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.

Calmer GirlsThis is a Young Adult novel, which is not a genre I typically read. It’s probably unfair of me, but I have a stereotype in my mind of what a YA novel is, and generally speaking, they aren’t something that interests me. But this one was recommended by the great Carrie Rubin, and so I gave it a try. And I was pleasantly surprised, because whatever expectations I–rightly or wrongly–have of YA novels, this one easily surpassed them.

Part of it, perhaps, is that I have this idea in my mind of YA books being narrated in a snarky, sarcastic tone. There’s none of that in Calmer Girls–our protagonist, 16 year-old Samantha Cross, is sincere and good-hearted. All her emotions seem genuine, whether in her frequent feuds with her older sister Veronica, her love for the handsome Ben Swift, or her misery at her parents’ recent divorce and her mother’s worsening alcoholism.

A word about the divorce: one thing I liked about this book was its sensitive portrayal of how badly divorce affects the children of the split couple. The constant tension and psychological trauma it inflicts on both Samantha and Veronica is a powerful illustration of the painful consequences.

The main plot of the book is Samantha and Veronica vying for Ben’s affection. Veronica is a gregarious, extroverted young woman, used to attracting the attention of any boy she wants, and is distraught when Ben prefers her shy, younger, bookish sister.

But while he at first seems to be an ideal boyfriend, Ben is tormented by emotional scars left by his own parents. Ben and Samantha soon find themselves retreating into their love for one another, in a sweet–if decidedly not rational or mature–way, characteristic of young people leaving childhood behind, but not yet truly adults.

The prose is rich and evocative. The book reminded me of Mark Paxson’s The Irrepairable Past. That might seem like an unlikely comparison, since that novella is the story of an older man reflecting on his past, and Calmer Girls is the story of a young girl just starting out, but both books evoke a rich feeling of the melancholic beauty found in everyday life.

A running theme in the book is Samantha reading Brontë novels, and many of the chapters begin with quotes from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. There’s also one scene in particular where Samantha draws a comparison to the former. I liked this a lot–it was a nice touch, without ever feeling forced or overused.

Perry did such a good job recreating what the world feels like to a teenager, it actually made me reflect back on my own teenage years. I suspect anyone reading the book will recognize a little of their own past in it. Personally, it made me think back with both nostalgia and regret to those long summer days when, having no actual responsibilities or obligations, I could nevertheless set myself to worrying obsessively about ephemeral things like whether my crushes even knew I existed. Ah, how the youthful brain makes trouble even where none exists!

The story is set in 1993, and is tinged throughout with period pop culture references, that only add to the book’s nostalgia value. Which brings to me to another point: the slang in this book is very different than what I’m used to. I’m not sure how much of this is the time period, and how much is the setting–Newfoundland, Canada–but either way, it was quite interesting. Samantha, Veronica, and their friends use a number of novel expressions which I had not seen before, which made the story that much more vibrant and authentic.

I ended up enjoying Calmer Girls far more than I expected. Don’t let any preconceived notions about YA fiction fool you–this is a fantastic read for anyone who enjoys solid literary fiction.

HyperlinkThis book

This book…

I mean to say, folks: this book!

Sorry, I’m having a bit of trouble getting started. Where exactly to begin is not obvious here. Normally I give a book’s genre, and then maybe an outline of the plot.

What genre is Hyperlink from Hell? I have no idea.

The story begins with a psychiatrist named Dr. Stapledon being given a manuscript to read, care of Dr. Albert Montclair, the former director of “The Haven”– the mental institution where she works. Montclair is now himself a patient, and the manuscript is by James “Jimmie” Canning, a now-missing former patient of Montclair’s.

Jimmie was a reality TV star with good looks, a photographic memory, and attention-deficit disorder. He is also believed to be the only patient ever to have escaped The Haven.

The only way of understanding what afflicts Dr. Montclair, he tells Dr. Stapledon, is to read Jimmie’s manuscript. “To get to me,” he tells her, “you must go through him.” Desperate to help her former mentor, Dr. Stapledon begins to read.

This book-within-the-book is indescribable. A surreal, impossible tale that begins with Jimmie’s apparent death at the hands of kidnappers, and his return to Earth as a ghostly presence, along with the kidnappers, with whom he embarks on a quest to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, Jenny.

