Monday, September 28, 2015

My First Time: Gayle Brandeis

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 Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her essays, poems and short fiction have appeared in such places as The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Salon and The Nation. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She teaches for Sierra Nevada College, the Incarcerated Student Program through Lake Tahoe Community College, and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

My First Wardrobe Malfunction

I wrote my first poem when I was four years old:
Blow, little wind
Blow the trees, little wind
Blow the seas, little wind
Blow me until I am free, little wind.
A simple ditty, but I think I understood even then that writing can be like a wind that blows through us, making us spacious inside, setting us free. I was a shy, quiet girl; writing was the place where I could be most open and brave in my life—it still is, today. I published a neighborhood newspaper when I was 10—writing it gave me the courage to interview my neighbors, to sell subscriptions door to door. If I wasn’t doing something in service to my writing, I could barely make eye contact.

When my first book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, came out in 2002, I was thrilled, of course, but I was also terrified. In my heart of hearts, I was still that shy, quiet girl and the thought of being a public writer out in the world made me want to climb into a cave. I was grateful my first book event was going to be held at a venue where I felt deeply at home.

The Frugal Frigate—an independent children’s bookstore in Redlands, California, that also had “A Room of Her Own” featuring books by women— had opened when I was a student at the University of Redlands in the late 80s. It became a place of respite for me--I would go there to have a cup of herbal tea (free—much appreciated on my student budget) and daydream and read for pleasure; a welcome break from academia. When I found out I was pregnant my senior year, I bought What to Expect When You're Expecting there, and everyone at the store was very supportive at a time when I wasn't sure I'd be accepted as a young mother. The store continued to support me as I came in to browse the shelves with my little ones and talk to the owner about writing. Katherine, who had become a beloved presence in my life, offered to host my book launch, and I couldn't imagine a better place to usher Fruitflesh into the world.

In the car on the way to the event, I sang the alphabet song over and over at the top of my lungs to remind myself that my voice, which is normally pretty soft, can have volume. My family had just had dinner out and I was hoping my breath wasn’t too garlicky, hoping I hadn’t spilled anything on my new outfit, a wrap blouse and flowy matching skirt in the same lilac shade as the jacaranda flowers that bloom from my favorite tree.

Katherine had decorated the store beautifully, with a big bowl of strawberries as the centerpiece—appropriate, given the first line of the book is “A strawberry changed my life.” As people started to flow into the store—friends, my kids’ teachers, kind strangers—I began to feel more at ease. These people were here to celebrate, I realized, not judge. I felt buoyed by all the loving, encouraging faces beaming at me as I perched on the edge of a tall stool and started to speak.

Midway through my reading, I felt air on my stomach. I glanced down and noticed my wrap blouse had come unwrapped, and was dangling down the sides of my body like an open robe, leaving my entire torso exposed. I fought a wave of panic; even though Fruitflesh is all about tapping into the body as a source of creativity, I wasn’t all that comfortable sharing my own body in public. Thankfully I was wearing a bra—not an everyday occurrence back then—and I was able to think on my feet, not something I can always muster. “I guess I’m sharing more of my own fruitflesh than I had planned,” I said, and the audience laughed as I hastily tied my blouse back together. After that, the air was even more festive. I could barely get through the rest of the reading without laughing, and the audience laughed right along with me. My blouse was lopsided and possibly sweat-stained, but I didn’t care. One of the worst things that could have happened happened, and it just made the event all the more fun.

The shy, quiet girl still lives inside me, but I love giving readings now. I love connecting with readers, having conversations about stories and writing and life. My heart still pounds a little right before I take the stage, but I try to let that help me feel more alive instead of more nervous. And while some people at my book launch told me I should make wardrobe malfunctions part of every event, I make sure to leave the wrap blouses at home.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday Sentence: American Copper by Shann Ray

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

Her voice seemed dislodged from her mouth, as if the words were not connected to her or were not hers at all but rather small black birds that darted into the sky.

American Copper by Shann Ray

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Judging American Cuisine and Lassoing Unicorns: Edna St. Vincent Millay on Food and E. E. Cummings

Reading Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford in short sessions each day is like taking licks from one of those giant pinwheel all-day suckers you used to get as a kid at the county fair. Remember how you tried to discipline yourself to just twenty licks per day because you never wanted the beauty of that pastel-colored sugar to end? (Even though the sucker eventually grew furred with dust bunnies traveling through the air and became inextricably stuck to the top of your nightstand.)

So it goes with my sojourn through the life of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, minus the furred-over lollipop feeling. According to my Library Thing database, I started reading Savage Beauty on August 5, and it may well be another two weeks before I’m finished with the book. I’ll hate to see it come to an end. It is a literary sugar rush.

Milford not only expertly tracks the wild course of Millay’s life--and occasionally inserts herself, the biographer, in some of the most interesting sections--but she delivers exquisite passages from the poet’s poems, diaries and letters. Today, I thought I’d share a couple of them here at the blog. One is on food, and the other is about fellow poet E. E. Cummings.

In June 1932, while living in France, Millay was invited to give a reading at a home on the Left Bank, hosted by a woman named Natalie Clifford Barney, described by Milford as “rich, eccentric, tiny, seductive, and American.” The soiree was very bohemian. As one visitor put it, “No self-respecting American woman would be seen there. Oh no! Edith Wharton would never have come, never!”

Just before she read from her poems, Millay was drawn into conversation with a Frenchwoman named Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, who recounted her recent visit to the United States. “Wonderful country!” she exclaimed. “So alive, so vigorous! But such bad food!”

