Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Wild Life by Kathy Fish

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

It’s Thanksgiving and your mother’s house has gone golden and clotted with voices.

“Cancer Arm” from Wild Life by Kathy Fish

Friday, December 28, 2018

Friday Freebie: Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna

Congratulations to Julie Geisler, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Iconoclast’s Journal by Terry Griggs.

This week’s giveaway is for Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna. Lee Child had this to say about the novel: “Opening this book is like arming a bomb--the suspense is relentless and the payoff is spectacular.” The paperback of Two Girls Down comes out next month and I have a copy to give away to one lucky reader. Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...

As addictive, cinematic, and binge-worthy a narrative as The Wire and The Killing, Two Girls Down introduces Louisa Luna as a thriller writer of immense talent and verve. When two young sisters disappear from a strip mall parking lot in a small Pennsylvania town, their devastated mother hires an enigmatic bounty hunter, Alice Vega, to help find the girls. Immediately shut out by a local police department already stretched thin by budget cuts and the growing OxyContin and meth epidemic, Vega enlists the help of a disgraced former cop, Max Caplan. Cap is a man trying to put the scandal of his past behind him and move on, but Vega needs his help to find the girls, and she will not be denied. With little to go on, Vega and Cap will go to extraordinary lengths to untangle a dangerous web of lies, false leads, and complex relationships to find the girls before time runs out, and they are gone forever.

If you’d like a chance at winning Two Girls Down, 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 Jan. 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 4. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Monograph by Chris Ware

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

As an artist, the one thing you should never ever lose is your momentum. (It’s like a giant boulder; once you stop pushing, it’s almost impossible to get it rolling again.)

Monograph by Chris Ware

Friday, December 21, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Iconoclast’s Journal by Terry Griggs

Congratulations to Phil Milio, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Lullaby Road by James Anderson.

This week’s giveaway is for The Iconoclast’s Journal by Terry Griggs. Here’s what a couple of reviews had to say about the novel:

“...smashes apart Victorian society (and modern society by extension) and rebuilds it as a Swiftian fantasy, raucous as Huckleberry Finn and nearly as bizarre as Alice in Wonderland…intensely intoxicating and bestowing delicious feelings of hallucination.” (Quill & Quire)

“Terry Griggs’ second novel is as exuberantly inventive, verbally juiced up and sexually outrageous as her first, The Lusty Man―and more pointedly iconoclastic….The language, the verbal fireworks, the apparently limitless stream of image and metaphor―startling, heady, hilarious―do it all.” (The Globe and Mail)

Personally, I was hooked by the opening sentence of the novel, which goes like this: In the month of May, 1898, on his wedding night, Thomas Griffith Smolders was chased around his hotel room, not by his bride, as you might expect, but by a ball of fire—luminous and strangely cool.

I have a new paperback copy of the novel from the publisher, Biblioasis, to give away (please note: the inside cover is stamped “Review copy,” but apart from that, it’s a finished copy of the book). Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...

Spooked by some ball lightning on his wedding night, repressed young Catholic Griffith Smolders interprets this as a sign and abandons his conjugal responsibilities by escaping through the window, enduring a series of misadventures along the way involving, among others, con men, murderesses, shipwrecks, and autodidact biologist hermits. Giving chase, his betrothed, Avice Drinkwater, finally runs Grif aground in a tiny island community, and prepares to exact her revenge. Set in the rough-and-tumble late nineteenth-century backwoods, The Iconoclast’s Journal is wildly kinetic, a madcap picaresque and comic anti-romance by one of the most inventive writers at work today.

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

My First Time: Jon Chopan

On Being an Outsider:
My First Interview with a Veteran

I was teaching a summer section of Freshman Comp at Ohio State for some extra cash when I met David. He’d just returned from Iraq and was trying to get his degree, though I could tell on day one that his heart was only half in it. He wore sunglasses, was dismissive about himself and his writing, wore a smile that said, we both know I don’t want to be here and I dare you to call me out on it. And I did: in class, during smoke breaks, in the parking lot after class. David was tall and skinny and handsome and lost in a way that made me like him instantly, even if he was determined to give up on himself. His life, to that point, had been pretty fairy-tale American: homecoming king, football god, off to fight in a war because of a sense of duty to his friends and his hometown and his country.

