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As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, we turn to all things cozy—and we can think of nothing more heartwarming than an unexpected friendship. Here are the platonic pairings that made the BookPage editors feel all snuggly inside.

The Secret Place

In Tana French’s The Secret Place, Detective Stephen Moran gets his chance to join the Murder Squad when 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings him new evidence in an investigation into a murder that took place on the grounds of her boarding school. Stephen heads to Holly’s school to investigate alongside Antoinette Conway, the original detective assigned to the case. Their first interactions are anything but promising, given their diametrically opposed approaches to their work. Stephen masks his ambition behind a friendly, unassuming persona, but Antoinette, who is biracial, has long since given up on playing nice with people determined to hate her due to her gender, racial background or both. As they interrogate Holly and her friends over the course of one long day, a tentative respect begins to grow between the two of them, thanks to their mutual intellect and their common experience of clawing their way up the ranks from working-class backgrounds. It could be the start of a beautiful partnership, and French makes readers as invested in Stephen and Antoinette’s burgeoning friendship as they are in the mystery’s solution.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Frank and the Bad Surprise

I’m going to cut to the chase here. The titular character in Martha Brockenbrough and Jon Lau’s Frank and the Bad Surprise is a cat who lives a good life with his humans, and the bad surprise is a new puppy. The puppy interrupts Frank’s naps, has gross puppy breath and eats Frank’s food, so Frank decides it’s time to move on. “Good luck with that puppy,” he writes in a note to his humans. “You will need it.” There’s so much to love about this illustrated chapter book, from the way Brockenbrough’s wry prose perfectly captures Frank’s feline perspective to the way Lau’s paintings bring Frank’s personality to life. In several images, you’ll swear you can almost hear Frank purring. But the best part is the way Brockenbrough engineers a moving reconciliation between the two former enemies, neatly sidestepping schlock and sentiment and going straight for understated emotional truth. It’s positively the cat’s pajamas.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Lolly Willowes

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, an aging woman breaks away from her grating London family and has a go at independent life in the countryside. After keeping house for her father and brother for over 40 years, Laura Willowes feels liberated in Buckinghamshire—finally free to take long walks in nature and enjoy her own company. Until her nephew visits. Suddenly she is reduced to her old Aunt Lolly self again—put upon and bedeviled—and she becomes so desperate that she calls out for help. Luckily Satan answers, and the novel transforms into a fantastical tale of Lolly’s burgeoning talents as a witch. Along the way, the devil turns out to be a chummy pal: giving Lolly the power to hex her nephew, listening to her complaints about society’s treatment of women. (Satan, as it turns out, is a compassionate and attentive listener.) It’s a darkly humorous novel of a middle-aged woman who is so desperate for autonomy that she’s willing to make a deal—or at least make friends—with the devil.

—Christy, Associate Editor

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’ first (and so far, only) novel brings together some odd characters. In Lincoln in the Bardo, a group of ghosts works together to save Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, from a place between life and death. Here in the bardo, the ghosts know all of one another’s quirks and faults and dreams and regrets. They’ve come to love one another, and as a reader, I found it easy to love them too. The most unlikely best friendship in the bardo is between middle-aged, carnally frustrated Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, a heartbroken young man who took his own life and now bursts involuntarily into poetry about the beauty of the world he left behind. One of Saunders’ most remarkable gifts is his ability to make even unpleasant characters deeply befriendable. He outdoes himself with this book, crafting 166 distinct, compelling voices and interspersing them with excerpts from real and invented historical sources. He fantastically spins a moment in American history into a philosophical exploration of how grief can either isolate or unite us.

