Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Front Porch Books: April 2013 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge (Other Voices Books):  This book came to me by way of my good friend Gina Frangello (and when I say "good friend," I should clarify that Gina and I have never met in person, but have bonded over the internet for years and I trust her literary tastes, so when she says, "You should read this," I don't say anything, but just bow and obey).  Gina said Rob was an AMAZING writer--and you know when Gina Frangello puts something in All Caps, you better sit up and pay attention.  Well, I dipped into the first few pages of The Cost of Living, and you know what?  Roberge's prose is, indeed, AMAZING.  It begins with two police-blotter clippings from a newspaper about a missing woman, and then...Here are the Opening Lines:
The night before my father would beg me to kill him, I sat alone in a hotel room across the street from his hospital, rereading old newspaper articles about my mother's suicide.  I had six months clean for the second time in my life.  The first time stuck for six years.  But that seemed impossible to do again.  My skin itched and my body crackled and I had no idea how I'd get through the next five minutes, let alone the night, or the rest of my fucking life without being loaded.  I was freezing and the room wasn't cold.  I went into the bathroom and turned on the heat lamp, which came on along with a fan, and I paced for a minute.  I sat on the toilet, fully clothed with the seat down and counted the square-inch white tiles on the floor three times while breathing deeply.  I listened closely to the fan's small jetlike idle to block any thoughts that might come.  I tried counting the tiles on the walls but couldn't concentrate.  I looked back down at the floor.  I let my sight blur, and the moldy grout started to form a pattern that looked like floating chicken wire.
I love the level of detail and the compulsive force of the language which pulls us right in to the head of this character.  Here's more about the book from the Jacket Copy:
To the shock of lovers and rivals, indie guitarist Bud Barrett is finally—if tenuously—married, clean, and sober. Now he faces the challenge of staying that way. To avoid repeating the past, Bud needs to confront the ghosts that dwell there. After decades of seeking redemption in the arms of “pervy Florence Nightingales,” Bud finds himself still haunted by his mother’s abandonment, his own array of crimes, and a murder he witnessed as a child. As he revisits his life of grief and reckless excess, all paths lead to his long estranged father, a man with his own turbulent history and the only one who can connect Bud’s fragments, unlocking the answers that just might save him.
So, thanks, Gina for the introduction.  I can hardly wait to learn more about those pervy nurses.

Enon by Paul Harding (Random House): Okay, confession time: I still haven't read Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 novel Tinkers, even though I really really really really want to.  It's in good company on that unread shelf, joined by Housekeeping, A Confederacy of Dunces and Lolita.  One of these days, one of these days (he says while shopping for real estate on deserted tropical islands).  And now along comes Harding's new novel, due to hit bookstores in September.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
The Dallas Morning News observed that “like Faulkner, Harding never shies away from describing what seems impossible to put into words.” Here, in Enon, Harding follows a year in the life of Charlie Crosby as he tries to come to terms with a shattering personal tragedy. Grandson of George Crosby (the protagonist of Tinkers), Charlie inhabits the same dynamic landscape of New England, its seasons mirroring his turbulent emotional odyssey. Along the way, Charlie’s encounters are brought to life by his wit, his insights into history, and his yearning to understand the big questions.
And here are the wrenching Opening Lines:
Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children.  I am the exception.  My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago.  She was thirteen.  My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.
In an earlier interview at Tin House, when he was "75% done with the first draft" of the novel, Harding described a little bit more about the book:
The title of it is Enon, which is the town in Massachusetts in which George Crosby dies. In his mind, to where he escaped from his youth in Maine. It’s the original colonial name for Wenham, the town I grew up in, just a little bit north of Boston.  So this next novel is about one of George’s grandsons. His name is Charlie Crosby, and he actually makes about a one-sentence cameo in Tinkers. So it’s about him and his daughter, Kate. The action is subsequent to that in Tinkers, and set in the same location, but it’s not a sequel per se. As Charlie makes his way through the plot or the circumstances of the novel, George will show up as part of Charlie’s sort of reservoir of memories and reference points, but it’s not a continuation of the action of Tinkers. I have some idea that I’ll go back and a third book will be connected with the same family, so I might be coming up with my own little New England Yoknapatawpha one of these days.
Okay, fair warning.  I need to read Tinkers before September.

Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes (Bellevue Literary Press):  This debut novel by Michele Forbes begins with a great, menacing scene in choppy ocean waters.  I was thoroughly hooked by these Opening Lines:
      The seal appears from nowhere, an instant immutable presence in the sea--although he must have been swimming silently beneath the surface for some time without her knowing.  Katherine shudders in the water; her thoughts are moving like fast cold spikes inside her head.  Where has he come from?  Is he lost?  Has he come to feed?  The seal's heavy muzzle thrusts toward Katherine; his nostrils--two dark inlets--flare: He is taking in her smell, her fear.  His stiff eyebrow hairs, beaded with sea drops, crisscross the thick shadowy skin of his dark, wide head.  Battle-scarred, his snout slopes to an ugly dull point where his long wiry whiskers afford him the seductive familiarity of a family dog.  But it's his eyes--the eyes of this wild animal--that terrify Katherine the most; huge, opaque, and overbold, they hold on her like the lustrous black-egged eyes of a ruined man.
      Briefly the seal's lips roll to display his sharp conical teeth, strong enough to dismember a large bird, she thinks, strong enough to rip her flesh.  Her panic rises.  If she turns her head away from him to look for help, even for a second, God knows what he'll do.  He may strike.  Seals startle easily, someone once told her, their behavior as unpredictable as human love.  Yet if she remains where she is...
      They tread the cold sea together, Katherine and the seal.  Above them, sandpipers drop their miserable cries as they fly.  Splinters of high voices peak on the blue wind.  In the distance, there is the low mechanical churr of a train.  Around them, the sea continues its cool lamenting slap.
The rest of the novel appears to have little to do with slapping seas or scary seals, but those first paragraphs carry such beautiful threat that I can't help but read on.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
During the hot Irish summer of 1969, tensions rise in Belfast where Katherine, a former actress, and George, a firefighter, struggle to keep buried secrets from destroying their marriage. As Catholic Republicans and Protestant Loyalists clash during the “Troubles” and Northern Ireland moves to the brink of civil war, the lines between private anguish and public outrage disintegrate. An exploration of memory, childhood, illicit love, and loss, Ghost Moth is an exceptional tale about a family—and a country—seeking freedom from ghosts of the past.

