Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Andrew Hilbert On Being Indie

On "Being Indie" is a blog series that introduces us to a wide variety of independent authors, publishers, and booksellers as they discuss what being indie means to them. 

Andrew Hilbert is a writer living in Austin, TX. His first book, Death Thing, was published in May 2015 by Double Life Press and is available on Amazon. You can keep up with all he's up to at www.hilbertheckler.com and follow him on twitter at @AHILBERT3000. 

It's not that I'm opposed to the big publishers or the folks that write for them. I like the big publishers. I like what they publish. I just think that there's a huge landscape of small presses and hardworking authors that has to get explored, too. I like the small press more. Plenty of people are well-read. Plenty of folks can keep up with NYT Bestsellers list and Oprah Book Clubs but there's frequently a very limited style of books to consume there. 

Long Beach, CA is where I claim to be from (really, I'm from a small suburb on the border of Orange County and Los Angeles County so saying Long Beach is just easier.) I went to college at Cal State Long Beach and studied History but I had always had an interest in writing and creating worlds; I just didn't think it wise to get a degree in Creative Writing. Looking back, neither was getting a degree in History. Gerald Locklin is a professor at CSULB and I've always admired him. He's a titan of the small press when it comes to poetry. He's been published thousands of times, has written thousands of poems, has a ton of books and chapbooks out, and they're all small press. When I first started writing to be published, I took his formula. I followed the trail of publishers listed in his recent books so that I could send my bad poetry there, too. 

Small indie press, when it comes to the Long Beach poetry scene, is revered. It's not looked down upon like many folks seem to do when comes to fiction. With fiction, especially what people call 'genre,' it's an uphill battle. A lot of small presses don't have expanded distribution so getting books into bookstores is a matter of walking in and putting them on consignment. When someone does that, people assume, "Oh, it's more self-published garbage." 

Indie presses need to work hard to differentiate themselves. I got extremely lucky having my first book published by Double Life Press. Craig McNeely is a phenomenal editor and publisher. He was with me every step of the way and he put down a huge sweat investment (not to mention a financial investment) on making Death Thing look great. Not all indie presses do that. The good ones do and Double Life Press is one of the good ones.

Small presses can take chances on authors. They can take chances on content. The market is smaller and more dedicated for small presses. The small press is a proving ground. 

I got my start sending embarrassing poems to small presses around the country to some success. I started moving into fiction and continued submitting to indies. Out of the Gutter online played a huge role in my development as a writer. Being indie is just in my blood. I love that I can send little snippets of bonkers ideas to Craig McNeely and he'll be into it. I love that my story "Two Cowboys Settle a Dispute" was accepted by Joe Clifford and Tom Pitts for Out of the Gutter Online. In a way, that story makes no sense for that site. But they took a chance. That's the freedom of the indies. 

Death Thing had to be published by a small press and I'm damn glad it was published by Double Life. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Audio Series: Jen Grow

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen."  was hatched in a NYC club during BEA back in 2012. It's a fun little series, where authors record themselves reading an excerpt from their own novels, in their own voices, the way their stories were meant to be heard.

Today, Jen Grow reads from her debut collection My Life as a Mermaid, and Other Stories. The collection 
was winner of the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. She is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She's received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with the artist Lee Stierhoff and their zoo of cats and dogs.

Click on the soundcloud link below to hear her read from the collection: 

The word on My Life as a Mermaid:

This stunning collection introduces an important new voice in American fiction. The characters—among them a suburban wife, an alcoholic mother, two homeless men, and an injured veteran—grapple with being voiceless and feeling trapped.
*lifted from goodreads with love

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Book Review: Death Thing

Read 6/4/15 - 6/9/15
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended: grind-zarro, gritty, and features a car that can kick Christine's ass
Pages: 142
Publisher: Double Life Press
Released: May 2015

It was the last god damn time anyone was going to break into his car. Gilbert had had enough.

From gritty cover to grindhouse content, Andrew Hilbert's Death Thing is the best kind of revenge novel. Cleaning up a little blood and gore is a small price to pay for crotchety ole Gilbert, who just about loses his mind when another miscreant breaks into his car. Set on teaching the local riffraff a lesson, he converts his car into a death thing - a booby trapped "bum motel" that will impale and burn his victims alive. Just let them reach in and grab the bait he left on the front passenger seat! And when his wife wakes him in the middle of the night and he hears the screams of the dying, Gilbert know he's on to something great.

