The Masters Review Book Review Series
The Masters Review conducts a book review series that analyzes, discusses, and reviews debut novels and short story collections. We are particularly interested in books from small and independent presses, graphic novels, experimental forms, and any texts that have something new to say. We do review established writers, but try to focus the bulk of our reviews on authors who have published no more than two novel-length books.
To submit a book for review please query Sadye at: sadye (at) mastersreview (dot) com with the words BOOK REVIEW in the subject line. Our book reviews focus on authors with forthcoming titles and generally we like to review titles from debut authors. Reviews should include quotes, comparisons to other texts, and are typically between 700 – 1200 words.
Thank you and enjoy!
The Expense of a View by Polly Buckingham
Our current political conversation often revolves around the financial disparities rampant in American culture. Polly Buckingham’s recent story collection, The Expense of a View, hones in on the lives most impacted by the inequalities this gaping imbalance engenders. Buckingham tells the stories of the system’s most vulnerable—the ill, the partnerless, the parentless, the addicted, the poor, the isolated—exploring what it means to try to be a “healthy” adult when life has always lacked a major component of stability. The Expense of a View won the 2016 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, and was released this past fall from the University of North Texas Press.
The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George
In the first story of Jen George’s debut collection The Babysitter at Rest, a nameless genderless Guide climbs through the window of the narrator’s apartment to usher her into adulthood. “Despite your lack of intuition,” they tell her, “you may have become aware of the following changes that signal the onset of adulthood: listening to others, doubting everything you think, health problems, understanding of the limitations of time and/or life/living/the individual experience…” the list goes on. Such mounting neuroses are experienced by not only our first narrator, but by all of the female protagonists that populate George’s stories. Read more.
Our Dreams Might Align by Dana Diehl
Each story in Dana Diehl’s debut collection Our Dreams Might Align starts with a small bullet.
“It’s been two days since we were swallowed by the loneliest whale in the world,” begins one story.
“The woman with 43 children is dying,” starts another.
Words pile on in fragile rhythms. Sentences are constructed out of negative space. The unsaid lingers. Fragments dominate. Each story exists only for a short time, breaking off suddenly. An atmosphere of absence seeps into each one, the fear of being left behind.
The Grand Tour by Adam O’Fallon Price
Richard Lazar, the protagonist of Adam O’Fallon Price’s debut novel The Grand Tour, is a washed-up, mid-list writer—divorced, overweight, often drunk, with most of his books out of print, and barely in contact with his grown daughter. But unexpected success arrives with the publication of his sixth book, a memoir about his service (and eventual desertion) during the Vietnam War. To capitalize on the book’s momentum, Lazar’s publishing house sends him on a book tour. The disastrous consequences of the book tour are chronicled with humorous precision and deep feeling by Price, transforming The Grand Tour from a comedic road trip novel into a meditation on the relationship between creation, desperation, and hope.
One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman
Knife pushers, diggers, painters, can pickers, snake mimes, fire chasers, thieves and ice-cream men populate the stories in Dustin M. Hoffman’s One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, his debut collection from University of Nebraska Press and the winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. The stories here feature men (and they are largely men) who live by their hands, who work in subdivisions, who build cookie-cutter houses. They are defined by their work, by toil and back-break. They live hardscrabble lives and are either aiming higher or sinking slowly down.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers follows a Cameroonian family as they immigrate to the United States in the years before the financial collapse of 2008. This debut novel explores the complicated relationships between where we’re from and where we end up living, between love and family, sacrifice and reward.
You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale
While the title of Amie Barrodale’s debut story collection, You Are Having a Good Time, is taken from its epigraph, it also seems a directive from Barrodale to the reader. And, indeed, you will have a good time reading this collection, but you will have an even better time on your second or third read. The flatness of the prose and the disconnection between characters can initially create a distance between the reader and the stories. As you continue reading, though, the echoes within and between the stories build and grow. The sense of surprise—of never knowing where a story is heading—is embedded in every story, and the characters—who are so truly drawn that they seem like people we know or perhaps are even stark reflections of our inner selves—begin to haunt the reader and stay with us long after we have finished reading. Read more.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Drawing on the events of the late sixties, author Emma Cline reimagines the summer of 1969 in a coming-of-age novel that bumps up against the ideals of the time and a young girl’s involvement in a deadly California commune. The Girls debuted in June to big fan fare. The first of a reported seven figure, three-book deal, Cline proved her merits as an emerging writer by winning The Paris Review’s 2014 Plimpton Prize. Before The Girls hit shelves—which Cline wrote in approximately three months—the novel was a success among reviewers, who applauded the young writer for her work on the sentence level. Even the difficult-to-please James Wood referred to Cline in the The New Yorker as, “a talented stylist.” He writes: “At her frequent best, Cline sees the world exactly and generously.”
Home Field by Hannah Gersen
Home Field by Hannah Gersen, out yesterday from HarperCollins, is a book about recovery. It is a book about the ways people rebound from injury, from heartache, from death. This debut novel follows its characters as they learn the limits of their bodies and struggle to entrust themselves to those around them. Gersen’s bold debut is dark and hopeful and begs us to question how depression and suicide are treated in society.
Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null
In Allegheny Front, Matthew Neill Null’s first story collection and the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the author returns to the West Virginia territory he mined so beautifully in his thrilling first novel, Honey from the Lion. “The bolderfields, the spaces empty of people—a lonesomeness city-dwellers could never comprehend,” he writes of the setting. “Sometimes it seems you know animals more intimately than people.” In these nine stories, Null continues the work he began in his first book of unpacking the complicated relationship between man and the natural world. He approaches from alternately sympathetic, adversarial, and prophetic angles the slippery morality that arises when people are forced into the roles of predator and prey. Read more.
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is a novel by Stephen O’Connor, released April 5th by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin. It is a lengthy book with an experimental format, containing excerpts from essays, dream-like sequences, diaries, and factual information situated amidst the primary story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. O’Connor deftly fills in “the gaps between facts,” imagining the nuances of a relationship that, save a few hundred words, is almost completely absent from primary sources on Jefferson. At turns playful and poignant, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is an in-depth look at what the literal process of a life of cognitive dissonance entails, about the repeated, daily failure to reconcile one of the most glaring hypocrisies in the history of the United States. Read more.
Daughters of Monsters by Melissa Goodrich
Like the opening shot of a late-night, science-fiction horror flick, Melissa Goodrich’s debut short story collection Daughters of Monsters crash-lands into our planet from a universe not quite like our own. Pairing hypersaturated sentences with high-concept surrealism, Goodrich has managed to tweak the parameters of our reality to present a world transformed. This idea of constant change hums through each story in the collection—the ways we morph and adjust in our unsteady universe, and the ways we try to hold on.
Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss
Molly Prentiss’s debut novel, Tuesday Nights in 1980, focuses on the soul of the art community in the New York City of decades ago. Prentiss refuses to hold punches, finding the spot that bleeds emotion and holding it open for all she can take. The book shifts between the perspectives of three characters: a synesthetic art critic, James Bennett; an orphaned Argentinian painter, Raul Engales; and a small town girl new to the big city, Lucy Olliason. The narrative builds on itself as these three characters’ lives weave together, united by their love of art and culture. When you come down to it, that is what much of this novel is about: the lasting effect that one life can have upon another.
Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte
Tony Tulathimutte’s superb first novel, Private Citizens, is a razor-sharp satire of millennial culture, focusing on themes of class and technology. Set in the San Francisco Bay area in 2007, the novel is populated by a generation of misguided and occasionally misanthropic men and women drifting into their thirties. The book is ultimately compassionate in its ribbing, reminiscent of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which, among other things, turned a much-needed comic eye on young Americans and their foibles. Wise and funny, at times uncomfortable, the novel’s tone suggests Philip Roth’s frank and often delightfully transgressive depictions of sex and neuroses; in ambition and narrative deftness, one might think of Jonathan Franzen.
Youngblood by Matt Gallagher
Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood was published last month by the Atria Books imprint of Simon & Schuster. Gallagher is the author of the popular and highly controversial blog-to-book Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, which chronicles his time as a soldier in 2007 and 2008. Youngblood, Gallagher’s first novel, is primarily about a soldier named Jack Porter, and his time as a lieutenant as the US occupation of Iraq is slowly drawing to a close. The novel hovers around several subjects: Porter’s experiences with his platoon; the dynamic between him and his mercurial sergeant, Chambers; and Porter’s attempts to make sense of the relationship between a local sheikh’s daughter and an enigmatic soldier named Eli Rios who passed away in 2006. Read more.
The Farmacist by Ashley Farmer
The Farmacist, Ashley Farmer’s first novella, was published this month by Jellyfish Highway Press. The book focuses on Farm Town, a Facebook game that was a precursor to the more well known Farmville. It consists of sixty-one chapters, probably better described as meditations: they are coherent in themselves, but still connect to the novella more broadly. Indeed, Farmer’s experience with flash fiction and poetry is fairly obvious here: the chapters, occasionally abstract and inching toward fantastical, are powerful demonstrations of her ability to get a point across economically. The fractured, disjointed format helps to illuminate a number of disconnects that Farmer seems to be working with: the distance between our real selves and our online selves, the disintegration of the American dream, and perhaps most of all, the lack a clear distinction between the rural and the urban. Read more.
Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan by Rosie Forrest
Rosie Forrest’s Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan, winner of the Rose Metal Press 9th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, is as dark as its characters are vulnerable. Forrest has built a world here in her debut collection, a world we recognize and wish we didn’t, a world we grew up in, one we hope our kids don’t grow up in. Her stories are finely wrought, expertly crafted little things that speak volumes about what it’s like to be an adolescent in suburban America. Read more.
Honey from the Lion by Matthew Neill Null
Matthew Neill Null’s debut novel, Honey from the Lion, is an extraordinary and powerful examination of the steady decimation of ten thousand acres of the West Virginia Allegheny forest. The novel moves with the assured pace of a thriller, while sentence by sentence Null plays with the language of place, of longing, and of violence. Within the book are echoes of Edward P. Jones’ The Known World in its scope and generous spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. The encompassing omniscient narration and deliberate, masterful plotting brings to mind Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. Frankly no first novel has the right to be this good—and yet, Null succeeds. He announces himself as a fully formed novelist.
