A magnificent chorus of black British voices and a winner of the 2019 Booker Prize.
“Amma / is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by.” These are the opening lines of Evaristo’s eighth novel. The unexpected line breaks, the paucity of punctuation and capitalization: These stylistic choices are, at first, disorienting—and that makes perfect thematic sense. Amma is a black woman, a lesbian, and a fiercely feminist playwright who is gaining mainstream attention after decades of working on the margins. Each of the 12 characters Evaristo conjures here have had to work hard to make a place for themselves in a culture that regards them as outsiders even if they’ve lived in the United Kingdom their entire lives. Instead of forcing her creations to code-switch to make their lives comfortable for general consumption, Evaristo compels the reader to accommodate and adjust. The rewards for this tiny bit of mental labor are extraordinary. There is no overarching story, but the lives of these women and one "gender-free" character intersect in revelatory ways. For example, Shirley is both one of Amma’s oldest friends and the teacher who helps Carole work her way out of a council flat and into Oxford. For Amma, Shirley grew from being “the only other brown girl” on the playground to being the straight-laced friend who always supported her unconventional career—and loaned her money when necessary. For Carole, Shirley is “Mrs King,” the no-nonsense taskmaster who only cared about her when her grades were perfect. When she takes center stage herself, we discover that Shirley is both of these people and much more. As she creates a space for immigrants and the children of immigrants to tell their stories, Evaristo explores a range of topics both contemporary and timeless. There is room for everyone to find a home in this extraordinary novel.
A novelist tries to adapt to her ever changing reality as her world slowly disappears.
Renowned Japanese author Ogawa (Revenge, 2013, etc.) opens her latest novel with what at first sounds like a sinister fairy tale told by a nameless mother to a nameless daughter: “Long ago, before you were born, there were many more things here…transparent things, fragrant things…fluttery ones, bright ones….It’s a shame that the people who live here haven’t been able to hold such marvelous things in their hearts and minds, but that’s just the way it is on this island.” But rather than a twisted bedtime story, this depiction captures the realities of life on the narrator's unnamed island. The small population awakens some mornings with all knowledge of objects as mundane as stamps, valuable as emeralds, omnipresent as birds, or delightful as roses missing from their minds. They then proceed to discard all physical traces of the idea that has disappeared—often burning the lifeless ones and releasing the natural ones to the elements. The authoritarian Memory Police oversee this process of loss and elimination. Viewing “anything that fails to vanish when they say it should [as] inconceivable,” they drop into homes for inspections, seizing objects and rounding up anyone who refuses—or is simply unable—to follow the rules. Although, at the outset, the plot feels quite Orwellian, Ogawa employs a quiet, poetic prose to capture the diverse (and often unexpected) emotions of the people left behind rather than of those tormented and imprisoned by brutal authorities. Small acts of rebellion—as modest as a birthday party—do not come out of a commitment to a greater cause but instead originate from her characters’ kinship with one another. Technical details about the disappearances remain intentionally vague. The author instead stays close to her protagonist’s emotions and the disorientation she and her neighbors struggle with each day. Passages from the narrator’s developing novel also offer fascinating glimpses into the way the changing world affects her unconscious mind.
A quiet tale that considers the way small, human connections can disrupt the callous powers of authority.
What begins as the story of obsessive first love between drama students at a competitive performing arts high school in the early 1980s twists into something much darker in Choi’s singular new novel.
