Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All Coming of Age Coverage

The year is 1987, and Billy Marvin is obsessed with two things: girls and video games. Video games, he can comprehend; he understands logic and the language that they’re written in. But when it comes to women, he can’t read the code; they’re an impossible cypher.

Billy’s best friends don’t share his love of computers, but when it comes to the obsession with women, they’re in it together. So when “Wheel of Fortune” star Vanna White ends up in the pages of Playboy, the boys have to get their hands on a copy. But to get past the cynical neighborhood newsstand owner, they’ll need homemade maps, detailed models and co-conspirators—and the store’s alarm code. That’s where Mary, the teenage daughter of the shop’s owner, comes into play. When Billy tells his friends that he’ll romance her to get the code, they’re skeptical, but Billy has a secret weapon: Mary is also a programming geek, and Billy has the perfect reason to spend time behind her computer. Soon, Billy is more interested in winning a coding contest with Mary than with getting his hands on the magazine. But can double-crossing his friends really be without consequence?

Impossible Fortress is the first book that Jason Rekulak has authored, but as the publisher of Quirk Books, he’s been involved in bringing hits like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies into the world. So it’s no surprise that Impossible Fortress strikes the perfect balance of strangeness and relatability; it’s nostalgic in all the right ways. It reminds us that sometimes relationships are like video games, where small actions have big consequences and we have to fail a few times before we succeed.

The year is 1987, and Billy Marvin is obsessed with two things: girls and video games. Video games, he can comprehend; he understands logic and the language that they’re written in. But when it comes to women, he can’t read the code; they’re an impossible cypher.

Review by

The title of Jacqueline Woodson’s brief, powerful first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, could mean many things. Is it an acknowledgment of the difference between the Brooklyn of the 1970s and today’s hipster kingdom? Is it meant to distinguish her gritty book from Colm Tóibín’s bestseller, Brooklyn, which became an Academy Award-winning film? Or is Woodson referring to the ways in which memory can change a place in our minds as the years go on?

Woodson—a National Book Award winner for Brown Girl Dreaming—introduces her narrator, August, as she looks back on her arrival as a young girl to 1970s Brooklyn, in the midst of upheaval that includes white flight and poverty. August’s parents left behind a farm in Tennessee, and Woodson’s descriptions of both rural and urban settings are vivid and poetic. As she approaches her teens, August befriends three tough but vulnerable girls. The four friends pursue divergent dreams, which are meant to transport them from Brooklyn, but are also fueled by their experiences there. Powerful subplots explore the fates of August’s uncle, drafted to Vietnam, and August’s mother, drifting off into madness.

Another Brooklyn is so slim as to almost be a novella, and the scenes are brief and impressionistic, sometimes just a few sentences long. This, however, does not detract from the vibrancy of this coming-of-age story. Though August—and most of the characters in the book—are at times overwhelmed or enraged, they persevere. A question posed by August late in the book resonates with nearly all of the characters in this tender yet searing novel: “How do you begin to tell your own story?”

 

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

The title of Jacqueline Woodson’s brief, powerful first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, could mean many things. Is it an acknowledgment of the difference between the Brooklyn of the 1970s and today’s hipster kingdom? Is it meant to distinguish her gritty book from Colm Tóibín’s bestseller, Brooklyn, which became an Academy Award-winning film? Or is Woodson referring to the ways in which memory can change a place in our minds as the years go on?
Review by

If The Exorcist had been authored by Tina Fey instead of William Peter Blatty, it might have borne an uncanny resemblance to what Grady Hendrix has accomplished with My Best Friend’s Exorcism

Readers may know Hendrix from his previous gem, Horrorstör, which was styled like a certain Swedish furniture store’s catalog. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is just as visually appealing, including elements that recall a high school yearbook—student photos capturing 1980s style, cheesy quotes and a color scheme that would make any Trapper Keeper-toting, slap-bracelet-wearing high school student feel fresh. 

We meet lead characters Abby and Gretchen during fifth grade. It is 1982, and Abby is an E.T. aficionado determined to win the admiration of her classmates via her mad roller-skating skills. Gretchen is the quiet new girl—and the only attendee of Abby’s disastrous 11th birthday party. This awkward encounter forges a friendship that deepens until high school, but then . . . possession strikes! After a mysterious summer night filled with illicit teenage fun, Gretchen suddenly turns on her friends, including Abby. But is she possessed, or is she just being a teenager? Abby thinks she knows the answer, but either way, the fates of Abby and Gretchen depend upon the strength of their bond. 

With scenes gruesome enough to satisfy any horror fan (you won’t look at milkshakes the same way after finishing this one), Hendrix has created a genre-ambiguous story that demonstrates a real understanding of teenage friendships. Using his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, as a backdrop allows Hendrix to give the neighborhoods, families and attitudes of the era an authentic feel. Fans of satire, nostalgia, dark comedy and, well, demons should read this book.

 

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

If The Exorcist had been authored by Tina Fey instead of William Peter Blatty, it might have borne an uncanny resemblance to what Grady Hendrix has accomplished with My Best Friend’s Exorcism.
Review by

Mary Frances Lombard—known as Frankie—has found her paradise. The 400 acres of the Lombard apple orchard are where she plans to be for the rest of her life. Like her father, she will quiet the wind and “outwit a storm”; she will make hay; she will grow apples; she will marry her brother William and together “carry on the business” forever.

In this way, Jane Hamilton (The Book of Ruth) introduces us to the fierce child narrator of her latest work, The Excellent Lombards. Frankie’s fantasy is silly, we know that. Nevertheless, Hamilton uses exaggerated, territorial and overly emotional kid-logic to great effect to make sure the reader is on Frankie’s side, and feeling her pain, even if it is with a chuckle. We follow her over the years, as reality slowly creeps into the black-and-white world inside the boundaries of the orchard. We see various grown-up experiences and tragedies—running a business, keeping peace in the family, even the 9/11 terrorist attacks—all through the self-centeredness of a child’s perspective, making them tender and often funny.

If, like me, you occasionally suffer from the affliction of wanting to live on a farm, then The Excellent Lombards is for you. But even if you don’t share that fantasy, this coming-of-age story is captivating and passionate, taking us back to being a child and believing in one thing wholeheartedly. Simply put, this is a book you won’t be able to put down.

 

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

Mary Frances Lombard—known as Frankie—has found her paradise. The 400 acres of the Lombard apple orchard are where she plans to be for the rest of her life. Like her father, she will quiet the wind and “outwit a storm”; she will make hay; she will grow apples; she will marry her brother William and together “carry on the business” forever.
Review by

It’s sometimes amazing to realize how an obsession for sports can take over a life. In John L. Parker Jr.’s amiable new work, a prequel to his 1978 bestseller Once a Runner, Quenton Cassidy, teenage native of Citrus City, Florida, is so wrapped up in his athletic pursuits that the great upheavals of his era—the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, civil rights and the arrival of the Beatles for goodness’ sake!—stick in his mind the way anything sticks to Teflon. 

Torn between track and basketball, for which he’s just a bit shorter than he should be, Cassidy (as he’s called) frets over his running time, his technique, rankings, 220s, 440s and 880s. He does so even as his classmates brace themselves for the end of the world as delivered by a barrage of Russian nukes. When one of his friends is implicated in a murder, Cassidy does think of skipping a meet for a hot minute—but only for a hot minute. 

Still, for all his tunnel vision, Cassidy is a lovely young man. He is popular even among his athletic rivals. He is a good and dutiful son, and would be a sweet boyfriend if he were interested in dating. He attempts to be thorough even in his non-sporting activities and calls everyone “sir.” The only reason his “ma’ams” are few and far between is because there are about four women in the book who have brief speaking roles. This is a man’s man’s man’s world.

To his credit, Parker surrounds his hero with some mighty interesting men, some of whom are not what they ought to be (see above). The most interesting of these is the gigantic Trapper Nelson, animal lover and sometime poacher who lives rough in the swamp; he’s south Florida’s answer to Hagrid. The boys Cassidy plays with and against are also stout fellows. The one sour note is a coach so convinced of his own rightness that he’s willing to cut the athletically brilliant Cassidy from his team for even respectfully disagreeing with him.

Racing the Rain is a cornucopia for folks who are as track-and-field crazy as Cassidy. It’s also a good-hearted, good-natured book for the rest of us.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

It’s sometimes amazing to realize how an obsession for sports can take over a life. In John L. Parker Jr.’s amiable new work, a prequel to his 1978 bestseller Once a Runner, Quenton Cassidy, teenage native of Citrus City, Florida, is so wrapped up in his athletic pursuits that the great upheavals of his era—the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, civil rights and the arrival of the Beatles for goodness’ sake!—stick in his mind the way anything sticks to Teflon.

The stories we consume in youth—whether through books, television, film or song—often become the defining narrative of our lives. A shared affection draws people together, and a mention of a character or a trace of a lyric can immediately transport us to another place and time.

Throughout In Some Other World, Maybe, the driving force is the 1992 movie adaptation of the comic books Eons & Empires. Adam is dead set on getting out of his small Florida hometown, and seeing the movie with a longtime crush is one of the last memories he’ll make there. In Cincinnati, Sharon skips school so she can see the film alone—twice. Phoebe and Ollie make a trip to their suburban Chicago movie theater on their first date, and all of their friends join in. Each trip is, on the surface, a typical high school vignette.

But in the two decades that follow, Eons & Empires remains a benchmark for Adam, Sharon and Phoebe—and it becomes the tie that draws them together.

With the numerous ways the characters’ stories interact and nearly intersect, the story could have easily turned hokey. But in Shari Goldhagen’s skilled narrative, these twists reveal themselves naturally in a sort of fictional six degrees of separation.

Much history occurs during the course of In Some Other World, Maybe—with international news events cluing the reader in to how time has progressed—but the outside world isn’t really the point. As the characters grow from teenagers to confused college-age kids to more established adults, Eons & Empires serves as a touchstone for each. The result is a compelling tale that leaves readers pondering what is and, had life taken another direction, what could have been.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The stories we consume in youth—whether through books, television, film or song—often become the defining narrative of our lives. A shared affection draws people together, and a mention of a character or a trace of a lyric can immediately transport us to another place and time.
Interview by

"It was a terrible time for me,” author Lindsey Lee Johnson remembers. “Everything was just falling apart.” She’s talking about 2008, when her college teaching contract wasn’t renewed because of the economic crash, her boyfriend left and she could no longer afford the home she’d just bought.

To try to put the pieces back together, Johnson moved in with her parents in Marin County, California, and began tutoring high school students at a learning center. 

Her first assignment was teaching SAT math, hardly her favorite subject, and her initial encounters with students were disappointing. “At first I just thought, oh my God, the way they talk, the constant foul language,” Johnson recalls. “It was loud, and I thought, why should I even be doing this? What happened to my life?”

Fortunately, what seemed like a catastrophe ultimately ended up being one of the happiest times in Johnson’s life. As she got to know the students, she enjoyed the new job, ended up marrying a fellow tutor and got the inspiration she needed to write her debut novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, a page-turning high school drama that’s being compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep

Speaking by phone from her home near Los Angeles, Johnson says she didn’t read Prep or many other books about high school until after finishing her manuscript (at which time she found Prep to be “fabulous”). 

“One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that I saw a need for it,” she says. “I saw a place for a literary vision of contemporary high school and teenagers that was written for adults. I didn’t see much of that in bookstores.”

The seeds of Johnson’s story were sown as she spent hours listening to hundreds of teenage students. “The experience helped me out of my own head, to stop making everything about me, and actually invest my time in other people, just listening to these kids and really developing compassion and empathy for them—and remembering what it felt like when I was that age,” she says.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth follows an ensemble cast of characters, beginning with an incident in their eighth-grade year: A boy commits suicide after a love note he writes is revealed on Facebook, prompting merciless ridicule and bullying. The tragedy causes reverberations that linger throughout these characters’ high school years. Set in Marin County, the novel chronicles a wealthy world that Johnson knows intimately, although she fictionalized the high school she once attended. She based her characters on a variety of student archetypes, including Ryan the jock, Cally the hippie, Elisabeth the beautiful girl and Damon the delinquent, but with a twist.

Growing up, Johnson felt that such categories were too limiting, noting that she was both a cheerleader and a nerd. “For each character, I thought of the archetype, and then I gave them a problem,” she notes. Overachieving Abigail, for instance, suffers from loneliness and takes a particularly destructive path with a male teacher to solve her dilemma. “I remember that feeling of being a teenage girl and going through that awkward phase,” Johnson says, “and feeling unappealing and unattractive. You know, kind of unseen.”

