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In her first novel since her National Book Award-longlisted debut, The Leavers, Lisa Ko explores memory, art, technology and consumption through the eyes of three childhood best friends. Jackie, Ellen and Giselle meet at Chinese school in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s. Though they come from different backgrounds and have divergent interests, they’re drawn together by a shared desire to make something more—or different—of their lives. Moving from the dot-com era and early tech culture of the 1990s to a highly militarized vision of New York City in the 2040s, Memory Piece traces the ways the three women’s lives converge and diverge.

Giselle turns to art, launching her career with an experimental performance piece in which she lives for a year in a hidden room in a mall. As she becomes more immersed in the art world, she begins to question her motives and desires, floundering through a life that is sometimes more display than substance. Jackie gets caught up in the early days of the internet, working for a tech startup by day and developing her own radical projects by night. Ellen becomes an activist in college, and devotes her life to community organizing and fighting against the gentrification threatening her home. 

The novel’s three distinct sections drive home just how differently Giselle, Jackie and Ellen engage with and react to the world—and each other—as everything changes around them. Jackie’s section is full of frenetic energy, while Giselle’s is dreamy and quiet: Her voice comes through at a remove, as if she’s narrating from a distance. Ellen’s section is poignant with loss and nostalgia. Throughout, Ko’s prose is beautiful and sharp, and her ability to shapeshift through a range of tones makes the novel a pleasure to read.

A bittersweet wistfulness permeates the whole of Memory Piece. Though Giselle, Jackie and Ellen remain important to one another throughout their lives, there is a separateness to each of the novel’s sections that gives it a meandering and melancholy feel. This is a compelling, often chilling and beautifully observant novel about what connects us to, and disconnects us from, each other.

Moving from the dot com era and early tech culture of the 1990s to a highly militarized vision of New York City in the 2040s, Memory Piece traces the ways three women’s lives converge and diverge.
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Place, purpose and self-worth are front and center in Sheila Sundar’s debut novel, Habitations, about a young girl’s journey into womanhood. We begin in the mid-’90s in South India and follow Sundar’s protagonist, Vega Gopalan, through a childhood marked by the devastating loss of her younger sister, her developing interest in sociology, her sexual longings and experiments, and the overall angst of being young.

When a scholarship takes Vega to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City, the comforts and privileges she knew as an upper-caste Brahmin dissolve into the confusing and often lonely experience of being an immigrant student in the U.S. Meek and naive, however, she is not. Vega’s intelligence, humor and curiosity keep her open and engaged with new experiences.

Reflections on race, sex, caste and social norms remain the focus as Vega navigates the labyrinth of her immigrant community, academia, friendships, lovers and, eventually, a marriage not for love, but for a precious green card that will allow her to live in the U.S. and pursue her academic interests. Career developments and the birth of her daughter, Asha, unfold new challenges for Vega. But through these challenges, she becomes a surer, more hopeful woman ready to live life on her own terms.

There are many reasons to love this novel. Vega’s journey will resonate in one way or another with anyone who has suffered loss or struggled with self-doubt. Sundar’s supporting characters and rich depiction of immigrant life round out Vega’s story, no doubt drawing on the author’s own experience growing up in the ’90s as the child of Indian immigrants to the U.S. Best of all, the novel speaks to the human experience of how the burdens we carry eventually come to define our strengths.

Insightful and hopeful, Habitations delivers on all fronts.

Insightful and hopeful, Sheila Sundar’s debut novel Habitations follows a young Indian American woman’s experiences with academia, immigrant community, marriage and motherhood.

As with her first novel, Everyone in this Room Will Someday Be Dead, Emily Austin’s Interesting Facts About Space features a quirky main character in Enid, who loves listening to true-crime podcasts to calm down. “I hate being startled,” she notes. “I like my podcasts, horror movies, and ghost stories that I can pause and rewind. I handle fear sort of like a workhorse. I could charge bravely into a planned battle, take in the sights of bombs and corpses, but I would still be spooked by an unanticipated barn rat.” When we first meet her, Enid is listening to a particularly grisly podcast while baking a gender reveal cake for her pregnant half sister Edna. Into this moment comes a stranger who’s furious at Enid, and the exchange unfolds in such an unexpected way that I laughed out loud more than once.

