Title: The Light The Dark and Ember Between
Author: J.W. Nicklaus
Genre: Literature/Fiction/Short Story/Inspirational
Publisher: American Book Publishing Group
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner
The cover detail: This book is a collection of uplifting images that delve into the reflections of the human condition. These stories will cause you to think, laugh, and even cry at the beauty of emotional memories. You will smile at the thought of love lost and found again in "Paper Doll." You will think about your life's choices in "10:18." You will cry tears of joy while reading about the hidden gift in "Winter Rose." This is a must-have collection of thought-provoking reflections perfect for your bedside or the beach.
I really wanted to love this book. Those who read my reviews know that I am quite versed in short fiction, and human psycho-drama is my favourite kind of drama. I read the preface to this book before agreeing to review it, and I found the prose to be beautiful, poetic, and inspiring. The author has a gift for essay. His blog rants attest to that. However, when I moved on to the actual stories, that’s when it just fell apart for me. I was expecting deep reflection, impactful exposition, and emotional relevance. Based on the preface, what I wanted and expected were carefully crafted stories along the lines of Wagner’s Matinee by Willa Cather, Car Crash While Hitchhiking by Denis Johnson, Photograph of Luisa by Melissa Pritchard, or Father by John L’Heureaux. But for a few promising moments, what I got were stories that left me a bit adrift with indifference.
However, there was a ray of light...
Broken is by far one of the best stories in the entire book. For the first time, we move away from the cliché pining and imagery into a more literary approach to the loneliness. The metaphorical comparison between discarded roadside trash and the car crash the main characters will witness later in the story was truly sublime, and the end, quite frightening in its unabashed obsessiveness. This was the story I wanted, but alas, it also had its issues.
Then we rattle on with a few more muted reflections until we come to Run—a little literary masterpiece. In a child’s well calculated manipulation, we get a much different view of Hope. Good Show!!! In my honest literary snob opinion, this story shows the author’s true talent, and had the remainder of the book been written with this sort of subtle insight, it would be a fine endeavour indeed. This story is where the author’s voice and style really came through. Perfect! Beautifully executed. This story is perfect for publication in any literary journal.
As far as the rest of the book, the stories felt a little lacklustre to me. They were definitely good stories, though-provoking and very relatable. All the stories accurately reflect the truth in the human condition: love, loss, jealousy, greed, pity, pride, self-indulgence, indifference, bitterness, serendipity, and most of all hope, but something felt off for me.
Now, it wasn’t the actual stories that left me cold. Conceptually, the stories are lovely and full of substance: the morality is true and hopeful and virtuous. What left me cold was the delivery, the writing itself—the structure and the technique. The stories show promise in a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of way—very mild and touching—but the writing in many of the stories is maudlin and melodramatic, which is the cardinal sin of fiction writing. The reason for this is that the book suffers from pervasive technical issues, and those issues diminish the impact of the stories. A little Strunk and White or Self-editing for Fiction Writers would have helped significantly during the revision and editing process. No rule is hard and fast, but these books explain why we don’t overdo it with adverbs; why we try to remain low-key and unobtrusive with our dialog tags and beats; why we vary our sentence structure and paragraphing, paying close attention to our participle phrases and modifiers; why we refrain from idle action, and why we need to take care with similes and metaphors—overdone is just over-indulgent. The writing in this book suffers from those same issues, so much so, the prose was awkward in some areas, and it was very distracting for me. In my personal opinion, it really robbed the stories of their true worth, not to mention a higher review score. A scrupulous editor would have done a world of good here, and it’s a shame really, because this author has an uncanny talent for nailing down existential and philosophical conundrums, and these stories could have been so much more without all the clutter.
Short stories that deal with the emotionally scarred need to be simple, character focused, and heavy on visceral impact. The simplicity was there, causation was direct and very character focused, but the visceral impact was lacking. When characters are constantly sighing and staring off into the distance, the emotion begins to feel contrived as it did for me in many of the stories, and when we stumble over the words and idle action, we lose sight of the story completely. The writing needs to be tight. It needs to be subjective and vivid and forceful. (Forceful doesn’t mean gritty. Forceful, for our purposes here, would mean uncluttered.) I just didn’t get the strong rush of feeling I had hoped for with this book. However, judging by all the five-star reviews on Amazon, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I pay attention to the theory more so than an average reader. I felt the technique lacked the drama stories of this nature require.
So, if you are literary minded and are expecting heart wrenching Willa Cather styled stories then you might be a bit disappointed, but if you like Chicken Soup stories and you don’t mind or don’t care to notice the technical issues and the chop, then you might find this to be a light, enjoyable, sentimental read; although, I think the $15.00 price tag is a bit over market for such a short collection, 15 stories at 180 pages.
On a final note, this author has the right attitude about the process. Critical reviews are never easy on the eyes or the ego, nor are they easy to write. Mr. Nicklaus has a gift for musing, his words can be very powerful, and I would like to see more of that incorporated into his work versus what we call “traditional storytelling.” Anyway, I leave you with a quote from the author’s blog:
“I have stated many times before that I don’t expect everyone to like how or what I write. My style and voice aren’t for everyone. So when I’ve been sending out copies of my book for review I fully expect, at some point, to possibly receive reviews that are not glowing or even complimentary. I have the simplest of hopes that folks enjoy the stories, that’s all.” -- J.W. Nicklaus