short stories

The 10 Best Short Story Collections of 2017

By Adam Vitcavage

George Saunders, the 21st century master of short stories, looks for a sense of a human being on the other side of the page. He says short stories are very hard work and oftentimes people hide behind showmanship or tricks to make a story impactful in such a short page count. He mastered these stories over his long career and released them as a collection in 2013. Saunders reached the pinnacle of the art form. This year, he finally released his follow up—only it was a debut novel. Only it was a debut novel instead. A debut that happened to win the Man Booker Prize, by the way.

This year, there was a general consensus on what were some of the best collections. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides released his first collection. As did Joshua Ferris. Haruki Murakami released his fourth collection translated into English. Hell, even two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Tom Hanks released a terrific collection.

Here are 10 collections—some that have been consensus crowd favorites and some under-the-radar ones—that I felt were the best this year. 

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

This collection of short stories succeeds in creating visceral voices over the course of centuries. Chanelle Benz is able to engage readers with invigorating stories from a 16th century monk to a 19th century baroque piece narrated by a chorus of We. "The West of Known,” the opening story, garnered Benz a lot of recognition when it was first published in The American Reader. The story earned her an O. Henry Prize and is an astonishing piece to introduce yourself to her writing. "James III" is a modern piece about violence and family that is narrated from the perspective of a high school freshman in Philadelphia. However, what stands out about Benz's writing is not the thought provoking plot; instead, it is the voice she is able to give James. He feels so real. So do all of her other narrators. Each one is a unique human who really lived. They're not just characters in a short story collection.

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

In her debut collection, Hunt uses her ability to deconstruct the norm by creating lush worlds in a few paragraphs and then flipping it upside down. Metamorphosis, from the literal to figurative, is prevalent throughout these stories. With these changes, she explores womanhood in a roundabout way. A subtle, and peculiar, story involves a woman turns into a deer at night. A more upfront one would be a woman wondering why she and her husband haven’t had sex in nearly a year. Either way you go, Hunt is onto something eerily familiar, but wholly original.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Off-kilter stories about what it means to be female are a welcome trend. This collection uses hints of reworked fairy tales as a lens to view what society has to say about feminism. One story has a character who can hear porn stars thoughts. Another asks if being a female writer writing about a female writer is a tired trope. One is about sexual history. Through and through, this collection is so enthralling because it has drop dead gorgeous writing. A plot summary only goes so far. It’s the writing that makes this collection so remarkable.

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

Enriquez’ stories are vibrant depictions of her native Argentina, mostly Buenos Aires, though she also ventures out to surrounding countries. She fills the dozen stories with compelling characters in haunting stories that evaluate inequality, violence, and corruption. Characters range from social workers to street dwellers—even dark magic users. With those characters, the author explores tourists in Argentina, the rich visiting the slums, plus so many more dynamic areas of her home country.

In tradition with the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and NoViolent Bulawayo, this collection features well-crafted and vibrant stories about being black in America while still holding onto roots in Africa. These stories are all nearly about that specific idea, but never feel stale. Throughout the different stories, we meet a wide-ranging spectrum of characters in a variety of settings. Still, she brings a cohesion to the stories that make them feel connected, even though they all stand alone.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen’s stories focus on mostly Vietnamese refugees whose stories take place from the 1970s through present day. Some do take place in Vietnam, however, most of the stories take place in America. Nguyen taps into the daunting reality refugees faced in America, but balances the haunting trauma with the beautiful humanity extremely well. None of the stories are necessarily autobiographical. They were influenced by Nguyen’s own experiences as well as what happened to his friends and family. This is important because it is vital to remember where refugees in America came from and what they accomplished. This is one of the most vital books released so far in 2017.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

Using a thread to connect all the stories in a connection can be tricky. You don’t want each story to get stale. Zhang sets her stories mostly in Queens, focusing on the daughters of Chinese immigrants. Zhang uses very direct, in-your-face prose that is tough to swallow at times. She wants you to experience the rawness that these girls have to face every single day. It makes for an obscene collection you wince at, but in a good way.