And there's only one setback. A minor one, really. As he fine tunes his killing machine, Gilbert becomes the unfortunate recipient of some pretty nasty facial burns when testing the propane trigger. But no matter. This only fuels his (a-hem) fire more, and with his oozey, disgusting outsides now matching his miserable, cranky insides, he enlists the help of his neighbor Larry with disposing of the bodies, which are starting to pile up quite nicely. All seems to be going well until they catch the attention of the local police, which brings with it an entirely new game changer.

An unrepentant gore-fest, Death Thing was an absolute delight to read. Hilbert is like the Simon Pegg of slasher novels. He's grindzarro horror (yes, I'm coining a term, part grindhouse, part bizarro horror), where the characters are actually characters, with, you know, real personalities and stuff, that do some pretty fucked up shit and keep us glued to our seats, turning the pages just to see how much more fucked up things can get.

A perfect debut novel from what I anticipate becoming a new favorite publisher. And a deliciously pulpy start to the summer!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Bronwyn Reviews: Bessarabian Stamps

Bessarabian Stamps by Oleg Woolf
translated by Boris Dralyuk
Pages: 85
Publisher: Phoneme Media
Released: 2015

Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin

Perhaps this book is about trains, or perhaps it is about rain. It might equally be about a man named Feodasi, a village clairvoyant sitting on a stool beneath a plum tree reading about the role of birds in Odessan seafaring.

Or perhaps it is exactly what it purports to be: a series of very short stories set (mostly) in the village of Sănduleni, in the heart of a region of Eastern Europe known as Bessarabia. Most of historical Bessarabia is part of today’s country of Moldova, though the region extends into Ukraine and includes a self-declared splinter republic or two as well. During the Soviet era it was part of the USSR. Oleg Woolf, the late author of these sixteen stamp-sized stories, was himself Moldovan, writing in Russian.

These stories are snapshots – stamps, as Woolf has called them – driven neither by plot nor logic. They are quick glimpses into village life, full of wit, melancholy and a heavy dose of the absurd. The first story begins with the arrival of a train, and ends with the death of the last gypsy in Sănduleni.

One day a freight arrived from Grigoriopol with no head car, but no one noticed. No one even noticed that no one noticed. People often pay no heed, at times, to things they later don’t notice. No one, in fact, knows where this head car is – whether it arrived from Grigoriopol, whether it will arrive, whether there’s even a railroad in those parts.

Most of the stories are titled with a pair of people from Sănduleni: Ileana and Sandu, Mircea and Marica, Ionesco and the Hostess. The people in the titles usually appear in the story, though in the case of Aurica and Van Gogh, the painter’s appearance is only metaphorical. Cantonist, an admirer of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, appears in the story Valia and Cantonist. His name also refers to young boys, many of them Jews, who were conscripted into the Russian army in the eighteenth century. As he leaves home for his compulsory military service his mother cries out, “Let them make a trombone out of you!”

As in a village, the character at the center of one story can often show up at the edges of another. By a simple count, Feodasi is the most prominent, appearing in no less than seven stories, very often with his book on Odessan seafaring. Ileana and her husband Ion Sandu each appear in four. Rain appears in nearly every story, once or twice in the character of snow. Trains appear in a range of guises, from passenger cars to freights to station platforms.

The saddest story in the collection is about Măriuță and Iulian. Their names have virtually destined them to be together; her last name means “forest glade” and his means “flower.” But he must leave to serve his time in the Architectural Detachment. By the time he is released he is 52 years old but looks 64. He returns to Sănduleni only to discover that his beloved is dead.

My favorite story by far is The Dancer of Malagura, where a man named Ivan Markov is on trial for having hijacked a train (aha! another train!). The judge in his case – the Archangel Gabriel, of course – becomes increasingly frustrated with Markov’s nonsensical defense. It soon becomes clear it is Woolf’s own writing that is on trial:  

The quality of the object is the level of thought about it, replied the lawyer, making eyes at me. I object. The defendant is a drifter, a hobo king, a creative personality; he uses terminology that doesn’t necessarily conform to the practice of jurisprudence. Like all of us, he deserves the right to fail.  

Woolf’s stories are a delight, the kind of work that only deepens with the second and third read (easily done, as the entire book is only 85 pages). It is their nonconformist charm that makes these stories both absurd and true to village life.

Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Celebrating Audio Book Month

Happy Audio Book Month everyone! 

When you look at how many audio books I review each year, it's probably hard to believe that I wasn't always a fan. As a kid, I loved listening to those books on tape, where you popped the cassette in and followed along in the book as the narrator read the story to you. But as I got older, I just couldn't get into having a book "read" to me. I gave it the ole college try with a free download of Into the Wild but the narrator was just so monotone and dull I couldn't go very far without catching my mind wandering and realizing I had just missed the last few minutes of the story.

But long commutes for work and a desire to read more books each year brought me back to audio again and again. Eventually I found the perfect pairing of narrator and story and fell head over heels for the format.

And I'm not the only one! Check out what Lindsey, Melanie, Drew, and I enjoy listening to:

What Lindsey listens to:

Jim Dale could read me a phonebook and I would listen raptly for hours. Of course the books are fantastic, but there is a special life and joy and sense of wonder that Jim Dale brings to the whole series.

My husband and I listened to Outliers while we drove across country a few years ago. The facts were interesting and kept our conversation going for the long green hours across the Midwest. There was something very immediate and connective with Malcolm Gladwell reading the book himself too, as if he was so truly involved in his writing that he couldn’t wait to share it with you.

This is a bit of a cheat, since it’s not an audiobook in the truest sense. Billy Collins does have an audio collection of poetry, The Best Cigarette- and it is fantastic- but I adore, and replay, his performance at the Peter Norton Symphony a few times a year. His delivery, his comments on the poems, and the general selection of poems he shares make this a must for poetry lovers.

When I was pregnant and suffering from terrible insomnia I listened to the Hunger Games books on a loop day after day. I liked the plot of the novels when I read them, but I’ve never been a big fan of first person narration. That changed drastically when I listen to the audiobook versions Suzanne Collins’ novels. Hearing the first person thoughts and actions in someone else’s voice, other than the one in my head, made the story and the characters even more lively- more fleshed out some how. Not the best audio performance in the world, but these books will likely stay in my listening cycle for a while.

What Melanie listens to:

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. 

This work is a must-listen. A young journalist, narrated by the author, interviews people from all walks of life and parts of the world after WWZ. Each person is narrated by a different voice actor (many famous), and you absolutely need to hear the inflections in their voices to hear some of the serious shit that went down. On paper, WWZ might all blur together.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. 

Read by one voice actor, Ari Fliakos is able to bring to life a variety of characters, such as the narrator, who is a young man; the young man's love interest, a young woman who is very techie and excitable; and old members of a secret book group, both male and female. I can see how some of the characters would come off as too eager or too cliche on page, so this work is best listened to.

The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. 

This is another audiobook that makes use of multiple voice actors, which is helpful when the point of view changes. That's not the only benefit: since Atwood's trilogy (book #1 is Oryx and Crake, which I read in paperback) focuses on life post-apocalypse, there is an emphasis on the importance of oral tradition, to carry on a world that new generations won't have experienced. For that reason, it's best to listen these books.

What Drew listens to:

So I have a confession: I never really liked audiobooks. I was one of those kids (and grew into one of those adults) who'd much rather have the tactile object - to be able to look up words, to give characters my own voices, to go at my own flow.  Of late, I've gotten into them again tentatively (Eric Smith's Inked, for example, was a GREAT audiobook adventure that I'm glad I read)... but there are two that stand out for me in my childhood as all the things an audiobook can be.

My family used to drive to the Outer Banks from Philadelphia every summer and one summer, my parents (trying to get as into reading as my sister and I were) decided that they'd pick two to bring along with us.  

They were James Thurber's The 13 Clocks and Brian Jacques' The Pearls of Lutra

I recall The 13 Clocks as rhythmic, almost hypnotically so - a modern fairytale of sorts, with an evil Duke and a gallant Prince. There was something called a Golux? I remember being transfixed by Edward Woodward's reading.

As for The Pearls of Lutra, I actually think reading it and having it as an audiobook is what makes it my favorite Redwall sequel (e.g. not one of the first four books).  Jacques himself read it, which was a treat, and the story is one of the most adventurous of the series. I remember all four of us being caught up in the story, cheering and laughing as we traveled.

