Summer Fiction Preview: A Dozen Books Worth Your Valuable Time

Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer. And that means not only can you now wear white pants, but you’ve finally got some time to do all that reading you’ve been looking forward to. And publishers always “cooperate” by releasing a passel of must-read novels and story collections between May and August. Because there are so many books worth sharing, I’ve split this preview into two parts. Part 1 covers May 31 to June 28. Look for Part 2, covering July 5 to September 13, soon!


May 31

Modern Lovers

Emma Straub — Modern Lovers (Riverhead)

In “The River,” Bruce Springsteen asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Straub catches up with the former members of a band as they build their family lives in Brooklyn, and suggests that there might be a third answer to that question: that some youthful enthusiasms remain beating quietly beneath the surface, to be revived later, when they’re truly needed.

June

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore — June (Crown)

MBW has mastered the smartly written melodrama, perfect for summer reading. In June, a young woman named Cassie is bereft following the death of her grandmother, the June of the title, who had raised her. But then Cassie learns that she is the heir to the fortune of aging Hollywood star Jack Montgomery. How can that be? Did he know June? When the star’s daughters dispute the will and show up in Cassie’s small Ohio town, they all learn the sinister truth about Jack and June, and face the consequences of a past they could never have imagined.


June 7

 

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing (Knopf)

Some books have pre-publication buzz and some books have Big Buzz. Homegoing is the latter, one of the Big Books of Summer, generated in part by the auction that led to a seven-figure advance for Gyasi’s debut novel. The novel begins with two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana, one of whom is married to a British colonizer, the other sold into slavery. Their wildly divergent paths create the real attraction of Homegoing: the novel’s structure, which follows several descendants of the sisters up through the 21st century, exploring the rippling effects of family, history, slavery, and racism. It’s an ambitious and auspicious debut from an author we’ll no doubt be hearing a great deal from.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Anna Noyes — Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove Press)

Noyes’s collection offers a set of interconnected stories about women of all stripes, struggling to make their lives work in the midst of economic, family, and social challenges in Maine and elsewhere in New England. The characters move in and out of each other’s stories, the way we do in the real world, with effects both salutary and harmful.

Marrow Island

Alexis M. Smith — Marrow Island (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Smith blew me away with her slim but potent debut novel, Glaciers, in 2013. This time she expands her scope beyond the life of one quiet young woman in Portland. Lucie Bowen grew up on Marrow Island in the Puget Sound, until she and her mother were forced to flee to the mainland following an earthquake and oil refinery explosion that killed her father. Now, 20 years later, her best friend from her island youth writes to tell her that the island is inhabitable and is being repopulated by what she calls the “Colony.” When Lucie returns to visit, she soon develops serious misgivings about the colony and its leader, a former nun with an ambitious plan. As with Glaciers, Smith’s writing sparkles even in this dark story.


June 14

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

Ramona Ausubel — Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead)

Ausubel made a big impression with her distinctive vision in her debut novel about the Holocaust,  No One is Here Except All of Us, and her sophomore collection of surreal stories, A Guide to Being Born (think Karen Russell). She returns with the story of a privileged family in the mid-1970s who are confronted with a massive financial setback. The parents go their separate ways and their three children hunker down and try to cope with their changed and parentless world.

The Girls

Emma Cline — The Girls (Random House)

Cline’s first novel is also generating a lot of talk. A shy 14-year-old girl becomes friends with an older, charismatic girl and her mysterious friends. They soon suck her into the secret world of a cult living in the nearby hills. The parallels to Charles Manson’s “family” are obvious in this dark coming of age tale set in the Northern California in the late 1960s.

Grace

Natashia Deon — Grace (Counterpoint)

Deon’s debuts is a complex portrait of slavery pre- and post-Emancipation Proclamation. Fifteen-year-old Naomi runs away from her Alabama plantation and ends up in a Georgia brothel, where she falls in love with a white man. The bulk of the story follows their child, Josey, who is separated from her mother and raised by a freed slave in the years following the Civil War; she negotiates a life of violence as a mixed-race slave, then as part of a group of freed women. Rebecca Solnit says, “People will compare this book to Twelve Years a SlaveCold Mountain, and Beloved, and those are fair comparisons for the kind of time and place here, and the evocation of the south 150 years ago. But reading it, I thought of murder ballads, those songs of melancholy and injustice.” Grace is a moving story about the bonds of mother and daughter in the most difficult of circumstances.

