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19 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: October 2017

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 Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Daniel Ford: You can tell from the opening lines of The Last Ballad that Wiley Cash had this story in his bones. Based on true events, the novel tells the story of a fateful (and deadly) mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. Shifting between the perspectives of all those involved, Cash explores themes that are as alive today as they were in the 1910s.

On a recent podcast episode, Cash said he was chasing Ella May’s ghost the entire time he was writing the novel. That passion and research led to one of the most unforgettable and empathetic main characters you’ll read in fiction this year. If the book only focused on her, it still would have been great, but, to Cash’s credit, May’s supporting cast is just as finely drawn.

The Last Ballad is a special book, one that I think readers will fall in love with. Cash does the Southern storytelling tradition proud, and he adds even more to the remarkable fiction coming out of that region in the last couple of years.

Sean Tuohy: In the summer of 1987, a killer stalked the streets of New Bedford, Mass. He targeted young women who were addicts. He preyed on them, killed them, and left on the side of the road. In Boyle’s riveting narrative, the killer, a lurking, sinister figure, is left in the background. The author focuses on the victims, their family members, and the town itself. Boyle writes with a passion that shines in each passage, and she shares the pain of the victims.

Have You Met Nora? by Nicole Blades

Daniel: One day I’ll get to tell you my reaction to the final scenes of Nicole Blades’ cheeky and engrossing novel Have You Met Nora? Just know it made Blades “LMAO” in an email chain. Doesn’t get much better for a reader (or writer)!

We’ve come to expect great fiction out of Blades, and this novel is no exception. Have You Met Nora? (out Oct. 31) features a freight train plot and well crafted characters who deliver lines of sassy dialogue as if they were lightning strikes. Issues of identity, race, friendship, and family are all explored without beating you over the head with a blunt instrument. Blades gets bonus points for using punctuation in her title! 

bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Daniel: I didn’t realize the recent paperback release of Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone features 40 more pages of poetry not included in the original 2014 release until after I finished the collection in roughly one sitting. It says something about Daley-Ward’s talent that a publisher signed off on an expanded edition given today’s publishing market! What’s interesting is that none of these poems feel added on or misplaced (I can’t even imagine the process involved in narrowing them down for the first launch). The collection’s title is apt considering that each poem seems to be stripped down to only its essential components, reveling in their devastatingly honest and personal nature. There’s one section of a poem called “things it can take twenty years and a bad liver to work out” that could serve as a mission statement for most creative types:

There are parts of you
that want sadness.
Find them out. Ask them why.

Indeed.   

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Daniel: Gabriel Tallent's debut contains gut punches for days and will make you slam it down more much often than you anticipated. However, you'll keep picking up, sucking the marrow out of Tallent's prose. Turtle Alveston is a heroine for the ages, and the author gets inside her head in a way you won't find in any other fiction. My Absolute Darling also features one of the sweetest and well-earned denouements I've ever read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Gary Almeter: I read this book immediately after Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling (see above). Sing, Unburied, Sing is also about a child, in this case, 13-year-old Jojo, let down and abused by parents. Jojo is a resilient and caring young man; his wisdom beyond his years is due in large measure to the patience of his grandfather, Pop, with whom he and his 3-year-old sister Michaela live, and the fact that he is tasked with caring for Michaela whenever their mother leaves them for days at a time. Jojo's white father, Michael, is at Parchman prison, the same prison Pop spent time in decades ago.

The whole book is teeming with ghosts. Leonie's brother was murdered and haunts her whenever she gets high; the rural Mississippi setting is haunted by the oppressive and omnipresent legacy of racism; Pop had a friend at Parchman prison whose memory stays with him. Woven into these ghost stories is a road trip to Parchman to retrieve Michael upon his release. The journey becomes a nightmare as everyone learns that there are absences that can never really be filled and ghosts that can never be outrun. Jojo perseveres nonetheless.

Read Adam Vitcavage's  interview with Jesmyn Ward .

Read Adam Vitcavage's interview with Jesmyn Ward.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

Sean: Ronald Balson does not waste any time. He quickly pulls the reader into the story and allows his characters to build over the course of the story until they are almost too real. After a Holocaust survivor accuses one of the city's wealthiest men of being a Nazi, it’s up to a burned out lawyer to find the truth. Rich in history, Once We Were Brothers is a wonderful tale.

Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett

Daniel: Kellye Garrett's debut novel Hollywood Homicide is such a fun read. In Dayna Anderson, Garrett has created a sassy, determined, and sometimes confused heroine that will be entertaining readers for plenty of beach "Days" to come. Every supporting character is a gem, and the plot moves along like a binge-worthy TV dramedy. Garrett's voice is a welcome breath of fresh air, and I can't wait to see what it has to say next.

Daniel: Vanessa Grigoriadis' distinct voice and empathetic, curious reporting are used so well throughout Blurred Lines, a book that delves into the myriad issues surrounding campus rape in the United States. Grigoriadis tackles everything from "Mattress Girl" to Rolling Stone's errant reporting during the University of Virginia rape controversy and the new age of consent to Donald Trump. The author/journalist interviewed hundreds of people, including students, parents, administrators, lawyers, and advocates, and that dogged reporting led to an even-tempered (though not unemotional) narrative our polarized electorate desperately needs.

One of the most refreshing things about Grigoriadis' work here is her ability to include comments, research, observations, and facts that questioned her beliefs or hypotheses. She didn’t pretend to have all the answers or discard information because it didn’t fit into a concrete mold she decided on long before writing the book. Journalism like this is of the utmost importance because of our current political climate. Read this book and recommend it to others.

Daniel: There’s a reason Kat Howard is one of our favorite authors (check out her “Author’s Corner” below). She delivers opening lines like the ones found in her new novel An Unkindness of Magicians.

The young woman cut through the crowded New York sidewalk like a knife. Tall in her red-soled stilettos, black clothing, that clung to her like smoke, red-tipped black hair sharp and angular around her face. She looked like the kind of woman people would stop for, stare at, notice.

None of them did.

Yeah, we can get down with that. What we’ve read so far of An Unkindness of Magicians proves why Howard has amassed the following she has. This fantasy thriller, which features competing magicians fighting to preserve (or maybe it’s to demolish) the magical system that binds the world, is the perfect read headed into the Halloween season.

Dreamfield by Ethan Bryan

Daniel: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear reading fellow 50/50 Press author Ethan Bryan's debut novel. I think Sid Sanford and his main character “Ethan” would get along just fine. Ethan finds himself transported back to high school, where he has a chance to relive his dream of being a star baseball player (yes, Bryan made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). Part “Field of Dreams,” part “The Rookie,” Dreamfield is a fun meditation on time, religion, family, and baseball.  

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks

Daniel: There is officially no limit to Tom Hanks’ talent. In his debut short story collection (out Oct. 17), the actor brings all of the traits that define him on the silver screen: honesty, irreverence, humor, and unending empathy and passion. Be warned, this is absolutely one of those collections that will cause you to stay up way past your bedtime and mutter, “Okay, just one more.” If these are the types of stories we can expect from Hanks and his typewriter in the future, we’re all very lucky readers.

Author’s Corner

By Kat Howard, author of An Unkindness of Magicians

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

I try to always have one book of poetry that I’m reading. This is the sort of collection that I’ll turn to again and again. Smith’s writing is clear-eyed, precise, and full of beauty. It gives me hope.

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

One of my very favorite books, and a quintessential October novel. Haunted and full of melancholy, it is also gorgeously written. I mean, it’s Bradbury.

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

The first of the completed Metamorphoses trilogy, it’s myth and Seattle and brilliant and a book I’ve reread at least once a year since it came out.

From the To Be Read pile:

Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia

Okay, so maybe Baba Yaga doesn’t spring immediately to mind as the sort of person you’d go to for life advice. But I loved this column when it ran on The Hairpin, and I’m really looking forward to picking this up.

Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

Ben’s first collection, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day, was a book I absolutely adored. He writes strange tiny gems of things, and I can’t wait to see what he’s done here.

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Okay, no one needs me to tell you to read this collection, because it is winning all the awards, getting rave reviews, and is one of the most buzzed about books of the year. If you’ve ever read Machado’s writing, you know the praise is deserved. If not, you are in for a treat.

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Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher.

16 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: September 2017

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.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Daniel Ford: All the praise for Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is well deserved. It features some truly terrific writing. The opening chapter featuring Isma, one of the book’s main characters, being detained and aggressively questioned at a U.S. airport just might be the best prose I’ve read in 2017. Shamsie deftly alternates perspectives between Isma’s sister, a wayward, possibly radicalized brother, and a steely politician and his son. A modern take on Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire delivers one memorable scene after another, building to a pitch-perfect ending you won’t soon forget. Pick up this book as soon as humanly possible.

