Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Daniel Ford: I hadn’t heard of Paul Beatty or his work before I learned that his recent novel The Sellout was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I was instantly intrigued by the racial satire’s premise, which I’ll include here since I don’t think I could do it justice:
Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
After quickly procuring a copy, I devoured The Sellout in two nights. It would actually be more accurate to say it devoured me. It’s a compulsive read, and each page contains biting, dark humor (which will make you laugh out loud more often than not) and poignant insights into the African-American experience in this country. The prologue alone is enough to scar your brain and soul in all the right places. I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of Beatty’s work, including The White Boy Shuffle and Slumberland.
The Unseen World by Liz Moore
Daniel: Liz Moore’s The Unseen World starts innocently (and deliciously) enough. Ada is helping her father prepare and host an annual dinner with his lab colleagues. The lobster bibs are tied (this book is set around Boston after all), the conversations are sophisticated, lively, and smart, and Ada proves more than a serviceable bartender and sommelier (despite her youth). However, it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that not all is well with Ada’s father, a man she has worshipped her entire life for his intellect and work ethic. David embarrassingly forgets the answer to his legendary riddle, which is the first crack in his carefully crafted façade. His mind continues to falter, breaking apart Ada’s entire existence and leads to a much different coming of age than she imagined.
Some readers might be put off by the novel’s early slow burn and decade-hopping, however, those who reach the book’s second half will be rewarded with a thrilling and poignant conclusion. Ada’s quest to unravel her father’s final riddle brings together all of the author’s mediations on technology, family, and love expertly.
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Daniel: As I mentioned during the audio edition of September’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” I would caution readers not to tackle Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad back-to-back. You might have a heart attack. It’s incredible how complementary and inventive these novels are. Whitehead imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad, complete with tracks, conductors, and hidden stations, bringing his heroine from one nightmare to another.
But what if the Civil War and subsequent Constitutional amendments never put a stop to the tragedies so viscerally described in The Underground Railroad? Winters helps provide an answer. He invented a world in which slavery was never abolished. Lincoln’s assassination (in this world, coming before he took the oath of office) brings the country together, but only to save the Union by codifying slavery in the Constitution. The “Hard Four” states, and their rigid adherence to slavery, disrupt everything from international relations to intercontinental travel.
Underground Airlines follows Victor, a slave catcher who works for the U.S. Marshals Service, as he stalks yet another escaped fugitive. During his hunt, Victor does his best to suppress the memories of his past and ignore the complicated questions he has to face while fulfilling his objective. It’s a thrilling plot, which is made so much more harrowing because of the parallels to our current political, economic, and social ills. The world Winters crafts in Underground Airlines may not exist, but the underlying ugliness at its foundation is certainly alive and well.
The Windchime Legacy by A.W. MyKel
Sean Tuohy: The Windchime Legacy is a 1970s spy thriller written by an author who disappeared after publishing two best-selling novels. This novel actually feels like six put together, making for a fun rollercoaster ride. The book splices the styles of Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum and adds a dash of Michael Crichton.
A supercomputer runs a network of spies who have microchips implanted into their brains, which will explode if one of the agents tries to leave the program. When one of the designers of the program tries to defect to the Soviet Union, the program's top agent must recover him.
The clothing styles and the sexist language coming out the main characters’ mouths may scream ‘70s, but the technology in this novel feels contemporary. Don’t over think the over-the-top fun and just enjoy the wild ride.
Red Right Hand by Chris Holm
Steph Post: I just got back from Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans and so, of course, my current taste in reading has been running toward the crime and thriller genres. Chris Holm's Red Right Hand has been at the top of my TBR list for a while and so I'm glad that I finally dove right on in.
Holm's Red Right Hand, the second in a series starring badass anti-hero Michael Hendricks, offers up everything you could want from a classic thriller: fast-paced action, sharply drawn characters, and a plot brimming with intrigue. Hendricks, a hit man who takes down other hit men, walks a narrow, but wavering, moral line between the other factions in the novel, the FBI and a secret organization known as the Council.
Red Right Hand is a tight read that continues from The Killing Kind—the first novel in the series—and sets up what should be a thrilling conclusion to the Michael Hendricks saga.
Nicotine & Private Novelist by Nell Zink
Adam Vitcavage: Nell Zink’s 2014 debut novel The Wallcreeper was great. Mislaid, released a year later, was terrific. This October’s Nicotine somehow manages to top both of them. The German-based author’s third novel is about Penny Baker, a straight-laced business school graduate from a family of rebels. Circumstances find her in her family’s old home, which has been renamed “Nicotine” by a friendly group of anarchists. The book features Zink’s tremendous prose and sharp wit. It’s beautifully funny and poignant. That may sound like a cliché that writers use to describe literature/film/television/etc., but it’s completely true when it comes to Zink.
Also be sure to check out Private Novelist, which collects two early novellas that the author wrote for her friend, Israeli writer Avner Shats. If you do, you’ll see that this trifecta of novels released during the past three years weren’t a fluke and you’ll understand why Nell Zink is one of the most important writers of the 21st century.
Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen
Daniel: If you’re an author friend of ours and you get married, you automatically get added to “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.” Those are the rules.
It also helps that Tony McMillen’s Nefarious Twit is cleverly structured, darkly funny, and filled with his trademark (and brilliant) illustrations. I couldn’t help but think of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe as I read it. The narrative doesn’t move so much as slosh, as if David O. Russell was standing behind McMillen and telling him how he was going to film it.
McMillen described himself as a “failed Bruce Springsteen character” when we met at Rory Flynn’s booze-fueled Dark Horse debut earlier this year, so he’s pretty much our hero. As Springsteen might say, “Tony, you ain’t no beauty, but, hey, you’re all right.”
Also listen to the audio version of "Books That Should Be On Your Radar!"