Systems Abusing Systems – The Realities of Haunted Girlfriend

What we reap from bereavement may alleviate the pangs of loss and mortality itself. Knowledge expands with increasing rapidity, proliferating unprecedented advances. But even the savviest technologies may not be enough to spare us from an asteroid approaching earth. However, should some of us manage to survive its impact, we can gear our ingenuity towards respite and repair. Conversely, we may lose ourselves in greed, devising society’s demise through omission, selection, and an ultimate complacence. The dualism in the all-too-human capacity for nurturance and upheaval sears the conscience in James Nulick’s Haunted Girlfriend.

I do not typically read horror novels, or horror stories, and it was eye-opening to witness the overlay of literary poignancy with grotesque realities we often deny in favor of prettier things. Nulick couples contemporary contentions with the gravity of implication. The first story in his collection addresses capital punishment and the salience of compromise. Rather than having murderers repay their victims’ loved ones with their lives, society forces them to watch certain aspects of their treachery projected on a screen. This viewing proceeds in perpetuity, until the murderer dies a natural death. One may argue that this is crueler than an execution itself, and while it may seem an appropriate sort of retribution, the practice might contribute to an eventual desensitization to deeds that resulted in the murderers’ very incarceration. Elements of this piece are traced throughout the story collection, prodding us to contemplate the destruction of which we are capable, despite our well-meaning intentions to rectify perceived wrongs.

“Body by Drake” carves the animus of Haunted Girlfriend, submerging its audience in a chlorinated pool that rises in depth the further we swim. Headlines continue to occasionally touch upon Earth’s dwindling resources and human attempts to compensate for such. Food is produced in multitudes, but pounds upon pounds are wasted. It becomes questionable as to whether our systems lack resources, or if these resources are subjected to inefficient use and stagnant distribution. “Body by Drake” warns of the abuse of systems by systems themselves. Through the perceived loss of the planet, society tries to reclaim what it’s owed, albeit arbitrarily. People are compensated to “recycle” at an earlier age to assuage an overcrowded Earth. Compensation for this “recycling” varies from group to group, highlighting eugenics as a mechanism for public policy. Those who differ from the status quo are deemed “Ethnics,” but it is unclear as to what makes these individuals so different and thus, promptly recyclable. Nulick incorporates contemporary debate in his ever constricting dystopia. We can interpret the varied degrees of monetary compensation as a form of affirmative action, though these polices which target minority groups only marginalize, rather than empower them. To further appreciate Nulick’s social commentary, readers should first read the glossary attached to “Body by Drake.” Re-reading this glossary after ending the story only sharpens our understanding of possibilities we prefer not to acknowledge.

Haunted Girlfriend finds itself cradled in the aches of growing. “Peach” is one of those grittier reads that makes the unspeakable more of a tangible reality. Nulick’s delicate prose accentuates the trauma of disillusionment that comes with spiritual and physical violence. He paints his images with soft pastels, cradling our line of vision until we hit a charcoal boundary. The story as a whole is like a carefully upholstered futon, eventually perforated by insatiable moths. This hunger proceeds in its ravenous haunt throughout “Vinyl Hearted Boy,” a heart-wrenching pinnacle to its emotionally dizzying predecessors.

Nulick is a writer of emotional depth and acuity. His images, though provocative, diverge from the vulgar in that they echo in their horror. He juxtaposes the shocking with the ordinary, allowing us to visualize consequences that we may have laid the foundation for, however inadvertently. In the face of a diminishing planet, we strive to recover what we only think we’re entitled to, through flawed means and dogmas even asteroids fail to dismantle.

Haunted Girlfriend can be purchased directly from Expat Press, at https://expatpress.com/product/haunted-girlfriend-james-nulick/.

Starlit Speculation – This is Charlie Zero

Introduced to Björk and Tori Amos at the age of eleven, and remembering echoes of of a swarming crowd as Shirley Manson stated, “I’m only happy when it rains,” I’m difficult to unnerve through words, medical terminology, and images I hope will prompt more than just some kind of lucid, false, epileptic seizure.

