Monday, July 17, 2017

My First Time: Kris Faatz

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 Kris Faatz (rhymes with skates), a pianist, writer, and teacher. Her first novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award and was published in May from Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto). To Love a Stranger was inspired by Kris’s work as a professional musician and is set in the backstage world of the classical symphony. Kris’s short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, Glassworks, Reed, Bluestem, and Luna Station Quarterly, among other journals. She lives in Maryland with her husband and feline contingent, and when not writing or music-making, can often be found hiking and exploring the outdoors. Visit her online, and check out her Storytelling and Sound blog on the links between writing and music, at

The First Book That Anchored Me

The summer before I started sixth grade, I first read Watership Down. Bits and pieces of the rest of that summer hang around in my memory: a day of camp here, a sleepover with my best friend there. Everything else, though, boils down to the story and the place where I read it: my grandparents’ house in the Pocono Mountains.

My grandparents lived in Berwick, Pennsylvania, a small town that sits on the bank of the Susquehanna River and looks across at an even smaller town called Nescopeck. If you go there, and drive into town across the concrete span that used to be a railroad bridge, you’ll probably think this is Anyplace, America.

From the outside, you would be right. If you had been a kid there, though, you would know a few other things. For instance, you would know that the sunlight up in the mountains is daffodil-yellow and as sweet as water. You would know that they don’t make the same kind of air anywhere else. It’s so crisp and clear that it should glitter. You would also know practical things, like the fact that Dalo’s Bakery on Freas Avenue makes the crustiest torpedo rolls and the softest, sweetest raisin-filled cookies. You’d know that if you want to watch a sunset, you should go up to the lake in the northwestern corner of town, and while you’re there you should toss crumbs for the little sunfish. If you had been a kid in Berwick, you would know, too, that the brick-walled library in town must be bigger on the inside than the outside, because any book you want is hidden somewhere in its maze of wooden shelves.

The summer before sixth grade, I found Watership Down in that library. I checked it out, took it back to my grandparents’ house, and for the next four days I parked myself in my grandparents’ living room, with the tick of the grandfather clock on the wall to keep me company, and ate, breathed and slept words.

I can’t say that summer was when I decided to be a writer. I didn’t settle on that for another twenty years or more, but that story took hold of me as no other ever had. When the summer ended, the story came back to school with me. It followed me along the shadowy floor-polish-smelling corridors of the junior high building–new territory for the new sixth grader–and infused itself into math problems and Spanish sentences. It came to my piano lessons with me and slipped into the music I played. It was the dialogue behind J. S. Bach’s Invention in A Major, and it was the angry heartbeat of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor.

Junior high is the part of school that most of us remember as “thank God it’s over.” Somehow, even the popular kids weren’t having fun (though they didn’t let the rest of us in on that secret until years later). I was quiet and different, too much in love with books and classical piano music to belong anywhere. Watership Down became an anchor for me. Through it, I learned that stories could have a kind of power I had never imagined.

I also learned about the power and authority of the storyteller. If you’ve read the book, you might remember Dandelion, the warren’s own storyteller, the keeper of his people’s history and, often, the source of their courage. I saw what he did inside the story, and I saw what the writer did outside it. Without meaning to, I found myself imitating the way Richard Adams wrote: the gentle voice, the depth of detail, the meditative, immersive tone. I didn’t know anything about him other than the book he had written, but for me, he was a hero.

Fast-forward twenty-some years. My own first book, To Love A Stranger, came out in May 2017. I found my wonderful publisher, Blue Moon Publishers in Toronto, on my own, after much trying and giving up and trying again. (About that process: “thank God it’s over.”) But I think my eleven-year-old self would be proud, because whatever else she thought about doing with her life, she always knew that having her own name on a book cover would be the height of cool. To me, this milestone feels like taking a place at the table with the writers I love. Richard Adams, for instance, is up at the head of the table, and I’m a newbie at the foot, but we can sit there together.

When I started writing my novel, close to ten years ago, I didn’t have Watership Down or Berwick in mind. I meant to tell a story about a character who had become so loud and insistent in my head that I had to try to put him on paper. I also wanted to send a shout-out to classical music, because by then I was a professional pianist and knew how increasingly tough it was for that art to find an audience.

Berwick, though, had other plans. My character needed a hometown, and soon enough, fictional Westbury looked like a place I knew. The Weis Market had become an A&P, and the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was now St. Francis. I knew, though, exactly how the air in that place tasted and what the sunlight looked like. I knew that the majority of Westbury’s people had roots in Eastern Europe, like my grandparents did, and that they spoke with the unmistakable twang that belonged to the Pennsylvania mountains.

I wish I could show you things about Berwick that are gone. My grandparents had a crabapple tree in their front yard. The next owners cut the tree down, but I remember my grandmother’s crabapple jelly, which tasted as rosy-rich as its color. On Front Street, there used to be a store called Mulberry’s. It had wooden floors and crowded aisles stuffed with bins of fabrics, beads, and all kids of dried flowers. A few blocks away from my grandparents’ house, there was a place called Will-a-Mett Farm, where they made their own ice cream and where–I think–I first petted a cat. (It was patient.)

