Monthly Archives: April 2021

Robinson, IL and Other Flash Fiction Stories – Dennis Milam Bensie (Independently Published)

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Yes, yes – I know I just reviewed Bensie’s Shorn: Toys to Men, but that was a reissue and this is a brand new collection of stories. The only thing more interesting than Bensie’s non-fiction is his fiction, and although I’m not usually a fan of flash fiction, the short hits in Robinson, IL are both entertaining and insightful.

By turns playful and provocative, many of these stories turn on O. Henry surprise, and that’s not a bad thing. It does, however, make reviewing them without spoilers a bit more difficult. The premises for the more outrageous stories are unique but Bensie makes them work. It’s a testament to his talent that he can draw you into a story about a Nazi-themed gay bar complete with tattoos and gassing (“VOTE”) or a neighborhood carnival whose purpose is to raise money to send a boy to a Christian anti-gay school (“Save Dave”) without the weirdness seeming self-conscious.

But it’s not all weird. Some of the pieces seem to come directly from Bensie’s childhood and provide moments of clarity in his relationships with his parents and others, such as the opener, “Denny,” which sees his mother killing a snake for him, or “Swimmer’s Ear,” the retelling of a tender, all too rare father and son moment. These, especially the latter, are done with taste and a heartfelt honesty.

Indeed, honesty is the mainstay of Bensie’s work, be it flash fiction or memoir. “Sunday Drive,” about a father’s reaction when he learns of his son’s molestation, falls in this category, as do “Him Outside the Camp,” which relates a particularly ugly episode between parents, and “Eric in Your Bed,” which revisits and fictionalizes the haircutting fetish Bensie speaks of in his memoir, Shorn: Toys to Men.

But Bensie always changes it up, alternating poignancy with the aforementioned weirdness–“Patsy Cline Airlines,” “The Vest,” about a bombing of sorts, and “The Truck,” which features a mobile disco and bar that travels to RV retirement communities and other neighborhoods.

Robinson, IL is truly a mixed bag, and I mean that in the nicest way possible, packing twenty-seven stories in just over a hundred pages. Many will stick with you longer than you think they will considering their brevity. All in all, this is a highly successful package you won’t regret purchasing.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Vermilion Pursuit: A Marco Fontana Mystery – Joseph R.G. DeMarco (Jade Mountain Books)

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It’s been seven years since we last saw Marco Fontana, and it’s good to have him and Olga and the boys from StripGuyz back. This time, Fontana is taking on the not-so-stuffy world of fine art as he races against the lead detective on the case to prove his uncle Luciano did not murder a colleague. As usual, DeMarco pulls out all the stops in this solid, well thought out entry to the Fontana mystery series.

Fontana’s uncle, Luciano Sforza, is in town with a panel of art critics and restoration experts tasked with authenticating a previously unknown Botticelli. It might be real, or it could be a fake perpetuated by the infamous forger Vermilion. Before the committee can make their decision, however, one of its more contentious members is found dead, with Sforza standing over the body. Detective Baldwin is certain the case is open and shut, but Fontana has other ideas. He has to prove his uncle’s innocence before Baldwin makes an arrest.

Among DeMarco’s many strengths is his ability to juggle a large number of characters without losing the thread of the mystery or confusing the reader. There are at least six on the committee alone, plus various assistants and gallery owners–and that’s just the main plot. We also have secretary Olga, Fontana’s mother (Luciano’s sister), StripGuyz drama, the policemen, security guards, and Fontana’s on again/off again open relationship with boyfriend Sean. Yet the plot never bogs down or feels crowded. There’s a lot going on, to be sure, but DeMarco never drops the balls. And though the book is longish, it’s so well-paced you don’t notice.

But what DeMarco does best here is crack the veneers of the effete and oh-so-proper art experts, exposing the real motivations behind their high-minded ethics. To no one’s particular surprise, they are as base as the rest of us–greed, ambition, and sex often taking priority over their profession. This isn’t news, of course, but DeMarco seems to take great delight in laying these predelictions bare. And it’s most fun to watch.

The ending is also quite satisfactory. You see about three quarters of the way through how a couple of the plot pieces will fit together, but the identity of the murderer remains a mystery until just before the reveal. The process of elimination is artfully accomplished, and DeMarco leaves no loose ends.

So, The Vermilion Pursuit is entirely successful. It’s a great standalone, as are the others in this series, but if you read this, I can just about guarantee you’ll want them as well. Let’s hope it’s not another seven years before the next.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Violence Almanac – Miah Jeffra (Black Lawrence Press)

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I first ran across Miah Jeffra’s work in Sibling Rivalry Press’s collection of his essays, The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I was looking forward to reading this bunch of his short stories, and I must say he’s just as witty, incisive, and entertaining in the realm of fiction. The Violence Almanac glitters like a dark diamond.

The shine is evident from the first short piece, “Growl,” but this is minor compared to the next two stories. “Babies” is a recounting of the tale of Andrea Yeats who, you may remember, is the Texas mother who drowned her five children in their bathtub twenty years ago. The incident is told from several points of view: one of the children, Noah, Andrea herself, her husband, Rusty, and a fictional biographer. It’s difficult to tell which of these viewpoints is the most poignant, but just as we begin to wonder whose eyes we’ll see this incident through next, Jeffra changes the form up to a screenplay of the book the biographer is writing. That should be jarring, but the format works, providing some distance as Andrea and Rusty discuss having the last of the children she kills. He then switches back to the biographer and, finally, Andrea after the crimes have been committed. Far from being fractured despite the changes in viewpoint, “Babies” hangs together both as a piece of realistic fiction and a cautionary tale.

The second story in this one-two combo punch is “Jingle-Jingle-Pop,” the story of “pre-op T” Lalo and her friends working the mean streets of L.A. Here, Jeffra goes all first person and brings us a singularly unique voice. Lalo and the girls are reeling from the death of their friend, Champagne, at the hands of a Carlos–they call all the tough johns they work Carlos. Learning the lesson, Lalo concentrates on saving money for her bottom surgery and finding a good man to take her out of this life. Deep down, however, she knows no one escapes. So, when the brown El Dorado that Champagne was last seen getting into shows up…well, this chola don’t print no spoilers. Wholly engaging and as tough as it is compulsive to read, this is storytelling at its finest.

If these two stories were the only ones in the book, it’d still be worth your time and money, but there’s so much more to discover, such as “Gethsemane,” the history of a house and its previous occupants as seen through the eyes of a realtor trying to sell it, a boy anxious to win the respect of his abusive father by bringing in a fugitive in “Footfall,” and the examination of a relationship as a man tries to rescue a sick pigeon in “Saving a Bird” for starters. But really, you can land anywhere among these tales and find a great story.

So, if you missed The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, go back and pick it up, but the stories comprising The Violence Almanac are the shouts of a new, richly talented voice. You won’t regret it.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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