I don’t know when we started talking about his tour, though I am certain it happened over a cigarette. We’d sit together during breaks in class, the only smokers, sucking down one, two, three cigarettes and talking about any number of things. Gays in the military, which David had mixed feelings about. Women in the military, which David had mixed feelings about. And the war, which David had yet to make sense of.

Earlier that year, I’d started to work on what I thought was going to be a linked collection of stories about a young man named Tully Fitzsimmons, who went off to Iraq and came home and then wrestled with being home after seeing war. I’d met Tully in a story I started writing after graduate school. I was adjuncting, living in a shoebox apartment that cost $450 a month, and had no intention of writing about war. The trouble was, in those early days, even after I finished that first story, which sent Tully off to war, I didn’t want to write about that part. I figured I could skip it, bring him home to wrestle with postwar life and never have to deal with what I felt I had no right to write about and no knowledge with which to write it.

I’d written two of Tully’s stories when David entered my life, but already the three people I trusted to read my work, the people who’d heard me talk about all the ideas I had for stories about Tully, were telling me that I was going to have to write about the war. I didn’t really hear that until the stories started freezing up and it became clear that I was going to have to at least try writing about it because Tully didn’t want to talk about being home anymore, he wanted me to talk about the war.

By this time, David and I had grown close in a smoking-buddy, blue-collar kid turned college professor meets veteran who is uncertain about college kind of way. We talked a lot, joked inside and outside of class. I knew that David was thinking about going back into the military, though he couldn’t say why. He’d just gotten a tattoo that covered his whole rib cage, which featured skulls and dead things climbing out of him, a kind of memento to his time in Iraq. I didn’t understand why he would want to return. He had a beautiful fiancée, a job that was halfway decent, and was going to college for free. He and his bride-to-be were already talking about kids.

I could have interviewed any number of buddies from back home who had served or were still serving. I suppose my relationship with David and something about him—how easy he was to talk to, joke with, how uncertain he seemed—played a role in his being the first one I talked to. And one day, while sitting outside the library chain-smoking cigarettes, he told me about his brother who called to tell him about getting his first kill. David hadn’t killed anyone during his tour and when his brother called to tell him, David said, “That’s on you.” I remember thinking how complex and strange his reaction was, how unexpected and dynamic. Here were two brothers: one who was excited to talk about getting his first kill; the other repulsed by it, in a way, or at least confounded by it, this ultimate act of violence, the very thing men are asked to do, I thought, when they are sent off to fight in a war.

The week after classes let out, David and I met in a bar a few blocks from his father’s house, where he was staying at the time. I was nervous. I didn’t want to offend him, have him think I was taking advantage of him. I’d told him about the book, about my resistance to writing about the war. He didn’t openly judge me or try to push me one way or the other, though he said he thought I was going to have to write about it if I wanted to get it right.

I didn’t know what I was after. The shade of things: the feel, the smells, and sounds, something that wasn’t already lodged in the popular culture. But you can’t say that to someone. I figured I’d ask a few questions, he’d talk or he wouldn’t, and I’d listen as close as I could for the details. And he did talk, despite my vague questions. Where were you stationed? Why did you go? What do you remember, stories, details? I took notes about all of it. Boot camp, specialty training, length of tour, names, dates. David told me a few stories and none of them were full up with gore and violence and the things of TV. I listened, asked a few follow-up questions here and there, but having never interviewed anyone, we mostly sipped our beers and talked as easily as we always did, full of laughter and good humor. It didn’t feel at all like an interview (if one could forget about the endless notes I was taking).

By the end, I didn’t know if I’d gotten anything I could use or if I would use it if I had, and David seemed concerned. He wanted to know if he’d helped, if he’d given me something to work with. I assured him that he had, that it was all good stuff, even if I didn’t know how to make it work just yet; but that wasn’t enough. I sensed an urgency then. There was something he wanted me to understand that I hadn’t, or maybe he was worried he hadn’t said it right. There was a pause as we went to shake hands and say goodbye, a silence that wasn’t common between us. David asked if I could spare another thirty minutes, follow him back to his father’s place where he had a few videos, maps, trinkets he wanted me to see.