Although Johnson didn’t have to contend with the pressures of social media during her high school years, she vividly remembers a spiral-bound notebook that she and her friends circulated, writing notes to and about one another. “I don’t remember what we wrote in these things,” she muses, “but I’m sure it wasn’t lovely and nice. I’m sure it was a lot of gossip.”

"I don’t think kids today are any more cruel. It’s just that everything they do is public. And so the stakes are raised; the impacts are greater and more far-reaching."

She adds: “The thing is, those notebooks were private, so their ability to hurt was limited. . . . I don’t think kids today are any more cruel. It’s just that everything they do is public. And so the stakes are raised; the impacts are greater and more far-reaching.”

Johnson acknowledges that several of her characters make what she calls “questionable decisions,” and those are the personalities that intrigue her. “As a writer I’m very interested in characters who are not obviously likable and who do things that make us cringe, because I’m interested in the psychology behind it—and in trying to find empathy even for people I don’t want to empathize with. I think that’s an important job that fiction does in our world.”

She quickly adds a crucial qualifier: “The kids in the book feel 100 percent real to me, but I don’t want people to think that these are real kids that I tutored.”

Their dilemmas feel authentic, including struggles with grades, dating, sex, drinking and drugs. And when Johnson finished writing these teenagers’ stories, she added yet another layer, inserting several chapters from the point of view of a newly hired young teacher, Molly Nicoll, who becomes overly invested in her students’ struggles.

“I empathize with Molly in particular,” Johnson says. “Being a young teacher is a struggle, especially when you’re not that much older than the students. You want to help them, but you have to walk the line of how invested and involved you get.”

Happily, Johnson’s own teaching and tutoring experiences were productive for both her and her students. “I’ve always wanted to be a novelist,” she says. She wrote her first book at age 24, but says it was so terrible that she “sat down and wrote another one.” The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is her first published novel, but her “fourth or fifth manuscript.” 

“There’s no reason why I should have kept going,” she says with amusement, “except that it was the only thing that I cared about.”

 

This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

"It was a terrible time for me,” author Lindsey Lee Johnson remembers. “Everything was just falling apart.” She’s talking about 2008, when her college teaching contract wasn’t renewed because of the economic crash, her boyfriend left and she could no longer afford the home she’d just bought.
Interview by

Ann Beattie discusses her new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, about a group of millennial boarding school students who grow up in the shadow of 9/11—and under the wing of a manipulative teacher.

Ben and his friends at Bailey Academy reminded me of orphans in many ways, as they all have dysfunctional families or have lost a parent to cancer, or in Jaspar’s case, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Overall, the theme of loss and abandonment is overwhelming. Are you sympathetic to these kids?
I’m an only child and was shy and pretty much a loner until I got to college. Your calling them “orphans in many ways” certainly gets the sense of it, though that way of looking at things might be surprising to them. Kids tend to accept as reality the world around them, including their parents—so it was an interesting age at which to begin the book. They might have technically left home, being at Bailey, but their parents don’t seem uncaring to me, just adults muddling along, at least the majority of them trying to do their best. And then all of this is eclipsed by an event of a different magnitude, of course, which changes not just their families, but the world they live in.

As a writer, I’ve visited many schools. One of my former students teaches at an all-boys school, and when I was having dinner with the students there, one of the teenagers told me that he was at the school because his father had remarried and didn’t have time for him. He said it bluntly and very matter-of-factly, and of course there was nothing I could say because he certainly might have been right. That stuck with me. As a writer, though, I’d also have to try to understand the situation from the POV of the parent. But you know what? I didn’t want to, nor did I think of myself as a writer in that moment.

We learn that Ben was sent to a school for troubled kids with mental health issues, although he was pretty much a normal teenager. Did this odd placement by his father end up being a benefit or a disadvantage?
Well, Ben was overpowered, or outmaneuvered, or however you want to say it. He does sometimes speak as though he was a real participant in the decision (for example, asking a friend what kid wants to live with his parents in a boring place, rather than being away from home), but either some or all of that is bravado. As the reader learns, his father is not at all acting merely on his son’s behalf. I wasn’t trying to have the real circumstances of Ben’s being at Bailey be ambiguous; rather, some truth—because it’s there, somewhere—has been withheld, at least according to LaVerdere. The wrinkle is whether LaVerdere has finally been worn down by the adult Ben, or whether he, himself, is warping the truth. Who’s the authority figure—merely the person who grabs authority?

