Favorite New Fiction
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Skating on the Vertical

Skating on the Vertical

Many of the tales in Jan English Leary’s profound, heartfelt story collection, Skating on the Vertical, center on characters who have reached pivotal points in their lives and are trying to figure out next steps, and also themselves. Leary gives the complexity of such turning points its due, immersing us in the soul-searching, self-doubt, and mistakes that are natural—sometimes inevitable—during times of change, difficulty, or discovery.

Because all the stories in Skating on the Vertical are so powerful and resonant, it was hard for me to choose which ones to focus on in this review. To my mind, there wasn’t an off story in the book. So here, I’ll focus on a few stories that give a sense of the range and depth of this fine collection.

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A Dream Between Two Rivers: Stories of Liminality

A Dream Between Two Rivers: Stories of Liminality

KL Pereira’s captivating new collection of short fiction, A Dream Between Two Rivers, carries the subtitle “Stories of Liminality.” True to that description, many of the stories explore experiences of being on the verge—or at the edge—of a new identity, reality, or understanding. This makes for dynamic storytelling, as does the fact that the collection isn’t tied down by any one stylistic convention.

Many of the stories draw on elements of myths, folklore, or fairytales, and like those types of tales, they take us into strange, often dark situations that, however surreal, echo the emotional and psychological struggles of lived human experience.

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Everyone Loves You Back

Everyone Loves You Back

Benjamin Disraeli once commented, “Change is inevitable. Change is constant.” Some advice that may be implied in that: “Adapt or fail”—a recommendation that can feel survival-of-the-fittest cruel, especially when the changes in question threaten to render you irrelevant, at best.

Changes of a threatening variety definitely conspire against Bob Boland, the protagonist of Louie Cronin’s funny, perceptive, and–dare I say–hopeful début novel, Everyone Loves You Back. A stubborn (and cranky) yet pragmatic rebel, Bob charts an entertaining course between thumbing his nose at these changes and adapting to them, so much as he is willing to do so, on his own terms. For that reason I consider him, and this novel, an inspiration, especially in these dark political times.

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They Could Live with Themselves

They Could Live with Themselves

An oft-repeated criticism of small towns is that too many residents have an unsavory and insatiable interest in the lives of their neighbors, an interest that no amount of acreage—geographical, emotional, or social—can discourage. One of the many strengths of Jodi Paloni’s début story collection, They Could Live with Themselves, is how it acknowledges a corollary truth: the impossibility of fully understanding the experiences or realities of others—sometimes, even those with whom we share a roof. By immersing us in the lives of residents of one fictional community, Paloni honors, with great compassion and insight, both private realities and the ways in which individuals do—or don’t—connect with others.

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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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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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