Hollowed by Lucy Zhang

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Front cover of the flash fiction collection "Hollowed" by Lucy Zhang. Image of a light blue background with two upturned halves of an eggshell in the foreground. The shells are pinkish and cast shadows. The word "HOLLOWED" in a stencil font is on the inside of the half-shell on the left and "LUCY ZHANG" in the same font on the inside of the half-shell on the right.

Hollowed by Lucy Zhang

Lucy Zhang’s recent flash fiction collection, Hollowed (Thirty West, 2022), is full of surprise and wonder as it explores identity and agency. Her tone seems matter-of-fact and nothing in this collection is straightforward. Quite the opposite. The short stories and flash are bursting with organic and surreal images juxtaposed to the expectations of others that clearly and interestingly intersect. Zhang’s thoughtful prose is also dazzling. There is much to say about the depth and breadth of the stories in Hollowed. This is my short take.

One striking theme is the immigrant experience. Being first or second generation and straddling two worlds. Two identities. Who am I? Who do I want to be? In “Soft-Shelled Turtle,” Zhang writes with authority about the visceral experience of eating turtle as a young girl and later as an adult traveling from Chinatown with a live turtle on the subway and the looks from others who notice and perhaps disapprove.

Why can’t they eat chicken like normal people? said the man’s facial expression. Stop staring, I thought. Stop staring…

The turtle itself may be a mechanism, a metaphor, if you will, for what is really going on in this story, the turtle being a traditional Chinese delicacy as well as traditional medicine:

It’s good for you, lots of protein, helps with anemia and fertility, my parents told me as I forced it down. (5) 

When this character receives a live turtle at age thirty, she is disturbed by the gift, knowing it is another message from her parents who make no bones about their thoughts of their single and childless daughter living independent from them.

The story also has an added surrealness. I wondered about the fairies in the kitchen playing mahjong for hours. The protagonist decides to join them, which I thought was hilarious. But before she does they insist:

We don’t want your nonexistent firstborn, they titter. We want your soft-shelled turtle. (4)

They seem not to be bothered with preparing the turtle, running counter to the protagonist who is doubly not happy about the gift she would have to kill in order to consume. The fairies presence brings a chaotic element to the story that has purpose, perhaps reflecting or balancing the duality and agency surrounding the young woman.

Another theme in the collection is the feminine. The stories, “Stone Girl” and “Thigh Gap” resonate with feminist ideals relating to body image. “Stone Girl” is also the name of the main character who is made of stone and presently being created. She doesn’t want perfection. Perfection is found in the imperfection. A beautiful asymmetry that she decides. “Thigh Gap” also relates to body image and self-infliction. This story evokes negative self images that the main character wishes to change. Cutting. Carving. Creating a new self that is disturbing and, in the end, not satisfying to the character.

Some of the stories in Hollowed invoke not just the female but an added existential ingredient. “Hatchling” begins with an outrageous first sentence: “When the egg popped out of her vagina…”  An unexpected pregnancy complication for sure! The story flashes back to childhood and an incident that happened when collecting chicken eggs. It returns to the present dilemma of this egg, which is “about the size of a duck egg, [yet] heavier…” (19). Should she tell her husband? In the meantime, the protagonist goes about cleaning up the delivery scene. It’s an absurd situation Zhang creates in a curious exploration of motherhood that goes deeper when the egg cracks.

Zhang uses various vantage points to tickle the reader. “How to Make Me Orgasm” is one of the stories where she does this in surprising ways. The metaphors—spectacular!  The structure is in the form of instructions just as the title hints. Yet each instruction is a unique story in itself.

Hold enough conviction. Don’t adjust your movements before they’ve registered with nerve endings. This is how restaurant butchers operate: unlatch a crate, lock their grip around a snake, slap it onto the ground, like whips striking tile. Aunt says snake soup is a delicacy, good for the skin. Clean and clear with big chunks of meat and a few pieces of star anise, ginger, and wood ear. Tough enough you must strain your jaw to rip sinew from the bone. Soft enough to emasculate fibers into pulp. They grip, shifting their belly scales to alter friction, rippling over hands and elbows. You’ve got to catch it by surprise. Try again if you fail. (7)

