Yaa Gyasi

18 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: July 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.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

Daniel Ford: Gabe Habash's debut novel not only has what might be the best cover of 2017, it also establishes the author as maybe the best literary up-and-comer in the business. I read Stephen Florida in one sitting on the beach, completely and totally engrossed in his manically-driven main character. Habash seeps you in Florida's brain matter to the point of forgetting where you end and the words begin. You'll ache, you'll fear, you'll rage, you'll hurt, and you'll hate along with Florida as he wrestles for glory. There's not one word of this novel I didn't love. I wouldn't leave the beach until I finished it, and was rewarded with one of the most satisfying endings I've read in the past couple of years.     

As an added bonus, Habash has been on book tour with his equally talented wife Julie Buntin (author of Marlena and last month's "Author's Corner"). I picture them as this generation's Zoe and F. Scott Fitzgerald…without the rampant boozing and emotional wreckage.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Daniel: It’s hard to believe that this is Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel. Told in a series of vignettes, What We Lose (out July 11) showcases a mature confidence as Clemmons explores racial identity and familial love and loss. Her protagonist Thadi is born in Johannesburg but grows up in Pennsylvania, labeled an outsider in her adopted country from an early age. As if that strain wasn’t enough, Thadi’s mother succumbs to cancer, upending the character’s already confusing coming-of-age. Throughout the novel, Thadi encounters first loves and lovers, navigates the racial tensions of two countries, and tries to bridge the distance between her and her widowed father. So many lines in this book are like sledgehammers to your heart; it's impossible to pick a favorite. If you’re like Dave Pezza and annotate your books, you’re going to be plenty busy while reading What We Lose.

The Fallen by Ace Atkins

Sean Tuohy: Sheriff Quinn Colson returns in the latest from Southern crime writer Ace Atkins (who will be appearing on the Writer's Bone podcast in late July). As always, Atkins doesn’t disappoint. When a group of military-trained robberswith Hollywood flair—start knocking off banks in his county, Colson finds himself plunging into the seedy underbelly of his small Mississippi town. Atkins’ novel is packed with rich characters, bleeding-off-the-page dialogue, and a writing style that propels you to keep reading.

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

Adam Vitcavage: Sarah Hall’s nine stories in her collection Madame Zero are wholly original, thoughtful, and enticing. The writer has won numerous awards for her novels and stories, including for “Mrs. Fox,” the first in this collection. While there are so many that are top notch because of Hall’s fervent prose, there are tremendous standouts. “Case Study No. 2” is written in, you guessed it, a case study. The narrator emotionally dissects a near-feral child while she learns about herself. Meanwhile, “Goodnight Nobody” offers insight into how children think about the world as they grow older. All of her stories meditate on what it means to be a woman in modern society.

Grunt by Mary Roach

Daniel: Mary Roach takes a deep dive into the weird science that powers the U.S. military in her latest book Grunt (now out in paperback). She explores everything from chicken guns and cadaver penis transplants to sweat analysis and submarine lodging. She also asked to get shot by a sniper (by paintball) just to experience how it felt. Considering the current attitude toward journalists, Roach is likely the only journo capable of requesting this without suffering serious harm—but, she admits, there was a long line of volunteers. I should also mention that Roach’s footnotes are works of art. Entertainment Weekly called them “zingy” (can you get better praise as an author?), and after reading “The head sweats like a mother,” I couldn’t agree more. Roach has become a Writer’s Bone favorite, and is likely to remain one for years to come.

The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff

Sean: Two women, shattered and destroyed by World War II, discover new meaning in life when they find one another at a traveling circus. Noa, 16 years old, is kicked out by her family after becoming pregnant, and ultimately gives up her child. She finds hope when she stumbles onto a train car filled with Jewish newborns taken from their families, saving a child who is near death. Noa finds work at a traveling circus, where she connects with the bitter acrobat Astrid. This book is a tearjerker with a big heart. Filled with detailed research that brings the world to life, The Orphan's Tale is the perfect summer read.

