Home Los Angeles News ‘Noteworthy’ celebrates 10 books by Southern California authors

‘Noteworthy’ celebrates 10 books by Southern California authors

‘Noteworthy’ celebrates 10 books by Southern California authors

Among the many wonderful books published by Southern California authors in the past year, some struck a particular chord: They not only helped shape conversations and made powerful, unique statements, but they also captured wide critical acclaim. Not to mention they were just plain old great reads.

The works of these writers reached beyond the region and resonated across the nation. Whether first-time novelists or longtime published authors, their books did what lasting literature always does: connected, enlightened, entertained and inspired.

This marks the second year of Noteworthy: Call it our salute, as selected by SCNG editors, to Southern California authors whose books stood out to us, for all the reasons above.

Melissa Chadburn

“A Tiny Upward Shove” (FSG)

“A Tiny, Upward Shove” feels like a novel only Melissa Chadburn could write, combining her unique history and education: She is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at the University of Southern California with an impressive list of published articles, many of which pull from her experience growing up poor in the foster care system. (Courtesy of FSG Books)

Stunning, lyrical language weaves together a murder mystery, tragedies of the foster care system, Filipino mythology and a love story in Melissa Chadburn’s debut novel, “A Tiny Upward Shove.”

Chadburn, whose works of criticism and reportage have been published in the Paris Review, New York Review of Books and elsewhere, earned wide attention from the literary world with her fresh and compelling fiction debut: It made best book lists from New York Magazine, Buzzfeed, Ms. Magazine, Alta, The Millions and many others.

Chadburn, a Ph.D. candidate at USC who lives in San Bernardino County, told SCNG that one of her goals in writing is to “always trouble our ideas of justice.”

“Because I work in so many different genres, whenever I approach a new piece I often find that early part of writing container hunting. That is, finding the right container for the piece. In this case, I wanted to tell a WHOLE story, unbound by the limitations of, say, the both-sidism in journalism. Fiction allowed me to bring in magic and memory.”

John Cho

“Troublemaker” (Little, Brown)

Actor John Cho's new book,
Actor John Cho’s new book, “Troublemaker,” is a middle-grade novel featuring a young Korean-American boy in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating case. (Photo by Benjo Arwas, book art courtesy of Little, Brown and Company)

John Cho has been known to audiences for acting roles in “Star Trek” and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” among others. But last year he added “successful writer” to his résumé. His middle-grade reader titled “Troublemaker” captured readers’ attention and climbed the ranks of bestseller lists locally, not to mention in the New York Times and IndieBound.

The unrest of 2020 following George Floyd’s murder spurred Cho to create this story, set during he 1992 L.A. uprisings. “Troublemaker” deftly and poignantly tackles racial justice, violence and the ways children navigate a sometimes dangerous and confusing world.

“I thought it would be great to put something on a shelf,” Cho told SCNG’s Peter Larsen. “What excited me was thinking about myself at that age, walking into a library and seeing someone that looked like me on the cover, which never happened to me. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a reason to spend some time at a computer.’ ” Readers are glad he did.

Reyna Grande

“A Ballad of Love and Glory” (Atria Books)

Novelist Reyna Grande is the author of
Novelist Reyna Grande is the author of “A Ballad of Love and Glory.” (Photo by Imran Chaudhry / Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Since her acclaimed 2012 memoir “The Distance Between Us,” L.A.’s Reyna Grande has grown into a leading voice for Mexican Americans and immigrants of every origin. A fierce advocate for Latino literature, Grande is a highly regarded speaker at high schools, colleges and universities across the nation.

The sweeping epic “A Ballad of Love and Glory” is an ambitious addition to her body of work. The Mexican American War of 1846 might be a footnote in many history classes, but in this novel Grande reframes it not as a “war” but an invasion by American land-grabbers, the legacy of which continues to resonate across both nations.

Grande told SCNG it took her more than seven years to write this story. “I kept putting it away because I was so intimidated by it, and I kept thinking that I had bitten off more than I could chew and that I didn’t have it in me to write this book. Once I finished the draft and the revising started, I started feeling more confident that I could do it.” Could she ever.