What Lori listens to:

As I'm sure you all know by now, I spend all of my time reading small press, so I try to save most of my audio listening for the Big 5. Here are some of the best narrator/story pairings, in the biggies and the smallies, that I've come across in the past couple of years:

City of Thieves read by Ron Perlman

Ron Perlman - the odd-faced man behind HellBoy and the Beauty and the Beast series - has a wonderfully deep and lovely reading voice and he did a phenomenal job with the narration. His character voices were natural and subtle, so you always knew who was talking without being distracted away from the story. Unlike most of the other audiobooks I had listened to prior to this one, he didn't attempt to make the women sound like women - those nasally, high pitched, whiny voices I had begun to believe were mandatory when narrating - and I love him for that.

Go the Fuck to Sleep read by Samuel L Jackson

Do I really need to tell you how fucking AWESOME this reading is?

Jesus' Son read by Will Patton

I want Will Patton to narrate my life. There is no more perfect pairing in the world, in my opinion. Will's voice and Denis Johnson's words were a match made in heaven. This goes for Train Dreams as well! Will Patton nails it once again with this one and his pitch perfect pacing, filling each sentence with raw and ragged emotion. I could not get enough of these audios. As soon as one book ended, it was back to the bookstore to buy the next. 

The Southern Reach Trilogy

Oh hells yeah. Though I wasn't entirely crazy about the women narrators, the overall tone and theme of the book hooked me like you wouldn't believe. Much like the Denis Johnson books above, I chewed through these audio books like an addict. I was actually looking for reasons to be in the car, alone, so I could keep listening to them!

The Martian read by RC Bray

Holy sarcasm and witty humor, batman! This self pubbed-turned-Big 5 hit was a hilarious listen. Podium Publishing did a great job matching the narrator with the Weir's writing. He nailed the balance between witty sarcasm and hopeful hopelessness... And don't listen to those reviewers who poo-poo the upbeat and charming personality of our fearless astronaut. The cheeky and refreshing humor was exactly what the book needed to keep it moving along and keep its readers engaged. I'm not sure any of us would have been able to handle a cranky, blubbering account of man's attempt to survive the unsurvivable. And for the record, the trailer for the film version looks badass! 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Page 69: Trip Through Your Wires

The Page 69 Test is not mine. It has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....

In this installment of Page 69, 
we put Sarah Layden's Trip Through Your Wires to the test!

Ok, Sarah, set up page 69 for us.

Carey Halpern, on her first day of school in Mexico during her junior year abroad, skips classes with Ben and Mike. The two American men have been to Mexico before, and they lead her to a courtyard to watch Alejandro perform a fire-eating routine. 

What is Trip Through Your Wires about?

In Trip Through Your Wires, we know from the start that Ben was killed in Mexico, and that Carey never dealt with the grief of losing him. The novel alternates between past and present, Mexico in the mid-1990s and Indianapolis seven years later, when a clue in the murder case forces Carey to revisit her memories of events. She knew more than she thought, and must come to terms with the guilt of that realization.

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what Trip Through Your Wires is about? Does it align itself the book’s overall theme?
It really does. Nicely done, TNBBC! This page gets three main characters together on the scene, plus one minor character. It shows the sense of unknowns and danger and excitement that was such a part of Carey's experience in Guanajuato. This particular Mexican city is such a vivid, amazing place, with beautiful cathedrals and theaters, winding alleyways, and mountains all around. This portion shows a smaller sliver of life in the city: a beautifully tended garden courtyard, but one that is obscured from view with high walls. That seems resonant of the rest of the book, too: what's hidden versus what's out in the open. 

 PAGE 69 
Trip Through Your Wires

Ben raised his hand like a boy in school, his fist closed as if in salute. When he opened his hand, a silk scarf, the same green of Carey’s tank top, fluttered to her shoulders. He shook it out of the folded triangles and let go, and she reached to keep it from the wet pavement.

                “Pretty,” Carey cooed. “Where did you get it?”

                Ben ignored the question. His hand moved through his hair as if searching for a lost item. “It’s practical. Tie it around your hair before we go in.”

                Ben knocked on the door in a quick succession, a practiced, specific rhythm, and Carey hurried to tie her hair back with the green scarf. When no one answered, Ben opened the door.

