KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Michael Schaub

Girl, the newest novel from Edna O'Brien, starts out with one of the most powerful passages the legendary Irish author has ever written. "I was a girl once, but not any more," the narrator, Maryam, says. "I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school."

"The fire you like so much in me / Is the mark of someone adamantly free," Liz Phair declared in her 1993 song "Strange Loop."

The song, which appeared on her debut studio album, Exile in Guyville, was a fitting introduction to the Chicago-raised singer-songwriter ⁠— Phair was serving notice that she was unwilling to be anyone other than herself, and if people didn't approve of her sexually frank and defiantly profane lyrics, or her lo-fi sensibility, they were more than welcome to listen to something else.

It's hard to think of another writer with as much Lone Star credibility as Stephen Harrigan. The Austin-based writer contributed to Texas Monthly magazine for decades, and his best-known book, The Gates of the Alamo, is widely considered to be the best novel about the epic battle ever written.

Harrigan, essentially, is to Texas literature what Willie Nelson is to Texas music.

Maaza Mengiste's The Shadow King opens with a woman, Hirut, sitting on the floor of a train station in the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa, holding an old metal box. She's traveled here, the reader is told, "to rid herself of the horror that staggers back unbidden. She has come to give up the ghosts and drive them away." She's awaiting the box's owner, an Italian photographer she hasn't seen in decades. "It has taken so long to get here," Mengiste writes. "It has taken almost forty years of another life to begin to remember who she had once been."

The Spanish port city of Algeciras boasts a long and rich history, and is home to some of the country's most beautiful parks, plazas and churches. But Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, the two aging Irish men at the heart of Kevin Barry's Night Boat to Tangier, aren't interested in any of that. They're spending all their time in the city's dingy ferry terminal, along with a mass of weary travelers and a handful of bored employees.

The narrator of "One Gram Short," the second story in Israeli author Etgar Keret's new short story collection, Fly Already, is desperate for some weed. He's not much of a smoker himself, but the woman he has a crush on — a coffee-shop waitress named Shimka — is a fan, and he's hoping he can impress her by offering to share a joint with her.

In her 2017 book, The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat recalls a Haitian Creole phrase her late mother used to repeat: "Nou tout a p mache ak sèkèy nou anba bra nou." It can be translated one of two ways, Danticat wrote: "We're all carrying our coffins with us every day," or "We are all constantly cheating death."

New York is bigger, St. Augustine is older and Las Vegas draws more tourists, but it's undeniable that Cross River, Md., is one of the most fascinating cities in America. The town is known as the home of Freedman's University, the birthplace of Riverbeat music (made famous by beloved prodigy Phoenix Starr) and, of course, "the only successful slave uprising in this country — ever."

"Sometimes, I feel I got to get away," sang the Who in their 1965 single "The Kids Are Alright," and no wonder the song became an instant classic for the youth of Townshend and Daltrey's g-g-g-generation — teenagers of every age tend toward the restive, longing to experience life beyond whichever town or city they were raised in.

Sheila, the narrator of Kimberly King Parson's story "Guts," can't run away from bodies: not her own, not others'. Ever since she started dating Tim, a medical student, "all the sick, broken people in the world begin to glow." She imagines tumors and incipient heart attacks in strangers, all the while remaining conscious of her own body, which fails to bring her joy: "I should love my body more," she reflects, but she doesn't.

Of all the emotions that can arise following the loss of a sibling, one of the most painful is guilt. Once a brother or sister passes away, there's frequently a string of intrusive thoughts that pummel the surviving sibling: I should have visited them more often; I should have told them how I felt while I had the chance. The feelings might be irrational, but there's nothing rational about grief.

"Vertical," the first story in Jordi Puntí's new short story collection, This Is Not America, opens with the narrator smoking cigarettes and walking the streets of Barcelona late at night. His route seems aimless at first, but his motivation is clear: he's haunted by the memories of Mai, his late girlfriend, which have been "gently fading away ... very slowly dispersing, and the days go by and you keep seeing it even though it's no longer there, and you reach a point when you can see it only because you imagine it, because you've seen it before and you know it was there."

Cindy, the 14-year-old narrator of Sarah Elaine Smith's Marilou is Everywhere, wants to disappear. The girl feels suffocated by her lonely, poverty-stricken existence in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, particularly after her single mother has left for an indeterminate amount of time, trusting her two older brothers to take care of her. "My life was an empty place," Cindy reflects. "From where I stood, it seared on with a blank and merciless light. All dust and no song."

The long string of horrors that took place at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys wasn't a secret, but it might as well have been. Former students of the Florida reform school had spoken out for years about the brutal beatings that they endured at the hands of sadistic employees, but it wasn't until 2012, when University of South Florida anthropologists began to uncover unmarked graves on the school's campus, that the world began to care.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg's new short story collection, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory, opens with an Internet date that's going well. "He's handsome, and charming, and everything he claimed to be on the website," the woman thinks, somewhat to her surprise. Later, at the man's house, he offers her a can of cashews that looks suspiciously like a novelty product that, once opened, will release a spring-loaded snake.

