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  1. LitStack Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

    May 15, 2015 by Sharon Browning

    The Girl on the Train

    The Girl on the TrainPaula Hopkins
    Paula Hawkins
    Riverhead Books
    Release Date:  January 13, 2015
    ISBN 978-1-59463-366-9

    Rachel Watson may not have hit rock bottom yet, but she’s pretty darned close.  Her husband Tom divorced her after having an affair and then marrying “the other woman”.  She had started drinking back when she and Tom had tried and failed to start a family; now drinking is a constant part of her life, and it’s often not a pretty thing.  She lost her job after a three hour liquid lunch and an embarrassing drunken harassment of a client.  She’s getting older, she’s getting heavier, she’s disappointed virtually everyone she knows, and yet she just can’t give up the past, she just can’t seem to move on.

    She lives in the second bedroom of a kind-of friend from college, Cathy; it was only supposed to be for a few months, until she got back on her feet after the divorce, but now it’s been two years.  In order to hide her job loss from Cath, Rachel rides the train to and from London every week day:  the 8:04 in the morning, and the 5:56 in the evening.

    Riding the train has become the only dependable thing in Rachel’s life.  She takes comfort in seeing the same faces every day, even if she doesn’t interact with them.  She enjoys seeing the same houses go by (one of them is the house she used to own with Tom; he still lives there, now with the “other woman”, Anna, and their infant daughter).  But her favorite house to watch is the one that is across from the signal light where the train often has to sit for a few minutes before moving on.  It is just up the street from her former home, and in it live a young couple that she has dubbed “Jason” and “Jess”.  In her imagination Jason is a kind, protective doctor helping others in times of need;  blonde, waifish Jess must have been an artist, or in the fashion industry.  In Rachel’s mind, they love each other very much; in fact, she believes that they are the perfect, golden couple.

    While we’re stuck at the red signal, I look for them.  Jess is often out there in the mornings, especially in the summer, drinking her coffee.  Sometimes, when I see her there, I feel as though she sees me, too.  I feel as though she looks right back at me, and I want to wave.  I’m too self-conscious.  I don’t see Jason quite so much, he’s away a lot with work.  But even if they’re not there, I think about what they might be up to.  Maybe this morning they’ve both got the day off and she’s lying in bed while he makes breakfast, or maybe they’ve gone for a run together, because that’s the sort of thing they do.  (Tom and I used to run together on Sundays, me going at slightly above my normal pace, him at about half his, just so we could run side by side.)  Maybe Jess is upstairs in the spare room, painting, or maybe they’re in the shower together, her hands pressed against the tiles, his hands on her hips.

    Then one Friday morning, Rachel sees Jess in her garden but the man with her isn’t Jason.  (“He’s a family friend; he’s her brother or Jason’s brother… He’s a cousin from Australia, staying a couple of weeks; he’s Jason’s oldest friend, best man at their wedding.”)  But then they kiss “long and deep”, and the train pulls away from the light, with Rachel’s world rocked to its core as her carefully crafted illusions start to shatter.  And that’s only the beginning of what is to come, as  the next day, the woman that Rachel has christened Jess disappears.

    The Girl on the Train is a riveting, fast paced psychological thriller that seems simplistic on the surface, but continues to lead the reader down a rabbit hole where nothing can be assumed or taken at face value.  Told from three different viewpoints – Rachel, Megan (aka “Jess”) and Anna (the “other woman”) – insights intersect but never interact, and every time a piece of the puzzle is pushed into place, another level of complexity is revealed.

    While there are no overt red herrings in The Girl on the Train, because we see the story unfold from the eyes of broken, fragmented people, we are only given broken, fragmented information to go on.  At times this can be frustrating (for instance, Rachel constantly promises herself and others that she will stop drinking merely to rationalize her way to a drunken bender a few days – or hours – later, which almost without exception undermines whatever intentions she may have had – you want to just take her by the shoulders and shake her until she realizes how stupid she’s being), but then we realize that this, too, is part of the larger story.  This is human frailty.  This is how life often plays out, not just how its plays out in the pages of a mystery novel.

    And the pacing of the novel is exceptional.  Just when we feel like we’re going in circles, the center starts to unravel and the action accelerates, with some answers clicking into place but others blossoming anew.  The ending of the book is quite amazing because it hits at so many different levels – sometimes at assumptions we didn’t realize we were carrying until they are dispelled.  That, my friends, is mighty fine writing.


  2. Gimbling in the Wabe – A “Wild” Week in the City

    May 15, 2015 by Sharon Browning

    Bald Eagle 2

    Gimbling6

    It’s been a pretty “wild” week in the city.

