Thursday, December 28, 2023

Thank You and Happy New Year!

Twelve months ago, I was counting down to New Year's with significant optimism. I had two books in the works for 2023. I was going to find a new job (for sure, this time). Things were looking up. This was going to be my year. I had Santana's "Winning" cued up and ready to blast on 11. (Obscure choice, perhaps, but tell that to 12-year-old me, who freakin' loved that song.)

The fates had other ideas, apparently. I submitted so many resumes I lost track. I got three interviews and no offers. As the year wound down, I tried my best to talk myself into seeing the positives in my current gig, not always convincingly.

Book No. 1, Major League Debuts, came out in January to positive reviews and supportive media attention. I did a fair few radio shows and podcasts in support of it, some of which were genuinely fun. But though sales held steady throughout spring training, they weren't nearly strong enough to offset my upfront costs. And when they predictably dried up once baseball season began, I pulled the plug on a sequel and turned my attention to the next project despite having already written up more than 20 players for the 2024 edition.

I began querying agents in earnest seeking representation for This Is Who We Are Now in April. All in all, I sent out more than 40 queries. I had one request for a full manuscript. He passed. In the end, I went down the path I'd walked for my six previous books and published it independently, releasing in late October.

Sales to this point aren't what I'd hoped, if I'm being honest, though they are picking up and I'm optimistic this book will find its audience.

But it's the third book I published this year that convinced me that 2023 wasn't a flop. A one-off, unavailable for purchase in any format at any of your major retailers. This was a photo album compiled for my wife as a Christmas gift, and it included pictures of our trips to Buffalo and Cleveland and Toronto. Shots of my son playing baseball. Of me coaching his team. Of our home projects, which might not have gone smoothly even if they ended mostly positively. Photos of us having good times and making nice memories.

What really matters

We're already planning trips for 2024. Baltimore and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The boy is training for another baseball season, which will generate more moments, more photos, more highlights to capture in next year's book. Those will be the things to once more remind me to be grateful for what happened instead of lamenting the things that didn't.

And speaking of things to be thankful for, I may not have the heaviest traffic on the interwebs, but I really do appreciate every one of you who stops by. Thank you for reading. Thank you for buying my books. And thank you for taking the time to leave reviews. They really do help more than you can imagine, especially for a new release.

I hope your 2023 was full of nice memories, and I hope the new year brings more good things your way, even if it doesn't quite live up to your loftiest ambitions.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Drury's Grouse County is worth a visit

Way back in the summer of 2020, during the height of Covid when reading was at its modern peak, someone hipped me to the author Tom Drury. I can't remember now exactly who should get credit for that. I don't recall if it was a friend, a rando on Twitter, or a blog somewhere. But the gist, as I recall, was that he was one of the best authors I'd never heard of, who created interesting and fun characters.

I started at the start on Drury, with his debut novel, The End of Vandalism, purchased in paperback form via ebay. The most prominent quote on the back was offered up by Annie Dillard, who said, "Brilliant, wonderfully funny ... It's hard to think of any novel--let alone a first novel--in which you can hear the people so well. This is indeed deadpan humor, and Tom Drury is its master."

The edition I received includes an introduction by Paul Winner, who lauded Drury's characters and humor while acknowledging that plot wasn't necessarily the be-all, end-all of the book. "Plot, as I understand it, forms and explains the connection between causes and effects, but Drury looks at plot with what is known to locals of this region as Midwestern Nice: a dismissal, polite and kindly, and worth no more than a tight-lipped nod in its general direction." In other words, the lack of a hard-driving plot here was considered a feature, not a bug.

And despite what most writing teachers, coaches, editors, et cetera, might have you believe, I think I'm not alone as a reader who doesn't necessarily mind that. If I like the characters enough to want to spend some time with them, maybe I don't need the story all wrapped up in a bow every single time. Maybe I just want to ride shotgun and see what happens.

I read The End of Vandalism that summer and I liked it. Well enough. There were parts I thought were hilarious, especially in the first half. The characters lived up to their billing, with a trio taking center stage: Grouse County Sheriff Dan Norman, his love interest Louise Darling, and her ex, Tiny Darling. Tiny is, as Winner puts is, "a petty thief and the county fuckup." And hands down the funniest one in the book. Stupid, yes, but not without interesting thoughts, which he often shares willingly.

Without giving too much away, despite its somewhat meandering nature, the story took a bit of a dark turn toward the end, when Louise takes off from Iowa for Minnesota to have some time away, leaving Dan to wonder exactly where his marriage stands.

I think that put me off just enough at the time that I didn't pursue the rest of Drury's catalog.

And then something struck me this spring when I was working on a new manuscript. Well, an old manuscript that had been set aside and finally resumed. There was just a little bit going on with some of my characters that my mind wandered back to Grouse County. So I logged back onto ebay and hunted down the rest of Drury's books.

What I didn't realize at that time was that two of them were essentially spinoffs from The End of Vandalism: Hunts in Dreams, which focuses on Tiny and his new family, and Pacific, which follows Tiny's son, Micah, and second ex-wife, Joan, to California. Both follow a similar formula to the original, though I didn't find either nearly as humorous as The End of Vandalism. Drury's characters are so realistic at times that what they do can almost seem unremarkable. Pacific was the stronger of the two, but if I had read it first instead of The End of Vandalism, it's possible I would never have gone any further.

Next came The Driftless Area, which is described as neo-noir. It's set in the Midwest, where a young bartender named Pierre Hunter is saved from drowning after falling through the ice one night by a beautiful woman. But it's no coincidence she was there to save him, as the whole thing turns out to be a convoluted setup. Though it can at times dwell on what seems like minutia, it's generally fast-paced and interesting enough to pull you along, and there's definitely no shortage of plot. Some of Pierre's actions and dialogue at times give off a Grouse County feel, which doesn't always fit. There is also more than a hint of supernatural.

