An assured debut collection of stories about men and women, young and old, living and loving along the margins in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
In “I Happy Am,” one of nine tales Brinkley spins here about dreamers constricted or confounded by realities, Freddy is a young black boy from the Bronx who, at least for the length of the trip his summer camp is taking to the suburbs, imagines himself as a superpowered robot. Upon finding the house his camp is visiting to be “a bigger version of the apartment where [he] lived,” Freddy begins to wonder whether real life “spoke…to what his imagination guarded”: that there may be more potential for wonder and mystery beyond his dream life. This story shares with the others a preoccupation with characters’ reckoning with unfulfilled promises and unrecognized possibilities. The title of “J’ouvert, 1996” refers to an all-night revel originating at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza during which a teenage boy, his wide-eyed younger brother in tow, intends to find, and assert, a grown-up self. In “A Family,” an ex-convict grapples tentatively, even a bit reluctantly, with the idea of becoming a lover to the widow of his closest friend. The title story is about a middle-aged man who believes his wife has left him and taken whatever luck he could claim with her, while “Infinite Happiness” navigates the dicey emotional maze of a lopsided romantic triangle playing out in the promised land of present-day Brooklyn. It’s difficult to single out any story as most outstanding since they are each distinguished by Brinkley’s lyrical invention, precise descriptions of both emotional and physical terrain, and a prevailing compassion toward people as bemused by travail as they are taken aback by whatever epiphanies blossom before them.
In Broder’s debut novel, a disaffected academic struggling with a breakup finds love in the arms of a merman.
In the midst of writing a disingenuous dissertation about Sappho, Lucy surprises herself by breaking things off with her longtime boyfriend, Jamie, and spiraling into a depression. Thankfully, Lucy’s sister leaves her Venice Beach house, “a contemporary glass fortress,” for the summer and invites Lucy to level out, attend therapy, and dogsit. Predictably, Lucy is bad at each of these tasks. In group therapy, Lucy silently judges her fellow codependents, who “all blurred together into a multi-headed hydra of desperation,” while plotting how she can get over Jamie by getting under someone else. And while she cares for her sister’s dog, she’s not responsible enough to handle his strict dietary and medical needs, either. When Lucy meets Theo, a mysterious swimmer who haunts Venice Beach by night, she thinks her luck in love might have finally turned around. But what—other than a tail—might Theo be hiding? And who is Lucy willing to neglect in order to find out? On the surface, this audacious novel from Broder (So Sad Today, 2016, etc.) is a frank exploration of desire, fantasy, and sex. But it dives deeper, too, seeking out uncomfortable topics and bringing them into the light: codependency, depression, suicidal ideation, and an existential fascination with the void each get their days in the sun. When we obsess about a breakup, or about all the sex that comes before a breakup, what are we actually obsessing over? “I didn’t know if the universe actively taught lessons,” Lucy thinks during her affair with Theo. “But if it did, the lesson was that I could not handle what I thought I could handle.” Broder has created a voice at once intimate and sharp, familiar and ugly. Lucy dares you to recognize your thoughts, fantasies, and obsessions in her own even as she makes questionable choices in life and love. This isn’t just a novel about navigating the dangers of codependency, but an attempt to learn how we all might love better in a culture that pushes even its strongest women to the brink of self-destruction.
A fascinating tale of obsession and erotic redemption told with black humor and biting insight.
The interior life of a millennial Everywoman as she matures over the decades.
