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Endurance isn't always a desirable quality. When the goal is admirable—creating art that will survive for generations, or persevering to achieve a noble dream—fortitude is a strength worth demonstrating. But if the goal is deplorable, such as when reinforcing the continuance of racist behavior, the determination to triumph merits no such respect.

Many forms of endurance are at the center of Horse, Geraldine Brooks' return to themes she explored so well in previous works, such as her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, March, which chronicles many of the injustices that occurred during America's Civil War. Loosely based on a true story, Horse involves a discarded painting and a dusty skeleton, both of which concern a foal widely considered “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history.”

Brooks shifts her narrative among three related stories in as many centuries. In 2019, Theo, a Nigerian American graduate student at Georgetown University whose thesis is on 19th-century American equestrian art, makes a felicitous discovery, albeit from an unfriendly source. A racist widow who lives across the street from his apartment allows him to pick through the unwanted items she has put out on the sidewalk. His choice: an oil painting of a bright bay colt with four white feet.

Coincidentally enough—and indeed, some readers may find that the events in Horse rely too heavily on coincidence—a young white Australian woman named Jess, who runs the Smithsonian Museum's vertebrate Osteology Prep Lab, discovers the articulated skeleton of the horse depicted in Theo's painting. Theo and Jess eventually meet, although it's a mortifying moment for her: Jess intimates that Theo is stealing her bike, when in fact he's unlocking his identical model. Together they investigate the history of the horse.

That history is detailed in sections set in Kentucky and Louisiana in the 1850s and '60s. Paramount among characters from the past are Jarret, an enslaved Black man who becomes the groom for the horse; Thomas J. Scott, a white Pennsylvania man who has come to Kentucky to paint animals; and Richard Ten Broeck, a wealthy white man whose interest in the horse is more mercenary than sportsmanlike.

The book's third sections, set in 1950s New York, involve Martha Jackson, a real-life art dealer and equestrian lover who gains possession of the famous painting. Her sections add little, but Horse is brilliant when Brooks focuses on the 19th century and dramatizes American prejudice and discrimination before, during and after the Civil War. Jarret is a particularly memorable character, especially in his scenes with the horse and the painter, as is the slippery Ten Broeck, whose motivations are brilliantly set up and whose actions will resonate with chilling familiarity.

Brooks' novel is an audacious work that reinforces, with sobering immediacy, the sad fact that racism has a remarkable capacity to endure.

Geraldine Brooks returns to themes she explored so well in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, March.

“There is no wealth but life,” wrote John Ruskin near the end of his 1860 book, Unto This Last. The unnamed narrator of Andrew Holleran's doleful fourth novel, The Kingdom of Sand, cites Ruskin midway through, by which time readers know the reason this quotation is on his mind. A gay man in his 60s, the narrator is living alone in conservative North Florida, surrounded by dying neighbors and contemplating the harsh reality of impermanence. 

A nonlinear, episodic novel focused on the transient nature of life could have been depressing, but Holleran's thoughtful, poetic treatment makes this material deeply moving and an important contribution to the literature of mortality. It's one of the most beautiful novels of the year.

Each of the book's five chapters touches on aging and the adjustments a person must make as they get older. Among the characters are the narrator's 84-year-old father, who sees no reason to avoid having “four fried eggs and a rasher of bacon every morning” while his wife lies paralyzed in a nursing home after a fall.

Now that the narrator is closer to the end of his life than to the beginning, he has found many ways to take his mind off the inevitable, from visiting a Gainesville boat ramp where men congregate for sex to watching gay porn on his laptop. A more meaningful connection is his friendship with Earl, 20 years the narrator's senior. After decades of teaching accounting in South Florida, Earl moved north to a house big enough to hold his books and opera records. He and the narrator share a platonic friendship that revolves around meeting at Earl's house to watch old movies, and as the years pass, the narrator becomes Earl's caregiver.

The novel gains considerable power from its recognition that no attempt at immortality, whether through art or other means, guarantees success. Classical radio stations change their format to all-talk, azaleas and camellias eventually droop, and every life, no matter how privileged, comes to an end.

