I had a slow reading month in October, but November is already off to a whirlwind start with a thrillerthon weekend.
I missed out on Lapena's wildly popular The Couple Next Door, so when sent copies of both of these just in time for Halloween, I figured I'd dive in and here is your double-hitter review.
The Couple Next Door begins with a bad parenting decision that only gets worse: when Anne and Marco's babysitter cancels last minute, they decide to attend their next door neighbor's dinner party anyway, bringing along a baby monitor and checking in every half hour, but leaving baby at home. Not good.
Of course, when they finally arrive home for the night, they find they front door unlocked and the baby missing. What follows is a tangled web of lies, deceits, and unsteady foundations that come crumbling down around the family and everyone they are connected to.
While the pacing might be quick enough to keep a reader turning pages, the writing is so simplistic and (sorry to say) boring that it was hard to imagine someone actually tearing through the pages of a book like this actually caring about the characters.
Have thrillers really come to this? That all that matters is finding the twist, the whodunnit, that crucial unmasking-the-murderer, I-would-have-gotten-away-with-it-if-it-weren't-for-you-meddling-kids scene?
When books can't deliver on style, I find myself just scanning the pages and drifting off. I'll probably solve the mystery, but who cares? If you aren't invested in the people, in their story, what's the point of figuring out who took the baby?
This book was so easy to read. 308 pages and it probably took me less than two hours to read. There just wasn't any substance, no sentences you wanted to stop and read again, no interesting turns of phrase, no indication at all that the author was in fact interested in writing. It's all just plot device spewed out on the page.
And if you want to talk about that ending, feel free to send me a note. Because I have some thoughts.
All that said, there was a germ of an interesting idea here, so I didn't want to give up.
A Stranger in the House follows Karen, who, while driving erratically in a bad part of town, causes a car accident that gives her amnesia. When it turns out that her car is connected to a grisly murder scene nearby, all the lies connected with her past and present start to come uncovered. And perhaps she's not the only one with a few secrets.
I fell into the story of this one a lot more naturally, though the writing definitely had not improved. There are a lot of similar elements: a husband and wife at odds over a criminal situation they are involved in, neighbors who know more than they let on, and a familiar homicide detective makes an appearance.
But I just don't think a somewhat interesting plot can make up for tedious and uninspired writing. Aren't we here for the writing? Or does that not matter anymore? I guess I'm honestly interested to know what people consider "good."
For example, in these books, even as it switches between the different character's perspectives, there is no differentiation in the writing. It feels as though the only reason for the change is because that specific character knew something we needed to know, so they got the floor. It is so stilted.
And as far as the plot of A Stranger in the House goes, I have three words: gunshot residue test. That's all I'm saying.
I can't exactly recommend these books. But there are plenty of people who loved them. If you are looking for a fast, brainless, twisty, whodunnit sort of read, one where you don't have to do a lot of thinking or puzzling, this will totally be your jam. If you have higher aspirations for crime books, we'll have to keep looking.
My thanks to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for my copies of these books.
Get your copies:
The Couple Next Door
A Stranger in the House
Find out more about the author:
Find out more about the publisher, Pamela Dorman Books (Viking, PRH)
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Cute pumpkin carving templates sent by Viking. What a cool idea!
There is an art to the short story. It is not as simple as most people would think. People are daunted and awed by the novel—that long, arduous journey of pages, which of course, is no cake walk itself.
But in those pages, there is room to grow and splinter off in any sort of direction the characters take you, feeling free to meander down any trail the plot draws you down.
A short story has to be tight, has a word limit, has to create all of those feelings and momentums and arcs within the character and the reader in a much tighter scope.
That takes skill. A writer that has a handle on how to craft a great short story really has something.
These stories burn brightly, with a fierce determination, by turns dark and by others comedic, and it all keeps turning like those merry-go-rounds we used to play on as kids until it’s one swirl of nausea-inducing color that makes more sense than the painful world outside.
Behr captures that sense of unrestrained wildness, that captive clarity, the moment of crazed hilarity breaking through the horror.
The stories here, sometimes intertwining, with a consistent tone and dark eye turned toward the world, are narrated by characters lost, broken, set to repeat, and caught up in the uncertain fears we all force on ourselves.
I’ve been ruminating on children in fiction a lot, what with the huge release of It in theaters (and I’ve seen it three times, so sue me, it’s great), and the kids on the page here are hard as nails. They have that bright, intuitive sense of the world that kids so easily grasp and are dealing with so much more than they should have to carry. Brilliantly rendered.
The stories do tend to drop off at their conclusions like that step you forgot in the dark, leaving a bewildered sense of incompleteness. Perhaps stylistic and purposeful, but when overused, one tends to not feel as deeply for the characters, sensing no real conclusion for them will be achieved.
I found the standout stories in the collection to be the ones that center on darkness in more permanent ways, but ways that were only glancing for the narrators, like “A Reasonable Person,” where a juror reflects on her own life and the grisly case she has been assigned to assess, and “Afterword,” where a character reminisces about a young boy she knew growing up who was brutally murdered and how it still affects her.
Stories like these have a deeper resonance, a darkness that sinks to the bones and sits there, chilling and spreading, a real feeling that there is true evil in the world. They show the sparks of a true talent developing in these pages and I’d be glad to see where they go in the author’s work in years to come.
Get your copy of Planet Grim
Find out more about Alex Behr
Find out more about the publisher, 7.13 Books
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This post is part of a blog tour for Daniel’s book!
Falatko’s newest book, The Travels and Travails of Small Minds, has his characters treading familiar ground—the streets of New York City—along with new territory—England, Moscow, and others.
Nathan is dragging along at a dead-end for a senile old crockpot loosely in charge of slumlike properties. His girlfriend lives too far away, his neighbor is a drug addict, and his sole coworker is no better off than he is.
Taking life one day at a time with no real future in sight, Nathan gets mixed up in a property scam that entangles him in the works of a dead beatnik of extremely dubious talent, that beatnik’s number one fan, and a large amount of money.
The book’s strengths are revealed in the writing of the city—it is a very comfortable place for the author. The descriptions would be familiar and smell like the sweet garbage funk of home to any New Yorker. It is a mix of the grungy underbelly and the unique moments that make it a city like no other: a guy selling tiny turtles on a street corner, drugged out kids dancing on the subway, brawls in the street. It’s the real New York, the one you see if you live there, pounding the streets every day.
There is a dark sort of comedy here, not really like a funny comedy, but more like theater of the absurd. You laugh because you don’t know how else to react, because that is the only feasible emotion for the craziness that is occurring.
Similar to Condominium, this book lives and breathes New York. The eccentricities and insider knowledge swells to the surface and is painted on every page. The characters themselves take a bit of a backseat to New York herself, which becomes obvious when the plot is driven away from the city to other countries.
As far as the character’s go, this one is a jumble of personalities and is very much a different style from the satirical look at the gentrification of New York’s boroughs that Condominium encapsulated. The characters in Condo had reached the top, they had nowhere to go but down.
Nathan and his pals, on the other hand, are not even trying to climb the ladder. An intriguing mystery, a pretty girl, even a potential opportunity at work fall into his lap and he can barely be bothered to look into any of it. He’s just coasting.
While the plot does manage to move forward in a haphazard way, that almost complete apathy does get in the way, especially in Nathan’s case. At what point will he decide to take action and be a deciding factor in his future?
I didn’t see him as a dynamic character, even as he makes stunning revelations, even with the One Year Later sections. He is just the same throughout the book. Riding the waves, taking what life gives him, and not really trying to change his situation. I would have liked more action on his end.
But perhaps his apathy is the point. Are we the choices we make, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the city we live in? Tyler Durden would say no.
So what is left?
In the end, this one is a wild mind-trip. Falatko has an interesting take on the world and it’s worth exploring.
Find out more about Daniel Falatko on his website.
Get your copy of Travels and Travails of Small Minds (Ardent Writers Press)
Read on for an interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
This summer is getting hot. So hot all I want to do is stay inside with a big glass of iced tea and a good book, away from the burning rays of the sun. But what happens when the book brings the heat to you?
This book really hit me in ways I didn't expect. For all the bright, dazzling sunshine in it, this is a very dark book.
It is the story of a town turning on its itself, on its own humanity.
It is about loss and grief, and the blaming, paranoia, and mad rage that can follow.
It is about what heat can do to a mind, or perhaps just what the mind blinds itself to and then blames on other elements.
It is a coming-of-age story—but not the warm and fuzzy one that is usually associated with that term.
The summer of 1984, Fielding Bliss's father invites the devil to Breathed. When a scrawny thirteen-year-old black boy shows up claiming to accept that invitation, it is not what anyone expected. But then the heat comes. And unfortunate accidents start piling up, mysteriously connected to the boy who calls himself Sal. Is he really the devil? And what is going on in the previously quiet and quaint town of Breathed, Ohio?
