Triggers By Alexa Recio de Fitch

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Triggers by Alexa Recio de Fitch

Alexa Recio de Fitch’s Triggers (Solstice, 2020) is a smartly provocative and well-crafted mystery novel. In fact, before you open the first chapter, you might want to pour yourself a cup, adjust your lawn chair or recliner, and get comfortable for a while because it’s very hard to put down. The writing is clear, crisp, and overall, well done.

One of my favorite features in the novel is the use of setting. Triggers is based in New York City and even if the reader has never been there, they may feel as though they have. Dare I say that they may even feel a bit inspired to go there, too. I was pleasantly surprised to feel so grounded in NYC (pun intended). It’s true. I enjoy stories set in familiar places and I felt a kinship with the characters. It was a treat. And I especially enjoy New York stories. To absorb the reader so early on was no easy task to pull off. It was done with intention and purpose through details, description, and characterization. Overall, a spectacular use of setting!

Keeping with this idea, much of the novel takes place in forgotten, historical places that main character Phillip Weatherly visits in his quest for inspiration. He is an amateur urban explorer. Did I mention his day job? He’s a writer. Weatherly has writer’s block and goes to literal extremes to find his muse. Recio de Fitch has done her due diligence and cultural research as the reader gets a plus one ticket to some of the most famous and infamous places in New York City history via Weatherly’s musings and late night excursions.

Here are a few of my favorites along with the subterranean subway architecture that, yes, I would love to see.

Weatherly is very interested in North Brother Island, one of the uninhabited islands in New York City harbor. Around 1900 it housed a certain Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon until her death some years later. She sounds like a nobody but to many Americans she was also known as “Typhoid Mary.” According to Weatherly, she was held responsible for spreading the typhoid disease in Manhattan and spent her life incarcerated because of it.

Did you know that Washington Park holds a monument with a secret door? (I won’t spoil where it goes or who opened it.) There’s also a green park that covers hundreds of unmarked graves from the previous century: “People just go there with their picnic blankets and their Frisbees, and they sit on 20,000 graves without a clue about what lies beneath them. It’s hilarious…” (83).

Another unknown place of interest is also coastal. Somewhere underwater, there’s a scuba diver’s treasure trove of scuttled railway cars that the city had no use for and more. After reading about these real-life places, I wondered…

Besides location, Triggers also has a cast of cool characters. These people are vivid and all seem connected or linked to one another. It reminded me of the theory of six degrees of separation from Frigyes Karinthy’s 1929 short story, “Chains.” According to The Guardian, “A ‘degree of separation’ is a measure of social distance between people. You are one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everyone they know, and so on.”

One of my favorite characters is nosy neighbor Clara, who seamlessly shifts between protagonist and antagonist. Much is revealed through her point of view. She is also a notable New Yorker to the core: “Where else in the world can you cry in front of complete strangers and have them not ask you if you are okay?” (41). Love her!

There are several other key characters to track and they each have their own points of view in an omniscient narration, allowing the reader to see and hear them, and read their character minds, too. Very helpful in a mystery story but also creating reasonable doubt as some of them are not always reliable while others are full of surprises. Regardless, Recio de Fitch’s characters are fully rounded and realized. They clearly and easily move along the pages and about their business in a realistic manner. Great detail. They do their job working in conjunction to move the plot to its climax. Recio de Fitch builds on their motivations, which are naturally to antagonize or support (sometimes both) the main character, who’s having a tough time when a killer mimics his book. Their dialogue is spot on. I think I may have bumped into one or two of them in the subway or coffee shop. Recio de Fitch takes her time building each of them with backstory and flashbacks between 2012 and 2017, curiously not always in chronological order.

Did I mention Triggers is a crime mystery?

There is a murder, a body, a great setting, and atmosphere. Loads of atmosphere. A cat-and-mouse game plays out on the pages as Recio de Fitch’s main guy, Weatherly, gets squeezed. Meanwhile, with the smorgasbord of suspects that are friends or foes, or perhaps friendly foes, readers may enjoy an interactive NYC hunt of their own to find the killer. Now you see… Now you don’t. Round and round it goes. Who done it? Somebody knows…

*

Alexa Recio de Fitch is a crime fiction author from Barranquilla, Colombia, presently living in New York. Her publication experience spans the United States, United Kingdom, and Colombia. Her work has appeared in Orbis International Literary Journal, Library Zine!, Voices From Across the New York Public Library, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Women Writers, Women’s Books, Ancient Paths Literary Magazine, and El Heraldo. Alexa worked at Hachette Book Group and McGraw-Hill and holds an English literature degree from the University of Notre Dame. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, the New York Public Library Writer’s Circle, and the New York Writers Critique Group. Twitter: @alexardfitch | Instagram: alexa.reciodefitch | Facebook

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

Celeste Blue by Lou Nell Gerard

Candle-Ends
Shelley Carpenter


Celeste Blue by Lou Nell Gerard

Movement. It was the first thought that came to my mind after reading Lou Nell Gerard’s collection of short stories, flash and poetry in her latest book, Celeste Blue (Cyberwit, 2020). Many of the stories and poetry are literally about commuter characters traveling the pages in cars, motorcycles, canoes, bicycles, and city transit buses as in “New Friend” (127) and “Transit Posts” (128-135). This interested and “moved” me greatly as it evoked a certain nostalgia for a time in my life when I, too, traveled and met some interesting people and made some daily acquaintances.

