Great reads: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

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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).

 

now available: The Summer of Blind Joe Death, a coming of age novelette

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My chilling coming of age novelette is now available as a standalone e-book:

Wade and his best friend Red Collins have only lived eleven summers, but the one they’ll remember for the rest of their lives is when Blind Joe Death visited their holler, spinning tales of deadly haints and black dogs that steal souls in the night.

Wade lost his father in the mines, and Red wishes his were dead. When the boys invite this strange hoodoo man into their lives they learn that the real monsters walk on two feet and sit beside us in church, and there is no darkness colder than what lurks within the human heart.

Inspired by the “Silver John” stories of Manly Wade Wellman and the music of John Fahey, this story set in the hollows of Appalachia is one of my favorites. I’m offering it for only 99 cents, because it’s a story I would love to be read far and wide.

It’s available now for Kindle and iBooks; it will take a few days for the rest to percolate through the ether. I’ll update the links here as they become available. If you don’t do e-books, this 35 page novelette first appeared in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, as “Black Shuck,” and you can buy the paperback here.

Amazon Kindle

Barnes & Noble Nook

Apple iBooks

Kobo Bookstore

Scribd

PageFoundry

First Blood: the Gauntlet Press lettered traycased edition

His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky.

First Blood by David Morrell is one of my favorite books. I found it through the movie, which I saw in theaters with my father, because his friend, “uncle” Tony Maffatone, was Stallone’s bodyguard at the time and was on set for some of the filming. He was given one of the numbered editions of the RJ Loveless “First Blood” survival knife that became iconic through the film, which introduced me to the world of custom, handmade knives. The movie had quite an effect on me, and when I tracked the book down I read it in one sitting. It is lean and bloody and tells a brutal, heartfelt tale rich with allegory, about a Vietnam veteran who comes home to a country that sees him as a dangerous drifter instead of a soldier who has suffered greatly in its service.

The movie is a classic in its own right, but as expected, it lacks the depth of the novel, which makes Chief Teasle a sympathetic character instead of an angry Brian Dennehy; the book is also much darker. What may surprise you is that the novel is bloodier, by many magnitudes than the film adaptation. David Morrell brought the war home with his novel.

It has been printed in many editions, and in 26 languages, but this new special edition from Gauntlet Press pulls out all the stops. I opted for the most limited edition, which went on sale on January 1st. I set an alarm to order it early on New Year’s Day, as not to miss out on the lettered, traycased edition which includes original manuscript pages from early drafts of the novel and rare promotional material from the film, when Kirk Douglas was cast as Colonel Trautman. The material is interesting as both a reader and a writer, to see how much work went into a heartfelt novel that had such a cultural impact. “Rambo,” the novel’s main character, has literally entered the lexicon; he is referenced in the Oxford English Dictionary. Whether you visualize the original longhaired, bearded drifter from the opening pages or steroid enhanced action hero Stallone made of him, you’ve most likely heard of John Rambo. And if you have not read the novel in which he was born, I highly recommend it. The prose is gripping and the story prescient as ever, as wounded veterans come home from another war to a country that all too often leaves them alone walking the streets with nowhere to call home.

Inside the traycase. The book is leather bound with gold foil.
Inside the traycase. The book is leather bound with gold foil.
The signature page.
The signature page.
Kirk Douglas on a promotional poster.
Kirk Douglas on a promotional poster.

join us beneath the DARK CITY LIGHTS

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If you want to see what 23 writers do when Lawrence Block, the crime-writer King of New York, asks them to write about the 8 million stories in the Empire city, this is the book to read.
You can order it from Amazon, your favorite e-tailer, or from your local bookstore.

And don’t forget to join us on Thursday May 7th at the Mysterious Bookshop at 6:30pm, for a signing and the official launch party. Lawrence Block, myself, and 16 other contributors will be there.

Reviewing the Evidence on DARK CITY LIGHTS

Over at Reviewing the Evidence, they’ve got a nice review of DARK CITY LIGHTS, and give a nod to my contribution, “The Big Snip.”
The book is now available, and we’re having a book signing on May 7th at The Mysterious Bookshop, with editor Lawrence Block and many others. Come join us for a good time.

You can order it from Amazon, or from your local bookstore.