Fielding narrates his story from the future, where he is an old man, still licking the wounds from his past and suffering—for what, we don't yet know. But this technique puts a cloud of dread over the whole book. Something wicked this way comes, but you'll have to read on to find out.
As the summer progresses, the heat stifles everything and things go from bad to worse with secrets coming out— including secrets about Fielding's own family—innocents caught in the crossfire, and even Fielding's neighbor turning everyone against Sal in a strange religious fervor.
The book examines good and evil, presenting the situation bare, sometimes even metaphorically and through Fielding's eyes, you as the reader are the judge. Who is right and who is wrong? Can this even be decided?
The prose is unexpected, sometimes strange or unfamiliar in its description, but always lyrical, something I was continuously wrapping my mind around while reading. McDaniel is a very unique writer and her influences from southern gothic writers and other literature are keenly felt, but adapted in a way all her own.
The book is highly stylized and more like a fairytale than realistic fiction, hovering just above reality and told in a heightened state. But somehow, the little town of Breathed is meant to exist in its own world, and Fielding is trapped there, not only in the summer of 1984, but even later in his life, even just in his mind.
For me the real revelation doesn't lie in who the devil actually is, but in how everyone reacts to who they think he is, or what they are told to think. Perhaps it is that there is that spark of evil inside all of us, waiting for that heat wave to catch flame.
And now, a short interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
Shelf Stalker: What are you reading right now?
Tiffany McDaniel: I am reading Ruth Franklin’s bio of Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life. Jackson is a wonderful writer, so it’s nice to be able to learn more about her and her life.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
TM: I still have lots of reading to do, but so far my favorite authors are:
Ray Bradbury—I love his novel, Dandelion Wine. It’s a beautiful, melancholic story that touches on those experiences we have coming-of-age.
Shirley Jackson—I still have yet to read her entire collection, but one of my favorite novels of hers is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A wonderfully told story of two sisters wrapped around the mystery of who poisoned the rest of their family.
James Wright—A poet from my land of Ohio. Above the River is the entire collection of his writing. His voice is a beautiful contribution to the poetic verse.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
TM: There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world, experienced by both humans and animals. I’ve always thought the superpower to heal and remove pain would be something that one could do a lot of good with.
SS: OK, on to the book!
I know you are from Ohio, but can you tell me how you got the idea for this book?
TM: The novel started first as a title. It was one of those hot Ohio summers that I felt like I was melting. Out of true heat, the novel was born. I start writing a new novel with two things: the title and the first line. Because I don’t outline or plan the story ahead, the title and the first line work together to shape the entire rest of the story.
SS: What was the purpose of having the book set specifically in 1984?
TM: When I was thinking about this story, the 1980s came to mind. When I think of that decade, I think of the neon colors, the big ambitions, and the big hair. It seems like a decade-long summer to me, which I thought made the perfect setting for this particular summer in the book. I chose 1984 in particular because it aligned with my George Orwell 1984 theme. Orwell’s novel is all about herd mentality and the importance of preserving individual thought. This is something the characters in my novel deal with, especially when it comes to answering the question: Who is the real devil?
SS: I loved how heat was an integral and constant part of the narrative—I really felt its presence while reading! Can you talk about why heat is so important to the book?
TM: The heat was an interesting character to write, and I say character because the heat is a character that developed just as the other characters around it did. The arrival of the heat coincides with the arrival of the boy claiming to be the devil. The heat allows for a certain “hellish” atmosphere, all the while becoming the evidence for those who believe this boy to be the devil. The heat has not only a physical effect on the characters, but an emotional and mental one as well. Without the heat, you don’t have the same story.
SS: Fielding acts as a sort of an outside narrator to the events of the novel—he reminded me of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Why are his eyes the ones we see the story through?
TM: I wanted to explore this story through the eyes of someone coming-of-age. I chose thirteen years old because that’s an age when most of us began to shed the skin of our innocence and take on the maturity of who will be as adults. It’s also the age they say Joan of Arc began to hear her voices, so it seems a divine age as well. All the novels I’ve written thus far are told through first person. From the first line, I have the narrator, and his or her voice will deliver the rest of the story. Fielding was the right character to deliver this story because it is through him that we understand the relationships and dynamics of his family and of his community, both before and after the devil’s arrival. The story couldn’t be told through the eyes of Sal because Sal needs to remain a mystery to us, and a first person lens on his story would have opened up the mystery just a little too much. But with Fielding we get the story through a lens that allows us to be both outside and inside the mystery as it unfolds.
