#SundayStories Week Seven: Blue Heather

#SundayStories Week Seven:

The sound of a bleating sheep in the distance while walking a path up to a waterfall. I was on vacation in Ireland, on a day trip to Wicklow, and that sound…it haunted me. So I wrote a story about it called “Blue Heather.” I actually imagined a whole novel centered around the mystery in this story, but it remains as elusive as that sheep forever bleating in the distance.

Buy the paperback from Amazon for $9.99.

Download a copy to your Kindle for $3.99, or with your subscription to Kindle Unlimited.

Ask your local indie bookstore to stock their shelves through Indiebound.

Add And Then We Vanish to your Goodreads “Want to Read” pile.

#SundayStories Week Six: Somebody You Used to Know

#SundayStories Week Six:

“Somebody You Used to Know” came to me as clear as ice on an Upstate New York lake when I was on my on my way to Cooperstown, NY for the weekend and the Sandy Hook school shooting happened. This horrible, complicated, young father character burst into my head and demanded I write his story. As a father now, I don’t know that I could write the same story today from the same twisted point of view. This was the story I struggled with the most as to whether I should include it in the anthology or not, but I could just never shake it, and so here it is.

Connie’s, the pub that serves as the main setting of the story in the fictional Hamlet, was inspired by Cooley’s Tavern in Cooperstown, NY.

Buy the paperback from Amazon for $9.99.

Download a copy to your Kindle for $3.99, or with your subscription to Kindle Unlimited.

Ask your local indie bookstore to stock their shelves through Indiebound.

Add And Then We Vanish to your Goodreads “Want to Read” pile.

The Slippery Complexities of Human Behavior on Display in Ivy Ngeow’s Novel Masterpiece Overboard

“A stranger. She is trying to show you a grain of kindness but it turns into a beach of bitterness.”

A stranger…tossed overboard from a burning yacht in a raging storm that claims the lives of all onboard…except him.

He wakes up, battered, burned, unrecognizable…an amnesiac…in a Thai hospital…with amazing food.

From the intoxicating smell of homecooked cuisine in a foreign hospital…to the way non-native speakers of a language have their feelings often misinterpreted…it’s these types of sharp, evocative details that litter and bloom in Ivy Ngeow’s smart, witty, satirical, dark, complex, twisting globe-hopping psychological thriller.

The amnesiac’s point of view is boldly done in second person narration, and it’s one of the few times I’ve found this to work well. But it’s not just his story, there are other POVs (like a philosophical Polish plumber with a pet Burmese python living in London, and a rich widow caught up in legal disputes) done in third person limited, and all circumnavigate each other in startling ways leading to a shocking denoument.

Apart from the perceptive details, there are sardonic notes on materialism and obsessions with brands. Many of the characters walk through their carefully curated lives like amnesiacs who can only remember their identity by the brands they wear or procure.

Like Christian Petzold’s film Phoenix and Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, identity, amnesia, and transforming oneself hang over the proceedings like a pall. Ngeow’s spin on the themes, however, are decidedly modern and channeled through technology and interior design. Her characters foolishly build protective walls around themselves with their possessions and hobbies, often unaware of their true selves and how others perceive them through the veils of technology and language. Ngeow’s sardonic wit and voice echo back to the best of Graham Greene. And much like Greene’s work, Overboard, finds that delicate balance between thrilling entertainment and keenly observant literature inundated with the slippery complexities of human behavior.

Overboard is a modern, novel masterpiece. An absolute must-read.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

#SundayStories Week Five: Anthrax and Cherry Blossoms

#SundayStories Week Five

“Anthrax and Cherry Blossoms” is another story that arose from an amalgamation of anecdotes from working for a large financial institution. A co-worker told me once about a bank manager who discovered human ashes in a safe deposit box. There had to be an interesting back-story to that, so I made one up! I set it in Washington D.C. during the cherry blossom season after spending a weekend down there with my wife one spring.

Like “Boko Haram’s Greatest Hits” this was originally published last year by A Million and One Magazine, which sadly no longer appears to be in existence.

Buy the paperback from Amazon for $9.99.

Download a copy to your Kindle for $3.99, or with your subscription to Kindle Unlimited.

Ask your local indie bookstore to stock their shelves through Indiebound.

Add And Then We Vanish to your Goodreads “Want to Read” pile.

