For many readers, winter is the time to hunker down and wait out the inclement weather with a good book, or two, or three. Here are 30 works of fiction to help you while away the weather until winter winds down and April flowers and warmer showers remind us to come out of our hibernation.
Edith Pearlman – Honeydew (Little, Brown)
Pearlman was a well-kept secret until the publication in 2011 of Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, which was nominated for several awards and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her writing has been compared to Alice Munro, John Updike, and Frank O’Connor, and Honeydew, Pearlman’s first book since then, has been greeted with acclaim in a New York Times Sunday Book Review front page review by Laura van den Berg (who knows a thing or two about good stories), the Los Angeles Times, and many other major publications. You’ll be hearing a lot about this book.
Megan Mayhew Bergman – Almost Famous Women (Scribner)
The author of the acclaimed story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, returns with a collection that shines a light on, well, almost famous women, turning their impressive and even amazing lives into compelling stories.
Colleen Oakley – Before I Go (Gallery)
Daisy thinks she’s home free when her breast cancer has been in remission for three years. But then it returns with a vengeance and she becomes determined to find a suitable replacement wife for her occasionally oblivious savant of a husband.
Miranda July – The First Bad Man (Scribner)
July’s first novel after her impressive debut short story collection, The First Bad Man follows Cheryl, a neurotic woman with a vivid imagination that includes believing she has made love to a colleague for many lifetimes. Prepare to laugh, groan, and think.
Priya Parmar – Vanessa and Her Sister (Ballantine)
Parmar provides a fictional view into the relationship of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, as well as the Bloomsbury group to which they belonged. Complications ensue when Vanesssa and Virginia fall in love with the same man. Told through the voice of Vanessa’s diary, this intellectual tour de force should satisfy those who love literature and history combined.
Mary Helen Specht – Migratory Animals (Harper Perennial)
When Flannery returns home to Austin after years of research in Nigeria, she soon learns that her sister Molly has developed the genetic disease that killed their mother. Flannery is torn between Molly and the fiancé who is still in Nigeria. Specht’s first novel is a powerful meditation on family, obligation, love, and dreams.
S.M. Hulse — Black River (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Hulse makes her debut with what might be called a modern Western. When Wes Carver returns to his hometown of Black River, Montana after nearly twenty years in Spokane, he has two goals: to bury the ashes of his wife and prevent the convict who held him hostage during a prison riot all those years ago from obtaining parole. Carver has struggled ever since to reclaim his faith and his gift for playing the fiddle. Like Kim Zupan’s brilliant 2014 novel The Ploughmen, which explored the relationship between a disillusioned police officer and an elderly serial killer awaiting trial, Black River delves into the heart of darkness in its consideration of good and evil, revenge and forgiveness, and death and rebirth. And like fellow Montanan Zupan, Hulse favors a spare, powerful writing style that evokes the austere, formidable landscape of her home state.
Emma Hooper – Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Simon & Schuster)
In what could be the new year’s most charming and whimsical novel, Hooper tells the story of Etta, an 83-year-old woman who leaves a note for her husband Otto telling him that she is going to walk to the east coast of Canada. Otto stays home on their Saskatchewan farm, becoming more domestic and eccentric by the day. But their neighbor Russell, who has been in love with Etta for decades, decides to chase her down. Etta is accompanied by a talking coyote named James, who serves as her guide on this update of Pilgrim’s Progress, adding a dollop of magical realism to the proceedings.
Brooke Davis – Lost & Found (Dutton)
Davis’s debut novel was a publishing sensation in her home of Australia, winning several awards, including the Allen & Unwin Prize for Fiction. Lost & Found is the story of a seven-year-old Millie, abandoned by her mother at a store (a recurring theme this year). Through a strange set of circumstances, a housebound widow and an eccentric widower meet Millie and decide to set off across Western Australia to search for her. Davis told the ABC that, “The question I was trying to answer as I was writing this novel was: ‘How do you live knowing that anyone you love can die at any moment?'” Davis’s mother was killed in a freak accident, and she has divided her life into before and after phases.
Sharma Shields – The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac (Holt)
All Eli Roebuck knows is that when he was 9, his mother walked into the woods with a large, hairy man named Mr. Krantz, never to return. Still unsure of whether his mother ran away with Sasquatch, Eli is obsessed with finding her. His obsessions affect all his adult relationships, which involve monsters and mysteries of their own.
Esther Freud — Mr. Mac and Me (Bloomsbury)
This evocative novel set in an English fishing village on the eve of WWII tracks the relationship of 13-year-old Tom, an artistic boy with a physical disability, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the famous Scottish painter, who has come to the village to recuperate and try to rehabilitate his career. Mackintosh and his wife become surrogate parents for Tom, who struggles to make sense of a chaotic world – and growing up — when the war comes to town.