Gerard captures this idea beautifully in several of her poems and stories such as “Finding Community at the Motor Hotel”:

I love the community that can be found far from home at the old style motel. I’m speaking of a true motor hotel where you drive up to the door or your room… People wander out to sit on a porch. A stranger offers another traveler a beer and shares directions… We recognize each other in a nearby diner and say “hello.” (109)

Other stories travel the opposite direction blasting ahead toward science fiction such as in “Derecho,” where main characters shift in points of view as daily commuters face down an ominous sky at the local diner and hospital. Gerard’s pace is spot on as she cranks up the tension with weather and dialogue: “Well folks hope you aren’t seeing’ the end o’ the world here in ole Pegs.” (19) and “The radio is saying it is what’s called a Derecho, like a giant, fast moving conga line of a storm. The thing is crossing state borders… we are maybe in the middle of the thing.” (20)

Lou Nell Gerard tells her stories with vivid evocative detail. The first story, “Fixies Adrift,” echoes this:

That feeling when there seems no ready explanation, when time slows and life sounds like the lapping water against the raft, soft wind through the reeds, the quiet bark of the canoe against the raft, bird song the occasional splash of fish or a landing lake bird all disappears and is replaced by a tone of the imagination much like the deep deep tonals of the throat singing monks of Tibet… (11)

What makes it so interesting is the juxtaposition of such a gorgeous setting that Gerard takes her time building with the mystery.

Other stories in the collection have a certain classic atmosphere blending old and new into a very interesting modern noir. “Eidolon” is one of these. Written in third person with varying points of view it oozes the ambience of a 1950s crime story with a cool, modern twist. The main character enjoys a favorite podcast during her commute and something unexpected happens in the podcast. Gerard knows the hallmarks of noir and she uses sensory details to deliver a gripping story all of which happens on the road: “Slow down, doll. Get us killed, you’ll get them killed too…” (39)

Police procedurals are another element in several of the stories. Police officers and detectives play protagonists and antagonists in several. They speak, move about on the page, and are perfectly realized while other characters are sketchy giving the reader pause to consider whether or not the protagonist is reliable or telling the truth. Stream of consciousness comes to mind when I read “Hester’s World”: “In a perfect world. I live in a perfect world. It is my world. My reality. My version. When did I first get an inkling that it wasn’t a real world?” (55)

The short stories and flash fiction lead the reader to a series of poems in the section marked Miscellany. The poems range in subject from observations from daily life such as “The Best Loud Child,” which made me smile out loud, to the achingly poignant “Mom Had Alzheimer’s” and “The Day That She Knew Me.” There were also curious ideas and explorations in “Melancholia,” “Empty Park,” and “Terraform,” and a feeling of nostalgia for Woodstock (even though I wasn’t alive back then) in “We who were 18.” Gerard’s poem made me wish I were.

The stories and poems in Celeste Blue are unique and unexpected and full of wonderment as they transport the reader to places and spaces that are as unique as they are familiar. Bravo.

*

In 2020, Lou Nell Gerard published her poetry collection, Skateboard Girl On the 5 Fulton (Cyberwit.net), and Celeste Blue (Cyberwit.net), a compilation of short stories, flash, and poetry. Her work has also appeared in Toasted Cheese: “Eidolon” placed second in the Dead of Winter 2018 contest, “Derecho” placed third in the 2018 A Midsummer Tale Narrative Writing Contest, and “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. Find her thoughts on reading, writing, film, and friendship on her blog, Three Muses Writing.

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

The Reflection in a Glass Eye Poems by Simon Perchik

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Reflection in a Glass Eye Poems by Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik has been named the most prolific unpublished poet in America in numerous interviews and reviews.This phrase alone made me pause and wonder when I opened his book of poems, The Reflection in a Glass Eye Poems (Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library, 2020).

Indeed, it was a pleasure to learn about this amazing poet and the volume of his work, which is astounding. His poems are evocative, conversational, and full of abstraction. The duality of Perchik being an attorney by trade and poet by inspiration is a very interesting juxtaposition to draw from. In his essay, “Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities,” Si writes, “As an attorney, I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living.”

The collection takes its name from another similarly named prominent book: Reflections in a Glass Eye, a photographic collection by the International Center of Photography (Bullfinch Press, Little, Brown and Company, 1999). In addition, other texts such as Science News Magazine and a borrowed collection of mythology contributed to the atmosphere and inspiration behind Si’s work. Interestingly, Si has openly shared his process in numerous interviews and articles. Apparently, he tackles his poems the way he would attack a legal case, working all the abstract angles until they are rectified into a solution or in this case, a poem.

Si states, “The idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one.” (“Magic”).

As with many of his poetry collections, The Reflection in a Glass Eye Poems were created with images. One-hundred-eighty poems Si wrote using his unique creative process coupled with specific imagery that invites the reader to imagine not only the landscape of Si’s imagination and inspiration, but also to discover personal meaning from it. How could they not? The poems are an invitation to explore, to wander and wonder about big things and small moments not just in the poet’s mind or world but, I soon discovered, in my own existence as well. The longing and grace in his poems transcend the pages. Si’s collection is generous.

The first poem took my breath away. I felt like a voyeur eavesdropping on a very intimate, one-sided whispered graveyard conversation between separated lovers. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. It was a feeling that continued and intensified with each poem.

You are quieted the way this dirt
no longer steps forward
is slipping through as silence

though there’s no other side
only these few gravestones
trying to piece the Earth together

where the flower between your lips
is heated for the afternoon
not yet the small stones

falling into your mouth
as bitter phrases broken apart
to say out loud the word

for eating alone: a name
curled up inside and pulls you
under the lettering and your finger. (1)

The poems are related and flow like little streams traversing through Si’s collection, widening and narrowing, revealing and disappearing underground and emerging again, somewhere else. Where one ends, the next picks up and the reader travels along… They are written from a curious second-person point of view as the speaker seemingly addresses a nameless person or entity in an poignant earthy elegy of time, space, and transformation. Perhaps, to someone, or something that has taken on a new form, tangible or intangible. Oddly, sometimes as I read (aloud) I felt as if the speaker stopped and turned to me, the reader, addressing me directly. Other times I felt the “you” was the poet, himself.

