fiction

The Charnel House on Joyce Kilmer Avenue by Rob Cook

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By g emil reutter

I have known for some time by reading the works of Rob Cook that spirits, visions may haunt him. Or maybe not. Just maybe Cook views life a bit differently than most. Unlike most, his imagination pours forth in imagery and character driven prose that has given birth to his latest effort, The Charnel House on Joyce Kilmer Avenue. It is a slim 44 page offering that at first will leave you with the feeling, what the hell is going on here? Yet as one reads on the creative genius that is Rob Cook spills out upon page after page.

He introduces us to the main character, a college student, the narrator, who enters his new residence with books buried in his knapsack, hears a phone ring the way it is supposed to, hears the television telling stories the way it is trusted to tell those stories and who sees a smile hurry across the ceiling. His roommates come and go and then there are none except for the dead children in the dining room that does not have a table or chairs. In fact, when he is left alone there is no furniture at all. The narrator is mostly surrounded by silence and loneliness, one roommate sits in silence and never speaks. There is the girlfriend who lives in another city yet is never seen or heard. A college professor of self-importance who has lost his chin and a stalker who no one would understand stalking the narrator. Struggling with acne the narrator battles with hard lump surrounded by blackheads, a zit with “monstrous potential”.

There is Carl the roommate with the big boots who clumps up and down the stairs. Who picks the clumps of the narrator’s hair from the shower drain and deposits them by his toothbrush. And then there is this:

The toilet, clear as it was, smelled like the insides of a poet who wasted his life listening for the soundless snowfall of the day’s mail drifting through the door’s one crack of hope.

When asked what he does, the narrator claims to be a failed musician, or a student for he believes if he says he is a poet as a grown man he will not be fondly looked upon. There is Lincoln on the five dollar bill, gaunt and frowning at the narrator before Lincoln turns away.

The last thing Carl says is: Good luck with those friends of yours. There are many in the home without furniture at The Charnel House on Joyce Kilmer Avenue.

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You can find the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9780998187273/the-charnel-house-on-joyce-kilmer-avenue.aspx

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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

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The Boulevard Trial by Stephanie Laterza

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By Karen Corinne Herceg

In clear, often compelling prose, Stephanie Laterza’s debut novel, The Boulevard Trial, offers us a contemporary story of moral dilemmas, confused intentions and missed connections that frequently result in disappointing resolutions and, at times, even tragic consequences. The traumas of the novel’s characters bleed into their ongoing personal experiences like an unchecked, gaping wound. On a larger scale, they mirror disturbing issues in the very fabric of our society and the ramifications of our actions in a greater perspective. The Boulevard Trial takes place mainly in New York with some flashbacks to Boston and Germany. Laterza captures much of the city’s raw, often ruthless vibe, the indifference of overpopulated urban compression, images of media hounds and grueling corporate competition and an apathetic environment where ambition overrides compassion.  The main character, Helena, is a young attorney struggling with a secret from her past that could ruin her career. Her boss, a partner in the prestigious law firm where she’s employed, assigns her a pro bono case defending Francesca, a prostitute, while he considers her future at the firm in light of this past information that has come to his attention. Helena is up against a tough, renowned prosecutor, Alexandra, whose zealotry in persecuting morally compromised women masks her own demons. Upon learning of Alexandra’s post-war past in Germany, Helena must decide whether or not to use this against her. But this is only one of many moral quandaries presented in a story where Laterza does a very competent job of weaving and delineating the intricate similarities and inter-connectedness among the characters. At the forefront are the damages that secrets can hold, the lies and misperceptions generated by withholding truth, and the often destructive, even fatal, results of misguided decisions.

