‘Noteworthy’ salutes Southern California authors whose books made an impact in 2023 – Orange County Register

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Great new books get published every day. Just take our own little corner of the world: It’s almost impossible to capture the breadth and scope of Southern California’s literary scene and its impact on the nation’s book culture. Let’s take a look back for a bit and appreciate some of the highlights of last year.

“Despite hard times for the publishing trade, we saw an especially rich variety of nonfiction, fiction and poetry from Southern California writers last year,” said Tom Zoellner, editor-at-large for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “The challenge for readers is figuring out where to go without a map. There was no one ‘big book’ that everyone had to read, but we instead saw a panoply of titles representing different niches of the region and appealing to a range of tastes, from the mainstream to the weird. For those willing to plunge into different literary worlds without a lot of curation or guidance, it was a very good year.”

We here at the Southern California News Group don’t believe awards or “best of” lists tell the whole story when it comes to the broad reach — not to mention appeal — of literature. At the same time, it’s true that each year certain authors and the books they’ve published strike a chord that resonates deeply in the hearts of many readers, and impacts the culture at large in unexpected ways.

To that end, we offer “Noteworthy,” our third annual salute, as selected by our editors, to Southern California authors whose books in the past year helped shape conversations, garnered attention from critics and readers alike, made powerful statements and delivered compelling reading experiences. These authors’ influence reached beyond the region and reverberated across the nation. Their works connected us, enlightened us, provoked us, entertained and inspired us. For that, we celebrate them.

• Also see: ‘Noteworthy’ books from Southern California authors in 2021 and 2022

Justin Torres

“Blackouts”

“We the Animals” turned first-time author Justin Torres into a literary star in 2011.

Torres told our reporter Michael Schaub that he wrote his first novel while working a series of bad jobs, but everything changed after it was published — there was even a movie based on the book.

“When I was writing ‘We the Animals,’ I was broke,” he recalled. “After the book came out, I had stability. I got these fancy fellowships, and then I became a professor at UCLA, and I had time to write built into my job. So I wasn’t snatching bits of time whenever I could, but instead had it be the center of my life.”

More than a decade later, he cemented his literary reputation with “Blackouts,” which earned the 2023 National Book Award for Fiction.

Justin Torres, a writer and professor at UCLA, lost an entire manuscript before writing “Blackouts,” which was nominated for the National Book Award. (Photo credit: JJ Geiger / Courtesy of Farrar Straus & Giroux)

The lyrical, dreamlike story follows a young, unnamed narrator tending to his dying older friend, who has dedicated his life to his pet project, based on a 1941 book, “Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns.” The innovative structure of “Blackouts” is meant to mirror the lost histories of queer folk both individually and collectively, featuring photos of textbook pages with redacted or blacked-out sentences.

Critics were enamored of the book; NPR’s Maureen Corrigan called it “Sweeping, ingenious … A kiss to build a dream on,” while Hamilton Cain with the Star Tribune described it as a “tour de force.” In addition to winning the prestigious National Book Award for Fiction, the novel also was longlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The list of outlets naming it one of the year’s best books is too long to fit here but includes The New York Times Book Review, NPR, The Washington Post, Time and The New York Public Library. It was called a must-read by Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, Boston Herald, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Electric Literature and Publishers Weekly, among others.

And yet, here’s the catch: This work that resonated with so many wasn’t initially the one he set out to write, Torres told our reporter: “I was writing these stories about … this young man in his twenties, and I lost the manuscript. I had certain pieces that I’d emailed myself, but everything else was on a laptop that I physically lost. So some of those vestigial elements I worked into what became “Blackouts,” but pretty soon after that, I started thinking about having this book be a kind of Socratic dialogue. I was really interested in writing about intergenerational conversation and wisdom talking to youth, and I really wanted to have lots of literary allusions.”