Every love note counts on it, the winter
racing some creek till it melts
becomes airborne, carries off the Earth

the way every word you write
presses one hand closer to the other
—it’s an ancient gesture, learned

by turning the pen into light
as if every fire owes something to the sun
covers the page with on the way up

making small corrections, commas
asking for forgiveness as waterfalls
burning to the ground. (84)

The poems left me with many emotions: typically thoughtful, sometimes comforted, joyful even, and other times plain old bewildered. Each one was an unexpected journey and I was enchanted. I didn’t want them to end even though I was curious where they would eventually take me, each one becoming my new favorite before I turned the page.

Though this leaf was a child
when it let go your hand the branch
took a little longer, was weakened

by its over and over reaching out
while the tree no longer moved
—a heart was being carved

urging it on with your initials, short
for kisses, kisses and the afternoons
that have no light left to offer. (39)

Simon Perchik creates an existential ecstasy of living with longing; his soulful poems echo a deep humanity and a wanderlust for life and love here on earth.

Side by side a planet that has no star
you wander for years
which means remorse has taken hold (136)

*

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Weston Poems published by Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library, 2020. For more information including free e-books and his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website. To view one of his interviews please follow this link.

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

Hinterland by L.M. Brown

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Hinterland by L.M. Brown

Hinterland (Fomite Press, 2020) by L.M. Brown is a curious title for an even more curious novel that explores the depths of a family secret and its lasting effects. The title references a place and from the Merriam-Webster definition, hinterland, with its German origin, refers to an area that is outside of a city yet tied to its economy. It made sense when I considered Brown’s setting takes place in and around Somerville, Massachusetts in the U.S. northeast. The city itself is part of the Greater Boston metropolis and Brown knows it well as she takes the reader on a private tour with her main character, Nicholas, a local cab driver. Another meaning might be metaphorical, perhaps an inner setting unfolding in the vessels and chambers of a father’s parochial heart.

Truth be told, Hinterland struck a nostalgic undercurrent in my reading. Having once hailed from Somerville myself, and my own father, once upon a time, a local Boston cab driver, I was already all in and intrigued where this novel would take me. How I love a good setting, real or imagined!

Brown sets up her characters with careful detail, bit by bit, word by word, she reveals them in an omniscient third-person point of view, deep and all-knowing in the character’s heads, beginning with Nicholas:

The rain gave a soothing rat-a-tat-tat and Nicholas felt incapable of getting out of the car. It had been a spring day when he’d stood outside Ina’s house covered in blood. He hadn’t cried then or when he’d stood back to see the bloody mess of the boy, or afterwards when the ambulance came… He didn’t cry until he learned the boy was left with brain damage. (80)

Carl Jung once said, “Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

Nicholas’s story is an internal conflict that becomes external when the consequences of his choices bring him to the outer edge of despair when he fully realizes his mistakes and “awakens.” He is simple in his habits and means well despite an emotional handicap exploited by other secrets, past and present, that intersect with the main plot line unfolding through this likeable, yet very damaged character. His main goal is to protect his daughter, Kate, from their shared past and that traps them both and degrades what was once a good parent-child relationship:

[Nicholas and Kate’s] cheekiness in stealing from the house, in sharing secrets across the table and buying the extras sweet, had disappeared with Kathleen. There was no one waiting for them at home, no one to ask what did you do, what did you get? No reason to snigger and hide sugared hands. It was just the two of them , staring mutely across gnawed buns. (57)

Nicholas has a deep dark secret that Brown slowly peels back, layer after layer through backstory and flashback. Yet Nicholas remembers not only the sorrows, but the joys that came before, which makes him more believable and his story poignant. He recalls meeting Kathleen for the first time:

She’d shuffled into the back seat and he’d met her gaze in the rear-view mirror. … In the dark, illuminated by streetlights, he’d been able to make out the humor in her grey eyes. She’d made him smile…

“Do you have any stories?” she’d asked. (38-39)

Brown balances out all her characters, giving them grace despite their flaws and very human imperfections. Her characters shine off the page. Nina is a great example here, the childhood neighbor who returns and becomes a surrogate parent to Nicholas’s daughter, Kate, and a romantic interest to him, as well. And young Kate is one character to watch closely. She is the little white rabbit readers will chase through the pages to the heart of the story. The why of the secret. Brown keeps the reader guessing as she wisely shows what needs to be shown and tells the rest in exposition. Dialogue is spot on and the character’s movements are easily visualized.

Curiously though, Brown’s story fast forwards ten years to Kate’s early teens where an older Kate begins to ask questions and demand answers. Here is where the climax takes form as Kate’s stubborn curiosity is not easily satisfied with a sweet treat from her father or a visit with Nina. Brown uses this character’s teenage angst to build tension and conflict between the characters until ultimately something happens.

*

L.M Brown’s stories have won the Able Muse Write Prize for Fiction, and have appeared in Toasted Cheese, The Chiron Review, Eclectica, Litro, Bath Short Story Award Anthology (2020), SmokeLong Flash Fiction Issue Award (2020) and many others. She is the author of two linked collections, Treading The Uneven Road (Fomite Press) and Were We Awake (Fomite Press), and the novel Debris (Ink Smith Publishing). Twitter: BrownLornab Instagram: l.m_brown

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

Ravynscroft by Richard Edgar

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Ravynscroft by Richard Edgar

Ravynscroft (2020) is a self-published modern coming-of-age tale told with a twist: The characters are well into adulthood. This is the second novel in Richard Edgar’s LGBTQ series that began with his breakout novel, Necessary Lies, which I had the pleasure of reviewing two years ago. It was deliciously character driven.

