Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Front Porch Books: February 2017 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: 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.

by Brian Van Reet
(Lee Boudreaux Books)

I have been a fan of Brian Van Reet’s writing since reading his brilliant short story “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” in the anthology of war fiction Fire and Forget (in whose pages one of my own short stories resides). And now along comes Brian’s debut novel about war, prisoners and tipping points. I can’t wait to read the Spoils of war.

Jacket Copy:  The Kite Runner meets The Things They Carried in this explosive debut which maps the blurred lines between good and bad, soldier and civilian victor and vanquished. It is April 2003. American forces have taken Baghdad and are now charged with winning hearts and minds. But this vital tipping point is barely recognized for what it is, as a series of miscalculations and blunders fuels an already-simmering insurgency intent on making Iraq the next graveyard of empires. In dazzling and propulsive prose, Brian Van Reet explores the lives on both sides of the battle lines: Cassandra, a nineteen-year-old gunner on an American Humvee who is captured during a deadly firefight and awakens in a prison cell; Abu Al-Hool, a lifelong mujahedeen beset by a simmering crisis of conscience as he struggles against enemies from without and within, including the new wave of far more radicalized jihadists; and Specialist Sleed, a tank crewman who goes along with a “victimless” crime, the consequences of which are more awful than any he could have imagined. Depicting a war spinning rapidly out of control, destined to become a modern classic, Spoils is an unsparing and morally complex novel that chronicles the achingly human cost of combat.

Opening Lines:  She is the most dangerous thing around. The best soldiers are like her, just on the far side of childhood. Their exact reasons for fighting don’t matter much.

Blurbworthiness:  “Clear, authentic and beautifully written, Spoils is a book about war for people who don’t like books about war. Van Reet gives us a thriller that is not a thriller, but a grave and fierce description of the moral battlefield behind the headlines from Iraq.”  (Anne Enright, author of The Green Road)

Love is No Small Thing
by Meghan Kenny
(LSU Press)

Even as Valentine’s Day recedes in the rear-view mirror, I want to keep the sweet, boozy-blood feeling of love going, stoke its red fires with some literary fiction that puts me vicariously in the hugs and kisses of imagined people. After all, what do we come to stories for if not to feel? The short fiction in Meghan Kenny’s debut collection may not always be hearts-and-flowers amorous, but from the few pages I’ve skimmed, I can already tell I’m predisposed to love this book.

Jacket Copy:  Meghan Kenny’s debut collection, Love Is No Small Thing, gives readers an assembly of keenly drawn characters each navigating the world looking for an understanding of love in its many forms and complexities—be it romantic, parental, elusive, or eternal. A father may teach his teenage son “Hearts break easy,” but as Kenny’s characters discover, knowing an important truth about love is no substitute for experiencing it. In the title story, a woman learns of her boyfriend’s infidelity on Halloween night and contemplates lost years, concealments, and the difficulty of walking away. An Idaho cameraman and his cross-dressing, sky-diving son try to find common ground in “All These Lovely Boys.” A first date at the Corkscrew Swamp Bird Sanctuary becomes something else altogether in “Sanctuary,” and in “Heartbreak Hotel,” a father swaps stories of disappointments and losses with his daughter and an unwanted passenger on a cross-country road trip. Throughout this collection, Kenny’s characters try to bridge the gap between what they expected of their lives and what they have received. They struggle to understand their own identities and the value of the relationships they have or want, with results that are funny and poignant in equal measure. Employing minimalist language and character-driven storytelling, Meghan Kenny grapples with love in all its messiness and uncertainty, revealing vital truths about the vagaries of the human heart and establishing Kenny as a vibrant new voice in the American literary landscape.

Opening Lines:  It was Halloween night and I was dressed as a 1980s prom queen—white satiny dress with a diagonal hem, bangs sprayed hard as a rock and feathered like a tidal wave, light blue eyeliner and zinc-pink lipstick. I didn’t look hot. Val was Jimmy Connors in tight white terrycloth shorts and an Izod tee, terrycloth wristbands, a black bowl-cut wig, and a cheap Prince racket he found at the Youth Ranch. We drank peach schnapps and vodka and were fuzzy warm from the booze and from jumping around to Men At Work in honor of my costume.

