Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Andrez Bergen's Guide to Books & Booze

Time to grab a book and get tipsy!

Books & Booze 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, Andrez Bergen hits the floor with a hell of a companion drink to his soon-to-be-released novel Black Sails, Disco Inferno:


The Derby, which dates back to 1927 (therefore having a track record with the upper set by the '70s) is an International Bartenders Association Official Cocktail that traditionally combines gin, peach bitters and mint leaves.

Given that the Holt crime family in Black Sails, Disco Inferno are of Irish descent, and in fact based on a King of Ireland's clan in the medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult, they have their own variation of the Derby.

Gin is switched, of course, with Irish whiskey.

The Holt Derby, perfected by their family driver Lou Holden, is additionally made with a generous portion of limejuice alongside sweet vermouth and orange curaçao, to conjure up a drink that's dry, tart, peppery, subtly herbal, and a little out there.

Shaken, not stirred.


1 1/2 oz (44 ml) Irish whiskey, preferably Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy
1/2 oz (15 ml) sweet vermouth
1/2 oz (15 ml) orange curaçao (or Cointreau)
1/2 oz (15 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice 
2 dashes bitters
1/4 teaspoon grated corn poppy seed
4-inch (10-cm) lime twist for garnish

Combine whiskey, sweet vermouth, curaçao, limejuice, corn poppy seed, and bitters in a cocktail shaker. 
Fill with ice and shake until well chilled; Lou, from the novel, would recommend about 20 seconds. 
Then strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with that lime twist. 


Andrez Bergen's 1970s crime/noir novel BLACK SAILS, DISCO INFERNO will be published on June 30, 2016. It's available for pre-order from the publishers Open Books.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Page 69: The Waves Burn Bright

Disclaimer: 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 Iain Maloney's The Waves Burn Bright to the test!

OK, Iain, set up page 69 for us:

It's June 2013. Marcus Fraser, a survivor of the Piper Alpha disaster suffers from PTSD and is an alcoholic. He teaches part-time at the University of Aberdeen. It is Friday and he is in the pub contemplating the weekend ahead.

What is The Waves Burn Bright about?

On July 6th 1988 the oil platform Piper Alpha exploded, killing 167 men. The Waves Burn Bright tells the story of how that disaster tears apart one family. Carrie Fraser is 16 when the disaster occurs, her father, Marcus, one of the survivors. The disaster, and Marcus’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and consequent alcoholism drives his wife and daughter away. Now, 25 years after the tragedy, Carrie, a renowned geologist, is returning to Aberdeen to deliver a controversial paper and, perhaps, reunite with her father.

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what The Waves Burn Bright is about? Does it align itself the book’s overall theme?

In some ways this is a good introduction to Marcus’s character. The sentence, ‘He drank’ could almost be his epigraph. Marcus was always a drinker but his decision to self-medicate with alcohol rather than seek professional help to deal with his PTSD defines nearly three decades of his life. He mentions his hip: at the height of his drinking, at his lowest point, he falls down the stairs of his local and shatters his hip. His hospital stay begins the long process of rehabilitation. Always a keen mountaineer, Marcus is reduced to skirting foothills and watching from a distance.

            The Machar is a real bar in the heart of the University of Aberdeen campus which I regularly drank in as a student and still try to visit whenever I’m home. The bench he mentions at Loch Muick is also real and is dedicated to Mike Burnett, a helicopter pilot and family friend who died many years ago. Should auld acquaintance be forgot indeed.

            Not present at all here is Carrie, Marcus’s daughter and the main character. She is on her way though and here Marcus is stealing himself for a potential reunion.

            The sense of nostalgia I tried to capture in these paragraphs, the real comfort we all find in familiar objects, be it our favourite mug or shirt, or the way a glass feels against old scars, is very much what The Waves Burn Bright is about. The past and present exist in uneasy juxtaposition, defining themselves against each other and while habit and familiarity may be comforting, they are also dangerous and addictive. Like Stephen Dedalus, history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.

Postscript: I think this ‘page 69’ theme is a fantastic idea and more writers should do it. I used to buy books on this premise, opening them at a random page, reading the first sentence and deciding based entirely on that. I gave up when, one day in the second-hand bookshop on the Spittal in Aberdeen, I opened Dead Fingers Talk by William Burroughs and encountered a sentence that will never be beaten: ‘There I was in the headwaters of a baboons asshole, completely out of KY.’ 

