Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Freebie: The Heart You Carry Home by Jennifer Miller

Congratulations to Thea Miller Ryan, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest, Wait for Signs: Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson.

This week, I’m giving away five copies of The Heart You Carry Home, the new novel by Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly. I was lucky enough to read an early advance copy of the book and called it “a powerhouse of a novel” that “captures the emotional minefield of veterans returning home from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan with vivid, engaging detail. This novel cuts right to the heart.” Now that reading pleasure will be yours when the novel officially hits bookstore and library shelves November 3. Read on for more information about The Heart You Carry Home...

Becca Keller is no stranger to the way war can change a man. Her Vietnam vet father, King, has been more out of her life than in. Her mother boycotts her wedding because Becca is making the same mistakes she did—yoking herself to a man just back from battle. And Ben is different after his second tour. Within days of the wedding he turns dangerous, and Becca runs to the only person she has left. King, though, is heading West with his motorcycle buddies, out to a place they call Kleos. A mysterious desert compound ruled over by a guru-like commanding officer, it is a refuge for some soldiers, but might be the death of others. There, Becca will be faced with the possibility that she may not know the real damage in her loved ones’ hearts. In finally seeing her father’s demons, she might just be able to start with her husband on their own journey back to peace. The Heart You Carry Home lays bare the violence soldiers bring home, as one woman fights for the men in her life who have been scarred by different wars in disturbingly similar ways. It “combines great storytelling with social questions that are both as current and as old as war” (Karl Marlantes). And it mines the trials of generations of American families to find hope for the next.

Bonus! Along with the book, the publisher will also include a special reader’s kit which includes a discussion guide, recipe cards, and tattoos.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Heart You Carry Home, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. One entry per person, please. This contest is limited to those with mailing addresses in the U.S. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 5, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 6. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Vintage Chills: The Big Halloween Read

Every now and then I like books to put some ice in my veins. What better time than October to turn to something weird, scary and uncanny? This year’s Halloween-themed reading centers around three books: American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940’s to Now, the Library of America anthology edited by Peter Straub; Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories by Charles Beaumont; and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I’ve finished Hill House and am still working on the other two. There are definitely some ice cubes clinking through my bloodstream.

Brief Biblical Aside:
Earlier this year, I decided to read the Bible, start to finish, by taking a chapter per day. (Aside to this aside: when I was 12, my father--a Baptist minister--said he would pay me to read the Old and New Testaments; I think the wages of un-sin were $35; I made it as far as Nehemiah before giving up; my father declined to pro-rate the payment.) At this rate, I’ll probably reach Revelation sometime in 2018 (I’m also reading the books of the Apocrypha). This month, I’ve been making my way through Leviticus and, buried amongst all the law-giving and commandments handed down to Aaron and his sons the priests, I found what I could properly call a one-sentence ghost story. The Lord is cautioning that those who “walk contrary to Him” will fall victim to a variety of Really Bad Things like plague, impotence, desolation, cities laid to waste, etc. Then, in Leviticus 26:36, He says: “And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies, and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them, and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword: and they shall fall when none pursueth.” I’m thinking of writing a horror story with the title “The Terror of Falling Leaves.”

Leaving the Pentateuch, I turn to the other terrible delights I have in front of me...

*     *     *

Let’s begin with American Fantastic Tales which presents 42 short stories (a couple of them border on novella length) that take us into the heart of darkness, American-literature style. Not all of them are full-on scary; some just make you think, “Well, that was weird” (and not in a good-weird sort of way). But overall, I’ve enjoyed my journey through the book (as of this writing, I’ve made it as far as the Stephen King story “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French”).

The first volume in the Library of America American Fantastic Tales duo tracks “terror and the uncanny” from “From Poe to the Pulps.” I’m saving that book for a future Halloween. I decided to go with the “from the 1940s to Now” collection because I’ve been immersed in classic literature lately and I wanted to read something a little more modern. This second volume of the set is heavily lopsided in favor of 21st-century stories—which I’m just approaching—but the earlier 20th-century freak-a-deak stuff is pretty good in and of itself. Some of the standouts for me have been:

“Mr. Lupescu” by Anthony Boucher from 1945, which is an exercise in appearances-are-deceiving literature. I did not see that one coming.

“Miriam” by Truman Capote (also from 1945), which is a damn fine ghost story, but one where I also reveled in Capote’s lush way with the language. A couple of examples:
Now Second Avenue is a dismal street, made from scraps and ends; part cobblestone, part asphalt, part cement; and its atmosphere of desertion is permanent.
And, three paragraphs later…
Within the last hour the weather had turned cold again; like blurred lenses, winter clouds cast a shade over the sun, and the skeleton of an early dusk colored the sky; a damp mist mixed with the wind and the voices of a few children who romped high on mountains of gutter snow seemed lonely and cheerless.
Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Daemon Lover” from 1949, which spirals the reader into that state of uncertainty—is this real or a dream?—from the very first sentence: “She had not slept well; from one-thirty, when Jamie left and she went lingeringly to bed, until seven, when she had last allowed herself to get up and make coffee, she had slept fitfully, stirring awake to open her eyes and look into the half-darkness, remembering over and over, slipping again into a feverish dream.” I love how Jackson makes that adverb “lingeringly” really pop out of the sentence.

Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (which gets my vote for Best Damn Title EVER) from 1967, a futuristic computers-run-amok story which can basically be summed up as “What if Steve Jobs had a nightmare and you were in it?”

“Prey” by Richard Matheson from 1969 which convinces me to never ever ever buy a doll which looks like this: “Seven inches long and carved from wood, it had a skeletal body and an oversized head. Its expression was maniacally fierce, its pointed teeth completely bared, its glaring eyes protuberant. It clutched an eight-inch spear in its right hand.” Beware of gifts which come accessorized with razor-sharp spears.

“The Events at Poroth Farm” by T. E. D. Klein from 1972, which at nearly 50 pages is one of the longest in the collection, but certainly one of the most chilling so far. It’s the story of Jeremy, a college lecturer in his late 20s, who rents a room in a house outside of Gilead, New Jersey with the idea that he can do some uninterrupted rural reading for his next semester’s course, a survey of Gothic horror literature. The couple who rents him his reading space, Sarr and Deborah Poroth, are part of a small religious sect and even though they seem a little off, they’re polite enough. They live the simple life—just them and their seven cats. All seems bucolic and pastoral…at first. But then something invades Eden and things tilt toward the truly frightening. Let’s just say that the large insects aggressively attacking Jeremy’s window screen are the mildest of these horrors. Let me also add that “The Events at Poroth Farm” contains what may be the single-most scary sentence in all of these 713 pages: “Sometimes we forget to blink.”