The Kingdom of Sand is not for readers interested in lighthearted fare, but it's a stunning meditation on what happens, as the narrator says, “when old age gets its claws in you.” Around the same time he cites Ruskin, the narrator reads a book on dying that offers sobering advice: Live a good life, because you're not going to have much control over your ending. This exquisite novel offers similar counsel: The final destination may be grim, but with luck and a good set of directions, one can at least enjoy the ride.

A nonlinear novel focused on the transient nature of life could have been depressing, but Andrew Holleran's thoughtful, poetic treatment makes The Kingdom of Sand one of the most beautiful novels of the year.

Call it prayer, call it intention or manifestation, call it “throwing it out into the universe to see what we get back.” At some point, we all have had a fundamentally unanswerable question whose solution we hoped to find somewhere in the great “out there.” In Cult Classic, the second novel from bestselling author and two-time Thurber Prize finalist Sloane Crosley, former psychology magazine editor Clive Glenn has reinvented himself as a New Age guru with a side of tech entrepreneur. He’s like L. Ron Hubbard by way of Gwyneth Paltrow, with a dash of Elon Musk.

Clive’s project, the Golconda, promises to “put your past into a cohesive whole in an abbreviated time frame, thereby setting an actual course correction for closure.” The Golconda’s Classic package arranges meet cutes with a user’s former paramours, followed by a debrief on a device that’s like a cross between a polygraph and the Scientology E-meter.

Clive’s former staffer Lola wants to confront her ex-lovers to discover why things blew up and maybe get a handle on where to go—if anywhere—with her fiancé, a laid-back glass artist called Boots. The source of Lola’s agita is not uncommon with folks tying the knot for the first time; fans of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity will recognize it straightaway. Is settling down the same thing as settling for less? And might we be more compatible with one of our exes than with the bird in the hand, if we’d known then what we know now? As Lola begins to uncover answers through the Classic package, she is also confronted with some troubling questions, both about her current relationship and about the Golconda project itself.

Through Lola, Crosley wields language like a rapier, slicing off layers of self-delusion and self-doubt to find even more layers underneath. Lola needs to make some hard decisions about her spouse-to-be-or-not-to-be, but in order to do that, she must uncover the secret at the heart of her guru’s creation. Does Golconda, like Lola’s checkered past with men, carry within it the seeds of its own destruction? If it implodes, can she withstand the fallout? And will the universe call her back before it’s too late?

In her second novel, Cult Classic, Sloane Crosley wields language like a rapier, slicing off onion layers of self-delusion and self-doubt to find even more layers underneath.

Joseph Han’s beautifully strange debut novel, Nuclear Family, is full of ghosts and spirits, real and metaphorical. At first it seems to be a relatively straightforward intergenerational saga about a Korean family in Hawaii, but soon the inventiveness of Han’s storytelling becomes apparent, and readers are submerged in a world where nothing is quite as it seems.

Hoping for a fresh start away from his family, 20-something Jacob Cho takes a job teaching English in Seoul. Not long after his arrival, he attempts to cross the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and is taken into custody. Back in Hawaii, his family is consumed with worry. His parents are struggling to keep their restaurant in business, while his sister, Grace, spends more and more of her time getting high.

None of them know that Jacob has been possessed by the ghost of his dead grandfather, Tae-woo, who is desperate to get across the DMZ to reunite with the family he left behind during the war. In Jacob, Tae-woo sees his best chance to get across the wall that has kept him—and countless others—separated from those they love, even in death.

Through this literal possession of a young man by a sly and grieving grandfather, Han tells a moving and specific story about more symbolic possessions—how violence possesses bodies, how history possesses the present and how a person’s stories remain alive in their descendants, even if those stories go unspoken.

Events unfold through a dizzying array of voices: Jacob, Grace and their parents; Tae-woo and his fellow ghosts; Jacob’s other grandparents; and a kind of Greek chorus of local Hawaiians, both Native and immigrant families. Han zooms in and out, moving between perspectives, times and places. These quick shifts in tone and voice can be disorienting, but they also give the novel its momentum.

Nuclear Family is about the trauma of living with invented borders, about dispossession and exile, and about the unhealed wounds of war that are felt across generations. Han’s characters—both dead and alive—are haunted by the past, even as they seek to escape it. Darkly funny, delightfully surprising and with a sprinkling of unusual formatting that reveals hidden subplots, Han’s debut bears witness to the brutal realities of war and imperialism while honoring the many kinds of magic that exist in the world.