These days, Berwick is more Anyplace than it used to be. People don’t have the same accent. The sunlight looks about like it does anywhere else. The place as I remember it is now only in my head, but stories–and storytellers–have power.

Berwick was not the engine that drove my novel, but I’m glad to have put a piece of my memories into my first book. In my words, I send out seeds of the place I loved. In other imaginations, those seeds might grow.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sunday Sentence: We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister

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

I felt like a rusty nail getting hammered into the knot of a two-by-twelve, getting all bent up, going nowhere.

We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister

Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday Freebie: Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee.

This week’s contest is for Belgravia by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey. Here is some early praise for the novel: “Written with brio, the novel races along with all the page-turning suspense of a thriller...A glittering costume drama packed with authentic period detail, it’s also a clever, involving read that brilliantly summons up a bygone world.” (Woman & Home Magazine) Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

On the evening of 15 June 1815, the great and the good of British society have gathered in Brussels at what is to become one of the most tragic parties in history: the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. For this is the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, and many of the handsome young men attending the ball will find themselves, the very next day, on the battlefield. For Sophia Trenchard, the young and beautiful daughter of Wellington’s chief supplier, this night will change everything. But it is only twenty-five years later, when the upwardly mobile Trenchards move into the fashionable new area of Belgravia, that the true repercussions of that moment will be felt. For in this new world, where the aristocracy rub shoulders with the emerging nouveau riche, there are those who would prefer the secrets of the past to remain buried...

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

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on July 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 21. 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.

How to get a signed copy of Brave Deeds

My second novel, Brave Deeds, will be released on Aug. 1. About two weeks later, I’ll set off on a book tour, stopping at cities throughout the Pacific Northwest (a complete schedule is coming soon). I’m looking forward to not only visiting some outstanding independent bookstores but also meeting readers along the way.

But how can those readers who can’t make it to one of the readings get a signed copy of the novel? I’m pleased to announce that I am once again partnering with one of my favorite local bookstores, Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, to make signed copies available to readers. CB has had a very special place in my heart since I moved to Montana eight years ago. It’s a bright, inviting store well-stocked with everything I love to read: from literature of the American West to noir mysteries set in the gritty streets of New York City. In the past, I’ve said: “If Montana bookstores are comfort food for readers and writers, then the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman is the mashed potatoes and gravy on the plate.” I love eating there.

Here’s how to go about ordering a signed copy of Brave Deeds (or Fobbit) from Country Bookshelf:

1.  Click on this link to take you to the Brave Deeds page.
2.  Add the book to your cart.
3.  Order two or three other books on your wish list (not mandatory, but hey, why wouldn’t you want to have more books than just mine in that box when it arrives?)
4.  During Checkout, fill out the necessary billing information then scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen to a box that says “Order Comments” which looks something like this:

5.  If you would like your book personally inscribed, this is the place to tell us. I’m happy to either just sign the book or inscribe it to a particular reader. If you want a personalized inscription, please tell the Country Bookshelf staff in that comments box to whom you’d like me to make it out and if there’s a special message you’d like me to include.
6.  Complete your transaction and sit back with a satisfied smile knowing that a book with my nearly-indecipherable scrawl is on its way to you. Bonus Satisfaction: You’re supporting an independent bookstore, a simple act which is bound to earn you a couple of feathers on your angel wings in heaven.

Thanks to everyone who pre-orders a copy. These early pre-publication sales can boost a book’s strength so that it hits the ground at a gallop on Publication Day.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sunday Sentence: End of Watch by Stephen King

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

“Lowtown’s where they drink the beer and then eat the bottle it came in,” he told her once.

End of Watch by Stephen King

Friday, July 7, 2017

Friday Freebie: Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee

Congratulations to Jane Rainey, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan by Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow.

This week’s contest is for Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee. Here is just one example of the rave reviews the novel is already getting: “If Lonesome Lies Before Us isn’t the best American novel of the year, it’s one of the most American American novels. It’s intensely concerned with the civic institutions that shape everyday lives, and with who’s affected when they disappear. That’s too much weight for the average country song to bear, but Lee’s novel carries it just fine.” (Mark Athitakis, Washington Post)

Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

Yadin Park is a talented alt-country musician whose career has floundered― doomed first by his homely looks and lack of stage presence and then by a progressive hearing disorder. His girlfriend, Jeanette Matsuda, might have been a professional photographer but for a devastating heartbreak in her teens. Now Yadin works for Jeanette’s father’s carpet-laying company in California while Jeanette cleans rooms at a local resort. When Yadin’s former lover and musical partner, the celebrated Mallory Wicks, comes back into his life, all their most private hopes and desires are exposed, their secret fantasies about love and success put to the test. Drawn to the music of indie singer-songwriters like Will Johnson, who helped shape the lyrics in this book, Don Lee has written a novel that unforgettably captures America’s deepest yearnings. Beautifully sad and laced with dark humor, Lonesome Lies Before Us is a profound, heartfelt romance, a soulful and memorable song.

