Selin, hero of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, returns with a voice that is more mature, reflective and droll as she starts to move out of her novels and into her own self.
Selin, hero of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, returns with a voice that is more mature, reflective and droll as she starts to move out of her novels and into her own self.
Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.
Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Aue

Becky Manawatu's debut novel is ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.
Becky Manawatu's debut novel is ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.
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Elif Batuman’s Either/Or is a delightful invitation to reunite with Selin by picking up her adventures where we left off in The Idiot. Now a sophomore at Harvard University, Selin continues to explore, meander and wonder throughout the autumn of 1996, the spring of ’97 and the summer that follows.

Selin’s voice is notably more mature, more reflective and perhaps more droll, and yet she’s still true to herself as she tries to figure out who, exactly, that self is and can be. She attempts to make sense of the previous summer—her travels in Hungary, her time with her crush, Ivan, and his strangeness and distance, and all the many experiences she’s lived but doesn’t yet understand—and searches for guidance through the works assigned for her literature class, including The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard and more.

As Either/Or moves through the year, Selin begins to live actively rather than reflexively; she develops agency, and her choices have power. As she shows an increasing awareness of and engagement with the world, she starts to move out of her novels and into her own self.

Readers will find the tensions of history and present-day politics difficult to miss while reading Either/Or: Russian literature is a strong influence in Selin’s life, and her on-campus job is at the Ukrainian Research Institute. The 1990s technology is a throwback and a joy, and it’s fascinating to consider the ways that email and the internet have changed and shaped everything in our world, from relationships to travel. There’s humor in the lived experiences of parties, classes, alcohol and sex, and Batuman’s balancing of all these elements is remarkable.

Our present moment will change, and technology will continue to evolve, but undoubtedly Selin’s voice will remain a gem.

Selin, hero of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, returns with a voice that is more mature, reflective and droll as she starts to move out of her novels and into her own self.

Sleepwalk is a wild ride across an eerie near-future America in the company of a surprisingly endearing kidnapper, arsonist and hit man. As emotionally charged as it is comically bleak, Dan Chaon’s fast-paced novel is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Chaon’s off-the-grid 50-something protagonist, Will Bear, thinks of himself as a “blank Scrabble piece” whose collection of aliases is rivaled only by his stash of burner phones. Fresh from a courier assignment, he answers one of those burners and is greeted by the voice of a young woman who calls herself Cammie and claims she’s Will’s daughter, the result of a sperm donation made three decades earlier. Things only get stranger from there, as Cammie reveals that Will’s contributions may have resulted in a small army of offspring.

Sleepwalk follows Will and Flip, the pit bull he rescued from a dog-fighting compound, in a race across a bleakly beautiful American landscape that’s scarred by civil unrest and plague cities, its endless highways now dotted with military checkpoints and “rabbit-beetle hybrid drones.” Though Will, who’s fond of microdosing LSD and ruminating about his epitaph, is increasingly intrigued by the prospect of being the patriarch of an expanding brood, the criminal syndicate that employs Will has reasons for dispatching him to eliminate Cammie—reasons that slowly become clear to him.

As Will shifts from being the target of Cammie’s outreach to becoming her ostensible pursuer in a shifting game of cat-and-mouse, he also has considerable time to reflect on his own troubled early years in the company of a mother who was “on the sociopathic spectrum, I guess,” and was “part of an anarchist collective that was more or less a cult,” a life that launched Will on his own shadowy career.

In Sleepwalk’s short, tightly written chapters, descriptions of apocalyptic cults, bizarre eugenics schemes and sheer mayhem vie with Will’s moments of profound regret and the faint hope that somehow his life could take a different path, as he longs to “wake up someday on a desert island with amnesia.”

The author of six previous books (both novels and story collections) that feature suspenseful plots and a distinctive literary flair, Chaon marries those qualities once again in memorable fashion while never losing sight of Sleepwalk’s emotional core: an interrogation of the power of ancestry and the way it helps shape our destinies.

Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Aue

In the Māori language, an auē is an anguished wail, a cry from the heart. Among the frustrations likeliest to cause such a lament are domestic violence and racism. New Zealand writer Becky Manawatu explores both of these painful forms of dominion in her impressive debut novel.

Manawatu gave herself a big challenge with Auē: Not only does her novel explore two fraught forms of subjection, but she also splits her narrative into three distinct perspectives. Two of them are Māori brothers, 17-year-old Taukiri and 8-year-old Ārama. Their father has died, and their mother has disappeared, so Taukiri drives Ārama to their Aunty Kat and Uncle Stu’s farm in Kaikōura, a coastal town on New Zealand’s South Island. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Taukiri assures his brother, yet he’s convinced Ārama will be better off without him.

As Manawatu skillfully shows, that’s not necessarily true. Ārama finds support from his Aunty Kat and neighbors Beth and Tom Aiken, but Uncle Stu is a brute, the type of ruffian to give his wife a black eye over his latest grievance, and who snatches a letter written by Taukiri and burns it before Ārama can read it.

Ārama is so distressed by his dislocation that he covers his body in bandages to calm himself. It would be of greater help for Taukiri to return, but in his brother’s absence, Ārama is comforted by memories they’ve shared and his ownership of a bone carving he and Taukiri fashioned from the carcass of a dead baby whale.

The book’s third storyline follows Jade and Toko, who, years earlier, meet at a beach party after Jade’s cousin Sav helps her to escape an abusive boyfriend. Jade, too, contends with domestic problems; her mother, Felicity, is loving but has “a craving for drugs.”

The tension in Auē sometimes flags, and some key details are withheld too long, but overall Manawatu does a nice job of gradually revealing secrets and the intricacies of the characters’ myriad tragedies. Auē exposes the racism some New Zealanders feel toward Māoris, but it’s ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.

Becky Manawatu's debut novel is ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.

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.

Post-World War II London was a grim place, despite the Brits’ nominal victory: The skies seemed forever gray, rationing made life difficult, and rubble from the London Blitz needed to be cleared away. Still, some things persevered, like the monarchy and even quirky little bookstores. One such bookshop is the setting for Natalie Jenner’s captivating second novel, Bloomsbury Girls.

Something else that survived the war was unrepentant male chauvinism. It’s in just about every move made by Herbert Dutton, general manager of the century-old Bloomsbury Books. It is the reason Evie Stone is working at Bloomsbury Books instead of at Cambridge University, despite being one of the first women to earn a degree from that institution. It’s why Grace Perkins, Herbert’s secretary, has to rush home to make tea for her lousy layabout of a husband, and it’s what’s driving Vivien Lowry, who works in the store’s fiction department, out of her mind with rage.

Fortunately, the bookstore owner is a genuinely kind man despite his lofty status as an earl, and the head of the store’s science and naturalism department, Ash Ramaswamy, has a gentle demeanor as well. However, Ash is from India, so his mildness might be a defense mechanism against English racism, which is just as bad as English sexism. Ash and Evie strike up a sweet relationship, but in this world, men make the decisions, and women, as Evie says, “abide ’em.”

Until they don’t.

Jenner boldly mixes real history with her fictional creations, and readers who enjoy the “nonfiction novel” genre will find pleasure in parsing facts from embellishments. In particular, Evie’s great passion for cataloging books leads her to the rediscovery of one of the rarest books in the world, a science fiction novel titled The Mummy! This real-life prescient work was published in 1827 by 17-year-old Jane Webb, who went on to write more anodyne books on gardening. The Mummy! might be the way out for the downtrodden women of Bloomsbury Books. It might even be a vehicle for revenge.

Jenner, the bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, draws readers into her tale with a genial, matter-of-fact style that’s exactly what’s expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore. Each chapter begins with one of Herbert’s many ridiculous rules, most of which are broken over the course of the book. But Bloomsbury Girls’ surface coziness puts the tumult of its characters in relief, giving the novel unexpected depth and complexity.

Natalie Jenner's captivating Bloomsbury Girls has a genial, matter-of-fact style that's exactly what's expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore.

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