Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian


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




Now that’s how you do a book trailer. Haunting, mesmerizing, intriguing, not too long, and not too short, the video for Chris Bohjalian’s new novel The Sleepwalker does its work efficiently and beautifully. Mixing blurbs with shots of a woman hypnotically rising from bed and walking in a trance down to the river, the trailer most definitely makes me want to buy the book. (I already have it on my shelf, so I guess that means I’ll go out and buy an extra copy to give to a friend who’s looking for what The Washington Post calls “a dark, Hitchcockian novel.”) In the novel, a wife and mother, known for her episodes of sleepwalking, doesn’t return to her bed one night and, after a swatch of her torn nightgown is found hanging on a tree branch, her community assumes she is dead but her family and a detective believe that might not necessarily be the case. Things are not always as they seem. I’ll leave you with one last blurb (from USA Today)―one that makes me bump the novel even higher on my to-be-read list: “Great mystery writers, like great magicians, have the ability to hide the truth that’s right before your eyes. Best-selling novelist Chris Bohjalian is at the full power of his literary legerdemain in his newest book, The Sleepwalker...Masterful plotting evokes a magician who distracts his audience to look this way, not that way. The ending will have the reader rereading for missed clues.” This looks like great bedtime reading (or maybe all-lights-blazing-during-the-daytime reading).


Monday, January 30, 2017

My First Time: Beth Kissileff


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 Beth Kissileff, author of the novel Questioning Return and editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. She works as a journalist and her writing appears regularly in various publications such as Tablet, the Forward, New York Jewish Week, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post and Religion News Service. She has taught at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Carleton, the University of Minnesota and Shaw University and had writer’s residencies at the Corporation of Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She is at work on a Reading Exodus anthology, a volume of short stories and a second novel.


The First Time I Stopped Being Jealous
of Other Writers

A friend of mine recently asked what has been the most exciting moment in having my novel published. I had to think. Was it opening the galleys from the publisher, or opening the final printed book with the thoughtful blurbs from five writers and scholars I admire and acknowledgements to my family? Reading from it in public for the first time at a synagogue I had gone to for the High Holidays as a child, and spent many hours curled up with a book on the roof as the grown ups prayed for a good and auspicious year, hoping maybe somewhere in the corner of my mind that one day I would be a writer too? It seems a remarkable coincidence that the same place now hosts a summer “Scribblers on the Roof” writing series and I am reading to an audience with my parents’ oldest friends, my daughter and some of her friends, my sister in law, a cousin, friends from graduate school and high school and Pittsburgh, really all parts of my life. My publisher telling me it was the best launch of a debut novel he has had?

No, the best moment of having a novel out was when two weeks before my publication date, I walked into Book Culture on 112th, between Broadway and Amsterdam in New York, my favorite place to browse, new academic and popular books, always get great ideas, smaller and more accessible than the labyrinthine Strand that I also love. Whenever I go into a book store, I do something superstitious, I check the shelves and see where my book would be placed, who are the authors I belong between alphabetically. I feel like if I imagine it enough, one day it will come into being, I don’t really know where or how I got this idea but it has been something I’ve been doing for the last few years, a way of proving to myself that one day my ideas will turn real, will be set between two covers of a book and laid out on a shelf for a random browser to pick up. And on this day, it happened. My book was right there on the shelf where I’d hoped it would be for so long! It was unexpected since it was before the official date for the book to go on sale.


I’ve wanted this for a long time, since I read books I admired, and thought that I wanted to write something like that one day. I knew I would eventually, but didn’t think it would take quite as long as it did. I wanted to be a writer in college and my twenties. In college, I took a writing course and hated the savagery with which other students were willing to critique both my stories and ideas and those of others. I didn’t want to go to an MFA program or take other writing courses. I wrote, but for myself, never tried to publish. I had a big old Victorian house with a porch and a large wide third-floor room, big enough to house all of the books my husband and I own, as well as our desks, with space left over. When I first saw the room I told myself that this would be where I would write my novel, the perfect space. I did spend time in that room writing, but I was also teaching full time some semesters and parenting young children. And unsure how or where to publish even when I had material worth sending.

And then, I moved to a new city when I was almost 40. Fortunately for me, there was a place in my new city called The Loft that offered writing courses. Finally, I had a place to go where people other than myself cared about writing and the kind of writing I did. For my 40th birthday, I created my very own writer’s retreat, going to the Andersen Center in Red Wing, Minnesota, for a few days by myself to write. It was a productive time. I know which pieces of my novel I wrote while there, can remember distinctly reading a Paris Review interview with a particular writer and basing an aspect of a scene on the ideas contained there. After that, I did finally start to submit my stories and in fall 2009, at age 41, my first fiction story was published. Shortly thereafter I applied to Yaddo; for my 42nd birthday, I was at the writer’s residency program.

Some of getting it together as a writer was finding places that would support my aspirations, both on my own and in a community of writers and artists. Not being afraid of getting critiques, of seeing how others react, having the thicker skin that one develops as one ages.

And I will confess something unpleasant, that until this book came out I had been jealous of those who did this thing earlier in their lives, those writers who were my chronological age and seemed to be doing much much better than I was, publishing with ease, making money, all while being married and having kids, even having other non-writing careers.

But different things happened to those I was jealous of earlier. One who started young and has continued to publish, but some of the work is growing thin; in fact, when I queried an editor I often do reviews for he declined to review her latest at all, dubbing it a “beach read.” Another who had what I am told was a six-figure advance on her first novel, has not been able to publish her second and isn’t writing much anymore. A third, who published young and seemingly with ease, has young children and a husband who must be overseas for work frequently, leaving her in charge of the bulk of their lives. She does still write, but seems overwhelmed. So none of them are the wild successes I once imagined them to be.

