Zadie Smith

18 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: February 2018

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.


How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Daniel Ford: On the surface, knowing that you’re going to live for a couple hundred years (or more) sounds pretty awesome. However, as you march through time, you’ll likely be faced with some of the same questions Tom Hazard grapples with in Matt Haig’s new novel How to Stop Time. Sure, you may be lucky enough to have drinks with William Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but how many people can you stand to lose? How are you going to live with decisions that set the course of decades, or even centuries, of your life? As Tom discovers, his “gift” is much more a curse than anything else. While Haig does infuse his main character, and much of his narrative, with a sweet melancholy, he also builds time and time again to a hopeful crescendo. Haig beautifully balances an in-depth character study with a thrilling plot that weaves in and out of history and time.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Daniel: Believe the hypeTayari Jones’ An American Marriage is exceptional. This novel was on our radar even before Oprah picked it for her book club earlier this month! Appearing as though they are the embodiment of the American Dream, Celestial and Roy’s marriage is already showing signs of strain when Roy is wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t admit. The nuanced and layered narrative that follows Roy’s incarceration and beyond speaks to Jones’ extraordinary gifts as a storyteller. She explores all of the characters that populate this book from every angle in an empathetic, honest way, while also subtly and poignantly commenting on marriage, friendship, and black life in America.


Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin

Daniel: Short stories, when done right, leave you wanting more. I demand novels featuring all of the women found in Danielle Lazarin’s incredible debut collection Back Talk. There’s not a bad note in any of these stories.


Adam Vitcavage: Across nine exquisitely surreal stories (out Feb. 20 from Spiegel & Grau), Sachdeva covers a wide array of characters and settings. The opening story is about a pioneer woman longing for her husband who is away. The title piece is set in modern day war-torn Africa. A later story takes you to the future. Like all good collections, her stories are thematically cohesive. They explore large-scale influences like nature and religion and how they influence us on an everyday basis. Reading the book reminded me of the sci-fi anthology television series “Black Mirror.” Everything is always seemingly normal, but just a little off kilter.


Daniel: Talking Pictures by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday is essential reading for film buffs. Hornaday dissects filmmaking into its distinct characteristics and explores what critics think about when watching and reviewing a movie. What choices did a director make that paid off (or didn’t)? How much does star power matter when it comes to casting? How do sound, cinematography, and colors work together? Hornaday also includes plenty of examples of both good and bad films, and each chapter will likely make you think about classic movies (or guilty pleasures) in a fresh way.


Eat the Apple by Matt Young

Daniel: Judging by Matt Young’s writing prowess in Eat the Apple (out Feb. 27 from Bloomsbury USA), he could have easily written a more linear, and perhaps more tongue-in-cheek, war memoir that would have fit in nicely with some of the other veteran literature we’ve read the past couple of years. However, owing to his literary chops, Young played with form, structure, point-of-view, and, I’m assuming, his own memories to produce a searing, brutal look into American men at war. I couldn’t help but think of Joshua Mohr’s memoir Sirens while reading Eat the Apple because of how much honesty and thoughtfulness Young brings to moments that read more like Bukowski fiction rather than real life.


The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Daniel: I don’t know what took me so long to read Lisa Ko’s National Book Award-nominated debut The Leavers, but it was well worth the wait. The novel starts with Deming Guo’s undocumented immigrant mother, Polly, leaving for work at a nail salon and never coming home. Ko switches perspectives between Daniel, the name a foster family bestows on Deming, and Polly, whose disappearance is more layered than you can possibly imagine. Needless to say, both characters lives are upended and shaped by this initial act, and their paths are infused with longing, disappointment, anger, regret, and resentment. Ko, of course, offers timely commentary on immigrant life in today’s United States, but also astutely discusses how those themes collide with family, friendship, and finding your true self.


Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams

Daniel: I thought poet Phillip B. Williams’ was a powerful read before I heard him read “Bound” aloud on a recent podcast episode (see below). That’s what I love about poetry; whatever is on the page isn’t static. There’s not only a symbiotic, and constantly changing, relationship with the author and his words, but also a completely independent one that exists between the finished poem and the reader. Williams’ collection Thief in the Interior has a chameleon-like skin, seemingly changing colors and styles line by line, poem by poem. Williams, during our chat, said that poems are never finishedthey’re just eventually “abandoned.” That’s certainly not the case for the reader. You’re going to want to keep the poems in this collection around for a good long while. 


All the Castles Burned by Michael Nye

Adam: Male adolescent friendship is very rarely portrayed in fiction. Well, it is. But usually their friendship has to be tied to the extraordinary. It’s about finding a kinetically gifted stranger or battling Pennywise the Clown. That’s not so much the case for Nye, who uses basketball and distant fathers to link his main characters together. We follow them in high school during the 1990s and then again decades later. The two bounce from brother-like friends to violent adversaries and back in this quick, yet challenging, read.

Read Adam’s interview with Michael Nye in Electric Lit.


Daniel: I started reading Danielle L. McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance after Oprah mentioned Recy Taylor in her powerful Golden Globes speech. The book not only sheds light on the sexual violence that black woman faced in the Jim Crow South, but also provides an exploration of Rosa Parks’ life before she changed history on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This isn’t easy reading by any means, and it shouldn’t be. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements exist for a reason, and both organizations (as well as the NAACP) have roots that go back farther than you might imagine. As Oprah said, Recy Taylor died at 98 without receiving any kind of justice for the horrendous, inhuman crime inflicted on her. Maybe if we look back for at least a few minutes before setting our sights on the future, we can institute positive change for all minorities going forward. (We’ll also need a government that has actually read a book, but that’s a different story).


Daniel: Yes, David Litt’s memoir about his time as one of President Barack Obama’s speechwriter is cheeky, informative, and a much-needed dose of hope (there’s that word again!) for today’s bleak political times. However, more importantly, Litt answers one of the most important questions of any age: where are the best bathrooms in the White House and the West Wing?


Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

Adam: Set in 1990s Brooklyn, Lyon’s main character accidentally takes a photograph of a boy falling to his death. The rest of this debut novel shows what decisions an artist has to make when someone else’s tragedy will be shown to the world. The book allows readers to question what they would do when art and tragedy collide. It had me reminiscing about the Falling Man photograph from 9/11. It’s an interesting book for any writer who may or may not be inspired by someone they know.


Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Daniel: Even if the essays in Zadie Smith’s new collection Feel Free weren’t thoughtful and brilliantly written (they are), Smith’s forward would be worth the cost of the book and then some. “Reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing,” Smith writes. She also warns against being ambivalent “in the face of what we now confront.” Hear, hear!


Bookstore Corner

By Kew and Willow, a Queens, N.Y., bookshop

Holly Nikodem

The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz is one of the most engaging middle grade books I've ever picked up. The sheer amount of research Gidwitz did to tell this story of three saintly children and one holy greyhound in medieval France is astounding. On top of that, though, the writing is incredibly clever, the story is funny, moving, and fast paced and it never feels bogged down or heavy because of the subject. The pages are also illuminated like a medieval manuscript, so the book is beautiful as well as entertaining.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui is a graphic novel memoir in which the author tries to understand her place as a new mother, and in the world at large, by exploring her family's escape from South Vietnam in the 1970s. It is incredibly insightful and beautifully drawn. It captures the unsettling creep of war very well, how the family observed small changes, and sometimes large ones, over time that finally culminated in the realization that they would need to leave their homeland. I wound up crying on a bus as I finished this book the first time I read it, and I only had the advanced reader's copy at the time, with pencil sketches in place of actual art.

Vina Castillo

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg is beautiful yet devastating novel. Almost immediately, I found myself completely immersed and connected to each character as they try to overcome a tragic loss. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, it was so engaging and, in a sense, enjoyable to put the pieces together and see how they interconnected in the end.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is an 814-page book that’s tough emotionally but completely worth the heartache. Ninety percent of the time I read a passage/page and had to close the book because I was blown away by the amazing writing; Hanya is phenomenal. I advise having a box of tissues next to you at all times!

Natalie Noboa

Having read Every Day by David Levithan a few years back, I’m not surprised to say that it still sometimes finds its way back to me. I love it (and you should too) for a few different reasons. The romantic storyline feels typical of any young adult novel but asks us a difficult question: what do we fall in love with, the body or the mind that lives there? Can we even separate the two? The writing is unpretentious and easy to fall into (which is probably one of my favorite things about reading YA—it almost never seems like they’re trying too hard to impress). Finally, there’s the fantastical aspect of it. I know usually we’re looking for an explanation of what’s happening and how it works, but Levithan doesn’t give that to us; it’s left to the reader to think about the mechanics of it. While for some it might be frustrating not to know, for me it’s always been a treat to flex my imagination muscle.

To learn more about Kew and Willow, visit its official website or read Lindsey Wojcik’s feature on the store!


NovelClass

NovelClass is now its own podcast! Listen to Dave Pezza’s introduction and all of Season 1 on iTunes and Spotify! Also stay tuned for information for the live Season 2 premiere in Providence, R.I., later this month (where Dave and a panel of experts will be discussing Stephen King’s The Shining).

The 30 Best Books of 2016

By Daniel Ford

To date, I’ve read 96 books in 2016, which is up from the 87 I read last year. Since you’ve already called me a nerd in your head, please allow me to further strengthen the case. Those 96 books add up to 37,872 pages, myriad reading devices, and two dried out eyeballs. I also managed to get engaged, help build a website at my day gig, edit and shop a novel, and feed and bath myself.

While I’m troubled by the direction the United States and the world are headed in, I’m just as confident that art and literature will continue to inform, illuminate, and ignite a global citizenship that needs to be more engaged and educated than ever before.

Without further adieu, enjoy the 30 best books of 2016. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments section, on our Facebook page, or tweet us @WritersBone.

30. Everyone Loves You Back by Louie Cronin  

There was a lot to love about Louie Cronin’s debut novel. Cranky radio personalities, quirky Cambridge denizens, awkward love triangles, and jazz on vinyl all made Everyone Loves You Back one of the most fun reads of 2016.

29. Massacre on the Merrimack by Jay Atkinson          

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Hannah Duston is a badass! Author Jay Atkinson’s passionate retelling of her story offers a glimpse of early American life and the steely resolve women needed (and still need) to brave the New World.  

28. A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti         

Matthew Hefti’s main character is writing a letter to a lifelong friend, but he could have easily been writing a letter to the ongoing conflicts the United States has been involved in since 2001. Hefti is a talent to watch, and he delivers a heartfelt and moving debut.   

27. Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W.B. Belcher         

This remains one of the best lines I’ve read this year: “We’re all here for one thing,” Eli says to Jack, “to find a live connection and hold onto it until it bucks us off.” Well done, W.B. Belcher. (Killer cover too!)

26. Swing Time by Zadie Smith

During a “Friday Morning Coffee” episode earlier this year, author Richard Dalglish implored writers not to forget about craftsmanship. There’s no finer example of craftsmanship than Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith asks big, important questions, and I hope that readers debate the answers throughout the new year.

25. We're All Damaged by Matthew Norman

I don’t think Matthew Norman’s main character Andy Carter truly recovers from getting dumping at an Applebee’s (and, really, who would?), but it’s fun watching him try to cobble his life back together. Midwestern sensibilities have never been so hilarious.

24. Dark Horse by Rory Flynn

Eddy Harkness isn’t the hero the real world (or the fictional one he inhabits) deserves, but he certainly is the one we need. In Eddy we trust!

23. The Infinite by Nick Mainieri

Nick Mainieri’s debut features two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo’s fervent and turbulent relationship sets off a chain of events that leads to an unexpected conclusion. The Infinite is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read.

22. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived by Tom Shroder         

The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived is essential reading for aspiring authors and journalists. Tom Shroder explores his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather’s life while also recounting his own writing career. The passionately researched narrative will fill up your creative tank.

