Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Front Porch Books: February 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.

The Cassandra
by Sharma Shields
(Henry Holt)

Jacket Copy:  Mildred Groves is an unusual young woman. Gifted and cursed with the ability to see the future, Mildred runs away from home to take a secretary position at the Hanford Research Center in the early 1940s. Hanford, a massive construction camp on the banks of the Columbia River in remote South Central Washington, exists to test and manufacture a mysterious product that will aid the war effort. Only the top generals and scientists know that this product is processed plutonium, for use in the first atomic bombs. Mildred is delighted, at first, to be part of something larger than herself after a lifetime spent as an outsider. But her new life takes a dark turn when she starts to have prophetic dreams about what will become of humankind if the project is successful. As the men she works for come closer to achieving their goals, her visions intensify to a nightmarish pitch, and she eventually risks everything to question those in power, putting her own physical and mental health in jeopardy. Inspired by the classic Greek myth, this 20th century reimagining of Cassandra’s story is based on a real WWII compound that the author researched meticulously. A timely novel about patriarchy and militancy, The Cassandra uses both legend and history to look deep into man’s capacity for destruction, and the resolve and compassion it takes to challenge the powerful.

Opening Lines:  I was at the mercy of the man behind the desk. I needed him to see my future as clearly as I saw it. He held four pink digits aloft, ring finger belted by a fat gold band, and listed off the qualities of the ideal working woman.
       “Chaste. Willing. Smart. Silent.”
       I swallowed his words, coaxed them into my bloodstream, my bones. I crossed my ankles and pinned my knees together, morphing into the exemplary she.
       The man eyed me with prideful ownership. “Frankly, Miss Groves, you’re the finest typist we’ve interviewed. Your speed and efficiency are commendable.”
       I opened up my shoulders, smiling. “They named me Star Pupil at Omak Secretarial.”
       “You’re not a bad-looking girl, you know that?”
       “Thank you. How kind of you.”
       “A little large. Plumper than some. But a nice enough face.” The man smoothed open the file on his desk. “Good husband stock at Hanford, Miss Groves. Plenty of men to choose from.”
       In my lap my hands shook like tender newborn mice. Such sweet, dumb hands. Calm down, you wild darlings. I focused on the man’s sunburnt face. It reminded me of a worm’s face, sleek, thin-lipped, blunt. He was handsome in a wormish way, or wormish in a handsome way. If I squinted just a little, his head melted into a pink oval smudge.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Cassandra feels powerfully―chillingly―relevant to our own political moment, even as it unfolds against the bleak splendor of the 1940s American West. It’s a harrowing story, beautifully told, of patriarchy and violence intertwining to make a combustible monster; and of the woman who speaks the truth about this monster, only to be dismissed as unhinged.” (Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks)

Dawson’s Fall
by Roxana Robinson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  In Dawson’s Fall, a novel based on the lives of Roxana Robinson’s great-grandparents, we see America at its most fragile, fraught, and malleable. Set in 1889, in Charleston, South Carolina, Robinson’s tale weaves her family’s journal entries and letters with a novelist’s narrative grace, and spans the life of her tragic hero, Frank Dawson, as he attempts to navigate the country’s new political, social, and moral landscape. Dawson, a man of fierce opinions, came to this country as a young Englishman to fight for the Confederacy in a war he understood as a conflict over states’ rights. He later became the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, finding a platform of real influence in the editorial column and emerging as a voice of the New South. With his wife and two children, he tried to lead a life that adhered to his staunch principles: equal rights, rule of law, and nonviolence, unswayed by the caprices of popular opinion. But he couldn’t control the political whims of his readers. As he wrangled diligently in his columns with questions of citizenship, equality, justice, and slavery, his newspaper rapidly lost readership, and he was plagued by financial worries. Nor could Dawson control the whims of the heart: his Swiss governess became embroiled in a tense affair with a drunkard doctor, which threatened to stain his family’s reputation. In the end, Dawson—a man in many ways representative of the country at this time—was felled by the very violence he vehemently opposed.

Opening Lines:  He wakes as he is falling.
       He feels himself plunging into space, a great wheeling emptiness below. He’s been on the edge of a cliff, grappling with a man trying to shoot him. Dawson grabs him, wrestling for the gun, but he wrenches away, pulling Dawson off-balance. The man presses the gun against Dawson’s chest; he hears the great enveloping sound of the shot. Then he feels the sickening shift beneath his feet as he loses his grip on the world.