Six-figure advance writer had a fancy professional photo taken for her book jacket, complete with make-up session and hair being done; my author photo was done by my teen photography-loving daughter, after I had a haircut, no fancy styling. I thought having a make-up and photo session would make me feel I had arrived in some way. Yet, I am pleased to give my daughter an opportunity to do this work, to take a photo that will be seen by many. This writer is also now divorced and her ex married someone whose career is diametrically opposed to almost all of the values she espouses. Though she does still have lots of success, her life isn’t one I would take over for my own these days.

I once accosted Nathan Englander at the Hungarian Pastry Shop and asked him for writing advice. “Don’t publish till you are ready” were his words to me. I thought, sure, that’s easy for him to say when he received an unprecedentedly large amount of money for a volume of short stories printed before he turned 30. But now, at this distance, I actually think he was sincere, though the envy I felt at the time made me think it was a flippant remark. It did take him 10 years to publish his next book, so maybe there was a difficulty involved with the pressure of early success. One doesn’t know all the facts of the lives of others, rendering jealousy a pretty futile emotion to have.

Another writer I have spoken with, who started publishing with a volume of poetry at 21 and twenty-three years later has now published 11 books of prose and poetry, responded simply to my query about how he was able to be so prolific, “Some things are hard and some are easy.” Again, I assumed it was a facile statement, one made to ward off the envy of the unpublished. But I don’t think so now—he was sincerely saying, that’s how it is.

So what is different, now that a chapter of my novel is online and two interviews with me are up?  I am somehow, cleaved in two, a public persona of “writer” and the self who created my work. It is an odd feeling, a new role I need to perform. I’m happy to do it, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been waiting for this, but I’m also a bit nervous, exposed. People see sides of me and ask me personal things, hint that they may grasp aspects of me I am uncomfortable with. But my writing is alive, a living breathing thing that others can access, not a pile of marked-up manuscripts sitting forlornly in stacks under my bed, not knowing what their fate will be.

Most importantly, I am happy with what I’ve done, the book I’ve written, and I’m eager to go on writing and publishing, hoping I have productive years ahead to create the body of work I dream about without being concerned with the careers and successes of others.

Author photo by Yael Perlman


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Stories of Frederick Busch


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


What to know about pain is how little we do to deserve it, how simple it is to give, how hard to lose.

“Widow Water” from The Stories of Frederick Busch


Friday, January 27, 2017

Friday Freebie: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge


Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

This week’s contest is for We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge, now out in paperback. The Huffington Post called the novel “a rich examination of America’s treatment of race, and the ways we attempt to discuss and confront it today.” Keep reading for more information about the book...


The Freeman family—Charles, Laurel, and their daughters, teenage Charlotte and nine-year-old Callie—have been invited to the Toneybee Institute to participate in a research experiment. They will live in an apartment on campus with Charlie, a young chimp abandoned by his mother. The Freemans were selected because they know sign language; they are supposed to teach it to Charlie and welcome him as a member of their family. But when Charlotte discovers the truth about the institute’s history of questionable studies, the secrets of the past invade the present in devious ways. The power of this shattering novel resides in Greenidge’s undeniable storytelling talents. What appears to be a story of mothers and daughters, of sisterhood put to the test, of adolescent love and grown-up misconduct, and of history’s long reach, becomes a provocative and compelling exploration of America’s failure to find a language to talk about race.

If you’d like a chance at winning We Love You, Charlie Freeman, 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 Feb. 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 3. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Front Porch Books: January 2017 edition


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.


See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
(Atlantic Monthly Press)

We begin this month with axe murders. Specifically, the most famous axe murders in history: Lizzie Borden and her “forty whacks.” I was initially drawn to Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel by its startling cover design. I have no idea what decapitated pigeons have to do with the story, but I simply cannot look away from that unblinking red eye. Pretty cover art notwithstanding, it’s what’s inside that really counts and from what I’ve read so far, See What I Have Done doesn’t disappoint. You can say I came for the cover but I stayed for the words.

Jacket Copy:  On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell―of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence. As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Opening Lines:  He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed Father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I looked at Father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said. ‘I’m giving this to you because I love you.’ He had smiled and kissed my forehead.
      A long time ago now.
      I looked at Father. I touched his bleeding hand, how long does it take for a body to become cold? and leaned closer to his face, tried to make eye contact, waited to see if he might blink, might recognize me. I wiped my hand across my mouth, tasted blood. My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop, as I looked at Father again, watched blood river down his neck and disappear into suit cloth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I walked out of the room, closed the door behind me and made my way to the back stairs, shouted once more to Bridget, ‘Quickly. Someone’s killed Father.’ I wiped my hand across my mouth, licked my teeth.

Blurbworthiness:  “This novel is like a crazy murdery fever dream, swirling around the day of the murders. Schmidt has written not just a tale of a crime, but a novel of the senses. There is hardly a sentence that goes by without mention of some sensation, whether it’s a smell or a sound or a taste, and it is this complete saturation of the senses that enables the novel to soak into your brain and envelope you in creepy uncomfortableness. It’s a fabulous, unsettling book.”  (Book Riot)


Unearthing Paradise
Edited by Marc Beaudin, Seabring Davis and Max Hjortsberg
(Elk River Books)

These days, we talk a lot about protecting our public lands―the crown jewels of the continent, the sacred treasures of our wilderness areas―but sometimes you have to put your pen where your mouth is. Kudos to the dozens of writers who did just that by contributing to this anthology of short fiction, poems and essays that are designed to be, as the book’s subtitle tells us, in “defense of Greater Yellowstone.” A partial roll call of the contributors: Terry Tempest Williams, Edwin Dobb, Michael Earl Craig, Greg Keeler, John Clayton, Amanda Fortini, Russell Rowland, Shann Ray, Jim Harrison, Elise Atchison, Tami Haaland, Doug Peacock, Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, and Rick Bass. On Twitter, we talk about doing #smallacts to combat the post-election tide of racism, mysogyny, and anti-environmentalism. Why not make buying Unearthing Paradise your Small Good Act of the day?

