Saturday, August 15, 2020

Nick Charming's Charmless Guide

Nick Charming's Guide to Breaking Hearts in Twelve Easy Steps. My rating 5 out of 5 stars. I've waited anxiously for about a year to see what talented author, Arly Carmack, would treat her fans to next. I expected a sequel to Nineteen, or another book in a similar genre or, at the least, one portraying a world that was cobbled together from similar values. This "shortie" is, therefore, an unexpected treat. 

Nick's "Guide" is a diary of events from this own life, cleverly transformed into a guide for other miscreants who wish to emulate his calculated, calibrated, misogynistic and misanthropic M.O. Just in case you wanted to know. Just in case you wanted to try his "shtick" out. It's like reading a recipe book for How Not to Play Nice. But it's not that simple, because the reader--from his vantage point behind the battle lines--can see what the writer of the primer can not. There are moments where one wonders who is playing who. And, at the very least, there are one (possibly two) characters who are playing Mr. Charming for all they can get out of him: one of them is his own mother. And, too, it becomes obvious that a man is a total weakling when the only woman he tries to really please is Mommy. At this point I could launch into a dissertation on how the time for Sociopath Literature is fully upon us. Why not? This is the age of Trump. You can watch the antics play out in the news every day. 

As sociopaths go, Mr. Charming, unlike our toxic president, is remarkably self-aware, and that provides so much of the entertainment in his meticulous twelve step program. It's as funny as it is shocking. The epilogue provides a parting zinger that will leave a bittersweet taste on your tongue. 

I tip my hat to the author. Writing a good "shortie" is not easy. Every word--and in this case, every directive or instruction--has to work. The author created a perfect relationship bomb on these pages, and it tick-tick-ticks its way, word by word, to a great conclusion.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Creative vulcano

The End of the World as We Know It by Michael Sandels.  My rating: 5 out of 5 stars /// This book is a funny-looking monster drooling creativity on every page. Just the sort of thing I love most in a book when I need a break from more serious, traditional fare. An iceberg of lemon sorbet to cleanse the palate as far as I'm concerned. One could breeze right through it and "get" a third of it, or linger slowly and savor what the author is really saying between the lines. What a project to study this in more depth than I did this first go-round. I am going to set aside a long day at the beach to burn myself inside and out with this. Its discombobulated, disjointed, disrespectful, but never mind--the author, like Don Quijote, charges fearlessly at every one of his targets, no matter what it is. After each chapter, he picks himself up and gets back on his horse. My applause for the author of this delightful madness!

Monday, February 10, 2020

A new small-town thrill ride

My Friend Nick by Joseph Hood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars ///  This is a very impressive debut novel that does triple duty. It's a family drama, it's a suspense/thriller, it's a character study of a mother and daughter relationship, and, added to all that, it is an interesting portrait of a town. Reviewing this is hampered by my desire not to spoil any of the delicate threads that hold it together. I'm more enthusiastic about My Friend Nick than what follows might indicate for that reason.

The family at the center of this drama is in a serious state of entropy.  The mother, left alone to cope with her rebellious daughter, is coming apart at the seams. The father, away on business, is unaware--because the wife is keeping secrets--of how bad things are. The young girl, restless, resentful, and missing her father, is clearly going to be a centrifical problem from page one. One of the interesting plot devices concerning the daughter is that expectations are built in the reader that the little girl has enough spunk to cope with whatever bad thing is around the next corner; that idea is completely upended by the author when the little girl's excessive spunk turns out to be a major causative factor in the chain of problems that follow.

This is not a book where a lot happens until the slope up to the final act, but make no mistake, there is not a dull moment. The pace of the story is a great advantage when so much of the interesting detail is invested in the traumatic past of the mother and the father. In other words, a lot has already happened previously. Clearly, knowing so much about the backstory, this is a family to which victimization is no stranger. Genetically, the daughter is primed to take on any monster hiding in the neighboring cornfield. This she does, with unexpected results. Here's where I have to hold back on detail and allow the book to do its own talking.

The measured pace allows the author to display his talent at character and scene development. The town seems very real and the populace is enjoyably quirky. The little girl's adventures beyond her allowed perimeter are very nicely and realistically done. The antagonist is very creepy and very believable.  One of the great things the author adds to the pot is that the history of the central family is troubled, the history of the town is troubled, and the history of the creepy, evil antagonist's family is troubled.  This is a scenario where things are going to take a dark turn because that's the only outcome possible with such histories in constellation.