“Family” by Joyce Carol Oates, first published in 1989, which is a completely fucked-up, squirm-inducing, alert-the-gag-reflex beauty of a story about the horrors of environmental poisoning. It’s also a wicked satire about our ever-changing family values which may be headed down a dangerous road. There are some horrible images in “Family” (for example: a baby with “its tiny recessed eyes, its mere holes for nostrils, above all its small pursed mouth set like a manta ray’s in its shallow face”), but I do love the way the story opens:
The days were brief and attenuated and the season appeared to be fixed—neither summer nor winter, spring nor fall. A thermal haze of inexpressible sweetness, though bearing tiny bits of grit or mica, had eased into the Valley from the industrial region to the north and there were nights when the sun set at the western horizon as if it were sinking through a porous red mass, and there were days when a hard-glaring moon like bone remained fixed in a single position, prominent in the sky.

And Straub’s own “A Short Guide to the City” from 1990, which reads like a Chamber of Commerce brochure that took a wrong turn on Scary Street. Straub sends a narrative camera roving across this unnamed Midwestern city (“northern, with violent changes of season”) where “the viaduct killer” is still at large.

Still ahead for me in the anthology: stories by George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Joe Hill, Steven Millhauser, Brian Evenson, Kelly Link and Benjamin Percy all lie in wait in the shadows, ready with a clawed hand to grab and yank me into the pages.

*     *     *

Imagine, if you will, an ordinary book, written by an ordinary man. The book is a door and you unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

Everyone knows the name Rod Serling, creator and host of The Twilight Zone; everyone can recite the TV series’ opening narration (which I burgled for the preceding paragraph); everyone knows the twists, the ironic reveals, the rips in the fabric, the wrinkles of the mind.

But not everyone knows that many of the greatest Twilight Zone episodes came from the three-dimensional imagination of a writer named Charles Beaumont.

The astute Twilight Zone fan will recognize Beaumont’s whirly-gig mind at work in several episodes he wrote: Perchance to Dream, The Howling Man, In His Image, and Number 12 Looks Just Like You among them.

A prolific writer who flourished in the 1950s (and who died far too young at age 38), Beaumont was part of a sort of Weird Tales Algonquin Round Table whose other members included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. As Bradbury writes in his introduction to the new Penguin Classics collection of Beaumont’s short fiction, Perchance to Dream: “He was, and remains in his work today, a writer of ideas, notions, fancies. You can tell his ideas to your friends in a few crisp lines.”

Plot capsules like: minutes before stepping into the ring, a bullfighter learns he’s been set up for failure; in a world of cookie-cutter beauty, a young girl refuses to get the operation that will "improve" her looks; a happily-married man has an affair…with a car; a vampire complains to his psychiatrist about hard it is to get bloodstains out of his shirts (“It isn’t like eating a bowl of tomato soup, you know”); and, a man invents a time machine in order to go back and kill his father…but won’t that mean his own suicide? Think about that one for a minute.

Though they’re far from perfect, Beaumont’s stories do make readers think. As Bradbury notes: “Every single one of these stories is the fox in the hen yard, stirring up a cackle and flurry of ideas among those students fortunate enough to read and react to them.” These tales wear the veneer of pulp, but they can be deep, too: “If a person died and remained dead for an hour and were then revived, would he be haunted by his own ghost?” a character wonders in “Last Rites.”

Charles Beaumont
Beaumont doesn’t employ a lot of pyrotechnics at the sentence level—in fact, most of the prose here is fairly pedestrian, though there’s no denying the sharp blade of the opening line of the story “Last Rites” which goes: “Somewhere in the church a baby was shrieking;” or “Sorcerer’s Moon” which comes at us like this:
When he heard the screams, Carnaday stopped walking. A fist closed about his heart. He stood perfectly still, waiting, knowing that the end had come and that he had lost.
But mostly, as Bradbury points out, Charles Beaumont was an Idea Man, a mechanic who opened up the back panel of a story and tinkered with the cogs until the machine hummed along, free of clunks and sputters.

His finest moment in Perchance to Dream might just be the frisson-inducing “Fritzchen” in which Mr. Peldo, a sort of exotic-animal agent for pet shops, comes across a creature his son Luther has found along a muddy riverbank. Beaumont never gives us a full-on look at this animal, dubbed “Fritzchen” by the boy, but the lightning-quick, sidelong glances are terrifying enough. To wit:
Mr. Peldo watched the small creature, fascinated, as all its legs commenced to move together, dwarfed, undeveloped legs, burrowing into the viscous ground.
Luther put his face up to the cage, and as he did so the small animal came forward, ponderously, with suctionlike noises from its many legs.
Fritzchen must be sleeping. Curled like a baby anaconda, legs slender filaments adhering to the cage floor, the tender tiny tail tucked around so that the tip rested just inside the immense mouth.
When Mr. Peldo asks a pet shop owner what kind of an animal he thinks it might be, that man replies, “Cross between a whale and a horsefly, near’s I can see.”

Most ominously, when Mr. Peldo first brings Fritzchen into the pet store, here’s what happens:
The silence roared. The silent pet shop roared and burst and pulsed with tension, quiet electric tension. The animals didn't move anywhere in the room. Mr. Peldo's eyes darted from cage to cage, seeing the second strangest thing he had ever seen: unmoving snakes, coiled or supine, but still, as though listening; monkeys hidden in far corners, haunched; rabbits—even their noses quiet and frozen—; white mice huddled at the bottom of mills that turned in cautious, diminishing arcs, frightened, staring creatures.
And the ending? Oh, man. Let’s just say that it’s even more chilling than the suctioning suck of a many-legged creature making its way up your leg.

*     *     *

And then we come to the house.

There’s no fussy dilly-dally in the way The Haunting of Hill House opens. Shirley Jackson lays it all out for us in the renowned first paragraph of the 1959 novel:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
(This paragraph is so intense and perfect, Jackson broke writerly custom and used it, verbatim, as the novel’s closing as well.)

No, this house is not sane. It’s downright cray-cray and, like some supernatural virus, it infects all who walk through its front door. For the purposes of this particular chapter in the house’s history, that means Dr. Montague, an occult scholar who rents Hill House for three months, hoping to “see what happened there;” the enthusiastic Theodora who accepts Dr. Montague’s invitation out of curiosity; Luke Sanderson, a liar and a thief, who also happens to be an heir to the family that built the house; and Eleanor Vance, thirty-two years old, friendless, shy, unhappy and the character with whom we most readily associate.

As Laura Miller writes in her Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel:
She is a complicated and distinctive individual, peculiar even, although not so peculiar that she fails to engage the reader’s sympathy. We experience the novel from within Eleanor’s consciousness, and however unreliable we know her to be, we are wedded to her. When the house infiltrates her psyche, the reader, so thoroughly bound up in her, is also invaded. When the ground pitches and ripples beneath her feet, we are unsteadied, too.
(In the 1963 movie version directed by Robert Wise, Eleanor was played to perfection by Julie Harris.)

