PEN America Center announces Literary Awards shortlists

The UnAmericans  Citizen

PEN America Center announced on Thursday, April 16 the finalists for several awards. Several outstanding works by women are in the running.

The nominees for the Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction include Molly Antopol for The UnAmericans, Cynthia Bond for Ruby, and Merritt Tierce for Love Me Back. The other finalists are Jim Livings for The Dog and Phil Klay for Redeployment, which won the National Book Award and a special prize for debut fiction from the National Book Critics Circle. The winner will receive $25,000.

In the Open Book Award, which honors book-length works by writers of color, the finalists include Roxane Gay for An Untamed State and Claudia Rankine for Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine won the National Book Critics Circle award for Poetry last month. The other finalists are Rabih Alameddine for An Unnecessary Woman, Teju Cole for Every Day is for the Thief, and Samrat Upadhyay for The City Son. The winner will receive $5,000.

Most of the winners will be announced on May 13, with a few to be revealed at the awards ceremony on June 8.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist announced

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The shortlist of six finalists for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced today in London. The prize is the UK’s only book award for fiction written by a woman.

The five judges have selected Outline by Rachel Cusk, The Bees by Laline Paull, A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, How to Be Both by Ali Smith, A Spool of Blue  Thread by Anne Tyler, and The Paying Guests by Sarah Walters.

The finalists were chosen from a longlist of 20 books.

“Short-listing for the 2015 Baileys Prize was the fantasy book club of a lifetime,” said  chair of judges Shami Chakrabarti. “The novels we shared and the shortlist we ultimately honour form a body of great women’s writing to entertain and inspire for many years to come.”

The major surprise of this year’s shortlist is the omission of the much-admired Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which many amateur prognosticators tapped to win the award (it was a finalist for the National Book Award). Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief also has many fervent supporters.

The judges will now choose a winner, to be announced at an awards ceremony at Royal Festival Hall in London on June 3.

Tania James on the terrors of conducting field research for THE TUSK THAT DID THE DAMAGE

The Tusk That Did the Damage  Tania-James-1024x682-MelissaStewartPhotography

Tania James is the author of The Tusk That Did the Damage (published in March by Knopf), a powerful novel about elephant poaching in India that has been critically acclaimed for its three-voice narration, including that of the Gravedigger, a marauding elephant. [My review is here.] Her previous books include the novel Atlas of Unknowns and a short story collection, Aerogrammes. She graduated from Harvard with a BA in Film and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia. From 2011-2012, she was a Fulbright fellow to India living in New Delhi. She currently teaches creative writing at George Washington University. 

One thing I never properly learned in graduate school: how to do field research. I learned a great many other things about craft, about books, about how to maintain a benign expression while being critiqued by your personal nemesis. And I went on to write two books—a novel and a short story collection—that had mostly grown from my imagination. When they didn’t, I extracted what I needed from safe, silent sources—nonfiction books, online articles, microfiche.

Those were the sources I used when I began researching my current novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, which concerns human-elephant conflict in a South Indian wildlife park. Unfortunately my sources were limited; the subject was too fresh, the terrain of wildlife preservation and imperiled elephant populations constantly changing. I quickly realized that I’d have to “go into the field,” a phrase that seemed to me kind of romantic and adventurous and altogether terrifying.

It’s not so much that I’m intimidated by strangers; I’m simply sensitive—or maybe hypersensitive—to the potential for offending my interview subject, for coming across as the nosy, exploitative, story-monger that I kind of am. My discomfort was especially acute while preparing to interview a former poacher at the Periyar Wildlife Park. The Forest Department had hired this gentleman—let’s call him “John”—to work for them as a forest guide, due to his extensive knowledge of the forest interior. John had long left poaching behind, but I assumed he still carried a residue of shame.

A forest officer had arranged the interview on my behalf, and on the day in question, I waited for John in a conference room. Before me was a legal pad of numbered notes and questions; I was probably muttering my way through them as if rehearsing for a performance. Preparation was the only way I could maintain a level of control, and therefore comfort, over the proceedings.

So there I was, muttering, preparing, when a platoon of fifteen dudes trooped into the room and halted before me. Their faces were hard, expectant. They wore beige button-downs, except for the smallest one, who was wearing an oversized Dad sweater. The forest officer ordered the men to sit, then introduced me as “a writer from America,” then told me to ask my questions.

