2015: a year in (interrupted and chaotic) reading

Bluestalking does not tell anywhere near the full tale of my 2015 reading, a secret shame for any book reviewer, not to mention generally voracious reader. My blog should reflect all I’ve read in any given year, not just the smattering I was able to pull it together enough to write about. It should be my go-to place, where I share all my thoughts about books and writers and the reading and writing life, instead of a mostly quiet wasteland I’ve sort of half-assed for the past twelve full months.

In my defense, it was a rough year. My divorce was finalized in June, the months before and up to the writing of this post fraught with anxiety. This would be enough in its own right, without the fact  my ex is all but married again so soon, having started dating the woman he’s since grown very serious with before the judge had even dropped his gavel. Before the soul of our marriage had departed its body. And yeah, I’m public with my life, my social media accounts open and honest. I have little doubt the new Mrs- to-be isn’t reading this, putting her own spin on things courtesy of the half-story she’s heard, her own gospel truth.  The thing is, the person she’s dating is not the person I was with for 30 years: the kid I met at 18, married at 23, had three children with and shared  25 toxic years. But then, she isn’t the person I am, either. So maybe she’s in the clear. Best of luck.

And while I have been reading through it all, I’ve largely failed in finding the level of concentration required to think all that deeply about what’s passed before my eyes. Most of my reading has been conducted in my tiny, cramped apartment-sized bathtub this year, amongst buckets and buckets of bubbles. The warmth of the water soothes, the extravagance of “premium” lavender bubbles – i.e., not the cheap crap you buy at Walmart but the good stuff from Lush or Bath and Body Works – a luxurious treat I more than deserve right now, even if more than one book has met its soapy demise right alongside me.

What I’ve read for review doesn’t always garner mention on Bluestalking, nor does it always make the rounds of venues like Goodreads or Amazon. Yet, I hesitate to call my blogging behavior lazy. It isn’t that. My outside life has consumed the bulk of my time and energy, sapping most of my creativity, even the energy it takes to lift my head off the pillow many mornings, much less reading critically then writing cogently about it. Still and all, I’ve read some remarkable books this year, truly stellar stuff offering more than enough “best of 2015” material.

My intentions at the beginning of the year were good, my disappointment with myself for not having achieved nearly as much as I’d hoped, coming to the conclusion of 2015, a heavier weight on my shoulders than I should have allowed. Regardless, I will write that list, short though it will be. I’ll write it as tribute to having gotten through any reviews at all, for reading what I managed to despite having suffered deeply through the course of this year. Because reading has always lifted me, always made so much of life bearable, from a despicable childhood through today. When things get awful, the thought of having books to read comforts me beyond any other single factor in my life.

So, what’s the best of my 2015 reading? Damn near all of it’s been impressive but in looking back one book screams out, a book I read and reviewed here. That one book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the dystopian marvel I haven’t gotten out of my head. No matter the number of books I’ve read since, this book has managed to stay surprisingly fresh. Triggers have popped the book back into my mind more times than I can count. There’s something about it, some quality of dark deliciousness I can’t shake and have no desire to. By no means am I alone in this; Station Eleven was one of the undisputed great novels of 2015.


Yes, other books blew me away, books I read before and since choosing this one favorite. A very close second came a few days after I’d drafted the beginnings of this post, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, a fantastic gem of a book framed by John Lennon’s connection to an island off the coast of Ireland, one he bought for its association with his Irish ancestral past and then came back to visit after a lapse of decades, just before his murder. There was Matt Bell’s Scrapper, as well, another great dystopia of 2015,  written with Detroit as its backdrop, a gorgeous staccato testament to the continued relevance of its darkly violent theme of despair.

With 2016 newly arrived, I once again vow to do better, to keep closer track of my reading and review everything I read here on Bluestalking. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep that promise. Life’s been hard on me, each year managing to blindside with events I didn’t see coming – and some I did, like the divorce – knocking out my breath. But I’ll try. All I can do is set goals and strive my hardest to reach them.

Here’s hoping 2016 proves less traumatic and cheers to all who stopped by in 2015. I cannot express the depth of my appreciation and hope I’ll bring more to the table from here on out. As always, I bring my best hopes.


gender differences in reading, revisited

Tom-ay-to, Tom-ah-to

Tom-ay-to, Tom-ah-to

Waaay back in 2006 I posted thoughts on a list I’d seen in The Guardian, from an article about gender differences in reading. In the article, two lists were generated, one a Top 20 favorite novels of men, the other a Top 20 favorite novels of women. I’ve posted thoughts on the subject since but I don’t have links to those posts at hand and frankly don’t have the incentive to go diving for them. While doing onling blog cleanup and maintenance, I happened to stumble upon this 2006 post and found it still interesting. And that’s why I’m back on the topic.

Since that long ago 2006 post, there have of course been many, many other articles on the topic of gender-preferred reading, books which tend to fall into one of the two camps. Among them, this fascinating offering from Esquire, a periodical most decided slanted toward men, which lists 80 Books Every Man Should Read.

Lots of these listed are about war, many about rugged, outdoorsy settings as well as those featuring a great deal of violence, books by writers such as Cormac McCarthy, for example. Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut… Not exclusively in the male purview but leaning that way.

Interestingly, most of the books appeal to me and not just a little. Many I’ve read and many others I’d like to, soft confirmation of what I’ve been told before: I identify strongly with what I consider a masculine taste in reading.  What does this say about me? Nothing earth-shattering but more than once I’ve offered up lists of favorite books to be told that, without knowing my gender, the person studying the list would have pegged me for a male.

Scientific? Of course not. Interesting? I think so.

On the flip side for the purposes of this very unscientific, heavily biased post, there’s this list compiled by Huffington Post, listing the books every woman should read. Included in this list are books I’ve personally reviled, a few due to their overt sappiness, others for their bloated reputations and complete lack of literary quality, books such as:

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – Judy Blume (outdated; has not aged well)

The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold (must I say it, really?)

The Help – Kathryn Stockett (the ultimate novel of white guilt)

Disappointingly, HuffPo also chose a disproportionately large number of self help books to round out the list. I consider this a cop out, not to mention a biased take on what serious female readers value. In their favor, a great number of heavily literary novels, like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, did make the cut, the reason I chose this as my female-representative list. Even with its flaws, I feel it’s fairly well representative of books geared toward women, some I’d consider book group books but some, again, of high quality, as well.

Agree or not, it’s a fascinating topic, that of the reading differences between men and women. And I know, gender these days is a loaded term, complicated by the new need to consider gender identity. It’s not that I’m completely discounting that but rather I’m not a gender studies expert. Neither am I the sort to stop and ask with which gender do you personally identify. That’s on you, not me. I’m too busy, not to mention too old school, to make allowances for every possible combination of gender preferences.

The fact remains, there are two sexes, two ruling hormones: estrogen and testosterone. And, while not 100% of the makeup of our natures, this is a very heavy determining factor separating us. With each come certain characteristics which are very real, neither positive nor negative but, rather, different and complimentary.

Again, there is crossover. Please note I have said that.

The line is dashed, rather than solid, however, the line is there. And I could of course go far more deeply into the topic, delve into the research, comparing and contrasting hundreds more lists, examining characteristics of what makes a masculine or feminine read but this isn’t a treatise. This is an opinion post, based heavily on my own experience spent reading, no small feat.

Gender preferences in reading will always intrigue me. I will never stop reading the lists, considering the factors which make up masculine and feminine reading. So keep ’em coming. And if you know of lists, have thoughts or would like to weigh in, well, you know the drill.


Kafkaesque, actually



There’s a certain thematic consonance to my reading last evening and this morning, inadvertent though it was.

Denis Johnson’s ‘The Angels,’ the tale of two people from the fringes of society – a young mother escaping from her marriage and a former Navy serviceman drinking his aimless way across the country – who share oddly disjointed experiences, both together and apart, has proven remarkably similar in tone and style to my other read: ‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka.

What connects the two is the ubiquitous “Kafkaesque” nature of dreamlike prose, as well as the terrifying nature of seemingly random, often threatening, happenings which cannot always be explained logically.

I certainly didn’t pair these two intentionally, yet having done so sets up its own Kafkaesque serendipity.

Curiouser and curiouser.

I enjoy darkly psychological examinations of the mind, fiction exploring humanity through a Baroque lens. Things which are disturbing jerk us out of our zone of comfort, our safe little worlds. The reminder is what we believe to be static is anything but.

At any moment, what you believe you are seeing can turn, ever so fractionally, revealing the angel to be a monster. Or the monster, an angel.

Don’t get too comfortable. You never know when you might have to move.

Perhaps very quickly.


TLC Blog Tour: Dig Two Graves by Kim Powers, Thoughts and an Interview

  • digtwograves
    • Paperback: 302 pages
    • Publisher: Tyrus Books (December 4, 2015)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 144059192X
    • ISBN-13: 978-1440591921


And in the next second, I knew it wasn’t a joke or anything to do with drama club or anything Skip had done or…

A note, handwritten, was jabbed into the middle of the “body” with an open pair of scissors.


You can’t make sound without air, so I didn’t make a peep, because at that moment all the air went out of my body.

Gone. Everything gone.

Sound. Air. Everything. Nothing. Skip. Life. Gone.


Ethan Holt, widowed former Olympic decathlete turned university professor, is engaged in the fight of his life after his only child, his daughter Skip, is abducted by a madman. As the kidnapper’s demands begin coming in, he realizes with growing horror this is no random act, no bid for something as basic as money. This crime is personal, a cold-blooded, calculated act perpetrated by someone who knows him and wants to ensure his suffering is as sharp as it gets.

The kidnapper’s demands come in the form of twisted rhymes, playing on the Twelve Labors of Hercules, a subject a classics professor is all too familiar with. As a former athlete, each task requires his utmost strength – both physical and mental. Ethan Holt is a man pushed to his absolute limits, the stakes everything he has left in the world. The kidnapper is a person teetering on the edge of insanity, blinded by rage, simultaneously horrified by what he’s become:


The kidnapper was gasping for air, stabbing at the crook in his left arm with a fresh needle. Only stabbing at himself would take over his rage, the rage he wanted to inflict on everything in his wake. On that person. On the other end of the phone. And on himself and how far things had gone. He wanted to stab it all away. Make himself hurt so bad for what he’d done… but his body could barely feel anything anymore…”


The plot of Dig Two Graves is tight, allowing the action to flow without being weighted down by unnecessary diversions. At the same time, the characterizations are superb, the good and bad guys drawn in a way that’s unflinching, portraits of all the best and worst in each. These are real people, three-dimensional and fully formed.

In the best books of this genre, it’s possible to both loathe and understand the motivations of the antagonist. By the end of the book, the reader will despise the actions of the villain, while also feeling a great deal of empathy.

An accomplished journalist, memoirist, novelist, screenwriter and television/broadcast journalist, Emmy and Peabody award-winning Kim Powers here demonstrates his ability to write an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of a novel. Looking through his staggering list of credentials, you kind of have to wonder if there’s anything this man cannot write well.


Author’s website:  http://kimpowersbooks.com


Author Kim Powers was kind enough to answer a few interview questions for me:

LG: Have you always been interested in mythology? How did you come upon the idea of integrating the Twelve Labors of Hercules into a mystery?

