Young author (she’s 24) Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow is getting a good dose of buzz as a compelling who-done-it thriller. It’s a promising debut with some graceful writing, though the plot is unsurprising and the characters are formulaic.
The narrative follows three different characters in the aftermath of a high school girl’s murder in a small Colorado town. Each of these narrators, the high school girl who despised the murdered girl, the teenage (probably on the spectrum) neighbor boy who was obsessed with her and is now a key suspect in the investigation, and a police officer investigating the murder, offers the reader a different perspective on the dead girl and the town. Because all of the characters are familiar stereotypes, the Girl in Snow murderer is an easy guess and most suspense readers will figure out the twist by the middle of the book.
Looking past the predictability of the characters and the plot, there is a brightness to Kukafka’s writing; parts glimmer with a real understanding of human nature. I’ll be interested to read what Kukafka writes next.
Originally published in 1979 and recently reissued by Counterpoint, Sex and Rage by L.A. party girl turned writer Eve Babitz is a hazy coming-of-age novel starring Jacaranda Leven, a party girl turned writer who bares a striking resemblance to Babitz. On the surface the book is all sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, Babitz painting a glamorous and destructive path of self discovery for her surfer girl heroine. Below the surface we catch glimpses of something tangible, Jacaranda’s vague smartness, her unabashed sexuality, her drifty desire for something more meaningful than sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
Though Babitz evocatively pins down that coked-up, gold-adorned, smoggy sun glare of 70’s LA to the page, it was as much a surprise to me as the characters around Jacaranda that she could pull it together and focus on something other than herself long enough to become a published writer. Sex and Rage is all atmosphere and little depth, and I was left feeling bored and ambivalent.
Fredrik Backman, author of A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, has managed to write another wonderfully accessible, character-driven novel with loads of personality and emotion, complex relationships, and a good dose of hope and heartache.
In Beartown ice hockey is everything. Surrounded by dense forest, Beartown is small and remote, devoid of industry and running low on hope for the future. As the town unites behind the young ice hockey team poised to bring home the championship and bring new lifeblood into Beartown, the community is rocked by a violent act upon a young girl.
Once again I was impressed with Backman’s ability to write evocative scenes and characters with depth while addressing serious issues with humor and heart. A great read.
Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, my book club’s pick for August, is a fantastic read full of adventure, suspense, and heart.
Hawley, a complicated father and a dangerous man, and his young daughter Loo return to the town where Loo’s mother grew up. After years on the run they set down roots and stir up old emotions.
Constellations, literal and metaphorical, run though Tinti’s narrative: Loo looks to the stars for stability and her path, Hawley’s old criminal network is a constellation both intricate and menacing, and Hawley’s body is a map baring a constellation bullet scars.
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.
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.