Perhaps the challenge in impressing me lies in my affinity for the experimental, cracked into three large shards. Charlie Zero’s This Robot Dreams Inside a Plastic Soul stirred my intrigue as the sun prods an amusement park worker to wriggle in his four-legged, alpaca wool suit. I snuggled into the blankets covering my macintosh red futon, took a minute or so between pieces, and thought, “Damn, Charlie. I’d imagine LSD does come to a halt, but I’m not quite ready.” For the record, I’ve never tried LSD.

Charlie’s writing reminds me of wind chimes that clang out of nowhere in the summer heat, doorbell melodies that warn me I’m entering the home of a prolifically artful eccentric. I don’t know what to expect, conversing with a local historian about “tarot-cards & playgirl magazines” I’ve never taken more than a glimpse at, or a “virtual console” commanding fine-tuning by those long departed. The allusions run unbridled, as read in “Witchcraft Acidhead 23.” Grammatical devices, the marriage of the supernatural Ouija with universal Apple products, and an image of Edgar Allen Poe stuffing the macabre into his DDT heart, It seems anything and anyone stands around to grab the microphone, announcing standard grievances, pointing out that CNN should be taken with a grain of salt, that institutionalization confines more than young girls admitted out of parents’ concerns that they may be too hormonal. Charlie Zero assembles dismantlement to encourage us to question what’s heard and said, while navigating local alleys, gathering others interested in communal innovation while acknowledging the stagnancy that sets our minds on fire.

Charlie toys with form and language like people I see on the Travel Channel acquainting themselves with flower arrangements. Nothing’s quite symmetrical, yet the juxtaposing hues encapsulate readers in a curious glow. “I didn’t know this was a medical term! What could it possibly mean? Would I hear it at my next doctor’s appointment?” These are questions I asked myself as I breathed in the smoke trailed by thirty-five poems.

Now, back to the three large shards. This Robot Dreams Inside a Plastic Soul invites you to do your own research, opening dictionaries, finding encyclopedias at your nearest discount bookstore which directly pertain to Twentieth Century pop culture, and beyond. The collection offers more than trance, illustrates complexities more intricate than tangled arms and legs in an urban club scene. In Charlie’s synthesis of the bright, historical, and contemporary, we read what it means to be eclectic. Lines such as “Arachnid gods/ registered virtuoso/ T-minus 1” sends us jolting, neck hairs raising as if our fingers almost pricked the shine of an open lamp socket. Again, I emphasize eccentricity, but not as a term describing a human. The poetry collection, though fierce in its delivery, does not settle itself centrally. See Charlie’s work as an ever spinning globe, continental tenants shouting insults they’ll one day take back, digging their fingers into the clay on which they stand, giving Pangaea one more chance.

This Robot Dreams Inside A Plastic Soul ignites fury, anxiety, and hope in the midst of a changing society that in retrospect, may not have changed so drastically should we consider human faltering. Nonetheless, it is a thoughtful read, pushing us to wonder what we truly think about the world and people who cross our path as we walk, confined by our Ziplock exteriors.

Charlie Zero’s collection of poems remains available in paperback, through Paypal. Do follow his adventures in writing at his blog, filled with starlit speculation.

Simply Extraordinary – Misfortune and Strife in Steven Baird’s Ordinary Handsome

ordinaryhandsomeiiI first read Ordinary Handsome a little more than a year ago. Admittedly, I felt quite overwhelmed upon finishing the book, giving it a second, third, and fourth read. Not only did the book leave me breathing deeply, scouting for the aroma of old black tea, the imprisoning honesty of spilled liquor, salty dried blood staining dusty fabric, and the freshness of limes that serve disturbingly more than just a culinary purpose. Steven Baird’s novel demanded my full attention, and even though I was absolutely absorbed each time I read it in around five hours, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. His writing is exquisite, the subject matter is temporally relevant, and there are characters to both pity and loathe. Ordinary Handsome, in its grit and precision, tells of extraordinary misfortune and strife.

Baird illustrates the backdrop poetically. As we walk through the streets of Handsome, Oklahoma, it’s accepted that this is a town from someone’s childhood, or a town only heard of through family storytelling. The gravel scrapes beneath our feet, sweat rolls down our foreheads as we watch farmers toil to barely last the year, and we catch ourselves gagging, perhaps flinching, as we pass the bar owned by Henry Wasson, a simple man with a precocious son and memories that both comfort and haunt. In narrating the hardships of the townspeople, Wasson’s dilemmas, and the impact of his deeds on those around him, Baird clearly deliberates, word by word. While he abandons quotation marks, it is simple to discern who says what, and what was committed by whom. Perhaps Baird does this to further accentuate the bareness of an impoverished, dying town. Perhaps Baird does this to call for our attention, to read and re-read. The story, though structurally fragmented, comes together. But one has to watch for every reed to weave that compact basket.

