Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon


Congratulations to LuAnn Ritsema, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton.

This week, I’m thrilled to be giving away one of my favorite novels of recent years: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon. I was an early reader of this novel set in contemporary Jordan and said it has “the irresistible force of a whirlpool: it sucks you in, pulling you ever closer to the mystery at the heart of the vortex. As the two narratives of friends Margaret and Cassie overlap and begin to merge, the pages turn faster and faster. The Confusion of Languages is intricately plotted, perfectly paced, and impossible to put down.” This week, one lucky reader who doesn’t mind getting paper cuts from a page-turning novel will win a new paperback copy of The Confusion of Languages. Keep scrolling for more information about the book and how to enter the contest...


The Confusion of Languages is a searing debut novel from the award-winning author of You Know When the Men are Gone, about jealousy, the unpredictable path of friendship, and the secrets kept in marriage, all set within the U.S. expat community of the Middle East during the rise of the Arab Spring. Both Cassie Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw dutifully followed their soldier husbands to the U.S. embassy in Jordan, but that’s about all the women have in common. After two years, Cassie has become an expert on the rules, but newly arrived Margaret sees only her chance to explore. So when a automobile fender-bender sends Margaret to the local police station, Cassie reluctantly agrees to watch Margaret’s toddler son. But as the hours pass, Cassie’s boredom and frustration turn to fear: Why isn’t Margaret answering her phone, and why is it taking so long to sort out a routine accident? Snooping around Margaret’s apartment, Cassie begins to question not only her friend’s whereabouts but also her own role in Margaret’s disappearance. With achingly honest prose and riveting characters, The Confusion of Languages plunges readers into a shattering collision between two women and two worlds, affirming Siobhan Fallon as a powerful voice in American fiction and a storyteller not to be missed.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Confusion of Languages, 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 June 28 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 29. 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.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Mad Boy by Nick Arvin


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


A command is shouted. The thousands of British bayonets lift, and a flash of light travels down the length of the column, like an enormous animal rising to hunt.

Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Front Porch Books: June 2018 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.



The Strange Case of Dr. Couney
by Dawn Raffel
(Blue Rider Press)

Jacket Copy:  The Strange Case of Dr. Couney is the extraordinary tale of how a mysterious immigrant “doctor” became the revolutionary innovator of saving premature babies—by placing them in incubators in World’s Fair side shows and on Coney Island and Atlantic City. What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? As Dawn Raffel artfully recounts, Dr. Couney figured out he could use incubators and careful nursing to keep previously doomed infants alive, and at the same time make good money displaying these babies alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and burlesque shows. How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century émigré became the savior to families with premature infants, known then as “weaklings”—while ignoring the scorn of the medical establishment and fighting the climate of eugenics—is one of the most astounding stories of modern medicine. And as readers will find, Dr. Couney, for all his opportunistic entrepreneurial gusto, is a surprisingly appealing character, someone who genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients. But he had something to hide. Drawing on historical documents, original reportage, and interviews with surviving patients, acclaimed journalist and magazine editor Dawn Raffel tells the marvelously eccentric story of Couney’s mysterious carnival career, his larger-than-life personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of tiny babies.

Opening Lines:  The pains came too early. The cramping of the womb. The ragged breaths. The life demanding release. The woman, Marion Conlin, was carrying twins, and on an otherwise gentle Thursday in May, her labor had commenced. Too soon. Not now. Not yet. Each contraction a blow.
       Only the year before, she and her husband, Woolsey, had celebrated their wedding. Summer of 1919. Atlantic City honeymoon, where, in that golden pocket—the Great War over, Prohibition not begun—a newlywed couple might sip champagne and hear their beautiful fortunes told and stroll in their bloomers into the sea, laughing.
       Now they were in a hospital in Brooklyn. Marion’s labor could not be stopped. One daughter entered the world, drew breath for twenty minutes, and lay still. The second was so tiny, it was painful to look, her skin near translucent.

Blurbworthiness:  “In carnival midways in the early decades of the 20th century—amid carousels, elephants, fire-eaters, and pie-eating contests—a gentleman of indeterminate origin, of unspecified medical background, displayed premature human babies in incubators that looked like arcade games. They were real babies, not wax; struggling to live; at home among the “Human Oddities!” of the side-shows only because preemies weighing two or three pounds at birth didn’t ever survive, had rarely been seen. Fair-goers bought tickets and lined up to gawk at them, and were asked to refrain from trying to reach in and poke the infants. Though Dr. Couney (both the prefix and the name were inventions) was more showman than doctor, he saved the babies’ lives by the thousands and pioneered American neonatology. His story is richly told in a book that savors every honk of John Philip Sousa from a marching band, every salty crunch of carnival popcorn, every sparkle of a Ferris wheel turning in a night sky, and the desperate hopes of parents traveling from their lying-in hospitals by bus or subway to the carnivals, carrying their premature newborns in shoe boxes and hat boxes or inside their coats.” (Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock)



The New Inheritors
by Kent Wascom
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  In 1914, with the world on the brink of war, Isaac, a nature-loving artist whose past is mysterious to all, including himself, meets Kemper, a defiant heiress caught in the rivalry between her brothers. Kemper’s older brother Angel is hiding a terrible secret about his sexuality, and her younger brother Red possesses a capacity for violence that frightens even the members of his own brutal family. Together Isaac and Kemper build a refuge on their beloved, wild, Gulf Coast. But their paradise is short-lived; as the coast is rocked by the storms of summer, the country is gripped by the furor preceding World War I, and the Woolsack family’s rivalries come to a bloody head. From the breathtaking beauty of the Gulf to the bloody havoc wreaked by the United States in Latin America, The New Inheritors explores the beauty and burden of what is handed down to us all. At once a love story and a family drama, a novel of nature and a novel of war, The New Inheritors traces a family whose life is intimately tied to the Gulf, that most disputed, threatened, and haunted part of this country we call America.

Opening Lines:  He was born filled with animals.
       Before he could see and before the gift of speech, before his hand could grasp the tools to channel them, to let them leap out onto canvas or page, the animals were there. They owned his proportions and made themselves known in his cries and movements and they prowled in the wet, dark Eden of his heart.

Blurbworthiness:  “Unfurling one fine sentence after another, The New Inheritors is like some magnificent dream ship from the past set to churn the waves of the present, bound for blood and beauty, and for the breaking of heads and hearts.” (Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome)



Children of God
by Lars Petter Sveen
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Lars Petter Sveen’s Children of God recounts the lives of people on the margins of the New Testament; thieves, Roman soldiers, prostitutes, lepers, healers, and the occasional disciple all get a chance to speak. With language free of judgment or moralizing, Sveen covers familiar ground in unusual ways. In the opening story, a group of soldiers are tasked with carrying out King Herod’s edict to slaughter the young male children in Bethlehem but waver in their resolve. These interwoven stories harbor surprises at every turn, as the characters reappear. A group of thieves on the road to Jericho encounters no good Samaritan but themselves. A boy healed of his stutter will later regress. A woman searching for her lover from beyond the grave cannot find solace. At crucial moments an old blind man appears, urging the characters to give in to their darker impulses. Children of God was a bestseller in Norway, where it won the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize and gathered ecstatic reviews. Sveen’s subtle elevation of the conflict between light and dark focuses on the varied struggles these often-ignored individuals face. Yet despite the dark tone, Sveen’s stories retain a buoyancy, thanks to Guy Puzey’s supple and fleet-footed translation. This deeply original and moving book, in Sveen’s restrained and gritty telling, brings to light stories that reflect our own time, from a setting everyone knows.

