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All Literary Fiction Coverage

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Welsh author Carys Davies (West) is still breaking into American readership, but it won’t take her long. Her latest historical novel, Clear, which thoughtfully explores a passionate friendship set against religious and civic changes in mid-19th century Scotland, is bound to expand her audience.

John Ferguson is a poor Presbyterian minister struggling to provide for himself and his wife, Mary. Desperate, he accepts a challenging mission to evict the remaining inhabitants of a remote Shetland island. Soon after his arrival on the island, he is injured in a fall while walking the cliffs, and his unconscious body is found by Ivar, the island’s sole occupant. Ivar brings John to his croft and nurses him back to health. Unable to understand one another (Ivar speaks a dialect of an archaic Scandinavian language called Norn) the two men form a tenuous friendship and gradually share enough words to communicate, though John postpones admitting to Ivar why he is really on the island. Long-isolated and having had only animals for company, Ivar takes pleasure in living with and caring for another person, while John, who continues to keep his mission a secret, begins to have second thoughts about the morality of his assignment. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Mary grows uneasy with the nature of her husband’s undertaking and resolves to follow him, undertaking the difficult passage north on her own.

Davies sets her novel at the crux of two historical upheavals: the 1843 break of the Free Presbyterian Church from the Church of Scotland over the issue of landowners influencing the placement of clergy, and the final years of the Scottish Clearances, in which hundreds of rural poor were evicted to create additional grazing land for livestock. Davies is attentive to these details but keeps her focus on the relationships as the narrative moves seamlessly between the three main characters. With breathtaking descriptions of the natural world and a tender exploration of an unexpected friendship, Clear challenges readers’ expectations, offering a powerful and unusual story of connection.

Carys Davies sets Clear at the crux of two historic upheavals in 1800s Scotland but keeps her focus on her characters.
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The Safekeep, Yael van der Wouden’s debut novel, is set in 1961 rural Holland. At 30, Isabel is living in the house where she was raised after the death of her father forced the family’s move from the city and into a furnished house their uncle Karel found for them. Isabel lives a circumscribed and watchful life, guarding her dead mother’s things, suspecting the maid of theft and fending off the attentions of a flirtatious neighbor. Of her brothers, Louis and Hendrik, she is closer to Hendrik, although she disapproves of his friend Sebastian, suspecting a deeper connection. Of Louis and the steady stream of girlfriends he introduces to her, she thinks even less. Until Eva.

The siblings meet Eva at a dinner out. With her clumsy manners and brassy dyed hair, she hardly impresses, and Isabel is shocked when Louis brings her to the house, telling Isabel that Eva must stay there while he goes away on business and showing Eva to their mother’s room. Even under Isabel’s watchful eye, things begin to disappear—a spoon, a bowl, a thimble. More alarming to Isabel is the overwhelming attraction she feels to Eva, an attraction that spills into an obsessive, intensely depicted sexual relationship.

Van der Wouden may be familiar as the author of the 2017 essay “On (Not) Reading Anne Frank,” which explored what it means to be a Dutch Jewish writer and her complicated relationship to Frank’s legacy. As Isabel and Eva’s connection unfolds, Van der Wouden’s true subject comes into view: how ordinary people were implicated in the ethnic cleansing that took place during World War II. Even in peacetime, Isabel and her peers are quick to notice people who appear different, with a fierce disgust that Isabel risks turning on herself as she comes to terms with her sexuality. A novel of redemption as much as revenge, The Safekeep has the pacing and twists of a thriller, while delving into the deeper issues laid bare by the Holocaust.

In Yael van der Wouden’s mesmerizing debut, The Safekeep, Isabel lives a circumscribed life in her dead mother’s house until her brother’s girlfriend comes to stay, alarming Isabel when an obsessive attraction develops between the two.
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There is nothing predictable about Holly Wilson’s debut novel, Kittentits.

Relating the coming-of-age of a 10-year-old girl named Molly Sibly, Kittentits is set in 1992 on the outskirts of Chicago. Molly lives in a dilapidated Quaker co-op called House of Friends, with her once-blind puppeteer father who inexplicably regained his eyesight after a house fire; a community-gardening evangelist named Evelyn, who is also Molly’s home-school teacher; and the ghost of Sister Regina, a nun who perished in the same fire that gave Molly’s father his eyesight back. With a mother who died shortly after her birth and no friends beyond a pen pal named Demarcus who never writes back, Molly’s life is rather lacking for company.

