Three generations of a family venture west in this engaging, intricately embroidered 19th-century historical epic by Avery (Jars in a Pioneer Town, 2010, etc.).
The novel opens with a young boy, Alex, watching his mother die, marking the beginning of a desperately mournful early life. Despite being raised in abject poverty in a New York slum, he remains steadfastly true to his father and is horrified when representatives of a child welfare program rap on his front door and forcibly separate him from his beloved Pa. Alex is put on an orphan train, a service that relocated more than 250,000 vulnerable children from East Coast urban slums to the rural Midwest between 1853 and 1929. After he arrives at his destination, he’s thrown into an experience reminiscent of a cattle auction, in which stern-faced farmers and their wives eye each child carefully for potential adoption. No sooner is he introduced to his new parents than he’s set to work on a farm. A quiet, removed child, Alex finds more solace in nature than he does with his adoptive family. He forges a strong bond with the farm’s workhorses, Delilah and Dandy, and shares all his secrets with them. Avery juxtaposes Alex’s story with that of Will and Libby Pickard, a couple in industrial England. They head for America’s Eastern Seaboard on a ship, the Elijah Swift, and soon become embroiled with the powerful Cambridge family of Baltimore, leading to a number of dark, unexpected plot twists. The author spent several years immersing herself in the history and lifestyle of 19th-century rural America, and it shows; by comparison, the English environments seem quaint, but this doesn’t detract from the overall story. The author’s prose charts a close proximity to the land; for example, in one touching moment, young Alex sifts through dirt and finds a tiny seed. He turns “the seed over several times in his fingers,” sensing its importance without fully understanding its potential to yield new life. On occasions such as these, Avery makes readers remember what it’s like to see aspects of the natural world for the first time. She also captures some of the terse correctness of the classic 19th-century epic novel, but her tone also has a contemporary easiness that makes it approachable and pleasurable.
A beautifully written, effortlessly measured historical novel.
In Blair’s debut novel, African-American Freddie Edwards’ life story unfolds across history as a complex tapestry, leading up to his arrest for the killing of a 75-year-old man.
This superbly crafted, intricately detailed story is by turns joyful, sorrowful, frightening and uplifting. Blair draws readers in by establishing a mystery, as Annabelle Mann, the staid, white widow of a respected judge, is called to testify as a character witness for Edwards, a black man with a criminal record who’s accused of murder. The story then exquisitely details the childhoods of Mann, Edwards and his sister, Ruby, in 1930s Tampa, Florida. The post-Depression economy has forced Mann’s family to live on the edge of a black neighborhood; her father is a philandering salesman, largely absent from her life, while her mother is an open, generous woman. In graceful prose, Blair takes time to develop the children’s friendship: Ruby and Annabelle hit it off immediately, but Freddie distrusts the new white girl. Annabelle recognizes his innate intelligence, however, and lures him into friendship by lending him books. Freddie loves stories about knights, hence his self-proclaimed nickname, “the Black Knight,” a moniker he lives up to by always rescuing the mischievous girls. As Blair further develops the characters, as well as the time and place they live in, she toys with the overarching mystery. Chapters vacillate between past and present, and the narrative gradually drops hints about a strange, rich, neighborhood white man. Overall, this fine book offers well-drawn, human characters and logically flowing action, all written in a striking style: “Two silver-haired women walked together on an otherwise empty beach, its pristine white sands stretching endlessly around them, its peaceful quiet broken only by the sounds of waves lapping at the shore and gulls calling overhead.”
A must-read story of relationships, prejudice and bravery, and a vivid paean for justice.
Cole’s (The Pleasure of Memory, 2013) novel is equal parts snark-filled road trip and bittersweet confrontation of past sins.
Henry wakes up in a gas station bathroom, crusty with vomit and missing both a shoe and his wallet. Exiting, he finds himself in New Mexico, his car nowhere in sight and his memory lost to a weekend of boozing. This is his re-entry into a miserable life spent guilt-ridden over how he treated Zoe, his wife, who’s been dead for four years. Naturally, his first stop is a bar just steps away. Clarence, the philosophically inclined bartender, insists that he drink some water. During the ensuing back and forth, Clarence calls Henry out on carrying needless emotional baggage. Eventually, Henry leaves and begins hitchhiking; he meets a string of fascinating people, including Rev. Joshua White, a social worker named Mrs. Pena, and the stunning Alice—a dangerously perfect companion who’s on a yearly pilgrimage with her siblings. Henry joins Alice and company in their van, hoping to reach California while reluctantly cleansing himself of the idea that he’s no good for people. Has Zoe’s ghost trapped him, or can Henry be salvaged from this self-destructive epic outing? Cole’s tale of impossible redemption is, sentence for sentence, a textural feast. Fabulous lines like, “He collected friends the way a lumberjack collected trees...[they] only complicated his plans,” pop on every page. Equally marvelous is his dialogue; Clarence tells Henry, “You like the drama because it makes you feel important, gives you a sense of purpose, a reason for not being dead.” Readers will savor Cole’s narrative as it unfolds across a series of conversations that are by turns probing, poignant and hilarious. From his time with Rev. White, readers learn that Henry is a relentless cynic; from Mrs. Pena, that he’s softer than he appears. Alice, with eyes like bright green kryptonite, threatens all of his bourbon-drenched defenses. By the end, readers will wish these terrific characters could stick around longer.
