The discovery of an infant's body rocks a seemingly idyllic New Jersey town in McCreight's intense sophomore effort.
Accustomed to writing lifestyle articles, reporter Molly Sanderson—a recent transplant to upscale Ridgedale with her English-professor husband and young daughter—never expected her first hard-news story to involve a dead baby. She's still reeling from her own miscarriage, and when an unidentified newborn girl is found in the woods near the college campus, it hits close to home. Expanding on the alternating-perspectives technique she used in her first novel, Reconstructing Amelia (2013), McCreight slowly lays out the pieces of the grim puzzle, which include Molly's ever widening investigation; the fears of the town as expertly conveyed through comments left on Molly's online news stories; and a complex relationship between two teenage girls from different sides of the tracks. At 16, Sandy Mendelson is more mature than her hard-partying mother, Jenna, who thinks nothing of parading a series of men (and drugs) in front of her daughter. After dropping out of school to help earn money for rent, Sandy is trying to get her GED diploma with the help of tutor Hannah Carlson, a high school senior whose life couldn't be more different. The daughter of Ridgedale's police chief—who's a reluctant source for Molly—and a demanding mother, Hannah is a tightly coiled spring. As rumors abound and Molly investigates the town's—and the college's—squeaky clean image, the baby's identity and her parentage threaten to tear Ridgedale apart.
Genuinely suspenseful and disturbing; McCreight delivers a provocative, timely novel that reminds us that sometimes the things that shine the brightest have the dirtiest underbellies.
A mid-19th-century Persian poetess clashes against old-world gender expectations, religious orthodoxy, and politics in this exquisite tale, based on the actual life of poet and theologian Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn.
Four haunting, first-person narrators—the Mother of the Shah, the Wife of the Mayor, the sister of the Shah, and the daughter of the poetess of Qazvin—recall how the poetess emancipated Tehran’s citizens with literacy, predicted the fates of a Mullah and a high-ranking government official, and scandalously displayed her naked face to some four score of men. The poetess of Qazvin “knew too much, thought too much, read far too much, and finally said too much, too…she had always been a rebel....A heretic from the start.” Under orders of the Shah, the Mayor holds her captive for three years, and though the Shah promises her release, the poetess is put to death. Nakhjavani (Paper, 2005, etc.) leaps nimbly back and forth through time, connecting events from the first attempt on the Shah’s life to public executions, the city’s widespread famine and bread riots, betrayal, and exile. And when the Shah is assassinated, palace rumors trace his demise to the poetess’s influence on the kingdom. The author’s language mesmerizes. About the cunning Mayor’s wife, she writes: “Her words drifted over the walls and down the alleys, like the sizzling of kebabs and the smell of fried onion. Her opinions even penetrated through the palace gates at times, and lingered in the royal anderoun with the persistence of fenugreek.” Nakhjavani deftly transforms an incomplete history into legend.
An ambitious effort produces an expertly crafted epic.
A lady boxer, a poxy lady and a louche pretty boy tangle in 18th-century England.
"I'd like to say that my beginnings were humble, but they weren't beginnings, because I never really left them but for a short while." This is Ruth, and the birthplace and lifelong home she's referring to is a Bristol whorehouse known as "the convent." When her older half sister, Dora, is drafted at "12 or 13" into the ranks of their mother's "misses," plain-faced Ruth feels left out and jealous, not least of the big, fat piece of bacon Dora now rates at the breakfast table. The tension erupts into a catfight, which the gentleman patrons witness with such enthusiasm that it's moved to the yard outside and bets are placed. One of the onlookers is a fellow named Dryer; he becomes the patron of both girls, Dora at the brothel and Ruth in the boxing ring. (In the Author’s Note of her debut novel, Freeman writes that lady pugilists were just one of many rough entertainments common in the nasty, smelly 1700s, so brilliantly evoked here.) Through Dryer, Ruth will eventually meet the two other main characters of the story, both of whom take turns with her in telling it. One is Charlotte Sinclair, an upper-class young woman who was terribly marked by childhood smallpox; she ends up married to the awful Dryer. The other is George Bowden, a schoolmate of both Dryer and Charlotte's brother Perry; George's good looks far surpass his moral character. Gamblers, drinkers, fighters, hookers; the fancy, the rowdy, the rude—Freeman does a wonderful job of spinning this furious yarn, in which the fury of women plays the lead role.
Great characters and wild turns of events make this book a knockout.
Life changes dramatically for Benjamin, the fourth of six children, when his father, Eme, is transferred to the town of Yola by his employer, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings back home in Akure, Nigeria in the 1990s.
