August 7, 2019

Book Spotlight - Four Tales of Troubled Love by Matthew James Babcock


Four Tales of Troubled Love

by Matthew James Babcock

Genres: Fiction, Novellas, Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Harvard Square Editions
Length: 342 pages
Published: January 25, 2019
Purchase Link: Amazon

Official Book Summary:

"Enter this tetrad of tangled love tales at the turn of the last millennium when what were then the latest technologies--personal computers, fax machines, and mobile phones--started to short-circuit pacemakers. This tour de four of realistic love stories operates operatically, like a piece of music in four movements, sometimes zany and tragic, at times surreal and sublime.

'Help Phone Thirteen' (scherzando con misterioso): A young father moves his family across the country to escape his oppressive in-laws and, when his job and marriage implode, gets guidance from a mystical voice on a "help phone" at the local mall and a professional clown masquerading as social savior.

'Meer, Tarn, Water, Fell'
(marcia moderato con fuoco): A poetry-loathing Dutch tour bus driver on a stopover in The Lake District plots revenge on his German ex-wife, unaware that the daughter he never knew he had has followed him half way around the world for the love she was denied.

'Impressions'
(appassionato): An ex-military pilot turned tech CEO finds his unconventional marriage and newfound faith at odds when he discovers the joys and dangers that come with waiting for answers from heaven and the heart.

'The Seal'
(eroico non troppo): A young family, caught between the baby blues and the deep blue sea, battles professional and personal pressures, but thanks to a homeless benefactor and captive harbor seal, learns that loving the environment and loving each other are a matter of instinct.

T. S. Eliot had his Four Quartets of poetry, now comes a foursome of fiction. For beach readers, literature connoisseurs, and book club junkies alike, these tales will quadruple the pleasure in reflecting on how we live and love. Wherever you take them, they will find you once again, in love with trouble and troubled by love."


Author Bio:

A veteran presenter, professor, and reader, Matthew James Babcock has traveled, studied, and written in Utah, New York, Pennsylvania, Great Britain, Germany, and has come home to roost in the great basins of the Rocky Mountain Northwest. He lurks online under the code name ‘Wordman.’ He is also the author of Private Fire: Robert Francis's Ecopoetry and Prose, Strange Terrain, Points of Reference, and Heterodoxologies. You can visit his website here.

Interview and Excerpt:

Available here.

Praise: 

"Matthew James Babcock is charming with a poetic bent.... Throughout all the stories there is a push and pull for what love really means. For all those beach readers or book clubs looking for their next read -- this is it." ⎯J Bowen West, The Times News

"With sentences like, 'His sick heart swings like a clapperless bell,' Matthew James Babcock's Four Tales of Troubled Love is a banquet of rich, abundant and wildly inventive language. In these novellas, only oddly matched lovers survive, and the fantastic and hilarious are indistinguishable from the painful and dismal. A unique and exceptional book." ⎯John Vernon, Author of Lucky Billy


August 6, 2019

Interview with Josh Allen, Author of Out to Get You

Interview with Josh Allen
Author of Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe

Today, I'm happy to share my interview with middle-grade author, Josh Allen. Allen's book of scary stories,  Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe, is being published by Holiday House on September 3, 2019. Perfect for any reader aged 8-12 who loves mystery and creepy twists and turns, Out to Get You is highly anticipated and is already receiving great recognition. You can order the book here and read my review here (I gave the book 5 out of 5 stars for its creativity and fun).

Allen teaches creative writing and literature. His work has appeared in Cricket, Dialogue, Juxtapose, and other literary magazines. He lives in Idaho with his family.


What draws you to middle-grade audiences and the scary story genre?

I’m drawn to middle-grade audiences because I’m passionate about transforming kid readers into adult readers, about reminding kids as they age that books are wondrous and fun. I think that when a kid stumbles upon the right book at the right time, that kid becomes a lifelong reader. So I write for kids because my dream is to offer a book that will do that for just one kid.

I write scary stories for two main reasons.

First, I think kids today have a lot to be afraid of. The world is big and frightening, and too many of adults that kids encounter are angry—angry at their world leaders, angry at their televisions, angry at each other. Horror offers kids a catharsis for their fears, a safe space to experience and work out their anxieties, so that when real fears inevitably descend, which they will, kids will be better equipped to navigate those emotions. Basically, I’m trying to use horror stories to inoculate kids against a massively frightening world.

Second, and this is perhaps the more important reason I wrote scary stories, they’re massively fun.

Do you also write for young adult or children’s audiences? What other projects are you working on?

I write primarily for middle-grade audiences, that is, 8-12 year olds. I’ve got a second collection of horror stories in the works that I hope will be out there in the world soon, and I’m also working on a non-horror novel for kids set in the 1980s that’s all about family bonds, the healing power of music, our need for community, a man with eight fingers, the space shuttle explosion, and the death penalty. Trust me, it’ll all eventually make sense. I hope.


Who are your favorite writers of middle-grade fiction? Who are some of your other favorite writers?

I love Gary D. Schmidt, Jason Reynolds, Kate diCamillo, Lauren Wolk, Erin Entrada Kelly, and too many other brilliant middle-grade writers to name. There’s just so much talent in the genre right now.

I also love Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Doerr, Michael Chabon, and Alice Walker.

