All’s Fair and Other California Stories

by Linda Feyder

Genre: Literary Short StoriesAll's Fair
Publisher: She Writes Press
Pub Date: Sep. 28, 2021 

Mini-Review

After finishing this short story collection, I was not surprised to learn that it is a finalist for the 2021American Fictional Awards. However, I almost did not accept this book because I did not recognize the publisher, She Writes Press.  I assumed the book was self-published or a vanity press. I discovered that it is neither.  Rather a hybrid model, for women writers, published these shorts. The most notable difference from self-publishing is that this model has traditional distribution and manuscript vetting. After reading a few pages of the first short, I knew off the bat that I was reading a literary, well-written and, interesting collection.

In these slice-of-life stories, a varied cast of characters in modern-day Southern California seeks the fulfillment of a better life that The Golden State has always promised. Some of the characters move to the state for a change of mindset that comes with sunshine, or for health reasons that the dry, mild West Coast weather provides. Many stories are only a few pages. Yet the author’s concise writing of the sounds, feels and descriptions make these brief yet telling stories feel longer. I have learned that Feyder received an MA in creative writing and literature.  In addition to writing, she is a practicing psychotherapist, which explains why her characters all seem to be on an inner journey throughout each short. I like some better than others, but overall I am impressed with the collection.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“This Aint No Normal Fire!” by Gerry Stanek

Fire Cover

Genre: Short Story Collection
Publisher: Bituminous Press
Pub. Date: March 29, 2021

“This Ain’t No Normal Fire!,” is a collection of short stories set in the 20th century. The shorts all revolve around a fictional Pennsylvania coal mining town named Plattsville. This book is the second in a series although it can be read as a stand-alone collection. When I received this Advanced Review Copy (ARC), I saw that the author, Gerry Stanek, received praise on his first Plattsville stories from the respected author, Peter Orner. I was expecting stories that would be similar to Jennifer Haigh’s, “Heat and Light” and “Baker Towers.” Novels that I enjoyed, which are also about America’s industrial coal mining past in Pennsylvania.  Is this a good comparison? It is and it isn’t.

Some stories were what I expected. The author gives us an intimate view of individual marriages, dramas, and violence that play out against the backdrop of a gritty coal-mining town.  I also found something that I was not expecting. This collection had me thinking of the unconventional, often experimental writer, George Saunders. The first story, or possibly it is a prologue, is entitled “Fire.” There are no characters, nor a setting.  The writing seems to be philosophical thoughts written in a stream of consciousness. It gives the reader a hint of the stories’ themes—love, life, survival, and death. 

Next comes, “1922,” which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with mining but still captures the underbelly of some mining workers’ culture, complete with men who like beer, whisky, and partake in wife beating. The main character is an unnamed priest who has a crush, really a sexual obsession, on the beautiful Mrs. Dietrich. She is a parishioner who happens to be married to a brute. It is an interesting story that hits a nerve regarding how we can all be vulnerable without being aware of it. I was surprised that it left me with strong emotions of empathy for the priest.

In “Union Supporter,” we meet John Sokol who will appear along with his eldest son, Joseph, in interconnected stories throughout the book.  In “Supporter,” I hit upon the sort of tale that I have always appreciated: fictional yet filled with facts that were previously unknown to me. We learn that John was concerned about Ku Klux Klan meetings that were happening near his town. The author makes John endearing to the reader by letting us know that naïve John admits that he didn’t know much about the KKK. He only knew that they were troublemakers who hated Catholics. We get a good feel into what makes this character tick. John was born in Poland and found work in the Pennsylvania mines. In the great flu of 1918, John loses his wife leaving him with four young boys. In a search for a mother for his existing brood, he goes to a church social. There he meets his second wife. They have a baby daughter but the father of the baby is questionable. With threadbare writing (the opposite of “Fire”), the author makes sure your sympathies are with John and not with his second wife.

