Deborah Donovan

Ava Homa, a writer and activist born and raised in Iran’s Kurdistan province, has embraced the adage to “write what you know” in her stark and elucidating debut novel, Daughters of Smoke and Fire. The broad scope of her story encompasses 50 years of Kurdish history—and the ways Iran has attempted to eradicate that history. In much the same way Native American children were treated by the U.S. government beginning in the late 19th century, Kurdish children are alienated from their roots as early as first grade, when “overnight,” Homa writes, “we were robbed of our language, our heritage.”

Homa centers her novel on a young Kurdish woman named Leila Saman and her family. As a boy, Leila’s father saw his six uncles massacred by Iraqi soldiers, and in the years that followed he was imprisoned and tortured for his leftist activities. Leila and her brother, Chia, grow up vaguely aware of their father’s horrific past, though he never opens up about it. In their 20s, the siblings move to Tehran, where Chia attends the university and Leila works in a bookstore, saving her meager earnings so she can eventually follow her long-held dream of making films “to tell our stories.”

Through the courageous character of Leila, Homa paints a picture of many Kurdish women who have struggled against persecution and the misogyny embedded in religious extremism. When Chia is drawn more and more into the political scene, his activism attracts the attention of the Iranian authorities. He is jailed, and Leila is not allowed to visit her beloved brother for over a year. Frustrated by her inability to help Chia, Leila begins publishing his activist writings online, putting herself in danger as well. Her exodus from her birthplace mirrors that of the author, who now splits her time between Toronto and the Bay Area.

Homa’s remarkable novel serves as a potent and illuminating window into the persecution of the Kurds, which has existed for decades and continues unabated today.

Through the courageous character of Leila, Homa paints a picture of many Kurdish women who have struggled against persecution and the misogyny embedded in religious extremism.

Stephanie Wrobel’s compulsively readable debut, Darling Rose Gold, explores Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP), a psychological disorder in which a child’s caregiver, often the mother, seeks to gain attention from the medical community for made-up symptoms of the child in her care.

Earlier novels about this rare phenomenon focus on the modes of abuse the mother employs to gain attention, like starvation or putting ipecac in her child’s food to induce vomiting. Wrobel instead begins her eerie tale when Patty Watts is about to be released from prison after serving five years for aggravated child abuse. The reader learns the details of what Patty did to her daughter, Rose Gold, only in flashback chapters: “By the time I was ten,” Rose Gold remembers, “I’d had ear and feeding tubes, tooth decay, and a shaved head. I needed a wheelchair. . . . I’d had cancer scares, brain damage scares, tuberculosis scares.” Despite finally realizing that her own mother was the cause of all her suffering, Rose Gold still has ambivalent feelings about her mother’s sentencing and imprisonment: “Some days I was thrilled. Some days I felt like a vital organ was missing.”

The rippling effects of Rose Gold’s horrific childhood build up over the five years she’s on her own, until she’s 23 and the need for revenge begins to take hold. After Patty is released, their small town’s inhabitants are amazed to hear that Rose Gold has taken her mother into her own home—and even lets her care for her newborn son.

Wrobel explores this bizarre mother-daughter relationship in chapters that alternate between each woman’s point of view, both past and present. Each woman displays Jekyll and Hyde-style personalities, and the reader is kept guessing about which one will emerge the stronger. 

This creepy psychological thriller is sure to be enjoyed by those who devoured Gone Girl, Girl on the Train and domestic thrillers from authors like Megan Abbott and JP Delaney.

Stephanie Wrobel’s compulsively readable debut, Darling Rose Gold, explores Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP), a psychological disorder in which a child’s caregiver, often the mother, seeks to gain attention from the medical community for made-up symptoms of the child in her care.

The effervescent debut novel by tech writer Kevin Nguyen tackles a wide variety of contemporary issues, running the gamut from the havoc wreaked by unregulated technology to the ethics of music piracy, from the permanence of digital communication to the inherent racism found on dating sites. 

Nguyen adroitly dissects these provocative topics through the stories of two New York City-based millennials who work at Nimbus, a tech startup, in 2009. Margo is black, a brilliant engineer perched at the top of Nimbus’ pay scale. Lucas is Asian American and a low-paid customer service rep. Initially they bond because of a shared interest in obscure music CDs from the 1970s and ’80s, which they illegally upload to an online community “dedicated to the distribution of pirated materials.” At Nimbus, they bond further over the racist corporate culture, felt especially by Margo. Eventually she quits and convinces Lucas to follow her, promising him that she can find them new jobs at another startup called Phantom, a digital messaging site in which all messages are deleted after they’ve been read. But Margo also comes up with a plan to spite Nimbus: On their way out the door, they will steal Nimbus’ email list. Only the next day do they realize they’ve mistakenly stolen the whole user database—names, profile photos and millions of passwords. It’s a mistake that reverberates throughout the rest of the novel.

As the plot evolves, Nguyen continues to inject the storyline with new twists: Margo’s accidental death that Lucas suspects may not have been an accident; his discovery of online messages between Margo and a budding sci-fi author whom he meets and briefly dates; and his efforts to keep his job at Phantom as the company struggles with privacy and censorship issues.

Readers seeking a more linear plot may feel unstable as New Waves bounces between these many storylines, but readers deeply immersed in our increasingly tech-savvy environment will delight in Nguyen’s piercing take on race and gender issues in the workplace, and the ethical debates swirling around social media sites. It’s all delivered with Nguyen’s personal brand of penetrating, acerbic humor.

