Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

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

In my naivete, I approached turning thirteen thinking it was going to be like it was in the movies or TV. I expected some heartbreak and bad moments here and there, but I truly believed adolescence was going to be this magical time where everybody looked good. I thought turning thirteen was when my life would start to look like a John Hughes film.

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday Freebie: Big Box of Fall Reading!

Diamond Head by Cecily Wong, The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson, The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta by Michael Copperman, Tailored for Trouble by Mimi Jean Pamfiloff, Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian, The Last September by Nina DeGramont, America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, Votes of Confidence by Jeff Fleischer, That Other Me by Maha Gargash, Lie in Wait by Eric Rickstad, Where Are They Buried? by Tod Benoit, and Atlas of Lost Cities by Aude de Tocqueville

Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: Brightwood by Tania Unsworth and The Unbelieveable FIB: The Trickster’s Tale and The Unbelieveable FIB: Over the Underworld by Adam Shaughnessy.

This week’s contest is for another big ol’ stand-back-I’m-clearing-the-shelves box o’ books. ONE lucky reader will win ALL of the following books: Diamond Head by Cecily Wong, The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson, The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta by Michael Copperman, Tailored for Trouble by Mimi Jean Pamfiloff, Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian, The Last September by Nina DeGramont, America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, Votes of Confidence by Jeff Fleischer, That Other Me by Maha Gargash, Lie in Wait by Eric Rickstad, Where Are They Buried? by Tod Benoit, and Atlas of Lost Cities by Aude de Tocqueville. Some are hardcover, some are softcover, but all are in brand-new, unread condition. One special note: because I’m about to head out on vacation (Maine, here I come!), the contest deadline will be three weeks from now. Read on for more information about the books...

Diamond Head is a sweeping debut spanning from China to Hawaii that follows four generations of a wealthy shipping family whose rise and decline is riddled with secrets and tragic love—from a young, powerful new voice in fiction. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Frank Leong, a fabulously wealthy shipping industrialist, moves his family from China to the island of Oahu. But something ancient follows the Leongs to Hawaii, haunting them. The parable of the red string of fate, the cord that binds one intended beloved to her perfect match, also punishes for mistakes in love, passing a destructive knot down the family line. When Frank Leong is murdered, his family is thrown into a perilous downward spiral. Left to rebuild in their patriarch’s shadow, the surviving members of the Leong family try their hand at a new, ordinary life, vowing to bury their gilded past. Still, the island continues to whisper—fragmented pieces of truth and chatter, until a letter arrives two decades later, carrying a confession that shatters the family even further. Now the Leongs’ survival rests with young Theresa, Frank Leong’s only grandchild, eighteen and pregnant, the heir apparent to her ancestors’ punishing knots. Told through the eyes of the Leong’s secret-keeping daughters and wives and spanning The Boxer Rebellion to Pearl Harbor to 1960s Hawaii, Diamond Head is a breathtakingly powerful tale of tragic love, shocking lies, poignant compromise, aching loss, heroic acts of sacrifice and, miraculous hope.

A provocative and hauntingly powerful debut novel reminiscent of Sliding Doors, The Bookseller follows a woman in the 1960s who must reconcile her reality with the tantalizing alternate world of her dreams. Nothing is as permanent as it appears...Denver, 1962: Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She loves the bookshop she runs with her best friend, Frieda, and enjoys complete control over her day-to-day existence. She can come and go as she pleases, answering to no one. There was a man once, a doctor named Kevin, but it didn’t quite work out the way Kitty had hoped. Then the dreams begin. Denver, 1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They have beautiful children, an elegant home, and good friends. It’s everything Kitty Miller once believed she wanted—but it only exists when she sleeps. Convinced that these dreams are simply due to her overactive imagination, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. But with each visit, the more irresistibly real Katharyn’s life becomes. Can she choose which life she wants? If so, what is the cost of staying Kitty, or becoming Katharyn? As the lines between her worlds begin to blur, Kitty must figure out what is real and what is imagined. And how do we know where that boundary lies in our own lives?

In The Spice Box Letters, Katerina inherits a scented, wooden spice box after her grandmother Mariam dies. It contains letters and a diary, written in Armenian. As she pieces together her family story, Katerina learns that Mariam's childhood was shattered by the Armenian tragedy of 1915. Mariam was exiled from her home in Turkey and separated from her beloved brother, Gabriel, her life marred by grief and the loss of her first love. Dissatisfied and restless, Katerina tries to find resolution in her own life as she completes Mariam's story – on a journey that takes her across Cyprus and then half a world away to New York. Miracles, it seems, can happen―for those trapped by the past, and for Katerina herself.

Teacher describes how, when Michael Copperman left Stanford University for the Mississippi Delta in 2002, he imagined he would lift underprivileged children from the narrow horizons of rural poverty. Well-meaning but naïve, the Asian-American from the West Coast soon lost his bearings in a world divided between black and white. He had no idea how to manage a classroom or help children navigate the considerable challenges they faced. In trying to help students, he often found he couldn’t afford to give what they required―sometimes with heartbreaking consequences. His desperate efforts to save child after child were misguided but sincere. He offered children the best invitations to success he could manage. But he still felt like an outsider who was failing the children and himself. Teach For America has for a decade been the nation’s largest employer of recent college graduates but has come under increasing criticism in recent years even as it has grown exponentially. This memoir considers the distance between the idealism of the organization’s creed that “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and reach their full potential” and what it actually means to teach in America’s poorest and most troubled public schools. Copperman’s memoir vividly captures his disorientation in the divided world of the Delta, even as the author marvels at the wit and resilience of the children in his classroom. To them, he is at once an authority figure and a stranger minority than even they are―a lone Asian, an outsider among outsiders. His journey is of great relevance to teachers, administrators, and parents longing for quality education in America. His frank story shows that the solutions for impoverished schools are far from simple. Be sure to check out Michael’s earlier “My First Time” essay here at The Quivering Pen.