At his house, David introduced me to his father and then took me to his room where he closed the door and talked quietly. He pulled out a flash drive and showed me a few videos, which he’d taken driving around Iraq. It was mostly just guys joking around, cities passing by the window, kids waving. It was just everyday life, nothing dramatic or violent, but it seemed important. I could see the place, see what David saw day to day. I could see the boredom he’d talked about, the long stretches of time where nothing special happened. He showed me a few maps, too. Where he’d been, places of special note during the war, where his brother was when he got that first kill. I don’t remember now how long I was there, thirty minutes, maybe. I don’t remember how we ended it, except that David walked me out to my car and made a joke, some show of calling me Professor. A few weeks later we had dinner, his fiancée and my girlfriend joining us, and we never talked about the war again. Maybe he felt he’d told me all he could, or maybe I felt he’d told me all he could, that I’d gotten everything I needed. At dinner we talked about the upcoming wedding, the kids they were planning on having, if David was going to finish school, which he was still uncommitted to, despite how well he’d done in my class, despite how strong his writing was, how smart and insightful he could be—and that at about half his potential.

Soon after I interviewed David, I felt like I could write the war, or felt I could at least try. After I talked to David, I talked to Nick, a close buddy from back home who had served in the Marine Corps, done a tour in Iraq, and was the person I imagined when I came up with Tully. We had beers and smoked and Nick told me everything that came to memory, the stories, the smells, anything that struck him as important.

My character Tully started talking about the war and I listened and trusted him to take me there and get it right, as best he could. I trusted that his stories would hold up, even if he got some details wrong, even if his memory wasn’t the memory of other men. It didn’t turn out to be a linked collection in the way I had imagined. It became more David’s story and Nick’s and Tully’s and a number of other men I met as I wrote what would eventually become Veterans Crisis Hotline.

A few days ago, I sent David the book. When he saw that it had been published, even though six years had passed since we first met, he reached out to congratulate me. I admit I’m nervous to hear what he has to say. I know he’ll read it. We were friends back then and he tried very hard to help me. I think he needed to tell his story and trusted me with it. And my only hope is that he will see—even if I got it all wrong—every detail and name and place, the way it felt and the way it was, that he understands that I heard him, that he understands that I listened closely to what he had to say and tried my best to get it right.

Jon Chopan is an associate professor of creative writing at Eckerd College. He received his BA and MA in American History from SUNY Oswego and his MFA from The Ohio State University. His first collection, Pulled From the River, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2012. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Hotel Amerika, Post Road, Epiphany, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2017 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction for his collection Veterans Crisis Hotline, which was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in October. Visit his website here.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Hawaii by James Michener

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

No human beings then existed to celebrate the event. Perhaps some weird and vanished flying thing spied the escaping steam and swooped down to inspect it; more likely the roots of this future island were born in darkness and great waves and brooding nothingness.

Hawaii by James Michener

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

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

We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Front Porch Books: December 2018 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.

Very Nice
by Marcy Dermansky

Jacket Copy:  Rachel Klein never meant to kiss her creative writing professor, but with his long eyelashes, his silky hair, and the sad, beautiful life he laid bare on Twitter, she does, and the kiss is very nice. Zahid Azzam never planned to become a houseguest in his student’s sprawling Connecticut home, but with the sparkling swimming pool, the endless supply of Whole Foods strawberries, and Rachel’s beautiful mother, he does, and the home is very nice. Becca Klein never thought she’d have a love affair so soon after her divorce, but when her daughter’s professor walks into her home, bringing with him an apricot standard poodle named Princess, she does, and the affair is...a very bad idea. In a darkly hilarious novel that zigzags between the rarified circles of Manhattan investment banking, the achingly self-serious MFA programs of the Midwest, and the private bedrooms of Connecticut, Marcy Dermansky has written an audacious, addictive, and wickedly smart take on the way we live now.