Jacket Copy:  An anthology of essays, fiction and poetry by 32 Montana writers celebrating and honoring the unique environmental, aesthetic, cultural and economic value of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, especially the regions of this ecosystem that fall within Montana: The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Paradise Valley, the Gallatin Range and the federal, state and private lands that connect these regions. The book calls for the withdrawal of mining permits within the GYE; in particular, for preventing two gold mining threats in Park County, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. In addition, it strives to raise awareness of the need to stop short-sighted, destructive development of any kind on these lands.

Opening Lines:  It is hard to imagine a gold mine within view from the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, but given the state of the world at this moment in time, it is possible. Whatever legislation may be in place from the Obama administration could be undone by the zealotry of the incoming administration committed to placing our nation’s public lands in the hands of private interests. Never have our lands, our water and the health of our communities in the American West been more at risk, and in the case of Montana, pressure continues to build around more mining for gold, copper and coal. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is vulnerable.

Blurbworthiness:  “The most important book you’ll buy this year, or maybe any other, Unearthing Paradise, is not only a call to action, it’s a beauty in its own right. Calling together so many of Montana’s writers, how could it not be? In this day, when so much is threatened by so many, I hope that beauty can, for once, override a bit of the greed. Get it, pass it around, spread the word, let Unearthing Paradise be an awakening, not a swan song.”  (Pete Fromm, author of If Not for This)


Stephen Florida
by Gabe Habash
(Coffee House Press)

Much has already been written about the cover design for Stephen Florida (and for good reason―Karl Engebretson’s design using George Boorujy’s illustration of a wildcat might very well be the Cover of the Year), but I’m drawn to the plot as well. I’m trapped like a hare under a paw. It’s not often I say that about a book whose central character is a college wrestler, but there you have it. I’m pinned to the mat by this one.

Jacket Copy:  Foxcatcher meets The Art of Fielding, Stephen Florida follows a college wrestler in his senior season, when every practice, every match, is a step closer to greatness and a step further from sanity. Profane, manic, and tipping into the uncanny, it’s a story of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark.

Opening Lines:  My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them. I was supposed to have a twin. When the doctor yanked me out, he said, “There’s a good chance this child will be quite strong.” This is the story my parents always told me, but I never really believed it.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Stephen Florida, Gabe Habash has created a coming-of-age story with its own, often explosive, rhythm and velocity. Habash has a canny sense of how young men speak and behave, and in Stephen, he’s created a singular character: funny, ambitious, affecting, but also deeply troubled, vulnerable, and compellingly strange. This is a shape-shifter of a book, both a dark ode to the mysteries and landscapes of the American West and a complex and convincing character study.”  (Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life)


The Coming
by David Osborne
(Bloomsbury)

Like Lizzie Borden (see See What I Have Done above), reams of paper and gallons of ink have been spent on the exploits of Merriwether Lewis and William Clark, both in fact and fiction. Of course there’s Stephen Ambrose's classic Undaunted Courage and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian K. Hall, but if you’d like to see a perspective of the 1804 expedition from a slightly different angle, David Osborne’s The Coming might be a good place to start.

Jacket Copy:  The Coming is an epic novel of native-white relations in North America, intimately told through the life of Daytime Smoke―the real-life red-haired son of William Clark and a Nez Perce woman. In 1805, Lewis and Clark stumble out of the Rockies on the edge of starvation. The Nez Perce help the explorers build canoes and navigate the rapids of the Columbia, then spend two months hosting them the following spring before leading them back across the snowbound mountains. Daytime Smoke is born not long after, and the tribe of his youth continues a deep friendship with white Americans, from fur trappers to missionaries, even aiding the United States government in wars with neighboring tribes. But when gold is discovered on Nez Perce land in 1860, it sets an inevitable tragedy in motion. Daytime Smoke’s life spanned the seven decades between first contact and the last great Indian war. Capturing the trajectory experienced by so many native peoples―from friendship and cooperation to betrayal, war, and genocide―this sweeping novel, with its large cast of characters and vast geography, braids historical events with the drama of one man’s remarkable life. Rigorously researched and cinematically rendered, The Coming is a page-turning, heart-stopping American novel in a classic mode.

Opening Lines:  William Clark tucked his head down as the rain dripped off his hat. He was a large-boned man, with a long, reddish face and nose and a high brow. It was a rough face but confident, accustomed to command.

Blurbworthiness:  “The destruction of the Nez Perce, who were obliterated like other Native American tribes all across the American frontier during the 19th and early 20th centuries, makes harrowing history....This work of fiction reaches a level of truth that history cannot in depicting the collision between two civilizations.”  (Publishers Weekly)


Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka
(Simon and Schuster)

We meet Lucinda Hayes, high school golden girl, in the early pages of Danya Kukafka’s debut novel. She’s sprawled on a school playground carousel, snow drifting down, covering her body. She’s dead, the titular young female at the heart of what looks like an absorbing, addictive reading experience. As the opening lines below attest, Kukafka’s prose is of the Rice Krispies variety: plenty of snap, crackle and pop. Dig in and don’t look up until you’re done.

Jacket Copy:  As morning dawns in a sleepy Colorado suburb, a dusting of snow covers high school freshman Lucinda Hayes’s dead body on a playground carousel. As accusations quickly spread, Lucinda’s tragic death draws three outsiders from the shadows. Oddball Cameron Whitley loved—still loves—Lucinda. Though they’ve hardly ever spoken, and any sensible onlooker would call him Lucinda’s stalker, Cameron is convinced that he knows her better than anyone. Completely untethered by the news of her death, Cameron’s erratic behavior provides the town ample reason to suspect that he’s the killer. Jade Dixon-Burns hates Lucinda. Lucinda took everything from Jade: her babysitting job, and her best friend. The worst part was Lucinda’s blissful ignorance to the damage she’d wrought. Officer Russ Fletcher doesn’t know Lucinda, but he knows the kid everyone is talking about, the boy who may have killed her. Cameron Whitley is his ex-partner’s son. Now Russ must take a painful journey through the past to solve Lucinda’s murder and keep a promise he made long ago. Girl in Snow investigates the razor-sharp line between love and obsession and will thrill fans of Everything I Never Told You and Luckiest Girl Alive. Intoxicating and intense, this is a novel you will not be able to put down.