If you’d like a chance at winning Lonesome Lies Before Us, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on July 13, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 14. 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.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Early praise for Brave Deeds

Most normal people (i.e. non-writers) don’t fully understand the complexities of the writing life. In particular, what happens between the book’s first sentence and publication day. Here’s a helpful timeline:

1.  The author writes the first sentence of a new book and realizes there are only another 104,573 words to go before the first draft is done.
2.  The author freaks out.
3.  The book is written. (See also: Steps 3a through 3w)
4.  The author freaks out.
5.  The book is accepted for publication.
6.  The author freaks out.
7.  The publisher sends out galleys and advance reading copies to book critics six months before the publication date.
8.  The author freaks out.
9.  The first early reviews trickle in.
10.  The author freaks out.
11.  The book is published.
12.  The author stops freaking out because by this point, the book has permanently left the creator’s hands, it stands on its own, and there is little the author can do to change the course of the book’s reception and reputation.

I’m currently somewhere between #9 and #10. People other than my wife and editor have been reading my new novel Brave Deeds and I am, every day, practicing hand-release exercises. The early critical chatter has been gratifyingly, surprisingly good. Every novelist has anxieties and freak-outs--none the less so when it’s a sophomore novel like Brave Deeds. (Okay, they say they liked the first book, but how will this one be received?) You have no idea how many sailor’s-hitch knots I’ve had to untangle from my guts these past few weeks. In many ways, Brave Deeds is a different novel than Fobbit and I hope readers will give it a fair shake. Before I go too much further, let me state that I love ALL readers--even those who dislike Brave Deeds or (worse) are left feeling indifferent by it. No book can ever please everyone. Though I wouldn’t want to meet them, I’m sure there are Charlotte’s Web haters out there. We writers do the best we can, then with a great deal of pride-swallowing, we force open our clenched hands and let the book fly out into the world.

Here, then, are some of the early reports which have come home to roost (some minor spoilers lie ahead):

In Fobbit (2012), Abrams caricatured military personnel who avoided combat overseas. His second novel confronts another underexplored aspect of war: the unlikely bonds formed by mutinous allegiance. Six soldiers steal a Hummer and sneak off base to attend their esteemed commander’s memorial service. Then their vehicle breaks down in the heart of Baghdad. In a city where everyone is a potential enemy, the men risk their careers, and their lives, to get to the service on foot. Battling hunger and paranoia, the squad episodically recalls their daring adventure and Rafe’s violent demise, portraying a complex man who secretly cared for stray dogs and avenged the deaths of innocent victims. Sharing their stories as a collective voice, each man bears his own burden: there’s the notorious overeater, Cheever; impulsively violent Fish; Park the stoic; desperately romantic O, who can’t get over his ex; Drew, who married the wrong woman; and their sententious makeshift leader, Arrow, who spurs them on. Just when the squad’s plights become darkly, hilariously absurd, Abrams surprises with pathos and tenderness. This is military fiction at its truest.

In Abrams’ second novel (after the well-received Fobbit), a group of six soldiers in the Iraq War attend the funeral service of their dead sergeant, which involves stealing a vehicle and essentially going AWOL. The Humvee breaks down in the middle of war-torn Baghdad, and the group ends up getting lost walking to their destination. Somewhere along the way they raid a house they have been told is a bomb factory. Gunshots are exchanged, several people wind up dead, and one of the officers is wounded. After the raid, the soldiers steal a car, and with their injured comrade and a very pregnant Iraqi woman who joins them on the way, they make progress toward the base. Yet getting past the entrance there proves to be one of the most dangerous events of the day. Describing the soldiers’ perilous journey while filling in details of their backgrounds and the military situation in Iraq, this excellent novel is believable, dramatic, and also quite funny.
       (Library Journal)

Abrams returns to the Iraq War in his second novel, which tells the story of six AWOL American soldiers defying orders by crossing Baghdad to attend the funeral of their squad leader, Sgt. Rafael Morgan. It’s a journey made more difficult by the fact that their stolen Humvee has broken down and they now have to cross hostile territory on foot, mapless and without a radio or medic. During these tension-filled hours, we get to know the squad members: new leader Arrow, who is beginning to have doubts about his sexual orientation; Cheever, the overweight screwup; Park, “our quiet one”; Fish, the twitchy FNG (“fucking new guy”); Drew, who dreams of being unfaithful to his wife back home; and O, short for Olijandro, who is everyone’s friend. Their personal mission is interrupted by the search for a bomb factory, a diversion that turns unexpectedly bloody. The journey is also punctuated with nightmarish flashbacks to earlier in the war and the heroic act that cost Sgt. Morgan his life, and glimpses of civilian life. It all builds to an emotionally wrenching and tension-filled climax as the squad attempts to crash the funeral in a hijacked civilian van. Filled with vivid characterizations and memorable moments, this novel—as with classic modern war literature from John Hersey’s Into the Valley to David Halberstam’s One Very Hot Day—turns a single military action into a microcosm of an entire war.
       (Publishers Weekly)