I am not going to tell you more than the following, which are logical conclusions any reader might come to: the mother's psychological problems are bound to increase in the absence of her husband, the girl's rebelliousness is bound to increase in the absence of her father, and the antagonist's socio/psychopathic behavior is bound to escalate in the absence of anyone to stop it.

If you like studies of small-town good/evil (recalling some aspects of In Cold Blood) this is a good place to get an unsettling read. Recommended for excellence in this genre.

Friday, February 7, 2020

A good review surfaces in Europe

Good reviews occasionally surface outside the USA, and they don't generally appear on Amazon.com, our major American book-mart.  Here's a nice one from author Julie Embleton, who resides in Ireland. She ceaselessly promotes her fellow indie writers on Instagram. A fine writer, highly respected and followed by many, Julie has received many laudatory reviews of her own. You may learn more about her books here.

One must always be grateful for supportive colleagues, not to mention those 15-minute slices of fame they serve us because some of those servings of fame take 30 years of brain-numbing work to cultivate.

American Crumble is available here.

The rest of this post is the review. Thank you, Julie E.

What happens when Death and the Devil get cabin fever and go in search of entertainment? They wander into Crumbleton, Wisconsin to an Off-Track Betting facility. This clever tale was too short and ended with me wanting more. I was laughing from page one, with the Devil and Death making an oddly suited couple; Death with his silly wit, and the Devil who can’t come to terms with his pesky feelings. Set against the melancholy of a dying town and its disillusioned residents, the amusing banter from the duo balances out the underlying sadness of Crumbleton’s situation. On one hand, Lawrence Jay Switzer serves up a painfully keen observation of modern-day, small-town reality, while on the other, offers the fantasy of Death and the Devil stirring trouble amongst men desperate for a winning bet. I imagine Switzer is one who people-watches. He’s plucked inspiration from everyday interactions and woven them into a beautifully written, poignant tale. American Crumble would make a delightful short film with Robert De Niro as Death, and Al Pacino as the Devil. I can already hear Pacino’s drawl as he tells Death “It’s almost two o’clock, time for that cranky old bitch Judge Judy.” A superb short earning a well-deserved five stars. It’s a twenty-minute read and worth every second!


Monday, November 25, 2019

Thoughts on "Nineteen" by Arly Carmack

I’m continually surprised by my forays into my less-traveled genres by the quality of what’s being produced while I wasn’t “looking.” I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve missed out on a great deal of talent. This book, Nineteen, is a perfect example of what I might have missed out on. Lucky for me, it came highly recommended, and I didn’t foolishly resist. As I’ve aged, I take advice more readily, so I will come right out and say that I advise you to read this book. In other words, I recommend it. Highly.

I think that the world of literature is being tremendously enriched by the ease of publishing for independent writers, by the support of social media groups, and the rise of writing institutions like Nanowrimo. Talented authors, such as Arly Carmack, might have been discouraged by the publishing perimeters mapped out by the “old regime” that required every step one inked towards success had to be on a pre-ordained roadway. Anyway, what’s success today? Writing a great book or making a fortune in sales? A poignant, perceptive book like Nineteen will last forever, and the earnings will dissipate. That means—after all financial and workaday matters are the dust of the cosmos along with all of us—Cameron, whose book Nineteen is, will live as long as there are readers and libraries to service them.

There’s something exciting—and hard to describe—in the pages of this book. The main character, Cameron Metzger (beginning at age 16 and progressing into his 20s), not only came vibrantly alive in my mind as a palpable, believable person, his thoughts and personality felt as if they co-existed inside me independently. This phenomenon continued straight to the final pages as Cameron struggled to cope with the “trials and tribulations” of growing up straight and smart and sincere in a dog-eat-dog world. I lived some of this life and I will attest to the veracity of emotion to be found on Nineteen’s pages. Being a teenager is tough on all of us—and we all have to go over many hills and valleys before we can talk about it sensibly—but it’s never been tougher than it is now to go through it. Young people used to suffer from coping with not being able to get what their hormones were screaming for. Now the problems come from the process of actually achieving physical satisfaction and the consequences that follow it. When young men didn’t get this satisfaction they just didn’t get it, but now young men are faced with the problems that come when they’re the thing that got “got.” Carmack understands this, and she understands it from inside a young, male mind. How? I have no idea, but she does. So, if you think that a woman can’t write from inside a boy’s mind, here’s where you can prove yourself wrong. Just be aware going in—she can see things most male authors wouldn’t. Some things here, therefore, might be a revelation to a male reader. A male reader might be forced into a revisionist stance on his own past or present life.

