Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Most-Anticipated Fiction of 2015

Get ready...get set...get reading.  The next twelve months are about to roll over you with an avalanche of gotta-get-it fiction and it's going to take all of your stamina to keep up.

Not that I'd expect anyone to "keep up."  Hell, I'm still working on my 2012 must-read list (make that "the lists from 2006-2012") and don't even get me started on last year's most-anticipated books list.  I've only read four out of those 20 titles.  And now they'll have to scoot over and make room on the shelf for the books listed below.

I'm learning to relax about all this, though, and come to terms with the fact that I may not get around to reading The Goldfinch until 2017.  I'm cool with that.  Besides, I have to accommodate my Five-Year Reading Plan of the "Essentials" which I will begin sometime in the next few days with Megan Abbot's The Fever and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.

In the meantime, nothing's stopping you from stocking your larder with what looks like some of the year's finest fiction.  Of course, the following titles represent only the smallest snowflake on the tip of the 2015 publishing iceberg.  There's another half-a-jillion books which will be published this year and they're waiting for you to discover them.  I'm not including non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels or children's literature on this list because that would just hurt my head.  These are the novels and short story collections which have captured my attention and earned their way onto my ever-growing To-Be-Read pile (aka Mount NeveRest).  Note: cover art and the opening lines I've quoted here are subject to change prior to publication.

Almost Famous Women
by Megan Mayhew Bergman

In her author's note, Bergman (author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise) says these short stories were "born of fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes."  And so we get a baker's dozen of tales about speedboat racers, conjoined twins, reclusive painters and members of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We also see the titular almost-famous: Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma.

The Dead Lands
by Benjamin Percy

After dazzling us with novels about marauding bears (The Wilding) and werewolves (Red Moon), what's next for Percy?  A "post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga" when "a super flu and nuclear fallout have made a husk of the world we know."  This immediately reminds me of "Meltdown," a terrific short story in Percy's short story collection Refresh Refresh which also imagines a nuclear-winter future.  Cheery?  Maybe not.  Outstanding writing?  Almost certainly!  First line: She knows there is something wrong with the baby.

I Am Radar
by Reif Larson

After The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, Larson's 2010 creatively designed novel about a twelve-year-old genius mapmaker, it's felt like a long wait for this new book.  At its center is the titular Radar, a child savant like T. S. Spivet, who's struggling to understand the mysterious circumstances of his birth and the strange medical condition which he's lived with ever since.  I Am Radar spans history and the globe (Norway, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, the Congo) and involves a large cast of characters, all of them linked in some way to Radar.  First line: It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating lightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hand like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium.

Saint Mazie
by Jami Attenberg

Inspired by the life of a woman who was profiled in Joseph Mitchell's classic Up in the Old Hotel, Attenberg's new novel introduces us to Mazie Phillips, the "big-hearted and bawdy proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater."  Attenberg doesn't shy away from larger-than-life characters (See Also: The Middlesteins), and this new novel is especially appealing to me for a variety of reasons: part of it takes place during the Jazz Age, it's narrated oral-biography-style by a chorus of voices (including excerpts from Mazie's diary), and old movie palaces like The Venice really tickle my fancy--they're the bee's knees!  I can't wait to take a seat and enjoy Attenberg's show.

2015 will also see a bumper crop of fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Here are just some of the novels which have come to my attention:

Green on Blue
by Elliot Ackerman

Two of the chief complaints about literature coming out of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are that the former war has almost completely eclipsed the latter and that the narrative voices and characters are almost exclusively American--where are the stories told from the perspective of Iraqis or Afghans?  This debut novel coming from a Marine who served a total of five tours in both conflicts will neatly check both of those blocks.  Set in Afghanistan, Green on Blue is about two brothers, Aziz and Ali, who are forced to live a life on the streets after their village is attacked by armed men.  Aziz eventually joins the Special Lashkar, a U.S.-funded militia, and as he rises through the ranks, he "becomes mired in the dark underpinnings of his country's war, witnessing clashes between rival Afghan groups--what U.S. soldiers call green on green attacks--and those on U.S. forces by Afghan soldiers, violence known as green on blue."  My Twitter feed has been repeatedly hit by recommendations for Ackerman's novel, so I'm moving this one to near the summit of Mount NeveRest.

I'd Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them
by Jesse Goolsby

This novel--also a debut from a veteran and set in Afghanistan--opens with a chapter titled "Be Polite but Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet."  I'm immediately interested and sit up a little straighter in my chair, then lean forward into the book.  The publisher's plot synopsis says I'd Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is about "three American soldiers haunted by their actions in Afghanistan (who) search for absolution and human connection in family and civilian life."  Looks like 2015 is shaping up to be the Year of the Forgotten War.  I'm putting Goolsby's novel right up there near Green on Blue at the top of the pile.  One other note: I'd Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them gets my vote for Most Interesting Character Name: Wintric Ellis.