Likewise, Ravynscroft is also a character-driven story and is told in the first-person point of view of the main protagonist, Ravyn, a forty-something-year-old science academic who has recently become single. The point of view works well for the story and adds an intimate sense of closeness to this character. Edgar adeptly uses interior monologue to reveal Ravyn’s inner thoughts that are peppered throughout the novel.

Here, Ravyn talks about LGBTQ life and her new placement in a very cool, sciencey-way.

Friends, right. Most people in this world are straight. We fought our way into the network; it seems there’s a place for committed gay couples. The atmosphere is more or less stable if it’s all composed of diatomic molecules, neatly bound to each other and not available.

And then she moved out.

And, like it or not, I was a free radical in a world of couples. (19)

What’s more, Edgar adds an interesting structure to Ravyn’s voice in the form of letters to Ravyn’s former lover that reveal more character motivation and key backstory in a conversational form that reads almost like a one-sided therapy session. Clever.

Dear Renee,

Again with the write but no send letter. I guess I’m imagining I’m explaining stuff to you helps me put it together or something. Imaginary friends are a poor substitute for the real thing, but, I hope, I’m working on fixing that. (121)

As her letters to Renee show, Ravyn is lonely and goes about her life trying to recover from a serious relationship breakup. She is alone in a big empty house with only a cat for company. The reader is let into her university world and is introduced to a quirky group of LGBTQ friends that challenge and support her. This is a book about relationships. This is where Edgar shines. The characters could walk off the pages into the real world. I think I  may have met one or two of them before somewhere… they are so real and in-your-face believable. Adorable. Their dialogue is snappy and playful at times.

“I think,” she said. “I do love my condo though.”

“It’s nice,” I said.

“I wish you lived closer,” she said, not looking back at me. There was plenty of road to watch.

“I actually don’t think you do,” I said.

“True. But if you did, we could take turns living in the condo,” she said.

“Whee. Like wearing identical dresses to school.”

“Something like that. Seems like I could both be here and there with him,” said Renee.

“I am not you,” I said. “Ravyn,” I added, pointing at myself. “Renee,” I added, pointing at her.

“You wanna be me,” she said.

“And you wanna be me,” I said. “But we’re not.”

“Dammit, Ravyn,” she said.

“Dammit, Renee,” I answered. (356)

Ravynscroft is nearly five hundred pages which is considerably longer than Edgar’s first novel. From page one Edgar carefully rounds out his characters and crafts his story with little gems of wisdom, wit, humor, balancing out the sadness and loneliness the protagonist shows in her journey of moving on, growing, and becoming even better for it.  A journey that many of us can relate to.

*

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

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

The Monsignor’s Agents by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Monsignor’s Agents by Bill Lockwood

In the warm months of July and August I go off my diet of literary fiction and academic nonfiction and escape into my favorite pastime: summer reading. From May through September, one can see summer books in artful window displays in Main Street bookstores, on lawn chairs and colorful beach towels often flipped over with their pages fanning in a downward direction. Some can be spied poking out of a tote bag on a bus or train with just a hint of their titles showing. Some have their pages dogeared purposely to hold the reader’s place while their owner takes a reading break to splash in the pool, the ocean or other inland waters.

Novels filled with adventure, thrills, romance, mystery or history, which is a particular favorite of mine. Historical fiction hooked me into reading at a young age and today I am still drawn to this genre about people and places from eras gone by, some from the distant past to others at an even closer time that I can recall with a certain nostalgia because I was there somewhere. Somehow. Of course, not in the novel but existing in the real world as a younger version of myself, living and working and finding adventure on a much smaller scale.

I recently had the pleasure to read Bill Lockwood’s latest historical novel, The Monsignor’s Agents (The Wild Rose Press, 2020). Lockwood’s novel is filled with all those elements that I love: adventure, intrigue, danger, romance, and that recent historical context that made me think about where I was and what I was doing when Lockwood’s characters went about their bookish business of capturing my attention and literally traveling with me as I, myself, went about my summer business from place to place hoping for fifteen minutes here or there of stolen reading time so that I could catch up with my new summer friends. I spent a wonderful two weeks with Lockwood’s characters. Full disclosure: this is not my first Lockwood novel. Nevertheless, I was very pleased to see all his hallmarks in his latest work.

The setting of The Monsignor’s Agents takes place in two locations: Rome and on the island of Malta, located off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, in 1983, which I thought very interesting. The 1980s were more than crazy hair and clothes and the birth of MTV. They were a very political time in the world and in the Catholic Church as well. In the novel, Lockwood puts a spotlight on the Vatican and Pope John Paul II with speculation of a possible third assassination attempt brewing, and he does this beautifully using television news as a delivery vehicle, showing and not simply telling the reader. Lockwood does this right out of the gate in the first line:

Alison flipped on the TV while she waited for her morning coffee to brew. “May 1, 1983,” the announcer gave the date in Italian at the start of the local newscast for Rome.

Indeed, Lockwood clearly and succinctly orients the reader to the big picture while introducing his main character, Alison, a 27-year-old army intelligence officer stationed in Rome. The reader soon learns Alison’s role. Great writing here and throughout. Lockwood’s story is full of details and character movement.

He also adds a History and Author’s Notes in the beginning pages of his novel that supply some details and explanations of the numerous historical references peppered throughout the story that once more grounds the reader, gives authority to his characters, and also provides context to the exotic locations where the story takes place.

