Bone Chalk by Jim Reese

91tjg0NCdnL.SR160,240_BG243,243,243.jpg

Jim Reese’s collection of essays and true stories, Bone Chalk, showcases Middle West small town life with grace, gravity and humor.

Reese grows up in Omaha, attends Wayne State College, Nebraska, where he meets his wife.  They move to the countryside where her family lives. Before becoming an English professor in South Dakota, his jobs include Wayne State mascot, farmhand, newspaper reporter (and bundler), and teacher at prisons and jails.  He and his wife have two daughters. He is a published author of poetry, stories and essays.

The first story takes place at a diner, the narrator watching himself (“you”) try to fit in among locals.  In the succeeding stories, “you” becomes “I.” Instead of looking in from the outside, over the course of the reflections, Reese slowly finds his place among matriarchs and patriarchs in so-called flyover country.  His mother and father-in-law each get a chapter, as well as his grandfather. Unlike newspaper reporting, where he “learned whose voice to capture – nobody’s” (90), he captures his elders’ personalities with punchy dialogue and their own tall tales.  A favorite of his father-in-law’s is when he and his young buddies help a drunk escape from town jail so they can get a ride home. The day Reese announces that his wife is pregnant for the first time, he discovers his grandfather’s memory is failing.  His mother-in-law is characterized by a handwritten sign taped to her door: “Please Ring Twice of Knock or Yell!” (25). Reese’s admiration shows in his loving attention to detail.

Reese studies criminals as well as his family members.  He goes to high school with both a murderer and a girl he murdered.  Around the same time, a serial killer also stalks boys in Reese’s neighborhood.  These experiences lead him to study Criminal Justice in college and go on to work in prisons.  He continually wonders: “Is there a killer inside me?” How removed is any of us from criminality?  The chapters on his prison students and these murders raise provocative political and ethical questions.

Other chapters are more humorous.  Three are devoted to funny bumper stickers he encounters in his area.  In one chapter, “hell bent on gaining new experiences” (112), Reese is the butt of the joke as he drives his boss’s tractor into the garage.  He finds his own voice learning how not to imitate clowns he hangs out with in high school and he encourages his daughters and students to find their own voices, too.

Whether serious or silly, Reese’s prose reads like poetry.  He says more in a paragraph than many write in pages. The final chapters are the shortest and most personal vignettes featuring his wife, daughters and co-workers.

Reese finds the profound in everyday, parochial life in his Bone Chalk.

Lenore and the Problem with Love

51r1zdWD8SL.jpg

In Lenore And The Problem With Love (When You Go To College To Save The Planet), J.T. Blossom’s sequel to The Tunes of Lenore, a freshman leaves college in California to pursue music in Nashville.

After their stunning performance at an experimental private boarding high school, Ella and her boyfriend, Brandon, secure spots at the prestigious Brecken University.  They study quantum effects in dogs, preparing them for release into the wild, where they will restore order ruined by humans. Ella becomes increasingly suspicious of the work while Brandon is more and more consumed by it.  Ella, a fiddler, joins up with an agent in Nashville, who sees her play in a coffeehouse. She and her magical violin, Lenore, influence change in listeners far and wide, some for better and some for worse.  

Many threads – Brandon and Ella’s fragile relationship, a scientist’s side project, University espionage and musical meanderings – dovetail into a complex and riveting plot, told over four parts, each more intense than the last.  The mood is urgent (the world’s fate is at stake) yet tempered by Ella’s thoughtfulness. She asks her dad, “What if dreaming is a luxury humanity can’t afford anymore?” (247). The ending is a prophetic and cataclysmic adventure.  

Ella and Lenore are heroines together.  Ella funnels all her romantic angst and school troubles into her fiddling.  Lenore leads Ella into mystical, profound musical experiences that act as messages for her to decode.  These dreamy passages push the book’s dystopian underpinnings into the realm of science fiction or fantasy. While most of the writing suits middle school audiences, the trance-like interludes and some scientific vocabulary, like “epigenetics,” (165) expand readers’ horizons.  

Like Greta Thunberg, Ella, Lenore’s main character, is an ordinary teenage champion, inspiring hope in the future through loving, creative endeavors.    Author site   

The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek by Kathleen Schmitt

download.jpg

“I know that life dreams are not necessarily the same as adventures…” (254).  In her creative nonfiction memoir, The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek, Kathleen Schmitt describes both her life’s biggest adventure and her life’s dream with candor, humor and wisdom.