Tailored for Trouble is a sassy, sexy, laugh-out-loud rom-com between the hottest man never to be tamed and the woman crazy enough to try. Taylor Reed is no stranger to selfish, uncaring CEOs. She was fired by one, which is why she has created her own executive training program—helping heartless bosses become more human. So Taylor shocks even herself when she agrees to coach Bennett Wade, the cutthroat exec who got her unceremoniously canned. She’d love to slam the door in his annoying but very handsome face, but the customers aren’t exactly lining up at her door. Plus, this extreme makeover will give Taylor the golden opportunity to prove that her program works like a charm. Bennett Wade is many things—arrogant, smug, brusque—but trusting isn’t one of them. Women just seem to be after his billions. So when he hires Taylor Reed, he has no desire to change. Bennett is trying to win over the feminist owner of a company he desperately wants to buy, but something about the fiery Taylor thaws the ice around his heart, making Bennett feel things he never quite planned on. And if there’s one thing Bennett can’t stand, it’s when things don’t go according to plan. They are a match tailor-made for trouble.

Orhan’s Inheritance is “Breathtaking and expansive...Proof that the past can sometimes rewrite the future” (Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train). When Orhan’s brilliant and eccentric grandfather, Kemal Türkoglu, who built a dynasty out of making kilim rugs, is found dead, submerged in a vat of dye, Orhan inherits the decades-old business. But Kemal has left the family estate to a stranger thousands of miles away, an aging woman in a retirement home in Los Angeles. Intent on righting this injustice, Orhan unearths a story that, if told, has the power to undo the legacy upon which Orhan’s family is built, a story that could unravel his own future.

Set against the desolate autumn beauty of Cape Cod, The Last September is a riveting emotional puzzle that takes readers inside the psyche of a woman facing the meaning of love and loyalty. Brett has been in love with Charlie ever since he took her skiing on a lovely Colorado night fourteen years ago. And now, living in a seaside cottage on Cape Cod with their young daughter, it looks as if they have settled into the life they desired. However, Brett and Charlie’s marriage has been tenuous for quite some time. When Charlie’s unstable younger brother plans to move in with them, the tension simmering under the surface of their marriage boils over. But what happened to Charlie next was unfathomable. Charlie was the golden boy so charismatic that he charmed everyone who crossed his path; who never shied away from a challenge; who saw life as one big adventure; who could always rescue his troubled brother, no matter how unpredictable the situation. So who is to blame for the tragic turn of events? And why does Brett feel responsible?

In America’s First Daughter, a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson's eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy. From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson's oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother's death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France. It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father's troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father's protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William's wife and still be a devoted daughter. Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father's reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.

With 2016 promising to be an interesting and hotly contested election year, Votes of Confidence offers young readers an essential guide to the past, present, and future of American elections. Here's what Kirkus Reviews had to say about the book: Neither the American electoral nor political process is simple. And if you think so, you’ve likely got it wrong. Fortunately, self-described political nerd Fleischer is here to clarify things. In a particularly winning voice, abetted by numerous intriguing anecdotes and trivia, Fleischer commences at the beginning, with an origin story (Revolution, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, Bill of Rights), before moving on to mechanics. He issues an implicit challenge with his introduction—“If there’s one thing we know for sure about American government, it’s that a lot of Americans don’t know much about it”—and then goes on to make sure readers buck that trend. His discussion of the electoral college is a fine example of his compressive clarity: the college is a compromise measure to rein in populous states while avoiding the pitfalls of giving too much power to Congress and state legislatures. It has its drawbacks, but it is not as egregious as push polling (“one of the sleaziest of political dirty tricks”) or hindering voter registration. Fleischer works plenty of civics and history into this study of the revelatory power of politics—“Strom Thurmond and George Wallace demonstrated that racists were a large voting bloc”—so his closing suggestions on how readers can get involved and be heard are perfectly placed. Fleischer’s primer tenders a wealth of insight in a generous and welcoming manner.

From the #1 internationally bestselling author of The Sand Fish, Maha Gargash’s second novel is set in mid-1990s Dubai and Cairo and tells the story of how secrets and betrayals consume three members—an authoritarian father, a rebellious abandoned daughter, and a vulnerable niece—of a prominent Emirati family. Majed, the head of the eminent Naseemy family, is proud to have risen into the upper echelons of Emirati society. As one of the richest businessmen in Dubai, he’s used to being catered to and respected—never mind that he acquired his wealth by cheating his brother out of his own company and depriving his niece, Mariam, of her rights. Not one to dwell on the past—he sent Mariam to school in Egypt, what more could she want from him?—Majed spends his days berating his wife and staff and cavorting with friends at a private apartment. But he’s suddenly plagued by nightmares that continue to haunt him during the day, and he feels his control further slipping away with the discovery that his niece and his daughter are defying his orders. Mariam despises Majed, and although she blames him for her father’s death, hers is a strictly-organized, dutiful existence. But when she falls for a brash, mischievous fellow student named Adel, he might just prove to be her downfall. Largely abandoned by Majed as the daughter of a second, secret marriage, the vivacious Dalal has a lot to prove. The runner-up on “Nights of Dubai,” an American Idol-type reality show for Arab talent, Dalal is committed to being a singer despite the fact that it’s a disreputable career. When her efforts to become a celebrity finally begin to pay off, she attracts the attention of her father, who is determined to subdue Dalal to protect the family name. As Majed increasingly exerts his control over both Dalal and Mariam, both girls resist, with explosive consequences. An exhilarating look at the little-known Khaleeji (Gulf-Arab) culture, That Other Me explores the ways social mores contribute to the collapse of one family.