Your story collection features eerie conundrums and mysterious twists and turns. Where do your ideas come from?

This answer is a bit hippy-dippy, but I believe we exist in a creative universe that wants to help us be creative, that is actually designed to draw out our creativity. So, I believe that the universe is out there trying to give us what we need to fulfill our creative destinies, whether we’re trying to write, paint, sculpt, dance, or whatever (see, like I said, pretty hippy-dippy). The secret to getting ideas then, is to Pay Attention. As Anne Lamott says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention... Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that - the details, the nuance, what is. If you start to look around, you will start to see.”

Most ideas just kind of come to me when I slow down, breathe, and look around. When I Pay Attention.

What’s the editing process been like?

LONG! I revise a lot. A few months ago, I cleaned up my office, and every time I came across a printed draft of Out to Get You, I stacked it in the corner. Here’s how high that stack got by the time I finished:


And I should point out that this doesn’t include all of the drafts I never bothered printing.

How did you find your book agent?

I found an agent with the help of Gary D. Schmidt, who’s a fine writer and a fine friend. After I published a creepy story in a national magazine called Cricket, Gary put me in touch with Rick Margolis, who runs the Rising Bear Literary Agency. I sent Rick a manuscript, and fortunately for me, he liked it.

What’s the best reaction you could envision an 8-12 year-old having to reading your book?

Reading it, loving it, and then running out to find another book they love just as much.

Have your kids read your book? Do they think you’re cool?

They’ve read some of the stories. I’m not sure they think I’m cool. In their eyes, I think I’ve always been just their moderately geeky dad. (PROOF: I’m writing this in cargo shorts.) So I suspect that my publishing a book hasn’t raised my kids’ opinion of me as much as it has lowered their opinion of all writers in general.

Out to Get You features some great cover art and illustrations from Sarah Coleman. Were you able to collaborate or share ideas at all?

Not much, but I love Sarah’s work! Sarah is this fantastic illustrator who’s done work for so many amazing writers including Harper Lee, Cornelia Funk, and Lauren Wolk. She’s so good that I just got out of the way and let her do her thing.

But there was one day she reached out to me for collaboration. One of my stories is set in a boy’s bathroom, and Sarah was working on an illustration that had a bunch of graffiti on the walls. But because Sarah is British, her graffiti was very British. And because Sarah is a girl, her graffiti was a bit girly. So, she asked me one day to send her a list of the kinds of things that might be written on bathroom walls in American boy bathrooms. So, I spent a bunch of time that day brainstorming bathroom graffiti. It was a hoot!


Your book also has a glow-in-the-dark cover. What was your reaction to hearing your publisher was doing this?

The ten-year-old who lives inside my forty-five-year-old body completely took over. I think I actually squealed and jumped around like a madman. I’m glad there’s no video.

Could Out to Get You turn into a series?

I sure hope so! I’ve got a second book of spooky stories almost finished, and I’d love to continue this amazing ride.

You teach full-time as an English professor. When do you manage to fit in your writing time?

I sneak in writing time when I can. Evenings. Weekends. During boring meetings. Mostly, I write early in the morning before the day gets going because once I start with classes and students and grading papers, it’s very hard to eek out any time at all.
  

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write something every day. Read something every day.

In “The Voice,” the teacher has mastered a voice she uses to get her students to follow instructions. Have you mastered “the voice”?

Do I have an authoritative teaching voice? No way. When I completely lose control of my class, my go-to technique is to point out with some lame joke that I’ve completely lost control of the class. (“Wow, I’m a mess. I usually don’t lose control of a class this bad until at least the third week. Oh well.”) Then my students take pity on me and let me pretend I’m still in charge.

What’s more stressful, facing a pile of papers to grade or facing a story that needs rewriting?

Grading papers. I almost always want to write. I almost never want to grade. I generally like reading my students' work. I just hate grading it.

Lastly, in your “Sorry, Froggy” story, Brady eats a pizza bomb. That sounds amazing, but what exactly is that?

Pizza bombs are like calzones—bread dough stuffed with pizza toppings and cheese and sauce. Google them and check out the images. Your mouth will water. I chose pizza bombs for the story because I needed a food Brady could eat in the opening scene that would make him seem slightly barbaric. He couldn’t really be eating a chef’s salad or a lamb chop or anything that would include utensils. Also, I think the name pizza bomb is kind of hilarious.

But yes, they’re delicious.


July 30, 2019

Book Review - Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe by Josh Allen

Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe

by Josh Allen
illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman


Genres: Middle Grade (ages 8-12), Fiction, Short Stories, Scary, Paranormal, Ghost Stories
Publisher: Holiday House
Length: 176 pages
Published: September 3, 2019
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Thirteen ordinary kids. Thirteen ordinary towns. Danger lurks around every corner . . . where spooky things are hiding in plain sight.

Get ready for a collection of thirteen short stories that will chill your bones, tingle your spine, and scare your pants off. Debut author Josh Allen masterfully concocts horror in the most innocent places, like R.L. Stine meets a modern Edgar Allan Poe. A stray kitten turns into a threatening follower. The street sign down the block starts taunting you. Even your own shadow is out to get you!