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai
Rebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime is a masterful collection of short stories, the author’s intelligence and wit shining through in beautiful and insightful prose. Written over a period of twelve years, most of these stories have been published elsewhere, including four stories chosen for Best American Short Stories. Makkai is primarily interested in searching for meaning, creating connections and investigating causality. The stories consider and question their subjects from many different angles; the best stories in this collection leave those questions unanswered. These are the stories that ask to be read multiple times, stories that resonate and haunt.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
With The Sympathizer, available now from Grove Press, debut author Viet Thanh Nguyen demonstrates his prowess as a writer by creating a narrator who we shouldn’t trust but do anyway. This confidence is established in the book’s opening lines. Nguyen’s narrator, who remains nameless for the novel’s entirety, starts by saying, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is a mole, a self-described snoop, a character we know to be well-versed in establishing trust only to take advantage of it later, but in his confession—and that’s really what the narrative is: a confession written in isolation to a man known only as “Commandant”—we become his confidants. We are taken under his spell and held captive until the novel’s finale.
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
Debut novelist Julie Iromuanya holds a long list of accolades: published by The Kenyon Review and the Tampa Review, among others; shortlisted for several prizes, including ones from our Portland publishing comrade Glimmer Train; earned a Ph.D. and was a Presidential Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln—the list goes on. She clearly comes at novel writing from a sophisticated and measured perspective, and the craft shown within her debut novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, is evidence of that.
How to Carry Bigfoot Home by Chris Tarry
Chris Tarry has crafted a wonderful collection of stories in How to Carry Bigfoot Home. With direct and approachable language, Tarry covers experimental writing, flash fiction, fantasy, and coming-of-age in a collection that is contemplative and warm; each of his stories is laced with humor and heart. In the opening story, “Here Be Dragons,” an out-of-work dragon slayer faces the boredom and responsibility of everyday life. In “Nennorluk Goes Down Deep” a down-and-out deckhand tries to turn his life around by taking a job on a ship that is searching for a sea monster. Tarry writes: “Sunday mornings come down hard on Sammy. The Employment Insurance money never makes it to Sunday. Especially with Saturday night parked neatly in the way.” Not all of Tarry’s stories have fantastic creatures or take place in faraway lands, but they all examine dissatisfaction. Read more.
Find Me by Laura van den Berg
Celebrated short story writer and author, Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me contemplates memory, loss, and identity in the same stunning prose we’ve come to know and value in her previous two collections. In the hospital where Joy Jones was abandoned as a child, the nurses grew tired of a nameless baby so they named her Joy. Van den Berg writes: “The symmetry of the name has never suited me.” As an adult, Joy lives in a windowless basement apartment and works the overnight shift at a grocery store, numbing it all away by drinking cherry-flavored cough syrup. But joylessness isn’t the only paradox clinging to Joy. She is immune to a deadly epidemic that has swept the nation. One that begins with silver blisters on the skin and ends in memory loss and death. Read more.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
Kelly Link’s stories have been published in literary magazines such as McSweeney’s and A Public Space and the anthologies The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of The Year and Hauntings, to name a few. They have been described as “creepy little wonders” and “ . . . a beguiling and eerie blend of fairy tale, fantasy, Ray Bradbury, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and categorized as “[floating] eerily in a midpoint between cool realism and dark science fiction” and “post-strange.” But what they are, first and foremost, are quality short stories—they take advantage of fiction’s ability to create new worlds and honor this power with depth and detail. Get in Trouble, Link’s fourth collection, shows us all that the short story can accomplish.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The book jacket for Tom McCarthy’s new novel Satin Island contains several subtitles—treatise, essay, report, manifesto, confession—all of which are crossed out in favor of “a novel.” It’s an appropriate conceit, because the book is at once all of these things and none of them. Satin Island is the first-person narrative of U., an anthropologist working for a nameless corporation. U. has been commissioned by his boss to write “the Great Report,” an all-encompassing document: “the Book, the fucking Book, that was to name our era, sum it up.” He is given an office in the basement where, engulfed by the vibrations of the building’s ventilation system, he is to complete this Great Work, this book-to-end-all-books.
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter was released in November, but readers should consider this late 2014 title a spring-reading essential. Hunter’s debut novel follows best friends Perry and Baby Girl as they navigate the tricky landscape of adolescence. Perry’s mother is an alcoholic who spends her days nursing hangovers in the trailer park where they live, too often missing work and endangering her marriage to Perry’s stepfather, a decent man and local prison guard. Baby Girl lives with her uncle and brain-damaged older brother, who was once a popular neighborhood bad boy. Ugly Girls tracks the girls through a complicated friendship: they steal cars, skip school, and sneak out at night, testing the boundaries of the barely-there rules imposed on them, and the degree to which they care about themselves and each other. Read more.
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Megan Mayhew Bergman, known for Birds of a Lesser Paradise, her first book of short stories, has written a new collection that was published by Scribner this month. Almost Famous Women tells the fictionalized stories of historical women on the fringes of fame. Bergman writes their lives into a larger existence than the footnotes to which they have been relegated.
The Wilds by Julia Elliott
Many of the stories in Julia Elliott’s debut collection The Wilds illustrate strange realities. A grandmother levitates while describing the Rapture. A nursing home outfits its patients with strap-on robotic limbs and embeds tracking devices in their arms. Packs of feral dogs roam the landscape. A robot is programmed to love. Though these premises may seem bizarre, the stories don’t feel remote. They don’t take place in imagined futures. Rather, these stories feel like universes that exist right alongside our own—tiny pockets of possibility. It’s as though, at any moment, you could stumble and find yourself within one of Julia Elliott’s tactile and grotesque tales.
