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Things which really annoy me: A list

Everyone is annoyed by certain things, not by others. It’s time I made my own list:

  1. News or Movies or TV shows about sports figures. Generally I don’t care about sports at all. Whenever someone mentions the latest triumph by the local sports team, I ask, “Is that the one with the touchdowns?” or “I only follow the Houston Texans whenever they get to the World Series” (intentionally using the wrong sport).
  2. Leaf blowers. Noisy and often powered by gasoline. Unnecessary and a frequent disturber of my naps. At one apartment complex, they started at 8 AM! (Several leaf blowers have come near my window during the writing of this post).
  3. Pre-washing dishes before it goes into the dishwasher. Ok, if it’s really dirty (like caked in), I might prewash or scrape things off, but generally pre-washing dishes indicates that you have fundamentally misunderstood the function of a dishwasher.
  4. People who don’t use the TV remote to mute commercials. I actually hate any space where random sales messages are allowed to punch at my brain.
  5. People who insist that a bed be regularly made. Unnecessary, pointless except on rare occasions (when you have guests, etc.)
  6. People who are always going out to eat or ordering takeout. Ok I stopped eating out mainly out of financial necessity, but now that I’m used to it, I cringe at eating out for convenience’s sake. Once during my year teaching at a public school, I ordered takeout from McDonalds 3-4 times a week, but only because I worked late every day, came home dead tired and there was a MacDonald’s right at my bus stop. But that was a special case (and I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in years).
  7. Online orders which arrive separately — no matter how small. I recently ordered about $200 of small accessories (computer mouse, razor blades etc.) from Walmart. Every single item was packed and shipped differently on a differently.
  8. Driving to a place 2 blocks away. Apparently it is common for parents to drive kids to school even if the school is 3 blocks away. Walking is supposed to be good for you. So is riding a bike.
  9. People who listen to music or podcasts while walking or riding outside. Besides being dangerous, what’s so bad about having to listen to ambient noises from your surroundings?
  10. Customer Feedback Surveys. I am amazed at how long these things tend to be. Anything more than 2 multiple choice questions is overkill.
  11. TV Weather reports. Most of the time, this information can be conveyed more quickly in a simple graphic or two sentences.
  12. Traffic reports on the radio. Good in theory, terrible in practice. Basically it’s an announcer reading statuses of various intersections. But 95% of this information is irrelevant or something which you can do nothing about. Okay, there’s a stalled car on the freeway ahead of me which is slowing traffic. Great! — and there’s nothing I can do about it! (As an aside, I’d prefer that the announcer simply recite a poem from a dead poet).
  13. Turning off sound notifications on your phone. Geez, why is this so time-consuming? Why do all apps assume that your default answer is “yes” to the question of “We’ll be sending you sound alerts every few hours — that’s totally okay with you, right?” For me, most of the time, the answer is “never.”
  14. Group texts. I hate them — especially since I often am not able to mute them. I have a group text from coworkers which is constantly pinging me with inane remarks or nothing but emoticons. Yet every once in a while I get a text that is important, so I can’t mute it.
  15. Preliminaries to movies. If you watch a movie (especially from a DVD), you have to sit through about 2 minutes of introductions. CR Films Presents — A NiceFilms Production — From GoofyParrots Studio — a Cool Film Series episode — Now for our Feature Presentation. (Presumably each with their own graphic and audio). The problem is more pronounced on DVDs — where you have to sit through piracy warnings and disclaimers and — heavens! — previews.
  16. Gated communities. This is still a thing in Texas. These barriers have a marginal effect on crime, interfere with walkability and cause confusion when giving directions. Maybe people in these communities would just prefer a moat with alligators?
  17. Live” TV reports from the scene of the crime. On local news at 10 PM, there are several live on-the-scene reports about crimes or accidents or important political events. But these “live” reports are done several hours after the fact. Maybe an hour or two after the event it’s good to broadcast live at the scene, but by 10 PM, the scene is deserted, everyone has gone home except the poor reporter and camera crew standing outside. Here’s a better idea: just repeat your earlier video footage! Ok, maybe there is value in having someone narrate the latest live news even at night, but if that’s so, just have them do it at the studio — or better yet, at home.
  18. Old Video footage for news reports. Honestly I don’t mind seeing video that are days or even weeks old on an accompanying news report. The problem is: it creates the illusion that the action is still happening or gotten worse (when in fact nothing may have taken place during the intervening time). For video footage more than 48 hours old, I suggest putting in red blinking lights: NOT LIVE — RECORDED FEBRUARY 2019. Speaking of which, I’m amazed at how often news reports will loop the same footage several times during a single news story. Do they think we are idiots?
  19. Searching for a good parking space. People spend way too time hunting for the best parking lot (and too much time backing the car into the space to allow for a speedy exit). I’ve always believed that the time you save from having a slightly better parking space is marginal. Instead you should park in the first empty space you see and walk the rest of the way.
  20. Music track with speech in it. Some tracks on an album contain extended speech — often in the middle of a track! Having spoken words in the middle of a song is incredibly distracting for people who use music to increase concentration or help to fall asleep. Only rarely does speech integrate well with the song (possibly this beautiful intro by Haelos, and this musical soundscape on Mark Farina’s Mushroom jazz albums).
  21. Having a Christmas fetish. I’m no Scrooge, but I’m always horrified by how much money people spend on Christmas gifts and decorations. I am not impressed by or even impressed in your Christmas decorations (and turn those Christmas lights off unless you are using a renewable electric plan). Sure, it’s fun to do these things for children, and it’s a nice nostalgic ritual, but every time I hear a Christmas song before December 23, I smell the fetid odor of conspicuous consumption. A special section of hell is saved for people who buy the ultra-tacky Christmas decorations that people put on their front yards. I once was involved in an altercation with a family member about whether an attic should be used to store my books or a shitload of tacky and oversized Christmas decorations. Guess who won?
  22. Stock photo/stock footage. Many corporations and commercial ads use generic photos to present bland and cliched messages (something parodied mercilessly here). Besides the fact that it is a lazy way to convey a message, the people in these images are good-looking in a bland way.
  23. Messages turned into images. It’s a way to show something and get around paywalls. It’s also a way to display a message or slogan and dominate the reading space. Another variation: using animated gifs functioning basically as emoticons. I’m all for judicious use of images online, but text-as-image is the equivalent of shouting slogans. I would have heard you anyway, and all you have really demonstrated is that is that you don’t value other people’s reading experiences. It’s no secret that Russian trolls used visual memes to stir up anger and prejudice. It takes minimal effort to share this “visual catcall” — yet it rescues the sharer from having to utter an intelligible thought.
  24. Email: “You just received a message from John. Log in to linked/facebook/wherever to read it.” Linkedin sent me 10 messages like this. Turns out they were “messages” to a thread one of my friends started. But they weren’t really messages; most were just bland statements like “I agree,” “Good point” and “smiley icon.” I cannot think of a single time when I want social media to send me an email.
  25. Anything about football. I have lived most of my life inundated with random messages about football. Family members talk incessantly about it, it was on TV in the other room while I grew up, and it continued to suck up money and attention from intellectual and artistic pursuits. It even dominates the newspapers — with athletes making money, beating up people, becoming celebrities. If you want to distract the world from reality, put on a football game, with lots of commercials, and no one will have an intelligent thought — ever! It’s not only an intellectual and economic distraction, but it’s actually destroying human brains of those who play it!
  26. Bland Bureaucratic Form Letters which are really threats. Twice in the last year I’ve received bland bureaucratic notifications that seem to have no particular subject. The first informed me of what I needed to do to continue receiving employer-sponsored health care. The second was a reminder letter to schedule an orientation appointment for Texas Workforce. Let me decode what these really were: The first was actually official notification that the agency would speedily cancel my employer sponsored health coverage unless I followed two steps! (Silly me, I thought I need only pay my monthly premium; apparently I also needed to mail by normal post a signed form saying that I wanted to continue receiving health coverage). The second note was actually a threat to stop unemployment insurance payments unless I telephoned before a certain day. (Silly me, I assumed that because I had already successfully scheduled this appointment well before the deadline that it was unnecessary to call them also). Because these organizations benefit financially by this unclear language, they have no incentive to make themselves clear. If you didn’t interpret this bland form letter correctly, it’s your fault — not the organization’s fault.


Tips & Advice for New & Indie Authors

(Last Update March 1, 2021). Over the last decade I have run a side business editing and marketing ebooks. From time to time I am contacted by new writers about how to publish and promote a book. I get contacted so often about this that I have starting keeping a compendium of tips. I actually format ebooks for a fee (here’s my rate sheet for this service).

Every author and book is different. What works for one kind of book doesn’t work for another, so advice from one person may be utterly irrelevant to your project. Also, some advice may be applicable to one genre but not the other. Advice about standalone books may not apply to books in a series and vice versa. Except for coffee table books, cookbooks, children’s books, science textbooks and maybe some other specialty books, ebooks are where it’s at. Unless you are buying your own print copies and selling them yourself at live events, the profit for indies is primarily in ebooks.

Bigger publishers are publishing a much slimmer percentage of titles with every year. You can’t rely on them to get a publishing contract. Even if you do, the wait time is significant and the advance is unlikely to be big if at all. Publishers have been blind to many high quality books –opting instead for books by celebrities and books which neatly fit into a genre. The last decade has led to many different hybrid publishing types (described in Jane Friedman’s chart about indie publishing).

It’s practically impossible to compete on price these days for ebooks. The major publishers are using a high sticker price (i.e. over $10) and then doing spot sales to put the ebook under $3. The amount of quality titles you can buy between the 1.99 and 3.99 on a daily basis is jaw-droppingly high.

Amazon’s 2.99 price floor allows you to have 70% profits. Amazon allows you to price between 99 cents and 2.99 but at 30% profits. But if you promote your stuff below 2.99, that means a unit profit of only $0.30-$0.90 per sale (compared to 2.10 per sale for $2.99). Suppose you do a marketing campaign and pay $100 for one title; to break even, a 2.99 ebook needs to sell 47 ebooks. To break even at the 30% profit threshold for your $100 investment, you need to sell 111-333 ebooks.

Publishing frequently helps a lot. You should be publishing every 2 years, so arrange your book projects so that they meet that pace.

If you have the technical competence, it’s better to make an epub file which you can convert to Kindle’s mobi format. If you don’t, you end up using a company’s specific tools and then have problems using them at a different ebook distributor. (Both Amazon and Apple have great author creation tools, but they produce ebooks optimized for their own readers). In any case, it’s necessary to keep your text in a source file (.DOCX or .ODT or .IND) and then update your source file before using the company’s creation tools. Also: I haven’t looked seriously at Draft2Digital, but they distribute ebooks to several major ebooksellers and have good tools for converting from MS Word to epub and mobi.).

Along with the previous suggestion, it’s important to build the author brand rather than the book brand. You need to have some kind of regular public presence (via social media, blogs, podcasts). You shouldn’t have to post regularly on these places unless you have a burning desire to. Many writers do fine without posting on the Internet or do so rarely. I like the idea of contributing occasionally to a group blog or something similar.

You should pay for one review in the trades (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc) especially for your first book. (cost — 200-400$) Some of the low cost review services are worth doing (at least initially) because you can repost it on your book page on various ebook stores. Midwest Book Review, City Book Review, US Review of Books, (and possibly Reedsy Discovery which I’ve heard good things about) . They cost about $50-200. Keep in mind that Citybook or Midwest might do a blurb review even if you don’t pay for a review. Citybook Review says that they do reviews of 40% of books received regardless if it’s paid for.

Set pub date 3-4 months after it is 100% finished and use the intervening time to find reviewers/beta reviewers. (Actually, 6 months in advance is fine too).

Personally I wouldn’t bother trying to contact major publications or book critics about reviews. Too little likelihood of success. Bloggers are more amenable, but I wouldn’t spend much time trying to research them — unless you already know about them. It’s a big time-suck with little payoff. (If you are going that route, you should check out this book . ) I would probably spend the time contacting your local press, but don’t expect miracles.

Professional advice-givers often recommend that indie authors spend money on X, Y and Z. (Fill in the blanks as necessary: a decent editor, a cover design artist, a video book trailer, 1 or more paid reviews, a professionally done author website, a booth at a literary conference, an author photo by a professional photographer, Facebook advertising, Amazon marketing service, a book promoter, ads in newsletters). But you could spend yourself to bankruptcy on these ancillary services without getting any real payoff. If you believe that one area is especially holding back your book’s success, fine, spend money on it while recognizing that it may not improve earnings. Book advertising is notoriously unreliable; it’s trial and error. Spend a little money, watch for results, make necessary adjustments and repeat. The most common criteria for evaluating an ancillary service is: will this extra expense of X dollars produce more than X dollars of earnings? On the other hand, spending on author branding (like a good author photo) doesn’t have an immediate payoff, but it’s probably a good idea to devote a portion of your promotion budget and time on author branding.

The most common “easy advice” given to authors is that they should hire a decent editor and hire a professional to do the cover. What they don’t tell you is that hiring an editor is very expensive ($500 to $1500 for someone experienced, possibly higher). Every writer should aspire to the point where they could edit their own copy as an expert — perhaps asking someone to read through just for typos and obvious discrepancies. Paying handsomely for an outside editor won’t necessarily make a book better or more saleable. It just will make it seem less bad to paying customers. Sure, you need to have a quality control process for your writing. But that doesn’t require paying someone. Remember: with ebooks, there’s always the option to make corrections later and upload a revised version of the book.

Before you sell at online bookstores, at minimum you need to verify that an ebook renders passably on Kindle e-ink (Paperwhite), an ios/android tablet, a 2 year old iPhone and Google Play (both inside Chrome browser and the Google Play Books mobile application).

Whenever authors ask online for feedback about why their ebook isn’t selling, the overwhelming answer from others is “Your cover sucks. You need to hire a professional.” A cover certainly helps with branding and catching attention, but it’s not that important. In the ebook world, a book description, good reviews and author website is much more important than having a topnotch cover. Sure, a good cover can pay for itself (and isn’t that expensive compared to hiring an editor), but 99.9 percent of the time, “Your cover sucks” is a wrong-headed diagnosis of why the book hasn’t sold. Unlike the prose itself, an ebook cover doesn’t need to be awesome; it often needs only to be adequate and functional. Maybe a cover was more important in the days of print books; now it’s just a small and pleasant-looking graphic which appears in search results. (Recently I have been keeping a web page gallery of my fave book covers — so far it has about 200 titles). Update: I ended up paying a pretty penny for an ebook cover for one of my press’s fiction titles. I was very happy with the result; the book was hard to define, and this professionally done cover captured the spirit of it while also looking beautiful to the eyes! But I still think that a bad cover doesn’t damn a book, and a great cover doesn’t ensure the book’s success.

