Thursday, October 2, 2014

Audiobook Review: Hold the Dark

Listened 9/23/14 - 9/27/14
4 Stars: Recommended to fans of the kind of literature that's cold and dark and gets into your bones
Audio 6.7 hours
Publisher: Liveright Publishing / Blackstone Audio
Released: September 2014

I am not ashamed to admit that I was trolling looking for something to fill my ears during the commute to work when I stumbled across Hold the Dark. I hadn't heard a peep about it (which is usually a sign that I am onto something), but the cover and title caught my attention right away, and the blurb sold me seconds later.  

Set in an Alaskan village so far off the map you'd never know it existed unless you were born there or beckoned there, during the teeth-chattering and snot-freezing dead of winter, Hold the Dark is a twisted, chilling thriller of a story. The wolves are starving and desperate. Children are going missing. And when Medora Slone swears one took off with her son, she sends a letter off to wolf expert and nature writer Russell Core, begging him to come to the village to help her reclaim his bones. 

As Russell attempts to settle in and starts digging into the goings-on in Keelut, Medora disappears and her husband Vernon returns from the war to discover the news of his son. With his crazy-ass childhood friend Cheeon in tow, Vernon goes on the hunt for his wife, driving deeper into the Alaskan wilderness, leaving a trail of dead bodies for local detective Donald Marium to clean up after him. Things are definitely not what they appear on the surface of this strange and unfriendly place and we soon discover that it's going to take a whole lot more than Russell and Marium to ebb the grieving father's desire for revenge.

Hold the Dark is an extremely dark and violent, slow moving, tension-filled tale that's meant to mess with your mind. In it, we witness the lengths to which an isolated village will go to stand together and protect its own.  A place where law is not necessarily recognized and strange, murdery deeds typically go unquestioned. A place where a man will put himself through hell to get back the one thing he wants most and death will befall those who are dumb enough to get in his way.

William Giraldi's careful prose and simplistic world-building go a long way to pulling the reader in, despite it's slow place. His willful withholding is actually part of the book's charm. And the near-tender descriptions of his characters' violent acts render them almost beautiful. Kudos also to Blackstone Audio, for finding a reader capable of conveying the quiet fierceness of Giraldi's words.

My only real critique is the final chapter. Despite the fact that had a different feel to it, as if it was written by a different hand, it felt like a sad surrender to a story that could have, and should have, gone off in another direction. Perhaps by eliminating that last chapter, the book would have been stronger. Perhaps if Giraldi had a little more faith in his readers, he wouldn't have needed to take it that far? Look, if you're an attentive reader, you'll pick up on some of what Giraldi's laying out as he goes along; you'll already have a sense of what's coming, of where he's heading. Trust me. That final chapter just cleans up what should, in my opinion, remain a messier tale.

Also, can we get off the whole "comparing every new author to a super-famous author that they kind of sort of write similarly to" now? Can we, please? I've seen Giraldi compared to both Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because he writes sparse, bleak landscapes? Stop. Just stop. Let's not pollute the waters around a fresh and emerging writer. Let him be who he is without the pressures of having to stand as tall as our literary heroes. And let's just agree to enjoy the cold Alaskan landscape he sets his words in, as it freezes our skin solid and sends icy cold chills up and down our spines. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Giveaway: Cloud Pharmacy

Since July 2010, TNBBC has been bringing authors and readers together every month to get behind the book! This unique experience wouldn't be possible without the generous donations of the authors and publishers involved.

It's the first of the month and you know what that means.
It's time to bring you November's Author/Reader Discussion book!

We will be reading Susan Rich's
poetry collection Cloud Pharmacy.

Susan and her publisher, White Pine Press, have made a total of 10 copies available for giveaway.
5 print (for US only) and 5 digital PDF's. 

Here's a little something about the book from goodreads:

"Cloud Pharmacy is a book of lyric fire. In our epoch of quick and shallow literary conversation it is rare to come across such level of attentiveness as one finds in this book."—Ilya Kaminsky

"In a central sequence, Rich explores nineteenth-century photographer Hannah Maynard's proto-surrealistic images, looking in grief-heavy places for revelation. The result is wonderfully strange and unsettling; this is Rich's most haunting collection yet."—Kathleen Flenniken

"Rich's gorgeous poems affix moments, both magnificent and minute. And in exquisite and playful poems, a pageant of a life in process develops before our eyes."—Oliver de la Paz

This giveaway will run through October 8th. 
Winners will be announced here and via email on October 9th.

Here's how to enter:

1 - Leave a comment here or in the giveaway thread over at TNBBC on goodreads, stating why you'd like to receive a copy of the book, what format you prefer (choose one option from above), and where you reside. Remember, only US residents can win a paper copy!


2 - State that you agree to participate in the group read book discussion that will run from November 17th through September 22st. Susan Rich has agreed to participate in the discussion and will be available to answer any questions you may have for her. 

 *If you are chosen as a winner, by accepting the copy you are agreeing to read the book and join the group discussion at TNBBC on Goodreads (the thread for the discussion will be emailed to you before the discussion begins). 

 3 - Your comment must have a way to contact you (email is preferred). 


Indie Ink Runs Deep: Steph Post

Every now and then I manage to talk a small press author into showing us a little skin... tattooed skin, that is. I know there are websites and books out there that have been-there-done-that already, but I hadn't seen one with a specific focus on the authors and publishers of the small press community. Whether it's the influence for their book, influenced by their book, or completely unrelated to the book, we get to hear the story behind their indie ink....

Today's ink story comes from Steph Post. Steph is the author of the novel A Tree Born Crooked and an editor for Pandamoon Publishing. She lives, writes and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida.

I’m one of those strange folks who are covered in tattoos, but don’t really like to talk about it. I tend to shy away when people- in the checkout line at the grocery store, at restaurants, in classrooms at the high school where I work, walking down the street- reach out, grab my arm and ask me the dreaded question “so, what’s it all mean?” (as if somehow the secret meaning of life is somewhere between my armpit and my elbow…) It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people; it’s just that it’s hard to explain the history and justification of an entire sleeve in the brief five seconds of attention that most people are willing to give. So I usually respond with the vague, “oh, you know, stuff” and move on.

But the opportunity of getting to explain the origins of a tattoo on one of my favorite book review sites is another story all together, so here goes…

I’ve lost track of how many tattoos I actually have- I counted once and I know I’ve sat through over 30 tattooing sessions if that tells you anything- but with my debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, being released on September 30th, it seems only right that I tell you about the crooked tree.

Most of my tattoos mark some sort of event in my life- some physical, some mental or emotional- and this tattoo marked the end of writing A Tree Born Crooked and the beginning of its journey out into the world. It just so happened that my tattoo artist at the time, Evil Don in St. Petersburg, Florida, has as much a fascination with trees as I do, and he was thrilled to draw this piece for me. He even went so far as to create a painting based off of the tattoo design, which still hangs in his tattoo studio today.

So what does it actually “mean,” you want to know? It means on my body what it means in the novel. One of the main characters explains to another that, “a tree born crooked never could grow straight.” (Yes, this is a lyric from a Tom Waits song for all you cool cats out there now squirming with recognition) This isn’t a negative idea, though. As the character, Marlena, goes on to explain, what this really means is that we can’t give up hope. We may be bent, broken, or crooked, but we still have to keep on growing, we still have to keep on breathing, living and moving forward. We may be born with our wounds or we may acquire them, but they are no excuse for giving up.

This is an idea that I truly believe in and comes from a life motto that my husband (who, incidentally, came up with the title of novel) has instilled in me: It’s okay to not be okay. Every time I want to pack it in, every time I want to throw in the towel or say, “I can’t,” my tattoo reminds me that it’s okay to be angry or frustrated or depressed. It’s okay to feel that way, it’s okay to be crooked, it’s okay for the path not to be straight. Just keep moving, keep breathing and keep on living the life you were meant to live. In the end, that’s all that really matters.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Writers Recommend: Scott Abrahams and The Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael Martone

Last week we broke out our debut post for Writers Recommend, a new series where we'll be asking writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like a LSA -Literary Service Announcement. Your welcome. 

Scott Abrahams Recommends The Blue Guide to Indiana

“WARNING: It seems very likely that many times of opening for museums and sites given hopefully in the text, coupled with general remarks in the Practical Information section, will be found incorrect.”

            The opening disclaimer to Michael Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana is an understatement. And that itself is an understatement: the whole book is incorrect, from the opening letter by the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Indiana to the attraction-by-attraction overview of the forthcoming Eli Lilly Land amusement park.

            The book is a masterpiece of the oh-so-plausible untrue. It is a complete guide to the history, culture, attractions, and architecture of an Indiana that totally could be, but totally isn’t. Knowing that the World’s First Parking Lot, a “10-foot square of hard packed dirt,” is not a tourist site in Plato does nothing to temper the irresistible urge to google it. The same goes for the Federal Surface Materials Testbed on the northbound and southbound lanes of Highway US 31 between Rochester and Peru, “established by an act of Congress as part of the Defense Highway Bill of 1955.”

            Read on for helpful tips such as the advisement that, “as one might gather in the state where the automobile was invented, walking is frowned upon,” thus “shoe repair is a clandestine and shady black market enterprise.”

Did you know that in the southern counties of Indiana, where Abraham Lincoln lived as a boy, “the clocks must, by law, always read ten till ten, the moment of Lincoln’s assassination”? That’s why if you ask a resident for the time they will answer with, “The time is three hours and forty-seven minutes before ten till ten.”

