Saturday, December 20, 2014

Front Porch Books: December 2014 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.  I should also note that, in nearly every case, I haven't had a chance to read these books.  I'm just as excited as you are to dive into these pages.


Suitcase City by Sterling Watson (Akashic Books):  Sterling Watson wastes no time in filling us in on the downward spiral of his main character in his new novel's Opening Lines:
Jimmy Teach left professional football at the age of twenty-four, and his life went into a fast fall. He squandered money on bad friends and foolish business deals and the drink and drugs that went with them. He lived hard and the months passed and it became a slow suicide. He woke up one morning in a car he didn't own in the driveway of a fashionable house in Atlanta with a policeman at his window. Teach had no idea who owned the house or why he had come to it. He had passed out with the engine running. A half-open window and an empty fuel tank had probably saved him from a blue-lipped death.
It's a great expository start to what looks like a white-knuckled thriller.  The publisher mentions Alfred Hitchcock and Carl Hiaasen in the same breath in the press materials which came with my copy of the book, so there's that hook which is already dragging me to shore.  Here's more from the Jacket Copy:
A man gets himself into a little bit of trouble, then a little bit more, then a lot. And then his whole world becomes a nightmare. How does he get himself out of this mess of his own creation? The answer involves the end of an extramarital affair, reconciliation with a daughter he has neglected, and a deadly encounter with a man who comes out of the past bearing bad news and the keys to a new life. Set in Tampa, Florida, in the late 1980s, Suitcase City captures the glitter of the high life and the steamy essence of low places in the Cigar City.
Blurbworthiness: “Sterling Watson is an American treasure.  If this taut literary crime novel doesn’t center him on the map, we should change maps.”  (Tom Franklin, author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter)


A Higher Form of Killing by Diana Preston (Bloomsbury):  By all appearances, this is not your typical military history book.  As you can see by the triptych on the cover design, A Higher Form of Killing takes three distinct modes of lethality--poison gas, the torpedo, and zeppelin attacks--and looks at "six weeks that changed the world" during World War I.  I'm fascinated by this micro-examination of warfare and am really looking forward to reading Preston's account of 1915.  Here's more from the Jacket Copy:
In six weeks during April and May 1915, as World War I escalated, Germany forever altered the way war would be fought. On April 22, at Ypres, German canisters spewed poison gas at French and Canadian soldiers in their trenches; on May 7, the German submarine U-20, without warning, torpedoed the passenger liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians; and on May 31, a German Zeppelin began the first aerial bombardment of London and its inhabitants. Each of these actions violated rules of war carefully agreed at the Hague Conventions of 1898 and 1907. Though Germany’s attempts to quickly win the war failed, the psychological damage caused by these attacks far outweighed the casualties. The era of weapons of mass destruction had dawned. While each of these momentous events has been chronicled in histories of the war, celebrated historian Diana Preston links them for the first time, revealing the dramatic stories behind each through the eyes of those who were there, whether making the decisions or experiencing their effect. She places the attacks in the context of the centuries-old debate over what constitutes “just war,” and shows how, in their aftermath, the other combatants felt the necessity to develop extreme weapons of their own. In our current time of terror, when weapons of mass destruction—imagined or real—are once again vilified, the story of their birth is of great relevance.
By looking at where we've come from, maybe we'll see where we're headed.  In other words, will we ever learn from the past?  Probably not.  But it's worth a shot anyway.


I Refuse by Per Petterson (Graywolf Press):  2015 just got a little brighter with the news that we'll have a new Per Petterson novel in our hands soon (April, for those of you marking your calendars).  Any release of a Petterson book from Graywolf Press here in America is cause for celebration.  I Refuse, in particular, looks like it will satisfy long-time fans (like me) and possibly entice some readers who've never encountered any of Petterson's previous books (Out Stealing Horses, To Siberia, I Curse the River of Time, etc.). As TIME magazine once noted, “Reading a Petterson novel is like falling into a northern landscape painting—all shafts of light and clear palpable chill.”  Check out the Jacket Copy for I Refuse:
Per Petterson’s hotly anticipated new novel, I Refuse, is the work of an internationally acclaimed novelist at the height of his powers. In Norway the book has been a huge bestseller, and rights have already been sold into sixteen countries. In his signature spare style, Petterson weaves a tale of two men whose accidental meeting one morning recalls their boyhood thirty-five years ago. Back then, Tommy was separated from his sisters after he stood up to their abusive father. Jim was by Tommy’s side through it all. But one winter night, a chance event on a frozen lake forever changed the balance of their friendship. Now Jim fishes alone on a bridge as Tommy drives by in a new Mercedes, and it’s clear their fortunes have reversed. Over the course of the day, the life of each man will be irrevocably altered.
Refuse a Per Petterson novel?  Hardly.  I'm going to embrace this one with all the fervor of a fanboy.


White Man's Problems by Kevin Morris (Grove/Atlantic):  It seems like every other book which has landed on my front porch the past couple of months has been a short-story collection.  This is not a problem; in fact, it's damned exciting to see publishers are increasingly "take a chance" on short fiction.  I refuse to believe that old publishing adage that "there's no market for short stories"--but that's a diatribe for another time.  What I have here in front of me right now is Kevin Morris' debut collection, White Man's Problems.  Morris, an entertainment lawyer living in L.A., originally self-published the stories before Grove/Atlantic picked it up to bring it to a wider audience.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In nine stories that move between nouveau riche Los Angeles and the working class East Coast, Kevin Morris explores the vicissitudes of modern life. Whether looking for creative ways to let off steam after a day in court or enduring chaperone duties on a school field trip to the nation's capital, the heroes of White Man's Problems struggle to navigate the challenges that accompany marriage, family, success, failure, growing up, and getting older. The themes of these perceptive, wry, and sometimes humorous tales pose philosophical questions about conformity and class, duplicity and decency, and the actions and meaning of an average man's life. He writes characters and dialogue equally at home in in an office in the Empire State Building, a driveway in Brentwood, or a working class taproom. Morris's confident debut strikes the perfect balance between comedy and catastrophe—and introduces a virtuosic new voice in American fiction.
This Blurbworthiness from Eric Roth, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump, is enough to convince me to put these Problems near the top of the To-Be-Read pile: “Kevin Morris’s voice is Updike and Cheever and Carver.”


Empty Pockets by Dale Herd (Coffee House Press):   I had a Breece D'J Pancake Moment when I got a copy of Dale Herd's collection of "new and selected stories" from Coffee House Press.  Like Pancake, Dale Herd is a voice from a distant decade (primarily the 70s in his case) who seems to have slipped off the literary radar for far too many years (at least my radar hasn't had many Herd blips recently).  Unlike Pancake, who committed suicide when his talent was at full burn, Herd is still with us and, thanks to Coffee House Press, he's pinging back on our radars, loud and clear.  Empty Pockets collects stories from his previous books--Early Morning Wind (1972), Diamonds (1976), and Wild Cherries (1980)--and tops it off with 19 new short fictions.  Most of the stories are very short--a page or a paragraph at most--while others take a little more time to burrow into Herd's characters.  Here, for instance, are the Opening Lines to the book, the story "Eric" in its entirety:
She had a kid asleep in the bedroom. I asked her if she wanted to ball and she said yes. She got her gun six times. I told her I was selling my car and all my belongings and buying a sailboat and sailing to Australia. I said she could go but she’d have to pay. How much she said. A dollar thirty-seven I said. She said not bad. Then she said how much for Eric. I said ten thousand dollars.
Man, there's a lot to love in that handful of sentences whose blood tingles with the jazz of Hemingway and Carver.  In a review of Herd's three collections (filed under "Neglected Books") in a 1983 issue of American Book Review, Lewis Warsh wrote: "(S)ome of Herd's best stories are simply speeches, people saying what on their minds....Herd keeps himself at a distance from his characters--there's nothing blatantly autobiographical about his work--but it's a professional distance, he's at least as close as the next room.  His art is the ability to create authentic voices, while packing the greatest possible intensity into the smallest possible space."  Here's some more great Blurbworthiness for Herd's work, from a 1976 review in the San Francisco Review of Books by Keith Abbot: "Diamonds is an apt name for Dale Herd's latest book of prose.  The tale are often quite short, and are formed by great pressure."  Please join me in re-discovering this gritty, unsparing and fresh (!!) voice from the past.


White Tiger on Snow Mountain by David Gordon (New Harvest): You've gotta love a story collection that begins with something called "Man-Boob Summer" (Opening Lines: "I was spending some time at my parents' place that summer.  I was thirty-eight and out of ideas.").  By all appearances (i.e., "from my quick page-skim"), David Gordon's White Tiger on Snow Mountain proceeds to get even better from that point on.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Thirteen hilarious, moving, and beautifully brutal stories by David Gordon, the award-winning author of Mystery Girl and The Serialist. In these funny, surprising, and touching stories, Gordon gets at the big stuff—art and religion, literature and madness, the supernatural, and the dark fringes of sexuality—in his own unique style, described by novelist Rivka Galchen as “Dashiell Hammett divided by Don DeLillo, to the power of Dostoyevsky—yet still pure David Gordon.” Gordon's creations include ex-gangsters and terrifying writing coaches, Internet girlfriends and bogus memoirists, Chinatown ghosts, and vampires of Queens. “The Amateur” features a cafe encounter with a terrible artist who carries a mind-blowing secret. In the long, beautifully brutal title story, a man numbed by life finds himself flirting with and mourning lost souls in the purgatory of sex chatrooms. The result is both unflinching and hilarious, heartbreaking and life-affirming.
Blurbworthiness: “I wish I could read this book forever, and maybe get David Gordon to narrate the events of my own life.  He is the funniest, most intelligent companion.  This book got me reinterested in everything—men, women, heartbreak, cities, language, stories.”  (Rebecca Lee, author of Bobcat and Other Stories)


Hit Count by Chris Lynch (Algonquin Young Readers):  Here's a young adult novel that's as timely as a news story you'll read about the next NFL linebacker plagued with memory loss, depression and, at its root, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  No matter which side of the field of controversy you line up on, it's hard to deny that concussions are a serious health matter that impact not just professional football players, members of the military or daredevil bikers who refuse to wear a helmet--they're a problem for all of us in one way or another.  National Book Award finalist Chris Lynch (Inexcusable) tackles--pardon the pun--this subject head-on in Hit Count, set on the high school football field where brain trauma is particularly worth guarding against.  Take a look at the Jacket Copy:
"I hit him so hard, the clash of helmets and pads sounded like a gunshot across the field. I crushed him with the hit, held on to him, and crushed him again when I slammed him into the ground...I had arrived." Arlo Brodie loves being on the football field, getting hit hard and hitting back harder. That's where he belongs, leading his team to championships, becoming "Starlo" on his way to the top. Arlo's dad cheers him on, but his mother quotes head injury statistics and refuses to watch. Arlo's girlfriend tries to make him see the danger; when that doesn't work, she calls time-out on their relationship. Even Arlo's coaches begin to track his hit count, almost ready to pull him off the field. But Arlo's not worried about collisions. The cheering crowds and the adrenaline rush convince Arlo that everything is OK--in spite of the pain, pounding, dizziness, and confusion. In Hit Count, Chris Lynch explores the American love affair with contact sports and our attempts to come to terms with clear evidence of real danger.


Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (Algonquin Books):  What does a man drowned in a vat of dye in Turkey have to do with an old woman in a Los Angeles retirement home?  This is the question which fuels Aline Ohanesian's intriguing debut novel.  As Algonquin Senior Editor Kathy Pories says in a "Dear Reader" letter at the start of my advance copy of Orhan's Inheritance: "One of the huge rewards of being an editor is that moment of surprise when you begin to read a manuscript and realize that a writer has caught you; you start reading and you can't stop.  From the minute I started Aline Ohanesian's debut novel, I was transfixed."  Dip into the Opening Lines and you'll see what Pories is talking about:
They found him inside one of seventeen cauldrons in the courtyard, steeping in an indigo dye two shades darker than the summer sky. His arms and chin were propped over the copper edge, but the rest of Kemal Turkoglu, age ninety-three, had turned a pretty pale blue. Orhan was told the old men of the village stood in front of the soaking corpse, fingering their worry beads, while their sons waiting, holding dice from abandoned backgammon games.
While I stopped reading after a page or two, I only did so reluctantly (all those other books demanding my attention); but I could see how, if I had a more relaxed expanse of time in front of me, I'd want to immerse myself in the vat of Ohanesian's prose.  There are such lovely images in that opening paragraph--even while talking about this poor man's death.  Here's the Jacket Copy to hook you, the time-on-her-hands reader, into the novel:
In her extraordinary debut, Aline Ohanesian has created two remarkable characters--a young man ignorant of his family's and his country's past, and an old woman haunted by the toll the past has taken on her life. When Orhan's brilliant and eccentric grandfather Kemal--a man 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's will raises more questions than it answers. He has left the family estate to a stranger thousands of miles away, an aging woman in an Armenian retirement home in Los Angeles. Her existence and secrecy about her past only deepen the mystery of why Orhan's grandfather willed his home in Turkey to an unknown woman rather than to his own son or grandson. Left with only Kemal's ancient sketchbook and intent on righting this injustice, Orhan boards a plane to Los Angeles. There he will not only unearth the story that eighty-seven-year-old Seda so closely guards but discover that Seda's past now threatens to unravel his future. Her story, if told, has the power to undo the legacy upon which his family has been built. Moving back and forth in time, between the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the 1990s, Orhan's Inheritance is a story of passionate love, unspeakable horrors, incredible resilience, and the hidden stories that can haunt a family for generations.


Compulsion by Meyer Levin (Fig Tree Books):  Meyer Levin's blockbuster 1956 novel about the Leopold-Loeb child murder case of 1924 gets a handsome reissue from Fig Tree Books.  As famed prosecutor and author Marcia Clark says in her new introduction to the book, "Before In Cold Blood, before The Executioner’s Song, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion was the standard-bearer for what we think of as the nonfiction novel.  I was eight years old when I read it for the first time.  I’d found the paperback, already yellowed with age, on a nightstand.  Though I could not possibly grasp the depth of the storytelling or recognize the beauty of the prose, the experience proved to be indelible.  The story haunted me from that day forward."  Compulsion is one of those mid-century books which have lingered at the edges of my "must read someday" list; but this fresh package of the book might just urge me to read it sooner rather than later.  Here's the Jacket Copy for those of you who are unfamiliar with the story:
Part of Chicago’s elite Jewish society, Judd Steiner (the fictional version of Nathan Leopold) and Artie Straus (Richard Loeb) have it all: money, smarts and the world at their feet. Obsessed with Nietzsche’s idea of the superhuman, both boys decide to prove that they are above the laws of man by arbitrarily murdering a boy in their neighborhood — for the sheer sake of getting away with the crime. Compulsion is narrated by Sid Silver, a budding journalist at the University of Chicago and a fictional surrogate for Meyer Levin who was a classmate of Leopold and Loeb and reported on their trial himself; like Sid, Levin became enmeshed in the case while covering it. Early on, a pair of Judd’s horn-rimmed eyeglasses is found at the scene of the crime. Authorities slowly begin to unveil other pieces of evidence that suggest the young men’s guilt. When their respective alibis collapse, Artie and Judd each confess. Fearing an anti-Semitic backlash and anxious to be viewed first and foremost as Americans, the Jewish community in Chicago demands steadfastly that justice be served. Desperate, the Straus and Steiner families seek the counsel of the famed Jonathan Wilk, who is based on his real-life counterpart Clarence Darrow. Wilk hires a slew of psychoanalysts and begins to construct a first-of-its-kind defense: that Artie and Judd are not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Here, too, the novel’s documentary qualities shine through as the narrative shifts into a deftly paced courtroom drama where the legal and psychiatric delineations of insanity— and even more controversially for its time, homosexuality— are introduced.