If that sounds weird, just wait. What follows is a madcap chase to track down Rick, the man who has stolen Jenny away from Jimmie. But that hardly does it justice. There are wacky dream sequences and mile-a-minute references to characters from famous old television shows (Referenced with amusing variations on the names: “Logan’s Heroes,” “Battleship Galaxtica,” “Milligan’s Island,” and so on.) 

Have you ever been sick with a fever, done nothing but sit around watching TV, and then fallen asleep? This is like the dreams you have when that happens. 

There are also tons of puns, sex humor, bathroom humor, and recurring conversations with “Al”—a godlike presence who toys with Jimmie and his friends while simultaneously aiding them on their quest. Oh, and there’s also an invisible, smelly dog named Louie.

Lowbrow, crude humor rarely amuses me. Jokes relating to bodily functions are usually just stupid, in my opinion. But it works for me here. It’s a mixture of crude and sophisticated comedy, similar to Monty Python. That makes it… ah, well I hate to say “palatable,” but you see what I mean.

This book is very funny. But I would not classify it as a comedy; not at all. Jimmie’s manuscript might be a comedy—a very dark, absurd, existential comedy—but remember, it’s just the book-within-the-book. Dr. Stapledon’s experience of what for lack of a better term I’ll call the “real world” is the other part of the story. And it’s not a comedy at all.

Don’t let the cover or the fact that it has tons of humor fool you: this book is not light. It goes from weird to unsettling to downright disturbing—all the more so because the darkest elements are referenced subtly at first, almost in passing, gradually setting up the conclusion when we finally learn what went down at The Haven.

I have trouble with stories that involve violence against women, children, or animals. All three are referenced in this book. Not too graphically, or for extended periods, mind you, but when these and other grim things enter the narrative, they hit you right in the gut.

Okay, so this has violence and crude humor and an incredibly confusing plot. Anything else that might alienate readers? Actually, yes: thematically, the book addresses religion frequently—it might even be the core of the story. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-religion. In fact, it might even be pro-religion, in the sense that it’s pro-faith. But nevertheless, the way the “God” figure is portrayed and certain religious motifs are used might be a turn-off to religious readers.

Oh, and of course there’s swearing. Did I even need to mention that?

Normally, this is where I say something like, “fans of [x] will like this.” I can’t say that here, because I honestly have no idea what other books to compare this to. Other reviews compare it to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, but having not read them, I don’t know how or in what way this book may be similar. The only remotely comparable book I’ve read is Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolf. It was a hilarious fantasy with religious themes as well, but what makes Hyperlink different is the frenzied, sometimes almost physically exhausting pace of its weirdness.  

The closest analogue I could think of was not a book at all, but a video game: Spec Ops: The Line. I realize that sounds bizarre—how can I compare this humorous mystery novel to a military action game? Well, that’s just it: neither Spec Ops nor Hyperlink from Hell are really what they seem to be. Just as Spec Ops surprises the player by revealing that, far from being a standard military shoot-‘em-up, it’s a complex and layered examination of the psychological toll of violence, Hyperlink from Hell ultimately reveals itself to be not simply a madcap comic adventure, but a meditation on grief and coping and God and the nature of reality itself.

This book lives up to its billing as an “in(s)ane mystery” and then some. I’ve read parts of it multiple times, and there are still things that puzzle me. I discovered it thanks to Lorinda J. Taylor’s review, which I strongly suggest you read, because she does a better job analyzing certain elements than I did. 

I think everyone should buy this book and give it a try. I say that fully aware that some of you will hate it. I know I sometimes say, “This isn’t for everybody,” but that’s extra-true here. Some of you will be turned off by the crude humor. Some of you will just be like, “What the hell even is this? What does Gambrel see in this thing?” Some will make it all the way to the end and feel a bit angry, just as I did, that things didn’t resolve themselves in the way we would hope they would.

But the thing is, this book is an incredible achievement. I can’t imagine how someone could come up with and execute this idea so perfectly, and yet Moone did it. Creative people owe it to one another to be supportive, and for that reason alone, you should at least give it a try. If it seems too weird for you at first, you should probably stop, because it won’t get less weird. But if you get hooked on the ingenuity of the concept and the witty prose, as I was, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a hidden treasure.

