My Visit with the Goon Squad:Book Review

In 2014 I was assigned the first five short stories (chapters) from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Having been involved with music, I found one instance in the text that I didn’t think was historically accurate, finished my studies, and moved on. It wasn’t until I had started playing with a band on campus that a peer redirected me toward Egan’s novel that I opted to give it another chance…and by another chance I mean I bought a copy and let it reside in my bookcase for a few years. I’ve since moved, got married, had a child, and have read quite a few other books. In 2021 I’ve started thinking about music again, and as I consider my options I decided it was time to give Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winner the chance it deserves.

On one hand, I wish I hadn’t waited so long. On the other hand, I needed this read now. It’s a moving book that captures the human element in a way that tends to be background noise in stories in orbit around the music business. A lineal narrative is withheld for time jumping aesthetics. Each short story is centered on a specific character during a particular moment in history. Some of these characters are vessels for highlighting someone else’s trajectory, and aren’t referenced again, but it’s through the glimpse each story offers that provides this point of contact that makes the world so real. Music producers and A&R people are more than two-dimensional figures for satirical abuse. Hopes and fears are presented through the veil of toxic personalities, and I find myself relating to these characters because of it. They’re imperfect people who ache with want, and I see myself in them. Between each fragmented chapter, I found myself taking a breather. I’d put the book down, sigh, and think, ‘damn…that’s good literature.’ I don’t feel that way with every book, so forgive my abuse of the five star system(it just so happens that I enjoy reading)…this novel is nothing short of absolutely fantastic.

With this read, I’m breaking the ice on a project that I’ve been considering for quite some time. This research is a starting point from which I hope to craft a novel, or possibly a series if I can make that much happen. It feels good to be inspired…that’s how good Egan’s novel is. I’m looking forward to her followup, scheduled for release in April, 2022, The Candy House.

Book Review: Calibration 74

This short book by William F. Aicher is a quick read if you opt to treat it as such. On the other side of the same coin, we find something dense that is better digested in smaller pieces over time. The later is how I decided to approach this work. Aicher takes us through a narrative of a mind that is haunted, though it seeks a closure that can never be found. Short chapters, or ‘calibrations’ offer 74 separate segments over 186 pages. It’s an uncompromising romp through psychological terrain of the damaged variety, right up my ally. Calibration 74 is a harrowing exploration of experimental fiction that is worth a deeper dive, so give it the time of day. 

            Rich in thought provoking prose and vivid imagery, I take solace in relatable poetry, if such a thing should be admitted. Our narrator is unreliable in direct ways that relate to numerical obsession, in the moments where he miscounts. It happened on one occasion where he’s counting large numbers, making big picture statements/asking big picture questions between the numbers, 

[One billion four hundred twenty-eight million two hundred sixty-three five hundred and nine. 

The soul is indistinguishable from the body. 

One billion four hundred twenty-eight million two hundred sixty-three five hundred and nine. 

Where do we go when we die?]

Numerical obsession and the fallacy of the human mind is the vessel that moves the story forward. Before and after this hiccup, the count progresses as expected. This break from the logical pattern is enough to suggest the blur is intentional. 

I found solace in the rhythmic use of language. It’s a scattered collection of ashes and even at my slow pace I struggled with authorial intent, so I placed my own meaning where I saw fit. Between the covers, Aicher’s philosophical background is in full view. Direct answers are elusive, but that’s the fun of this kind of read. I definitely recommend Calibration 74. Give it a read.

Recent Developments: Sellout Productions

I’d like to take this opportunity to indulge what I’ve been up to. While I’d prefer to reserve this blog to a few specific topics, like reviewing music and books, I’ll drop in to give an occasional update from my side of the screen.

Sellout Productions has long been a name of a fantasy of mine. I came up with it in high school, and all these years later it feels right for these endeavors. At this time, Sellout Productions is more or less a front for my work. My self-published novels and a singular set of enamel pins embody the beginning. While my books will continue to be my primary focus, the itch to make music has returned to me, and I intend to utilize my previous experience in audio production to work on new material with a tangible goal in mind. I hope to finish writing and producing an album in 2021. I fully intend to release it on my Bandcamp page, with wider distribution to follow shortly thereafter. From there, I hope to establish some consistency and produce/release new material on a regular basis. For the sake of soulless branding, the name of the project will be the same I had used for the music I made in college: Sellout. I’m looking to make instrumental electronic music, but that’s pretty broad. I’ll just have to shout it from the rooftops again once there’s something for you to hear.