PAGE 69:

campus on such a beautiful day to such a beautiful goal, the little cottages, the idiosyncratic ancient walls and modern geometrical granite buildings, just a few steps beyond the bank and in through the black door.

He still missed the smell of smoke that used to envelop old bars like this. You could fit the Machar into a railway carriage. Seats and tables along the left wall, bar along the right, toilets and dartboard at the back. His corner was free, back to the wall, cash on the counter, ‘the usual Marcus?’ from Duncan the barman, big of heart and big of gut, University Rugby Club shirt and a mug of tea in his special mug, the white one with the black handle and U N T in black, the handle making the C. Pint handed over, correctly settled, head an exact three quarters of an inch, no fucking stupid harp etched onto the top. Quality craftsmanship. Almost seemed a shame to ruin the effect. Almost. The chill of the glass, the familiar curves spooned by the scars on his palms.
He drank.

Tomorrow they’d go out to Bennachie, him and Isobel. Part of the deal. She’d do the driving if he got some exercise. A decent walk, a pub lunch in Kemnay, back into town for whatever fun the evening held. They did that every weekend, a different walk but the same routine. Loch of Skene, Findhorn, Scolty sometimes, out to Braemar, Ballatar. Some proper hills, not that he could climb them, not with his hip, but the view was enough. Lochnagar. Loch Muick. He liked Loch Muick best. There was a bench there dedicated to a good friend from his oil days, a helicopter pilot. He liked to sit on the bench and have a tot from the flask. Remember Mike, toast him.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot.


Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen and now lives in Japan where he teaches English and writes about travel, literature, and music. He studied English at the University of Aberdeen, has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and, as a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, has been published in journals and anthologies around the world. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. Following the success of his first novel First Time Solo, which was shortlisted for the Guardian's Not the Booker Prize, his second novel Silma Hill was published in 2015, followed by The Waves Burn Bright in 2016. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Thursday 1:17pm's Blog Tour

As Michael Landweber was celebrating the release of his latest novel Thursday 1:17pm earlier this month, we were hard at work building a kick-ass blog tour for it! And after a month of planning and creating content, we are super excited to share it all with you.

 We want to make sure you don't miss a single moment, 
so please click through to each site and follow us all week long!

Today, we've got duel stops at both Girl Who Reads, where Michael will be sharing an essay that delves into some of his more memorable characters' backstories, and Clash Magazinewhere he's devised a (mostly) fake history of memorable moments that have taken place on Thursday's at 1:17pm.

On Tuesday, we've got back to back stops, too! Over at Alternating Current, Michael will be featuring a Shelfie, one of the coolest book shelf series out there. And he'll also be swinging by The Irresponsible Reader, where  he shares his favorite books about time. H.C. Newton even throws a couple of questions at him! 

Shelf Stalker hosts an interview of her own with Michael on Wednesday and then on Thursday, Michael stops by The Lovely Bookshelf to discuss genre labeling. 

And finally, Rainbow of Books brings it all to a close on Friday with a guest post from Michael on how he fell in love with writing. 


Michael Landweber strikes the perfect balance between the humorous and the bittersweet in this novel, and we're so thrilled to be hosting this tour for him. If you haven't read the book yet, we urge you to check it out. You can read an excerpt of it or purchase it here


Here's a little of what you can expect: 

Within its pages, Michael Landweber gives us an inside peek at what one teenager will do when time, and the world around him, suddenly stops dead in its tracks. 

Duck's mother just died after battling brain cancer. Trying to outrun his emotions, he's hightailing it up the street with REM blasting through his earbuds and doesn't hear the car trying to beat the light as he steps off the curb. But the driver never hits the breaks, and the impact never comes. Duck looks up - at a world that is suddenly, impossibly, frozen in place. 

As Duck attempts to interact with this world of human manikins in an attempt to understand what's happening - eating other peoples' food right off their plates, walking through raindrops that are suspended midfall, visiting his friends and father in the hopes that one of them might be moving too, and yes, ok, detouring through a girl's dormitory bathroom or two - he also takes some time to break the fourth wall and gives us, the reader, some tips on how to survive a frozen world should we ever find ourselves in his situation. 

As the only moving, living, human being, who would you go visit first? What wrongs might you attempt to right (or visa versa)? How would you pass the time in a world where time is no longer passing for anyone....? And how would you go about trying to get the world, and everyone in it, started back up again? 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Melanie Reviews: The Rabbi's Cat 2

Written and Illustrated by Joann Sfar
Color by Brigitte Findakly
Translated from French by Alexis Siegel
Published: Pantheon Books
Released:  2008

Reviewed by Melanie Page

To prepare for this book review, I re-read The Rabbi’s Cat (read my review at TNBBC here). It was just as marvelous and charming as the first time I read it, if not more so. The cat’s facial expressions are funny and thoughtful while he discusses religion with his master and other Jews in Algiers in the 1930s. Random “cat moments” pop up, too, like catching prey and knocking things off desks.

It was good that I re-read the first graphic novel, because The Rabbi’s Cat 2 picks up with the same characters. Some are highly memorable, like the Mistress, her husband, and the Rabbi, but others I’d forgotten, like the Rabbi’s Arab cousin, who plays a much bigger role in this story. In The Rabbi’s Cat 2, the Mistress’s husband sends for a box of sacred Jewish texts from Russia, but when he opens it, there is a Russian man inside. The novel takes us across Africa with an odd group—“There’s two overgrown kids, a couple of lovebirds, a cat and a donkey. It’s Noah’s Ark”—attempting to get the Russian man to his final destination.

Sfar’s graphic novels are rooted in the oral tradition. The cat tells what’s happening in the present, though there are two strange passages when the cat is either unconscious or not present, but the story goes on... This may be a mishap in point of view, but it’s not terribly distracting. The cat also tells stories of stories, such as how the infamous Malka of the Lions dies. That story really got to me; I actually teared up, but there was much laughter, too. I scared my husband with my sudden whimpers and guffawing in public.

One of my favorite parts about The Rabbi’s Cat was when the cat ate an annoying parrot and gained the ability to speak. He sure had a lot to say, none of it nice. He then loses his ability when he speaks God’s name. In The Rabbi’s Cat 2, the cat still cannot speak to humans (animals always understand each other), but that doesn’t mean we can’t see what he thinks—and his thoughts are hilarious. This cat is thinking what you’re thinking and dare not say. He would be a pain on social media.

For some unexplainable reason, the cat and the Russian man found in the box can speak to each other. Everyone else hears incessant meowing, but the Russian, an artist, understands. While the choice isn’t explained, the book has a magic to it that allows you to quickly forget to ask “Why?” and enjoy the story. Perhaps those who cannot communicate with the masses can speak to each other.

A Russian artist appearing in Northern Africa is strange, but his life story gives readers information about contemporary 1930s world politics. The Russian artist explains (no one but the reader can understand him) that in Russia, people never knew if soldiers would kill them each day, so when Stalin arrived, they thought he was “the Messiah.” The Russian was put in charge of an art school and taught people of all ages. The people drew things that they saw in the villages, like animals and the Hebrew alphabet, but the Party didn’t want all the art around and thus burned it. The Russian was given notice to never paint again, had his school taken away from him, and was forbidden from reading in Hebrew. The Party wanted to burn the Jewish books from the village, but since they could be sold for good money, the Russians put them in a box to ship. It was one of these boxes that the Russian artist jumped in to get out of the country. This story takes place over three pages of the whole graphic novel, so it’s not a long, overbearing political “rant.” It’s long enough to remind readers of the plight of the Jews, even on different continents. All of the characters face humiliation at different points for their choice of faith, and it’s getting worse in Algiers when French churches and priests pit Arabs and Jews against each other in the Rabbi’s hometown.

The Rabbi’s Cat 2 manages to be a journey to find a spiritual and physical home, but it’s more humorous than agenda-driven. The character’s levels of faith vary, so conversations about interpretations of religious text are interesting rather than preachy (people are arguing with abstract ideas, so it’s quite creative and can be silly, which the cat loves to point out). To solve one religious conundrum, a blind rabbi goes to write on a (supposedly) dead man’s forehead, but accidentally sticks the quill up his nose, waking the man who then punches the rabbi.

The majority of the journey across Africa is rather hilarious, too. I especially love a scene in which the party crosses a river. The group is riding in a vehicle, but the donkey is walking. The donkey sees the river and says to the cat, “I’m not going. I’m sure there are creatures in the water.” The cat replies, “Oh, stop it.” But then:

It’s not just what’s written, but Sfar’s drawing style. In some panels, his images are realistic yet human; you can see the scribbles of his ink pen under the color to create shading. In other places, it looks like Sfar was drawing while driving down a bumpy dirt road. The waviness of what “should” be straight lines gives the images a charming yet quick look that suggest what’s happening. It’s not confusing, it’s stylistic. It is especially effective when the cat is depicted, and is unmistakably Sfar. I’m smitten with Joann Sfar and his cat (yes, the cat is real) and will continue to read this series if he keeps making it. As I revisited pages to scan images for this review, I was amused all over again and very happy that I own my copies of the books.

Melanie Page has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is an adjunct instructor in Indiana. She is the creator of Grab the Lapels, a site that publishes book reviews and interviews of folks who identify as women at

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Indie Spotlight: Margo Orlando Littell

We're always happy to shine a little spotlight on small press books, especially when it's a debut! So I was thrilled when Margo reached out about her upcoming novel Each Vagabond By Name, because it's both! 

In this essay, Margo shares how her novel came into being and the role small town gossip played in the process. 

My Novel’s Debt to Small-Town Gossip

Over the past ten years, I’ve mined the landscape and atmosphere of my hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania to craft my novel, Each Vagabond By Name. This part of the world has always inspired me—the rootedness of the people, the common context of multiple generations who live, and will continue to live, in one place. But my novel also owes a debt to small-town gossip—the strange bits of everyday life that become stories told during weekly phone calls to former locals like me who now live far away.

At the heart of my novel are young, itinerant runaways who arrive in a remote coal-mining town and begin robbing homes, introducing dangerous tension between those who belong and those who don’t—and raising the question of how “belonging” should be defined. In my book, the local townspeople call the outsiders “gypsies,” and the xenophobia inherent in that term is key to establishing the context in which my characters’ story plays out.

The characters and events in my novel are pure fiction. However, in the early 2000s, itinerant thieves really did arrive in my hometown and commit a series of home invasions. My main characters, Ramsy and Stella, had existed well before I learned about these thieves, and they’d spent a long time meandering through ponderous scenes that contained little energy or purpose. I finished my MFA with these characters still languishing aimlessly in a tale that didn’t feel fully formed. Only when I introduced the thieves into my novel—initially as an atmospheric extra, not a crucial plot element—did Ramsy and Stella’s story crack open. Without these outsiders, there would be no novel.

I remember when I first learned about the “gypsies.” I’d been living in New York City for several years, and though I’d grown up in a remote small town, the city fit me like a second skin. I loved everything about New York—the culture and splendor, of course, but mostly the quotidian rhythms of subway-riding and sidewalk-pounding and the fabulous difficulty of everyday tasks like laundry and grocery shopping. I was deep into the infatuation that makes living in a city like New York worthwhile.

Also exquisite was hearing the news from home, which I got weekly on the phone with my mother. The small-town dramas I’d long taken for granted assumed startling new color when I considered them from a self-satisfied urban distance, and the quirks from my hometown often made good cocktail-party conversation. And so when my mother told me about a group of gypsies who had arrived in town and had been robbing local homes, I listened with great interest.

They weren’t “real” gypsies, my mother admitted when I questioned her, but that’s what people were calling them. They slipped into homes and took cash and jewelry while their friends distracted the homeowners with requests for water or use of the phone. There was fear; there was anger. Not a lot of new people made their way into my town, and this group had arrived and upended the status quo.

I found the whole episode so compelling that I put the thieves into the novel I was writing. It was an ordinary fall until the gypsies came, I wrote, and suddenly Ramsy and Stella had reason to live and breathe for three hundred pages as their involvement with and compassion for the outsiders set them apart from their neighbors.

I wrote that line over a decade ago. Though my novel has been rewritten and revised more times than I can count, that line never changed. Years into the work on my book, I did some research into the thefts, and I found a few newspaper articles that reinforced the ideas that had struck me so long ago. The thieves were described as “foreign-looking” and “foreign-sounding”; the authorities were certain that the crimes were “the work of outsiders.” There, in black and white, was the fear that had put my story in motion.

