Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers

Looking to the past

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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Carry the Sky

Carry the Sky

Back in December, in a post about grieving during the holidays, I mentioned some new works of fiction (all from small presses) that deal in some way with loss. I am pleased to finally be writing about one of them, Kate Gray’s profound and poetic début novel, Carry the Sky.

The novel alternates between the stories of two young teachers at St. Timothy’s, a fictional Delaware boarding school established “for farm boys to learn Chaucer, to learn rowing, to learn ways of tending corn.” One of the teachers is Taylor Alta, who at the beginning of the book, in the fall of 1983, is just starting her job as an instructor of English and geography and as coach of the girls’ rowing team. The other is Jack Song, a more seasoned (and, consequently, more disaffected) teacher who nevertheless remains committed to sharing his passion for physics with St. Tim’s students.

Uniting the stories of Taylor and Song is sorrow over the deaths of loved ones: Song has recently lost his sister, Kim, to a blood disease; Taylor’s wounds are fresher: almost as soon as she arrives at St. Timothy’s she learns that a fellow rower from college—her first and greatest love, Sarah—has drowned in the Schuylkill River while coaching rowers at a Philadelphia boarding school. Gray’s writing about grieving is powerful not only because of the beauty of her language but also because of the intensely physical nature of it. As Taylor takes up her coaching duties at St. Tim’s, every part of her surroundings seems haunted by Sarah:

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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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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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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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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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