A strong premise runs aground trying to form a set of convictions into a novel.

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THE BOAT PEOPLE

A real ship of refugees inspires a novel about the messy consequences of war.

In 2010, Canadian authorities intercepted a rusty Thai freighter carrying 492 refugees from war-ravaged Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island once called Ceylon, off the tip of India. The headlines inspired Bala to write and launch her first novel as books about migrants are at flood tide. This one toggles between Sri Lankan flashbacks and Vancouver, British Columbia, where the passengers come ashore, mistaking the helicopter and Canadian ships for a welcome party. Instead, they're all sent into detention, where many remain through these pages. Mahindan, a minority Tamil mechanic, and his small son are assigned to a well-meaning, alcoholic lawyer and his law student sidekick, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan–Canadian pining to do corporate work: “The pungent combination of chili powder, body odour, and urine that wafted ahead of them made Priya hold her breath,” Bala writes. This is never a subtle book. It also features political appointee Grace Nakamura, a Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who, by the last page, has yet to rule on Mahindan’s status. Grace’s mother endured a World War II internment camp, setting up the elder woman’s fixation on the property the family lost. Bala’s writing is generally crisp, with occasional glints of humor. The short, unnumbered chapters march briskly; the dialogue lacks quotation marks. Each chapter heading—“Go Home Terorists!” (the misspelling is intentional); “Welcome to Winter”; “Enemy Aliens”; “Judge, Jury, and Executioner”—is plucked from the text. This first book has a workshopped feel as well as a few memorable passages: Mahindan’s first encounter with a Western shower, the rhythms of a recycled family joke, a chilling scene of United Nations withdrawal. But compared to nuanced recent literature set amid Sri Lankan strife—On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman or The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam—this is thin fare.

A strong premise runs aground trying to form a set of convictions into a novel.

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-385-54229-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

ALL ADULTS HERE

When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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