Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sunday Sentence: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

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

She looked like a spinster who drank Ovaltine for dinner and gargled with salt water for vitality.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

Friday, June 14, 2019

Friday Freebie: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

Congratulations to Nancy Bekofske, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Rest of the Story, the new novel by Sarah Dessen.

This week’s giveaway is for The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean. One lucky reader will win a new softcover copy of the book. Keep scrolling for more about the Van Apfel girls and how to enter the contest...

Tikka Malloy was eleven and one-sixth years old during the long, hot, Australian summer of 1992. The TV news in the background chattered with debate about the exoneration of Lindy (“dingo took my baby”) Chamberlain. That summer was when the Van Apfel sisters--Ruth, Hannah, and the beautiful Cordelia--mysteriously disappeared. Did they just run far away from their harsh, evangelical parents, or were they taken? While the search for the girls united the small community, the mystery of their disappearance was never solved, and Tikka and her older sister, Laura, have been haunted ever since by the loss of their friends and playmates. Now, years later, Tikka has returned home to try to make sense of that strange moment in time. Part mystery, part darkly comic coming-of-age story, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is a page-turning read--with a dark, shimmering absence at its heart.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, 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 June 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 21. 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.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Front Porch Books: June 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.

by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  The small village of Puy-Larroque, southwest France, 1898. Éléonore is a child living with her father, a pig farmer whose terminal illness leaves him unable to work, and her God-fearing mother, who runs both farm and family with an iron hand. Éléonore passes her childhood with little heat and no running water, sharing a small room with her cousin Marcel, who does most of the physical labor on the farm. When World War I breaks out and the village empties, Éléonore gets a taste of the changes that will transform her world as the twentieth century rolls on. As the reader moves into the second part of the novel, which takes place in the 1980s, the untamed world of Puy-Larroque seems gone forever. Now, Éléonore has herself aged into the role of matriarch, and the family is running a large industrial pig farm, where thousands of pigs churn daily through cycles of birth, growth, and death. Moments of sublime beauty and powerful emotion mix with the thoughtless brutality waged against animals that makes the old horrors of death and disease seem like simpler times. A dramatic and chilling tale of man and beast that recalls the naturalism of writers like Émile Zola, Animalia traverses the twentieth century as it examines man’s quest to conquer nature, critiques the legacy of modernity and the transmission of violence from one generation to the next, and questions whether we can hold out hope for redemption in this brutal world.

Opening Lines:  From the first evening in spring to the last vigils of autumn, he sits on the little worm-eaten hobnailed bench, his body hunched, beneath the window whose jambs frame the night and the stone wall in a small theatre of shadows. Inside, on the solid oak table, an oil lamp sputters and the fire in the hearth projects the bustling shadow of his wife onto walls mottled with saltpetre, shooting it up towards the rafters or breaking it on a corner, and this hesitant, yellow light swells the room then pierces the darkness of the farmyard, leaving the father motionless, silhouetted against a semblance of sunlight. Regardless of the season, he waits for night here, on the wooden bench where he saw his father sit before him, its moss-covered legs buckled by the years now beginning to give way. When he sits on this bench, his knees come a quarter-way up his belly and he has trouble getting to his feet, yet he has never considered replacing it, not if there were nothing left but a board. He believes that things should remain as he has always known them for as long as possible, as others before him believed they should be, or as custom and wear has made them.

Blurbworthiness:  “Four-hundred breathtaking pages of flesh, blood, grimy mud, executed with a blazing style....Beyond its thematic richness, the pictorial power of the scenes and the fierce sensitivity of the words in Animalia are worthy at times of the best of Cormac McCarthy. A dark splendor.” (L’Express)

Dear Edward
by Ann Napolitano
(The Dial Press)

Jacket Copy:  After losing everything, a young boy discovers there are still reasons for hope in this luminous, life-affirming novel, perfect for fans of Celeste Ng and Ann Patchett. One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them is a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured vet returning from Afghanistan, a septuagenarian business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. And then, tragically, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor. Edward’s story captures the attention of the nation, but he struggles to find a place for himself in a world without his family. He continues to feel that a piece of him has been left in the sky, forever tied to the plane and all of his fellow passengers. But then he makes an unexpected discovery—one that will lead him to the answers of some of life’s most profound questions: When you’ve lost everything, how do find yourself? How do you discover your purpose? What does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live? Dear Edward is at once a transcendent coming-of-age story, a multidimensional portrait of an unforgettable cast of characters, and a breathtaking illustration of all the ways a broken heart learns to love again.

Opening Lines: Newark Airport is shiny from a recent renovation. There are potted plants at each joint of the security line, to keep passengers from realizing how long they’ll have to wait. People prop themselves against walls or sit on suitcases. They all woke up before dawn; they exhale loudly, sputtering with exhaustion.

Blurbworthiness:  “Eddie is an ordinary twelve-year-old, until a horrific plane crash turns him into the real-life Boy Who Lived. Ann Napolitano brings clear-eyed compassion to every character in Dear Edward, from Edward himself, caught between living and merely surviving, to his fellow passengers, who don’t have that choice. The result is a rich, big-hearted tapestry that leaves no one behind. Fans of Room and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will be spellbound by Dear Edward, which explores trauma with the same honesty and tenderness as it does the crooked path to healing.” (Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists)

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All
by Laura Ruby
(Balzer + Bray)

Jacket Copy:  From the author of Bone Gap comes the unforgettable story of two young women—one living, one dead—dealing with loss, desire, and the fragility of the American dream during WWII. When Frankie’s mother died and her father left her and her siblings at an orphanage in Chicago, it was supposed to be only temporary—just long enough for him to get back on his feet and be able to provide for them once again. That’s why Frankie's not prepared for the day that he arrives for his weekend visit with a new woman on his arm and out-of-state train tickets in his pocket. Now Frankie and her sister, Toni, are abandoned alongside so many other orphans—two young, unwanted women doing everything they can to survive. And as the embers of the Great Depression are kindled into the fires of World War II, and the shadows of injustice, poverty, and death walk the streets in broad daylight, it will be up to Frankie to find something worth holding on to in the ruins of this shattered America—every minute of every day spent wondering if the life she's able to carve out will be enough.

Opening Lines:  The first time they took Frankie to the orphanage, she couldn’t speak English. Only Italian. “Voglio mio padre! Voglio mio padre!” That’s what she said, over and over and over.
       At least, that’s what the nuns told her she said. She couldn’t remember any of it.
       The second time they took her to the orphanage, the last time, she didn’t say anything at all. Not one word. For months.
       She didn’t remember that either.
       What she did remember: her father’s shoe shop on Irving Avenue. The scent of calfskin and polish. The cramped apartment behind the shop. The metal tub sitting in the middle of the kitchen. Cold bathwater wrinkling her little toes. The rough scrape of Aunt Marion’s brush on her back.
       And then the shot from her parents’ bedroom—so sharp, so loud, so wrong.

by Jeanette Winterson
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy: Lake Geneva, 1816. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write a story about a scientist who creates a new life-form. In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI and carrying out some experiments of his own in a vast underground network of tunnels. Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with his mom again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere. Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryogenics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead....but waiting to return to life. What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet? In fiercely intelligent prose, Jeanette Winterson shows us how much closer we are to that future than we realize. Funny and furious, bold and clear-sighted, Frankissstein is a love story about life itself.

Opening Lines:  Lake Geneva, 1816
       Reality is water-soluble.
       What we could see, the rocks, the shore, the trees, the boats on the lake, had lost their usual definition and blurred into the long grey of a week’s rain. Even the house, that we fancied was made of stone, wavered inside a heavy mist and through that mist, sometimes, a door or a window appeared like an image in a dream.
       Every solid thing had dissolved into its watery equivalent.
       Our clothes did not dry. When we came in, and we must come in, because we must go out, we brought the weather with us. Waterlogged leather. Wool that stank of sheep.
       There is mould on my underclothes.