Abrams follows his award-winning debut with a more empathetic but no less bitter take on the Iraq War. In the Land of Not Good, Staff Sgt. Raphael Morgan, “dismembered but not disremembered,” has been killed by an improvised explosive device, “obscene pieces of him flying through the bomb-bloom air.” A band of brothers, troops he led, has decided to attend his memorial service at FOB Saro across Baghdad from their Taji camp. However, officers have denied permission. That’s irrelevant to troopers Arrow, Park, Drew, O, Cheever, and Fish. They steal a Humvee and go AWOL. The Humvee breaks its drive shaft, and the six, edging past death at every door, must hoof it across the “chaotic center of terrorism” amid “al-Qaeda, Mahdi, Ba’ath, and Badr clashing their ideologies and ambitions of evil.” Abrams offers an unusual narrative, first person plural, with points of view discernible only by process of elimination, a subtle reframing of the Rashomon effect. Chapters are long and short, one a mere 38 words, another a prose poem that’s an homage to legs, the infantryman’s mode of transportation. With multiple narrators, each trooper is seen through a different squad member’s eyes. There’s Arrow, distant son of more distant parents, who falls naturally into a leadership role, or the Hajji-hating Fish, years of promotions and demotions turning him into the private soldier with a “shine of gray at his temples” and the ability to shoot prisoners without remorse. As the six march across Baghdad, the heat, dust, and broken buildings stand as warnings until the M4 action explodes in short, spare declarative sentences, every bullet another shot at the cruel and illogical aspects of war. A powerful story on its surface, a soldier’s story laced with vulgarities and gallows humor, but also a story holding deeper interpretations of our troubled Middle Eastern misadventures.
       (Kirkus Reviews)

In his first novel, Fobbit, David Abrams had his satirical way with Iraq War soldiers who lived inside Houston Barricades, lounging at Burger Kings and Dairy Queens on the army’s FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). Abrams had been one of them, serving 20 years as a military journalist. But on the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah, the grunts got their chow in MREs salted with blowing sand. Their only protection from unseen hostile insurgents was a “hillybilly armored” Humvee, their “battle rattle” gear and a squad of alert buddies. Brave Deeds is the story of six such soldiers at Camp Taji, who steal a Humvee to drive across Baghdad to attend the officers-only funeral of their sergeant, killed by an IED. Told by an unnamed member of this motley crew, it is a story as old as The Odyssey--soldiers far from home on a less-than-rational and dangerous journey. When the Humvee’s drive shaft freezes an hour into their mission, they abandon the disabled vehicle, radio and maps to avoid a potential sitting-duck attack, and begin to hoof it to the funeral through unfamiliar streets amid Iraqi citizens. As the narrator puts it: “The situation had gone from bad to totally f**ked... there we were, a cluster of dumb in the middle of Baghdad.” In short chapters, Abrams fleshes out each of these unlikely comrades. As the favorite of the dead sergeant, Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos steps up to take charge, but is as clueless as the others when it comes to navigating the city’s dicey alleys and open-air markets. Abrams’ sarcastic narrator doesn’t miss the metaphor: “We’re all blind men feeling our way across Baghdad; Arrow just happens to be the one in front with the cane.” Cheever is an overweight whiner. Fish has a history of crime and violence back home. O hasn’t gotten over losing his ex-wife. Park is a silent Korean American with overbearing parents. Drew is obsessed with the high school sweetheart who got away. Some are gung-ho for the war and “worship at the First Church of Bush.” Others joined up for the money. Whatever their reasons, they share the ordeal: “We walk. Through the dust, through the thirst, through the sunbake, and now, through the Iraqis filtering into the marketplace with their goats, their dishdashas, their wind-flipped magazines, their snapping teeth, their cooking smoke.” The men in Brave Deeds (and they’re all men) crack funny, gripe at their buddies, and, with reason, fear the unseen. A car full of armed Sunnis opens fire in a public square, killing children, beggars and mothers. A feral dog is run over. A wedding groom is blown apart in a mortar attack. The squad is lured into a wild firefight where a family held hostage by a bomb-making operation is slaughtered. With compact precision and the amusing patter of a sardonic narrator, Abrams captures the unusual histories of these ordinary men shuffling through Baghdad as they encounter the horrors of war. They may be AWOL on a personal mission outside command protocol, but they are heroes in their own ways and perform small brave deeds in the midst of half-baked chaos.
       (Shelf Awareness)

And finally, this dispatch from the Time Now blog in which reviewer Peter Molin makes me sound way better than I am:

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth--is the most kind, gentle, and sweet soul imaginable, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that most junior enlisted rightly assess them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: lots of contemporary war fiction attempts to portray the worldview of junior enlisted—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clich├ęs, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least.

Pre-order Brave Deeds here or here

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sunday Sentence: We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister

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

The autumn sun felt like a quilt.

We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister

Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday Freebie: It’s My Country Too by Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow

Congratulations to Nancy Bekofske, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the big Summer of Book Lovin’ Giveaway.

This week’s contest is for It’s My Country Too by Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow. Subtitled Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, the book is a vital new member of the military history bookshelf. I thought it would be especially pertinent to offer it as a Friday Freebie this week since we’re coming up on the 4th of July here in America and it’s a good reminder of just how much women have contributed to America’s history, military or otherwise. It’s My Country Too tops my must-read list for this summer; I hope it will be on yours, too. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

This inspiring anthology is the first to convey the rich experiences and contributions of women in the American military in their own words--from the Revolutionary War to the present wars in the Middle East. Serving with the Union Army during the Civil War as a nurse, scout, spy, and soldier, Harriet Tubman tells what it was like to be the first American woman to lead a raid against an enemy, freeing some 750 slaves. Busting gender stereotypes, Josette Dermody Wingo enlisted as a gunner’s mate in the navy in World War II to teach sailors to fire Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns. Marine Barbara Dulinsky recalls serving under fire in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968, and Brooke King describes the aftermath of her experiences outside the wire with the army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In excerpts from their diaries, letters, oral histories, and pension depositions--as well as from published and unpublished memoirs--generations of women reveal why and how they chose to serve their country, often breaking with social norms, even at great personal peril.

