Thursday, July 31, 2014

Best Books of 2014 (so far)

Here's a depressing thought: it's nearly the end of summer.  What a bummer.  I don't know about you, but I haven't soaked up as much Vitamin D from sun rays as I'd hoped by this point.  There's a good reason for that: I've spent a lot of time indoors reading.  Also, it rained at near Noah levels for a couple of weeks here in Butte, Montana.  And then there was the WTF?! day it snowed.  In June.

It's a good thing I had some first-rate books to calm my seasonal nerves.

Mid-summer gives me the opportunity to take a brief pause and look over my shoulder at some of the very best, the creme de la creme, of my reading stacks these past seven months.  I don't know which 2014 books will eventually end up on my year-end "best of" list, but these are some strong contenders.

(I should mention this list is shorter than I'd expected it to be; my impression is that I read a lot of books between January and July.  That's true....but when I looked at the list, I realized the majority of the books I read were published in 2013 or earlier.  That's how it seems to go with me: I'm always lagging slightly behind the crest of the wave....)

Demon Camp
by Jen Percy
Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Demon Camp tells the troubling story of a soldier named Caleb Daniels who turns to a "Christian exorcism camp" in Georgia as a way of getting rid of "the Black Thing" which has plagued him since his return from Afghanistan.  In her debut, Jennifer Percy has delivered a book that's haunting, empathetic, and crackling with beautiful sentences.

Be Safe I Love You
by Cara Hoffman
Lauren Clay has returned from a tour of duty in Iraq in time to spend Christmas holiday with her father and younger brother Danny.  All seems fine on the surface, but—as with Caleb Daniels in Demon Camp—there are some rough seas building inside Lauren.  Be Safe I Love You is populated with engaging characters and carries an urgent message about how we treat our veterans returning from war.

by Phil Klay
This is the third of the trio of books about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I read this year (I'm currently enjoying a fourth: Brian Turner's exquisite memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country).  Phil Klay's short stories put the Iraq War and its lingering after-taste right in our laps—which is exactly where the war needs to be.  Want to know what it was really like to fight a troubling, complicated war?  Read these stories and you'll be there in the sand with Klay's characters.

Thunderstruck and Other Stories
by Elizabeth McCracken
Sentence-for-sentence, Elizabeth McCracken’s new collection of short stories (her first since 1993’s Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry) is the best value for lovers of fine, funny writing.  The stories can also break your heart with sadness (see, for example, the title story in which a family's trip to Paris is interrupted by their rebellious daughter's risky behavior; or “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey” where the now-dying subject of the documentary tries to turn the tables on the filmmaker years after their relationship was ruptured by betrayal).

All the Light We Cannot See*
by Anthony Doerr
A simple plot synopsis—blind French girl and Hitler Youth boy communicate via radio during World War Two—doesn't do Doerr's new novel justice.  This is a 500-page page-turner whose story lives and breathes at the sentence level.  Every word is a gem, placed with a pair of jeweler's tweezers into its place on the page.  Anthony Doerr is a master craftsman and, as both a writer and a reader, I am in awe.

As a bonus, I'll add two other novels which haven't yet been released (but you would be a Smart Reader if you pre-ordered them now for your collection):

Painted Horses
by Malcolm Brooks
Set in Montana in the mid-1950s, Painted Horses gives us an American West on the cusp of change.  Catherine Lemay is a young archeologist hired to survey a canyon in advance of a major dam project; her job is to make sure nothing of historic value will be lost in the coming flood—a task that proves to be more complicated than she thought after she meets John H, a mustanger and a veteran of the U.S. Army’s last mounted cavalry campaign, who’s been living a fugitive life in the canyon.  Together, the two race against time to save the past before it is destroyed by an industry with an eye on the future.  Painted Horses is unlike any “western” I’ve read; it refreshes the genre while nodding back at its roots.

The Remedy for Love
by Bill Roorbach
Take two strangers—Eric, a small-town lawyer, and Danielle, a former schoolteacher turned homeless squatter—put them in a cabin in the Maine woods, spice it up with a little romantic tension, stir in the wreckage of past love affairs, sprinkle liberally with sharp, funny dialogue, then add the Storm of the Century which buries the cabin in huge drifts of snow, and—voila!—you've got The Remedy for Love, one of the best novels of this or any year.  I'm not a doctor, but I'll be prescribing Bill Roorbach's novel to readers sick of blase, cliched love stories that follow worn-out formulas.  What we have here is a flat-out funny, sexy, and poignant romantic thriller.  The Remedy for Love is good medicine which most readers will want to swallow in one dose.

Other promising 2014 books clustered near the top of my To-Be-Read list include An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Wynne's War by Aaron Gwyn, and Stars Go Blue by Laura Pritchett.

And what about you?  What are the best 2014 books you've read so far this year?  Share your joy in the comments section below.

*I'm cheating a little bit here since I'm only halfway through the novel, but I'm confident it will end up on my "Best of 2014" list.  The writing is simply sublime.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Defiant and Beautiful Work of Art: Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Painted Horses
by Malcolm Brooks
Review by Natalie Storey

Stories that romanticize the harshness of living in the West have always sold well among people who don’t live here.  In his debut novel, Painted Horses, Malcolm Brooks borrows the rutted stereotypes of the West and then refashions them into a defiant and beautiful work of art.

Brooks, a carpenter who lives in Missoula, Montana, has a gift for writing stirring passages about horses.  Instead of rendering them as mere vehicles for cowboys, Brooks describes horses as self-willed, untamable and nearly sentient creatures:
Sometimes he sees horses in the distance, running on the plains before drovers on their own soaring mounts, manes and tails flowing like fire. Sometimes he rides over a lip in the land and startles a wild herd into flight, the horses spooky and skittish as birds. And sometimes, with the wind right and his wits in order, he catches them undetected while they graze. He bellies as close as he can and simply watches.
Painted Horses brims with the spirit of horses and other wild things as the novel tells the story of a canyon in Montana destined to be flooded by a dam just after World War II.  The dam engineers, champions of “progress” and “civilizing the west,” agree to go along with the Smithsonian, which must conduct a river basin survey in the canyon of archaeological sites before they can proceed.  The book follows a young archaeologist named Catherine Lemay as she struggles to conduct a survey of the canyon, even though the company men continually try to foil her efforts.  As she begins her work, Catherine enlists a young Crow woman named Miriam to act as one of her guides.  Along the way, she meets--and eventually falls in love with--a horse trainer named John H, a veteran who lives in seclusion in the canyon.