The Blue Guide to Indiana is a book you’ll want for your coffee table to confuse your friends. Rumor has it that even though the front cover is stamped with a notice that the book “in no way factually depicts or accurately represents the State of Indiana, its destinations and attractions, its institutions or businesses, or any of its residents or former residents” and is a work of fiction, bookstores still mistakenly file it in the travel section.

Martone beautifully stays within the boundaries of subtle satire, such that you constantly catch yourself starting to believe the book. It doesn’t help that when you search for the architect Michael Graves, who is credited with designing every single building and landmark mentioned, there really does exist a person by that name, and he really is an architect, and wouldn’t you know it, he was born in the State of Indiana.

For me, that uncomfortably enjoyable constant confusion over where the mostly made up becomes the absolutely absurd is what makes the book a must-read example of what I’ve seen referred to as “fraudulent artifacts,” or pieces purporting to be a particular form of writing, such as fake interviews or emails or tables of contents (or travel guides), that turn out to be something else entirely.

The writing itself is as enjoyable as the content. It is clean and quirky, an authoritative voice that speaks as if unaware of the outrageousness of what it is saying. The First and Second Daylight Savings Wars of 1948 and 1955 are described as nonchalantly as the State Hair Dump, a highlight on the tour of Scenic Waste Disposal and Storage Sites.

For the foodies out there, Martone includes a selection of recipes from Cooking Plain by Helen Walker Linsenmeyer. I googled her, and guess what? She’s on Goodreads, and she really wrote a book by that name. But surely it doesn’t contain the recipe for snow ice cream cited in The Blue Guide, does it? The one that calls for 1 heaping china bowl of freshly fallen snow, maple syrup or warmed honey, and some more snow? I don’t know! And that’s what makes The Blue Guide to Indiana so delicious. Treat yourself and go pick up a copy at your local bookstore. It’s probably in the travel section.

Scott Abrahams is an analyst by day
 and novelist by slow day. 
He is the author of Turtle and Dam, 
a novel about contemporary China."

Monday, September 29, 2014

Drew Reviews: Galaga

Galaga by Michael Kimball
3 Stars
Pages: 136
Publisher: Book Fight Books
Released: July 2014

Guest review by Drew Broussard 

The Short Version: Everybody has a game that they love, that means something special to them.  For Michael Kimball, that game is Galaga - and he explains not only what makes the game marvelous but also what makes it so important to him in simple, honest terms.
The Review: I'm too young to have really ever encountered arcade culture.  Oh sure, I've been to arcades and played plenty of arcade games - but home systems were the norm by the time my friends and I were old enough, so we only know of things like Pac-Man and Galaga through a different lens: that of their being 'classics', respected but also a bit antiquated. 
But that doesn't make them any less potent than their successors.  For every memory I have of playing Myst or Heroes of Might & Magic III, I have to acknowledge the simple wonder that was these games.  These games that made our games possible.  And it's not like we're unfamiliar with Galaga, us millennials: we caught that reference in The Avengers, you know?
But this book is as much about Galaga as it is about one man's experience with the game and the way that it - not to put too fine a point on it - saved his life.  The confessional bits of this novel are, in fact, rather startling for their openness and simplicity.  Kimball endured a childhood of abuse at the hands of his father and older brother and he's really honest about it.  To the point that he says that he still, many many years later, flinches at unexpected contact.  That's pretty heavy stuff for a book about a video game.
But the thing about the game is, it was his lifeline.  It was something that he found that allowed him to escape - not unlike books, movies, music, etc do for countless others.  If anyone in the world still believes that video games rot people's brains, I'd direct them to this installment of Boss Fight Books.  I challenge you to hear this story and think ill of video games or video game culture.
And when I say that, I do mean the purest form of that culture, that artistic expression.  Example: the Grand Theft Auto games hold no redeeming quality, I'm sorry (except for maybe that horse video).  But the honest joy of playing a game and acquiring skill at said game - even if it's a skill that can't exactly be replicated in the world (e.g. shooting alien bugs from the sky)... there are a lot of good things that come out of it.  There's even a delightful list towards the end of the novel of "lessons" that can be learned from Galaga about life - and, you know what, they're good ones.  Simple ones, but they're good ones.  Sometimes, especially in light of tough times, it's good to be reminded of those simple, good life lessons.  
A word, in closing, about the book-as-concept.  Kimball uses the structure of Galaga to tell the story both of his life and of the game and its development - but there are, not surprisingly, moments here that might only appeal to the hardcore fan.  Or that feel a little like filler in order to flesh out the 255-stage concept.  This is the danger of a series like this (I think, too, of the 33 1/3 series - some of those are great, others... not so much).  I'm intrigued by Boss Fight Books, believing immensely that video games (especially classics) deserve the attention that music/movies/shows/books have received... but also, you have to know that they're for a limited audience no matter who writes it or what game they write about.  Still, if you're part of that audience, you'll enjoy this one, and even if you aren't, Kimball transcends the traps that a lesser writer could easily fall into with a book like this.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  Again, it's a question of your interest level.  If you're into classic games, this is ideal.  If you're into stories about how [insert artistic thing here] shaped the life of a young person, this is also ideal.  Kimball does a really great job at elevating what could've been a boring, dry fact-based thing about the game into a deeply personal look at life, at youth, and at love - of others and of an object.  Your mileage will vary, but the fact is: this book does what it sets out to do and more.  And for that, it is a success full-stop.

Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble.  He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Audiobook Review: Acceptance

Listened 9/7/14 - 9/20/14
4 Stars: Strongly Recommended to readers of books 1 & 2, for, you know, obvious reasons
Audio 9.6 hours
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Released: September 2014

WARNING: Do not read this review if you haven't read Annihilation and Authority. I can't be blamed if I end up spoiling a whole lotta shit if you do....

Read my review of Annihilation here

Read my review of Authority here

Jeff Vandermeer brings the creepy back in the third installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy. And he also brings a bit of a twist. Unlike its predecessors, the mysteries and history of Area X come to us through multiple narrators, spanning across three different points in time. Oh yeah, you heard me, we're back inside Area X people! And we're carried back in on the shoulders of Ghost Bird (read by Carolyn McCormick) and Control (read by Bronson Pinchot); Gloria, the original director (read by Xe Sands); and Saul, the Lighthouse Keeper (read by Bronson Pinchot). It's like an all-out Border reunion, yo!

And so we venture back into the land of mystery - after aching for it so badly - by way of another entry point, one found or made by Ghost Bird at the end of Authority. As she gives Control the grand tour, heading directly for the island and its dilapidated lighthouse in search of answers, we are treated to a second story line - that of Gloria and her time within The Southern Reach... including her first, unapproved, foray across the border with Whitby and how - or more importantly WHY - she secures herself a spot in the 12th expedition. And while THAT story unravels itself, we're introduced to Saul the lighthouse keeper (AKA the Crawler), pre-Area X. His story takes us back to the town before the Border came down, before shit got weird, and sheds some light - or possibly shadow - on the S&S Brigade, who strangely enough, are in some way, shape, or form, present at the time of the "change" that comes over what will soon become Area X.

Questions, questions. The trilogy is complete and I still have so many questions. And, believe it or not, I'm fairly at ease with that. Jeff Vandermeer said, in his panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, that he specifically and intentionally left portions of this story open to reader interpretation, stating that, as a reader himself, he never liked authors who took care to clean up all the loose ends. And you absolutely get a sense of that as the final book unfolds. Those subtle little nuances that nibbled at you throughout the entire series - why can't the expeditions bring electronics into Area X with them? why must everyone forgo their names and be reduced to their skill sets? what causes the catalyst that created Area X? is it a tower or a tunnel? what is the light at the bottom of its steps and where do those words that the Crawler is writing come from? what is howling in those reeds? what is up with that dead mouse and indestructible plant in the Director's drawer? why is Whitby so doggone strange? - each one of those questions are brought back into play and played with some more in the third installment. Are any of them actually answered? Well,  That, my friend, is between you and the book, isn't it?! 

What I found most interesting about these additional perspectives - the history of Area X before it was, well, Area X; the home-like tug it had on Gloria; the desire it created in Control to learn more; the uncertainty it created for Ghost Bird - is how they added just as many questions as they had answered. As any series worth its salt will. I marveled at the way Jeff Vandermeer slowly unraveled each mystery, at the time and care he took to allow our minds to wander where it would, without hindering or aiding us, giving us just enough information without giving it all away, making us as much a part of the story as his own characters. As we read, it was as if we watched over their shoulders, weighing out what they were observing, what they were thinking, and pulled together theories of our own. It was all very LOST-ish to me, towards the end, for whatever that's worth.  

A brilliant mind-fuck of series. One that worked incredibly well as an audiobook. For those of you who haven't read the series yet (for shame! Didn't I warn you not to read this review unless you've read Book 1 and 2?!) I highly encourage you to experience the entire thing in audio. has them for your immediate downloading pleasure! Go, listen, and prepare to have your mind blown.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Indie Spotlight: Adrian J Walker

I don't know about you, but I enjoy getting the story behind the story. It's always interesting to hear where the author found the inspiration, how much of it is actually based on true event (isn't the advice always "write what you know"?), and where they were hoping the story would take them in the end. 