The opening sentences of the novel are laid out clearly and succinctly, giving us a lot of cryptic information and engaging our curiosity from the start. There’s good exposition and, for the most part, Laterza manages to avoid the writer’s perennial pitfall of “telling not showing.” There is some pause over use of “voice” from chapter to chapter. The novel’s beginning chapters are told in the third person that begins to shift to first person perspectives then back again. While this might seem to present some inconsistency in the narrative, it does give insights from varying perspectives, much as we might hear in a court of law. This reflects both the literal trial transpiring in the novel as well as the trials of the various characters. Ion the end, however, Laterza demonstrates that no one is free from bias. There are occasional unsettling phrases such as, “Her nose whistled, amplifying her quick breaths…” (P. 1, ll. 10-11), “The bolus in Helena’s throat melted as tears blurred her vision,” and a romantic scene where an anticipated kiss is seen as a lover’s “…entry into her mouth, that blood-colored gateway…” (P. 217, ll. 13-14). The meltdown in the trial scene seems a bit hurried, as does Helena’s realization of her true love. But these somewhat less developed depictions are offset by the many fine descriptive passages that offer sensitive, tactile and vivid portrayals of the characters, their situations and recollections that bring them vividly to life for the reader. In one scene Helena’s friend and former romantic interest, Michael, describes a tapas bar downtown with customers seated at a “…curved mahogany bar, whispering in Spanish beneath repurposed copper penny lanterns and sipping from tiny glasses of Manzanilla,” (P. 73, ll. 5-7) as he and Helena sit at a table with a “… chipped red and blue mosaic top” (P. 73, ll. 8-9). A scene in The Museum of Sex finds a receptionist, “…college aged and bored, slumped over a Social Psychology textbook while chewing on the straw of a Starbucks Frappuccino” (P. 83, ll. 14-16). There are many detailed, colorful portraits and scenes throughout the novel that enable us to easily visualize characters and scenes. In a reminiscence of wartime Germany, Alexandra’s mother, Nellie, refers to “…buildings crumbling like torsos with severed balconies and fractured cables in a sky determined to cling to its blanket of wizened gray clouds” (P. 261, ll. 16-18). And Laterza doesn’t shy away from raw, painful and disturbing details, such as Francesca’s rape scene, right down to the seedy motel room and “smoke-scented bed” (P. 12, l. 7).

Connections to past events that lead the characters to their current actions and reactions are drawn well. When Francesca assesses a current abusive client, “She remembered the way her father would get up close to her face before breaking into a rampage” (P. 9, ll. 24-25). But the deepest, most introspective examination of relationships for the female characters is the link to their mothers, their controversial and emotional maternal inheritances. The mother and daughter connections are explored quite well in a multitude of ways yet ultimately emphasize the similarities of the various dynamics. There are mothers’ rules, admonitions, condemnations and expectations. There are times when characters would rather hurt themselves than hold their mothers responsible for damage to their self-esteem. Ultimately they need to realize and accept responsibility for recognizing their own worth. Perfectionism, cleansing and order are safeguards against fear and life and a mother’s unattainable love. As Alexandra observes, “…Such is the nature of the unbreakable yet fragile strings that bind daughters and mothers” (P. 237, ll. 14-16). Tamar, who is Alexandra’s mentor, knows that Alexandra “…walks around tortured with memories of her dead mother” (P. 117, l. 17). She tries to  “…reverse the years of her mother’s abuse,” (P. 117, l. 24-25) something Tamar learns we cannot do for another person. As she notes further, “…the Universe has a way of balancing out the sins of the world in a way I cannot control” (P. 118, ll. 3-4). Tamar is a substitute mother figure for Alexandra but very damaged herself, using work to provide her with “…the distraction it gave from the everyday annoyances of being human” (P. 125, ll. 22-23). Tamar sees herself as free in “…not having a mother to tell me what to do, or to stop me from doing everything I wanted” (P. 137, ll. 9-10) such as becoming a secretary or reproducing. But this maternal lack gives her no strong foundation from which to compare, separate and eventually confront herself. For Alexandra, all she wanted from her mother “…was for her to love me, to show me the mercy she wished the world had shown her” (P. 237, ll. 10-11). This is a valued insight teaching us that what we do not heal we pass along in anger and revenge creating a chain of ongoing destruction. As Nellie states in a letter discovered posthumously, “I hated hearing the sound of my mother’s misery in my own voice” (P. 272, ll. 10-11). Ultimately all the blame and guilt cannot help us. We must take responsibility for our own lives. As Michael observes, people’s heads “…are packed from corner to corner with muck and regret, who look at every decision they’ve made from the time they graduated high school till now and realize that the unrelenting misery that has become their life is entirely their own fault…” (P. 111, ll. 17-20). It is our duty to extricate ourselves from the imprints and challenges of others, and to make our own way.