KP: I like to blame it on Brad Pitt. I had just seen the movie of Seven – this was back when I was writing screenplays – and loved the architecture of it. The seven sins that everyone already knew. A tailor-made boiler plate. So the first thing that actually came to me, before the twelve labors, was the ten events of the decathlon. Maybe it was during the summer Olympics, I don’t remember, but I like that it was a nice, even number.

Believe it or not, the 12 labors, which is really the key driving force of the book, actually came a bit later. There was a time when the solving of the labors ran very much hand-in-hand with the decathlon events: Ethan was literally replaying all ten events: the shot put, pole vault, hurdles, etc. Then that got to be too unwieldy.

I guess I know a little bit more about mythology and classics than the average guy, but not much. I had taken four years of Latin in high school – don’t ask me why; I thought it would be a good baseline for learning other foreign languages – but that all left me.  Every translation in the book I had to look up. Back in the 80s, I had very fond memories of watching the Inspector Morse mystery series of Colin Dexter on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS; I loved how every episode seemed to be rooted in some arcane piece of mythology or ancient culture that only Morse could figure out! And maybe in a deeper way, as I got into things, I realized that human behavior, at its deepest, has never truly changed. The outside accoutrement have,  of course, but those base emotions – love, hate, jealousy, revenge – have been in existence since the earliest cultures. They are part of our DNA. I wanted to explore that, and also explore how old stories – the oldest stories, in fact – had a way out of pain and misery for my characters. I certainly had escaped an unhappy childhood, into a world of fantasy and books and made-up characters.

LG: How much research went into the writing of Dig Two Graves? What were some of the challenges involved in translating mythology into a modern story line? 

KP: The two pieces of “architecture” that began the book – the ten events of the Decathlon, and the 12 Labors of Hercules – were the only two things I really researched. I had a vague sense of both of them, but really had to dig back in to get the full details. And they both pretty much come down to running and throwing heavy things!

I did some research to try to get the medical details of what ailment the villain has; of birth abnormalities and what would have happened when, while he was growing up. Of what his motor and speech skills could be. With that, I didn’t want to pin anything down too literally, but I wanted to have a ready answer, if anyone asked me. (And I was also very much aware, in this era of political correctness, of not wanting anyone to say I had misrepresented their community.)

Coming up with modern-day equivalents to the Labors was a lot of fun; they went through a lot of changes over the course of time. At one point I had some crazy stuff about helicopters being the Stymphalian birds, but as the labors went on and on, came up with things where I could dispatch several of them at one time. I remember being in a gallery and seeing some Spanish painting of a sort of farm and a cattle chute; that was an “a-ha” moment for me, when I put three or so of the labors in the old abandoned kiddie farm.

I also had a lot of fun on Pinterest, which I’ve just discovered in the last two years or so, collecting photos of things that I could use as a reference for the old abandoned school, and the old ski lift/lodge. I can imagine a lot of stuff, but being able to take a wall from this and that drawing on the chalkboard and the way the roof has collapsed from real pictures was good for me.

I’ve written so much about the small town in Texas where I grew up, that I wanted to get away from that landscape for this. So I seized about making the college where Ethan Holt teaches a sort of version of Williams College, in Williamstown, MA. I spent many summers there working at the Williamstown Theater Festival. It’s up in the Berkshire Mountains, and has a fantastic variety of worlds around it. Extreme wealth, as well as hard-scrabble, blue collar, industrial mill poor. And a quick getaway across the state lines into Vermont. That served a lot of what I needed geographically, and it finally got me out of the deep South of Texas and the Alabama/Midwest of Capote in Kansas.

I loved writing the diabolical rhymes that accompanied each Labor; that was maybe the most fun part of the book for me. Rhymezone.com became my best friend, as I mapped those out!

LG: What about the father/daughter dynamic lead you to tell this story from the perspective of a widowed man and his only child? Was this POV always your intent, or did you consider other options?

KP: The father/daughter, Ethan/Skip bond is my favorite thing about the book, and the one thing I felt like I’d like to go back and explore more, in sequels. I’d love to see what they go on to next, in their lives, after the trauma in Dig Two Graves.  I’m very interested in how people recover from that; and how some people shut down and quit living and can’t move forward, and how others can let it go and move on.

I’m not a father in real life – except to the four dogs I’ve had through the years – and I’ve never wanted to be a parent, but I loved exploring that dynamic in a fictional way. I think I’d actually be a very good parent, although I don’t think I could ever let go of the worry. I didn’t set out deliberately to explore that, but it became the heartbeat of the novel.

I’ve never been the kind of writer who maps out a lot of stuff in advance, except for maybe a handful of very key turning points, so it was all a discovery for me. And to my surprise, I realized I was very much recalling the dynamic I had with my own father, who had to single-handedly raise me and my twin brother from the time we were eight years old, after my mother died. I realized I hadn’t ever given him much credit. A lot of readers had told me he was the missing character in my memoir The History of Swimming, but he very much gets a chance to tell his story in my next book, Rules for Being Dead, which I write more about later on here!

(There’s a line in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, when one of the characters, a neighborhood lady, says to Blanche and Stella, “Don’t need no ton of bricks to fall on me,” about realizing they want her to get out of the house. But I sometimes think I DO need a ton of bricks to fall on me; so often – and there are so many instances in Dig Two Graves – where I’ve written directly autobiographical things from my own life, but didn’t realize it at the time. Only after I finished writing do I go, “So  THAT’S where that came from!”)

A few times, when I began feeling like it was maybe a bit of a cliché to kidnap a young girl, and be another old white guy perpetrating violence against girls and women, I thought about changing Skip to a son. But it just didn’t have the same resonance. It might have been interesting – a novel of all men – but there was something so fascinating to me in that dynamic of a single father, trying to raise a teenage daughter without a rule book. The jealousy that daughter might feel, when her father begins dating again. I had gone through that – not jealousy, but resentment – when my own father began dating, after the death of my mother. And I wanted to explore that.

