Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Freebie: Fill the Sky by Katherine Sherbrooke

Congratulations to Bart Zimmer, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson.

This week’s contest is for Fill the Sky by Katherine Sherbrooke. I have two copies of the novel up for grabs. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

When Ellie’s cancer exhausts the reaches of modern medicine, she travels to Ecuador with her lifelong friends, Tess and Joline, hoping that local shamans might offer a miracle. During a tumultuous week that includes strange, ancient ceremonies and a betrayal that strains their bond, each woman discovers her own deep need for healing, even the skeptic among them. Fill the Sky is about the complexity of friendship, the power of the spirit, and the quest to not simply fight death, but to shape an authentic life. Bestselling author Anita Shreve had this to say about Fill the Sky: “Three women, each with an important question to answer, travel together into a world richly imagined and beautifully rendered to find unconventional answers. This is a deeply moving novel about love, honesty, respect, the unlikely, and the truly possible.”

Be sure to check out Katherine’s story about her “first time” which appeared earlier here at the blog.

If you’d like a chance at winning Fill the Sky, 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. This contest is limited to those with an address in the U.S. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 27, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 28. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Front Porch Books: October 2016 edition

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

Brat Pack America
by Kevin Smokler
(Rare Bird Books)

Continuing my binge of 80s pop culture (after swigging down Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond like it was a cardboard box of Hi-C Ecto Cooler), I’m ready to go back in time to hang out with the Brat Pack. Kevin Smokler’s “Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies” looks like the perfect ticket to go back to those days. DeLorean not included.

Jacket Copy:  From the fictional towns of Hill Valley, California, and Shermer, Illinois, to the beautiful landscapes of the “Goondocks” in Astoria and the “time of your life” dirty dancing resort still alive and well in Lake Lure, North Carolina, ’80s teen movies left their mark not just on movie screen and in the hearts of fans, but on the landscape of America itself. Like few other eras in movie history, the ’80s teen movies has endured and gotten better with time. In Brat Pack America, Kevin Smokler gives virtual tours of your favorite movies while also picking apart why these locations are so important to these movies. Including interviews with actors, writers, and directors of the era, and chock full of interesting facts about your favorite ’80s movies, Brat Pack America is a must for any fan. Smokler went to Goonies Day in Astoria, Oregon, took a Lost Boys tour of Santa Cruz, California, and deeply explored every nook and cranny of the movies we all know and love, and it shows.

Opening Lines:  It broke my heart that I couldn’t visit Hill Valley. It seemed like such a nice town to grow up in, even if it’d had a run of bad luck since 1955. Still, I was pretty sure that if stood near the clock tower right as the high school let out, I’d see Marty McFly rolling by on his skateboard. I’d yell “Hey, McFly,” but in a nice way, and thank him for being a weird kid from a weird family with a pretty girlfriend and a band and a mad scientist for a best friend. If I could visit Hill Valley, California, which I guessed was somewhere around the bend in the state’s elbow, maybe I could tell Marty McFly, “When I’m seventeen, I want to be just like you.”

The Horseman
by Tim Pears

And if I want to go even farther back in time, I’ll turn to the pages in Tim Pears’ new novel (available in the U.S. in February). The Horseman, set in rural pre-World War I England, is the first in a trilogy of novels featuring the titular equestrian Leo. I’m ready to go for a ride.

Jacket Copy:  From the prize-winning author of In the Place of Fallen Leaves comes a beautiful, hypnotic pastoral novel reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, about an unexpected friendship between two children, set in Devon in 1911. In a forgotten valley, on the Devon-Somerset border, the seasons unfold. Twelve-year-old Leopold Sercombe skips school to help his father, a carter. Skinny and pale, with eyes as dark as sloes, Leo dreams of a job on the Master’s stud farm. As ploughs furrow the January fields, the Master’s daughter, young Miss Charlotte, shocks the estate’s tenants by wielding a gun at the annual shoot. Spring comes and Leo is breaking a colt when a boy dressed in a Homburg, breeches and riding boots appears. Peering under the stranger’s hat, he discovers Charlotte. And so a friendship begins, bound by a deep love of horses, but divided by rigid social boundariesboundaries that become increasingly difficult to navigate as they approach adolescence. Suffused with the magic of nature, this hallucinatory, beautiful tale of a loss of innocence builds with a hypnotic power. Evoking the realities of agricultural life with precise, poetic brushstrokes, Tim Pears has created a masterful pastoral novel.

Opening Lines:  The boy, Leopold Jonas Sercombe, stood by his father at the open doorway to the smithy. Jacob Crocker’s younger son, the gangly one, fed a circle of metal into the furnace. Outside, behind the boy, the earth was frozen. His feet were numb and his arse throbbed with the cold but he could feel the heat on his face. His father’s gaze was rapt and hawkish, he’d come to scrutinise, for these wheels were for the great waggon and he’d let naught shoddy by. Merely by his presence he gave Jacob Crocker to know that if Albert Sercombe found fault, nothing would please him more than to reject the lot for the master.