Opening Lines:  When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead, Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs.

Blurbworthiness:  “Girl in Snow is a haunting, lyrical novel about love, loss, and terror. Reading it felt like entering another world, where things—and people—were not as they at first appeared. The world Kukafka so masterfully creates is suspenseful and electrifying; I was willing to follow her wherever she took me.” (Anton DiSclafani, author of The After Party)


Universal Harvester
by John Darnielle
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Once upon a time, I worked in a video store in Alaska. It was a quaint, small-town Mom-and-Pop kind of store that, at the time, only rented VHS. Blu-Ray was still in the future (and, if you’d asked us, it sounded like laser guns used by the good guys in sci-fi movies). Every now and then, a customer would bring back a tape, claiming there was “something wrong” with it. After allowing disappointed viewers to pick out a replacement movie, our job as video store clerks was to go in the back room and play the questionable tape, fast-forwarding to the “something wrong” part. We never found anything juicy―no homemade porn, no creepy or cryptic messages spliced into the tape by demonic forces, not even a mother somehow recording her baby’s first steps. The problems were easily diagnosed: a foot or two of crinkled tape someone’s dirty VHS machine tried to eat, or greasy smears from a grilled cheese sandwich some toddler tried to insert into the door flap of the tape deck, or distinct and sometimes still slobber-wet tooth marks from a dog. This is where my experience and John Darnielle’s unsettling new novel part ways. The characters in Universal Harvester do indeed find some very wrong things on the videotapes customers return to the store, but grilled cheese is not the culprit.

Jacket Copy:  Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town in the center of the state―the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: it’s a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck. But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets―an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store―she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns a different tape, a new release, and says it’s not defective, exactly, but altered: “There’s another movie on this tape.” Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious, but he brings the movies home to take a look. And, indeed, in the middle of each movie, the screen blinks dark for a moment and the movie is replaced by a few minutes of jagged, poorly lit home video. The scenes are odd and sometimes violent, dark, and deeply disquieting. There are no identifiable faces, no dialogue or explanation―the first video has just the faint sound of someone breathing― but there are some recognizable landmarks. These have been shot just outside of town. So begins John Darnielle’s haunting and masterfully unsettling Universal Harvester: the once placid Iowa fields and farmhouses now sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. The novel will take Jeremy and those around him deeper into this landscape than they have ever expected to go. They will become part of a story that unfolds years into the past and years into the future, part of an impossible search for something someone once lost that they would do anything to regain.

Opening Lines:  People usually didn’t say anything when they returned their tapes to the Video Hut: in a single and somewhat graceful movement, they’d approach the counter, slide the tapes toward whoever was stationed behind the register, and wheel back toward the door. Sometimes they’d give a wordless nod or raise their eyebrows a little to make sure they’d been seen. With a few variations, this silent pass was the unwritten protocol at video rental stores around the U.S. for the better part of two decades. Some stores had slots in the counter that dropped into a big bin, but Nevada was a small town. A little cleared space off to the side of the counter was good enough.


The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
(Harper Collins)

Want me to click with a book right away, before I’ve even opened to the first page? Just say the words “Victorian,” “sea serpent,” and “shades of Charles Dickens.” Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent has all that―and more―in spades. I’m in.

Jacket Copy:  An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love. When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

Opening Lines:  A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He’s been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle. “I’ll just go down to the water,” he said, and kissed the nearest cheek: “I’ll be back before the chimes.” Now he looks east to the turning tide, out to the estuary slow and dark, and the white gulls gleaming on the waves.

Blurbworthiness:  “Irresistible...you can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian séance. This is the best new novel I’ve read in years.” (Daily Telegraph)


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: I See You by Claire Mackintosh


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



The trailer for the new novel by Claire Mackintosh, I See You, is creepy as that guy in the coffee shop who keeps glancing up from his laptop to watch you carry your venti light-foam cappuccino from the counter back to your table on the other side of the room. The same guy who is still sending eye-flicks in your direction 10 minutes later. The same guy who packs up his computer and loose-leaf papers in his messenger bag, goes up to the counter to order another cup of coffee, then appears to be heading out the door, but takes a sudden detour at the last minute and decides to sit at a different table...just ten feet from where you’re sitting. Yeah, that guy. As the trailer for I See You points out, we live in a look-over-your-shoulder world. In the case of the novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, “Every morning and evening, Zoe Walker takes the same route to the train station, waits at a certain place on the platform, finds her favorite spot in the car, never suspecting that someone is watching her.” The trailer, culminating with an eye staring deep into the camera, is chilling as an ice cube some prankster slips beneath your shirt then stands back and laughs as the cold trickles down your back.


Monday, January 23, 2017

My First Time: Larry Watson


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 Larry Watson, author of of ten books, among them the novels Montana 1948, White Crosses, Let Him Go, and, most recently, As Good As Gone. The Seattle Times had this to say about Larry’s latest book: “In the virile, enigmatic character of Calvin, Watson both indulges in and reworks the romantic myth of the American cowboy in ways reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy or Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By. The wistful territory covered here will be familiar to Watson’s fans. A repressed little town on the plains, uncomfortably poised between the old West and the new. Shameful secrets and penned up passions that flash like heat lighting on the horizon of a brooding sky. A master of spare, economical storytelling, Watson sweeps us up in a captivating family drama that departs as quickly as it came, leaving us gratified yet hungry for more.” Larry teaches writing and literature at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he lives with his wife, Susan. Click here to visit Larry’s website.


My First Novel

My first novel was published with so little effort on my part that I completely misjudged what the process would be like.

I was working on a PhD in the creative writing program at the University of Utah, a program I’d been admitted to on the basis of a few short stories I’d written as part of my master’s thesis at the University of North Dakota. I continued to write stories and submit them to workshops for my first couple of years at Utah. The form, however, never felt comfortable, mostly because I struggled with what to leave out.

