Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Sense of Place: Keith McCafferty and The Gray Ghost Murders

One of the chief things which keeps writers lying in bed awake at night staring at the blank ceiling is the fear they didn't get it right--in this case, "it" meaning setting.  There's nothing worse than writing that Pat's King of Steaks is on the south side of Philadelphia's Passyunk Avenue, when readers in the City of Brotherly Love will immediately point out that it's Geno's Steaks on the south side of that intersection; Pat's is on the north.    (At least, I think I have that right; never having actually stood between those rival cheesesteak joints, I'm having a moment of doubt which is gnawing at me like a dog on a bone--See what I mean?)

To geographically-savvy readers, one wrong detail of landscape can jar them right off the page, deflating the author's credibility.

Mystery writer Keith McCafferty had this kind of paranoia when he was looking at the final page proofs of his second novel, The Gray Ghost Murders, which were due back to his publisher in two days.  Those of us attending his reading at The Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana last night got to hear the story about this last-minute panic.

The opening pages of McCafferty's mystery novel open on the real-life Sphinx Mountain near Ennis, Montana, a distinct fortress of rock rising 10,876 feet off the floor of the Madison Valley.  In The Gray Ghost Murders, a body is discovered in a shallow grave along the steep slopes of the Sphinx.  When local sheriff Martha Ettinger and her team investigate, they find a sow grizzly has been dining on the remains. McCafferty needed to make sure he was painting a good picture of the surrounding forests and clearings in order to maintain the mood of the scene.

"I'd climbed that mountain and walked that very ground," said McCafferty, a long-time Montana resident and Field & Stream contributor who'd often fished the ribbon of river beneath the gaze of the Sphinx.  "But it had been twenty years since I'd been up there.  And yet, here I was, describing it in detail on the page.  I knew if I got one thing wrong, Madison Valley readers would be the first ones to point it out.  It wouldn't matter to the grandmother living in Indiana, but it would definitely be important to someone living in Ennis."

McCafferty had a problem: he was out of time.  The pages were due back to his publisher in two days and nothing could be changed on the page after that.  It was late spring.  Snow was clinging to the side of the mountain.  Bears were coming out of hibernation.  But McCafferty knew he had to Get It Right.

And so he climbed the Sphinx, drinking in the details as he walked.

"I wasn't even a quarter of a mile from the trailhead when I heard this loud chuff off to my left."  It was a grizzly giving him a warning.  The bear was hungry after hibernating all winter.  McCafferty kept walking, but now all his muscles and nerves were on full alert.

"Newspaper headlines were flashing before my eyes: MONTANA MYSTERY WRITER EATEN BY GRIZZLY WHILE RESEARCHING NOVEL.  What a way for me to end up," McCafferty told us.

"At least it would give a boost to your book sales," someone in the audience cracked.

McCafferty laughed.  "That's probably very true."

Fortunately, the next thing McCafferty heard was the snap and crackle of the grizzly moved away from him.  Our intrepid author continued his ascent along the Sphinx, got what he needed, came down the mountain safely, and returned to his manuscript with fresh details in his head.

And that's one way to meet a publisher's deadline.

A few minutes later the team reached the elevation where the slope flattened into a bench, a half acre of scattered trees and conglomerate boulders that were cordoned off with marking tape.  All eyes immediately sought the backpack that Jarrett had suspended from the limb of a Douglas fir tree the day before yesterday.  In it were the two plastic evidence bags, one containing the rib cage and skull that the bear had excavated, along with tatters of rotted clothing and the few odd bones that had been strewn across the bench, the other a jellied mass of dark tissue and organ matter.  Doc Hanson had been in favor of packing the remains down in the Air Mercy flight for examination at the lab, but Ettinger had been adamant about studying the crime scene, if indeed a crime had been committed, with the evidence intact.  Hanson's objection, that a bear had already disrupted the scene, fell on deaf ears.

Sphinx Mountain

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Web of Horror: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
By Yoko Ogawa
Guest review by Sam Thomas

In her delightfully disturbing collection of short stories, Revenge (appropriately subtitled Eleven Dark Tales), Yoko Ogawa explores the paper-thin border separating our unremarkable daily existence and the all-too-human demons that threaten us at every turn.  The chapter titles themselves blur this boundary, as the first story “Afternoon at the Bakery” is only marginally less disturbing than “Welcome to the Museum of Torture.”  On virtually every page, Ogawa’s characters confront death.  Parents, children, husbands, wives and lovers, all meet grisly ends.

Rather than telling eleven discrete stories, Ogawa interweaves the lives of her characters, as individuals from one story appear in another, whether as narrator, antagonist, or corpse.  It soon becomes clear that Ogawa’s characters are connected not just to their own personal horror, but to a web of horrors enmeshing those around them.  The effect of this is profoundly unsettling, for in Ogawa’s world, terror is not consigned to a particularly nasty town, or even a single, psychotic individual.  Rather it permeates the world, simply waiting for the opportunity – which is never long in coming – to break into the open and wreak havoc on all in its path.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Ogawa’s characters is the cavalier manner in which they invite those around them, even complete strangers, to share in their horrors.  Whether it is a woman’s casual confession of murder, or a gardener who ushers her neighbors into a strange kind of cannibalism, Ogawa’s characters refuse to suffer in solitude.  Horror doesn’t love company – it demands it.  Even more disturbing is the fact that Ogawa’s characters accept these invitations as if they are no new thing.  After the narrator in “Afternoon at the Bakery” tells a stranger that she hoped to purchase a cake for her dead son, she notes, “There was no sign of sympathy or surprise or even embarrassment on [the stranger’s] face...‘Well,’ she said, ‘then it is lucky you chose this bakery.  There are no better pastries anywhere; your son will be pleased.’”  It is as if the characters fully expect the border between the quotidian and the horrible to be breached at any moment, and are thus unsurprised when it happens.