Opening Lines:  It was in the days of Herod the Great, in Bethlehem, and we were on the lookout for a little king of the Jews who’d been born. The stars were out, and we’d come to kill him.

Blurbworthiness:  “Children of God reads like Biblical fan fiction written by a genius.” (Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair)



Virgil Wander
by Leif Enger
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  Midwestern movie house owner Virgil Wander is “cruising along at medium altitude” when his car flies off the road into icy Lake Superior. Virgil survives but his language and memory are altered and he emerges into a world no longer familiar to him. Awakening in this new life, Virgil begins to piece together his personal history and the lore of his broken town, with the help of a cast of affable and curious locals—from Rune, a twinkling, pipe-smoking, kite-flying stranger investigating the mystery of his disappeared son; to Nadine, the reserved, enchanting wife of the vanished man, to Tom, a journalist and Virgil’s oldest friend; and various members of the Pea family who must confront tragedies of their own. Into this community returns a shimmering prodigal son who may hold the key to reviving their town. With intelligent humor and captivating whimsy, Leif Enger conjures a remarkable portrait of a region and its residents, who, for reasons of choice or circumstance, never made it out of their defunct industrial district. Carried aloft by quotidian pleasures including movies, fishing, necking in parked cars, playing baseball and falling in love, Virgil Wander is a swift, full journey into the heart and heartache of an often overlooked American Upper Midwest by a “formidably gifted” (Chicago Tribune) master storyteller.

Opening Lines:  Now I think the picture was unspooling all along and I just failed to notice. The obvious really isn’t so—at least it wasn’t to me, a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.
       If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself—that is, when my seeing of it began to shift—it would be the day a stranger named Rune blew into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom. It was also the day of my release from St. Luke’s Hospital down in Duluth, so I was concussed and more than a little adrift.



A Family History of Illness
by Brett L. Walker
(University of Washington Press)

Jacket Copy:  While in the ICU with a near-fatal case of pneumonia, Brett Walker was asked, “Do you have a family history of illness?”―a standard and deceptively simple question that for Walker, a professional historian, took on additional meaning and spurred him to investigate his family’s medical past. In this deeply personal narrative, he constructs a history of his body to understand his diagnosis with a serious immunological disorder, weaving together his dying grandfather’s sneaking a cigarette in a shed on the family’s Montana farm, blood fractionation experiments in Europe during World War II, and nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks that ravaged small American towns as his ancestors were making their way west. A Family History of Illness is a gritty historical memoir that examines the body’s immune system and microbial composition as well as the biological and cultural origins of memory and history, offering a startling, fresh way to view the role of history in understanding our physical selves. In his own search, Walker soon realizes that this broader scope is more valuable than a strictly medical family history. He finds that family legacies shape us both physically and symbolically, forming the root of our identity and values, and he urges us to renew our interest in the past or risk misunderstanding ourselves and the world around us.

Opening Lines:  I awoke startled and feverish. “Where am I?” I thought. The back of my head pounded. I was thirsty and drenched in sweat. When I coughed, the pounding intensified and ripped along the center of my scalp toward my forehead, piercing a point between my eyes. A white hospital gown clung to my shivering body. The vision in my right eye became blurrier the more I hacked. My neck and shoulders tensed as I turned my head to look out a window near the bed—I saw only the inky black of the night sky.
       I lifted myself upright to get a better view, and the sweaty hospital gown tightened around my shoulders, the fabric constraining me and chafing against my skin. I could feel tape tugging at the hairs on my arms and face, tying me to clear plastic hoses. I vaguely remembered that these tubes were important: they tethered me to rhythmic pumps and spherical tanks that kept me alive.

Blurbworthiness:  “This book is terrific in five ways I can barely list here. Fascinating, literate, profound, wondrously variegated, harrowingly personal. Brett Walker, a historian with an eye for science and an ear for language, knows that he and his near-death experience are a synecdoche for the broader issues of disease, memory, selfhood, and history among us all.” (David Quammen, author of Spillover)



The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist
by Michael Downs
(Acre Books)

Jacket Copy:  In 1844, Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, encountered nitrous oxide, or laughing gas—then an entertainment for performers in carnival-like theatrical acts—and began administering the gas as the first true anesthetic. His discovery would change the world, reshaping medicine and humanity’s relationship with pain. But that discovery would also thrust Wells into scandals that threatened his reputation, his family, and his sanity—hardships and triumphs that resonate in today’s struggles with what hurts us and what we take to stop the hurt. In this novel, Michael Downs mines the gaps in the historical record and imagines the motivations and mysteries behind Wells’ morbid fascination with pain, as well as the price he and his wife, Elizabeth, paid—first through his obsession, then his addiction. The book is a love story, but also a story of what love can’t redeem; of narcotic dreams and waking insanity; of humbug and miracle; of pain’s destruction and what pains can never be eased. Following Wells throughout New England and across the ocean to Paris, the novel immerses the reader in the nineteenth century, conveying through rich physical description and telling dialogue the tragic life of a dentist who gave everything to rid the world of suffering.

Opening Lines:  On another of those melancholy nights, a doctor came to the sick man’s bedside and with the boy’s help turned the man onto his belly. The boy lifted the damp shirt and in the lamplight saw his father’s back, skin grayer than the sweat-dark sheets. Boils clustered, livid along the spine. The backbone cast shadows. From the mattress rose a sour smell, an expression of disease.
       “Bind the arms and legs to the posts,” the doctor said. He held a green-glass bottle by its neck, shaking the liquid inside to a froth.
       “He’s too weak to kick.”
       “Do as I say.”

Blurbworthiness:  “An exhilarating tale from the annals of medical history, a provocative study of pain in all its forms, and a brilliant rendering of the kind of obsessiveness that leads to invention—all delivered in sumptuous prose with sly, surprising humor and perfect timing.” (Kim Church, author of Byrd)



French Exit
by Patrick DeWitt
(Ecco)

Jacket Copy:  Frances Price–tart widow, possessive mother, and Upper East Side force of nature–is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy. Her adult son Malcolm is no help, mired in a permanent state of arrested development. And then there’s the Price’s aging cat, Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband, an infamously immoral litigator and world-class cad whose gruesome tabloid death rendered Frances and Malcolm social outcasts. Putting penury and pariahdom behind them, the family decides to cut their losses and head for the exit. One ocean voyage later, the curious trio land in their beloved Paris, the City of Light serving as a backdrop not for love or romance, but self destruction and economical ruin–to riotous effect. A number of singular characters serve to round out the cast: a bashful private investigator, an aimless psychic proposing a seance, and a doctor who makes house calls with his wine merchant in tow, to name a few. Brimming with pathos, French Exit is a one-of-a-kind send-up of high society, as well as a moving mother-son caper which only Patrick deWitt could conceive and execute.

Opening Lines:  “All good things must end,” said Frances Price.
       She was a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone in New York City’s Upper East Side. Her son, Malcolm, thirty-two, stood nearby looking his usual broody and unkempt self. It was late autumn, dusk; the windows of the brownstone were lit, a piano sounded on the air—a tasteful party was occurring. Frances was explaining her early departure to a similarly wealthy though less lovely individual, this the hostess. Her name doesn’t matter. She was aggrieved.