Tod Goldberg

“Gangsters Don’t Die”

A well-known voice in the region’s lit scene and an advocate for his fellow SoCal authors, that’s Tod Goldberg. The director of UC Riverside’s low-residency MFA program and co-host of the podcast “Literary Disco,” Goldberg has published 16 books including “Living Dead Girl,” “The House of Secrets” (co-written with Brad Meltzer) and the short story collection “The Low Desert.”

But it is his noir trilogy — the novels “Gangsterland,” “Gangster Nation” and the 2023 final installment, “Gangsters Don’t Die” — that might be his most distinctive creation.As SCNG’s books editor Erik Pedersen explained in an article on Goldberg and his brother Lee, who also is a successful novelist, the trilogy follows hitman Sal Cupertine as he hides out from both the feds and the mob under the assumed identity of Rabbi David Cohen, “a man of wisdom and faith known to quote from both the Talmud and the gospel of Bruce Springsteen.” The ultimate anti-hero, Cupertine/Cohen is both an effective spiritual leader and “a stone-cold killer when he deems it necessary.”

The trilogy’s final installment, “Gangsters Don’t Die,” earned a slew of kudos, notably a Southwest Book of the Year and nomination for Reading the West Book Awards, as well as being an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and one of The Washington Post’s Most Anticipated Titles.

And in naming “Gangsters Don’t Die” a Notable Book of 2023, CrimeReads’ Dwyer Murphy said, “Goldberg’s Gangsterland series has been one of the standouts in the world of crime fiction in recent years. … Sal Cupertino, the hit man on the lam, posing as a rabbi, is one of the more original figures you’ll come across, and now he’s making one last desperate gambit to get his life back. You won’t want to miss these books, so if you haven’t already, brush up on your Goldberg.”

Diane Marie Brown

“Black Candle Women”

Diane Marie Brown enthralled 800 women attending the 42nd annual Literary Women Festival of Authors at the Long Beach Convention Center with stories about her writing journey and publication of her first book at age 50 which may be turned into a television series. (Photo: Rich Archbold)
Diane Marie Brown enthralled 800 women attending the 42nd annual Literary Women Festival of Authors at the Long Beach Convention Center with stories about her writing journey and publication of her first book at age 50 which may be turned into a television series. (Photo: Rich Archbold)

Long Beach-based Diane Marie Brown has had a comfortable career as a professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa and a public health professional for the Long Beach Health Department, respectively. In addition to degrees from UCLA, Brown earned a degree in fiction from USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program, and had work published in places like Bomb Magazine, Hear Our Voices, Scary Mommy, the Audible Blog and the Daily Bruin.

And then her first novel, “Black Candle Women,” was published.

It launched her writing career into the successful author stratosphere.

“Black Candle Women” was a Read with Jenna Book Club Pick on the “Today” show and hit bestseller lists around the country. Plus, it was named a Best Book of the Month by Shondaland, Ms. Magazine, TODAY.com, Reader’s Digest, Katie Couric Media, AARP Sisters, Goodreads and BookRiot.

The story is a family drama with a magical twist — it’s about four generations of Black women living in California, a voodoo love curse that goes back to New Orleans, and the secrets the women keep for and from each other. Expect to see it on the small screen in the coming years because it’s in production as a TV series.

And with all that, Brown still keeps her day jobs.

“You can have more than one dream, you can do more than one thing,” she said on “Today.”

But, she added, writing makes her happy, so expect to see more of Brown’s hopeful, love-filled tales. As she told UCLA’s Daily Bruin, “I want to write books that show that, despite the craziness in the world and the unpredictability of things, we can create lives that we feel are worth living and, most importantly, in our relationships with others, in our friendships and our family members.”

Edan Lepucki

“Time’s Mouth”

Edan Lepucki is the author of "Times Mouth." (Photo by Ralph Palumbo / Courtesy of Counterpoint)
Edan Lepucki is the author of “Times Mouth.” (Photo by Ralph Palumbo / Courtesy of Counterpoint)

“Sometimes when I look at the light in L.A., or I go to Marin County, or Eureka, where it truly looks like a magical fairytale land, I think, ‘There’s something objectively about this place that is special and different,’” Edan Lepucki told us in our interview for her third novel, “Time’s Mouth.” 