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Belly Up to the Bar with M.H. Mead

M.H. Mead is the pen name of the writing duo of Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, authors of FATE’S MIRROR, THE CALINE CONSPIRACY, and most recently, the Motor City techno-thriller TAKING THE HIGHWAY. Detroit has become a commuter nightmare of dystopian proportions that gives us “fourths,” professional carpoolers needed to fill a car so you can ride in the HOV lane, and computer-controlled traffic patterns. As a fan of speculative fiction, science fiction that considers the issues facing humanity today and in the future, I enjoyed “Riding Fourth,” the short story set in the future of TAKING THE HIGHWAY, so I invited Yang and Campion to belly up to the bar.

Taking the Highway

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Hello Margaret and Harry, or M.H. … what can I get you?

 
 
 

mh mead Harry: I’ll take Captain’s and Cola with lime.
Margaret: I’ll have what he’s having.

 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP:I gave readers a hint about the future Detroit in TAKING THE HIGHWAY, but tell us what the story is about.

 
 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: The Detroit of the future is a newly-evolved model of prosperity, but that prosperity is fragile. A ring of poverty circles the city like a noose, which makes commuting from the suburbs into the city a dangerous prospect, unless you’re on the highways. Since every highway is restricted to cars with four passengers, those carpools who come up short hire professional hitchhikers—fourths—to round out their carpools. The city needs fourths. Fourths need the work. It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash.

Or to end up dead.

Someone is killing fourths and the only one who can stop the killer is jaded homicide detective Andre LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

Tom Pluck BeerTP:I’m a total motorhead, though my mechanic skills peter out after electronic fuel injection came around. I drove a ’65 Mustang ragtop in college–bought with my own cash after paying tuition, mind you–and I love a well designed car, whether it’s ’70s Detroit muscle or my Mini Cooper turbo. What are your favorites?

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: We test-drove lots of contemporary American power to see which one we thought would become a classic. Which car of today would be considered a desirable antique in a future of smoothly plastic electric cars? A friend took us for a ride in a Viper, but we had to pass because it was only available in manual transmission. It was too much to ask that our hero be able to drive stick in that world—alas. Although we loved the Mustang and the Corvette, we came back to Dodge for the Challenger. Andre and his brother share a bright red, 2008 Challenger, inherited from their father. The brothers constantly fight over who gets to drive it, even though it’s too valuable to be driven at all.

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Tom Pluck BeerTP: In “Riding Fourth” you make it clear that Fourths are second-class citizens. We like to think America is a classless society, but that’s only because it’s taboo to talk about it. And your car says the same things about you in America as your schooling and accent do in England. What inspired you to make a car-less underclass for this novel?

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: We’re big fans of science fiction novels that focus on the cultural impacts of new discoveries and evolving technology. Detroit has been saved by shrinking its footprint, but that makes the commute there and back again from the suburbs a tricky thing. People will hire fourths only if they have to. Since you don’t want just any stranger in your car, fourths have to look good, act polite, and charm instantly. Our fourths are day laborers with the wit of Oscar Wilde, gigolos with the sophisticated charm of James Bond, and they are constantly clawing for respect. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t.

 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” That’s from Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. But I also like “Nobody walks in L.A.,” by Missing Persons. We have it on the jukebox. You got no wheels, you got nothing. Tell us a bit about Detroit. I haven’t been there for decades, and residents have a love-hate relationship with the city. What made you set it there?

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: The Motor City hates the hate when it comes to public transportation. The unspoken undercurrent is “anyone not buying a new car as often as possible is part of the problem.” At the same time, cities often have islands of safety surrounded by lakes of poverty. We just took both things to their logical extreme. Honestly, the most science-fictional aspect of the entire book is the new prosperity of Detroit. In our imagined future, Detroit is a great place to live, work, and even vacation. One of our favorite scenes in the book is when Andre, working as a fourth, is picked up by a family of tourists. Their outsider’s view of Detroit really shows how the city has changed.

Detroit Grand Prix

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I was sorely disappointed that it wasn’t like ROBOCOP described it, when I visited. New Jersey has the same self-deprecating sense of humor. What are some of your favorite movies? They don’t have to be about cars or Detroit.

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: We could probably carry on entire conversations using nothing but movie quotes. THE PRINCESS BRIDE has the best lines. “Have fun storming the castle!” and “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means,” and “I do not think you’ll accept my help, since I am only waiting around to kill you.” We also love little Ronald Ann in A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK. Her simple, “Uh-huh, save it,” speaks volumes.