In this beautifully written debut novel, a loner hides from the world, other people and his past until a chance relationship sends him spiraling toward a confrontation with inner demons and the outside world.
Ben floats, adrift in a world of routine, solitude and ennui. Reminiscent of Sartre’s Nausea (1938), the intimate prose conjures this outsider’s life into stark reality. Readers are thrown drowning into the maelstrom that is his mind—a mind constantly churning, focusing in microscopic detail on every word, deed and nuance. “He tried to think of something more to say. He was supposed to say more. But he couldn’t think of anything, and the weight of saying nothing got heavier and heavier until it was like a panic.” For Ben, life is like a bad acid trip, and Di Biase drags the reader along for the ride. The story is divided between the present and flashbacks in which Ben is referred to as “the boy,” who is as introspective and self-conscious as the man, though somehow fresher, as if things today didn’t have to be this way. In the present, Ben isa mechanic at a Washington, D.C., garage, where co-workers call him Cornpone. “Ben liked working. Not having to think.” He prefers old cars and keeping to himself; at night, he sits at home drinking Maker’s Mark. Sometimes he goes to a bar where patrons call him President Taft. There, he meets Maria, a woman much like his mother. Ben resists but falls into a relationship with her and meets her daughter, Sophia. Throughout, Di Biase builds tension that reverberates and tightens, ever alluding to some unnamed crime Ben committed as a boy. “It might have been different. If he’d turned out differently, or if he hadn’t done what he’d done.” The writing mirrors Ben’s agitated state, infecting readers with his anxiety. Put squarely inside a troubled mind, readers can’t escape the fearsome knowledge that something bad is coming.
In Dudley’s debut novel, a film-festival volunteer chauffeurs, advises and connects with a Hollywood star–turned–documentary filmmaker.
Jeff Whittaker, a lately unemployed 56-year-old man, used to advise the Ottawan government and corporate bigwigs in communications strategy. Now cobbling together freelance opportunities, Whittaker agrees to volunteer for a Canadian documentary film festival. He’s tapped to drive around 56-year-old Hollywood actress Margaret Torrance, who’s lately been getting few new roles. After she makes a few missteps dealing with questions about her controversial documentary Red Carpet (about sexism in the movie industry), she takes Whittaker up on his offer of help. Both have emotional baggage, and Whittaker hides a secret that could push Torrance away—yet they also share an undeniable attraction. As they come under the harsh glare of the media spotlight, they face challenges in trusting each other. In this talky, thoughtful novel, Dudley offers a grown-up romance between two people who share a love for doing good work. Drawing on his own background in the film and video industry, he anchors Whittaker and Torrance’s growing relationship in practical details of screenings, dinner parties and interviews. Whittaker is an interesting departure from the macho hero, as he’s an introvert who champions Torrance despite his dislike of confrontation. Given her history, Torrance’s attraction to Whittaker’s gentleness makes sense: “It’s not just that you know what to say…it’s that you understand. I never thought empathy could be so sexy.” All the talking, navel-gazing and epiphanies, however, bog down the story somewhat; during a romantic evening, for example, the two main characters sometimes sound more like seminar attendees than soon-to-be lovers. Luckily, Stewart also provides welcome humor and self-awareness: When Whittaker quotes a Latin phrase, corruptio optimi pessima, and translates it (“The corruption of what is best is the worst tragedy”), Torrance says what readers may be thinking: “How romantic.” Whittaker then comes back with: “Then there’s corruptio optimi pajama, which means, ‘You look hot in my pajamas.’ ”
A thoughtful exploration of honor, trust and middle-age romance.
In Fiske’s debut novel, a young peasant woman fights to keep her family together and embarks on a journey of discovery and empowerment.
