Tag Archives: fiction book review

The Secret Games of Words by Karen Stefano

Secret games of wordPaperback: 126 pages

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 24, 2015)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 150254413X

ISBN-13: 978-1502544131

Review by Robert Hambling Davis

I met Karen Stefano at the 2008 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, where we were in the same critique group with nine other fiction writers. For her critique, Karen chose a story she calls “Undone” in her debut collection, The Secret Games of Words, which was published by 1 Glimpse Press in March 2015. “Undone” might have had another title when I first read it, but I remember being impressed with the format of the story, in which the attorney narrator, who works in the L.A. Public Defender’s Office, has to answer a personality inventory as part of her mental health evaluation, after a courtroom hearing which could result in her being committed to a California psychiatric hospital for a year. She must answer true or false to each of the nineteen questions on the inventory, which she does. She then justifies each answer for the reader, and these justifications are the meat of this tragicomedy about a woman who is coming undone in her love life and her professional life, and whose terminally ill father wants her to kill him.

The title story of The Secret Games of Words is written in the form of an email from the narrator, missusjack1, to her husband, JackLabRat, after he’s dumped her for his lab assistant. On a downward spiral, the narrator has been fired from her job as the mayor’s communications director, for making a typo in a press release, omitting the “f” in “Shifts,” so that the printed headline reads: “City Council Shits on Mayor’s New Policy.” She blames the typo on her stress over her dying father (a recurrent theme in Stefano’s stories), and as she drinks vodka to dull her pain, she entertains the following thought, which begins her “Period of Decline”:

“I realized then how consonants change lives. A shift turns to shit, friends turn to fiends, Native Americans with their proud heritage become naïve Americans, an epidemic. My mind flew in an endless loop, listing all the better mistakes I could have made.”

Later, when her husband comes home for the last time (he’s already shacking up with his assistant), the narrator tries to talk to him about the secret games of words, calling them “little pranksters wreaking havoc in our lives.” Then, attempting to make a joke over her misfortune, she tells him: “You got laid. I got laid off. One’s good, the other’s bad. Get it?” In the course of the story she loses her job, her husband, and her father, but the way Stefano has missusjack1 tell the story makes it comical, and this is a trait of most of the stories in this first yet accomplished collection: the main characters are haunted by bad luck, often forced into high-catastrophe-living mode, on the brink of madness, yet at the same time they have the ability to laugh at themselves. They don’t laugh at themselves, though. They’re in too much pain. Yet the way they tell their stories tells the reader that they are still able to see life as a comedy.

You can find the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Games-Words-Stories/dp/150254413X/ref=la_B00U4YT9MW_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1431957697&sr=1-1

rhdavis-1-Robert Hambling Davis is a fiction editor of The Fox Chase Review. He has been published in The Sun, Antietam Review, Memoir (and), Philadelphia Stories, Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere. He’s been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and received three Delaware Division of the Arts grants, two for fiction and one for creative nonfiction. He was a fiction semifinalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Contest in 2002 and 2012, and a creative nonfiction winner in 2013. Robert helps direct the Delaware Literary Connection, a nonprofit serving writers in Delaware and surrounding areas. He is a member of the Delaware Artist Roster, and has given writing workshops and readings in the Mid-Atlantic.

Kafka at Rudolf Steiner’s by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson

kafkaPaperback: 23 pages

Publisher: Rain Mountain Press; First Edition edition (March 31, 2014)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0989705196

ISBN-13: 978-0989705196


Review by: Russell Reece

From the opening paragraph you will know this book is something special.

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson has used two actual incidents in the life of the legendary existentialist writer, Franz Kafka, to frame this memorable work of fiction. In March of 1911, Kafka visited the mystical philosopher, Rudolf Steiner in Prague. There, in Stevenson’s story, we encounter a typical Kafka conundrum: “I was faced with a dilemma: it was where to place the hat I had removed from my head.” Kafka’s resolution gives us our first insight into the man and sets the tone of what’s to follow. This visit to Steiner and Steiner’s writings and philosophy are laced throughout the main story of Kafka’s 1913 stay at the von Hartungen sanatorium in Riva where he actually met and fell in love with a young Christian woman he calls, W.

Throughout this short volume (20 pages) the author intersperses the real and the imagined to create an early 20th century dreamscape. Stevenson’s spare and poetic prose – “I have put up the oars so we can drift, we are the only boaters on the lake, drifting; imperceptible movement…” – her masterful use of sentence fragments, and her wonderful descriptions – a folded shawl, oars that sit stiffly at the bottom of a boat – swept me up in this story and kept me there to the end.

There’s a lot to get into here. First and foremost is the heartwarming relationship between Kafka and W, a mutual love confined by both the social mores of the day – “The desire to let my cheek come to rest against hers” – and Kafka’s struggle between his outward life and his internal, self-reflective interests. The story is a wonderful tribute to Franz Kafka. You know and like this man in spite of his dark perspective and feelings of being an outsider. The story also foreshadows the evil that will soon overrun Europe and ultimately result in the Holocaust.