Blurbworthiness:  “The stories in Meghan Kenny’s splendid debut are spiky, funny, and devastating meditations on the innumerable forms love can take in a life—and how the search for love can prove to be both saving and ruinous.”  (Laura Van Den Berg, author of Find Me)

A Little More Human
by Fiona Maazel
(Graywolf Press)

I never know what to expect when I open one of Fiona Maazel’s novels. There’s an edge-of-the-precipice feeling when I read Woke Up Lonely and Last Last Chance. As Slate magazine notes, “Maazel writes with a kind of ecstatic swagger―freewheeling and cocksure, intelligent and loopy and funny as hell.” That pretty much sums up everything I love about Maazel’s fiction. This new novel looks like it will continue my cocksure, freewheeling, loopy ride through her imagination.

Jacket Copy:  Meet Phil Snyder: new father, nursing assistant at a cutting-edge biotech facility on Staten Island, and all-around decent guy. Trouble is, his life is falling apart. His wife has betrayed him, his job involves experimental surgeries with strange side effects, and his father is hiding early-onset dementia. Phil also has a special talent he doesn’t want to publicize―he’s a mind reader and moonlights as Brainstorm, a costumed superhero. But when Phil wakes up from a blackout drunk and is confronted with photos that seem to show him assaulting an unknown woman, even superpowers won’t help him. Try as he might, Phil can’t remember that night, and so, haunted by the need to know, he mind-reads his way through the lab techs at work, adoring fans at Toy Polloi, and anyone else who gets in his way, in an attempt to determine whether he’s capable of such violence. A Little More Human, rife with layers of paranoia and conspiracy, questions how well we really know ourselves, showcasing Fiona Maazel at her tragicomic, freewheeling best.

Opening Lines:  He came to on the back of a horse. Weeping into his chest. The dreams he’d had, the man he was. Where was the hurt today. The throb in his balls was disco. The throb in his head was science: a hangover in which he felt like hell. Believed in hell. And there in the sky: a bird, a plane, or just the drone of his fantasy life taking flight.

Blurbworthiness:  “Fiona Maazel is an explorer, a risk-taker, a mad scientist―an artist, in other words―and A Little More Human is her most brilliant and uncompromising novel yet. Take this book home and read it right away, preferably in your superhero suit.”  (John Wray, author of The Lost Time Accidents)

I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking
by Leyna Krow
(Featherproof Books)

Yes, there’s the title (which is surely one of the best we’ll see on a book cover all this year); and, yes, the cover design is terrific (look beyond that big bold beautiful title font to the swimming pool, the giant sea monster, the befuddled astronaut); but really it’s the words inside which matter most, right? Spokane writer Leyna Krow hits the jackpot with 15 short stories about, as Greg Spatz says, “wise slackers, lovable smart alecks, squids, voyeurs, cob snakes, astronauts and amateur astronomers, octopi, clones, tigers, rebels and octopi. Did I mention the octopi? Welcome to the spectacular, funny, vivid world of Leyna Krow’s short stories! So completely original in voice and concept—smart, humorous, poignant, clear and meaningful.” This is high on my personal list of Most Anticipated Books of 2017.

Jacket Copy:  In I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking the strange and the mundane collide. These are stories of strange experiences set in familiar places, and of familiar experiences set in strange places. Many of the pieces in I’m Fine take place close to home, in suburban neighborhoods, or rural communities. The settings are conventional, yet something unexpected, or even magical, is occurring. In one piece, a couple speculates about random objects that appear without reason in their backyard. In another, neighbors try to figure out if a local meth dealer is keeping a live tiger captive on his property. In other pieces, it’s the setting that’s fantastical, but the characters’ reactions that remain ordinary, like in the titular story where a journalist lost at sea and hunted by a mythical ocean creature admits to struggling with loneliness and isolation in much the same way he does even when he’s safe at home. Although they are not directly linked by any specific character, the pieces in this collection are bound through reoccurring imagery and a shared theme of protagonists in emotional peril. There are unexpected appearances and disappearances, movement of inanimate objects, the search for something lost, the finding of something unusual. There are prophesies, dreams, unidentifiable creatures, and environmental catastrophes on a scale both large and small. There are action figures and octopuses, sullen teenagers and missing cats. At their core, these stories are imbued with mystery, oddity, humor, and empathy. They each stand on their own, but mean considerably more when read together.

Opening Lines:  From the notebook of Captain C.J. Wyle, February 1
      It’s just me, Gideon, and Plymouth now.
      Strangely, the Artemis seems smaller with only the three of us onboard. At ten people, our 112-foot trimaran felt spacious, with plenty of room for everyone to go about their respective tasks. There was a constant human hum, but we weren’t on top of each other.
      Now Gideon and I can’t seem to escape ourselves and Plymouth is always under foot. His barking echoes through the narrow hatchways. Shrunken―that’s how this whole arrangements feels.

Blurbworthiness:  “Leyna Krow’s stories range far and wide―from outer space to the ocean depths to the distant future―but they are bound by a crackling wit, an inventive vitality, a laser eye for the silent currents between people, and a sneaky emotional power. I’m Fine But You Appear to Be Sinking is a wildly imagined debut, a blast of fleet power.”  (Shawn Vestal, author of Daredevils)

Monday, February 27, 2017

My First Time: Emily Jeanne Miller

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Emily Jeanne Miller, author of the new novel The News From the End of the World. Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, said The News From the End of the World is “A beautifully crafted, emotional portrait of a Cape Cod family whose teenage daughter may not be the only one out of options. The austere beauty of the off-season landscape seems to bring out hard truths and scour away secrets. I loved it.” Emily Jeanne Miller graduated from Princeton University and holds an MFA from the University of Florida. She lived in Missoula, Montana, where she co-edited an anthology of writing from the Clark Fork River basin (The River We Carry With Us, Clark City Press, 2002), and also earned a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her first novel, released in 2012, was the acclaimed Brand New Human Being. Click here to visit her website.

My Steady Stream of Firsts

I have to confess, writing this essay caused me grief—not only because it’s the first personal essay I’ve written in eons, or the first piece of writing I’ve tried to complete since my first baby’s birth. And not because I didn’t have any ideas. I had plenty, but each time I sat down and tried translate the most notable “first” I’ve experienced as a writer into words, I came up blank. I wrote lame sentences, drew weak parallels, and mostly, made little sense. It wasn’t that there haven’t been plenty of them—firsts, I mean: the first moment I knew I wanted to write fiction; the first time I got an “encouraging” rejection from a magazine; the first time I had a story accepted, the first time I saw my name in print. The first time I visited a writer’s colony, the first time I finished writing a novel, the first time I realized that that novel belonged in a drawer, not on a shelf. The first time I wrote a query letter, the first time I signed a book contract, the first time I held my book in my hands. The first time I saw that book in a bookstore; the first time I read a nasty review of it on the web. What I started realizing, trying to pick just one, is that being a writer, for me, has been a steady stream of firsts, and moreover, of ups and downs: a constant vacillation between exasperation and determination, pride and self-loathing, boredom and fascination, exhilaration and despair.

If this all sounds exhausting, well, it can be. We writers excel at living inside our heads, and consequently, wearing ourselves—and often those in close proximity to us—out. Because writing is like riding a raucous and unpredictable tide. One day you’re way up high, riding a wave’s crest, admiring the view, and then the next day you’ve got a mouthful of sand.

The first time I had a short story accepted for publication, for example, it was 2002, when I was finishing up my MFA. After a camping trip with my classmates, I was driving back to Gainesville and checked my voicemail. There was a message from the editor of the North American Review saying he loved the story I’d submitted and if it was still available, wanted to publish it. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I’ll never forget the feeling of elation, like I was flying; I couldn’t stop smiling, all alone in the car. A day or two later, by way of congratulations, I suppose, my teacher and thesis advisor said, “Enjoy this moment, because it’s all downhill from here.”