Blurbworthiness:  “Winterson writes with heartrending precision.” (Vogue)

Nothing to See Here
by Kevin Wilson

Jacket Copy:  Lillian and Madison were unlikely roommates and yet inseparable friends at their elite boarding school. But then Lillian had to leave the school unexpectedly in the wake of a scandal and they’ve barely spoken since. Until now, when Lillian gets a letter from Madison pleading for her help. Madison’s twin stepkids are moving in with her family and she wants Lillian to be their caretaker. However, there’s a catch: the twins spontaneously combust when they get agitated, flames igniting from their skin in a startling but beautiful way. Lillian is convinced Madison is pulling her leg, but it’s the truth. Thinking of her dead-end life at home, the life that has consistently disappointed her, Lillian figures she has nothing to lose. Over the course of one humid, demanding summer, Lillian and the twins learn to trust each other—and stay cool—while also staying out of the way of Madison’s buttoned-up politician husband. Surprised by her own ingenuity yet unused to the intense feelings of protectiveness she feels for them, Lillian ultimately begins to accept that she needs these strange children as much as they need her—urgently and fiercely. Couldn’t this be the start of the amazing life she’d always hoped for? With white-hot wit and a big, tender heart, Kevin Wilson has written his best book yet—a most unusual story of parental love.

Opening Lines:  In the late spring of 1995, just a few weeks after I’d turned twenty-eight, I got a letter from my friend Madison Roberts. I still thought of her as Madison Billings. I heard from Madison four or five times a year, updates on her life that were as foreign to me as reports from the moon, her existence the kind you only read about in magazines. She was married to an older man, a senator, and she had a little boy whom she dressed in nautical suits and who looked like an expensive teddy bear that had turned human.

A Polar Affair
by Lloyd Spencer Davis
(Pegasus Books)

Jacket Copy:  George Murray Levick was the physician on Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic Antarctic expedition of 1910. Marooned for an Antarctic winter, Levick passed the time by becoming the first man to study penguins up close. His findings were so shocking to Victorian morals that they were quickly suppressed and seemingly lost to history. A century later, Lloyd Spencer Davis rediscovers Levick and his findings during the course of his own scientific adventures in Antarctica. Levick’s long-suppressed manuscript reveals not only an incredible survival story, but one that will change our understanding of an entire species. A Polar Affair reveals the last untold tale from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. It is perhaps the greatest of all of those stories—but why was it hidden to begin with? The ever-fascinating and charming penguin holds the key. Moving deftly between both Levick’s and Davis’s explorations, observations, and comparisons in biology over the course of a century, A Polar Affair reveals cutting-edge findings about ornithology, in which the sex lives of penguins are the jumping-off point for major new insights into the underpinnings of evolutionary biology itself.

Opening Lines:  It is October 13, 1911. A cold day in Antarctica, even by Antarctic standards. Pack ice extends to the horizon from the tiny spit of land that is Ridley Beach at Cape Adare. A white, windswept tableau, it has been battered into a state of bleakness by the blizzard that masses overhead and pushes hard up against the mountain it hides. It is as uninviting a place as it is possible to find. And yet, as the man squints ahead of him, he can make out a little black-and-white person, a penguin, leaning into the wind, straining, marching toward its destination. This beach. This season. A chance to prove itself.

Blurbworthiness:  “The spirit and soul of the penguin is entwined with the factual information in this first-person account so that it is rather like reading a novel or an autobiography.” (American Bookseller)

The Crying Book
by Heather Christle

Jacket Copy:  Heather Christle has just lost a dear friend to suicide and now must reckon with her own depression and the birth of her first child. As she faces her grief and impending parenthood, she decides to research the act of crying: what it is and why people do it, even if they rarely talk about it. Along the way, she discovers an artist who designed a frozen-tear-shooting gun and a moth that feeds on the tears of other animals. She researches tear-collecting devices (lachrymatories) and explores the role white women’s tears play in racist violence. Honest, intelligent, rapturous, and surprising, Christle’s investigations look through a mosaic of science, history, and her own lived experience to find new ways of understanding life, loss, and mental illness. The Crying Book is a deeply personal tribute to the fascinating strangeness of tears and the unexpected resilience of joy.