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books):  Following in the wake of her previously successful novel with Algonquin, Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt is poised to make another splash in bookstores with this new work of fiction that has mid-century Communist paranoia as its fulcrum.  In the press materials accompanying Is This Tomorrow, Leavitt said this book began with a question she pondered: "Can outsiders become a part of a community and feel safe in that community?"  She puts her characters through the wringer in answering that question and keeps the reader glued to the page.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In 1956, Ava Lark rents a house with her twelve-year-old son, Lewis, in a desirable Boston suburb. Ava is beautiful, divorced, Jewish, and a working mom. She finds her neighbors less than welcoming. Lewis yearns for his absent father, befriending the only other fatherless kids: Jimmy and Rose. One afternoon, Jimmy goes missing. The neighborhood—in the throes of Cold War paranoia—seizes the opportunity to further ostracize Ava and her son.  Years later, when Lewis and Rose reunite to untangle the final pieces of the tragic puzzle, they must decide: Should you tell the truth even if it hurts those you love, or should some secrets remain buried?
I can't wait to read Is This Tomorrow and find out all the answers.  Blurbworthiness: "A beautiful free-spirited divorcee is shunned by her neighbors. A boy from that neighborhood goes missing. This is the engine that drives Leavitt's latest story, a page turner from first to last. I loved the way Leavitt's Mad Men-like examination of shifting American values dovetails with her vivid tale of heartbreak and hope. An enthusiastic thumbs-up from this grateful reader."  (Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed)

The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau  (Harper Perennial):  Jessica Anya Blau's new novel opens with a scene in a dress shop fitting room that is simultaneously sexy and terrifying.  It will probably make you squirm a little--but that's what Blau is hoping for, I think.  At the very least, it's riveting writing and I had a hard time setting the book aside.  Here are the Opening Lines:
Allie was in a fitting room with a thirty-three-year-old man named Jonas, pulling pinches of cocaine out of a Wonder Bread bag that was more than three-quarters full.  It was the first time she had tried coke.  Her heart was rat-a-tat-tatting and her limbs were trembling like a small poodle's.  Clearly, this had been a poor decision.
Here's the Jacket Copy:
In The Wonder Bread Summer, loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, 20-year-old Allie Dodgson has adventures that rival those Alice had down the rabbit hole. Or those of Weeds’ Nancy Botwin.  Allison is working at a dress shop to help pay for college. The dress shop turns out to be a front for drug dealers.  And Allison ends up on the run—with a Wonder Bread bag full of cocaine. With a hit man after her, Allison wants the help of her parents. But there’s a problem: Her mom took off when Allison was eight; her dad moves so often Allison that doesn’t even have his phone number….Set in 1980s California, The Wonder Bread Summer is a wickedly funny and fresh caper that’s sure to please fans of Christopher Moore, Carl Hiaasen, and Marcy Dermansky.

The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman (Little, Brown and Company):  The Jacket Copy for Naomi Alderman's new novel doesn't even do it justice, so I'm not going to reprint it here.  Suffice to say, the plot boils down to this: The story of Jesus (Yehoshuah here) is told by four people closest to him a year after his death.  New Testament narratives are as old as....well, as old as the Good Book itself.  So it would take some high-voltage writing to make a novel like this stand out from the rest of the congregation.  Based on the Opening Lines of The Liars' Gospel, I'd say Alderman has a live wire on her hands:
      This was how it happened.
      It is important to quiet the lamb, that is the first thing. A young man, learning the skills of priesthood, sometimes approaches the task with brutality. But it must be done softly, even lovingly. Lambs are trusting creatures. Touch it on the forehead just above the spot between the eyes. Breathe slowly and evenly, close enough to the creature to inhale the meaty scent of wool. It will know if you are nervous. Hold yourself steady. Whisper the sacred words. Grasp the knife as you have practiced. Plunge the blade into the neck swiftly, just below the jaw. There must be no pausing. The knife must be sharp enough that almost no pressure is needed. Move it down evenly and quickly, severing the tendons and nerves as the blood begins to flow and the lamb’s muscles spasm. Withdraw. The entire motion should take less than the time of one in-breath.
      Hold the lamb so that the blood gushes down, that it may be caught in the sacred cup. There is a great deal of blood; the life is in the blood. It is appropriate at this point to meditate on the blood in your own body, on how quickly and easily it could be released, on how one day it will cease to flow. Sacrifice is a meditation on vulnerability. Your blood is no redder than this creature’s. Your skin is no tougher. Your understanding of the events which will lead to your own death is probably no greater than this lamb’s comprehension.
      The smell of it is strong: iron and salt and sharpness. A priest catches the blood in the cup. The cup becomes full. The priest scatters the blood, spatters it to the four corners of the altar. The smell increases. The lamb stops twitching. The last traces of life are gone from it. This is how quickly it happens. When the blood is drained, slice open the skin and pull it from the carcass. Now the creature is meat. Every living being is meat for another. Do you think that the mosquito – one of the smallest of God’s creatures – looks on us as anything other than food? Worms will one day devour you – do you imagine they will notice your intellect, your kindness, your riches, your beauty? Everything is eaten by some other thing. Do not think that because you have knives of bronze you are more than this lamb. All of us are lambs before the Almighty.
      Remove the sacred organs from the flesh. Pull them, separating and cutting the sinews which hold them in place. Moments ago, they had purpose: like each man in the Temple, they had their functions to perform. Now they are objects to be burned in the holy fires. Take care not to pierce the bowel – the stench will be appalling. This is no ritual of the spirit, it is a matter of the body. Remember that your bowel too contains feces, that the woman whom you most desire in all the world is, at this moment as at all others, full of mucus and feces. Be humble. Remove the forbidden fats which may not be eaten: the sheet of fat across the abdomen, the fat of the kidneys.
      Place the organs and the forbidden fats into the fire of the altar. As they burn, offer up praises to the Almighty, who has given us this holy duty, who has given us the wit to understand His works, who has placed us above the beasts in knowledge and in wisdom. As the fats burn, their outer membranes blackening, the soft white matter liquefying and dripping down among the burning branches, the smell will be sweet and delicious. These are the sweet savors for the Lord. Your mouth will begin to salivate, your stomach, if you have not eaten for some time, may begin to growl. You are not an angel, a disembodied spirit without desire. You are a body, like this lamb. You want to eat this flesh. You are a soul also, the more to praise your Creator. Remember what you are. Give thanks. When the fats and organs are consumed, the animal’s carcass may be removed. It will be cooked for you and your fellow priests. Thus you will share the meal with God.
      This is the daily sacrifice. Every day, twice a day, morning and evening, a year-old lamb, healthy and without blemish. Every time, it is a sacred thing. Every time, the animal is slain for the glory of God, not for the mere satisfaction of our hungers. Every time, as the life bleeds out, the priest should look, and notice, and give thanks for the animal whose life has returned to its Creator and whose flesh provides sweet savors for the Lord and nourishment for His servants.

