Monday, June 19, 2017

Celine by Peter Heller

In Celine, Heller introduces readers to an aristocratic PI with emphysema. The titular character is also an excellent shot with a mind as quick as trap. 

Even though she's on the Social Register, Celine prefers reuniting birth families pro Bono. She doesn't care for any other kind of detective work, though she once worked for the F.B.I.

One of the most admirable characters in a long time is this one--gutsy and privileged Celine who sincerely cares for the underdog.

Celine is given a strange case--a woman who was abandoned twice by her own father. The woman is in her 40s now and would like to find her father so he can meet his grandchild. 

The man, a National Geographic Explorer photographer, may have faked his own death. He also may be on the run from the CIA for his involvement in political matters in South America.

Celine has her own secrets. The second mystery that unfolds is who Celine really is and what she's hiding from her "Watson," her husband, Peter, and her son, Hank. 

Based on the dedication page, it appears that Celine and Peter are versions of the author's own parents. 

Peter Heller has also written The Dog Stars and The Painter.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Fellside by M.R. Carey

Fellside is another terrifying, yet gripping story by M.R. Carey, the author of The Girl With All The Gifts. 

Jess Moulson goes on a hunger strike shortly before entering a maximum security prison, Fellside. 

Though Jess nearly dies, a young boy gives her a reason to live. Alex, the ghost of the boy whom everyone believes she killed, asks her to do the one thing she cannot refuse.

Fellside is a ghost story that reads like a riveting psychological thriller and suspenseful mystery.

Jess's relationship with Alex is complicated. She wants to protect him from everything but he is also powerful. He saved her when a nurse punctured her artery instead of her vein:

"He'd brought her back from the abyss, from the mouth of the grave. She owed him everything and he owed her nothing except arguably a life for a life and a tooth for a tooth."
Alex knows, however, that the fire Jess started while she was high hadn't killed him. 

The fire she set hadn't killed him because he was already dead. So who hurt him and how did he die?  

As a favor to Alex who brought her back from the blackness, Jess agrees to appeal her case and investigate what truly happened to him. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

History of Wolves

For a coming-of-age story that transcends genre, read Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves.
One of the central questions in this tale is culpability.

"What's the difference between what you want to believe and what you do?...And what's the difference between what you think and what you end up doing," Madeleine wonders.

She's a kid surrounded by adults--her parents, Mr. Grierson, the Gardners who shirk their duties and blame others for mistakes they make.The worst offender is probably Patra who blames illogically blames Madeleine for the death of her four-year-old.

Then there's Mr. Grierson, her teacher, who may be reprehensible but is not guilty of what police and Lily charge him with. Madeleine tracks him to Florida after he gets out of prison. She writes letters to him but he seems to have forgotten her.

Though Madeleine is expert at hiking and traversing the streams in her woods, she is less expert at deciphering social cues or understanding human relationships. Perhaps that is why she is fascinated by Patra and Leo's strange relationship.

However capable she is at wilderness survival, Madeleine is strangely powerless when faced  with Leo's religious obsession or Lily's duplicity.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Shirley Jackson

“So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you.”  Shirley Jackson.

I think this is why so many writer do what they do. Writing is a snapshot of a particular time, often painful, but sometimes joyful. It's a memory, a recording, that makes the ordinary details of life extraordinary.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Booth Brothers: Drama, Fame, and the Death of President Lincoln by Rebecca Langston-George


This is a fascinating read for middle school and up. Langston-George highlights the two Booth brothers and the different paths their lives took. One felt he was a Northerner, Edwin Booth, and the other, John Wilkes Booth, felt he was a Southerner.

Why two brothers would have such different points of view is never really discussed. In part, it may have to do with how they were raised. Their father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a famous actor, known for his Shakespeare, who was also prone to drink.

John may have been resentful of his older brother, Edwin. Junius allowed Edwin to tour the country with him but refused to allow John to do the same.

Langston-George gives a clear, succinct summary of the events that led to the shooting and its aftermath. She related little known information, like the strange event that occurred when Edwin Booth died.

This is a historical tale full of ironies. Pictures of conspirators and pictures of the personal belongings of Booth at the end provide context.

I previewed this digital arc on

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Radium Girls

Kate Moore carefully documents many of the of dial workers' stories who worked in Orange, NJ and Ottawa, IL. In doing so, she preserves an important part of women's history, industrial history, and American history.