#SundayStories Week Four: Boko Haram’s Greatest Hits

#SundayStories Week Four

It’s time for the fourth edition of #SundayStories where each week I reveal the inspiration behind one of the eleven twisting tales from my short story collection, And Then We Vanish.

“Boko Haram’s Greatest Hits” came to life when I was snowed in it at my future wife’s apartment in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. I used the term snowed in loosely – it was an overhyped non-blizzard event, but I was spending the night anyhow and decided to work-from-home from her place the next day when I trudged down (through the epic white dusting and slush) to a local bar (McMenamin’s Tavern) for lunch and overheard an awkward conversation between two strangers…who became the mysterious Jasmin and the hapless Wes in the story.

Summer Indie Book Reading

While I’m currently reading Ivy Ngeow’s Overboard, which might turn out to be the best Indie book I’ve read yet and will most certainly warrant its own in-depth post, here’s a rundown of some recent Indie books I finished and the reviews I posted on Goodreads:

 

The Hanging Artist by Jon Steinhagen (novel)

The Hanging Artist is a very specific kind of entertainment. If the premise (Kafka awakes in a sanitarium to meet a giant talking bug and then is sucked into a bizarre murder mystery) sounds too strange, then it probably will be for you. But if it sounds great (like it did to me) then by all means buy, buy, buy.

Kafka makes for a great amateur detective, and apart from the inherent absurdism of the premise, Steinhagen’s greatest treat for this reader was the screwball detective dialogue between Kafka and the giant bug, and Kafka and the Biede character (an investigator from the mysterious society that wants to employ Kafka’s skills). Then there are all the suspects and various theater folk, each uniquely drawn and memorable, and the playful “nocturnes” following a Hanging Artist performance where acquaintances of theater patrons are dropping dead. The mystery actually had me guessing, and the solution to the crime is appropriately bizarre.

Witty, dark, and sometimes silly, The Hanging Artist makes for smart, surreal escapism.

 

Susan M. Lane has given us quite an interesting and psychologically rich collection of short stories with Secrets. Admittedly, I was turned off by the opening story about a serial killer that was so well done as to almost give me a panic attack. I wasn’t sure I could handle the collection if all of the stories were that intense. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did.

There are a number of stories about people queued up in lines: at the grocery store, a fast food drive-thru, a bank…and Lane is quite adept at capturing the banal tension of these everyday occurrences, how the act of waiting and observing other people can be stressful, and sometimes the smallest misunderstanding or slight could be triggering. In these stories Lane head-hops from person to person, diving deep into their fears and worries and pasts, revealing the secrets behind the everyday people we encounter…secrets we’ll never know just by observing them.

Misunderstandings (and prejudices) that lead to violence (the closing story is all too relevant today) is another key theme running through many of the stories.

Not all of the stories hit home for me, and some of the more noir ones, though fun, seemed like throwaways. But Lane’s craft is…crafty. And I would highly recommend her collection for those who enjoying reading stories that highlight the darker side of humanity and revel in twists of fate.

 

The Pup and the Pianist by Sara Flower Kjeldsen (novella)

Fascinating, quick-paced adventure novella about a young lad named Max and another unlikely survivor stranded on the Galapagos after a disastrous naval skirmish during the Napoleonic wars.

Vivid descriptions and judicious use of metaphors overcome some odd wording and grammatical puzzlers. The author was clearly trying to capture the spirit of the era both in the writing style and tone.

The character development is excellent and heads in directions I did not anticipate.

Reviews by D. H. Schleicher

#SundayStories #AndThenWeVanish Catch-Up

Well, I finally made an official author page on Facebook, and one of the fun things I did to connect with readers and promote my new short story collection, And Then We Vanish, was start #SundayStories, where every Sunday I talk about the inspiration behind one of the eleven stories featured in the collection.

I’ve done this the past three Sundays and thought I would share those behind-the-scenes stories here on my blog as well. Going forward you can read #SundayStories on Facebook or here at The Spin.

#SundayStories Week Three

“Upon the Unfortunate News of My Death” was one of many stories I wanted to write that incorporated my previous experiences working in a large call center – a strange eco-system with its own set of rules, social mores, and populated by interesting characters from all walks of life. This was another one written rather quickly…it all just gelled one day after word got around the call center that someone at another site was erroneously reported as dead by their manager. What a story! I set this one in my old stomping grounds of North Carolina, with the climactic showdown between over-zealous assistant call center manager Crystal Dawbs and aggrieved agent Kayla Spaulding taking place atop a rooftop bar with dramatic views of downtown Wilmington, NC.