“Room Tour” held up a mirror to the protagonist when a future lover traveled back in time to see her older version, the seed of what she once was, in small gestures and remarks that take on a larger meaning: “You know, you’re not like how you are in my time” (22).  Zhang’s character begins to consider her choices and her own fabric. Does she become what her mother wished? Meet someone? Have the “nuclear” family…?  Zhang leaves the reader dangling a little bit with this familiar notion: Can people change? Should they even have to? The main character ponders the idea of a different self despite having a strong preset sense of self:

I know reality is just settling and compromising and accepting some things will never go away… (23)

Then:

But I wonder what’s so great about that: growing up, getting married, having kids, retiring old and weary and well-traveled, when instead you can live as though time stands still. (25-26)

Zhang’s transitions are seamless, rendering character backstory with carefully chosen prose. A word. A string of phrases. Elegant. Tender. Surly and ravenous. She is a master of sentence construction. Lucy Zhang’s Hollowed explores some of the biggest questions, never missing a beat as she scoops out the guts while carefully and lovingly exploring the traces of what’s left behind.

*

Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fireside Magazine, Toasted Cheese, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing, 2022) and Absorption (Harbor Review, 2022). Twitter: @Dango_Ramen.

pencil

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

The Italian Professor’s Wife by Ann Pedone

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Italian Professor’s Wife by Ann Pedone

Intimacy is at the heart of Ann Pedone’s compelling poetry collection, The Italian Professor’s Wife (Press 53, 2022), a narrative, lyrical love triangle between three characters occurring during an extended holiday in Italy. Two are married and are named on the cover. The third character remains a mystery. Interestingly, they are nameless, described in third-person pronouns with the exception of one reference throughout the poems. The poems seem timeless, centered around ordinary people—perhaps on a second honeymoon tour—but this changes abruptly when they arrive in Rome. A subtle transformation occurs. One of them wanders and the other is consumed by it.

We must have been very lonely
people to have done this to each other. (27)

One of the nuances of the collection is how it captures the idea of living in multispace dimensions that are tangible as well as temporal. This is seen in public and private spaces of restaurants, train stations, cafes, and hotels. The in-between places that mark a journey as well as invisible breaks in time and action happening off the pages.  I really enjoy this. Wondering what the characters are doing and what they will do next. A reader’s wonder-lust. Likewise, there is an atmospheric tone that soon becomes apparent. There is isolation and longing. A loneliness that borders despair. I am reminded of the twentieth-century New York artist, Edward Hopper. Many of his figurative paintings show couples in such places and spaces, some of which have an added dimension of being observed from the other side of a glass window outside an urban diner, or through sunny windows that contrast the figures. Pedone does this, too, with her vivid prose and structure. The reader is there.

Keeping with this idea, the poems are also juxtaposed to another equally interesting and clinical first-person plural narration titled “The Continuity Script” ordered in Roman numeral numbered “scenes” that read like stage directions in a play, a dramatic element from which the reader sees the subjects from a different vantage point. Complementary. They are read in tangent. One poem is in the point of view of the nameless wife, then what seems to be a different speaker is observing her like an omniscient private detective reading aloud from his little notebook straight out of a noir film or novel.

SCENE IX

We see the wife going down in the elevator

We see the wife sit at a small table in the hotel bar

We see the wife order a glass of wine

We see the wife look down to the end of the bar

The husband is sitting next to a woman

The wife watches them

Light fills all of the openings in the room

The wife can see that the woman is beautiful. (29)

What’s more, Pedone’s thoughtful stanzas often read much like a laundry list. The speaker ticking off her day. No punctuation. Short line breaks. A run-on sentence containing a runaway list of actions and items.

Stripped the bed found
the train tickets tried
calling my sister picked up
his pants from
the bathroom floor reached
into the front left
pocket and while he
wasn’t looking
held my breath and pulled
the lining all
the way out. (4)

Likewise, Pedone is selective in her vocabulary, slowly and seductively showing a marriage in various angles and in unwritten prose. Missing punctuation and white space heighten the tension that is grinding between these characters. Glamorous and provocative.

The diary-style short narratives from the wife’s very intimate point of view adds to this idea. Many begin with routine remembrances leading to something else smoldering beyond surfaces.

Feb. 29th

The maid left a stack of new towels on
Top of the TV

Three Turkish men have been arguing
In the hallway since lunch

While I was brushing my teeth this morning
he came out of the shower and
wrote something
on the bathroom mirror

I left the door unlocked when
we got into bed

And drained all the
milk from between my thighs. (28)

A lot is happening in this small remarkable volume filled with white space, erotica, and innuendo. Small movements and motions. A look, a word—hold couplets of meaning.  Each poem is a chapter in the lives of these two people traveling across Italy though springtime and ending in a railway station in Palermo.

