Laura Sackton

Joseph Han’s beautifully strange debut novel, Nuclear Family, is full of ghosts and spirits, real and metaphorical. At first it seems to be a relatively straightforward intergenerational saga about a Korean family in Hawaii, but soon the inventiveness of Han’s storytelling becomes apparent, and readers are submerged in a world where nothing is quite as it seems.

Hoping for a fresh start away from his family, 20-something Jacob Cho takes a job teaching English in Seoul. Not long after his arrival, he attempts to cross the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and is taken into custody. Back in Hawaii, his family is consumed with worry. His parents are struggling to keep their restaurant in business, while his sister, Grace, spends more and more of her time getting high.

None of them know that Jacob has been possessed by the ghost of his dead grandfather, Tae-woo, who is desperate to get across the DMZ to reunite with the family he left behind during the war. In Jacob, Tae-woo sees his best chance to get across the wall that has kept him—and countless others—separated from those they love, even in death.

Through this literal possession of a young man by a sly and grieving grandfather, Han tells a moving and specific story about more symbolic possessions—how violence possesses bodies, how history possesses the present and how a person’s stories remain alive in their descendants, even if those stories go unspoken.

Events unfold through a dizzying array of voices: Jacob, Grace and their parents; Tae-woo and his fellow ghosts; Jacob’s other grandparents; and a kind of Greek chorus of local Hawaiians, both Native and immigrant families. Han zooms in and out, moving between perspectives, times and places. These quick shifts in tone and voice can be disorienting, but they also give the novel its momentum.

Nuclear Family is about the trauma of living with invented borders, about dispossession and exile, and about the unhealed wounds of war that are felt across generations. Han’s characters—both dead and alive—are haunted by the past, even as they seek to escape it. Darkly funny, delightfully surprising and with a sprinkling of unusual formatting that reveals hidden subplots, Han’s debut bears witness to the brutal realities of war and imperialism while honoring the many kinds of magic that exist in the world.

Darkly funny and delightfully surprising, Joseph Han's debut novel, Nuclear Family, explores the trauma of invented borders through the possession of a young man by the ghost of his sly and grieving grandfather.

Longtime fans of Nina LaCour’s teen novels will be enchanted by the quietly powerful Yerba Buena, her first book for adult readers. It unfolds without any fanfare through a series of intimate and brilliantly observed details about growing up and into yourself. From one seemingly ordinary scene to the next, the relentless momentum of our imperfect, chaotic lives pulses through LaCour’s prose.

At 16, Sara is desperate to flee her small hometown on Northern California’s Russian River and get far away from her difficult childhood, her drug-dealing father and memories of her dead mother. When her girlfriend dies suddenly, Sara seizes the first opportunity to run. Pushing aside the traumas of her past, she begins to make a life for herself in Los Angeles.

Emilie is an LA native struggling with more nebulous challenges. She’s not sure what she wants, so she flits from major to major in college, and then from job to job. She doesn’t feel at ease in her family, as she’s still grieving the loss of the closeness she used to share with her sister.

Emilie and Sara meet at a restaurant where Sara tends bar and Emilie arranges flowers. They spend one meaningful night together, but it’s a long time before they connect again.

Yerba Buena is not a simple romance. It’s a layered story about the process of learning to love yourself, of holding onto and letting go of painful history, and of building your own home. Along the way, LaCour captures all the aches and hurts and betrayals and sensual delights of being in your 20s. Emilie and Sara get tangled in messy relationships—romantic, platonic and familial. They make impulsive choices as well as smart ones. They yearn for each other, but they aren’t ready for each other, and so they return, again and again, to their own lives, tumbling forward, muddling through, making mistakes and starting again.

LaCour’s prose has a soft, flowing quality and a lushness that readers of her previous books will recognize. She’s adept at describing the things that matter most to her protagonists: the colors of a flower arrangement, the quality of light on a wooden floor, a facial expression, the taste of a beloved gumbo recipe. She’s even better at describing tumultuous emotional landscapes. Sara and Emilie are such fully realized characters that by the end of the novel, you will feel as though you’ve spent time with cherished friends.

Bursting with emotionally resonant moments and vivid details of LA neighborhoods, Yerba Buena is a remarkable story of queer love and childhood trauma, addiction and forgiveness, family legacies and new beginnings.

In her first novel for adult readers, Nina LaCour captures all the aches and hurts and betrayals and sensual delights of being in your 20s.

At its heart, Vauhini Vara’s twisty, thoughtful debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, is a fascinating alternate history and eerily plausible imagined future of the internet—and the tech corporations that have shaped it. With a sureness to her prose and a sharp eye for the tiny details that shape human lives, Vara, who has worked as a Wall Street Journal technology reporter and as a business editor for The New Yorker, combines three distinct storylines into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.

Though the entire novel is narrated by Athena, the 17-year-old daughter of the most successful tech genius the world has ever seen, it shifts among three timelines. In a small village in 1950s India, King Rao, who will eventually become the most powerful man in the world, longs for a sense of belonging while growing up on his Dalit family’s sprawling coconut plantation. In 1970s Seattle, newly arrived in the U.S. for graduate school, King invents the device that will change the world forever: the Coconut computer. And in some unspecified near-future, a single corporation holds sway over the world’s citizens, who are referred to as Shareholders, and an all-powerful Board of Directors has expanded to replace all world governments. Within this imagined future, Athena recounts the events that led to her being imprisoned for her father’s murder.

This future is effortlessly believable, with irreversible global warming known as “Hothouse Earth,” capitalism running rampant, an unstoppable megacorp similar to an Apple-Google hybrid, and a mysterious computer algorithm controlling all aspects of public and private life. Yet for all its brilliant scope, The Immortal King Rao is also an intimate character study, offering an unflinching, close-up look at the complicated bonds of families.

There are no simple relationships in this book, and few moral absolutes. King is a ruthless, larger-than-life genius, but he’s also a scared, confused kid, a doting father and a lonely 20-something adrift in an unfamiliar world. As Athena pores over her memories of King—and parses through his memoirs, gifted directly to her brain through his final invention—she begins to understand all of these interlocking and sometimes contradictory pieces of him. What emerges is a remarkably tender and continually unpredictable story about familial and romantic love, ambition and greed, alienation and revolution, and one man’s unquenchable desire to leave a lasting mark on the world.

Satirical and heartbreaking, packed with historical detail and flawless dystopian world building, The Immortal King Rao is a striking multigenerational epic that tackles—and offers a surprising answer to—that age-old question: What are we here for?

In her striking multigenerational epic, Vauhini Vara combines three distinct stories into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.

Sara Nović’s second novel is a vibrant celebration of Deaf culture and Deaf communities. Set at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf in the struggling industrial town of Colson, Ohio, True Biz follows the interconnected lives of several students and teachers over the course of one tumultuous year. It’s a remarkable book that is many things at once: a primer on Deaf history, a love story, a coming-of-age tale, a riotous political awakening, a family saga and a richly layered character study.

February, the headmistress of River Valley, is a hearing child of deaf adults. She’s trying desperately to keep the school afloat in the face of ongoing budget cuts, while also taking care of her aging mother and trying to keep her marriage intact. Austin is the golden boy of River Valley. He grew up immersed in Deaf culture, but his blissful life is shaken when his baby sister is born hearing, causing hidden tensions between him and his hearing father to rise to the surface. Charlie is a deaf teen with a cochlear implant, whose hearing parents, at the urging of doctors, didn’t allow her to learn American Sign Language as a child. Arriving at River Valley in the wake of her parents’ divorce, she meets other deaf people for the first time, begins learning ASL and discovers the joys and challenges of being part of a community that speaks a language she can understand.

Though written in English, the book is bursting with ASL, offering an exploration into the power of language and the violence of language deprivation, the beauty of free and open communication, and the possibilities (and limitations) of translation. Throughout the novel, signed conversations are translated into English, each chapter heading is an illustration of a character's name sign, the first signed letter of their name. Interspersed among the chapters are school assignments and other ephemera that detail ASL lessons and exercises.

The narrative moves in and out of the three main characters’ points of view, offering intimate glimpses into their inner lives. The novel’s sense of emotion builds slowly, from Austin’s intensifying anger and February’s growing desperation to Charlie’s burgeoning confidence. By the end of the book, each character is changed, and their transformations are explored with a beautifully subtle touch.

Deaf rights activist Nović incorporates so many issues that affect the Deaf community, including education inequality and the rise of cochlear implants. Though it focuses on three central characters, the story feels symphonic as the entire River Valley community comes to life. At times somber, often bitingly funny, awash in playfulness and fiercely proud, True Biz is a masterfully crafted love letter to Deaf culture.