Focusing all your efforts on Amazon is dangerous. It’s good to sell at least in one place which is DRM-free. (smashwords).

I personally don’t like reading or writing serials, but be prepared for books to be rolled up into and sold as bundles later on.

A lot of market tendencies for nonfiction don’t apply for fiction and vice versa.

Unfortunately Amazon gives lower royalties for ebooks with a lot of graphics. This is unfortunate, because they can make an ebook look nicer. If you want to use a graphics-intense ebook, you should still publish on Amazon, but use at least one other distribution service which doesn’t charge a fee for large ebook files.

Don’t fixate on the opinions of what beta readers and friends think. Some people obsess about pleasing everyone with their book. Don’t water your book down just to make Sam or Sally happy.

Don’t treat advice from successful authors or publishing gurus as sacrosanct. When I was in grad school, my teachers (well-known authors) gave great publishing advice — or so I thought. But I ended up not publishing anything for the next 10 years, so their advice — even if helpful when given, was irrelevant by the time I started publishing. At that time — the late 80s, the big obstacle was finding agents — and developing a long list of publication credits to help convince an agent to sign you. Looking back, that seems absolutely irrelevant to my career — even for someone like me who specialized in short stories.

It’s common to price your ebook at 0 or 1 dollar at the beginning and to raise prices gradually over time as you accumulate reviews.

Setting your ebook price at free has some value, but the consensus is that it doesn’t increase earnings much unless you also have 4 or 5 other titles which cost money. It’s also smart to make the first volume in a series free or 99 cents. Also, it’s okay to offer a freebie in exchange for an email signup. But ultimately you won’t win many readers solely by offering freebies.

Although it’s not necessary to set up an elaborate website to promote the books you’ve wrote, it’s necessary to have something — some kind of home base with a list of your books — and a link to ebook stores and possibly reviews. I’m a big fan of 3 minute Youtube vids consisting of nothing but the author looking at the camera and answering some basic questions about the book — the elevator pitch, why you wrote it and what’s interesting about it.

Some kinds of books are unlikely to make money no matter what. It’s important to maintain a diverse portfolio of book projects, mixing ones with more commercial potential with less potential.

Recognize that you’re going to waste a percent of your ad budget on things which accomplish nothing.

The primary way in April 2020 to promote ebooks at this moment seems to be ebook deal newsletters which authors and publishers pay for. Bookbub used to be the best service, but now it’s too expensive. Other services like bookgorilla, bargainbooksy, booksends offer more competitive rates. (Bookgorilla is less than $50 an ad). (Dec 2020: Update: Also, see a place that lets you promote on netgalley for $50 a month, a place that finds likely reviewers fairly cheaply (even though the reviews aren’t that great. I still think bargainbooksy and bookgorilla are better deals though). See also Dave Gaughran’s annotated list of Best Book Promo Sites.

So far, I’ve seen limited returns on these promo sites — only about a 20-50% of the cost is actually returned in earnings — producing a negative balance. The main reason is that most promo sites are geared to promoting discounted books at a price of 0 or 99 cents, and that’s a price point where authors receive only 35% of earnings; in other words, you need to sell 285 ebooks for the promotion to break even. That does not mean all is for naught. If you define success as raising brand awareness for other books or attracting reviews, then the campaign might still be deemed successful. Also, Gaughran makes the argument that promo stacking (running multiple overlapping promos for different ebooks) can have synergistic effects on brand awareness. For example my press is coming out with a great story collection in July by Jack Matthews. It will be priced at 4-5$, but I’ll keep the other Jack Matthews titles on sale at different price points and promoting the cheap titles might increase the interest in the 4-5$ title.

Much has been written about the 99 cent vs. 2.99 vs. 3.99 price strategy on Amazon. For some book buyers (like me) those extra dollars might be dealbreakers, but not for other people. What’s definitely true is:

  • purchasing a 2.99 ebook on Amazon is a LOT more profitable than purchasing a 99 cent ebook. (For most books, you’re talking about $2.07 profit for one sale vs. $0.34). For this reason it’s much much better to be able to persuade readers to buy on Amazon at 2.99 and above.
  • Ebook deal newsletters mostly are encouraging authors to advertise 99 cent specials rather than 2.99 and up novels.
  • Some ebookstores (Google, Smashwords) are offering higher earning percentages for ebooks below 2.99, but those account for a very small percent of sales volumes. You could probably persuade a small percent of readers to buy from those places, but the majority are still going to stick with Amazon.

Generally it’s a losing proposition to buy advertising in general media if a significant portion of the audience are not book buyers. Although there is the potential to reach new audiences, the problem is that other products and companies will be willing to pay a higher rate for ads because the products or services being sold bring more profit per item. On the other hand, advertising on Amazon Marketing Service might have more potential payoffs because the people on the site are more likely to be book-buyers. (Not that I wholeheartedly endorse this service. It depends on the book and the price of the keywords you are buying). Update: Multiple sources have suggested that the bid which A.M.S. suggests is way too expensive for its effectiveness.

The problem with “algorithmic advertising” that you see in social media is that a potential consumer is not likely to see it more than once. Also, consumers are less likely to trust a targeted ad provided by Google or Facebook. Watch your money carefully — especially at the beginning.

If you advertise, you should start with a small fixed amount, then choose an advertising method and then track its performance. (Nowadays you can check daily ebook sales from every distributor). Generally the ad should pay for itself and then some. But you need to figure out which advertising method is actually cost-effective. You can do that by trying only one promotional campaign at a time and checking if it increases sales. It’s okay to burn a small amount of money when you’re starting out (200 dollars or less), but it’s also perfectly okay not to advertise at all (or rather do primarily no-cost techniques).

Don’t count on friends and family to review your title, much less read it. Most of them won’t bother to read the first page (unless the subject is salacious or they think it’s about them).

Generally book marketing always starts out as an exercise in futility — until suddenly it isn’t.

Perhaps this is obvious, but other writers don’t judge you by your sales record; they judge you by steady output and your mastery of the fundamentals. Frankly, every writer starts out clueless about promotion, and eventually the basics of marketing will come naturally. Spending too much of your focus on marketing is a certain recipe for psyching yourself out and diverting attention from the muse’s calling.

Finally, and I hate to say that, but 99.9 of the world’s population does not care about books and specifically your book. Don’t let that get you down.

Tips I tweeted

In answer to a twitter question about inside publishing wisdom, I made 4 tweets:

  • For every talented acclaimed author, there are 100+ exciting indie ones flying under radar & making almost no money. It’s incredibly $$ & risky to promote unknowns — unless you have a)blurbs by famous people b)paid reviews and c) movie deal — or if the author is young & telegenic.
  • Indie author obstacles: Paltry book coverage in MSM (except cookbooks, true crime & celebrity memoirs). Even highbrow media follows the herd. Memoirs by unknowns are especially hard sell b/c you’re still competing against Holocaust, crime victims & celebs w/ drug problems.
  • Amazon’s dominance of book industry is overwhelming. All parties really are subject to vagaries of Amzn policy & business strategy and utterly dependent on its marketing tools. Every author loves/hates Amazon!
  • Only way to overcome these obstacles is publish often, stick with conventional genres and/or have a trust fund (and/or grant money/academic position) to bankroll your noncommercial projects. Of course, to qualify for a grant or position, you have to win a prize/receive some acclaim beforehand. It’s a vicious circle.

Marketing Guides and websites which were actually useful to me:

  • In this outstanding post, Austin author Scott Semegren details the promotion steps he found to be the most useful.
  • Books by marketing guru Nicholas Erik
  • CreativeIndie Derek Murphy (brilliant, insightful guy who unfortunately tends to blame bad covers too much).
  • Dave Gaughram. Here’s an Oct 2020 video where he talks about what works and doesn’t in 2020. To summarize, he calls building & cultivating newsletters the most important thing you can do, says not to advertise on Amazon because of high price, but to look into advertising on bookbub website — which is different from applying to be a bookbub deal.
  • Smashwords CEO Mark Coker writes a yearly column predicting ebook trends for the next year. Here’s the latest column. His business model is very anti-Amazon and that skews his perspective somewhat, but he’s in touch with the world of indie authors.

One caveat to keep in mind is that most of these help books assume you are as prolific as Stephen King and writing in a popular genre. In Erik’s book he says that he assumes a writer is publishing 2 books a year — which is wildly out of sync with the productivity of actual writers. With literary fiction, publishing a book every 2-5 years used to be the norm (and that was only if you had some kind of cushy academic job).

I agree that this standard was probably too easy and that writers should publish more regularly. But there’s a catch 22 embedded in these assumptions. ie.,

  1. the only way you can make a living as a writer is to publish a new book every 6 months or year BUT
  2. the only way you can write a book every 6-12 months is to quit your job and follow some write-to-market formula BUT
  3. the only way you can sell your book is to spend money on ancillary marketing services — which may or may not work depending on your book, BUT
  4. The only way you can find money to spend on marketing services is to invest your own cash — and assume the risk yourself, BUT
  5. The only way to invest your own cash is to be already making a living which lets you save money.
  6. GO to #1 .

This definitely starts to resemble the underpants gnome business model after a while. But all is not bleak — especially if you have some supplemental income to help you with #4. Beginner’s luck could help, as well as a good circle of friends and successful author branding. The main thing I worry about is momentum: if you are not able to publish as often as Stephen King, gaining momentum can be harder (in terms of media mentions, etc). Basically all you can hope for is that readers discover your backlist of titles soon enough that you don’t go broke first.

Book Description Limits

Here are some character & word limits for the various ebookstores and ebook deal newsletters (current as of 11/2020:

  • Amazon opening paragraph (what appears before you click MORE): 466-490 characters.
  • Smashwords opening paragraph: 399 characters.
  • Google Books opening Paragraph: 450 characters
  • Amazon Author Central book description: 4000 characters, 600 words

Ad copy permitted for the ebook deal promoters:

  • Bargain Booksy: 466-490 characters
  • Bookbub 297 characters
  • Book Gorilla: Lead: 105 characters, body: 324 characters
  • Fussy Librarian: 700 characters

A final Disclaimer

I hope this helps somebody!


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(Work-in-progress. Will update more over next 2 days). Not as many deals this time, but I wanted to cover the Smashwords (SW) sale. Also, special for this month I purchased lots of amazing used print books from Better World Books. You have to shop very carefully, but mostly they offer cheaper-than-Amazon prices on out-of-print books. Also, They regularly run coupon codes on multiple purchases. Check out the Cheap Print Book section at the bottom of this column. Another thing, I bought a Paperwhite 10th edition, 32 gig for $119 last week. I’m going to do a review of the device soon, but overall, I am not impressed.

KU means Kindle Unlimited, LE means that lending of this Kindle title is allowed, and APUB means it was published under an Amazon imprint.

I wanted to mention an important detail. Up to now I had been using the Libby/Overdrive app to access ebooks from my public library, but now I can report that the Hoopla ebook app from another public library is better. It contains a lot more titles from university presses, plus several literary presses such as Counterpoint Press. If I were to guess, I think that the Hoopla people are selective about which ebooks they include on this subscription app, while Overdrive just let public libraries acquire their own titles (and as a result we have more bestsellers, genre fiction, etc).

Indie Author Spotlight

None this month although I’m really liking the sound Zdravka Evtimova (see below).

(Read about indie authors profiled in previous months).

Sales on Smashwords

This week is Smashwords Read an Ebook week. These prices are guaranteed to be valid until 11:59 PM PST March 7. Some of the author or listing URLs mentioned below don’t list the discount price, but if you click directly to the ebook, you will see the discount. (Here are two of my columns about SW authors: here , and here).

From Fomite, I see that the entire Fomite catalog on SW has been discounted to 1.25 or 1.50. Great stuff overall (I’ve blogged about their catalog here , and here). I want to mention that only epub files are available from SW for these books. I actually just contacted the publishers to notify them that SW now allows direct uploads of mobi.

I see 2 new short story collections by Bulgarian writer Zdravka Evtimova (website) for 1.25. You can smile on Wednesdays and In the Town of Joy and Peace. She has published several other story collections for higher prices. She has translated many English works into Bulgarian and vice versa. Here’s an interview where Evtimova says, “It is enough to take a stroll in some Bulgarian city, look into someone’s eyes, see their clothes, their walk, the houses around, the trees, and it makes you want to write about that person. This process is not automated – you cannot just push a button and get what you want, like your morning coffee for instance. Sometimes a chance encounter jolts you and the story starts to tell itself.” (Here’s another intervew and an online story Pay Me).

Unsolicited Press is also discounting many of its titles (not all). I love this press too, but some of its poetry titles are improperly formatted. I wouldn’t buy any poetry titles before 2019 for example. I wrote about some Unsolicited Press titles here, here and here. By the way, I notice that today

In my first column I raved about Indian short story writer Dinesh Verma. I see that finally Verma finished his translation of Munshi Premchand’s stories. The collection is titled Divine Arbiter and Other Stories. (2.99) He is famous for a novel Gift of a Cow which is not yet in ebook I believe.

Steve Benton (author website) is an old fogie sci fi author who has two free sci fi novels available during this week. Short story collection Compendium of Imaginary Stars and novel Lili G and the Malevolent Monsters.

It’s not a sale (it’s the same prize on Amazon), but the prolific Isham Cook (author website) is an expat writer (teacher?) living in China who writes fiction and essays. (His author bio describes himself as “Writing philosophy: downmarket, big concept, discriminating, provocative, outrageous. Ballard, Beckett, Borges, Dick, Kafka, Hesse, Melville, Mishima, Sade are influences.” All titles on SW/Amazon are 2.99. What looks interesting are The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China and Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews (I’m a sucker for book review collections!) Some of these essays are available online .

Deals published by Amazon imprints

Generally these are titles published by the Amazon imprints. I frankly ignore most of the genre stuff and focus on the international authors and biographies. Follow this link to see which titles are 99 cents for the month. I’ve already bought a ton of these titles in previous months (check previous columns here, here and here), so maybe my recs will be sparser than usual. All are KU APUB, (but not lendable!).

Update: Although I have bought many of Amazon’s imprints, so far I haven’t bought anything since last RR.