Molly, however, seems blissfully unaware of the misfortune that surrounds her. What she’s focused on is the opening of the World’s Fair and a houseguest named Jeanie who is fresh out of prison and assigned to live in the House of Friends as her halfway house. Molly sets herself the following goal: befriend the thrillingly crass Jeanie, meet Demarcus in person and enjoy the opening day of the World’s Fair with her two new best friends. Then a second goal emerges: open a spiritual portal at the Fair and find the ghost of her mother. I’ll say it again—there’s nothing predictable about this novel. And for this precise reason, Kittentits is nearly impossible to put down.

Narrated by Molly in the first person, the story is a fast-paced, filthy-mouthed adventure, told with an exuberance that can only be expected from a 10-year-old. There is a surrealism to everything that happens that is best not to question (the World’s Fair taking place in 1992 being the least of our worries).

While Molly clearly steals the show as the protagonist, Wilson demonstrates exceptional artistry with the supporting characters, capturing the fundamental experiences of trust, friendship, love and loss. Their backstories, however improbable, will resonate with your personal yearnings.

A bit deranged, a lot unforgettable, Kittentits needs to be your next literary escape.

Kittentits, Holly Wilson’s debut novel, is a fast-paced, filthy-mouthed adventure—led by an exuberant 10-year-old narrator.
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In The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud mesmerized readers with her psychologically astute character portrayals. This Strange Eventful History, her much anticipated sixth novel, draws from the stories of generations of Messud’s own French Algerian family and their reckoning with their position in colonial history.

“I’d been preparing all my life to write this book”: Read our starred review of This Strange Eventful History.

While This Strange Eventful History is a work of fiction, in the afterword, you note that your characters’ “movements hew closely to those of [your] own family.” Would you say more about the process of composing a novel inspired by your family history? Was your experience writing this book different from previous novels?

This novel is more ambitious in scale than anything I’d attempted previously—it spans seven decades and five continents. The places that the characters live at various times in the novel aren’t random—they’re the places where members of my family lived, at the times in which they lived there. The novel is shaped, then, by basic facts; and in some cases by historical incidents. I did a lot of research, in particular for the first half of the book—a good bit involving family documents, but also lots of plain old historical research.

The novel follows three generations of the Cassar family, beginning in Algeria as its colonizer France fell to the Nazis in 1940 and ending in Connecticut in 2010. What impelled you to explore this longer arc of family history?

In his retirement, my devoutly Catholic French grandfather wrote for my sister and me a family memoir about the years before and during the Second World War (covering 1928-1946). He called it “Everything that we believed in”—because he wanted to try to convey to us, his granddaughters, whose secular North American upbringing was so far from his own, what their lives had been like. I’ve realized, over the past decade or so, that the world in which I grew up—the world of the late 20th century, shaped by the postwar years that preceded it—has vanished. In order to explain to people of my kids’ age what it was like—what we believed in, and what our parents believed in—I needed to write a novel that began with the Second World War. Because that cataclysm, of course, determined everything that followed.

Would you tell us about your choice of the novel’s title?

The title is a line from near the end of Jaques’ famous soliloquy, “All the world’s a stage,” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion; / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” The novel is framed around François’ life—from the age of almost 9 until his death, over seven decades (“and one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages”). I chose the title both because it refers to that speech (which is reflected in the novel’s form) and because the shape of François’ life, and of the lives of his family members, are, to me at least, strange and eventful, without being grand or important.

“In order to explain to people of my kids’ age what [the world in which I grew up] was like—what we believed in, and what our parents believed in—I needed to write a novel that began with the Second World War.”

The Cassars’ unhappiness seems to be linked both to a scandalous secret and to being out of sync with history writ large. In your view, what is the relationship of your characters’ lives to larger forces of history?