After graduating from Georgetown, the author plans to ride from Virginia to California on horseback, with a protection dog by their side.  She calls the trip an A.A., an Apparent Adventure, “contrived or pointless, or at least not to the point” (8). Rather than affecting some specific change or outcome, her journey reveals its purpose as it unfolds.

The narrative maintains a steady trot, despite the trip’s setbacks and detours, in its varied styles.  There are mini-stories, “rants,” history lessons, insights into her relationships and feelings, all told in colloquial speech.  She paints some scenes, however, in lyrical prose. For example, in Appalachia: “Dirty streaks flowed downhill from each cavity [mining shaft hole] like sooty pus running from open abscesses” (87).  The pocked mountain is as dark and graphic as Mordor from the Lord of the Rings! Through keen observations at a close distance, she sets herself in a broader context. 

Her travel companions are as important to the plot as her own development.  The animals provide comic relief. Country Boy, her Boxer dog, acts more hurt than he is, Jack, a horse, needs practice being tethered, and Murphy, another horse, makes an escape.  Besides being comedic, these animals become family. From dashing cowboys to blind farmers, strangers the author meets along the way also add colorful layers to the travelogue.  

On a more serious note, a pivotal chapter comes towards the end, when the trip takes an unexpected turn.  Reflective life lessons are offered. Far from glib, these conclusions come from how she approaches her adventures, not what her adventures are.

Funny, educational, and insightful, The Best That Can Happen dares anyone with a momentous goal to go ahead and try it.   Find it at its own website!

 

Ingvar: The Gods’ Forsaken Son by Wayne Armstrong

41ODZ5fx3NL.jpg

Wayne Armstrong’s Ingvar is a forthright account of one fictional Viking prince in the early 9th century, bookended by a helpful foreward and an epilogue that put the story into a historical framework.  

Before he leaves on a raiding voyage, Ingvar asks his father, King Andorr, to name his successor – either Ingvar or step-brother Thorir.  Ingvar leaves without a response and returns from his trip having lost his pillaged treasure to a storm. His father, the king, is dead. Thorir and his mother, Gyda, rule.  Banished, Ingvar flees, determined to win back his rightful place and rescue his family from Thorir’s prison. Ingvar’s adventures in Iberia quickly descend into extreme hardship, solidifying his resolve for revenge.

Told in three parts, the plot is organized in chronological order and easy to follow.  The middle section toggles between Ingvar’s travels and Thorir’s tyrannical rule at home.  Descriptions of battles and survival are graphic and grotesque. The harsh landscape, with soggy crags and deadly sea in northern Europe and heat and deprivation in the south, echoes a difficult, barbaric life.  Friendship and religion also figure into the narrative. The no-nonsense writing style is reminiscent of ancient myths and Sigrid Undset’s retellings (Gunnar’s Daughter).  

The heart of the novel is Ingvar’s maturing.  Life experience tempers his brash behavior in the beginning of the book.  He earns his leadership by the end. Other characters do not develop; they either remain loyal to Ingvar or prove themselves his enemies.  Just as Ingvar learns, so will readers – the book is full of new vocabulary like “barbican,” “thrall,” “jarl,” and “recce.” Ingvar imagines hiring a “skald” (108) or epic ballad teller to recite his tale.  He gets his wish – this is it!   

A grisly and triumphant tale, Ingvar brings Viking lore to life.

Were We Awake by L.M. Brown

411xSjxQfBL.jpg

Surprise is the theme in L.M. Brown’s luminous collection of short stories, Were We Awake, out today, November 20.  

Some of the stories in this latest collection are linked, as are the stories in Brown’s previous release, Treading the Uneven Road (March 2019)Raymond, whose father dies in a work accident, appears in a few stories.  The murderer of Nick Moody, found dead behind a pub, and Nick’s family also feature in more than one tale.  A clown, starfish, cats, exotic birds, estranged couples and lonely children star in others. 

The stories revolve around a secret or a truth characters don’t want to admit to themselves or others.  Nollaig, friend of Raymond’s mother, thinks about “all the things people kept inside, like the grief for a cat, and questions about a certain night” (192).  In Hidden, Hazel learns about the twisted relationship between the adults in her household.  In What It Means to Be Empty-Handed, a girl pretends to be the lost baby in an article she reads.  The power she feels as she acts her part becomes her greatest vulnerability.  In Crashing two mothers mourn the loss of their sons, one by the other’s accidental killing.  Cold Spell and Green Balloons stand out for their hopefulness about lasting friendships.  Regardless of happy or sad endings, the surprises revealed are the icing on a cake of suspense and subtle, psychological shifts.