He’d been a writer for a very long time, so I believed him, accepting the notion that my own writing future was likely be bleak. As that future unfolded, I learned that his cynicism was hardly unique; writers can be big bellyachers, it’s true. But I also learned that disappointment and discontent are only part of a much richer, more nuanced, story. Writers may grumble, but they choose to do what they do, they keep at it for a reason, or perhaps a host of reasons, all of which at the end of the day boil down to the fact that they find some essential satisfaction, even pleasure, in setting down words. More to the point, as uncomfortable and unsatisfying as writing can feel, the only thing more uncomfortable and less satisfying, for writers, is not writing at all.

I have certainly experienced this phenomenon. The first time I finished a draft of a novel, after three years of toiling (and seven years after that message on my voicemail), it took a mere two or three weeks of ruminating on how to revise it to realize I wasn’t interested in it anymore. That it would never see the light of day. I remember sitting in my backyard studio one sunny Saturday morning, thinking I’d wasted so much time: the hours, the days, the weeks, the years. Maybe I should have felt despair, then—and maybe I did, but only fleetingly. What I knew, deep-down, was that the time I’d spent writing a complete dud wasn’t really wasted, it was necessary, and what I did was set the dud aside, open a new Word file, and start again.

A year and a half later, I’d completed the first draft of a new novel, and the difference was that this time, as flawed as the manuscript was (and believe me, it was flawed) this one kept pulling me back in. The characters had taken up residence in my head, and each day, once I’d reached my word count, I’d take a long walk and think about what they needed, what they might say to each other, what they would do. Toward the end of the walk, I’d let myself to think of fun, fantastical things, like whom I’d thank in the acknowledgments, or what the cover would look like, or who would play whom in the film. In this manner, I revised the manuscript four or five times, and when I decided I’d done all I could to purge every line of pointless dialogue, every implausible plot-points, and every sentence or word that made me cringe, I pulled together a list of agents I’d dreamt of having represent me, crafted a query letter, and after much agonizing, hit send.

Because I knew (having been told again and again since grad school) how brutal the publishing world is, I hunkered down, expecting to wait a few weeks—if not months—to hear back, if I’d hear back at at all, and girding myself for a resounding “no thanks.” But to my surprise, almost every agent I contacted got back to me right away, was courteous and kind, and said they’d be happy to take a look at my book. And when, ten days later, I woke up to an email from one of those agents saying she loved the book and would be thrilled to get to work selling it, I pretty much felt like my head was going to explode. It was, I think, the most incredible email I’d ever received—maybe that anyone had ever received—and I kept reading it over, waiting for my husband to return from his run so I could show him. When he finally came through the front door, though, he looked pale and weird, and was holding his arm in a funny way, and before I could say anything about the email, he said, “I got bit by a dog,” and then I saw he was bleeding, and of course my literary news climbed unceremoniously into the backseat. Which in retrospect feels like an apt metaphor for the writing life: it’s consistently elevating and humbling—and I don’t mean “humbling” that in that gross, humblebraggy way that’s so common on social media these days (“Thrilled and humbled to be published along side Famous Writer X, etc.”). No, I mean actually humbling—like what the word really means: making one less proud. In writing, I’ve discovered, every victory is served up with a healthy side of defeat.

Anyway, the agent (now “my” agent) was able to sell my book, and another one I hadn’t written yet, and a battery of firsts ensued: my first contract, my first visit to a publishing house, my first letter from my editor (on official, beautiful publishing house letterhead!). And then of course my first proofs and first galleys, and the first time I had to go through the icky process of asking for blurbs. And after that, my first newspaper review, my first radio interview, the first time I read for a crowd of six.

That was five years ago. Since then, I wrote my first second novel, which to my great consternation was, in so many ways, even more challenging an enterprise than the first. I also had my first editor leave my publishing house, missed my first (and second, and third) deadline, and last spring, in the midst of the editing process, had my first child.