Temple Grove by Scott Elliot (University of Washington Press):  In her praise of Scott Elliott's new novel, Kim Barnes (In the Kingdom of Men) compares his work to two of my favorite contemporary writers: Alan Heathcock and Benjamin Percy.  So you know I'm already sitting up a little straighter in my chair, senses a-tingle.  Volt and The Wilding were two of the finest works of fiction I've read this century which addressed man's humble place in nature.  And now comes Temple Grove which takes us deep into the forests of the Pacific Northwest.  I lived in Oregon for four years, earning my degree from the University of Oregon, so I'm always interested in novels which explore the edgy relationship between loggers and eco-terrorists who drive metal spikes into trees in protest.  Temple Grove looks like it will be a novel in which you can practically smell the loamy, fern-festered earth and feel the ever-present mist in the air.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Deep in the heart of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula lies Temple Grove, one of the last stands of ancient Douglas firs not under federal protection from logging. Bill Newton, a gyppo logger desperate for work and a place to hide, has come to Temple Grove for the money to be made from the timber. There to stop him is Paul, a young Makah environmentalist who will break the law to save the trees. A dangerous chase into the wilds of Olympic National Park ensues, revealing a long-hidden secret that inextricably links the two men. Joining the pursuit are FBI agents who target Paul as an eco-terrorist, and his mother, Trace, who is determined to protect him. Temple Grove is a gripping tale of suspense and a multilayered novel of place that captures in taut, luminous prose the traditions that tie people to this powerful landscape and the conflicts that run deep among them.
Oh, and here's that Blurbworthiness I mentioned earlier:  "Like Alan Heathcock and Benjamin Percy, Scott Elliott writes from that place where the old myths and the new stories collide. In Temple Grove, he reminds us of what it means to be lost to everyone and everything we have ever loved...and to be found again. It is a story of longing, cruelty, forgiveness, and redemption, shot through with intimate descriptions of a land on the cusp of ruin that will break your heart with their beauty."  (Kim Barnes)

Vacationland by Sarah Stonich (University of Minnesota Press):  Okay, okay, I'll admit I'm kind of a sucker for paint-by-number paintings on book cover designs (see also the similarly-titled Jamesland by Michele Huneven) and I especially like the work Mingovits Design has done on the cover for Sarah Stonich's novel--notice how the fawn stands out from the faded background and interweaves through the font of the title.  Okay, fine, the cover got my attention; but it's the contents inside the package that really matter.  Like so many of the other books mentioned in this edition of Front Porch Books, Stonich had me at "Hello."  Here are the Opening Lines:
      When Ilsa shakes snow from her ruff the thing is tossed from her jaws to land and skitter across the linoleum. At the sink with her back to the dog, Meg scrapes egg from a pan and idly wonders if she’s being delivered another frozen bone. When it rolls to a stop near her slipper, she sees. There is no mistaking it, snow-crusted as it is.
      “Real?” Meg squeals, answering the question. She vaults back, her own hand meeting her mouth as if zip-lined. Her next words gurgle into her palm, but when she swivels to where Ilsa sits, her voice is clear, “Bad, bad dog!”
      Pivoting to the dark window, she gasps at her reflection. On the other side of the glass the first storm of the season has already dropped eight inches and it’s still coming down. Meg inhales and exhales in sync with gusts of corn-snow battering the window, hoping that upon turning back she’ll see she’s utterly, ridiculously mistaken.
      Her kitchen had once been the bar and lounge of Naledi Lodge. Besides this building, little suggests the place was ever a thriving resort. A pair of dry gas pumps lean like drunks near the dock, and pilings poke blindly through the ice as if groping for the vanished boathouse. All but two of the little cabins have been razed. Little Hatchet is a glacial lake shaped as you might expect, poised as if chopping down from Ontario, with the town of Hatchet Inlet stuck to its blade. Naledi sits at the northernmost point near the frozen handle.
      There are two seasons on Little Hatchet – blistering, black-fly summers and long winters with short days that dawn cold, colder, and, as the hand thawing on Meg’s floor mutely suggests – life threatening.
I like how Stonich delays the revelation of that hand (though I sort of suspected it was coming).  I also like the visual details with which she paints the setting (the gas pumps leaning like drunks, corn-snow hitting the window).  Marvelous, marvelous writing is at work on these pages.  Ah, but you'll want to know what the book is about, right?  Here you go--the Jacket Copy:
On a lake in northernmost Minnesota, you might find Naledi Lodge—only two cabins still standing, its pathways now trodden mostly by memories. And there you might meet Meg, or the ghost of the girl she was, growing up under her grandfather’s care in a world apart and a lifetime ago. Now an artist, Meg paints images “reflected across the mirrors of memory and water,” much as the linked stories of Vacationland cast shimmering spells across distance and time.  Those whose paths have crossed at Naledi inhabit Vacationland: a man from nearby Hatchet Inlet who knew Meg back when, a Sarajevo refugee sponsored by two parishes who can’t afford “their own refugee,” aged sisters traveling to fulfill a fateful pact once made at the resort, a philandering ad man, a lonely Ojibwe stonemason, and a haiku-spouting girl rescued from a bog. Sarah Stonich, whose work has been described as “unexpected and moving” by the Chicago Tribune and “a well-paced feast” by the Los Angeles Times, weaves these tales of love and loss, heartbreak and redemption into a rich novel of interconnected and disjointed lives. Vacationland is a moving portrait of a place—at once timeless and of the moment, composed of conflicting dreams and shared experience—and of the woman bound to it by legacy and sometimes longing, but not necessarily by choice.

