My Nominations for the 2014 NBCC Leonard Award

Last year, the National Book Critics Circle introduced a new award for first books, the John Leonard Award, as determined by members of the NBCC. The book may be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or any other genre, so long as it’s the author’s debut. The inaugural award went to Anthony Marra for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Members may nominate up to five books for the award, and if I had to guess, this year’s prize will probably go to heavy favorites like Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng or Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, two absolutely brilliant, deserving pieces of work.

But I’d like to use the nominations to highlight some not-so-heavy favorites, mostly books from smaller presses that I believe deserve wider attention and exposure. And while I read some great nonfiction (The Sixth Extinction) and poetry this year, none of them were debuts, so all five of my nominations are fiction.


niemNobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
FSG Originals

A Manhattanite abruptly abandons her life and her husband for a one-way ticket to New Zealand, where she drifts among the cars and homes of strangers and the island’s vast wilderness. A beautiful and funny book that isn’t afraid to take stylistic risks.

There’s nothing better about living in a farm than living in a city. You can’t just go sit in a pretty landscape and bet on it changing you into a better person.

 


nisNigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Unnamed Press

I also picked Olukotun’s novel as one of my favorite works of speculative fiction in 2014. In mid-90’s Houston, Dr. Wale Olufunmi is tasked with stealing a piece of the moon from the United States and returning it to Nigeria.

It’s time for a great mind of Nigeria to return home. You’re the mind we need, Doctor. The marsh can’t pretend that it isn’t fed by the river. You’re a part of Nigeria, too.

 


tbhThe Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books

I reviewed Rader-Day’s debut thriller for Bookpage. A Chicago sociology professor is gunned down by a student she’s never met. Months later, she returns to campus and solves the mystery of who tried to kill her and why. I challenge you not to devour this book in one breathless sitting.

I don’t know what they all thought—that I baited a troubled kid, drove him insane with sex or quid pro quo grading practices, and then suffered the only outcome that made any sense? Got what I deserved? Asked for it?


fojcFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
Ecco

Montana, 1979. A social worker investigates the living conditions of a troubled boy, the son of a dangerous End Times survivalist/preacher. But the social worker has family issues of his own, and is soon caught up in an FBI manhunt for the boy’s father. Henderson’s density and tone approach Cormac McCarthy’s mastery of voice.

Chromed long-haulers glinted like showgirls among logging trucks caked in oatmealy mud, white exhaust thrashing flamelike in the wind from their silvery stacks.


twThe Wilds by Julia Elliott
Tin House Books

Elliott teaches at the University of South Carolina, and her debut collection of strange, dark, genre-defying short stories brings to mind the great SF/F master Jeffrey Ford. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction…take your pick, and you’ll find something to love in The Wilds. Not recommended on a full stomach, however.

Every year spring came to Whitmire, South Carolina, with its riot of flowers and bees, promising a larger world. For a while, summer would live up to this promise. But soon the dog days would descend and trap you in a bubble of gaseous heat. Amnesia would set in, wiping out all dreams of escape until autumn pricked you out of your stupor.

Best Speculative Fiction of 2014

If there’s an (unintentional) theme for the best speculative fiction I read this year, it’s Africa. Two South Africans, Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz, each had a bestselling novel hit the shelves, and two Nigerian-American authors, Nnedi Okorafor and Deji Bryce Olukotun, expanded the horizons of literary science fiction. Meanwhile, two speculative novels were nominated for major literary awards: the Man Booker Prize for David Mitchell, and the National Book Award for Emily St. John Mandel.

So, in no particular order, I give you my top ten speculative novels of 2014. And except for Michel Faber, you can follow all of the authors on Twitter.

(I’ve also added my three biggest “duds” of the year at the end of the post, the books that were the most promising, but ultimately, the most disappointing).


areaxArea X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer’s groundbreaking trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, now available in a gorgeous omnibus volume) was the touchstone of my reading life in 2014. In three vastly different, wildly imaginative books, VanderMeer explores the alien-ness of the natural world and the slippery essence of what it means to be human. For my series of posts on what writers can learn from each volume in the trilogy, head here, here, and here.

 
 


stairsCity of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

I love fictional cities with detailed histories, and Bulikov has joined Gotham, New Crobuzon, Nessus, and Ae’gura as one of my all-time favorites. Once the site of countless architectural miracles powered by the Continental Divinities, the capital city is now ruined under the occupation of the Saypuri, a warring nation-state responsible for the death of the Divinities. When the world’s foremost scholar on the (forbidden) history of Bulikov is murdered, a young Saypuri intelligence officer named Shara finds herself at the center of a mythical crisis. Worldbuilding at its finest.

 


supenThe Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

If Neil Gaiman designed a MYST age, it would probably resemble the labyrinthine mansion in Cantero’s rollicking epistolary, neo-gothic novel. When a European man known only as “A.” inherits a long-lost relative’s estate in the Virginia countryside, he discovers that the previous two owners committed suicide in the exact same way, decades apart. There’s also a mysterious gathering of distinguished gentlemen at the house every winter solstice, a litany of secret passageways, coded letters, and hidden knowledge. Puzzles abound, both physical and narrative, and the mute teenage girl named Niamh–the Watson to A.’s Sherlock–steals the show.


boneThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The author of Cloud Atlas is back with another dizzying novel that bends genres while spanning centuries and continents. Teenage runaway Holly Sykes finds herself in the middle of two warring groups of immortals and the battle for human souls. Sounds trippy, I know, but Mitchell’s story is well-grounded in emotion and place-based detail.

 

 


brokenmonstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

On a cool November night in Detroit, Detective Gabriella Versado comes across the strangest crime scene of her career: a dead 11-year-old boy whose lower half has been replaced by that of a deer. Their bodies have been fused together into a macabre human-animal hybrid straight out of “True Detective” or NBC’s “Hannibal,” and Versado believes the killer will strike again. Head over to Bookpage for my full review of Beukes’ masterwork. Basically, what if True Detective got even weirder and moved to Detroit?

 

 


stationeleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Post-apocalyptic literature has caught a lot of flack recently for being a bit of a dead horse, but St. John Mandel’s National Book Award-nominated novel is a beautiful, fresh take on the genre. After 99% of humanity is wiped out by a superflu, a small Shakespearean theatre company called the Traveling Symphony tours the remnants of civilization. The prose is quiet, sharp, and often achieves the textural density of poetry.

 

 


faber

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

In Mary Dora Russell’s The Sparrow, one of my favorite novels of all time, the first expedition to an alien planet is lead by Jesuit missionaries. Faber’s latest book is about one such interstellar missionary, a man named Peter, brought to the planet of Oasis by a massive corporation in hopes of appeasing the natives, who are clamoring for someone to explain the “book of strange new things” (i.e., the book we call Bible). Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter’s wife may not survive a series of natural and social disasters brought about by climate change. As in all of his previous work (particularly Under the Skin), Faber proves there is no line separating “literary” from “genre” fiction. The Book of Strange New Things isn’t just one of the best pieces of speculative fiction, but one of the best pieces of fiction, period, published in 2014.


nigeriansNigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun

With a title like “Nigerians in Space”, do you really need any other reasons to read this thing? Fine. In mid-90’s Houston, Dr. Wale Olufunmi is tasked with stealing a piece of the moon from the United States and returning it to Nigeria. In addition to being a slick, weird little SF/espionage thriller, the novel also gives you an authentic taste of life in both Nigeria and South Africa, from the 90’s to the present-day.

 

 


lagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Aliens in Nigeria. Need I say more? An unknown object crashes into the ocean just off the coast of Lagos. Okorafor expertly combines science fiction with magical realism and Nigerian mythology in the story that follows, particularly the lives of three strangers on the beach that day: a solider, a celebrity rapper, and a marine biologist.

 

 

 


threeThe Three by Sarah Lotz

Four planes crash for unknown reasons on the same day, “Black Thursday,” in Japan, South Africa, Florida, and off the coast of Portugal. The only survivors are three children, all on different flights. And they seem a bit…different when they return home. A bit…not themselves. A bit horrifying.

I couldn’t put this one down, and I can’t wait for the sequel. Here’s my take on what fiction writers can learn from it.

 


Duds of 2014:

California by Edan Lepucki. Instead of a sudden apocalypse, the world is suffering a slow, gradual collapse in Lepucki’s glacial debut novel, the vaguely titled CALIFORNIA (is it a travel guide? a state history?). It’s ambitious, intriguing, but all-too-frequently maddening in its dedication to interpersonal minutiae and marital bickering.

The Martian by Andy Weir. What a concept! An astronaut is stranded alone on the red planet, and forced to use his smarts as a botanist/mechanical engineer to survive. Sounds thrilling, if only the novel was as concerned with character and story as it is with math and logistics. Ridley Scott and Matt Damon are adapting it for the big screen, and judging solely from the cast listing, they realized the story needed some more fleshing out.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. Joe Abercrombie’s new Shattered Sea fantasy series has been lauded as “A Game of Thrones for Young Adults.” Narratively, the setup is wonderful, the prose is clean and accessible, and the remarkable twists toward the end are pretty shocking. But the greater world and the greater story behind Yarvi’s adventure is only grazed tangentially, and don’t really impact the present-day story. The worldbuilding is extremely shallow for a fantasy series: the cities have no distinctive sense of place, the geography’s history is only occasionally hinted at, and the mythology is mostly implied. So while the characters jump off the page, the world they occupy is–at least in book one–a fairly generic series of unremarkable set dressings.

What Writers Can Learn from ACCEPTANCE by Jeff VanderMeer

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Acceptance is not the book you expect. If you enjoyed the first two volumes in Jeff VanderMeer’s groundbreaking trilogy as much as I did, you’ve probably spent some time thinking about the final chapter. Perhaps you made a mental list of revelations you expect it to deliver.

Throw away that list and forget all those expectations. ReadingAcceptance after the first two Southern Reach books is akin to the grand finale of a fireworks show, but instead of bigger fireworks, you get the coda to Beethoven’s Fifth.

As mankind stumbles further into the twenty-first century, we’re destined for more frequent encounters with the unknown. Whether it’s the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or new forms of life we didn’t think were possible, our understanding of nature is expanding at an unprecedented rate.

But how much are we really capable of understanding? What is the ceiling of the scientific method? How trapped are we in our own minds and bodies?

What else is out there? And what else is already here?

That’s what Acceptance is about: the limitations of human perception in a universe full of unknowables. After the breathless adventure of Annihilationand the claustrophobic chills of Authority, the third and final volume in the Southern Reach trilogy is a New Weird epic, a speculative tour de force that defies classification. Seamlessly spanning multiple decades and points of view, VanderMeer wrings the last secrets out of Area X in a series of shockingly beautiful twists and turns.

So, here are a few aspects of the novel that writers can learn from. I will also have a brief piece on the entire trilogy published in the next issue of the Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction. Be forewarned that there are potential spoilers below if you haven’t finished the trilogy.

Stay Concrete, Except for When You Shouldn’t
Writing students are often urged to stay “concrete” and “low on the ladder of abstraction” in their prose, particularly when it comes to the visual detail responsible for establishing scene, setting, and tone. For the most part, this is good advice, and VanderMeer’s lush descriptions of marshes and salt flats and birds—taken from real-life hikes on the Gulf Coast—demonstrate the power of immersive, hyper-specific details.

But should everything in your fiction be so concrete? Particularly if you’re writing speculative fiction, which dabbles in the unknown and the never-before-seen?

There is a method of stargazing called averted vision, used to spot celestial objects too faint for direct eyesight. The literary technique VanderMeer uses when his characters encounter the unknowable is similar. Take this passage from Acceptance, where Ghost Bird watches something massive approach:

The hillside come alive and sliding down to the ruined lighthouse, at a steady pace like a lava flow. This intrusion. These darknesses that re-formed into a mighty shape against the darkness of the night sky, lightened by the reflections of clouds and the greater shadow of the tree line and the forests.

