In Hoang’s assured debut, a young artist makes peace with a crushing diagnosis and takes a stab at reinvention.
What would you do if your very identity were about to be erased? That’s the fundamental question Aubrey Johnson must answer—quickly. At the novel’s outset, the young, talented painter is handed a damning diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that will blind her in six to eight weeks. As Aubrey tries to wrap her head around her condition, she runs into an old friend, Jeff Anderson. Jeff and Aubs had been best friends in high school before life took them on separate paths. Now Jeff is back, suggesting Aubrey accompany him on a trip around the world. Aubrey grabs at the chance to pack as many life-altering experiences as she can in a few weeks, while Jeff in turn is seeking some clarity in his own personal life. The novel’s central premise—a gifted painter losing her vision—might seem too neat a hook on which to hang a story, yet Hoang successfully prevents the narrative from spiraling into cliché. Insights that Aubrey slowly gathers—“Maybe the question you should be asking yourself is why you feel like what you have isn’t enough”—sometimes come across as trite life lessons, but they are more than made up for with flashes of inspired writing. Aubrey narrates the story, which has touches of romance, in the first person, and Hoang’s characterization is so impressive that the novel reads like a memoir. Readers see the world (China, India, Jordan, Israel, Brazil, Peru) through Aubrey’s artistic point of view, the result of which is often refreshing. She describes the Dead Sea, for example, as a place with “a lack of visual noise.” Despite having been dealt a cruel hand, Aubrey still has a lot going for her, including caring friends and a career that blossomed early. Her imagination first flourished after a visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, known for its dark, somber modern art. In contrast—and reassuringly—Aubrey’s artistic vision continues to shine plenty of light even as the natural world around her slowly fades to black.
A touching exploration of identity and reinvention painted with gentle yet precise brush strokes.
Decrepit humans rescue desperate canines, cats and the occasional rat in this collection of shaggy but piercing short stories.
Kearney’s impoverished, misfit, outcast characters live mainly on the fictional Sebequet Peninsula, which features a Native American reservation, ramshackle trailer parks and plywood cabins surrounded by trash and rusting metal. In this zone of squalor and despair, people’s connections with animals are, for many, their only links to life. In the story “Sparrows,” a disabled man and his meth-head sister precariously prop each other up but find a stabilizing influence when they take in a maimed pit bull. In “Beverley and Jim,” a raucous old woman, stricken with multiple sclerosis and alcoholism, lives in a caved-in trailer with a herd of cats. An exasperated neighbor helps her out only to realize her importance in his life too late. In the engrossing title story, members of the Sebequet community—including a pot-dealing commune, an animal-control officer and a busybody city transplant who runs a local resort—work out their mutual responsibilities by helping a household full of abused dogs. The Sebequet-based stories are remarkable for their understated, yet vivid, realism and their pitch-perfect rendering of the hard-bitten poverty and frayed social fabric of rural America. Other stories move beyond this territory: In “Driving While Remembering,” a woman returns to her childhood home in Des Moines, Iowa, and realizes how much she has missed; “Circles” ponders a Wyoming wilderness landscape—gorgeously painted by Kearney—and a woman’s regret at rejecting a stray dog; “The Christmas Rats” elegizes the lingering impact of two short-lived, offbeat pets in a girl’s life. Kearney’s prose is elegant and unfussy, with threads of humor and lyricism. She has an excellent eye for settings and ear for dialogue, and she treats her characters, and their relationships with their pets, with a cleareyed, unsentimental sensitivity and psychological depth. Through their struggles, she shows readers a search for meaning through the humblest acts of caretaking and companionship.
A superb collection of stories about the most elemental of bonds.
In this YA sci-fi debut, a young man mysteriously gets smarter while dreaming and invents a life-changing device.
Fifteen-year-old Johnny Clark of River City, New Jersey, loves junk food and the Internet as much as he loathes school. He’s a mediocre student (who barely passed algebra), and yet he’s somehow built a small, battery-powered device from scratch; what the electronic device does, he’s not sure. When Johnny realizes that the knowledge to create it has come from his dreams, his slacker friend, Billy, notices his anxiety. He tries to cheer Johnny up with the latest headline about Citizen Sim, a hacker/prankster who’s targeted Google and Times Square. It also occurs to Johnny that he’d dreamed accurately about Citizen Sim before the anonymous hacker even appeared. Soon, Johnny’s reality starts to become dreamlike when his trigonometry class is briefly interrupted by four nearly naked strangers. Later, as he’s called to the principal’s office at the request of two detectives, fearsome skeletal creatures begin stalking him. A message from Citizen Sim appears on a television screen telling him to “ENTER THE CODE.” He types furiously into the device, and it displays the word “Gone.” Johnny, without immediately knowing it, turns invisible, and everything about his life changes. Debut author Solana crams enormous detail into setting up a delicious, go-anywhere plot. His narrative thrives on showing readers the unexpected, doing so in a giddy, winking tone. “The Clarks,” for example, “were the most dreadfully ordinary people.” Solana also revels in numerous geeky nods to superheroes (such as the Fantastic Four’s Susan Storm) and video games. As the book becomes more of a cyberspace action/love story, it expands into gorgeously rendered terrain (especially the overgrown Penn Station as a “living jewel”). Solana’s cliffhanger ending is perfect, too.
An utterly sublime debut and a must for pop-culture fans.
In this debut memoir, a father reminisces about notable people and places in his eventful life.
The dying art of letter writing isn’t lost on Roberts, a British-born attorney who practiced law in Canada. His charmingly unconventional memoir takes the form of 83 “letters” to his four children, but this description hardly does them justice. Each is an artfully composed essay that not only reveals much about the author himself, but also often contains a pearl of worldly wisdom. Roberts begins with a series of missives about growing up in bomb-scarred England during World War II. In “A Child’s History of the Battle of Britain,” he describes how his ears were always alert for incoming aircraft—both the “powerful, friendly, protective sound” of the British Spitfire and the “deadly drone” of German warplanes. Although the author loosely groups the letters by subject, he also playfully hops from decade to decade and continent to continent. He writes of sipping café au lait in Paris in the1950s, meeting a native Haidu on the Queen Charlotte Islands in the ’70s and watching birds in Hong Kong in the ’80s. Perhaps the most captivating letters describe the author’s clients when he was a defense attorney in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Eddie Silver,” for example, was a small-time hustler who figured out an ingenious way to scam coins from public pay phones; “Real Carrier” was a schizophrenic French Canadian who decapitated a man and might have killed Roberts, too, if some cautious jailers hadn’t prevented the lawyer from entering his cell. Overall, the book is a pleasure to read thanks to the author’s genial prose and lively wit. Roberts is a gifted storyteller with an appreciation for eccentric personalities and life’s ironies. The book’s disjointed format, however, makes it difficult to assemble a complete profile of the author, as basic autobiographical data are scattered throughout. Roberts explains, somewhat apologetically, that he’s cursed with a “magpie mind” that’s constantly roving and easily tempted to stray. This trait may have irritated his schoolteachers, but here it makes for a meandering but thoroughly delightful memoir.
An engaging life story, as told through a whimsical collection of fatherly musings.