Monday, May 20, 2019

My First Time: Steven Wingate

My (Second) First Time on Social Media
or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Like Facebook

My first book, the short story collection Wifeshopping, came out in 2008 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt at a time when having a social media presence was fast becoming a necessity for authors. Back then, Facebook had only 200 million users (it’s now 2.38 billion) and Twitter had only 6 million (it’s now 330 million). I didn’t have a social media presence then, didn’t invest enough time and energy into the platforms to take advantage of their power and reach, and I paid for it. I watched other writers embrace them and launch amazing careers, and I promised myself that when I got another chance at a book, I’d be better at social media.

Just over a decade after my first book, I had a second first time. My debut novel Of Fathers and Fire, the latest entry in the Flyover Fiction series from the University of Nebraska Press, came out this April, and in the run-up to it I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to generate a real social media presence. I looked at other writers who’d perfected social media and knew I couldn’t match them post for post, tweet for tweet. But I knew I had to be better at it, because social media is built into the job description of “writer” today. If you don’t do it, your chances of succeeding in the business plummet.

But the fact is, I don’t enjoy being on social media enough to create the kind of vortex I need for it to move the needle on my writing career. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, sure, but I’ve never become a citizen of the social media ecosystem the way those who use it most successfully are. I can get on for a few minutes at a time before I wear out, overwhelmed by the constant righteous indignation and shameless virtue signaling. Then, too soon to make it work for me, I’m fed up and logged off.

What to do, then, about promoting a new book? As I planned to send Of Fathers and Fire out into the world, I looked for ways to be a more assertive businessperson without relying completely on spending my personal time immersed in social media. I did lots of content marketing, writing articles and guests posts (like this one) that matched my novel’s subjects or covered the literary life in general. Since I didn’t have a broad social media following of my own, my logic went, the venues I published in would help me get my name out there. This piggybacking would undoubtedly work better if I had a Twitter mob and a platoon of Facebook followers to share those pieces, since social media is all about building vortexes. But at absolute worst, I’ve made connections at new venues like LA Review of Books and Stand Magazine, while strengthening my connections with existing ones like Fiction Writers Review. Being in more places also helps build my online portfolio of nonfiction, which will continue to open up fresh venues long after my new book’s release.

I’ve also invested in my book financially, knowing that my university press—as much as I love it—doesn’t have the resources to compete for media attention with giant multinational conglomerate presses. You only get one first novel, and I want to make mine count by getting as many people to hear about it as I can, even if it costs me money. Instead of focusing exclusively on book sales, I think of my novel as a ticket to the races. It lets me into conversations that I couldn’t be in before, and its primary function is the long-term building of a brand.

Fortunately I have a day job, and this kind of investment is possible for me; I realize that’s a privileged situation to be in, and it won’t be open to every writer. By investing in advertising and promotions on top of what my press can do, I make sure that more people know about my novel and about me. That means they can hire me to do workshops and talk about writing to their college students and conference attendees—which can be a major boost to a writer’s income, since one visiting gig can equal a boatload of single book sales.

My investment has been strategic in its outreach to indie booksellers and the readers who frequent their stores. I went to the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, which got my book in front of indie booksellers nationwide. I bought an ad in Shelf Awareness for Readers, which put my book directly in front of indie bookstore aficionados. I went to the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s Spring Conference and advertised directly to booksellers in that region, as well as to the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. Just like readers can’t read a book they’ve never heard of, indie booksellers can’t stock a book they’ve never heard of, either.

Since I don’t have a multinational conglomerate behind me, I have to build my brand brick by brick. This is a long game that may take years to come to fruition, and every day I question whether my investment of time and money will be worth it. When all is said and done, I might have flushed a bunch of both down the drain. Ideally all my work will at least bring me to the break-even point and pave the way for later books to get into the hands of readers more smoothly. If I don’t get to the break-even point, then I won’t make the same mistakes on my next book. But having thrown energy and resources into this one, I’ve got skin in the game and lots of motivation to stand behind what I’ve written.

People don’t tell you this when you finish a book, or even when you publish it, but I’m telling you right now: getting behind your book and launching out into the world can help you love it just as much as writing it can. The kinds of love are different, no doubt about it. But they both work, and they’re both necessary.

Steven Wingate’s works include the novel Of Fathers and Fire, published by the University of Nebraska Press in April 2019 as part of its Flyover Fiction series, the digital memoir daddylabyrinth, which premiered at the Singapore Art/Science Museum in 2014, and the short story collection Wifeshopping, which won the 2007 Bakeless Prize in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He is an associate professor at South Dakota State University and associate editor at Fiction Writers Review.

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.

Author photo by Kate Heiberger

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? by Brock Clarke

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

Like most ministers, my mother had looked as if she were made in the winter, for the winter.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Front Porch Books: May 2019 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.

Cold Country
by Russell Rowland
(Dzanc Books)

Jacket Copy:  Montana, 1968: The small town of Paradise Valley is ripped open when popular rancher and notorious bachelor Tom Butcher is found murdered one morning, beaten to death by a baseball bat. Suspicion among the tight-knit community immediately falls on the outsider, Carl Logan, who recently moved in with his family and his troubled son Roger. What Carl doesn’t realize is that there are plenty of people in Paradise Valley who have reason to kill Tom Butcher. Complications arise when the investigating officers discover that Tom Butcher had a secret―a secret he kept even from Junior Kirby, a lifelong rancher and Butcher’s best friend. As accusations fly and secrets are revealed one after another, the people of Paradise Valley learn how deeply Tom Butcher was embedded in their lives, and that they may not have known him at all. With familiar mastery, Russell Rowland, the author of In Open Spaces and Fifty-Six Counties, returns to rural Montana to explore a small town torn apart by secrets and suspicions, and how the tenuous bonds of friendship struggle to hold against the differences that would sever us.

Opening Lines:  Roger Logan followed his father Carl, stepping out into the cold dead of Montana winter. It was midnight, and the dry air was black and odorless, cut by a thin slice of moon. The snow gave the ground and eerie glow. Roger slipped a little, the black loafers that were the only shoes he owned sliding on the snow.

Blurbworthiness:  “I can’t think of an easier pick for a book club than a page-turning murder mystery with multifaceted characters, a profoundly satisfying ending, and plenty to induce a spirited debate! In Cold Country, Russell Rowland places his finger on the pulse of a small Montana ranching community and the outsiders hoping to set up a home there. Writing in the tradition of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and McCarthy, Rowland’s powerful style fools with its simplicity, and he often turns his eye toward the harsh realities of daily living (stitching the wounds of livestock, facilitating a birth, disciplining a child) to uncover beauty, tenderness, and meaning. As he digs deep into the hearts of his characters, we recognize our own tangled relationships, the burden of the secrets we keep, our own prejudices, our fears of being alone, unloved, or unwanted. Like the land he writes about, this book will leave you humbled, wrestling, and in awe.” (Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams)

by Téa Obreht
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  In the lawless, drought-ridden lands of the Arizona Territory in 1893, two extraordinary lives collide. Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life—her husband, who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons, who have vanished after an explosive argument. Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home. Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West. The way in which Nora’s and Lurie’s stories intertwine is the surprise and suspense of this brilliant novel. Mythical, lyrical, and sweeping in scope, Inland is grounded in true but little-known history. It showcases all of Téa Obreht’s talents as a writer, as she subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely—and unforgettably—her own.

