Joe Derouen’s THREADS: A book review

ThreadsFrontHRJoe DeRouen’s Threads is a worthy follow-up to his debut novel, Small Things. It’s meatier, more complex, and line-by-line better written than the first novel. Joe still has some growing to do as a writer, but he knows how to tell a suspenseful, entertaining story.

Threads picks up thirty or so years later than the first book, with the offspring of Small Things‘ trio of protagonists (Shawn, Jenny, and Fred Ruskin). In a relatively short time, people are being erased, timelines are in flux, and our two main characters, Ben and Katy, are traveling back to a time that’s just a few months later than Shawn, Jenny, and Fred Ruskin’s epic battle with Aupuch. There’s a new bad guy on the horizon, playing havoc with the timelines, killing off family members right and left. It’s up to Ben and Katy to team up with their parents back in the 1970s to fight not just one, not just two, but three villains amongst a host of lesser antagonists.

Strengths this time around include the relationship between Ben and Katy, the deft use of plot twists (with only one or two cheats as far as I could tell), and being able to spend time with the Small Things family again. Especially vivid is a new ability exhibited by one of the new main characters, described with such visual panache that it made me wish more time had been spent explaining and demonstrating this power.

By making this sequel, the second in a proposed Small Things trilogy, bigger and more complex, DeRouen may have lost a little focus. Not much, but enough that it distracts. One character could have been excised entirely, it seems, and the story would not have suffered. Additionally, a couple of detours along the way could have used a little tightening up. Discussing these detours in detail would result in spoilers, so I won’t.

Threads, according to the author, was written as an independent story, not necessarily needing one to have read Small Things first. In essence, this is true, but the first couple of chapters may lose inattentive readers. The number of magical talismans and the various magical elements of the big spooky house that served as a centerpiece in Small Things may also lose inattentive readers.

The best explanation of magical rules — controlled magic vs. wild magic — occurs unfortunately late in the novel. The discussion comes at a time when it’s needed, but I wish the time for the discussion (not necessarily the exact circumstances, mind you, because that would make for a very short novel) had occurred somewhere earlier in the book.

All said and done, Threads is a good, fun read. Very recommended, and I’m looking forward to the final book in the trilogy.

(Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for Threads and am mentioned in the dedication.)

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2014: Write Every Day

2013 sucked. Good things happened, but worse things also happened. Good friends suffered major health issues. My mother passed away, leaving me to handle her end-of-life issues and get my sister moved to a public housing facility. The holidays passed with me missing my mother badly. Even the good news brought its stresses. After 10 months of unemployment (and a spotty work history since the 2008 financial collapse), I finally found a job that’s the perfect fit. Unfortunately, I had two attend a business conference a little more than a week after my mother passed away. And I had to help plan and attend another business conference in the fall. I do not travel well.

Good news included the end of a months-long, depression-filled writer’s block. In August, I joined a local writer’s group, which engaged in writing exercises every meeting. That helped break the block, so I dragged out an unfinished NaNoWriMo project from 2011, comprising only 10k words. I shared a bit with the group, which encouraged me to tackle it once again during NaNo 2013. Everyone who has heard parts of it, or a synopsis of the plot, seems to like it. During November, I joined another writing group which held Friday night write-ins at a local bookstore. Both groups have helped me to be more social after my self-imposed partial exile of the past few years, brought on by the spotty employment history, financial woes, depression, and in 2013, Mom’s death.

2014 has to be better, not just in comparison to 2013, but because I’m going to make it better. My only New Year’s resolution is this, simple and clear:

Write Every Day.

And this blog post counts as my daily writing assignment. Yesterday, I reviewed a friend’s novel and posted the review on Amazon. I’ll post it as this blog’s next entry.

Tomorrow? It’s back to the NaNo project.

May you have a productive, healthy, and happy New Year.

(Yes, I promised a blog name change back in September. I’ll get to it. Soon. I promise.)

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Blog Name Change Coming

Will be working on a blog change this weekend. Nothing too drastic. Name change, some other changes.

Just remember … there is NOOO rule six.

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Two Writing Prompts

I joined a writers’ group recently. In looking back on my unsuccessful fiction writing attempts, I was most prolific while part of a group. So far, I’ve attended two meetings, and I plan to attend many more. The group varies in age, in ambition, in talent. We’re all at various stages of raw and working to get better.

We start each meeting with a writing exercise. Which, quite frankly, eats up a lot of time. We spend 15-20 minutes writing from the prompts, then spend half an hour reading and critiquing what we’ve written. If I’d my druthers, we’d read from our works in progress the entire time. Maybe the meetings will eventually develop that way. In the meantime, writing prompt and critique.

What follows are my first two prompts. For this first exercise, each of us chose two random photos of people from a pile of photos. I got two guys, one a nebbish (who I named Archibald) and a hunk (who I named Rick).
————-
Rick was a lifeguard that summer at the Bridgefield pool, the summer I died and made a life-long friend. I didn’t have many friends at school — gym class was always filled with “Hey sissy” and “homo says what?” — the bon mots and witticisms uttered by the self-appointed elite at Lincoln Middle School.

Obviously, Archibald Wilson — your humble narrator — was not numbered among these paragons of teenage virtue.

Anyway, it was summer vacation of 1974, the hottest August on record since the summer of ’28, to hear Grandpa tell it. I had just failed my third try at swimming lessons the year at the downtown Y. So, of course, Mom warned me to stay in the shallow end that fateful day at the pool. It if hadn’t been for Susie — my first-ever crush — I wouldn’t have died that day. Not that it was her fault, mind you. No, the stupidity rested solely with me.

And if it hadn’t been for Rick — I learned his name later, having only thought of him as the new lifeguard all summer — I would’ve stayed dead.

I gotta tell ya … being dead is no picnic. I was clinically dead — that’s the word the doctor used — for about two minutes. I didn’t see a white light, I didn’t hear dead loved ones calling for me, I didn’t float over my body — nothing. I was in blackness for a while, then I woke up to the worst ever headache in my life and a terrible pain in my chest.

It seems that Rick had accidentally cracked a rib while he was performing CPR on me.

He had movie star good looks, dark, moody eyes, kind of like Marlon Brando in one of Grandpa’s favorite movies. And I decided then and there that he would be the brother I never had.

… Well, in my delirium, I momentarily forgot about Chuck, who was 10 years older than me and rarely visited. He lived out-of-town with Mom’s first husband. It had been like that since I was six.

At the same time I was deciding Rick was my brand-new buddy/brother, Rick was thinking about what he was going to have for dinner that night…

————-

Exercise #2. For this exercise, we chose two words from a pile of paper slips and attempted to write a story suggested by those words. I picked MAGIC and CASH.

————-

“Watch me pull a hundred bucks out of a hat.”

“Do you mean a rabbit?”

“That’s too clichéd. I’m trying to do something fresh.”

“A hundred bucks. Out of a hat. Isn’t using a hat too clichéd, too?”

“It it were a top hat, then it’d be clichéd. Instead, I’m gonna pull the cash out of … a white, floppy bunny hat!” Stan flourished said hat.

“That’s … unusual, I guess.”

“Yeah, and it makes the trick even harder because it’s a soft floppy hat. A top hat can stand up on its own and hide the trap door in the tabletop where the bunny is hiding. But a floppy hat? That’s the real challenge. It’s formless, shapeless, and makes it hard to do a smooth flourish. It gets in your way and works against you.”

“Not if you already have the hundred-dollar bill already folded up and palmed.”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw you put your hand in your pocket while you were waving the hat around to show how flopping it is. Class misdirection.”

“I — I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Come on, I saw you. Besides, where’s the wonder in producing a single hundred-dollar bill from a hat? There’s no trick to that at all.”

“Says you. Here, look at the hat. See? Empty.”

“Show me your hand.”

“All right, spoil sport.” Stan put the hat on the table and showed Lynn his right hand, which had been holding the floppy bunny hat. “See? Empty.”

“Show me the other one.”

Reluctantly, Stan brought up his left hand and opened it, revealing the folded and palmed one hundred-dollar bill. “Yeah, you caught me.”

“Told you.”

“All right, smarty pants, how would you do the trick?”

“Okay, I’ll show you.” Lynn reached for the floppy bunny hat and discovered it was heavier than it seemed. She reached into the hat and pulled out a stack of ten-dollar bills. She looked at Stan, eyes wide. “How the fuck did you do that?”

