Academy Gothic

5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: October 2015

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.

By Daniel Ford

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

I’ve read Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oates (okay, at least I tried), Jonathan Franzen, and Wally Lamb throughout my life, so I know a thing or two about dysfunctional literary families. However, the family in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres might be the most screwed up one I’ve ever encountered in fiction. The book starts innocently enough: A father nearing the end of his working days decides to split up his Midwestern farm among his three daughters. What a nice guy! Well, in true Shakespearean fashion, things go horribly wrong. The father loses his grip on reality, his daughters reveal all manner of dark family secrets, and there’s not a man in the book that isn’t a complete asshole or grossly incompetent. There were moments I put the book down and couldn’t believe what I had just read. And Smiley doesn’t hit you over the head with each revelation. No, her style borders on nonchalant, so you constantly feel like your caught in the middle of the storm without any advanced warning. Smiley also gives the reader somewhat of an unreliable narrator, which makes the book’s plot all the more harrowing and surprising. I guarantee you’ll be done with this tale in a matter of days because the sick individual inside you will want to find out what happens next.

Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill

Tate Cowlishaw may be legally blind, incredibly snarky, and unlucky in love, but hot damn he’s a pretty good investigator. So what if he’s an incompetent, indifferent academic employed at a school in such dire straits that it has to house its teacher’s offices in a drained swimming pool? When the dean of Parshall College dies suspiciously, Cowlishaw follows a dangerous (and often hilarious) trail of clues to find out the truth. As I said in the introduction to my recent interview with the author, fans of noir and dark comedy will find something to devour within every page of this debut. Hill told me that future Cowlishaw adventures would depend on readers’ reactions to his witty hero. Well, don’t just suggest he write more, demand it by buying the book and spreading the word.

The Granite Moth by Erica Wright

The Granite Moth, Erica Wright’s sequel to her debut novel The Red Chameleon, has an explosive beginning. A bomb goes off at a Halloween parade in New York City, upending the lives of the The Pink Parrot’s performers. Good thing the nightclub has a guardian private investor in Kathleen Stone. The emotionally damaged PI, along with her drag queen friends Dolly and Big Momma, tracks down the perpetrators of the crime while trying to stay on the good sides of her two police officer love interests. The Red Chameleon set the tone of Stone’s world, but The Granite Moth digs deeper into her character and why she’s hell bent on bringing mob boss Salvatore Magrelli to justice. As with all good noir, the plot matters much less than what’s going on in Stone’s head and how her job interferes with every relationship she has in her life. There’s plenty of Wright’s trademark wit and sharp dialogue in this sequel, but the book is at its best when exploring Stone’s dark inner demons. The book comes out Nov. 16, so plan your late fall reading accordingly.   

Oh, and if you’re thinking that Tate Cowlishaw and Kathleen Stone would make the perfect crime-fighting duo, you’re not alone. I’ve already told Wright and Hill that if there isn’t a crossover at some point in the future, I will no longer speak to either of them.

Swag by Elmore Leonard

Every time I finish an Elmore Leonard tale I think, “That’s my favorite Elmore Leonard novel.” It happened with Pronto, Rum Punch, and Riding the Rap. I read Out of Sight at the end of September and thought no other Leonard could possibly surpass it. Well, shit, Swag did and it just might be the best crime fiction novel ever written. Car thief Ernest “Stick” Stickley Jr. and oily car salesman Frank Ryan start a lucrative armed robbery trade and hilarity ensues. The sweet spot of the novel comes in the middle when the guys are enjoying a massive party at their hotel that eventually comes back to haunt them. Their characters are revealed in stark black and white and both begin to accept the fate they are headed for. There are twists and turns as the novel reaches its climax, but you feel like you already know how these two idiot criminals end up. The dialogue is pitch perfect (including the novel’s brilliant final line), and the 1970s Detroit setting casts a gray urban pale to the thievery and debauchery. This novel is screaming out to be made into a three-act play and I’d pay top dollar to see it. I’m sure I’ll love the next Elmore Leonard yarn just as much, but for now Swag is at the top of my list.

The Captive Condition by Kevin Keating

During a recent podcast with Sean Tuohy, I stupidly said Kevin Keating’s The Captive Condition wasn’t capturing my attention like I thought it would. Like a dopey, over-critical writer, I whined that the novel showcased some of the grating traits inherent to novels written by an academic. Well, throw all that criticism out the window because he expertly ties everything together in the second half. Every character receives a fate that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. The haunted town of Normandy Falls, where Edmund Campion chooses to earn his degree, is right below the Hellmouth in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on the list of places I’d never want to visit. At least other horror tales feature a monster or zombie the main character can slaughter. The Captive Condition contains a deeper, primordial evil that isn’t easy to shake, even after you finish the novel. I recommend finding out for certain that noise you hear outside isn’t someone pounding the final nail into your doorframe, trapping you inside with Keating’s demons forever.

Listen to our podcast interview with Kevin Keating after he scares the bejesus out of you: