Reviews & Interviews

5.31.2020  Review of Dark Riddles by T. L. Sherwood

Adam Stoller, a character in Deborah Madar’s new book called Dark Riddle ponders the idea, “What is writing if not the search for truth.” I’d go further and ask whose truth do we choose to hear. Blogs, self-publishing, the comment sections of articles all allow multiple voices to be heard. It’s easy to find a Greek chorus to tell us what we want to believe. It’s not difficult to come across a feel good story, but life is not a Facebook meme and sometimes there is no sense to be made from other people’s actions or the choices they make.

We’re told early on in the book that there is some mental illness in Gina Clayton’s family. Was there a biological reason for her son’s actions? I’d venture she would gladly cut off her ear, or her hair, or limb for that matter if she could just stop for one minute, any minute before 11/23, but as a working mother she doesn’t have the luxury. In the small town where she and her children live, Gina is given little comfort either before or after the infamous day. A point could be made that the character did have love and support from her parents and if she had accepted it earlier, maybe things would have been all right. As a reader, I didn’t fully understand her unwillingness, but as a fan of Gilmore Girls, I was willing to go along with the idea that the price to her pride would have been too much for her to bear.

The thing is, if I didn’t understand it, I doubt her children did either. Gina had been an only child who didn’t have competition for her parent’s attention or resources. Her children knew this and may have seen a strong woman wanting to prove herself, but at what cost? Gina’s eldest daughter is now pregnant and Gina is allowing her to stay. While I was reading, I had the impression Gina was giving her daughter the same disappointed look her parents gave her when she married the wrong guy. I wondered how that played out in Gina’s son’s head. Did that have an impact, too? We’ll never know. No note was left behind, but there was a story.

Enter Adam Stoller. He’s a successful author who has his own questions about the school shooting. He struggles to understand how a story he wrote inspired an unbelievable tragedy and seems unable to write again until he has figured it out. Arriving at the small community, most people clam up in the presence of the self-appointed swaggering bullies who believe their opinion is the only one that matters. So much of their thoughts are on the school merger which they didn’t want, and it becomes an easy target for them to blame. If only the two towns had remained separate, this never would have happened, they believe. Madar captures the reality I’ve witnesses in multiple community forums – how small minds have the simplest concrete thoughts and yell the loudest.

But in this novel, the quiet voices reach out, wanting to be heard. Finding them is made tricky, but they are key in developing a better understanding of the dynamics of the community and the preceding events leading up to that fateful day.

None of the events or life circumstances tells a reader why the boy did it and in that sense, the book is brilliantly on point. We can all sit back and think about how it could have gone down differently. We can come up with silly sayings like “Be Best” to combat bullying which doesn’t carry any more weight than the “Just Say No” program did to prevent people from taking drugs. We can scream about getting kids away from screens, but I grew up playing in the fresh air before cell phones were as prolific as they are today and I still met up with mean girls. Listening is what we all need to do better, yes, to the kids, but also to each other.

For me, reading a book about the parent of a school shooter offered me a chance to analyze a situation I’d never considered thinking about before. We can never know how it really is for another person, but we need to take baby steps once in a while and try to see things from another perspective. Instead of reading the same old narrative, we need to cruise a different lane in the library, check out a biography about people we don’t agree with or read a romance and a western in order to find out what else is being written, find out what other tales are being told. Deborah Madar’s Dark Riddle is a thought provoking place to start. Available from NFB Publishing.


Interview with Susan Tepper about her book Dear Petrov at The Literary Tavern


Interview with Christopher D. DiCicco about his book So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds at The Literary Tavern


Anne Enright The Forgotten Waltz

On Saturday mornings, I get ready for my volunteer shift at the West Falls-Colden Community Library and ask my husband how I look. He answers, “You look like a librarian,” then, after a kiss goodbye, he says, “Have fun petting your books.” This is the banal, comfortable bit of one marriage. As a community – as opposed to a county – library, it is all donations and volunteers. We get a great deal of books.

Last Saturday (October 18, 2015) I picked up four more, because you know, I don’t have enough at home. Interestingly, there was an ARC of Anne Enright’s “The Forgotten Waltz.” After shopping, I went home and thought I’d start all four, picking and choosing which to read. I grabbed several quitter sticks, I mean bookmarks, and curled up on the sofa. At some point, the cat joined me – I only know this because I had to rescue my pen from under her to jot down a page so I could refer back to it.