The World Split Open by Great Authors on How and Why we Write
In celebration of the thirty-year anniversary of Portland’s Literary Arts, Tin House Books has put together this collection to honor the nonprofit literary center’s storied lecture series. It collects speeches given by ten well-known authors on literature and craft, with warm words of introduction from Jon Raymond. Though I preferred the speeches that felt playful and biographical, as opposed to theory-heavy, the quality level is uniformly high. Dare I suggest that the unpublished majority find something vaguely aspirational in the very act of reading these essays? It felt like research, the fun kind; you’re combining trade tips and techniques with reading, which I imagine is the favorite activity of most writers.
Loitering by Charles D'Ambrosio
Loitering got to me. I’ve read Charles D’Ambrosio’s short stories in the New Yorker, so I’d nod knowingly when a friend or colleague raved about his collections. What really excited those same friends and colleagues though, what lowered their tones, made them more conspiratorial, were his essays. In their attempts to describe them, I kept getting caught up in the settings: a Pentecostal “hell house,” a Russian orphanage, the cold Pacific waters of Neah Bay. I imagined a great writer could put us in those situations and wring a terrific story out of them. But what I didn’t get until I finished dogearing this book, was what D’Ambrosio brings to these subjects. Read more.
A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin
As a Jewish family in the Soviet Union, Lev’s family suffered under an oppressive and anti-Semitic regime. Lev was bullied and beaten at school; his sister was barred from attending medical school; and his father was threatened by the KGB. When news came that the United States was closing its border, and all immigrants had to be registered in Vienna by December 31st, 1989, his mother knew that it was time to leave. Six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lev and his family board a bus out of the country, headed toward Vienna, where there is only a simple rumor of help for refugees. Read more.
The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan
The Ploughmen, now available through publisher Henry Holt, is the perfect book to read this autumn. Kim Zupan weaves a story that is equal parts discomfiting and beautiful, desolate and richly imagined. Set in the wilds of rural Montana, The Ploughmen follows the complicated relationship between a rookie deputy and the serial killer caged in his jailhouse. The novel explores the essence of friendship and morality. Valentine Millimaki is the cop who searches for those lost in the unyielding wilderness, and lately all he’s been able to find are the dead. It has been too long since he’s rescued someone; the string of those he was unable to help stretches out behind him, following his footsteps. When he’s assigned to the night shift at the jail, he’s already haunted—both by his work and his failing marriage. Read more.
Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and JM Tyree
Out of a set of unique constraints, Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree have written a strange and wonderful little book of fiction. Our Secret Life in the Movies does not follow any obvious narrative path, depending instead on a set of prompts to lead the way. The authors, former university classmates, decided to watch the entire Criterion Collection and write stories based on each film. This slim volume of short fiction is the result, a work of experimental writing that offers mainstream readers cinematic references as ballast.
Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann
Sara Lippmann’s debut collection Doll Palace, out this September from Dock Street Press, is a sparse but intimate portrait of lives unmoored. Set upon by failed pregnancies, lost innocence, a child’s terminal illness, and a pill-popping babysitter, Doll Palace explores characters who are seeking conviction beyond the circumstances of their everyday lives. In “Starter Home” a woman’s new apartment becomes overrun with expensive building construction, and rather than run from the problem she becomes one with it. In “Babydollz” two strippers ponder love over a waxing table. “Jew” artfully contemplates a sick baby, and in “Queen of Hearts” a father feels sympathy for his flawed yet potentially dangerous babysitter.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel Station Eleven recently made the National Book Award’s shortlist for fiction. This ambitious story tackles a post-apocalyptic world in which a super flu has wiped out the majority of the population. Examining themes of celebrity and memory, Mandel explores how our world would change in the face of a major collapse. The book begins with a stage play of King Lear. Arthur Leander is an A-list celebrity who drops dead during the performance, an event that might otherwise dominate a fame-obsessed culture. However, this night marks the beginning of a super-flu outbreak that begins in Toronto and explodes “like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth.”
How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales by Kate Bernheimer
No contemporary author knows more about the fairy tale than Kate Bernheimer. Her scholarship and fiction both work to promote public understanding of this often-misrepresented genre. Bernheimer is a professor at the University of Arizona, and founder of the Fairy Tale Review. She has edited several anthologies of fiction and criticism in which major contemporary authors contemplate and reimagine classic tales. Bernheimer has done more than anyone to give these timeless stories a voice, and to examine the contemporary way we relate to them.
Thrown by Kerry Howley
Kerry Howley’s Thrown is an ecstatic gutshot of literary journalism that has shaken me in more ways than one. At its core, Howley’s debut is a candid profile of two separate mixed martial artists in the Midwest. Though she never explicitly uses the author’s name, Kit is presumably Thrown’s author Kerry Howley, an MFA writer and journalist with bylines in many major publications. Her story begins while at a dreary phenomenology conference, where she sneaks away to explore a Mixed Martial Arts tournament being held in the same hotel. It’s a spectacle that floors and energizes the writer—“I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of this, my own skin”—and propels her to spend the next few years documenting the MMA scene in this masterwork of social investigation.
Women by Chloe Caldwell
Published by Short Drive/Long Flight Books, Women is the thickness of my index finger and nearly the height of my (rather small) hand. It’s not often that I can palm a book like a basketball. But for all its brevity, Chloe Caldwell’s debut novella packs a serious gut-punch. It’s about falling in love with a woman for the first time, about the crisis of identity that comes with it, about female friendship, the female body, and learning to accept yourself. It’s largely about rushing love and crushing heartbreak, but it is also pretty damn funny.
