This month’s book recommendations include works by Peng Shepherd, Paul Tremblay, Megan Abbott, Eric Rickstad, Dwayne Alexander Smith, Rebecca Makkai, and more!
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.
Setting Free the Kites by Alex George
Daniel Ford: Like Sean Tuohy, I have a soft spot for coming-of-age tales. They can leave a lasting impression on a reader if done well, and Setting Free the Kites is a shining example. I finished the novel in two sittings. I just couldn’t get enough of it, even when it was slamming my heart up against the wall.
The novel, which is set in a small town in Maine, opens with Robert Carter getting the snot kicked out of him by his nemesis. Nathan Tilly, the new kid in town, puts the ogre in his place, and then, naturally, becomes Robert’s best friend. Rather than put these two through the normal paces of adolescent life, George ups the ante by having the pair deal with one tragedy after another. Nathan’s father, who shares the same joie de vivre as his son, falls to his death early in the novel, and Robert’s brother slowly wastes away from degenerative muscular dystrophy.
However, while the novel squeezes a reader’s heart in a half a million ways, it never completely breaks it. There’s this underlying optimism and hopefulness that bubbles up. Whether rocking out to Liam’s beloved rock ‘n’ roll vinyls or getting the “it girl” to notice them at their job at Robert’s father’s amusement park, these two incredibly well crafted characters find joy in even the darkest corners. (But rest assured, you’ll be weeping in buckets by the end. Trust me, don’t be a hero, buy extra tissues.)
Like any worthy coming-of-age story, there isn’t one character you fall completely in love with. There are multiple characters you root for whether or not you’d want to be in same room with them for more than five minutes. Setting Free the Kites is a tender, funny, and passionate read, and I plan to follow George’s work for years to come.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Daniel: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer clocked in at #2 on our “Best Books of 2016” list (oh yeah, and won a Pulitzer Prize). The Refugees, a short story collection, is almost assured a spot on our 2017 list.
Set in both Vietnam and the United States, the eight stories (written over a period of 20 years) in this collection empathetically and honestly depict the global immigrant experience. Through an unforgettable cast of characters, Nguyen explores homosexuality, old age, healthcare, family, friendship, love, marriage, parenthood, and identity.
Nguyen’s prose makes one think of Alice Munro (featured in Nicole Blade’s “Author’s Corner” below) because of its earthiness and its ability to craft profound revelations out of the most ordinary of lives. He is an essential voice in these troubled political times.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
Stephanie Schaefer: In an era where almost 40 percent of young adults live with their parents, student loan debt is at an all-time high, and more and more people are delaying marriage—or rejecting the union altogether—it makes sense for a modern coming-of-age novel to focus on a 39-year-old protagonist.
Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up offers an un-sugarcoated commentary on adulthood in the 21st century. Written from the perspective of Andrea Bern, a flawed, almost-40, New York City dweller with as much baggage as JFK Airport, the novel deals with issues including addiction, depression, terminal illness, and what it means to be a woman who refuses to follow the status quo.
I enjoyed Attenberg’s eloquent writing style and her ability to be both raw and poignant at the same time. Essentially, All Grown Up reads like a grittier “Sex and the City”—that is if Carrie Bradshaw traded her shoe addiction for alcoholism, and if instead of Mr. Big she craved a series of one-night-stands in order to fill a void stemming from a broken childhood.
Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
Daniel: Boy, can Elliot Ackerman write. His debut novel, Green on Blue, was one of our favorite reads of 2015, and left us wanting so much more from the author. Ackerman’s sophomore novel, Dark at the Crossing, didn’t disappoint, and features a novelist fully growing into his literary powers.
The book centers on Haris Abadi, a wayward Arab American, who is attempting to cross the Turkish border into Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As the title suggests, things don’t go according to plan (even though Abadi doesn’t have much of a plan to begin with). He finds shelter with a troubled and broken Syrian couple, Amir and his wife Daphne, and becomes embroiled in their complex relationship. All three are searching for something; something that beckons from beyond a border they struggle to cross (both metaphorically and physically).
Ackerman’s gift for prose and dialogue are on full display. He crafts a brutal love story and also beautifully depicts a violent part of the world largely misunderstood by those on the outside of the battle lines. Much like Green on Blue, Dark at the Crossing is a must read for anyone attempting to further their understanding of the Middle East, as well as our shared humanity.
Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
Daniel: Cancel all your plans before you sit down to read Dwayne Alexander Smith’s exceptional thriller Forty Acres. It’s constantly surprising, and you will not want to put it down once the pages start turning.
