Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

Congratulations to Chris Oleson, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Three Souls by Janie Chang.

This week's book giveaway is The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah.  Here's a plot synopsis from the publisher: Louise Beeston is being haunted.  Louise has no reason left to stay in the city.  She can’t see her son, Joseph, who is away at boarding school, where he performs in a prestigious boys’ choir.  Her troublesome neighbor has begun blasting choral music at all hours of the night—and to make matters worse, she’s the only one who can hear it.  Hoping to find some peace, Louise convinces her husband, Stuart, to buy them a country house in an idyllic, sun-dappled gated community called Swallowfield.  But it seems that the haunting melodies of the choir have followed her there.  Could it be that her city neighbor has trailed her to Swallowfield, just to play an elaborate, malicious prank?  Is there really a ghostly chorus playing outside her door?  And why won’t they stop?  Growing desperate, she begins to worry about her mental health.  Against the pleas and growing disquiet of her husband, Louise starts to suspect that this sinister choir is not only real but a warning.  But of what?  And how can it be, when no one else can hear it?  In The Orphan Choir, Sophie Hannah brings us along on a darkly suspenseful investigation of obsession, loss, and the malevolent forces that threaten to break apart a loving family. The News & Observer had this to say about the novel: “You have to hand it to a writer who can make a children's choir spooky...Hannah builds uneasiness with so many odd touches: an out-of-place gesture, an exasperated husband, increasingly aberrant behavior by the main character.”

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of The Orphan Choir, simply email your name and mailing address to

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 March 6, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 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 email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Commandant of Lubizec by Patrick Hicks

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

Six months ago, I was privileged to read an early advance copy of a debut novel which is going to electrify and polarize readers.  Patrick Hicks' The Commandant of Lubizec is, on the surface, a difficult book to read--just as Schindler's List was difficult to watch in certain places and just as most literature about the Holocaust is rightfully hard to swallow.  But The Commandant of Lubizec is also an important, hard-to-put-down book which should be topping this season's reading lists.  In the book trailer, Hicks gives a small glimpse of his motivations behind writing the novel.  When some of his college students admitted they'd never heard of the Nazi "death camps," Hicks knew he had to do something about that.  Rather than writing a straight-up non-fiction history, or even a novel set in an actual death camp, Hicks took a different approach: he fabricated his own prison camp called Lubizec.  The novel is so rich in detail that you want to praise Hicks for meticulously researching a piece of forgotten history.  But it's a false history--a lie soberly grounded in truth.  Briefly, here's how the publisher describes the plot of the novel (which will be released at the end of March): "The Commandant of Lubizec is a harrowing account of a death camp that never actually existed but easily could have in the Nazi state.  It is a sensitive, accurate retelling of a place that went about the business of genocide.  Told as a historical account in a documentary style, it explores the atmosphere of a death camp.  It describes what it was like to watch the trains roll in, and it probes into the mind of its commandant, Hans-Peter Guth.  How could he murder thousands of people each day and then go home to laugh with his children?" As I mentioned, I was honored to lend a few words of praise on behalf of the book.  Here's what I said then (and what I'll go around saying now): "Out of the cooling ashes of Holocaust history, Patrick Hicks manages to break our hearts with a story we thought we already knew.  The Commandant of Lubizec is profound, provocative, and profane in all the best ways.  While reading The Commandant of Lubizec, one question kept running through my mind: 'Was it really this bad?'  Through his all-too-real fiction, Patrick Hicks convinces me that, sadly, the answer is 'Yes.'  The Commandant of Lubizec is important and unforgettable."

Monday, February 24, 2014

My First Time: Jerri Bell

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 Jerri Bell.  Jerri retired from the Navy in 2008.  She is a graduate of the M.A. In Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University.  Her fiction has won prizes in the West Virginia Writers’ annual competition, among others.  She is the managing editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project.  Her story "Memorial Day" was recently published in Volume 8 of Stone Canoe, and her nonfiction has been published in Southern Maryland ParentLine and The Charleston Gazette.

My First Cinderella Writing Moment

Long ago, in a place far away, my mother--always a reader--introduced me to the magic of literature.  In her childhood, she maxed out her allotment from the county library's mobile book truck every week.  As an adult, she always had a stack of novels from the library somewhere in the house.  There were no bookstores within sixty miles, but when I was still a baby she brought me Little Golden Books from the grocery store.  By my first birthday, I understood the letters spelling out Katie the Kitten and The Poky Little Puppy were magical cyphers that unlocked enchanted worlds for my personal pleasure.  I learned to crack the code by my second birthday to get there faster.  The fictional world was the only place I wanted to live, and deep in my heart I believed that I was Cinderella--that all my dreams would come true, and I would live happily ever after.

1965: already surrounded by books at 9 months old

Mom sometimes behaved like Cinderella's stepmother.  To her, a clean house in the real world mattered far more than skeletons in some fictional protagonist's closet.  She scolded me for reading too much, for tossing books and papers on the living room couch after school, and for leaving my room a mess.  But she also lent me her typewriter, a massive Olivetti manual that smelled deliciously of ink and machine oil, so that I could hunt-and-peck my first woeful attempts at enchanting others.  When I was nine, she gave me a stamp and an envelope to mail an anecdote I'd written to Reader's Digest "True Stories" (my first rejection; the editors didn't even bother to acknowledge my submission).

When school board-approved library books failed to satisfy my reading appetite in junior high school, I appropriated Kathleen Woodiwiss' steamy bodice-ripper Shanna from Mom's "adult" stack atop the refrigerator and read it under the covers at night with a flashlight so she wouldn't catch me and take it away before I finished all the deliciously naughty bits.  When I got to high school and took a typing class, Mom replaced the Olivetti with a portable electric typewriter, all my own, from Sears.  By my senior year I was determined to be a published author some day.  I believed that my first acceptance--the final transformation from enchanted to enchantress--would be the dream come true.  One of the most magical moments of my life.

When that moment finally arrived one afternoon last November, I was sprawled in exhaustion on the bed in a weekly-rental apartment near Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore.  Anya von Bremzen's memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cuisine, a gift from my sister Joan which I'd been dying to read, lay unopened on the bed beside me.  The magic of reading had gone: I couldn't focus long enough to read anything longer than a Facebook post with words of two or fewer syllables.  And I'd lost the writing mojo altogether.  Couldn't even make myself open my laptop.  But sleep wouldn't come.  I decided to check my email on my phone one last time.

RE: [Stone Canoe] Memorial Day, said the subject line.  My gut clenched in that nauseating way that always precedes opening a rejection.