You know how so many forms of entertainment seem to suffer from severe copycat syndrome? That’s because the publishing industry, like many industries, tends to play it very conservative with what they decide to send to the market. Great work is rejected all the time because publishers can’t just ask Is this a good book? but instead have to ask Will it sell enough to make us a profit? And so they’re more likely to only publish books that are similar to other books that have made a profit before.

Indie publishing is changing this, but only to the extent we’re willing to reward people who take big creative risks, and Hyperlink from Hell is about as big of a creative risk as there is. The imagination and effort it must have taken to create this book is simply staggering to contemplate, and the fact that it only has eleven reviews on Amazon (all glowing, you’ll notice) is a tragedy. Yes, it’s a twisted and surreal roller-coaster that not everyone will want to take, and from which no one will emerge emotionally unscathed, but it’s also a literary masterpiece and a daring work of creative genius—yes, I said it—that deserves to be widely read and discussed.

Shady AcresThis is a collection of short stories. If you read Mark’s other collection The Marfa Lights—and you should have, especially since this fellow said to—this will feel like picking up right where you left off.

My mini-reviews of each story:

  • Shady Acres: This story is the longest in the book, and interweaves the life stories of residents and staff at the Shady Acres retirement community. It’s a moving story, with many poignant moments, and some very funny ones as well. The “main” character does something rather dubious early on, but by the end, I felt more sympathy for him. I enjoyed this story, and would happily read more stories in this setting.
  • A Warm Body: A quick sketch of a post-apocalyptic world. I guessed the twist ahead of time, but that’s probably because I’ve played many a post-apocalypse role-playing game. It’s a quick glimpse into a grim, brutal world. Made me think a little of Harlan Ellison.
  • Gramps’s Stereo: In the afterword, Mark explains that this story was partly inspired by the film Gran Torino. That’s one of my favorite films, so maybe that’s why I liked this one so much.
  • Jeopardy: A young man returns home to his bickering parents with some surprising news. Now, here again, I guessed what the twist would be; but the story isn’t really about the twist as much as it is about the atmosphere and setting the scene. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that I could have most easily identified as the work of the same author who penned The Irrepairable Past. The tone feels very similar to me.
  • Forever: Now this one is peculiar. As explained in the afterword, it strikes many readers, including me, in a very different way than the author intended. Not to give too much away, but the protagonist’s behavior can be interpreted in a number of ways. And here’s the weird part: I was happy that the story turned out differently than I expected it to, even though it might seem more of a “conventional” ending. In other words, I was surprised by how unsurprising it was, if that makes sense. 
  • Getting Through the Night: This story is about a man caring for his young daughter after a car accident leaves her on life support. I admit, I kind of hurried through this one.  It was just too grim for me, but that’s not a criticism of the writing, which is quite good, of course. And the backstory of how Mark came up with the idea is really interesting. So it’s not that it’s a bad story; it was just…. too dark for my tastes. Your mileage may vary.
  • My First True Love: Probably the most relatable story in the whole collection—I think everybody probably has a story kind of like this one in their past. There’s a character in it named Luilu, which made me think of Leeloo from The Fifth Element, even though there’s really no connection otherwise—but still, aren’t those just fun names to say?
  • Sunbaked Sand: I view this story almost as a kind of companion piece to “Jeopardy,” but with this one, I totally did not see the “twist” coming. (By the way, calling these “twists” kind of cheapens it—it’s more like revelations about people that make us see them differently. I’m using “twist” as shorthand here.) In any case, this story is really good. It only has two characters who are in conflict for most of it, and at the end, you feel a ton of sympathy for both of them. 
  • He Slept: This story epitomizes what I consider Mark’s signature talent, which is his ability to take a minor incident from life; the sort of thing that 99 out of 100 people would scarcely think about, and expand upon it to tell a compelling story. (To be fair, “Getting Through the Night” also does this, but if I were introducing somebody to Mark’s work, I’d recommend this one.)
  • Tentacles: A haunting depiction of how abusive behavior can ruin many lives. It’s dark, it’s powerful, and it has this other sort of weird, unexplained thing going on in the background that gives it a very unique vibe. Probably my second-favorite story in the collection.
  • Who Is Maureen Nesbitt?: I think this is the shortest story in the collection, which makes it ironic that it will be the one I write the most words about. Part of it is that it’s a big departure from Mark’s typical style of melancholic literary fiction. This one is sci-fi. And it’s funny. It takes place in a world where there are things called “Information Zones” or “izzies,” which are essentially artificial intelligences that have access to all the information on the internet—and then some. And the izzies have developed personalities of their own. They’re almost like mischievous ghosts. I’m not sure exactly when Mark wrote this, but I’m pretty sure it was before the rise of things like Siri and Alexa. Yes, this story is short, but I absolutely loved it. I want to read more stories set in this world—there’s so much potential in this concept. This is one of those that you read and just shake your head and go, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.”