 There’s no need to go into plot points when there’s a perfectly adequate book description of Nineteen available, and other reviews around various sites that make those points. This is a hard book to discuss without spoilers, and if you come across one, it won’t have leaked from my pen. It’s enough for me to praise the sincerity, integrity, and craftsmanship that went into this undertaking. I give the writer, who is giving us her first novel, a lot of credit. The settings are perfectly visual, and the characterizations of the supporting players go beyond spot-on. Everything here is strikingly believable and deeply convincing. Carmack wisely tells a story where there are no real villains, just flawed families, and less than romantic romances. It was much more interesting because of that. So, take a chance on this book. You have nothing to lose and a lot to remember. Unless you are less than 16 to 19, in which case, this is a tarot reading of your possible future.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Author interview published November 2019 by Author Voices

Another happy occasion in a writer's life: an interview.  Author Voices contacted me a few days ago to request an interview for their website. Questions were asked about how Sayville Tales came about, how writing, publishing, and marketing interface, and the writer's relationship with the public. Reading the answers I gave for the interview, I'd like to cite the following reply to a question about advice I'd give others on a similar writing journey: "Don't expect to become famous at the drop of a hat. There are a thousand Holden Caulfields trapped between book covers, but we've only read about one of them." After publication of any opinion, even if it is just a Facebook posting, one always considers what more they might have said. Here I would add that three things are essential to a writer's well-being: Patience, Perseverance, and Patting yourself on the back for the hard work. You can read the full interview here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Author interview published October 2019 by Long Shot Books

Long Shot Books honored me recently with a request for an "Author Interview," and I was thrilled to participate. They publish three or four interviews with notable new authors monthly, and I feel honored to be included among such talented writers. Access it here: Interview Link. I answer questions about Sayville Tales and my soon-to-published second work of fiction, Beacon City Confidential. Additional topics include characterization, humor, and advice to new writers on "how to find their voice."

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Thoughts on storytelling. Part One


The twist ... it can call the shots. The readers of short stories generally expect one. I call it a twist for simplicity, but it can take the form of an epiphany or a revelation. Sometimes the main character is the surprised party. Sometimes the reader. Sometimes both. Novels don’t need to have a twist, although they sometimes provide one (or more).

The issues cracking the whip on twists are time and space. The reader knows a shortie is short and they anticipate a payoff on a timely basis. Parenthetically, many more modern stories don’t have this element or play this game. 

Roald Dahl made a specialty of shorties with surprises, delicious ones, and you should check out the ways he produces his delightful effects. But my favorite example comes from another author. Look at Shirley Jackson’s classic shortie “The Lottery,” and you might learn the most essential thing you need to know about a brilliant twist. What made her story great went beyond the surprise at the end. The story’s twist had something relevant to say. More than 50 years later, we are still scapegoating and punishing; that’s how you know she tapped into something eternal, and horrible, about human behavior.

How to get around the twist problem? Find a way to make your twist, if you use one, mean something that goes beyond the little intake of breath it produces. As writers, we can aim higher, go beyond producing a goosebump or two.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Aspiring writer ascends

Aspiring, Part 1 of the Siblings' Tale (Elisabeth and Edvard Book 1)Aspiring, Part 1 of the Siblings' Tale by Astrid V.J. /// My rating: 5 of 5 stars /// The title of this handsome fantasy, Aspiring, resonates in my mind with a similar word, Ascending. The story the author presents concerns the aspirations of a young woman to come into her own by acquiring a certain socially-mandated age and by surviving numerous adverse circumstances. But, as I pointed out in my first sentence, this is not merely a question of her aspirations; ascension, too, plays a dominant role as the plot unfolds, for, beyond her aspirations, she must ascend to a level of worthiness befitting a possible future as consort to the Crown Prince. She must ascend in the world of magic to become a powerful practitioner of these arcane arts for the forces of good. In summation, it is a given that her real challenge, beyond surviving, beyond learning, beyond winning the love of her chosen one, is to save her world from the forces of evil that are gathering strength around the main characters. Elisabeth’s real journey is to go far beyond what she originally aspired to attain and to take on the task of ascending to a station she never imagined as a younger person.