This kind of culinary critique didn’t sit well with Millay, who’d been raised in Maine, which may not have been the foodie nirvana it is today, but there were certainly bountiful meals to be had there back in the day. She bristled and began to put Mme. Delarue-Mardrus in her place, as described by Millay’s friend Allan Ross Macdougall, with a speech that was “at once a patriotic dithyramb and a gastronomic prose poem.” Even though I suspect it’s filtered through Macdougall’s enhanced retelling, it really is a beautiful take-down.
     In your travels, chere madame, did you ever taste the lobsters that come from the waters off the coast of my home state, Maine? Broiled or boiled and served with melted, fresh country butter, they are unforgettable. Did you have fish chowder made of haddock, Maine potatoes, onions, salt pork and rich milk?
     Were you ever introduced to Boston baked beans? I mean the kind baked in an old-fashioned crock. We cook them slowly and for long hours in the oven and serve them sometimes with such brown bread as can be found in no other part of the world.
     Did you ever have Cherrystones or Little Necks; and did you ever, by chance, taste a Provincetown clam pie made of the deep-sea Quahogs and a liberality of olive oil and garlic? Were oyster-crabs and whitebait ever set crisp before you? Did you taste soft-shell crabs, lightly sauteed, or drink the juice of the soft-shell crab? Were you ever a happy member of an old-fashioned clam-bake on a secluded New England beach?
     Then what of the other American dishes that are seldom to be met with elsewhere on the gastronomic globe? There’s the shad roe and the shad itself, both broiled; sweet corn and sweet potatoes; pumpkin pie and deep-dish blueberry pie; diamond-back terrapin done as the Baltimoreans do it in a rich Madeira stew, or as the Philadephians do it with egg-yolks, cream, and “sweet butter in a lordly dish.” Then there’s Philadelphia Pepperpot which has tripe in it, and that same city’s surprising mixture of tripe and oysters.
     There’s the Creole Jambalaya of New Orleans made with savory rice and shrimps almost as big as your French ecrevisses. We also have our native blueberries. And there are our cranberries and beach-plums which I used to gather on Cape Cod. We make delicious preserves from them. Oh, there are many other products and dishes native to states and regions of my country. If you have never tasted them, ma chere, you cannot in all fairness judge American cuisine…

Speaking of judging, the next year found Millay making recommendations to the Guggenheim Foundation on behalf of poets she felt were worthy--and, in the case of 39-year-old Edward Estlin Cummings, a man she admittedly disliked personally and called “fetid,” applicants who were worthy of damning with faint praise. Here’s part of what Millay wrote in her Guggenheim “recommendation” for Cummings: is a big talent in the hands of an arrogant, peevish, self satisfied, self indulgent writer. That is to say, here is a big talent in pretty bad hands.
     I am not one of those who stand for the untouchable holiness of the capital letter and traditional typography. So far as I am concerned, Mr. Cummings may do anything he likes with the alphabet, the English grammar, and the multiplication table, provided only the result of his activities be something interesting, and, after a reasonable period of application, comprehensible, to a reader of culture and brains. Mr. Cummings may not, however, I say, write poetry in English which is more difficult for me to translate than poetry written in Latin. He may, of course, write it. But if he publishes it, if he prints and offers for sale poetry which he is quite content should be, after hours of sweating concentration, inexplicable from any point of view to a person as intelligent as myself, then he does so with a motive which is frivolous from the point of view of art, and should not be helped or encouraged by any serious person or group of persons...
     But, unfortunately for one’s splendid hate which had assumed almost epic proportions, by no means all of Mr. Cummings poetry is of this nature. In these books which I have just been reading there is fine writing and powerful writing (as well as some of the most pompous nonsense I ever let slip to the floor with a wide yawn), and that this author has ability I could not deny; that he has more than that I gravely suspect.
     What I propose, then, is this: that you give Mr. Cummings enough rope. He may hang himself; or he may lasso a unicorn. In any case it is high time we found out about this man Cummings. Let us give him every opportunity to show us at once whether he is a genius, a charlatan, or a congenital defective,—and get him off our minds.

In the end, Milford tells us, Cummings got his Guggenheim.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Freebie: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Congratulations to Jim Mastro, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback, Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Everyone Has Their Reasons by Joseph Matthews, and The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland.

This week, I’m pleased to give away a copy of the new novel by Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies. It’s been getting rave reviews from all corners of the literary map--like these, for instance:

“With Fates and Furies Lauren Groff goes many levels below the surface of a marriage, into a place that is perhaps as hard to reach as it is to describe, but Groff, a bold and marvelous writer, is able to do both. Because she’s so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.”  (Meg Wolitzer, New York Times-bestselling author of The Interestings)

“Even from her impossibly high starting point, Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better. Fates and Furies is a clear-the-ground triumph.”  (Ron Charles, The Washington Post)

“One of the pleasures of reading Ms. Groff is her sheer unpredictability: She can inject her narrator’s voice at any time, turn a sentence into a small hurricane.”  (The New York Times)

“[Fates and Furies] is a stunning 360-degree view of a complex relationship…There’s almost nothing that [Groff is] not interested in and her skill set is breathtaking…It’s an incredibly ambitious work, she writes like her hands are on fire.”  (Richard Russo)

Read on for more information about the book...

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years. At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed. With stunning revelations and multiple threads, and in prose that is vibrantly alive and original, Groff delivers a deeply satisfying novel about love, art, creativity, and power that is unlike anything that has come before it. Profound, surprising, propulsive, and emotionally riveting, it stirs both the mind and the heart.

If you’d like a chance at winning Fates and Furies, 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 Oct. 1, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 2.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

New story in F(r)iction: “Thank You”

I have a short story in the new issue of F(r)iction, published by Tethered by Letters. I’m really proud of “Thank You” (not something I say about all of my work) and think it might be one of the strongest things I’ve written since Fobbit. It’s a very short story, but it expresses a lot of my conflicted feelings about the Iraq War and the ways Americans have reacted to it. It can also be challenging to read, style-wise, as you can see by this punctuation-less excerpt:
Thank you Thank you for your service Thank you for going Thank you for coming back Thank you for not dying Thank you for taking the bullet, the mortar round, the shrapnel that is making its way to your heart by micromillimeters every year Thank you for eating that god-awful food gritted with sand so we don’t have to Thank you for eating Thanksgiving dinner on a paper plate

I send my own “Thank you”s out to editor D. M. Hedlund for taking on this admittedly tough story and for giving it a beautiful showcase in the magazine, and to artist Travis Mercer who brought the story to life with such pen-and-ink razzle dazzle (that’s just a small detail from the page you see at the start of this blog post); you need to buy a copy of the magazine to fully appreciate his talents.

