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9 Excellent Spring Reads

A potent book that revels in the author’s truthful experiences while maintaining the jagged-grain, keeping-it-a-100, natural...

SURVIVAL MATH

NOTES ON AN ALL-AMERICAN FAMILY

A dynamic, impressive debut memoir from the Whiting Award–winning author of The Residue Years (2013).

Following his award-winning debut novel, Jackson (Writing/New York Univ.) looks back on the specific chaos of historical, cultural, and familial forces that, despite the continued presence of open wounds, allowed them a chance at redemption in their home of Portland, Oregon. As he writes, “there’s the history that’s hit the books, what for all time should live in its ledgers, but…I must keep alive the record of where we lived and how we lived and what we lived and died for,” so it doesn’t slip “into the ether.” The author chronicles the complicated influences that have shaped his life, weaving through the Reaganomics era and its attendant uneven burden on black families, which led to expanding precariousness and subsequent street-scheming and entrenched pipe-dreaming. In his lyric memoir in essays, Jackson navigates family strife, crime, guns, toxic masculinity, substance abuse and addiction, and the meaning of “hustle,” among countless other timely topics. The author also makes it clear that there’s no room for pity, neither for his own choices nor those of his mother, who struggled with addiction, or the collection of black men he homages as the “composite Pops” who raised him. These are powerful stories of survival in the face of tremendous odds, rendered in a consistently intriguing hybrid of the street-cool hip-hop mathematics of Mos Def and the bluesy, ancestry-minded prison-cell work of Etheridge Knight (especially “The Idea of Ancestry”). The narrative hits its peak when Jackson motions beyond the tenuous spectacle of a moment to understand what came before it and to hope about what deliverance might come after it even while admitting, sometimes ashamedly so, that he is still wrestling with it all.

A potent book that revels in the author’s truthful experiences while maintaining the jagged-grain, keeping-it-a-100, natural storytelling that made The Residue Years a modern must-read.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3170-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

A work of incisive observation and analysis, exquisite writing, and an attempt to determine if there is “any revelation that...

ALL THE LIVES WE EVER LIVED

SEEKING SOLACE IN VIRGINIA WOOLF

A conceptually ambitious and assured debut, successfully bridging memoir and literary criticism.

Smyth, an American, first read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse when she was studying abroad at Oxford. She had been raised by her British father and Australian mother in their adopted New England, where the author harbored fantasies about their courtship and their charmed relationship. Smyth also had easy access to the sea, for which she felt an affinity that was reinforced by her favorite novel. As her parents’ marriage all but collapsed, complications challenged everything she once felt about life, and her life in particular, and she found refuge and resonance in Woolf’s famously challenging novel. Smyth, who has taught at Columbia and worked for the Paris Review, offers a close reading of that novel from the perspective of an obsessed reader who is both coming-of-age and coming to terms. Smyth’s memoir also serves as a biography of Woolf, particularly about the disappointments and epiphanies that the two share and that Woolf translated into her fiction. Most of all, the book is Smyth’s story of living with an alcoholic father through his protracted death, as he defied warnings that continuing to drink and smoke would kill him and then defied that predicted fate until he no longer could, at which point his death took everyone by surprise. The author writes of the vicious cycle perpetuated by her alcoholic father and clinically depressed mother, each blaming the other, becoming both more estranged and more inextricably bound together. She also writes of how she and her mother have grieved differently and how she may not be feeling what she should—whatever that is. Ultimately, she wonders whether any of this means anything: “Have I come up with anything, has Woolf come up with anything, that is more than merely circling a brutal truth?”

A work of incisive observation and analysis, exquisite writing, and an attempt to determine if there is “any revelation that could lessen loss, that could help to make the fact of death okay.”

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6062-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

There’s an honorable, unsung tradition of African-American novelists using the counterspy genre as a metaphor for what...

AMERICAN SPY

The bitter education of an African-American intelligence agent is framed against the background of a real-life coup d’état three decades ago in Burkina Faso.

