This list ran last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was originally limited to Southern writers, but I’ve since added a couple of titles I just couldn’t resist. Here are some of the brightest stars on this year’s literary horizon — several much-anticipated novels, a killer short-story collection and memoirs galore.
Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. Viking. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) again explores themes of race and women’s rights in a well-researched, convincing historical novel inspired by real-life 19th century American abolitionist, writer and suffragist Sarah Grimke. The standout voice here belongs to the fictional Hetty “Handful” Grimke — given to Sarah as a maid when both were 11 years old — who endures the cruel face of urban slavery that will inspire Sarah’s life’s work. (Full review here.)
Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy. HarperCollins. On the heels of his acclaimed debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash’s second novel unfolds against an unusual background: the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The death of their mother strands 12-year-old Easter and her younger sister in foster care until their long-vanished father, a former minor-league baseball player, reappears to rescue them. The three go on the lam, pursued by a malevolent figure from the father’s past, in a suspenseful story described as “Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard.” (Read about A Land More Kind Than Home here.)
Amy Greene, Long Man. Knopf. February. Greene follows her well-received debut, “Bloodroot,” with another mesmerizing, gorgeously written tale set in 1930s Appalachia. It opens with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to dam the Long Man River, delivering jobs and electricity but flooding the little village of Yuneetah in the name of progress. Even though her husband has found employment elsewhere, Annie Dodson resists leaving — until their little girl goes missing and she’s forced to rely for help on one of the most dangerous people in the doomed town.
Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. Lookout Books. March. With their “insistence on the particular and the specific,” Ben Fountain says the short stories in this smart, global anthology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington offer “a corrective to the digital world’s propensity for blasting awareness into a thousand scattered fragments.” Preserving that vital sense of place are veteran and new Southern voices, including Rick Bass, Brad Watson, Ron Rash, Cary Holladay, Lauren Groff, Robert Olen Butler and Kevin Wilson.
Carol Wall, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. Amy Einhorn/Putnam. March. Meet Carol Wall, fearful cancer survivor and garden hater. That is, until the day she notices Kenyan Giles Owita beautifying the yard next door. Owita, who works three jobs to make ends meet, is soon prettying up Wall’s eyesore of a yard, too. The heart of this disarming memoir is what took root: an unlikely but steadfast friendship between two people who had nothing — and, ultimately, everything — in common.
Kevin Young, Book of Hours: Poems. Knopf. March. In a poem from his book Dear Darkness, Young once wrote that grief was like gumbo: “you can eat & eat & still plenty left.” His eighth book of poetry is a deeply personal collection that revisits the loss of his father and also celebrates the birth of his first child. If you read no other book of poetry this year, this should be the one — it’s already been named one of 10 essential poetry titles for 2014 by Library Journal. More about Kevin Young here.
Kate Sweeney, American Afterlife: Encounters in the Custom of Mourning. University of Georgia Press. March. From WABE reporter-producer Sweeney comes a funny, edifying American road trip that bears witness to our most revealing and eccentric funerary customs. Beginning with a museum in Illinois where Victorian-era human-hair lockets keep company with a carriage hearse and a re-creation of a 1930s embalming room, she explores “the American landscape of mourning,” including Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, green burials, an obit writers conference, cremains embedded in “living reefs,” and a memorial tattoo artist.
Frances Mayes, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. Crown. April. Mayes, author of the best-selling Tuscany memoirs, grew up in tiny Fitzgerald, Georgia. “I left the South a million years ago,” she writes of her childhood home, confessing that, upon her return at age 22, she broke out in hives. Of her family, Mayes says, “When the plate of unhappiness is passed around … they wanted seconds, thirds.” The family maid, Willie Bell, used to advise Mayes “not to pay them any mind, they all crazy” — but, luckily, she remembers everything in this gutsy, honest portrait of the artist as a young girl.
Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, & Love Affairs. Atria Books. April. Playwright, essayist and novelist Cleage draws from her personal journals covering 1970-1980 for this revealing memoir, which takes readers back in time for a first-hand look at how Cleage juggled marriage, motherhood and politics — back in the day when she was married to Michael Lomax and worked with Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, all the while forging her identity as a writer.
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner. May. There couldn’t be a better description of this novel than the one found on the author’s blog: “What does the title mean? It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see.” (My review of Doerr’s last book, Memory Wall.)
Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Ecco. June. The man who said, “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” returns to his Depression-era beginnings as the grandchild of Baptist preachers in Blowing Rock, N.C. Fans can expect “a true account” as improbable, magical and bizarre as his quixotic characters. The now 77-year-old author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year: “Its relation to the typical autobiography is that of Dumbo to the typical elephant. It will look like it can’t get off the ground, then it will surprise you and go aloft and circle the tents.”
Amanda Kyle Williams, Don’t Talk to Strangers. Bantam. July. I got a sneak peek at the first chapter of Williams’ third installment in her “Stranger” series, and as usual, could barely stop laughing long enough to double-check the locks in my house. Series heroine Keye Street remains a vulnerable blend of tough, funny and kickass, a recovering alcoholic with a craving for Krispy Kremes. Here’s Keye in Stranger in the Room: “My name is Keye Street. I run a little detective agency in Atlanta called Corporate Intelligence & Investigations. And when I say ‘little,’ I mean it’s just me and my red-eyed computer guy, Neil Donovan. And when I say ‘red-eyed,’ I mean he probably smoked a joint with his scrambled eggs this morning.”