Under the Radar

Generally bought at price between $1 and $3. You should set a price alert on ereaderiq to catch these titles the next time they are discounted.

Borrowed Time: The Science of How and Why We Age by Sue Armstrong. Great book by a science journalist. (I’ve started reading).

Contours of Darkness and the Gentle Degenerates by Marco Vassi, LE Marco Vassi was a sexual utopian who died young of AIDS. I’m writing an essay about his books.

We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Eric Olsen. Frankly, the Amazon reviews are almost as amusing as the book itself.

1982, Janine (Canons) by Alasdair Gray, LE. Bawdy experimental novel by someone described as the Scottish James Joyce. Articles here, here and here.

Janitor’s Classroom by Richard Johnson

Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna KU

Abolitionist’s Wife & Appalachian Tales by Deanna Edens, 99 cents, KU, LE. Edens is a prolific author in many genres. She has lots of books, most of them 99 cents, with occasional freebies. Here’s an interview. I definitely plan to read a few of her titles.

Shackles and More Gripping Tales by James Hanna 99 cents (author page). I really got into Hanna’s other story collection and started Call Me Pomeroy . Here’s a nice interview.

Dance Between Flames: Berlin Between the Wars by Anton Gill (KU)

Children of Dust and Heav: Diary from Nazi Occupation through the Holocause by Stefania Heilbrunn (KU). FREE

Benjamin Markovits by Benjamin Markovits

Blink and it’s Gone Sales

Best of Edward Abbey. Anthology handpicked by the author himself in the 1980s. (His introductory essay is worth reading even if you don’t buy the ebook).

Seven Loves: A novel by Valerie Trueblood. 1.99 Trueblood is top of her class in short fiction, and I’m pretty much going to grab anything by her at this point.

Carthage: A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates. 99 cents

Train of Powder by Rebecca West 1.99 Various journalistic pieces by West in her middle years. This contains some reporting on trials in post-WW2 Germany and in 1950s USA.

Creative Commons – Academic – Public Domain

You should really check out the digitalized versions of the influential Dial magazine of the 1920s. (wiki article). Apparently all Lost Generation writers and poets published there. That’s where TS Eliot first published Wasteland and won a big prize. BTW, the 1923 volume is also digitalized and a free download in epub and PDF — although you really need to read it in PDF.

Once in a Lifetime Deals



Darkness of Treading Water by Bradley Spender. (KU, LE)

Brain, Hope, the Heart by Martin Bosko (KU)

S O S: Poems 1961-2013 by Amiri Baraka, LE. I found this ample collection of poetry on discount



Review Copies Received


Better World Books (Print books)

I’ve been buying some old/rare books from Better World Books. They offer free shipping, (occasionally) cheap titles and coupon promotions (often listed at the top of the website). Don’t worry, everything gets subtracted automatically. I’m pasting, so the authors first and last name are reversed — sorry. The numbers refer to price paid before 20% discount was applied.

  • A history of American poetry, 1900-1940 3 by: Gregory, Horace. Major survey poetry by leading critic of poetry and his wife (also noted Pulitzer-winning poet) Marya Zaturenska.
  • The History of Jazz by: Gioia, Ted 4 Gioia is one of the America’s leading music critics, yet none of his ebooks are ever discounted.
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by: Loewen, James W. 4
  • Forward from This Moment: Selected Columns, 1994-2009 by: Pitts, Leonard, Jr. 5
  • Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future by Marilu Henner: $3.48 A surprisingly insightful and useful book which I had checked out of the library numerous times.
  • Playwrights at Work by: Paris Review, Interviews Plimpton, George 4
  • Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking by: Nisbett, Richard E. 4
  • The state of mind,: Thirty-two stories by: Schorer, Mark 3.50
  • Sinclair Lewis by: Mark Schorer 3
  • History of American Classical Music: MacDowell Through Minnmalism by: Struble, John Warthen 3.50
  • First principles of verse by: Hillyer, Robert 4
  • Naked in Deccan by: Kulkarni, Venkatesh 6 Out of print award-winning novel by the father of congressional candidate Sri Kulkarni.



Personville Press Giveaways and Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. All the titles are discounted on Smashwords for less that price — and usually under $1.50. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.


Smashwords Ebook Sale Starting

I’m in the middle of my next Robert’s Roundup of Ebook deals column. It will be posted tonight. The most important thing to know is that Smashwords Read An Ebook Week is in progress and lasts until the end of Saturday March 7. I can summarize where the good stuff is: Fomite Press has discounted all its titles to either 1.25-1.50. Check out my previous columns on Fomite here and here.


Mikes Likes #4 (Book Reports March 2020)

View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series || View Robert’s Roundups ||

Occasionally I repost book reports by Michael Barrett who regularly posts film reviews at Popmatters. Two more columns by Barrett will be published in March.

Alienation of non-labor

Guido Morselli‘s THE COMMUNIST
Ebook checked out of the library!

Set in 1958-59 and written in the 1960s, this novel is a tenderly observed psychological portrait refracted through the struggle of political beliefs with daily reality, therefore becoming a broader portrait of Italy’s Communist Party by an author who remained aloof from politics and the world, yet who was clearly capable of engaging with it via research and imagination. However, some of his American details are off.

The protagonist spent part of his youth in America and had a failed marriage to a rich capitalist’s daughter who symbolizes a dual-personality America: prejudice and exploitation amid beauty, enlightened social concern amid disillusion, both personalities defined by industrious drive. Since returning to Italy after the war, he’s had success as a political organizer in Italy and now been “put out to pasture” by election to Parliament, where nothing constructive is done and his prickly relations with an estranged married woman come under strain. The book ends in transit.

Most chapters consist of discussions and thoughts on the collision of theory and such matters as the inevitability of labor, so it’s very much a book of philosophy and ideas as well as calm observation of life. We could say it’s about how people construct ways to interpret their world and guide their actions, even though these constructs can prove inadequate. This book can be both an act of empathy and also perhaps a translated self-portrait of a man in midlife taking stock and vacillating in a crisis of faith. Morselli also wrote more fantastical novels, all published after his suicide. As Elizabeth McKenzie’s intro states, our knowledge of this fact unavoidably informs our reception of them.

The novel has a cameo by Alberto Moravia and mentions some of the figures mentioned in Natalia Ginzburg‘s FAMILY LEXICON , and also some of the figures mentioned in Aleshkovsky‘s NIKOLAI NIKOLAEVITCH, a Soviet “science fiction” satire told by a vulgar postwar pickpocket who got recruited for experiments in artificial insemination.

From Hungary to Wales: The Rare Bits

Checked out of the library, thanks to Interlibrary Loan!

Having been recently delighted by Szerb‘s JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT, I had to track down his first novel, esp. since it’s described as a fantastical thriller.

Longish but fast-moving, THE PENDRAGON LEGEND (1934) is a breathless farrago of gothic adventure-mystery-horror elements all garnished with humor and wrapped around the obscure enigma of an immortal Welsh ancestor who seeks the Philosopher’s Stone. The narrator is a callow Hungarian scholar in parody of the author who gets casually swept up in bizarre events and outsized characters. Martin Seymour-Smith calls it “a thriller sceptcially based in Rosicrucian intrigue, and is an alarming book.” It’s more light and facetious than alarming, and while it wouldn’t make you think Szerb was about to produce the profound MOONLIGHT, similarities pop up.

In both, the narrator comes under the romantic spell of brother-sister twins, although the siblings have a very different rapport in this lark from the fraught one in the latter. In both books, the narrator has entanglements with women he’s glad to be shut of and asserts that he’s not cut out for it. The afterword by translator Len Rix observes: “Both are the record of a spiritual journey, thoughtlessly begun, that ends in significant failure” (with the hero no worse for wear), told by “a fatally shallow ‘seeker’ whose blunderings bring him up against profound truths the significance of which he never quite grasps” and that the characteristic irony is “a mode of vision, in which a fiercely searching intelligence is balanced by a delight in humanity and an irrepressible playfulness.” Also, both posit a numinous mystery behind the mundane world.

Digging for obscurities thru Inter-Library Loan

Checked out of the library! [exhumed from the archives of a few years ago]

Novelist Phil Stong, of STATE FAIR (turned into a great Will Rogers movie and then a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical) edited a 1941 anthology of weird fiction, mostly from the pulps. It’s considered the first of its type and the first to gather pulp SF tales. Stong prefers Gernsback’s term “scientifiction.” His intro begins well and degenerates into randomness.

Its first two sections, devoted respectively to strange new ideas and fresh variants of old ones, are fantasy and SF of humorous and even facetious tone emphasizing story over cardboard characters, including entries from Theodore Sturgeon (an ancient god), Lester Del Rey (ditto, Pan), Murray Leinster (4th dimension money trick), and Henry Kuttner (time travel to Shakespeare).

Two stories are by Mindret Lord, whose claim to fame is that his wife is a daughter of classic regional writer Hamlin Garland. Ralph Milne Farley’s “The House of Ecstasy” is in the second person–you are hypnotized. One of Eando Binder’s Adam Link robot stories is serious and full of melodrama.

Very curious and interesting: “The Adaptive Ultimate” by “John Jessel” (aka Stanley G. Weinbaum), about a woman whose experimentally advanced intellect turns her into a callous monster (beware), was adapted several times on radio, TV and even a movie (SHE DEVIL), thus indicating a raw nerve.

The third section is serious horror, mostly from WEIRD TALES, and includes Kuttner’s classic “The Graveyard Rats” and two by Manly Wade Wellman, including the still provocative “Song of the Slaves”. There’s a Lovecraft, a Jean Ray, one of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin bits of garish nonsense, and two August Derleths.

I requested this book thru ILL specifically to track down a curious tale by Michael Fessier about the narrator’s recurrent fateful meetings with an old man in a black hat. I’d just been able to acquire his 1935 novel FULLY DRESSED AND IN HIS RIGHT MIND, also thanks to ILL. Fessier’s short story is very similar to his novel.

The novel is a weird, brisk anecdote in which the narrator meets an embodiment of evil (little old man who keeps showing up to cause mischief) and embodiment of beauty (skinny-dipping water nymph), both of whom have portraits painted by an artist friend. It begins with a great first paragraph (opening sentence: “I was standing in front of the Herald and somebody fired a shot and I saw a fat man turn slowly on one heel and fall to the sidewalk.”) and a promisingly uncanny first chapter and eventually bogs down for a hundred pages or so and the end peters out, leaving our hero safe from commitment.

The style is Hemingway-esque terseness (tersity?): “I never tried to argue with Peter. He was the janitor of the apartment house and he could do you a lot of favors. He could keep you supplied with light-globes and bring you some wine he got from his brother in Sonoma County. And he could be mean as hell and rap on your door if there was a lot of talking late at night and do other things to make you uncomfortable. If he thought hospitals killed people, it was okay with me. Anything anybody wanted to think was okay with me because for all I knew they might be right.”

That’s Chapter 7, and Ch. 13 begins: “And so that’s the way things were with me. Pestered by the little old man, trying to catch the girl in the lake, and supporting an artist who painted things and threw them away. It was all very goofy. It had never happened to me before and I don’t suppose anything like it ever happened to anyone before. But that’s the way it was.”

Unnerving tales for today

Brian Evenson‘s Song for the Unraveling of the World
Asja Bakic‘s Mars
Ted Chiang‘s Exhalation and The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
Checked out of the library!

Evenson’s horror tales often feel like variants of each other, reworking existential themes on malevolent houses, breaking into same, glimpsing some Lovecraftian evil behind the veil, obsession with mundane details or impressions, sisters, parents, hideous transformation, people without faces, murderers, the narrator or protagonist’s madness and death. Three are about shooting films.

One original and refreshing story, about a drunken woman spotting a gold-suited stranger, has a happy end, or at least different from expected. Although most are tentatively set in our world, a few are on spaceships or strange worlds. A haunting one is a puzzler about a possible brother and sister living in a strange container with two doors, one to an outside wildness and the other to darkness. One is about being transformed into a monster in a post-apocalyptic world and another a female robot wondering about herself. The experimental joke “Trigger Warnings” mocks being afraid of or disturbed by fiction.

Translated from Croatian, Bakic’s tales could be described as Euro-existential shudders with elements of SF (writers are exiled to Mars, the heroine is a clone or a robot for sexual purposes), fantasy (a writer is still expected to be productive in the afterlife), or crime (murderers), often narrated by women writers. The author says she doesn’t write about the 1990s Yugoslavian wars she witnessed as a teen, but a couple of stories feel pretty directly based on that. One non-fantasy about a neurotic writer turns out to have a completely rational explanation for its mystery, and that’s the exception. A story told by a reporter investigating a “cult” ends, like the Mars story, on a discovery of her secret powers, so a partly dreadful self-knowledge is a recurring theme.

Ted Chiang‘s stories reflect a mind analytical, metaphysical, brilliant and generous. He picks a single idea from just around the corner and works every variation of it, thoroughly and surprisingly, usually in a very “today” context. Business transactions, self-knowledge and faith are recurring elements. The stories tend toward philosophical conclusions about embracing the positive aspects of life, and this too is refreshing. One is narrated by a parrot. It’s no surprise that Chiang’s successful in the SF world, and these are exactly the type of stories that would even intrigue people who “don’t read science fiction.”

The Hugo and Nebula winner The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate puts time travel within a beguiling pastiche of Arabian Nights tales-within-tales. Hugo-winning title story is narrated by a robot scientist who doesn’t grasp that he’s within a mechanically constructed universe; he discovers entropy by dissecting his own brain. “Omphalos” is told by a devout woman scientist in a universe that proves creationism even as astronomical discoveries shake her faith anyway; in other words, proof of God’s work doesn’t necessarily prove our assumptions about it.

Another Hugo story is about raising digital AI creatures, designed to be cute, to become self-governing and how this parallels child-rearing (also the subject of a Victorian steampunk tale). The terrific final story, which would make a good TV anthology episode, posits that people have the power to access their para-selves in alternate universes through laptops that create those parallel realities. These last two stories, as well as the anecdote about a free-will-thwarting game and the long story about recording the details of your life to substitute for imperfect organic memory and how this creates a mental shift akin to the transition from oral to written culture, attend to the influence of boom-and-bust marketing on techno-development and exploitation and vice versa. Even the Arabian Nights tale shows how technology affects capitalism.

Fear, sadness, loneliness, vitality, dreams, love

ALL OUR YESTERDAYS by Natalia Ginzburg
Checked out of the library!

A magnificent act of historical reportage via fiction, Natalia Ginzburg‘s novel is one long breathless express-train of boxcar-length paragraphs cataloging an Italian family’s personal (mis)fortunes during Mussolini. There’s not a line of dialogue in the book, or rather the whole thing is indirectly reported dialogue and thoughts, repetitious and incantatory and mesmerizing as countryside passing rhythmically before the windows, capturing anthropologically and without comment the cliches in which people speak and think, as transcribed with compassion and duty by a recording angel, or perhaps the wise village gossip. Everything is reported almost passively yet vividly, from the worst events to the most trivial details, the falling of bombs and sparrows.

You can feel the connections between this novel and her great memoir FAMILY LEXICON which was devoted to the strict truth and the same commitment to repeated words and phrases by which people express themselves and live; the main differences are this fictional family isn’t Jewish (one minor Jewish character comes to the fore near the end) and that the author gets rid of the parents right away so that siblings exist in a self-determined free-fall between the limits of the world and themselves. A book of bustling life and melancholy and the comedy of fearful and self-centered comings and goings, just as thoughts go back and forth and around, with displays of valor among the flawed and telling flaws among the heroes. Wow. This is more than writing, this is understanding.

Fast is loose

Thanks to Interlibrary Loan, checked out of the library!

While Howard Fast is best known as a political-historical novelist, these two odd stories are philosophical fables. The first story is so reminiscent of Orson WellesTHE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND as to make you wonder if Welles read it, and at the very least shows how large was the legacy of Hemingway’s death in the ’60s and how they all heard the same rumors. The narrator is summoned to the arrival of a famous writer friend who’s a thinly disguised Hemingway: star novelist, heavy drinker, Spanish Civil War ambulance driver, interest in bullfighting (or matadors), big game hunter. His entourage consists of two sexually ambiguous people, including a woman called Diva. He instantly throws a huge society party, and when the party’s over he discovers he’s somehow transformed from hunter to quarry. The fact that he’s being “hunted” is greeted only as one more news story as the narrative becomes a parable of celebrity.

The second, longer tale is mostly epistolary with a drawn-out set-up about finding extraordinary children to test a theory that the next step in evolution gets strangled in the crib, as it were, by being raised by ordinary humans–not unlike my wacky theory of autism based on the mythology of Spock and Vulcan, and also not unlike certain SF stories of advanced children who achieve psychic gestalt, from John D. MacDonald‘s “A Child Is Crying” to Sturgeon‘s MORE THAN HUMAN to Wyndham‘s MIDWICH CUCKOOS. Posits that “naturally” raised children would be poly-sexual telepaths who learn to control atomic structures, as either humanity’s doom or salvation.

Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”


Mikes Likes #3 (Book Reports Feb 2020)

View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series || View Robert’s Roundups ||

Occasionally I repost book reports by Michael Barrett who regularly posts film reviews at Popmatters. Two more columns by Barrett will be published in March.

Two milestones of midcentury malaise

(E-Audiobooks checked out of the library!)

In keeping with Richard Matheson‘s mission of exploring the failures and phobias of the postwar American male chained to an expectation of suburban paterfamilias he proves unable to manage, THE SHRINKING MAN (here retitled THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN after the movie) presents a stark symbol for impotence and obsolescence, and he doesn’t neglect to mention the resulting sexual crisis. It’s a surprisingly sexual book, with desire and threat and frustration in almost every chapter in just about every wrinkle the situation could present. The movie concentrates more on the physical threats: spider (a black widow, and Scott understands his rage against it has a symbolic angle but he doesn’t quite grasp what it is), cat, etc. But those are struggles against nature while his most basic struggle is against himself.

The narrative flips back and forth between an agonizingly detailed (if not always easily picturable) odyssey of a desperate man just under one inch trying to survive in his basement (or his subconscious) and flashbacks to the journey here. Above all, it’s a psychological portrait of almost constant rage, humiliation and self-absorption that becomes increasingly pathetic and irritating as he becomes “a bellicose doll.” He understands that from his daughter’s POV, “in the actuality of pure sight, he was nothing but a horrid midget who screamed and ranted in a funny voice. ” He must be brought low b/c the implication is that even at a normal 6′ 2″ he must have been an often unhappy, demanding egotist. Matheson’s daring choice makes him unsympathetic much of the time, so that Scott can finally be dragged, hopeless, to the epiphany of the great last line.

Another title change is Jack Finney‘s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS from merely THE BODY SNATCHERS, but this 1978 revision of his 1955 novel renames the town from the fictional Santa Mira to the actual Mill Valley where Finney lived, and it updates certain details to the 1980s. He also tosses in an in-joke where the hero goes to see a good movie called TIME AND AGAIN based on his greatest novel. He has to leave without seeing the end, which might also be a nod to the fact that the property was in development forever without being made.

Looking over blogs about this book, it seems not everyone understands that two slightly different versions exist. They have the same optimistic ending, which is very different from any of the film versions, and that’s the most surprising element. Some readers are disappointed by its supposedly anti-climactic nature, but I find it fascinating.

Book report: The man who would not be king

OLIVER VII by Antal Szerb
Checked out of the library–thanks to Interlibrary Loan!

Continuing my obsession with Hungarian writer Antal Szerb, his last and lightest novel (1943) is a Ruritanian comedy that refers to Europe’s current war only by the most indirect discretion in references to “those days” when events like this gentlemanly souffle of mistaken identities were supposedly possible. The fretful monarch stages a revolution to drive himself into exile (a plot echoed in the middle section of Herbert Read‘s THE GREEN CHILD) and in Venice gets mixed up with con artists, one of whom calls himself St. Germain, descendant of the notorious Count. They make him masquerade as himself in a scam diplomatic deal that turns real. Lots of clever dialogue and farcical situations that could serve in a play. The novel implies that the trickster St. Germain is a fateful puppet-master who knows what he’s doing from the start.

Translator Len Rix traces the strong parallels with JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT (including Venice and the hero’s quandary between two women, running away or going home) to point out that this variation comes to a more mature and forthright conclusion about accepting the destiny of one’s role with no shilly-shally or dilly-dally. Sadly, this moral decisiveness mitigated against the author’s “running away” when he had chances to leave Hungary before his death in a work camp.

Spooky tales of magic and mystery

W. Somerset Maugham‘s THE MAGICIAN (download)
(Checked out of the library!)

Maugham’s novel is a quaint melodrama, old-fashioned even for 1908, supposedly inspired by Aleister Crowley. The title figure is seen from outside by four proper Edwardians, two women and two men, who cross his path. The book’s romance is doomed and unredeemed, and the final chapter a revelation of grotesquerie after an anti-climactic battle.

The 1926 film (reviewed by me in Video Watchdog) alters the plot, providing a happy ending to function as an Expressionist link between Trilby and James Whale’s Frankenstein. (Trilby was filmed as Svengali at the same time as Frankenstein.) Wiki quotes Maugham’s self-critique decades later in which he finds the writing “lush and turgid” and thinks he was trying to imitate French decadent writing.

The Miyazawa stories, translated in 1994 by John Bester, are animal and pantheist fables (foxes are popular, also birds and frogs), supernatural anecdotes and mysterious existential parables. Some are clever and comical, with keen views on human foibles. The one about young crabs talking on the sea floor is ecstatically beautiful and gnomic. Some are realist tales, like the origin of a neighborhood wood planted by a mentally disabled boy who died young.

Soji Shimada‘s two novels concerrn a brilliant eccentric solver of locked-room murders in the early 80s. His Zodiac debut involves a three-part family massacre presented as a famous (invented) uncanny mystery of 1936 that begins with an artist’s bizarre confession of his intention to commit the murders, except he gets killed before they happen. This shows classic misdirection. As for the second book, the flummery and useless talk about the eccentric house and the walking golem puppet couldn’t fail to distract this reader by the halfway point from whom was most obviously guilty, and therefore anticipate the surprise of the third murder. Both crimes have their origin in Japan’s militarist era, with one referring to Manchuria and the other connected to war crimes.

Quick reads, because I like ’em short

Checked out of the library!

Guy de Maupassant‘s final novel, ALIEN HEARTS (“Notre Coeur,” our heart), is a work of Henry Jamesian psychological anatomy in which the love affair between a witty, intelligent, self-centered salon hostess and a witty, intelligent, self-centered dilettante is exposed as painful to the latter because the former doesn’t respond as all-consumingly as he wishes but regards him as a pleasing and flattering bibelot she’s collected and feels very fondly toward. A couple of passages imply that she’s never felt an orgasm, and also that she may be a latent lesbian who prefers the company of a female friend. Intended as the dying author’s (of syphilis) exposure of the hollow distraction of Parisian social circles, which has implicitly engulfed him and from which he files his report, with a quietly forceful cameo by a Rodin-like sculptor who steals his chapter.

The stories in Ray Russell‘s HAUNTED CASTLES:THE COMPLETE GOTHIC STORIES include the Victorian pastiche “Sardonicus” (whose characters are referred to in a couple of the other stories, such as “Comet Wine” about famous Russian composers and a Faustian pact), the 1960s New York fireside tale “Sagittarius” combining Edward Hyde and Jack the Ripper, and “Sanguinarius” narrated by Countess Bathory. They combine antiquarian conceits out of classic horror fiction with whiffs of sulfur and sadism in the tradition of cruel tales.

H. Beam Piper‘s LITTLE FUZZY (1962) supposedly explores the question of whether a race of critters has “sapience,” and it’s one long celebration of cuteness. One wonders how it would play if the aliens looked like horned toads and stank to high heaven. It’s less clear if the cardboard humans have sapience. The most characterized one is a Heinleinian Wild West prospector. The baddies are the corporation who own the planet; the deus-ex-luna saviors are the military who declare martial law and unveil courtroom evidence in the last act.

Richard Hull‘s THE MURDER OF MY AUNT (1934) is mostly the unwittingly self-revealing narration of an effete, effeminate, pretentious, dull-witted, lazy, overweight young man who decides to murder his battle-axe aunt in a Welsh village. The reader understands more than the narrator does as he works out one near-slapstick plan after another in a variety of inverted mystery indebted to the author’s inspiration in Francis IlesMALICE AFORETHOUGHT. Almost feels like murder by P.G. Wodehouse. The intro quotes from Dorothy Sayers‘ rave: “The insensitive might even find it as funny as it appears to be on the surface; the sensitive will find it painful, but continuously interesting and exciting.”

“He greeted Griselda as crossly as if she were a member of his family.” Writing swiftly and succinctly with waves of controlled hysteria, Dorothy B. Hughes‘ debut novel, THE SO BLUE MARBLE, cleaves tightly to the POV of a young divorced dress designer, formerly a Hollywod star, who drops into an uncanny thriller about deadly Italian twins seeking a whatsis of legend and lore. Characters include elite society, film stars, an evil teenage sister, a radio newsman, a prof of Persian antiquities and the police. Disorienting, senseless and foreboding with moments of psychopathic violence. Our heroine proves smarter and more resourceful than she seems at first, although she keeps clinging to her love for her ex-husband, which is par for the era.

Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”


Robert’s Rapid Remarks (Introduction)

This week I’m going to start a new series (long overdue): Robert’s Rapid Blogging.

I am approaching my 20th blogging anniversary and reflecting on the experience. I like blogging a lot, and there have been times where I’ve blogged often — just not anymore. As writers age, they have higher standards. It’s hard just to dash things off anymore. Also, my main thing is writing fiction. Why waste my writing energy on ephemeral blogging? But I have some amorphous energy which needs to go somewhere. Besides, the longer columns on this blog are too long, too planned, too (ZZZZZZ….)

I probably won’t blog about political/topical things (who knows? Maybe I will). But these things have a short shelf life (don’t believe me? try this, this and this ). Ok, sure, maybe it’s good to have a time capsule of your current distractions — even though Facebook is proving to be better at that. Anyway, I’m going to do 20 minutes of rapid blogging in stream-of-consciousness style once a week or so. Heck maybe I might say something interesting.

Probably not going to link to anything in these rapid remarks because websites are ephemeral. Maybe the whole Internet will be permanently gone before I press the Submit button.

Unfortunately in this age of great books, great plans, great shows and great books, it’s a letdown to mumble random bloggy things. But here goes!

PS, I have officially created a category!!


Why I support Elizabeth Warren for President

I first heard about Elizabeth Warren when she was being interviewed on PBS by Bill Moyers in the early 2004. She was bright and insightful about consumer finances. She had just written a book about the “Two Income Trap” and had all sorts of insights into real estate, jobs and family and consumer debt. I remember calling Mom and Dad about this remarkable woman I saw on TV who seemed to understand so much.

Over the years, I have heard her interviewed as a talking head on PBS and news/commentary shows. I read two of her books and was delighted to hear that she served on a panel to oversee TARP spending and that she later became a Senator. This enthusiasm for Warren’s policies and her effectiveness as a leader has continued to this day.

Source: Wikipedia

Reasons to Support Warren

Here are some reasons for why I support Warren so much:

During the Obama administration, She did an outstanding job of overseeing TARP funds and establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (disclosure: that agency helped me recover 500$ from a credit card company!)

She understands consumer debt and has some ideas about how to rectify the imbalance of power between the consumer and corporation.

She is very diligent about complying with the law. Does anyone think that Warren would refuse legal subpoenas from Congress?

She has an excellent practical mind with regard to regulatory structures.

She is intimately familiar with how corporations work, how they are supposed to work and how they sometimes fail to work.

She has personal experience with unusual family finances and the complexity of poverty.

She is extremely skeptical about policy proposals and at the same time very open-minded to unconventional solutions.

She is an inspired speaker, very witty and knows when to stop talking (i.e., not a windbag). She speaks very precisely. She would not be distracted by Trump’s name-calling; indeed her retorts on Twitter are often more effective rhetorically than anything Trump could try.

She has outstanding persuasive ability and especially good at arguing policy details to CEOs, politicians and thought-leaders.

Her personal story is compelling and remarkable. Her meteoric rise from special ed teacher to bankruptcy teacher at Harvard is remarkable and entirely deserved.

She is running not for personal reasons but because she has a compelling vision of government and justice. She wants to change the system, and becoming president is only a secondary consideration.