    No, I’m not talking about civil unrest, political wrangling, professional sporting adulation, haute cultural stimulation or jaded, cynical urban ennui.

    I’m talking critters.

    Earlier this week, a bald eagle flew into the dog park that the Mighty Belle and I frequent during the week, and roosted in a tree there.  A flyover by an eagle or a hawk is not uncommon here in Minneapolis, even in the heart of the city, but having one of these magnificent birds actually land less than 20 feet away is not something you see every day.  Or even every year.

    The majestic raptor sat for about 15 minutes, ignoring the squawks and occasional dive bombing feints by a handful of the local red-wing blackbirds who have claimed shore space along the lake across the street from the park as their territory.  But what I found just as amazing was the fearlessness of a couple of Baltimore orioles who undoubtedly had built a nest nearby.  These robin-sized birds, resplendent in their orange and black plumage, hopped from branch to branch deep in the tree, inches from the huge eagle, berating it with sharp voices and snapping beaks.  The stoic eagle seemed to give them no mind, but after minutes with no let up in the harassment, it spread its mighty wings and launched itself from its resting place, lazily gliding away over the treetops.

    It’s not the first time I’ve stopped to watch charming avian behavior this week.  Last Saturday, Belle and I were Egretromping in another no-leash dog park just south of the city, this one a whopping 25 acres at the city’s edge, complete with wooded areas and a big pond/small lake that dogs are welcome to splash and swim in.  Across the pond a stately white egret was wading with its serpentine neck and long stick legs.  As Belle cavorted in the water with some doggy pals, I watched the egret slowly make its way along the farther shore, occasionally holding as still as a statue then suddenly stabbing the water with its long, sharp  beak.  Sometimes after doing this it would simply shake the water from its head, but a few times it flipped what I assumed was a small frog down its throat.  Success!  Before too long, though, it flew away with a languid flapping of wide wings.  Predators don’t seem to stay in one place for too long.

    Belle and I encountered another critter that morning – a muskrat.  I didn’t notice it at first, but Belle sure did.  The poor thing was backed up against the perimeter chain link fence, its glossy brown furry body bunched up in a defensive posture, its teeth bared against the incursions of a curious dog that meant it no harm – not that it knew that.  Once I got close enough to investigate and saw that the little creature, about the size of a small cat, still had some fight to him, I called Belle off and watched him for a while.  I pitied the poor thing – he obviously had been cornered against the fence earlier, and probably was sick or injured; he had no means of escape and I imagined in the course of the morning a more rambunctious group of dogs would pass by and not be so kind to him.  I wished I had a pair of stout gloves on me so I could pick him up and pitch him over the fence to the relative safety of the meadow beyond the gate so he could die in peace, but I didn’t, so all we could do was walk away and wish that his death would come quick and easy.  Life is hard for creatures in the wild, even a wild as contained and controlled as an urban dog park.

    Further around the pond we found the remains of a good sized turtle.  It had been dead for a while, the flesh of its distended head and legs desiccated but the shell gleamed agate-like in the morning sunshine.  It was on its back – whether it had flipped and been unable to right itself or had been cast up that way after succumbing was impossible to say, but even in death it held a regal beauty.  We left it and walked on.  Well, I walked on; Belle streaked through the trees and snuffed mightily in the undergrowth, enjoying the freedom of exploration without the constraints of a leash.  We came across emerald green lichen glistening in sun, and a fallen tree that’s insides looked like they had tumbled out and spilled next to the woodland path, soft golden cubes of inner bark more beautiful than a sculptor’s skilled hands could ever hope to achieve.  A dusky grey dove flew in and perched on a branch just above my head, cooing softly and adding its delicate wonder to the morning.

    This truly is a wonderful time of year, this early spring.  The mornings are cool and fresh, the air light and free of annoying bugs that will appear far too soon as the days get warmer.  The squirrels are active and abundant, much to Belle’s delight – she loves to chase squirrels!  And this year, we’ve already seen an explosion in neighborhood bunnies.  Probably a harbinger of nature out of balance (unlike previous years, we’ve had multiple sightings in our own backyard; we think a family is living under our porch), it still brings a thrill to walk into the backyard and startle a few furry beasties in the thickening grass.  Oftentimes the rabbit – or even rabbits – will freeze in the typical “if I don’t move, they won’t see me” behavior until Belle ambles too close, and then they are off like a shot.

