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.
Two friends and talented weavers navigate poverty, abuse, and the relentless pressure to find suitable husbands in contemporary South India.
In Indravalli, a village that sits along the banks of the Krishna River, 16-year-old Poornima, which means full moon in Telugu, and 17-year-old Savitha, which means sun, cross paths when Poornima’s father hires Savitha to help him meet the demand for new cotton saris. Savitha is industrious at the spinning wheel, or charkha, and weaving with Poornima is respite from searching garbage dumps for metal and plastic to sell to support her family. Mourning the recent death of her mother from cancer, Poornima finds in Savitha a mother figure, a gifted storyteller, and, as marriage looms, a confidante for her to express her fears that the man she’s been arranged to marry is not what he seems. Though 12-hour days of weaving bind Poornima and Savitha together, a horrific crime tears them apart. Out in the world alone, with no knowledge of each other’s whereabouts, they must find a way to maneuver the cruelties lobbed at women with no education and little money in both India and the United States. In this, her debut novel, Rao (An Unrestored Woman, 2016) has written an enchanting tale that alternates between Poornima's and Savitha’s points of view. The book’s earlier quiet and contemplative moments give way to the girls’ intricately devised plans to escape their brutal circumstances, and an indefatigable courage fuels their dreams for a reunion. The resplendent prose captures the nuances and intensity of two best friends on the brink of an uncertain and precarious adulthood. “She made even the smallest of life seem grand, and for Poornima, who had always ached for something more…watching Savitha, watching her delight, was like cultivating her own.”
An incisive study of a friendship’s unbreakable bond.
This delightfully disturbing collection of folk tales, fairy tales, and Bible stories from Ortberg (Texts from Jane Eyre, 2014), an expansion of her series Children's Stories Made Horrific from the cult-favorite website The Toast, delivers on chills, laughs, and much more.
A version of “The Little Mermaid” that is more concerned with cultural perceptions of property rights than singing crabs. A retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” in which the former title character is a dreadful bore and the latter is unbearably pedantic. A reimagining of The Velveteen Rabbit starring a far more ambitious stuffed animal than the depressing original version. There is plenty of humor to be had here, with Ortberg’s signature biting wit and nerdy whimsy out in full force (“Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with—if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible”). Pointing out the darker aspects of children’s stories and Disney movies has become as much a cliché as the original princesses and fairy godmothers were, but Ortberg’s point of view is thoughtful, insightful, and unpretentious. Gender is entirely fluid, as characters debate “which of us gets to be wife,” there is a girl named Paul, a brother named Sylvia, and “daughters” who use “he/him” pronouns. One story that borrows from the Grimm stories “The Six Swans” and “The Twelve Brothers” comments on the different ways men and women are subjected to suffering. Riffs on Frog and Toad Are Friends, “Cinderella,” King Lear, and “The Frog Prince” reflect on abusive relationship dynamics. If anything, Ortberg doesn’t twist the stories so much as illuminate how layered and complicated they really are.
A wholly satisfying blend of silliness, feminist critique, and deft prose makes this a collection of bedtime stories that will keep you up at night for all the right reasons.
A paraplegic vet suddenly rises to his feet, catching the attention of religious leaders, reality TV producers, and skeptics.
Miles’ third novel (Want Not, 2013; Dear American Airlines, 2008) is framed as a poker-faced feat of reportage about the case of Cameron Harris, a former U.S. soldier who lost the use of his legs when a Soviet mine exploded near him while on duty in Afghanistan. Four years later, back home in Biloxi, Mississippi, he’s sitting outside a convenience store waiting for his sister when he discovers he can stand and walk. Cue a cultural scrum over America’s sacred and secular divides. Cameron is deemed a vessel of God by the locals, and a Vatican investigator arrives to determine if a legitimate miracle has occurred; the store becomes a shrine of sorts (“It was more like ‘somone…opened a Cracker Barrel at Lourdes’") and, soon, a moneymaker for its bemused Vietnamese immigrant owners; Cameron’s VA doctor puzzles over the illogic of his healing; and a reality TV producer locks down Cameron (and his charismatic, down-home sister, Tanya) for an investigative show, though the network execs press a more Honey Boo Boo–ish angle. Lost in the financial and theological squabbling, naturally, is Cameron himself, who’s bearing a secret that complicates (though doesn’t quite resolve) his “miracle.” Miles possesses a rare and admirable command of structure and style, shifting smoothly from Afghan patrol tactics to Catholic doctrine to neurological science; his sentences are thick with data, wittily delivered. (The store-cum-shrine is populated with "drunks, solicitors, teenagers in groups of more than three, coupon users, check writers, shirtless men, hundred-dollar-bill breakers, fake-ID presenters....") Sometimes that’s a disadvantage, as the novel’s info-soaked prose threatens to overwhelm the story’s psychological tensions. But the closing pages reveal an emotional vulnerability as potent as its research.
An expertly shaped tale about faith in collision with contemporary American culture.
Summer is off to a terrible start for 12-year old African-American Candice Miller.