The everyday world is full of sinister secrets and these page-turning stories show that there's darkness even where you least expect it. Readers will sleep with one eye open . . .

Thirteen eerie full-page illustrations by award-winning artist Sarah J. Coleman accompany the tales in this frightful mashup that reads like a contemporary Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark."


My Book Review:

Josh Allen's collection of scary short stories, Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe, is exactly what is middle-grade readers need right now. While great detective mysteries, graphic novels, and comic stories abound, really entertaining short stories that have the power to immediately captivate audiences and have even non-readers coming back for more have been missing: Out to Get You is the book we've been waiting for, just in time for Halloween.

Growing up, I had books like R.L. Stine's classic Goosebumps series and Alvin Schwartz's even creepier Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to haunt my sleepovers (Stephen Gammell's Scary Story illustrations still give me the shivers). Allen delivers what modern kid audiences have long needed.

In Out to Get You, Allen successfully proves he can capture readers' attentions in just a few lines, drawing them in to well-written stories of the odd, paranormal, unexplained, and horrifying. Twist-endings, dramatic irony, and characters' nightmares come to life and each story is a page-turner, engaging and delighting with "weirdness and woe." It's difficult to pick a favorite, but a couple contenders would be "When Daunted Vanished, They Said He Moved to Ohio" (a tale wherein a boy gets to pick the devil's brain) and "The Color of Ivy" that will make me think twice before writing on my hand in pen ever again. Below is a short synopsis of each of the thirteen tales.

"Vanishers"

After school one day, best friends Jacob and Jakob walk home and brainstorm how to write a scary story for a homework assignment. They invent “The Vanishers” and what horrifying things these monsters are capable of doing to their unwilling, child victims.

"Nine Lives"

Miranda’s mom gets fed up with the messes her cat, Licorice, keeps making. When Miranda doesn’t stick up for her feline friend, she learns what it means when they say cats have nine lives.

"The Stain on the Cafeteria Floor"

Malia and her klutzy friend, Janet, discover a weird stain on the cafeteria floor. Even weirder, the stain swallows dimes and turkey sandwiches whole, growing bigger and bigger. Janet wants to get help, but Malia wants to keep it a secret.

"When Daunte Vanished, They Said He Moved to Ohio"

This story has a great, most attention-grabbing first line. The plot: Daunte Frederick Coleman gets to meet the devil and ask him three questions.

"The Color of Ivy"

Ivy finds a sparkly, greenish-black marker and instead of turning it in to the lost and found, she uses it to draw an ivy with her name. But Ivy doesn’t just draw her name on a piece of paper--she draws in on her hand--and soon the marker starts drawing for her.

"Neat-o Burrito"

Matt feels like a fool after he says the words “neato-burrito” to his crush, Caroline Spencer. On his way home from school, he finds a magic lamp and a genie who can grant him one wish, but something about the genie makes Matt worry he’s in for trouble.

"Crossing"

Every day when they walk to school, Owen races his older sister, Hannah, up a hill in front of a school-crossing sign. Every day, Hannah wins. When Owen takes a closer look at the sign, he notices something unusual about the boy and girl on it.

"The Voice"

Cindy Watson’s teacher, Mrs. Huber, has mastered how to use a particular voice when yelling at her students to get them to listen to her. Cindy wants Mrs. Huber’s power to end.

"Goodbye, Ridgecrest Middle School"

One day when washing his hands in the bathroom wondering when he’ll ever stop mixing up his teachers’ names (Mr. Johansen and Mr. Johnson), a scary message is dispensed onto Wally's paper towel, warning him that he only has two days left.

"Mighty Comfy"

Heidi’s dad picks up a couch someone has left by the side of the road. While he’s excited to sit on it and watch old cowboy movies, Heidi’s worried about where it came from.

"Sorry, Froggy"

It’s frog-dissection day in biology class. Brady couldn’t be more excited, but Julia thinks Brady needs to learn a lesson.

"Staring Contest"

Livvy and her dad have just moved two-hundred miles to an old house in need of a lot of repair. For Livvy’s dad this is a dream come true, but Livvy feels like the house is watching her.

"The Shadow Curse"

Mason has had a month to do his book report, but on the morning it’s due he still hasn’t started. When it’s his turn to stand in front of the class to give his presentation, Mason invents the story of "The Shadow Curse," but his classmates and teacher aren’t the only ones listening.

I highly recommend Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe for any middle-grade reader (ages 8-12). It's just the right balance of creepy mystery and fun intrigue, without ever crossing a line to draw discomfort from teachers, parents, and librarians. My one hope is that the publisher will realize what a great book this is and quickly turn it into a series.

If you still need another reason to order Josh Allen's book, the glow-in-the-dark hardcover should seal the deal for you. Though I received a paperback advanced reader's copy from the publisher, I've seen (and tested) the glow-in-the-dark cover in person and let me tell you, it was pretty cool.

Advanced reader's copy received from the publisher.

June 18, 2019

Book Review: Nelly Dean by Alison Case

Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights

by Alison Case

Genres: Historical Fiction, Retelling
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Length: 474 pages
Published: February 8, 2106
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Official Book Summary:

"Young Nelly Dean has been Hindley’s closest companion for as long as she can remember, living freely at the great house, Wuthering Heights. But when the benevolence of the master brings a wild child into the house, Nelly learns she must follow in her mother’s footsteps, be called 'servant' and give herself over completely to the demands of the Earnshaw family.

