Arditti, Michael. The Breath of Night. Arcadia: Dufour. 2014. 387p. ISBN 9781909807662. pap. $20. F
In the opening pages of this new work from British author Arditti (The Celibate), who frequently explores issues of contemporary faith, Philip Seward explains why he has traveled to the Philippines to determine whether missionary priest Julian Tremayne had the requisites for sainthood. Julian was the uncle of Philip’s tragically deceased fiancée, and the family is desperate to prove Julian’s bona fides three decades after he was presumably killed by communist guerrillas. The novel then alternates between Julian’s bright letters home and wimpy Philip’s increasingly fraught sojourn in the Philippines, which ends surprisingly. VERDICT Polished language, an effective buildup, and the meditation on the meaning of belief that’s thoughtful rather than overbearing; good for book clubs.
Bradley, Darin. Chimpanzee. Underland: Resurrection House. 2014. 216p. ISBN 9781630230005. pap. $18.95. F
And you thought the current economy was bad. In this savage satire from Bradley (Noise), the high unemployment rate has caught up with Benjamin Cade, who has lost his job teaching literature and literary theory at the university. With no means of repaying his education loan—he and his wife barely get by on her salary—Ben must submit to the repossession of his cherished education, brought about by cringe-worthy chemical and cognitive techniques. Obviously, Ben will be losing much of his mind, but he decides to go down fighting by teaching free classes in the park. Meanwhile, resisters are organizing mass chimpings—yes, they act like monkeys. VERDICT Excellent literary dystopia.
Donovan, Anne. Gone Are the Leaves. Canongate: Trafalgar Square. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9781782112624. pap. $19.95. F
When he arrives without family or memory at the castle of the laird and his French wife, young Feilamort is described as “the colour of a dead leaf” (feuille morte means “dead leaf” in modern French). But as 13-year-old narrator Deirdre adds, “dead leaves are of different hues. Cooried round the trunk of the mithertree, they shade frae rich gowd tae near-black.” Thus opens a lyric tale of love, life, and hard choices in earlier times, told in burnished and accessible Scots dialect. Deirdre and Feilamort’s love story indeed shades into black as plans are made to preserve Feilamort’s beautiful singing voice through castration. VERDICT A gorgeously rendered upscale historical from the author of the Orange Prize–short-listed Buddha Da.
Founds, Kathleen. When Mystical Creatures Attack! Univ. of Iowa. 2014. 206p. ISBN 9781609382834. pap. $16. F
In her 2014 John Simmons Short Fiction Award winner, Founds plays brightly and insightfully with form, starting with the opening, title story. Given the journaling prompt “Write a one-page story in which your favorite mystical creature resolves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time,” the students of high school English teacher Laura Freedman respond with pieces that are funny, touching, and sometimes disdainful; Janice Gibbs observes, “You had always been so nice, and you were acting whacked.” By the second story, Ms. Freedman is desperately building up Wellness Points in an asylum based on “a capitalist model of cognitive behavior therapy.” VERDICT The brief, linked pieces here are fresh, witty, and revelatory of our times.
Greenburg, Bradley. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed. Sandstone: Dufour. Dec. 2014. 350p. ISBN 9781908737878. pap. $19. F
Greenburg’s debut novel opens with an epigraph taken from a May 1865 piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Slavery is dead, the negro is not, there is the misfortune.” The awful truth behind that statement—that emancipation did not end hatred and discrimination—is demonstrated in a narrative that spans decades. In the early Reconstruction era, 12-year-old Clayton McGhee travels north from Alabama with his parents and grandparents, who hope to build a new life in Indiana. Smart and perceptive—in the first chapter, he’s shown trying to buy a book—Clayton encounters ingrained prejudice that eventually leads to violence. VERDICT This historical combines the pleasures of old-fashioned storytelling with the sobering and ever-needed reminder of the price of racial hatred.
Hart, America. into the silence: the fishing story. Red Hen. 2014 160p. ISBN 9781597095402. pap. $15.95. F
Young Natalia stands fishing not far from her father, singing in an unearthly voice that hints at a special future; later, she becomes an accomplished musician, dividing her time between piano and violin. Her father pushes her forth, her mother and sister pull her back, yet Natalia does things her own way by leaving school and following ballet dancer Dan to the city. So far, a standard story line, but the telling in this debut novel is anything but; all lowercase, with phrases repeatedly conjoined, the narrative creates a sense of rush, compression, and intimacy that mirrors Natalia’s agitated state. VERDICT For language lovers rather than plot seekers; certainly demanding, but Hart is someone to watch.
Hepner, Braden. Pale Harvest. Torrey House. 2014. 360p. ISBN 9781937226398. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781937226343. F
After his parents were killed in a car accident, Jack Selvedge went to live with his grandparents on their dairy farm; at 20, he’s still there, doing back-breaking labor. An autumnal sense pervades his story, as he witnesses his grandmother’s death and meditatively debates options with friend Heber; Jack’s for staying put, but their little Utah town is clearly dying, like towns everywhere in the American West. Still, there’s the generously depicted dignity of hard work and the promise of hope in the return of lovely Rebekah Rainsford. VERDICT A quietly dazzling debut that any reader could enjoy.