In “Union Riot,” John’s son, Joseph is a young adult.  He helps put out a fire on the lawn of an Italian church that was started by the KKK. “Riot” is not a long short story. Still, it is an expository piece that gets under your skin with limited pages. The author writes on Joesph’s calloused hands fighting the coppers, who were using their billy clubs on those who were trying to put out the fire. He talks of the sort of bravery that can lead young men to an early death. He uses the word ‘fire’ as a metaphor to talk about the abject poverty where people are living in wood shanties without fire for heat or cooking meals. Stanek puts you intimately inside the oppressive Tammany Hall-like politics that took place in the old coal mining towns.

We find the book’s title, “This Ain’t No Normal Fire,” in the story “Gratification.” Here Joseph is at the Polish Legion for a dinner where the attendees are young single Catholics. The event reminded me of the wedding scene in the movie, “The Deer Hunter.” There is a strong flavor of the ethnic background of the guests. Everyone is working class, a bit drunk, and hoping to dance with someone cute. Here we see a darker side of Joseph. Patty, who is a pretty girl at the dinner, catches his eye. Joe is on his best behavior and is a complete gentleman with her. However, when they go to a Halloween party he drinks too much, which brings out his self-doubt, depression, and anger regarding the circumstances of his lifestyle. He thinks about heat, oxygen, and fuel, which is the face of the fire that he cannot escape.  Just as he can never be rid of the black coal dust embedded underneath his fingernails or in his lungs.

Besides coal, the author brings into his damp and dark stories the immigrant experience, religious bigotry, betrayal, love, hate, goodness, evil, and sometimes a bittersweet sort of hope.  I get the feeling that the author is saying that his characters believe that it is better to quietly survive, even if it’s on the bare minimum, than to give up.  For instance, John makes the best of his loveless marriage. I had a hard time reviewing this short story collection. It is well written and reads a bit offbeat. It frequently allows symbolism to tell its tales and is sometimes written in poetic prose.  However, I am someone who enjoys uncomplicated storytelling. What immediately comes to my mind is the classic “How Green Was My Valley,” which was also about a coal mining family. Of course, not everyone can write a future classic. So another example of the type that I enjoy can be found in the memoir and film, “The Coal Miners Daughter.”  So, this book was not a good fit for me. However, this is Stanek’s third novel. I am sure he will find his audience.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) from the author at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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“Daddy: Stories” by Emma Cline

Genre:  Literary Fiction Short Story Collectiondaddy
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Sept. 1, 2020

Once again, due to an injury I am writing this review via voice to text. Please forgive any errors.

I wish this short story collection had a different title. “Daddy’” makes it sound like you’re about to read erotica. Thankfully, these stories are not. Maybe Cline wanted the reader to be surprised. I certainly was. What captured my interest when agreeing to read and review this book was its description as “literary short stories.” It’s the word “literary” that sold me. Plus, I appreciate short stories.

What you get in these ten stories are edgy slice-of-life tales that explore human nature. Cline portrays moments in her characters’ lives that reveal the dark parts of themselves that they would prefer to keep hidden. She does this well. Dare I say, there are traces of Joyce Carol Oates in this young author. Connecting all the stories is a father or father-like figure, though they are often not the main character.

One story in the collection, “Marion,” was the winner of the 2014 Plimpton Prize. From its first sentence, the writing is vivid. “Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways.” Here, Cline takes the reader inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl who does not understand the sexual desires of her 13-year-old best friend. There is a ”Mean Girls” vibe to it, but the reader will find themselves forgiving the older girl since she appears to be at the mercy of her own unstable parents and the questionable boundaries between herself and her father. The short is good but I found “Arcadia” more chilling.

“Arcadia” is the type of story that sticks with you and you really wish it didn’t. An older brother acts as a parent to his 18-year-old sister. The sister is pregnant. Her boyfriend, the protagonist, moves in with her and her brother. The three live in the house the siblings grew up in. The sister and her boyfriend sleep in her childhood bedroom, still decorated as when she was a child. This is the author’s first hint that something might be off with this brother/sister relationship. What is so creepy about this short is that the boyfriend slowly begins to realize that there are inappropriate sexual intimacies between the siblings. He tells his girlfriend ”this is no place to raise a baby.” The power in this short is how the boyfriend chooses to look the other way because he gets sucked into the unhealthy family’s dynamics.