                Inside was the outside: the sun beat down on a square courtyard, with cement paths and landscaped flower beds. Stone benches flanked a small reflecting pond. Bordering the pristine garden on all sides were run-down apartment buildings: layers of balconies climbed five or six stories, with clotheslines strung between them. Relief and disappointment ebbed and flowed in her, just like her alternating desires for adventure and predictability. She had thought they were taking her to a bar, or to the seedy side of town. The beautifully tended garden grew sprays of orange and red lobelia, low-growing hyacinth and green shrubs. The flowers emitted a fragrance more potent than a department store perfume counter. Some of the blooms still shaded by the buildings displayed buds waiting to open. Carey began to relax, and when a man stepped silently from behind a door with three folding metal chairs, she almost shrieked. He had a sharp face and hollow cheeks. Maybe a little older than Ben and Mike. He kept his head down and gaze averted.



Sarah Layden is the winner of the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for fiction and an AWP Intro Award. Her short fiction can be found in Boston Review, Stone Canoe, Blackbird, Artful Dodge, The Evansville Review, Booth, PANK, the anthology Sudden Flash Youth, and elsewhere. A two-time Society of Professional Journalists award winner, her recent essays, interviews and articles have appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, The Writer's Chronicle, NUVO, and The Humanist. She teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the Indiana Writers Center.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Audio Book Review: Act of God

Listened 4/20/15 - 4/22/15
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of dark comedies parading as science fiction and raspy-voiced narrators
Length: approx 5 1/2 hours
Publisher: Random House Audio
Narrator: Barbara Rosenblat
Released: March 2015

It's summertime, 2015, and the city is in the grips of a nasty heatwave. Retired twin sisters Kat, who has lived her entire life evading responsibility, and Edith, an ex-librarian who has squirreled away letters from their mother's old advice column in the hopes of having them published one day, live together in a row house beneath Vida, an uppity actress and negligent landlady. Kat and Edith have been leaving messages for Vida regarding an odd smell in their apartment for weeks and now, well, they seem to have stumbled upon an odd, glowing mushroom growing out of their closet wall.

Turns out Vida has one in her apartment too, which she uncovered in the back of her own storage closet, along with a surprised young Russian runaway who was apparently squatting there unnoticed for months.

Hazmat is called in and the four women are forced to evacuate the property with nothing but the clothes they are wearing (and the letters Edith manages to smuggle out). The Super-Mold is unlike anything the city has seen before and it begins to spread at a incredibly rapid pace. Vida's insurance company calls it an "Act of God" and the remainder of the book is spent following the now-homeless and bereft women as they move through the city, dazed and confused, and leaving a trail of sparkling spores in their wake.

The audio book was a pleasure to listen to. Admittedly, Rosenblat's voice took a bit of getting used to - she's got this very throaty, raspy smokers-voice but I felt it actually fit the main characters' personalities quite well. It's strange, I can still hear her voice in my head as I'm recalling parts of the book for this review.

I've come to the conclusion that Jill Ciment has one strange sense of humor. Her characters were just eccentric enough, their situation just bizarre enough, to categorize it as dark comedy, though she teased the hell out of us in the beginning there. I see some people have the novel shelved as science fiction over at Goodreads but, sadly, there was nothing other-worldly to be found. I do admit that, as I listened to the book, there was a big part of me that was hoping the Super-Mold would've had extraterrestrial origins, or that the Russian girl would turn out to be not quite human. Maybe that's a residual effect of having read and loved Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy? But I really felt as though that was the direction Ciment was initially taking us. There came a point in the audio where I just finally accepted that the book really was as straight forward as it seemed - sometimes mother nature just gets one over on us -  and that there wasn't going to be some big mama-mushroom monster revealed to be amassing itself beneath the city, preparing to launch a war against humankind in a John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids sort of way.

Bummer that, too. That would have been pretty badass. Picture it, phosphorescent mushrooms weeble-wobbling down the streets, sparkling up the world with their deadly glowing spores, what a glorious apocalypse that would have been!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Where Writers Write: Sean Murphy

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. 

photo by Paul Misencik
This is Sean Murphy. 

Sean Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post and AdAge. In addition, he is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I'm Gone was released in 2013. His novel Not To Mention a Nice Life will be published in June 2015.

To learn more about Sean Murphy’s writing and to check his events schedule, please visit http://seanmurphy.net/.

Where Sean Murphy Writes

So, this is the official place I write, in that there’s a desk, a computer and a chair, and eventually all final drafts of manuscripts (be they essays, music reviews, poems, memoirs or novels) go from there to here.