Now this second novel has just entered the world, and I feel different than I did the first time around: less maniacally anxious, less worried about what others will think, and perhaps consequently, prouder of the book. Of course it’s possible, even likely, that my current Zen-master calm won’t last. I’ve already had a few prickly readers report “hating” it—thanks, apparently, to its controversial subject matter—in online reviews.

I have a wise writer-friend who believes the secret to life, including the writing life, is low expectations. I think there’s truth to what she says, but I also believe that’s not the whole story. Call me a sap, but I can’t imagine the rush that comes with holding your first book, or your second, or your third or fourth, in your hands for the very first time ever gets old.

Author photo by Eliza Truitt

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Townie by Andre Dubus III

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

With physical violence there was always the wreckage after, not just the bruises and lacerations, the chipped teeth or fractured bones, there was a hangover of the spirit, as if all those punches and kicks had pushed you into a gray and treeless landscape where love and forgiveness were hard to find.

Townie by Andre Dubus III

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

Congratulations to Lisa Murray, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Underworld by Kevin Canty.

This week’s contest is for The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis. And speaking of Kevin Canty, here’s what he had to say about The Dark and Other Love Stories: “A bright, adventurous, and lively collection. Deborah Willis seems to be able to go anywhere and do anything, taking the reader from the Ukraine to Mars. Beautifully told and strangely moving, these stories made the world seem like a slightly different and much more interesting place after I had read them.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

The characters in these thirteen masterful and engaging stories exist on the edge of danger, where landscapes melt into dreamscapes and every house is haunted. A drug dealer’s girlfriend signs up for the first manned mission to Mars. A girl falls in love with a man who wants to turn her into a bird. A teenaged girl and her best friend test their relationship by breaking into suburban houses. A wife finds a gaping hole in the floor of the home she shares with her husband, a hole that only she can see. Full of longing and strange humor, these subtle, complex stories―about the love between a man and his pet crow, an alcoholic and his AA sponsor, a mute migrant and a newspaper reporter―show how love ties us to each other and to the world. The Dark and Other Love Stories announces the emergence of a wonderfully gifted storyteller whose stories enlarge our perceptions about the human capacity to love.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Dark and Other Love Stories, 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 March 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 3. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

My First Time: Bren McClain

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Bren McClain, author of One Good Mama Bone. She was born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, on a beef cattle and grain farm. She has a degree in English from Furman University; is an experienced media relations, radio, and television news professional; and currently works as a communications confidence coach. She is a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project and the recipient of the 2005 Fiction Fellowship by the South Carolina Arts Commission. McClain won the 2016 William Faulkner–William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress for Took and was a finalist in the 2012 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for Novel-in-Progress for One Good Mama Bone. McClain will be touring throughout the South as well as in other parts of the country. To learn more, please visit her website, her Facebook page, or connect with her on Twitter or Instagram.

The First Time a Story Chose Me
and What I Learned

It was June 1994, and I was living in midtown Atlanta. My next-door neighbor, a man named Ron, called me to his front porch. He was white-haired, deeply sun-tanned and drove a white convertible Cadillac. I had never had a long conversation with him in the nine months I had lived beside him.

He motioned me towards a white wicker chair, lit a cigarette and said, “I’ve been carrying around a secret since I was a boy, six years old. My mama made me promise I’d never tell a soul about what happened this one night outside of Birmingham. And I’ve been true to that.” He took a long drag and blew smoke into the air, so hot the smoke had nowhere to go. “But I can’t be true to it no more. I turned 60 today.”

I swallowed and wanted to tell him “Happy Birthday,” but I could not talk.

“I’m only telling you this,” he said, “because I know you’re a writer.”

I wrapped my fingers around the end of the chair arms and squeezed. It made a squeaking sound.

He proceeded to tell me his mother woke him from sleep that night and summoned him to the kitchen, where their neighbor was lying on their table. She was having a baby. Ron’s mother delivered it, made him watch, and then did something horrible, forcing him to be a part of it.

