Friday, January 31, 2014

Drew Reviews: Long Division

Long Division by Kiese Laymon
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended
276 pages
Publisher: Agate Bolden 
Released: June 2013

Guest review by Drew Broussard 

The Short Version: In 2013, a young boy in Mississippi named City becomes an internet sensation after an outburst during a nationally televised contest.  He goes to stay with his grandmother and takes a book along with him, also called Long Division - with a main character also named City, but this one lives in 1985 and may just be able to travel through time...
The Review: What a curious and complex novel.  As I'm sitting here, having finished the book, I almost don't have anything to say.  Or, it's not that I don't have anything to say, but I feel like the words haven't quite arrived yet - I'm not supposed to receive them until, say, tomorrow or something.  As though the book ended unexpectedly, before it was supposed to, and the universe got caught flat-footed.
Which might, I realize, have been the author's intention.  After all, the in-universe copy of Long Division that City2013 picks up has, apparently, blank pages at the end - perhaps this indeterminate ending is the whole point.
But, also, maybe the point is to return to the text immediately upon conclusion - a sort of Dark Tower-style loop.  Without delving into spoiler territory, the novel deals out information cautiously and carefully and while some readers might spot certain 'twists' coming, it's hard to tell whether or not your guesses will be rewarded because Laymon does such a great job at keeping things mysterious.  You genuinely cannot be sure how things will connect simply because the rules of this universe are fluid - it's anyone's guess as to how those rules will apply themselves at any given moment.
But Laymon also has a real-world application for all of this quantum-narrative loop-de-looping: he wants to talk about race in the South.  He wants to talk about how a contest can be thrown by calculating organizers while seeming still racially forward-thinking.  He wants to talk about how the actions of the past resonate through the future.  He wants to talk about Katrina, about internet fame, about religion.  But he addresses each of these things without ever actually taking aim at them - he lines up but then diverts, the issue at hand sliding away, only to have it appear later from an oblique angle and create perhaps a bigger impact for it.  Hell, he's even addressing the complicated questions of sexuality in childhood - how you can love how somebody makes you feel without actually being "in love" with the person.  City2013's grappling with that question regarding LaVander is just spot on - and City1985's attempts to grapple with the same question, regarding both Baize and Shalaya, bring the lesson home for our present-tense character.
The thing is, though... I'm not entirely sure Laymon manages to bring his readers to the point of understanding.  For all of the individual issues addressed, the novel's abrupt ending leaves the reader with not so much a dangling plot but a dangling resolution of the concepts addressed.  Again, is this perhaps the point?  Are we meant to go out into the world and attempt to at least recognize the inequalities and tragedies that surround us, as pointed out by both Citys and their storylines?  Is that all Laymon wanted?  I say that like it'd be a bad thing, to have greater recognition, but I have the unshakable sense that there should be more here.  Perhaps I just need to think on it longer - to think on the specific moments that have lodged in my mind, like the last scene between City1985 and Baize.  The last scene between City2013 and Pot Belly.  I am reaching for but failing to quite grasp something at the end of this book.  Is that a personal failing or a failing of the book?  I'm quick to judge a book but just as quick to judge myself and I think, genuinely, it might be the former.  Perhaps the book does require a second read in order to come to terms with the deeper issues at hand.
If nothing else, it would be entertaining to revisit the sassy sentence war that opens the novel - LaVander and City2013 trash-talking each other in the most erudite of ways, setting a humorous tone for the novel that never entirely goes away, even as things get serious and strange.  Both Citys are sharp observers and have a way with words (gifted, of course, by their creator - whose own skill with words might get overlooked by folks talking about his creations... funny how that happens sometimes) but even in the face of horrible things, they manage to retain a sense of childish.... not wonder, per se, but a sense of openness to the world.  City1985 and City2013 both grow up considerably over the course of the novel - er, novels plural, I guess - but the thing you take away is that earlier sense of something that looks almost like (but isn't quite) hope.  If only the adults of the world would see that kids like City, City, Baize, LaVander, and the rest don't benefit from the games of the system, then perhaps we could allow ourselves to have faith in the next generation.  But you adults don't, do you?  And so the Baizes of the world go missing, the Citys are seen as money-making vehicles instead of prophets, and all the while another storm might be brewing...

Rating: 4 out of 5.  Originally, I was going to rate this a little lower - again, due to my own frustration at not quite grasping the what of it all.  But as with the excellent mindfrak of a film Primer, I'm not sure you can know this book on one reading.  Unfortunately, I'm guessing I probably won't get a chance to crack it again (the pace of modern life, am I right?) - at least not for a while... but I find myself haunted as though in a dream by aspects of the book.  Hazy confusions, unexpectedly clear images, thoughts about the interconnectivity of the books within books.... One thing is for sure: Kiese Laymon might've passed me by if it wasn't for the ToB - but he's unmistakably on my radar now.  
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.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Audio Series: Roberto Montes

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen." is an incredibly special one for us. Hatched in a NYC club during BEA week, this feature requires more work 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, Roberto Montes reads from his debut collection I Don't Know Do You, which 
is forthcoming from Ampersand Books in March. His chapbook, HOW TO BE SINCERE IN YOUR POETRY WORKSHOP, is now available in full at His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from ILK, Interrupture, DEATH HUMS, The New Megaphone and elsewhere. He lives in Queens and reads poetry for Sixth Finch.

