Available September 12th, 2017
From Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, comes Little Fires Everywhere, a beautifully rendered novel about family, identity, art, friendship, and the fire-spark of love.
Set in upscale Shaker Heights, Ohio, the story revolves around the Richardson family and their renters, single mother/free spirit artist Mia and her daughter Pearl. Friendships are formed between these two families, loyalties are tested, and secrets are revealed with life-changing consequences.
Throughout, I was struck by Ng’s excellent ability to get inside her characters’ heads. All different, each character feels true and distinct, emotionally complex without being contrived. Ng’s characters grapple with issues of belonging and betrayal, with what makes a “good” or “bad” or “worthy” parent. We witness the desperate acts of parents attempting to hold on to their children, and family dynamics pulled taut by fear, expectations, and deep affection, and the evidence that sometimes family isn’t the one we’re born into but the one we choose.
Zinzi Clemmons’ novel What We Lose is one of the most talked about books of the season, “the debut novel of the year,” according to Vogue. Some books live up to the hype and some don’t. What We Lose doesn’t, but it is the work of a promising young writer.
What We Lose is the story of Thandi, an African-American woman who is processing the death of her mother. Clemmons intersperses Thandi’s experiences of new love with that of her grief, creating parallel narratives of blossoming emotion and debilitating sadness. Woven throughout are themes of racial and cultural identity, desire, and the complexity of relationships. The strongest parts of the story are the passages describing the aftermath of death, the pain of absence and the ache of loss.
Alain de Botton is the master of inserting graphs and visual elements into the text flow of his books. In What We Lose Clemmons does the same, working in a few images and graphs into her narrative but not with the same success; the visuals are too few to be meaningful and don’t seem necessary to the story.
Roxane Gay is a powerhouse.
Honest and raw, Hunger is a detailed account of Gay’s body, the physical and emotional weight of it, the way it carries her, the way it demands and betrays.
Hunger traces the before and after in Gay’s life. Before she was raped, and after; before she used food as a salve and after, when food filled the void of hurt and pain left by the boys who raped her when she was 12, when hunger built her body into a massive impenetrable fortress.
Gay is consistently smart and insightful, and her look inward in Hunger is fastidious and unflinching. Her look outward, towards the way women in society can never escape the weight of their bodies, their worth constantly measured by their ability to disappear into thinness or reviled for their audacity to take up space, is dead-on.
Available August 1, 2017
New People, the new novel by Caucasia author Danzy Senna, tackles complex issues of race, class, and identity with astute humor.
The story follows the racially mixed couple Maria and Khalil, living in late 1990’s Brooklyn, and featured in a documentary about “New People,” racially diverse couples whose identities are not easily defined. Outwardly they are the perfect couple, but when Maria starts obsessing over a black poet her world becomes increasingly complicated.
Maria is an unlikable character whose choices were so cringe-worthy that Senna’s witty and thoughtful writing about blackness and the making of identity were ultimately and unfortunately overshadowed by her character’s bizarre narrative arc.
Available August 29th, 2017
This book stole my heart, broke it, and stitched it back together.
It’s the story of Turtle Alveston, a 14-year-old girl more at home roaming the sea-swept Mendocino coast with her gun slung over her shoulder than in a classroom. More at home outdoors than in the remote, ramshackle house she shares with her misogynistic and dangerously abusive father. It’s the story of an all-consuming tangled mess of love and violence, of growing up, of survival. It’s brutal and beautiful and brave, and completely riveting.
Tallent’s writing carries and surrounds you, immerses you in Turtle’s world so intensely that you can’t pull away even when it punches you in the gut. You can’t, and you don’t want to. The story demands you bear witness to Turtle’s suffering, to her desire to be loved, to her struggle to break free.
An absolutely stunning debut. Read it.
Trigger warning: rape
When I was in Brooklyn a few weekends ago we made a pilgrimage to Books Are Magic, because in my family indie bookstores are destination spots, and I knew I’d finish the two books I’d brought with me and needed a book for the plane ride home. I found The Bed Moved, short stories by Rebecca Schiff, and was drawn in by that great cover and the “stellar collection” blurb from The New York Times Book Review.
At 38 I’m not young anymore, but this collection made me feel old. I so wanted to love the acerbically witty exchanges, the sexually adventurous/naive characters, and the emotional remove of the stories. There’s a smart, craft-driven quality to Schiff’s writing, a gem of something funny and sad and lonely inherent in each piece; reading story after story I expectantly hoped maybe this is the one I will love, but I didn’t find the one and ultimately failed to connect with the collection as a whole.
After finishing Elizabeth Strout’s beautiful collection of interwoven stories, Anything is Possible, I couldn’t wait to read My Name is Lucy Barton. Strout’s Lucy Barton appears in a few of the stories in Anything is Possible; her life is talked about, touched upon, speculated over.
My Name is Lucy Barton is told from her perspective. Sick in the hospital after an operation, Lucy unravels the trajectory of her life for the reader: the extreme poverty of her youth, her escape from a small town in Illinois, her move to New York City, her path to motherhood, and success as a writer. When Lucy’s mother, a cold and distant woman, flies to Lucy’s sickbed to be with her, memories and old insecurities surface.
Strout is a writer of masterful, elegant prose, and there’s a complexity to her characters that never feels forced or contrived. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, though the narrative felt slightly unbalanced. As Lucy attempts to reconcile her past and present selves, important threads of her story, particularly that of her marriage and children, and her life as a writer, are told with certain carelessness and ultimately feel underdeveloped.
Anything is Possible is just charming.
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton, has crafted a beautiful collection of overlapping stories, rich with distinctive characters, alive with strikingly elegant prose. My Name is Lucy Barton was written at the same time and Lucy and the Barton family make appearances in a few of these stories.
Set in Amgash, a small town in Illinois, and beyond, each story acts as a character portrait, each paragraph shapes the identities of the townspeople, and, as the book progresses, the stories simultaneously forge and peel back those identities. Characters are drawn from various perspectives as they struggle to find meaning in life and to connect. Relationships are exposed. Personality strengths and flaws are actualized.
Strout writes with a quiet, assured power. As a reader, you can trust that wherever she takes you within a story, you are in good hands.
If you’ve been following Brief Book Reviews from the beginning, you’ll have read all about my fondness for the highly entertaining Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab.
Vicious, the first (and, so far, only) book in Schwab’s Villains trilogy, is a coming-of-age superhero/villain creation story with a quirky cast of damaged characters.
Though I knew it was unlikely, I wanted to be as taken with Vicious as I was with the Shades of Magic trilogy. The writing was fine. The story had some charm. But, by the end of the book I realized this: I love magic (no surprise there), I don’t love superhero myths.