The summer between their freshman and sophomore years at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts—an elite institution “intended to cream off the most talented at selected pursuits from the regular places all over the [unnamed Southern] city” where they lived—Sarah and David consummate the romance that had been brewing the whole previous year. It is the natural culmination of the “taut, even dangerous energy running between them,” which—while naturally occurring—has been fostered by Mr. Kingsley, the head of Theatre Arts, who has positioned himself as the central figure in his students' lives, holding power not only over their professional futures, but their social ones as well: part parent, part guru, part master manipulator. But when Sarah and David return in the fall, their relationship instantly crumbles, and in the wake of their very public dissolution, Sarah finds herself increasingly isolated, dismissed into the shadows of CAPA life. Until, that spring, a British theater troupe comes to campus as part of a cultural exchange, and Sarah, along with her classmate Karen, begin parallel relationships with the English imports: Karen is in love with the director, and Sarah is uncomfortably linked to his protégé, the production’s star. It is, until now, a straightforward story, capturing—with nauseating, addictive accuracy—the particular power dynamics of elite theater training. And then, in the second part of the novel, Pulitzer finalist Choi (My Education, 2013, etc.) upends everything we thought we knew, calling the truth of the original narrative into question. (A short coda, set in 2013, recasts it again.) This could easily be insufferable; in Choi’s hands, it works: an effective interrogation of memory, the impossible gulf between accuracy and the stories we tell. And yet, as rigorous and as clever and as relevant as it is, the second half of the novel never quite reaches the soaring heights of the first. It’s hardly a deal breaker: the writing (exquisite) and the observations (cuttingly accurate) make Choi’s latest both wrenching and one-of-a-kind.
A man who spent four decades in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit tells his shocking story.
Born in 1947 in the “Negro” wing of a New Orleans hospital, Woodfox helped his family eke out survival through petty crimes. Though he showed academic potential, he left high school before graduation, spending his time on streets patrolled by mostly white police officers, who “came through our neighborhood picking up black men for standing on the corner, charging them with loitering or vagrancy, looking to meet their quota of arrests. Once in custody, who knows what charges would be put on those men.” Arrested at 18, the author entered Angola penitentiary, where his defiance and his affiliation with a nonviolent chapter of the Black Panther Party led to racist, sadistic guards targeting him. When a white prison guard was mysteriously murdered while on duty, prison officials framed Woodfox for the killing despite his detailed presentation of evidence that another inmate had committed the crime. The bulk of the book chronicles the author’s solitary confinement over the next 40 years. In many cases, inmates subjected to these brutal conditions slowly lose their sanity and sometimes commit suicide. Woodfox explains how he overcame those odds despite relentless despair. Through a series of unusual occurrences, public-interest lawyers and other prison reformers learned about his treatment. The activists began building a two-pronged case, advocating for a declaration of innocence regarding the murder and seeking an end to Woodfox’s solitary confinement. Though the author is obviously not an impartial source, that understandable bias mingles throughout the narrative with fierce intelligence and the author’s touching loyalty to fellow prisoners also being brutalized. Nearly every page of the book is depressing because of the inhumane treatment of the prisoners, which often surpasses comprehension. But it’s an important story for these times, and readers will cheer the author’s eventual re-entry into society.
An astonishing true saga of incarceration that would have surely faced rejection if submitted as a novel on the grounds that it never could happen in real life.
Omani author Alharthi's novel, the first by a woman from that country to be translated into English, won the 2019 International Man Booker Prize with its sweeping story of generational and societal change.
The book opens with a betrothal in a well-to-do Omani family. Mayya, a serious girl who excels at sewing, obediently marries the son of Merchant Sulayman although she's secretly in love with a young student just returned from England. Later she surprises everyone by naming her firstborn daughter London. The story alternates between third-person chapters and ones narrated by Mayya's husband, Abdallah, a businessman whose childhood was marred by his father's cruelty and mother's mysterious death. Through the complex, interwoven histories of the two principal families and their households and their town of al-Awafi, we witness Oman's shift from a slave-owning, rural, deeply patriarchal society to one in which a girl with the unlikely name of London can become a doctor, marry for love, and obtain a divorce. The great strength of the novel lies in the ways this change is shown not as a steady progression from old to new but as a far more complicated series of small-scale transitions. Abdallah was largely raised by his father's slave Zarifa, whose mother gave birth to her on the day slavery was supposedly abolished at the 1926 Slavery Convention in Geneva. Zarifa is sold as a teenager by Shaykh Said to Merchant Sulayman and later married off to a slave kidnapped from Africa who screams "from the depths of his sleep, We are free people, free!" Both her husband and son leave Oman, and although Zarifa eventually follows, her heart remains in al-Awafi. The narrative jumps among a large and clamorous cast of characters as well as back and forth in time, a technique that reinforces the sense of past and present overlapping. In an image that captures the tension between old and new, a family uses its satellite dish as a trough for livestock. Salima, Mayya's mother, herself a kidnapped teenage bride, thinks sadly as she prepares the next of her daughters for her traditional arranged marriage, "We raise them so that strangers can take them away." But the daughter in question, Mayya's sister Asma, welcomes wedlock, because "marriage was her identity document, her passport to a world wider than home."