I probably cleared my throat a half dozen times while leafing through my notes.

“Well?” my mother said, or something to that effect.

Did I mention that my mother was sitting beside me? I guess her presence, at the outset, sort of detracted from my romantic, adventurous notion of field research, but I needed her to make some sense of my rusty Malayalam, and put my questions into words these Tamil-speaking men would understand. Also, and I only realized this when the men walked in, I was bone-deeply grateful to have her by my side.

I probably asked two of the questions on my checklist. The stories these men volunteered—unabashed and matter-of-fact—were far richer than any answer I could have tried to predict. They spoke about tools and slaughter and how to cook wild game, bickering like brothers over the details. One man showed me the bullet wound in his shoulder, the puckered skin of his scar. My pen could hardly keep up.

Of all the lessons I learned from that interview, here are three:

1) I didn’t have to step so carefully around the subject of poaching. It was a mistake to believe that these men shared my revulsion for killing elephants, that they’d left their former jobs because of some kind of moral epiphany. They stopped poaching because there were better, safer economic opportunities available to them. Simple as that. My caution was a kind of judgment that prevented me, at least at the outset, from seeing these men on their own terms.

2) I didn’t have to prepare so much for that interview. My checklist of questions was based on the assumption that I knew what I was looking for, when in fact, it’s far smarter to work from a state of unknowing, to be flexible along a line of inquiry, to pursue the threads of truth that capture your interest. To rest easy in the belief that you will know what you’re looking for when you find it.

3) Trilingual mothers can make for good sidekicks.

EVEL KNIEVEL offers touching coming of age story set in 1970s Idaho, five contemporary stories

Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon  Kelly Jones

Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon… and Other Stories Close to Home

By Kelly Jones

Ninth Avenue Press: June 4, 2014

$12.00, 184 pages

As someone who devours a steady diet of literary fiction, I occasionally need a change of pace, a palate-cleanser between dark or heart-rending books. Recently, while reading David Abrams’ blog, The Quivering Pen, I came across the work of Kelly Jones. While she is better known for historical mysteries set in European capitals, such as The Woman Who Heard Color, The Lost Madonna, and The Seventh Unicorn, she too wanted a change of pace before he next novel, Lost and Found in Prague, was published. Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon and Other Stories Close to Home is the result.

Jones grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho and currently lives in Boise. In this novella and five stories, she revisits the haunts of her youth and captures lightning in a bottle. The title story expertly mixes nostalgia for a lost time and place with a clear-eyed view of what it’s like to be a 10-year-old boy going through a difficult time.

In the 97-page title piece, set in the summer of 1974, Jones tells the story of Pick, who has returned with his mother to her hometown of Twin Falls from Portland. His father died in the Vietnam War, and they have struggled and moved frequently in the years since. She intends to leave Pick with her mother, whom Pick calls Grandma Grace, and her college-age brother, Uncle Buddy, while she moves to Seattle to attempt yet another new start.

Against a backdrop of social upheaval from the war and the Watergate scandal, Pick reluctantly settles in for what he expects to be a boring and lonely summer. Jones pulls you right into Pick’s little world with her detailed sense of time and place, sympathetic tone, and accurate sense of how it feels to be the new kid, yet again.

Pick tentatively makes friends with some wild kids who are jumping their bikes over trash cans in the alley behind Grandma Grace’s house. He learns his way around town and spends a lot of time at the city pool, where he also experiences his first crush on a beautiful young diver.

He observes the adults in his world, especially Buddy, who has recently broken up with his long-time girlfriend and returned home from the University of Idaho to spend the summer working and riding his motorcycle. Grandma is a non-nonsense fifty-something widow with short salt-and-pepper hair who is determined to turn Pick into a responsible young man with her “work first, play later” approach and long list of daily chores.

The catalyst for Pick’s summer of change is the announcement of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel that he will attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon outside of town in early September. Buddy gets a job doing security at the jump site and promises to sneak Pick in for the big event. While Knievel’s endeavor provides Buddy with work, it provides Pick and his friends with dreams and inspiration, and they spend much of the summer attempting increasingly risky jumps with their bicycles.

Reading this novella brought me back to the simpler times of my youth (I turned 15 in the summer of 1974), when a bike was a ticket to freedom. I left my house in the morning and wasn’t expected to return until it started to get dark. (And I drank water out of a garden hose and lived to tell!)

