Monday, January 23, 2017

My First Time: Larry Watson


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 Larry Watson, author of of ten books, among them the novels Montana 1948, White Crosses, Let Him Go, and, most recently, As Good As Gone. The Seattle Times had this to say about Larry’s latest book: “In the virile, enigmatic character of Calvin, Watson both indulges in and reworks the romantic myth of the American cowboy in ways reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy or Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By. The wistful territory covered here will be familiar to Watson’s fans. A repressed little town on the plains, uncomfortably poised between the old West and the new. Shameful secrets and penned up passions that flash like heat lighting on the horizon of a brooding sky. A master of spare, economical storytelling, Watson sweeps us up in a captivating family drama that departs as quickly as it came, leaving us gratified yet hungry for more.” Larry teaches writing and literature at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he lives with his wife, Susan. Click here to visit Larry’s website.


My First Novel

My first novel was published with so little effort on my part that I completely misjudged what the process would be like.

I was working on a PhD in the creative writing program at the University of Utah, a program I’d been admitted to on the basis of a few short stories I’d written as part of my master’s thesis at the University of North Dakota. I continued to write stories and submit them to workshops for my first couple of years at Utah. The form, however, never felt comfortable, mostly because I struggled with what to leave out.

Then I came up with the idea for a novel, and I was not far into it before I realized how right that longer form felt, at least for me. If I knew nothing else about the novel, I knew I had to fill a lot of pages, so I let everything in. And everything seemed to fit, or at least I found a way to make it fit. Best of all, that indulgent writing philosophy led me to make discoveries that weren’t available to me when I wrote short stories, discoveries about my characters and their world, about language, and about myself and my world.

I can’t say that the novel wrote itself, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much material my original concept yielded. Soon I had 50 pages I was reasonably satisfied with, and I felt that behind those pages were 50 more, and 50 more behind those. I couldn’t be sure of the novel’s quality, but I felt as though I’d be able to produce the requisite quantity.

And with 50 completed pages I’d be able to apply for a generous national fellowship that some of my fellow students had been talking about. I sent in my application along with those pages and then waited to hear how I fared in the competition.

Well, I didn’t win a fellowship, but the competition brought another kind of good fortune. One of the judges liked my submission and got in touch with me. He’d been an editor but was now an agent with William Morris. Did I have an agent, he wanted to know, and if I didn’t, would I like him to represent me and my novel-in-progress? No, I didn’t, I said, and yes, I would. By then I’d written perhaps 150 pages, and he asked to see them. On the basis of those pages, he was able to sell the manuscript to Scribner’s (and that name should be a clue as to how long ago this was; today’s Scribner was then Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Once I finished the novel (which, I might add, was my first effort at the form), I submitted it to my committee as my dissertation. They accepted it, as I felt confident they would, since it was already under contract. My editor at Scribner’s didn’t ask for many changes (what took the most time, as I recall, was coming up with a mutually agreeable title—In A Dark Time was what we finally settled on), and before long the novel was published. That was in 1980.

It didn’t sell particularly well, but it received a few respectable reviews, and because I now had a novel on my vitae, I was able to get a teaching job.

Where, I wondered, was all the agony and frustration of trying get published? I didn’t have to find an agent; he found me. I didn’t even have to finish the novel before a publisher agreed to publish it. I was on my way, or so I believed.

And that belief must have constituted just enough hubris on my part for the literary gods of punishment and reward to conclude that there were lessons I needed to learn. Because everything that had once been easy soon became very difficult.

For 13 years I couldn’t get another novel published.

That agent and I soon parted ways when it became apparent to both of us that I wasn’t going to produce the kinds of novels he’d hoped for. The novels I did write couldn’t find a home, either through my efforts or the efforts of another agent I acquired—and lost. My slump ended when Montana 1948 was published in 1993.

I would have quit except...well, you know how it goes. No matter how short of expectations it might fall, your first time feels so damn good, you just want to do it again. And again and again and again...


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday Sentence: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III


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


The sky was black and turned to blue just before a ribbon of bright coral opened like a cut on the horizon.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III


Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Freebie: Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen


Congratulations to Jodi Paloni, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.

This week’s contest is for two of the best and most important political novels of recent years: Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I have a copy of each book to give away to one lucky reader; Guapa is a trade paperback and The Sympathizer is a hardcover. Read on for more information about the novels, including their terrific opening lines...

The morning begins with shame.

Set over the course of twenty-four hours, Guapa follows Rasa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and social upheaval. Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. One night Rasa's grandmother—the woman who raised him—catches them in bed together. The following day Rasa is consumed by the search for his best friend Maj, a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa, who has been arrested by the police. Ashamed to go home and face his grandmother, and reeling from the potential loss of the three most important people in his life, Rasa roams the city’s slums and prisons, the lavish weddings of the country’s elite, and the bars where outcasts and intellectuals drink to a long-lost revolution. Each new encounter leads him closer to confronting his own identity, as he revisits his childhood and probes the secrets that haunt his family. As Rasa confronts the simultaneous collapse of political hope and his closest personal relationships, he is forced to discover the roots of his alienation and try to re-emerge into a society that may never accept him.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

If you’d like a chance at winning Guapa and The Sympathizer, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 27. 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.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Lot of Fighting and F*cking: The North Water by Ian McGuire



The North Water
by Ian McGuire
Review by Bryan Kemler

Last week, a routine phone conversation with my mother took a turn down a worn and familiar path.

“What are you reading?” she asked.

It is usually one of my favorite topics to talk about, but this time my heart sank.

The North Water,” I admitted, feeling an odd sense of shame. I was afraid she may have even heard of it.

“I’ve heard of that one,” she said. “How is it?”

I suspected that she had me on speakerphone. Still, I could not help but give her my honest summary.

“Well, Mom,” I said, “There is a lot of fighting....and a lot of fucking.”

Immediately, my father blurted out that their first guests for Tuesday night church group had arrived. “Safe travels,” he said to me, as if the devil were only a step behind, and the line went dead. Later that night, I finished the book.

I am here to report that I loved Ian McGuire’s novel. And I fully endorse it, and recommend it. Unless you are my mother, my wife, my daughter, or anyone who is kind-hearted or empathetic or decent. I suspect that the more time you spend in church, the less you will like this book. Also, if you require trigger warnings, avoid this book.

But, assuming you are an adult of reasonably-sound mind and not overly freaked-out by horrible, violent imagery, then I whole-heartedly recommend this book to you.

The North Water is a whaling story set in the 19th century. That fact will be quickly lost on you because Mr. McGuire’s writing is so immediate and urgent that it betrays time. As you may have guessed from the title, this is a sea tale, describing the voyage of The Volunteer. Picture Moby-Dick, except imagine there aren’t so many whales anymore at the time this novel takes place. The Volunteer’s whaling venture has little, if any, chance of success. Imagine the U.S. rust belt, or coal country of Appalachia. Our story unfolds in the company of poor, desperate men with obsolete skills, under the stress of failing conditions. These are the men left in the wake of changing times.

The protagonist is Patrick Sumner, a surgeon, and a man seemingly graced with many of Sherlock Holmes’ worst qualities, but few of his best. Sumner learns a cabin boy on the vessel has been raped. He begins an investigation, and the boy promptly turns up dead. But this is no Agatha Christie novel; we know exactly who did it.

The villain, Henry Drax, did it. Hats off to you, Mr. McGuire, for creating the most frightening, disgusting, deplorable and mindless villain...maybe ever. Mr. Drax is the kind of villain whose name you will remember a month later. I’m not spoiling anything; his nature is made clear from the beginning. We the readers know exactly who raped and killed the cabin boy.

But our hero, Dr. Sumner, does not. He knows only that it was one of the crew. Sumner enlists the help of Captain Brownlee, who has his own agenda—one which does not include the safe return of his vessel to its home port. The captain’s malfeasance is also quickly revealed in the story.

One thing I loved about this book is that McGuire never gives you the question you want: Who killed the cabin boy? Or, what will happen to the whaling industry? Or, what will happen to the captain? Or, what will happen to the shipmates? These are the questions you want. But the only question McGuire allows is this: Will a single character survive this ill-fated mission?

There is a segment of the story that is set on the Arctic ice where Mr. McGuire brilliantly evokes the disorienting quality of the experience, as well as the people who call that place home. This part reminds me of the writing of Paul Bowles. In fact, if you like Bowles you will probably like this book.

Another book that came to mind, mainly because of the frequent use of pronouns and violence, was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. For fun, I took a look at Blood Meridian after I finished this book to see how the level of violence compared—and it doesn’t. The North Water is like Blood Meridian on steroids. But if you liked Blood Meridian, you will probably like this book.

I once watched a large dog bullying a pack of feral Chihuahuas on a strand of beach in Mexico. I noticed that the Chihuahuas were trying to encircle the larger animal, and turned back to my beer. A moment later, the big dog howled bloody murder and I turned to see the beast spinning around and around in a frantic circle, in terror and pain. One of the Chihuahuas had him by the testicles, and was spinning around attached to the dog’s backside. Finally, the little dog let go, and the big dog ran off down the beach yelping. This novel kind of made me feel like the big dog. Except in a good way.

I will let the villain, Henry Drax, have the last words: “Oh, the others will talk and plan and make oaths and promises, but there are precious few fuckers who will do.” In The North Water, Mr. McGuire has shown himself to be one of those precious few fuckers who do.


Bryan Kemler is an ex-lawyer and a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain, but mostly a writer trying to do the hard work it takes to become an author. He is currently working on a novel called American Savage whose protagonist is a young George Washington.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: Romeo and Juliet by David Hewson


Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.




We’ve all heard the story: Boy meets Girl, they fall in love, their parents object, Boy and Girl get married anyway, Boy is banished from town, Girl pretends to kill herself in order to join Boy, Boy doesn’t get the memo and thinks Girl is really dead, Boy kills himself, Girl wakes up and finds her dead lover, Girl kills herself. The End. Unhappily Ever After. For those of you who’ve never read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I guess I just spoiled your reading (but, honestly, I don’t care; if you haven’t read the tragedy by this point in your life, then you should make like Ophelia in Hamlet and get thee to a nunnery). R & J is a time-tested, time-worn classic romantic tragedy that has become such a part of our popular culture, its original story and meaning often get lost in the superficial shortcuts we use to describe the young lovers. What we need is a fresh pen to help us see the story from a new perspective. Enter David Hewson with his vibrant and startling revision of the tale. Hewson’s Romeo and Juliet is only available as an audiobook, but it’s good enough to warrant getting a membership with Audible.com. There are many surprises in Hewson’s book (I promise not reveal the major ones); chief among them is Juliet’s character—a strong woman ahead of her time, a Renaissance feminist who does her best to stand up to her father and protest the arranged marriage with the rich, older Paris. There’s also a backstory for the kindly Friar Lawrence, whose brother turns out to be the pivotal and fateful Apothecary. All in all, Romeo and Juliet proves you can put new clothes on an old, tired body and have it look fresh as a daisy. It certainly helps to have a narrator like Richard Armitage. I was drawn to Romeo and Juliet in part due to the terrific reading Armitage gave David Copperfield earlier (and of course I’ve loved his on-screen performances in The Hobbit and North and South, among others). Though the characters’ voices are more Irish than Italian, I got used to the continental drift pretty quickly and fell headlong into the dialogue. When all is said and done, Armitage and Hewson combine forces to deliver a familiar story that sounds like we’re hearing it for the first time. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at Armitage as he discusses why and how he took on this project:



Monday, January 16, 2017

My First Time: Kris D’Agostino



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 Kris D’Agostino, author of the novels The Antiques (now out from Simon and Schuster) and The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac. Kris holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and lives in Brooklyn. On a purely personal note, I had the privilege of reading an early copy of The Antiques and had this to say about the novel: “In The Antiques, Kris D’Agostino introduces us to a messy, delinquent, outrageous family plunged into mourning when the patriarch dies. While other writers might see this as an opportunity to throw ashes of grief on their characters’ heads, D’Agostino comes at us briskly, shaking our hand with a joy buzzer. This book also reminds us that life and laughter still continue even after our loved ones have left us. The Antiques is an exuberant, lusty novel that had me laughing in the most inappropriate places. I loved it!”


My First Reading

I tend to seek out humor in any situation where I can find it. To that end, author readings have served me well. They can be strange affairs, and not always in good ways. I’m not sure how much of that statement reflects my own personal idiosyncrasies and how much is a fair assessment of what it’s like to watch an author read their work. If I can be honest and hopefully not terribly offensive: they’re often dull, lackluster affairs. It’s not rare for me to leave a reading feeling as though I’ve actually lost something. To be fair: It’s quite a difficult task to bring words alive by simply reading them off a page and in actuality, contrary to what people seem to think, the person who wrote those words, is not always the best equipped person to read them aloud.

Now at the same time, I’m fully aware that readings serve a crucial function for both writer and publisher, for promotion and exposure, as cultural locus—I’m not suggesting they’re unnecessary or irrelevant in any way. I’m merely saying they can be, for lack of a better word, bizarre. Also, to make a small caveat here, I’m limiting this to fiction readings, as I think non-fiction and poetry lend themselves a little more to the group setting.