And then I read The Black Brook, which thematically aligns closest to The Driftless Area. Again we have a mystery with a main character who is being hunted by baddies, though this time they at least have a reason to target him, as he squealed in the witness box years earlier. After splitting with his wife, who heads back to their safe, new life in Europe, Paul Emmons has the poor sense to return home to New England, where he takes up with a woman he first had feelings for in college. Of course, she's married to their former college roommate (it's complicated). Further exposing himself, he takes a job as a reporter for the small, local paper. And becomes obsessed with the ghost of a woman who once lived in his house. There's art forgery, mob violence and revenge, and a very puzzling side trip to Scotland.

Ultimately, it didn't work for me. It felt all too random at times. There was a plot here, but it was moving in too many directions all at the same time. I appreciate that he was trying to do something different with what chronologically was his followup to The End of Vandalism, but what made his debut work for me just didn't exist here. The characters weren't fun, or even really all that likeable. The story was confusing and at times not even all that believable. I finished mainly because I wanted to complete the set.

So, Drury ... yes, and no. If you are in the great characters can outweigh the lack of a strong central plot camp, I would highly recommend The End of Vandalism (which I think I appreciated more the second time around when I re-read it this summer). And start there, for sure. If you enjoy that, spend a little more time with Tiny and family in Hunts in Dreams and Pacific. Give The Driftless Area a shot if you're into the whole noir thing. And if you want more, well, maybe you'll appreciate something I didn't in The Black Brook.

Apart from the stories themselves, two interesting notes on the books I received. My copy of The Driftless Area appears to have been signed by the author, unless perhaps another Tom D. personalized a gift back at Christmas 2015, which is when it's dated. And my The Black Brook is a hardback version that once belonged to the Oconomowoc Public Library in Oconomowoc, Wisc. It looks to have been checked out only once, in February 1999, according to the card in the pocket affixed to the inside back cover. That little glimpse of its history may be my favorite thing about the book.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Sayanora Twitter, Hello Bluesky

The end game on Twitter has been inevitable for more than a year now. Ever since a certain Elon Musk purchased controlling interest in the company in 2022, it always seemed likely that one of us would have to leave. For as badly as he mismanaged what was once the best (in my humble opinion) social media offering going, he never took the step. So I will.

And I hate it.

I really liked Twitter. I spent way, way too much time on there since creating my account back in June 2011. I totaled 16.8 thousand posts over 12 years, most of which probably fall in the retweet category. I don't think that includes likes, which surely dwarf that number.

I'm not going to go back in and count them for myself. I don't really care to even pop in for a peek anymore. The place has been sullied beyond recognition.

Before Twitter came Facebook. I never caught the MySpace train, so Facebook was my first social media experience. I'll ballpark my debut on the FB around 2007. Give or take. I recall creating an account and being astounded by all the old acquaintances to pop up. All those high school friends. Wait, that's not quite right. Peers? Associates? NPCs (to borrow from a term that wasn't coined until long after I last laid eyes upon any of my fellow schoolmates)?

Yeah, it was fun, briefly, to reconnect. The novelty wore off once they began to share their political viewpoints. The close friends I might genuinely have wanted to touch base with seemed to have had the sense to stay offline. Though there was one guy I seemed to become better friends with on FB than we had back in school. And thanks to the back-and-forths we shared about the Premier League, I can still roughly mark the end of my FB time. Because I didn't become a big Tottenham fan until around 2014, and, with him being a rabid Arsenal follower, we had a lot of entertaining exchanges. So while it always seems like it's been at least 10 years since I ditched Facebook, it's probably closer to seven.

And it wasn't because of him, or any of my other high school connections. It was more the awkward encounters with family members. The cousin with the gun fetish. The relative who took offense when I posted a link about cops abusing civil forfeiture laws. The unfollowing. The unfriending. All the crap you didn't have to deal with on Twitter because everyone in your family tree wasn't on there.

I "met" some great people on Twitter. I used to listen regularly to BBC Wales and play along with their 2:45 Teaser, submitting my answers via Twitter (and hearing my name called out across the ocean when I got them right, "James Bailey, from Rochester, New York, in the USA"). I had conversations with fellow listeners all the way over in Carfiff or Swansea or wherever they were. I talked music with the DJs. I had so much fun.

I talked baseball. I made connections, dating all the way back to when I was still writing book reviews for Baseball America, through the release of The Greatest Show on Dirt in 2012, all the way up through the publication of Major League Debuts this past January.

Those are the things I'm going to miss.

Because I just can't do it anymore. I can't take any joy in signing onto X (and I throw up in my mouth a little just calling it that). Twitter died long before the name change came about. I guess I only kept my account active in hopes that maybe Musk would decide he couldn't continue to lose money on the project and offload it to someone normal. But he's just as terrible of a businessman as he is a human. The value of the company has cratered along with its morals. Most of my old connections stopped posting long ago.

My last post was July 23 of this year, when we were on vacation in Cleveland. (Well, second to last, before tacking up a link to this post.) My last like came four days before that. My interactions dried to a trickle sometime this past spring.

I tried Post over the winter, but it just didn't have enough oomph to it to warrant the time investment. I did post a number of updates to my site, with very little interaction to show for it. I got as far a installing the Threads app on my phone this summer, though its 15 minutes ticked away before I progressed to setting up an account. I did create one for Instagram, and have uploaded a handful of photos there to the lukewarm applause of my blood relatives (largely an overlapping segment dating back to my Facebook days).