*

Ann Pedone is a poet and literary translator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of The Medea Notebooks (Etruscan Press, Spring 2023), and The Italian Professor’s Wife (Press 53, 2022), as well as the chapbooks: The Bird Happened, perhaps there is a sky we don’t know: a re-imagining of sappho, Everywhere You Put Your Mouth, Sea [break], and DREAM/WORK. Her work has recently appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Narrative, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Louisville Review, Gigantic Sequins, Conduit, and Toasted Cheese.

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

Where the Stork Flies by Linda C. Wisniewski

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Where the Stork Flies by Linda C. Wisniewski

Linda Wisniewski’s fantasy novel, Where the Stork Flies (Sand Hill Review Press, 2021) is a captivating story realistically set in the eastern United States with modern characters, yet curiously framed in a time travel mystery. A delightful blend of genres. From the first few paragraphs, Wisniewski hooks the reader as she sets up the exposition in a curious home invasion, but not a typical home invasion as one might think:

I stumbled into the kitchen that morning and found the back door standing open, letting in a few flakes of snow.

Get a grip. I slammed the door closed. A whimper came from behind me. I whirled around to see an old woman in a long brown skirt, loose white blouse, and a muslin headscarf. She stood beside my kitchen table, shivering. A scream escaped my throat and then hers, both of us yelling like a crazy banshee duet. (1)

The whole point of the first page is to tease the reader and simultaneously entice them to turn the page, which I did again and again. I felt like the ghost in the room seeing the characters and their doings laid out in beautifully descriptive writing and spot-on dialogue, which captured my attention from the gate.

Aside from her thoughtful prose, Linda Wisniewski is adept in creating small moments within the plot structure. The story is told in a linear construct and as the plot begins its ascent, she builds in strong supports of small moments that round the characters in grace and flaws. Scene after scene, Wisniewski’s characters move about freely and easily as she carefully captures their personalities and motivations in these small moment situations which culminate in rich, robust characters who are distinct. Believable. Audacious. One of my favorite scenes is when two of the characters make up a guest bed, a follow-up scene from another important moment, richly illuminating a major theme: motherhood.

I followed her down the attic stairs, went to the linen closet and brought out clean sheets for her bed.

“Pretty color.” She took them from my hands and stroked the pink and rose patterns with her finger. “Like roses men sell after Mass.”

My spine stiffened but what she said next surprised me.

“Men don’t understand what mothers go through.”

She sat on the bed and stroked the rose-printed quilt […] “Mothers can be very sick when expecting. Some do not want so many children. In bad harvest, they starve. There is woman in Lipinki who helps.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Did you ever…” but I couldn’t. It was none of my business. When I took the folded sheets from her arms and went to fit them onto the mattress, she watched me for a moment and then stepped around the bed and helped me tuck them in. Then she stood facing me… (96-97)

There were many of these scenes, carefully crafted and beautiful in their simplicity. Scenes from everyday life. I re-read some, savoring those tantalizing small moments that reached out and immersed me even further. Curiously, I was reminded of the different forms of flash fiction. They were powerful vignettes giving the larger story locomotion as well as purpose.

There are three main characters: Kat, the librarian, who is the narrator; Regina, an old Polish woman from the old country who clearly drives the plot and is a real scene-stealer; and a sophisticated young translator named Aniela whose closet I would love to see. But all is not as it seems. These characters are layered in flaws, regrets, blood, and secrets that are alluded to and revealed each in its own time. The central character is the librarian, Kat, an emotionally isolated character seeking redemption.

I felt like a child myself, the little girl who hid her sorrow and loneliness behind the covers of books. The woman I was now had no such option, and truth be told, I didn’t want to hide anymore. I wanted to do something good with my life, to redeem myself and, perhaps, my mother. (114)

Kat’s journey is indeed tied to the old woman, Regina, whom Kat is curiously drawn to and genuinely wants to help. But help doesn’t come easy for Kat as she makes mistake after mistake, often complicating situations with her own problems that culminate in an unexpected turn of events. The three women characters, though very different, have one thing in common: ancestry. Wisniewski luminously weaves their backstories in Polish culture with the mysterious Black Madonna of Częstochowa at the heart of this charming fantasy novel.