While most horror and suspense stories (Ogawa’s are both) hope to surprise the reader, it is clear that Ogawa also wants to disturb.  She does this by conventional means of murder and mayhem, but she also refuses to let the reader get comfortable with her narrators.  Despite the fact that all the stories are told in the first person, the narrators reveal their true nature with excruciating deliberation.  Ogawa is in no hurry to tell you whether the narrator is male or female, young or old, or – most disconcertingly – humane or homicidal.  When one of Ogawa’s characters offers you his hand, you’d better check the other for a knife.

To be clear, this is not a typical horror collection, for while much blood is promised, very little is spilled on the page.  However, the pervasive threat of violence and death, coupled with Ogawa’s occasional forays into the surreal and supernatural, leave me at a loss for a better word to describe these stories.  They are disturbing to be sure, but if you are in the mood for a brief trip into the dark, you could do far worse than Revenge.

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale, a historical thriller recently published by Minotaur Books.  He has a PhD in history with a focus on Reformation England and currently teaches at a secondary school near Cleveland, Ohio.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: Indiscretion by Charles Dubow

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies. Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex. And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video. So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.

(Possibly NSFW.  There's no graphic nudity, but there is some heavy breathing.)

Looking more like an ad for Zales Diamonds or an outtake from a Victoria's Secret commercial than it does a book trailer, the video for Charles Dubow's new novel Indiscretion comes at us with unbuttoned clothes, billowing sheets and bed-tumbling--not to mention the standard visual metaphor for sex: clenched hands (I ask you, how many lovers really hold hands like this during coitus?).  But all that aside, I suppose the trailer does titillate enough to pull readers to the book--"a story of love, lust, deception, and betrayal" that's been compared to The Great Gatsby.  In Dubow's debut novel, Harry and Madeleine Winslow seem to have it all--they've been blessed with "talent, money, and charm.  Harry is a National Book Award–winning author on the cusp of greatness.  Madeleine is a woman of sublime beauty and grace whose elemental goodness and serenity belie a privileged upbringing.  Bonded by deep devotion, they share a love that is both envied and admired."  That is, until young Claire comes along and starts unbuttoning her clothes.

Monday, February 25, 2013

My First Time: Bryan Furuness

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 Bryan Furuness, author of the novel, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, coming soon from Black Lawrence Press.  His stories have appeared in Ninth Letter, Southeast Review, Hobart, and elsewhere, including New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading.  He teaches at Butler University, and is editor-in-chief of the small press, Pressgang.  Click here to visit Furuness' website.

The First Time I Figured Out
What My Novel Was About

The Prompt

A writer's conference, a sleepy Saturday.  There I am, in a nearly empty auditorium, listening to Porter Shreve lead a handful of writers through an exercise.

I don't remember the exact prompt, but it was for idea generation, which was the last thing I needed.  I was several years and even more drafts into a novel that wouldn't come together.  What I really needed was an idea about how to finish the fucking thing.

So I loafed my way into the exercise, but then I found myself recalling one of the most powerful memories from my childhood, one that I haven't, until now, written about publicly.

I want to say that I was twelve years old when this happened, but it's possible I was as young as nine, or as old as fourteen.  I remember riding in the back seat of my family's blue Omega.  It was a Sunday—I know this because we were going to church—and we were driving over the big bridge to Highland when my mother told me that my older brother wasn't actually my brother.  He was my half-brother.  My mother had been married before.

In the back seat, my little brother and I looked at each other, the same look we exchanged whenever we were both in big trouble.  My voice sounded funny when I said, "Okay."

The memory cuts out there, but I don't think I'm missing anything important.  My parents didn't warn me not to tell anybody, but then, they didn't have to.  It was obviously a secret.  That day it became my secret.

Even now, around thirty years later, it feels strange to write about it.  I find myself hoping that my family doesn't read this.  I don't think it would embarrass my mother, but then again, it might.  My people aren't big into "getting things out in the open."  When things do get out, we mainly ignore them until they go away.  For instance, at a family reunion when one of my jackass cousins got out his guitar and started singing AC/DC's "Big Balls," we all talked a little louder and pretended it wasn't happening.  He must have sang the chorus eight times in a row (He's got big balls/And she's got big balls/But we've got the biggest balls of them all!) before he got disgusted with our lack of a reaction, and took his big balls elsewhere.  The rest of us got another cup of coffee and carried on our conversation, because that's what Scandinavians do.

Some sketchy cousins aside, I have a good and loving family.  And I have my own good family and good life now, though at times I feel straitjacketed by politeness.

Except when I'm writing fiction.  And maybe that's why I write: it's the only time I can take off the corset of niceties, and actually breathe for once.  I might not be able to wail "Big Balls" in public, or act out my Animal House fantasy of smashing a guitar in a stairwell, but my characters can.

Other than that, I never thought my fiction had much to do with my real life.

The Elevator Pitch

In my book, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, there's a mother who likes to make up Bible stories, which she claims are "lost episodes," or outtakes from the King James version.  After years of listening to these stories, her son starts to believe that he's the second coming of Christ.  Faith can be fickle, though, and Revie's belief in God and his family is scuttled when his mother leaves home to pursue her dreams of stardom in Hollywood.

That's the book.  But that mother isn't my mother.  Their situation is not my situation.  If you had asked me at that writer's conference why I felt compelled to write about these people, I wouldn't have had a good answer.

The Rest of the Story

My mother never sat me down to tell me the full story of her first marriage, but over the years, I was able to piece it together from little fragments and asides.  She dropped out of college to live with this wild man in a trailer park.  He was a biker, and would leave her alone with her newborn son for days or weeks at a time without telling her where he was going or when he would be back.  I remember something about a motorcycle crash, a head injury, and how, after that, he was even more "off."

When she decided to leave, he threatened her.  She was never specific about those threats, but I got the idea that he was dangerous, maybe crazy.  But my mother didn't cave, or even hide.  She did the bravest thing: came home to her parents, began the slow process of making a life for herself and her son.

To understand how amazing, how unbelievable these stories were to me, you have to understand that the woman telling them was a fourth-grade teacher who wore embroidered sweatshirts and was intimidated by video cameras.  She wasn't completely tame—she was the union steward at her school, and one of my earliest memories is of marching in a picket line with her—but she wasn't wild, either.  Her idea of fun on a Friday night was attending a high school basketball game.  So when she told stories of her life as a dropout, a trailer park woman, a motorcycle mama, my head felt like it was splitting open.

