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Lawrence Osborne’s characters tend to stumble into things: whether as a result of an accident, as in The Forgiven, or by winning big at the roulette table, as in Hunters in the Dark: as if they had stepped into the intersection of opportunity and desire, and what they heretofore envisaged only nebulously, something that couldn’t be put into words, now possessed a vocabulary and the will to act upon it.

Actress-JacketSitting down to read The Actress, Amy Sohn’s newest novel, is even better than standing in line at the grocery store while the person in front of you disputes the price of a carton of orange juice, giving you extra time to read the tabloids. The Actress might be as licentious as a tabloid, but it is far more intelligently written. And, you probably won’t be reading it while standing in line inside a grocery store.

Lepucki_CaliforniaIn Edan Lepucki’s California, a novel about life after widespread economic, political, and ecological collapse, a main character regards herself as a performer without appreciators. This character, Frida, lives in the woods after cities have crumbled due to all manner of human weakness, and she realizes that here, “No one was looking. Her audience was sucked away.” It’s one of the stranger promises of the end of the world: should you somehow survive it, no one will see you anymore. If, however, you’re inclined toward narcissism and an unmet craving for attention, you might already have experience with this heightened sense of yourself surrounded by little else.

urlSometimes I feel that the city is vanishing from fiction. The books I’ve been reading and reviewing lately have taken place in nowhere towns along highways; or they have taken place in transit, zigzagging from one locale to another, the author never settling in anywhere; or they have focused on interior landscapes, the ‘where’ of the characters’ lives less important than the ‘why.’

For this reason, I read Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky with pleasure. The novel begins as a coming-of-age story, but from there it broadens out, poking around in the dark corners of a city in transition. Midway through my reading, I made a note that the book kept getting bigger as it moved forward, instead of narrowing its focus. I thought this was a flaw. But no—this turns out to be the book’s design.

6a00d83451ce9f69e2017d42a16e57970c-250wiIs it self-indulgent to quote myself? Probably. But do I get credit for being self-aware enough to acknowledge that I recognize this? I pose these questions because my job today is to riff in a most biased fashion on Wheatyard, the debut novel by good friend Pete Anderson.

Which I will do now. Promise.

Debut novels are, by their nature, both self-indulgent and self-aware. Self-indulgent because who said that anyone has any right to assume anyone cares about anything writers have to say? And yet self-aware because without at least some level of self-awareness, all debut novels would tell the same story again and again–someone meets someone, someone leaves someone, someone’s family is fucked-up, someone finds redemption–but bring nothing new to the table. Or the Kindle if that’s your thing.

This is the second installation in a series of “reverse interviews,” wherein the author asks the questions about his own book, and one reader answers.

JENSEN BEACH: The other night my wife and I were reading before bed and she turned to me before she shut out her light and said it had been weird to read my book because she’d lived with the stories in it for so long and it felt strange to see them all mixed up like they were. At first I didn’t really understand what she meant. She told me there little bits in many of the stories that she recognized—things we’d experienced together, stories we’d been told by other people, things I’d said to our kids or to her—and that it had been interesting to see the ways I’d gone about taking that all apart and putting it back together again to fit the fictions in the book.

I will admit, the title of Stacy Bierlein’s debut story collection made me somewhat uncomfortable and more than a little nervous. A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends has an ominous ring, summoning imaginary scenes of one’s own hypothetical island of ex-boyfriends. In my mind, there are few things more dangerous than a group of men one once bedded, all converging in the same, small space. I circled the book for a few days, uncertain of what angle to approach it.

Prayer and Parable coverWhether one page or twenty, Paul Maliszewski’s stories ask for a lot of patience from the reader. His work exemplifies a kind of minutiae-infused, hyperrealism–somewhere between the robotic delivery of Tao Lin and the soulful Ken Sparling–that has become trendy in recent years.

alt.punk coverArt’s imitation of life is not such a stranger, nor is real life masquerading as what could only be believable as fiction. Being in a punk band is a crash course in both sides of the spectrum. There are moments of such insanity, such zany freakdom that just the act of relating it years later might feel like telling a story over a campfire. Lavinia Ludlow’s debut novel, alt.punk dances along this fine line of the believable, the outlandish, the hilarious and the heartfelt.