Adrift without their father’s presence, Benjamin and his elder brothers, Ikenna, Boja, and Obembe, find a sense of purpose in fishing at Omi-Ala, the local river, where they have been forbidden to go because it's too dangerous. When their disobedience is discovered and swiftly punished, Eme encourages his sons to study harder at school and become “fishermen of the mind” rather than “the kind that fish at a filthy swamp.” Thus adjured, the boys agree to devote themselves to their education. But after local madman Abulu curses Ikenna and claims he will be murdered by his brothers, Ikenna begins to act out—disobeying their harried mother, running away, getting drunk, and beating up Boja. Desperate, their mother counts the days until their father will return home and straighten the boy out. But before Eme's arrival, Ikenna is found dead after his most vicious fight with Boja yet. The family is speedily forced to reckon with the violence that has torn them apart, and the joy of childhood which permeates Obioma’s lively, energetic debut novel thus swiftly becomes shadowed with the disturbing ghosts of Cain and Abel. Although Benjamin's first-person narration distances the reader from the emotional states of other characters at key moments—especially Benjamin's mother in the aftermath of so much loss—the talented Obioma exhibits a richly nuanced understanding of culture and character.
A powerful, haunting tale of grief, healing, and sibling loyalty.
Riley is a child when her brother leaves Montana for Vietnam. She’s still a child when her parents receive a letter explaining that Mick is missing and presumed dead. That Riley never recovers from this loss goes without saying, but her grief becomes a kind of loss of self. This is ironic in that Riley is a powerful narrator—funny, self-deprecating, fully aware of the feelings she refuses to be aware of. Her story is often heartbreaking, but she never asks for pity, and she most certainly never pities herself. Palaia covers a 25-year period spanning the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s, following Riley from the farm to San Francisco to Saigon and back home again. Alternating chapters present the viewpoints of other characters—Riley’s mother, her lover, strangers who help and befriend her—each of whom gives readers a fuller perspective on the protagonist while also being engaging in his or her own right. All of these disparate voices come together beautifully, as does the narrative as a whole. Palaia demonstrates a magnificent command of craft for a first-time novelist, but it’s her emotional honesty that makes this story so rich and affecting. The novel ends on a more hopeful note than the reader might expect, but it rings true nevertheless—largely because Riley doesn’t expect it, either. She knows that the chance she’s given is a gift. Like grace, it can’t be earned, only accepted with gratitude and awe.
An immensely rewarding read and a remarkable debut.
A pair of apparently unrelated suicides on the same day poses a formidable mystery for Deputy Chief Superintendent Søren Marhauge, of Copenhagen’s Violent Crimes Unit.
Neither death is officially Søren’s case. Promoted to a desk job after his success in his striking debut (The Dinosaur Feather, 2013), he can’t quit second-guessing his old friend Henrik Tejsner, who’s taken his place heading the VCU’s investigative team. After a couple of tense confrontations, one of them in the office of the hanged professor Kristian Storm, Søren abruptly quits the force. Now he can spend more time with Lily, the 5-year-old daughter of his live-in, biologist Anna Bella Nor, and forget the way Henrik is mucking up the investigation. Or can he? Despite his resolution to stay out of the case, Søren can’t help responding to the pleas of Storm’s student Marie Skov, who insists that her mentor, a distinguished immunologist whose charge that the DTP vaccine widely used in African nations had the side effect of killing many of the children who were vaccinated had aroused a well-nigh global outcry against him, was on the verge of vindication and never would have killed himself. Marie is laboring under heavy burdens of her own. She’s gone through a harrowing surgery for breast cancer; her husband, orthopedist Dr. Jesper Just, wants a divorce; and her mother, gifted weaver Joan Skov, committed suicide on the same day as Storm. Or did she, and did he? Gazan keeps up the pace as she shifts the focus from one painfully dysfunctional family to another, until even the secrets of Søren’s childhood are exposed.
Among the latest crop of Scandinavian thriller writers, Gazan combines the broad scope of Jo Nesbø with the ability to focus as closely and remorselessly as Karin Fossum.
One woman's story of brutality, courage, tragedy, and love gets a roomful of Cuban refugees through a hurricane.