    Just this morning, when Belle and I were walking in the “back 40″ of our local dog park, we heard a disturbance in the woods beyond the fence.  The sounds were indistinct but indicative of a struggle, almost like voices grunting in conflict.  Drawing closer, we found two good sized raccoons in a fierce territorial battle in a tree not more than 15 feet away; as we watched (well, I watched – Belle barked and pranced excitedly) they crashed out of the tree and onto the ground, rolling in the leaves and grasping for purchase, coming up biting.  This was not an amorous struggle!  They paid us no mind, perhaps realizing that we were safely out of the way beyond the fence, but not wanting to tempt fate – or animalistic aggression – I moved away, calling for Belle to follow, which she did after running along the fence for a few more seconds.  Whatever dispute the raccoons were having, it seemed to be over quickly.  No one else who wandered back that way mentioned any kind of disturbance.

    raccoonEvery time I think of urban ‘coons, I remember the spring night a few years ago when I was sitting on my porch late, unable to sleep, and became aware of a tiny raccoon cub that was wandering along the edge of the street, calling out for its mother.  It was so small, it couldn’t get back up over the curb, not for want of trying!  It scrabbled along down the far side of the street, trying and failing to get back to the safety of the grass.  Not wanting the little critter to be hit by a car – we live on a pretty busy street, and it was only a matter of time before one would pass by, even this late – I walked across the street intending to move it to the boulevard.  But once it saw me walking towards it, the bitty thing must of thought of me as its savior, for it made a beeline for me, squeaking plaintively.

    Despite it being so little, I didn’t want to handle bitsy thing – this was a wild creature, after all!  Perhaps it was ill or injured!  I might just make matters worse!  But it was so tiny and so innocent.  I couldn’t let it just flail about in this big, cruel world.  So I thought I would pick it up and bring it home, put it in a large plastic tub we had on our porch, take it to the DNR in the morning.  They would know what to do with it.  They would do whatever needed to be done.

    I reached down and gathered the little ball of fluff into my arms.  As soon as I picked it up, it grabbed on to me as best it could, its cries turning into babyish grunts of relief.  It’s tiny head burrowed into the crook of my elbow, and its tiny claws – which were still soft and harmless – grasped tightly on to my arm.  Such a precious, precious thing!

    But as I walked back across the street towards my house with the baby raccoon nestling in my arm, I heard a deep throated hiss coming from the bushes by my neighbor’s house.  My steps faltered – even in my urban naiveté, I knew this sound.  This was a dangerous sound, the sound of warning, the sound of a mother who didn’t know and didn’t care if I was trying to help, who only knew that I had her baby.

    I took another few steps and the hissing came again, followed by a deep growl.  Now I could see the mother at the corner of my neighbor’s house, her eyes illuminated by the street light.  She was flanked by two other babies, and puffed up as big as she could make herself.  She was formidable as she stared right at me.  Despite my fear, my heart swelled at the ferocity of a mother’s love.  “Here you go, mama,” I whispered, and gently tossed the raccoon cub in her direction.

    The baby landed softly in the grass and immediately dashed over to its family.  Instantly I was forgotten as the raccoon mama turned away from me, cooing at her errant baby, fussing and snuffling at it.  Then as suddenly as they had appeared, they all melted into the night, although the gentle trilling of the mama coon lingered in the dark.

    I sat on my porch a while longer after that, ears straining to hear sounds that were no longer there, still feeling the soft scratching of those tiny claws on my skin, the nuzzling of the little head into my elbow, the soft fur and the racing heart calming under my stroking fingers.  It had been a magical few moments, made even more wonderful by the best of all possible outcomes.  I had been a savior, but in helping one of the wild creatures that share my world, I was also blessed.  For a few moments in the dark of the night in the inner city, all was right with the world.

    And when you watch a bunny “frozen” in your back yard, when you look to the sky and see a bald eagle gliding by, when you hear the blue jays calling in the evergreens and see the flash of a crimson cardinal, or simply hear the chirp of a common sparrow, even in the heart of the densest borough, when you realize you are just one small part of a larger whole, you realize what a wonderful world it truly is.  And how special it is to be part of it.


  3. LitStack Recs: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays & A Guide to Field Identification – Birds of North America

    May 14, 2015 by LitStackEditor

    Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
    Zadie Smith

    This collection of essays came about by accident, Zadie Smith tells us in the foreword, but the voice and curiosity behind it makes this read seamless and satisfying. My hope, as a reader of essays, is to learn something, whether the topic is snow camping or religious fanatics or Monarch butterflies, but I also hope to learn something personal, something about the speaker who knows these things. And with Smith, whether the subject is Nabokov or Forster, her person is an intrinsic part of each smart interrogation.

