The Moon in Our Hands by Thomas Dyja (Carroll & Graf). Author Dyja takes his starting point from a true-life episode in the life of Walter White, an early 20th century civil rights pioneer who easily "passed" for white. The NAACP sent White to Tennessee in 1918 to infiltrate the town's establishment and investigate a particularly brutal lynching. His racial secret and his increasingly complicated double life make for a fine, suspenseful thriller that later turns into a complex, ambiguous character study of White himself. (John Grooms)
Without A Net by Michelle Kennedy (Viking). A riveting true story of, and by, a college student who in the course of a year transitioned to being a middle-class housewife and then to a 25-year-old homeless single mother and waitress living out of her car. We always hear how easy it is to become homeless these days — a bad judgment call here, some bad luck there, and poof, you're toast — and Kennedy's story brings it all home powerfully. She finds romance with a co-worker and eventually crawls from the wreckage, but this is a story that will have many readers nodding their heads in recognition of what could happen. (Dana Renaldi)
Watermelon Wine by Frye Gaillard (NewSouth Books). This classic of music reporting, newly released in a 25th anniversary edition, is where I first read anything by Gaillard. I was impressed then, and am even more impressed now, with his grasp of what was happening in country music in those days. By writing of various subjects — the country "outlaws" led by Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr.; how feminism was changing the music; Johnny Cash's way of inspiring new songwriters; and, ominously, the increasing influence of Southern rock — Gaillard presents a big, honest, and at times prescient picture of a genre in transition, as much influenced by the times as vice versa. This edition also includes a valuable afterword. (John Grooms)
The Rope Eater by Ben Jones (Anchor Books). A beautifully written novel that builds on recent cultural interest in early polar explorations, The Rope Eater tells the fictional tale of a 19th century expedition sailing north from Massachusetts to the Arctic. Rough-and-tumble sailors hoping for gold are treated to dodging icebergs in a state of cold, wet misery. Some of the elements of the story — the strong leader, a character's descent into madness, etc. — will be familiar to anyone who has read of the exploits of Ernest Shackleton or Robert Falcon Scott. Jones, however, isn't stripmining myths here, but rather using that familiarity to dig deeper into human nature and expand the scope of the novel. (Pat Hiller).
Waterborne by Bruce Murkoff (Vintage). It's rare to find a first novel as big, bold, courageous, and full of passion as this one. This rich tale of the building of the massive Boulder Dam during the Great Depression features engineers, builders, and architects commingling with workers, waitresses, bootleggers, gamblers and prostitutes in a wide-ranging, superbly written novel. Author Murkoff presents America's possibilities and disillusionments as the stuff of mythology, and makes it work. (Amy Rogers)
Dancing With Cuba by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage). This could be renamed Portrait of the Journalist As A Young Artist. Guillermopreto is well-known for her passionate reporting on Latin America but, as she details here, in her youth she was a dancer who studied with the likes of Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp. In 1970, completely unprepared for the culture shock to follow, she took a job teaching dance in Havana. The time she spent there, trying to teach talented students in a severely underfunded school, makes for a fascinating, highly involving memoir of awakening — to politics, to the complexities and paradoxes of life, to the sorrow of quashed ideals, and, fortunately, to her calling as a journalist. (John Grooms)