Although Catherine arrives by train from the east with typical assumptions about the emptiness of Montana, gradually she changes her opinion and develops a deeper connection to the land.
In the spring when she arrived she couldn’t understand this country, couldn’t will herself even to see it…Now she is a hunter in a bygone age. She follows other hide-clad hunters across a land alive with lumbering beasts, cold fires strewn behind, magic in the sky above. She looked out from behind the wheel and she thought, Take away the road, that barbed wire, that railroad track. A mammoth might rise.
By the end of the novel, Catherine disposes of her obsessions with ancient Rome and Egypt and begins to formulate a new definition of civilization.  As she does this, the developer who wants to flood the canyon for his dam tries to coerce her into writing a report that leaves out her findings.  What she’s found is evidence of a thriving civilization in the canyon.  The company man, Mr. Harris, embodies sexism and heedless economic opportunism, spurious ways of thinking that have long victimized people, animals and land in Montana.  “Your moment is again a luxury,” he reminds Catherine, claiming that economic progress liberated women like her from housework.  He also claims Native Americans haven’t reached modernity, making himself a mouthpiece for all the exploitative stereotypes people have used to talk about the people and the landscape in the West.  Catherine responds: “You talked a bit ago about brutes coming out of their caves, about mastering some metaphoric dark.  Achieving enlightenment.  From where I sit I have to wonder if what we think of as civilization isn’t considerably more barbaric.”

Catherine transforms but doesn’t win.  You can’t leave the novel without thinking about all that we’ve lost and continue to lose in the name of development.

Brooks’ novel also engages in conversation with Hollywood westerns.  In the beginning, Catherine owes some of her misconceptions to the movies.  “She had in fact anticipated the general vista of a cowboy movie,” Brooks writes.  “Red mesas and towering sandstone spires.  Minuscule horsemen galloping.”  The landscape disabuses Catherine of some of her assumptions, while her Crow guide Miriam makes it clear she’s not a Hollywood Indian.  “Catherine, you’re going to have to get something straight,” Miriam says.  “I never lived in a tepee.  I can barely stand to eat venison.  I like Peggy Lee.  I like Perry Como.  I worry that boys won’t like me because of my glasses.  I don’t know what Wedgewood pottery is, but I’m sure I’d love to own some.  I’m, you know, Modern.”

What I like most about Brooks’ novel is the fact that his protagonist is a woman.  The well-known male authors who write about Montana tend to favor male protagonists with female characters often reduced to adornment.  In Painted Horses, it’s Catherine’s drive to document and discover the significance of the canyon that pushes the plot along.  Catherine looks disheveled throughout most of the novel and she’s almost totally unconcerned with finding love.  She does find love with John H but she eschews this for her larger project of documenting what she’s found in the canyon.  I have a weakness for writing by men that accurately captures a woman’s perspective.  It’s a risk that’s hard to pull off and perhaps at times a little too proscriptive in Painted Horses, but in the end I found Catherine’s perspective believable.

The book perhaps unwittingly steps in an archaeological minefield when it suggests that cave paintings of horses John H sees while he’s a soldier in Europe look similar to those found in a cave in the canyon in Montana.  The idea that the first Americans might be related to Paleolithic Europeans has little evidence to back it up and has been called racist by some Native American groups.  Brooks has said that it wasn’t his intention to lend credence to one archaeological theory or another.  Instead, he was trying to trace the significance of horses and travel westward as stories and figures in the human psyche.  Indeed, I kept returning to marvelous passages like this one describing the landscape and the horses: “(T)hey could look out and see the canyon both rising and plunging all around them, see the river like a strand of mercury far below.”

Natalie Storey's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica Daily, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Common, Montana Quarterly and others.  She's a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright scholar.  She lives in Livingston, Montana.  Follow her on twitter @NatalieJoStorey

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

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

I am an unabashed fan of Josh Weil's first book, The New Valley, a collection of three novellas.  As I said in this review, “the writing is tight, complex and wholly original.  Symbolism marries Syntax and they have beautiful children.”  The New Valley came out from Grove (my publisher) in 2009 and I waited impatiently, through the radio silence and the cricket chirps, for Josh to bring out another book.  Through the Weil-less years, I would return every so often to The New Valley, open it at random and read a few paragraphs to console myself that when the time finally came for his next book, I would not be disappointed.  Ladies and gentlemen, that day is now upon us and, after reading the first few pages of his debut novel, The Great Glass Sea, I can tell you that Josh Weil does not disappoint.  One sip from its opening paragraphs will tell you that we're in for a real treat in this “epic tragedy of brotherly love...swathed in all the magic of Russian folklore and set against the dystopian backdrop of an all-too-real alternate present.”
      Always the island had been out there, so far out over so much choppy water, far beyond the last gray wave, the groaning ice when there was ice, the fog when there was fog, so distant in the middle of such a huge lake that, for their first nine years, Nizhi—that church made of its tens of thousands of wooden pegs, each one as small as a little boy’s finger bones; those woodshingled domes like tops upended to spin their points on the floor of the sky; the priests’ black robes snapping in the wind, their beards blowing with the clouds, their droning ceaseless as the shore-slap waves—all might have been just another fairy tale that Dyadya Avya told.
      And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi...
      “Into the lake,” Dima said.
      “To hunt the Chudo-Yudo,” Yarik said.
      “Until they found it.”
      “And killed it.”
      They were ten years old—Dimitryi Levovich Zhuvov and Yaroslav Levovich Zhuvov—and they had never been this far out in the lake, this lost, this on their own. Around them the water was wide as a second sky, darkening beneath the one above, the rowboat a moonsliver winking on the waves. In it, they sat side by side, hands buried in the pockets of their coats, leaning slightly into each other with each sway of the skiff.

      “Or maybe it came up,” Dima said, “and crushed the boat.”
      “And they drowned,” Yarik said.
      “Or,” Dima said, “it ate them.”
      They grinned, the same grin at the same time, as if one’s cheeks tugged the other’s lips.
      “Or,” Yarik started.
      And Dima finished, “They died.”
      They went quiet.
      The low slap of lakewater knocking the metal hull. The small sharp calls of jaegers: black specs swirling against a frostbitten sky. But no wood blades clacking at the rowboat’s side. No worn handles creaking in the locks. Hours ago, they had lost the oars.
      They were losing last light now. Their boat had drifted so far into Lake Otseva’s center that they could no longer make out the shore. But there was the island. All their lives it had been somewhere beyond the edge of sight, and now they watched it: far gray glimpse growing darker, as if the roots of its unknown woods were drawing night up from the earth.
In the trailer for the book, Weil explains the genesis for the novel, which began with his upbringing (his mother's family is from Russia) when he grew up dancing folk dances and studying the Russian language (starting in seventh grade!).  He says he's always been interested in fables, folk tales and magic realism and the way that those elements can “open up a story and add different layers.”  Driving the novel forward is a “deeply felt” love story between two brothers--a reflection of Weil's relationship with his own brother.  I hope you'll join me in making The Great Glass Sea one of the must-reads of this year.  And if you're lucky enough to live near one of the cities Josh will be visiting on his book tour, please be sure to stop in and give a listen to what he has to say.