The Cassars’ unhappiness both is and isn’t linked to a scandalous secret; each member of the family has their own relation to that secret, and for some it’s not unhappy at all—quite the opposite, indeed! I hoped to convey that events are simply themselves, and how we understand them makes all the difference. If you’re devoutly religious, for example, something will look a certain way, and if you’re not, it looks different. The same of course goes for any of our beliefs.

The family is perhaps not so much out of sync with history as simply at the mercy of it. In this case, the family are French colonials in Algeria, and must make their lives elsewhere when Algerian independence comes. Again, each family member has a different reaction to that situation: Gaston and Lucienne put their faith in God, as he says, “like the birds on the breeze”; François creates a life far from France and never speaks of the past; while Denise shapes her life’s narrative around what she experiences as loss. This, I think, reflects the broader reality that each of us is always at the mercy of history’s great events—consider our lives just in the past few years, my goodness!—and that the only thing we have any control over (and sometimes precious little control at that) is how we understand and contend with our challenges.

Uprooted by war and the collapse of French colonialism, the Cassars move frequently, from Algeria to Massachusetts to Argentina, Australia, Canada and France. Your depictions of these places are vivid and precise. What kind of research did you do in composing the novel? How much arises from memory and how much from invention?

I did a lot of research—and I was fortunate to have a lot of help. This is the first time in my life that I’ve worked with research assistants. Over the many years that I worked on the novel, several amazing people helped me discover all kinds of things: political and military history about France, World War II and Algeria, but also what Amherst College was like in the early 1950s; what CEI, the business school outside Geneva, and its environs looked like; and about the man who ran it from the beginning—a great idealist. I’m very grateful to these brilliant helpers. I read lots of published books, of course, as well as my grandfather’s memoir (which is close to 1500 pages handwritten) and many family letters, spanning decades. For example, while I don’t have any letters my dad wrote when studying at Amherst, I have all the letters that his family wrote to him from Algeria. It was an amazing experience to unfold the onionskin sheets and know that nobody had read these pages since my dad tore open each letter, probably while walking out of the campus post office, back in 1953, and then stuffed them back in the envelope—reading them, time collapsed.

Chloe, the youngest Cassar, is the only character to narrate in the first person. From childhood, Chloe sees herself as a guardian to her family and a storyteller. She is curious, sometimes to the point of being nosy. She aspires to be a writer. Do you feel a particular kinship with Chloe?

Yes, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to a certain kinship with the character of Chloe—of course, that’s partly why her sections are in the first person. But they’re also in the first person because the understanding is that she’s the speaker in the prologue, and that she’s writing the book, as it were. I wanted the novel to reflect in some way her evolution, along with the narrative’s, from more traditional third person storytelling to increasing interiority and subjectivity. Hopefully that’s something the reader can feel in the changing rhythms of the prose as well as in the voice.

“Events are simply themselves, and how we understand them makes all the difference.”

Your novel contains some of the most beautiful sentences I have recently read. They are long, elaborate, stately and often inward-dwelling in a way that feels deliberate. Could you tell us about your choice of sentence structure?

Thank you so much—I’m so glad you liked the sentences. I don’t know that it’s so much a choice as almost a sense that the sentences come through me—I hear them in my head, their rhythms, like music. I can feel when a word is off, or the syntax. I have an innate feeling of the shape of a sentence—of each sentence, and of how they sit together as well as each on its own. For me that’s a big part of what writing is—the music of the language, interwoven with meaning. They’re inseparable.

At what point do you share drafts of your work in progress, and with whom?

Historically I’ve shared work earlier, but this time around, I simply had my head down, mostly. I’d written about 100 pages over several years and couldn’t find the space to do it properly while teaching full time, so I took an unpaid leave to write the rest of the book. That meant I had a bit less than eight months and no time to loiter. I write by hand, on graph paper, pretty small, and nobody can really read my manuscripts, or not without effort. So I had to type it into the computer before anyone could read anything. My husband is my first reader, and eventually he read parts of it, and then ultimately the whole thing. Luckily for me, we know each other well at this point; he’s great at being a cheerleader at the right moments, and then offering real criticism when that’s what’s called for.

What were the biggest challenges and satisfactions of writing This Strange Eventful History?

That’s a good question—I think they are linked, in fact. As I mentioned, the scale of this novel is bigger than anything I’d written before; finding a form that would enable me to take on such a long stretch of history, while still exploring the characters’ interiority and while not having the book collapse under its own weight—that was for me a central challenge. I can honestly say that I’d been preparing all my life to write this book, and I couldn’t have managed it earlier, for all sorts of reasons. So there’s real satisfaction simply in having got the book written, at last!

Claire Messud author photo © Lucian Wood.

The acclaimed author's latest family saga follows the French Algerian Cassars, who find themselves bit players in the global shifts following WWII.
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A dead whale is a harbinger of transformation in this mesmerizing coming-of-age story.

It’s 1938. Eighteen-year-old Manod lives on a remote island in the British Isles that is situated five to 10 hours from the mainland by boat, depending on the weather. Here, nature dictates how bountiful or brutal life will be for the isolated island community that lives off the land and sea. Men’s desirability is based on their ability to forage seaweed and the value of their livestock, while girls are married by 16 and often left widows by 25, because the sea is dangerous and none of the fishermen can swim.

The dead whale’s appearance is followed, about a month later, by an English couple, Joan and Edward, ethnographers from the mainland who are keen to gather content for a book about the island. Manod, literate in English and Welsh, and hopeful for an escape from social expectations, becomes their eager assistant. But her interactions with the idealistic Joan and the handsome Edward make her reexamine her dreams and her understanding of island life.

Whale Fall is a rich and quietly compelling novel that vividly captures the community’s transformation. Entrancing descriptions illuminate the raw beauty of the island through seasonal changes. Manod is a memorable protagonist; her ability to live this challenging life while entertaining aspirations for herself and her sister beyond getting married and staying on the island shows great complexity and strength. Manod’s interactions with Joan and Edward are profound in their subtlety, demonstrating the cultural divides possible within the Commonwealth. Debut author Elizabeth O’Connor’s metaphoric use of the decaying whale masterfully depicts the gradual erosion of the island way of life, picked apart by scavengers.

Poignant and poetic, Whale Fall is a compelling read for fans of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Tove Janssen’s The Summer Book and Claire Keegan’s Foster.

Whale Fall is a rich and quietly compelling novel that vividly captures the transformation of an isolated community in the British Isles.
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Kit, the protagonist of Kimberly King Parsons’ We Were the Universe, is in trouble. Her 3-year-old daughter, Gilda, is horribly spoiled. Kit’s mother, Tammy, is a hoarder. Her husband, Jad, seems saintly but is simply passive in the face of Gilda’s commandeering of their lives. Worst of all, Kit’s sister, Julie, is dead. 

Kit is the last person you’d think would break herself on the wheel of domesticity. Still quite young when the book begins, she was once a smart, snarky, adventurous girl from Wink, Texas, who lusted after men and women (and still does). She enjoyed her booze and drugs: She credits LSD trips for getting her through unmedicated childbirth. She played bass guitar in a band with Julie and their friend Yesenia. All of the girls liked altered states of consciousness, but unlike the other two, Julie became hooked. The band collapsed. Julie lived with their mother in squalor. Then, she died.

What’s puzzling for the reader and alarming for Kit’s friends and family is that, though Julie’s death occurred in the last days of Kit’s pregnancy, it’s only now that Kit’s grief is starting to drive her crazy. Parsons, author of the short story collection Black Light, gives us some clues as to why. Mothering Gilda has ground Kit down to a nub. Does she long for or dread the day when this tantrum-throwing, co-sleeping, still-nursing gremlin will stop needing her, when Gilda, like Julie, will leave? A brief scene near the end of the book throws a klieg light on the last days of the sisters’ relationship. Without revealing what happens, it becomes clear that Kit has been living life as penance: performing motherhood as an endless martyrdom, abjuring the things that gave her joy (even if they weren’t exactly good for her), eclipsing her once-vibrant self. If you’re in the market for a sad yet funny yet hopeful book, We Were the Universe might be it.

If you’re in the market for a sad yet funny yet hopeful book, Kimberly King Parsons’ We Were the Universe might be it.
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Claire Messud’s enthralling sixth work of fiction recounts the wanderings of three generations of the Cassar family over seven decades, from the Nazi occupation of France in June 1940 to the passing of François Cassar in Connecticut in 2010.