Massie, Allan. Klaus. Vagabond Voices: Dufour. Dec. 2014. 152p. ISBN 9781908251282. $23. F
Not well known here, award-winning Scottish author/commentator Massie effectively portrays a man on the edge while revealing the devastation beyond. After World War II, Thomas Mann’s son Klaus returns to Germany from America, where his family has lived in self-imposed exile. Klaus, ever a struggling writer, has maintained a furtive homosexual life, claiming that coming out would hurt his anti-Nazi activism. Looking about Germany, he says repeatedly, “You can’t go home anymore,” acknowledging that the world has changed forever. Drugs and rent boys keep the pain at bay. VERDICT Fluid, understated, and precise; a telling portrait of a man in ruins.
Meginnis, Mike. Fat Man and Little Boy. Black Balloon. 2014. 242p. ISBN 9781936787203. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781936787210. F
Inside a bunker, a fat man guarded by Japanese soldiers lies pinkly naked. Something strange is happening: “He remembers how it was to explode. It was everything coming out everywhere. Shit and piss and puke and blood and scream. It was being the world…. It was like being born.” Then he’s rescued by a skinny little boy who says, “So, you are my brother.” Yes, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have come to life and bond closely as they stumble through a smoking, hostile landscape, trying to make sense of the world. Eventually, they flee to France and then America to submerge their dark past. VERDICT Not for fans of routine war novels, this Horatio Nelson Prize winner is an imaginative and surprisingly intimate look at the consequences of our actions and the costs of war.
Moshfegh, Ottessa. McGlue. Fence. 2014. 144p. ISBN 9781934200858. pap. $15.95. F
In the 1850s, in a ship’s hold somewhere in the South Pacific, McGlue awakens blood soaked and so hungover he can’t remember the previous evening, when he presumably killed a man named Johnson. Because Johnson had rescued McGlue from a vagabond life and got him his berth, and because McGlue is rowdy, abrasive, foulmouthed, and inclined to call people faggots and blackies, readers will condemn him out of hand. But as the story unfolds, a different understanding of events emerges. VERDICT Rawly written yet superbly controlled, this accomplished debut is the inaugural winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose; it would have been no surprise to see it coming from a major literary house, so look there for Moshfegh’s next.
Savage, Sam. It Will End with Us. Coffee House. Nov. 2014. 150p. ISBN 9781566893725. pap. $12.95; ebk. ISBN 9781566893800. F
Savage first caught our attention with Firmin, a rat’s-eye view of the literary life, so you know to expect something different from his latest work. An older woman named Eve looks back at a Southern childhood in duskier, Tennessee Williams times, offering an aphoristic scattering of memories—one- and two-sentence stand-alones that spill isolated down the page like little gems. She’s trying to reconstruct her past, particularly her demanding, somewhat unconventional mother. But what she’s really doing is showing us how memory works and how we make sense of our lives, drip by drip and sensation by sensation. VERDICT Readers who aren’t afraid of unusual formats will find an astute and accessible psychological study here.
Shah, Bina. A Season for Martyrs. Delphinium.Nov. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781883285616. pap. $14.95. F
Though Karachi-based novelist Shah writes in English and was raised partly in America, where she received her higher education, this is her U.S. debut. Her new novel focuses on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s October 2007 return to Pakistan after eight years in exile, an event covered at first reluctantly by TV journalist Ali Sikandar, whose feudal family has ties to the Bhuttos. Scenes dating as far back as the 900s give readers a sense of Pakistan’s history and precarious present. VERDICT Good reading, urgently and cleanly told, for those interested in world events, as well as issues of identity and place in community.
Slattery, Brian Francis. The Family Hightower. Seven Stories. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9781609805630. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781609805647. F
Philip K. Dick Award winner Slattery (Lost Everything) does something a little different, turning in a book that’s at once literary thriller and family drama. Peter Henry Hightower has grown up abroad, always on the run with his father, but he doesn’t know why until he rebels and gets in touch with his family in America. He soon discovers that the family wealth has been built on the criminal activities of the grandfather after whom he’s been named and that a cousin also called Peter Henry Hightower is a spectacular criminal-in-training. VERDICT A swift but thoughtful read about what family means.
Slomski, Heather A. The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons. Univ. of Iowa. 2014. 146p. ISBN 9781609382827. pap. $16. F
“We are sitting at a table in a restaurant. The four of us. You. Me. The woman with whom you had an affair. Her boyfriend.” So opens the title story of Slomski’s 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award winner, and it’s so apt, cutting, and funny that most folks will want to read on. In the remaining stories, all told in brisk yet sympathetic language, Slomski plumbs loneliness and misconnection, as in “Correction,” ending with a woman who sits drinking to “block out the mistake I made in leaving him.” VERDICT Promising work about contemporary life.
Vanderslice, John. Island Fog. Lavender Ink. 2014. 290p. ISBN 9781935084419. pap. $17.95. F
In this collection’s opening story, “Guilty Look,” local wigmaker William Pease stands accused of robbing a bank on 1795 Nantucket Island, but though he finds the real culprits, the bank’s smug, upper-crust owners close ranks against him. In the closing piece, “Island Fog,” washed-up college student Doug boards the ferry to Nantucket in 2005 and ends up trapped in a creepy job that he thought was just for the summer. The collection thus encapsulates several centuries of Nantucket history—and of fumbling humankind generally. VERDICT Absorbing, even disturbing, these fine stories aren’t for local reading only.