The Knife
by Ross Ritchell

This novel (yes, another debut by a combat vet) about a U.S. Special Forces unit is set in "Afghanipakiraqistan—the preferred name for the ambiguous stretch of the world where the U.S. Special Forces operate with little outside attention."  I haven't had a chance to examine an advance copy of The Knife, but from the description and the words of praise from writers like Stuart Dybek and Michael Koryta, it looks like it combines an action-heavy plot with some good character introspection.  Which is the way it is in the military: brief, sporadic bursts of activity which punctuate long periods of "hurry up and wait."

The War of the Encyclopaedists
by Gavin Kovite and Chris Robinson

I'm really intrigued by this novel about two arts-loving friends, nicknamed "The Encyclopaedists," who'd planned to attend graduate school together until one of them learns he's going to Iraq with his National Guard unit.  In the year that follows, the two keep in touch with one another by editing a Wikipedia article about themselves, which the publisher's synopsis describes as "smart and funny updates that morph and deepen throughout the year, culminating in a document that is both devastatingly tragic and profoundly poetic."  This appears to be a novel as much about the tangle of human relationships (two girlfriends are also involved) as it does about war.

The Valley
by John Renehan

I first heard about Renehan's novel from bookseller Barbara Theroux.  Whenever I visit Fact and Fiction Books in Missoula, Montana, I make a point of asking Barbara if she's read anything good lately.  A few months ago, her eyes lit up as she said, "The Valley.  I just finished reading an advance copy.  It's by a Army veteran--I forget his name right now--but it's set in Afghanistan during the war and it is so, so good."  As soon as I got to the nearest computer, I made a point of looking up the novel and the author's name and mentally bookmarking it as a Must-Read for 2015.  Because when a bookseller says you have to read something, you'd better obey.  First line:  In the dream he climbed a narrow foot-trail alone in the sun, on a bare mountainside littered with metal corpses.  (Other Recommended Reading by John Renehan: Of This World in The American Spectator.)

And now back to non-combat novels....

The Dig
by Cynan Jones

When was the last time you read a riveting novel about badger baiting?  Or a book that treats the hard work of farming with all the respect it deserves?  Okay, maybe there are some good agricultural novels out there, but badger-baiting fiction?  I'd be hard-pressed to come up with some titles.  Jones' novel is threaded with two narratives--one about an unnamed man who illegally catches and kills badgers in rural Wales and one about a recently-widowed farmer struggling through lambing season.  The publisher describes The Dig as "Marilynne Robinson meets Cormac McCarthy.  Or like Ian McEwan writing a western."  While it may be those things, I've read the first few pages and I can tell you it's also filled with sentences which feel lyrically expansive and, at the same time, purified down to their essence.  Jones gets good mileage from his imagery--like this early description of the badger hunter: "He was a gruff and big man and when he got from the van it lifted and relaxed like a child relieved of the momentary fear of being hit."

Funny Girl
by Nick Hornby

I know what some of you are thinking: "Ooo, a new Nick Hornby!  I can't wait to read it!"  Me, I'm sitting here mentally grumbling, "Oh, great.  Another Hornby.  Let's see, that'll put me about four novels behind in my reading of his books."  Actually, that's just one voice inside me; the other is also rejoicing with you about the arrival of Funny Girl.  I'll get to it posthaste--just as soon as I tick off some other books of his, like About a Boy, which is on my Five-Year Reading Plan of the Essentials.  For those of you Hornby fans who can't wait to pick up this new one: Funny Girl is set in Swinging 60s London and features a new literary heroine, Sophie Straw, who rises from ingenue to TV starlet.  That's about all I know, but it's probably all you need.

Crow Fair
by Thomas McGuane

I'm all like, "Ooo, a new Tom McGuane!"  And this time, I will dig in with fork and knife right away since I've read the majority of the iconic Montana writer's other books (not that this is always a prerequisite, but my reading habits usually send me to earlier, better-known works by an author before reading his or her new releases).  This collection of short stories (his first since Gallatin Canyon nine years ago) comes with these neat plot summaries: a devoted son is horrified to discover his mother’s antics before she slipped into dementia; a father’s outdoor skills are no match for an ominous change in the weather; lifelong friends on a fishing trip finally confront their deep dislike; and a cattle inseminator succumbs to the lure of a stranger's offer of easy money.  You know, the usual McGuanian cast of scalawags and charmers.  First line:  I picked up my father on a sultry morning with heavy, rumbling clouds on the horizon.

The Fifth Heart
by Dan Simmons

Simmons must own a T-Shirt that reads "I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie."  He wouldn't know the underside of a 200-page novel if it came up and gave him a papercut.  His Drood and The Terror take up a lot of real estate on my bookshelf.  But hey, there's nothing wrong with this.  I cannot lie: I like big books, too.  And now along comes The Fifth Heart, clocking in at 624 pages and with a story just as big: In 1893, Sherlock Holmes and Henry James come to America together to solve the mystery of the 1885 death of Clover Adams, wife of the esteemed historian Henry Adams.  If I don't already have your attention, you may as well just move along.  Further intriguing me is this snippet from the publisher's synopsis: "Holmes is currently on his Great Hiatus--his three-year absence after Reichenbach Falls during which time the people of London believe him to be deceased.  Holmes has faked his own death because, through his powers of ratiocination, the great detective has come to the conclusion that he is a fictional character.  This leads to serious complications for James--for if his esteemed fellow investigator is merely a work of fiction, what does that make him?"  The First Line, though wordy, is still pretty hook-y:  In the rainy March of 1893, for reasons that no one understands (primarily because no one besides us is aware of this story), the London-based American author Henry James decided to spend his April 15 birthday in Paris and there, on or before his birthday, commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine at night.

At the Water's Edge
by Sarah Gruen

When I was growing up, I had a thing for the Loch Ness Monster.  Forty years later, that "thing" hasn't really abated.  I was never more jealous of my wife when, two years ago, she went on a trip to Scotland without me and stood on the shores of the misty loch.  I was only slightly appeased by the fact that she didn't see anything in the shape of a log or a periscope sticking up out of the water.  Sara Gruen has now thrown gasoline on my fire with her new novel set during World War Two in which Madeline Hyde, a young socialite from Philadelphia, "reluctantly follows her husband and their best friend to the tiny village of Drumnadrochit in search of a mythical monster" (i.e. "Nessie").  Though I was only a half-hearted fan of Water for Elephants, I'm looking forward to reading this new novel from Gruen.  At least, the 11-year-old kid in me is interested in it.

The Jesus Cow
by Michael Perry

After a successful writing career of memoirs and non-fiction accounts of small-town America (Visiting Tom, Population: 485, et al), Perry is coming out with a novel which opens with this Prologue:
      On Christmas Eve itself, the bachelor Harley Jackson stepped into his barn and beheld there illuminated in the straw a smallish newborn bull calf upon whose flank was borne the very image of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
      "Well," said Harley, "that's trouble."
Paging Garrison Keillor, you're needed on Aisle 8 for a clean-up--someone spilled a box of chuckles. Poor Harley is besieged not just by holy cows, he's got a whole peck and bushelful of other situations to handle.  Here's the publisher's synopsis to explain: "A woman in a big red pickup has stolen his bachelor's heart, and a Hummer-driving predatory developer is threatening to pave the last vestiges of his family farm....His best friend, Billy, a giant of a man who shares his trailer house with a herd of cats and tries to pass off country music lyrics as philosophy, urges him to avoid the woman, fight the developer, and get rich off the calf.  But Harley takes the opposite tack, hoping to avoid what his devout, dearly departed mother would have called 'a scene.'  Then the secret gets out--right through the barn door, and Harley's 'miracle' goes viral.  Within hours pilgrims, grifters, and the media have descended on his quiet patch of Swivel, Wisconsin, looking for a glimpse (and a percentage) of the calf.  Does Harley hide the famous, possibly holy calf and risk a riot, or give the people what they want--and raise enough money to keep his land--and, just possibly, win the woman and her big red pickup truck?"

American Meteor
by Norman Lock

After re-imagining the tale of Huck Finn in The Boy in His Winter, Lock turns his pen towards the American West, lighting out for fabulous (and possibly fabulist) territory.  American Meteor is the story of Stephen Moran ("a scrappy Brooklyn orphan turned vengeful assassin") who crosses the country on the Union Pacific, which has just United the States with its tracks.  Along the way, he bumps into General George Custer (pre-Battle of the Little Big Horn, of course), befriends Walt Whitman, becomes a bugler on President Lincoln's funeral train, apprentices with frontier photographer William Henry Jackson, and comes face-to-face with Crazy Horse.  It's a lot to pack into 200 pages, but from what I've heard, Lock sure knows how to spin a yarn.

West of Sunset
by Stewart O'Nan

I know I've been using the phrase "I can't wait!" a lot on this list, but when it comes to O'Nan, I really can't wait.  Of all the authors who appear in this roll call, he's my favorite (followed closely by Mr. McGuane) and he's the one guy for whom I'd walk barefoot on broken glass scattered across a tarry parking lot on a hot summer day just to shake his hand and tell him thanks for all the great books.  This new novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood looks just as rich and promising as all of the others on my O'Nan shelf.  Fitzgeraldines are already familiar with the story, but for those of you who aren't, here's how the publisher orients you for the events in West of Sunset: "In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over.  In poor health, with his wife consigned to a mental asylum and his finances in ruins, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood.  By December 1940, he would be dead of a heart attack."  No, it's not the happiest of endings, but it's one which fascinates me as a writer and as a lover of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age (See Also: Dubble, my long-in-gestation novel set in 1940s Tinseltown).  Here are the First Lines of West of Sunset:  That spring he holed up in the Smokies, in a tired resort hotel by the asylum so he could be closer to her.  A bout of pneumonia over Christmas had provoked a flare-up of his TB, and he was still recovering.  The mountain air was supposed to help.  Days he wrote in his bathrobe, drinking Coca-Cola to keep himself going, holding off on the gin till nightfall--a small point of pride--sipping on the dark verandah as couples strolled among the fireflies rising from the golf course.

The Surfacing
by Cormac James

I'll admit I'm a sucker for novels about 19th-century ships trapped in Arctic ice with new Baby Daddies just finding out they're Baby Daddies while the rest of the crew looks like they're either going to mutiny or start eating each other.  But maybe that's just me.  Nonetheless, James' The Surfacing has a pretty good plot hook to draw in  even those readers who aren't addicted to 19th-century ships trapped, etc.  Take a gander: "The Surfacing is set largely on board a ship in the 1850s, searching for Franklin's lost expedition.  It's a challenging and dangerous endeavor in a very male world--that is until Morgan, the second-in-command of the Impetus, realises there is a pregnant stowaway on board and that he is the father.  It is too late to turn back, the ice is closing in, and the child will have to be born into the vast and icy wilderness of the Arctic.  The men, especially the ship's doctor, DeHaven, and the second in command, Lieutenant Morgan, have doubts about the judgement of their captain, and soon their own vessel becomes trapped in the remote Arctic.  It's a novel of isolation and impasse, resilience and resistance, exploring the battle between man and an unforgiving environment, and the struggle between the sexes."  I can't tell if this is a cautionary tale about Baby Daddies or a warning about ignoring weather forecasts and icepack movements, but I can tell you I'm going to be drinking plenty of warm fluids while reading this novel.

The Given World
by Marian Palaia

Palaia's debut is a coming-of-age novel about the way the Vietnam War ripples into lives left back here on the homefront.  Centered around Riley, a thirteen-year-old in 1968, whose brother Mick goes missing in Vietnam, The Given World spans two dozen years and, according to the plot synopsis, has a grand, fascinating cast of characters: "Primo, a half-blind vet with a secret he can't keep; Lu, a cab-driving addict with an artist's eye; Phuong, a Saigon barmaid, Riley's conscience and confidante; and Grace, a banjo-playing girl on a train, carrying her grandmother's ashes in a tin box."  Riley travels from the Montana plains in the 70s to San Francisco in the 80s and onward to the expat bars and back streets of Saigon in the search for her brother.  I'd had The Given World on my radar, but it really jumped to the peak of my To-Be-Read pile after Palaia recently contributed this awesome essay to The Quivering Pen's "My First Time" series.

The Water Museum
by Luis Alberto Urrea

I'm hoping 2015 is also the year I'm finally able to start exploring the novels and short stories of Luis Alberto Urrea, who has long been a resident of the To-Be-Read Shelf; it's about time he changed his address to the Read Shelf.  This new story collection The Water Museum looks ripe for the plucking.  To wit: "two boys steal a canoe and head out on a voyage from which one will not return; a dead soldier bequeaths his dog and a mystery to his comrade; a graffiti artist leaves behind an unfathomable message."  Here's how the first story ("Mountains Without Number") begins:
In a beat-down house at the foot of a western butte, a woman sips her coffee and stares at her high school yearbook. Most everybody's gone. The pictures seem to be a day old to her. She still laughs at the drama club portrait, still remembers the shouting when the football team won the regional. And there she is on page thirty. She was one of the pretty ones, for sure. One of the slender ones who had a mouth that suggested to every boy that she knew a secret and was slightly amused by it. She had famous lips.
Yep, I'm pretty sure 2015 will be the Year of Urrea.