The Names of Dead Girls by Eric Rickstad

Sean Tuohy: The Names of Dead Girls, the heart-pounding sequel to The New York Times best-selling novel The Silent Girls, is finally available on Sept. 12. Detective Frank Rath must deal with a ghost of his past when his adoptive daughter becomes the next target of a deadly killer. Rickstad's character peel off the page, and the landscape of Northern Vermont is breathtaking. Rickstad will keep you awake late into the night to finish this stellar sequel.

Silencer by Marcus Wicker

Daniel: Marcus Wicker’s new poetry collection Silencer quite possibly features the most searing and personal poems I’ve ever read. Inspired by the uncomfortable conversations he was having with his friends and neighbors about gun violence, Wicker touches on everything from police brutality and racial identity to neighborhood ties and academia. Silencer hums with Midwestern sensibilities and taboos, anger, faith (no matter how questioned or questionable), and language and humor so sharp you might need to apply a tourniquet when you’re done reading. This masterful collection, which also features the thumping cadence of a hip-hop tune, is not to be missed. 

Sid Sanford Lives! by Daniel Ford

Rachel Tyner: I found myself absorbed in Sid Sanford Lives! (out Sept. 18 from 50/50 Press) this past Labor Day weekend. I read in bed, on the beach, even sitting in a living room surrounded by seven people.

This book features a series of short, funny, heart-wrenching, and relatable stories all based around the triumphs and tribulations of the main character, Sid Sanford. What I find so fascinating about Sid is that he lives in a gray area. How can a good person do such questionable things? He desires to be better man, but his demons always seem to rear their ugly heads. Through his experiences, Sid turns a corner and is able to find happiness and wisdom, sometimes in spite of himself.

Ford’s passion for the written word and humor was poured into this debut novel, and Sid Sanford Lives! is so completely engrossing that you’ll find yourself compelled to wring out every page.

Sean Tuohy: A covert mission in a far off land. The CIA and Army Special Forces team up to help bring the Vietnam War to an end. Sam Lightner Jr. tells the incredible tale of a secret mission in the hill lands of Vietnam. The author wastes no time, jumping into the meat of the story by explaining how a small group of volunteers went to work trying to stop the flow of troops through the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Find out more about the book, and Lightner's journey to bring this story to light, in the interview below.

The Trespasser by Tana French

Daniel: During our recent podcast discussion, Tana French called her new main character Detective Antoinette Conway “a tough cookie.” That was a tremendous understatement. She doesn’t have much choice; she’s constantly under fire from her male counterparts both inside and outside the squad room. Judging by the job she does investigating what seems like an open and shut murder case at first, there’s no one else I’d rather have relentlessly digging for the truth. French is the master of atmosphere, but it’s her character work in The Trespasser that vaults her work into another weight class. This is crime fiction at its finest.

Mike Nelson: Odds are pretty good that you evaluate baseball wrong. It’s not really your fault, so like, step off the ledge there, psycho. A single baseball game is an intricate story, and each event within a game can generate a massive amount of data. The data used by the media and mainstream analysts when evaluating a baseball player (or team) is the easy stuff—stats people have used for decades because they’re known commodities. Wins and Saves to tell you how “good” a pitcher is, RBI to tell you how “clutch” a hitter is, fielding percentage to tell you how “effective” a fielder is.

Those numbers don’t tell you the full story, though, and there are much better metrics available today, which fans and analysts should adopt. Right now I’m the loser in the comments section yelling “first!” as I have been reading baseball books on this matter for over a decade now. But if I could rewind to that first book I read on baseball stats and evaluation, I would swap it out for Keith Law’s Smart Baseball. Law is an ESPN analyst who used to work in major league front offices. He knows his stuff. He knows his stuff real good. His new book is a perfect explanation of why old statistics are insufficient, with an eye towards what fans should really be paying attention to. It is a must-read for baseball fans, serious or casual.  

Welcome to the Slipstream by Natalka Burian

Caitlin Malcuit: Welcome to the Slipstream is Natalka Burian’s first foray into the world of novel writing, a young adult feature that delves into the pains of being a teenage vagabond with a flighty mother. Van, the music-loving protagonist, is used to traveling around the world with caregiver Ida for her mother Sofia’s work. Dropped into the glitz and high-octane Las Vegas scene when Sofia’s latest client brings them to the Silver Mustang Casino, Van struggles to fit in and hopes that this time, her mother’s bipolarism won’t rear its head. Seeking to break the humdrum cycle of room service and tutors, Van begins to carve a niche for herself when she joins an all-girl band. But her new life is upended when Sofia suddenly takes off to the deserts of Sedona, Arizona, abandoning her family and work. Van’s mission to find her mother tests the bonds of their relationship, and uncovers long-buried secrets.

