The Best Literature & Fiction of January

Erin Kodicek on January 23, 2019

Our favorite fiction of the month includes the latest from the Man Booker Prize-nominee of The Fisherman, a Prohibition-era historical thriller, Southern noir, a sophisticated domestic drama, and more.

See all of our literature and fiction picks, or browse the rest of the Best Books of the Month

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An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

In 2015, Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s debut, The Fisherman, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and announced the arrival of a talented new author. There is no drop-off in his sophomore effort, An Orchestra of Minorities, about a young farmer who, having fallen in love with a woman from a wealthy family, risks everything to prove his worth. As he did in his first novel, Obioma merges African and western storytelling traditions—in this case, the tale is narrated by the young man’s chi, or guardian spirit, and the story is patterned after The Odyssey—to create a dramatic, character-based novel. Readers will become immersed in his main character Chinonso’s journey, but it will leave them thinking about bigger themes as well—like the balance between self-determination and fate (or luck); and about the capacity for some to take advantage of others, and how that sort of mistreatment gets paid forward. --Chris Schluep

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The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye

When Alice “Nobody” arrives in Portland, Oregon, it is 1921, and she’s just gotten off a cross-country train from New York. She’s got a suitcase, a recently-acquired traveling companion named Max, and a bullet wound (sustained in a drug deal gone wrong back in Harlem) to remind her that her presence is no longer welcome back East. Portland’s only all-black hotel may not seem like the logical place for a white woman to hide out, but Max works there, and tells her: “you’re coming with me, all right? I know a girl what don’t fancy a regular-type doctor when I see one.” However, the KKK has also arrived in Portland and is mounting a campaign of terror. So when a mixed race orphan from the hotel goes missing, Alice may be the only hotel guest who can safely make inquiries. The darkly topical issue of race violence underpins the plot here, and Faye’s meticulous attention to period detail won’t let her shy away from depicting its ugliness accurately, but ultimately The Paragon Hotel’s message is full of heart, delivered by a lively, wise, and witty cast of grifters and gangsters, cabaret singers, and crooked cops. —Vannessa Cronin

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The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

In the exquisite The Far Field, Shalini’s mother, a Bangalore housewife with a secret, holds the world at arm’s length. Caustic and inscrutable, she withholds affection, even from her daughter. After her mother’s death, grief propels Shalini to track down a figure from her childhood, a traveling salesman who visited her mother for years before disappearing. Certain that his disappearance and her mother’s death are linked, Shalini travels to his hometown, Kashmir, and into the heart of a community roiling with political strife. Sheltered and privileged, Shalini’s yearnings gives way to an awakening as she makes the deep, human connections with the Kashmiri people that evaded her in her life in Bangalore. Vijay does a superb job of showing how the personal and the political spark off one another to drive change in both. But when violence erupts in Kashmir, difficult choices must be made and sobering lessons learned about privilege, Indian history, class prejudice, violence, and sexuality. --Vannessa Cronin

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Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Jodi McCarty just can’t catch a break. Fresh out a 18-year stint in prison, for a mysterious crime we learn about as the story unfolds, she is eager to return to her slice of Shangri-La in the Appalachian Mountains. But first she takes a detour that, however well-meaning, ends up threatening to throw her aim of staying on the straight and narrow off course. Mesha Maren packs a lot into Sugar Run, a Southern noir that follows our heroine’s dogged attempts to rebuild her life, efforts that are stymied by things both outside and inside her control (for starters, the woman has woefully terrible taste in romantic partners). Maren writes beautifully and with keen insight, but what makes this debut truly special is her ability to engender compassion in deeply flawed characters; that’s the power of good fiction. --Erin Kodicek

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Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

When there is a death in the family, even a friend's family, the hope is that the loss, though devastating, will bring those left behind closer together. Alas, this is not the case for three friends in Tessa Hadley's latest novel. When Zach unexpectedly dies they discover how easily their friendships fracture beneath the weight of past grievances. Once again Hadley proves a deft hand at domestic drama; Late in the Day is a astute, compassionate look at the old adage: The only thing constant is change. --Erin Kodicek

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