Click on the Soundcloud link to experience Roberto Montes as he reads a poem from I Don't Know Do You...

The word on I Don't Know Do You:

Roberto Montes is a poet of immense passion. He’s not scared to be sad (“In space no one can hear you be a better person”), but he’s not scared to be gentle, either (“Sometimes I bend a little sorry/by how easy it is…As if you weren’t already/reading this aloud/to the man quietly/removing his socks”). I am finding that this juxtaposition, this honesty about the world and self, is almost impossible to find in contemporary poetry. This book needs to be read. It needs to be carried around in messenger bags and purses. Lines like “I am continually inspired/by men who are not afraid/to do pushups in the middle of our conversation” should be tweeted, tumbled, text messaged to friends and strangers. This book is a love letter to love and an ode to the pain it can cause. It’s about being young and lost but how maybe that is not such a bad thing.
Share this book with someone pretty. Plant it in the forest and watch it grow a heart in the shape of a heart. *lifted from Ampersand's website with love

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Audiobook Review: Ready Player One

Listened January 2014
4 Stars - Strongly recommended because Wil Wheaton and futurist America obsessed with the 80's, complete with full immersion rigs and Wil Wheaton and video game geeks taking on the corporate bad guys and WIL WHEATON, you guys!
Audio MP3 - 15+ hrs
Publisher: Random House Audio
Released: 2011

So I have a confession to make. I've had this book sitting in my TBR pile since the initial wave of ARCs were shipped out, way back when. While everybody and their brother read it and reviewed it and gushed all over it almost immediately, I let it lay there and continued to chip away at my small press review backlog. Not that I have anything against reviewing things at the exact same time as everyone else, or reading books by the Big Guys, cause I really don't. Or maybe I do, just a little. OK, okay, I admit it, I kinda hate reading main stream books at the same time as everyone else. There. I said it.  I totally prefer to shelve them and sit on them, and wait for them to come out on audio. What of it?!

Corporate Pubs like Random House always do such a nice job with their audiobooks, too. And since I've got a nice long hour and a half daily round trip commute to work, listening to a book is a welcome break from the same old top 10 songs on the local radio station rotations. So when I saw had a super reasonable audio mp3 of Ready Player One, I knew the time was right to snag it and start listening. Oh, and did I mention that Wil Wheaton narrates? So yeah. There's that. (It's pure perfection.)

As the book opens, we are thrown into a dingy future America of uber crowded cities and trashy mini trailer park "stacks" lined up around their perimeters, of gigantic corporations growing always more gigantic, of the poor forever getting poorer. The only escape, especially for the American youth, is to seek solace in a video game-slash-alternate-reality called The Oasis.  The Oasis was created by a ground breaking video game designer named Halliday, whose will and testament was released to the world upon his recent death, uncovering a series of "hidden keys within the Oasis that will lead one lucky winner to an Easter Egg." The first person to discover the location of the Easter Egg will inherit Halliday's entire fortune, ultimately making them the richest person in the world.

A world-wide, frenzied hunt for the three keys ensues, and our narrator, 18 year old Wade Watts, joins the ranks of millions setting their sights on winning the contest. And after nearly 5 years of searching and studying, and relentlessly picking apart every bit of Halliday's life history, from his childhood video games to his favorite movies and music, Wade makes a breakthrough and becomes the first "Gunter" to find the Copper Key. This discovery, of course, renews everyone's search efforts and throws Wade and his group of friends head first into the heart of an exciting and extremely life-threatening race towards the Easter Egg and Halliday's billions.

While Ready Player One is very much a book for today's MMORPG video-gamer, it's also a wild and crazy homage to all things 80's. And while hard core gamers are going to find it easy to sink their teeth into this, it's incredibly difficult for me to imagine that Millennial readers will be able to truly appreciate the retro-ness of it all. Hell, I grew up on Atari 2600 and clearly remember fighting over the joystick with my siblings and cousins to play the ridiculously green pixellated Space Invaders and Asteroids. And I remember spending hours in front of my Commodore 64, which was basically a keyboard that plugged right into your TV and came with gigantic boxy cartridge "text driven" games like Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and The Oregon Trail. And as we got older, and started asserting our freedom, there was nothing quite like meeting a group of your pals and chilling out at the arcade killing a couple of hours playing coin operated video games like Pac-Man. All of these retro games, and more, get shout-outs in Ernest Cline's novel.

As the video games slowly became more sophisticated, I lost interest and began coming into my own as a reader. Though my nose was always in a book, my eyes were locked onto awesome movies likes The Goonies and Rocky Horror Picture Show and War Games, which are also paid their due in Ready Player One, and my ears were tuned in to all of the alternative music of that generation.

As Wil Wheaton read from RPO's pages and told me all about Wade's trials and tribulations in the Oasis, I lost myself in wave after wave of nostalgic memories. Hilariously geeky in all the right ways, Ready Player One is a must read for all of you aging 30-something Gen-Xer's. And the all-things-80's obsessiveness of the book will keep you non-gamers locked in from word one. I promise.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Brian Bromberg's Guide to Books & Booze

Time to grab a book and get tipsy!

Back by popular demand, Books & Booze, originally a mini-series of sorts here on TNBBC challenges participating authors to make up their own drinks, name and all, or create a drink list for their characters and/or readers using drinks that already exist. 

Today, Brian Bromberg introduces each of the characters in his new novel Falling Up by pairing them with a drink. Bottoms up!!

