My top 5 books of 2013

Happy New Year! Here are my five (well, six) favorite books that I read in the past year. (They were not all published in 2013, although some were).

5. STILL LIFE WITH HUSBAND by Lauren Fox & HELP FOR THE HAUNTED by John Searles (tie)

I discovered STILL LIFE by accident in a bookstore. Fox does an excellent job of rendering the protagonist’s struggle in developing feelings for someone other than her spouse. This was a great example of a not necessarily likable or relatable character who’s still interesting to read about.



I wrote about wanting to read HELP FOR THE HAUNTED before, and it lived up to my expectations. The book has been categorized as horror by some publications, but for me it was mainstream or literary fiction with strong undertones of creepiness, and sometimes that’s even scarier than overt horror.


4. THE ENGAGEMENTS by J. Courtney Sullivan

Another one I was looking forward to and ending up loving. Sullivan jumps around in time to different characters and story lines, yet nothing feels disjointed. One of her strengths as a writer, in my opinion, is enriching the plot through detailed descriptions of her characters’ pasts.


3. GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES by Jennifer Close

Though billed as a novel, this reads more as a book of connected short stories about the lives of twenty-something, white urban women. Everything about Close’s portrayal was spot-on, from the tangled relationships to drinking to weddings. One of my favorite chapters was “The Candidate,” about a woman dating a man obsessed with electing a politician who is obviously Barack Obama, though his name is never mentioned, which makes it feel even more universal. The book is darker than the cover lets on, which for me was a plus.


2. ME BEFORE YOU by JoJo Moyes

I don’t know how to describe this novel other than saying that I laughed out loud and at times cried so hard I had to put down the book. It’s visceral and unpredictable and surprisingly not depressing. I loved it. The cover design is great too.



1. THREE WISHES by Liane Moriarty

Moriarty is my favorite author of the year; I read all 5 of her novels, and any one of them could easily be my favorite book of the year. Three Wishes, her first, stands out because her depiction of the relationship of triplets was so relatable to my own life. I can’t wait for Moriarty to write another novel.

Happy reading in 2014!

New story & reading

My short story, “Lake,” is being published in the Winter 2013 issue of Schuylkill Valley Journal. This is the story for which I was nominated for the Pushcart. SVJ is a very high quality print journal that has published some of my favorite writers in the Delaware Valley area.

I’ll be reading from my story at the issue’s launch on December 8, 2013. You can find more information on the Events page, or contact me for details.

Pushcart Prize

I just found out that I’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Several years ago, I read something Jane Smiley had said that really resonated with me. Unfortunately I can’t locate it now, but she said something along the lines of, young people/writers aren’t ambitious enough. Her goal as a younger writer had been to have a long career and write lots of books, and she achieved that goal.

Since then I’ve had kind of an informal mental list of lofty, potentially impossible goals. They included the following:

-write a really great short story

-publish a short story in a large circulation magazine or journal

-write and publish a novel

-have a long career publishing many novels, and…

-somewhere along the way, get nominated for a Pushcart.


Suddenly those other goals don’t seem as impossible as they once did.

Keep writing.


MFA Myth #1: You’ll finish graduate school with a publishable novel

As Dwight Schrute would say, “FALSE.”

Sorry. I realize that this is kind of a mean post to begin this series, but I wish I had known this when I started my MFA program. The odds of coming out of your MFA program with a manuscript in perfect, publishable condition are small.

Yes, I’m aware that there are exceptions to this. Junot Díaz wrote the first version of Drown in his MFA program at NYU. Elizabeth Hickey wrote The Painted Kiss at Columbia (speaking of Elizabeth Hickey, where has she been lately?). Lisa Carey, author of the great novel Love in the Asylum, wrote The Mermaids Singing as her graduate thesis at Vermont College. So it’s certainly possible. But it’s not likely.

This doesn’t mean that these people are (necessarily) better writers that you are, or even that they are more disciplined. What you are able to accomplish in graduate school and as a writer is a very personal experience that depends on your circumstances as much as your temperament, and the fact is that all writers are not playing on a level playing field.

Here’s what the thought process might look like for those intending to go to graduate school with the purpose of writing a novel: This is perfect. I majored in English, but I don’t want to teach high school or read Beowulf ever again. I want to be a writer and it’s going to be too hard to do that with a full time job. This MFA program will give me two years to write and perfect my novel. That’s easy. I’m a fast writer and the first draft will be done in six months. That gives me a year and a half to edit and find an agent.

I’m not going to lie, this is exactly what I was thinking when I applied to MFA programs. But I was missing a very crucial piece of information. Yes, it’s entirely possible to write a publishable novel in two years. But is it possible to do this when, in that same time period, you must:

  • be a full-time student
  • be a research assistant
  • possibly take PhD classes in literature, which each culminate in a 20-25 page term paper
  • teach 1-2 classes of your own every semester, which might involve grading 20 freshmen papers of 4-8 pages each 3-4 times a semester? (That’s at least 240 pages and countless comma splices)
  • read and comment on your classmates’ writing
  • prepare for a 6 hour comprehensive exam for which you must be familiar with several centuries worth of literature
  • eat and sleep. And maybe see family and friends and take a shower from time to time.