Enid is half-deaf, neurodivergent and gay. She’s also pretty sure that she’s a terrible person. In short vignettes, Enid narrates her attempts to navigate an uncomfortable new relationship with her half sisters and keep tabs on her depressed mom. With the help of her best friend Vin, Enid’s also trying to figure out what’s causing her panic attacks, and why someone seems to be stalking her. Enid and Vin work at the Space Agency, managing information, from which Enid’s gathered a vast array of random facts about outer space, which she shares with her mother in attempts at connection.

The novel’s comic scenes of misunderstandings and non sequiturs are interspersed with Enid’s musings about herself, her high-school years and her parents. Enid may be in her 20s, but Interesting Facts About Space is a coming-of-age story. Balancing the comic and the dark, the novel slowly reveals the essential sadness in Enid’s past that she can’t let herself see, and though occasionally the novel’s first-person, present-tense voice can feel a little claustrophobic, that’s a small quibble. In a lesser writer’s hands, Enid’s quirky traits could feel constructed, but Austin makes Enid’s vulnerable voice and deep thoughts feel brave, heartbreaking and true.

Emily Austin’s quirky main character, Enid, is trying to figure out what’s causing her panic attacks, and why someone seems to be stalking her. She’s also pretty sure that she’s a terrible person.
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One of the first things I assumed when I started reading Rebecca K Reilly’s sad, hilarious novel Greta & Valdin was that the titular Maori and Russian New Zealander siblings must be teenagers. They are certainly adolescently self-absorbed and lovelorn, Valdin overcome with heartache over his ex-boyfriend and Greta harboring a puppy-dog crush on her tutor. It’s a mild shock to learn that Valdin is about 30 years old and a former physicist turned comedian, while Greta is five years younger, working on a useless master’s thesis and perpetually broke.

Greta and Valdin live together, and though they won’t acknowledge it, depend on one another. She’s hurt when he flies off to Buenos Aires and neglects to stay in touch with her. When Valdin comes back, he wonders what sort of flowers to buy along with a bag of limes to soothe Greta’s feelings. Their family members—Russian father Linsh, Maori mother Beatrice and older brother Casper (not his real name, but a name bestowed at birth because he was so pale)—take the siblings’ loopiness in stride. After all, they’re a fairly loopy bunch themselves.

Reilly writes with a dry, sly humor and great love for her characters. She brilliantly builds the world of the siblings bit by bit, like a jigsaw puzzle. Here’s a mention of a popular drink, a song, a snippet of another language or dialect, the names of local shops and bars, the specific clothing people wear: All combine not just to make the world feel real and lived in, but also to explain why Greta and Valdin are the way they are. Everyone in their circle acts like they’re 16. Why shouldn’t Greta and Valdin follow suit?

Ultimately joyous and life-affirming, Greta & Valdin is Reilly’s first novel. This reviewer is eager to see what she does next.

Rebecca K Reilly writes with a dry, sly humor and great love for her characters, building the world of siblings Greta and Valdin bit by bit, like a jigsaw puzzle.
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Set in a dreamy coastal town, Inci Atrek’s debut novel, Holiday Country, is about three generations of women learning to make peace with the choices they have made. Narrated by the youngest of them all, Ada, the story is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is about lost opportunities and how far one may be tempted to go to recover them.

Things are just as you might imagine in the tiny seaside town of Ayvalik off the Aegean coast of Turkey—sleepy, quiet and slow-moving. Here, time is dictated not by the ticking of a clock but rather by the movement of the sun and tide. Oleander bushes line the pathways connecting the villas, the market and the two lone restaurants (aptly named the Big Club and the Small Club), and gossiping is as crucial a part of the lives of Ayvalik’s mostly retired residents as swimming, eating and sleeping. 


19-year-old Ada has spent all her summer holidays here since she was 4. Ada and her mother Meltem’s annual pilgrimage to Ayvalik from San Francisco has been a consistent but mostly unsuccessful attempt to please Ada’s opinionated and controlling grandma, Mukadder, who never quite forgave Meltem for marrying an American and moving away. 

