Play nice, or burn the house down? A review of Little Fires Everywhere



To review, or not to review, that is the blogger’s question.

This blogger says yes–even when swamped with work (like I am right this minute) and with a novel revision tap, tap, tapping its impatient foot.

We must read well to write well, and writing a review helps me understand more fully what I’ve read–and understand what I’d like to mimic, and to avoid, in my own writing. Of course, I also hope my reviews help you decide what to read next. Because, life’s too short to read a meh or even a “nice” book.

In Mark Athitakis’s handy The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and the Rust Belt, the critic examines modern literature set in the Midwest. He argues that, while we writers and readers may have caught up with the place as it stands today–much of it post-agrarian, post-industrial–its reputation is stuck in the past. He quotes James R. Shortridge’s take on the Midwestern character of the 1800s:

“People there were seen as self-reliant and independent, kind, open, and thrifty…idealist, moral, and humble.”

Many would argue Midwesterners are still much this way, in a word: nice. (Others have met me.) Ng complicates this notion of the nice Midwesterner as she examines the tension between the stereotypical ideal and the spontaneous real in Little Fires Everywhere, her second novel, a character-driven story with lightening-fast pacing–not an easy feat.

The setting pits the ordered (wealthy) suburban ideal against the inspired, artistic–and even a little dangerous–real. Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the (actual) place is described in the jacket copy, as “a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland,” where, “everything is planned–from the layout of the winding roads to the colors of the houses to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead.”

Ng does a good job of setting this story against the larger, chaotic backdrop of America in the 90s–replete with pop culture, a la Jerry Springer on TV, Sir Mix-a-Lot on the radio, and the Bill Clinton and Monica scandal everywhere. Zoom in on Shaker Heights, however, and there are the guiding principles that drive this planned city–with its invisible trash cans and neat tree lawns, its over-achieving public schools and college-bound school children. Here is order, a refuge from chaos…so long as one abides by the rules. And the first characters upon the scene, the Richardsons–Shaker Heights royalty if there were such a thing–do, to the utmost. They are surface-y, but nice. Nice marriage, nice house, nice kids, nice bank account.

Enter the rule breakers, a single mother and artist and her teenage daughter–and the plot is off and running.

I hate the term page-turner, but this story was on fire from the first page (sorry). However, the characterization left me a little cold. For the author to examine and complicate stereotypes means the reader must bear stereotypical characters–the type-A, uber-planner matriarch, the blonde popular girl, the handsome jock, the sulky black sheep–until their characters are rounded out as they experience plot twists and turns. So…I didn’t cry for these characters when I should have; I didn’t feel their pain, because I knew them back when they were flat.

That said, if family saga is your thing, this book might be for you. The theme of mother-love running through rang true and provided an interesting examination of motherhood from various angles: genetic, adoptive, private, public, legal.

I did miss a bit of play in the language. A little rule-bending there would have added levity to the heavy theme. Yes, much of mother-love is extreme highs and lows, joy and anguish, success and defeat. But there’s also a lot of play in the happy mediums: the everyday moments of acceptance, when you look into your child’s face and see your own, reflected and real. I wouldn’t trade that for a false ideal any day.

Favorite passages from Little Fires Everywhere:

Later, when Moody saw the finished photos, he thought at first that Pearl looked like a delicate fossil, something caught for millennia in the skeleton belly of a prehistoric beast. Then he thought she looked like an angel resting with her wings spread out behind her. And then, after a moment, she looked simply like a girl asleep in a lush green bed, waiting for her lover to lie down beside her.

The idea that someone might take a mother’s child away: it horrified her. It was as if someone had slid a blade into her and with one quick twist hollowed her out, leaving nothing inside but a cold rush of air.

When the baby was found, she had been undernourished…her ribs and the small bones of her spine had been visible under her skin, like a string of beads.

My rating:


Have you read Little Fires Everywhere? What did you think?

A couple more honest reviews, from:

The Washington Post

The Guardian










Name your bliss



Is it weird to mourn your mom on Valentine’s Day—with the holiday’s declarations of love, its overtures and SWAKs? This is love stuff, yes, but this is also word stuff.

In the dozen years since my mom left this life, I’ve become more fluent in the language of loss—and of life. Do not pity this post. I happily speak for me and her now, tell her stories to my kids who never knew her, keep her voice alive in mine.

This is mother-love, reborn, but it’s also language-love. Foreign at first and then familiar—even taken for granted—and all the more cherished when it’s gone.

Who among us writers doesn’t ascribe to “show don’t tell?” We illustrate and demonstrate; we craft a tactile scene. But let’s not forget to tell, while we have a voice to do it.

Did you see this coming?

Call your mom. (Or dad or kid or other love.)