But Nelly is not the only one who finds her life disrupted by this strange newcomer. As death, illness, and passion sweep through the house, Nelly suffers heartache and betrayals at the hands of those she cherishes most, tempting her to leave it all behind. But when a new heir is born, a reign of violence begins that will test even Nelly’s formidable spirit as she finds out what it is to know true sacrifice.

Nelly Dean is a wonderment of storytelling and an inspired accompaniment to Emily Bronte’s adored work. It is the story of a woman who is fated to bear the pain of a family she is unable to leave, and unable to save."


Quote:

"See, that's how it is when you tell a story. You can't help changing things, seeing the future lying curled in the past like a half-grown chick in an egg. But it's not so."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"It's that I'm writing to you about, Mr. Lockwood: The story I told you over those long, dark nights. And about the story I didn't tell. Don't mistake me, please, I told you no lies, or not what you would call lies. Or at least--well, we'll come to that. But there were things I didn't say, things I couldn't say, then, and perhaps shouldn't now. But they've weighed on me since, and my mind has kept returning to you listening, and me talking, and I've imagined myself again and again telling you all those other things, and you taking an interest in them, as a story, you know, as you did that other tale I told. I have fancied that you might pass this way again, to pay a visit and see for yourself how Hareton and Cathy were coming on, and perhaps you might sit with me by the fire in the sitting room, and I would tell you another story altogether, a homespun grey yarn woven in among the bright-dyed and glossy dark threads of the Earnshaws and Lintons."


My Book Review:

I loved every moment of reading this book.

To fans of the Brontë sisters, Wuthering Heights is twisted Gothic passion at its finest. I'm often intrigued by retellings, but I've learned to be wary of them. When you love a text, it's painful to see someone not capture what you love about the original. Alison Case does a masterful job staying true to the themes and emotions of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

It's evident that Alison Case is a Victorian scholar because numerous elements are accurate to the time period. Case is a professor of Victorian literature who has published numerous scholarly articles on British literature, gender issues, and female narrators (as a fellow 19th-century scholar, her work is very interesting). It's easy to see how Case's research informs her ability to recreate Nelly Dean's narration to stay true to her character, though she makes the purposeful choice not to fully adopt Nelly's original vernacular but to rather use a voice more accessible to modern-day readers.

Within moments of starting the story, I felt I was back on the moors. The narrative is Nelly's letter to Mr. Lockwood, the outsider who visits Wuthering Heights in Emily Brontë's original novel and finds himself drawn into the stories, ghosts, and nightmares that haunt the house and its residents. In Case's novel, Nelly discloses the full truth of her childhood, her life has a servant, and her emotional connection to the residents of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. I thoroughly enjoyed reading more about Nelly Dean as Case adeptly fills in the narrative gaps of the original novel without disrupting anything within that story. I believe that's a large part of why I loved this novel so much--it doesn't attempt to change the story readers love, but rather just adds to it.

If you're a fan of Wuthering Heights, I would highly recommend this book: if you love it, you'll likely love this. If your feelings are only lukewarm towards the original, I'd still give Nelly Dean a try as it's often the difficult dialect and confusing character doublings that make Brontë's novel difficult for modern readers to wade through. Since Case alters the voice in order to heighten its readability, this removes a hurdle that makes it increasingly accessible and readable.

All in all, I really hope Case writes more 19th-century historical fiction.


June 13, 2019

Book Review: Squeezed by Alissa Quart


Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America

by Alissa Quart

Genres: Nonfiction, Politics, Economics 
Publisher: Ecco 
Length: 320 pages 
Published: June 26, 2018 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"Families today are squeezed on every side—from high childcare costs and harsh employment policies to workplaces without paid family leave or even dependable and regular working hours. Many realize that attaining the standard of living their parents managed has become impossible.

Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, examines the lives of many middle-class Americans who can now barely afford to raise children. Through gripping firsthand storytelling, Quart shows how our country has failed its families. Her subjects—from professors to lawyers to caregivers to nurses—have been wrung out by a system that doesn’t support them, and enriches only a tiny elite.

Interlacing her own experience with close-up reporting on families that are just getting by, Quart reveals parenthood itself to be financially overwhelming, except for the wealthiest. She offers real solutions to these problems, including outlining necessary policy shifts, as well as detailing the DIY tactics some families are already putting into motion, and argues for the cultural reevaluation of parenthood and caregiving.

Written in the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich and Jennifer Senior, Squeezed is an eye-opening page-turner. Powerfully argued, deeply reported, and ultimately hopeful, it casts a bright, clarifying light on families struggling to thrive in an economy that holds too few options. It will make readers think differently about their lives and those of their neighbors."

Quote:

"There are people on the brink who did everything 'right' and yet the math of their family lives is simply not adding up."

Excerpt (from the Introduction):

"Michelle Belmont's debt haunted her. It was almost unspeakable, but it was a raw relief when anyone asked her about it. She wanted people to hear about her life as she lived it, how her debt trailed her like a child's monster, how it was there when she went to the supermarket, to her son's day care, and home to her one-bedroom apartment.

