One of the fiction-writing super powers I admire most is the ability to inhabit a wide range of characters and worlds, and to write about each of them with great empathy and understanding. In her story collection This Far Isn’t Far Enough, Lynn Sloan shows a special gift in this regard. She immerses us in the lives of everyone from a deceived and disillusioned widow, to an anxious soldier pulled into a possibly criminal scheme, to a worried mother of an aspiring prizefighter. As Sloan explores the inner and outer and conflicts that these characters face, she does so with deep feeling and insight.
Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers
Living with secrets
Christopher Irvin’s novel Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All is a page tuner of a mystery/crime thriller, interwoven with a captivating story of family and community. The fact that all the characters are animals never distanced me from the drama; to the contrary, it provided a bracing reminder of the degree to which we’re driven by beastly instincts, which are never as far from the surface as we might wish to believe.
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.
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:
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.
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.