1. The Coldest Night. Robert Olmstead. This guy can write. The novel includes tender scenes of love and harrowing scenes of war, and both are gripping. The interplay between the two won’t be resolved to every reader’s satisfaction, but I loved this book. 

2. The Devil All the Time. Donald Ray Pollock. I’d never heard of this guy, but I was a judge for the Society of Midland Authors contest, and this book was one of the finalists. He writes like Flannery O’Connor on steroids. If you like her work, you’ll love this, but the book is not for the faint of heart. Brutal scenes and not exactly redemptive, but I couldn’t put it down. 

3. The Paris Wife. Paula McLain. This was the winner of the contest mentioned above. It’s about Hemingway’s first wife, packed with research and rendered beautifully. This book will draw you in and will be especially satisfying if you’re familiar with some of Hemingway’s writing, especially the stories. 

4. The Temple of Air. Patricia Ann McNair. This was another finalist in the contest. Strong quirky characters and brisk plots that intertwine. I love this book. It’s smart and funny and moving. McNair is a local author who teaches at Columbia College. You can hear her speak at Printers Row in Chicago during the weekend of June 9th and 10th. If you’ve never been to Printers Row, you need to go this year.  

5. Send Me Work. Katherine Karlin. If we had picked one more finalist for the contest, this would have been the one. If you like Alice Munro, you’ll like this collection of short stories, which is intelligent and bold and original. 

6. We Need to Talk about Kevin. Lionel Shriver. I’m not quite finished with this one, but it is gripping and disturbing, written from the point of view of a mother chronicling the life of her son after he’s committed mass murder at his high school. The entire book is epistolary—the mom’s letters to her ex-husband. The writing is superb, and the details are intricate. Hard to imagine any writer spending so much time thinking about this subject matter, and I applaud Shriver for not shying away from the most intimate details about guilt and shame and responsibility.

 


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