Riley is a child when her brother leaves Montana for Vietnam. She’s still a child when her parents receive a letter explaining that Mick is missing and presumed dead. That Riley never recovers from this loss goes without saying, but her grief becomes a kind of loss of self. This is ironic in that Riley is a powerful narrator—funny, self-deprecating, fully aware of the feelings she refuses to be aware of. Her story is often heartbreaking, but she never asks for pity, and she most certainly never pities herself. Palaia covers a 25-year period spanning the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s, following Riley from the farm to San Francisco to Saigon and back home again. Alternating chapters present the viewpoints of other characters—Riley’s mother, her lover, strangers who help and befriend her—each of whom gives readers a fuller perspective on the protagonist while also being engaging in his or her own right. All of these disparate voices come together beautifully, as does the narrative as a whole. Palaia demonstrates a magnificent command of craft for a first-time novelist, but it’s her emotional honesty that makes this story so rich and affecting. The novel ends on a more hopeful note than the reader might expect, but it rings true nevertheless—largely because Riley doesn’t expect it, either. She knows that the chance she’s given is a gift. Like grace, it can’t be earned, only accepted with gratitude and awe.
An immensely rewarding read and a remarkable debut.
A lady boxer, a poxy lady and a louche pretty boy tangle in 18th-century England.
"I'd like to say that my beginnings were humble, but they weren't beginnings, because I never really left them but for a short while." This is Ruth, and the birthplace and lifelong home she's referring to is a Bristol whorehouse known as "the convent." When her older half sister, Dora, is drafted at "12 or 13" into the ranks of their mother's "misses," plain-faced Ruth feels left out and jealous, not least of the big, fat piece of bacon Dora now rates at the breakfast table. The tension erupts into a catfight, which the gentleman patrons witness with such enthusiasm that it's moved to the yard outside and bets are placed. One of the onlookers is a fellow named Dryer; he becomes the patron of both girls, Dora at the brothel and Ruth in the boxing ring. (In the Author’s Note of her debut novel, Freeman writes that lady pugilists were just one of many rough entertainments common in the nasty, smelly 1700s, so brilliantly evoked here.) Through Dryer, Ruth will eventually meet the two other main characters of the story, both of whom take turns with her in telling it. One is Charlotte Sinclair, an upper-class young woman who was terribly marked by childhood smallpox; she ends up married to the awful Dryer. The other is George Bowden, a schoolmate of both Dryer and Charlotte's brother Perry; George's good looks far surpass his moral character. Gamblers, drinkers, fighters, hookers; the fancy, the rowdy, the rude—Freeman does a wonderful job of spinning this furious yarn, in which the fury of women plays the lead role.
Great characters and wild turns of events make this book a knockout.
Heiny explores sex, relationships and the internal lives of young women in this charmingly candid collection of short stories.
The women who populate the pages of Heiny’s disarming debut are girlfriends, mistresses and wives. They are best friends, roommates and lovers. They are intelligent but not always ambitious—keenly insightful but sometimes, perhaps willfully, blind to their own deeper desires—with loyalties and libidos that may be at odds and morals that may be in question. Despite the title, not all are single (or carefree or mellow), but they are all singular, and following their stories is like sitting at a dive bar tossing back deceptively pretty, surprisingly strong drinks with a pal who may not always make the best decisions but always comes away with the most colorful tales. In fact, “The Dive Bar” is the title of the first story. In it, we meet Sasha, an attractive 26-year-old writer whose boyfriend has left his wife for her. After a confrontation with the boyfriend’s wife, Sasha reluctantly mulls the morality of her choices, but for her, morality is really (boringly) beside the point, and she instead finds herself sinking sideways into the next chapter of her life, a happy one, from all indications. Heiny’s characters often find themselves propelled through life by circumstances: The death of a beloved dog can lead inexorably to marriage, pregnancy and secret affairs, as it does for Maya, the protagonist of three of these stories, and her kind, kindred-spirit boyfriend/fiance/husband, Rhodes. Not all the women here are as appealing as Sasha and Maya, and the less we like them, the less charmed we may be by their careless misbehavior. By the end of the book—as by the end of a night at the bar with our metaphorical, engagingly louche friend—we might not find ourselves overly reluctant to part company.