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What Doesn’t Kill Her by Max Allan Collins: A Review

(The following was posted to Goodreads and to my Facebook page.)

What Doesn't Kill Her0001

<i>What Doesn’t Kill Her</i> is a thriller that thrills, but ultimately falls a bit short. The serial killer,

to me at least, was easy to pick out way before the big reveal, despite a few red herrings thrown our way. The characters were well delineated, with two relationships, minor ones at that, really standing out: that of Mark, our erstwhile cop investigating the killer’s crimes on his own time, and his boss, the two of them somehow breaking through the stereotypical captain/detective adversarial dynamic; and a more touching relationship between the protagonist,

Jordan Rivera, and a fellow patient at the psychiatric institution in which she spends a silent ten years.

When Jordan finally speaks out, after having seen a news report about a crime remarkably similar to her own experience, she eventually joins a support group. Some members of the support group break off to begin investigating the serial killer’s crimes, since many of the splinter group’s members seem to have been victims of the same man. Mark begins working with this group through his connection to Jordan.

The pacing is good and the tension in the final pages pays off satisfyingly. Definitely worth your time.

Disclosure: I received an ARC of this novel from the co-author, who is named in the acknowledgements.

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Lester and Buster: A Writing Prompt

A writing prompt, suggested by the organizer of the writers group I recently joined:  “Your protagonist turns 70. He has three weeks to live. What is the one thing he needs to do before he dies?”
Here’s what I did with it.
———————————-

Lester and Buster

Buster woke him up as usual at 5:00 a.m., barking happily and trying to jump onto the bed. The little pug never gave up, even though he barely could jump as high as the box springs. And, as usual, Lester leaned over, grimacing a little, and lifted Buster up. All the while, Buster yipped happily and slobbered all over Lester’s fingers.

Lester really really wished his son would take Buster in three weeks time. Or however much longer he had. But no, Ricky couldn’t be bothered. Just like he couldn’t be bothered to call or visit his dear old dad, even though he was dying.

Fuck that doctor. Fuck this cancer. Fuck Ricky.

Grimacing again, causing his face to wrinkle even more deeply than his 70 years had etched on that fleshly roadmap, Lester struggled to his feet and nearly lost his balance stepping into his houseshoes. He put out a hand to the wall opposite the bed, near the window. Buster was cradled close to his body with his other arm.

Once balanced, Lester looked briefly out the window, gauging the day’s activities by what he saw. No snow had fallen, despite the gleeful forecast on last night’s 10:00 news. The predawn sky held very few clouds, white scatterings on a violet canvas. If this held up, the sun would warm the day up nicely, maybe even hit 45 degrees if he was lucky. That was by no means a record, but it was warm enough for Lester to get a few things done.

First of all, feed Buster. Thankfully, the bag was at this point only half full, so he no longer had to scoop the dry feed out. He lifted and tipped the bag over the bowl, while Buster waited patiently. And while Buster thrashed around in the food bowl, Lester refilled his water bowl, then set it down beside the oh-so-ravenous pug.

Three weeks was not a lot of time to accomplish much. Lester mentally crossed several things off his list as he fed Buster then attended to his morning toiletry. He nearly screamed at the pain from moving his bowels. At least he wouldn’t have to put up with that much longer.

Have to see the lawyer this morning. Louise should have all of the appropriate documents drawn up, most importantly the will. Won’t Ricky be surprised. Too bad he couldn’t just fake his death so he could somehow get a look at his son’s face while the will was read.

The morning shower got a little scary when Lester stood up from the shower chair to finish washing. He steadied himself by grabbing the bar he had installed last year, the same time he put in the shower chair and lowered the bathtub’s side. Concessions to age, he thought, as he examined the roadmap in the mirror, attempting to shave around the interstate interchanges without nicking himself. Investing in a magnifying mirror would have helped immensely, but Lester was only willing to concede so far.

No incidents getting dressed. He pulled on an old, worn pair of jeans and a cheap beige cardigan that had seen better days. He methodically packed a pair of bags for the trip, including toiletries, enough underwear for two weeks, and an envelope that rustled familiarly as he shoved it under a couple of shirts.

