‘Shelf Life of Happiness’ by Virginia Pye

shelf-life-pyeShelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye is a book about the expiration of happiness: the end of its shelf life.

In Pye’s collection of short stories, ordinary characters find themselves with everything they could’ve wished for, or nothing they ever wanted, and either way, the equation equals despair, longing, or defeat. While some characters may find glimmers of the happiness they seek or even the insight of a way out, we as the reader are left to wonder if they’ll pursue that happiness or not.

In “Redbone,” a painter is confronted with the meaning of love and art at the end of his life as he literally battles rough waves to stay alive. “My Mother’s Garden” explores what it means to be stuck in a cycle of life that isn’t your own.

In these and Pye’s other six stories, characters struggle to find themselves and to discern what it is that might elongate or inspire the happiness that has worn out in their lives. For most of Pye’s characters, there is at least the recognition of a next step even if it’s not taken.

Slated for release on October 23, 2018 by Press 53, you can pre-order a copy of Shelf Life of Happiness from your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Home & Castle’ by Thomas Benz

Home & CAstle - BenzHome & Castle by Thomas Benz is a collection of short stories that take on questions like “why me,” “how bad can it get,” and “is this really what my life has become?” At least these were the questions that constantly bounded back and forth between the pages as Benz’s characters floundered their way through the lives that had become something other than they had imagined they would be.

Nobody in Home & Castle is an extraordinary person, or even a kind person for that matter. They are flawed in ways that many humans are, imperfect in ways that sometimes made you hate them or want their wives to find out their schemes. Yet, despite their imperfections, Benz has a way of drawing the reader into these flawed, sometimes twisted fantasies of the often-misogynistic characters in attempt to unravel their minds just a little bit.

In one of the strongest stories, The Casual Imposter, we meet Blake, an average Joe who is always mistaken for another average Joe. Nearly everywhere he goes, he’s met by some stranger who thinks he’s someone else. As Blake begins to feel more and more invisible as himself, he also begins to gain a confidence, or maybe a self-consciousness, that encourages him to play along with what he feels like is a trick the world is playing on him. Blake decides to be the person he is mistake for, which he thinks might “be the key to breaking the curse.” After episodes of of anxiety, nearly giving himself away, and after ruining the reputation of the man he’s pretending to be with his own dreams of cheating, Blake gives the sham up only, in the end to meet the ultimate irony of all. Someone he cares about can’t recognize him.

In the title story Home & Castle, we meet Drew, a middle aged, once popular, wealthy, and well-to do man who has lost it all. Suddenly, he finds himself, the stay-at-home dad while his wife thrives along beside him. This kills Drew because he can’t stand the role reversal of our gendered society. Drew, at first a pitiful character, starts to become someone the reader herself feels embarrassed by. This embarrassment, Benz reminds us, though, is only the function of what society labels “normal” or even “acceptable.”

Benz’s writing is a lyrical wave of softness that washes over the reader, slowly, sometimes sleepily, and the stories begin to feel less read and more felt or almost experienced. Benz’s writing is refined, funny, and often sarcastic in a perfectly resonating way. By no means a speed read, Home & Castle is a beautiful collection nonetheless.

Home & Castle was published by Snake Nation Press in January of 2018. You can purchase a copy of Home & Castle by Thomas Benz at Indie Lit.

Read more reviews of books published by small presses at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘This Far Isn’t Far Enough’ Lynn Sloan

this-far-isnt-far-enough-sloanThis Far Isn’t Far Enough encapsulates perfectly the feeling in every one of Lynn Sloan’s new short stories. The stories in Sloan’s collection are tragedies that nearly break your heart, or often do. Every sad ending, it seems, is the result of someone not going far enough or something not being quite enough: someone trying but not hard enough, someone succeeding, but not in the way they imagined, or someone simply being swallowed by the reality of their incapacity to evoke change in their lives.

Though the underlying theme seems to be the same across stories, Sloan does a superb job of diversifying her characters and setting each scene on a new and fresh stage. There’s the story of Ollie, the chef betrayed by his partner, friend, and lover Donnie. Ollie who is given a chance at a comeback after a scandal at his previous restaurant. But is this new chance enough? Will Donnie always haunt Ollie even in his glory – haunt him through others and through Ollie’s own memory? Is a new restaurant enough to erase the pain?

Then there’s “A Little 1,2,3;” the story of Betty, a window confined to an assisted living home with not only the memories, but the visceral visions of her recently deceased husband beckoning her towards death. If only he hadn’t slipped while cleaning the gun. All Betty wants is to be with her husband, to escape the reality of all that she can’t remember and all that she can. But will death be enough to find happiness? Could death at the hands of the same gun that killed her husband save her from her misery?

Every one of Sloan’s characters is a monument to “what if” and “if only” and they remind readers to stop, to erase this ever-present message in humanity’s mind, because even under the guise of “if,” it could still not take you far enough. Life could still be just what it is or just what you don’t want it to be. Sloan’s characters remind us to make the effort, to live fully in what you have, and to cherish everything without the “if.”

