siracusaSiracusa by Delia Ephron.

Two couples from New York and Maine agree to take a trip to Siracusa in Sicily. Neither couple knows what horrific fallout there will be from what should be a pleasant romp.

Taylor and Finn who are from Portland, Maine have a strained relationship. They bring their ten-year-old daughter, Snow, who suffers from extreme shyness syndrome. People call her “spooky” because she rarely talks even though she’s extremely bright.

Michael and Lizzie from New York also have a difficult relationship. Lizzie thinks Michael is cold because he is engrossed with plotting his next book. In actuality, he has been having an affair with a hostess in New York.

This is a tinder box situation. The last place all these people should be going is on a trip together. That’s exactly what they do of course and things get even trickier when Kath, Michael’s lover, shows up.

Ephron, who is also a playwright, gives alternating views of the same events from the adult’s perspective. She does in a way that builds tension until the final shattering moment.  The shattered glass window pane on the book jacket is an apt image.

Thematically, its similar to The Vacationers by Emma Straub.


The Blind Contessa’s New Machine

The Blind Contessa’s New Machine

The Blind Contessa’s New Machine
Is this novel really about the machine as the title suggests? Since the machine, a typewriter, is what allows the blind Contessa to communicate with her lover its obviously pretty important.

But frustratingly, the novel doesn’t tell us (or maybe its not meant to) what Pellegrini Turri’s last letter relays. The Countess leaves his last missive on the bed even though a girl offers to read it to

her. We also don’t know how much Antonio knows when he burns the typewriter. Typewriters at this time were apparently made almost entirely out of wood, except for the “type” plates.

The ending and the setting instantly remind me of a Henry Jamesian novel. The reader is left in the “dark” on purpose. What we don’t know about characters is just as important as what we do know.

The novel does make me eager to learn the Carolina Fantoni and Pellegrini Turri’s history. It leaves readers with a delightful scent of lemons, winding rivers, and fanciful dreams. Though Carolina’s fate is tragic the novel also leaves readers with a new appreciation for the lengths someone will go through to find a chance of happiness.

Because there are so many open ended questions, this novel would make a wonderful book club selection.

Evil Eye

Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong by Joyce Carol Oates

The opening novella, “Evil Eye,” is a powerful story about a woman who could be on the verge of losing her mind. In a fit of despair, she has married an older man who crushes what is left of her spirit. One of the man’s ex-wives tries to warn her to no avail.

The best novella is “So Near Anytime Always.” Not only is this a great title, but it perfectly captures what Oates does so well. A highly-vulnerable girl wrongly believes a predator loves her.

Desmond appears charming at first. He is the dapper “boyfriend” that she has always dreamed about. Lizbeth believes a boyfriend as a “passport” to a new country.

Readers, however, can sense something wrong from the beginning. This is how Lizbeth meets Desmond: she looks up from her homework to see a boy staring intensely at her. Whether she realized it or not, he stalks her from that moment onward.

He appears well-educated, rich, and polite but becomes increasingly controlling. Desmond’s true character quickly reveals itself after a disastrous violin lesson.

“The Execution” is less satisfying because the narrator, Bart, is so unlikeable.  In chilling details, “The Execution” depicts an entitled college-aged kid who decides to murder his parents. Nothing unfolds as he plans.

The last novella, “The Flatbed,” captures the feelings of a repressed woman. She suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a relative. Perhaps no other author captures the victim’s viewpoint as well as Oates.

Like all the novellas in this collection, “The Flatbed” ends on just the right ironic note. Has her fiance’ revenge upon her perpetrator freed Cecilia from her damaging past? Or has she just traded one secret for another?

Black Warrior Review

Most of these stories and poems in Black Warrior Review (issue 41.1) are atmospheric stories with a magical realism bent. Unless that is your style, I wouldn’t recommend submitting to them.

“Rejas” by Brenda Peynado is possibly the best story. A young Dominican Republic woman returns to her homeland where she no longer feels at home.

The bars or “rejas” keep the criminals from entering residences but they also keep people from understanding one another.

Black Warrior Review, 41.1

In M H Rowe’s “The Dead Crystal Palace” a boy’s father, in a magical realist style, moves to a crystal palace. He waves a scepter acting the part of the tyrant. His infidelity caused the divorce. He seems powerful but the last scene demonstrates his impotence.

In “Sail, Su Corazon,” a young man records his final, delusional  thoughts on a faltering ship.

The last narrative poem, “Shadow Memories From Desire: A Haunting,” is dense, atmospheric and strangely captivating. A child who can see a ghost is also the object of her benefactor’s desire.

Black Warrior Review is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Writer’s Digest has named BWR as one of the literary journals that matter.

“Into the Limen: Where an old Squirrel Goes to Die,” by Sarah Minor

“Into the Limen: Where an old Squirrel Goes to Die,” by Sarah Minor

Lambert-Musser Home

I adore this non-fiction essay that appears in Black Warrior Review Fall/Winter 2014.

The author, Sarah Minor, is writing about an old home that belongs to her grandmother–the home that is known as the Lambert-Musser Home in West 2nd, Muscatine, IA.

I must admit I knew nothing of Iowan architecture on the West Hill of Muscatine or that there even a city in IA called Muscatine.

That hardly matters though because Muscatine is a river town and if you’ve lived in a river town its easy to feel connected to another river town.

Of course, Baton Rouge doesn’t have a historic district that matches West Hill but it has other attributes.

Muscatine is one of the river cities that Mark Twain was much enamored of. It’s still a small town, unlike Baton Rouge, which has become a metroplex.

More to the point, Minor’s “Into the Limen” is about forgotten spaces deep within large historical houses.

