Lie to Me by J.T. Ellison

Store favorite J.T. Ellison, whose thrillers typically take place in Nashville, is back with another venture into domestic noir. Last year’s No One Knows, about a young woman coping with the apparent death of her husband after he disappears at the Opryland Hotel, was somewhat of a departure for Ellison, since her books are usually part of a series. It was a heck of a read and Lie to Me is, too.

Ethan and Sutton Montclair are writers living in a gorgeous home in downtown Franklin, TN, when Sutton suddenly disappears. She leaves a short note and practically everything else, leaving behind her phone, laptop, and identification. Ethan is left reeling. Should he call the police? Or will they just assume he’s to blame for Sutton’s disappearance? Did Sutton hurt herself? Or is she getting back at him for what appears to a plethora of marital disputes?

Ellison brings in a strong female detective, the kind of character she’s great at writing, and a web of uncomfortable facts, half-truths, and all-out lies. Just like all her previous books, once you get about a third of the way in, you’ll have to finish immediately. So, clear your schedule and enjoy the ride.

Available as a digital audiobook here.

 

Fen by Daisy Johnson

Fen, a debut short story collection by Daisy Johnson, is captivating. While the characters and stories are not formally connected, meaning the characters from one story don’t know the characters from another, they are all set in the marshy Fenland region of eastern England. The local pub, the Fox and Hound, is visited by characters in more than one story and is the not-so-metaphorical watering hole of the weird and wild people who populate these stories.

There is a mystical quality to these stories, which feel almost like they could be lost tales of the Brothers Grimm. There’s a connectedness to nature which makes the characters fluid–maybe a boy is really a fox, maybe a girl can become an eel–and reminds me of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child and To the Bright Edge of the World. Johnson shows the raw and confusing emotions that are a natural part of adolescence and early adulthood. I can almost imagine a couple of these stories as surreal (or perhaps it’s magical realism?) retellings of 90’s standard girl reading material, as if Sweet Valley High or the Babysitter’s Club were full of girls yearning to be women…who just happened to do so by eating the men they date or  having an affair with a sentient house. If I’ve made these stories sound strange, it’s because they are, but rarely have I seen the pain of growing up explained so truthfully.

Exes by Max Winter

Exes is a debut novel told in inter-connected stories all (mostly) set in Providence, RI. The first story introduces us to Clay Blackall, a man who is emotionally lost and directionless, seemingly unable to cope with the death of his brother. Each story has a new narrator, but in between these stories are sections that read like footnotes but are actually Clay’s reaction to the other characters’ stories.

The people who make up Clay’s Providence are artists, Quakers, ex-cons, and mediocre husbands. Each voice is distinct, from Cliff Hinson, an amiable squatter, to Hank LaChance, a recently widowed former hockey player. Winter’s characters each have an undeniable sense of self, which is crucial to making their woven-together stories work. They’re like real people living in a city they feel is still a small town, seeing the same people over and over and gradually becoming each other’s backstory. One story is written as a commencement speech, in which Jake, a character already referenced in several other stories, outlines the way people have come and gone from their school. In it, he is speaking to his classmates and their families, knowing they know everyone he mentions and that they remember the changes the town has undergone. In effect, all the stories work in a similar fashion: when you see the same people your whole life, your stories blend together and you develop a storytelling shorthand because your audience already knows so much of what you want to say. What works so successfully in this novel of multiple narrators is that some of them embrace that shorthand and others ache to be free of it.

Winter’s prose is darkly funny and full of observational asides (see Mark Slepkow’s comments on egg commercials in “Jubilee”). The novel is a moving portrait of grief, from a brother trying to pull together all the pieces of his dead loved one’s life, and of what it means to be part of a community, whether you like it or not.

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

The Redemption of Galen Pike is a collection of flawless short stories and flash fiction. Setting, character, and plot are of such a variety that the strongest similarity between the stories is that each is more surprising than the last. Davies deftly turns every situation, and the world, on its side.

In surprisingly few pages, Davies creates whole worlds, one story after the next. The titular story is not only about the vile Galen Pike, but also shows the residents of a small town striving for civic improvements in spite of the indifference of local officials. One story tells of both the lives of a New York family and the personal history if their immigrant nanny. Another story, revolving around a body washed up on the beach, unveils a shocking reality, a world unseen at the story’s onset. In fact, that is the uniting characteristic of all these stories: each one contains a twist, a surprise that leaves the reader shocked and puzzled, often to the degree that you may find yourself re-reading the story to find clues. The twist is never cheap though, never tacky, and the stories themselves are not misleading. Instead, each story unfailingly finds the heart of the matter and strips it bare.

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

One of the Boys is a heartbreaking debut novel about two boys and their father, starting a new life in Albuquerque. At first, I thought maybe, just maybe, it was a good thing these boys were no longer with their mother, whom they all claim to hate. Their father, a dreamer (narcissist?), says they’ll have a wonderful life, that he’ll be a kid again if they can get a fresh start.

Once in New Mexico, each of the boys misses school to help their father with work. The twelve-year-old narrator describes his father’s insistence, how much he needs their help, with compassion and understanding. Sometimes things can’t be helped. Soon, however, their father’s adamant respect for privacy leaves the boys parent-less when he holes up in his room for days on end. They weather the storms of their father’s drug addiction, but then he becomes violent. The boys question their loyalty to their father and mother, but never each other.

What could be a depressing story of abuse is instead hopeful. In the absence of parents, the boys rely on each other, creating an undeniable resiliency and a strong bond. The narration, from the point of view of a seventh grader, is believable and effortless. This book will captivate you and you won’t regret it.

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

Memoirs as graphic novels, such as Persepolis, Fun Home, or the March trilogy, is a genre I find fascinating and Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is definitely in keeping with that trend. This is a book that is beautiful both in story and appearance. Bui’s illustrations are in muted tones of black, white, and clay red, with gorgeous, delicate line work.

Bui’s story is a blend of her life and the history of her parents growing up in Viet Nam and ultimately fleeing it. She ruminates on her family’s lack of roots, which seems best summed up by a scene in which her family has gone back to visit their old home and find the street so changed they can’t identify which house was theirs.

Ultimately, Bui, as a new mother, is contemplating what things are passed from one generation to the next. Her father’s separation from his mother as a young child and his emotional distance from Bui herself during her childhood effect how she will mother her own son. Her mother’s lost children and her long hours at work as the family’s financial provider also play a part in the connection Bui is forging with her baby. She explores what it means to be lonely and the long-term, generational effects of emigration. Her conclusion is, in fact, not conclusive, but a thoughtful look at the life of an immigrant family.