Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers

Coping with trauma or loss

The Summer She Was Under Water

The Summer She Was Under Water

A creekside cabin in summertime: it seems like the setting for a peaceful family gathering, unless the family is the one that Jen Michalski brings together in her moving and deftly crafted novel The Summer She Was Under Water. Its members include a physically and emotionally abusive father who is struggling with mental illness; a kind yet conflict-averse mother who has tried to look past the years of damage her husband has done; and two adult children—a long-estranged sister and brother—who share memories of their father’s abuse and of a taboo bond they formed in the wake of it.

The gathering at the family’s cabin threatens to be uncomfortable at best, explosive at worst. But because Michalski gets to the heart of the characters and their conflicts with such care and feeling, she offers more than a strife-laden drama. Instead, her novel is a complex exploration of family dysfunction, one that holds out a measure of hope.

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They Could Live with Themselves

They Could Live with Themselves

An oft-repeated criticism of small towns is that too many residents have an unsavory and insatiable interest in the lives of their neighbors, an interest that no amount of acreage—geographical, emotional, or social—can discourage. One of the many strengths of Jodi Paloni’s début story collection, They Could Live with Themselves, is how it acknowledges a corollary truth: the impossibility of fully understanding the experiences or realities of others—sometimes, even those with whom we share a roof. By immersing us in the lives of residents of one fictional community, Paloni honors, with great compassion and insight, both private realities and the ways in which individuals do—or don’t—connect with others.

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Nanjing Never Cries

Nanjing Never Cries

Tim O’Brien has said that fiction is for “getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” To me, this observation speaks to the strengths of the best historical novels: unlike textbook accounts, such novels convey the consequences and significance of historical events more memorably than mere facts ever could. They do so by connecting readers, emotionally, to characters who are at the center of these events.

In his début novel, Nanjing Never Cries, Hong Zheng builds these connections affectingly, immersing readers in the experiences of those who suffered during the Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were raped, tortured, and killed by Japanese soldiers who invaded the city in December 1937, as part the Sino-Japanese War.

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The Mesmerist’s Daughter

The Mesmerist’s Daughter

The Mesmerist’s Daughter, a dark, poetic novella by Heidi James, was my perfect companion one recent gloomy afternoon, transfixing me from its first lines:

My mother was a wolf. That was the first secret I kept for her. At night she would jimmy open my door with her muzzle and swagger into my bedroom, her blunt claws clicking like tarts’ heels on the floor, her panting rigid and dependable. Her thick, wiry pelt was heavy and smothering as coal gas.

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Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

Daniel Taylor’s forthcoming novel, Death Comes to the Deconstructionist, is an engrossing and satisfying whodunit. But the central character and sleuth, Jon Mote, finds himself uncovering and confronting secrets every bit as dark as the murder case he’s been asked to help solve, and the stories of those confrontations are just as captivating.

The novel opens after the murder of Richard Pratt, chair of a local university’s English Department and a bright, though dimming, star in the academic universe. Years before, Pratt was also Jon’s doctoral advisor, and his criticism of his protégé’s dissertation-in-progress (“theoretically naïve” is just one of Pratt’s disparaging descriptions of the work) helped nudge Jon toward an early exit from graduate school.

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Swarm to Glory

Swarm to Glory

Last fall, after posting “Women: please send me your fiction,”  I received a number of excellent books by women authors and their publishers. A dear friend and fellow writer who’d seen the post handed me Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s collection Swarm to Glory, and I am deeply grateful that she did. The book contains those rare kinds of stories that pulled me completely out of myself and into the lives of the characters—seemingly everyday lives in which, in the words of my friend, complexities and dangers lurk under the surface.

The stories in the collection are united by a concern with endings, which range from the deaths of loved ones to the withering of romantic relationships. In an interview with Newcity Lit, Cohen said, “In the face of such endings, my characters often must decide whether they will be ruled by these endings, or whether, in spite of the ephemeral nature of all things, they will ‘swarm to glory.’”

In the title story, the central character, Ellen, finds glory through nature—in this case, through a swarm of bees that has settled into a tree at the foster home where she has been living since her mother became seriously ill. Ellen is living a life of alienation, not only because she is apart from her mother but also because she is the only Jew in the foster home, which causes her to be disparaged by certain members of the community, especially by congregants of the Christian mega-church she’s now compelled to attend. When Ellen observes the cluster of bees, that sense of alienation lifts, and she reconnects to her mother, who “loved nature and educational activities.”

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