Blurbworthiness:  “French Exit made me so happy—I feel as if I have downed a third martini, stayed up past sunrise, and still woken up refreshed. Brilliant, addictive, funny and wise, DeWitt’s latest has enough charm to last you long after you’ve put it down.” (Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less )



The Third Hotel
by Laura van den Berg
(Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  In Havana, Cuba, a widow tries to come to terms with her husband’s death―and the truth about their marriage―in Laura van den Berg’s surreal, mystifying story of psychological reflection and metaphysical mystery. Shortly after Clare arrives in Havana, Cuba, to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema, she finds her husband, Richard, standing outside a museum. He’s wearing a white linen suit she’s never seen before, and he’s supposed to be dead. Grief-stricken and baffled, Clare tails Richard, a horror film scholar, through the newly tourist-filled streets of Havana, clocking his every move. As the distinction between reality and fantasy blurs, Clare finds grounding in memories of her childhood in Florida and of her marriage to Richard, revealing her role in his death and reappearance along the way. The Third Hotel is a propulsive, brilliantly shape-shifting novel from an inventive author at the height of her narrative powers.

Opening Lines:  What was she doing in Havana?
       A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer. She imagined bumping into someone she had known in upstate New York, in her former life. She would see this person taking photos in the Plaza de la Catedral or on the Paseo del Prado. They would look up from their cameras. They would call her name and wave. They would make remarks about coincidences, about the world being a very small place, and when the inevitable question came–What was she doing in Havana?–she would have no idea how to explain herself.
       She might have said,
       I am not who you think I am.
       She might have said,
       I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.

Blurbworthiness:  “In this gorgeous, frighteningly smart novel, a woman deranged by grief becomes an imposter in her own life. As inventive and inexorable as a dream, The Third Hotel is a devastating excavation of the unconscionable demands we place on those we love, and a profound portrait of the uncanny composite creature that is a marriage. Laura van den Berg is one of our best writers, an absolute marvel.”  (Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You)



The Widower’s Notebook
by Jonathan Santlofer
(Penguin Books)

Jacket Copy:  On a summer day in New York Jonathan Santlofer discovers his wife, Joy, gasping for breath on their living room couch. After a frenzied 911 call, an ambulance race across Manhattan, and hours pacing in a hospital waiting room, a doctor finally delivers the fateful news. Consumed by grief, Jonathan desperately tries to pursue life as he always had–writing, social engagements, and working on his art–but finds it nearly impossible to admit his deep feelings of loss to anyone, not even his to beloved daughter, Doria, or to himself. As Jonathan grieves and heals, he tries to unravel what happened to Joy, a journey that will take him nearly two years.

Opening Lines:  Do I start with the part where I am paralyzed, back pressed hard against the living room wall, shrinking into it but watching as if through a lens zooming in and out of the action, near then far, all of it taking place no more than five, six feet in front of me, firemen pushing the coffee table aside, books toppling, paramedics rolling my wife onto the floor, one tearing open her blouse and searching for a heartbeat, another pressing her chest up and down as a second team races in and a woman takes over, flips open a black bag and inserts a tube down my wife’s throat, everything happening in hyperspeed, while I stare at my wife’s face gone pale and the room going gray and grainy as an old photograph?
       Or do I start ten, twenty minutes earlier, impossible to track the time, when I come into the living room and even from twenty feet away, I can see that something is terribly wrong, my wife, Joy, on the couch, beckoning to me, mouth open but unable to speak, her eyes large and terrified, and I rush to her side and she grips my arm and I pull her to me and frantically attempt to dial 911, trying to punch in three simple numbers but can’t get them right, as my wife gasps for breath and I say over and over, “Take it easy, honeybreathehangonyou’llbeokay,” trying to sound comforting and rational, as a voice comes on the phone and I say, “My wife, she’s not breathing–” and the woman on the other end, speaking calmly–How is that possible?–asks my name and address and I am shouting now “Hurry!Please!” and minutes later–I think it’s minutes–time is spiraling, collapsing–firemen and paramedics burst on the scene, push the coffee table aside, and roll my wife onto the floor and tear open her blouse, while I am backed up against the living room wall, watching the unwatchable: watching my wife die.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Widower’s Notebook is an intimate, honest, heart-wrenching, and at times even funny account of grieving as well as the memoir of long, satisfying, loving marriage. This is an important and welcome addition to the literature of loss and grief from the male point of view. I will be giving this Notebook to friends reeling from loss but also to old and new couples who need models of how to weather the many little deaths and losses that occur as they journey a life together. Santlofer has given us a brave, beautiful gift, heartfelt and invaluable.” (Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents)


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Separate Flights by Andre Dubus


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


He lives in a small town, so already he is out in the country; he runs past farmhouses, country homes, service stations. There are not many cars and most of the time he has the privacy of his own sounds—his steady breathing, his feet on the wet plowed and sanded blacktop—and, more than that, the absolute privacy of his body staking its claim on a country road past white hills and dark green trees, gray barns, and naked elms and maples and oaks waiting for spring: his body insisting upon itself, pumping blood and pounding up hills.

“Going Under” from Separate Flights by Andre Dubus

Friday, June 8, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton


Congratulations to Nancy Bekofske, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: We Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman.

This week’s contest is for The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. Here’s what Ron Rash, author of Serena, had to say about the book: “Landscape and destiny are inextricable in Tim Winton’s latest novel, and the result is a gritty realism that ultimately propels the story into the timelessness of a parable. All that I love about Winton’s work is here: the poetry of the colloquial, fully realized characters, and the fearlessness to enter the deepest mysteries of being. The Shepherd’s Hut is a brilliant reminder that Winton is one of the world’s great living novelists.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book and how to enter the contest...


From Tim Winton, Australia’s most decorated and beloved novelist and the author of Cloudstreet, comes The Shepherd’s Hut, the story of a young man on a thrilling journey of self-discovery in one of the most harshest, near-uninhabitable climates on Earth. Winton crafts the story of Jaxie Clackton, a brutalized rural youth who flees from the scene of his father’s violent death and strikes out for the vast wilds of Western Australia. All he carries with him is a rifle and a waterjug. All he wants is peace and freedom. But surviving in the harsh saltlands alone is a savage business. And once he discovers he’s not alone out there, all Jaxie’s plans go awry. He meets a fellow exile, the ruined priest Fintan MacGillis, a man he’s never certain he can trust, but on whom his life will soon depend. The Shepherd’s Hut is a thrilling tale of unlikely friendship and yearning, at once brutal and lyrical, from one of our finest storytellers.

To give you a taste of the novel’s distinctive voice, here are the opening lines:
When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilized I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Shepherd’s Hut, 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 June 21 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 22. 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.


Monday, June 4, 2018

My First Time: Siobhan Fallon



The First Time I Made It Through

The first time I set foot in the Middle East, I knew I would write about it.

I remember it so clearly right now, sitting at my computer, seven years later. I got off the plane at Amman amid chaos, confusion and noise. I entered the vast lines of Immigration with my three-year old daughter, the smells and the people crushing me on all sides. I knew my husband was waiting for me on the other side of Customs, but how to get there?

A man in a suit spotted the American passport in my fist and came up to me, told me in passable English that he would do all of my “very difficult” paperwork, and get me in the “fast” line for about $100 American. I smiled, clutched my passport and my daughter even tighter, and got in line with everyone else.

