This month's recommendations include works by Jami Attenberg, Vanessa Lillie, Marco Rafalà, Rion Amilcar Scott, Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, Mark Guerin, Zadie Smith, 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.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Daniel Ford: There are a ton of cliché fire references I could use to describe Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, but the novel is just too damn good for that kind of nonsense. Like her debut, Everything I Never Told You, this novel proves that Ng is one of the best character builders in the business. Even the most minor players are fleshed out with backstories befitting dives down one rabbit hole after another. The main characters are birthed in gray and remain there throughout the narrative, never fitting easily into simple black-and-white judgments. You'll root and jeer for everyone in equal measure, wondering which character is going to strike the match that burns everything down (okay, I'm weak, sue me). Ng has reached Megan Abbott status with me already, which means I have to drop everything to read anything new she publishes. This sophomore effort is a winner by any measure.
The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow
Sean Tuohy: The Winter of Frankie Machine features one of the greatest opening chapters ever written. Don Winslow's thriller follows retired mafia hit man Frankie Machianno as he tries to figure out who wants him killed. What makes Winslow such an exceptional author is that he doesn’t try to be like anyone else. He simply writes with his own stellar voice, which makes every book he pens a fantastic read.
Garden of the Lost and Abandoned by Jessica Yu
Daniel: This is indeed an extraordinary story, however, its subject, Gladys, is anything but ordinary. Yu follows her as she doggedly transverses Uganda, helping as many lost and abandoned children as possible. Gladys is a larger than life personality, and Yu brings all her best sensibilities as a filmmaker and documentarian to bring every corner of this woman’s world to light. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get angry, but you’ll never lose hope while reading this book.
In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
Daniel: Porter Square Book’s Josh Cook has been spending our money all year, and it seems he’s going to keep doing so until the final bell rings in 2017. He recommended this book on Twitter recently, and it arrived at Writer’s Bone HQ soon after. Damn if that man doesn’t have good taste when it comes to words. I want to keep this review brief because I feel like readers should go into the story as fresh as humanly possible, but the opening line (and, really, the opening chapter) is worth double or triple whatever money you spend on this novel. It’s that good.
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose
Caitlin Malcuit: Francine Prose's Mister Monkey is the best character novel since Olive Kitteridge. Prose masterfully hops from one subject to the next like a silhouette of Darwinian evolution, all linked by a maudlin stage production of a beloved children's book. You may not be charmed by every character, but that's human nature, after all. It's tough to tear yourself away from Mister Monkey, as each story unfolds seamlessly thanks to Prose's natural and assured voice.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Mike Nelson: Whenever someone tells you something is "the best" or changed their lives, you should always proceed with caution. But when Chris Evans told me* Siddhartha changed his life, I threw caution to the wind.
Siddhartha is beautiful, haunting, and divisive. It's 150 pages that you should read at the pace of 800. The care you put into absorbing and respecting every thought on the page will give it back to you tenfold. It's not a book to be read in between checking your friends' Insta feeds; it's a perspective to be considered with your deepest focus.
Or you can just whip through it just for the sake of getting through it and join what I assume are thousands of people who died thinking that book was useless.
(*told a reporter in an interview in a magazine I read on my toilet...most likely Rolling Stone)
The First Day by Phil Harrison
Daniel: Phil Harrison is able to pack a big punch in a short novel. A love affair between a preacher and a young woman quickly morphs into a fractured familial drama that descends to depths I never saw coming. There is real beauty in some of Harrison’s sentences and he lets readers right into the heads of all his emotional (and severely damaged) characters. The fact that the novel is set in Belfast and New York City is an added bonus.