Sitting there on that porch, Ron did not cry, but I thought he would. I told him, “I’m sorry.”

This was the first time a story chose me, the first time I would write something not made of what is known as “whole cloth.” Before then, I had made up stories, let my imagination run wild. But here was this man handing me a story. And what a story it was.

I left the porch and told myself I should make notes, so I wouldn’t forget. But I dared not write one word down.

It would be six years before I did. I would be in Assisi, Italy, taking a writing workshop with acclaimed writer Dorothy Allison, who gave us a prompt to write about a mother. That afternoon I sat in the open window of my room, looked out over the 12th-century buildings still standing and wrote these first lines: One night my mama came to my bedroom door and said, “Emerson Bridge, you come with me. You come with me right now.” She was talking fast and loud.

I wrote the entire scene, just as Ron had described it, from little Emerson Bridge’s point of view. When I read it aloud in class the next day, Dorothy’s eyes on fire, she said, “Kick some butt, McClain.” I would write the entire book, spinning forth from that opening scene. I fell in love with the mother as I wrote, named her Sarah Creamer, and came to understand why she did what she did, which I will tell you now. She delivered the baby, then dropped the baby on its head on the floor, and then made the little boy help her bury it in the back yard.

No one else fell in love with Sarah. In fact, many called her a “monster.” I had written a failed novel. A brilliant editor told me, “We don’t see the love you have for Sarah on the page. We see her full of inadequacy. Show us her magnificence. In fact, begin with it.”

I realized I had to transform what happened that night. Ron never said, but in my heart, I knew the baby was the product of an affair between his father and the neighbor lady, whose husband was off at war. In writing that first version, I had come to know that Sarah felt inadequate as a mother. What if she delivered the baby, and her neighbor refused to take the child, fearing her husband would kill her and the baby when he returned. And what if Sarah had to push past her fear of inadequacy and do the right thing by the child and take him?

I threw out 95 percent of what I had written and rewrote the book, casting Sarah as the hero she did not yet know herself to be. That book became One Good Mama Bone, published this month by Pat Conroy’s fiction imprint, Story River Books.

I learned a valuable lesson. A story may have chosen you, but it doesn’t have to remain that exact story. It could be used as starter dough.

What a gift this man, Ron, gave me. Thank you, sir.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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

The flowing sugar gown of Lady Liberty descended like drapery upon a Chinese pagoda, inside of which, in a pond of candy floss, swam miniature fish of chocolate.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Underworld by Kevin Canty

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff.

This week’s contest is for the new novel by Kevin Canty, The Underworld. I have a hardcover copy to give away to one lucky reader. Deborah Reed, author of Olivay and The Things We Set on Fire, had this to say about Canty’s novel: “The Underworld pierces with busted hearts, broken families, and the gristly days of work and drink that bind them. A lovely, melodic, and unsparing look at small-town life in the West.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

In The Underworld, Kevin Canty tells a story that begins with a disastrous fire inspired by a true incident in an isolated silver mining town in Idaho in the 1970s. Everyone in town had a friend, a lover, a brother, a husband killed in the mine. The Underworld imagines the lives of a handful of survivors and their loved ones: Jordan, a young widow with twin children; David, a college student trying to make a life for himself in another town; Lionel, a lifelong hard-rock miner as they struggle to come to terms with the loss. It’s a tough, hard-working, hard-drinking town, a town of prostitutes and priests and bar fights, but nobody’s tough enough to get through this undamaged. A powerful and unforgettable tale about small-town lives and the healing power of love in the midst of suffering.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Underworld, 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 Feb. 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 24. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Souvenirs and Other Stories by Matt Tompkins

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

There’s a family of mountain lions living in my basement.

“Seeking Advice and/or Assistance
re: Mountain Lions”
from Souvenirs and Other Stories by Matt Tompkins

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Stories of Frederick Busch

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

I was nine years old, and starting to age.

“The Settlement of Mars” from The Stories of Frederick Busch

Friday, February 3, 2017

Friday Freebie: Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff

Congratulations to Lynn Koeppen, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge.

