Book of the Week: Speak – Louisa Hall

This second novel by Hall arrives with some strong advance endorsements.  It received two starred reviews, the Huffington Post calls it one of “18 Brilliant Books You Won’t Want to Miss This Summer,” the New York Post deems it one of the “Best Novels to Read this Summer,” Kirkus Reviews will do a feature in July and Hall will be interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The most apt praise might come from Emily St. John Mandel, the author of the deservedly lionized Station Eleven:

Speak is that rarest of finds: a novel that doesn’t remind me of any other book I’ve ever read. A complex, nuanced, and beautifully written meditation on language, immortality, the nature of memory, the ethical problems of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human.”

I love her comment not only because it quite economically explains the marvel of this poetic, fantastical meditation on our humanity but because Speak reminds me much of Station Eleven.

The plotting couldn’t be more different. Don’t read this is you need a straightforward narrative; in its organization it owes much more to David Mitchell than St. John Mandel. But I came away from both Speak and Station Eleven feeling that they are a poignant, elegant elegies for the present moment—for the world that is disappearing around us even as we have our heads down pecking on our smart phones and computers. (Guilty here!)

I wholeheartedly recommend this one. Along with all the advance critical praise it also has many bookseller fans and was voted an Indie Next Pick for July.

In the near future, children, mostly girls, become so attached to their babybots—lifelike, speaking dolls—that the bots are banned. After the babybots are gathered up and shipped to the desert, the children start to stutter and then to freeze. One, Gaby, is only able to communicate with MARY3, a cloud-based intelligence thirsty for her story. Through excerpts from a variety of sources, the development of artificial intelligence is revealed, from the diary of a teenage Puritan on a ship to America with her family and new husband to the letters from Alan Turing to his best friend’s mother to the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor who refuses to give his computer program the ability to remember, thus estranging him from his wife. Meanwhile, Stephen Chinn, creator of the babybots, works on his memoir from prison….Speak relies on primary-source documents to tell its story…[and] subtly weaves a thread through a temporally diverse cast of narrators. Like all good robot novels, Speak raises questions about what it means to be human as well as the meaning of giving voice to memory.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Hall’s ambitious second novel reads like a cross between the BBC show Black Mirror and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas… [She] capably weaves the stories to form a beautiful rumination on the nature of memory and the frailty of human relationships….There’s something for everyone in this novel, which moves at a fast pace but goes in depth with each character’s moving struggle to be heard. Recommended for readers of literary fiction, sf, or historical dramas.
Library Journal (starred review)

“While the title of Louisa Hall’s haunting new novel, Speak, declares its thematic intent, what it most powerfully illuminates is the human need for hearing and being heard. Hall alternates between six distinct but loosely connected story lines—spanning from the mid-17th century to the mid-21st century—to devastatingly portray the costs to the individual of not being heard and to society at large of selective, self-interested and exclusionary hearing…. Suffused with dread and loss, Speak is a gripping, deeply compassionate and hope-tinged exploration of the truth that while speaking is innately human, being heard is what connects us to humanity.”
— Matt Nixon, The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

These stories, these people as we meet them seem totally separate, having nothing in common. Why has Hall scrambled them together for us, rationed them out in rotating views of these seemingly random lives? If we stay with them and get to know them, Hall’s themes come to the fore….Hall allows us to suss out the relations between narrators, a few hints here and there, but more often little aha moments as we piece together parts of the puzzle. It’s a story of gain, of loss, of growth, of holding back, of life. Lots of lives. Our lives, too.”
— Allen Murphey, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

“You can tell that Hall is a poet – her story if full of how fragile our lives are… a somber look at our humanity. And in the end, we see the baby bots, now stored in a hanger in the desert, who are slowly ‘dying’ as their power reserves are depleted reflecting that they are the record of so many human stories, of all these characters – ‘They spoke to me and I listened. They are all in me, in the words that I speak, as long as I am still speaking.’ Isn’t this the very essence of books? The gift of humanity that books speak to us every time we open them.”
— Micheal Fraser, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

Speak (9780062391193) by Louisa Hall. $27.99 hardcover. 7/7/15 on sale.

