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The Dunne family has made a comfortable home in Seaside, New Jersey. Margot and Brian Dunne have built a business of beach-house rentals, and their teenage daughters, Liz and Evy, help out on weekends. But this summer, a fast-growing brain tumor has turned energetic Brian into a stranger who is prone to obsessive behavior and speaks in meaningless phrases. Brian is dying, and Margot, Liz and Evy take turns caring for him and accommodating his odd demands in “a world where all the same rules of how to behave still applied, even if he couldn’t follow them anymore.”

Katie Runde’s debut novel, The Shore, rotates through the perspectives of Margot, Liz, and Evy as they attempt to carry on with their lives while managing Brian’s care. Liz and Evy work summer jobs—Liz renting out beach umbrellas and Evy making candy at Sal’s Sweets—while seeking, and maybe finding, their first loves. Margot soldiers on at the business that she and Brian worked so hard to build over the years, which now makes her feel trapped.

But Margot is also keeping a secret, one that helps her cope with her difficult present and imagine a life after Brian. She has an account on a site called GBM Wives, an online support group for women whose husbands have glioblastoma multiforme tumors. What she doesn’t know is that Evy has caught on and is lurking in the forum where Margot shares all the fears, anger and secrets she’s concealing from her daughters.

Runde has written a heartfelt family drama saturated with a sense of place and the passage of time. Brian’s decline occurs over the course of one summer, but the novel also explores the long, complicated history of Margot and Brian’s relationship. Along with the particulars of life in a Jersey Shore town and evocative sensory details of the beach, Runde vividly renders a portrait of a family on the edge. The novel occasionally moves into a more lyrical, meditative mode that imagines the Dunnes in the future, but there is also excellent use of more prosaic text messages and emails.

The Shore will appeal to readers of Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans and Rachel Beanland’s Florence Adler Swims Forever, two other family stories with slowly revealed secrets.

Katie Runde's debut novel, The Shore, is a heartfelt family drama saturated with a sense of place and the passage of time, perfect for fans of Tracey Lange's We Are the Brennans.

As This Time Tomorrow opens, Alice Stern is about to turn 40, and her life is mostly fine—not great, but fine. She works in the admissions office of the private school she once attended, she has a boyfriend and a handful of good friends, and she’s content to live alone in her basement studio in Brooklyn. But one aspect that’s not fine is Alice’s dad, Leonard, who’s dying. Leonard is essentially Alice’s only family, and she spends all of her free time visiting the unconscious Leonard in the hospital.

Late on the night of Alice’s birthday, something mysterious happens, and when she wakes the next morning, she’s 16 years old and in her childhood home. With the help of her longtime best friend, Sam, who was with Alice on her original 16th birthday, Alice begins to puzzle out her new reality.

What follows is a time-travel story that blends aspects of other time-travel and time-loop stories, such as the movies Peggy Sue Got Married and Groundhog Day, which Alice references as she unravels her own mystery. The novel lays the groundwork for its more fantastical elements by situating Alice in a storybook setting: She grew up in a small house on Pomander Walk, a tiny hidden neighborhood of Tudor-style houses on New York City’s Upper West Side. When Alice was little, Leonard wrote a time-travel novel, Time Brothers, a mega-bestseller that spawned a much-loved TV series. He never published another book, but instead devoted himself to caring for Alice and attending fan conventions, where he and his writer friends debated fictional time travel.

While This Time Tomorrow is propelled by Alice’s quest to figure out what happened and learn what she can about her dad’s illness, it’s also a dual coming-of-age story. The novel’s more meditative passages convey Alice’s midlife regrets, her loneliness at being left behind by the friends who’ve married and had children, her yearning for something beyond the life she’s made and her grief and love for her dying dad.

Like Alice, author Emma Straub is a New York City native whose father is a well-known novelist. With wonderful place details, This Time Tomorrow evokes the Upper West Side of the 1990s and offers some sly observations on class, especially the subtle gradations between New York’s merely privileged and its ultra-privileged. Alice’s high school scenes are sprinkled with ’90s music and pop culture references, which will be especially enjoyable for millennial readers.

This Time Tomorrow’s many references to other time-travel stories occasionally stray into metafictional territory, but ultimately it’s a story with a lot of heart, some satisfying plot twists and a bittersweet, open-ended finale.

