Stephenie Harrison

A war bubbles at the core of The Fortunes of Jaded Women, but perhaps not the one you’d expect. Rather than retreading the conflict that has been the focus of most Vietnam-centric literature for the past 70 years, Vietnamese American author Carolyn Huynh offers up a refreshingly buoyant and irreverent debut novel about a fiery group of estranged mothers and daughters. 

Ever since their ancestor Oanh left her husband for another man, the Duong women have been cursed to be unlucky in love and only give birth to daughters. Oanh’s current living relatives are therefore able to find professional success but never lasting love. Despite all living in Orange County, California, sisters Mai, Minh and Khuy n haven’t spoken to one another—or to their mother—for the last 10 years. The sisters’ relationships with their own daughters are hardly any better.

All this changes when Mai visits her trusted psychic adviser in Hawaii and is rocked by the revelation that this will be the year her family experiences a marriage, a funeral and the birth of a son. But Mai is warned that if she isn’t careful, it will also be the year she loses everything. The Fortunes of Jaded Women chronicles the riotous year that ensues as the fractious and feisty Duong women finally reconnect, heal their wounds and forge a new future as a family.

Celebrating Vietnamese culture and community, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is a delight that rises above mere frothy literary confection. The sprinkling of fantastical elements and abundance of sisterly squabbles and scandals keep things juicy and bring plenty of laughs, but the characters are the real stars of the show. Each woman is joyfully rendered and fully developed, offering a welcome contrast to cliched depictions of meek and docile Asian women, and a powerful subversion of monolithic depictions of a people who have for too long been solely defined by tragedy. 

The Duong women have fire in their bellies, desire in their hearts and the grit needed to overcome any obstacle. The Fortunes of Jaded Women will certainly appeal to fans of over-the-top excess a la Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, but readers who love rich explorations of thorny mother-daughter relationships and the ways we weather trauma and grief will also find much to enjoy.

Celebrating Vietnamese culture and community, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is a delight that rises above mere frothy literary confection.

“Adulting” is hard, and no one knows this better than Angela Appiah, the feisty 20-something protagonist of Shirlene Obuobi’s bighearted debut novel, On Rotation. As the dutiful eldest daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Angie has spent most of her life striving to meet her parents’ sky-high expectations that she become a well-paid, respected doctor and secure an acceptable husband (meaning: a lawyer, engineer or doctor, preferably of Ghanaian descent). 

At the start of her third year of medical school, Angie thinks she’s finally got all her ducks lined up, only for everything to spectacularly fall apart. Her lawyer boyfriend dumps her hours before a family event, and rather than rocking the most important test of her med school career, she receives an embarrassingly low score. Now her entire future as a doctor hangs in the balance. 

Right when she’s at her lowest, Angie meets Ricky, a smooth-talking, disconcertingly sincere artist who gives her atrial fibrillations in the best possible way. The chemistry between them is off the charts, but Ricky is off the market, so Angie decides to refocus on grinding her way to the top. But fate, it would seem, has other plans, and she and Ricky keep crossing paths. Angie soon discovers that in love—and in life—the best decisions come not from listening to your head but by letting your heart take the lead.

Like its multihyphenate creator (Obuobi is a Black physician and cartoonist who now adds author to her impressive list of accomplishments), On Rotation goes above and beyond, blending rom-com, medical drama, women’s fiction, coming-of-age tale and immigrant story. Even more incredibly, it balances all these elements well, tackling them in interesting and satisfying ways. 

Obuobi’s choice to explore various types of love—platonic, familial and self—rather than focus exclusively on romantic love, is particularly gratifying and refreshing. It’s clear that Obuobi appreciates and respects her characters, all of whom are quirky and dynamic but—critically—never caricatures. Buoyed by Obuobi’s vibrant and strong authorial voice, Angie, Ricky and their friends leap off the page, their dreams and aspirations made palpable alongside their fears, flaws and hangups.

A genuine delight from start to finish, On Rotation will appeal to fans of Rainbow Rowell, Talia Hibbert and Ali Hazelwood, and resonate with any reader who enjoys multicultural, multifaceted, inclusive love stories starring unapologetically strong and complex women.

Shirlene Obuobi’s bighearted debut novel is a genuine delight from start to finish. Her exploration of various types of love—platonic, familial and self—is particularly gratifying.

Seven years after her mordant debut novel, Dietland, amassed critical acclaim and a cult following for its no-holds-barred skewering of the diet and beauty industries, Sarai Walker second novel is finally here. With The Cherry Robbers, Walker has concocted another slyly subversive feminist fable, this time in the form of a grief-laced gothic thriller that takes on weighty topics such as marriage, women’s health and generational trauma.