New Fiction: You Don’t Have to Live Like This – Benjamin Markovits

Markovits is an American writer living in England. But make no mistake–this is a distinctly American story, a kind of literary thought experiment about social engineering and—hopefully—reviving a Rust Belt city.

What raises this book up is the way Markovits uses character to animate and drive the story. We recognize the types and he does a good job of enlivening them: the brash, newly rich young Yale grad who decides to buy up a five-mile section of Detroit and offer a crowd-sourced version of “20 acres and a mule”; the mostly white, middle class people who take a chance on starting over in attempt to get a new toe-hold on the American dream; our narrator who is a drifty college pal of the rich guy and looking for a personal reboot; the black school teacher who becomes his girlfriend and the black neighbor who resents the interlopers and their gentrification.

Are the rich guys really using altruism as a front for a Goldman Sachs scheme? Does the President show up in Indian Village to endorse the project and play a little pick-up basketball? Does something go terribly wrong between the old neighbors and the middle class “immigrants”? Yes, yes and yes. But what you’ll remember is the story of individuals—flawed and biased–dealing with issues of race and class that continue to vex our nation.

Markovits was named one of Granta’s 20 Best British Novelists Under 40 a couple of years ago. Expect a USA Today review at on sale, as well as a New York Times Magazine piece.

Set in the years after the 2008 global financial collapse, the novel tells the story of Greg ‘Marny’ Marnier, a 30-something Yale graduate and failed academic who, lacking better alternatives, follows his old classmate, a millionaire entrepreneur named Robert James, to Detroit, where James hopes to a revitalize several down-and-out neighborhoods according to what he calls the ‘Groupon model for gentrification.’….[R]acially charged incidents ensue, culminating in a trial and national media storm that for many readers will call to mind recent events in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and North Charleston, S.C., among others….Markovits writes boldly about some of our era’s most important—and most delicate—subjects.”
Publishers Weekly

“[T]his ‘New Jamestown’ attracts a pell-mell batch of hippies, tea partiers, do-gooders, and folks just eager to live off the grid. But while the effort attracts national attention…the (mostly black) locals tend to see the (mostly white) migrants as an occupying force….[I]t gives nothing away to say that Starting-From-Scratch-in-America doesn’t quite work out as planned, and the novel echoes Marny’s disappointment that a community with a clean slate couldn’t shrug off its old baggage about economics and race….Markovits gamely works to make this a realistic and nuanced portrait of modern-day Detroit while keeping the plot moving with some humor and romance, and he’s careful not to make the city’s problems simplistically black and white….”
Kirkus Reviews

“A very smart book, with vividly drawn characters and densely woven themes.”
Telegraph (London)

You Don’t Have to Live Like This (9780062376602) by Benjamin Markovits. $27.99 hardcover. 7/7/15 on sale.

New Paperback Fiction: Love and Other Wounds – Jordan Harper

Booksellers gave me a name for the kind of muscular, brutal, beautiful stories that make up this collection: “dirty realism.” (Thank you, Joseph-Beth, Cincinnati!) When I picked this collection up, I thought I’d just dip in and read one story to get a feel for the writing. I ended up tearing through the whole collection in one sitting. The ultimate effect was a little like binge-watching Breaking Bad–you end up feeling jumpy, electrified and wondering if there can be too much of good thing. :-)

Author Jordan Harper is a screenwriter and indeed these stories have a cinematic intensity. These crime stories are both pulpy and literary; you’ll recognize the losers, the sad sacks and the violence. What you might not recognize is seeing so profoundly into these guys’ hearts. Rumor is we’ve got a novel coming from him in 2017. Can’t wait.

