Mark Paxson has this thing he does where he tells a story beginning with seemingly-innocuous prompts and making them a starting point to craft wonderful characters. He can use anything for raw material, and from it weave a tapestry full of the most vibrant and memorable figures.

Some of his stories, like those in this collection, are quick sketches in terms of length, but in terms of depth might as well be full-length novels. The characters are deep, well-rounded and developed. In a few words, he shows us a whole world, populated with real people. The simplest way I can say it is, reading Paxson is like experiencing a combination of a John Steinbeck novel and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Some examples include one of my favorite stories in this book, “The Life of a Shoe.” Told from the perspective of, yes, a shoe, it tells a powerful story of growing up, experiencing hardship, and having faith. Or take “The Rosewood,” which gives us a picture of all the residents of an apartment complex, and how their disparate lives intertwine in different ways.

In some of Paxson’s works, there are recurring patterns, like leitmotifs in music. The family dynamic in “What Happens When A Pet Dies” shares a little with that in “Deviation”: two bickering siblings confronting their relationship with themselves and their parents. And the irresponsible protagonist of “Nobody Important” is just about as thoughtless as the protagonist of Paxson’s early novel, One Night in Bridgeport, acting without considering the consequences.

Then there are the stories about war and the people who become caught up in it, like “Memories of Foom” and “Aleppo.” A more satirical take on war is found in “The Last Dance.” There are stories of relationships gone right (“Spaces After The Period”) and gone very wrong. (“Beelzebub & Lucifer”) And then there are the pieces like “An Obituary,” “Coyote,” and “Carnies” that defy categorization.

Interspersed throughout the book are fragments of poetry and flash fiction which are every bit as haunting and moving as the longer stories they serve to season.

Every time I read a collection of Mark’s stories, I’m struck by how versatile and imaginative he is, and this one is no different. If you’ve read his other books, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about it; you’ve probably already picked this one up.

If you haven’t read Paxson before, this is a fine collection to start with. I loved it, and I think anyone who enjoys good fiction will too. Go ye now, and pick it up already!

Oh, ah, that’s right… there is one other story in this collection, isn’t there? One that I didn’t discuss yet. The titular piece. The one about killing a certain author, yes?

I figured that one would grab your eye. It’s on the cover, after all. Perhaps it’s my vanity talking, but I have to assume it got the attention of a few readers.

But, why spoil such a great hook? No, no; if you read my blog, then you simply have to read this book, and this story in particular. What is the story behind the story, you wonder? Never fear, for Paxson will tell, as he does with all the stories. But first you have to read it for yourself, with as few preconceived notions as possible.

So I’ll say nothing about it, except this: it’s perfect. Perfect for what it is and what it was meant to be. Anything more than that is for you to say.

Killing Berthold Gambrel is a must-read.

Do I even need to tell you what this book is about? You can probably tell from the cover. That’s right, it’s about baseball. In particular, a minor league phenom named Joe Carpenter who quickly takes the sport by storm. The scout who discovers Joe, Bud Esterhaus, is a grizzled but likable veteran of the American pastime, who narrates the budding star’s meteoric rise from one league to the next, as the two of them pursue Joe’s ultimate dream of making it to “The Show”.

Of course, Joe has a secret that threatens to derail any hope of playing in the major leagues, and Bud has problems of his own–an ex-wife, an estranged son–that make their journey far from smooth.

I admit, I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. Fortunately, Brennan’s wonderful prose is so finely crafted that knowing anything about the sport is purely optional. The story moves along well, and the characters are interesting and likable. Especially Joe, who I was rooting for from the start.

This book also includes another Brennan staple: long and vividly-described road trips during which characters can explore their pasts. Like Fascination and Eternity Began Tomorrowthis is partially a road trip story, if only because the “here today, gone tomorrow” ethos of the minor leagues requires near-constant travel.