It’s 1987, and Marie Mitchell has hit the wall as an FBI agent. She’s patronized and marginalized by her boss, who relegates her to little more than recruiting informants (or “snitches,” as she derisively calls them) and filing “oppressive amounts of paperwork.” This is not how this idealistic (but hardly naïve) daughter of an NYPD officer hoped her life would turn out back when she and her sister, Helene, dreamed of becoming secret agents when they grew up. At this low point of her professional life, Marie is recruited by Ed Ross, a smooth-talking CIA official, to take part in a covert operation to undermine the regime of Burkina Faso’s magnetic young president, Thomas Sankara, a Marxist influenced by the example of the martyred revolutionary Che Guevara. From the beginning of her assignment, Marie is both wary of the agency’s reasons for taking down Sankara and skeptical toward Sankara’s leftist politics, though the closer she gets to Sankara, the less inclined she is to dismiss his efforts to improve his nation’s welfare. Nevertheless, Marie has another, more personal motive for accepting the assignment: the agent-in-charge, Daniel Slater, was both a colleague and lover of her sister, who fulfilled her ambition to become a spy but died in a car accident whose circumstances remain a mystery to Marie and her family. The more embedded Marie gets in her assignment, the less certain she is of what that assignment entails and of who, or what, she’s really working for. Falling in love with her target—Sankara, who in real life was violently overthrown that same year—is yet another complication that further loosens Marie’s professional resolve. There are many tangled strands to unravel here for Marie, the reader, and first-time novelist Wilkinson, who nonetheless navigates the psychic and physical terrain of this tale of divided loyalties with the poise of such classic masters as Eric Ambler and Graham Greene spiked with late-20th-century black American intellectual history.

There’s an honorable, unsung tradition of African-American novelists using the counterspy genre as a metaphor for what W.E.B. Du Bois called "double consciousness," and Wilkinson’s book is a noteworthy contribution.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9895-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Nov. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

Perhaps the most consistently hilarious adventure of the alarmingly precocious heroine, who’s capable of confiding in her...

THE GOLDEN TRESSES OF THE DEAD

Flavia de Luce hasn’t lost a sister, she’s gained a case—and what a case.

Whatever tears the preteen chemist/sleuth might have shed over her dislikable sister Ophelia’s wedding to Dieter Schrantz, whose career in the Luftwaffe was ended when his plane was shot down by Reggie Mould, the Royal Air Force pilot who’s now his best man, are squelched by two more momentous events: the appearance of Anastasia Prill, the very first client of Flavia’s professional partnership with Arthur W. Dogger, her late father’s valet, and Flavia’s discovery of a severed finger stuck into Ophelia’s wedding cake. The shared abilities of Flavia and Dogger (The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, 2018, etc.) quickly identify the finger as that of recently deceased guitarist Mme. Adriana Castelnuovo, but the investigation of Arthur W. Dogger & Associates into the theft of the threatening letters focusing on the work of Miss Prill’s father, distinguished homeopathic practitioner Dr. Augustus Brocken, hits an unfortunate snag when someone feeds the client a fatal dose of physostigmine. Since Dr. Brocken, whose age-related infirmities have confined him to Gollingford Abbey, can offer no evidence as useful as a complete spoken sentence, Flavia and Dogger are very much on their own—except of course for Flavia’s cousin Undine, who’s even younger and snarkier than she is, and Doris Pursemaker and Ardella Stonebrook, two missionaries Flavia, now the Chatelaine of Buckshaw, agrees through gritted teeth to accept as guests under pressure from Cynthia Richardson, the vicar’s beleaguered wife. Luckily, Flavia’s inquiries also lead her to a kindred spirit: Colin Collier, the late guitarist’s son, who also turns out to be the late client’s nephew.

Perhaps the most consistently hilarious adventure of the alarmingly precocious heroine, who’s capable of confiding in her readers with a perfectly straight face: “I don’t know if you’ve ever dissected a rat, but to me, there was only one word for it: exhilarating.”

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-345-54002-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

Beagin secures her position as a new writer to watch.

VACUUM IN THE DARK

A welcome sequel to one of last year’s most exciting debuts.

The first chapter of Beagin’s second novel is called “Poop.” Readers familiar with Pretend I’m Dead (2018) will not be surprised. Readers approaching Beagin for the first time should consider it an honest advertisement of what’s to come. Mona is a cleaning lady, which is to say that her business is filth. As she did in her debut, Beagin takes advantage of the peculiarly intimate relationship in which we engage when we pay other people to clean up our messes. Mona’s clients include a blind psychotherapist and her husband, who happens to be the man Mona calls Dark, someone she met once and can’t get out of her mind. There’s also a Hungarian couple, for whom she becomes a nude model. Mona’s complicated entanglements with these people are inevitable. She has some serious boundary issues, which we grow to understand in some detail in the chapter called “Mommy.” Mona is a tremendously engaging narrator. She’s sharp but not unkind. By the time this novel begins, she’s turned Fresh Air host Terry Gross into her imaginary sidekick, someone who "interview[s] her about the day-to-day hassles of being a cleaning lady in Taos" and sometimes acts as her "coach, therapist, surrogate parent." This is both funny and poignant—funny because it’s so unlikely, poignant because Mona could use a levelheaded friend. Indeed, Beagin excels at mixing comedy and pathos in a way that dilutes neither. This novel is ultimately a story about the meaning of home. Mona grew up shuttling between her grandparents’ apartment and her stepfather’s place. Neither was a great place for a child. She was institutionalized for a time. And then she was sent to live with a foster mother in Massachusetts. In Pretend I’m Dead, Mona follows a junkie to Taos. Here, she follows an innocuous nice guy to Bakersfield. What she discovers, though, is that the place she truly wants to be is the place she has created for herself.