This summer, however, there is uncertainty in the air for Ada, who has not only discovered that her father has been cheating on her mother, but is also unsure of how her impending adult life will change her summer getaways to Ayvalik and, by extension, her connection to her Turkish heritage and her sense of who she really is. Amidst this angst, Ada meets a handsome older man named Levent. Soon discovering he has a romantic past with her mother, she goes on a mission to get them back together again, while unintentionally falling for him herself.

With a setting that comes through beautifully in Atrek’s writing, Holiday Country is tender, well-written and filled with just the right amount of twists and turns.

Holiday Country is a tender coming-of-age story about lost opportunities set in the tiny seaside town of Ayvalik off the Aegean coast of Turkey.

Perhaps the most commonly touted piece of advice for writers is to write what you know. It’s clear that Shubnum Khan has taken this counsel to heart with this dazzling novel (her first published in the U.S.), spinning a magical and richly atmospheric gothic coming-of-age tale set in Durban, South Africa, the same city the author herself calls home.

In a piece for the literary journal Portside Review, Khan described her hometown as “a place where people leave.” Slow and stuck in time, the coastal city is somewhere to go when one wants to forget and be forgotten in turn. Durban is the perfect backdrop for Akbar Manzil, the gothic mansion at the heart of The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years. Once a palace of wonders and luxury for an extremely wealthy family, Akbar Manzil is now a moribund manse haphazardly converted into apartments and home to a ragtag group of misfit tenants. Amongst the complex’s denizens are teenager Sana and her widowed father, newly arrived and looking to start fresh after a terrible loss. Whereas the other residents drift through the grounds blind and incurious to their home’s quirks and mysteries, Sana resists the soporific effects of the estate and delves into abandoned corridors and locked rooms, determined to shine a light upon the shadows, secrets and spirits that lurk within. But Sana’s relentless pursuit of the past is not without consequence. Her discovery of a star-crossed romance that took place many years earlier agitates a grieving djinn and threatens to throw the lives of Akbar Manzil’s present-day residents into chaos.

Cinematic in scope and rendered in redolent prose, The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years is a deeply immersive and inventive exploration of the many facets of love, loneliness and grief. Khan’s descriptions of Durban ground the story despite its fantastical elements, making the novel all the more compelling. Fueled by its vivid details, bewitching setting and a colorful cast of characters (including the house Akbar Manzil itself), this engrossing read acts as a potent reminder that the past does not merely hold the power to hurt us, but also to heal us.

Fueled by its vivid details and colorful cast of characters, The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years is a richly atmospheric gothic coming-of-age tale set in Durban, South Africa.

Our Top 10 books of December 2023

This month’s top titles include a chilling historical mystery from Ariel Lawhon and a ripsnorting true crime collection from Douglas Preston.
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Book jacket image for The Ferris Wheel by Tu¨lin Kozikoglu

A beautifully profound yet subtle story about refugees and global connection, The Ferris Wheel engages its text and illustrations in conversation, capturing the essence of

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Book jacket image for Gwen & Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

Lex Croucher offers readers a quirky, queer Arthurian remix in which lighthearted, entertaining banter alternates with political machinations and intense battlefield scenes.

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Book jacket image for Happy by Celina Baljeet Basra

Happy’s unexpected climax is handled so masterfully that it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The humanity underpinning this story will speak to anyone with a heart

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Book jacket image for The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

Atmospheric, unique and elegantly written, The Frozen River will satisfy mystery lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts alike.

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Book jacket image for The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell

Charlotte Vassell’s blisteringly funny The Other Half is a murder mystery written a la Kingsley Amis.

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Book jacket image for Here in the Dark by Alexis Soloski

Theater critic Alexis Soloski’s debut thriller, Here in the Dark, is flawless from curtain up to curtain call.

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Book jacket image for Chasing Bright Medusas by Benjamin Taylor

Chasing Bright Medusas is an inspired biography of Willa Cather’s life and work that conveys the author’s complexity with affection and admiration.

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Book jacket image for Sonic Life by Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore’s long-awaited memoir offers a prismatic view on the sonic democracy that was Sonic Youth.