But the scratch to my itch looks a lot like old Twitter. Bluesky. Brought to us by the same folks who gave us Twitter back in the day, it looks and feels like the real thing. The only issue now is when will it reach critical mass. It's growing slowly, at an invitation-only pace, reportedly topping 2 million users earlier this week. I finally got an invite key last week and set up shop there. Now it's all about getting the band back together. I'm up to 6 followers. I had a whole 621 on Twitter. (Say it with me, "Ooh, Aah, Wow." Super impressive, I know.)

I haven't been on long enough to receive any invite codes of my own yet. When I do, I will pass them along to my former connections on Birdland. One by one, we'll reunite and share our pithy observations on horrible VAR decisions, who truly deserved to finish second in American League Rookie of the Year balloting, and maybe even some theories on the 2:45 Teaser (I hope).

If you're there, look me up. I'm at Yes, I got in early enough to get my own name. Jump on it soon and maybe you can as well.

I'll be shutting up shop on Twitter very soon, likely before the end of the month. It was a nice run, but now it feels like driving down your old street and seeing the new owners have repainted and chopped down all the trees you planted. It's time to take another route entirely.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Avoiding old pitfalls with the new release

With the recent release of This Is Who We Are Now, I find myself pulled back to 2015, trying to remember exactly how things went in the early days for Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed. Flavor-wise, that is my closest comp title, what with all the family drama and dysfunction. In my memory, Sorry got out of the gate quicker, with more Amazon reviews helping pave the way for early sales.

Only it didn't. Memory is a funny thing that way.

As with this one, I made Sorry available to book bloggers and other reviewers via NetGalley. To date, This Is Who We Are Now has seven reviews on Goodreads from NetGalley reviewers, almost all four-star ratings. Unfortunately, only one has made its way to Amazon to this point. And it is unfortunate, because all seven were thoughtful and largely quite positive reviews that would no doubt help sales.

I had a number of nice reviews of Sorry posted on Amazon by NetGalley readers. But digging back through emails now, most of those went up a month or more after the book went live. I can recall being anxious for the total review count to hit double digits, because that was the threshold for a number of the book deal websites to take a title on. If you wanted to knock the Kindle price down to 99 cents for a few days and advertise the discount, you had to have ten reviews with an average of at least four stars. And once I hit that mark, I discounted and racked up quite a few sales in quick order.

It worked so well I did it a number of times over the first year Sorry was out. This was one of the major perks of being enrolled in Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program, where subscribers could read your book for free, for which the 'Zon compensated you to the tune of about half a cent a page.

And then, several years later, I realized the tradeoff that came with all that. My Amazon Also Boughts were a mess of bargain-basement books. Cookbooks. Romances. Books about the Holocaust. Books readers scarfed up for a buck--or free even. Books they read through KU, where the only real common tie was that it didn't cost them anything. Books that were zero help to me at all.

It took a bit of time and effort, but I rehabilitated my Also Boughts in 2019-20 by advertising on Amazon, building connections with books I wanted readers to associate mine with. When you have enough common purchases with books by Jonathan Tropper and Matthew Norman and Kevin Wilson, Amazon starts to do some of the heavy lifting for you. Your book shows up on their Also Boughts. Your pay-per-click ads come down in price as Amazon's algorithms calculate the odds of a sale are stronger. It makes a big difference in visible and non-visible ways.

And when you release a new book, you start the process anew.

This Is Who We Are Now enjoys no such ties with the books that Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed developed. We are officially at square one. But this time, I'm taking a different approach. No 99-cent deals. No Kindle Unlimited. The hope is to avoid digging myself into a hole where Fruit Pies: Practical Guide to Homemade Baking shows up in my Also Boughts. I don't need connections like that. Because much like a cover, readers judge a book by the company it keeps. And even more importantly, so do Amazon's algorithms.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Four years later, this is where we are now

I first began playing around with what eventually became This Is Who We Are Now more than four years ago. Henry Bradfield was a Jim back then, at least in the oldest surviving draft still extant on my computer. Technically written on my previous desktop, which was sent to the storage closet six months later, it's a two-chapter beginning, dated July 4, 2019.

There are quite a few interim drafts littering my hard drive (and my cloud backup--you never want to be that guy who loses his WIP). The final version can trace its roots to a drastic revision I started two years ago after being convinced that the book started in the wrong place. Kill your babies, they say. I slashed almost half the book. Maybe someday some of the bits on the cutting-room floor will resurface in another project.

Henry's personality emerged through the rewrites, his extreme passivity identified and coached out of him. His wife Denise became a much kinder person over time, her over-the-top bitchiness eradicated after the top question for Henry became, "why are you still with this shrew?" Rusty and Kyle, their teen sons, remain the most recognizable from those early days, their initial personalities still largely intact.

The same cannot be said for Henry's parents, who were recast multiple times. In early versions, his father was a philandering college professor, whose wife stuck with him largely because she couldn't stand the thought of everyone in town gossiping about her marriage failing if she were to leave. They were turned on their heads when she became the cheating spouse, sleeping with various faculty members at the university where she taught, the scandal made both worse and more understandable by the accident which had left Henry's dad unable to focus on anything long enough to hold down a job due to his ensuing traumatic brain injury. Henry's sister, Margo, was catty and mean, his brother, Danny, generally lazy, at least until he helped their parents convert their home into a B&B. He also may have had a brief fling with Henry's high school girlfriend, Erin.

Looking back through it all now, it's hard to remember some of it was ever in there. Did I mention the revision was drastic?