21. Christodora by Tim Murphy

The more I learn about Tim Murphy and his work, the more I like him. His effortless nonlinear storytelling in Christodora perfectly complements his damaged, but tenacious, characters and his exploration of the AIDs epidemic. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but a necessary one.  

20. The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung

Sonya Chung puts her characters through hell throughout her sophomore novel. Their responses to tragedy and inner demons don’t make them the best human beings at times, but you’ll easily fall in love with them despite their myriad flaws. The Loved Ones also features one of the most haunting and beautifully sad farewells you’ll ever read.

19. Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay 

http://www.writersbone.com/book-recommendations/2016/8/3/10-books-that-should-be-on-your-radar-august-2016

Disappearance at Devil's Rock scared the bejesus out of me. Top-notch suspense. Paul Tremblay also experiments with his prose by featuring text conversations, fragments of diaries, and police interview transcripts.

18. The Fireman by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s brand of apocalyptic fiction ranks alongside Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and José Saramago’s Death With Interruptions. Much like those works, The Fireman features a harrowing (and down right sexy) epidemic, a sense of humor, and characters you wouldn’t mind spending damnation with. Hill is one of fiction’s best world builders, and his enthusiasm for the craft of writing is infectious. (His live readings also tend to feature kazoos!)

17. The Nix by Nathan Hill

Considering that Nathan Hill’s debut novel tops many year-end book lists, The Nix is arguably ranked too low here. That’s a testament to the quality of fiction we read in 2016. The Nix is a compulsive read that, at times, gets weighted down by some of its pop culture and societal critiques. However, since 2016 proved to be a bitch of a year culturally and politically, I’d much rather have too much of Hill’s wit rather than not enough.

16. Louisa by Louisa Thomas      

Louisa proved to be a very welcome and refreshing look at Revolutionary War-era America. Louisa Thomas explored the life of Louisa Adams, our first foreign-born First Lady. While Mrs. Adams does spend a good chunk of time recovering from or feigning illness, she proves more than a match for her surly, ambitious, and misunderstood husband (everyone’s favorite dinner guest, John Quincy Adams).

15. Dodgers by Bill Beverly

If “The Wire” had decided to spend a whole season devoted to a road trip with Bodie, Wallace, Poot, and D’Angelo Barksdale, I imagine it would have resembled something close to what Bill Beverly crafted in Dodgers. It’s a thriller with real heart and muscle, thanks in large part to its conflicted main character East. The opening chapters are written as if they were fired from a gun, and set the tone for the rest of the novel’s coming of age journey. 

14. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye

The Kennedys have been dissected ad nauseam, however, Larry Tye finds a fresh angle to examine the life of Robert Kennedy. Tye follows John F. Kennedy’s younger brother’s astounding political transformation from his days working as a lawyer under Senator Joe McCarthy to his tragic campaign for President in 1968. Bobby Kennedy is unsparing and objective, but also gives RFK aficionados plenty of new reasons to admire their hero.

13. Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher

Matthew Gallagher’s novel Youngblood is right up there with Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and the aforementioned A Hard and Heavy Thing. Essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of our foreign policy and understand the men and women who execute it.

12. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s short novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, hit me with the right words and subject matter at the right time. A book about healing, motherhood, and love.

11. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma   

Kristopher Jansma’s prologue, interlude, and epilogue are the most beautiful words ever written about New York City. His prologue in particular captures everything I feel about the city I’ve loved since childhood. This novel is a must read for anyone that’s been ensorcelled by the Big Apple’s many temptations.  

10. Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

It’s nice to know that the creators of one of the best sitcoms of all time were as eccentric as the characters many of us have come to love. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong discovers one great story after another about “Seinfeld” and its writers’ room. She also lovingly investigates the show’s curious, quirky fans who have kept it relevant well past its final episode. Seinfeldia is a breezy, energetic read that will have you binge-watching the show on Hulu by the time you’re finished. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.        

9. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters     

Ben H. Winters is the master of dystopian fiction, and he outdoes himself with Underground Airlines. In the novel, the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists, and a slave catcher desperate to repress and erase his past takes on an assignment that threatens to crack his carefully manufactured persona. This book is an absolutely thrilling and original tale that should shake a few assumptions of your own.  

8. This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper

One of the most powerful reads of 2016. Rachel Harper penned a tearjerker and beautifully developed the novel’s characters and themes. William Faulkner would be proud.

7. The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

During a recent podcast interview author Jade Chang advised aspiring authors “to be ambitious.” Anyone who has read her debut novel The Wangs vs. the World knows how wonderfully ambition can pay off. Chang reinvigorates the immigrant narrative through the eyes of Charles Wang and his hilariously flawed family. Like many of the novels on this list, The Wangs vs. the World stress tests and critiques all of the tenets of the American Dream, but does so with an abundance of mirth and cynical optimism.

6. Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

What a pleasure it was to revisit Sully and all of the misfits that live in North Bath, Maine. Richard Russo is one of my literary heroes, and he didn’t disappoint with this follow up to the classic Nobody’s Fool.    

5. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott’s novel should have been titled, You Will Hold Your Breath The Whole Time. I barely survived reading this incredibly tense and finely crafted mystery; I can’t imagine what it was like writing it. She has more than earned the “maestro of the heebie-jeebies” distinction from The New York Times.

4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is why fiction exists. The novel serves as a brutal reminder of the past and a cautionary tale for how easily we can slip into easy violence, subjugation, and intolerance. Colson Whitehead has established himself as one of the great voices in fiction.   

3. Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown’s achingly beautiful debut established itself as my favorite book of 2016 way back in August 2015 (I read an advanced copy leading up to its January 2016 pub date). It took two special novels to knock it off the top spot. After going back and rereading a few chapters while preparing this list, I was reminded of what made the book such a joy to read: hearty prose, snappy and spare dialogue, earthy characters, and a hard driving plot.  

2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen        

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is great from the first line: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Nguyen crafts a timely, gritty tale that lives in the past, but has an eye on our uncertain future.

1. Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

We met a lot of memorable characters this year, but there was only one Frank. Be Frank With Me is an unforgettable debut that everyone should read. (And, according to the author, the paperback edition can easily fit in a stocking!)

Honorable Mention

Any of these books could have been added to the top 30. I wrestled with this list for days. I'm just grateful that I got to read so many great novels and nonfiction titles this year! Give plenty of love to these authors’ books as well!

Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach, Seven Sins by Karen Runge, A Single Happened Thing by Daniel Paisner, The Last Days of Magic by Marc Thompkins, The Duration by Dave Fromm, The Girls by Emma Cline, An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich, The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott, Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts, The Unseen World by Liz Moore, Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen, The Point Is by Lee Eisenberg, and Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

More From The Writer’s Bone Library

11 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: December 2016

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 Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

Daniel Ford: Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. The World, crackles with angsty verve, frustration, and familial crisis. The Wang family is incredibly dysfunctional, but also fervently proud and wondrously entertaining. Patriarch Charles Wang’s delusions of reclaiming ancestral lands in China, which exacerbate after losing his cosmetic empire, set the story in motion, and events quickly envelop his unsuspecting, and somewhat damaged, children. A tragically comedic family road trip ensues, offering one cringe-worthy humiliation after another. Chang brilliantly shifts perspectives between the main characters—including the car Charles repossesses from his hired help!—and doesn’t let the narrative let up for a moment.  

While the plot and tone certainly make for exciting reading, what distinguishes The Wangs vs. The World is its truly unforgettable characters. One can’t help but love the self-made (and self-destroyed) Charles, his successful, yet recently disgraced, eldest daughter Saina (whose Upstate New York house the family is fleeing to), and his youngest daughter grace, a financially needy social media star. However, for me, Andrew, the lone Wang son, stole the spotlight. He’s unfailingly earnest and sweet, even when he’s bombing on stage trying to get his stand-up comedy career off the ground. To be sure, each of them faces issues that are serious and potentially ruinous, but the Wangs also make you laugh out loud while you watch them burn their lives to the ground.

