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Five Tips for Dinner Party Success

BigBeautifulMessHandmadeHomeI have a crafty spirit but if I'm REALLY going to make something it better have simple instructions and require a minimum of easy-to-find supplies.  This is why I love Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman's book, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home (an August Best of the Month pick). 
 
In sections for each room of the house, as well as outdoor spaces, the authors emphasize making the design fit your lifestyle and offer enough ideas to cover about any decor direction.  From how to revamp a piece of garage sale furniture, arrange pictures or collectibles in an interesting way, or take a plain vase and turn it into something special, the ideas in this book are all things even I feel like I could do--and I'm actually inspired to do them!  
 
Besides all the great projects, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home also has a few ideas for hosting a simple gathering with ease.  Here are a handful of suggestions from the authors on how to set yourself up for a fun, low stress, dinner party that still has those special touches but won't leave you regretting the cost.

 

Five Tips for Hosting a Budget-Friendly Dinner Party
By Emma Chapman and Elsie Larson, authors of A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home


When faced with the task of hosting a dinner party it can be easy to have a freak-out moment. What if you don't have enough chairs and someone is left standing all night? What if you run out of food or booze? What if everyone is bored? What if someone is allergic to sugar, garlic AND gluten? Also, what is gluten? Why does all your furniture all of sudden look threadbare and cheap? Or worst of all, every host's biggest fear, what if no one comes?

First off, take a deep breath. Next, know that you already have what it takes to throw the most epic dinner party—you just need to think creatively. No matter your budget here are five tips to host the perfect dinner party. WineCheese

1. Make personalized menus. These could be handwritten, formatted like a ransom note or crafted from nothing more than construction paper and crayons. Get creative. Be funny or formal, whatever your style. For a few dollars you've just elevated your dining room into a restaurant-grade atmosphere. You've shown your guests there was thought and planning put into the night and it's gonna be delicious.

2. Get creative with seating. Oh, you don't already own a million fancy chairs? Not to worry. Why not rearrange your furniture to suit your night's needs? It will totally add a bit of whimsy to the evening. You could even enlist guests to help you if needed. Or what about hosting your dinner party on the floor or around a camp fire in your backyard? Whatever you decide, you can be sure it will make the night more memorable to guests.

RecycledCenterpieces3. Reimagine items to use for decor. Sometimes people call this upcycling. The basic idea is you reuse an old item that you would have discarded for another purpose. Save all your empty wine bottles, beer bottles, or soup cans, then clean them and reuse as flower vases for a pretty and inexpensive centerpiece.

4. Fancy up your table settings. Even if all you own are mismatched plates from various flea market trips, add unity, color and personality to your table with handmade cloth napkins. You could sew your own or purchase plain napkins and add designs with fabric paint. You could even make extra sets and send some home with guests!

5. Collaborate with food costs. As fun as it would be to create a seven course meal paired with a different wine for every course, it's likely your budget just isn't going to stretch that far. It doesn't need to. Allow guests to help provide a portion of the meal or make it BYOB. A true friend never expects others to pick up the full tab on everything.

Above all, have fun and focus on connecting with your guests. Dinner parties, despite the name, are not actually all about the dinner, they’re about creating memories with people you love. So get out of the kitchen and don't stress about all the little details: be fun, have fun and enjoy the ones you’re with!

Weird Science

What if everyone on earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time? What if you could drain all the water from the oceans? What if all the lightning strikes in the world hit the same place at once? What if there was a book that considered weird, sometimes ridiculous questions, and it was so compelling that you found yourself skimming its pages to find out what would happen if you threw a baseball at light speed?  With What If, Randall Munroe has written such a book. In the same style of his extraordinarily popular xkcd webcomic, Munroe applies reason and research to hypothetical conundrums ranging from the philosophical to the scientific (often absurd, but never pseudo) that probably seemed awesome and inscrutable in your elementary school days--but were never sufficiently answered. 

Enjoy this exclusive thought-experiment from the author (and it's not even included in the book). What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions will be available in hardcover and Kindle on September 2, 2014.

 

Q: If you built a very smooth ramp from the highest point on Earth (Mt. Everest) to the lowest (Dead Sea), then stood at the top on a rolling office chair, would you roll down? How fast would you go?