Jones tells an endearing story about a sensitive and sensible young man growing up and slowly learning some painful truths about the adult world.

The five stories on offer here are a little darker. They concern characters that have reached turning points in their lives as they progress from confusion to constructive action.

“Saving Johanna” follows a down-on-her-luck recovering alcoholic caught in an abusive relationship who finds mercy and a second chance through her community service at the local library.

“The Last Husband” tells of Olive and her five husbands, the last of whom has just died. She is muddling along in her winter loneliness and takes advantage of the arrival of spring to replant the garden. To her surprise, her only living ex-husband, Eddie, shows up. Eddie had once tried to kill Olive and spent some time in prison. But that was a long time ago. They chat and get caught up, and Eddie invites Olive to go fishing with him. When Olive’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Geri, finds out that Eddie has reappeared, she is not happy. But Olive has other ideas in what could be her last spring.

“A Lesson on How to Attract a Man” returns to childhood friendships, in particular that one girl who was ahead of all the others. Meg and Renee haven’t seen each other in years. When they meet for coffee, their conversation turns to their time in eighth grade at St. Martin’s and their classmate, Jaynie Aniston, who always seemed to be surrounded by boys. What was she saying to them that always made them smile and laugh? The other girls were mystified by Jaynie’s secret power over the boys. Through a series of school dances that year, Meg and Renee learn Jaynie’s secret. And it has lasting effects on Meg’s life.

“I Don’t Come Here Often” gives us a close look at the quirky customers of a Boise Laundromat. The closing story, “Wyoming” follows 12-year-old Jen, who has persuaded her 16-year-old neighbor, Jeremy, to help her run away. Jen’s mother died four years earlier, and her father has just remarried. Not surprisingly, Jen resents and despises her new stepmother, Lillian. Jeremy has an old truck, and is tired of being his drunken father’s punching bag, so they decide to head east to Wyoming. But the journey doesn’t go quite as Jen had planned. Perhaps she isn’t as independent as she’d thought. And perhaps Lillian isn’t really an evil stepmother.

Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon and Other Stories Close to Home is a fast and pleasantly bumpy ride through the lives of idiosyncratic characters trying to find their way across one kind of chasm or another.

Suspenseful and absorbing UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS examines a community and a girl under pressure

Unraveling-of-Mercy-Louis-hcc-226x342   Keija_Parssinen_-_credit_Shane_Epping

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis

By Keija Parssinen

Harper: March 10, 2015

$25.99, 336 pages

Seventeen-year-old high school senior Mercy Louis is a star in her hometown of Port Sabine, Texas. She is the best basketball player in the school’s history and one of the best in the state. She is popular despite being a quiet and serious young lady with little social life. For, as much as she may be admired, everyone knows her story: her teenager mother, Charmaine Boudreaux, abandoned her and ended up a drug addict in Houston; her father is a ne’er do well named Witness Louis who has had nothing to do with her beyond her creation.

Mercy has been raised by her grandmother, Evelia Boudreaux, a dour, single-minded fundamentalist who has made it her mission to prevent Mercy from repeating the humiliating sins of her mother.

Mercy has been shaped by the dual (and dueling) visions of her grandmother and her ambitious basketball coach, Jodi Martin, who recognizes that Mercy is a once-in-a-lifetime player who can bring the coach, the school, and the town great acclaim while earning herself a Division I scholarship and the chance to escape the hothouse of Port Sabine, a ragged, oil refinery-dominated town on the Gulf Coast.

Mercy has been under their full-court pressure for so long that her unraveling is inevitable; the only questions are when and how. The Unraveling of Mercy Louis answers those questions in a probing and suspenseful story that has been described as a cross between Friday Night Lights and The Crucible.

The story is told through dual narratives: Mercy tells her story in 1st person, while basketball team manager and secret admirer Illa Stark narrates her chapters in a close 3rd person, giving us an inside and outside view of Mercy and her circumstances.

Illa is a short, quiet girl who loves to watch the girls play, admiring the skills she knows she will never possess. She virtually worships Mercy, who, besides being one of the best players in the state, is also disciplined, kind, humble, and physically striking with her black hair and blue eyes.

As Mercy begins her senior year in August 1999, she is haunted by her poor performance in the previous year’s state basketball semifinal and feeling the pressure to lead her team to the championship. At the same time, Evelia’s evangelical fervor has reached a fever pitch due to her belief that the Rapture is coming with the new millenium.