Of course, in the case of The End of the World Running Club, we know Adrian didn't base it completely on true events, because, well, if he did... SPOILER: we wouldn't be posting this spotlight because we'd have no internet because the world would have ended and civilization as we know it would have come to an end with it. 

Baring that, that's have a look at where Adrian found the inspiration behind his book:


I wrote The End of the World Running Club because I love the country where I grew up. I love it so much I wanted to smash it to bits with space rocks.

Allow me to explain.

My dad was born in a fishing village on the west coast of Scotland. My mum was born in a council estate in the north of England. My mum grew up and moved to Scotland. My dad took a boat to Australia. Then my mum moved to Australia. They got married and had my sister and lived in the bush suburbs of Sydney, where I was born. My dad was a postman and a bush fireman and my mum taught drama to local kids. Then they missed home and moved back to the UK. They tried Scotland first but it was the late 70s and there were no jobs, so my dad got in a van and drove off looking for one. He found one in the south of England. So that’s where we moved.

That’s the first memory I have of a landscape; a land where I lived.

The house he bought for us had no roof and no heating and was next to an ancient grave yard. We all slept in the front room by a wood fire. The village was what you imagine English villages to be. It had a haunted pub and a pond and a vicarage. Dad put a roof on the house and we stayed there for a while. Then, after a few years, we moved to a village nearby. I don’t know why.

On Saturday mornings I’d take my Raleigh Burner (a classic bike of the time, complete with yellow Mag wheels and blue Tuff II tyres) and ride off around the village calling on my friends. We’d spend the day looking for trouble - hard to find in a small, sleepy English village. We probably looked like the BMX Bandits after a run in with the Famous Five.

One Saturday in late Spring, I left a little earlier than usual. The village was still asleep and I took some time to enjoy riding around the empty streets before making my first call. I began to make up stories in my head. I pretended that everyone had disappeared; that I was the only human being left on earth after some mysterious cataclysm. It thrilled me. Like Ed, the main character in The End of the World Running Club, it quickly became my favourite childhood fantasy: a world emptied of people, a limitless playground with no rules.

Somewhere along the line, I grew up and started moving about the place. I lived in various places around the UK, did my stint in London trying to be responsible, spent summers trying to surf in Cornwall (still my favourite place in the British Isles, despite the graffiti scrawl across a road sign when you enter the county that reads YOU ARE NOT IN ENGLAND), moved to Spain for a while, travelled to Asia, spent a month on an empty beach in New Zealand trying to write a book about two Carthaginian soldiers who take to the sea because it has no borders, thought about moving to Australia but ended up moving to Edinburgh, the hop-reeking, smoky, haunted, medieval capital of Scotland. That’s where I wrote my first book, From the Storm, and it’s where I met my wife and had our children.

My family have moved about a bit. We live in Texas now. No breed of nationalism or patriotism exists within me; I feel no pride about being Scottish, nor English, nor British - I’m writing this on the day that Scotland voted NO to its independence from the UK, and I’m still unsure about how that makes me feel.

What I do have is a deep fondness for the time and the place in which I grew up.
I also have a bit of a thing for the apocalypse. I think it stems from the mind of an eight-year-old boy in an empty village on a quiet Saturday morning.

When I wrote The End of the World Running Club, I wanted to capture that same eery feeling of wonder I felt as I swerved back and forth across the road, splashing through puddles and enjoying the silence. I wanted Ed - now a grown up, struggling with life as a father and weary of the noise and clamour in the ever-more complicated, connected world sprawling around him - to face his challenges in a country that had suddenly gone quiet, stripped back to its bare landscape.

In order to do this, I had to throw some asteroids at it. Quite a few, as it happens. The aftermath leaves Ed stranded in Scotland, facing a grueling journey on foot to reach his family on the south coast of England before he loses them forever.

There are some people left on the road, of course. And like every post-apocalyptic story, some are friendly, some not so. The challenges Ed really faces, though, are the ones posed by his own limits. To reach his family on time, he ends up having to run - he has to run a lot. Running is a passion of mine, but I’ve only every run as far as a marathon, so I interviewed anumber of ultra-running friends about their experiences covering long distances. I wanted to be accurate in my descriptions of the trials Ed has to endure…and Ed is far from marathon material, as you’ll find out if you read the book.

If you do read The End of the World Running Club, then I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.  I’ve had some genuinely amazing responses from readers so far, and that instant connection I can make with fans has brought home just how incredible it is to be a self-published author right now. Drop me a line to say hello - I’ll always write back.


Adrian J Walker was born in the bush suburbs of Sydney, Australia in the mid-70's. He self published From the Storm back in 2012. The End of the World Running Club is his second novel and he is actively writing his third as we speak. He currently lives in Texas with his wonderful, supportive wife and two kids who amaze him more every day.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where Writers Write: Gerald Brennan

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!

Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

This is Gerald Brennan. 

Gerald is the author of ResistanceZero Phase: Apollo 13 on the Moon, and, most recently, Public Loneliness: Yuri Gagarin’s Circumlunar Flight, which was largely composed on bitter winter morning commutes. Go ahead and tweet him @jerry_brennan

Where Gerald Brennan Writes

Train travel’s supposed to be inherently romantic, full of magic and wonder and old-time adventure—yet another thing (like, say, typewriters) that writers are expected to enthusiastically endorse. Amtrak, for instance, recently staged a social media campaign for a writer’s residency to be conducted on the nation’s railways. And I’ll admit, despite the well-worn seediness of their trains, I kinda wanted to be picked. I’ve already ridden many of their major routes out of Chicago—from Chicago to Portland, to Los Angeles, to New York, to Jackson and Grand Rapids and Milwaukee and St. Louis and Ann Arbor—and I’m pretty damn happy with a laptop and a power cord and one of their cafĂ©-car cans of Red Bull, writing and listening to music and watching the scenery. But I’m a husband and a father of two nowadays, with roles and responsibilities and a regular 9-to-5, so most of my writing’s done on a much less exciting train: the Purple Line.

It’s been a process-of-elimination pick. I used to favor coffee shops—Newcity once made a list of the five Chicago coffee shops whose regulars were most likely to form a doomsday cult, and I’d been frequenting three of them—but the aforementioned responsibilities now keep me home in my free time. Writing at night either leaves me too amped to go to bed (if it’s going well) or conking out pathetically at the keyboard (if it’s not), and as George Marshall once said, nobody’s ever had a good idea after 3:00 in the afternoon. (Plus there’s the whole being-emotionally-available-for-my-family thing to consider—when my daughter toddles over to the den, I can either pick her up, which of course makes her want to start typing her own disjointed manuscripts, or ignore her and feel like a complete ass, even more so than usual.) Sometimes the lunch hour works in a pinch, but it’s messy and you have to interrupt your meal, and meetings can crop up last-minute and pinch you out of your time anyway. (There’s also a famous Dorothy Parker quote: “I hate writing. I love having written.” And writing at lunch compresses the “having written” feeling into the second half of the day.) So I like to write early. But I also like to work out early, and I don’t like to get up insanely early, so home’s not always an option.

Enter the Purple Line.


“Now that she’s back in the atmosphere, with drops of Jupiter in her hair, hey hey…” Oh wait. Wrong Train. But now you’ve got that song in your head. Haha, sucker!

We moved from the South Loop to Rogers Park a year ago, and in addition to my other time constraints, I found myself stuck on the CTA for a good chunk of my waking hours. But once I realized it was my best shot at uninterrupted free time, I resolved to write there. At first, I stuck to pen-and-paper, fearful of electronics thieves, and of regular commuters who might find a laptop obnoxious. But soon I saw others with laptops, and I figured, “Fuck it.”

In the old coffee shop days, I had to develop a routine to maximize my chances at productivity. I’d get my seat first (close to the outlet if possible) and mark my territory by leaving something too substantial to ignore, but not so valuable that I’d mind having it stolen. (Usually a sweater.) THEN I’d go to the bathroom, and THEN I’d make a token purchase and sit down and start writing. (No WiFi codes, no nothing, and a set of headphones so people knew I was trying to tune them out.) On the Purple Line, too, I soon had to construct procedures to maximize my chances at productivity.

There’s always a chance the train’ll be full by the time it gets to Howard, so I started paying attention to where the doors normally open on an 8-car train, and standing there.

purple man

Usually right where this guy’s standing. Outta my way, punk!

This gives me a fighting chance at getting a prime seat without throwing too many elbows. I figure the other commuters jockeying for seats are motivated by reasons less altruistic than mine. They’re probably not writing for the greater benefit of society—they’re probably just trying to sit down for some selfish reason, like personal comfort. Still, I figure it’s better to jostle around and be an ass on the platform to get where I need to be. Then when the doors open, I win the seat fair and square.

What constitutes a prime seat, you ask?

On the old-style trains, it’s the little single outward seat at the end—secluded, but with space in front. This seat, right here:

perfect seat

Ahh, blessed solitude!

Failing that, I used to go for the cramped parallel seats at the end of the car. This way I could still conceal my laptop from any would-be thieves.

cramped seat

If you squeeze in here and wedge your laptop’s top edge under the seatback and look straight ahead at all times, nobody will know you’re holding something valuable.

But then I realized that this fear—that someone will steal your precious, precious words—is the hallmark of the amateur, the person who’s more obsessed with registering their work with the United States Copyright Office than they are with actually giving it to other human beings to read and respond. Better to sit in a more open seat and be comfortable. And I figure if someone steals my laptop, I’ll lessen the sting by telling myself they’re an enthusiastic advance reader. Heck, maybe I’ll even post a Craigslist “Missed Connections” post asking for feedback.