Monday, July 28, 2014

My First Time: Kristen Harnisch

Alix Martinez Photography
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 Kristen Harnisch, author of The Vintner's Daughter, a novel set in two valleys--Napa and Loire--in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Roberta Rich, author of The Harem Midwife, had this to say about the book: “A lovely novel with sparkling dialogue, intricate plot and great characters.  This tale of a young girl determined to hold onto to her beloved father’s vineyard in the Loire Valley will invoke inevitable comparisons to Gone with the Wind.  Sara is a girl with grit and determination, and seizes what she wants from life with both hands, evolving over the course of the novel from an impetuous, headstrong girl to a mature woman.”  Kristen drew upon her extensive research and experiences living in San Francisco and visiting the Loire Valley to create the story for The Vintner's Daughter.  She has a degree in economics from Villanova University; she has also worked as a Relationship Manager at JPMorgan Chase in New York and San Francisco and as the Director of Retail Sales for RBS Citizens in Boston.  She and her family and currently reside in Connecticut.  Visit Kristen online at or follow her on Twitter @KristenHarnisch.

My First Time as a Hybrid Author

In 2000, I traded a nine-year banking career for car seats, leaky diapers, and perpetual sleep deprivation.  Over the past fourteen years, I have carved out time between carpooling, laundry and life to chase my secret dream of authoring a historical novel.  Researching vineyard life in nineteenth-century France and America challenged me.  Learning to write energized me, and empowered me to create an imaginary world—my respite from the joyful, but selfless job of raising three kids.

After seven revisions, I was finally ready to pitch The Vintner’s Daughter.  Twenty-three agents considered it—all rejected it.  The novel was “too literary,” or “too commercial.”  There was “too much winemaking,” or “not enough corset-wearing.”  Hmmm.  Really?

Plucking every doubt from my mind, and replacing it with the image of my finished novel, became a daily ritual.  I would publish this book, even if I had to completely overhaul the manuscript.  I just didn’t know how I would publish it.

Then, in January 2013, author Holly Payne (whom I’d just met at the Writer’s Digest Conference the prior year) introduced me to an agent friend who was searching for women’s book club fiction.  Within a day of reading my manuscript, April Eberhardt offered me representation.  I laughed, I cried, but above all, I felt validated.  Three months later, when HarperCollins Canada offered me a two-book deal, I experienced my Tom-Cruise-jumping-on-Oprah’s-couch moment (only I was bouncing on the lumpy leather club chair in my office).

We were off to the races!  My agent continued to query U.S. publishers with gusto, and although many enjoyed the story, no one snapped it up.  By December 2013, when HarperCollins Canada announced they were going to publish The Vintner’s Daughter in June 2014—ahead of schedule—I was elated.  Then reality hit: we had no U.S. publisher, and we were running out of time.

My impatience kicked into high gear.  I’d spent the last six months of my life painstakingly editing my manuscript under the guidance of HarperCollins Canada’s crackerjack editorial team, they’d already designed a gorgeous cover, and there was no way on God’s green earth that I was NOT going to publish in the U.S. this summer.

I asked my agent about She Writes Press, a partnership press in Berkeley.  I belonged to their 23,000-member online writing community, and had heard about their recent successes.  Luckily, April knew the publisher well.  She pitched my book to Brooke Warner, requested a summer publication date, and we signed.

Signed on for what, you ask?  Excellent question.  I drive a hybrid—I didn’t necessarily want to be one.  Yet, this new publishing model appealed to me.  She Writes is a curated press: they only publish projects of high literary quality.  I would still publish independently, but alongside an industry-savvy partner.

So how does the partner-publishing model work?  In my case, I paid an upfront fee (hear me out, I’m an ex-banker, so I did the math) in return for more control over my project, a greater percentage of the profits, and the marketing and distribution of my book by Ingram Publisher Services to libraries, indie booksellers, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.  In addition, half of the fee was used to purchase licensing rights for the Canadian cover and text design, which my U.S. publisher negotiated on my behalf.

What will the long-term benefits of this partnership be?  Time will tell, but there have been many short-term gains.  My involvement in every aspect of proofing, printing and promoting my book has made me bolder.  In recent months, I’ve secured Dutch and Hungarian deals with the help of my foreign rights agent.  I’ve even struck up a conversation with a voice actor, which led to a U.S. deal with Blackstone Audio to produce the audio book version of The Vintner’s Daughter this November.

I’ve concluded there’s no right or wrong way to publish—only the way that pleases you and offers the highest quality book to your readership.  But for now, I remain, happily, a hybrid.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Crowd-Sourced Parenting: Everybody's Baby by Lydia Netzer

Since starting this review, I have been distracted by the siren song of the Internet.  By that, I mean in the time it took me to type "S-i-n-c-e" and so on, I've:
  • checked my Twitter feed
  • looked at my Blogger stats for visitor traffic to The Quivering Pen
  • answered two emails
  • "Liked" a couple of my friends' Facebook posts (and added "Awww, sweet!" to the one with the video of the kitten riding atop a bottle-nosed dolphin at some Florida park)
I think I resemble Billy Bream too much.  A tall, curly-haired Scot, Billy is the expectant father in Everybody's Baby who just can't stay off his laptop and tablet--even as his wife, Jenna, is screaming through her labor pains in the delivery room.  That's one of the uncomfortably-familiar aspects of this smart, funny, moving novella by Lydia Netzer: we all have a touch of the Billy in us.  However, obsessively checking our social media feeds is where most of us stop.  Billy and Jenna take it two or three steps further by engaging a little too much with the online community.

Before I get into that, let me pause and give a little background to the story.  Jenna, the book's narrator, is pretty screwed-up in the Department of Parental Nurture.  She was abandoned by her mother at an early age and then raised by her grandmother after her father "fell into whiskey like it was his religion."  Whether she'll admit it or not, she's spent most of her life looking for stability and love.  Ultimately, she finds that within herself and the zen quiet of her yoga.  Billy, on the other hand, comes from a loud, boisterous Scottish family, heavy on the clannish aspect.  How loud and how boisterous?  Billy's father, nicknamed The Major, likes to TALK IN ALL CAPS, that's how loud.  The couple have a "meet cute" moment when Billy, an app developer, shows up at a yoga class taught by Jenna.  Billy is "stuffed into a leotard and yoga pants that are entirely too small and striped in pink."  Women's yoga pants, in other words.
      "No, no, these are unigendered yoga clothes. Okay for both genders."
      "Nope," I tell him. "Those are definitely women's."
      "WHAT?" he says.  "Oh, for fuck's sake."
      "You didn't know?"
      Billy looks down at himself in horror like he still can't quite believe it. "It's my sister, Gretchen. She's quite the prankster. Sent me to check out the hot yoga teacher and then dressed me up like a poof."
Readers of Netzer's full-length novels, Shine Shine Shine and How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, will smile in recognition of this typical painful-sweet romantic moment which characterizes her work.  Men and women fumble toward each other, nerves a-jangle and insecurities flapping naked in the breeze, but somehow it all falls together with a sweet sigh.