Falling Down Drunk with Falling Up

“Because at this point, getting drunk seems like the only somewhat writerly thing I can do.”

So says Gregg Freeman, the main character of my latest novel, Falling Up. He resolves to get himself blindingly drunk at the very end of Chapter 1; by Chapter 2, he has barely survived his very first bar brawl. More bad behavior follows in due course, pretty much for the rest of the book. Which is why I felt an immediate kinship with the Books & Booze series. Yes, I’ve tipped a few glasses while working on Falling Up. But more importantly, my rowdy cast of characters tip glasses, as well as some tables, chairs, and the occasional motor bike. To put it bluntly, a lot of Falling Up involves falling down, and gravity has no better assistant than alcohol – or so I’ve been told. Personally, I only drink coffee – or so my family’s been told.   

Like me, the star of my novel is a writer. And like many writers, he feels that alcoholic lubrication helps him to unleash ideas from his backed-up braincase. Problematically, the poor guy has Writer’s Block. He’s just too damned comfortable to write anything of substance. His high-paying corporate day job, his sexy pseudo-girlfriend, his posh New York City apartment, and all the creature comforts of his middle-class success have combined to sap him of any semblance of inspiration. So when Gregg’s best buddy Alvaro – a successful yet perpetually sloshed artist – drunkenly suggests that the Muse of Misery best moves men to creative greatness, Gregg takes him at his word, and embarks upon a systematic campaign to destroy everything in his life that plagues him with stability, comfort, contentedness, or joy. His job, his bank account, sex, sobriety – all of it must go. The worse Gregg’s life, the better his work.

You don’t need a drink in your own hand to enjoy Gregg’s comic misadventures, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. What drink would I recommend to a reader looking to burp all over my pages? So many options. Let’s go character-by-character, shall we?

CAVEAT EMPTOR: I am NOT recommending you drink ALL of these cocktails in sequence. If you do that, you will not remember the novel. Also, you’ll likely die.

Character: Gregg Freeman
Drink: Jack and Ginger

Gregg loves Jack Daniels because it’s a donkey kick to the head when ingested in the appropriate amount; adding Ginger Ale classes up the proceedings a bit. The candy-colored drink is both strong and sweet, which is how Gregg sees himself; he also likes the reinvigorating bubbles that tickle his nose with each gulp to remind him every once in a while that he is in fact still alive and conscious. The drink is a smile on a trucker’s face – it’s there, but you’re not sure for how long. Go with this cocktail to laugh and laugh and laugh – until that unfortunate turning point when you get violent, and then black out.

Character: Alvaro Jerez
Drink: Six shots of Jose Cuervo tequila

Gregg’s partner in crime believes that inspiration can be found at the bottom of a glass, and truthfully, he’s willing to drain any glass to test his theory. But tequila definitely gets the job done without delay. Alvaro would hate that I liken him to Jose Cuervo though; as a proud Spaniard, he resents when people associate him with Latin America rather than the specific Iberian peninsula from which he hails. But a Pisco Sour or a glass of vino tinto won’t do it for this bar-brawling, cartoon-drawing lunatic. He likes to cut to the chase. Sans chaser.

Character: Annette Freeman
Drink: Brown Grasshopper

Gregg’s ex-wife is the moral center of the book. Though Gregg and Annette are separated by several years as well as several states, she haunts his memory and routinely materializes before him to criticize his life choices. Basically, she’s his conscience, the Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio. So logically, her drink is The Grasshopper – a sweet, mint-flavored, after-dinner cocktail. Because she would want to keep her wits about her, she’d add coffee to her beverage; hence, The Brown Grasshopper.

Character: Cindy Something
Drink: Casillero del Diablo wine, paired perfectly with a generous heaping of cocaine

Gregg’s psychotic, drug-addicted pseudo-girlfriend is a hot mess. When you’re with her, you’re in Hell, so this Chilean wine, which translates to the Devil’s Cellar, is perfect for her. Like this vintage, she’s dark, brooding, sexy, slightly acidic, but not at all “top shelf.” Of course, she only drinks wine whilst she is shoving powdered inspiration up her nose. Cindy fancies herself a painter, but the only way her work can be found in a museum is if you count her tour-guide job at the Museum of Natural History. To deal with her glaring lack of talent, and to goose her creativity, Cindy prefers to take her inspiration nasally. The wine is really just to keep it all civilized. 

Character: Oliver Rosensweig
Drink: A big-ass can of Foster’s beer

By day, Gregg works in a mind-numbing copywriter job at a DVD company called KidVidz; his boss there is a big, dumb, happy-go-lucky buffoon named Oliver. He’s a nice guy and a loveable oaf, but not particularly good at anything, and certainly not representative of taste or quality. Like Foster’s. It’s Australian for beer, but only for dumb Americans who have never been to Australia and don’t know any better. Drink up.

Character: Amber Rosensweig
Drink: Sex on the Beach

Amber is a college kid, interning at Gregg’s company. She knows that she can use sex to get anything she wants. So a Sex on the Beach is right up her ass-crack. Although if there’s no time for actual sex (because for instance, her father is headed toward the office in which she wants to do it), she’ll settle for some quick breast-play; so likewise, if there’s no time for you to mix vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice and cranberry, go instead with a quick Slippery Nipple shot, which would also suit Amber just fine.