These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive, sometimes selfish and maddeningly un–self-aware, but they are beguilingly human, and readers will yield to their charms.
A former journalist tells the story of how a longing to “engage with the tangible, to do work that resulted in something I could touch” led to an unexpectedly fulfilling career as a carpenter.
As she neared 30, former Boston Phoenix editor MacLaughlin came to the painful realization that the job she once thought was "the coolest job in the world" no longer satisfied her. The woman who had lucked into a job straight out of college now stirred with a powerful desire for "the wholesale altering of life as [she’d] been living it.” So she quit her newspaper job and answered a Craigslist advertisement for a carpenter’s assistant. The carpenter doing the search, also a woman, took a chance and hired MacLaughlin, despite her total lack of experience. Soon, the former journalist who had spent her entire working life sitting in front of a computer screen was actively using her body and hands to transform residential living spaces. Learning how to use tools like tape measures, hammers, saws and drills was as challenging as coming to terms with the desexualizing nature of a profession overwhelmingly dominated by men. For the first time in her life, MacLaughlin realized just how “attached to [her] femininity” she really was. Through the screw-ups, successes and fallow periods that left her questioning her decision to leave a steady job, the author gained new confidence, both as a woman and a carpenter. She also discovered unexpected pleasure in dissolving “into something greater than” herself. MacLaughlin's work let her connect to the physical world in ways that writing—which only touched the surface of things through the “ghosty and mutable” medium of words—could not. More than that, it allowed her to “feel more honest, more useful, and more used.”
A surprisingly thoughtful book about taking chances and finding joy in change.
An account of the long stretches of boredom and short bursts of adrenaline that make up a Ranger team’s deployment in Afghanistan.
Former Army Ranger and combat veteran Ritchell delivers a war story about the mind-numbing periods of waiting, the stress of battle fatigue, the ingeniously idiotic ideas that fill downtime and the spine-tingling moments when life is ever so fragile. When we meet Ranger team leader Dutch Robert Shaw, he's ruminating over coffee about the loss of his last family member, the grandmother who raised him. His reflection is cut short by the call for an immediate redeployment to an ambiguous stretch of battle-torn Afghanistan. Unlike many frenzied accounts of war, this story flows at a comfortable tempo with plenty of time to describe the poker games and discussions about higher education that fill the long flight into a war zone. Once on the ground, the five-man Ranger team spends its time in the FOB (forward operating base) packing seemingly endless amounts of chewing tobacco and devising childlike dares. There's no rush to get to battle scenes, but when they arrive, Ritchell describes night operations, “snatch and grab”s and the elimination of HVTs (High Value Targets) without false bravado, while still broadcasting the immense skill possessed by these soldiers. He draws the high drama and moral complexity of the Rangers' life on the front lines from a place of narrative distance, allowing the reader to fill in the unstated emotions of Shaw and his team, giving their story great poignancy.
A beautiful book about the soldiers who sit on the front lines of the U.S. military machine.
A woman is torn between her dependable boyfriend and a former fling in this sparkling debut from Chase.
Sarina, an architect living in Austin, is completely happy with her boyfriend. Sure, Noah is in Buenos Aires working on a huge corporate merger, but that doesn’t mean their relationship is in danger. That is, until retired Olympic swimmer Eamon Roy shows up. He and Sarina shared one passionate night together years ago, and then Eamon never called her again. Even though Sarina moved on and found a much more stable relationship with Noah, she’s never quite been able to get Eamon out of her mind. When he enlists her help in renovating an old Austin fixer-upper, Sarina is horrified to find out that her feelings for him never really went away. Eamon understands her better than anyone else, but could she ever trust him again? And Noah’s always been the man she could count on, but can she depend on him to make her happy in the future? Thus begins a believable love triangle full of steamy romance and tangled feelings. Sarina’s interactions with Eamon have that classic rom-com spark, but the book also packs serious emotional punches, as Sarina faces a devastating personal tragedy and deals with career struggles. Luckily, the supporting cast of zany side characters keeps the book light and heartwarming.