I'd already been wrestling with bad news for three months and didn't want more.  In September 2013, routine testing had revealed that Mom, now in her mid-seventies, had colon cancer.  Because she had other serious health conditions, the surgeons told us that she had a 25 per cent chance of dying under the knife.  If she survived, she might be in rehab for three months with a tracheotomy.  Or she might die a lingering death from post-surgical infection.  I became her advocate.  I read medical literature obsessively; improved my vocabulary with words like "hemicolectomy" and "adenocarcinoma;" revised test results and doctors' comments into a narrative that made sense to her, so that she could make informed choices about her health care and whatever future she had left.  Fictional conflict had become limp and uninteresting compared to the fight for my mother's life.

Mom survived her surgery.  Johns Hopkins encourages family rooming-in, so even though my sister had rented a place for the week, she and I had been trying unsuccessfully to sleep on slippery vinyl recliners in the intensive care unit for three nights.  We'd followed Mom's vital signs, her attempts to walk, and the function of her gastrointestinal system with excruciating intensity.  We were both whipped.  I'd sent Joan to the apartment to get some real sleep first; finally it was my turn to catch an afternoon nap in a real bed while Sis sat vigil.

I sighed and opened the email.
Dear Jerri,
We are happy to inform you that "Memorial Day" has been accepted for publication in the 2014 issue of Stone Canoe.
I felt...nothing. I was numb.

I forced myself to skim the terms and conditions, felt a vague stirring of gratitude toward Stone Canoe's editors, and wondered fuzzily where I'd misplaced my sense of joy.  I rolled over, hit the link to accept the terms through Submittable, and thumb-typed a short thank-you note to the editors that may or may not have been coherent.

A few minutes later I texted Joan:
14 Nov 1400: I was just notified that a story I submitted is getting published--my first fiction acceptance!!!!
Congratulations!!!! she texted back.  Mom walked the hall once, will try to get her up again in an hour.  Gave her a sponge bath...she seems very tired.
After her first week in the hospital, Mom wanted her Nook.  When she finished the last book on it and couldn't download any more through the hospital wi-fi, I looked through my shelves for books she might enjoy.  Our tastes have diverged significantly in thirty-five years: she only reads a certain kind of "women's fiction"--fairy tales with tidy, happy endings.  No serious peril; no dangerous emotions.  Every time I try to get her to read something a little more challenging, she gives up halfway through or fires off a volley of complaints.  I brought her Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell.  It was a good story, she said, but it didn't really have an ending, did it?  She judged the first half of Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena a real page-turner, but just too violent.  And I couldn't keep those funny names straight anyway.  She gave it back to me unfinished.  I thought Lee Smith's Saving Grace might appeal, since we hail from her part of Appalachia.  I can't read any more of this, Mom said.  There are snakes in it!  I just can't read about snakes!  I gave up, went to Second Looks Books (our local used book store), and picked up half a dozen paperbacks--the kind with pastel beach scenes and empty Adirondack chairs on the covers.  And half a dozen more.

Ten weeks later, Mom went home with a vacuum-assisted closure device attached to her still-open incision.  I hadn't planned to be in town on her first weekend home.  The ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse, New York was hosting a Saturday evening reception for the contributors to Stone Canoe, and I had an invitation.  I was really Cinderella!  The Fairy GodEditor had finally accepted one of my stories, and I'd received an invitation to the ball!  Finally, I could celebrate my first acceptance.  But Mom's blood pressure was still dropping dangerously low and she was having periodic dizzy spells.  I couldn't leave her alone.

The Saturday morning of the reception, I sat at the table in Mom's apartment with a cup of coffee feeling sorry for myself.  The housework had piled up while Mom was in the hospital, and I said I wished I was getting a little more help from Prince Charming and our teenage sons.  Mom looked at me, baffled.  "But David works," she said.  "You should be doing the housework."

Writing isn't work?  I'd spent eight years revising and submitting the story Stone Canoe had accepted.  And I had to sit on the hearth cleaning up ashes in Maryland--I had to miss the enchanted ball, for heaven's sake!--to make sure that Mom would be safe.

I snapped.

"It may not seem like I work, to you."  I might have been shouting just a little.  "Writing may not seem important to you, compared to what David does for the government in an office all day.  It may not seem as important as washing the boys' dirty socks under the couch, or mopping up the sticky stuff in my kitchen floor.  But it's work, dammit.  It's hard work!"

She looked at me, baffled.  "I didn't mean it like that," she said.

I sighed, capitulated, took a slug of my coffee, and sulked in silence.  How DID you mean it, then?  How do you think those books you love to read get written?  PFM--Pure Effing MAGIC?  Even those plot-driven potboilers you read are hard work to write.  They cost some poor writer months or years of her heart's blood, of dedication, and sacrifice, and hard work.  And you think books just write themselves.

Just then, the voice of the wise old Fairy Godmother whispered in my ear: Yes.  She does think that stories are magic.  So do you.  That's why you write them.  Just let her believe in the magic.  Then you can go back to believing in it again, too.  Your keyboard is waiting at home, Princess.  Now finish that coffee and get back to work.

I stood up to leave and pointed at the two plastic grocery bags full of paperbacks in the floor by Mom's bed.  "Let me know when you're done with that last batch of books," I said.  "I'll take them over to Second Looks and trade them in for you."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Flashes of War by Katey Schultz

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

I left one elbow joint, 28 bones, twice as many muscles and tendons, one wrist, and my entire left hand in the middle of a filleted Humvee on the outskirts of Karbala, Iraq.

Flashes of War by Katey Schultz

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Front Porch Books: February 2014 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.

