Valeria Luiselli

23 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: May 2019

23 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: May 2019

This month's book recommendations feature works by Jason Allen, Dana Czapnik, Valeria Luiselli, Rebecca Makkai, George Packer, Sally Rooney, De’Shawn Charles Winslow, and more!

The 35 Best Books of 2017

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By Daniel Ford

2017 was a remarkable year for fiction and nonfiction. From fearless debut novelists to established literary veterans at the top of their games, authors provided the artistic tonic we needed to survive a turbulent time both politically and culturally.

Narrowing down a reading list of 116 titles to just 35 was torture. The final grouping you’re about to read (and judge) could have easily been expanded to include 50 to 60 books. Please feel free to debate my choices and add your own in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

As always, keep reading everyone!  


35. Smothered by M.C. Hall

Megan Cassidy Hall deserves a writing award for the faux-comments section alone. Her epistolary exploration of a sensational crime, and how society reacts to it, is both haunting and incredibly sad.  


34. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell

I still have this trippy, mind-bending novel in my head. You’ll question your own reality after reading this, but you won’t question N.J. Campbell’s talent.  


33. Marcel’s Letters by Carolyn Porter

In a year when we desperately needed as many genuine love stories as possible, Carolyn Porter delivered a great one. Her hunt for the truth behind a World War II survivor’s letters led to a splendid and deeply personal read (as well as a beautiful font!).


32. Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Jeffrey Kluger’s return to the Apollo missions provided 2017 with the same burst of hope that Apollo 8 gave 1968 (one of the most turbulent years in American history). A thrilling narrative featuring the crew of Apollo 8 that reminds you of what Americans are capable of when reaching for the same stars.


31. Blurred Lines by Vanessa Grigoriadis

Vanessa Grigoriadis’ curious and wide-ranging reporting in Blurred Lines warmed my journalist soul even while making my skin crawl. Sexual assault on campus remains a complicated, serious issue, and, judging by Grigoriadis’ revelations, will continue to be one until colleges and universities make even more substantial changes to their policies and punishments.  


30. An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

There’s not a bad sentence in this book. Kat Howard should be a household name. She makes you care deeply for all of her characters—even the evil ones—as she’s putting them all through (magical) hell.


29. The Weight of This World by David Joy

David Joy is the poet of broken characters. He gets better and better with every novel. The Weight of This World puts a hole through your heart with a shotgun and uses bourbon to salve the wound.  


28. The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Ella May Wiggins lives in the past, but would be right at home fighting against our current political demagogues. She’s a reluctant rebel, one driven to protest in order to feed her starving family. A finely drawn supporting cast experiences the novel’s tragic events through myriad personalities, racial identities, and disparate classes. Urgent historical fiction of the highest order.


27. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Still amazed at the answers Sebastian Barry gave during our podcast interview earlier this year. He combined his love of the American Civil War stories and his son to deliver a truly remarkable western.


26. The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves by James Han Mattson

A powerful read about the aftermath of a terrible tragedy perpetrated by a lost and confused teenager. No one comes off looking particularly well in this narrative, told in part through email chains and online chats, but it’s that broken humanness that makes The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves so devastating and gripping. Top-notch writing.


25. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The first chapter alone should win some kind of literary prize. It sets the tone of the novel and feels so immediate considering the political climate in the United States and around the globe. And that ending…so good!


24. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

The Story of My Teeth further cements Valeria Luiselli as one of the most important voices in fiction and nonfiction. Read this and everything else she’s written.    


23. American War by Omar El Akkad

American War is a cautionary tale that seems more and more realistic with each passing day. It’s a visceral, brutal thriller that peels apart the many layers of American dysfunction and partisanship.


22. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses were two of my favorite main characters in 2017. Whitaker puts them through hell (some of it self-inflicted), but never leaves them completely hopeless. Author Julie Buntin called this novel “goddamned brilliant” in June’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” and she’s 100% goddamn right.


21. What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection is masterful. I had so much fun listening to Levar Burton read the title story on his podcast "Levar Burton Reads," and then hearing Arimah talk about the collection on a later episode.


20. Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais

Bianca Marais’ storytelling is so mesmerizing that you’ll constantly mutter, “Just one more chapter…” while reading the novel. Robin and Beauty don’t have it easy for much of the narrative, but they’re equal parts fragile and flinty throughout the narrative. Marais’ sparkling debut explores everything from race relations to familial bonds.


19. The Force by Don Winslow

How do you follow up The Cartel, one of the best novels written about the ongoing drug war in Mexico and the Southern United States? If you’re the master of crime fiction, you write The Force, a gripping thriller about a corrupt cop in New York City. A master class in dialogue and plot.


18. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer (#2 on last year’s list), and followed it up with an equally compelling, earthy, and poignant short story collection. He’s rightly become an essential voice on the literary scene.


17. Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

It’s been such a joy following Elliot Ackerman’s career as a journalist and novelist. His debut Green on Blue was one of our favorite novels in 2015, and his stellar sophomore effort, Dark at the Crossing, was nominated for this year’s National Book Award.   


16. I Was Told To Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

I Was Told To Come Alone is an extraordinary memoir about a life in journalism. Souad Mekhennet’s journey from inquisitive child to fearless reporter tasked with communicating with jihadists is impossible to forget. Her final chapter is a call to arms for journalists and global citizens alike.


