An absorbing account of the clash between environmentalists and oyster farmers in the coastal towns north of San Francisco.
In her debut, Brennan, a contributor to the Believer, the Rumpus, and other publications, describes a lengthy political and ecological battle involving the National Park Service, wilderness advocates, and the agricultural community in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a park preserve in Marin County, California. The “oyster war,” which won national media attention, pitted passionate supporters of the wild against equally vociferous champions of organic farming and resulted in the closing of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which had been raising oysters in a pristine estuary. Brennan, who grew up in the area and worked for the Point Reyes Light, offers a well-crafted narrative exploring every aspect of the controversy, from the contentious issue of whether the oyster farm was polluting the estuary (scientific and investigatory reports had uncertain findings) to the unusual array of individuals taking part (including Richard Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman and Senator Dianne Feinstein). The author recounts the history of oystering in America; the mixed uses of the biologically rich Northern California seashore by farmers, hikers, and campers; and how the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act protected the area. When the Park Service refused to renew the oyster company’s lease to operate within the park—ostensibly to restore the area to its wilderness condition—legal battles ensued. Brennan interweaves the stories of oyster pirates, cattle ranchers, Native Americans, scientists, and species ranging from exotic deer to harbor seals. She confronts the ambiguities of the conflicting arguments and motives of the key players, leaving readers to share her wonder at the “false dichotomy” between wild and cultivated landscapes. The oyster war, she writes, was “a story about loss…whether it be the loss of nature or the loss of a way of being in the world that feels sane, where men and women pull sustenance out of the lands and water.”
This sharp, sensitive debut story collection introduces us to a parade of people (and one dog) grasping their ways through complex relationships with family, friends, lovers, strangers, and, of course, themselves.
Don’t let the title put you off. Holmes’ unwaveringly perceptive debut collection of short stories about young people (mostly women and girls but also the occasional man and beast) at various stages of their early lives—middle school, high school, college, and beyond—is eminently sympathetic, insightful, and revealing, never regarding its characters with ridicule or derision, always with respect and compassion. The general narrative outlines may sound familiar—a young girl tries to find friends and fit in at a new school, a college grad parses her plans and loyalties as she seeks her place in the world—but the details bring dimension and color, making the characters and their stories pop. Lala, the protagonist of “How Am I Supposed to Talk to You?” travels from California to Mexico in hopes of bridging the gulf that separates her from a mother who serially disappoints her. In “Weekend with Beth, Kelly, Muscle, and Pammy,” the only story told from a guy’s perspective, a feckless, clueless, but not entirely unsympathetic dude is paid a visit by an old college roommate and wonders why, despite his persistent loneliness, he does not want to sleep with her. The title character in “Barbara the Slut,” meanwhile, is, yes, a victim of bullying but also a young woman dedicated to her autistic brother and actively shaping her own destiny, deciding whom to sleep with and how often before she decamps for her freshman year at Princeton. The people limned here are people we know. They may even be the people we are.
A first-rate first collection from a young writer you’ll want to hear more from.
A young girl navigates a tumultuous childhood to become one of the top chefs in the country in this delicious debut from Stradal.
Eva Thorvald is just a baby when her mother leaves and her father dies. But despite never really knowing her chef father and sommelier mother, Eva finds out that cooking is in her blood. In elementary school, she grows hot peppers in her closet. In high school, she gets an internship at the nicest restaurant in town. Eventually, she grows into one of the most respected, most adventurous chefs in the country, running an ultrahip pop-up supper club with a yearslong waiting list. Although Eva’s tale is interesting enough on its own, the true excitement comes from Stradal’s decision to tell it in interconnected stories from different points of view. The reader sees Eva through the eyes of her father, her boyfriend, a rival, a cousin, and more. Piecing together Eva’s life from these patchwork stories fleshes out her world and makes the ending feel especially rewarding. Delightful details, like a fiercely competitive county-fair bake-off with a category just for bars, inject the book with some Midwestern realness.
Food and family intertwine in this promising debut that features triumph, heartbreak, and even recipes.
A dogged journalist penetrates the deeply secretive dissident underground in Burma’s police state in this compelling look into a traumatized society in flux.