Death: An Oral History
by Casey Jarman
(Zest Books)

I once wrote a terrible poem which began like this:
We are none of us
Given x number of days.
The heart will seize and stop,
Abrupt and rude as a slammed door.
You will choke in a restaurant
Filled with people who always intended
To take that Red Cross course.
And so on, until the final breath of the last stanza. Though its literary merits are debatable, one thing is true: we all think about death, we all try to prepare for death, and we’re all completely lousy in our predictions of when it will come for us. That’s one reason why Casey Jarman’s oral history of The End is an appealing read. The book won’t have the answer to my own personal finality, but it will be interesting to get a fresh perspective on the subject from a chorus of voices.

Jacket Copy:  In this illuminating collection of oral-history style interviews, Casey Jarman talks to a funeral industry watchdog about the (often shady) history of the death trade; he hears how songwriter David Bazan lost his faith while trying to hold on to his family; he learns about cartoonist Art Spiegelman using his college LSD trips to explain death to his children; and he gets to know his own grandparents, posthumously. These are stories of loss, rebuilding, wonder, and wild speculation featuring everyone from philosophers to former death row wardens and hospice volunteers. In these moving, enlightening, and often funny conversations, the end is only the beginning.

Opening Lines:  I grew up with photographs of my grandparents, but no actual grandparents. They all died before or shortly after I was born. None of them held me as a baby, or told me about the old days, or passed on family secrets from a bygone era. My folks told me stories about those mysterious figures from worn old photographs, trying to create some sort of bond between usbut all of the stories just swirled together. “Was it Grandpa Frank who owned a butcher shop? Or was that Mom’s dad? Wait, no, he was a preacher, right?” Cue the look of disappointment in my parents’ eyes. “I wish you could have known them,” they still say.

Blurbworthiness:  “Casey Jarman, one of my favorite Northwest journalists, is becoming the Studs Terkel of his generation.”  (Willy Vlautin, author of Lean on Pete)

All Grown Up
by Jami Attenberg
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

If I wasn’t already primed and ready to add Jami Attenberg’s new novel to my To-Be-Read stack, this description of the main character from the jacket copy would be enough to make me bark a “Oh God, gotta read that!” without hesitation: a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh. But novels (most novels, anyway) are more than just the sum total of their characters. They’re about plot and style and art at the sentence level—and how all those elements come together in the bubbling stew of a book. Jami Attenberg has delivered plenty of tasty soup in the past and I expect more of the same from All Grown Up. I’ve got my spoon ready.

Jacket Copy:  Who is Andrea Bern? When her therapist asks the question, Andrea knows the right things to say: she’s a designer, a friend, a daughter, a sister. But it’s what she leaves unsaid—she’s alone, a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh—that feels the most true. Everyone around her seems to have an entirely different idea of what it means to be an adult: her best friend, Indigo, is getting married; her brother—who miraculously seems unscathed by their shared tumultuous childhood—and sister-in-law are having a hoped-for baby; and her friend Matthew continues to wholly devote himself to making dark paintings at the cost of being flat broke. But when Andrea’s niece finally arrives, born with a heartbreaking ailment, the Bern family is forced to reexamine what really matters. Will this drive them together or tear them apart? Told in gut-wrenchingly honest, mordantly comic vignettes, All Grown Up is a breathtaking display of Jami Attenberg’s power as a storyteller, a whip-smart examination of one woman’s life, lived entirely on her own terms.

Opening Lines:  You’re in art school, you hate it, you drop out, you move to New York City. For most people, moving to New York City is a gesture of ambition. But for you, it signifies failure, because you grew up there, so it just means you’re moving back home after you couldn’t make it in the world. Spiritually, it’s a reverse commute.

Blurbworthiness:  “Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up is one part Denis Johnson, one part Grace Paley, but all her. Every sentence pulls taut and glows—electric, gossipy, searing fun that is also a map to how to be more human.”  (Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night)

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White
by Melissa Sweet
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

One of the bigger revelations during my recent trip to Maine was the fact that it was where E. B. White lived most of his life. I’m sure this comes as little surprise to anyone familiar with the Charlotte’s Web author or Maine literature in general, but for me it was a wonderful footnote to an already glorious vacation to the Pine Tree State (my first time there). Right around the time I was walking along a mile-long path to a lighthouse along the coast, Melissa Sweet’s new young-reader biography of White was hitting bookstores. This exquisitely-designed book—every page is a collage of photos, drawings and artifacts (you can see a sample page below)—immediately found a home on my shelves. I plan to pair it with a long-overdue visit to my old friends Charlotte, Stuart and a certain trumpeter swan.

Jacket Copy:  “SOME PIG,” Charlotte the spider’s praise for Wilbur, is just one fondly remembered snippet from E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. In Some Writer!, the two-time Caldecott Honor winner Melissa Sweet mixes White’s personal letters, photos, and family ephemera with her own exquisite artwork to tell his story, from his birth in 1899 to his death in 1985. Budding young writers will be fascinated and inspired by the journalist, New Yorker contributor, and children’s book author who loved words his whole life. This authorized tribute is the first fully illustrated biography of E. B. White and includes an afterword by Martha White, E. B. White's granddaughter.

Opening Lines:  Elwyn Brooks White became a writer while he was still wearing knickers. He was seven or eight years old when he looked a sheet of paper “square in the eyes” and thought, “This is where I belong, this is it.”