At times somber, often bitingly funny, awash in playfulness and fiercely proud, True Biz is a masterfully crafted love letter to Deaf culture.

Julie Otsuka’s first novel in 10 years is a quiet and startling masterpiece about memory, aging and the indelible experiences that define a life. The slim novel reads like a much longer one, its mere 192 pages giving rise to the possibility of infinite stories. The effortlessly musical prose will be familiar to readers of Otsuka’s previous novels, especially her 2011 bestseller, The Buddha in the Attic. But The Swimmers is even more structurally bold.

The novel begins with two chapters told in the collective second person. A group of amateur swimmers, all of whom belong to the same community pool, speaks about their obsessions, grievances and small triumphs. When a mysterious crack appears in the bottom of the pool, some are curious, but some begin to panic. Soon they all wonder if this means that their swimming days are numbered.

The third chapter, told in the second person, narrows in on one particular swimmer: an elderly Japanese American woman named Alice, who is in the early stages of dementia. As her memory slips away and the past and present lose their distinct boundaries, Alice struggles to hold onto her sense of self. She still exists in the world, still has opinions and fears and desires, but everyone around her—her fellow swimmers, her husband, her daughter—views her as someone fading, incapable, a danger to herself.

The Swimmers seems to continually reinvent itself as each section reframes everything that came before it. Reading something so inventive and playful is a bit like being inside an architectural blueprint as it's being drawn, or watching an acorn grow into a massive oak in only a few minutes. This is not a simple, orderly, linear novel. It unfolds in a messy chorus of contradictory, unpredictable voices that each bring something different to the whole.

With nuance, grace and deep tenderness, Otsuka ponders the questions that define our lives: Who are we without our memories? What does it mean to truly see someone else, to see ourselves? What is knowable about the world, and what do we do with the mysteries no one can solve? Funny, moving and composed of sentences that read like small poems, The Swimmers is a remarkable novel from a writer with an unparalleled talent for capturing the stuff of the world, whether mundane, harrowing or bizarre.

Funny, moving and composed of sentences that read like small poems, The Swimmers is a remarkable novel from an unparalleled writer.

Poet Destiny O. Birdsong’s (Negotiations) debut novel is as much about what isn’t said—what can’t be said—as it is about what’s actually on the page. Nobody’s Magic is a masterfully crafted and sometimes painfully honest story told in triptych, centering on three Black women with albinism living in Shreveport, Louisiana.

This unusual novel is built on spaciousness and silence, with each section reading almost like a novella. Suzette lives with her wealthy parents, who shower her with gifts while keeping her sheltered from the world. After falling for a tenderhearted mechanic who works at her father’s shop, she begins to express her own desires for the first time. Maple is grieving the sudden death of her mother, a straight-talking, fun-loving and beloved sex worker. And Agnes has spent most of her adult life trying to set herself apart from her sister. When she meets a man while on a temporary job in Utah, a string of impulsive choices leads her to a confrontation with her family.

These are dynamic characters, each with her own distinct narrative voice and particular way of looking at the world. Suzette’s first-person narration is informal, conversational and intimate. Maple’s section is raw with grief. Agnes’ story, told in the third person, is slightly distant, as if she can’t quite bear to face herself. But each woman experiences a major shift: Suzette makes a momentous decision, Maple experiences a catastrophic loss, and Agnes faces her conflicted relationships with her mother and sister.

Each section is bound to the others through themes of Black womanhood, familial expectations, grief and the power of self-determination, but instead of drawing straightforward conclusions about these connections, Birdsong leaves the reader to meditate on the questions and ideas she raises. What do these very different experiences of Black womanhood have to say about one another? How does Suzette’s story inform our understanding of Maple’s? How does Maple’s relationship with her mother influence how we read Agnes’ section? Buried in these pages are infinite conversations—about what it means to be labeled “other,” to be a part of a community, to choose something for yourself.

Nobody’s Magic is worth reading simply to spend time with these women, but the thoughtful and unexpected way that Birdsong combines their three unique stories into one is what makes the book unforgettable.

Poet Destiny O. Birdsong’s unusual debut novel is built on spaciousness and silence, with each section reading almost like a novella.

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