Monday, April 29, 2013

My First Time: Shawn Vestal

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Shawn Vestal, author of the just-released short story collection, Godforsaken IdahoVogue had this to say about the book: "[It] lies somewhere between the classically chiseled narratives of Richard Ford's Rock Springs, the satiristic imagination of George Saunders, and the comic stylings of The Book of Mormon.  Vestal's dark, often very funny, and deeply probing stories have one foot in God-fearing Mormon country and another in godforsaken characters-at-the-end-of-their-rope realism."  Readers of The Quivering Pen already know how excited I am to read Godforsaken Idaho.  Vestal's stories have appeared in McSweeney's, American Short Fiction, EcoTone and Tin House, among many other publications.  He is a columnist at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., where he lives with his wife and son.

My First Publication as a Father

For many years, I feared that having a child would be the death of me as a writer.

When would I write, yoked down with a child?  I had taken to heart Richard Ford’s famous desire not to have children—a sign, I thought, of his devotion to literature.  I had admired the heretical bravery of Raymond Carver, who once wrote that his children had been a “heavy and often baleful influence.”  I had registered the stories about writer after writer whose literary success was accompanied by, and possibly even dependent on, parental failure and reckless selfishness.

I hadn’t noticed, somehow, that over twenty years of adult life as a childless man-boy with plenty of leisure time, I hadn’t published any fiction.  I hadn’t noticed, somehow, the large number of actual, working writers I knew who were also apparently excellent mothers and fathers.

I was forty-two when our son was born in June 2007.  It was shortly after I had published my first short story.  But it was the next publication—my first as a father—that subverted what I thought I knew about writing and parenthood.

Less than a week after our son’s birth, I got a call from Ben George, then an editor at Tin House.  Ben was not calling to accept a story.  He was calling to say that a story I had submitted might be accepted—might be—if I sharpened it through revision.  This was in the heat of initial fatherhood, that can’t-catch-your-breath time of feeling overtaken by a new regime, a kingdom woven entirely from threads of responsibility.

I loved my son, was awed and filled with wonder, was utterly, without question in thrall to the experience.  But I was also daunted, tired, obsessed—yoked.  I felt then that parenthood would simply eclipse everything else, and I was anxious, selfishly, about the survival of my selfish self—the reader, the writer, the layabout.

Could I even begin to consider working on a story?

Of course I could.  And not in some way that compromised me as a father, either.

I revised the story in those weeks of firsts, stealing time where I could, thinking of the story so often that when I arrived at the keyboard I was filled with it.  I could already tell that my perspective had altered in a crucial way: the story I was writing, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” concerns a father who has abandoned his family.  Becoming a father myself had given me crucial insights into the character and his experience that I hadn’t had before.  It helped me understand the depths of his betrayal, and the depths of the guilt he sometimes accepts and sometimes rationalizes.

Ben worked closely with me and helped me refine, focus, and improve the story.  He also spoke to me as a fellow father, which may have been as important as his excellent editorial instinct.  The story was published in Tin House, and it’s the first story in my collection, Godforsaken Idaho.

It seems so obvious now, but seemed so impossible then—I would continue to exist as the individual I was.  I would press ahead with life and all that meant to me, and because life for me means language and story, language and story would live on in me, and not only live on, but grow and deepen and change as I did.  It is true that, since my son was born, I have less time to write.  But it turned out that I didn’t need more time in my life; I needed more life in my life.  I needed to be drawn out of myself and into the world, to be forced to consider my own existence in the context of someone who would look to me as an example, to be forced to confront, more gravely and less glibly, the parts of myself that might fall short of that standard, and all of this made me a more reflective, contemplative human being, and therefore a more reflective, contemplative writer.

Which is merely obvious, I suppose.  Not earth-shattering or revelatory.  And yet it was in those early days as a first-time parent and first-time author that I realized—for the first time—that I would be better for having been both.

Photo by Dan Pelle

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

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

She settled under a lamp whose glow helped define the cut of her face.  Very narrow.  Unnaturally so.  A face between cymbals after the clap.

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hypnotized by Wordcraft: National Treasures by Charles McLeod

Charles McLeod's short story collection National Treasures (so quietly released last fall by a tiny whisper of a small press, Outpost 19) has the kind of prose that could easily fill an entire year's worth of The Quivering Pen's Sunday Sentence series.  It was all I could do to limit myself to just two.

But now that I have the space of an entire review in which to stretch myself, I'll unload a few more on you.
The air in Orleans is sewn tight with mist.

Our landlord is a large, creamy man whose bald head and small features give him the look of a boiled egg.

Crumpler had a tire iron and wasn’t calming down.

McLeod writes of residents on the lunatic fringe: young male escorts, an Amish boy on rumspringa, a man who puts his life up for sale on eBay.  These characters are steeped in the tar and nicotine of Raymond Carver, and bathed in the crackerjack wisdom of Flannery O’Connor.  The "life on eBay" story ("National Treasures") is especially well-done--one of the finest in an already-fine collection.

I was so impressed (and quite a bit jealous) of McLeod’s seemingly effortless control of sentences, the pacing and the startling reveal of surprises.  Let's just say I spent the entire book hypnotized by McLeod’s wordcraft.

He does handicap himself somewhat by putting a challenging story, "Edge Boys," at the start.  The writing is beautiful, but, damn, it's like a series of tumbles down a long staircase.  So if you are put off by breathless, pages-long sentences, just hang on, they get shorter after that first story.  But even in the huge chunks of text in "Edge Boys," McLeod demonstrates tight control over those sentences.

And what beautiful sentences they are.  Consider this from "Individualized Altimetry of Stripes": "The first snowfall will feel like soft electricity."  Or this description of Ludd, one of the book’s scarier creatures in "The State Bird of Minnesota": "He was bearded and awkward, an oaf of a man, but in the water he was something to look at."  And a few pages later, talking about that same character: "His teeth were a mess, not aware of each other; they sprung from his gums at all angles."

I could go on and on, but I'll stop now.  You've got other things to do.  Like going out and buying yourself a copy of National Treasures.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Freebie: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

Congratulations to Mari Cheney, winner of last week's Friday Freebie multi-book contest: Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

This week's giveaway is Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, due to be released by Grand Central Publishing in early May.  I try not to play favorites among the Friday Freebies I offer to you, but I've gotta be honest and say I've really been looking forward to this particular Friday when I could bring you Percy's new novel.  I was a big fan of his previous works of fiction (The Wilding, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk), so I had high expectations for Red Moon.  I read an advance copy last month and it immediately catapulted to the top of my Best of 2013 list.  I'll try to get a proper review written here at the blog, but in the meantime, rest assured this book comes with my highest recommendation.  If you don't win the Friday Freebie contest, you are well-advised to buy your own copy.

Red Moon opens sedately with an ordinary scene of passengers boarding a plane:
The jet bridge elbows to the left, into the open door of the plane.  One of the flight attendants stands in the kitchen carrel beyond the doorway.  She smiles at him, her mouth heavily lipsticked. "Welcome aboard," she says, and then he is past her, into the hush of the first-class cabin, stutter-stepping down the aisle with everyone else.  Those already seated turn the pages of their newspapers in rustling snaps.  The storage compartments are all open, like unhinged mouths gaping at them, waiting to swallow the diaper bags and suitcases that people hoist upward before edging into their seats.
The plane takes off.  A man goes into the lavatory.  When he emerges, he--

Well, I won't describe what happens, so I don't spoil the surprise.  Let's just say the lives of everyone on board the plane are changed.  Indeed, the course of world history is altered.  Nay, the course of the entire novel takes a shocking, dramatic shift and suddenly Percy has put us in an entirely new world which is at once foreign and familiar.  Let me also say this, if you liked Justin Cronin's The Passage and The Twelve, you will totally dig Red Moon.  In fact, you may even howl with delight.  There, I've already said too much.

Peter Straub (Ghost Story, Koko) praised the book by saying: "With Red Moon one of our most blazingly gifted young writers stakes his claim to national attention.  Benjamin Percy has one great advantage over most writers who attempt 'literary horror': he understands the literature of real horror from the inside out, and he speaks it like a native.  This is a novel with the power to thrill and transport, also to lead the reader well out of her comfort zone and into emotional territory few people have ever seen."

I couldn't agree more, sir.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Red Moon, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to thequiveringpen@gmail.com.

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on May 2, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on May 3.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

World Book Night 2013: My Short Marathon-Reading Adventure

Being an account of the narrator's World Book Night adventure in the Old West mining city of Butte, Montana, specifically at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library, with occasional pauses for breath and sips of water while reading Glaciers by Alexis Smith and tossing copies of aforementioned book to passersby like a rock star flinging a sweat-mopped T-shirt into a concert crowd; with able assistance by Regan deVictoria, champion co-Giver and all-round A-Number-One librarian.

I was all ready for it.  I had two bottles of water at hand.  I had my well-worn copy of Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith in front of me.  I'd rested my throat all day, speaking to co-workers in a mumble or whisper.  I was prepared to settle in for a long night of reading Smith's debut novel to patrons at the Butte Silver-Bow Library here in my adopted Montana hometown as part of World Book Night 2013 activities.

With the assistance of library director Lee Miller and head of library programming Regan deVictoria, I'd spread the word of my reading marathon goals in the local media and through social media.  I had visions of Charles Dickens, inexhaustibly reading A Christmas Carol to Victorian audiences until his throat crackled with flame.  If Chuck D. could do it, so could I.

Glaciers was one of my favorite books of 2012, so imagine my delight when I saw it had made the World Book Night list.  As soon as I was confirmed to be a Giver of that title, I knew exactly where I wanted to hand it out: my local library.  The novel's main character, 28-year-old Isabel, works in the Portland, Oregon library repairing damaged books, so I thought it would be apropos if I distributed the book to readers in a building in uptown Butte, Montana that had been home to thousands of books since 1893.

Admittedly, this was something of a World Book Night stunt.  I could have just handed out copies of my chosen book with an infectious smile and a street-preacher urgency--"Here you go!  Read this and your life will never be the same!"--as I did for last year's WBN when I gave out Leif Enger's Peace Like a River to caffeine-fiends at the Butte Starbucks. But I wanted to do something different in honor of Glaciers. I wanted to cup Smith's lyrical prose in my mouth, let it stream like silver ribbons off my tongue, starting with the first sentence--"Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably never will go"--and proceeding forth all the way to the final line, if need be: "So she begins, I've never been to Amsterdam."

But I had faith in Butte readers (and those lured by the promise of that four-letter word "FREE") and I figured this would be more like a couple of laps around the track rather than an entire marathon.  As it turned out, it was closer to a 100-yard dash.

I arrived at the library a few minutes late (poor time manager that I am) and found a half-dozen Glacier-hungry readers already waiting for me.  I made my apologies, gave a brief explanation of World Book Night's history and purpose, then I plunged in to the story of Isabel, repairer of damaged books and collector of thrift-store ephemera.

Regan was an enthusiastic co-Giver, doling out the 20 copies of the book to patrons who drifted over, snared by the sound of my voice reading Smith's beautiful words.  Some Receivers took Glaciers with a silent, wary nod of thanks, but others hung around the alcove and settled into the two rows of chairs we'd set up.  One heavyset man followed along in his copy and slyly informed me when I transposed "porpoises" and "whales" in one sentence.  When he grinned, a snaggletooth popped out from between his lips.  I thanked him for his diligence and continued to read.

I'd reached page 34, pausing for breath between chapters, when Regan held up the empty WBN box and announced, "That's it.  They're all gone."

One lady, a lovely old soul wearing a Sunday-go-to-meetin' black hat, groaned at the news.  "It can't end now."  She'd sat there the entire time--all 25 minutes of my "marathon"--wrapped in the ribbons of words.  "I have to hear how it ends.  Will you come to my house and read the rest to me?"

And I would have gone home with her, reading the rest of Glaciers until my throat bled, if I didn't have a wife waiting at home for me, expecting me to fix dinner.  Also, my larynx felt a little like someone had scraped it with a garden rake.  "You'll have to finish it on your own," I said. "But just think of all you've got to look forward to."

I thanked everyone for coming.  My work here was done.  Another triumphant World Book Night was, er, on the books.  I went home happy.  But probably not as happy as those new readers carrying Glaciers with them, eager to discover the rest of the story for themselves.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: Special World Book Night Edition: Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith--plus books by Jesmyn Ward, John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, Hillary Jordan and Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.  In the best cases, a book trailer can be a perfect marriage between text and video.

Okay, I'll admit it.  I'm obsessed with Glaciers, the debut novel by Alexis M. Smith published last year by Tin House Books.  By now you're probably sick of hearing me talk about how great the book is (hopefully, I've worn down enough of you that you've gone out and bought the book to see just what I'm talking about; if so, then my work here is done).  But when a book is filled with the kind of pure, crystalline prose, superbly-rendered imagery and engaging characters like those in Glaciers, then you'll have a hard time getting me to shut my yapper.  Just as The Quivering Pen has turned into something of a love letter to this particular book, Glaciers itself was written as a love letter to Portland, Oregon--or, actually, the entire Pacific Northwest, Smith explains in the trailer for the novel.  This short trailer is a video postcard of the City of Roses, a perfect complement to Glaciers' main character, the librarian Isabel who collects ephemera like vintage dresses, salt-and-pepper shakers, hand-sewn aprons, and, yes, postcards which stir up memories of her childhood years in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest with her father, mother and sister.  The book trailer has been out for well over a year, so I'm not exactly cutting-edge here; but I thought today of all days would be the perfect time to feature it at Trailer Park Tuesday.  If you haven't already heard the news, blaring like trumpet blasts from excited bibliophiles from coast to coast, today is World Book Night and Glaciers is one of the thirty books selected for the national giveaway.  I'll be handing out 20 copies of Glaciers at the Butte, Montana public library tonight, starting at 4 p.m.  If you're in the neighborhood, stop by for your free copy.  You can learn more about World Book Night by clicking here, where you can also find events happening near you.

In honor of World Book Night, I thought I'd post trailers to some of the other books which WBN Givers will be handing out today...

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward:

Look Again by Lisa Scottoline:

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan:

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham:

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Fobbit is a semi-finalist for First Novelist Award

The dream continues.  (Please don't wake me up.)

Fobbit was just named a semi-finalist in the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award competition.  My thanks to all the volunteer readers in the Virginia Commonwealth University English Department, the James Branch Cabell Library, and the Richmond literary community who spent hundreds of hours reading through a record-breaking number of submissions (nearly 140 first novels) and who chose Fobbit to be in such fine company.

Congratulations to all the other semi-finalists.  Here's the complete long-list (I've read some of these fine books and all the others have footholds on my mountain of To-Be-Read books sitting in my basement):

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man by Nick Dybek
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau
Fobbit by David Abrams
No One Is Here Except All Of Us by Ramona Ausubel
The Girl Below by Bianca Zander
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

My First Time: Rachael Hanel

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Rachael Hanel, the author of We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter (University of Minnesota Press).  Memoirist Alison Bechdel calls it “Mesmerizing!” and novelist and memoirist Nicole Helget says the book “gently untucks dying, death, and mourning from the dark recesses of the drawer we Midwesterners, descendants of the stoic and neat, have kept it.”  Hanel’s work has been published in Bellingham Review and New Delta Review, and an essay was selected as a “Notable Essay” in the 2012 Best American Essays.  She lives in Mankato, Minnesota and blogs at We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You DownClick here to visit her website.

The First Chapter I Wrote

My book started in a creative nonfiction classroom at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in 2000.  I was not an MFA student—I was getting my M.A. in history while working as a reporter at the Mankato Free Press.  Even though I was 25 years old, I only had vague notions of what an MFA was.  I was a journalist, after all, not a creative writer.  Heaven forbid that I mix the two.

I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I ended up writing about an image from my childhood that continued to grip me.  The image was of a gravestone—no surprise, considering my dad was a gravedigger and I spent long summer days in cemeteries.  This particular gravestone didn’t stand out in terms of size or color.  It was just a foot high or so, nondescript reddish-brown granite that blended in with the gravestones around it.

But on the top was a bronze clasp, a clasp irresistible to my young fingers.  I opened that clasp—a larger version of a locket a mother would wear around her neck—and found a photo.  The photo was of a teenager named Vicki.  She had pink cheeks and red hair.  She looked vibrant and healthy, and I couldn’t imagine someone like her being dead.