Opening Lines:  I suppose some people can weep softly and become more beautiful, but after a real cry, most people are hideous, as if they’ve grown a spare and diseased face beneath the one you know, leaving very little room for the eyes. Or they look as if they’ve been beaten.

Blurbworthiness:  “This is a wonderful and profound look at the act of crying—something human and yet hidden, common and yet mysterious. I found myself reading with a thirst for the tears Heather Christle collects here—instances within literature, film, history, and the author’s own life all add up to a greater understanding of what makes us human.” (Chelsea Hodson, author of Tonight I’m Someone Else)

Monday, June 10, 2019

My First Time: Karol Ruth Silverstein

My First Time Getting “The Call”

I’m a daydreamer. Always have been. I know: shocker, right? It’s basically a requirement for writers. (At least that’s how I justify it personally, being a children’s book author and screenwriter.) So of course I’ve had lots of daydreams about becoming a successful writer—being interviewed about my projects, meeting fans, delivering acceptance speeches for awards I’ve won . . .

But let’s rewind a tick. Before all that—before the possibility of a glorious reception for my stellar work—comes The Call. You know the one, where someone (agent, manager, editor, producer) calls to say that somebody read your work and deemed it worthy of time, attention and money. It’s The Call that marks the end of your life as an aspiring writer and launches you into the professional realm.

I’d daydreamed about The Call plenty. I tried to imagine how I’d feel hearing words akin to, “We got an offer.” Would I scream? Be moved to tears? Stunned into silence? How much detail would I be able to process? Who would I call first and what would I say? I imagined conference-calling my (very separated) parents and breaking the news to them simultaneously so neither one would be angry at being second. Perhaps I’d start with, “Are you sitting down?” or maybe I’d be too excited and just blurt out my news.

These fantasy scenarios played out in my head more times than I’m willing to admit, but a few more rewinds are necessary in order to tell this story:

• To the late-90s, when a screenwriting mentor suggested I write about my experience of getting sick as a young teenager—a suggestion I promptly put on a back-burner.
• To the moment I discovered my main character’s snarky, angry voice during a writing exercise and knew I could no longer put off telling her story.
• To the insanely long journey of writing the first draft.
• To signing with my amazing agent Jen Linnan via a Twitter pitch event. (Seriously, this really happened!)
• To 2015, when my YA novel Cursed first went out on submission.

During that whole time, I was writing a handful of other projects, working part time and dealing with health issues (six major surgeries and seven hospital stays between 2002 and 2013.) Still, I admit this is a glacial pace. That just seems to be how I roll.

Once the manuscript went out on submission, the fantasies about getting The Call ramped up. Which publisher would swoop in to make an offer on my book? Would I receive a decent advance? And how long would it take for me to finally, finally, get The Call?

Answer: a while.

I loved my manuscript (and am incredibly proud of the book it became after going through the editorial process), but I’m a realist. We sent out a story with a 13 year-old protagonist and 140+ F-bombs. I inherently knew that finding Cursed a home would take steadfast tenacity. My agent’s belief in the book and determination to find an editor who’d fall in love with the story never wavered (did I mention she’s amazing?). She left no stone unturned in her search while I waited and hoped and kept my fingers crossed and then eventually came . . .

March 29, 2017. 9:59 a.m.

Let me set the scene for you: I’m barely awake. I am the opposite of a morning person and so unfit for human interaction during the earlier part of my day that I have my phone set to silent mode until noon. The only way I can tell a call’s coming in is if I happen to be looking at the phone at that moment. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit, but during the submission process, I’d gotten into the habit of checking my phone when I first woke up to see if perhaps my agent had left me a message. She’s on the East Coast, so she has three hours on me out in L.A. (Note that we generally only speak by phone when we’ve scheduled a call in advance, so a voicemail would definitely mean big news.)

That morning, after a prolonged snuggle session with my two cats, I dragged myself upright, scrambled for my glasses and checked my phone. No new voicemail. No missed calls. Sigh. Off to the bathroom I went....but wait!—my phone’s lighting up. I glance at the caller I.D.

My agent.

My agent’s calling me at 9:59 a.m. on a random Wednesday.

I answer.

It’s The Call.

We’d gotten an offer from editor Monica Perez at Charlesbridge Teen. A good one. The only caveat was that I’d have to agree to age the main character up to 14 to make the book more clearly YA. I was fine with that (and, incidentally, the ripple effect of changing her age resulted in wonderful things thematically).

My memory of the rest of that day is a giddy, giggling mash of pinch-me moments. Before our call ended, Jen confessed that she’d planned to hold off calling me until it was 10 a.m. in Los Angeles but she simply could not wait another moment. I’m not totally sure but I believe I called my mom first to break the Big News. And then my dad, my sister, my critique buddy....and then dozens of other friends who’d been rooting me on for years (all sworn to secrecy on the details as I was instructed to keep them under wraps until the official announcement appeared in Publishers Weekly....which didn’t happen until November—eight months later!).

That night, I was one of a handful of screenwriters whose writing was being featured in an event called The Disability Scene. It was sponsored by the Writers Guild of America West’s Writers with Disabilities Committee, of which I’m a member. Before my scene (which was from the in-progress screenplay adaptation of Cursed) was performed, I provided a little intro explaining what the story was about and setting up the specific scene. I ended by making a special announcement that I’d been given permission to share: This morning, at 9:59 a.m., I learned that my book had sold.

There was a gasp from the crowded room.

Followed by a loud burst of cheers and clapping.

I’d managed to share the surprise, joy and exhilaration of getting The Call with an entire room of people. After such a long wait, the timing turned out to be perfect—and the moment itself bigger and more special than I ever could have imagined.

Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. She serves on the board of SCBWI-Los Angeles and is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West. Based in the Los Angeles area, she currently lives with her two cats, Ninja and Boo. Follow her on Twitter @KRSilverstein and

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 Sonya Sones

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

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

       It seems only yesterday I used to believe
       there was nothing under my skin but light.
       If you cut me I would shine.

“On Turning Ten”
from Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

Friday, June 7, 2019

Friday Freebie: The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen

Congratulations to Bj Nooth, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Prairie Fever by Michael Parker.

This week’s giveaway is for The Rest of the Story, the new novel by Sarah Dessen (author of Saint Anything, Once and For All, and many others). One lucky reader will win a new hardcover copy of the book. Keep scrolling for the rest of the story about The Rest of the Story and how to enter the contest...

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Sarah Dessen comes a big-hearted, sweeping novel about a girl who reconnects with a part of her family she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl—and falls in love, all over the course of a magical summer. Emma Saylor doesn’t remember a lot about her mother, who died when Emma was twelve. But she does remember the stories her mom told her about the big lake that went on forever, with cold, clear water and mossy trees at the edges. Now it’s just Emma and her dad, and life is good, if a little predictable…until Emma is unexpectedly sent to spend the summer with her mother’s family that she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl. When Emma arrives at North Lake, she realizes there are actually two very different communities there. Her mother grew up in working class North Lake, while her dad spent summers in the wealthier Lake North resort. The more time Emma spends there, the more it starts to feel like she is also divided into two people. To her father, she is Emma. But to her new family, she is Saylor, the name her mother always called her. Then there’s Roo, the boy who was her very best friend when she was little. Roo holds the key to her family’s history, and slowly, he helps her put the pieces together about her past. It’s hard not to get caught up in the magic of North Lake—and Saylor finds herself falling under Roo’s spell as well. For Saylor, it’s like a whole new world is opening up to her. But when it’s time to go back home, which side of her—Emma or Saylor—will win out?

If you’d like a chance at winning The Rest of the Story, 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 June 13, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 14. 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.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

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

       I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
       that I was still learning to turn
       Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
       playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
       of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
       the boy and the girl who begin fiction.

“First Reader”
from Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

Friday, May 31, 2019

Friday Freebie: Prairie Fever by Michael Parker

Congratulations to Maureen Wanket, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: To the Bones by Valerie Nieman.

This week’s giveaway is for Prairie Fever, the new novel by Michael Parker (author of The Watery Part of the World). Here’s what Joan Silber, author of Improvement, had to say about the novel: “What a terrific book this is, wonderful and strange...a whole family acting out what can and can’t be forgotten, against the backdrops of prairie and range—characters so magnificently and sometimes comically stubborn I really couldn’t put the book down. And what other novel has a character writing letters to a dead horse? I was completely taken by this book.” Keep scrolling for more information on Prairie Fever and how to enter the contest...

Set in the hardscrabble landscape of early 1900s Oklahoma, but timeless in its sensibility, Prairie Fever traces the intense dynamic between the Stewart sisters: the pragmatic Lorena and the chimerical Elise. The two are bound together not only by their isolation on the prairie but also by their deep emotional reliance on each other. That connection supersedes all else until the arrival of Gus McQueen. When Gus arrives in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, as a first time teacher, his inexperience is challenged by the wit and ingenuity of the Stewart sisters. Then one impulsive decision and a cataclysmic blizzard trap Elise and her horse on the prairie and forever change the balance of everything between the sisters, and with Gus McQueen. With honesty and poetic intensity and the deadpan humor of Paulette Jiles and Charles Portis, Parker reminds us of the consequences of our choices. Expansive and intimate, this novel tells the story of characters tested as much by life on the prairie as they are by their own churning hearts.

If you’d like a chance at winning Prairie Fever, 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 June 6, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 7. 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 27, 2019

A Birthday in a War Zone

Happy Friggin’ Birthday to me.

When it’s your birthday and you’re in a war zone, the day is just another day in the year’s long trudge of days. Unless you really work hard at it, in a selfish manner, there is nothing special about your “combat birthday.” No mother is there, just outside the door of your hootch, waiting for the lights to dim and everyone to fall silent before she enters bearing the candlelit cake while starting the group singing with a slow drawled “Haaaaa-ppy Biiiirthday to you...” There is no son or daughter to climb into your lap to hand you a clumsily-wrapped mess of a present. There is no wife to call you at work and mysteriously insist you cancel the rest of the day’s appointments because she has a surprise for you.

No, when you’re at war in the desert, it’s just you and the sand and the heat and the distant thud of falling mortars. No one notices you. No one pays attention to the day, your day. It’s not like the big red-letter holidays of Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter where they go apeshit filling the dining facility with cardboard decorations, ice sculptures and floral centerpieces. When you grab lunch on your birthday, there are no streamers or balloons or conical hats with rubberband straps for you to wear while you eat. No, it’s just “Here’s your chili-mac, now move along, bub.”

In 2005, I “celebrated” my birthday in a war zone. On May 27, I was in my fourth month of living at Camp Liberty, our home away from home at the edge of Baghdad, where I served with the Third Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Georgia. My wife and three children were all back there at our home tucked among the trees just south of Savannah; I wouldn’t see them for another six months. So, yes, a certain trace of bitterness crept into my journal entry for that day...

May 27, 2005: Happy Friggin’ Birthday to me.

Worked my ass off all day long—answering e-mail, updating the Media Release log and the weekly Video News reports—and hoped to let myself get off early because, well you know, it’s my friggin’ birthday. But no, I’m my own worst enemy and made myself stay until 7:30 at night, as is my usual workaholic custom. I brought dinner back to my hootch—a cheeseburger, potato chips and a slab of cement-colored cake (I pretended it was a birthday cake, but it didn’t quite come close). Then I pulled out my laptop and watched one of my favorite movies, Days of Heaven. I’d been saving it for a special occasion and I guess my friggin’ birthday was the best time as any. The movie filled me with equal parts joy and melancholy, as always. It was the perfect cocktail of emotion on this strange day.