Beagin secures her position as a new writer to watch.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-8214-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

A gorgeous novel of Africa's entanglement with the wider world.

THE DRAGONFLY SEA

A magisterial novel about life amid East Africa's tumultuous cultural and political ferment in the shadow of the American war on terror.

Owuor (Dust, 2014) returns with a sweeping story of lives that intersect on Pate, an island off the coast of Kenya. The island is a palimpsest, a place where people come to forget or rewrite their life stories, and Owuor introduces us to a vivid set of characters who all want to begin their lives again in the island's embrace. We first meet Munira, the daughter of a wealthy business family that tries to marry her off to "an austere scholar" after she becomes pregnant with an unknown man's child. The incident proves ignominious for her family, and soon Munira is left alone on Pate with her irrepressible daughter, Ayaana. The duo lives a quiet life until the sudden arrival of Muhidin, an avowed infidel who long ago abandoned Pate for the life of a sailor. "Between religion and my black skin there shall be a sky's distance until the day I hear the Call to Atonement," he promised upon leaving the island. In his old age, though, he begins to fixate on his home: "Pate," he ruminates. "A phantom-calling invocation. Memories crawled over Muhidin like arachnids sneaking out of forgotten crypts." He soon finds himself bound up in Munira’s and Ayaana's lives, as the daughter sees in him the father she never knew, and Muhidin feels himself drawn into a paternal bond with her. Meanwhile, the island is beset by American troops—whom the locals refer to derisively as "the Terrorized"—who hope to combat terrorism by cultivating the islanders' hearts and minds. In the midst of the conflict, another stranger arrives: Ziriyab, a migrant fleeing military retribution after his brother participates in the bombing of a foreign navy ship. His appearance forever alters Munira, Ayaana, and Muhidin's motley family. For all the emphasis on contemporary geopolitics, however, Owuor has ultimately written a novel that is about everything the war on terror cannot register: the vastness, complexity, and richness of East Africa's cultural world. She represents it as a stunning mélange of Islamic and African cultural traditions that are woven together via the motif of the sea. Pate becomes the epicenter of an ethos and a people who move freely, sailing without regard for cultural and national borders. The novel features an enormous cast of vividly drawn characters, from Chinese businessmen to Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalists. Its heart, however, is the quartet of characters who motivate the novel's primary narrative. Rendered in language that is heart-rendingly lyrical (even if it does border on purple at times), Munira, Ayaana, Muhidin, and Ziriyab are unforgettable figures. Owuor's language is so lush, and her vision so vibrant, that by the time Ayaana emulates Muhidin and embarks upon her own sea journey, it doesn't much matter; the reader is likely sunken down into the pleasure of Owuor's sentences. To do so feels like sinking down into the intricacy of East Africa.

A gorgeous novel of Africa's entanglement with the wider world.

Pub Date: March 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-451-49405-4

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

A strange, shape-shifting novel about the power of making your own family.

GINGERBREAD

Oyeyemi (What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, 2016, etc.) returns to the land of fairy tales in a novel that riffs on "Hansel and Gretel" without demonstrating much concern for following its well-worn trail of breadcrumbs.