The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger (Little, Brown):  The mountain may be able to wait, but I can't.  After reading just a few sentences from the Opening Lines of this debut novel by Canadian writer Sarah Leipciger, I'm already racing to finish the other books at the summit of the To-Be-Read stack (aka Mount NeveRest).  Check 'em out for yourself:
      The night was still black when Curtis pulled his Suburban away from the curb and turned toward the mountain highway, leaving his apartment, his sleeping street behind him. He would have preferred to ride his bike but the tire was flat and anyway it was too cold, and rain was coming. He would find some side road up the mountain where he could park and stay warm until the sun rose, and then he'd hike for as long as his legs could carry him. Ascend to a place where the view was different and things that towered and loomed down here would narrow to pin shadows and then to nothing.
     With his windows rolled down, he tickled the curves slowly, and the high that had been fading in him came back up. Calm poured through his body and the wind was music. The cold, dewy air tasted like spring moss, like pine. The needle on the speedometer slipped across seventy kilometers and he slowed down to forty. But minutes later, when he glanced at the needle again, it was back up at seventy. The road began a long-curved descent and he pulsed the brakes.
     He engaged the dashboard lighter and lifted his right thigh, and wedged his fingers into his back pocket, feeling for his small tin box. It wasn't there. He reached farther and excavated the gap in the back of the seat. The road was a tunnel. He glanced at the emergency-brake pocket but saw only a badly folded road map and a refillable plastic coffee mug that he had stopped using because he'd lost the lid.
     Her face in the headlights flashed like a coin, the features etched in silver blue. She was an instant, the sulfuric flare of a match, and though he had time to hit the brakes his foot found the accelerator instead. And there was a dull slap. Something white seemed to pause in the air. The sound of a broad, square nose of metal pummeling muscle and bone was flat and without ring. He stopped the truck with its nose pointing into the middle of the road and, confused, felt for his tin in the other pocket, as this somehow still seemed important.
Are you with me?  Are we going to the Mountain together?  Here's the Jacket Copy for those of you who remain on the fence:
Tragedy erupts in an instant. Lives are shattered irrevocably. A young man drives off into the night, leaving a girl injured, perhaps fatally so. From that cliffhanger opening, Sarah Leipciger takes readers back and forward in time to tell the haunting story of one family's unraveling in rural logging country where the land is still the economic backbone. Like the novels of Annie Proulx, this extraordinarily lyrical debut is rooted in richly detailed nature writing and sharply focused on small town mores and the particularities of regional culture. Marrying the propulsive story of a father and son who, in the wake of catastrophe, must confront their private demons to reach for redemption with an evocative meditation on our environmental legacy, The Mountain Can Wait introduces Leipciger as a talent to watch.
Blurbworthiness: "In this assured debut novel Leipciger beautifully captures the tender and mercurial relationship between father and son, Tom and Curtis Berry.  These are characters you care about, flawed and haunted by regret, existing in the harsh yet undeniably radiant world of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.  Leipciger writes with great compassion and precision, her language is an exquisite mix of muscle and grace.  The Mountain Can Wait resonated with wonderful imagery which will stay with me for a very long time."  (Michele Forbes, author of Ghost Moth)


The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits (Doubleday):  On a shelf in the musty, dusty basement of my home here in Butte, Montana, there's a red three-ring binder, its plastic cover sticky with age and ancient spilled soda.  Inside that binder are more than 200 pages of typewritten diary entries by yours truly, a transcript of my life between the ages of 16 to 20.  If I had an ounce of bravery and/or a momentary lapse of judgment, I'd get up from the desk where I'm currently writing this blog post, descend the three flights of stairs and excavate that diary so I could give you a taste of how truly terrible a writer and how incredibly silly a person I was back in the 1980s.  But I won't.  Because I'm a coward.  Heidi Julavits, on the other hand, is courageous enough to return to the journal she kept as a kid and take a look at a life which undoubtedly seems so oddly foreign to her 2014 self.  The Jacket Copy reveals all about The Folded Clock (which is such a great title, isn't it?):
Like many young people, Heidi Julavits kept a diary. Decades later she found her old diaries in a storage bin, and hoped to discover the early evidence of the person (and writer) she’d since become. Instead, "The actual diaries revealed me to possess the mind of a paranoid tax auditor." The entries are daily chronicles of anxieties about grades, looks, boys, and popularity. After reading the confessions of her past self, writes Julavits, "I want to good-naturedly laugh at this person. I want to but I can't. What she wanted then is scarcely different from what I want today." Thus was born a desire to try again, to chronicle her daily life as a forty-something woman, wife, mother, and writer. The dazzling result is The Folded Clock, in which the diary form becomes a meditation on time and self, youth and aging, betrayal and loyalty, friendship and romance, faith and fate, marriage and family, desire and death, gossip and secrets, art and ambition. Concealed beneath the minute obsession with “dailiness” are sharply observed moments of cultural criticism and emotionally driven philosophical queries. In keeping with the spirit of a diary, the tone is confessional, sometimes shockingly so, as the focus shifts from the woman she wants to be to the woman she may have become. Julavits's spirited sense of humor about her foibles and misadventures, combined with her ceaseless intelligence and curiosity, explode the typically confessional diary form. The Folded Clock is as playful as it is brilliant, a tour de force by one of the most gifted prose stylists in American letters.
In the Opening Lines of The Folded Clock, Julavits asks, "What is the worth of a day?"  We're about to find out.


The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James (Knopf):  The striking image on the cover of Tania James' new novel is just the first thing to love here.  That elephant demands you pay close attention to what's about to happen.  Go a little deeper and you'll encounter these Opening Lines:
      He would come to be called the Gravedigger. There would be other names: the Master Executioner, the Jackfruit Freak, Sooryamangalam Sreeganeshan. In his earliest days, his name was a sound only his kin could make in the hollows of their throats and somewhere in his head, fathoms deep, he kept it close.
      Other memories he kept: running through his mother's legs, toddling in and out of her footprints. The bark of soft saplings, the salt licks, the duckweed, the tang of river water, opening and closing around his feet. He remembered his mother taking him onto her back before launching herself from the bank. In this way, their clan would cross, an isle of hills and lofted trunks.
The Jacket Copy lets us know this is going to be an unforgettable novel in so many ways:
From the critically acclaimed author of Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogrammes, a tour de force set in South India that plumbs the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and, in a feat of audacious imagination, an infamous elephant known as the Gravedigger. Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition, the Gravedigger breaks free of his chains and begins terrorizing the countryside, earning his name from the humans he kills and then tenderly buries. Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger’s violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film’s subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three storylines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature. With lyricism and suspense, Tania James animates the rural landscapes where Western idealism clashes with local reality; where a farmer’s livelihood can be destroyed by a rampaging elephant; where men are driven to poaching. In James’ arrestingly beautiful prose, The Tusk That Did the Damage blends the mythical and the political to tell a wholly original, utterly contemporary story about the majestic animal, both god and menace, that has mesmerized us for centuries.
I'm excited about a lot of upcoming 2015 fiction, but The Tusk That Did the Damage is probably at the top of my list right now.  Blurbworthiness: “The Tusk That Did the Damage is one of the most unusual and affecting books I’ve read in a long time.  Narrated by a poacher, a filmmaker, and, most brilliantly, an elephant, this is a compulsively readable, devastating novel.”  (Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated)