Blurbworthiness:  “What elevates this book to the stratosphere is the art. Practically glowing, it turns a very fine biography into something original, creative, and marvelous.”  (

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Contort: born with a twist and a slip and a slither

          I was born, not aborted.
         I contorted my way into this world with a twist and a slip and a slither.
         Back then, they called me Montana Lily, Butte’s Baby Wonder.
Those are the opening lines to my latest short story, a slippery stream-of-consciousness piece narrated by the most famous child contortionist to ever emerge from Butte, Montana (admittedly, perhaps the only headline-making, pliable-boned infant to come from the Mining City).

“Contort” is a brief look at the life of “Montana Lily” Pitkanen who wowed her audiences in the early part of the 20th century. Newspaper ads from 1924 touted her as “one of the greatest 15-months-old athletes in athletic stunts” under the direction of Dr. G. Pitkanen. The little girl, it seems, learned to somersault before she could crawl.

photo courtesy of Butte-Silver Bow Archives

I first learned of Montana Lily a few months ago when I was invited to contribute a story to a fundraising project for the Butte-Silver Bow Archives. The photo you see here was taken by C. Owen Smithers, a prolific photographer whose collection of more than 25,000 images at the Archives documents Butte’s rise as a cosmopolitan city. The Archives received the negatives several years ago and has been working to preserve them ever since.  However, the cost of restoration is a large one. As this Montana Standard article points out, “most of these negatives, if not in pristine condition, are in relatively good shape. However, floods, fire and time have taken a toll. Some of these negatives need a touchup here and there, others need a bit more work, while some negatives are in need of extensive restoration.”

That’s where we storytellers come in.

Several of us in the community were invited to contribute creative texts in response to specific photographs from the collection. I lucked out with a photo of a little girl balancing on the extended hand of a woman old enough to be her grandmother. I wanted to know more about this snapshot, and so Irene Scheidecker from the Archives emailed me with some background information on Lily and the aforementioned “G. Pitkanen.”

That would be Gertrude Pitkanen, the infamous abortionist of Butte, Montana. This is where the story really gets interesting.

There is an entire website devoted to Dr. Pitkanen and the legacy of “Gertie’s Babies.” As I read more about the doctor, my curiosity grew: “She was charged three times with manslaughter or homicide following the death of women who had Gertrude Pitkanen’s illegal operations, and each time charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.” And then there’s her lesser-known reputation for the illicit sale of infants she delivered.

Montana Lily was different. For some reason, Gertrude decided to adopt the infant (whose mother, I imagined in my story, was a hard-working lady at the Dumas Brothel). In her email to me, Irene wrote:
Research on genealogy websites shows that Gertrude Pitkanen adopted several more children after Montana, and that they were all placed in a Helena orphanage at one point in time. Montana Pitkanen got married at age 18 to a 32-year old man named John Williams, and apparently lived out her life as a beauty operator in Butte.
As you can see, this story practically writes itself. I’m just standing by, ready to put it all down on paper. (And, quite frankly, I don’t think I’m completely done with Montana Lily’s story; my brain continues to churn...)

Irene has transformed our creative interpretations of the Smithers photos into beautiful works of art for the fundraiser. Some are wall-mounted posters, some are fashioned into something resembling a scrapbook, and my story, fittingly, is a miracle of twisted origami.

The Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives event on October 28, “A Night in Black and White,” will raise funds to preserve the C. Owen Smithers Photograph Collection. There will be a live auction featuring never-before-seen Smithers images as well as a silent auction and an adopt-a-photo program. Click here to learn more about how you can help contribute to the photo restoration project.

The Archives plans to put together a book with the stories from “A Night in Black and White.” I’ll post an update when I learn more about how to purchase the book. For now, I’ll leave you with the closing lines of “Contort.”
Go ahead, balance me in the palm of your hand, lift me to the sky so I can tumble up to the clouds. Hold me in your hand and I will harden into a plank. Go ahead, swing me by the hair and see if they don’t put me on the front page of the newspaper: BUTTE’S MOST REMARKABLE INFANT. See if I don’t bump Jack Dempsey back to page 3. See if Warren G. Harding doesn’t bow to my remarkable talent. See if I don’t somersault over them all, leaping and flipping through the air, landing right in the center of that headline. Watch me now, you’ll see. I’ll show you REMARKABLE.

Monday, October 17, 2016

My First Time: Katherine A. Sherbrooke

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 Katherine A. Sherbrooke, author of the new novel Fill the Sky, and a memoir, Finding Home. Katherine is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Stanford University, is an entrepreneur and writer. She currently serves as Chair of the Board of Grub Street. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts with her husband, their two sons, and a black lab.

The First Time My Book Was Done

I have always been a big believer in revision, so by the time my first manuscript was done, it had been through countless iterations. I had work-shopped almost every chapter, revisited tricky scenes with my writing group, and incorporated feedback on the entire manuscript from three trusted readers. The changes along the way ran the gamut, from adding additional points of view, to removing whole pages of exposition, pretty paintings that were hard to destroy but had no impact on the characters in the room. Then I spent several months honing and polishing. And finally, I was done.

That is, until I started over.