I kept holding my breath, fearing that Pierre LaVerdere was going to sexually abuse one of his students, most likely Ben. But it never happens, and LaVerdere’s abuse is primarily his power over his young students. Do you view LaVerdere as evil, or do you see him as simply an arrogant academic who enjoyed his role as Master of the Universe to the kids at Bailey?
I assumed, because of the world we live in, that the reader would assume LaVerdere quite probably abused Ben and/or others. But no: Sometimes even terrible scenarios are trumped by different—and more insidious—forms of abuse.

There is a scene early in your novel when I sensed this tension between “town and gown,” when Ben and LouLou hitch their ill-fated ride to a concert. As a reader, I was terrified this guy was going to turn out to be an ax murderer, but it all ended harmlessly enough. But it seemed to me that the driver might have been a symbol of the socioeconomic divide between the wealth and advantages of the kids at Bailey and the poverty and lack of opportunity for folks in the surrounding rural areas. Was that your intention?
Right. (Though I wouldn’t say that there was no harm done; clearly, psychic damage was done, and LouLou ends up in tears, even in the moment.) Again, this lurking danger is related to your question above, and (ultimately) to reversed expectations. You’re right in your reading: Jasper is calculating; he writes a paper about trees and how they’re taken care of in the poor community outside Bailey where and when they become damaged, vs. the trees on the grounds of the school. Binnie and Tessie also figure in. There are many dynamics involving the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

I noticed that Ben’s friends, unlike him, have some very unusual names: Arly, LouLou and Aqua, for example. In some ways, these kids seemed like pets to their families, but I’m not sure if that was your intent. Do you see these millennials from wealthy families in some regard like “trophies” for their baby boomer parents?
I like the question, and sometimes things emerge that aren’t the direct intention of the writer, but I wouldn’t say they’re trophies. However painful, there seem to be real connections between Jasper and both of his parents, and Akemi’s father (while we sense not in agreement with his wife) wants his daughter to have more age-appropriate experiences, rather than starting college at such a young age. Elin, however neurotic, is on her stepson’s side. These people have what’s synonymous with real life, to me: real limitations.

A prevailing theme of cultural touchstones—the Kennedy assassination and 9/11—is present throughout your book. When you were writing your novel, did you see these events as bookends? And do you see the conclusion of the Camelot years and the post-9/11 early aughts as having similarities in terms of the end of innocence?
“Camelot” turns out not to have been exactly Camelot. I’m not sure “innocent” is the word I’d pick. Maybe militantly oblivious, in many cases, and, as a nation, very self-congratulatory. I’m glad you notice the bracketing: presidential portraits that will be recontextualized by the reader, even in the moment of reading. In a larger sense, the novel covertly and repeatedly questions the relationship between how a thing looks (or how we speak of it, whether “Camelot” or “The Peaceable Kingdom”) and what it really is or was.

The village of Rhinebeck is presented as a Hudson Valley utopia for the wealthy on the surface, with a litany of alcohol-fueled sorrows and secrets unfolding behind closed doors. What was your motivation in creating this picture of upper-middle class despair? And will Ben ever find happiness?
Any time you go behind closed doors, anywhere, you find (among other things) secrets unfolding, sorrow, and, right—often alcohol. But obviously, writers won’t get anywhere if they stop just because a door is closed. As for Ben finding happiness, he has found some things—things of value—by the time the novel concludes, hasn’t he?

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck.

Author photo by Lincoln Perry

Ann Beattie discusses her new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, about a group of millennial boarding school students who grow up in the shadow of 9/11—and under the wing of a manipulative teacher.

Interview by

What inspired Dear Edward?
It started with my obsession with a real plane crash from 2010. A commercial flight from South Africa to London—filled with mostly Dutch passengers on their way home from vacation—crashed in Libya, and everyone on the flight died except for one 9-year-old boy named Ruben van Assouw. Ruben was found still strapped in to his seat about a half-mile away from the wreckage. Investigators speculated that he’d been sitting near the fuselage and had been ejected from the plane. He had a badly broken leg and a punctured lung but was otherwise fine. Everyone else, including his parents and brother, died immediately. I couldn’t read enough about this story, and I knew fairly quickly that I was going to have to write my way into understanding how this little boy could possibly walk away from this crash, from the loss of his entire family, and find a way to not only survive but live.