SS: The book examines evil as a part of the human condition. But evil isn't necessarily black and white. To what extent do you feel this is true? Or, why were you interested in pursuing this as a subject?
TM: I’ve always been interested in good v. evil, and I think on some level I’ll always be exploring this. But more than that, I’ve always been interested in that gray area between good and evil, the area I think most of us live in. With these characters in the novel, you’ll see that they are all capable of good and evil. Even the villain of the story has his moments where he is revealed to be more than the evil he bears. It’s about nothing being clear cut, and just because someone is called “devil” doesn’t mean they are devilish. Ultimately, it's a story that explores what it is to be human, and the grief and the happiness of that very existence.
SS: Can you tell me about your writing process? Like, do you write a certain amount every day? At a certain time of the day? Do you take lots of notes first or just go straight to the computer?
TM: I don’t have a routine, probably because I’ve never been a very scheduled person. I seem to work in chaos and am always trying to stay or get organized. I’m an insomniac so sometimes I write at night. Sometimes during the day. I don’t have a particular word or page count I strive for. It’s like going to a big faucet with a big bucket. You turn the faucet on and sometimes you have a lot coming out, sometimes it’s just a drip. The trick is to be present. There are lots of distractions in today’s world, so the best thing we can do is to turn off the noise and focus only on the page in front of us. My process is that I don’t take notes. I don’t outline, or plan the story ahead. I think if you plan a story too much, it can domesticate the story, and I like to preserve the story’s wild soul.
SS: Do you have anything else in the works right now?
TM: I have eight completed novels. I should say that while The Summer that Melted Everything is my first published novel, it’s actually my fifth or sixth novel written. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, and wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine for The Summer that Melted Everything. It was a long eleven-year journey to publication, full of rejection and perseverance. I write darker literary fiction and I was often told I was risky to publish, which is something I think female authors hear more than their male counterparts. As far as what's next for me, well, I've returned to that very first novel I wrote when I was eighteen. It’s titled, The Chaos We’ve Come From and it's inspired by my mother's coming-of-age in southern Ohio from the 1950s to the death of her father in the early 1970s. It’s been fourteen years since I first wrote this novel, so it feels like a good time to return to this story and to these characters.
A huge thanks to Tiffany McDaniel for sending me a copy of her book and being so generous with her time to answer my questions!
Get your copy of The Summer that Melted Everything
Find out more about Tiffany McDaniel
Find out more about the publisher, St. Martin's Press (Macmillan)
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My hand’s on the handle of the screen door and I pause, turn. The thought of going inside, drinking a glass of water, reading, undressing—the thought of doing these living things makes it hard to breathe and I think of Crazy Horse and massacres and muscle-bound dudes shooting pool and sex. Which of these thoughts will cast Her in the darkest light, will help me get free?
With sparse, languorous sentences that nonetheless hold a masterful deep-seated tension throughout, The Glamshack is a look into the interior landscape of a man on the edge of self-discovery, and, even larger, it chronicles the ubiquitous nature of us all.
Henry has found the woman of his dreams, he even thinks he loves her, but the problem is that she is engaged to another man and she’s leaving to go visit this fiancé in New Orleans.
Henry has twelve days to figure out what he’s doing with his life. And what it looks like from the outside is living in someone else’s pool house, having an affair with a woman who’s about to be married, and flushing his job down the drain.
But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface. Henry’s story begins not with the entrance of the unnamed Her into his life, but with childhood memories and how he sees an unlikely parallel of his story in the long-past Plains Indians wars.
What is interesting about The Glamshack is the inversion of the expected gender roles. In a book like this, you would generally expect the Henry character to be a woman. Instead, we get the opposite, and we follow Henry’s introspection, his male point of view, and the world looking back at him.
I think it's important that the book is set in 1999, just before the new millennium, when there really is nothing in the book to suggest that it has to be set in this time period. This setting, which the reader is reminded about at the start of every chapter that isn't a memory, is significant.
It is about to be a turning point, the collective holding of breath before something new begins. Henry, and perhaps the rest of the world, are stuck in stasis, but when the clock turns over, it could be a reset, a chance to try again, be better, have freedom. Who knows what will happen. 1999 represents the top of the rollercoaster for Henry, what happens after these 12 days could potentially determine his freedom.