”Son of Friedman” is a sad tale of a father who is, rightly or not, disappointed in his son. George Friedman, a washed-up movie producer, has dinner with an old friend, who still has a thriving acting career. The actor is also the godfather of Friedman’s adult son. The reason for this get-together is that Friedman’s son is having a screening of a short movie he created, a pure vanity project. During dinner, the actor asks Friedman about his godson. Friedman thinks, ”It never even crossed my mind to invite him to their dinner.” With that line, we know what we are about to read. A father who is utterly embarrassed by his son’s project. I thought the author’s talent shines brightest with how she goes deep into the relationship between father and son without ever spelling it out. The father thinks, ”he was always a nervous child.” He often recalls the many expensive drug addiction centers his kid has been in. He never admits his own drinking problem to himself.

In 2017 Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Her perceptions are close to brilliant. With a few more years under her belt, I believe she will get there. Part of what makes this collection so good is that in each story there is some sort of perversity right underneath the surface. You can sniff it but you cannot see it. And what will really scare you is when you recognize some of her characters’ traits in yourself. Well done, Emma Cline.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Maggie Brown & Others: Stories” by Peter Orner

Maggie Brown

Genre:  Literary Domestic Fiction
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date:  July 2, 2019

A writer friend of mine, Diane Ledet, author of Bookwinked recommended this book to me.  I am grateful for her suggestion since she introduced me to an author who captures the human condition so well in just a few short sentences.  This is the sort of book I love to read. Regarding his 2001 book, “Esther Stories,” the NYT Book Review said that  “Orner doesn’t simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls.”   The same could be said about his latest book, which includes a novella and 44 short stories.  And by short, I mean short.  Many of the stories are around two pages long.   Still, they get under your skin.  All of the stories tend to be melancholy with an emphasis on what it means to be alive.

The opening story, “The Deer,” is one of my favorites in the collection.  A girl watches a deer become stuck in the mud after a mountain lion chases it into a lagoon.  Feeling pinned, she sits down on a log and watches the tide rise, knowing it will eventually be over the deer’s head.   When the water is up the deer’s chest, she finally gets back on her bike and leaves.  She just couldn’t stand to watch anymore. As the reader, I wanted to jump into the pages and rescue the poor creature.  The story’s power comes from the girl’s helplessness in not being able to save the deer.  Most of us have been in that terrible position of watching someone we love suffer and/or die knowing that there is nothing we can do to give them aid. It’s that agony that Orner manages to nail with limited words—very impressive.

The bittersweetness of “Ineffectual Tribute to Len” drew me in immediately. A grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop drives all night in a snowstorm to meet one last time with his former boss, Len, who is now dying of AIDS.  The grad student hopes to write a book about Len because he was “one of the first people to notice something, anything, in me.”  I feel confident that all writers will relate to the student who can’t manage to move his manila folder full of notes into a novel.  Still, Orner brings hope into the story.  The student does manage to write a different novel than the one that he intended to write.  He honors Len’s spirit with no mention of the source of the book’s inspiration.   Without spelling it out, Orner demonstrates to his readers how something awful can transform into something positive, even if it is simply a novel of thankfulness.  

Interestingly the story that is my least favorite is the book’s title story, “Maggie Brown.’’  The short revolves around the narrator’s college girlfriend.  “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport…She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam.”  That line alone perfectly describes the sadness one can feel when they have been forgotten.   My issue is that I didn’t get as obsessed with the characters as I did in the other stories.  Still, it is a very good short.  Maybe, I was simply expecting too much since it is the title story.

My only true criticism with the shorts is that most of them left me so connected to the protagonist that I wished each story was longer.  My wish was granted in the novella of interlinked short stories revolving around the forty-year marriage of Walter and Sarah Kaplan.  The Kaplans are a constantly squabbling Jewish American couple who own a furniture business in Massachusetts. Suddenly I am reading humor and by this time I needed to laugh. The novella can have a melancholy feel, but there are many moments of comic relief that take the edge off.  Orner’s dialogue is similar to the Jewish humor of Philip Roth.   He summarizes life’s annoying and painful moments while mixing it up with zingers.  Walter says, “I dreamed you buried me in the old cemetery out on Fish Road.” Sarah asks, “Fish Road where all the ancient Jews are?”  Walter replies, “You think we’re immune from becoming ancient Jews?”  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction and is willing to think about their own life because Orner will force you to reflect.  I for one will be seeking out his previous work.

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“Other People’s Love Affairs” by D. Wystan Owen

Genre:         Literary FictionOther People Affairs
Publisher:    Algonquin Books
Pub. Date:   August 21, 2018

My first thought, once I finished the last page of this connected short story collection, was that the author, D. Wystan Owen, manages to pen a book to the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby.” With its lyrics of, “All the lonely people, Where do they all come from?  All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?”  This mostly brilliant ten story collection follows the lives of characters who live in the same coastal English village. All are unhappy.  All are desperately lonely.  All are disappointed in life.

The title story is one of the weakest tales in the collection.   Two women have lived together for twenty years.  Neither the village people nor the reader knows if they are lovers or simply friends.  No matter, they are passionately devoted to one another and inseparable.  After the death of one, the other learns that years ago the deceased had a male lover.  The living companion is devastated to learn this news.  She is left feeling that she never really knew her partner at all.  Reading of their longtime relationship is glorious.  The tale is filled with pieces of the fine and playful life that they made together.  The ending is a bit melodramatic.

“Housekeeper” is the stellar story in the collection.   An unmarried woman cares for an old man with dementia.  From the beginning, when she moves into his home, she is grateful that she is no longer alone in the world.  She is pleased when he mistakes her for his deceased wife.   She encourages his confusion and pretends to be the wife.  She now feels that she too can say she has been in a marriage.  She is very loving towards him.  She is an endearing character.  And yes, to be pleased with this fictional marriage and other actions I cannot mention for fear of a spoiler, also makes her very creepy.

Owen frequently changes voices within a story, allowing the reader different interruptions of the characters. This can clearly be seen in “The Patroness.”   A widow of a wealthy man hosts elaborate bi-weekly luncheons to make herself feel special among the once-famous.  At such an event, she purposely seats next to one another an elderly, once-beautiful film goddess and a young male student.  This reviewer was surprised by the malice intentions of the generous hostess.  There is darkness and devastation in the storylines, but there is also a dual sweetness to the characters that lingers.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Pure Hollywood” by Christine Schutt

 

Genre:         General FictionPure Hollywood
Publisher:   Grove Atlantic
Pub. Date:   March 13, 2018

I was in the mood for something light and fluffy.  I didn’t even read the book blurb before I began reading the story since the title sounds like a celebrity movie-star type of easy read.   I was way off.   Nevertheless, I am so glad that I found this author, Christine Schutt, and read this short story collection.   She writes eleven captivating tales portraying the darkness that the reader will find in the souls of her characters.  I am using the word “soul” for that is just what came to mind.  After I finished this collection, I googled the author and learned that her 2009 book, “All Souls” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  I sure did stumble into good luck discovering Christine Schutt.

“Pure Hollywood” is the title story.  It is more a novella than a short story.  A brother comes to aid his sister after the death of her much older husband.  Her stepchildren, who are her age, ensure that she will not inherit a cent.  The story goes back and forth in time between their dysfunctional childhood and the present.  It is very sad and telling to read that the brother actually calls the sister’s (for now) showy mansion as frosty as when they were children and living in their mothers’ car.  The siblings have a complicated relationship.  If I say more it would be a spoiler. Creepy read.

