New York Public Library announces Young Lions Fiction Award finalists



Five impressive debuts by a diverse group of writers make up the list of finalists for the New York Public Library’s “2017 Young Lions Fiction Award,” announced today. Four of the nominees are women, two of whom are African-American and one of whom is Jamaican. The lone male finalist is Indian.

The finalists, in alphabetical order, are:

Clare Beams, We Show What We Have Learned: Stories

Brit Bennett, The Mothers

Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun

Kaitlyn Greenidge, We Love You, Charlie Freeman

Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs

The finalists are all highly acclaimed, having received nearly unanimously positive reviews and a range of award nominations and other honors. Greenidge and Dennis-Benn were finalists for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the Lambda Literary Award. Dennis-Benn was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award and Greenidge was one of ten writers who received a Whiting Award on March 22. Beams and Bennett are finalists for the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award for Debut Fiction, which will be announced on March 27, and Bennett was one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” for 2016. Mahajan’s book was a finalist for the National Book Award, which was won by Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad.

The winning writer will be awarded on June 1, 2017 at 7 PM during a ceremony held in the Celeste Bartos Forum of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

Founded in 2001, the Young Lions Fiction Award is given annually to an American writer age 35 or younger for either a novel or collection of short stories.  Each year, five young fiction writers are selected as finalists by a reading committee of writers, editors, and librarians. A panel of award judges, including Susan Minot, Amelia Gray, and Salvatore Scibona will select the winner of this year’s $10,000 prize.

The last five winners of the Young Lions Fiction Award are Amelia Gray, Gutshot; Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans; Paul Yoon,  The Snow Hunters; Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn; and Karen Russell, Swamplandia.




NBCC announces finalists for John Leonard Prize

the-mothers  The Girls  

Here Comes the Sun  Homegoing

The National Book Critics Circle announced on November 30 the finalists for the prestigious John Leonard Prize for best first novel. Four of the six finalists are women, three of whom are POC (Bennett, Dennis-Benn, and Gyasi). Four finalists are American; Dennis-Benn is a Jamaican living in Brooklyn and Max Porter is British. Gyasi was born in Ghana but moved to the U.S. at age two.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (Riverhead)
The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House)
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn (Liveright)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf)
The Nix by Nathan Hill (Knopf)
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Graywolf)

The finalists were determined by a membership-wide submission process, with the books receiving the most nominations being designated as the finalists. A new procedure for determining the winner was put in place this year. Approximately 50 members who volunteered to read all the finalists in a four-t0-six week period will choose the prize winner.

The winner will be announced in January. The John Leonard Prize will be presented at the NBCC Awards Ceremony at The New School in New York City on March 16, 2017.

HERE COMES THE SUN probes Jamaican “paradise” to explore the lives of women struggling against the cultural current

Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun

By Nicole Dennis-Benn

Liveright Publishing (W.W. Norton Co.): July 5, 2016

$26.95, 349 pages

Here Comes the Sun was one of the summer’s “buzz books” that, unfortunately, took me a while to get around to reading. That was a mistake because Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel is an impressive debut that marks her as a writer to watch. Here Comes the Sun succeeds both as a page-turner of a story and a fearless character study of four women struggling to make sense of their lives in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Dennis-Benn takes us behind the sun, sand, and sea to explore the lives of the people who live in the real Montego Bay but work in the fantasy world that tourists inhabit for their brief stay in Jamaica. The protagonist, Margot, works in one of the resorts owned by an aristocratic white family. Strikingly beautiful and willfully charming, Margot is a workaholic determined to save enough money to send her younger sister, Thandi, to a good private school and then on to college and medical school so that she will not have to spend her life working in Montego Bay.

But Margot’s regular job is not sufficient for her purposes. So she engages in late night rendezvous with wealthy hotel guests, doing her best to keep this knowledge from her co-workers. She is willing to sacrifice part of her soul to save Thandi from menial labor and from their mother, Delores, a taskmaster at home and a tenacious vendor at the swap meet favored by tourists with money to burn. It’s clear that Margot is broken but not why. What has led her to pay this high price to facilitate Thandi’s escape?

Margot has more than one secret, though. She is also, contrary to Jamaican culture’s fierce opposition, in love with another woman. And 16-year-old Thandi, though a dedicated student who wants to please her big sister and mother by becoming a doctor, eventually discovers that she too has dreams and desires. Margot’s love interest has her own story as well, fraught with sacrifice and loss in the face of omnipresent disapproval.

All four women dream of a better life for themselves and those they love, and they are willing to do nearly anything to make their dreams a reality. Margot, Thandi, and Verdene simply wish to be allowed the freedom to follow their heart and love whom they choose.

Dennis-Benn captures the sights and sounds of Montego Bay through both major and minor characters, many of whom speak the island patois. Margot’s internal conflict is reflected in her code switching from standard English to Jamaican Creole as needed, sometimes in the same conversation and even the same sentence.

Here Comes the Sun weaves a complex series of personal and cultural conflicts into a coherent whole that makes for absorbing reading. Everyone has a secret, or a secret self, and these secrets are tested by the challenges of a changing economy in the face of climate change and corporate greed, personal circumstances and actions that shock the unsuspecting, and two characters’ newfound determination to embrace their sexual orientation despite living in a culture that treats any divergence from the heterosexual norm as a sign of Satanic possession.

Dennis-Benn has created an unforgettable character in Margot and a powerfully personal story of women seeking self-fulfillment at nearly any cost. After reading Here Comes the Sun, you will never view Jamaica the same way.


Center for Fiction announces finalists for 2016 First Novel Prize

Center for Fiction First Novel Prize 2016 Finalists

The Center for Fiction in New York City has revealed the seven finalists for its prestigious First Novel Prize, narrowed down from the initial 25 nominees. Six of the seven authors are women, including five women of color.

The shortlist (alphabetical by title, matching the photos above from left to right):

Kia Corthron — The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

Emma Cline — The Girls

Nicole Dennis-Benn — Here Comes the Sun

Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing

Krys Lee — How I Became a North Korean

Kaitlyn Greenidge — We Love You, Charlie Freeman

Garth Greenwell — What Belongs to You 

Read a brief synopsis of each finalist here.

The author of the winning book is awarded $10,000 and each shortlisted author receives $1,000. The winner will be announced at the Center’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner on Tuesday, December 6 at The Metropolitan Club.

The Center for Fiction has a good track record in selecting novels that went on to win awards like the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the like. Previous winners include, in chronological order, Marisha Pessl for Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking), Junot Díaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead/Penguin), Hannah Tinti for The Good Thief (The Dial Press), Karl Marlantes for Matterhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press with El León Literary Arts), Bonnie Nadzam for Lamb (Other Press), Ben Fountain for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco/HarperCollins), Margaret Wrinkle for Wash (Atlantic Monthly Press), Tiphanie Yanique for Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead Books), and Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer (Grove Press).

See the longlist here.



Summer Fiction Preview, Part 2 (July-August): 14 Books You Don’t Want to Miss

Last week I posted my summer fiction preview for June, a month that was totally booked and thus deserved a post of its own. Here are another 14 books worth looking into.

June 28

Invincible Summer

Alice Adams — Invincible Summer

This debut novel has a superficial breeziness that makes it seem like a beach read, but below the surface lies an insightful story of four friends (two female, two male, including a brother-sister pair) striving to make their way into and through adulthood in a confounding world. Set in England and Europe over the past 20 years, Invincible Summer follows the characters as they set off on careers in banking, physics, and the arts, all the while trying to maintain their friendship, find love, and cope with setbacks both personal and professional.

July 12

99 STORIES-092415.indd

Joy Williams — Ninety-Nine Stories of God

Williams received a lot of well-deserved attention last fall when The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories was published. Her dark stories concern people who are struggling with issues large and small, and her razor sharp dialogue, acerbic wit, and highly polished prose have won her many admirers among the literati, but, sadly, she is still not widely known. In her new collection, a slim volume of short “flash fiction” pieces, she directs her laser beam sensibility on characters experiencing psychically and physically violent confrontations with God.


Maryse Meijer — Heartbreaker: Stories

Meijer’s broken glass stories have been compared to the work of Amelia Gray, Laura van den Berg, and Lindsay Hunter. The selections in her debut collection share Joy Williams’ obsession with misfits trying to make sense of a world that seems unhinged and uncaring. These are spare and unsparing glimpses into hidden lives.


Claire-Louise Bennett — Pond

Pond is generating some pre-publication buzz for its Proustian, observation-based narrative of a young woman’s life in a coastal Irish village. Early reviews are ecstatic: Publishers Weekly calls it “strange, unique, and undeniably wonderful,” Jenny Offill says it is “ferociously intelligent and funny,” and Colum McCann sees echoes of William Gaddis, Lydia Davis, and the Irish writers Samuel Beckett and Edna O’Brien. High praise indeed for this short, sharp shock of a book.

Sarong Party Girls

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan — Sarong Party Girls

Described as both Emma and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in modern Asia, Tan’s debut concerns the lives of four young Singaporean women on the hunt for an ang moh (Caucasian man) with whom they can have “Chanel” (mixed-race) babies, both of which confer status on a local girl. Tan probes the economic and cultural contradictions inherent in rapidly changing Singapore and captures the essence of the city-state with her hybrid Singlish prose.