At the time, two writing friends of mine were enrolled in Grub Street’s Novel Incubator, a year of intensive manuscript revision under the tutelage of novelist Michelle Hoover. We had all started our novels at the same time—theirs were both excellent— and I was amazed when they described how much their books were changing in the class. The work they were doing wasn’t just moving furniture around that wasn’t working quite right, but whole-scale renovations. Some inner contractor told me that one more look at my manuscript might not be a bad idea. Michelle Hoover agreed to give it a read.

Michelle explained her timeline and process, which would include a written review of my book followed by an in-person discussion. Anxious to start submitting my book to agents without too much further delay, I suggested we schedule our meeting in advance, perhaps a day or two after her report was due. She hesitated, suggesting I should take time to process her comments before we spoke, and that I might not know how much time I would need until I read her report. I tried to explain that I was a fast processor of information and was practiced at quickly integrating feedback—I knew I would want to dive in right away—but she insisted we wait, and so I complied.

The day before her report was due, I went out to dinner with a group of close friends. We had all worked together at the business I had co-founded many years before, and it had been a while since we had all caught up. I excitedly told them I had finally finished my novel, that I was waiting “as we speak” for feedback from a teacher and novelist I really admired, but was hoping to have it out into the world soon. Even as I said things like, “she’s really tough, so who knows, she might tell me it’s terrible,” I secretly anticipated her rave reviews. I envisioned her amazement at how little there was to change, even without having enrolled in her intensive program. Everyone at the dinner table told me they couldn’t wait to see my book on the shelves. I would soon be on my way as “novelist,” a life-long dream.

As I boarded the commuter ferry that night, my email dinged. Michelle’s report was ready. What a perfect way to end the night—her words representing the last steps in the bridge between my old world of business and my new one as novelist. As I opened the file, several things struck me right away. The first was that her report was twelve pages long. Next, that it was single-spaced. Even a prolific writer doesn’t need five thousand ways to say “bravo!” The third thing I absorbed before my eyes began to blur was that it had only taken her two or three lines to tell me what she thought was working in the book before launching into the list of things that needed to be reworked. Furtively checking to see if there was anyone on the boat I recognized, I forced myself to read all twelve pages, twice. Then I cried the rest of the way home.

I didn’t request a meeting that next week. I was too busy being curled up in the fetal position on my couch. Nor did I request a meeting the week after that—too busy trying to uncurl myself. By the third week, I noticed that her comments had sprouted some new ideas about the book, tender and tiny, but taking root nonetheless. Two weeks after that, I had a host of tentatively drawn mental sketches for the kinds of changes I wanted to make, changes I knew the book had to have if it was going to be sound. Six weeks after receiving her feedback, I was finally ready to sit down with Michelle.

I outlined for her the things I was thinking about changing—switching the whole book from first person to third, collapsing four key characters into three, flying a back-story character to Ecuador so they could be in-scene, and adding a story-line I hadn’t previously considered, just to name a few. We talked through it all, and she validated the choices I had made. And then I asked her the most important question of my writing career thus far.

“Given everything I now want to change, if you were me, would you revise the manuscript I have, or would you start over?”

Michelle thought for a moment or two, and then looked me in the eye. “I would start over,” she said. It was a brave response, but I knew she was right. And I am grateful she had the courage to say it.

So I started with a blank screen, and began again from page one.

The truth is, starting over isn’t really starting over. I had developed a world that was real to me, I had created several characters that were living and breathing beings in that world. I just had to find a different way to tell their story. I approached it a bit like writing creative non-fiction. The “facts” were all there, but I needed to highlight different moments. The characters were already formed, but I had to illuminate their personal journeys in new ways. For me, it’s always the mental blueprint of the world and the birthing of the characters that’s the hardest. Putting them in scene is the fun part. So while it had taken me over two years to write the first version, I completed the new one in under six months.

More feedback ensued, my trusted readers weighed in again, and then, finally, one glorious day, I was really done. (Well, there was that revision for my agent, and then one more during the submission process…and then several more for my publisher…but who’s counting?)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

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

At most, the IED cost $100 to make, and against it the $150,000 Humvee might as well have been constructed of lace.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Freebie: The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

Congratulations to Ginger Heatwole, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday by Christine Reilly.

This week’s contest is for The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson. I’ve got a hardcover copy of the new book about Niagara Falls to send to one lucky reader. Read on for more information about the book...

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a small but determined band of barrel jumpers risked their lives in one of the world’s most wondrous waterfalls. Only a few survived. By turns a family drama and an action-adventure story, The Age of Daredevils chronicles the lives of the men and women who devoted themselves to the extraordinary sport of jumping over Niagara Falls in a barrel—a death-defying gamble that proved a powerful temptation to a hardy few. Internationally known in the 1920s and ’30s for their barrel-jumping exploits, the Hills were a father-son team of daredevils who also rescued dozens of misguided thrill seekers and accident victims who followed them into the river. The publicity surrounding the Hills’ spectacular feats ushered in tourism, making Niagara Falls the nation’s foremost honeymoon destination, but ultimately set Red Hill Jr. on a perilous path to surpass his father’s extraordinary leaps into the void. Like the works of Jon Krakauer and David McCullough, The Age of Daredevils explores the primal force of fear and the thirst for adventure that drive humans to the brink of death to see if they can somehow escape.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Age of Daredevils, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 21. 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, October 12, 2016

Haunted by Books: Caroline Leavitt’s Library

Reader:  Caroline Leavitt

Number of Books:  Please don’t ask me to count. It will take me forever to number them because I know I will sit down and start reading.