The storytelling challenge, as I see it (and as it must be by necessity in fantasy tales), is to create a polished, finished world that is unique but simple, both beautiful and ugly, but always believable. One of the tropes here is that the female characters appear to possess supernatural abilities, while the men are, for the most part, garden-variety movers-and-shakers. They run the gamut from the Prince (sweet, loyal, just) to Elisabeth’s father (self-centered, mean-spirited, evil and stupid). Between those extremes stands her even-tempered, playful brother, Edvard, who I believe is destined to play a large role in the next two volumes. I believe the author rose to the challenge of world-building admirably.

When you are no longer in the category of “Young Adult,” which I am not (happily or sadly, I can’t decide), the greatest enjoyment to be derived from a book like this, is observing how artfully the author can carry something like this off, and—when it is done as well as this—marveling at the skill brought to the writing desk. Thankfully, all my admiration for what the author does here distracted me from feeling old.

It’s not really meant for review, but I have to mention (consider this a postscript) that Astrid V. J. acknowledges, on the last pages of her book, all of the persons who helped her and made this book possible. This is a breathtaking list. I don’t believe I’ve ever known that many people in my life, which I suppose is why I write—just to invent more people to fill space up. I love that she has not forgotten those who helped her in her journey and made such an enjoyable book a fantasy reality. As a first time novelist, Astrid V.J. has—until recently—been what is called an “aspiring writer.” It’s clear to me, as it surely will be to other readers, that her “aspiring” phase is now behind her. As a full-fledged writer, she has spread her wings, “ascended,” and “arrived.”

Obviously: recommended!

Saturday, August 17, 2019

First Prize Win: The Nostradamus Cookbook

Let's Get Published, a new website dedicated to helping writers achieve their goals, has awarded my short story The Nostradamus Cookbook with First Prize in its inaugural annual fiction contest. That First Prize is my first prize.

More on this later, when I have collected my thoughts on the implications of this happy occasion.  But, for the moment, my sincere thanks to the contest judges for the laurels weighing me down today.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Chess pieces sculpted out of highly polished black marble


Salt Water and other short stories by Sef Hughes My rating: 5 of 5 stars  /// In this dark collection, we have a reader’s late-night buffet of provocative stories concocted and served by a writer who has a unique mind and—for my money—a brilliant one. Certainly, his brilliance is a dark brilliance, but there are many veins of humor and humanity running through that darkness, tempering it. I’d describe this collection as a group of chess pieces sculpted out of highly polished black marble.

We begin with a portrait of a woman—more or less ordinary at first glance—as depicted by her neglected daughter, beginning in broad strokes, and then, as the pages quickly flip to the left, in finer and finer detail. In Mother Dear, we meet Mom, a human spider. Mom weaves a web for her clueless victim, spinning it from the substance of their tragic circumstances, and when, at last, the ensnared one comes to believe it is hopeless to try to escape her sickening kindness, her outlandish, disproportionate generosity, her suffocating largesse, Mom slowly lowers herself down, inch by inch, for the kill-with-kindness kill. And smiles beneficently. The author paints his incisive portrait with one insightful stroke after another, until the enigmatic final page.

The story that follows in Mom’s shadow, Tap Tap, was so startling to me, I read it three times in rapid succession. It's compact enough to do that—the author knows how to trim fat as he dissects his beast, so there's not an extra word to be found from start to finish. A man who is blatantly oblivious to his wife, his colleagues, his neighbors, his friends, and all else, pursues his obsession, which is dismissed by all as a mere hobby. And what might that hobby be? You won’t believe it when you read it. Taking a cue from the author’s practiced economy, the less said by me, a mere auditor, the better.

Once a  Civil Servant is the type of story that I classify as a "Two Shoe"—a storytelling template perfected by the late Roald Dahl. It’s a tale with an unpleasant twist that a reader will see coming from the get-go. When that happens, an alarm goes off in the reader's mind: Hold on, it's too soon to guess the outcome! That's the first shoe. It drops when you realize that the narrator is capable of anything, and that realization comes (at least for me) at the end of the fourth paragraph with these words: "I know how to cheat death." From that point, I was intrigued to see if I had guessed the outcome correctly. I had. The author intended that. Because there was a second shoe to fall. It does.