Most impressive are the contrasts presented throughout the story. A bar packed with regulars and full glasses that actually faces financial collapse. The hint of a bra spotted on a young girl during a date years ago, a young man eventually choosing a bra that the girl will wear in her coffin. A boy who toys with grapes “like a kitten,” though his actions and father are far from innocent. The undeniable presence of families, however incomplete. While women make brief appearances throughout the story, there lacks a maternal element. Ultimately, we witness the struggles, codependency, and eventual severance of ties between fathers and their lone sons. Especially striking is the presence of a mathematics museum in a town that seems to forsake intellectuality. We have a father who manages a bar, who can’t comprehend the meaning of integers, and a son who seeks comfort in numbers and their certainty. While Handsome, Oklahoma appears dry, rusted, and cyclically unambitious, horrific crimes transpire. The darkness of such deeds is inarguable, though the consequences that follow are so numerous that the thought of what only could happen drives a man to madness.

Ordinary Handsome is more than an account of poverty, alcoholism, and damage rooted in human imperfection. It is a psychological thriller, a coming-of-age story, a dramatic read that one could adapt to an accessible play or film. Read it in the rain, twilight, or heat. Read it several times if the story perplexes you. Steven Baird has crafted more than a lush narrative, but moreover, a warning of the harm we all could inflict under desperation’s duress.

Ordinary Handsome is available on Amazon, via Kindle.

Swiftly Paced Intricacy – Oak and Mist by Helen Jones

Available on Amazon via Kindle or paperback.

Available on Amazon via Kindle and paperback.

Admittedly, I’m not what you’d call extremely well-read. That being said, aside from the first installment of The Lord of the Rings series, and the Harry Potter books that I’ve rarely ever re-read, I have hardly read any fantasy. Perhaps it’s all too intimidating, with its multiple worlds, factions, alliances, alter-egos, and allusions to mythology and other things I find elaborately rich. While I’ve intended to, I’ve never really given attention to the YA genre. It takes a skilled and enthusiastic writer to draw me into such works, and with Oak and Mist, Helen Jones does the job.

We see predestination’s lingering hold as Alma faces a tall order. Ambeth, a world outside the familiar, is threatened by an imbalance between Light and Dark. One does not choose the faction he is born into, and ultimately, one is not granted volition to shift, even in the unlikely presence of a desire to do so. Caleb, Alma’s friend, makes this clear as he dissuades her emotions for a boy from the wrong end of the spectrum.

Jones presents a world that I found highly believable, intricate though uncomplicated. Ambeth is lush with pleasantries, elegant party wear, a hierarchy and party scenes that warmly remind me of the Royal Diaries series. Alma, quiet though brave and resolute, reminded me so much of my younger self, overly impressed with the outwardly beautiful and concerned of other’s perceptions. She’s like a snow globe; you can sense when something unsettles her, whether it regards the dangerous, the lustful, or simply, the possibility that she has wounded a friend, however lacking the intention to. Her friendship with Caleb is something most of us have had, along with exasperating conversations about whether That Guy is worth dating.

While I found descriptions of Alma’s infatuation to be gratuitous and sweetly tedious to read, I was impressed with Jones’s integration of the conventional human world with that of contentious Ambeth. The idea of hybrid individuals and half-siblings isn’t new, though I appreciated the dialogue regarding acceptance of one’s blood, and awareness of one world over another. At several points throughout the novel, what appear to be gaps are eventually sealed. The story itself is considerably fast-paced to where one may not acknowledge that something is amiss. However, upon this realization, readers can appreciate that few things mentioned in Oak and Mist could be dismissed as trivial.