In this regard, authority is further heightened because the setting details are equally important to the plot. In the third chapter, Lockwood blends Alison with the setting in a historically evocative manner:

She had dressed European as cover, to blend in. The light summer dress she wore had, like the little island, a mix of European and Mediterranean cultures. The dress was thin to make her feel cool in the African heat and European in style to show she hadn’t worn a bra. Neither had she worn any jewelry except for a simple watch on her wrist. The guidebook had said that in the eighteenth century young girls in Maltese society were given simple coral necklaces believed to ward off evil. She was trusting in her training and experience to take care of that.

Alison’s character is reminiscent of a time when women were just beginning to break the gender barrier, particularly in the armed forces. Alison refers several times to the famed World War I spy, Mata Hari, who was a double agent spying on the French and Germans and ultimately died violently by a firing squad. Hari used her sexuality to get the job done and while that may have been true to history and the time, it made me pause. In a time of the women’s movement, Me Too, a heightened political climate and social awareness, to read about Alison using her sexuality in a flippant, provocative manner stopped me. It was unexpected and I had a moment of dislike for Lockwood’s character.

However, I recalled that 1980s pop culture was indeed graphic in terms of violence and sex, and women were commonly objectified by men as well as by themselves and had been for centuries. This is why historical female spies like Hari were able to stay under the radar of suspicion. I got that. This notion gave way to another thought. Perhaps Lockwood was showing the gender disparity of then and now in a micro-social commentary through his characters. How different they are to their modern contemporaries. Less serious, for sure. Playful. These qualities attracted me to them in the first place. My new summer besties. People whom I would invite to my house for a barbecue and cocktails had they been flesh and bone.

Returning to the other characters, overall they were very round and robust, charming, funny, and surprising, too. I liked them all, particularly Max, who I suspect may be a favorite of Bill’s. Max is a character I had met in a previous Lockwood novel and was delighted to be reacquainted with. Max and Alison’s points of view are the main plot vehicle as Lockwood switches between them in his linear narrative.

The novel builds to an exciting moment where the reader may guess what is about to happen but doesn’t know for sure, mirroring the character’s exact same sentiment. It’s a true page-turner followed by a traditional and quick falling action and character wrap up.

*

Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. Currently he writes articles on the arts and interesting people for the weekly Shopper/Vermont Journal and the daily Eagle Times. 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 published his second novel, Megan of the Mists, in 2017, and third, Ms. Anna, in 2018. He has five published short stories. His short story “The Kids Won’t Leave” is scheduled to appear in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, the literary journal of Antioch University, Los Angeles. Bill lives in Vermont.

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

Rainforest In Russet by Cynthia Sharp

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Rainforest in Russet by Cynthia Sharp

“Elegant, evocative, nostalgic” are three words that come to mind after reading Cynthia Sharp’s dazzling poems from Rainforest in Russet (Silver Bow Publishing, 2018), a collection that drew me in from the first lovely lines of the title poem, “Rainforest in Russet.”

In the silence

between
breaths,

my truth rises.

I fall into the space
Where the forest

captures
light.

The poems in Sharp’s collection pay tribute to earthly delights. They are evocative vignettes of emotion, steeped in longing, a nostalgia or a gratefulness for something or someone. Gratitude is a word I have heard a lot of lately. I have thought a lot about its meaning and for me, how evoking its presence brings comfort in uncertain times.

Gratitude

The shades of orange
in the petals of a daisy,
the scent of sea in summer,
the beach on a Tuesday evening,
sunlight and slower days,
the way it’s possible
to love again,
a groundedness in home,
like the stars there every night,
waiting on the moon.

Nostalgia is another theme that shimmers below the surface. I caught a glimpse of it in an autobiographical poem called “A Tribute to Orange” where Sharp uses tints and shades of color to paint a picture of her past.

the glow of the neighbor’s porch light
Through rain
Amber warmth reflected in puddles
Like Paris café candles in the night.

The first colour I see
Mixed with violet
When I close my eyes.

I loved the way she ended this poem and yes, I closed my eyes.

Many of the poems have this dream-like quality that create a sense of finding joy, peace in the moment such as in the poem, “The Sojourner’s Way,” which reminds me of my late afternoon wooded walks with my dog, Skye, where my problems start to shrink with each joyful step and I return to myself.

In the haven of silence
I no longer carry
everyone’s blind spots
put some of it down
let nirvana return.

My fallen tree uprooted no more
thunder, rain, time
cherry petals in a sea of blue
the swoosh of a sand stream
emptied of unwanted current
gentle mist beyond

slow journeys
the softness of wind in birch leaves
heart of green   earth   breathing
these afternoons before I go to the forest

only a tiny fraction makes it to the light
but that fraction embodies all.

Indeed, Sharp’s poems also capture the idea of the connection of the human spirit to nature. A communion. Nature abounds in all the poems, particularly in the changing of seasons.

This collection seeped into my soul. My typical routine when reading a collection is to go slowly, reading each poem with careful thought with my morning coffee, and then think about them through the course of my day, pondering meaning and finding truth. Living in a pandemic changed my world in unexpected ways; I found solace in Sharp’s collection. My daily walks tripled, and I began taking a closer look at the beauty in my backyard forest. I watch the trees, looking for signs of renewal—of Spring as l wish for summer winds to blow away the pandemic and its accompanying chilly spring. I daydream of June.

amid quiet full trees

waking up in June with sunlight and time
the invisible rise up
the way the tips of the dogwood touch clouds
and luminosity returns
waiting on the birth

Halfway through Rainforest in Russet, I noted a shift in Sharp’s poems. A new landscape and subject. The words were still evocative and natural but there was something else more personal. Poignant.

