by Richard Thomas)
1. Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor (Sarabande)
Building on the critical success of In the Devil’s Territory, Kyle Minor’s latest is a dark collection of intelligent stories that will break your heart over and over again. A mix of Southern gothic, crime, and horror — all with a literary bent — Minor knows that our morality is not black and white, but shades of gray, and that our actions are often questionable.
Recommended for: those who want to live vicariously through horrific moments but come out the other side alive and intact.
2. The Last Days of California by Mary Miller (Liveright)
Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, focuses on the thoughts and emotions of 15-year-old Jess as we follow her and her Rapture-preparing family on a road trip from Alabama to California. This is not your mother’s or father’s teenage angst. In the face of a world imploding and tension about pregnancy, hope looms large with humor and introspection showing the way.
Recommended for: fans of stories about adolescence that are not watered-down YA narratives, as well as those interested in family and independence.
3. The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals)
The first book in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer is Annihilation, and the other two books, Authority and Acceptance, will also roll out this year (in May and September, respectively). What VanderMeer does best, as in his earlier novel, Finch, is blend the best of crime, fantasy, and science fiction to create smart, original worlds and storylines.
Recommended for: people who grew up on classic speculative fiction such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein who are looking for something new besides China Mieville and Neil Gaiman.
4. Beside Myself by Ashley Farmer (Tiny Hardcore Press)
As the name implies, Tiny Hardcore Press publishes tiny, hardcore voices. Car accidents, cornfields, makeup counter disasters, and river water that gives good advice (but damages your reputation) fill Ashley Farmer’s fantastic and fantastical debut collection.
Recommended for: Folks who enjoy a bit of humor and magic mixed in with their grit and grime.
5. Painted Cities by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski (McSweeney’s)
This debut collection — which is primarily set in Pilsen, a vast barrio on the south side of Chicago where many artists, hipsters, and degenerates have taken up residence — touches on the rough reality of life on the streets as well as the magic that lurks just out of sight. The stories are a bittersweet blend of authority and speculation, empathy and sympathy.
Recommended for: readers who recognize the sparkle to be found in Chicago’s dangerous streets.
6. Not for Nothing by Stephen Graham Jones (Dzanc)
There isn’t a genre that Stephen Graham Jones can’t handle — horror, crime, fantasy, science fiction, literary, Westerns — you name it. Not for Nothing is set in Stanton, Texas, and features a disgraced homicide detective down on his luck. If it’s half as good as All the Beautiful Sinners, an innovative take on serial killers, then this will be a fascinating read. Jones has a lyrical, hypnotic voice that never disappoints.
Recommended for: fans of Justified and True Detective, as well as Texas residents, and genre readers who are looking for a new take on old tropes.
7. Spent: A Memoir by Antonia Crane (Rare Bird Books)
Antonia Crane, whose work has appeared in Black Clock, Salon, Pank, and The Heroin Chronicles (Akashic Press), tells the story of her many years spent as a stripper and sex worker in this, her debut memoir. Beyond the titillation is a tale of family, heart, and perseverance.
Recommended for: those who are curious about the sex industry but want a book with more heart than flesh.
8. Fearful Symmetries edited by Ellen Datlow (ChiZine)
Ellen Datlow is the queen of the dark anthology — editing for over 30 years — including such titles as Best Horror of the Year, Hauntings, and Supernatural Noir, in addition to having worked at Omni and Tor.com. This anthology, born out of a Kickstarter and published by ChiZine, is a collection of some of the most talented horror and speculative fiction authors writing today, including Laird Barron, Brian Evenson, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Joe Lansdale, and many others.
Recommended for: fans of horror who want to explore the best dark writing being published today.
9. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Grove/Atlantic)
Roxane Gay is one of the most original voices out there today, her work has been featured in Best American Short Stories as well as a wide range of cutting-edge literary journals and magazines. Gay never shies away from the brutal truth, the violence and damage that lurks in so many of us. An Untamed State is a story about poverty and privilege, retribution and redemption. Gay’s writing stirs up a wide range of emotions — always compelling, always authentic.
Recommended for: fans of anything Haitian, strong female protagonists, and literary fiction that knows how to entertain.
10. Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer (Soho Press)
Paula Bomer’s work is raw and urgent, and if you read her debut novel Nine Months, or her debut collection, Baby & Other Stories, then you know what I mean. Bomer does not hesitate to talk about sex, violence, the perversions we hide inside, or the forgiveness and acceptance we desire. Never for the faint of heart or weak-minded, this collection touches on anorexia, puberty, and obsession — and does so with authority, grace, and power.
Recommended for: fans of Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lindsay Hunter.
11. Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu (Perfect Edge Books)
If you took the world building of Philip K. Dick, and added in the gritty reality and humor of Haruki Murakami, with a touch of Aldous Huxley (of course), you would get Bald New World. An emerging voice, Tieryas has created a fascinating setting where everyone has lost their hair and wigs become the new currency. North Korean spies, digital cricket fighting, and eccentric filmmakers help to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, leading to a devastating conclusion.
Recommended for: fans of Quentin Tarantino, Blade Runner, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and bizarro, surreal, satirical fiction. And Mr. Clean.
12. Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones (Two Dollar Radio)
Crystal Eaters is the story of Remy, a young girl who believes in the crystal count — the idea that we are all born with 100 crystals — and over our lives deplete this count through our actions, illnesses and accidents. This is a powerful narrative that touches on the value of every human life, with a lyrical voice and layers of imagery and epiphany.
Recommended for: readers who enjoy experimental fiction, as well as fans of magical realism, epic poems, and mythology.
13. Cataract City by Craig Davidson (Graywolf)
If you haven’t read Davidson’s previous books, The Fighter, Rust & Bone, or Sarah Court, then you’ve been missing out. A master of boxing and fight scenes, Davidson knows that behind those violent moments lurk the layers of emotion and dysfunction that hold many relationships together. Short-listed for the Giller Prize, a major literary award for Canadian fiction, it hits the U.S. this summer, and holds a world filled with dog racing, bare-knuckle fighting, and nighttime smuggling.
Recommended for: fans of fisticuffs, Niagara Falls, and seamy underbellies
14. The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson (Tin House)
“Lacy Johnson was held prisoner in a soundproofed room in a basement apartment that her ex-boyfriend rented and outfitted for the sole purpose of raping and killing her. She escaped, but not unscathed.” Not your typical memoir. But imagine the thoughts and emotions of Johnson, the enlightenment and condemnation that must come from such a terrifying and tense experience.
Recommended for: memoir fans that don’t like their stories safe, such as The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers.
15. The Heart Does Not Grow Back by Fred Venturini (Picador)
A book originally titled The Samaritan, and published in 2010 by Blank Slate Press, has been rewritten, re-edited, and, in the words of the author, “evolved.” Now with a new ending, The Heart Does Not Grow Back tells the story of Dale Sampson, a small-town geek turned baseball star who discovers that he can regenerate injured body parts. This is a funny book, but also astute in its observations about human nature and celebrity.
Recommended for: those looking for a bit of dark comedy to break up the serious titles on their shelf.
Richard Thomas is the author of three books—Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, and Staring Into the Abyss. He is also the editor of three anthologies out in 2014: The New Black, The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Authors, and Burnt Tongues with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com. Follow him on Twitter.