So you got bored in a meeting and decided to take your chair for a ride.

What If by Randall Munroe



Bring oxygen tanks. And food.

A ramp connecting Mount Everest to the shore of the Dead Sea would have a very gentle slope of only 1/10th of a degree. If you were standing on it, it would seem flat.

The slope would be so gentle that the chair would need precision bearings or a pneumatic air cushion to reduce friction enough to roll—and even then, air drag would limit you to a terminal velocity of about running speed.

What If by Randall Munroe



You'd also need the ramp to be enclosed. The top of Mount Everest pokes up into the jet stream, a river of hurricane-force wind wrapped around the planet. Unfortunately for you, that wind is going in the wrong direction. Without something to shield you from it, it would blow you back up the ramp.

Ok, let's go!

What If by Randall Munroe



You depart the peak of Everest, trundling slowly west, and the ground falls away beneath you. You glide out over the peaks and valleys of the Himalayas without coming close to touching another mountain.

After two days, you leave the mountains behind and slide across the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.

What If by Randall Munroe



You then cross southern Afghanistan and pass into Iran, where you finally sink low enough to breathe without oxygen tanks.

In central Iran, you hit the ground for the first time since you started rolling. Your track intersects a mountainside near the peak of Shahan Kuh. You pass through a convenient tunnel and emerge on the other side.

What If by Randall Munroe



You cross from Iran into Iraq, sinking lower and lower. Because the air is several times denser here than at your starting point, your terminal velocity has dropped from running speed to jogging speed.

A little over two weeks after you started rolling, your ramp sinks low enough to touch the desert. In western Iraq, you fall beneath ground level and enter another tunnel. You cross from Iraq into Jordan over 600 meters below the border.

What If by Randall Munroe



You roll through the darkness for four days, passing completely under Jordan, and finally emerge into the light on the shores of the Dead Sea.

After twenty days, you and your faithful chair have reached the end of your journey from Earth's highest land to its lowest. You take a swim; in the dense saline water, you float much higher than normal. Be careful not to get any in your eyes.

What If by Randall Munroe



And now you should probably get back to that meeting. They'll get mad if you don't return the chair.

What If by Randall Munroe




What If by Randall Munroe

MacGyver Your Food

FoodHacksMy family jokes that I can make always make somethin' out of nothin' in the kitchen, but what I usually  come up with is pretty pedestrian. Peggy Wang's Amazing Food Hacks is going to make me look like a kitchen magician instead of just a fridge scavenger. 

Her book has 75 tricks between the chunky covers: "Banilla Wafer Sandwiches" (peanut butter, banana, and sprinkles)--um, yes please.  "Better Than Crack" Crackers that are little more than oyster crackers, a packet of ranch dressing mix and a trip to the oven?  Bye-bye Chex mix.  Wang makes it easy and she's got a great sense of humor as you can see for yourself in the guest post below, along with a couple of examples from the book.


One of the challenges that comes up constantly for me as an editor at BuzzFeed is figuring out what even qualifies as a life hack. As I started pulling together recipes that would eventually constitute basically the longest, most glorified BuzzFeed list of my life which is this book, I began to doubt my ability to discern an actual food hack from just a weird and interesting recipe. I began to have existential debates over the addition of avocado to egg salad, which is a completely legit way to transform a pedestrian sandwich filling to something I would gladly shove into my mouth with a spatula. I vacillated between whether simply adding avocado to a dish makes a life hack (in the end, it did, as per my editor, and it is quite transcendent if I may say so myself).

AvocadoTips

Ultimately, I felt like the test was taking something you didn’t think would work — and having it turn out even better than you could have ever expected.

My favorite stories from testers went something like, “This recipe sounded sorta weird and gross and then I made it and was pleasantly surprised and ended up eating the whole thing to the point of making myself completely sick, which is half this recipe’s fault but also half my own fault for having no self-control whatsoever.”

These stories served as a nice counterpoint to my incredibly utilitarian way of thinking about food hacks: I just wanted something incredibly easy that my exhausted self could make after a really long day out of the sad remnants of my refrigerator.