Blurbworthiness:  “Acclaimed writer Roxana Robinson delves into her own family history as she sets her sights on the Civil War at its very heart, South Carolina, with spectacular results. Like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, her own Dawson’s Fall will be a revelation to many readers in its profound and nuanced depiction of Southerners’ widely varied feelings about the Civil War and its aftermath. The past springs brilliantly to life in this tragic and compelling story, as accurate and fully realized a depiction of daily life and the extraordinary events of this time as has ever been written.”  (Lee Smith, author of Dimestore: A Writer’s Life)

The Vagabonds
by Jeff Guinn
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  The Vagabonds is the fascinating story of two American giants—Henry Ford and Thomas Edison—whose annual summer sojourns introduced the road trip to our culture and made the automobile an essential part of modern life, even as their own relationship altered dramatically. In 1914 Henry Ford and naturalist John Burroughs visited Thomas Edison in Florida and toured the Everglades. The following year Ford, Edison, and tire maker Harvey Firestone joined together on a summer camping trip and decided to call themselves the Vagabonds. They would continue their summer road trips until 1925, when they announced that their fame made it too difficult for them to carry on. Although the Vagabonds traveled with an entourage of chefs, butlers, and others, this elite fraternity also had a serious purpose: to examine the conditions of America’s roadways and improve the practicality of automobile travel. Cars were unreliable and the roads were even worse. But newspaper coverage of these trips was extensive, and as cars and roads improved, the summer trip by automobile soon became a desired element of American life. In The Vagabonds Jeff Guinn shares the story of this pivotal moment in American history. But he also examines the important relationship between the older Edison and the younger Ford, who once worked for the famous inventor. The road trips made the automobile ubiquitous and magnified Ford’s reputation, even as Edison’s diminished. The automobile had come of age and it would transform the American landscape, the American economy, and the American way of life. Guinn brings to life this seminal moment when a new industry created a watershed cultural shift and a famous businessman became a prominent political figure. The Vagabonds is a wonderful story of two American giants and the transformation of the country.

Opening Lines:  Bad weather plagued much of Michigan during the late summer of 1923. Unseasonably cool temperatures combined with near-constant rain, trapping residents indoors and tamping down what had been, for the last fifteen years or so, an ever-increasing influx of tourists eager to enjoy the state’s bracing mix of sprawling woodlands, arching hills, and sparkling lakes.

Temper CA
by Paul Skenazy
(Miami University Press)

Jacket Copy:  Joy Temper grew up wandering the woods of Temper, CA, a Gold Rush town her family helped establish in the 1840s. When she returns to Temper for her grandfather’s funeral, she discovers that the stories she’s long traded on about her hippie upbringing have little to do with reality. Her struggles to face who she once was, and what she now desires, force her to confront family secrets and long-suppressed memories in a novella both familial and romantic, contemporary and historical.

Opening Lines:  It was July—not the skin-scorching July I knew as a child growing up in Temper but the overcast chill of San Francisco summer mornings. I was at my kitchen table feasting on my usual Saturday morning breakfast of self-loathing, wondering why I needed to drink myself into a hangover every weekend Angie was away. Dad’s call was a relief.
       “Joy, your grandpa died last night.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Paul Skenazy’s fiction misbehaves. It swerves, it revisits ground and digs deeper, it confounds expectations. He has the gift of creating characters who are sympathetic not in spite of their prickliness but because of it, and of depicting human bonds that are all the tenser for being so strong.” (Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom)

by Alexi Zentner

Jacket Copy:  All Jessup wants is to enjoy his senior year at Cortaca High and get a scholarship to attend college. It doesn’t seem impossible. He’s a standout varsity football player. A good student. He works at the local movie theater to help his mother make ends meet. But it’s hard to live a normal life when everybody in town knows that your stepfather is a white supremacist—a white supremacist who was involved in a violent encounter with two young black college students. And who is about to be released from prison. But his stepfather, David John, also saved Jessup’s family from imploding, rescuing his mother and giving Jessup and his siblings a safe home for the first time. David John’s release from prison sets off a chain of events that will forever define Jessup’s entry into adulthood, dragging him into the swirling currents of irreconcilable ideologies, crushing loyalties, and unshakeable guilt. Told with unflinching honesty and a ferocious gaze directed at contemporary America’s darkest corners, Copperhead vibrates with the energy released by football tackles and car crashes. Alexi Zenter unspools the story of boys who think they’re men of the entrenched thinking that supports a split-second decision; and asks whether hatred, bigotry, and violence can ever be unlearned.