Harriet Lee bakes gingerbread that tastes "like eating revenge...with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon." When Harriet isn't busy trying to woo the cliquish parents at her daughter's West London school with baked goods, she looks after teenage Perdita, corrects student essays, and comes up with bad puns for future courses. But when Perdita winds up in the hospital after an apparent suicide attempt, Harriet knows she finally owes her daughter the long-avoided truth about her origins. Like Scheherazade, Harriet weaves a long, strange tale about her own childhood, immigrating to London, and sexual encounters with the only two men who could be Perdita's father. "It was like looking at faces printed on banknotes—no, they were a pair of black pre-Raphaelite muses," Harriet reveals. As in her last novel, Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)—based loosely on "Snow White"—Oyeyemi takes the familiar contours of a children's tale and twists it into something completely new, unsettling, and uncanny. There are changelings, mysterious rich benefactors, a country that might not exist, corrupt, capitalist factory owners, and living dolls with forthright opinions. But where Boy, Snow, Bird explores the lifelong effects of abusive parenting on its narrator, this novel gives a loving but "shamelessly unsatisfactory" mother the chance to tell her side of the story. Readers familiar with Oyeyemi's work will not be surprised to learn that her latest plot sets off in one direction and immediately takes a hairpin curve in another (and another, and still another). The effect is heady, surreal, and disarming—you have to be willing to surrender to Oyeyemi's vision and the delicious twists and turns of her prose. Oyeyemi fans will likely be charmed. New readers will wonder what on Earth they've discovered.

A strange, shape-shifting novel about the power of making your own family.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-59463-465-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

A fiercely uncompromising—and unforgettable—portrait.

AN AMERICAN SUMMER

LOVE AND DEATH IN CHICAGO

A chronicle of dreams and gun violence one summer in the city of Chicago.

In 1991, Kotlowitz (Journalism/Northwestern Univ.; Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago, 2004, etc.) published the modern classic There Are No Children Here (1991), which told the story of brothers Lafeyette and Pharoah and their experiences in one of Chicago’s violent housing projects. Years later, the author received a call in the middle of the night and learned that Pharoah may have been involved in a murder. In his latest powerful sociological exploration, the author masterfully captures the summer of 2013 in neglected Chicago neighborhoods, rendering intimate profiles of residents and the “very public” violence they face every day. One example is Eddie Bocanegra, who killed a rival gang member as a teenager. “Eddie did the unimaginable,” writes Kotlowitz. “He took another human life. I suppose for some that might be all you need to know. For others, it may be all you want to know about him. And that’s what Eddie fears the most, that this moment is him. That there’s no other way to view him.” We also meet Anita Stewart, a dedicated social worker who watched one of her favorite students get murdered and another struggle with the aftermath. Heartbreakingly, the author writes early on, “I could tell story after story like this, of mothers who drift on a sea of heartache, without oars and without destination.” Throughout, Kotlowitz raises significant issues about the regions where violence has become far too routine. “After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions,” he writes. However, “in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood or North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions.” Kotlowitz offers a narrative that is as messy and complicated and heart-wrenching as life itself: “This is a book, I suppose, about that silence—and the screams and howling and prayers and longing that it hides.”

A fiercely uncompromising—and unforgettable—portrait.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53880-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Dec. 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

A valuable firsthand report of a time of terror.

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD IS TRUE

A MEMOIR OF WITNESS AND RESISTANCE

A noted poet and activist recounts an odd season at the dawn of the civil war in El Salvador.

At the opening, Forché (English/Georgetown Univ.; Blue Hour, 2003, etc.) admits she had only a little knowledge of the Central American nation of El Salvador until the end of the 1970s. “What I knew of El Salvador, I knew from my Spanish professor in college, himself a Salvadoran,” as well as from translating the work of the poet Claribel Alegría. At the beginning of the narrative, the author recounts how she opened her door one day to a man whom Alegría had mentioned without much specificity: Leonel Gómez, a mysterious figure who sometimes seemed to be all things to all people. Gómez convinced Forché that she needed to see what was happening for herself, and off she went to a nation on the brink. A bête noire soon came into view: Colonel Chacón, “who chops off fingers and has people disemboweled.” Gómez was a born mansplainer, throwing out a sequence of lessons that prompted Forché to protest that she was smart enough to follow along, to which he replied, “Lesson three has nothing to do with you.” The remark was ominous, to say the least. Gómez, her Virgil, guided Forché into tight corners, such as the cramped office of a commander who earnestly asked, “what can we do to improve the situation?” Alas, the time for talking drew short, and the bullets began to fly—some of them, it seems, deliberately aimed at her. As Forché writes in her elegiac opening, “I will learn that the human head weighs about two and a half kilos, and a child’s head, something less.” Episode by episode, dodging death squads, Forché builds a story filled with violence and intrigue worthy of Graham Greene around which a river of blood flows—doing so, unstanched, with the avid support of America’s leaders.

A valuable firsthand report of a time of terror.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-56037-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 30, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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