Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers

Living with secrets

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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The Fiery Alphabet

The Fiery Alphabet

“When I think of all I tried to create in this world, your mind is the one unqualified success.”

 For Daniela Messo, math prodigy and heroine of The Fiery Alphabet, Diane Lefer’s sweeping and illuminating new historical novel, these words are a fond memory of a father’s admiration. But they are also a kind of warning, for Daniela and her father live in eighteenth-century Rome, where female intellectuals confront suspicion and far worse threats from religious authorities and society at large.

 The novel movingly describes Daniela’s efforts to persist and occasionally thrive in the face of such threats, and to shrewdly rebel against the limits they impose on her. It also allows readers to share Daniela’s journey, both intellectual and literal, toward a greater understanding of herself and of the larger world. Along the way she discovers that while her active mind puts her in danger, it can also be a saving grace.

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Interview with J.J. Hensley, author of Resolve

Interview with J.J. Hensley, author of Resolve

In J. J. Hensley’s captivating new thriller Resolve, Dr. Cyprus Keller, a criminology professor at a fictional Pittsburgh university, finds that he has to put his expertise in criminal behavior into practice. The reason: a former student is murdered, and Keller comes to suspect that some people very close to him are involved. As Keller uncovers possible motives and clues, and as the death toll rises, he becomes a potential victim himself—and a suspect.

All the while, Keller never stops training for the Pittsburgh Marathon, determined that a fellow racer—and the person he has identified as the mastermind behind the killings—will not live to cross the finish line

Like Keller, J. J. Hensley is a runner, and he spoke about the connection between his running background and the novel in interviews with TheRUNiverse.com and with Trium Marketing.

In this interview with Small Press Picks, Hensley discusses, among other things, Resolve’s exploration of justice and the moral ambiguity that sometimes accompanies it. (As the interview went to press, Resolve was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine.)

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Let the Dark Flower Blossom

Let the Dark Flower Blossom

Reading Norah Labiner’s latest novel, Let the Dark Flower Blossom, reminded me of watching “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”: the multiple-episode BBC series released in 1979 (not the greatly condensed remake that hit theaters in 2011). A certain amount of disorientation is built into the experience: mysteries are wrapped in mysteries, and the paths to resolutions (to the extent resolutions exist) are rarely clear or trustworthy. Yet with both the TV series and the novel I was driven forward by the mysteries’ peculiar unravelings and, in the latter case, by the haunting beauty of Labiner’s writing.

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Body and Bread

Body and Bread

Like every person, every family contains contradictions, oppositions. Think of the generally quiet, sober couple who produce a jokester or chatterbox. Or the child who in church looks past her brothers’ and sisters’ bowed heads, searching for fellow doubters. Such contradictions may develop into deep conflicts or become a source of wonder, even pride. Either way, they can be a powerful force; that’s just one truth examined in Nan Cuba’s sweeping, carefully observed début novel, Body and Bread.

At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Sarah Pelton and her brother Sam, whose suicide, in his mid-twenties, changes the course of Sarah’s life. Through flashbacks, we see Sarah and Sam coming of age in the fictional town of Nugent, Texas, in the late fifties to early seventies. Unlike the other Peltons, they seem driven to make a break from family expectations and traditions. The family patriarch, Owen, is a man who, in Sam’s words, has a “rulebook in his head. …

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Beautiful Garbage

Beautiful Garbage

In this unflinching and perceptive début novel, Jill Di Donato describes one young sculptor’s struggle to rise above the din of the 1980s art world and to discover her true voice. In the process, she finds herself confronting past wrongs—both those she committed and those committed against her.

Though Beautiful Garbage makes for a good summer read, it’s not a light one—and to my mind that’s only a good thing. This novel won’t let you off the hook easily, intellectually or emotionally.

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