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In a small town it’s normal for everyone to get in your business—for the community to know about the women that run around, the men that abuse, the spoiled kids with their sense of entitlement, and the loners who belong to nobody. Set in Roma, Kentucky, The Next Time You See Me (Touchstone Books) by Holly Godard Jones is a literary thriller that links a variety of perspectives into a complicated web of deceit and lies that replace hope and peace with bittersweet longings for what might have been. But buried in there is a lesson about perseverance, a glimmer of optimism, and the eternal complications that are the duality of man. This is the mirror that Holly Goddard Jones holds up, as we bear witness to these defining moments of destruction, as well as revelation.

978-0-9836932-6-0-Stupid-Children-cover-low-Emergency-Press-214x300The first thing I did after finishing Lenore Zion’s Stupid Children was get in the shower, and the second thing I did was cry.  Like Zion’s first book, the collection My Dead Pets Are Interesting (published by TNB Books), Stupid Children is atypical in nearly every sense, but these eccentricities work in its favor, and work only because Zion is such a capable writer, rendering Stupid Children with a refreshing brutality, in both subject matter and also in her merciless scrutiny of the novel’s diverse cast of characters. Though brief, the book demands time and attention, triggering far more thought than its 150-page count will lead any reader to expect. I laughed to the point of pain on multiple occasions, and to get the tears out, which before Stupid Children, and Lenore Zion, I hadn’t thought possible.

imagesAmity Gaige’s third novel deals with a singular character the reader cares about not because he is likeable, but because Gaige depicts him in a clear-eyed, non-judgmental, ultimately believable way.

Schroder is written as a long letter or apologia by the title character to his estranged wife, an attempt to explain why he failed to return their daughter Meadow following the brief scheduled visit that is part of their custody agreement, and instead was gone for almost a week.

“What follows,” the book’s first sentence says, “is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.”

In order for a collection of short stories to work, the reader must be pulled into the narratives and settings as quickly and thoroughly as possible. In Vampire Conditions, a slim volume of grotesque stories by Brian Allen Carr, the immersion and compassion is palpable from each opening sentence. We are past the tipping point, along for the ride, and the destinations are always unexpected. These are cautionary tales bound with bruised human flesh, taut and cracking from the tension.

Now our unraveling for evenings and the columns of the replicating bell, a cord of child milk rising in pink glisten for the city lamp and making every person see themselves before themselves with tubes removed, the index of the body bopped with big sheathes of silver foiling, catching words where there were words, though there were very few…”

I panicked at the opening pages of Sky Saw (Tyrant Books / Dec. 2012), which are filled with this dense, complicated language, fearing Blake Butler would hold me hostage for the novel’s duration in a swamp of unclarified narrative, a poetic mire that, while beautiful in its bruising, wouldn’t lead me forward through a story. But then Sky Saw opened like the mold-blooms of his previous works, and there was a narrative to wrap my eyes around, and the book held me captive in a completely different way.

There is something equally freeing and unsettling about the wide-open desert—the horizon stretching out forever is both unattainable and inspiring. In Battleborn, a collection of stories by Claire Vaye Watkins, we get to explore all aspects of Nevada, from the sad allure of a brothel to nights out in Vegas that can only lead to trouble, told in an honest and yet lyrical voice. We bear witness to those moments in time beyond which there is no return. And what comes after this tipping point—that is our salvation.

Despite its predictably wonderful prose, Woes of the True Policeman will appear to those who haven’t read Bolaño’s masterwork 2666, little more than a mandala of elusive meaning, full of tenuous circularity; for those who have, Woes will seem almost an appendage or afterthought, a series of auxiliary meditations for that huge novel, and thus well worth reading. Characters we’ve encountered in the earlier book make an appearance here, including exiled Chilean professor Amalfitano, whom we last encountered in Santa Teresa, hub of the murderous universe, the dead-end of logic and the heart of darkness, scene of a seemingly endless series of murders of young girls, their bodies unearthed on an almost daily basis, living with his daughter Rosa.