This week’s contest is for Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff. Here’s what Steve Stern, author of The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi, had to say about Questioning Return: “The brainy, conflicted heroine of Beth Kissileff’s heart-stirring debut novel Questioning Return goes to Israel to interview Jews who have come home to a tradition once lost to them. The process launches her on an intellectual, spiritual, and romantic adventure that will change your understanding of what it means to truly belong. An eloquent and absorbing achievement.” Keep reading for more information about the novel...

A year in Jerusalem questioning American Jews who “return” to Israel and to traditional religion changes Wendy Goldberg’s life forever. Every year, 700,000 Americans visit Israel. Wendy Goldberg spends a year in Jerusalem questioning the lives of American Jews who do “Aliya”—a return both to Israel itself and to traditional religious practices. Are they sincere? Are they happier? The unexpected answers and Wendy’s experiences (a bus bombing, a funeral, an unexpected suicide, a love affair, and a lawsuit) lead her to reconsider her own true Jewish identity. The ambitious graduate student is certain she’s on the path to academic glory. But from the moment her plane takes off Wendy is confronted with unanswerable questions of faith and identity. As she becomes immersed in the rhythm of Israeli life, her sense of distance from it fades. Her ability to be an outside observer terminates abruptly when a student commits a horrible act immediately after his interview with her. Wendy is not sure how or if she is implicated in his action, but in her search for understanding, she is led to knowledge and love in unforeseen places.

Be sure to check out Beth’s “My First Time” essay here at The Quivering Pen.

If you’d like a chance at winning Questioning Return, 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 Feb. 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 17. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Books for Dark Political Times: Michael Copperman’s Library

Reader:  Michael Copperman
Location:  Eugene, Oregon
Collection Size:  Five hundred books
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  I Have a Dream: The March on Washington by Emma Gelders Sterne
Favorite book from childhood:  James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Guilty pleasure book:  Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

My personal library is small. I live in a converted garage and rent out the rooms of my house, and I have boxes and boxes of books away in storage and in my office at the university. My awkward little secret is that I am often not much of a reader of contemporary fiction—I tend to read poetry as one consumes fuel, and keep those books thrown about the living room, where just now I am reading the collected work of Langston Hughes as if it might save my life. With everything else, I am immensely selective, and more likely when I am deep in work and process to reread something essential to me which speaks of mystery than I am to begin the latest NY Times bestseller. For instance, I have read Andre Dubus’s Dancing After Hours, five times, and would gladly begin it again. I have read the collected stories of Chekhov two or three times, and these days, every couple months I read his great short story “The Student,” an irreducible and indescribable little short about immanence, which in that story is the suggestion of imminence in the absence of wisdom, meaning, and God.

I keep the books which I am intending to read in a stack atop the rest on the right shelf on one side of the bed—books by friends or acquaintances, gifts, books which I feel I need to read or should have read. Sometimes books jump the queue that demand attention—on top now is a book by my great-grandmother, the writer Emma Gelders Sterne, I Have a Dream: The March on Washington which was published in 1965.

Recently I pulled that book from my father’s shelves of all Emma’s books as if drawn to it—to find a note from my father to me, his unborn son, five years before my birth, charging me with bearing on his grandmother’s legacy of writing, activism, compassion, and justice. As this is one of Emma’s books I did not read in my childhood, and speaks of a strength and solidarity and rising up I feel I may need to summon now, in these dark political times, I am excited to begin.

Atop the left shelf are books I’ve pulled from the shelves because I needed to read them as I work to complete an essay or my novel-in-progress—usually books which have been a long love of mine, or have particular resonance. So it is that Cesar Vallejo, translated by Roberty Bly and James Wright, sits atop that shelf. Vallejo, the music of my heart on big sad days of reckoning. So it is that Hamlet, has been set to the top, too, in this bitter winter, as has Willa Cather’s Five Stories, perhaps her least known work, but so large in lyric and retrospective force. I turn to these books as if to a holy book, a source—they do not directly instruct me, but their art and ethos are somewhere so near to what is in me as I work that they show me a way.