Recipes for a Beautiful Life by Rebecca Barry (Simon & Schuster):  I'm going to leave you with what is my MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK of 2015.  Walk with me for a moment and let's have a little chat....Has this ever happened to you?  You read a story, a book, a poem, and you are so swept up in the writing that you immediately make an emotional connection with the author and put that person at the top of that rarified mental list you keep--you know, the one where you immediately start building a pedestal.  You decide right then and there to purchase everything that author writes from that day forward.  Every so often, you might go back and re-read that debut novel or that sole collection of short stories just to remind yourself how great this author really is, and you keep checking publishing industry announcements and lists of new and forthcoming books on the web.  Then you sit back and wait, flicking frequent glances at the calendar, hoping for news of the next book to come from this new Most Favorite Writer of yours.  But two years pass and nothing.  Three years go by and still, radio silence.  Five years, six years....crickets chirping in a barren field.  You turn gloomy, become depressed and vow never to fall in love like this again (but of course you do).  Does any of this sound familiar?  That's what happened to me with Rebecca Barry.  I lost my heart to her debut collection of short stories, Later, At the Bar, published in 2007.  The linked stories revolved around the barflies of Lucy's Tavern in upstate New York and were rife with the kind of drama found in soap operas and country-western songs: failed marriages, one-night stands, terminal illness, scrapes with the law, loneliness, bitterness and pent-up anger.  I sang its praises elseweb, calling it "inspiring fiction which just happens to be set in a room filled with smoke, sad songs and slurred words."  I simply couldn't wait for the next thing to come from Ms. Barry.  But, as I outlined above, I endured a long, empty-handed wait.  I was all prepared to send out a Literary APB for her, like I did with Jon Billman.  UNTIL a couple of weeks ago when I saw an e-galley of Recipes for a Beautiful Life was available on Edelweiss.  I couldn't click "Download" fast enough.  As it turns out, this new book isn't a novel or a short-story collection, but a memoir (mixed with recipes) of Barry's life with her husband and two boys.  In this case, real life might just be better than fiction because it will help explain where Barry has been for the past seven years.  The Jacket Copy shines a light:
When Rebecca Barry and her husband moved to upstate New York to start their family, they wanted to be surrounded by natural beauty but close to a small urban center, doing work they loved, and plenty of time to spend with their kids. But living their dreams turned out not to be so simple: the lovely old house they bought had lots of character but also needed lots of repairs, they struggled to stay afloat financially, their children refused to sleep or play quietly, and the novel Rebecca had dreamed of writing simply wouldn’t come to her. Recipes for a Beautiful Life blends heartwarming, funny, authentically told stories about the messiness of family life, a fearless examination of the anxieties of creative work, and sharp-eyed observations of the pressures that all women face. This is a story of a woman confronting her deepest fears: What if I’m a terrible mother? What if I’m not good at the work I love? What if my children never eat anything but peanut butter and cake? What if I go to sleep angry? It’s also a story of the beauty, light, and humor that’s around us, all the time—even when things look bleak, and using that to find your way back to your heart. Mostly, though, it is about the journey to building not just a beautiful life, but a creative one.
I hope I haven't made Ms. Barry blush with all this talk about literary longing and pedestal-building.  I mean, I wouldn't want to embarrass her into another seven-year silence.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Kept by James Scott, Glyph by Percival Everett, What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell, All I Have In This World by Michael Parker, Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha, Our Senior Year by John Abraham-Watne, The Gods of Second Chances by Dan Berne, and Harm's Reach by Alex Barclay


Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week's Friday Freebie contest: Closed Doors by Lisa O'Donnell and Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly.

This week's book giveaway is an eclectic grab-bag of titles to stuff your Christmas stocking (though, by the time the books arrive at the winner's house, it will be more like a New Year's gift).  Up for grabs: paperback copies of The Kept by James Scott, Glyph by Percival Everett, What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell, All I Have In This World by Michael Parker, Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha, Our Senior Year by John Abraham-Watne, The Gods of Second Chances by Dan Berne, and Harm's Reach by Alex Barclay.  Read on for more information about each book:

The Kept takes place in the winter of 1897, when Elspeth Howell treks across miles of snow and ice to the isolated farmstead in upstate New York where she and her husband have raised their five children.  Her midwife's salary is tucked into the toes of her boots, and her pack is full of gifts for her family.  But as she crests the final hill, and sees her darkened house and a smokeless chimney, immediately she knows that an unthinkable crime has destroyed the life she so carefully built.  Her lone comfort is her twelve-year-old son, Caleb, who joins her in mourning the tragedy and planning its reprisal.  Their long journey leads them to a rough-hewn lake town, defined by the violence both of its landscape and of its inhabitants.  There Caleb is forced into a brutal adulthood, as he slowly discovers truths about his family he never suspected, and Elspeth must confront the terrible urges and unceasing temptations that have haunted her for years.  Throughout it all, the love between mother and son serves as the only shield against a merciless world.  A scorching portrait of guilt and lost innocence, atonement and retribution, resilience and sacrifice, pregnant obsession and primal adolescence, The Kept is told with deep compassion and startling originality, and introduces James Scott as a major new literary voice.  BONUS: Click here to read about James Scott's "first time."

In Glyph, by the consistently-underappreciated and under-read Percival Everett, Baby Ralph has ways to pass the time in his crib—but they don’t include staring at a mobile.  Aided by his mother, he reads voraciously: “All of Swift, all of Sterne, Invisible Man, Baldwin, Joyce, Balzac, Auden, Roethke,” along with a generous helping of philosophy, semiotics, and trashy thrillers.  He’s also fond of writing poems and stories (in crayon).  But Ralph has limits. He’s mute by choice and can’t drive, so in his own estimation he’s not a genius.  Unfortunately for him, everyone else disagrees.  His psychiatrist kidnaps him for testing, and once his brilliance is quantified (IQ: 475), a Pentagon officer also abducts him.  Diabolically funny and lacerating in its critique of poststructuralism, Glyph has the feverish plot of a thriller and the philosophical depth of a text by Roland Barthes.  If anyone can map the wilds of literary theory, it’s Ralph, one of Percival Everett’s most enduring creations.  And now, thanks to Graywolf Press, this 1999 novel is back in print (released in paperback earlier this year)!