Julie Harris in The Haunting
Our first inkling that Eleanor is special comes when Jackson introduces her to us on page 4. Dr. Montague has selected Eleanor to join the haunted-house party “because one day, when she was twelve years old and her sister was eighteen, and their father had been dead for not quite a month, showers of stones had fallen on their house, without any warning or indication of purpose or reason, dropping from the ceilings, rolling loudly down the walls, breaking windows and pattering maddeningly on the roof.” The stone rain stops after three days, never to return...but it is a weird part of Eleanor’s life we won’t easily forget.

The stage has been set: Jackson wants us to know that Eleanor Vance, shy and mousy as she might appear, is a conductor of unnatural phenomena. When she arrives at Hill House, it feels like the mansion has been waiting for her with bated breath. Eleanor, on the other hand, has this first impression of the place: “Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.” But of course she doesn’t.

Hey, lady, you should have listened to your Inner Eleanor. Bad things are about to happen.

Shirley Jackson
Before we reach the estate, Jackson lays the groundwork with some short chapters which show the various characters in their pre-House lives—in particular, Eleanor as she leaves a domestic scene where she’s been living under the thumb of her sister and brother-in-law for far too long. Once she shakes off the burden of her family, Eleanor also seems to be dislodged—at least momentarily—from repression. I love the way Jackson describes Eleanor’s journey, throwing up all sorts of premonition and DANGER! BEWARE! signposts along the way. Here’s just one instance of how Jackson subtly uses language to its full effect. Dr. Montague has warned her not to stop in the neighboring village of Hillsdale (“The people there are rude to strangers and openly hostile to anyone inquiring about Hill House”), but Eleanor uncharacteristically decides to defy him just this once and stop for a cup of coffee before continuing on to her destination:
Hillsdale was upon her before she knew it, a tangled, disorderly mess of dirty houses and crooked streets. It was small; once she had come onto the main street she could see the corner at the end with the gas station and the church. There seemed to be only one place to stop for coffee, and that was an unattractive diner, but Eleanor was bound to stop in Hillsdale and so she brought her car to the broken curb in front of the diner and got out. After a minute’s thought, with a silent nod to Hillsdale, she locked the car, mindful of her suitcase on the floor and the carton on the back seat. I will not spend long in Hillsdale, she thought, looking up and down the street, which managed, even in the sunlight, to be dark and ugly. A dog slept uneasily in the shade against a wall, a woman stood in a doorway across the street and looked at Eleanor, and two young boys lounged against a fence, elaborately silent. Eleanor, who was afraid of strange dogs and jeering women and young hoodlums, went quickly into the diner, clutching her pocketbook and her car keys. Inside, she found a counter with a chinless, tired girl behind it, and a man sitting at the end eating. She wondered briefly how hungry he must have been to come in here at all, when she looked at the gray counter and the smeared glass bowl over a plate of doughnuts. “Coffee,” she said to the girl behind the counter, and the girl turned wearily and tumbled down a cup from the piles on the shelves…
Just look at all the ominous signifiers populating this paragraph: “a tangled, disorderly mess of dirty houses and crooked streets,” “an unattractive diner,” “the broken curb,” “the street, which managed, even in the sunlight, to be dark and ugly,” the dog who sleeps “uneasily,” “the gray counter and the smeared glass bowl over a plate of doughnuts,” and how “the girl turned wearily and tumbled down a cup.” This is the equivalent of a dark note pulsing from an organ on the soundtrack.

Many readers call The Haunting of Hill House the scariest book they ever read. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to claim that for myself (my first reading of Salem’s Lot was a pretty sharp icicle-stab to the heart), but there are at least two moments in these pages which put the pucker in my goosebumps.

One is the relentless, loud knocking which wakes Eleanor and Theodora in the middle of the night:
     It sounded, Eleanor thought, like a hollow noise, a hollow bang, as though something were hitting the doors with an iron kettle, or an iron bar, or an iron glove. It pounded regularly for a minute, and then suddenly more softly, and then again in a quick flurry, seeming to be going methodically from door to door at the end of the hall. Distantly she thought she could hear the voices of Luke and the doctor, calling from somewhere below, and she thought, Then they are not up here with us at all, and heard the iron crashing against what must have been a door very close.
     “Maybe it will go on down the other side of the hall,” Theodora whispered, and Eleanor thought that the oddest part of this indescribable experience was that Theodora should be having it too. “No,” Theodora said, and they heard the crash against the door across the hall. It was louder, it was deafening, it struck against the door next to them (did it move back and forth across the hall? did it go on feet along the carpet? did it lift a hand to the door?), and Eleanor threw herself away from the bed and ran to hold her hands against the door. “Go away,” she shouted wildly. “Go away, go away!”
     There was complete silence, and Eleanor thought, standing with her face against the door, Now I’ve done it; it was looking for the room with someone inside. The cold crept and pinched at them, filling and overflowing the room.
Reading this chapter, I could practically feel the sonic WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Jackson describes.

This place gives even that nice little family home in Amityville a run for its money. Also bear in mind, at the font level, Hill House has only three short horizontal lines separating it from Hell House.

The other unforgettable scene, which I’ll not spoil for those who have yet to read the book, also concerns an awakening in the middle of the night and Eleanor’s chilling gasp of “Whose hand was I holding?” If you’ve read the novel, you know the part I’m talking about.

In her Introduction, Laura Miller writes: “Most ghost stories offer a cozy armchair chill or two, but The Haunting of Hill House exudes a lingering, clammy dread.”

Truth. It’s been about three weeks since I turned the last page with shaking fingers and Hill House still floats like a cold fog around my feet. This is just about all the Halloween I can handle for one year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

The trailer for B. A. Shapiro’s novel, The Muralist, is a straightforward one: nothing too fancy or flashy, just a succinct narration by the author detailing how she came to write this new book (her previous book, The Art Forger, came out in 2012). But in cases like this, when there’s a fascinating story to be told, we don’t need an artsy-fartsy trailer to engage us. Shapiro’s story-behind-the-story is attention-getting all on its own: “When I sat down to write The Muralist, I knew I wanted to write about two things: art and the Depression. When you combine these two things, you come up with Roosevelt’s New Deal program, the WPA.” Shapiro goes on to tell us about how several famous painters came out of the Works Project Administration artists branch: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko among them. When the U.S. entered World War Two, the program was scrapped. “The WPA had paintings and sculptures and nothing to do with them,” Shapiro explains. “So they took them, put them in boxes, and left them on the street as trash.” When she heard about this, Shapiro’s fiction-writer radar went on full alert and she knew she had the start of a novel. You’ll have to watch the trailer to see how Shapiro weaves art, war and politics into the tapestry of her novel. And then, after you’ve seen the video, you'll want to read The Muralist to scrape off the layers of paint to uncover the mystery behind one painter’s disappearance. The novel, published by Algonquin Books, officially hits bookstores, libraries and e-readers on November 3.

Monday, October 26, 2015

My First Time: Norma Gail

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Norma Gail. Her debut contemporary Christian romance, Land of My Dreams, was released in April 2014. Her devotionals and poetry have appeared at the Stitches Thru Time blog,, and in “The Secret Place.” She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, FaithWriters, Romance Writers of America, and the New Mexico Christian Novelists. Norma is a former RN who lives in the mountains of New Mexico with her husband of 39 years. They have two adult children. Click here to visit her website.

My First Hard Critique

I cried. My first negative critique at a writer’s conference stung like a hornet and I rushed back to the room to pour out my sorrow to my husband. The acquisitions editor’s words seemed harsh and biting. Just prior to my meeting with the editor, I met with an author who was so enthusiastic that she offered to meet with me over lunch to share some helpful tips. That encounter helped me, but after the second experience, I wanted to run home.

Bucked up by my husband’s encouragement, I headed back to the main building for my third critique, this time quivering with trepidation. If I received another negative appraisal, I might as well go home. After all, I paid for these critiques. The least they could do was be constructive.

I took my place beside a freelance editor, my shaken confidence prepared to meet with discouragement. With the fragile ego of a fledgling author, I braced myself for the bad news.

Wonder of wonders, she had visited Scotland, and she loved my book. This editor thanked me for the opportunity to read my manuscript. She smiled and said that though there were many red marks, each problem was very fixable. The story intrigued her. I sighed with relief. Perhaps I was not a failure after all.

In spite of this encouragement, the earlier biting words of the other editor followed me throughout the day, nipping at my confidence, and overshadowing the two good opinions. I wondered why I bothered signing up for so many workshops. Each one further reinforced the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no business thinking I could write a novel.

Skipping the evening session, my husband and I walked around the grounds soaking in the calm and peaceful atmosphere of the mountains. He reminded me of the friends who gave of their time to read my first attempt at a novel. All five of them liked it. Didn’t that mean more than the opinion of one person? I countered by saying they were friends. They wouldn’t want to discourage me. They may have corrected grammar and punctuation, but they weren’t professionals.

I was too tired to lay awake worrying about the negative editor, but her words sounded in my head as I prepared for my second day. The critiques were over, but I was going to pitch my book to agents and editors and I had no idea what I was doing. I felt over-scheduled and overwhelmed with everything I tried to cram into that first conference experience. Choosing my outfit with care, I climbed into the shower, dreading my day. I allowed the one negative person to far outweigh the two positives.

A new thought occurred to me as the warm water worked on the knots in my shoulders. That editor hadn’t even known the correct genre of my manuscript. She had the setting right, but thought it involved time travel when my book was contemporary.

I compared the appearance of the three marked up manuscripts in my mind. Two had comments throughout. The negative one was mostly blank, either ignored because it was so bad, or perhaps unread. Maybe she hadn’t even read the complete manuscript. Maybe she just didn’t like my book. I don’t like every book I pick up. I could live with someone not liking it.

I called to my husband and told him my theory. While I did my hair, he looked over the three critiques. His opinion was the same. Two were thorough and positive. One was incomplete and negative. My outlook did a complete turn-around. Two out of three was not bad for my first try.

No one bought my manuscript at that first conference--understandable, considering what a newbie I was. I had so much to learn. I met other writers who were receiving similar responses. One said that particular editor was not the best choice for that genre, no matter what it said in the conference pamphlet.

A year later, I received a contract for that same book following my second writer’s conference. I can now see that the negative editor was correct in some of her criticisms. I did “head-hop.” I had too much telling and not enough showing. She is a professional and recognized the problems without reading the entire thing.

I still believe criticism should be constructive, but not everyone does that well.

I don’t relish the critique process, but I have learned to respect it, even when it is discouraging. Most editors want to see writers succeed. Whether they are good at encouraging writers or not, their comments are usually valid and necessary. Every critique is a chance to learn. An opportunity to learn can lead to growth as a writer. I’m willing to take the criticism in order to be the best I can be.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Sentence: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

My mind was a roiling tinkling chittering softness of brain parts that expanded and contracted in quivering frenzy.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison
from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940’s to Now, edited by Peter Straub

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday Freebie: Wait for Signs by Craig Johnson

Congratulations to Carole Mertz, Carol Obrochta, and Carl Scott, winners of last week's Friday Freebie contest: Dreams of the Red Phoenix by Virginia Pye.

This week's book giveaway is sure to appeal to fans of mysteries, Wyoming literature, short stories, and those who binge-watch Longmire on Netflix--or, all of the above. I have a new paperback copy of Wait for Signs: Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson to give away to one lucky reader. The collection comes with an introduction by Lou Diamond Phillips, one of the stars of Longmire. Read on for more information about the book...

Ten years ago, Craig Johnson wrote his first short story, the Hillerman Award–winning “Old Indian Trick.” This was one of the earliest appearances of the sheriff who would go on to star in Johnson’s bestselling, award-winning novels and the hit television series Longmire, now streaming on Netflix. Each Christmas Eve thereafter, fans rejoiced when Johnson sent out a new short story featuring an episode in Walt’s life that doesn’t appear in the novels; over the years, many have asked why they can’t buy the stories in book form. Wait for Signs gives Longmire fans a chance to own these beloved stories—and one that was published for the first time in the Viking edition—in a single volume. With glimpses of Walt’s past from the incident in “Ministerial Aide,” when the sheriff is mistaken for a deity, to the hilarious “Messenger,” where the majority of the action takes place in a Porta-Potty, Wait for Signs is a necessary addition to any Longmire fan’s shelf and a wonderful way to introduce new readers to the fictional world of Absaroka County, Wyoming.

If you’d like a chance at winning Wait for Signs, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 29, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 30.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ben Nadler’s Library: “Do you sleep on top of your books?”

Reader:  Ben Nadler
Location:  Brooklyn, NY
Collection size:  Five or six hundred books at any given time, plus about a hundred zines.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  My father’s Yiddish-English dictionary. It’s been in the family for a century, so I’d feel guilty if I was the one who lost it.
Favorite book from childhood:  Allen Ginsburg’s Collected Poems, 1947-1980. My mother kept it out on the table like it was the Bible. I dove deeper and deeper into it every year.
Guilty pleasure book:  Black Coffee Blues by Henry Rollins. This is a favorite from my angsty teenage punk years that I’ve never managed to outgrow.

During and after college, I worked as a used bookseller in New York. The man I worked with had two storage units, but his entire apartment and the hallways of the building he lived in were filled with used books as well. He had to climb over books to get into his door. After a couple years, my room in the apartment I shared with a college friend in Bushwick, Brooklyn started to look just as bad. Piles of books grew up all around me, loosely divided by category: books for my studies, books to read, books to sell, books to research the value of, books I’d acquired but hadn’t sorted through yet.

One night, a girl I’d been dating came home with me for the first time. The tall piles of books obscured my mattress on the floor. “Do you sleep on top of the books?” she asked.

