Great reads: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng


The buzz for this one built up quickly, and now it has been picked up for development as a series. I rarely jump on books or anything else while it’s hot, but I managed to read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere while it is warm, and it’s a great read.

It begins in Shaker Heights, the tony neighborhood outside Cleveland that was the United States’ first planned community, named after the celibate sect who had a rule for everything, in the name of simplicity. This isn’t a story about a Housing Association nightmare, it is about two very different ways of living and how they collide. Ng writes wonderful and compelling characters, deftly using the third omniscient to effortlessly shift points of view without confusion. It’s a writing style that has fallen into disuse, some self-proclaimed writing gurus even call it “instant death,” but like any tool, in the proper hands it can be used masterfully.

This is Ng’s second novel. She dodges the sophomore slump and created a real rocket. The story begins in the ’90s, as the Richardsons, led by Mrs. Richardson, a lifelong resident of Shaker, whose family has lived there for three generations, watches her beautiful house burn to the frame. We get a hint of the story; a mother and her daughter zip away in a battered VW Rabbit packed to the roof with their belongings; the fire, set by the troublesome youngest Richardson daughter Izzy, is the new subject of neighborhood gossip, supplanting the controversy over baby “Mirabelle McCullough/May Lin Wong”, who we learn about in due course. The story moves quickly. This is the kind of novel where you might be concerned there is little plot, as it focuses on two women and the successful lives they’ve build, their secret philosophies, and the events that created them, but the story moves along at a brisk pace, and never drags for a moment. It is as skillful as a great thriller in that regard, elegant and spare in its prose, and moves the “camera” of its point of view like a master documentarian, observing its subjects, and informing us when we see things the others can’t possibly know.

The story skips back to the “beginning,” when Mrs Richardson rents a Shaker duplex to a woman her age, artist Mia Warren, and her teen daughter Pearl. Mrs Richardson (Elena– but almost always referred to by her “title”) is a journalist for the town paper, and never broke out to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, to her chagrin. Her husband is a lawyer, and their four children are all in high school, one year apart, like clockwork: the popular Lexie, about to graduate; Trip, the jock; Moody, the aptly named bookish introvert, coming to an MFA program near you; and Izzy, the troublemaker, who wears Doc Martens under her designer jeans, who asks the questions no one wants to answer.

Mrs Richardson likes to rent her duplex cheaply to “good” people who could never afford to live in her Utopian community, like Mr Yang, a hard-working immigrant, and the Warrens: a single mother (a political football in the ’90s, if you remember, Murphy Brown and all. My mother raised us from when I was seven, so I’m quite aware of the judgments Americans put on these families, and how they were pawns in politics, a moral problem to some, a hero to others). Mia is a fascinating character, a mystery. She and her daughter live like nomads; she turns their apartments into her studio for photographic art, and sells her work at a gallery in Manhattan. There is much more to this than it seems, and as young Pearl becomes a part of the family, she feels entitled to investigate Mia’s life using her journalist skills. Mia works as an artist, and in a local Chinese restaurant to make ends meet, where the flexible hours and leftovers help out.

Mrs Richardson’s desire for control leads her to offer Mia a job as their housekeeper. Out of kindness, of course. Pearl is over the house all the time, anyway! But partly, she is driven by her mystification of how Mia can live untethered to a house, free to move whenever she pleases. They get more entangled when Mrs Richardson’s oldest friend Linda McCullough, who can’t have children, adopts a Chinese baby that was abandoned in front of a fire department in town. The mother turns out to be Mia’s coworker, the young Chinese immigrant Bebe. She tried to get her baby back the next day, but was told she had surrendered all rights, and gave up hope. Mia gives her hope, and tells her how to get help.

Character is revealed through plot, and the plot moves forward driven by character. We know it all ends in “little fires everywhere,” and the mysteries of Mrs Richardson’s need for rules and order and her short temper with her youngest, rebellious daughter Izzy, and why Mia and Pearl are seemingly on the run, are revealed as they take different sides in Bebe Wong’s mission to get her daughter back. It’s divisive, and the narrator lets us decide who to side with, and while this is a subplot given the backseat to the main characters, the teens as they fumble through life, some faced with difficult decisions of their own, and the parents as their past choices define who they have become, it drives the whole novel: how important are the rules?