Character: Gladys “Gladless the Moo Cow” Jones
Drink: Bitters

Gladless the Moo Cow is Oliver’s Senior Executive Assistant, and according to Gregg, “an angry, old heifer filled with vitriol and spite.” So to get your own Gladless going, pour yourself some bitters. One type that I have enjoyed is a mixture of vodka and campari called Whippersnappers, and this would be a good drink for Gladless, because she is hundreds of years old and would use that term without any shame or sense or irony.

Character: Ray “the Raven” Rothenberg
Drink: The Raven

The Raven runs a crummy little literary magazine called After Hours. He’s an interestingly pierced poser in all black who wants to be dark and mysterious, but is really  just a dickhead with a trust fund. Still, it’s all about appearances, as it is with the dark, mysterious cocktail known as the Raven. It contains vodka, rum, Blue Curacao, and 7-Up. It tastes like a combination of cough syrup and ass, but hey, it looks good. Enjoy.

Character: Elizabeth Wolfe
Drink: Irish Coffee

Elizabeth is the motor-mouthed Fiction Editor at ME Magazine. She does everything quickly – she talks fast, she moves fast, she makes decisions fast, and she is always pressed for time. She’s also of Irish descent. See where I’m going with this? You’ll need coffee to keep up with this one, but to keep it boozy, make it an Irish.

Character: Heffton Waller
Drink: Chivas Regal scotch

Heffton is the Editor-in-Chief of ME Magazine. He’s rich, powerful, and successful. He can make or break a writer’s career. He spares no expense on anything, or so Gregg imagines. So crack open a good scotch and treat yourself right, as this old man does.

Character: Gregg’s mother
Drink: Abstaining

Gregg’s mother does not like Gregg’s life choices. Nor does she find any of this amusing.

Character: Gregg’s father

Drink: Abstaining
Gregg’s father has cancer. So he’s not drinking, and he thinks you shouldn’t either.

There you have it. You can find all these awesome characters and more in Falling Up, available at or on I suggest you do. And you can find all these awesome drinks at your local watering hole, package store, or – if you’re like Alvaro – in your hand right now.

Remember, in the immortal words of Gregg Freeman: “A man can either whine and cry over life’s half-empty glass in the hopes his tears will refill it, or he can shrug, drain it dry, and order another.” So order another. Enjoy drinking up and Falling Up. Cheers.


BRIAN J. BROMBERG is a comedic writer living and working in New York City. As an Emmy-nominated children’s writer, he has penned ten television scripts, one movie, 12 books, several video games and apps, live event scripts and more exclusively for children. This juvenile experience has given him much grist for the mill in his more life-lampooning, adult-oriented work, which has featured in literary magazines, short story collections, Bromberg’s stand-up comedy act, and off-air creative for Comedy Central, MTV, Spike TV, and Paramount Pictures. Falling Up marks his first novel for – er, um – adults.  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Melanie Reviews: Beside Myself

Beside Myself by Ashley Farmer
132 pages
Publisher: Tiny Hardcore Press
Released: Feb 2014

Guest review by Melanie Page

Beside Myself is a book presented as a short story collection. In the blurb released by the publisher, readers will be enticed by unusual premises. We are meant to feel we know something and then have it all taken away from us. The description of the book is fascinating.

The stories themselves are a bit puzzling. While much of my generation fights being labeled, I find labels a useful tool to guide my decisions. I don’t go to the grocery store and wander up and down every aisle in case something new catches my attention; I look for the sign that says “cereal” and expect to find a variety of breakfast goods. I might even be surprised by breakfast bars and pastry treats that I hadn’t even considered. It’s hard for me to agree that Farmer’s collection contains “stories.” Many of the pieces are a brief paragraph. Then the layout of the pages ceased to surprise me. The story begins about halfway down the page, so stories that went on just a touch longer than a paragraph would require me to turn the page to find only two or three more sentences. I always expected more, thinking, “Maybe this piece will be the ‘story.’”

Really, this collection is meant for the scrupulous eyes of a poet, one who will appreciate the language and making meaning out of abstract thoughts. One paragraph is filled with fragments of ideas: “We landed unbearable, but I swallowed red. We had chased. I had stayed on. I had stayed light. We stood up, we burned out, the light we knew lay down. I packed our boxes sister.” What’s going on? Where is the plot? Who is this character?

Then again, I understand that attention to language is highly valuable, and that poets can teach fiction writers in the ways of words. Some pieces had a sense of plot, but Farmer writes each line as though she wants us to really work for that which we seek. Working in a movie theater isn’t the simple exchange of cash for tickets, and getting to work is no easy task: the character is “subscribing to the hollowed-out minutes of an empty movie theater on days that make few demands and even fewer rewards. Back then, a coat was something to be wrangled into. My profile was slack, slumping. The projection of my body toward the bus stop: airless.” Instead of drawing out the pitiful life of this character, Farmer makes the reader fill in the space on his/her own and imagine what it’s like drag yourself to a miserable job. At a little over one full page, this piece, the title piece, is still more about presenting images and emotions than telling a story.

When Farmer turns to plot, her blend of language and story is flawless. “Where Everyone is a Star” left me surprised and full of emotion. One of the longest pieces at a little over five pages, the relationship between a gymnast and his wife who work with children is vibrant. Instead of having the narrator say she and her husband broke up and she went to stay with a friend, Farmer writes, “We splintered. I borrowed a friend’s address.”