It began as it often does, with the student loans for the college her parents back home in Georgia thought would ensure the right future. Then there was the money she borrowed for her master's of library science degree. A bit later, when baby Eamon came along, she and her husband owed over $20,000 in hospital bills as well. What was shocking were the price tags, just for normal things, like Michelle's labor and her overnight stay. She had required a few days extra at the hospital: Eamon had been born weighing ten pounds, thirteen ounces, and she had pushed that hefty creature for five hours.


'I thought that insurance helps you get by,' Michelle told me. 'But my husband had a really cheap insurance, and you get what you pay for.'

Then the debt shadow monster just grew." 

My Book Review:

This book is not what I thought it would be.

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America starts really strong and pulls the audience in with topics that most U.S. citizens can agree need fixing: pregnancy discrimination, the plight of university adjuncts, overpriced graduate schools, and rising student loans. These issues are engaging and eye-catching; however, the book then starts to lose ethos by depending upon faulty logic and questionable soures.

Content includes an adult who is bitter her parents can’t gift her $25K, couples in areas like Manhattan who won’t relocate but willingly pay exorbitant rent and hire pre-school consultants to get their kids in overpriced private schools, individuals who think their lives should look like what they see glamorized on fictional TV shows, others who are disappointed they cannot afford lavish celebrity lifestyles, and on and on. This type of evidence weakens her argument and creates a disconnect between her introduction and her proposed conclusion: universal basic income and a socialist-run government.

For me, the book would have been much stronger if Quart had utilized stronger, more middle-class relatable examples, and really worked her way through the problems she referenced in the book's beginning. As it stands, her conclusions were faulty, the evidence lacked credibility, and redrafting to avoid logical fallacies would have been worthwhile.
 


May 21, 2019

Book Review: Escaping from Houdini (Stalking Jack the Ripper series #3) by Kerri Maniscalco

 

Escaping from Houdini (Stalking Jack the Ripper series #3)

by Kerri Maniscalco

Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson
Length: 416 pages
Published: September 18, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"In this third installment in the #1 bestselling Stalking Jack the Ripper series, a luxurious ocean liner becomes a floating prison of scandal, madness, and horror when passengers are murdered one by one…with nowhere to run from the killer. .

Audrey Rose Wadsworth and her partner-in-crime-investigation, Thomas Cresswell, are en route to New York to help solve another blood-soaked mystery. Embarking on a week-long voyage across the Atlantic on the opulent RMS Etruria, they’re delighted to discover a traveling troupe of circus performers, fortune tellers, and a certain charismatic young escape artist entertaining the first-class passengers nightly.

But then, privileged young women begin to go missing without explanation, and a series of brutal slayings shocks the entire ship. The strange and disturbing influence of the Moonlight Carnival pervades the decks as the murders grow ever more freakish, with nowhere to escape except the unforgiving sea. It’s up to Audrey Rose and Thomas to piece together the gruesome investigation as even more passengers die before reaching their destination. But with clues to the next victim pointing to someone she loves, can Audrey Rose unravel the mystery before the killer’s horrifying finale?"

Quote:

“If you wish to go, I’ll never make you stay. I might not do and say the proper thing all the time, but I do know that I love you enough to set you free.”

Excerpt:

"'...if, of course, legends are to be believed. Named after a character from German folklore, Mephistopheles is a demon in the Devil's employ,' Captain Norwood said. 'Known for stealing the souls of those already corrupt, he's full of magic and trickery, and he happens to be one spectacular showman. Here, look at these tarot cards he's made for the tables. Each card features one of his performers.' He held up a gorgeous set of handpainted cards. 'I guarantee you're in for a week of unparalleled magic and mystery,' he continued. 'Each night will bring a new carnival performance, never before seen. This ship will be the talk of legends, mark my words. Soon every cruise liner will host similar entertainments. It will be the start of a new era of travel.'

I raised a brow at his near-reverent tone. 'Are you suggesting you've hired a demon to entertain us and it's sure to become all the rage, Captain?'

Thomas choked on his water, and Miss Prescott shot me a mischievous grin. 'Is there a church or a chapel on the ship?' she asked, all round eyes and innocence. 'What shall we do if we're tricked out of our souls, sir?'

The captain lifted a shoulder, enjoying the mystery. 'You'll both have to wait and see. It shan't be much longer now.'"


The final installment in Maniscalco's series, out September 2019

My Book Review:

I really enjoyed Escaping from Houdini. I've read each of the three installments in Kerri Maniscalco's young adult series, Stalking Jack the Ripper, and this one is my favorite thus far.

The narrator, Rose Wadsworth, is on a ship for America. After her near escape from the Dracula case, she, her detective partner and boyfriend Thomas, and her uncle, are all ready to return to a more normal and quiet life. The ship's passengers are being entertained by a troop of circus performers, including the real-life figure, Houdini, and all are led by a mysterious, masked-man named Mephistopheles. Under his guidance, the shows promises to be a life-changing experience. In fact, aside from Houdini, all of the performers are masked and remain so during the entirety of the ship's passage.

During the first night’s events, all passengers on board the ship enter the dining room excitedly anticipating the first performance, when partway through the grand production an audience member is found murdered. Even worse, each night thereafter, a new victim is found in a cruel and horrifying death. But the question remains, are the circus performers really to blame?