Barkskins

Annie Proulx — Barkskins (Scribner)

In a novel that seems like to occupy a parallel universe to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, two young woodcutters (“barkskins”) land in 17th century New France hoping to create lives in the New World. Like the half-sisters in Gyasi’s book, their personalities, skills, and luck are diametrically opposed, with dramatically different results. Proulx depicts the paths of their family trees for the following 300 years with her inimitable style and insight.


June 21

The Mandibles

Lionel Shriver — The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Harper)

Shriver is widely admired for her compelling family dramas We Need to Talk About Kevin and Big Brother. Now she moves into speculative, dystopian fiction, a la Margaret Atwood, to probe the nature of family life when a global currency collapse wipes out the fortune they expected from their 97-year-old patriarch.

Vinegar Girl

Anne Tyler — Vinegar Girl (Hogarth Shakespeare)

Tyler’s modernized take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is the latest in a series of similar books published by Hogarth. Of course, modernizations of Shrew have been with us a long time, such as the musical Kiss Me Kate and the teen-oriented movie 10 Things I Hate About You. So one would think there was nothing left to do with this story of a difficult young woman who refuses to marry, complicating the marriage plans of her younger sister. Here, 29-year-old Kate Battista teaches pre-school and keeps house for her eccentric scientist father and takes care of Bunny, her younger sister. The plot thickens when Dr. Battista needs to find a way to keep his Russian research assistant in the country and looks to Kate for help.


June 28

The Trouble with Lexie

Jessica Anya Blau — The Trouble with Lexie (Harper Perennial)

The irrepressible Blau is back with another breezy yet biting tale of a young woman in various forms of trouble (as in her last book, the darkly comic The Wonder Bread Summer). Lexie James has overcome a troubled upbringing, earning a master’s degree, nabbing a plum job at a prestigious New England prep school, and becoming engaged to a terrific guy. As her wedding date nears, she is plagued by self-doubt. Does she really deserve a life like this? An alumnus of Ruxton Academy becomes the catalyst for Lexie’s journey of self-discovery. In The Trouble with Lexie, Blau offers up an entertaining combination of humorous and poignant moments in a fast-paced, fun read.

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What the Hell is “Women’s Lit”? Garine Isassi Asks the Burning Question

Garine Isassi  start-withe-the-backbeat

When I was pitching my novel to agents, the first line of questioning after my initial one-sentence summary went something like this: “What is the genre of your book? Is it romance? Is it about the girl?” I would begin an answer, saying, “Well, yeah. It’s about a woman in the music industry, and I guess the romantic subplot means it has romance in it, but that’s not the main point of the story. . . .”

That is as far I would get before the agent would make an announcement on whether I could continue or not. Either they’d say, “Oh, then it’s Women’s Lit,” and we would keep talking, or, they would condemn my pitch with, “I can’t sell Chick Lit anymore.” End of conversation.

A few times, I tried to argue that the book has more to it. It’s about authenticity. It’s about race relations. It’s about the love of music.  The quickness to pigeonhole my work left me deflated. Here I think of myself as a modern woman in a world where women have come a long way away from being shoved to the side. The line of questioning was solely based on my gender and/or the gender of my protagonist, not on the level of writing talent or storyline. They had barely even heard my pitch – just that it was a story told from the point of view of a woman. The most disheartening part of that experience was that most of the agents I spoke with were women.

It wasn’t always like this for authors.

In 1847, the epic romance Wuthering Heights was published. The author listed at the time was Ellis Bell. The dramatic love story is complete with crazed jealousy, paranormal heroines, and mansions set under stormy skies. Later that year, Jane Eyre came out, supposedly penned by Currer Bell. It became a bestseller.  No genre was mentioned in the reviews.

As we know now, both of these books were written by women — Emily and Charlotte Bronte, respectively – and about women.  They were read, analyzed, reviewed, and praised. There was no doubt that the complicated romantic content was appreciated by the men of letters at the time. (Remember, at the time, novel writing as well as novel reading and reviewing, was a man’s endeavor.)  Hailed as classic masterpieces, these books have been a mainstay in literature class syllabi for a century and a half.

Today, it is highly likely that both of those books, and countless other classics written by women, would be placed directly into the Romance section of the bookstore and probably never reviewed at all by the current version of “the men of letters.” Why? Because the publishing industry has ventured so far into marketing categories that today these classics would be considered “Women’s Lit.” The category has become a catch-all label umbrella over all novels involving romance, family relationships between women, any mom, women’s friendships, or — my favorite — simply because it was written by a woman and includes at least one main character that is a woman.

I suppose that the sheer number of books that are published every year makes it necessary to classify them. Many categorizations make sense — Mysteries, Political Thrillers, Science Fiction, Paranormal Romance; these are somewhat specific genres where authors buy in to the idea that they are writing according to the genre’s standard.