—Phoebe Farrell-Sherman, Subscriptions

The Kindest Lie

People aren’t all that different, even though it often feels that way, and therein lies one of the key superpowers of the “unlikely friendship” trope: bridging polarized experiences to discover where people actually overlap, where one person’s hand fits snugly into another’s. Nancy Johnson’s debut, The Kindest Lie, is one of the novels that most successfully encompasses both the political optimism of 2008 and the insidious racial divisions that were worsened by the economic stress of the Great Recession. Johnson’s protagonist, Ruth, is a Black chemical engineer who returns to her Rust Belt hometown to seek out the child she placed for adoption when she was 17. Upon her return, Ruth bonds with Midnight, an 11-year-old white boy who is mostly being raised by his grandmother but still hopes for connection with his neglectful, bigoted father. Ruth’s and Midnight’s experiences of race, class and privilege are very different, but they’re both lonely, lost and understandably flawed people, and together they find something akin to belonging in a heartbreaking world.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

You’ve got a friend in me! These books feature platonic pairings that made us feel all warm and snuggly inside.
Behind the Book by

In the first few days of January 2019, I was teaching at a residency on an island off the coast of Connecticut. My husband, our two kids and I had driven from Florida to New York on Christmas Day for me to make the gig. Both my husband’s and my families are from Florida, and until recently, my relationship to the holiday has always been beach and warmth and early morning swims. I was both relieved and very sad to be back up north after a week in Florida.

It was freezing on the island, and I was staying in a monastery with faulty heating, small rooms with lumpy beds, crosses on the walls and a shared bathroom down the hall. I went for long pre-dawn runs and taught most of the day. I love teaching but find it draining—the very necessary task of consistently showing up for students, trying to make the workshop space engaging and rigorous, nurturing and safe. 

I had taught at this residency before, and I’d always needed long stretches alone in my room at night, so in November I’d bought myself Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel as a birthday gift. For those who haven’t read it (and you should, immediately), it’s the story of abstract expressionist painters Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, brilliant artists all, living and working in New York at a thrilling, complicated time (before, during and after World War II), being ground down by poverty during the Great Depression and then later, for some, achieving unfathomable wealth and fame.

“I was looking around for someone to tell me how to be, what to do to make things better, but there was no one there, no rituals or practices or authority figures that I believed in anymore.”

I’d become obsessed with going to see visual art a few years prior, not least because I felt completely ill-equipped to understand it. I loved the feeling of walking through a museum and letting the art pull me toward it. Often, I’d go with a friend who also writes, and we’d walk a long time after, talking about what we’d just seen, about what and how it had acted on us.

Going home to Florida always leaves me sad and anxious for all the ways I have failed to love or show up for my family, for all the parts of that place that I love and hate and miss. Ninth Street Women was solace in the face of that—intimacy, much needed company. Gabriel refers to each woman by her first name, and their lives constantly intermingle and overlap. It felt gossipy and thrilling, the texture of competition, sex, money, art, ambition, class disparities and marital spats. I came to crave it, sitting at dinner with my colleagues and my students, FaceTiming with my kids and pretending the connection had gone out. I thought and dreamt about these women, was both inside of them and watching them—a voyeur, constantly shifting my investments and alliances, thrilled and angry and sad on their behalfs. 

Once I left the island, I went back to New York in search of their work, and a new layer was added to this experience: I couldn’t find a good amount of it. I got angry, and so sad, thinking of all that work, which the various museums owned but mostly kept warehoused instead of on display. 

That same trip, I’d been thinking about anger. I’d just finished writing Want, a novel shot through with the fury that had been building in me for a long time. But by the time I read about those women, I was beginning to see the limits to the power of my anger. At first, it had felt so much more active than the sadness I had felt before that, but actually, I realized, it had come to feel just as ineffectual.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how and where novels start, what we pull from our lives and pasts and interests as we build them. I had also, the past few years, been telling stories to my kids on our walks to and from their school. I often asked them to help me start the story, to carry the plot through when I lost steam. Their most consistent bit of advice: kill the mom, because it immediately makes the book more dangerous. (I tried not to take this personally.) 

I’d been thinking about broken systems, too, not just the social safety net, our broken politics, but also the way I felt constantly, embarrassingly, like I was looking around for someone to tell me how to be, what to do to make things better, but there was no one there, no rituals or practices or authority figures that I believed in anymore. In this same vein, I’d been thinking about art and what it was worth, how often I was late for pickup or missed a work email because I was standing there, transfixed by a piece of art, for reasons I could never quite explain. How broke artists (and I) always were. 

