Top Fall Indie Fiction

Comeau, Joey. Malagash. ECW. Oct. 2017. 182p. ISBN 9781770414075. pap. $12.95; ebk. ISBN 9781773051109. F

Canadian author Comeau, whose work ranges from the novel Lockpick Pornography to the webcomic A Softer World, here offers a spare, ice pick–sharp look at coping with death. With her mother and brother Simon (“the waif”), Sunday has come to tiny Malagash, Nova Scotia, because her father wants to die in his hometown. The rest of the family is broken up, but Sunday is a girl with a mission: she intends to record everything her father says in his last days, not to create audio files to remember him by but to write a computer virus that will spread throughout the world, allowing him to live on “like an echo in an empty room.” It’s an intriguing premise—we often think of enduring through empires or art, but here’s a brave new techie approach—and Comeau makes it persuasive as Sunday bustles about, cool and determined and entirely likable. Recording everything from her father’s meditative comments (“A weight will lift”) to his silly jokes (“They better not have chickens in heaven. Chickens are idiot eagles and I hate them”), Sunday finally enlists Simon in her project, which meets with bittersweet success. VERDICT A fine fable for all smart readers.

redstarFraterrigo, Melissa. Glory Days. Univ. of Nebraska. (Flyover Fiction). Sept. 2017. 180p. ISBN 9781496201324. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781496202994. F

In this novel-in-stories from Lafayette Writers’ Studio founder/director ­Fraterrigo (The Longest Pregnancy), Ingleside, NE, is suffering the fate of many small plains towns, with farms failing and the rich getting richer by buying up the land. Teensy has it worse, for he’s compelled to auction off land and possessions even as he mourns his wife’s death. In the opening story, daughter Luann, having been admonished by her mother to look after her father, runs after him one night as he looks for the ghost of his wife, convinced she’ll return to berate him for losing her people’s land. Yes, a ghost, for along with the down-and-dirty details of farm life—herding cows, scaring off wild dogs, and burning the carcasses of animals lost to a tornado—Fraterrigo occasionally folds in supernatural detail with such ease that they seem utterly ordinary. (In one riveting scene, Fredonia the Great, who works at the Glory Days amusement park and with a laying on of hands can describe how people will die, foretells her husband’s death in dark and beautiful prose.) Throughout, Teensy stays upright as his life swings down into further tragedy. VERDICT Astonishing writing about a world that deserves greater attention in contemporary literature.

redstarGekoski, Rick. Darke. Canongate. Nov. 2017. 300p. ISBN 9781786892287. $25. ebk. ISBN 9781782119388. F

DEBUT Entertainingly irascible and curmudgeonly, thin-skinned and misanthropic, Dr. James Darke lives alone after the death of his wife, feigning deafness to avoid conversing with the handyman, firing a cleaning lady who’s become too bubbly, fuming with upper-crust British prejudices, and behaving badly toward the neighbors’ barking dog. He was ever thus—as a schoolmaster, he got in trouble for keeping notes on his students’ various defects as a way to remember their names—but now he’s worse. He’s even told George, the only person he could consider a friend, to collect his mail and then toss it, and he’s not speaking to daughter Lucy, whom he nevertheless recalls tenderly throughout the narrative. He’s also started keeping a coming-of-old-age journal, not an entirely bad idea. But when George shows up, pleading with him to respond to his daughter’s increasingly distraught letters, Darke does something of a turnaround, getting past Lucy’s initial anger and frustration to bond with his grandson. If that sounds sentimental, it isn’t; this is a tough-minded and bracing novel about life’s final moments from rare book dealer and academic Gekoski, writing his first novel, and it’s a success. VERDICT A page-turning portrait of the most difficult character you’ll be glad to claim as a friend.

Marsalis, Simeon. As Lie Is To Grin. Catapult. Oct. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9781936787593. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781936787609. F

DEBUT Newcomer Marsalis blends diary extracts and novel excerpts to good effect, telling the story of University of Vermont freshman David as he struggles to clarify his African American identity at a mostly white school and to maintain the lie he told his New York girlfriend Melody: that he lives with his drug-addicted mother in Harlem, when in fact she’s an educated professional who’s nevertheless “crazy like black crazy.” As he becomes increasingly interested in his heritage, David begins studying the work of Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer and tracking down information connecting his school to African American history, though what’s really telling is how hard he finds it to get straight answers. Melody’s grandfather also attended the school, passing as white, and David sometimes imagines seeing a figure representing him or Toomer stalking the campus. Marsalis beautifully captures David’s uncertainty and keen awareness of the world around him (the descriptions of architecture are both effective and key to the story), and it’s a sign of the author’s fine skills with narrative that the selected extracts and excerpts are strikingly different in tone, though David’s life directly feeds his writing experience. VERDICT Short-listed for the 2017 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, this affecting and unaffected story is for all readers. `

Middleton, Jarret. Darkansas. Dzanc. Aug. 2018. 216p. ISBN 9781945814297. $26.95. F

In this urgently written, dark-lit novel from Pharos editor Middleton, country musician Jordan has been living raggedly on the road, avoiding his family while trying to live up to the reputation of his famed bluegrass musician father, Walker Bayne. When he finally returns home to Arkansas for the wedding of his twin brother, Malcolm, the family both embraces him and castigates him for his long absence. Jordan’s the black sheep, trying to explain to his brother at an out-of-control bachelor party that there’s something dark calling him, something much worse than drink. Indeed, as he starts looking at the mementoes from his father’s career, he realizes that his father and his long-lost uncle Jake were actually twins, and as he investigates the family history, he discovers a singular curse: every generation of Bayne men from the Civil War has included twins, and one twin always ends up killing his father. That touch of magic realism might interest some readers, but it really isn’t necessary; Middleton’s atmospheric work, set in a world little visited, captures both individual and family struggle in sharp-edged if occasionally messy language as it investigates how we constantly come up against fate. ­VERDICT Appealing reading, not just for the country music and rural crowd.