Earlier in the day, during a break from work when there was a lull in the action around headquarters, I walked to the other side of the Forward Operating Base to get some so-called “casual pay.” Getting money from the Army while you’re over here at war is a simple matter of going over to the Finance Office (located two miles from where I live, over by the Camp and prayer, side by side). There, you fill out a form with your name, rank, unit, social security number, and how much you want to “withdraw” (up to $300 per month). At that moment, I just wanted to have the lumpy feel of tightly-rolled dollar bills in my pocket. It would be tangible proof of what I was doing over here: wages for my work. Green money, red money, blood money for oil—it all spends the same at the PX. Call me cynical, but it’s my birthday and I’m at war and I’ve earned the right to be bitter.

I drove over to Finance, filled out my form, then took a seat against the wall to wait for my turn at the window. Two guys, apparent strangers to each other, sat down next to me and started up a conversation. I listened.


“Hey, how are you?”

“Good. You?”



“You live here at Liberty?”

“Been here about three weeks cuz I had medical problems. I came here from Balad. You like it here?”

“This place ain’t so bad. I hear they got three swimming pools.”

“Man, you ever been to Balad?”

“No. Why? Izzit better?”

The Balad guy blew out a “hell yeah” hiss of breath between his teeth. “They got everything this place has got, only it’s all squished together. Everything’s within walking distance—the PX, the gym, the dining facility. Their rec center up there is in an old airplane hangar—it’s huge. They got hundreds of X-Boxes. When I was there, about 150 guys were having a Halo tournament. It was crazy, man.”


The other guy said, “Still, this is a whole helluva lot better than it was the first time around.”

“You were here in 2003?”

“Yeah. You?”


“So you know what I’m talking about. Now they got so many amenities here, it almost makes you want to come back. Or never leave.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Depends on what you do.”

“Yeah, that’s true. I should say, if you’ve got a support job in the Army and never go outside the wire, if you’re one of them Fobbits, then you’ve got life good. Some dudes nowadays, they stay inside buildings all day long. They just go from air conditioning to air conditioning. It’s all inside the wire for those motherfuckers, man.”

Sitting next to them, I stayed very, very quiet.

“Back in the day, there was no wire.”

“Yeah, everything was outside the wire. No matter what your job, you were out in the shit.”


“So, what do you do?”

“Bradley gunner.”

A low whistle of commiseration/admiration.

“Yeah, I’m going outside the wire every day—especially now that we’ve got so many guys on leave. We’re doing 12 out, 12 in.”

“They won’t let my unit take our Bradleys out anymore. They say the Bradleys tear up the streets too much.”

“Yeah, I suppose. We’ve got to change tracks like once a month. But we’ve gotta go out, all on account of we had an M1114 get blown up a few weeks back. Got hit with a big IED. Blew that fucking humvee completely upside down. Landed on its roof. Killed the gunner.”

“That’s all? Nobody else was hurt?”

“The driver and the TC walked away from it. I should say, they crawled away. Pretty extensive burns all over their bodies. They’re back in the rear now. Lucky bastards. Ever since that, though, there are no M1114s allowed outside the wire.”

My number was called and I reluctantly left my eavesdropping to go to the counter for the casual pay. I couldn’t shake the image of those two guys from the flipped humvee, bodies aflame, skin crackling and turning black, lungs searing, uniforms shredding off their bodies, pulling themselves across the road with their arms and elbows. As I tucked my hard roll of money into my pocket, I thought to myself, “Holy crap, am I one lucky son of a bitch or what?”

Later, my mother emailed me from oceans and time zones away and it was my last, best gift of the day:

       I remember this day 42 years ago very well. It was my due date—I had no idea if you were a boy or girl but I was kind of hoping for a boy for our first and maybe only child. It took almost six years before you were conceived and we had just about given up hope. I went to the hospital around 10 a.m. —no labor pains, no water broke, I was to be induced and was already beginning to dilate. They broke my water and labor started. I said goodbye to your Dad at the admitting desk and didn’t see him again until after you were born at 11:19 p.m. It was a long labor—the cord was around your neck and it kept pulling you back. I had a local, saddle block anesthesia but at the end they had to knock me out so I was not awake for your birth. Things are quite different today—that’s how it was in the 60’s. You came into this world screaming and did a lot of it until you were 7 months old—but YOU WERE WORTH IT!!!! I love you so much! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz

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

       And dragonflies, always dragonflies

       transforming our human breath
       into a winged thing―

       dragonflies who carry us
       partway to heaven, where our

       words whisper to angels
       astride their light-encrusted saddles.

