As ever, an essential volume for anyone tracking the progress of American letters.

PUSHCART PRIZE XLVI

BEST OF THE SMALL PRESSES 2022

The 46th edition of the venerable annual shows a welcome burst of new life amid lots of death.

Small presses, notes longtime editor Henderson, are the bulwark between literature and a steadily agglomerating publishing industry in which “authors become mere content providers for the present moment.” That said, present-moment concerns abound in this overstuffed anthology. In this second year of Covid, death is a constant. In his smart short story “Biology,” Kevin Wilson opens with the death of an eighth grade teacher with whom his protagonist, 25 years earlier, had had an odd conversation concerning a game called “Death Cards.” If you drew a death card, well, you die. And what if you don’t draw a death card, asks the teacher. “You still die, but you die in your sleep,” says the protagonist. “Peacefully.” Just a few pages later, in a story by Daniel Orozco, a young boy whose mother has just died of “an exceptionally rare and virulent spinal cancer” is comforted—if you can call it that—by an alcoholic father who instructs him that, yes, we all die, and that when we do, “that’s all she wrote.” In a memorable short poem called “Black Box,” Sandra Lim conjures quiet grief: “Make him come back, she said, / her voice like something brought up intact / from the cold center of a lake.” Suicide, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, all find their places here. Refreshingly, the old guard is not much evident in favor of comparatively new voices, though stalwart Joyce Carol Oates turns in an attention-getting prose poem incorporating parole petitions of the now elderly Manson family women: “Because I hated them. Because I had always hated them—beautiful women and girls,” says one to excuse her murderousness. A particularly high point: Sidestepping all the mayhem, in an essay called “The Kaleshion,” Jerald Walker recounts the perilous path from Afro to Jheri curl to self-administered haircuts, one of the last of which yields a hilarious disaster and a rare and welcome moment of laughter.

As ever, an essential volume for anyone tracking the progress of American letters.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-9600977-4-6

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Pushcart

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2021

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With captivating dialogue, angst-y characters, and a couple of steamy sex scenes, Hoover has done it again.

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REMINDERS OF HIM

After being released from prison, a young woman tries to reconnect with her 5-year-old daughter despite having killed the girl’s father.

Kenna didn’t even know she was pregnant until after she was sent to prison for murdering her boyfriend, Scotty. When her baby girl, Diem, was born, she was forced to give custody to Scotty’s parents. Now that she’s been released, Kenna is intent on getting to know her daughter, but Scotty’s parents won’t give her a chance to tell them what really happened the night their son died. Instead, they file a restraining order preventing Kenna from so much as introducing herself to Diem. Handsome, self-assured Ledger, who was Scotty’s best friend, is another key adult in Diem’s life. He’s helping her grandparents raise her, and he too blames Kenna for Scotty’s death. Even so, there’s something about her that haunts him. Kenna feels the pull, too, and seems to be seeking Ledger out despite his judgmental behavior. As Ledger gets to know Kenna and acknowledges his attraction to her, he begins to wonder if maybe he and Scotty’s parents have judged her unfairly. Even so, Ledger is afraid that if he surrenders to his feelings, Scotty’s parents will kick him out of Diem’s life. As Kenna and Ledger continue to mourn for Scotty, they also grieve the future they cannot have with each other. Told alternatively from Kenna’s and Ledger’s perspectives, the story explores the myriad ways in which snap judgments based on partial information can derail people’s lives. Built on a foundation of death and grief, this story has an undercurrent of sadness. As usual, however, the author has created compelling characters who are magnetic and sympathetic enough to pull readers in. In addition to grief, the novel also deftly explores complex issues such as guilt, self-doubt, redemption, and forgiveness.

With captivating dialogue, angst-y characters, and a couple of steamy sex scenes, Hoover has done it again.

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-5420-2560-7

Page Count: 335

Publisher: Montlake Romance

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2021

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A warm and winning "When Harry Met Sally…" update that hits all the perfect notes.

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PEOPLE WE MEET ON VACATION

A travel writer has one last shot at reconnecting with the best friend she just might be in love with.

Poppy and Alex couldn't be more different. She loves wearing bright colors while he prefers khakis and a T-shirt. She likes just about everything while he’s a bit more discerning. And yet, their opposites-attract friendship works because they love each other…in a totally platonic way. Probably. Even though they have their own separate lives (Poppy lives in New York City and is a travel writer with a popular Instagram account; Alex is a high school teacher in their tiny Ohio hometown), they still manage to get together each summer for one fabulous vacation. They grow closer every year, but Poppy doesn’t let herself linger on her feelings for Alex—she doesn’t want to ruin their friendship or the way she can be fully herself with him. They continue to date other people, even bringing their serious partners on their summer vacations…but then, after a falling-out, they stop speaking. When Poppy finds herself facing a serious bout of ennui, unhappy with her glamorous job and the life she’s been dreaming of forever, she thinks back to the last time she was truly happy: her last vacation with Alex. And so, though they haven’t spoken in two years, she asks him to take another vacation with her. She’s determined to bridge the gap that’s formed between them and become best friends again, but to do that, she’ll have to be honest with Alex—and herself—about her true feelings. In chapters that jump around in time, Henry shows readers the progression (and dissolution) of Poppy and Alex’s friendship. Their slow-burn love story hits on beloved romance tropes (such as there unexpectedly being only one bed on the reconciliation trip Poppy plans) while still feeling entirely fresh. Henry’s biggest strength is in the sparkling, often laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue, particularly the banter-filled conversations between Poppy and Alex. But there’s depth to the story, too—Poppy’s feeling of dissatisfaction with a life that should be making her happy as well as her unresolved feelings toward the difficult parts of her childhood make her a sympathetic and relatable character. The end result is a story that pays homage to classic romantic comedies while having a point of view all its own.

A warm and winning "When Harry Met Sally…" update that hits all the perfect notes.

Pub Date: May 11, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0675-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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