So basically, this book weaves between those unexpectedly yummy but weird recipes, as well as just the ones that have personally made my life easier as a terminally lazy person. I like to think of these hacks as spanning from the practical to the practically insane, which will hopefully cover just about all of your culinary needs.-- Peggy Wang

DippableGrilledCheeseRolls

YA Wednesday: Talking to Chris Weitz and Jennifer E. Smith

YoungWorld GeoMeYouEarlier this year I had the great pleasure to sit down with two delightful YA authors to talk books. 

Chris Weitz, best known for his work in film including the movie adaptations of The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass,  just released The Young World, a dystopian novel (the first in a series) set in New York that is also one of our August Best YA Books of the Month.  

Jennifer E. Smith is the beloved author of several contemporary YA novels that deftly navigate the waters of teen relationships with humor and creativity, including this year's The Geography of You and Me.  

On a random note, when we were talking both authors shared major league baseball hopes for this year and it's interesting to see how things have shaken out. Chris Weitz hoped the Yankees new pitcher Masahiro Tanaka didn't turn out to be a dud (so far so good, though he's coming off an injury...) and Jennifer E. Smith was pretty adamant that the Cubs were going to take the 2014 World Series.  Well, there's always next year...

Below is a transcript from our chat.


So, what would be the elevator pitch for your book?

Chris Weitz:  It’s basically about a group of kids making their way in a post-apocalyptic New York in which every convenience and comfort they're familiar with is gone.  So it’s a New York that has fallen into a chaos of warring tribes, and how they will function in that world.

Jennifer E. Smith:  I keep joking that my book has the best elevator pitch ever because it starts in an elevator. It’s about two teens who get stuck in elevator during a major blackout in New York city and end up spending an evening together on a really magical night in the city where you can actually can see the stars because all the lights are out. It’s loosely based on the blackout that happened in 2003.  Then, as the title might suggest, with Geography, it sort of spins off into other locations from there, but it all begins in an elevator in New York on a very dark night.

Chris Weitz: That was a great blackout...

Jennifer E. Smith: Yeah, it was really fun. I won’t tell you all about my experiences since we’re on the record here, but it definitely included more alcohol than cute boys and elevators.  It was one of those nights that felt sort of out of time, once people realized that nothing was seriously wrong everybody was out on the streets, people were giving away beer before it got too warm, and giving away ice cream before it could melt, and New York took on this almost celebratory atmosphere. It was a really memorable night.

Weitz: It’s funny because I think I found the one single thing that unites our books, because my book was partly inspired by the blackout amongst other things, this is sort of New York without electricity and the way that people behave when everything they’re used to goes out the window.

Chris – you’ve directed films adapted from YA novels and written screen plays, was writing a novel a logical next step for you?

I’m not sure it was a logical step, especially looking back.  Given how much harder it is to write a novel than a screen play, it’s a highly illogical thing to do...  but, in a sense, adapting as many books as I have, and I was a literature major in university, that’s where I thought my life was going to be concentrated. Making films was kind of a way to deal with my love of books in a positive way, so it isn’t totally unreasonable that I would turn my attention to trying to write something.

And why young adult?

Weitz: Well, at the time that I decided to do this, I was receiving a lot of submissions of YA and some were great and some were less so, so I thought, well, I may as well give it a go myself.  And I had certain things that I’d been thinking about that I wanted to explore further that kind of come out in this--not necessarily YA related stuff but actually stuff about economics, sociology, and politics.

Jen, you’ve written YA and one middle grade, do you think you’ll write adult in the future?

Smith: I think always it’s fun to explore different creative outlets. The middle grade was really fun for me because all of my YA books are for a similar audience, so the middle grade was very different.  I was once telling somebody that the three things I would never do were: write middle grade, write fantasy, and write for boys, and I literally came out of the lunch and was like, ok, now I kind of want to try… So I think it’s a similar thing with the adult side, I think if the right idea came along it’d be something new to try and something exciting, so we’ll see.  But I really love YA, I think that’s kind of my sweet spot, I feel like I’m 16 at heart and it’s a genre I really love and the audience is amazing for YA books.  It’s just so much fun meeting teens, they’re so enthusiastic.