Nisrina Huniah’s childhood is filled with tragedy and hardship. Born in a remote Palestinian village called Beit el Jebel near the turn of the 20th century, Nisrina’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her father, Isa, a grieving widower. She grows up with a loving stepmother, but her emotionally distant father wants her to marry rather than attend school with her best friend, Lamia. Despite her misgivings, she finds happiness and contentment with her husband, Jabran Yusef, a kind man who works in his family’s orchards. Prior to the birth of Nisrina’s third child, however, her world is shattered when Jabran is kidnapped by Turkish soldiers and forced to serve in their army. With his fate uncertain, Nisrina is left with a difficult choice: leave her children with the Yusef family and marry another man, or find a way to support herself and her children alone. She decides to attend a Catholic university and become a midwife, and this decision marks a pivotal turning point in her life; afterward, she struggles to keep her children and establish an independent identity in a tradition-bound society, while also holding out hope her beloved husband will one day return. Fiske’s ambitious novel successfully weaves several subplots into a single, emotionally rich tapestry. Nisrina’s story, particularly her education as a midwife, serves as the heart of the novel, but Jabran’s experiences as a conscript in the Turkish army are just as dynamic. These two characters are surrounded by a well-developed cast of supporting players, including members of Jabran’s extended family and the nuns at the university. The setting also plays an important role in the lives and fates of Fiske’s characters (“[T]he change in seasons…signaled the start of the sacred olive harvest, a month long event that brought together the young and the old, the strong and the weak”), and the author does a fine job of depicting daily life in a Middle Eastern village.
A sweeping historical epic anchored by a compelling heroine, finely honed historical detail and a fully realized setting.
An intense, uplifting third novel from Greco (Tommy the Quarterback, 2012, etc.) that maps an unlikely friendship as it confronts adulthood, prejudice and the mistreatment of the mentally ill.
Sandy Morelli, an Italian Catholic boy with a hot temper and a big heart, grows up in the poor part of 1950s Youngstown, Ohio. He and his neighbor Rigley Potter develop a close friendship, pretending to be pirates, exploring the wilderness, playing football and baseball, and always sticking together. Some kids tease Sandy for hanging out with a “hillbilly,” but it doesn’t bother him. As he and Rigley grow older, they attend different high schools and Sandy gets involved with football, but they still manage to spend time together on the weekends. Sandy slowly starts to realize, however, that Rigley is in fact mentally challenged. He tries to help his friend assimilate into mainstream young-adult life, even getting him a job as a golf caddy, only to see others brutally bully and tease him. The friends grow apart when Sandy leaves Youngstown to join the military, but they reunite several years later when Sandy gets a job at Wyandotte State Hospital. Throughout the novel, Greco never shies away from moments of brutal intensity, filtering them through Sandy’s tough yet empathetic voice. The author depicts Rigley as childish, but Sandy never patronizes him, as he understands Rigley’s simple, whimsical intellect. The book indicates the passing of time with subtle but accurate regional slang and hints of pop culture, and Greco’s careful pacing of Sandy’s gradual realization of his friend’s challenges will break readers’ hearts. The author takes on heavy, difficult subject matter here but always brings the story back to its foundation: the unbreakable bond between childhood friends.
A unique, emotional novel about lifelong companionship and brutal social injustice.
Inglish’s whirlwind novel follows a washed-up rocker and a fledgling model struggling to balance the excesses of superstardom.
Kurt Franklin, the hero of Inglish’s superbly frenzied fiction set in 1980s Los Angeles and New York, has seen better days. A musician and compulsive groomer, he’s been placed on psychiatric disability by his physician, who prescribed him Mellaril, a “thought suppressant.” Even worse, Kurt’s wife, Priscilla, has announced she needs some time apart. His brother James appears with a proposition: Give up drugs and pray, and Kurt just might get his life back. Inglish then spins his narrative toward Sophie Clark, an eighth grader and an aspiring model for sleazy agency owner Giuseppe Cassavetes, who disingenuously whisks her off to his Jamaican compound for a crash course in sex and life. Meanwhile, his prayers answered almost overnight, Kurt preps his new band, Thunderstick, for skyrocketing success, with album releases, groupies and an influential management team ushering in their exploding fame. Sophie’s young life as a model becomes complicated with a rape and an STD, yet she craves stardom and will do whatever it takes to get it. After European runway work provides money, fame and drugs, she meets and begins dating Kurt’s brother, and both plots artfully converge into a blur of rock gigs, sex and expository melodrama—all depicted with pitch-perfect clarity, as if Inglish had actually lived through it all. The author expertly keeps both plots in motion, issuing a hard-knocks education for Kurt and Sophie as their stars ascend; hubris consumes them, and by decade’s end, they crash and burn but come back again as Priscilla returns with a vengeance. It’s a fun ride for them and vicariously thrilling for readers. Demonstrating a knack for authentic period detail (early in her career, Sophie poses for a photo shoot in a sleeveless neon T-shirt, fishnets and combat boots), Inglish compellingly portrays Sophie’s topsy-turvy model lifestyle and Kurt’s stressed-out rocker world, propelling the novel ever further into a cyclone of fashion and bass guitar riffs.
Evokes the heart and soul of the era with a balance of decadence and desperation.
Leon’s (A Theory of All Things, 2010, etc.) evocative novel centers on two aging sisters, one mentally challenged and the other her caretaker, whose home is unexpectedly joined by two more family members.