The Summer We Never Had” and this excerpt from “the Bohemian” speak of time and a place and lost love.

along the way,
as I lost myself
into late autumn evenings,
a lonely barge along the night river,
still seeking you
as red leaves fell softly
into dark water.

My heart pinched when I read this part of “Somnambulant Web” in its very visual graphic layout on the page.

I hold on
Because deep down,
I know,
There was only you.

This next poem was my favorite and even though I’ve never heard of its title, I understood…

Selenophilia

Reflecting back
to long lost loves and youth,
days of working in restaurants
in fast-paced east coast cities
and falling in love
under stars and fireflies at night,
I surrender my sorrow
to the cherry petals,
fluttering on the wind
like a thousand tiny butterflies
lingering in the light.

Rainforest in Russet is a gorgeous collection that is a perfect read for today’s new world. Its evocative scenery takes the reader on a wooded walk within its pages and is a nostalgic time-travel to a different earth. It belongs on every teacher’s shelf. Cynthia Sharp’s collection casts a dreamy, dazzling light that beguiles the senses and the spirit.

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Cynthia Sharp was the city of Richmond’s 2019 Writer in Residence, where she taught poetry, flash fiction, and screenwriting. She is a full member of The League of Canadian Poets, The Writers Union of Canada. Sharp served two years as a regional director for The Federation of British Columbia Writers and a 2020 judge for the Pandora’s Collective International Poetry Contest. She is the founder and main instructor for The Zen of Poetry, a Zen workshop writing series for individuals and groups. Cynthia is featured at numerous literary events throughout North America. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as Toasted Cheese, Nature Poems, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, My Word Wizard, and Piker Press. She has been recognized globally, nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology.

The Zen of PoetryCynthia Sharp Poet’s Corner
Cynthia’s Goodreads Author Page | Cynthia’s Amazon Author Page

Readings from Rainforest In Russet

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

Neighbours & Tourists by Ewa Mazierska

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Neighbours & Tourists by Ewa Mazierska

Ewa Mazierska’s collection of short stories, Neighbours & Tourists (Adelaide Books, 2019) is an intriguing and soulful assortment of travel stories set across Europe and India, as well as a deep dive into the human condition. They vary from village stories told by a returning narrator to well-seasoned travelers who manage more than a glance at the secret world of the local populations they visit. The collection has a duality about it. It is also about home—of coming home. What it feels like to return after many years to discover the changes and sameness in childhood spaces. The beauty and disappointment of it all. Or the idea of creating home in transient spaces which is more than unpacking a suitcase and tucking it under a hotel bed. To create a home, one must venture out into society and bring it back piece by piece, brick by brick, building home in local experience and exposure to the people and customs of the new place until the new place begins to feel familiar. Mazierska defines this idea in the details of her stories.

The stories are arranged in two parts: Neighbours and Tourists. The beginning ones (Neighbours) read like a social commentary revealing much of the hierarchy of friendships and strangers in the narrator’s childhood village. The first story, “The Death of a Neighbor,” sets this idea into motion:

The deaths of the neighbours inevitably affected the hierarchy of those who remained; the further ones by virtue of being still around moved to the position of the close ones.

Indeed, Mazierska’s first story told by a female narrator relates the intimate details of a nearly 1980s Polish village under martial law that only someone from that village could reveal and Mazierska does this in an interesting way. The story reads like gossip. Lots of telling. I could almost see the narrator sitting across the table from me, a cup of coffee and a cigarette smoldering as she revealed the “backwardness” of her village whispering the word “cancer” as the village villain as she goes on to describe local population and their death culture.

[D]ead people only live as long as they live in other people’s memory.

This first story really is the jumping-off point. Once immersed, it was difficult to stop reading as the stories are loosely linked like little houses on a lighted string. The reader travels house to house, following the first narrator as she pedals the reader on a private tour of her childhood village. The backdrop of the stories hints of the decrepitness and economic collateral damage from World War II, the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall. One story, “Too Smart,” was a tragedy about the downfall of a Polish family by a gangster marriage. Other stories related even more tragedies about more rural families, some from their own doings, which according to the narrator’s mother from the story “Disinheritance” was “worse than the Holocaust.”

After this story, I started to wonder if it was time to put the book down.These characters seemed real to me and their misfortunes depressing and painfully poignant. They reminded me of Anton Chekov’s stories. Mazierska created them so vividly that I did wonder where the intersection of fiction and truth met. Her writing was spot on and elegant. Then something happened. I turned the page. I read a few more lines and she had me. The next little house on Mazierska’s strand was “The Widow and Her Daughter.” It was pretty terrific. I am partial to women’s stories and this one in particular was surprising and striking. Mazierska set it up beautifully:  teacher who grew beautiful flowers and traveled beyond the village borders of her stereotype.

…the daughter was in her forties and she was still unmarried and lived with her mother. This was an uncommon position for women in our village, except that it befell female teachers more often than members of any other occupational groups, simply because teachers in Poland are mostly women, so they have few opportunities for office romance and live under pressure to behave modestly.

And she was anything but modest.

The second part of the collection shifts to the early 2000s and often to third person, beginning with the lopsided love story of Sarah and Thomas (“Homo Sacer and Her Lover”) who meet on several business trips in Budapest. One of them is a true romantic and the other a “‘homo sacer’: somebody who has only his physical life, zoe, rather than bio, which was a higher form of existence.”

Another story I liked very much was “Heaven for Prostitutes.” The narrator stops for directions and meets a cohort of colorful characters in a chance encounter. Here, Mazierska humanizes these characters, giving them dignity and a certain grace despite their professions.