These complex characters and conflicts would be enough for one book. But Parssinen is not done turning up the heat in Port Sabine. A refinery explosion a few years earlier killed several employees and left Illa’s mother, Meg, with two permanently damaged legs and a deep depression. Mercy’s best friend, Annie, is the daughter of the calculating and politically ambitious refinery manager, Beau Putnam, a man who is willing to sacrifice his wife and daughter for power and prestige.

The catalyst that sets all these conflicts in motion is the discovery of an aborted fetus in a dumpster behind a local convenience store. The police and citizens are obsessed with determining who “murdered” the baby, and suspicions run rampant. Beau Putnam uses the situation to complain about the police investigation and lack of leadership in Port Sabine. Tensions from the refinery explosion and fears that the town’s major employer is polluting their air and water make Port Sabine’s residents even more fractious.

Then Mercy receives a short letter from her mother apologizing and asking to meet. Evelia has told Mercy nothing but horror stories about her sinful mother; not surprisingly, Mercy has no desire to meet this woman who has played no part in her life. Yet she can’t help but be curious about what kind of person she was, and is.

Under the relentless pressure to maintain good grades, guard her purity, and increase her athletic accomplishments, Mercy has no social life other than her friendship with the unpredictable and spoiled teammate, Annie. Despite Mercy’s religious upbringing and her coach’s warnings to avoid romantic entanglements, she is eventually won over by a musical free spirit named Travis, who offers her temporary relief from her tightly wound life.

The shadow of Arthur Miller’s classic play about the Salem witch hunts, The Crucible, looms over The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, giving a sense of additional gravitas to the search for the person who abandoned the baby. Parssinen has dropped lots of hints in the names of several characters: Beau Putnam, like the greedy landowner George Putnam in The Crucible, takes advantage of a local controversy to further his own ambitions. Annie Putnam was one of the girls in Salem who confessed to witchcraft. Mercy’s classmates Abby Williams and Marilee Warren are similarly named for key characters in Miller’s play, Abigail Williams and Merry Warren. And Mercy’s church is led by Pastor Parris, who is not so different from The Crucible’s fearful Reverend Parris.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis probes many timely issues: an abandoned fetus; an investigation centering on high school girls that results in widespread suspicions; a teen mother who years later wants to have a relationship with her daughter; a refinery that is the town’s economic engine yet constitutes an ominous presence; the role of religious faith as a source of inspiration, guidance, and control in a small, economically depressed town; and cynical local politics and power struggles.

At the same time, it also explores several timeless issues: a coming of age story involving a complex female friendship, a secret admirer, a first boyfriend, burgeoning sexuality, jealousy, and secrets long buried that are at last being uncovered.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is as sweltering and humid as a summer day in south Texas. The coiled tension is palpable, and the characters are compelling. We want Mercy to find her way through the obstacle course of her life. We hope that Illa will be able to develop a friendship with Mercy. We wonder what will happen to Evelia when the Rapture fails to take place. While one could argue that Evelia Boudreaux, Coach Martin, and Beau Putnam are stock characters, in Parssinen’s capable hands they are made fully human through their multiple and plausible motivations. Even the “bad guys” are mostly believable people.

The quality of Parssinen’s writing keeps The Unraveling of Mercy Louis from turning into an overstuffed melodrama. She keeps the two narratives moving and she weaves the various plotlines together adroitly. Parssinen does an especially impressive job of capturing a young woman’s yearning heart and blossoming desire, for the most part avoiding clichés and romance novel shortcuts. Clunky sentences stand out to me like a flashing neon sign, and I didn’t spot a single one in The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I suppose it’s possible I missed a few while I was being carried along by the novel’s propulsive plot.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis captures the adolescent experience of being pushed and pulled in several directions at once. Keija Parssinen reminds us that growing up is a uniquely fraught experience for young people just getting their emotional, intellectual, and psychological bearings in a complex and confusing world. Ultimately, many secrets are revealed about the adults in Mercy and Illa’s lives, which are variously shocking, disappointing, and reassuring. The result is a satisfying and literary Texas Gothic novel that will leave you pondering the many social, cultural, and personal issues it explores.