Branching out in another direction, I’ve opened an Etsy shop. That’s where the enamel pins are available, with other products in the works. These items may take some extra time to produce, as I don’t want to simply flood the market with whatever product that could bear a logo. I may’ve gotten ahead of myself in opening the shop before I had more than one item available, but as any stable business owner will tell you, “I’m winging it.” It’s fine…I’m learning lessons on the fly. I got excited, and the first set of pins has been well received thus far. There’ll be more options soon, just not a plethora for the sake of quantity.

For those of you still around, I appreciate you reading this far. This is my attempt to dehumanize myself down to a brand, all while remaining vulnerable and authentic.

On reading American Moor

I’ve held out on reading American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb, hoping to catch it live. The show had toured extensively, and I planned to see it if it ever landed somewhere in driving range. With the pandemic and the publication of the text as a paperback, I decided to read it on the page. It’s the first play I’ve read outside of Shakespeare since college.

Keith Hamilton Cobb plays a Black actor auditioning for the role of Othello. He’s the only person to appear on the stage, while the voice of a director can be heard when they interact with each other. Cobb speaks to the audience and director, often separately. He goes through his prepared monologue as he feels appropriate, and finds disagreement with a director who thinks he knows better. Tension is exposed as Cobb tells the audience what he thinks and feels in these situations where one plays nice to get at an opportunity. In pushing back against the director, the actor states, “Nobody ever plays the devil’s advocate. They play their own advocate, and hide behind that stupid idiom to avoid having to take responsibility for it” (30).

There’s pages of raw outpouring of emotion from the actor. Context, historical analysis, and personal insight all contribute to Cobb’s message on race and Shakespeare’s Othello. “Ya see, for you, at best, Othello is like your little exercise in understanding. You think you get him… you can commiserate, you have empathy for his condition. No you do not… there is nothing more infuriating that white folks actin’ like they know your story well enough to tell it without your help” (40-41).

This read left me with a lot to think about. Cobb’s insight spells out clearly, effectively, and with anger the weight of racism in artistic spaces. Every point hits hard, and the overall feeling I took away was one of contemplation. I can’t recommend this enough. American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb is a powerful text that has brought me to reflect upon my own biases. American Moor

 

Book Review: The Fuck-It List

Some people read for the purposes of escapism. The Fuck-It List by John Niven will not provide you with that, as his scathing brand of satire is all too realistic. It’s not a casual read that’ll take you out of the discomfort of our moment in history. The year is 2026, the troubles that burden America have only gotten worse, and Frank Brill has terminal cancer. The diagnosis doesn’t come as a surprise, and allows Frank to give himself permission to go on a murder spree. Does this sound similar to Breaking Bad without the crystal meth? Sure. But the unique perspective that Niven offers maintains my investment in the protagonist.

My favorite thing about Niven is his ability to stir empathy by creating flawed characters that are all too relatable.  Frank Brill is at the end of his life and decides to carry through as much of a hit list as he can manage. It sounds like a violent romp for the sake of it and I’d be a liar to claim it’s not, but the motives, sense of loss, and weight of the past that Frank reflects upon creates a believable portrait who gains my support. That probably says more about me than anything else.

I’ll admit, this book isn’t for everyone, but if you want an all too real satirical reflection of America in the filthiest mirror one could find, The Fuck-It List delivers. It kept me turning pages. The stakes get higher with each name Frank Brill stalks down. I enjoyed this immensely, as I do anytime Niven puts out a novel.

Fuck It List

The Girl Who Lived Twice: Book Review

The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz is the sixth installment in the Millennium Series. While I’ve enjoyed the Lagercrantz contributions to the Stieg Larsson trilogy, this novel brings the larger story arch full circle that has left me satisfied. Lagercrantz has proven himself to be worthy of carrying this torch. I’ve stated before that I’ll continue to read as long as Lagercrantz writes the series, and with this book he succeeds in establishing his name with the greater story world. It’s his series, now.

In the novel, Lisbeth Salander gives chase to ghosts of the past while they simultaneously haunt her. Her twin sister, Camilla, remains Lisbeth’s rival. Bad blood simmers until violence emerges at the surface. The potential for chaos spills over and into the life of her friend, Mikael Blomkvist, and forces that are out to destroy them bring them together again.

Blomkvist spends his time chasing a story about a climb up Mt. Everest where life was lost some dozen years prior to. A homeless man who used to be a Sherpa had wanted to tell his story, but madness and murder brought only questions to Blomkvist.

Themes of a haunting past as it complicates the present is central to the novel, and only by breaking those ties are we capable of moving on and reclaiming ourselves. This story plays with such elements in ways that kept me turning the pages and missing out on sleep.

The side characters that have been central to the previous five novels are pretty well left on the sidelines this time around. Berger and Bublanski exist and contribute within the confines of their established roles, but they’re much further in the background compared to earlier stories. Erika Berger is in the middle of a divorce, but beyond that surface detail there’s little of her, and Bublanski is there to serve his purpose as a police officer, and little else. If there’s anything I thought the novel could’ve used more of, it’s the secondary characters.

Other side characters are brought forward to reveal more about Camilla’s world, and the intricacies of her criminal network. Hackers and a hit man loyal to the memory of Camilla’s father fill the spaces left vacant by those who’ve made more regular appearances.

That’s the long and short of it; I enjoyed this book. I’ve enjoyed this series. Without spoiling anything, this would be a fine place to end the series, or pivot to some new direction. I’m hoping for the later, as the central cast of characters keeps me coming back. It’d be nice to see Larsson’s initial vision of ten novels through to the end, though the path there is much different with Lagercrantz at the helm.

IMG_7143

Optimism and the Passage of Time

The passage of time drives more dialog when the emphasis is on a full decade, as opposed to that of a singular year. I’ve lurked through the dregs of social media to find people have listed their accomplishments, from surviving to personal/professional milestones. It has been uplifting to see my friends and loved ones describe the things that made them feel most alive in the last ten years. I’ve found in them the great ability to inspire others with their plans and resolutions. Instead of the old eye roll, I found their goals to be within reach. I’m rooting for you all.

In the past decade I published three novels, and had two short stories published in an anthology. Those books are available here. I’m starting 2020 with a new novel that’ll be available in February. As Flowers with Frost concerns itself with the family of a young child who claims to be the reincarnation of a murder victim. The child leads those who listen to a shallow grave, and the accused. Pre-sale information should be available within the next week. three books together.jpg

Short term goals always include the drafting of new projects. I’m currently 17,000 words deep on a sci-fi/satire novella, and am researching for a full length novel of the Midwestern Gothic/family drama variety. My 2020 writing goals also consist of generating short stories for a collection that I intend to release in the future. In terms of writing, most of this year will be spent working on first drafts, and pushing the new novel.Death Among US.JPG

On that note, I’m so excited to share As Flowers with Frost with the world. The idea struck me out of nowhere, and from the moment I took interest in the subject matter, I was compelled to write it. As I do with all ideas that I think are cool, I slept on it. Once it had survived the twenty-four hour test and I still thought it was cool, I knew it was a project I’d see through to the end.

Flowers with Frost.jpg

I have no way of reading minds or the future. I still can’t make up or down about navigating the way to writing full time. I’m just now getting a real focus on my efforts with regards to trial and error, and have collected the experience of numerous failures. These failures are a source of pride, as I’ve learned something from them. I’m going to continue to learn and grind in 2020.

Thanks to those of you who’ve been supportive over the years, and thanks to you who are willing to give me a chance. I look forward to the potential of a new day.

 

Death Among Us: Short Story Anthology

Disclaimer: I am a part of this project.

Now that that’s out of the way, Death Among Usis a collection of short stories that are all somehow rooted in the murder mystery genre. The authors weren’t tethered by any other stipulation, aside from a request to not be gratuitous in our use of violence. The resulting anthology includes cross genre stories that venture into the historical, science fiction, and supernatural, in addition to contemporary stories of greed, revenge, and the most sordid of our shared human condition.

As it should be with any anthology, I owed it to the other writers to give their works a spin. I started at the beginning, and read the award-winning The Rose Slayer by Stephen Bentley, and the conclusion hit home for me in a way I can only describe as delightful. From there I branched out, helped myself to a sampling, and found that I’m in the company of quality.

The science fiction take on the theme, as crafted by Greg Alldredge, offered a bit of something different. As a lover of science fiction, I’m pleased with what Alldredge brings to the table.

Red Solo Cup, by Kelly Artieri stood out, as she is excellent at creating characters that come to life, a quality I find difficult to achieve in the short story medium.

Robbie Cheadle’s historical murder mystery, Justice is Never Served, is filled with a prose style that is so wonderfully crafted, I read it twice to let her lines settle in.

Michael Spinelli takes you to the desert, and leaves you there to die. His story, No Man’s Land, establishes the killer as a monster of sorts, using this language to distance killer from “normal” people, but the twist left me with the conclusion that in the grand scheme of things, we’re not so different from those we try to label as the horrific other.

The work of L. Lee Kane is gritty fun. The murders were not the main event for me, as casual violence exists throughout her narratives, and shows a world where such violence is all too normal.

The Thoughts of Emily Morales in Old Age, by Kay Castaneda is a page long train of thought that moved me in ways beyond that than I had initially expected. The quick piece is to be savored and thought upon.

The Neighbours, by Aly Locatelli is her writing debut, and a solid one at that. Her work as a book reviewer serves as a solid foundation for her own narratives. She knows what the reader wants, and how to get you there.

The posthumous works of ‘G’ left me intrigued about the mind of the author. I was especially interested in/entertained by the religious questions of Next.

 

I kind of fell into this project. I responded to an invitation on a message board, and ended up in the company of some impressive authors. This cast of international talent isn’t a group to whom I owe the above praise, and I will refrain from reviewing it on any platform where it may be deemed unprofessional. I just wanted to use my space here to say I’m touched to be among such company, and have been entertained by their work. You can find the Death Among Us here!

 

IMG_5263

Dark Places: Book Review

Dark Places is a dark novel. I came for the bleak style-backed up with substance I’ve come to expect from Gillian Flynn, and I was entertained. Libby Day survives the traumatic murder of her mother and sisters by her brother, and half of our time is spent with her present-day narrative, twenty plus years after the killings. Every other chapter bounces in time between Libby’s modern misanthropy to the day her family was violently torn from the world. Old assumptions are reexamined in the pursuit of money, and Libby is pressured into questioning her memory.

A group of people obsessed with obscure murder cases is willing to fund the down and out Libby Day. The group is driven by an agenda that rejects the narrative that Ben Day murdered his family. They offer to pay Libby for each figure from the past she can track down and interview. She confronts the past in a way she hasn’t considered since the event. Her coping mechanisms are hot garbage, and the pity driven donations have dried up. Libby is desperate for money, and accepts the most fruitful gaslighting campaign I’ve ever read. None of the characters are particularly likable, but those characters make up my kind of book.

As Libby closes in on the truth she finds herself running for her life. She opts not to leave the past alone, and discovers it’s an all-consuming void that doesn’t allow for growth or the healing properties of closure. Libby is damaged, and I find joy in her  narrative.

The novel concludes in a manner that left me conflicted. Without giving too much away, it felt like a plethora of coincidence packed into the smallest possible window. The pieces come together in a way that supports the ending, but I’m still frustrated.

Dark Places is fun. If the narrative styling of Gone Girl or Sharp Objects suits your fancy, this novel offers another trip through the quality storytelling of Gillian Flynn. I’m looking forward to her next release.

 

Dark Places

On the Horizon: As Flowers With Frost

Renee and Nathan Matheson bring a child into the world. Hannah is their vision of the future. They’re like most new parents: sleep deprived, stressed out, and doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Once Hannah is a little over three years old, she begins to recall memories of another life. Nathan insists that their daughter has a vivid imagination, but Renee is taken aback by such stories. Hannah insists she is the reincarnation of a murder victim. She leads the way to a shallow grave and the accused. From there it spirals out of control.

Last spring I was knee deep in editing Beatrix and the Wooden Dagger. While trying to distract myself, I stumbled upon an article about children who claim to be reincarnated, thought it ridiculous, and then went down that rabbit hole. I read books on the topic, and decided I had to craft my own narrative. It sparked a piece of writing that took shape with such an organic flow that it felt effortless.

As the last of December became memory I finished the first draft of this short novel! I offered the roughest draft to a couple peers, and let them tear it up. While they went at it, I stepped away. With proper space established, I came back to it with their notes, and have continued to build upon what was already there. It’s calling for one more solid sweep before I send it to my editor for a professional polish.

What I’m getting at is I’m excited. I’m confident in my work, but this is a piece I want to share with enthusiasm. Other works I’ve released into the world without a plan, and a “whatever happens” attitude. But I want to get this book in front of you. Without the final pieces in place, I don’t have a time frame to which I can promise to adhere, but it needs said now: As Flowers With Frost is on the way.

Flowers with Frostphoto credit: Helen Killinger