Speaking of which, you should all buy a copy of F(r)iction, and not just for my little pissant story. The new issue of the literary journal is bursting with words and colorful artwork. There are stories by Justin Hocking, Eric Lundgren, Marie Helene-BertinoJosie Sigler and many others. The whole issue is a thing of beauty, starting with the cover art.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday Sentence: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

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

Indeed, a store detective with a rodential little moustache had trailed him from outerwear to menswear to formalwear. But perhaps this was providence; otherwise Mercer might not have discovered the chesterfield coat. It was gorgeous, tawny, as though spun from the fine fur of kittens.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday Freebie: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback, Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Everyone Has Their Reasons by Joseph Matthews, and The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland

Congratulations to Ginger Heatwole, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.

This week’s giveaway is another big box o’ books which will be delivered into the hands of one lucky reader. Up for grabs are five novels designed to provide hours of reading pleasure: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback, Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Everyone Has Their Reasons by Joseph Matthews, and The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland. Read on for more information about each of the books.

Wolf Winter is set in Swedish Lapland in 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow. While herding the family’s goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson’s widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice. As the seasons change, and the “wolf winter,” the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family’s survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers’ secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.

In Past Crimes, when his estranged grandfather is shot and left for dead, an Army Ranger must plunge into the criminal underworld of his youth to find a murderer and uncover a shocking family secret in this atmospheric and evocative debut thriller. Van Shaw was raised to be a thief, but at eighteen he suddenly broke all ties to that life and joined the military—abandoning his illicit past and the career-criminal grandfather who taught him the trade. Now, after ten years of silence, his grandfather has asked him to come home to Seattle. But when Van arrives, he discovers his grandfather bleeding out on the floor from a gunshot to the head. With a lifetime of tough history between him and the old man, Van knows he’s sure to be the main suspect. The only way he can clear his name is to go back to the world he’d sworn to leave behind. Tapping into his criminal skills, he begins to hunt the shooter and uncover what drove his grandfather to reach out after so long. But in a violent, high-stakes world where right and wrong aren’t defined by the law, Van finds that the past is all too present...and that the secrets held by those closest to him are the deadliest of all. Edgy and suspenseful, rich with emotional resonance, gritty action, and a deep-rooted sense of place, Past Crimes trumpets the arrival of a powerful talent in the mold of Dennis Lehane, Robert B. Parker, and John D. MacDonald.

Set in the ruins of a future America, The Country of Ice Cream Star tells the story of fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star and her nomadic tribe who live off of the detritus of a crumbled civilization. Theirs is a world of children; before reaching the age of twenty, they all die of a mysterious disease they call Posies—a plague that has killed for generations. There is no medicine, no treatment; only the mysterious rumor of a cure. When her brother begins showing signs of the disease, Ice Cream Star sets off on a bold journey to find this cure. Led by a stranger, a captured prisoner named Pasha who becomes her devoted protector and friend, Ice Cream Star plunges into the unknown, risking her freedom and ultimately her life. Traveling hundreds of miles across treacherous, unfamiliar territory, she will experience love, heartbreak, cruelty, terror, and betrayal, fighting with her whole heart and soul to protect the only world she has ever known. Guardian First Book Award finalist Sandra Newman delivers an extraordinary post-apocalyptic literary epic as imaginative as The Passage and as linguistically ambitious as Cloud Atlas. Like Hushpuppy in the film The Beasts of the Southern Wild grown to adolescence in a landscape as dangerously unpredictable as that of Ready Player One, The Country of Ice Cream Star is a breathtaking work from a writer of rare and unconventional talent.

At a time when the issues of identity, immigration, and class remain both universally important and enormously controversial, Everyone Has Their Reasons is an accessible and captivating tale of one boy’s historically famous experience in the extraordinary setting of roiling pre-WWII Paris. On November 7, 1938, a small, slight 17-year-old Polish-German Jew named Herschel Grynszpan entered the German embassy in Paris and shot dead a consular official. Three days later, in supposed response, Jews across Germany were beaten, imprisoned, and killed, their homes, shops, and synagogues smashed and burned—Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Based on the historical record and told through his “letters” from German prisons, this novel begins in 1936, when 15-year-old Herschel flees Germany, and continues through his show trial, in which the Nazis sought to demonstrate through his actions that Jews had provoked the war. But Herschel throws a last-minute wrench in the plans, bringing the Nazi propaganda machine to a grinding halt and provoking Hitler to postpone the trial and personally give an order regarding Herschel’s fate.

In The 3rd Woman, the United States and China have struck a shocking bargain: in return for forgiving trillions in debt, the People’s Republic of China—now the world’s dominant global superpower—has established a permanent military presence on US soil. Years of decline have left America economically vulnerable, and evidence of China’s cultural and political dominance is everywhere. Journalist Madison Webb is obsessed with exposing the lies and corruption that have corroded her once great society. When her sister is savagely murdered, the police insist it’s an isolated crime. But Madison suspects the cops are hiding something. Digging for answers, she discovers her sister’s death may be one of many...and part of a dangerous conspiracy. Even though her life is on the line, Madison refuses to give up on the story. And sooner or later, she will have to confront the consequences of exposing the powerful forces intent on hiding the truth.

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 Sept. 24, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 25.  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, September 17, 2015

Bird by Bird: Shaping a Story at High Desert Journal

Q:  When is a hawk a vulture?
A:  When it’s a character gone under the knife of revision in my short story.

I’m happy to announce the current issue of High Desert Journal features a short story of mine, along with work by David Allan Cates, Pam Houston, and many others. Now called “Vulture,” my story once started out in life as “Hawk.” Thanks to the astute suggestions of editor Charles Finn, I rewrote the earlier short-short story about an injured woman having a stare-down contest with a raptor into something which hopefully has a little more depth and, pardon the expression, meat on its bones.

“Hawk” was previously featured in a “Visions and Voices” show at the Imagine Butte Resource Center here in Butte, Montana, in which visual artists and writers exchanged work, creating new pieces based on what they received from the other person. In other words, the writer gave a piece of prose to the artist, who then disappeared into the studio to create something inspired by that poem or story; the writer, in turn, received a sculpture or painting from the artist and went to the keyboard to bring the visual to life verbally.

I was lucky to be paired with Christine Martin, who truly has a knack for creating jarring intersections between man and the natural world, primarily centered around death and decay. Her painting “Fox Hawk” inspired me to write a story about a woman going over a list of regrets in her life after she’s in a car accident. The hawk waits patiently for the woman’s last breath.

Fox Hawk by Christine Martin

When it came time for the story to go to print in High Desert Journal, however, Charles Finn pointed out that a hawk might not be the right bird for this story, that it was mainly a scavenger of small rodents like field mice, and that it was improbable for a hawk to do the things I had it doing in this story. After giving it some thought, I agreed, and--not wanting to break any biological laws--I transmogrified the hawk into a vulture. Symbolically, I think a vulture works better, as well--especially after Charles emailed me with this trivia: “A group of vultures is called a committee, venue or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when the birds are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake.”

I’m pretty happy with how the story turned out (or as happy as any self-critical writer can be) and I hope you like it as well.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Kris Dinnison’s Library: The Married Shelves of Bibliophiles

Reader:  Kris Dinnison
Location:  Mid-Century Modern house in Spokane, Washington
Collection size:  No idea. Oodles.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  An oversized edition of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Gustave Dore.
Favorite book from childhood:  Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.
Guilty pleasure book:  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I know it’s a classic, but the guilty pleasure part is how many times I’ve read it. It’s embarrassing the number of times I go back to this story.

Before my husband, Andy, and I were married, we both worked at bookstores, so each of us already had a fair number of books when we combined households. After twenty-four years together, we have almost fully merged our book collections. There’s one shelf in the house that’s just mine, and a few that are just his, but mostly they co-exist.

Our tastes overlap in many places, but our philosophies about which books to hold on to are fairly different. Andy is a true bibliophile, who loves the object both for its connection to his life and for the idea of it as an object. For a select few authors he’s a collector who pays attention to things like signed editions and damaged dust jackets, but most of the books that come into our house through him he just wants on the shelf for reasons of his own.

I tend to only hold onto books that I have an emotional connection with. If a story was important to me as a kid, or it changed my world-view in some way, or a valued friend gave it to me as a gift, I will keep it. But many of the books I read pass through my hands and on to someone else. Once I’ve read them I don’t necessarily need to own them.

That said, there are a few writers whose books I will always want on my shelf: Isabelle Allende, Jess Walter, Pete Fromm, E. M. Forster, Jane Austen, J. D. Salinger, and Kelly Link. With these authors and a few others, I’m more like my husband: I want to carry both the story and the object with me through my life. The bulk of these books, plus quite a few other authors Andy feels similarly about, live on a large bookshelf that holds primarily hardback literary fiction.

Of course after so many years reading together, the books that should probably live on that shelf have outgrown the space available, so there are more places hardback literary fiction lives, but this shelf is the cream of our bookish crop.

Another place Andy and I have both cultivated interest as well as a habit of acquisition is in the area of children’s books. I worked at a children’s bookstore right out of college, so much of my limited disposable income went toward irresistible picture books or gripping middle grade novels. Andy also had an affinity for these books, often collecting particular illustrators or authors that appealed to the ten year-old boy who lives inside him. And we are both drawn to kids’ books that have an edge, things that are creepy, weird, or slightly (and especially unintentionally) scary get extra points.

About three years ago we moved from a 1908 foursquare into a mid-century modern house that we love. However, as much as we loved the clean lines and simplicity of the modern look, there was a certain aesthetic, especially around our books and the furniture that held them, that we weren’t quite ready to give up. So for the first time in our married life, we created an actual library, dedicating an entire room to books. Now to be clear, we still have books and bookshelves throughout the house as we always have, but most of the books we own reside in the library now. This is a room we use for drinking bourbon and reading on a fall evening, or sitting late at night talking with a couple of good friends. It feels completely different from the rest of our house, which makes it a wonderful surprise for people seeing it for the first time.

There is one shelf in the house that is solely mine. It’s in my office where I do most of my writing, and it holds a rotating mélange of books. Some of them are books on writing, some are reference books, and some are books I’m using for research for a current or pending writing project. Because I write Young Adult books, a few volumes on that shelf are YA writers who’ve inspired me, including David Levithan, Chris Crutcher, Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Rainbow Rowell, and Maggie Stiefvater. I keep them there as a visual reminder of what I aspire to, of the kinds of powerful stories I hope to tell and the thoughtful, well-crafted writing I want to use to tell them.

The final shelf I want to mention is a built-in wall of shelves in our bedroom. This shelf has become our “to-read” pile, except in our case it’s an entire wall of books. I know this is crazy, but it’s also a wonderful reminder of all the amazing stories I have to look forward to if only I will put down the computer or phone or remote control. To the left-ish are the books I’ve got on deck, to the right-ish are the ones Andy’s looking forward to. But books move from side to side as we finish or share or say “You’ve got to read this one.” It’s the last thing I see before I go to sleep, and the first thing I see when I wake up. I can’t imagine a more beautiful way to decorate my house or my life.