The effervescent debut novel by tech writer Kevin Nguyen tackles a wide variety of contemporary issues, running the gamut from the havoc wreaked by unregulated technology to the ethics of music piracy, from the permanence of digital communication to the inherent racism found on dating sites. 

If readers believe that witch trials in the late 1600s only occurred in the U.S., Kiran Millwood Hargrave will enlighten them with this harrowing story based on well-documented records. Hargrave, the author of several award-winning children’s novels, shifts to adult fiction with The Mercies, a vivid and immersive depiction of a remote village on Norway’s northeast coast in the early 1600s—and how it was dramatically transformed, first by a violent storm, then by religious extremism.

On Christmas Eve, 1617, a swift, devastating storm strikes the harbor at Vardo, sinking 10 fishing boats and drowning 40 men—the town’s entire male population. Maren Magnusdatter, age 20, sees the storm from the shore and loses, like so many others, her father, brother and husband-to-be. Over the next several months, she and all the women of Vardo realize they will starve if they don’t join together and resume the strenuous fishing once carried out by their town’s men. 

Hargrave skillfully portrays how lines of allegiance are drawn as a handful of women emerge as potential leaders. Some, known for their ardent church attendance, are backed by the local pastor. Others gradually gain their independence by ignoring some of the church’s edicts. Maren is tied to this latter group, mostly because her dead brother’s wife is from a Sami family, a group labeled as heretics and shunned by other townsfolk.

Hargrave’s novel quickly morphs from a portrait of the harsh life in a remote, early 17th-century village to a tale of religious persecution against a growing core of independent women. When a new commissioner arrives—recruited from Scotland, where he has already participated in witch trials—women previously passive in their beliefs quickly stand up as accusers, with dramatic results. Caught in the middle are Maren and the commissioner’s young wife, Ursa, who becomes Maren’s friend and ally.

The Mercies is an exceptional work of historical fiction with a dramatic setting and perceptive insight into the rippling effects of extremism, as seen through the eyes of a carefully crafted cast of characters.

If readers believe that witch trials in the late 1600s only occurred in the U.S., Kiran Millwood Hargrave will enlighten them with this harrowing story based on well-documented records.

Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), says she thought she was done with Olive—until her beloved character “just appeared” to her again. And how grateful Strout’s readers will be that she did.

In 13 interlocking stories set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, Olive travels through old age in her own inimitable style. She’s called an “old bag” by more than a few townsfolk, but she is loved by those who have, over the years, come to appreciate her honesty and complete lack of pretense.

In one story, Olive shares her fear of dying with Cindy, who cared for Olive’s late husband, Henry, and who may be dying of cancer herself. Olive reminds her that Cindy’s husband and sons, as well as Olive, will be “just a few steps behind” her if she does die. 

A few years after Henry’s death, Olive befriends widower Jack Kennison. Each has a child who doesn’t really like them, and both are lonely. They marry—to the dismay of Olive’s son, Christopher—and go on to enjoy eight years together.

Olive lives through some health scares, first totaling her car after confusing the accelerator with the brake, then suffering a heart attack in her hairdresser’s driveway. When Olive is assigned round-the-clock nurse’s aides—the story “Heart” poignantly portrays Olive’s growing dread of being alone—two of the aides are especially kind to her. One is the daughter of a Somali refugee, the other is a Trump supporter, and Olive surprises herself by befriending them both.

Strout possesses an uncanny ability to focus on ordinary moments in her characters’ lives, bringing them to life with compassion and humor. Her characters could be our own friends or family, and readers can easily relate to their stories of love, damaged relationships, aging, loss and loneliness. Each phase of Olive’s life touches on a memory, real or imagined.

Olive, Again is a remarkable collection on its own but will be especially enjoyed by those who loved Olive Kitteridge. It’s a book to immerse oneself in and to share. 

Elizabeth Strout possesses an uncanny ability to focus on ordinary moments in her characters’ lives, bringing them to life with compassion and humor.

Ana Canción is only 15 when her parents convince her to marry Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age whom she barely knows, and move with him from their home in the Dominican Republic to New York City. They hope she will be able to get a job and that she and Juan will eventually save enough to send for the rest of Ana’s family to join them.

Ana’s story, inspired by author Angie Cruz’s own mother’s experiences, is undoubtedly a familiar one. When Ana arrives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC in 1965, she quickly realizes the brutal reality of her new life. Juan is a strict disciplinarian and physically abuses Ana for breaking his many rules. She’s rarely allowed out of the sixth-floor apartment they share with Juan’s younger brother, César, so she spends her days cleaning, cooking and washing their work clothes by hand.

Ana’s dreary life greatly improves when Juan returns to the politically tumultuous Dominican Republic to ensure that the Ruiz family’s assets remain safe. With her newfound freedom, Ana begins taking English lessons at a neighborhood church, goes dancing with fun-loving César and even sees a movie at Radio City Music Hall. With César’s help, she sells her homemade Dominican delicacies outside his workplace three days a week. She saves every penny, with the ultimate goal of escape, until unexpected family developments threaten to squelch her dream.

In her third novel, Dominicana, Cruz writes with warmth, empathy and remarkable perception about the immigrant experience. Engaging and illuminating, Dominicana will appeal to readers who’ve enjoyed novels by Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez.

Ana Canción is only 15 when her parents convince her to marry Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age whom she barely knows, and move with him from their home in the Dominican Republic to New York City. They hope she will be able to get a job and that she and Juan will eventually […]

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