Lured by the glamour and high pay, these girls enjoyed their jobs until, one by one, they began getting sick. No laws protected workers from the occupational hazards of radium at this time. 

Moore makes much of the fact that these women were unwitting pioneers who paved the way for safer conditions in all workplaces. 
Undark (Radium Girls) advertisement, 1921
The product these women worked with, a radium paste, was called Undark. In the twenties, when glowing watch dials for the military were in hot demand, not much was known about the dangers of working with radium. 

By the late 1920's, the companies knew radium was harmful but still did nothing to protect its dial workers who lip-pointed. They would put the radium-tainted brush directly into their mouths to give the brush a point. This practice was encourage for quick production of the dials.

Radium's effects were devastating. Some women died quickly but some suffered a slow and painful death.

Some of these women, notably Catherine Donohue, fought courageously to win a lawsuit against the companies that employed them. Though the payouts were small, they changes working conditions for future employees.

The dial worker's cases led to the formation of OSHA. They also continued to help scientists by participating in tests at Argonne Laboratory.

Though other works on this topic focus on the physicians and scientists, Moore's work puts a human face to this tragedy by focusing on the women themselves. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Transactional Magic

"I need you to owe me something," Patricia said, "or this won't work. I'm really sorry. I tried to do it every other way, and none of them succeeded. In the end, the most powerful magic is often transactional
in some way."

Patricia to Laurence in All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

Other adult books that feature magic:

Barker, Emily Croy. The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic
Flyte, Magnus. City of Dark Magic.
Grossman, Lev. The Magicians
McGuire, Seanan. Every Heart a Doorway.
Schwab, Victoria. A Darker Shade of Magic.
Walton, Jo. Among Others.  

Young adult books that feature magic: 
Marillier, Juliet. Wildwood Dancing
Bow, Erin. Plain Kate.

Friday, April 14, 2017

What is "new adult" fiction or "twentysomething" fiction?

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is difficult to classify and has often been listed as genre-bending. One of the main character, Patricia, is a witch but the other character, Laurence, is a scientist trying to save the world from destruction.

All the Birds in the Sky contains magical realism, science fiction, and romance. A post-apocalyptic storm, artificial intelligence, and a ground-breaking project to create a wormhole give this novel an exciting edge.

Some of the themes in All the Birds in the Sky resemble the ones in Iain Pears' Arcadia--the ethical ramifications of creating a device that could repopulate the earth's inhabitants in another world. 

All the Birds in the Sky, though, is more tightly focused than Arcadia. It appeals to readers in their early twenties because it has elements of what Molly Wetta calls "new adult" fiction or "twentysomething" fiction. 

According to Wetta, new adult fiction follow teens "the summer after graduation, on into college, and beyond."

New adult fiction is often wildly inventive, with a focus on technology, relationships, and finding one's place in the world.

Other examples of fiction for new adults that Wetta lists are Rainbow Rowell's FanGirl and Stephanie Danler's Sweetbitter. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is a strangely dark, yet funny story set in New Penzance island, a fictional island that Wes Anderson based on his trips to Naushon, off of Cape Cod.

Much of the movie operates as a framed narrative. At the film's outset we are given a glance of Suzy (Kara Hayward) looking at the world through a pair of binoculars. This scene implies that the movie will be from her point-of-view or that she is a lonely observer.

Though the narrator, another outsider, seems detached from the action in the opening scenes, he later joins the rest of the cast and interacts with the other characters.

The narrator later proves to be of vital importance. He provides key information about the possible whereabouts of middle schoolers, Suzy and Sam, who have run away. 

This is what I like best about Wes Anderson's films--an outsider whom everyone devalues suddenly rises in importance and surprises everyone.

Of course, Suzy and Sam are also outsiders. Suzy has anger issues and Sam is a bullied orphan.

By the film's end, though, the two misfits and star-crossed lovers have risen in importance. The whole island is looking for them and the search has caused adult to rethink their behavior.

Anderson claims he was influenced by Alan Parker's Melody (aka S.W.A.L.K.) and Ken Loach's Black Jack

Soucres consulted:
The Wes Anderson Collection, by Matt Zoller Seitz, Anderson

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Listed in "Best Reference 2016" of Library Journal, March 1, 2017.