In my writing class, I started to think about what it meant for me at age four or five to suddenly understand that death was not reserved for old, sick people—teenagers like Vicki could die, too.  The more I thought about my days in the cemetery with Dad, the more I realized there were many more stories like Vicki’s that influenced me and shaped my perspective on life, death, and loss.  A book was born.

Now, 13 years later, I hold the book in my hand.  I had to work on it in fits and spurts while I focused on other priorities: graduate school, work, my family, running marathons.  But the stories were always there, insistent, nagging at me.  I knew even in 2000 that the entire narrative would emerge at some point; I didn’t know when or how.  I just had to have confidence that it would happen.  Some writers know early in the process when they have a story that’s worth writing, and nothing will keep them away from it when they reach that point.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Sentence: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets by Diana Wagman

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

The same old sky was blue and cloudless, vacant as a starlet's smile.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Postcards from L.A. and Iraq

Having a great time.  Wish you were here....

"Here" being the Los Angles Times Festival of Books.  Despite the heat (it's 8 p.m. and 74 degrees right now) and the poor choice of footwear (boat shoes) while walking around the USC campus, I've enjoyed my two days here at the annual California fest.  In the space of just a few hours, I bumped into lit-friends [name-dropping alert!] Maria Semple, Jonathan Evison, Paul Tremblay, Antoine Wilson, Adam Braver, and Pauls Toutonghi; I re-bonded with Book Pregnant gal pal Lydia Netzer; and I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel called "Fiction with a Sideways Glance" with Jess Walter, Fiona Maazel and Diana Wagman.  Not to mention hearing a speech by the spry, graceful Margaret Atwood (she was on hand to receive the L.A. Times' Innovator's Award).

All in all, it's been the typical book-festival experience: an exhilarating, completely draining brain-blur of books, authors and craft talks.  As usual, I'm coming home loaded down with novels I can't wait to read.  In this case, my festival haul included two new Hollywood novels: Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed from Bloomsbury and American Dream Machine by Matthew Spektor from Tin House Books.

Soon after I arrived in the city yesterday, Diana Wagman and I met at the Sheraton and, after a gut-filling lunch at a local bar and grille, set out on a walking tour of downtown L.A.--places like the iconic City Hall (a fixture in all those film noirs I love), Grand Park with its neon-pink benches, and the Los Angeles Central Library where Diana and I craned our necks looking at the colorful murals lining the walls of the rotunda:

Diana was a lively and friendly tour guide for this rube from Montana on his first visit to the city.  And if I haven't mentioned it before, I'll say it now: if you like novels about kidnappings, temperamental seven-foot iguanas, vain game-show hosts, strained mother-daughter relationships, and rental-car-company mix-ups, then you should definitely check out Diana's latest novel The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets.  Even if you don't generally read kidnapper-iguana-dysfunctional-family novels, you'll probably find something to like in Diana's brightly-violent, darkly-funny novel.

Once Diana dropped me off at the hotel and I took a couple of short power naps, it was time for the raison d'etre for my L.A. trip: the L.A. Times Book Awards.  Last night, Lydia Netzer and I joined a few dozen other nervous nominees in the Broward Auditorium on the USC campus for the ceremony.  Here we are, pre-ceremony:

Fobbit was nominated for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and Lydia's Shine Shine Shine was up for the general Fiction prize.  Neither of us won (Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements took the Seidenbaum prize and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk earned the Fiction award) but we sure had a blast seeing our faces and our books flashed across the big screen at the front of the room:

For a brief, giddy moment, we felt like royalty, like rock stars, liked stunned Academy Awardees.  I know it's a tired cliché, but it really was an honor just to be nominated.

As I sat there in the auditorium amongst the glittery literati, I started thinking about how far I've come in the past decade, both personally and professionally.  If you'd described last night's scene to me ten years ago, I would have scoffed, punched your shoulder and said, "No way--get outta here!"  So much has happened to me in the last year alone--not just the singular joy of having my novel brought to life by my dream publisher (thank you, Grove/Atlantic!), and not just the fun of traveling around the country to book-fests like this, and not even the deeply touching personal contact I've had from readers....but all of it, the whole supercalifragilisticexpialidocious mind-crumpling heart-squeezing surreality of this debut-novel party I've been living since last September.  I never take anything for granted.  I treat every day like it's a fresh surprise.  I don't know about Lydia or Maggie or the other nominees in my category, but I still feel like I'm in a Disney movie: birds are singing, mice are sewing my clothes, and it's still all so unbelievable.  Maybe I'll feel differently by the time the next novel comes out, maybe I'll be jaded and this will all be old hat.

But I hope not.  I hope I'll still be marveling at how the mice make my clothes.

Last night, after I got back to my hotel room, I decided to look in my journal to see what I was doing in Iraq in 2005.  You know, just for shits-and-giggles and to gain a little perspective on this whole weekend in L.A.  The contrast between the two days, separated by eight years, was striking.  Here's what I wrote on that long-ago April 19 from Baghdad when I was serving with the 3rd Infantry Division as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom:

Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices are becoming as regular as breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The Significant Activity Reports pour in—“1-184 reports VBIED on Route Irish 1035hrs,” “Patrol in vicinity of grid MB45003593 struck IED 1309hrs.  No casualties.  Minor damage limited to blown tire, shattered windshield,” and so forth with nauseating frequency.  The metronome of violence is ticking faster and faster as the insurgents (aka terrorists) grow more and more desperate…or more and more organized, as the case may be.  Yesterday, the entire crew of a Bradley was engulfed in flame—they all lived, but barely; two days ago, a female MP was riding in a humvee when an IED burst on the side of the road; at first, they thought she and her driver just had minor cuts from the shrapnel, but when she passed out, they realized a small jagged piece of metal had severed her femoral artery on the back of her leg; she died before they could reach the hospital. 