Stories of migration and the toll it takes on families are the centerpiece of this collection. Most of the stories take place in anonymous Latin American cities, which really helps focus on the characters. These people can be anywhere. Alarcon adds flourishes to his stories, never letting them seem as earnest as they appear. He twists and turns until we learn more about the characters in a handful of pages than some authors portray in entire novels.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

In Bad Feminist, a collection of essays, Roxane Gay wrote eloquently about race, feminism, and poverty in an accessible way. She continues to use her strong voice in this collection of short stories that take those same themes and weaves them into stories of resilience and power. She avoids stereotypes within character development as well as plot. Her stories truly reflect modern America through the lens of black women. It is an invigorating read that is eye opening and enlightening.

Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor

Tharoor is preoccupied with language. His stories want to make sense of what we are saying and how we are saying it. Technology plays a heavy role. But don’t be fooled! This isn’t science fiction. It’s an influence for sure, but these stories have a foot in the normal—even the mundane—while the other foot dips into the fantastical. He’s a stylish writer with plenty left to showcase.

17 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: March 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.

Setting Free the Kites by Alex George

Daniel Ford: Like Sean Tuohy, I have a soft spot for coming-of-age tales. They can leave a lasting impression on a reader if done well, and Setting Free the Kites is a shining example. I finished the novel in two sittings. I just couldn’t get enough of it, even when it was slamming my heart up against the wall.

The novel, which is set in a small town in Maine, opens with Robert Carter getting the snot kicked out of him by his nemesis. Nathan Tilly, the new kid in town, puts the ogre in his place, and then, naturally, becomes Robert’s best friend. Rather than put these two through the normal paces of adolescent life, George ups the ante by having the pair deal with one tragedy after another. Nathan’s father, who shares the same joie de vivre as his son, falls to his death early in the novel, and Robert’s brother slowly wastes away from degenerative muscular dystrophy.

However, while the novel squeezes a reader’s heart in a half a million ways, it never completely breaks it. There’s this underlying optimism and hopefulness that bubbles up. Whether rocking out to Liam’s beloved rock ‘n’ roll vinyls or getting the “it girl” to notice them at their job at Robert’s father’s amusement park, these two incredibly well crafted characters find joy in even the darkest corners. (But rest assured, you’ll be weeping in buckets by the end. Trust me, don’t be a hero, buy extra tissues.)

Like any worthy coming-of-age story, there isn’t one character you fall completely in love with. There are multiple characters you root for whether or not you’d want to be in same room with them for more than five minutes. Setting Free the Kites is a tender, funny, and passionate read, and I plan to follow George’s work for years to come.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Daniel: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer clocked in at #2 on our “Best Books of 2016” list (oh yeah, and won a Pulitzer Prize). The Refugees, a short story collection, is almost assured a spot on our 2017 list.

Set in both Vietnam and the United States, the eight stories (written over a period of 20 years) in this collection empathetically and honestly depict the global immigrant experience. Through an unforgettable cast of characters, Nguyen explores homosexuality, old age, healthcare, family, friendship, love, marriage, parenthood, and identity.

Nguyen’s prose makes one think of Alice Munro (featured in Nicole Blade’s “Author’s Corner” below) because of its earthiness and its ability to craft profound revelations out of the most ordinary of lives. He is an essential voice in these troubled political times.  

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Stephanie Schaefer: In an era where almost 40 percent of young adults live with their parents, student loan debt is at an all-time high, and more and more people are delaying marriage—or rejecting the union altogether—it makes sense for a modern coming-of-age novel to focus on a 39-year-old protagonist. 

Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up offers an un-sugarcoated commentary on adulthood in the 21st century. Written from the perspective of Andrea Bern, a flawed, almost-40, New York City dweller with as much baggage as JFK Airport, the novel deals with issues including addiction, depression, terminal illness, and what it means to be a woman who refuses to follow the status quo.

I enjoyed Attenberg’s eloquent writing style and her ability to be both raw and poignant at the same time. Essentially, All Grown Up reads like a grittier “Sex and the City”—that is if Carrie Bradshaw traded her shoe addiction for alcoholism, and if instead of Mr. Big she craved a series of one-night-stands in order to fill a void stemming from a broken childhood. 

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Daniel: Boy, can Elliot Ackerman write. His debut novel, Green on Blue, was one of our favorite reads of 2015, and left us wanting so much more from the author. Ackerman’s sophomore novel, Dark at the Crossing, didn’t disappoint, and features a novelist fully growing into his literary powers.

The book centers on Haris Abadi, a wayward Arab American, who is attempting to cross the Turkish border into Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As the title suggests, things don’t go according to plan (even though Abadi doesn’t have much of a plan to begin with). He finds shelter with a troubled and broken Syrian couple, Amir and his wife Daphne, and becomes embroiled in their complex relationship. All three are searching for something; something that beckons from beyond a border they struggle to cross (both metaphorically and physically).

Ackerman’s gift for prose and dialogue are on full display. He crafts a brutal love story and also beautifully depicts a violent part of the world largely misunderstood by those on the outside of the battle lines. Much like Green on Blue, Dark at the Crossing is a must read for anyone attempting to further their understanding of the Middle East, as well as our shared humanity.   

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

Daniel: Cancel all your plans before you sit down to read Dwayne Alexander Smith’s exceptional thriller Forty Acres. It’s constantly surprising, and you will not want to put it down once the pages start turning.

After up-and-coming attorney Martin Grey scores a surprise legal victory over a much more heralded rival, he’s invited to an exclusive club by some of the most prominent members of the black community. Grey finds himself on a private jet headed to an undisclosed hideaway founded by an eccentric, shadowy figure. Instead of nature hikes and burly masseuses, Grey discovers something far more insidious. Within the complex, white men and women are enslaved, bending to their black “masters” every whim and desire. The young, idealistic lawyer has to grapple with his racial identity, his country’s violent racial past (and present), and the true nature of power. And in true thriller fashion, his life, and that of his equally tenacious wife, depends on his finding answers as fast as humanly possible.  

Smith’s novel has trace DNA from Nelson DeMille’s The Charm School and constantly surprises. It asks big questions that readers will chew on long after the novel finally unshackles them.

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

Adam Vitcavage: Daniel Magariel’s debut novel (out March 14) is an emotionally packed exploration into family, negligence, and addiction. It’s only around 170 pages, but is still able to pack in so much ethos because of the writer’s sense of urgency. An unnamed 12-year-old boy narrates the novel, and we discover he and his older brother live with their father. After a bitter divorce—dubbed “the war” by the father—the trio heads to New Mexico for a fresh start. The happiness fades when violence and drug addiction begin to surface. Magariel’s plot and prose make this a memorable book that will leave you emotionally numb well after the last page is finished.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Daniel: What kind of life can be lived in a war zone? Can new love find a spark? Can familial love sustain? What would one give up to walk through a door leading to escape? What life can be lived on the other side? 

These are the questions Mohsin Hamid attempts to answer in his incredibly moving, romantic, tender, and violent novel Exit West (out March 7). His narrative centers on two of the more original characters you’ll find in today’s fiction. Saeed, a sensitive and religious young man backed by a supportive family, and Nadia, a headstrong, independent woman who broke free from her family to establish an independent life on her own terms, kindle a romance that becomes more and more complicated as their country descends further and further into armed conflict. Their bond is tested and redefined when they are offered a chance at escape, and an entirely new story, one just as fraught and questioning, begins. 

This all sounds heavy, and it is, but Hamid tells the tale with such a deft and warm hand that your heart swells much more than it breaks. There are several laugh-out-loud moments that remind you that humor and love exist even when surrounded by humanity’s worst instincts. Exit West is a special novel, one that should be celebrated and embraced by readers of all nationalities, races, and creeds. 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Adam: The premise of Dan Chaon’s third novel (out March 7) is titillating and enthralling. Thirty years ago, a boy named Dustin told police his adoptive brother Rusty was behind the massacre of their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, Dustin is a physiologist and Rusty has been exonerated by DNA evidence. Their two lives have been defined by the murders and are about to collide again. What Chaon does is take this dark, twisted story, and adds subtle twists to the narratives he unfolds with precision. The author manipulates how we are fed information: he uses traditional forms like flashback, but also allows one narrative to be told through first-, second- and third-person points of view. With Ill Will, Chaon has mastered the psychological thriller novel.

The Weight of This World by David Joy

Daniel: As you may already know, author David Joy is a Writer’s Bone favorite. He’s on our masthead (his essay “One Place misUnderstood” is not to be missed), we adored his debut novel, Where All the Light Tends to Go, and his Twitter feed is a must-follow. Even if all of that weren’t true (and he wasn’t a fan of Jefferson’s, one of our favorite bourbons), we’d still crow about his beautifully destructive second effort, The Weight of This World (out March 7).

This novel, set once again in the mountains of North Carolina, features Thad Broom, an Afghan war vet, and his best friend Aiden McCall. The pair is bound together by much more than mere friendship, and find out just how strong those ties are after they witness a drug dealer kill himself, leaving behind a pile of drugs and cash. As the two men decide what to do next, Thad’s mother April, deals with her own trauma as she prepares to leave the only home she’s ever known—one scarred by violence and anger.

Joy puts his main characters through hell, but it’s not hell for its own sake. There’s a purpose to every sentence and every line of dialogue Joy writes. He’s searching for answers to deeper truths about violence, trauma, and family; it just so happens that his path to answers tends to lead down the barrel of a gun.

Additionally, without giving anything away, The Weight of This World features one of the best, and most satisfying, endings to a crime fiction novel I’ve ever read. Joy was nominated for an Edgar Award for his first novel, and there’s no doubt in my mind he might find himself walking back home with one this time around. 

Adam: Boris Fishman’s two novels—2014’s A Replacement Life and 2016’s Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo—both landed on The New York Times 100 Notable Books the year they were released. Last year’s Rodeo is about a young Jewish American couple who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. Their adoptive son is obsessed with nature and is almost a wildling. The story unfolds with the couple’s journey to Montana to discover why their son is the way he is. Fishman’s sense of humor is sprinkled through this absurd, but very serious, novel as he explores themes of identity, nature-versus-nurture, and genealogy.

The Shooting by James Boice

Gary Almeter: From its jarring opening sentence to its poignant conclusion, The Shooting fully and unrelentingly immerses the reader in gun culture. It does so in ways large and small, addressing the larger Machiavellian components of our nation's preoccupation with guns and fashioning small narratives of the individuals affected by gun violence. It is an epic story and one of the simplest too.

Three characters—the reclusive erratic scion of a wealthy family, a staunch anti-Second Amendment advocate whose daughter was murdered in a school shooting, and the teenage son of immigrant—all collide following one incident in New York City. The stories of these characters leading up to this moment are engrossing, and the paths these characters take after the incident will challenge what you think you know about America. 

This is one of the best books I have ever read.

Author’s Corner

By Nicole Blades

In honor of Women’s History Month, I decided to keep my “Books You Should Already Own Because Whaaaat Why Haven’t You Read Them Yet?” list limited to women writers. And the good news is, this wasn’t a challenge. The work that women fiction writers have been and continue to put out there is pure fire! Love story? We got you. Thriller? On it. Young Adult charmer? Here you go, buddy. Whatever you have a hankering for, there are long lists of exceptional books written by a woman from which to choose and devour. For me, the work was trying to limit this list to five books. But that’s another story that involves my—ahem—acute bibliosis (just pretend, okay?). Here are five books I’ve read in the last five years that you’ll want to have on your shelf too.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation, this is one of the first that comes to my lips. It’s a love story, but that’s just one of the many rich layers to this novel. It’s also a story about belonging, home, loneliness, and being a black woman in a country that often acts like you’re not there. Plus there’s so much wit and heart here that you’ll find yourself head-back laughing one minute and then shouting “I know, right?!” the next.  But that’s the magic of Adichie. She is so focused on telling rich, real stories that you can see yourself on these pages. And even when you don’t see “you” in the story, the characters are authentic while also being complex and human that you are pulled into their world and perspective. It’s all very captivating.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