AAPB: American Archive of Public Broadcasting

Primary source documents and annotation tools.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Whenever anyone became too close, Samuel Hawley and his daughter and move to a new place. Wherever he goes, he sets up a shrine for his decease wife in the bathroom.

After years of traveling Hawley finally settle in Olympus, Massachusetts, where Lilly had grown up. He has forsworn life on the run and becomes a commercial fisherman.

Readers hear about Hawley's criminal past in a series of flashbacks. Twelve chapters for the twelve bullets Hawley took while still involved in crime. 

As was bound to happen, Hawley's criminal past intersects with his present when his ex-partner Jove comes to visit.

Hawley's teenaged daughter has already suffered a break-up with her star-crossed love. Like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, Lilly and Marshall are an ironic pairing. His mother is a staunch environmentalist who opposes Marshall's relationship with Loo.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Riches in Henry James's Novels

"I call people rich when they're able to meet the requirements of their imagination." Ralph Touchett, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.

I've always thought this one of the best quotes in all of literature. 

Ralph Touchett is rich and he's justifying giving his fortune away to a distant cousin. He wants  to see what she will do with it. It's a social experiment.

Ralph is, of course, dying of tuberculosis. Isabel is a young, vibrant American transplanted to Old World.

Isabel's father is mostly absent from the novel, albeit one line that tells readers is a gambler from New York. James implies that Isabel's impoverished condition is a result of his gambling.

Ralph, detached observer as he is, is also a gambler.  He gambles on Isabel. He wants to see what she will do--will she succeed or fail.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell

These stories are about desperate, blue-collar workers. Written in 2008, these stories still seem completely fresh because it's easy to feel desperate in any age.

In "Yard Man," Jerry and his wife live in a salvage yard. She had been his high school sweetheart but they have only recently reconnected and married. 

They can live in the house rent free; in exchange, Jerry watches over the other seventeen buildings. He also works part-time as a school janitor. 

Money is tight and the man knows his wife isn't happy with the living arrangements. The junk bothers her because she looks at life simplistically. She can't see the prism of colors that Jerry can see on the skin of the snake.

The wildlife bothers Jerry's wife. Recently a bat and a swarm of bees entered the house. A red, yellow, and gold snake, that also has a prism of blues and greens, has been sliding around the garden. Something white--possibly an ermine--enters the house and spooks her.

The snake, however, is the central metaphor that carries the story. The snake stands for her--how Jerry is enchanted by her and afraid of her--afraid of losing her the way he had before.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

John Hart on the South

"I write of the South, always the South. For me, that means small towns and forgotten corners, the fields and streams and the abandoned places. There’s such history in the south: lost wars and racism, the long divide between haves and the have-nots. Memory runs deep in the South, as does the connection to family, history, and place. For a writer, that’s rich soil."

John Hart's complete interview for Criminal Element,

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

This remarkable book of essays, which critics liken to a set of Russian nested dolls, are interconnected musings on many topics--maternal love, child abandonment, memory loss, illness, fairytales, labyrinths, Buddhism, the Arctic, and of all things, apricots.

Solnit has a poetic turn-of-phrase which makes these essays extremely enjoyable. Scallops and sea urchins dragged from the ocean floor are "bright like internal organs laid bare by surgery or butchery."

In some ways, these essays are show how interconnected everyone's lives--their life stories--are. In the end, though, these essays are also a deeply moving memoir of one particular woman's life--Solnit's.

In her personal essays, Solnit divulges her difficult relationship with her mother. Strained as a child and young adult, the mother daughter bond grows stronger as Solnit cares for her mother's medical needs. 

Solnit reveals her own narrow brush with death--breast cancer--and her courageous attempt to start anew. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Last Summer of Our Youth | Tin House

Early that June, some new neighbors moved in just up the road and built a house around their trailer. We spied on the old couple until their house was done. We watched them start to collect things like tires and rusty chairs in their yard. When the swampy area behind our own house dried out, we took our adventures out back and combed the still-soft ground for arrowheads and any other evidence that the Cherokee had lived on our land. Once, Jamie found a sharp rock that we all agreed was not flat enough to qualify as a real weapon. Michael collected antique rusted bottle caps that had really been tossed aside by folks at one of our parents’ own parties. I kept a tally of the crawdad burrows, which looked like mud chimneys or tiny volcanoes. The muskrat dens were worse because they made the ground collapse, but they were harder to see.

