June Reads

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
― Albert Camus

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The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton

Truly great summer reads are hard to find. Many novels make for difficult beach reading while light-hearted rom coms are all too predictable. The Moonflower Vine is neither a heavy saga nor a flighty poolside diversion. It’s just right for summer afternoons, wherever you like to spend them, and leaves a lasting impression.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

With years of painstaking research, Truman Capote made In Cold Blood his life’s work. Though he is known for many other books and stories, this shocking true crime drama is his masterpiece. Adapted to film and often mis-shelved as fiction in bookstores, audiences love the chills Capote evokes as he unravels this gruesome tale. Keep it close by in case the A/C gives out.

Naked by David Sedaris

In this collection of nonfiction essays, David Sedaris gives a full dose of his humor and pragmatism. He finds meaning and hilarity everywhere, sharing what he sees, who he meets, and how it all goes wrong. And sometimes, right. Naked is a book with heart and a perfect fit for most carry-on luggage.

Country Wisdom & Know-How: A Practical Guide to Living Off the Land by M. John Storey

Summer is a time for growing things. Even city-dwellers can appreciate the practical tips for making the most of summer produce. Full of recipes and rules of thumb, Country Wisdom & Know-How is an antidote to your standard summer vacation. Because anyone can buy an icy cold beer. But M. John Storey can show you how to make one.

Children’s Shelf

Alexander and the Magic Mouse by Martha Sanders and Philippe Fix (Illustrator)

The Old Lady lives with her animal friends in a house on top of the hill. They overlook the river below and the town beyond, playing games to pass the time and drinking tea with yak’s butter. A rainstorm threatens to flood the river and wash away the town. It will be up to The Old Lady and her companions to warn the townspeople and save the day.

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If I Survive You

By Jonathan Escoffery

Reviewed, 7 June 2022

Escoffery’s new collection of short stories fit together as neatly as a novel. “In Flux,” the collection’s opening piece gives the author’s answer to the peculiarly American question, “What are you?” As a nation obsessed with lineage, we’ve all considered mail-order DNA kits and websites promising to reveal our connections to royalty. We’re familiar with playground questions about ancestry. When Escoffery’s character, Trelawny, faces blunt identity questions, he examines that overwhelming American trait, assimilation.

These eight stories combine to form a picture of a Jamaican family in transition. As they gain a foothold in Florida, the needs of extended family and wishes to return to simpler times pull them back to their roots. Between biting winters at a northern university and sunny Jamaican beaches, the youngest son, Trelawny, finds an uncomfortable middle ground in his hometown, Miami. But misfortune hounds the family. Hurricanes, unpredictable income, and secrets from the past batter them as they struggle to stay connected. Underneath it lies a cracked foundation, a cherished house sinking.

It’s hard to avoid phrases like, “powerhouse short stories,” and “dazzling debut.” Each story enlightens the rest, making the collection a perfect balance of tenderness and grit, hope, and despair. Escoffery’s dark humor rings throughout, hip and down-to-earth. Defiant in the face of adversity, Trelawny wills himself through hard times. Even in despair, the faded American dream calls. There must still be a way to realize it. If there isn’t, he’ll make one.

Thanks to Net Galley for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. If I Survive You launches, September 2022.

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The Untamed Passions of an Enigmatic Jamaican Man

By Donovan Moore

Reviewed, 20 May 2022

Donovan Moore is certainly an enigma. He presents his thoughts out of sequence, arranged more by importance than chronology. He is possessed first by one facet of his life, then the next, but the threads tying it together hide between the lines. Explicitly sexual and searingly graphic, Moore isn’t shy with the juicy details. Not so with matters of the heart. He withholds recollections of childhood and close friendships. On an endless quest for a love that satisfies the soul, he admits himself a philandering husband doomed to the sadness of repeated losses.

Jamaica is more complicated than Montego Bay’s squeaky-clean resorts and beaches. Moore’s horror stories of rampant crime, police brutality, and murder contradict the island’s good-time, ganja smoking reputation. A history of racist colonialism, Christian moralizing, and income disparity infuriates Moore. His anger fuels discord at church and at work. A string of affairs with gullible women leads him not to love and fulfillment, but to repeated disappointment. When he moves his teenage lover into his marital home, we know it can’t end well. Yet the girl’s brutal murder is a terrible shock. And Moore, desensitized to the violence and ducking police suspicion, cannot even grieve.

The island’s ingrained

violence, misogyny,

and homophobia will

trouble readers unfam-

iliar with post-colonial

politics and African-

Caribbean culture

Moore intends to leave us with an enigma. He engages readers with the memoir of an educated, unassuming Jamaican man, ending with a sly refusal to tie up the loose ends. Instead, he promises his future books will fill in the gaps. But as he loses his moral compass, the island’s ingrained violence, misogyny, and homophobia will trouble readers unfamiliar with post-colonial politics and African-Caribbean culture. It’s hard to read the outdated terms ‘third world country’ and ‘mulatto’ in 2022. The influence of Jamaican patois crossed with Moore’s MBA business-speak holds us at a distinct emotional distance. If we are dedicated to equality for marginalized people, authentic voices are crucial reading. Though Untamed Passions is disquieting, it adds insight to the mountains left to climb.

Thank you to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Readers Copy of this title. Untamed Passions of an Enigmatic Jamaican Man launches 1 June 2022.

This review appeared first on Reedsy.com

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Send Her Back and Other Stories

By Munashe Kaseke

Reviewed, 13 May 2022

With her superb collection of short stories, Munashe Kaseke leaves a lasting impression. Topical and insightful, Send Her Back and Other Stories attacks race and gender stereotypes with grace and resonance. Bound to top lists of recommended diversity reads, we’re mistaken if we think Send Her Back is for an exclusive audience. In its hard-hitting stories, Kaseke creates glimpses of her protagonists’ secret lives. In her Author’s Note, she tells us she hopes we “feel seen” in her work. She is reaching out through stories of love and optimism; her only mission is to connect.

These pages barely contain their characters. They hold strong Zimbabwean women, led by their education to every corner of the United States. Whether they are braving northern blizzards or stuffy boardrooms, they survive on their determination and quick wits. New immigrants and first-generation Americans bring life into focus. Through their eyes, we see ourselves again for the first time.

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If microaggressions are hard for Americans to identify, Send Her Back gives an accessible look into the mechanics. Kaseke’s stories point out foibles, pitfalls, and thoughtlessness for what it is, while giving due credit to Civil Rights Era achievements. Her Zimbabwean characters earn PhDs, rise to the top of their fields, and outsmart their rivals. Others support themselves with vigorous studies and endless work, wiring their small paychecks to far-away families who always need more. But these fierce spirits rarely break in the fight. Kaseke gives us heroes who change our hearts, entreating everyone to act with respect and care.

In the fracas of Twitter politics, hearing any voice clearly is a challenge. Trading on emotionalism and indignation, the news circuit perpetuates itself, drowning out many who have important stories to tell. Kaseke is among the authors and thinkers of our time who bring clarity. Her lead characters show us what the media misses, even when it seeks own voices. With stories that see so much in so many of us, Send Her Back holds its own against the noise.

Thanks to NetGalley for an Advance Readers Copy of this title. Send Her Back and Other Stories launches 25 July 2022. Read it, share it, post on social media.

This review appeared first on NetGalley.

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Before I Was a Writer

10 May 2022

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Many writers spend years dreaming of when they’ll quit their day jobs to write full time. Millions of us around the world spend our spare hours at the keyboard, blogging, journaling, drafting, and redrafting. Few of us can sell enough writing soon enough to avoid the dreaded “regular job.” I worked as a cashier, a cocktail server, and later, a bookseller. When we’re working, we write whenever we can, between shifts, on cigarette breaks, in our heads as we navigate the days. Day jobs can be obstacles. Or, they may give unexpected raw material for memorable stories.

Keep reading for a list of writing heroes who started out dreaming, too. Some hated every minute, while others found a goldmine of inspiration. If your favorite author isn’t on the list, share their inspiring origin story below in the comments section.

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Agatha Christie

In 1917, Christie became an apothecary’s assistant for an annual wage of £16, roughly £800 ($1000 USD) today. Her pharmaceutical knowledge figures in many of her novels, including in 1920, Hercule Poirot’s Mysterious Affair At Styles.

Robert Frost

Frost dropped out of Dartmouth College after just two months, returning home to Lawrence, Massachusetts. He worked as a teacher and classroom assistant and sold his first poem, “My Butterfly: An Elegy,” in 1894 during a stint at a light-bulb filament factory.

James Joyce

Joyce paid the bills as a singer and a pianist after abandoning his medical degree. Later, he taught English in Croatia and Italy before returning to Ireland to open Dublin’s first cinema, The Volta.

Franz Kafka

For nine months, Kafka worked for an insurance firm but left when long hours — 8am to 6pm—interfered with his writing. In 1911, he co-founded an asbestos factory.

