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Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith

Reviewed by Beatriz Terrazas, a Carve Literary Services consultant.

Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut collection is a fearless exploration of relationships. No love, lust or loss is left off the table in this sensual feast of a book. Each story is rich in timbre, language and detail. And she captures perfectly the voice of each character, be it a teen on the brink of adulthood or a brokenhearted man in mid-career.

In “Skee Ball, Indiana” Cross-Smith introduces Rory and Deladis, teen BFFs on a road trip. How refreshing to read such a well rendered portrayal of the prickly, angst-infused age between child and adult, particularly in Rory. Sometimes she’s sassy and irreverent: “Aw, be nice to me. I just had an abortion. I stuck my bottom lip out, made my eyes all big. Other times she’s insecure enough to simply sit in the orbit and bask in the affection of her more outgoing friend: It was her way of proving I was her favorite friend and although I already knew it, it still felt good to be loved like that. It was like stepping out of the cool shade into the sun.

In “And It Can Never Be Too Dark Or Too Bright” Cross-Smith shows her mastery of metaphors that sizzle: He kisses with urgency. He kisses like a dying man. He kisses like he worships women. Your mouth is his church. How could any reader not think back to lost loves or to the way we always imagined love would be?

“Too Dark Or Too Bright” is one of several stories written in that oft-scorned second person. But they’re so easily accessible that I read them through before noticing. It helps that the author has a gift for tapping into pockets of forgotten nostalgia. Before I knew it I was reaching back into my own memories:

You want to put on your yellow sundress and ride with the windows down and stop at a little station with a sign squeaking and blowing back and forth in the sweet southern wind. You want to stop for greasy beef jerky and orange soda. A candy bar and a newspaper from another city.

A series of three stories — “What The Fireworks Are For,” “Hold On, Hold On,” and “Cheap Beer & Sparklers” — follow a set of characters through a tangle of deception woven by ambivalent desires. Cross-Smith knows the value of less is more when mining sexual tension:

After dinner Roscoe put his hand on my leg under the table and my knees turned to hot butter. Dom looked over at us. He winked at me. My lightning bug-heart was already working out a new flash pattern for both of them

She’s also capable of employing a more delicate touch, graceful and light, but with a precision that strikes the tender chords of emotion nonetheless. It’s especially apparent in my favorite story, Whiskey & Ribbons, a tale about grief. When Evangeline’s husband Eamon dies, she mourns with his best friend Dalton and her now fatherless baby. The language here is so poignant and evocative it cuts to the bone. Consider these lines:

I read once that Bill Monroe said that bluegrass music “has a high lonesome sound. The three of us left in this world without Eamon, that’s what we have. We sound like one banjo playing slowly. We sound like one fiddle playing into the wind of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Or this one:

Dalton smiles at me and the thought of kissing him is there snapping back and forth like a clean white dishtowel hanging on a clothesline in the wind of my cluttered mind.

This literary prowess will win over readers and writers alike.

Every Kiss A War, by Leesa Cross-Smith. Purchase at Mojave River Press, 2014.