Septuagenarian Grace knows something is wrong with her even before the doctor confirms it. Cancer. She can’t stop worrying about what will happen to her older sister, Baby. For nearly her entire life, Grace has been caring for Baby, feeding her, dressing her, taking her to the bathroom, administering her insulin shots, keeping her supplied with her beloved crayons. She can’t imagine who would be willing or able to care for her large, opinionated, mentally disabled sister who laughs like Santa Claus and assigns colors to everything around her. Grace even tries, unsuccessfully, to take matters into her own hands. Out of the blue, their niece Lily arrives on their doorstep along with her young son, Walter. They arrive from New York City bearing little besides scars: Track marks can be seen on Lily’s thin arms, while Walter carries the recent memory of being surrendered to the Department of Social Services. The four try to get used to one another as they gear up for the yearly family Fourth of July gathering, where carloads of aunts, uncles and cousins descend on Grace’s house, the family home where she and her siblings grew up. The story is told over the span of three summer months, and Leon switches perspective among the four main characters, each of whom experiences memories and flashbacks that help illuminate his or her character. The use of imagery is masterful, from Grace’s memories of Baby as a girl, kept cruelly in a cage by their parents, to Baby’s many interpretations of color. Leon’s descriptions of the small town, the house and the landscape create a sense of place that is vivid and tangible. With a clear, perceptive eye, she explores the tension of family relations, the realities of aging and dying, the gnawing need of addiction and the complexities of mental illness. Leon’s characters are filled with humanity and individuality, and readers will no doubt hope for even more from her.
Chutzpah trumps talent—and conscience—in this bawdy novel about making it in the world of New York advertising.
Back from Vietnam and a stint in Leavenworth for taking potshots at an officer, aspiring journalist Alex Brody now makes ends meet as a copywriter for a Manhattan ad agency, where his campaign emphasizing a bra’s nipple-showcasing advantages is seen as a stroke of genius. But he’s eclipsed by his Army buddy Lorenzo Moss, a man with a knack for shameless self-promotion who proffers a steel business card so a recipient can’t tear it up. Lorenzo’s best ideas, such as a campaign focused on a beer brand’s flatulence-minimizing advantages, are stolen from others. Alex’s habitual self-sabotage (threatening to shoot an abusive colleague; punching out a mouthy client) gets him fired repeatedly and sends him on a voyage through the Madison Avenue underworld. He finally washes up as the creative director for a floundering agency where he struggles to sell candied matzos to gentiles and Reich beer to Jews. Lorenzo, meanwhile, moves effortlessly upward, going on to more prestigious positions before his disastrous incompetence is revealed; soon enough, he’s ensconced in a penthouse as a publishing mogul and unlikely free-speech martyr. Margalith’s energetic satire gives a lurid, comic edge to Madison Avenue’s cutthroat competition and preening conflation of chintzy commercialism with cultural innovation. At times, the story’s outrageousness is too obvious and verbose (“I believe, Brody, you were telling me to commit an anatomically impossible carnal act on myself”), and Alex’s and Lorenzo’s parallel picaresques have an aimless, episodic feel. But Margalith crafts well-paced, well-observed comic scenes with a cast of Dickensian characters—“He had the lined face of a small pumpkin with wide, bulging, rheumy blue eyes and the moist lips of a child molester”—who simmer in their own booze, sexual loucheness, casual racism, and thwarted, self-pitying aspirations to creative grandeur. The result feels like a three-way collision between Mad Men, The Producers and Animal House, and a hilariously noisy one at that.
A raucous, entertaining sendup of Madison Avenue’s unique blend of artistic pretension and desperate crassness.
A sprawling novel about family, faith and fortune that offers a fresh look at the lives of American Jews in the middle of the last century.
Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, famously said that while happy families are all alike, unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways. It’s hard to call the Forshtayns at the center of Maslin’s (…And Turn It Again, 2008, etc.) ambitious new effort unhappy, but they certainly are unique. In 1904, members of that family are forced to flee Vilnius, Lithuania, in the midst of deadly pogroms, moving to the United States to start life afresh. The book then follows multiple generations as a momentous new American century dawns. This decades-spanning novel reads a bit like family sagas such as Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) or John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1922), as it traces one clan’s changing fortunes over the course of many years, including those of the titular Sol. Yet the narrative eventually settles on the story of Sol’s favored nephew, Justin—later called Jacob—and tracks his academic and romantic maturation from New England to Illinois and back again. The story follows his progress through Harvard and the University of Chicago and his deepening love for a French-Canadian woman named Marie. Like Chaim Potok and Philip Roth before him, Maslin—himself a rabbi—focuses on the lives of 20th-century American Jews. But Maslin’s approach shares more with Potok’s than Roth’s; his style is true and earnest, and although he lacks Roth’s trademark sardonic wit, he has Potok’s eye for domestic detail. His book is fueled by human relationships, and there’s an intimacy and tenderness in his treatment of his characters that keeps his sweeping narrative from abandoning its concern with its heroes’ humanity. Furthermore, the novel is not only culturally, but religiously Jewish, as Maslin’s rabbinic training allows him to explore not only Judaism’s traditions, but also its scriptures and sacred spaces. His engagement with Judaism’s spiritual pith—and with the temptations that may draw one away from it—serves as the book’s sturdy backbone.