LG:  Skip is such a strong young lady, bright and self-assured. Is she modeled on anyone you’ve known? Likewise, Ethan is both deeply intelligent and athletically talented. Did his character spring from someone in your own life?

KP: I love Skip so much; I couldn’t begin to tell you where her name sprang from, it was just there, full-blown, when I first thought of her. And pretty much she was there, fully formed, as well. In earlier drafts of the book, she was a few years younger than her present 12-years-old, but then that began to feel creepy.

To a little bit, she’s based on my informal  Goddaughter, Adelaide Daniel. (Meaning I’m not officially her Godfather; she’s the daughter of my best friends, and I’ve always been her Gay Uncle – Guncle Kim.) She just started college this year – how time flies, but I’ve known her since she was a baby and have seen her grow up, as maybe an only child can. She’s studying acting and has always been interested in theater; those beats of Skip wanting to be an actress and doing sense memory exercises stem directly from that. She was in the musical of Legally Blonde at her high school and I stole that as well. A colleague at work told me about how his young daughter was obsessed, as were all her classmates, with making things out of duct tape, like purses, etc; so I was really picking up details everywhere and anywhere I could.

Ethan, the hero, is really “me with muscles.” I don’t know how else to describe him. I’m the least athletic person of anyone I know, but I went through a period of working out in my 30s. I thought back to that when I was writing all those scenes in the gym, and of him prepping for the Olympics. The pain/pleasure of it all.

There was one long paragraph I wrote – maybe the very first thing I ever wrote for the book – about how he treated the gym like a church, with the ghosts of everyone that had been there in the decades before him. And if you can’t remember that passage, don’t worry; you’re not going crazy! It’s not in the book anymore. I kept shoe-horning it various places, because I was so in love with the writing of it, but it just never fit. Talk about “kill your darlings.” Having to leave that passage out killed me! But Ethan’s emotional life is straight from me: other than the outward facts of his life – the Olympics, teaching, being a father – he is me.

LG: How difficult is it writing from the perspective of a deeply disturbed individual, such as the villain in Dig Two Graves? How does such a kind person as you write from such a dark, depraved place?

KP: Fantastic question! And only another good soul like you would be smart and perceptive enough to think it, or ask it. It was the hardest part of the book for me. At the end of the day, all the writing I’ve done has represented me: who I am as a person, what I believe it. I’ve never written “violence” before. Some early readers of book at one point told me it was clear that Skip – the kidnapped daughter – wasn’t going to get hurt. That she wasn’t in physical jeopardy. I had to grit my teeth and hold my breath and go back and add some, to make that believable, even though it’s not the kind of stuff I like reading.

I was able to write the “villain” by making him a character: at first, getting into his voice, his linguistic tricks, the way he would turn a phrase. And even though it’s a cliché a lot of actors spout, that you have to see him as a person rather than a black-and-white bad guy, I had to do that. When I came upon the chapters of his backstory – of how he first learned The 12 Labors of Hercules, to overcome pain; when I wrote the chapter about how he envied someone else, of how he tried to become that person, watching him on TV (careful not to spoil any surprises here!), that helped him  become more a person to me.

At the end, the showdown in the cemetery with the protagonist, that was two desperate people, not a bad guy and a good guy. That took everything out of me to write; I’d play searing arias from operas as I wrote, to help me get to that place emotionally. Maybe because I began my early life, as a kid and then in high school and college, thinking I was going to be an actor, everything had to have its own internal logic for me. I had to be able to “act” the character realistically. And I acted the villain to the place where I thought he was real, and I could understand why he would do the horrible things he did. He is basically a kid, asking God why these horrible things had happened to him, and getting revenge on the people he thought was responsible. If I’ve done my job right, by the end of the book, the reader will feel some sort of sympathy and understanding toward him. And because every writer always hopes his or her book will become a movie – I was already projecting that in my head: what do I have to give a big A-list Hollywood actor, to seduce them into wanting to play this character??

LG: How does the writing process differ from journalism to fiction? Is your approach to each the same, or do they require different strategies?

KP: The obvious basic difference is that journalism is supposed to be the truth, just the facts, ma’am, without any editorializing. (Haha, as the kids would say.) Once you’ve done it as long as I have, through my writing jobs at Good Morning America and 20/20, you realize how nearly impossible that is. I had never been to journalism school when I lucked into that first job at GMA; most of my colleagues had. The good part of that is that I wasn’t hide-bound by a set of rules, but it was a little bit of my failing, too.

So many of the writers I’ve seen at ABC have no sense of nuance, of creating drama or telling a story through their words. It’s just the facts. You can do that – or at least I can – without being boring. It’s the thing that drives me the craziest; I accuse some of my fellow writer/producers there of being school marms. I think it’s why I’ve lasted so long there – nearly 20 years – and done so well. I’m able to tell a story and convey human emotion. The worst situations there for me are when we have to crash a breaking news story, and it’s just a recitation of who, what, where, when. I like to supply the missing ingredient of Why?

One of the good things, however, that all that writing, day in and day out, has given me, is the stamina for writing books. It’s worked that muscle for me, and I can sit down and bang out five or six pages at a time, until the picture in my head is emptied out. Sometimes I feel like the day job uses up all my words, and I have nothing left at the end of the day, but it has also taught me to approach writing my books like a job: day in and day out. Not sitting around waiting for “inspiration” or “the right mood” to hit me. If I did that, I’d never get anything written.

LG: You’ve written about the loss of your twin brother, the relationship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee, and now a former Olympian faced with a seemingly impossible task, the life of his child hanging in the balance. What’s next for you? Is there another book in the works?