The Last Summer of Our Youth | Tin House

I really like the voice of this flash piece by Erin Harte. So electric! So alive!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Short Story Competitions to enter

American Short(er) Fiction Contest 15 February
Bath Short Story Award 1 May
Birds of a Feather Press Travel Writing Competition 2017 28 February
Bristol Short Story Prize 3 May
CDS Documentary Essay Prize in Writing 15 February
Commonwealth Short Story Prize Oct/Nov
Costa Short Story Award July
Curt Johnson Prose Award Submissions closed
Drue Heinz Literature Prize May-June
Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize 10 April
Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction Date to be announced
Gotham Writers Past-Year Memoir Contest 20 February
Hillerman Prize Deadline TBD
John Steinbeck Short Story Award June – November
Keats-Shelley Prize Date to be announced
Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest 31 March
Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition 16 May
Manchester Fiction Prize February 2017
Montreal International Poetry Prize May
Mslexia Women’s Short Fiction Competition 20 March
Nature and Place Poetry Competition 1 March
Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest 15 May
Raymond Carver Short Story Contest 15 May
Reader’s Digest 100-Word-Story Competition 20 February
SA Writer’s College 30 April
SFC Literary Prize 15 May
Short Sharp Stories Annual Competition deadline Nov
Spotlight First Novel Competition 14 February 2017
The Caine Prize for African Writing 31 January
The Henshaw Short Story Competition 31 March
The Sunday Times Short Story Prize Date to be announced
The White Review Short Story Prize 1 March
Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest 1 April
Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize 15 March
Write On-Site 25 February
Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition 5 May
Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Closed for 2017
Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Short Story Competition 13 February
Writers’ Forum Fiction Competition Monthly
Zoetrope All-Story’s Annual Fiction Contest 1 July

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel

Recently promoted, Louise Rick, takes on a case that takes her back to her roots. She also has a new partner who irks her. The last thing Louise wants is to visit her past, yet she must delve into her former life in Hvalso to solve this case.

From the author known as the "Queen of Crime," this is a stunning novel.

In this multi-layered crime story, there are three primary mysteries. Why would Klaus kill himself, at the prime of his life, leaving Louise bereft? Why would an institution for the mentally disabled issue death certificates to the Anderson twins while they were still alive? Thirdly, and most importantly, who is killing and raping women in the woods near Hvalso? 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Girl With All The Gifts

If you liked the television series Stranger Things, you might like, The Girl With All The Gifts

Melanie lives in a military facility with other children where she is given minimum care. Each day she is taken at gunpoint to a schoolroom and tied to a chair. Unbeknownst to her, Melanie is infected with a zombie-producing virus. She is infected, yet remains half-immune.

She and a few other "hungries" as they are known maintain their ability to think and reason. Consequently, scientists like Dr. Caldwell. want to study and even dissect them. Melanie and the other children are treated as animals, as lab experiments. 

The only kindness Melanie receives is from her teacher, Miss Justineau.

Even if you've read a hundred other zombie books, this one is different. All of the characters, Sargeant Parks, Private Gallagher, Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, want to survive. Melanie wants more than that; she wants a chance to be treated like a human being.  

Other books with similar themes:
Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars.
Gregory, Daryl. Raising Stony Mayhall. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

One of the best beginnings....

"Twelve years after Robin's death, no one knew any more about how he had ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had on the day it happened."

The Little Friend by Donna Tart. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry says The Fifth Petal is the most "challenging" story she has discovered. 

In this complex novel, which is part mystery, part thriller, and part love story, she ties seventeenth century Salem with present day Salem.

Mostly, its Callie Cahill's story, a survivor, who witnesses a horrific crime when she is only five years old.

Rose, a historian, took descendants of the original women accused of witchcraft, all young girls, to Proctor's Ledge. She intends to sanctify the ground where their ancestors were hung. One of the young girls, however, is absent.

Tragically, more blood is shed that day. An unknown assailant massacres the women who have gone to honor their ancestors. Rose claimed a banshee killed the girls but many suspect Rose.

Rafferty, the detective, who married Towner from The Lace Reader tries to decipher who the 5th petal is or who the 5th descendant of the accused. The 5th petal is in all likelihood the killer.