Darkly funny and delightfully surprising, Joseph Han's debut novel, Nuclear Family, explores the trauma of invented borders through the possession of a young man by the ghost of his sly and grieving grandfather.

There are many pieces of fiction that attempt to capture and explore our collective fascination with true crime, but while those stories manage to convey at least some of the truths surrounding that obsession, few ever reach its emotional core. Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel, More Than You'll Ever Know, joins those select ranks, as this elegant, evocative tale of suspense burrows straight to the heart of our cultural true crime fixation through an intense emotional dance between two seemingly different women.

Cassie Bowman is a true crime blogger who dreams of more. After years of trafficking in the seediest corners of the genre, she wants to take her journalism prowess to new heights and prove that she has something to say about the ways people hurt each other. When she stumbles upon the story of Dolores “Lore” Rivera—a banker whose double life led to one of her husbands murdering the other in 1985—Cassie thinks she might have finally found a tale worth telling. When the two women finally meet, though, the tension between their personalities kicks off a series of conversations that reveals the truth about both of their pasts.

Told across two time periods set decades apart and narrated through both Cassie’s and Lore’s perspectives, More Than You'll Ever Know has all the ingredients necessary for a good thriller. Gutierrez writes with an instinctive understanding of the scaffolding necessary to keep readers turning the pages, and the narrative flies by as the dramatic and emotional tensions in both women’s lives ratchet up.

Beyond the novel’s well-executed, suspenseful structure, Gutierrez also clearly understands her characters, where they’ve come from and what they want and need. Both women are searching for something, longing for understanding in a world full of mysteries that are never solved. Whether it’s Lore’s emotional journey or Cassie’s deep dive into her chosen journalistic genre, Gutierrez has crafted detailed, vulnerable portraits of women searching for clues to their own survival. In the process, she unearths some truly compelling insights about our cultural obsession with true crime.

Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel burrows straight to the heart of our true crime fixation through an intense emotional dance between two seemingly different women.

Longtime fans of Nina LaCour’s teen novels will be enchanted by the quietly powerful Yerba Buena, her first book for adult readers. It unfolds without any fanfare through a series of intimate and brilliantly observed details about growing up and into yourself. From one seemingly ordinary scene to the next, the relentless momentum of our imperfect, chaotic lives pulses through LaCour’s prose.

At 16, Sara is desperate to flee her small hometown on Northern California’s Russian River and get far away from her difficult childhood, her drug-dealing father and memories of her dead mother. When her girlfriend dies suddenly, Sara seizes the first opportunity to run. Pushing aside the traumas of her past, she begins to make a life for herself in Los Angeles.

Emilie is an LA native struggling with more nebulous challenges. She’s not sure what she wants, so she flits from major to major in college, and then from job to job. She doesn’t feel at ease in her family, as she’s still grieving the loss of the closeness she used to share with her sister.

Emilie and Sara meet at a restaurant where Sara tends bar and Emilie arranges flowers. They spend one meaningful night together, but it’s a long time before they connect again.

Yerba Buena is not a simple romance. It’s a layered story about the process of learning to love yourself, of holding onto and letting go of painful history, and of building your own home. Along the way, LaCour captures all the aches and hurts and betrayals and sensual delights of being in your 20s. Emilie and Sara get tangled in messy relationships—romantic, platonic and familial. They make impulsive choices as well as smart ones. They yearn for each other, but they aren’t ready for each other, and so they return, again and again, to their own lives, tumbling forward, muddling through, making mistakes and starting again.

LaCour’s prose has a soft, flowing quality and a lushness that readers of her previous books will recognize. She’s adept at describing the things that matter most to her protagonists: the colors of a flower arrangement, the quality of light on a wooden floor, a facial expression, the taste of a beloved gumbo recipe. She’s even better at describing tumultuous emotional landscapes. Sara and Emilie are such fully realized characters that by the end of the novel, you will feel as though you’ve spent time with cherished friends.

Bursting with emotionally resonant moments and vivid details of LA neighborhoods, Yerba Buena is a remarkable story of queer love and childhood trauma, addiction and forgiveness, family legacies and new beginnings.

In her first novel for adult readers, Nina LaCour captures all the aches and hurts and betrayals and sensual delights of being in your 20s.

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