If you’d like a chance at winning It’s My Country Too, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on July 6, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 7. 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.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Front Porch Books: June 2017 edition

The Ninth Hour
by Alice McDermott
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Any good and proper Most-Anticipated-Fiction list of mine will always start with Alice McDermott. I have been an earnest fan since reading That Night one night in grad school. Though I haven’t read all of her most-recent work, I will always be the first in line to snatch-grab her newest release. The Ninth Hour is no exception. To the top of the To-Be-Read pile, buster!

Jacket Copy:  On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove―to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife―“that the hours of his life belong to himself alone.” In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun, a Little Sister of the Sick Poor, appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child. In Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century, decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence, and yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives―testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today.

Opening Lines:  February 3 was a dark and dank day altogether: cold spitting rain in the morning and a low, steel-gray sky the rest of the afternoon.

Blurbworthiness:  “Partly told by a voice from the future who drops tantalizing hints about what’s to come—for example, a marriage between the occupants of the baby carriages—this novel reveals its ideas about love and morality through the history of three generations, finding them in their kitchens, sickbeds, train compartments, love nests, and basement laundry rooms.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Wolf Season
by Helen Benedict
(Bellevue Literary Press)

Another author and her books who will always take a seat in the crowded front row of my new books to read: Helen Benedict. She’s written seven novels—most notably Sand Queen—and has emerged as one of our most thoughtful and provocative writers of war literature. Wolf Season, which comes out in October, brings the war home to the United States from the Middle East, not in a “deranged veteran can’t re-adjust to society and takes a sniper rifle to a tower” sort of way, but in the more-realistic depiction of characters leading “lives of quiet desperation.”

Jacket Copy:  After a hurricane devastates a small town in upstate New York, the lives of three women and their young children are irrevocably changed. Rin, an Iraq War veteran, tries to protect her blind daughter and the three wolves under her care. Naema, a widowed doctor who fled Iraq with her wounded son, faces life-threatening injuries. Beth, who is raising a troubled son, waits out her Marine husband’s deployment in Afghanistan, equally afraid of him coming home and of him never returning at all. As they struggle to maintain their humanity and find hope, their war-torn lives collide in a way that will affect their entire community.

Opening Lines:  The wolves are restless this morning. Pacing the woods, huffing and murmuring. It’s not that they’re hungry; Rin fed them each four squirrels. No, it’s a clenching in the sky like a gathering fist. The wet heat pushing in on her temples.

Blurbworthiness:  “No one writes with more authority or cool-eyed compassion about the experience of women in war both on and off the battlefield than Helen Benedict. In Wolf Season, she shows us the complicated ways in which the lives of those who serve and those who don’t intertwine and how―regardless of whether you are a soldier, the family of a soldier, or a refugee―the war follows you and your children for generations. Wolf Season is more than a novel for our times; it should be required reading.” (Elissa Schappell, author of Use Me)

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts
by Caitlin Hamilton Summie
(Fomite Press)

Talk about most anticipated....Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s first book, a collection of short stories, has been on my radar ever since it was the tiniest green blip on the edge of the screen. I’ve known Caitlin (in the virtual sense of the word) as a book publicist extraordinaire for about two decades (and still we’ve yet to meet!), and wrote about it earlier here at the blog. But it wasn’t until about six months ago I learned she had a book of her own coming out. So, yes, any book of Caitlin’s earns an automatic position near the top of my ever-growing TBR stack (aka Mount NeveRest). And that’s before I open the book and clap my eyes on that powerful, poignant first paragraph in the first story.

Jacket Copy:  In these ten elegantly written short stories, Caitlin Hamilton Summie takes readers from WWII Kansas City to a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in New York, and from the quiet of rural Minnesota to its pulsing Twin Cities, each time navigating the geographical boundaries that shape our lives as well as the geography of tender hearts, loss, and family bonds. Deeply moving and memorable, To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts examines the importance of family, the defining nature of place, the need for home, and the hope of reconciliation.

Opening Lines:  Jimmy Weston had his Dad’s dog tags. He wore them around his next on a steel chain and had this funny habit of rubbing them back and forth between his fingers. We’d be playing marbles or collecting tin for the war effort; we’d be jumping on cracks to break Hitler’s back or be waiting, just waiting for the whole thing to end, and Jimmy would talk and rub those dog tags together, and I’d listen, That’s mostly how I remember those days: Jimmy and me sitting on the curb, tired of marbles, tired of tin, him with that sound of his father, and me with nothing of mine but his name.