In Case of Emergency by Courtney Moreno
Courtney Moreno’s debut novel is a study in trauma: how we experience and process it, and how it affects our relationships with the world and other people. Piper Gallagher is a 28-year-old rookie EMT, coming to the profession after a bad breakup and a series of dead-end jobs. She just wants to do something with her life, and if that means she gets trained by a badass EMT years younger than her, so be it. As she goes through training, Piper fumbles through taking vitals, filling out paperwork, navigating the streets of South Central L.A., and handling calls regarding chest pain to one man who can only say, “I can’t function.”
Good House by Peyton Marshall
Though it is set at the close of our present century, Peyton Marshall’s debut novel Goodhouse offers a dreary vision of a future that is as much a conceivable alternate history as it is a dystopian nightmare. It’s a morally complex literary thriller closer in pedigree to The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go than the Young Adult series—Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.—that have come to define the genre in the last ten years. Goodhouse takes place eighty-odd years in the future, when America has worked to curb crime through the compulsory genetic testing of boys. It has been discovered that a certain set of biometric markers determine whether a child will be predisposed to criminal thoughts and actions. Boys who test positive are sent to the Goodhouse system, where they are raised as wards of the state in prison-like boarding schools rife with chronic abuse. Read more.
Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson
Eliza Robertson has collected quite a trophy case in her short career–she’s won three national fiction contests in Canada, been a finalist for the Journey Prize and the CBC Short Story Prize, and recently won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her first collection of short stories, Wallflowers, is out on September 16th from Bloomsbury. It’s telling that the book is about three hundred pages and will be released in hardcover: Bloomsbury believes in this new writer, and is willing to put resources behind her. With that in mind, I had high expectations when I began reading Wallflowers. I am pleased to say that I was not disappointed.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
“Does it freak you out, my fucked-up face?”
A shotgun blast destroyed most of Sean Phillips’s face when he was seventeen. In one of my favorite scenes from John Darnielle’s Wolf In White Van, a pair of metalhead teenagers drinking beers in a parking lot have asked to see his reconstructed visage up close. He informs the reader that no one ever asks if they can look; mostly they stare, disgusted, horrified. It doesn’t scare the teen outcasts; they’re fascinated by it, thrilled by the walking gore before them. They high-five him, blowing smoke away from him in deference. “I felt like the sun had just risen inside me.” He has been disfigured in what we come to find out was a botched suicide attempt. Read more.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
There aren’t really adequate words for me to describe how much I love this book. This is the book about feminism and culture that I’ve been waiting years for. And no one can do it quite like Roxane Gay.
I’ll be honest—I’m probably not the most impartial reviewer. I’ve been reading Gay’s work for a while now, on The Rumpus, mostly, but also on Buzzfeed and Jezebel and other sites where her name pops up. I’d search her out because I knew I’d be getting concise, emotive writing and incisive cultural critique. In fact, I’d read some of the essays in this book before, and yet, rereading them in the context of the collection was another experience altogether. In short, I knew I was going to love this book, and it still surpassed my expectations. Read more.
How to Catch a Coyote by Christy Crutchfield
Christy Crutchfield’s How To Catch A Coyote tells the tragic narrative of the Walker family by expertly defying traditional narrative structure. Straightaway, the reader is given the bare bones of the story. Within the first ten pages we learn the principal narrative events, so I don’t think it’s giving away too much to describe them here: Hill Walker drops out of college and marries Maryanne when she gets pregnant with their daughter, Dakota; later, they have a son, Daniel; Hill molests his daughter; Maryanne kicks Hill out; the daughter leaves town; Hill dies from rabies. In the subsequent chapters, meat is added to the bones of this narrative, until it becomes a living, breathing creature.
2AM at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
A nine-year-old girl has lost her mother and wants to be a jazz singer. A club owner discovers he may lose his building, and a fifth grade teacher reunites with her high school love. Over the course of a single day (Christmas Eve Eve), Marie-Helene Bertino guides readers through three lives as they move in concert—toward, with, and among one another—in her stunning debut novel 2 AM at The Cat’s Pajamas.
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
Malcolm Brooks’s debut Painted Horses walks the steady line of genre archetypes without veering into stereotype. It’s an old-fashioned novel, sweeping in scope and probing of character, without leaning on showy language and post-modern literary gimmicks. Sure, you have a somewhat rote plot and a slightly under-written female lead, but the author recreates his Montana of the 1950’s with subtle strokes and warm reverence. This is a love letter to an American West that has all but disappeared.
Also, I hope you like horses, because there are a lot of horses.
Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway
As you may have seen in our recent interview, Arna Bontemps Hemenway doesn’t seem boxed in by the typical constraints of the established writer. That’s probably on account of his newness, but perhaps a bit of it is just rule-exploding ambition. “I wanted to try and get out into that territory that is maybe not dictated by what has become traditional narrative expectation,” he mentioned in our interview. Challenge well met, Hemenway. The stories in Elegy On Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books, 2014), his debut collection, are astonishingly confident.
Naked Me by Christian Winn
Summarized, most of the stories in Christian Winn’s debut collection, Naked Me, seem plainly absurd. In the title story, a man makes a bet that he will have sex with the woman who lives across the street from his illegal poker games—in clear view of his fellow gamblers. In “All Her Famous Dead,” perhaps the best story in the collection, an adrift, melancholy woman who (secretly) shares her mother’s lover mourns the deaths of celebrities whom she has never met. However, these stories aren’t in love with their absurdity. More often than not, they bemoan it.