15. The Mothers by Brit Bennett

This is the first book I read in 2017, and it really set the bar high. Bennett’s wisdom and verve are evident on every page. I found myself falling in love with the characters all over again revisiting the novel for this post. 

Note: The Mothers was published late in 2016, but I read it in January 2017 so I'm counting it for this year's list. It's my post, I can do what I want!


14. Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

I loved how Hala Alyan structured her debut novel. She wrote from multiple characters’ perspectives and jumped forward several years in the timeline throughout the book. This allowed her to explore themes like the aftermath of war and the development of familial relationships in a really heartfelt way. Her dialogue sang like poetry.   


13. Sirens by Joshua Mohr

Joshua Mohr’s fiction is defined by brutal honesty. He upped the stakes by telling his own sordid (Mohr’s adjective of choice) tale. Make sure you listen to Mohr read from a section in Sirens (sure to elicit both laughter and tears) from our live event at Porter Square Books earlier this year. Very much looking forward to the follow up Model Citizen!


12. Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

I finished Gabe Habash’s insanely well written debut in one sitting. Spending time in Stephen Florida’s head was like sitting on top of a runaway freight train.


11. Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

The only thing I enjoyed more than this steamy satire was discussing it with Dave Pezza for #NovelClass. I loved the way Perrotta depicted his middle-aged female lead and how he crafted her eclectic supporting cast.


10. Marlena by Julie Buntin

As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories. Julie Buntin’s Marlena is one of the best ever written, and one that makes me want to up my writing game. It’s been rightly feted all year, and I’d love to see this story on screen.


9. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

“Moving,” “romantic,” “tender,” and “violent” are all words I used to describe Exit West back in March. One of the central questions Hamid attempts to answer is, “Can new love blossom and survive in a war zone?” His answers are as poetic as they are heart breaking. And it all starts with this stellar opening line: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”


8. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng has no rival when it comes to crafting characters. Those that populate Little Fires Everywhere are deliciously damaged. Tangled small town drama has never been this illuminating.


7. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing has its own heartbeat that you feel through its spine. All the ghosts that her characters are living with feel like they’re right next to you as you read.   


6. Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Soli, one of Lucky Boy’s main characters, is one of the most memorable, tough, and fierce mothers in fiction. You’ll find yourself rooting just as hard for her brilliant counterpart Kavya. Between them is a young boy unaware of the passionate struggle to claim him on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. I read this early in 2017 when the first of President Trump’s Muslim bans was enacted. It was a powerful read then, and remains one now in the face of continued xenophobia and discrimination.


5. Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

Deep space, an astronaut tortured by the romance he left behind, and a spider that may or may not be imaginary. What’s not to love? Plus, my favorite cover of the year (not biased at all by the giant coffee cup)!


4. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

I’m still amazed that Rachel Khong packed so much heart, humor, and human themes into such a short novel. Khong is one of my favorite risk-taking debut novelists.


3. What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Speaking of risk-takers, Zinzi Clemmons wrote an innovative, emotionally devastating novel that I continually re-read to get inspired. She’s a must-follow on Twitter as well.  


2. All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

I, perhaps unfairly, have compared every book I’ve read in 2017 to Jami Attenberg’s flawless All Grown Up. Attenberg told me in a podcast interview earlier this year that she wanted to “write something funny and contemporary, and loose and bittersweet.” She succeeded on all levels. This novel will be on my annual re-read list for years to come.


1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Epic in scope and passionately written, Pachinko has been my number one since the day I started reading it. Min Jin Lee is a treasure. “History has failed us, but no matter,” my favorite opening line of 2017, still gets me.  


Honorable Mention

Setting Free the Kites by Alex George, The River of Kings by Taylor Brown, Unsub by Meg Gardiner, What We Build Upon the Ruins by Giano Cromley, The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak, Garden of Lost and Abandoned by Jessica Yu, She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper, The Wanderers by Meg Howrey, The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich, The River at Night by Erica Ferencik, Exit Strategy by Steve Hamilton, Trajectory by Richard Russo, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, Have You Met Nora? by Nicole Blades, White Fur by Jardine Libaire, Colorado Boulevard by Phoef Sutton, Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett, Borne by Jeff VanderMeer, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, Strange Weather by Joe Hill, In the Distance by Hernan Diaz, The Names of Dead Girls by Eric Rickstad, One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel, Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give by Ada Calhoun

20 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: June 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 Force by Don Winslow

Daniel Ford: Don Winslow is generally regarded as the current king of crime fiction, and his new novel The Force (out June 20) adds another bauble to his crown. What happens when the people sworn to protect us are just as nefarious and organizational corrupt as those destined for prison or death? Winslow’s portrait of Denny Malone, a highly decorated NYPD detective sergeant called “the King of Manhattan North," provides answers to that perilous question while also crafting an entertaining thrill ride. Malone’s crew, called “Da Force,” would be more at home in a Martin Scorsese mobster movie rather than cleaning up the streets of New York City. A drug bust gone bad (or good if you’re the dirty cops hoping to pad their retirement nest egg with the purloined narcotics) sets the plot in motion and leads to Malone’s crisis of conscience. Is that enough to protect Malone’s way of life and the group of men he values above everything else in his life (including his estranged wife, his girlfriend, and his kids)? You’ll lose plenty of sleep finding out the answer to that one.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Sean Tuohy: Author of the highly acclaimed The Lost City Of Z, David Grann comes back with a fantastic new book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. During the 1920s, the Osage tribe of Oklahoma was one of the wealthiest groups on the planet because of the oil on its land. The tribe soon found itself in the crosshairs of a deadly conspiracy. With mounting bodies, the newly formed FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, stepped in to solve the case.