UNSUB by Meg Gardiner

Daniel: Meg Gardiner’s new (and terrifying) thriller UNSUB moves like a freight train, never losing any of the great character beats she establishes early in the novel. The book’s unsettling villain and chain-smoke-inducing plot will twist your stomach at every turn, but Gardiner’s stellar heroine Caitlin Hendrix keeps you turning pages even when you might not want to. Her fraught relationship with her damaged father (torn apart by the case that now permeates Caitlin’s life) is the real backbone of UNSUB, and will likely cause you to tear up more than once.

During my recent chat with the author, Gardiner said that she doesn’t write to exercise her own demons; she writes to inflict them on her readers. Well, mission accomplished! I was reading the last 10 or so pages at home, and I noticed my father raising his eyebrows in concern. I apparently had the book in a death grip and was rifling through pages like some literary maniac. “You’re going to leave that behind when you leave, right?” He asked hopefully. I very much look forward to his future late-night text cursing me for putting UNSUB in his hands. Fictional demons are meant to be passed on, so read it and then spread the insomnia!

The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins

Adam: Curtis Dawkins is an MFA graduate serving life in prison without parole after committing a murder years ago. He has spent his time writing stories that offer a realistic view into the lives of prisoners and the prison itself. Dawkins’ stories aren’t like the glamorized prison tales that you’ll find watching “Orange Is the New Black.” They’re raw, revealing, and even sometimes filled with humor. You’ll meet a man who makes collect calls just to hear the voices and sounds of the outside world. One story recalls a life before prison and a descent into addiction while another reveals the intricacies of the bartering system behind bars. These moving narratives offer a soft touch to the harsh reality Dawkins and so many others face in jail.

Found Audio by N.J. Campbell

Daniel: I was reading N.J. Campbell’s mind-bending debut novel (out July 11 from Two Dollar Radio) on the T early one morning, and I muttered to myself, “Am I dreaming all this? Is it really happening?” That’s the sign of really good fiction. It makes you question your own reality and causes you to talk to yourself in public like a raving lunatic. Found Audio centers around three mysterious tapes that land on Amrapali Anna Singh’s desk, courtesy of an equally mysterious man. The Type IV audio cassettes contain a deposition from an adventuring journalist obsessively hunting for the “City of Dreams.” Not knowing what to expect, I bought into the novel’s premise whole cloth, and was rewarded with a gripping tale that my mind has been puzzling over ever since I finished the final page. Two Dollar Radio never fails to find and publish undiscovered talent, and Campbell is no exception.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Daniel: You’ll experience no shortage of emotions reading Yaa Gyasi’s beautifully written and structured debut Homegoing. From Africa’s Gold Coast during the slave trade to 20th century Harlem, Gyasi’s narrative follows a family broken apart by war, love, loss, slavery, drugs, and fate. The author pulls no punches, igniting a literary fire that illuminates issues and events typically reserved for the nonfiction section. Every character breaks your heart at one point or another, but there’s also so much hope (and, many times, a fool’s hope) infused in Gyasi’s prose that you can easily wade through the misery that befalls this unforgettable family. Homegoing is the best kind of generational saga: haunting, poignant, and emotionally charged.

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

Adam: Samantha Hunt is one of the best writers in America right now who isn’t getting the credit she deserves. Repeat: Samantha Hunt deserves your respect. Her modern gothic ghost story Mr. Splitfoot was one of the best books of 2016. The writer followed up with a haunting collection of stories called The Dark Dark. In her debut collection (out July 18), Hunt uses her ability to deconstruct the norm by creating lush worlds in a few paragraphs and then flipping it upside down. I have been yammering on about a lot of short story collections, but the single best short story I’ve read this year can be found here. Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself. “A Love Story” was published in The New Yorker, which means you can even listen to Hunt read it herself.

Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore

Daniel: My kingdom for an interview with historian Jill Lepore. It’s probably for the best, considering I’d likely become Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. I’ll just have to settle for heaping praise on her recent book Joe Gould's Teeth (now out in paperback).

Lepore went down the rabbit hole while investigating legendary New York City character Joe Gould, the self-professed author of “The Oral History of Our Time.” Did Gould really write the book? Are there physical copies that just haven’t been found yet? Based on Gould’s beliefs about race and sex, does he even deserved to be remembered at all?

All of these questions are intently and smartly probed in Lepore’s breezy narrative. As someone who has been a fan of hers for years, I was overjoyed at getting a glimpse into her research and writing process. Joe Gould's Teeth features the historian’s exquisite prose and trademark wit, and further cements Lepore place as one of our most important voices—nonfiction or otherwise.

St. Marks Is Dead by Ada Calhoun

Daniel: Two straight months on “Books That Should Be On Your Radar” for Ada Calhoun! She’s become a Writer’s Bone favorite since my interview with the author (as well as reading her book Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give out loud on the beach). I’m a sucker for New York City history, and Calhoun’s St. Marks Is Dead is terrific. Calhoun’s writing style sounds like the city to me; it’s sharp, it’s witty, it’s a little brash, and, maybe most importantly, it’s fun. There’s a good chance St. Marks Is Dead is a book I’ll come back to repeatedly in the years to come.

Author’s Corner

By W.B. Belcher

The Songs by Charles Elton

The Songs explores the unraveling of aging protest singer and activist Iz Herzl, as told in alternating chapters by his children. I’m only about 80 pages in, but this is definitely my kind of novel. It’s character-driven, folk-infused, and mysterious. For those who know me or my book, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, the fact that I’m taken with this novel is no surprise. Beyond the conceit, I’m struck by the emotional depth and complexity Elton creates in the first quarter of the book. 

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

David Granger, the narrator of Quick’s latest novel, is a 68-year-old Vietnam vet fresh out of brain surgery. You get a sense that he’s deeply wounded, but his worldview, hot-tempered patriotism, and gross generalizations frustrate, offend, and make you gnash your teeth. Still, there’s something about him and his consistent, no-holds-barred voice that draws you deeper into his story. Quick has an amazing ability to build characters who are big-hearted and hopeful even in the face of great tragedy, heartbreak, and trauma. In this case, once you get beneath the camo and insults, you begin to really see Granger.

Blind Spot by Teju Cole

If you’ve read Open City, you know that Teju Cole is an extraordinary writer. Many may know he’s also the photography editor at The New York Times. Blind Spot is an intriguing book that pairs Cole’s travel-based photography with prose pieces. As someone who works in both the visual arts (well, as an administrator) and the literary arts, I was curious to know more about how Cole straddles both forms—it’s clear that he’s a keen observer (with a writer’s eye) and a collector of details.

Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see Lynn Nottage’s play at The Public or during its run on Broadway (Studio 54), but I ordered the paperback, which was released by TCG in June. As a playwright-turned-novelist, I’m one of those people who enjoys reading plays as much as seeing them on stage (sometimes more). By all accounts, Sweat is a smart, complex, compassionate play, which is wholly topical.          

Re: Summer

Some people dedicate their entire summer to tackling Infinite Jest, War and Peace, or Shakespeare’s complete works, but I start twitching at the mere thought of that kind of all-or-nothing approach. Instead, as a way to move beyond my typical summer novelfest, I revisit memorable plays, stories, poetry, and essays as part of my reading adventures. This year, I’ll re-read James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (for obvious reasons), Sven Birkerts’s “The Other Walk,” and Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, among others. Currently, I’m re-re-reading Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Night Hunting,” which appeared in her collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise.  

W.B. Belcher is the author of Lay Down Your Weary Tune, which landed at #27 on our Top 30 Books of 2016. Also read our interview with the author.

#NovelClass

Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford’s discuss Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne.