Walker's Bookshelf

National Book Award Fiction List

One of the great ways to discover books is to look at literary awards. If you’re looking to explore new stories, here is a list of the National Book Award Fiction that you can borrow in the library now.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi – National Book Award Fiction Winner

“That whole thing about fiction not being the truth is a lie,” one character admonishes another in Choi’s fifth, and finest, novel. Returning to the multilayered teacher-student power struggles seared into My Education (2013), Choi’s Trust Exercise  should immediately put readers on alert: it will appear four times as a title—of the novel itself and as the repeated title of the book’s three sections. Despite being a reference to a soul-baring acting exercise , “trust ” will have little correlation to truth. “Trust Exercise ” number one introduces Sarah and David, two 15-year-old students at a suburban performing-arts high school, precariously entangled with each other, overseen (manipulated) by their magnetic theater teacher, Mr. Kingsley. “Trust Exercise ” number two picks up 14 years later, after more than 100 pages, revealing number one to be a large portion of Sarah’s newly published novel, and its last page is where Sarah’s former best friend, Karen, stopped reading. What happened (or not) thus far gets deconstructed, then expanded, culminating in a series of dramatically (of course) orchestrated reunions. “Trust Exercise ” number three will render all that came before unreliable while exposing tenuous connections between fiction, truth, lies, and, of course, people. Literary deception rarely reads this well. — Terry Hong (Reviewed 2/15/2019) (Booklist, vol 115, number 12, p25)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – Finalist

As with his Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, James’s first foray into fantasy demonstrates epic sweep, an intensely layered structure, and raw if luscious language that pins readers to the page with enough concrete detail to discourage a breezy skim-through. Placed firmly in the genre by its dark magic, unstoppable twists and turns, dangerous kingly aspirations, and imperfect but essential fellow-creature bonding, the narrative is refreshingly distinctive in its grounding in African history and folklore. Its protagonist is the Tracker, a tough-talking loner whose sense of smell leads him to his quarry and here to a momentous task. The opening pages show the Tracker as a young man leaving home both to escape his family and confront his people’s enemies, as he refines his skills, discovers a shocking secret about his parentage, helps a group of children (e.g., Smoke Girl, Giraffe Boy) abandoned for their weirdness as cursed, and meets the sardonic, shapeshifting Leopard , with whom he forms a close but testy relationship. But the journey’s the thing, as the Tracker is later engaged by a slaver to find a kidnapped child, reputedly the son of a North Kingdom elder who riled the king and was slaughtered with his family. In his efforts, the Tracker grudgingly allows himself to be joined by the Leopard , the Moon Witch Sogolon, the perfidious Nyka, and others. As they move through the Darklands and subsequent fraught territories toward the Southern Kingdom, they encounter witches and demons, flesh-eating trolls, splendidly dressed mercenaries, vampires, necromancers, ancient griots, and a wise, magisterial buffalo. References to harsh pansexual encounters often shift events forward, and the entire story is framed as a tale told to an inquisitor, though we are a long way from understanding from whence he came—this is the first in the “Dark Star” trilogy. VERDICT As the Tracker realizes, “The only way forward is through,” and it’s the same for readers. Highly recommended for fantasy lovers who welcome a grand new challenge, as James launches an unglorified if gloriously delivered story that feels eminently real despite the hobgoblins, and for literary readers, eager to see the world—and James’s particular talents—in a new light. [See Prepub Alert, 7/31/18; Editors’ Spring Picks, p. 22.] –Barbara Hoffert (Reviewed 02/01/2019) (Library Journal, vol 144, issue 2, p68)