For several decades in the 20th century, the Los Angeles metropolitan area was known as the bank robbery capital of the world.

The area's abundance of freeways made it easy for robbers to quickly put distance between themselves and the banks they targeted, escaping into other jurisdictions before the police even knew what was happening.

Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, stunned critics when it was released in 2016. The story of a woman and her two daughters fighting for survival in their drought-stricken Jamaican town, it was a powerful look at issues like poverty, colorism and homophobia.

Admirers of Here Comes the Sun have waited three years for Dennis-Benn's followup, and anyone who was enchanted by her gorgeous writing are in for a happy surprise: Patsy isn't just as good as its predecessor, it's somehow even better.

Riots I Have Known, the debut novel from journalist Ryan Chapman, opens with the unnamed narrator confronting his imminent death. He's in a prison that's currently in the midst of a bloody riot, the direct result of a piece published in The Holding Pen, the literary magazine the narrator edits. "The tenor of my own shuffling off this mortal coil will be determined by whoever first breaks down my meager barricade here in the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts," he sadly reflects.

There are some trials that naturally lend themselves to dramatic recounting in books or movies. They're usually the same ones that get called "trials of the century." Cases, for example, involving John T. Scopes, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Adolf Eichmann and O.J. Simpson all captured the public imagination and inspired writers and filmmakers to take a shot at depicting the courtroom drama that ensued.

Cillian Eddowis, the 15-year-old protagonist of Karen Russell's short story "Bog Girl: A Romance," has a crush. No surprise there: There's a certain kind of teenager who's prone to fall in love hard and fast, and sweet, sensitive Cillian — whose aunts "had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay" — is definitely that type.

If the past nine years have had you feeling on edge, Jared Diamond has good news and bad news for you.

The good news: You're not alone. "Even when I tell myself that we should be suspicious because every decade has seemed at the time to be the one offering the most cause for anxiety," Diamond writes in his compelling new book, Upheaval, "I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety."

David McCullough is best known to most readers for his popular biographies of some of the most prominent names in American history — Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John Adams and the Wright Brothers have all been subjects of his meticulously researched volumes.

The problem with first love is that it's almost always followed quickly by first heartbreak. While it's true that some high-school romances endure for decades, for the most part, today's teenager in love is tomorrow's emotionally destroyed young person. Teenage love is bittersweet, but the bitter has a way of overwhelming the sweet.

The title of Michael Croley's debut short story collection, Any Other Place, evokes a kind of desperation that's familiar to anyone who's longed to escape their hometown. It's not a universal sentiment, but it's undoubtedly a common one: For some people, whether they grew up in a sprawling metropolis or a claustrophobic small town, the idea of pulling up stakes and moving somewhere — not even one place in particular, just something that's not here — is a seductive one.

Everyone knows at least one dream couple: two charming people with magnetic personalities who complement each other perfectly. Their perfect relationship draws admiration, and not a little envy, from their friends; their joint charisma makes them the envy of every dinner party.

A mention of the Secret Service today might conjure up images of unsmiling men and women wearing sunglasses and dark suits, surrounding the president, perhaps discreetly touching their earpieces once in a while.

Or if you're a history buff, your thoughts might turn to 19th-century lawmen hot on the trail of counterfeiters. (Investigating financial crimes is still part of the agency's purview.)

Ann Beattie is one of the best writers of her generation, although it's unclear whether the author would take that as a compliment. In books like the novel Love Always and the short story collection Where You'll Find Me, Beattie employed her dry wit and sometimes chilly cynicism to paint a less than flattering picture of her fellow baby boomers. The books were never cruel, but they established Beattie as a writer unwilling to act as a cheerleader for her generational cohort.

American history, as it exists in the popular imagination, has often tended toward the self-congratulatory.

Events of the past are frequently filtered through a majority lens, focusing on the perceived heroics of, for example, white abolitionists and civil rights activists. To hear some tell it, the civil rights struggle of the 1960s ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson, having indulgently listened to Martin Luther King Jr., signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, after which racism was solved and everything was better forever.

Fans of Amy Hempel have gotten used to waiting. In the 34 years since her debut book, Reasons to Live, was published, the short story writer has released just four books, one of which was a collection of her previous volumes. Her last book of new material, the critically acclaimed The Dog of the Marriage, hit bookstore shelves 14 years ago. In terms of literary output, she's basically the anti-Joyce Carol Oates.

New York and Los Angeles tend to get all the ink, but you could make an argument that Houston is the most uniquely American big city there is. Sprawling and diverse, the Bayou City shows us how a variety of cultures can coexist and band together after hardships, such as the hurricanes that have battered the city over the past several years.

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