Which is not to say Netzer's fiction is all sugar-sprinkled cupcakes.  Death, despair and depression are all bit players hanging out in the wings waiting for their cue to take the stage.  In the case of Everybody's Baby, you just know things are going to fall apart after Billy conceives of his Big Brilliant Idea.

You see, after a couple years of marriage, the couple comes to the shattering realization that Jenna has "malformed fallopian tubes," making it impossible for them to conceive their own child.  In vitro fertilization costs $40,000--money they just don't have.  Billy may be a brilliant software designer, but he gives away most of his apps for free.  They seem to be facing a childless future...but then they have this discussion:
      “There has to be another way to raise funds.”
      “Well, no one we know has forty thousand dollars to give us. Should we borrow it?”
      “With what for collateral? The baby?”
      “Yes, we’re going to borrow on the baby for the baby, by the baby, with the baby. And the winner gets: a baby!”
      Silence. The fan on Billy’s computer whirrs, the clock ticks, my heart beats. Billy takes a long breath in. I can hear it rasping in his throat.
      “Oh, holy shut the fuck up.” He breathes out.
      “Oh no. What?” I curl over to stand up and go across to look over his shoulder.
      “Shhhhhh,” he says, waving his hand around like he’s fighting off bees.
      “What? Tell me!”
      Sometimes the Major comes through in Billy. I like it when that happens. He’s searching something. He’s clicking through … Kickstarter?
      “Billy, you’re not—”
      “Oh, I am,” he says. “I bloody am. It’s so great, I can’t believe no one’s done it already.”
      “You’re not going to fund our IVF with Kickstarter?”
Indeed, that's exactly what happens.  Jenna and Billy decide to raise the in vitro funds by crowd-sourcing bits of their baby to strangers on the internet.  Every Kickstarters comes with perks, but in the case of "everybody's baby," those benefits turn into something that is, at heart, rather terrifying--especially if you're one of those remaining few people on Planet Earth who believe we're all going to Hell with every Tweet and Tumbl.
      $10: You receive an invitation to appear waving in a crowd, captured on film for a segment in the baby’s first birthday video.
      $20: Your face or logo appears for 1 second during the baby’s first birthday video.
      $30: You can rub the pregnant belly, at a designated belly-rubbing station, on a designated rubbing day, to be determined.
      $200: 200 ounces of breast milk harvested from the mother after delivery (if there is any).
      $300: Take home the placenta to do with as you will.
      $500: The only copy of the ultrasound photo goes to you. What you do with it is your business.
And it goes on from there.  Outlandish as the setup may sound, I think Lydia Netzer has written a book that is not science-fiction, and not even really fiction.  This is a novel of Today and Right Now.  Somewhere out there, someone is probably already figuring out a way to Kickstart their way through the rest of their life by crowd-funding a job-free, pain-free, obligation-free life.

But oversharing their lives rather quickly leads to problems in the marriage.  Jenna's not so keen on divvying up her baby as if it was on a poster at a butcher's shop "that shows a cow or pig divided like a map into neighborhoods of meat.  Here's the flank, the tenderloin, the chop.  Here's the baby, divided up for auction."  Billy, on the other hand, dismisses Jenna's fear by saying it will eventually be no big deal and that people probably won't be so foolish as to pay $20,000 to cut the umbilical cord.

Uh, Billy, have you been paying any attention to the 21st century?

Everybody's Baby turns into a cautionary tale for our times--a clever morality play where God is not just some deus ex machina flying in on pulleys and wires in the Third Act, but is really in the machine.  With every click of the mouse, Netzer is saying, we lose a little crumb of our soul.

The problems Billy and Jenna face aren't the typical challenges of first-time parents, but they are fears which most of us have faced at one point or another: How much is too much?  How do we retain our identity in an increasingly-homogenized, flat-lined electronic world?  Where do we draw the boundaries of privacy?  This extends far beyond the screens on our electronic devices.  Even if you're not sharing kitten-and-dolphin videos on Facebook, chances are that someone in the grocery line has stood too close to you, poked you with a personal question, asked to rub your pregnant belly.

At one point, Jenna wonders if she should ask to see the ultrasound photo which Billy has sold to a stranger for $500.  Netzer nicely wraps the book's theme into this metaphor:
Pregnancy is the ultimate privacy. A baby inside its mother’s womb should be the ultimate secret. Good news, bad news—it’s all hidden. Certainly a hundred years ago it was. But the goal of technology seems to be to shatter this barrier, to peel back the secrets of the uterus one by one.
Everybody's Baby raises some troubling questions about the octopus tentacles of a wired-in society.  Where do we stop, where does the internet begin, and can we live straddled between "real" and electronic worlds?

Hey, I like that.  "Octopus tentacles of a wired-in society."  I think I'll go share it on Twitter....

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Freebie: Fallout by Sadie Jones, Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson, Secrecy by Rupert Thomson, The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton

Congratulations to Sheila Korman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie contest: The Home Place by Carrie La Seur.

This week's book giveaway is a terrific quartet of fiction which would make for some great beach reading (or lakeside reading, or sitting-in-my-sweltering-apartment-in-front-of-the-air-conditioner reading).  One lucky reader will win a copy of each of these titles: Fallout by Sadie Jones, Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson, Secrecy by Rupert Thomson, and The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton.  Fallout and The Wind Is Not a River are hardcovers; Someone Else's Love Story and Secrecy are trade paperbacks.  Here are more details on each of the books....

In Fallout, four young people in 1970s London race toward the future, fueled by love, betrayal, and creative ambition.  Luke Kanowski is a young playwright--intense, magnetic, and eager for life.  He escapes a disastrous upbringing in the northeast and, arriving in London, meets Paul Driscoll, an aspiring producer, and the beautiful, fiery Leigh Radley, the woman Paul loves.  The three set up a radical theater company, living and working together; a romantic connection forged in candlelit rehearsal rooms during power cuts and smoky late-night parties in Chelsea's run-down flats.  The gritty rebellion of pub theater is fighting for its place against a West End dominated by racy revue shows and the giants of twentieth-century drama.  Nina Jacobs is a fragile actress, bullied by her mother and in thrall to a controlling producer.  When Luke meets Nina, he recognizes a soul in danger--but how much must he risk to save her?  Everything he has fought for--loyalty, friendship, art--is drawn into the heat of their collision.  As Luke ricochets between honesty and deceit, the promise of the future and his own painful past, the fallout threatens to be immense.

Someone Else's Love Story begins with this unforgettable line: "I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K."  For single mom Shandi Pierce, life is a juggling act.  She's finishing college; raising her delightful three-year-old genius son, Nathan, aka Natty Bumppo; and keeping the peace between her eternally warring, long-divorced Christian mother and Jewish father.  She's got enough to deal with before she gets caught in the middle of a stickup in a gas station mini-mart and falls in love with a great wall of a man named William Ashe, who steps between the armed robber and her son to shield the child from danger.  Shandi doesn't know that her blond god has his own baggage.  When he looked down the barrel of the gun in the gas station he believed it was destiny: it's been exactly one year since a tragic act of physics shattered his universe.  But William doesn't define destiny the way other people do.  A brilliant geneticist who believes in science and numbers, destiny to him is about choice.  Now, William and Shandi are about to meet their so-called destinies head-on, making choices that will reveal unexpected truths about love, life, and the world they think they know.  Someone Else's Love Story is Joshilyn Jackson's funny, charming, and poignant novel about science and miracles, secrets and truths, faith and forgiveness; about falling in love and learning that things aren't always what they seem--or what we hope they will be.  It's a story about discovering what we want and ultimately finding what we need.

In Secrecy, Zummo, a Sicilian sculptor, is summoned by Cosimo III to join the Medici court.  Late seventeenth-century Florence is a hotbed of repression and hypocrisy.  All forms of pleasure are brutally punished, and the Grand Duke himself, a man for whom marriage has been an exquisite torture, hides his pain beneath a show of excessive piety.  The Grand Duke asks Zummo to produce a life-size woman out of wax, an antidote to the French wife who made him suffer so.  As Zummo wrestles with this unique commission, he falls under the spell of a woman whose elusiveness mirrors his own, but whose secrets are far more explosive.  Lurking in the wings is the poisonous Dominican priest, Stufa, who has it within his power to destroy Zummo’s livelihood, if not his life.  In this highly charged novel, Thomson brings Florence to life in all its vibrant sensuality, while remaining entirely contemporary in his exploration of the tensions between love and solitude, beauty and decay.  When reality becomes threatening, not to say unfathomable, survival strategies are tested to the limit.  Redemption is a possibility, but only if the agonies of death and separation can be transcended.

The Wind Is Not a River is a gripping tale of survival and an epic love story in which a husband and wife--separated by the only battle of World War II to take place on American soil--fight to reunite in Alaska's starkly beautiful Aleutian Islands.  Following the death of his younger brother in Europe, journalist John Easley is determined to find meaning in his loss, to document some part of the growing war that claimed his own flesh and blood.  Leaving behind his beloved wife, Helen, after an argument they both regret, he heads north from Seattle to investigate the Japanese invasion of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, a story censored by the U.S. government.  While John is accompanying a crew on a bombing run, his plane is shot down over the island of Attu.  He survives only to find himself exposed to a harsh and unforgiving wilderness, known as "the Birthplace of Winds."  There, John must battle the elements, starvation, and his own remorse while evading discovery by the Japanese.  Alone in their home three thousand miles to the south, Helen struggles with the burden of her husband's disappearance.  Caught in extraordinary circumstances, in this new world of the missing, she is forced to re-imagine who she is--and what she is capable of doing.  Somehow, she must find John and bring him home, a quest that takes her into the farthest reaches of the war, beyond the safety of everything she knows.

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE BOOKS, 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 July 31, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 1.  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, July 23, 2014

Front Porch Books: July 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.  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.

Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich (Little, Brown and Company):  We'll begin this month's edition of Front Porch Books with a few short story collections I regretfully missed highlighting in what was supposed to be the be-all, end-all list of 2014 collections--even the "Bigger Boat Addendum" missed these new and forthcoming releases.  Sorry, my fellow scribes!  First up is Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich, a by-all-accounts hilarious gathering of tales about the absurdities of our modern culture.  Take a giggle at the Jacket Copy:
Twenty years ago, Barney the Dinosaur told the nation's children they were special. We're still paying the price. From "one of the funniest writers in America" (The Daily Beast) comes a collection of stories culled from the front lines of the millennial culture wars. Rife with failing rock bands, student loans, and participation trophies, Spoiled Brats is about a generation of narcissists--and the well-meaning boomers who made them that way. A hardworking immigrant is preserved for a century in pickle brine. A helicopter mom strives to educate her demon son. And a family of hamsters struggles to survive in a private-school homeroom. Surreal, shrewd, and surprisingly warm, these stories are as resonant as they are hilarious.
Here are a few choice Opening Lines:
They buried my wife in a shoe box in Central Park.  ("Animals") 
When the nurses handed me my son, I couldn't believe how perfect he was. Ben was so robust, nearly fifty inches tall, including horns and tail.  ("Gifted") 
Okay, so this is, like, my diary or whatever.  ("Semester Abroad") 
I am not smart with words, but I work hard every day of my life.  ("Sell Out") 
So a guy walks into a bar one day and he can't believe his eyes. There, in the corner, there's this one-foot-tall man, in a tiny tuxedo, playing a sonata on a little piano.  ("Guy Walks Into a Bar") 
I love my father, but sometimes he can get on my nerves. It's hard to explain why exactly. It's just little things he does, here and there, that bother me. For example, sometimes he shits into his hands and then throws the shit into my face while jumping up and down and screaming. I know he's just trying to be funny--and it is funny, I can see that. But there's just something about it that annoys me. I've asked him politely not to do it anymore, but I always get the same reaction. He just rolls his yellow eyes and says, "I'm sorry, your majesty."  ("Family Business") 
There aren't a lot of jobs out there for elves. You can work in the toy shop, a nonunion hellhole, and handcraft Hess trucks until you get arthritis.  ("Elf on the Shelf") 
Mr. and Mrs. Carr had been dead for several months, but like most ghosts, they thought they were still living.  ("Upper East Side Ghosts")
Now that's some crackling, sparking, live-wire-dancing-in-a-rainstorm kind of writing.  I'm bumping Spoiled Brats closer to the top of my To-Be-Read pile.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree (A Strange Object):  I'm a huge fan of Criterion, the company that has lovingly, smartly packaged classic and arthouse films for movie nuts like me since 1984.  That's one of the reasons I'm drawn to this collection of short fiction by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree (the other attraction for me is that I think the Austin, Texas micro-press A Strange Object is doing some mighty interesting stuff).  It's a unique book about--well, I'll just turn the microphone over to the authors to let them explain how it came into being:
We wrote Our Secret Life in the Movies in San Francisco, in a shared sublet a block away from the Mission Dolores, the site of Carlotta Valdes’s grave in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. We’d hatched a plan to watch every film in The Criterion Collection’s sweeping catalog of world cinema classics over the course of a single year, an obsession that fed off pizza boxes, sambuca fumes, and whatever is damaged on the Y chromosome. We watched film after film—as many as two or three a day—and wrote stories inspired by them. After completing a dozen sketches, it became obvious that we were writing a fragmented book of linked snapshots chronicling our parallel trajectories as the last children of the Cold War and the analog era, coming of age in the 1980s amidst the white noise of intercontinental-ballistic mayhem and Reaganomics. Nearly all of us have a secret life in the movies, in which the pictures seep through our dreams until fantasy and reality become hopelessly blurred. We are in the movies, and the movies are in us.
Our Secret Life in the Movies is set up in such a way that McGriff and Tyree each write a piece of flash fiction about particular movies--which include Blade Runner, Mon Oncle, On the Waterfront, Donnie Darko and more than a dozen other films I'd never heard of (this shows how deep and wide The Criterion Collection really is).  I'm not sure if the authors collaborated on each story or who authored which piece of the pairs--but that's probably less important than the stories themselves which are written in a flowing, free-form dreaminess with often bizarre and jarring imagery (much like pieces of film, actually).  The stories aren't necessarily about the movies themselves, but about how the movies make us feel.  Here, for instance, are the Opening Lines to "The Man Who Married an Egg," inspired by Blade Runner:
After my father leaves us, he buys a dozen large eggs and takes a perfectly brown, perfectly egg-shaped egg for a wife. At night he places her in the robin's nest by their wedding photo, by day she sits on the kitchen table in a stand made from a coat hanger. They listen to classical music on the radio and complain about the lack of twentieth-century composers and the DJ's droning voice.