Then I came up with the idea for a novel, and I was not far into it before I realized how right that longer form felt, at least for me. If I knew nothing else about the novel, I knew I had to fill a lot of pages, so I let everything in. And everything seemed to fit, or at least I found a way to make it fit. Best of all, that indulgent writing philosophy led me to make discoveries that weren’t available to me when I wrote short stories, discoveries about my characters and their world, about language, and about myself and my world.

I can’t say that the novel wrote itself, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much material my original concept yielded. Soon I had 50 pages I was reasonably satisfied with, and I felt that behind those pages were 50 more, and 50 more behind those. I couldn’t be sure of the novel’s quality, but I felt as though I’d be able to produce the requisite quantity.

And with 50 completed pages I’d be able to apply for a generous national fellowship that some of my fellow students had been talking about. I sent in my application along with those pages and then waited to hear how I fared in the competition.

Well, I didn’t win a fellowship, but the competition brought another kind of good fortune. One of the judges liked my submission and got in touch with me. He’d been an editor but was now an agent with William Morris. Did I have an agent, he wanted to know, and if I didn’t, would I like him to represent me and my novel-in-progress? No, I didn’t, I said, and yes, I would. By then I’d written perhaps 150 pages, and he asked to see them. On the basis of those pages, he was able to sell the manuscript to Scribner’s (and that name should be a clue as to how long ago this was; today’s Scribner was then Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Once I finished the novel (which, I might add, was my first effort at the form), I submitted it to my committee as my dissertation. They accepted it, as I felt confident they would, since it was already under contract. My editor at Scribner’s didn’t ask for many changes (what took the most time, as I recall, was coming up with a mutually agreeable title—In A Dark Time was what we finally settled on), and before long the novel was published. That was in 1980.

It didn’t sell particularly well, but it received a few respectable reviews, and because I now had a novel on my vitae, I was able to get a teaching job.

Where, I wondered, was all the agony and frustration of trying get published? I didn’t have to find an agent; he found me. I didn’t even have to finish the novel before a publisher agreed to publish it. I was on my way, or so I believed.

And that belief must have constituted just enough hubris on my part for the literary gods of punishment and reward to conclude that there were lessons I needed to learn. Because everything that had once been easy soon became very difficult.

For 13 years I couldn’t get another novel published.

That agent and I soon parted ways when it became apparent to both of us that I wasn’t going to produce the kinds of novels he’d hoped for. The novels I did write couldn’t find a home, either through my efforts or the efforts of another agent I acquired—and lost. My slump ended when Montana 1948 was published in 1993.

I would have quit except...well, you know how it goes. No matter how short of expectations it might fall, your first time feels so damn good, you just want to do it again. And again and again and again...


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday Sentence: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III


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


The sky was black and turned to blue just before a ribbon of bright coral opened like a cut on the horizon.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III


Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Freebie: Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen


Congratulations to Jodi Paloni, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.

This week’s contest is for two of the best and most important political novels of recent years: Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I have a copy of each book to give away to one lucky reader; Guapa is a trade paperback and The Sympathizer is a hardcover. Read on for more information about the novels, including their terrific opening lines...

The morning begins with shame.

Set over the course of twenty-four hours, Guapa follows Rasa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and social upheaval. Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. One night Rasa's grandmother—the woman who raised him—catches them in bed together. The following day Rasa is consumed by the search for his best friend Maj, a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa, who has been arrested by the police. Ashamed to go home and face his grandmother, and reeling from the potential loss of the three most important people in his life, Rasa roams the city’s slums and prisons, the lavish weddings of the country’s elite, and the bars where outcasts and intellectuals drink to a long-lost revolution. Each new encounter leads him closer to confronting his own identity, as he revisits his childhood and probes the secrets that haunt his family. As Rasa confronts the simultaneous collapse of political hope and his closest personal relationships, he is forced to discover the roots of his alienation and try to re-emerge into a society that may never accept him.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

If you’d like a chance at winning Guapa and The Sympathizer, 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 Jan. 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 27. 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, January 18, 2017

A Lot of Fighting and F*cking: The North Water by Ian McGuire



The North Water
by Ian McGuire
Review by Bryan Kemler

Last week, a routine phone conversation with my mother took a turn down a worn and familiar path.

“What are you reading?” she asked.

It is usually one of my favorite topics to talk about, but this time my heart sank.

The North Water,” I admitted, feeling an odd sense of shame. I was afraid she may have even heard of it.

“I’ve heard of that one,” she said. “How is it?”

I suspected that she had me on speakerphone. Still, I could not help but give her my honest summary.

“Well, Mom,” I said, “There is a lot of fighting....and a lot of fucking.”

Immediately, my father blurted out that their first guests for Tuesday night church group had arrived. “Safe travels,” he said to me, as if the devil were only a step behind, and the line went dead. Later that night, I finished the book.

I am here to report that I loved Ian McGuire’s novel. And I fully endorse it, and recommend it. Unless you are my mother, my wife, my daughter, or anyone who is kind-hearted or empathetic or decent. I suspect that the more time you spend in church, the less you will like this book. Also, if you require trigger warnings, avoid this book.

But, assuming you are an adult of reasonably-sound mind and not overly freaked-out by horrible, violent imagery, then I whole-heartedly recommend this book to you.

The North Water is a whaling story set in the 19th century. That fact will be quickly lost on you because Mr. McGuire’s writing is so immediate and urgent that it betrays time. As you may have guessed from the title, this is a sea tale, describing the voyage of The Volunteer. Picture Moby-Dick, except imagine there aren’t so many whales anymore at the time this novel takes place. The Volunteer’s whaling venture has little, if any, chance of success. Imagine the U.S. rust belt, or coal country of Appalachia. Our story unfolds in the company of poor, desperate men with obsolete skills, under the stress of failing conditions. These are the men left in the wake of changing times.

The protagonist is Patrick Sumner, a surgeon, and a man seemingly graced with many of Sherlock Holmes’ worst qualities, but few of his best. Sumner learns a cabin boy on the vessel has been raped. He begins an investigation, and the boy promptly turns up dead. But this is no Agatha Christie novel; we know exactly who did it.