Opening Lines:  I didn’t think, the day I kissed my professor for the first time, that he would kiss me back. His lips were soft. He tasted like coffee. The coffee I had made for him.

Blurbworthiness:  “Marcy Dermansky is a light switch, a volume knob, a fire drill. Her novels are bright and attention-grabbing, from the first page to the last, and Very Nice is her best yet. This smart, sexy, funny book is a balm for rattled nerves. Write me a thousand more books, Marcy, and I’ll read them all.” (Emma Straub, author of Modern Lovers)

by Anna Burns

Jacket Copy:  In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him—and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend—rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers. Milkman is a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive. Told with ferocious energy and sly, wicked humor, Milkman establishes Anna Burns as one of the most consequential voices of our day.

Opening Lines:  The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.

Blurbworthiness:  “Milkman is delivered in a breathless, hectic, glorious torrent....It’s an astute, exquisite account of Northern Ireland’s social landscape....A potent and urgent book, with more than a hint of barely contained fury.”  (Irish Independent)

Song for the Unraveling of the World
by Brian Evenson
(Coffee House Press)

Jacket Copy:  A newborn’s absent face appears on the back of someone else’s head, a filmmaker goes to gruesome lengths to achieve the silence he’s after for his final scene, and a therapist begins, impossibly, to appear in a troubled patient's room late at night. In these stories of doubt, delusion, and paranoia, no belief, no claim to objectivity, is immune to the distortions of human perception. Here, self-deception is a means of justifying our most inhuman impulses―whether we know it or not.

Opening Lines:  No matter which way we turned the girl, she didn’t have a face. There was hair in front and hair in the back—only saying which was the front and which was the back was impossible. I got Jim Slip to look on one side and I looked from the other and the other members of the lodge tried to hold her gently or not so gently in place, but no matter how we looked or held her the face just wasn’t there. Her mother was screaming, blaming us, but what could we do about it? We were not to blame. There was nothing we could have done.

Blurbworthiness:  “Brian Evenson is one of my favorite living horror writers, and this collection is him at his eerie and disquieting best.” (Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties)

The Municipalists
by Seth Fried
(Penguin Books)

Jacket Copy:  In Metropolis, the gleaming city of tomorrow, the dream of the great American city has been achieved. But all that is about to change, unless a neurotic, rule-following bureaucrat and an irreverent, freewheeling artificial intelligence can save the city from a mysterious terrorist plot that threatens its very existence. Henry Thompson has dedicated his life to improving America’s infrastructure as a proud employee of the United States Municipal Survey. So when the agency comes under attack, he dutifully accepts his unexpected mission to visit Metropolis looking for answers. But his plans to investigate quietly, quickly, and carefully are interrupted by his new partner: a day-drinking know-it-all named OWEN, who also turns out to be the projected embodiment of the agency’s supercomputer. Soon, Henry and OWEN are fighting to save not only their own lives and those of the city’s millions of inhabitants, but also the soul of Metropolis. The Municipalists is a thrilling, funny, and touching adventure story, a tour-de-force of imagination that trenchantly explores our relationships to the cities around us and the technologies guiding us into the future.

Blurbworthiness:  “A thinking person’s comic thriller, The Municipalists is a joy ride and a meditation both. Seth Fried is the consummate urban planner of a novelist, providing us with exciting thoroughfares of action as well as quiet gardens of feeling. And the story stars, among other characters, a drunk and vain (but ultimately loveable) computer. What else could a fiction dweller ask for? A wonderful debut novel.” (Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask)

Hold Fast Your Crown
by Yannick Haenel
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  A man writes an enormous screenplay on the life of Herman Melville. Not a single producer is interested in it. One day, someone gives him the phone number of the great American filmmaker Michael Cimino, legendary director of The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. A meeting is arranged in New York, and Cimino reads the manuscript. What follows is a series of crazy adventures through Ellis Island, the Musée de la Chasse in Paris, a lake in Italy. We run into Isabelle Huppert, Diana the hunting goddess, a Dalmatian named Sabbat, a diabolical neighbor, and two shady characters with conspicuous mustaches. There’s also a pretty PhD student, an unpleasant concierge, and an aggressive maître d’ who looks like Emmanuel Macron...This improbable, insightful tale bridges the divide between cinema and literature in unexpected ways that are at once gratifying and profound.