Friendship by Emily Gould
Female friendships are often complicated and layered. I don’t know a single meaningful female relationship that hasn’t been tested to some degree. It almost feels like a right of passage that every “best friendship” endure at least one fight, flirt with jealousies, and challenge hierarchy in order to asses its foundation. Emily Gould’s debut novel examines the evolution of one such friendship by focusing on Bev Tunney and Amy Schein as they navigate the waters of their early thirties in New York City.
Stay by Zachary Amendt
The collection is focused around San Francisco’s East Bay, and the people who live and love and fight and struggle there. A lot of the stories also include baseball, and while I’m not a huge fan of the sport, I found its inclusion fitting. There’s something about the American mythos that makes baseball very poignant, even if you’ve never set foot in a ballpark, and the sport underpinned the emotionality and themes of the work well. One of the standout stories (other than “Stay”), was “Man of Merritt,” about a widower in a custody battle with his deceased wife’s parents over his daughter, Vida Blue. He eventually kidnaps Vida Blue (named for the ball player), and takes her on a tour of America’s ballparks, dodging APBs to catch one-hitters at Turner Field.
Made to Break by D. Foy
Made to Break is a boozy, fast-paced, tweaked out bingefest. Five friends, already high from days of partying, retire to Dinky’s cabin to celebrate New Year’s Eve and spend time with their friend Lucille, who is leaving their world of fun and recklessness for a corporate position. Her job transition serves as the impetus for the party, but also forces the pack of thirty-somethings to examine group dynamics—and thus themselves—on the eve of inevitable change.
The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
The Awakening of Miss Prim follows, as one might suppose, the story of Miss Prim, a young woman who leaves behind her busy city life to take a job as a librarian in a remote village of France. San Ireneo de Arnois is not like most places, however. It is devoted to the simplicity of life, an enclave of exiles who have fled the bustling outside world in order to live purposefully, surrounded by intellectual discussions, literature, family, and a great many teatimes.
Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri
While studying abroad in college, I had a flatmate who spent hours playing a genre of sports video games that I could never imagine taking off in the States. In these PC and console games, you put together a roster for a football team, and use adjustments and stat tracking to give your squad the best chance of advancing to the finals. To be clear, you don’t play football in these games, you play numbers; you’re the manager or coach, never the player. Finalize your lineup and match results are rendered with the click of a button. You never even see the pitch. Anyone who calls it soccer is less likely to understand this world than the football fanatics whose every waking moment is dedicated to one sport and one sport only. I had that foreign affinity in mind for my read of Papers in the Wind, translated from Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem. Read more.
The Untold by Courtney Collins
Though The Untold is a work of fiction, it is inspired by the life of Jessie Hickman, a circus rider, horse thief, convict, fugitive, and all-around wild woman who hid out in the Australian Outback in the 1920s. This is Australian author Courtney Collins’s debut novel, published as The Burial in Australia in 2012 and also released in Europe. The book has already garnered critical acclaim and been shortlisted for several awards.
The novel opens with an almost unspeakable scene. Jessie’s premature baby describes the morning of its birth and its death, when its mother slits its throat, and buries it. Of course, with an act so horrific, Collins must undo it immediately…
Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu
There are a few things to address right off the bat in regard to Bald New World. Yes, the title is a direct Aldous Huxley reference. Yes, it is a science fiction dystopia. And yes, everyone in the book is bald.
It is, strictly speaking, a book exploring the premise of “What if the whole world suddenly became bald?” and because of that, there’s a certain absurdist vibe that pervades the entire novel. The most influential people are the owners of wig companies and the man who plays Jesus the General on TV. Travel from L.A. to China takes two hours, but getting through customs takes three. Plastic surgery has progressed so far that, for a hundred-million-dollar fee, anyone can look like Marilyn Monroe.
The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik
The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig is enjoying something of a zeitgeist of late. This past week, Other Press published George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, a probing and personal biography that follows the exiled novelist’s journeys from his home in Vienna to a tiny Rio suburb. The book comes only a couple of months after the release of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson’s film, which included the credit, “Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig,” was probably more of a head-scratcher here in America than abroad. Though Zweig was the most translated German author writing during the ascendancy of Nazi Germany (and, hence, the most hated and burned by Nazi brass), he has never achieved an American popularity equal to his worldwide critical acclaim. Read more.
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
It’s no secret here at The Masters Review that we’re big fans of Tin House. So when I received my copy of Us Conductors, the debut novel by Montreal-based writer and music critic Sean Michaels, I had high expectations. Thankfully, this dense, yet lyrical novel, delivered in spades.
Us Conductors follows the path of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the brilliant engineer who invented the theremin. While the book is a work of fiction, Termen and the theremin are not. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing or hearing a theremin (it is no longer a common instrument), you’re missing out on a singular experience. Controlled by electrical current, the musician plays the theremin without touch, controlling pitch and volume with each hand. Listen to an audio clip of the book, here! Read more.
Sweet Dreams by Massimo Gramellini
This week brings another fantastic work in translation. Sweet Dreams, by Italian journalist Massimo Gramellini, is published in the U.S. by Atria Books. The book was the most successful Italian novel of last year, and has now been translated into 20 languages and sold 1.5 million copies. A quietly powerful bestseller, the story follows young Massimo as he grows up and tries to deal with the loss of his mother, whom he lost when he was nine years old.
