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.