The YA writing community is really great too, isn’t it?

Smith: It really is, everyone is so supportive and generous, it’s a great little corner of the industry to be part of.

Chris, as someone just coming into this community, have you found that to be true?

Weitz:  I have and it’s also I think that this time in life, maybe from middle school through this period, is a period of really fervent reading.  I remember that from when I was younger, and that’s really wonderful. There’s also a tremendous desire to see  people succeed, to want to see the best in things, as opposed to, if you look at literary fiction, the extraordinarily snarky, kind of difficult, social landscape that that represents.  I think there’s a weird barrier to entry in literary fiction as far as ideas go, I think that young adult is where a lot of the most interesting fiction is actually being written because it’s not as caught up in questions of style.

I think the interesting ideas and openness is part of why so many adults are reading YA fiction...

Smith: Yeah--I get as many emails about my books from people in their 30s and 40s as I do from people in their teens.  Everyone is sort of 16 at heart, somewhere down deep.  Like what Chris was saying about the way you read at that age, there’s such a joy to it, whereas now you start reading a book and you have to go to work so you put it down, but as kids, I remember just tearing through books (I guess I still do now, but…) you can’t get enough and you find an author you love, you read everything they’ve written and then you look for  everything that’s similar to what they’ve written, and you’re obsessed.  And it’s such a joyful way to read.

Matthew Thomas Is Going to Carry That Weight

Every year, a handful of books are singled out for big advance buzz months in advance of the fall season: debuts and "break-out" titles carrying the burdens of hope (the author's) and expectation (the publisher's). Needless to say, not all of these work out. September and October are brutally competitive as publishers line up their blockbusters and heavy hitters ahead of the holidays, and sometimes a book just doesn't live up to its pitch.

Among this year's most highly anticipated books is Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which we first learned of in early spring, when Thomas made some early rounds visiting booksellers. It's an American family saga on the epic side--in both scope and page-count--drawing favorable comparisons to The Corrections and The Art of Fielding, and while that grandness might have compounded its already high expectations, we're pleased to say that the book has certainly earned its acclaim. In selecting We Are Not Ourselves for Amazon's Best Books the Month, Neal Thompson writes:

What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence ... It’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart.

Thomas set aside a few minutes from his busy Book Expo America schedule to chat with us about the book, his inspirations, and the experience of publishing his first novel. (An edited transcript of the conversation is below.)

 

 

Matthew Thomas at Book Expo America (transcript)

Could you tell us a little bit about your book, and a little bit about and the process of writing it?

It is a story about an Irish-American family, set in Queens—initially. It largely focuses on a woman named Eileen, who’s born to Irish immigrant parents. It follows her through the course of her life, as we watch her develop ambitions for a life greater than the one she has, and pursue a different course. She runs into obstacles at various points, overcomes them, and eventually runs into something that she can’t overcome. And the story becomes, in large part, the focus of how she handles this obstacle. Her marriage to her husband, Ed, is a focus of the book, and their relationship becomes the heart of the story. And in many ways, the way that she handles what happens to her husband--this calamitous event that occurs--reveals her character, and the essence of it.

I worked on the book for 10 years. I started the book at the end of my time at UC Irvine. I submitted to workshop--as the last submission I made--after writing and submitting short stories. I finally worked up the courage to write this story--because it involved some difficult emotional material--and I submitted the first portion of it, got some feedback, and then was off on my own in the real world. I worked as a high school teacher for eight years—the last eight years—while I wrote.


Where did you draw inspiration for the book? Was it based on your own experience or your family’s history?


It’s rooted originally in autobiographical impulse, but I think the book improved when I got away from that. It eventually became impossible for me to think of this book as anything but the novel it wanted to be. The characters started asserting themselves and being individuals I couldn’t entirely control, so it quickly got away from autobiography. But the emotional reality of the story certainly extends from my experiences. My father, in particular, is an inspiration for Ed (in what happened to my father), and in fact, I started writing this book after he died. A year later, I found the courage to begin it.


Did you have any literary heroes, or any model, that you wanted to emulate?