Opening Lines: Back then, I was crazy. I had a seven-hundred-page screenplay on the life of Melville crammed into a box. Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, the greatest of all American writers, the one who, in launching Captain Ahab in search of the white whale, incited a mutiny of global proportions, and through his books offered dizzying prophecies I adhered to for years. Melville, whose life was a never-ending catastrophe, who constantly fought against the thought of killing himself and, after having wonderful adventures in the South Seas and great success telling about them, suddenly converted to literature, that is, to conceiving the written word as truth, and wrote Mardi, which no one read, then Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which no one read either, then The Confidence Man, which, again, no one read, before holing up for the final nineteen years of his life in a customs office in New York, and declaring to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

Blurbworthiness: “A wild novel, a blaze of astounding images.”  (L'Obs)

Red Birds
by Mohammed Hanif
(Grove Atlantic)

Jacket Copy:  An American pilot crash lands in the desert and finds himself on the outskirts of the very camp he was supposed to bomb. After days spent wandering and hallucinating from dehydration, Major Ellie is rescued by one of the camp’s residents, a teenager named Momo, whose entrepreneurial money-making schemes are failing as his family is falling apart: His older brother, Ali, left for his first day of work at an American base and never returned; his parents are at each other’s throats; his dog, Mutt, is having a very bad day; and an earthy-crunchy aid worker has shown up wanting to research him for her book on the Teenage Muslim Mind. Amidst the madness, Momo sets out to search for his brother Ali, hoping his new Western acquaintances might be able to help find him. But as the truth of Ali’s whereabouts begin to unfold, the effects of American “aid” on this war-torn country are revealed to be increasingly pernicious.

Opening Lines:  On the third day, I find the plane. I’d been looking for something to eat or drink, anything of nutritional value really. I know that I can’t survive for long on the measly rations in my survival kit. A ripped parachute and regulation sunglasses were all I had found on my bruised ass when I came to. Roving Angels would be on their way to rescue me, but sometimes Angels can take their time and in order for this rescue to be successful I need to stay alive.

Blurbworthiness:  “As grimly, intelligently comic as if written by an Asian Joseph Heller.” (Daily Telegraph)

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do
by Pete Fromm

Jacket Copy:  A taciturn carpenter has been too busy putting the final details on others’ homes to pay much attention to his own fixer-upper. But when his wife becomes pregnant with their first child, he realizes he’ll need to apply his art closer to home. For Taz and Marnie, their dreams are coming into focus, sustained by their deep sense of love and now family. The blueprint for the perfect life eludes Taz, plummeting him head first in the new strange world of fatherhood, of responsibility and late nights and unexpected joy and sorrow. It is a deceptively small novel with a very big heart.

Opening Lines:  Taz is on his knees when she tells him, his arms abuzz with the repeated hammer blows, tingling and tweaking. He looks up, ears buzzing too, the seven bar and his fingers wedged underneath another six inches of the damned kryptonite subfloor.
       Thumbs hooked into her tool belt, like now she’ll just get back after all that pesky lath, Marnie watches him, smile just waiting to bloom, and says it again.
       He blinks, lifts an eyebrow, and wriggles his fingers free, rubs away some dust. “For real?” he says.
       Fighting back the grin, she reaches into the pencil slot in her tool belt and eases up the pregnancy test, just a peek, pushes it back down. “The eaglet has landed.”

by Christian Kiefer

Jacket Copy:  A Vietnam vet still reeling from war, John Frazier finds himself an unwitting witness to a confrontation, decades in the making, between two steely matriarchs: his aunt, Evelyn Wilson, and her former neighbor, Kimiko Takahashi. John comes to learn that in the onslaught of World War II, the Takahashis had been displaced as once-beloved tenants of the Wilson orchard and sent to an internment camp. One question has always plagued both families: What happened to the Takahashi son, Ray, when he returned from service and found that Placer County was no longer home—that nowhere was home for a Japanese American? As layers of family secrets unravel, the harrowing truth forces John to examine his own guilt. In prose recalling Thomas Wolfe, Phantoms is a stunning exploration of the ghosts of American exceptionalism that haunt us today.