For the most part, however, it’s mostly Iraqi civilians dying out there on the roads.  The good people of the country who still have purple-ink thumbs from voting on January 30—they’re the ones falling victim to the remote-control-detonator hands of the terrorists, some of whom migrate to Iraq from other countries (like Syria).  As the new Iraqi government struggles to get on its feet, there is a power vacuum in the country.  The US is reluctant to get involved, for fear of the world accusing us of interfering in another country’s politics.  So, we hang back in the shadows at the sessions of the Transitional National Assembly meetings.  While the Iraqi politicians and religious leaders bicker about how control should be divided between the Sunnis and Shiites, the terrorists take advantage of the nothing-government and regroup for more attacks.

Walk around Camp Liberty for an hour and you're guaranteed to hear muffled thuds coming from beyond the borders of the camp, followed a minute later by the rising plume of death-smoke.  Tonight, as I was walking out of the chow hall after dinner, another IED went off.  The sad thing is, very few of the people walking across the gravel path ahead of me flinched.  We all looked to the horizon for the smoke, but only one or two of us twitched our shoulders up toward our ears and said “Whoa!”  We’ve become dangerously complacent about the distant thunder of bombs, the remote death of strangers bleeding out on Baghdad streets.  Most of the time I think, “Hmm, I wonder if that’s a controlled detonation by our engineers…”  I make a mental note to check the Sig Acts when I get back to the office, but then I go back to sipping my milkshake as I walk across the safe haven of Camp Liberty.

More and more, though, I’m hearing this isn’t the secure military fortress we’ve grown to think it is.  The Commanding General has said in more than one briefing he thinks the “bad guys are among us right now on an everyday basis.”  In other words, the attack doesn’t need to come from beyond the concertina-wire borders of camp—all it takes is one determined, smart terrorist to infiltrate one of the cleaning crews or other day workers—hell, maybe one of the merchants selling those cute carved camels down at the bazaar—to plot an attack.  It could be a bomb, or it could just be a guy with an AK-47 picking off soldiers one by one as they walk around camp sipping their milkshakes.

Then there’s the sporadically-lucky terrorists outside camp who launch mortar rounds with blind aim and a prayer to Allah.  The other week, a mortar whistled through the sky and landed on Camp Taji.  When it impacted against the ground, it exploded in a shower of hot, sharp metal.  A female soldier walking in the area took a piece of shrapnel and ended up with a fatal “sucking chest wound.”

Believe me, I think about these things as I walk around drinking my milkshake, but what can I do?  If it’s gonna get me, it’s gonna get me.  Apart from staying alert and walking fast (which I do), I just have to go on living as close to a normal life as I can, hoping for the best.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday Freebie: Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey by Shannon Huffman Polson.

This week's book giveaway is a multi-book prize package.  One lucky reader will win copies of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is Soffer's debut novel which was released earlier this week.  It's a book for foodies, like Like Water for Chocolate, designed to make mouths water while readers turn the pages.  Here's the publisher's plot synopsis:
This is a story about accepting the people we love—the people we have to love and the people we choose to love, the families we’re given and the families we make. It’s the story of two women adrift in New York, a widow and an almost-orphan, each searching for someone she’s lost. It’s the story of how, even in moments of grief and darkness, there are joys waiting nearby.  Lorca spends her life poring over cookbooks, making croissants and chocolat chaud, seeking out rare ingredients, all to earn the love of her distracted chef of a mother, who is now packing her off to boarding school. In one last effort to prove herself indispensable, Lorca resolves to track down the recipe for her mother’s ideal meal, an obscure Middle Eastern dish called masgouf.  Victoria, grappling with her husband’s death, has been dreaming of the daughter they gave up forty years ago. An Iraqi Jewish immigrant who used to run a restaurant, she starts teaching cooking lessons; Lorca signs up.  Together, they make cardamom pistachio cookies, baklava, kubba with squash. They also begin to suspect they are connected by more than their love of food. Soon, though, they must reckon with the past, the future, and the truth—whatever it might be. Bukra fil mish mish, the Arabic saying goes. Tomorrow, apricots may bloom.
For more about Soffer, read her contribution to the My First Time series here at The Quivering Pen: "My First Writing Award."

Since its publication at the beginning of this year, Me Before You has been gathering mountains of praise--and most of those mountains were built on the salt from the tears of readers caught up in the emotionally-ripe love story of two memorable characters.  Here's the jacket copy:
Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life—steady boyfriend, close family—who has never been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex–Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life—big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel—and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.  Will is acerbic, moody, bossy—but Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.  A Love Story for this generation, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart?
Here's what the New York Times said in its review: “When I finished this novel, I didn’t want to review it: I wanted to reread it....Moyes’s story provokes tears that are redemptive, the opposite of gratuitous.  Some situations, she forces the reader to recognize, really are worth crying over....with Lou and Will she has created an affair to remember.”

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself is also billed as "love stories," but it's romance with a dark bite.  Petrushevskaya, who also wrote the collection of stories with a long-winded title There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, has a knack for turning our expectations on their heads.  The publisher's blurb goes likes this:
By turns sly and sweet, burlesque and heartbreaking, these realist fables of women looking for love are the stories that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya—who has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy, Beckett, Poe, Angela Carter, and even Stephen King—is best known for in Russia.  Here are attempts at human connection, both depraved and sublime, by people across the life span: one-night stands in communal apartments, poignantly awkward couplings, office trysts, schoolgirl crushes, elopements, tentative courtships, and rampant infidelity, shot through with lurid violence, romantic illusion, and surprising tenderness. With the satirical eye of Cindy Sherman, Petrushevskaya blends macabre spectacle with transformative moments of grace and shows just why she is Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer.
Here's the praise from Kirkus Reviews: "Petrushevskaya’s short stories transform the mundane into the near surreal, pausing only to wink at the absurdity of it all."

If you'd like a chance at winning copies of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, Me Before You and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband and He Hanged Himself, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to thequiveringpen@gmail.com.

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on April 25 at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on April 26.  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.