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo

Stephanie Schaefer: Every now and then I come across a love story that I can’t put down. Jill Santopolo’s The Light We Lost was one of them. The novel focuses on Lucy and Gabe, two star-crossed lovers who first meet as students at Columbia University on September 11, 2001. The haunting day sets the stage for what will become a deep, yet turbulent relationship through adulthood. When Gabe’s passion for photojournalism takes him to the Middle East, Lucy embarks on a more conventional path in New York City—although she can never truly shake her past, and first true love. Within a series of flashbacks written in a second person narrative, Santopolo touches on the classic theme of fate vs. free will, giving it a modern spin. Although there were times where it seemed like Lucy’s character hadn’t matured in the 13 years since her college graduation, I was thoroughly intrigued by the plot of novel. Toward its conclusion I anxiously turned each heart-wrenching page to see if my predictions came true.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

Daniel: I hadn’t read Maya Angelou’s work in quite a long time, so it was refreshing to hear her voice again. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit Emma Watson and her Books on the Subway/Underground book fairy adventure for putting Mom & Me & Mom on my radar.)

This short memoir about her relationship with her mother featured Angelou’s stripped down, but still emotional and evocative, sentences, and a subtle storytelling style that more authors should employ (especially when writing about their own lives). Angelou’s mother was fond of telling her children, “Sit down, I have something to say.” I’d carve out some time in your reading schedule and listen.

Exit Strategy by Steve Hamilton

Daniel: Steve Hamilton’s new Nick Mason yarn is an absolutely perfect thriller from start to finish. The Second Life of Nick Mason may have set the bar high, but Hamilton clears it with room to spare in Exit Strategy. The stakes are raised, the action is more heart pounding, and never has Nick Mason’s tenuous hold on freedom…excuse me...mobility seemed so fragile. As Hamilton is fond of saying, Mason’s situation could take him anywhere in the world and that the possibilities are endless. After reading the first two books into the series, we’re convinced. Exit Strategy should be at the top of your beach bag this summer.

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

Gary Almeter: Anyone who read and enjoyed Paul Kalanathi's When Breath Becomes Air will likely enjoy this (to the extent one can enjoy the story of someone's demise). This book poses the same unanswerable questions that Kalanathi's does. Riggs, who passed away in February 2017 from cancer, endeavors to answer those questions with so with so much levity, warmth, honesty, and lyricism that it almost is enjoyable (even when she’s telling her children that she’s dying).

The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan

Daniel: I’ve reached the point that if Timothy Egan decided to write a history of the portable toilet, I would be first in line at the bookstore. The introduction to his National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time might be the best prose I’ve ever read. It’s no surprise then that his recent work, The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, is an absolute treat to read. Thomas Meagher, an Irish nationalist booted from his home country after inciting (or more accurately trying to incite) a revolution against the British in 1848, certainly provides plenty of entertaining and mysterious material to work with. Egan follows the Irishman to his banishment in Van Dieman’s Land (present day Tasmania) in Australia, his command of the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War, and his tragic end as governor of the Montana Territory. Anyone with a rebellious streak, or a song for Ireland in their hearts, will absolutely love this narrative. Nonfiction writing at its finest.

American Bang By Doug Richardson

Sean: Lucky Dey is back in his fourth novel from #NicestGuyinHollywood Doug Richardson. From page one, it’s easy to tell this not going to be the standard Lucky thriller. Following multiple story lines that somehow tie together perfectly by the end, American Bang is fast paced and never loses the heart of the character.

Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Daniel: 1968 was one of the bloodiest years in American history. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. More than 500 American soldiers were killed in action during North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive in February. Protests and violence defined the Democratic National Convention much more than the nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

All hope was not lost, however, thanks in large part to the men and women at NASA. Following the tragic fire of Apollo I, the space program briefly struggled to find its footing and initiative. President John F. Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade promise to land on the moon loomed, and Americans had barely figured out how to build a space command module nevermind plan a lunar mission. Spoiler alert: NASA got its act together and brazenly decided to fling a trio of astronauts to the moon and back for the first time.  

Jeffrey Kluger—who co-wrote Apollo 13 with astronaut Jim Lovell—thrillingly explains how mankind “went from being a species of one world to a species of two worlds” in Apollo 8. The book will not only reignite your passion for space and space travel, but also give you all the evidence you need that mankind must continue to explore and discover.

Gary: This short little book evolved from Calhoun's New York Times “Modern Love” essay of the same name. The author provides some astonishingly astute and extremely honest perspectives on marriage. She’s very funny, but the way she is able to infuse poignancy into the most mundane elements of a marriage is a real gift.