*

Linda C. Wisniewski is a former librarian who lives in Bucks County, PA. Her work has been published in Toasted Cheese, Hippocampus, Foliate Oak, and other literary magazines. She is the author of a memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace With Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage (Pearlsong Press, 2008). She blogs at lindawis.com. Readers can reach her at lindawis[at]lindawis.com.

pencil

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

I, Menagerie by Garrett Ray Harriman

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


I, Menagerie: Poems by Garrett Ray Harriman

I had the pleasure of reading Garrett Ray Harriman’s recently published chapbook collection of poems, I, Menagerie (Finishing Line Press, 2021). The poems were full of wonder and filled with lovely and sometimes visceral images of animals—fur, feathers, and teeth curiously juxtaposed to biblical, classical, literary, and pop culture elements and political ideas that for this reader resonated well beyond the pages—a true menagerie of people and animals poems of varying structures and styles with an added splash of flash fiction. I was all-in after I read the dedication page which mentioned a childhood favorite of mine, Dr. Doolittle, the literary and legendary animal doctor from Hugh Lofting’s novel, The Story of Doctor Doolittle, whose greatest talent derived from his empathy for animals, which allowed him to communicate with them. A wonderful surprise! It set a mirthful tone for my reading beginning with “Sonnet with Owl” that speaks to the notion of birds as unlucky omens and “Elephant Ride, 1993” whose structure was a listing of fabulous descriptive prose filled with alliteration, punctuation, and so much more. It made me want to ride an elephant, too.

Each poem in Harriman’s chapbook of poems is unique in its subject, prose, elements, and design. No two are alike. It was delightful to turn the page and find something new and unexpected.

Long ago, I gave up the notion of trying to understand a poem for the idea of how it relates to me and my world. Indeed I’ve said more than once in the TC Candle-Ends column that I am a selfish reader. Yet, a curious reader, too. I see poems as literary puzzles full of evocation in their surfaces and provocation in their depths. When I come across both in a single poem, as I did with many of the poems in I, Menagerie, I found myself in a reader’s paradise of wonder and delight. Many of them spoke to me not only for their lovely metaphors and sparkling vocabulary, but also for the imagery and ideas they presented. “The Memory of Dogs” pulled me in immediately. The subject, of course, is dogs. For me, it paralleled a time when dogs were stolen from my childhood neighborhood, never to be seen again, a terrible time when pet dogs were taken and often repurposed into brutal back alley fighting beasts. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the dog(s) in Harriman’s poem are a metaphor for something or perhaps even someone else. An allegory. For what?  Or whom?

they flayed and savaged
behind that fence, sister.
dogs cowered and thrashed there
gnawed hope marrow-thin.

ours too was shanghaied, another whelp
pitched like brigantine gold
into pits pooled with glass
tire rims and teeth, a month at sea
he made landfall at the base of our driveway.

you remember
how we couldn’t imagine (12)

I pondered and puzzled further, thinking perhaps the poem is related to the global political culture of borders and immigration. I noted vocabulary and phrases  and as the poem continued to describe this single personified animal and then addresses another, a sister, who was a witness…it made me wonder even more about what truth lies beneath the surface of the poet’s words. Who is this sister? Am I the sister? Are we the sister? And what happened behind that fence?

“Tiger in Pastel” was another poem that resonated long after I read it. It seems to be an elegy to the poet’s childhood home, which was once filled with his father’s art and a sort of quiet angst, as well. My guess was that this angst relates to the father’s past experiences in Vietnam. Perhaps the Vietnam War? The poet or speaker explores what he remembers from a new perspective as an adult looking backward.

My father worked in pastels for a handful of years,
his drawing pads the size me flipped wide onto

the dining table de-leafed except on holidays.

The cat he wrought lay in hedonic repose, its yellow
eyes fixed blearily to the right. One paw draped the other

in a gesture of the world-weary, the dismissive
and unenthused; its mane’s many folds coiled back

against its shoulders, a pile of talcum softness
beyond which it ceased to exist. Most of my father

was like that: finished before I got there, aloof to the
chagrin of my mother, taciturn about old friends (8)

There was a deep sadness and an interesting parallel between the father’s pastel tiger and the father, himself, which comes through. The speaker poignantly later honors his father with his own tiger, a different one that made me think of the short story, “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu and of course, the famously, fierce fictional Bengal tiger from Kipling’s novel, The Jungle Book.

