LJ’s Reviews of RUSA’s Notable Fiction | ALA Midwinter 2016

LJ's reviews of the 2016 selections of the Notable Books List, an annual best-of list comprised of 26 written for adult readers and published in the U.S., including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

The Notable Books Council, established in 1944, has announced the 2016 selections of the Notable Books List, an annual best-of list comprised of 26 written for adult readers and published in the U.S., including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The list was announced Sunday, January 10, during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Boston.

starred review starAlvar, Mia. In the Country. Knopf. Jun. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9780385352819. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385352840. F
inthecountry41715Few writers, even the most seasoned, can produce collections of evenly superb stories. Alvar triumphs on her first try. Her nine stories reflect her own peripatetic background (Manila born, Bahrain/New York raised, Harvard/Columbia educated), featuring a cast of immigrants, expats, travelers, runaways, and returnees caught in constant motion—geographically, socioeconomically, politically, emotionally—as they search for respite and long for an elusive “home.” A pharmacist returns to Manila with pain-relieving drugs for his once abusive, now-dying father and watches his mother continue to serve his every need. The appearance—and disappearance—of a glamorous young maid causes resonating distrust among Bahrain’s Filipino expat community. An office cleaner rushes to the World Trade Center on 9/11, seeking her lover. A young writer is born, if only to keep her overseas brother alive forever. A middle-aged politician exiled to ­“Manilachusetts” trains for the Boston marathon. The titular final piece imbues the phrase “in the country” with tragic meaning as a nurse and a journalist struggle to survive the violent tumult of 1970s Philippines. VERDICT Both intrepid readers and armchair tourists eager to explore debut narratives that straddle multiple countries and cultures—à la Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel or Rajesh Parameswaran’s I Am an Executioner—will be opulently rewarded here.—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. Farrar. Mar. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780374260507. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374712242. F
Dickens, CA, is so embarrassing yet so inconsequential that it has disappeared from the map. One of its residents is Professor Mee, who teaches sociology at Riverside Community College. As a single parent, he homeschools his son while using him in a radical social science experiment with racial implications that might someday result in a profitable book. After Mee is killed in a police shoot-out, the son draws on what he has learned about sociology to launch a crusade that he hopes will put Dickens back on the map. To bring the town some national attention, he resorts to the shocking means of reinstituting slavery and segregation. While he seems to succeed, his actions ultimately bring him before the U.S. Supreme Court, which must consider the ramifications of the case. VERDICT Beatty (The White Boy Shuffle) creates a wicked satire that pokes fun at all that is sacred to life in the United States, from father-son dynamics right up to the Supreme Court. His story is full of the unexpected, resulting in absurd and hilarious drama.—Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence

starred review starClegg, Bill. Did You Ever Have a Family. Scout: Gallery. Sept. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9781476798172. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781476798196. F
In small-town Connecticut, on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s house literally explodes, killing ex-husband Adam, lover Luke, daughter Lolly, and ­Lolly’s fiancé, Will. What follows is a propulsive but tightly crafted narrative that moves back and forth in time and from character to character as Clegg builds out his opening scene to take in those sometimes surprisingly affected. The breakup of June’s marriage, the troubled relationship between June and her daughter, the tensions between June and Luke, the small-town tragedy of Luke’s mother, the complicated backstory of the lesbian lovers who run the West Coast hotel where June fetches up—all these and more reveal the fine-grained sorrows of the human condition, rendered in polished, quietly captivating prose. As the stories emerge, so do their connections—and the idea of connection itself. “Did you ever have a family,” says June flatly at a moment of crisis before the blast, capturing the weight family carries in our lives, and the consequence of every relation, every action, resonates throughout the text. VERDICT Readers may come to this debut novel because of agent/memoirist Clegg’s reputation, but they’ll stay for the stellar language and storytelling. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/9/15.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