From all of this thinking and living emerged the main components of Flight: the holiday, the utility (or not) of art, talk of money, the search for another side to anger, a dead mom creating new pressures and a sense of no one knowing what to do. And from the women in Ninth Street Women, a sense of overlapping and conflicting wants and needs, a deep and desperate desire to do good, underpinned with the terror that you don’t know how. 

Also from Ninth Street Women: I wanted to make a book that felt as it had to me that week on that freezing island, up all night in that lumpy bed: lush and immersive, gossipy and deeply felt. The way it gave me something good and solid felt like sustenance, pleasure, relief.  

How do the fragments of an author’s life coalesce into a book? Lynn Steger Strong reveals the real-life artists and sharp twists of emotion that helped to spark her third novel, Flight.
Review by

In Lynn Steger Strong’s taut domestic drama, Flight, Christmas is a time of tension and healing for three adult siblings in the wake of their mother’s death.

Helen was a formidable figure by all accounts. Equal parts homemaker, matriarch and intellectual, she stood out in her Florida town and provided the charismatic fulcrum around which her family’s life pivoted. Even after her children had long left the family home behind, she wielded a strong influence. 

For their first holiday after her death, Helen’s fractious family has gathered at the large house in upstate New York that middle child Henry shares with his wife, Alice. The whole group is flailing, because Helen died suddenly—without a will—and now they’re fighting over their mother’s Florida home. 

But money and property are only the start of their issues. No one is at ease in Helen’s absence; everyone is worried and hiding some perceived shortcoming. The youngest sibling, Kate, a stay-at-home mom of three, chose a similar path to Helen’s but entirely lacks her conviction. The jury is still out on Kate’s husband, Josh, who spends the holiday dedicated to the seemingly Sisyphean task of building an igloo for the kids to play in. With money trouble looming, Kate’s focus is firmly trained on the big favor she wants to ask of her brothers.

Eldest brother Martin is a professor worried about job stability in the wake of some unbecoming and potentially ruinous behavior. His wife, Tess, is a well-paid and perennially anxious lawyer, who is neither confident with her kids nor comfortable when they’re out of her sight.

Henry is a dedicated artist who does interesting work to document climate change, which no one else inside (or perhaps even outside of) the family understands or values. Alice is a beautiful biracial social worker from a well-to-do family who is grieving her maternal prospects after multiple miscarriages. She dreads being left alone with any of her in-laws.

As a reader, it’s easy to relate to Alice’s trepidation. Though every sibling and spouse in Flight is nuanced and multidimensional, Helen’s clan can be overwhelming. Fortunately, a significant side plot involving one of Alice’s more troubled clients provides a key rallying point for the family as well as some much-needed breathing room. But of course, the myriad fissures, fractures and worries are what make this family drama feel utterly real.

The myriad fissures, fractures and worries of one family at Christmastime make this drama feel utterly real.

Like Dani Shapiro’s other novels and memoirs (most recently, Inheritance), Signal Fires is at its heart a family story, told in the gorgeous, evocative language she’s known for. 

The novel opens on an August night in 1985 Avalon, a pleasant New York suburb, with three teenagers (“good kids—everyone would say so”) in a car. At the wheel is 15-year-old Theo Wilf, who doesn’t yet have his license, and next to him is Misty Zimmerman, the girl he likes. In the back seat is Sarah, Theo’s 17-year-old sister. What should be a mere summertime joyride becomes a deadly accident, and although Sarah and Theo’s doctor father, Ben, is on the scene only a few minutes later, their family’s reality has already shifted. “Change one thing and everything changes,” Shapiro writes, indicating one of Signal Fires’ preoccupations: how one moment of trauma, added to one secret, will reverberate throughout multiple lives.  

The story shifts to a night in December 2010, when a much older Ben, his children long grown, notices that Waldo Shenkman, a boy who lives across the street, is still up, too late for a kid to be awake. Both are lonely—Benjamin’s wife, Mimi, has advanced dementia, and Waldo has trouble making friends—and the two connect over Waldo’s love of the constellations, which he views on his dad’s iPad. 