A dense exploration of the familial ties that bind one Jewish family.
Historical fiction is anything but boring in McIlvain’s (Legacy, 2012, etc.) latest work.
The year is 1853; Helga Heinrich, a German immigrant, has just arrived at the port town of Indianola, Texas, with her four children. Her husband, Max, should have been there, too, but he leapt off the pier at the beginning of the voyage and drowned. Although Helga misses Max, she is secretly relieved that she no longer has to deal with his alcoholism. She hopes that with the help of her sister Amelia, who came to Indianola years ago and married a doctor, the children will have a better life. As history sweeps through Texas—including the Civil War, yellow fever, drought, hurricanes, and newfangled inventions like railroads and washing machines—Helga finds herself running Stein House, a prosperous boardinghouse with a diverse clientele that includes a fussy warehouse owner, an abolitionist sea captain and a freed slave. McIlvain faces the South’s history of slavery head-on, contrasting the Germans’ distaste for the practice with the pro-slavery land they now live in. It makes for a fascinating glimpse into a world that isn’t as black and white as it might seem, as the Heinrichs are vehemently against slavery yet still feel fierce pride in and loyalty to their new home of Texas when it secedes from the Union. When Reconstruction occurs, McIlvain skillfully illuminates the complex events that bred resentment in the South, showing everything from the unique points of view of Southerners who are also recent immigrants. Although the novel (which won first place for general fiction from the Texas Association of Authors in 2014) occasionally veers off into a bit of a history lesson, this is no dry textbook—Helga and her family’s successes, hardships and heartbreak show history from a personal perspective.
A wonderful slice of history that animates mid-19th century Texas.
Author and artist Mosquera (Sleeper’s Run, 2011) offers a witty black comedy featuring a struggling writer who learns firsthand about life in the spotlight.
“Creativity is a heavy burden,” remarks a heavy-drinking barfly in Mosquera’s crisp, character-driven novel. Though a well-worn theme, it’s artfully embraced by Lemat, a crestfallen, late-30-something unpublished author haplessly trudging through life exasperated by a thankless print design job. He lives in a dingy neighborhood with the hopes of one day becoming a successful writer. After his botched suicide attempt, a bitter farewell to an old girlfriend and his being laid off at work, Lemat’s catastrophic hopelessness manifests itself in a rash decision to write “something commercial and shocking,” spurred on by Guy, a ruthless talent agent whose mantra is “nothing sells better than outrage.” Much to the chagrin of his best friend, Dep, Lemat settles on a provocative, controversial plotline and hyperproductively bangs out the manuscript, which Guy insists should be self-published. Though his book, Killing Jesus, receives the expected backlash from affronted religious groups, the fervor only intensifies the book’s media exposure; due to the notoriety, Lemat commands a six-figure publishing deal. However, there are drawbacks to his newfound star status on the best-seller list, on the talk show circuit and in Hollywood: His relationships with childhood friends and sexy tattoo artist “Ink” sputter, and his sanity shifts on the heels of a follow-up novel. Has Lemat completely sold out or just positioned himself to gain fame, notoriety and wealth by incrementally finessing the publishing market? Mosquera, who keenly projects the dynamics of the headstrong writer, presents Lemat with pitch-perfect characterization as a well-intentioned, motivated novelist in search of that ever elusive book deal. Charting the calamity that ensues when prideful innovation meets desperation, this cleverly imagined novel explores the nature of the creative process, the complexity of consequences and the desperate lengths to which determined people will go.
Rendered in beautifully poetic prose, Murphy’s debut novel follows Capt. James McFarlane of Canada’s “A” Company, 1st Irish, into war.
Capt. James McFarlane is on the brink. It is September 1944, the eve of a great battle, he has not heard from his wife, and he is physically and mentally exhausted. He’s noticeably losing his grip. At first blush, though, McFarlane seems normal enough, “happy that he is in a situation where he can test himself to his physical, mental, emotional and spiritual limits.” He jokes with fellow soldiers and seems well-liked by fellow officers and his men. But piece by intricate piece, his motivations and fragile psyche are revealed. Tiny sips from a flask grow into a major drinking problem that leads him to strike an enlisted man, miss an important pre-battle inspection and ultimately send his assistant in search of rum in the midst of a firefight. Through dreams, flashbacks and letters, readers learn that his decision to join the army was more out of inadequacy and restlessness than patriotism, and this decision to voluntarily leave his new bride, Marianne, dealt a severe blow to his marriage. While exploring McFarlane’s inner landscape, Murphy meticulously conveys the realities of war, from the ruined Italian countryside to the mixture of boredom and anxiety haunting the soldiers. All is done in exquisite style that places readers squarely in the action: “Here and there, flash by flash, are illumined trees, houses, hills, recoiling guns and men in action, captured in flared snapshots, yellow and orange flicker, red glow, a purple bruise of clouds.” Murphy uses stream of consciousness throughout, but in the dénouement, that stream explodes into a roiling sea breaking on the various shores of McFarlane’s inner and outer realities.