In my experience, and from talking to other authors, it can be a challenge to make a reading engaging, even when reading the most engaging of prose. This doesn’t even factor in the potential for how the sound, timbre and cadence of an author’s voice, their inflection and intonation—the way they read—coupled with the particular passage they’ve chosen to read can cut so hard against the way the reader interprets and “hears” those words. It can certainly take away a lot of the mystique surrounding a work or an author, if you’re the kind of person who assigns mystique to authors and their work.

I’ve seen quite a few authors (some that I really like) read from novels (some that I really like) and in most cases the experience didn’t even come close to mimicking the way the words resonated and felt, the way the characters acted or spoke, the way the scene played out, in my own head. Maybe this is more a reflection of the power of novels and the breadth of the human imagination at work. Not much can compare to how potent and influential our own minds can be. But still: readings. They are an interesting and baffling animal.

In my estimation the best parts of readings, when it comes to comedy, are always the author Q&As. And by “best” I mean most cringe worthy. I once saw a clearly unhinged and jittery young man ask Don DeLillo if he thought the United States government was responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th. You know, because he wrote Libra. Another time I watched as Denis Johnson tried to field a question about whether his drug abuse had made him a better writer. Listen to any Q&A and I guarantee you’ll be more amazed by the “questions” people come up with than any answer the author might articulate.

Where am I going with this? Well. When my first novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, published in 2012, I was faced with an interesting dilemma. Or at least in my mind it was an interesting dilemma. How was I going to make my reading (particularly my first reading) good? How was I not going to just show up at the bookstore and bore everyone by getting up at the podium and reading, with my not-particularly-exciting voice.

I thought for a long time about how to proceed and what I came up with was this: I decided to let other people do the reading for me. Brilliant! I thought. My idea cleverly got around me having to read my own work and possibly ruining it.

The novel focuses around a family—specifically a 24-year-old guy, his parents and his two siblings. The family in the novel is based on my actual family. It’s ostensibly a Roman à clef inspired by a couple of supremely strange years in my early 20s. One notable straying from the facts is that I turned my youngest brother, Tom, into a sister for plot purposes.

The third chapter of the novel centers around a dinner table scene and this particular dinner table scene happened in real life and involved my middle brother, Chase (Chip in the book) attempting to convince us all that he had been, in his words, “reverse discriminated” against on a Metro-North commuter train while on his way to work. So I thought, why not just ask my real family, who would essentially be playing themselves, to get up on stage and read from a script and re-enact this dinner table episode. I would read the narrative parts and they would read their corresponding lines of dialogue. The more awkward things got up there, the better—the more interesting and weird the whole performance would be.

I had no clue as to whether they’d be up for this and to complicate matters my father, who was battling advanced-stage blood cancer at the time, had been hospitalized and most likely would be there still when this first reading—the “launch” of the book—happened.

To my surprise, not only did my mother and my brothers (I had decided to make a joke about how I turned Tom into a girl and have him read the part anyway) agree to my little experiment, they seemed genuinely excited about it. As for my father, I had another great idea. I went to the hospital to see him and brought along some recording equipment and made audio clips of him reading his lines. I then sampled the clips. The night of the reading, my plan was to hook the sampler up to the sound system and Skype my dad in on a laptop. When it came time for him to read one of his lines, I would simply trigger the appropriate sample and his voice would come through the speakers. I didn’t want to add any more stress to his life by asking him to “perform” live. He did a hilarious job recording his lines. He wanted to “nail” them and so we did several takes of each, me sitting there at his hospital bed holding a microphone up to his face and him trying different tones and approaches to the line readings. It remains one of the better memories I have of him from that period, which was not always the most fun of times.

As Kris D’Agostino narrates The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, brother Chase, mother Kathleen, and brother Tom supply the voices at the WORD bookstore reading.

I’m fortunate enough to live a few blocks from one of my favorite bookstores in the world, WORD, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the reading took place in the basement space there, which is an awesome, cozy little room. On the night of the reading there was a packed house, filled almost entirely with friends and family and co-workers who generously came out to support me. I arrived with photocopied pages I had typed up for each of the “players” in the scene. I had laid the whole thing out in screenplay format to make it easier and highlighted the lines for each character in a corresponding color. My mother was purple, Chase yellow and Tom (reading the sister’s lines) was pink. We hooked up the sampler and I ended up using my iPhone to call my father via FaceTime so he could see the whole thing and be there, remotely, from his hospital room. The sampler volume was ludicrously too high so his voice boomed out like some omniscient god-figure overhead every time I played one of his lines. I was of course the most nervous out of everyone and did my best to contain my self-diagnosed sweating problem. The reading went off really well. I got laughs in the places I wanted to get laughs, and, in my mind at least, people were into it. I had successfully, to my satisfaction, circumnavigated the problem of giving a normal, forgettable reading, the kind that I’m always mocking. It felt nice.

The question now is: What the hell am I going to do when I have to read from my second novel?


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday Sentence: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III


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


I thought perhaps she was disappointed in me, but then I regarded her smile, the fashion in which she held her chin low, looking up at me with those gavehee eyes, and as she took my hand and led me back down the corridor to her room, my heart was a flat stone moving over water and my breath was held like the boy counting the skips of his good fortune.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III


Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Freebie: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh


Congratulations to Madeline Rombes, winner of the previous Friday Freebie: Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller.

This week’s contest is for another new collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh. One lucky reader will win a brand-new hardback edition of the book which Kirkus calls “A smartly turned and admirably consistent collection about love and its discontents.” Keep reading for more information about Homesick for Another World.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen was one of the literary events of 2015. Garlanded with critical acclaim, it was named a book of the year by The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. But as many critics noted, Moshfegh is particularly held in awe for her short stories. Homesick for Another World is the rare case where an author’s short story collection is, if anything, more anticipated than her novel. And for good reason. There’s something eerily unsettling about Ottessa Moshfegh’s stories, something almost dangerous, while also being delightful, and even laugh-out-loud funny. Her characters are all unsteady on their feet in one way or another; they all yearn for connection and betterment, though each in very different ways, but they are often tripped up by their own baser impulses and existential insecurities. Homesick for Another World is a master class in the varieties of self-deception across the gamut of individuals representing the human condition. But part of the unique quality of her voice is the way the grotesque and the outrageous are infused with tenderness and compassion. Moshfegh is our Flannery O’Connor, and Homesick for Another World is her Everything That Rises Must Converge or A Good Man is Hard to Find. The dark energy surging through these stories is powerfully invigorating. We’re in the hands of an author with a big mind, a big heart, blazing chops, and a political acuity that is needle-sharp. The needle hits the vein before we even feel the prick.

If you’d like a chance at winning Homesick for Another World, 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. Sorry, this week’s contest is only open to those with a U.S. address. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 20. 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.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: Kill the Next One by Federico Axat


Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.




Not too long ago, I mentioned Kill the Next One in the monthly Front Porch Books feature. I wrote “If you want to know why Frederico Axat’s psychological thriller shot right to the top of my must-read pile for 2016, you need look no further than the opening lines.” And those first sentences? See if you aren’t hooked, too:
     Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently.
     He paused. He couldn’t press the trigger when he had someone waiting at the front door.
The short trailer for Axat’s novel is also a good reminder of why we should all move this book to the top of our TBR piles. It’s simple and not too flashy, but it has a creepy, haunting vibe that sets the stage for the novel. A series of blurbs (“More plot twists than all of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography put together”) parade across the screen as a soundtrack that sounds like a recording of wind in a subway tunnel plays in the background. It’s twenty-four seconds of unease. And, hey, who wouldn’t be intrigued by that last blurb from Goodreads reviewer Chris? “Beware of the possum!”


Monday, January 9, 2017

My First Time: Leigh Anne Kranz


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 Leigh Anne Kranz, author of “Orca Culture” in the short story anthology City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales edited by Gigi Little, now out from Forest Avenue Press. Leigh Anne lives in Portland, Oregon, and is writing a novel. (If you’d like a copy of City of Weird, scroll to the bottom of this blog post for details on how to enter a special giveaway!)


My First Weird Story

The short story was published in an anthology of fantastical tales but was the truest thing I’d ever written.

It came about in a period of great unknowing, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, as the radioactive cloud floated on ocean currents toward the West Coast. The independent media prophesied the collapse of the North Pacific ecosystem; the mainstream media reassured it would dissipate long before it reached our shores. This human life on earth had taught me at least one thing: the more terrifying scenario was usually closer to reality.

The 1970s disaster movies my dad shared with his too-young children should have prepared me but did not. I lived with unnatural thoughts, This is it. This is really happening. The kind of thoughts unwelcome in civilized society.

The Oregon coast is where I go to write. The beach is shockingly beautiful: pristine, empty, the flight path of eagles. I stared at the curling waves, primeval rainforest, star-studded tidal pools and saw the end of us all. Life had become science fiction. I was the protagonist who must find a way to survive on a hostile planet.

The story began as a far-corner document on my desktop. I was working on other things but turned to it in moments of inspiration or barely contained hysteria. I wrote for no audience; the seats were already filled with skeletons.