“Butterflies, Bees, Dragonflies” from Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz

Friday, May 24, 2019

This Memorial Day, Will Everyone Please Be Quiet, Please?

In a perfect world, Memorial Day would be as quiet as the grave. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a country that, for the most part, observes the “holiday” with noisy, raucous patriotism. We “celebrate” the day with doorbuster sales at the local mall, the staticky sizzle of meat on the grill, and the exuberant yelp of our winterpale bodies hitting the beach for the start of Summer Living. That’s all well and good―nothing wrong with shouting hosannas to the sun―but to be true to the spirit and intent of Memorial Day, we should all shut up on Monday. At least for something longer than the obligatory moment of silence where we bow our heads while standing in a flag-fluttering cemetery.

Let it be known that I am just as guilty as many of the rest of you. Over my many Memorial Days, I have yelled, I have frolicked, I have grilled. But after serving twenty years in the Army, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation for what the day really asks of us: a somber, sober reflection of the true cost of war. Instead of woo-hooing over my three-day weekend, maybe I should be boo-hooing over a grave. At the very least, I should close my eyes and watch the war dead parade past on the screen of my eyelids, specifically the people who were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan during 2005, my year in-country. When you personally know some of those dead-and-buried warriors, Memorial Day takes on a whole new meaning.

Earlier this year, while I was reading Ben Fountain’s excellent book Beautiful Country Burn Again, I came across a passage which I immediately bookmarked and saved with the intent to share it on this particular weekend. Though the book primarily concerns itself with the 2016 presidential campaign which ended with us (not me!) electing our own President Noisemaker, the chapter “Doing the Chickenhawk with Trump” conclude with the following paragraphs (including an unexpected mention of my own Fobbit):

Since when did it become not just acceptable but expected that politicians orate on Memorial Day? Who gave them permission to speak for the violently dead? Come Monday we’ll be up to our ears in some of the emptiest, most self-serving dreck ever to ripple the atmosphere, the standard war-fantasy talk of American politics, complete with sentimentalist purlings about heroes, freedoms, the supreme sacrifice. Trump will tell us how much he loves the veterans, and how much they love him back. Down-ticket pols will re-terrorize and titillate voters with tough talk about ISIS. Hemingway, for one, despised this kind of cant, his disgust borne out in a famous passage from A Farewell to Arms, in which the wounded veteran Frederic Henry reflects:
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of the places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Here’s a proposition: We stand a better chance of understanding something about ourselves and our wars if we tune out the politicians, for one day at least, and turn our attention to a certain kind of writer: namely, the man or woman who experiences war firsthand, then devotes heart and soul to finding the correct words, the true words, for describing the reality of the thing. Crazy, right? Maybe you think I’ve been smoking that good Texas dope? The very idea, ignoring Hillary and Trump and instead reading a poem by Brian Turner or Kevin Powers, or a passage from Youngblood or Fobbit or Green on Blue. But a country going on its fifteenth year of war would seem obliged to use every tool at hand for making sense of its situation. And if looking at poems and novels seems like a radical act, that in itself might be a clue to the problem.

Or how about silence. In an era where language has been so mangled and abused, maybe the sanest thing we can do is reserve some space for silence. The National Moment of Remembrance Act puts this notion into law, encouraging a minute of silence at three p.m. local time on Memorial Day. At least then we would be spared someone trying to sell us something–cars, appliances, political agendas, war–for as long as the silence lasted, and that alone seems like a mercy. It’s hard to hijack silence, and maybe that’s the point.

*     *     *     *

You can read the full essay, which originally appeared in The Guardian in May 2016, here. Read the essay, sure, but I also urge you to buy the book. What Ben has to say in these pages is important. For more about Beautiful Country Burn Again, you can also check out this Bill Moyers interview with Ben Fountain.