Sure, the writing isn’t without flaw in spots, but overall this was a great, fun, and fast-paced young adult read. Maniscalco's plots are getting better and better with each new book and I'm enjoying seeing where she's taking these characters on this detective journey and their run-ins with Gothic characters from our collective historical and literary past. Book one featured Frankenstein and Jack the Ripper, book two featured Dracula and vampire horror galore, and I liked the surprises in this installment when Houdini is present but it's the mythical Mephistopheles running the show.

I finished the book in just a few days and immediately wished I had the next and final installment in the series, Capturing the Devil, (due out September 10, 2019) already in hand.


May 3, 2019

Book Review: Calypso by David Sedaris

Calypso

by David Sedaris

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Essay, Humor
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Length: 272 pages
Published: May 29, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"David Sedaris returns with his most deeply personal and darkly hilarious book.

If you've ever laughed your way through David Sedaris's cheerfully misanthropic stories, you might think you know what you're getting with Calypso. You'd be wrong.

When he buys a beach house on the Carolina coast, Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun with those he loves most. And life at the Sea Section, as he names the vacation home, is exactly as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it's impossible to take a vacation from yourself.

With Calypso, Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality. Make no mistake: these stories are very, very funny--it's a book that can make you laugh 'til you snort, the way only family can. Sedaris's powers of observation have never been sharper, and his ability to shock readers into laughter unparalleled. But much of the comedy here is born out of that vertiginous moment when your own body betrays you and you realize that the story of your life is made up of more past than future.

This is beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumor joke. Calypso is simultaneously Sedaris's darkest and warmest book yet--and it just might be his very best."

Quote:

"Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave."

Excerpt:

"Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room. Some people get one by default when their kids leave home, and others, like me, eventually trade up and land a bigger house. “Follow me,” I now say. The room I lead our visitors to has not been hastily rearranged to accommodate them. It does not double as an office or weaving nook but exists for only one purpose. I have furnished it with a bed rather than a fold-out sofa, and against one wall, just like in a hotel, I’ve placed a luggage rack. The best feature, though, is its private bathroom.

'If you prefer a shower to a tub, I can put you upstairs in the second guest room,' I say. 'There’s a luggage rack up there as well.' I hear these words coming from my puppet-lined mouth and shiver with middle-aged satisfaction....

Three of my sisters visited us in Sussex the Christmas of 2012, so Gretchen and Amy took a guest room each. Hugh and I gave Lisa the master bedroom and moved next door to the converted stable I use as my office. One of the things he noted during their stay was that, with the exception of Amy and me, no one in my family ever says goodnight. Rather, they just leave the room—sometimes halfway through dinner—and reappear the following morning. My sisters were considered my guests, but because there was a group of them and they could easily entertain one another, I was more or less free to go about my business. Not that I didn’t spend time with them. In various pairings we went on walks and bike rides, but otherwise they sat in the living room talking, or gathered in the kitchen to study Hugh at the stove. I’d join them for a while and then explain that I had some work to do. This meant going next door to the stable, where I’d switch on my computer and turn to Google, thinking, I wonder what Russell Crowe is up to.

One of the reasons I’d invited these three over—had gone so far as to buy their tickets—was that this felt like a last hurrah. Except for Paul, who has no passport but tells me with great certainty that, according to an electrician he met on a job site, it is possible to buy one at the airport, we are all in our fifties now. Healthwise, we’ve been fortunate, but it’s just a matter of time before our luck runs out and one of us gets cancer. Then we’ll be picked off like figures at a shooting gallery, easy targets given the lives we’ve led."

My Book Review:

I've been a fan of David Sedaris since I first read his memoirs maybe a decade ago. He has a gift for telling the absolute, exposed truth about his life--the pain, the shame, the embarrassment, and the grief--with a gift for humor that's genuine and sincere.

With his last couple of books, I had felt (maybe mistakenly so) that Sedaris had drifted from his original voice, but to me Calypso perfectly recaptured what I was so drawn to at first: a brilliant ability to combine his confessions of the painful and the profound with irreverent humor that kept me laughing throughout the entire book. Actual laugh-out-loud humor, not just smirks or chuckles.

This collection of essays felt very unified: a journey through Sedaris's grief and guilt after the suicide of one of his sisters, and his deep desire to draw close to his remaining family members by recreating their childhood's seaside retreat. It is here, on the coast in their new vacation home, that Sedaris sorts through his political pains from the recent election, confesses his increasing obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and examines the ebbs and flows of his family relationships through the last few years.

His messages are thoughtful, unapologetically raw, and candid, but his gift for dealing with these emotions through laughter makes the experience such a joy for his reader.

If you've never read Sedaris before, yes, his narratives contain cursing and references to sex unsuitable to some audiences. That being said, Calypso was possibly my favorite of all of his books thus far--the deepest look into Sedaris's head and heart that audiences may have ever yet had.


March 25, 2019

Book Review: Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

 

Us Against You (Beartown #2)

by Fredrik Backman
translated by Neil Smith

Genres: Contemporary Fiction 
Publisher: Atria Books
Length: 448 pages
Published: June 5, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"After everything that the citizens of Beartown have gone through, they are struck yet another blow when they hear that their beloved local hockey team will soon be disbanded. What makes it worse is the obvious satisfaction that all the former Beartown players, who now play for a rival team in Hed, take in that fact. Amidst the mounting tension between the two rivals, a surprising newcomer is handpicked to be Beartown’s new hockey coach.

