Tania James

The Top 10 Novels of 2015: Part 2

By Daniel Ford

If you missed Part 1, check it out here. I’ve included some of my original reviews, as well as new insights. Feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

5. Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich & Where All the Light Tends to Go by David Joy

Brian Panowich and David Joy go together like dark alcohol and a heavy glass. I read their novels fairly close to each other and befriended the authors on Twitter, so I didn’t have the heart to split them up.

As I said in “Bruce, Bourbon, and Books,” Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain follows the Burroughs clan throughout several decades in the North Georgia Mountains. At the center of the story stands Clayton Burroughs, the sheriff of Waymore Valley, an honest man standing at the foot of a corrupt mountain. A shadowy Federal agent gives him an opportunity by to finally extricate his family name from drug running and death, however, his hillbilly crime lord brother wants no part of any such redemption.

The narrative spans several generations of Burroughs men, always at odds with themselves, their kin, and the innocent bystanders in their wake. As with many of the other crime novels we’ve featured on Writer’s Bone, this one shines because of its literary dedication to its main characters. They feel as old and familiar as the book’s mountain setting and are hardwired into the plot in a dramatically complex way.

Panowich is also a helluva talker (as you’ll hear in the podcast below).

Joy’s novel is pure Southern noir poetry. As I mentioned in “Bruce, Bourbon, and Books” (are you sensing a pattern?), you’d swear some of the perfectly crafted lines in this work swam out of a high-end bottle of bourbon, picked up the first shotgun they saw, and blasted their way through Appalachia.

He also said one of the most insightful things about the writing process I’ve heard in all the interviews we’ve done this year: “I need one good sentence before I can move forward.” It’s true for a lot of writers and I like how Joy’s method led to Where All the Light Tends to Go's lyrical style.

I’ve been hearing good things about his follow up, so restock your bourbon shelf and finish off his debut so you can devour the next one!

4. The Tusk That Did All the Damage by Tania James

Tania JamesThe Tusk That Did the Damage completely charmed me. She utilized three narrators—including an elephant named The Gravedigger!—and weaved a tragic story while providing a deep back story for each one. When you’re not rooting for the resilient, emotionally broken elephant, you’ll be ensorcelled by a young man whose loyalty to his poacher brother knows no bounds, or troubled by the passive-aggressive filmmaking shooting a documentary on an elephant rehabilitation clinic.

She may have also won her way into the top five with this tweet:

3. My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

One of the hallmarks of a great novel is how badly you want to get it into the hands of everyone you know. I’m pretty sure my copy of M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away has made its way into the hands of just about every member of my family at this point.

Walsh’s crisp style and thought-provoking prose combines both literary fiction and a pulse-quickening thriller. Set in Baton Rouge, La., the novel explores the nature of “violent crime, unraveling families, and consuming adolescent love.” Fair warning, if you pick up this book in the store and read the first chapter, you’re going to end up buying it and throwing out the rest of your reading queue immediately.

I truly loved this novel and couldn’t be happier that Gary Almeter brought it up during our recent Friday Morning Coffee conversation. It made me remember the great experience I had reading the book and interviewing the author (podcast below).

2. God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Legér

In our first interview, Dimitry Elias Legér told me, “I put my heart and soul into God Loves Haiti.” As I said in my February review, Léger’s heart and soul is evident on every page, every line of dialogue, and in every character.

Maybe I’m biased because Legér is a St. John’s alum, like myself, but his exploration of Haiti during the 2010 earthquake made my heart goudou-goudou. There’s also a scene in the middle of the novel that involves a woman locking her naked lover in a closet. The nude escape that ensues struck such a human note in the midst of a tragedy that I was laughing and crying at the same time (you’ll also be weeping at the ending, which still gets to me all these months later). If the resiliency, love, and, yes, humor, of Léger’s characters doesn’t make your heart goudou-goudou, then you should seek medical attention immediately.

He also gets bonus points for recording Writer’s Bone’s first Skype interview!

1. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

I read most of Chigozie Obioma’s pitch perfect debut The Fishermen while on a bus headed back home to visit my parents for Easter. Perhaps it was the interaction with my own brothers that made this book stick with me so much. Maybe I saw my mother and father in the two parents trying to hold a family together in the face of suffering. Maybe it was making every local stop known to man between Hartford and Boston that made me savor every sentence, character, and theme.    

The novel is set in 1990s Nigeria and tells the heart-wrenching and bloody tale of four brothers whose lives are changed on the banks of a haunted river. Benjamin, the story’s 9-year-old narrator, attempts to makes sense of the changing world around him as his family is torn apart by a madman’s prophecy. The Fishermen begins so lightheartedly—the reader is led to believe that this is another coming-of-age story set in a foreign location—that later events crush you even more. It’s a book that should inspire you to craft your own great art. The best authors light a fire under you, and I can assure you, Obioma will be lighting fires for years to come.

It’s quite simply the best book I read all year. Obioma may not have won the Man Booker Prize, but I hope he can take solace in topping our humble list (and he better be working on his next book!).  

Read Part 1


5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: March 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.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Sean Tuohy: Oh. My. Goodness. The Martian is amazing. An astronaut is left behind on Mars after a mission goes wrong. Now, completely alone on an alien planet, he has to figure out how to survive. If that doesn't get you going, then something is wrong with you. The pacing in this book is fantastic; one moment you’re on the edge of your seat and in the next, you are bent over laughing non-stop. Great read.

One of my favorite quotes:

“Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be ‘in command’ if I were the only remaining person. What do you know? I’m in command.”

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

Daniel Ford: I sat down with Tania James’ The Tusk That Did the Damage expecting only to read a couple of chapters to get a feel for her style. Well, I finally put the book down completed two nights later after devouring every perfectly crafted sentence. James utilizes three narrators—including an elephant named The Gravedigger!—and weaves a tragic story while providing a deep back story for each one. When you’re not rooting for the resilient, emotionally broken elephant, you’ll be ensorcelled by a young man whose loyalty to his poacher brother knows no bounds, or troubled by the passive-aggressive filmmaking shooting a documentary on an elephant rehabilitation clinic. The reviews for The Tusk That Did All the Damage have been overwhelmingly positive, including a glowing review in The New York Times Book Review, so I have no doubt James is an author whose best is yet to come.

Learn more about James and her work by reading my recent interview with her.

If We Lived Here by Lindsey Palmer

Stephanie Schaefer: Do you find yourself inundated with social media posts highlighting your peers’ engagements, promotions, new homes, and pregnancy announcements all while wondering when the pieces of your life will fall into place? Then you’ll certainly relate to Lindsey Palmer’s If We Lived Here. The novel follows a couple in their early 30s as they search for the perfect Brooklyn apartment while dealing with judgmental landlords, gold-digging best friends, and the everyday struggles of young adulthood in today’s world. Take a break from social media and pick up Palmer’s second novel when it debuts on March 31.

You can learn more about the witty book by checking out my recent interview with the author.

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

Dave Pezza: Jim Shepard's latest novel, The Book of Aron (due out in May 2015), is told from the first person perspective of a Jewish boy named Aron who lives with his family in Warsaw, Poland during World War II.

The force of this book lies not in the broad strokes of Jewish suffering in the Warsaw ghetto, nor in the survival drama played out in stories like Elie Wiesel's Night. The Book of Aron stands out as a work of powerful fiction because hell is viewed from the perspective of a prepubescent boy.

Let's not be coy; the book's ending is evident from the onset. This boy's fate, and the fate of everyone he knows, is signed, sealed, and delivered within the first few pages. Aron has a dream in the first chapter that sets the book's dark stage, "...I dreamed that a raven was sitting on my shoulder in the wind and a black cloak was streaming out behind me." It is the slow, stark unfolding of Aron's story that makes Shepard's work so crushing and so necessary. From the suburbs, to the city, to the ghetto, and finally an orphanage, Shepard relates the destruction of innocence through a boy's unfathomable suffering. Aron is forced him to live with choices and realities that you wouldn't' wish on your worst enemy.

The Book of Aron is a must read, and I'm certain it will become a new mainstay in the pantheon of Holocaust literature. Be warned, this is a tough, tough book to get through. Tough not only for the reason’s I’ve described, but also because of such soul crushing lines as, "...I hated myself for making me feel the way I did and hated myself even more for not just being dead somewhere." But it's an important story, loosely based on the story of Janusz Korczak and the Warsaw ghetto orphanage he supported and operated, to remember what hate and ignorance can do to one life's most beautiful experiences.

The Painter By Peter Heller

Daniel: I’m an unabashed fan of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, so I couldn’t wait to read his most recent novel, The Painter. Boy, it doesn’t get much better than an author who has supreme confidence in his ability. The Painter begins with the main character, Jim Stenger, shooting someone in a bar after a man makes lewd comments about Jim’s daughter. Stenger does his time (the man he shoots survives) and then becomes a well-renowned artist (and avid fly fisherman), but can’t quite shake his dark, angry impulses. The tale Heller orchestrates through Jim’s perspective is brutal, but not devoid of all hope. You’re squarely in Jim’s corner despite the horrible acts he continues to commit. Heller’s supporting cast is equally as colorful and deep. Every sentence and line of dialogue in this novel is a masterful brush stroke of literary talent. In our interview last July, Heller said that his writing process for The Painter was to follow “the music of the language.” We should all be so lucky to hear language such as this.