If you love baseball, you’ll love this book. If you don’t love baseball, you’ll still probably love it, simply because Brennan is a fantastic writer who knows how to spin a compelling yarn in any setting.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is the second book in the Dr. Rowena Halley series, the first of which I reviewed here. This one picks up right where the first one left off in following the career of Rowena Arwen Halley, the Russian language Ph.D. struggling to navigate a brutal academic job market as well as her own desire for a relationship. But, her heart is torn between Alex, another struggling post-doc, and Dima, the Russian soldier-turned-journalist who broke up with her and sent her back to the U.S. while he continued reporting on conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Dr. Halley has started a new one-semester teaching position, and from day one, is beset by annoyances, the most prominent of which is Jason, a student in one of her classes who wants to use her to help him fight a custody battle with his estranged Russian wife.

The start of the book is a bit slow, although it does give a good window into the dreary reality of academia. Where it really picks up is with the arrival of Rowena’s brother, Ivanhoe Elladan Halley, the rough-and-tumble Marine Corps officer recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, who comes to visit in the middle of the book. (Disregarding his parents’ decision to name him after Sir Walter Scott and Tolkien characters, he goes by “John” most of the time.)

John is my favorite character in the book. For one thing, his lines are pretty funny, especially his unsolicited blunt advice to his sister and his foul-mouthed contempt for her boyfriends, past and present. But he’s also a more complex character: a veteran who probably has PTSD but masks it with machismo, alcohol, and womanizing. He’s basically a good guy, but he’s been through some bad stuff, and it has taken its toll on him.

I won’t lie, the middle third of the book, in which John appears regularly, is definitely my favorite part. The ending suffers from some of the same issues as the beginning; namely, that it gives a very accurate portrayal of the current state of seeking employment in academia, particularly in the humanities.

There’s one other issue I have with this book. Unlike the first installment, which really was a mystery that needed to be figured out, here, the main conflict isn’t a mystery. The person who is obviously bad ultimately turns out to be… bad. Which is kind of a letdown. It’s not that exciting when at the climax of the story, a character turns out to be exactly who you thought they were.

But that’s okay. This is a character-driven book, more so than the first one was. The interesting thing is less about seeing where it all goes than how it gets there, and how it gets there is pretty interesting. Stark tackles a variety of social and geopolitical issues, from the overproduction of elites in American higher education leading to a glut on the academic job market, to the many ruined lives resulting from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, to the destruction of society at the most fundamental level as a result of people lacking basic virtues.

So, don’t go into it expecting some kind of plot-twist filled mystery. Instead, read it as a commentary on the many deeply-rooted problems in modern society. Read that way, it paints a vivid and memorable picture.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a literary novel about a young woman named Faby who lives in Vermont in the 1920s. Faby is obsessed with vaudeville acts that come to town. Every year, she attends with her sister and relishes watching the different acts.

One performer in particular who catches her eye is a dancer called Slim White, who bills himself as “America’s Favorite Hoofer.” Faby catches his eye as well, and after a quick fling one evening, Faby becomes pregnant. White, whose real name is Louis Kittell, seems willing to do the right thing and marries her, and the newlyweds start off on a trip across the Eastern United States, as Kittell moves from one town to another performing in various shows.

Normally, what I’ll find most memorable about a book is either the plot or the characters. I’ve just described about 80% of the plot, saving one semi-twist near the end, and while it’s certainly fine, it wasn’t what grabbed me.

As for the characters: Faby starts out as a naive girl, barely more than a child, and while it’s easy to feel pity for the situation she finds herself in, she’s a very passive type. Things happen to her, rather than her doing them.

And then we’ve got Louis: he’s basically a con man. A charming con man, to be sure, (think Robert Preston in The Music Man, or Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker) but still ultimately a con man. It quickly becomes clear to Faby that he lies routinely and often for no apparent reason. Given this, many of his later actions are not really surprising. He’s not an absolutely terrible person, and he does in some sense care for Faby, but he’s far from being a good guy, and much of the book is just waiting for the inevitable in that regard.

But even though the characters weren’t the most likable folks in the world, and the plot is straightforward, I recommend this book strongly to fans of literary fiction. There are two reasons: one, the writing is just beautiful. It reminds me of Mark Paxson’s, and his mentor, Zoe Keithley’s, knack for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that really make you feel what the characters are feeling. For that reason alone, this is worth picking up.

The other reason is the setting. The author clearly spent a lot of time researching the culture, the fashions, the technology, and the slang of the 1920s, and it paid off in a big way. And I loved all the references to vaudeville. Louis may be a lying scoundrel, but I can’t deny that his little tidbits about the vaudeville life are enjoyable.

