Review: Contract City by Mark Falkin

Contract City March 2015What happened to threats in a threat-weary world?

Aspiring teenaged filmmaker Sara Paige Christie questions this and much more in Mark Falkin’s gripping look at a privatized dystopia, Contract City. In the year 2021, Tulsa, Oklahoma is run by private security firm Free Force Tulsa in the shadow of a conspicuously powerful uberchurch, Chosen Hill. But under the glossy face, disease and corruption fester, as evidenced by the mysterious graffiti tags, WH2RR? that manifest from nowhere, only to vanish at the hands of the private police. With an eye to film school, Sara sets up out to make a documentary about the graffiti, but finds herself blurring the lines between subject and filmmaker, risking everything to uncover the truth.

Falkin’s approach to the young female protagonist in dystopia is refreshing because Sara is not a superhero in awkward girl clothing (sorry Katniss and Tris). One of the most successful elements of the novel is how normal Sara is within the given context. Her speech patterns realistically shift depending on her company; Sara’s struggle to find her voice as a filmmaker and a young woman arches throughout, a satisfying way to drive the plot.  And she is blessedly not one of those girls too wise for her years. That being said, her intelligence is evident even as her emotions sometimes cloud her ability to discern truth from fact. She is not immune to normal teenage misbehavior and rebellions which perhaps might not make her the tween heroine poster girl in the manner that has become so popular. What it does do is give the novel depth and complexity that facilitates the success of the other components, including characters both major and minor. Sara’s ex-police officer in particular elevates the tension whenever he appears on the page.

The Tulsa setting, fitting considering the premise, comes alive under Sara’s narration. Given that Oklahoma is one of the most red, conservative states in modern society, the choice to use it as a background to the privatized future makes Contract City an engagingly realistic slice of speculative fiction. Falkin’s style is clever, blending the lines between genre and literary without ever sacrificing the fundamental punch of good storytelling. For the reader it is an enjoyable balance that few books accomplish.

If the novel stumbles, it is in the pacing of the ending. Any mystery walks a fine line as it unravels to propel the story forward without losing steam. Contract City feels a bit too rushed, particularly in the last chapter when Sara fully embraces her role in the revolution she is witnessing. Another chapter before the satisfying epilogue would certainly be welcome, if only to stay with Sara in her world just a little longer. Saying goodbye to her as the book shuts is difficult.

Contract City will be published next month by Bancroft Press. Find out more about this exciting writer and his compelling work here. Order your copy today here.

From Ploughshares: Blueprint of the Mad Woman

The second installment of my new Ploughshares series debuts today and features one of my favorite characters from two of my favorite books: The Mad Woman (in the Attic). Please stop by the newly redesgined Ploughshares to take a gander. If you missed the first installment about the Byronic Hero, you can find it linked through the article.

“Literary Blueprints: The Mad Woman”

Read, Write, and Be Merry,


From Ploughshares: Blueprint of the Byronic Hero

As the new year dawns, so does my new series for Ploughshares. Literary Blueprints will look at various character archetypes in the literary canon. Beginning the series is perhaps one of the most popular types, even today: The Byronic Hero. I would say this character with variations is perhaps more popular than the traditional hero. Because we all love a bad boy with a heart as big as the sea.

Literary Blueprints: The Byronic Hero.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,


Wrapping Up 2014

As 2014 comes to a close, I am conflicted in that I feel like a great deal has been accomplished this year and yet some things fell by the wayside.

My biggest undertaking professionally was transitioning into my new role as dean. This first semester has been challenging, not just in getting to know the daily ins and outs of the job, but tackling bigger issues that have manifested along the way. Mistakes have been made and I have tried to reconcile them as best I can.

In terms of writing, I have been pleased to continue contributing to Ploughshares, Cinefilles, and The Midland Reporter Telegram. Sadly, publication of essays, stories, and poems has tapered off because I have turned my attention to a bigger project. Today marks the last day of 2014, a year in which I wrote at least 200 words of a novel every single day. And I do mean every day. One night that meant scrawling 200 words in my movie review notebook because it was all I had on me. Another, it meant sitting on the floor of an airport next to the gate of my cancelled flight while one of my travel companions joked that I was writing a Dear Diary entry about our adventures.