In current day Salem many of the families are related to the accused or to the judges. A centuries old rivalry between the Hawthornes and the Whittings could cause a rift between Callie and her growing love for Paul Whitting.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Writing contest

Sadly, this contest is over (deadline Jan 31). There's always next year.

Nelson Algren Literary Awards: $3,500 Short Story Prize (Submission Guidelines)

The Nelson Algren Literary Awards is an annual short story contest open to all residents of the United States. It is hosted by the Chicago Tribune.
Stories should be 8,000 words or less.
The grand prize is $3,500. Four finalists receive $1,000. Five runners-up will win $500. The total prizes are worth $10,000. Not bad!
Writers are allowed to submit a maximum of 2 entries. There is no submission fee.
The deadline for submission is January 31st, 2017.
The grand prize winning story will be considered for publication in the Chicago Tribune.
Nelson Algren was a novelist famous for books such as A walk the Wild Side, and The Man with the Golden Arm.  According to Wikipedia, Algren portrayed the world of “drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums.”
To learn more, and to submit, read visit their Submittable page.



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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

The Fifth Petal is is a mystery and high-stakes thriller yet the author, Brunonia Barry, ingeniously combines this with the historical details of the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials.

Here's a historical detail that Barry drops that ties the past with a current suspect, Rose:

"With the exception of Sarah Good, who was thirty-nine, the women  executed on July 19, 1692, were much older, ranging in age from fifty-seven to seventy-one. Some were homeless or nuisances to the community: indebt, outspoken, or otherwise troublesome. It made him think of Rose."

Rose is homeless, deranged, and is now accused of a crime that he does not think she committed. No wonder Rafferty draws the parallel.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Into the Wild by Erin Hunter

Into the Wild, is the juvenile novel that kicks off the popular Warrior cats series by Erin Hunter.

This series has inspired a lot of fan content: name generators, youtube videos and fan art. 

Maybe its so popular because it involves a heroic journey. Rusty makes a journey into the unknown, the wild forest beyond his house. He is initially met with derision from the feral cats who live there. Then, Bluestar recognizes his talents and chooses him to join them.

Rusty is accepted as an apprentice but must prove his mettle if he is to become a warrior. Along the way, Rusty, renamed Firepaw, has several crises.

Firepaw wonders if its always right to follow the warrior code. Should he have mercy on a pitiful cat like Yellowfang who has gone rogue? Should he tell Bluestar the dreadful secret he learns from Ravenpaw?

The warrior code is in jeopary in other ways. The four cat clans that have co-existed peacefully for years. Recently, however, the Shadow clan has pushed the Wind clan off their territory. 

In the end, its up to a brave apprentice, Firepaw, and his companions to set things right. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
Brunonia Barry, a screenwriter, tells this supernatural mystery in a series of powerful vignettes that move back and forth in time. Towner Whitney tells her own story even though she is an unreliable narrator with “gaps” in her memory.  Towner comes from an old Salem family known for a predilection toward quirkiness and an uncanny ability to “read” lace. Unfortunately, what Towner sees in the lace on her seventeenth birthday nearly causes her to lose her mind. Exactly what causes Towner’s mental breakdown is just one of the many mysteries in this multi-layered gem. Switching deftly between first and third person, Clark also introduces Detective Rafferty, a burned-out cop from New York City, who simultaneously investigates the strange death of Towner’s eccentric great Aunt and the bizarre disappearance of Angela Rickey. Towner and Rafferty, while tentatively exploring a relationship of their own, must also contend with two warring factions–the witches of Salem and the fervent Calvinists led by Cal Boynton.

Sabotage by Neal Bascomb

In a book that reads like a thriller, Neal Bascomb explains how Norwegian commandos effectively prevented Nazi Germany from getting their hands on an atomic bomb.

A small group of Norwegians, trained in Britian, returned to their homeland to sabotage Vemork, the plant that was supplying Germany with heavy water. Germans needed heavy water, or Deuterium, to construct an atomic bomb.

Intended for young adults, Bascomb makes this part of Norwegian history accessible to all. Though Bascomb conveys a lot of detailed information,  notes and an index give readers who want additional information the ability to learn more.

A friends of mine, who is European, swears the Norwegian commandos stories are widely known in Europe. Even if they are known, Bascomb makes their stories come to life.

If you liked Sabotage, you make like Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb. Winter Fortress is the same story written more for adults than young adults.