Blurbworthiness:  “To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is nothing short of magnificent. After reading the vivid and powerful opening story, I thought Well, this is a smart writer―she’s obviously led off with her best. Then I found that if anything I liked the next story even better, and by then I knew I was reading something special. These stories are realist fiction at its finest. The author’s sense of place is extraordinary, and it informs every word she writes. Her characters are as real as anybody you know in the town where you live, and their lives are depicted with quiet dignity. The stories are both intense and economical. I’ve gotten very hard to please, but I loved this book.” (Steve Yarbrough, author of The Realm of Last Chances)

It’s My Country Too
by Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow
(Potomac Books)

Since reading Studs Terkel when I was a teenager, I’m convinced of one thing: history is best told by the voices of witnesses. In Studs’ case, that could be about labor, urban life, or economic hard times. Now, thanks to the brilliant editing skills of military veterans Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow, a choir of female voices is singing about war. At various times, that singing can be a running cadence, an aria from a tragic opera, or a peppy rendition of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” (with, in this case, the bride being the one who marches off to battle). For years, the gravelly voices of men have dominated the ranks of war literature (reflecting the sexual demographics of the military), but now it’s time to hear from all uniformed members in those ranks. There have been various accounts of female service (from Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy by Sarah Emma Edmonds to Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams), but Bell and Crow have brought so many stories together in one place―from the American Revolution to the battles of Afghanistan―that It’s My Country Too is bound to become an indispensable member of every military historian’s bookshelf.

Jacket Copy:  Serving with the Union Army during the Civil War as a nurse, scout, spy, and soldier, Harriet Tubman tells what it was like to be the first American woman to lead a raid against an enemy, freeing some 750 slaves. Busting gender stereotypes, Josette Dermody Wingo enlisted as a gunner’s mate in the navy in World War II to teach sailors to fire anti-aircraft guns. Marine Barbara Dulinsky recalls serving under fire in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968, and Brooke King describes the aftermath of her experiences outside the wire with the army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In excerpts from their diaries, letters, oral histories, and pension depositions―as well as from published and unpublished memoirs―generations of women reveal why and how they chose to serve their country, often breaking with social norms, even at great personal peril.

Blurbworthiness:  “This compendium of women’s bravery and accomplishments is a compelling read of firsthand accounts in U.S. military conflicts. No American woman should raise her right hand and swear to ‘support and defend’ without these haunting voices urging her to walk the trail where few have gone. Every American history syllabus should include this book as a requirement. A true inspiration!”  [Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams, U.S. Army (Ret.), president of Women in Military Service for America]

by Daisy Johnson
(Graywolf Press)

Earthy, organic, twisted, wry, fractured fairy tales were the hallmark of Angela Carter’s work (The Bloody Chamber, Nights at the Circus, etc.), and I’m glad to see some of that same spirit in newcomer Daisy Johnson’s fiction. As Evie Wyld (All the Birds, Singing) notes, this debut collection of short stories promises “lush language, ever-surprising characters” and a crooked path taking readers “through the rooty tangle of human love and desire.”

Jacket Copy:  Daisy Johnson’s Fen, set in the fenlands of England, transmutes the flat, uncanny landscape into a rich, brooding atmosphere. From that territory grow stories that blend folklore and restless invention to turn out something entirely new. Amid the marshy paths of the fens, a teenager might starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl and grow jealous of her friend. A boy might return from the dead in the guise of a fox. Out beyond the confines of realism, the familiar instincts of sex and hunger blend with the shifting, unpredictable wild as the line between human and animal is effaced by myth and metamorphosis. With a fresh and utterly contemporary voice, Johnson lays bare these stories of women testing the limits of their power to create a startling work of fiction.

Opening Lines:  The Land was drained. They caught eels in great wreaths, headless masses in the last puddles, trying to dig into the dirt to hide. They filled vats of water to the brim with them: the eels would feed the workforce brought in to build on the wilderness. There were enough eels to last months; there were enough eels to feed them all for years.

Blurbworthiness:  “Fen is a lusty, voracious beast. It will tie you up, rip off your boots, and throw them off the balcony. These stories are charged by an undercurrent of crouching energy that waits, waits, waits....and then, delightfully, pounces. There's a calm feralness to Daisy Johnson's writing that is as refreshing as it is invigorating.”  (Kelly Luce, author of Pull Me Under)

Eat Only When You’re Hungry
by Lindsay Hunter
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

From the title to the first sentence to that unappetizing clutter of half-eaten snacks on the cover, food is everywhere in Lindsay Hunter’s new novel. Though the Pringles, jelly donuts, Circus Peanuts and fruit pies may be low in nutritional value, Hunter’s writing is reliably fortified with 11 essential minerals and vitamins, so I’m looking forward to her latest literary feast. I can’t wait to eat this book.

Jacket Copy:  In Lindsay Hunter’s achingly funny, fiercely honest second novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, we meet Greg an overweight fifty-eight-year-old and the father of Greg Junior, GJ, who has been missing for three weeks. GJ’s been an addict his whole adult life, disappearing for days at a time, but for some reason this absence feels different, and Greg has convinced himself that he’s the only one who can find his son. So he rents an RV and drives from his home in West Virginia to the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, the last place GJ was seen. As we travel down the streets of the bizarroland that is Florida, the urgency to find GJ slowly recedes into the background, and the truths about Greg’s mistakes as a father, a husband, a man are uncovered. In Eat Only When You’re Hungry, Hunter elicits complex sympathy for her characters, asking the reader to take a closer look at the way we think about addiction why we demonize the junkie but turn a blind eye to drinking a little too much or eating too much and the fallout of failing ourselves.