Note that VanderMeer chooses not to provide a concrete description—not here and not in the pages that follow—and that the…being…is all the more real and interesting because of its slippery nature. Of course, the slippery nature of perception is one of the trilogy’s primary themes, and a common thread in speculative fiction, but it’s also the conceptual bedrock underlying good fiction of all stripes, as illuminated by Robert Boswell in The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction.

Challenge Your First Thoughts and Instincts
All of VanderMeer’s work is surprising in one way or another, but perhaps none more so than Acceptance. Several episodes in particular are just…mind-blowing, but I wouldn’t dare mention them here.

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, along with many other how-to guides, extols the importance of surprising readers and audiences in ways that feel inevitable. I’m not Jeff VanderMeer, so I can’t say this for certain, but I doubt all the twists and turns of Acceptance’s plot were “part of the plan” from the time he first began thinking about the story.

There is value in outlining a story before you start writing, in building a road map or a blueprint—no matter how skeletal—to help you find a way through 50-100,000 words. But there is also value in challenging your first ideas.

Having read so many stories, your writerly brain will often instinctively know what happens next, at least by “industry standards”. But sometimes you should ignore those first, instincts. Sometimes you should look for new roads to take. Make an outline, sure, but give yourself the freedom to improvise while you’re writing, to play jazz, to take the story somewhere completely different than you thought possible. That’s how you surprise readers: by surprising yourself.

Get Off Your Ass
VanderMeer couldn’t have written this trilogy from the comfort of his own home. Not without taking long hikes in the Florida wilderness and working some really weird day-jobs.

Sure, the discipline to sit at your desk and write for hundreds of hours is pivotal, and probably the aspect of writing that I struggle with the most. But you know what else is pivotal? Going for walks in the woods. Talking to bizarre people who hang out in bowling alleys. Exploring that random small town a few miles down the road. Reading newspapers and watching science documentaries. And definitely working a few soul-crushing jobs.

To write something interesting, you need to collect interesting material. To borrow one of VanderMeer’s terms, messy real-life experiences provide the “mulch” your fiction needs to blossom.

— — —

I can’t believe the Southern Reach trilogy is over. Word is we’ll see a short story set in the same fictional universe one day, so that’s promising. Did I want more “resolution” at the end of the day? Of course I did. But the books are about that desire to know. It’s what makes us human, and what ultimately fails us.

UPDATE: Another bit of writerly advice from VanderMeer himself, in response:

RGkBfEd

Book Review: CALIFORNIA by Edan Lepucki

californiaInstead of a sudden apocalypse, the world is suffering a slow, gradual collapse in Lepucki’s debut novel, the vaguely titled CALIFORNIA (is it a travel guide? a state history? at least the cover is beautifully disorienting).

It’s ambitious, intriguing, and frequently maddening. It’s THE WALKING DEAD by way of Emily Gould, sans zombies.

In the not-too-distant future, thanks to a variety of off-screen eco (-logic and -nomic) disasters, Los Angeles has decayed into a state of lawless chaos. “I can’t stand how awful everything is here,” says Cal, a young academic. His wife, Frida, agrees:

Because she understood, Frida didn’t ask him to elaborate. He could have meant L.A.’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and its sagging houses. All those dead lawns. Or maybe he meant the closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out.

Desperate, Cal and Frida flee Los Angeles for the California wilderness, where they settle in an abandoned shack. They survive off the land, thanks to Cal’s resourcefulness and Frida’s culinary knowledge.

Cal thinks they can remain post-apocalyptic pioneers forever, but Frida wants to continue exploring, to find other homesteaders like themselves who survived society’s collapse. It’s just one of about 800 things Cal and Frida disagree on, and if you keep score at home, Cal is right 799 times, but more on that later.