From Eric Rickstad, the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Silent Girls, comes Lie in Wait, another unforgettable thriller set in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, featuring Detective Sonja Test. Even in a quiet Vermont town, unspeakable acts of the past can destroy the peace of the present. In the remote pastoral hamlet of Canaan, Vermont, a high-profile legal case shatters the town’s sense of peace and community. Anger simmers. Fear and prejudice awaken. Old friends turn on each other. Violence threatens. So when a young teenage girl is savagely murdered while babysitting at the house of the lead attorney in the case, Detective Sonja Test believes the girl’s murder and the divisive case must be linked. However, as the young detective digs deeper into her first murder case, she discovers sordid acts hidden for decades, and learns that behind the town’s idyllic façade of pristine snow lurks a capacity in some for great darkness and the betrayal of innocents. And Sonja Test, a mother of two, will do anything to protect the innocent.

For years, Where Are They Buried? has directed legions of fervent fans and multitudes of the morbidly curious to the graves, monuments, memorials, and tombstones of the nearly 500 celebrities and antiheroes included in the book. Now the bestselling guide to the lives, deaths, and final resting places of our most enduring cultural icons, is revised and completely updated for 2015 to include some of our most recent Dearly Departed (like Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, and Maya Angelou). By far the most complete and well-organized guide on the subject, every entry features an entertaining capsule biography full of little-known facts, a detailed description of the death, and step-by-step directions to the grave, including not only the name of the cemetery but the exact location of the gravesite and how to reach it. The book also provides a handy index of grave locations organized by state, province, and country to make planning a grave-hopping road trip easy and efficient.

Like humans, cities are mortal. They are born, they thrive, and they eventually die. In Atlas of Lost Cities, Aude de Tocqueville tells the compelling narrative of the rise and fall of such notable places as Pompeii, Teotihuacán, and Angkor. She also details the less well known places, including Centralia, an abandoned Pennsylvania town consumed by unquenchable underground fire; Nova Citas de Kilamba in Angola, where housing, schools, and stores were built for 500,000 people who never came; and Epecuen, a tourist town in Argentina that was swallowed up by water. Beautiful, original artwork shows the location of the lost cities and depicts how they looked when they thrived.

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. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 6, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 7. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Front Porch Books: September 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly 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: many 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 mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow
by Susan Perabo
(Simon & Schuster)

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, nearly 800,000 children are reported missing each year. That’s more than 2,000 a day. Susan Perabo’s new novel is about one of those kidnappings, but—most intriguingly—it’s seen from the point of view of the girl who wasn’t abducted. It’s a terrific setup for what looks like an absorbing story: “What happens to the girl left behind?”

Jacket Copy:  A masked man with a gun enters a sandwich shop in broad daylight, and Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself ordered to the filthy floor, where she cowers face to face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in her eighth grade class. The minutes tick inexorably by, and Meredith lurches between comforting the sobbing Lisa and imagining her own impending death. Then the man orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith the girl left behind. After Lisa’s abduction, Meredith spends most days in her room. As the community stages vigils and searches, Claire, Meredith’s mother, is torn between relief that her daughter is alive, and helplessness over her inability to protect or even comfort her child. Her daughter is here, but not. Like Everything I Never Told You and Room, The Fall of Lisa Bellow is edgy and original, a hair-raising exploration of the ripple effects of an unthinkable crime. It is a dark, beautifully rendered, and gripping novel about coping, about coming-of-age, and about forgiveness. It is also a beautiful illustration of how one family, broken by tragedy, finds healing.

Opening Lines:  Sometimes in the morning, while she waited for her brother to get out of the bathroom, Meredith Oliver would stand in front of her bureau mirror, lock eyes with her reflection, and say, “This is me. This is really me. Right now. This is me. This is my real life. This is me.”

by Steve Erickson
(Blue Rider Press)

The Twin Towers as black monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey? Yes, please. Steve Erickson’s novel, coming our way in early 2017, has just the right kind of off-beat vibe that tickles my WTF Just Happened?! fancy.

Jacket Copy:  When the Twin Towers suddenly reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota twenty years after their fall, nobody can explain their return. To the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands drawn to the “American Stonehenge”—including Parker and Zema, siblings on their way from L.A. to visit their mother in Michigan—the Towers seem to sing, even as everybody hears a different song. A rumor overtakes the throng that someone can be seen in the high windows of the southern structure. On the ninety-third floor, Jesse Presley—the stillborn twin of the most famous singer who ever lived—suddenly awakes, driven mad over the hours and days to come by a voice in his head that sounds like his but isn’t, and by the memory of a country where he survived in his brother’s place. Meanwhile, Parker and Zema cross a possessed landscape by a mysterious detour no one knows, charted on a map that no one has seen. Haunting, audacious, and undaunted, Shadowbahn is a winding and reckless ride through intersections of danger, destiny, and the conjoined halves of a ruptured nation.

Opening Lines:  Things don’t just disappear into thin—
     ...but she hangs up on him before he finishes. “What the...?” he says, staring at his cell phone in dismay and trying to remember if she ever hung up on him before. As he finishes filling the tank of his truck and replaces the pump’s nozzle, Aaron ponders how this became the kind of argument where his wife hangs up on him. He hauls himself back up into the driver’s seat thinking maybe this is really the kind of argument that’s about something other than what it’s about.

