cheese. When not writing, he occasionally spends time working with tigers and other exotic cats at a nearby feline conservation park.

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

Poor Advice by Lou Gaglia

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Poor Advice (and Other Stories) by Lou Gaglia

Poor Advice (And Other Stories) by Lou Gaglia

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

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

I have so much more to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure is also worth mentioning again.

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

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

Here’s one:

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

(Wow. Can I come?)

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

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

*

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

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

Undertow by Eric E. Wallace

Candle-Ends
Shelley Carpenter


Undertow: Stories by Eric Wallace

Undertow: Stories by Eric E. Wallace

Eric E. Wallace’s short story collection, Undertow, is one of the best collections I have read. Eighteen stories filled with so much “story.” The writing flows with authority in its language and with characters so richly rounded, so soulful. They laugh and they cry. And they strip down and bare themselves, sometimes bleeding on the pages, beginning with the first story, “Jericho,” where Wallace introduces readers to a former musician who has lost his way. The story climaxes in a moment of true clarity:

The improvisations soon took Jericho far away. He closed his eyes and was swept through all the years he’d missed, the brightness his life could have been.

Jericho is a complex character touched by grace. A character who knows himself well and makes no excuses. Beware! He’s a heartbreaker. He teases the reader with hope and yet remains true to his nature no matter where his choices lead.

Wallace conducts his stories similar to his main character, Petrie, in “Maestro”—

like a master, teasing with unpredictable progressions … challenging with unusual key changes, turning dissonance into joyful surprise, interweaving melodies of grace and beauty.

Such gorgeous prose! The stories are so intriguing and so rich that I can honestly say that I do not have a single favorite among them—I have many favorites. That’s a rarity for me. Typically with short stories I might like one or two, yet this is not the case with Undertow. The stories pulled me in and stirred me much like the “undertow” of the title.

I usually space out time between stories to savor each experience and reflect, but on a few occasions I decided to read just one more. Moments after pondering Jericho’s fate I was introduced to Maddie, the cab driver from “Meter Running,” a “wordy” story that drove me to distraction with its punchy main character and quirky sidekick characters who come and go in Maddie’s cab. Maddie thinks deep thoughts, dolling out little acorns of wisdom while avoiding pedestrians and squirrels and indecision in her sharp little Prius cab. What a character! When I stepped out of her story, I had a moment of reader’s déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps Jericho from the last story had taken a ride with Maddie, too. Maybe off-script, when I wasn’t reading…

How many times have I sat in traffic waiting for a signal from the flag guy in the orange vest?  I met that guy, who has it all figured out, in a story called “Road Work” and then I read about another guy who is trapped, a wounded veteran who suffers from silent injuries. He sees perhaps the ghost of his future self in the “Long Road Home.” Other stories were wickedly funny. “Under the Hood” got me with the first line: “What was in the baby carriage?”

Wallace’s collection is also filed with couples—couples who are stalled like the composer and the mathematics professor, classy Edgar and Sylvia, with their snappy dialog and old-fashioned appeal, who, unlike the flagman, don’t have it figured out and who face some perilous situations in “Loch Ness Monsters.” And then there are those cozy young southern sweethearts in “Playing Doctor.” Carolee and Jiminy. They had me in the third paragraph: “She put one of her least favorite dolls down range, right there for Jiminy to shoot at with his twigs and rubber bands.” Then along comes a skunk and that changes everything…

The title story, “Undertow,” was all about setting and another couple whose story—I had the distinct feeling—would not end well for one or both of them. It gave me the jeepers.

A small white butterfly meandered over the opening. From underneath came a rush, a snarl, surging thunder. Fat, briny tendrils reached up, enmeshed the unwary creature, held it high in split-second triumph. Then the dark grasp of gravity dragged wave, foam and the insect into the slurping abyss.

Wallace’s technique is spot on. Eric Wallace’s stories made this reader fall in love with the short story form all over again.

*

Eric E. Wallace writes fiction, plays, poetry and humor. Eric’s work has been published in many journals and periodicals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, The First Line, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Pol Journal, Rosebud Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Idaho Magazine, Toasted Cheese and more, in eight anthologies, and online at WritersWeekly.com, where he has won several international short story competitions. Eric’s full-length drama, Syd, was produced at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. His shorter plays were read in seven northwest cities. Of recent years, Eric has concentrated on writing short fiction. A second collection of Eric’s short stories, Hoar Frost, was recently published by BookLocker in September 2015 and a third collection is in the works. He is currently researching a psychological novel set in contemporary San Francisco. Eric is a member of the Idaho Writers Guild. He lives in Eagle, Idaho.

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

Orangutanka: A Story in Poems by Margarita Engle

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


carpenter

Orangutanka by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Renée Kurilla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


carpenter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


carpenter-2

Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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