Girl at War by Sara Nović

Daniel: It’s shameful how long it took me to discover and read Sara Nović’s spellbinding debut Girl at War. The novel is set before, during, and after the Yugoslav civil wars in the early 1990s, and features one of the flintiest main characters you’ll ever meet. War creeps into Ana Jurić’s childhood, starting with air raids, food rationing, and making games out of generating power. The conflict between Croatia and Serbia eventually irreparably consumes Ana’s life through humiliation and gunpowder. There’s a demonstration of a father’s love that will leave you absolutely breathless. Have tissues handy. A lot of them. From war-torn Croatia to the gleaming skyline of New York City, Nović deftly explores the themes of war, memory, family, friendship, ethnicity, identity, and the true meaning of home.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Daniel: I’ve had a little time to sit with Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted, and I’m still speechless and awed by both his research and prose. Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to keep what so many of us take for granted on a daily basis: a home. Desmond puts you inside eviction hearings, grimy, roach-infested apartments, deteriorating trailer parks, homeless shelters, and, at times, the bitter cold of Milwaukee’s streets. From emotionally and physically damaged mothers choosing between food and rent to those in the conflicted and ambitious landlord class, Evicted shines a light on people often forgotten or overlooked in urban areas.

The epilogue is a rousing and convincing call to arms, and Desmond’s breakdown of how he managed this project will leave you just as slack-jawed as all the award-winning prose that came before it. As Desmond points out, this issue isn’t about resources; it’s about political will and rejection of the status quo. I encourage you not only to read the book, but also get involved in the author’s Just Shelter initiative. The program seeks to raise “awareness of the human cost of the lack of affordable housing” and “to amplify the work of community organizations working to preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction, and reduce family homelessness.”

Trajectory by Richard Russo

Daniel: I am constantly amazed at Richard Russo’s ability to cram a ton of poignant characterization into the small space of a short story. This short collection of four stories features broken, middle-aged characters in the middle of life-altering situations. Russo’s explores these characters’ actions and motivations while employing his trademark wit and lyricism. That sound you hear during the final story “Milton and Marcus”—about a screenwriter trying to land a job to provide his sick wife life insurance—is Sean Tuohy nodding his head at how perfectly Russo describes the ludicrous world of Hollywood.  

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

Daniel: She Rides Shotgun features Jordan Harper’s signature blend of angst and violence, but it also comes with a big helping of heart. His heroine, 11-year-old Polly McClusky, has to grow up quick when her damaged, jailbird father Nate veers into her life driving a stolen car. Nate’s a marked man as soon as he leaves prison, and he “kidnaps” Polly in order to save her life. Their relationship grounds this action-packed novel, and is one of the many reasons I felt Harper made a giant leap forward in his fiction writing. Plus, he made me emotional invested in a teddy bear (something I’ll make him pay dearly for in the future).

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

Daniel: This is Valeria Luiselli’s third-straight month on “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.” We adore her work here at Writer’s Bone (thanks to author and Porter Square Books' Josh Cook). The Story of My Teeth is not only great fiction, on par with John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Days of Solitude, but also has an innovative and heartwarming backstory. Luiselli wrote the novel in collaboration with workers at a Mexican juice factory. She writes in the afterward that “many of the stories told in this book come from the workers’ personal accounts,” and that their “shared concerns” about life and art led to this narrative about “the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.” The author refers to the collaboration as an ongoing one, “where every new layer modifies the entire content completely.” I suggest you fall in love with Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez as soon as possible and find out why Luiselli is a master of modern literature.

Author’s Corner

By Julie Buntin

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong’s debut novel is tender and winning—not only did I read it in one sitting (this book is impossible to put down), but it made me laugh and cry. Both, truly. In fragmented dated entries, it’s written from the perspective of 30-year-old Ruth, who returns home after a breakup to care for her father. He’s a history professor, and his memory is failing. That Khong captures both the comedy and the heartbreak of this family’s story is a rare accomplishment that showcases her gifts as a prose stylist and a human being. Rarely have I read a book with so much heart and generosity. A must read. It’s coming out in July but you should pre-order like, yesterday. 

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it until every single person in America has bought a copy of Morgan Parker’s latest poetry collection—these poems are written by an essential new voice. Morgan Parker is a force—when I read her I feel like I’m reading the poems that people will be looking to 50 years from now, when they’re try to figure out what this time meant. Parker writes about pop culture, about being black in America, about celebrities and bathtubs, and how fucked up it is sometimes to have a woman’s body. And how beautiful, too. Even when (especially when?) she writes about self-doubt, about envy, her voice is fearless, strong, so powerful that every poem in this collection gives me chills. I have several committed to memory. 

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

I have been telling everyone about this goddamned brilliant book. It’s a female friendship story, yes, but like all the female friendship stories I love, the relationship at the core of novel provides a way of investigating so many things about what it means to be a woman in the world, and in the case of these two particular women, the irresistible Mel and Sharon, what it means to be female artists. Animators, specifically. Whitaker is deft, hilarious, and terrific at plot—this book is fun. At the same time, it asks big questions about the risk of making art from experience, and how we can move on after losing someone we love. I finished the book months ago and think about it almost every day. 

