The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress

Author: Michelle Richmond
Genre: Mainstream
Reviewed by: Tripp Reade

01120501Again and again, characters in Michelle Richmond's collection, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, grapple with the important role narrative plays in their lives.  Nineteen linked stories, all told from the first person, gradually reveal the history of a family in Alabama, and what emerges is a group of people, four daughters in particular--Darlene, Celia, Gracie, and Baby--who constantly seek to understand each other and the world by telling stories.  Sometimes they revise their stories based on new information, sometimes they stubbornly cling to an old version even when it seems no longer adequate, and sometimes they refuse to believe the stories told by others.

This is exactly the business of fiction.  Jerome Bruner, in his Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, speculated that stories provide "a map of possible roles and of possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible (or desirable)," (66) and further that "our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us" (69).  Not only does this describe Richmond's characters, it also sets out what these characters, these stories, do for the reader: by their richness and believability they expand the reader's world.

In "Intermittent Waves of Unusual Size and Force," Darlene, estranged for years from her family by her mother's inability to accept the fact of Darlene's lesbianism, meets her father for lunch and he tells her what happened when, for one summer, he left all of them and drove to San Francisco.  It's the sort of story family members find almost impossible to tell one another, yet for Darlene his life now takes on a wondrous new quality.  "In his stories he lives the life of a slightly different man, someone freer and more brazen.  In his stories he becomes the father he thinks his daughters would have wanted, a father who makes mistakes not so different from our own" (106).  Here is a double pleasure: the reader's life becomes enlarged in the same way as the character's, even as the character comments on that growth.

Stories clash in "Down the Shore Everything's All Right," when Gracie and her boyfriend of four years, Ivan, go for a drive to Asbury Park.  Gracie plans to break up with him because of his penchant for telling stories, particularly his favorite, about the time he met Bruce Springsteen.  Immediately after she breaks up with him Ivan tells her a never-before-heard version of the story, one where he and Springsteen actually hang out for an evening, and Springsteen's sister takes their photograph.  "One last desperate fiction to win me back," (13) is how Gracie characterizes it, assuming the story is false and proceeding from that assumption to  conclude that such "dishonesty is a suitable reason to end a relationship" (15).  Ivan can't produce the photograph, though.  She berates him for telling such blatant lies: "What's wrong with the life you have?  Why do you have to make things up?" (15).  Ivan doesn't blame her for not believing him, but defends himself, saying, "At some point you just have to tell the story, no matter what people think" (15).  Nine months after she moves out of their apartment, a final box of her belongings arrive via UPS.  Among them, the photograph.  Though it's obvious from her meticulous description that the photograph is real, Gracie refuses to revise her story of Ivan as the perpetual teller of tall tales--a case of dramatic irony where the reader has better knowledge of the situation than does the character--and instead searches the photo for signs of tampering: "I marvel at the intricacy of the lie, the precision of the ruse, the bold lengths to which Ivan has gone to keep his story intact" (19).

Gracie's story of Ivan now turns into a lie she tells herself, not wanting to believe she's made another bad decision.  By the final story in the collection she will recant and begin her search for Ivan, who was correct in his assessment of narrative's value.

Most of Richmond's stories contain such moments, by turns heartbreaking and beautiful.  My favorite occurs in "The Last Bad Thing" when Gracie has an epiphany about her mother:

Even as I try to persuade her, I know that my mother will never leave this place.  I am beginning to understand why.  She is not in love with the city itself, but with the house where her children grew up.  The children that she knew and are gone now, somehow inhabit these beloved rooms.  In some way they are, and they are not elsewhere.  She is the only one in the world who truly knows these children. (54)

The light bulb clicks on for both Gracie and the reader, and two worlds are rendered more coherent as a result.

Frank Smith, another philosopher, makes a nice companion for Bruner where literature, and approaches to literature, are concerned.  In To Think, he wrote, "But the story we are probably most interested in, all our life, is the story of the world in which we find ourselves."  Ivan is the collection's most obvious proponent of this lovely axiom, but each story found here, and each character, helps Richmond do fiction's best work.  She gives us a constructed world that illuminates the stardust one in which we live.


January 12, 2005 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (5)

Money Shot

Author: Brian Rouff
Genre: Mainstream
Reviewed by: Kevin Tipple

MoneyshotAlan "Nick" (to all his friends) Nichols is doing pretty well in Las Vegas as an executive at a Las Vegas advertising agency. Not that he is exactly proud of his career choices or his current employment. After several promotions, he isn't doing the stuff he likes to do but he has a good handle on what the job is these days.

"Today, my job consists of selling stuff nobody needs to people who don't know any better." (Page 2)
That and dealing with moronic, ego driven clients, the occasional backstabbing coworker, a looming midlife crisis, a challenging teenage daughter, and a wife that knows him way too well and still loves him anyway. He has his hands full and everything is rocking along at the usual pace until he unwittingly purchases the winning soda on his way to work. Under the bottle cap, as helpfully pointed out by a co-worker, is the secret code and chance to shoot a three point shot at halftime of the coming NCAA regional finals in Phoenix. Should he sink the basket, he wins a cool million bucks.

We have all seen those shots on television sports over the years to the point that such promotions have become commonplace. But what author Brian Rouff does is to take a commonplace event and then dive into the backstory. The book isn't so much about the shot but the four weeks leading up to the event and the pressures Nick feels from all sides. Not only his internal expectations in that he wants the money and doesn't want to look pathetic on television, but also the sudden expectations of others as he puts everything on the line in a single minded quest to make the shot. Unlike the advertising stuff, this is work and as he goes about his temporary job, he learns more about himself and others than he ever thought possible.

Like in his extremely enjoyable first novel, Dice Angel, author Brian Rouff once again creates realistic, likeable characters, an interesting plot and storyline, and several twists to keep the reader guessing until the very last page. His affection for the city of Las Vegas comes through, as does his offbeat sense of humor. This is another great read and well worthy of your consideration.


December 21, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (1)

Marie, Marie: Hold On Tight

Author: Terri Brown-Davidson
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Ruth Mark

11220401When her baby sister Alyssa Ellen dies in strange circumstances Marie and her Momma die too – inside themselves. Sexual abuse, the birth of Momma’s escapist imaginary world, fear and repressed memories follow. This is Marie’s story and it is a harrowing one, definitely not for the faint-hearted. Marie is the narrator throughout (we meet her aged 17), a budding artist who’s only saviors are her boyfriend Dell, her art and a run-down cabin at the edge of the woods. The novel’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and it fits the contents perfectly. Readers are in for a hurtling, emotional roller-coaster ride. You too are well-advised to hold on tight. As Marie says on page 152:

But the mind…is a relentless machine. It loves to move forward. Loves never to stop.

Terri Brown-Davidson has published poetry before and it shows in this her first novel. The language is at once immediate, lyrical, stark and full of poignant images. Written both in the first person and in (for the most part) the present tense with short, snappy sentences and contained in short chapters, the content here can, at times, leave you breathless. Like you need to come up for air. Even flashbacks are written in the present tense and you are sometimes left wondering when certain events happened. By the middle of the book however you’ll be reading so fast that everything will begin to fall into place.

We know for example from very early on that Marie has several dark secrets, not least the fact that her baby sister died a horrible death which has left both herself and her mother scarred. Brown-Davidson deals with these difficult, subjects (often taboo in fiction) in a realistic, straight-on way. There is no flinching from the disgust, the shame the eroticism, the confusion, the pain, the emotional minefield that is child abuse. Violence and sex, secrecy and genetic ties are all dealt with here through Marie’s eyes. It is completely believable even if, at times the dialogue doesn’t sound 100% age-appropriate, or the fact that the author doesn’t fully sketch several of the characters (Dan, Momma’s lover and chief abuser remained a cardboard cut-out, and I couldn’t quite get Momma though I think that was the point – that she wasn’t to be fully understood.)

This is powerful writing depicting raw pain which is at times hard to stomach. Because it is so visceral though, because you quickly want Marie, this damaged, intelligent girl, to survive you’ll not be able to put it down. A page-turner of the highest order. Exhausting, draining yet at the same time hope reigns, grief and pain don’t win and you’re left knowing that survival of even the worst pain is possible. A stunning first novel.


November 28, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lipstick Diaries

Author: Lori Soard
Genre: Mainstream
Reviewed by Pam Skochinski

Kate, Rebecca, and Sarah have been friends since grade school. Right before eighth grade, they picked their signature colors and sealed their diary entries with a kiss. Almost every Friday night, for the next 16 years, they met to add another page to the diary.

Now living in New Orleans, they seem to have found their niche. Kate works as a ghost tour guide, Rebecca is a nurse, and Sarah runs a new age shop, with a creepy gothic tenant in the store next door.  It’s Friday, and everyone is looking forward to their weekly ritual. Everyone, that is, except Rebecca. She’s dreading having to reveal that she’s pregnant and the father of her child seems to have deserted them, just like her own father did so many years ago. Then, the invitation falls out of the mail at Kate’s feet; an invitation to a wedding. Kate’s sister, Jennifer, is marrying the most notorious playboy in Greenfield, Indiana. What’s a sister to do except dash home and stop that wedding?

Unfortunately, Kate’s going to have to abandon the life she’s made for herself in order to save her sister from disaster. She leaves New Orleans behind, not knowing if she has a job to come back to. Sarah and Rebecca come along, to help Kate and perhaps to dispel a few ghosts from their own pasts.

Once in Indiana, it takes just moments for Kate to realize that her sweet baby sister has a stubborn streak. After Jennifer’s last ill- fated relationship, she thinks she knows how to spot a loser by applying Granny’s eight tests. Mark passed six of the tests, and to her, that’s good enough. Kate disagrees. In an act of desperation to get Kate to accept Mark, Jennifer makes a wager. If Kate can find a perfect man, one who passes all eight of the tests, by the day of the wedding, Jennifer will postpone marrying Mark.

Kate enlists Sarah and Rebecca’s help. Armed with the test gleaned from an old lipstick diary, Kate sets out to test every eligible bachelor in Greenfield in order to find the perfect man. Along the way, she has lots of help and hindrance from her family and friends. There’s also some surprise appearances from the past:  Ian, Kate’s boss from New Orleans; Jared, the father of Rebecca’s unborn child; and someone skulking in the shadows, following Kate’s progress with more than just a passing interest.

Following Kate’s quest from jazzy, quirky New Orleans to Indiana, where you can almost hear the corn growing, will leave the reader breathless; either cheering Kate on or wanting to shake her for being so stubborn. What you never doubt is Kate’s love for her family and friends. In the end, there simply weren’t enough pages to the book. Did Kate go back to her old job when she got back to New Orleans or did she follow her dream a little sooner than planned, did Kate’s plan to drive away Sarah’s creepy tenant work, and did Rebecca and Jared find their happily-ever-after? Lori Soard’s Lipstick Diaries is sealed with a kiss. Hopefully, it’s a promise of more installments.


August 9, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (0)

As My Sparks Fly Upward

Author: Matthew St. Amand
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Susan DiPlacido

As My Sparks Fly Upward, the debut from Canadian author Matthew St. Amand, is a collection of short stories rendered with such honesty that I questioned how much was fiction and how much was taken from his own life. This isn't a drawback or criticism of the collection, but rather a supreme compliment.

Throughout the book, St. Amand takes us on a journey not only through Windsor and Dublin, but through the lives – and hearts – of the people roaming these landscapes. He favors first person, which increases the psychic intensity and connection. And rather than concocting outlandish or bizarre plots, he plunges us deep into the minds of his characters who are often at a critical, everyday crossing point.

These seemingly ordinary situations and happenings carry a weight and levity; full-bodied, recognizable, and lovingly rendered with sympathetic appeal. There is no pretension here, none of the Eggers- like over-analyzing or ironic detachment to distance us from the characters. So, in "Best Man", when a best friend who's fully against the impeding wedding has to coax the groom out of his jitters and back down the aisle, the full range of emotion is captured. The appeal of this approach is clearly evident in other stories, such as the pitch-perfect "Hadley", where a near high-schooler meets a beautiful deaf girl in town for the summer. They'll capture your heart as surely as they capture each other's, and the heart-breaking honesty of their fates isn't backed down from, it's shown, and we understand, and then, some of us will recognize pieces of our own lives. He does takes risks and branch out to suspense. In "Under the Bridge" he builds a nerve-wracking story where quicksand sucks in the characters after a seemingly innocuous and innocent discovery.

As a writer, he shows a fearlessness to unveil emotions, and this leads to flashes of utter brilliance, such as in the title story. What could be a rollicking or overly-sentimental tale instead crystallizes into a marvelous celebration of remembrance. It's a stunning story, nestled amongst an overall vibrant collection.


July 11, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (1)

Brother, What Strange Place Is This?

Author: Tom Saunders
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Susan DiPlacido

571British author Tom Saunders' debut collection of short stories, Brother, What Strange Place is This is a glorious success. Multi-layered and eclectic, the work showcases the literary talents and broad imagination of its creator. Saunders breathes life into a multitude of styles, characters, and settings, weaving strings of charming wit, gorgeous description, interesting plots, and heartfelt pathos into this gorgeously crafted tapestry.

From the title story, turn of the century brothers, one a talented pianist relegated to a mental institution and the other desperately trying to reach and understand him, to a modern-day father coming to grips with daughter's independence, he never fails to strike a unique and human chord. The language and phrasings are thick and lush, nearly an embarrassment of delightful, dizzying prose. Saunders has a keen knack for plucking unusual, but perfectly suited, words to highlight and accompany the themes and voices and tones of the pieces. His styles and subjects have a diversity and range. He plays with the clever and cheeky, such as in "Not For What You Are", which tells the story of a baker who believes he is the reincarnation of painter Dante Gabriel. And he doesn't shy from the tragic, such as in "The Seal Man" – the story of a man shipwrecked on a small island with brutal people. He takes a leap inside an abandoned zoo in "Nave Nave Mahana", where the homeless congregate and make shelter for themselves while finding hope in a stray monkey.

This is a captivating read, where the stories are fresh and engrossing, unpredictable, sometimes disturbing, and all of them are rendered with precision and a finely-tuned wordsmith's care.


July 11, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (20)


Author: Richard Madelin
Genre: Literary Fiction
Reviewed by Susan DiPlacido

575Alice named her sons Jack and Lenny. Jack for Kerouac, which aptly fits, as he took off ten years ago and hasn't been heard from since. Lenny for Lenny Bruce, though he more closely resembles Steinbeck's Lennie from Of Mice and Men. As a young child, Lenny suffered an accident which has left him mentally challenged. Not only does he have trouble learning complex tasks, but he lives in a repeated refrain where "white spaces" push through and mix him up. He has a friend at work who teaches him all the wrong things about women and whose boots he admires, and a neighbor up the road who he's convinced is going to allow him to have sex with her. Other than that, his world centers around his mother, Alice. And Alice's ideas of being a mother and caring for him include teaching him – Careful! – by snuffing cigarettes on his hand. Things take a mreviewed byore ominous turn when the prodigal son Jack, now a policeman, returns to town. Alice instructs Lenny to kidnap the brother he doesn't even remember, let alone recognize, and this sets in motion a chain of devastating realizations in this family.

Madelin tells this story in rotating third person limited POV, but it's so focused that it feels like first person intimate storytelling. He does an admirable job of not only sustaining the eerie inner voices and thoughts of both Alice and Lenny, but also of sustaining the reader and heightening curiosity with these challenging perspectives. This stylized inner POV could easily become a gimmick – or annoying – if not well written. But it's so deftly handled that's it not only brutally intriguing but also becomes downright riveting as the revelations pile up. It's a forceful and complex debut from Madelin.


July 11, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (0)

Boyne Falls Baroque

Author: John Bailey
Genre: Mainstream Fiction
Reviewed by Frank McGourty

576A review by Frank McGourty whose short story “A Hot Sunday Morning “ will be appearing in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine.

Take an ex millionaire, the stock market and the Feds, throw in the Japanese Yakuza and a Thai restaurant with hot food and a waitress to match and you have the recipe for a good tale. John Bailey serves this one up with the right amount of spice as he melds High-Tec with I-Ching.

When young Brian Mercer, techie, former millionaire and reluctant pot smoker gives up his promising career of spreading hot tar on the roofs of Boyne Falls and moves onto selling lawn services for a company that couldn’t grow crab grass, it seems that he has hit a new low. Even when he just attempts to have lunch, Brian can not even get into his restaurant of choice; life is getting very depressing. But there is silver a lining when Brian wanders into Thai A Yellow Ribbon a restaurant, which of course serves Thai food. The food is spicy and so is the young Japanese waitress Miiko, who also serves up hot stock tips that she receives from Grandpa Sam. From here on Brian’s life becomes a roller coaster ride as he finds himself in “like” with Miiko who is in reality a teacher at the Music Conservatory, a cello player, and as savory as any dish from the restaurant. Brian attends his first classical concert and discovers he actually enjoys it and also that Miiko can become very intense while playing the cello. Later that evening Miiko lets Brian in on a little secret, one of the reasons she looks so intense while playing is because the cello gives off vibrations. Miiko goes into more detail. Did I mention that Miiko was as spicy as the Thai food she served?

Things begin looking up for Brian as he deserts the agricultural business and becomes a radio disk jockey for Classic Rock 105, where although the pay is low there are perks such as women who call during the show and talk dirty. As his love life and his stocks rise, Brian is a happy man. Miiko then introduces him to Grandpa Sam, the oracle of the stock market who explains how he uses the I-Ching as a sure way to make a killing in the stock market. Grandpa Sam explains all, but Brian still finds it all a puzzlement. But the I- Ching connection is even more of a puzzlement to the SEC. Brian is given a lecture by an FBI agent who explains that the world economy will collapse if people cheat the market, rather than the market cheat the people. Dropping their minor problems with Enron and International Terror, the SEC and the FBI investigate the I-Ching Connection. Brian now finds himself in hot water with Miiko and over his head in an alphabet soup of Government Agencies.

John Bailey has woven a droll tale of love, greed and the I- Ching . His story includes a grand cast of quirky characters. You're going to love Miiko who is a very proper young lady who just happens to like to talk dirty in both English and Japanese.


July 11, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Opposite Shore

Author: Maryanne Stahl
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Susan DiPlacido

559Out for a sail aboard the family boat, the Ariel, on Memorial Day, one family's life is about to take a disastrous turn.

Rose, an aspiring painter, and William are the proud and happy parents of sixteen year old Miranda. Anna is Rose's sister and best friend, a pal to Miranda, an avid sailor herself, and close to William. They seem content.

However, when Rose goes home early, leaving William and Anna to close up the boat for the evening, she gets life-altering news. A painting of hers has been accepted in an upcoming gallery showing – her first big break. Flushed with excitement, she races back to the boat to share her exciting news. There, she finds her husband and her sister kissing. Immediately, everyone's world explodes. Betrayed and angry, Rose throws William out, cuts Anna from her life, and moves with her daughter for the rest of the summer to Shelter Island.

Stahl's writing is evocative and vivid. She brings Shelter Island to sparkling life while delving deeply into all four of these richly complex characters. This could be simple, it could devolve into melodrama. But instead Stahl mines this material in an honest and realistic way. Everyone has their flaws, and as they each struggle with their decisions and actions, the summer unwinds with rising tension and uncertainty. These relationships and people are so well rendered, along with the setting, that the reader is sucked into their world and understands, and often sympathizes, with their current situation.

Stahl apparently got the spark of inspiration for this book from Shakespeare's The Tempest. But this isn't a re-write. And though the jumping point for the plot is a betrayal, these characters sing with life, hopes, and frustrations. They are unique voices, though wholly understandable. And Stahl illuminates this world, unafraid to peek into the darker corners, all the way through to the satisfying conclusion.


June 14, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (1)

I Think I Hear Sleigh Bells

Author: Virginia C. Foley
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Jozette Aaron

560Ethan McBride was deserted by his mother as a baby. His father, very indifferent to his son except to meet his needs for survival, set him up in his own house in Lincoln Park, including a full compliment of staff. Ethan was two years old!

He was raised by Stella, his housekeeper, who loved him as if he were her own. Many a day she would catch him pining for the mother who promised to return for Christmas. He sat with his gift in hand, waiting for her to return...a gift that went un-opened for twenty-two years.

Ethan grew up not trusting anyone to love him. He lived his life very privately, not letting anyone close enough to see the hurt there. Tragedy would strike at the hands of Vienna, a deranged acquaintance of his; someone who thought she loved Ethan and set out to make him love her in return.

When Grace Dukane entered his life, Ethan was thrown into an emotional quagmire of old hurts, hatred, despair and longing and was being pulled down to a place he thought he would be unable to emerge from.

Ms. Foley has written a very powerful, emotional story of a tangled web woven from deceit and how it touched the lives of everyone whether innocent or guilty.

A good read...highly recommended!


June 14, 2004 in Mainstream | Permalink | Comments (0)