Between Wrecks by George Singleton (Dzanc Books):  I had a Punxsutawney Phil moment earlier this month when I poked my head out the front door and saw the envelope from Dzanc Books sitting on the doorstep.  I ripped it open and out dropped an uncorrected proof of George Singleton's new short story collection, Between Wrecks.  Yep, it's gonna be an early spring: sun shining, flowers blooming, birds singing, and all that good shit.  Singleton's book officially reaches bookstores in May, but I'm already breaking out into song and Gene Kelly-ish dances through rain puddles.  Why?  Look no further than the Opening Lines of the first story ("No Shade Ever"):
Because I'd seen part of a documentary on gurus who slept on beds of nails, and because I'd tried to quit smoking before my wife came back home after leaving for nine months in order to birth our first child--though she would come back childless and say it was all a lie she made up in order to check into some kind of speech clinic up in Minnesota to lose her bilateral lisp--I had a dream of chairs and beds adorned entirely with ancient car cigarette lighters.
Welcome to the off-kilter, hilarious world built by George Singleton.  It will tear down the walls and completely renovate the interior of your brain.  One of the things I like about Singleton's writing is how he doesn't tip-toe into his stories with a lot of wasted, rambling preamble.  He gets right to the point with his first sentences, setting the hook like an expert angler.  Here's just a small sampling of more great beginnings from Between Wrecks:
Luckily for everyone in the family on down, the mule spoke English to my grandfather.  ("Which Rocks We Choose") 
A couple of months later, with everything going right in our marriage, my wife pulled out a photo album I'd never seen.  ("Vulture") 
Rodney Sheets couldn't stop thinking about deforestation.  ("Unfortunately, the Woman Opened Her Bag and Sighed"--a title which also sports a barbed hook) 
At this, the completion of No Cover Available: The Story of Columbus Choice, African-American Sushi Chef from Tennessee, I will not thank God, like all those athletes and musicians do on TV in hopes that it'll make them appear like a neighbor one would wish to know.  I'll try to make this short.  ("I Would Be Remiss"--a story whose narrator then goes on thanking people for another 60 pages)
Need I say more?

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco):  If this is February, that must mean it's time for another brick in the JCO library.  This time around, the Prolific One takes us to upstate New York where we join the search for a missing girl.  Yes, abducted/ missing/murdered children novels seem to be in vogue these days, but I trust Ms. Oates to put her own pitch-perfect spin on the subject.  Leafing forward through the 482 pages in a quick skim, most of the narrative seems to be telegraphed to the reader through spare, choppy sentences.  These are paragraphs that pop like flashbulbs, illuminating the sadness of the search and those connected with it--the family, the accused, the law--in stark terms.  Here's the Jacket Copy for further illumination:
Zeno Mayfield's daughter has disappeared into the night, gone missing in the wilds of the Adirondacks. But when the community of Carthage joins a father's frantic search for the girl, they discover the unlikeliest of suspects--a decorated Iraq War veteran with close ties to the Mayfield family. As grisly evidence mounts against the troubled war hero, the family must wrestle with the possibility of having lost a daughter forever. Carthage plunges us deep into the psyche of a wounded young corporal haunted by unspeakable acts of wartime aggression, while unraveling the story of a disaffected young girl whose exile from her family may have come long before her disappearance. Dark and riveting, Carthage is a powerful addition to the Joyce Carol Oates canon, one that explores the human capacity for violence, love, and forgiveness, and asks if it's ever truly possible to come home again.
Blurbworthiness: “Oates shows how perilous it is to assign guilt, and how hard it is to draw the line between victim and perpetrator in a blurred moral landscape in which every crime, on the battlefield or on the home front, is a crime of conscience.” (New York Times Book Review)

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun (Penguin Books):  Exhibit B on this month's Missing Children shelf.  Here are the Opening Lines to Harun's debut novel (her first book was the short story collection The King of Limbo):
That wasn’t the first summer girls went missing off the Highway, not the first time a family lost its dearest member to untraceable evil, but it was the first time someone I loved was among that number—spirited away, it seemed, although I knew better.  If Uncle Lud were here, he'd tell this story.  He'd know right where to begin so you could see how the devil slipped into town, how visible his entry was, and yet how we bumbled right into his path.  All the pieces would make perfect sense then.  Fractures would vanish.  You'd see the whole of it.  But Uncle Lud's not here, and he left me and a few scattered notebooks to set the shards of the story side by side and conjure demons once again.  Even as I do, I want to call out to all of us.  I want to yell: Look sharp!  For as Uncle Lud might say, the devil could find a soul mate in a burnt teaspoon and he sure as hell can choose whatever forms suit his purpose.  I can almost see myself, crouching down beside Bryan and Jackie at the refuse station as that Hana Swann strolls toward us, or hollering up at Ursie on the motel's upper balcony while Keven Seven waits for her.  Look sharp!  As if that might have altered every part of the day the devil first arrived to meet us—the bunch of us—in person.
Note to self: avoid burnt teaspoons at all costs.  The Jacket Copy reveals more about this deliciously dark novel:
In this seductive and chilling debut novel from the acclaimed author of The King of Limbo, girls, mostly Native, are vanishing from the sides of a notorious highway in isolated British Columbia. Leo Kreutzer and his four friends are barely touched by these disappearances—until a series of mysterious and troublesome outsiders come to town. Then it seems as if the devil himself has appeared among them. In this intoxicatingly lush debut novel, Adrianne Harun weaves together folklore, mythology, and elements of magical realism to create a compelling and unsettling portrait of life in a dead-end town. A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is atmospheric and evocative of place and a group of people, much in the way that Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones conjures the South, or Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children provides a glimpse of the Las Vegas underworld: kids left to fend for themselves in a broken world—rendered with grit and poetry in equal measure.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld by Justin Hocking (Graywolf Press):  Captain Ahab hangs ten in Justin Hocking's memoir about surfing, Melville, romantic obsession, crime and, quite possibly, the kitchen sink.  Starting with a wonderfully evocative title, this new arrival from Graywolf instantly captured my attention.  Why?  The Jacket Copy is all the answer you'll need for that question:
Justin Hocking lands in New York hopeful but adrift—he's jobless, unexpectedly overwhelmed and disoriented by the city, struggling with anxiety and obsession, and attempting to maintain a faltering long-distance relationship. As a man whose brand of therapy has always been motion, whether in a skate park or on a snowdrift, Hocking needs an outlet for his restlessness. Then he spies his first New York surfer hauling a board to the subway, and its not long before he's a member of the vibrant and passionate surfing community at Far Rockaway. But in the wake of a traumatic robbery incident, the dark undercurrents of his ocean-obsession pull him further and further out on his own night sea journey. With Moby-Dick as a touchstone, and interspersed with interludes on everything from the history of surfing to Scientology's naval ties to the environmental impact of the Iraq War, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is a multifaceted and enduring modern odyssey from a memorable and whip-smart new literary voice.
And here's some awesome, gnarly Blurbworthiness for you: "This nightshade journey reflects on the inner Ahab inside all of us....Melvillian arcana abounds, leading to a profound journey into Moby-Dick's infinitude of meanings, mixed with inopportune break dancing, a harrowing carjacking, and a meditation on the redemptive power of skateboarding and surfing, the allure of waves and the sea, and life itself." (Jocko Weyland, author of The Answer Is Never)