“I couldn’t read enough about this story, and I knew fairly quickly that I was going to have to write my way into understanding how this little boy could possibly walk away from this crash, from the loss of his entire family, and find a way to not only survive but live.”

What is your relationship with flying?
After doing a lot of research on worst-case scenarios and spending eight years in the heads of characters on a plane that was doomed to crash, I don’t love it. But I do fly, and in promoting this book, I’ve flown more in the past six months than I have in years. When I’m in the air, I feel hyperaware that I’m at 35,000 feet in a metal bus. And half of me thinks that fact is AMAZING, and I’m in awe of the ingenuity of my fellow, smarter humans for inventing a miracle. The other half of me is anxious, though, because I’m at 35,000 feet in a metal bus.

We know at the very beginning that the plane crashes and Edward is the only survivor. Yet we live with the characters on the plane through the whole novel. Was it challenging to pull off that structure?
I knew that the two storylines had to sit side by side, in part because I thought that if something this absolutely devastating happened to a person, he would carry it with him for the rest of his life. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether he was able to set that trauma down, it would be a matter of learning to bear its weight. That’s why the two storylines alternate and have (roughly) equal space in the novel. And perhaps because I saw the structure as inevitable, I found it to be a creative positive. I had two arcs I was following at all times, and that kept me on track.


Read our review of Dear Edward.


Why did you choose the passenger characters that you did—the curmudgeonly billionaire, the gay soldier, the libidinous flight attendant and particularly Florida, who remembered past lives?
When I was beginning to think about this book, my husband suggested I spend a year taking notes, reading and researching before I actually started writing. Writing sentences is perhaps my favorite thing to do, and I am very good at making things up. However, writing is more intuitive than cerebral for me; in my prior novel, A Good Hard Look, I had struggled with the plot and struggled to pull the narrative into the shape of a book. I ended up having to cut hundreds of pages I’d written. My husband’s suggestion was a reaction to watching me write that novel; he thought I should engage my problem-solving brain before I began to make up stories willy-nilly.

I found that year of note-taking frustrating, because I couldn’t write pretty sentences, but he was right. A lot of my planning that year went into the characters on the plane. It was an exciting opportunity to choose who I wanted to delve into, because every kind of person flies. I wanted the characters to be very different from each other, and once I sketched out the idea for a character, I would read a book or two in research for him or her. For Crispin Cox—the curmudgeonly billionaire—I read Jack Welch’s Jack: Straight From the Gut (which is unintentionally hilarious). I came up with Florida after reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, inspired by how Gaiman disregards boundaries like time. For Benjamin, the soldier, I read War by Sebastian Junger and also spoke to a friend who is a captain in the army.

You focused on the small details in Edward’s life during his recovery—his wanting to leave the house for nighttime walks and not wanting to sleep upstairs. Tell us about this portrayal of his trauma.
Edward’s first year after the crash, which takes place in part one of the book, felt very clear to me from the start. His focus was on physical survival: Could he eat, could he walk, could he sleep? After his first year, though, I struggled with his chapters. The possibilities for his forward motion felt infinite, and in fact there’s a version of the book in which we see Edward’s entire life, ending when he’s about 75 years old. Eventually (like, after five years of writing), I decided to align his recovery with the psychological framework known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy is shaped like a triangle, and the bottom, largest “need” is for survival, shelter, food and water. It narrows gradually through the need for safety, then love and belonging, then esteem and finally self-actualization. I used these stages as reference points as Edward grew, grieved and healed.

Edward is filled with decency. He refuses to cash the check that’s given to him, he’s horrified when Shay’s mother suspects he’s been sleeping with her daughter, and he rejects some undoubtedly excellent universities because he wants to remain with Shay. His moral compass is unwavering. Were there other versions of Edward in which he wasn’t so upstanding?
Hm. No. There were other versions in which Edward was more boring, though. I wanted to write a book about kind people maneuvering a terrible situation. I had no interest in Edward being immoral, and he felt so soaked in sadness that true anger or rage felt inaccessible from inside him. In the weakest/worst drafts, Edward was too muted, though, and too passive. I had to fight to bring him to his own surface, in order for him to show up in his new life.