A few. 100 Years of Solitude was certainly in the back of my mind as I was writing this: the inter-generational aspect of it, and in the way he [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] conveys so much about the inheritance of traits and the playing out—unconsciously—of themes from one generation to the next. The scope of that book was something I admired and I wanted to try to write toward.


Gatsby was always on my mind, as well, for a lot of the thematic content in that book. Mrs. Bridge was another book that gave me a model for how to write with short chapters, and manipulate short chapters in a larger whole.


So this is your first book, and presumably your first Book Expo. What has been your experience? There’s a lot of hype building around it.


It’s been a big thrill! The biggest thrill for me was meeting the fellow panelists on the Buzz Panel. I got to chat with them for a few minutes beforehand, and it was exciting because everybody had a similar experience, in the sense there was a shared excitement and enthusiasm for what was going on--and gratitude to be here. And it was fun to be part of a group of people who were potentially going to make a mark, and it was exciting to think about reading their books. It’s also amazing to be here because it’s such an unbelievably huge event... it’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Art: you can’t take it all in at once. But it’s a big thrill to be here.

We Are Not Ourselves

YA Wednesday: A Picture is Worth...

AddisonStoneWhen I heard the premise of The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone I was intrigued. I figured it would be really good or really bad with not much wiggle room in between.  So I sat down to read a chapter or two and didn't get up until I was finished. 

Author Adele Griffin has written a memoir of the life and mysterious death of Addison Stone, a young artist-turned-celebrity, as told by her fans, friends, and enemies.  The book comes with photographs of the beautiful, petulant Stone and her art.  Addison Stone has a mesmerizing story. Addison Stone isn't real.  And the more I read, the harder it got to remember that none of these people are real.  So good.  Best of the Month good.

In the guest essay below, Adele Griffin shares the story behind the story (behind the story).


The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone is an imagined memoir about a small town girl who burns through the New York art scene as bright as a comet, and goes out just as fast. Inspired by the oral history Edie: American Girl, I saw the interview style of that groundbreaking book as a way to release myself to writing exclusively what I loved most: voice.

Addison’s story unfolds in memories and anecdotes as her family and friends, peers and rivals, dealers and buyers, all bear witnesses to her troubled, startling, wondrous life. As I created each voice in the drama, I was always conscious of how vividly I saw these people, and how hard I wanted to hear them.

The more real it became, the more I wanted to deliver “proof.” I’d always envisioned a photo insert as a way to showcase Addison’s talent, but soon it was clear to me that if the book was a layer cake, the next layer would have to be full-color illustrations.

And so Addison was ultimately a compendium of four women—three professional artists and one Pratt student—who all came together as a portfolio of talent that would define one artist’s gifts. With real art on the page, now my characters never needed to describe imaginary art, which can get stale or precious pretty fast, especially when it transports us to nowhere specific.

But a memoir also requires biographical intimacy. I had Addison in sketches and paintings, but where was Addison the girl, the young woman? Fate or a lucky break brought the electric Giza Lagarce into my home, and from the first photograph we took, I could feel Addison’s soul touch down. Giza also licensed me her childhood snapshots, family photos and candids. This all became the stuff of Addison Stone’s life, and again I was able to hold onto my cast of narrators without diluting them as vehicles for dumping in the description.

Oral histories are tantalizing glimpses of people as perceived by themselves and others. The roundtable style fascinates me because the endless rotating point of view allows us to enter the story and draw our own conclusions. In my “final Addison” Michelle Rawlings’ haunting portraits, that rotation is visually echoed in a looped reflection of identities that blurs the line of muse, model, artist, author. But for me the best visual gift of ADDISON STONE is that I was liberated to create a story of characters simply for character’s sake. This is where the story feels most real and pure as a work of my own imagining. And this is where I hope it will resonate. --Adele Griffin

YA Wednesday Sneak Peak: New Maze Runner Movie Trailer

MazeRunnerMTI

 

The Maze Runner movie is coming out next month (in theaters 9/19) and I'm already bugging the publisher to see if there are going to be any early screenings here in Seattle.   From the trailers I've seen, and early buzz, it looks like the film adaptation will do cinematic justice to this brilliantly imagined book that is truly one of my favorites. 