His job involves writing for what he dubs the “Glamrag,” a magazine mostly full of advertisements where “editorial doesn’t count for shit” and he is in charge of interviewing photographers, tv commercial directors, model scouts, and the like.
But he doesn’t seem to be able to ask the right questions, to really get any story now that She is in his head. And his job is on the line. None of these ordinary things seem to matter to Henry anymore, though.
In glamorous LA, everything is surface level. All anyone seems to see in him is that he would make a good model. He’s got a look and he’s got “as little as possible going on behind the eyes.” That’s all it takes to be a male model: a good looking body and nothing in your head.
Is that what attracted Her to Henry? His prettiness and emptiness? And what makes Her so valuable to him anyway?
I spent a lot of time trying to dissect their relationship, since even though Henry is the one telling his story, I didn't find him that redeeming of a character—there really isn’t that much going on with him. He seems damaged, fixated on bringing everything back to this childhood obsession with a madman in the woods, who may have been a figment of his own imagining.
Henry uses his twelve days to unravel his relationship with Her and see what went wrong, if it even did. He delves into his childhood, grasping for threads, and it seems he spent a lot of his childhood running—it’s almost like a totem for him. A type of power.
But being so fast at running means you are always running away from something, hiding from something. And perhaps the madman resides there too, something to shield him from getting too close to the truth.
What makes their affair so special? Perhaps the point is that it isn’t. Perhaps the point is that there is nothing special about Henry or his experience, much as he tries to distinguish himself, to dig through himself to create meaning, to find substance.
It's another history of broken promises and scarring, sadness and broken hearts. Perhaps it's a bit dramatic to compare one torrid love affair to the decades-long struggle and oppression suffered by the Native Americans, but it gives an interesting insight into Henry’s mind.
There is darkness in all of us. What matters in the end is what you’re searching for, what you consider to be worth giving up everything else for. Freedom? The divine? A woman?
What’s the difference really?
Get your copy of The Glamshack (out June 15, 2017)
Find out more about the author, Paul Cohen
Find out more about the publisher, 7.13
This is a dark, entangling, deeply unsettling sort of book. The type that digs gritty fingernails deep into your skin, your very bones, and doesn’t let go, not even after you’re finished reading.
Felicia Sullivan had me wrapped up in her story from the very beginning and from there it only gathers steam, or more like vicious black smoke, a smoke that may smell of charred human remains.
I have a deep love of horror but so often horror is given a bad rap as something shallow or schlocky or just too gory and horrible for the sake of being so. Follow Me into the Dark brings horror into the realm of the literary in a way that reminded me of one of my favorite writers, Stephen Graham Jones.
Like much of his writing, this book isn’t afraid to go to places that may be difficult to understand, to use language that might obscure the meaning, or to just straight up obfuscate the scene in a way that makes you have to feel your way out, almost like you are in the dark yourself sometimes.
Of course, this is intentional—the nonlinear structure of the novel, the slippage between the generations and the years causes a disconnect, while at the same time highlighting how patterns of behavior, pain, and illness can be passed down the line affecting family members differently as they fracture outward.
The main thrust of the plot follows Kate whose mother is dying of cancer. Her stepfather is concurrently sleeping with Gillian, who happens to be a doppelgänger of Kate and further, there is a serial killer called the Doll Collector on the loose killing girls who have similar appearance to her as well. Gillian’s stepbrother Jonah increasingly matches the description of the killer, but it couldn’t really be him, could it?
Kate begins delving into her past and her mother’s past, bringing things to the surface that she would have preferred to keep hidden. Abuse, mental illness, loss, and pain begin narrating the pages and her emotions, especially negative ones like anger and rage, start boiling over in a way she can no longer control and the lines in her own mind begin to blur.
Perhaps the answers to now lie in the past, no matter how difficult it is to face them.
As a reader, I got the feeling that I couldn’t really trust any of the narrators; there is a sense of unreliability throughout the novel, though it is built on enough trustworthy details that I just had to keep digging. I wanted to find the truth!
There is a velvety depth to the language of this book. I got lost in it, I drowned in it. I felt like I was going crazy at times—truth is not absolute in this book, the words sometimes withhold more than they reveal, but what is clear is the profound nature of personal suffering and the lengths that some will go to, however misguided by the mind or the past, to end it.
Chilling and compelling. A beautifully written debut novel.
Get your copy of Follow Me into the Dark
Find out more about the author, Felicia Sullivan
Find out more about the publisher, Feminist Press
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A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.