Desiree Zamorano on Writing About Middle Class Latinas: It’s What’s on the Agenda

desiree-zamorano  amado-women

Desiree Zamorano is determined to shatter stereotypes about Mexican-Americans. Her first novel, Modern Cons, was a psychological thriller, while her second, Human Cargo, introduced Latina PI Inez Leon. Her latest novel, The Amado Women, is about four middle class Latinas who are linked by birth but separated by secrets of sex, money, and death. Mercedes Amado has watched her three daughters grow into women. Celeste, fiercely intelligent and proud, has fled her youth and family in Los Angeles to financial independence in San Jose. Sylvia has immersed herself in the world of her two young daughters. Nataly, the baby, waits tables in an upscale restaurant by night and works on her textile art by day. These four women struggle for their piece of the American Dream, but find it is in jeopardy when they are confronted with a family tragedy.

A Pushcart Prize nominee and award-winning short story writer, Zamorano has also co-authored with her sister two plays commissioned by Southern California’s Bilingual Foundation for the Arts. “Reina” and “Bell Gardens 90201″ received Equity productions and toured for a total of eight years.

Zamorano teaches at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, sandwiched between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, and is the director of Occidental’s Community Literacy Center. 

At first, all I wanted was to be published.  In print, in a short story magazine, in the newspaper. Such a sweet, quaint, notion. When I looked at the dozens of rejection slips my short stories had received, and weighed them against the tiny amount they had earned, I thought to myself, “For this much grief and rejection, I may as well write a novel.”

At the time, it seemed mysteries were the reliable way in to the realm of published novelists. In fact a kind LA agent took me out to lunch, after reading my second mystery, and said, “I coulda sold this ten years ago.” The implication about the present being very loud, very clear.  I finished my lunch, anyway.

I kept writing mysteries, because I loved my PI, her perspective, the Pasadena world that had emerged around her, the way a story that’s told as a mystery can explore complex issues of social justice without appearing didactic. But I also knew the definition of insanity, and cast about for a different kind of story.

How to choose? There are writers who are clearly more prolific than I am; since a novel takes me at least two years I wanted to be able to live with these characters over a long period of time. Because I find the lives of women complex, overwhelming and entertaining, I knew I would write about them. Because the women in my life, my mother, my sister, my daughter, cause me the most joy and the most grief, it would be a family drama. And, because we are all mainstream Mexican Americans, that’s precisely what the Amado Women would be.

Writing that down for this post, for you, gentle reader, makes it seem so clear and apparent. But it wasn’t until after the book was sold, published and reviewed that I realized how political all of my decisions had been. I had wanted to explore the complexity of family life and sister relationships while granting visibility to the very population I embodied: the middle class Latina.

When my wonderful publisher, Cinco Puntos, asked me to write an article for Publishers Weekly, I looked around and recognized myself in the Latinas I knew: chiropractor, principal, teachers, college students, mayor, cleaning ladies, professors, and realized we all shared a superpower: invisibility.  I wrote about that. PW published it.

Last May I had the exhilarating experience of attending Book Expo of America at the Javits Convention Center. I was shocked to see women in line waiting for me to sign a copy of my novel. I was so stunned, I asked the first woman, “Why are you here?” She picked up a copy of the book and said, “I’m getting this for my mother in Dominica, because we need more stories about middle class Latinas.” My heart was set to burst.

Later that day at a happy hour I was introduced to a foreign rights agent. “What’s your novel about?” she asked.

“Four women, connected by birth, separated by secrets. Who, like me, happen to be Mexican American.”

She did a double take. “But you don’t look Mexican,” she said.

The content of what she said didn’t shock me, because I had heard that line plenty of times before. The context did. Here I was in New York City, the default pinnacle of wit, erudition and sophistication and I was getting the same line I had heard so many times as I waited tables in a coffee shop in a small town in southern California.

Such presumption to tell someone that you do not look like their preconception of what you should look like.  But if her experience with Latinas is based entirely on the media, then she is right. I do not look Mexican. Because the majority of the time we get two depictions: humble, hardworking, in constant fear of deportation, or Sofia Vergara. Now, my roots are humble and hardworking, and Sofia Vergara? In my dreams, kids! But the fact remains, I look like neither.

What did I say to the foreign rights agent?

I knew how to respond because I’ve said it plenty of times before. I turned to her, pointed to myself, and said, “This is what Mexican looks like.”