Opening Lines:  He spins the wheel hard, angry. He cannot pull away from the house fast enough. The truck lurches forward. A bee-stung horse. Snow and ice spit out from under the wheels, like a curse from a teacher’s mouth, like buckshot scattering through the air and bloodying the breast of a duck flushed from the water. The back end of the pickup, light and bouncy, skids wide and loose.
       When it happens, he feels the sound of the impact as much as he hears it: like a soda can crushed by a stomped foot. But it’s two distinct sounds: the heavy thud of the boot and the gossamer crinkle of metal folding on itself.

Blurbworthiness:  “Rendered in sparse, impressionistic prose, Copperhead is an incredibly ambitious undertaking, even for a writer of Zentner’s prodigious gifts—not just another bold stylistic reinvention, but a deeply personal and unflinching interrogation of the battle between self and history from a writer who never shies from unnerving his readers or wrenching our sympathies or forcing us to reckon with the quotidian nature of society’s most horrific impulses in ways we would prefer never to imagine.”  (Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife)

Like Lions
by Brian Panowich
(Minotaur Books)

Jacket Copy:  Brian Panowich burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2015, winning awards and accolades from readers and critics alike for his smoldering debut, Bull Mountain. Now with Like Lions, he cements his place as one of the outstanding new voices in crime fiction. Clayton Burroughs is a small-town Georgia sheriff, a new father, and, improbably, the heir apparent of Bull Mountain’s most notorious criminal family. As he tries to juggle fatherhood, his job and his recovery from being shot in the confrontation that killed his two criminally-inclined brothers last year, he’s doing all he can just to survive. Yet after years of carefully toeing the line between his life in law enforcement and his family, he finally has to make a choice. When a rival organization makes a first foray into Burroughs territory, leaving a trail of bodies and a whiff of fear in its wake, Clayton is pulled back into the life he so desperately wants to leave behind. Revenge is a powerful force, and the vacuum left by his brothers’ deaths has left them all vulnerable. With his wife and child in danger, and the way of life in Bull Mountain under siege for everyone, Clayton will need to find a way to bury the bloody legacy of his past once and for all.

Opening Lines:  Annette memorized every board in the floor. It had taken her months to get the pattern right. She knew which slats creaked and moaned when she stepped on them, so she was careful to keep her bare feet only on the few that were nailed down tight. Those particular strips of seasoned oak had become her partners in crime. She’d let them become her friends. She trusted them not to betray her. She couldn’t say the same about anyone or anything else. Still, she was cautious, because this was her first attempt to navigate the route in the dark. She counted to ten every time she eased her weight down on each of them, and stepped in a slow-motion zigzag pattern down the main hall of the house.

Blurbworthiness:  “If Elmore Leonard and Flannery O’Connor had a love child who grew up reading William Faulkner, pulp fiction, and a Shakespearean tragedy or two, he’d write like Brian Panowich. His characters are knotty, tangled people who try and fail and frustrate yet keep going, fueled by something as bone deep as family or fear, or both…You’re in for a hell of a ride.” (Christopher Swann, author of Shadow of the Lions)

The Paper Wasp
by Lauren Acampora
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  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.

Opening Lines:  I wore red capris on the plane. After I’d resolved to go to you, I couldn’t imagine wearing anything else. The red made me feel bold, like a matador.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Paper Wasp was a crazy joy ride of a novel; a bold and joyous take on female friendship, outsider ambition and the secret powers of loners. It gives us a heroine who is selfish, weird, manipulative, and sometimes just plain nasty, and makes us root for her with all our selfish, weird, manipulative, and nasty hearts. I loved every second of it.”  (Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens)

The Sun on My Head
by Geovani Martins
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  In The Sun on My Head, Geovani Martins recounts the experiences of boys growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the early years of the twenty-first century. Drawing on his childhood and adolescence, Martins uses the rhythms and slang of his neighborhood dialect to capture the texture of life in the slums, where every day is shadowed by a ubiquitous drug culture, the constant threat of the police, and the confines of poverty, violence, and racial oppression. And yet these are also stories of friendship, romance, and momentary relief, as in “Rolézim,” where a group of teenagers head to the beach. Other stories, all uncompromising in their realism and yet diverse in narrative form, explore the changes that occur when militarized police occupy the favelas in the lead-up to the World Cup, the cycles of violence in the narcotics trade, and the feelings of invisibility that define the realities of so many in Rio’s underclass.