Fears distort perceptions and dictate tragic outcomes for many of these characters, some departing this world without resolution and others finding some peace. Comparing Francesca’s soul to a river, we read, “The River washed over its skins of cracked salted seaweed and the assaults of oil spills and even dead bodies in a cold emptiness, never having to remember its pains and imperfections because it died and was reborn a thousand times” (P. 27, ll. 17-20). Yet remembering is really critical to learning and not repeating the transgressions we inherit and commit. Just as in life, some of these characters pass away in pain, some speak their truth too late, and others find levels of redemption. Laterza offers good insights into the various choices that lead to certain outcomes. She avoids tying up the story into a neat package and leaves us with both unavoidably sad results as well as satisfactory conclusions that are realistic. The Boulevard Trial is a good, fast-paced read with more than a few lessons to impart. It opens with our introduction to Helena, and she has the final word in the last chapter. She offers herself this admonition that is sage advice for us all: “I slap myself on the knee for my bad habit of dwelling on destructive alternatives to present joy” (P. 337, ll. 17-18). The essential ingredient to joy, however, is examining the genesis of those destructive choices.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Boulevard-Trial-Stephanie-Laterza/dp/150591051X

Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, essays and reviews. Her latest book is Out From Calaboose, by Nirala Publications (2017).  She lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.

Summer Reading Recommendations 2018

The following books were reviewed at North of Oxford between January and June 2018. They are listed according to total views by the readers of North of Oxford. A link to the review appears below each title and links to where to purchase the book appears in the review.

 

Gessner

 

The Conduit and other Visionary Tales of Morphing Whimsy by Richard Gessner

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/the-conduit-and-other-visionary-tales-of-morphing-whimsy-by-richard-gessner/

appearances

Appearances by Michael Collins

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/appearances-by-michael-collins/

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A Fire Without Light by Darren Demaree Demaree

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/a-fire-without-light-by-darren-demarre/

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Monte Carlo Days & Nights by Susan Tepper

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/monte-carlo-days-nights-by-susan-tepper/

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The Gates of Pearl by Jill Hoffman

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/the-gates-of-pearl-by-jill-hoffman/

journey

Journey to the Beloved by nur alima schieBeare

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/journey-to-the-beloved-by-nur-alima-schiebeare/

 

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Ornaments by David Daniel

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/ornaments-by-david-daniel/

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Hap & Hazard and the End of the World by Diane DeSanders

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/hap-hazard-and-the-end-of-the-world-by-diane-desanders/

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the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county – Vol. 3 by Jennifer Hetrick

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/the-labors-of-our-fingertips-poems-from-manufacturing-history-in-berks-county-vol-3-by-jennifer-hetrick/

attic

A Look Back- Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/a-look-back-antic-hay-by-aldous-huxley/

Follow the Sun by Edward J. Delaney

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By Lynette G. Esposito

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Paul Harding, author of Tinkers and Enon says Follow the Sun by Edward J, Delaney is just plain fantastic.  I agree.

The seven-part, 287 page dramatic story explores a family’s trials, tribulations and daily life experiences in its quest to find both answers and resolutions in its search for its missing parts. This search leads the reader to a deeper understanding of family and what family represents.

The lead character, Quinn Boyle, has “bugs” in his head from the first line of part one. While the author clarifies the bugs are lobster and the location is on the lobster docks and boats, the relationship of psychological issues is crystal clear. His brother, Robert, who takes time off to visit the local bar, again gives a clear relationship for the need of psychological relief even if it comes from a bottle. Daily life is depicted in a realistic way  for these fictional characters who live on the edge of poverty.

The story line addresses contemporary issues of not being able to make a living and still have to pay child support; problems with drug addiction, and despair when few options are left in making life choices. The locations in which these decisions are made do not take place in upscale homes and fancy places but on lobster boats, in prison, newspaper offices and  local bars.  The despair of the human journey for the hard working but  poverty-stricken brothers leads one to his supposed demise and the other on a quest for truth.  The family legacy becomes an analysis of the burdensome past, the acceptance of the present, and a questioning of the future.  For example, Robbie muses:

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There’s too much in the space between then and now, an entire

continent worth of unanswered questions.

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The lead character makes some of his own problems as he struggles to survive and yet Delaney represents Quinn as a man who believes he can leave his problems behind and start a new.  Quinn believes he can make himself  “not remember.” The dialogue is realistic and the characters are believable.  Delaney uses contemporary language as if he  has listened to real people conversing and transformed their conversations  into this piece of fiction. Quinn says

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“I guess people can make themselves see what they want to see.”

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While this phrase fits well into the story, one hears it in real life all the time and the reader understands the truth of it.

The book is a good read with its clear language and characters who try to make their lives  work but cannot always reach their goals just like most of us.

Delaney is an award-winning author, journalist and filmmaker. Besides Follow the Sun, he has published Broken Irish and Warp and Weft as well as a short story collection, The Drowning and Other Short Stories.  He has also directed and produced documentary films including The Times Were Never So Bad: The Life of Andre Dubus and Library of the Early Mind.  He edits the literary journal Mount Hope.

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Follow the Sun is available fromwww.cbsd.com and published by Turtle Point Press: www.turtlepointpress.com

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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.

Long Day, Counting Tomorrow by Jim Feast

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By Thaddeus Rutkowski

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Jim Feast’s new novel, Long Day, Counting Tomorrow (Unbearables Books/Autonomedia), is basically a murder mystery, told in brief, nonsequential chapters identified by date. Set during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the fall of 1998, the story follows Raskin Trask, a former drug user (and Wall Streeter) who is undergoing treatment for the virus. Though Rask is not gay, he gets involved in the politics of gay rights—demonstrating, for example, with the group ACT UP. At a crucial point, Rask suspects something is up with the doctor who manages the treatment in a hospice for a AIDS patients. When Rask’s roommate dies of questionable causes, Rask realizes he could be next. He works to get evidence that will implicate the doctor in charge.

Around this storyline, the author (who wrote the book with the editorial assistance of Carol Wierzbicki) brings in a number of other characters, some more important than others. Rask is a member of a downtown New York group called the Neo Phobes, and many of his fellow phobes cross paths and socialize with him. One of the more interesting of these people is the radio personality Mac, who works at the station WPHEW. Mac is described this way:

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There was something about his libido, something that both got him into bad fixes (like the one-nighter that cost him his marriage) and into some of the most indefinably sweet moments of his existence. … More than once, he’d met someone at a party and, locked in the toilet, used the shag rug for … shagging.

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This description of Mac reminds us that there was a time—in the ’90s—when urban youths didn’t think much about risky behavior or the need for recovery from such behavior. It was OK to “wang chung” all night.

Elsewhere, Feast brings us deep into the world of AIDs treatment centers. Here, Rask meets his new roommate in the infirmary, Yardley Chu:

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Five or six bodies—not people, department store dummies—were grouped around one of the beds. … Rask went to the covered shape on the bed to introduce himself, but then stopped in surprise, jerking his head to the left. What he took to be Chu was a seventh dummy, prone on the bed. His new roommate sat beyond the bed in a wheelchair. Hanging over the back of his chair was a minor poet Rask had seen hanging around Mac.

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At first, I took this scene as an example of surrealism, without a realistic corollary. Why would mannequins be set up in and around a hospital bed? It seemed a metaphorical comment on the impersonal nature of hospitals. There is no flesh and blood here. The live person is “beyond the bed,” in a wheelchair. Then, on second thought, I saw the situation as Yardley Chu’s attempt to physically hide from those in power, from the staffers who can—and will—do him in.

There are a number of subplots in this novel—having to do with drug dealing, corporate spying, file stealing—that add to the atmosphere of shadowy doings and hidden motivations. To say that all is explained by the end might be an overstatement. Long Day, after all, is only the second installment in the Neo Phobe Trilogy (the first volume is titled Neo Phobe). The forthcoming third volume promises to provide more excitement, more details, and more answers.

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You can find the book here: https://www.akpress.org/long-day-counting-tomorrow.html?___SID=U

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Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of five books of prose. Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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The Conduit and other Visionary Tales of Morphing Whimsy by Richard Gessner

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By g emil reutter
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Welcome to the strange world of Richard Gessner where words and images matter. Gessner provides the reader with fresh images, use of words and stories that may or may not be about what they appear to be. Surreal? Maybe. Or they may just be reality in disguise. 
 