“Lucinda’s Garden” features a self-absorbed young couple.  They are lucky enough to be house-sitting a seaside cottage.   All day long they lay in the sun, swim in the ocean, smoke joints and are very much in love with themselves, more so than with each other.  They feel invincible, so they take many dangerous risks.   I disliked this couple till I liked them and repeated these thoughts throughout the tale.

“The Hedges” is the story that chilled me the most.  A young married couple vacations at a swanky beach resort.  They bring along their toddler son.  The other guests notice that the mother goes out of her way to ignore and not be around her child.  She leaves all vacation parenting to her husband while she sunbathes.  We know that the boy is sick, which makes him cranky.  Still, this does not excuse her to the others.  This reviewer thinks that although she loves her son, she does not possess maternal instincts.  She is not a frigid mother.  She is simply not a natural mom.   Maybe it is the mother in me that I found this one so very hard to read.

Schutt has a knack for creating unexpected plot twists.   More importantly, she will scare the bejesus out of you by bringing you inside the minds of her toxic characters.  You will recoil from their disturbing passions.  Some of the stories are extremely short.   Still, they carry a big punch, assaulting the reader.  I may not have read this author before, but I most certainly will be reading her again.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Points North: Stories” by Howard Frank Mosher

Genre:          Fiction (Adult)  35343337
Pub. Date:   Jan. 23, 2018
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press

Upon his passing in January 2017, many readers mourned Howard Frank Mosher.  Thank goodness his books are immortal and can be read and reread as often as we wish, allowing us to travel into the very real, strikingly beautiful, and remote part of  Northern Vermont known affectionately as The Northeast Kingdom (NEK), which is the setting of all Mosher’s works.  We can also see his books on the big screen. Four of his books were made into movies: “Northern Borders,” “Disappearances,” “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” and “Where the Rivers Flow North.” In his last book, “Points North,” which was published posthumously, he secures his place among the best regional American writers in current times.  In his obituary, The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Mosher’s fictional Kingdom County, Vt., became his New England version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.” (Kingdom County is fictional. It is written as a rural county on the Vermont/Canadian border.  The NEK is also located on the Vermont/Canadian border and is very much a real county).  I am lucky enough to spend a good part of the year in the Kingdom.

There are ten stories in “Points North,” all set in Kingdom Common, Kingdom County.   They’re mostly narrated by two brothers with the last name of Kinneson (the fictional family whom Mr. Mosher based on his own family).  One brother is the editor of the local newspaper and the other is the local judge.  They hunt, fish, and grow old together in the county where they were born.  They have been going on an annual fishing trip together since they were boys.  At the age of 80, the elder brother can still lift a canoe and place it over his head.   This feat is accomplished from a lifetime of hard work that is common in the NEK.  The brothers debuted in an earlier novel by Mosher, “God’s Kingdom.”   In “Points” the stories chronicle the intertwining histories of their family:  natives, outcasts, bootleggers, abolitionists, farmers, and others who settled and stayed in this brutally rural area.  The stories are not linear.  They bounce back and forth in time, which I enjoy. In each tale, the reader learns more details about the characters.

The opening and title story, “Points North,” is a touching tale of a man whose family were former slaves.   He disowns his daughter, who “yoked up” with a man he considers trash, but ends up raising her son, his grandson, who was dropped off at his doorstep when the boy is fourteen.   They are already arguing before he even knows the boy’s name.  The teen is obstinate, just like him.  He drives the kid nuts with his moralistic yet repetitive stories of his granddaddy’s granddaddy.   But every now and then he makes a dent in his grandson’s armor.  While showing him how to mark the depths of a river dam, he explains that his granddaddy was just a shaver (Kingdom speak for a boy) when the Klan came riding and killing through the town, leaving a hundred people to burn in a church.   The grandfather tells his grandson that he has always “suspicioned” that the reason the dam was created in the first place was to put the church murders out of sight and mind.