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Book jacket image for Gator Country by Rebecca Renner

Rebecca Renner’s Gator Country follows an undercover mission to expose alligator poachers in the Everglades, revealing the scraggly splendor of the region’s inhabitants.

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Book jacket image for The Lost Tomb by Douglas Preston

A haunting compendium of Douglas Preston’s true crime tales, The Lost Tomb delves into the shadowy uncertainty cloaking things that resist being brought to light.

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This month’s top titles include a chilling historical mystery from Ariel Lawhon and a ripsnorting true crime collection from Douglas Preston.
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Happy Singh Soni is not, well, happy: He is longing for more. And, given his condition at the outset of Celina Baljeet Basra’s debut novel, why wouldn’t he be? His home, a Punjabi farming village that is being steadily encroached upon by an expanding theme park, is no place for a young man with ambition—of which, make no mistake, Happy has a bountiful platter.

Happy’s primary objective is to travel to Europe and become something befitting his expansive and flighty imagination: perhaps a movie star or a playwright. Constantly updating his résumé, he envisions his future with “a lustrous, luxurious bathroom made entirely of Makrana marble.” This makes him an easy mark for those only too eager to shepherd the dreamer to the Europe of his imagination . . . for a price.

In a very timely manner, Basra makes a potent point about how undocumented workers are frequently abused both economically and physically. After a harrowing journey, Happy finds himself in Italy, working at a radish farm as an undocumented immigrant. His proximity to the Italian film studio Cinecitta makes his goal of stardom feel tantalizingly close, yet it remains every bit as remote as it was in India. He puts on a brave face even while the gap between his dreams and his daily life becomes a virtually unbridgeable chasm.

Although Happy starts out at a leisurely pace, this is just a matter of Basra taking the time to build Happy’s complex character layer upon layer, encouraging the reader to root for her quixotic protagonist. As his life, somewhat predictably, falls short of his lofty ambitions, she manages to keep Happy true to his ideals, rather than having him succumb to cynicism or bitterness.

The book’s unexpected climax is handled so masterfully that it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The humanity underpinning Happy’s story will speak to anyone with a heart and a dream.

Happy’s unexpected climax is handled so masterfully that it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The humanity underpinning this story will speak to anyone with a heart and a dream.
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After receiving widespread acclaim for the autobiographical Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes, Mexican writer Jazmina Barrera delivers a dreamy yet compelling exploration of female friendship and coming of age in her fiction debut.

In Cross-Stitch, Mila finds her world shattered when she gets word that a childhood friend, Citlali, has drowned in the sea in Senegal. Few details are available about this shocking news, leading Mila to wonder if the death was an accident or suicide. As she organizes Citlali’s memorial service, Mila begins to sift through memories of Citlali and their mutual friend Dalia, whom she hasn’t seen for years. Sewing has long been central to Mila’s life—in fact, she’s just published a book about embroidery—and the three girls often sewed together. Now Mila muses, “I haven’t worked out how to sew and think about Citlali without pricking my fingers.”

Mila and Citlali had a middle school teacher who pointed out “that the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ had the same root: the Latin texere, to weave, braid, or compose.” Throughout Cross-Stitch, Barrera weaves, braids and composes the story of the trio’s friendship into a plot so convincing and emotionally intelligent that readers may mistake it for a memoir, while seamlessly incorporating intriguing tidbits about the history of embroidery. The notes cover topics ranging from embroidery in ancient Egypt to a recent global campaign using crochet to raise awareness of the destruction of coral reefs due to climate change. Barrera’s prose is insightful and precise, and MacSweeney’s translation conveys a natural, conversational rhythm.

Barrera aptly writes: “While techniques for healing wounds have evolved over the centuries, a needle and thread are still commonly used. Something in the tissues, in the weaves . . . may offer answers to how other wounds can be healed.” As Mila desperately tries to make sense of both their shared history and Citlali’s loss, Cross-Stitch draws readers into the many strands uniting Mila, Dalia and Citlali.

Jazmina Barrera weaves, braids and composes this story of a trio of friends into a plot so convincing and emotionally intelligent that readers may mistake it for a memoir.
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In Naoise Dolan’s addictive, rubbernecking disaster story about love, engaged 20-something Dubliners wrestle with intimacy and commitment as their wedding day approaches.