Fine.

I get it.

But, what if I’ve written a story that does not neatly fit into a genre? For the male author, there is no question — the book is categorized into General Fiction or maybe Literary Fiction. But if you are a woman? No way is it that easy.

Take, for instance, Jodi Picoult. Jodi is firmly entrenched in the “Women’s Lit” category as an author. She’s done well under that branding. But one of her recent novels, Nineteen Minutes, is about a school shooting and the havoc it wreaks on the relationships around a violent event. It got great reviews. It’s a bestseller.  On Amazon, the category is Women’s Lit. Compare that to another book about a school shooting and the havoc it wreaks on the relationships around a violent event, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (who is also a woman, despite the male first name). This novel is considered Fiction or Contemporary Fiction.  Both books are about the same thing. Both have a woman as the main character.

Consider this example: Chris Bohjalian. He’s written several novels, many of which center on women and what they do. They are great books.  His thrilling family saga, The Light in the Ruins, puts forth not one but two women protagonists, one of whom is a detective, set against the backdrop of World War II, and is categorized in Literary Fiction.  Meanwhile, The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, a family saga with two women protagonists, one of whom is a spy, set against the backdrop of World War II, is — you guessed it — Women’s Fiction.

This annoys the hell out of me.

Not only does this “separate but equal [maybe]” sham perpetuate the critical oppression of women’s talent, it doesn’t give the books a chance of making the sales impact that might be possible.  Men are half of the potential audience for fiction. Men don’t want to be seen reading a Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult novel no matter how great the story might be. The branding effect makes it like buying tampons for your wife at CVS — only the few and brave will even consider it.

Even in retrospect, the industry is applying this label. A novel about the lives of several Chinese women and their relationships, set in the mid-20th century, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, is now called Women’s Fiction on Amazon, while a book about the lives of several Japanese women and their relationships, set in the mid-20th century, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, is called Literary Fiction. They are both richly-written, best-selling novels with fantastic plots. Both were made into movies. At the time that they were published, these books were simply labeled Fiction. What changed? Did we suddenly discover that Amy Tan is a woman and Arthur Golden is not?

If we want to get even more indignant about the this last one, I would like to point out that Amy Tan has much more authority on her subject of Asian culture in this situation. Yet she is shoved into the realm of the soft world, the women’s section . . . but that is a-whole-nother rant on the nature of diverse voices in publishing.

Allow me to point out some classics that would fit neatly into a Men’s Lit category, if it existed. A Picture of Dorian Gray. The Catcher in the Rye. Anything by Ernest Hemingway.

The point here is that the labels all seem to be at the whim of the publisher and how they decide to market the book. The content seems to have little bearing on the label. At best, it’s a bit lazy on the part of the publisher and the readers. At worst, it is an attempt to relegate women and their talent to second-class status. The Bronte sisters, all those years ago, seemed to have it easier than we do. After all this time and great strides toward equality, we still have not reached the point where a woman doing the exact same thing as a man is not explained away somehow, as if there needs to be a justification for her existence in the arts. We stopped saying “a lady doctor” and “a female executive.” Why do we still say “a woman author”?

Although recent surveys show that most people working in the publishing world are women and most readers of fiction are also women, this is still happening. From the 10,000-foot view, we seem to be doing it ourselves. In order to buoy ourselves against losing confidence, we “women authors” buddy up and create our own spaces, practically authorizing the separation.

My publishing company is called She Writes Press. And guess what category my book is under? Yup. Women’s Fiction.

The irony is not lost on me.

~ ~ ~

Garinè B. Isassi is the author of the novel Start With The Backbeat, available wherever books are sold.  Like her Facebook page and follow her on twitter @garineisassi.

Powell’s Books recommends 25 women to read before you die

powells-thumbnail  powells-city-of-books

The staff at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, one of the country’s (and the world’s!) best bookstores, have compiled a list of 25 women writers you need to read. I haven’t read all of these writers myself, but I can certainly vouch for many of them being worth your valuable reading time (Adichie, Armstrong, Atwood, Didion, Erdrich, Hempel, Solnit, Tartt).

As if you didn’t already have enough to read, here are 25 authors who have published well over a hundred books among them.

You can read the full article here.

As with any such list, the results are at least partially random (there should be little dispute about the inclusion of writers like George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich). Just off the top of my head, I would add Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Elena Ferrante, Ali Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lauren Groff, and Karen Russell. Every such list is guaranteed to be a very personal set of preferences.

Who do you think should be on this list? Reply in the Comments below.