Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers

Family stories/family issues

Hawaiian Tales

Hawaiian Tales

Too often, recreational travel, even to the most interesting and exotic places, has the feeling of skimming across surfaces. As we move from notable site to notable site, we are sometimes dazzled. More often, though, we are dazzle-proofed by preformed expectations (think Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature”).

Our outsiderdom also keeps us at a distance. As we observe the locals and even other tourists, we may get the sense that intriguing stories are being played out all around us, but with rare exceptions, we are never immersed in them.

The great gift of Lee A. Jacobus’s new story collection, Hawaiian Tales: The Girl with Heavenly Eyes, is how deeply and richly it immerses us in the predicaments of its characters, from Hawaiian natives to tourists, and in the psychological and physical landscapes of their lives. Reading it, I truly felt transported.

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Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

It’s rare for my attention to linger on the cover of a book I’m about to read, but it certainly did when I picked up Jennifer Tseng’s poetic, richly imagined début novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. The cover features an overhead shot of a pale woman in a fuschia dress lying, arms outstretched, on a rippling blue-green sea. Though this might be the sea of happiness, the image suggests a more complicated truth. Underlying the tranquility and sensuality of the scene is a sense of isolation, even peril—seemingly contradictory threads that this novel, like its cover, weaves together deftly and powerfully.

The Mayumi of the title is a forty-something librarian who inhabits a tourist-attracting island off the coast of New England (think Martha’s Vineyard) with her beloved five-year-old daughter and her not-so-beloved husband. Though kind and decent, he no longer interests Mayumi erotically or otherwise. They share little more than affection for their daughter and a ramshackle house, where they sleep in separate beds.

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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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Ghost Horse

Ghost Horse

One of my reviewing regrets of late is my delay in highly recommending Thomas H. McNeely’s powerful and moving coming-of-age novel Ghost Horse (winner of the Gival Press Novel Award).

The setting is mid-seventies Houston, and the central character is Buddy Turner, who at the start of the novel is leaving Queen of Peace, a largely Latino school in one part of the city, for an all-white school in another. The schools seem worlds apart given the racial divide between them, and in the city at large. We sense this divide from the very beginning of the novel, when Buddy and his good friend Alex Torres make their way from Buddy’s last day at Queen of Peace to Alex’s home.

In bare-dirt yards along the bayou, dogs bark, pulling at ropes and chains; and Alex seems to fade, to disappear. Both of them, Alex and Buddy, have heard the story that the dogs’ owners teach them to bite Mexicans, a story that they know probably isn’t true; and yet, Buddy can’t help but feel glad that he himself will be safe; and as soon as he thinks this, he’s ashamed.

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Gifted and Talented

Gifted and Talented

Who among you remembers those golden days when a middling high school student—a kid with respectable grades but with ACT scores in the toilet, with daydreaming making up a solid sixty percent of her extracurricular activities—could get accepted into the only university she applied to? One offering affordable, in-state tuition?

“If you can make it through high school and still fog a mirror, Bob’s your uncle.”

I can’t recall who shared that observation about the admissions process, but I can tell you that the listener, the middling high school student, was me. I can also tell you that in the decades since I heard those words, I’ve reflected many times on how lucky I was—not just to have gotten into college but to have done so without having to toil through the emotionally fraught college-prep boot camp that the K-through-12 years have become for many students. Years in which—for far too many youngsters—daydreaming is seen as a weakness at best, as a character flaw at worst.

In her insightful, moving, and incredibly funny new novel, Gifted and Talented, Julia Watts takes us into the heart of what can be the most unsparing of educational boot camps: classes for gifted students—in this case, an honors class at a fictional magnet school, Fairmont Elementary, in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the center of the novel are Crispin, newly enrolled in Fairmont and its third-grade gifted class, and Crispin’s parents, Rachel and Ethan.

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How I Kiss Her Turning Head

How I Kiss Her Turning Head

The stories in Jennifer Woodworth’s strangely beautiful How I Kiss Her Turning Head examine the most primal aspects of mother-child bonds, bonds that can surpass love and approach obsession, yet, within the small, warm worlds of their origins, feel natural and necessary.

Throughout the book, Woodworth takes us to the physical and emotional heart of such connections, with vivid descriptions like this one, from “Stork Scissors & Baby Toes,” in which the narrator finds the scissors of the title too indelicate for her newborn’s toes:

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