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Listen to a 9-year-old, and you could learn a lot about the world. That’s the benefit that Swiv’s absent father would derive if he were to read the letter that constitutes Fight Night, Miriam Toews’ brilliant new book, in which she triumphs over a tough assignment: to write an entire novel in the voice of a child.

Assignments are nothing new to Swiv. As she relays to her father in this letter, she’s been kicked out of her school near Toronto because of her “lashing out tone” after an incident during Choice Time. Now she’s at home with her actor mother and grandmother, and Swiv and Grandma swap homework assignments. For example, Swiv instructs Grandma to compose a letter to Gord, the baby that Mom is carrying.

Toews gives Swiv a voice that is sophisticated, childlike and utterly believable. Readers can see where Swiv gets her pugnaciousness: Mom has been known to rail against capitalism and get into arguments with clerks at tasteful card shops. Mom has reasons to be on edge, however. She’s dealing not only with a pregnancy and an absent husband but also with backstage experiences that have instilled distrust in her profession.

Then there’s Grandma, a free spirit who speaks in what Swiv calls a secret language and is passionate about Toronto Raptors basketball. Her joie de vivre, however, belies a dark history that Toews slowly reveals as the story progresses. 

The novel features a supporting cast of men that allows Toews to comment on examples of the patriarchy at work, from Grandma’s religious older brothers, who packed her off to Nebraska to get a husband and study the Bible after their father died, to directors who subject Mom to callous treatment. This material could have been strident, but the wonder of Fight Night is that it’s a warmhearted and inventive portrait of women who have learned to fight against adversity. “You play hard to the end, Swiv,” Grandma tells her as they watch the Raptors on TV. “To the buzzer. There is no alternative.” You could learn a lot from grandmothers, too.

Miriam Toews’ Fight Night is a wonder, a warmhearted and inventive portrait of women who never back down.

Jonathan Franzen, one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life (The Corrections, Freedom), does not disappoint with his terrific new novel, Crossroads.

The story opens just before Christmas 1971 and centers on the Hildebrandt family, who live in the “Crappier Parsonage” in New Prospect, a suburb of Chicago. The head of the family, Reverend Russ Hildebrandt, a middle-aged associate pastor, is frustrated that his career has stalled, humiliated that a young, hip minister has snatched away control of the church’s youth group that he founded, tired of his wife and marriage, and enamored of a widowed parishioner.

The youth group is called Crossroads, and it’s just one of the many crossroads the family arrives at throughout this big, ambitious novel. The good reverend’s wife, Marion, is well aware of Russ’ infatuations and is filled with anger and self-loathing. Their daughter, Becky, the coolest girl in high school, becomes suddenly unmoored. Their middle son, Perry, is super smart and contemptuous of others; he’s also one of the biggest pot dealers in school. Eldest son Clem, the epitome of responsibility, is on his way home from college and seeking a reckoning with the father he has so long admired.

In some ways this family’s internal conflicts seem fairly typical. But as the novel progresses, we discover there are deeper histories at work. Some have to do with the basic assumptions of marriage and family life, while others reflect the tumult of the 1970s, when much of society was divided about America’s participation in the Vietnam War and young people especially struggled with issues of equality and justice for people of color and Native Americans. It is also no coincidence that the major sections of the novel are titled “Advent” and “Easter.” Each individual Hildebrandt grapples with matters of Christian faith and its place in their lives.

Franzen writes about all of this with penetrating insight delivered through incisive sentences. By turns funny and terrifying, Crossroads is promised to be the first novel in a planned trilogy. I can’t wait to read what happens next.

By turns funny and terrifying, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel of suburban family life does not disappoint.

How does one sum up the arc of a long life? That’s the intriguing question Joshua Ferris poses in A Calling for Charlie Barnes, a poignant, bitingly funny exploration of how a life that’s riddled with defeat may turn out, after all, to be profoundly meaningful.

Inspired by the death of Ferris’ own father in 2014, the novel tells the story of Charlie Barnes, nicknamed “Steady Boy,” an investment adviser struggling in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse whose ambition is matched only by the number and magnitude of his professional and personal debacles. Charlie is a bundle of contradictions—an ethical money manager in a world of charlatans, and someone whose endlessly inventive mind conjures up bizarre moneymaking schemes that are distinctive only for their consistent failures, like a flying toupee called the Original Doolander or the Clown in Your Town, a franchised fleet of party clowns. 