My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible by Gregg Cusick (Livingston Press):  Here's one other short story collection (out in October from this small press headquartered in Alabama) which came to my attention this past week.  Anything with a dirigible will always give me reason to take a closer look, but a quick tour through some of the stories' Opening Lines ensures I'll linger a little while longer in these pages:
Ever since she shot her husband, Bonnie has felt better about their relationship.  ("Balance") 
Alone in the house--his mother on second shift at the hospital--Hank scrapes his plate of congealing macaroni into the dog's dish.  ("Dozen Wheelbarrows") 
He is nothing like she remembers. She thinks the word husk when she first sees him, pictures a dried cornstalk barely upright in a muddy winter field.  ("Have You Seen Me?")
The Jacket Copy reveals some further tantalizing promise for what's ahead:
A small town suicide ripples through the lives of a series of acquaintances. An aging professor wavers before his class while reliving the sinking of his WWII troopship where hundreds perished. A middle-aged woman confronts her dying abuser of thirty years before. And in the title story, an old man recalls his boyhood view of his own father and the great rigid airship Shenandoah that passed over hours before its dramatic crash. In all the stories in this debut collection, ordinary, yet remarkable individuals face common human challenges in original, often surprising ways.
And none other than the great Lee Smith offers up this Blurbworthiness: "Poet of the everyday, connoisseur of hard times, spokesman for the down and out...there seems to be no end to the range of characters that Gregg Cusick can understand and articulate, often better than they can themselves."

The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke (Algonquin Books):  As an insane fan of Brock Clarke's previous two novels, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England and Exley, I was ecstatic to see The Happiest People in the World land on my front doorstep.  The Jacket Copy doesn't really let on too much about the plot--something to do with "the American obsession with security and the conspiracies that threaten it" in a "story of innocence corrupted"--but frankly, I don't really care.  This is Brock Friggin' Clarke, people!  I will happily sink into his words, no matter what they're about.  If you're a newcomer to this novelist, then these Opening Lines (just a snippet of the dazzling, single-paragraph first chapter) will give you a taste of his style, which deliciously combines humor and heartbreak:
The moose head was fixed to the wall, the microphone in its mouth was broken, but the camera in its left eye was working just fine, and as far as the moose head could see, this was just another Friday night in the Lumber Lodge! Perhaps even more Friday night than most Friday nights. In fact, it was barely evening at all--the camera had just begun recording, as it did every night, at 5 p.m.--but it looked a lot like closing time. The smoke, for instance! New York State law had been insisting for years now that no one was allowed to smoke in this bar or in any other bar, but this law, like most laws--including the United States' laws preventing unauthorized surveillance of its citizens--was often ignored, and wow, was it being ignored tonight. The smoke was so thick the moose head was barely able to see the people it was intended to spy on. Finally, at 5:04 p.m., the smoke had thinned enough for the moose head to tell how very drunk all the people were. They were so very drunk that they were sprawled out on the floor, all of them--the boy who was clearly too young to be in the bar in the first place (another law broken, ignored); the blond woman who spent more time in the bar than anyone; the man who was wearing a red hat with a white letter C on it; the man who, along with the blond woman, the moose head had watched put up streamers all around the Lumber Lodge the day before; the woman and the man and the other man who had put the microphone and the camera in the moose head in the first place; the man with the ruined hand; the man with the garish shirt; the woman with the black hair who was clutching another red baseball hat with the white letter C on it; the man with the new haircut; the dark-skinned man the moose head had never seen before--all of them lying on the floor, obviously drunk, obviously completely plastered, grabbing at each other, reaching out for each other, yelling at each other (the moose head could not hear them but could see the O shapes their yelling mouths made), wrestling with each other, hugging each other, crawling away from and toward each other across the beer-and-booze-stained wooden floor. The stains were dark--darker than the usual stains--but then again these people were clearly drunker than the usual drunks, so they must have consumed alcohol darker and stronger than their usual alcohol. The moose head was not capable of judging these people; the moose head simply watched them the way the moose head had watched so many other drunks on so many other Friday nights.
Man, oh man.  I myself once wrote a story in which a taxidermist spied on his ex-wife through the eyes of a mounted elk head, but my words read like a Dick and Jane primer compared to Brock Clarke's fiction.  Here's some nice Blurbworthiness for The Happiest People in the World from Richard Russo: “Brock Clarke’s hilarious new novel starts out in rural Denmark, then takes us someplace really foreign and utterly weird: upstate New York.  The parallel universe Clarke creates there is both our world and not, and like his baffled, yearning characters, we navigate it with surprise and wonder.”