What sets Harper apart is his ability to deliver genuine literary epiphanies…Harper delivers tension, action, black humor, sex, and violence-but, above all, characters we quickly know, understand, and still remember even after their brains have painted the walls.”
Booklist

“Each one of the stories in Harper’s slim debut collection goes off like a shotgun blast of crime fiction tropes: convicts, skinheads, meth mouths, dog fights, crooked cops, barflies, and botched robberies. Doomed men and desperate women paint themselves into increasingly tight corners, where the only choice left is to come out shooting, like a hillbilly Butch Cassidy…. the entire collection is a tight, tough parcel of pulpy, high-octane tales.”
— Publishers Weekly

 Raw, gritty, and unsettling, the stories in Harper’s debut collection feature tough lives lived mostly on the edge, from John, running through bullets and high-desert wildfire from his own freshly dug grave; to Mark, cut down in a firefight with the cops after robbing a gas station; to Palmer, determined to save Lucy, severely injured in a dog-fighting ring. VERDICT: As he runs, John’s mouth ‘felt full of hot pennies,’ and every story here is a hot penny worth much more. For fans of Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, and Bruce Machart.”
 — Library Journal

“Criminals, lowlifes, and losers—many of them also quixotic romantics—people Harper’s first collection of short stories, which are set mostly in the Ozarks with side trips to cities like Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Detroit. In the opener, ‘Agua Dulce,’ a meth addict’s debt comes due and he realizes how far he’ll go to protect his child from his merciless dealer and his cronies in Aryan Steel, a group that makes the Aryan Nation look mild. Ironically, in a later story, ‘Heart Check,’ a new prison inmate and Steel wannabe, recently convicted of killing a child, discovers that he may have misunderstood the Steel code. But in none of these stories is the moral code exactly mainstream….Bottom-line survival competes hard against issues of loyalty, friendship, and family….”
Kirkus Reviews

 “Wow. I just know whatever I say cannot amount to the poignancy and pulp that Harper injects into his stories. I can’t give proper justice to the characters whose lives, while bordering on hyper-reality, are intimately relatable. His choice of subjects (which usually operate on the periphery of society) only contributes to the general gritty tone of the collection. The wonderful language paired with the ultra-violent segments of the book can make you grit your teeth, and when I grit mine I could swear I felt a grain of sand.”
— Patrick Burchett, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

Love and Other Wounds (9780062394385) Jordan Harper. $15.99 trade paper original. 7/7/15 on sale.

New Fiction: The Small Backs of Children – Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch is out there, up to something. Her previous books, The Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase were praised by authors as diverse as Chuck Palahniuk, David Shields, Andrei Codrescu, and Cheryl Strayed. Rebecca Solnit (author of Men Explain Things to Me and other smart, cool books) said of Yuknavitch:

All my youth I gloried in the wild, exulting, rollercoaster prose style and questing narratives of writers like Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac, but cringed at the misogyny; couldn’t we have the former without the latter? It turns out we can, because: Lidia Yuknavitch. Buckle your seat belts; it’s gonna be a wild feminist ride.”

This new novel hangs a heady meditation on war, sex, love and art on the framework of propulsive, subversive, suspenseful plot. It’s not for the faint hearted and it’s not for folks who insist on a traditional narrative. But if you want to read an original American voice, this will wake you up.

Reviews at on sale are already scheduled for the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Vanity Fair.

“If you want a novel that’s going to swallow you alive this summer, turn to Lidia Yuknavitch, whose The Backs of Small Children is the kind of book that goes straight for your heart and your mind. Fearlessly, Yuknavitch takes you to war-torn Eastern Europe to ponder ideas of love, loss, and identity you’ll keep thinking about well after the brief novel is done. This one’s important.
Bustle

Gorgeous, scary, and a breathtaking rush to read, this book is less a meditation than a provocation on the power and dangers of art.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“In this daring novel, Yuknavitch takes a provocative look at…a group of emotionally scarred artists who want to save one of their own. Written in the voices of characters without first names—photographer, writer, poet, performance artist, playwright, filmmaker, and painter—the novel begins in modern Eastern Europe…where a photojournalist captures an award-winning shot: a young girl running from her exploding home….Meanwhile, an American writer who is friends with the photographer, is hospitalized with severe depression. The writer’s best friend, a poet, believes she can help the writer; she enters the war zone to bring the orphaned girl to the United States. Yuknavitch’s novel is disturbing and challenging, but undoubtedly leaves its mark.”
Publishers Weekly

“Yuknavitch made an impression with her transgressive memoir The Chronology of Water, and her new novel features similar plot points and themes….Yuknavitch is a gifted writer whose dizzying passages are often as compelling as they are grotesque. But it’s not a pretty story, and the novel’s affected musings on the nature of art, gratuitous sexual excesses, and casual violence may overpower the grace of its words for some readers. Patricia Highsmith by way of Kathy Acker in a highbrow thriller that says as much about its writer as its story.
Kirkus Reviews

“[An example] of thrilling storytelling with universal appeal.”
Entertainment Weekly

The Small Backs of Children (9780062383242) by Lidia Yuknavitch. 7/7/15 on sale. $24.99 hardcover.