Opening Lines:  When those men rode down to the fording place last night, I thought us done for. Even you must realize how close they came: their smell, the song of their bridles, the whites of their horses’ eyes. True to form—blind though you are, and with that shot still irretrievable in your thigh—you made to stand and meet them. Perhaps I should have let you. It might have averted what happened tonight, and the girl would be unharmed. But how could I have known? I was unready, disbelieving of our fate, and in the end could only watch them cross and ride up the wash away from us in the moonlight.

The Obsoletes
by Simeon Mills
(Skybound Books)

Jacket Copy:  The Obsoletes is a thought-provoking coming-of-age novel about two human-like teen robots navigating high school, basketball, and potentially life-threatening consequences if their true origins are discovered by the inhabitants of their intolerant 1980s Michigan hometown. Fraternal twin brothers Darryl and Kanga are just like any other teenagers trying to make it through high school. They have to deal with peer pressure, awkwardness, and family drama. But there’s one closely guarded secret that sets them apart: they are robots. So long as they keep their heads down, their robophobic neighbors won’t discover the truth about them and they just might make it through to graduation. But when Kanga becomes the star of the basketball team, there’s more at stake than typical sibling rivalry. Darryl—the worrywart of the pair—now has to work a million times harder to keep them both out of the spotlight. Though they look, sound, and act perfectly human, if anyone in their small, depressed Michigan town were to find out what they truly are, they’d likely be disassembled by an angry mob in the middle of their school gym. Heartwarming and thrilling, Simeon Mills’s charming debut novel is a funny, poignant look at brotherhood, xenophobia, and the limits of one’s programming.

Opening Lines:  Our bus driver was a robot. Ask any kid on Bus 117. Not that any of them had for sure seen a real robot before Mrs. Stover. (That they knew about, anyway.) But that didn’t stop them from whispering a mountain of evidence against her.
       “She doesn’t eat. Not even the day after Halloween when I gave her a Twix just to see if she’d eat it. She didn’t.”
       “Mrs. Stover drinks too much coffee, just like a robot.”
       “And her hair. It’s wires. It just sits up there.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Alternating between antic comedy, freak-out horror, and existential angst, The Obsoletes does the seemingly impossible: it makes the joys and terrors of adolescence seem fresh and new.”  (J. Robert Lennon, author of Broken River)

Suicide Woods: Stories
by Benjamin Percy

Jacket Copy:  Benjamin Percy is a versatile and propulsive storyteller whose genre-busting novels and story collections have ranged from literary to thriller to post-apocalyptic. In his essay collection, Thrill Me, he laid bare for readers how and why he channels disparate influences in his work. Now, in his first story collection since the acclaimed Refresh, Refresh, Percy brings his page-turning skills to bear in Suicide Woods, a potent brew of horror, crime, and weird happenings in the woods. A boy in his uncle’s care falls through the ice on a pond and emerges in a frozen, uncanny state. A group of people in therapy for suicidal ideation undergoes a drastic session in the woods with fatal consequences. A body found on a train and a blood-soaked carpet in an empty house are clues to a puzzling crime in a small town. And in a pulse-quickening novella, thrill seekers on a mapping expedition into the “Bermuda Triangle” of remote Alaska are stranded on a sinister island that seems to want them dead. In story after story, which have appeared in magazines ranging from the Virginia Quarterly Review and Orion Magazine to McSweeney’s and Ploughshares, Percy delivers haunting and chilling narratives that will have readers hanging on every word. A master class in suspense and horror, Suicide Woods is a dark, inventive collection packed to the gills with eerie, can’t-miss tales.

Opening Lines:  The forest is hardwood, and the branches of the oaks and sycamores are bare except for the crows, hundreds of them, all huddled like little men in black jackets. Together they make a strange music—muttering to one another in rusty voices as they click their beaks and rustle their feathers and claw at the bark—that can be heard a quarter mile away, across a snowy cornfield, where Ray stands on a frozen pond.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
by Kate Racculia
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Tuesday Mooney is a loner. She keeps to herself, begrudgingly socializes, and spends much of her time watching old Twin Peaks and X-Files DVDs. But when Vincent Pryce, Boston’s most eccentric billionaire, dies—leaving behind an epic treasure hunt through the city, with clues inspired by his hero, Edgar Allan Poe—Tuesday’s adventure finally begins. Puzzle-loving Tuesday searches for clue after clue, joined by a ragtag crew: a wisecracking friend, an adoring teen neighbor, and a handsome, cagey young heir. The hunt tests their mettle, and with other teams from around the city also vying for the promised prize—a share of Pryce’s immense wealth—they must move quickly. Pryce’s clues can't be cracked with sharp wit alone; the searchers must summon the courage to face painful ghosts from their pasts (some more vivid than others) and discover their most guarded desires and dreams. A deliciously funny ode to imagination, overflowing with love letters to art, from The Westing Game to Madonna to the Knights of the Round Table, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is the perfect read for thrill seekers, wanderers, word lovers, and anyone looking for an escape to the extraordinary.

Opening Lines:  The Tillerman house was dead. Over a century old, massive and stone, it lay slumped on its corner lot, exposed by the naked December trees and shrubs growing wildly over its corpse. It was ugly, neglected, and, despite its size, withered; a black hole of a house.

Blurbworthiness:  “Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is so much fun it should be criminal. A mystery hidden in a game, hidden in a romp around Boston, with intrigue, a little romance, and a ghost? Perfection. Racculia has a gift for both humor and creating deeply relatable oddballs. Genuinely funny, whip-smart, and at times profound, it is a novel that reminds us both of the pure joy of play, and the importance of finding people who matter.”  (Erika Swyler, author of The Book of Speculation)

Blood Fire Vapor Smoke
by Shann Ray
(Unsolicited Press)

Jacket Copy:  A cycle akin to the seasons of a life, Blood Fire Vapor Smoke asks questions of the ancient struggle between life and death amidst landscapes new and old. Does ultimate forgiveness answer to ultimate violence in the world? What is the nature of grace? Who determines the fates that move us? A collection of stories opening upon the inner world with the abandon and gravity involved in personal and collective responsibility, the book responds to the present age of enragement, and the collapsing binary of two hungers: violence and forgiveness. Blood Fire Vapor Smoke considers the human myth of regeneration through violence, and the aftermath of loneliness, love, and yearning found in a more merciful expression of human existence. Violence is caught by love, and changed, transcended, and transformed into a yearning for restoration, atonement, and the fusion embodied in the true power of community, humility, and greater humanity. The characters in each of the four sections of this collection of stories and one long poem, pass through thresholds of knowledge and responsibility. Asking not what life owes them, but what they may receive from life, and in the end, just how they are responsible for life, those who people this collection cross into unforeseen places of mystery, mercy, and grace. In Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, beyond our inevitable compulsions toward violent ends, healing calls, beckoning us toward a crossroads where we turn and face one another, finding the beauty and strength to serve and love one another again.