Prepare to fall in love with Leda, the wickedly relatable protagonist of Casale's funny, insightful, and deeply adorable debut. When we first meet her, she's a college student studying writing in Boston, dealing with her annoying friendships with women, her unsatisfying encounters with men, and the loneliness and self-doubt at the heart of it all. As she moves through life, we see all her experiences from both the outside and the inside. For example, in a coffee shop exchange with her friend Elle about their future plans, Elle announces that, as far as she's concerned, it's time for the fantasy of becoming a writer to end. She just wants to set "realistic goals," she says. "Leda recognized the familiar wave of cruelty and cattiness that lingered in the comment, a rich but common display of the unabashed hatred and simultaneous press for superiority any woman could feel for another woman at any given moment.” Soon after this meeting with her ultraslender friend, Leda decides to join a gym. "As she walked past all the men and their weights, she looked back at the women running and biking and stepping. Keep running ladies, she thought. You'll never get away." Much later in life she's in a dressing room, miserably trying on bathing suits. She has told the obnoxious salesgirl several times that her name is Leda, but the woman insists on calling her Lisa, shouting, " 'Lisa, how are the sizes working for you?' 'Fine.' I'll kill you, Karen. I'll kill you right now, so help me god." We follow Leda as she drifts away from her commitment to writing and toward her first serious relationship, relocating quite unhappily for her partner's career. One of the most moving and original parts of the book is when Leda becomes a mother and we can see how much her attitudes toward herself and other people have matured by the way she raises her own child. In fact, the depictions of Leda's connections to both her mother and her daughter are filled with love and warmth. This is so rare in contemporary fiction, it's almost hard to believe. But just as importantly, will she ever get around to reading Noam Chomsky?
So much fun, so smart, and ultimately profound and beautiful.
The death of a drug-addicted patriarch, and the stockpile of cash he’s rumored to have left behind, has a broad impact across multiple families.
Frumkin’s ambitious, sensitive, and busy first novel centers on Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, who in 1999 flung himself from the roof of a Tampa hotel. He lived rough: He had a cocaine habit he routinely rationalized (he called it his “medicine”) and a family he often neglected. He also possessed a briefcase full of money that was previously in the hands of a drug dealer. Cue a hunt among family, friends, and enemies to locate it. But the luggage is a MacGuffin: The novel is less a mystery than a set of character studies that make up a cross-section of contemporary America, white and black, rich and poor, cis and trans. Individually, they’re remarkable portraits: Leland’s second wife, Diedre, nearly 20 years his junior, is an engrossing Florida street punk; Maria, his youngest son’s estranged girlfriend, was a child prodigy who at 15 was determined to “prove conclusively that the external world exists”; Natasha, who sacrificed a strict upbringing to take up with a drug dealer, is a tragic but indomitable figure. Intelligence is a common thread among the characters, which benefits Frumkin rhetorically—it frees her to riff on pharmaceuticals, music, Wittgenstein, Judaica, and fine art. But also thematically: She’s contemplating how much (or how little) brains have to do with our survival when many social forces are seemingly determined to undermine it. So the novel’s flaws are of the sort that afflict only writers who are swinging for the fences: complex plotting, research spilling off the pages like sap from a tree. A stronger novel would more efficiently connect its many threads (or dispense with a few), but from page to page, character to character, this is a powerful debut.
Frumkin has talent to burn, and this very good novel suggests the potential for a truly great one.
A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.
In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.
In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.
Affecting portrait of a Chinese dissident who found a home among like-minded democrats in faraway New York.
Journalist Hilgers, who has covered China for the New Yorker and Businessweek, among other publications, met Zhuang Liehong in his home village on the southern coast of China. There, in 2011, as she reported, villagers had rebelled against corrupt officials, who had returned to power with a vengeance, backed by a brutal police force. “A proud former village leader on the ragged outskirts of Guangdong Province’s manufacturing boom,” Zhuang knew he had to get out while he could, and he weighed three plans to escape, including finding a boat to take him to the American territory of Guam. He settled on an expensive solution, signing himself and his wife, Little Yan, up for a tour of the United States that they then overstayed, making their way to Flushing, where, in time, they encountered other dissidents, notably the Tiananmen Square protest leader Tang Yuanjun. Hilgers closely chronicles Zhuang’s travails, among them the struggle to attain legal residency against the backdrop of an immigration regime that worried about offending China and seemed reluctant to house so public a figure, even if his renown had not spread widely in his adopted country. Finally, thanks to the pragmatic Little Yan, he found suitable work—and, thanks to Tang, continued his anti-corruption campaign in New York, protesting at Trump Tower, where an unimpressed Trump supporter yelled at him, “why do we have to pay attention to your problems?” Hilgers answers that question with admirable attention to narrative detail, giving a nuanced portrait of a vibrant working-class immigrant neighborhood comprising a “community of activists” who have lent dissidents like Tang and Zhuang their support.
This excellent book makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting immensely from those who arrive from other shores.
An Ethiopian-American teenager falls under the spell of a mysterious man from her community who runs a small empire out of his parking lot.
Tamirat’s debut novel stutters a bit at the beginning, wanting to remain vague; its unnamed narrator, a teenage girl from Boston, is with her Ethiopian immigrant father on a subtropical island referred to only as “B——.” It’s unclear why they are there or why there is so much conflict between them. But in the second chapter, as the narrator begins to describe their previous life in Boston and a shrewd, shadowy trickster named Ayale, the novel gains a steadier footing as well as a sense of humor and a keen view of teenage preoccupations. Ayale, a fellow Ethiopian who runs the parking lot and who allows the girl to hang around after school, bends her infatuation to his nefarious business practices. He begins to send her on errands and ingratiate himself with her. “I feel as though I’m carrying Ayale with me at all times,” she says as her idolatry blooms, “although for whom and for what reason escapes me. The weight is often unbearable, but I am terrified of what would happen if I were to let go completely.” Tamirat walks a fine and observant line—the relationship between the narrator and Ayale isn’t sexual, but it has the hallmarks of risky teenage admiration. The narrator’s father is rightly concerned about the “near-pathological ways in which Ayale bound people to him, trapping them in a web of debt from which they could never escape. This, according to him, was Ayale’s version of creating love.” Tamirat writes blind teenage devotion well, but what seems initially to be a story about a forbidden relationship becomes much more: Ayale’s empire is less a metaphor for his power in the Boston neighborhood and more an actual dream of domination on the world scene—a dream that the narrator features more prominently in than she could imagine. In the end, the narrator says “none of us got what we wanted”—except, maybe, the reader.
Captivating for both its unusual detail and observant take on teenage trust. Curious and delightful.
Castillo’s debut novel presents a portrait of the Filipino diaspora, told through the lens of a single family.
Revolving around Hero de Vera—a former rebel (with the scars to prove it) turned au pair of sorts in Milpitas, California—this is a book about identity but even more about standing up for something larger than oneself. The idea is implicit in that name, Hero, though Castillo pushes against our expectations by bestowing it upon a woman fighting patriarchy. Her employer, after all—her sponsor, really—is her uncle Pol, scion of an influential family. For the most part, Castillo tracks Hero’s experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, highlighting two sustaining relationships: the first with Roni, her uncle’s school-age daughter, and the second with Rosalyn, with whom she falls in love. The most important relationship in the book, however, is the one she develops with herself. It’s not that Castillo is out to write a novel of transformation; Hero is on a journey, certainly, but it’s hard to say, exactly, that the circumstances of her existence change. And yet, this is the point, or one of them, that this sharply rendered work of fiction seeks to address. “She wasn’t killed…or didn’t kill herself,” the character reflects. “Tragedy could be unsensational.” Unsensational, yes—much like daily life. Castillo is a vivid writer, and she has a real voice: vernacular and fluid, with a take-no-prisoners edge. At the same time, she complicates her narrative by breaking out of it in a variety of places—both by deftly incorporating languages such as Tagalog and Ilocano and through the use of flashback or backstory, in which we learn what happened to Hero before she left the Philippines. There are also two second-person chapters (the rest is told in third-person) that further complicate the point of view. Here, we encounter Pol’s wife, Paz, who untangles the intricate ties of family, and Rosalyn, who explains the vagaries of love. Through it all, we have a sense that what we are reading is part of a larger story that stretches beyond the borders of the book. “As usual,” Castillo writes, “you’re getting ahead of yourself, but there isn’t enough road in the world for how ahead of yourself you need to get.”
Beautifully written, emotionally complex, and deeply moving, Castillo's novel reminds us both that stories may be all we have to save us and also that this may never be enough.
Two seemingly unrelated novellas form one delicately joined whole in this observant debut.
Halliday writes first, in Folly, of Alice, an editor in New York during the second Bush presidency, and her relationship with Ezra, a well-known and much older author. Alice struggles to establish her own identity at a time when Ezra’s health concerns focus his attention on mortality. Through their occupations and their relationship, the lovers examine the nature of story. “Who knows if it’s any good," Ezra says of his manuscript at one point. "It’s a funny business, this. Making things up. Describing things." Alice’s roles as both a literary gatekeeper and a much younger companion are an important, related dichotomy. Art is omnipresent; music and baseball, too, become the rhythm that runs beneath the melody of the couple's interaction. Alice wants to write about herself, but she “doesn’t seem important enough.” The lovers’ age difference adds gravity to their relationship and the stories they each tell. The second part of the book, Madness, initially appears to be wholly unrelated to the first: Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, is detained at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan in 2008. Halliday hints at her strategy, though: “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything,” says Amar as he’s detained, quoting Bellow. Amar’s story is darker, filled with grief, and alternates between flashbacks and the present day. Though nothing is obvious about the connection of Amar’s story to Alice’s, the author gently highlights notes from the first story, and the juxtaposition of the two tales is further complicated—and illuminated—by the addition of a third and final section that brings them together.
A singularly conceived graft of one narrative upon another; what grows out of these conjoined stories is a beautiful reflection of life and art.
This glimmering debut novel reflects on mother-daughter connections, abandonment and resilience, and dreams that endure despite the odds.
Coming of age circa 1996 in Waterbury, Connecticut, a chilly, gritty industrial city of abandoned brass factories and the workers left behind, Elsie dreams of a fast car out of town. Instead, and perhaps inevitably, she finds herself stuck, succumbing to the attentions of Bashkim, an Albanian line cook at the Betsy Ross Diner, where she slings fried foods for locals as a waitress. Bashkim, who has a wife back in Albania he says he plans to divorce, tells 18-year-old Elsie she’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen, teaches her to drive a stick shift, and promises to buy her whatever she wants when his investments pay off. Then he gets Elsie pregnant and sticks around long enough to compel her to keep the baby—a daughter, it turns out—but not long enough to help raise her. First-time novelist Aliu switches quickly between Elsie’s story and that of her daughter, Luljeta, whom we meet when she is 17 and confronting her own urge to escape her fate as a fatherless child in a dead-end town of dusty dreams. Lulu, a bright young woman who has always worked hard and followed the rules, finds herself suddenly doubtful of her own future and scornful of the mother who, while dedicated to providing for her, has not provided answers about her past. And so Lulu goes looking for them in places both unfamiliar and, ultimately, long known. Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit. Her characters are nuanced and real, capable of taking risks, making mistakes, and growing in unexpected ways.
Aliu’s writing is polished and precise, bringing her characters glowingly to life.
This exquisite debut short story collection speaks to the ways women and girls define themselves and delineate their paths.
A teenage girl acclimating to her mother’s death and its effect on her family leaps into the bracing waters of first love. A woman absorbing the end of her marriage forges a friendship with the woman next door whose choices and losses shed light on her own. Another young woman takes in a boyfriend’s departure by connecting with a stranger and taking stock of the things her ex has taught her, the bits of knowledge he has left behind, and the aspects of herself that remain. A teenager and the widower whose young children she babysits connect across the empty space his wife has left behind. The protagonists of Lazarin’s stories—daughters, mothers, siblings, girlfriends, wives—are gauging their strengths and soft spots, the ways in which they are independent and intertwined with those around them, their appetites for and aversions to risk and heartache, the truths they choose to know and those they cannot escape. These young women and girls—many of them white, middle-class New Yorkers, some living in the city, others outside of it—have their own particular interests and quirks, their own experiences and inclinations, their own losses and hopes with which to contend. Yet readers may see in them glimpses of their own stories and struggles, their own choices about how and when to act. “It’s my hope that this book adds to a conversation about the importance of women’s stories, of the domestic, of the subtle and often unspoken ways women care for each other and ourselves,” Lazarin writes in the advance galley of the book. Mission accomplished.
Sensitive, intricate, and quietly powerful, Lazarin’s stories give voice to women learning to live on their own terms.