July 19

Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn — Here Comes the Sun

Dennis-Benn, from Jamaica, digs deep under her home’s tourist-covered beaches in her depiction of the real Jamaica. Like Kristina Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise (2013), about the lives of Hawaiians away from the hotels and beaches, Here Comes the Sun depicts the contrast between the Jamaica experienced by tourists and the one in which its people live and love. Older sister Margot has been working at a Montego Bay resort, trying to get ahead and send her younger sister, Thandi, to school so she can avoid having to make the kind of compromises Margot has made. A proposed resort development holds the promise of economic freedom for Margot while it threatens the girls’ village. Dennis-Benn has written a potent portrayal of womanhood, sisterhood, dreams, love, and betrayal in a place that outsiders view as paradise but which locals view simply as home, the place in which they live their complex lives.

Monterey Bay

Lindsay Hatton — Monterey Bay

Remember Doc Ricketts from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row? He’s back in this coming of age story set in 1940 and featuring an independent 15-year-old named Margot Fiske, who is fascinated by Monterey Bay’s marine life and the local marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, for whom she begins to work as his sketch artist. Margot’s father, a visionary businessman, soon recruits Ricketts to aid him in developing an aquarium project. Steinbeck plays a minor role as Ricketts’ best friend. Hatton is equally adept at depicting Margot’s blossoming emotional life and the denizens of the colorful Cannery Row of that era. Monterey Bay captures the past and present of this famous literary location.

July 26

The Muse

Jessie Burton — The Muse

Burton burst onto the literary scene two years ago with the critically acclaimed novel The Miniaturist, set in Amsterdam during the Renaissance. She returns with a premise that is beginning to sound tired: a mysterious painting is discovered in the present and leads back to the compelling story of its creation and creator. In this case, the novel begins in 1967 with a Caribbean immigrant who works in a London museum. The back story is set in a small Spanish village in 1936 and involves the daughter of a wealthy Jewish art dealer from Vienna and a local brother and sister, who work as a housekeeper and painter. Everything ties together in intriguing ways.

The Unseen World

Liz Moore — The Unseen World

Moore’s novel is the story of 12-year-old prodigy Ada Sibelius. Home-schooled by her secretive and eccentric scientist father, who takes her to work with him every day, Ada is challenged when her father begins to suffer from dementia, leaving her emotionally stranded. She determines to investigate her father’s past to find answers to his present and, surprisingly, her own. Early rave reviews from Tea Obreht, Robin Black, Jami Attenberg, Ann Hood, and Dana Spiotta suggest that this mysterious coming of age story is a work of first-rate literary fiction.

Leaving Lucy Pear

Anna Solomon — Leaving Lucy Pear

Solomon impressed with her first novel, The Little Bride, in 2011. In her sophomore novel, she explores what happens when a young unwed mother in 1917 Massachusetts abandons her baby to create a new life elsewhere, only to return after a decade and encounter the woman who is raising that child. Solomon deftly probes the complex web of relationships with her daughter Lucy at the center, as well as the contradictory post-WWI culture of the Roaring Twenties in New England. Recommended for those who value crystalline prose from a novelist with a poet’s eye for close observation and ear for language.

August 2


Yvonne Georgina Puig — A Wife of Noble Character

Inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Puig’s debut novel is set among the wealthy Houston oil set. Vivienne Cally, now 30, is a big fish who has been swimming in these protected waters until she is challenged intellectually and emotionally by Preston Duffin, who has long known and admired Vivienne from a social and cultural distance. A recent architecture grad, he draws Vivienne’s interest, at which point matters become complicated. Puig’s pointed social commentary elevates A Wife of Noble Character beyond what might otherwise be a stock comedy of manners.

August 9

The Book That Matters Most

Ann Hood — The Book That Matters Most

Hood, the author of An Italian Wife and The Red Thread and the recipient of awards for her writing on food, travel, and spirituality, this time out pens a tribute to the power of books to save us. When Ava’s 25-year marriage ends, she joins a book group for company. Assigned to share “the book that matters most” to her, she revisits a childhood favorite that helped her through the deaths of her mother and sister. The book, and her search for the obscure author, lead her to revelations that lead Ava and her daughter Maggie, struggling with romantic disillusionment in Paris, to rebuild their lives.

Shining Sea

Anne Korkeakivi — Shining Sea

Korkeakivi demonstrates that a gifted author can tell an epic family saga in 300 pages, something about which I was initially skeptical. As in her debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, she writes beautifully and with compassion and insight into the relationships and events that shape our lives. Spend some time with the Gannon family and experience family and societal change and growth from 1962 to 2015 (with flashbacks to WWII). Shining Sea is like Jane Smiley’s Hundred Year Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, Golden Age) in one book.

Another Brooklyn

Jacqueline Woodson — Another Brooklyn

Woodson, among our best YA writers for the past two decades (with many awards to her credit), moves into adult fiction with Another Brooklyn, which examines that time in one’s life when friendship and neighborhood are all. Woodson’s young protagonist, August, moves toward adulthood as she learns that there is another Brooklyn, the other, grimier, side of the shiny coin that is her childhood.