Oak and Mist details what I’d expect in the YA genre: formative relationships, both romantic and platonic, familial bonds, and reconciliation between how one would like things to be and how things actually are. Events and relationships are presented so cohesively to where the book could well stand on its own, though the detail in thoughts, interactions, and transferrals between Ambeth and the world in which we readers live leaves much to be predicted and returned to. Delightfully, Oak and Mist is just the first book of the Ambeth Chronicles, as Ms. Jones has just finished its followup, No Quarter. I anticipate the second book to be just as enjoyable.

With all being said, I should really give some genres more of a solid read.

DIY: Another Paper Crane Bookmark Tutorial

It’s pretty clear here that I have a fixation. Refer to my other DIY on crane crafts for a video on how to make paper cranes, if you don’t know how. Also, I continue to put old magazine paper to use with magnetic bookmarks.

Today, I touch upon what to do with old coasters, rather than remaking them while keeping the same purpose. I’m unashamedly loyal to paper books. Send me a PDF of a work you want reviewed, and I’ll most likely print it out and keep it in a 3-ring binder for future reference. I like to flip through what I read, and yes, I don’t feel guilty with highlighters and pens. However, I’ve recently learned that it’s probably better to write your notes on Post-It notes instead of the page itself.

For your paper crane bookmark, you will need:

Ribbons

An Exacto knife

A cork coaster

Acrylic paint

Origami paper

Pen

Mod Podge

So I returned from a friend’s wedding with a bag of paper cranes. I usually don’t say no to not re-purposing paper. Here’s what I did:

1. I got a cork coaster I wasn’t using anymore. It was an ordinary brown one with a picture of an anchor stamped in the center. It was already stained and losing its appeal.

2. I laid out newspapers on my floor and painted the cork coaster with acrylic paint. Any color works. That day, I was feeling pink.

3. I got out a crane, already folded, and flattened it out. I made sure it was void of extra dimension by wedging in between the pages of a dictionary. I proceeded to pile several heavy books on top of the dictionary, for a good 4 hours.

4. I Mod Podged the flattened crane onto the painted coaster. I made sure to cover the entire crane and coaster surface with 4 layers of Mod Podge. You can do this with either a sponge or paintbrush.

5. Let it dry! An hour and a half prevents disappointing mess-ups with a sealer that may still be sticky.

6. I got out the Exacto knife, outlined a circle to cut out at the coaster’s edge, and made the slot for my ribbon (the page marker, more or less). Be careful. Do not cut the circle to where there is very little space between the coaster’s actual edge and the edge of the ribbon slot. You’ll end up having a really flimsy end and the coaster, if made of cork, will break apart. Be careful, and take your time.

7. Take some ribbon. I chose to use blue and red, of equal length, slip them through the slot, and tie a neat knot. You may choose to make a bow and add beads to your page marker. It’s entirely up to you.

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8. I then took a pen to outline the flattened, pasted crane. I should mention that I painted the flattened crane after Mod Podging it as I wanted the bird to match the colors of the ribbon. Of course, this is also optional.

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*For added fortification, you may consider spraying acrylic sealer over the piece before slipping ribbon into the slot.

(Let me know of what you’ve done with household items, paper cranes, and bookmarks! Happy reading and crafting, friends.)

Small Town Friendships and Unconscionable Doings – Pete Deakon’s Buried Within

Pete Deakon’s second novel, Buried Within, is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Not everything is alright in America’s humble Midwest.

I’ve only been to Missouri for three days, at most. One day in Springfield, two in St. Louis. While I remember the weather being muckier than desired, walking from the botanical garden in an inadequate poncho, the people continued to grin.

In Buried Within, Pete Deakon illustrates just how the fond, playful winsome conflicts with the dreary, the two eventually coalescing as the horrific transpires.

“I’m here for you if you need it,” a friend offers in tragedy’s chill. But of course, the person facing loss may brood, in his own special way. Some understand, others are spooked. Maybe he’s not sad enough. Maybe he’s too angry. Perhaps, a bit obsessed. Crazed. They’ll still continue to talk about him, meaning well, though not immune to plasticized gossip and sentimental recollections of some romantic movie.

Mark, he’s a romantic. An awkward one who Deakon endows with calculative flair. Like The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor, Buried Within holds tight to the logical, each character’s thoughts, mannerisms, and relationships presented with the accessibility of a well-written instruction manual. But the steps you follow to assemble the cabinet, they’re written with heart and integrity.