starred review starHannaham, James. Delicious Foods. Little, Brown. Mar. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780316284943. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316284929. F
deliciousfoodsHannaham’s second novel (after God Says No) is a disturbing but impressive exposé of the corporate farm industry. In the opening pages, Eddie Hardison, a 17-year-old young black man, has escaped from the farm, his hands missing, the stumps of his wrists covered in blood-soaked cloth. The story then flips back six years to happier times when Eddie lived with his parents in a small Louisiana town. His mother, Darlene, is college educated, while his father, Nat, is a grocery store owner and community organizer. Devastated by Nat’s murder, Darlene barely hangs on, but after their business is burned to the ground, she disintegrates into addiction and prostitution. One night, Darlene, along with other homeless, is lured into a van with the promise of a better life at a mysterious farm. They realize too late that they have signed on to suffering and deprivation under the cruel Sextus and his crew. Eddie eventually finds Darlene, only to become entrapped himself.
Verdict In a unique voice, Hannaham doesn’t flinch as he draws attention to exploitation and racial injustice through memorable characters undaunted by their own personal suffering, wisecracking their country wisdom about survival and loyalty to family and friends. An eye-opening, standout novel. [See Prepub Alert, 8/22/14.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Palisade, CO

starred review starHulse, S.M. Black River. Houghton Harcourt. Jan. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9780544309876. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780544309296. F
Claire Carver’s dying wish is that her husband play a song on his fiddle that she loves, one he wrote that evokes the mountainous surroundings of their Montana hometown. But Wes Carver has not been able to play the fiddle for 20 years. His hands are crippled, one of many cruel reminders of a prolonged episode of hideous torture at the hands of a convict during a prison riot. Wes, like many men in Black River, worked as a guard. After the riot, he and Claire left Black River. When Wes next returns there years later, numb, laconic, and angry, it is with his wife’s ashes in tow. Can he mend the broken relationship with his stepson? Can he withstand the parole hearing for the man who maimed him for life? Will he rekindle his lost Christian faith and find any kind of hope for a good life without his beloved Claire? VERDICT Heads up—Hulse is a smart writer, able to reveal her character’s gut-level emotions and trickiest self manipulations. Comparing the author to Annie Proulx, Wallace Stegner, or Kent Haruf is no exaggeration. Her debut is bound to turn readers’ hearts inside out and leave them yearning for some sweet, mournful fiddle music.—Keddy Ann Outlaw, Houston

Johnson, Adam. Fortune of Smiles. Random. 2015. ISBN 9780812997477. F

Leine, Kim. The Prophets of Eternal Fjord: A Novel. Liveright: Norton. 2015. tr. from Danish by Martin Aitken. ISBN 9780871406712. F

starred review starMarra, Anthony. The Tsar of Love and Techno. Hogarth: Crown. Oct. 2015.
352p. ISBN 9780770436438. $25;ebk. ISBN 9780770436445. F
Love and war, loyalty and betrayal, are themes inextricably joined in the literary imagination. Marra, who dazzled readers and critics with his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, once again captivates with this collection of stories spanning 75 years. Linked by generations of political rebels, artists, soldiers, and criminals, these tales pay homage to the victims of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the resulting wars in Chechnya. It’s a time when brother turns on brother, children on parents, coworkers on each other. History is rewritten by the victors and trust is a word without meaning. Yet from this darkness Marra creates characters full of love, repentance, and even hope. A man sells a valued painting in order to finance a blind woman’s surgery. A husband, facing the imminent death of his wife from cancer, takes his family on holiday to a contaminated lake where people swim with rebellious joy. An artist who turned his brother in to the authorities assuages his guilt by surreptitiously sketching that brother’s likeness onto each canvas he censors for the government. Verdict Marra’s numerous awards (the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award, the Whiting Award, the Pushcart Prize) were no fluke. With generosity of spirit and a surprising dash of humor, these artfully woven narratives coalesce into a majestic whole. [See Prepub Alert, 4/6/15.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