The Peerless Four by Victoria Patterson (Counterpoint):  This new novel by Victoria Patterson (This Vacant Paradise) came out last October but somehow swam completely below my radar.  If it wasn't for Patterson's interview with Brad Listi on his Other People podcast, I might have missed it altogether.  God bless Brad Listi.  (And, by the way, if you're a regular reader of this blog but you're not a regular listener of Other People, you need to fix that posthaste.)  While some of us (not me) are currently obsessing about halfpipes, slaloms, and salchows at the Winter Olympics and others (still not me) are blocking off their schedules for the Summer Olympics, now would be the perfect time to read Patterson's novel about female athletes at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.  Jacket Copy:
Running so hard you think you'll choke on your next breath. Lungs burning like they're drenched in battery acid. Peripheral vision blurred by the same adrenaline that drowns out the cheers coming from the full stadium. And of course, the reporters. The men scribbling furiously on their notepads so they can publish every stumble, sprain, and sniffle. This was the world of the female athletes in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the first games in which women were allowed to compete in track and field on a trial basis. Nicknamed "The Peerless Four," the Canadian track team included some of the strongest, most diversely talented women on the scene. Narrated by the team's chaperone--a former runner herself--the women embark on their journey with the same golden goals as every other Olympian, male or female. But as the Olympic tension begins to rise with unexpected injuries and disqualifications, each woman discovers new fears and priorities, all while the weight of women's future in the Olympics rests on their performance. The Peerless Four is more than a sports novel, more than a record of women's rights. It's a meditation on sacrifice, loyalty, perseverance, and the courage to live a true underdog tale.
I'd like to tell you to run out and get a copy of the book right now, but I'm not one for cheap puns.  I'd never make you jump over those kind of hurdles.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger (William Morrow):  Let's start with the gripping Opening Lines of this historical novel by medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger:
      Under a clouded moon Agnes huddles in a sliver of utter darkness and watches him, this dark-cloaked man, as he questions the girl by the dying fire. At first he is kind seeming, almost gentle with her. They speak something like French: not the flavor of Stratford-at-Bowe nor of Paris, but a deep and throated tongue, tinged with the south. Olives and figs in his voice, the embrace of a warmer sea.
      He repeats his last question.
      The girl is silent.
       He hits her.
      She falls to the ground. He squats, fingers coiled through her lush hair.
      “Doovay leebro?” he gently chants. “Ileebro, mee ragazza. Ileebro.” It could be a love song.
      The girl shakes her head. This time he brings a fist, loosing a spray of blood and spittle from her lips. A sizzle on a smoldering log. Now he pulls her up, dangling her head before him, her body a broken doll in his hands. Another blow, and the girl’s nose cracks.
      “Ileebro!” Screaming at her, shaking her small frame.
      “Nonloso!” she cries. “Nonloso, seenoray.” She spits in his face.
      He releases her and stands. Hands on his knees, he lets fly a string of words. Agnes can make nothing of them, but the girl shakes her head violently, her hands clasped in prayer.
      “No no no, seenoray, no no no.” She screams, sobs, now whimpers as her softening cries fade into the silence of the moor.
      When she is still he speaks again. “Doovay leebro?”
      This time the girl hesitates. Moonlight catches the whites of her eyes, her gaze darting toward the dense foliage.
      In the thick brush Agnes stiffens, ready to spring. The moment lengthens. Finally, in the clearing, the girl lowers her head. “Nonloso.” Her voice rings confident this time, unafraid.
      The man raises a hand. In it he clutches a stick of some kind. No, a hammer. “This is your last chance, my dear.”
Perhaps unfairly, I'll leave the violent scene there in that spot on the moor. As you can see, A Burnable Book is also A Readable Book.  Here's the Jacket Copy to put everything in context:
In Chaucer's London, betrayal, murder, and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England's kings. London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers--including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt's artful mistress, Katherine Swynford--England's young king, Richard II, is in mortal peril. Songs are heard across London--catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the ends of England's kings--and among the book's predictions is Richard's assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a "burnable book," a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low. Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a conspiracy that reaches from the king's court to London's slums and stews--and potentially implicates Gower's own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that John Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may hold the key to saving the king, and England itself.

The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams (Bourbon Street Books):  If you're snowbound and looking to escape into a good old-fashioned Gothic thriller, might I suggest this fog-shrouded novel by Charlotte Williams?  Fans of Daphne du Maurier, Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt probably already have The House on the Cliff in their stack of bedside To-Be-Read books.  If not, here's the Jacket Copy to push them over the edge (not, hopefully, of a cliff):
Jessica Mayhew is a sharp, successful therapist with a thriving practice and loving family. But the arrival of a new client, actor Gwydion Morgan, coincides with a turbulent moment in her life: her husband has just confessed to a one-night stand with a younger woman. The son of a famous stage director, Gwydion is good-looking and talented but mentally fragile, tormented by an intriguing phobia. When Jessica receives a frantic call warning that he is suicidal, she decides to make a house call. The Morgans live in a grand clifftop mansion overlooking the rocky Welsh coast. It seems to be a remote paradise, but there's something sinister about it too: Jessica learns that the family's former au pair drowned in the bay under mysterious circumstances. In her quest to help Gwydion, to whom she's grown increasingly attached, Jessica becomes ensnared in the Morgan family mystery, which soon becomes an explosive public scandal--one that puts her directly in harm's way. Meanwhile, Jessica is doing her best to keep her marriage and family together, but her growing attraction to Gwydion is impossible to ignore.