Writing every single day for a year on the same project was both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, I have over a 100,000 words contributed to the project. Bad or good, that is an accomplishment in itself. On the other hand, I have grown weary of this particular work and I have not focused on anything else. For 2015, I plan on keeping my 200 words a day writing habit, but I am going to work on other projects as well as the novel. For now, I think I need a break from it. My files have several short stories that need revising and submission rotation. Plus whatever other projects inspire me.

My blogging here has also been lacking, something I hope to change. Next week I will be featuring a review of a fantastic new novel I was fortunate enough to read in advance copy form. I also hope to feature more interviews with interesting writers, artists, and other fascinating folks.

Finally, on a personal note, thank you to all my darling friends and family who have supported me, bought me drinks and dinner, and generally put up with my shenanigans during this hurly burly year. Best to you all in the new year.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,


Oh So Pretty

My daughter’s school believes in celebrating individual students throughout the year. Specifically, each day in chapel, a handful of students are ‘recognized’ for being outstanding . By the end of the year, every student has received a certificate with a paragraph penned by their teacher and read aloud to the entire elementary school by the principal. Having sat through several of these, for my daughter and other people’s children, I feel bad for the teachers in that they must come up with twenty-two paragraphs like these without becoming repetitive. Still, phrases like “dream student” and “star” are bandied about quite frequently. That aside, I have noticed a trend that has put a bee in my bonnet.

When a male student is recognized, the paragraph usually starts by talking about his skills in the classroom. Sometimes manners lead, but regardless, the boys are lauded for character traits. With rare exception, the girls paragraphs begin with phrases like:

“Ready for the New York runway, this little fashionista . . .”

“With her Rapunzel-like locks, this little princess . . .”

“Don’t be deceived by this cutie’s dazzling smile . . .”

See a trend here?

Granted, the paragraph usually goes on the talk about some academic or behavior characteristic. But for some reason these teachers often feel the need to begin their praise of little girls with something external, attached to appearance. Once I noticed this, I listened carefully, waiting for a boy to be praised for his looks or personal style. Nope.

Some girls, like my daughter, are not included in the “Oh So Pretty” praise. Liliana’s awards usually focus on her energy and scholastic achievement. I’m fine with this. But it does raise the question: is Lili just not as pretty or as fashionable, or are these other little girls not as active and smart? Either way, I am not a fan of, at this early of an age, emphasizing physical traits in the little girls while the boys are commended on character.

Why not focus on character traits in all children? Why make appearance a factor at all? Perhaps I am over thinking this, but it feels like we are already programing these girls to value their decorative success more than anything else they have to offer. I guess I just fail to see how having pretty hair or wearing fantastic bows really lend themselves to functional life skills.

But that’s just me.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,



Despite often sharing things from my life, my blog as stayed mostly in the anecdotal realm. I haven’t delved into my personal struggles in much depth, in part because this blog is tied to my writing career. None of that has changed. However, part of being a writer is being honest with yourself and understanding your process.

Without revealing details that are indeed private, I will expand on something I shared a few weeks ago: my marriage has ended. Like all endings it is sad, disappointing, and heartbreaking. It is also what is right for me. Still, I wish it weren’t so.

Building a life with someone, you never expect how gut wrenching it will be to take it all apart. You never expect to HAVE to take it all apart. I am not talking about the actual divorce part; I am talking about the activity of separating your life from another person’s. Every call you make to remove a user, every time you send a name change, every time you are asked a question about how your spouse is doing by some unsuspecting person–each one is a reminder that things have indeed fallen apart and now you have to tell the world. Even silly things, like deciding who keeps the Star Wars collection you assembled together or the plates you picked out to eat on for the rest of your lives, serve as a stab reminding you that you have failed. The vows you made are broken. And so are you.

Society cultivates the idea that it is normal to fuse our lives to another person–to become a unit. When it’s happening, when you are charging through Target with your registry gun and exchanging vows and signing your new name, it is exciting. You are not alone any more. You are part of something bigger than yourself. So dismantling that, admitting that in the end you could not stay enmeshed with that person, is stomach churning.