"How can that happen?" I said to the other writers in the auditorium when we shared the results of the writing exercise.  "How can you go from one type of person to a completely different type of person?  And how do you keep that first person a secret all those years?"

"Those sound like the kind of questions that can drive a book," said Shreve.  And I thought, well, yeah, maybe, but I don't want to start another book.  I mean, I'm already working on this one, and it doesn't have anything to do with—

And then I got that old feeling, like my head was splitting open.  After the mother in my book comes back home, the whole family moves downstate and agrees that they'll never talk about this stuff again.  That year of wildness becomes their own Lost Episode.

That mother might not be my mother, and the boy isn't me, but he's wrestling with the same questions: How can you be one person and then another?  How can you be one person on the outside, and have a totally different private self?

That was the day that I saw the idea that ran like a vein all through my work, not just that novel.  Rebirth.  Resurrection.  Or to put it in the secular, oh-so-American term: reinvention.  "There are no second acts in American lives," said Fitzgerald, and I can forgive him for that whopper because he said it before we had Oliver North, John Travolta, George Foreman, Jerry Rubin, Stephen King/Richard Bachman/Stephen King again, Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship, the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans, Chrysler during the Iacocca years, Ray Lewis, postmodernism, every guy who has ever had a mid-life crisis, 8.6 million American women who had cosmetic surgery last year—my point is, with all due respect to Fitzgerald, America has become the land of second acts.  My point is, right after I found out that I'm obsessed with resurrection, I figured out I wasn't the only one.

And then I was able to finish the novel.

Photo by Miriam Berkley

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Sentence: The Sensualist by Daniel Torday

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

My father pulled the photographs down off the walls.  My grandfather's young face crossed the room and then went silently into a box.

The Sensualist by Daniel Torday

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Next Big Thing: Dubble

My friend and fellow novelist Laura Harrington recently invited me to participate in the blog-tagging "Next Big Thing" which is currently making the rounds among writers.  Since I'm knuckling down on revising my own NBT (or will be when I'm not writing this blog post), I figured I'd join the party.  At the end of this post, I'll tag-team a few other authors in hopes they'll tell us about their own works-in-progress.  Here are the standard questions:

What is the working title of your book?

What genre does your book fall under?
I suppose it would be "Literary Fiction," but you could probably also find it in the "Hollywood Screwball Comedies of Epic Length" section at your local bookstore.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is always a hard question for me to answer because, as much as I love movies and TV, my mind always freezes to a blank when I try to play "fantasy casting."  Because my main character is a little person, a lot of friends tell me I should have Peter Dinklage's agent on speed dial.  He might be too old for the part of the 21-year-old, though.  Same with Danny DeVito.  So, I guess I'd cast an unknown.  For the role of Eddie Danger, the temperamental child actor, I'd choose Mickey Rooney, circa 1937.  But then that might be too obvious because the Mickster is sort of the original inspiration for the novel.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In 1940, David Dubble, a 21-year-old little person and stuntman for child actor Eddie Danger, has to cover up the fact that the kid accidentally killed a rival studio's canine mascot.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
From first letter to last period, the initial draft took me six years.  But that was 14 years ago, so it's had a two-decade life.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
First and foremost, there's The Day Of The Locust by Nathanael West, which is probably the greatest novel ever written about Hollywood.  But I'd also include the novels of Bruce Wagner, The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald and What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg.

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I like to think about contradictions and juxtapositions; the way they rub up against each other can often lead to some bizarre and, hopefully, funny situations.  One day, for whatever reason, I wondered what it would be like if an adult got a job as a stunt double for a child actor.  And what if the adult is basically a good guy and the kid is a spoiled brat whose behavior causes him no end of agony?  I kind of liked that odd scenario.  Then around that same time, two other things happened: I saw an old Mickey Rooney movie and I heard about The Terror of Tiny Town, the all-midget Western (though I didn't actually watch that movie until last year).  Things started clicking, and I started typing.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
How many screwball-comedy novels about Hollywood stuntmen do you know that have won a blue-ribbon at the state fair?  Well, mine did. When I was living in Alaska in 1993, I entered what was then Dubble's first chapter in the Tanana Valley State Fair and, to my surprise, I won the 1993 Grand Champion in the Creative Writing Division.  I'll always think of Dubble as the prize-winning monster cabbage of my novels.

When and how will it be published?
Nothing's a guarantee in this business, of course, but I'm crossing all my fingers that my editor will think the world is ready for a funny book about a little guy trying to survive Hollywood's golden age with his body and sanity intact.  After that, it's anybody's guess when (or if) it will make it into print.

And now here are some of my friends who have agreed to talk about their Next Big Things:

Jennifer Spiegel, author of The Freak Chronicles (Dzanc Books) and Love Slave (Unbridled Books).  Here's Jennifer talking about her Next Big Thing, a novel called Sappho Unspoken.

Craig Lancaster, author of 600 Hours of Edward and Edward Adrift.  Here's Craig talking about his Next Big Thing, a novel called Julep Street.

Anne Leigh Parrish, author of All the Roads That Lead From Home (Press 53).

John Clayton, author of The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart. Here's John talking about his Next Big Thing, essays about Montana.

Melanie Thorne, author of Hand Me Down.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Freebie: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr. and The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

Congratulations to Jennifer Spiegel, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Canada by Richard Ford and The Tell by Hester Kaplan.