It’s a subject I try to tackle in fiction, though I am not as skilled as Celeste Ng. In my hands, it’s a battle between Love and the Law. You’ll be seeing more of that underlying my stories. I burned through this in a day or two, because the story was so compelling. I’m eager to see it expanded into an eight episode series on Hulu, with Reese Witherspoon as Mrs Richardson and Kerry Washington, who I assume will play Mia Warren. There are many great characters for actors to chew on. I saw Mrs Richardson as a young Alison Janney, and Mia as Sonja Sohn, Moody as Lucas Hedges (Danny from Lady Bird) and Izzy as Hannah Alligood (Frankie in Better Things, a great show).


Short Story Challenge: Old Leech, new crime, giveaways and great reads

Kitsch Confidential,” by Janice Leagra, at Ghost Parachute. This is an amusing surreal story about Anthony Bourdain, explaining it would ruin it.

We Go Together,” by Eric McMillan in One Story. The story of a moto (overly motivated, oo-rah type) US Army combat infantry NCO who gets command of a support platoon in 1996 on the South Korean border. It captured the character well, and brought back the pre-9/11 military feel, when the peace seemed a possibility, but it’s really about how racism doesn’t seem like racism when you’re racist.

Faint of Heart,” by Amanda Rea in One Story. I liked this one a lot, a woman about to be married inadvertently rescues a child, and becomes obsessed with the criminal. Their paths meet again. It’s different than the usual stories of its kind, and a great small-town tale.

I finished The Children of Old Leech, edited by Ross Lockhart, an anthology of stories set in the cosmic horror mythos of Laird Barron. Barron is one of my favorite writers, and while he doesn’t contribute–that would be silly–the writers all did a fine job of tackling subjects dear to his heart. Some standouts were stories by Gemma Files, Orrin Grey, Jeffrey Thomas, T.E. Grau, Paul Tremblay, Michael Griffin, Joseph S. Pulver Sr., Daniel Mills, John Langan, and Scott Nicolay & Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay. Overall, an excellent anthology. I really enjoyed the last one by the Nicolays, about a gutterpunk and his dog riding the rails to flee pursuers who want a book he’s scavenged.

run, Jennifer” by doungjai gam at Tough Crime is a cathartic read for anyone who’s worked front of the house in a restaurant, or dealt with a douchebag in general. My first read by gam, and it won’t be my last.

Chris McGinley returns to the holler for a longer haint tale at Tough Crime, with “And They Shall Take Up Serpents.” Both McGinley and Gam are a little raw, but they both show a lot of promise and potential, and know how to spin a good yarn, which is the heart of being a writer. The polish comes later.

Our New Lives,” by Helen Coats in One Teen Story was a compelling read, about a big sister going off to college, right after her younger brother loses a classmate in a tragic accident. It captures the sibling dynamic and how much we communicate with siblings without saying a word. A fine read.

I picked up The Highway Kind again, so that will be my next story collection.

Some great reads, lately:

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. A sad, and stunningly beautiful book about the lead-up to Hurricane Katrina, in the part of the country hit hardest, the Mississippi Gulf country. Not that New Orleans didn’t have it bad, but the levees breaking are what did them. Mississippi took the direct brunt of the storm. Ward’s story centers on the Batiste family, from young woman Esch’s point of view, as her father tries to fix up a truck to get clean up work after the storm, her brother Randall hopes to go to basketball camp where he can get a scholarship, and Skeetah dotes on his pit China’s newborn pups, hoping to sell them to pay for Randall’s camp, and to keep their family going.

I’m in the middle of The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale, and it’s one of his best. I love Hap & Leonard, but his young adult tales like The Bottoms and Edge of Dark Water are my favorites, and this is in that vein, sort of a mash-up of True Grit and The Searchers, in a story only Joe could write.

I’m also reading Blackout, the latest Pete Fernandez mystery by Alex Segura, who never disappoints. He plumbs the darkness with a sensitive hero who unlike fairy tale knights, can’t escape battle unscathed. Start with Silent City, Down The Darkest Street, and Dangerous Ends.

Oh, Green Sun  by Kent Anderson turned out to be as excellent as his earlier Hanson novel, Night Dogs, one of the best police novels ever written. This one is ever so prescient, even though it is set in 1983 in Oakland, long before gentrification was a glimmer in a city planner’s eye.