It’s a girl-meets-boy story, yes, but there’s nothing typical about it. For starters the girl, Madeline Whittier, is mixed race—African American and Asian. Also, she has a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) that makes her essentially “allergic to the world.” The boy, Olly, is her new neighbor, and their meet-cute happens from behind the glass of their distant bedroom windows. From the first line in, you’ll be rooting for Maddy. You want all good things for her, even though she’s enduring this unlivable, limited life trapped in a virtual bubble. The dialogue is snappy and smart, and the characters and their relationships feel real. Plus, there are these darling illustrations sprinkled throughout the book that add yet another layer of sweetness to this wonderful story.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I read this one last summer knowing that the HBO adaptation was coming in early 2017. And since I’m one of those “gotta read the book first!” types—and I hadn’t been pulled into a dark, buzzy, page-turner mystery since maybe Gone Girl—I picked up the heavy hardcover and jumped right in. I’m happy to say, Big Little Lies was the first book in a long while with a twist that I never saw coming. When I got to the particular page near the end, I literally sat up in my bed with my jaw dropped. Having that “No. Waaaaaaaay!” moment was a real payoff.  It’s gossip and secrets and schadenfreude; all the ingredients for a classic beach read.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Full disclosure: I know Angela in real life. She went to college with my sister. But even if she were a stone-cold stranger, I would still sing this book’s praises. Well-drawn and engrossing—while tackling some pretty heavy topics like mental health and addiction and the 2008 housing crisis as well as the knotted ties that bind a family—The Turner House is poignant, entertaining, heartfelt and haunting. It’s ambitious, but takes such care with the finer details while being beautifully written. A fascinating family saga that almost dares you to put it down. (Don’t take the dare, though. You’ll lose!)

Any Book by Alice Munro

Okay, fine. It’s kind of cheating, but it’s not really because, come on. This is Alice Munro we’re talking about here. Alice Munro, aka Great Fellow Canadian/Master of the Short Story/Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m a loyal fan of Munro and her work. She’s permanently installed at the top of my list of favorite authors, and I’ll often pick up one of her collections at random times through the years to read a short story or two. But for the purposes of staying true to this “five for five” list, I’ll highlight her most recent release, Dear Life. It’s her thirteenth collection, but it’s as sharp and compelling as her first. The stories make the lives of ordinary people extraordinary.  And isn’t that the very definition of what good fiction is? I’ll answer for you: Yes. Now, if you really want to get on my bad side, ask me to choose one of her short stories as my all-time favorite. (I’m already frowning at you now, so don’t bother.)

Nicole Blades’ next book, Have You Met Nora?, will be released Oct. 31. Her latest novel, The Thunder Beneath Us, is available now wherever books and e-books are sold. Catch Nicole and her sister Nailah on “Hey, Sis!,” their brand new podcast about women finding their focus and place in business, art, culture, and life.

Learn more about Blades by visiting her official website, liking her Facebook page, or following her on Twitter @NicoleBlades, Instagram @nicole_blades, and Goodreads. Also read Lindsey Wojcik's interview with the author.  

#NovelClass

In the second installment of #NovelClass, Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Edie Meidav’s Crawl Space.

5 Short Story Collections by Women of Color You Need to Read Right Now

By Adam Vitcavage

Literature, for so much of its history, has been dominated by white men. The non-official canon boasts the likes of Twain and Hemingway to Chabon and DeLillo. In high school, while reading Fitzgerald, Miller, Steinbeck, and so many other white men, Harper Lee was the lone female that all of my friends seemed to have read. In college, I was obsessed with Salinger, Roth, Cheever, and Updike; enough so that I not so jokingly referred to them as The Beatles of American Literature.

Over the past couple of years, I spent time shying away from the traditional heavyweight white male writers, and sought out female writers. It’s easy. So many of my recent favorites (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, to name a few) have been by women.

In addition to seeking well-written books by talented women, I also wanted to broaden my horizon even more by reading people of color. Again, this isn’t hard. So many of the most talent writers—Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, Aravind Adiga—are people of color who have written books that blew me away.

Recently, I had the chance to interview Mariana Enriquez—an immensely talented fiction writer and journalist who is Argentinean. Her most recently short story collection was translated into English and published as Things We Lost in the Fire this month.

Enriquez’ stories are vibrant depictions of her native Argentina, mostly Buenos Aires, as well as some ventures to surrounding countries. She fills the dozen stories with compelling characters in haunting stories that evaluate inequality, violence, and corruption. Characters range from social workers to street dwellers and even venture into dark magic users. With those characters, the author explores tourists in Argentina, the rich visiting the slums, plus so many more dynamic areas of her home country.

In December 2016, The New Yorker published “Spiderweb,” a story about a bad relationship growing more difficult. The story is a prime example of how Enriquez explores political themes, as well as her penchant to focus on the horrors of life.

The collection got me thinking about other short story collections by women of color I enjoyed recently. For the sake of saving (digital) space, I limited this to five recommendations that have been recently published. But, believe me, there are plenty more.