KP: I think the disappearance of my twin brother Tim (written about in my memoir The History of Swimming), and then his ultimate death, informs everything I write. For better or worse, I guess it’s sort of the broken record in my life. In a coded way, even Capote in Kansas was about that: two former best friends, who become enemies. The very last words in the book are Truman saying this to Harper Lee: “I’m sorry.” That was  completely me saying it to my twin brother. I was writing a blog post the other day for Dig Two Graves and it finally hit me, like an idiot, how much the search in that completely made-up thriller was informed by what I went through during the three days in which Tim went missing. The impotence of a character – me, or my hero Ethan Holt – to do anything, other than look to the heavens and say, “Where ARE you?”

So my next book goes back to that theme. It’s called Rules for Being Dead – part of my “cemetery suite” I’ve been jokingly calling it, along with Dig Two Graves. It’s a novel, but very autobiographical, sort of a prequel to The History of Swimming. It’s about a little boy whose mother dies when he’s eight years old, and his playing detective to find out what happened to her. At the same time he’s doing that, the dead mother herself is looking for the same answer, sort of floating around in the ether, not allowed entrance to heaven or hell, until she can find out. Sort of like The Lovely Bones. Was it suicide, murder, an accident, what? It will be my magnum opus, finally answering the question that has haunted me all my life. After The History of Swimming came out, I received some information about my mother’s death I had never known before – after some 40 years of mystery. It changed everything I thought I had known up until then. So that’s what the book is about. It’s done, and my agent plans to take it out and shop it around after the holidays. Wish me luck! After that, I’ve  scraped the family closets clean; now I’ll have to start actually making up shit!


Thank you to Kim Powers, as well as TLC Book Tours, for the opportunity to read Dig Two Graves.

the new world by andrew motion


  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (July 14, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804138451
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804138451
  • [Amazon Vine program]

In The New World, former British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion continues the tale begun by RL Stevenson in his novel Treasure Island, serialized in a children’s magazine between 1881 and 1882. Main characters Jim Hawkins and Natty Silver, daughter of pirate Long John Silver, wash ashore along the coast of Texas. Lone survivors following a shipwreck and subsequent attack by Indians, Jim and Natty are taken prisoner, force marched to an Indian settlement where they’re held for weeks, the threat of execution by evisceration hanging over their heads. Escaping with the mesmerizingly shiny silver necklace worn by Chief Black Cloud, the pair spend years on the run, meeting up with adventure upon adventure, each on the heels of the last.

Jim and Natty are given a romantic relationship, though one kept just shy of carnal consummation, fitting considering the period in which the original novel was written. Natty’s given a feisty nature, a strong mind of her own and characteristics worthy of her pirate ancestry. The two are strong leading characters made multi-dimensional via Motion’s vivid descriptions of their lives spent in captivity, during the months in which they feared for their lives.

For fans of adventure tales, Motion’s sequel is a great read, paced well. The characters are well developed, both the main and supporting cast. The chapters are episodic,  somewhat sing-song up and down, in nature and rhythm, reminiscent of both Stevenson’s original work as well as Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a similar work in spirit, set in 19th Century America. Like the latter, the book has the feel of a road novel, a series of trials and tribulations experienced as the pair meet up with a widely diverse cast along the way from Texas to their eventual attempt to make it home to England by sea.

The book has a distinctly American feel, Motion capturing the spirit of the wild frontier perfectly as Natty and Jim make their way. Likewise, he balances the menacing Indian characters with more welcoming, kindly tribes, careful to present Native Americans in a fair light. More importantly, the balance isn’t forced but comes about naturally in the course of the story. Had he made political correctness his priority, the novel would have suffered for it. Fortnately, he doesn’t. Rather, he lets the story flow of its own course.

It could be considered a negative that the story’s quite predictable but that’s the nature of novels like these. You know the heroes will prevail, because they always do. To counteract this, Motion inserts a few twists in the relationship between Jim and Natty, helping mix things up a bit. The course of true love does not always run smooth. If it did, how much less interesting the tale would be. Overall, it’s a great adventure tale, ending with the clear intent Motion will continue the series.

For me, the story was a bit too formulaic, not really my sort of novel at all. I chose it to review out of curiosity, to find out how well a poet laureate could write a continuation of an iconic RL Stevenson novel. Turns out he does it quite well, more than equaling the task. It’s no strike against him this just isn’t my sort of read. Thus, the minimal animation in this review.

He did a good job; for an episodic novel it works. If this is your cuppa, you’ll find it warm and flavorful.

dawn lerman’s ‘my fat dad,’ an interview, with thoughts



  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley (September 29, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425272230
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425272237

Nutritionist, New York Times blogger and author Dawn Lerman grew up consumed by food, witness to her 450-lb. father’s see-saw obsession with diets. A man controlled by his own battles with eating, her father’s struggles took a toll, forcing his family onto the roller coaster of fad diets and an overall unhealthy attitude toward food. Yet, no one else in the family was overweight, a minor miracle.

If it’s true the kitchen is at the heart of the traditional home, Lerman’s family’s adversarial relationship with food was at odds with their family’s rich Jewish heritage, filled with meals to comfort the soul. Fortunately, Dawn’s maternal grandmother, Beauty, came to her rescue, both in providing a sense of love and stability and teaching her how to cook wonderfully flavorful, traditional dishes, essentially rescuing her from starvation and a childhood deprived of much in the way of nutrition. Even more powerfully, Beauty’s legacy  set Dawn on the path that would carry her into her life’s calling, founding Magnificent Mommies, a company providing nutrition education to students, teachers and corporations.

To read about Beauty is to love her; she was the sort of grandmother we all wish we’d had, or at least I do. Coming from a family fragmented, cut adrift from extended relations, I grew up in an environment devoid of nutritious foods. The Deep South formed my heritage, a world filled with biscuits and fried chicken and heavy, carbohydrate-dripping meals held together by animal fat. Though not as extreme, my own mother fad dieted her way through most of my life, reinforcing my own love-hate battle with food. And, ultimately, I never learned to cook, having watched my mother pull pre-packaged foods out of the freezer, plopping Banquet fried chicken, instant mashed potatoes and canned green beans in front of us, more often than not. Had I been blessed with such a grandmother as Lerman’s, I can only imagine how different my relationship with food could have been.

Thanks to her maternal grandmother, by high school Dawn had acquired a vast repertoire of dishes she’d become expert at creating. Her mother and little sister away, her sister performing in a production of Annie, she was finally able to introduce her father to  the wonder of home-cooked meals. Though her father had, by this point, lost a staggering 175 lbs, the weight was beginning to creep back up on him, as it almost inevitably does. And for a while it was great, cooking for her father. Then, he began drifting away again, leaving her alone while he spent more and more time at work. Undeterred, she kept studying and practicing her culinary art, turning what could have been seen as a failure to convince her father into totally embracing a healthy way of eating into a test of her convictions, a test she passed with flying colors.

My Fat Dad is essentially a collection of essays, columns about aspects of Dawn Lerman’s life. Each is accompanied by recipes, a combination of hearty meals and nutritionally-packed dishes, all of them unintimidating foods the average reader would feel comfortable making in their own kitchen. That’s part of what makes the book so wonderful, not only is it the story of one very determined woman’s path from misery to a successful career as a nutritionist, it’s also a cookbook filled with the love her maternal grandmother instilled in her, which she, in turn, passes along.

It’s like one big group hug, from Beauty to Dawn to us.

Dawn was kind enough to agree to answer a few interview questions for me:

1). What were your concerns in writing a book about your family? Were there discussions about what was off limits? 
Whenever you’re writing about family members or real people, there is always a fear that you will offend someone or feelings will be hurt. It is hard not to censor yourself when you know the people who you are writing about will read it. But in reading my book, “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes.” ,  you will see very little is off limits in my family. And it turns out both my parents loved the book. My dad, always an ad man, remarked, “You’ve come a long way baby”.  My mom, the ultimate stage mother shares passages from the book where ever she goes.  She just wishes there were more pictures of her in the center of the book.
2). At what age did you become interested in writing and what inspired you to write this book?
I have written for as long as I can remember. I used to carry around a little journal and pretend I was Harriet the Spy. Writing was my escape from my chaotic childhood. It was a place to put my feelings. It transported me into a world where I felt safe. 
I originally set out to write a health book for kids about snacking.  While I was compiling recipes, I realized that each one of them had a memory attached to it.  The memory was as important as the recipe itself—it was the people I was with at the time; where I was when I tasted it; and the smells that made it so important.
3). Who are some of the biggest creative influences in your life, in writing and the culinary arts? Whom do you admire?
In terms of food memoirs, I read every one of Ruth Reichl’s books. I loved how she weaved food into the tapestry of her life. In terms of straight memoirs, I adored Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and as a child, I must have read Anne Frank a hundred times.
4). How would you sum up your philosophy toward food and nutrition? What message are you hoping to get across?
I hope my story helps families create happy memories around food.  I also hope that “food” is seen to be more than just the macronutrients, protein, fat, or carbs from which it is composed.  I have always had a passion for taking any family recipe and making it healthier—I hope readers can see that good food can taste good and you don’t need to give up your traditional favorites if you are willing to exchange a few ingredients (There is an index at the back of My Fat Dad that explains what you can use as a substitute for most of the basics that go into every recipe).
5). What are Americans doing wrong in relation to healthy eating? What’s the biggest, most prevalent issue we should be paying attention to?
As a holistic nutritionist, I believe it is important to know your client before making any blanket statement. However, I do think drinking beverages other than soda, like Green Tea is important.  Also, people should try to eat simple, filling meals and fill up at least half of their plates with veggies. 
Finally, as my daughter says, if it has a commercial attached to it, it usually is not good—this goes for processed foods, especially. How many commercials do we see for kale or strawberries?
6). How has your Jewish heritage influenced your relationship with food? What’s singular about this particular ethnicity?
I think Ray Romano who blurbed my book said it best“ Dawn Lerman grew up Jewish in the 70’s. I grew up Italian. Might sound different, but for the most part, it’s the same. Especially when it comes to food. The philosophy was simple, food = love. My Fat Dad hilariously and poignantly captures that essence .Whether you’re Italian, Jewish, or anything else you can relate to how family, food, and the love of both affect how we grow up, and live our life. Mangia!”—Ray Romano, Emmy award-winning actor
No matter what your culture is food that is past down through generations and cooked with love creates memories and lasting nourishment.
My grandmother Beauty would say, “I can find my heritage in a bowl of chicken soup.”
7). What’s your best advice to busy households juggling family, career and trying to eat healthily?
Try to pick one day a week like a Sunday and do a shopping trip as a family. Go to either a grocery store or a farmer’s market and pick what is in season. Then together get creative and plan your meals for the week. A big batch of soup, a roasted chicken, a batch of roasted veggies, some chopped vegetables for dipping can help you avoid eating fast food. Being prepared with snacks and easy to make meals will set you up for success.
8). What’s up next for you, project-wise?
My main focus is really what it always has been, trying to teach kids about the importance of proper nutrition and teaching them how to cook. I am in the process of writing a cookbook for kids.
9). Finally, if you had to choose a favorite dish – either a go-to comfort dish our personal specialty – what would it be?
I think it would have to be my grandmother’s chicken soup. It was in her kitchen, inhaling the smells of fresh dill that I learned what it felt like to be loved and nourished. As for baked goods, it would have to be my grandmother’s banana oatmeal cookies that I have given a little makeover to –adding flax seeds and coconut oil.
Dawn Lerman is a New York-based health and nutrition consultant and author of “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes. ” Her series on growing up with a fat father appears on the Well blog of the New York Times 



what happened when the girl came back, then left again: gillian flynn’s ‘the grownup’

You may know Gillian Flynn from such things as one bazillion weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List, or the hit blockbuster film adaptation of a little book called Gone Girl. Or, you may just have crawled out of the primordial ooze and have no idea what I’m talking about. For the latter, have a crawl back in and wait for this to pass. It’s a short book, thus a short review. We won’t be long.

And now Gillian’s back, with a palate-cleansing little book you could call a short story published in hardback format, maybe because it is a short story published in hardback format.

The Girl, She Done Gone Again

The Girl, She Done Gone Again

  • Hardcover: 64 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (November 3, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804188971
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804188975

Reportedly, Flynn didn’t feel like writing another Gone Girl just yet and, you know, can you blame her? Your previous book goes blockbuster and there you are again, sitting down in front of the blank screen. Even if you have just floated back down from a meteoric rise, do you actually want to strap on for another trip in the rocket so soon?

No, you probably don’t. What you want is permission to write something different, off your main genre but not so far removed it takes you completely out of your comfort zone. This is a way-station here, not a complete change in course. So, what you do may be something like this:

If you’ve read Gone Girl (and odds are you have) you know Gillian Flynn’s talent for playing cat and mouse with her readers. InThe Grownup she does it again but in only 62 pages. The story opens with this: “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.” It’s a helluva way to start, and the curiosity it raises is just the beginning. The narrator is a born and raised scam artist who sees a chance to leave light sex work behind for a career in what she does best, reading people and telling them what they want to hear. Susan seems like the perfect mark–rich, desperate, and terrified of the evil she says lives in her house. But things are not what they seem, especially with Flynn at the helm. A short story written for George R.R. Martin’sRogues anthology, The Grownup is a tightly wrought psychological thrill ride that will leave readers replaying every well spent moment. – Seira Wilson


Only, it isn’t all that. It’s a short story with a certain twisty-turny appeal but it’s too short to have much chance of really grabbing a reader by her throat. It’s a nice story, with some good bits of zing (professional term). I wish I’d written it, sure, but that’s because it’s me and I haven’t just come off a blockbuster thrill-ride.

Really, hard as it is to believe, I haven’t.

I love that the protagonist is a sex worker turned medium, a bookish young woman who’s screwed up her life to this point, to the extent she is a sex worker turned medium. Not a lot further you could fall.

I didn’t stop giving hand jobs  because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.

For three years, I gave the best hand job in the tristate area. The key is not to overthink it. If you start worrying about technique, if you begin analyzing rhythm and pressure, you lose the essential nature of the act. You have to mentally prepare beforehand, and then you have to stop thinking and trust your body to take over.

I love her sense of humor, her heart and basic core of integrity. When a middle-aged woman comes to her, begging for her help, it touches her. The woman’s upset. There’s an evil presence in her home and she’s at her wit’s end. Can she help?

She can, she says. And she will.

Now, at 64 pages, there’s not an awful lot I can give you on the story without blowing the whole thing wide open. It’s meant as an exercise in flexing muscles in a ghost story turned dark side of the human mind way but, much as I hate to say it, it falls flat. As I said earlier, there just isn’t enough space within 64 pages to make the tight turns Flynn needs. She succeeds in making me care about her characters, that’s a given. It’s just the story itself can’t quite pull it off, can’t send a chill down my spine or even leave me feeling satisfied.

Unlike the protagonist’s clients.

It’s a short story, pulled from an anthology. Where it should have stayed. As one of many, it’s fine. As a stand-alone hardback for the price of $ 9.99, it simply doesn’t cut it.

If you’re going to wow us with a short, every word must not just count but carry enormous weight, expressing artistry as much by what’s missing as what’s there. If your goal is to twist once, maybe twice, you have to be very fleet of foot and, unless you’re a miracle worker, give yourself the space in which to do it.

I saw what she was trying to do, the theme she was going for. It just didn’t happen.

So… uncomfortable shifting, avoiding eye contact… Gillian, how’s the new novel coming?



travels with salman: an event to remember




2015 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize


Saturday, November 7, 2015

UIC Forum, Main Hall AB



It’s long been a dream of mine to meet Salman Rushdie but I’d begun to think it wasn’t meant to be. There’ve been several near misses, events I couldn’t make for one reason or another, so when I saw he was coming to Chicago to receive the 2015 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, hell if I was going to miss that. Not this time.

Tickets were $ 20, general admission, so I had a romantic idea I’d get there early, squat in front and bask him in rays of my adoration. Didn’t quite work out that way. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t as good as I’d built it up in my mind. In my head he’d be right there above me, onstage. Looking down he’d see one glowing face, beaming love and adoration, the rest of the audience obscured. His heart would melt, observing the positive flow of light and love exchanged between us. At that moment he’d realize this is the most important moment of his life…

Yeah. No.

It’s about an hour from my place way out in the suburbs to the UIC area, in good traffic. Leaving home at 8:00 for a 10:00 event provided me with a safe window, no worries. Things were good, no delays I didn’t expect. So there was construction. So isn’t there always. Three-quarters of the way down, I started hearing this flapping noise, something slapping against the side of the van. The sound of something rapping, flapping, knocking at my van door.

Only this, and nothing more.

I felt paranoid, convinced a thing of great import had broken free from the nether regions of my van, and that the car had begun beating itself to death in a frenzy. My engine would die shortly, I just knew it, leaving me spinning out of control, only to die in a fiery crash never having met Salman Rushdie. Vile fate!

Turns out, it was the belt of my trench coat, flappy flapping merrily, as I sped down the expressways. The belt of my trench coat sticking out the driver’s side door. Not too embarrassing, now, is that. Knowing how I love making serious fun of idiots when this happens to them, Karma bitch-slapped me in return. I guess it’s only fair. And it could have been far, far worse.