But when, at age 68, Charlie is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he’s forced to confront his mortality and come to terms with a chaotic family life that has included five marriages—four of which ended badly—and has caused the bitter estrangement of his two eldest children. His youngest son, Jake, the only Barnes sibling who remains close to his father, is a novelist who takes on the project of chronicling Charlie’s “perfectly failed life.” From moments of rollicking humor to episodes of deep pathos, Jake strives to capture his father’s utterly ordinary, strikingly tumultuous biography with as much fidelity to the facts as he’s able to muster while keeping it “honest, but respectable.”

In addition to its autofictional component, A Calling for Charlie Barnes contains a strong metafictional element, as Jake comments frequently and incisively on the challenges of storytelling, even assuming the mantle of unreliable narrator almost with a sense of pride: “Like reliability exists anywhere anymore,” he writes, “like that’s still a thing,” reminding the reader of “the power you have when you control the narrative.”  

Ferris’ control of his own narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for the frequent wicked curveballs he delivers with evident zest. A Calling for Charlie Barnes has plot twists as manifold as its protagonist’s cruelly dashed dreams, but when Steady Boy’s story reaches its end, it’s a reminder of how little we know about the ones we love and the fact that even the humblest life story encompasses unfathomable depths.

Joshua Ferris’ control of his narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for frequent wicked curveballs.

A flailing commune. A lead singer of a touring rock band. Sex, drugs and then even more sex and drugs. Zoe Whittall’s taut novel The Spectacular has all the trappings to become the season’s dishiest read. It’s also a gem of literary fiction. 

Whittall, a poet and novelist who has also been a writer on the sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” introduces three women with very different plans for their lives. Missy is a 20-something rock star with a penchant for drugs and a love’em-and-leave’em attitude toward men. Early in The Spectacular, she is upset to learn that she is pregnant. Carola, Missy’s mother, has provided maternal succor to many, first at a hippie commune and later at a yoga ashram. But she struggles to show up for her own daughter and, in many ways, to show up for herself. Finally there’s Ruth, Carola’s mother-in-law, whose sacrifices as a young immigrant in Canada set the stage for her family’s life. 

The plot of The Spectacular isn’t clearly defined; all three women’s stories connect at certain points, and the narrative jumps forward and backward in time. But this is not a typical sprawling family drama, and in Whittall’s smart and capable hands, these unconventional women are given the space to experience their full, complicated lives. Whittall takes the long view with this multigenerational arc to explore the responsibilities of motherhood, the boundaries of biology and the price for women’s freedom to live fully actualized lives.

The Spectacular has all the trappings to become the season’s dishiest read. It’s also a gem of literary fiction.

Award-winning Israeli writer David Grossman’s More Than I Love My Life is a complex novel about the secrets that scar three generations of women for a lifetime.

Upon her 90th birthday, family matriarch Vera Novak reunites with her daughter, Nina, after five years of separation. Both Vera and Nina have committed the almost unpardonable act of abandoning young daughters—Vera when Nina was 6, and Nina when her own daughter, Gili, was even younger. The circumstances surrounding Vera’s and Nina’s departures are complex, slowly revealed and come to dominate all three women’s emotional lives.

When Nina, who has spent several years on a tiny island between Lapland and the North Pole, announces that she’s in the early stages of dementia, she asks Gili, a writer and filmmaker now approaching her 40s, and Gili’s father, Rafael, formerly a film director himself, to record Vera’s story. The novel reaches its climax when the foursome journeys to the island of Goli Otok, off the coast of Croatia, once home to a notorious labor camp and reeducation center for opponents of the Tito regime in the former Yugoslavia. Vera was sent there after the death of her husband under circumstances she’s withheld from Nina all her life. 

In harrowing passages that alternate with the present action, Vera recalls two months of her nearly three-year imprisonment when she was marched daily to a cliff top and forced to stand in the blazing sun, her only companion a sapling she shaded with her body.

Vera, Nina and Gili are memorable characters, each suffering in different but equally profound ways. Grossman effectively inhabits the consciousnesses of these women and doesn’t spare the reader any of their considerable emotional pain. He’s a sympathetic if unfailingly honest chronicler of their anguish. A reader doesn’t have to identify with the particulars of the women’s stories to appreciate how the consequences of fateful choices can reverberate down through the generations.

David Grossman is a sympathetic if unfailingly honest chronicler of the anguish of three generations of women.