‘Maybe childbirth is more painful than walking the night in
uncomfortable shoes, but at least no woman gives birth every night for 35 years[.]’

Other stories relate the prejudice often directed at the local populations by travelers, not contrived but still apparent. In “Carlos and Us,” another chance encounter opens a new world for a family who befriend a local man. The travelers romanticize him and come to realize that their new friend has a distaste for foreigners.

[W]e remain tourist attractions for each other: fake or at least decontextualised.

This theme appears again in other stories as the characters immerse themselves in the local cultures sometimes superficially, other times losing themselves completely in it. Mazierska’s writing is personal and profound, tracing and trespassing boundaries of time, space, and the human heart. She draws you in and keeps you to the end.

*

Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music who writes short stories in her spare time. Her work has been published in The Longshot Island, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef, Toasted Cheese, Opiate, Red Fez, Thimble, and Mystery Tribune among others.  She is also a Pushcart nominee and her work was shortlisted in several competitions including most recently the 2019 Eyelands Book Awards. Born in Poland, Mazierska currently resides in Lancashire, UK. Neighbours and Tourists is her first collection of short stories. Twitter: @EwaMazierska
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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

Epitaph for the Beloved by Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Yarrow


Epitaph for the Beloved by Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas

The 102 poems in Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas’ Epitaph for the Beloved (Finishing Line Press, 2019) are divided into seven sections, each introduced by a line in the nursery rhyme “Monday’s Child” though the lyrics have been changed from present tense (“Monday’s child is fair of face”) to past tense (“Monday’s Child Was Fair of Face”) and thus we have a history, a looking back on a life, rather than a contemporaneous description of or a prediction of one. One other change is the wording of the last day of the week. “And the child that is born on the Sabbath day / Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay” becomes “But the Child That Was Born on the Sabbath Day, Was Fair and Wise and Good and Gay.” The change seems to be for clarity, though “blithe” and “wise” are nowhere near synonyms and I’m not sure what that comma after “Day” adds to the reader’s comprehension.

The reason I comment on this structure is that in any odd-numbered list there is a middle term as in the fifteen stories in Joyce’s Dubliners. The eighth story in that collection (“A Little Cloud”) is central to the meaning of that book. In this book, the fourth section (Thursday’s Child) is the center, the fulcrum from which all the other poems ascend or descend. The fourth section deals with the dissolution of the speaker’s marriage. Leading up to that section we have poems of childhood, motherhood, and grief, and following that section, we have poems of remarriage, nostalgia, and resolve.

But the poems in this middle section are the most passionate and the strongest in the book with titles like “Womanizer,” “Conman-Duplicitous,” “Sleeping Beauty, Betrayed,” “Detonate” and “The Vibrator,” a poem about the gift that a husband gave a wife with the refrain “you gave me a vibrator.” Here is the savage last stanza:

And here, I would say to you now, is the box
that sits bare and unfilled, which needs
no replacements. Here is the case which you
happened to leave while taking the vibrator
upon our divorce which I never questioned
knowing you’d need it—
far more than I.

The long dash above that separates the last line (“far more than I”) from the rest of the stanza is a typical strategy for many poems in this volume in which the last line is often set off from the rest of the poem, privileging it, investing it with dramatic and significant isolation.

Here are some examples:

  • “Ah, flower, to be loved by such a bee.” [“Pheromones”]
  • “They had no parents, but they had each other.” [“The Blue Rosary”]
  • “now you must learn what it means, to be strong.” [“Keep Me This Night”]
  • “as we pass through the proof of the other.” [“Mirror in My Room”]
  • “bars that scrape the latch of forgotten entries.” [“Playing Woodwinds to an Unborn or Just Reincarnation”]

Some of Grellas’ word choices are surprising and arresting as when she writes in “Mouse Queen” “you are an enigma of narrowing bones” or in these lines from “Caterpillar Prayers”:

You were a butterfly
in the meadow

where no viewer
could see your grace

save the birdlike seraph
perched on a nearby

magnolia leaf

At other times, an occasional cliché (“pearly whites”) or a solecism (“laying on a bed”) appears, and every once in a while the language becomes a little precious, a little strained, as in “the air blued and bruised / from lies” [“Conman-Duplicitous”] or “how no / amount of plea undoes the fate / of any willful heart.” [“Breached”]

Still, so much of the diction in these poems is winning.

Dog, I am sorry
that you have gone hungry.
I have been a glutinous[1] fool. [“Wild Thing”]

This is the kind of poem,[2] that will sleep with you
when no one’s looking.  [“Bad Poem”]

And so much of the sentiment in these poems is not to be resisted as when Grellas writes of her children, “They are the poems I’ve yet / to write as they will become a part of me / no matter what devastation the world / sends my way” [“If I Should Die before I Wake[3] Remember…”] and also when she writes memorably of herself, “A prelude to ecstasy is all that I ask.” [“Meet Me in the Countryside”]

As a “prelude to ecstasy,” read these poems of face, grace, woe, distance, loving, living, and wisdom, poems where “the moonlight knows your name.”

[1]Was “gluttonous” meant?
[2] Those strangely placed commas!
[3] A wished-for comma here!

