Top Indie Fiction: 30 Key Titles Beyond the Best-Sellers List for Spring/Summer 2014

Pitiful CriminalsBottoms, Greg (text) & W. David Powell (illus.). Pitiful Criminals. Counterpoint. Aug. 2014. 208p. ISBN 9781619023116. pap. $16.95. short stories
Bottoms famously slides along the line between fact and fiction, so it’s no surprise to see this series of 13 vignettes, reputedly drawn from his past, labeled crime fiction. VERDICT From the consequences of his brother’s schizophrenia to a pastor who suspects murder, these tales are told in a laconic voice that only amplifies their power. With black-and-white line drawings throughout; highly recommended for uncommon readers.

Carpenter, Don, finished by Jonathan Lethem. Fridays at Enrico’s. Counterpoint. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9781619023017. $25. F
Novelist/screenwriter Carpenter committed suicide in 1995, but the complete manuscript of this work was recently discovered and has been edited by MacArthur Fellow Lethem. Carpenter intended to write a biography of his friend, novelist Richard Brautigan, but felt more comfortable using Brautigan as a model for fiction. VERDICT Not just a nostalgia trip into the counterculture, this work vividly recalls a time and place in forthright, engaging language.

Casey, Maud. The Man Who Walked Away. Bloomsbury USA. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781620403112. $25. F
A man who has been wandering unaware through 19th-century Europe finally awakens from his dreamlike state and seeks psychiatric treatment, just in its infancy, to determine what drove him. VERDICT Drawing on real-life events, Casey (The Shape of Things To Come) paints a touching portrait of a patient and his doctor as a mystery is quietly resolved.

Cherry, Kelly. A Kind of Dream: Stories. Terrace: Univ. of Wisconsin. 2014. 176p. ISBN 9780299297602. $26.95. short stories
Prolific award winner Cherry turns in a polished story collection featuring several generations of an artistic family going through what any family goes through. Nina, a writer, and historian husband Palmer adopt Tavy, whose biological mother has decamped to Ulaanbaatar; artist Tavy gets pregnant young with a musically inclined daughter. “Prologue: On Familiar Terms” introduces the family tree in sophisticated fashion. VERDICT Articulate, reflective characters for smart readers.

starred review starDavidson, Craig. Cataract City. Graywolf. Jul. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9781555976743. pap. $16. F
Cataract CityGrowing up in Canada near Niagara Falls, close friends Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs become even closer after their abduction by a broken-down wrestler they had admired. Duncan’s plunge into the criminal world as an adult puts pressure on Owen, now a cop. VERDICT A swiftly told, matter-of-fact unfolding of lives threatening to derail, this Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist will be appreciated by most fiction readers.

Foster, Alyson. God Is An Astronaut. Bloomsbury USA. Jul. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9781620403563. $26. F
In this fine debut, Jessica Frobisher has received a card from Arthur, a colleague in her botany department with whom she had an affair, and responds with obsessive, completely one-sided emails about her troubles: her husband’s space tourism business has suffered a deadly catastrophe. VERDICT The email setup works unobtrusively to relate events, and the propulsive prose offers a fine portrait of a woman in distress but not going under.

Foy, D. Made To Break. Two Dollar Radio. 2014. 242p. ISBN 9781937512163. pap. $16.50. F
Before New Year’s in 1996, five friends beyond teenage hell-raising years drive to a cabin near Lake Tahoe and are trapped there by pounding weather and a mudslide that overturned their car and left one badly injured. They trade memories and revelations, of course, before things get really dark. VERDICT What sounds like a standard setup is anything but, given the liquid language, sharp exchanges, and cutting insights that result.

Fromm, Pete. If Not for This. Red Hen. Aug. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781597095389. pap. $15.95. F
River runners Maddy and Dalton meet at a boatman’s bash on Snake River, marry with the rosy Tetons as backdrop, then, after opening their own business in Oregon, face hardship when pregnant Maddy is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. VERDICT The premise sounds weepy, but Fromm, four-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Literary Award, offers a stringent, emotionally astute work told in vivid, punchy, yet conversational prose.

Galaviz-Budziszewski, Alexai. Painted Cities. McSweeney’s. 2014. 192p. ISBN 9781938073809. $24. SHORT STORIES
In Galaviz-Budziszewski’s re-creation of the barrio where he grew up on the south side of Chicago, families splinter, tacos fry, sex happens, boys cut school, girls prove elusive, and one friend seems capable of reviving the dead. These are little slices of life, then, neatly woven together in an engaging first collection. VERDICT Vividly done but with a light touch; for anyone who wants literature beyond the suburbs.

starred review starHajaj, Claire. Ishmael’s Oranges. Oneworld. Aug. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9781780744957. $24.99. F
Ishmael's OrangesApril 1948 in gleaming Jaffa. An older boy mocks Salim for wanting to pick oranges in his family’s orchard, then says, “The Jews are coming for you.” Shortly thereafter, mortars whiten the sky, and Salim’s family loses everything. In the Sixties, as he’s graduating with a degree from University College, London, Salim meets Judith (“Jude”), and what follows is the moving story of the complications that inevitably result when a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman marry. VERDICT An accessible and beautifully rendered work that makes the tragedy of the Middle East real; highly recommended.

Hillmann, Bill. The Old Neighborhood. Curbside Splendor. 2014. 500p. ISBN 9781940430003. $15.95. F
Hillmann knows the streets, and he also knows how to tell stories—you might know his work from the Chicago Tribune,, and NPR. So it’s not surprising to see him deliver a big, sprawling, lacerating, steely-eyed account of one young man’s coming of age in a mixed-race family in Chicago. Joe’s life spirals downward after his older brother commits a gangland murder; will it head back up? VERDICT Unvarnished and absorbing; for readers who want to know.

Hobbs, Peter. In the Orchard, the Swallows. Europa. 2014. 144p. ISBN 9781609451837. pap. $15. F
In simple, bell-like language, the narrator of this new work from Betty Trask Award winner Hobbs relates a painful story without self-pity. As a boy, attending a local wedding in Pakistan, our hero fell in love with the daughter of a prominent politician and was promptly imprisoned. Unexpectedly released after 15 years, he takes the long journey back to the orchard of his beloved. VERDICT Quietly affecting; most fiction readers will enjoy.

starred review starHolland, Patrick. The Mary Smokes Boys. Hawthorne. 2014. 222p. ISBN 9780989360401. pap. $16.95. F
It’s 1985 in dusty Mary Smokes, Australia, and Grey North’s mother has died in childbirth. With a drunkenly distant father and Mary Smokes Boysstern grandmother, Grey finds comfort only with little sister Irene as he gets involved with boxing and local roughs. Prejudice against Aborigines darkens the narrative. VERDICT This lucidly written, beautifully unsentimental work introduces a rising Australian author to America; highly recommended as a different kind of coming-of-age tale.

Jones, Stephen Graham. Not for Nothing. Dzanc. 2014. 280p. ISBN 9781938604539. pap. $15.95. F
A live-in security guard at a storage facility in his tiny Texas hometown, disgraced homicide detective Nicholas Bruiseman is a pariah. But then former cheerleader-type Gwen asks him for some unlicensed protection, which leads to a lot of trouble and a dead body. VERDICT The plot is Big Sleep–complicated, the atmosphere edgy, and the narration intriguingly second person. For readers of literary fiction and mystery fans willing to take a dare.

Kaplan, Hester. Unravished. Ig. Jun. 2014. 224p. ISBN 9781935439905. pap. $16.95. SHORT STORIES
Author of two novels and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Kaplan delivers an exceptional collection with beautifully rendered stories for and about grown-ups. The second wife of a bombastic older man fends off neighbors distraught by his building plans, which could hurt the environment (and maybe the neighborhood?); a man plays father to his girlfriend’s son at the circus. VERDICT For readers, not just short story fans, who like fiction focusing smartly on contemporary adult relationships.

Kelly, John C. From Out of the City. Dalkey Archive. 2014. 182p. ISBN 9781628970005. pap. $14.95. F
For his own purposes, octogenarian Monk (named after Thelonious) is carrying out a strict surveillance of various suspicious characters in his Dublin environs, including Schroeder, just fired from Trinity College. Then, on a state visit, the president of the United States is assassinated. VERDICT Audacious, blackly funny, and high-end gritty, this work is nothing like a standard thriller but will keep sophisticated readers turning pages.

Little, Ashley. Anatomy of a Girl Gang. Arsenal Pulp. 2014. 253p. ISBN 9781551525303. pap. $16.95. F
Self-styled leader Mac. Sly Girl, off the rez. Kayos, pregnant at 13 and now as tough as they come. Wise little thief Mercy. And graffiti poet Z. They’re the Black Roses, an all-girl gang in Vancouver, BC, who tell their stories in alternating voices. They sell drugs, they sell themselves, they stand by one another with a rose petal’s tenderness. VERDICT Relentlessly gritty and in your face, this novel makes some urban lit look like just bling.

Kinsella, Tim. Let Go and Go On and On. Curbside Splendor. 2014. 240p. ISBN letgoonanon0603149781940430010. pap. $14.95. F
Following up his debut novel, The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense, famed indie rocker Kinsella reimagines the life of minor actor Laurie Bird, just getting started when she committed suicide in her twenties. VERDICT Told honestly in edgy, energized second person, this narrative feels like a road novel traveling toward Bird’s end. Pop cultural readers will especially enjoy, but the language is accessible to all.

McLaughlin, Donal. Beheading the Virgin Mary & Other Stories. Dalkey Archive. 2014. 180p. ISBN 9781628970128. pap. $13.95. SHORT STORIES
Recipient of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award, Northern Ireland–born, Scottish-bred McLaughlin writes lacerating stories about the little insults of the everyday, frequently focusing on a lad named Liam O’Donnell, who sounds something like McLaughlin himself. VERDICT Liquidly written, darkly witty, and highly recommended for literate readers; all Irvine Welsh and Kevin Barry fans should pick up.

Muir, Sharona. Invisible Beasts. Bellevue Literary. Jul. 2014. ISBN 9781934137802. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781934137819. F
The conceit here is that Sophie comes from a long line of naturalists with a gift for discovering what others cannot see. She details a range of odd creatures, from the fungus-breeding Keen-Ears to Truth Bats, an invisible subspecies of vampire bat. VERDICT The various fantastical beings presented here are described in careful scientific detail with results that are weird, whimsical, and somewhat unsettling. Like very fractured Just-So Stories.

Petals of your EyesParkison, Aimee. The Petals of Your Eyes. Starcherone: Dzanc. 2014. 120p. ISBN 9781938603204. pap. $14. F
Parkison won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction in 2004, and one can see why. Her new novel opens, “Captured girls in cabinets with curiosities. One is my sister, and the other my lover.” The concept is boldly creepy, the language eerily elegant, and the result not surreal entertainment but a pointed look at how the helpless, particularly women, are used and abused. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers on the edge.

Phillips, Scott. Hop Alley. Counterpoint. 2014. 192p. ISBN 9781619023079. $25. F
In this sequel to Phillips’s Cottonwood, featuring photographer Bill Ogden’s unsuccessful efforts to make 1872 Cottonwood, KS, a boomtown, our hero is now Bill Sadlaw of Denver, abandoned by classy wife Maggie, involved in a steamy affair, and investigating murder. VERDICT Not a squeaky clean 1950s TV–style Western but not brutally noir either, this is fun, propulsive reading for anyone who likes historicals with a touch of mystery.

Portes, Andrea. Bury This. Soft Skull: Counterpoint. 2014. 214p. ISBN 9781593765354. pap. $15.95. F
The body of a young woman is found by a snow plower at the side of the road in 1979 small-town Michigan, and the case is unsolved for 25 years until some film students decide to make a documentary. The effect on the town, always insidious, turns incendiary. VERDICT Based on a true story, this book delivers suspense but means to be a social study, told in precise, lyrical language.

Ridgway, Keith. Never Love a Gambler. New Directions. 2014. 84p. ISBN 9780811222945. pap. $10.95. SHORT STORIES
Ridgway struck gold last year with Hawthorn & Child, a noirish, London-set almost-thriller, and the three stories in this collection have the same dark urgency and ghostliness. A servant is puzzled by the behavior of his employer and his own disturbing dreams; a grown son and his mother on the way to meet the young man’s father encounter a malodorous stray dog, portending the story’s unexpectedly violent ending. VERDICT For those who like their thrills literate.

Spheres of DisturbanceSchutzer, Amy. Spheres of Disturbance. Arktoi: Red Hen. 2014. ISBN 9780989036115. pap. $16.95. F
Both luminous and packed, Lambda Literary Award finalist Schutzer’s narrative presents Helen, calmly facing death, as friends and family in their small town try to cope. Among them are Helen’s tall, venturesome daughter, Sammy, and lesbian poet Avery, who’s compensating for a lost grant by raising Charlotta, a pregnant Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, undeniably the book’s best character. VERDICT For readers who like drama tightly focused on the everyday but with edge.

Shamsie, Kamila. God in Every Stone. Atavist. Aug. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9781937894306. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781937894313. F
Lush isn’t quite the right word for this fine historical by Shamsie, one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Though she writes with burnished detail, Shamsie isn’t going after the grandiose. In summer 1914, a young Englishwoman joins an archaeological dig in Turkey and falls for archaeologist Tahsin Bey, but everything is disrupted by the start of World War I. VERDICT A portrait of people trapped by larger forces; wholly satisfying for readers of high-end historicals.

Skoyles, John. A Moveable Famine. Permanent. 2014. 296p. ISBN 9781579623586. $29. F
In the era of Allen Ginsberg, a working-class lad from Queens joins the crowd “hell-bent to become poets” and fends off his insecurities to find art, sex, and community at St. Mark’s Poetry Project and beyond. The poetry editor of Ploughshares has an inside track on this story. Nothing Lasts ForeverVERDICT Not the dark and moody work you might expect but shot through with a sense of humor—and wonder.

Steiner, Robert. Nothing Lasts Forever: Three Novellas. Counterpoint. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781619022317. $25. short stories
The vibrancy of love, the beauties of the flesh, and the knife-edge thrill of adultery: they’re not exactly Steiner’s subject in this collection. His three autumnal novellas portray, for instance, a man tending his dying mistress and a woman contemplating her comatose husband. Heartbreak happens, and thanatos comes for us all. VERDICT Cool, dark stories for the brave from an author taking risks.

Tingle, Tim. House of Purple Cedar. Cinco Puntos. 2014. 328p. ISBN 9781935955696. $21.95; pap. ISBN 9781935955245. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781935955252. F
In 1896, as white settlers hungry for land flooded into Indian territory in what is now Oklahoma, a boarding school for Indian girls called the New Hope Academy was burned to the ground with a severe loss of life. It presaged the destruction of the Choctaw community, related here by fire survivor Rose Goode in measured but heartfelt language. VERDICT Tingle, who began interviewing Choctaw trible elders in the early 1990s, effectively recaptures a piece of buried history.

The Bride Stripped BareWestbury, Chris F. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Counterpoint. Jun. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781619022904. $25. F
It’s not every enticingly nutty novel that centers on a modernist masterpiece, in this case Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, painted on glass and cracked in delivery. But neurotic buddies Isaac and Greg, who met in “group” (that is, group therapy sessions), are so obsessed with Duchamp’s work that they travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see it. VERDICT Bright aesthetic discussion amid mishap; not just for the college-nostalgic but for anyone who enjoys a rush of ideas while being entertained.

This article was published in Library Journal's June 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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.