#SundayStories Week Two

“The Ballerina in Battery Park” is one of those stories that just came to me, complete and ready to write, after a trip to NYC to visit a friend where we came across a murder scene walking home from watching the Sacha Baron Cohen film Bruno. I merged a number of different anecdotes from multiple stays in the city into the story, including that time I got thrown out of Battery Park past closing time, and frequent brunches at the famous Harry’s Steakhouse off Wall Street. I wrote a first draft in a flash, did very minor edits, submitted it to a contest on a lark, won third place and publication in their annual anthology. It was my first published short story.

You can also find my original blow-by-blow details of the weekend visit that inspired the story by clicking here.

#SundayStories Week One

“The Pumpkin Thief” is one of those stories that percolated in my mind in one form or another for many years. I had long wanted to write something that incorporated “The Cowboy” kidnapping scare from my childhood – yes, we lived in a fear of man in a Stetson hat snatching us for a few weeks, just like the kids in the story – but it wasn’t until a trip to a corn maze prompted a friend and I to joke about leaping from the car to steal a pumpkin from the giant patch on our way out that lightning struck and the idea and characters appeared to me. The story went through many iterations, the main character of Pete slowly revealing himself through many, many re-writes. He’s always been one of my favorites, along with his antagonist, Fast Dan, the proud owner of the Ford Pinto Black-and-Decker convertible.

Buy the paperback from Amazon for $9.99.

Download a copy to your Kindle for $3.99, or with your subscription to Kindle Unlimited.

Ask your local indie bookstore to stock their shelves through Indiebound.

Add And Then We Vanish to your Goodreads “Want to Read” pile.

Classical Romance and Feminism in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It’s quite a fascinating thing to watch Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire in our current day pandemic and masks environment. There are some accidentally eerie scenes on a beach early in the film (as opposed to the deliberately eerie scenes later in the film where ghostly visages of a bride appear in dark hallways) where our main characters, a female painter and her female subject, wear masks to protect their faces from the wind and stay for the most part six feet apart or more. Here the social distancing is a function of repression and social mores, the masks another costume accessory.

The costumes, setting, and social mores on display in this very French film are beguiling. Sciamma uses them, along with how she places and moves her characters in frame, to build tension. The film is deliberately quiet with no music score, so that the tension builds its own rhythm, and so that when music does appear au naturelle (like women breaking into a chorus chant on a beach at night, or during that bravura closing scene where the camera fixates on a woman’s reaction to a particular piece of music performed by an orchestra) it’s like a jolt of emotion. Others films have made this bold choice before, but Sciamma employs it in a most novel way. Likewise, nods to, and techniques used in, everything from other feminist yarns like Jane Campion’s The Piano (the opening at sea), to Scorsese classics (that “hands reaching for each other” scene transition from the campfire to the cliffside is immaculate), to Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (that closing shot!) are combined in some strange and beautiful alchemy as if they are being used for the first time. The characters echo this as their affair begins, musing about how every lover must think they’ve created something new.

But there’s nothing truly revolutionary here. It’s all very classical and romantic. It just moves the viewer in a novel way through the sheer force of Sciamma and her actresses’ wills. The performances are fantastic. The side-stories (like the maid’s unwanted pregnancy) are presented with a humanist bent. Once the tension breaks in the later third of the film, some of the novel magic disappears, but the closing coda is one for the ages, echoing literary allusions from earlier in the film, showcasing the women’s resolve even after parting, forging their own ways in their own way and culminating in that scene at the orchestra that is among the best closing scenes of any film in recent memory, maybe second only to Nina Hoss singing “Speak Low” in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently streaming on Hulu.

Lost Girls on Netflix and The Escape to Candyland

The new Netflix film Lost Girls takes an interesting look at the unsolved Long Island Serial Killer case from the POV of one of the alleged victim’s mother. Directed by Liz Garbus, the film gets off to a choppy start, but once Amy Ryan takes control and begins her mission to find her missing daughter, her impassioned performance raises the film beyond your standard psychological thriller melodrama. The supporting performances are also very strong, with the cast making the most of roles that would’ve benefited from more fleshing out in a longer format.