A richly layered, ambitious work that teems with human struggles and contradictions, providing fascinating insight into Omani history and society.
Broom reassembles her sizable family tree, damaged by time and uprooted by Hurricane Katrina.
As the author suggests in her debut book, her clan’s tempest-tossed experience was practically predetermined. She was raised in New Orleans East, an especially swampy section of the city so poor and distant from the city’s romantic center that it never appeared on tourist maps. In 1961, when Broom’s mother purchased the house of the title, it was hyped as a boomtown “involving men and money and wetlands, dreaming and draining and emergence and fate.” But rapid development covered up a multitude of municipal sins that emerged once the rains came. (The title refers in part to the yellow aluminum siding that cloaked rotting wood beneath.) The youngest of 12 siblings and half siblings, Broom knew much of her family only via lore and later research (her father died six months after her birth), which gives this book the feel of a heartfelt but unflinching recovery project. In the early portions, the author describes her family’s hard living (her mother was widowed twice) and the region’s fickle economy and institutional racism. Private school gave Broom a means of escape—she lived in New York working for O, the Oprah Magazine, when Katrina struck—but she returned to reckon with “the psychic cost of defining oneself by the place where you are from.” As family members were relocated around the country, she scrambled to locate and assist them, kept tabs on the house, and took a well-intentioned but disillusioning job as a speechwriter for controversial New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, insincerely hyping the city’s progress. Broom’s lyrical style celebrates her family bonds, but a righteous fury runs throughout the narrative at New Orleans’ injustices, from the foundation on up.
A tribute to the multitude of stories one small home can contain, even one bursting with loss.
In each of 10 stories, kids reentering the neighborhood from their school day reveal their unique narratives.
BFFs T.J. and Jasmine find their yearslong friendship getting them through parental separation, illness, and foster care. A group of four, all children of cancer survivors, has been brought together by a school counselor. A female skateboarder is the target of a bully—to the relief of his usual victim. A teen with the signs of OCD meets a street musician who changes her outlook. Two ardent gamers are caught up in the confusion of sexual questioning, and there’s an odd couple of friends whose difference in size is no barrier to their bond. A teen with a fear of dogs devises an elaborate plan to get past his neighbor’s new pet, and the class clown tries to find a way to make her overworked mother laugh. Three boys work to make their friend presentable enough to tell a classmate that he likes her. An accident sustained by the school crossing guard causes her son significant anxiety. There are connections among some of the stories: places, people, incidents. However, each story has its own center, and readers learn a great deal about each character in just a few lines. Reynolds’ gift for capturing the voices and humanity of urban teens is on full display. The cast adheres to a black default.
The entire collection brims with humor, pathos, and the heroic struggle to grow up.
A year in the lives of women and girls on an isolated peninsula in northeastern Russia opens with a chilling crime.
In the first chapter of Phillips' immersive, impressive, and strikingly original debut, we meet sisters Alyona and Sophia, ages 11 and 8, amusing themselves one August afternoon on the rocky shoreline of a public beach on the waterfront of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a city on Russia's remote Kamchatka peninsula. They are offered a ride home by a seemingly kind stranger. After he drives right past the intersection that leads to the apartment they share with their mother, they disappear from their previous lives and, to a large extent, from the narrative. The rest of the book is a series of linked stories about a number of different women on the peninsula, all with the shadow of the missing girls hanging over them as a year goes by since their disappearance. Another young girl with a single mom loses her best friend to new restrictions imposed by the other girl's anxious mother. The daughter of a reindeer herder from the north, at college in the city, finds her controlling boyfriend clamping down harder than ever. In a provincial town, members of a family whose teenage daughter disappeared four years earlier are troubled by the similarities and differences between their case and this one. The book opens with both a character list and a map—you'll be looking at both often as you find your footing and submerge ever more deeply in this world, which is both so different from and so much like our own. As the connections between the stories pile up and tighten, you start to worry—will we ever get closure about the girls? Yes, we will. And you'll want to start over and read it again, once you know.
An unusual, cleverly constructed thriller that is also a deep dive into the culture of a place many Americans have probably never heard of, illuminating issues of race, culture, sexual attraction, and the transition from the U.S.S.R. to post-Soviet Russia.
Veteran historical fantasist Kowal (Ghost Talkers, 2016, etc.) tackles an alternate history of the space race, in which a catastrophe necessitates an earlier reach for the stars—and the confrontation of gender barriers.
In the 1950s, the world nearly ends, first due to a strike from what Elma York will always remind people was a meteorite and then through the resulting climate change. Elma is a physicist, pilot, and human computer; she and her engineer husband, Nathaniel, both work for NASA's predecessor agency. The Meteor, as it comes to be known, destroys Washington, D.C., and most of the East Coast, leaving the survivors to scramble to fill leadership gaps and address the sudden winter brought on by the impact and the devastating greenhouse effect that will follow. Earth may have just decades to live, and both men and women will need to go into space for humanity to survive. Elma fights the sexism and racism of the era as well as her own personal anxieties. The Apollo-era technology is well-researched and well-presented and always feels organic—more organic than the characters. Elma is an obvious genius, ethical to a fault, and sets records at everything she attempts. Her supposed flaw of discomfort with public speaking is apparently not too obvious to anyone but her, as she's lauded by other characters for how well she does it. She advocates for feminism and for women of color with admirable...admirableness, but Elma never really addresses her own privilege. (Nathaniel is even more exemplary—understanding, supportive, hot, and perfectly progressive.) With the exception of a misogynist antagonist, the supporting cast is never too deeply developed—a shame, given their supposed diversity. The plot hits all its beats dutifully, but don't expect surprises.
While there's a fascinating alternate history here of humanity's quest for the stars, it could stand to be told with characters who are a little more human.
Seventeen-year-old Jay Reguero searches for the truth about his cousin’s death amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs while on an epic trip back to his native Philippines.
Shocked out of his senioritis slumber when his beloved cousin Jun is killed by the police in the Philippines for presumably using drugs, Jay makes a radical move to spend his spring break in the Philippines to find out the whole story. Once pen pals, Jay hasn’t corresponded with Jun in years and is wracked by guilt at ghosting his cousin. A mixed heritage (his mother is white) Filipino immigrant who grew up in suburban Michigan, Jay’s connection to current-day Philippines has dulled from assimilation. His internal tensions around culture, identity, and languages—as “a spoiled American”—are realistic. Told through a mix of first-person narration, Jun’s letters to Jay, and believable dialogue among a strong, full cast of characters, the result is a deeply emotional story about family ties, addiction, and the complexity of truth. The tender relationship between Jay and Jun is especially notable—as is the underlying commentary about the challenges and nuances between young men and their uncles, fathers, male friends, and male cousins.
Part coming-of-age story and part exposé of Duterte’s problematic policies, this powerful and courageous story offers readers a refreshingly emotional depiction of a young man of color with an earnest desire for the truth.
(author’s note, recommended reading)