I want poets and other language junkies to adore this collection--I know they will. If I had know Beside Myself had more of a poetry bent, I would have passed on reviewing it and recommended it to one of the many people I know who eat this kind of work up. However, if you’re looking for plot and characters--stories, really--this collection may not be best suited for you.

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, January 23, 2014

The Indie Ink Runs Deep: Brian Alan Ellis

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 comes from Brian Alan Ellis
Brian is the author of The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow and 33 Fragments of Sick-Sad Living. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and has not gotten a tattoo in ten years. 

My parents packed up and headed to Georgia, leaving me in their empty apartment until the lease ran out. I was twenty-two years old and had nowhere to go. I didn’t want to move to Georgia, so I’d go out to the bars at night hoping to woo a girl into letting me move in with her. This wasn’t actually my intention but it gave me something productive to do besides just drinking. And that’s how I met Tina, a twenty-nine year old tattoo artist whose husband, a junky, was incarcerated for robbing a Jimmy Johns. We immediately hit it off.

So I moved all my shit (a clothes-filled garbage bag and a book-filled cardboard box) into Tina’s small, low-rent apartment by the beach. Tina’s roommate had a seven year old son named after a character from a Kerouac book I never bothered reading. Also, there were two cats and a Chihuahua named Roxy who, instead of walking, got from point A to point B by crawling on her belly. It took a while getting used to the smell of cat shit.

Since I didn’t have a car or a job, I hung out all day at the tattoo parlor Tina worked at. I basically sat in the back playing Sega as she tattooed butterflies on college girls or pierced the penises of scary bald men. Like the cat shit smell, it was something I had to get used to.

Every few weeks Tina would tattoo me for free. I was her willing canvas, letting her carve whatever she wanted into my flesh. One day she handed me a big book of Edward Gorey drawings and said, “Pick one!” I flipped through it a few times before finally settling on a depiction of a winged devil creature pulling a woman by the hair out of a well or something. She got excited and went to work. The tattoo hurt, of course. And I bled a lot because I was constantly drunk back then.

Tina and her roommate eventually moved out of state, again leaving me alone in an empty apartment before the lease was up. The only noticeable difference this time, besides all those new tattoos, was my heart: it was broken.

Still, the Edward Gorey tattoo holds up nicely. In fact, it’s one of my favorites. And if you cover it a certain way, the woman’s body resembles the head of a fat penis.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Drew Reviews: Hill William

HILL WILLIAM by Scott McClanahan 
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended
224 Pages
Publisher: Tyrant Books 2013
Guest review by Drew Broussard 
The Short Version: Scott, in the present, is having some trouble - something's off, in his head.  He reflects back on his childhood - a typically misspent youth - and wonders if perhaps something that happened back then, in the hills of West Virginian Appalachia, something might've happened to mess him up in the present.  These reflections sort of take over, showing the reader just how Scott got to the place he is now. 
The Review: Part of the reason I look forward to the Tournament of Books every year is that, inevitably, I will discover an author I might've otherwise never heard about - or at least never gotten around to.  Last year, to my enduring entertainment (and hope that we will one day become actual friends), it was Miles Klee and his excellent debut novel Ivyland.  This year, I think it's Scott McClanahan's Hill William that takes the "never would've gotten around to this otherwise" prize - and I'm damned glad I made the time.
Firstly, let's note the book itself.  It's a tiny little thing, clocking in at a smidge over 200 pages but the pages are short and stout - the book fits into a jacket pocket, but not a back pocket.  It stands out on a shelf almost purely because of its odd size.
Then you pick it up - and what should, by all rights, be some kind of crazy wild writing (judging from the vibe of the Goodreads & critical reviews out there) ends up being a really wonderful evocation of a well-spent/misspent youth.  And the lasting effects that such a youth can have on a 'grownup'.
I won't deny that there's some truly weird stuff in this book.  Awkward sexual encounters, mostly - kids experimenting, doing things that undoubtedly seem strange or horrible to the grown-up reader but that probably didn't seem like much else other than exploration as a kid.  And for the first time I can think of, at least in recent memory, McClanahan pulls off the narrative 'voice' of this kind of kid - by not seeming at all like he's trying to write like a kid.  The book doesn't evoke childhood so much as it evokes what we remember childhood to be - or at least what I remember it to be, even though my suburban PA childhood was pretty far removed from the West Virginian childhood of our main character (Scott, whose might also possibly be Scott McClanahan - it's unclear and I'm okay with that (although, whoa, two books in a row for ToB X with versions-of-author-as-narrator)).  McClanahan introduces, in an early chapter, an image of the mountains surrounding Rainelle, WV - and the image that leaps into your mind is one of mountains and trees and wilderness and the sun lighting up the sky as it sets and it's taking forever to set and the kids are all out playing some game while the parents are - oh, who the hell knows what the parents are doing, who cares?  Because we kids are out running around until it gets too dark to see.  
And it's a time before concerns over locking doors, it's a time before concerns over kids doing stupid things - because kids always do stupid things and always have done stupid things, why the sudden increase in helicopter-parenting? - and while that's a good thing, I think, it's also... that lack of complication can be a bad thing, too.  McClanahan almost lets you forget that the novel opened up with a nearly-thirty Scott in a fight with his wife where he punched himself in the face a few times.  It's a jarring opening and yet he lulls you into this security of memory (Tennessee Williams, eat your heart out) before bringing us full-circle to the present and seeing Scott try to understand the man he has become based on the things that happened to him as a kid.  
The writing itself is compact but clear as crystal and completely comprehensible.  This is not the sort of novel that (nor, as it would seem, is McClanahan the sort of writer who) needs to try and deploy linguistic overachievement in order to "tell the story" - instead, McClanahan just speaks plainly and humanly and, what do you know, his form of tough gritty writing ends up reading like a refreshing glass of spring water.  ...That was a terrible metaphor but hopefully, if you get a chance to even skim a few pages of this book, you'll see what I mean.  There's something that cuts right to the heart of American adolescence in this book - but adolescence in a time now past, a time before computers and iPhones and the ennui of the modern teen.  A scene where Scott debuts as quarterback plays out like the sort of late summer memory I have from watching my neighbor debut as QB when he was maybe 15 and I was maybe 7 or 8.  Today, that pass Scott threw would've been up on YouTube in moments - not because it was exceptional necessarily but because that's how these things happen now.  McClanahan is writing about a time that I can still associate with, in terms of my childhood.  I wonder if future generations, or even people only a few years younger than me, will understand this book in the same way as I did - or if they'll approach it from a more clinical, less elemental standpoint.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  I have to say, I really didn't like the ending.  The twist on adolescent America is great but once the story comes back to the present - especially once present-Scott goes back to Rainelle - it sort of sputtered to the finish line for me.  The discomfort I could brush aside when seeing the kids doing stupid things was now actually very real when nearly-30-year-old Scott did a stupid thing.  But I see why McClanahan did it and, hey, that's the story he means to tell.  But for me, the reason the book is worth reading is that sense of captured old-school summers.  The simplicity of growing up, before everything happened.  This book made me want to go run through a field or play hide-and-seek under the streetlights on a quiet suburban road.  So, thanks, Scott. 
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.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Audio Series: Scott Navicky's HUMBOLDT