I made it through.

That seems to sum up just about everything for me when it comes to living abroad. I made it through. And it also seems to sum up everything to me when I think of my writing. There is the total confusion of facing this wild, unknown place. There is the total confusion of facing this wild, blank page. But somehow the writing can save me.

I’m terrible about keeping a journal in my ordinary, American life. Why bother? I think to myself, I mean, this is just ordinary American life, right? But when I travel, I take notes, lots of notes, because I know my life in this place is transitory, and, in having an expiration date, it is somehow more valuable. Perhaps this is not a good way to live a life, but fortunately I have spent a lot of my life living abroad. In the little notebook I kept in my purse while living in Jordan, my first entries are about that first airport arrival. How the men who helped with baggage all wore blue jumpsuits with numbers on their backs and looked like jailed prisoners, how the young man who helped me with my suitcases was #38 and, though polite, never once looked me in the eye. How the policemen outside who tried to direct traffic wore little pointy metal hats and too-tight uniforms, and for all of their dramatic gesticulating and whistling, cars were braking, honking, pulling up on the sidewalk, parking any way they liked.


I depended on this little journal while writing my novel, The Confusion of Languages. When I was frustrated with plot and structure and wanted to taste Jordan again, I’d flip through those stained pages and images would come at me, seconds, minutes, days, all so vivid; some wonderful, some painful. And I’d start writing, rejuvenated, starting small, with a random recipe I’d found, or a description of a fruit stand at the corner of a busy Amman city street, or how a lamb carcass hung from a hook in a window of a decidedly un-airconditioned butcher shop.

I lived in Jordan for less than one year, and it took me nearly five years to write a novel set there. Readers, life abroad can be difficult. And writing a book, well, it can really suck. So start small. You will fuck up. You will get lost. You will get almost every single word wrong. You’ll hit dead end after dead end but, trust me, you’ll turn around, retrace your steps, and slowly, painstakingly, happen upon a place that is more beautiful than you could have ever imagined. And it wasn’t even in the guidebook.

You’ll lose faith in yourself. But you’ll find it again.

You’ll make it through.


Siobhan Fallon’s novel, The Confusion of Languages, will be released in paperback Summer, 2018. She is the author of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction winning You Know When the Men Are Gone. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, The Huffington Post, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She and her family moved to Jordan in 2011, and they currently live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Sunday Sentence: We Don’t Live Here Anymore by Andre Dubus


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


I am surrounded by painful marriages that no one understands.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Friday Freebie: We Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman


Congratulations to Kimberly Lehman, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston.

This week’s contest is for We Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman. Here’s what Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You, had to say about the book: “As sparkling as a glass of champagne, and as moving as a wedding kiss, Weisman deconstructs the novel—and the nuptial—to tell a story about the guests, all of whom are bound to their pasts, created by their pain and elevated by their passions, set against the blazing hope of happily ever after. You can’t know who you are until the end of the story, says one character, but in this novel, it’s clear who Weisman is from the first sentence: a writer to watch.” Keep scrolling for more information about the books and how to enter the contest...


One afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia. Two people heading to the altar. One hundred fifty guests. The bride, Elizabeth Gottlieb, proud graduate of the University of Virginia and of Emory University School of Law, member of Atlanta’s wealthy Jewish elite. The groom, Hank Jackson, not a member. Not a Jew. The couple of the hour, however, is beside the point, because We Are Gathered belongs to the guests. Among them, Carla, Elizabeth’s quick-witted, ugly duckling childhood best friend turned Hollywood film scout, whose jaundiced view of the drama that is an American wedding provides a lens of humor and its corollary, deep compassion for the supporting actors who steal the show; Elizabeth’s great-aunt Rachel, a Holocaust survivor from Germany who is still navigating a no-man’s-land between cultures and identities decades after escaping from the forests of Europe; Elizabeth’s wheelchair-bound grandfather Albert, who considers his legacy as a man, both in the boardroom and the bedroom; and Annette, the mother of the bride herself, reminded now of her youthful indiscretions in love and motherhood. Balancing razor-sharp humor with a blunt vision of the fragility of our mortal bonds, Jamie Weisman skillfully constructs a world—and family—that pulls you in and carries you along with its refreshing, jagged beauty.

If you’d like a chance at winning We Are Gathered, 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 June 7 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 8. 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.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene


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


She was very young and blond and unnecessarily arrogant: she looked like a child who has got nothing she really wants and so is determined to obtain anything, whether she likes it or not.

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

Friday, May 25, 2018

Friday Freebie: The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston


Congratulations to Sylvia Danforth, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie, a bundle of books by and about Montanans: Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff, Arbuckle by Russell Rowland, The Weight of an Infinite Sky by Carrie La Seur, and The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler.

In honor of Memorial Day, this week’s contest is for the latest in the “scrapbook novels” by Caroline Preston: The War Bride’s Scrapbook. As long-time readers of the blog may remember, I am a big fan of Caroline's previous book, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. Those pages burst into life with postcards, sheet music, wine labels, playing cards, charm bracelets, gum wrappers, swatches of fabric, photographs and ads for freckle cream to tell the story of a Jazz Age ingenue. As I wrote then, “The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is subtitled A Novel in Pictures, but it really should be called A Novel of Ephemera.” The same holds true for The War Bride’s Scrapbook. Keep scrolling for more information about the books and how to enter the contest...


Lila Jerome has never been very lucky in love, and has always been more interested in studying architecture and, more recently, supporting the war bond effort on the home front. But in the fall of 1943, a chance spark with a boarder in her apartment sets Lila on a course that shakes up all of her ideas about romance. Lila is intoxicated by Perry Weld, the charismatic army engineer who’s about to ship out to the European front, and it isn’t long before she discovers that the feeling is mutual. After just a few weeks together, caught up in the dramatic spirit of the times and with Perry’s departure date fast approaching, the two decide to elope. In a stunning kaleidoscope of vibrant ephemera, Lila boldly attempts to redefine her life in America as she navigates the heartache and longing of a marriage separated by ocean and war. In her second scrapbook novel after the lauded Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, Caroline Preston has once again pulled from her own extraordinary collection of vintage memorabilia, transporting us back to the lively, tumultuous 1940s and introducing us to an unforgettable, ambitious heroine who must learn to reconcile a wartime marriage with a newfound self-confidence.

If you’d like a chance at winning The War Bride’s Scrapbook, 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 May 31 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 1. 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, May 24, 2018

Michael A. Ferro’s Library: A Love-Hate Story


Reader:  Michael A. Ferro
Location:  Rural Ann Arbor, Michigan
Collection Size:  About 1,000
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  The first advance readers copy that I received of my debut novel, Title 13. And I’d probably push a smoldering old lady out of my way to get to it, too.
Favorite book from childhood:  Any of the Calvin and Hobbes collections (I proudly had them all) or the novelization of Star Wars. I wrote a really lousy essay comparing the film and the book back in the 4th grade and had to read it in front of the class. I can still recall the horrible playground beating I took soon after.
Guilty pleasure book:  Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu. I so often go back to it when I need to feel good. Also, any of the novels by former The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder. There’s no literary merit to them like with other humor writers such as Ian Frazier, but damn, they’re about as funny as any book can be.