As Hurricane Flora approaches Cuba in 1963, 82-year-old María Sirena Alonso refuses to evacuate with her neighbors; she is seriously ill and does not want to be saved. But once the storm arrives, a soldier shows up at her door to load her on a bus bound for a shelter. Though she takes nothing with her except a small framed photograph of a little boy, she needs nothing more because her whole life is in her head: "I have a perfect memory. I remember nearly everything I've ever read or heard." Once installed in a room at the erstwhile governor's mansion with a group of women who will ride out the storm together—including an ex-friend whose dead son used to be married to her daughter—María Sirena begins to tell the story of her life, beginning with her birth to Cuban parents on a Spanish ship at the end of the 19th century. Her rebel father is jailed as soon as they reach shore; her resourceful, beautiful mother, Lulu, finds protection for herself and her daughter with another man. When Agustín rejoins them, they are swept into the war against the Spanish. Acevedo's third novel (A Falling Star, 2014, etc.) mingles the recounting of María Sirena's epic family saga, which ends with a heartbreaking confession, with scenes among the women at the mansion. One woman decides to make a break for it: "It is Noraida, swimming in the debris-filled water, her brightly dyed hair like streamers in her wake. We watch as she pushes aside a plastic cup, a sheet of plywood, an umbrella floating upside down and bobbing along." Such irresistible moments of rebellion and bravery define this tale.
Perfect timing for a Scheherazade-style account of Cuban history.
A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.
As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen’s (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian (“a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI”), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen’s protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he’s a mole: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who’s airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans “with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues”; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying on—though it turns out he’s as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: “I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant,” he recalls, “and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple.”
Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.
A young doctor buys a piece of land in a place that will later be known as Silicon Valley, building a house that will shape his family for decades.
Packer (Swim Back to Me, 2011, etc.) is an expert at complicated relationships; she likes to show more than two sides to every story. Who's responsible for the fracturing of the Blair family? The obvious answer is Penny, a woman oppressed by domesticity, who retreats from her husband and four children to spend all her time in the shed—she calls it her studio—where she works on collages and mugs made of too-thick pottery, eventually even sleeping there. Or could her husband, Bill, a pediatrician with endless patience and empathy for kids, have pushed his wife away? Perhaps it was James, the youngest (and unplanned) child, a holy terror from the day he was born, who tipped his family over the edge. In beautifully precise prose, Packer tells the Blairs’ story, alternating chapters between the past, when the children were young, and the present, four years after their father’s death, when they each get a chance to tell their own stories in the first person. While James has bounced around the world, his siblings—Robert, a doctor; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; and Ryan, a teacher—all live near their childhood home, which James wants to sell. Emotions have never had so many shadings as in Packer’s fiction; she can tease apart every degree of ambivalence in her characters, multiplying that exponentially when everyone has different desires and they all worry about finding fulfillment while also caring for each other—except, perhaps, Penny. But though we rarely see Penny’s perspective on why she withdrew from her family, we can fill in the blanks; it’s the 1960s and ’70s, a time when women were searching for a larger role in the world. Packer seems to set Penny up as the villain, but even that view becomes complicated by the end.
When you read Packer, you’ll know you’re in the hands of a writer who knows what she’s doing. A marvelously absorbing novel.
Three middle-aged sisters collaborating on a memoir that's meant to double as their collective suicide note may not sound like a hilarious premise for a novel, but Mitchell's masterful family saga is as funny as it is aching.
Together, Lady, Vee and Delph Alter have decided that New Year's Eve, 1999—the cusp of the new millennium—will be the day they end their lives, quietly and with as little melodrama as possible. But first, they have embarked upon writing this “whatever-it-is—this memoir, this family history, this quasi-confessional.” It will record the saga of the last four generations of Alters (theirs included). Also, it will double as their joint suicide note. (“Q: How do three sisters write a single suicide note? A: The same way a porcupine makes love: carefully.”) Suicide seems to run in the Alter family, and now it has reached the current generation: Vee, the middle sister—whose beloved husband was murdered getting lunch one day at Chock full o’Nuts—has cancer, with six months to a year left. If one sister goes, they’re all going. And so begins their project, which traces the Alter family history, starting with their maternal great-grandmother, brilliant and stifled, and great-grandfather, the German-Jewish Nobel Prize–winning chemist who invented the gas that would ultimately be used in the Nazi death chambers. “He was the sinner who doomed us all,” they write, the root of the ill-fated family tree. She died (a gun in the garden); he followed suit (morphine). With variations, the subsequent generations did the same. Moving seamlessly between the past and the present, from Germany to the Upper West Side, Mitchell’s (The Last Day of the War, 2004) dark comedy captures the agony and ecstasy (but mostly agony) with deep empathy and profound wit.
For the Alters, life has been a seemingly endless series of tragedies; for us, the tragedy is that this stunning novel inevitably comes to an end.