Harper’s Best Indie Novels for January 2014: The Kept and The Wind is Like a River

I’m sure some of you who follow along regularly think I fell off the face of the Earth. Rather, publishing slowed down in December to allow booksellers to sell all the fabulous Fall titles they had. But now we’re gearing up again and we’ve got an amazing slate of books going on sale January 7th. This series of posts is my take on what I think Indie booksellers will want to be promoting when they put books out this week.

So let’s start with two January Indie Next and Library Reads picks:

This is one of my very favorite novels of the New Year—likewise of the Indie booksellers who chose it for Winter 2014 “Indies Introduce: New Voices.” I already wrote about this remarkable novel back in November. You can catch that post here. Now I’ll offer some of the terrific advance praise the book has received. Booksellers who are attending ABA’s Winter Institute later this month will have a chance to meet James Scott. And the book will be reviewed in the NYTBR at the end of the month.

Scott’s accomplished debut—a dark, brooding tale set in upstate New York in the late 19th century—follows a compulsive midwife who must deal with the tragic consequences of her actions in order to form a family…. [S]teeped in Elspeth’s need for revenge and Caleb’s search for his true lineage… Scott has produced a work of historical fiction that is both atmospheric and memorable, suffused with dread and suspense right up to the last page.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Scott is both compassionate moralist and master storyteller in this outstanding debut.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“The relentless, bleak, cold weather that is pervasive in James Scott’s intense and gripping debut novel, The Kept enhanced and underscored the vigilance and heightened sensory awareness that Caleb and his mother Elsbeth, maintain as they set off to revenge the slaughter of their family…. Elsbeth, a midwife, harbors dark secrets. Caleb, after witnessing the massacre of his deeply religious father and four siblings, possesses determination and grit that belies his youth. They are each unforgettable and together seem invincible. The power of James Scott’s prose and characters and the addictive narrative kept me riveted from page one to the final, explosive scene.”
— Cathy Langer, Buyer, The Tattered Cover Book Store

“With its vivid sense of time and place, lyrical writing, and complex questions of what constitutes a family, The Kept is an outstanding debut by a bright new voice in American fiction.”
—  Ron Rash

The Kept (9780062236739) by James Scott. 25.99 hardcover. 1/7/14 on sale.


Payton’s previous book, Shadow of the Bear, was an NPR Pearl’s Pick by librarian Nancy Pearl and won the 2006 U.S. National Outdoor Book Awards Book of the Year. While that book was nonfiction, it prefigures the handling of place and of the wilderness in this superb novel.

Both a tense, vivid historical novel as well as an epic story of lovers separated by war, I’ll invoke Ron Rash again who praised the novel saying: “The Wind Is Not a River has a power that brings to mind the old Greek stories of war, love, and journey.”

This is the first I had read of the secret front in WWII—the invasion by Japan of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. The American government was at great pains to keep this front quiet and in this story journalist John Easley is determined to get the word out. His plane crashes on a Japanese occupied island and Payton’s account of Easley hiding on the island evading the Japanese is riveting and gorgeously written.

The other narrative thread of the book follows Easley’s wife and the war back home. We see the war through the eyes of civilians and displaced Aleutian natives. I’ll add that the ending of this book is one of the most fully-felt I’ve read in a long time. Those of you who know me know that I’m almost often disappointed by the endings of novels. This one nails it though. From start to finish, you’ll be rewarded by this read.

Part adventure tale, part love story, this beautifully written novel offers a moving portrait of a couple whose lives are forever changed by the only battle of WWII to take place on American soil…[J]ournalist John Easley feels an obligation to report on the war and talks himself onto a plane doing a bombing run over the Aleutian Islands. When the plane is shot down on Attu, he finds himself in a fight for his life as he battles hunger and the cold while hiding out from Japanese soldiers, who have shipped the natives off to internment camps and taken over the island…. Payton, in the loveliest of prose, illuminates a little-known aspect of WWII while portraying a devoted couple who bravely face down the isolation, pain, and sacrifice of wartime.”

“[A] suspenseful, beautifully researched title that readers will want to devour in one sitting. As a nearly lifelong inhabitant of Alaska and having spent three years on Adak in the Aleutians, this reviewer was particularly gratified by the accuracy of the author’s portrayal of the land and people of the ‘birthplace of the winds.’ Bravo!”
Library Journal (starred review)

We’re already expecting reviews in USA Today, The Chicago Tribune and The Seattle Times, with more to come.

The Wind is Not a River (9780062279972) by Brian Payton. 26.99 hardcover. 1/7/14 on sale.

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