An empathetic yet flawed man drives this wonderful novel, the first from an author ready for a glittering literary career.
In Peterson’s (Leave of Absence, 2013, etc.) insightful third novel, a man suffering from various anxiety disorders finds hope after forming an unexpected bond with a troubled foster child.
Brian Cunningham, 43, is the night custodian and information technology specialist at Hayden Elementary School. A sufferer of acute panic attacks, he lives his life trapped in a nutshell, a self-imposed safety zone, beyond which exist his darkest fears. His profession allows him to minimize his contact with others and thus manage, or at least tolerate, his debilitating disorder. As the novel opens, the author quickly and deftly charts the anatomy of a panic attack, a phenomenon many nonsufferers might ordinarily find inscrutable. Brian’s mind races as his inner narrative alerts him to perceived external threats that pose no real danger. His breath quickens, his chest tightens, and he suspects his heart is failing—little wonder, then, that he chooses to shut himself away from any potential trigger. Enter Abigail Harris, a hostile 7-year-old suffering from attachment issues and disorders relating to abuse and frequent moves among foster homes. It is Abigail’s first day at school, and hating every moment of it, she decides to go AWOL. Brian discovers the small girl taking refuge in a classroom, and overcoming the paralysis he normally experiences when unexpectedly encountering another person, he begins to communicate with her. The two are surprised to find that they share a mutual understanding. The novel charts the evolution of their platonic relationship as they draw positivity and solace from their experiences. The friends begin to see a possibility for change, although numerous obstacles block their path. As in her previous novels, Peterson demonstrates a tender, notably human understanding of mental illness. In her latest effort, she plays to her strengths, jettisoning an occasionally soapy style in favor of constructing complex psychological portraits and realistic plotlines. In doing so, she accurately captures the crushing sensations of anxiety disorder while simultaneously offering rays of hope.
A vital tool for sufferers and their families that broadens understanding of a debilitating illness.
In this one-of-a-kind novel, a South Florida man living with hallucinations falls in love and meets danger along the way.
Aubrey Shallcross, 42, “was a respectable businessman in his small town and had learned how to appear normal since grade school, even though he…saw things other people did not”—such as Triple Suiter, a 3-inch-tall, three-piece-suited man who lives in Aubrey’s left armpit. Independently wealthy after selling his car dealership (friends dub him the Anti-Chrysler), Aubrey enjoys hanging out at the Blue Goose and eating conch fritters with old buddies like Punky and The Junior. Over the course of this unique debut novel, he sees some friends die, falls in love, surfs, participates in a cattle roundup, learns the art and discipline of dressage, and undergoes a fearful attack by his girlfriend’s palindrome-obsessed ex-husband. But no plot summary can convey the surreal flavor of Aubrey’s mind and the characters (called “slippers”) who manifest themselves to him. Besides Triple Suiter, a kind of guardian angel, there’s “the tiny Amper Sand, who lived in Trip’s sternum and didn’t speak. To communicate, Amper Sand typed backward letters on Trip’s chest.” The sinister Slim Hand, “rogue slipper, a bad passenger,” always seems to be trying to cram something bad down Aubrey’s throat. Head Wound is “a burlesque overdraft of an abnormal.” In this word-drunk, thickly allusive and poetic novel, characters speak in an at-first confusing mélange of shared jokes and colorful imagery: “Straight over the four-way’s the road to stag-damn-nation….The Head Wound turns left with the angel on that crosspiece, doesn’t he? For the gorgeous left pearls. Finished.” Porter gradually illuminates the significance of these references. Though first-person accounts of schizophrenia usually convey its terror and loneliness, Aubrey’s experience is seldom frightening. His hallucinations are usually creative, helpful, even joyful, and Triple Suiter is touchingly solicitous of him. However bizarre Aubrey’s thought processes might be to outsiders, his inner world is artistically coherent.
Surreal, poetic and unforgettable: a truly original voice.
This deceptive novel begins as an idyllic romance, then gears down and races to a gripping conclusion.