In 2017, Sylvia Wren is a world-renowned, notoriously private painter living in New Mexico. She’s rarely seen in public and turns down virtually all requests for interviews. However, in a moment of errant curiosity, Sylvia reads a letter from a journalist who plans to write an exposé detailing what she has uncovered: that Sylvia Wren is in fact Iris Chapel, the sole surviving heiress of the Chapel Firearms fortune, who disappeared 60 years ago.

Suddenly the secrets that Sylvia has spent decades running from catch up to her, and with nowhere left to hide, she attempts to exorcize the ghosts of her past by chronicling the family curse that claimed the lives of her five sisters, relegated her mother to an asylum and prompted Sylvia to abandon her life as Iris.

Exquisitely tense and satisfyingly spooky,The Cherry Robbers masterfully blends psychological and supernatural horror. In sensual yet spritely prose, Walker conducts a darkly erotic exploration of female desire, duty and destiny via an ensemble of nuanced female characters, each with distinct personalities and rich inner lives. Readers know the grisly fate that awaits the Chapel girls, but Walker still manages to maintain a high degree of suspense and intrigue that will keep readers frantically flipping pages.

For fans of Diane Setterfield and Shirley Jackson, as well as readers who relish multilayered, thought-provoking family sagas, The Cherry Robbers is not to be missed.

In The Cherry Robbers, Sarai Walker maintains a high degree of intrigue that will keep readers frantically flipping pages in this story of a reclusive painter whose grisly family history is suddenly exposed.

It can be hard to remember just how important paper maps used to be. More than just a way of assisting travel from point A to B, a map was meant to depict the world, revealing a location’s form and significance to anyone who gazed upon it. But what if, rather than being mere reflections of what already exists, maps had the power to shape the world they represented? This intriguing idea forms the foundation of Peng Shepherd’s ingenious and exhilarating second novel, The Cartographers.

Cartographer Nell Young is called in to the New York Public Library after her estranged father is found dead in his office in the map division. While looking through his desk, she finds a secret compartment containing a tatty dime-a-dozen gas station map—the same map that sparked a fiery argument between the two of them several years previously. He dismissed the map as worthless, and their disagreement ended with Nell being branded an outcast in the world of cartography.

Nell can’t begin to understand why her father would have held onto the map he sabotaged her career over, but it soon becomes frighteningly clear that things are not quite as they seem. Despite the map’s unremarkable provenance, it’s actually incredibly rare and highly coveted. In her attempt to understand why, Nell finds herself ensnared in a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game, one that could turn deadly if the other party hunting for the map finds Nell before she uncovers its secrets.

As fans of Shepherd’s 2018 debut novel, The Book of M, would expect, The Cartographers is wildly imaginative and totally mind-bending in the best possible way. Shepherd has crafted a juicy mystery masquerading as a grown-up scavenger hunt filled with astonishing twists and revelations. The result is a romp that’s pure pleasure to read and will keep readers guessing—and gasping—as the map’s true power and beguiling history are brought to light.

Fans of Peng Shepherd’s 2018 debut novel, The Book of M, will love The Cartographers, a juicy mystery masquerading as a grown-up scavenger hunt.

It’s incredible that a work of speculative fiction first outlined over a decade ago would require a content warning in its review. But it must be said that the subject matter of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s ambitious debut, an elegiac collection of interconnected stories centering on a global plague that decimates humanity, is particularly challenging in our current climate.

Beginning with a group of explorers who unwittingly unleash a mysterious virus that had long lain dormant beneath Siberian ice, How High We Go in the Dark chronicles humanity’s battle against the “Arctic plague” in the following decades and the ways in which society adapts and changes. Each chapter moves forward in time and features a different protagonist, giving readers the chance to inhabit multiple lives, realities and perspectives over the course of the narrative.

Among the varied cast of characters are a worker at a euthanasia theme park for terminally ill children; a scientist who, while cultivating organs for human transplant, unintentionally creates a talking pig; a physicist who gives humanity a second chance at life by opening a stable wormhole in his head, which will allow for interstellar space travel; and the eventual crew that leaves Earth to search for a new planet to colonize.

Early chapters feel self-contained, but as the novel progresses, it is satisfying to observe the ways the sections interconnect with and amplify one another. When the full scale of Nagamatsu’s vision comes into focus in the final chapter, the narrative resonance on display is thrilling in a manner reminiscent of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.

Still, despite the fantastical elements woven throughout, there is no real way of escaping or softening the novel’s inherently bleak and brutal reality, in which death, loss, trauma and grief are at the forefront. And while Nagamatsu explores resilience, love and our primal need for connection, there’s no denying that the process is a sad one. Any glimpses of hope are generally fleeting and bittersweet.