Brown turns the ordinary into a spooky extraordinary through stark, cryptic language.  The stories take place in Ireland and on the US east coast, in everyday settings: kitchen tables, living rooms, neighborhood lanes, bedrooms, and littered beaches.  Such innocuous spaces become liminal in Brown’s literary worlds. For the workmate of Raymond’s dead father, “the room was the crack” not to step on in the childhood game (10).  Small details become clues to an underlying mystery. “He looked to the left, and then stepped back” (115). Enigmatic descriptions conjure something lurking below the surface.    

Were We Awake are beautifully rendered horror stories, haunting, yet refined.  Like the Emily Dickinson poem from which the title comes, the stories startle and wow in their dreamy drama.  The awful-er, the better, so long as they remain fiction.  Find it on Amazon

The Axe and Grindstone by Paul Phipps-Williams

51rvhwQoVuL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

When his best staff leaves for a better job, longtime pub manager, Mark Adams, finally wants a change himself.  An old (more than a) friend offers him position as landlord. Problem solved! Or have Mark’s problems just begun?

Phipps-Williams’ The Axe and Grindstone is an ideal winter read, replete with soul-searching, bloodshed, comedy and a dash of romance.  As Mark learns what he’s gotten himself into, he wonders if it’s really the opportunity to prove himself that he’s been looking for.  To take charge in his new place of employment means engaging in an ages’ old battle between The Binding Brothers, who see God in screams, and The Council, comprised of all manner of spirits and beings.  The Binding Brothers use torture as a means to, so-called, Enlightenment. Descriptions are gruesome and graphic. The tone of the book is not moralistic, rather, reveals the painful process of moral decision making.  But the pub setting, gathering place to all walks of life, brings light-heartedness to the narrative. Mark and Nat, his old flame, rekindle their love facing demons together.  

Mark speaks in the first person, often in short, stream-of-consciousness phrases.  The effect is immediate, as if the action is happening to the reader herself. The text is so dense with details about prophecies, strategies, and ghoulish rituals, I couldn’t skip a word for fear of losing my place in the thread.  The plot is intricate and at times difficult to follow. It’s easy to empathize with Mark, confused newcomer to a strange parallel universe.

At once a horror story, coming-of-age tale and fantasy, The Axe and Grindstone is a thought-provoking and entertaining story about trying to do right in a mixed-up world.

Author website

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

41KQ7DHhEwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

There’s something of Grimm’s fairy tales in this novel, one of two Nobel award winners this year.  A small community in a Transylvanian forest.  Once the weekend visitors leave for the summer, hunters, a priest, a rich landowner, a mushroom picker, and an eccentric older woman living alone, witch-like, remain.  There’s a splash of Winnie the Pooh, too.  Some nouns in this closed-off place are made proper like Pooh does: Deer, Little Girls, Ailments, Tools.  The main character (the eccentric woman) shares the wise innocence of the original Pooh, before Disney got ahold of him.  But this is no children’s story.  The heroine’s quiet semi-retired existence turns upside down when three of the village’s patriarchs turn up dead.

Once a bridge engineer, then a teacher of small children, Janina, who hates her given name, moves to a remote hamlet near the Czech border.  She watches over the homes of summer residents and teaches English to make money, but spends most of her time tending experimental pea sprouts, like Darwin, walking in the woods and making Horoscopes.  She reads the movements in the sky as predictors of the future and explanations of the past.  The world’s fate is woven into the stars, obvious to those who can read the coded tapestry.  She enjoys weekly visits with Dizzy, whom she helps translate Blake into Polish, and Good News, clerk at the thrift store, and Oddball, her tidy ex-accountant neighbor.  Oddball wakes her late one night to help him dress Big Foot, another neighbor, a poacher, whom Oddball has just discovered dead.  Soon, two other bodies are found murdered.  Janina suspects the Animals of taking revenge on these hunters.

Scandal takes over the once idyllic village.  A Writer, one of the summer residents, decides not to return.  Although she writes horror stories, she’s frightened by the threat of a murderer on the loose.  Janina has nightmares of her mother and grandmother returning from the dead.  Her mysterious Ailments return and she is out of commission for weeks.  A nuanced struggle between Good and Evil ensues.  A plot twist upends any stark moralistic reading.

Drive the Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is devastatingly beautiful.  Fantasy swells through reality to reveal Truths about death, justice and art only fiction can tell.