Emma Straub’s time-travel novel has a lot of heart, some satisfying plot twists and a bittersweet, open-ended finale.

Whether finding home or building a home or leaving home, fiction frequently centers on belonging—what it means and how it moves us. In Neruda on the Park, the debut novel from Cleyvis Natera, the Guerrero family struggles with belonging not just in their New York City neighborhood but also to each other.

When a decrepit building in Northar Park is torn down to make way for luxury condos, the Guerreros and their neighbors are forced to confront the realities of the price-raising, whitewashing menace that is gentrification. But for Lux, the daughter of Eusebia and Vladimir Guerrero, the changes are both external and internal: After being fired from her cutthroat legal job, Lux realizes that she has transformed along with the neighborhood, and perhaps not for the better.

The novel is split into three parts—titled Demolition, Excavation and Grounding—and unfolds through the perspectives of Lux and her mother, Eusebia, showing not only how the evolution of Northar Park is linked to the evolution of the Guerreros, but also how the discourse of belonging is fraught with generational conflict. Eusebia and Vladimir left the Dominican Republic to give their children a better life, including law school and high-paying corporate jobs. But Luz falls in love with the man who’s developing Northar Park, which causes a divide between where she comes from and where she’s going, and directly links her choices to the destruction of the home that her parents have created.

Natera’s writing style is detailed and intimate but leaves plenty to the imagination. The mother-daughter dynamic propels the novel and creates its dramatic tension, but Natera also includes interludes from the Tongues, the blabbermouth neighborhood chismosas, or gossips, who hear everything and know everything. Through these voices, Natera’s depiction of Northar Park becomes lively and vibrant, which brings the reader back to the novel’s central focus: home. As the Guerreros’ dreams shift—Lux desires an Upper West Side apartment, and Vladimir hopes for a new house in the Dominican Republic—the reader is encouraged to ask what home really is. Is it a place? A peace? Neruda on the Park doesn’t give answers but rather lets the reader and the Guerrero family decide for themselves.

What is home? Is it a place, or a sense of peace? Cleyvis Natera's debut novel explores the nature of home through the changing dreams of a Dominican American family in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Monica Ali’s fifth novel, Love Marriage, is a riveting portrait of a seemingly perfect engagement’s unraveling.

Yasmin Ghorami is a 26-year-old doctor following in her ambitious immigrant father’s footsteps. She’s newly engaged to Joe Sangster, a fellow doctor who’s the son of an infamously outspoken feminist with chronic boundary issues. As Yasmin anxiously anticipates the first meeting between their families, she frets that her mother’s clothes aren’t right for dinner with the sophisticated Sangsters, and that her brother, Arif—surly, unemployed and living at home a couple years past graduation—is a loose cannon.

There are many differences in race, class, religion and culture to navigate between the middle-class, Indian-born Muslim (though not necessarily practicing) Ghoramis and the white, upper-middle-class Sangsters, and Ali delineates those distinctions with nuance and specificity. But to its credit, Love Marriage isn’t really about the obvious challenges of Yasmin’s and Joe’s worlds clashing; rather, even though all looks good on the surface, the engagement (and the changes it will inevitably bring) reveals deep cracks in both family units.

On some level, Yasmin understands these divisions, but at the same time, she harbors significant misapprehensions. She’s naive when it comes to understanding the British upper-middle class, and she’s soon disabused of the notion that the Sangsters will be less interfering than her Indian family. When it comes to her son, Harriet Sangster has no boundaries, and it’s ironic that one of the Yasmin’s pressure points is uber-feminist Harriet’s insistence on a big wedding. Rather than feeling put off by the idea of including Muslim traditions, Harriet is eager to flex her liberal credentials by pushing them on a reluctant Yasmin.

Soon all the key players are questioning their paths. Joe’s past struggles with sex and impulse control resurface, and his journey and his relationship with his therapist are particularly well rendered. Unsure about her chosen profession and partner, Yasmin, who has always been cautious and well-behaved, experiments with rebellion. Arif clashes with his disapproving father. And Yasmin’s parents’ “love marriage” is tested when her often-overlooked and normally rock-solid mother, Anisah, moves out of the family home.