Opening Lines:  The first man ran north hard under cover of night, fast along riverbed and up climbing the forested bulk of land over land, up rock faces and out upon the serrated edge of snow-laden cirques and down again descending into valleys and further down low upon the valley floor, into a daylight that pierced all as he ran through pinch of canyon walls and out again over open plains crumbled at the far edge by timber and stone, down in the night to the heart of the great forest and out finally over a wide expanse of grey rock, bold line of trees along the Big River below, the man who ran more animal or wind than man, bent to the far place of snow and skyborne earth, bent with abandon to Ten Mountain House.
       Like shadow the second man followed the first, desiring him dead.

Blurbworthiness:  “The beauty of the language, the collection’s historical range, and Ray’s reach for—sometimes prayer for—mercy and compassion in the face of horrific violence, his insistence on the solace of beauty, make this a brave and worthy book of stories. It feels restless, not just because it moves among different physical settings, but because it moves from what can read as historical fiction to an intimate and contemporary mode, and because Ray works to see a driving masculinity prismatically. This restlessness, the unwillingness to conceive of a singular answer to the question of what nourishes the appetite for violence—in the kitchen, in theatres of war, in alleyways in ravaged cities—across the centuries and across continents, is true and inventive. The collection feels like a genuine inquiry in which salvation and damnation, wickedness and blessedness merge...a hard book to write, hard won, and risky.”  (Noy Holland, author of I Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like)

Imaginary Friend
by Stephen Chbosky
(Grand Central Publishing)

Jacket Copy:  Single mother Kate Reese is on the run. Determined to improve life for her and her seven-year-old son, she flees an abusive relationship in the middle of the night with Christopher at her side. Together, they find themselves drawn to the tight-knit community of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. It’s as far off the beaten track as they can get. Just one highway in, one highway out. At first, it seems like the perfect place to finally settle down. Then Christopher vanishes. For six awful days, no one can find him. Until Christopher emerges from the woods at the edge of town, unharmed but not unchanged. He returns with a voice in his head only he can hear, with a mission only he can complete: Build a tree house in the woods by Christmas, or his mother and everyone in the town will never be the same again. Soon Kate and Christopher find themselves in the fight of their lives, caught in the middle of a war playing out between good and evil, with their small town as the battleground.

Opening Lines:  Don’t leave the street. They can’t get you if you don’t leave the street.
       Little David Olson knew he was in trouble. The minute his mother got back with Dad, he was going to get it. His only hope was the pillow stuffed under his blanket, which made it look like he was still in bed. They did that on TV shows. But none of that mattered now. He had snuck out of his bedroom and climbed down the ivy and slipped and hurt his foot. But it wasn’t too bad. Not like his older brother playing football. This wasn’t too bad.
       Little David Olson hobbled down Hays Road. The mist in his face. The fog settling in down the hill. He looked up at the moon. It was full. The second night it had been full in a row. A blue moon. That’s what his big brother told him. Like the song that mom and Dad danced to sometimes. Back when they were happy. Back before David made them afraid.
       Blue Moon.
       I saw you standing alone.

Blurbworthiness:  “Imaginary Friend is a sprawling epic horror novel that hearkens back to the classics of the 1970s Golden Age, but, like Stranger Things, with a twinkle in its malevolent eye. Enormous, scary fun.” (Dan Chaon, author of Ill Will)

by Jon Clinch
(Atria Books)

Jacket Copy:  Young Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley are very different in temperament when they meet in the gloomy confines of Professor Drabb’s Academy for Boys, but they form a bond that will endure for the rest of their lives. As years go by, with Marley’s genius for deception and Scrooge’s brilliance with numbers, they build a shipping empire of dubious legality and pitiless commitment to the slave trade, concealing their true investments under the noses of the London authorities. Circumstances change, however, when beautiful Belle Fairchild steps into Ebenezer’s life and calls into question the practices that made him wealthy. Under the influence of a newfound passion, Ebenezer tries to turn Scrooge & Marley’s business toward better ends, but his partner is not ready to give up his unsavory past or easy profits so quickly. Ignoring the costs to themselves and those around them, the two engage in a shadowy war against each other, leading to an unforgettable reckoning that will echo into their futures.

Opening Lines:  Sunrise, but no sun.
       The merchant ship Marie tied up at the Liverpool docks hours ago, beneath an overcast sufficient to obliterate the moon and the stars—and now that dawn has arrived conditions have not improved. The fog over the Mersey is so thick that a careless man might step off the pier and vanish forever, straight down.
       But Jacob Marley is not a careless man.

The Dutch House
by Ann Patchett

Jacket Copy:  Ann Patchett, the New York Times bestselling author of Commonwealth and State of Wonder, returns with her most powerful novel to date: a richly moving story that explores the indelible bond between two siblings, the house of their childhood, and a past that will not let them go. “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” I asked my sister. We were sitting in her car, parked in front of the Dutch House in the broad daylight of early summer. At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves. The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakeable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures. Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested. The Dutch House is the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness, of how we want to see ourselves and of who we really are. Filled with suspense, you may read it quickly to find out what happens, but what happens to Danny and Maeve will stay with you for a very long time.

Opening Lines:  The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs. “Your father has a friend he wants you to meet,” she said.
       “Is it a work friend?” Maeve asked. She was older and so had a more complex understanding of friendship.
       Sandy considered the question. “I’d say not. Where’s your brother?”
       “Window seat,” Maeve said.
       Sandy had to pull the draperies back to find me. “Why do you have to close the drapes?”
       I was reading. “Privacy,” I said, though at eight I had no notion of privacy. I liked the word, and I liked the boxed-in feel the draperies gave when they were closed.

Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?
by Brock Clarke
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  With the comic unpredictability of a Wes Anderson movie and the inventive sharpness of a John Irving novel, author Brock Clarke introduces readers to an ordinary man who is about to embark on an absurdly extraordinary adventure. After his mother, a theologian and bestselling author, dies in a fiery explosion, forty-nine-year-old Calvin Bledsoe’s heretofore uninspired life is upended. A stranger shows up at the funeral, claiming to be Calvin’s aunt Beatrice, and insists that Calvin accompany her on a trip to Europe, immediately. As he and Beatrice traverse the continent, it quickly becomes apparent that his aunt’s clandestine behavior is leading him into danger. Facing a comic menagerie of antiquities thieves, secret agents, religious fanatics, and an ex-wife who’s stalking him, Calvin begins to suspect there might be some meaning behind the madness. Maybe he’s not the person he thought he was? Perhaps no one is who they appear to be? But there’s little time for soul-searching, as Calvin first has to figure out why he has been kidnapped, why his aunt disappeared, and who the hell burned down his house. Powered by pitch-perfect dialogue, lovable characters, and surprising optimism, Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? is a modern-day Travels with My Aunt, a novel about grabbing life, and holding on―wherever it may take you.

Opening Lines:  My mother, Nola Bledsoe, was a minister, and she named me Calvin after her favorite theologian, John Calvin. She was very serious about John Calvin, had written a famous book about him―his enduring relevance, his misunderstood legacy. My mother was highly thought of by a lot of people who thought a lot about John Calvin.

Blurbworthiness:  “Brock Clarke’s Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? is a wild ride of a book, a story in which anything and everything can happen, and mostly does. This is a book of many trips—across oceans, back to the past, and, most profoundly, into the infinite deep space of the human heart. Brock Clarke has given us a wonderful novel that bursts with all the meaty stuff of real life.”  (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

by JP Gritton
(Tin House)

Jacket Copy:  It’s 1988 and Shelley Cooper is in trouble. He’s broke, he’s been fired from his construction job, and his ex-wife has left him for their next door neighbor and a new life in Kansas City. The only opportunity on his horizon is fifty pounds of his brother’s high-grade marijuana, which needs to be driven from Colorado to Houston and exchanged for a lockbox full of cash. The delivery goes off without a hitch, but getting home with the money proves to be a different challenge altogether. Fueled by a grab bag of resentments and self punishment, Shelley becomes a case study in the question of whether it’s possible to live without accepting yourself, and the dope money is the key to a lock he might never find. JP Gritton’s portrait of a hapless aspirant at odds with himself and everyone around him is both tender and ruthless, and Wyoming considers the possibility of redemption in a world that grants forgiveness grudgingly, if at all.

Opening Lines:  I’ll tell you what happened and you can go ahead and decide. This was about a year ago, around when the Big Thompson went up. That fire made everybody crazy. A billboard out toward Montgrand reads: HE IS RISEN. And I wasn’t ever the churchgoing type, but seeing fire wash down the mountain in a crazy-ass wave made me think twice about All That. Like maybe He’s already here, and maybe you can read Him in flame and flood.

Blurbworthiness:  “From its first assured sentence to its last, Wyoming marks the debut of a gifted storyteller. This is a compassionate novel, for all its violence and despair, an authentic, pitch-perfect portrait of an America too often caricatured or ignored. There are hard truths here, grit and cruelty, but JP Gritton’s fine prose is nuanced enough, generous enough, to keep his troubled narrator’s humanity, his beating heart, apparent at every turn.”  (Alice McDermott, author of The Ninth Hour)

Friday, May 17, 2019

Friday Freebie: The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora

Congratulations to Lara Maynard, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard.

This week’s giveaway is for the new novel by Lauren Acampora, The Paper Wasp. One lucky reader will win a new hardcover copy of the novel, a story of two women's dark friendship of twisted ambition set against the backdrop of contemporary Hollywood. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews had to say about The Paper Wasp: “This is the Los Angeles of weird cults and day-drunk stars, of struggling documentary filmmakers and mysterious but powerful directors...Utterly bizarre and completely bewitching, this twisted, delicious tale will grab you from the first page and hurl you over the edge.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

In small-town Michigan, Abby Graven leads a solitary life. Once a bright student on the cusp of a promising art career, she now languishes in her childhood home, trudging to and from her job as a supermarket cashier. Each day she is taunted from the magazine racks by the success of her former best friend Elise, a rising Hollywood starlet whose life in pictures Abby obsessively scrapbooks. At night Abby escapes through the films of her favorite director, Auguste Perren, a cult figure known for his creative institute the Rhizome. Inspired by Perren, Abby draws fantastical storyboards based on her often premonitory dreams, a visionary gift she keeps hidden. When Abby encounters Elise again at their high school reunion, she is surprised and warmed that Elise still considers her not only a friend but a brilliant storyteller and true artist. Elise’s unexpected faith in Abby reignites in her a dormant hunger, and when Elise offhandedly tells Abby to look her up if she’s ever in LA, Abby soon arrives on her doorstep. There, Abby discovers that although Elise is flourishing professionally, behind her glossy magazine veneer she is lonely and disillusioned. Ever the supportive friend, Abby becomes enmeshed in Elise’s world, even as she guards her own dark secret and burning desire for greatness. As she edges closer to Elise, the Rhizome, and her own artistic ambitions, the dynamic shifts between the two friends—until Abby can see only one way to grasp the future that awaits her.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Paper Wasp, simply e-mail 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 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 24. 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 e-mail 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, May 13, 2019

Valerie Nieman’s Library: The Many-Chambered Heart

Reader:  Valerie Nieman
Location:  Greensboro, NC
Collection Size:  About 1,650
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  My uncle Jerry went back into a lightning-struck house to rescue his father’s books, (after first carrying him out of the fire, as he was disabled.) I guess that story means I’d have to grab those once-rescued volumes of Mark Twain (see below) and Emerson and Tennyson. Oh! Of course, the brass-bound 1860 Bible, inscribed in spidery sepia ink with a mother’s poetic benediction to “My Dear Son” as he went to war. It was used for my parents’ wedding and the funerals of my mother’s parents.
Favorite book from childhood:  Jack London’s stories—a volume I bought at a school book fair. Still have it. And Girl of the Limberlost. I was a solitary child wandering the woods, so this book spoke to me—but finding it online in recent years, I was appalled at the prose. Still, it gave me encouragement in my expeditions. Also Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and books about horses and nature including Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Guilty pleasure book:  Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Counting the Books

Too many books? Never!

Well, maybe.

I’ve spent a life accumulating, sorting, sifting, giving, receiving. Now with retirement in sight, I weigh each book I buy, thinking how many I soon will have to let go.

They are all over the house, in the wood-paneled “den” where I work, in the living room, the bedroom, the spare bedroom, the former office. At work, they fill two tall bookcases, including one that will kill me if an earthquake happens to hit Greensboro while I’m sitting at my desk.