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen." is an incredibly special one for us. Hatched in a NYC club during BEA week, this feature requires more work 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, CCLaP author Scott Navicky reads from his debut novel Humboldt, or The Power of Positive Thinking. 
Scott has an Honors Master’s Degree in art history with a focus on photography theory from the University of Auckland. He has lived in New York City, Auckland, Boston, Brooklyn, and Portland, Maine. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio. 

Click the soundcloud link below to experience Humboldt, or The Power of Positive Thinking read by Scott Navicky:

The word on Humboldt:

The Iraq War? The housing market collapse? College football's concussion crisis? How can anyone be expected to understand such complexities, especially a "horticulturally dyslexic" farmboy with an eighth-grade education and a penchant for perpetually misunderstanding, misreading, and misinterpreting the world? Born on a farm in Ohio, Humboldt is content to spend his life "outside amongst the oxygen and unhurried hydrocarbons." But when his father's farm is threatened with foreclosure, Humboldt is forced to save it by enrolling in college, leading him on an epic absurdist adventure through Washington politics, New York performance art, Boston blue-bloods, post-Katrina New Orleans, multiple murders, and holy resurrections. Mixing the speed and structure of Voltaire's Candide with a heavy dose of Joycean wordplay, and a love of literary acrobatics worthy of David Foster Wallace, Scott Navicky's debut novel assails some of modern America's most cherished beliefs and institutions with the battle cry: "Ticklez l'infame!"
*lifted with love from goodreads

If Humboldt sounds like the kind of thing you'd like to review, we've got digital ARC's available in Mobi, ePub, and PDF. Just comment here with your email address and I'll be happy to send one your way!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Deep and Gorgeous Book Trailer for our Discussion

This is really cool. 

The first ever TNBBC Author/Reader Discussion book trailer! Created by none other than author Hosho McCreesh himself! Check it out, then come join our discussion in the TNBBC thread on Goodreads in February. We look forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Madeleine Reviews: Mastodon Farm

Read: 21 October 2013
4 stars - Strongly recommended, especially to those seeking a quick read that leaves a lasting impression
126 pages
Publisher: Atlatl Press
Released: 18 September 2012

By guest reviewer Madeleine Maccar

Sometimes a book so thoroughly defies its reader's expectations, is such a departure from more conventional fare and is still utterly enjoyable that it's a difficult entity to write about. Sometimes it takes a person three months to find the words to describe such a uniquely entertaining read when a few paragraphs of casually punctuated chuckles would be the most appropriate reaction. And sometimes, you just have to exclaim that a book was a damn good way to spend an hour or so and not give three flying figs that many, many people would disagree. Because those sounding alarms of dissent probably did not give this odd little book the chance it deserves..

Mastodon Farm, much in the tradition of American Psycho and The Stranger before it, demands to be read as an allegory almost from its first word. Otherwise, it's no easy task trying to impose much sense on its page-long lists, restlessly leaping gambols both across state lines and from celebrity crib to celebrity crib, name- and brand-dropping like there's an endorsement deal on the line, and endless parade of circuitous conversations.

A novella told in the second person, Mastodon Farm follows you with a stalker-like attention to details as you deal with broken African masks at James Franco's house (yes, really), measure the passage of time in songs listened to and movies watched, drive to Dean Cain's apartment only to stare at his bookshelves, lie to your parents about your imaginary relationships and just wish for things to return to normal. 