Vacationland by John Hodgman
Gary Almeter: If you want to dislike John Hodgman for any of the panoply of reasons there might be to dislike John Hodgman (i.e., he has two vacation homes, he was on “The Daily Show” and got to hang out with Jon Stewart, he got oodles of money for being the PC Guy in the Apple commercials, and has great facial hair), then Vacationland is not the book for you. I was eager to dislike him too, but, sadly, this book makes it impossible to do so. In between the humor and the vivid descriptions of utopian Maine and Massachusetts, Vacationland is a memoir written by an extremely kind, genuinely funny, impossibly thoughtful, and anomalously caring man. It's hard to dislike a person who shares of himself so openly and while doing so weaves humor and insight into the narrative, which is really a whole big clever metaphor for living. This book is spectacular.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Daniel: I finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen (which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016) in late September, but I’ve had to sit with it for a while before writing a review. First of all, Moshfegh is a spectacular writer (a sentiment our London contributor Conor White-Andrews echoed in an email exchange recently). The prose here is superb. It grabs you from the get-go and doesn’t let go. You never really know where the plot is headed, but it doesn’t matter. You just want to find out as much about the main character as humanly possible without the book actually ending. Moshfegh is a Boston native, so don’t be surprised if we knock on her door in the near future for an interview.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Sean Tuohy: Unsettling, haunting, and chilling are just few ways to sum up Paul Tremblay's 2014 horror novel. A crumbling family in need of money allows television producers to film their daughter, who may or may not be possessed by a demon. Tremblay breathes fresh air into the horror genre by keeping the reader engaged in the all-too-familiar characters that populate the book. They’re people you know, like, and wish the best for. You’ll be trying to guess if the young woman is possessed or not until the last few pages of this book. Like with Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, we suggest you read this book with the lights on.
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Daniel: Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele was nominated for the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel, and had Steele been a real person, as opposed to a fictional character, it would have been great fun to discover the myriad ways she would have killed off the competition. Faye brilliantly borrows from Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre, and gives her orphaned heroine plenty of opportunities to hone her murderous craft. Steele also has more of a heart of gold than she might like to admit… I still can’t get the line, “Reader, I murdered him,” out of my head. Odds are good that you won’t either.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman
I feel very #humblebrag-y by writing about a book that's not out yet, but this book has been buzzing around my brain for months. Lippman's latest is a powerful piece of modern noir that evokes the classics but also pushes things forward with an unforgettable protagonist and plenty of charm, allure, and twists. It’s quite possibly my favorite Lippman novel, which is saying a lot.
Little Deaths by Emma Flint
I had to keep double-checking to make sure this was, in fact, Flint's first novel because it has the poise, execution, and style of a veteran's work. A sharp, well-crafted piece of literary crime fiction that leaves you guessing and engaged throughout, Little Deaths features two compelling leads in divorced and troubled mom Ruth Malone and eager-beaver reporter Pete Wonicke. Their paths intersect after Malone faces a horrendous tragedy and the story deftly jumps from different time periods and points of view to build an irresistible mystery and a meaningful look at everyone's capacity for good—and evil.
The Castle by Jason Pinter
If you like your fiction ripped from the headlines and bursting with relevance, then The Castle's your jam. I'm biased, as Pinter is my editor at Polis Books, but that conflict of interest flew out the window a few paragraphs into The Castle, which is a high-octane rollercoaster of a read. The scary thing is just how close it veers to reality. Pinter's prose is on-target and his Trumpian villain, the bravado-filled Rawson Griggs, is as memorable as they come.
Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
Like Little Deaths, this was another jaw-dropping first novel, and a superb psychological thriller that will linger for some time after you put the book down. Haunted by the vicious murder of her sister, Nora finds herself obsessed with discovering the truth, but is forced to face not only her love for her sibling, but the baggage and pain that comes hurtling toward her from their shared past. You won't be able to put this one down.
The Cutaway by Christina Kovac
A witty, polished, and evocative mystery that explores the inner workings of TV news, the Washington D.C. political landscape and those that strive to maintain the status quo, The Cutaway introduces readers to TV producer Virginia Knightly, who finds herself dragged into the darkest corners of the nation's capitol as she investigates the case of a missing woman, and just why she's been pulled off the map. Like Little Deaths and Under The Harrow, The Cutaway is another top-flight debut novel from a writer you'll want to keep your eyes on.