Michael Copperman is the author of Teacher, a memoir of the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. He has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for the last decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. Visit www.mikecopperman.com for more information about Michael and his book. 

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 thequiveringpen@gmail.com for more information.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Nice Things People Have Said about Brave Deeds

Exactly six months from today, my second novel Brave Deeds will be out in the world. I’m very proud of this book and hope those of you who read it will find it to be even better than Fobbit (though, in truth, it’s a horse of a slightly different color―a little more sober and serious than the screwball tour of duty experienced by Chance Gooding Jr., Abe Shrinkle, et al). And if you don’t find it’s your cup of tea, that’s okay; I’ll just work harder to make the next book even better yet.

Some early readers have already chimed in on Brave Deeds and I am eternally grateful for their comments. They are all busy artists and for them to take time out from their schedules to not only read the book but say nice things about it means the world to me. It’s true: a writer is kept afloat on the rough seas of publishing and bookselling by the community that supports him or her beneath the waves.

First, a synopsis of what waits for you on the pages of Brave Deeds:
Spanning eight hours, the novel follows a squad of six AWOL soldiers as they attempt to cross war-torn Baghdad on foot to attend the funeral of their leader, Staff Sergeant Rafe Morgan. Cut off from all communication with their company headquarters back on the base, they find themselves struggling to survive in an inhospitable landscape. As the men make their way to the funeral, they recall the most ancient of warriors while portraying a cross section of twenty-first-century America: sometimes strong, sometimes weak, but subject to the same human flaws as all of us. Drew is reliable in the field but unfaithful at home. Cheever, overweight and whining, is a friend to no one—least of all himself. Specialist Olijandro, or O, is distracted by dangerous romantic thoughts of his ex-wife. Fish’s propensity for violence is what drew him to the military and could be a catalyst for the day’s events. Park is the quiet one, but his quick thinking may make him the day’s hero. And platoon commander Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos is stalwart, yet troubled with questions about his own identity and sexuality. As the six march across Baghdad, their complicated histories, hopes, and fears are told in a chorus of voices that merge into a powerful portrait of the modern war zone and the deepest concerns of us all, military and civilian alike.
Brave Deeds perfectly captures the strange mixture of camaraderie, humor, beauty and brutality experienced by men at war. It reads like a fever dream, like unvarnished documentary truth, and sometimes like both at once.”  (Phil Klay, National Book Award-winning author of Redeployment)

“In one very full, very messed up and hair-raising day, Brave Deeds delivers everything we could ever ask for in a novel, no less than birth, death, and all points in between. David Abrams has written a flat-out brilliant book of the Iraq War, one that reads like a compact version of the Odyssey or Going After Cacciato. Soldiers on a journey―it’s one of humankind’s oldest stories, and Abrams has given us the latest dispatch from the field, to stunning effect.”  (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

“At the beginning of Brave Deeds I was laughing out loud, and enjoying the feeling of being among the Army squad, even one making an insane walk through Baghdad. But by the end of the book I was silent: I was really undone by it. David Abrams has done something very powerful, drawing together the different layers of this story so beautifully, and drawing us down below the surface to a place of darkness and sadness. It’s a tour de force. Bravo.”  (Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta)

“I have never read another author with David Abrams’s uncanny knack for laugh-out-loud sarcasm one instant and gutting compassion in the next. If there’s a situation more emblematic of the forever wars―in league with Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk―I can’t imagine it. By the end Abrams had me holding my heart in my hands. Brave Deeds is hilarious, subversive, devastating, beautiful, human, and written with the kind of skillful light touch we expect from master fiction writers.”  (Andria Williams, author of The Longest Night)

“A dizzying rush of a story, Brave Deeds serves as a testament to the manifold acts of courage and folly demanded by soldiering. David Abrams writes with moxie, and this odyssey across Baghdad cements his standing as one of our most indispensable chroniclers of contemporary war.”  (Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood)

Thank you Phil, Ben, Roxana, Andria and Matt for your amazing generosity!