Oxford-educated Luke’s most striking characteristic is his obvious ambivalence. His fiancée Celine’s most singular trait, apart from being a dedicated, almost single-minded, internationally recognized concert pianist, is her willful denial in the face of Luke’s transgressions. Even Luke marvels that she puts up with him: “​​You’d think Celine would have seen my early diffidence as a warning. Whatever about the unanswered texts, me literally saying ‘I don’t want a relationship’ is, perhaps, a red flag. But Celine has never met sheet music she couldn’t crack.”

This dynamic is maddening at first. But, like reality television, relational trainwrecks are compelling. The first sign of trouble is that Luke and Celine’s engagement begins, excruciatingly, with what feels like a shrug rather than a decision. Discussing their hypothetical relationship limits, Luke confesses, “if I thought we’d never get married. Or that level of commitment. If I knew that wasn’t going to happen, then . . . .” When Celine attempts to offer reassurance by suggesting that she “probably” wants to be with him forever, as if staring down a dare, Luke asks the question.

Though The Happy Couple will inevitably be compared to Sally Rooney’s Normal People, its wry voice and cleverly executed Rashomon-like structure, revisiting pivotal events and foundational cracks in Celine and Luke’s relationship from their perspectives as well as those of their closest friends and family, make it a standout. Bit by bit, in lean, ironic prose that packs powerful insight, Dolan reveals the humanity and vulnerability of all parties involved, including brilliant sections from the perspectives of Luke’s best man and former boyfriend Archie, and Celine’s sister Phoebe.

We don’t see what Luke is thinking for a long time, and he’s easy to hate when he’s merely reflected in other people’s emotional wreckage. When, after 100 pages, he finally comes into focus, his sensitivity and depth of feeling are shocking. The closer we look, the more human these characters become, and the more it hurts to see Celine and Luke stumble away from each other. Dolan’s challenging and well-crafted rewriting of the marriage plot has much to reveal about love and perspective.

Naoise Dolan reveals the humanity and vulnerability of all her characters through a cleverly executed multiperspectival structure that makes The Happy Couple a standout.
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Nazlı Koca’s debut novel, The Applicant, is a gut-wrenching story that will make you laugh but also question why and whether you should be laughing at all. 

Immigrant and refugee experiences can be surreal and nightmarish, but for those lucky enough to reach their destinations, life can be filled with a sudden Kafkaesque dark humor. Such is the case for Koca’s protagonist, Leyla, a Turkish immigrant in Berlin. After failing out of university, Leyla tries to sue her way back into a student visa, while in the meantime working at an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-themed hotel. 

As Leyla navigates Berlin’s nightlife, trying to find some sort of solace, she meets a right-wing Swedish tourist, and suddenly she has an in: She can stay in Germany if she accepts a traditional, conservative life, although it would mean giving up her career in art. Initially this bargain seems better than returning to Turkey to live with her mother and sister, but eventually Leyla begins to question what she is really searching for. 

Written in diary form, The Applicant is bound to draw many comparisons to other works (I found it to be like an inversion of the German film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), but the most obvious is to Sylvia Plath’s poem by the same name. Both pieces play with the idea of conformity, and while Plath focuses on the commercialization of femininity, Koca takes a more racialized approach. Leyla experiences subtle racism from almost every character, and through these interactions, we witness the convergence of different ideologies of racial supremacy due to immigration, and how, with the presence of her Swedish lover, white supremacy holds punitive power over all of them. Through the diary format, we get an inside look at Leyla’s forced conformity in what is perhaps a response to the surreal, dehumanizing laundry list Plath wrote decades ago. 

Despite these similarities, The Applicant is a truly unique book, particularly in its profound global scope. Leyla meets characters from all over the world who have come to Europe seeking a better life. Her romantic ideals of Berlin shatter early on, and she is left jaded and addicted to drugs, falling into the exact stereotype she idealized artistically. This underscores Koca’s greatest strength: her ability to find the tragedy, irony and humor in the immigrant experience, showing us how global power has warped our ability to find happiness and to even know what happiness is. 