Ten thousand should last him just fine. He wrapped the revolver in an old T-shirt and placed it next to the money.

What are you doing, old man? What the hell do you think you’re doing? Lester scratched behind his right ear, as though he could rid himself of the voice.

I’m doing what I need to do, he answered silently. It’s the only thing left for me to do.

He padded through the house, locking windows, checking doors, turning off the water, turning off lights, flipping off the circuit breakers, turning off the gas to the stove, a couple dozen little tasks in preparation for his departure. Buster followed him, yapping happily, apparently sensing the trip to come. Again, Lester wished that Ricky would have accepted Buster into his home. It would have made the next two weeks a little easier. The pug didn’t travel well on long trips.

Lester sat down at the secretary desk tucked into a corner of the living room. He wrote a short note, pausing occasionally to keep his hand from cramping up. He folded it in half, wrote “RICKY” in block letters, and then placed the note on the end table next to his favorite chair. He walked back to the desk and closed the writing surface, running his hand along the edge. Real wood, a light pine, stained dark. He’d studied algebra and English at this desk. He piloted it through the solar system and beyond. He read many a Sherlock Holmes story with his feet propped up on this desk. It was a little weathered, a little battered, a little aged, just like him. But it had been repaired and refinished several times during its span of years, so it was still handsome, still sturdy, and still useful. Lester sighed and turned toward the coat closet near the front door.

He donned his winter coat, a surprisingly new black cloth outercoat padded against the elements. It still felt stiff on him, but at least it was warm. He put on his black fedora and his leather gloves. He went out to preheat the car, again cursing that he’d turned down the remote start when he bought the thing.

While the car heated, Lester slowly carried his bags to the trunk, one by one, shooing Buster away from the door each time. He moved slowly, the pain keeping him from doing too much at once. It took half an hour to load the car, and Lester made another face, this time over the wasted fuel. He made another trip to load up Buster’s things, then one last trip to load up Buster himself.

Then it was off to the lawyer’s office, a side trip to the last journey he would ever make. The most important journey of his entire life.

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A Southern Tale

Bella and Bubba were asleep. Bella heard a noise and nudged Bubba with her elbow.

“Bubba Joe, get up. I heard a noise! It sounds like someone’s outside the house!”

Bubba scratched himself, rolled over, belched and farted at the same time. He grumbled and said, “Bella Lou, go see yourself.”

So Bella got out of bed, put on a cape, and bit her own wrist.

The End.

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My Five Favorite Book-Filled Places

Rock Island Library, front view

RI Public Library. It’s hard to climb those steps these days.

Rock Island Library
Rock Island, IL
1962-1971
It all started with the Rock Island Library’s bookmobile. In first grade, I read 14 books during the school year, all borrowed from the bookmobile. In second grade, I read 21 books, including the earliest that I recall (but very faintly, unfortunately) — The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley. I read an illustrated version, and I remember the pictures fairly dancing off the page. In my memory, the pictures sparkle and ripple, as though seen through a watery spray. In third or fourth grade, I started visiting the main library’s children’s department, where I borrowed books about magic, books about Freddy the Pig, books about ghosts, books about mythology, and so on. I don’t remember if I was in the fifth or sixth grade when I was finally allowed to have an adult card, but climbing the steps from the children’s department to the adult section was like going from first grade straight to college. I remember it as gleaming, all glass shelves, a shaft of sunlight from a high-set window bathing everything in a golden glow. Of course the reality was nothing like that memory, but it still felt like a whole new world had been opened to me. I nearly lived in the science fiction section during school vacations, browsing through the shelves and finding three or four titles to carry on my walk home. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Laumer, Bradbury, and Ellison all became my friends, as did so many more.

Readmore Book World, entrance

Readmore left this building during the 1980s. It’s home to the local Elks Lodge now.