For the past five years, I have lived in a cozy rent-stabilized apartment in central Brooklyn with my girlfriend, Oksana. When we first moved in, Oksana worked at a thrift store, where she oversaw the used book section. She began bringing home finds that were too good to pass up. Shortly after that we both entered graduate school and began acquiring academic books we needed for our work. I had never dropped my bookseller habit of scouring yard sales and the curb for gems, and between the two of us we read well over two-hundred books a year. Our apartment eventually started to look as bad as my old room in Bushwick. Once, when our apartment was burglarized, Oksana lamented, “Why couldn’t they have taken the books, too?”

Accordingly, our library system is less about organization than damage control. We view our books not as a collection of desired objects, but as a constant flood bearing down upon us.

We spend more time figuring out how to get rid of books than how to keep them. There is often a “to-sell” stack, which I divide up based on which used bookstore is more likely to buy a particular title. Useful history and reference books are donated to Books Through Bars, a group who provides books to prisoners. Noir and mystery novels are cycled to a couple aficionados I know. When I taught a zine workshop at the New School, I brought in a suitcase full of books for the students to cut up and make collages out of. I am loath to part with my collection of zines and chapbooks, as some of them could be one of the only, if not the only, copy of the title left in existence, though I hope to place them in a good research library one day.

Some books stick around just long enough to be read; I am currently working through a stack of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels. I got these for free from a neighbor in my building, and will pass them along as soon as I’m finished. Others stay on the shelves (or in stacks on the floor) for months or years before being pruned. Of course, there are some books we will never get rid of. A selection of religious books—including collections of Hassidic tales, and multiple translations of the Bible and the Quran—sit on an honored shelf in our bedroom. Favorite works of fiction, like The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino, are never sold off (unless I end up with multiple copies).

Reference books that might be used for the English classes I teach or for Oksana’s urban studies research are kept out of necessity. In the back room, I have a box containing a copy of every book my grandfather, a retired professor, published in his career. To be fair, he and my grandmother have copies of everything I’ve ever written on the shelf in their nursing home room.

Oksana and I also have a few rare or antique books we hold onto. One of these is an illustrated Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) primer that Oksana brought home from the thrift store. The book was published in Berlin in 1923. It survived a lot to make its way to our home.

Ben Nadler is the author of the novel The Sea Beach Line, now available from Fig Tree Books. Library Journal gave it a starred review, calling it “a mesmerizing narrative that will speak to any readers who have tried to make sense of their parents’ lives or the secrets that people keep.” His previous works include Punk in NYC's Lower East Side, 1981-1991 (Microcosm Publishing, 2014). Nadler earned a BA from Eugene Lang College of the New School and an MFA from the City College of New York/CUNY. He has taught at City College, Eugene Lang College, and The College of New Rochelle-School of New Resources in the South Bronx. A former Manhattan street vendor, he has also worked in bookstores across New York, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

What was it that Francis Bacon once said? “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” If so, then Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel by Zachary Thomas Dodson is a sumptuous feast--not just for the eyes, but for all the tactile senses. Featuring hand-drawn maps, natural history illustrations, subversive pamphlets, science-fictional diagrams, and a nineteenth-century novel-within-a-novel, Bats of the Republic is a book to have and to hold until death do us readers part. While the plot, a multi-century saga about war and civilization, sounds intriguing, it’s almost secondary to the visual delights of all this book’s hidden nooks and crannies. This is a book book which begs to be read in its “dead-tree” format. Bats of the Republic delivers a solid crotch-kick to e-readers everywhere and I, for one, applaud the work author, illustrator and designer Dodson has done here. The trailer is a good introduction to what waits for us between the covers; and here’s a photo showing the full spread of the feast:

Monday, October 19, 2015

My First Time: Susan Adrian

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Susan Adrian, author of Tunnel Vision, a Young Adult novel about a teenage boy with an extra-sensory superpower who ends up working as a spy for the U.S. government. Tunnel Vision easily provided some of the most fun I’ve had between book covers this year and I’m happy to learn that Susan—a fellow Butte, Montana author—is working on a sequel. Susan is a fourth-generation Californian who somehow stumbled into living in Montana. She danced in a ballet company and worked in the fields of exotic pet-sitting, clothes-schlepping, and bookstore management. She’s settled in, mostly, as a scientific editor. When she’s not with her family, she keeps busy researching crazy stuff, traveling, and writing more books.

My First Finished Book

I started writing my first book after having a particularly vivid dream.

I know that’s a cliché, but it’s completely true. I dreamt I was being held a prisoner in a medieval, white, oddly-shaped tower, by some sort of evil duke who sliced my arm open with a knife. It was so clear that I could feel the cut in the dream, feel the immense terror of that moment. When I woke up, I was so intrigued that I had to write that down.

I researched a little, wrote a scene, and then being the complete nerd and newbie that I was, I searched for a forum for writers and posted my first scene on the Compuserve Books & Writers Forum for feedback. A few people criticized it (I’m sure it was appalling). But then one of my writing heroes, Diana Gabaldon, commented that it actually wasn’t bad, and I should keep on with it.

And so another writer was born.

I wrote that book—The Murderess’s Tale—off and on, for four years. I wrote it during my pregnancy with my only child (I abruptly stopped writing for about two years when that child was born and I discovered what parenthood was really like). But I came back. I stayed on the Books & Writers Forum and learned how to write, how to research, and how to query. How to be a writer. I was writing it when I started going to the Surrey Writer’s Conference in Canada.

In the course of researching, I discovered the exact tower I had dreamt of—that oddly-shaped white tower—existed, exactly as I’d seen it in my dream. It was the family seat of the Duke of York. As I like to say, writing is magic.

I kept writing, and revising, and learning, and rewriting again. Then, in 2005, I finished a 90,000-word I-didn’t-know-it-was-YA novel based in 1387 England. I sucked in my breath and pitched it to an agent at Surrey, and she read the full manuscript…but didn’t sign me.

A good friend of mine, already published, told me at the time that was a good thing. Because if I’d knocked it out of the park on the first try, they all would’ve had to hate me. She was right, too. I wasn’t ready.

Diana Gabaldon referred me to her agent, who also read the manuscript but didn’t take it. I queried other agents, but I just couldn’t break through. Eventually I stopped trying, and wrote an actual Young Adult novel (now that I knew what I was doing), a contemporary fantasy. That book did end up getting me an agent. But it didn’t sell, nor did the next three. They kept piling up in the drawer, my lovely attempts.

At last, in 2012, I wrote a book that did sell. Tunnel Vision got me a different agent who specialized in children’s literature, and then finally that elusive book deal.

Tunnel Vision came out in January of this year. The sequel is in the works, and not too long ago I got to celebrate another sale, a middle-grade novel called Nutcracked to Random House for publication in 2017.

The Murderess’s Tale, that odd little quirky historical, will never be published—but I’m completely okay with that. I will always be so proud of it. Not because it’s publishable, or even good, but because it’s the one I tried. It’s the book I learned on, practicing plot and characterization and description and pacing. It was the one where I shared chapters with other writers, and saw for the first time what it was like to have someone else read something I made up. It’s also where I learned to fail. Where I found out that it’s not only okay to write a whole book that doesn’t get published…that it’s very often part of the process. It was necessary to write this book before I could write any others. It was necessary to write those others before I could write what I’m writing now. It was all growth and development—all part of who I am, and the stories I will continue to tell.

I bet some of you have first books out there that didn’t make it into the wide world, but they’re still vital to you, to your journey as a storyteller. And maybe some of you have first books in your head that have yet to come out. Work on them. Experiment. Play. Learn.

It isn’t bad, and you should keep on with it. You never know what might happen later.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Sentence: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Can’t anyone hear past the spleen to his bleeding heart?

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday Freebie: Dreams of the Red Phoenix by Virginia Pye

Congratulations to Olga Zilberbourg, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France by Bryan Hurt, Flings by Justin Taylor, and Press Start to Play, an anthology edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams.

This week, I am pleased to say I have three copies of Virginia Pye’s new novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, to give away to three lucky readers. You may have read Virginia’s wonderful essay here at The Quivering Pen earlier this week; now is the chance to read one of the books which came out of that period of patience and perseverance in her writing career. Read on for more information about Dreams of the Red Phoenix.

During the dangerous summer of 1937, a newly widowed American missionary finds herself and her teenage son caught up in the midst of a Japanese invasion of North China and the simultaneous rise of Communism. Meanwhile a charismatic Red Army officer requests her help and seems to have shared some surprising secret about her husband. Shirley must manage her grief even as she navigates between her desire to help the idealistic Chinese Reds fight the Japanese by serving as a nurse and the need to save both herself and her son by escaping the war-ravaged country before it’s too late. Taking her own grandmother's life as inspiration, Virginia Pye, author of the critically-acclaimed debut novel River of Dust, has written a stunning new novel of Americans in China on the cusp of World War II. Gish Jen had this to say about the book: “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking, Dreams of the Red Phoenix is powerfully evocative of the complexities of life in 1930's China. A real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.”

If you’d like a chance at winning Dreams of the Red Phoenix, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 22, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 23.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Front Porch Books: October 2015 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)--I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.  I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.  I’m just as excited as you are to dive into these pages.

Coal River
by Ellen Marie Wiseman
(Kensington Books)

Having grown up in Pennsylvania (born in Bloomsburg, moved to Kittanning at 4 years old), I have a personal interest in Ellen Marie Wiseman’s new novel. Just as I’m now surrounded by old copper-mining families here in Butte, Montana, I spent my early Keystone State years living in communities populated with people whose veins figuratively ran dark with coal dust. Coal River is set in 1912, 50 years before my birth, but it pulls me back to my own past as well.

Jacket Copy:  In this vibrant new historical novel, the acclaimed author of The Plum Tree and What She Left Behind explores one young woman’s determination to put an end to child labor in a Pennsylvania mining town. As a child, Emma Malloy left isolated Coal River, Pennsylvania, vowing never to return. Now, orphaned and penniless at nineteen, she accepts a train ticket from her aunt and uncle and travels back to the rough-hewn community. Treated like a servant by her relatives, Emma works for free in the company store. There, miners and their impoverished families must pay inflated prices for food, clothing, and tools, while those who owe money are turned away to starve. Most heartrending of all are the breaker boys Emma sees around the village--young children who toil all day sorting coal amid treacherous machinery. Their soot-stained faces remind Emma of the little brother she lost long ago, and she begins leaving stolen food on families’ doorsteps, and marking the miners’ bills as paid. Though Emma’s actions draw ire from the mine owner and police captain, they lead to an alliance with a charismatic miner who offers to help her expose the truth. And as the lines blur between what is legal and what is just, Emma must risk everything to follow her conscience.

Opening Lines:  On the last day of June, in the year when the rest of the world was reeling from the sinking of the Titanic, nineteen-year-old Emma Malloy was given two choices: get on the next train to Coal River, Pennsylvania, or be sent to a Brooklyn poorhouse.

My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things
by Joseph Skibell
(Algonguin Books)

“As a writer,” Joseph Skibell has said, “I feel about life the way the people of the Plains felt about the buffalo: I want to use every part of it.” Indeed, in his first work of non-fiction, a collection of personal essays, the novelist sucks the marrow from the bones of his own life and I’m as intrigued and mesmerized as someone watching the rope charmer pictured on the cover of My Father’s Guitar.

Jacket Copy:  Often comic, sometimes tender, profoundly truthful, the pleasure in these nonfiction pieces by award-winning novelist Joseph Skibell is discovering along with the author that catastrophes, fantasies, and delusions are what give sweetness and shape to our lives. In My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things, his first nonfiction work, he mines the events of his own life to create a captivating collection of personal essays, a suite of intimate stories that blurs the line between funny and poignant, and between the imaginary and the real. Often improbable, these stories are 100 percent true. Skibell misremembers the guitar his father promised him; together, he and a telemarketer dream of a better world; a major work of Holocaust art turns out to have been painted by his cousin. Woven together, the stories paint a complex portrait of a man and his family: a businessman father and an artistic son and the difficult love between them; complicated uncles, cousins, and sisters; a haunted house; and—of course—an imaginary guitar. Skibell’s novels have been praised as “startlingly original” (the Washington Post), “magical” (the New Yorker), and the work of “a gifted, committed imagination” (the New York Times). With his distinctive style, he has been referred to as “the bastard love child of Mark Twain, I. B. Singer, and Wes Anderson, left on a doorstep in Lubbock, Texas.”

Opening Lines:  It all started about five years ago when I received a call from a colleague of mine. We’d done a bit of work together, planning a new major for the college where we teach, and we’d been compensated for this work with a small bonus to our travel-and-research accounts. My colleague was calling to alert me to the fact – something he’d only then discovered – that if these funds weren’t spent by the end of that very day, they’d be forfeited and returned to the college.
      I gathered up all the work-related receipts I could find, but when I totaled them up, I still had $177 dollars left. And so I did the only thing I could think to do, the only reasonable thing a person in my situation could do. I went down to my local Guitar Center, and I flagged down a salesman. I told him I had $177 to spend before midnight that night, and I asked him if he’d be willing to part with a Martin Backpacker for precisely amount, tax and case included.
      The Martin Backpacker is a small broom-shaped guitar that’s light enough to be carried out into the woods on a backpacking trip, if you were so inclined. It’s also, according to the Martin catalog, the first guitar ever sent into outer space.