What Happened Here delivers a wildly different cast of characters living on the same block in North Park, San Diego, site of the PSA Flight 182 crash in 1978.  The crash is history, but its legacy seeps in the stories of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, bringing grief, anxiety, and rebellion to the surface and eventually assists in burning clean the lives of those who live in the shadow of disaster.  Amidst the pathos of contemporary life, humor flits through these stories like the macaws that have taken to the trees of North Park.  The birds ensure that there’s never a dull moment in the neighborhood, and their outrageous colors and noisome squawks serve as constant reminds of regrowth.  Praise for What Happened Here: “Bonnie ZoBell’s luminously intersecting stories of artists, musicians, teachers and assorted shimmering misfits in a North Park neighborhood that happens to be the site of a historic plane wreck, beautifully chronicles the struggles of the living to survive–emotionally and physically–in the shadow of wreckage and ghosts.  Her characters’ connections, madnesses, kindnesses and demons are startlingly poignant and resonant.”  (Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men)  BONUS: Click here to read about Bonnie ZoBell's "first time."

In Michael Parker's All I Have In This World, two strangers meet over the hood of a used car in Texas: Marcus, who is fleeing both his financial and personal failures, and Maria, who after years of dodging her mistakes has returned to her hometown to make amends.  One looking forward, the other looking back, they face off over the car they both want.  And after knowing each other for less than an hour, they decide to buy it together.  All I Have in This World is a different kind of love story about the power of friendship.  The New York Times calls it "a Springsteenian ode to the promise and heartbreak of the highway."  More praise for the novel: “Parker’s skillfully rendered story rolls like a restless, unpredictable west Texas river—calm depths here, turbulent shallows there—as Marcus and Maria communicate and lurch toward an imperfect union....Which feels a lot like real life.” (The Denver Post)  BONUS: Click here to read about Michael Parker's "first time."

In Arts & Entertainments, handsome Eddie Hartley was once a golden boy poised for the kind of success promised by good looks and a modicum of talent.  Now thirty-three, he has abandoned his dream of an acting career and accepted the reality of life as a drama teacher at the boys' prep school he once attended.  But when Eddie and his wife, Susan, discover they cannot have children, it's one disappointment too many.  Weighted down with debt, Susan's mounting unhappiness, and his own deepening sense of failure, Eddie is confronted with an alluring solution when an old friend-turned-Web-impresario suggests Eddie sell a sex tape he made with an ex-girlfriend, now a wildly popular television star.  In an era when any publicity is good publicity, Eddie imagines that the tape won't cause any harm--a mistake that will have disastrous consequences and propel him straight into the glaring spotlight he once thought he craved.  A hilariously biting and incisive takedown of our culture's monstrous obsession with fame, Arts & Entertainments is also a poignant and humane portrait of a young man's belated coming-of-age, the complications of love, and the surprising ways in which the most meaningful lives often turn out to be the ones we least expected to lead.

In Our Senior Year, the debut novel by John Abraham-Watne, Minneapolis writer Jason Wareheim never expected to go back to his ten-year high school reunion, but what he found back in his hometown changed the way he saw everything.  The journal left behind by his best friend, Jack Wayne, brings back all the memories of their senior year, inspiring Jason to finally tell the story of "the three musketeers" and their lives in the small town of Clarmont, Iowa.  Theirs was a story crossed by love, tragedy, friendship, loyalty, and simple cruising on gravel roads.  This is a story of high school.  For more information about John Abraham-Watne and his debut novel, click here to visit his website.  BONUS: Click here to read about John Abraham-Watne's "first time."

In The Gods of Second Chances, a novel by Dan Berne released earlier this year by Forest Avenue Press, family means everything to Alaskan fisherman Ray Bancroft, raising his granddaughter while battling storms, invasive species, and lawsuit-happy tourists.  To navigate, and to catch enough crab to feed her college fund, Ray seeks help from a multitude of gods and goddesses—not to mention ad-libbed rituals performed at sea by his half-Tlingit best friend.  But kitchen counter statues and otter bone ceremonies aren’t enough when his estranged daughter returns from prison, swearing she’s clean and sober.  Her search for a safe harbor threatens everything Ray holds sacred.  Set against a backdrop of ice and mud and loss, Dan Berne’s gripping debut novel explores the unpredictable fissures of memory, and how families can break apart even in the midst of healing.

In Harm's Reach, which will be released in early 2015, FBI Agent Ren Bryce finds herself entangled in two seemingly unrelated mysteries.  But the past has a way of echoing down the years and finding its way into the present.  When Bryce discovers the body of a young woman in an abandoned car, solving the case becomes personal.  But the more she uncovers about the victim's last movements, the more questions are raised.  Why was Laura Flynn driving towards a ranch for troubled teens in the middle of Colorado when her employers thought she was hundreds of miles away?  And what did she know about a case from fifty years ago, which her death dramatically reopens?  As Ren and cold case investigator Janine Hooks slowly weave the threads together, a picture emerges of a privileged family determined to hide some very dark secrets whatever the cost."

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE BOOKS, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 25, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 26.  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 18, 2014

My Year of Reading: Best Book Covers of 2014


It seems appropriate to be talking about favorite book cover designs around this time of year.  Christmas, after all, is all about bright, attractive paper wrapped around surprises which are just a finger-rip away.  Sure, sometimes those concealed gifts turn out to be puzzling disappointments like socks embroidered with leaping trout or the annual Avon soap-on-a-rope from a well-meaning grandmother (I'm speaking from personal childhood trauma here), but even those Christmas duds are usually nice to look at before the paper is torn away.

Book jackets are the gift-wrap of the publishing world.  While we shouldn't judge the contents of a book by its cover, it's hard to ignore that first impression, isn't it?  I'll be the first to admit, I sometimes buy a book based entirely on the lure of its cover (including a couple of the ones listed below).  Call me shallow, but I like my words packaged in eye-candy.

Here are my favorite designs of books published in 2014. I've listed the designer's name whenever possible; some of them also popped up on last year's Best Covers list--that's because they're damned good at what they do.



The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes
Design by Gabrielle Wilson
The cover design for Vanderbes' novel about a young woman searching for her brother who is missing in action in Italy was one of the first to catch my attention in 2014.  Half a profile and one eye of a World War Two-era WAC can be seen behind a sheet of yellowed, stained and torn memo paper which bears the book's title and a small red cross (nicely linked to the girl's bright red lipstick as well as her job as an Army nurse).



Design by Gray318
Turning the cover into birch bark itself may have seemed like an obvious move, but I think the simplicity of those little slits and the big bold font of the title are all we really need.



The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams
Design by Andrea Cardenas
I love how the titular building is so faint you can barely see it perched above the dark grassy knoll which is under most of the title and the author's name.  This is as atmospheric as a fog-swirled Manderley.



Design by Christopher Lin
Sideways landscapes seem to be all the rage lately (see also: California by Edan Lepucki and We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas), but I think the design and illustration for Justin Go's debut is one of my favorites--both for the deep, delicious blues which contrast the white peaks and the egg-yolk-yellow moon in "of," but also for the subtle way the mirror image of the mountain range takes on an hourglass shape, linking back to the title itself.



Winterkill by Kate A. Boorman
Design by Maria T. Middleton
Illustration by Shane Rebebschied
Here's an instance where I did buy the book based on the cover.  Sure, the perspective is all skewed if you really think about it, but the illustration muscles its way right into our eyes to announce what the book is about: a girl fleeing a threatening place (I love those whittled-sharp points on the title's lettering!), making her way along "the wayward path" through deep snow.  I immediately wanted to know why she was running and what she'd do once she got to her destination.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Design by Allison Saltzman
In this novel, set in Amsterdam in 1686, a bride receives an unusual wedding gift from her husband: a miniature replica of their house.  That world-within-a-world idea is nicely echoed in the snowy street scene found in the folds of the parakeet-bearing woman's dress.  While I love the spectrum of blues at work here, the green exclamation point of the bird and the splash of yellowed scroll beneath the title are brilliant notes of beauty.


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Design by Tal Goretsky and Lynn Buckley
Photo by Manuel Clauzier
I really seemed to have a thing for blue covers this year and with that wide expanse of sky, the design for Doerr's masterful novel was one of the best.  If you've read All the Light We Cannot See (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?!), you know the central role the walled citadel of Saint-Malo plays in the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives intersect during World War Two.  This design wins the prize for Most-Looked-At in 2014: as I got deeper and deeper into the novel, I kept turning back to the cover to stare at the landscape of Saint-Malo.


Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
Design by Rodrigo Corral
Photo by George Baier IV
Katherine Faw Morris' debut novel about a 13-year-old girl involved with the drug trade in North Carolina is raw, relentless and in-your-face with language that scarcely pauses to take a breath.  Likewise, Rodrigo Corral's cover design of that powder-dusted (cocaine?) hand literally reaches out to beckon us onto the first page.  I love the wry humor of putting the title and author text on the middle finger.


Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann
Design by Kelly Rae Bahr
Sara Lippmann's story collection from new small indie publisher Dock Street Press is brightly decorated with a rainbow of paper dolls; making one of them battered and crumpled was a brilliant move.



Bicentennial by Dan Chiasson
Design by Carol Devine Carson
When I bought this collection of poetry at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, the girl behind the counter groaned, "God, now I'm hungry for pizza."  Well, yes, the cover is a tasty one, but the contents are just as delicious.  Bicentennial celebrates America's 200th birthday in the 168-line poem that serves as the collection's rousing finale, but fireworks shoot off everywhere on these pages in stanzas about growing up in Vermont, Chiasson's mixed feelings about his absentee father, and, yes, what's it's like to wait for the delivery of a pizza when you're a young, hormone-fueled kid.



I love the Michelangelo vibe going on here.  Are the hands reaching out to connect, or have they just let go and now they're falling away from each other in space?  The ambiguity is pertinent to this big novel which is bursting with ideas about faith and love and global apocalypse.



I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy
The tagline for Jennifer Murphy's novel is "One man, three wives, the perfect murder."  As far as I'm concerned, this is the perfect cover for a novel about scheming widows.  That gleaming gun set against the black dresses introduces just the right air of mystery and menace.



Design by Gretchen Mergenthaler
Speaking of menace, is anyone else creeped out by the stare-down contest coming from Paula Daly's new novel?  This girl--the "other woman" who threatens to break up a marriage--has Trouble written all over her face.  The fact that designer Gretchen Mergenthaler fenced off that face behind the big font of the book's title doesn't make me feel any more relaxed.


The Disunited States by Vladimir Pozner
Design by Janet Bruesselbach
Vladimir Pozner's Studs Terkel-esque "travelogue" about life in Depression-era American was originally published in French in 1938.  Seven Stories Press released it in a fresh translation this year here in the U.S. and, from what I've read in its pages, The Disunited States is an evocative verbal photo album of what life was like during those hard times.  Dorothea Lange's photo on the cover shows two vagrants heading down a highway in search of their dreams...or perhaps just their next meal.  Extra kudos for that spot-on line-break in the title.