Kris Dinnison spent nearly two decades as a teacher and librarian, while dreaming of becoming a writer. She lives in Spokane, Washington, with her husband and two cats named Raymond and Moon Pie. Her first novel, You and Me and Him, was released in July 2015 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Click here to visit her website.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday Sentence: The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac by Sharma Shields

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

Note: This was a sentence I heard, not read, this week. Author Sharma Shields read aloud from her debut novel, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, at the Montana Book Festival, and her inclusion of this chapter-opening line reminded me of the joy I felt when I first read it a year ago.

On the way to one of her three weekly therapy appointments, Ginger hit a unicorn with her car.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Friday Freebie: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Hotel Living by Ioannis Pappos.

This week’s book giveaway is a new paperback copy of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott. Read on for more information about the book...

Karen Abbott, the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and “pioneer of sizzle history” (USA Today), tells the spellbinding true story of four women who risked everything to become spies during the Civil War. Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies. After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives. Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.

If you’d like a chance at winning Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy 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 Sept. 17, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 18.  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, September 10, 2015

Front Porch Books: September 2015 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, independent bookstores, 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 here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.  I should also note that, in nearly every case, I haven't had a chance to read these books.  I'm just as excited as you are to dive into these pages.

I begin today with a trio of novels coming in early 2016 from the new imprint Lee Boudreaux Books. I’m especially interested in these releases because the namesake of the Little, Brown imprint has edited and/or acquired some of the best manuscripts in recent memory, including Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and many others. These first three to roll off the Lee Boudreaux presses promise to carry on that fine legacy.

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
by Sunil Yapa

Jacket Copy:  The Flamethrowers meets Let the Great World Spin in this debut novel set amid the heated conflict of Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests. On a rainy, cold day in November, young Victor—a boyish, scrappy world traveler who’s run away from home—sets out to sell marijuana to the 50,000 anti-globalization protestors gathered in the streets. It quickly becomes clear that the throng determined to shut the city down—from environmentalists to teamsters to anarchists—are testing the patience of the police, and what started as a peaceful protest is threatening to erupt into violence. Over the course of one life-altering afternoon, the lives of seven people will change forever: foremost among them police chief Bishop, the estranged father Victor hasn’t seen in three years, two protestors struggling to stay true to their non-violent principles as the day descends into chaos, two police officers in the street, and the coolly elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka whose life, as well as his country’s fate, hinges on getting through the angry crowd, out of jail, and to his meeting with the president of the United States. In this raw and breathtaking novel, Yapa marries a deep rage with a deep humanity, and in doing so casts an unflinching eye on the nature and limits of compassion.

Opening Lines:  The match struck and sputtered. Victor tried again. He put match head to phosphate strip with the gentle pressure of one long finger and the thing sparked and caught and for the briefest of moments he held a yellow flame. Victor—curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor with his hair natural and braided, two thick braids and a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor—with his dark eyes and his thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, a pair of classic Air Jordans on his oversized feet, the leather so white it glowed—imagine him as you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.

Blurbworthiness:  “There is nothing to say about Sunil Yapa’s debut novel that its wonderful title doesn’t already promise—its heart beats and bleeds on every page, in prose so raw it feels built of muscle and tissue and sinew and sweat. This book is delightfully, forcefully alive, and I feel more alive for having read it.”  (Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints)

by Belinda McKeon

Jacket Copy:  When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James’ life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help-—but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. When crisis hits, Catherine , walled off by a truth he feels unable to share. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear. By turns exhilarating and devastating, Tender is a dazzling exploration of human relationships, of the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we are taught to tell. It is the story of first love and lost innocence, of discovery and betrayal. A tense high-wire act with keen psychological insights, this daring novel confirms McKeon as a major voice in contemporary fiction, belonging alongside the masterful Edna O’Brien and Anne Enright.

Opening Lines:  Dreams fled away, and something about a bedroom, and some­thing about a garden, seen through an open window; and a windfall, something about a windfall—a line which made Catherine see apples, bruising and shrivelling and rotting into the ground. Windfall-sweetened soil; that was it. And, the flank of an animal, rubbing against a bedroom wall—though that could not be right, could it? But it was in there somewhere, she knew it was; something of it had bobbed up in her con­sciousness.
      She was on the lawn in front of James’s house, a wool blanket beneath her, one arm thrown over her eyes to do the job of the sunglasses she had not thought to bring. It was so hot. It was such a proper summer’s day.

Blurbworthiness:  “Tender rises above every other book on the shelf for its language alone; the beauty of each sentence will break your heart. But the story, full of the pleasures and terrors and betrayals of youth, will do that anyway. There is no way around it: you will weep. Spectacular.”  (Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Story of a Marriage)

As Close to Us as Breathing
by Elizabeth Poliner

Jacket Copy:  In 1948, a small stretch of the Woodmont, Connecticut shoreline, affectionately named “Bagel Beach,” has long been a summer destination for Jewish families. Here sisters Ada, Vivie, and Bec assemble at their beloved family cottage, with children in tow and weekend-only husbands who arrive each Friday in time for the Sabbath meal. During the weekdays, freedom reigns. Ada, the family beauty, relaxes and grows more playful, unimpeded by her rule-driven, religious husband. Vivie, once terribly wronged by her sister, is now the family diplomat and an increasingly inventive chef. Unmarried Bec finds herself forced to choose between the family-centric life she’s always known and a passion-filled life with the married man with whom she’s had a secret years-long affair. But when a terrible accident occurs on the sisters’ watch, a summer of hope and self-discovery transforms into a lifetime of atonement and loss for members of this close-knit clan. Seen through the eyes of Molly, who was twelve years old when she witnessed the accident, this is the story of a tragedy and its aftermath, of expanding lives painfully collapsed. Can Molly, decades after the event, draw from her aunt Bec's hard-won wisdom and free herself from the burden that destroyed so many others? Elizabeth Poliner is a masterful storyteller, a brilliant observer of human nature, and in As Close to Us as Breathing she has created an unforgettable meditation on grief, guilt, and the boundaries of identity and love.

Opening Lines:  The summer of 1948 my brother Davy was killed in an accident with a man who would have given his life rather than have it happen.

Blurbworthiness:  “Vivid, complex, and beautifully written, Elizabeth Poliner’s novel, As Close to Us as Breathing, brims with characters who leave an indelible impression on the mind and heart. This moving story of the way one unforgettable family struggles with love and loss shows an uncommon depth of human understanding. Elizabeth Poliner is a wonderful talent and she should be read widely, and again and again.”  (Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World)

Silence and Song
by Melanie Rae Thon

Reading Melanie Rae Thon’s fiction and poetry is like floating in amniotic fluid while watching the birth of nebulae—Technicolor splashing across your face—and listening to harp music whispering from another world. I want to get lost in this latest book—two novellas joined by a poem—and never return.

Jacket Copy:  Immigrants lost in the blistering expanse of the Sonoran Desert, problem bears, bats pollinating saguaros, a Good Samaritan filling tanks at emergency water stations, and the terrified runaway boy who shoots him pierce the heart and mind of Rosana Derais. “Vanishings,” the first story in Silence and Song, is a love letter, a prayer to these strangers whose lives penetrate and transform Rosana’s own sorrow. In “Translations,” the prose poem connecting the two longer fictions, child refugees at a multilingual literacy center in Salt Lake City discover the merciful “translation” of dance and pantomime. The convergence of two disparate events—a random murder in Seattle and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl—catalyze the startling, eruptive form of the concluding piece,“requiem: home: and the rain, after.” Narrated in first person by the killer’s sister and plural first person by the “liquidators” who come to the Evacuation Zone to bury entire villages poisoned by radioactive fallout, “requiem” navigates the immediate trauma of murder and environmental disaster; personal and global devastation; and the remarkable recovery of the miraculously diverse more-than-human world.

Blurbworthiness:  “Melanie Rae Thon belts out her stories in a tone and style reminiscent of classic blues singers....The reader is swept along not only by her remarkable characterizations, but also by the taut, magic current of her prose, which carries an exhilarating rhythmic punch.” (New York Times Book Review)

Opening Lines:  My brother kneels in the back of the Chrysler. Leo Derais, eleven years old: he’s skipped three grades: this fall he’ll start high school.
     He’s just made the most astonishing discovery, has seen the evidence and understands at last how time moves at different speeds in both directions.

Mendocino Fire: Stories
by Elizabeth Tallent

My Fall reading schedule is peppered with big, meaty novels like City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, Purity by Jonathan Franzen and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving. Tucked in among those tomes, however, I’d like to sneak in a little short-story refreshment like Elizabeth Tallent’s latest collection whose stories lure me with titles like “Mystery Son,” “Eros 101” and “Mystery Caller.”

Jacket Copy:  The triumphant, long-awaited return of a writer of remarkable gifts: in this collection of richly imagined stories—her first new work in twenty years—the master of short fiction delivers a diverse suite of stories about men and women confronting their vulnerabilities in times of transition and challenge. Beginning in the 1980s, Elizabeth Tallent’s work, appeared in some of our most prestigious literary publications, including The New Yorker, Esquire, and Harper’s. Marked by its quiet power and emotional nuance, her fiction garnered widespread praise. Now, at long last, Tallent returns with a new collection of diverse, thematically linked, and deeply powerful stories that confirm her enduring gift for capturing relationships at their moment of transformation: marriages breaking apart, people haunted by memories of old love and reaching haltingly toward new futures. Mendocino Fire explore moments of fracture and fragmentation; it limns the wilderness of our inner psyche and brilliantly evokes the electric tension of deep emotion. In these pages, Tallent explores expectations met and thwarted, and our never-ending quest to avoid being alone. With this breathtaking collection, she cements her rightful place in the literary pantheon beside her contemporaries Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, and Louise Erdrich. Visceral and surprising, profound yet elemental, Mendocino Fire is a welcome visit with a wise and familiar friend.

Blurbworthiness:  “Elizabeth Tallent is, and always has been, a vivid, meticulous, and astutely inviting writer. These new stories vitally tell us how things are for us, in the most acute and memorable ways. Her ear is perfect; her gaze searing and unmistakable.”  (Richard Ford)

Opening Lines:  Among the son’s bright fucking ideas, that last summer they worked together, was the notion that since there was good money in sport fishing they ought to start taking out parties of tourists. Shug could savor a rank cigar, resting up his bad shoulder while doctors and lawyers baited hooks, and when a senator failed to reel in a big Chinook Shug could grin around the last skunky inch and salt the wound with “Wave bye-bye to your wallhanger, son.”

True False
by Miles Klee
(O/R Books)

As a fan of Miles Klee’s story in the Watchlist anthology, I’m pumped to read this new collection of short stories—most of them very short in length—but, I assume, long and deep when it comes to thematic concerns. I’m a fan of short-shorts. Every now and then, I need a succession of quick, stinging barbs to the brain. Browsing through True False, I can tell already that Klee will deliver the jabs and jazz.

Jacket Copy:  Miles Klee’s first book Ivyland was variously hailed as “sharply intelligent” (Publishers Weekly) and “harsh, spastic” (Justin Taylor): we like to think of True False as intelligently spastic, or sharply harsh—disquieting and funny. A collection of stories that range from the very short to the merely short, these forty-four tales evoke extraordinary scenes in an understated manner that’s marked Klee one of today’s most intriguing writers. From the apocalyptic to the utopic, from a haunted office building to a suburban pool that may be alive, a day in the mind of a demi-god Pythagoras to a secret race to develop artificial love, True False captures a fractured reality more real than our own.