It’s unfair to penalize a book for being too relevant and ringing too true, but for readers who turn to fiction as a means of escaping the stress and worries of real life, How High We Go in the Dark might be best saved for a later date. However, those courageous enough to sit with the novel’s exquisite sorrows will be rewarded with gorgeous prose, memorable characters and, ultimately, catharsis.

The narrative resonance on display in Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut is thrilling in a manner reminiscent of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.

Beirut-born author Yara Zgheib’s skills have become even more finely honed in the years since her excellent 2019 debut, The Girls at 17 Swann Street. Her devastating second novel, No Land to Light On, is an illuminating, intimate look at the Syrian refugee crisis and the immigrant experience in America during the Trump administration.

On January 27, 2017, Executive Order 13769 banned entry of individuals—including refugees and preexisting visa holders—from seven Middle Eastern countries into the United States. No Land to Light On chronicles this directive’s cruel impact on one married couple, Sama and Hadi. Hailing from Syria, they separately immigrated to America—Sama to attend Harvard University, Hadi as a refugee—where they subsequently met and fell madly in love, marrying within months.

Sama is five months pregnant when Hadi is summoned abroad to attend to the sudden death of his father, and he promises to return to her in a few short days. Unfortunately, he returns just one day after the travel ban against majority-Muslim countries, which effectively bars him from entering the U.S. As Hadi is detained for questioning, Sama enters premature labor, giving birth to an American son whose father is in the process of being deported. Within the blink of an eye, their elusive and ever-so-precious American dream is transformed into the stuff of nightmares.

Shuttling between times, perspectives and countries, Zgheib’s novel deftly documents Sama’s and Hadi’s lives in Syria and the circumstances that prompted them to leave, as well as their ensuing experiences as American immigrants. The narrative is purposefully fragmented, an artful reflection of the ways in which the lives of immigrants and refugees are uprooted and disrupted. Within the context of a tense and bittersweet love story—one with a healthy dose of nostalgia for days when hope and possibility seemed likely to prevail—Zgheib offers nuanced insights into the complex psychology of and challenges faced by displaced people, and effectively makes the consequences of anti-immigrant sentiments and policies feel personal to all readers.

Written in soul-searing prose, No Land to Light On is an essential, compassionate story that reinstates a sense of humanity for the countless people affected by U.S. travel bans.

Through this tense and bittersweet love story, Yara Zgheib makes the consequences of anti-immigrant sentiments and policies feel personal to all readers.

Ricky Rice is a down-on-his-luck former heroin addict who works as a janitor at a bus depot and focuses on just getting by. But this quickly changes when he receives a one-way bus ticket to Vermont from an unknown source in the mail, along with a note that enigmatically tells him the time has come to honor a secret promise he once made. Summoning all of his courage and going along for the ride, Ricky finds himself part of a rag-tag band of investigators, tasked with finding and following a divine Voice in modern-day America. Soon, Ricky embarks on a journey that will forever change his life, as he faces the demons from his past and even battles a few new ones along the way—all the while grappling with the big questions of faith, doubt, race, class, sex and all the little ones in between.

To say any more would do a disservice to Big Machine, since half the fun for the reader is being sucked into the whirlpool of Ricky’s awe-inspiring adventure. Hysterical yet heartbreaking, playful yet pensive, bleak yet hopeful, Victor LaValle’s novel masterfully blends these contrasting elements to produce a rich and rewarding literary experience. LaValle shines a light onto the shadowed fringes of society, tackling the gritty and grimy aspects of life with just the right mix of brash wit and tender compassion. A motley amalgam of sci-fi, mystery, and crime noir, Big Machine transcends the boundaries of standard literary fiction and defies readers’ expectations at every turn. Fantasy and reality constantly mingle, but the core issues—though messy and complicated—are undeniably human.

Wildly creative but always believable, it’s little wonder LaValle has developed a diverse following, ranging from Pulitzer-winning author Michael Cunningham to rap artist Mos Def. With Big Machine, LaValle has created a novel that makes you feel as much as it makes you think, proving that he is not just a writer to watch, but a writer to read.

Stephenie Harrison lives and writes in Nashville.

Ricky Rice is a down-on-his-luck former heroin addict who works as a janitor at a bus depot and focuses on just getting by. But this quickly changes when he receives a one-way bus ticket to Vermont from an unknown source in the mail, along with a note that enigmatically tells him the time has come […]

It’s hard to name a novel more beloved than Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Billed as one of the first feminist love stories, it has inspired countless sighs from lovers of literature over the centuries.