Some days I feel battered by this slamming sense of defeat. Maybe I did not try hard enough or want things enough. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I deserve to be alone. But then I comfort myself that as much as it hurts, it is a sign that the marriage was not a waste. It stings because there was love for him at one time and there still is for our two children.

Moving forward, I wonder if I could ever do it again. Would it be possible to intertwine my life again with someone else, knowing how it feels when it all falls apart? I would hope so because I know things do not have to end this way, as my friends and family frequently remind me. From the ashes of a broken heart, perhaps something more can rise. Something that is complete in a more profound way that will someday be worthy of knotting once again.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,


This is 35

Last week I turned 35. It feels strange to even say. For some completely random reason, I have been taking stock of my life at this point–where I have succeeded and where I have failed. How to commemorate, or commiserate, that in a post has been a challenge. I toyed with answering questions I am commonly asked, or writing some soul searching narrative, or even listing a laundry list of likes. In the end, I elected to sort of mash all that together into 35 random facts about me at 35.

  1. I have three tattoos. The one on my arm says, “The living bird is not its labelled bones,” and is from my favorite book, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. My wrist says “‘Tis” from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. On my back is “Amar” in Hindi which means eternal.
  2. Although not related to my tattoo selection, I have met both McCourt and Atwood at literary events. Almost geeked out both times. Minus the almost.
  3. Yes, the tattoos hurt when I got them. The back was the easiest; the wrist the most painful. After he started working on it, the guy who did the one inside my arm revealed that most guys don’t get ink in this spot because they can’t handle the pain. It was handled. I still want to get more.
  4. I’m not sure how many pairs of shoes I own. You could say I have a plethora of shoes. How I walk in them is years of practicing and knowing how to break in a pair of shoes.
  5. I love teaching, even when it’s hard. It is a strange vocation for me because I am naturally shy. Lucky for me I am passionate about my subjects, making it easier.
  6. Though I never thought it would happen, I am getting divorced. It sucks. That’s all I will say about that.
  7. Yes, I lived in New York City. No, I probably don’t know the one other person you know who also did.
  8. I grew up in Texas, but was born in California and have lived in a variety of other locations. I’ve also had years of speech and theater training. Hence, it’s hard for you to place my accent. Unless I’m tired. Or buzzed.
  9. My hair color is natural. Always a redhead.
  10. If you want to order me a drink, you can’t go wrong with Diet Coke during the day. At Starbucks, it’s a Cafe Americano with light soy. At night, if I’m wearing jeans, it’s a Shiner. If I’m dressed up, dirty vodka martini, shaken. You can use the James Bond line to order it if that makes you happy.
  11. If you do try to order me a drink, I will pay for it or pick up the next round. I’m pretty stubborn. If you do end up buying me a drink, I will feel guilty about it.
  12. My 4-year old son is the one male who can talk down to me and I find it adorable. Totally doesn’t make sense and I know it.
  13. On the other hand, my daughter is stubborn, strong-willed, sassy, and too smart for her own good. When I complain about those traits, people snicker and stare pointedly at me while saying some version of “Gee, wonder where she gets that from.” Those people can shut up.
  14. Kate Spade bags are one of my favorite things in life.
  15. The most I have ever spent on a single dress is $98. It was for a Banana Republic jersey tank dress I got in college. I wore it to my graduation, to interview for my first teaching job (where I still work), and to my interview last spring for my new position as dean. It’s my lucky dress and some of the best money I have ever spent.
  16. Team Oxford Comma. If you ever read anything written by me that doesn’t use the Oxford Comma, chances are an editor took it out.
  17. I do work out, but not as intensely as I’d like. My ideal work out is a good dance class or a solo session with my punching bag. I recently took up running; I hate it, but I am seeing results.
  18. Electing not to eat meat is both an ethical and a health choice. You don’t have to explain why you eat meat. You also don’t have to be rude because I don’t. My dietary choices have no impact on you, I promise.
  19. Some girls love diamonds. I love jewelry that is quirky and unexpected. Two of my favorite items are a brass Libra necklace and gold earrings made out of old guitar strings.
  20. I have a weakness for Pit Bulls. Call me a broken record, I don’t care. It’s the owner, not the breed. My Ellie Rose, a two-year-old Pibble rescued bait dog, is so charming strangers give me their phone numbers after they meet her in case I ever need to find her a new home.
  21. I can cook; I just don’t really like to. Also? I can’t cook normal stuff. I can cook vegetarian and vegan stuff, as well as Spanish stuff. That’s about it.
  22. My Fashion Bucket List includes a vintage faux leopard print swing coat, a Halston red jersey dress, and black patent leather Jimmy Choo pumps.
  23. The word is especially. There is no X in it. Don’t add one.
  24. I firmly believe I owe my specialization in British Literature to Disney’s Sword and the Stone and Robin Hood.
  25. Seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time when I was 15 actually changed how I perceived film and narrative.
  26. I once visited a brothel outside of Las Vegas because I was curious after reading a sociological study on the Nevada brothels. No, I did not utilize the services. I didn’t even meet any of the girls. However, I did get a t-shirt which is too dirty for me to actually wear anywhere.
  27. On occasion, I have been known to dance in my chair, car, or line for food. The soundtrack in my head when I do that is usually Prince or Nine Inch Nails.
  28. Paper straw wrappers, especially crumpled ones, gross me out. No idea why.
  29. I once suffered from delusions of linguistic grandeur, reading Don Quixote in Spanish and The Three Musketeers in French. The musketeers wasn’t too bad. Cervantes was a beating. I have since read both in English.
  30. The first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was “Lola” by the Kinks. It remains one of my favorite songs.
  31. One of my forthcoming short stories is about a woman who breaks a man’s nose. I wrote it when I was really pissed off.
  32. There are certain works of literature I adore teaching more than any others: Othello, Macbeth, Jekyll and Hyde, Inferno, Waitinfor Godot, Morte D’Arthur“A Rose for Emily,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” e.e. cummings, “Happy Endings,” “Harrison Bergeron,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I’m sure I’m forgetting some–I really love teaching literature.
  33. If I were ever to audition for something that required singing, I would want to sing “Joey” by Concrete Blond.
  34. I love hummus of any flavor and eat it more than anything else.
  35. Though things aren’t perfect and never will be, my life is going interesting places. Things I had forgotten have come back make things interesting and new things blossom before me. Not too shabby.