Blurbworthiness:  “Miles Klee is a fresh genius of the American literary sentence, and his every paragraph is aburst with nervous, agitative exactitudes. So much gets itself zanily and definitively rendered in the crackle of his ultravivid prose that True False is not just a joltingly original collection but the essential record of the inner terrors of our hyperurban era.” (Gary Lutz, author of Stories in the Worst Way)

Opening Lines:  The last known speakers of American English were garbagemen.  (from “Dead Languages,” the first story in the collection)

Bad Sex
by Clancy Martin
(Tyrant Books)

Last month, I talked to you about Married Sex. Now, I’d like to have a word about Bad Sex. Bad Sex and Good Writing. Clancy Martin’s new novel is slim, composed of very short chapters (most only a few pages long), and the kind of writing that’s as electric as French-kissing a lamp socket. You’ll sizzle your way through this book quickly, and feel good about yourself afterwards.

Jacket Copy:  “I drink, I hurt myself and the people around me, and then I write.” Brett is in Central America, away from her husband, when she begins a love affair with his friend, Eduard. Tragedy and comedy are properly joined at the hip in this loosely autobiographical book about infidelity, drinking, and the postponing of repercussions under the sun. Though coming undone is something we all try to avoid, Clancy Martin reminds us that going off the rails is sometimes a part of the ride.

Opening Lines:  One of us had to watch our hotel in Tulum during the storm, so I was flying into Cancun International then renting a car. The hurricane had closed all of the airports on the coast, and my flight was delayed, and then cancelled.

Blurbworthiness:  “Bad Sex is like a diamond, cut clean, dangerously sharp, brutally hard and yet paradoxically beautiful, ruthlessly honing in on the plight of a woman caught in the throes of alcoholism, desire, marriage and adultery. Like Camus in The Stranger, Martin digs into the philosophical through precise narrative, exposing the big questions for the reader to answer.”  (David Means, author of Assorted Fire Events)

Old Silk Road
by Brandon Caro
(Post Hill Press)

As a writer of war fiction, I inevitably read a lot of war fiction. This past reading year has seen a lot of great novels pass before my eyes: The Valley by John Renehan, I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby, and A Hard And Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti among them. Now along comes a fresh and promising novel set in Afghanistan by an equally fresh and promising writer who also happens to be a war veteran. I can’t wait to deploy my imagination into the world of war and madness, as written by former Navy corpsman Brandon Caro.

Jacket Copy:  Old Silk Road is a prescient, powerful novel of the Afghan war by someone who’s been there. Norman “Doc” Rodgers suspects he won’t make it out of this one alive. He’s a young combat medic in Afghanistan, eager to avenge his father’s death in the World Trade Center, and make sense of a new world that feels like it’s fallen to pieces. Haunted by hallucinatory encounters, his only solace is a barely concealed addiction to the precious opiates he’s supposed to dole out sparingly to those beyond aid. In this tautly-plotted debut novel, Brandon Caro, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, tells the story of a soldier’s undoing in raw, incendiary, hypnotic prose that forces us to ask ourselves about what we know about the futility of war–and what other outcome we can expect?

Opening Lines:  The sun shone hard and the wind billowed in from the west the day I first killed a man.

Blurbworthiness:  “In our era of yellow ribbon patriotism and collective detachment from America’s brushfire wars, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road should serve as an IV of truth for any citizen still trying to give a damn. In tight, gritty prose, Caro taps into deep emotional veins the way only fiction allows for, and his drug-addled anti-hero Doc is as distinct a protagonist I’ve yet come across in post-9/11 war literature. Care about the consequences of America’s foreign adventures? Read this novel.” (Matt Gallagher, author of Kaboom)

A Free State
by Tom Piazza

I love a good chase novel. And when it’s wrapped in the complexities of racial issues, identity and our national shame of slavery, that makes it all the more attractive. Tom Piazza’s new novel is a book to run toward, not flee.

Jacket Copy:  The author of City of Refuge returns with a startling and powerful novel of race, violence, and identity set on the eve of the Civil War. The year is 1855. Blackface minstrelsy is the most popular form of entertainment in a nation about to be torn apart by the battle over slavery. Henry Sims, a fugitive slave and a brilliant musician, has escaped to Philadelphia, where he earns money living by his wits and performing on the street. He is befriended by James Douglass, leader of a popular minstrel troupe struggling to compete with dozens of similar ensembles, who imagines that Henry’s skill and magnetism might restore his troupe’s sagging fortunes. The problem is that black and white performers are not allowed to appear together onstage. Together, the two concoct a masquerade to protect Henry’s identity, and Henry creates a sensation in his first appearances with the troupe. Yet even as their plan begins to reverse the troupe’s decline, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton has been employed by Henry’s former master to track down the runaway and retrieve him, by any means necessary. Bursting with narrative tension and unforgettable characters, shot through with unexpected turns and insight, A Free State is a thrilling reimagining of the American story by a novelist at the height of his powers.

Opening Lines:  City haze shot through with morning sun. Buildings razed, buildings rising, dust drifting off the dirt streets drying in the morning air. Clank of carts on cobblestones, barrels unloaded, the men shouting, the mist burning off the river.

Blurbworthiness:  “Once I’d begun reading A Free State, I couldn’t leave my chair. It combines bite-your-nails tension with deeply felt evocations of the brutalities of slavery, the perplexities of racial masquerading and the transcendent joys of making music. At the end (Piazza) executes a swerve so bold, it’ll take your breath away.”  (David Gates, author of A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me)

Lay Down Your Weary Tune
by W. B. Belcher
(Other Press)

Just like that waterlogged wool cap snagged out of the river in the opening sentence of Lay Down Your Weary Tune,  I was hooked right from the start with W. B. Belcher’s opening lines (see below). I’m intrigued and entranced and can’t wait to read more.

Jacket Copy:  In this debut novel, a ghostwriter of the memoirs of a reclusive folk music icon—part Woody Guthrie, part Bob Dylan—attempts to glean fact from fiction, only to discover the deeper he digs into the musician’s past, the more his own past rises to the surface. Despite his fame, Eli Page is a riddle wrapped in a myth, inside decades of mask-making. His past is so shrouded in gossip and half-truths that no one knows who he is behind the act. Jack Wyeth, a budding writer, joins Eli in Galesville, a small town on the border of New York and Vermont, only to learn that the musician’s mind is failing. As he scrambles to uncover the truth, Jack is forced to confront his own past, his own hang-ups, and his own fears. At the same time, he falls for a local artist who has secrets of her own, he becomes linked to a town controversy, and he struggles to let go of his childhood idols and bridge the divide between myth and reality. Set against a folk Americana aesthetic, Lay Down Your Weary Tune is an emotionally charged exploration of myth-making, desire, and regret, and the inescapable bond between the past and present.

Opening Lines:  When little Sammy Sweet fished a waterlogged wool cap out of the river, Trooper Mark Calvin, of the New York State Police, said it was “definitive” proof that Eli had drowned. Case closed. Time to get on with our lives. But three days later, in the hollow behind the paper mill, Sammy snagged Eli’s bruised leather satchel from the murmuring backwash. A half a mile upstream from Eli’s last known location, the discovery was fodder for a new round of conspiracy theories, conjectures, and what-if scenarios. To further infuriate the investigators, the bag’s limp, deformed body wore a small bullet hole just above its clasp. Members of the trolling media, busybodies, and Galesville’s newfound tourists all voiced the same question from the same village sidewalks and gas pumps and bar stools: “What the hell happened to Eli Page?”

Blurbworthiness:  “As beautiful and artfully constructed as an old guitar, Lay Down Your Weary Tune feels both familiar and wholly original. William Belcher’s debut is a highly readable wonder.”  (James Scott, author of The Kept)

The History of Great Things
by Elizabeth Crane
(Harper Perennial)

I really shouldn’t have to do much more than whisper these words in your ear: “Elizabeth Crane has a new novel coming out.” That should be enough to get you all twitterpated, enough to make you run and mark your calendar for April 5, 2016, enough to send you back to your bookshelf to read (or re-read) Crane’s previous books (We Only Know So Much, When the Messenger Is Hot and You Must Be This Happy to Enter) before this new one arrives. But if, for some reason, that’s not enough, read on for further proselytizing, arm-twisting, and brow-beating. The History of Great Things is coming, and it’s the one to put on top of your 2016 must-read list.

Jacket Copy:  A witty and irresistible story of a mother and daughter regarding each other through the looking glass of time, grief, and forgiveness. In two beautifully counterpoised narratives, two women—mother and daughter—try to make sense of their own lives by revisiting what they know about each other. The History of Great Things tells the entwined stories of Lois, a daughter of the Depression Midwest who came to New York to transform herself into an opera star, and her daughter, Elizabeth, an aspiring writer who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s in the forbidding shadow of her often-absent, always larger-than-life mother. In a tour de force of storytelling and human empathy, Elizabeth chronicles the events of her mother’s life, and in turn Lois recounts her daughter’s story—pulling back the curtain on lifelong secrets, challenging and interrupting each other, defending their own behavior, brandishing or swallowing their pride, and, ultimately, coming to understand each other in a way that feels both extraordinary and universal. The History of Great Things is a novel about a mother and daughter who are intimately connected and not connected enough; it will make readers laugh and cry and wonder how we become the adults we always knew we should—even if we’re not always adults our parents understand.

Opening Lines: You’re late. Two weeks, forty-one hours late, nine pounds, ten ounces. That’s a lot. That’s like a bowling ball coming out of me.
      —I’ve heard this part before, Mom.
      —Just let me have my say and then you can have yours.
      So you’re a giant bowling ball coming out of me. If bowling balls were square. It hurts like a bitch. Honestly. No one mentioned this detail to me in advance. I may as well be pushing out a full-grown adult. Wearing a tweed pantsuit. Think about that. That’s what they should tell kids in sex ed. Not that sex ed exists now, because it doesn’t. Sex exists. Not ed.

Studies in the Hereafter
by Sean Bernard
(Red Hen Press)

C’mon, admit it: you’re obsessed with death. Or, to be more exact, you have a healthy curiosity about “life after death.” Does it exist? Will it be cotton-candy clouds or fire and brimstone? Will we romp with our dogs, take long walks with our loved ones, eat pickles on our ice cream without a trace of guilt? Will Warren Beatty serenade us with a saxophone? Sean Bernard’s new novel Studies in the Hereafter may not have all the answers, but he’s certainly got some interesting questions. This is one book I want to read before I die.

Jacket Copy:  A disillusioned office bureaucrat in the afterlife has come to realize that maybe heaven isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Bored by the endless routine of work, golf, and vegan food, he finds his one saving grace in his Field Studies: detailed reports he compiles on the living in order to determine their best fit in his world. While working on his 62nd Field Study, he begins to fall for Tetty, a detached Basque-American beauty living in Nevada, while struggling to understand what she sees in Carmelo, a clumsy scholar obsessed with the elusive Basque culture. When people start going missing from heaven for no apparent reason, the narrator learns that Field Study 62 may hold the key to explaining the disappearances.

Opening Lines:  I’m just a bureaucrat. I live an ordinary life—if you can even call it a “life.”
      Maybe that sounds bad. Personally, when I hear other people say they live ordinary lives, I imagine days of dull routine, the waking up to alarm, the showering, the coffee, the dead-eyed commute to work, the sitting at desk and compiling reports and trying to lower a work-stack that will never end. Middling lunches. Hollow office gossip. Reading too-familiar human interest stories. More gossip. Home. Dinner. Television. Bed. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
      When I hear people say their lives are like this, are “ordinary,” I pity them a bit. Because after all isn’t existence our only chance to touch the trembling mysteries of the soul and the universe and etc?
      Then I remember—oh, that’s my life, too.

Blurbworthiness:  “A novel that makes us laugh while breaking our hearts; that is thought-provoking as it entertains; that is profoundly new, even while looking askance at old assumptions. Herein are vegan angels, time-hopping dead bureaucrats, and a love story for the ages. Quite simply: this novel is a joy." (Christopher Coake, author of We’re in Trouble)