All in all, this is a fine collection, with plenty of variety. Every story has its own unique “flavor,” and the notes at the end where Mark discusses the story-behind-the-story are quite interesting in themselves. Studying the way he draws inspiration from the most seemingly-insignificant things is a great technique for writers to cultivate. Give Shady Acres a try. 

EBTI have seriously dialed back the politics on this blog. New readers might not realize that at one time, this blog was almost purely political. But I said good-bye to all that when I realized that (a) I wasn’t changing any minds, (b) book reviews are way more popular and (c) way more fun to write. 

Today’s post, though, is going to be something of a throwback to an earlier era in the history of A Ruined Chapel by Moonlight, even though it’s a book review. Because there is no way to talk about Kevin Brennan’s novel Eternity Began Tomorrow without talking about politics. Long-time readers will recognize some of the old standbys. Maybe, if you hold up your lighters and chant, I’ll even do charisma-is-making-political-discourse-superficial. We’ll see.

But first, let me introduce EBT’s protagonist, Molly “Blazes” Bolan, a reporter for the up-and-coming San Francisco-based online news magazine Sedan Chair. The book begins with Blazes being sent to cover a rising new cultural phenomenon: a movement known as “Eternity Began Tomorrow,” led by the engaging speaker John Truthing.

Truthing’s core message is a familiar environmentalist one: we’ve got to wake up and save the planet now, before it’s too late. But Truthing is no Al Gore-type who can be mocked as an intellectual snob; he’s more like a rock star, with flash-mob style rallies and adoring followers, most of whom partake of a mysterious new drug—or vitamin, or something—called “Chillax.”

Blazes and her struggling jazz musician brother Rory head to one of Truthing’s gatherings—Blazes for her job, her brother largely for kicks. Soon, Blazes gets her story—and the promise of more in-depth scoops from Truthing if she’ll attend a big event he’s holding at his New Mexico retreat. (Calling it a “compound,” though fitting, feels like it’s leading the witness slightly.) Rory, meanwhile, becomes drawn into Truthing’s movement, though whether he genuinely is moved by the message or is simply using it as a way to meet women is ambiguous.

Blazes’ editor, BB, wants her to dig up all the dirt she can on Truthing—to make Sedan Chair famous as the publication that exposed him for the con artist that it seems he must surely be. Starting with one of Truthing’s old high school flames who reveals his true name, and culminating in a trip to Europe with her German sort-of boyfriend Niels, Blazes digs up quite a lot of troubling information on Truthing, particularly his relationship with the ominously-named Lebensraum Enterprises, the manufacturer of Chillax. 

As Blazes readies her story, Truthing prepares to make a major announcement: that he is going to run for President in the 2020 election. He intends to declare publicly in Sedan Chair, but after his interview with Blazes at his New Mexico goes sideways, his plans change rapidly.

As Blazes tries to unravel the puzzle of Truthing’s rapidly-swelling movement, Rory becomes ever-more deeply drawn into it. At the same time, Blazes’ life is further rocked by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and… well, no; I won’t spoil everything that happens in her personal life. Let’s just say the story builds to a shocking climax, with one stunning twist following another, culminating in an ending that is both as satisfying as the solution of a good mystery novel and as thought-provoking as literary fiction. I have one lingering question, but to discuss it would be too big a spoiler. So I won’t say much more about the ending, except that I kept thinking of a line from the film The Brothers Bloom: “The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets what they want.”