    The book is divided into sections: Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, Remembering. Smith dips into culture and modernity, the writing life, personal history, and current and classic literature, including Kafka, Foster Wallace, Zora Neale Hurston. In “Middlemarch and Everybody,” Smith provides a thorough and elegant case for George Eliot’s empathic treatment of her characters by way of Henry James (who thought the novel “too copious a dose of pure fiction”), and Spinoza’s concept of conatus, or self-striving. That quality of doing good for society by doing good for the self, Smith shows us, can be found in the novel’s many characters, more than a few of which James deemed insufficiently complex. Eliot was nothing if not an empathic, an all-inclusive writer, and Smith shows us how how radical a thing it was, in 1873, to take that approach, one that laid the groundwork for twenty-first-century novelists.

    Smith excels at effortlessly unpacking complex subjects. From the foreword, we know many of the essays were commissioned: “I replied to the requests that came in now and then. Two thousand words about Christmas? About Katharine Hepburn? Kafka? Liberia? A hundred thousand words piled up that way.” There is the essay on Forster, of whom Smith has a strong and longstanding affinity; a moving personal history in “Smith Family Christmas”; and a trio of essays on film, including a great dispatch from the Academy Awards, “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend,” an essay so effacing yet razor sharp in its tone, I can’t imagine any other writer narrating the spectacle that is Academy Awards:

    Hollywood has many tiers. Sitting by the pool are hot girls in bikinis and their jock guys, ordering twenty-dollar cocktails and lobster maki rolls, watching the dreamy water of the Hockney pool lap at the edges of the terra-cotta tile surround. Nobody swims. A young black couple, dressed in the Versace knockoffs they believe appropriate to this scene, pose in a lounger and get a waitress to photograph then, living the dream. This is repeated several times that afternoon, by Italians, English, Australians. Everybody speaks of the Oscars, loudly. It’s the only conversation in town.

    Here too is a version of a lecture given to the students of Columbia University’s writing program in 2010, now a staple of online creative writing links. “That Crafty Feeling” features Smith’s classic perceptive yet personal delivery in which she advises on a range of issues: starting, finishing, influences, routines, writerly devices. It’s all there in wonderfully digestible nuggets of common sense and humor. For example, the term for setting aside a draft for a spell before revision is called, “Step Away From the Vehicle.”

    Watch Zadie Smith deliver the lecture, “That Crafty Feeling,” here.

    —Lauren Alwan


  4. Book Launch: His Haunted Heart by Lila Felix

    May 13, 2015 by LitStackEditor

     

    Six years ago, deep in the swamps of Louisiana, Delilah’s face was marred forever at the hands of her sisters by the point of her mother’s kitchen knife. Despite her protest, her parents insist she make haste in finding a husband. But finding a husband isn’t an easy feat with a scar running the length of your face.
     
    Porter Jeansonne keeps to himself. He lives in his mansion, set apart from the town he’s grown to detest. One night, walking through the town, seeking to collect a debt, he hears a man selling off his daughter in the most deplorable part of the darkened streets. He chooses to take pity on her and set her free from her despicable family. Until he sees her face.
     

     

    He then knows that maybe she is the mend for his haunted heart.




     I am a stay at home mom from the South and wife to the most giving and hardworking husband ever.  I love to cook and try out new recipes even if they don’t always turn out like I want them to.  I refer to my kids lovingly as the Three Stooges as they are constantly coming up with new ways to wreak havoc in the house.  Most recently that included putting a rubber-band on the kitchen sink sprayer so it would douse me when I did the dishes.  I love to go to roller derby bouts and read in my spare time.  I write mostly at night when the house is silent and I can sneak cookies without having to share!  If you’re into stalking, try under the Cypress trees in the swamps of Louisiana, but watch out for gators!!

     


  5. Flash Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

    May 13, 2015 by Sharon Browning

    Kazuo Ishiguro2

    The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant
    Kazuo Ishiguro
    Alfred A. Knopf
    Release Date:  March 3, 2015
    ISBN 978-0-307-27103-7

    It’s the dusk of Arthurian England; an uneasy peace lies over the land.  Britons Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, leave their village to travel to the town where they believe their estranged son lives.  Their memories are cloudy, but this is not merely due to their age – it is an affliction that appears to have gripped all of Britain.  It has caused them to be unsure of even the reality of their son, or the cause of their estrangement.  Yet they find life as it is untenable, and even an uncertain journey gives them focus as they cling to each other through the bond of lives long shared.

    The couple comes across others in their travels, such as a Saxon warrior, a knight of the Round Table and an orphaned boy whose deceptively placid eyes seem to hold the world in abeyance, but for the most part they rely mainly on themselves.  Beset by dangers both physical and mystical, they eventually discover that the reason for their forgetfulness is not merely old age, but a magical spell that has been placed on the very breath of a dragon by none other than the great sorcerer Merlin.  This discovery draws them in to witnessing dangers and adventures of honor and deceit based on buried animosities and bygone obligations, yet none of the threats prove more dire than that which they themselves face in confronting their own past.