The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford (Tin House Books):  While money and finances aren't necessarily my forte (just ask my wife), this new novel by Peter Mountford (whose debut, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, created quite a splash) comes with this convincing Blurbworthiness from The Collagist: "Mountford pulls off impressive feats of empathy: he creates compelling characters out of self-interested economists, and makes the nuances of financial policy—the 'dismal science' of the book's title—accessible to lay readers."  Layman's math--that's me!  The novel, according to the Jacket Copy, tells of a middle-aged vice president at the World Bank, Vincenzo D’Orsi, who publicly quits his job over a seemingly minor argument with a colleague.  A scandal inevitably ensues, and he systematically burns every bridge to his former life.  After abandoning his career, Vincenzo, a recent widower, is at a complete loss as to what to do with himself.  The story follows his efforts to rebuild his identity without a vocation or the company of his wife.  And then there are these great Opening Lines:
      The annual meetings had become a kind of rowdy reunion, bearing, increasingly, the muffled bonhomie of a great funeral. At the dueling bars of the Omni and the Sheraton, the dignitaries—old friends and colleagues and rivals who’d been driven apart and together by the conflicting currents of their careers—gathered over strong drink and weak gossip. Everyone was present: the longwinded bore, the hardened bureaucrat, the warmly glib, and the heaving braggart, all driving up astronomical bar tabs over well-worn war stories. For most, the old ambition that had brought them together lifetimes ago was now largely vacuumed away. Vincenzo planted himself at the Sheraton’s superior bar, occasionally reading briefs in the comfortable chairs of the adjacent lobby, but otherwise holding to a tight orbit. There were fewer bilaterals this year, or at least he wasn’t required to go to as many. When he did venture off for a session or a panel, he’d lurk at the back so that he could duck out early. The young ones still passed around their business cards, as if there was some angle to be had, as if someone would remember in a week, as if it meant anything to be remembered.
      Vincenzo and the other senior management mostly gossiped of their mutual acquaintances—the firings and divorces and promotions and cancer diagnoses—and struggled to reel in their diatribes and impolitic outbursts. They made jokes when they were able, allowed silences to overtake them often.
      This being 2005, it wasn’t lost on them that there hadn’t been a single major economic catastrophe in five years. Except for Argentina, and that didn’t count, because their central bank was just too inept for words. So maybe everyone was starting to feel like they’d gotten it right, after all. The medicine was taking. It was terrible about Iraq and Afghanistan and a lot of other things in the world were terrible, too, but really, it could’ve been so much worse. And so the proceedings seemed lifted by a calm buoyancy that had been absent before, especially during the troubled ’90s when there began to be a lot of talk about hegemony, a word that hadn’t really seemed to exist before, but suddenly became so ubiquitous as to be immediately exhausting. Everything had been fraught in the international aid community then—crises came huge and frequent, each more terrifying than the last. Executives sharing elevators would exchange wide-eyed looks, shaking their heads, quietly pining for a return to the relative sanity of the Cold War.

The Understory by Pamela Erens (Tin House Books): Also out from Tin House Books next month is the re-issue of Pamela Erens' debut novel, first published in 2007 by a tiny press which folded soon after its release.  As Tin House publicist Nanci McCloskey notes in a letter accompanying my advance copy of the book, "There was no marketing, no publicity, no distribution ....The Understory did not get the audience it deserved."  I hope this fascinating book does find a new army of readers eager to embrace it. Those of you who were blown away by Erens' most recent novel, The Virgins, will definitely be hugging this one. Here's the Jacket Copy:
(The Understory) is the haunting portrayal of Jack Gorse, an ex-lawyer, now unemployed, who walls off his inner life with elaborate rituals and routines. Every day he takes the same walk from his Upper West Side apartment to the Brooklyn Bridge. He follows the same path through Central Park; he stops to browse in the same bookstore, to eat lunch in the same diner. Threatened with eviction from his longtime apartment and caught off-guard by an attraction to a near stranger, Gorse takes steps that lead to the dramatic dissolution of the only existence he's known. As the narrative alternates between his days in New York City and his present life in a Vermont Buddhist Monastery, The Understory unfolds as both a mystery and a psychological study, revealing that repression and self-expression can be equally destructive.
And now for the Opening Lines:
      Many years ago, in a deli, I found flaky white bits floating in my self-serve coffee; the milk, sitting all day in a bucket of cold water, had turned sour. Since that day I have never drunk my coffee anything but black. Yet I look for those tainted curls every time: I pour, peer inside to reassure myself, then top it off.
      Even here I am bound to my habits. I pour, pause, bend to my mug. All at once Joku is standing next to me at the end of the buffet table. He looks down, as if he too suspects that something is wrong with my drink. I move the mug away, toward me, and by the time I have accomplished this I’ve forgotten my most recent action. Did I already look inside? I think so, but it nags at me that I don’t know for sure. The glass coffeepot, suspended above the mug, is beginning to hurt my wrist. Joku is watching me now, and I become even more flustered and uncomfortable. To look twice is not good, not the way things should be, but I decide it is better than failing to look at all. So I glance in, confirm that the surface of the coffee is black and pure, then finish filling the mug and replace the pot on the electric hot plate. Joku moves off, toward the metal trays of kidney beans and homemade bread and peanut butter.

The Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene (Thomas Dunne Books):  Note to aspiring novelists: put a naked man, disoriented by his memories, wandering through Central Park in the opening pages of your story and you're pretty much guaranteed to hook me.  All I can say is, the hook is strong in The Headmaster's Wife and I will definitely be reading it soon to find out what put our confused, nude protagonist in a wintry Central Park.  Here's the Jacket Copy for those of you who still remain unhooked (though I can't understand why--do you not have a pulse?):
Like his father before him, Arthur Winthrop is the Headmaster of Vermont’s elite Lancaster School. It is the place he feels has given him his life, but is also the site of his undoing as events spiral out of his control. Found wandering naked in Central Park, he begins to tell his story to the police, but his memories collide into one another, and the true nature of things, a narrative of love, of marriage, of family and of a tragedy Arthur does not know how to address emerges. Luminous and atmospheric, bringing to life the tight-knit enclave of a quintessential New England boarding school, the novel is part mystery, part love story and an exploration of the ties of place and family. Beautifully written and compulsively readable, The Headmaster’s Wife stands as a moving elegy to the power of love as an antidote to grief.
Blurbworthiness: "I devoured this book. It has all the hooks–a mystery, a marriage, an investigation, a loss, a close-up of a society I’m not privy to–and yet, at its heart, there are unexpected love stories embedded within. Thomas Christopher Greene is a wonderfully accomplished novelist, and The Headmaster’s Wife is both psychologically complex and wickedly fast-paced." (Julianna Baggott)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Three Souls by Janie Chang

Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner.

This week's book giveaway is a special duo of magic and fable.  One lucky reader will win a copy of both The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Three Souls by Janie Chang.  Both books are trade paperbacks.

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.  Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland.  Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.  Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.  Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection.  Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker's debut novel weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.  Booklist sez: "What happens when a golem, a Polish woman made of clay, recently marooned in late-nineteenth-century New York, joins forces with jinni, a creature made of fire, accidentally released by a Syrian tinsmith in lower Manhattan?  The premise is so fresh that it is anyone’s guess, and Wecker does not disappoint as she keeps the surprises coming in this unusual story of the intersection of two magical beings and their joint impact on their parochial immigrant communities....A mystical and highly original stroll through the sidewalks of New York."