Blurbworthiness:  “Jaw-dropping. In Shadowbahn, Steve Erickson weaves a playlist for the dying American century with his usual lucid-dreaming prose. I’ve read every novel he’s ever written and I’ll still never know how he does it: A tour-de-forcer’s tour de force.”  (Jonathan Lethem, author of A Gambler’s Anatomy)

Searching for John Hughes
by Jason Diamond
(William Morrow)

I’m in the early pages of Jason Diamond’s memoir, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of those books that stays with me for a long time after I turn the last page. Diamond rakes the ashes of his memories of growing up in Chicagoland in the 1980s and uncovers some horrific, heartbreaking scenes of abuse and neglect in his broken family. Balanced against this are the bittersweet movies of John Hughes playing at the mall cineplex at the time. Hughes not only seemed to have his finger on the pulse of Diamond’s adolescent angst, he also provided what could be a roadmap out of a shitty childhood. As Diamond writes: “He was taking a lot of what I was seeing from car windows and giving it to the world in movie form. His movies offered the sense that things were supposed to be normal where I grew up, that the road could get bumpy but ultimately it would get better.” I plan to pair this with Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore), which came out earlier this summer. And of course I’m indulging in my own John Hughes film fest in my screening room at home. To paraphrase Some Kind of Wonderful (my personal favorite of his movies), These books look good wearing my future.

Jacket Copy:  For all fans of John Hughes and his hit films such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles, and Home Alone, comes Jason Diamond’s hilarious memoir of growing up obsessed with the iconic filmmaker’s movies—a preoccupation that eventually convinces Diamond he should write Hughes’ biography and travel to New York City on a quest that is as funny as it is hopeless. For as long as Jason Diamond can remember, he’s been infatuated with John Hughes’ movies. From the outrageous, raunchy antics in National Lampoon’s Vacation to the teenage angst in The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink to the insanely clever and unforgettable Home Alone, Jason could not get enough of Hughes’ films. And so the seed was planted in his mind that it should fall to him to write a biography of his favorite filmmaker. It didn’t matter to Jason that he had no qualifications, training, background, platform, or direction. Thus went the years-long, delusional, earnest, and assiduous quest to reach his goal. But no book came out of these years, and no book will. What he did get was a story that fills the pages of this unconventional, hilarious memoir. In Searching for John Hughes, Jason tells how a Jewish kid from a broken home in a Chicago suburb—sometimes homeless, always restless—found comfort and connection in the likewise broken lives in the suburban Chicago of John Hughes’ oeuvre. He moved to New York to become a writer. He started to write a book he had no business writing. In the meantime, he brewed coffee and guarded cupcake cafes. All the while, he watched John Hughes movies religiously. Though his original biography of Hughes has long since been abandoned, Jason has discovered he is a writer through and through. And the adversity of going for broke has now been transformed into wisdom. Or, at least, a really, really good story. In other words, this is a memoir of growing up. One part big dream, one part big failure, one part John Hughes movies, one part Chicago, and one part New York. It’s a story of what comes after the “Go for it!” part of the command to young creatives to pursue their dreams—no matter how absurd they might seem at first.

Blurbworthiness:  “Both funny and heartbreaking, Diamond’s memoir is not just an account of how one director’s films impacted-and perhaps saved-his life. It is also a memorable reflection on what it means to let go of the past and grow up. A quirkily intelligent memoir of finding oneself in movies.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

by Joshua Mohr
(Two Dollar Radio)

Another memoir high in my always-growing ever-teetering To-Be-Read pile (aka Mt. NeveRest), is Joshua Mohr’s story of redemption from years of hard living and substance abuse. Sirens has been on my radar for a year, ever since I read Mohr’s Buzzfeed essay about his congenital heart defect which almost killed him. As I said back then, “Go here. Read it and weep.” Okay, guys, I’m ready with the Kleenex.

Jacket Copy:  Acclaimed novelist Joshua Mohr provides a captivating and complicated account of his years of substance abuse and culpability in his non-fiction debut. Employing the characterization and chimerical prose for which he has been lauded, Mohr traces his childhood swilling fuzzy navels as a latch-key kid, through his first failed marriage, parenthood, heart-surgery, and his everyday struggle against relapse.

Opening Lines:  It’s six in the morning on New Year’s Day and Ava cries from the crib, which means my wife says something to me like, “Your turn,” and I say something whiny like, “Bottle, fine,” and stumble into the kitchen and spill milk on the counter and don’t wipe it up, leave it for later, after coffee, after the caffeine makes my mind fire right. I tuck the bottle in the waistband of my drawers so I can hoist Ava up with both arms, and she says, “Let’s play,” a new phrase for her, and I carry her back into our bed and lay her in the middle and get back in myself, Lelo and I flanking her, the three of us lying like a happy family, and for twenty seconds that’s what we are.
     Then the numbness starts.
     I notice it first in my right arm, then realize it’s creeping into my leg, too. That’s weird, I think, two limbs falling asleep at the same time.
     Soon there’s no feeling on that entire side of my body, from shoulder to toes.
     I shift positions, rolling onto my back, so blood can flow freely.
     Five seconds. Ten. Twenty.
     Still numb.
     Fear spills out of me like the milk rolling down my daughter’s chin. I shake my dead hand back and forth, back and forth, and say to Lelo, “Something’s wrong,” and she says, “What?” and I say “911.”