My personal library began when I was 9 and my mother bought me a blue painted bamboo shelf for my room. I loved that I had my very own shelf! I immediately began putting my favorite books on it—starting with Nancy Drew and moving on to 1984, Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, and all sorts of other books. Over the years, that little shelf began to buckle under all the weight of all my books, but I didn’t give it up until I moved to college and then to Manhattan, where I had books lining the floors, and piled up towards the ceilings.

When I got married and had an actual home, we had bookshelves on all three floors and in both bathrooms. But I have my own office on the top floor and three different bookshelves, all with the books I love the most.

This little shelf is more of my work shelf, with some of my books, my husband Jeff Tamarkin’s books, and books on writing. It’s an all-business sort of shelf, except for the silly birdhouse in the middle, festooned with writerly comics. I didn't photograph the bottom shelf because it’s stuffed with ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) and books I am going to read and review and I feel like those titles are private until the reviews come out.

Sometimes I keep a book because it got me through a terrible time and I’m grateful to it, like Larry McMurtry’s Moving On. I found that book in a second-hand bookstore in Pittsburgh when my first marriage was crumbling in the most astonishing way. Somehow the story of Patsy who left her marriage and found herself in the world of rodeo made me feel cheerful and although I haven’t reread that book for years, just looking at it makes me happy.

No rhyme or reason to how books are sorted on these shelves but notice all the foolish extras, including a Malibu Barbi with a broken leg, my son’s first baby sneakers, painted to look like a lion, dog buttons from Parnasuss Books, a tiny statue of a man wearing a fez....and so much more. Here are all the Richard Price books, bios like The Hemingway Women by Bernice Kert and The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller, and a first edition of Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson.

Book I’d run into a burning building to save:  I want to say A Little Life by Hanyah Yanagihara because it showed me that dark is never too dark and no other book has haunted me as obsessively. (I like obsessions.) But truly, a book I treasure is a collection of Kafka short stories given to me by my very first boyfriend when I was barely 17. The pages are underlined by him and there is an inscription that says only, “This is for you with love.” He wanted to prove to me that he was really smart. I knew that he was, and all those underlines made me realize he was full of heart, too.

This shelf is filled with my favorite books, from Anna Solomon’s Leaving Lucy Pear to Mary Morris’ The Jazz Palace to Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Edges. And again, note the amount of silly stuff, including Mrs. Mustard’s Baby Faces on the top of the shelf.

Favorite book from childhood:  Mary Poppins In the Park. Forget the dreadful saccharine Disney film and Broadway show—both so sweet you could get tooth decay before the first act. This Mary is a tart, no-nonsense and sort-of-scary nanny, and she showed me how there was a very thin line between what is real and what could be real, if only you would let it be. These books felt so real to me, so exciting and yet terrifying, too. And I think I loved it because that’s what my life has turned out to be.

Guilty-Pleasure Book:  I can’t find it in my piles but I know I would never part with it. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Yep, it’s deliciously trashy, about three young women whose lives upend when they get hooked on pills. I was shocked when I read it as a young girl, delighted in it when I was in college, and I still appreciate it now for its complete over-the-topness and hilarious dialogue.

And, finally, here is a 1951 edition of Winnie the Pooh that was my mom’s—and her writing is in it! (I think I love books with writing in them.) It’s falling apart but I loved it when I was little and I love it now.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Her newest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is set in the early 1970s against the specter of the Manson girls, when the peace and love movement begins to turn ugly. Cruel Beautiful World is the story of a runaway teenager’s disappearance and her sister’s quest to discover the truth and her own complicityand about an 80-year-old woman falling in love for the first time. Caroline’s many essays, stories, book reviews and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New York Times Modern Love, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Monday, October 10, 2016

My First Time: Stephanie Gangi

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 Stephanie Gangi, author of The Next, “a novel of love, revenge and a ghost who can't let go.” Stephanie was born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, and raised her own kids in Tribeca, Rockland County and on the Upper West Side. She has worked in publishing and marketing and PR, owned restaurants, and now holds a corporate communications job. She has two daughters, all grown up, and a damned good dog. For more on Stephanie and The Next, visit her website.

All My First Times

My First Time

It was prom night and I was wearing a cornflower blue high-necked, long-sleeved, Empire dress, very sister-wives by today’s standards, and my hair was curled under but the bangs were winged back and I held a bouquet like a bride and my date, my first boyfriend, clasped my waist and....

Oh. Wait. No. Wrong first time.

My First First Time

I went to Negril with my girlfriends in my early twenties in the late seventies. We stayed at a Hitchcock-bizarre B&B run by a boozy blonde older lady who wore voluminous tropical dresses and appeared to never leave her rattan chair on the veranda. She held an ebony cane and shook it as she shouted instructions to her houseman, a tall Jamaican named Mr. Penney. He wore only white tennis shorts. He was gorgeous; picture Idris Elba, but the whites of Mr. Penney’s eyes were blurry. There was something strange between them–violence and love fueled by sun and housemade rum–which I couldn’t put my finger on then. I was young and self-involved, and I don’t think I even really formed any conscious thought about the proprietress and Mr. Penney, but the mystery of their relationship made its way inside me and I can tell you, still resides there.