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

This collection of short stories succeeds in creating visceral voices over the course of centuries. Chanelle Benz is able to engage readers in invigorating stories about a 16th century monk to a 19th century baroque piece narrated by a chorus of We. "The West of Known,” the opening story, garnered Benz a lot of recognition when it was first published in The American Reader. The story earned her an O. Henry Prize and is an astonishing piece to introduce yourself to her writing. "James III" is a modern piece about violence and family that is narrated from the perspective of a high school freshman in Philadelphia. However, what stands out about Benz's writing is not the thought provoking plot; instead, it is the voice she is able to give James. He feels so real. So do all of her other narrators. Each one is a unique human who really lived. They're not just characters in a short story collection.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Chances are you’ve read this book. It made nearly every “Best Of” list for 2016. But I’m here to make sure the rest of you who might have missed this collection why it’s great. While all of the collections I’m recommending are illuminating, I want to highlight Helen Oyeyemi’s originality and prose. Her novels are imaginative and she was able to take her toolkit and adapt them for stories extremely well. Throughout the collection, she uses keys and locks—figuratively and literally—as a foundation to hold the stories together. She’s able to produce expansive worlds in a limited space better than most writers are able to create in a full-length novel. She bends narratives’ structures until they nearly snap.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

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.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

In Bad Feminist, a collection of essays, Roxane Gay wrote eloquently about race, feminism, poverty and more in an accessible way. She continues to use her strong voice in this collection of short stories that take those same themes and waves them into stories of resilience and power. She avoids stereotypes within character development as well as plot. Her stories truly reflect modern America through the lens of black women. It is an invigorating read that is eye opening and enlightening.

In the Country by Mia Alvar

Most of these collections can almost be used in history classes to educate students on regions the writers know best. Alvar writes about the Philippines with a raw authenticity through a variety of lenses. Much like Gay’s collection, Alvar’s covers many different aspects of life in the Philippines; especially her hometown of Manila. Families deteriorate because of trust, or they grow stronger because of love. A foreign model learns the hard truths about a town. A bullied little boy finds and loses hope in an unlikely place. So many of her stories reveal the underbelly of a region not many Americans, especially white men like myself, ever think about. However, even if you’ve never read about the topics Alvar writes about, there is a familiarity to her themes and writing that is welcoming for any reader.

More From the Writer’s Bone Library

5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: April 2015

By Daniel Ford

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

I haven’t learned so much while reading a fictional novel in quite some time. I, sadly, don’t know much about India in general, and even less about its history, which is one of the reasons M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine was such an enjoyable and educational experience. Set in 1837, the novel follows William Avery, a young soldier with the East India Company, and Jeremiah Blake, a disillusioned, bitter former officer, as they track down a missing writer. During their investigation, the pair runs into both historical and fictional characters that showcase the clash of cultures between England and India during this time period. The Thuggee cult also plays a mysterious role that will keep readers guessing until the end. Tiger fights, caravans on dusty roads, ladies of high society, and plenty of swashbuckling make The Strangler Vine the perfect blend of history and fun.  

What I love the most about this novel is that the relationship between Avery and Blake evolves from mutual suspicion and disgust into begrudging respect. However, the change doesn’t feel forced or unnatural. They don’t become two different people at the end, but their worldview has changed just enough to support a potential partnership.  Carter told me during our interview that there was a bit of her in Avery—“keen, clueless, blurting things about before thinking about them”—and that his voice was easier to write than Blake’s. I fully anticipate Carter will have no trouble finding either voice in future novels and I very much look forward to what trouble the pair gets into next in the sequel The Infidel Stain (to be released in Spring 2016).

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

While I was reading Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek, I took to Twitter in order to decide if I should be drunk or really drunk during the experience. Henderson set me straight.

