‘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.

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

‘Skating on the Vertical’ by Jan English Leary

skating-on-the-vertical-learySkating on the Vertical by Jan English Leary gets at the most human part of life: the suffering, the challenges, the joys of living life always on the edge between joy and despair. Each of the sixteen short stories gets at something a little bit harder than the last, a little bit deeper, a little bit something more for the characters to push through. The thing that makes each story so beautiful is the humanity with which Leary brings the characters to us. There aren’t always happy endings; in fact, they’re often nowhere near happily-ever-after, but Leary always make sure to close her stories in just the right way, leaving the reader feeling completely fulfilled, if never satisfied.

Some of the most visceral stories are those that dive into issues like addiction, abortion, and self-injury – stories that reach into the readers heart and dig a bit further for the most intense reaction.

“Eskimo Pie,” for example, tells the story of grade school teacher with a history of eating disorders who is frustrated with her less than cool student and finds herself spiraling back into addiction in the middle of a class field trip. “Eskimo Pie” tugs at that part of us that feels for every nerdy kid, the part that cries for someone to make the right choice even when the moment to make that choice has already passed. “Eskimo Pie” is one of Leary’s stories that does have an ending that brings at least the smallest hint of smile to the reader.

Another, story “Rocky Road,” brings into play a mother and daughter with a once perfect, now strained, relationship. Now that Leigh has cancer, things are different. More different though because of Vena, Leigh’s live in nurse that her daughter Candace can’t stand. As Candace begins to feel further and further from her fading mother, she becomes more and more resentful towards Vena, until Leigh reminds Candace of a life they once had, and a life she wants Candace to always remember. Leary does a fantastic job in “Rock Road,” of tying the story into the most imperfect, beautifully searing bow.

As a whole, Skating on the Vertical, is lyrical work of art that grabs your heart at every turn.

Slated for publication by Fomite press on November 1, 2017, you can preorder a copy of Skating on the Vertical by Jan Leary at 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.

‘To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts’ by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

to-lay-to-rest-our-ghostsTo Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is by far one of the most emotionally riveting books of 2017.

A series of short stories, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is told from various viewpoints that interconnected in ways the reader might not even at first realize. This connection gives the stories more weight, more value to the reader, because they’re validated by being told from different perspectives. Everything becomes more vivid and alive as it begins to feel familiar yet different.

The stories cover a range of topics from miscarriage to belonging, from self-reliance to the meaning of family. And yet, they all seem to relay a similar message in some underlying way. Beneath the surface of each story’s words, there is the theme of forgiveness, of moving on. This theme though is not quite represented or expressed in the traditional sense of “forgiveness.” Instead, Summie takes the idea of forgiveness (or movement toward forgiveness) to a very realistic and heartfelt place. Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean forgetting what has happened, instead, for Summie’s characters, it means an acceptance of the circumstances, a willingness to face the circumstances, and the courage to at least attempt to change them, even if only in that character’s perspective.

Each story is enthralling in its own way, and it’s a challenge to put the book down. Even though many of the stories are only vaguely connected, the end of one piece is a propulsion into the next. The writing is smooth in a way that flows off the page it and makes the stories seem more like experiences than something that’s merely being read. In this way too, Summie draws her readers into the depth of who the characters actually are, and it’s hard to let them go.

Overall, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is a beautifully crafted work of art that tells the simple and intricate story of what it means to be human, to suffer, and to keep moving on.

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is slated for release by Fomite Press on August 8, 2017. You can preorder a copy of the book at 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.