In The Wangs vs. The World, Chang explores many of the themes you’ll find in the other novels we recommend this month—family bonds, the struggle with the American dream, the immigrant experience, wealth, financial ruin, and race—but does so with an unparalleled joie de vivre. This novel is landing on a lot of “Best Of” lists for 2016, and deservedly so. Don’t miss out on one of the most fun reads of the year! 

The Infinite by Nick Mainieri

Daniel: I picked up Nick Mainieri’s stellar debut novel The Infinite thinking I’d only read a few chapters to get a feel for his work so that I was prepared for my interview with him. I ended up racing through 100 pages, and only put the book down because my eyes had dried out, my hands were cramped, and morning was rapidly approaching outside my window.

The Infinite’s star-crossed teenage lovers, the unflinchingly loyal Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo, an illegal immigrant trying to outpace her “ghost runner,” are two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah attempts to hold everything in his life together with baling wire and a dream, while Luz struggles to find acceptance both in New Orleans and across the border in Mexico. When an unexpected pregnancy tears their relationship apart, Luz and Jonah travel paths that converge, but never really intertwine as tightly as during their charmed beginning. Luz’s experiences in particular are jarring and violent, ending in a place far different than you might imagine.

That’s the other hallmark of Mainieri’s freshman novel. It is a constant surprise that never feels overburdened with red herrings or unnecessary plot devices. John Irving once remarked that good writers shouldn’t indulge in twists and turns that the reader doesn’t see coming. He said the most effective literary surprises are those the reader will look back on and think, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” That logic is exactly what Mainieri expertly deploys in The Infinite. Jonah and Luz’s fates feel earned and appropriate.

I had to keep reminding myself that this was a debut novel. Much like Taylor Brown’s Fallen Land, Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank With Me, and M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away, The Infinite reads like it’s penned from a well known master storyteller. Mainieri deftly explores post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and a drug war-addled Mexico in pursuit of discovering the true natures of his main characters. I very much look forward to what Mainieri does next.

Adam Vitcavage: Kathleen Collins might not be a name you recognize. She was a playwright, filmmaker, writer, and an African-American civil rights activist who died in her forties in 1988. So why is this 27-year-old white guy, whose life never overlapped with the author’s, writing about her? A collection of her stories called Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? knocked me on my ass, that's why. Her sixteen stories offer poignant insight into everyday life for African-Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Collins earnestly invites readers into intimate stories like they were lifelong bosom buddies. The ease of the author’s writing balances the explosive content filling the collection, and while these stories are decades old, their themes are more relevant than ever at the close of one of the most racially turbulent years in modern history.

The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung

Daniel: Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones is a compulsive read that is exquisitely structured. The novel’s crunchy, broken characters tell a mutigenerational immigrant saga, a mixed race family struggle, and a coming-of-age tale all at once. Chung juggles these multiple perspectives and cultures with ease, and allows her themes to unfurl deliberately throughout a narrative that’s set primarily in Washington D.C. during the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

You can’t help rooting for Chung's characters despite some of their actions. Charles Lee, the African American patriarch whose father abandoned him, tries to do right by his family while also fighting against his inner demons and an increasingly distant wife. Hannah Lee, the teenage daughter of Korean immigrants who were shunned by their own family for falling in love, uncertainly steps into adulthood and becomes tragically intertwined with Charles’ family. Hannah’s parents silently internalize being ostracized, while also stubbornly clinging to their once forbidden love. Charles’ daughter Veda anchors the novel’s final act, coming into her own without being hurt too much by her family’s dysfunction.

A death early on in the novel sets all of these threads in motion, and sends Chung’s main characters in various, and often times opposite, directions. The second half of The Loved Ones is a fascinating exploration of grief and self-discovery that pairs so well with the author’s heartfelt prose and poignant dialogue. The resolution to Hannah Lee’s parent’s story, in particular, is one of the most moving scenes I’ve read in fiction this year. I’m getting dusty in Writer’s Bone HQ just thinking about it.  