As I write there is a pot of chicken stock simmering; when I finish this post I will shape and boil the matzoh balls for tonight’s Passover seder at my mother-in-law’s. I mention this because ethnicity is just one facet of who we are, one piece of the complexity of being human. In The Amado Women I wanted to explore the challenging and emotionally fraught lives of one family. I realize now I write in order to broaden the mental landscape of people who aren’t quite yet ready to recognize us; I write in order to shred our shared cloak of invisibility.

 

Spring Fiction Preview: 15 Books You Won’t Want to Miss

On January 8, I posted Part 1 of my 2015 Fiction Preview: Books to Keep You Warm This Winter. On February 10, I posted Part 2, a selection of books to watch for in April, May, and June. I thought I would repost it today since the first group of these books will be published in the next few weeks.

Happy Spring reading!

 

April 7th

The Children's Crusade

Ann Packer – The Children’s Crusade (Scribner)

Packer, who knows families as well as Sue Miller and Anne Tyler, returns with her best work to date. The Children’s Crusade follows the Blair family of the San Francisco Bay Area for five decades, starting in 1954, and is narrated in alternating chapters by the four children. Packer writes beautifully, and you will care deeply about these very human characters and their trials and tribulations. This novel makes a neat pair with Early Warning, the second novel in Jane Smiley’s “The Last Hundred Years” trilogy (also due out in April); both capture the zeitgeist of America in the second half of the 20th century.

 

April 14th

The Given World

Marian Palaia – The Given World (Simon & Schuster)

The Given World takes us back to the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 to tell the story of Riley, a teenager whose older brother is fighting in Vietnam. When he goes missing, Riley becomes lost as well, falling into drug abuse and depression. The bulk of the story concerns her eventual road trip to find her brother, which takes her from Montana to San Francisco and ultimately to Vietnam. She is befriended by a motley cast of characters who help her find herself, if not her brother.

Gutshot

Amelia Gray – Gutshot: Stories (FSG Originals)

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Gray’s story collection, which is as direct and powerful as its title suggests. She has a dark, twisted, magical sensibility reminiscent of Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Ramona Ausubel. Not for the faint-hearted reader.

Fine Art of Fucking Up

Kate Dicharry – The Fine Art of Fucking Up (The Unnamed Press)

Nina Lanning is the administrator of the School of Visual Arts, a Midwest art college beset by drama both academic and personal. Everything comes to a head when a massive flood threatens the building in which the school’s lone Jackson Pollock painting is kept. Nina and her faculty, never on the same page, have to work together to save the early work from the rising waters, and themselves from their manic and melodramatic lives. The Fine Art of Fucking Up is a satire of artistic and academic pretensions, with physical comedy and sympathetic character studies added for good measure.

 

April 21st

God Help the Child

Toni Morrison – God Help the Child (Knopf)

The publication of a Toni Morrison book is always an event, even if it’s under 200 pages. Her latest novel(la) delves into “the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult.” The four characters struggle to reclaim their lives following childhood abuse. Bride is the beautiful, dark-skinned daughter of Sweetness, a light-skinned and hard-hearted mother. Booker, the man she loves, has never overcome the murder of his mother. Rain, a white girl, finds in Bride the mother figure she lacks. Just as Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade appears to match up with Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, Morrison’s God Help the Child recalls Helen Oyeyemi’s brilliant and provocative Boy, Snow, Bird from last year.

 

April 28th

Early Warning

Jane Smiley – Early Warning (Knopf)

Book Two in “The Last Hundred Years” trilogy, Early Warning continues the compelling tale of the Iowa farming family we met in last year’s Some Luck. As in the first book, each chapter covers a year in the life of the Langdon family and America, this time taking us from 1953 through the early 1980s. If Early Warning is anything like Some Luck, readers are in for a satisfying read that works well on both the micro and macro levels. And Smiley can always be counted on for great insight into characters and polished prose. The final book in the trilogy, covering the mid-1980s to the present, is due this fall.

 

 May 5th

A God in Ruins

Kate Atkinson – A God in Ruins (Little, Brown)

Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life, was an utterly unique (and occasionally confounding) reading experience, in which we followed Ursula Todd. The result was a huge bestseller and a slew of award nominations. Atkinson returns with a sequel of sorts (readers of Life After Life will understand why this isn’t a true sequel). This time we follow Ursula Todd’s younger brother, Teddy, who survived his time as a RAF pilot in the war and has gone on to live a long and full life. Expect the unexpected.

