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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Tom Schley

Tom finds reading to be cathartic, and is grateful that books are his primary means of escape. He enjoys contemporary literary fiction and short stories, and the occasional sci-fi/fantasy or graphic novel when he wants to decompress. When Tom isn't hard at work at the Parkville branch, he's most likely playing video games with his girlfriend and two cats, or scarfing down some delicious pizza piled high with veggies, or getting more tattoos and making his mother crazy.

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Pristine Scales

Pristine Scales

posted by:
December 8, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for WallflowersBy definition, a wallflower is someone who yearns to stay out of focus and is content with experiencing the world from a vantage point far removed from social commotion. Wallflowers are typically observant people who possess the uncanny ability to find beauty in unique places. Eliza Robertson's debut collection Wallflowers places a series of introverted characters in situations with the potential to reveal more than their individual livelihoods.

 

Unified by central themes of longing and loss, Robertson's characters all wish for a way to forget the past or escape the present. In "Here Be Dragons," a geographic surveyor sees shades of his late fiancée in every corner of the remote locations he visits. She haunts him not in the convenient visages of doppelgängers, but in the complicated forms of reverie associated with people, places, things and experiences amidst savage and newly loveless lands. "Slimebank Taxonomy" thrusts readers into the empty life of a young mother living with her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law does not shoulder the added burden gracefully as she diverts attention from her own child to care for the new baby. The young mother realizes this, yet remains powerless to rear her newborn; instead, she finds solace in dredging drowned animals from a nearby swamp and cleaning their bodies. "Roadnotes" tells the story of a woman who leaves her job to drive through the Northeast on an autumnal leaf-viewing tour. Conveyed in the form of a series of letters addressed to her brother, readers see glimpses into her true motivations for her journey as she laments the loss of her mother, despite her rough childhood.

 

Robertson's debut collection shimmers with beauty enhanced by flecks of melancholy, with hints of hope where it seems toughest to find. With stories less about the wallflowers that populate them and more about the collective souls of humanity, Wallflowers is not to be missed by literary fiction enthusiasts. Fans of the rustic Canadian backdrop and the accompanying aloneness might also enjoy D. W. Wilson's collection Once You Break a Knuckle.

 

Tom

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Everyone, Beginning with Anyone

Everyone, Beginning with Anyone

posted by:
November 24, 2014 - 7:00am

Three Hundred MillionBlake Butler’s 300,000,000 is a jungle; readers require courage and a literary machete to traverse this five-part psychological horror story. Told through the mediums of a manifesto left in the wake of a heinous murder spree, a first-hand account of the police investigation into the atrocities, and a disjointed recollection stitching the pieces together with plenty of room for the viscera to seep out, 300,000,000 is filled with rare glimpses of toxic and transcendent ravings.

 

Gretch Gravey is 300,000,000’s patient zero of homeland terror, supplicating and drugging teenage metal heads in his city to transform them into thralls of murder. He releases his ever-expanding army of brainwashed husks into the suburbs to kidnap people and bring them back to his house to be killed and buried in a sub-basement crypt. Gravey’s ultimate goal is the utter decimation of America by its own pudgy hands, and his successes are unhindered despite his eventual incarceration. Investigating police officer E.N. Flood feels himself being consumed by Gravey’s residual evil and attempts to chronicle his descent into madness in his notes, which are actively redacted by other members of the force who have succumbed to Gravey’s will.

 

As if Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and Damned were chewed up and spat out in a bilious, meaty mass, 300,000,000 is disgusting and schizophrenic, yet somehow delicious in its depravity. Readers who enjoy wandering through their pitch-black houses when it’s so late that it’s actually early will be tickled by the way Blake Butler makes them question their sanity. 

Tom

 
 

A Favor House Galactic

Cover art for TrilliumWhen it comes to comic books and graphic novels, Jeff Lemire is a 21st century Renaissance man. Hailing from Canada, he has been recognized numerous times for his prowess in both storytelling and artistry. Lemire has written and drawn most of his works completely on his own, but he also fares incredibly well when teaming up with other writers and inkers at DC Comics.
 

Lemire’s sci-fi brain bender Trillium is an eight-issue comic series published over the span of August 2013 to April 2014. In Trillium, adventurers Nika and William are torn from their worlds by occult magic and thrust together in an alien jungle on a foreign planet. Through this supernatural machination, the couple becomes intertwined, although they don’t realize it at first since they’re unable to communicate due to language disparities. Nika and William fight to understand each other while combing the flora and fauna in search of the rare trillium flower, which is thought to be the only possible cure to a sentient, space-travelling supervirus that has decimated humanity.
 

Trillium is confounding and strangely beautiful. Navigating dimensions with William and Nika is a thrilling experience with a rewarding narrative that endears readers to persevere. Throughout the series, Lemire toys with conventional comic layout standards and actually has readers flipping the book upside down and reading from back to front, conveying the disorientation the characters are feeling. Lemire’s signature mixed medium art style leaves each page messy and scrawled, evoking hysteria and tension. His ability to convey emotions through his characters’ faces is incredible; oftentimes it isn’t what’s said, but what’s left unsaid that resonates in Lemire’s works. The same is true of his 2008-2009 Essex County Trilogy, which has been praised as one of the best Canadian graphic novels of its decade.

Tom

 
 

Go at It Laughing

Go at It Laughing

posted by:
October 23, 2014 - 6:00am

Cover art for Play Me BackwardsAdam Selzer brings life (and undeath) to the suburban Midwest with his young adult books set in Cornersville Trace, a fictitious neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, where the fantastic is not quite impossible. Selzer’s latest novel Play Me Backwards is a story of reinvention through satanic machination, only in the Trace, Satan isn’t a horned demon; he’s a teenage burnout.
 

Before his girlfriend moved to England, Leon enjoyed his life as a quasi-intellectual, roguish guy wrapped in adolescent love. Four bleak years later, Leon is realizing he has come unraveled. His grades are so bad that he might not graduate, his girlfriend Paige is only with him because she hates being alone and his job at the Ice Cave sucks because the place is a den of teenage lechery and nobody should ever buy ice cream there. At least he gets to work with his lifelong best friend and fellow underachiever Stan, who it turns out might actually be Satan. His folks just dropped the first “A” so he could go to private school.
 

Stan gives Leon some otherworldly advice as a pick-me-up: Listen to Moby-Dick on audiobook, seek out an elusive flavor of frozen slushee called “White Grape” and do whatever else the Dark Lord may require. Leon and Paige spend their free time driving from convenience store to gas station buying frozen drinks and changing CDs, which turns out to be pretty fun. Stan’s infernal intervention gives Leon hope that he could shape up and make something of himself, but doing so means leaving the teenage debauchery, Satan-worshipping and his former self behind.

 

Shamelessly allegorical and unabashedly funny, Play Me Backwards is great for readers who enjoy young adult fiction or alternative culture. Leon also appears in Selzer’s 2007 debut novel How to Get Suspended and Influence People.

Tom

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Promiscuous Days

Promiscuous Days

posted by:
October 14, 2014 - 6:00am

FlingsPromising young voices in modern literary fiction are hard to come by, which makes Justin Taylor a man who deserves more recognition. In his newest collection Flings: Stories, Taylor confronts the awkward truths of adult life in stories centered around people who share a collective desire to be genuinely good, despite their misguided tendencies.

 

Both the titular story “Flings” and its continuation “After Ellen” follow people who are ensnared in the directionless, bleak traps of uncertainty that riddle our mid-20s. As friends, they live hollow lives in which they careen through dead-end jobs and relationships while waiting for what they perceive to be their real adult lives to begin. In the meantime, they’re left celebrating their miseries with compassion in their own beautifully tragic ways.

 

The more light-hearted "Sungold” stars Brian, a 30-something manager and bookkeeper at an organic pizza place. After nearly suffering heatstroke while wearing a questionably shaped purple mushroom costume in front of the restaurant, he gets busted cooking the books by a girl who happens to be there looking for a job. Her name is Appolinaria Pavlovna Sungold (seriously), and she knows what's up; she promises her silence in exchange for regular shift hours and a percentage of Brian's stolen funds. Brian hires her on the spot as both an act of self-preservation and an act of defiance towards the store owner, who only hires attractive college girls who enjoy fashioning the collars of their tie-dyed uniforms into deep, dangerous Vs.

 

Taylor’s prose is brilliant, humorous and unwavering. His characters are marvels; both uniquely individual and equally empathetic, and united by their searches for things to fill the voids in their lives.

Tom

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Heroes Needed, Never Deserved

Heroes Needed, Never Deserved

posted by:
October 6, 2014 - 7:34am

Cover art for The Luck UgliesIn years past, whenever the tiny fishing village of Drowning was in dire straits, unlikely heroes would skulk from its darkest corners to lend their dexterous yet reluctant hands. These mysterious "Luck Uglies" used to be revered among the villagers as masters of skullduggery and subterfuge, but after an order from "The Great" Earl Longchance, the former peoples' champions became fugitives overnight. In The Luck Uglies, much time has elapsed since the Uglies' presence in Drowning; so much so, that they're presently regarded as little more than tall tales.
 

Riley and her best friends Folly and Quinn read all about the fabled Luck Uglies in a book they pilfer from a poet in town. The book is filled with all sorts of hearsay about Drowning and its surrounding territories, including the foreboding forest known as "Beyond the Shale" and the bogs known as, well, "The Bogs." The Bogs are said to be inhabited by a nasty group of creatures known as Bog Noblins — think hobgoblins, but way meaner and even way uglier. Bog Noblins haven't been seen around Drowning since even before the Uglies disappeared. Imagine everyone's surprise when one emerges from The Bogs and trundles into town!
 

The adventurous trio has so many questions. Where'd the Bog Noblin come from? Wait, we know that: The Bogs. But why, after all this time, did it suddenly show up? And have the nights seemed darker lately? And why have the rooks and ravens recently taken to roosting at the Dead Fish Inn? And wait, wasn't that gargoyle atop a different building yesterday?
 

Paul Durham's The Luck Uglies is the first book in a planned series with great potential. With a vibrant, fanciful world teeming with creatures to discover and adventures to be had, Riley, Folly and Quinn are given chances to become true heroes — not the kind that have to hide in the sewers to avoid the Earl.

Tom

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Seeds of the Big Apple

Seeds of the Big Apple

posted by:
September 15, 2014 - 6:00am

Cover art for Marine ParkSpending childhood nested in the same neighborhood can have a profound effect on how one grows up and views the rest of the world. When stories of the past share a consistent backdrop, memories become more cohesive and captivating, as they have in Mark Chiusano's debut collection, Marine Park. Nearly all of his stories take place in the neighborhood surrounding the run-down, isolated Marine Park in New York City.
 

Half of Chiusano's tales follow two brothers: Jamison, who narrates the duo's adventures, and his younger brother Lorris. Jamison seems like the fictional embodiment of Chiusano in his youth; he dredges up old emotions with such elegance that it feels autobiographical. Throughout their endeavors, Lorris overcomes rooted introversion to develop a social life more vigorous than his older brother’s. All Jamison feels he’s capable of doing is watching with brotherly pride and envy.
 

Chiusano's other stories volley between humorous and serious motifs. The amusing "Vincent and Aurora" is the recounting of a retired mobster who agrees to help with one last job to combat the stagnation of aging. "Shatter the Trees and Blow Them Away" laments the woes of unrequited love between two scientists working in a secret military base during World War II. "For You" is the wondrous second-person account of a man's visit to an unfamiliar bar and his conversations with strangers about wait-staff gratuity and lifelong dreams.
 

Short story and fiction enthusiasts of all varieties will find something to enjoy in Marine Park. Lorris and Jamison are both highly relatable, and Chiusano's more imaginative offerings are entertaining and just as finely crafted.

Tom

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Fleeting and Ever Out of Reach

Fleeting and Ever Out of Reach

posted by:
August 25, 2014 - 6:00am

Cover art for We Are Not OurselvesMatthew Thomas is a New Jersey high school English teacher who has spent the past decade writing his first novel We Are Not Ourselves. A labor of love well worth the effort, his debut is being heralded as the next major American novel.
 

The story begins in the early 1950s with Eileen Tumulty, the American daughter of two Irish immigrants. Eileen’s hard-working, barroom-preaching father is trying his damnedest to provide while shunning racetrack bookies. Her mother, reeling from a miscarriage, spends her days drinking herself into a quiet stupor to quell the pain. Eileen is left without anything to call her own, and vows to become empowered and successful as she grows up. We Are Not Ourselves is Eileen’s story as she searches for the American Dream in New York City.
 

After college, Eileen takes a well-paying job in a city hospital and marries Ed Leary. Ed is a scientist and professor at a community college whose dedication to academic integrity keeps him in the classroom and out of the Dean's office, where Eileen wishes he would be. After months of failed conception, Eileen and Ed are graced with Connell, who grows up pudgy and struggles with body image issues amongst his classmates. Against Ed’s wishes, Eileen decides to move the family out of their comfortable apartment in Jackson Heights and into a large, dilapidated house in the upper-middle class suburbs. She hopes that tasking Connell and Ed with evening home improvements will help bring the family closer, but Connell is preoccupied with developing renown at his new school and Ed is seemingly inundated with his studies. While Eileen achieves her childhood goal of working domesticity, the Learys are not nearly as cohesive as she wishes. Her efforts to bring them together only cause more tension, which, when combined with the everyday tribulations they experience in their personal lives, stress everyone into a state of crisis.
 

Thomas asks in We Are Not Ourselves if it still counts as the American Dream when it comes with so many hitches and broken promises, and he does so through an incredibly well-developed cast of characters and with beautiful, insightful prose. Contemporary fiction enthusiasts and readers who enjoy deep characterization should not miss this wonderful debut.

Tom

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2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

posted by:
August 11, 2014 - 7:00am

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajama'sIt’s way past midnight on Christmas Eve and the streets of Philadelphia are littered with the lonely, the unlucky, the unloved. They’re all departing from their sacred mecca hidden amongst the Fishtown warehouses: A run-down jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas, where the tumultuous house band keeps things hopping, even when they aren’t on stage. Amongst the waylaid wanderers are Madeline, a bright and plucky nine-year-old who refuses to let the world win; Sarina and Ben, who are together conflicted as they pick up where they left off after an estranged high school prom years ago; and club owner Jack Lorca, whose prodigal teenage son, Alex, is instrumental in the night’s electric excitement.

 

Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas recounts the 24 hours prior, affectionately referred to as “Christmas Eve eve” by Madeline. Readers are treated to intertwining stories of determination in the events leading up to the most memorable night at The Cat’s Pajamas since the house drum kit was set on fire during the band’s performance. By its lonesome, the club is just a sad, dilapidated building, but on nights when the Cubanistas are playing and the city’s detritus flocks through the doors, The Cat’s Pajamas is resurrected to its former glories of jazz’s heyday—it’s part symbiotic relationship, part yuletide miracle.

 

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas features stories in which the hostilities of city life are conquered by the solidarity of people who have been destroyed by the very place they inhabit. Stories in which good-natured, wounded people stay afloat by looking out for one another, rather than wallowing and commiserating. It’s a great read for those who enjoy literary fiction or heartening stories of blossom.

Tom

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Swish

Swish

posted by:
August 7, 2014 - 7:00am

Ride Around ShiningWhite chauffer; black NBA star; white girlfriend; black posse; white antagonist; black disposition. There’s a theme present in Chris Leslie-Hynan’s intelligent, unsettling and highly entertaining debut novel Ride Around Shining. Leslie-Hynan complicates things between his main characters to the point where each regretted action will have readers rubbernecking as etherealized commentaries on class, race, and modern-day social hierarchy veil the wreckage. Readers who enjoy literary fiction or complex relationships between main characters should definitely check this one out.

 

Ride Around Shining follows Jess; a young-ish, over-educated, middle-middle class white guy; who revels unknowingly in the twisted gratification of subservience; so much so, that he makes a living delivering carryout in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, where he frequently transports Thai food to budding Trail Blazers small forward and regular customer Calyph West. With his ongoing display of pragmatic indifference and a couple of lies behind his driving chops, Jess manages to establish himself as Calyph’s personal driver.

 

Initially, Jess is content with the mask of aloofness he dons whenever he is summoned to get the baller and his girlfriend Antonia to their various destinations, but as he spends his days shuttling the mixed-race couple around the city, he begins behaving erratically in a subconscious bid for their attention. At a house party celebrating Calyph’s contract extension, Jess aids the machinations of fate and inflicts his employer with a knee injury that benches him for the entire upcoming season.  Motivated by a discomforting mixture of guilt and manic desire, Jess vies to stick with Calyph during his recovery, though it becomes apparent to everyone that Jess has a lot more going on under the hood than Calyph’s car does.

Tom

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