We have many more diversions of varying lengths, making up a total of eleven. A particularly good one, rendered in dialogue only, concerns a pair of not-too-bright career criminals arranging a lethal escapade—an especially delightful twist caps this one off perfectly—the story ends with a humorous bang, something like a gunshot crossed with a popping champagne cork. The concluding voyage fantastique—the second in the book to touch upon the subject of “invisibility”—was deliciously engaging. It has a labyrinthian plot so well-constructed, every turn of events is another blind alley leading to delight and surprise. One really finds himself at the author’s mercy in this one, but that’s what makes great storytelling.

A book of shorts as accomplished as this (his first, too) gets my highest recommendation. There are at least two stories in this collection that could have/would have/should have won a competition prize. If you want to know which ones, read them and decide for yourself.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A lyric story in verse from Estonia

Ares and AgapeAres and Agape by Ksenia Sein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars /// In truth, I am not an avid poetry reader and I am shamefully unaware of current trends in that genre, but having recently made the long-distance acquaintance of a young Estonian poet, I decided to allow myself an opportunity to re-explore that territory by reading her latest book, Agape & Ares.

I've had a long-term affinity for Estonian music (as in composers Eduard Tubin and Avro Part) and the story in verse I'm reviewing is as musical and pleasing to the ear as a Baltic chamber work could be. It's brief, it's tuneful, and it stirs emotion without creating unpleasant dissonance. I re-discovered something I understood long ago, but managed to lose sight of somewhere in the passage of time--poetry is read with the ears as much as it is with the eyes. This book helped me reconnect with that.

Agape & Ares is a lyric story in verse, beautifully illustrated by the author with simple line drawings, relating romantic incidents that unfold over the course of a few days on the Greek Island of Santorini--a brief love affair between a native Greek, Ares (Greek for the God of War)--a man with an unfortunate past--and the vacationing Estonian woman, Agape (Greek for the Goddess of Love) who is considerably more enlightened. So here we do not have The Iliad or The Odyssey, nor the Delphic Oracle, nor a cryptic Sphynx with a terrible riddle--but we have, instead, the subtly Dionysian confronted by the subtly Apollonian in a brief romantic encounter. A crossing of paths with consequences, and with a measure of enlightenment for the wayfarers.

It seems disproportionate to write a long review, bulging at the seams, when the poem under consideration is so compact and sparing. And too, it's not about a surfeit of plot, nor a Greek chorus of commentators, but rather an economy of poetic utterance, a purity striven for and achieved. Also, it must be mentioned, English is not the poet’s first language. That she accomplishes, in a secondary tongue, a work of this clarity and preciseness is a little miracle.

I could best describe the story of Agape & Ares as one that might easily be painted around the circumference of a Grecian urn in a mixture of cool Estonian and hot Mediterranean colors. And in the urn? Clear water, as evidenced by the following passage, which I underlined while reading to savor later: "...Still, you can create light grey from black By pouring patiently into the bowl of life more white...."

Recommended to its discerning audience without hesitation.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A thumb rises at The International Review of Books

Sayville Tales, as reviewed by The International Review of Books (July 2019)

To join this train journey, you will need a healthy sense of humour, and a firm distaste for apples.

With his tongue firmly in his cheek, (I hope) Lawrence Jay Switzer takes readers on a train journey where interesting characters tell tales of life, the afterlife, death, nuns, unicorns, the mystery of bagels, the brown fox and See Spot Run. He spares no one, not Donald Trump, the Pope, the Devil, history, or, for that matter, Mormons, Jews, the Irish, Christians, Steven Spielberg, and rainbow bagels. The Rabbi can't explain rainbow bagels and urges you to write to the Pope directly...address supplied. No need for a stamp.

I've sniggered my way through Hell, the train ride, beautifully illustrated, and stories told with such ironic wit, it was almost like watching an American version of a Monty Python show with pot.

Nothing is sacred here, American history is told with pictures and conspiracy theories that will blow your mind.

Take your time with this book. The Devil is around all the time, so be careful when you are offered temptations - he loves red apples...

In the words of the author, a small excerpt: "Well, to me, it’s obvious,” the Professor explained with a shrug. “What should be obvious to you, though—for your own good—is that not everything is what it seems to be or says it is.”

Savour these alternative tales of wit, wisdom, bad choices and a smooth train ride to Sayville. Linger in Hell to have your picture taken but get out before your bad past catches up with you. Spot isn't running anymore, and he knows exactly who stopped him...