It’s a dark book, in many ways, but, as in his earlier novel Fascination, Brennan has a knack for clever description and witty banter. There are plenty of laughs despite the serious subject matter. Like this marvelous line from Niels (my favorite character, BTW): 

“No, darling. I’m German. We don’t sleep because we have to. We sleep to glimpse the void.”

There’s lots of wit here, even if many of the themes in the book—collapsing relationships, drug addiction, sexual assault, and, in the background, the possible extinction of humanity, are anything but light.

It’s a fast-paced story, as befits a thriller. I blazed (no pun intended) through it, and just when I thought I’d hit The Big Twist, it turned out there were still more coming. It’s a well-written page-turner with philosophical heft, which is truly an impressive feat. Go check it out.

Oh… right. The politics.

Okay, I admit it: as I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, Would a movement like the one John Truthing creates actually work? Could this really happen?

After all, we know that huge political movements can be organized around a charismatic leader. That’s been proven quite thoroughly, I think. But Truthing’s movement is a little different than, say, ultra-nationalism. For one, it concerns everyone on Earth, so it inherently has wider appeal than nationalism does. It’s also effectively a doomsday cult—except for the fact that this doomsday cult really has a lot of evidence for why the end actually might be near.

My gut feeling is that, yes, something like this actually could happen. Brennan got mob psychology pretty much right. Again, I’m veering perilously close to the Zone of the Spoilers, but I think EBT’s treatment of how a popular movement evolves and becomes almost like a new political party would earn the much-coveted approval of Ruined Chapel’s favorite social scientist, Max Weber. (And no, I don’t care that he will have been dead for a hundred years this June, he’s still my go-to authority for most political questions.)

Of course, there is one issue with the book that Brennan had no control over, and Blazes herself acknowledges throughout: that is, after everything that has gone down over the past few years, John Truthing, his fanatical followers, the sinister corporation, etc. don’t feel that extreme or dire. 

I wrote a somewhat-humorous poem about this a few years ago, but it really is true that writing good thrillers is hard these days because it’s tough to come up with something that’s more outlandish than reality. Truth has long been reputed stranger than fiction, but lately, truth has become stranger than a fever dream after watching an Oliver Stone film marathon. 

But that’s not Brennan’s fault. And the direction that he takes the story, especially in the last quarter or so of the book, raise compelling and relevant questions about human psychology—both individual and collective. How far will someone go for a cause? And why do they feel the need to have a cause in the first place?

Eternity Began Tomorrow is a timely, topical thriller that will make you think. I recommend reading it sooner rather than later, since most of the action takes place in late 2019-early 2020.

[UPDATE: It turns out that Eternity Began Tomorrow is free on Kindle today, tomorrow and Sunday, 1/31-2/2, so if my review intrigues you, this is a good chance to check it out.]

mother adelliThis is a dark book, about flawed psyches, crises of faith, and unhappy families. It tells the story of a nun, Mary Agnes Adelli, who teaches at a Catholic boarding school in Illinois. One of the students under her charge is a rebellious girl named Helene, who feels abandoned by her father, a doctor who is traveling in Europe.

Helene repeatedly and flagrantly violates the rules of the school, coming into conflict with other students and Mother Adelli herself. Mother Adelli is soft-hearted by nature, and so is ill-suited to manage the student’s behavior, and given little support from her superiors. 

Problems escalate, ultimately to the level of tragedy, and this brings Mother Adelli to confront her beliefs, as well as unexamined pain from her own troubled childhood. 

The prose is beautiful, with gorgeous descriptions of bleak Midwestern landscapes in what seems to be a world of eternal autumn and winter. The characters struggle with complicated emotions, and for the most part, their inner thoughts are complex and believable. 

Technically, there is almost nothing to complain about with this book. One or two very minor typos (well below the average number for an indie book) and a few times, the POV shifted a bit suddenly, but besides that, it was about as beautifully-written a work of literary fiction as I can imagine.