    Acclaimed author Kazuo Ishiguro has crafted in The Buried Giant a tale that is equal parts fantasy and literary fiction, full of ogres and dragons, knights and witches, but centered on his constant themes of memory and loss.  Indeed, the honorable Saxon warrior Wistan and the good knight Sir Gawain (now a relic of the past, almost Don Quixote-like in purpose) may be clear in the tasks set before them, but acknowledge that the world may not be the better for it should they succeed.  Still, the idea of turning from their purpose is unconscionable.

    Yet always, at the heart of the story is the relationship between protective Axl and feisty Beatrice.  Their affection for each other resonates, even when they bicker, even when ghosting memories suggest that their past may have held strife, anguish and hurts that each may have visited upon the other.  Yet now, at this point in time, their greatest fear is that they may be separated.  Beatrice, who suffers from an unknown malady, is the one who pushes them forward, but it is Axl who protects them from the dangers that may lurk in the shadows.

    There were numerous instances of a traveler glancing back to the companion walking behind, only to find the latter vanished without trace.  It was the fear of such an occurrence that compelled Beatrice  intermittently to ask as they walked:  “Are you still there, Axl?”  To which he would answer routinely:  “Still here, princess.”

    The somewhat formal, dreamlike prose of The Buried Giant, and the almost melancholic feel of the story keep the fantastical elements from an excitement that may be expected from a novel that is so steeped in myth and lore.  The focused, even flat narrative keeps the reader’s attention fastened on Axl and Beatrice who are, in the words of The New York Times, “two people who are now past all adventure.”

    But although the surface of The Buried Giant may seem gray and inescapable, the idea that lies at its heart is immense:  no matter how we struggle to cling to that which we hold dear, can one truly be anything other than alone?  Do we triumph, or do we merely acquiesce?

    This is a book that on the surface, may fail to excite.  It may inspire respect more than enthusiasm.  Yet it is haunting and beautiful, full of gradient grayscales that despite vibrancy, paint a deep and abiding picture full of underlying pathos, not to be missed.


  6. 2014 Shirley Jackson Awards Nominees Announced

    May 12, 2015 by Sharon Browning

    Shirley Jackson Awards logo

    Shirley Jackson wrote such classic novels as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jacksonas well as the well known short story, “The Lottery.”  To honor the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, the juried Shirley Jackson Awards were established in 2007 to recognize outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.

    The nominees for the 2014 Shirley Jackson Awards were announced last week.  They include:

    NOVEL

    • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
    • Bird Box by Josh Malerman
    • Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
    • Confessions by Kanae Minato
    • The Lesser Dead by Christopher Buehlman
    • The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

     NOVELLA

    • The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
    • Ceremony of Flies by Kate Jonez
    • The Good Shabti by Robert Sharp
    • The Mothers of Voorhisville by Mary Rickert
    • We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

     NOVELETTE

    • “The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com, April 2014)
    • “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey (Tor.com, April 2014)
    • “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta)
    • “Newspaper Heart” by Stephen Volk (The Spectral Book of Horror Stories)
    • “Office at Night” by Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt (Walker Art Center)
    • “The Quiet Room” by V H Leslie (Shadows & Tall Trees 2014)

     SHORT FICTION

    • “Candy Girl” by Chikodili Emelumadu (Apex Magazine)
    • “The Dogs Home” by Alison Littlewood (The Spectral Book of Horror Stories)
    • “The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)
    • “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix (Fearful Symmetries)
    • “Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll (Fearful Symmetries)

    SINGLE-AUTHOR COLLECTION

    • After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
    • Burnt Black Suns: A Collection of Weird Tales by Simon Strantzas
    • Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall
    • They Do The Same Things Different There by Robert Shearman
    • Unseaming by Mike Allen

    EDITED ANTHOLOGY

    • Letters to Lovecraft, edited by Jesse Bullington
    • Fearful Symmetries, edited by Ellen Datlow
    • The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, edited by Mark Morris
    • Shadows & Tall Trees 2014, edited by Michael Kelly
    • The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron, edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele

    The award winners will be announced Sunday, July 12, 2015 at Readercon 26 in Burlington, Massachusetts.

    Congratulations to all the nominees!


  7. LitStack Review: Biggie by Derek E. Sullivan

    May 11, 2015 by Sharon Browning

    Derek E Sullivan

    Biggie  Biggie3
    Derek E. Sullivan
    Albert Whitman & Company
    Release Date:  March 1, 2015
    ISBN 978-0-8075-0727-8

    Henry Abbott is 16 years old, and a 10th grader at Finch High School in the little town of Finch, Iowa, where he gets straight As.  He works four nights a week at Bob’s Food and Fuel.  He has a crush on Annabelle Rivers; probably has ever since they first were classmates, which was back in kindergarten (not that he’s ever told her how he feels).  He’s the son of a local baseball legend, and his step-father plays professional ball.

    Nowadays, Henry stands 6′ 2″.  And he weighs “north of” 300 pounds.  He’s always been a big kid, and ever since 2nd grade, he’s had the nickname “Biggie”.

    Biggie doesn’t mind the nickname.  He’s okay with being called fat; he is fat.  He prefers being fat.

    How did I get this way?  Or a better question:  Why have I let myself grow to over three hundred pounds?  Simply put:  now, I’m invisible.  Funny, isn’t it?  The more I weigh, the less people ride me about it.  By living up to my nickname, I have accomplished an amazing feat.  I’m the only high school student in the world who doesn’t get made fun of on a daily basis.

    Henry bolsters his invisibility by simply not engaging in anything.  He gets good grades, but rarely participates in class.  He always sits by himself at lunch, in classes, at events he has no choice but to attend.  He doesn’t make friends and shies away from talking to anyone, even with customers at work.  No small talk for Biggie.  He spends most of his time in his room studying or online.  Because he has gotten so large, coaches don’t try to recruit him anymore to participate in football or baseball, which is a huge step in disengaging in a town that is downright sports crazy.  He even managed to get out of phys-ed for a year, although that trickery fell through when he tried it the next year.

    Then, one day, a game of PE enforced wiffle ball changed his life.

    I spin the ball again and put on the fingertip pressure points.  The ball seems smaller now, softer.  At first, it felt hard, tight, with no bend or give.  Now, it fits perfectly in my fat fingers.  I toss another pitch and, once again, the ball drops.  Michelle doesn’t swing, but Coach Phillips calls the pitch a strike.  I smile.

    Suddenly, Henry is given the hope that he may have something special, something that would make other people look up to him and accept him, that would get his step-father to stop being ashamed by him, that could get Annabelle to want to be his girlfriend.  Something that would make his mother proud.  Something that might make his real father to acknowledge that he exists.

    What he doesn’t realize is that the lessons to be learned along the way to achieving his dream might be harder than he thought, not because of the physical toll they may take, but because he himself may not be the biggest obstacle in his way.  The biggest obstacle may be finding out that by opening himself up to the world, he must accept that his assumptions about how things work, who people are and how they see him, are wrong, and that life and the people in it aren’t going to stand still while he tries to figure it all out.  Or perhaps the hardest lesson will be that getting what he thinks he wants isn’t so satisfying after all.

    Biggie is a low key, sweet, heartbreaking, modern coming of age story that feels more like a portal into a young man’s life than a literary dramatization of plucky youngsters pondering life’s great mysteries.  Although sport, specifically baseball, is at the heart of Henry’s potential transformation, this is not a Rudy-like triumph story, not a one-man Bad News Bears.  It’s richer than that.  It’s more real than that.  And in a very, very rewarding read, even if the final scene doesn’t have Biggie being carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates.  Because sometimes, winning the game isn’t everything.

    But it’s a pretty big thing.  And Biggie is, indeed, a win.


  8. Bram Stoker Award Winners Announced

    May 11, 2015 by Sharon Browning

    Bram Stoker Awards logo

    The winners of the Bram Stoker Awards were announced on May 10 at the World Horror Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.

    bram-stoker-dracula

    Named after the author of the quintessential horror novel, Dracula, the awards are overseen by the Horror Writers Association, a “nonprofit organization of writers and publishing professionals around the world, dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it.”  Founded in 1985, the foundation has been handing out awards since 1987.

    The winners of the 2014 Bram Stoker Awards are:

    Superior Achievement in a NovelBlood Kin by Steven Rasnic Tem

    Superior Achievement in a First NovelMr. Wicker by Maria Alexander

    Superior Achievement in a Young Adult NovelPhoenix Island by John Dixon

    Superior Achievement in a Graphic NovelBad Blood by Jonathan Maberry

    Superior Achievement in Long Fiction – “Fishing for Dinosaurs” (Limbus, Inc., Book II) by Joe R. Lansdale

    Superior Achievement in Short Fiction – TIE:  “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” (Qualia Nous) by Usman T. Malik and “Ruminations” (Qualia Nous) by Rena Mason

    Superior Achievement in a ScreenplayThe Babadook by Jennifer Kent

    Superior Achievement in an AnthologyFearful Symmetries, edited by Ellen Datlow

    Superior Achievement in a Fiction CollectionSoft Apocalypses by Lucy A. Snyder

    Superior Achievement in Non-FictionShooting Yourself in the Head For Fun and Profit: A Writer’s Survival Guide by Lucy A. Snyder

    Superior Achievement in a Poetry CollectionForgiving Judas by Tom Piccirilli

    Lifetime Achievement – Jack Ketchum and Tanith Lee

    Congratulations to all!