But a more accurate and less respectable answer would involve me taking pictures of my car, my work office or especially my candle wax and wine-stained coffee table, where I often sit, with legal pad, hammering out initial drafts in my recalcitrantly old school fashion. All of these places are frequent spots where I stop to jot down an idea. Or, even more accurately, where the ideas stop me and oblige me to capture them before they fly off to a more receptive and attentive writer’s muse. And the most honest answer of all would be to take a picture of my mind (not that this would be possible or something anyone—including myself—would want to see): I suspect most writers will concur that a great deal of writing occurs when we are thinking, or remembering, or trying to do anything other than write. In his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, the great jazz musician Charles Mingus recalls reaching a stage in his development where he was always composing. Through a combination of discipline and dedication—and to accommodate the urgent voices crowding his mind, demanding to be expressed—he found that while he worked, sat in a cab, or walked down the street, he was always practicing. He never turned it off, and that is the secret.

Ideally, a writer wants a space that is clean, quiet and peaceful, perhaps with a view to stimulate the imagination, etc. In reality, many writers opt for a place that minimizes distraction. If a writer’s space is too perfect and looks like something out of a movie, it’s likely they have spent more time worrying about what it should look like to be a writer. Writing is seldom sexy, and no sane author would ever want a camera on them while they went about their business: it’s intense, personal and often boring work.

So for me, being surrounded by books and pictures of family and a couple of my heroes (Miles and Coltrane), helps me feel equal parts comforted and inspired. Music is always on, although jazz and classical work best, as you don’t want the voices from the record competing with the voices in your head. No matter the setting, everything is as it should be when the writer forgets where he is, or even who he is, following those voices from here to there, in search of the story. These are the moments writers live for. The rest of the times, a proverbial room of one’s own is a necessity, but should always also be considered a luxury.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Audio Book Review: The Gracekeepers

Listened 5/15/15 -5/30/15
4 Stars - Highly Recommended in audio; an intriguing watery apocalypse with a floating circus, you guys!
Length: Approx 11 hours
Publisher: Random House Audio
Narrator: Katy Townsend
Released: May 2015

The premise of Kirsty Logan's debut novel The Gracekeepers -  a post apocalyptic world where the sea has swallowed most of the land - immediately brought to mind the 1996 Kevin Costner film Waterworld. (Oh come on, don't tell me your mind didn't go there! But also, don't worry, it's miles better!) In it, society has been broken up into two parts: the "landlockers", a higher class of  people who live privileged lives on the remaining islands, and the lower class "damplings" who are forced to make a life at sea.

Callanish hovers between the two, self-exiled on a small island where she performs the solitary and somber role of Gracekeeper. That's a fancy term for administering shoreside burials, known as restings, for the damplings who sail their recently deceased into her graceyard. Once she releases the body into the water, she marks the spot with a caged Grace - lovely little birds that are raised to be starved to death out on the ocean. Their death, interestingly enough, signifies the end of the grieving period for the bereaved. Callanish performs these restings in exchange for food and supplies.

Floating from archipelago to archipelago is the glorious Excalibur and its motley crew of circus performers - led by Jarrow, the ringmaster, and his demanding and extremely pregnant wife Avalon. The circus boat pulls itself ashore, night after night, to entertain the landlockers and fill their bellies with their hard earned food. Theirs is a show unlike any others - with gender bending maypole dancers; acrobats; a fire-breather; bitter, subversive clowns; and a girl who dances with a bear.

When an unexpected storm takes the life of one of their acrobats, the Excalibur makes its way to Callanish's graceyard and an instant bond develops between the Gracekeeper and North, the circus's bear-girl. Through their meeting, North finds the strength to share a secret that has been weighing heavily on her for some time and Callanish finds a kindred spirit, someone who will not judge her for her differences. Once the performer's body had been laid to rest, the two women reluctantly say goodbye - North and her bear climb aboard the Excalibur as the circus moves on in search of work among the islands, and Callanish is left alone again, to grieve the things she thought she'd put behind her for good. But they have left lasting marks on each other and its ripple effect will change the course of both their lives.

Kirsty Logan's world is very much on the brink of war. Tension is building everywhere. It's found within religion, both that of the 'World Tree' worshipping islanders from Callanish's past to the more ritzy Revivalists who sail the seas in giant luxury ships. It lives in the social struggles between the damplings and landlockers, which greatly influences our little circus - many of those on the Excalibur have ties to land in one way, shape, or form, but none hunger for it more greatly than Jarrow and Avalon, though for very different, and potentially deadly, reasons.

A haunting, stirring novel, The Gracekeepers was brought to life beautifully by Katy Townsend's whispery narration as Kirsty's mystical and dreamlike prose gently guided us through the book's alternating chapters. And like any good performer, Kirsty subtly weaves Scottish lore and myths throughout this watery world of hers as she distracts us with the glitter and gold of the circus life.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Page 69: Diary of a Man Being Driven Around Africa on a Truck with Some Other People

The Page 69 Test is not mine. It has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....

In this installment of Page 69, 

Ok, Lance, set up page 69 for us.

On Page 69 of Diary of a Man Being Driven Around Africa on a Truck with Some Other People the truck has just arrived in Mali after leaving Mauritania. The passengers weren't able to drink alcohol while in Mauritania so they are camping at the first bar in Mali they find (which isn't actually a campground) so they can have a glass or two (or three, or four).
Steve didn't drink quite as much as everyone and so isn't having a good time of it. Gareth, his tent buddy, has not had enough cigarettes (but drunk enough beer) to put him in a grumpy mood too.

What is Diary of a Man Being Driven Around Africa on a Truck with Some Other People about?

Diary of a Man Being Driven Around Africa on a Truck with Some Other People follows Steve, as he endures a five-month trip down the west coast of Africa on an overland truck. He is supposed to be on a short luxury trip through Spain but there is a mix up with the tour company and his options are going home or taking the longer, more arduous journey. Steve agrees to the longer trip because his girlfriend, Sofia, doesn't think he could hack it (and he may have taken too much flu medication). Steve has never wanted to go anywhere near Africa, but refuses to get off the truck as he doesn't want Sofia to think he is a quitter.
As Steve passes through Morocco, Mauritania, Mail, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Namibia and South Africa he has to deal with eight other passengers and a grumpy truck driver while trying to deal with Sofia via text, phone and e-mail, as she's not too happy he's in Africa for five months.

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what Diary of a Man Being Driven Around Africa on a Truck with Some Other People is about? Does it align itself the book’s overall theme?

This page certainly gives an accurate sense of the annoyances and danger Steve faces on his journey as he's still not happy to be on an overland truck in Africa and he's still getting to know his fellow passengers.
It doesn't quite align with the overall theme as he's not questioning why he's really on the journey, and he's just recording or reacting to the events happening to him at the time.

Diary of a Man Being Driven Around Africa on a Truck with Some Other People

‘Craig,’ said Gareth. ‘Can we skip cooking tonight?’


‘Because the food won’t be appreciated as everyone’s going to be smashed by the time it’s ready.’

‘Yeah. I can’t see a problem as long as you ask people politely to buy their own food.’

Gareth stood in the centre of the circle of drinkers.

‘Right,’ shouted Gareth. ‘We’re not fucking cooking tonight so you’ll have to buy your own fucking dinner. All you fuckers okay with that?’

People agreed to get their own dinner.

I searched for something local to eat after leaving the weary travellers to get ever more sloshed. It wasn’t a substantial town and it didn’t take long to circumnavigate to find someone in the street barbecuing meat in an old oil drum.

The younger folks had consumed more of the amber liquid than me and thought it would be a wheeze to play Def Leppard for eight hours straight. Doof-doof music was also pumping from the bar, making it a super fun night.

On my way to the tent I passed several of the group sitting on stacks of bald tyres in the car park campsite and heard Liam say, ‘I didn’t punch a nun. I was only accused of punching a nun.’

No, I did not want to know. I went to bed.

Day 28, Monday – Burning Down The House
Gareth’s sleeping mass was trying to take as much room as the tent would allow (again) and I was being squashed. I usually only discovered it when I awoke in the morning to find myself curled in a corner of the tent, although the music kept me awake.

And I could smell smoke. Why could I smell smoke?

I felt heat on my back and when I turned I saw flames licking their way up the side of our abode. The tent was on fire.


Lance Cross lives in London, UK, although is originally from New Zealand. Diary of a Man Being Driven Around Africa on a Truck with Some Other People is his first novel, but he is hoping it is not his last.