M.J. Carter

14 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: January 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 Mothers by Brit Bennett

Daniel Ford: December and January are typically the months I frantically catch up on all the books I wasn’t able to fit into my reading schedule during the previous year. Brit Bennett’s soulful and empathetic debut The Mothers was one of the novels I was desperate to catch when it debuted but didn’t end up reading until the beginning of this year. I’m happy to report this book was well worth the wait.

Bennett showcases wisdom and verve well beyond her years. The novel, set in a black community in Southern California, begins with academic standout Natalie Turner considering an abortion after being impregnated by Luke Sheppard (the preacher’s son and injured football star). If that weren’t enough, Turner is still reeling from her mother’s suicide and her father’s distant grief. She finds friendship with Aubrey, who on the surface appears devoutly religious and squeaky-clean, but harbors her own secret past. In fact, the only people able to keep up with all the secrets in this novel (although they tend to be the wrong ones) are “the mothers,” a group of town women who likely found themselves in similar circumstances once upon a time.

Bennett’s dialogue matches each character exquisitely. Natalie’s is often angrily blunt and forceful, backed by intelligence and sadness. Luke mangles his words at times, never quite saying what he means, but revealing enough that readers are able to at least peek into his soul. Aubrey, who is arguably as damaged as Natalie, still retains a sense of innocent longing with her interactions, but isn’t afraid to cut right to the heart of the matter when pushed too far by Natalie or Luke.

The Mothers could have easily been a syrupy, paint-by-numbers drama in less capable hands, however, Bennett matches her pitch-perfect dialogue with lyrical prose that elicits just the right literary notes. Natalie, Luke, and Aubrey all stumble and regress at times, all the while revealing insights into the true nature of community, love, race, belonging, family, friendship, and ambition. Add The Mothers to your nightstand as soon as humanly possible, and put Bennett on your list of authors to watch.      

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Daniel: A small bomb explodes in a crowded marketplace in Delhi in the mid-1990s. Two young brothers are killed, while their friend is both physically and psychologically scarred. Families mourn, government officials and security forces promise easy justice, and both terrorists and vigilant citizens follow new paths.

So begins Karan Mahajan’s masterful and devastating novel The Association of Small Bombs. Through the eyes of his conflicted characters, Mahajan examines how subtly and profoundly society is altered by “small” terrorist attacks. The author squeezes the humanity out of every character, including the perpetrators, and adds nuance to every decision and action they take. The novel is most effective in its “small” moments: A disillusioned victim finding solace and healing in prayer, a mournful father losing himself in his work, mothers confronting the limitations of their love and security, terrorists battling with internal and external demons, and a population striving for normalcy in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world.

Mahajan’s sentences are a joy to read, even when he’s twisting your emotions to their breaking points. Considering the times we live in, as well as those we have endured during the last several decades, The Association of Small Bombs is not to be missed.

Sirens by Joshua Mohr

Sean Tuohy: Sirens, the brutally honest memoir by Joshua Mohr that will be released on Jan. 17, carries a hard punch. Mohr is blunt and upfront about his issues with addiction, however, don’t think this is a breezy, uplifting tale about a man overcoming his issues. Sirens features the ugly side of getting clean and relapsing, and Mohr bares his soul to further prove that addicts are never truly over their addictions. Make sure to listen to my interview with the author later this month.

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Adam Vitcavage: Erica Ferencik was inspired by “Deliverance” while writing The River at Night. Both are about unfortunate events deep in the wilderness. Ferencik’s takes place in Maine after a girls’ trip goes awry. The first-person narrative puts readers right in the plight, but the author’s focus isn’t too narrow. She carefully considers all points of view as she slowly unfolds the plot. One thing that stood out was the tight pacing that is frantic for the characters, but very breathable as a reader. The tidy construction of events is important for a thriller like this and Ferencik does not fall short.