Slated for publication by Fomite Press in February of 2018, you can reserve a copy on Amazon.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Ruler of Hearts’ by Jason Kerzinski

ruler of hearts-kerzinskiRuler of Hearts by Jason Kerzinski is a poetically driven collection of works that glimpses the lives of those in the French Quarter of New Orleans with a searing depth.

Kerzinski divides his collection into four different sections: Ruler of Hearts, Little Abyss, In Bloom, and Exceedingly Beautiful. Each section features a host of mini character sketches focusing on a different aspect of life for those characters. From the effect that New Orleans has on in its people, to ideas of both spiritual and physical death, Ruler of Hearts captures the most intimate moments of life in mere pages.

The long form poems range from one paragraph to a few pages, but the poignancy with which Kerzinski is able to grasp and dissect the lives of his characters is what propels the collection forward. Each piece focuses on a different person who the reader has never met before, and yet by the end of that piece the reader feels as if she knows this character in an intimate way, as if she’s been reading about him for 150 pages already.

Rather than flowery language, Kerzinski utilizes short terse descriptions to feed the narratives, and he does so in the most compelling way. Though he might be simply telling the reader exactly what’s happening, the images that he procures are visceral and moving in a way that transports the reader directly to the scene. Kerzinski also includes illustrations throughout Ruler of Hearts: black and white sketches that symbolize some aspect of a particular poem or section.  The illustrations are uniquely oblique, and some of them are utterly terrifying; yet, all of them throw you into the piece with greater fervor, wonder, and dread.

Ruler of Hearts is a beautifully crafted work that gets at the heart of life in the French Quarter in the most direct and concise manner. Kerzinski is a master of descriptive poetics, and his first published collection is a testament to this claim.

Published by Obzene Press in 2016, Ruler of Hearts is available for purchase online at Obzene Press.

Read more book reviews of small press published work at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Jillian’ by Halle Butler

Jillian by Halle ButlerTeacher and author William Haywood Henderson once said that if writers avoid uncomfortable situations and issues in their writing, their work “will suffer from a lack of intensity and edge…The deeper [the author goes], the more distinct, striking, and moving [the] novel will become.”

In her debut novel, Jillian, author Halle Butler charges into the territory of the perverse, the grotesque, and the downright ugly side of human nature that Henderson claims is essential to the verve and passion of great literary artworks. Butler’s characters are awful, hate-able, and sometimes sickeningly relatable, and this relatability is the true mark of intrigue for the novel.

Jillian is told from the perspectives of Megan, Jillian, and once and while an oddball character like Crispy the dog. Megan and Jillian work together in a colonoscopy office – which is about the only thing they think they have in common. Megan is a 24-year-old sulking, borderline alcoholic who finds – not joy, but perhaps meaning (?), fulfillment, (?) necessity (?)  in criticizing and belittling others in her own mind. Jillian is her arch nemesis for no other reason than Jillian’s ignorance, annoyance to Megan, and her vastly different worldview. Jillian is a 35-year-old single mother who is the poster woman for self-help, mantra repeating, positivity in the most obnoxious way imaginable.

At first the characters seem harmlessly broken, maybe slightly macabre; but, within a few pages, the true grotesqueness of their respective personalities is revealed. You gain insight into Megan’s intense jealousy – which is relatable in and of itself, but Megan’s approach to dealing with that jealousy is cringe worthy. She not only hates everyone who has anything that she doesn’t, but she goes out of her way to confirm her hatred by making fun of them and picking them apart to her boyfriend Randy. Unsurprisingly, Megan is also so terrified of herself and her own potential for failure, that she makes no attempt to better herself in anyway. Wallowing in the drudges of her own sea of self-pity, Megan’s stagnancy is poignant and if nothing else, motivating for readers to actively seek to be otherwise.

Jillian, on the other hand, is constantly trailing off into fantasies of new dream jobs and illusory relationships, aptly able to irrationalize herself out of every serious situation in which she is put. Ignorance doesn’t even come close to summing up Jillian’s complete removal from, and disregard, for the real world. Her idiocy, lack of perspective, and overall hideously optimistic unrealism is enough to want to make the reader puke; and yet, there are moments of relatability with Jillian too. We’ve all tried to talk ourselves into feeling one way when we really feel another, we’ve all had experiences that we wish we could change, and we all know what it is to ignore the signs of catastrophe; though hopefully, we more tactfully deal with these issues.

As we engage with these two women, we begin to see the similarities among their apparently vast differences. We see the common elements of human struggle, of human selfishness, of removal from and lack of acceptance of reality, of complacency and the different methods of dealing with the sometimes static condition of life.

Raw, cutting, primeval and engaging in a terrifying way, Butler’s 150 page book will take you a few flicks of your wrist to get through. For however powerful it is though, thank god it’s so short, because it makes you feel like you’re locked in a damp cage, naked and caked with dirt, while everyone is looking at you as you struggle to breathe.

Yes, exactly like that: a little bit the way life feels sometimes.

Slated for release in February of 2015, you can pre-order Jillian at Curbside Splendor.

Read more book reviews of small press published work at Centered on Books.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Curbside Splendor for a fair and honest review of the text.