Libraries: a Love-Hate Story

The only thing I hate about libraries is how they are not inside my house or right next door, so I decided to change that. When I fancy reading a particular book, I want to crack it open the moment the urge strikes me—not long after I’ve checked if it’s available at my local library and I put it on hold and go drive through a massive thunderstorm to pick it up and I get a flat tire so I have to get out to fix it only to have some goofy driver hugging the curb drive right through a massive ocean of standing water creating a small tsunami that sweeps me up and plunges me down into the sewer ditch below.

No thanks. I’ll just buy all my books and make my own library at home, thank you very much.

I should also admit here that I’ve had a bit of a contentious relationship with each of the libraries in every city I’ve lived in. And by that, I mean that I am horrible at returning books on time. I have accumulated an embarrassing amount of late charges in my life, usually to the point of those threatening letters arriving in the mail demanding money. You’re probably asking yourself: How does one person amass so many charges through mere minuscule late-return fines? Well, you see, that’s my other problem: I can never just get one book.


I’ve lived in various places across the Midwest and everywhere I go, I always used to scope out the local library soon after settling in. I would try to start by just checking out one or two books, but that quickly turned into the max limit of twenty or so at one time. Now, multiply the ten cents or so per day late charge for twenty books, then factor in weeks on end of being reluctant to return said books, and you’ve got yourself a modern-day literary extortion scheme. I’ve had my kneecaps threatened by bookish loan sharks more times than I care to admit. In fact, that’s usually how I know when it’s time to pack my wares and skip town. Some folks lose their jobs or destroy their marriages—I look out my window and see an angry mob of librarians waving letters of overdue payments, shouting blasphemes about credit scores and collection agencies.

Yes, I am an idiot.


Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit, but let’s just say it’s best for all parties considered if I own my own books. With that in mind, I turned the first floor of my house into a library. When I moved in, I only had a few bookshelves and roughly 500 books, but since then, I’ve loosened my belt quite a bit. Having all that empty space down there was just too tempting, so I had to build more bookshelves. And, of course, once I had more bookshelves, I needed more books. Today the count stands somewhere around 1,000 books. Now, I can do this because I don’t have a wife or children, you see; there’s no need to have a playroom for my goopy kid and no wife who needs a room of her own for a personal yoga studio—it’s all mine, and with this pigheaded attitude, it will be all mine for many, many years to come.


As is the case with anyone who has their own personal library, there are a few books that stand out to me as being some of the most important. I’ve included a photo here of a stack of books that have rewired my brain in some way or another. These are the books that changed my life and made me want to become a writer. As you’ll be able to tell from this selection, it’s quite an odd grouping of titles.


My own debut novel, Title 13, is an eclectic mishmash of satire and emotional realism that follows the oft-absurd story of a young alcoholic named Heald Brown who lives in downtown Chicago and works for the federal government. And while there’s plenty of postmodern, literary tragicomedy within the pages, much of the novel also centers around the brutal realities of addiction and the divisive nature that has consumed our society and poisoned our culture in a broken modern America. Keeping that sense of dichotomy in mind, perhaps it’s not so surprising when I study this stack of books and note the clear line between literary, postmodern fiction, and absurd humor stories and essays.


Oh, and there’s also a photo of some of my old New Yorker magazines from my 15-plus years of subscribing that I just can’t throw away because I’m a pretentious dweeb who’s convinced I will be able to read them cover-to-cover someday.



Michael A. Ferro's debut novel, Title 13, was published earlier this year. He has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Born and bred in Detroit, Michael has lived, worked, and written throughout the Midwest. He currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Click here to visit his website.

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


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Articles of War by Nick Arvin


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


It was a curious thing, that in the time between the shots and the echo of the shots a man could die, that so monumental an event could occur in so trivial a passage.

Articles of War by Nick Arvin

Friday, May 18, 2018

Friday Freebie: Montana Bundle (Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff, Arbuckle by Russell Rowland, The Weight of an Infinite Sky by Carrie La Seur, The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler)


Congratulations to Shannon Feagans, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Daphne by Will Boast.

This week’s contest is for a stack of books set in my beloved state of Montana. One lucky reader will copies of the following books: Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff (whose cover is already in the running for one of my favorites of 2018), Arbuckle by Russell Rowland, The Weight of an Infinite Sky by Carrie La Seur, and The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler. Keep scrolling for more information about the books and how to enter the contest...


In an isolated region of Idaho, Montana, and eastern Oregon known as the Redoubt, an armed occupation of a wildlife refuge is escalating into civil war. Against this backdrop, twelve stories of ordinary lives explore the loneliness, fragility, and heartbreak inherent to love. Families feel the far-reaching shockwaves of displacement and division. A mother makes a hard choice for her sons when their father goes to lead a standoff with the federal government. An unemployed carpenter joins a militia after his wife leaves him and the first airstrikes raze the streets of his hometown. A former soldier raises the daughter of a dead comrade in a bunker beneath an abandoned farm. Ranging from the cities to the small towns of the West, and imbued with its own brand of radical empathy, Loskutoff’s fiction is both timely and timeless. Come West and See surges with rage, longing, and fear, and offers startling insights into the wounds of the American people.



When Catherine Boland meets a shy young ranch hand at the bank where she works, she has no idea that he just took part in a recent vigilante hanging that she has been very outspoken about. And although George Arbuckle was not a willing participant in that hanging, he worries that once Catherine learns about his participation, he will lose her for good. This is just the first of the challenges facing this young couple in late 19th century Montana. Arbuckle, the third book in a trilogy about a ranch family in southeastern Montana, also takes on issues of rape, abortion, and the difficulty of developing a happy life in the early homesteader days.



In The Weight of an Infinite Sky, the critically acclaimed author of The Home Place explores the heart and mystery of Big Sky Country in this evocative and atmospheric novel of family, home, love, and responsibility inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The only son of a cattle rancher, Anthony Fry chafed against the expectation that he would take over the business that had belonged to his family for generations. While his ancestors planted deep roots in the unforgiving Montana soil, Anthony wanted nothing more than to leave Billings for the excitement, sophistication, and culture of city life. After college he fled to New York, hoping to turn his lifelong love of the theater into a career. But New York wasn’t the dream Anthony thought it would be. Now, with the unexpected death of his father, Anthony suddenly finds himself back in the place he swore he’d left behind. While the years have transformed the artistic dreamer, they’ve also changed Billings. His uncle Neal, always the black sheep of the Fry family, has become alarmingly close with Anthony’s mother, and a predatory mining company covets the Fry land. Anthony has always wanted out of Montana, away from his father’s suffocating expectations. Yet now that he may be freed from the burden of family legacy, he’s forced to ask himself what he truly finds important: answers that will ultimately decide his fate.


The Bluebird Run is a monumental collection of 180 new sonnets by Montana poet, memoirist, artist and musician Greg Keeler. Ranging from humorous flights to poignant meditations on loss, love, aging and the fate of humanity in the face of looming environmental and social crises, the poems showcase a highly lauded writer at the peak of his abilities. “If these sonnets were trout steams, they’d be full of rainbows and cutthroats alike.” (William Pitt Root)

If you’d like a chance at winning the big bundle of Montana books, 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 May 24 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 25. 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.


Front Porch Books: May 2018 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.