In “Sisters,” we get a good feel for the hardscrabble life in the Kingdom, as well as a good dose of NEK humor.  One sister talks nonstop to the other, who just happens to be dead.  The sisters couldn’t be more unalike.   One is sweet and virginal, though her ornery sister would call her a prude.  When a couple of spooked drivers, with out-of-state plates rudely ask the not-so-sweet sister if they have stumbled onto a scene from the chainsaw movies, she ignores the question, but tells them to be mindful of where they walk, lest they put their foot on a rattlesnake.  Of course, there are no rattlesnakes within a hundred miles of Kingdom County.  The story is filled with the funny quirks of its characters.  However, Mosher wasn’t blind to the dark side of life in his beloved NEK.   At age eleven, one of the sisters drags their drunken dad home on a hand-drawn sled.  She passes another drunken man who is about to have his way with her.

The Kinneson brothers are still young men in “Lonely Hearts.”  The elder brother is married while the younger brother, at age 27, is not.  This does not sit well with his older sibling.  Unbeknownst to the younger, his brother sends in a personal ad to the “Mephremagog Daily Express” to find him a gal.  He signs the ad as Lonely Hearts pretending to be his kid brother.  The younger likes all of his dates that he meets through the ad, but they aren’t his beautiful high school sweetheart, Frannie, who he hasn’t seen since she left to go to college in Canada.  In the interim, the town is looking for a new doctor.   (The next sentence contains a spoiler alert).   When they finally meet again, his sweetheart is now known as Dr. Frannie, a psychiatrist who doubles as a family physician.  This is not as unusual as it sounds.  (I once went to see a doctor in the Kingdom who doubled as an AA facilitator).  She tells her high school sweetheart, in a joking manner that she is moving back to the Kingdom because it’s a treasure trove of mental disorders.  The love story in “Hearts” might be a bit too saccharine for my tastes, but heck, “all the world loves a lover.”

I might be a tad biased on Mosher’s works because I am drawn to the author for my love of the Kingdom and our home there.  I think of the author whenever we pass a house in Orleans (which was the town of his first home in the Kingdom, located minutes away from us) that looks suspiciously like the house pictured on the cover of his book, Stranger in the Kingdom.”  Or, the Orleans Fair which I go to every summer.  At the age of 13, my 75-year old husband snuck into the girlie tent between visits to the oddity tent with the two-headed chicken.  Not to mention, one of my favorite places in the U.S. is “The Old Stone House Museum,” a once student dormitory found in Orleans County, VT.  In 1836, the school was built by the first African-American to be American college-educated at Middlebury College, located in Middlebury, VT.  So, maybe I am biased, though I really doubt it.  I believe that he saved his best for last, as he suspected too:  shortly before his passing, Mosher told the Vermont newspaper, “The Rutland Herald,” “I am happy to leave you all with the gift of what may be my best book in ‘Points North.”

 I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Manipulated Lives” by H.A. Leuschel

Genre:         Adult Fiction

Publisher :  Indie BookManipulated Lives

Pub. Date:  June 8, 2016

Mini-Review

The author approached me to review her book and I accepted. This book consists of five short stories. All have one narcissistic character abusing each protagonist. When I saw the cover with the image of a distraught young woman, I was afraid I had a YA book that often contains poor writing. My thoughts seemed to have been confirmed when I read that the first story was entitled “Tess and Tattoos.” But I was wrong. Tess happens to be an old woman in a nursing home. This was my favorite out of the collection having a twist I never saw coming. I enjoyed them all and thought that the author has fine skills. My only criticism is that I wished she had included other stories with a different theme in the collection. After awhile, for me, the same subject matter became monotonous. The abuse on the victims lost its punch. Maybe that is because I have a clinical background and am tired of reading about the disorder. Still, the author does a great job on nailing narcissism. Overall, each story was engrossing and I recommend buying the book. If you are not familiar with the term Narcissistic Personality Disorder, these novellas are an eye-opener.

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