By Daniel Ford
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.
I haven’t learned so much while reading a fictional novel in quite some time. I, sadly, don’t know much about India in general, and even less about its history, which is one of the reasons M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine was such an enjoyable and educational experience. Set in 1837, the novel follows William Avery, a young soldier with the East India Company, and Jeremiah Blake, a disillusioned, bitter former officer, as they track down a missing writer. During their investigation, the pair runs into both historical and fictional characters that showcase the clash of cultures between England and India during this time period. The Thuggee cult also plays a mysterious role that will keep readers guessing until the end. Tiger fights, caravans on dusty roads, ladies of high society, and plenty of swashbuckling make The Strangler Vine the perfect blend of history and fun.
What I love the most about this novel is that the relationship between Avery and Blake evolves from mutual suspicion and disgust into begrudging respect. However, the change doesn’t feel forced or unnatural. They don’t become two different people at the end, but their worldview has changed just enough to support a potential partnership. Carter told me during our interview that there was a bit of her in Avery—“keen, clueless, blurting things about before thinking about them”—and that his voice was easier to write than Blake’s. I fully anticipate Carter will have no trouble finding either voice in future novels and I very much look forward to what trouble the pair gets into next in the sequel The Infidel Stain (to be released in Spring 2016).
While I was reading Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek, I took to Twitter in order to decide if I should be drunk or really drunk during the experience. Henderson set me straight.
Fourth of July Creek reminded me a lot of certain scenes during “American Hustle.” Whenever Henderson shed a light on social worker Pete Snow’s personal life, the prose swayed a little looser, drunker, and, occasionally, more violent. Here was a guy that makes a living helping families in rural Montana in the 1980s, but can’t maintain his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter (who eventually runs away, adding even more depth to one of the central themes of the novel: freedom). Between trying to gain the trust of a young boy and his disturbed father Jeremiah Pearl, Snow falls for a damaged woman who lies to him about sleeping with multiple men, gets his ass kicked on more than one occasion, and crosses the FBI agent who takes an interest in Pearl’s case because of the old man’s ranting and preparations for the end of times. Henderson employs an innovative structure, shifting perspectives from Snow to his missing daughter by interjecting a social worker-type interview with the young, impressionable teenager. Every character, including secondary characters such as Ten Mile’s judge, Snow’s brother, and assorted Montana town folk, are fully formed and invigorate this mediation on American ideals. Many of the reviews of the novel talk about the confidence in which Henderson writes, and they couldn’t be more right. There’s a controlled bravado that singes each page and keeps you turning pages long after you should have gone to bed.
Oh, in case you’re wondering, the lines that forced me to pour some bourbon into a heavy glass were:
“Think of getting old. Think of being only thirty-one yourself and having gotten so much already dead fucking wrong.”
Damn you, Smith Henderson (just kidding, but, seriously)!
I shouldn’t have been surprised that B.J. Novak, best known for his work on the U.S. version of “The Office,” would produce such deft, subtle, and hilarious short stories that are found in his One More Thing: Stores and Other Stories. I expected the sharp humor and spot-on observations about everyday life, but what I didn’t anticipate was the amount of heart and outright skill featured in each story. I picked up this collection in Dave Pezza’s writing cave in Rhode Island during our Bob Dylan concert weekend, and read the first story about the hare taking revenge on the slow, addled turtle that famously beat him years before. I resolved to purchase my own copy after reading the line: “slow and steady wins the race, till truth and talent claim their place.” Um, hell yes!
One of my favorite stories, “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg,” is such a funny and insightful mediation on death that I wasn’t prepared for the absolutely laugh-out-loud final scene. I was lost in my own thoughts about dying, and then the main character’s Nana *spoiler alert* admits she’d rather blow Frank Sinatra than spend time with her beloved grandson. That’s…good stuff. Other stories include the guy who returned a sex doll who falls in love with him, how to land a date through Missed Connections, and the reason why carrot cake has the best frosting. I don’t want to damn this book by saying it’s a great beach read, but I can’t imagine a better place to laugh in public without people thinking you’re crazy (everyone on a public beach is crazier than you are). I’m sure Novak has other projects on his docket, including perhaps another well-reviewed children’s book, but I’d love to see how he’d handle a complete novel.
Erica Wright’s debut crime novel is making the rounds at Writer’s Bone and earning rave reviews. Wright’s brassy private investigator Kathleen Stone's identities are as hard to keep up with as her multiple boyfriends (complete badasses in their own rights). Stone blends into the background, but not perfectly, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel so much. She may have been a great police officer and even better undercover agent, but Stone is still finding her way in her new profession. She gets made often by her male counterparts, her secretary, and her drag queen friend. The plot moves at a quick pace, like many good crime novels, but Wright takes enough time to flesh out Stone’s personality, habits, and demons. Wright’s prose is also crackling with dark humor and sarcasm that matches its New York City setting. During our interview, Wright mentioned that she was like a “fainting goat” when it came to all the positive reviews the novel has garnered since its publication. I’d advise her to get used to it, because it sounds like Kathleen Stone is a heroine readers are going to demand stick around as long as she can find a decent wig.
You may have noticed from this list that I went on a run of crime/historical/brassy/masculine books in April. Reading Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas to finish up the month has proved to be the perfect tonic to realign my fiction priorities. Set mainly in New Mexico and the Southwest, Quade’s collection of short stories prove that she is more than worthy of being selected as a 5 under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation. Without revealing too much of my interview with Quade (which will go live sometime in May), I can tell you that the author sought to write about “family and the little betrayals that can occur between parents and children, brothers and sisters.” That’s what gives the collection its power, themes that readers of all cultures can identify with. Readers will put themselves in a teenage girl’s shoes when she finds a sack of money on a bus driven by her father in “Night at the Fiestas,” feel the internal rage a young man has for his degenerate father in “The Guesthouse,” or the desperation and fear that surround a mother living in a trailer in “Mojave Rats.” The New York Times Book Review threw around words like “legitimate masterpiece,” “haunting,” and “beautiful” in its review, and those adjectives couldn’t be more apt (the reviewer also admitting to weeping several times while reading the novel). Much like Novak’s short stories, Quade’s tales will stick with you long after you finally put the book down on your nightstand deep into the night.