She can talk to experts and has shown herself capable of absorbing policy nuances while not being beholden to these same experts. For example, I follow climate change policy very closely — which was definitely not one of Warren’s core issues. I heard her talk for 30 minutes at a CNN town forum and she revealed a deep understanding of this issue nonetheless. (Her campaign plans indicate as such). Clearly Warren had done her homework. Similarly, I didn’t expect Warren to have nuanced opinions on foreign policy, but I am satisfied with almost all her public responses on the subject. All this tells me that she has assembled a top brain trust.

She has written several well-researched books on policy and shows herself capable of analyzying quantitative information. Plus, she co-wrote two books with her daughter (which I think is so cool!)

Warren is fearless and unafraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Despite being labeled as anti-capitalist, Warren would be a crusader for policies with long term payoffs to our economy(i.e., infrastructure, education, technology). She’s not the type to ignore problems.

On policy matters, Warren is way ahead of the curve. She would be a good person to start enforcing antitrust rules more vigorously. She has proposed an interesting plan to use corporate charters on public corporations to encourage fair compensation and sound corporate management.

She has a profound understanding of why the political processes are dysfunctional and doesn’t pretend that every problem can be solved with more bipartisanship.

She is unabashed about admitting when a policy has failed.

I agree with Warren that the current health care system is basically unfixable. It is convenient and easy for politicians to support halfway measures, but it takes courage to admit when something is failing even if the solution will be disruptive.

Reservations/Concerns about Warren

Ok, let me mention some things which I think are potential problems with Warren:

  • She is somewhat impatient with people who disagree with her or make irrational points.
  • She tends to believe that everything can be solved by new laws and better laws and better enforcement. She’s not wrong, of course, but part of being an effective leader is garnering support and designing policies compatible with social norms.
  • She is not hemmed in by the need to appease special interest groups. This can be good, but this limits her ability to build consensus.
  • She has been unfairly vilified and mocked by conservative politicians and press. Although she has responded appropriately, I think she lets it get under her skin a tad too much.
  • She is most comfortable with her wonk hat and while that is great overall, it could alienate people who don’t exactly agree with her.
  • Surprisingly, she has lukewarm support from some of Obama’s top officials. Some have claimed that she is not much of a team-player (I’m fine with that, but it might not be the best quality a president can have).
  • Although Warren fights for the middle class and started out in middle class herself, she may have lost touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. That is probably true for most people running for president. But Warren has been at Harvard for a long time.
  • I worry somewhat about Warren’s ability to live with compromises. So far she has worn the hat of the uncompromising debater. I don’t doubt Warren’s pragmatism, but I worry that she may waste time and energy chasing windmills.

Warren vs. the Alternatives.

I believe that the current slate of Dem. presidential candidates is nothing short of phenomenal. I voted for Bernie in the 2016 primary, and I admire his commitment and empathy and tirelessness. He’s an American hero. Despite her incremental approach to health care reform, I think Klobuchar is a sharp politician (and really funny too). She has a command of many issues and lots of empathy for people. Mayor Pete is also a prodigy of sorts. He brings a fresh approach to progressive issues with an ounce of morality and genuine religion. It would certainly be amazing if he won the nomination. If anything, both he and Bernie have shown that age is just a number and that youth can be an advantage too.

Joe Biden doesn’t immediately impress on the debate stage, but those who know him best say that he is great working behind closed doors. He is warm and passionate and probably has a Rolodex bigger than anyone’s. (Then again, they said the same things about Hillary).

I also admired Inslee and Steyer for their commitment to making climate change a front burner issue. I would love to see either one running a department or agency. Same for Castro.

All of these candidates are great and exceptional in their own way, but I feel Warren is what our country needs now.

Warren is a fighter and crusader

The current political environment calls for a fighter and crusader, and Warren is the perfect person for that role.

Warren is not only the best fighter for progressive causes, she’s also the best one to restore respect for law in the federal government. Warren can talk the talk of the business world and devise workable policies on broad economic issues which have been ignored for too long. I worry about Warren’s ability to build bridges with political enemies, but I do not doubt her ability to change the agenda and devise workable solutions.

Elizabeth Warren’s agenda might piss some people off, but that’s a result of the times. The US economic and political system is severely broken — it has been broken for at least a decade. As good and visionary as Obama was as president, he failed to appreciate how deeply entrenched some interests are against change. That’s why Obama had to settle for a reduced stimulus package, had to settle for a health care policy that could be broken by a Republican-led government, and had to settle for a climate change policy that set a clear direction without actually making much headway.

Obama certainly tried. He tried to be bipartisan, but the Republicans under McConnell just played the game of obstructionism which damaged both the economy and our government. Later Trump and his brand of extremism poisoned social norms and encouraged a contempt for the law. The Trump Administration has continued unchecked. Sure, everything they do is challenged by the court, but Trump can keep appealing (and delaying) to the point where his policies have been in effect for months (or years) before having to be walked back.

Warren will have none of that. She is a lawyer by training who has spent most of her adult lives understanding the intricacies of legal structures. Maybe other Democrat candidates could do the same thing, but Warren is the best person to set a new norm for agencies in the executive branch.

How do you fight moral depravity?

Trump has corrupted our discourse. He rewards moral depravity. He uses abusive language. He lies without compunction. His press spokespeople all repeat Trump’s nonsense. Citizens of USA (and other countries) have learned to mistrust (and even laugh at) the pronouncements of our President.

I’m not sure how a society recovers from Trump’s continuous assault on language, but a law professor sounds like the ideal person to lead the effort. I would also expect her to appoint leaders who are accountable and transparent and don’t try to bludgeon their political opponents by shouting them down.

Warren has made many speeches that turned out to be breakout moments. She is a dynamic speaker and debater who repeatedly rises to the occasion. Polarizing? Maybe. Can she beat a man who uses fascist tactics to intimidate people? Warren is the last person who would ever be intimidated. Moral depravity will not be defeated by someone with more money, or someone who can talk to Bubbas or quote Scripture. It will be defeated by someone who doesn’t abuse language, who knows the law and can keep the focus on what is right and what is true.

In her capacity as legislator and regulator, Warren has had to deal with CEO types used to getting their way and being treated as heroes. It’s been remarkable to watch Warren grill these people in the Senate. You might say it’s just political showmanship, but it has a purpose: to make clear that no one is above the law, no matter how powerful. I fully trust Warren to run a government which is answerable to all citizens — and not just the wealthy few with the most influence.

(See also: my predictions for the 2021 election).

Postscript: It is with absolutely no shame that I link to a much better written endorsement of Warren by Vox’s Ezra Klein. Although Klein covers more detail and hits many of the same talking points, Klein also notes her prowess at recruiting and hiring (a key skill for executives!)

When I asked Warren what people didn’t understand about the powers federal agencies wielded, that was her answer. “Personnel is policy here,” she replied. “The tools are already embedded in the agencies. It’s just going to take somebody to pick them up and use them.”

The tricky thing about this part of Warren’s worldview is that no candidate would really argue with it. They all agree that personnel matters, that choosing good people and managing them well is important. But there’s a difference between knowing it and prioritizing it, between saying it and doing it. For Warren, putting the right people in the right jobs — and, just as importantly, keeping the wrong people out of those jobs — is an obsession, and she spends her political capital accordingly.


You may have already heard about how libraries really dislike the new pricing model of MacMillan’s publishing company.

[continue reading…]

Mike's Likes #2 (Book Reports Jan 2020)

View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series || View Robert’s Roundups ||

Occasionally I repost book reports by Michael Barrett. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting highlights.

These things happen, or Buzzati too is God


This collection reprints a 1965 translation and adds four “new” gentler less dark stories. They add up to a concept album on terrible events and depend more on queasy undefined anticipation and escalation than the disaster, though disasters do arrive. People are often terrified of some unclear thing or deny this terror. Several tales are basically about time and life. They all tend toward political and existential parables, like the passengers on a train who perceive everyone fleeing from the direction in which the train is heading (this mere idea is brilliant, the story needs nothing else), or the hospital in which people descend the seven floors according to their prospects for recovery (everyone’s headed down to first floor).

The story where an elite group feels compelled to slay a pathetic dragon mirrors a story where a traveling couple descend into public pillory. The one about an epidemic ends with a positive twist on political fashion. The longest story, “The Scala Scare” (one of the added tales), is about the chimera of political fear among the privileged who, put into a state of mind by the art of a clangorous contemporary opera, convince themselves a bloody revolution is occurring.

The other three new stories have different qualities. One employs disaster at the service of class revenge, one is a deal with the devil with a very concrete message (you get money at the expense of others, similar to Matheson’s “Button Button”), and one is about the beatification of saints and what becomes of them. That story ends on mystic beauty and provides a transcendent end to the book, partly by sheer contrast with all that came before. I’ll retell it, spoilers and all.

It begins: “Each of the saints has his own little house beside the shore with a balcony overlooking the sea–and that sea is God. In summer when it is hot they refresh themselves by plunging into the cool water–and that water is God.” The story tells of a neglected saint whom nobody prays to, even when he pulls a few miracles, but he makes a friend in the saint who unwittingly usurps his glory. “They went in, cut a little wood and lit the fire with some difficulty because the wood was still damp, but by blowing and blowing a bright flame sprung up at last. Then Gancillo put a pot of water over the fire for the soup, and while waiting for it to boil they both sat on the bench warming their knees and chatting away happily. Then from the chimney there issued a thin column of smoke, and that smoke too was God.”

Here’s another review of Buzzati’s Catastrophe by Ben Roth.

Book report: Two writers of brilliance and delight

Lucia Berlin‘s EVENING IN PARADISE (audiobook)
Natalia Ginzburg‘s FAMILY LEXICON (ebook)
Checked out of the library!

A couple of years ago, A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN introduced me to one of America’s best short story writers in the 2nd half of the 20th Century, the late Lucia Berlin. Apparently this collection was a “bestseller” (whatever that means) b/c the publisher followed with two more.

The brilliance continues with the stories in EVENING IN PARADISE, this time arranged by internal biographical order as inspired by Berlin’s Texas childhood, teen years in Peru, bohemian marriages with husbands addicted to jazz and/or heroine, single motherhood and alcoholism, and finally graceful retired teacher. The title story, which doesn’t tip an autobiographical hat, concerns one night at a Mexican hotel with the cast and crew of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, and a character from that story shows up in a later story of violence and horror, calmly recounted. We certainly hope it’s mostly fiction. A later story splits first-person narrators during a vanished-child crisis between the mom and a nosy neighbor. Her best stories, which is most of them, are marked by a sane poise of comedy and pathos, of confession and containment.

The first paragraph of Natalia Ginzburg’s delightful and enthralling FAMILY LEXICON asserts that she disciplined herself only to write what she knows is true about her memories of growing up in Italy as an anti-Fascist Jewish family that survived the war (except her first husband). Each paragraph and page is funny and sharp in its catalogue of eccentric or specific details of family and everyone she knew, including famous people, with particular attention to family jokes and code phrases.

Her loudly argumentative family could be seen as typically Italian or typically Jewish and is really just typically family. They feel alive, credible, exasperating and fun, and the sad and poignant parts, also described simply, have power. So does her observation that when she thinks of Pavese, she thinks mostly of his irony and wants to cry that it’s vanished from the earth because he never put it into his books. This is among the few moments when she agrees to refer to herself, whom she largely treats as another bemusedly observed acquaintance. She describes things that happened and never wallows in emotions, yet these can be sensed. A great accomplishment.

Book report: The effect of gamma rays on social processes and OTHER MEN’S DAUGHTERS, by Richard Stern

Richard Stern’s 1973 novel seems written as a snapshot of transition to divorce culture in Harvard WASP country. Stern writes an often vivid, telegraphic kind of poetry for phrase and metaphor; seemingly random moments are in present tense. An early 40s biology prof, now in a sterile tense marriage after four children, stumbles into an affair with a (wish fulfillment?) forward, beautiful, smart, rich, often insecure woman in her 20s.

Despite occasional dips into the girlfriend’s and wife’s heads, this is the man’s POV (reflected in the title) as he’s broken out of the shell of routine and outdated assumptions, partly echoed in his work on biological processes and evolutionary change, and essentially a story sympathetic to all its participants while recognizing their flaws. They keep reading novels (Balzac’s LIKE DEATH) and seeing movies (THE BLUE ANGEL) all too appropriate as commentary, but without commentary. Only a trip to THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO evokes a conscious twinge.

The moving penultimate chapter involves his telling the two younger children about the divorce and handling their reactions. The author transcribes the events simply and exactly: “George cried. Sarah’s and Merriwether’s hands were on his head and back.”

His older sister puts on a braver front. “She turned away. ‘It isn’t as hard for me at my age, Daddy. It’s harder for George. I’m taken up with things.’
‘I love you so, Esme, dear. I’ll always be here. I’m glad it’s not that hard for you. But you may have hard moments. Mommy and I will do everything we can to help you.’

‘Thank you. I think I’d better be alone.’ The voice led to the edge of years she did not want him to see. Feeling a depth of love absolutely new in his life, Merriwether resisted lifting her into his arms.”

What’s important is to accept their signals of what they need; the expression of deep love is resisting the embrace in this case, while the boy needs it. Or should he not have resisted the impulse? “George cried”–I cried, and I’ve never been in any situation near this.

“A week later, the thought came to Merriwether that the moments holding each other on the bed were the best he and George would probably have together; it was as strong a love as two human beings could have for each other without sexuality (stronger for its absence). ‘You who are made of me, formed from–and against–me, you whom I’ve seen grow from bulge to this, you George Merriwether, whom I named and who will–please God–have me in mind years after my death, you my beloved child…’ Nothing in Merriwether’s life had come close to the love behind this unvoiced invocation.”

Despite this potpourri of raw emotions, the book refuses to indulge in tragic melodrama–in stark contrast, for example, to the marital transgressions in Updike’s first two Rabbits.

Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”


Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill by Harvey Havel, 2019, Novella, 56,000 words

Ebook for sale at Smashwords, Amazon, etc

Recommended if you like: John Steinbeck, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City or William Kennedy

Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill is a realistic and unsentimental tale about love, longing and loss. It’s also an investigation into how financial insecurity can lead human relationships astray. It is expertly and harrowingly told by Albany author Harvey Havel who has written over a dozen novels on social themes.

Charlie, a young & bright Caucasian male from a wealthy background attends an elite college and becomes smitten with a beautiful college girl named Sophia. At first, this girl ignores Charlie because she is out of his league, but Charlie persists and starts to win her over. Gradually Charlie realizes that Sophia is not quite the girl he thought; he has to face that he has deceived himself of what the girl could have ever offered to his future.