I’d later plan for my own Shere Kahan—the fabled third tattoo
on the right wrist, the creature rendered in origami

triangles, shorthand for Miss Earhart’s plucky quote:
“…the rest is nearly tenacity. The fears are paper tigers…” (8)

The Spider Poem Remembered” also resonated with me for its interesting structure. I read it several times, marveling at its complexity. The subject was a poem remembered by the speaker or someone else who is also talking to the speaker, which may or may not be the spider or the writer of the poem described. See what I mean? I wondered if there was a “real” poem that was being described. I thought about Emily Dickinson’s spider poem I read in college. I googled and found that there were many spider poems. I would never know if the poem was the author’s or a reference to another poem. An invitation to read it once more. Regardless, It was so perplexing that I spent much time taking it apart and putting it back together. I worked this poem like an algebra equation and found an appreciation for its form as well as several possible meanings. Time well spent.

The last poem I want to mention is “Vulnerable Species.” This poem was one of the “smartest” poems I’ve encountered. It begins with a current quote that yes, I had to google (again) in order to understand who the acronymed author referenced was: the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. From there, it pulled me in just like Dr. Doolittle did. Many of Harriman’s poems are laid on the page in interesting and artful formats. “Vulnerable Species” was one of them. Beginning with its Darwin-esque title, the poem explores human evolution and its cascading effect on planet Earth. Written in provocative and evocative language, it speaks to today’s politics of climate change and lays bare the effects of human consumption in science and biblical prose. Here’s a quick slice:

We are no victimless crime:
we are tidal,
tectonic,
the moon’s firm pull
frothing beggar at our feet,
hurriedly, so
hurriedly
carving the shapes
of this undoing (14)

I, Menagerie is a collection of curious and resonating poems filled with wonder, gorgeous prose, and creatures of all kinds. Harriman creates a fresh space as he takes a backward glance, blending memory and nostalgia with the natural world in a kaleidoscope of cosmic imagery that dazzles.

*

Garrett Ray Harriman is a writer and poet living in southwest Colorado. His work has appeared in Atlas Poetica, Toasted Cheese, Kestrel, and other publications. His poem, “Snake in the Grass,” was a semi-finalist in Naugatuck River Review’s 11th Narrative Poetry Contest guest judged by poet Lauren K. Alleyne. Twitter: @Inadversent

pencil

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

The Shot by Anne Greenawalt

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


The Shot by Anne Greenawalt

The timing for Anne Greenawalt’s latest novel, The Shot (GreenMachine, 2021), a light speculative thriller, is spot on as it compellingly mirrors the realities of the current COVID pandemic’s political, health, and social concerns which no human being on this planet is unaffected by. Most of us never saw this coming. Strangely, Hollywood may have. How many films in the last decade have been about a virus that conquered the world? But in their scenarios, humans fought and persevered… and, in the end, humanity won. I think. But for us in the here and now, our story isn’t over. The script hasn’t been finished. When the vaccine was being developed, many of us counted the days until it was ready to be released and when it finally was in the U.S. many people decided not to get it and are still opting out. They have big concerns: Would it work? What are the long term effects? Is it safe? What about children…? What about them, indeed? People feared other things, too. Many of the conspiracy theories are based on government control from tracking devices attached to the vaccine that would infiltrate the human brain or DNA. Maybe both. And fertility concerns. Those seemed viable. Is the COVID vaccine safe for pregnant women? Would there be complications later when people wanted to start a family?

So when Anne Greenawalt’s review request appeared in my inbox with her cutting edge story, it gave me pause. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. As a reader, I’m a little bit of a scaredy-cat. I am a true lover of old-school horror and sci-fi but The Shot’s premise made me wonder. Seriously, I wasn’t actually afraid to read the novel even though Greenawalt’s story so closely mimicked the here and now that I did wonder if it would change my thinking about the pandemic. And if it did, how far away from what I consider my personal true north would my opinion-compass spin?

In the end, my curiosity won out. And I was very glad it did. Let me tell you about Anne’s novel:

It is a very compelling story. And I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a true page-turner. I had to stop and pace myself from plowing straight through it in a few readings. Greenawalt is adept at setting up this thriller. From the first few pages, I was all in. The setting was picture perfect for this type of story and also served to move the plot along. She thoughtfully introduces the main characters and subtly begins to weave the beginnings of the conflict using white noise from the media the characters read and think aloud about and also watch on TV. The characters are believable and likeable. The main protagonist, Sam, is a college English professor in a nameless college in a nameless city or town somewhere I believe to be in the U.S. And that is all the reader needs to know.

The novel also keenly uses government propaganda in the classroom on the first day of class as a teaching point to introduce the idea of writing with purpose for a particular audience but what is really cool is that it’s also a mechanism, a plot device, as it conveys to the reader the conflict illustrating the political space in which these characters exist:

The vaccination poster was one Sam hadn’t seen yet with Smokey the Bear pointing his finger: “Only YOU can prevent bio warfare.”

“Do you see that poster?” Sam asked.

Thirty or so necks craned to follow the path of Sam’s pointed finger where the poster, tacked with Scotch tape, hung beside the light switch. …

“What can you tell me about that poster?” (3)

Keeping with this idea, the posters were a classic method of “showing” the reader versus “telling” the reader and a useful foreshadowing tool, as well.

That said. Much is revealed in Sam’s college writing classroom and as the novel progresses with it a sense of dread that slowly—tick tick ticks—and masterfully begins to manifest as the political posters change form and frequency with their messages ramping up. Think Orwell’s 1984 meets early Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, rumors begin to circulate about the virus, the vaccination, and the people who have opted not to get it despite government pressure. Sounds a little familiar? However there are no vaccine lotteries in this reality. Democracy seems to be slowly fading into the shadows as a new government begins to rise with the newly-created Department of Family Services which issues parenthood licenses to those who meet their directives and more. While in the classroom Sam and her growing Scooby gang shine a bright light on conspiracy theories that may actually be true and, as the narrative picks up speed, they act on it.

Door bells ring at unexpected moments. People appear. People disappear. Many of the chapters end with suspense. All of it cranks up the tension. These moments are spread out in a linear plot that follows a collegial calendar, noting holidays, breaks, and final due dates, which I particularly appreciated because there was never a moment that I didn’t know where I was in my reading space and where and what my new friends were up to, as well. The Shot has a simple narrative structure that is as effective as it is elegant.

On that note, a quick aside: It seems lately that structure is the new play toy for writers. Constant flashback and revolving points of view sometimes make me dizzy and disoriented in my reading when over done. It affects what I have read and what I think I know about the story.

In Greenwalt’s novel, there is exceptional writing that I also noted as I read. Greenawalt takes her time rounding her characters with snappy, provocative dialogue combined with crisp detail that literally pans the room for the reader to see, hear, etc. while the characters move about with intent and ease. And I, the reader, am there, too. I can see everything happening as if I was a ghost in the pages.

A 19-year old who would normally be in a nonstop, stream-of-consciousness monologue with whoever would listen while also maybe teaching his classmates hip-hop dance moves, hadn’t spoken yet that morning, but his blue eyes were wide and alert as he looked from classmate to classmate. A grandmotherly woman originally from Sudan, sat with a pen poised at her composition book. A former high school shotput champion, and her best friend with the voice like Minnie Mouse also sat silently and tracked Sam’s every move. A young man who wrote his narrative essay about his sexual orientation but had an unexcused absence on the day of narrative presentations, kept poking the tip of his tongue into the piercing between his bottom lip and chin. Riley sat at one of the tables near the back of the room, and when she caught Sam’s eye, she gave her a coy half-smile. (43)

I also particularly enjoyed the small moments of humor that serve as respites between plot points. Two characters stood out in this regard. Maura, the colleague, and Riley, the student. They were real scene stealers. These small moments that sometimes have nothing really to do with the story have everything to do with the characters, making them fully-realized and believable. More human. The extra space on the page for small moments of humanity never distracts from the narrative. It enriches it. This is not a new notion. Both in print and in film, good writing is about character development and making connections to the reader.

The Shot progressed up the story arc and at the very top, just a few chapters to the end, it hovered rather excitedly. Much was revealed and spoiler alert: much was still left to write. The novel ended on an exciting note much like a Hollywood blockbuster cliffhanger that, although no mention was made of a Part 2, cracked the door open for a possible sequel.

*

Dr. Anne Greenawalt is a writer, competitive swimmer, trail adventurer, educator, and dog lover. She earned a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University and a master’s degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia, and works as the training manager for a nonprofit that provides residential and clinical services for youths who have experienced trauma. She writes for WOW! Women on Writing, TrailSister.net, and StoryTerrace. Twitter: @Dr_Greenawalt

pencil

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

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

pencil

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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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

pencil

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.

pencil

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