Blurbworthiness:  “Stories? These wise and humane offerings aren’t stories; they’re musical notes, from a master composer. And they swirl and swell and come together and echo one another to create a concerto of love and sadness and warmth and humor that will linger in your memory long after reading, as the best music always does.”  (Jeremy Dauber, author of The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem)

by Matt Gallagher
(Atria Books)

To say Matt Gallagher’s debut novel is “most-anticipated” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Like many servicemembers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan near the start of this century (along with others who had a vested interested in the desert wars), I first met Matt Gallagher through the blog he kept while deployed to Iraq. Pieces of those blog posts were later incorporated into his first book, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. That was in 2011. I’ve been eagerly anticipating his next book ever since, and what a joy to find it’s a work of fiction that, from all appearances, will be another great addition to my rapidly-growing war literature shelf.

Jacket Copy:  The U.S. military is preparing to withdraw from Iraq, and newly-minted lieutenant Jack Porter struggles to accept how it’s happening—through alliances with warlords who have Arab and American blood on their hands. Day after day, Jack tries to assert his leadership in the sweltering, dreary atmosphere of Ashuriyah. But his world is disrupted by the arrival of veteran Sergeant Daniel Chambers, whose aggressive style threatens to undermine the fragile peace that the troops have worked hard to establish. As Iraq plunges back into chaos and bloodshed and Chambers’s influence over the men grows stronger, Jack becomes obsessed with a strange, tragic tale of reckless love between a lost American soldier and Rana, a local sheikh’s daughter. In search of the truth and buoyed by the knowledge that what he finds may implicate Sergeant Chambers, Jack seeks answers from the enigmatic Rana, and soon their fates become intertwined. Determined to secure a better future for Rana and a legitimate and lasting peace for her country, Jack will defy American command, putting his own future in grave peril. Pulling readers into the captivating immediacy of a conflict that can shift from drudgery to devastation at any moment, Youngblood provides startling new dimension to both the moral complexity of war and its psychological toll.

Opening Lines:  It’s strange, trying to remember now. Not the war, though that’s all tangled up, too. I mean the other parts. The way sand pebbles nipped at our faces in the wind. How the mothers glared when we raided houses looking for their sons. The smell of farm animal waste and car exhaust blending together during patrols through town, rambling, aimless hours lost to the desert.

Blurbworthiness:  “Youngblood is not only a ‘war novel,’ it is a rich, fully formed, and beautifully executed novel-novel, way beyond the chicken coops of genre, a novel about the human heart in contest with itself, a novel about memory and longing and grief and hope and guilt and late-night ironies that raise a chuckle to the lips of the dead. Yes, the people and events in this fine novel are certainly ‘tangled up’ with war, as the author puts it on page one, but it is the same sort of entanglement that Lord Jim has with the ocean, or the sort of entanglement that Huck Finn has with the river.”  (Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried)

Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories
by Edward Hamlin
(University of Iowa Press)

I can always count on the Iowa Short Fiction Award to deliver some of the most engaging short stories to arrive on my doorstep each year. This new book by Edward Hamlin already has the front of my shirt bunched in its fist and is pulling me closer. I go willingly.

Jacket Copy:  Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories spans the globe, taking us from Belfast to Brazil, Morocco to Manhattan. The teenage daughter of an IRA assassin flees Northern Ireland only to end up in Baby Doc’s terrifying Haiti. An American woman who’s betrayed her brother only to lose him to a Taliban bullet comes face to face with her demons during a vacation in Morocco. A famed photojournalist must find a way to bring her life’s work to closure before she goes blind, a quest that changes her understanding of the very physics of light. By turns innocent and canny, the characters of Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories must learn to improvise—quickly—when confronted with stark choices they never dreamed they’d have to make. Lyrical, immaculately constructed and deeply felt, these nine stories take us far beyond our comfort zones and deep into the wilds of the human heart.

Opening Lines:  It wasn’t the guns that bothered her but rather the heat, which was the true killing machine. Guns had always been with her; they figured in her earliest memories. Her father dismantling a revolver on the kitchen table as she picked at her greasy Ulster fry. The RUC boys armed to the teeth outside the greengrocer’s smashed door, outfitted for war in a dank city street. High-powered rifles with sniper scopes laid out in the boot like firewood, or cradled like infants as her uncles stalked through the muddy darkness along the right-of-way. Guns were cityscape.

Blurbworthiness:  “Edward Hamlin has been listening hard to the opaque rustling of the world. And he is just as adept at describing the crack a skull makes on tile as the ‘quieter, thrushier’ gurgling of a creek after a drought. The stories in Night in Erg Chebbi are sweeping and intimate and awesomely confident of their own effects. They document staggering, cataclysmic changes—forest fire, flash flood, revolution, murder—as well as the slow violence of grief and degenerative disease. In one story, a photographer is losing her eyesight and her art; in another, a boy leashed to his house on ‘a good long lead’ runs away. This is a collection with both depth and breadth, a book dedicated to revealing ‘the universal concealed in the weft of the particular.’ Hamlin spins the globe, jumping nimbly from a treetop lodge on a Brazilian riverbank to the lawn of a governor’s mansion on the eve of an execution to Merzouga, Morocco, ‘gateway to the dune sea of Erg Chebbi.’ No matter how wild or unsettling the events of a story, Hamlin holds the camera steady. As one character says, ‘What mattered lately was to observe with precision rather than to judge for good or ill.’ Each story here is a world in miniature, illuminated by the flashbulb bursts of Hamlin’s luminous, controlled prose.”  (Karen Russell, judge for the 2015 Iowa Short Fiction Award)

Fake Fruit Factory
by Patrick Wensink
(Curbside Splendor)

A satire about small-town blues and an outlandish chamber of commerce marketing schemes designed to put the “speck of pepper” village on the map? Yes, please!

Jacket Copy:  Fake Fruit Factory is a stick-slapping, gut-punching comedic novel about the eccentric small town of Dyson, Ohio. When NASA determines an errant satellite will crash there, the town's young mayor uses the ensuing media circus to attract tourism and save his bankrupt rust belt community. Unless, of course, the satellite completely wipes it from the map. In Fake Fruit Factory, Wensink’s motley cast of characters are the heart of “America’s Boringest City.” Bo Rutili is Dyson’s 26-year-old mayor, who relieves stress with copious doses of hand sanitizer. Donna “Urinating Bear” Queen uses her recent lottery spoils to convince the town she’s the only one who can save it. And Old Man Packwicz, Dyson’s aging ex-mayor, might finally save the town via a filet-mignon wielding, toilet paper-clad mummy. Fake Fruit Factory hilariously captures the peculiarities of small town life through the story of a wacky community finding its place in contemporary America.

Opening Lines:  A speck of pepper.
      On any map detailed enough to include Dyson, Ohio, it’s a speck of pepper. But most maps ignore it. Most maps neglect the flat Midwestern fields of wheat and corn swaying for miles in every direction. Most maps turn their nose up at Dyson’s lack of a university of major historical attraction or building taller than three stories.
      Dyson is a village, technically speaking, and, technically speaking, villages aren’t worth the mapmaker’s time. Dyson’s crumbling downtown isn’t worth his time. Its few thousand people aren’t worth his time. So, every citizen’s job and family and dog and cat and mortgage problem all get housed on a tiny, unmarked dot of pepper. And that little spot of spice never causes so much as a cartographic sneeze. So, like all sneezes, Dyson is forgotten in an instant.

Blurbworthiness:  “Patrick Wensink is our Terry Southern and Paul Krassner and possibly one day even our own Jonathan Swift.”  (Scott McClanahan, author of Crapalachia)

Daydreams of Angels
by Heather O’Neill
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In her debut short story collection, Canadian novelist Heather O’Neill combines stark realism with traditional fable-like storytelling to deliver a witty, sideways-glance, subversive group of tall tales and twisted fairy stories. Take the first line of “The Gospel According to Mary M.” for instance: “Jesus and I were pretty good friends, and after he disappeared from our neighbourhood and all those TV reporters started showing up on our street, I was a pretty hot property.” I’m already licking my fingers before I feast on the whole book.

Jacket Copy:  A cherub breaks all the rules when he spends one night with a girl on earth. Snow White and Rose Red forge a unique way to survive the Paris occupation. A soldier is brought back to life by a toymaker, but he’s not grateful. And a child begins the story of a Gypsy and a bear, who have to finish it themselves. These are old stories, but not as you know them. These are set not in the forests of Europe or fantasy worlds, but on the battlefields of World War Two and the wilderness of downtown Montreal. With her blazing imagination, irreverent humour and arresting prose, Heather O’Neill twists them anew: more magical for their realism, more profound for their darkness; captivating, witty and wicked.

Opening Lines (“The Gypsy and the Bear”):  One afternoon in 1946 a child was telling his toy soldiers the tale of a certain tall, menacing-looking Gypsy who was walking down a road in rural France. He had a trained bear and he played the violin. Something magical was meant to happen to him, naturally. However, in the middle of the tale, the child was called to lunch and never returned to the story.
      The Gypsy stood there, contemplating his existence. He wasn’t even a real Gypsy, not a member of the great Romany people, but more like the fictional kind, like the ones that you see in old-fashioned storybooks. He had on a pair of black leather boots, a pinstriped suit and a hat with its brim pulled down over one eye. He had a twinkle in the eye that you could see and a violin case under his arm. At least the boy must have thought that Gypsies were the most handsome men in the world, because he was darn good-looking. He was just a stereotype, a collection of spiffy attributes and flashy characteristics. He was one-dimensional in that sense. He had no depth.

Blurbworthiness:  “Daydreams of Angels is hearty meat-and-potato soup for fans of short fiction, and is probably the closest thing to a book of bedtime stories that messed-up adults will ever get.”  (Winnipeg Free Press)

Hesitation Wounds
by Amy Koppelman
(The Overlook Press)

Amy Koppelman’s writing style may take a little getting used to. Most paragraphs are comprised of choppy, fragmentary sentences—but the disjointed effect creates a sense of dislocation and dreaminess, which, in the case of this narrator’s troubled narrator, seems wholly appropriate. Koppelman’s newest novel stares at me. I’m drawn toward its unflinching gaze.

Jacket Copy:  The acclaimed author of I Smile Back (now a film starring Sarah Silverman), Amy Koppelman is a novelist of astonishing power, with a sly, dark voice, at once fearless and poetic. In Koppelman’s new novel, Dr. Susanna Seliger is a renowned psychiatrist who specializes in treatment-resistant depression. The most difficult cases come through her door, and Susa is always ready to discuss treatment options, medication, and symptom management but draws the line at engaging with feelings. A strict adherence to protocol keeps her from falling apart. But her past is made present by one patient, Jim, whose struggles tear open Susa’s hastily stitched up wounds, revealing her latent feeling that she could have helped the people closest to her, especially her adored, cool, talented graffiti-artist brother. Spectacularly original, gorgeously unsettling, Hesitation Wounds is a novel that will sink deep and remain―like a persistent scar or a dangerous glow-in-the-dark memory.

Opening Lines:  This is what I know: the people who love you leave. But you already know that. We all think we know. Yet some point we are without. And it’s like walking through life without the sky. Flight risk endangers those on land. Still I look for you. Absorbing impact in well-soled shoes. A sidewalk with bicyclists. Don’t step on the crack and so on. Betrayal—and that’s ultimately what we’re talking about here, don’t kid yourself—comes in many forms. Yours happened to be unadorned. Like how concrete when wept upon becomes slippery.

Blurbworthiness:  “Hesitation Wounds reads like a fever dream, or the last second of a deeply feeling woman’s life. It is full of brilliantly observed pain and truth. It is an in-depth unblinking report on the deepest of all bonds, familial love. It is spare but it is also somehow full. Its truths are so sharp I began to read with my head slightly averted, as if expecting the next blow. She is way more unflinching than you or me. Her language is simple, deceptively so, the further she goes, as if depth stole oxygen and there was only so much breath left for words, so they had better be true. And they are true. It’s a jagged, dangerous, beautiful book that affirms life even as it affirms the impossibility of life. Like Beckett, she can’t go on, she will go on.” (David Duchovny, author of Holy Cow)

Between You and Me
by Scott Nadelson
(Engine Books)

I like the setup of Scott Nadelson’s novel: a marriage is charted through chapters set two years apart—from 1981 to 2001. It’s like watching a time-lapse film of a relationship. I’m also curious about Paul, the husband, who oozes vulnerability and anxiety through his pores as he tries to plow his way through this world. I can relate to this guy.

Jacket Copy:  Paul Haberman was happy living alone in the city until he met Cynthia, an enchanting suburban single mother. After he moves to New Jersey to marry her, Paul’s life reshapes itself dramatically around his new family and home, evolving over the years in ways he could never have imagined. In this funny, moving, episodic novel, Scott Nadelson reveals the quiet beauty, doubt, and longing of a blended family’s life in the unglamorous American suburbs.

Opening Lines:  The Rockaway Mall movie theater still had only six screens, tucked between the Bamberger’s and the video arcade. It would be a few more years before another six were built, in a strip mall annex beside the Sizzler that dropouts from Morris Knolls High School would later accidentally burn down during a burglary. Those new screens would have plenty of parking spaces, separated as they were from the main complex, but this afternoon, a rainy Sunday in early July, Paul Haberman had to compete for spots with every shopper in Morris County, every teenager playing Asteroids and smoking cigarettes and trying to look fearsome.

Blurbworthiness:  “Scott Nadelson’s novel, Between You and Me, grows on you, gains weight chapter by chapter as its hero, Paul Haberman—step-father, husband, lawyer, son and brother—stumbles his way through passive and passionless middle age to stand, finally, in his own skin as a man and to affirm his life. The ending is beautiful. The beginning and middle pieces add up, finally, like any good befuddling adventure, to something astounding. Something extraordinary. Yes, I said when I’d read the last pages, yes.”  (David Allaan Cates, author of Tom Connor’s Gift)