TV (The Book) by Alan Sepinwall & Matt Zoller Seitz

Daniel: Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz—two of my favorite television critics—begin TV (The Book) with a question that’s long been a staple of living room couches and barroom debates: What’s the greatest TV show of all time? To arrive at the answer, the duo used a scoring system to rank the top 100 scripted shows. The result is a heartfelt, wonderfully written love letter to the small screen. While I was glad many of my favorite shows ended up on the list (Gentleman, I forgive you for leaving off “Men of A Certain Age,” but yay for “Terriers!”), I found myself even more enthralled with the shows I either hadn’t known about or haven’t seen in many years. I went back and watched shows like “Malcolm in the Middle,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with fresh eyes, marveling at the things I missed during my first viewing.  

Sepinwall and Seitz’s passion for television—and for writing in general—is evident in every essay, but it’s the debate at the beginning of the book that stands above everything else. Their ranking system produced a five-way tie for first place (a true battle royal between “The Sopranos,” “Cheers,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Wire”), which led to an intense Google Chat discussion between the authors about who deserved the top spot. The debate features some of the most insightful critical writing I’ve ever read. The history, trivia, and episodic memories that follow are infinitely readable and shareable (You’ll surely annoy the significant other in your life by starting every conversation with, “Did you know that…”).

TV (The Book) is essential reading for any TV nut who frequently shouts, “Yes, Netflix, I am still f$%76-ing watching!”

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Gary Almeter: I was giddy when, back in July, I became one of the first to place a request for Michael Chabon's Moonglow. This meant that I would be among the first to get it from the library upon its publication. Like the “Seinfeld episode” where the rental car place is good at taking the reservation but less good at holding the reservation, I am very adept at placing the hold requests and less adept at managing the requests. As such, I was in the middle of reading Nathan Hill's The Nix when I received an email from the library that Moonglow was available (along with Jonathan Lethem's A Gambler's Anatomy, Thomas Friedman's Thank You For Being Late, and John Edgar Wideman's Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File). 

With all that said, I only read the first chapter of Moonglow before I had to return it. It was not renewable because other, less astute library patrons had put request holds on it. However, the chapter I read was astonishing. Every sentence was an adventure. Sentences like, "Before the day of his arrest, my grandfather had distinguished himself to his coworkers only twice. During Game 5 of the 1956 World Series when the office radio failed, my grandfather had repaired it with a vacuum tube prized form the interior of the telephone switchboard.”

It became apparent that I was going to need all three weeks the library allots its patrons to give Moonglow the attention it warrants. I re-requested it and it remains on my radar screen.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Adam: Start your year off with this lengthy comic memoir about Craig Thompson’s coming-of-age experiences. The majority of the plot unfolds after Craig meets Raina at a winter church camp, but you don’t have to be religious or from the Midwest to connect with Thompson’s poignant narrative. It offers that cozy feeling that your favorite novel or television series provides, but with a unique perspective that you might not be used to. For those of you who aren’t comic fans, fear not because the stark black and white art is beautiful and his prose is very fulfilling. It may be long, but you’ll be able to devour this fairly rapidly.

Juggling Kittens by Matt Coleman

Daniel: As I mentioned on Twitter in December, Matt Coleman’s debut novel Juggling Kittens had a lot in common with James Tate Hill's Academy Gothic. It’s sarcastic fun, and features an unsettling mystery. Newly minted teacher Ellis Maze has a pregnant wife at home and a wacky, but loyal and plucky, superior named “The Drew,” so why wouldn’t he add an unwise and haphazard murder investigation into the mix?

While Maze’s search for a missing student keeps the pages turning, Coleman’s subtle exploration of rural life, education, relationships, parenthood, and America’s response to 9/11 is the novel’s true selling point. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I would pay good money to watch The Drew in a hot dog eating (while he’s downing PBRs and cursing the entire time).     

