We split in two sometimes: move to a new city, change a hairstyle, gain a new nickname. The other half vanishes, unused, like a dream, or perhaps a box of pictures in the attic. Desiree Vignes lost her other half years ago, when her twin sister Stella decided to pass as white, leave her family behind, never return. Some people can do that. What they don't realize is that the vanishing halves have a way of returning, spotting you across the room, looking you in the face and seeing the real you, the one you left behind. From start to finish, Brit Bennett's follow-up to The Mothers is a revelation. This is a novel you want to savor, even as it unfolds so naturally and beautifully that you can't help but devour it. If her first novel made her a new author to look out for, this one proves that Brit Bennett is here to stay.
— Rachel Copeland
There are different ways to write historical fiction, but one of my favorites is when writers such as Geraldine Brooks fill in the gaps in history, and that’s what Maggie O’Farrell has done with her triumphant novel Hamnet. Despite Shakespeare living during the Plague, he never specifically touched on it in his plays, but he did lose his son Hamlet to the disease. O’Farrell connects that tragedy to the play Hamnet, noting that in Old English, the two names are the same. But she goes a step further, sending Shakespeare into the background of the story and bringing to the center his wife and two children to tell this story of love and loss. Such beautiful writing!
— Daniel Goldin
At first, I felt like I was reading a memoir. But then I began to wonder. Was Ayad Akhtar’s father really Trump’s doctor? And then I realize – classic autofiction misdirect! As the plotline of this second novel unfolds, the story twists and turns around our assumptions about who Ayad Akhtar is. I’m still processing the story, and know that this is not an Indie-Bound-worthy recommendation, but I might have to read it again to say something one millionth as erudite, provocative, and searching as Homeland Elegies.
— Daniel Goldin
Akhtar might just have written that good and daring thing, a new entry into my favorite genre: the Great American Novel. Certainly it’s one of the boldest books on existing in this country post-9/11. Not since Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (and those in the know will know what I mean) can I recall a novel in which a writer was so unashamed to expose the ugliest parts of his country and of himself to create a portrait of an American living in, with, and against America. There’s far too much in this novel for any sort of reductive summary of its parts to give you an idea of what it’s ‘about,’ which of course is a part of its brilliance; there’s little so rare and as rewarding as to read a writer who is willing to do the necessary peeling away of layer after layer of nuance and contradiction, not just throwing out but dismantling and subverting platitudes and easy, false truths, to approach the world honestly. But here, a few broad strokes - it’s about being an immigrant, about being perceived at once as an enemy of the state and an enemy of your family’s homeland. It’s about how history, geography, education, economics, medicine, and yes, Donald Trump, put a father and son at odds with each other, with themselves, and with their country. Most of all, it is an exhaustive examination of that most base, central question in a time when it’s most needed - what is to be an American? This novel is astounding.
— Chris Lee
Let's get into it - Backman's Anxious People is an onion of a novel that's kind of about a bank robbery gone wrong, kind of about a father and son, and kind of about all sorts of anxious, endearing characters who are really just trying to find their footing in the world. These pages are full of layers and unassuming at first, but there's a good chance it'll make you shed a tear or two, and you won't regret it even a little bit. I always start out a Backman novel thinking it's a little cheesy, and yet he always ends up proving me wrong. His ability to really put into writing all of the facets of human nature, and to weave together a story that's at once multifaceted, compelling, laugh-out-loud funny, and utterly relatable is a gift, and I'm thankful to experience it. Anxious People and all of the ridiculous, complex characters within hold that truly perfect blend of depth and levity that Backman has perfected in his novels - I can't think of a better book coming out in 2020, and I can't wait to make all of my friends read it too.
— Kira McGrigg
When Noemí Taboada’s father receives a most troubling letter from his niece, he sends Noemí as the family’s ambassador to determine if Catalina is in any danger. Immediately upon arrival it is clear to Noemí that she is an unwelcome visitor. Her cousin’s new family are the Doyles; an English family that lives in High Place, a crumbling mountaintop estate where nothing is what is seems and something sinister lurks. Mexican Gothic has everything you want in a gothic novel - gloom and doom, mystery and romance, monsters and nightmares. Silvia Moreno-Garcia cranks up the melodrama to thrill and delight readers. Unputdownable!
— Jen Steele
People don’t get swept up by history, they make it. Walter’s latest is a grand and sweeping Western saga of the Wobblies 1909 free speech fight in Spokane. Over the course of a year, two vagrant brothers, a bawdy vaudeville performer, and firebrand labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn take actions big and small that change the West and America forever. Walter gets deep under the skin of people living during a time of upheaval, in a world that’s ever-shifting, bending, and changing – though he reminds us: when isn’t it? With moral obligations and the arc of history on the line, what’s a young dreamer to do? Which side are you on? Hopefully, the right one.