Massimo’s young life was ideal until his mother, weakened from cancer, died of a heart attack one night after tucking him into bed. After her death, Massimo is sure, with a young boy’s certainty, that she will return. When he finally accepts that she will not, he begins his journey to come to terms with her death—a journey that takes most of his young adult life. Read more.
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor
Kyle Minor’s second book of short stories, Praying Drunk, published to rave reviews earlier this year. It has been well covered, and rightly so, as this heartfelt collection brims with craft and wisdom. I’ll admit this is a tough one for me to review, mostly because Minor undoubtedly knows so much more than I do—about writing, about life, about faith; the way it guides us and tears us apart. This book will slap you in the face with its talent. Kyle Minor is that good.
Praying Drunk begins with this note to the reader: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON’T SKIP AROUND.” (For the record, I don’t know anyone who skips around, but perhaps I need fewer type-A friends.)
A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson; translated by Charlotte Barslund
Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale, published by Other Press, examines the relationship between a father and son, and how legacies are passed down from one generation to the next. This is Bengtsson’s English language debut; however, he has previously written two award-winning novels in Danish. Although American readers are becoming more open to reading translations — perhaps due in part to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, another Scandinavian bestseller — the University of Rochester estimates that only 3% of works published in the US are works in translation. As such, it’s particularly satisfying that Other Press pursued translation rights for this book and introduced the American and Canadian readership to a skillful author who has already gained recognition internationally. Read more.
Together, Apart by Ben Hoffman
Together, Apart, Ben Hoffman’s debut chapbook, is recently out from independent publisher Origami Zoo Press. Hoffman’s manuscript won the press’s first-ever chapbook contest, judged by Matt Bell. As the title suggests, the stories in this collection transition rapidly between different modes of experience. The prose is by turns funny and sad. The narrators are cynical, then kind. The characters are constantly grappling with the difference between their desires and the realities they are presented with. It is in this impossible, transitional space that Hoffman’s stories flourish. I have to admit, I studied with the author at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, so I knew some of these pieces from workshops and readings. But as I read this chapbook it was hard to believe there had ever been other versions of these stories, that they were once edited and whittled. Read more.
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
In Karen Russell’s e-novella Sleep Donation, the inaugural title for Atavist Books, the reader enters a world in which our dreams are no longer private. Insomnia is an epidemic, and no one knows the cause. Every day, more people lose their ability to sleep. Healthy sleepers are asked to literally give their dreams away, to donate them in hours.
Summed up, these events may sound lofty, but in Sleep Donation they are described by narrator Trish bluntly, even clinically. After all, these are the facts of her life. Trish volunteers as a recruiter for the nonprofit Slumber Corps, soliciting people to give to their sleep banks.
The Apartment by Greg Baxter
The premise of The Apartment by Greg Baxter is straightforward. An unnamed American expat searches for an apartment in an unnamed European city. At the book’s start, the narrator leaves his hotel and heads into the city with local friend Saskia, who helps him search for permanent lodging. Over a single day, the book unfolds through the narrator’s stream of consciousness, slowly revealing details from his past. The novel’s themes and events expand from this principle, filling in like the snow that lightly falls throughout this cold and solemn text. The Apartment is successful in painting a portrait of a man struggling with a difficult past through slim and understated discoveries unveiled by his exposition. The book’s greatest success is it subtlety. It is also entirely elegant. I enjoyed every page. Read more.
Archetype by MD Waters
The buzz behind Archetype is not misplaced. I finished this book in a weekend, and I’m fairly sure that’s how most people have read it – fast and somewhat obsessively. With the proliferation of dystopian novels in the market, it’s becoming difficult to find a standout book among the masses. Archetype does that. It’s been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, Before I Go To Sleep, The Matrix, and The Hunger Games, but to me, while it did have echoes of those stories, it seemed more a beast of its own.
M.D. Waters creates a world in which women are commodities to be bought, fertility is controlled by men, surveillance is commonplace, and the resistance strikes in secret.
American Fun by John Beckman
John Beckman’s nonfiction debut, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt (Pantheon, 2014), joins the shelf of recent cultural volumes like Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage or Hip: The History by John Leland that view a weighty historical landscape through the prism of ribaldry and misbehavior. It’s a wildly entertaining work of sociology that pulls in examples from all corners of this country’s young history, from rent parties and teenage rumbles, to snowballs thrown at Redcoats, as well as pranks pulled on multinational corporations.
Know the Night by Maria Mutch
Know the Night is an impressive debut for author Maria Mutch, whose literary memoir maintains that magical balance between lyricism and realism. Occupying the liminal and flexible space of darkness, Mutch’s book takes place between midnight and six a.m., yet spans the years that the author’s son Gabriel was unable to sleep continuously through the night.
Gabriel, whose own story unfolds through the book, begins as a precocious toddler with Down Syndrome. As he grows older, he is also diagnosed with autism, and Mutch describes the experience of multiple-disability parenting with sincerity and honesty. The story is not sugarcoated.
"Beside Myself" by Ashley Farmer
Beside Myself, Ashley Farmer’s debut story collection, is out March 3, 2014 from Tiny Hardcore Press. Farmer’s flash fiction surprises from story to story and from sentence to sentence, constantly asking the reader to re-evaluate impressions formed just a moment before. These stories are often surreal, but sometimes not; some are longer and more narrative; others are just a few sentences and focus on an image or scene. Whatever the case, the collection as a whole appeals to our desire to fantasize. Read more.
"MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction" by Chad Harbach
MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach, is the first book in a new nonfiction series by n+1 and Faber and Faber. In the collection’s title essay, Chad Harbach identifies MFA programs and New York Publishing as the two dominant forces in American fiction. He assigns an aesthetic to each culture: MFA writing is composed of short stories that take after an older, anthologized cannon. MFA writers don’t worry about their book’s profitability because their sole aim is to earn money through teaching. New York writers produce readable, socially relevant novels that aim to sell.
"Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail" by Kelly Luce
Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is a notable debut on two platforms. It is the first short story collection from writer Kelly Luce, whose sensibility and prose rings brilliant on the page. It is also the first book from publisher A Strange Object, co-founded by publishing veterans Callie Collins and Jill Meyers. Luce and her publishers have aligned a lovely and startling collection of short stories that readers will devour. I absolutely did. I fell in love with this book.
"A Field Guide To The North American Family" by Garth Risk Hallberg
Lyrically told and lavishly designed, Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide To The North American Family follows the story of two suburban families through a series of 63 illustrated chapters. This evocative novella presents its brief vignettes as a series of non-linear “field guide entries,” each complete with an abstract photo of whatever small-town indiscretion, teenage experimentation, patriarchal death, etc. is described on the opposite page.
"The Encylopedia of Early Earth" by Isabel Greenberg
To start, this book is beautiful. The first thing you notice when you heft it up (it’s just about as tall as my forearm) is the quality of production: the solid feel, the thick pages, the bold rendering of the lines and colors. Initially its size and luxury make it seem like a coffee table book, something to show off to company. But the story within is far too complex and satisfying to simply flip through.
"The Biology of Luck" by Jacob M. Appel
Jacob M. Appel’s THE BIOLOGY OF LUCK (Elephant Rock Books, 2013) is an inventive and thought-provoking new novel that transcends the simple boy-meets-girl plot. New York City tour guide Larry Bloom is by his own account neither handsome nor wealthy. (That’s if we can trust his word—more on that later.) Yet on the summer day in which this love story is set, he cannot deny his own luck. He is in possession of two items of life-changing potential: an unopened letter from a literary agency about his manuscript, and a confirmed date with his dream woman, an aimless 20-something Brooklynite named Starshine Hart.
"You Are One of Them" by Elliott Holt
You Are One of Them is one of the year’s most highly anticipated novels. Debut author, Elliott Holt was awarded a Pushcart Prize for her short story “Fem Care,” originally published in The Kenyon Review, was runner-up for the PEN Emerging Writers Award, and was one of New York Magazine’s six “literary stars of tomorrow.” Needless to say, when a writer of such promise publishes a novel, the literary world pays attention.
"I Am Holding Your Hand" by Myfawny Collins
I Am Holding Your Hand is a rare treasure. This collection of short stories brought to us by new author Myfanwy Collins is a wonderful example of writing that feels fresh and intoxicating, while maintaining the sensibility of an author who writes like a seasoned pro. Many of the stories in this fine collection were previously published in literary reviews such as The Kenyon Review, PANK, and Flatmancrooked, to name a few. So it’s clear that while Collins is still new to the playing field, she is adept — and has been recognized as such — at short story writing of the highest quality.
"Ablutions" by Patrick deWitt
Ablutions by Patrick deWitt was published in 2010 and is deWitt’s first novel. We chose this From the Vault pick because it’s the perfect book to review at the start of a New Year. Somewhat ironically, the book is filled with characters and situations one would resolve against when picking Resolutions, as this book is as much about addiction and self-loathing as it is a study on effective literary writing.
"The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets" by Kathleen Alcott
Kathleen Alcott’s debut work, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets is stunning, and thrills on a sentence by sentence level. The insight she offers through prose is striking at times, and brilliant, with much more depth and maturity than you’d expect from a first-time novelist. It stands as an excellent example of talented debut writing.
The book examines the complicated relationship between Ida, and two boys she grew up with, brothers, Jackson and James. Ida and Jackson find themselves in various stages of love, as best friends in childhood, and then as tumultuous lovers. However, the premise of the book is more intriguing than simply an examination of complicated relationships.
"Beside the Sea" by Veronique Olmi
Beside the Sea is a haunting and fragmented tale that leaves readers immersed in a web of broken logic and misguided love. It begins with a mother and her two sons on a trip to the sea. “I wanted us to set off totally believing in it,” she says, setting the stage for a story that is doomed from the start. The mother wants to give her sons a happy memory of the ocean, but the trip is poorly planned, filled with gaps, and led by a character who contracts and expands in and out of mental illness.
"The Dog Stars" by Peter Heller
The Dog Stars begins after a super-flu has wiped out nearly all of the world’s population. The novel follows Hig and his dog Jasper, who have taken refuge in a small airport hanger in the mountains, and Bangley, an army-type survivalist who has set up camp with enough weapons and ammunition to stave off bands of wanderers. When Hig and Jasper fly the perimeter of camp in a 1956 Cessna, a world that is both lonely and scenic unfolds. When Hig receives a strange transmission over the plane’s radio, it triggers the possibility of hope, sending Hig on a flight past the point of no return.