The central characters in The Expense of a View, Polly Buckingham’s dark and sometimes surreal story collection, face the kinds of suffering that many of us, if we aren’t experiencing them ourselves, would rather turn away from: grief over the loss of a loved one, drug addiction, domestic violence, parental abandonment, mental illness, poverty. Buckingham’s stories immersed me so deeply in these characters’ mental, physical, and emotional states that the barriers between their worlds and mine seemed to dissolve, giving me insights into experiences I might otherwise feel—or seek—distance from.
Favorite New Fiction
from Small and Micro Publishers
Jeff Fearnside’s début story collection, Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air, is rich in so many ways: in its deep explorations of diverse lives and experiences; in its immersion in place, which often becomes a character itself; in the subtle surprises of several tales—surprises that, retrospectively, feel completely earned and natural.
But one of my favorite aspects of the book is the way it explores the solo mission—certain characters’ efforts to find their way, largely alone, through difficult periods or situations in their lives.
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.
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.
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.
Tim O’Brien has said that fiction is for “getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” To me, this observation speaks to the strengths of the best historical novels: unlike textbook accounts, such novels convey the consequences and significance of historical events more memorably than mere facts ever could. They do so by connecting readers, emotionally, to characters who are at the center of these events.
In his début novel, Nanjing Never Cries, Hong Zheng builds these connections affectingly, immersing readers in the experiences of those who suffered during the Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were raped, tortured, and killed by Japanese soldiers who invaded the city in December 1937, as part the Sino-Japanese War.
Coming to terms with the fact that one is in a satisfactory but unrewarding, and perhaps loveless, marriage is as common a predicament in literature as it is in reality. But what if a dissatisfied spouse were to take a solo vacation thousands of miles away from her husband and child, to a country with an unfamiliar language and culture—and to become so deeply drawn into the possibilities there, of a new life and new loves, that she can’t bring herself to return home? In her début novel The Pull of It, Wendy J. Fox takes us through just such a journey, one that results in both new challenges and personal discovery.