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5 Thoughtfully Inclusive Works of Fiction

Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel’s generous spirit, sensory...

THE OLD DRIFT

The past, present, and future of an African nation is filtered with humane wit, vibrant rhetoric, and relentless ingenuity through the interweaving sagas of three very different families.

The year is 1904, and an itinerant would-be photographer named Percy Clark has wandered from his native England to a colonial outpost along the Zambezi River in what was then known as the Northwestern Rhodesia territory. One momentous day, Clark, addled by fever, is stumbling around the lobby of the Victoria Falls Hotel and somehow manages to inadvertently pull a hank of hair from the pate of the hotel’s Italian manager, whose 5-year-old daughter angrily responds by striking an "innocent native" passer-by so hard that “he became an imbecile.” From the moment that inexplicable calamity occurs, the descendants of these individuals find their respective fates entwined through what’s left of the 20th century and beyond as the land around them morphs into the nation of Zambia. Sometime in the 1960s, for instance, Percy’s wealthy granddaughter, Agnes, deprived by blindness of a promising tennis career, falls in love with a brilliant black exchange student whom she accompanies back to the soon-to-be-independent Zambia he calls home. During those same years, Matha, the precocious granddaughter of the poor assault victim, is among several math-and-science prodigies recruited by the country’s Minister of Space Research to train for a mission to the moon by decade’s end. Strangest of all these progenies is Sibilla, the granddaughter of the hotel manager, who is born with streams and streams of hair that never stops growing—and apparently makes things grow out of the ground, too. The children and the children’s children of these women find themselves inexorably, absurdly, and at times tragically drawn together through the history of both Zambia and the patch of land where their ancestors first collided. Blending intimate and at times implausible events with real-life history, this first novel by Serpell—a Zambian writer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and who's won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story "The Sack"—enchants its readers with prose as luxuriant and flowing as Sibilla’s hair.

Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel’s generous spirit, sensory richness, and visionary heft make it almost unique among magical realist epics.

Pub Date: March 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-90714-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

This breathtakingly lovely novel is an accomplished debut, beautifully crafted and rich with history rendered in the most...

BANGKOK WAKES TO RAIN

In his debut novel, a writer born in Thailand and now living in New York creates a portrait of Bangkok that sweeps across a century and a teeming cast of characters yet shines with exquisite detail.

In its early chapters, the book reads like a collection of short stories linked only by their relationship to Bangkok: A nameless woman walks through its bustling streets in the present; an American doctor more than 100 years ago struggles to decipher its overwhelmingly foreign culture; a Thai photographer living in Los Angeles in the 1970s visits his ailing father in London; a woman running a Thai restaurant in Japan finds herself threatened by Thailand’s politics. But as those seemingly unconnected stories accumulate, so do the threads that join them. Many are stories of loss and of survival. In one, a young Thai man named Siripohng, who has come to the city to attend university, meets a woman named Nee during the massive student demonstrations in 1973. Sudbanthad draws a subtle but achingly lovely account of their courtship, born of the hopeful spirit of the protests—then pivots to a shocking conclusion. In another, an American jazz musician called Crazy Legs Clyde is summoned to a woman’s estate to play piano because a medium, she tells him, “counts twenty or so spirits in the pillar. They visit me in my dreams, and I’m tired of it. A woman my age needs her sound sleep.” But the assignment to exorcise them raises a ghost from Clyde’s past that won’t be stilled. Ghosts haunt this novel, even the ghosts of buildings, like the ancient tile-roofed house preserved within the lobby of a gleaming new skyscraper where some of the book’s characters will live (and at least one will die). As one character muses near the end of the novel, “The forgotten return again and again, as new names and faces, and again this city makes new ghosts.” Yet in Sudbanthad’s skillful hands and lyrical prose, every one of them seems vividly alive.

This breathtakingly lovely novel is an accomplished debut, beautifully crafted and rich with history rendered in the most human terms.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-53476-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Nov. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

An exuberant collection.

WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS

The 17 stories in this debut collection take place around the world, exploring queer and interracial love, extramarital affairs, and grief over the disappearances of loved ones.

The book provocatively probes the aftermath—the aftermath of death, of grim diagnoses, of abandonment, of monumental errors in judgment. Passages jump back and forth in time to dissect how the consequences of a fraught event shape and unravel the lives of innocent casualties. In the searing title story, which references the Buddha’s birth, the narrator wanders around London while mourning her recent miscarriage. “I lie down now and feel the weight of it on me, a white dancing elephant that I can see with my eyes closed, airy and Disney in one dream, bellowing despair and showing tusks in the other.” In the evocative “Talinda,” among the strongest in the collection, a South Asian scholar named Narika attempts to justify her affair and pregnancy with her terminally ill best friend’s husband, George. “By thinking of Talinda as always being high above me, I could sometimes think of her as being untouched by what I had been doing with George. Like she had too much pride to be hurt by it. Like she had better things to do.” In the electric “A Shaker Chair,” Sylvia, a “polished, calm, perfect” biracial therapist, is both troubled by and obsessed with her newest client, the “slovenly” Maya. “Revulsion is what she makes me feel,” Sylvia confesses to a former supervisor. “The Bang Bang” incisively portrays the transformation of a crotchety father named Millind, whose “immigration history was spotted with failures,” into an acclaimed poet and “great man” at the same time his only son disappears. Millind’s daughter bears witness, though bitterly, to his newfound fame and resents his apathy toward her missing brother. “As if, because our father had found joy, my brother and his quiet sadness had to become invisible.”

An exuberant collection.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-945814-61-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

Dennis-Benn has written a profound book about sexuality, gender, race, and immigration that speaks to the contemporary...

PATSY

A woman comes to terms with how her immigration to America affects her family back home in Jamaica—and herself.

For the follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, Here Comes the Sun (2016), Dennis-Benn returns briefly to Jamaica before shifting her locale to Brooklyn. It’s 1998, and single mother Patsy isn't able to get a tourist visa at the American Embassy in Kingston until she agrees to leave Trudy-Ann, her 5-year-old daughter, behind. Patsy’s American dreams are not just about a better financial future for Tru; she has long hoped to reunite with the love of her life, her childhood girlfriend, Cicely, now living in Brooklyn. But her dreams are stymied by the difficult reality of finding work in New York—despite Patsy’s best efforts, the only employment she can find is as a bathroom attendant, cleaning toilets—and by Cicely’s marriage to an abusive, overbearing man. Cicely, now a woman “smelling of expensive flowers and looking resplendent in a long purple peacoat cinched at the waist with a belt, a colorful silk scarf wrapped around her neck, still holding on to her Chanel handbag,” would rather stay with her husband than lose the lifestyle his wealth provides her. Tru, meanwhile, is sent to live with the father she doesn’t know. Alternating between Patsy's and Tru's stories, Dennis-Benn allows each character’s experience an equal depth and presence in the book. Slowly Patsy comes into her own, finding work as a nanny, but as Tru comes of age back in Jamaica missing her mother, Patsy, looking after another woman’s child, is haunted by the absence of her own daughter and the choices she must continue to make to survive in America, alone. Although she's lovingly drawn by Dennis-Benn, Patsy has done the single most-damning thing a mother can do in our society: She has abandoned her child. It's a marker of Dennis-Benn’s masterful prowess at characterization and her elegant, nuanced writing that the people here—even when they're flawed or unlikable—inspire sympathy and respect.

Dennis-Benn has written a profound book about sexuality, gender, race, and immigration that speaks to the contemporary moment through the figure of a woman alive with passion and regret.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63149-563-2

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

Fajardo-Anstine takes aim at our country's social injustices and ills without succumbing to pessimism. The result is a...

SABRINA & CORINA

Eleven achingly realistic stories set in Denver and southern Colorado bear witness to the lives of Latina women of Indigenous descent trying to survive generations of poverty, racism, addiction, and violence.

"Ever feel like the land is swallowing you whole, Sierra?" the narrator's mother, Josie, asks her in "Sugar Babies," the first story of Fajardo-Anstine's debut collection. "That all this beauty is wrapped around you so tight it's like being in a rattlesnake's mouth?" Here, it's becoming a mother at 16 that threatens to swallow Josie, prompting her to abandon 10-year-old Sierra. In "Sabrina & Corina," which follows two cousins, women's lack of opportunities and their dependence on men undo Sabrina, a blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty. While Corina, the plainer of the two, goes to beauty school, Sabrina spirals into substance abuse and sleeps around. She's murdered at the story's start, and Corina has the horrible task of going to the mortuary to do her cousin's makeup, literally covering up the violence she suffered. In "Julian Plaza," gaping holes in our social safety net ensnare the characters. When Nayeli gets breast cancer, her family has no good choices: Her husband's health insurance won't cover effective treatments, and he can't care for her for fear of being canned. Fajardo-Anstine writes with a keen understanding of the power of love even when it's shot through with imperfections. Nayeli's young daughters try to carry their mother home from the neighbor's where she has been sent to die. And Sierra from the title story still fantasizes about her mother returning at some point, "joyously waving to me, her last stop."

Fajardo-Anstine takes aim at our country's social injustices and ills without succumbing to pessimism. The result is a nearly perfect collection of stories that is emotionally wrenching but never without glimmers of resistance and hope.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-51129-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

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