There are numerous references to many then-famous performers, including a brief mention of Elsie Janis. Janis is little-remembered today, but she was known as “The Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Force” for her benefit shows in World War I. (She also hailed from my own stomping grounds of Central Ohio.  I once lived in an apartment built more or less on the site of her Columbus home.)

As you can tell from the above, I love history, and this book is like stepping into a time machine to a bygone era. I’ve read a decent amount of historical fiction, but it’s rare to find something that transports you so completely to another era. That, combined with the wonderful prose, are what make Telling Sonny memorable.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a novel with layers. Superficially, it’s a “chick lit” relationship novel. The narrator, Dr. Sarah Phelan, says as much in the first chapter. This layer is a classic romance of a woman falling in love with a man who at first seems to be Mr. Perfect, but who has hidden Byronic depths.

The difference with this book is, Dr. Phelan is aware of how her story fits into the conventions of the genre, and repeatedly makes meta references to what part of the standard story she’s in, or acknowledges different tropes that she encounters.

And she has more going on in her life than just her relationship with her new beau (name: Dylan Cakebread). She’s still getting over her ex-husband, who has become a published author, and dealing with a long-running feud with her sister Ella. Fortunately, she has the support of her close friend, Jules, whose chatty, gossiping manner made her a treat every time she appeared.

But there’s more to this book than a mere girl-meets-boy light romance. It’s deeper than that, and it doesn’t always hew to the conventions of the genre. In fact, it’s not really a “genre” book at all, though of course at first glance it appears to be. Like other Brennan books I’ve reviewed, it’s not one you can easily pigeonhole.

Also like other Brennan books, it’s full of memorable lines. Like Dr. Phelan’s comments on a certain genre of fiction:

“I think there’s really only one enormous thriller out there now, made up of the hundreds of thousands of them that are published every ten minutes or so, and our job as readers is to somehow knit them all together.”

And then there’s this line from Jules’ husband, Wayne:

“Everything is unsustainable,[…]We’re living in the Apocalypse Years, right? Nobody knows when the shit’s gonna hit the fan, but it’s pretty obvious that it is.”

Occasional Soulmates was published in 2014, and this line reminded me of Brennan’s later novel, Eternity Began Tomorrow, an environmentalist political thriller that painted a picture of the year 2020 almost as insane as the real one.

Like Eternity Began Tomorrow, Occasional Soulmates doesn’t conform to the genre it superficially appears to be. It winds up going in a very different direction than I expected, but I should have known it would. Brennan never falls back on tired clichés, and always strives to surprise his readers.

If you like clever literary fiction that has more to it than meets the eye, this is a good read. Also impressive is how well Brennan writes his female protagonist. As Audrey Driscoll said in her review, “Either Mr. Brennan is a mind-reader or he had really good intel from women. I loved the girly-gossipy tone of the narration, especially the parts where Sarah and her best pal Jules dissect relationships and classify men.”

I couldn’t agree more. Writing female characters when you’re a male is quite tricky, but Brennan manages it beautifully. This is just one more reason why this book is worth your time: Brennan is a master of the craft, and it shows on every page.

[Listen to an audio version of this post below]

This is a collection of three short stories set in Chicago. I’ll be reviewing them in the reverse of the order they appear in the book.

“Annie Doesn’t Mean Any Harm” was my least-favorite story in the book, which is not to say it was bad. On the contrary, it was quite good. Keithley writes beautiful prose and creates characters who stick in your mind long after you close the book.

So, why was this my least-favorite? Simply because it’s so brutal and tragic. As in her novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli, Keithley portrays cruelty upon cruelty. The story deals with a petty tyrant who works as an aide in a senior citizen home, but who badly mistreats those in his care. The story is a terrific character study, but its unrelenting bleakness can be a lot to take.

The middle story in the collection “The Only Thanks I Wanted” is another grim tale that illustrates the old adage “No good deed goes unpunished.” It has a darkly comic undertone to it that resolves in a way that layers irony upon irony.

And this brings me to my favorite story in the collection, “The Second Marriage of Albert Li Wu,” which tells the story of a widower trying to cope with loneliness and haunted by unpleasant memories of his first wife.

