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The Piano Man by Marcia Preston. Three years after the death of her son, Nathan, Claire O’Neal’s life remains flat and hopeless. But with the unexpected discovery of a forgotten letter, written by the wife of the man who received Nathan’s heart, Claire feels as if she has been given a chance to reconnect with her son. Imagine her shock when she finds the recipient of her son’s heart playing piano in a seedy bar, a chain-smoking, down on his luck cynic.
Recipes for a Perfect Marriage by Morag Prunty. Once all the excitement of the wedding is behind her, Tressa is struck with an awful idea: Maybe Dan isn’t the great love of her life. Into this mess of uncertainty comes the journals and recipes of her grandmother Bernadine. The unexpected secret to marital bliss unfolds through the voices and shared recipes of Tressa and Bernadine. They are generations and oceans apart yet together they learn that marriage is both sturdy and fragile, and never to be taken for granted.
The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates. In these gripping and disturbing tales, women are confronted by the evil around then and surprised by the evil they find within themselves. With wicked insight, Oates demonstrates why the female of the species—be they six-year-old girls, seemingly devoted wives, or aging mothers—are by nature more deadly than the males.
The Catastrophist by Lawrence Douglas. The specter of imminent fatherhood sends young, neurotic academic Daniel Wellington into a full-blown existential crisis. Soon he finds himself plotting bigamy, lying about his past, imagining his wife in the arms of a student, and explaining to the dean why he e-mailed an obscene suggestion to a student actress. Naturally, Daniel’s hilariously deranged behavior brings about the very catastrophes he fears most.
Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach. Melanie Marsh is determined to fight to teach her autistic son Daniel to speak, play, and become as “normal” as possible. The situation is not helped by Melanie’s shaky marriage to true Brit Stephen and Stephen’s far-from- supportive parents. But Melanie does have one strong ally in Andy, a talented and off-the-wall play therapist who specializes in teaching autistic children.
Toss the Bride by Jennifer Manske Fenske. Working for a high-profile wedding planner in Atlanta, Macie Fuller is having trouble making up her mind about her own marriage. When boyfriend Avery finally does ask her, Macie’s reaction shocks everyone. She simply can’t relate to Avery’s jet-set lifestyle while she scrambles to pay the bills. Then there’s Avery’s mother, who married into family money and seems desperately unhappy. Will that happen to Macie, too?
Riding with John Wayne by Aaron Latham. Chick Goodnight has arrived in Hollywood to write a screenplay about an ancestor who more or less invented the Texas cowboy of the 1870s. As the film’s director—Hollywood veteran Jamie Stone—shows Chick how to write for the screen, he finds his Western-inspired code of ethics challenged by an industry suffused with venality and lechery. But culture shock becomes the least of Chick’s worries when his young cousin, an aspiring actress, dies under suspicious circumstances.
The Prisoner Pear by Elissa Minor Rust. The dozen stories presented here take place in an affluent suburb of Portland. Each story begins with an entry from the local paper’s police blotter. The author fills in the backgrounds to these small, odd events—a headless parakeet found in a mailbox, a nude jogger, a deathlike discarded stuffed toy—giving them weight and consequence. Her stories, both humorous and disturbing, dive beneath the clear surface of a community into the murky world that swirls beneath.
The Little Balloonist by Linda Donn. In post-revolutionary Paris a young widow inherits her late husband’s dangerous but much-celebrated hydrogen balloon. Sophie wins fame throughout France for her feats in the air. As a result, she finds herself welcomed into the circles of nineteenth century luminaries where she wins the love of two very different men. One is her faithful childhood friend, Andre Giroux. The other is Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont. The hideous murder of the fringe pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft—victim of a mysterious death that literally makes the skin crawl—sets Walter Gibson, the mind behind the Shadow, and Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage, on a collision course with each other and face to face with a terrifying and very real evil that could have sprung from the pages of their own pulp novels.
Prop by Pete Hautman. Peeky Kane is a prop player at an Arizona casino owned by the Santa Cruz tribe. When a band of clown-masked robbers makes off with millions of the casino’s dollars and leaves behind four corpses, Peeky recognizes one of the robbers as a casino employee. That same day, Peeky’s son-in-law turns up to tell her that Jaymie, her daughter, has been stealing money from Peeky for years to feed a crack habit.
In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders. The stories in In Persuasion Nation work to produce a whole, unsettling portrait of a country beautiful and horrific, blessed and aggressive, where truth is hostage to commerce and grace springs up in unexpected places. “The Red Bow” won the 2004 National Magazine Award, and “Bohemians” appeared in the 2005 Best American Short Stories.
Literacy and Longing in L.A. by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack. Dora is an indiscriminate book junkie whose life has fallen apart. She’s coping with a painful separation from her husband, scraping the bottom of a dwindling inheritance, and attracted to a seductive bookseller. Joining Dora in her odyssey is an elderly society hair brusher, a heartbroken young girl, a hilarious off-the-wall female teamster, and Dora’s mother, now on the wagon, trying to make amends.
The Unsettling by Peter Rock. A lonely man saving library books from an outbreak of mold listens to a coworker’s tale about a blind woman and imbues it with his own sense of romance; a woman drives a gold Firebird through the desert with a television on the passenger seat playing “Rockford Files” reruns; a girl returns to her childhood home and spies on its new inhabitants; and a Poe-obsessed medical examiner brings hope to a dark and desperate city. Stories and a novella.
About Yvonne by Donna Massini. “I have been stalking my husband’s lover,” says Terry Spera at the beginning of this novel. We watch as Terry begins to follow Yvonne through the streets of Manhattan, to her apartment on the Upper West Side, and as she begins to make even more alarming inroads into Yvonne’s life. As she tries to maintain a semblance of normal life with her husband, Mark, we, like Terry, veer from certainty to uncertainty. Is Mark having an affair?
Voodoo Heart by Scott Snyder. Snyder’s protagonists inhabit a playfully deranged fictional world in which a Wall Street trader can find himself armed with a spear gun, guarding a dumpster outside a pawnshop in Florida; or an employee at Niagara Falls will take off in a car after a blimp in which his girlfriend has escaped. In Snyder’s imagination there’s a thin membrane between the whimsical and the disturbing.