Our sincere apologies to the rest of the novels on your TBR list, but these debuts deserve a spot at the top. Based on other novels you’ve loved, we’ve recommended which of these six hot titles you’ll most enjoy.


FOR FANS OF 
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

★ THE READING LIST

Former book editor Sara Nisha Adams attributes her passion for reading to her early childhood, when she bonded with her grandfather over their shared love of literature. This relationship also served as the inspiration for The Reading List, a story about two lonely individuals whose initial common ground is, ironically, that neither has any interest in reading. As an uplifting and tenderhearted celebration of libraries and the transformative power of books, The Reading List is particularly perfect for book clubs and sure to brighten any reader’s day.

(read the full review by Stephenie Harrison)


FOR FANS OF
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

★ SISTERS IN ARMS

In Kaia Alderson’s witty and powerful debut novel, World War II is a conflict not only between nations but also within the hearts of Grace Steele and Eliza Jones, two Black women serving in the U.S. Army’s 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. It’s a chance to prove themselves to their restrictive families and a prejudiced society. Sisters in Arms chronicles their story, which spans the constraints of New York City and the perils of war-torn Europe. During their service, their bond is tested, but Grace and Eliza learn to stick together to survive, and their romantic relationships enhance their personal stories. This is an outstanding historical novel that succeeds at celebrating the accomplishments of the Six Triple Eight Battalion through the lives of two audacious Black women.

(read the full review by Edith Kanyagia)


FOR FANS OF 
Deep River by Karl Marlantes and Barkskins by Annie Proulx

★ DAMNATION SPRING

Ash Davidson’s exceptional debut novel, Damnation Spring, follows aging logger Rich Gundersen and his family through 1977, a year of significant change in Northern California’s redwood forest. Here, all politics are local: It slowly dawns on Rich’s wife, Colleen, that herbicides, sprayed to help the logging industry, hurt babies; and the unethical owner of the timber company is a flawed and greedy local guy, not a corporate mover on Wall Street. Davidson grew up in Arcata, California, just south of the redwood forest she writes about in Damnation Spring. She’s studied the lay of the land, and she expresses the heart and soul of this place and time.

(read the full review by Alden Mudge)


FOR FANS OF
Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes and J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions

WE ARE THE BRENNANS

Tracey Lange’s debut novel tells the story of a large Irish American family grappling with the weight of secrets after Sunday, the only Brennan daughter, returns home after five years away. We Are the Brennans is well plotted, offering plenty of action, but it shines brightest in depicting family relationships, love mixed with resentment and guilt, and in its character development. We root for the Brennans the whole way through, waiting for them to face hard truths about one another and, we hope, to move forward together.

(read the full review by Sarah McCraw Crow)


FOR FANS OF
Swing Time by Zadie Smith and There There by Tommy Orange

THE ETERNAL AUDIENCE OF ONE

Rwandan-born Namibian writer Rémy Ngamije’s sharp-witted and incisive debut, The Eternal Audience of One, paints a revealing portrait of its peripatetic protagonist and the many places he’s called home. Séraphin Turihamwe is a displaced Rwandan who feels most himself in Cape Town, South Africa, a place that doesn’t welcome Black immigrants, and Ngamije brilliantly explores the irony in Séraphin’s identities. The story unfolds through a collection of scenes all revolving around Séraphin’s social life, his friends and the women he dates, that explore racism and social hierarchies. Ngamije’s writing is beautiful, his observations original and precise, his sense of place unsurpassed. Every bit of insight, succinctly and humorously presented, will cause readers to stop and think.

(read the full review by Carole V. Bell)


FOR FANS OF
The Leavers by Lisa Ko and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

EDGE CASE

In YZ Chin’s Edge Case, Edwina and her husband, Marlin, are in the U.S. on H-1B work visas. Both are from Malaysia; she is ethnic Chinese, and he is Chinese Indian. After Marlin’s father dies, Marlin disappears. Compounding Edwina’s anguish over Marlin’s abandonment are her anxieties about her immigration status and daily racial insults. Chin is superb at describing the tumult of a woman being psychologically knocked about like a pachinko ball. Every chapter bears witness to Edwina’s pain, befuddlement and sheer exhaustion, while also revealing her snarky sense of humor, resourcefulness, tenaciousness and capacity for love.

(read the full review by Arlene McKanic)

Based on other novels you’ve loved, we’ve recommended which of these six hot titles you’ll most enjoy.

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