Here is just an example of dry humor by which I was charmed:

“Like most men, Adam and John were not attorneys and they certainly made decisions that proved them to be hypocrites to their own lofty notions of morality, but still they held these notions.”

Of course, attorneys aren’t perfect people, and everyone, in a series however prolonged or brief, repeats the same mistakes. This is a human flaw, and while imperfection can embarrass and disappoint, Deakon describes everyday follies with a bluntness and dialogue that not only has one chuckling, but reassures readers that maybe, even through the appallingly unpredictable, things will be okay.

The thrill of courtship, the drabs of marriage, the challenge of keeping the flame at a flicker. Couples and partnership are key players in Buried Within, helping to establish the backdrop of a quiet town and steady friendships. Mark and Rebecca are great for each other. The girl, young and lively, shivers in her modesty, though comfort is found in the sheer stability of quiet, awkward Mark. Again, no one is perfect, but upon finding out, most would “tsk” and pry. So Mark and Rebecca keep to themselves for much of their married lives.

Before, things were better. Wholesome memories of a budding love that makes me think of that movie with a young Reese Witherspoon. Man in the Moon.

In time, Mark unravels. We see the petals of a vibrant rose gradually fall. Insecurity, infertility, the bureaucracy of adoption. Work. Because love doesn’t pay the bills, though you’d think it makes hardships easier to bear.

Mark gets struck with a hardship. Brought on by a different kind of awkward.

Deakon writes about the interpersonal in very personal ways. Again, I’ll emphasize that he’s quite technical, something I can’t deduce too often in the span of a short novel. The chapters read like vignettes, Norman Rockwell paintings that hang on the same wall, but don’t necessarily depict the same thing, like dogs or the ocean, hotdogs and cottages. We begin at the present, roll in the past, proceed to the present again. The woods, a car, a bowling alley. A garage. The trunk of a car. Deakon doesn’t concentrate too much on building a bridge from scene to scene, but they all fit tightly. More so, we appreciate detail in thoughts and dialogue.

But one thing I wish the author could have done more is drill more detail in those more unpleasant scenes.

In general, we tend to be more comfortable reading about atrocity than seeing it. Given the freedom of imagination, it makes a lot of sense. While Deakon did well with his fine brushstrokes the first half of the novel, I felt things grew curt towards the end. Know that the writing is always straightforward. But with actions we associate with high coverage trials, I was hoping for more exploration. The content itself is unsettling, though I wanted something more graphic.

However, this may be the point of it all. Contrasts are everywhere. The conventional versus the old-fashioned, the young and the old, the masculine and the effeminate. Pay attention to what Rebecca says about Mark’s dad, the perks Rebecca hopes for at work when she hits her thirties, the way Mark’s friends laugh at him because he uses the word “tendrils.”

By the way, I’ve never actually heard a man use the word “tendrils” in person.

So while I initially felt I was walking through some lush forest beneath some starry, lovelorn sky (and I do like to feel this way every once in a while), it seemed like I suddenly found myself in a pale tundra, with poison ivy here and there. Jarring and out of place.

But then again, maybe this was the goal Deakon aimed for.

The quirky and the creepy. The grieving and the vengeful. These, among a handful of other attributes, harbor similarities but diverge at a certain point. A fork in the road, or a fine line. The demarcation isn’t as harsh as the water of romance and the oil of postmarital boredom, but it’s there to be noticed. A point for reflection.

Despite its occasional brusqueness, Buried Within left me with thoughts whole and absorbed in our own flaws. The things we hold most dear, and things that really, anyone is capable of accomplishing when we lose our grasp on what we loved.

The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor – A Book Review

“You know me, man. I love my wife…”

I’ve heard this enough from many a man. Not to say I doubt each expression of this sentiment. Some men do undoubtedly love their wives. No marriage is protected by a void of conflict, not every pregnancy is received with glee, and not every marriage that necessarily ends dissolves in the friendly quiet. For Simon and Kerri Pastor, this especially holds true.

Simon is that goodnatured fellow we remember at college parties who never touched a drop and blushed at proposals to be his wingman. At the outset, we groaned. Ridiculed him. Speculated on his sanity. But on a serious note, we respected his virtues, admitting we could never be as principled. But is he really?