The story by this quintessentially Californian writer, who first earned bestseller status over a decade ago with her debut novel titled — what else? — “California,” also takes place in the Golden State. It spans San Francisco and Santa Cruz’s redwood forests, to the shabby glamor of Melrose Avenue and the oil derricks off La Cienega Boulevard in LA. The mind-bending family saga delves into intergenerational trauma in a surprising way, beginning with a time traveler who forms a cult for pregnant women in the woods.

The novel garnered a lot of attention, from being longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize to making most-anticipated-book lists in no less than Time, Salon, Literary Hub, The Millions and Library Journal. Science Friday named it a Best Book of the Year, too. “Rich and riveting” People magazine called it when it was named Book of the Week

But the novel almost had another title, a secret she confessed to SCNG’s book editor Erik Pedersen: “The book was almost called “The Accumulators” — but that really didn’t make sense, so…”

Yunte Huang

“Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History”

Our reviewer Michael Schaub named this biography by UC Santa Barbara English professor Yunte Huang a must-read title, way before the book earned a nod as both a New York Times Notable Book of 2023 and one of its 10 Best California Books of 2023. It garnered best-book kudos from a slew of other outlets as well, including Smithsonian, BookRiot, The Atlantic and Christian Science Monitor.

L.A. native Wong was the world’s first Chinese American movie star, celebrated for her performances in “The Thief of Bagdad” and “Piccadilly.” This biography follows her from Hollywood to Berlin to Shanghai — and then to Santa Monica, where she died in 1961 at age 56.

Yunte Huang grew up in southeastern China, moving to Alabama in 1991. His previous books include the nonfiction titles “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History” and “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History.” Of “Daughter of the Dragon,” a New York Times reviewer called Huang “a wry and generous storyteller.”

Tananarive Due

“The Reformatory”

Very scary is the specialty of Tananarive Due, who teaches Afrofuturism and Black Horror at UCLA. The author of several novels and the short story collections “Ghost Summer: Stories” and “The Wishing Pool and Other Stories,” Due was an executive producer on “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.” She’s co-written the graphic novel “The Keeper” and an episode of “The Twilight Zone” with her husband, science fiction author Steven Barnes.

But with “The Reformatory” — a novel set in the Jim Crow South made all the more terrifying because of its historic resonance — Due took it up a notch: NPR’s reviewer called the novel “one of the best novels published in 2023. A superb mix of literary fiction, horror and historical fiction, ‘The Reformatory’ tells a story of inequality, ghosts, abuse and the power of love between siblings.”

The book saw critical acclaim from The Washington Post, Library Journal, Kirkus and others, earning a Notable Book of the Year nod from the New York Times, and a Best Book mention from the American Library Association.

But as she told editor Erik Pedersen in The Book Pages newsletter, she nearly abandoned “The Reformatory”:

“I almost stopped writing “The Reformatory” when I heard that “The Nickel Boys” would be published. Colson Whitehead is one of my favorite writers, I knew it would be impactful (it won a Pulitzer!) and I didn’t think there would be room left for another novel fictionalizing the Dozier school. Luckily, my family and my agent encouraged me to keep writing.”

Héctor Tobar

“Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of ‘Latino’”

Pulitzer Prize-winning-journalist-turned-bestselling author Héctor Tobar is known for writing impactful prose. His two novels are “The Tattooed Soldier,” which follows a Guatemalan immigrant to LA during the 1992 riots, and “The Barbarian Nurseries,” about a Mexican woman working as a live-in maid in Orange County who must care for two young boys when their parents disappear. His book “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free,” was a bestseller that was adapted into the film “The 33.”

In 2023, Tobar, now a professor of English and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine, came out with the powerful nonfiction release, “Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of ‘Latino.’” The work expertly blends memoir, reportage, and cultural criticism to explore the essence of Latino identity. Critics raved: It won the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, was named one of Notable Books of 2023 by both Time and the New York Times, and was a Top 10 Book of 2023 at Chicago Public Library.

The book begins with a prologue addressed to his students at UCI. Tobar told our reviewer that he “felt the need to do something like what James Baldwin does in the beginning of ‘The Fire Next Time,’ or Ta-Nehisi Coates does in ‘Between the World and Me,’ addressing this younger generation.”

Henry Hoke

“Open Throat”

Henry Hoke is the author of the novel "Open Throat," which was inspired in part by the mountain lion P-22. (Photo credit Myles Pettengill / Courtesy of MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Henry Hoke is the author of the novel “Open Throat,” which was inspired in part by the mountain lion P-22. (Photo credit Myles Pettengill / Courtesy of MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Writer Henry Hoke, who went to graduate school and later taught at the California Institute of the Arts, turned his fascination with the wild mountain lion known as P-22 into a slim but captivating novel inspired by the big cat: “Open Throat” follows a queer mountain lion as it lives in drought-devastated Los Angeles. and tries to understand the city’s humans.

The weird and haunting tale captured the imagination of critics far and wide, earning it a finalist spot for the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize and longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award. It was one of the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Fiction and also one of The New York Times’ 10 Best California Books of 2023. Vanity Fair’s reviewer said, “This lyrical story of loneliness and kinship in Los Angeles is, by turns, delightful and melancholy — and inventive throughout.”

But perhaps the strangest part of the story is how the book got its title, as Hoke explained to our writer in The Book Pages newsletter: “Anthony Bourdain came to me in a dream and gave me my title. I was leaving a restaurant on Sullivan Street in Manhattan and he was leaning against a wall finishing a cigarette. He dropped it, stamped it out and said ‘By the way, your book’s called ‘Open Throat.’”

Ruth Madievsky

“All-Night Pharmacy”

A Los Angeles-based writer and graduate of USC’s pharmacy program, Ruth Madievsky had an idea for her debut novel. “I kind of thought I was writing a feminist ‘Jesus’ Son’ of the opioid epidemic,” said Madievsky. “That was the first thought that I had in 2014 when I was just out of undergrad, and like everyone else who took fiction classes, I wanted to write a Denis Johnson knockoff.”

But what she ended up with was a unique and propulsive tale about substance abuse and recovery and pain passed down through generations that became a nationwide bestseller — and won the National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction. It also racked up other kudos, including a Shondaland Best Book of the Summer, a Best Debut of the Year by Chicago Review of Books and Goodreads’ Buzziest Debut Novel of the Year.

She told our reporter Liz Ohanesian that her day job as an HIV and primary care clinical pharmacist, where she spends a lot of time talking to people to try to help them find the right medication, ended up informing the novel in surprising ways: “That work to figure out people’s desires and what they need to live meaningfully, I think that was pretty helpful with constructing characters for the novel too.”

Mona Gable

“Searching for Savanna: The Murder of One Native American Woman and the Violence Against the Many”

Publishers Weekly called LA-based journalist Mona Gable’s nonfiction title a “shocking true crime saga” that draws attention to the widespread violence against Native American women by zeroing in on a single, gruesome case of it.

For that alone, this thoroughly researched and compellingly written work was notable to us.

The statistics are gut-wrenching, as we detailed in our coverage of Gable’s book: On some reservations, Native American women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average. Nearly one in three Native American and Alaska Native women will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.

Gable — whose articles have been published in The Atlantic, Vogue and The Daily Beast, among others — has long reported on violence against women, but with “Searching for Savannah,” about the bizarre, unexplained disappearance of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old Indigenous woman in North Dakota who was eight months pregnant, the writer delved into the troubling problem of unsolved cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“Once I really found out how widespread this violence is and how long it had been going on against Native American women, I really wanted that to be a central theme of the book rather than just, ‘Oh, look at this horrific murder,’” said Gable, whose paternal grandmother was a member of the Chickasaw Nation. “What really motivated me was trying to not just tell Savanna’s story but the larger story of other women and girls, and what Native American advocates are doing — and have been doing — to try and draw attention to this problem.”

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