Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers

Growing up

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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The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories

The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories

The complications of romantic partnerships are often explored in fiction, but rarely with the depth and insight that Wendy J. Fox brings to her début story collection, The Seven Stages of Anger, winner of the first Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.

Through several stories, and through the perspectives of multiple characters, Fox suggests that happenstance, circumstance, and inertia—as unromantic as they may be—can play a much larger role in how relationships form, sustain themselves, or die than we may like to think. As for destiny and fate, for the most part, they are the stuff of fairytales.

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Inside Madeleine

Inside Madeleine

A patient in a ward of anorexics envies “the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all.”

A psychology major finds that her job at a halfway house is replacing her idealism with frustration and disgust.

A nineteen-year-old becomes sexually and emotionally addicted to a rock drummer who, in response, scorns her “sheer lack of pride.”

These are just a few of the situations explored in Paula Bomer’s new story collection, Inside Madeleine, which shines a light into the most uncomfortable corners of the young female characters’ lives, under circumstances when these women are most vulnerable, uncertain, and prone to making mistakes. The stories are raw and sometimes cringe-inducing. But it’s likely that for any woman who has reached the point of looking back on her teens and twenties, aspects of these tales will feel unsettlingly familiar, or spark the occasional “but for the grace of god” reaction.

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Little Raw Souls: Stories

Little Raw Souls: Stories

Good short stories drop us into the middle of situations we can’t help but find riveting, no matter how strange or uncomfortable they may be. Steven Schwartz’s latest collection, Little Raw Souls, is full of such stories. And what makes them especially compelling is the diversity of situations and characters they explore. Here’s just a sampling: a retiree is rooked by a hippie couple who take shelter on his land, a teenager finds that his dreams of becoming a Marine conflict with his dying mother’s wishes, a man reunites with a cousin (and former crush) who has undergone a sex change, a high school teacher holds his class hostage while contemplating suicide.

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