Opening Lines:  It was too late to be a lunch, too early to be a dinner, this disappointing collection of food Greg was packing. He was leaving in the odd smear of time between the markers of his day. Not in the morning, not in the night. Not even in the midday. After lunch, before dinner. The sun was out but getting lazy. Everything started to give over, accepting that this day’s moment was swiftly passing. Maybe that was why he finally left. He had to get away from the giving over, for once. His son had been missing three weeks.

Blurbworthiness:  “The frailties of the human body and the human heart are laid bare in Lindsay Hunter’s utterly superb novel Eat Only When You’re Hungry. There is real delicacy, tenderness, and intelligence with which Hunter tackles this portrait of a broken family of people who don’t realize just how broken they are until they are forced to confront the fractures between them and within themselves. With this novel, Hunter establishes herself as an unforgettable voice in American letters. Her work here, as ever, is unparalleled.”  (Roxane Gay, author of Hunger)

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life
by Megan Stielstra
(Harper Perennial)

I had the pleasure of meeting Megan Stielstra in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin at this year’s Midwest Independent Booksellers Association spring meeting and I was immediately struck by her passion, her sense of humor, her down-to-earth...realness. There are some people whose electric personalities vibrate off the surface of their skin even from the most regrettably-short meetings (which ours was...regrettably). Those same qualities pour from the pages of her new collection of essays, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, like heat from a humming engine. Megan hooked me into her book with the simple elevator-pitch summary of one of her essays in the book (“Here Is My Heart”): “My father had his third heart attack while hiking up a mountain in Alaska.” I may have put words in Megan’s mouth, but that’s the gist of the story and it went straight to my chest for three reasons: 1. I have a history of heart disease in my family; 2. I used to live in Alaska; 3. I like to hike. Yep, it was  booklove at first sight. Now, if only our hearts were as simple, as shiny, and as easy to reassemble as the plastic heart model on the cover of this book!

Jacket Copy:  In this poignant and inciting collection of literary essays, Megan Stielstra tells stories to ward off fears both personal and universal as she grapples toward a better way to live. In her titular piece “The Wrong Way To Save Your Life,” she answers the question of what has value in our lives—a question no longer rhetorical when the apartment above her family’s goes up in flames. “Here is My Heart” sheds light on Megan’s close relationship with her father, whose continued insistence on climbing mountains despite a series of heart attacks leads the author to dissect deer hearts in a poetic attempt to interrogate her own feelings about mortality. Whether she’s imagining the implications of open-carry laws on college campuses, recounting the story of going underwater on the mortgage of her first home, or revealing the unexpected pains and joys of marriage and motherhood, Stielstra’s work informs, impels, enlightens, and embraces us all. The result is something beautiful—this story, her courage, and, potentially, our own.

Blurbworthiness:  “In The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, Megan Stielstra takes a core sample of her life, like a core sample of a glacier, and subjects it to her great punk-rock sensibility. What happens? It melts beautifully! There are fires and guns and knives in these terrific essays, and heavy metal and bloody hearts on cutting boards, and Stielstra handles it all with humor and expert humanity.”  (Eula Biss, author of On Immunity)

Strangers in Budapest
by Jessica Keener
(Algonquin Books)

Prior to my recent river cruise in Europe, which began on the Danube in Budapest and ended on the Rhine in the Netherlands, I set about trying to find some reading that would serve as a literary soundtrack for my trip. I eventually settled on two books by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water (the latter which I still need to read). Fermor’s memoirs of his walk across Europe in the 1930s were quite good and illuminated much of my route. I received a copy of Jessica Keener’s new novel in the mail earlier this week, long after I’d returned from Hungary, et al. I wish I’d had Strangers in Budapest with me earlier, so I could have a sense of verisimilitude while walking the streets of the two halves of the city: Buda and Pest. Keener’s earlier books, Night Swim and Women in Bed, received glowing reviews but never really found the number of readers the Boston author deserves. If there’s a just and righteous god in charge of publishing, Strangers in Budapest will be her breakout book. I can’t wait to revisit the enigmatic city through Keener’s imagination.

Jacket Copy:  Budapest is a city of secrets, a place where everything is opaque and nothing is as it seems. It is to this enigmatic city that a young American couple, Annie and Will, move with their infant son, shortly after the fall of the Communist regime. Annie hopes to escape the ghosts from her past; Will wants to take his chance as an entrepreneur in Hungary’s newly developing economy. But only a few months after moving there, they receive a secretive request from friends in the U.S. to check up on an elderly stranger who also has recently arrived in Budapest. When they realize that his sole purpose for coming there is to exact revenge on a man who he is convinced seduced and then murdered his daughter, Will insists they have nothing to do with him. Annie, however, unable to resist anyone she feels may need her help, soon finds herself enmeshed in the old man’s plan, caught up in a scheme that will end with death. Atmospheric, secretive, much like the old Hungarian city itself, Strangers in Budapest is an intricately woven story of lives that intersect and pull apart, perfect for fans of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Chris Pavone’s The Expats. Keener has written a transporting novel about a couple trying to make a new life in a foreign land, only to find themselves drawn into a cultural, and generational, vendetta.