by Mary Doria Russell

Though Mary Doria Russell's 2011 novel Doc isn't on my official "Essentials Reading List," it's certainly earned a place in my To-Be-Read pile after hearing Washington Post critic Ron Charles rave about the fictional treatment of Doc Holliday's life back when it was published.  And now Epitaph, Russell's follow-up novel about the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, straps on its holster, finger-twirls a pair of pistols, and saunters down my Main Street (and whatever other Western movie cliches I dare to come up with).  As the publisher's synopsis notes, the gunfight only lasted thirty seconds, but the lies and legends have taken on a life of their own in the 130-plus years since.  First lines:  To understand the gunfight in Tombstone, stop--now--and watch a clock for thirty seconds.  Listen to it tick while you try to imagine one half of a single minute so terrible it will pursue you all your life and far beyond the grave.

by Tim Johnston

Johnston's novel about a family vacation in the Rocky Mountains gone terribly wrong has been getting a lot of positive buzz lately.  From what I've read, it's one of those stand-out books which combines heart-racing suspense with smart, satisfying writing.  In this book, the Courtlands are just trying to have one last happy family bonding experience before their daughter heads off to college.  Once they reach high altitude, things don't go well for any of them.  The jacket copy description: "For eighteen-year-old Caitlin, the mountains loom as the ultimate test of her runner's heart, while her parents hope that so much beauty, so much grandeur, will somehow repair a damaged marriage.  But when Caitlin and her younger brother, Sean, go out for an early morning run and only Sean returns, the mountains become as terrifying as they are majestic, as suddenly this family find themselves living the kind of nightmare they've only read about in headlines or seen on TV.  As their world comes undone, the Courtlands are drawn into a vortex of dread and recrimination."  My knuckles are already white.

Lost Canyon
by Nina Revoyr

If you haven't had enough wilderness-peril literature with Descent, you might try this new novel by the author of Wingshooters and Southland.  I'll just let the publisher's plot synopsis do the work for me here: "Four people on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada find more adventure than they ever imagined.  Each of them is drawn to the mountains for reasons as diverse as their own lives.  Gwen Foster, a counselor for at-risk youth, is struggling with burnout from the demands of her job.  Real estate agent Oscar Barajas is adjusting to the fall of the housing market and being a single parent.  Todd Harris, an attorney, is stuck in a lucrative but unfulfilling career--and in a failing marriage.  They are all brought together by their trainer, Tracy Cole, a former athlete with a taste for risky pursuits.  When the hikers start up a pristine mountain trail that hasn't been traveled in years, all they have to guide them is a hand-drawn map of a remote, mysterious place called Lost Canyon.  At first, the route past high alpine lakes and under towering, snowcapped peaks offers all the freedom and exhilaration they'd hoped for.  But when they stumble onto someone who doesn't want to be found, the group finds itself faced with a series of dangerous conflicts, moral dilemmas, confrontations with nature, and an all-out struggle for survival."  I'm getting a good Deliverance vibe from Lost Canyon, but without all those banjos.

The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins

The label "Hitchcockian" is tossed around a lot (sometimes erroneously) anytime you see a really good suspense novel (or any novel involving a shower or marauding birds, I suppose), but in the case of Hawkins' debut novel, I think the label will stick.  The titular girl on the train is Rachel.  She rides the same commuter train to and from London every morning (the 8:04 from Ashbury to Euston) and she likes to stare out the window, fantasizing about the lives of people living in all those houses flashing by.  She's even made up a name for one couple--"Jess" and "Jason"--whose two-story Victorian house she practically has memorized right down to the missing roof tiles:
They are a perfect, golden couple. He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short. She has the bone structure to carry that kind of thing off, sharp cheekbones dappled with a sprinkling of freckles, a fine jaw.
But then one day, Rachel sees something unexpected, something shocking, and she goes to the police to report it.  That's when the real trouble begins.  So yes, shades of Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man and North by Northwest abound in this book which promises to be scary-good.

by Russell Smith

Apart from that striking cover design, I'm drawn to Smith's story collection by the jacket copy summary: "In the stories of Confidence, there are ecstasy-taking PhD students, financial traders desperate for husbands, owners of failing sex stores, violent and unremovable tenants, aggressive raccoons, seedy massage parlors, experimental filmmakers who record every second of their day, and wives who blog insults directed at their husbands. There are cheating husbands. There are private clubs, crowded restaurants, psychiatric wards. There is one magic cinema and everyone has a secret of some kind."  Hey, you had me at "aggressive raccoons."  Smith, who lives in Toronto, is a well-known journalist and cultural commentator, radio host and Globe & Mail columnist.  Though he's been publishing novels since the early 1990s, Confidence marks his U.S. debut.

