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.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Daniel Ford: Hala Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses is an incredibly beautiful, tender read. Her prose feels personal and lived-in, her characters seem like they’re ready to wander into your kitchen and have a cup of tea with you, and her dialogue is as lyrical and poignant as her poetry. There’s a real heartbeat on every page of this novel.
One of the things I love most about the book is how it’s structured. She jumps from character to character while moving forward several years in the timeline. This allowed her to explore themes like the aftermath of war and the development of personal and familial relationships in a way typically reserved for short story collections. Alyan crafted some powerful lines about love, family, and conflict that only someone who had this story in her bones could have pulled off.
As I said during my interview with the author (which you can listen to on May 8), human stories like the ones found in Salt Houses need to be told widely and often during these troubled political times. Pain and suffering weren’t just invented after Nov. 8, 2016. Humanity has been grappling with issues like identity, race, property, nationalism, and warfare since human’s stepped over the threshold of their cave dwellings thousands of years ago. Thankfully, novels like Salt Houses can delve into those seemingly intractable subjects in a moving and haunting way in the hopes of raising the level of our discourse.
The Wrong Side Of Goodbye by Michael Connelly
Sean Tuohy: Detective Harry Bosch is back in Michael Connelly’s latest thriller. The relentless LAPD detective is hired to find the missing heir to a billion-dollar fortune, while also trying to capture a serial rapist. Connelly is able to make each novel feel fresh and full of life. His characters are well developed, the plot is fast-paced, and you never know what will happen next.
Marlena by Julie Buntin
Daniel: From the isolated cold of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the impersonal, sun-kissed skyscrapers of New York City, Julie Buntin’s haunting Marlena is a coming-of-age story with real teeth.
Fifteen-year-old Cat’s world is off its axis when we first meet her. Her mother has dragged her and her brother to rural Michigan (where they can barely make ends meet), and Cat makes friends with Marlena, an abused drug addict who sets in motion a litany of “firsts” for our troubled heroine. Marlena ends up drowning in six inches of water, and Cat’s life is never the same.
Buntin explores Cat’s psyche and motivations by bouncing back and forth from past to present. The contrast between the simple, hardscrabble life Cat leads in Michigan and her trendy, avant-garde New York City existence couldn’t be more stark, and, in many ways, more heartbreaking.
Marlena is incredibly well written and structured for a debut novel (especially when you consider Buntin wrote a good chunk of it on Google Docs!). Buntin’s passion and dedication to the craft is evident on every page, and you’ll be ready for more of her work as soon as you finish the book.
Janesville, An American Story by Amy Goldstein
Gary Almeter: I have, in the past few months, read Evicted by Matthew Desmond and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, so fancied myself an expert on the effects of post-industrialization on the Midwest and Appalachia. (Evicted has since won the Pulitzer.) So I thought it intriguing to see another middle class-focused book, this one about the closing of a General Motors plant in a Wisconsin town called Janesville.
Janesville, An American Story endeavors to chronicle the stories of people in that town following the plant's shutdown. What Goldstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has done here is astonishing. In an engrossing, chronological format, she follows several families, community leaders, politicians, and corporate representatives. She provides facts and the details that make up a life that newspaper headlines just can’t adequately convey.
Little Victories by Jason Gay
Mike Nelson: For six years I’ve been riding the bus to work. As a veteran, you can tell who’s a pro, who’s new, and who hasn’t been on wheels since their drunk uncle pulled them around in a Radio Flyer at a family reunion screaming, “And down the stretch they come,” while spilling his mint julep all over himself, you, and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend’s daughter sitting behind you. There are rules to be followed on the bus, etiquette to be embraced, common courtesy and thoughtfulness, and funny moments to be had.
This is exactly the type of thing you’ll find in Jason Gay’s Little Victories (but this, specifically, is not a thing you’ll find in his book). Gay, a sports writer for The Wall Street Journal, has had my attention for years as a refreshing voice who can make you think, learn, and laugh out loud (a breach of bus etiquette) all in the course of a paragraph. His stories range from interviewing Rihanna to playing touch football with his family at Thanksgiving to what it’s like to lose your job—each one sticking with you and teaching you lessons you might not need just yet but maybe someday will.
I have three complaints about Little Victories (this is how I rope you in to read the third paragraph of a book review for something you haven’t read):
- This is not a very long book (~200 pages), and even if you try to stretch it out, it goes too fast. I want more, Jason.
