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


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Orangutanka by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Renée Kurilla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


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Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


carpenter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


carpenter

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

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

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

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

This beautiful theme resonates in all the stories.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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