From Ploughshares: Welcome to the Literary Jungle

After making a conscious effort to blog on a regular basis, I have fallen under the weight of my actual life and therefore completely failed at blogging about it. So, to make up for it, this week I will be playing a bit of catch up.

First things first: a few weeks ago I got the opportunity to share some of my favorite essays on writing on Ploughshares. Give them a gander. Read them. Share them. Make them your own. And then come back here to see what else I have been up to.

“Welcome to the Literary Jungle”

Read, Write, and Be Merry


Teacher Favorites Survey (or Why They Don’t Ask College Instructors About Candles)

This week I got a packet from the homeroom moms for my daughter’s class. Included is something called a Teacher Favorites Survey, a typed questionnaire that provides a list of all of the teacher’s favorite things. So I now know more about her than I do many of my own friends (or even myself).

As the packet reminds us of all the gifting opportunities coming up (Teacher Appreciation Day, birthday, Easter, Christmas, etc.), I suppose the point is to give the woman what she will actually enjoy. I like to think that all of the elementary teachers got together one day and said, “Take your apple paraphernalia elsewhere. We’re all stocked up.”

At first I was a little annoyed; no one asks college professors to complete a survey of their favorite things. But as I started thinking through my own answers, I realized why they don’t ask us. Some of us might not give appropriate answers. For example, my own:

Favorite Cake Flavor: Whatever cake is leftover from the last event and is sitting unguarded in the break room. Preferably nothing too messy as I plan to grab it with my bare hands and shove the entire piece in my mouth, hoping I will finish it by the time I sprint across campus to my 11 am class.

Favorite Restaurant: Wherever is open after 2 pm when I get out of class and remember I haven’t eaten during daylight in two days.