This Strange Eventful History opens with 8-year-old François wanting to write to his father in Salonica, Greece, to alert him about the French surrender. His father Gaston, a French naval attaché, has of course heard the sorry news and considers his options with a mixture of doubt, shame and defiance. He longs for his wife Lucienne, who has been and will be to the end of their days his “aIni,” his source. She and their children, François and Denise, have fled to their home in Algeria to wait out the conflict.

The Cassars are French Algerians, pieds-noirs, who have lived in Algeria since its colonization. They feel French, but they are regarded as outsiders in mainland France, especially after the Algerian revolution in 1954. François’ sense of not fitting in is one reason he leaves for America. Gaston, in a new career in the booming oil business, also learns he doesn’t fit in. A colleague tells him, “We lost the war, my friend. . . . To the victor go the spoils. The future is in oil, and the future is in English.” For this family, every success carries a germ of defeat.

But it isn’t only business and geopolitics that stymies the Cassars. Some whiff of family shame or dysfunction leaves François always feeling inadequate and warps his sister Denise into a delusional and increasingly alcoholic spinster, devoted to the care of their aging parents.

With thrilling, adventurous sentences, Messud leads readers along the elusive edges of life, where family and national histories entwine. Her descriptions of people and places are beautiful, precise and illuminating. Her understanding of the human soul is profound. This is reason enough to read the novel.

Yet the novel’s magic casts a wider spell. Chloe, a third-generation Cassar, is a novelist, like Messud. She wishes to write about and understand her family’s uncomfortable history. She observes, “A story is not a line; it is a richer thing, one that circles and eddies, rises and falls, repeats upon itself.” In This Strange Eventful History, Messud has given us that richer thing. It is amazing.

Read our interview with Claire Messud for This Strange Eventful History.

With thrilling, adventurous sentences, Claire Messud leads readers along the elusive edges of life, where family and national histories entwine. Her understanding of the human soul is profound.
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Some writers have a gift for making ordinary lives as compelling as anything you’d find in an epic adventure. This ability to chart the human condition goes beyond technical proficiency or what we’d generally consider literary merit. Sunjeev Sahota has this gift, and his latest novel, The Spoiled Heart, wrings maximum emotional impact out of a seemingly unremarkable life. 

The Spoiled Heart centers on Nayan, a working-class man living in England who was devastated by a tragic loss two decades earlier. Ever since, Nayan has thrown himself into his union, and into caring for his aging father. He’s never wanted much of a romantic life, until the standoffish and oddly beguiling Helen Fletcher returns to town. Nayan finds himself drawn to Helen, even as she seems determined to push him away, and as a union election threatens to consume his world. What draws Nayan to Helen? What drives him to keep pushing, both for her and for success as a union leader? What makes a man like Nayan tick? 

These are the questions that Sahota’s narrator, an acquaintance and eventual friend of Nayan’s, sets out to answer, and it’s through this narrator’s eyes that the particular brilliance of The Spoiled Heart becomes clear. By framing Nayan’s story through the eyes of another storyteller, Sahota digs deep into the psyche of his protagonist, while asking provocative questions about whose story this really is and how much of it is true. There’s an element of voyeurism that lends something thrilling and incisive to the whole story.

Sahota’s prose is as precise, confident and startlingly wise when describing the depths of tragedy as the banalities of a transaction in a local shop. Nayan’s internal life, as a broken man who’d rather fix others than himself, is rendered in powerful, stealthily profound sentences, and all the while it’s accompanied by the sense that the author is building to something bigger, darker and more revelatory. When Sahota finally reaches that moment in The Spoiled Heart‘s final pages, it feels both shattering and strangely inevitable.

The Spoiled Heart is one of those books that will take root quickly and grow in your soul. It’s another powerful achievement for Sahota, and a novel that even readers who are leery of contemporary realism will enjoy.