This utterly enjoyable romance will have readers swooning, sobbing, and eagerly anticipating Chase’s next book.
A writer and professor’s account of the trauma she suffered in the wake of a murder committed by a close friend.
Defunct magazine editor Butcher (English/Ohio Wesleyan Univ.) met Kevin Schaeffer, the sweet-faced boy who would become her best friend, three days into her freshman year at Gettysburg College. They were kindred spirits who “enjoyed familiarity in all things,” found solace in each other for being social outsiders and knew “absolutely nothing of loss.” Then, less than two months before their graduation in 2009, Kevin suddenly snapped and stabbed to death his ex-girlfriend, Emily Silverstein. Like the rest of Gettysburg, Butcher was stunned. But what she found especially disturbing was that two hours before the murder, a normal-seeming Kevin had walked her home from an evening out. The aftermath of the murder caused chaos in the author’s personal life and relationships, yet she stubbornly refused to abandon her friend when almost everyone else did. Tormented by survivor’s guilt and eventually diagnosed with PTSD, Butcher became obsessed with the incident and with trying to understand the reasons behind her friend’s behavior. She scoured her memories and public documents for clues. What she discovered were dark truths about the nature of their relationship. Kevin was a depressive who had tried to commit suicide during his junior year. When he murdered his girlfriend, it was after he had stopped taking his antidepressants. Butcher had understood Kevin’s impulse toward self-destruction because she had experienced it as a young teen. Yet she had done nothing to help him. Ultimately, the author realized that her distress came from the fact that her best friend’s actions had presented her with a mirror image of her own heart. With equal parts horror and anguish, she understood that “the chain of events that led to Emily’s death [were] events that could happen to any of us.”
Doten makes his fiction debut with a semihistorical novel—the kind of book people label “postmodern” because they don’t know what else to call it.
In the shadow of the Iraq War, the world seems a little strange: Jay Garner puts Paul Bremer in a chokehold on the way to the Green Zone; Osama bin Laden argues with his “students” in a cave while a dialysis machine keeps him alive; Jimmy Wales is a murderer; Mark Zuckerberg seems trapped in a digital landscape called the New City; and Condoleezza Rice was once a photographer who shot unused production stills for Chinatown. What’s going on here? Doten’s book—a stylish, surreal portrait of a 21st century gone mad—will make you scratch your head. Parts of it recall Coover’s The Public Burning, in which a crazed Uncle Sam hurls invective at Richard Nixon; other parts recall Infinite Jest’s plurality of voices (though in Doten's novel, the voices are filtered through—and sometimes garbled by—a database). This book is a considerable achievement, not of storytelling—there’s not really much of a cohesive plot here—but of nerve, scope and ambition. Perhaps Doten is too brash: This is one of those books where you find yourself thinking less about the characters than about the author’s fireworks. (Doten, an editor at Soho Press, seems to acknowledge this by casting himself in the novel as “the man who runs a Big Six New York City publisher.”) But in certain moments, Doten drops his narrative pyrotechnics and plays it straight. Consider a character named Tom Pally, a veteran adapting to life at home: Yes, there’s the surreal detail of him throwing up maggots, but otherwise, his chapters tell a powerful story of displacement.
Doten’s dazzling novel shows off his intellect and facility with language.
A New Yorker editor since 1978, Norris provides an educational, entertaining narrative about grammar, spelling and punctuation.