Chung’s voice isn’t just a welcome one in the literary world; it’s a necessary one as we try to make sense of our increasingly uncertain future.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Daniel: I would pay good money to write like Zadie Smith. There’s real craftsmanship behind her prose, dialogue, and characters, and she asks big questions without beating you over the head them. Her exploration of a lifelong friendship touches on myriad themes that could easily be extrapolated into individual novels. Race, class, philanthropy, politics, family, friendship, companionship, globalism, identity, wealth, poverty, fame, commercialism, and art are all issues that are examined through her ever-evolving narrator’s eyes.

Swing Time lives up to its name, swaying effortlessly through multiple decades of the main character’s life and cities and villages around the world. However, with the exception of a scandal hinted at in the prologue, there’s nothing that necessarily propels the narrative forward; you’ve got to completely buy into a character study that, as a Kansas City Star reviewer pointed out, lacks a certain mirth at times. Rather than a weakness, I think that Smith’s straightforward, unadorned style is a strength; she’s much more interested in her characters’ search for joy than whatever cheap thrill one might feel when watching a performance of “Guys and Dolls” or a Fred Astaire film.

Swing Time will certainly inspire discussion and debate between readers, and I imagine those conversations will intensify once the novel is brought to the small screen.

The Pavilion of Former Wives by Jonathan Baumback

Daniel: There's something Paul Auster-like about Jonathan Baumbach's new short story collection The Pavilion of Former Wives. You may not always be able to figure out what’s real and what’s imagined in his characters’ lives, but you will appreciate the author’s determined pursuit of universal truths. Baumbach utilizes tough, but tender, dialogue, and provocative prose to explore the nature of relationships. This collection features a man who gets to re-live some of the most sorrowful moments of his life, a relationship purely defined by emails, a man who loses his parked car (!), and, my personal favorite, a stranded poet who meets a troubled woman at a train station. The Pavilion of Former Wives, much like Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble, finds the humanity in oddball stories that will haunt you well after you put them down. 

Night School by Lee Child

Daniel: I’ve been reading Lee Child’s work since my college roommate put Killing Floor in my hands more years ago than I’m willing to admit. It was a pleasure being the audience while Child discussed Jack Reacher and his approach to writing with Stephen King last year at Harvard. It was even cooler hearing Child’s passion for his character and future plans during his appearance on “Friday Morning Coffee” with Sean Tuohy. We recommend a lot of weighty fiction, particularly this month, but it’s important to remember that reading should also be fun. There’s no better literary palate cleanser than a Jack Reacher adventure, and Night School is no exception. It’s pure escapism that will remind you why you started reading in the first place.

Author's Corner

Murdery Delicious author Peter Sherwood shares four novels you should put on your shelf ASAP.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Dive into the pages of Margaret Atwood’s recently published Hag-Seed and suddenly find yourself caught up in a play within a novel within the retelling of another play. Part of Hogarth’s new series where contemporary authors were asked to reinterpret several of the Bard’s texts in a modern day setting, The Tempest is the tossed landscape here. Atwood’s task was considerable and the resulting novel is as touching and beautifully orchestrated as are the magical works of Prospero himself.

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

Truman Capote’s haunting coming of age novel Other Voices, Other Rooms is exquisitely crafted and filled with fluttering, unforgettable characters clinging to a lazy, long ago South, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. If you haven’t read Capote’s explosive debut before or lately, the Master awaits.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch certainly takes its time, but anyone familiar with Donna Tartt knows there is no rush when she’s telling the story. While the novel winds mostly around a shadow-struck Manhattan, it also feels lush and richly told as our hero navigates his Salinger-esque way through the sudden loss of his mother and the uncertainty of what else could possibly happen afterward.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Finally, when someone says, “There are no words” to describe something, tell ‘em to pick up a copy of Moby Dick. Extraordinary.

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