This story was my favorite, not because it was written better than the rest, (Keithley’s prose is uniformly excellent in every story.) but because it strikes a bittersweet note, and leaves the reader with a sense of hope. It’s also the longest story, with the most room to develop and get to know the characters.

I’ve been meaning to read this collection for years, ever since Mark Paxson told me about Keithley’s work. I read and reviewed Mother Adelli shortly after. It’s a wonderful novel, but incredibly haunting and emotionally tough to take. I admit, I wanted to wait until I was in the right frame of mind to read this, and reading Mark’s recent novel The Dime, which is dedicated to Keithley, inspired me to do it.

Anyone who loves literary fiction with gorgeous writing, fascinating characters, and a fatalistic, tragic sensibility, should read this collection.

Mark Paxson has often said that he writes in order to see things from other perspectives. The Dime is a great example of this. There are three main characters: Sophie, a teenage girl, now in a wheelchair after the car crash that killed her parents; Lily, her sister, who has been her guardian since turning 18, and Pete, a boy Sophie’s age with a violent alcoholic father and a distant, uncaring mother.

The three are brought together by a chance encounter between Pete and Lily at the Five & Dime where the latter works. Together, they are forced to navigate their difficult circumstances, and confront a lot of personal trauma and pain.

The book is told from the perspectives of all three, supplemented by the voices of secondary characters, such as Pete’s mother, the owner of the Five & Dime, a boyfriend of Lily’s, etc. The book is great at showing multiple people’s perspectives. Often, characters I initially disliked became more understandable once I heard their side of it. Not always likable, but at the very least, pitiable.

This book combines many of the features of Mark’s previous works: the almost poetic character study found in The Irrepairable Past with the many different perspectives and people woven throughout his short stories collected in Shady Acres and The Marfa Lights. Elements of both are in The Dime. It’s a focused portrait of specific characters and also a portrayal of a whole world.

If you like the idea of getting in somebody else’s shoes and walking around a bit, of seeing the world through new eyes, then The Dime is a good book for you. It’s a powerful, emotional, and ultimately uplifting story, told with empathy and thoughtfulness.

One other thing: the book is dedicated to a writer named Zoe Keithley. I’ve only read one of Keithley’s books so far, but it haunts me still, as one of the most emotionally powerful books I’ve ever read. Two of the most memorable pieces of imagery used in The Dime were inspired by her literary techniques, and I can definitely see it, because they have a way of staying with you long after you close the book.

But I won’t say what they are! The Dime is more driven by characters than plot, it’s true; but even so, I wouldn’t want to give away too much about it. You must meet Sophie, Lily, Pete, and the rest for yourself. Inhabit their world; get to know them a bit. What is the point of books, after all, if not to learn to connect with other people?

“Aamrgan?” you say. “What kind of title is that?” Well, it’s an anagram of anagram. Nifty concept, isn’t it? It’s a good brain-teaser that sets the stage for what’s to come.

Aamrgan is a short book, but it contains huge ideas. It was originally going to be a novel, until the author began contemplating the backward time travel paradox, and so instead wrote this short but fascinating work of metaphysical puzzles.

When I was in college I took a class in logic offered by the Philosophy department. I did okay in the class, but I always felt like there was something about it that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. Maybe my mind isn’t great at grasping abstract concepts. I got the same vibe reading this–like I was stretching my mental muscles in a way they weren’t used to moving. 

Don’t be fooled; while the book is 34 pages long, it’ll keep you thinking about it for way longer than it takes to read it. It’s different; it makes you think about things you may have taken for granted in entirely new ways. It’s a good book to start off the year, too; what better way to start a new year than with a new perspective?

This is a collection of short speculative fiction stories that deal with complex concepts–the existence of God, the nature of reality, human relationships–as approached by everyday people. Goats has a knack for writing characters who are instantly relatable. Although this is in many ways a stylistic departure from his earlier books, which are primarily comic novels and crime thrillers, the thing they all have in common is the intelligent and humane voice of the narrator.

Even in “Snowlight,” which is one of my favorite short stories ever, and is probably the darkest one in the collection, the protagonist has a basic decency and pathos to him that makes the reader sympathetic, even when he does something that is objectively quite shocking. The characters always feel like humans–even when they’re not. There is a religious robot in one story, and a man who thinks everybody is a robot in another. Philosophy and humor are mixed frequently; as in the case of Zetoxis the philosopher, of whom it is said, “the wise man and the fool reside in the same body.”

Many of the stories suggest a moral or logical question for the reader to ponder. Some of them just let you look at the world in a different way through revolutionary technology, as in “Sentenced to Hard Empathy,” or “The Big Punch-Out,” the latter of which creates a dystopian world reminiscent of the imaginings of early 20th-century futurists. Sometimes this is blended with satire, most notably in “The Obscurators.”

The longest stories, “Alone” and “Fact of Existence” present concepts that could fill whole novels. “Alone” reminded me of John Brunner’s novel Total Eclipse with its depiction of being stranded on a desolate alien world. “Fact of Existence” is a fascinating exploration of consciousness and religion, in the context of a science-fiction mystery. This is everything that science fiction should be–a great story that gives the reader something to ponder. The whole collection is like that, as Goats riffs on the same themes from a variety of different perspectives.

The only problem I have with this book is a purely technical one specific to the Kindle version. It has no table of contents. That’s not a big deal in a novel or novella, but in an ebook of short stories, it’s a hassle to have to scroll through it to find the one you want. As a workaround, I bookmarked the start of each story. Yes, I’m lazy. What can I say?

Still, it’s a small price for being able to read these stories. And we are lucky to be able to read them, for as Goats explains in his afterword, all but “The Big Punch-Out” were rejected for publication. This lack of taste on the part of literary website editors is to our advantage, as these tales might have ended up scattered behind a Balkanized array of paywalls. But you can get them all, now, for $0.99. (Or if you don’t want to deal with the ToC issue alluded to above, it’s worth it to spring for the paperback version.)

I highly recommend this book. I could go on about all the reasons why, but it’s really best if you just go check it out and lose yourself in a world of madmen, robots, wanderers and philosophers, all with different ways of looking at the universe and its mysteries.

Joke's on MeThis is a literary novel about a woman named Francine “Frankie” Goldberg returning home to Woodstock, NY after a stalled career as a stand-up comic and agent for a Hollywood actress. Returning to her family’s Bed & Breakfast, now operated by her older sister Judith (“Jude”), Frankie finds herself confronting a number of unresolved issues from her past.

The sisters’ mother, Sylvia, is in an assisted living facility after suffering a stroke. Jude’s son Ethan is an aspiring film director who seeks advice from his aunt Frankie. And Frankie’s teenage crush, Joey Mazzarella, a former MLB player and now minor-league coach, is on the market again, having been divorced from his wife and Frankie’s former rival, Linda Lamb.

Frankie and Jude try to work together to keep the place operating, with Jude having transformed it into a sort of New Age retreat, offering yoga and meditation for the guests. The sisters clash, reconcile, and clash again over all sorts of things–none more so than Jude’s disapproval of Frankie’s increasingly serious relationship with Joey.

The story is narrated in the first-person by Frankie, and she is instantly believable as a former stand-up comedian. Every page is filled with witty, often self-deprecating turns of phrase that make even the most mundane descriptions of everyday life a treat to read about. This isn’t a thriller or typical “page-turner” type of a novel; it’s purely a slice-of-life kind of thing–and yet I kept reading it, chapter after chapter, almost compulsively, until I finished. It’s that well-written.

Every character in the book feels real, even the minor ones. In fact, even one we never actually meet, named “Nunzio,” feels real. I won’t spoil who he is or why we don’t meet him, but you’ll see what I mean.

This book does what I think is the hallmark of all good literary fiction: it lets you see the world through somebody else’s eyes. At first glance, one might not think that I–a midwestern bumpkin and only-child who finds baseball boring–would be a good audience for a story about a comedian returning to New York from Hollywood, who loves baseball and who struggles to figure out her relationship with her sister. But I enjoyed this book immensely. Part of Frankie’s journey involves finding universal truths through humor, and this book does just that.

The Joke’s on Me reminded me of some other high-quality literary fiction I’ve reviewed on here–so if you read and enjoyed Kevin Brennan’s Fascination, Britt Skrabanek’s Nola Fran Evie or any of Mark Paxson’s short stories, check this one out.