After up-and-coming attorney Martin Grey scores a surprise legal victory over a much more heralded rival, he’s invited to an exclusive club by some of the most prominent members of the black community. Grey finds himself on a private jet headed to an undisclosed hideaway founded by an eccentric, shadowy figure. Instead of nature hikes and burly masseuses, Grey discovers something far more insidious. Within the complex, white men and women are enslaved, bending to their black “masters” every whim and desire. The young, idealistic lawyer has to grapple with his racial identity, his country’s violent racial past (and present), and the true nature of power. And in true thriller fashion, his life, and that of his equally tenacious wife, depends on his finding answers as fast as humanly possible.
Smith’s novel has trace DNA from Nelson DeMille’s The Charm School and constantly surprises. It asks big questions that readers will chew on long after the novel finally unshackles them.
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Adam Vitcavage: Daniel Magariel’s debut novel (out March 14) is an emotionally packed exploration into family, negligence, and addiction. It’s only around 170 pages, but is still able to pack in so much ethos because of the writer’s sense of urgency. An unnamed 12-year-old boy narrates the novel, and we discover he and his older brother live with their father. After a bitter divorce—dubbed “the war” by the father—the trio heads to New Mexico for a fresh start. The happiness fades when violence and drug addiction begin to surface. Magariel’s plot and prose make this a memorable book that will leave you emotionally numb well after the last page is finished.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Daniel: What kind of life can be lived in a war zone? Can new love find a spark? Can familial love sustain? What would one give up to walk through a door leading to escape? What life can be lived on the other side?
These are the questions Mohsin Hamid attempts to answer in his incredibly moving, romantic, tender, and violent novel Exit West (out March 7). His narrative centers on two of the more original characters you’ll find in today’s fiction. Saeed, a sensitive and religious young man backed by a supportive family, and Nadia, a headstrong, independent woman who broke free from her family to establish an independent life on her own terms, kindle a romance that becomes more and more complicated as their country descends further and further into armed conflict. Their bond is tested and redefined when they are offered a chance at escape, and an entirely new story, one just as fraught and questioning, begins.
This all sounds heavy, and it is, but Hamid tells the tale with such a deft and warm hand that your heart swells much more than it breaks. There are several laugh-out-loud moments that remind you that humor and love exist even when surrounded by humanity’s worst instincts. Exit West is a special novel, one that should be celebrated and embraced by readers of all nationalities, races, and creeds.
Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Adam: The premise of Dan Chaon’s third novel (out March 7) is titillating and enthralling. Thirty years ago, a boy named Dustin told police his adoptive brother Rusty was behind the massacre of their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, Dustin is a physiologist and Rusty has been exonerated by DNA evidence. Their two lives have been defined by the murders and are about to collide again. What Chaon does is take this dark, twisted story, and adds subtle twists to the narratives he unfolds with precision. The author manipulates how we are fed information: he uses traditional forms like flashback, but also allows one narrative to be told through first-, second- and third-person points of view. With Ill Will, Chaon has mastered the psychological thriller novel.
The Weight of This World by David Joy
Daniel: As you may already know, author David Joy is a Writer’s Bone favorite. He’s on our masthead (his essay “One Place misUnderstood” is not to be missed), we adored his debut novel, Where All the Light Tends to Go, and his Twitter feed is a must-follow. Even if all of that weren’t true (and he wasn’t a fan of Jefferson’s, one of our favorite bourbons), we’d still crow about his beautifully destructive second effort, The Weight of This World (out March 7).
This novel, set once again in the mountains of North Carolina, features Thad Broom, an Afghan war vet, and his best friend Aiden McCall. The pair is bound together by much more than mere friendship, and find out just how strong those ties are after they witness a drug dealer kill himself, leaving behind a pile of drugs and cash. As the two men decide what to do next, Thad’s mother April, deals with her own trauma as she prepares to leave the only home she’s ever known—one scarred by violence and anger.
Joy puts his main characters through hell, but it’s not hell for its own sake. There’s a purpose to every sentence and every line of dialogue Joy writes. He’s searching for answers to deeper truths about violence, trauma, and family; it just so happens that his path to answers tends to lead down the barrel of a gun.
Additionally, without giving anything away, The Weight of This World features one of the best, and most satisfying, endings to a crime fiction novel I’ve ever read. Joy was nominated for an Edgar Award for his first novel, and there’s no doubt in my mind he might find himself walking back home with one this time around.
Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman
Adam: Boris Fishman’s two novels—2014’s A Replacement Life and 2016’s Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo—both landed on The New York Times 100 Notable Books the year they were released. Last year’s Rodeo is about a young Jewish American couple who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. Their adoptive son is obsessed with nature and is almost a wildling. The story unfolds with the couple’s journey to Montana to discover why their son is the way he is. Fishman’s sense of humor is sprinkled through this absurd, but very serious, novel as he explores themes of identity, nature-versus-nurture, and genealogy.
The Shooting by James Boice
Gary Almeter: From its jarring opening sentence to its poignant conclusion, The Shooting fully and unrelentingly immerses the reader in gun culture. It does so in ways large and small, addressing the larger Machiavellian components of our nation's preoccupation with guns and fashioning small narratives of the individuals affected by gun violence. It is an epic story and one of the simplest too.