July 2015 Indie Next Picks

Here are Harper’s July 2015 picks. A complete listing of all titles can be found here.

  • Love May Fail (9780062285560) by Matthew Quick. $25.99 hardcover. 6/16/15 on sale.
  •  Speak (9780062391193) by Louisa Hall. $27.99 hardcover. 7/7/15 on sale.

Now In Paperback

  • The Care and Management of Lies (9780062220516) by Jacqueline Winspear. $15.99 trade paper. 6/30/15 on sale.
  • How to Build a Girl (9780062335982) by Caitlin Moran. $15.99 trade paper. 6/30/15 on sale.
  • Us (9780062365590) by David Nicholls. $15.99 trade paper. 6/30/15 on sale.

 

Book of the Week: The Festival of Insignificance – Milan Kundera

This is a modern master’s first novel in over twelve years—and at 85 perhaps his last. The editor comments that this brief, witty story summarizes all his major themes and is “the culmination of a life’s work.” Along with great advance reviews, we can expect widespread review coverage at on sale.

“Forgotten tyrants and blatant belly buttons have equally playful roles in this deceptively slight, whimsically thoughtful tale of a few men in Paris…This strangely amusing novella has the power to inspire serious efforts to find significance in the very book in which it is so perversely denied.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Stylistically and thematically, it’s classic Kundera: polyphonic, digressive, intellectual yet anti-philosophical, deliberately strange, and aggressively light. And his descriptions are as beautiful as ever.”
Booklist

After over a decade away from writing novels, Kundera returns with this slight lark about four laissez-faire Parisians. In the tradition of existential comedies, the drama is in the dialogue….Similar to Kundera’s previous novels, the book uses levity and humor to comprehend the lasting effects of horrors perpetrated during World War II, though it’s set in the present….The four friends’ conversations are frivolous yet weighty, leaping from idle musings to grandiose declarations—from the sexual worth of a woman’s navel to the nature of motherhood, from Schopenhauer’s relationship to Kant to Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe. This novel is a fitting bookend to Kundera’s long career intersecting the absurd and the moral. It is also an argument for more books like it.”
Publishers Weekly

“I just read Kundera’s little gem of a book in one sitting.  Fell into it, really…. I sat here, thinking, ‘Is Kundera brilliant because he’s comical about that which is serious, or is he brilliant because he’s serious about the deeply comical?’ Then I realized it didn’t matter at all.  Kundera appeals to us to love the insignificant.  Kundera loves it all, and I love him.”
–Karen Tallant, The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

The Festival of Insignificance (9780062356895) by Milan Kundera. $23.99 hardcover. 6/23/15 on sale

Publicity: A Land More Kind Than Home – Wiley Cash

This lovely Indie favorite is Costco’s Pennie’s Pick for June. She writes: “Told in three distinct voices, A Land More Kind Than Home blends suspense, family drama and small-town dynamics into an example of powerful storytelling at its finest.” It may raise the book’s profile across the board so please check stock. This literary suspense was a NYT Notable Book and is a backlist keeper.

Original review coverage:

“Cash adeptly captures the rhythms of Appalachian speech, narrating his atmospheric novel in the voices of three characters . . . The story has elements of a thriller, but Cash is ultimately interested in how unscrupulous individuals can bend decent people to their own dark ends.”
– Washington Post

“Good old-fashioned storytelling. Cash has a solid talent for the oft-neglected arts of tragedy and suspense, mixed with just enough modern pathos to make his writing literary without being pretentious. An auspicious start for a first novelist. . . . With murder, religion, infidelity, domestic abuse, guns, whiskey and snake handling, Land is rich in unstable relationships and beautiful tragedy.”
– Ploughshares

A Land More Kind Than Home (9780062088239) by Wiley Cash. $14.99 trade paperback. Available now.