I had no intention of reading the book in one sitting or writing a review.

As you might expect, it’s about an affair. All the mess is there, but it’s a beautiful mess with exquisitely simple statements that made me gasp in their effectiveness. A few great ones are, “Even the ghosts were gone” in reference to returning to a hotel room on page 76.

“We talked about Aileen. Of course. We talked about his wife – because that is the thing about stolen love, it is important to know who it is you’re stealing it from.” Page 129

“I felt ancient. I felt like a child.” Page 148

The choicest pages were 158-166 where it all falls down and the lust is overtaken by reality. Two divorces are pending, the narrator’s mother has died and her sister finds out about the affair. Those pages ripped me open with the rawness of the repercussions.

I’m not a saint; I’ve had thoughts of straying. Big, huge thoughts, but out of a physical want instead of love. The protagonist fell in love with her lover. A classic, common mistake that I know better than to make. Were it easy to assume that a potential lover would not fall in love, I think I would have had a million affairs by now. I exaggerate, of course, but that’s the messiness of life. Love gets in the way of our best intentions.

This book, with excellent characters, felt fresh. It was an intimate experience, and made me think about my current situation and how fragile that domestic “thing” is that my husband and I have. It feels like tranquility some days and drudgery the next. It’s possibly the “ideal” but who wants to read about that? “The Forgotten Waltz” let me experience the crush without the blows. And as a bonus, I didn’t have to shave, so that truly is best way to experience an affair – in a sharp, well-written book. I must remember this…


Interview with Karen Stefano about her book The Secret Games of Words at The Literary Tavern


Interview with Beth Gilstrap about her book I Am Barbarella  at The Literary Tavern


Interview with Kiri Pedersen about her story Sex for Groceries at r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal


Stephen G. Eoannou: Muscle Cars at The Literary Tavern


Interview with Orlaith O’Sullivan about her story As Time Goes By at r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal


Deborah Madar: Convergence

I recently completed a flash where the female narrator explains to a young man that he is not her type, but she’d been watching him and decided she wanted to be his lover. Not three days later do I walk into a store and–I know this part sounds like fiction, but in the candy aisle–I melted at the sight of a young man who is decidedly not my type, but man do I want him. Writing things and have them come true happens a lot to writers.

In a way, this phenomenon is explored in Deborah Madar’s Convergence. (ISBN 978-0692253137) At the heart of the story, a smart woman is enamored with the idea of synchronicity. Leigh Ann Fray writes a monthly column called “Convergences” where she talks about “the magic of fate and coincidence” bringing about “intriguing intertwinings.” Newly divorced from her husband, she is feeling the loss of her “co-author and historian of a quarter century.” Enter Phil, a college boyfriend who wants Leigh Ann’s help in recalling what had happened years ago when they were together.

What Phil remembers is that after their breakup, he went to Vietnam and experienced things no one ever should. It was those passages that made me put the book down for a while. I grew up in close proximity to someone who may have been the monster he was towards me because of his going through similar things. In movies, images of war and the idiotic destruction and challenges to one’s morality rarely affect me; it is after all, just a movie. Phil, a character in a book, made me feel his anguish and also made me think differently about people in my life and my interactions with them. For a book to do that–to someone who has read extensively–is a rare and impressive feat.

It is hard to write a review about this novel without referencing my own life–past and present.

Leigh Ann, as a character, is someone I didn’t like very much but I fear my dislike for her is based on what I call the “Mia Syndrome.” Long before she hooked up with Woody, I instinctively did not like Mia Farrow. I can’t tell you why, I just did. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” is a favorite film of mine–except for her. Frustrated with myself, I forced myself to find and read a biography of Mia. Once I did, I realized the reason I didn’t like her was that we were a lot alike. I had looked at the enemy and she was similar to me.

I volunteer at a library and there is someone who comes in when I’m working and chats me up. It’s flattering. I humorously refer to this person as “my stalker.” My coworkers have expressed unease about this person; I dismiss their fears feeling–in my heart–that this person will not harm me. Leigh Ann feels the same way about a person in “Convergences” which has me reconsidering my take on a situation that I didn’t think was that big of a deal.

Again, for a book to make me think–and rethink–parts of my own life is incredibly unusual. Kudos to Deborah Madar for writing that well in a first novel. Is the book perfect? No, but my issues with it–most irritatingly not giving Phil a name in the first chapter and the story about the unnamed woman in Chapter 13 who came out of nowhere to illustrate a point but could have been a larger and more interesting character–aren’t the worst sins for any book to commit.

I will let you find out about Charlotte on your lonesome. She is so perfectly bizarre and well-constructed that I’m still awed by her construct. Peter, the ex-husband is not bad either. Don’t get me wrong, these are “bad” characters but Madar brings them to life in an exquisite fashion–I felt that I knew them and if I saw them on the streets of Ellicottville, I would not be surprised. The clear-cut writing in those passages more than makes up for those flaws I mention.

It’s an interesting book.


Clifford Garstang: What the Zhang Boys Know

Coming off NaNo can leave a writer in need of calm and salve. On the first, which was a Sunday, I rested. On the second, I cleaned and on the third I had made a commitment to read and reread all of the stories in my queue. When I signed in to the site, it was cleared by the Editor-in-Chief. That filled me with relief as there were several stories I was hemming and hawwing about–those darlings that must be killed–the “not quite right for us at this time” submissions.

Gaining the time I’d mentally set aside for reading, I finished a short story in Harper’s about a writing instructor on a cruise ship, then a story in A Public Space called “Debt” by Sana Krasikov. As it happens, one story informed the next, much like eating courses at a meal. I’d had appetizers and soup, so when I picked up Clifford Garstang’s What the Zhang Boys Know, it didn’t surprise me that I’d found the entrée.

For the most part, the twelve stories are well balanced and it has a genuinely interesting flow. The residents of Nanking Mansion often base their opinions of others on appearances, which Suzanna in “The Game of Love,” warns against. While her ex-lover is across the street watching her, she knows that “he is blind to the woman she has always wanted to be.” I loved that line, as I know I’m capable of overlooking other people’s growth. Feng-qi in “The Shrine to His Ancestors” concludes that “life was an ocean of change over which he had no control.” The pairings, the visitors, the little dogs gone missing all exemplify the changes taking place in the city, the building itself, and the people housed inside.

I can’t say I liked every story, as the title story seemed contrived. I understand why it was included, but as I don’t recall Jessica mentioning that the Zhang Boy’s left on an adventure to find their mother, or that Feng-qi does either, so Simon and Wesley’s story falls short in my eyes. I would have preferred a subtler tale from these two fine young men whom I’d come to know and genuinely like. One story out of twelve falling short is knocking it out of the park, though.

The arrangement of the stories is far superior to the way Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists was structured. That was the last “novel told in short stories” I’ve read straight through. I know part of my disappointment in Rachman’s book was from the hype it received. I knew Clifford Garstang was awarded a prize for his book recently–a form of “hype”–yet I was delighted with these characters and their stories. The 2013 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction was well deserved. The final stories are grouped in a lovely way and I was reminded of the stoicism of Buck’s The Good Earth.

This book was purchased at AWP this spring. I still have more books from then to go through, so I probably won’t have a chance to reread any of these stories for a while, but the characters, their paintings, sculptures, and the hole in the wall that lets in the pigeons will stay with me.


T. J. Forrester:   Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail

Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail is full of unexpected characters on a journey none thought they would take. It is a dark, honest novel where Simone Decker’s theory that each human is born with a flaw in their DNA is raised in every chapter. Are people just running through a genetic program they cannot alter and that makes them do what they do? Is change even possible?

Newly released prisoner Taz Chavis is ready to reject the old patterns that led to his spending time in prison. A book he read about the Appalachian Trail forms the idea that he could do it. The death of his father and a small inheritance gives him the means.

People around the trail, those living along the edges blend with the thru-hikers. The owners of a B&B go through hell and back while hikers pitch tents at the end of their lawn. A couple in their later years are thrown for not one loop, but several. A young couple set up rigid boundaries of what will and will not happen in their future in regards to having children. Some people in these stories accept change, some demand it but they all face fears and insecurities with verve.

I’m not a hiker/walker/trail person. A few years ago my husband, his brother and two friends went through part of the S.T.S. in Pennsylvania. I didn’t understand the appeal, but after reading this novel, I now have a sense of what seeing a trail to the end means. As Taz, Simone and Richard approached the Katahdin summit, I was just as anxious as they were. What would happen at the end? What comes after the long journey of sublime sensations? I finished the book last night. It’s a book I hated to see end, and one I’ll read again. I know of no higher praise than that.


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