Another nod to doing it right is the movie tie-in cover on the book.  Often, these do not turn out well.  Really almost never, in my opinion.  But the new Maze Runner cover that you see here--pretty great, right?

If you need another reason to get excited about seeing the movie, check out the brand new trailer below--you can only see here for the next day or two.

 

Rick Riordan: The Weirdest Myth

PercyJacksonGreekGodsPercy Jackson's Greek Gods releases next week (8/19) and this Best Book of August is a look at Greek mythology as only the demigod Percy Jackson can do.  We already know author Rick Riordan is an avid mythology reader but wondered what myth he's run across that was more bizarre than all the rest (because, let's be honest, a lot of mythology is really strange).  Here's Riordan's take on the weirdest myth:

The Weirdest Myth

While writing Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, I came across a lot of weird myths. Even after all these years as a mythology buff, I’m still coming across stories I didn’t know.

Possibly the weirdest? The story of Erichthonious, the only son of Athena.

The thing is, Athena was a maiden goddess. She couldn’t have children. Yet the people of Athens wanted to find some way to claim that their king was descended from Athena, who after all was their patron goddess. They also thought it would be cool if their king was related to Hephaestus, since he was the god of useful crafts and the natural counterpart to Athena.

So the Athenians fashioned this rather weird story: The crippled blacksmith god Hephaestus fell in love with Athena, but of course Athena wanted nothing to do with him. Hephaestus tried to chase her down, but since he was crippled, Athena was faster. Hephaestus only managed to grab the hem of her skirt, and in the struggle . . . Hmm, how to put this delicately? Some of the god’s bodily fluid ended up on Athena’s leg.

Yuck. Athena got the nearest wad of wool and wiped off the aforementioned bodily fluid. She flung it down to the earth in disgust.

Sadly, divine fluid is powerful stuff. The essence of Hephaestus and Athena mixed together in that wool cloth, and a new life was created: a demigod baby, Erichthonius.

Athena heard the baby crying and took pity on him. She raised him in secret until he grew up, at which point he became the king of Athens.

And that’s how the Athenians got their ancestry straightened out. Their kings were literally the children of Athena and Hephaestus . . . though why they wanted to be descended from a discarded wool rag, I’m not sure.

Goes to show you: there’s a myth for everything. And just when you think mythology can’t get any stranger, it does. You can read the full story of Erichthonios, and so many more bizarre stories of the gods, in Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods. Hope you enjoy! -- Rick Riordan

Dystopian Fiction: 8 Doomsday Books and "No More Avatars"

A flight from Moscow to middle America. Passengers carry a flu virus that explodes “like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth.” In a blink, the world looks like this: “No more ballgames played under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities ... No more cities ... No more Internet ... No more avatars.”

That’s Emily St. John Mandel’s take on doomsday, in her forthcoming novel, Station Eleven. As in other pre-apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic novels, survivors have become scavengers, roaming the ravaged landscape or clustering in pocket settlements, some of them welcoming, some dangerous. What’s especially touching about the world of Station Eleven is the author's homage to the small pleasures that were erased by the apocalypse. (St. John Mandel's editor at Knopf, Jenny Jackson, called the book “a love song for right now.”)

Station Eleven will be published September 9 amid a cluster of other summer dystopian novels, including Edan Lepucki’s California and Ben Winters’s World of Trouble, the third book in his “Last Policeman” trilogy. Coinciding with recent troubling global events--plane crashes, ferry sinkings, ancient sectarian conflicts flaring anew--those books have made me realize how writers continue to push the sub-genre of the end-of-the-world book into new literary heights. Here's how those books stack up against each other, and against a couple classics. This is hardly a definitive list, of course. It doesn't include Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam Trilogy (a new boxed set goes on sale August 12). And I steered clear of zombies. If you’re a doomsday fan, send us your suggestions, and we’ll follow up with a customer list. If we’re all still here, that is.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (Sept. 9)

What the heck happened? The Georgia Flu--named for its country of origin--wiped out more than 99% of the population.