Three characters—the reclusive erratic scion of a wealthy family, a staunch anti-Second Amendment advocate whose daughter was murdered in a school shooting, and the teenage son of immigrant—all collide following one incident in New York City. The stories of these characters leading up to this moment are engrossing, and the paths these characters take after the incident will challenge what you think you know about America.
This is one of the best books I have ever read.
By Nicole Blades
In honor of Women’s History Month, I decided to keep my “Books You Should Already Own Because Whaaaat Why Haven’t You Read Them Yet?” list limited to women writers. And the good news is, this wasn’t a challenge. The work that women fiction writers have been and continue to put out there is pure fire! Love story? We got you. Thriller? On it. Young Adult charmer? Here you go, buddy. Whatever you have a hankering for, there are long lists of exceptional books written by a woman from which to choose and devour. For me, the work was trying to limit this list to five books. But that’s another story that involves my—ahem—acute bibliosis (just pretend, okay?). Here are five books I’ve read in the last five years that you’ll want to have on your shelf too.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation, this is one of the first that comes to my lips. It’s a love story, but that’s just one of the many rich layers to this novel. It’s also a story about belonging, home, loneliness, and being a black woman in a country that often acts like you’re not there. Plus there’s so much wit and heart here that you’ll find yourself head-back laughing one minute and then shouting “I know, right?!” the next. But that’s the magic of Adichie. She is so focused on telling rich, real stories that you can see yourself on these pages. And even when you don’t see “you” in the story, the characters are authentic while also being complex and human that you are pulled into their world and perspective. It’s all very captivating.
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
It’s a girl-meets-boy story, yes, but there’s nothing typical about it. For starters the girl, Madeline Whittier, is mixed race—African American and Asian. Also, she has a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) that makes her essentially “allergic to the world.” The boy, Olly, is her new neighbor, and their meet-cute happens from behind the glass of their distant bedroom windows. From the first line in, you’ll be rooting for Maddy. You want all good things for her, even though she’s enduring this unlivable, limited life trapped in a virtual bubble. The dialogue is snappy and smart, and the characters and their relationships feel real. Plus, there are these darling illustrations sprinkled throughout the book that add yet another layer of sweetness to this wonderful story.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I read this one last summer knowing that the HBO adaptation was coming in early 2017. And since I’m one of those “gotta read the book first!” types—and I hadn’t been pulled into a dark, buzzy, page-turner mystery since maybe Gone Girl—I picked up the heavy hardcover and jumped right in. I’m happy to say, Big Little Lies was the first book in a long while with a twist that I never saw coming. When I got to the particular page near the end, I literally sat up in my bed with my jaw dropped. Having that “No. Waaaaaaaay!” moment was a real payoff. It’s gossip and secrets and schadenfreude; all the ingredients for a classic beach read.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Full disclosure: I know Angela in real life. She went to college with my sister. But even if she were a stone-cold stranger, I would still sing this book’s praises. Well-drawn and engrossing—while tackling some pretty heavy topics like mental health and addiction and the 2008 housing crisis as well as the knotted ties that bind a family—The Turner House is poignant, entertaining, heartfelt and haunting. It’s ambitious, but takes such care with the finer details while being beautifully written. A fascinating family saga that almost dares you to put it down. (Don’t take the dare, though. You’ll lose!)
Any Book by Alice Munro
Okay, fine. It’s kind of cheating, but it’s not really because, come on. This is Alice Munro we’re talking about here. Alice Munro, aka Great Fellow Canadian/Master of the Short Story/Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m a loyal fan of Munro and her work. She’s permanently installed at the top of my list of favorite authors, and I’ll often pick up one of her collections at random times through the years to read a short story or two. But for the purposes of staying true to this “five for five” list, I’ll highlight her most recent release, Dear Life. It’s her thirteenth collection, but it’s as sharp and compelling as her first. The stories make the lives of ordinary people extraordinary. And isn’t that the very definition of what good fiction is? I’ll answer for you: Yes. Now, if you really want to get on my bad side, ask me to choose one of her short stories as my all-time favorite. (I’m already frowning at you now, so don’t bother.)
Nicole Blades’ next book, Have You Met Nora?, will be released Oct. 31. Her latest novel, The Thunder Beneath Us, is available now wherever books and e-books are sold. Catch Nicole and her sister Nailah on “Hey, Sis!,” their brand new podcast about women finding their focus and place in business, art, culture, and life.
Learn more about Blades by visiting her official website, liking her Facebook page, or following her on Twitter @NicoleBlades, Instagram @nicole_blades, and Goodreads. Also read Lindsey Wojcik's interview with the author.
In the second installment of #NovelClass, Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Edie Meidav’s Crawl Space.