It took many years for the gossip my mother recounted on the phone to become the richer material that nourished my novel. After all, no good story can be based on a quirky anecdote the writer views with condescension or contempt—and for a long time that was me, failing to recognize the truth in all that small-town weirdness. It took time to understand that I had to look beyond it. The outsiders in my novel are criminals, and the locals do fear them; but over these many years I came to see there was so much more to it than crime, than fear. In those examinations, I found the story I was meant to tell.


photo by Kathryn Huang

Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. She earned an MFA from Columbia and has spent the past fifteen years in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Barcelona, Sacramento, and, now, northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and a collection of card catalogs. The winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, Each Vagabond By Name is her debut novel. Margo blogs at, and you can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Each Vagabond By Name will launch on June 1 and is available now for preorder.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book Review: I'm From Electric Peak

3/22/16 - 3/23/16
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended, mostly because I have a pretty hard core author crush on Bud and fall in love with everything he ever writes ever
Pages: 133
Publisher: Artistically Declined Press
Released: April 2016 (?)

When you fall in love, you're bound to do some stupid, fucked up shit. That's a fact, Jack. The love drug is a strong one and it messes with our minds something fierce. We start saying  and doing things we don't mean. shit we never thought we'd do or say, all for the love of someone we suddenly cannot imagine being without. Though, before we met them two months ago, two weeks ago, fuck it, two DAYS ago, we were getting by just fine without them. It's amazing what love does to us.

None of us are immune. Hell, even I think about some of the weird crap I've done when I'd fallen in love and yeah, sure, I have a laugh at it now, but at the time, I was like a woman possessed. I've put myself out there and made myself available in ways I'd never thought I would. I've put up with shit I had sworn I would always walk away from. But when love hops into the driver's seat, it takes control of your emotions. It overrides your sense of reason. It lights fire to your guts and squeezes on your heart muscles so fucking hard and makes your entire being hum with crazy electricity.

And for a few of us, that love-drug-crazy-electrical-high fucks with our minds so goddamn much that we're actually seriously willing to kill anyone who might try to get in the way of it.

In his latest novella, Bud Smith does a frighteningly awesome job portraying the numbing desperation one suffers when in the grips of such a devastatingly naive love through his protagonist Kody - a teenage kid who breaks out of a home for troubled-youth and into his girlfriend's house - when he hears Tella's parents are about to ship her off to Italy in what he believes is an attempt to keep them apart.

The book's a gore fest from the start, with Kody climbing down from a water tower and interrupting spaghetti time by shooting Tella's parents, leaving them for dead at the dinner table as he grabs her and takes off for an impromptu tour of the country. Bud ushers us along at break neck speeds as the two of them lie, steal, and struggle to keep their love afloat under the shadow of what Kody's just done.

You gotta love Kody's chops. This kid shows no remorse. He's certain that he's done what's necessary and you get the feeling he's not the type to dwell too much on the past. Nor one to care much about consequences. But he's not stupid, either. Though he's all about living in the present, he's extremely sensitive to the situation they are in and keeps a close eye on Tella.

The only way for us to experience Tella is through Kody's eyes, which are sometimes clouded and unreliable. We know she keeps mentioning to him that she wishes he hadn't killed her mom but doesn't otherwise seem too worked up over the whole my-boyfriend-just-murdered-my-parents thing. It could be that Kody is just playing it down, or it could be that Tella's similarly numb. The two are in love and they're together, and well, they can do just about anything. Except, the longer they're on the road, the more they test each other within the claustrophobic limits of the car, and the more Kody begins to put them at risk with his crazy antics. As they continue their streak across the country in an attempt to stay ahead of the police, the trail of blood and gristle they leave behind them grows.

It's a toxic, twisted novel of impossible redemption. The writing is fierce, the dialogue is quirky, and Bud's foot never lets up off the gas.

(Side note: I jotted down some notes as I read the book, assuming that when I was ready to write the review I would remember what I meant by them, but for the life of me I cannot remember what I meant by this one: 

bird, fish, zoo animals = free, caged, suicidal

any insight into my own weird insight would be greatly appreciated!)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Drew Reviews: Shantytown

Shantytown by Cesar Aira
4.5 Stars - Strongly Recommended by Drew
Pages: 128
Publisher: New Directions
Released: 2013

Reviewed by Drew Broussard

The Short Version: An immensely strong young man begins to help dwellers of an infamous shantytown in Buenos Aires with their carts and collections. But a crooked policeman believes it has something to do with the local drug cartel, he begins to follow the young man's sister and her friend - all of this leading to a massive showdown into the shantytown known as the Carousel...
The Review: In many ways, this was the most straightforward Aira I've yet read. There is an immediately coherent plot, not veering off down too many surprise pathways - although it does head down a few, don't get me wrong - and only the faintest sense of an authorial presence. Where ...Landscape Painter had the impression of Aira-as-historian and The Seamstress and the Wind obviously features quite a bit of the author's diaristic ramblings, this one features nary an "I" and I think only one (that I recall) moment of direct address to the reader.

So what, then, to make of an Aira novel that reads - at first glance anyway - like a more traditional novel? 
The simple answer is that it's still brilliant. There's a reason Aira is as popular and prolific as he is, namely being that he's a damn good writer - and, just as important, a damn interesting one. In fact, I think it's more interesting to see him working in the background, because it requires him to take on a level of distance from his work. We're not hearing an interesting guy talk or regale us this time: he's pulled back a bit and, as such, the story has to stand more resolutely on its own. And in large part, it does: I was invested in Maxi as a character and what, if anything, he might learn as he draws closer to the shantytown. I was even intrigued by the policeman, although he felt less well-defined than Maxi, operating more off of stereotype and plot than actual character development. These characters felt like characters instead of mechanisms, moving forward based on the extant logic of the novel instead of the whims of the author. This seems like an equivocation, the two things being ostensibly the same (the author, at the end of the day, is the one writing the book soooo...), but I felt less of that "flight forward" sense that characterises Aira as I understand him so far, that sense of just writing whatever comes to mind and not really caring if it matches up with what has come before.
As I said earlier, don't get me wrong: there's still plenty of unexpected coincidence, seemingly meaningless things that become crucial, and plot points that are discarded without much care. One particular standout, regarding the young maid of the building across the street from Maxi's house and a homeless man he passes on the street every morning, seemed like it was tossed in for a sort of fan service to the characters themselves, as though Aira thought: "Oh, I forgot they were supposed to meet. They're both so nice... they deserve to have in fact been looking for each other for years, as they are engaged!" It had nothing to do with the novel at hand and, accordingly, was tossed off in an aside - but it felt very much like a hallmark of Aira's writing, that sort of happy coincidence that isn't given too much thought beyond "And then this. Hooray!"

But I don't think my favorite part of the book, its ending (a pretty epic chase/showdown in a near-Biblical downpour), would've been as successful had Aira been more present in the telling. There's a car chase, a foot chase, a shootout, a murder in not-quite-cold blood... suddenly, Aira pivots away from the social examinations he'd been toying with in the first two-thirds of the novel (and there's quite a bit of that, which I ought to mention in a moment) and goes full-throttle into a crime novel. The scene of the judge, this famously ass-kicking female judge, standing in the rain surrounded by reporters over her son's dead body... it's the sort of thing that guys like Jo Nesbø and Lee Child wish they could write. I think it's all the more potent for the fact that it's relatively unexpected, this moment: it stands out because it feels like Aira has completely transformed into another writer, totally chameleonic. So, too, the revelations (or, at least, implications) about the shantytown itself - which remains, even as it illuminated (within the story, both literally and metaphorically), a mysterious and near-magical locale.
But Aira hasn't just written a cracking crime thriller. In fact, for much of the book, he's not doing that at all. The back cover copy highlights the police/drug angle, but that's not really what the book is about at all - that just happens to be the engine that drives it. (I'm learning, incidentally, that back cover copy for Aira is nearly worthless, in the best way.) Instead, he's looking at wealth and inequality. Some of this is obvious: the disparity between Maxi's life and the lives he chooses to help, the symbolism of the road suddenly widening out into an avenue before it dead-ends just a few yards away into the shantytown. But some of it is more nuanced, like the way that Maxi's simplicity - his spaciness, you might call it - makes people value him differently than they might otherwise. It's not just financial wealth but spiritual and mental wealth that Aira's interested in and, at times, I toyed with the curiosity of what a more traditional author might do with these topics. His surprising twists and turns and generally magic-madcap flow of prose challenges the reader and keeps them thinking - but it also means that the reader is never in one place for too long. It's not a bad thing, just something I'm becoming conscious of as I devour more of Aira's back catalog.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. This might be my favorite Aira so far (having only read three, the competition hasn't yet gotten all that fierce). The shantytown is a magical invention, the descriptions of its lights - power taken straight from the high-voltage cables that power the rest of the city, meaning the lights are on eternally, creating a whole galaxy of new constellations - one of the most memorable things I've read in quite a while. And Aira delivers not only a cracking crime novel but some insightful socioeconomic investigatory work as well. Most excitingly, though, he remains wholly himself: even though all three books I've read so far have been wildly varied in tone and content and even voice... they're all, also, inimitably Aira. Here's to the next one.