The story was told from shifting points of view: a pod of orcas trying to survive in a changing ocean, and a human female who must find a way to live in a toxic culture. Writing the orca passages made me stop sometimes and sob. The woman’s perspective made me smile darkly from a place as deep as womankind.


The call for submissions wanted weird tales, reminiscent of the pulp era but with a modern slant. All stories had to be set in Portland, Oregon, or be connected to the city in a meaningful way. My story was an outlier in theme and geography, set on the coast, but that’s what made it feel, meaningful. Portland is its ocean. We are our oceans.

I sent the story out, small hope message in a bottle, to maybe reach another human being.

Gigi Little responded. It felt like a deep space transmission reaching through the void, a rescue.

Through the next year, Gigi drew out more of the story and made it so profoundly better I feel her name should appear next to mine. She is a born editor, gentle and kind. She referred to galling problems in my prose as “bumps.” Never once did she rouse that “artistic thing” (ego) in me. I knew of her circus past as a professional clown, but the way she handled the thirty writers in the collection, I’m surprised she wasn’t a lion tamer. Best thing, she’s a writer of moxie and wit and, always, heart. So, she gets it.

It was my first experience with publication and can’t imagine a better one. Forest Avenue Press is redefining the standard, with an authentic commitment to community building. The founder and publisher, Laura Stanfill, defies natural law with her energy and presence at literary events, and seems able to balance (and savor) the beauties of business, motherhood and art—she writes magical realism that is the real deal. I’ve watched her take the women-powered Portland press to national distribution, each act of business done with sterling quality and panache. It must be mentioned that Laura, one of the few women publishers in the industry, makes a point of providing opportunities for women to build publishing credits, as editors, graphic designers and writers, like me.

I’m writing this from the beach, at the same kitchen table where I wrote the story, looking out over the incoming waves. It’s the last weekend of the season, perhaps the last year of normal life on the Oregon coast. Because the way we’re headed, even if we dodge this disaster, another will surely follow, unless humans stop living this unearthly way.

The anthology rests beside my laptop: City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales. My story, “Orca Culture,” is in good company, no longer alone. Monica Drake’s blurb on the back cover describes it as “a surprising dark comedy of ecofeminist, post-Fukushima revenge.” I’m relieved the humor came through; we need it.

My first time was a lesson. The hidden truth must come out. What we write when we lose our ability to speak, or people to speak it to; what we write without thought of an audience, has the best chance of reaching another soul. I believe that writers, when faced with the prospect of human extinction—no one left to read their beautiful words—could be the ones to save the world.

I hope the story turns out to be fantastical fiction. I hope this era of human history becomes a weird tale from the past, one we’ve evolved far beyond. A story of survival.

I hope.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford


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


               My face is cold
               As a snow that wakes up a statue


“The Hearse on the Other Side of the Canvas” from
What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford


Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday Freebie: Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller


Congratulations to Theresa Snyder, winner of the previous Friday Freebie for the Big Box of Penguin Classics.

This week’s contest is for the new collection of short stories by Mary Miller, Always Happy Hour. I have a new hardcover copy to give away to one lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep reading for more information from the publisher about the book...

Combining hard-edged prose and savage Southern charm, Mary Miller showcases biting contemporary talent at its best. Fast on the heels of her “terrific” (New York Times Book Review) debut novel, The Last Days of California, she now reaches new heights with this collection of shockingly relatable, ill-fated love stories. Acerbic and ruefully funny, Always Happy Hour weaves tales of young women―deeply flawed and intensely real―who struggle to get out of their own way. They love to drink and have sex; they make bad decisions with men who either love them too much or too little; and they haunt a Southern terrain of gas stations, public pools, and dive bars. Though each character shoulders the weight of her own baggage―whether it’s a string of horrible exes, a boyfriend with an annoying child, or an inability to be genuinely happy for a best friend―they are united in their unrelenting suspicion that they deserve better. These women seek understanding in the most unlikely places: a dilapidated foster home where love is a liability in “Big Bad Love,” a trailer park littered with a string of bad decisions in “Uphill,” and the unfamiliar corners of a dream home purchased with the winnings of a bitter divorce settlement in “Charts.” Taking a microscope to delicate patterns of love and intimacy, Miller evokes the reticent love among the misunderstood, the gritty comfort in bad habits that can’t be broken, and the beat-by-beat minutiae of fated relationships. Like an evening of drinking, Always Happy Hour is a comforting burn, warm and intoxicating in its brutal honesty. In an unforgettable style that distinguishes her within her generation, Miller once again captures womanhood in “a raw...and heartbreaking way” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and solidifies her essential role in American fiction.