With a title that alludes to Othello and Desdemona, Qazi’s (Berlin Danse Macabre, 2013, etc.) novel tells the story of Robert, an American professor whose best years (and two marriages) are behind him, and Anara, a Kazakh woman half his age. They fall in love, and soon after, Robert gets yet another one-year teaching job, this time at a university in Kyrenia, a Turkish-controlled part of Cyprus. Anara comes to join him, and they make a home, almost a bower, in Karmi, a village halfway up the mountain overlooking Kyrenia. This is the idyllic part: Readers are introduced to secondary characters, among them Cardiff, the alcoholic but wise British colleague; Yulie, a young Greek woman who has strong hidden feelings for Robert; Erkan Bey, who is more than just a plumber; and other well-rounded background characters. But then there are the shady characters, principally Vitaly, a porcine, oily Russian casino owner. The plot turns on a simple fact: Anara’s visa is only for 60 days. Vitaly hires Anara to work in his casino and promises that the visa issue will no longer be a problem. All of a sudden, Vitaly has tricked Anara into working—for just one night, or so he says—at his other casino in the Greek sector. The rest of the book, where Qazi ramps up the story, concerns Robert’s desperate attempt to get Anara back. The story is told from Robert’s point of view, so readers get to know this man who just might have a second chance at life. The other characters are well-drawn, too, and Cyprus—beautiful, laid-back, exotic—is a character in its own right. The narrative makes no major missteps, though in places, the prose, if not purple, may be a bit mauve. Qazi, an experienced writer, is very good at his craft, and the pacing is really a wonder. Readers might find themselves putting off the last three chapters to savor them as a special treat.
In Santiago’s (Tomorrow They Will Kiss, 2006) masterful novel, a daughter dedicates her life to reuniting with her father in 1950s Cuba during the revolution.
Cuba is the true star of his novel, which takes place during the vulnerable period just before Fidel Castro’s uprising; each of Santiago’s characters has a different take and level of involvement in the fate of their country. The story begins with a traveling dance troupe on a circuit through the country’s eastern provinces. Estelita de la Cruz is forced to create a new life after her father, a drunken, fading rumba performer, is taken to anasylum. She and Aspirrina, the brash modern dancer of the troupe, flee to Havana. Soon after their arrival, Estelita receives great recognition for her beauty and natural stage talent, which lands her a starring role in a casino production. She soon becomes more ambitious and severs her ties to Aspirrina to pursue greater success; in doing so, she allows Aspirrina to realize her own dream of dedicating herself to the revolution: “Fidel was her saint, her imaginary lover.” Estelita revels in her newfound independence and falls in love, and her lover finds himself politically obligated to the forces opposing the revolution. As the people whom Estelita loves fight for Cuba, she sets her sights on fame, love, security and reconciliation with her father—but her future is tied to her city’s tribulations. Santiago’s prose style is intricate, and his descriptions of Cuba and its inhabitants are as vivid as hallucinations (“In yards full of flowering shrubs and fruit trees, honey-haired children played, shouting at each other in a foreign language”). The diversity of his characters is astounding, and he has an amazing talent for capturing the women’s strengths and vulnerabilities. He provides rich histories for his main cast, and readers will feel nothing but sympathy for their plights.
A historically sound, sublimely heartbreaking novel about the soul of the Cuban revolution.
A deftly conjured historical novel dealing with the darker side of love and familial legacy.
“It’s a wonder how some relatives can bring out the worst in you,” a minor character muses in Shainin’s cutting debut novel, which examines the fraught matrices of rivalry, desire and resentment within two generations of a German immigrant family in Queens, New York, in the mid-20th century. Two sisters—willful, sensuous Lottie and younger, anxious Sabine—serve as the story’s emotional and narrative focus; Shainin introduces their contrasting personalities in childhood, then follows them to America and throughout their adult lives. Although the book progresses chronologically for the most part (the first and last chapters, narrated by Sabine’s younger daughter, are the exceptions), the plot is not strictly linear, as it focuses on quotidian moments of interpersonal significance rather than a series of remarkable events. From chapter to chapter, it’s often difficult to tell how much time has passed or just what’s transpired in the interim, but this is one of the pleasures of this impeccably constructed book: The arguments are repeated, but the characters remain stagnant. Though Lottie and Sabine choose radically different mates, both men drink too much; each in her own way, the sisters find themselves resigned to the limitations of married, working-class life. The world of mid-century New York City, in particular, comes to life through Shainin’s fine sense of detail: “Today the East River was the color of her mother’s unpolished pewter plates. Only when a tugboat’s passage broke the dull skin did Lottie feel the water had any dimension at all.” Although the book loses a bit of its precision toward the end as it surveys the last decades, its haunting, complex final passage is recompense enough. Overall, this debut is resplendently heartbreaking.
A moving novel of family, history and dreams deferred that captures the joys and pains of both sisterhood and romantic love.
A realistic, engaging portrayal of love, marriage and second chances.