Opening Lines:  Woke up blowtorches blazing. For real, not even nine a.m. and my crib was like melting. Couldn’t even see the rising damp in the living room, everything dry. Only the stains left: the saint, the gun, the dinosaur. Clear it was gonna be one of those days when you walking ’round and the sky’s all fogged up, things shiftin’ about you like hallucinating. Check it, even the breeze from the fan was hot, like the devil’s fuggy breath.

The Grand Dark
by Richard Kadrey

Jacket Copy:   From the bestselling author of the Sandman Slim series, a lush, dark, stand-alone fantasy built off the insurgent tradition of China Mieville and M. John Harrison—a subversive tale that immerses us in a world where the extremes of bleakness and beauty exist together in dangerous harmony in a city on the edge of civility and chaos. The Great War is over. The city of Lower Proszawa celebrates the peace with a decadence and carefree spirit as intense as the war’s horrifying despair. But this newfound hedonism—drugs and sex and endless parties—distracts from strange realities of everyday life: Intelligent automata taking jobs. Genetically engineered creatures that serve as pets and beasts of war. A theater where gruesome murders happen twice a day. And a new plague that even the ceaseless euphoria can’t mask. Unlike others who live strictly for fun, Largo is an addict with ambitions. A bike messenger who grew up in the slums, he knows the city’s streets and its secrets intimately. His life seems set. He has a beautiful girlfriend, drugs, a chance at a promotion—and maybe, an opportunity for complete transformation: a contact among the elite who will set him on the course to lift himself up out of the streets. But dreams can be a dangerous thing in a city whose mood is turning dark and inward. Others have a vision of life very different from Largo’s, and they will use any methods to secure control. And in behind it all, beyond the frivolity and chaos, the threat of new war always looms.

Opening Lines:  The Great War was over, but everyone knew another war was coming and it drove the city a little mad.

Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories
by Kelly Barnhill
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  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.

Opening Lines:  The day she buried her husband—a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink or foolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unknown in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space—Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our Lady of the Snows. The priest was waiting for her at the open door. The air was sweet and wet with autumn rot, and though it had rained earlier, the day was starting to brighten, and would surely be lovely in an hour or two. Mrs. Sorensen greeted the priest with a sad smile. She wore a smart black hat, sensible black shoes, and a black silk shirt belted into a slim crepe skirt. Two little white mice peeked out of her left breast pocket—two tiny shocks of fur with pink, quivering noses and red, red tongues.

Blurbworthiness:  “The eight short stories and one novella in Barnhill’s collection are haunting and beautifully told...Each story is written in intensely poetic language that can exult or disturb, sometimes within the same sentence, and evokes a dreamlike, enchanted mood that lingers in the reader’s mind. These tales are made to be reread and savored.”  (Publishers Weekly)

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Staff Picks by George Singleton

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

More lightning flashed, its prongs reaching the ground like an upturned vase of a half-dozen dead roses, and then the rain went horizontal.
Staff Picks by George Singleton

Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday Freebie: Midnight by Victoria Shorr

Congratulations to Lawrence Coates and Patrick Hicks, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie: War Flower by Brooke King.

This week’s giveaway is for Midnight by Victoria Shorr. Subtitled Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning, it weaves a trilogy of mini biographies: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Joan of Arc at critical moments in their lives. Keep scrolling for more information and how to enter the contest...

Midnight is a study in the courage of three women―Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Joan of Arc. Jane Austen was poor in 1802, unmarried and homeless. She had outlines, ideas, and first drafts of her future novels but no place to sit and write them. It is at this bleak moment that she receives an offer of marriage from a rich man. Midnight takes us to the hour of her decision between financial security and her writing life. When sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin elopes to France with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she scoffs at the cost―life as an outcast. Together they travel through Europe, reading and writing, but Midnight finds her alone, eight years later, pacing a terrace overlooking the Italian shore, watching for Shelley to sail home over stormy seas in a shaky boat. Joan of Arc, imprisoned in chains, kept her faith for a long year. Be brave, daughter of God, her saints had whispered, you will be saved―and she believes it, until she is taken to be burned at the stake. Midnight is the story of Joan’s final days, between her terrified recantation and her heroic return to the stake.

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

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 22. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Trailer Park Tuesday: Sounds Like Titantic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Milli Vanilli did it. Ashlee Simpson did it. And now Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman does it. In her memoir Sounds Like Titanic, the violinist describes how her orchestra fake-played in front of audiences: string synching instead of lip synching, if you will. Sounds Like Titanic is on my shortlist of books to read this year, and I think you can see, both by the terrific video for the book (above) and by this plot description, how it landed at the top of my pile:
When aspiring violinist Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman gets a job with a professional ensemble in New York City, she imagines she has achieved her lifelong dream. But the ensemble proves to be a sham. When the group “performs,” the microphones are never on. Instead, the music blares from a CD. The mastermind behind this scheme is a peculiar and mysterious figure known as The Composer, who is gaslighting his audiences with music that sounds suspiciously like the Titanic movie soundtrack. On tour with his chaotic ensemble, Hindman spirals into crises of identity and disillusionment as she “plays” for audiences genuinely moved by the performance, unable to differentiate real from fake.
I am fascinated by this story and, to paraphrase Celine Dion herself, Sounds Like Titanic is a reminder that near, far, wherever you are/I believe that the art does go on...

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

My First Time: Stephen Evans

The First Time I Heard the Audience Laugh

I had heard audiences laugh before, of course. Most of my time in the theater was spent as a performer: a singer by choice, an actor (though not much of one) by necessity. But this was different.

In the early 1980s, I was playing Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to small bewildered houses in a theater outside Washington, DC. The play is a marvelous take on Hamlet as seen through the eyes of two minor characters, Hamlet’s two old pals.

During the run, I got an idea to write a play, a comedy about a playwright inspired by Shakespeare to write a play. I had never written a play before, but I didn’t know enough then to let that stop me. I managed over the next year or so to write the first act. But the second act stopped me and I did not finish the play.

About seven years later, I joined two of my oldest pals (also veterans of local theater) in starting a theater company. Our first show would be a fund-raiser, a musical review. Our second show would be my play—for which I now had to find a second act.

Production schedules wait for no man, or playwright. With lots of encouragement from my two friends and Shakespeare, I finally managed a second act to my play, now entitled The Ghost Writer. As opening night approached, it occurred to me that this was no longer just a personal intellectual challenge: could I write a play? An audience was actually going to answer that question for me.

I think of myself as a playwright who writes books. And I feel differently about publishing and producing. Publishing usually has a wider audience, and someone somewhere may let you know what they think. But it is distributed in time, and for me that lessens the impact. With a play, at least the first production, you are for better or worse usually right there sitting the audience. Everything is magnified, and very direct.

The lights went down on the audience of about 30 people, many of them friends. The curtain didn’t go up; it went sideways, which was suddenly how I expected the play to go. Then the lights came up onstage.

Sitting in the dark in the back row of the small theater, I was inundated with emotion. But more than anything—more than excited, more than terrified—I felt exposed. My thoughts, my words, my imagination were all going to be on display.

On opening night, the actress went about her opening business. No one got up and left. So far so good. Then the next actor entered. They exchanged a few lines. And then a miracle occurred.

Someone laughed.

Then more people started to laugh. They started to laugh together (this phenomenon of an audience coalescing to react in unison never ceases to fascinate me).

There were different kinds of laughter coming from that one small audience. I began to study them. There were the explosive laughs that erupted and subsided quickly, the wave laughs that started small and grew, the quantum laughs that jumped around the audience unpredictably, the lonely laughs from the one person (other than me) who thought it was funny, and the delayed exposure laugh, where it took a couple of beats for the audience to catch up before the laugh.

The audience, that blessed audience, continued laughing throughout the play. Not at the play. At the lines. The ones I had written.