Harper Lee

Lee worked as a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines for years before receiving a gift from friends with the note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” That year, she produced the early drafts of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Hilary Mantel

Mantel earned a Bachelor of Jurisprudence degree, then became a social worker in a geriatric hospital and later worked in a department store before turning to writing full time.

Haruki Murakami

After working in a record store during college, Murakami and his wife opened Tokyo coffeehouse/jazz bar, the Peter Cat.

Vladimir Nabokov

At Wellesley College, and later Harvard, Nabokov curated the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He wrote many nonfiction books on butterflies and moths, visiting the country every summer to collect new specimens.

JD Salinger

In 1941, Salinger was an activities director aboard the luxury Caribbean cruise liner, MS Kungsholm. Slight Rebellion Off Madison, a short story written then, went to press in 1946. The story’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, launched Salinger into his iconic novel, Catcher in the Rye.

Kurt Vonnegut

For a short time, Kurt Vonnegut worked as a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He later found work in the PR department at GE and in 1957, opened a Saab dealership. By 1963, the year Cat’s Cradle became a bestseller, he was teaching English at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.

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Now that you’ve had a few hints, try this quiz from AirshipDaily.com on the unusual day jobs of famous writers.

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The Bizarre Day Jobs Of 20 Famous Authors by Paul Anthony Jones HuffPost, Updated 6 December 2017

The Early Jobs of 24 Famous Writers by Adrienne Crezo Mental Floss, 26 June 2012

In the Marble Maze: A Widower’s Memoir

By Olafur Gundnason

Release date, 3 June 2022

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Icelandic literary tradition stretches back a thousand years and more. Its sagas of love, loss, and endurance are a unique contribution to the world’s literary heritage. They contain myths and legends, family histories and genealogies. Gudnason’s memoir echoes these ancient forms, building his lost wife, Engilbjort’s modern legend. Iceland’s current writers and artists record present-day sagas of triumph and tragedy with lyrics and lines of poetry aimed straight at the heart. The author draws on these as he shares his love story.

In the Marble Maze stays grounded through painful moments, bringing us inside Intensive Care units, guest houses, and the empty home to which the author returns without his beloved Engilbjort. Descriptions of complicated treatments and emergency surgeries don’t make for light reading, but Gudnason makes us members of Engilbjort’s circle. We are among those pulling for her as she fights for her life. The Facebook chat messages which could become myopic and exclusive are, instead, a warm way to touch our hearts in shared human grief.

“I don’t recall

experiencing denial

or anger, nor having

attempted to bargain

my way out of

my loss,”

Olafur Gudnason

Gudnason wants to remember. Counselling and books on living with grief are a comfort, but he is honest when the advice doesn’t resonate. “I don’t recall experiencing denial or anger, nor having attempted to bargain my way out of my loss,” he writes in response to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet, in optimistic Facebook posts, he denies that a stopped heart is the end of the line. Each risky surgery and private prayer for Engilbjort’s survival is a bargaining. The botched arrangements for the return of her remains provoke an anger Gudnason knows is out of character. As a grieving husband, he faces the sadness and acceptance of laying a loved one to rest.

In the Marble Maze is one of many memorials Gudnason creates for Engilbjort. As he sorts through relics, photos, and clothing, he takes time to remember. With songs and poetry from Iceland and around the world, he tells their story. He emphasizes family and community while giving it the gravity and timelessness of the greatest ancient sagas.

Thank you to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. In the Marble Maze launches on 3 June 2022. This review appeared first on Reedsy.com.

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The Complementary Arts

4 May 2022

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There are many reasons a writer takes a break. Overwhelming obligations, jumbled thoughts, headaches, and crying babies. The neighbor mowing his lawn and the phone lighting up with scam calls. The vast empty page and the impossible task of stringing words across the white abyss. Did I just call a blank page the ‘white abyss?’ Break time, please.

Some authors claim that writer’s block is a myth; they’ve heard of it, but never had it. Warren Ellis [comic book writer, Transmetropolitan] asserts, “when a writer cannot write… Then that person isn’t a writer anymore.” If I ask my six-year-old, he’ll agree. What do you call a writer who isn’t writing? Just a regular person.

“Writer’s block is a

fancy term made up

by whiners so they

can have an excuse

to drink alcohol.”

― Steve Martin

As a regular person, I once had a case of writer’s block that lasted twenty years. It started when my diary was read by immigration officials during an ill-fated (read: poorly planned) move to the UK. A quiz on my romantic daydreams and amateur poetry, as interpreted by a dour airport bureaucrat, sliced away the uninhibited part of me that could pour thoughts onto the page. Now every word was subject to review by outsiders. The diary wasn’t a safe place anymore.