In this week's book giveaway, one lucky reader will win a copy of both Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr. and The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns.  I've previously written about them here at the blog and it's pretty obvious that both of these novels have top slots in my To-Be-Read pile.  Here's a little more info about each of them:

Chris Bohjalian begins his review of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles in The Washington Post thusly:
A few weeks ago, I was nearly asked to leave the waiting room outside the endoscopy clinic at a Vermont hospital, thanks to Ron Currie Jr.’s new novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. A friend of mine had just turned 50 and was getting his first colonoscopy. I drove him to the hospital and brought Currie’s novel to read while he was sleeping through what we euphemistically refer to as “the procedure.”  I reached a scene so blisteringly funny that I laughed as I hadn’t laughed in years: We’re talking demonic, unstoppable, don’t-sit-next-to-that-guy howls.
Like the saying goes, he had me at "colonoscopy."  I'm not sure if this plot summary of Currie's novel (in which the main character is also named Ron Currie Jr.) really does justice to the book, but here goes nothing:
The protagonist of Ron Currie, Jr.’s new novel has a problem­—or rather, several of them. He’s a writer whose latest book was destroyed in a fire. He’s mourning the death of his father, and has been in love with the same woman since grade school, a woman whose beauty and allure is matched only by her talent for eluding him. Worst of all, he’s not even his own man, but rather an amalgam of fact and fiction from Ron Currie’s own life. When Currie the character exiles himself to a small Caribbean island to write a new book about the woman he loves, he eventually decides to fake his death, which turns out to be the best career move he’s ever made. But fame and fortune come with a price, and Currie learns that in a time of twenty-four-hour news cycles, reality TV, and celebrity Twitter feeds, the one thing the world will not forgive is having been told a deeply satisfying lie. What kind of distinction could, or should, be drawn between Currie the author and Currie the character? Or between the book you hold in your hands and the novel embedded in it? Whatever the answers, Currie, an inventive writer always eager to test the boundaries of storytelling in provocative ways, has essential things to impart along the way about heartbreak, reality, grief, deceit, human frailty, and blinding love.
The Charlotte Observer had this to say about The Burn Palace: “A story that rocks along without a word wasted…Dobyns writes a straight thriller, but his mastery of language puts the reader into empty streets swirling with bits of paper and dead leaves, makes us feel at one moment hurried along and at the next expansive and thoughtful…Read slowly (if you can!) to enjoy his craftsmanship.”  In Dobyns' novel, the sleepy community of Brewster, Rhode Island, is just like any other small American town. It’s a place where most of the population will likely die blocks from where they were born; where gossip spreads like wildfire, and the big entertainment on weekends is the inevitable fight at the local bar. But recently, something out of the ordinary—perhaps even supernatural—has been stirring in Brewster. While packs of coyotes gather on back roads and the news spreads that a baby has been stolen from Memorial Hospital (and replaced in its bassinet by a snake), a series of inexplicably violent acts begins to confound Detective Woody Potter and the local police—and inspire terror in the hearts and minds of the locals.  This is a sardonic yet chillingly suspenseful novel: the literary equivalent of a Richard Russo small-town tableau crossed with a Stephen King thriller.  None other than the King himself has lavished praise on The Burn Palace by saying:
Dobyns has always been good, but this book is authentically great. The characters are vivid originals, not a stereotype among them, and the story pulled this reader in so completely that I didn't want the book to end, and actually did go back to re-read the first chapter. One of the characters, Bingo Schwartz, loves opera, and there's something operatic about this book. All the disparate plot-threads draw together in a smashing, full-volume climax. This one is the full meal, by turns terrifying, sweet, and crazily funny. By God, there's even a sex scene so hot it makes those 50 Shades books look like Little Women....One more thing. If ever there was a novel that demonstrates why this mode of entertainment remains healthy and vital more that 150 years after Charles Dickens did his thing, The Burn Palace is that book. It is, simply put, the embodiment of why we read stories, and why the novel will always be a better bang for the entertainment buck than movies or TV.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of both Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles and The Burn Palace, all you have to do is 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 Feb. 28at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on March 1.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen 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.

*One small caveat: the hardcover copy of The Burn Palace has a small tear on the top back cover--damaged in shipment to me.  So, if you're a book-collecting purist and those kind of things bother you, I thought I should let you know.  The contents inside the cover, however, remain rippingly good.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

From Montana to L.A.: Fobbit's Good Fortune

Some pleasant things have been happening with Fobbit this month and I thought I'd share the good news with you here at the blog.

First of all, Fobbit was named an Honor Book in the Montana Book Awards which are given to books written or illustrated by someone who lives in Montana, are set in Montana, or deal with Montana themes or issues.  It was founded by the Friends of the Missoula Public Library in 2001 and the awardees are selected by a committee of individuals representing areas throughout Montana.  I'm already proud to be a resident of the Big Sky State, but this really puts the snow on my mountains and the wind in my prairie grass.

The top winner of this year's Montana Book Award is The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth, the novel which tells the coming-of-age story of a girl in Miles City, Montana struggling against prejudice as she finds her true sexuality.  Curtis Sittenfeld blurbed it by saying, "If Holden Caulfield had been a gay girl from Montana, this is the story he might have told".  Coincidentally, I was in Miles City (emily's hometown) this past weekend, giving a presentation called "How to Tell a War Story" as part of the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau.  I told the audience they had every right to be proud of their literary superstar.

The other Honor Books this year are The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin, Mammals of Montana by Kerry Foresman, and The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on The Big Dry by Joe Wilkins.

The other big award news (which I had to wait until this morning's official announcement to share) is that Fobbit is one of five finalists for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction in the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.  The winners of the 2012 Book Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony on April 19 at 7:30 pm, in the Bovard Auditorium on the campus of USC.  This occasion will mark the 33rd annual presentation of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and will inaugurate the 18th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.  I'm thrilled that Fobbit was selected alongside the other finalists:
The Natural Order of Things by Kevin P. Keating
Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Click here for a complete list of nominees in all the categories.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.  Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex.  And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video.  So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.

I missed this trailer for Karen Thompson Walker's novel The Age of Miracles when it was released by Random House back in December, but I'm glad I finally caught it.  Now that the novel has come out in paperback, the trailer reminds me this might be a good time to finally read one of the most talked-about books of 2012.  The Age of Miracles is built around a simple premise: the rotation of the Earth goes all out of whack, throwing off daylight hours, triggering catastrophes, and sending the rhythm of life into disarray--including that of 10-year-old Julia who struggles to make sense of this new, soon-to-end world.  The trailer is haunting, beautifully-filmed, and features a strong voice-over narration (which, I'm assuming, is text lifted straight from the book):  "Later, I would think of those first days as the time we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different—unimagined, unprepared for, unknown."