Listen to Daniel Ford interview Alex Segura and Radha Vatsal earlier this year in Queens, N.Y. Blackout comes out May 18, 2018.
Author’s Out Loud
Dr. Titus Plomaritis, retired chiropractor and former Lowell, Mass. football star, reads “The Demoulas Story” from this autobiography, Titus: The Life Story of Dr. Plomaritis.
Listen to Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford’s discussion about Joe Hill’s Strange Weather.
By Daniel Ford
To date, I’ve read 96 books in 2016, which is up from the 87 I read last year. Since you’ve already called me a nerd in your head, please allow me to further strengthen the case. Those 96 books add up to 37,872 pages, myriad reading devices, and two dried out eyeballs. I also managed to get engaged, help build a website at my day gig, edit and shop a novel, and feed and bath myself.
While I’m troubled by the direction the United States and the world are headed in, I’m just as confident that art and literature will continue to inform, illuminate, and ignite a global citizenship that needs to be more engaged and educated than ever before.
30. Everyone Loves You Back by Louie Cronin
Matthew Hefti’s main character is writing a letter to a lifelong friend, but he could have easily been writing a letter to the ongoing conflicts the United States has been involved in since 2001. Hefti is a talent to watch, and he delivers a heartfelt and moving debut.
27. Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W.B. Belcher
During a “Friday Morning Coffee” episode earlier this year, author Richard Dalglish implored writers not to forget about craftsmanship. There’s no finer example of craftsmanship than Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith asks big, important questions, and I hope that readers debate the answers throughout the new year.
25. We're All Damaged by Matthew Norman
Eddy Harkness isn’t the hero the real world (or the fictional one he inhabits) deserves, but he certainly is the one we need. In Eddy we trust!
23. The Infinite by Nick Mainieri
Nick Mainieri’s debut features two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo’s fervent and turbulent relationship sets off a chain of events that leads to an unexpected conclusion. The Infinite is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read.
22. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived by Tom Shroder
The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived is essential reading for aspiring authors and journalists. Tom Shroder explores his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather’s life while also recounting his own writing career. The passionately researched narrative will fill up your creative tank.
21. Christodora by Tim Murphy
The more I learn about Tim Murphy and his work, the more I like him. His effortless nonlinear storytelling in Christodora perfectly complements his damaged, but tenacious, characters and his exploration of the AIDs epidemic. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but a necessary one.
20. The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung
Sonya Chung puts her characters through hell throughout her sophomore novel. Their responses to tragedy and inner demons don’t make them the best human beings at times, but you’ll easily fall in love with them despite their myriad flaws. The Loved Ones also features one of the most haunting and beautifully sad farewells you’ll ever read.
19. Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay
Joe Hill’s brand of apocalyptic fiction ranks alongside Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and José Saramago’s Death With Interruptions. Much like those works, The Fireman features a harrowing (and down right sexy) epidemic, a sense of humor, and characters you wouldn’t mind spending damnation with. Hill is one of fiction’s best world builders, and his enthusiasm for the craft of writing is infectious. (His live readings also tend to feature kazoos!)
17. The Nix by Nathan Hill
Considering that Nathan Hill’s debut novel tops many year-end book lists, The Nix is arguably ranked too low here. That’s a testament to the quality of fiction we read in 2016. The Nix is a compulsive read that, at times, gets weighted down by some of its pop culture and societal critiques. However, since 2016 proved to be a bitch of a year culturally and politically, I’d much rather have too much of Hill’s wit rather than not enough.
16. Louisa by Louisa Thomas
Louisa proved to be a very welcome and refreshing look at Revolutionary War-era America. Louisa Thomas explored the life of Louisa Adams, our first foreign-born First Lady. While Mrs. Adams does spend a good chunk of time recovering from or feigning illness, she proves more than a match for her surly, ambitious, and misunderstood husband (everyone’s favorite dinner guest, John Quincy Adams).
15. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
If “The Wire” had decided to spend a whole season devoted to a road trip with Bodie, Wallace, Poot, and D’Angelo Barksdale, I imagine it would have resembled something close to what Bill Beverly crafted in Dodgers. It’s a thriller with real heart and muscle, thanks in large part to its conflicted main character East. The opening chapters are written as if they were fired from a gun, and set the tone for the rest of the novel’s coming of age journey.
14. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye
The Kennedys have been dissected ad nauseam, however, Larry Tye finds a fresh angle to examine the life of Robert Kennedy. Tye follows John F. Kennedy’s younger brother’s astounding political transformation from his days working as a lawyer under Senator Joe McCarthy to his tragic campaign for President in 1968. Bobby Kennedy is unsparing and objective, but also gives RFK aficionados plenty of new reasons to admire their hero.
13. Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher
Matthew Gallagher’s novel Youngblood is right up there with Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and the aforementioned A Hard and Heavy Thing. Essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of our foreign policy and understand the men and women who execute it.
12. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout’s short novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, hit me with the right words and subject matter at the right time. A book about healing, motherhood, and love.
11. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma
Kristopher Jansma’s prologue, interlude, and epilogue are the most beautiful words ever written about New York City. His prologue in particular captures everything I feel about the city I’ve loved since childhood. This novel is a must read for anyone that’s been ensorcelled by the Big Apple’s many temptations.
10. Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
It’s nice to know that the creators of one of the best sitcoms of all time were as eccentric as the characters many of us have come to love. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong discovers one great story after another about “Seinfeld” and its writers’ room. She also lovingly investigates the show’s curious, quirky fans who have kept it relevant well past its final episode. Seinfeldia is a breezy, energetic read that will have you binge-watching the show on Hulu by the time you’re finished. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
9. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Ben H. Winters is the master of dystopian fiction, and he outdoes himself with Underground Airlines. In the novel, the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists, and a slave catcher desperate to repress and erase his past takes on an assignment that threatens to crack his carefully manufactured persona. This book is an absolutely thrilling and original tale that should shake a few assumptions of your own.
8. This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper
During a recent podcast interview author Jade Chang advised aspiring authors “to be ambitious.” Anyone who has read her debut novel The Wangs vs. the World knows how wonderfully ambition can pay off. Chang reinvigorates the immigrant narrative through the eyes of Charles Wang and his hilariously flawed family. Like many of the novels on this list, The Wangs vs. the World stress tests and critiques all of the tenets of the American Dream, but does so with an abundance of mirth and cynical optimism.
6. Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo
Megan Abbott’s novel should have been titled, You Will Hold Your Breath The Whole Time. I barely survived reading this incredibly tense and finely crafted mystery; I can’t imagine what it was like writing it. She has more than earned the “maestro of the heebie-jeebies” distinction from The New York Times.
4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad is why fiction exists. The novel serves as a brutal reminder of the past and a cautionary tale for how easily we can slip into easy violence, subjugation, and intolerance. Colson Whitehead has established himself as one of the great voices in fiction.
3. Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
Taylor Brown’s achingly beautiful debut established itself as my favorite book of 2016 way back in August 2015 (I read an advanced copy leading up to its January 2016 pub date). It took two special novels to knock it off the top spot. After going back and rereading a few chapters while preparing this list, I was reminded of what made the book such a joy to read: hearty prose, snappy and spare dialogue, earthy characters, and a hard driving plot.
2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
We met a lot of memorable characters this year, but there was only one Frank. Be Frank With Me is an unforgettable debut that everyone should read. (And, according to the author, the paperback edition can easily fit in a stocking!)
Any of these books could have been added to the top 30. I wrestled with this list for days. I'm just grateful that I got to read so many great novels and nonfiction titles this year! Give plenty of love to these authors’ books as well!
Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach, Seven Sins by Karen Runge, A Single Happened Thing by Daniel Paisner, The Last Days of Magic by Marc Thompkins, The Duration by Dave Fromm, The Girls by Emma Cline, An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich, The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott, Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts, The Unseen World by Liz Moore, Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen, The Point Is by Lee Eisenberg, and Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen