Monthly Archives: June 2020

The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! – Miah Jeffra (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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One of the most marvelous qualities art has is that it inspires more art. It’s self-propagating. Sometimes its lineage is direct, and other times it’s obscured, but it’s always the gift that keeps on giving. The groundbreaking album The Velvet Underground & Nico, Brian Eno famously observed, only sold 30,000 copies initially, but everyone who bought one started a band. And the music mutated and grew into something different. Similarly, author Miah Jeffra uses everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Madonna’s “Holiday” as springboards for the highly personal essays that comprise The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!.

As with any collection, some pieces will work better for each individual reader than others and for me, this didn’t really get started until the third essay in, “Otherwise.” Although I didn’t know the subject of the ekphrasis (Joan Brown’s Noel in the Kitchen), I was taken with this short but vivid exploration of the senses, ending in a pointed question. “Latitudes,” although it doesn’t list a work, amplifies a snapshot of the author’s mother during a road trip – an unsentimental, unsparing portrait in words of a relationship captured on film. “Just One Day Out of a Life” is a smartly observed, Jean Shepard-ish childhood memory of butterscotch candies and Christmas at the mall with a farting Santa.

Childhood figures prominently in many of these essays, particularly the author’s relationship with his mother. The most interesting familial aspect, however, is a fictional sister, Shenandoah, the narrator invents. Although her creation is never directly addressed in detail, she weaves ghost-like, in and out of most of the narrator’s childhood anecdotes until you wonder whether or not his brother was wrong when he finally calls the author on it and insists she never existed. It almost seems like an affront by this time.

But Jeffra certainly isn’t stuck in that time frame. “Trying to Shove Ourselves Back Together” is a treatise on gender expression, “A Miracle of Miracles” takes on childbirth, “The Treachery” is about white Jesus, and “The Being of Such an Unlikely Thing” even directly references Jean Shepard and his infamous one-legged lamp. From the author’s letter to Keith Haring (“Make Sure to See the Exit Door”) to the perfection of a Zen garden (“The 15th Rock”), Jeffra consults his experiences for answers to the big questions, usually finding more questions.

For all the philosophizing, this collection works best when it keeps an eye on the personal. One of my favorite Carl Rogers quotes is, “What is most personal is most universal,” and I’ve always tried to keep that uppermost in my own writing. Jeffra has also absorbed that dictum, as illustrated in the final piece, “The Shape of Gratitude,” which is about his wedding. It’s one of the more prosaic essays here and certainly breaks no ground in either subject or form, but its overall effect is that of a glance into the very heart of a life. Its simplicity is exquisite, and the last line is as pithy a summation as anyone could possibly wish: I wanted, more than anything, to be honest.

And it’s that honesty that makes The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! a great read.


© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler


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The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper – A.J. Fitzwater (Queen of Swords Press)

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I had some fun playing around with a sharp, concise opening summary for this title. Watership Down meets Sinbad the Sailor? If The Tale of Despereaux was directed by Ilene Chaiken? Neither captures entirely Fitzwater’s unusual undertaking, which features a plucky, skirt-eschewing, female-loving capybara who’s destined to find love and adventure on the high seas.

Fitzwater first introduced her rodent, lesbian pirate hero Cinrak in a pair of previously published short stories. Voyages rounds out Cinrak’s life in a collection of fantastical exploits, which jump ahead in time and location. It really does remind one of the tales of Sinbad from The Arabian Nights both in structure and in tone. The seas are full of wonders, some deadly and some which hold magical rewards for those who are brave enough to seek them out. Sailors—of any gender—are a rowdy and fearless lot who don’t mind when a little humor comes along at their own expense. Fitzwater takes on that zany, swashbuckling brand, and she’s fully and lovingly committed to her delightfully wacky world of anthropomorphic lesbians of all sizes, species and gender-expressions.

In the opening story, we meet young Cinrak, an orphan with fourteen star-years under her junior pirate sash. She doesn’t have a bad life living at an orphanage in the port city of Ratholme, but oh to join a pirate’s crew and see the world on one of the tall masted galleys that come to trade at the wharf. Cinrak always felt different from her land-locked kin, and she realizes it’s because she has pirate salt in her blood. Impressing the famous rat Captain Mereg, she earns a spot as a cabin kit aboard the fearsome Cry Havoc.

Subsequent tales show Cinrak as a captain in her own right, sorting out treachery in the Felidae Isles, winning the hand of the rat queen Orvillia in a competition to lasso the stars, helping a kraken named Agnes reunite with her true love, taking trips to the End of the World and the Heart of the Ocean, and more.

She’s accompanied by a core group of companions that includes a menopausal phoenix, an opera diva marmot, a wee chinchilla who wants to be a boy-sailor, and a jaunty merman. It’s a vivid and memorable supporting cast for sure, and the author has a great talent for inventing character and place names that evoke a whimsical fantasy setting.

Magical adventures are one side of the story, but in equal measure, Voyages is a celebration of the freedom with which lesbian and transmen should and could live their lives. There are plenty of romantic pairings within the all-female rodent crew, and readers will also find portrayals of polyamorous lesbian relationships vis-a-vis Cinrak’s choice to marry both the theatrical marmot Loquolchi and the stately rat queen Orvillia. The aforementioned trans chinchilla Benj gets a heartwarming treatment as a youth fulfilling his gender transformation. Fitzwater stays within the bounds of “family entertainment,” and as such, the stories have potential to reach a wide audience and be enjoyed by juvenile and adult readers alike.

A great book for fans of lesbian-centric worlds and those who never lost their childhood imagination.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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