The Great Night by Chris Adrian (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): I'll admit from the start that I'm a weak-kneed sucker for just about anything related to A Midsummer Night's Dream--which, depending on how I feel about Hamlet at any given moment, is my favorite of all Shakespeare's plays. I even loved Woody Allen's version when he merged it with Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night. But this update of the tale from Adrian (author of The Children's Hospital) looks especially promising. Set in 2008, the book follows three people, each fleeing a failed relationship, as they become trapped in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park. Enter Titania and her entourage of fairies. Did I mention Adrian also includes a musical production of Soylent Green? Bottom's up! First Lines: "One night in the middle of June, three brokenhearted people walked into Buena Vista Park at nearly the same time, just after dark."
The Great Frustration by Seth Fried (Soft Skull Press): I first came to Fried by way of One Story magazine where I read the wickedly funny "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre." That story has been gathered with ten others in a collection which the publisher calls "equal parts fable and wry satire." This is yet another promising set of short stories in a year already full of them. First Lines (from "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre"):
Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up. Every year it gets worse. That is, more people die. The Frost Mountain Picnic has always been a matter of uncertainty in our town and the massacre is the worst part. Even the people whose picnic blankets were not laid out directly upon the bombline were knocked unconscious by the airborne limbs of their neighbors, or at least had the black earth at the foot of Frost Mountain driven under their eyelids and fingernails and up into their sinuses. The apple dumpling carts and cotton candy stands and guess-your-weight booths that were not obliterated in the initial blasts leaned slowly into the new-formed craters, each settling with a limp, hollow crumple. The few people along the bombline who survived the blast were at the very least blown into the trees.
A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler (Grove Press): A couple whose twenty-year marriage is crumbling recalls the ups and downs of their relationship. It's a love story in which "a small hotel" in New Orleans' French Quarter figures prominently. For some reason, this brings to mind two earlier titles from Butler: Severance and Intercourse. Butler is a writer who tries something new with each book, so this could hold promise beyond its Bridges of Madison County surface appearance.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Is NOLA the new lavender? The city certainly seems to be in literary fashion this season. Gran's mystery is set in post-Katrina New Orleans and features a tattooed, pot-smoking sleuth who just happens to be "the world's greatest private eye, heir to Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes, and Nancy Drew." It could be twee, or it could be tweemendous.
The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Another mystery novel from HMH which arrived on my doorstep, The Return of Captain John Emmett, set in 1920's London, has all the trappings of being a throwback to the Golden Age of Detection. At the heart of the mystery is a former military officer reeling from the horrors of World War I (as well as his own personal tragedies) who is hired to investigate a suspicious suicide at a veterans' hospital. Think Agatha Christie mashed up with Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. It also has a slight whiff of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mysteries. First Lines: "In years to come, Laurence Bartram would look back and think that the event that really changed everything was not the war, nor the attack at Rosieres, nor even the loss of his wife, but the return of John Emmett into his life."
My Bright Midnight by Josh Russell (Louisiana State University Press): Keeping to the New Orleans theme, Russell's 2010 novel is set in 1945, a year when Walter Schmidt comes home to find his wife Nadine in bed with his best friend, Sammy. Blurb worthiness: "My Bright Midnight is a wonderfully engrossing tale that packs in romance, friendship, family, murder, and a dash of crime, all lovingly set against the colorful backdrop of New Orleans. But the true star here is Josh Russell's clean and elegant prose, and how truly he renders the voice of his main character, Walter, a German immigrant haunted by his dark past while trying to earn a place for himself in America." (Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief) And, my oh my, do I ever love that cover art--a clean rendering of a Vargas-style blonde diving right into my eyeballs.
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Grove Press): This one might almost be too heartbreaking to read. I'll leave it to the Jacket Copy to explain: "Celebrated novelist Francisco Goldman married a beautiful young writer named Aura Estrada in a romantic Mexican hacienda in the summer of 2005. The month before their second anniversary, during a long-awaited holiday, Aura broke her neck while body surfing. Francisco, blamed for Aura's death by her family and blaming himself, wanted to die, too. But instead he wrote Say Her Name, a novel chronicling his great love and unspeakable loss, tracking the stages of grief when pure love gives way to bottomless pain." Blurb worthiness: "We may feel we know something about love's burn, the scorching heat of loss, but reading this book is to stand in front of a blowtorch, to take a farrier's rasp to raw nerve ends. Say Her Name is wrenching, funny, powerful, beautiful." (Annie Proulx, author of Close Range)
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books): The author of Leaving Atlanta is already being compared to such heavyweights as Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, and John Irving. This new novel certainly sets up a dramatic premise fueled by what looks like great writing. Jacket Copy: "Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon's two families--the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters." First Lines:
My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter at Davison's downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn't right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently.
Solomon's Oak by Jo-Ann Mapson (Bloomsbury): Another novel about familial relationships--a theme at which Mapson excels (check out any of her nine other novels--especially Hank and Chloe--to see what I mean). Her latest novel, published this past October, holds a lot of promise. Jacket Copy: "Glory Solomon, a young widow, holds tight to her memories while she struggles to hold on to her central California farm. She makes ends meet by hosting weddings in the chapel her husband built under their two-hundred-year-old white oak tree, known locally as Solomon's Oak. Fourteen-year-old Juniper McGuire is the lone survivor of a family decimated by her sister's disappearance. She arrives on Glory's doorstep pierced, tattooed, angry, and homeless....Joseph Vigil is a former Albuquerque police officer and crime lab photographer who was shot during a meth lab bust that took the life of his best friend. Now disabled and in constant pain, he arrives in California to fulfill his dream of photographing the state's giant trees, including Solmon's Oak. In Mapson's deeply felt, wise, and gritty novel, these three broken souls find in each other an unexpected comfort, the bond of friendship, and a second chance to see the miracles of everyday life." (Full disclosure: Mapson was one of my writing instructors at the University of Alaska-Anchorage when I was pursuing my MFA there.)
