Laura Sackton

Every so often, a book flows so seamlessly that you hardly notice you’re reading it; it feels more like you’re simply existing with the characters. Neel Patel’s gorgeous debut novel, Tell Me How to Be, is a book like that. An emotionally layered family saga about cultural identity, first love, grief and the power of second chances, it’s a painful, funny and ultimately redemptive story.

The novel unfolds through two perspectives. Akash is a gay Indian American man whose life is spiraling. His relationship with his white boyfriend is falling apart, his drinking is out of control, his career as a songwriter in Los Angeles isn’t going anywhere, and he’s not out to his family. Renu, his mother, is in the midst of a different kind of crisis. A year after her husband’s death, she decides to sell the family house and move back to London. She wants to regain the freedom she gave up when she married and came to America 30 years before. When Akash and his older brother, Bijal, return home to help Renu pack up the house, the secrets they’ve all been hiding from each other come to light.

Both Akash and Renu narrate in the second person. Akash speaks to his childhood friend Parth, while Renu directs her sections to Kareem, the Muslim man she fell in love with before getting married. As the book progresses, the profound impact that Parth and Kareem have had on Akash’s and Renu’s lives slowly becomes clear. It’s an elegant narrative device that never feels cliched or contrived. Instead, the parallels between Renu’s and Akash’s stories highlight the rift between mother and son and its origins. So much of this novel is about what parents and children don’t say to each other and the trauma that silence can cause. Akash and Renu are both lonely and unhappy; they wrestle separately with their ghosts, and then slowly find their way back to each other.

This is a rich story that’s as vivid and surprising as its characters. In addition to all the nuances of Renu and Akash’s complicated mother-son relationship, Patel explores sibling relationships, racism in small-town Illinois, first- and second-generation immigrant experiences, alcoholism and more. Renu is observant, bitingly funny and deeply caring. Akash is morose and impulsive; his pain often feels claustrophobic, while his love of music comes across as buoyant and joyful.

Tell Me How to Be is a contemporary family story that captures all the contradictions and challenges of 21st-century life. It’s a rare treat to watch Renu and Akash navigate such tumultuous change—and come out stronger on the other side.

Neel Patel’s gorgeous debut novel flows so seamlessly that you hardly notice you’re reading it; it feels more like you’re simply existing with his characters.

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s lyrical and surprising debut novel, which won the inaugural Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize, is a magical coming-of-age saga about a Hadrami girl from Mombasa, Kenya, and the dangerous sea voyage that changes the course of her life.

When her fisherman father goes missing at sea, Aisha, unwilling to believe he’s dead, sets out to rescue him. She’s aided by a scholarly talking cat, who summons a boat made of bones. Sailing into the unknown, Aisha battles several sea monsters—and the sea itself—before finally bringing her father home.

Back in Mombasa, she finds the shape of her old life no longer fits. Awakened to the existence of a dangerous and alluring new world, her simmering desire for adventure and independence becomes impossible to ignore. Rebelling against the pressure to get married and settle down, she is drawn into the lives of the magical creatures who inhabit Mombasa, including talking crows and ancient spirits.

The House of Rust can be disorientating at first. Bajaber’s prose is lush but dizzying; it’s easy to get lost among the many names, overlapping stories and shifts in perspective. But that disorientation is also the book’s strength. Aisha, too, is disoriented, caught between two worlds, navigating the familiar roads and markets of Mombasa and the unfamiliar language of powerful crows. With remarkable skill, Bajaber, who is a Kenyan writer of Hadrami descent, navigates the novel’s duality, rendering it both a realistic drama about familial expectation, lineage and grief, as well as a darkly whimsical adventure about monsters who hold grudges and the courage it takes to face your fears head-on.

There’s a fablelike quality to Bajaber’s prose, vividly capturing the pulse of magic that runs just beneath the surface of everyday lives. A cat offers meditations on willpower, while other characters deliver beautiful monologues like something out of a fairy tale. But even at the story’s most surreal and strange moments, Bajaber grounds the tale in the contemporary world of Mombasa, with its rich blend of Hadrami and Swahili cultures.

