I’m a little late in posting my Summer Fiction Preview, in part because my wife and I spent 10 days in New York City and Philadelphia in June. But I figure that, since summer actually only started 10 days ago, I’m within the grace period. Nevertheless, I backed up to books released during June because I think they deserve my attention, and yours.
Jami Attenberg – Saint Mazie (Grand Central Publishing)
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.
Rebecca Dinerstein — The Sunlit Night (Bloomsbury USA)
Americans clearly love Scandinavian settings, but in her debut novel Dinerstein gives us literary fiction rather than a contemporary mystery-thriller (Larsson, Nesbo, Mankell) or autobiographical fiction (Knausgaard). Two desolate souls, a Manhattan artist seeking sanctuary from a traumatic breakup and a teenage boy whose father has recently died, develop a friendship that brings much-needed warmth to their lives on an island in the Far North of Norway.
Sara Taylor — The Shore (Hogarth)
The Shore is a mid-Atlantic update on the Southern gothic tale, a dark collection of a dozen interwoven narratives about the life on a group of islands in Chesapeake Bay. Taylor is only 24 and has made a big impression with her debut; it was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last March, before it was even published. Critics have commented on her powerful narrative voice, impressive prose style, and effective use of changing viewpoints over two centuries.
Jennifer Tseng — Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions)
Like The Sunlit Night, Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness explores the relationship of an adult and a teenager in an isolated seaside setting — but with a completely different context and result. Mayumi is leading a quiet life as a librarian in Martha’s Vineyard when she befriends a 17-year-old boy who seems to love books as much as she does. Tseng handles with delicacy and lyricism the complicated situation that develops, as she explores identity, love, and the role of literature in expanding our concept of what we — and our lives — can be.
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.
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.
Karen Joy Fowler – Black Glass: Short Fictions (Marion Wood Books/Putnam)
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.
Rebecca Makkai — Music for Wartime: Stories (Viking)
Makkai has quickly become one of my favorite writers and people (I follow her on Facebook). She is whip-smart, very funny, and writes with a distinctive perspective and voice. Her 2014 novel, The Hundred-Year House, was one of my favorites of last year, and I’m eagerly anticipating reading her first collection of stories, gathering her short fiction from the last 17 years. And in case you’re wondering about the title, music and war are themes in several stories. This is probably the ideal introduction to a writer you need to know.
Erika Swyler — The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s Press)
Here’s another book in which the protagonist is a librarian. Simon Watson lives alone in his ramshackle family home on the Long Island Sound, where his mother, who worked as a circus mermaid, drowned. One day he receives a book from the 1700s written by the owner of a traveling circus — who describes the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Watson begins to suspect there may be a curse that affects his family, forcing him to track down the younger sister who ran away six years ago. This quirky mystery is drawing comparisons to Water for Elephants and The Night Circus.
Naomi Jackson — The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin)
Set in 1989, this novel tells the story of two sisters from Brooklyn who are sent to Bird Hill in Barbados to spend the summer with their grandmother. One sister embraces the island life and her grandmother’s involvement with island spiritualism called obeah, while the other resists the island’s charm and pines for home. Complications ensue when their father, whom they barely know, arrives on the island. Jackson’s debut novel explores the complexities of family ties, cultural heritage, love, and growing up. Jackson won the Maytag Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Louisa Hall — Speak (Ecco)
In what sounds like a David Mitchell novel, Hall’s novel utilizes five narrators to take readers across three centuries in her study of the universal need for communication and the difficulties involved in understanding and being understood. Readers meet a Puritan woman traveling to the New World, legendary mathematician and computer genius Alan Turin, a Jewish refugee, a socially awkward teenage girl attempting to communicate with an intelligent bot, and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, all of whom are trying to reach out to communicate with others who either unable or unwilling to understand.
Julia Pierpont — Among the Ten Thousand Things (Random House)
Pierpont’s first novel has an intriguing premise that may make you grimace: the wife of a famous New York artist is the intended recipient of a box filled with her husband’s emails to his lover. But their teenage children receive the box instead, opening a Pandora’s box of problems for Jack and his family. Pierpont probes this ticking time bomb of a marriage and the differing reactions of 15-year-old Simon and 11-year-old Kay to their father’s infidelity and betrayal of not just their mother but also themselves. Initial reader reviews indicate that despite strong writing, the novel’s strong start is undercut by its non-chronological timeline.