Now, I know I mentioned it already, but I want to hammer the point home: this book is very gloomy. Not only in subject matter, but in tone, in style, in pretty much every way a book can be. It felt as if events were rigged by the cosmos themselves to maximize anguish for the characters. 

I haven’t read a book like this for a long time, but The Calling of Mother Adelli reminded me of the time I read a bunch of Thomas Hardy novels, one after another. Mother Adelli is like a later Hardy novel—think Tess of the D’Urbervilles or especially Jude the Obscure. Beautiful descriptions of bleak landscapes, characters struggling with trauma, grief, and the expectations family, society, and religion have placed upon them—all the things that make a novel Hardy-esque are here.

And some of the same problems I had with Hardy are present as well: in such a grim atmosphere, it was hard for me to find any character to root for. Adelli is sympathetic, but in a way that made me pity her for the misfortune caused by her lapses in judgment, rather than truly wish for her to “succeed” at anything. Every other character was, to a greater or lesser extent, unlikable in some way.   

To be clear, I wouldn’t say it should have been written differently. I think the point of the book is that all human beings have their flaws, and that sometimes these flaws interact with one another in a way that inevitably produces a violent disaster.  (Reconciling this point with the existence of an omniscient, benevolent Creator is another matter, one which the characters also struggle with in the course of the book.)

This is probably not a book for everyone—it’s not a light read, it’s driven by characters rather than plot, and it touches on a number of controversial issues. I don’t want to give away too much, but let me say that while early on I began to expect the tragedy that ultimately occurs about halfway through, it was still quite disturbing to read.

But with all that said, it is certainly a worthwhile book. I made the comparison to Jude the Obscure for more than one reason, because like that novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli has many elements that make for a classic of literary fiction. The writing is gorgeous, and the author clearly took great pains to craft every scene vividly.

This book was brought to my attention by Mark Paxson. On his blog, he cataloged how he aided Keithley’s efforts to get the book independently published after no publisher would take it. And this is why I recommend that you consider reading it: because this book is clearly the labor of someone who spent a great deal of time honing her skill as a writer—a story we would not have the chance to read, if the decision were left solely to publishing companies.  It may not be for everyone, but better that we each have the choice to decide for ourselves, because it is most definitely for some of us.

41cwxxvN-bL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Nola Fran Evie is a story about four women, each trying to make a difference in the world. The three title characters are all players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, organized in the 1940s. The three starred for the Racine Belles, until the league folded when taken over by businessman Harvey Shaw.

The three women go their separate ways from there, until they meet again at a Cubs game–Nola bringing her baseball-loving son, Fran photographing the action, and Evie as the unhappy wife of the same Harvey Shaw.

From there, their lives intertwine in strange ways, as each tries to cope with life after baseball in her own way, amidst the conventions and prejudices of the 1950s. Nola juggles single motherhood with work, Fran wrestles to control her own fiery emotions, and Evie struggles with her loveless marriage.

All three women’s stories are told through flashbacks, prompted by items found in an old handbag by the fourth woman, Jacks, another baseball lover who discovers them as she is in the process of boxing up her belongings for a trans-Atlantic move.

The different threads blend together well, and each of the main characters is clearly and distinctly drawn, each with a vivid personality that makes them enjoyable and memorable. I especially enjoyed the interactions between Nola and her son.

In the end, all three characters’ stories tie together in a logical and satisfying way. And Jacks, too, finds herself fitting into their tale as well.

This book is more driven by characters than by plot, but the crisp prose and witty dialogue make it all flow smoothly; the story never drags, and the jumps between different time periods are handled well.

I was expecting the book would feature more baseball than it actually does, but after roughly the opening quarter of the novel, the sport becomes secondary–though still important as a way of bringing people together, and as a metaphor. (To be honest, this was kind of a relief to me–I’m not a big fan of the game. But even I could appreciate how well-written the baseball portions were.)

There are memorable lines throughout Nola Fran Evie, and I was consistently impressed by Skrabanek’s skill at memorable descriptions. Even details like clothes and household objects–which I sometimes find myself skimming past in books by big-name authors–are described with wit and care.

This is a charming, well-crafted book with lots of period atmosphere and vivid characters. Nola, Fran and Evie feel like real people, so much so that I suspect different readers will react differently to each one. Fran’s personality really stood out to me–she reminded me of someone I once knew, and Skrabanek explores her psychology so well that I felt as if I understood my old acquaintance better for having read the book. That is a testament to the quality of the writing.

Lovers of feminist literary and historical fiction, take note: Nola Fran Evie deserves your attention.

51DGPn2xuTLI’ve seen the name Kevin Brennan praised for years by many authors I admire. Carrie Rubin, Audrey Driscoll, Phillip McCollum, and after this post by Mark Paxson, I realized I could postpone it no longer: I had to read one of his books. The testimony of the four listed above cannot be ignored.

Fascination lived up to the hype. 

Brennan’s prose is something to behold; I noticed it from page one. It’s witty, elegant, and incredibly easy to read. It has a rhythm to it; almost poetic in its way. Quite honestly, I felt a bit jealous reading it. I wish I could write like this.

The story Brennan tells in Fascination is a strange one, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Sally Speck, née Pavlou, is distraught when her husband Mason apparently commits suicide. She can’t quite bring herself to believe it and, it soon develops, with good reason: Mason hasn’t really committed suicide, but simply faked his death and run away. Sally hires the services of private investigator Clive Bridle to track Mason down, and from there, the two embark on a wild, funny, often sublimely weird road trip through the American southwest.

Along the journey of “self realization and vengeance”—to use a phrase that repeats like a leitmotif throughout—Sally and Clive meet a cast of oddballs with various perspectives on life. From a mystical shaman to more than one cult, their path brings them in contact with all kinds of colorful folks.

I could very easily imagine this being adapted into one of those quirky dramedy road trip movies. Brennan writes so well that I could picture the vignettes clearly, and it makes for a pleasing mind-movie. Granted, I don’t see a lot of quirky dramedies, but I kept thinking of the movie Garden State while reading this book. (In case it’s not clear, that’s a compliment. Garden State is like a cultural touchstone for my generation.)

It all ends up with a very satisfying conclusion. Brennan provides just the right amount of closure, while still leaving some things open-ended and up to the reader to decide. I really liked that. Too many books either leave too much unresolved, or else wrap things up too neatly. Fascination gets the balance just right. 

By the way, you might be asking: what is Fascination? Why is the book named that? The easy answer is that it’s an arcade game Sally likes to play. But I think it’s fair to say there’s more to it than that. “Fascination” is a state of mind, to use an old chestnut.

I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. The last book I read that could be said to be in the same vein as Fascination was Swimming with Bridgeport Girls by Anthony Tambakis. That book was also about a journey to find a former spouse (and also, like Fascination, involved quite a few gambling scenes). I enjoyed Bridgeport Girls a lot, but honestly, I think I liked Fascination more. The ending of the latter, in particular, was much stronger.

Did I have any problems at all with Fascination? Well, one. But it’s such a subjective thing I hesitate to bring it up. It’s also fairly late in the book, but I think I can describe it without spoilers. It’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things, so don’t let it deter you from getting this book, okay? You have to promise me now!

At one point, one of the cultish outfits that Clive and Sally encounter forces them into an uncomfortable situation—nothing violent or illegal, mind, just very awkward. And they do so by pressuring Clive into doing something I felt he wouldn’t do.

Now, as I said part of this is just my personality. I’ve played tons of video games where situations like this arise—a cult or other sinister group railroads the “player” character into doing something. In such games, I inevitably try to fight my way out. If I’m ever in such a situation in real life, I’m going to wind up like Sean Connery at the end of The Man Who Would Be King.

So, that’s probably why Clive’s behavior in that scene didn’t sit right with me. Purely a subjective thing. You should read the book and see whether you agree with me or not. 

One more thing before I wrap this up: Mark Paxson did a three-part interview with Kevin Brennan on his blog around the time Fascination was published. It’s a great, wide-ranging discussion that every indie author ought to check out, but one of the points that they raised was that indie literary fiction rarely gets much attention from readers. And that’s a real shame, because there are gems like Fascination out there. Even I, one who doesn’t read much literary fiction, whether from big names or indie, has read enough to know that Fascination can hold its own against the big name lit fic books that win awards and get talked about by fancy people. The fact that it only has nine reviews on Amazon is really a pity. It deserves to be read by all lovers of good writing.