It was just a two-week vacation but I came home and quit my job with a fantasy of writing for a living (and I say fantasy because I had zero contacts, zero money, and a New York City apartment to pay for). And I did write, and I did make a little money, not enough to live on but enough to delude myself with–which is another story altogether that I keep meaning to dig into, my relationship to money. Anyway when I came home from Jamaica my secret goal was to write fiction. I bought a Selectric typewriter from a pawnshop on 57th Street for, I don’t know, I’ll guess thirty bucks.

I wrote a story about the proprietress and Mr. Penney called “The Local.” It was the longest piece–okay, the only piece–I’d ever completed. It’s typed on newsprint, yellow now and as thin as my skin was then, with the bleary impression of keys hit, pounded, all the letters together making words making a story, a clear story. When I think about this now, it seems like something I saw in a movie instead of what really happened when I was a young woman in New York wanting to write, taking the subway uptown to buy a typewriter in a pawn shop. But it happened. I bought a Selectric in a pawn shop on 57th Street and I wrote a story called “The Local,” and I sent it out.

I found what we call today my “target markets” in Writer’s Market, a doorstopper of a reference book that listed publishers and magazines and literary journals, with addresses and names of editors. I blithely chose impossible targets for my weird story of the proprietress and Mr. Penney and a lost young American woman who spies on them: Ladies’ Home Journal, The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan and Esquire.

I got rejected from all, of course. I remember retrieving the letters from my mailbox among a wall of mailboxes in the lobby of my apartment on Third Avenue, where I lived over the original Kiehl’s store, with a racing car parked in the front window. I would snatch at each letter, ride the elevator with my eyes squeezed closed up to the eleventh floor, run to the bathroom to hide from my roommate, and sit on the edge of the tub and whisper Please Please Please. I remember being crushed and defeated with the very first sentences of the letters as I understood I’d been rejected. After “The Local,” I stopped writing for a few years and distracted myself with fun and money troubles and “relationships.” I don’t know why that word wants quotes, but it does. It just seems like too weak a word, a word that needs some kind of qualification, for what I managed to create–conjure–and try to wring out of those unions. Such effort. In fact, all my effort.

Just last year, my debut novel sold to St. Martin’s Press. After more than thirty years I went through old boxes and found “The Local.” I was stunned. The story was good. The rejection letters were in a manila file with the word NO Magic-Markered across the front. NO. The Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan had both sent me handwritten notes signed by editors, dead now, and both said the same thing, in effect, how much they enjoyed the story, how it wasn’t right for them, how I had talent, and how happy they’d be if I tried them again with something else. Esquire, too. Esquire! Gordon Lish, Raymond Carver, Cynthia Ozick, Truman Capote. Esquire! The associate fiction editor sent me this note on letterhead (and I’m quoting accurately because it is pinned to the bulletin board three feet away from my face):
     Dear Stephanie Gangi,
     Thank you for sending “The Local.” I was glad to take a look–and it does seem good–though not quite suited to Esquire.
     Perhaps you’d try me again with something shorter?
I received these letters as rejections instead of what they were: honest encouragement to keep going by professional fiction editors who had taken the time to write to me.

My Second First Time

A few years later–in the early 80s–I was still distracted, still living the expensive freelance fantasy (my business model was to spend the money when I booked a job, spend it when I invoiced for the completed job, and then spend it a third time when I actually received the check) and in a panic, again and again, taking and quitting writer-ish full-time work (publicity, copywriting, editing).

I’ll leave a lot out, because when I set my mind to it, I can make amusing anecdotes out of all the fits and starts, parties and men, clothes and friends, music and moods, hangovers and highs–again, the detours–that charted those years. All that effort at not writing. The decades of distraction. I could go on and on and honestly, I almost did.

But, let me tell you about me and Liberace.

I was waiting tables in Manhattan, trying to write during the spare time I didn’t have (or didn’t protect). I fell in love with the restaurant owner, my boss, and vice versa. He had a friend, a deal-maker kind of guy who knew a guy who wanted to tell all about his years-long gay relationship with a celebrity. Liberace’s ex needed a ghostwriter. My boyfriend’s deal-maker friend brokered an introduction for me, the only “writer” he knew, in Los Angeles, where the ex was trying to drum up movie interest in his story (which, decades later, became–no help from me–an HBO movie starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon).

This was the summer of 1984. I remember that. I was fed up with the restaurant-owning boyfriend, who was digging his heels in just as I was getting done being single. I called an old flame living in L.A., Rafe, to tell him I was coming to town for two, three weeks to work on this project. The truth was, I was exerting old-school pressure, a non-ultimatum ultimatum, on my resistant boyfriend.

I packed all-black New York clothes and a little Sony voice recorder I could not master. I practiced and practiced with the Sony in the hotel room. When I met with Liberace’s ex, he was sweet and sincere but also hurt and sad and broke. His eyes chased around the room. He’d been cast out of his big, candelabra-lit life, no more pianos, no more rhinestones, no more matching Shar Peis. He was betting on the momentum from his tabloid-heaven palimony case and the tell-all book he wanted me to ghost-write to lift him up and out, once and for all.