Monday, February 18, 2013

My First Time: Rita Leganski

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 Rita Leganski, author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, the story of a boy “who didn't make a peep when he was born.”  Booklist praised Leganski's debut novel by saying, “This mystical fairy tale set in a 1950s-era Louisiana rife with religion, superstition, and tradition draws you in from the wondrous first page.  Silence has never been so boundlessly eloquent.”  Leganski holds an MA in writing and publishing and a BA in literary studies and creative writing from DePaul University.  She teaches a writing workshop at DePaul’s School for New Learning and was a recipient of the Arthur Weinberg Memorial Prize for a work of historical fiction.
My First Story Submission

The process has changed since I sent a manuscript off for the very first time.  It was on a weekday in 2001, between one and two in the afternoon.  I can pin the time down because I mailed it on my lunch hour.  And by “mailed,” I mean at the post office—the Jurassic Park of manuscript submission.  Although winter filled the air, the sun shone brightly.  So much for omens.

I had dressed up for the occasion and felt totally put together in my stylish black wool coat and high-heeled boots.  Sometimes you just can’t beat a good cliché for saying something, so let me tell you I was Walking On Air.  I skipped up the post office steps and whooshed through the glass double doors, dead certain I was on my way to fame and fortune—no doubt about it.

There’s another cliché that allowed me to skip and whoosh and be dead certain: Ignorance Is Bliss.

I have no idea what inspired me to start writing.  Repressed ambition?  Maybe.  An escape wish?  It’s possible.  Insanity?  Delirium?  All of the above?  I had recently divorced and was busy reinventing myself; the writing notion may have been part of the process.  Whatever the reason, the urge came over me like some kind of attack; I woke up in the night convinced I should write a novel (nothing like aiming high).  The very next day I came up with what I thought was a damn fine title and proceeded to base the main character on me and the other characters on people I knew.  All I changed were the names.  Had anyone ever been so clever?

Obsession set in.  That story was with me when I ate, slept, ran, drove, worked, showered, cleaned, and did the laundry.  It owned half of every breath I took.  I wrote at warp factor nine.  My fingers flew over the keyboard; my mind raced.  I thought every single word was an all-capital-letters GEM; le mot juste as the French would say.

Wrong.  The end result was really, really bad.  The action and dialogue were predictable and the characters underdeveloped.  I didn’t bother with plot, but threw in plenty of dream scenes and saccharine.  The thing burped rainbows.

Needless to say, that manuscript was rejected by everyone I sent it to.

Today it lives in the uppermost reaches of the closet in the spare room, sealed in a box, where it will remain.  So why do I keep it?  Because I don’t want to let go of all that innocence and belief and delight.  I want a mile marker of my rite of passage, a souvenir of my new beginning.

Photo by Neil Gorman

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Freebie: Canada by Richard Ford and The Tell by Hester Kaplan

Congratulations to James Stolen, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash and Dolls Behaving Badly by Cinthia Ritchie.

This week's book giveaway is another literary duet: new paperback copies of Canada by Richard Ford and The Tell by Hester Kaplan.  The copy of The Tell is signed by the author.

Canada--one of my favorite books of 2012--opens with two stark, compelling sentences: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later."  Those words set the tone for the rest of the novel which Colm Toibin says is "a brilliant and engrossing portrait of a fragile American family and the fragile consciousness of a teenage boy."  That teenage boy, Dell Parsons, is the heart and soul of Ford's masterful, majestic novel--his best fiction since Rock Springs, in my humble opinion.  Here's the plot summary:
When fifteen-year-old Del Parsons' parents rob a North Dakota bank, his normal life is altered forever, and a threshold is crossed that can never be uncrossed. His parents' imprisonment threatens a turbulent and uncertain future for Del and his twin sister, Berner. Fierce with resentment, Berner flees their Montana home for California. But Del is not completely abandoned. A family friend spirits him across the Canadian border toward safety and a better life. There, afloat on the Saskatchewan prairie, Del finds only cold refuge from Arthur Remlinger, an enigmatic and alluring American fugitive with a dark and violent past. Undone by the calamity of his parents' robbery, Del struggles to remake himself. But his search for grace only moves him nearer to a harrowing and murderous collision with the forces of darkness that shadow us all.

The Tell, according to Antonya Nelson (author of Bound), is "an homage to The Great Gatsby: The competing forces of true love and false idols are played out beautifully in the course of a roiling relationship with a larger-than-life neighbor." Here's the plot synopsis about the tangled webs woven in these pages:
Mira and Owen's marriage is less stable than they know when Wilton Deere, an aging, no longer famous TV star moves in to the grand house next door. With plenty of money and plenty of time to kill, Wilton is charming but ruthless as he inserts himself into the couple's life in a quest for distraction, friendship—and most urgently—a connection with Anya, the daughter he abandoned years earlier. Facing stresses at home and work, Mira begins to accompany Wilton to a casino and is drawn to the slot machines. Escapism soon turns to full-on addiction and a growing tangle of lies and shame that threatens her fraying marriage and home. Betrayed and confused, Owen turns to the mysterious Anya, who is testing her own ability to trust her father after many years apart.
I've placed The Tell near the top of my own To-Be-Read pile, based in part on this perfectly-written first paragraph:
For weeks he’d waited for the wild lilacs arching over the carriage house to come to bloom. Then, back from teaching and a plodding swim at the Y in the afternoon, Owen had spotted the first fat plume with its buds rising like a thousand fists. The driveway’s pea gravel had protested underfoot as he broke off a sprig. He’d put the lilacs, delicate and strong-perfumed, in a pitcher on the sill over the sink for his wife Mira and saw now, as he looked up from his hands circling under running water, how their hue matched the lowering sky, the drooping sun. In the tinted early evening, Providence was washed with improbable color, lulled by a phony urban calm, the arterial whoosh of the highway and the digestive rumbling of the train moving out of the station down the hill toward Boston. Behind him at the table, Mira read in the paper about the city's boasts and failings, its crimes and peculiarities. His wife's head would be at that absorbed angle as though every story was interesting and in some way personal, but he understood that this sense of knowing her completely was wrong.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of both Canada and The Tell, all you have to do is 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 Feb. 21at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 22.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen 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, February 14, 2013

Front Porch Books: February 2013 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, 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 just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

The Good House by Ann Leary (St. Martin's Press):  I'll admit I'm initially drawn to Ann Leary's novel by its cover design--the mustard-yellow house buried up to its roofline in snow, the bold black serif font, that solitary red cardinal perched on the eaves--but once inside, I stay for the writing.  Exhibit A, the Opening Lines:
      I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions. I remember joking about this one evening with Peter Newbold, the shrink who rents the office upstairs from mine.
      “The next time you get a new patient,” I offered, “I’ll sneak to their house for a walk-through. While you jot down notes about their history, dreams, whatever, I’ll shine a flashlight into the attic, open a few cupboards, and have a peek at the bedrooms. Later, when we compare notes, I’ll have the clearer picture of the person’s mental health, guaranteed.” I was teasing the doctor, of course, but I’ve been selling houses since he was in primary school, and I stand by my theory.
      I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives—you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench oozes up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before. The marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s now clearly hers—well, you get the idea.
The narrator of those sentences is Hildy Good, alcoholic Realtor and, from what I can gather from the first few pages of Leary's novel, a character to be savored like a fine after-dinner wine.  Here's the Jacket Copy for what looks like a very promising plot:
Hildy Good is a townie. A lifelong resident of an historic community on the rocky coast of Boston’s North Shore, she knows pretty much everything about everyone. Hildy is a descendant of one of the witches hung in nearby Salem, and is believed, by some, to have inherited psychic gifts. Not true, of course; she’s just good at reading people. Hildy is good at lots of things. A successful real-estate broker, mother and grandmother, her days are full. But her nights have become lonely ever since her daughters, convinced their mother was drinking too much, staged an intervention and sent her off to rehab. Now she’s in recovery—more or less.  Alone and feeling unjustly persecuted, Hildy needs a friend. She finds one in Rebecca McCallister, a beautiful young mother and one of the town’s wealthy newcomers. Rebecca feels out-of-step in her new surroundings and is grateful for the friendship. And Hildy feels like a person of the world again, as she and Rebecca escape their worries with some harmless gossip, and a bottle of wine by the fire—just one of their secrets.  But not everyone takes to Rebecca, who is herself the subject of town gossip. When Frank Getchell, an eccentric local who shares a complicated history with Hildy, tries to warn her away from Rebecca, Hildy attempts to protect her friend from a potential scandal. Soon, however, Hildy is busy trying to cover her own tracks and protect her reputation. When a cluster of secrets become dangerously entwined, the reckless behavior of one threatens to expose the other, and this darkly comic novel takes a chilling turn.
Blurbworthiness: "Leary's genius is to give us a true original: Hildy, a not-so-recovering alcoholic/realtor who crashlands among a colorful cast of New England neighbors, but Leary also says a great deal about the houses we choose to live, the people we're compelled to love, and the addictions we don't want to give up. So alive, I swear the pages of this wickedly funny and moving novel are breathing."  (Caroline Leavitt, author of Is This Tomorrow)

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash (Ecco):  Ron Rash follows his last novel (The Cove) with a new book of short stories which firmly inhabit his distinctive Appalachian terrain.  I can't wait to take a trip to Rashland.  Here's the Jacket Copy for Nothing Gold Can Stay:
In the title story, two drug-addicted friends return to the farm where they worked as boys to steal their former boss's gruesomely unusual war trophies. In "The Trusty," which first appeared in The New Yorker, a prisoner sent to fetch water for his chain gang tries to sweet-talk a farmer's young wife into helping him escape, only to find that she is as trapped as he is. In "Something Rich and Strange," a diver is called upon to pull a drowned girl's body free from under a falls, but he finds her eerily at peace below the surface.
That last story ("Something Rich and Strange") comes from the opening of Rash's novel Saints at the River.  I was going to quote the first lines of that story here, but then I realized I'd already posted them to the blog a year ago.  They still grip me in a tight clutch every time I read them.  So, instead, I'll give you the Opening Lines (from "Cherokee," a story which first appeared in Ecotone):
With a green rabbit’s foot clipped on his belt loop, a silver four-leaf clover dangling from his neck, Danny has brought all the good luck he could find. As they drive past a billboard advertising Harrah’s Casino, his free hand caresses the rabbit fur, perhaps hoping luck really can rub off on you. Angie remembers a story about a magic lamp that, once rubbed, grants three wishes. Danny would settle for just one––make the one hundred and fifty-seven dollars in her handbag turn into a thousand.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (Simon & Schuster):  You know Jeannette Walls as the best-selling author of the memoir The Glass Castle and the "true-life novel" Half Broke Horses, and now she's going Full-Throttle Fiction with The Silver Star.  Though the Jacket Copy may be full of spoilers, I'm still intrigued:
It is 1970. “Bean” Holladay is twelve and her sister Liz is fifteen when their artistic mother Charlotte, a woman “who flees every place she’s ever lived at the first sign of trouble,” takes off to “find herself.” She leaves her girls enough money for food to last a month or two. But when Bean gets home from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz board a bus from California to Virginia, where their widowed Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying antebellum mansion that’s been in the family for generations. An impetuous optimist, Bean discovers who her father was and learns many stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place. Money is tight, so Liz and Bean start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the mill in town, a big man who bullies workers, tenants, and his wife. Bean adores her whip-smart older sister, inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, non-conformist. But when school starts in the fall, it’s Bean who easily adjusts and makes friends, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens to Liz in the car with Maddox.
 I'm even more convinced by the novel's Opening Lines:
      My sister saved my life when I was just a baby. Here's what happened. After a fight with her family, Mom decided to leave home in the middle of the night, taking us with her. She put me in the infant carrier and set it on the roof of the car while she stashed some things in the trunk, then she settled Liz, who was three, in the backseat. Mom was going through a rough period at the time and had a lot on her mind--craziness, craziness, craziness, she'd say later. Completely forgetting about me--I was only a few months old--Mom drove off. Liz shrieked my name and pointed to the roof of the car. At first Mom didn't understand what Liz was saying, then she realized what she'd done and slammed on the brakes. The carrier slid forward onto the hood, but since I was strapped in, I was all right. In fact, I wasn't even crying. In the years afterward, whenever Mom told the story, which she found hilarious and acted out in dramatic detail, she liked to say thank goodness Liz had her wits about her, otherwise that carrier would have flown right off and I'd have been a goner.
      Liz remembered the whole thing vividly, but she never thought it was funny. She had saved me. That was the kind of sister Liz was. And that was why, the night the whole mess started, I wasn't worried that Mom had been gone for four day. I was more worried about the chicken potpies.