Man With a Pan, edited by John Donohue (Algonquin Books): Ah, now here's a book I can really wrap my man-apron around! I am a die-hard foodie and a die-harder cook who loses all sense of perspective when he gets near a stove and a cutting board (just ask my wife about my strict no-contact rules while I'm braising Spiced Pork Tenderloin with Ancho-Peanut Sauce). So, I guess I would qualify as a "man with a pan," the subject of this collection of essays about the male-dominated kitchen. Donohue has gathered an impressive roster of writers--including Stephen King, Jim Harrison and Mark Kurlansky--willing to wax delicious on their stovetop experiences (Donohue's own website is called Stay at Stove Dad). The book includes recipes, New Yorker cartoons, and reading recommendations. I can't wait to try Jesse Sheidlower's Bacon-Wrapped Duck Breast Stuffed with Apples and Chestnuts.
What You See in the Dark by Manuel Munoz (Algonquin Books): It's about time someone wrote a really good novel about the making of Psycho. Munoz' debut novel is set in Bakersfield, California in the late 1950s when Alfred Hitchcock and his crew show up to make a little movie about a hotel with showers. Munoz' book is not so much about the iconic slasher classic as it is about a pair of young lovers--Teresa, a young, aspiring singer, and Dan, "the most desirable young man in Bakersfield"--and the small-town gossip that swirls around their lives. First Lines:
If you had been across the street, pretending to investigate the local summer roses outside Holliday's Flower Shop, you could have seen them through the cafe's plate glass, the two sitting in a booth by the window, eating lunch. You could have seen them even if you had been inside the shop, peering from behind the window display of native Bakerfield succulents, wide-faced California sunflowers, blue flax in hanging pots. The two of them sat in full view of everyone passing by, minding their own business. Their mouths moved alternately in long-drawn-out soliloquies, or sometimes they paused and deliberated, as if they had to choose their words carefully, grinning if they spoke at the same time. The girl was eating a thin sandwich and taking short sips from a thick glass of cola. The man ate with a knife and fork, his elbows up in a sawing motion, his eyes sometimes looking down to concentrate.
He was the most handsome man in town for sure, and his mother owned a little motel out on the highway. He always seemed to be wearing only brand-new shirts: no one could keep shirts that color, that softness, time after time, hanging them to dry stiff on a backyard line.
Damn Sure Right by Meg Pokrass (Press 53): Meg Pokrass is, as Sean Lovelace says, "the brew master of flash." In this collection of short-short stories, Pokrass wriggles under the fingernails of readers with tales of alarming sex, odd characters, and gritty underbellies. They're the literary equivalent of Jell-O shots: they go down fast and easy, but their effect lingers. Quite a few of the stories are a mere paragraph long, others extend as far as five pages. I haven't read all of them yet, but I'm willing to bet that you'll have a hard time forgetting Pokrass' distinctive voice. Damn straight. Blurb worthiness: "Damn Sure Right [is] a collection of miniature tales sure to ruin your waking hours the way you'll want them ruined." (Kyle Minor, author of In the Devil's Territory). First Lines: "After her marriage blew up, Jane's therapist suggested she join an 'I Am' class, so she could hang out with other shells of their former selves." (from "Her Own Music") and "I'm at the happiest mall in America, in a food court place called Fields of Cheese." (from "The Happiest Mall in America")
The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (Bellevue Literary Press): This slim debut novel spans time and space--from a 19th-century Colorado mining town to the trenches of World War I and a trek across the Italian Alps. Bellevue Literary Press also published the much-heralded Tinkers by Paul Harding two years ago, so I have high hopes for this novel--hopes as high as the Alps, in fact. Blurb-worthiness: "Surging in pace and momentum, The Sojourn is a deeply affecting narrative conjured by the rhythms of Krivak's superb and sinuous prose. Intimate and keenly observed, it is a war story, love story, and coming of age novel all rolled into one. I thought of Lermontov and Stendhal, Joseph Roth and Cormac McCarthy as I read. But make no mistake. Krivak's voice and sense of drama are entirely his own." (Sebastian Smee, The Boston Globe)
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis): A finalist for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize last year, MacLeod's debut short-story collection looks like another book I'll be spending some time with this spring. Just get a load of these First Lines from the title story:
Nobody deserved a sunburn like that. Especially not a kid. You could see it right through his shirt. Like grease coming through waxed paper. Wet and thick like that, sticking to him. Purple. It was a worn out, see-through shirt and the blisters he had from the day before had opened up again. Now they were hardening over for the second time, sucking the fabric into his back. I tried not to think about him taking that shirt off. He'd have to rip at it quickly--like a bandage--and that would tear away any of the healing that had already happened. Half his back would go. He had a sunburn bad enough to bleed.By that point, you'll either be saying, "Eww, gross!" or "Don't stop now--bring me more of this fever-pitch writing." I'm in the latter camp.
The President's Vampire by Christopher Farnsworth (Putnam): This could be so bad it's good, or it could be so bad it sucks in more ways than one. The West Wing meets The Passage. Jacket Copy: "For 140 years, Nathaniel Cade has been the President's Vampire, sworn to protect and serve his country. Cade's existence is the most closely guarded of White House secrets: a superhuman covert agent who is the last line of defense against nightmare scenarios that ordinary citizens can only dream of. When a new outbreak of an ancient evil--one that Cade has seen before--comes to light, he and his human handler, Zach Barrows, must track down its source. To 'protect and serve' often means settling old scores and confronting new betrayals...as only a century-old predator can."