We have three souls, or so I'd been told. But only in death could I confirm this.... So begins Janie Chang's haunting and captivating tale, set in 1935 China, of the ghost of a young woman named Leiyin, who watches her own funeral from above and wonders why she is being denied entry to the afterlife.  Beside her are three souls—stern and scholarly yang; impulsive, romantic yin; and wise, shining hun—who will guide her toward understanding.  She must, they tell her, make amends.  As Leiyin delves back in time with the three souls to review her life, she sees the spoiled and privileged teenager she once was, a girl who is concerned with her own desires while China is fractured by civil war and social upheaval.  At a party, she meets Hanchin, a captivating left-wing poet and translator, and instantly falls in love with him.  When Leiyin defies her father to pursue Hanchin, she learns the harsh truth—that she is powerless over her fate.  Her punishment for disobedience leads to exile, an unwanted marriage, a pregnancy, and, ultimately, her death.  And when she discovers what she must do to be released from limbo into the afterlife, Leiyin realizes that the time for making amends is shorter than she thought.  Suffused with history and literature, Three Souls is an epic tale of revenge and betrayal, forbidden love, and the price we are willing to pay for freedom.

If you’d like a chance at winning copies of both The Golem and the Jinni and Three Souls, simply email your name and mailing address to

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 Feb. 27, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 28.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Typhoon of Ideas: The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

The Broom of the System
by David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Derek Harmening

Zadie Smith (White Teeth, NW) said of David Foster Wallace: “He's so modern he's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us.  Goddamn him.”  And maybe it’s best to keep that in mind while trying to wrap your head around his debut novel, The Broom of the System, a typhoon of ideas about language, identity, and purpose bound to make any fiction you read thereafter take on dimensions of meaning you’d never considered.  (At least, that’s what happened to me.)

My first experience reading Wallace was an all-chips-in gamble: at the behest of my co-workers, I went straight for Infinite Jest.  Like any sane reader, I was incredibly wary about tackling a 1,000-page behemoth with hundreds of footnotes and more plot threads than Pulp Fiction and Magnolia combined.  But it didn’t take long for the book to consume me entirely; I gave myself up to it for two months and came out the other side exhausted, emotionally pummeled, but profoundly changed.

Simply put, Wallace won me over.  Since then I’ve been working steadily through his oeuvre: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; Consider the Lobster, and now The Broom of the System.  It’s largely the work of a college senior, one of two theses Wallace wrote at Amherst, and really, it’s more brilliant than any undergraduate thesis has any right to be.  Critics seem to unanimously treat it as second-tier Wallace, but they speak for themselves—it was the best book I read in 2013 and it left me floored.  (For those of you who’ve read or plan to read Infinite Jest, it’s worth mentioning that Broom is in many ways a blueprint for the concepts and themes more fully explored in Wallace’s magnum opus.  Maybe that’s why I’m so enamored by it.)

In his biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D. T. Max explains the inception of Broom: “The premise of the novel…began…with a chance comment from a girlfriend.  She told [Wallace] that she would rather be a character in a novel than a real person.  ‘I got to wondering just what the difference was,’ Wallace wrote.”

Enter Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a 24-year-old switchboard operator at Frequent & Vigorous Publishing, who feels that something about her life is not quite right.  She’s convinced it has no real meaning beyond what she says and does, and even those things seem ordained by a power outside her control.  It doesn’t help that she maintains a suffocating relationship with Rick Vigorous, an insanely jealous, self-absorbed publishing exec who learns about Lenore’s innermost feelings by extracting information from their shared therapist.

Lenore’s life is—not to put too fine a point on it—weird.  Her great-grandmother, a former student of Wittgenstein, has vanished with nary a trace from the Shaker Heights nursing home; her pet cockatiel has inexplicably begun reciting verses from Shakespeare and Auden; her landlord, Norman Bombardini, has pledged to eat himself to infinite size and wants to absorb Lenore in the process; and, to top it all off, her publishing firm’s phone lines are in complete disarray and no one can figure out why.

In true Wallace fashion, though, all of these wildly absurd tangents are very closely related, and the rest of novel gives way to Lenore’s quest to find out what it all means.  The only clue her great-grandmother in absentia has left is a baby-food label with a drawing of a figure holding a razor and can of shaving cream.  Lenore surmises this is a riddle, the one about the barber who “shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves.”  So who shaves the barber?  The paradox is this: if the barber doesn’t shave himself, then he must shave himself, because he himself belongs to the category of people he shaves.

Is your head spinning yet?  Good.  That’s exactly what Wallace wants.  The Broom of the System piles paradox upon paradox, irony upon irony, challenging readers to think complexly about language and its function—not only in fiction, but in reality.  Put another way: Lenore Beadsman is a character in a novel.  Her thoughts, her experiences, her language, all of these are controlled by the author, and it’s how those words line up next to one another on the page that give them—and hence Lenore—any meaning.  The system in which she exists is closed.

But what if, Wallace suggests, what if Lenore broke free from her prescribed reality?  What if she were to discover qualities and values in herself distinct from the words written about her?  What if every reader perceived Lenore differently, thus changing who and what she was?  What if the system were opened?  As Marshall Boswell explains it in Understanding David Foster Wallace,
A story comes alive when there is a puncture in the closed system; this puncture creates disorder, which here might be understood as conflict or drama.  The larger implication is that the story gets transmitted to the reader, who is outside the story.  Although the interaction of reader and text is a relationship fraught with ambiguity and misunderstanding, since there are so many choices for interpretation, it is nevertheless the vital energizing force that keeps the story alive.  Interpretation is open and never complete, yet that is also the very source of its vitality.
At its core, The Broom of the System is an invitation for us to challenge ourselves—as readers, as writers, as cynics and critics.  And damn, is it fun.  It’s got mystery, slapstick, autobiography, philosophy, story-within-story and some of the most acutely perceptive and laugh-out-loud dialogue I’ve ever read.  It has one of the greatest closing lines in contemporary literature.  And, like nearly everything Wallace has written, it reminds you just how miraculous language is—how limitless.

“The world is words.”

Derek Harmening graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011 with a degree in English, and then from the Denver Publishing Institute with a certificate in publishing.  He currently works at the Book Cellar in Chicago.  His work has appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s undergraduate magazine Laurus and on the Chicago Artists Resource website.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: One More Thing by B. J. Novak

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

HuffPo called it "the most hilarious book trailer ever."  I don't know if I'd go quite that far...but the faux French New Wave treatment for B. J. Novak's One More Thing is good enough to draw out a chuckle (or two or three) from moi at 5 a.m. on a Tuesday in the dark dead of winter.  Novak, aka Ryan the temp on The Office (as well as the show's occasional writer, director and producer), enlists the help of fellow Office mate Mindy Kaling in a short comedic sketch full of existentialism, ambition, romantic longing, Sartre and cigarette smoke.  You've gotta admire comedy that can drop references to Ecclesiastes and Rhianna in the space of two minutes.  Novak's collection of short stories (some of them extremely short, page-long vignettes) has been getting a big publicity push and I'm naturally wary and slightly allergic to this kind of hoopla surrounding the publication of celeb-lit like this.  However, Novak won me over with his smart wit in stories published in The New Yorker (about the man who invented the calendar) and One Story (about the man who wrote the "two trains" math problem) I'll happily read One More Thing (subtitle: "Stories and Other Stories").  Besides, we could all use a chuckle/laugh/guffaw in the bleak midwinter, don't we?

Monday, February 17, 2014

My First Time: Susan Perabo

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 Susan Perabo, author of a collection of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be, and a novel, The Broken Places (both with Simon and Schuster).  She is Writer in Residence and an Associate Professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, though she currently serves as the resident director for the Dickinson humanities study abroad program in Norwich, England.  Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun.  Her new collection of short stories is upcoming from Simon and Schuster.  Regular readers of The Quivering Pen may remember how impressed I was by a recent story of Susan's which appeared in One Story.

My First Celebration in Solitude

At 21 I left my hometown of St. Louis to attend the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.  In my entire life I had never been away from St. Louis for more than two weeks at a stretch.  My family and my friends were there.  I’d gone to college there.  Everything I cared about most--my dog, my grandmother, a budding relationship, the Cardinals--was there.  But I wanted to be a fiction writer, and I’d been offered a spot in the respected Arkansas program, as well as a teaching assistantship.  My parents helped me make the move, following me down to Fayetteville, my belongings split between the two cars.  I told them that when we got there, even if I cried and said I’d changed my mind, they should just shove my stuff out of their car and drive off.  I knew neither of these things--my crying, or them driving off while I was crying--was actually a possibility.  It was just my way of telling them I was scared.

I had taken a room in Pomfret Hall, which was the university’s dorm for studious upperclassmen and graduate students.  I wanted to live in a dorm.  I wanted a meal plan.  I wanted a small, manageable, safe space.  I assumed that others from the MFA program would live in Pomfret Hall with me.  I imagined chummy, undergraduate-like gatherings--but just for writers!--in people’s dorm rooms.  I was sorely disappointed.  It turned out that all the other MFA students were grownups.  And because they were grownups, they lived in apartments.  Some had spouses or partners.  Some even had kids.  All of them had furniture.  So I was alone in Pomfret Hall with several hundred strangers.  Only a handful looked old enough to be graduate students.  No one spoke to me, and I spoke to no one.

I liked my new classmates in the program, even if they did scare me a little.  The first couple weeks I met many of the people who, twenty years later, are my best friends.  But at the end of the day, during orientation and the first week of classes, my classmates either went home to their families or they went to bars and drank beer and listened to loud music until all hours.  At the end of the day, those first couple weeks, I’d go back to Pomfret Hall and try to figure out how to explain usage errors to my freshman composition students who were three years younger than me…I mean three years younger than I.  I’d eat in the Pomfret dining hall, which consisted of maybe thirty round tables for eight.  Since I did not know anyone I always sat at a table by myself.  I’d bring work--my grammar book, or a novel--so it wouldn’t look like I was lonely, so it would seem I was sitting alone by choice.  Tables for eight are very large, and I felt very small, very self-conscious.  I kept my eyes down and ate my meals quickly.

I volunteered to go first in the fiction workshop.  A bold move, but here I was in an MFA program, so why not come out of the gate in a hurry?  I had a story I felt pretty good about, one I’d written the previous spring and which my undergrad friends had said nice things about.  I’d even sent it out to a magazine--The Missouri Review--a few weeks before the move to Fayetteville.

The day came and I entered the workshop with high but not unrealistic hopes.  What commenced was the kind of brutal, jaw-dropping smack down that instantly becomes MFA lore.  My story was absolutely demolished by the professor, dismantled sentence by sentence until, in the end, literally only a single image remained unscathed.  After class I went back to Pomfret Hall in a daze.  I sat down on my dorm bed, still reeling from the blow, and looked around at my stuff.  It wasn’t all that much, really.  If I put my mind to it, I could probably have everything in my car in two hours, three tops.  Then it would take me six hours to drive home.  I could be at my parents’ house by 3:00 a.m.  I could wake up tomorrow morning in St. Louis, make the necessary phone calls, and be officially out of the program by noon.  I could just pack it in, and no one would particularly care.  It had only been a few weeks.  I could just do something else.  In 24 hours, this whole place, this whole experience, could be history.

Simply acknowledging the pack-it-in option was crucial.  I could do it; I could leave.  The choice was entirely mine, because I was a grownup.  I alone was responsible for this decision.  Stay or go, my reasons, my call, and my consequences.

I decided to stay.  I dug in.  I taught my classes.  I started a new story.  I went out with my friends.  Then, one evening in early October, my mother called and said I’d received a letter from The Missouri Review.  It was an acceptance letter, my first one.  She read it to me over the phone, her voice shaking.

After we hung up I went down to dinner.  I got my food and sat down alone at my table for eight.  I hadn’t thought to bring a book.  I just sat there and ate my dinner by myself, my self-consciousness gone.  Gone.  I was a different person.  My life had changed.  No one in the dining hall of chatting strangers knew it, but in the space of an hour I’d become someone else.  How often can you pinpoint the moment your new life has begun?  How fortunate I was in that moment to realize it, to feel it, to know it.  And--this is the crazy part--how fortunate I was to be alone, to have that amazing moment to myself, to not have to share it with anyone.  That moment was all mine.  No friends or family to celebrate with.  No smiles or congratulations.  It was like a secret, what I knew.  A secret so powerful that it filled all the other chairs at the table.

That was my first night as a writer.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Sentence: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

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

Well!  He had known what love was--a sharp pang, a fierce experience, in the midst of whose flames he was struggling! but, through that furnace, he would fight his way out into the serenity of middle age,--all the richer and more human for having known this great passion.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Valentine's Day Gift For You: "Carbon" by Dan Rhodes

Here's a treat for you, just in time for Valentine's Day (or, as the snickering boys in my junior high school used to call it, "VD Day"--ignoring the stuttering redundancy).  The good folks at Europa Editions have given me permission to publish a piece of flash fiction which appears in the new short story collection Marry Me by Dan Rhodes.