I was hooked. From that moment on I knew that writing funny lines was what I wanted to do. Thoughtful funny lines. Funny lines laden with deep philosophic meaning that would change people’s lives.

Or just make them laugh.

That would be more than enough.

Stephen Evans is a playwright and the author of several books, including The Marriage of True Minds, A Transcendental Journey, Painting Sunsets, and The Island of Always. He lives in Maryland. Click here to visit his 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.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor

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

The problem with reverie is that you always assume you know how the unlived life turns out. And it is always a better version of the life you’ve actually lived.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor

Friday, February 8, 2019

Friday Freebie: War Flower by Brooke King

Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Peacock Feast by Lisa Gornick.

This week, I’m pleased to be giving away a new memoir about combat and its aftermath: War Flower by Brooke King. I had the chance to read an early version of the book and offer these words of praise on its behalf: “In her memoir about a combat deployment to Iraq, Army veteran Brooke King writes Nothing good survives war. I would beg to differ: King went to war, lived through months of unthinkable horrors, and returned with a very good book in her duffel bag. The War Flower will leave no reader unmoved, no soul unscathed.”

I have two copies of the book up for grabs in the contest. Keep scrolling for more information on War Flower and how to enter the contest...

Brooke King has been asked over and over what it’s like to be a woman in combat, but she knows her answer is not what the public wants to hear. The answers people seek lie in the graphic details of war—the sex, death, violence, and reality of it all as she experienced it. In her riveting memoir War Flower, King breaks her silence and reveals the truth about her experience as a soldier in Iraq. Find out what happens when the sex turns into secret affairs, the violence is turned up to eleven, and how King’s feelings for a country she knew nothing about as a nineteen-year-old become more disturbing to her as a thirty-year-old mother writing it all down before her memories fade into oblivion. The story of a girl who went to war and returned home a woman, War Flower gathers the enduring remembrances of a soldier coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As King recalls her time in Iraq, she reflects on what violence does to a woman and how the psychic wounds of combat are unwittingly passed down from mother to children. War Flower is ultimately a profound meditation on what it means to have been a woman in a war zone and an unsettling exposé on war and its lingering aftershocks. For veterans such as King, the toughest lesson of service is that in the mind, some wars never end—even after you come home.

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

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 14, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 15. 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, February 4, 2019

My First Time: Adam Kovac

The First Time I Dated My Novel

I fooled around and fell in love....with a novel.

Publishing my debut novel, The Surge, was a lot like dating. Looking back, I can only describe the process as a roughly five-year slog of rejection, sprinkled with brief bursts of glee, followed by utter dejection. And let’s be clear: I hate dating. I’ve been on many dates. Almost every single one was a shambles, just like almost every single pitch I sent to agents and publishers.

I’m one of those veteran authors who never wanted to write a book about Iraq or Afghanistan. In 2009, I was wounded in combat. I’m still busted up. And from a mental-health standpoint, there was no way I could return to my civilian newspaper job on the crime and courts beat. I figured I’d use my remaining GI Bill money to go back to college, start a new career writing short stories about life, the great American novel.

I was in the MFA program at Northwestern University when I wrote a dreadful version of what now is the first chapter of The Surge. Since I needed more copy for workshop and my thesis, I banged out another chapter. Then another and another and by graduation had typed “THE END” on a lean, mean fighting machine of a novel. Although it was not the book I’d intended to write, I had developed a little a crush on the story. I couldn’t let it sit in a drawer. At the time, in 2013, very few Iraq and Afghanistan war novels had been published. Confident that my book would be irresistible to agents and publishers, I crafted query letters, and embarked on a search for literary true love.

“I’m afraid your novel isn’t the right fit for my list.” Translation: You’re not my type.

“The early pages didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped.” You look nothing like your profile photo.

“I couldn’t sell a book of this length to a major publisher.” You’re too small.

I soon realized that pitching a novel without writing credits is a lot like sidling up to an intriguing stranger at the bar and asking for their phone number. So, I hit the gym. Bought new outfits over the next few months. After I’d revised the book and polished my query, I felt real good about my prospects for a lunch date, maybe even a movie with coffee afterward.

“Editors have piles of Iraq novels on their desks.” Who’s your friend? Can I have his number?