From this point on, Charlie drops out of school, moves to Albany and finds himself struggling to make a living. At a friend’s suggestion, Charlie hires a pretty woman named Gypsy to clean his apartment and ends up forming a strange kind of attachment with her. Was it love? Or just a no-strings business relationship? Charlie recognizes that his fondness for Gypsy is not “normal” (or even healthy), and yet he does everything possible to make it blossom into something better. What kind of sacrifice ought he to make for this Gypsy woman? Was she even worth it? The more Charlie struggles to make this relationship work, the more ethical compromises he ends up making.

Charlie is a flawed character of tragic dimensions — sympathetic but also infuriating. He seems genuinely concerned about the welfare of his friends; at the same time, Charlie has a sensuous and egotistical side that makes him unable to recognize the folly of his dreams. Perhaps Charlie was asking for the impossible!

The novel is just as much about romantic illusions as economic illusions. Charlies is horrified to see how economics thwart romantic desires and how romantic fulfillment practically demands that he abandon his values. There’s a lot of sexual politics here, and the racial dynamics are also interesting. Havel is a Pakistani-American who has often written about the Muslim and African-American experience. Yet in this novel, the protagonist Charlie is white, and his best friend Cash is African-American and Gypsy is mixed-race. These things are not supposed to matter in our color-blind society, but by the end of the novel, it is clear that they do.

This novella consists of 4 extended chapters, like acts in a play. The prose is simple and conversational and occasionally indignant. As bleak as the book was at times, I enjoyed getting to know the (flawed) characters and understanding Charlie’s motivations. The criminal elements in the latter part of the book were depicted in a realistic and almost banal way. The ending left me unsatisfied; I don’t know what kind of outcome would have felt “right,” here, but it was unclear to me whether Charlie had reformed or even changed his cynical world view.

IN SUMMARY: Although not a pretty story, this expertly told tale explores how far a person can take his romantic and economic illusions without bringing ruin.


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(Sorry for the long delay from last column; I’ll be posting somewhat more frequently from now on. See my previous post about why I no longer link to Amazon ebooks. I still link to author websites and Smashwords ebook links. For acronyms, KU means Kindle Unlimited, LE means that lending of this Kindle title is allowed, and APUB means it was published under an Amazon imprint. )

Indie Author Spotlight

(Read about indie authors profiled in previous months).

In the last Roundup, I chose Pakistani-American author Harvey Havel for my first Indie Author Spotlight. Since making that pick, I posted this book review of Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill (SUMMARY: realistic and unsentimental tale about love, longing and loss. It’s also an investigation into how financial insecurity can lead human relationships astray). I’ll be publishing an interview with Havel later (here it is).

Ken Kuhlken (author website) is a prolific author who has published many stories in mainstream mags, won a fellowship and wrote some acclaimed novels. I am happy to report that almost all his books are affordable on SW and that his lauded fiction debut Midheaven is selling for 1.99 — half its Amazon price. Actually the omnibus volume Hickey and McGee is 2.50 (half its Amazon price) and contains 3 novels: Midheaven, the Very Least, and the Answer to Everything. There’s an amazing blurb by Raymond Carver about his fiction: “Ken Kuhlken writes about characters most authors wouldn’t touch.” Also from Ann Tyler: “The pace, clarity and assurance of Midheaven make it a pleasure to read.” His website lists the time period in which each novel takes place. But Alas, he recently published some new novels of the For America series. which includes Supermen, This Rough Beast, Gas Crisis, War and Holy Grail. (this is the sequence that the author recommends you read these books, btw). All cost 99 cents, and the last two can be ordered to arrive in early 2020.

Sales on Smashwords

This Roundup was posted during Smashwords’ End of 2019 sale. All Book links and prices should be valid during this time. (See my previous Roundups about Smashwords authors here, here , here and here). Also, titles from my Personville Press are all discounted on SW this week. Quick tip: Authors earn more money off each sale if you buy multiple items in a single order (instead of buying one or two items at a time).

Probably the 3 best publishers of literary fiction and poetry on Smashwords are Fomite and Unsolicited Press and Whitepoint Press. During this week Fomite/Unsolicited titles are discounted 50% which usually translates to 2.00 to 2.50 . Whitepoint Press titles are discounted more severely to 1-2$. (Important note: You don’t see these discounted prices on the Publisher page but you must click to the book page to see the sale price). Some notes: In addition to publishing fiction and poetry, Fomite publishes a lot of short political “pamphlets.” Second, I noticed Unsolicited Press is available at KU, LE on Amazon and indeed, they intermittently discount a sliver of their Kindle ebooks to 1.50 and below. (Here’s the magical Amazon search query to track that). Strangely, both presses publish high-priced print versions of each title even though ebooks are much much cheaper. Here are the Unsolicited Press Home Page and the Fomite Press home page. Notable titles: Here is Ware and  None of the Above   by Michael Cocchairale (website).  Rising Tide Of People Swept Away by Scott Archer Jones (website). Kafka’s Roach: Life and Tims of Gregor Samsa by Marc Estrin.  From the more heavily discounted Whitepoint Press titles are: Off Somewhere by Z.Z. Boone (website), Things we Do for Women by Seth Johnson. Lighting the Word by Merle Drown (website – what a name!). Whitepoint also has some interesting poetry I’ve sampled: Treasures that Prevail  (climate change poetry) by Jen Karetnick (website) and Imperfect Tense By Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (linguistics. poetry based on her experiences teaching English to nonnative speakers). (Here’s a video of her reading).

Finally, during the last SW sale, I never got around to buying any of the 3 Whitepoint titles by the WP editor Lisa De Niscia. To the Left of the Microwave (short stories), Momentary Mother, and My Valley is Icky Too. Also, noticed that Annotated Nose by Fomite editor Marc Estrin is now free on Smashwords for this week.

Aha, I had written about Don Q. Public by John Opsand Sutherland. (Imagine Don Quixote lived in Toledo, Ohio). It’s free — horray!

David Belisle is a prolific comedy writer and screenwriter who has a lot of comedy “pieces” in prose form. Typical objects of satire are baseball, Trump, pizza, Canadian politics, cowboys. Worth mentioning is that Berlisle has been writing an ongoing series, Trumpassic Period, consisting of one volume for each year Trump has been in office. He writes and produces the T-Rump Dig Podcast on a weekly basis where he dramatizes the mess that is Trump. I listened to two podcast episodes, and they were fun and silly. I suspect the transcripts of these episodes is nowhere near as entertaining as the podcasts. About half his pieces are on Smashwords and half the pieces are exclusively on Amazon (KU) (author website)

Free again is C.D. Stowell‘s, New Old World, memoir about life as an itinerant photojournalist is now free again. When I mentioned it in a previous column, I read a few chapters, thought it was great!

Author Glenn Lazar Roberts is an international lawyer with a background in Russian and Arabic. He also runs Equus Publishing and once upon a time wrote reviews for Siriusreviews.com He’s also written several satirical novels Cross-Dressers From Pluto and Judge Crater Takes a Powder. Yes, the titles sound crazy, and the book description sounds even more so. Apparently Roberts grew up in Houston and attended UT-Austin and his novel Frenzy starts with a hurricane party (inspired partly by Hurricane Allison) where some biological phenomena is released from the medical center as a result of a hurricane . Here’s a radio interview with Roberts about this book and others.

All the fiction titles of Robert Scott Leyse are also free this week. Most are about turbulent Here’s his author website with fuller description of his ebooks — plus reviews.

I just noticed that the books by Edward Drobinski are all free. His stuff might be good, might suck — who knows? (Will report back for next time).

Paul Hina writes beautiful poetry and love stories. (Indeed, I reviewed one of of them) Amazingly, he lives in Athens, Ohio, which is where my mentor Jack Matthews used to live in teach. This week, all of his titles are free on Smashwords. Here’s his home page.

Melinda Jasmine Crouchley (author website) Metal Heart (.99) is by the author’s own words — science fiction dystopian thriller filled with advanced technology, a mysterious disease, and artificial intelligence. Tin Road is the sequel which “focuses on Scarlett Buford and Rabbit Santiago as they escape from the Fort Columbia base and travel to Mexico City, carrying with them a cure for the nanovirus. ” Interestingly Crouchley — who has a master’s in writing works as an editor (among other things) and writes screenplays — is not currently selling her titles on Amazon — though I suspect it is only a temporary thing.

David Campbell (author website) writes plot-oriented twisted reality novels which usually involve people getting revenge (Background Extra) or getting caught up in illicit activities (A small college town). He has 3 novels on SW — mostly free or pay what you want.

Joseph Sutton (author website) is a retired author & teacher who has lived all over the US. By some random luck, I had picked up a used copy of a 2011 story collection of his, Immortal Mouth — but never read it! In his SW interview, Sutton says he admires Henry Miller, Kerouac and especially Saroyan. “All three wrote from their experience, like I do, and all three left their heart and soul on the page.” Subjects for his books are all over the map: a writing guide, a “fan’s journal” of the San Francisco Giants, a father/son memoir, a car-buying guide. Generally Sutton writes short stories, and the first place to start is In the Time of My Life: Selected Writings. It features a significant number of stories from all 3 of his collections, plus excerpts from his other nonfiction works (total 122,000 words — costing 3.99 on Amazon but 2.99 on Smashwords. That makes it a Must Buy for me.

Kenneth C. Crowe is a retired journalist turned author who writes political novels. All his novels are free or very cheap. If you find them from Smashwords, they are all free! Here’s his author website and a poetry blog (which he seems to be updating fairly often).

Paperangel Press has a low-cost fiction anthology Corporate Catharsis (.99) consisting of many authors they have published. Described as the “anthology we all need — one that can help us survive our corporate servitude with our hearts and souls intact.” If you look at the press website, you see that they do a lot of fantasy, sci fi and historical fiction. Most of it seems to be 50% off the normal Amazon price.

My first roundup mentioned British author Kate Rigby when she offered some interesting freebies. Here’s her author website. I had silently vowed to pick up some of her other titles on SW, and now’s the perfect time. In a bio Rigby says, “My novels tend to be character-driven and a bit quirky or gritty – whether contemporary or retro – and deal with issues of today: drugs abuse, homelessness and neighbourhood conflicts, and a common theme is about the experience of being an outsider in society. “ I noticed that one recent work Other Side Of Carrie Cornish: A story of neighbour wars in Austerity Britain (KU, LE) is available only at Amazon for 99 cents. Through the diary of a woman who is fuming about her neighbors, we learn about her motives and how it affects her relationship with her partner. It is written under the psuedonym Kate Jay-R. Also on AZN I noticed that her noted early 1990 coming-of-age novella Fall Of The Flamingo Circus: Diary Of A Punk is 99 cents on Azn (KU, LE) but it’s still 2.99 on SW.

Silly me. I forgot to mention the Rigby titles on SW which were deals. Fruit Woman is a thriller about a mysterious woman who appears at important times in a 27 year old woman’s life. .

Akedah: the Binding by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller is temporarily a FREE download (it’s in presale). Bishop and Fuller are longtime theatre people who have collaboratively written and directed several plays for radio and regional theatre. They have 5 titles on SW; this one is about a chance meeting of two people at a bar and a long roadtrip. Description is intentionally vague, but it involves some kind of father-son conflict as well. The tagline of their arts website is Dramatic journeys of change: funny, unsettling, inspiring, mundane & mythic. Their blog contains some story excerpts as well as the random essay.

Rose Maru is a prolific author who fuses autobiographic confession with fiction on erotic themes. (Here’s an interview) Her self-conscious writing is kind of therapeutic because she writes with candor about her sex life and hypoactive sexual desire disorder. She creates her own cover art and reveals a lot about herself in her books. Just guessing, I’d say that about 15-20% of the word count comes from introductions, explanations and commentary. The author graciously provided some exclusive coupon codes (which should expire on Dec 31).

  • Dare to Bare (Short Stories) 99 cents now, but 100% off with Coupon: AE84G.
  • Chains (Novel) 2.99 now with 50% off until 1/31/2020 with this code RN52G.
  • Climbing Rose (Short Stories) 2.99 now with 50% off until 1/31/2020 with this code AM52V

In addition to these, I ended up purchasing Cocktails with Rose (short stories by men), an erotic anthology from the male perspective (though curated by Rose).

Deals published by Amazon Imprints

Generally these are titles published by the Amazon imprints. I frankly ignore most of the genre stuff and focus on the international authors and biographies. Follow this link to see which titles are 99 cents for the month. I’ve already bought a ton of these titles in previous months (check previous columns here and here), so maybe my recs will be sparser than usual. All are KU APUB, (but not lendable!).

  • Alien Rock: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Extraterrestrial Connection by Michael Luckman (a fun account of UFO themes in pop music in 1970s music — Robert Recommends).
  • Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa. Rowdy award-winning novel about a rural laborer in China. Feels more picaresque and light-hearted, but I expect it will have dramatic moments. Reminds me of Yu Hua‘s Brothers: A Novel (also a raucous-tragic novel).
  • Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kristin Chen. San Francisco leaves her marriage and then has to return to Singapore to help her father’s soy business and deal with her mother’s alcoholism.
  • New Requiem by B. Lance Jenkins
  • Disenchanted Widow by Christine McKenna. riveting account of a new widow and her 9-year-old son fleeing the IRA in 1980s Belfast.
  • Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake. Southern high school girl has her life turned upside down by her friendship with a Sri Lankan immmigrant who apparently is not accepted by prejudiced classmates.

Under the Radar

(i.e, titles by unknowns that stay pretty cheap and sometimes are even free on Amazon)

James Edmonds (KU) is an author of several novellas, a critical study of Gore Vidal and nonfiction about Saudi Arabia. I don’t know what perspective these Arabic studies are (who paid for them?! ), but the author has included several Oriental themes in his fiction.

William L. Alton has written several books, but Girls (KU, LE ) is a series of flash fiction about various female characters and messy relationships. I read the first few stories and liked it. (One reviewer said that it “feels like Carver, but reeks of Bukowski.” He has a remarkable history. He started writing in the 80s while incarcerated in a psychiatric prison, then he obtained a BA and MFA in creative writing in Oregon. Although he has published 4 other titles (which haven’t yet been digitalized), he has Girls (for 99 cents on Amazon) Here’s some online articles he wrote (mainly on personal and psychological topics). He works with mentally ill teenagers and released his $$$ novel Tragedy of Being Happy about mental illness and teenagers. (Note: This latter ebook title doesn’t appear on his Amazon author page because the author’s name is William Alton.