- I wish I saved this book for the summer because it is an absolutely perfect beach read.
- I can’t remember how to write with my own voice because Gay’s writing style is so infectious.
The River of Kings by Taylor Brown
Daniel: I read Taylor Brown’s stunning debut Fallen Land in two sittings midway through 2015. I then had to wait six months to crow about it. (The novel ended up at #3 on our best books of 2016 list.) Brown’s sophomore effort, The River of Kings, was released this past March and I’m taking a different approach to reading it. Instead of rapidly powering through the novel, I’m savoring every sentence, every character, every line of dialogue, every chapter. There’s something about Brown’s writing that feels like home, regardless of what he’s putting his characters through. He’s a special talent, one that’s just going to get better with age.
American War by Omar El Akkad
Daniel: Omar El Akkad’s American War follows ably in the footsteps of Ben H. Winter’s Underground Airlines. The novel features a dystopian America, a second Civil War, shadowy characters, familial angst, and a culture that (horrifyingly) doesn’t feel too different than our own.
Within the thrilling tale lies a coming-of-age story (don’t they all?) for the main character Sarat. The young American refugee makes decisions that have implications for not only herself, but for the nation ravaged by war. The book’s release could not have been better timed, and offers a fictional cautionary tale to our politically divided country.
A Brutal Bunch Of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski
Sean: I recently received this book from the author and I’m loving it. This is a must read for fans of gritty, hardboiled storytelling. Bill, a man on a run, has the misfortune of being taken hostage during his cross-country escape. Written by someone has a passion for the crime genre, this brutal story balances humor and violence brilliantly.
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris
Gary: I just got an email notification from my library that my copy of Joshua Ferris' The Dinner Party is ready for me to pick up on the reserve shelf. I reserved it back in January (I was the first one to do so), and periodically checked on it to make sure things were all systems go with the reservation.
This is one of the highlights of my 2017. Ferris is an author who makes books and writing cool. He’s the closest thing literature has to Matt Damon. His three novels have been spectacular. He chronicles the absurdity and the normalcy of life in the 21st century with characters that are likable and simple (and with whom we can all identify). This collection of short stories (many of which have appeared in The New Yorker already) is his first. The title story, about a dinner party, is a doozy.
By Josh Cook, author of An Exaggerated Murder
Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli
In perhaps the most important book of 2017, Luiselli tells the story of her time volunteering as an interpreter for undocumented children fleeing violence in Central and South America seeking residency in the United States. Luiselli tries to change the way we talk about immigration, especially from our Southern neighbors, by exploring our complicity in the crises that turned these people into refugees and reminding us that quite often, when we're talking about “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants,” or whatever other term someone might try to scare us with, we're talking about children.
The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie
An exercise in questioning our assumptions, an examination of the state of our political discourse, and an exploration of the value of being irrational. Obviously, the topical aspects of Currie's great book stand out; reality television, political punditry, what counts for debate on cable, and the madness surrounding the American gun debate, but I think Currie's real target and real brilliance is something both smaller and bigger: how do we make sense of death and how do we figure out how to live.
Recitation by Bae Suah
A drifting lyrical book about place and identity that follows the story—as much as there is a story—of a mysterious Korean recital actress wandering through cities, lives, and apartments.
The Warren by Brian Evenson
If there is such a thing as “sci-fi noir” (and I'd argue there is) Evenson (who also writes more literary short stories) is a master of the genre. This novella is a good introduction to Evenson's dark, gritty, cynical fiction. Definitely for fans of PKD
Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin
Poetry as essay? Essayistic poems? Poetic essay? There are even some charts. Sometimes the pieces feel more like poems with fluid grammar and freer themes and some feel like they have the focus and coherence of essays. I love books like this that ask questions just by existing.
Hothouse by Karyna McGlynn
McGlynn is a favorite of mine. Her poems have a dark sense of humor and an interesting kind of intimidating sexuality to some of them. Though she is probably closest to Patricia Lockwood in style at the moment, this collection also has the weirdness that I love in James Tate
An anthology of short stories, essays, poems, and art from the literary magazine Make. Make isn't a magazine I'm familiar with, but it's a beautiful book and includes work by some great authors like Valeria Luiselli, Maggie Nelson, Dorothea Lasky, Martin Seay, Alejandro Zambara, and Kate Zambreno.