Signal Fires’ narrative is a fractured, prismatic one, moving mostly among these characters (Sarah, Theo, Ben, young Waldo and Waldo’s dad, known to the reader as Shenkman) and through time (forward to 2020, back to 2010, further back to 1985, up to 1999 and forward again), unraveling these characters’ mistakes and yearnings. Sarah and Theo have grown up and built successful careers, but both are inwardly roiling, estranged from themselves and from each other. And Shenkman, feeling an imposter in his own life, is alienating his wife and son.

Shapiro keeps the plates spinning, bouncing between time periods while moving the story forward, landing on key moments like New Year’s Eve 1999, a point of change and connection in the Shenkman and Wilf families. The novel’s narrative occasionally moves into a mystical mode, which feels a little out of place, but Signal Fires is mainly a meditation on families—the secrets we keep, the hurts we don’t mean to inflict—and how those secrets and hurts play out over time. And the novel’s action keeps pointing back to suburban Avalon, a place that both families call home for a time, making Signal Fires a bittersweet love letter to the suburbs. 

Signal Fires is mainly a meditation on families—the secrets we keep, the hurts we don’t mean to inflict—and how those secrets and hurts play out over time.
Review by

Pakistani British writer Kamila Shamsie is an adept chronicler of how politics impact families in both England and Pakistan. In 2013, she was recognized as one of Granta‘s “20 best young British writers,” and her most recent novel, Home Fire, won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her eighth book, Best of Friends, delves into how relationships formed in childhood affect our adult selves, and speculates about whether even the most cherished friendships could have an expiration date.   

It’s 1988 in Karachi, Pakistan, and teenagers Zahra and Maryam have been best friends since elementary school. Zahra is the studious daughter of a schoolteacher and a cricket commentator, and she dreams of a world beyond Karachi. Maryam is the privileged child of a wealthy family that splits its time between England and Pakistan, and she hopes to inherit her family’s lucrative leather-goods business. 

Adolescence brings changing bodies and a new interest in boys. The girls’ growing sense of freedom is compounded by the election of Benazir Bhutto, whose unexpected win brings hope for a more equitable future for all Pakistanis. But when a ride home from a party with their friend Hammad goes horribly wrong, Maryam and Zahra face the limits of their freedom—as well as the ways their differing upbringings shape their reactions to trauma.

Decades later, both friends have found considerable success in London, where Zahra is a famous lawyer turned political advocate for refugees, and Maryam is a venture capitalist funding the development of facial-recognition software. They are still close, yet certain subjects remain off-limits. When Hammad comes to London, the two women argue over how to handle the situation, and their conflicting approaches put their lifelong friendship at risk.  

Shamsie excels at balancing the personal and the political, and she artfully reconstructs the tense political environment of 1980s Pakistan and the rise of the surveillance state in 2019 London to provide ample opportunities for Maryam and Zahra to find themselves on opposite sides of such issues as privacy, privilege and refugee rights. For any reader who finds themselves at odds with an old friend, Best of Friends rings true in its honest, unvarnished portrayal of friendship strained by politics and ideology.

Kamila Shamsie's eighth novel speculates about whether even the most cherished friendships could have an expiration date.
Review by

All families are dysfunctional, but some raise it to an art form, as Amanda Svensson so deftly outlines in her admirable novel A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding, winner of Sweden’s Per Olov Enquist Literature Prize, awarded annually to a young writer poised for a breakout.

It all starts with the birth of triplets in 1989. Mama’s a little hazy on the details, but what she does remember is that one of the children is whisked from the delivery room due to “what the doctors would later call spontaneous asphyxia neonatorum with no lasting complications.” That may seem like a trivial detail; it’s not. During this chaotic moment, Papa decides to reveal his recent infidelity with his dental hygienist, hoping that its emotional impact will be blunted by the frenzied environment. As it turns out, confessing his dalliance is among the least consequential of his actions that day.

Fast-forward to 2016: Papa has moved out, Mama has decided to make her life right with Jesus, and the semi-estranged siblings have cast themselves across the globe, each embroiled in their own individual expressions of dysfunction. Sebastian has joined a secretive biomedical research institute in London whose purpose is opaque even to him. Clara has joined what might or might not be a doomsday cult on Easter Island. And Matilda is the stepmother in a nuclear family unit in Berlin.