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz

Adam: Creating multiple, distinct voices over a short story collection is perhaps one of the hardest concepts for a writer to grasp. Even the lauded Phil Klay's award-winning collection Redeployment struggled with this (though it didn't struggle with much else). Chanelle Benz's The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead succeeds in creating visceral voices over the course of centuries of time. The writer is able to engage readers in invigorating stories about a 16th century monk to a 19th century baroque piece narrated by a chorus of We. "The West of Known,” the opening story, garnered Benz a lot of recognition when it was first published in The American Reader. The story earned her an O. Henry Prize and is an astonishing piece to introduce yourself to her writing. "James III" is a modern piece about violence and family that is narrated from the perspective of a high school freshman in Philadelphia. However, what stands out about Benz's writing is not the thought provoking plot; instead, it is the voice she is able to give James. He feels so real. So do all of her other narrators. Each one is a unique human who really lived. They're not just characters in a short story collection.

The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter

Daniel: M.J. Carter’s debut novel The Strangler Vine was a fun adventure deep within the heart of India that introduces readers to the unlikely duo of Blake and Avery. The Infidel Stain, which takes place three years later in Victorian London, finds the pair investigating the troubling murders of several disreputable publishers (is there any other kind?). Blake and Avery are a little worse for wear following their harrowing Indian experiences (especially Blake who spends much of the novel recovering from ailments, beatings, and grumpiness), but they still have enough of their deductive powers to hunt down the perpetrators that the city’s elite population and its corrupt police force would rather see stay in the shadows.

Carter’s novels satisfy the history nerd in me without being overly expository or pedantic. She builds a world in which you can smell, feel, and taste the grime and grandeur of London in 1841, as well as keep you guessing on where the story is ended next. Blake and Avery also prove once again that their hearts are always in the right place, even when one is slowly (or rapidly) driving the other crazy. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, The Devil’s Feast, when it goes on sale in March 2017! 

Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson

Daniel: I typically save one of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels for my end-of-the-year reading. I prefer to savor my interactions with Walt rather than indulge my literary desires and binge-read every one of his adventures. Johnson’s plots are always fun and unexpected, but it’s the time he takes eavesdropping on Walt’s inner monologue that makes all the yarns truly special. Another Man's Moccasins—Book 4 in the Walt Longmire series—just might be my new favorite. Walt finds a dead Vietnamese woman on the side of the road, and during his investigation, he’s haunted by a similar crime he sought answers to during the Vietnam War. Flashing back to Longmire’s war service, Johnson explores the themes of race, family, soldiers, and, as always, the mistreatment of Native Americans. If the series only gets better from here, I’m definitely going to have to revisit my Walt Longmire reading strategy. Boy howdy!   

Author’s Corner

Steph Post took some time out of promoting her new novel to share three books on her radar. Post’s Lightwood is out Jan. 24! Pre-order in bulk!

Be Cool by Ben Tanzer

Be Cool by Ben Tanzer is one of the most raw, honest, and hilarious memoirs I've ever read. Ben has a voice like no one else, fresh and self-deprecatingly witty, and his memoir tackles an issue I think we've all been dealing with since we were 11: how to be cool. Ben is a prolific writer, but Be Cool has to be my favorite of his works.

Leadfoot by Eric Beetner

Leadfoot by Eric Beetner is the follow up to Rumrunners, but goes back to the 1970s to tell the story of Calvin McGraw—the most badass old man character I've ever read about—in his prime. The McGraws remind me a lot of the Cannon family in my own novel Lightwood, and I swear one day our two fictional families are going to end up in a showdown. The McGraws are a hard luck outlaw family, and, in typical Beetner fashion, Leadfoot delivers everything you'd expect in a fast-paced, motor-fueled dark and funny caper.

Beachhead by Jeffery Hess

Beachhead by Jeffery Hess is another fast-paced read and this one is set in Florida in the 1980s. It's got everything you need in a killer crime and mystery read, but also has that beer-blurred sandy feel that I love about the "sunshine noir" genre. I think Jeffery is going to be a writer to keep your eye on in the future.

More From The Writer’s Bone Library

5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: April 2015

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.

The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

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).

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

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)!  

One More Thing: Stores and Other Stories by B.J. Novak

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.

The Red Chameleon by Erica Wright

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.

Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade

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.