Blurbworthiness:  “To the short list of genuinely great addiction memoirs we can now add Sirens, a searing and at times hilarious account of Mohr’s lost years in the dive bars and gutters of San Francisco. Like Mary Karr and Jerry Stahl, there is no line Mohr won’t cross, either in his erstwhile quest for self-immolation, or his fearless honesty in reporting back from that time. But what sets this book apart is Mohr’s unwillingness to traffic in pat notions of redemption.”  (Ron Currie Jr., author of Everything Matters!)

American Ulysses
by Ronald C. White
(Random House)

Ronald C. White’s biography of Abraham Lincoln has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for far too long. I keep meaning to pull it from its place and dive into the life of The Great Emancipator, but something (another book...or two, or three) always seems to get in the way. Now, White’s newest biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s eventual successor, arrives on my Kindle, prodding me to clear some time for 19th-century American politics. This, I think, would be the perfect time to read nearly 2,000 pages of how it’s supposed to be done in the White House.

Jacket Copy:  In his time, Ulysses S. Grant was routinely grouped with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the “Trinity of Great American Leaders.” But the battlefield commander–turned–commander-in-chief fell out of favor in the twentieth century. In American Ulysses, Ronald C. White argues that we need to once more revise our estimates of him in the twenty-first. Based on seven years of research with primary documents—some of them never examined by previous Grant scholars—this is destined to become the Grant biography of our time. White, a biographer exceptionally skilled at writing momentous history from the inside out, shows Grant to be a generous, curious, introspective man and leader—a willing delegator with a natural gift for managing the rampaging egos of his fellow officers. His wife, Julia Dent Grant, long marginalized in the historic record, emerges in her own right as a spirited and influential partner. Grant was not only a brilliant general but also a passionate defender of equal rights in post-Civil War America. After winning election to the White House in 1868, he used the power of the federal government to battle the Ku Klux Klan. He was the first president to state that the government’s policy toward American Indians was immoral, and the first ex-president to embark on a world tour, and he cemented his reputation for courage by racing against death to complete his Personal Memoirs. Published by Mark Twain, it is widely considered to be the greatest autobiography by an American leader, but its place in Grant’s life story has never been fully explored—until now. One of those rare books that successfully recast our impression of an iconic historical figure, American Ulysses gives us a finely honed, three-dimensional portrait of Grant the man—husband, father, leader, writer—that should set the standard by which all future biographies of him will be measured.

Blurbworthiness:  “A fresh assessment of this enigmatic leader, who, like his Homeric namesake, failed at many things before he succeeded in engaging resurrection of Grant featuring excellent maps and character sketches.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

Kill the Next One
by Frederico Axat
(Mulholland Books)

If you want to know why Frederico Axat’s psychological thriller shot right to the top of my must-read pile for 2016, you need look no further than the opening lines (see below). And then the captivating plot set the hook and reeled me in.

Jacket Copy:  Kill the Next One is an audacious psychological thriller where nothing is what it seems. Ted McKay had it all: a beautiful wife, two daughters, a high-paying job. But after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor he finds himself with a gun to his temple, ready to pull the trigger. Then the doorbell rings. A stranger makes him a proposition: why not kill two deserving men before dying? The first target is a criminal, and the second is a man with terminal cancer who, like Ted, wants to die. After executing these kills, Ted will become someone else’s next target, like a kind of suicidal daisy chain. Ted understands the stranger’s logic: it’s easier for a victim’s family to deal with a murder than with a suicide. However, as Ted commits the murders, the crime scenes strike him as odd. The targets know him by name and possess familiar mementos. Even more bizarrely, Ted recognizes locations and men he shouldn’t know. As Ted’s mind begins to crack, dark secrets from his past seep through the fissures.

Opening Lines:  Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently.
     He paused. He couldn’t press the trigger when he had someone waiting at the front door.

The Sleepwalker
by Chris Bohjalian

The arrival of a new Chris Bohjalian novel is always an event to be greeted with open arms...and open eyes. But his latest seems especially promising: a sleepwalker disappears under mysterious circumstances. Was she murdered or did she take a somnambulant stroll into the river? The puzzle is bound to keep us reading as we gather pieces until they all fit together.

Jacket Copy:  When Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, her children fear the worst. Annalee is a sleepwalker whose affliction manifests in ways both bizarre and devastating. Once, she merely destroyed the hydrangeas in front of her Vermont home. More terrifying was the night her older daughter, Lianna, pulled her back from the precipice of the Gale River bridge. The morning of Annalee’s disappearance, a search party combs the nearby woods. Annalee’s husband, Warren, flies home from a business trip. Lianna is questioned by a young, hazel-eyed detective. And her little sister, Paige, takes to swimming the Gale to look for clues. When the police discover a small swatch of fabric, a nightshirt, ripped and hanging from a tree branch, it seems certain Annalee is dead, but Gavin Rikert, the hazel-eyed detective, continues to call, continues to stop by the Ahlbergs’ Victorian home. As Lianna peels back the layers of mystery surrounding Annalee’s disappearance, she finds herself drawn to Gavin, but she must ask herself: Why does the detective know so much about her mother? Why did Annalee leave her bed only when her father was away? And if she really died while sleepwalking, where was the body? Conjuring the strange and mysterious world of parasomnia, a place somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness, The Sleepwalker is a masterful novel from one of our most treasured storytellers.