You edit a literary magazine and teach creative writing as well as having your own family. How does your writing process work within that dynamic? Do you write at the same place every day for a certain amount of time, or cram it in when you get the time?
Before I had children, I had routines and word count goals and strong preferences for my work environment—in the morning, on my couch, in an empty apartment—but that ended with the birth of my older son. For the past 12 years I’ve written whenever and wherever possible, which I’ve come to feel fine about. It feels like another layer of acceptance that writing is part of me, as elemental as brushing my teeth, and if I only have five minutes to write after brushing my teeth on a given day, I say thank you and take it.

Author photo © Dan Wilde

Ann Napolitano discusses her tenderhearted novel about a boy who’s the only survivor of a devastating plane crash.
Review by

In modern-day New York City, a trans boy in his 20s is coming to a realization about himself. For the past five years, he’s been dealing with the immense grief of losing his mother, a passionate ornithologist. Now he lives with and cares for his grandmother, who emigrated from Syria decades before. American by birth and with dark skin, he struggles to find a place where he feels fully alive and welcome. He hasn’t been able to put his art degree to professional use since his mother died, killed by the hate-crime fire that he escaped, but he has taken to painting clandestine murals of birds on the only building left of what used to be Little Syria in Lower Manhattan.

One night, he enters the rundown former tenement building and finds the journal of a mysterious Syrian artist named Laila Z, a painter of birds, who disappeared years ago. The more he reads, the more he realizes that Laila’s story and his family’s story have many overlaps, and it’s possible that neither story is over yet.

Birds are the major motif in The Thirty Names of Night, so much as to often feel overwhelming. The birds take on magical realism elements as they swarm the city, die en masse and disappear altogether. Birds also function as a way for the protagonist to divert his attention from his immediate surroundings, leading the reader back into the recesses of his memories, where his mother is still alive. This premise is strong and promises a bit of a mystery, though his interior experiences are so vivid that they tend to overshadow the plot.

The book’s strongest parts are the protagonist’s experiences of body dysphoria and how he comes to understand himself as trans. These are delivered in a way that is both incredibly specific and lyrically abstract. Author Zeyn Joukhadar excels at writing the emotional, physical and spiritual experiences of a young trans person.

In modern-day New York City, a trans boy in his 20s is coming to a realization about himself. For the past five years, he’s been dealing with the immense grief of losing his mother. American by birth and with dark skin, he struggles to find a place where he feels fully alive and welcome.
Review by

Ivy Lin is no monster, but sometimes, when sufficiently motivated, she does monstrous things. She doesn’t just covet what others have; she is consumed by cravings for wealth, status and a boyfriend whose all-American (in her mind, this means white and patrician) good looks are nothing like her own.

In Chinese American author Susie Yang’s debut novel, we meet Ivy at several different stages of life. She grows from fretful child to moody and self-loathing junior grifter. By her late 20s, she has evolved into a smooth, sophisticated adult, determined to attain her American ideal by any means necessary. Her looks and circumstances have improved, but her desperation never fully evaporates.

Rather than a traditional thriller, White Ivy is a slow-burning, intricate psychological character study and coming-of-age story full of family secrets and foreboding. Ivy isn’t an outsider simply because she’s an immigrant; she stands out even within her own deeply dysfunctional Chinese American family. Their treatment of Ivy exposes the minor harms of everyday life—the tiny slights and subtle hits that leave marks that never fade. Alienation appears to be Ivy’s natural state, and this is never more clear than when she is closest to getting what wants: popularity, respect and, most of all, a romantic relationship with her childhood crush, the beautiful scion of an old-money New England family.

Despite the book’s inevitable ending, Yang allows her main character ambiguity. Ivy is strangely, uncomfortably relatable and ultimately unknowable. Her transgressions are mostly minor, yet her sometimes vicious inner monologue shows that she has the capacity for far harsher misdeeds. Perhaps that is the point—that the dividing line between ordinary wrongs and acts of true evil is razor thin. So when signs start to suggest that something very bad is about to happen, the violent act is all the more jarring.

Ivy brings to mind other desperate, liminal characters, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Readers will find a lot to appreciate in this sharply observed psychological thriller.

Ivy Lin is no monster, but sometimes, when sufficiently motivated, she does monstrous things. She doesn’t just covet what others have; she is consumed by cravings for wealth, status and a boyfriend whose all-American (in her mind, this means white and patrician) good looks are nothing like her own.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

Author Interviews

Recent Features