Readmore Book World
Rock Island, IL
1971-1980

The next best thing to borrowing books to read is buying books to read. Most of my paperback, comic book, and magazine collection came from this beloved store. (So much of it given away, sold, or traded over the years that none of them are in my possession any longer. Moving several times over the past 40 years necessitated purging my library many times over.) As a teenager, the highlight of my week was walking to Readmore on Saturday afternoon, loading up on comic books, walking home and then reading them over pizza and root beer. The habit carried over into my early twenties — on Wednesdays during lunch time, I’d leave the radio station where I worked, drive across the river, load up on comics, and head back to the station to eat my lunch and read. (Sometimes, I snuck some reading in during slow afternoon shifts, too. Shh, don’t tell anyone.) Readmore introduced me to Warren horror magazines, Ace science fiction books, Galaxy and Worlds of If science fiction magazines, underground comics, and the trench coat section in the back of the store where the smutty magazine were displayed. (Again, shhh, don’t tell anyone.)

Denkmann Memorial Library and Old Main, side view

Denkmann Memorial Library on the Augustana College campus.

Denkmann Memorial Library, Augustana College
Rock Island, IL
1974-1978
During my college years, I worked part-time in two places on campus: the college radio station (yep, it had paying positions!) and the college library. I had one foot in the world of literature and one foot in the world of mass communications. There were times when I thought I should have been a librarian instead of pursuing radio and television as a career. Students usually worked circulation and reshelving. During summer break, for three years running, I worked full-time in the library (well, six hours a day, at the most). One summer, the library administration began the transition from the Dewey Decimal system to Library of Congress classification system. All of the books using the LOC system were shelved starting in the basement, which necessitated moving every Dewey Decimal classified book up, filling in empty shelf space on the second to sixth floors to accommodate the growing reclassified books on the lower floors. Stories that I’ll have to save for another time: how I lost my last gasp of faith in a top floor of that library; how I developed a crush on a fellow student (a former high school classmate) who later went on to become a successful author; and how I found the funniest book title ever in the music section.

Heroes Comics
Fort Worth, TX
1989 – 1992
Whenever someone’s willing to listen, I usually blame the failure of my career as an independent video producer on my poor business sense, in my inability to diversify my client list. That’s most of the reason. The remaining 30% of the reason? I got to hang out with friendly people at a fun comic book store in Forth Worth. Heroes had two locations — the main store on West Berry Street where the owner, Ron, presided; and the second store on Highway 80 West, where Maritabeth and Candy wor

ked. (Requiescat in pace, Candy. You are missed.) I became good friends with Maritabeth and Candy, and they let me hang out in the store, whiling away many an afternoon, reading my stash. Yes, I was reading comics when I should have been marketing my business. (As I’ve said already … shh, don’t tell anyone.)

Half Price Books on Northwest Highway

Half Price Books. Flagship store, Northwest Highway, Dallas, TX.

Half Price Books
Flagship Store, Dallas, TX
1997-2003
Before Half Price’s main store moved into its current “super-store” flagship, it was located in a curiously-designed two-story house just around the corner and down the street. The place felt cramped (even though it was bigger than a normal two-story house), musty (well, what used book store doesn’t smell a little musty?), and a bit disorganized. The floorboards squeaked, there were a couple of areas where you had to watch your head, and the stairs up to the second floor made me a little leery whenever I used them. All that changed when HPB bought a big box location on Northwest Highway, moved the whole kit-n-kaboodle there, and outfitted the new layout with several registers, a spacious meeting/reading area, and a cafe. To this day, the most peaceful moments I’ve ever spent in a place filled with books — store, library, what-have-you — were in this store. I spent many Saturday afternoons — during some of the most stressful times of my life — planted in the most comfortable over-stuffed chair I’ve ever sat in, loaded up with a pile of books and not a care in the world. I miss a lot of things about the Dallas-Fort Worth area since I moved away in 2003. Of course I miss my friends terribly, but of all the locations I’ve lived and visited there, I miss this HPB store the most.

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Small Things by Joe DeRouen — A Review

Cover Image for Small Things

Cover by Renée Barratt.

There’s a monster in Carthage Lake, and it’s stalking 15-year-old Shawn Spencer and and his friend, Jenny McGee. Jenny swears she saw the monster kill her brother, Tanner, who was Shawn’s best friend. Shawn doesn’t believe her, until one fateful night…

Would you like to know more?