Until I took on this assignment to write about my library for The Quivering Pen, I’d never counted them. I moved from West Virginia to North Carolina in 1997 with 32 back-breaking boxes of books in my collection, that much I know, and in the words of Jacob Marley, “You have laboured on it, since.” The ponderous boxes of books are many, many more in number now.

For this photo essay, I could have tidied up and organized, given my bookshelves the artificial gloss of Instagram faces, but decided to stick with the gritty reality. The photos don’t show it, but there is organization, of a sort.

In my working area, I have 70-plus books of poetry in the first of two maple bookcases my mother made for herself while working at Ethan Allen in Jamestown, New York. They are 1950s vintage, honey-brown, like buckwheat honey. Then there are 110 (probably half the total, the rest being hidden in crates) of the “contributor copies” of journals and anthologies where I’ve appeared, and copies of my books. On the credenza, 23 books for ready reference. On the antique iron plant stand, 34 books in the on-deck circle for reading. On the fireplace side shelves, 38 antique books that once inhabited the upstairs den at my parents farmhouse in Randolph, New York, with the copperplate signatures of relatives three generations back. A dozen books stacked on the coffee table and a big pile of journals on a little stool. Almost 300 books just in the den.

The living room—what old-timey people would have called the parlor, as it’s used just for guests—has a number of coffee-table books and my favorite volume for inspiration, The Book of Symbols, left open for browsing.

The guest bed room is home to the matching bookcase Mom made at the “splinter factory,” with 50-plus books chosen for the enjoyment of guests, as well as a few journals.

The “library” was once my writing room. When I divorced, I changed things around, moving my writing space into the den, where I can lounge by the fire and where a blank wall before my desk keeps me from getting lost in the outside view.

Not counting extra copies of my own books, I’d say there are close to 900 books in this room, going all the way back to the Little Golden Books my parents bought me, when times were tough but there was always a quarter for a book. Butterflies. The Forest. I have double-decked layers of paperbacks starting with the first ones I bought for myself off the Rexall drug store revolving book rack: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Dune by Frank Herbert.

The top shelves are filled and over-stacked with signed books bought at readings over the years. Many of these writers have become good friends. Some I’ve never seen again, but their voices come back when I open their books.

The lower shelves house the full set of Mark Twain in green cloth bindings, bought after my maternal grandfather got to know him on a train trip, my go-to reading during long summers as the books were readily available in “the den.” I read Tom Sawyer, of course, I read every volume, and for a while was enamored with the two-volume life of Joan of Arc. And the complete 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, noteworthy as the last edition published with signed articles. It’s all there, the onionskin pages intact, except for the map of New York State that I pulled out for a grade-school project. Yes, I was once a book vandal, to my shame.

Along with all these beloved books, the shelves house bits of memorabilia— a horseshoe crab tail found on an Oak Island beach when my parents lived near there. Sand dollars. Stones from mountain walks and from St. Martin and from the pebbly plage at Nice. A pair of long, narrow dressmaker’s shears. A rabbit that I wood-burned into a piece of plywood for a long-ago Christmas present for my father. Interesting stamps. A plastic bass lure I plucked from a snag at Cassadaga Lake.

At work, I’ve lined the back portion of my desk with copies of my publications, and then filled two tall bookcases with literature that I might use in classes, but also books that I just like to look at, and through. Friends. Also textbooks, of course, and the academic detritus of tenure portfolios and faculty handbooks. I’d estimate 375 books.

Books come to me, novels sent in for reviewing at the newspapers where I’ve worked, books from a former boyfriend who was moving and needed to downsize, books bought at church book sales, books left by friends or traded, even a few books rescued from the street side trash. And so many books have left me, especially books that I’ve lent to students, knowing most would not come back. Two copies of Breece D’J Pancake’s stories went that way. The students needed them more than I did.

It’s daunting to think of the cull to come, how I’ll try to find homes for many of these books. People don’t seem to want physical books as much. Old volumes are sold by the linear foot, and by the color, for people to use as interior decoration. Some will go to my nephew, some to friends, some perhaps to a college collection.

Lately, I’ve been accumulating e-books, handy while traveling although not as satisfying as a book in the hand.

Too many books? Never.

Appalachian heritage is the common thread binding Valerie Nieman’s wide range of writing, from mainstream fiction to horror, and both lyric and narrative poetry. Her latest novel, To the Bones (West Virginia University Press), is a genre-bending satire of the coal industry and its effects on Appalachia. Her third poetry collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, was published in fall 2018. Nieman’s writing has appeared widely in journals and in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. She teaches workshops at John C. Campbell Folk School, NC Writers Network conferences, and many other venues. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte and a former journalist, she now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University.

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

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sunday Sentence: A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

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

How does one quickly find a needle in a haystack? Certainly not by examining one straw at a time!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Friday Freebie: Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

Congratulations to Lorine Pergament, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: the Big Box of 25 Books.

This week’s giveaway is for the new novel by Louis Bayard, Courting Mr. Lincoln. One lucky reader will win a new hardcover copy of the novel which reimagines the early relationship between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Here’s what Christopher Bollen, author of The Destroyers, had to say about Courting Mr. Lincoln: “Superb, witty, gorgeously written. For the length of this dazzling, subversive novel, I was plunged so deeply into the sitting rooms and muddy streets of mid-nineteenth-century Springfield, Illinois, that I too had fallen in love with and had my heart broken by the awkward, young lawyer from Kentucky. Courting Mr. Lincoln is an essential read: it makes the past a human place.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

When Mary Todd meets Abraham Lincoln in Springfield in the winter of 1840, he is on no one’s short list to be president. A country lawyer living above a dry goods shop, he is lacking both money and manners, and his gift for oratory surprises those who meet him. Mary, a quick, self-possessed debutante with an interest in debates and elections, at first finds him an enigma. “I can only hope,” she tells his roommate, the handsome, charming Joshua Speed, “that his waters being so very still, they also run deep.” It’s not long, though, before she sees the Lincoln that Speed knows: an amiable, profound man who, despite his awkwardness, has a gentle wit to match his genius, and who respects her keen political mind. But as her relationship with Lincoln deepens, she must confront his inseparable friendship with Speed, who has taught his roommate how to dance, dress, and navigate the polite society of Springfield. Told in the alternating voices of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed, and inspired by historical events, Courting Mr. Lincoln creates a sympathetic and complex portrait of Mary unlike any that has come before; a moving portrayal of the deep and very real connection between the two men; and most of all, an evocation of the unformed man who would grow into one of the nation’s most beloved presidents. Louis Bayard, a master storyteller, delivers here a page-turning tale of love, longing, and forbidden possibilities.

If you’d like a chance at winning Courting Mr. Lincoln, simply e-mail 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 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 17. 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 e-mail 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, May 6, 2019

My First Time: Julie Zuckerman

The First Time I Fell in Love with a Writing Prompt

The first time I fell in love with a prompt, I was in my second year of creative writing, with my second teacher.