The villain, Henry Drax, did it. Hats off to you, Mr. McGuire, for creating the most frightening, disgusting, deplorable and mindless villain...maybe ever. Mr. Drax is the kind of villain whose name you will remember a month later. I’m not spoiling anything; his nature is made clear from the beginning. We the readers know exactly who raped and killed the cabin boy.

But our hero, Dr. Sumner, does not. He knows only that it was one of the crew. Sumner enlists the help of Captain Brownlee, who has his own agenda—one which does not include the safe return of his vessel to its home port. The captain’s malfeasance is also quickly revealed in the story.

One thing I loved about this book is that McGuire never gives you the question you want: Who killed the cabin boy? Or, what will happen to the whaling industry? Or, what will happen to the captain? Or, what will happen to the shipmates? These are the questions you want. But the only question McGuire allows is this: Will a single character survive this ill-fated mission?

There is a segment of the story that is set on the Arctic ice where Mr. McGuire brilliantly evokes the disorienting quality of the experience, as well as the people who call that place home. This part reminds me of the writing of Paul Bowles. In fact, if you like Bowles you will probably like this book.

Another book that came to mind, mainly because of the frequent use of pronouns and violence, was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. For fun, I took a look at Blood Meridian after I finished this book to see how the level of violence compared—and it doesn’t. The North Water is like Blood Meridian on steroids. But if you liked Blood Meridian, you will probably like this book.

I once watched a large dog bullying a pack of feral Chihuahuas on a strand of beach in Mexico. I noticed that the Chihuahuas were trying to encircle the larger animal, and turned back to my beer. A moment later, the big dog howled bloody murder and I turned to see the beast spinning around and around in a frantic circle, in terror and pain. One of the Chihuahuas had him by the testicles, and was spinning around attached to the dog’s backside. Finally, the little dog let go, and the big dog ran off down the beach yelping. This novel kind of made me feel like the big dog. Except in a good way.

I will let the villain, Henry Drax, have the last words: “Oh, the others will talk and plan and make oaths and promises, but there are precious few fuckers who will do.” In The North Water, Mr. McGuire has shown himself to be one of those precious few fuckers who do.


Bryan Kemler is an ex-lawyer and a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain, but mostly a writer trying to do the hard work it takes to become an author. He is currently working on a novel called American Savage whose protagonist is a young George Washington.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: Romeo and Juliet by David Hewson


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




We’ve all heard the story: Boy meets Girl, they fall in love, their parents object, Boy and Girl get married anyway, Boy is banished from town, Girl pretends to kill herself in order to join Boy, Boy doesn’t get the memo and thinks Girl is really dead, Boy kills himself, Girl wakes up and finds her dead lover, Girl kills herself. The End. Unhappily Ever After. For those of you who’ve never read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I guess I just spoiled your reading (but, honestly, I don’t care; if you haven’t read the tragedy by this point in your life, then you should make like Ophelia in Hamlet and get thee to a nunnery). R & J is a time-tested, time-worn classic romantic tragedy that has become such a part of our popular culture, its original story and meaning often get lost in the superficial shortcuts we use to describe the young lovers. What we need is a fresh pen to help us see the story from a new perspective. Enter David Hewson with his vibrant and startling revision of the tale. Hewson’s Romeo and Juliet is only available as an audiobook, but it’s good enough to warrant getting a membership with Audible.com. There are many surprises in Hewson’s book (I promise not reveal the major ones); chief among them is Juliet’s character—a strong woman ahead of her time, a Renaissance feminist who does her best to stand up to her father and protest the arranged marriage with the rich, older Paris. There’s also a backstory for the kindly Friar Lawrence, whose brother turns out to be the pivotal and fateful Apothecary. All in all, Romeo and Juliet proves you can put new clothes on an old, tired body and have it look fresh as a daisy. It certainly helps to have a narrator like Richard Armitage. I was drawn to Romeo and Juliet in part due to the terrific reading Armitage gave David Copperfield earlier (and of course I’ve loved his on-screen performances in The Hobbit and North and South, among others). Though the characters’ voices are more Irish than Italian, I got used to the continental drift pretty quickly and fell headlong into the dialogue. When all is said and done, Armitage and Hewson combine forces to deliver a familiar story that sounds like we’re hearing it for the first time. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at Armitage as he discusses why and how he took on this project:



Monday, January 16, 2017

My First Time: Kris D’Agostino



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 D’Agostino, author of the novels The Antiques (now out from Simon and Schuster) and The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac. Kris holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and lives in Brooklyn. On a purely personal note, I had the privilege of reading an early copy of The Antiques and had this to say about the novel: “In The Antiques, Kris D’Agostino introduces us to a messy, delinquent, outrageous family plunged into mourning when the patriarch dies. While other writers might see this as an opportunity to throw ashes of grief on their characters’ heads, D’Agostino comes at us briskly, shaking our hand with a joy buzzer. This book also reminds us that life and laughter still continue even after our loved ones have left us. The Antiques is an exuberant, lusty novel that had me laughing in the most inappropriate places. I loved it!”


My First Reading

I tend to seek out humor in any situation where I can find it. To that end, author readings have served me well. They can be strange affairs, and not always in good ways. I’m not sure how much of that statement reflects my own personal idiosyncrasies and how much is a fair assessment of what it’s like to watch an author read their work. If I can be honest and hopefully not terribly offensive: they’re often dull, lackluster affairs. It’s not rare for me to leave a reading feeling as though I’ve actually lost something. To be fair: It’s quite a difficult task to bring words alive by simply reading them off a page and in actuality, contrary to what people seem to think, the person who wrote those words, is not always the best equipped person to read them aloud.

Now at the same time, I’m fully aware that readings serve a crucial function for both writer and publisher, for promotion and exposure, as cultural locus—I’m not suggesting they’re unnecessary or irrelevant in any way. I’m merely saying they can be, for lack of a better word, bizarre. Also, to make a small caveat here, I’m limiting this to fiction readings, as I think non-fiction and poetry lend themselves a little more to the group setting.