When I married, set up housekeeping, and fell into a thankless low-level job, I stopped writing except in fits and starts. I destroyed the stories I wrote with relentless editing. “Ms. Immigration might read this,” I thought as I snipped out dialogue, details, emotions, and revelations. I tried poetry, letter writing, and Bridget Jones-inspired journaling, but always lost steam. Writer’s block was winning. That’s when I discovered the complementary arts.

“If you get stuck, get

away from your desk.

Take a walk, take a bath,

go to sleep,make a pie,

draw, listen to ­music,

meditate, exercise;

whatever you do, don’t

just stick there scowling

at the problem.”
― Hilary Mantel

I improved my meager cooking skills, sketched illustrations for a picture book, and threw myself into meticulous housework. At the store, I skipped the bakery aisle, making bread and cakes from scratch instead. I taught myself knitting, making sweaters, gifts, and baby clothes for charity. I confined my writing to thoughts, dashed off on scraps of paper during lonely shifts at work, tossed into the trash on my way out the door. Instead of writing stories, I told them in my head, imagining the kings I was cooking dinner for, a child smiling at my drawings, and the babies in Afghanistan wearing my little green jumpers. I built virtual cities in video game simulators, inventing a family for each house, an owner for every shop. Writing, writing, writing, in my head while cultivating the complementary arts of daily life.

“Housework won’t kill

you, but then again,

why take the chance?”

― Phyllis Diller

Now, I’m rarely in the mood for a break from writing. After years spent on hiatus, I have no more time to waste. When my keyboard yawns in boredom and my thoughts scatter, I’m furious. The process is too slow. The house is too noisy. I am too lazy to pull it together and work. Forget knitting and cooking and container gardening. Housework? For the birds. Where are the words I need? Why is it so hard to do my dream?

Though I don’t want them, I return to the complementary arts again and again. Kids’ science projects, doing the laundry, and restorative naps. Drawing treasure maps, spot-cleaning the bathroom, and following my favorite baseball team. My sanity demands it. Imagine an office job without weekends. Look at the quality of life for people who work seven days a week. They are exhausted. And they probably drink too much. They need time for the complementary arts.

“Writing about a writer’s

block is better than not

writing at all.”
― Charles Bukowski,

The Last Night of the

Earth Poems

For writers, writing is essential to life. We have an urge to “write through it,” to shrug off writer’s block, and force inspiration to arrive on demand. Stress levels rise, frustration creates tension, and every word is more grudging than the last. We blame ourselves and wonder whether we are still writers. When chattering birds nest outside your window or a cat’s meow derails the morning’s work, the relief of the complementary arts can save the day. A home-cooked lunch and a nap in the afternoon, a digital collage of the clutter in your head, or singing your favorite song loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Clear your thoughts with your complementary arts and tell the world you’ve never had writer’s block.

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May Reads

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
― C.S. Lewis

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

A young man lives from the 16th century to the 20th, contained by a house as big as a village and transformed by time. With the feel of a great gothic novel, Orlando is among Woolf’s last works. It is accomplished, flawless, and deeply moving.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

A medieval mystery memorably adapted to film in 1986, Eco’s novel immerses readers in history while tantalizing them with the search for clues to identify a monastic murderer. Tense and sometimes spicy, The Name of the Rose leaves a lasting impression.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

An exclusive college campus is the setting for The Secret History, where a dark drama unfolds. We are ushered in by a young student on scholarship, adapting to a place where privilege is taken for granted. As he is drawn into events he never planned for, tensions rise in a pitch perfect novel by a gifted writer.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

When’s the last time you had this much fun reading a book? The movie franchise has milked it dry but whether you loved or hated the films, the novel that started it all is as fresh as ever. Read it on the beach or relaxing in the tub. Guaranteed to make you smile.

Children’s Shelf

Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, illustrated by Marc Simont

Nate is a consummate professional private detective, taking cases for the kids in his neighborhood. In the first installment of this charming series, the 10-year-old sleuth searches high and low until he finds a lost picture for the little girl down the street. Nothing can distract him from solving the case. Except maybe a stack of fresh, hot pancakes. Recipe included.

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Vigil Harbor

by Julia Glass

Reviewed, 22 April 2022

National Book Award winner Julia Glass gives us her seventh novel, Vigil Harbor, set in the near future on the New England coast. On a Massachusetts peninsula, the town of Vigil Harbor is steeped in history while besieged by a tumultuous world. Political turmoil, terrorist violence, and inundation by rising seas make Vigil Harbor an isolated outpost, slow to adapt, too slow for its restless inhabitants. Many leave, most return, and no one ever passes through. Until they do.

Glass imagines the world which will exist when my six-year-old is in his twenties. It’s a place we know well with attitudes we recognize, technology we expect to be using, food and fuel prices forcing changes we know we should make now. But what has happened in the interim? That’s the question. Lost time. Gaps in our history, actions delayed, mysteries hidden and never resolved. As readers, we know in our bones what must have happened. The Harborites’ stories let us put the pieces together. But we’ll never know the entire story until we’ve lived it.

Vigil Harbor can’t be

pigeon-holed as an

environmentalist wake-

up call any more than

we can label it a dirge

for 21st century politics

gone wrong.

Vigil Harbor can’t be pigeon-holed as an environmentalist wake-up call any more than we can label it a dirge for 21st century politics gone wrong. Readers (alongside the Harborites) may be unnerved by the radicalization of causes they support. With the ocean eroding their beaches and storms lashing their homes, the people of Vigil Harbor have everything to lose in the race against global warming. But the way of life they know keeps its hold. There’s more interest in winning races at the Yacht Club. What can challenge entrenched values and rigid social structure?

Uncertainty, fear, faith, and endurance resonate through the pages of Glass’s novel. The story glimmers with the refracted light of folktales born of reverence for deep waters. They are voices speaking to us from the past, reminding us of our symbiosis with nature, and surging through the morass of public debate. Storms devour shorelines just as the daily news cycle eats at our souls, ceaseless and unstoppable as the rising tides. Many characters look too young to know all they know. But, of course, the youngest eyes see most clearly.

Thanks to Net Galley for an Advance Reader’s Copy of Vigil Harbor, pub date, 3 May 2022.

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Editing Software or Not: How Much Comes Down to Mechanics?

11 April 2022

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I often read the work of fellow aspiring writers who need honest opinions. When I read for other writers, my chief priority is looking beyond typographical errors and grammar mistakes, searching instead for themes and content. In early drafts, criticizing technical errors only muddies the waters. Many amateur writers and critics mistake proofreading for feedback, missing the underlying gem of the story.

That being said, mechanics matter. When a writer is seeking publication and representation, technical mistakes are key to separating the wheat from the chaff. A manuscript tarnished by typos, missed words, and formatting errors, doesn’t stack up well. It faces stiff competition from authors who have gone the extra mile polishing their pieces. Those writers submit grammatically flawless stories, judged solely on the merits of their content. For serious consideration, aspiring writers need to meet these standards.

Some are born

(or believe they’re born)

with a gift for good

grammar. Those with that

privilege can stop reading.

Some are born (or believe they’re born) with a gift for good grammar. Those with that privilege can stop reading. For the rest of us, there’s much to consider. In my early stories, I did my best with foggy memories of high school English. With that, I managed two or three acceptances with small (unpaid) online journals. But it left me wondering how to improve my work to catch the eye of more prominent markets. “What am I missing?” I asked myself.

In search of an answer, I discovered an online editing software I could try for free. Curious to see how my most recent story would measure up, I uploaded the first 500 words (the limit allowed by the free version) and waited to see my scores. I expected to make my English teacher very proud. He was crestfallen. A C+? Oh, man. At that moment, a light flickered on.

I’m now a subscriber to the full version of that online editing software and my ratio of acceptances to rejections is steadily climbing. Every piece I write, including multiple drafts of every story, passes through the software before I submit it. I proofread my query letters, blog posts, book reviews, and office emails using software designed to remember every point of grammar, correct diction, and find repeated or missed words. It suggests concise language, calls out unnecessary adverbs, and even finds split infinitives (whatever they are). It makes you the best former student your English teacher ever had. The old rules reemerge; lessons learned long ago become second nature again. My rough drafts achieve higher scores. And I’m confident I’m submitting A+ work.

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Most publishers are hoping to find those diamonds in the rough. They’re looking for content that is unique, insightful, funny, or tragic. They’re looking for our stories. But with limited time and resources, they can’t afford to proofread pieces for us. We must send them our very best work, presented in its best light. It’s the only way to know that whatever reason an editor might give for a rejection (if any), it’s not careless proofreading. You may choose not to use editing software, and nothing works for every writer, but consider your editing process before you decide. Make sure you’re giving your stories their best chance to succeed.

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