Today’s book review of a short story collection is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey.
Amazon synopsis: Following the success of Paula Margulies’ acclaimed novel, Coyote Heart, comes this collection of extraordinary stories about love, loss, and the secrets that bind family members together. In Face Value: Collected Stories, Margulies explores the themes of compassion, regret, loneliness, loyalty to family, and the search for true love. Tender and haunting, with brilliant touches of humor and magical realism, these stories will claim a place in the hearts of readers everywhere.
Paula Margulies has over twenty years of experience in communications, marketing, and public relations for all types of products and services. A graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she earned her master’s degree in Language Arts and Literature, Margulies also holds degrees in marketing communications and education. She has served as the marketing and publicity director for large companies and small businesses and is an instructor in business communications at community colleges throughout Southern California. She specializes in all aspects of marketing and publicity, including writing press releases and creating media kits, setting up speaking and reading appearances, conducting blog tours, garnering book reviews, and setting up print, radio, and television interviews.
The collection consists of nine stories but is first dedicated to Paula’s father who died (aged 78) last year. This set the tone for the first story, Bird Song, which is a poignant love and loss tale of the narrator’s relationship (in first-person viewpoint) with her father, prompted by an injured bird.
The shortest story (five pages) is ‘Obedience Training’, another tale of love and loss (and a rabid dog), this time in third-person, with a surprise ending. I loved Carolyn’s reaction to the two gossiping secretaries.
Negatives (what’s not there) is something often forgotten when writing prose and the title story, ‘Face Value’, starts with these and we’re back in first-person. Characters are the most important aspect of fiction because if we don’t care about, or are at least interested in, the characters, the plot can be the best one every written but most readers won’t continue. Here we have an interesting array of family and neighbours. Names are something I keep a close eye on because they can often be too similar-looking or sounding and can get confusing but here, other than the main character ‘Francie’ and neighbours ‘the Franks’, we have very distinctive names: Johnny, Carmella, Dominic, Emma, Snowflake and Peter (two rabbits), and Tim and Todd (I usually suggest not having names starting with the same letter but these two are father and son, and in real life children often have the same initial as a parent – I do – although we later have a Tina so I would have changed that). Francie draws pictures of her brother and I love drawing (more cartooning) and this reminded me to dig out my sketchbooks. Having said earlier that we should care about our characters, there will be some who we’re not supposed to like and in this case it was the mother, although some of the events made her the way she was. It’s another sad tale but I like the way it comes full circle to Francie looking out the window at the world going by.
Then we have ‘Free Fall’ which goes back to third-person and more great names; Irv and Rose. I’m more a fan of dialogue but Paula uses some great description for her characters and it’s clear she uses people-watching to inspire her fiction. The dialogue in this story is realistic and I enjoyed the contrast between the two characters (age and family size). Another aspect of writing is to use active verbs and here we have ‘Leticia squeezed a blob of ketchup on her plate and stabbed at it with a French fry.’ Simple but effective.
My father died the same week as 9/11 so it’s always eerie to read about that day and although Irv doesn’t see the reports on it, the end has a particularly moving parallel to what happened to some of the people in the towers.
Back in first-person is ‘Have You Seen Me?’ and the two main characters, Marilinda (a name I’ve never come across before) and Allison (which, here in the UK, is a surname), a missing person – a topic which always fascinates me. Two baristas, Hector and Reggie, made me laugh, which was nice to have in such a sad collection (that’s not a criticism, by the way, I like sad). And another smile when reading about a Dutch rabbit called Bailey. 🙂 I do have another pick about name because in this story there’s Allison / Al (the latter being Marilinda’s father), and Milo is then very similar-looking on the page to when Marilinda’s name is shortened to Mari (and later in this story is a Myra). I know I’m being picky because (a) this is a review and (b) I’m a freelance editor, but anything that makes the reader pause in the story (for the wrong reason) is best avoided. That said, the writing is strong and it’s another great ending so it can be forgiven. 🙂
Staying in first-person is ‘Labrador Rules’ but this time from a male perspective. This is a story about … Character names are another pick in this story with another brother starting with a J (Josh) and a colleague, Jamie. Although it’s inevitable in a collection that there will be some overlapping of characters’ first initials, I’ve picked up on a client of mine last year who had five characters in his novel all starting with M, so I created him a five-column Word table with A-Z down the left hand side column, a letter on every other line, with the other four columns thus: Female first name / chapter or story (where they first appear), Female surname / chapter, Male first name / chapter, and Male surname / chapter so that he could keep track of the letters he used. It doesn’t matter that the first names and surnames aren’t together but just shows how evenly spread (or not) they are. I’d recommend Paula use something like that as I’m sure it would help plan a future collection / novel.