I stayed for three weeks. I figured out the Sony. I spent a few hours a day with Liberace’s ex, asking questions, listening to him tell his truth. I went back to the hotel room every night and listened and typed. Newsprint, borrowed typewriter, set margins, roll to the top of the page, type. I typed up a pitch, I typed up the notes, an outline, a chapter framework, I typed up the first fifty pages of what I hoped would be the beginning. I would close my eyes and listen to the nasal whine of the cast-aside lover, and feel his desperation, and my brain and my fingers took over, worked together, and it was better than anything, it was biorhythmic, what I’d not found elsewhere including the many interludes of my heart beating against someone else’s, including the many beats of the pulse of desire, and even though the topic was not of interest to me, channeling this sad man was relaxing. Like a meditation, body and thoughts paced each other. Were aligned. That’s what it felt like.

I was trying to write my way out of waiting on tables, maybe trying to write my way out of a “relationship,” everything that was ultimately the opposite of biorhythmic. Were not aligned. Maybe, I don’t know. I was writing. I felt like a writer. I did my work and I flew home to New York confident that I could finish the first draft.

I’d forgotten about the Rafe ploy but it worked. My boss-boyfriend was at Arrivals with an armful of roses. I don’t know if this really happened. I watch too much television, too many rom-coms, but I believe people at the Arrival gate clapped when he crushed me and the roses in an embrace.

We tumbled into a yellow cab, cinematic. I cried with happiness, I think, but I was secretly skeptical of the big airport scene, the roses, the clapping audience. My own doubts. So of course, I pushed to lock it in, as we do. We crossed into Manhattan, straight to the restaurant, to make our announcement to the regulars at the bar and the crew. Engaged! Wedding in ninety days!

This really happened. I left the tote bag holding the Liberace tell-all manuscript pages, my only copy, and the tape recorder and tapes too, of course, in the cab, and I let my next life close over me.

This First Time

Thirty years later, heavy-hearted from the dissolution of another consuming relationship, obsessively reviewing the dream of love and the death of the dream, traipsing, again, across a landscape of disappointment and loss, not knowing where to go or how to go alone, sick of sitting on wisdom and experience instead of navigating by those precious lights, sick of not being at the center of myself, sick of having been actually sick, life-threateningly sick and not honoring that by changing my life, sick of not knowing my self, single, I looked in the mirror one day in my late fifties and made myself say out loud what I had accomplished and what I had not, and writing a novel was the one thing, the damnedest thing, the hardest thing, and so I did that.

The Next First Time

My debut novel, The Next, will be published by St. Martin’s Press next week. What joy as I age and realize it is in my power to approach everything with new eyes! Now that I’ve done the one thing I’ve always wanted to do, everything feels like the first time. Novel #2 is in the works, titled, for now, The Marx Nudes.

Author photo by Tracy Rhine

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser

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

     I saw her coming from a long way off,
     that singular, side-to-side, whisk-broom movement
     as she swung her arms and legs, brushing
     the morning and its inertia aside,
     and the dew which throughout the cool night
     had settled on the path like starlight.

“The Rollerblader” from Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser

Friday, October 7, 2016

Friday Freebie: Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday by Christine Reilly

Congratulations to Paulette Livers, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the Big Box of Books giveaway.

This week’s contest is for the debut novel by Christine Reilly, Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday. One lucky reader will win a new hardcover edition of the novel. Pamela Erens, author of The Virgins, calls it “a unique and big-hearted novel.” Read on for more information about the book...

The Middlesteins meets The Virgin Suicides in this arresting family love story about the eccentric yet tight-knit Simone family, coping with tragedy during 90s New York, struggling to reconnect with each other and heal. Claudio and Mathilde Simone, once romantic bohemians hopelessly enamored with each other, find themselves nestled in domesticity in New York, running a struggling vinyl record store and parenting three daughters as best they can: Natasha, an overachieving prodigy; sensitive Lucy, with her debilitating heart condition; and Carly, adopted from China and quietly fixated on her true origins. With prose that is as keen and illuminating as it is whimsical and luminous, debut novelist Christine Reilly tells the unusual love story of this family. Poignant and humane, Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday is a deft exploration of the tender ties that bind families together, even as they threaten to tear them apart.

If you’d like a chance at winning Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday, 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. This contest is open to U.S. residents only. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 13, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 14. 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, October 4, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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

Emma Donoghue (Room) returns to her historical fiction roots in the new novel, The Wonder. Set in a small Irish village in the mid-1800s, The Wonder, like Room, revolves around a child—this time, instead of the room-bound Jack, it’s eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell who hasn’t eaten any food for months, claiming to be living off manna from heaven. A nurse is dispatched to watch over her and determine whether it’s a hoax or a miracle. The trailer is a simple affair with the standard parade of text and blurbs scrolling across moody shots of Irish scenery while raucous Irish jig music insistently plays in the background. This trailer wants to make absolutely certain we know where the novel is set. I would have preferred some dark, ominous music to set the stage—especially with the trailer’s tagline, “Is it Miracle or Murder?” All that aside, I’ll be reading The Wonder anyway because, like many of you, I’m hungry for another great Donoghue novel. Let’s eat.