Opening Lines:  She’d grown used to calling the Danube by its Hungarian name—Duna. In fact, she preferred it over the American version. The whimsical sound—Duna—felt light on her tongue, fanciful and upbeat, a spirit rising. But, like all things in this city, the river that glittered at night concealed a darker surface under the day’s harsh sun. The water looked sluggish and dull from this high point on the bridge.
       “How much farther?” Annie asked. They had walked a mile, but it felt longer to her.
       “Almost there,” Will said, waving his well-worn map. “A few more blocks.”
       “Good, because this whole thing feels crazy.”

Blurbworthiness:  “What do we run away from? And what do we run toward? Two American expatriates in Budapest, a lonely young mother with a devastating secret, and an old man desperate to discover the truth about his daughter’s death, forge a shattering connection. Gorgeously told and deeply moving, Keener’s brilliant new novel is a bold, brave and dazzlingly original tale about home, loss and the persistence of love.”  (Caroline Leavitt, author of Cruel Beautiful World)

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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: many 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.

Monday, June 26, 2017

My First Time: Eliza Henry-Jones

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 Eliza Henry-Jones, a writer based in Victoria, Australia. Her debut novel In the Quiet was published earlier this year as part of a three-book deal with HarperCollins Australia. In the Quiet was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and longlisted for the ABIA and Indie Book Awards. She has worked for years with families in the drug and alcohol sector and has qualifications in grief, loss and trauma counseling and psychology. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Big Issue, Daily Life, Southerly, Island, Seizure, LiNQ and many other places.

My First Agent

My first (and only!) agent is a lovely and very talented woman called Sally Bird from Calidris Literary Agency. How I found Sally is not very elegant. I typed “Australian literary agents” into Google. I liked the sound of the books she’d placed and thought she sounded fascinating. I emailed her when I was twenty-one and had just finished writing a manuscript that I was pretty chuffed with. She liked the sample and asked for the full manuscript. When she called to ask if I’d still be happy for her to represent it and send it out to publishers, I cried.

Writing is, in many ways, quite a lonesome activity. Not just the physical typing, but the process of submitting for publication; the editing; the waiting. After many years of trying to sell myself as a writer, it was the most wonderful feeling to have someone on my side; someone who saw something in my work; someone who was advocating for me. Sally helped me edit the manuscript; she picked up typos and inconsistencies and pulled together a proposal to go out with it, which included market placement, a bio and other bits and pieces.

I felt like this was it. A wonderful agent had picked up my manuscript. There were names like Random House and Hachette floating around. And then… nothing. A lot of very lovely, generous rejections filtering gradually in over the next eight months. My writing, it seemed, was not the problem. But nobody felt like they could sell the story. I assumed they were just being encouraging because I was quite young (twenty-two). I didn’t really think any were truly interested when they told Sally to send them any further manuscripts I wrote.

Sally was pragmatic. We started over again with the manuscript I’d written in the meantime–a quiet little book on family and grief called In the Quiet. Sally loved it, but she said that we might very well get the same response as last time. So I steeled myself for another influx of rejections and did what I always did when I was nervous about something–I started work on another story.

But things were different this time. Publishers came back quickly with questions which Sally sent on to me–was I firm on the title? Could I come in to meet with them? How did I feel about making it quite a bit longer?

Sally and I did lunch before meeting a local publisher. While I was in the meeting, she bought me gardener’s hand cream–I’d been telling her how working in my veggie patch had dried out my skin.

A few rejections filtered through. Of the ten publishers Sally approached, five rejected my manuscript and five made offers. Which is such an important reminder that fiction is subjective and what one person might toss out another person might make a large offer on. If my manuscript had only found its way into the hands of the five who weren’t interested, I would have thought it wasn’t good enough and quietly tucked it away in a drawer.

As I’m a quite controlling, anxious and neurotic little person, Sally had her hands full keeping me calm during the weeks we had offers coming in. I was freaked out and delighted in equal measure–there were people out there keen to turn my story into a book! People wanted to buy my manuscript! After ten years of jumping up and down, desperate to get the attention of editors and publishers, desperate for them to notice me, I was suddenly being wooed. It was a wonderful and unsettling experience. I talked to editors on the phone about the changes they wanted to make. Sally asked for counter offers; she chased busy editors up when they missed deadlines. It was an overwhelming time–the publishers were all magnificent and I couldn’t quite believe they were all interested in what I’d written. I woke up a lot in the night with a start, unsettled–even in sleep–by this sudden turning of the tables.

Three years after initially approaching Sally at the age of twenty-four, I signed an international, three-book deal with HarperCollins Australia for In the Quiet and two subsequent books. And now In the Quiet is out in the U.S.–something I never even dreamed of.

Sally reads various versions of the manuscripts, although she doesn’t have to. She encourages me and keeps me calm. After six years of representing me, she’s no longer just my agent but has become a very wonderful friend whose relationship I am grateful for every single day.

I often hear people saying that you don’t need an agent; that it’s simpler to go it alone. But I truly don’t know what I’d do without Sally.