Yasmina Reza – Happy Are the Happy (Other) (Translated by Sarah Ardizzone)
Tony Award-winning playwright Reza appears to have the same award-winning knack with her writing; this novel won Le Monde’s literary prize and has sold over 100,000 copies in France. Each of the chapters is narrated by one of the 18 different characters, all of whom are connected to the others. Reza peels back the facades of domestic life to reveal the truth in various relationships.
Kelly Link – Get in Trouble (Random House)
In her first book for adults in a decade, Link applies her twisted imagination to stories that may remind you of the fantasy, paranormal, and magical realism found in stories by Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Ramona Ausubel, and George Saunders, which is high praise indeed.
Asali Solomon – Disgruntled (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Disgruntled is the story of Kenya, an African-American girl from Philadelphia who attends an all-white private school. Kenya’s coming of age is complicated by a set of family, racial, and cultural conflicts.
Anne Tyler — A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf)
The always-reliable Tyler returns with another heart-warming and thought-provoking family drama set, as always, in the fictional Baltimore that she owns. Few writers understand and depict family dynamics better than Tyler; this time the focus is on the effect of the stories families tell themselves about their family history. The early buzz is that Spool is her best work in at least a decade.
Quan Barry — She Weeps Each Time You’re Born (Pantheon)
Barry’s novel immerses the reader in Vietnam’s 20th century history, from the French colonial period through the war and into reunification, all through the experiences of Rabbit, a girl whose family has been cast adrift by the war. Barry’s use of magical realism and Vietnamese folk beliefs (e.g., Rabbit’s ability to hear the dead) creates a distinctive and ethereal reading experience.
Gail Hareven – Lies, First Person (Open Letter) (Translated by Dalya Bilu)
In her second novel translated into English, Israeli author Gail Hareven considers the nature of sin, forgiveness, memory, and revenge. Elinor and her husband live in Israel, where she writes a newspaper column. Her uncle Aaron’s visit to Israel from the U.S. opens up long-buried rage over his sexual abuse of Elinor’s younger sister, Elisheva, who also lives in the U.S. The catch is that Elisheva has become Christian and forgiven Aaron. But that fails to extinguish the fire that continues to burn inside Elinor.
Sandra Newman – The Country of Ice Cream Star (Ecco/HarperCollins)
A deadly pandemic has left a world in which everyone dies by age 20. The new world of children includes 15-year-old Ice Cream Star, who is determined to find a cure when her older brother begins to display symptoms. She narrates the story in a unique post-apocalypse patois that elevates dialect to poetry.
Laura van den Berg – Find Me (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Literary fiction with a post-apocalyptic setting is a hot commodity now (see National Book Award finalist Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) and van den Berg, author of the highly regarded collection, Isle of Youth, puts her stamp on it in Find Me. A young woman named Joy, orphaned as a child, has survived a plague thanks to her rare immunity. She travels across the country searching for her mother and finds a brave new world. (Abandoning children appears to be popular territory as well.)
Holly LeCraw – The Half Brother (Doubleday)
LeCraw’s debut revisits the predictably fraught environs of the boarding school. Charlie Garrett is a recent Harvard grad newly arrived to teach at the Abbott School with the potential to be a John Keating. He falls in love with May, the school chaplain’s daughter, but complications ensue and she goes off to college, leaving Charlie and his broken heart behind. He builds a life in Abbottsford, Massachusetts over the following decade. Then, to his surprise, May returns to teach at Abbott. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, right? Not so fast. Charlie’s half-brother, Nick, also joins the faculty, and something of a love triangle develops. So while the plot may not sound especially original, the execution is exceptional. This is a remarkably well-written novel with a lot on its mind. There’s a good chance that The Half Brother will end up being considered one of the classic “boarding school” novels.
Rose Tremain – The American Lover (Norton)
Tremain, the great British writer of historical novels, shows once again that she is also a master of the short story (this is her first collection since 2006). The stories in this collection range across the geographical, temporal, and emotional map, across Europe, wars, and love affairs, and the past and present. Tremain possesses skill, imagination, and insight in abundance, making her stories of love, heartbreak, friendship, abandonment, success, and failure particularly memorable. Among her many awards, Tremain has received the Orange Prize (for The Road Home in 2008) and the Whitbread Prize (for Music and Silence in 1999).