White Fur by Jardine Libaire

This novel. I picked it up totally on a whim—I work at Catapult, and we share an office with Electric Literature, a literary website that, as you might imagine, receives an ungodly number of galleys and review copies every week. I spotted White Fur hanging out on one of the received shelves, and I grabbed it for no good reason—I guess I liked the cover. I read it in two frantic gulps over the course of a weekend, without leaving my couch. Honestly, the plot can be described in one familiar sentence—girl from the wrong side of the tracks meets rich boy, they fall in love, drama ensues. But that well-worn premise is brought to new life by Jardine Libaire’s vibrant, magnetic prose, and her two starring characters, who are so flawed and vivid they leap off the page. Plus, this book is hot. Like very, very sexy. It’s somehow both super steamy and satisfyingly literary, and after I read it, I wondered why we don’t see that combination more often. Because, damn, it works. 

Julie Buntin is the author of Marlena, “a coming-of-age story with real teeth.”

#NovelClass: IQ by Joe Ide

Sean: With this modern take on Sherlock Holmes set in Long Beach, Calif., Joe Ide proves that he's a welcome new face to the crime genre. Filled with ear-catching dialogue and interesting characters, IQ is a solid summer read.

Listen to Dave Pezza and I discuss more about the book in this month’s #NovelClass:

17 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: May 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.

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Daniel Ford: Hala Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses is an incredibly beautiful, tender read. Her prose feels personal and lived-in, her characters seem like they’re ready to wander into your kitchen and have a cup of tea with you, and her dialogue is as lyrical and poignant as her poetry. There’s a real heartbeat on every page of this novel.

One of the things I love most about the book is how it’s structured. She jumps from character to character while moving forward several years in the timeline. This allowed her to explore themes like the aftermath of war and the development of personal and familial relationships in a way typically reserved for short story collections. Alyan crafted some powerful lines about love, family, and conflict that only someone who had this story in her bones could have pulled off.

As I said during my interview with the author (which you can listen to on May 8), human stories like the ones found in Salt Houses need to be told widely and often during these troubled political times. Pain and suffering weren’t just invented after Nov. 8, 2016. Humanity has been grappling with issues like identity, race, property, nationalism, and warfare since human’s stepped over the threshold of their cave dwellings thousands of years ago. Thankfully, novels like Salt Houses can delve into those seemingly intractable subjects in a moving and haunting way in the hopes of raising the level of our discourse.

The Wrong Side Of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

Sean Tuohy: Detective Harry Bosch is back in Michael Connelly’s latest thriller. The relentless LAPD detective is hired to find the missing heir to a billion-dollar fortune, while also trying to capture a serial rapist. Connelly is able to make each novel feel fresh and full of life. His characters are well developed, the plot is fast-paced, and you never know what will happen next.

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Daniel: From the isolated cold of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the impersonal, sun-kissed skyscrapers of New York City, Julie Buntin’s haunting Marlena is a coming-of-age story with real teeth.

Fifteen-year-old Cat’s world is off its axis when we first meet her. Her mother has dragged her and her brother to rural Michigan (where they can barely make ends meet), and Cat makes friends with Marlena, an abused drug addict who sets in motion a litany of “firsts” for our troubled heroine. Marlena ends up drowning in six inches of water, and Cat’s life is never the same.

Buntin explores Cat’s psyche and motivations by bouncing back and forth from past to present. The contrast between the simple, hardscrabble life Cat leads in Michigan and her trendy, avant-garde New York City existence couldn’t be more stark, and, in many ways, more heartbreaking.

Marlena is incredibly well written and structured for a debut novel (especially when you consider Buntin wrote a good chunk of it on Google Docs!). Buntin’s passion and dedication to the craft is evident on every page, and you’ll be ready for more of her work as soon as you finish the book.    

Janesville, An American Story by Amy Goldstein

Gary Almeter: I have, in the past few months, read Evicted by Matthew Desmond and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, so fancied myself an expert on the effects of post-industrialization on the Midwest and Appalachia. (Evicted has since won the Pulitzer.) So I thought it intriguing to see another middle class-focused book, this one about the closing of a General Motors plant in a Wisconsin town called Janesville.

Janesville, An American Story endeavors to chronicle the stories of people in that town following the plant's shutdown. What Goldstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has done here is astonishing. In an engrossing, chronological format, she follows several families, community leaders, politicians, and corporate representatives. She provides facts and the details that make up a life that newspaper headlines just can’t adequately convey.

Little Victories by Jason Gay

Mike Nelson: For six years I’ve been riding the bus to work. As a veteran, you can tell who’s a pro, who’s new, and who hasn’t been on wheels since their drunk uncle pulled them around in a Radio Flyer at a family reunion screaming, “And down the stretch they come,” while spilling his mint julep all over himself, you, and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend’s daughter sitting behind you. There are rules to be followed on the bus, etiquette to be embraced, common courtesy and thoughtfulness, and funny moments to be had.

This is exactly the type of thing you’ll find in Jason Gay’s Little Victories (but this, specifically, is not a thing you’ll find in his book). Gay, a sports writer for The Wall Street Journal, has had my attention for years as a refreshing voice who can make you think, learn, and laugh out loud (a breach of bus etiquette) all in the course of a paragraph. His stories range from interviewing Rihanna to playing touch football with his family at Thanksgiving to what it’s like to lose your job—each one sticking with you and teaching you lessons you might not need just yet but maybe someday will.