And what is this normalcy for which you're striving, exactly? Good question. Because you seem to be taking your celebrity-populated, party-hopping, crashed-your-Ferrari-so-you'll-just-buy-a-Bentley-rather-than-wait-for-the-shop-to-fix-it existence in admirably nonchalant (though some might say suspiciously numb) stride. Scenes and chapters flicker by as if someone is impatiently flipping through the hundreds of channels comprising the made-for-TV movie of your life. One minute you're hopping on the company jet and heading to Libson; the next, you're casually doing drugs with Kirsten Dunst and talking about living on the moon before she gets up to make chili for you and James Franco (to whom you seem rather close, as he will later accompany you to, among other things, your grandmother's funeral--your grandmother's death, of course, will occupy not even two pages of your attention and absolutely no further mention).

The adage about what's discussed among simple minds (people), average minds (events) and great minds (ideas) is turned on its head here, thanks to the aforementioned metaphorical approach to this fidgety, quirky book. Because the things mostly addressed herein are people more famous than you--wealthy as you apparently are--and the things they either consume for pleasure or create for a living, a superficial read would reduce Mastodon Farm (which derives its name, presumably, from that of a nonexistent apocalyptic film rather than the similarly titled Cake song) to roll-call of digestible entertainments rather than appreciate it for what it symbolizes.

Applying a dollop of whatever cynicism the reader can bring to the experience of Mastodon Farm greatly adds to the enjoyment one can derive from it--not for the mean-spirited sake of belittling the topics at hand but rather to scratch through the story’s opaquely artificial sheen of mindless, disposable superficiality coating to arrive at its true intent. We live in a time of easy digestion, fleeting obsessions and diminishing attention while clinging to the life raft of escapism, and this novella highlights the maddening vapidity of it all by training a hyper-focused eye on something for a few pages before bouncing to something entirely new and offering it the same intense scrutiny of even the minutest details, over and over again. In a time where irony’s self-congratulatory mockery has become an easy default, it is a relief to witness Mastodon Farm’s more subtle (if not mildly schizophrenic) approach to social commentary via deceptive sincerity: It does not exist to poke fun at but rather to raise awareness that we are losing sight of what really matters with a dangerous haste.

Mastodon Farm is not for everyone but those who give it a chance will be rewarded handsomely for their efforts. You may walk away with a slight concussion and a temporary onset of low-grade anxiety, but such admission fees are a small price to pay for taking an eye-opening ride with this distinctly thought-provoking beast.

Madeleine Maccar is a proofreader by trade, a writer by nature and a bookworm by compulsion. You can read more of her reviews at her blog,, and also at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site, She will more than happily show you photos of her dog.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Review: The Mercury Waltz

Read 11/6/13 - 11/20/13
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended  to readers who like their fiction wickedly classic and modern at the same time
393 pages
Publisher: Roadswell Editions
Released: Yesterday!

If there was ever a set of books in which I wished I could live within its pages, Kathe Koja's Under the Poppy and it's sequel The Mercury Waltz would be it! The intoxicatingly dark settings, the edgy and charismatic characters, they still call to me in the quiet moments, after all this time.

Where Under the Poppy found Istvan and Rupert spending most of their time in its namesake brothel and dealing with the unruly underground population, The Mercury Waltz finds our main men hiding out in the open in a new city where they continue to put their puppets to good use, this time producing and directing gruesome, gutsy plays in their cozy new theater. Still upsetting the masses - audience and competing theaters alike - Istvan and Rupert are never short of trouble. Hell, they seem to welcome it. And nothing good ever seems to come of it. But the boys will be boys, and happily so.

I loved slipping back into that familiar tension as Istvan and Rupert continue to pull and push at each other, their seductive, unhealthy, elusive lust for one another tested time and time again by new, outside love interests, which seemed to fan the flames of their love, rather than douse them out.

Reading The Mercury Waltz felt a bit like running into old friends on the street, dragging them to the nearest hole-in-the-wall bar, and throwing back a few as you catch each other up till the wee hours of the morning. Once they are standing right in front of you, you realize how much you've missed their face. And you just want to stretch out the moments you have together, to make it last as long as possible, because you know once you let them head out that door, once their feet hit the street, there is no guarantee of ever seeing them again. So you breathe in every... last... second.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Chris Dietzel's Guide to Books & Booze

Time to grab a book and get tipsy!

Back by popular demand, Books & Booze, originally a mini-series of sorts here on TNBBC challenges participating authors to make up their own drinks, name and all, or create a drink list for their characters and/or readers using drinks that already exist. 

Today, Chris Dietzel whips up some drinks to accompany his books. Think you can handle 'em?


I love stories about the end of the world. But they almost always have the same storylines—a struggle for resources, a gang terrorizing the survivors. Why couldn’t the world end with a whisper instead of a bang? That idea was the driving force behind my first book, THE MAN WHO WATCHED THE WORLD END. The main character grows up knowing the human population will continue to shrink until there is no one left. He has all the food, water, and shelter he will ever need. All he can do is live out his final years, all the while knowing he is witnessing each facet of society disappear around him. I call that world The Great De-evolution, and my second book, A DIFFERENT ALCHEMY, continues the theme of a slow countdown to mankind’s extinction.

With a world that ends in a different way from other dystopian and apocalyptic books, it’s obvious that a new set of drinks should be created for anyone watching the world fade away!

Watch The World End – Was your favorite TV show cancelled? Just another aspect of daily life that’s ending! Might as well drink to it.
·         1 parts whiskey
·         2 parts almond milk

A Different Alchemy – Material possessions have no value. Instead of hoarding money, enjoy this golden drink!
·         White wine
·         Apple juice
·         A teaspoon of Goldschlager

The Great De-evolution – For the times when all your drinking buddies have vanished for the night.
·         Hot chocolate
·         A splash of rum
·         A splash of vodka


Chris graduated from Western Maryland College (McDaniel College).  He currently lives outside Washington D.C. His short stories have appeared in Temenos, Foliate Oak, and Down in the Dirt. His first novel, THE MAN WHO WATCHED THE WORLD END, was featured on the Science Fiction Spotlight radio show and was voted as one of GoodReads top 10 ‘Most Interesting Reads of 2013.’ His second book,  A DIFFERENT ALCHEMY, will be released on January 14th.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Book Review: Above All Men

Read 1/10/14 - 1/13/14
5 Stars - So Fucking Good / The Next Best Book
259 pages
Publisher: MG Press
Releases: March 2014

When I stop and think about all of the unread books I have stacked in my bookshelves and sitting in my Kindle (currently 674, according to my goodreads shelves), I start to panic at the thought of all the amazing books I'm missing out on and will continue to miss out on, even though they sit right here, right in this house, within a finger's reach.

When I finish my current book, as I reach for the next one, I hesitate a moment and worry that I am not making the right decision. I wonder "what if THIS is not the book I should be reading right now? What if one of the six hundred OTHER books turns out to be THE book and I end up reading THIS book instead?"

But there's really no way to know that, is there? Until you read the book you chose, and then read the next one, and read the one after that, and keep on reading until you finally end up reading one of THE ones. You'll know it's THE one because of the way it grabs you by the throat and slowly starts to choke all of the air out of you... before you reach the end of the first page.

I've only experienced this reaction to a book three other times, that I can remember. First, when I started reading Jose Saramago's Blindness. Then, when I picked up Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Most recently, when I listened to the audio version of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. Interestingly enough, in all three cases, those were the first books I'd read by those authors. (What's even more interesting? Though I've read and enjoyed many of their other titles, none surpassed the visceral reactions I had to those firsts.)

And now I can add Eric Shonkwiler's Above All Men to that list. A book that's been in my e-possession since back in October. Just sitting. Waiting. Silent, as I chose book after book after book over it. Concealing its awesomeness until it finally made its way up to the top of the TBR pile. And as I started to read, every book I'd read before it simply... faded away. I was immediately sucked in. I felt Eric's words like a million little sucker punches. And I knew I was reading THE one.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the intensity (I know that is not the right word, yet my words seem to have left me at the moment) I felt while reading Above All Men matched the intensity I had felt while reading Saramago, McCarthy, and Johnson. You can find elements of them within Shonkwiler's novel - a similar intentionally slow, meandering way of dragging the plot along, sticking to the specifics of the moment and letting the background work itself out without wasting much time or breath on it, keeping the reader on tenterhooks the entire time.

Bathroom breaks? You can hold it, or bring a bucket out there with you. Work in the morning? Who needs sleep, go ahead and read straight through the night. Kindle battery dying? Plug that puppy in and sit against the wall to continue reading as it charges. Because Above All Men is a book you will not find yourself capable of walking away from.

It's a bleak tale of the beginning of the end of the world. Of a family man who feels the weight of everyone's worries on his shoulders. Of this man who, regardless of consequence, is determined to make sure everyone is alright, even if it means hurting the ones he cares about most. It's a tale of survival as much as it is one of destruction. And Shonkwiler pulls it off effortlessly.

It's a killer read. It does all of the things you want it to and some of the things you don't. And that's what makes it so powerful. That's what makes it THE one.

The Audio Series: Rich Shapero

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen." is an incredibly special one for us. Hatched in a NYC club during BEA week, this feature requires more work 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, Rich Shapero reads from the prologue of his book The Hope We SeekRich's provocative stories deliver readers to different worlds, where characters struggle with gods of their own devising. His two previous critically acclaimed projects, Too Far and Wild Animus, include book, music and visual art and are also available as multimedia tablet apps and ebooks. Too Far was celebrated as "mystical" and "utterly gorgeous," and Kirkus Reviews noted, "Shapero displays an impressive command of the unconscious." He lives with his wife and daughters in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Rich and his publisher took our request for an audio byte to the next level, producing this lovely "audio video" with images from the book.. take a listen/look...

The word on The Hope We Seek:

The Hope We Seek fuses Rich Shapero's provocative novel with hypnotic, original music—featuring the vocals of Marissa Nadler—and the Visionary art of Donald Pass. The result is a riveting and fully immersive storytelling experience.

Zachary Knox, a sharpshooter known as "the Bull's-Eye Telepath," heads north in search of gold. On his way he meets Sephy, a magnetic woman on the trail of her lost brother. But on arrival, they find the mining camp is home to a cult. The mine boss, Trevillian, rules the camp like a despotic priest, and at the center of his faith is Hope, an elusive goddess for whom the miners toil, enduring increasingly perilous trials as they pursue her into the depths of the earth.
Zack determines to overthrow Trevillian, guided by Sephy's cryptic directions—until Hope appears and reveals the astonishing future she has in mind for him.
With epic force and seductive allegory, The Hope We Seek transports us to a netherworld of danger and allure—where arduous labor, sustained by unwavering belief, promises an unearthly reward. Rich Shapero once again holds a dark mirror to the passions that drive us, and the extremes to which we go to find meaning in our lives.