J. John le Grange is a South African author based in Cape Town (author website). His fiction speaks of hardship and survival of ordinary people. Wolseley (KU, LE) is about a white family struggling and facing homelessness. Tales for the Train (KU, LE) is a novella consisting of 9 tales centered around mysterious photographs. He has received several international writing commendations. Both ebooks are pricey but discounted often.

A New Requiem by B. Lance Jenkins. 99 cents. When a 17 year old boy is murdered, the community wrongly blames the gay choir director. Many readers were moved by the story, and the first chapter successfully drew me in. From the author’s blog you can read the real life person who inspired the novel.

Nick Lenoir (KU)

John Isaac Jones (KU)

Jessica Levine has two novels: Nothing Forgotten (99 cents) and Geometry of Love (1.99– and suprisingly an academic book about Henry James and Edith Wharton. That academic book is incredibly expensive, but it should give a clue about her approach to storytelling: psychological, character studies, carefully written.

Ulrich von Hassell Diaries: The Story of the Forces Against Hitler Inside Germany by Von Hassell. Discounted temporarily to 1.99 (it’s normally $10) , this important historical document about a German diplomat who was resisting Hitler from within (and unfortunately was killed as a resistor). These diaries have been around for a while without much critical attention. (I also recommend Traudl Junge’s Until the Final Hour which provided the source material for the German movie “Downfall”).

Genes vs. Cultures vs. Consciousness by Andres Campero

Tom Milton (KU) is a prolific and talented author who comes from a background in international journalism. All his novels are 2.99 and on KU and at least one of his titles will go free every few days. Here’s his author page on Amazon and the author website which summarizes all the novels. On that page, he writes, I write novels not only to entertain but to bring a deeper understanding of how the major events of our time challenge our values. In their pursuit of lofty goals, my protagonists encounter situations that expose their inner conflicts and test their commitments.

Vaughn Ashby (KU)

T. R. Pearson (KU) is the author of a dozen novels (and several Nick Reid novels under the pseudonym Rick Gavin). Here’s his wiki page , which says his novels are set in the south in an imaginary town, near Winston-Salem North Carolina. A Short History of a Small PlaceOff for the Sweet HereafterThe Last of How It WasCry Me a RiverPolar and Blue Ridge were NYT Notable books which once wrote that he was “one of the modern South’s shrewdest satirists. “

C.R. Bishop (aka Chris Bishop) has written two satirical novels that I got for free on Amazon. The book descriptions sound over the top in a sophomoric Douglas Adams way, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The worry (KU, LE) is about an ex-rocket scientist who wins a warehouse fall of traffic cones in a bet and discovers that they have a strange properties. Why? (KU, LE) is a comic tale  of a group of adventurers, travelling the English countryside in search of a clue to save the world from its own burgeoning scientific development.

Stanley Laine (KU) (author website)

Jason Dias (KU) (author website + author interview). See also his post about why won’t the zombie trope die?

Brendan Gisby (KU) is a prolific Scottish author who runs McStorytellers storytelling site. (author website).

Lobster’s State of Mind by Hovav Heth (KU, LE) Heth is an Israeli businessman who’s taken the plunge into writing short stories. (author website)

Tales of the Frontier (KU, LE) by Bonnie S. Johnson is 3 historical tales about the Virginia frontier during the French-Indian war. (Here’s the author site).

Dennis Duane (author site)

Aleks Matza (KU) is a Chicago-based author (author website)

Robert Payne (KU) is a biographer, historian and novelist who wrote over 100 books. (Author’s website). Educated in UK, South Africa, France, he traveled all around the world (including China) during the 1940s. He has written biographies of Shakespeare, Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, Ivan the Terrible, Gershwin, Caravaggio, Gandhi, Leonardo. In other words, he took well-known figures and wrote bios as a generalist. About 10-15 books have been digitalized and are available exclusively on Amazon . I suspect these biographies were replaced in the canon with deeper books written by specialists, but I’m interested in Eyewitness: A Personal Account of a Tumultuous Decade 1937-1946 and Chinese Diaries: 1941-1946.

Emancipating Alice: A Novel by Ada Winder (KU, LE) (Goodreads blog and personal website). Debut novel about a woman haunted by her dead husband.

Kay L Lawrence (author website) writes short stories on her Quirky Tales website and then publishes them as books titled QT Anthology. (KU, LE) I’m guessing most of these stories are found on the Stories section of her website) . I also noticed that her novel Lucky Dip (KU, LE) is listed for free on the day I checked. She has also posted a 3 volume children’s fantasy series, Boldre Wood Trilogy. Her long abandoned Quirky Tales blog is here).

Tucker Lieberman writes in a lot of different genres, but my attention was caught by one title: Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to know about writing eunuch villians (KU, LE) (author website).

White Rabbit (KU, LE) by Carlos Hughes (Goodreads author page) is a debut comic misadventure novel about an unemployed sociology grad who gets the idea to teach English in South Korea. (FYI, I taught overseas in Eastern Europe — here’s one essay I wrote about the experience ). Turns out that (big surprise!) the author has a master’s in linguistics and taught in China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Henry Simpson (Author Goodreads page) writes a lot of crime and mysteries. All are KU, LE I bought My Brilliant Career for .99.

How to sew pieces of cloud together: a dark comedy. by Mary Papstavrou (KU) is a cerebral novel described by one reviewer as “five very intelligent convicts are gathered in what is, in fact, a prison. There are no guards, just a supervising psychoanalyst by the name of James Hoffman. No-one tries to escape; they will soon be released – and in any case, they are microchipped and if they try to leave, they’ll trigger an electronic tripwire around the grounds.” Actually all the reviews are glowing; the review is a Greek living in London with a background in film.

Choose Your Own Romance by Katherine Pierce Chinelli (KU, LE). Chinelli also writes YA fiction, but I’d thought I’d sample this two volume series.

Syntell Smith (author FB) wrote Call Numbers. (Normal 2.99, but I snagged it for 99 cents). Here’s his twitter and a collection of book reviews about the ebook. He’s publishing a sequel in late summer 2020.

O, Africa: A novel by Andrew Lewis Conn who wrote this brilliant essay about Scorcese’s Life Lessons. This novel tries to imagine the African travels of the Grand Brothers (who took a lot of nature and jungle film footage for future Hollywood movies). Lots of nice reviews, but still too expensive.

Life You can Save: How to do your part by Peter Singer (10th anniversary edition). 99 cents.

Good Intentions (KU) by Dan Saber (author site). Saber works as a data scientist (he even has tutorials on his site). This debut work is about a well-intentioned bureaucrat from heaven who is supposed to inspire people. Hard to tell exactly what it’s about, but it feels like Vonnegut satire with a touch of the “Good Place.” Sounds promising.

Blink and it’s Gone Sales

(usually pricey, by major houses, but they have 1-2 day spot sales where titles are discounted to 1.99 or 2.99. I track these spot sales with ereaderiq (which tracks only Amazon prices, but generally these prices are reduced on all booksellers at about the same time)

How Music Works by David Byrne. I am a huge fan of this philosophical sociological analysis of music and performance by David Byrne. Although I bought the title on a spot sale for 1.99, there’s much to recommend to buying the hardback version because it contains so many illustrations and photos. (It’s an 83 MB ebook file).

Valerie Trueblood is an accomplished short story author (probably one of my favorite authors in that genre that I’ve come across over the past decade). I picked up her Terrarium story collection (which is a Greatest Hits of her previous volumes). Unfortunately that ebook never gets discounted, but I was delighted to notice that her other collections (from Counterpoint) are being discounted to the 2-3 dollar range. I grabbed her latest Criminals: Love Stories and plan to find more. Stay tuned for a book review. I also highly recommend Marry or Burn (the title story is a wonderful sketch of a mother of a bride at a wedding she feels ambivalent about).

Nothing remains the same: Rereading and Remembering by Wendy Lesser. Lesser is a wonderful Threepenny Review editor and literary critic. It’s always a pleasure to read her stuff. This title is regularly discounted, and the subject (about how rereading fiction changes your perspective on it) is a timeless one. I highly recommend this one.

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (LE) by Rust Hills. Insightful guide to writing by a longtime fiction editor. Indeed, it’s one of the smartest and best written I’ve come across. Expensive, but gets discounted often.

Jane Vandenburgh is a California author of several book. I read and enjoyed the never-discounted Physics of Sunset, read half of Pocket History of Sex in the 20th century (which is actually more about learning about her dad being gay than anything else). Also bought for 2.99 the Architecture of the Novel: A writer’s handbook (as I told you, I am a sucker for writing guides).

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China. Translated by David Hinton who had also translated 4 Chinese classics. Ancient poetry depends a lot on the translator to capture the spirit, and both are great editions.

Creative Commons – Academic — Public Domain

Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Cabeza la Vaca. This recent 1963 translation is FREE on Amazon and includes a nice preface. CLV traveled around southern parts of the United States in the mid 16th century — and even came close to Houston.

Once in a Lifetime Deals

This probably shouldn’t count, but I recently learned about the 19th century Indo-Persian classic novel, Adventures of Amir Hamza. Although there is an abridged version available for 2.99, you really want the unabridged version: 974 pages for 7.99. As it happens, I had a $5 deal on my first kobo purchase. so I used it to buy it on my Kobo app for $2.99.


I found lots of great poetry titles from Unsolicited Press (see above).

Tolu Akinyemi (KU) is a Nigerian poet living in London who writes humorous observational poetry. I was lucky enough to catch Your Father Walks like a Crab (Poetry for People who hate Poetry) for free. The later collection, I laugh at these skinny girls: Poetry for People who Hate Poetry (KU) sounds intriguing as well. Here’s his blog. On his page titled Why I write how I write, he writes, “These people (who ‘hate’ poetry) desire to appreciate and enjoy poetry but on their own terms. They want it to be readily relatable, to speak to them directly, simply, yet profoundly; not through an interpreter or critic, nor through navigating a tedious byzantine literary maze. These are the ones I write for.


Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht. This novel about a young scientist who returns from a research project in Nigeria only to discover her sister has a genetic disease which killed her mother. This debut novel won a major Texas literary prize and received lots of praise from Texas publications.

On the Smashwords section above, I reported on author Glenn Lazar Roberts who turns out to be based in Houston (he wrote a sci fi story based on a hurricane party during Hurricane Allison.

Kaye Hushour has written 3 mysteries with a Texas theme. All are KU, LE.

Plainview Lottery by Markas Dvaras (KU, LE) is a kind of satirical economic fairy tale to illustrate economic principles and to have a good laugh besides. Some strangers visit a small town and start a lottery; the novel is how it affects the town as a hole.

Nine Years Among the Indians, 1870-1879: The Story of the Captivity and Life of a Texan Among the Indians by Herman Lehman

Sale on Verso ebooks

Verso publishes a lot of nonfiction titles with a progressive or even socialist bent. Mostly political theory and social science, but also a fair amount of arts criticism and philosophy. Just learned that Verso is discounting all their titles to 2-3 dollars until Jan 1 11:59 PM. See my Verso recommendations in a previous column.

Review Copies Received



My Personville Press will release an overlooked classic from the 1940s in a few months. (Next column will include a free download link, I promise!)

Personville Press Giveaways and Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. All the titles are discounted on Smashwords for less that price — and usually under $1.50. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.

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I’ll be posting a superlong Robert’s Roundup this weekend and then another normal-sized one in the last week of December about the Smashwords (SW) ebook deals.

As a general rule, I do NOT link to Amazon anymore (unless there is a special reason). Everyone knows how to use search engines, plus it saves time. For the most part, all of my column links will go to DRM-free links (mainly Smashwords, Project Gutenberg, etc). I generally try to link to the author’s home page if there is one.

Here are 3 labels I use when listing titles on Amazon.

  • KU means that the ebook is part of Kindle Unlimited collection. I mention this not to encourage people to sign up for KU, but notably because KU ebooks are more likely to be discounted to free — so you can set up price alerts. These free promotions are limited to 3 days every 90 days. Often authors keep their ebooks in KU for the first 3-6 months only, so you should verify if it is still in KU.
  • LE means that lending is allowed for this Amazon ebook. This lending functionality is somewhat limited, but better than nothing. Hey, if you want to borrow one of these lendable titles, feel free to email me the title. I will almost always say yes! (idiotprogrammer AT fastmailbox.net)
  • APUB means that ebook is published under an Amazon Imprint (see a list). This means that Amazon’s inhouse publishing department has acquired these titles and promote them actively using Amazon’s tools. These titles stay low-priced, and their prices tend to remain the same for the entire month. Every 3-6 months, their prices go down to 99 cents or 1.99 (so, set those price alerts!) Generally, these titles are high quality, more likely genre, slickly produced and promoted (in the best sense of the word). Many are from international authors. Little A is for literary fiction; AmazonCrossing is for translated titles.

Why do so many authors and publishers refuse to make Amazon ebooks lendable?

But Amazon invented a cool sharing/lending function for their titles. It actually works pretty well, is of limited duration and poses no piracy risk for publishers. It might reduce the tendency of someone to buy the title, but more than likely it just gives the person more time to explore the ebook. That is usually a good thing.

As it happens, on Amazon almost zero big publishers have enabled this feature, and about 50% of indie authors haven’t enabled it either. Why? Honestly, I really miss not being able to lend purchased titles with friends or swap recommendations. There’s so much cool stuff which I’d love to share with friends (or vice versa). By opting out of lending, authors are missing out on the possibility to get ebooks in front of new customers.

In praise of DRM free ebooks

I alternate between hating and loving Amazon (now I’m in a hating phase), but I have especially strong feelings against ebook DRM. It’s so unnecessary and counterproductive. I noticed that imore has a very nice list of DRM-free publishers. Obviously Smashwords is the biggest outlet for DRM-free, but there’s also Verso, Humble Bundle, Tor, Baen and various tech publishers (Packt, Oreilly, No Starch, Apress).

DRM-free ebooks are better because their use cannot be limited or cancelled by a bookstore’s infrastructure. I bought a few dozen ebooks from ebook sellers who went out of business, and now I am stuck. This day will happen for all booksellers eventually. The usual excuse for DRM is to prevent piracy. This is not a terrible argument, but it adds an extra layer of complexity and dependency. Also, aside from reducing piracy on high-priced bestselling titles, DRM doesn’t really help most indie authors. (One method that would deter me is “social DRM” — i.e., using identifying watermarks — like “This ebook is licensed exclusively to Robert Nagle”).

This is not a great risk right now, but what if Google and Amazon fought and Amazon suddenly decided: hey, let’s not support a Kindle app on android devices anymore! What could consumers do? Essentially nothing. They could not move their purchased ebooks out of one ebook distribution system into another.

Practically speaking, major publishers and authors sell only at bookstores which use DRM. You can submit ebooks DRM-free to bookstores, but it would be somewhat complicated to move these ebooks into another book infrastructure.

On the other hand, books without DRM have their own problems.

First, you have to keep your files safe. (Solution: Upload everything into Google Drive or Dropbox. Problem solved!)

Second, you need an easy interface to view cloud-based ebooks offline. That means uploading ebooks, organizing into shelves and making the interface usable. We don’t have a good interface for that yet, but we are almost there.

Third, you have to manage space limitations. This is actually a bigger problem than you believe. Devices have limited storage space, and Google Play is a huge memory hog, and there’s no way to figure out which ebooks are taking up the most space. Fortunately, this problem is solvable though the booksellers have not tried to fix it.

New blog feature: Crappy Interstitial Ebook Ads (sort of)

A year ago I started offering free ebook ads for Smashwords ebooks. Smashwords is DRM-free and indie-friendly and provides better royalties. Second, if I’m recommending ebooks, it costs me nothing really to provide free ads for them. I signed up for SW’s affiliating marketing program (which meant having to cancel participation in Amazon’s affiliate program — good riddance). Making money is not my primary motive here, but I’m not allergic to doing so.

A few months ago, I had a dose of reality. First, earnings from SW affiliate marketing program were practically nonexistent. This is partly because ebooks bought directly from SW are still a small portion of the ebook market. But 55% of my web surfers on this blog read on mobile phones, and another 8% are on tablets. My right sidebar containing the ads doesn’t even show up for these people.

I still want to feature some ebook promotions and am working on a solution that is not too distracting or complicated to implement.

Fortunately, WordPress might help with that. I really don’t want to use a plugin — especially an ad server, but the built in Gutenberg text editor lets you insert custom boilerplate blocks of text wherever you want. So I could design a few boilerplates and insert them strategically in blogposts. Perspicacious readers may notice that at the bottom of ebook columns, I’ve been doing this anyway. I may enhance this slightly — and keep them under the fold so that they don’t appear on the main URL for literary-oriented posts.

On the main URL I will include short posts including my promotions in differentiated texts. These short promotional posts won’t be too distracting, I promise. Also, even though I potentially derive financial benefit from them, I still endorse these ebooks!

I want this blog to remain personal and basically noncommercial while still promoting no-DRM publishers and indie authors. Hopefully these new changes will not change the overall readability of this blog.


Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019 should be Dallas woman Reality Winner.

Reality Winner (yes, that’s her real name which was given at birth) served in the Air Force and was a multilingual American intelligence specialist who did her job well. Her Wikipedia page states that she learned Arabic, Dari and Pashtun to provide humanitarian aid to women and children in Afganistan. She frequently made donations to the Syrian human rights group White Helmets and Toys for Tots charity.

Reality Winner’s “Crime” (aka, Truth)

In 2017 she printed a copy of a document detailing the extent of Russian attempts to hack into US voting machines and spearphish emails to election officials before the November 2016 election. She shared it with the Intercept; it was important because it provided evidence to the public that Russian interference in the election was real and far more widespread than we could have suspected. Also, it occurred much later in the election than previously revealed. At the time it sent shockwaves throughout the media. Maybe this would eventually come out anyway in its own time (thanks to journalists). But at the time, this was fresh information.

As it happens, Reality was caught and immediately jailed. She was charged with “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.” She was arrested without receiving her Miranda rights and then denied bail. Because the case involved national security, it was hard to offer a defense without being able to refer to secret methods and information. One article describes the difficulty:

Additionally, the government claimed they had subject matter experts who concluded Winner’s “unauthorized disclosure caused exceptionally grave harm” to “national security.”

“If you look at the brief of the transcript in the detention hearings, that was explicitly used by the government to justify her being detained,” Nichols contended. “Because their argument is, well, because this caused grave and exceptional damage. If you let her out, she could do it again and thus cause more grave and exceptional damage. Again, that’s the buzzwords the government used.”

“You don’t have to prove the grave exceptional damage. You just have to put someone on the stand who will say, yes, it did cause grave and exceptional damage. And then the issue is, can you give us more detail?”

Prosecutors answer, “That’s classified. That’s highly classified,” Nichols said. “So it’s this circuitous argument that unfortunately that’s the way the Espionage Act is setup.”

At no point in the course of the case did the government have to publicly outline what constituted “exceptionally grave damage.” They even insisted they did not have to prove damage occurred, as they used the allegation to inflict further punishment upon Winner in detention hearings.

Prosecutors found some absurd and off-handed remarks Winner made about Osama bin Laden to deny her bail. As the defense attorney says in the same article, “There’s a reason why you can’t say certain things in front of the jury. Because if you say, hey, this person kicks puppies and burns down orphanages and then you come back and say, my mistake. That was somebody else. You can’t unring that bell.”

Another problem is that the Espionage Act is outdated and doesn’t have provisions to allow whistleblowers to explain why they performed the act they did. As the Standwithreality website explains:

The vague language of the Espionage Act makes it ripe for abuse, making it a potential weapon against both whistleblowers as well as news outlets that publish leaked documents. 

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Eventually a plea bargain of 5 years and 3 months was agreed to, and now Reality Winner sits in a Fort Worth federal prison.

But wait, that seems steep for this kind of crime. Reality didn’t really harm anybody except in a hypothetical sense. Her actions helped Americans to understand the extent of Russian involvement and was done purely for selfless motives. Reality Winner did not expect to become famous or make a lot of money. She just wanted the truth to come out.

I really can’t speculate about the extent of the damage to sources and methods. Perhaps I am not privy to certain details. But if you read Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s book, Secrecy, you will see how throughout US history, falsehoods were often hidden under the veil of secrecy.  “Secrecy is for losers,” the book said. “[It’s] for people who do not know how important the information really is.” Publicly available information and news reports can be vetted and challenged and confirmed, while classified intelligence briefs rarely undergo the same skeptical rigor. This sort of history convinces me that secrecy is much more harmful to US interests than disclosures.

I can’t speculate on Winner’s intent, but the disclosure was only one 5 page document which referred to a past series of events. In a way, the Obama had released a summary with the same conclusions in December 2016, and while this document shares more detail, these technical details don’t really hurt national security (other to say that the federal government hires security contractors who can do competent forensic analyses).

Winner agreed to the plea bargaining mainly because the Espionage Act left her with a crappy hand. But this sentence was unduly punitive and more geared to setting an example (than matching the punishment with the crime).

Therefore Reality Winner would be a perfect case for clemency. She served her time already; the government made their point clearly. Now it’s time to set her free. Really, that decision is up to Donald Trump.

Why is Donald Trump doing nothing about this?

A simple executive order could correct this injustice.

Believe me, I get it that Trump has little reason to intervene. He doesn’t really care about cases unless they improve his standing with his base — and frankly, Trump’s base could care less about Winner. Releasing Winner won’t really help Trump politically or financially, and so Trump will ignore her.

Trump bears considerable animus towards the press. But wait — this case doesn’t really hurt Trump except insofar as it implicates the Russians even more.

But Trump has intervened in many cases where the person was less deserving:

  • Trump pardoned Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, despite his long record of targeting immigrants and disobeying lots of local and federal court orders.
  • Trump pardoned Michael Behanna for killing an Iraqi man who he had taken in custody. A military court found him guilty of “unpremeditated murder in a combat zone” and sentenced him for 25 years.
  • Trump pardoned Derrick Miller who was sentenced to life (with a chance of parole) for the premeditated murder of an Afghan civilian during a battlefield interrogation.
  • Trump pardoned Clint Lorance who was court-martialed and sentenced to 19 years for murdering two civilians in Afghanistan.
  • Trump reversed a demotion of Eddie Gallagher who was involved in the killing of an Iraqi and (according to various news sources cited on Wikipedia), allegedly took “random shots” into buildings, shooting and killing an unarmed old man in a white robe as well as a young girl walking with other girls. After Gallagher mortally wounded the prisoner, he was eventually exonerated simply because the medic decided to expedite the prisoner’s death simply as an act of mercy. (Gallagher was later convicted of posing with the corpse ).

I would not want to be in the same room as any of the people Trump picked as worthy of clemency. Perhaps it is belaboring the point to add that many of Trump’s inner circle (Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Rick Gates and Roger Stone) committed serious federal crimes of moral turpitude. Suffice to say that Trump is perfectly comfortable working with people who have bent the rules to suit the occasion. You can’t set one standard for Reality Winner and another standard for people who in some cases have actually compromised security interests.

What would you do?

For a while, let’s leave aside the question of whether Reality Winner is being scapegoated here. Let’s remember that Chelsea Manning released a lot of (embarrassing but not secret) diplomatic cables to Wikipedia and Edward Snowden released a tremendous amount of top secret NSA docs revealing aspects to the US surveillance apparatus. There are others. Manning was sentenced to 7 years, but it was reduced to 3 years. Snowden lives in Russia and never has returned.

What are some common threads here? All 3 were very young when they took action. All thought it was the public interest for Americans to know what they learned at their job. All knew that disclosing was a risk and they would potentially face legal consequences. Snowden and Reality Winner were government contractors and put in a situation where they couldn’t really use a protected whistleblower status to complain. Manning saw video footage of US troops killing indiscriminately; Snowden saw tools which allowed all kinds of surveillance which seemed at odd with American values. Reality Winner saw shocking information indicating that Russian spying had not declined after Obama’s warning but was in fact continuing. She decided that Americans needed to know.

Part of the problem is that an underling lacks the power to determine what should be secret and public. It would be crazy to allow people on the bottom rungs of sensitive positions to disclose whatever they want. Protocol needs to be followed.

On the other hand, a bureaucracy which depends on workers staying quiet about everything is doomed to leak eventually. Workers at such organizations need to believe in the mission, and all three people were disillusioned in some way. A lot of this disillusionment stemmed from the contrast between professed and actual American political values. Possibly they were just young and naive.

Manning and Winner paid a price for their actions. But of course they knew these risks although maybe they didn’t appreciate the full consequences.

Perhaps you could make the argument that Snowden revealed too much about existing programs, and these revelations threatened the ability of the NSA to do work. But this is not true of Winner because the only thing she revealed was past actions made by a foreign country.

I want there to be more Reality Winners in our country. And that is why I want her freed. Yes, it’s kind of hilarious that a woman who was actually given this name at birth was imprisoned for being too in touch with the ugly reality of the global threat.

But Reality Winner has been punished enough. It is time to let her go. Keeping Winner is prison is essentially saying that Americans should never have to confront the ugly realities locked away behind closed doors. Reality’s heroism is recognizing that sometimes you have to break the rules when it’s the only way Americans can learn certain vital facts.

On this Winner has already succeeded.


Will Bunch has a long juicy column about this:

Winner’s leak had immediate, tangible results. On the day after the story was published in The Intercept, a federal agency — the U.S. Election Assistance Commission — sent out a bulletin to state officials warning about the security issues that had been disclosed. A number of state and local officials said they hadn’t been warned about this specific Russian threat and that in fact the Winner disclosure was the first they’d heard of it. Perhaps more importantly, her blown whistle put new pressure on Washington to investigate a problem that Team Trump and its allies on Capitol Hill wanted to disappear.

The result was last week’s stunning report on Russian election interference from the Senate Intelligence Committee, a GOP-led panel. It revealed for the first time that the Russian 2016 operation targeted election systems in all 50 states, that hackers had the ability to change key data in Illinois and that, in the words of the New York Times, this was “an effort more far-reaching than previously acknowledged and one largely undetected by the states and federal officials at the time.”

That lack of either acknowledgment or detection is precisely the reason that Reality Winner risked everything to blow the whistle.

As blogger Marcy Wheeler pointed out last week, it took both the Winner leak and subsequent prodding from Democratic members of Congress for either VR Systems or the FBI to take Russia’s apparent 2016 computer break-in of that vendor’s software seriously. Investigative efforts by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, revealed that despite some back-and-forth between VR Systems and the FBI before the 2016 general election, the vendor didn’t hire a contractor — FireEye — to investigate until after Winner’s disclosure (and, thus, long after the election).

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Climate Change Forum — CCL Katy (Mon Jan 6)

This page contains information about the nonpartisan CCL Climate Change Candidate Forum which is sponsored by the Katy chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby on Monday January 6. This event is free & open to the public, and all congressional candidates from TX7, TX10 and TX22 are invited to attend or send a campaign representative. Because the event (and the CCL organization itself) is nonpartisan, candidates from both parties are welcome to participate. This page will be updated with more information over time.

Climate Forum Topic: What new federal measures would best help communities transition to a low carbon future more quickly?

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Dear Houston Chronicle:

I need to quibble with some of the wording in the otherwise excellent report on the emerging solar industry by L.M. Sixel on Monday Dec 2.

According to the article, “Solar, however, may pose an even greater threat because unlike wind, it produces the most power when demand is highest — hot, sunny summer afternoons.”

“Threat”? I find nothing threatening about using solar power. But when air pollution from fossil fuels annually causes 4-7 million premature deaths globally (WHO Report, 2014 & Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, 2017) and 75,000-100,000 domestically, I certainly feel threatened by the continued use of fossil fuels in Texas. Far from being a threat, solar is an encouraging sign, a reason to hope for the future. According to one economic analysis (U. of Mass, 2009– PDF), “clean energy investments create 16.7 jobs for every $1 million in spending. Spending on fossil fuels, by contrast, generates 5.3 jobs per $1 million in spending.”

Sometimes the overly effusive coverage by the Chronicle about the fossil fuel industry can be offputting. If an industry’s business model is dedicated to PERMANENTLY degrading the livable world for EVERY SINGLE baby born today, tomorrow, next year, next decade — even the next century, then it’s a no-brainer that we ought to act sooner rather than later to stop it, especially because we ALREADY HAVE the technology to solve the problem and already have a good idea about how to do it right.

Additional sources:

Mark Jacobson 30 minute video about transitioning to Wind/Water/Solar. (Here are the slides) . Highly recommended.

2 bills to fight climate change: Energy Innovation Act (aka, Citizen’s Climate Lobby ) and Carbon Dividends Plan (aka, Climate Leadership Council)

Riskybusiness.org report on climate change impacts on Southeastern US and Texas.