The Mercy Seat
by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy: An incisive, meticulously crafted portrait of race, racism, and injustice in the Jim Crow era South that is as intimate and tense as a stage drama, The Mercy Seat is a stunning account of one town’s foundering over a trauma in their midst. On the eve of his execution, eighteen year old Willie Jones sits in his cell in New Iberia awaiting his end. Across the state, a truck driven by a convict and his keeper carries the executioner’s chair closer. On a nearby highway, Willie’s father Frank lugs a gravestone on the back of his fading, old mule. In his office the DA who prosecuted Willie reckons with his sentencing, while at their gas station at the crossroads outside of town, married couple Ora and Dale grapple with their grief and their secrets. As various members of the township consider and reflect on what Willie’s execution means, an intricately layered and complex portrait of a Jim Crow era Southern community emerges. Moving from voice to voice, Winthrop elegantly brings to stark light the story of a town, its people, and its injustices. The Mercy Seat is a brutally incisive and tender novel from one of our most acute literary observers.

Opening Lines: When Lane comes out of the gas station store, the dog is waiting for him. It sits in the dusty crossroads, alert and eager, ears pricked and black tongue stiff between its panting jaws. It looks like some kind of ridgeback-pit bull mix, all sinewy muscle and worried brow, like the one he’d had as a kid until his father one day shot her in the cane fields out back, damned if he’d shelter a dog who, during domestic contests, favored the woman of the house. The dog hadn’t died right away; Lane had fixed her up as best he could and made her a bed out in the woodshed, where he’d brought her food and water and tended to her wound until she’d disappeared a few days later, likely wandered off to die

Blurbworthiness: “The lives of these characters mesh in the events surrounding the execution, and their points of view cycle through short chapters that build tension as midnight draws near. Winthrop’s carefully structured novel is a nuanced, absorbing, atmospheric examination of how racism tears at the whole of society.” (Booklist)


Vox
by Christina Dalcher
(Berkley)

Jacket Copy:  Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, Vox is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter. On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denialthis can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her. This is just the beginning. Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard. But this is not the end. For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Opening Lines:  If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them. But I wouldn’t argue. I wouldn’t say a thing.
       I’ve become a woman of few words.


Furnishing Eternity
by David Giffels
(Scribner)

Jacket Copy:  David Giffels grew up fascinated by his father’s dusty, tool-strewn workshop and the countless creations it inspired. So when he enlisted his eighty-one-year-old dad to help him build his own casket, he thought of it mostly as an opportunity to sharpen his woodworking skills and to spend time together. But the unexpected deaths of his mother and, a year later, his best friend, coupled with the dawning realization that his father wouldn’t be around forever for such offbeat adventures—and neither would he—led to a harsh confrontation with mortality and loss. Over the course of several seasons, Giffels returned to his father’s barn in rural Ohio, a place cluttered with heirloom tools, exotic wood scraps, and long memory, to continue a pursuit that grew into a meditation on grief and optimism, a quest for enlightenment, and a way to cherish time with an aging parent. With wisdom and humor, Giffels grapples with some of the hardest questions we all face as he and his father saw, hammer, and sand their way through a year bowed by loss.

Opening Lines:  He was sleeping when I arrived, a half-shape through the sun-warmed porch screens, an impression, familiar and calm. It was late spring in Ohio, and the yard surrounding him was dappled with afternoon leaf shadows. A rubbery hum droned from the highway beyond the dense screen of pines and the high stockade fence. Birds chirped. One cloud dragged the sky like Linus’s blanket.
       He was sleeping. I could see him from the driveway as I slowed to a stop and shifted into park. His old straw hat rose and dipped softly where it rested on his belly. I sat there for a long moment in the beige leather driver’s seat, watching through the windshield, engine still running, wondering if I should disturb him.
       After a lifetime of driving crap cars, most of which had held the specific purpose of hauling building materials and guitar amplifiers, I had—in what I guess I’ll have to concede is middle age—cashed out a very small windfall to buy this seven-year-old Saab turbo convertible. Such a car would seem to imply, if not outright midlife crisis, at least the illusion of leisure. I could have left him alone, put the top down, and gone for a drive in the country.
       But I don’t go for country drives. Relaxation is not a part of my family’s DNA. We spend much of our time trying to outwork each other. My father may have been napping, but it was not a matter of leisure so much as the fact that he was eighty-one years old and had spent the morning chainsawing a fallen tree. So I shut off the engine, pulled out the key, and reached over to the passenger seat for a shaggy folder of notes and sketches, including a couple of drawings from an old Mother Earth News article, freshly printed from the Internet: “Learn How to Build a Handmade Casket.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Father and son bond over a lugubrious building project in this sweetly mordant saga of death and carpentry…Giffels treats heavy themes with a light touch and deadpan humor, drawing vivid, affectionate portraits of loved ones in the richly textured setting of Akron, Ohio. The result is an entertaining memoir that moves through gentle absurdism to a poignant meditation on death and what comes before it.” (Publishers Weekly)


Eden
by Andrea Kleine
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Every other weekend, Hope and Eden—backpacks, Walkmans, and homework in hand—wait for their father to pick them up, as he always does, at a strip-mall bus stop. It’s the divorce shuffle; they’re used to it. Only this weekend, he’s screwed up, forgotten, and their world will irrevocably change when a stranger lures them into his truck with a false story and smile. More than twenty years later, Hope is that classic New York failure: a playwright with only one play produced long ago, newly evicted from an illegal sublet, working a humiliating temp job. Eden has long since distanced herself from her family, and no one seems to know where she is. When the man who abducted them is up for parole, the sisters might be able to offer testimony to keep him jailed. Hope sets out to find her sister—and to find herself—and it becomes the journey of a lifetime, taking her from hippie communes to cities across the country. Suspenseful and moving, Eden asks: how much do our pasts define us, and what price do we pay if we break free?

Opening Lines:  It was embarrassing to take the bus, but it was doubly embarrassing to hand the driver a coupon that had been cut out of the back of a Cheerios box. My father ate Cheerios for breakfast every day except Sundays, and then he ate eggs. When my parents divorced, back when I was ten, my father moved from Charlottesville out to the country, sort of toward DC but sort of toward the mountains, and fixed up an old house. My sister, Eden, and I took the Greyhound bus to visit him every other weekend because neither our father nor my mother was willing to make the ninety-minute drive each way. My mother insisted it was our father’s responsibility. Our father thought he was paying my mother more than enough for child support, considering she had a decent job and he never had to pay Eden’s mom, Suriya, anything. He tried to bargain with my mother to drop us off at a shopping mall halfway, but she refused. He drove us the first year and a half until he spotted the bus coupons on the back of the Cheerios box, and then he never picked us up or drove us home again.
       Eden always let me give the tickets to the bus driver. I was excited at first that she let me do it, since she was two years older, but when I realized I had been duped into having the uncool job, she said, “No givebacks.” I had to go on the bus first and hand over the tickets, and Eden could wait and lag behind, distancing herself from me and the embarrassing Cheerios coupon. Her preferred seating arrangement was to have her own two seats and she would sit wherever she wanted, forcing me to move closer to her if she sat too far away. If I tried to sit down next to her, she would say, “Hope not,” which was her way of politely saying “Fuck off,” since my name is Hope.