Susan Sinclair, a devoted mother and wife, works full time while raising two young boys. That’s hard enough, but trying to get any sort of reaction out of her introverted, overly reserved husband, Matt, seems to get more difficult with each passing day. Originally, vivacious and outgoing Susan had fallen in love with Matt’s nerdish charm and his comfortable, quiet demeanor. However, once they married, things quickly changed. Susan had to give up everything she loved, including acting and living in New York City, to settle for the quiet sameness of the Silicon Valley, senior vice presidency at a tech company, sweater sets and motherhood. With the days feeling like a weight on her chest, Susan finds herself contemplating how such a full life could feel so empty. Confusing things even more are her growing feelings for her new boss, Reese Kirkpatrick. From their first meeting, the two share an incredible chemistry, and in no time they forge a deeper connection than either of them has ever known. Now Susan must decide if the safety and stability of her loveless but enduring marriage is worth risking for one chance at passionate, soul-completing true love. Not the typical bored housewife or woman in a midlife crisis, Susan is a focused, proud, accomplished woman who seemingly has it all. Living in a sort of blissful ignorance, she accepts her husband’s reserved and often judgmental demeanor, which, after a while, almost borders on emotional abuse. While Matt feels emasculated by the strength of his wife, he never misses an opportunity to passively take her down a notch, whether it’s about her job, excluding her from outings he takes with the boys, or in the bedroom, where his selfish, pedantic sexual efforts would vex any normal woman. Through Susan, Slabach crafts a relatable, heartbreakingly real story that will no doubt resonate with those at a similar station in life: women who love their families yet yearn for just a little more—to feel wanted rather than needed, to feel passion rather than complacency. In engaging prose and through skillful storytelling, Slabach captivates with an all-too-familiar story that raises questions with no easy answers.
An engaging story that shines an honest light on what it means to be truly happy.
Brawls and battles ensue when a trapping party encounters a weird tribe deep in the wilds of 19th-century Upper Michigan.
Swanson (Mesmer’s Disciple, 2012) returns with another work of historical fiction featuring tough-guy former patrolman Alvord Rawn. In Chicago in 1847, after being drummed out of New York for excessive violence, Rawn falls out with his double-crossing Chicago law enforcement superior and joins an ill-fated fur-trapping expedition to Upper Michigan with a motley crew of adventurers, including rough mountain men, a witty Irish immigrant and a nerdy scientist. Despite warnings from a tycoon named Cadwallader Jones and ominous Indian legends that their destination is protected by fearsome, copper-clad manitous, the group ventures deep into the wilderness. Soon enough, they’re attacked, but it turns out, their opponents bleed and aren’t gods after all; they’re men—a lost tribe of Welsh Indians descended from Madoc, a Welsh prince who immigrated to America in the 12th century. Hemmed in by advancing settlers, this tribe, like other natives, is just trying to survive, in this case by spinning fearsome legends and attacking interlopers. Buckets of blood spill throughout this tale, which ends happily for most and at least honorably for the dead and maimed who pile up on the losing end of the countless conflicts. Swanson bases his highly creative, action-packed novel on legend, backed by substantial historical research and acumen right down to the language, as florid as a 19th-century novel but as vigorous as a James Bond movie. Though glitches with writing mechanics crop up often enough to be distracting, and the occasional cliché slips through, Swanson creates convincing portraits of the men and their times, capturing the raw, restless spirit of the age and place. His descriptions of the land and the characters peopling it are particularly acute—so much so that the constant brannigans and battles sometimes seem overdone and anticlimactic. But this is a digestible and enjoyable fleshing out of a legend and setting often overlooked in the wide expanse of historical fiction.
A rollicking, rip-roaring novel, big and wild as the American frontier.
A stirring political drama about upheaval in Burma and the emotional consequences wrought for generations.
Yasi has been publishing short stories for years, but this is her first book-length effort. The story begins in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1999 with a moment of acute emotional epiphany: Eleven-year-old Burmese-American Bobby finally discovers that the man who raised him is not his biological father. His real father, a pro-democracy poet, has been missing for years in war-torn Burma; he’s now presumed dead. Bobby’s mother, Gurney, a native Burmese photographer and activist, tearfully confesses his genuine patrimony, and she’s forced to confront a Pandora’s box of painful remembrances. The narrative quickly vacillates between Cambridge and a tumultuous Burma in 1988, deftly juxtaposing the nation’s frightening turmoil with the heart-wrenching agitation Bobby’s mother and her cadre of friends and family suffered. Complicating this visceral tinderbox is the possibility that Maung Naing, Bobby’s biological father and Gurney’s lover, may be alive somewhere and still working with forces opposing the military junta. While much of the work is propelled by dialogue, Yasi’s prose can sometimes strike elegiac notes: “They brought her something to eat, sometimes dried fish in the rice, but not lately. Gurney watched the guard’s face. It was in itself, a square, hungry face. It’s easier to look at a face, to forgive what you see, than to forgive broken ideas.” Dedicated to the Burmese people, the work is a ringing testament to the nation’s modern struggles, especially timely given its recent political transformation.
A complex tale that adeptly balances history with personal drama.