“We represented an author with a similar project; we’re not prepared to take on another.” You remind me of the last person I dated and that didn’t work out.

After more than 250 rejections, I broke up with my novel. This relationship never had a chance, I told the manuscript. “It’s not you, it’s me.” If this story were a Hollywood movie, this would be the scene where the writer retreats to their garret, chain-smoking, hunched over a typewriter, pouring pain onto the page to the rhythm of an inspirational soundtrack. That’s what I did; I started a new book. And that’s when an agent emailed, said he loved The Surge, and asked if we could chat.

You would be wrong to think agent representation meant my dance card was filled with lucrative publishing offers. In reality, the book was back on the dating scene, this time in the company of a literary matchmaking service.

“It would be a disrespect to this amazing novel if we were to publish it.” (Okay, I have absolutely no idea how to interpret this rejection. Really, it’s bizarre.)

About a year and dozens of rejections later, The Surge was dead in the water. Again. I was truly done. My agent was over it, too. I had since finished that second book, a mystery. We were shopping it when an editor from a small, literary press I’d been admiring from afar emailed with an offer of publication. But this offer was for The Surge.

Full confession: I almost said no. I screamed subconsciously at that old manuscript. “Never! You had your chance! I won’t go back. I’m sick of revising; praying this is the time it’ll work out and we both know that’s never going to happen! You don’t deserve me!” And after I’d gotten that out of my system, I said, “Yes. Of course I do, you silly fool.”

The Surge is now out from Engine Books.

Writing that sentence felt somewhat like announcing a marriage. I still ask myself why I started writing a war novel in the first place, why I continued to tinker with a story I never wanted to tell, and why I kept submitting the manuscript in the face of overwhelming despair. Perhaps it’s because as time went on I saw beauty on the page I had not appreciated before. In my quest for literary love and acceptance, the novel and I somehow forged the kind of bond that is the backbone of an unbreakable relationship. I learned I had to let go of the novel in order for it to find a place in this world. It’s a leap of faith, the chance you’re willing to take when it’s your first time.

Adam Kovac served in the U.S. Army infantry, with deployments to Panama, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan. A former journalist, he's also covered the crime and court beats for newspapers in Indiana, Florida and Illinois. He lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wife and son. Follow him on Twitter @Boondock60mm.

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, February 3, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Edward Abbey

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

What is the purpose of the giant sequoia tree? The purpose of the giant sequoia tree is to provide shade for the tiny titmouse.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Friday Freebie: The Peacock Feast by Lisa Gornick

Congratulations to BJ Nooth, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman.

This week’s giveaway is for the new novel by Lisa Gornick, The Peacock Feast. I have one hardcover copy to put in the hands of one lucky reader. Will it be you? Here’s what Meg Wolitzer, author of The Wife, had to say about the book: “The Peacock Feast is one of those rare books that feels both grand and intimate, bringing the reader deeply into a very vivid past. Lisa Gornick has written an engrossing and impressive book.” Ready to be engrossed and impressed? Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...

The Peacock Feast opens on a June day in 1916 when Louis C. Tiffany, the eccentric glass genius, dynamites the breakwater at Laurelton Hall—his fantastical Oyster Bay mansion, with columns capped by brilliant ceramic blossoms and a smokestack hidden in a blue-banded minaret—so as to foil the town from reclaiming the beach for public use. The explosion shakes both the apple crate where Prudence, the daughter of Tiffany’s prized gardener, is sleeping and the rocks where Randall, her seven-year-old brother, is playing. Nearly a century later, Prudence receives an unexpected visit at her New York apartment from Grace, a hospice nurse and the granddaughter of Randall, who Prudence never saw again after he left at age fourteen for California. The mementos Grace carries from her grandfather’s house stir Prudence’s long-repressed memories and bring her to a new understanding of the choices she made in work and love, and what she faces now in her final days. Spanning the twentieth century and three continents, The Peacock Feast ricochets from Manhattan to San Francisco, from the decadent mansions of the Tiffany family to the death row of a Texas prison, and from the London consultation room of Anna Freud to a Mendocino commune. With psychological acuity and aching eloquence, Lisa Gornick has written a sweeping family drama, an exploration of the meaning of art and the art of dying, and an illuminating portrait of how our decisions reverberate across time and space.

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

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