If you’d like a chance at winning Always Happy Hour, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 12, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 13. 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, January 5, 2017

My Year of Reading: Every Book I Read in 2016



This Was the Year

This was the year I killed it, reading-wise: 130 books, a new record since I started keeping track of my habits in 2005 (the year I was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army, I had loads of free time on my hands, and I read what now looks like a paltry 50 books).

This was the year when I read fewer new books (i.e., those released in the past 12 months) than ones published in other years: 56 vs. 74. Part of that had to do with my commitment to making headway on my Five-Year Reading Plan of the Essentials (though I still have a long way to go on that list), but part of it also had to do with the fact that I occasionally let my fancy go free and footloose through my library, pinballing from one book to the next, no matter what the publication date.

This was the year I re-discovered audiobooks. Rather than listening to Bruno Mars, Electric Light Orchestra, or Sia on my daily commute to and from the Day Job, I opted for Audible.com and the aural pleasures of Timothy West rolling the prose of Anthony Trollope trippingly off his tongue through The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne and Can You Forgive Her?. Richard Armitage also brought David Copperfield back to life for me on my second time through the classic novel (which now might just be my favorite Dickens of all time, nudging Dombey and Son from the top of the list).

This was the year of Anthony Trollope. When I go all in, I go really deep.

This was the year I got a library card. After being appointed to the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library Board earlier this year, I realized—with a bucketload of chagrin—that I had rarely darkened the doorway of our beautiful 122-year-old library here in Butte, Montana (and never to check out a book—gasp!). I quickly corrected the error of my ways by taking out a book by Lee Child.

This was the year of Lee Child. For years, family friend Marilyn has politely badgered me to read the bestselling author. “I think you’ll really like him,” she says every time she sees me. I mean every frickin' time, without fail. Finally, caving in and attempting to silence Marilyn’s hectoring once and for all, I checked out a copy of A Wanted Man from the library. Within twenty pages, I was convinced Marilyn was the smartest person on the planet. Not only did I “really like” Child, I loved him. I immediately started binging on Jack Reacher. He turned out to be the Lay’s potato chip of action heroes. At our Christmas party a few weeks ago, I pulled Marilyn aside and told her of my new-found love for all things Lee Child. “Great!” she said. “Now, let’s talk about David Baldacci...”

This was the year I read a book about a horrific plane crash (Fireball) while I was flying cross-country from Montana to Georgia. I survived my flight; Carole Lombard, unfortunately, did not walk away from hers.

This was the year I should have revived The Biography Project here at the blog since I read books about The Lives of Others (author Anthony Trollope, baseball legend Ted Williams, film actress Carole Lombard, and author Sinclair Lewis—the latter which I haven’t completely finished, so I’m carrying it over to my 2017 book log).

This was the year of Sinclair Lewis. I originally read Main Street as part of my Five-Year Plan, but enjoyed it so much, I moved on to several other time-tested classics by the Midwestern satirist. I binged him hard. Like Lee Child hard, like Anthony Trollope levels of intensity. (Come to think of it, this was the Year of Binge.) I’m not through with Lewis yet. I plan to read at least two more of his before this year is out: It Can’t Happen Here (because, sadly, it did, it did) and Dodsworth.

This was the year I was surprised by how bad some books could be, given their popularity and the bestselling reputation of the author (the children’s classic The Black Stallion and Alan Furst’s A Hero of France to name just two), but I was also pleasantly surprised by how truly great some relatively-unheralded titles turned out to be (Searching for John Hughes; Not All Fires Burn the Same; Wilderness; and every book by Nickolas Butler, which I gobbled down in quick succession—by the way, The Hearts of Men, which comes out this March, is the best of them all). I was also left feeling flatlined by books I expected to love but only liked (The Sisters Brothers, Zero K, Then We Came to the End, I’m Thinking of Ending Things).

This was the year my wife, feeling like a “book widow,” sighed in exasperation, “You know, you’ll never be able to read ALL THE BOOKS.”

This was the year I turned to her and replied, “Maybe not, but I’m gonna try.”