Really, I can’t close without sharing some of the language I love most at the moment. If my mom were still alive, I would call her and read aloud this following passage. It’s from Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

In The New Midwest, author and critic Mark Athitakis says Campbell’s stories “operate as both reportage and intimate human portraiture.” It’s this combination of stark tale and depth of character that draws me to Campbell’s work. But a well-turned phrase certainly doesn’t hurt. Try this on for size, this Valentine’s Day:

From Campbell’s story, “My Bliss”:

First I married the breakfast cereal in its small cardboard chapel, wax-coated, into which I poured milk. Then I married a cigarette, for the gauzy way the air hung around us when we were together, then a stone, because I thought he was a brick or a block, something I could use to build a home.

From my home to yours, wishing you a Happy Valentine’s, a Good Lent, and bliss in love and language, every day.

a bit of writerly advice


One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.

Hart Crane

Where I am, we’re soaked in more than words today (flood watches and warnings galore), and I’m happy for sump pumps and hopeful for drier weather, tomorrow.

As for the world of words, I abide by Crane’s advice to flood oneself with words–but I didn’t always. It used to be, I was careful to read one book at a time, careful that it not remind me too closely of the one-and-only-one WIP I was drafting, revising, or editing. These days, I’m not so careful. I’m usually reading three or more books at a time: one craft, one novel, one story collection. I’m usually working on my novel manuscript and a short story concurrently. And, of course, brainstorming the next blog post.

And this doesn’t include the research, reading, and writing I do for a living–for universities and health systems. It used to be I kept this work separate in my mind from the “creative.” But, words are words–and being awash in words of all kinds seems to help this writer pull “the right ones” out when needed (mostly, kinda).

What about you? How best do you write? Any tips you can share?


For the love of…dog

Papa Hemingway and one of his muses cats.*

Cats get a lot of love in the literary world–and not just in my writer-filled Facebook feed.

Last month, the The Guardian posted a creative writing Top Ten that went viral: “Buy a cat, stay up late, don’t drink: top 10 writers’ tips on writing.” (Two out of three ain’t bad, Hemingway.)

No. 10 on the list: get a cat, from writer Muriel Spark (or, a character of hers, anyway) who says:

If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially on some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat.

Amen, says this writer, who admires the clean and aloof companionship provided by a cat. One better: I could do more than acquire a cat (or cats, as I have in the past); I could steep myself in the literature of cats, of which there is plenty. Here, from bibliophile blogger Bookish Beck, would be a good place to start.

Instead, I must delve into the world of dog. Why?

Because, people, I am about to be overthrown. Yes, this cat-lover is on the cusp of acquiring a dog.

And so, at a time when other people might be researching breeds or stocking up on carpet cleaner or dog chow… When others might be drawing up a contract to divvy the responsibilities between one Rust Belt Girl and the men with whom she shares a household–one regular and two pint-sized… I’m doing what I’ve always done to confront a problem.

Stare it down? Address it head on? (Have we met?)

I read around it.

D-O-G. Sounds simple enough, right? Feeding, caring, sheltering. I mean, I have done this before. As a kid, my family in Ohio had a beagle mix named Anne (after my best friend–sorry, friend). But Anne was an “outside dog” with a dog house. Before you start to worry, yes, she was allowed in the house on snowy days and nights. But no one would have thought for a second to let her onto the couch much less into a bed.

However, my current cohabitants don’t want an outside dog; they want a new member of the family. And a puppy at that.

And so…I delve into the literary world of the dog, which, I have to say is much more playful than that of the cat. Not better, just very different.

There’s a lot of outside–away from writing implements–that happens with dogs in print (and on screen). Here on WordPress, one blogger finds her faith strengthened on hikes with her dog, Belle, a Border Collie mix. Another blogger, at Poppy Walks the Dog, does just that with his Japanese Chin, Mimsy. Meet her here.

Poppy provides the upside to the supposed downside of severing oneself from the current WIP (chapters 1 and 2 revised, only 16 more to go, if you’re following), poop bag in hand to walk around the block:

Ambling yields the real benefit to these walks. Time. Time to think. Time to contemplate the news and social media that I left behind in the house. Time to remember and reflect on friends and family.

Time. Remember that thing? Could it be that I might find more time–more head space to create–by acquiring and walking a dog?

The reflecting on family part sounds especially intriguing. After all, this dog will be a joint responsibility, right? Right?

And so the reading around the dog question hasn’t stopped with me. Together, my boys and I listened to and loved the audio version of One Dog and His Boy, a “canine classic,” according to this review.

And then, in the middle of my reading of Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s latest story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, I met Roscoe, a stray dog who arrives at the home of a pregnant woman who decides to take him in:

…here was a living, breathing creature who needed me now, and in my fifth month, maybe my hormones were talking, too.