 The Green Road

Anne Enright — The Green Road (Norton)

Enright well deserves her recent honor as the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction. Best known for her 2007 novel, The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize, Enright in The Green Road again explores the distinctive people and place of the west coast of Ireland. Rosaleen Madigan has raised four children, who have grown up and moved away to Dublin, New York City, and even as far as west Africa. When she tells them she plans to sell the house, they return for one last Christmas in their childhood home. That’s when circumstances become increasingly complicated.

 The Ghost Network

Catie Disabato — The Ghost Network (Melville House)

Molly Metropolis, one of the music world’s biggest stars has disappeared. Her personal assistant and a journalist working on a book about her are determined to track her down, whether she has been kidnapped or has simply gone into hiding. They discover a secret map of underground Chicago, which leads them to the headquarters of a sect of intellectuals (a group of moles with vision, one might say). The result is a literary mystery, pop commentary, and exploration of fame, privacy, and identity. This is Disabato’s first novel. She is a columnist for Full Stop and has written criticism and commentary for The Millions and The Rumpus.

 

May 12th

Life #6

Diana Wagman – Life #6 (Ig Publishing)

Wagman, whose last novel, 2012’s The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, was a psychological thriller about the kidnapping and imprisonment of a suburban wife and mother, again considers life and death in Life#6. Fiona, on the verge of divorce and recently diagnosed with breast cancer, looks back at her life and considers the five times she nearly lost her life. One particular incident in the younger Fiona’s life exerts a magnetic pull on her. Thirty years earlier, she and her boyfriend Luc experienced a nightmarish boat trip, and she believes the solution to her quandary lies in finding Luc to see if he can save her again. Life #6 is an exploration of love won and lost, invincible youth and vulnerable, anxious maturity, and the ways impending death can give meaning to our seemingly random lives.

 

May 19th

Mislaid

Nell Zink – Mislaid (Ecco)

Zink, whose debut, The Wallcreeper, brought her a lot of attention last year, returns with a Southern novel addressing issues of class and privilege, race and racism, and sexuality and sexism. Mislaid begins in 1966 on the campus of a small college in Virginia. It is the story of Peggy, a bright, literary student who, through a series of predictable events, ends up pregnant and married to one of her professors. Their marriage is in trouble from the start: Peggy and Lee are both gay. Eventually, she flees with their young daughter, leaving an older son behind, and remains incognito for over a decade. Years later, the two children meet again at the University of Virginia, with disastrous results.

 

June 2nd

Saint Mazie

Jami Attenberg – Saint Mazie

Attenberg’s previous book, The Middlesteins, received a great deal of acclaim, and her follow-up is generating a lot of anticipation. Saint Mazie was inspired by the life of one of the residents profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. A party girl during the Jazz Age and Prohibition, Mazie becomes the proprietress of The Venice, a residential hotel for the down-and-out in New York City’s Lower East Side. Her story is told through her diary and the voices of many of the people whose lives she affected so dramatically.

The Diver's Clothes

Vendela Vida – The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Ecco)

Vida is perhaps best known as the founding co-editor of The Believer, but I know her as the author of the excellent novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Her fourth novel explores the nature of identity and the common desire to start over as someone else. A woman on business in Morocco is robbed of her passport and other identifying documents. The police seem uninterested or, perhaps, even complicit in the crime. In a state of shock, the woman considers the freedom conferred by her circumstances. When she is hired as a stand-in for the lead actress in a movie production, she finds herself adopting her film persona, with intriguing consequences.

 

June 16th

In the Country

Mia Alvar – In the Country: Stories (Knopf)

Alvar’s story collection immerses readers in the Filipino experience, both at home and among the diaspora. The stories are set in Manila, New York, and Bahrain, each of which has been home to Alvar, and tell the stories of teachers, students, laborers, nurses, and journalists trying to find their way across chasms of culture and class. Alvar’s work has been cited for distinction in The Best American Short Stories and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Any book that receives high praise from Joan Silber and Celeste Ng is a book worth paying attention to.

 

June 23rd

Black Glass

Karen Joy Fowler – Black Glass: Short Fictions

Fowler’s last novel, 2013’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, found massive critical and commercial success, including winning the PEN/Faulkner Award and being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In light of this success, Fowler’s publisher, Putnam, has decided to reissue her well-regarded 1998 collection of 15 dark and distinctive stories.