The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor is a story we’ve all encountered, with varying attitudes, perspectives, and capacities to relate. I am twenty-four years old, have only had two serious boyfriends, and I’m not quite eager to get married. I don’t know what that’s like, and frankly, I’ve enclosed myself while friends plan families, budget with duty, and purchase modest lots in a growing Suburbia. Truthfully, I was somewhat turned off to the plot of Simon Pastor, but thought of books I enjoyed that heavily featured couples in conflict. Anna Karenina, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Great Gatsby, and others. Reading another work with drama in relationships couldn’t be as nauseating as it is everyday. In this case, it scraped at my heart.

Pete Deakon, blogger of The Captain’s Log, has a writing style I’ve yet to get accustomed to. He writes well, though at times robotically. The first several chapters were a bit difficult to get through. I found the sentences too attentive to grammar and structure, and hoped to gather a stronger sense of the story’s tone. Accounts of Simon’s college days, the early enchantment of Kerri, and the birth of baby Emily struck me as stoic. But when I got to page 53, interest was sparked, and emotions swelled. I was caught in the eye of a livid typhoon, but didn’t mind so much. It was thrilling.

Now, page 53 contains a quote that I’m sure reminds a handful of people about a certain someone. Your friend, ex-boyfriend, boss, father. A figure of trust and piety who engages in the deplorable. Deakon writes,

“Simon liked putting on airs that he was a good husband. As any secure person knows, however, a braggart is that way because of insecurity and doubt. The truth was that Simon wanted to stay [at work] more than anyone. But he knew that in staying the beans would be spilled. He couldn’t hardly have a conversation with a friend without complaining about his marriage. Kerri this, Kerri that. Among close friends, a little venting now and again was acceptable, he thought. But the happy hour scene would prove fatal to his carefully crafted image of being happily married, so he raced home.”

The land mines planted by Simon and Kerri are only iconic of the toxins experts say kill fifty percent of American marriages. Infidelity, financial issues, sexual dysfunction, and discord in parenting are nothing new, or shocking. But Deakon demonstrates that it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. Skilled in written dialogue, the author lays out the rest of the story in a way that not only lets us know Simon and adopt him as our own, but look closer at the processes behind a relationship’s end.

It is indisputably evident that Simon is unfulfilled in his marriage. But in compliance with social norms, the perceptions of those he performs for, and the teachings of Jesus from a childhood that wasn’t so clean of hypocritical modeling (Simon’s father ran off to have babies with another woman. Simon cheated on a pregnant Kerri with a stripper), Simon is determined to stay. But as we may have seen before, in someone we know or know of, the persistent often unravel, descending into monstrosities they never wanted to be. And the reality is that most of us won’t intervene. We’ll watch, gape, give the guy advice that’s either ambivalently meaningless or something simplistic. “That’s not right,” is all Simon’s friend can say as he vents about Kerri’s tactics in passive aggression.

Counseling, compromises, and a collaborative end. The couple takes these measures to miserably fail. Indeed, it was as if Simon was planning to fail. I can see someone commenting on the relative one-sidedness of the story, that it’s told from a man’s perspective, brash, unfeeling, a beer mug brimming with misogyny. I admit, I was angered, unsympathetic to Simon’s difficulties as he talked about the things women do to disrespect men, although they may not be aware of this. Well, thanks, Simon. It’s helpful to know that in my failed relationships, I could not have known any better. But this is where I felt challenged as a reader. This is a story about an imperfect man, with a pristine facade that has trailed him since youth. Aren’t we all imperfect? I was harsh on Simon at times, and though we never see him lay a hand on Kerri, I definitely wanted to slap him something fierce.

But I remember the concept of trauma. How it strikes without warning, how the aftereffects vary, but damn nonetheless. It isn’t something you plan for, and personally, I cannot say you recover with grace. There’s a concoction of shock, disappointment, rage, vengeance. And of course, a bitterness that scalds most with the patience to put up with you for more than an hour. In The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor, we’re reminded of this, the ugliness of trauma, its ability to trap and ensnare resolutely. In trauma, Simon trips, falters, and stagnates to a degree that makes for intriguing study, but sad witnessing. Ultimately, you feel bad, whether mournful, insulted, dejected, and more. Deakon makes you feel. Prompts a response that lingers. In doing this with Simon Pastor, he has penned a success.