My first teacher was big on prompts. She ran a small workshop in her home for small group of women each week, and she’d send us off with a prompt like “a mystery” or “a revelation” or “journal entries” and we could come back with a story, a poem, a piece of memoir, no longer than four double-spaced pages. I’d let the prompt swirl around in my head–in bed, during yoga class, while swimming laps–and somehow, each time, I came up with something to write by the following week. The workshop was a perfect place to kick-start my creative writing; everyone was supportive, and the teacher would write things like “amazing” and “wonderful” all over my pages. After a year, though, I felt a need to graduate to a different teacher and group who would give me constructive feedback instead of just “wonderful”s.

Much to my dismay, my second teacher, who taught in an MFA program and had recently come out with his first novel, wasn’t a big believer in prompts. I must have begged him to reconsider because by the middle of our 12-week class he’d leaf through one of his craft books and pick a prompt at random, though they were always optional.

The first time I heard the writing prompt I would fall in love with, I didn’t realize it would change my life. I offer it to you now. (You’re welcome, in advance):

“The main character should be someone who is definitely not you,” the teacher said, “And he or she should have a pastime, or maybe a job, that you don’t know much about, but you’re curious to learn more.”

I fell in love with the prompt because there was nothing more exciting to me as a fiction writer than to get out of my own skin. Discovering at the age of 39 that I could be creative was the most exciting thing about writing, and I thrived on making up characters from my imagination. I settled on a story in which the main character is a black woman with a landscape architecture business. I loved the challenge of writing from this definitely-not-me point of view, as well as the research I put into the story. Which trees and shrubbery would make sense for my protagonist to be planting in a landscaped yard in Connecticut? I don’t know much about gardening, but I did what research I could online and, since I no longer live nearby, I had my mother fact-check it with her local nursery.

It was after workshopping this story in class that my teacher took me aside and told me he’d changed his opinions of prompts. He loved the story and said I had real potential as a writer. These words of encouragement at such an early stage in my writing career made a huge impact, and I will always be grateful for them.

Since I loved that prompt so much, I decided I’d use it for my next story as well. This time I wrote about an 82-year-old widower, a semi-retired professor. Again, definitely not me. But I did make him slightly more familiar: he’s Jewish, as am I. His field of study is political science and international relations, as was mine, and the hobby he takes upon himself is baking, which I know a thing or two about. The aging professor I created on the page, Jeremiah Gerstler, is a lovable crank-pot. When I finished writing this story, “MixMaster,” I was filled with dozens of questions: what were the origins of Jeremiah’s crankiness? How does his family deal with his behavior? What kind of wife did he have?

I wanted to disassemble Jeremiah’s life. I wrote more stories, going back 15 years in his life, then 40 more years, then forward another seven, back again to his adolescence and childhood, until I felt I could see him at every age. Theoretically, the author should be able to truly understand her characters. But as I wrote, sometimes Jeremiah did things that surprised me. The question of whether any person can truly understand another is central to many of Jeremiah’s struggles in my novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah (which was released earlier this month by Press 53).

The magic in the prompt–“someone who is definitely not you”–and perhaps the reason I fell in love with it, and writing to begin with, is the permission it gives my imagination. To wildly, passionately, doggedly try to understand others and thus, ourselves.

Julie Zuckerman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including The SFWP Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Salt Hill, Sixfold, Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis, The Coil, and others. The Book of Jeremiah, her debut novel-in-stories, was recently published by Press 53. A native of Connecticut, Julie lives in Modiin, Israel, with her husband and four children. Click here to visit her website.

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.

Author photo by Oz Schechter

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sunday Sentence: The Big Impossible by Edward J. Delaney

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

He had the kind of Irish complexion that suggested a thousand years of drizzling winters.

“House of Sully” from The Big Impossible by Edward J. Delaney

Friday, May 3, 2019

Friday Freebie: Win a Big Box of 25 Books

Congratulations to Jennifer Oleson, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the new novel by Wendy J. Fox, If the Ice Had Held.

It’s time once again for another Big Box o’ Books giveaway. This week, one very lucky reader will win a total of 25 new books. The selection is an eclectic one, with something for just about every adult reader on your list. Some of the books are paperback, some are hardback, but all are brand-spanking new and ready to fill the winner’s shelf. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest...

Damnation Island by Stacy Horn:  Conceived as the most modern, humane incarceration facility the world had ever seen, New York’s Blackwell’s Island, site of a lunatic asylum, two prisons, an almshouse, and a number of hospitals, quickly became, in the words of a visiting Charles Dickens, “a lounging, listless madhouse.” Digging through city records, newspaper articles, and archival reports, Stacy Horn tells a gripping narrative through the voices of the island’s inhabitants. We follow the extraordinary Reverend William Glenney French as he ministers to Blackwell’s residents, battles the bureaucratic mazes of the Department of Correction and a corrupt City Hall, testifies at salacious trials, and in his diary wonders about man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima:  It is spring. A young woman, left by her husband, starts a new life in a Tokyo apartment. Territory of Light follows her over the course of a year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old daughter alone. Her new home is filled with light streaming through the windows, so bright she has to squint, but she finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness, becoming unstable, untethered. As the months come and go and the seasons turn, she must confront what she has lost and what she will become.

In the Dark by Cara Hunter:  A woman and child are found locked in a basement, barely alive, and unidentifiable: the woman can’t speak, there are no missing persons reports that match their profile, and the confused, elderly man who owns the house claims he has never seen them before. The inhabitants of the quiet street are in shock—how could this happen right under their noses? But Detective Inspector Adam Fawley knows nothing is impossible. And no one is as innocent as they seem. As the police grow desperate for a lead, Fawley stumbles across a breakthrough, a link to a case he worked years before about another young woman and child gone missing, never solved. When he realizes the missing woman’s house is directly adjacent to the house in this case, he thinks he might have found the connection that could bring justice for both women. But there’s something not quite right about the little boy from the basement...

The Milk Lady of Bangalore by Shoba Narayan: The elevator door opens. A cow stands inside, angled diagonally to fit. It doesn’t look uncomfortable, merely impatient. “It is for the housewarming ceremony on the third floor,” explains the woman who stands behind the cow, holding it loosely with a rope. She has the sheepish look of a person caught in a strange situation who is trying to act as normal as possible. She introduces herself as Sarala and smiles reassuringly. The door closes. I shake my head and suppress a grin. It is good to be back. When Shoba Narayan—who has just returned to India with her husband and two daughters after years in the United States—asks whether said cow might bless her apartment next, it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between our author and Sarala, who also sells fresh milk right across the street from that thoroughly modern apartment building. The two women connect over not only cows but also family, food, and life.