Opening Lines:  It makes all the sense in the world. You awaken and smell smoke and see that the cat at the foot of your bed is on fire.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Sleepwalker is more than a mystery: it’s a beautiful, wrenching novel of family secrets and the enigmas that link husbands and wives and lovers. And then that ending? Devastating and perfect.”  (Harlan Coben, author of Home)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Soup and Salad: Laila Lalami procrastinates, Patrick Ryan’s 15 unpublished novels, The Worst Book Signing Ever, Care Package Kurt Vonnegut, The Sweetest Book Publicist in the World, Help Put the War On Stage, Parnassus Piggies

On today’s menu:

1.  I have tried to come to peace with my demon, Procrastination, but he continues to sit on my shoulder, as he has done for years, and peck the back of my head with his relentless beak. I take comfort (small comfort, but comfort nonetheless) in knowing other writersbetter and more successful writersare also tortured by this devil. Take Laila Lalami, for instance. The author of The Moor’s Account writes in the L. A. Times:
     I berate myself regularly about this waste of time. Imagine how much you could get done, I tell myself, if only you’d quit social media. Imagine all the things you could write!
     But I can’t help my procrastination. And for me, at least, it is intimately connected to self-doubt. The novel I’m envisioning at any moment and the novel I’m actually writing are never the same. One is perfect; the other is imperfect. One is intricate and surprising and beautiful; the other is straightforward and conventional and ugly. So ugly that I can’t bear to look at it just yet. When I try to put the fictional world into real words, the result is often frustrating. Before I’ve even started writing the story in my head, I know it will disappoint me on the page.
     So I log into Facebook instead.
One of these days, I’m gonna write something as brilliant as this. One of these days.

2.  Patrick Ryan (The Dream Life of Astronauts) may or may not be a procrastinator, but he has certainly had his share of “desk-drawer novels.” Earlier this summer, Lit Hub had a great piece by Sophia Efthimiatou charting Patrick’s ups and downs. It begins thusly:
     He was at a meditation retreat in the Catskills, sitting cross-legged on a big flat rock on the side of a lake, eyes closed, pulse steady, surrounded by chipmunks and beavers and deer and newts, when Patrick Ryan decided he would never again try to write a book.
     He had completed seven unpublished novels by then, attempted eight or nine more unfinished ones, all of them shoved away into manuscript boxes that took up as much space in his apartment as a child’s coffin. As he was nearing 40, there was nothing impressive about this activity of his—writing, that is—but a sad compulsion that bordered on the absurd.
As someone who is looking forward to reading The Dream Life of Astronauts, I am so grateful that Patrick never gave up.

3.  Another excellent Lit Hub essay you might have missed when you were busy vacationing at Yosemite or slathering SPF 100 on your winter-pale skin at Atlantic City this summer: Remembering the Worst Book Signing Ever by Lori Jakiela. Her book is called Miss New York Has Everything, a line she took from an episode of the 1970s TV show That Girl, but a title that led to all sorts of hilarious confusion at Sam’s Club. Here’s a snippet of her trials and tribulations:
     Inside Sam’s Club, everything—the signs, the cake, the carts, more Grand Opening balloons—is red white and blue, as if Sam’s is America itself and not just a place where Americans get a bargain on 1,000-count boxes of latex exam gloves.
     People ram by, massive carts stuffed with paper towels and dog-food bags big enough to stash bodies in. Behind me a woman in a motorized scooter with a red balloon tied to the back revs up. She says, “Beep,” extending the vowels into a screech. She waves her arms like propellers. “I’m trying to get through here,” she says. “Jesus Christ.”
     I make my way to the information desk. I’ve brought a copy of my book and hold it up to show the woman at the desk. She’s wearing a regulation Sam’s vest. It’s covered with American flag pins, smiley faces, and buttons that say, “Ask Me! I Can Help!”
     I say, “I’m here for a booksigning? Do you know where I’m supposed to go?”
     “A what?” she says.
     “I’m an author,” I say and point to my book. “I’m supposed to sign some books here?”
      “I don’t know nothing about that,” the woman says and holds up a finger, then reaches for a big red phone that looks like a cartoon.
     Off toward the snack bar, the giant free cake seems mauled by squirrels. The line for free hot dogs stretches back to the entrance. The 300-count bags of roasted pig-ear dog treats are buy-one-get-one, which explains why nearly every cart that rolls by is stocked with them.

4.  Author Odie Lindsey (We Come to Our Senses) was the proverbial “Any Soldier” during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which meant he was also the recipient of a care package full of Kurt Vonnegut novels, as he writes at The Millions:
     I looked around as if to thwart a setup, then squatted on the sand floor of the tent and went at it. Ripping the tail of packing tape off of the top, I expected a reward of Spaghetti-O’s or Cheerios, or pray-God, Jolly Ranchers.
     There was nothing there. Nothing but books. I read Slapstick out of obligation, and because it sat on top of the stack, and because its cover featured an illustrated clown.
I, too, was the recipient of care packages during my tour in the Middle East nearly 25 years later and transmogrified my experiences into the character of Abe Shrinkle (aka The Care Package King) in Fobbit. Like Abe, my greed knew no bounds. I mean, there’s just something euphoric about the squeal of ripping back that packaging tape....

5.  I can’t remember when I first met Caitlin Hamilton Summie—15 years ago? 20 years?—but I do know she was the first publicist to personally reach out to me, a neophyte book critic and blogger-in-the-rough. Now the owner of her own marketing and publicity company, Caitlin first crossed paths with me when she worked for Unbridled Books. I was always struck by the energy and love she put behind every book she sent my way (including during my year-long deployment to Baghdad in 2005). As I look back over my correspondence with Caitlin, I’m struck by how she never fails to ask about my life—my job, my writing, my kids, the weather outside my window, and so on. I always get the feeling that Caitlin’s words go deeper than the surface of e-mail text—her concern for my well-being rings genuine and true. Oh, did I mention we’ve never met in person? We came close once during an annual Book Expo America when it was held in Washington, D.C., but for whatever reason (probably socially-awkward me chickening out at the last minute), we never connected. So, I appreciated this behind-the-scenes look at Caitlin in her conversation with Sonya Chung (The Loved Ones), which includes this comment from Caitlin: “Every discouraging moment comes with a moment of success or joy—a great and important review, the discovery of a new talent, that perfect pitch to a niche outlet—and so we here in this firm get up and turn the lights on to make certain those voices are heard.” Perhaps the best news of all is the fact that Caitlin will see her own book, a debut collection of short stories, published next spring by Fomite. I can’t wait to start getting the word out about To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts.

6.  Air Force veteran J. A. Moad II wants to put the war on stage and he needs your help. Check out his crowd-funding project to stage his original production Outside Paducah: the Wars at Home this Veterans Day. Please consider sending a few dollars in his direction.

7.  And speaking of People Helping People....A wonderful thing is happening at Parnassus Books (in addition to the awesome bookselling skills on display, yo): authors are rallying around bookseller Stephanie Appell who is facing some steep medical bills. Check out the Parnassus blog post Book People Are the Best People, and then get ready to bid on some custom-designed piggy you can start saving for someone else’s rainy day.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sunday Sentence: 99 Poems by Dana Gioia

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

          Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
          but you put it where your mouth is.
          And it talks.

“Money” from 99 Poems by Dana Gioia

Friday, September 9, 2016

Friday Freebie: Brightwood by Tania Unsworth and Two Unbelieveable FIBs by Adam Shaughnessy

Congratulations to Terry Pearson, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies.

This week’s book contest is for three new books from Algonquin Young Readers: Brightwood by Tania Unsworth and The Unbelieveable FIB: The Trickster’s Tale and The Unbelieveable FIB: Over the Underworld by Adam Shaughnessy. These would make a perfect back-to-school gift for the young bookworms in your life (which is not to say adult readers won’t have a whopping good time reading them, too). Read on for more information about the books...

In the spine-tingling Brightwood, a girl fights to save her home and her life from a mysterious stranger. Daisy Fitzjohn knows there are two worlds: the outside world and the world of her home, a secluded mansion called Brightwood Hall. But only Brightwood is real for Daisyshe’s never once set foot outside its grounds. Daisy and her mother have everything they need within Brightwood’s magnificent, half-ruined walls, including Daisy’s best friends: a talking rat named Tar and the ghost of a long-ago explorer who calls herself Frank. When Daisy’s mother leaves one morning, a peculiar visitor, James Gritting, arrives on the estate, claiming to be a distant cousin. But as the days tick by and Daisy’s mother doesn’t return, Gritting becomes more and more menacing. He wants Brightwood for himself, and he will do anything to get it. Tania Unsworth takes readers on a twisting, heart-pounding journey through dark corridors and wild woods to a place where the line between imagination and madness is sometimes hard to find.

In The Trickster’s Tale, MAGIC is everywhere....and the last thing you should do is believe your own eyes. Dark clouds and ominous thunder have been hanging over Middleton for days. Some say it’s just bad weather, but eleven-year-old Pru will soon learn that it’s much, much more dangerous than that. Mythical beings are invading her usually ordinary town, and it’s up to Pru and newcomer ABEwith help from an uncommonly rude squirrel and the mysterious Mister Fox and his Fantasy Investigation Bureauto save their home from being destroyed by battling Norse gods. To do that, they’ll have to outrun trolls and enter worlds of myth and magic. When the pair find themselves locked in a battle against a dangerously clever enemy, they race to find the lost Eye of Odin, source of all knowledgeand the key to stopping a war that could destroy both human and immortal realms. This book was originally published as The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB.

In Over the Underworld, friends ABE and Pru race to stop the chain of events foretold in Norse myth to lead to Ragnarokthe war that ends the world. It’s been a year since friends ABE and Pru joined Mister Fox’s Fantasy Investigation Bureau to save their hometown from an invasion of Viking gods and giants. Life has been incredibly ordinary ever since. Then the Norse Allfather, Odin, appears with terrible news: Baldur, his favorite son, has been murderedthe first step in a fated chain of events that leads to Ragnarok. Over the Underworld, the second book in the Unbelievable FIB series, takes ABE and Pru on a thrilling new adventure. They outrun trolls, explore Asgard and the Viking underworld, and try to outsmart the Queen of the Dead herself to save the worldand survive seventh grade.

If you’d like a chance at winning all three books, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 15, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 16. 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 8, 2016

John Domini’s Library: “My Mess, My Mountain”

Reader:  John Domini
Location:  Des Moines, Iowa
Collection Size:  3,500 volumes

Equal parts recrimination and encouragement: isn’t that a library? When I take in the shelves surrounding me, both here in my work-space and elsewhere around the house, certainly I’m shamed, seared, by all the titles still unread, all the authors so much more courageous, determined, and skilled. Yet the same long look allows me to bask a bit, to enjoy a text-besotted soothing, as I consider the challenging reads I eventually caught up with, or the aid I lent to this novel with a review, and that set of stories with some lines in an essay. Then too, when I spot, say, Colette’s Chéri novels or Steve Tomasula’s VAS, accomplishments that’ll remain out of reach no matter how I stretch, the very qualities that humble me can, all paradoxically, lift me up. It’s an inspiration, isn’t it, to witness transcendence? Especially when you consider the differences! The chasm between Colette’s spiky, sexy take on the social novel, circa 1920, and Tomasula’s multimedia spectacle of anthropo-sci-fi, circa 2005—that chasm gapes so wide, the earlier writer wouldn’t even recognize the later book as fiction. Yet here both sit, and both put me in my place even as they prod me to do better; the party’s come one, come all.

