Fiction Previews, Feb. 2014, Pt. 2: Award-Worthy Literary Authors from Bich Minh Nguyen to Marcel Theroux

Afrika, Tatamkhulu. Bitter Eden. Picador. Feb. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781250043665. $25. LITERARY
Born in Egypt in 1920 of an Arab father and a Turkish mother and raised by Christian foster parents in South Africa, Afrika served in the North African Campaign during World War II and was a prisoner of war for three years in Italy and Germany. He draws on those experiences to craft the story of three men in a POW camp in Italy dealing with the rigors of imprisonment and the emotions evoked. Afrika published a novel at age 17 and didn’t write again for five decades, finally publishing this book at age 80. (He died in 2002.) Well-seasoned reflections.

Alameddine, Rabih. An Unnecessary Woman. Grove. Feb. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780802122148. $24. LITERARY
Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, author-on-the-rise Alameddine (The Hakawati) here celebrates the power and the glory of literature while showing us one woman’s vibrant interior life. Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in Beirut, yearly translating a new book she loves into Arabic even as her thoughts range over her own life and the chaotic life of her city, past and present. With a reading group guide and a West Coast tour.

Cameron, Claire. The Bear. Little, Brown. Feb. 2014. 208p. ISBN 9780316230124. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316230100. lib. ebk. ISBN 9780316256094. CD: Hachette Audio. LITERARY
Lots of heartfelt in-house chatter about this second novel by Cameron, whose first novel, The Line Painter, won the Northern Lit Award from the Ontario Library Service and was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Crime Writing Award. When five-year-old Anna is on a camping trip with her family, a furious black bear attacks their camp, killing her parents. Now she is responsible for getting her little brother to safety. Based on actual events in Canada’s Algonquin Park, where Cameron once worked; with a big Goodreads giveaway.

Charyn, Jerome. I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War. Liveright: Norton. Feb. 2014. 464p. ISBN 9780871404275. $26.95. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
Guggenheim Fellow Charyn (also honored as a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture) frequently explores American history through fiction; witness his vibrant and much-debated The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, published in 2010. Here he resurrects Abraham Lincoln, tracking him from his youth in Illinois to his anguish during the Civil War and investigating crucial relationships along the way.

Kilroy, Claire. The Devil I Know. Black Cat: Grove Atlantic. Feb. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9780802122377. pap. $16. LITERARY
Winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, Kilroy tells a story showing how the Irish bubble burst. Tristram St. Lawrence has been estranged from his family since going on a drunk while his mother lay dying, never mind that he is the 13th earl of Howth. But he’s sober now, under the wing of the shadowy M. Deauville, who thinks the far-reaching development project proposed by Tristam’s former schoolmate is just terrific. You can imagine what happens to that project, just as you can imagine what it’s like for Tristam to be back in the family castle. Kilroy’s Tenderwire was terrific.

Moore, Lisa. Caught. Grove. Feb. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780802122124. $25. LITERARY
Author of February, a New Yorker Best Book of the Year, and Commonwealth Fiction Prize winner Alligator, Moore depicts the wild journey of charming, audacious young David Slaney as he crisscrosses Canada and then heads down to Mexico and Colombia to make one last, big drug deal and win back his lady love. To do so, he’s broken out of jail (where he was doing time for possession), which means he has the police hot on his trail and must role-play constantly (as a student, a houseguest, and more) to evade them.

Nguyen, Bich Minh. Pioneer Girl. Viking. Feb. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9780670025091. $26.95. LITERARY
Vietnam and Little House in the Prairie are two themes one doesn’t expect to find between a single set of covers, but PEN/Jerard Fund Award winner Nguyen (whose Short Girls was an LJ Best Book) manages it. When Lee Lien returns home with her doctorate but no job, she finds that her brother has disappeared and starts looking for him by investigating something he left behind: a gold-leaf brooch reputedly belonging to Laura Ingalls Wilder in turn left behind in 1965 Saigon by an American reporter.

Pasulka, Brigid. The Sun and Other Stars. S. & S. Feb. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9781451667110. $26. LITERARY
PEN/Hemingway Award winner Pasulka, whose affecting debut, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True, was also a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, sets her second novel in a town on the Italian Riviera. At 22, Etto has just lost his mother and his brother and feels like an outsider in his soccer-obsessed town. Then a famous Ukrainian soccer star arrives, with scandal and his protective sister in his wake, and Etto’s life is forever changed. With a five-city tour and a reading group guide.

Schaffert, Timothy. The Swan Gondola. Riverhead. Feb. 2014. 464p. ISBN 9781594486098. $27.95. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
As the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair prepares to open, ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt falls for Cecily, a member of one of the acting troupes that have invaded the city. Cecily seems uninterested until they ride together on a swan gondola on the lagoon of the New White City. Omaha is a grubby town transformed by the fair, as Ferret and Cecily are transformed, and the book’s shimmery sense of magic and mystery is bringing comparisons to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. Schaffert’s books, e.g., The Coffins of Little Hope, have been Discover Great New Writers, Indie Next, and New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Picks, so it’s time for him to become a household name.

Theroux, Marcel. Strange Bodies. Farrar. Feb. 2014. 304p. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374709518. $26. LITERARY
Literary fiction, thriller, or science fiction? National Book Award finalist Theroux smoothly blends them all—I mean, how many books get likened to works by Borges and Philip K. Dick?—in a story set at an infamous psychiatric hospital where a patient claims to be the notorious Dr. Nicholas Slopen. Slopen, a Samuel Johnson scholar, references an apparent forgery of a letter by the great man to eventually lead doubting authorities to a conspiracy between a Silicon Valley power maniac and his Russian allies.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Annihilation. Farrar. Feb. 2014. 208p. ISBN 9780374104092. pap. $13. LITERARY
World Fantasy Award winner VanderMeer turns in a dystopian story with literary overtones that has won comparison to works by Margaret Atwood. According to the first expedition to Area X, which has been cut off from civilization for decades, the land there is an unspoiled Eden. But subsequent expeditions have met with catastrophe, from suicide to murder to particularly malignant cancer. Just preparing to leave, the 12th expedition hopes to stay alive while mapping the terrain, and each expedition member is bringing along a dark secret that will change everything.

Wildgen, Michelle. Bread and Butter. Doubleday. Feb. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780385537438. $25.95. LITERARY
Executive editor of the literary quarterly Tin House and author of the well-received debut novel You’re Not You, soon to be a film starring Hilary Swank, Wildgen has come up with a story that taps into our current obsession with all things foodie, including  today’s cover-worthy chefs. Brothers Britt and Leo have been running a successful restaurant in Winesap, PA, drawing crowds and obeying all the rules about not crossing the line with staff, when upstart younger brother Harry opens a restaurant of his own and all hell breaks loose.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @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.