Moore, Alison. The Lighthouse. Biblioasis. Aug. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9781771961455. pap. $14.95 ebk. ISBN 9781771961462. F

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the McKitterick Prize, this deftly told work from British author Moore arrives here well recommended. Moore, who writes with a certain mirrored stillness, relates the journey of the hapless Futh to Germany following the end of his marriage to Angela. The hotel where he stays is called Hellhaus, which means lighthouse, and tiny lighthouses holding perfume vials figure throughout the narrative as both talisman and memory prod. Having traveled from England by ferry, echoing a troubled trip he took with his father as a child, Futh spends his time on long walks recalling his mother’s abandonment of the family when he was young; his father’s subsequent abusiveness; his bolder childhood friend Kenny, who also disappears; and his troubled-from-the-beginning relationship with Angela. Meanwhile, he comes up against the hotel’s proprietors, hard-drinking, slightly brazen Ester, and her husband, Bernard, whose immediate dislike of Futh sums up Futh’s state in life. VERDICT This persuasive portrait of a man who has always missed out and who’s missing out still will move many readers.

Nicholson, Geoff. The Miranda. Unnamed. Oct. 2017. 218p. ISBN 9781944700362. pap. $16; ISBN 9781944700379. F

This darkly wry new work from ­Nicholson (The City Under the Skin) opens with a man working with a shadowy, unspecified organization preparing volunteers for the eventuality of torture. What unfolds is not a thriller (despite continuing overtones) but a surprisingly engrossing meditation on human limitation and life’s ultimate opacity. Surprisingly, because Joe, the narrator, a psychotherapist dragged into his job because he’s been treating mostly former soldiers with post-­traumatic stress disorder, soon quits his job, divorces his wife, and moves to a house with a large yard where he plans to walk daily, eventually completing a distance equal to the circumference of the Earth in some two and a half years. Not so exciting-sounding, but Joe’s ­circumambulations attract the attention of neighbors, including wimpy little Small Paul and his forward mother and obnoxious, security guard father, plus an odd-job woman named Miranda who helps bring the plot to a dramatic climax. Throughout, Joe’s deadpan humor contrasts effectively with the quietly disturbing events, and readers are drawn in by the tense undercurrents. VERDICT An excellent, accessible work for readers of literary fiction and thriller fans who like a dose of existential angst.

redstarRowe, Josephine. A Loving, Faithful Animal. Catapult. Sept. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9781936787579. pap. $16.95. F

DEBUT In 1990 Australia, Jack ­Burroughs, an increasingly disturbed Vietnam vet, disappears for what appears to be the last time after his dog is killed by a panther, and his wife, Evelyn, and daughters Ru and Lani struggle to make the best of things. Perhaps it’s for the best; charismatic Jack, who had charmed Evelyn away from her well-to-do parents and a life that included a modeling contract and a green Corvette, eventually turned abusive as they downshifted through a sorry, nomadic life. Now Evvie languishes in the past as Lani goes her wild, drug- and sex-fueled way, while Ru watches everything wisely. Meanwhile, Jack’s half-brother, Les, who had amputated several fingers to avoid fighting in Vietnam, remains a link to Jack and a quiet source of solace throughout. It’s Les who describes Jack as someone who “had come back home as himself but with the war in him like a dormant, cancerlike sickness,” and we see how grief spreads beyond the victim like cracked glass. ­VERDICT This debut from an Elizabeth Jolley Prize winner is one of the smarter, most lyrically written stories you’ll read about a fracturing family.

Yarbrough, Steve. The Unmade World. Unbridled. Jan. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9781609531430. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781609531447. F

Both meditative and engaging, this new work from Yarbrough (The Oxygen Man), winner of the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, travels between Poland and California as it examines the consequences of a terrible accident one snowy night near Kraków. American journalist Richard Brennan had been traveling home from family Christmas activities with his Polish wife and their daughter, Anna, when they’re driven off the road by petty criminals Marek and Bogdan, desperate to escape from a botched robbery. Former proprietors of a chain of stores forced out of business in post-Communist Poland, these two now lead a marginalized existence, and Yarbrough deftly paints the travails of a rapidly changing society, in which fancy cars swarm the streets and only educated youth need apply for jobs. Richard, too, is going through some job adjustments, and now he must deal with grief as well. This novel of changed times and changed lives hangs on the vagaries of fate, touching on issues from the refugee crisis to corruption in college sports while rolling out the quiet suspense of whether justice will be served. VERDICT Rich with issues of guilt, grief, and cultural dislocation; an accomplished work that’s good for book groups.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert

 

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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