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Spoiled Heart wrings maximum emotional impact out of a seemingly ordinary life, with an element of voyeurism that lends something thrilling and incisive to the narrative.
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Cliche tells us that reading a work in translation is like taking a shower in a raincoat. Some stories, however, are powerful enough to permeate that language barrier, to bypass the cliche and completely pierce us. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s The Silence of the Choir, translated by Alison Anderson, is one such powerful book. Taking place in a small town in Sicily, this story lives up to its title, bringing together a rich and varied group of voices. This polyvocality allows Sarr to explore the main issue of the book, immigration, without becoming either heavy-handed or diminishing: In an increasingly metropolitan world, immigration is an issue that impacts everyone, and all voices have something to say about it, whether we want to hear them or not.

The story centers around the ragazzi (Italian for “guys”), a group of 72 immigrant men who have arrived in a small town in the Sicilian countryside called Altino. A group of workers from the Santa Marta Association has taken them in, though each worker has different feelings about the ragazzi and their fate. For one, Dr. Salvatore Pessoto is a cynic who finds it hard to have empathy for the ragazzi, especially considering how unlikely it is that any of them will be allowed to stay in the country. The doctor is chastised by his coworkers: a nun, Sister Maria, and her childhood friend, a lawyer named Sabrina, both of whom have devoted their lives to helping people, though in different and sometimes conflicting ways. Meanwhile, we also hear from the ragazzi themselves, like Fousseyni Traoré, who, upon first awakening in Altino, is unsure whether he is actually alive. Once the ragazzi realize they have reached safety, they rejoice, having completed the arduous, deadly journey across the Mediterranean.

There are many other characters in Altino whom Sarr introduces us to, each adding to The Silence of the Choir’s complex diorama of immigration. One of the most enjoyable is old Giuseppe Fantini, a retired, reclusive poet who hasn’t written in over a decade. From Giuseppe, we get a beautiful, delicate view of Altino and its people, reminding us that no matter who currently calls a certain place home, no one and nothing is ever fixed. Sarr delivers a moving, dynamic story, shedding light on the joys and consequences of contemporary immigration.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s The Silence of the Choir sheds light on the joys and consequences of contemporary immigration as it follows a group of immigrant men in a small town in Sicily.
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Caoilinn Hughes’ third novel, The Alternatives, follows four sisters, all doctors of various sorts. When one of the four goes missing, the others set out across the Irish countryside to find her.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and general global instability in the background, the Flattery sisters have a lot to navigate. Haunted by their childhood and the early death of their parents, they all feel isolated and alone, each finding her way in the world as a single woman in her 30s. When the oldest sister, Olwen, goes missing, the other three come together on a quest to find her. In the process, they discover more of who they are, the values they share and how they can connect.

While all four sisters are concerned with the future of the Earth, each has her own particular sphere of expertise: cooking, philosophy, geology and politics. They also share a concern about the patterns within their family history. Each sister’s voice is clear, purposeful, realistic and hopeful. When the sisters come together, The Alternatives becomes even more engaging as their stories overlap, growing increasingly complex and intertwined.

The prose is strong, with narrative shifts that allow the reader both internal and external access to these women and their concerns. A true strength of the novel is the way Hughes balances ordinary details with those that surprise and raise the stakes, keeping the reader hooked.

In Caoilinn Hughes’ The Alternatives, the Flattery sisters have a lot to navigate. When the oldest, Olwen, goes missing, the other three come together on a quest to find her.
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Celebrated children’s and young adult author Renée Watson’s first novel for adults is set in Portland, Oregon. skin & bones follows 40-year-old protagonist Lena Baker, who wears many hats as the daughter of a pastor; a priceless friend to Aspen and Kendra; the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the county library system and the loving mother of 8-year-old Aaliyah.

We first meet Lena at a doctor’s appointment. Ignoring the symptoms she came to them about, the medical staff insist on taking her blood sugar and blood pressure. Even after the tests come back normal, they keep returning to her weight instead of the issue she needs help with. As a Black woman with a large body, Lena has been through similar situations countless times before, where peoples’ assumptions about her overshadow everything else.

Lena knows she is brilliant and radiant. However, her power to push through the noise of others’ biases finally falters when heartbreak from a serious romance makes her second-guess her beauty and self-worth. When these negative feelings start affecting her daughter too, Lena gets a wake-up call. But how do you mend a broken heart? And more importantly, how do you mend a broken system in which standards for beauty and success are so narrowly defined?

Narrated in the first person, Lena’s journey unfolds in short chapters that are lyrical and poetic. The intertwining of Portland’s Black history, thanks to Lena’s job as the Director of DEI, adds tremendous depth to the story. Watson’s supporting characters build a strong sense of family and community, collectively showcasing the importance of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next. For anyone intrigued by stories that highlight experiences with race, gender, self-love, family and friendship, skin & bones will resonate in more ways than one.

For anyone intrigued by stories that highlight experiences with race, gender, self-love, family and friendship, skin & bones will resonate in more ways than one.
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A violent crime threatens the stability of the middle-class wife and mother at the center of Ethel Rohan’s Sing, I, a thoughtful novel about self-discovery and new beginnings.

Ester Prynn’s mother chose her name in the hopes of making her unforgettable. Ester lives with her husband, Simon, and their two teenage boys in coastal Northern California. Though amicable, the marriage has lost whatever spark it once had, and their younger son is so obsessed with video games he barely comes out of his room. On top of that, Ester’s father has advanced dementia, and she is estranged from her brothers, who remained in Montana after their mother’s death.

When a masked gunman robs the convenience store where Ester works, assaulting both her and her coworker, Crystal, Ester is badly shaken. She quits the store and gets another job as a hostess in an upscale hotel restaurant. Friends encourage her to pursue forgotten interests like singing, but she is haunted by her frustration that the gunman is still free and continuing to commit acts of violence. She’s also troubled by her unexpected attraction to Allie, a manager at the restaurant. Though Ester has long fantasized about an escape, are these feelings worth imploding her life over?

The strength of Sing, I is its focus on the ordinary and the relatable. Ester is a middle-class woman with close friends, but also beholden to her family and trapped in a low wage job. The robbery jumpstarts her out of her stupor and into the role of an active participant in her life. Other characters also struggle with the hardships of starting over, addiction and life’s disappointments.

Though it treads a predictable path, Sing, I nonetheless offers a gentle reminder of the hard-earned growth that can emerge from disruption and change.

In Ethel Rohan’s Sing, I, when a masked gunman robs the convenience store where Ester works, she is pushed to reexamine what she wants from life.

It’s 2040 and Leo Yang has just left his wife, Eko, at the Shanghai airport with their two oldest daughters. The girls are returning to school in Boston, but they’re confident travelers. This route isn’t new to them. This time, though, Eko insisted on accompanying them on the journey halfway around the world. Leo can’t understand why. “What was she hiding, then, the true motivation for going away?” he wonders. “She was always dancing around the truth, yet Leo would fish it out, dig it up from deep below.”

In Shanghailanders, debut novelist Juli Min methodically unspools the strands of the Yang family story, beginning with Leo’s questions about Eko. Each family member has their own secrets, moments that define who they’ve become. Geography influences the characters, and Min explores their Pan-Asian identities. Eko is of Japanese descent but was raised in France. Leo is Chinese. As the story expands their backgrounds, their cultural differences and values become visible.

With each chapter, Min shifts to another character’s perspective and moves backward in time. Readers see Leo and Eko’s perspectives, which are the heart of the story. But they also meet the three Yang daughters and tertiary characters important to the family. The ways that the girls view their parents don’t always align with how their parents see themselves. Still, this is really a story about Eko and Leo. The tension in their relationship that’s evident as Eko accompanies her daughters to America, several decades into their marriage, has its roots in the couple’s early days together. 

As she crafts a journey that stretches from 2040 back to 2014, Min shows us the breadth of Leo and Eko’s relationship and many of its defining moments. The chapters of Shanghailanders appear akin to short stories. Each offers a glimpse into a key moment, such as a special understanding between father and daughter, or mom’s overspending tendencies. Taken together, these vignettes become a portrait of a marriage. Min deftly deploys this atypical structure to reveal how many small moments and secrets can shape who a couple—and a family—become. 

As she crafts a journey that stretches from 2040 back to 2014, debut novelist Juli Min reveals how many small moments and secrets can shape who a couple—and a family—become.

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