Tess Gunty

“The Rabbit Hutch” (Knopf)

Tess Gunty won the National Book Award for fiction for her novel
Tess Gunty won the National Book Award for fiction for her novel “The Rabbit Hutch.” (Photo credit: Lauren Alexandra / Courtesy of Knopf)

Winning the National Book Award for your first published work is no small feat – not to mention having it named among the best books of the year by NPR, Time, Oprah Daily and People, along with a host of other accolades.

But that’s exactly what happened for L.A.-based Tess Gunty, author of “The Rabbit Hutch.” Underneath its tableau of strange and compelling characters searching for meaning as their lives intertwine in an apartment building, this novel offers brilliant and biting commentaries on crumbling cities, religion and power dynamics between men and women. It is, in a word, dazzling.

But if Gunty had taken the advice of some well-meaning habitués of the publishing industry, none of that might have happened. “I received a lot of advice from people who told me to try to do something a little safer, a little less risky,” she told SCNG. “That was advice that I found incredibly depressing for a long time because I didn’t know how to not be myself or not be weird.” Thankfully, she kept it weird.

Michelle Huneven

“Search” (Penguin)

Altadena-based novelist Michelle Huneven has just published her latest novel
Altadena-based novelist Michelle Huneven has just published her latest novel “Search.” (Photo by Courtney Gregg / Penguin Press)

Altadena resident Michelle Huneven has garnered many laurels for her writing over the years – a James Beard Foundation award for her food writing, a nod from the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, to name a few.

But in 2022’s “Search,” she combined her elegant prose and gastronomic skill in a totally unique way: It’s a novel written as if it’s the memoir of the main character – with recipes. NPR named it one of the best novels of the year.

The novel’s protagonist is a restaurant critic and sometime churchgoer who is trying to drum up an idea for her next literary project. When she’s recruited by her Unitarian Universalist church to join the search committee for a new pastor, things start to get complicated. The result is an engrossing –and frequently funny – story of small-scale culture wars and human frailty. This book, like all her others, is set in Southern California.

“You know, this is my land, this is my region. I don’t mind being a regional writer,” Huneven told SCNG. “Altadena contains multitudes.”

Rasheed Newson 

“My Government Means to Kill Me” (Macmillan)

Pasadena author Rasheed Newson, who's written for 'Bel-Air,' 'Narcos' and 'The Chi,' explores a young gay man's experience during the early AIDS epidemic in 'My Government Means to Kill Me.' (Photo credit: Christopher Marrs / Courtesy of Flatiron Books)
Pasadena author Rasheed Newson, who’s written for ‘Bel-Air,’ ‘Narcos’ and ‘The Chi,’ explores a young gay man’s experience during the early AIDS epidemic in ‘My Government Means to Kill Me.’ (Photo credit: Christopher Marrs / Courtesy of Flatiron Books)

Pasadena’s Rasheed Newson made his mark as a TV writer, whose credits include “Bel-Air,” “Narcos” and “The Chi,” but the role of author seems to suit him well, too: In his sometimes humorous, often poignant debut novel, “My Government Means to Kill Me,” Newson explores a young gay man’s experience during the early AIDS epidemic. Even if the New York Times hadn’t named it a Notable Book of 2022, alongside a nod from the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, we would have given it a shout-out for excellence.

Newson says his book is “a call to action.” He told SCNG, “I wanted to remind everybody, but particularly young people, that a lot of the movements that changed history were started by young people who really didn’t know what they were doing and who were – on paper – in way in over their head. Martin Luther King was impossibly young when that bus boycott began.”

Susan Straight

“Mecca” (Macmillan)

“Mecca” is the latest award-winning book by Susan Straight. (Photo by Felisha Carrasco / Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Susan Straight has earned her place as one of California’s literary lions for an impressive body of work that explores the beauty, community and harshness of the Inland Empire. SCNG’s reviewer called Straight’s 2022 novel “Mecca” “stunning, absolutely breathtaking. She can move you to tears, and then return you to laughter all in the same paragraph.” Others agreed: “Mecca” was named one of the year’s best books by both The Washington Post and NPR. Plus, it was among the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choices and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.