The Zoo-Bray is located in the basement of a library. Those kept in the basement, (dark?), are writers of every kind. Parking-ticket scribblers face classical versifiers—Subpoena makers face street poets to produce spontaneous legal writs–… The forgotten face the immortal–. All of them are kept under the watchful eye of the zoo-breeder who wanders through the maze of hallways listening to the congress of burgeoning tete-a-tetes caught up in an infectious meld of snowballing ideas. He tells us at the center is an incubator where the pairs of the most promising writers chosen by the zoo-breeder are placed to mate and give birth. Gessner tells us the zoo-breeder decides what books make it to the upper shelves and what ones do not. Now the story could be viewed a surreal or a thinly masked critique of cookie cutter MFA programs.
 
Gessner gives us a wide ranging group of stories such as Excerpts From the Diary of a Neanderthal Dilettante. The Conduit a tale of a man stabbed in the heart seeking refuge in a pipe:
Moving down the windy concrete tunnel, listening for his arteries drain, he leaves a red carpet for the assailant’s knife. Millennial scorpion stinging itself drowning in cesspools of regeneration. Hug, wide, longer than all seeing memory. The pipe sparkles with light, twinkling with blood hitting the cold air. The strangeness of the travel of the man in the pipe with dance callers, ancestors, wedding rings looping, ego dust and random chaos. Weird images carefully crafted by a writer who has earned his chops. 
 
    He gives us hermits, a unicyclist, arbitrators, a man in a couch and so much more wrapped in unnatural situations. Gessner looks at the world through distorted glasses and yet as the reader moves through this work all comes into view. Such as in this flash fiction piece, The Pelican’s Tonsils: 
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    A psychiatrist stands in the ocean, wearing his patient’s galoshes, waiting for barnacles to adhere to them.
    His framed doctor’s degree has escaped from his office wall and taken up residence inside the pouch of a pelican sitting on a far off rock jutting from the ocean.
    In the stark wetness of the pouch, the lettering from the degree wears off getting stuck to the pelican’s tonsils. When the pelican dives for fish its tonsils wiggle, rearranging the lettering from the doctors degree.
    In order to restore his official identity and career, the psychiatrist affects a man of action stance, preparing to swim out into the ocean and give the pelican a tonsillectomy—but the barnacles clustering on his patient’s galoshes keep him anchored to the shore as he attempts to swim—the crustaceous ball and chain keeping him forever split!
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Gessner is a master of imagery, metaphor, of the unnatural setting and has produced a fantastic collection of bizarre stories that are equally disturbing and fantastic.
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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter
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The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli by Ginnetta Correli

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By Stephen Page

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Ginnetta Correli’s The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli is a novel written as a TV script.  The prologue is a description of the cast.  Chapters are episodes.  The main cast are Beatie (the child protagonist), Woman (adult Beatie), Frata (the schizophrenic mother), and You (the reader).  Minor cast are a neighbor who tries to help Beatie, schoolmates, and a stuffed bunny named Petey.  Beatie, as the name means in Italian, is a voyager through life.

You understand from the beginning that You and Woman are watching a television series marathon about Beatie.  Beatie is constantly on the move, going on outings with her dysfunctional family, walking or riding back and forth to school, shuttling between her parents’ homes after they are divorced, moving temporarily into a friend’s home, a foster home, and even venturing out on a road trip.

When Woman first introduces Frata, she describes her as “our (instead of “my”) schizophrenic … mother,” which is ambiguous—meaning a number of possibilities: she is imagining You as her sibling, You are Petey (the stuffed bunny she talks to throughout the series), You are the schoolmate she pretended was her sister, or You are a facet of herself, signifying that Woman has multiple personalities.  The final possibility is that Woman is in a state of detachment from her child self, the Beatie in the series.

Innovatively and well written, the novel is a quick read because of its format and lean prose.  By using the word “lost” in the title, Correli is probably implying that the time covered in the novel was once blocked out of Woman’s consciousness, and that the only way she can remember and cope with that period in her life is to remember it is as a fictional TV series.  Several episodes have dream scenes, and the entire book seems like a long nightmare—the type of nightmare you can’t wake from no matter how much you try, where you are running away from a monster, but no matter how fast you run, the monster is always on your trail; or the type of nightmare where you are running away from a place but wherever you run to you end up arriving in the same place you started.

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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Episodes-Beatie-Scareli/dp/0615213847

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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/