5159vEi1J5LA couple weeks ago, my friend Mark Paxson (who is a fantastic writer himself, BTW) wrote a post recommending four indie authors. Tammy Robinson was one of them. Mark suggested I start off by reading this book to get a sense of her work.

I figured from the start this might be the furthest outside of my reading comfort zone I’ve ever gone with a book. It begins as a fairly straightforward romance between two young people in New Zealand. Charlie works assisting an old man at a bookshop, Pearl is coming to a beach house, apparently to recover from a painful break-up. The two meet, begin dating, and slowly become a couple. Most of the first half or more of the book is them doing fairly routine things—a well-written account of everyday life.

I want to stop here to say that this something I really admire in other authors, partly because I’m awful at it myself. If you asked me to write a story wholly devoid of any supernatural or science-fiction elements, I’m not sure I could do it. And I know that if I did, it wouldn’t be any good; certainly not in the first twenty drafts or so. So I respect authors who can manage to write about entirely realistic, slice-of-life people and events. (The fact that she uses a lot of interesting New Zealand slang words helps—it’s kind of fun to imagine the characters talking in that voice.)

That said, everyday things, no matter how well described, are, ultimately, everyday things. And just as Charlie and Pearl reach the point where you’re beginning to tire of the humdrum of events, trivial things, and petty little arguments that every couple seems to have, Robinson takes things in a very, very different direction.

I can’t spoil it here. Well, actually I am going to spoil a little, later on, because I feel it’s important to mention something, but i won’t do it yet. First, I want to applaud Robinson for crafting this so well that you become so buried in the minor points of daily life that you want something to happen, and then when it does, you say to yourself “God, if only I’d appreciated how things were before!” I hope that doesn’t spoil too much—but there’s a very powerful message in that, and I’m really impressed by how Robinson married the structure of her plot to its theme.

The book is, to be clear, quite tragic in the end. It’s not a light romance, as the cover might suggest, so be warned about that. I had a feeling going in this would be the case (Mark typically likes darker stuff), so I was to some extent braced for it. I feel bad saying this and risking giving away too much, but I also feel like I need to say something, lest readers go in with the wrong expectations.

I said at the outset that this book was the furthest outside my comfort zone I’d ever gone. And in many ways that’s true. It’s about the nuances of human relationships. My typical fare is sci-fi adventures and cosmic horror—human relationships are usually the last thing on anyone’s minds in those.

And yet… in a way the book ended up following the structure I adore most: the unreliable narrator concept is present here, to a degree, as is the twist that makes the reader reconsider everything that went before. I love the idea that a reader thinks they’re reading one sort of book when really they’re reading another, and they don’t even know it until late in the game. It’s one of the toughest tricks to pull off for an author—maybe the toughest—but Robinson did it. I went back and read parts of it again after finishing it, and the author never cheated, either. There are things in the first half that foreshadow what’s going to happen, but you don’t realize it the first time. It’s really impressive.

Okay, that’s about it. If you’re a tough reader, who can take a really tragic tale, you should go pick this up. If you only like happy endings… well, I do think you’re missing out. For perspective, I prefer happy endings too, or at least bittersweet-leaning-towards sweet ones. (I once wrote something with an ending so dark it shocked even me, and that pretty much cured me of grim endings.) But even I could appreciate the merits of Charlie and Pearl. 

Now… there’s one other thing.

It’s kind of a trigger warning. I feel–perhaps selfishly–like I have to warn sensitive readers about this, but it will spoil the plot. So think very carefully before proceeding.

For the record, the trigger isn’t anything to do with rape or murder or violence or anything like that. There is nothing about racism or cruelty to animals or anything of that sort either. So if you’re worried about those things, don’t. 

Okay, now… last chance to bail before I give some things away.

You asked for this.

Oh! Before we do that—the book does have some typos. Did I mention that? No? Well, there are a handful. But that’s a standard thing with indie books. “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without”, as they say.

Anyway… for real now… unless you are very sensitive about one particular subject, don’t read on.

(more…)