Turns out, they aren’t alone in the wilderness. A few miles east, giant metallic spikes made of found objects rise out of the earth. Are they a sign of new civilization? Or a warning to keep away?

A far as high-concept premises go, it’s a great hook. Lepucki knows how to ask interesting questions. She’s good at compelling us to explore the world she’s built. Unfortunately, CALIFORNIA only devotes about 10% of its pages to adventure and exploration, preferring to delay, digress, and withhold detailed world-building information.

Another 30% consists of wildly tangential flashbacks to Cal and Frida’s lives before the collapse of civilization, while the final 60%–the bulk of the book–is a series of spoken and unspoken arguments between Cal and Frida, ranging from the mundane (turkey basters) to the existential (“Should we bring a child into a world like this?”).

While the latter kinds of questions are certainly ripe for narrative exploration, far too often CALIFORNIA dwells on the former, with Cal and Frida’s positions almost always falling into clichéd gender roles, i.e., the rational male and the emotional female.

Conflict is vital to fiction. So why does the dichotomy between Cal and Frida’s perspectives feel stretched so thin over these 400 pages?

Perhaps it’s an issue of expectation. Given the book’s premise, one wouldn’t expect a slow-paced examination of the difficulties of marriage that uses the apocalypse as a backdrop without adding anything new or unexpected to the genre.

Wild Piedmont: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Heart of North Carolina

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I’m happy to announce The History Press, the UK’s largest publisher of specialist history and natural history, will publish my next book in the summer of 2015, entitled Wild Piedmont: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Heart of North Carolina.

When I moved back to North Carolina from Chicago last fall, one of the things I looked forward to most was writing about the most beautiful state on earth again (no offense, Illinois). North Carolina has no glistening metropolis to rival Chicago’s cultural and architectural prestige, but it does have the greatest concentration of natural wonders east of the Continental Divide.

I’ll be traveling to each of the sites listed below later this year to conduct research and take photographs for the book. I’ll be tweeting and instagramming the experience as well, if you’d like to follow along.

The book is a collection of nature essays, a la Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, that combines first-person field narratives with natural history. Each chapter will focus on one of the Piedmont’s celebrated wild spaces by detailing their geological and ecological profiles, environmental threats, seasonal changes, trails, plants and animals, as well as interviews with local experts and full-color photos.

Wild Piedmont will be like taking a guided tour with a naturalist. The goal is to help readers of all ages and levels of experience gain a deeper appreciation for North Carolina’s wild spaces, including how fragile and threatened they are in the 21st Century.

What’s the Piedmont?
Stretching from the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the West to the fall line in the East, the Piedmont region makes up the “middle third” of North Carolina, a hilly plateau between the mountains and the coastal plain.

The NC Piedmont is probably best-known as the epicenter of New South urbanization, including Charlotte, the Piedmont Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point), and the Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill), but it’s also home to 11 state parks, 3 state recreational areas, 3 state natural areas, a national wildlife refuge, and a national forest.

However, Wild Piedmont will not be a simple, turn-by-turn hiking guide to the region’s trails. It will aim to enrich the reader’s knowledge of the area’s wild places, natural history, and beauty by exploring the narratives embedded in nature at all 25 sites listed below, with each chapter reading like a feature article in a magazine.

State Parks
1. Crowders Mountain
2. Eno River
3. Hanging Rock
4. Haw River
5. Lake Norman
6. Mayo River
7. Medoc Mountain
8. Morrow Mountain
9. Pilot Mountain
10. Raven Rock
11. William B. Umstead

State Natural and Recreation Areas
12. Falls Lake
13. Jordan Lake
14. Kerr Lake
15. Hemlock Bluffs
16. Lower Haw River
17. Occoneechee Mountain

Other Wild Places
18. Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge
19. Uwharrie National Forest
20. Yadkin River State Trail
21. Mountains-to-Sea Trail

City Escapes
22. Charlotte
23. Greensboro and Winston-Salem
24. Durham and Chapel Hill
25. Raleigh

More details to come!