Fourth of July Creek reminded me a lot of certain scenes during “American Hustle.” Whenever Henderson shed a light on social worker Pete Snow’s personal life, the prose swayed a little looser, drunker, and, occasionally, more violent. Here was a guy that makes a living helping families in rural Montana in the 1980s, but can’t maintain his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter (who eventually runs away, adding even more depth to one of the central themes of the novel: freedom). Between trying to gain the trust of a young boy and his disturbed father Jeremiah Pearl, Snow falls for a damaged woman who lies to him about sleeping with multiple men, gets his ass kicked on more than one occasion, and crosses the FBI agent who takes an interest in Pearl’s case because of the old man’s ranting and preparations for the end of times. Henderson employs an innovative structure, shifting perspectives from Snow to his missing daughter by interjecting a social worker-type interview with the young, impressionable teenager. Every character, including secondary characters such as Ten Mile’s judge, Snow’s brother, and assorted Montana town folk, are fully formed and invigorate this mediation on American ideals. Many of the reviews of the novel talk about the confidence in which Henderson writes, and they couldn’t be more right. There’s a controlled bravado that singes each page and keeps you turning pages long after you should have gone to bed.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, the lines that forced me to pour some bourbon into a heavy glass were:

“Think of getting old. Think of being only thirty-one yourself and having gotten so much already dead fucking wrong.”

Damn you, Smith Henderson (just kidding, but, seriously)!  

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

I shouldn’t have been surprised that B.J. Novak, best known for his work on the U.S. version of “The Office,” would produce such deft, subtle, and hilarious short stories that are found in his One More Thing: Stores and Other Stories. I expected the sharp humor and spot-on observations about everyday life, but what I didn’t anticipate was the amount of heart and outright skill featured in each story. I picked up this collection in Dave Pezza’s writing cave in Rhode Island during our Bob Dylan concert weekend, and read the first story about the hare taking revenge on the slow, addled turtle that famously beat him years before. I resolved to purchase my own copy after reading the line: “slow and steady wins the race, till truth and talent claim their place.” Um, hell yes!

One of my favorite stories, “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg,” is such a funny and insightful mediation on death that I wasn’t prepared for the absolutely laugh-out-loud final scene. I was lost in my own thoughts about dying, and then the main character’s Nana *spoiler alert* admits she’d rather blow Frank Sinatra than spend time with her beloved grandson. That’s…good stuff. Other stories include the guy who returned a sex doll who falls in love with him, how to land a date through Missed Connections, and the reason why carrot cake has the best frosting. I don’t want to damn this book by saying it’s a great beach read, but I can’t imagine a better place to laugh in public without people thinking you’re crazy (everyone on a public beach is crazier than you are). I’m sure Novak has other projects on his docket, including perhaps another well-reviewed children’s book, but I’d love to see how he’d handle a complete novel.

The Red Chameleon by Erica Wright

Erica Wright’s debut crime novel is making the rounds at Writer’s Bone and earning rave reviews. Wright’s brassy private investigator Kathleen Stone's identities are as hard to keep up with as her multiple boyfriends (complete badasses in their own rights). Stone blends into the background, but not perfectly, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel so much. She may have been a great police officer and even better undercover agent, but Stone is still finding her way in her new profession. She gets made often by her male counterparts, her secretary, and her drag queen friend. The plot moves at a quick pace, like many good crime novels, but Wright takes enough time to flesh out Stone’s personality, habits, and demons. Wright’s prose is also crackling with dark humor and sarcasm that matches its New York City setting. During our interview, Wright mentioned that she was like a “fainting goat” when it came to all the positive reviews the novel has garnered since its publication. I’d advise her to get used to it, because it sounds like Kathleen Stone is a heroine readers are going to demand stick around as long as she can find a decent wig.

Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade

You may have noticed from this list that I went on a run of crime/historical/brassy/masculine books in April. Reading Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas to finish up the month has proved to be the perfect tonic to realign my fiction priorities. Set mainly in New Mexico and the Southwest, Quade’s collection of short stories prove that she is more than worthy of being selected as a 5 under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation. Without revealing too much of my interview with Quade (which will go live sometime in May), I can tell you that the author sought to write about “family and the little betrayals that can occur between parents and children, brothers and sisters.” That’s what gives the collection its power, themes that readers of all cultures can identify with. Readers will put themselves in a teenage girl’s shoes when she finds a sack of money on a bus driven by her father in “Night at the Fiestas,” feel the internal rage a young man has for his degenerate father in “The Guesthouse,” or the desperation and fear that surround a mother living in a trailer in “Mojave Rats.” The New York Times Book Review threw around words like “legitimate masterpiece,” “haunting,” and “beautiful” in its review, and those adjectives couldn’t be more apt (the reviewer also admitting to weeping several times while reading the novel). Much like Novak’s short stories, Quade’s tales will stick with you long after you finally put the book down on your nightstand deep into the night.  

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