If you’ve stuck around this long, if you don’t subscribe to my newsletter, today is the time. I’m posting a book giveaway at 3:30pm EST, so jump on the bus before then. I also have a Last Jedi movie poster that’s up for grabs.


Story Challenge 3/31: Thor, Lovecraftiana, and death row.

The best stories I’ve read since my last Short Story Challenge post are:

The President of Costa Rica,” by Shane Jones (thanks to Matthew Robinson for the rec). A good transgressive tale that reminded me of Katherine Faw.

Thor Meets Captain America,” by David Brin. A classic of SF alternate history, this was Brin’s snarky answer when solicited for an anthology in which the Nazis won WWII. It’s brilliant, ugly, horrifying, and somewhat offensive, when you think about it, but no more than any other “what if” story about Nazis.

Ain’t That Good News,” by Brit Bennett (Thanks to Nikki Dolson for the rec) A great story about grief and vengeance in Louisiana. One of the best I’ve read this month.

Another strong tale of grief is by Beau Johnson, “My Kingdom for a Fence,” at Spelk Fiction.

The Litany of Earth,” by Ruth Anna Emrys (Thanks to Rob Lawson for the rec). The other great story I read this month, is about the last living former resident of Innsmouth. She has “the look” and we learn what happened to her people. The story references the internment of Japanese people by the U.S. government and includes characters who were victims of it, but doesn’t use them lightly.

The Crossing,” by Matthew Robinson. A nasty shard of post-apocalyptic flash fiction that leaves you begging for more.

Neighbors,” by Shayne Terry (thanks to Matthew Robinson for the rec). A creepy quick read that didn’t work for me.

Rations,” by Ravi Mangla. This very short piece was called an essay, but it could be a story, for how it’s told. It’s about last meals, from the most famous to the personal.

You can read all the Short Story Challenge posts.

What great short stories have you read lately? Please share in the comments! I’ll read them if I can.


You down with KGB? Yeah, you know me… join me on April 3

This Tuesday I’ll be one of many authors reading at the glorious red room of the KGB Bar in Manhattan. Come join me with Tim O’Mara, Laura K. Curtis, Alex Segura, Carrie Smith, RG Belsky, Leanna Renee Heiber, and Wallace Stroby. They have a nice selection of Russian beers and it’s always a good time. Come and drink to our new overlords!

I’ll be giving away a copy of Life During Wartime and reading a new story.


When: 6:30 PM, Tuesday April 3rd

Where: The Red Room (upstairs) at the KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street, Manhattan.

Who: You and Me and a Dog Named Bee.



Short Story Challenge: Megan Abbott, Laird Barron, James Tiptree Jr.

As I am wont to do, I bit off more than I could chew with the story challenge and opened three anthologies to alternate through:

The Children of Old Leech, edited by Ross Lockhart, stories inspired by the mythos of Laird Barron. Laird is one of my favorite story writers. I’d already read “Ymir” by John Langan because it was chosen for the Year’s Best Horror by Ellen Datlow, and the others I’ve read have not disappointed. “The Harrow” by Gemma Files, “Walpurgisnacht” by Orrin Grey, and “Snake Wine” by Jeffrey Thomas all capture the spirit of what Barron does and gives it the author’s own unique twist, exactly what you want in a tribute collection. You’d think an author who’s only written a few novels an story collections wouldn’t have enough to inspire this anthology, but that’s what makes Laird Barron great.

The Highway Kind, car stories edited by Patrick Millikin. I am a motor head and love car stories. “Test Drive” by Ben H. Winters is a good twisty revenge story, but “Power Wagon” by C.J. Box was fantastic, a real down and gritty crime tale that knows its cars. “Burnt Matches” by Michael Connelly was a little too much of a superhero lawyer story for me. I liked his low-key story in the Edward Hopper anthology much better. Then again, following Box’s story would be tough for anyone.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, selected stories by James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree was actually Alice Sheldon, and famously fooled Robert Silverberg who said that “whoever this is, he has to be male” (paraphrasing). She was wise to use a male pseudonym, for her stories are the most brutally unapologetic depictions of the damage done by the rigid gender roles enforced by patriarchal society. “The Screwfly Solution” gives us an alien invasion that treats us like insects. Something is in the air that makes men kill women–more than usual–and it’s a genocide, much like how we deal with certain pests, by introducing a chemical that alters behavior to make their mating fatal, and so on. It’s brilliant and utterly terrifying. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is even better, about a space mission that brings the all-male crew to an all-female society whose origin is incredibly disturbing. Not all the stories are about gender, of course. “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” is about one of the things that makes humanity unique, and as we discover other species, becomes our downfall.

I’m about 1/4-1/3 through those. I had to review Second Story Man by Charles Salzberg, which is a fine burglar yarn. Now I’m reading Green Sun by Kent Anderson. His books are an event. He’s written three now. Night Dogs is my favorite. They are all about Hanson, who begins in the Vietnam War in Sympathy for the Devil, becomes a Portland cop in Night Dogs. Best depiction of PTSD I’ve read. in the latest, he is a cop in Oakland in the ’80s as the crack epidemic is about to take off. Hanson is a good cop, a social worker with a psycho Shirley Temple smile and a killer instinct, who sees his occupation as occupier and does his best to deflect the damage such an outlook will have on the people he’s trying to protect. As a smart-ass he’s in the “worst” neighborhood, but sees eye to eye with Felix, the local drug lord, and tries to keep the peace… so far.

Oxford Girl,” by Megan Abbott. Winner of the Anthony Award in 2017 for best short story. Megan read the beginning of this at the Montclair Lit Fest, and I had to read the rest! Her stories are so powerful. She’s a great novelist but an even better short story writer, and this is one of her best. A murder ballad made modern.

Schwimps,” and “rek-rek-kek-kek-kek,” by Bud Smith. Bud is fast becoming one of my favorite new writers. He often writes on his iPhone during breaks on his job in heavy construction, and brings an absurd sensibility missing from a lot of fiction these days, because of the perspective forced by so many editors, agents, and thus writers, being affluent and white. Both of these stories have a tall-tale element, as he strings us along, but they’re entertaining, funny, and reveal the repetitive and futile nature of life in the late capitalist era.

St Girard’s Ink Den,” by Mark Rapacz at Tough Crime Magazine. Mark is a newer writer who we will hopefully hear a lot more from. This story plays with expectations and like Bud, comes from a perspective lacking in a lot of crime fiction. No squalor porn here, or sneering at the downtrodden. I met Mark at Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee, and this is the first story I’ve read of is, about a tattoo artist trying to get along, and it reads like early the Willeford and even Goodis.

So, what great short stories have you read lately?

The Femme Fatale Story Bundle

If you haven’t bought Bad Boy Boogie, or want to snag the e-book bundled with a great collection of crime novels by great writers like Lawrence Block, O’Neil Ledoux, and Libby Fischer Hellmann, check out the new Femme Fatale StoryBundle!

All Covers Large

There are two levels. For five bucks, you get Bad Boy Boogie and three other novels. You can also get a full ten e-books for $15, or more. StoryBundle gives you the option to donate 10% to a charity, as well. And you get to choose how much goes to the authors and how much goes to StoryBundle for setting it up. The power is yours.

Ramona is one of the most complex characters I’ve ever written, but she surely fits the femme fatale description. One of my inspirations was The Last Seduction, one of the first crime movies I watched where a woman had real agency and did things because she wanted to. While some fatales are sirens who lure men to their doom to make their living, she is a self-made woman who needs Jay Desmarteaux for her own purposes, and has a different set of rules… together they are explosive and dangerous, a legal mastermind and a cunning criminal cat’s paw. You’ll have to read Bad Boy Boogie to find out….

The Femme Fatale e-book StoryBundle


Montclair Authors Cocktail Reception and Don’t Quit the Day Job!

Thursday March 8th, I’ll be attending a Montclair Authors Meet & Greet cocktail reception sponsored by Sotheby’s and Watchung Booksellers. Come join us, it will be a good time.

From 7:00PM until 9:00PM, At 32 Valley Road Montclair, at Prominent Properties. Valerie Wilson Wesley is among those attending.
2018-03-02 13_44_36-Meet the Authors of Montclair Reception at Sotheby's _ watchung booksellers

Also, Victoria Watson asked me to write about writing with a full-time day job, as part of her series Don’t Quit the Day Job, and I obliged. You can read it here.