Soon a new team starts to take shape around Amat, the fastest player you’ll ever see; Benji, the intense lone wolf; and Vidar, a born-to-be-bad troublemaker. But bringing this team together proves to be a challenge as old bonds are broken, new ones are formed, and the enmity with Hed grows more and more acute.

As the big match approaches, the not-so-innocent pranks and incidents between the communities pile up and their mutual contempt grows deeper. By the time the last game is finally played, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after all they’ve been through, the game they love can ever return to something simple and innocent."

Quote:

“The complicated thing about good and bad people alike is that most of us can be both at the same time.”

The first installment in the series

Excerpt:

"Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We'll end up saying that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that will be a lie; the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating one another is so easy that it seems incomprehensible that we ever do anything else....

People driving through say that Beartown doesn't live for anything but hockey, and some days they may be right. Sometimes people have to be allowed to have something to live for in order to survive everything else. We're not made, we're not greedy; say what you like about Beartown, but the people here are tough and hardworking. So we built a hockey team that was like us, that we could be proud of, because we weren't like you. When people from the big cities thought something seemed too hard, we just grinned and said, 'It's supposed to be hard.' Growing up here wasn't easy; that's why we did it, not you. We stood tall, no matter the weather, But then something happened, and we fell.

There’s a story about us before this one, and we’re always going to carry the guilt of that. Sometimes good people do terrible things in the belief that they’re trying to protect what they love. A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl. And we lost our way. A community is the sum of its choices, and when two of our children said different things, we believed him. Because that was easier, because if the girl was lying our lives could carry on as usual. When we found out the truth, we fell apart, taking the town with us. It’s easy to say that we should have done everything differently, but perhaps you wouldn’t have acted differently, either. If you’d been afraid, if you’d been forced to pick a side, if you’d known what you had to sacrifice. Perhaps you wouldn’t be as brave as you think. Perhaps you’re not as different from us as you hope.

This is the story of what happened afterward, from one summer to the following winter. It is about Beartown and the neighboring town of Hed, and how the rivalry between two hockey teams can grow into a mad struggle for money and power and survival. It is a story about hockey rinks and all the hearts that beat around them, about people and sports and how they sometimes take turns carrying each other. About us, people who dream and fight. Some of us will fall in love, others will be crushed; we’ll have good days and some very bad days. This town will rejoice, but it will also start to burn. There’s going to be a terrible bang."

My Book Review:

In the series' first installment, Beartown, readers meet the men and women that make up the die-hard hockey community of a small town struggling for its identity. Extremely powerful but also breathtakingly painful to read, it is the story of what happens when the hockey team's star player rapes the coach's daughter, and what happens when the community isn't willing to hear the truth. Both Beartown and its sequel, Us Against You, are very difficult to read: the language, sex, and violence make it hard to digest, but also very truthful to the violence in the world around us. Be advised these books are not for all readers--I absolutely love Fredrick Backman and at this point I'm either close to or have finished reading everything he's published thus far, but I'd be wary of recommending these  books to someone without first considering the impact of the triggers within them.

When starting Us Against You, I admittedly struggled with some repetition from Beartown during the first third. Having not read it very long ago, it was still freshly burned into my mind, but it's also part of Backman's narrative style to write cyclically, repeating the past as it evolves throughout the present.

After I got past the first-third of the novel, I was hooked. Backman has a true gift for characterization. I cared so much for Benji, Maya, Kira, Leo, Ana, Bobo, and Amat. Truly cared. My heart broke for each of them in individual ways. At the same time, though he wasn't exactly a villain in Beartown, I intensely despised Peter in this book for his inability to make one single, unselfish decision. I mean despised him. He was so frustrating. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and yell at him. This is the gift of good writing--it made me care deeply and feel like this fictional failure of a father was in actuality a real person.

Like Beartown, Us Against You is filled with the violence and tension within Beartown and its rival Hed in a way that felt very honest with its depiction of raw hatred and trauma. Backman doesn’t shortchange his readers with trite, happy endings when the truth is far more weighty, complicated, and heartbreaking. To me, his themes are greatly reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s novels and he’s definitely my current favorite author-in-translation.

If you've never read Backman before and you're looking for a place to start, I'd recommend A Man Called Ove or My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry. I love this Beartown series, but do feel that some audiences need to consider the trigger warning before diving in.


March 22, 2019

Book Spotlight - Wordsworth and Evolution in Victorian Literature

 

Wordsworth and Evolution in Victorian Literature:
Entangled Influence

by Trenton B. Olsen

Genres: Academic, History, Science, 19th-Century British Literature, Poetry 
Publisher: Routledge
Length: 194 pages
Published: November 30, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Official Book Summary:
"The influences of William Wordsworth’s writing and evolutionary theory—the nineteenth century’s two defining visions of nature—conflicted in the Victorian period. For Victorians, Wordsworthian nature was a caring source of inspiration and moral guidance, signaling humanity's divine origins and potential. Darwin’s nature, by contrast, appeared as an indifferent and amoral reminder of an evolutionary past that demanded participation in a brutal struggle for existence. Victorian authors like Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy grappled with these competing representations in their work. They turned to Wordsworth as an alternative or antidote to evolution, criticized and altered his poetry in response to Darwinism, and synthesized elements of each to propose their own modified theories. Darwin’s account of a material, evolutionary nature both threatened the Wordsworthian belief in nature’s transcendent value and made spiritual elevation seem more urgently necessary. Victorian authors used Wordsworth and Darwin to explore what form of transcendence, if any, could survive an evolutionary age, and reevaluated the purpose of literature in the process."