— Chris Lee
If I were to take Walter’s Beautiful Ruins and reflect it through the prism of The Sisters Brothers, I might come up with The Cold Millions, a period novel set during the rise of the IWW or The Wobblies. Gig and Rye are two brothers, the first a self-proclaimed hobo (mind you, not a bum or tramp) in early twentieth-century Spokane, and the second, his younger brother who seeks him out after their mom dies. The two become embroiled in a complicated scenario involving industrialists, organizers, prostitutes, sleuths, and bounty hunters, starting when Gig is arrested during a labor action and Rye unwittingly agrees to pass information. Keeping a plot as complicated and double-cross-filled as this one is no small feat, nor is creating what many would say is a modern take on Steinbeck. I love that this is the Spokane-iest book I’ve ever read. But once again, as in Beautiful Ruins, the thing that takes it home is the emotional heft, and with Rye, who slowly is revealed to be the center of this terrific novel, you’ve got that too.
— Daniel Goldin
Jess Walter carries us back to the Pacific Northwest of the early 1900s, using vivid details to show us the raucous, vibrant, fast growing town of Spokane. The heart of the story is two Dolan brothers jumping trains to get work, fighting for workers’ rights with the hard-nosed bosses and cops who routinely use men and then dump them as bums. Workers want decency. They have fearless leaders, but the people with wealth and power aren’t giving anything away. They don’t play nice, and they have ways of controlling it all. The brothers believe in the cause, but they're also looking to settle down in this new whirlwind home. Their stories and the way they turn phrases had me smiling ear to ear, and then shaking my head in amazement at their resilience. I think I’ll remember their hard-earned wisdom forever. It’s a suspenseful novel, a window into early days of labor battles, delivered with a sharp, clever style. It’s entertaining, and also very timely considering the gap between rich and poor has never been greater than it is now. The plot twists and characters are fascinating, many based on real events and people. The ending is satisfying. I stayed tied to each page.
— Tim McCarthy
Leave the World Behind is the kind that asks people find out who they are when the crisis comes. When strangers knock on the door, when the technology fails, when the animals start acting weird and the whole world becomes a threat. Yet these people aren’t ex-military-loner action movie heroes, they’re not the plucky last-girl-standing from your favorite slasher flick. They’re just your average, all-American family of the dwindling middle class. Alam’s magic trick here is his ability to draw you so close to these characters with such intimate detail that within a few chapters they become as familiar as a reflection. So by the time things become, let’s say, strange, it’s not just one family’s worst fears on display. Alam is holding up a mirror so we can see some of our own. This is a book about all the ways the vast world can so quickly reduce us to the animals we’ve always been - scared, fragile, and oh so human.
— Chris Lee
Two very different families reluctantly agree to temporarily share a remote Long Island house owned by one of the families. Over the course of three days, all six individuals encounter odd phenomena, usually while alone. Eventually, they all are well-aware that something strange is happening, but no one can articulate what it is. Rumaan's portrayal of a world suddenly turned upside down, and his characters' unfolding reactions to it, are unsettlingly credible.
— Kay Wosewick
In an alternate version of 19th century America, where a plague has killed so many and the U.S. has dissolved, Ada has been deemed an outlaw due to the fact that her marriage has been childless for a year. There's a bit of Salem here, as women who are infertile are considered witches and are dealt accordingly. Ada strikes out on her own to solve her problems and save her family from her barren stigma. Joining the Hole in the Wall Gang, made up mostly women in her own situation, she thinks she has only one objective. However, the longer she is with the gang and the more struggles she shares with these outlaws (whether or not they like her or want her there), the more she comes to discover what is most important to her. Anna North has delivered a worthy novel that can be shelved with The Handmaid's Tale and the like. So many issues circulate through this world that I was wondering how Anna North could possibly wrap this up; I had no need to fear as the pulse-pounding ending surprised and shocked. It's a violent world that Ada lives in, so it's a good thing she has a tough constitution.
— Jason Kennedy
O’Donnell’s Victorian London is filled with grit, gore, lace, and grace, and enough humor and heart to soften the city’s sharp edges just as they begin to hurt. Young Bliss is urgently called to London by his only relative, an uncle who remains distant even while he supports Bliss’s Cambridge education. Bliss arrives at his uncle’s doorstep late the next evening, only to discover his uncle missing. Addled by worry, hunger and no sleep, Bliss finds himself employed the next morning by a brilliant but peculiar Scotland Yard detective who is investigating mysterious deaths of young women. A great variety of characters are pulled into the mystery as it threads its way through central London and eventually to a rural England ‘estate.’ This is an absolutely beguiling, visually rich mystery. More Paraic O’Donnell please!!!
— Kay Wosewick