I talked to Natalka about Welcome to the Slipstream, as well as her activist endeavor The Freya Project. Check it out!

Marcel's Letters by Carolyn Porter

Daniel: If you’re looking for a tender, passionate, and, at times, infuriating love story to counterbalance the daily news, you’ve come to the right place. Carolyn Porter found more than she bargained for when she discovered several beautifully written World War II letters by a Frenchman named Marcel in an antique store in Stillwater, Minn. Marcel’s swooping letters inspired Porter to start designing a font, but after having one of his letters translated, she dogged pursued the Frenchman’s story all the way to France. It’s evident on every page that Porter put her heart and soul into her research, and an equally passionate and tenacious support group aided her in uncovering all of Marcel’s secrets. This book is at special read, one that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Daniel: Admittedly, I’m way behind in praising Noah Hawley’s Edgar Award-winning novel Before the Fall. The premise is that a chartered flight from Martha’s Vineyard crashes, killing all but two people on board (a disillusioned painter and a young boy). Hawley then dives into the backstories of the victims and the aftermath experienced by the survivors. The narrative delves into themes ranging from celebrity journalism and the perils of insane wealth to what truly bonds family and strangers together. I finished this book in two nights, frantically flipping pages on my Kindle Paperwhite and not allowing myself to be overcome by sleep.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Daniel: The two essays that make up James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time are just as shocking and relevant as they were when the book was published in 1963. Written to “celebrate” the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, these missives rage against America’s dark, and deep-seated, racism, and implores both white and black Americans to honestly confront the carnage this hateful legacy has wrought. In the wake of Charlottesville and a Presidential administration steeped in white nationalism, we need Baldwin’s words more than ever.     

Author’s Corner

By Kayla Rae Whitaker, author of The Animators

Marlena by Julie Buntin

New Yorker Cat looks back on her coming-of-age in Michigan, and her revelatory teenage friendship with the charismatic, troubled Marlena, whose life—and death—act as a traumatizing divider between Cat’s childhood and adulthood. I felt this book down in my bones. There is so much in this story, in its mix of ferocity and adrenaline and explosive discovery, that is the story of being woman, and it is written with such grace and intricacy. I didn’t want it to end.

Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. Glaser

A disturbing and delightful story of an art school friendship. Paulina, in particular, is just despicably fascinating. I wanted to stay away from her, but could not stop reading about both her exploits and her moments of plummeting insecurity (when threatened, she produces a shred of baby blanket from her bra and runs it incessantly over her lips). Some really wonderful detours into female friendship, artistry, and curly hair, a topic on which there is a surprising dearth of material. Highly recommended.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

The story of Stephen Florida, Oregsburg College’s most formidable wrestler and one of the most pleasingly obsessive characters I’ve had the pleasure of following in a long time, has a weird, arresting beauty. Habash builds a complete world of the sport—its thrills, its pressures, its minutiae—against the perfectly icy backdrop of a North Dakota winter. Stephen’s voice is like no other—driven and unexpected, equal parts older than its years in its sense of purpose and endearingly youthful. So sharply written, I kept flagging my husband down so I could share passages with him. It’s a total joy to read.

Monsters: A Love Story by Liz Kay

I can’t remember the last time I read the story of a troubled relationship with such close, pained delight. Stacey, a poet and recent widow, gets a phone call that changes her life. Hollywood actor Tommy DeMarco wants to adapt her feminist take on Frankenstein into a screenplay. The two meet, are instantly attracted to one another, and embark upon an ill-advised relationship in which they proceed to wreck each other’s lives. Stacy is a much-needed departure from the female heroines of most relationship narratives—her personality, desires, and internal conflicts are hers alone, not elements totally at the mercy of the romance. She is textured and real, brimming with impulses good and bad, and the fact that she has as much a hand in lending this story its dysfunction as Tommy makes her raw and compelling. This is one of those can’t-eat-can’t-sleep-can’t-talk-until-I-finish-it books, and I loved it.

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Listen to Dave Pezza and Sean Tuohy's discussion about Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.