Of the three, Sebastian has the most interesting career. Among his charges at the London Institute of Cognitive Science (LICS) are a monkey with a defined moral compass; a client who dreams of giving birth in a toilet and awakens to find she suddenly has world-class artistic skills; and a woman who has begun to lose the ability to see the world in three dimensions.

Then their mother drops a bombshell: One of the three might have been switched out at the hospital, but she doesn’t want to say who until they can all get together face-to-face. This, as you might expect, causes a fair amount of consternation among the might-not-all-be-kinfolk. 

How they aim to mend their estrangement and cope with their possible nonfamilial ties occupies the majority of A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding, which straddles science fiction, whodunit and soapy drama. While all of the main characters are deeply—really deeply—flawed, Svensson has you rooting for them through their highs and lows. “Nothing ever ends, but everything ends,” she writes. “That’s why soap operas are the only true narrative form, and the soap bubble the only true art form.”

While all of her main characters are deeply—really deeply—flawed, Amanda Svensson has you rooting for them through their highs and lows.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s third novel, On the Rooftop, is a welcome disruption, both to literary trends and in her own publishing career. In a time of immense social upheaval, when many African American writers are foregrounding issues of race, economics and oppression in their books, Sexton chose to write a novel that centers on Black ambition and resiliency.

“With [my previous two novels], it felt like most of my interviews were sociological conversations,” Sexton says from her California home, “but I wanted to be talking about the work.” So for On the Rooftop, she didn’t have a rigid agenda. Instead, her novel emphasizes “the endurance and the joy of a community . . . while also drawing attention to the history of the issues and the fact that they still continue to exist.”

Set in 1950s San Francisco, On the Rooftop focuses on the multifaceted yet endearing Vivian, who has complicated relationships with her three daughters, Ruth, Esther and Chloe. The widowed Vivian dreams of stardom for her musically gifted daughters, who sing together as the Salvations. The young women are popular performers at a local spot called the Champagne Supper Club, and Vivian has hooked the attention of an enigmatic talent manager. 

However, just as the Salvations are on the cusp of fame, Vivian’s aspirations are challenged by personal trauma and their neighborhood’s changing landscape. Her daughters are also beginning to prioritize their own desires over their mother’s prescribed plan. Loosely inspired by Fiddler on the Roof and told from multiple perspectives, On the Rooftop is a masterful examination of family and community that celebrates the legacy of Black dreams and determination.   

“The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism.”

Readers of Sexton’s previous historical novels will recognize On the Rooftop‘s exploration of the often-complex relationships between mothers and daughters. “I can’t escape it,” Sexton says. “There is just so much to be mined. They are such primal relationships, and even the best ones are fraught.” 

In the novel, Sexton describes Vivian’s feelings about motherhood with care and nuance, successfully avoiding tropes and instead creating a character who embodies very specific personal and cultural dynamics. Vivian is a Louisiana transplant who lost her husband, Ellis, long ago, and whose own musical dreams were stunted by her difficult life. This is not, however, your typical parent-living-through-their-child story. “I feel like Vivian has some challenges around when to let go, but I think she ultimately does learn to do so,” Sexton says. “At her best level, she has learned when it’s time to step aside, and I think that’s what parenting is—surrendering to the child’s metamorphosis into an adult.”

The distinct relationships between Vivian and each of her daughters reflect their divergent personalities, histories and ambitions. Vivian puts much of her faith in Ruth—the eldest, the quintessential rock, the de facto leader of the sisters. Ruth has a strained relationship with middle sister Esther, who dreams of making an impact but has conflicting ideas about how to do so. Chloe, the youngest daughter, yearns for her mother, sisters and community to recognize her gifts. 

Sexton notes that despite their differences, all four women are ultimately searching for the same thing: security. “I love that through each of the girls, you get a different window into what security means,” she says. “The goal is for all of them to feel safe in their own separate worlds.” 