In Marry Me, Rhodes looks at love and marriage through 79 fictional vignettes which The Times call "strangely funny, startlingly original."  The Independent hailed the book with this line of praise: "Marry Me amounts to a bleak yet funny world view, as if PG Wodehouse and Graham Greene had got together to form a greetings card company."  And on that note, I'll go straight to the story.  Here's "Carbon," in its entirety, ripped from the pages of Dan Rhodes' Marry Me:


I asked my girlfriend to marry me, and she said yes.  I couldn’t afford a diamond, so instead I handed her a lump of charcoal.  ‘It’s pure carbon,’ I explained.  ‘Now, if we can just find a way to rearrange the atoms . . .

She stared at the black lump in her palm, and I began to worry that ours was going to be the shortest engagement in history.  She smiled.  ‘We’ll put it under the mattress,’ she said.  ‘Maybe we’ll squash it into a diamond over time.’

It’s been there ever since.  We check up on it every once and a while, and it never looks any different.  I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.

Friday Freebie: Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner

Congratulations to Carol Wong, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: the bundle of Timothy Schaffert novels The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, and The Coffins of Little Hope.

This week's book giveaway is Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner.  It's a novel which shot straight to the summit of my always-growing To-Be-Read mountain (aka Mt. NeveRest) based simply on a gangbusters plot and some adept writing (at least in the opening pages).  Here's the publisher's blurb to tell you more about what you'll find in these pages:
After twelve-year-old Thomas Walker’s father, a mild-mannered spectacles salesman hoping to raise the family’s fortunes by selling Samuel Colt’s new invention, the “Improved Revolving Gun,” is heartlessly killed and robbed on the road, Thomas escapes armed with only his own wits, courage, and determination—as well as a wooden replica of the Colt revolver. He is alone and adrift until a fortuitous encounter with Henry Stands, a formidable former Indiana ranger, leads to an improbable partnership. The two set out determined to make a moral accounting for the murder of Thomas’ father. In the spirit of The Sisters Brothers and True Grit, this spare, elegant, and emotionally resonant story conveys, through a boy's eyes, a beautiful father-son story, as well as the fascinating history of how the birth of the revolver changed the course of violence in America. Road to Reckoning offers a window into the history of the American West and the heart of a boy yearning for love.
If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of Road to Reckoning, simply email your name and mailing address to

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 Feb. 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 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 email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday Sentence: "Three Autumns" by Anna Akhmatova

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

But the wind's started to blow
Everything clean open, and straightaway
It's clear that this is the end of the play,
This is not the third autumn but death.

"Three Autumns" by Anna Akhmatova

Friday, February 7, 2014

Friday Freebie: A Timothy Schaffert Bundle

Congratulations to Stephen Lyons, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Kids These Days by Drew Perry.

This week's book giveaway is a bundle of three novels I'm especially proud and excited to offer to blog readers.  Novelist Timothy Schaffert has long been a personal favorite of mine--he reminds me of a delicious cocktail that tastes like John Irving, Lewis Nordan and T. R. Pearson--and now he has a new novel hitting bookstores this week: The Swan Gondola, a romance set against the 1898 World's Fair in Omaha.  In honor of that book's publication, Unbridled Books publisher Greg Michalson has generously donated three of Schaffert's earlier novels, all set in Nebraska: The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, and The Coffins of Little Hope.  One lucky reader will win a copy of all three novels (in trade paperback format) and after reading them, I'm confident that same reader will rush out to buy The Swan Gondola (squeal of tires, bang of bookstore door bursting open, ka-ching! of cash register). To illustrate Schaffert's graceful way with a pen, I'm including the opening paragraph of each of the novels.

In Schaffert's 2005 novel, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, newly-divorced Hud Smith channels his regret into writing country-western songs, contemplating life on the lam with his 8-year-old daughter, and searching cryptic postcards for news of his teenage son who has run off with The Daughters of God, an alternative Gospel-punk band of growing fame. Then he finds himself inching toward reconciliation with his ex, tossing his whole talent for misery into question as they head off in a borrowed school bus, hoping so very tentatively to bring the entire family together again. Opening paragraph:
To get through the afternoons that wound into early evenings, driving a school bus along long country roads and driveways, Hud kept slightly drunk. He sipped from an old brown root-beer bottle he'd filled with vodka. There'd been a few times in the past when he'd gotten too drunk, when he'd swerved too much to avoid a raccoon, and even once a sudden hawk swooping too low. He made himself sick to think how he'd once nearly driven the rickety bus in all its inflammability into an electrical pole. He knew what an ugly notoriety such an accident would bring him. The whole world, Hud thought, likes to mourn together and hate together when it can.

The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, Schaffert's debut from 2002, chronicles two sisters on the cusp of womanhood as they struggle to understand their father’s suicide as well their mother’s abandonment of them many years earlier. On graduating from high school, the sisters are once again set adrift, this time by their grandmother who leaves them for Florida. In order to survive, and perhaps even thrive, on their path to adulthood, they must learn to reconcile their pasts and discover how to depend upon themselves as well as on each other.  Opening paragraph:
In her secondhand shop, Mabel stretched out on the fainting sofa, feeling tipsy from the summer’s heat, not knowing, for a moment, if it was June, July, or August. She shook up a leaking snow globe, the white flakes settling in the laps of lovers on a gondola. Mabel had read in a book of antiques that the snow in snow globes was once made of sawed-up bone. Though Mabel was very young, she often pictured her demise, often hovered above her own Valentino-like funeral with women collapsing and broad-chested men singing impromptu bass tremolo. She’d like to donate her skeleton to a snow globe maker, liked thinking of her remains forever drifting among the plastic landscapes of a souvenir.

The Coffins of Little Hope (2011) is all about death...and I guaran-damn-tee you'll have a rollicking good time reading about it.  Essie Myles, an 83-year-old obituary writer for a struggling, small-town newspaper finds herself embroiled in intrigue, stumbling onto the story of her career: a country girl has gone missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer. Or so it seems. It all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate imagination of a lonely, lovelorn farm woman. The fragility of childhood, the strength of family, and the powerful rumor mills of small, rural towns—The Coffins of Little Hope tells the story of characters caught in the intricately woven webs of myth, legend and deception. Opening paragraph:
I still use a manual typewriter (a 1953 Underwood portable, in a robin’s egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn’t quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and I need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky. Without slapping the return or turning the cylinder to release the paper with a sharp whip, without all that minor havoc, I feel I’ve paid no respect to the dead. What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?

If you’d like a chance at winning The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, and The Coffins of Little Hope, simply email your name and mailing address to

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 Feb. 13, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 14 (what a sweetheart of a deal!).  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.