I’ve got some rules, granted, a kind of system for those walls with the extra insulation of bound pages. I live in an older Des Moines neighborhood, the lots small but the houses intended for big families, and so I’ve got rooms enough to parse out my collection. Upstairs, for instance, I keep the poetry in the guest bedroom. Insomniac nights find me in there, so as not to bother my wife, taking solace from, especially, John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Then on the ground floor I’ve got a kind of trophy room, with some of my oldest favorites, in particular Edith Hamilton’s compendium of Greek myths. So too, this room gathers all the books I’ve written about in one way or another. The organization is supposed to be alphabetical by author, but the shelves have gotten so crowded that a number of these “trophies” lie on their sides, atop the others. While I’m admitting my shortcomings, too, I should add that a few of these taste of good, greasy schadenfreude. A few surfed into the bookstores on waves of New York money, amid a fanfare of blurbs, and yet nowadays the title elicits a blank stare.

The core of my library, though, is here in my “office”—an ill-fitting word, since it suggests I’m running a business. Here I’m among my own kind, in that nearly everything I write is either fiction or the sort of non-fiction that I hope glistens with some style, some personality. Thus the shelves around me are taken up by the same two baggy categories. That is, the non-fiction (roughly a third of the room’s total) includes no encyclopedia of baseball, but rather a couple of Roger Angells. What better company than Angell at the ballpark, when I don’t feel like working? As for my novels and stories that make up the majority of the office collection, the oldest are hand-me-downs from the family. I’m especially found of my parents’ edition of A Christmas Carol, standalone, on a British imprint. The illustrations emphasize the ghost story, and neither the front matter nor the back contains a date; my best guess is the era of Downton Abbey. Also I’ve still got a couple of my high-school pickups, for instance a mid-’60s paperback of Gunter Grass’ Cat and Mouse, now in the same tattered shape as when it left my 16-year-old mind. These and the rest strive for alphabetical arrangement, but in this room as in others I’ve no choice but to stick a lot of stuff in sideways. The crosswise gang consists mostly of books I’m bound and determined to get to, relatively new acquisitions, but I also spot, for instance, Don Quixote. My C’s were already overflowing their banks, see, but my copy had long since disappeared and Ecco brought out this new translation...

There’s also a rack of Domini, more encouragement I suppose, though the shelving system might be termed Bad to Worse. Up top I’ve got published books, including an anthology or two, in reliably chronological order. Beneath them come more anthologies, plus the sort of quarterlies that look good lined up, but the chronology turns haphazard, as there’s no way to fit in some of the later pubs except, what else, sideways. Below those, things really break down, with battered reading copies bookended by a fat new MS, plus assorted items printed off the web, in newsprint, or in old-school photocopy.

If it’s a mess, though, it’s my mess, and I keep it right at my elbow. My published work, that is, stands alongside the space in which I try to compose more. I work on my feet, at a head-high, wall-wide jack-of-all-trades that Office Max would call an “office center”—warehouse clearance, like the bookshelves. The unit looks to date from the early ’90s, it’s got a rollout for a keyboard, and it was in place when we first toured the home, a monster in its cave, ululating as I sailed by. Resistance was futile; I had the previous owner leave the thing and jerry-rigged a booster in order to stand. This setup also requires books, four volumes of an encyclopedia to which I contributed. Around it spills the usual writer’s swill, the notebook and the handwritten drafts, the printouts of oh-so-important emails heaped up over others even more important. Here, too, I stack the critic’s TBR, a good dozen at least: advance reader’s copies, with a few exceptions. They sit at my right hand, you could say, and sure enough this is a sign of status. My rule is, if a book makes it into this pile, it gets half an hour’s concentrated reading, with all my screens dark and muted. After that, I know whether I can pitch a review, and how, and to whom.

Nor do those ARCs exhaust my library, since a desk like mine, one with all the fixin’s, includes shelves. On these, reference works share space with family memorabilia — and one upper corner provides the perfect home for an heirloom, come down to me from the family over in Naples. This is a tall edition of La Divina Commedia, printed in MDCCC...1869. Its heavy cloth-based pages feature, in many of the Cantos, copies of the famed Doré engravings, good copies by and large, though whoever drew these has trouble with shoulders and hips. The covers are thick cardboard with durable leather sheathing, not vellum but high quality. The Italian on the spine, the title, remains a perfectly legible gold on maroon. In some worst-case scenario, if Des Moines tumbled into the same nightmare as latter-day Aleppo, this Commedia is the book I’d risk my neck to save.

As I say, this volume crossed the Atlantic to reach me. Over in Naples, it served as the Holy of Holies in the collection of a Dominican friar. This prete worked most of his life in what we’d now call the inner city, his home a cell above the church sanctuary. There he enjoyed visits from the extended family—including the two young brothers who grew up to be my father and uncle.

“That room of his,” my uncle told me once, when I was over in the ancient city, “I’ll never forget it. A mountain of books.”

With Movieola!, John Domini has three stories collections and three novels in print. Other books include selections of criticism and poetry. He’s published fiction in The Paris Review and Ploughshares, non-fiction in GQ and the New York Times, and won a poetry prize from Meridian. Grants include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The New York Times praised his work as “dreamlike...grabs hold of both reader and character,” and Alan Cheuse, of NPR, described it as “witty and biting.” John has taught at Harvard, Northwestern and elsewhere and makes his home in Des Moines.

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.