As the title of this story would suggest, it features a Labrador. Before I got my dog (a Jack Russell / Cairn-cross), I’d heard they were a great way to meet members of the opposite sex. While they are conversation starters, twelve years on, I’ve not found a boyfriend that way. 🙂
Oh dear. Another name pick. Earlier we had a Rose (Irv’s wife) and this story features a Rosa. I know it’s me being overly picky but a reader, forgetting that Irv’s wife wasn’t Rose with an ‘a’, could think – even for a second – that they were the same person. Another similar name clash is Sally / Sabrina. They look different enough on the page but two ‘Sa’s would be best avoided. The writing here is still strong and I really liked the description Tatiana’s ‘slightly tilted green eyes’. The ending of this story, albeit a little confusing, was funny.
‘Portal Gallery’ features two characters beginning with ‘M’ (Muriel and Michael), and a Marsha later. Straight after a Monica in the previous story, this leapt out (as the names had been doing after the title story). Despite being on a (sort of) diet, I love reading about food and because these stories (and the author) are set in America, there are some that I’ve never eaten (I’ve always wondered what bear claws taste like, they look delicious). While most of the stories have had a gentle pace, this one starts off with a manic set up of an art gallery exhibition opening (in twenty-four hours according to page 121 or that evening on page 122) and Muriel’s desperation for everything to go smoothly is clear. And of course, it doesn’t. Another different aspect to this story is one of magic and you just know when Muriel refuses and offer that things would go badly. I love quirky and this is my favourite of the collection so far (with just two stories remaining) as I couldn’t wait (but did) to know how it ended. It didn’t end how I expected and I feel the story’s all the better for it.
So, the penultimate story is ‘Weatherman’, another surreal story. I know I’m harping on about names but here we have three ‘C’s: Caitlin, Clare and Carlyle, alongside our main character, George. Family is another key element to this story and it’s interesting how nature (the elements themselves) bring George’s closer together.
The closing story is ‘You Are My Father’ which is a mixture of first and (my favourite point of view) second-person viewpoint. I was overdue breakfast when I got to this point so I thought I’d savour the story so make my breakfast and returned, sitting comfortably. I wasn’t disappointed – it’s a really endearing piece, although the ‘voice’ seemed too mature for a ten-year-old so I assumed the narrator was reminiscing. The names were fine in this piece although there were more beginning with J (Jacinta / Julio), M (Miguel), C (Carmen) and another Hector (see earlier reference to a barista), clearly the author’s (perhaps subconscious) favourites.
Second-person viewpoint is hard to write and maintain (even in a short story) but this is done well and adds to this already powerful story which concludes with very touching description.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (4 out of 5 if the names hadn’t been an issue)
Apart from the similar names and timing inconsistency, my only picks are the two mentions on page 33 that Johnny had come to live / come to stay as if both were the first mention of his presence, a rogue stationary instead of stationery on page 61, and a missing opening speech marks before “Oh that” on page 110 (it’s always easier for someone else to spot one’s mistakes).
It’s a lovely collection with added poignancy for me as I share a lot of the experiences of some of Paula’s stories. Most readers will find something personal in what they read and I’d be surprised if someone doesn’t with ‘Face Value’.
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page). She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has six others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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