Blurbworthiness:  “Among the many reasons to read the fierce and wonderful Eden are its sly structure, its delicious pacing, its humor, its meditation on the strange, indelible phenomenon of being a sister, and its abiding interest in the ways tragedy defines us and the ways it doesn’t. What I love most is the way these elements conspire to deliver a fresh and moving portrait of an artist. A spirit sister to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Eden tells the bounteous, searching, sorrowful, invigorating story of what it is to make a life out of making art.” (Maud Casey, author of The Man Who Walked Away)


Mirror Shoulder Signal
by Dorthe Nors
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Sonja is ready to get on with her life. She’s over forty now, and the Swedish crime novels she translates are losing their fascination. She sees a masseuse, tries to reconnect with her sister, and is finally learning to drive. But under the overbearing gaze of her driving instructor, Sonja is unable to shift gears for herself. And her vertigo, which she has always carefully hidden, has begun to manifest at the worst possible moments. Sonja hoped her move to Copenhagen years ago would have left rural Jutland in the rearview mirror. Yet she keeps remembering the dramatic landscapes of her childhood―the endless sky, the whooper swans, the rye fields―and longs to go back. But how can she return to a place that she no longer recognizes? And how can she escape the alienating streets of Copenhagen? In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Dorthe Nors brings her distinctive blend of style, humor, and insight to a poignant journey of one woman in search of herself when there’s no one to ask for directions.

Opening Lines:  Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along. It’s heavy, and sits in the bag on the backseat. She’s halfway through her translation of Gösta Svensson’s latest crime novel, and the quality was already dipping with the previous one. Now’s the time I can afford it, she thought, and so she looked for driving schools online and signed up with Folke in Frederiksberg. The theory classroom was small and blue and reeked of stale smoke and locker rooms, but the theory itself went well. Besides Folke, there was only one other person Sonja’s age in the class, and he was there because of drunk driving, so he kept to himself. Sonja usually sat there and stuck out among all the kids, and for the first aid unit the instructor used her as a model. He pointed to the spot on her throat where they were supposed to imagine her breathing had gotten blocked. He did the Heimlich on her, his fingers up in her face, inside her collar, up and down her arms. At one point he put her into a stranglehold, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was when they had to do the exercises themselves. It was humiliating to be placed in the recovery position by a boy of eighteen. It also made her dizzy, and that was something no one was supposed to find out.

Blurbworthiness:  “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal explores the otherwise unspoken misery of getting a driver’s license, and uses the experience to tease out the secret humiliations that we all suffer but never name. No writer is more haunted by history—the personal, the local, the international—than Dorthe Nors and it’s all here, delivered with her customary economy and grace.” (Jarett Kobek, author of I Hate the Internet)


How To Be a Good Creature
by Sy Montgomery (illustrated by Rebecca Green)
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery. To research her books, Sy has traveled the world and encountered some of the planet’s rarest and most beautiful animals. From tarantulas to tigers, Sy’s life continually intersects with and is informed by the creatures she meets. This restorative memoir reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals—Sy’s friends—and the truths revealed by their grace. It also explores vast themes: the otherness and sameness of people and animals; the various ways we learn to love and become empathetic; how we find our passion; how we create our families; coping with loss and despair; gratitude; forgiveness; and most of all, how to be a good creature in the world.

Opening Lines:  As usual, when I was not in class at elementary school, we were together. Molly―our Scottish terrier―and I were doing sentinel duty on the spacious, crew-cut lawn of the general’s house, Quarters 225, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York. Rather, Molly was keeping watch, and I was watching her.

Blurbworthiness:  “A truly beautiful book about life, family, loss, and love.” (Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals)


Another Life
by Theodor Kallifatides
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  “Nobody should write after the age of seventy-five,” a friend had said. At seventy-seven, struggling with the weight of writer’s block, Theodor Kallifatides makes the difficult decision to sell the Stockholm studio where he diligently worked for decades and retire. Unable to write, and yet unable to not write, he travels to his native Greece in the hope of rediscovering that lost fluidity of language. In this slim memoir, Kallifatides explores the interplay of meaningful living and meaningful work, and the timeless question of how to reconcile oneself to aging. But he also comments on worrying trends in contemporary Europe—from religious intolerance and prejudice against immigrants to housing crises and gentrification—and his sadness at the battered state of his beloved Greece. Kallifatides offers an eloquent, thought-provoking meditation on the writing life, and an author’s place in a changing world.

Opening Lines:  It was a difficult time. My latest novel had taken up all my strength. I was exhausted, and thinking of abandoning my writing: giving up on it, before it gave up on me.


Scribe
by Alyson Hagy
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  A brutal civil war has ravaged the country, and contagious fevers have decimated the population. Abandoned farmhouses litter the isolated mountain valleys and shady hollows. The economy has been reduced to barter and trade. In this craggy, unwelcoming world, the central character of Scribe ekes out a lonely living on the family farmstead where she was raised and where her sister met an untimely end. She lets a migrant group known as the Uninvited set up temporary camps on her land, and maintains an uneasy peace with her cagey neighbors and the local enforcer. She has learned how to make paper and ink, and she has become known for her letter-writing skills, which she exchanges for tobacco, firewood, and other scarce resources. An unusual request for a letter from a man with hidden motivations unleashes the ghosts of her troubled past and sets off a series of increasingly calamitous events that culminate in a harrowing journey to a crossroads. Drawing on traditional folktales and the history and culture of Appalachia, Alyson Hagy has crafted a gripping, swiftly plotted novel that touches on pressing issues of our time―migration, pandemic disease, the rise of authoritarianism―and makes a compelling case for the power of stories to both show us the world and transform it.

Opening Lines:  The dogs circled the house all night, crying out, hunting. She knew they were calling to her. Beckoning. Working their churn. The world she lived in had become a gospel of disturbances, and the dogs wouldn’t let her forget that. In the morning, before she had even gone to the springhouse for milk, she saw a man waiting at the foot of her garden. It was how they did.
       Summer had spun away from them all. The creek banks were whiskered with a nickel-shine frost, and she could smell the cooking fires laid down by the ones who called themselves the Uninvited. Pig fat and smoke. Scorched corn. There were more people at the camp every week, staking out tarps, drying fish seined from the river. They were drawn to her fields at the end of their seasonal migrations because of what had happened there some years before, because of their beliefs. She did not know if they planned to stay for the winter.


John Woman
by Walter Mosley
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  A convention-defying novel by bestselling writer Walter Mosley, John Woman recounts the transformation of an unassuming boy named Cornelius Jones into John Woman, an unconventional history professor―while the legacy of a hideous crime lurks in the shadows. At twelve years old, Cornelius, the son of an Italian-American woman and an older black man from Mississippi named Herman, secretly takes over his father’s job at a silent film theater in New York’s East Village. Five years later, as Herman lives out his last days, he shares his wisdom with his son, explaining that the person who controls the narrative of history controls their own fate. After his father dies and his mother disappears, Cornelius sets about reinventing himself―as Professor John Woman, a man who will spread Herman’s teachings into the classrooms of his unorthodox southwestern university and beyond. But there are other individuals who are attempting to influence the narrative of John Woman, and who might know something about the facts of his hidden past. Engaging with some of the most provocative ideas of recent intellectual history, John Woman is a compulsively readable, deliciously unexpected novel about the way we tell stories, and whether the stories we tell have the power to change the world.