April 21, 2016, marks the 200th anniversary of Brontë’s birth, and two timely new releases honor Charlotte and her family’s enduring legacy. Though these two books have very different tones and approaches, their shared affection for the Brontës unites them. 

The setup of Catherine Lowell’s debut novel, The Madwoman Upstairs, is an English major’s fantasy come true. Heroine Samantha Whipple is an awkward bookworm who heads off to Oxford University to read literature—and just happens to be the Brontës’ last living descendent. As she butts heads with her brooding-yet-irresistible tutor, a mysterious package from her deceased father arrives. Suddenly Sam is on a scavenger hunt that promises to lead her to her inheritance: items belonging to the Brontë estate that Sam has always considered nothing but a rumor . . . until now. 

Crammed with myriad allusions to the entire Brontë clan’s canon, Lowell’s novel will appeal not only to Brontë megafans, but also to readers who like a healthy helping of literary criticism alongside their fiction. When Sam isn’t off solving her father’s cryptic clues, she’s arguing with her professor about how to correctly read literature in general—and the Brontës’ works in particular. 

Filled with hyperlexic ripostes and an academic heroine who is the dictionary definition of quirky, this is a story that will please readers of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele is a very different form of tribute. Just a few pages in, Faye’s Jane utters the line, “Reader, I murdered him,” which tells you exactly the kind of book you are in for. A somewhat satirical riff on Jane Eyre, the novel reimagines Brontë’s iconic heroine with not only a will of iron but also the heart of a hot-blooded killer. This Jane embraces her “wicked” side and isn’t afraid to avenge herself against those who do her wrong. (Watch out, teachers at Lowood.)

Readers worried that Jane Steele is simply a retread of Jane Eyre with more blood and gore, à la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, fear not. Just when you think you know what is coming next, Jane Steele takes things in a completely different direction. Faye is also the author of four acclaimed historical mysteries, and she juxtaposes a textured Victorian setting with more modern (and thus, more ambiguous) morality. Jane Steele is equal parts irreverent and refreshing. It’s also, remarkably, no less of a page-turner than the classic to which it pays homage.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

April 21, 2016, marks the 200th anniversary of Brontë’s birth, and two timely new releases honor Charlotte and her family’s enduring legacy. Though these two books have very different tones and approaches, their shared affection for the Brontës unites them.

Some books lend themselves to speed-reading, urging you to devour the story with pages turned at a breakneck pace. But other books require a more leisurely perusal, one in which you nibble at the prose, allowing yourself to linger over writing that has been so skillfully crafted. Given that Kate Walbert’s latest novel begins with suffragist Dorothy Townsend starving herself to death in the name of her cause, it is perhaps unsurprising that A Short History of Women falls into the latter camp.

Beginning with Dorothy’s death, A Short History of Women follows the lives of the Townsend women through several generations, skipping back and forth between Dorothy’s struggle in England at the turn of the 20th century all the way up to her great-granddaughters facing their own travails in modern-day America. Through these interlocking sketches, Walbert creates a dual history—one that is personal to each Townsend woman and uniquely her own, while also universal to all women no matter their time or place. Whether campaigning for women’s rights, finding success as a chemist and professor, protesting the war in Iraq, or arranging play dates on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, each woman grapples with finding her purpose and asserting herself in the world around her. Through this wide-sweeping lens, Walbert deftly examines “The Woman Question,” that is the ever-shifting, always evolving role of women in society.

Walbert’s prose is intricate but fluid, effortlessly adjusting in style to evoke the various time periods while shuttling the reader backward and forward through history. Lyrical and dreamlike, her writing is often punctuated by astonishing turns of phrase and vivid imagery. Although her topic will particularly appeal to female readers (this would be a wonderful book club selection), her writing is so multifaceted, so honest, that any reader looking for a thoughtful and challenging read will be rewarded. At one point in the novel, Dorothy’s granddaughter remarks, “What I am trying to do is to aim for something real . . . something that is not just an approximation of real.” One cannot help but feel that this was also Walbert’s motivation in writing A Short History of Women; fortunately for readers, she succeeds, demonstrating that even within the pages of fiction, truth can be found.

Stephenie Harrison lives in Nashville. 