Life #6
by Diana Wagman

I'm a fan of Wagman's previous novel The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, so I was excited to read in a recent publisher's catalog that she'll have a new book coming out in 2015.  Here's the jacket copy for Life #6: "Fiona's marriage is crumbling, and she has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Caught up in a wave of memories as she faces her own mortality, Fiona recalls the five previous times in her life that she nearly died, including a fateful boat trip thirty years ago with her former boyfriend, Luc.  She flees her life, struggling marriage, and cancer treatment to rendezvous with Luc, in the process reliving the harrowing boat trip the two of them shared three decades earlier, which permanently altered their lives.  Now that Fiona desperately needs Luc to save her, will he be the man she remembers?  Or will she discover heartbreak again?  An adventurous, emotionally complex tale inspired by Diana Wagman's own experience at sea, Life #6 explores the folly of youth, what happens to us when we're pushed to the brink, the regrets of love lost, and what it really means to love, as well as the many ways we die and are renewed throughout our lives."  That plot description may sound a little too Nicholas Sparks-ian for what I normally read, but based on what she did in The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, I'm confident Wagman will hone the story with a cutting edge of humor.  (But even if the novel turns out to be sober-serious, I'm sure it will be fantastic!)

The Last Flight of Poxl West
by Daniel Torday

Here's another new book by an author I deeply admire.  Torday's 2012 novella The Sensualist, which won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction, was one of my favorite reads of that year and I've spent the last twenty-four months waiting for news of a new release from this terrific author.  The day is here!  Or almost here; The Last Flight of Poxl West will hit bookstores in March.  I'm lucky to have gotten my hands on an advance copy, which comes loaded with glowing praise from the likes of Phil Klay, George Saunders, Edan Lepucki, Karen Russell and Gary Shteyngart, whose blurb is typically Shteyngartian: "OMFG!  What a book!  Eli Goldstein has the retrospective candor of Roth's Zuckerman and the sensitivity of a Harold Brodkey narrator, and Poxl West is an unforgettable creation.  Plus, things happen in this book, big things like the world wars.  A delight!"  The novel opens with 15-year-old Elijah Goldstein's "Acknowledgement: Prologue" to what will be the bulk of the book's narrative: Poxl West's memoir of his time as a heroic RAF bomber pilot during World War Two.  Torday's wit is rapier-sharp even in the title of the book Poxl West has written: Skylock: The Memoir of a Jewish RAF Bomber.  I was entranced by the First Lines of the "Prologue" and, now that I have a taste, I'm looking forward to devouring the whole book:  Before halftime on Super Bowl Sunday, January 1986, my uncle Poxl came over.  He was just months from reaching the height of his fame, and unaware that the game was being played.  He wasn't technically my uncle, either.  He was an old friend of the family.  For years he had taught at a prep school in Cambridge, where my grandfather had served as dean.  After a massive heart attack a year after I was born left my grandfather as much a memory to me as thin morning fog, Uncle Poxl came to fill the void.  That Sunday he sat down in the living room and, speaking over the game's play-by-play, started a story he could barely clap his gloves free of snow fast enough to tell.

God Help the Child
by Toni Morrison

If, like me, you've been waiting for a Toni Morrison novel to deliver the kind of unsparing, uncompromising narrative drive found in her earlier Beloved, I think God Help the Child will scratch that itch.  This new novel, due in April, takes on child abuse and racial discrimination, telling a complex story through several characters' viewpoints.  The prose has all the spark of a box of matches and wastes no time in getting to the point with these First Lines from the opening section narrated by a character named Sweetness:
It’s not my fault, so you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn't take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I'm light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann's father. Ain't nobody in my family anywhere near that color.
That baby eventually grows up to be one of the central characters of the story, a woman who calls herself Bride and whose loves and losses we follow throughout the 192 pages of a book that looks like it could be our next literary classic.

Hurry Please I Want to Know
by Paul Griner

The capsule descriptions of the short stories in Griner's new collection are just odd enough to make me pause and give the book a double-take: "A low-ranking soldier is forced to milk a cow within enemy range.  A cartoonist's daughter waits each morning to see how her father's mood dictates how he will draw her face.  Grieving siblings wait to inherit one of their father's physical features after his death."  In this short fiction, we also meet prison telemarketers, famous cartoonists, bone procurers, missing persons and the resurrected dead.  Yes, please--I do want to know more!