In the four years and four months since I first began writing this novel, I set it aside several times to work on other projects or simply give it the space and time it needed to find its way into its final form. This time a year ago, I was feverishly writing about baseball, putting every free waking moment into Major League Debuts. I have never worked so intensely on anything in my life, and I was prepared to give it another go this spring until the sales just didn't justify the time, expense, and complete obliteration of any thought of relaxation. I much prefer the pace of writing a novel, at least at the pace I write, which is often dragged out further by detours, such as the three other novels I started since first conjuring up Henry and Denise. One of those stands a legit chance of being the next book completed, and I plan to turn my attention back to it soon, once I get through launching this one.

We are down to little more than a week until release day. You can pre-order This Is Who We Are Now for your Kindle now on Amazon ($5.99), and it will hit your device on Monday, Oct. 23. That is also the day the paperback will be available, though Amazon doesn't allow indie authors to set up pre-orders for those, so you'll have to set a reminder to buy it in real time as soon as it lists ($12.95).

It was a long and winding road to get here, but I think the delays were worth it in the end. I'm very excited about how it came out, though it is, as always, an anxious time releasing something new out into the world. How will it be received? I guess we'll find out soon.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Coming very soon: This Is Who We Are Now

Mark your calendars, kids. October 23 is the big day. The one we've all been waiting for for a good long while now. Well, some of us. Me, anyway.

That's right, the new book is coming out next month. This Is Who We Are Now will be available for sale in both ebook and paperback format 29 mere days from now.

What's it all about? Well, since you asked:

Family vacations can be dreaded, stressful, boring, and contentious. And sometimes they can be even worse.

On the brink of a milestone birthday he'd rather not celebrate, Henry Bradfield returns to his childhood home in Vermont to find his old belongings are the hottest items at his parents' garage sale. When Henry learns that his prized Spider-Man comics were sold to the son of his high school sweetheart, Erin Chadwick, suddenly vintage collectibles aren't the only things making him feel nostalgic.

Tensions in the house rise as a long-simmering rivalry with his younger brother heats up, all while Henry's own teenage sons are butting heads. His wife, Denise, becomes increasingly distant toward him and his parents, who she feels have never truly embraced her. Amidst the chaos, another chance encounter with Erin leads Henry to ponder what might have been. His only confidant is his alcoholic sister, Margo, who is wrestling with her own relationship issues.

When Denise disappears without saying good-bye, Henry must decide whether the thrill of rekindling an old flame is worth risking his stable, if all too routine, marriage.

At this point, it's down to crossing some i's and dotting some t's. Once I get the final cover files, the book will go up for presale on Amazon in both Kindle ($5.99) and print formats ($12.95). And then time will start speeding up on me (in a good way, mostly).

Stay tuned.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Amazon cracking down on AI "authors"

Call me old-school, or just call me old, but I am so not interested in AI anything. I remember when AI stood for Allen Iverson. He was a heck of a lot more real than today's AI, Art Ificialintelligence.

New-school AI is taking over everywhere. We're supposed to cogitate on how we can utilize it at work. Job seekers use it to craft their resumes. Companies use it to sift through those resumes and determine who's worthy of an interview. You can't scroll your LinkedIn feed for two seconds without passing three stories about it, posted by the usual suckups who are trying to impress their bosses, if not their future robot overlords.

Lawyers use it to craft briefs, sometimes to hilarious effect, at least for those of us who weren't sanctioned by the judge for including made-up legal citations. College students use it to write essays. Musicians use AI to craft new songs or to clean up old ones. And some non-musicians use it to create songs as well.

Sorry, but as an old-school old guy, it just all feels like cheating to me.

Some of it literally is. We now have people publishing AI books under the names of legit authors, earning the ire of best-sellers like Jane Friedman, whose name was affixed to books written neither by her nor any other human. Amazon took action, removing them from the world's largest online book store.

It is now taking things a step further, asking self-publishers to declare whether AI was used in creating their new release. Authors are asked, "Did you use AI tools in creating texts, images, and/or translations in your book?" As long as they're not attempting to defraud readers, as in the case where they listed books under a legit author's name, they can still publish the work. And as of now, I can't find any indication on book listings to indicate the author used or didn't use AI. My guess is that will come soon.

Amazon is also implementing rules to limit self-publishers on its Kindle Direct Publishing platform to three titles a day, which crystalizes their overall goal here a bit. They are cracking down on ebook mills. This is really all about fraud.

And I'm so here for that.

Writing books is hard work. Writing music is hard work. Writing legal briefs is hard work. And if you take shortcuts, well, maybe that's a good thing in some cases, but it ought to be noted. I want to know if a book was written by a human or a robot. Because I'm not paying robots to write books. I don't care if I can't tell the difference (though I bet I could).

When I find an author I like, I tend to read a lot of their stuff. I go a bit fan boy on occasion. I identify with them. I want to support them, advocate for them. Same with bands. If I like a group, I will gladly buy their CDs (yes, CDs, I wasn't kidding, I'm old). I will follow them on social media. I want to know when they're on tour, even if I'll never get to see them play live. I want to know when their new album is coming out. I want to feel like I know them well enough to know they're decent human beings.

That they're human beings, period.

I don't care if AI can craft the catchiest earworm, I'm not listening to it. I'm not paying one rouge centime for it.

I listen to different music at different times to suit the mood and emotion of the moment. Human moods and emotions, matched by music written and played by humans who have felt similar emotions. I read fiction to scratch a similar emotional itch. I'm not reading any tear-jerkers crafted by a robot who can't cry. I'm not laughing along with text written by a robot who can't laugh.

And, yeah, I get it, AI isn't written by actual robots. Just one more strike against it, really. I might read Rosey's memoir to learn what it was really like to work for the Jetsons. And tip me off when Marvin the Paranoid Android's account of life on the Heart of Gold hits the press.