The author devotes chapters to commas (who knew a printer more or less invented comma usage in 1490?); apostrophes; hyphens; the difference between "that" and "which"; the proper usage of "who" and "whom" (would Ernest Hemingway have published For Who the Bell Tolls?); dealing with profanity in a national magazine (a chapter in which Norris demonstrates that not all copy editors are prudish); which dictionary (if any) to rely on; and, as a bonus, an ode to pencils with and without erasers. Raised in the Cleveland area, Norris had a vague notion growing up of being a writer. But after attending college, she did not know how to proceed toward that goal, so she worked jobs that included delivering milk to homes, packaging cheese in a factory for sale to supermarkets and washing dishes in a restaurant. The possibility of an editing job at the New Yorker arose only because Norris' brother knew an important person there. Once at the New Yorker, the author engaged in spirited debates with more senior copy editors about all manner of decisions about grammar, punctuation and spelling. Though she observed the rules, she also began to realize that sometimes she had to compromise due to the fact that accomplished writers for the magazine followed their own logic. Norris delivers a host of unforgettable anecdotes about such famed New Yorker writers as Philip Roth, Pauline Kael, John McPhee and George Saunders. In countless laugh-out-loud passages, Norris displays her admirable flexibility in bending rules when necessary. She even makes her serious quest to uncover the reason for the hyphen in the title of the classic novel Moby-Dick downright hilarious.
A group of brainy friends in Austin, Texas, struggles with the complications of adulthood in hard times.
"Lying in bed, Flannery wished love wasn't so hard on a person." The reader wishes it too after sharing the troubles of the young climate scientist and her friends in this debut novel. As the story begins, Flannery is leaving her adored Nigerian boyfriend and life in Africa behind because her project has been shut down for lack of funding. Back home in Austin, she finds more to worry about. Among her tight-knit circle, most of whom met at a small engineering college with designs on being the "Harvard of the South," little is going right. Her sister, Molly, is beginning to show signs of the Huntington's disease that killed their mom and is alienated from her husband, Brandon. Molly moves out to the ranch where their friend Alyce has a fellowship to pursue her weaving; Alyce is suffering from a depression so severe that she's asked her architect husband, Harry, to take their boys and leave the ranch. Harry and the kids move in with his business partner, Santiago, who's hiding the fact that the economic recession has driven their firm to the brink of ruin and is also nurturing a hopeless attachment to Flannery.In addition to, or because of, their current problems, the characters suffer from painful nostalgia for their carefree college days. Into this tapestry, Specht weaves fascinating details on snowflakes, weaving, birding, genetics and engineering, plus a spot-on portrait of Austin: "Tonight they walked past the bungalow with its garden lined with bowling balls; they walked past the purple A-frame housing a nonprofit shelter for gay youth, past the corner lot where a man lived inside a small historic church he'd had transported from East Texas."
A finely wrought if somewhat melancholy first novel.
Encounters both dangerous and wonder-filled with fellow travelers prompt 16-year-old runaway Mim to scrutinize her perceptions about herself, her family and the world she inhabits.
Convinced that her father and stepmother are hiding secrets about her mother’s health and also frustrated by her father’s insistence that she take antipsychotic medication, Mim steals an emergency cash fund to travel 1,000 miles to her mother. Aboard the Greyhound bus, Mim’s inner monologues about other passengers reveal her snarky sense of superiority, which is alternately hilarious, cutting and full of bravado. But her self-imposed, disdainful isolation quickly dissolves in the aftermath of a harrowing accident. Completing her journey suddenly necessitates interacting with a motley set of fellow travelers. Mim’s father’s doubts about the stability of her perceptions feed a continual sense of tension as readers (and Mim herself) attempt to evaluate which of Mim’s conclusions about her fellow characters—both the seemingly charming and seemingly menacing—can be trusted. Arnold pens a stunning debut, showcasing a cast of dynamic characters whose individual struggles are real but not always fully explained, a perfect decision for a book whose timeline is brief. Ultimately, Mim revises moments from her own narrative, offering readers tantalizing glimpses of the adult Mim will eventually become and reminding readers that the end of the novel is not the end of Mim’s journey—or her story.