During her time as the Burma correspondent for the Washington Post, Schrank, now a contributing editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, delved into this highly censored, authoritarian country of largely Buddhist citizens at her peril to record how the state has gradually cracked open to some democratic currents since 2011. She chronicles the lives of two “rebels,” rivals in the democratic movement, whose tireless struggles to effect peaceful change since the first student uprising of 1988—despite beatings, imprisonment, and torture—represent the efforts of an entire population pushing against the successive Burmese military dictatorships since independence in 1947. Under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was anointed by the people when she returned from England to care for her mother in 1988, the National League for Democracy began a well-oiled, tenacious freedom struggle—even though its leaders were persecuted relentlessly, and Aung herself was placed under house arrest for the next 15 years. Schrank finagled her way inside Burmese society, slipping by suspicious military authorities to access the leaders of the democratic underground, whom she followed in Rangoon like “a fly on the wall.” These include “Nway,” a 30-something Twantay native, chosen by “Auntie” (Aung) as a natural activist leader and able to organize protests and vigils despite being pursued relentlessly by the “Dogs,” the secret intelligence agents; “Nigel,” his charismatic counterpart and a teacher of English caught up in the political struggle of the “Saffron Generation” and radicalized by incarceration; and “Grandpa,” aka U Win Tin, a man of letters released from prison in 2008 after nearly 20 years and resolved never to renounce future political activity. Throughout the book, Schrank displays an elegant style and determined journalist’s diligence.
A remarkable chronicle of a multigenerational struggle in Burma bringing about important change.
A missing person mystery is delicately entwined with a heartbreaking story of migration and loss.
The Vietnam of the past and the Las Vegas of the present are vividly evoked in this debut novel in which hard-boiled noir is seamlessly blended with reminiscences of exile. A two-fisted policeman from Oakland, California, finds both his life and sense of certainty upended by Suzy, the Vietnamese wife who abandoned him with thwarted desires and unanswered questions. It turns out he’s not the only ex-husband looking for her. She’s now fled from a short-tempered smuggler named Sonny, who’s also a refugee from the fall of Saigon and leans on the reluctant cop hard enough to make him search her last-known whereabouts, Vegas. What the cop finds, to his surprise, is Suzy’s estranged daughter, Mai, a professional poker player who’s something of a tough-talking, hard-boiled case herself; though he also recognizes in Mai more than just a strong physical resemblance to Suzy: “I could see her mother’s stubbornness….All the loneliness that comes with refusing anything sensible the world gives you.” The author intersperses the mercurial tale of the search with long, detailed letters written to Mai by Suzy recounting the wrenching, often perilous passage from Vietnam in the mid-1970s to a Malaysian refugee camp. It is in this testimony that Tran’s writing achieves a fluidity and grace that make you share his enigmatic antiheroine’s aching loss and sense of dislocation. (One of the most resonant of these memories involves using pork fat to help gas up a boat used for escaping Vietnam and how it makes the hungry passengers remember restaurants and kitchens of their past lives.) He's on less solid footing bringing the policeman’s first-person narrative to life but nonetheless skillfully identifies the roots of whatever is stalking Mai, Suzy, and others with recriminations and regrets; much like the Vietnam War itself, which created such torment and whose sorrowful legacy resounds generations later.
Right off the bat, Tran displays the most admirable and worthwhile gift a serious thriller writer can have: compassion toward even the most disreputable of his characters.
A chance meeting at a bar draws a young woman into an investigation that unexpectedly brings her answers about her long-lost cousin.
This engrossing debut novel is driven by the powerful voices of the two cousins, who narrate alternating chapters. At 23, Rayelle lives in her mother’s trailer, “unwed, already the mother of a dead baby.” Growing up, she was inseparable from her cousin Khaki, three years older and the source of Rayelle’s wisdom about boys and bodies. But Khaki’s feelings for Rayelle are not innocent or simple: “I hated her. And loved her more than anything.” More than a decade ago, Khaki left town with a boyfriend and was never heard from again. Yet in the best and worst moments of Rayelle’s life, it’s still Khaki she wishes were by her side. Drinking away her nights, Rayelle meets Couper Gale, a man old enough to be her father, who tells her he pays attention for a living. The two fall into an unlikely pairing, traveling across multiple states in Gale’s Gran Torino by day and sleeping in his camper by night. An investigative reporter, he's chasing a pattern of missing girls. “Sometimes, a girl dissipates like smoke rising up into the air. So thin, you can’t see her anymore. She becomes a cloud. You breathe her in,” says Khaki, whom we quickly learn is a serial killer—surely one of fiction’s most complicated. Her penchant to destroy what she loves is an obsession she inflicts on women who were abused by those who should have kept them safe.
An intense, riveting saga of the multiplying casualties of one family’s secrets and a girl’s determination to take control after a childhood “that rips you apart so your insides are one big scar.”
A terrorist bombing in Madrid stirs up memories in a Basque town of a politician kidnapped and killed, an act that linked the political and the personal, in this thoughtful, ambitious debut.
The American teacher Joni has been in the town of Muriga for more than 50 years when an al-Qaida cell's 2004 attack on Madrid’s Atocha train station recalls a local episode of Basque separatist violence six years earlier, one of “these acts that erode the soul of a people.” In chapters that alternate among the voices of Joni; Mariana, the victim’s wife; and Iker, one of the kidnappers, Urza illuminates the before—from days to decades—and after of the abduction. Mariana remembers that while her husband pursued party politics in Bilbao half the week, she was having an affair with the young American teacher who came to Muriga to replace the elderly Joni at the local school. Iker speaks from his prison cell, recalling how he was drawn reluctantly from truancy and vandalism to violence even as he sought a way out of the town through English lessons with Joni. And the American teacher, whose early years in Muriga were scarred by deep love and loss that cemented him to the town, finds his friendship with Mariana collapsing in the wake of her husband’s death. Urza’s fragmented, cinematic structure can confuse with its disjointed chronology, yet it works well to let each member of the trio reveal a different segment of the town’s populace and history. While Iker’s crime grew from the pointless acts and energy of youth and Mariana’s infidelity was enabled by party politics, Joni’s long-ago lover could recall seeing her father shot by Franco’s men at the former army barracks that came to serve as the high school where Joni taught students like Iker.
The author’s family is from Spain’s Basque region, which helps explain why an American writer would venture into this fraught history, and Urza does so convincingly, revealing the human faces behind the masks of terrorism and its collateral damage.
This irresistible debut novel from an accomplished celebrity-memoir ghostwriter reads like a behind-the-scenes look at the marriage of a certain former Hollywood it couple.
TomKat, is that you? Lizzie Pepper, the disarmingly charming fictional narrator of this engaging faux memoir, is ready to reveal the truth about her tabloid-fodder relationship with her now-ex-husband, mega-movie star Rob Mars. (The author, Liftin, has collaborated on the memoirs of many real celebrities, including Miley Cyrus and Tori Spelling.) A wholesome, young, Midwest-raised actress, best known for playing a girl-next-door type on TV, Lizzie takes a meeting with Mars, who, in addition to being hugely famous and the teen crush of Lizzie’s best friend from home, is also deeply involved in a creepy cultlike religion with a lot of money and Hollywood pull. Lizzie thinks she’s auditioning for Rob’s next film, but she’s actually trying out for a bigger role—the actor’s girlfriend and, eventually, his wife and the mother of his children. Lizzie’s feelings for Rob are real, but how authentic his are for her is a continual topic of speculation in the press and ultimately an open question for Lizzie herself, despite (or perhaps partly because of) moments like the one in which Rob dramatically declares, in front of a phalanx of paparazzi, that Lizzie is “the love of my life”—an incident that goes viral, becoming a YouTube meme and providing talk show joke fodder. “They called him a manufactured brand, a robot attempting to play the role of a man in love,” Lizzie recalls. If these characters and this story don’t sound familiar to you, you miraculously missed out on the world’s collective fascination with the six-year marriage of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes—not to mention its dramatic end. But no matter, Liftin’s compelling, highly readable novel—with its sympathetic narrator, suspenseful plot pivots, snappy pace, and dishy details about Hollywood’s inner workings—is likely to engage even readers who remain blissfully unaware of the tabloid characters who may or may not have inspired it.
Dishy Hollywood fiction at its finest from an author who traffics in the truth behind tabloid headlines.
Hilarious, surreal, and bracingly original, Walker’s ambitious debut avoids moralistic traps to achieve something rarer: a genuinely subversive novel that’s also serious fun.
At just over 300 pounds, Plum Kettle is waiting for her real life to start: she’ll be a writer. She’ll be loved. She’ll be thin. In the meantime, she spends her days ghostwriting advice to distraught teenage girls on behalf of a popular teen magazine (“Dear Kitty, I have stretch marks on my boobs, please help”), meticulously counting calories (“turkey lasagna (230)”), and fantasizing about life after weight-loss surgery. But when a mysterious young woman in Technicolor tights starts following her, Plum finds herself drawn into an underground feminist community of radical women who refuse to bow to oppressive societal standards. Under the tutelage of Verena Baptist, anti-diet crusader and heiress to the Baptist diet fortune (a diet with which Plum is intimately familiar), Plum undertakes a far more daring—and more dangerous—five-step plan: to live as her true self now. Meanwhile, a violent guerrilla group, known only as “Jennifer,” has emerged, committing acts of vigilante justice against misogynists. As her surgery date nears and Jennifer’s acts grow increasingly drastic, Plum finds she’s at the center of what can only be described as a literal feminist conspiracy—and she’s transforming into a version of herself she never knew existed. But while it would be easy for the book to devolve into a tired parable about the virtues of loving yourself just the way you are, Walker’s sharp eye and dry humor push it away from empty platitudes and toward deeper and more challenging turf. Ultimately, for all the unsettling pleasure of Walker’s splashier scenarios—and there are many—it’s Plum’s achingly real inner life that gives the novel its arresting emotional weight.
Part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high—and delivers.