But let's just say no to robots with no personality, no pedigree, no legitimacy, and no credibility.

And let's thank Amazon for taking this very small, and quite possibly not significant-enough step to slow the AI roll. Even if all we're doing is slapping "Non-GMO" labels on our organic books, at least we're acknowledging the issue. It's a start.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Cleveland Rocks!

Over the past few years, as my son has become more and more of a diehard baseball fan, he's begun lobbying for trips to major league cities so we can see "real" baseball. (No offense, Rochester Red Wings, we still love you.) Last summer we trekked to Philadelphia and he experienced his first big league game, seeing the Cubs take on the Phillies. Previously a Yankees fan, he made room for another favorite team, with the Phillies later sending him into quite the playoff frenzy when they turned a wild-card spot into a World Series run.

Over the winter we began sizing up other reasonably nearby cities, looking for a good fit for another MLB encounter. The main criteria were distance and cost. We honed in on Pittsburgh and Cleveland, both about four hours away, eventually settling on Cleveland. We dug into hotels and local attractions, and booked a room at the Hyatt Regency at the Arcade downtown. That was February, and it all seemed so far away. In June I bought tickets for two games, Saturday night against the Phillies and Monday against the Royals. And a bonus game on Tuesday to see the nearby Class A Lake County Captains take on the Beloit Sky Carp.

When people would ask if we had vacation plans for the summer, I found myself almost making excuses for our destination, as if anticipating the questions before they were even asked. "We're going to Cleveland--to see some baseball games." Because Cleveland? For vacation? Huh.

Well, now that we've been there, I will make no excuses, no apologies, no explanations.

Cleveland Rocks!

It was awesome. It blew Philadelphia out of the water. I loved it, and I would go back in a heartbeat.

We drove down Friday. It's just about a four-hour trip, not including stops, almost all on I-90, which took us right into the city. We arrived around 3:30 and handed our car over to valet parking. The hotel would have been worth a sight-seeing stop on its own had we not been staying there. The Arcade is fascinating enough to be a popular wedding venue. In fact, there were two when we were there, on Friday and Saturday evenings. We could see them partying it up from outside our room on the fourth floor (and hear them, until about 11:00 both nights).

We took a walk that first night to familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood. All we could tell from Google Maps ahead of time was that Progressive Field was only a few blocks away. We had no idea whether that meant a leisurely walk (safe?) or a cab ride (sketchy?). It turned out to be the former, and we walked it a dozen times over our five-day stay. The first block passed through East 4th Street, most of which was pedestrian only and lined on both sides by restaurants (bars, really) teeming with folks. After the three of us had dinner Friday, my son and I decided to head back to the park to see what we could see without tickets. We found a spot beyond right field where through the bars in the fence you can see straight through to home plate. We watched three innings from there, and were tipped off by an usher that just on the other side of the fence was a marker recording the longest home run in stadium history, hit by Jim Thome. If someone had replicated that blast we might have been odds-on favorites for the ball.

We headed back to the hotel when it started getting dark and were back in our room long before the postgame fireworks show, which we could see reflected in the windows of the building behind our room.

We returned to the stadium Saturday. Twice. The first time we hit the team store, loading up on Guardians gear. The second time was the main event, which we took in from the Discount Drug Mart Club up on the 300 level. I didn't realize it at the time I bought the tickets, but they included dinner. It was a great first game at Progressive Field, aside from the outcome for Phillies fans, as the home side topped the visitors 1-0, with the only run courtesy of a popup that dropped between second baseman Bryson Stott, right fielder Nick Castellanos, and center fielder Brandon Marsh. We can argue all day about who should have taken charge, but there is no question that it should have been caught.

Sunday's original plan was to spend the afternoon at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a mere 20-minute walk from our hotel the opposite direction of the ballpark. But a boy with a phone happened to notice there were still tickets available for the finale of the three-game set between his Phillies and the Guardians. I explained over and over that we had to consider Mom's feelings in all of this, and she was already being an awful good sport agreeing to attend three games during our five-day trip. But ... but ... but ...

We agreed to let Mom decide. And she was fine with another ballgame. So we secured $20 tickets up high in left field, so far under the scoreboard that it would serve as our umbrella when the rain came late in the proceedings. This was another tight affair, with the Phillies taking a 4-3 lead in the sixth and holding on ... until David Fry clanked one off the railing beneath us in the bottom of the ninth. The ball fell back onto the field, briefly confusing both sides until the umps ruled it had cleared the yellow line. And with that, we had extra innings. The Phillies looked to break the game wide open, plating four runs in the top of the 10th. On came Jeff Hoffman to finish the Guardians off. A walk, a single, and a walk later, he was gone, the lead down to 8-5, and looking mighty precarious at that. Yunior Marte managed to finish off the home team with no further damage, earning a gigantic sigh of relief. I later read a recap in Craig Calcaterra's Cup of Coffee newsletter describing how the Phils turned it into a "laugher" with their four runs. It was anything but. I was so sure they were going to blow it I was already mentally explaining to my son why we shouldn't let this ruin our trip. Instead we celebrated as the skies opened up, waiting out the rain underneath the massive scoreboard.

Monday morning, after a hearty breakfast at Betts (no affiliation to Mookie that I'm aware of), we returned to the Guardians team store, because we hadn't given the team quite enough of our money yet. On our way in, we noticed a sign about stadium tours. We secured tickets for the 11:30 tour and waited. This turned into one of the absolute highlights of the trip, as we got to sit up in the press box and down in the home dugout. Many great behind-the-scenes views, including seeing Terry Francona's scooter in the tunnel outside of the home clubhouse. (Didn't get to go into the clubhouse, unfortunately.)

