A pleasure for fans of short fiction and a promise of good things to come from this year’s roster of prizewinners.

PEN AMERICA BEST DEBUT SHORT STORIES 2018

Sophomore volume in a recently inaugurated PEN series honoring debut short fiction published in print or online.

As selected by three judges, including 2017 Kirkus Prize winner Lesley Nneka Arimah, these dozen stories tend to the dark side, with rare moments of humor in a moody fictive landscape; they’re thus just right for their time. In the opening story, “Six Months,” Celeste Mohammed brilliantly captures the confusions faced and moral shortcuts taken by a Caribbean immigrant to New York, who lives in a ratty basement but at least is in America: “That’s the only damn thing that matter.” Faced with an embarrassment of riches of a kind, Luther has to keep an elaborate set of lies straight in his head, but he’s up to the challenge: “Don’t be lucky and coward, Luther. Go brave.” He’s not a bad man, but he’s not very good, either. The same is true of Shutian, a Taiwanese man whose decadeslong life with his wife, Mayling, is lived out in just a few pages in Lin King’s aptly titled story “Appetite”; his great sin is to be inert and boring, moving Mayling to escape, in part by way of guitar lessons with a man destined to become well-known, then forgotten again, as the decades pass. The story is a masterpiece of compression, squeezing whole decades into paragraphs. One comparatively light piece centers on a theme-park Hercules who is confronted by a tot who blurts out the fact that his father dresses up in his mother's clothes when she's not home: “And in this moment,” Hercules thinks, “the only thing running through my mind is, I’ll be damned, that binder doesn’t cover everything after all.” A particularly successful story is a kind of sci-fi/horror pastiche called, fittingly, “Zombie Horror,” and though its editor is quick to claim it as literary fiction, it benefits from a little genre goofiness.

A pleasure for fans of short fiction and a promise of good things to come from this year’s roster of prizewinners.

Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-936787-93-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Catapult

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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