Cementville by Paulette Livers
Design by Michael Kellner
No, the neatly-folded flag floating in a creek seems rather unlikely, but I get the symbolism.  Paulette Livers' novel, set in a small Kentucky town in 1969, is about how families and friends are torn apart by the news that seven young men from the town have been killed in a single ambush in Vietnam.  When their bodies come back in coffins, that's when trouble really starts brewing in Cementville.  So, yeah, maybe somebody does toss a flag into a muddy creek.  One of the things I like best about this cover is the way the title seems to rise out of the landscape itself.  Symbolism again.



Straight White Male by John Niven
Design by Sam Wolgemuth
I don't know about you, but I see a martini glass.



Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall
Design by Martha Kennedy
David Mendelsohn's photo of former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall's face is cropped to perfection.  We need a roadmap to navigate those dry creek beds, the hilly pouches, and that magnificent forest of a beard.  I could stare at Donald Hall's face all day long and come away with a dozen different stories.  Mortality is one theme of Hall's new collection of essays (he writes: "In the morning, I turn on the coffee, glue in my teeth, take four pills, swallow Metamucil and wipe it off my beard, fasten a brace over my buckling knee...then read the newspaper and drink black coffee") and this in-your-face jacket design lets us know we're in for some bracing, honest discussions about death, beards, marriage, cooking and sex--all told from Hall's ancestral home on Eagle Pond in New Hampshire.  The state's famed "Old Man of the Mountain" granite outcropping collapsed in 2003.  I nominate Mr. Hall's visage as a suitable replacement.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2014


Every book has to start somewhere, right?

These were some of the greatest opening lines of 2014 books I came across this year.  Whether it was through startling imagery, clever grammatical construction or just plain oddness, these first sentences worked hard to get my attention.  They entranced, they intrigued, they hooked, they pulled me inside, they persuaded me to linger.   Whether or not the rest of the book held up to that first promise isn't the issue here (though, in most cases, these books do deliver the goods).  What matters is the first impression.  These lines were the unforgettable ones.

P.S.  If you want to read the rest of the words in these books, make sure you click the title link beneath each sentence and order your copy from R. J. Julia Booksellers.



We shot dogs.
     Redeployment by Phil Klay



It felt like a noble gesture at the time, and I was in the mood for an adventure.
     Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn



A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.
     Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty



Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
     An Untamed State by Roxane Gay



I'm pretty much fucked.
     The Martian by Andy Weir



Patterson Wells walks through the front door to find Chase working on a heap of crystal meth the size of his shrunken head.
     Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer



The end came for Jane, and so for us, at the edge of spring, when the leaves of the north country were washed in that impossible shade of lemonade green.
     The Carry Home by Gary Ferguson



They never found his hands.
     The Forgers by Bradford Morrow



There was a town, and there was a librarian, and there was a fire.
     Shouldn't You Be in School? by Lemony Snicket



On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican.
     Tigerman by Nick Harkaway



The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.
     Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel



On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.
     The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon



We found the woman floating facedown in an eddy where Crooked River made a slow bend north, just a stone skip away from the best swimming hole this side of anywhere.
     Crooked River by Valerie Geary



Exactly once upon a time in a small village in northern Iran, a child of the wrong color was born.
     The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour



Every night I stunned myself with gin.
     A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc



There was a time, not long ago, when it was illegal to kill people.
     Pills and Starships by Lydia Millett



A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.
     The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham



By the time Joan of Arc proclaimed herself La Pucelle, the virgin sent by God to deliver France from its enemies, the English, she had been obeying the counsel of angels for five years.
     Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison



They buried my wife in a shoe box in Central Park.
     Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich



The moose head was fixed to the wall, the microphone in its mouth was broken, but the camera in its left eye was working just fine, and as far as the moose head could see, this was just another Friday night in the Lumber Lodge!
     The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke



Leroy Kervin opened his eyes to see a woman in a blue-and-white-starred bikini holding a pneumatic drill.
     The Free by Willy Vlautin



I've always believed that one of the great reasons to be alive is that we don't know what's coming around the next corner.
     Good Grief! by Ellen Stimson



Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.
    Brainquake by Samuel Fuller



Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.
     Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi



Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off.
     Bark by Lorrie Moore



        Let's go out
        and fart in the sunlight.
     A Momentary Glory: Last Poems by Harvey Shapiro



I crash through the screen door, arms flailing like two loose propellers, stumbling like a woman on fire: hair and clothes ablaze.
     The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson



For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming.
     The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai



You are a hairy painting.
     Mad Honey Symposium by Sally Wen Mao



There is a bullet here on my desk.
     Talkativeness by Michael Earl Craig



Pretend I'm not already dead.
     A Life in Men by Gina Frangello



The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends.
     The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton



The rumors started before my daddy’s body got cold.
     I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy



This is the story of a murder, of a single soft-nosed bullet that traveled upward through a man’s rib cage, piercing his lung and lodging in his neck, after being fired by an unknown assailant 92 years ago on a cold Los Angeles night.
     Tinseltown by William Mann



The plane smelled of sweat and perfume.
     Friday Was the Bomb by Nathan Deuel



We feel them coming, the low vibration of their wheels, a dark convoy descending upon us, pitching north like a swarm lobbed from the fist of a spiteful deity.
     Cementville by Paulette Livers



Behold Tommy Arney: six-one, two-forty, biceps big as most men’s thighs and displayed to maximum effect in the black wifebeater that is his warm-weather fashion essential.
     Auto Biography by Earl Swift



The cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt and gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla.
     Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson



Because I'd seen part of a documentary on gurus who slept on beds of nails, and because I'd tried to quit smoking before my wife came back home after leaving for nine months in order to birth our first child--though she would come back childless and say it was all a lie she made up in order to check into some kind of speech clinic up in Minnesota to lose her bilateral lisp--I had a dream of chairs and beds adorned entirely with ancient car cigarette lighters.
     Between Wrecks by George Singleton