The material here is probably better suited for a miniseries, but I enjoyed the film’s compactness and some of Garbus’ moody visual choices for lighting, framing, etc… This is one of those sad but true tales about young women being marginalized and victimized, and the “stronger-than-they-thought-they-were” women in their families becoming their voice after they were silenced. Ingrained misogyny and corruption, as well as the mishandling of mental health issues are brought to light as the women champion for the murdered girls…but sadly to no avail as of yet beyond the story being shared.

Many of the stories in Yong Takahashi’s new collection The Escape to Candyland swirl around the marginalization and victimization of women as well. A good portion of the stories deal with women who were brought up in a corrupt and cultish crime ring headed by a pastor and yogi in Atlanta. These characters could’ve easily ended up like the women in Lost Girls.

Combined with other tales of immigrants, the marginalized, and the mentally or emotionally troubled, Takahashi’s stories make for an interesting read.

Both the film the short story collection standout because of their POVs. They both make it clear that these are voices that need to be heard…deserve to be heard. These are stories that are all too commonly swept under the rug.

The haunting line from Takahashi’s story “Sacred Places” rings true for all of these girls and women:

“We’ve lived our lives like compressed balls of yarn, twisted and knotted together, unable to separate ourselves from each other. Once I let my secret go, all the others will unravel.”

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Fiona Apple Has Released the Perfect Album for Quarantine with Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, from the incomparable genius that is Fiona Apple, dropped yesterday, and I instantly downloaded it to listen to while catching up on work emails late Friday afternoon. As excited as I was about it, and as much as I’ve always loved Apple from the time both of us were teens and she released Tidal, nothing could prepare me for how brilliant the album would be. I, of course, started to babble about it on social media, re-listened to favorite tracks in the evening, posted a review on Amazon, and swam in my thoughts well into the sleepless night. Was it Fiona’s lyrics or the Venezuelan food or the normal quarantine panic keeping me up?

The bulk of the Amazon review has been integrated here, but reflecting a day later, I wanted to collect my thoughts and provide more context.

I have many fond memories of listening to Fiona Apple’s sophomore album When The Pawn… self-quarantined in my college dorm room thinking deep, deep thoughts. It was a landmark album. “Get Gone” and “I Know” remain amongst my favorite songs of all time. The album I could listen to straight through tomorrow and it would seem as fresh as that first day I listened to it in my dorm room.

Fetch the Bold Cutters arrives over twenty years later to a world under quarantine, and it too is a landmark album. It is the perfect album at the perfect time. Apple recorded it in her own self-quarantine with only a select few friends and bandmates (and dogs, barking seemingly on cue at the end of one track) at her home over recent years, reflecting deeply (as she always does) on her life, relationships, career, fears, wants, and forgiveness.

Like When the Pawn… Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays straight through true and true, not a wasted track. It’s all at once angry and joyous, polished and raw, soulful and angsty, defiant and willful, dark and tragic and funny and honest and blithe. There are themes of self-care, female empowerment, speaking up, acting out, messing up, surviving, and thriving. Her stories, her songs, her words, they are hers but also ours. She is speaking about our times, not as a passive witness, but as a tortured participant crawling through the muck, learning, growing, and trying to pull some of us out of it with her…if only we would listen…

Ladies, ladies, ladies…she sings…yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.

Another track, “Relay”, which apparently has been tossed around since Apple was a teen, seems like an anthem for all this is wrong with the world today. Evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch she echoes over and over.

Originally slated for an October release, Apple convinced the studio to release this in April because why wait when the world is under a global pandemic shutdown? People need music, and escape, and we need to be allowed to think deep, deep thoughts. A lot of the professional reviewers are marveling at the experimental rawness, but I found it to be more polished and refined than advertised. It certainly is playful with percussions, happy accidents and background noises, but it all gels and her voice sometimes screaming and sometimes whispering and barely there, still sounds great and classically trained more often than not. What I loved the most is the dark sense of humor and the emotional vulnerability of her lyrical wordplay. Apple is at her most cunning and clever…and this is a masterwork. This is by far her best since When the Pawn…and perhaps the apex of her long gestating craft.

My favorite tracks:

  • I Want You To Love Me
  • Under the Table
  • Relay
  • Ladies
  • For Her
  • Drumset

But there is something to savor and reflect on in each of the rich, complex, surprising tracks.

A real treasure in these strange, strange times.

Written by D. H. Schleicher