Some books lend themselves to speed-reading, urging you to devour the story with pages turned at a breakneck pace. But other books require a more leisurely perusal, one in which you nibble at the prose, allowing yourself to linger over writing that has been so skillfully crafted. Given that Kate Walbert’s latest novel begins with […]

When it comes to endearingly odd protagonists, no one beats Matthew Dicks. In his first novel, Something Missing, he introduced readers to Martin, a cat burglar with OCD leanings, who made his living through petty theft, pilfering rolls of toilet paper, half-used bottles of salad dressing, postage stamps and the occasional big ticket item—like a rarely used crystal gravy boat—to sell on eBay. Now in Unexpectedly, Milo, Dicks introduces Milo Slade, a man who makes Martin look downright normal.

Ever since a childhood party at which Milo was overcome with the unbearable urge to pop his friend’s birthday balloons (an event that did not go over well at all), Milo has been grappling not only with bizarre and undeniable demands, he’s also struggled with keeping his peculiar compulsions hidden from the world. Married for several years, Milo has prided himself on keeping his intermittent needs to bowl a strike, pop open jars of jams, or occasionally belt out “99 Luftballons” karaoke-style a secret from his wife. Unfortunately for Milo, his preoccupation with keeping his true self locked away means he’s missed many of the warning signs that his wife has been increasingly exasperated with their marriage—that is until she tells him they need some time apart. Initially unable to fathom such a drastic departure from the comfortable life he is established, Milo eventually begins to revel in the liberty of being able to indulge his behavioral quirks without fear. In fact, soon enough Milo finds he has more important things on his mind that reconciling with his wife when he stumbles across an abandoned video camera in the park. On a whim, Milo begins to watch the accompanying tapes, which turn out to be a deeply personal video diary, in which a woman Milo affectionately dubs “Freckles” unburdens her deepest secrets and fears. Before he has time to second guess himself, Milo finds himself on a journey to find Freckles and return her tapes, while also doing his part to help her see that the truth can set her free. If only such absolution were possible for Milo himself.

Reading a Matthew Dicks novel always proves to be an unadulterated joy, and Unexpectedly, Milo, is no exception. Dicks’ gift lies in his ability to take superficially eccentric characters and dig beneath their peculiarities to develop full-bodied, lovable human beings. Rather than feeling gimmicky, Dicks' approach to his his characters’ off-center habits provides insight into broader truths on human nature and the things that make us tick. Readers join Milo on a riveting and tender voyage into the heart of insecurity—the fear we all carry inside us that no one will ever truly accept us for who we are. Filled with humor and sweetness, Unexpectedly, Milo reminds us that happiness can be found in the strangest of places. 

When it comes to endearingly odd protagonists, no one beats Matthew Dicks. In his first novel, Something Missing, he introduced readers to Martin, a cat burglar with OCD leanings, who made his living through petty theft, pilfering rolls of toilet paper, half-used bottles of salad dressing, postage stamps and the occasional big ticket item—like a rarely […]

Nigerian American author Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström’s debut novel is as much a liberating battle cry as it is a searing, multifaceted examination of the hearts and minds of Black women navigating white-dominated spaces. Told from multiple perspectives, In Every Mirror She’s Black follows three Black women whose lives intersect in Sweden due to one wealthy white man named Jonny von Lundin.

Kemi, a first-generation American, is offered a lucrative position as Jonny's marketing firm's new diversity and inclusion adviser after a campaign's racial insensitivity makes international headlines. Brittany-Rae is a former model now working as a first-class flight attendant, which is where she first captures Jonny’s attention and is soon swept up in a passionate romance with him that appears to be the stuff of fairy tales. Finally, there is Muna, a Muslim refugee from Somalia who is the only surviving member of her family to be granted asylum in Sweden and now carves out a living as a janitorial worker at Jonny’s company. 

Despite Kemi’s, Brittany-Rae’s and Muna’s vastly different backgrounds and circumstances, all three women initially believe that Sweden (and Jonny) could be the answer to their prayers and an opportunity for a fresh start, unburdened by their past and its traumas. Unfortunately, each woman soon learns that Sweden's “utopia” poses its own set of significant challenges and that its principles of inclusivity and tolerance only extend as far as the whitewashed homogeneity of the population. For immigrants and people of color, a hidden dark side roils just below Sweden’s glittering facade, transforming the country from refuge to prison for each of these women.

Åkerström, who moved to Sweden in 2009, has crafted an absorbing, if unsettling, narrative that dissects the realities of what it means to be a Black woman in the world today. She writes with genuine empathy for her characters and sheds light on their struggles with the understanding that there is no single Black experience. Rather than shying away from or oversimplifying difficult and complex topics, Åkerström has effectively packaged themes of racism, immigration, fetishism and otherness into an engrossing story that will enlighten its readers, regardless of their nationality or race. 

Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström’s debut novel is as much a battle cry as it is a searing examination of the hearts of Black women navigating white-dominated spaces.

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