The White Card by Claudia Rankine: Claudia Rankine’s first published play, The White Card, poses the essential question: Can American society progress if whiteness remains invisible? Composed of two scenes, the play opens with a dinner party thrown by Virginia and Charles, an influential Manhattan couple, for the up-and-coming artist Charlotte. Their conversation about art and representations of race spirals toward the devastation of Virginia and Charles’s intentions. One year later, the second scene brings Charlotte and Charles into the artist’s studio, and their confrontation raises both the stakes and the questions of what—and who—is actually on display.

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman:  Journalist and award-winning author Matti Friedman’s tale of Israel’s first spies reads like an espionage novel--but it’s all true. The four agents at the center of this story were part of a ragtag unit known as the Arab Section, conceived during World War II by British spies and Jewish militia leaders in Palestine. Intended to gather intelligence and carry out sabotage operations, the unit consisted of Jews who were native to the Arab world and could thus easily assume Arab identities. In 1948, with Israel’s existence hanging in the balance, these men went undercover in Beirut, where they spent the next two years operating out of a newsstand, collecting intelligence and sending messages back to Israel via a radio whose antenna was disguised as a clothesline.

As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams:  What happens when metaphysics and social critique meet? Poetry that has to find a new form to express the tension it embodies. John Sibley Williams’ newspaper-like columns in As One Fire Consumes Another do just that. Here, transcendent vision and trenchant social insight meet, wrestle, and end up revitalizing one another.

Love and Death in the Sunshine State by Cutter Wood:  When a stolen car is recovered on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it sets off a search for a missing woman, local motel owner Sabine Musil-Buehler. Three men are named persons of interest—her husband, her boyfriend, and the man who stole the car. Then the motel is set on fire; her boyfriend flees the county; and detectives begin digging on the beach of Anna Maria Island. Author Cutter Wood was a guest at Musil-Buehler’s motel as the search for her gained momentum. Driven by his own need to understand how a relationship could spin to pieces in such a fatal fashion, he began to talk with many of the people living on Anna Maria, and then with the detectives, and finally with the man presumed to be the murderer. But there was only so much that interviews and transcripts could reveal. In trying to understand how we treat those we love, this book, like Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood, tells a story that exists outside documentary evidence.

Pickle’s Progress by Marcia Butler:  Over the course of five weeks, identical twin brothers, one wife, a dog, and a bereaved young woman collide with each other to comical and sometimes horrifying effect. Everything is questioned and tested as they jockey for position and try to maintain the status quo. Love is the poison, the antidote, the devil and, ultimately, the hero.

Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa:  Abdel Latif, an old man from the Aleppo region, dies peacefully in a hospital bed in Damascus. His final wish, conveyed to his youngest son, Bolbol, is to be buried in the family plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya. Though Abdel was hardly an ideal father, and though Bolbol is estranged from his siblings, this conscientious son persuades his older brother Hussein and his sister Fatima to accompany him and the body to Anabiya, which is—after all—only a two-hour drive from Damascus. There’s only one problem: Their country is a war zone. With the landscape of their childhood now a labyrinth of competing armies whose actions are at once arbitrary and lethal, the siblings’ decision to set aside their differences and honor their father’s request quickly balloons from a minor commitment into an epic and life-threatening quest.

A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian: In the tight-knit community known as Heaven, a ramshackle slum hidden between luxury high-rises in Bangalore, India, five girls on the cusp of womanhood forge an unbreakable bond. Muslim, Christian, and Hindu; queer and straight; they are full of life, and they love and accept one another unconditionally. Whatever they have, they share. Marginalized women, they are determined to transcend their surroundings. When the local government threatens to demolish their tin shacks in order to build a shopping mall, the girls and their mothers refuse to be erased. Together they wage war on the bulldozers sent to bury their homes, and, ultimately, on the city that wishes that families like them would remain hidden forever.

All Happy Families by Hervé Le Tellier:  Hervé Le Tellier did not consider himself to have been an unhappy child--he was not deprived, or beaten, or abused. And yet he understood from a young age that something was wrong, and longed to leave. Children sometimes have only the option of escaping, and owe to that escape their even greater love of life. Having reached a certain emotional distance at sixty years old, and with his father and stepfather dead and his mother suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, Le Tellier finally felt able to write the story of his family. Abandoned early by his father and raised in part by his grandparents, he was profoundly affected by his relationship with his mother, a troubled woman with damaging views on love.

Sociable by Rebecca Harrington:  Elinor Tomlinson moved to New York armed with a journalism degree and a dream. Instead, she’s working as a nanny and sleeping on a foam pad in a weird apartment. So when Elinor is offered a job at, the digital media brainchild of a Silicon Valley celebrity, she jumps at the chance. There, Elinor discovers her true gift: she has a preternatural ability for writing sharable content. But as she experiences professional success, the rest of her life falters: her boyfriend dumps her, two male colleagues insist on “mentoring” her, and a piece she writes about her personal life lands her on local television.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs:  Marianne is in a slump: barely able to support herself by teaching, not making progress on her poetry, about to lose her Brooklyn apartment. When her novelist ex-fiancé, Eric, and his venture capitalist brother, Mark, offer her a job directing a low-residency school for Christian writers at a motel they’ve inherited on Florida’s Gulf Coast, she can’t come up with a reason to say no. The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch is born, and liberal, atheist Marianne is soon knee-deep in applications from writers whose political and religious beliefs she has always opposed but whose money she’s glad to take. Mark finds an investor in God’s Word God’s World, a business that develops for-profit schools for the Christian market, but the conditions that come along with their support become increasingly problematic, especially as Marianne grows closer to the students. As unsavory allegations mount, a hurricane bears down on the Ranch, and Marianne is faced with the consequences of her decisions.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones:  Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together. This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control.

Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif:  An American pilot crash lands in the desert and finds himself on the outskirts of the very camp he was supposed to bomb. After days spent wandering and hallucinating from dehydration, Major Ellie is rescued by one of the camp’s residents, a teenager named Momo, whose entrepreneurial money-making schemes are failing as his family is falling apart: His older brother, Ali, left for his first day of work at an American base and never returned; his parents are at each other’s throats; his dog, Mutt, is having a very bad day; and an earthy-crunchy aid worker has shown up wanting to research him for her book on the Teenage Muslim Mind. Amidst the madness, Momo sets out to search for his brother Ali, hoping his new Western acquaintances might be able to help find him. But as the truth of Ali’s whereabouts begin to unfold, the effects of American “aid” on this war-torn country are revealed to be increasingly pernicious.