Small Things, Joe DeRouen’s debut novel, is several things at once: a coming-of-age novel, a small-town horror story, a B-monster movie that scares the shit out of you, and a dark fantasy nerd-tale full of in-jokes for comic book and action figure fans. It’s a little Matheson, a little Bradbury, a little King, and a little John Constantine, all rolled up into an entertainingly spooky tale that you’ll want to read in one go. DeRouen tells a strong story in plain language and he’s only bound to get better.

(Disclaimer: I was a First Reader for Small Things in manuscript form, and I’ve enjoyed it both times I’ve read it.)

Recommended.

Joe’s home page:  www.joederouen.com
Buy Small Things at Barnes & Noble
Buy Small Things at Amazon
Buy Small Things at Smashwords

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Mrs. Freshley’s Dreamies Cream-Filled Cakes (New Recipe!) — A Review

Picture of Dreamies package

Dreamies. *Not* for general consumption.

In need of a Twinkies fix (has someone bought Wonder’s snack division yet?), today I found myself contemplating a temporary replacement that had appeared in my employer’s snack food vending machine — Mrs. Freshley’s Dreamies. Consumed with a 20-oz. bottle of Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry, I must say this desperate substitution will most likely not be repeated. Here’s why.

Packaging
The cellophane is cheap, like the packaging for an off-brand whoopee cushion you’d buy at the … well, it’s not called the five-and-dime anymore, is it? These days you’d buy it at the Dollar store, but not one of the regular chains. It’ll be called the 99-cent store, or the One-Buck store, or something even more generic and boring. The signage will be written on cardboard, in black marker wielded by a five-year-old. The store is one of two left in a small strip mall located next to a “gentlemen’s club” and a purveyor of condoms, just outside the aging industrial section of town. The Buck Store sells beer, but you’d just as soon drink that as you would the watered-down shit served at the “gentlemen’s club.” At least at the Buck Store it’s cheaper and you won’t need a fistful of singles.

I digress.

The cellophane splits like your roommate on rent day, so the cakes tumble onto your tabletop, causing greasy stains like those left by your roommate after she plays Halo on your Xbox 360. The coated cardboard backing is glued to the cakes, so it takes vise-grip pliers and a hacksaw to separate it from the snacky confections. You’ll find that a lot of the cake is stuck to the backing when you eventually manage to rip it free. I recommend you leave it there and throw the backing away — the less cake left for you to eat, the better.

The Cake
The sponge cake is dry, like my mother’s Thanksgiving turkey, but not quite as dry as the Sahara. It contains enough air pockets to cause turbulence for a B-52, and it doesn’t “spring” back like a Twinkie does when you pinch it. It just kind of sits there, like your spouse’s cat after it takes a dump in the litter box and then trots out to the living room to accuse you of using its air and sitting in the most comfy spot in the house. The coloring approximates that of a Twinkie, but the golden hue, that of a golden retriever having rolled in the mud after a trip to the groomer, is layered over the cake, not intrinsic to the cake itself. The inner layer under the muddy golden layer is of a noticeably lighter golden shade, perhaps that of the retriever rolling around in dry dirt, instead of mud, after a trip to the groomer. The large air pockets, however, break up the cake’s colorful uniformity, giving it the look of a pimply Garbage Pail Kid. The taste is not as sweet as a Twinkie — where the Twinkie could be described as tasting like artificial honey created by little robot bees, the Dreamies taste more like a chemical reconstitution of how artificial honey might taste to someone with only three taste buds.

The “Dream” Filling
The cream filling also has a chemical taste, much like Twinkies did after their reformulation in the 80s, but, again, not as sweet. The filling is also dry, there’s not as much of it as there is in a Twinkie (thank FSM for small favors), and there’s a slightly gritty consistency to its texture. (Perhaps bits of the Sahara were used in the Dreamies “New Recipe!”.)

Conclusion
Overall, the Dreamies cake and filling coat the mouth with a slight film as though the adhesive used to seal the package were drizzled on the cakes. If one were to give a Twinkie a five star rating, on a scale of 1 to 5 (a tad high in overall snack satisfaction, yes, but we are using the Twinkie as the comparative model here), then Mrs. Freshley’s Dreamies would rank, at the most, two stars.

Rating
Two stars. Not recommended.

Recommended Action After Consumption
Purging or, if necessary, pumping your stomach.

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