Delicious Foods
by James Hannaham

And now for Something Completely Different...In Delicious Foods, a drug-addicted mother leaves her eleven-year-old son to go work on a mysterious farm run by a shady company called Delicious Foods.  There, on the remote farm, the mother (Darlene) is held captive, performing hard labor in the fields to pay off the supposed debt for her food, lodging, and the constant stream of drugs the farm provides to her and the other unfortunates imprisoned there.  Meanwhile, her panic-stricken son Eddie desperately tries to find her so they can finally live the good life they deserve.  Delicious Foods has been getting heaps of praise from readers who say it's equally terrifying, heartbreaking and satisfying.  Based on the opening pages alone, my impression is that Hannaham writes like a semi-truck barreling down the interstate at 90 miles per hour.  I had a hard time lifting my eyes from the page after reading the Prologue which opens with a seventeen-year-old Eddie careening along the road in a Subaru:
After escaping from the farm, Eddie drove through the night.  Sometimes he thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing.  No hands.  Dark stains covered the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists; his mother had stanched the bleeding with rubber cables.  For the first hour or so, the rocky, divot-riddled road jostled the car, increasing the young man's agony, and he clenched his teeth through the sickening pain.  Steering the vehicle with his forearms stuck in two of the wheel's holes, Eddie couldn't keep the Subaru from wobbling and swerving, and he feared the police would notice, pull him over to find that he had no license, and arrest him for stealing the car.
Wow.  Note to self: want to fully engage the reader?  Cut off a boy's hands in the opening paragraph.

Haints Stay
by Colin Winnette

I'll begin with a couple of blurbs:
"Funny, brutal and haunting, Haints Stay takes the traditional Western, turns it inside out, eviscerates it, skins it, and then wears it as a duster. This is the kind of book that would make Zane Grey not only roll over in his grave but rise undead from the ground with both barrels blazing."
     --Brian Evenson

"I loved it. Loved it. Haints Stay had me from the very first line--the visceral ante upped and crescendoing nearly every page. Humor, gore, that wonderful unsettling feel you get when you're reading a book that excites you and kind of scares you as well? Yes, please."
     --Lindsay Hunter
Okay, now I'm really interested.  Tell me more, Mr. Jacket Copy:
Brooke and Sugar are killers. Bird is the boy who mysteriously woke beside them while between towns. For miles, there is only desert and wilderness, and along the fringes, people. The story follows the middling bounty hunters after they've been chased from town, and Bird, each in pursuit of their own sense of belonging and justice. It features gunfights, cannibalism, barroom piano, a transgender birth, a wagon train, a stampede, and the tenuous rise of the West's first one-armed gunslinger.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen
J-Franz lovers, mark your calendar for September.  That's when you'll want to call in sick so you can spend some time with this new novel from the author of The Corrections and Freedom.  What's it about, you ask?  Here's how Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, described the novel to the New York Times: "a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents.  The story centers on a young woman named Purity Tyler, or Pip, who doesn’t know who her father is and sets out to uncover his identity.  The narrative stretches from contemporary America to South America to East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and hinges on the mystery of Pip’s family history and her relationship with a charismatic hacker and whistleblower."  Hmm, sounds deliberately Dickensian to me.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  I can already feel a sudden "cold and flu" coming on in September.  Sorry, boss.

And finally, I'll leave you with two books I'm not anticipating....because I've already read them!  But I do hope you'll add these to your most-anticipated fiction of 2015 list.

The Sympathizer
by Viet Thahn Nguyen

Who would have thought the 1975 fall of Saigon could be so hilarious?  In his debut, Nguyen does exactly that with a non-stop stream of dark humor narrated by a Viet Cong captain who is working undercover for a South Vietnamese general and reporting all that he sees and hears back to his Communist bosses--even after the general and his compatriots flee the country and set up a new life in Los Angeles.  The Sympathizer is like a neon-pink whoopee cushion snuck into a high-level State Department briefing.  Go ahead, laugh.  Nguyen has given us permission to see both the light and dark sides of a regretful chapter in the histories of both the United States and Vietnam in a tale told by a court jester.  The Sympathizer is one of the smartest, darkest, funniest books you'll read in 2015.  First lines:  I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac
by Sharma Shields

Shields writes weird, dark, funny tales sprinkled with magical-realism dust (see also: Favorite Monsters, her earlier short story collection).  In her debut novel, she turns her imagination loose in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the result is one of the most unforgettable books of the year.  I was surprised at nearly every turn in The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac.  I think I was expecting something of a quirky monster story with porous barriers between reality and fairy tales.  There's certainly some of that at play here; but what Shields has taken on is something larger and even more emotionally expansive: she's delivered a multi-generational family saga (which goes from 1943 to 2006) that's full of love, pain, mystery, revelation, hubris and humility.  At the novel's vivid, beating heart stands Eli Roebuck who, when he's a nine-year-old boy, watches his mother walk off into the woods with a huge, hairy "man" named Mr. Krantz who may or may not be Sasquatch.  Eli is convinced he is, and he spends the rest of the novel trying to track him down and, by extension, find his mother.  To Shields' credit, she keeps even the reader wondering about the true nature of Mr. Krantz, thus making us think about the very basic elements of fiction itself:  Who am I?  Who are you?  And who's that guy standing over there with the "deep hooded brow, small blank eyes, thin-lipped mouth like a long pink gash" and whose "wide, shoeless feet" are "two hairy sleds that move noiselessly over the wooden floorboards as though through a soft snow"?  The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac is riveting, endearing and edged with a sly wit (Eli, the Bigfoot hunter, is a podiatrist by profession).  Bottom line: you may come for the monsters, but you'll stay for the humans--who can be just as strange and scary (and hairy).  As one character says near the end of the book, "I want to say thank you for allowing me to believe in magic."  Bravo, Sharma Shields, bravo!