In the obscure space under the roof, bracketed by the eaves, is a place called a soffit. This is where you find tools and old letters yellowed photographs, and possibly skeletal remains.

Minor believes soffits in old homes are “thresholds” or liminal spaces. Other liminal spaces, according to Minor, are airports and beaches. I would add river fronts and swamps to the list.

Even though I had read Poetics of Space for a creative writing class, the power of liminal spaces was never so clear.

All The Light You Cannot See

All The Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Two young people’s live  intersect when American bombers head for St. Malo, the last German stronghold.

Only a rare writer can develop such nuanced characters or create such beautiful moral complexities.

Wherever he goes, Werner hears his sister Jutta’s sad question reverberating in his head: Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?

Marie-Laure who is involved in the resistance with her Uncle Etienne wonders if they are the “good guys.”

Neither knows the meaning of the numbers Etienne recites into the clandestine radio transmitter.

Tension builds as both Marie-Laure and Werner become trapped. Werner is trapped under a hotel, L’Abeille, when it is hit by Allied bombs. Marie-Laure is trapped in her great Uncle Etienne’s secret room in the attic.

Sergeant Major Von Rumpel frantically searches the house for the gem, The Sea of Flames, the one Marie-Laure’s father has sworn to protect.

Tired of hiding, Marie-Laure nearly gives herself away. Werner, who has managed to escape from his own ruin, decides to make things right in the only way he has left.

All the Light We Cannot See is a contemplative, well-researched novel.

Recently, All The Light You Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer prize for fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence in Fiction.

“If You Were a Tiger I’d Have To Wear White,” in Uncanny

If You Were A Tiger I’d Have To Wear White by Maria Dahvana Headley

This is a strange, magical realism story about endings–the end of Jungleland, the end of the golden age of Hollywood, the end of the MGM lion. it all plays out like a hallucination. I love that the lion never gives the reporter anything.

Jungleland was a real place for Hollywood animals to live in Thousand Oaks, California.


Read the story,

Signed, Mata Hari

Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy

signed mata
Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy
This historical novel delves into the mind of a much maligned historical figure, Mata Hari.  Yanick’s Mata Hari is an extremely sympathethic woman who danced and spied in order to have the means to fight for custody of her child, Non.  While it’s hard to believe that she was entirely blameless, it is possible that she was entrapped by the Germans to look like agent H21, as she claimed.  Yannick’s Mata Hari is completely different from the film version.  To date, two films have been made about Mata Hari.
What I liked best about this novel was the way in which Yannick experiments with point of view so that we see Mata Hari through three points of view – 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.  In the first person point of view, Mata Hari constantly repeats the mantra, “I have walked across the sea” because she walked to Ameland island at low tide as a child.  She loves Java, where her cruel husband is stationed for a time, and seems most at home there.  In the 2nd person point of view, she ironically advises readers how to become a spy.  In the 3rd person point of view, we see her in her final days in prison where she befriends a nun.

The Hanging Tree


Dorothy Johnson’s The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree is an impressive novelette; the prose is spare and economical yet Johnson stuns with incisive psychological portraits that are both convincing and surprising.

Joe Frail is an ace gunman who has lost the ability to shoot when it counts. He shot a man once and afterwards his widow placed a curse on him that incapacitates his shooting arm. So, in a way, Joe is just bluffing when he stares everyone down. Johnson writes that Joe challenges everyone a look that warns most men away seems to ask, “Do you amount to anything?”

The boy Rune, who is indebted to him, alternately admires and despises him. Rune wants his reputation and gun skills but he hates him for making him a “slave” or his indentured servant.

He begins to rebel after he becomes the lost lady’s friend.
“He straightened up and blurted out a question: ‘How much time do I still owe you?”

Doc’s position is slipping, “Time? That old nonsense. You don’t owe me anything. I just wanted to cut you down to size.”

Rune rejoins with, “Maybe somebody will cut you down to size some time.”
Then, there’s an elaborate “joke” that Frenchy plays on Doc, something that would not have happened when Doc’s reputation was intact.

Everything changes the minute someone’s fortune changes: “At the end of single week, the fragility of the Skull Creek gold camp was plain. The town was collapsing, moving to the new strike…”

In a stunning reversal near the end, Rune overshadows his master.

Doc always expected to hang because of the curse that was put upon him. He does not die (only his reputation does) and that allows something new and completely different to happen.


Roanokegirls“Roanoke girls never last long around here.” She skipped along the hall, her voice growing fainter as she moved, like we were standing at opposite ends of a tunnel. “In the end, we either run or we die.”  Allegra, The Roanoke Girls.

Disturbing and intriguing in equal measure, this novel has the power to haunt readers. Responding to a family crisis, Lane finds herself revisiting a dark corner of her adolescence, the summer she spent at her grandparents farm in Kansas.

This dark novel alternates between “then” and “now.” The chapters called “then” deal with Laney’s sixteenth summer. A New Yorker who recently lost her Mom, Laney instantly feels at home among the Roanokes. She thinks they are the family she always wanted.

The chapters that take place in the present hint at something dark and unnatural that occurs in the house. Cooper, Laney’s on-again, off-again boyfriend often wonders what goes on in the Roanoke house.

Yates, the head of the Roanoke family, is possibly the most nefarious literary character ever invented. He preys upon the Roanoke girls’ vulnerability. His charm and genuine love for them only make his actions worst.

Gran, though, is a close second. Her actions are almost incomprehensible.

Despite the fact that it is a thriller, the pace can be frustrating. Readers know pretty early on what is happening to Allegra, yet no one confronts Yates until near the end.

The clues are nicely placed. Allegra carves words into surfaces, a kind of diary for others to read.

In the end this is a gripping read but also extremely unsettling.