Tinseltown by William Mann (Harper):  As evidenced by my 20-year work-in-progress--a novel about a midget who finds work in Hollywood as a stuntman--I am obsessed with Hollywood history, particularly that era between 1910 and 1950.  And so, when I see a book with the word "Tinseltown" diagonally blazed across the front cover, you can imagine the chain of tickles that sets off inside my chest.  William Mann's book focuses on one particular shady, seamy, unsolved chapter of H-wood's history: the unsolved murder of movie director William Desmond Taylor in 1922.  Taylor's death was just one of many scandals which rocked Hollywood around that same time (see also: Fatty Arbuckle--another personal obsession of mine).  It is one of Tinseltown's most perplexing cold cases and this book promises to finally find an answer in a tale of "murder, morphine and madness."  Mann has a James Ellroy-like grab-you-by-the-lapels style, as we can see in the Opening Lines of the book's introduction:
      This is the story of a murder, of a single soft-nosed bullet that traveled upward through a man’s rib cage, piercing his lung and lodging in his neck, after being fired by an unknown assailant 92 years ago on a cold Los Angeles night.
      This is also the story of three beautiful, ambitious women, all of whom loved the victim and any of whom might have been his killer, or the reason he was killed. It is also the story of one very powerful man, who saw the future of a very profitable industry hanging in the balance and kept the truth about the murder obscured and camouflaged for nearly a century.
The publisher is billing this as “The Day of the Locust meets The Devil in the White City and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”  It makes for a nice marquee--and indeed, you had me at "Nathanael West"--but we'll see how well Mann handles the material.   I, for one, can't wait to time-travel back to a Los Angeles full of "party girls, drug dealers, religious zealots, newly-minted legends and starlets already past their prime."

Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder (HarperCollins):  This new novel by the author of The Juliet Stories and Hair Hat begins with the irresistible voice from a resident of a nursing home who evidently has a story to tell.  Let's eavesdrop on the Opening Lines:
      This is not the love song of Aganetha Smart.
      No, and don't talk to me of being weary and claiming one's well-earned rest.
      All my life I've been going somewhere, aimed toward a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer. In the beginning, I chased it with abandon, with confidence, and somewhat later with frustration, and then with grief, and later yet with the clarity of an escape artist.  It is far too late to stop, even if i run in my mind only, out of habit.
      You do what you do until you're done. You are who you are until you're not
      My name is Aganetha Smart, and I am 104 years old.
      Do not imagine this is an advantage.
      I have outlived everyone I've ever loved, and everyone who ever loved me. Nor have I aged well. Just look at me.
Yes, just look at her sitting there in her wheelchair: mind as spry as a a spring, voice as smart as a whip.  This is going to be one of those books driven by its narrator's voice and, based on these first opening lines, I think it's going to be a crackling success.  --What's that, you say?  Who is Aganetha Smart?  Sorry, I guess I should have properly introduced the two of you.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
Girl Runner is the story of Aganetha Smart, a former Olympic athlete who was famous in the 1920s, but now, at age 104, lives in a nursing home, alone and forgotten by history. For Aganetha, a competitive and ambitious woman, her life remains present and unfinished in her mind. When her quiet life is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of two young strangers, Aganetha begins to reflect on her childhood in rural Ontario and her struggles to make an independent life for herself in the city. Without revealing who they are, or what they may want from her, the visitors take Aganetha on an outing from the nursing home. As ready as ever for adventure, Aganetha’s memories are stirred when the pair return her to the family farm where she was raised. The devastation of WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic, the optimism of the 1920s and the sacrifices of the 1930s play out in Aganetha’s mind, as she wrestles with the confusion and displacement of the present. Part historical page-turner, part contemporary mystery, Girl Runner is an engaging and endearing story about family, ambition, athletics and the dedicated pursuit of one’s passions. It is also, ultimately, about a woman who follows the singular, heart-breaking and inspiring course of her life until the very end.
Girl Runner will be released in the U.S. in early 2015, but Canadian bookworms can get their hands on the novel in September (lucky Canucks, eh?).  Now, aren't you glad you dropped by the nursing home?

Alphabet by Kathy Page (Biblioasis):  Speaking of Canada, have I ever mentioned how much I love Ontario-based publisher Biblioasis?  If not, then let me correct that lapse right now.  Biblioasis has been putting out high-quality, hand-crafted literature for a number of years and I always love it when their books sneak south across the border onto my doorstep.  Kathy Page's new novel is no exception.  Like Girl Runner, Alphabet is driven forward by voice and character--but the person inhabiting these pages is very different than the 104-year-old Aganetha Smart in that earlier novel.  Here's the Jacket Copy to paint a portrait for us:
Simon Austen has the names people have called him tattooed all over his body. "Dumb Cunt." "Waste of Space." "A Threat to Women." "Murderer." Simon Austen has strangled his girlfriend. For the next thirteen years, Simon Austen will be serving life. Barely out of his teens, his past a grim assembly of foster homes, Simon is cagey, reserved, and highly intelligent. He's been told he has trouble relating to women. But what kind of woman would want to relate to "him"? Determined to resolve his issues on his own terms, and at great personal risk, Simon begins writing illicit letters to women under assumed identities. And though short-lived, his letter-writing triggers a terrifying process of self-reconstruction. "Who is Simon Austen," he is forced to ask, and "who do his psychiatrists want him to become?" A jolting portrait of modern prison regimes, Alphabet is the story of a man's uncertain and often-harrowing journey towards rehabilitation.
Blurbworthiness: "I can't remember the last time I was so compelled, impressed, and unsettled by the emotional world of a novel."  (Sarah Waters, author of The Paying Guests)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

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

Here's a surefire way to get someone to pay attention to your book trailer: dress your cute-as-a-button five-year-old son in a tuxedo, film him asking you questions about your debut novel, throw in some witty pop culture references (penguins, Breaking Bad) and, PRESTO!, you've got an irresistibly-charming video like the one for Mira Jacob's The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing.  Ms. Jacob's son Zakir stars as the host of a talk show (theme song: "He really doesn't read, but he loves those books!") whose job it is to ask his mom some cue-card questions about her novel ("You are a first-generation American--how does that inform your writing?").  Sure it's a shameless gimmick, but somehow it works.  I'm definitely hooked into wanting to know more about The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing (as if I wasn't already there with that wonderful title).  It's a 500-page saga about an Indian-American family's journey from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the boom which has drawn comparisons to Meg Wolitzer, Mona Simpson, and--predictably--Jhumpa Lahiri.  Gary Shteyngart calls it “Punchy, clever, and stuffed with delicious chapatis.”  Zakir references this blurb in the trailer and it's nice to see that I'm not the only one who struggles to pronounce Shteyngart's name.  To be honest, though, as cute as Zakir may be in the trailer, it's his mother who charms me the most.  If her writing is as witty and wise as she is here on camera, then I'm ready to go dancing through these pages.

Monday, July 21, 2014

My First Time: Robin Black

Photo by Nina Subin
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 Robin Black, author of Life Drawing.  Robin's debut novel is an Indie Next pick for August 2014, on the long list for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and has been called “a magnificent literary achievement” by Karen Russell.  Her story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.  Her stories and essays can be found at, The Rumpus, O Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, One Story, and Five Chapters, among many other publications.  More about Robin and her work can be found at  She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

My First Cringe-Worthy Agent Query

These days, since becoming a published author, I’m often asked for advice about querying agents, and I’m always torn about what to say.  There’s a part of me that believes in playing such things safe, in following the rules, and not raising any “cuckoo-bird” flags.  So with that in mind, I feel I should refer people to the many websites about the “proper” way to query, websites where they will find advice about being succinct; about crafting catchy, brief summaries of their work; about trying to sound appealing, exhibiting some personality but still striking a professional tone.

All of which is probably excellent advice, and none of which is what I did–of course.  Hence my dilemma.

In the summer of 2007, a couple of years post-MFA, with a passel of published stories to my name I decided I “needed” an agent.  For the record, if anyone with that resume were now to ask me for advice, I would say: Don’t bother querying agents until you have a book.  Write first, and stay out of the business side as long as possible.  But like many “emerging writers” and perhaps especially those in their mid-forties and beyond, I was in a hurry.  I wanted legitimacy.  I wanted to be able to say, “Yes!” when people asked me: “Do you have an agent?” one of the gauntlet inquiries people mistakenly use to measure a writer’s worth.

Nothing came of those queries in 2007, which were pretty much “by the book,” following the rules I found online.  Nothing came of them, including the one I cared most about, to a man named Henry Dunow.  He was the agent I was fixated on, absolutely convinced was the one for me–for no better reason than that someone had once told me he might be a good match for my work.  In passing, at a conference.  Probably while drunk.  And never having read my work.  “You should work with Henry Dunow.  He’s into your kind of stuff.  Hic.”

I was unimaginably impressionable back then.  A drunk dude told me that Henry Dunow was the agent for me, and it became an idee fixe.

But he didn’t answer my email.  Fair enough.  He wasn’t the only one.  As I said, nothing came of the whole enterprise, and I went back to work.

Flash forward a year and through a series of incidents, some involving publishing a story in One Story, others involving the kindness of an ”insider” who decided to help me, and suddenly I had a small collection of agents courting me–in part because I had managed to produce a novel draft, which I was careful to mention two times for every time I mentioned my short stories.  A couple of the agents seemed like real possibilities, but an idee fixe is an idee fixe, and I decided that before I signed with anyone else, I would give Henry Dunow one more try.

But something had changed in a year.  Maybe because my by-the-book emails had all failed, maybe because I had just grown weary of trying to play the game by the rules, my tone had definitely, shall we say, evolved.

Here, in part, is the email I sent:
      This is where I fess up that I wrote you last summer. Since I didn't hear back, I'm assuming that's because you decided against me, but I'm hoping it's because the email never reached you. I am trying again--for the last time, I promise--because your blurb on the agency's website says you like literary fiction and voice-driven nonfiction, and that is what I write. Since the One Story piece came out, I have had some interest from agents, and it looks like the right time for me to figure this representation thing out, so I thought I would try one more time.
      I apologize if this second query letter qualifies as bugging you. As I say, I won't send another should this one also go unanswered. My bio is pasted below. I am happy to give you any more information, including a description of the novel, should you want it.
Professional tone?  Not hardly.  Catchy summary of my work?  Definitely not.  Strange hint that I might have stalking tendencies?  Yeah, I can see that there.

The miracle is that he wrote back.  Not only did he write back, but he asked if he could take a look at my novel, a reasonable enough request, given that I had told him it was complete.

My answer:
      Thanks so much for the response! I appreciate that, and your willingness to look at my work.
      Unfortunately, as far as you seeing the novel goes, the short answer is No. Though fully drafted, I don't think the novel is showable--not without doing myself a disservice and wasting your time.
(This move, the dangling of a novel followed by its hasty withdrawal, is not commonly advised.)

My email continues:
It's a good thing I am a better writer than businesswoman. I had actually decided to put off querying until those revisions were complete, but my situation is that a couple of weeks ago this story of mine came out in One Story and all of a sudden there were agents offering to sign me up, which was initially incredibly exciting. Now though, after a certain amount of soul searching, I'm coming to the view that flattering and tempting as it all is, I don't just want to sign with an agent, I want to sign with the right agent. I understand that may mean someone for whom the novel is the determining factor, therefore a wait.
I am 100% certain that nowhere in the literature on How To Query An Agent does anyone suggest that you discuss your “soul searching.”

There’s more:
I so appreciate your response. My now revised query is whether I could show you this novel once that too is revised? Or is there anything else that would be relevant? Do stories help? I have lots and lots of those, some published, some (too many) that I have never sent out. I am attaching the story that appeared in One Story, just so if you are interested in seeing a sample of my work, there it is. And of course, anything that might be useful can be mailed in the genuine mail if that's better. Also, below is a description of the novel. The only person in the industry who has ever heard anything about it told me that you were the right agent, because of your experience and skill selling literary work. That doesn't mean you would agree, of course, but it had an impact on me...
And yes, in case you are wondering as you read, I am still cringing.  And I’m not even going to share the next email I sent in which I apologize for the previous two and for being such a complete idiot and so on...

But of course this wouldn’t be a story, not one for here, if it didn’t have a happy ending.  Henry didn’t run screaming or change his email address or mark my missives spam.  He just wrote back, “Okay.  I’ll take a look at the story and get back to you,” which I assumed meant he was being polite about trying to get rid of me, but in fact resulted in an email a couple of days later inviting me to give him a call so we could speak.  And the rest is history.  Not world history, but the part of my history that includes having an amazing agent and friend.

That happy ending isn’t really the point here, though.  I realize now, as I write, that the important part of this story isn’t that Henry offered to work with me once he’d read my work, it’s that he read that work in spite of the loopy and decidedly unprofessional tone of my correspondence, in spite of my having broken every rule in the book.  Because of course, the most pressing point of a query letter isn’t that it result in being signed; it’s that it result in being read.

So what advice am I to give?

I had a chance to go to the expert and ask Henry himself why he bothered to download that story and take a look.

“I remember being charmed,” he said.  “You sounded like a real person.”

“A real nut,” I said; but he only shrugged.

And what I saw then, what I understood, is that my story wasn’t as fluky as I have always believed.  Agents aren’t all looking for one thing.  There are agents out there–and I’m not saying it’s all–who aren’t, first and foremost, looking for authors who can mimic a professional tone and sound like business-people, but who may be looking for that ever elusive quality: voice.  And who don’t necessarily expect writers to sound 100% balanced all the time–or ever.  And who are quite possibly bored to death by the dozens of “by the book” queries they receive every month.

So my tendency these days is to tell people, when it comes to query letters, to be themselves.  Let a process of natural selection work itself out.  Being myself, neurotic, tentative, and entirely unprofessional, got me the agent who was right for me.  One who doesn’t mind a little craziness along the way.  One who maybe even welcomes that.  I am certain there are agents who would have deleted that first email I sent, barely read.  And that would have been a very good thing for us both.