In my experience, and from talking to other authors, it can be a challenge to make a reading engaging, even when reading the most engaging of prose. This doesn’t even factor in the potential for how the sound, timbre and cadence of an author’s voice, their inflection and intonation—the way they read—coupled with the particular passage they’ve chosen to read can cut so hard against the way the reader interprets and “hears” those words. It can certainly take away a lot of the mystique surrounding a work or an author, if you’re the kind of person who assigns mystique to authors and their work.

I’ve seen quite a few authors (some that I really like) read from novels (some that I really like) and in most cases the experience didn’t even come close to mimicking the way the words resonated and felt, the way the characters acted or spoke, the way the scene played out, in my own head. Maybe this is more a reflection of the power of novels and the breadth of the human imagination at work. Not much can compare to how potent and influential our own minds can be. But still: readings. They are an interesting and baffling animal.

In my estimation the best parts of readings, when it comes to comedy, are always the author Q&As. And by “best” I mean most cringe worthy. I once saw a clearly unhinged and jittery young man ask Don DeLillo if he thought the United States government was responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th. You know, because he wrote Libra. Another time I watched as Denis Johnson tried to field a question about whether his drug abuse had made him a better writer. Listen to any Q&A and I guarantee you’ll be more amazed by the “questions” people come up with than any answer the author might articulate.

Where am I going with this? Well. When my first novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, published in 2012, I was faced with an interesting dilemma. Or at least in my mind it was an interesting dilemma. How was I going to make my reading (particularly my first reading) good? How was I not going to just show up at the bookstore and bore everyone by getting up at the podium and reading, with my not-particularly-exciting voice.

I thought for a long time about how to proceed and what I came up with was this: I decided to let other people do the reading for me. Brilliant! I thought. My idea cleverly got around me having to read my own work and possibly ruining it.

The novel focuses around a family—specifically a 24-year-old guy, his parents and his two siblings. The family in the novel is based on my actual family. It’s ostensibly a Roman à clef inspired by a couple of supremely strange years in my early 20s. One notable straying from the facts is that I turned my youngest brother, Tom, into a sister for plot purposes.

The third chapter of the novel centers around a dinner table scene and this particular dinner table scene happened in real life and involved my middle brother, Chase (Chip in the book) attempting to convince us all that he had been, in his words, “reverse discriminated” against on a Metro-North commuter train while on his way to work. So I thought, why not just ask my real family, who would essentially be playing themselves, to get up on stage and read from a script and re-enact this dinner table episode. I would read the narrative parts and they would read their corresponding lines of dialogue. The more awkward things got up there, the better—the more interesting and weird the whole performance would be.

I had no clue as to whether they’d be up for this and to complicate matters my father, who was battling advanced-stage blood cancer at the time, had been hospitalized and most likely would be there still when this first reading—the “launch” of the book—happened.

To my surprise, not only did my mother and my brothers (I had decided to make a joke about how I turned Tom into a girl and have him read the part anyway) agree to my little experiment, they seemed genuinely excited about it. As for my father, I had another great idea. I went to the hospital to see him and brought along some recording equipment and made audio clips of him reading his lines. I then sampled the clips. The night of the reading, my plan was to hook the sampler up to the sound system and Skype my dad in on a laptop. When it came time for him to read one of his lines, I would simply trigger the appropriate sample and his voice would come through the speakers. I didn’t want to add any more stress to his life by asking him to “perform” live. He did a hilarious job recording his lines. He wanted to “nail” them and so we did several takes of each, me sitting there at his hospital bed holding a microphone up to his face and him trying different tones and approaches to the line readings. It remains one of the better memories I have of him from that period, which was not always the most fun of times.

As Kris D’Agostino narrates The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, brother Chase, mother Kathleen, and brother Tom supply the voices at the WORD bookstore reading.

I’m fortunate enough to live a few blocks from one of my favorite bookstores in the world, WORD, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the reading took place in the basement space there, which is an awesome, cozy little room. On the night of the reading there was a packed house, filled almost entirely with friends and family and co-workers who generously came out to support me. I arrived with photocopied pages I had typed up for each of the “players” in the scene. I had laid the whole thing out in screenplay format to make it easier and highlighted the lines for each character in a corresponding color. My mother was purple, Chase yellow and Tom (reading the sister’s lines) was pink. We hooked up the sampler and I ended up using my iPhone to call my father via FaceTime so he could see the whole thing and be there, remotely, from his hospital room. The sampler volume was ludicrously too high so his voice boomed out like some omniscient god-figure overhead every time I played one of his lines. I was of course the most nervous out of everyone and did my best to contain my self-diagnosed sweating problem. The reading went off really well. I got laughs in the places I wanted to get laughs, and, in my mind at least, people were into it. I had successfully, to my satisfaction, circumnavigated the problem of giving a normal, forgettable reading, the kind that I’m always mocking. It felt nice.

The question now is: What the hell am I going to do when I have to read from my second novel?


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday Sentence: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III


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


I thought perhaps she was disappointed in me, but then I regarded her smile, the fashion in which she held her chin low, looking up at me with those gavehee eyes, and as she took my hand and led me back down the corridor to her room, my heart was a flat stone moving over water and my breath was held like the boy counting the skips of his good fortune.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III


Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Freebie: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh


Congratulations to Madeline Rombes, winner of the previous Friday Freebie: Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller.

