My Nominations for the 2014 NBCC Leonard Award

Last year, the National Book Critics Circle introduced a new award for first books, the John Leonard Award, as determined by members of the NBCC. The book may be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or any other genre, so long as it’s the author’s debut. The inaugural award went to Anthony Marra for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Members may nominate up to five books for the award, and if I had to guess, this year’s prize will probably go to heavy favorites like Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng or Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, two absolutely brilliant, deserving pieces of work.

But I’d like to use the nominations to highlight some not-so-heavy favorites, mostly books from smaller presses that I believe deserve wider attention and exposure. And while I read some great nonfiction (The Sixth Extinction) and poetry this year, none of them were debuts, so all five of my nominations are fiction.

niemNobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
FSG Originals

A Manhattanite abruptly abandons her life and her husband for a one-way ticket to New Zealand, where she drifts among the cars and homes of strangers and the island’s vast wilderness. A beautiful and funny book that isn’t afraid to take stylistic risks.

There’s nothing better about living in a farm than living in a city. You can’t just go sit in a pretty landscape and bet on it changing you into a better person.


nisNigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Unnamed Press

I also picked Olukotun’s novel as one of my favorite works of speculative fiction in 2014. In mid-90’s Houston, Dr. Wale Olufunmi is tasked with stealing a piece of the moon from the United States and returning it to Nigeria.

It’s time for a great mind of Nigeria to return home. You’re the mind we need, Doctor. The marsh can’t pretend that it isn’t fed by the river. You’re a part of Nigeria, too.


tbhThe Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books

I reviewed Rader-Day’s debut thriller for Bookpage. A Chicago sociology professor is gunned down by a student she’s never met. Months later, she returns to campus and solves the mystery of who tried to kill her and why. I challenge you not to devour this book in one breathless sitting.

I don’t know what they all thought—that I baited a troubled kid, drove him insane with sex or quid pro quo grading practices, and then suffered the only outcome that made any sense? Got what I deserved? Asked for it?

fojcFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Montana, 1979. A social worker investigates the living conditions of a troubled boy, the son of a dangerous End Times survivalist/preacher. But the social worker has family issues of his own, and is soon caught up in an FBI manhunt for the boy’s father. Henderson’s density and tone approach Cormac McCarthy’s mastery of voice.

Chromed long-haulers glinted like showgirls among logging trucks caked in oatmealy mud, white exhaust thrashing flamelike in the wind from their silvery stacks.

twThe Wilds by Julia Elliott
Tin House Books

Elliott teaches at the University of South Carolina, and her debut collection of strange, dark, genre-defying short stories brings to mind the great SF/F master Jeffrey Ford. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction…take your pick, and you’ll find something to love in The Wilds. Not recommended on a full stomach, however.

Every year spring came to Whitmire, South Carolina, with its riot of flowers and bees, promising a larger world. For a while, summer would live up to this promise. But soon the dog days would descend and trap you in a bubble of gaseous heat. Amnesia would set in, wiping out all dreams of escape until autumn pricked you out of your stupor.


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