starred review starNguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. Grove. Apr. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780802123459. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780802191694. F
Written as a postwar confessional, this novel begins with its nameless protagonist, a highly placed young aide to a general in the South Vietnamese army, recalling how he finalized the details of escape before the fall of Saigon. But our hero is a double agent, a communist sympathizer who will continue to feed information to the North even after he makes the harrowing escape with his loyalist friend Bon and the general’s family on the last plane out, and becomes part of the Vietnamese refugee community in Southern California. Breathtakingly cynical, the novel has its hilarious moments; the reader will especially enjoy Nguyen’s take on 1970s American life. To maintain his cover, our hero must become entangled in the general’s underground resistance group, which plots a return to Vietnam through Cambodia, and the tale turns seriously dark. VERDICT Ultimately a meditation on war, political movements, America’s imperialist role, the CIA, torture, loyalty, and one’s personal identity, this is a powerful, thought-­provoking work. It’s hard to believe this effort, one of the best recent novels to cover the Vietnamese conflict from an Asian perspective, is a debut. This is right up there with Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. [See Prepub Alert, 10/27/14.]—Reba Leiding, emeritus, James ­Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA

Shearer, Alex. This Is the Life. Washington Square: Atria. Feb. 2015. 229p. ISBN 9781476764405. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781476764429. F
thisisthelife.jpg11216With this bittersweet, heartbreaking autobiographical novel, Shearer (The Invisible Man’s Socks) has given readers a rarity in this genre these days: an honest look at grief and a complicated, multilayered study of family relationships. When his older brother Louis is diagnosed with a brain tumor, the unnamed narrator stays by his side, caring for him through his illness and final days. Shearer paints Louis as an extremely intelligent and capable person who chooses a difficult path and never quite lives up to his potential. Through a series of vignettes, we get to know Louis and all of his quirks as he struggles with his disease. VERDICT Told with equal parts humor and sadness, this book is especially poignant for anyone who has ever had a complicated relationship with a sibling. Reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, this is a thoughtful reflection of what is truly important in life.—Mariel Pachucki, Maple Valley, WA

starred review starShepard, Jim. The Book of Aron. Knopf. May 2015. 272p. ISBN 9781101874318. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101874325. F
The Warsaw Ghetto during the darkest days of World War II is the setting of this important, heartbreaking but also inspiring new novel from National Book Award nominee Shepard (Like You’d Understand, Anyway). Told from the perspective of Aron, a Jewish boy in the ghetto, it is the study of the sadistic and systematic deprivation and dehumanization of a people. Forced with his family from the countryside into the ghetto, where he joins a band of hardy young smugglers, Aron eventually loses his entire clan to typhus, malnutrition, and forced labor and ends up in an orphanage in the ghetto run by Janusz Korczak, an important historical figure from this period. Korczak was a well-known advocate for children’s rights before the war and became famous for the orphanage he ran in the ghetto, and the author brings this heroic figure powerfully to life. Shepard also skillfully depicts the blighted human and moral landscape within the ghetto, where normal understandings of right and wrong have become impossibly compromised under the pressure of extermination. Surrounded by devastation, hopelessness, and cruelty, Korczak becomes an exemplar of all that is good and decent in the human spirit. Few will be able to read the last terrible, inspiring pages without tears in their eyes. VERDICT Indispensable reading. [See Prepub 11/3/14.]—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. Doubleday. Mar. 2015. 736p. ISBN 9780385539258. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780385539265. F
Yanagihara follows her debut novel, The People in the Trees, with a deceptively simple tale of four male friends, Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB, who meet during their college years at Ivy League institutions. The men choose to continue their journeys into adulthood together by relocating jointly to New York. As they sustain their friendships into their fifties, the author delivers tales of their loyalty, love, and support for one another. However, lying beneath the surface is an emotionally disturbing story line about Jude, a highly successful lawyer and the brightest of the four men. The horrors of Jude’s victimization during his youth by the brothers of a monastery and his eventual abduction by Brother Luke, a pedophile and pimp, force him to struggle relentlessly with inner demons and a deep-seated distrust of others, with his pain manifested in constant acts of cutting. VERDICT As in her previous novel, Yanagihara fearlessly broaches difficult topics while simultaneously creating an environment that her audience will find caring and sensitive. Not all readers will embrace this work, given its intense subject. However, for those strong of stomach or bold enough to follow the characters’ road of friendship, this heartbreaking story certainly won’t be easily forgotten.—Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA



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