This week’s contest is for another new collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh. One lucky reader will win a brand-new hardback edition of the book which Kirkus calls “A smartly turned and admirably consistent collection about love and its discontents.” Keep reading for more information about Homesick for Another World.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen was one of the literary events of 2015. Garlanded with critical acclaim, it was named a book of the year by The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. But as many critics noted, Moshfegh is particularly held in awe for her short stories. Homesick for Another World is the rare case where an author’s short story collection is, if anything, more anticipated than her novel. And for good reason. There’s something eerily unsettling about Ottessa Moshfegh’s stories, something almost dangerous, while also being delightful, and even laugh-out-loud funny. Her characters are all unsteady on their feet in one way or another; they all yearn for connection and betterment, though each in very different ways, but they are often tripped up by their own baser impulses and existential insecurities. Homesick for Another World is a master class in the varieties of self-deception across the gamut of individuals representing the human condition. But part of the unique quality of her voice is the way the grotesque and the outrageous are infused with tenderness and compassion. Moshfegh is our Flannery O’Connor, and Homesick for Another World is her Everything That Rises Must Converge or A Good Man is Hard to Find. The dark energy surging through these stories is powerfully invigorating. We’re in the hands of an author with a big mind, a big heart, blazing chops, and a political acuity that is needle-sharp. The needle hits the vein before we even feel the prick.

If you’d like a chance at winning Homesick for Another World, 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. Sorry, this week’s contest is only open to those with a U.S. address. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 20. 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.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: Kill the Next One by Federico Axat


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




Not too long ago, I mentioned Kill the Next One in the monthly Front Porch Books feature. I wrote “If you want to know why Frederico Axat’s psychological thriller shot right to the top of my must-read pile for 2016, you need look no further than the opening lines.” And those first sentences? See if you aren’t hooked, too:
     Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently.
     He paused. He couldn’t press the trigger when he had someone waiting at the front door.
The short trailer for Axat’s novel is also a good reminder of why we should all move this book to the top of our TBR piles. It’s simple and not too flashy, but it has a creepy, haunting vibe that sets the stage for the novel. A series of blurbs (“More plot twists than all of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography put together”) parade across the screen as a soundtrack that sounds like a recording of wind in a subway tunnel plays in the background. It’s twenty-four seconds of unease. And, hey, who wouldn’t be intrigued by that last blurb from Goodreads reviewer Chris? “Beware of the possum!”


Monday, January 9, 2017

My First Time: Leigh Anne Kranz


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 Leigh Anne Kranz, author of “Orca Culture” in the short story anthology City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales edited by Gigi Little, now out from Forest Avenue Press. Leigh Anne lives in Portland, Oregon, and is writing a novel. (If you’d like a copy of City of Weird, scroll to the bottom of this blog post for details on how to enter a special giveaway!)


My First Weird Story

The short story was published in an anthology of fantastical tales but was the truest thing I’d ever written.

It came about in a period of great unknowing, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, as the radioactive cloud floated on ocean currents toward the West Coast. The independent media prophesied the collapse of the North Pacific ecosystem; the mainstream media reassured it would dissipate long before it reached our shores. This human life on earth had taught me at least one thing: the more terrifying scenario was usually closer to reality.

The 1970s disaster movies my dad shared with his too-young children should have prepared me but did not. I lived with unnatural thoughts, This is it. This is really happening. The kind of thoughts unwelcome in civilized society.

The Oregon coast is where I go to write. The beach is shockingly beautiful: pristine, empty, the flight path of eagles. I stared at the curling waves, primeval rainforest, star-studded tidal pools and saw the end of us all. Life had become science fiction. I was the protagonist who must find a way to survive on a hostile planet.

The story began as a far-corner document on my desktop. I was working on other things but turned to it in moments of inspiration or barely contained hysteria. I wrote for no audience; the seats were already filled with skeletons.

The story was told from shifting points of view: a pod of orcas trying to survive in a changing ocean, and a human female who must find a way to live in a toxic culture. Writing the orca passages made me stop sometimes and sob. The woman’s perspective made me smile darkly from a place as deep as womankind.


The call for submissions wanted weird tales, reminiscent of the pulp era but with a modern slant. All stories had to be set in Portland, Oregon, or be connected to the city in a meaningful way. My story was an outlier in theme and geography, set on the coast, but that’s what made it feel, meaningful. Portland is its ocean. We are our oceans.

I sent the story out, small hope message in a bottle, to maybe reach another human being.

Gigi Little responded. It felt like a deep space transmission reaching through the void, a rescue.

Through the next year, Gigi drew out more of the story and made it so profoundly better I feel her name should appear next to mine. She is a born editor, gentle and kind. She referred to galling problems in my prose as “bumps.” Never once did she rouse that “artistic thing” (ego) in me. I knew of her circus past as a professional clown, but the way she handled the thirty writers in the collection, I’m surprised she wasn’t a lion tamer. Best thing, she’s a writer of moxie and wit and, always, heart. So, she gets it.

It was my first experience with publication and can’t imagine a better one. Forest Avenue Press is redefining the standard, with an authentic commitment to community building. The founder and publisher, Laura Stanfill, defies natural law with her energy and presence at literary events, and seems able to balance (and savor) the beauties of business, motherhood and art—she writes magical realism that is the real deal. I’ve watched her take the women-powered Portland press to national distribution, each act of business done with sterling quality and panache. It must be mentioned that Laura, one of the few women publishers in the industry, makes a point of providing opportunities for women to build publishing credits, as editors, graphic designers and writers, like me.

I’m writing this from the beach, at the same kitchen table where I wrote the story, looking out over the incoming waves. It’s the last weekend of the season, perhaps the last year of normal life on the Oregon coast. Because the way we’re headed, even if we dodge this disaster, another will surely follow, unless humans stop living this unearthly way.

The anthology rests beside my laptop: City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales. My story, “Orca Culture,” is in good company, no longer alone. Monica Drake’s blurb on the back cover describes it as “a surprising dark comedy of ecofeminist, post-Fukushima revenge.” I’m relieved the humor came through; we need it.

My first time was a lesson. The hidden truth must come out. What we write when we lose our ability to speak, or people to speak it to; what we write without thought of an audience, has the best chance of reaching another soul. I believe that writers, when faced with the prospect of human extinction—no one left to read their beautiful words—could be the ones to save the world.

I hope the story turns out to be fantastical fiction. I hope this era of human history becomes a weird tale from the past, one we’ve evolved far beyond. A story of survival.

I hope.