The novel’s structure makes the most of these reckonings. Though Yasmin is the novel’s anchor, the multiple points of view allow a panoramic view of the unfolding events. Ali includes perhaps a few too many perspectives; some, like Harriet’s, only anchor one or two short chapters. But overall, Ali’s character treatments are multifaceted, humane and fluid in this multicultural family drama in which, like a multi-car pileup, individuals careen into and away from one another.

Monica Ali’s Love Marriage is a multicultural family drama as a multi-car pileup, as individuals careen into and away from one another.

Annie Hartnett’s second novel, Unlikely Animals, is striking and richly imagined, with a voice that is wholly its own. The story is told by the collective dead of a small New Hampshire town, with all the boundaries and unknowns that are inherent when your storytellers are buried in a cemetery.

The town’s dead are compelled to speak when Emma Starling returns home after a failed attempt at medical school. Although she was born with a natural ability to heal, the ability seems to have deserted her, leaving her unable to help her father, Clive, who has a brain disease. Despite his tremors, Clive is determined to solve the mystery of Emma’s best friend, Crystal, who has disappeared.

In many ways, Emma’s return home is messy; her brother is recovering from an opioid addiction, and Clive has begun to frequently and unpredictably hallucinate the existence of various animals, as well as the ghost of long-dead naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes. Layer in Emma’s new job as a substitute fifth grade teacher and other delightful moments, and you have the makings of a propulsive, inviting tale.

Emma and her family are endearing, charming characters to observe. They’re flawed, searching and struggling to be seen. Although Unlikely Animals deals with many issues—aging parents, the opioid epidemic, life in rural New England, family dreams and pressures—it does so with intention and care, never heavy-handedness. The magic of Hartnett’s novel stems from the balance of these weighty topics with the story’s intrinsic playfulness, and in sections that explore the myth and history of Baynes and his domesticated animals.

Ultimately, the story of Unlikely Animals belongs to the animals themselves, from Clive’s hallucinatory rabbits to Emma’s adopted dog. They remind us of wisdom beyond human experience, offering moments of clear-eyed joy as Emma finds her way and strives to help others do the same.

The magic of Annie Hartnett’s second novel is the balance of heavy topics with the story’s intrinsic playfulness.

​​While reading YA author Jennifer E. Smith’s first novel for adult readers, The Unsinkable Greta James, I wondered how a story like this one, about a vivacious, career-minded woman who is iffy about settling down, would have worked out 70 years ago. Of course, the woman would meet a nice chap on an ocean liner, as Greta does in this novel. An epilogue would see her married to the good man, happily pregnant in a sunny kitchen while the souvenirs of her old career, whether as a singer or an athlete or what have you, collected dust in the attic.

Of course, that’s not what happens in The Unsinkable Greta James.

Greta is a rock ’n’ roll musician who is famous enough to be recognized but not so famous that a room goes silent when she walks into it. Ben, a Jack London fanatic, is the love interest whom Greta meets on the cruise ship (and who doesn’t know who she is at first). But for Greta, the “man in her life” isn’t Ben, but her father, Conrad. Greta agreed to join Conrad and his friends on the Alaskan cruise after the sudden death of her mother, Helen, who planned the trip.

Greta and Conrad’s relationship has always been uncomfortable. While he acknowledges her talent, he’s nervous about the precariousness of a career in entertainment. She thinks he’s never been on her side and favors her brother, who has a wife, kids and a steady job with health insurance. They’re completely different and too much alike, and Helen’s death poleaxed both of them. (Another reason Greta is on this ship is to forget an onstage episode when her grief became too overwhelming. She’s not quite unsinkable.)

Smith’s style is as smooth as an Alaskan cruise is supposed to be—though like Greta, the ship does rock and roll now and then. Smith’s characters are good and nice. She does allow for some eccentricity, as in Helen’s friend Todd, an obsessive bird watcher who longs to see some avian rarity on an ice floe. But Smith reserves nearly all the novel’s real complexity for Conrad, a man who can’t seem to overcome a certain midcentury rigidity. Greta is wary of him, and because she’s wary of him, so are we, and this is the real meat of the novel. Can these two stubborn people lay down their arms at long last and connect? That’s the question of The Unsinkable Greta James.

Can two stubborn people lay down their arms at long last and connect? That’s the question of Jennifer E. Smith’s first novel for adult readers.

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