The past is ever-present for each of them, and nodes of memory function as creative forces, influencing the women as they navigate generational trauma, interpersonal violence and grief. Vivian, for example, grapples with recollections from her Louisiana homeland and the aftermath of Ellis’ death. As Sexton notes, these memories catalyze Vivian’s goals for her daughters, her self-esteem and her ability to love again. 

“I feel like honoring the memories that you hold is a symbol for the entire book,” she says. “For Vivian . . . she has these painful memories of segregation in the South, of humiliation in the South and of her father’s tragic death in the South. She can’t forget those memories. She can’t erase them, and she can’t bury them. She has to somehow continue to hold those memories and almost transform them into something educational for herself in order to allow this new world to enter into her space.”

Vivian’s memories were also an important factor in Sexton’s writing process. After setting her previous two novels in her hometown of New Orleans, the author wanted to explore the Bay Area, her home of 15 years. The former lawyer, who has a degree in creative writing from Dartmouth College, was cautious, however, feeling that she had yet to possess the cultural authority to imagine her adopted home. “It made sense to me to make Vivian someone who had been born in Louisiana, so we were both coming from the same place,” Sexton says. “She was basically a visitor. Her lens and my lens are not any different.”

During the 1950s, San Francisco’s Fillmore District was considered the “Harlem of the West,” a nod to its similarity to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. The Fillmore’s Black community began to emerge during what is known as the Great Migration, a national trend of northern and western movement as many African Americans left the South in search of new residential and occupational opportunities and to escape the horrors of Jim Crow. The predominantly Black neighborhood became the center of San Francisco’s vibrant jazz scene, where transcendent legends collaborated with local musicians in the many clubs that lined the streets. 

 “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this.”

Sexton has a personal connection to the Great Migration. Similar to her characters, members of her own family moved from Louisiana to California in the 1940s and ’50s. When Sexton arrived in the area decades later, these family members welcomed her with open arms, allowing her to immediately feel a sense of community in her new home. She inscribes this sentiment into On the Rooftop

“I love that they brought Louisiana to the Bay Area,” Sexton says, “and that they created this mini-community that was an echo of their own that they had left back home, [where] they could access all of the sources of comfort. . . . They founded the same churches that they would have gone to back home.”

In the novel, Vivian and her daughters dream of musical stardom as a way to secure liberty in the face of racial and economic oppression, and as the Salvations channel their existential angst into jazz and blues numbers performed at Black-owned Fillmore clubs, they share stages with iconic musicians such as Dinah Washington and Lena Horne. While brief, these cameos ground the story in very real historical dynamics. From blues to jazz to gospel and hip hop, music has been the lifeblood of Black people in America, conveying emotion, building community and offering pathways to freedom. Music feels like its own character in On the Rooftop, a vibrant entity that seems to breathe, occupy space and impact social activity.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton author photo
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of ‘On the Rooftop’

“Setting [On the Rooftop] in the jazz era really enlivens the book,” Sexton says. “The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism and so much hope, you know, to work in the shipyards. They had more money than they ever had before. They re-created this community so it felt like home. And this musical scene was part of this.”

In the book, the community’s camaraderie and stability are undermined by white businessmen who begin buying up property in the area. For these businessmen and their partners in government, the Fillmore was a blight, despite being a strong Black residential and business base. Some property owners sold out for a quick windfall, while others resisted until the seemingly benevolent offers turned into harassment. Some continued to fight, as Esther does in the novel.

This process, known as “urban renewal,” affected African American communities across the country in the 1950s and ’60s and is an antecedent to present-day gentrification. While some Black neighborhoods were wiped out through this process, others were able to persist and still exist in some form. With On the Rooftop, Sexton hoped to present a portrait of community resiliency for contemporary neighborhoods resisting gentrification. 

“I want people to be aware of the fact that it’s been around for a long time and that it continues,” Sexton says. “We need to start having conversations, and we need to start creating policies that preempt it, right, that abolish it. And I want people to experience the joy and the endurance of a community that has undergone it and still continued to flourish.” 

Sexton’s work entertains and inspires at the same time, and with On the Rooftop, she urges us to find comfort in the triumphs of our past. “I hope that it will relay the security of knowing that we’re not all alone in this,” she says. “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this. We kind of have a blueprint for how to fix it and how to heal ourselves in the process.”

Photos of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton by Smeeta Mahanti

In the third novel from the author of A Kind of Freedom and The Revisioners, the sweetest song comes from the heart of San Francisco's 1950s jazz scene.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s third novel, On the Rooftop, is a creative exploration of family, community and resilience set in San Francisco’s historically Black Fillmore neighborhood in the 1950s. 

Told from multiple perspectives, the novel centers on Vivian, who came to San Francisco from New Orleans after the death of her husband, the father of her children. She works a good job as a medical assistant, but past traumas and current precariousness prevent her from feeling true comfort. She puts most of her energy toward shepherding the singing careers of her three daughters, Ruth, Esther and Chloe, who perform as a group called the Salvations. Vivian dreams of more for her daughters and tirelessly pushes them to practice on their building’s rooftop in preparation for their shows at the Champagne Supper Club.

Vivian’s daughters have their own dreams, however. Their mother believes the eldest, Ruth, has the most star potential, but Ruth’s hopes are a bit more modest. Middle daughter Esther is searching for her own voice while grappling with past traumas. Chloe, the overlooked youngest, is grasping for recognition in both her professional life and personal relationships. Amid all this, their Fillmore neighborhood is being threatened by an urban renewal program that would dismantle the physical and symbolic community. 

Loosely inspired by Fiddler on the Roof, On the Rooftop is a refreshing work of historical fiction that provides a window into Black life outside of the direct prism of racist oppression. While the specters of racism are present in the story, Sexton chooses to center themes of motherhood, memory, music and hope. She has carefully imagined a compelling social world built on the very real cultural dynamics of the legendary Fillmore neighborhood, known as the “Harlem of the West” for the vibrant Black community within its borders. 

On the Rooftop is a quiet page turner that can serve as a beacon of hope in any trying time. 

On the Rooftop is a quiet page turner that can serve as a beacon of hope in any trying time.
Review by

Denny Tran is dead. No one seems to know how or why, even though he died in a popular and crowded restaurant where he and his pals had gone to celebrate the end of the high school year. Improbable though it may sound, everyone seems to have been in the restroom or have been averting their eyes at that moment. But Denny’s sister, Ky, the protagonist of Tracey Lien’s suspenseful debut novel, All That’s Left Unsaid, is determined to get answers.

Ky is a journalist living in Melbourne, Australia, and to find out what happened to her sweet-natured, brilliant, beloved younger brother, she’ll have to return to her hardscrabble hometown and interrogate people from her own community. The Vietnamese émigrés of Cabramatta—a suburb of Sydney—spend their lives sacrificing and compromising, trying to stay out of trouble and sometimes falling short. This includes Ky and Denny’s checked-out father and loud, infuriating yet surprisingly lovable mother.

Coming back to her parents’ home, Ky must resist lapsing into the role of obedient daughter—the child who never causes trouble or makes anyone uncomfortable, who nearly wrecks herself trying to meet familial expectations. If Ky wants to expose the truth of her brother’s gruesome death, she’s going to have to make some people uncomfortable.

Fortunately, Ky has a superpower, even as she struggles to acknowledge it. Part of her conscience—the voice that can cut through the nonsense and get at some cold, hard truths—comes from her former friend Minnie. For years, docile, striving Ky and hard, cynical Minnie were inseparable, until adolescence struck and wedged them apart. Ky still holds onto a part of Minnie, and this connection bolsters Ky as she demands answers at the local police department. It gives her the nerve to interview her former high school teacher, the restaurant’s wedding singer, Denny’s best friend and other people who were present on that terrible, fatal night.

All That’s Left Unsaid might remind some readers of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, another novel about a journalist daughter returning to her fractious hometown to investigate a murder and having to engage with both a difficult family and former neighbors who are reluctant to talk. Like Camille Preaker, Ky discovers something shocking in the end. Yet Lien’s novel, by turns gripping and heartbreaking, makes room for forgiveness and understanding. Ky knows all about her people, and to know all is to forgive all.

All That's Left Unsaid might remind some readers of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, with a journalist daughter returning to her fractious hometown to investigate a murder.
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The Chinese Cultural Revolution, devised by the appalling Chairman Mao Tse-tung, was catastrophic for most of the people caught up in it. Children were separated from their families and sent to work farms to get a taste of proletarian life. Educators were targeted as agents of capitalism or the bourgeoisie. Dissidents were incarcerated in forced labor camps, and many people were arrested, denounced and disappeared for displaying even a hint of disagreement with government policy. The really bad news, as is seen in Belinda Huijuan Tang’s splendid A Map for the Missing, is that for some, the Cultural Revolution never quite ended.

In January 1993, Tang Yitian receives a call from his mother in China, which is startling in itself because she must travel to even find a phone. Yitian’s father is missing, she says. No one knows where he is or why he was taken—if indeed he was taken at all. Heeding the call of duty, Yitian, who has lived in the United States for nearly 10 years, flies home to investigate. 

The operative word for Yitian is duty, not so much love. He and his father never got along, and the older man always disparaged Yitian’s desire for a better education and an easier life than the hardscrabble one his family endured in their little village. Tang gives a beautiful sense of Yitian’s fear, sorrow and unspoken resentment—toward both his father, for his bullying nature and the favoritism he showed toward Yitian’s late older brother, and his mother, for her seemingly endless subservience.

At times, A Map for the Missing brings to mind George Orwell’s 1984, though unlike that novel’s dystopian England (called Airstrip One), the chilling and deeply sad China depicted here is real. Yitian’s search for his father makes Winston Smith’s life on Airstrip One seem like a holiday in a warm climate. Even Winston’s love interest, Julia, has a counterpart in Yitian’s story: a woman called Hanwen, whose hunger for education and betterment is as strong as Yitian’s. She hails from the big city of Shanghai, but she’s been sent to the provinces for her edification, and her desire to help Yitian is prompted as much by the trauma of this forced relocation as it is by her not-so-secret love for him.

Along with Yitian, Hanwen and Yitian’s parents, Tang brings additional secondary characters to life, such Yitian’s beloved, broken grandfather and the unhappy girls who labor on the farm with Hanwen. The novel’s many teachers, police officers, clerks, shopkeepers and other bureaucrats are individuals and never interchangeable.

It’s astonishing that A Map for the Missing is Tang’s debut novel. This 400-page book, whose protagonist navigates a purgatory of twists and turns, red herrings and dead ends, is gripping from its first page to its last.

Belinda Huijuan Tang’s splendid debut novel follows a Chinese American son through a purgatory of twists and turns, red herrings and dead ends, in the search for his missing father.
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What does it mean to be a family? Why do people adopt children? How does a person choose to be, or not be, a parent? When a novel asks questions such as these, there’s often a singular instance or moment that provides an answer, or at the very least, a primary lens through which the possibilities are considered. The beauty of Eleanor Brown’s third novel is that she positions these questions in conversation, asking the how, why and what through the stories of several parents. We see many different choices and the ramifications of each.

The family in Any Other Family is constructed on its own terms: As the novel opens, four siblings live with three sets of parents. Each child was born to the same young woman, who chose open adoptions, enabling the children to maintain relationships not only with her but also with each other. The whole family is committed to raising the children with regular gatherings for Sunday dinners and holidays. And now, for the first time, they’re all taking a two-week family vacation, during which time they’ll learn to interact in new ways, encounter unexpected challenges and be forced, again, to consider how they form a family and what, exactly, that might mean.

The novel unfolds through the alternating perspectives of the three adoptive mothers, revealing their strengths and challenges with equal care. Brown’s tenderness toward these women, as well as the fathers, their children and the birth mother and father, draws readers toward empathy as well, as we feel our way into the complexities and nuances of the characters’ seemingly impossible choices. Empathy functions differently when examples are iterative, and one of the greatest rewards of reading Brown’s novel is the ability to engage with a multiplicity of perspectives.

There’s joy to be found in the struggle, and Any Other Family offers a thoughtful space to experience this truth.

There’s joy to be found in the struggle, and Eleanor Brown’s novel about an unusual adoptive family is a thoughtful exploration of this truth.

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