Crunching the Numbers

Sure, I read a lot of poetry books which typically clock in at less than 100 pages. And, yes, I read quite a few stand-alone novellas (mostly from the fabulous Ploughshares Solo series) that were often less than 50 pages. But for every whisper-thin poetry chapbook or novella, there were books the size of small Pacific islands (I’m looking at you, Mr. Anthony Trollope Novel!). The proof in my book pudding comes when I crunch the numbers to determine the average page count (yes, I note the number of pages in my book log—don’t you?). In 2016, I read a total of 32,584 pages (not counting the 606 pages in the Sinclair Lewis biography, which I’m rolling over into the 2017 book log). That puts me at an average page count of 251, lower than last year’s average of 304 (note to my 2017 self: fewer novellas, more Trollope). But nearly 33,000 pages still feels like a whole helluva lot. I mean, I could never eat 33,000 Oreos in one year no matter how hard I tried.

More stuff which is possibly interesting only to me:
  • The shortest book was Confession (24 pages) by Bill Roorbach, the longest was David Copperfield (877 pages) by Charles Dickens
  • 44 of the 130 were e-books
  • 5 were audiobooks
  • 56 were published in 2016, 3 were advance copies destined to be released in 2017 or beyond, and the rest were from prior years
  • 89 were written by men, 37 by women, 4 were a mix of both (anthologies or collaborations), and 0 were written by cats
And now, without further ado, I give you...


ALL THE BOOKS I READ THIS YEAR


Mrs. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
Escape and Reverse by Chelsey Johnson
Confession by Bill Roorbach
Over on the Dry Side by Louis L’Amour
The Revenant by Michael Punke
Wilderness by Lance Weller
Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson
The Detroit Frankfurt Discussion Group by Douglas Trevor
All I Want Is What You’ve Got by Glen Chamberlain
This is What I Want by Craig Lancaster
The House on the Cliff by Franklin W. Dixon
Selected Poems by Theodore Roethke
A Walk in the Sun by Harry Brown
Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink
The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis
Hollywood and the Holocaust by Henry Gonshak
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
The Other Felix by Keir Graff
Zero K by Don DeLillo
Galaxie Wagon by Darnell Arnoult
Tin House #66
Building Stories by Chris Ware
Look by Solmaz Sharif
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
A Wanted Man by Lee Child
By the Iowa Sea by Joe Blair
Make Me by Lee Child
Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison
Daredevils by Shawn Vestal
Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
Men Be Either Or, But Never Enough by Andria Nacina Cole
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Cordoba Skies by Federico Falco
Unquiet Things by James Davis May
Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me by Andy Martin
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed
Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed
One Summer by Bill Bryson
Battle Rattle by Brandon Davis Jennings
Poems: New and Selected by Ron Rash
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Into the Sun by Deni Ellis Bechard
Mississippi Noir edited by Tom Franklin
They Could Live With Themselves by Jodi Paloni
Still Come Home by Katey Schultz
56 Counties by Russell Rowland
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
The Soul in Paraphrase by Robert Boswell
Beach Plum Jam by Patricia Buddenhagen
The Art of Departure by Craig Lancaster
They Were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson
McWhinney’s Jaunt by Robert Lawson
Canoe Country by Florence Page Jaques
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
Sketchy Stories by Kerby Rosanes
The Echoing Green: Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses edited by Cecily Parks
Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith
ShallCross by C. D. Wright
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
Liar’s Code by Rich Chiappone
Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
The Walking Dead #1 by Robert Kirkman
Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover by Paul Buckley
There Now by Eamon Grennan
Bestiary by Donika Kelly
Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Exceptional Mountains by O. Alan Weltzien
Glimmer Train Stories #96 Spring/Summer 2016 (with a story by Yours Truly)
Melancholy Accidents by Peter Manseau
Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
Closer All the Time by Jim Nichols
99 Poems by Dana Gioia
Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond
Nancy’s Mysterious Letter by Carolyn Keene
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams
The State We’re In by Ann Beattie
Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
The Good Soldiers by David Finkel
Footing Slow: A Walk with Keats by Eli Payne Mandel
Trending Into Maine by Kenneth Roberts
The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones
Koppargruva by Hugh Coyle
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
Landscape with Headless Mama by Jennifer Givhan
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
The Iliad by Homer (Robert Fagels, translator)
A Hero of France by Alan Furst
Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen
Anthony Trollope by Victoria Glendinning
Not All Fires Burn the Same by Francine Witte
Night School by Lee Child
Dr. Wortle’s School by Anthony Trollope
The Door That Always Opens by Julie Funderburk
The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri
Snowflake by Paul Gallico
Miracle in the Wilderness by Paul Gallico
Afterward by Edith Wharton
One Who Saw by A. M. Burrage
The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen
The Diary of Mr. Poynter by M. R. James
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P. D. James
Waterlines by Alison Pelegrin
The Signalman by Charles Dickens
Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
Wintering by Peter Geye
The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee Jr.