Mary Doria Russell – Epitaph (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Russell made a name for herself with her first two novels, The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998), which successfully combined speculative fiction with religion in a story of first contact. She then made a drastic change in direction, writing the Holocaust novel A Thread of Grace and a post-WWI novel set in Egypt, Dreamers of the Day (2008). In 2011, she published Doc, which explores the friendship of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp in Dodge City during the years leading up to the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone. Russell returns with a sequel that continues the story of Earp and Holliday, this time against the backdrop of political and commercial conflicts involving silver mines and Earp’s hard-fought campaign to be sheriff of Tombstone. Although Russell incorporates a credible love story, Epitaph is really about the later years and legacy of Wyatt Earp.
Hanya Yanagihara — A Little Life (Doubleday)
Yanagihara made a big impression in 2013 with her debut, The People in the Trees, and her second novel is likely to put her on the short list of great young writers. A Little Life follows four college roommates as they move out into the world, in this case, New York City. She fully inhabits these four ambitious young men, who are black, white, mixed race, straight, gay, well-adjusted, traumatized, you name it. Yanagihara demonstrates that her psychological and anthropological insights, and her skill at characterization, are not limited to tribal societies in New Guinea.
Tania James — The Tusk That Did the Damage (Knopf)
James probes the illegal ivory trade in this novel with three narrators: an Indian boy who becomes a poacher, an American documentary filmmaker, and an orphaned elephant known as the Gravedigger who has escaped from a life of mistreatment and is rampaging through the countryside. In an impressive feat of imagination, James has created a character of great intelligence and sensitivity, as one would expect from an elephant. This is a moral thriller that examines the clash between man and animal, past and present, law and custom, modernity and tradition.
Suzanne McCourt – The Lost Child (Text)
McCourt’s novel about a teenage girl whose older brother goes missing is a coming of age story with a strong sense of place. Set near the Coorong wetlands on Australia’s undeveloped southern coast (about 100 miles southeast of Adelaide) during the 1950s, The Lost Child is a mystery, a domestic drama, and a character study that succeeds on all three counts. It also benefits from the distinctively sensitive and observant voice of young Sylvie. This is the kind of evocative fiction Australian writers specialize in (see Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Joan London’s Gilgamesh, and Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Breath).
Jill Alexander Essbaum – Hausfrau (Random House)
The hausfrau (housewife, married woman) of the title is Anna Benz, an American expatriate living in Zurich with her Swiss husband. She is lost both physically and emotionally and her attempts to find herself lead to a downward spiral.
Chris Cander – Whisper Hollow (Other Press)
Set in the West Virginia mining town of Verra, Chris Cander’s debut novel Whisper Hollow enters into the darkness of the mines and the hollow itself as she depicts the lives of men and women haunted by death, sin, and guilt. Myrthen Bergmann has never gotten past the death of her sister as a child, pulling back from the world of people into the world of fanatical faith. Alta Krol is an artistic soul trapped by family obligation. They both love the same man. Cander follows these characters for fifty years as they struggle with faith, broken hearts, dreams, demons, and life in their hardscrabble town. Cander brings an impressive literary sensibility to what could have been simply a modern Gothic melodrama.
Kirstin Valdez Quade — Night at the Fiestas: Stories
Quade, one of the National Book Foundation’s current crop of “5 Under 35” authors, debuts with a collection of stories set in the enchanted land of northern New Mexico. Her characters’ lives straddle multiple cultural borders, and her writing is powerfully atmospheric and wise beyond her years.
Sara Gruen – At the Water’s Edge (Spiegel & Grau)
As millions of readers learned from Gruen’s previous novel, Water for Elephants, she has a gift for bringing characters to life in all their quirky wonder. At the Water’s Edge is the story of Madeline Hyde, a young Philadelphia socialite who follows her husband to a village in the Scottish highlands in search of a legendary monster. Madeline struggles to adjust to her new life, but the real struggle looms in the outside world, as Hitler spreads war across the nearby continent. In particular, Gruen proves herself a master of mood, taking full advantage of the Scottish setting and the ominous international developments. At the Water’s Edge is a memorable exploration of the value of friendship and the challenge of personal growth in difficult times.
Aislinn Hunter – The World Before Us (Hogarth)
The past and the present come together in unexpected and haunting ways in this literary mystery. While babysitting as a teenager, Jane took a little girl into the woods…and she vanished. Years later, still devastated and haunted by this loss, Jane works as a museum archivist. When she learns about the case of a woman who disappeared from a nearby asylum a hundred years earlier, she begins to suspect the two disappearances may be related and pursues the mysteries involved. The World Before Us is a modern take on the melancholy Gothic novel, with the requisite isolated country estates, power struggles, ghosts, loss and discovery.