Favorite Snack: NOT microwave popcorn. Heaven help any of us if it gets burned in the break room microwave and the smell overwhelms even the dissection stink from the A&P labs. That stuff that is always the last to go in the vending machine, the Chex mix stuff? I can tolerate that.

Favorite Beverage: Coffee, Diet Coke, Coffee with expired creamer, vodka, coffee that has been sitting out all day

Favorite Color: Ummm . . . I don’t know. Black? It doesn’t show the coffee I splashed on myself during the discussion of Ancient Persia or the ink stains from when my pen exploded while grading Beowulf quizzes. So, yeah, black.

Favorite Flower/Plant: One that will not stink up my office when it dies from lack of sunlight and neglect.

Favorite Musical Artist: Weezer, Prince, Nine Inch Nails, Guns and Roses, Aerosmith, The White Stripes. All played at top volume to keep my adrenaline up through grading 90 essays.

Favorite Hobby/Way to Pamper Yourself: Not taking work home.

Favorite Place to Shop: Online during office hours when I cannot face another comma splice or thesis statement that begins, “The following essay is about . . .”

Favorite Candle Scent: Is this really a thing? Do people have favorite candle scents? Like, if I were to sign up for online dating, would my favorite candle smell help determine who might or might not be the right match for me? Is this a crucial part of my identity I have not yet addressed that might hold a clue to who I am as a person? Because this was never on a Cosmo quiz.

Favorite Team/Sport: Lakers. All others can SUCK. IT.

Favorite Author/Literature: So, I don’t want to be this guy, but asking someone’s favorite author (particularly an English major) for gift giving purposes isn’t maybe the best idea. Here’s why: my favorite author is Margaret Atwood. Because she is my favorite author, I own most everything she has written. Just picking up a Margaret Atwood book without knowing much about her, probably not a great plan. Unless you are able to find first editions or rare books of hers (or figure out a way to sneak a peak at that thing she’s writing that won’t be published for a hundred years), I’m set with Margaret Atwood. In terms of literature–that is a huge field. I write columns and articles about it. To be blunt: gift card this one.

No wonder college teachers don’t get gift baskets. I’m off to figure out who I am as a candle scent.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,



A Love Letter to Joan Rivers

This love letter originally appeared in 2012. In honor of the passing of one of the most important American female comediennes of all time, I am reposting it. Today my fashion is sharp, and my wit is sharper in honor of this amazing woman.

Dearest Madam Rivers,

I know you are not, in actuality, a character. You are a real person. However, there are so many wondrous qualities that make up that person, the Big Shoulder Broad on the tiny frame, that you seem almost like a fantastic character from a screwball comedy.

One of my secret weekly traditions is that each Friday night, after my children are asleep, I settle onto my couch, snuggle with my Pit Bull, and watch Fashion Police. Your one liners on that show often make me laugh more than most scripted television and certainly more than many movies. Yes, I know you have writers, but I have also seen you off-the-cuff, so to speak, and your wit is like a bull whip. My heart lifts up each time you unnerve some media-trained starlet with a simple yet scathing analogy. I giggle like a school girl when you make others hide their faces, shocked that you will loudly trumpet things the rest of us think and do not say.

My admiration goes beyond the superficial trappings of comedy. When so many women lie and say silly things about diet and sleep and exercise when everyone knows they’ve had a snip, you own your vanity, laugh at yourself first and loudest, and never make pretense to be something you are not. The great irony, my dearest Ms. Rivers, is that behind all the plastic, you are genuine.Your life has not always been one punch line after another, and if anything, I appreciate that you are a survivor above all else. And damn funny.

I recently saw a television interview where you claimed your greatest inspiration came from Lenny Bruce in a note he sent you backstage during an early stand up routine that failed miserably: “You’re right, they’re wrong. Keep doing what you’re doing.” Thank you for taking that advice and keeping it stuffed in your bra for all those years. J’adore, Joan. Thank you for being smart, funny, and brash. Perdi and I look forward to seeing you next week.



PS. Your documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was hilarious and touching. Too bad Oscar sometimes only looks skin deep.