Now what? Twenty years later, a roving theater troupe, the Traveling Symphony, performs Shakespeare for wasteland communities. And there’s this culty prophet dude who calls the flu “the great cleansing” and says things like “we are the light. We are pure.” Watch out for him.

California, Edan Lepucki

What the heck happened? Seems like a slow-building combination of environmental cataclysm, loss of fossil fuels, illness, and social collapse.

Now what? A married couple, Cal and Frida, learn that Frida is pregnant and decide to leave the relative safety of their wilderness home and try to make it in one of the settlements. Which means they have to deal with other humans, both nasty and nice.

World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters

What the heck happened? A ginormous asteroid is barreling toward Earth. We don’t stand a chance, and everyone knows it.

Now what? As most humans prepare for the end with parties, prayer, or suicide, a quixotic police detective decides to leave his well-stocked safehouse and look for his missing sister in bleak small-town Ohio. He brings along his dog, Houdini.

A History of the Future, James Howard Kunstler

What the heck happened? You name it: pandemics, environmental disaster, no more oil, plenty of social and political chaos.

Now what? The people of Union Grove, in upstate New York, continue to strive for a simpler "world made by hand" pioneer lifestyle. (This is book 3 in the "World Made By Hand" series.) But then, on Christmas Eve: a gory double murder. 

Lock In, John Scalzi (on sale Aug 26)

What the heck happened? A contagious virus causes "lock in"--known as Haden’s syndrome--in 1% of the population. They’re alive and aware, but can’t move.

Now what? A murder at the Watergate Hotel lures two detectives into an investigation of some complicated truths about Haden’s syndrome, and crimes possibly nastier than murder.

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller

What the heck happened? Similar to Station Eleven, a super-flu killed off 99.7% of humanity--including the wife of our man Hig.

Now what? Hig and his dog and their plane reluctantly venture outside their safety zone, hoping to find someone who doesn’t want to kill them. Maybe even start a new life. Maybe even find love.

The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker

What the heck happened? The earth’s rotation is slowing, the days and nights growing longer. Pretty soon, it's going to get really cold and dark.

Now what? As the world begins to panic, 10-year-old Julia tries to keep living her life, even as her comfortable suburban family unravels. Coming of age is rough when the Earth is dying.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

What the heck happened? Something nuclear. Doesn't matter. The Earth is dying, a cracked, parched, ash-dusted and dangerous place.

Now what? Total bummer. A father and his son walk through a wasteland, dodging psychos and cannibals. All they have is their love for each other, and the thinnest strand of hope.

~

Good luck out there, readers. Carry water.

August Debut Spotlight: "Painted Horses" by Malcolm Brooks

It’s tempting to dismiss Malcolm Brooks’s debut as the latest in a series of American epics treading on Cormac McCarthy territory: The Son, Fourth of July Creek, and The Kept come to mind as recent novels dealing with the darker realities of frontiers, both geographical and personal. Like The Son, Painted Horses positions itself at the moment the frontier era gives way to modernity: in mid-century Montana, a dam project threatens to flood a canyon historically inhabited by Native Americans, submerging thousands of years of Crow history under hundreds of feet of slack water. When the inexperienced Catherine Lemay is appointed to survey the canyon for cultural evidence that could thwart the dam-builders, she assumes one corner of a Faustian triangle with a scheming hydroelectric shill and the mysterious John H, a rugged, reticent horse whisperer who opens the secrets of the country to the young archaeologist. Tangled relationships, difficult decisions, and hard compromises ensue. Decades and continents are spanned, and history unfolds. Maybe we’ve read this before?

But dismissing Painted Horses for its Western tropes would ignore just how good this book is. Brooks's prose is stylistically bold, announcing his artistic aspirations from the opening sentence. His characters are carefully drawn, yet their intentions remain ambiguous enough to be authentically human. His Montana is vivid, wild, and broad, and it’s obvious that Brooks lives where he writes, and loves where he lives. Ultimately, Brooks accomplishes no small feat in this remarkable debut: a tale of literary ambition that lives comfortably inside its genre roots, but not by its conventions.

Painted Horses is the Debut Spotlight selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for August 2014. Watch our interview with Malcom Brooks at Book Expo America below.

 

Painted Horses

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