  9. Station Eleven Wins the Arthur C. Clarke Award

    May 8, 2015 by Sharon Browning

    Station Eleven

    Emily St. John Mandel has been awarded the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award for her genre-arching novel, Station Eleven.Emily St John Mandel

    In the novel, the world has come to an end as we know it.  A deadly virus has eradicated over 90 percent of Earth’s population within the space of a few weeks, too quickly and too thoroughly to allow for a measured or choreographed response.  Yet Station Eleven is much more than a handful of survivors’ stories of endurance.  It’s more than a reinvention of society following unspeakable tragedy, and it is not a tale of bloody retribution.  Terrible things do happen, yes, and there are heart pounding dangers.  But the greatest peril may not be where our civilization is going, but what parts of the past we cling to.

    Station Eleven beat out M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water and Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August to nab the award.

    The juried Arthur C. Clarke Award, as noted on its website, “is given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. The award was established with a grant given by Sir Arthur C. Clarke and the first prize was awarded in 1987 to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”  Last year’s winner was Ann Leckie’s Auxillary Justice.

    Upon hearing that she had won the award, Ms. Mandel tweeted, “Oh my god. I am slightly beside myself over here.”

    Congratulations to Emily St. John Mandel, and Station Eleven!


  10. Gimbling in the Wabe – What I Want for Mother’s Day

    May 8, 2015 by Sharon Browning

    Motther and child

    Gimbling6Mothers-day-banner

    This Gimbling in the Wabe was first published for Mother’s Day 2014.

    I was watching television the other day when an ad came on informing me that for this Mother’s Day, “smart phones trump flowers”, suggesting that in order to show your mother how much you appreciate her, you need to give her not flowers, but a smart phone.  Another ad on another day shows women being presented a bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day, their mouths open in what at first seems to be a display of joyous surprise but slowly morphs into a yawn, suggesting that truly loving families wouldn’t bore their moms with the same old dull gesture, but instead, should treat her with an edible bouquet of specially cut fruit on sticks.

    I’ll tell you what I would like for Mother’s Day.  It’s not a smart phone or an edible bouquet, not designer perfume or a Pandora bracelet bauble.  Not even flowers.

    But first – a true story.

    It was the early 1990s and I worked in the Minneapolis office of a multi-national accounting firm, supervising a department that handled mail services, the file room, supply procurement, shipping and receiving.  At that time there were four others in the department, or had been before one left and we had to find a replacement.  This was before HR worked with support services; their focus was solely on “professionals”.  We were left to our own devices.  Usually our ranks were filled by referrals, positions shared by word of mouth – someone’s cousin or friend, often some acquaintance from other companies.  I had procured workers before from delivery drivers we had gotten to know, former summer interns, college buddies.  I don’t remember there ever being job postings in newspapers or resumes arriving in the mail, and this was before the advent of internet job boards.  Unemployment was low, no one was really scrounging for work.

    I remember that there were two people on the housekeeping staff that we saw regularly; good people, reliable, hard working, cheerful.  I asked them if they were interested in working for us.  Indeed, they were: it would be a step up, better pay, more reliable hours, benefits.  We had to talk quietly, though; if their bosses got word that they were thinking of jumping ship, things could go poorly for them.  I slipped them applications; we’d be doing interviews shortly and hiring within a few weeks.

    But they both disappeared.  Their applications never arrived.  I asked around; one of them had been transferred to another building where he had been given more responsibility, the other one, a woman, had simply disappeared.  I put out word that we needed to hear from them quickly, but never did.  We ended up hiring someone else, a referral, out of the two other applications we did receive.  He was a good worker, ended up staying with us for over 20 years.

    Fast forward a few years; five, I think, maybe a few more.  One of our offices in on the East Coast had been sued in a job discrimination suit, an accountant had maintained that she had not been hired because she was black.  Because of the suit, the Department of Labor cast out a net to scrutinize hiring practices in other offices, and due to a low percentage of minorities in our office, we drew their attention.

    For some reason I still don’t fully understand, the DOL did not concentrate on the lack of minorities in the auditor, tax accountant or management consultant ranks, instead deciding to investigate the lack of diversity in the mail room – something that seemed somewhat discriminatory in and of itself.  And, even though I had no hiring or firing authority, I was the one who was questioned due to the one fellow that had been hired years ago in my department.  The man we hired was white, the two people I had invited to apply but never interviewed were black.

    For two days, six hours a day, I was taken to a small conference room and interrogated by a smug DOL agent as to why I hadn’t tried harder to find the two black potential candidates.  Without any support from my office manager (who was in charge of hiring and firing, but never interviewed) or the controller (who was interviewed for one hour) or from anyone in HR (who I never heard from throughout the entire ordeal) I had to undergo a series of questions that I answered honestly, but under a cloud of confusion.  Told to bring my personnel records with me, they were promptly confiscated although they contained nothing about the people who were part of the investigation.  I never got them back.  (When I protested, I was told that they were the property of the DOL even if they were not relevant to the investigation; my boss informed me after the fact that I had erred in bringing them into the conference room in the first place.)  I was drilled about hiring practices, and had to repeat over and over that I had no authority to hire anyone, and that I had been not been given any training on hiring practices.

    The questions got increasingly more personal.  My moral integrity was called into question, and I was told to my face that I was a bigot.  The implication was that I had sabotaged the black applicants by not making enough of an effort to find them (despite trying to recruit them in the first place).  At the end of the day, I would burst into tears when picking up my kids at daycare, wondering if I really was as terrible a person as the DOL agent was implying that I was.  Through this entire ordeal, I was never counseled, consoled, or even approached by my boss or anyone else in the firm.  I felt totally isolated, utterly alone.

    Why do I bring this up when I’m supposed to be writing about Mother’s Day?

    Here’s why.  The judgment of the DOL investigation took years to be handed down.  In that time, my national firm had proactively responded to the charge of impropriety by putting in place much stronger protocols for hiring, and a much clearer line of responsibility for documentation and retention of documentation.  The HR department took over all aspects of the hiring process, from posting job openings to vetting candidates to interviewing, as well as all decision-making with an eye towards ensuring parity and balance, not just in support services but across all disciplines.  I still was involved in the interview process, but truly could only recommend candidates.  As more regulations were introduced into the marketplace, the firm embraced the additional processes, and supervisors and managers alike were trained in a myriad of ethical procedures meant to protect and promote workers.

    One day our new HR director called me into his office to let me know that the investigation from so many years ago had been concluded and the ruling was that no wrong-doing had taken place, even though there were recommendations to be put into practice regarding recruitment and hiring, many of which had already been implemented.  By this time, I thought I had put it all behind me.  But as I was getting ready to leave his office, the HR director stood and looked me right in the eye, and said, “I just want you to know, none of this was your fault.  You did nothing wrong.”  And he meant it.  Suddenly, even after so many years, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, a weight I didn’t even know I was still carrying.  As my eyes filled with tears, I realized just how badly I had needed to hear those words.  Not for vindication. Not for a sense of justice being done.  Just for it to be acknowledged that I had done nothing wrong.

    That still remains one of the most powerful personal moments of my life.

    So here’s how my story ties in to Mother’s Day.  On Sunday, I don’t want gifts, large or small.  I don’t want flowers.  I don’t want anything that comes from a sense of obligation, from a rote “today is the day we make the effort” sort of thing.  That’s not for me.  If that sort of ritual benefits anyone, it benefits my family, lets them off the hook, gives them the sense that they have gone through the right motions to fulfill their obligation to convention.  Not that I wouldn’t appreciate whatever effort they want to make, but it’s not what I want.

    What I really want for Mother’s Day is for someone to look me in the eye and say, “Mom, you done good.”  I want to know that even though I’m not a very good cook and am a terrible housekeeper, that even though sometimes I’m incredibly clueless or obtuse or simply insensitive, that even though I sometimes lose my temper when I shouldn’t, or raise my voice when I shouldn’t, even though I snore (supposedly) and too often forget things I should have remembered, even though I fall short in ways both big and small, that in my kids’ eyes, that in my husband’s eyes, I’ve done good.  That they are glad I’m their mother.  Not out of a sense of obligation, but out of a genuine appreciation for who I am and what I have done, what I have tried to do, in my role as mom.

    I want acknowledgement.

    Oh, and having someone else make dinner, that would be nice, too.

    So if your mother is anything like me, forego the flowers.  Heck, don’t even give her a card and a “thanks for being my mom”.  Instead, give her a hug, a big one, unsolicited, unasked for, unexpectedly.  And while you’re giving her that hug, whisper in her ear, “You know, I think you’re a great mom.” Acknowledge her.   And mean it.

    There’s no better Mother’s Day gift you could give.