Enchanting and sometimes delightfully odd, full of lush descriptions and the rhythms of the sea, The House of Rust is, at heart, a remarkable book about a fiery young woman determined to steer her own course, no matter how many monsters she has to face along the way.

This award-winning novel is enchanting and sometimes delightfully odd, full of lush descriptions and the rhythms of the sea.

Award-winning Lebanese American author Rabih Alameddine’s sixth novel, The Wrong End of the Telescope, is as complex and multifaceted as its narrator. The story is a shape-shifting kaleidoscope, a collection of moments—funny, devastating, absurd—that bear witness to the violence of war and displacement without sensationalizing it.

Mina Simpson, a transgender Lebanese American doctor, arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos to volunteer at a refugee camp. It’s the closest she’s been to Lebanon since she left her home country decades ago, and the first time she’s seen her brother (who flies in to visit her) in years. On Lesbos, Mina meets a family from Syria and becomes close with the family’s mother, who is dying of cancer and whom Mina steps in to help however she can.

As Mina struggles to make sense of the crisis unfolding before her, she recounts the winding path of her life: her Lebanese childhood, her experiences in medical school in the U.S. and her comfortable middle age in Chicago with her wife. Moving between past and present, the novel unfolds in short chapters with whimsical titles that perfectly encapsulate Mina’s dry humor, wisdom and compassion (e.g., “When You Don’t Know What to Say, Have a Cookie”). 

Interspersed with these chapters are sections addressed to a gay Lebanese writer whose work has had a profound impact on Mina’s life, and who seems to be a reflection of Alameddine himself. “Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative,” Mina tells the unnamed writer in one of these chapters, an unsettling truth that Alameddine embraces in this novel. He refuses to offer easy solutions to impossible situations; his characters do not learn lessons. This is not a novel about transformation. Its strength lies in its slipperiness, its thoughtful engagement with the messy in-betweens and the harsh but revelatory realities of liminality.

Mina, her fellow volunteers and the refugees they meet are all seeking something: safety or wholeness, a new home, old friends, a different narrative through which to understand their lives. The Wrong End of the Telescope is a gorgeously written, darkly funny and refreshingly queer witness to that seeking.

“Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative,” Rabih Alameddine writes in his latest novel, a slippery tale of seeking and messy in-betweens.

It’s been nine years since the publication of Jeanne Thornton’s debut, The Dream of Doctor Bantam, and her second novel, Summer Fun, has been worth the wait. Dizzying and deliciously weird, it’s a sprawling yet intimate story about music, hidden trans histories and the transformative act of creation.

Gala, a trans woman living in small-town New Mexico, is obsessed with a classic 1960s pop band called the Get Happies and their mysterious lead singer, B       . In a series of remarkable letters to B       , full of whip-smart observations and dark humor, Gala slowly reveals the true story of B       ’s life and music, shedding light on herself in the process.

This is no ordinary epistolary novel. Thornton discards convention, choosing instead to use the form to explore the possibilities of cross-generational queer and trans conversations. Gala’s letters act as a kind of portal, a manifestation of trans magic. She addresses B        directly, often inhabiting the singer’s thoughts and emotions. Gala tells B       ’s story from the inside, as if she were the one who lived it. Each letter is a small act of discovery, an unfolding mystery. The unique epistolary format makes space for deep connections, not only between Gala and B        but also between Gala and the reader. It is impossible not to read these heartfelt missives without becoming wholly invested in her world.

Reflecting on the impossibility of authenticity in the music industry, Gala muses as B       , “No one gets to sound like who they are; that isn’t how success operates.” But Thornton proves this isn’t always the case. Gala’s narration is singular—assured, sarcastic and yearning. She’s determined to tell her story, as well as B       ’s, through her own particular lens, unrefined and vulnerable, full of messy contradictions. Thornton’s plotting is masterful, her prose elegant and her characterization nuanced. But it’s the emotional heft of Gala’s narrative voice that sets this novel apart.

Summer Fun is unpredictable and delightful, structurally innovative and epic in scope. It’s a heartbreaking yet hopeful addition to the growing canon of literature that celebrates the complexity of trans lives.

This is a heartbreaking yet hopeful addition to the growing canon of literature that celebrates the complexity of trans lives.

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