Back at the hotel, I booked three admissions for the Rock Hall and we were off once more, down to the lake and the intriguing building that houses the music museum. Highlights: The hip-hop exhibit when we first entered, the history of rock that took us from the jazz/blues/gospel roots to the early days of rock, the Elvis, Beatles, and Rolling Stones exhibits, some of the other random displays featuring various pioneers from different cities. The cons: well, it's hard to be specific, but somehow I just thought there would be ... more. My wife kept wondering when we'd get to the Prince stuff or the Heart stuff. The answer was pretty much never. There were a few things, but nothing in depth. If there was anything on The Police beyond the plaque denoting when they were inducted I must have blinked and missed it. On the whole, it was mildly underwhelming. I still rate it as a must-see, if only because how often do you get the chance? But it ranked a distinct third on our Monday triple-bill, behind the ballpark tour and the Guardians-Royals game. Finally unconflicted of who to root for, we were let down when Cleveland lost to the lowly Royals 5-3. We had incredible seats, at least, sitting three rows behind the visiting dugout. Close enough to score a rally towel and a t-shirt when they were tossed into the crowd.

It wasn't just the score that felt like a letdown as we headed back to the hotel after the game. Three games in three nights (not including our knothole gang effort Friday) was more concentrated major league action than I'd ever enjoyed. Still, we were all a little sad to be saying good-bye to Progressive Field, even with the Lake County Captains booked for Tuesday. And primo seats, I should add, second row, behind home plate.

Still, it didn't feel right. So when we got back to the hotel, I was back on the MLB Ballpark app, and soon enough we had tickets in right field for Tuesday night. The Captains got bumped in favor of their big-league affiliate. The ability to walk to the park in 10 minutes versus having to get the car from the valet and drive to Lake County (approximately 25 minutes away) didn't hurt. But honestly, it really came down to reading the room. The boy and the wife both clearly wanted to stay in town. In the end, I went with the least stressful option. We got to see the Guardians roll to a 5-1 win, with rookie Bo Naylor taking veteran Zack Greinke deep twice. It was over almost too soon, the final pitch coming just 1:59 after the first. This time, when we made the familiar walk back to the Hyatt, we knew it was really over.

Baseball, baseball, baseball ... yeah, this has kind of turned into a game log. But there was so much more to Cleveland, even though it's hard to separate the city from the sports teams it loves and supports. The Guardians are essentially a .500 club at this point. Thanks to a weak AL Central, they're one hot streak away from contending. One senses that even if they don't catch that wave, the fans will come out and support them. Maybe it's not the sellout draw it was in the glory days of Jacobs Field, when they sold out as a rule. I mean, I was able to get relatively cheap tickets at the last minute twice. But still, there is a distinct vibe.

There's also a pride in the city. When we were in Philly last year, we searched high and low for souvenir t-shirts. In the end my wife ordered a hoodie online for my son--after we came home. Within a block of our hotel we found two stores that sold really nice Cleveland stuff. And we bought a ton of it. Shirts, hats, books, a magnet, a mug. The locals aren't shy about flexing for The Land, why shouldn't we jump in on that action?

A little background on me and Cleveland: This wasn't my first time in The Land. I was born in Painesville, not far to the east. We lived in Mentor until I was almost four. My dad used to teach at Cleveland State. He may or may not have cost himself tenure by protesting companies like Dow Chemical that polluted the nearby environs. I haven't really been back since. My impression of the city was a burning river and The Mistake By The Lake. Still, it had baseball and was close enough to give it a chance. I was honestly set on swinging by the old neighborhood to check out my childhood home. We never made it to Mentor. We were too busy downtown.

As for that burning river, it's now a thing of pride. We took a cruise up the Cuyahoga River and out onto Lake Erie on the Goodtime III on Tuesday. We passed by condos in the Flats that were so eye-catching my wife suggested we should retire there. We saw great blue herons and other birds. All along the river there are projects in various states of progress, transitioning what was once a national punchline into a local attraction.

Cleveland is a beautiful city. It was clean (unlike Philadelphia, which looked like it was in week three of a garbage strike when we were there last summer) and walkable. There is so much public art, from the FREE stamp to the chandelier in Playhouse Square. We went into a Heinen's grocery store that was repurposed from an old bank, featuring a rotunda with a stained-glass ceiling. We ate breakfast in a cool park next door to the downtown library, where we encountered squirrels that walk on all fours like bears. We went with mild expectations and were absolutely, 110% blown away.

Cleveland Rocks. Seriously.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Books need protecting from Moms for Liberty

When I wrote about book banning in Dispatches from a Tourist Trap, I was afraid that some parts went a little over the top. For those that didn't read it (which, based on sales figures would be most of you), Jason moves to a small town in Eastern Washington after his parents split up, and is pleasantly surprised to find a student-led literature club exists at the high school. But when some, let's call them less-progressive, students object to the book selections, things get heated. The titles grow increasingly controversial, from The Sun Also Rises to At Play in the Fields of the Lord to The Virgin Suicides. The school board votes to require all books chosen be preapproved by them, at which point Jason and friends take it underground. They eventually enter a protest float in the town's Christmas parade, which only inflames matters, literally, when someone sets it on fire.

It was meant to be funny, while also addressing an odious practice with a long history in our country. (While the U.S. is hardly alone in banning books, for a democracy we seem to take it to a whole 'nother level every so often.) Like I said, I was mildly concerned it was almost overdone. I mean, how likely would it be that Jason's band of happy readers would encounter such strong opposition?

I never thought to include any Nora Roberts books on their reading list, though. Maybe that would have made it more realistic. At least if I had set the story in Florida.