Or maybe those hormones were screaming, as the pregnant protagonist comes to believe that Roscoe is her late, handsome, philandering fiance, Oscar, come back to life as a twenty-pound mutt. The story is a wonder of intelligence and, well, wonder: mystery.

So, that’s where I am in my literary dog journey preceding my actual dog journey. Can’t say I’m not a planner–if only in (literary) theory.

Do you have a cat muse? A dog muse? Help a girl out here. I need advice.

Closing with the literary cliche that isn’t: a boy (mine) and a dog (neighbor’s). Stay tuned… ~ Rebecca



*Hemingway photo courtesy of

The Dark Side of Amazon’s Job Creation

Columbus, Ohio, the state’s capital, is still in the running among the cities being considered for Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2). Is this necessarily a good thing?


Amazon’s announcement that it would invest $5 billion and create 50,000 jobs in the location where they choose to build their second headquarters set off intense competition among cities hoping to lure the e-commerce giant. But Alana Semuels reminds us in The Atlantic that cities desperate for jobs have welcomed Amazon before in the form of warehouse work at distribution centers. These jobs have typically started at $12 an hour and are so grueling that very few workers “make it to two years of continuous service.” Despite this, locals say any job is better than no job, but the adverse effects of low-paid, high turnover work on a depressed city have been clear:

San Bernardino is just one of the many communities across the country grappling with the same question: Is any new job a good job? These places, often located in the outskirts of major cities, have lost retail…

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a bit of writerly advice


This is my advice:

Think of yourself as a worker.

Show up at the job.


–novelist, memoirist, essayist, and craft book writer Sandra Scofield

Still working through Scofield’s The Scene Book to help me revise my WIP, a behemoth historical novel manuscript.

And work is just what it is. Okay, some days are better than others–the synapses firing at a clip. Sometimes it feels like crafting; once in a while it even feels like making art.

For me, mindset matters. Work demands discipline; I’m responsible to it. No one calls in late for work with excuses like, the muse didn’t speak to me or the mood wasn’t right.

Later today, much of the U.S. will watch two teams of men go to work. We call it play, but my guess is they don’t.

Tomorrow, muse or not, mood or not, it’s back to work…


Liebster Award 2018




My Rust Belt Girl followers have heard me say before that I don’t win stuff: raffles, bingo, cake walks. Luck eludes me.

Maybe my luck is changing—because I have been nominated for the Liebster Award by Undertones, and I am so thankful. You’re going to want to follow Undertones (if you aren’t already) for its creative exploration of passions, thoughts, and opinions—expertly wrought. Essays. Short fiction. Trust me, this girl can write!

So, I’m happy to support the WordPress community by both taking part in this exercise and passing on the Liebster Award love!

My answers to the questions put forth as part of the nomination process. (Fun to write–and fun to read, I hope!)

What motivated you to start your blog?

When I started Rust Belt Girl, I saw blogging as an avenue to explore the fiction set in my native Rust Belt, the post-industrial U.S. Midwest. I love fiction. But blogging has also provided me a forum for exploration of other genres—the memoir, in particular—and helped me develop my voice as an essay writer. It’s also provided a supportive community of talented writers, who inspire me to keep plugging away, even on the days I don’t feel at all lucky.

What inspires you most to write?

A little backstory: Unlike a lot of writers, I didn’t grow up writing many stories. (I do remember writing a pretty kick-a*# song about losing my purse, in middle school.) My creative outlet—an all-consuming one—was ballet, an art form that I gave myself to until I was 19. After I quit dancing, I went looking for another outlet. As a freshman in college, I took a Performance Art elective, for which I bathed in mud in an academic building tree planter and flossed my teeth from a balcony overlooking my classmates. Performance Art didn’t stick, but the creative drive did.

I’d always been a good writer in school, so I started taking more Creative Writing courses in college and eventually landed on fiction. My inspiration is one part passion and one part obsession. The famous ballet choreographer George Balanchine famously said, “I don’t want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance.” I feel like I have to write—for myself. Heck, there’s little else I can do! And, really, if I didn’t write, how would I spend my time? Getting in shape? Hardly.

In a few words, how would you describe your blog and/or your style of writing?

I’ve stayed pretty true to my initial idea to read and write the Rust Belt on this blog: News, reviews, and stories of the Rust Belt. There, that’s a few-ish words.

Who is your favorite author and why?

This changes, but at the moment, I’ll say Bonnie Jo Campbell. She is the queen of the short story and her novel is also a perfect little gem. Basically, Campbell is the writer I want to be when I grow up!

Apart from writing, what is your preferred creative outlet (i.e. painting, drawing, playing an instrument) and why?

I love to sing—in church, in the car. Much to my kids’ embarrassment, I have no shame. If it’s classical music, and there are no words, I’ll pretend to be the conductor. As I’m from the Midwest (and have a fairly strong accent) my speaking voice is less than pretty. I do think I’m less nasally when singing—so I should probably sing more and talk less! I often tell my kids that in my next life I plan to be an opera singer. Stay tuned.

Who is your favorite artist?

I love Edward Hopper for his art (featuring regular ol’ places and people, and such light!) and for his story. An illustrator first, he had success with his own work later in life. It’s never too late, right?

How do you deal with writers block?

Someone smarter than I said, “have kids, and you’ll never have writer’s block again.” There’s a lot of truth in that. But, it does happen that I get stumped as far as the next move for a character in a story, etc. Taking a quiet walk—just getting up from my writing desk—can help unblock things. I also have a tip here to both “kill your darlings” and find inspiration when you need it.

Do you think good writers are born or made, and why?

Both. Most writers likely have a natural talent for language. But you can’t stop there. Craft must be practiced and practiced. I’ve been doing a bit of writerly advice on the blog lately, and much of it comes down to putting your butt in the chair and writing. And also reading the sorts of things you want to be writing.

If you could change something about the way you practice this craft, what would it be?

36-hour days. Can we somehow make this happen, already? But, really, I would have spent more time on short stories—which teach so much in a manageable space—as a young writer before trying my hand at a novel, the behemoth I’m still revising.

If you were to describe yourself in one word, what would it be?


As part of the award, I’ll be nominating five more bloggers. For those who will be nominated next, the rules are as follows:

  • Create a new post thanking the person who nominated you, linking to their blog. Include the award graphic.
  • Answer the questions provided.
  • Make a new set of 10 questions for your nominees to answer.
  • Nominate 5-10 recently followed bloggers and share your post with them so they see it.

My questions for you are:

  1. What motivated you to start your blog?
  2. How would you describe your blog?
  3. Has your blog changed its focus since its inception?
  4. Has blogging informed other writing that you do? If so, how?
  5. When did you start writing, and why?
  6. What sort of books do you most enjoy reading?
  7. Who is your favorite author?
  8. Do you have any other creative outlets other than writing?
  9. If you were to change something about yourself as a writer, what would it be?
  10. How would you complete this sentence? I will write until _______.

My nominees for the Liebster Award are:

With Love and a Little Self-Deprecation

malakhai jonezs


The Story Addict

Miles of Pages

All of the above are bloggers whose work I read. I encourage you to do the same! ~ Rebecca



A Toxic Tour Through Underground Ohio

What a waste…Re-blogging this story on injection wells in my native Ohio. ~ Rebecca


Justin Nobel | Longreads | January 2018 | 14 minutes (3,538 words)

We begin with a glass of wine on the wraparound porch of Michele Garman, who lives with her husband Tom and teenage son Dominic in the rural Ohio community of Vienna. Just 200 feet from the family’s house is a narrow shaft that the oil and gas industry uses to pump waste riddled with toxic chemicals deep into the earth, one of Ohio’s 217 active Class II injection wells. “I still enjoy sitting out on my porch,” says Garman, “but it was a lot more enjoyable before the scenery changed.”

The small white and maroon trucks that deliver the waste often come at night, she says. They contain what regulatory agencies innocently refer to as produced water, or brine, a slurry generated during fracking operations that can contain more than 1,100 chemicals and which is carcinogenic, flammable…

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Kill your inklings


I’m playing fast and loose with the English language today, redefining inkling as: a little inking, or a bit of writing, a literary snippet, if you will. This post is in response to today’s Daily Prompt: Inkling.

Rust Belt Girl followers know where I am in my journey toward traditional book publishing. Rather than call myself stalled in editing, I’d like to say I’m at a rest stop along the journey–one of those rest stops with a fabulous overlook. Only, I’m not looking out onto rolling farmland or a lake vista. I’m looking over my WIP (a historical novel manuscript) and trying to do more than edit. I’m trying to genuinely revise–or re-see–my story.

This requires brutality.

This requires killing my inklings, my snippets of lovely language that don’t move the story forward, that don’t evolve the characters, that maybe draw too much attention to themselves.

Today’s dead inkling:

Pregnancy had meant an intense inversion, feeling sensations from the inside—hosting, feeding, growing this glorious parasite.

In the days of printing out drafts–huge reams of paper–I would actually snip this snippet and put it in a jar I have for such things. Then, if I felt blocked or needed a prompt for a new story, I would select one and start from there. Today, my dead inklings wind up getting lost in my Mac world.

William Faulkner is credited for “kill your darlings,” and there’s been discussion about that phrase and other great writing advice here at WP this week.

But, now I’m getting down to it: slashing and burning.

What’s your favorite dead inkling?