I encourage you to take an hour, find a quiet place and sit down and read this jewel of a book. Then read it again. You will be glad you did.

You can find the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Rudolf-Steiners-Rosalind-Palermo- 

russRussell Reece is a fiction editor for The Fox Chase Review and can be found in Delaware or here: http://www.russellreece.com/

Crossing the Border by Ksenia Rychtycka

crossing-border-ksenia-rychtycka-paperback-cover-art113 pages


Little Creek Books, a division of Jan-Carol Publishing

ISBN-10: 1939289017

  • ISBN-13: 978-1939289018



Review by Dorene O’Brien

     Ksenia Rychtycka’s aptly titled debut collection, Crossing the Border, features characters that do what readers might expect: they cross borders. But they do it in unexpected ways, crossing not only physical borders as they move across the world, but emotional, psychological and even political lines. Most of the nine stories are set in the United States and Ukraine, with characters weaving across continents, pulled by loyalty, nostalgia, curiosity or desperation. Though many of these characters are prisoners—of history, politics, disillusionment, or fear—there is an undercurrent of hope and even salvation that is delivered in quiet but profoundly poetic ways.

     The book opens impressively with “Homecoming,” featuring a woman who has crossed thorny physical and emotional borders to return to the homeland of her youth. Having lived in the United States for decades after fleeing Soviet occupation, Vera now finds herself navigating the political tension of a newly liberated Ukraine, one that mirrors the emotional tension between her, the one who escaped, and her cousin Stefko, the one who stayed behind but made a deal with the devil to survive. Rychtycka wisely explores the terrain of guilt, betrayal, and loyalty by offering historical context in place of judgment or criticism, as seen in Stefko’s simple but resonant comment, “We all have to make our choices.”

The Artist” also subtly but effectively explores the effects of political upheaval on personal relationships as Valeriy, a young artist unable to paint after returning to Ukraine from a year-long cultural exchange overseas, distances himself from his friends and from the arts community because he is so shaken by the changes in his country, “which had finally gotten to call itself independent but was now in worse shape than before he’d left.” Like most artists, Valeriy is a chronicler of his milieu, a bold, independent seer who is broken by the vision of a country he no longer recognizes or likes. Rychtycka takes the reader to the edge of despair, making us feel every bit as discouraged as Valeriy, before offering hope to the artist and the reader in a vibrant and revelatory street scene perfectly fit for painting.

     Hope again subtly overtakes gloom in “The Bell Tower.” Under the oppressive regime of the Soviets, Ukrainians are not allowed to attend religious services or speak freely. “Even the walls in this country have ears,” Marta says to her husband Petro, warning him to choose his response carefully after learning that his own son has joined the KGB. So Petro feels he has little to lose when he steals the key to the church on Christmas Eve, determined to voice his resistance, to reclaim his dignity, to offer a more optimistic future to the child he meets on a freezing night that will forever change his life.

     Rychtycka’s ability to deliver an authoritative political and social history of a people and a country without being didactic stems from her deep knowledge of and passion for her topic. In “40 Days” the reader is offered a new and striking perspective of the corruption that continued to plague Ukraine even after its liberation. Roman, a poet and political dissident who had spent years in a Siberian labor camp, decides against his family’s wishes to become a presidential candidate. When he dies under suspicious circumstances, the family is torn between quietly grieving and publicly denouncing the officials responsible for his execution. Like most of her stories, “40 Days” displays a compelling combination of heartbreak and hope delivered in beautifully poetic lines: “Luba can hear the birds singing around them as if life is just beginning, and one has only to reach deep inside to let the melody take hold.”

     Though many of her characters suffer great losses and have earned their bitterness, they do move forward, often in memorably restrained ways. “Orange in Bloom” opens with a simple declarative sentence, underscoring how a seemingly inconsequential event can alter a life: “The bird’s arrival changed everything.” Military troops may be congregating nearby in anticipation of a political protest, but the elderly protagonist is determined to brave the streets in search of supplies for the parakeet that abruptly lands on her balcony. The bird is a good luck omen, one that counteracts the tragedy that often, like the tiny feathered creature, arrives without warning.

     The characters that inhabit the pages of Rychtycka’s book are authentic: Anna, who brings a curious tradition from Ukraine to the United States; Lesia, who migrates in search of money but instead finds love; Lina, an American girl whose Ukrainian grandmother shares heartrending stories of their family history. The settings, too, are vibrant and rich with detail, delivered by someone who has clearly done her research.

You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Crossing-The-Border-Ksenia-Rychtycka/dp/1939289017 


Dorene O’Brien has won numerous awards for her fiction, including the Red Rock Review’s Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award, the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and the international Bridport Prize. She was also awarded a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her short stories have appeared in the Connecticut Review, the Chicago Tribune, The Best of Carve Magazine, Short Story Review, Passages North, New Millennium Writings, the Montreal Review, Detroit Noir and others. Her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, won the 2008 National Best Book Award in short fiction.

Russell on Rutkowski

Jacob Russell:  Review: Thaddeus Rutkowski, HAYWIRE