The ironically named Moms for Liberty group in Martin County wasn't content pulling Judy Blume and Jodi Picoult books off library shelves. They had to get rid of Roberts' books as well. Some of these recently banned titles make up "The Bride Quartet," a series of four books about friends who run a wedding-planning business. Here's the blurb from the first book, Vision in White:

Wedding photographer Mackensie "Mac" Elliot is most at home behind the camera, but her focus is shattered moments before an important wedding rehearsal when she bumps into the bride-to-be's encounter that has them both seeing stars.

A stable, safe English teacher, Carter Maguire is definitely not Mac's type. But a casual fling might be just what she needs to take her mind off bridezillas. Of course, casual flings can turn into something more when you least expect it. And Mac will have to turn to her three best friends—and business partners—to see her way to her own happy ending.

Oh my stars and garters, how salacious.

Roberts is, as she should be, pissed off. But in a sense, I celebrate the blatant overstep on the part of Moms for Liberty. Because if they weren't a laughingstock before, they are now. (Note: They were a laughingstock from the start.)

Not that book banning is a laughing matter, by any means. In Florida, where they seem to have nothing better to do, or elsewhere. And we can include my school district in that elsewhere, as there is a group of "concerned" parents trying to remove Juno Dawson's This Book Is Gay from the Hilton High School library. This is actually a major campaign plank for one of the perennial school-board candidates, whose Facebook rantings indirectly sparked the bomb threats that closed school twice this spring.

I can't blame this gadfly for the bomb threat, as the same threat was made against a school in Iowa regarding the same book. The emails were sent from an account with a .ru domain, which could literally have come from anywhere, including Russia, whose leader never seems to mind stirring shit on an international level. Clearly, whoever sent it knew enough about what was going on locally to sound credible on a first pass, though their repeated attempts no longer generate much response. We've been notified of at least four such emails, which the district regards as mere hoaxes by this point.

The book-banning brigades are out in full force in Pennsylvania as well, though they are meeting some stiff resistance, and taking a few noteworthy L's. After Kutztown Area Middle School canceled its One School, One Book event for Alan Gratz's YA novel Two Degrees, about, gasp, climate change, a student protest led to an even wider distribution of the book. Quite the lovely own goal on the part of the groups trying to prevent kids from reading. A similar controversy birthed the Kutztown Teen Banned Book Club, which Jason and his friend Maddie would have loved. (They dubbed theirs the Lost Generation Literary Scholars.)

Climate change and wedding planning will almost certainly triumph in due time. Outside of the most hardcore banners, those books will find enough support to survive. LBGTQ books, however, face a much steeper challenge. Even here, in Upstate New York, This Book Is Gay is at serious risk. Following the bomb threat controversy, the school board assembled a three-parent panel to weigh in on the matter. There were a lot more than three parents to volunteer, however, and they wound up choosing names lottery style. Mine came up 16th on the list, out of how many I don't know. And I have no idea what the political mindset is of the three who were selected. I guess we'll find out later this month when they issue their verdict.

All for a book that has been on library shelves since 2015, and had been checked out a grand total of two times prior to this ruckus. A book that would probably still be available to students if it were titled The Frat Boys' Guide to Scoring with Sorority Chicks. Because let's face it, the title is what put This Book Is Gay in the eye of this storm. If it were a picture book of rainbows, there would still be a number of Liberty Mothers looking to remove it. Gay people are much easier to marginalize in this country than just about any other group this side of transgender folk. LGBTQ releases are the gateway drug of book banners. Once they get an appetite for it, though, the slope gets real slippery real quick. It won't end with Nora Roberts and Judy Blume.

I can't go quite to the extreme of saying no book should ever be kept out of school libraries. I would draw my line at books that promote violence. A book on how to build a bomb or plan a shooting, for example, I could never support.

If that makes me a hypocrite, I guess I can live with the label. But protecting kids means something very different to me than it does to these Moms for Liberty groups.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Wilson's weirdness wins me over

My introduction to Kevin Wilson books came in 2016 when I read The Family Fang. It was different--in a good way. Creative, but very readable. Not that I could tell you a whole lot about the story at this point, seven years later. As it goes, I was still a frequent Goodreader at that point in time. So, quoting old me:

I was in the mood for something different and I certainly found it here. The Fangs are a messed up family, led by crazy parents whose idea of art can most kindly be referred to as mischief. It's best when it involves innocent victims of some kind and must occur in a very public place. They refer to their children as A and B (though they do at least have names, Annie and Buster) and after initially fearing children would interfere with their "art" they learned to incorporate them into the act.

Naturally, Annie and Buster grow up with issues. She becomes a semi-successful actress and he cranks out a pair of novels before winding up scraping by on free lance magazine work. For different reasons, they both wind up moving back home after escaping, and soon find themselves right back in the midst of the Fang turmoil.

Midway through I felt like this was a strong 4 1/2 stars, possibly a 5. It was one of those books where I was already thinking of people I could recommend it to. Then things slowed a little and the ending sort of underwhelmed me. I'll give the benefit of the doubt and round up to a 4, based on the uniqueness of the story and the characters, but there could have been more here.

And I guess at that point I was just lukewarm enough (lukecold?) on the ending to not bother going back into the Wilson pile for more.

Fast-forward to 2019-20, when I was running some steady Amazon ads for Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed, and who should start popping into my Also-Boughts but Kevin Wilson. When I first started with the ads, Jonathan Tropper was the gold-standard search target for me. It's a family drama with a bit of humor, which is Tropper's wheelhouse, so that made sense. The Venn diagram for Wilson never seemed quite as overlappy to me. But it persisted, and over time his name became a more productive search term than Tropper's. Maybe those waters were fished out, or maybe with no new Tropper books being released there just wasn't as much interest there anymore.