Lidia Yuknavitch — The Small Backs of Children (Harper)
Yuknavitch is beloved by many writers for her memoir, The Chronology of Water; perhaps this novel will lead to a similar feeling among readers. In Small Backs, she takes us to a war-torn country in Eastern Europe. An American photographer captures an image of a girl fleeing the explosion behind her, which becomes an internationally famous image (similar to the image of the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack). That image has a profound impact on the life of one of the photographer’s friends, a writer coping with depression. When her husband enlists the photographer and others to help her by finding the young girl and bringing her to the U.S., unintended results call into question everything they think they know. Yuknavitch applies her fearless gaze to these fraught circumstances with potent results. A good choice for readers who loved Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Harper Lee — Go Set a Watchman (Harper)
What can be said about the most-hyped and anticipated book of the summer that hasn’t already been said? Harper Lee has spent the past half century refusing to publish a follow-up to her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Suddenly, it was announced that a novel considered lost had been found and that Lee had decided — at age 89 — to publish it. Written before Mockingbird and set 20 years later, during the civil rights movement, Go Set a Watchman follows Scout when she returns to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father Atticus. Watchman has been the #1 bestseller on Amazon since the day its publication was announced in early February. Whether it will satisfy readers’ expectations remains to be seen.
Kathleen Alcott — Infinite Home (Riverhead Books)
When their elderly landlady shows signs of diminished mental capacity, the residents of a Brooklyn brownstone start to worry about their future, particularly in light of their encounters with her unscrupulous son, who wants to evict them. These broken people — a disabled man, a young artist recovering from a stroke, a comedian, a woman afraid to leave her apartment — come together in unexpected ways as they cope with an unsettling reality. Like Barbara Kingsolver’s classic The Bean Trees, Infinite Home addresses the question of just what constitutes a family and what makes a home. Both can be found — or made — in surprising places.
Ann Beattie — The State We’re In: Maine Stories (Scribner)
Beattie returns with a collection of linked stories set in Maine, which she has made her fictional territory in the manner of Faulkner’s northern Mississippi and Munro’s rural Ontario. Beattie’s characters are women at various stages of their lives attempting to bloom where they’re planted. The central, unifying set of stories concerns a teenage girl living with her aunt and uncle one summer. The State We’re In is both literal and figurative.
Helen Phillips — The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt)
With comparisons to The Twilight Zone, Kafka, Atwood, and Murakami, The Beautiful Bureaucrat looks to be the summer’s surreal reading experience. Josephine works in an anonymous and sterile office inputting numbers day after day into The Database. Eventually, the creepy atmosphere and the temporary disappearance of her husband lead her to probe what might be better left alone. What exactly does her employer do? What does her work mean? This is a strange, unsettling fable about the meaning of life, written in deft, spare prose that propels you through the story.
Alexandra Kleeman — You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper)
Kleeman arrives on the scene with a laser beam focused on what it means to be a young woman in contemporary society. The characters are referred to only as A, B, and C, stressing their universal nature. A is trying to do everything right: work hard, play hard, be beautiful, stay informed about all things hip, and create and maintain satisfying relationships. She watches too much television, which has distorted her view of reality, things with her roommate and boyfriend are complicated, and she eventually becomes intrigued with a new mass-marketed religion. Where will A’s obsessive media consumption lead? This is a strange, witty, and insightful novel.
Lauren Groff — Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books)
Groff (Arcadia) returns with this impressively rendered examination of a 24-year-long marriage. Groff writes with a lyrical intensity that suits the passionate pair at her novel’s center, creative individuals with an unusual relationship to both truth and secrets. Although it comes out as summer ends, the gripping tragedy of Fates and Furies looks like it will be one of the fall’s most talked-about novels.
Margaret Atwood — The Heart Goes Last (Nan A. Talese)
Following last year’s story collection, Stone Mattress, Atwood returns to the novel with another dystopian story, this time concerning a married couple who have fallen on hard times and become homeless. They decide to participate in the Positron Project, a social experiment in the community of Consilience. They are provided with a comfortable suburban home for six months of the year; on alternating months, however, they are inmates of the community’s prison system and “Alternates” live in their house. The plot thickens when the wife becomes involved with the couple that lives in their house on alternate months. How much control are they willing to surrender for a shot at contentment? Originally published as a series of four e-book novellas, The Heart Goes Last has been rewritten and expanded into a 320-page novel.