I have three complaints about Little Victories (this is how I rope you in to read the third paragraph of a book review for something you haven’t read):

  1. This is not a very long book (~200 pages), and even if you try to stretch it out, it goes too fast. I want more, Jason.
  2. I wish I saved this book for the summer because it is an absolutely perfect beach read.
  3. I can’t remember how to write with my own voice because Gay’s writing style is so infectious. 

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown

Daniel: I read Taylor Brown’s stunning debut Fallen Land in two sittings midway through 2015. I then had to wait six months to crow about it. (The novel ended up at #3 on our best books of 2016 list.) Brown’s sophomore effort, The River of Kings, was released this past March and I’m taking a different approach to reading it. Instead of rapidly powering through the novel, I’m savoring every sentence, every character, every line of dialogue, every chapter. There’s something about Brown’s writing that feels like home, regardless of what he’s putting his characters through. He’s a special talent, one that’s just going to get better with age.

American War by Omar El Akkad

Daniel: Omar El Akkad’s American War follows ably in the footsteps of Ben H. Winter’s Underground Airlines. The novel features a dystopian America, a second Civil War, shadowy characters, familial angst, and a culture that (horrifyingly) doesn’t feel too different than our own.

Within the thrilling tale lies a coming-of-age story (don’t they all?) for the main character Sarat. The young American refugee makes decisions that have implications for not only herself, but for the nation ravaged by war. The book’s release could not have been better timed, and offers a fictional cautionary tale to our politically divided country.

A Brutal Bunch Of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski

Sean: I recently received this book from the author and I’m loving it. This is a must read for fans of gritty, hardboiled storytelling. Bill, a man on a run, has the misfortune of being taken hostage during his cross-country escape. Written by someone has a passion for the crime genre, this brutal story balances humor and violence brilliantly.

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris

Gary: I just got an email notification from my library that my copy of Joshua Ferris' The Dinner Party is ready for me to pick up on the reserve shelf. I reserved it back in January (I was the first one to do so), and periodically checked on it to make sure things were all systems go with the reservation.

This is one of the highlights of my 2017. Ferris is an author who makes books and writing cool. He’s the closest thing literature has to Matt Damon. His three novels have been spectacular. He chronicles the absurdity and the normalcy of life in the 21st century with characters that are likable and simple (and with whom we can all identify). This collection of short stories (many of which have appeared in The New Yorker already) is his first. The title story, about a dinner party, is a doozy.

Author’s Corner

By Josh Cook, author of An Exaggerated Murder

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

In perhaps the most important book of 2017, Luiselli tells the story of her time volunteering as an interpreter for undocumented children fleeing violence in Central and South America seeking residency in the United States. Luiselli tries to change the way we talk about immigration, especially from our Southern neighbors, by exploring our complicity in the crises that turned these people into refugees and reminding us that quite often, when we're talking about “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants,” or whatever other term someone might try to scare us with, we're talking about children.

The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie

An exercise in questioning our assumptions, an examination of the state of our political discourse, and an exploration of the value of being irrational. Obviously, the topical aspects of Currie's great book stand out; reality television, political punditry, what counts for debate on cable, and the madness surrounding the American gun debate, but I think Currie's real target and real brilliance is something both smaller and bigger: how do we make sense of death and how do we figure out how to live.

Recitation by Bae Suah

A drifting lyrical book about place and identity that follows the story—as much as there is a story—of a mysterious Korean recital actress wandering through cities, lives, and apartments.

The Warren by Brian Evenson

If there is such a thing as “sci-fi noir” (and I'd argue there is) Evenson (who also writes more literary short stories) is a master of the genre. This novella is a good introduction to Evenson's dark, gritty, cynical fiction. Definitely for fans of PKD

Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin

Poetry as essay? Essayistic poems? Poetic essay? There are even some charts. Sometimes the pieces feel more like poems with fluid grammar and freer themes and some feel like they have the focus and coherence of essays. I love books like this that ask questions just by existing.

Hothouse by Karyna McGlynn

McGlynn is a favorite of mine. Her poems have a dark sense of humor and an interesting kind of intimidating sexuality to some of them. Though she is probably closest to Patricia Lockwood in style at the moment, this collection also has the weirdness that I love in James Tate

Make: A Decade of Literary Art

An anthology of short stories, essays, poems, and art from the literary magazine Make. Make isn't a magazine I'm familiar with, but it's a beautiful book and includes work by some great authors like Valeria Luiselli, Maggie Nelson, Dorothea Lasky, Martin Seay, Alejandro Zambara, and Kate Zambreno.

#NovelClass

Listen to Daniel Ford and Dave Pezza’s discussion about Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia.   

16 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: April 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.

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

Daniel Ford: Of all the Valeria Luiselli titles author Josh Cook recommended during our live podcast at Porter Square Books, of course I would choose the one with the F train on the cover.

Subway aesthetics aside, Luiselli’s inventive and trippy debut novel is everything you want in a genre-bending story. Is the main character the young woman navigating New York City while championing an obscure Mexican poet? Or is it the poet himself, a man in search of himself while destroying his family? Or, better yet, is our hero a mother juggling her matriarchal and literary responsibilities (while her marriage seemingly slips through her fingers)?

The more I read this novel, the less I cared about any of those questions. Reading Luiselli’s perfect sentences and reveling in the scenes (both large and small) she built was reward enough. Whether it was a Harlem sidewalk, a family’s home, a subway platform, or a character’s daydream, Luiselli crafted a world that felt intimate, lived in, and familiar.

I have more of her oeuvre to catch up on, but if this is the kind of work I can expect, then I’m going to have to revisit my upcoming reading list. There’s also a good chance Luiselli becomes a staple on “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.”

An Exaggerated Murder by Josh Cook

Daniel: Speaking of Josh Cook…

It was a real treat to sit down and pick his brain a couple weeks ago (along with Sirens author Joshua Mohr) about his writing process and his reading recommendations.

Like most trips to Porter Square Books, it ended with me walking out with an armful of fiction. The best part was Cook signed my copy of his novel An Exaggerated Murder and used a plethora of profanity.

I wasn’t surprised when the novel turned out to be a smart, fresh take on the detective genre. Cook’s characters are wonderfully flawed, earnestly eccentric, and hopelessly rationale in the face of a “stupid crime.” The pages start flying immediately, but make you take some time and truly appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this novel. We can’t wait to read what Cook writes next!

(P.S. The author will graciously sign a copy of the book provided you order it from Porter Square Books. Profanity costs extra.)

No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

Adam Vitcavage: The Great Gatsby is one of the most read books in all of American literature. For better or worse F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel has been a cornerstone of what the American Dream is and what it can do to people. Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us is a profound novel that explores the similar themes Fitzgerald's classic work laid out.

Make no mistake, this isn't merely a retelling of the Jazz Age classic; it is unique and only borrows Gatsby’s mindset. Set in North Carolina, Watts’ novel is about a man returning home to build his dream house to woo his long lost love. Unlike Gatsby, this novel explores America through African-American eyes, and we see factories crumbling and Jim Crow still lingering.

Watts’ prose eloquently takes us on a journey of loss and hope. What stands out even more than her beautiful writing is her rich characters that are some of the most memorable of recent years. Make no mistake, this book deserves to be taught in high schools as much as any other right now.

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

Daniel: When astronauts reach for the stars, who gets left behind on Earth? That’s the essential question Meg Howrey explores in her recently published novel The Wanderers.

Let me set the scene before I delve into this book’s eclectic cast of characters. A trio of astronauts is handpicked by a private space company to train for a potential mission to Mars. If all goes well, the group goes to Mars. If not, who knows. As thrilling as that sounds, and it is despite some of the monotony the space “wanderers” face, their thoughts are more tied to Earth than ever before in their career.

Everyone in this novel is searching for something, and likely nowhere close to finding it. Helen, a weathered, super-competent veteran of the U.S. space program who is much more at home in the cosmos, struggles to push away thoughts of her sad adolescence and loveless marriage. Her dramatic daughter “Meeps” grieves over the freak death of her father while also fearing for her mother’s safety, finding acting success, and developing a relationship in an unexpected place. Dmitri, whose astronaut father Sergei provides both comic relief and mild paranoia, unconventionally explores his sexual identity. And Yoshi, the crew’s third member, battles his own tortured past while also trying to emotionally connect with his distant, yet equally brilliant wife, Madoka.

That sounds like a lot of characters to juggle in one novel, but Howrey shifts perspectives so subtly and smoothly at exactly the right moments that you won’t have trouble keeping up with the novel’s events. If you’re anything like me, you’ll finish the last pages and think, “Wait, that’s it? I want more!” Trust me, do yourself a favor, spend some time with your head in the stars and read this book.

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Adam: So far, 2017 has seen an incredible amount of short story collections. Add Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky to that growing list. Familial connections tie these stories together, but stylistically the stories vary from sort of science fiction to modern realism.

It’s mesmerizing what Arimah can do with a seemingly traditional idea and stretch it into something distinct. Stories include a generational tale about ghosts of war, a father’s attempts to protect his daughter, a woman desperate for a child, and more. However, there is much more to these stories than a simple fragmented synopsis. For instance, the mother who wants a child weaves one out of her hair. Get ready to be wowed by these stories.

The Whore's Child by Richard Russo

Daniel: “Just one story,” I told myself. “You have a reading list a mile long and the third season of ‘Grace and Frankie’ just dropped on Netflix. You don’t have time to read more than one story.”

Well, not for the first time, I lost an argument with myself and ended up reading every story in Richard Russo’s short story collection The Whore’s Child in 24 hours. Also not surprising, Russo’s empathetic—and often hilarious—style translates beautifully to the shorter storytelling format.

The real stand out in the collection is the eponymous “The Whore’s Child.” The story features an older nun who crashes a creative writing class and slowly realizes a painful family truth while writing a “fictional” memoir. The story shamelessly fiddles with your heartstrings, but it also offers biting meta-commentary on the writing process. Paired with Luiselli’s collection, The Whore’s Child should give you all the literary inspiration you need to craft your own short stories.

The Stand by Stephen King

Mike Nelson: The Stand is much more than a prerequisite to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, though that’s the catch that influenced me to dive in last summer (really hope my brother wasn’t lying to me about that, though it’d be a great prank). Yes, I wrote, “last summer,” and, yes, I know this column is meant to focus on books you recently read...we’re getting to that.