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.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kate Reviews: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended by Kate
Pages: 256
Publisher: Persephone
Published: 2008 (first published in 1938)

Reviewed by Kate Vane

I’m a big fan of poppy neuroscience and psychology books and I’ve become interested in the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘self’. We are just a collection of habits and behaviours, a product of our circumstances. We can change. So I was intrigued to read this novel.

Miss Pettigrew, a downtrodden children’s governess in desperate need of a position, is sent by her employment agency to the wrong address. She finds herself at the home of Miss La Fosse, a beautiful young actress with a complex love life. Miss Pettigrew is thrown into a new world  – one of glamour and ease yet one where she is accepted as an equal. She rises to the challenge of bringing order to the chaos and reacts with surprising equanimity to a moral code which is somewhat different from her own. 

Miss Pettigrew, although this is not made explicit in the book, is part of that generation of women who were left ‘singled out’ by the mass casualties of the First World War. At a time when middle class women were expected to marry, there were no longer enough men to go round.  Yet opportunities for work, particularly for women of her class, were extremely limited.

So Miss Pettigrew becomes a children’s governess, in that uncomfortable place where she is neither one of the family nor one of the servants, poor but respectable, isolated and unloved. She is not an actor in her own life, but dependent on the decisions and whims of others. On the fateful day when she visits Miss La Fosse, she has gone without breakfast and can’t afford bus fare, but she still has to maintain a genteel aspect.

While Miss Pettigrew has neither sex nor a career, Miss La Fosse and her friends have an abundance of both. Though their lifestyle is largely funded by men, in one way or another, Miss Pettigrew does not judge them, acknowledging to herself that she would have married any man who asked her, to escape her drab life.

There’s a poignancy to the story. Miss Pettigrew has found friendship, fun and a world where her merits are noticed and appreciated. But the title suggests that she will live only for this day. As we near the end of the day, we, like her, hope that somehow, something will change, that she won’t have to go back to her ordinary life.

I did find the plot a little predictable. To contemporary readers, the fish-out-of-water storyline is a well worn Hollywood trope (in fact the book was made into a film in 2008, though with significant changes to the plot). I kept hoping to be startled and wasn’t.

What did surprise me was that the author avoided making this a morality tale. I kept waiting for the inevitable homily when Miss Pettigrew realises that being young and rich and beautiful is not all it’s cracked up to be, and that her life of discipline and deprivation has its own rewards. But cleverly the author doesn’t do that. This is a fairytale which remains light and bright to the end, with enough grit in the mix to stop it being sickly. It is more than escapism. It offers the promise of reinvention.

Kate Vane writes crime and literary fiction. Her latest novel is Not the End

Monday, May 9, 2016

Page 69: The Juliet

Disclaimer: 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 Laura Ellen Scott's The Juliet to the test!

OK, Laura, set up page 69 for us.

For months, retired cowboy actor Rigg Dexon has been holed up in The Mystery House, a legendary shack perched on the edge of a ghost town in Death Valley, and he’s surrounded himself with stacks of treasure maps from a 70s era cereal promotion for which he was the spokesman. When he comes of seclusion, he impulsively signs away the deed to a strange fan named Willie Judy, before going on a booze and drugs bender. Page 69 is where Rigg fumbles his way back to The Mystery House hoping for a place to crash, only to find that it’s being ransacked by a couple of amateur treasure hunters--retirees from Missouri who are looking for an emerald known as The Juliet. 

What is The Juliet about?

The Juliet is about 100 years in the history of a cursed gem, and it’s about seven days in the spring of 2005 in Death Valley, when aimless Willie Judy finds focus after she receives the deed to The Mystery House, along with clues as to the whereabouts of The Juliet. It’s also about American dualities and self-reinvention, which is what going “out west” is all about. Almost every character in The Juliet is rationalizing the identity with which they were born and the legend they want to leave behind.

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what The Juliet is about? Does it align itself the book’s overall theme?

It’s almost too on-the-nose: At the top of the page, Rigg Dexon is singing a 70s song about The Mystery House that owes its popularity to a tragic context.  Musically, the song is innocuous and bubbly like The Cowsill’s “Indian Lake,” but the singer/songwriter was supposedly killed by a desert cult, and when the song was released posthumously, it became an instant classic. So this passage--from Rigg’s pov--really underscores one of the strongest themes of the novel, that of legend-making:

The song named the house, and the stories of ghosts, murders, and treasure came after. A lot of history was like that, all twisted and made to fit. No one ever seemed satisfied with the way things really started or ended.

After this page, Rigg catches the treasure hunting couple rifling through the things he left behind and recognizes the woman as someone from his past—the singer/songwriter of “The Mystery House,” Kimber Logue, long assumed dead. That’s a common fantasy that pops up when a rocker dies young, but I don’t think the “faked death” has ever really happened, has it? I suppose we wouldn’t know, if it was done right. Anyway, Kimber’s storyline offers up the sister-theme to that of legend-making: the past, the true past, cannot be completely erased. 



Laura Ellen Scott is the author of the novels Death Wishing (Ig Publishing, 2011) and The Juliet (Pandamoon Publishing, 2016). Her next novel, The Mean Bone in Her Body, will be published by Pandamoon Publishing at  the end of the year as the first book in her New Royal Mysteries series, set in a fictional college/prison town in Ohio. LES can be spammed at her website:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Page 69: The Tumbling Turner Sisters

Disclaimer: 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 Juliette Fay's The Tumbling Turner Sisters to the test

OK, Juliette, set up page 69 for us.

An African American tap dancer, an immigrant couple whose trained pigeons tap out songs on bells, and a four-girl acrobatic team are all crammed into a tight backstage area, waiting to perform. With the ethnic, racial and gender diversity; competition over placement on the bill; and unlikely friendships forming, it’s a snapshot of small time vaudeville.

What is The Tumbling Turner Sisters about?

Unlike the early 20th Century world in which they lived, women, immigrants, and people of color experienced a surprising amount of freedom and upward mobility in vaudeville. There was still plenty of discrimination, but there was an overriding factor that put success uniquely within their grasp: talent. If you could bring the crowds, you were treated well and compensated handsomely, no matter who you were.

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what The Tumbling Turner Sisters is about? Does it align itself the book’s overall theme?

On page 69, the lineup has just been changed by the theatre manager, an occupation with enormous power over the performers. Talented black tap dancer Tippety Tap Jones is promoted from closer (the last and worst spot on the bill) to the “deuce” or second spot. The job of the closer, or “chaser” as they were often called, was to be bad enough to “chase” the audience out, so the stage hands could ready the theatre for the next performance. Tip’s rise means the pigeons are demoted to closer, and their handlers are furious.

At the same time, Gert Turner, an acrobat and one of the two narrators of the story, is curious about Tip. In 1919, there is no acceptable way for a white woman to befriend a black man, but Gert is headstrong, attractive and used to getting her way. The fact that Tip isn’t thrilled with her attention is a new experience for her.

Tip is no fool—he knows that as innocent as their conversation may be, he’s courting danger simply by talking to Gert. He plays it cool, which only provokes her determination to learn more about him. It’s the beginning of a friendship that grows progressively more complicated over the course of the novel. 



Juliette Fay is the award-winning author of three previous novels: The Shortest Way Home, Deep Down True, and Shelter Me. She received a bachelor’s degree from Boston College and a master’s degree from Harvard University. Juliette lives in Massachusetts with her husband and four children. The Tumbling Turner Sisters (Gallery Books/S&S) is her fourth novel.