When the patriarch of a large, wealthy clan in Mexico City is kidnapped, it leads the family to an unintentional diaspora.
Mexican-born, Texas-based journalist Ruiz-Camacho shows a wealth of talent in this fiction debut, a collection of interconnected stories about the blowback from the disappearance of José Victoriano Arteaga, a wealthy Mexican citizen. In the opener, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring,” the don’s 19-year-old granddaughter, Fernanda, offers a flashback about what happened when the patriarch disappeared after leaving his office for lunch one day in 2004: “It is the year all the members of my family will end up fleeing Mexico, following Grandpa’s disappearance, but at that point I don’t know for sure what’s happened to him.” Ruiz-Camacho captures a younger child’s take on grief and misunderstanding in “Okie,” written from the point of view of 8-year-old Bernardo. An outstanding offshoot from the main plot comes in “Origami Prunes,” in which a young consulate officer named Plutarco Mills meets the don’s daughter Laura in a laundromat and starts an affair with her only to meet her daughter Nicolasa years later under sad, strange circumstances.There’s a funny, almost theatrical exchange in “I Clench My Hands Into Fists and They Look Like Someone Else’s,” in which two siblings, Homero and Ximena, have holed up in a Manhattan flea trap to pop pills, snipe at each other and dream of better days ahead.Another offshoot, “Better Latitude,” examines the unique heartache carried by Silvia Guevara, mistress to Don Victoriano and the mother of his 6-year-old son, Laureano, to whom she must explain where Daddy went. Finally, Ruiz-Camacho sticks the landing in the title story, transposing son Martin's trip to the vet in Madrid with his memories of the don’s body parts' arriving in the mail, ending with a conversation with his father’s ghost.
A nimble debut that demonstrates not a singular narrative voice but a realistic chorus of them.
Debut author Scotton sets a captivating modern morality tale in Kentucky’s coal country, 1985.
With the small-town aura of To Kill a Mockingbird, a man reflects on the summer he learned that tradition, greed, class, race and sexual orientation can make for murder. Multiple stories are at play in the coal town of Medgar: Bubba Boyd, the boorish son of a coal baron, is raping the landscape; local opposition leader and popular hairstylist Paul Pierce’s homosexuality is used to attack his environmental position; and the narrator, Kevin, grieving the death of his younger brother, arrives at age 14 to stay with his widowed grandfather. With a mother trapped by depression and father subconsciously casting blame, Kevin’s left alone in grief’s pit, and it’s Pops, a wise and gentle veterinarian, who understands his pain and guilt. In Medgar, mines are played out, and Boyd’s Monongahela Energy digs coal by "mountaintop removal," pushing forested peaks into verdant valleys, leaving a poisoned landscape. Scotton’s descriptions of plundered peaks like Clinch Mountain, Indian Head and Sadler, Pops’ boyhood haunts, are gut-wrenching. As Kevin tags along on vet calls with Pops and befriends a local teen, Buzzy Fink—"fresh friends from completely different worlds faced with the hard shapings of truth and deceit"—Scotton explores both the proud, stoic hillbilly culture that accepts Paul’s "bachelor gentlemen" love and the hate-filled greed wielding the Bible as a weapon in service of ignorance and Mammon. And then Buzzy witnesses a brutal killing, a murder whose ramifications may cost Cleo, his brother, a prestigious college football scholarship. With glimpses of a mythical white stag and mad stones symbolic of the land’s capacity to heal, Pop, Buzzy and Kevin "tramp " to an isolated lake and find themselves targeted in a Deliverance-like shooting. Scotton offers literary observation—"a storm was filling the trees with bursting light"—and a thoughtful appreciation of Appalachia’s hard-used people and fragile landscape.
A powerful epic of people and place, loss and love, reconciliation and redemption.