This is a powerful book that pinpoints exactly where our contradictions lie. It is so powerful, in fact, that it can do all this while still making you laugh.

Immigrant and refugee experiences can be surreal and nightmarish, but for those lucky enough to reach their destination, life can be filled with a sudden Kafkaesque dark humor. Such is the case for Nazlı Koca’s protagonist, Leyla.
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Some people feel like outsiders every day of their lives. One such person is Harley Sekyere, a 21-year-old gay Black man in England who comes from an unsupportive household, felt at sea at college and has no idea where to turn. That’s a situation plenty of people will relate to. And it’s the premise of Small Joys, Elvin James Mensah’s sympathetic debut novel.

It’s 2005, shortly after terrorists coordinated a series of subway and bus bombings that devastated London. Harley had grand plans to graduate from university with a degree in music journalism but dropped out. Bereft of any other constructive goals, overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and depression, he makes a drastic decision: Back home in the town of Dartford, southeast of London, he wanders into the woods with a small X-ACTO knife.

He catches a break. Muddy, a straight white man “holding a pair of binoculars,” approaches Harley, sees that he’s bleeding and stops him from proceeding further. Fortuitously, Muddy is more than just a devoted bird-watcher who happened to walk by. He’s also about to become Harley’s roommate.

Mensah then introduces other characters who become part of Harley’s support network. They include Chelsea, a young white woman whose father owns the apartment building where Harley and Muddy live. She’s a friend of Harley’s and helps him reclaim his old job at the cinema where she works. Also in the mix are Finlay, Muddy’s best mate, whom Chelsea is dating; and Noria, a Black woman who’s dating Muddy and is obsessed with styling Harley’s hair.

The center of all of this is Harley, of whom Mensah writes with great affection. He offers unforgettable details, such as when he notes that Harley is so self-conscious that he sometimes stores food in his cheeks “to create the illusion [he] was eating quicker than [he] actually was.” Harley’s lack of assurance, he says, comes from “anxiety and queerness and failure.” It also comes from his homophobic father, a religious man hoping to convert his son; his relationship with an abusive older man; and his burgeoning feelings for Muddy.

Small Joys is simpler and more predictable than the books to which it is already being compared, among them works by Brandon Taylor and Bryan Washington. The raw emotions in Mensah’s book, however, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.

The raw emotions in Small Joys will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Elvin James Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.

When 17-year-old Bucky Yi is sent from the United States to South Korea, leaving the only home he knows, he must summon all the pluck and perseverance he has gained as a high school football player to survive in a place that is both his birth country and foreign to him. 

Bucky has lived most of his life in the rural town of Tibicut, Washington, having moved there after his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage to an American woman. After his father’s later abandonment, Bucky continued to live with his stepmother, Sheryl, and became determined to get a football scholarship so he could leave Tibicut, where he is one of only three Asian American students at his school. But after getting involved in one of his Uncle Rick’s disruptive outbursts, Bucky is arrested and ends up in an immigration detention center. Unable to provide official proof of his American citizenship, Bucky is deported to South Korea, where he is forced to serve in the Korean army.

Korean American author Joe Milan Jr. spins an immersive, fast-paced story in his debut novel, The All-American. Bucky is an intriguing and sympathetic character. He’s vulnerable and strong, raw and mature. He finds common ground between the divergent points of his birth and adopted countries, such as discovering a way to communicate in Korean while drawing on his experience as an American.

Milan’s writing is tight, with fresh and vivid descriptions that illuminate the contrasts in Bucky’s background and cultural makeup. The novel raises questions about who and what exactly determines your identity. Is it your birthplace, or where you’re raised? Is it your parents or your name or the papers you carry? Is it perception, either from yourself or others?

Rich and engrossing, this coming-of-age story offers an intricate exploration of identity and transformation that will be especially appealing to fans of Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, My Year Abroad by Chang Rae Lee and China Boy by Gus Lee.

Joe Milan Jr.’s debut novel raises questions about who and what exactly determines your identity. Is it your birthplace, or where you’re raised? Is it your parents or your name or the papers you carry? Is it perception, either from yourself or others?

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