  1. I'm the only comment on so many books? I already read some of these, and I'll comment on what you can expect.

    THE FEVER-- What a pleasant surprise! A book that seems at first to be just another young-adult novel, THE FEVER turns out to be a darned good mystery. That is better than just a good mystery. Add "darned" because everybody is suspect, anything could be it, and the solution is a surprise. Plus, although YA bores readers like me who shy away from "easy reading" and prefer more complex novels that deal with adults and adult situations, THE FEVER becomes almost unputdownable even though its main characters are teenagers and it's an easy read.

    There are lots of high school settings and teenager dilemmas. So, if you shy away from YA, it will be tempting to skim some of the story. If you do, though, you may miss clues to what is to blame. Abbott sticks clues everywhere, in many teenager conversations and situations.

    Even if you think you're above this YA reading level, if you like good mysteries, you'll probably enjoy this one.

    I won a finished hardcover copy of this book through librarything.com.

    A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES--I hated this book. It was silly and stupid.

    DESCENT-- It has been a couple years since I have been as riveted to a book as I was to DESCENT. Problem, though: it wasn't riveting until around page 130.

    Caitlin was a high school track star and will now attend college on a track scholarship. But she is abducted, first. After that are descriptions of how her mother, father, and brother each go on living with this for nearly three years. Chapters are short. No problem. But the chapters also seem scattered, not chronological.

    Also, throughout this book Caitlin's brother, Sean, is referred to as "the boy" almost always. This is annoying. Such constant impersonal usage in seemingly personal chapters is confusing, and the repetitiousness of that phrase makes it ridiculous.

    About halfway through the book, though, the suspense becomes so great, DESCENT is unputdownable.

    For this excellent suspense, DESCENT would rate five stars. But the several uninteresting chapters in its first half and its ridiculous constant use of "the boy" downgrades it to four. Why not three? Because its second half is truly stupendous.

    I won this book from the publisher through librarything.com.

    THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN-- Riverhead, the publisher, is doing a great marketing job for this book, right down to its very clever cover. But be warned: after all this hype, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN may disappoint. While it will keep your attention, it probably won't be as unputdownable as claimed until the last couple of chapters. It wasn't for me.

    The girl on the train is Rachel. She's a raging alcoholic who has opinions about people that are often based on nothing and are always wrong. The entire book is about her alcoholic blackouts and figuring out what really happened.

    Some things about this book are aggravating. For instance, during tense moments, characters, especially Rachel, bite their lips, often so hard they draw blood. I could just imagine all the people walking around with bloody mouths they had chewed.

    The biggest aggravation is difficult to describe without saying too much and spoiling the story. It has to do with how everything is explained in the end. It too hard to swallow. It just seems to easy for an author to explain everything in the end.

    Yet, even considering these and other faults, the book still rates four stars. That is simply because it kept my attention more than books I've rated with three stars.

    I won this ARC from the publisher and librarything.com.

    1. Thanks for this well-balanced run-down of the books!

      The first two books in your list--"The Fever" and "A Confederacy of Dunces"--are my first two books of 2015. I'm partway into each of them (and am inclined to plug my ears and sing "la-la-la!" when people talk about "The Fever" because I can tell it's a book that's full of surprises like you mentioned). So far, I think both are tremendous, each in their own way. As you advised, I am paying close attention to the clues Megan Abbott drops along the way (though, of course, it's hard to tell when you see a clue at the time--only in retrospect), but I am glued to the page, just as you were through part of "The Descent."

      As for "Confederacy," I realize it's not for everyone's tastes and you're the second person this week to tell me that you thought it was "stupid." I certainly respect that opinion and can see how the farting, masturbating, gluttonous Ignatius J. Reilly wouldn't be to everyone's liking. I'm digging Toole's outrageous style, though, and am stretching out my reading of the novel in order to keep the laughter going.

      At any rate, thanks again for your take on these books.

      Read on!