What’s even more fun is quoting lines from really bad movies. Bruce Willis in STRIKING DISTANCE, half-shouting, half-whining, “I’m trying to solve a murder, here!” cracks us up every time.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Here’s a buck, pick a few songs off the jukebox that readers should listen to while reading TAKING THE HIGHWAY.

 
 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: We could take the easy way and name car songs like “Highway to Hell” and “I’m in Love With My Car” and “Pink Cadillac.”  But you know what would be even more fitting? Classic Motown. Our near-future Detroit has a lot in common with the Detroit of the 50’s and 60’s. It was a time of prosperity, of population growth, of optimism. Yet, there was an undercurrent of poverty and inequality that exploded a few years later. Things were good on the surface, not so good underneath. And yet that music—The Supremes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye—is music everyone knows by heart.

 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I tried collaborating on a story with a friend of mine, but I found it very difficult. Then again, I’m a brutal editor. For the record, “Riding Fourth” didn’t make me reach for my red pen. I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading your novel. What is it like collaborating on novels, like you do? How do you not kill each other?

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: It starts with respect. We were classmates together and beta readers for one another long before we were collaborators. We have confidence in each other’s opinions, so if one of us says, “This is a problem,” we know it is. We often differ about the best fix, but the trust and respect means we will eventually find a way.

Do we ever want to kill each other? Heck, no! We’ve had a few serious disagreements, but 99 days out of 100, this is the most fun we’ve ever had writing.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: And speaking of death, what are your respective last meals?

 
 
 

mh mead Harry : The bleu-crusted, aged tenderloin filet from The Rattlesnake Club on Detroit’s Riverwalk. I’d pair it with a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from Three Saints Santa Ynez.

Margaret: I don’t really care what’s for dinner, as long as there is key lime pie for dessert. Just like that character from “Dexter,” If I had the perfect slice of key lime pie in my stomach, I could die happy.

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Tom Pluck BeerTP: I’d skip the grape juice, but key lime pie and a good steak sound like a great way to go. Thanks for dropping by and piquing my interest even further in your novel.

 

Taking the Highway is available for Kindle and in trade paperback. M.H. Mead’s website can be found at Yang and Campion.

 

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Belly Up to the Bar with Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block should need no introduction. Author of the Matthew Scudder detective novels, the Bernie Rhodenbarr series of burglar mysteries, and standalone novels and short stories too numerous to mention, his most recent novel is HIT ME, starring everybody’s favorite hit man: Keller. Mr. Block is one of our greatest living storytellers, and I’m glad that he continues to write long into his self-professed retirement. If you haven’t read his work, the Hit Man series with Keller is a great place to begin.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Larry. What can I get you?
 
 
 
 

Lawrence BlockLB: I’m good, Tom.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: The hit man is well-worn territory, but with Keller you’ve created one of the most likeable and believable killers in fiction. I knew a guy–to use the Jersey parlance–and Keller’s sense of calm, and his capability for calculated violence ring utterly true. There’s a sadness in the stories, as well. The loneliness of the job is the perfect foil for the excitement of the hunt and Dot’s acerbic sense of humor. So where did Keller come from, and what keeps you returning to tell his stories?

Lawrence BlockLB: Well, I had a story idea that turned into “Answers to Soldier.” Guy goes out to Oregon on business, makes the mistake of getting to know the quarry, has fantasies of quitting the business and making a life for himself similar to the guy’s, goes so far as to look at houses, then comes to his senses, kills the guy, and goes home. The hit man turned out to be Keller, and I wound up having a lot more to say about him.

HIT ME Lawrence Block

Tom Pluck BeerTP: When I pick up one of your books, I know I’m getting great dialogue. The latest Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, begins with a conversation between Matt and Mick Ballou that I could have read for the entire book. George V. Higgins said “Dialogue is character and character is plot.” Do you think it boils down to that, or is there something more to it?

Lawrence BlockLB: Well, it was true for Higgins. It depends enormously on the writer. Some of us are intensely visual, for example. They know what all the people in their books look like, see the rooms in their lives fully furnished. What I tend to know most about my characters is what they sound like, how they express themselves.

Snake Stamp

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve traveled the world, but your fiction is mostly set in New York. Keller seems the most widely traveled of your creations. I read a lot of New York authors, but when Scudder is walking around town or Bernie is scoping a building, I feel not only like I’m there, but that I’ve lived there and know the town. Which I don’t, except as a Jersey invader. What keeps your stories in New York and the States, when you’ve visited so many exotic locales?

Lawrence BlockLB: New York has been home to me in a very fundamental way from the first time I came here. It’s as natural for me to have my characters live here as it is for me to live here myself. In the mid-80s my wife and I moved to South Florida, and I found myself wondering if I’d wind up setting most of my fiction there. I realized that I probably wouldn’t, that I had no real sense of the inner lives of people there. Thus I’d go on setting my stories in New York.

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Tom Pluck BeerTP: Keller’s stamp collecting has become almost as intriguing as his hits. I missed out on the last philatelic edition, but I snagged the one Mysterious Press is doing for HIT ME. (The philatelic edition is a special first edition that comes signed, with a special postage stamp affixed to the cover, and a souvenir sheet of stamps) I never collected stamps, but I did collect coins, then lost my collection to some unscrupulous movers. A pristine 1945-S Mercury dime will be my Rosebud, I imagine. There’s something about stamps, coins and bank notes besides the art and their monetary value–they’re tangible icons. I was a numismatist, and you’re a philatelist. Which both sound like kinky perversions, and to a degree they are. What stamps do you collect? Does Keller have your dream collection?

Lawrence BlockLB: Keller collects worldwide, 1840 to 1940, which his British Empire collection extending through the reign of George VI. Me too. How’s that for coincidence? Keller, of course, has a much better collection, because he had the sense to pick a far more lucrative profession.
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’re a writer’s writer. I say that because you’ve written several books about writing that tell it straight, such as Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. One of my favorite quotes is when you respond to that ubiquitous cocktail party nightmare, the person who says they’d love to be a writer if they only had the time, as if it were a hobby, not a skill and a talent. You said no one says that to a pro ballplayer, and I took that to heart. Writers don’t get respect, and we’re often the last to get paid, if we get paid at all. Would you say that’s gotten better or worse?

Lawrence BlockLB: It’s probably stayed about the same. One difference is that people tend to think we’re rich. They read about the contracts a couple of people get and figure we all make that kind of money. I remember Evan Hunter telling me how some clown from some college explainded that, for a donation of a mere ten million dollars, they could build a new dormitory and name it after him. “What kind of money do they think we make?” he marveled. On a lesser scale, but just barely, some well-meaning fool once advised me to charter a private plane for my book tours. Jesus. You go to some town, spend two hours in a bookstore, sign twenty books, with translates into what, $60 in royalties? It’s absurd enough for a publisher to fly you in coach, which is why book tours are finally coming to an inglorious end, but charter a fucking airplane?

Kukri Stamp

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve always been one of the most tech-savvy writers I know. You had your email address in your books 20 years ago. And in your fiction, you manage to get the reality of computers and cell phones into the stories without making them linchpins of the plot, where the tension hinges on how many bars of signal someone has. I liked how TJ was the go-to character for the non-technical Scudder. That worked, you acknowledged the Internet but kept his feet on the ground. People have arguments about cell phones in mystery stories. Do you think technology leaches the tension out of a mystery?

Lawrence BlockLB: I think it might. It certainly performs that function for life itself. Nobody gets to be alone anymore.
 
 
 
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve taken self-publishing head-on, releasing short stories, backlist titles written under pen names, and two short story collections: one of Matthew Scudder tales and another of Ehrengraf, the only lawyer I truly enjoy reading about. If you were a beginning writer, would you take advantage of self-publishing, or do you think the traditional route remains the best way to establish yourself?

Lawrence BlockLB: I’m not sure I know the answer, and it’ll change in ten minutes anyway, given the current pace of change in and out of publishing. But from where I stand (well, sit, actually) self-publishing certainly appears to be the way the world is moving. It’s the best choice for an increasing number of writers—and it’s often the only choice.
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Thank you for indulging my questions. Before you go, what would you like for your last meal?
 
 
 
 

Lawrence BlockLB: Treacle.

 
 
 
 

HIT ME is now available in the philatelic edition from LB’s bookstore, and his website is as you’d expect, LawrenceBlock.com

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