*

Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas is a ten-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a seven-time Best of the Net nominee. In 2012 she won the Red Ochre Chapbook Contest with her manuscript, Before I Go to Sleep. In 2018 her book In the Making of Goodbyes was nominated for a national book award and her poem “A Mall in California” took 2nd place for the Jack Kerouac Poetry Prize. In 2019 her chapbook An Ode to Hope in the Midst of Pandemonium was a finalist in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards. Grellas’ writing has appeared Mezzocammin, The Tower Journal, and Sheila-Na-Gig. She was recently the guest speaker at the California Writer’s Club, Sacramento chapter. She is the Editor-in-Chief for The Orchards Poetry Journal and Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Tule Review. She is a member of the Sacramento Poetry Center Board of Directors; Saratoga Author’s Hall of Fame and she is currently enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. Twitter: @secretpoet | Facebook: clgrellas

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Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College, is the author of five full-length books of poetry and five poetry chapbooks. His poems have been published in PANK, Contrary, Diagram, Thrush, Chiron Review, RHINO and many other journals such as The Decadent Review, Isacoustic*, Toasted Cheese, and Port Yonder Press. Yarrow’s latest collection is Accelerant (Nixes Mate Books, 2019). Twitter: @billyarrow | Facebook: bill.yarrow.1 | Poets & Writers: bill_yarrow

Accelerant by Bill Yarrow

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Accelerant by Bill Yarrow

World-building. That is what came to this reader’s mind when I finished the last poem in Bill Yarrow’s collection, Accelerant. Each poem brings the reader to a betwixt place, real or imagined. A split-second moment communicating a universe of thought. Feelings. Ideas connected with Yarrow’s well-chosen vocabulary and punctuation, steeped in the abstract as well as nostalgia. For me, it was like each poem opened a door to an unseen space. I call it a twilight space. Unique and sometimes unsettling, perhaps because it is partially recognizable. Yarrow evokes an idea and then he populates it with intriguing elements, elegant and gritty. Familiar and yet perplexing. I pondered on some of the poems in this collection for days, like this one whose title suggests but offers no explanation:

Machete

aspirin and Band-Aids in baggies
astronauts with flags on their swimsuits
addicts with raging colitis
none of the above

blandishment heaped upon Girl Scouts
board games invented by florists
beachcombers drunk at the drive-in
none of the above

magnets left in a chapel
manatees shunted in tunnels
mystics sedated with sulfur
none of the above

wellness empowered by ampoules
weather defended by dancers
whimsy unharnessed to outlook
none of the above

Despite my curiosity, I marveled at the alliteration, the absence of punctuation, and repetition of the last line in each stanza.The poem is a list of people, objects, and ideas paired in a nonsensical partnerships that have purpose and yet no explanation. I enjoyed every word.

Repetition, alliteration, and interesting structure, indeed, are a few of the hallmarks in Yarrow’s collection of forty poems. I loved the first sentence in “Sin Embargo”: I like badness.

Yarrow makes a list on this subject that sounds terribly terrific especially when read aloud as all poems should be read.

I like badness. Don’t all the really good
Films have the word “bad” in their titles?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Bad
Day at Black Rock. Bad Lieutenant.
Baadasssss! The Bad and the
Beautiful. The Bad Seed.

Evil’s another story, a story
whose orphan narrator is misery,
married to pain, son of suffering,
sibling of spleen. I have seen evil.
If you have too, you know there’s
But one bad way to get rid of evil.

Retrieve the ragged dagger. The night
Is just weak enough for insurrection.

Other poems have a reverse mirror-like structure that seem to end as they begin as in the case of “Not a Villanelle.” While other poems reveal their structure in their conclusion like “Poet between Oxnard and Van Nuys” which is a combination of description and lists, and lists loving details of a spectacular summer evidenced in the musings of poet gazing out a passenger train window at the landscape outside and the internal one happening as well, in tandem:

The butter of summer was melting onto
the toast of the town, a town which I had
visited only in dreams

Another poem I liked describes a western U.S. landscape. I think. A landscape the poet knows well and as a reader I recognize, too. The poem is “Less Scenery” and the words are set in an interesting array of line indents and white space on the page that continues in a trajectory that may relate to the title and perhaps a guided message within its context through the use of very American establishments such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, and other generic structures that seem to creep up on the western landscape of “arroyos” and “mesas” and “avocado trees.” Perhaps it is the window view from another ride through the American landscape. The landscape of American dream? Or perhaps it is a sociopolitical commentary on America today. Maybe both.

Yarrow’s poems also have a nostalgic quality to them. “Pinochle in My Snout” is a snapshot in time of a family party absent of cell phones and social media. A bygone era in popular culture. Familiar and a tad bittersweet.

The paneled linoleum basement rec room
with tables set up for pinochle, salami, and
schnapps. My uncles, grandfather and father
at one table; my aunts and mother at the other.
The blurry TV on. The bookcases with glass
fronts and carved locked doors holding auction
volumes and foreign coins. My three sisters
in ballerina tutus running up and down stairs.
My unemployed younger cousins on the back lawn
smoking Luckies. My coiffed older cousins discussing
the subdivisions of the Republican future. Albums
of peeling Polaroids, dirty doilies, fuzzy rugs.
The fetching wreckage of an arsoned heart. “Does
anyone want anything else to eat? Anyone? Anyone?”

Accelerant is an intrepid collection of gutsy poems. A pager turner in that each poem is unique in its structure, voice, and message. For forty days I read one of Yarrow’s poems with my morning coffee and knew with each visitation, I would be taken to a new place, down an interesting path, or a look back to a familiar space seen through Bill Yarrow’s very cool and penetrating perspective.

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Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College, is the author of five full-length books of poetry and five poetry chapbooks. His poems have been published in PANK, Contrary, Diagram, Thrush, Chiron Review, RHINO and many other journals such as The Decadent Review, Isacoustic*, Toasted Cheese, and Port Yonder Press. Yarrow’s latest collection is Accelerant (Nixes Mate Books, 2019). Facebook: bill.yarrow.1 | Twitter: billyarrow | Poets & Writers: bill_yarrow

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