I’m not saying this to complain or to scare people. When you love to read and write, this can be a wonderful way to spend your days. Literature classes can be stimulating and exciting, and there’s something truly moving about giving undergraduate students confidence in their writing. It’s also true that all MFA programs differ, and you might look at ones that are lighter in their literature requirements (but don’t forget the fact that these classes prepare you very well for teaching). My point is that all of these things take time. Time that many MFA students imagined would be spent on their own writing.

Then there’s also the possibility that you discover that the manuscript to which you have committed yourself, the one you think about when you wake up after having fallen asleep on top of a Victorian literature textbook that is now stuck to your face… that manuscript, that novel? Maybe it turns out that you don’t like this novel as much as you thought. Maybe that novel is like the really sexy person you obsess over as a young adult, the one who has circles under their eyes and smells like cigarettes and reads you poetry about, I don’t know,  bears, and makes it sound profound. People tell you that there are problems here, but you think, They just don’t get it. They’ll see someday. And maybe that’s true. But maybe one day you wake up and all you want is to take a shower to get rid of that cigarette smell, and maybe you want to throw that novel out the window, because it’s not what you thought it was.

And you know what? That’s okay. Even if you end up not publishing your MFA manuscript, you should never regret writing it because it was a learning process. Maybe you’ll publish it someday; maybe it will end up in a box in your basement next to the yellowing love notes and matchboxes and photo booth strips that remind you of your former life. But no matter what happens to your manuscript, you are better for having written it. And it will make a really good story, that stack of 200 pages, when you do publish the best novel you are capable of writing.

Short story out this fall

Look for my short story, “Lake,” in the Fall 2013 issue of Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts! SVJ is an excellent local literary journal that consistently publishes high quality fiction. “Lake” will be my first published short story, so I’m very excited. There will be a reading to celebrate the publication of the journal in November.

More details to follow, and more information on SVJ here.

Reading in Philly: a poetry sandwich!

On Tuesday, August 6th, I’ll be a featured reader for Palabras on Passyunk, Elizabeth Spencer’s great new reading series in south Philadelphia. We’ll be at Red Hook Coffee and Tea, 765 S. 4th Street.

Why you should come:

-Fiction! Poetry! I’ll be reading with poets Warren Longmire and Clinton Smith will read poetry. So, something for everyone!

-Preview of my story “Lake,” about to be published this winter, and perhaps some other new stories.

-Open mic. If you like to write, bring a short piece to read at the end of the night.

-Yummy food at the Red Hook Coffee and Tea.

-Free wine and beer. Because why not?


More information is available under the Events tab under News. Hope to see you there!

Books releases I’m looking forward to

I don’t know any writer who doesn’t love to read as well. In addition to being one of the best ways to stay in a creative mindset and fuel my own writing and ideas, reading, for me, is just a pleasure. I don’t always have a great deal of time to read for fun during the semester (although I love most of the books and stories that students read in my class), so summer is a great time to catch up on my reading. Luckily for me, three of my favorite authors have books coming out this summer. Here are the top 3 reads I’m anticipating loving in the next few months:

1. THE ENGAGEMENTS by J. Courtney Sullivan. A few summers ago, I was in Barnes and Noble trying to pick out one book to buy. I was between Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement and one other novel. I ended up choosing COMMENCEMENT, and I’m so glad that I did. Sullivan writes beautifully and believably about women and families, and she has a real gift for including detail in her novels: in MAINE, one of the characters reflects how she grew up being told to say a Hail Mary prayer whenever she hears an ambulance siren. This resonated with me deeply. Best of all, I had the privilege of meeting Courtney and being a sort of “opening act” reader for her a few years ago, and not only is she a gifted writer, she is a friendly, vibrant, and sweet person.

THE ENGAGEMENTS comes out in hardcover on June 11.


2. ALWAYS WATCHING by Chevy Stevens. I read Chevy Stevens’s first book, STILL MISSING, when I should have been reading a 900-page novel in preparation for my master’s degree comprehensive exam. Needless to say, Stevens’s book was more fun. I don’t normally read thrillers, but my aunt bought this book and lent it to me, and this may be the ultimate cliche, but I could not put this book down. It was a welcome and delightful distraction from the stress of everyday life, and easy to get caught up in the story of a woman who escaped a long captivity at the hands of a kidnapper. This book, and her next, NEVER KNOWING, involve characters confiding in a mostly-unseen psychiatrist. ALWAYS WATCHING will show us that psychiatrist’s point of view. I can’t wait!

ALWAYS WATCHING comes out in hardcover on June 18.

always watching

3. HELP FOR THE HAUNTED by JOHN SEARLES. Like the two authors I mentioned above, I read John Searles’s first two books, BOY STILL MISSING and STRANGE BUT TRUE and absolutely loved them. The only difference is, if I’m not mistaken, it’s been close to 7 years since we’ve seen a new release from Searles, and 7 years of my checking every bookstore shelf and searching for information online. I think this new book will be worth the wait. Searles writes eerie, haunting, and lovely novels that all contain elements of suspense, but not at the expense of character interiority and depth. In STRANGE BUT TRUE, for example, there is a central mystery involving the girlfriend of protagonist Philip’s deceased brother, but in addition to that, Phillip is a deeply developed, nuanced, and at times heartbreaking character.

HELP FOR THE HAUNTED comes out in hardcover on September 17.

Help for the Haunted by John Searles

Which upcoming book releases are you looking forward to? I’d love some more suggestions!