Interconnected short stories told from various points of view weave together in “Mecca.” As our reviewer noted, “The people we encounter in these stories are not the ones commonly held up as representative of Southern California. There are no agents or ingenues; no screenwriters moonlighting as servers or valet attendants.”

“Southern California is this huge, sprawling space,” Straight told SCNG, “but for my characters, there are all of these connections that come through geography and family.”

Laura Warrell

“Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” (Pantheon)

Laura Warrell, author of the novel
Laura Warrell, author of the novel “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.” (Photo by Rachael Warecki)

L.A. writer Laura Warrell hit the big time with her first published novel, “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm,” about a philandering jazz musician named Circus Palmer and the women in his orbit. SCNG’s reviewer noted, “Given the current culture of #metoo, polyamor, and political feuds over women’s rights, the topics and situations that the book touches on feel urgent, and the characters are so well-developed and deeply flawed it’s easy to forget that they are fictional.”

“Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” is Los Angeles author Laura Warrell’s debut novel. (Cover photo courtesy Penguin Random House)

Warrell’s debut earned a spot on People magazine’s top 10 books of 2022, and it was a GMA Buzz Pick, one of the Oprah Daily favorite books of the year, and it made NPR’s list of “books we love,” not to mention Kirkus naming it one of the best fiction books of the year and Booklist putting it on its top debut novels of 2022 list. Wait, there’s more: Apple Books named her among its “writers to watch.”

“All of the characters are pretty much inventions of my imagination. But I have been in every character’s position, which may be the reason why I felt so connected to them and was able to give them voice,” Warrell told SCNG. “I wanted to write about these women because I felt that this is one of our shared stories, globally – a man who is a dog, is a player, is a womanizer, whatever you want to call it.”

Antoine Wilson

“Mouth to Mouth” (Simon & Schuster)

Antoine Wilson is the author of
Antoine Wilson is the author of “Mouth to Mouth.” (Photo by Noah Stone/Courtesy of Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster)

A deliciously nasty morality play in the guise of a thriller” is what Kirkus Reviews said of Los Angeles writer Antoine Wilson’s “Mouth to Mouth.” In the novel, two old college acquaintances run into each other in an airport. What happens next is the unspooling of a tense psychological drama that captured readers’ attention – including former president Barack Obama, who named it one of his favorite novels of 2022. It also nabbed a spot on lists for best books of the year by NPR and Time magazine, plus Vogue and Esquire.

Wilson has had success with previous novels including “Panorama City,” but as he told SCNG, “Mouth to Mouth” was in danger of never coming together: “I was working on this for several years, and I was working on another novel at the same time, serially, abandoning them back and forth in a way that was completely a hundred percent sincere. It was driving my wife [Chris, a screenwriter] insane because I was like, ‘I’m done; this doesn’t work. I just am not doing this book. I’m going to do the other book.’ ” We’re glad he stuck it out.

Gabrielle Zevin

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” author Gabrielle Zevin earned many laurels for her latest novel, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” (Photo credit: Hans Canosa / Courtesy of Knopf)

“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” (Knopf)

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” author Gabrielle Zevin captured readers’ imaginations with her latest novel, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow,” a riveting tale of video game creators in Los Angeles who strike up a friendship over video games. SCNG’s review explained, “Zevin examines teamwork, online and offline identities, the intensity of friend relationships, and how work that is fueled by love can produce transcendent works of art.” The book topped bestseller lists and earned best book of the year kudos from a litany of outlets, including the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Bookpage and Kirkus. It also was the winner of the Goodreads Choice Award – and let’s not forget that Jimmy Fallon Book Club pick.

As Zevin told SCNG, “Sometimes people are the most loving and best versions of themselves at work or in play or in friendships. I think that a great love story can be a work story, and it can be a friend story, and I wanted to write about that. I’ve always loved books about creative partnerships, stories about work and making art together.”

Have your own Noteworthy favorites? Let us know! Email Premium editor Samantha Dunn at sdunn@scng.com.