Opening Lines:  Lucia Napoli’s family name had been Tartarelli before her great-grandfather migrated from Naples to the Lower East Side. No one was certain how the name got changed. Lucia’s Aunt Maria said it was a drunken Irish customs officer on Ellis Island who mistook their origins for the name. Lucia’s great Uncle Christopher said his father, Alesio, introduced himself as Alesio from Napoli so often that the name stuck.
       Lucia didn’t care where Napoli came from. It sounded better than Tartarelli. There were pastries and breasts and something flip in the sound. She liked the way it brought her lips together. “Like a kiss,” she once told her girlfriends after her part-time shift as a filing clerk at Household Insurance Company.


The Summer She Was Under Water
by Jen Michalski
(Black Lawrence Press)

Jacket Copy:  It has been twenty years since Sam Pinski, a young novelist, has spent the Fourth of July weekend with her family at their cabin on the Susquehanna River. There, she must confront a chaotic history of mental illness, alcoholism, and physical violence, and struggle to find perspective in the pulse of things familiar and respite from the shame of the taboo relationship that courses through her. As she does, a subplot emerges: Excerpts are included from Sam's metaphoric novel in which a pregnant man tries to solve the mystery of his fertility and absolve himself of his past. Then tragedy strikes the Pinskis and they must draw together, tentatively realizing that they will continue to spin off in their own orbits unless they begin the hard work of forgiveness themselves.

Opening Lines:  “I think the car is on fire,” Eve says. Smoke tendrils curl out from under the hood of Samantha Pinski’s Volkswagen Jetta.
       “It’s just overheating,” Sam answers. They are at the precipice of the soft, winding dirt road that leads up to her family’s cabin on the hill. She flips on the heater and hot air from the engine pours into the interior like batter into a pan. “We’ll make it.”

Blurbworthiness:  “The Summer She Was Under Water introduces us to the vivid Pinskis, a family unwilling to be honest about its past and ill-equipped to alter its future. Jen Michalski movingly captures the way mother and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers jab at and dance around each other, alternately trying to soothe and to wound.” (Pamela Erens,  author of The Virgins and Eleven Hours)


Still Life With Monkey
by Katharine Weber
(Paul Dry Books)

Jacket Copy:  Duncan Wheeler is a successful architect who savors the quotidian pleasures in life until a car accident leaves him severely paralyzed and haunted by the death of his young assistant. Now, Duncan isn’t sure what there is left to live for, when every day has become “a broken series of unsuccessful gestures.” Duncan and his wife, Laura, find themselves in conflict as Duncan’s will to live falters. Laura grows desperate to help him. An art conservator who has her own relationship to the repair of broken things, Laura brings home a highly trained helper monkey―a tufted capuchin named Ottoline―to assist Duncan with basic tasks. Duncan and Laura fall for this sweet, comical, Nutella-gobbling little creature, and Duncan’s life appears to become more tolerable, fuller, and funnier. Yet the question persists: Is it enough?

Opening Lines:  Her long fingers caressed his check for a moment, as she traced her way down to his jaw, her cool touch just grazing the stubble of Duncan’s five-day beard. She studied his face, seeking his gaze. He met her eyes for an instant before looking away, strangely embarrassed by his inability to match the intensity of her insistent stare. Ottoline smacked little air kissed as she reached up to touch his face again, and he was surprised by the gentle precision of her tiny fingernails sorting through his whiskers as she investigated up the contour of his cheek from jaw to upper lip. She pressed two fingers to his lips, and he nearly kissed them, but he didn’t, and then she contemplated her fingertips, sticking out her tongue daintily for the tiny flake of something she had found on his lip. She nibbled at it contentedly while continuing to stare up at him, making a sweet, soft, peeping sound. She repositioned her springy little body constantly, and now she shifted again, peering up at his chin, plucking with fascination at the bristles that speckled his face. They had been alone together for five minutes.
       Ignore her, her trainer Martha has advised, before leaving them alone. Act as if you’ve seen a million monkeys and you’re bored by her. Let her be curious about you. Stay very still. Make no sudden movements. Duncan was very good at sitting still, and he was pretty much the master of being bored, too.

Blurbworthiness:  “Still Life With Monkey is a brilliantly crafted novel, brimming with heart. Pairing poetry with wisdom, this is a story about what it means to live, love, and grow.” (Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage)


If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi
by Neel Patel
(Flatiron Books)

Jacket Copy:  In eleven sharp, surprising stories, Neel Patel gives voice to our most deeply held stereotypes and then slowly undermines them. His characters, almost all of who are first-generation Indian Americans, subvert our expectations that they will sit quietly by. We meet two brothers caught in an elaborate web of envy and loathing; a young gay man who becomes involved with an older man whose secret he could never guess; three women who almost gleefully throw off the pleasant agreeability society asks of them; and, in the final pair of linked stories, a young couple struggling against the devastating force of community gossip. If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi examines the collisions of old world and new world, small town and big city, traditional beliefs (like arranged marriage) and modern rituals (like Facebook stalking). Ranging across the country, Patel’s stories―empathetic, provocative, twisting, and wryly funny―introduce a bold new literary voice, one that feels more timely than ever.

Opening Lines:  The Wi-Fi was out: that was the first sign. The second was that my dress was an eyesore.

Blurbworthiness:  “It’s possible that no one ever told Neel Patel that Indians in America are supposed to be a model minority. How else to explain these stories, full of terrible spouses, warring siblings, unapologetic liars, and naive kids, searching for happiness, love, or maybe just sex? In stories that are moving, thoughtful, entertaining, and discomfiting all at once, Patel upends what we think the experience of Indians in America looks like. It’s about time.” (Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty)


Southernmost
by Silas House
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  In the aftermath of a flood that washes away much of a small Tennessee town, evangelical preacher Asher Sharp offers shelter to two gay men. In doing so, he starts to see his life anew—and risks losing everything: his wife, locked into her religious prejudices; his congregation, which shuns Asher after he delivers a passionate sermon in defense of tolerance; and his young son, Justin, caught in the middle of what turns into a bitter custody battle. With no way out but ahead, Asher takes Justin and flees to Key West, where he hopes to find his brother, Luke, whom he’d turned against years ago after Luke came out. And it is there, at the southernmost point of the country, that Asher and Justin discover a new way of thinking about the world, and a new way of understanding love.

Opening Lines:  The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness, without ceasing for two days, and then the water rose all at once in the middle of the night, a brutal rush so fast Asher thought at first a dam might have broken somewhere upstream. The ground had simply become so saturated it could not hold any more water. All the creeks were conspiring down the ridges until they washed out into the Cumberland. There was no use in anyone going to bed because they all knew what was going to happen. They only had to wait.
       The day dawned without any sign of sun—a sky that groaned open from a black night to a dull, purpling gray of morning—and Asher went out to walk the ridge and get a full eye on the situation. The news wasn’t telling them anything worthwhile. He could hear the flood before he reached the top of the ridge. There he saw the massively swollen river supping at the edges of the lower fields, ten feet above its own banks, a foamy broth climbing so steadily he could actually see its ascent, and then he knew he had to go get Zelda.

Blurbworthiness:  “Southernmost is an emotional tsunami. The classic themes of great literature written about family life are upended here in a modern twist as a father and son flee one life in search of another; as estranged brothers separated by time and their judgement of one another seek redemption and through the women in their lives, antagonists in the struggle who become grace notes on the road to redemption. This is a story of faith lost and love found, and what we must throw overboard on the journey in order to keep moving. A treasure.”  (Adriana Trigiani, author of Kiss Carlo)