So on the old trains, if I can’t get the covert single seats, I’m looking for a spot near the door, or better yet, in the first parallel row. This way I can put my bag in front of me (OK, on the seat, until all other available seats are gone and standing people start giving me dirty looks) and whip out my laptop and write like a madman until I have to start putting my laptop away at Merchandise Mart in preparation for the transfer at Clark and Lake.

open seat

These anonymous commuters helpfully coordinated with one another and the train, chosing a muted color scheme that makes for a more pleasing shot.

Now on the newer trains, EVERY seat has ample space in front, and there are even a couple seats that are free from the annoying vertical poles.

free seat

If you’re headin’ for this seat, I’m throwin’ some elbows!

Plus, there’s the holy grail: a truly spacious handicapped spot.

holy grail

Outta my way, rolling people! This seat is MINE!

On snowy mornings, I sometimes look up long enough to catch a few beautiful glimpses of the city, so there’s still a bit of the old train romance. But usually I’m hunched down, focused. Unlike in the old coffee shop days, I know I only have a few dozen minutes to get something done, so there’s an odd mix of routine and urgency, like Groundhog Day crossed with a bad Denzel Washington movie. I have to ignore the jostling commuters and the annoying panhandlers (and, yes, the pleading eyes of the wheelchair-bound) so I can write something worthwhile while the commuter train hurtles unstoppably towards its destination. (Or stoppably, if they’re running too many Brown Line trains and it’s congested from Belmont on in.)

So if you see me writing frantically on the train, remember—I’m fighting the clock and the indifferent commuters so I can get something done—something worthwhile, people! Something that will benefit all of humanity!

Sorry about the elbows.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Writers Recommend: Caleb J Ross and The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel

Time to bring in a new series, freshen this blog up a bit, don't you think? Our latest is called Writers Recommend. And we'll be asking writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like a LSA -Literary Service Announcement. Your welcome. 

Caleb J Ross Recommends The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel

My first thought when tasked for recommendations was to wonder, does it have to be a book? Given those literally limitless limitations there are so, so many wonderful things I could recommend: Wondershowzen, The Video Game Years, peanut butter (nope, there’s no missing hyperlink there; I just can’t recommend peanut butter enough). But a book it is, so a book it shall be.

Every writer needs to read Amy Hempel. Why? Read this sentence, picked at random by flipping through the pages of The Collected Stories:

“Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.” (pg 4)

That sentence by itself sprouts so many possibilities. As a writer, it’s a seed like this that I live for. The juxtaposed imagery (playfulness vs. suicide), the rhythm of the syllables (…listen for the playfulness…), the implied relationships (what is causing this person to possibly kill herself?), the sentence packs in so much that I am satisfied as a reader, willing to accept this single line as an entire story while simultaneously eager to read the next sentence (in the case of this story, “Tub,” it’s the last sentence of the story). Of course this is not to denigrate the complete story that Hempel builds around this sentence—the story is as phenomenal as that one sentence implies—but rather my appreciation of her brevity is an appreciation of Hempel as a storyteller and an inspiration.

How could you not read this sentence and immediately be compelled to write?

“Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT.” (pg 153, from “And Lead us Not into Penn Station”)

Caleb J. Ross has a BA in English Literature and creative writing from Emporia State University. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared widely, both online and in print. He is the author of five books of fiction and is the creator of The Book Burning Channel, a YouTube channel featuring humorous book reviews, literary skits, writing advice, and rants. Visit his official page at A group novel written with Caleb, Nik Korpon, Axel Taiari, and Richard Thomas will be published by Dzanc in 2015.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Mimic's Own Voice

Read 9/11/14 - 9/12/14
3 Stars - Recommended to folks who like faux-documentaries about fictional celebrities
Pages: 97
Publisher: Main Street Rag
Released: 2011

I landed myself a signed copy of The Mimic's Own Voice during the Cobalt Press Four Fathers Kickstarter campaign back in 2013, when I had partnered with Cobalt and organized a pretty cool four-way interview session with the contributors of the collection - Ben Tanzer, BL Pawelek, Dave Housely, and Tom Williams himself.

A meaty ninety-seven paged novella, The Mimic's Own Voice tells the story of  Douglas Myles, a fictional professional comedic mimic a la faux documentary style. It's ultimately a story of a story, in the sense that someone pens this completely unbiased, journalistic biography of this wildly talented but completely hermetic guy once his post-mortem, unpublished, autobiographical manuscript is uncovered. (You got all that?)

How incredibly meta of you, Williams!