Opening Lines:  Those were halcyon days. All summer we ranged over dry grass hills crackling with heat, their surfaces broken by ragged oaks hiding secret pools of silent blue shadow. Days of rattlesnake and buckeye, of blue jay and digger pine. And days, too, of cold creek water, of plunging into the irrigation canals that tucked along the base of each soft, folded ridgeline, or coming up to the bank coughing and spitting and steaming in the afternoon sun. And, most of all, those were the days of the orchards. Of peaches, of pears, of plums. All aglow like jewels. Like tiny suns.

Blurbworthiness:  “The pacing of Phantoms felt like a perfect gallop into every sunset. From the first paragraph, I was captured by the vibrancy of Kiefer’s prose, both as sophisticated and shimmering as the family secrets his characters unwind. Phantoms is a story of history, examination, and is a pleasure to read.”  (Natashia Deón, author of Grace)

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
by Casey Cep

Jacket Copy:  Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted—thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend. Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more working on her own version of the case. Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.

Opening Lines: Nobody recognized her. Harper Lee was well known, but not by sight, and if she hadn’t introduced herself, it’s unlikely that anyone in the courtroom would have figured out who she was. Hundreds of people were crowded into the gallery, filling the wooden benches that squeaked whenever someone moved or leaning against the back wall if they hadn’t arrived in time for a seat. Late September was not late enough for the Alabama heat to have died down, and the air-conditioning in the courtroom wasn’t working, so the women waved fans while the men’s suits grew damp under their arms and around their collars. The spectators whispered from time to time, and every so often they laughed—an uneasy laughter that evaporated whenever the judge quieted them.

Blurbworthiness: “A triumph on every level. One of the losses to literature is that Harper Lee never found a way to tell a gothic true-crime story she’d spent years researching. Casey Cep has excavated this mesmerizing story and tells it with grace and insight and a fierce fidelity to the truth.” (David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon)

Juliet the Maniac
by Juliet Escoria
(Melville House)

Jacket Copy:  Juliet the Maniac is a debut coming-of-age novel from Juliet Escoria, the “indelible, shrewd and frank and real” (Emily Gould) writer DAZED describes as “a combination of Denis Johnson and Joan Didion.” In the novel, it’s 1997, and 14-year-old Juliet has it pretty good. But over the course of the next two years, she rapidly begins to unravel, finding herself in a downward trajectory of mental illness and self-destruction. An explosive portrayal of teenage life from the perspective of The Bad Friend, Juliet the Maniac is a bold, stylish breakout book from an author already crackling on the indie scene.

Opening Lines:  It is hard to tease out the beginning. When I was living it, my disintegration seemed sudden, like I had once been whole but then my reality swiftly slipped apart in sand. Not even sand, but slime, something desperate and oozing and sick. But looking back—I was a slow burn that eventually imploded.

by Fernando Aramburu

Jacket Copy:  Homeland is the internationally acclaimed novel that limns a decades-long relationship between two Basque families torn asunder by the violent insurgency of the separatist movement ETA—arguably the most acclaimed and successful literary novel published in Spain in recent times. It’s the story of two families in small-town Basque country, pitted against each other by the ideology and violence of the terrorist group ETA, from the unrelentingly grim 1980s to October 2011 when the group proclaimed an end to its savage insurgency. Erstwhile lifetime friends—especially the generation of parents on both sides—the two families become bitter enemies when a father of one is killed by ETA militants, among them one of the sons of the other family. Told through a succession of more than one hundred short sections devoted to a rich multiplicity of characters whose role in the story becomes clear as one reads. Homeland brilliantly unfolds in nonlinear fashion as it traces the consequences for the families of both the murder victim and the perpetrator.

Opening Lines:  Poor thing, there she goes: about to crash into him the way a wave crashes into rocks. A little foam and goodbye.

Disappearing Earth
by Julia Phillips

Jacket Copy:  One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka Peninsula at the northeastern tip of Russia, two girls—sisters, ages eight and eleven—go missing. The police investigation goes cold from the outset. In the girls’ tightly-woven community, everyone must grapple with the loss. But the fear and danger is felt most profoundly among the women of this isolated place. Taking us one chapter per month across a year on Kamchatka, this powerful novel connects the lives of characters changed by the sisters’ abduction: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. Theirs is an ethnically diverse population in which racial tensions simmer, and so-called natives are often the first to be accused. As the story radiates from the peninsula’s capital city to its rural north, we are brought to places of astonishing beauty: densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and glassy seas. Disappearing Earth is a multifaceted story of the intimate lives of women—their vulnerabilities and perils; their loves, aspirations, and regrets; their desires and dreams. The novel speaks to the complex yet enduring bonds of community as it offers startlingly vivid portraits of people reaching out to one another and, sometimes, reaching back to save each other.

Opening Lines: Sophia, sandals off, was standing at the water’s edge. The bay snuck up to swallow her toes. Gray saltwater over bright skin. “Don’t go out any farther,” Alyona said.
       The water receded. Alyona could see, under her sister’s feet, the pebbles breaking the curve of Sophia’s arches, the sweep of grit left by little waves. Sophia bent to roll up her pant legs, and her ponytail flipped over the top of her head. Her calves showed flaking streaks of blood from scratched mosquito bites. Alyona knew from the line of her sister’s spine that Sophia was refusing to listen.
       “You better not,” Alyona said.
       Sophia stood to face the water. Here, it was calm, barely touched by ripples that made the bay look like a sheet of hammered tin. The current got stronger as it pulled into the Pacific, leaving Russia behind for open ocean, but here it was domesticated. It belonged to them.

The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead

Jacket Copy:  As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.” In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

Opening Lines:  Even in death the boys were trouble.
       The secret graveyard lay on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy acre of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump. The field had been a grazing pasture when the school operated a dairy, selling milk to local customers—one of the state of Florida’s schemes to relieve the taxpayer burden of the boys’ upkeep. The developers of the office park had earmarked the field for a lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event. The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’ London
by Claire Harman

Jacket Copy:  In May 1840, Lord William Russell, well known in London’s highest social circles, was found with his throat cut. The brutal murder had the whole city talking. The police suspected Russell’s valet, Courvoisier, but the evidence was weak. The missing clue, it turned out, lay in the unlikeliest place: what Courvoisier had been reading. In the years just before the murder, new printing methods had made books cheap and abundant, the novel form was on the rise, and suddenly everyone was reading. The best-selling titles were the most sensational true-crime stories. Even Dickens and Thackeray, both at the beginning of their careers, fell under the spell of these tales—Dickens publicly admiring them, Thackeray rejecting them. One such phenomenon was William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the story of an unrepentant criminal who escaped the gallows time and again. When Lord William’s murderer finally confessed his guilt, he would cite this novel in his defense. Murder By the Book combines this thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time. It is superbly researched, vividly written, and captivating from first to last.

Opening Lines:  Early in the morning of Wednesday, 6 May 1840, on an ultra-respectable Mayfair street one block to the east of Park Lane, a footman called Daniel Young answered the door to a panic-stricken young woman, Sarah Mancer, the maid of the house opposite. Fetch a surgeon, fetch a constable, she cried: her master, Lord William Russell, was lying in bed with his throat cut.

Blurbworthiness:  “This beautifully produced and impressively researched historical account of a celebrated Victorian murder with a literary twist reads like a thriller. I devoured it in one sitting, and was at once enthralled and chilled. Highly recommended!”  (Alison Weir, author of Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen)

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams

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

She can hear the splashing of the light inside of the gem.

from “The Power of Performance” in
The Collected Stories of Diane Williams