King takes readers on an epic, near-biblical journey through his version of the apocalypse, where forces of good are left to square off against forces of darkness in a battle for the earth’s soul. Or a battle for like, the western half of the United States, if you want to be super literal about it. Sitting at approximately a million pages and taking half-a-year for a very casual reader who stops to read other books in-between (out of necessity, I swear), The Stand is much more about the journey than it is the conclusion. As the world flirts with its desistance, how many of its occupants will seek to grant it an extension, and how many others will resign to fate no matter how dark?

If you don’t fear death...if you feel like you have everything in control...if you think humans are intrinsically good, spend some time with The Stand and tell me you feel the same. Or if you’re more like the man they call Trashcan Man, maybe just read it because you like to watch things burn.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Adam: Every year, April brings the welcome return of baseball in America. You better believe there is some “best baseball books” list that makes the rounds (even I wrote one on my blog in 2014). There’s a reason The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach gets recommended on every literature blog this time of year. It’s one of the best “baseball” books published. 

While the game plays a major role in this novel, it’s really about a young man’s evolution at a small college in Wisconsin. As the story progresses, baseball fades into the background for the majority of Harbach’s book as he explores sexuality, Moby Dick, confidence, and so much more.

Mad Men and Politics, co-authored and -edited by Lilly Goren

Daniel: I don’t need a good excuse to re-watch “Mad Men,” but I’m glad my recent podcast interview with Lilly Goren provided one. Goren appeared on the podcast recently to promote the thoughtful collection of essays she co-authored titled, Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America.

From Goren’s essay “If You Don’t Like What They Are Saying, Change the Conversation” The Grifter, Don Draper, and the Iconic American Hero” to Linda Beail’s “Invisble Men: The Politics and Presence of Racial and Ethnic ‘Others’ in ‘Mad Men,’” Mad Men and Politics takes a deep dive into how Matthew Weiner’s hit show depicted—both successfully and, some would debate, incompletely—corporate culture, machismo, feminism, race, family, war, and identity during the 1960s. Everything from Don Draper’s gray flannel suit and Joan Harris’ pen necklace to Peggy Olson’s rise and Bert Cooper’s stodginess are explored for political, sociological, and psychological context—both for that decade and our current era.

After reading these essays and re-watching a few episodes of the show, I’m reminded that in politics and culture it seems like everything has changed and nothing has changed. Obviously we’ve made strides as a society, but at the same time, we seem to be spinning our wheels with the same issues depicted in the show. Like any good academic or critical writing, Mad Men and Politics will force you to keep asking questions, and make you even hungrier to find the answers.

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Daniel: Dark Money by New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer is essential reading for anyone baffled or troubled by what’s going on politically and culturally in this country. The exploration into where all the “dark money” being funneled into our political system comes from starts with a furrowed-brow meeting with some of the richest people in the United States (and the globe) after President Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in the 2008 election. This powerful cabal vowed to finance the opposition to the new President through any means (legal, illegal, shadowy, etc.) necessary.  

However, as chilling as the details of that meeting are, it’s nothing compared to Mayer’s investigation into how families like the Kochs made their fortune and then wielded it like a weapon in order to advance a deeply conservative agenda. All of the information Mayer finds is unsettling. From the Koch brother’s father building oil refineries for the Nazis to the DeVos family buying millions of dollars worth of influence, Dark Money makes clear that the radical right is more or less a collection of talking points and sacks of cash.

To be sure, the Democrats would love to have a system this sophisticated and efficient. And if they had anything close to this kind of organization and money, they’d never lose another election again, and a few marginalized groups of citizens might actually get help purely by happenstance. However, a radical wing of the GOP—that believes in a hyper-nationalist, super-racist, and downright grim view of America—has hijacked our political agenda, and is well funded, in large part, by a very small group of individuals.

Dark Money may be uncomfortable reading, but we’re never going to break out of our current political paralysis by avoiding the truth.

The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

Daniel: I got sucked into Paul Vidich’s The Good Assassin—the follow up to the author’s excellent debut spy thriller An Honorable Man that hits shelves April 18—just as easily as George Mueller gets suckered into doing yet another shadowy errand for the CIA.

Vidich’s Cold War setting feels immediate because of the political shenanigans currently infecting the United States. The author turns up the heat in The Good Assassin—literally and figuratively—by dropping his character in Havana before the fall of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Mueller is investigating Toby Graham, a potentially corrupt and treasonous CIA operative, who our hero has known since college.

A gripping plot combined with Vidich’s signature understated prose and tortured characters makes The Good Assassin a worthy follow up to An Honorable Man. It’s a novel that should be under your arm as you head to the beach this summer (or while swirling a glass of dark alcohol in a plush chair by the fire).

Author’s Corner

Dimitry Elias Léger isn’t just one of our favorite authors, he’s also one of our favorite readers. He sent over a lovely photograph from Geneva of his current book pile for this month’s Author’s Corner. This is what reading should look like!Daniel Ford

Pictured: Mohsin Hamid's  Exit West , Viet Thanh Nguyen's  The Sympathizer , Paulo Coelho's  The Spy , and Geoff Colvin's  Humans Are Underrated .

Pictured: Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, Paulo Coelho's The Spy, and Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated.

Dimitry Elias Léger is the author of God Loves Haiti. To learn more about Léger, listen/read our podcast and print interviews with the author.

#NovelClass

Listen to Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford’s discussion about Lisa Gardner’s novel Right Behind You.