Typically, I hear of books written in this style and my eyes start to glaze over and I begin to feel a nagging, almost uncontrollable urge to run, run faaaaaaarrrr away, to avoid coming into contact with said book. And I have to admit that, though I didn't request that a copy of this book come into my possession, I alone chose to pull it out from under the TBR pile and crack it open. The first few pages were a bit difficult for me, because I really wasn't sure where Williams was going, blathering on and on about the old-time mimics, "those artists who made their fame and fortune with stunning mimicry of the period's political leaders and actors, athletes and musicians, scholars, and men of science." We're not actually introduced to Myles until the bottom of page four. And by that point, I'm looking at the total page count of the book and thinking to myself, well hell, I'm already about 5% into the darn thing, might as well finish it, yeah?

Much of the book is focused on how Myles applied his savant-like talent for mimicry. How he initially cultivated an audience with his vocal trickery by mimicking the old-time mimics (how very meta of YOU, Myles), then turning his ear and voice towards his contemporary peers and rivals, to his final big ta-dah... mimicking the voices of his very own audience members, to their amazement and enjoyment.

So, I mentioned that The Mimic's Own Voice is meaty, and meaty it is. You're gonna need a fork and knife and some major jaw muscles to chew through this sucker. It's a sticker and a stayer. Kind of like a well-seasoned but overcooked cut of meat. There's no swallowing this one down quickly. You're gonna be working at it for a little while. But when it's all gone down, and the plate is clean, you'll definitely feel full and satisfied.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Melanie Review: Crocodile Smiles

Pages: 114 
Publisher: Black Scat Books
Released: 2014

Guest review by Melanie Page

“Are crocodiles capable of smiling,” we are asked, “if they can’t cry?” Yuriy Tarnawsky’s newest collection contains six short, absurdist stories--confessional in nature, of course--that that suggest the author borrowed from playwriting and well-known tales.

Each story is process-oriented. First a character does something, and then the next step, and then the next. Skipping one part of the process is unthinkable, which gives some of the stories their length. “Agamemnon (post mortem),” described to readers as taking place on a stage in front of an audience, begins with sounds: hacking, sawing, screaming, moaning, crushing. We are tuned into the audio portion of the event.

Next, characters bring out a large thing as part of a procession, including a dwarf man and woman whom we are told to guess are Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the murderers of Agamemnon. When all proceed off stage, they return again with another large piece of something. As the audience watches--and readers “watch” too--the pieces are stacked and come together as the body of the murdered. The description of leaving and returning are described again and again. Once the deed is done, everyone retreats. But the story/play doesn’t end there. Offstage we hear the couple talk, the squeaky springs of post-murder fornication, and some arguing.

What could be the problem? Why something as small as who left the light on after they stacked the dead man’s body. Aegisthus must come from offstage to cross in front of the audience in near dark, squishing through the bloody puddles to get to the light. With everything necessary completed, the story ends. Skipping one step wouldn’t make sense to the story. So, the procession in and out seems agonizingly long, but makes it easier to imagine the act truly happening.

Why this style of writing wasn’t my favorite of Tarnawsky’s, I appreciated the exploratory toying with form and content. I much prefer his collection Short Tales (Journal of Experimental Fiction Books, 2011), which takes on absurdist and cerebral narratives that stick closer to traditional storytelling. You’re asked to go deep into your mind, but you’re told to go there in a way that you recognize.

Crocodile Smiles was somewhat like you imagine to be descriptive services for the blind, but as the stories progress, the language takes on a rhythm, much like learning to dance to a new song with foreign steps. But, when you get the moves, you enjoy that it is a unique experience.

Melanie Page is a MFA graduate, adjunct instructor, and recent founder of Grab the Lapels, a site that only reviews books written by women (

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Audio Series: Erika Wurth

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen."  was hatched in a NYC club during BEA back in 2012. This feature requires more time and patience of the author than any of the ones that have come before. And that makes it all the more sweeter when you see, or rather, hear them read excerpts from their own novels, in their own voices, the way their stories were meant to be heard.

Today, Erika T. Wurth reads an excerpy from her brand spankin' new novel, Crazyhorse’s Girlfriend,which has just been released by Curbside Splendor. Her collection of poetry, Indian Trains, was published by The University of New Mexico’s West End Press. A writer of both fiction and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, Fiction, Pembroke, Florida Review, Stand, Cimarron Review, The Cape Rock, Southern California Review and Drunken Boat. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.

Click on the soundcloud link below to experience an excerpt of Crazy Horse's Girlfriend, as read by Erika. 

The word on Crazy Horse's Girlfriend

Margaritte is a sharp-tongued, drug-dealing, sixteen-year-old Native American floundering in a Colorado town crippled by poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse. She hates the burnout, futureless kids surrounding her and dreams that she and her unreliable new boyfriend can move far beyond the bright lights of Denver that float on the horizon before the daily suffocation of teen pregnancy eats her alive.
*lifted with love from goodreads