Six months after her parents’ divorce, Candice and her mother leave Atlanta to spend the summer in Lambert, South Carolina, at her grandmother’s old house. When her grandmother Abigail passed two years ago, in 2015, Candice and her mother struggled to move on. Now, without any friends, a computer, cellphone, or her grandmother, Candice suffers immense loneliness and boredom. When she starts rummaging through the attic and stumbles upon a box of her grandmother’s belongings, she discovers an old letter that details a mysterious fortune buried in Lambert and that asks Abigail to find the treasure. After Candice befriends the shy, bookish African-American kid next door, 11-year-old Brandon Jones, the pair set off investigating the clues. Each new revelation uncovers a long history of racism and tension in the small town and how one family threatened the black/white status quo. Johnson’s latest novel holds racism firmly in the light. Candice and Brandon discover the joys and terrors of the reality of being African-American in the 1950s. Without sugarcoating facts or dousing it in post-racial varnish, the narrative lets the children absorb and reflect on their shared history. The town of Lambert brims with intrigue, keeping readers entranced until the very last page.
A candid and powerful reckoning of history.
(Historical mystery. 8-12)
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.
A man’s inability to be honest about his sexuality has scandalous, and brutally public, consequences for several generations.
At the outset of this novel, in 1940, all the gay men and at least one straight woman in a literary club at Oxford are infatuated with beautiful David Sparsholt, a first-year engineering student who initially seems oblivious to the attention. One student, Evert Dax, the son of famous, inexplicably bestselling novelist A.V. Dax, is determined to bed Sparsholt. (Ostensibly straight Freddie Green, whose memoir about his years at Oxford makes up the first section of the novel, claims Sparsholt has a “dull square face.”) Sparsholt’s straight bona fides (he has a girlfriend) soon come into thrilling question. The students watch warily at night for German bombs in the World War II–era opening of the novel, which soon transitions to 1966, when Sparsholt’s 14-year-old son, Johnny, lusts after Bastien, a French exchange student who's living with his family. Johnny is the heart of the story, and in the ensuing sections taking place over many decades he gives Hollinghurst the opportunity to track the vast, transformative changes in gay life since David Sparsholt attended Oxford. Johnny is a fascinating character: a painter who is sensitive, proudly bohemian, sometimes rejected in love, and still eager for love at an advanced age, but always calmly aware of who he is and the dangers of trying to be someone else. It’s a lesson he learned from his father’s arrogant belief that he could skirt the restrictive, heterosexual mores of pre–sexual liberation England. If this plot sounds like it couldn't possibly have been the work of a Man Booker Prize–winning author, part of Hollinghurt’s (The Stranger's Child, 2011, etc.) bold talent in this novel, as in his previous work, is to make it evident that lust, sex, and who does what with whom in the bedroom (and even how) are fitting, and insightful, subjects of literary fiction.
A novel full of life and perception; you end the book not minding that the actual Sparsholt affair gets just the barest of outlines.
An investigative report exposes rampant workplace sexual abuse against female immigrant workers.
Yeung shares the illuminating and often shocking stories of harassment against low-wage, at-risk workers deemed vulnerable due to the nature of their immigration status and their dependence on their employment in order to support a family. Based on three years of reportage through her work with the Center for Investigative Reporting team, the author documents and updates several case studies of workplace abuse against domestic workers. During her research, Yeung accompanied an undercover investigator checking in with night-shift janitors embroiled in a “black vortex” of rampant abuse and unaccountability due to the silencing of those terrified of termination or worse. She met farmworkers, domestic help, and hotel and janitorial workers, many of whom shared stories of sexual assault and personal threats. These compelling examples of exploitation and dehumanization represent a pattern of abuse and a silent epidemic affecting (mainly) female immigrant workers across the country. The author notes how many are motivated by fear and a hostile anti-immigrant political climate to reluctantly accept the “open secret” of their fate as abused employees: “The combination of undocumented immigration status and worries about losing a job serve as a powerful muzzle.” Yeung also spotlights a wave of recent protective legislation and lawsuits brought against companies who are aware of the allegations against them yet choose to remain neutral and of the serpentine legal strategies involved in sexual harassment cases. These statistics alone point to an epidemic problem in dire need of outside intervention. In continuing to expose these atrocities, Yeung and those like her hope to call much-needed attention to the toxic environment these underserved workers are subjected to and bring about an end to their maltreatment. A hopeful chapter on the inroads made toward training workers on how to identify and report workplace violence signals a new understanding and valuing of domestic employment.
A timely, intensely intimate, and relevant exposé on a greatly disregarded sector of the American workforce.
After the sudden death of his sister, Shane, an Anishinaabe teen, is left to carry the weight of grief for his family.
His mother is inconsolable. His girlfriend has become clingy. And his secret love, David, keeps him at a distance, as the pair hasn’t quite found a way to co-exist within a reservation community where there are no openly gay couples. Shane is dealt another crushing blow after his sister’s memorial when he discovers that the funding for his college tuition deposit hasn’t been approved by the band. College in Toronto is the one escape that Shane believes will offer him a semblance of a future that might not be forever lost within the cyclical trauma that exists in his community—even though his family sees his leaving the rez to go to college as a betrayal. From the first page, Cree/Métis filmmaker Jones (adapting his award-winning film of the same name) uses a poetic voice to interlace the landscape and the main character as one symbiotic being. Complex, vulnerable emotion is embedded within the specificity of the writing in this dramatic prose debut. Jones avoids clichés of reservation life, humanizing the stories of how his people reconcile the trauma of suicide, missing family members, same-sex relationships, and the isolation of a community left to fend for itself.
A touching story that has been a long time coming for the Indigenous community
. (Fiction. 14-18)