A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers
By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor
Book: Graveyard of the Gods
St. Louis, MO: Blank Slate Press (Amphorae Publishing Group), September 20, 2016 (210 pp; $12.95 paperback, $6.99 eBook), ISBN 9781943075201.
Author: Richard Newman
Established poet Richard Newman is a liberal arts instructor at the College of the Marshall Islands, a community college in Majuro (capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands), where he teaches English. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetry from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, and a bachelor’s degree in English from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (where he has taught evening writing classes). Newman has also taught at St. Louis Community College. He is editor emeritus of River Styx, a literary journal published in St. Louis, where he served as editor from 1994 to 2016. He has three books of published poetry: Domestic Fugues, All the Wasted Beauty of the World, and Borrowed Towns. Graveyard of the Gods is his first novel.
Blank Slate Press is a seven-year-old venture run by a family team in St. Louis. Publisher/editor Kristina Blank Makansi co-founded Blank Slate in 2010 with her daughter Amira Makansi, who is manuscript reviewer. Elena Makansi joined her mother and sister at Blank Slate as acquisitions editor. The fourth member of the team is manuscript reviewer Kathy Smith. Two years ago, Blank Slate combined with Walrus Publishing and Treehouse Publishing Group to form Amphorae Publishing Group.
Kristina Makansi has a bachelor’s degree in Government from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Teaching from the College of New Jersey. She has worked as a copywriter, marketing coordinator, designer, and editor, and written The Oracles of Delphi. She and her two daughters are coauthors of The Seeds Trilogy. Kristina Makansi has been a board member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild and of the Missouri Center for the Book, as well as a founding member of the St. Louis Literary Consortium.
Blank Slate Press focuses on fiction in the following genres: mystery/crime, historical, contemporary, and literary. Submission guidelines are available on the Blank Slate website. The other two publishing venues of Amphorae cover slightly different subject matter. Walrus looks for works that “push the envelope and…break new ground…in science fiction/fantasy, relationship, memoir, regional, humor, and LGBTQ.” Treehouse seeks both fiction and non-fiction in book manuscripts for children, middle graders, and young adults, as well as picture books. Submission guidelines for Walrus and Treehouse may be found on the Amphorae website.
In general, Amphorae pursues good stories well told: “Writing that makes a reader think. Themes and conflicts relevant to universal human struggle, societal issues, or philosophical values. Or all three.”
Where is the grave-yard of dead gods?
What lingering mourner waters their mounds?…
Lead me to his tomb: I would weep….
But who knows where it is?…
Where are their bones?
Where is the willow on which they hung their harps?…
All these were once gods of the highest eminence….
And all are dead.”
—H.L. Mencken, “Memorial Service,” A Mencken Chrestomathy
Richard Newman packs a lot into his debut novel. In two hundred pages, he covers crime syndicates, hog farming, family interactions, dying small towns, personal ethics, gambling casinos, and local history. The result is macabre fiction with a touch of weird noir.
Lance Corporal Gene Barnes, a Gulf War vet, raises hogs by the banks of the Little Wabash in Carmi, Illinois. Characters named Romeo, Zesty, and Chuckles enter, along with Gene’s lone friend from high school (Keith), Danise (a “sometime semi-girlfriend”), and a German Shepherd (Pretty Girl). His mother with Alzheimer’s lives in a nursing home. Gene’s brother, Miller, edits a small-town newspaper downstate in Metropolis. The two haven’t seen each other in ten years.
Gene’s financial situation is desperate, making him easy prey for a former Marine buddy from Operation Desert Storm. Jimmy Tosti recruits Gene for jobs promising enough to pay off a truck loan and back taxes, and avoid mortgaging the family farm. All Gene has to do is accept the occasional dead body and dump it in the hog pen—no questions asked.
And Gene has no questions, until one day he thinks he knows the corpse he’s just tossed to the hogs. His blood runs cold in delayed recognition. Gene sets off on his motorcycle for answers, realizing he’s neither a reporter nor a detective but wanting to repay a debt of loyalty from fourth grade. He heads across the southern Illinois landscape of “sad little towns, some already dead, some a few seasons away from dying.”
The novel’s strengths are a plot well-set through writing that hooks a reader on page one, Newman’s ability to present the dynamics of Gene’s nuclear family with resonance, and wry observations on small aspects like green tea. Newman includes much information about bygone days where he grew up. Readers view the region through his eyes.
This fascinating history evolves into a weakness, however, as the novel becomes more a lengthy travelogue than a continuation of the strong storyline Newman had racing from the get-go. The facts smother the mojo. Nursing-home humor veers toward devaluing older adults. Story threads dangle. The manuscript needed polishing.
Yet the past is definitely important to the plot, because it juxtaposes fictional incidents against actual events to create metaphors. Consider the old saying: “Run with the hogs and they will rub dirt on you.” Gene’s BMW motorcycle could be termed a “hog,” even though it’s not a Harley. Bodies eaten by hogs represent dying small towns consumed by casinos, since crime syndicates hog both land and profits. Newman presents a significant viewpoint that’s fun to read, with poignant closure at the end.
There’s some really great writing here, reminiscent of P. F. Kluge’s tales set in Micronesia—where, in fact, Newman is living right now. In his poetry and his fiction, this author makes use of his surroundings. Lagoons foster the imagination, and the Marshalls hold many stories worth telling if Richard Newman writes a second novel. I hope he does, for those islands are another graveyard of the gods.
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