Regardless, I saw a lot of Wilson's Nothing To See Here cover. That book seemed to be the one most closely linked in the Also-Boughts. Which ... well, still seems like a strange fit. Eventually, I had to read it. And while the fit still didn't make sense, I really liked it.

It's a classic Wilson, in that he starts with a far-out premise, but sets it in a very real world populated with mostly normal people (well, as normal as any of us, when you take a deep dive into our heads). The hook here is there really is something to see, and it's a young brother and sister who spontaneously combust every time they get a little worked up about anything. (Don't worry, they're always fine afterward.) 

I enjoyed that one so much, I went back for more, asking for both of his other novels for Christmas. Santa came through, of course, with Now Is Not the Time to Panic and Perfect Little World. I read Now Is Not the Time to Panic earlier this year, and it moved to the top spot on my Wilson list. Another crazy imaginative premise about two teenagers who start a panic in their small Tennessee town by slapping posters everywhere with the spooky nonsense saying, "The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us." Mayhem ensues. People die. It's both funny and sad in places. And so different from anything else out there.

I'm about halfway through Perfect Little World right now, and I'm not sure where it's going to rank for me. Early days yet. So far, it's fighting for third with The Family Fang, but there's time for it to move up the leaderboard.

Wilson's characters are all a little bit misfit, a little depressed, and a lot interesting. Really glad I circled back for more. I've never been a big short story reader, but he just might tempt me across that line, as he has two short story collections out there. Something tells me there will be craziness involved.

Friday, April 7, 2023

My Shepherd list: best annual baseball releases

I had the opportunity to write an author list for Shepherd recently, and it came out pretty cool. If you're not familiar with Shepherd, they compile lists of books recommended by authors who write in a similar genre. With Major League Debuts as the jumping off point, I created a list of the best annual releases to prepare for baseball season.

The best annual releases to prep for baseball season

No surprise perhaps to see
Baseball America's Prospect Handbook here. I have every edition dating back to 2001, when the first release came out. I contributed to several of them as well, though that's not why I like it. Check out the list to see what else I included.

It's also kind of fun to look and see what other authors listed. I had to, of course, check out the list of "the best baseball novels you've probably never read." Nope, neither The Greatest Show on Dirt nor Nine Bucks a Pound made the cut. Maybe he assumed everyone had read them already. There's also a list just called "the best novels about baseball." I didn't make that one, either, though I have read three of the five there. (And my list of best baseball novels would be quite different.)

If you are looking for a good rabbit hole, head on over to Shepherd. You will undoubtedly find a list that leads to another list that leads to another list. You might even find a few books to add to your reading list.

Friday, March 17, 2023

The Major League Debuts podcasting world tour

Hello again.

This has been a busy week for virtual book events for Major League Debuts. There have been three podcasts released (two of which were recorded earlier in the month, but that's the way show business rolls, I guess). There was also a new review released last night. So, let's get to it.

My favorite podcast to date was released this morning. This was done with LockedOn MLB Prospects, hosted by Lindsay Crosby. Lindsay clearly did his homework and had a lot of great questions. The only drawback is I was on camera for this one, and maybe that's not my strong suit. But at least I sound like I know what I'm talking about, and that's something.

Here are the links for the others:

The Show Before the Show, with Benjamin Hill of Ben actually reviewed The Greatest Show on Dirt back when it came out in 2012. Really good guy, whose love for minor league baseball always comes through.

ML Sports Platter, with Mike Lindsley. Sound quality on this one is a little lacking, especially on my side, as it was recorded with me being on the phone.

And here's the new review:

The Sports Bookie, by Bob D'Angelo. Bob also reviewed The Greatest Show on Dirt back in the day. And I believe he did a review for Nine Bucks a Pound as well. He's a big baseball book guy.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The debut of Major League Debuts

I have news about a new release, but it might not be the new release you were expecting. This Is Who We Are Now is still waiting its turn. It was set aside in the fall for a more time-sensitive project. From September up to now all of my time, spare and otherwise, has been dedicated to the new one. It's called Major League Debuts, and it is out now. And unlike my previous releases, this is very much not a novel.

But there are stories. Three hundred and three of them, to be precise. Major League Debuts is a book about all of the players to debut in the big leagues in 2022. Which turned out to be a record 303 of them. The previous record, set way back in 2021, was 265. That would have been a little easier. Because for each of the 303, I wrote about their first game in the majors, what they did in 2022, and how they got there, with a detailed bio of their career, starting from high school in many cases. I subscribed to 40 newspapers to do the research. I didn't sleep a whole lot. But I got there, and I'm really happy with the way it came out.

Originally, in my head, this book would have been available closer to Jan. 1. Then again, originally it wasn't going to be this long. Or this insanely detailed. When I started in September, the writeups were 300-400 words per player. By the time I finished, it was a challenge to keep them under 1,000. I had to circle back to the guys at the start of the alphabet and beef them up to even things out a little.

The book came out to be 416 pages in paperback. It blows my mind more than a little that I wrote more than 400 pages worth of words in under five months. I honestly have never worked so hard on anything in my life. Novels are hard in a different way, but spread out over a much longer period of time, which makes it less intense, at least the way I write. I needed this book out before spring training started.

I made it.

And now, in some ways, comes the hard part. Selling it. That's no different than for all of my other books. Selling them is always harder than writing them. If you're interested in baseball, or know someone who is, the book is available in both paperback and ebook format.

Paperback - $17.95

Ebook - $7.99

And if baseball's not really your thing, stay tuned for updates on This Is Who We Are Now. It will soon be moving back to the front burner.