Author Bio:
"Trenton B. Olsen completed his PhD in English Literature at the University of Minnesota and is currently Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His work has appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture, The George Eliot Review, and The Journal of Stevenson Studies. He received the 2017 Idaho Humanities Council Research Fellowship and the 2018 George Eliot Essay Prize."


Excerpt (from Chapter One):
"Darwinism raised fundamental questions about nature and its relation to human identity, origins, and morality. Wordsworth was inextricably associated with these issues, and his work took on new meaning and urgency in Darwin's wake. Victorians from orthodox Anglican ministers to agnostic scientists drew on Wordsworth to respond to evolutionary theory. Biologists T.H. Huxley and Ernst Haeckel used Wordsworth quotations as epigraphs to their scientific books and journals even as their religious opponents enlisted Wordsworth against evolution. John Campbell Shairp described Wordsworth's poetry as the 'surest antidote' against Darwinian theory, and a contributor to The Edinburgh Review read Wordsworth's poetry as 'a protest against belief in evolution from beneath.' For others, Wordsworth's writing was an anticipation of Darwinism rather than its antithesis.... Wordsworth's poetry and evolutionary theory were so interconnected that, for these Victorian authors [Arnold, Eliot, Stevenson, and Hardy], responding to Darwin required revisiting and rethinking Wordsworth. They tested the poet's ideas against Darwinism and vice versa in their writing both to determine which Wordsworthian principles could survive the new age and to resist those elements of evolutionary theory they were unwilling to accept" (Olsen 3-4).

Book Spotlight:
This book analyzes the influence Wordsworth's writings had on post-Darwininian Victorian authors. Over the course of five chapters, Olsen examines this dynamic, first establishing the connection in Chapter One: Wordsworth in the Age of Evolution, and then applying this framework to the works of four key Victorian writers: Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy. Olsen concludes by showing how their texts and reflection on Wordsworth's relationship to Darwin's findings moved toward the Modernist period. If you're a student or scholar of Victorian literature, interested in history or science, or a fan of Wordsworth's poetry, definitely consider checking out this new contribution to literary scholarship.

March 15, 2019

Book Review - Art and the Artist in Society

Finishing my series, here's another scholarly volume for which I've served as a contributing author. Details below! I hope to have more publications to share someday soon.


Art and the Artist in Society

Edited by José Jiménez-Justiniano, Elsa Luciano Feal, and Jane Elizabeth Alberdeston

Genres: Academic, Nonfiction, Art, History, Literary Scholarship
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Press
Length: 325 pages
Published: August 1, 2013
Purchase Links: Amazon, Cambridge Scholars

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (how can you not give your own book 5 stars?)

Official Book Summary:
"Art and Artist in Society is a compilation of essays that examine the nexus between artists, the art they create and society. These essays consider how art has changed its form and role both to accommodate newer trends and to fully participate in society. Divided into six thematic sections, the book examines the works of a diverse group of artists working in a range of art forms, such as writers Milan Kundera and Judith Ortiz Cofer, filmmakers Humberto Solás and Walter Salles, performers/photographer Daniel Joseph Martínez and feminist-activists Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz. The analyses of the work of these artists and other artists offer readers an opportunity to explore a number of important issues in art today, such as the representation of the Other, the exploration of alternative sources of knowledge and the construction of the self. For the array of works it analyzes, this book offers fascinating insights into the art and the artists of the 20th and 21st centuries." 

Others' Reviews:
"Whether the issues revolve around ‘art for art’s sake’ in the writings of Baudelaire and Wilde, the ‘disgusting’ use of corporeal presences and excretions in body, action, installation, and performance art, or the trash, used or recycled materials of Richard Tuttle’s graphic creations, . . . [Art and the Artist in Society] lends itself to a recasting of multidisciplinary studies." – Dr. Lowell Fiet, University of Puerto Rico

“The collection immediately brings to mind . . . what it means to create seditious writings that trouble national governments as well artistic canons. Art and the Artist in Society covers similar ground – especially in the section that deals with art that meets uncomfortable and unfavorable public reception.” – Dr. Donette Francis, University of Miami 

My Contribution and Endorsement:
For this volume, I contributed the chapter titled "Rewriting Female Representations in Girl with a Pearl Earring & Girl in Hyacinth Blue: Historical Female Portraiture, Human Subjectivity, and Johannes Vermeer's Work." In the chapter, I examine these two novels which utilize Vermeer paintings in order to recast fictional women of the past in order to empower them with greater subjectivity than might be rendered in the original artwork. The volume is a great resource for scholars, art historians, or readers who are interested in how both art and artists have influenced literature during the last 120 years.



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