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami – Finalist

Who killed Driss Guerraoui? Was it an accident, a hit-and-run in the  wee hours of the  morning? Or was it murder, a brutal act against the  Moroccan immigrant who might pose a threat to a neighborhood business in a small Mojave-desert town? The  mystery at the  center of Lalami’s (The  Moor’s Account, 2014) novel brings together an intriguing set of characters, including Driss’ daughter, Nora, a struggling composer who returns home to the  remnants of her family. There’s Maryam, Driss’ wife, who misses her native country; Iraq War veteran Jeremy, who is battling his own demons while trying to help Nora; and African American  detective Coleman, who is trying to work out the  mechanics of the  case while facing her own domestic challenges. Now and then the  story is nearly drowned out by the  nine narrating voices, yet Lalami impressively conducts this chorus of flawed yet graceful human beings to mellifluous effect. “I didn’t know which version of the  past I could trust, which story was supported by the  facts and which had been reshaped to fit them, whether out of grief or out of malice,” Coleman worries. An eloquent reminder that frame of reference is everything when defining the  “other .” — Poornima Apte (Reviewed 2/1/2019) (Booklist, vol 115, number 11, p26)

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – Finalist

In her dazzlingly original debut novel, Phillips imagines a cold, desolate climate inhabited by characters who exude warmth and strength. This cinematic setting is the far eastern Russian peninsula, Kamchatka, where white Russians and indigenous tribes uneasily coexist. In the chilling opening chapter, two sisters vanish after a day at the beach, and though a witness describes seeing them with a man in a shiny black car, the authorities come up empty. Three years earlier in a village many hours further north, a Native girl also disappears, but she is dismissed as a runaway. Phillips cleverly weaves these two incidents through subsequent chapters that cover a year in the lives of her many vividly drawn characters, illustrating the subtle effects of racism on the investigation. Themes of dark and light pervade the narrative. Outsiders, those with darker skin or hair, are blamed for an uptick in crime. Prejudice blinds people to the truth until two grieving mothers, brought together by a photographer with a penchant for nosing into other people’s business, manage to see past their differences to their shared loss and courage. VERDICT Phillips, a Fulbright fellow whose work has appeared in Slate and the Atlantic, has written a knock-out novel that combines literary heft with a propulsive plot. [See Prepub Alert, 12/3/18.] –Sally Bissell (Reviewed 05/01/2019) (Library Journal, vol 144, issue 4, p89)

Our Staff Review here:

Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Brodesser-Akner’s sharp and tender-hearted debut centers on hapless 41-year-old New York hepatologist Toby Fleishman, recently separated from his driven wife, Rachel, and alternately surprised and semidisgusted to find his dating apps “crawling with women who wanted him,” who prove it by sending him all manner of lewd pictures. After an increasingly rocky 14-year marriage, Toby has asked Rachel, who owns a talent agency and makes a lot more money than he does, for a divorce, because she is always angry and pays little attention to their two preteen kids. But then, as Toby is juggling new girlfriends, dying patients, and unhappy children, Rachel disappears, leaving Toby to cope with logistics more complicated than he anticipated. The novel is narrated by Toby’s old college friend Libby (a device that’s occasionally awkward), a former magazine journalist now bored with life as a housewife in New Jersey. Though both she and the novel are largely entrenched on Toby’s side, Libby does eventually provide a welcome glimpse into Rachel’s point of view. While novels about Manhattan marriages and divorces are hardly a scarce commodity, the characters in this one are complex and well-drawn, and the author’s incisive sense of humor and keen observations of Upper West Side life sustain the momentum. This is a sardonically cheerful novel that readers will adore. (June) –Staff (Reviewed 04/01/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 13, p)

Black Light: Stories by Kimberly King Parsons

Parsons’s debut crackles with the frenetic energy of the women who stalk its pages. In opening story  “Guts,” Sheila has just started dating “almost-doctor” Tim, whose particular brand of condescending masculine practicality destabilizes her already-erratic lifestyle. In “Foxes,” a recently divorced mother recounts her courtship and marriage to her ex-husband, whom she calls “the fool,” as she listens to her young daughter spin a story  featuring knights and inky enemies, and the two stories  begin to intertwine and mimic the cadences of each other. “Foxes” kicks off a dazzling run of stories , including “The Soft No,” in which a pair of siblings must navigate neighborhood politics as well as their unpredictable mother, to “We Don’t Come Natural to It,” in which two women’s pursuit of beauty becomes a vortex of self-inflicted violence, control, and mistrust. In the title story , a young woman watches as her former lover evolves into someone she realizes she never knew, while she must navigate the breakup in a way that doesn’t out her sexuality. Parsons’s characters are sharp and uncannily observed, bound up in elastic and electrifying prose. This is a first-rate debut. (Aug.) –Staff (Reviewed 06/10/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 23, p)

The Need by Helen Phillips

A woman confronts an intruder—and her own motherhood—in this gripping, shape-shifting second novel from Phillips (The  Beautiful Bureaucrat). With her husband out of the  country, paleobotanist Molly is home with their two young children when she hears footsteps coming from the  living room. She’s ready to dismiss it as house noise and put the  kids to bed until her daughter asks, “Who’s that guy?” The  answer will shake Molly to the  core and send her down a metaphysical rabbit hole that reads like a fever dream of every mother’s fears. Molly is convinced the  fossil quarry she is helping to excavate has unleashed a sinister force and that one of the  found objects—a Bible that suggests God is female—has led some suspicious visitors to the  site. Whether Molly’s true enemy is real or a manifestation of her deepest anxieties is a lingering question that Phillips, with incisive detail and linguistic dexterity, suggests comes with the  territory of parenthood. VERDICT Is this literary work a story of magical realism, a straight-up horror novel featuring home invaders and shadow-selves, or a product of Molly’s exhausted imagination? Of course, it’s all of the  above and makes for an unforgettable—and polarizing—reading experience. [See Prepub Alert, 1/23/19.] –Michael Pucci (Reviewed 06/01/2019) (Library Journal, vol 144, issue 5, p106)

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

/* Starred Review */ This first novel by poet Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 2016) is narrated by Little Dog, a Vietnamese refugee who grew up in Hartford with his mother and his maternal grandmother, Lan. A writer now, he addresses his story as a letter to his mother, who cannot read, “”to tell you everything you’ll never know.”” He recalls her painful attempts to toughen him and his simultaneous rage for all that frays her—work, memories, difficulty communicating. At 14 he gets a job cutting tobacco, and there meets Trevor. Two years older, Trevor works to escape his alcoholic father and makes Little Dog feel “”seen—I who had seldom been seen by anyone.”” Their covert love blooms brilliantly as Trevor, battling his own demons, handles Little Dog with bewildering warmth. This plot line is its own speeding train, while Little Dog’s letter also reveals the family’s inextricable legacy from the Vietnam War. In Vuong’s acrobatic storytelling, Lan’s traumatic wartime tale unspools in a spiraling dive, and a portrait of Trevor emerges in the snapshots of a 10-page prose poem. Casting a truly literary spell, Vuong’s tale of language and origin, beauty and the power of story, is an enrapturing first novel. — Annie Bostrom (Reviewed 4/15/2019) (Booklist, vol 115, number 16, p21)

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

“As it had ever been with Nickel , no one believed them until someone else said it,” Whitehead (The  Underground Railroad) writes in the  present-day prologue to this story, in which construction workers have dug up what appears to be a secret graveyard on the  grounds of the  juvenile reform school the Nickel  Academy in Jackson County, Fla. Five decades prior, Elwood Curtis, a deeply principled, straight-A high school student from Tallahassee, Fla., who partakes in civil rights demonstrations against Jim Crow laws and was about to start taking classes at the  local black college before being erroneously detained by police, has just arrived at Nickel . Elwood finds that, at odds with Nickel ’s upstanding reputation in the  community, the  staff is callous and corrupt, and the boys —especially the  black boys —suffer from near-constant physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Elwood befriends the  cynical Turner, whose adolescent experiences of violence have made him deeply skeptical of the  objectivity of justice. Elwood and Turner’s struggles to survive and maintain their personhood are interspersed with chapters from Elwood’s adult life, showing how the  physical and emotional toll of his time at Nickel  still affects him. Inspired by horrific events that transpired at the  real-life Dozier School for Boys , Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight. (July) –Staff (Reviewed 01/31/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 6, p)