As I did with non-fiction, here are the fiction books I read this year that I loved.
The Shadow Year – Jeffrey Ford
From my review:
The aspect of this novel that struck me the hardest was the strength of the narrator’s voice. Ford does an excellent job framing the story through the eyes of an adult man remembering the events. From the first pages, events flow in a dreamlike and hazy fashion. There are not many places where the author lingers in detail. Instead, we get the broad brushstrokes of childhood memory. Even better, the fantastic elements of the story are met with little fanfare by the children. They live at a point in their lives where monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural things are just as real and mysterious to them as the complicated relationships of their parents and the struggles of school.
The Beauty – Aliya Whiteley
The Beauty explores a world infected by a fungal infection, much like The Last of Us. However, this novella is much less about the brutality of survival than the quiet end of one way of life and beginnings of something new. The infection has killed all the women so the men that remain, old and young, live to wait for the moment when humanity is extinct. Strange mushrooms grow from the graves of their wives and mothers and then from them emerge beings that look like their loved one but are a hybrid with the fungus. These men had been resigned for so long to the idea of dying that they don’t know how to handle the chance at continuing. Some of them are unable to handle the hope being handed to them and go to desperate extremes to continue down a path of oblivion. This novella is a quick read but carries heavy themes and ideas that will linger in your mind for a long time.
Florida – Lauren Groff
This collection of stories is one of three books set in Florida that made this list. This was also the year I went on vacation to Florida for the first time in over a decade. I’m not sure why this state kept making itself present in my life, but Groff has given us eleven stories all set in the Sunshine State and focused mostly around women lost in a sea of malaise and restlessness. A woman is being visited by phantoms of the men who have passed through her life while a hurricane builds and rages outside in “Eyewall.” “Ghosts and Empties” comes from the point of view of a woman who may or may not be dead and how she feels a growing distance from her family. Could they be moving on after her passing? “Dogs Go Wolf” has lingered with me the most, a story of two sisters left behind at an island cabin by a mother with serious issues. They view any visitors, possible rescuers, as a threat, instead, they follow the warnings of their mother to avoid any strangers while she is gone.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? – Raymond Carver
Carver is one of the great American masters of the short story. I’d read his stories before in a retrospective collection but wanted to go back to his first work, the one that introduced him to the world. It is stunning how confident he emerged in his first book, but makes sense when you realize he’d been plugging away at the craft for decades prior. Each story allows us to step into the moment of a character’s life, characters who feel very real in environments that are deeply lived in. “Collectors” highlights the lonely patheticism of a door to door vacuum salesman becoming more and more desperate. “They’re Not Your Husband” sees a man overcome with a mix of jealousy and inadequacy as customers make fun of his overweight waitress wife. “What’s In Alaska?” follows a couple having dinner with friends as one of the husbands announces his new job in the 49th state and how it seems as though this opportunity will fall away as many in the past already have.
Elect Mr. Robinson For a Better World – Donald Antrim
This intensely dark novella is yet another trip to Florida where society has crumbled in the outside world however residents are holding onto to some normality. This normality included rockets mounted on people’s roofs and guerilla warfare in a local park. Everyone is just trucking along with a positive attitude, especially Mr. Robinson, a school teacher who wants to open an education center in his home. The former school is now a factory for constructing mystical animal talismans. Robinson has ulterior motives about the school, scheming to make himself a candidate for mayor (the last one was blown up). Antrim’s nonstop story comes to a shocking and macabre conclusion that will recontextualize the entire novella when you are done.
Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre
From my review:
The most striking aspect of the story is how quickly the town affixes itself to the fame that comes its way in the wake of the school shooting. There is a brief period of mourning which becomes a constant hate-on for Vernon and a gleeful celebration of the media attention Martirio receives. Much is made about the economic opportunities the media circus will bring, and when things appear not to be headed towards the conclusion the media anticipates, the townspeople become angry that Vernon is not playing along with the conventional narrative.
The Grip of It – Jac Jemec
From my review:
This is not violent or graphic horror, it’s all mood building, establishing a creepy, eerie atmosphere. I was reminded of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy in the way that it doesn’t deliver piles of answers but is content in letting its characters explore this space and for the readers to sink further in a mysterious living horror. This is also a surreal story that isn’t taking place in a rational universe, and these people are not in full control of their faculties. The energy of the house has almost intoxicated them. So when you wonder why they don’t just leave as a rational person would, this couple is not in their right minds.
Things We Lost in the Fire – Mariana Enriquez, trans. Megan McDowell
This Argentinian short story collection sort of came out of nowhere for me. I didn’t know these were horror stories, I’d heard more of a magic realism angle in reviews, but these are straight up horror. An unhappy young wife dealing with the prejudices of her husband while on a road trip is how “The Inn” begins but then becomes something much more sinister. “The Neighbor’s Courtyard”’s narrator has moved into a new home and believes an unseen cat is being mistreated and trapped next door, but there is something worse happening. My favorite of the collection is “Under the Black Water” that takes some heavy horror turns and approaches the same level of cosmic horror as Lovecraftian literature.
The Sellout – Paul Beatty
The narrator of the Sellout, an unnamed man only known as Bonbon is being brought before the Supreme Court in the opening of this raucous satire on “post-racial America”. Bonbon grew up in Dickens, California, an agrarian African-American community that gets removed from the maps. This causes the crime rate to soar as the Dickensians lose their sense of identity as a community. Bonbon’s solution is to stealthily introduce elements of segregation into the small town so that they will feel united again. Throw in a former Little Rascal named Hominy Jenkins, the wealthy black intellectual Foy Cheshire, and the requited love of municipal bus driver Marpessa Dawson and you have a comedic novel that makes Dave Chappelle look family friendly.
The Cabin at the End of the World – Paul Tremblay
From my review:
The premise is very familiar: a home invasion of a vulnerable family. I immediately recalled films like Funny Games and The Strangers. Where the former is a satire of horror film voyeurism and the latter is grindhouse cash in, A Cabin at the End of the World is speaking to a very current sentiment. Andrew and Eric are comfortable; their life is progressing positively. They can be married now, and they have adopted a child together. They are financially secure, and the only thing Eric worries about are small accidents that Wen could be subject to. The arrival of the intruders awakens them to a world outside of their small personal experience.
Tampa – Alissa Nutting
This chilling novel is from the perspective of Celeste Price, an eighth grade English teacher who has one goal when she enters teaching: to bed male students. She makes no bones about this fact from the opening page, an unapologetic hebephile who is dangerously cunning. We learn all about her marriage and strange navigations she has to make to avoid intimacy with her police officer husband. We also get to know the two young men that become embroiled in a love triangle with her. Tampa is one of those books that is entirely unfilmable, that can only exist in the world of literature. You are in the mind of this monster whether you want to or not and I think this is a good thing, in the same way, some people are drawn to graphic true crime non-fiction. Understanding the compulsions of evil is an important thing to do as an adult. For Celeste, she doesn’t seem to take the same sort of joy a reasonable person might in a sexual tryst; instead, everything is fetishized disgustingly. At one point she has to force herself into an affair with one of the boy’s fathers, and it just makes everything feel even slimier. Tampa is an excellent exercise in voice, how an author can make you hear someone you would never expect to sit across from and hear the story of.