EJ Levy’s new story collection, Love, In Theory, is a powerful array of contradictions: sensuous yet wry, bruising yet brainy, perfectly precise yet voluptuously messy. Her characters inhabit not-so-ivory towers of academia and hospital hallways; they chase after lovers they’re lucky to be rid of and fuck up happy homes; they laugh at themselves and they love without hope. Everyday actions—flirting with a salesman at a camping store, shaking hands with a partner’s co-worker—pitch them into moments of existential crisis that Levy describes in prose that fuses the muscular density of Mary Gaitskill’s best work with the sardonic buoyancy of Lorrie Moore.

Salman Rushdie talks about a history professor at Oxford who told him, “You must never write history until you can hear the people speak.” That’s as true – if not more true – for fiction.  I abandoned a novel ms not too long ago because, though I could see the character the novel was to be about, and the place it was to be set, I never did hear her.  And the novel wasn’t write-able without the sound of her voice.

The sound of the characters’ speech should be inevitable: exactly right.  So should the setting, the created world of the fiction.  This doesn’t require pages of exposition – which is deadly.  It requires well chosen, specific details.  Mary Costello’s first short story collection, The China Factory, is full of these – the kind of details that illuminate place, character, relationship in a very few strokes.  Her writing is clean and spare and very good.

“I went through a stage where I would walk into whatever room my father was in and turn the lights off. I never told anybody why, but I was trying to make him disappear.”

Michael Kimball’s father is dead, and so is Daniel Todd Carrier’s. Big Ray, Kimball’s fourth novel, uses hundreds of brief entries to artfully and empathetically explore the loss of a father—in particular, one who wasn’t very good; one who was, in fact, appalling. Begun as a memoir, Kimball turned it towards fiction because he wanted “more control over how it was told, a fiction writer’s prerogative,” and the result is a story clearly set in the truth of a writer who lived this relationship in all of its ugly, dark recesses. Hinged on the border between love and hate, between redemption and condemnation, Big Ray is a tremendously beautiful novel that tackles death and obesity and child abuse and forgiveness from a strikingly new perspective.

Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, At-risk (University of Georgia Press) by Amina Gautier is a heartbreaking, eye opening, and endearing collection of stories that focus on African-American children in turmoil. Fathers leave, or if they stay, fall apart—addictions and failure all around them. Mothers ignore, or distance themselves, pushing their own agendas. Brothers and sisters either die in the street or get out by whatever means is necessary. And somewhere in the shadows of these events sit the boys and girls who try to make sense of it all—and try to survive it, unscarred.

Not long ago, Burrow Press released a daring collection titled 15 Views of Orlando, a flash novella written, edited, and published by a team of local Orlandoans. Hardly a cluttered mash of contributions, this compilation consists of intertwined vignettes, which vary in perspective and flair. More than just a writing prompt, editor Nathan Holic challenged the status quo of literary form and function by requiring fifteen writers to submit a story set in Orlando, keep it under 1000 words, and turn it over for review in a single week.

As its title suggests, May We Shed These Human Bodies (Curbside Splendor) by Amber Sparks is a collection of stories that is grounded in reality, but often has a hint of the surreal, the supernatural, woven into its fabric. The power in these stories comes from the awareness that a life is at a tipping point, and the assignment of emotional weight to everyday events we typically ignore. Just out of sight, behind the curtain, in the shadows, strange things are happening—dark moments that echo our secrets and lies.

Don’t let the egg on the cover fool you—it’s riddled with cracks. Nine Months (Soho Press) by Paula Bomer is the opposite of every clichéd story about mothers, birth, children, marriage and identity. It is the raw, honest and brutal story of Sonia, a mother pregnant with her third child, and unhappy with every aspect of her life. She used to be a painter, she used to run wild and free, sleeping with whomever she wanted to, living for herself. Faced with the birth of her third child, she abandons her husband, Dick, and her two boys, and hits the highway, searching for something, open to whatever comes her way.

We drove across Colorado, Utah, a touch of Nevada, and Arizona. I brought several books with me to read on our road-trip to southern California—Blake Butler’s Nothing, Amelia Gray’s Threats, Anne-Marie Kinney’s Radio Iris, and Eileen Myles’s Snowflake / Different Streetsand though I was anxious for each of these new titles, for whatever reason, I started with Myles, reading Snowflake / Different Streets in the morning fog and afternoon sun of Santa Ana. From there, everything unraveled.