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee (Algonquin Books):  Lee's debut collection of short stories arrived on my doorstep complete with some powerhouse Blurbworthiness: “Bobcat and Other Stories is nothing short of brilliant. Rebecca Lee writes with the unflinching, cumulatively devastating precision of Chekhov and Munro, peeling back layer after layer of illusion until we’re left with the truth of ourselves … This extraordinary story collection is sure to confirm its author as one of the best writers of her generation.” (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and “[T]his is a great collection, so alive to itself that it made my skin buzz. Most stories are domesticated, pacing along step by step, but Lee's roam and dart like wild things and yet somehow wind up exactly where they intended to go. They are ardent, wayward, vigilant, heartbreaking, and, amidst all the trouble they explore, mysteriously funny.”  (Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead).  Like most advance review copies which arrive at Casa Abrams, Bobcat was also accompanied by a press kit from the publisher.  As a rule, my eyes glaze over when it comes to "Dear Reader" letters, but this one from Algonquin editor Kathy Pories really caught my attention:
      A few years ago, a good friend of mine, a writer, sent me a little chapbook written by a friend of hers. It contained just one story, "Bobcat," but it was the kind of story that I finished and then read again immediately. I couldn’t stop talking about it. I passed it on to a few people, and then it disappeared, kept by the last reader, who wanted to read it a few more times.
      That story, the title story to this collection, was set at a dinner party that revealed so much more about everyone there than they realized, in language that was precise, in sentences that cut to the heart. It was funny, but also heartbreaking, and mysterious as to how it worked. You could not help but be led by Rebecca Lee through the story, and then be as surprised as the narrator for where you ended up.
      So when Rebecca Lee’s agent sent me her story collection, I was thrilled to see that story making its way back to me, and I knew I’d like her others. But I wasn’t prepared for how much, nor how I would proselytize about them or force them into people’s hands. I wasn’t prepared for how each story was like a compressed little novel. I found myself using the words "brilliant" and "insightful" and then finally saying things like "she sees everything the way I wish I did" and then jotting down sentences so that I could remember them. And then I started to worry that I was maybe losing my mind a little bit and obviously using too much hyperbole.
      But then others at Algonquin and Workman started to read the collection, and I sent it out to writers for their thoughts. Still, I was trying to rein myself in; I said, "just read one, and see what you think." When you love something this much, it’s anxiety-producing, as you don’t want to hear anyone else say anything otherwise. So I felt a a profound relief as I began to hear their reactions (especially from those who claimed they weren’t short story readers). You can see some of those glowing blurbs here; what you can’t hear is how passionate people were as they talked to me about this collection. Let’s just say I heard the word "love" a lot.
      I’ll say it to you: if you doubt me, just read one. Start with the first, or second, or third. Or anywhere. Every year, there is a story collection that wakes us up—the one that we all remember, like Birds of America or Pastoralia or St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. 2013 is the year of the Bobcat.
I'm anxious to settle in with the collection to see if the hoopla is justified.  Judging by the one story in the book I've already read--"Fialta" when it was previously published in Zoetrope All-Story--I think it is.  Here are the opening lines to one of the stories ("The Banks of the Vistula"):
It was dusk; the campus had turned to velvet. I walked the brick path to Humanities, which loomed there and seemed to incline toward me, as God does toward the sinner in the Book of Psalms.