Down From the Mountain by Bryce Andrews:  The grizzly is one of North America’s few remaining large predators. Their range is diminished, but they’re spreading across the West again. Descending into valleys where once they were king, bears find the landscape they’d known for eons utterly changed by the new most dominant animal: humans. As the grizzlies approach, the people of the region are wary, at best, of their return. In searing detail, award-winning writer, Montana rancher, and conservationist Bryce Andrews tells us about one such grizzly. Millie is a typical mother: strong, cunning, fiercely protective of her cubs. But raising those cubs—a challenging task in the best of times—becomes ever harder as the mountains change, the climate warms and people crowd the valleys. There are obvious dangers, like poachers, and subtle ones as well, like the corn field that draws her out of the foothills and sets her on a path toward trouble and ruin.

Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories by Kelly Barnhill:  When Mrs. Sorensen’s husband dies, she rekindles a long-dormant love with an unsuitable mate in “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch.” In “Open the Door and the Light Pours Through,” a young man wrestles with grief and his sexuality in an exchange of letters with his faraway beloved. “Dreadful Young Ladies” demonstrates the strength and power—known and unknown—of the imagination. In “Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake,” a witch is haunted by the deadly repercussions of a spell. “The Insect and the Astronomer” upends expectations about good and bad, knowledge and ignorance, love and longing. The World Fantasy Award–winning novella “The Unlicensed Magician” introduces the secret magical life of an invisible girl once left for dead—with thematic echoes of Barnhill’s Newbery Medal–winning novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

The Municipalists by Seth Fried:  In Metropolis, the gleaming city of tomorrow, the dream of the great American city has been achieved. But all that is about to change, unless a neurotic, rule-following bureaucrat and an irreverent, freewheeling artificial intelligence can save the city from a mysterious terrorist plot that threatens its very existence. Henry Thompson has dedicated his life to improving America’s infrastructure as a proud employee of the United States Municipal Survey. So when the agency comes under attack, he dutifully accepts his unexpected mission to visit Metropolis looking for answers. But his plans to investigate quietly, quickly, and carefully are interrupted by his new partner: a day-drinking know-it-all named OWEN, who also turns out to be the projected embodiment of the agency's supercomputer. Soon, Henry and OWEN are fighting to save not only their own lives and those of the city’s millions of inhabitants, but also the soul of Metropolis.

The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel:  A smart and sly story about a utopian summer camp, a charismatic leader, and the people who are drawn to his vision, The Optimistic Decade follows four unforgettable characters and a piece of land that changes everyone who lives on it. There is Caleb, founder of the back-to-the-land camp Llamalo, who is determined to teach others to live simply. There is Donnie, the rancher who gave up his land to Caleb and who now wants it back. There is Rebecca, determined to become an activist like her father and undone by the spell of both Llamalo and new love. And there is David, a teenager who has turned Llamalo into his personal religion. The Optimistic Decade brilliantly explores love, class, and the bloom and fade of idealism, and asks smart questions about good intentions gone wrong.

Lanny by Max Porter: There’s a village an hour from London. It’s no different from many others today: one pub, one church, redbrick cottages, some public housing, and a few larger houses dotted about. Voices rise up, as they might anywhere, speaking of loving and needing and working and dying and walking the dogs. This village belongs to the people who live in it, to the land and to the land’s past. It also belongs to Dead Papa Toothwort, a mythical figure local schoolchildren used to draw as green and leafy, choked by tendrils growing out of his mouth, who awakens after a glorious nap. He is listening to this twenty-first-century village, to its symphony of talk: drunken confessions, gossip traded on the street corner, fretful conversations in living rooms. He is listening, intently, for a mischievous, ethereal boy whose parents have recently made the village their home. With Lanny, Max Porter extends the potent and magical space he created in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. This brilliant novel will enchant readers with its anarchic energy, with its bewitching tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama.

The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason:  Within three weeks of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, despite the immediate outrage it created among scholars and England’s powerful clergy, Darwin’s name was added to the list of men who would be knighted by Queen Victoria. History shows that this was an honor he was never to receive. Tim Mason’s debut novel, The Darwin Affair, takes the reader back to that time, and, through a London police inspector named Charles Field—a real-life policemen whom Charles Dickens immortalized as the inspiration for Inspector Bucket in his novel Bleak House—tells us the story of how forces conspired to keep Darwin and the Queen apart. Cleverly combining historical figures with an original cast of fictional ne’er-do-wells, Mason weaves a richly atmospheric detective story that features the Chorister, one of the most diabolical and eccentric literary villains ever created.

A Craftsman’s Legacy by Eric Gorges:  In this joyful celebration of skilled craftsmen, Eric Gorges, a corporate-refugee-turned-metal-shaper, taps into a growing hunger to get back to what’s real. Through visits with fellow artisans—calligraphers, potters, stone carvers, glassblowers, engravers, woodworkers, and more—many of whom he’s profiled for his popular television program, Gorges identifies values that are useful for all of us: taking time to slow down and enjoy the process, embracing failure, knowing when to stop and when to push through, and accepting that perfection is an illusion. Most of all, A Craftsman’s Legacy shows how all of us can embrace a more creative and authentic life and learn to focus on doing what we love.

The Deer Camp by Dean Kuipers:  Bruce Kuipers was good at hunting, fishing, and working, but not at much else that makes a real father or husband. Conflicted, angry, and a serial cheater, he destroyed his relationship with his wife, Nancy, and alienated his three sons-journalist Dean, woodsman Brett, and troubled yet brilliant fisherman Joe. He distrusted people and clung to rural America as a place to hide. So when Bruce purchased a 100-acre hunting property as a way to reconnect with his sons, they resisted. The land was the perfect bait, but none of them knew how to be together as a family. Conflicts arose over whether the land (an old farm that had been degraded and reduced to a few stands of pine and blowing sand) should be left alone or be actively restored. After a decade-long impasse, Bruce acquiesced, and his sons proceeded with their restoration plan. What happened next was a miracle of nature.

France in the World, edited by Patrick Boucheron:  This dynamic collection presents a new way of writing national and global histories while developing our understanding of France in the world through short, provocative essays that range from prehistoric frescoes to Coco Chanel to the terrorist attacks of 2015. Bringing together an impressive group of established and up-and-coming historians, this bestselling history conceives of France not as a fixed, rooted entity, but instead as a place and an idea in flux, moving beyond all borders and frontiers, shaped by exchanges and mixtures. Presented in chronological order from 34,000 BC to 2015, each chapter covers a significant year from its own particular angle—the marriage of a Viking leader to a Carolingian princess proposed by Charles the Fat in 882, the Persian embassy’s reception at the court of Louis XIV in 1715, the Chilean coup d’état against President Salvador Allende in 1973 that mobilized a generation of French left-wing activists. France in the World combines the intellectual rigor of an academic work with the liveliness and readability of popular history.

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE BOOKS, simply e-mail 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 (U.S. addresses only for this contest, sorry). One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on May 9, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 10. 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 e-mail 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.