Monday, October 3, 2016

My First Time: Rachel Hall

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 Rachel Hall, author of Heirlooms, a collection of linked stories which was BkMk Press’ 2015 G. S. Sharat prize winner selected by Marge Piercy. Rachel’s short stories and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies including Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday and New Letters, which awarded her the Alexander Cappon Prize for Fiction. She has received other honors and awards from Lilith, Glimmer Train, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Ragdale, the Ox-Bow School of the Arts, and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Rachel is a Professor of English in the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Geneseo where she holds the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. She lives in Rochester, New York with her husband and daughter. Click here to visit her website.

My First Fan Mail

In the hot house that is graduate school, we were all madly trying to publish our poems and stories. That was the goal, the sign we were real writers, the golden ring. During my second year, I was thrilled to have a story accepted for publication in the Black Warrior Review. In those pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook days there was no easy way to let the world know that you held in your sweaty hand that golden ring. There was no posting or sharing or humble bragging. One’s work arrived by post, bound, and in this case, attractively so. I added the publication to my fledgling CV and sent my extra contributors copies to my family, who ohh and ahhed sufficiently. The End.

Or so I thought. Some months later, I received a letter from BWR. I’m not sure what I thought it was—payment perhaps, or information about ordering additional contributors’ copies. I opened the letter to find another envelope and on it, a pink post-it on which the editor had scrawled “A letter for you.” The letter was addressed to me c/o BWR. I didn’t recognize the handwriting or the return address, but I most certainly recognized the sender’s name: Andre Dubus. I had loved Dubus’ stories since I encountered them in my first creative writing course—“The Winter Father,” “Killings,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” and especially the beautiful and tender, “A Father’s Story.” I’d taught these stories in my role as a graduate teaching assistant (I still teach these stories regularly), pointing out the ways Dubus makes us care for—like even—characters whose actions are troubling—dishonest, sometimes cruel or violent.

I leaned against the knotty pine wall in my apartment, slid down to sitting, and tore open the envelope. Inside, on a piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook, was this letter from Andre Dubus:
Hello Rachel Hall:
     Your story, “T’ai Chi” deeply moved me, and it is beautifully put together, beautifully written, with breathing characters. It could have been a story about my own grown children whose parents and parent’s friends were married in the sixties, and now are not. Painful for me, in a lovely musical way.
The letter went on for another paragraph after this—first to offer me an introduction to his agent when I was ready, and to wish me continued growth in all things, a lovely closing, which says so much about Dubus and his generosity.

I reread the letter. I loved especially that final sentence: Painful for me, in a lovely musical way. Not that I wanted to cause pain, but I did want, without really knowing it, to move readers as Dubus’ stories had moved me, evoked feeling: sadness and recognition, identification. Of course I did. This is the real goal of writing, not publication. Publication is—and this is easy to forget, and not just in graduate school either—the means to reach readers. It’s the beginning of a conversation, not the whole conversation.

In her book Making a Literary Life, the late great Caroline See writes that writers should do two things five days a week: write a thousand words and send a charming note. Many writers recommend a writing schedule or routine, but as far as I know, no one else recommends writing a charming note as part of a writing practice; and yet, it is brilliant advice. See devotes an entire chapter to this practice. Charming notes are letters to authors whose work has touched you, made you think or remember. At the same time, they say to the author, while writing is lonely, “you are not alone.” In addition, when we write charming notes, we announce our presence. In effect, we’re saying, I’m here, too, and I want to engage in this conversation. A charming note is many things; it’s a wave of recognition, a thumbs up or a handshake, the answering voice: I see you, I hear you, I get it. An affirmation.

Over the years I’d drafted in my head letters to my literary heroes—Dear Alice Munro, Laurie Colwin, John Updike, Lorrie Moore—but I hadn’t ever actually put pen to paper to write them. For several of these writers, it’s too late, something I will always regret. I have so much to say to Laurie Colwin about her characters (how like my family members they are!) or their homes, which I can see clearly, as if I were a guest there, their tastes and preoccupations and concerns. It wasn’t until reading Making a Literary Life, that I realized Dubus’ letter was in addition to being incredibly kind, a model of this crucial component of literary citizenship. This is what engaged members of the literary community do, his letter indicates. We keep up our end of the conversation. We respond.

While See strongly recommends buying nice personalized stationary for writing charming notes, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. It seems to me that the important thing is to get those letters out there, to speak up, and in doing so, engage with the literary community. I’ve emailed charming notes or sent them via Facebook messenger. Some are very brief and to the point. Others are longer, more detailed. Here’s the thing: Nobody will reject fan mail of any length, in any form. I’ve always received a response to my charming notes, and the recipients have always seemed both thrilled and surprised to hear from a reader. After all, who doesn’t want to know that their words had impact?

Since I received Dubus’ letter, I’ve moved five times—across the country, from city to suburbs, from apartments to houses. In each place I’ve lived, I keep the letter close. At present, it’s tacked to the bulletin board next to my writing desk, still in the original envelope. I’ve kept the pink post-it too. There are stains on the notebook paper, and the return address is smudged. But it is one of my most treasured possessions. It’s helped me weather rejection, uncertainty and anxiety, dry years and thwarted ambition. Andre Dubus liked my story, and he wrote to tell me so, I’d remind myself, and that has helped me keep going.

Photo of Rachel Hall by Pamela Frame

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

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

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

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday Freebie: Big Box of Fall Reading!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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