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee (Random House):  The publisher compares this new novel by Jonathan Dee (author of The Privileges) to the work of another Jonathan: Franzen.  Okay, I'm intrigued.  That curiosity is further piqued by the Jacket Copy:
Once a privileged and loving couple, the Armsteads have now reached a breaking point. Ben, a partner in a prestigious law firm, has become unpredictable at work and withdrawn at home—a change that weighs heavily on his wife, Helen, and their preteen daughter, Sara. Then, in one afternoon, Ben’s recklessness takes an alarming turn, and everything the Armsteads have built together unravels, swiftly and spectacularly.  Thrust back into the working world, Helen finds a job in public relations and relocates with Sara from their home in upstate New York to an apartment in Manhattan. There, Helen discovers she has a rare gift, indispensable in the world of image control: She can convince arrogant men to admit their mistakes, spinning crises into second chances. Yet redemption is more easily granted in her professional life than in her personal one.  As she is confronted with the biggest case of her career, the fallout from her marriage, and Sara’s increasingly distant behavior, Helen must face the limits of accountability and her own capacity for forgiveness.
Here are the Opening Lines, a domestic scene which could have been lifted from one of a million suburban houses in America, but which is so well-written it compels me to read more:
      Helen tried not to look at her watch, because looking at your watch never changed anything, but it was already a quarter to seven and her husband’s headlights had yet to appear at the top of the hill. Evening had darkened to the point where she had to press her forehead to the kitchen window and frame her eyes with her hands just to see outside. Meadow Close was a dead end street, and so even if she couldn’t make out the car itself, the moment she saw headlights of any kind cresting the hill there was a one in six chance they were Ben’s. More like one in three, actually, because by turning her face a bit in the bowl of her hands she could see the Hugheses’ car parked in their driveway, and the Griffins’, and that obscene yellow Hummer that belonged to Dr. Parnell—­
      “Mom!” Sara yelled from the living room. “Can I have some more seltzer?”
      Twelve was old enough to get your own fanny out of the chair and pour your own third glass of seltzer. But it was Tuesday, and on Tuesday evening guilt always ruled, which was why Sara was eating dinner in front of the TV in the first place, and so Helen said only, pointedly, “Please?”
      “Please,” Sara answered.
      She couldn’t help stealing a look at the kitchen clock as she closed the refrigerator door. Six-­fifty. Mr. Passive Aggressive strikes again, she thought. She wasn’t always confident she understood that expression correctly—­passive aggressive—­but she referred to it instinctively whenever Ben failed to do something he had promised her he would do.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books): As regular blog readers know, I spent most of my time last September and October on the road in support of my debut novel Fobbit, visiting bookstores, speaking on panels at book festivals, and attending publishing industry trade shows (like the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association gatherings).  At those shows, publishing sales reps, editors and authors mingled, rubbed elbows, and chattered with fervent urgency about what they thought was the Next Big Book.  The one title that came up in conversation over and over was How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.  I can't tell you how many times Mohsin Hamid's novel was pressed into my hands by someone who, an excited spittle-mist flying from their lips, told me, "If you read one book this year, make it this one."  After the third such encounter, I started thinking that maybe this wasn't just publishing-industry hype, maybe I was holding a true gem in my hands, maybe How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia really was the Next Big Thing.  Since then, time and other obligations have conspired against me and I haven't had the chance to sit down with Hamid's novel, but believe me when I say it's very near the summit of my mountain of books to read (aka Mt. NeverRest).  As the Jacket Copy tells us, it's the tale of  “a man’s journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon” which  “follows its nameless hero to the sprawling metropolis where he begins to amass an empire built on that most fluid, and increasingly scarce, of goods: water. Yet his heart remains set on something else, on the pretty girl whose star rises along with his.”  I just took another look at the Opening Lines and was reminded why I suspected all those sales reps were onto something.  See if you don't agree with me that Hamid's style is the very definition of spell-binding:
      Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books. But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on.
      None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.
      This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.
The rest of the novel continues with that same second-person point of view.  Rather than being a too-clever literary device which quickly wears thin, I think it works well here in this faux self-help, how-to book.  But don't just take my word for it.  None other than Jay McInerney, author of the landmark 2nd-POV novel Bright Lights, Big City, gave How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia this nice piece of Blurbworthiness:  “A dazzling stylistic tour de force; a love story disguised as a self-help guide, freighted with sly social satire.  As timely and timeless a novel as I’ve read in years.”

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco):  The arrival of a new JCO book--on average, once every six months--is always a cause for confetti-tossing, but there's something about The Accursed which has me really excited.  Part of that anticipation starts with the way her 132nd* novel is packaged by her publisher.  Ecco has given the 667-page book an elegant cover design which uses a detail from Profile of a Young Woman by Giovanni Boldini to good effect.  The jacket spine and back are a deep cranberry red and even the paper stock feels....well, regal, I guess.  I can't properly describe for you how impressed I am by this book before I even open it.  You'll have to touch it for yourself to see what I mean.  But of course it's what's inside the cover that really counts.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century: a tranquil place to raise a family, a genteel town for genteel souls. But something dark and dangerous lurks at the edges of the town, corrupting and infecting its residents. Vampires and ghosts haunt the dreams of the innocent. A powerful curse besets the elite families of Princeton; their daughters begin disappearing. A young bride on the verge of the altar is seduced and abducted by a dangerously compelling man–a shape-shifting, vaguely European prince who might just be the devil, and who spreads his curse upon a richly deserving community of white Anglo-Saxon privilege. And in the Pine Barrens that border the town, a lush and terrifying underworld opens up. When the bride's brother sets out against all odds to find her, his path will cross those of Princeton's most formidable people, from Grover Cleveland, fresh out of his second term in the White House and retired to town for a quieter life, to soon-to-be commander in chief Woodrow Wilson, president of the university and a complex individual obsessed to the point of madness with his need to retain power; from the young Socialist idealist Upton Sinclair to his charismatic comrade Jack London, and the most famous writer of the era, Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain–all plagued by "accursed" visions.
You know you are firmly planted in Gothic territory right from the Opening Lines of the Prologue:
      It is an afternoon in autumn, near dusk. The western sky is a spider’s web of translucent gold. I am being brought by carriage—two horses—muted thunder of their hooves—along narrow country roads between hilly fields touched with the sun’s slanted rays, to the village of Princeton, New Jersey. The urgent pace of the horses has a dreamlike air, like the rocking motion of the carriage; and whoever is driving the horses his face I cannot see, only his back—stiff, straight, in a tight-fitting dark coat.
      Quickening of a heartbeat that must be my own yet seems to emanate from without, like a great vibration of the very earth. There is a sense of exhilaration that seems to spring, not from within me, but from the countryside. How hopeful I am! How excited! With what childlike affection, shading in to wonderment, I greet this familiar yet near-forgotten landscape! Cornfields, wheat fields, pastures in which dairy cows graze like motionless figures in a landscape by Corot...the calls of red-winged blackbirds and starlings...the shallow though swift-flowing Stony Brook Creek and the narrow wood-plank bridge over which the horses' hooves and the carriage wheels thump...a smell of rich, moist earth, harvest... I see that I am being propelled along the Great Road, I am nearing home, I am nearing the mysterious origin of my birth. This journey I undertake with such anticipation is not one of geographical space but one of Time—for it is the year 1905 that is my destination.
      1905!—the very year of the Curse.
Blurbworthiness: “[The Accursed] is in addition to being a thrilling tale in the best gothic tradition, a lesson in master craftsmanship...The story sprawls, reaches, demands, tears, and shrieks in homage to the traditional gothic, yet with fresh, surprising twists and turns... Oates has given us a brilliantly crafted work .”  (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

*Just kidding.  This is actually her 39th novel.  I think.  I lost count somewhere back around the time of We Were the Mulvaneys.