Fortunately, I made it to UIC with time to spare, found a parking garage on Maxwell Street, reached the venue and took the best seat I could find, behind all the VIPS and press. Not bad. Plus, there were screens. Never mind my camera couldn’t handle the distance; I could see just fine.

If you haven’t heard Rushdie speak, he’s inspirational beyond what you may already imagine. He spoke on freedom of speech, on his writing and magical realism in general, on books and reading and how young people today are doing just fine on that front, thanks. They are reading and they’re reading a lot. Plus, the book is going nowhere; the internet has not, will not kill it.

He was inspirational, positive and painfully honest about how much religious fundamentalism and hatred have hurt him, how terrifying it was to be slapped with a fatwah, how much impact that had on his life. To this day, is he safe? The answer, as well as can be determined. So he lives his life, he makes appearances and fights for freedom of speech wherever and whenever he can.

It’s for this the Chicago Tribune awarded him its Literary Prize.

I recorded lots of snippets from the roughly hour-long interview he had with Chicago Tribune editor Bruce Dold, snippets I’m still uploading to YouTube.  Because it’s time consuming, and because I want to get this post uploaded soon, I’m going to go ahead and finish those as I can, then post separately. I may even type up the transcripts. We’ll see how I feel.

One thing about the event I’m left to puzzle about is the almost complete lack of interest most attendees showed in having Rushdie sign their books. I zipped straight to the signing room, cutting ahead of most of the crowd by use of a door hardly anyone else seemed to notice, so I made it there very quickly. Most people  just walked right out the door, not bothering to attend the signing. Do they meet Booker Prize winning, humanitarian icons so often they can’t be bothered greeting them in person? Or maybe the prospect’s daunting, maybe people shy away. I don’t know. But I wasn’t about to miss that. I didn’t drive all the way down to the city, belt flapping in the breeze, to listen and run.

I was bound and determined to talk to this man, wringing every bit of experience from the event. I may never meet Salman Rushdie again. Who knows? Besides, I wanted that autograph and wanted it badly. I wanted it in Midnight’s Children, the Booker of Bookers.




And get it I did.

Just as I wasn’t about to squander my brief moment with Mr. Rushdie, I wasn’t about to miss taking an illegal picture or five. The security guards told me to knock it off but I didn’t care. It was my plan all along to play goober, taking photos until told otherwise. It’s easier to ask forgiveness after than permission before, an old adage that’s inarguable. What were they going to do, take my phone and stomp on it?


I had my moment in the sun with Rushdie. In the course of the interview, he mentioned the sorts of wordplay he’d enjoyed with Amis and Hitchens and all that group, told the story of how they played with the names of famous novels, making them “less than great,” things like The Good Gatsby, Toby Dick, etc. Wanting an in with him so badly, something I could say to have his attention for three seconds if no more, while he was leaning over to sign my book, I leaned over, too, and said:

“The Selfie of Dorian Gray…”

Friends, HE LAUGHED.


Does it get better than that? Because I don’t think it does.

What a day. What a stellar day. I heard Salman Rusdie speak about truth and literature and what matters in life,  saw him presented with an award and even talked to him, if ever so briefly. Flapping trench coat belt aside, to me it’s all pretty priceless.

Afterward, I may have gotten a bit lost navigating the city but my beautiful Chicago capped it off brilliantly, just as I figured it would. An event worth waiting for, in so many ways, and a bucket list wish fulfilled.

Thank you Chicago Tribune, UIC and The Unabridged Bookstore for a memory to last a lifetime.



And, lovely city of Chicago, thanks for blocking my GPS signal, so I’d get lost, yet still manage to find  this.

Lyric Opera, Chicago

Lyric Opera, Chicago


Sears Tower - No, NOT Willis

Sears Tower – No, NOT Willis

Right now, at this single moment, all’s right with the world.

GIVEAWAY results! ** Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’ **



You people gave me a run for my money with all your ridiculous wonderfulness and re-Tweeting and general kindness.

Lots and lots of names to go through, my goodness!

But, here it is, the Winner of a brand new, pristine copy of THE HEART GOES LAST is:


Wait for it…


Don’t be impatient…




@GirlSwagger101 on Twitter

Send me your preferred address for shipment at: lisaguidarini@yahoo.com

I shall get your book out to you posthaste.

Congrats, Jocelyn, and thanks to all who participated.


GIVEAWAY! * the heart goes last by margaret atwood

The book gods have been kind to me.

I don’t do many giveaways but this one dropped into my lap; it was destiny.

Her publisher sent me an extra copy of the incomparable Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last. I could have been a complete ass and just sold it on Amazon but then I wouldn’t have had the satisfaction of giving away a fantastic work of literary fiction.

Every now and then I enjoy giving away a fantastic work of literary fiction. I haven’t done so in a very long time. I was due.



Leave a comment and your name will go into the GRAND GIVEAWAY POT OF LITERARY GOODNESS, i.e.: an old crappy bowl. Contest ends Wednesday, 4 November, 12:00 midnight CDT – Chicago. ** Entries received after this time will not be considered. ** Sorry to be a hard ass.

On 5 November I will throw all your lovely names into a pot, drawing out  one very lucky winner, indeed. You’ll receive an email from me requesting your name and mailing address. You’ll send me that via email. Then, Bob’s yer uncle, off it ships.

***    Offer valid worldwide. I’m feeling generous.    ***

Tweet about THE GRAND GIVEAWAY and your name will  go in twice. Just let me know you’ve done so in the comments. Hey, I trust you. You look honest.  Except for YOU, that one dude back in the corner. YOU, wearing the hat.

Flatter me, about anything at all, and your name will go in one MORE time!

I know it’s insane but it’s my GIVEAWAY, my rules. And I’ve had a rough week. I need the boost.