If you need a good cry, read Tenderness and Troubling Times by Tara Wine-Queen.
I met Tara when searching for independent authors to interview for a feature story in Shelf Unbound Magazine. You can read that interview here.
A lovely individual, Tara exhibits all of the qualities listed in her bio and her collection of short stories reflects those things she strives to help others feel – gratitude, hope, unity. And though it took me longer than I’d like to admit to pull her title from my TBR pile, I’m glad I did.
It was the cover of the book that caught my attention. Subtle, somewhat ominous, and yet with an edge of hope that shines through in the images of the two little girls. Do you see that? They’re carefree, enjoying their time together, likely playing a silly game of tag or pretend. These girls are the epitome of innocence.
And then there’s the tree.
Almost blended completely into the black, inky darkness, that tree is resolute. It’s timeless. The trunk doesn’t hide a bogeyman (at least not an obvious one). There doesn’t appear to be a creeper hiding behind it, stealthy and eager to snatch up the unsuspecting little girls. Yet the tree somehow sets the tone for the stories between the pages.
Tenderness and Troubling Times consists of five parts. Each part contains one to ten short stories—a few stories are longer than others. All of the stories hold the ability to let the reader sink into the narrative. They’re full of emotion, of eloquent prose, and characters that are, in many ways, what I like to think of as “ordinary heroes.”
To me, an ordinary hero can be just about anyone. A person who’s made some wrong turns in life only to, one day, experience an epiphany and end up on the straight and narrow. Maybe the hero is a man who devotes his days to celebrating kindness with random strangers. Or a woman who spends her days mothering her children through the trials of a broken home, the loss of a pet, the struggles of teenage years. Their battles not be extraordinary. These characters aren’t climbing Mt. Everest or inventing a cure for cancer or starting a foundation that goes viral.
No, these characters are obscure. Their mark on the world, a scratch that many will never see. These are the people Tara writes about.
In “One More Thing to Make You Proud” we meet Nanny, a magical grandmother, and her husband, King. We experience their love for one another and their family. From there, we venture to the part titled Voices.
Here, are stories about parents and their children. We meet a mother who speaks frankly to her young children. There’s a combination of desperation and self-awareness in her voice that speaks volumes about her strength, her courage. In the next story, a father speaks to his daughter. He tells her all the things he should have said...before. And finally, a young girl’s determination to speak out against those who bully her. She never says a word, yet manages to shout them down nonetheless.
Flash is the middle part of Wine-Queen’s collection. It’s not the longest part or the shortest. Like its placement in the book, the number of stories rests right in the middle of the range. The titles in this section bore the marks of flash fiction. Shorter than short, concise, less than a full page in length. I’ll admit, I struggled here. Not because the stories weren’t good, but because I need a little more length to really enjoy a story line. Give me a bit more setting, a little more insight into the character, a smidgen more backstory. That being said, I did enjoy the story “Fire Fighting.” That one caught me right in the heart. I felt for those families.
“Prisons” is a story that stuck with me. In fact, I think it will stick with me for weeks and months to come. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I like stories set in prisons. Shawshank Redemption, anyone? And Wine-Queen’s portrayal of the prison setting is good. It’s really good. The fact that she created kindness and humanity in it—brilliant. There is depth and fullness in this one. I highly recommend it. Below are two of my favorite lines from “Prisons.”
“It was dangerous business pretending to be a thing; you never knew what such an act might unlock from deep inside.”
“Bitterness and desperation are the seeds of hatred, and prison gave those seeds permission to grow free.”
Finally, we get to The Baby Losers’ Club, the last installment in this collection. This part has the most stories in it. Trigger warning—they’re all about having lost a child.
To be honest, I worried about getting to these stories. I worried about how I’d handle them, having lost a baby many years ago. I was surprised I didn’t cry over these characters’ stories. Memories of my own loss resurfaced as I read, just not to the extent I thought they might. Amid these stories of loss though, is the last title, “Finally.” It’s where Wine-Queen inserted hope again.
If you need a good cry. If you need to be reminded that there is a sliver of hope in this oftentimes hopeless world or if you are interested in reading about an ordinary hero or two, pick up Wine-Queen’s collection. It doesn’t disappoint.
From cover to cover, this book gets 4.5 stars from me. Slightly less than 5, because that middle part of the book didn’t quite satisfy my needs as a reader and because I wish the book had page numbers. Minor things, for sure. I have no doubts that a veteran short story reader could immerse herself in these pages and live there for days, mesmerized by the lives of the characters.
What do you like about short story collections? Have you read Wine-Queen’s work? What do you see in the hidden crevices of the cover of Tenderness and Troubling Times?