Anxious People by Fredrik Backman: Fredrik Backman’s gift for portraying the nuances of humanity is well known to his many loyal fans. With Anxious People, Backman once again captures readers’ hearts and imaginations. An armed, masked robber attempts to hold up a bank in a Swedish city. But as the thief approaches, the apathetic young teller is unmoved. It’s a cashless bank, the teller says. Doesn’t the would-be robber know that? Well, no. The robber doesn’t. As police arrive, the robber rushes into the street, through the nearest open door, up a set of stairs and into an apartment’s open house. When the potential buyers and real estate agent see the thief, they assume they’re being held hostage. Backman describes these events with a light touch, making clear early on that, though there’s a crime at the heart of this story, his novel is much more than this series of events. Father and son police officers Jim and Jack try to understand how a bank robber slipped, unnoticed, from an apartment full of people. As the officers interrogate the witnesses, Backman reveals glimpses of each character’s past. Anxious People could reasonably be called a mystery, but it’s also a deeply funny and warm examination of how individual experiences can bring a random group of people together. Backman reveals each character’s many imperfections with tremendous empathy, reminding us that people are always more than the sum of their flaws.
Monogamy by Sue Miller: Any story told quickly, without the chill or warmth of accumulated details, becomes a cliche. For example: After 30 or so years of a relatively happy marriage, a woman wakes to find her husband dead beside her. Her grief is nearly unbearable until, at his memorial, she discovers he had been having an affair. She becomes angry. What then? We’ve heard this tale a couple of times, and that is one way to summarize the story Sue Miller tells in her 11th novel, Monogamy. The best approach to this unbelievably good novel, however, is to avoid summary altogether and simply urge readers to read–and reread–the book itself. Here is a taste of what a reader will find: The long marriage of Annie and Graham is a second marriage for both. Each has a past that captured and shaped them. Graham, who co-owns a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a passionate, needy, generous man who clasps his past–his ex-wife, for example–more closely than Annie does hers. It’s not irrelevant that Annie, a thoughtful person and a good-not-great photographer, views the world through her own lens and keeps any boisterous turbulence at a bit of a distance. Annie and Graham really do love one another. But the past is always up for reevaluation. So is our understanding of ourselves and others. Miller is excellent at conveying and illuminating the inner lives of her characters, and she remains one of the best writers at depicting the day-to-day normality of desire. Events occur in this novel–normal sorts of things–and Miller’s attention, her descriptions and the tempo at which she reveals them help us feel these events truly and deeply. She has found in Monogamy probably the best expression of her longtime interest in sociograms, an exercise to demonstrate how lives intersect and influence each other. Among the relationships of the characters in Monogamy, there are reverberations upon reverberations. How great is Monogamy? If this is not Miller’s best novel, it is surely among her very best. One measure of that is how the experience of it deepens with each reading.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: “It is my belief,” writes Piranesi, the protagonist of Susanna Clarke’s new novel of the same name, “that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.” Clarke’s first novel since 2004’s wildly successful and critically acclaimed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi centers on a strange, haunting world and features a main character whose earnest goodwill is piercingly endearing. The House, composed of hundreds of huge rooms filled with statues and wild birds and containing an ocean’s four tides, is so vast it may as well be infinite. Piranesi spends his days fishing, drying seaweed to burn for warmth, tracking the tides and cataloging the features of each room of the House in his journals. Twice a week, he meets with the Other, the only living person Piranesi has ever known. The Other is obsess with finding and “freeing the Great and Secret Knowledge from whatever holds it captive in the World and to transfer it to ourselves,” and the guileless and devoted Piranesi has been his cheerful collaborator. But just as Piranesi begins to lose faith in the Knowledge, a discovery leads him to question his own past. From this point, the novel is almost impossible to put down. The reader reflexively mirrors Piranesi in his quest to interpret the clues revealed to him by his beloved World. Stripping this mystery back layer by layer is a magical way to spend an afternoon, reading narrative motifs like runes and studying Piranesi’s journals as if they are the religious texts they resemble. Piranesi hits many of the same pleasure points as Jonathan Strange–Clarke’s dazzling feats of world building, for one. But at one-third as many pages, Piranesi is more allegorical than epic in scope. With their neoclassical verve, certain passages recall ancient philosophy, but readers may also see connections between Piranesi’s account and the unique isolation of a confined life–whether as a result of a mandatory lockdown during a global pandemic, or perhaps due to the limitations caused by a chronic illness, such as Clarke’s own chronic fatigue syndrome. Lavishly descriptive, charming, heartbreaking and imbued with a magic that will be familiar to Clarke’s devoted readers, Piranesi will satisfy lovers of Jonathan Strange and win her many new fans.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: Don’t be deceived by the brevity of Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, What Are You Going Through. Like its National Book Award-winning predecessor, The Friend, this exquisite portrait of female friendship, aging and loss packs more insight into its barely 200 pages than many serious novels twice that length. The novel’s unnamed narrator is a writer whose middle-aged friend, dying of cancer (“fatal,” as she prefers to say instead of “terminal”), asks her to serve as a companion in the New England rental house where she plans to end her life with a “euthanasia drug”–even as she confesses that “you weren’t my first choice” for this challenging assignment. Over the course of the succeeding weeks, with a “new intimacy that made secrets and lies intolerable,” and that at various moments is touching, profound and even wryly humorous, the women bond over shared stories of their lives, old movies, music and fairy tales, in something the narrator’s ex-partner observes “does sound a little like a sitcom. Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia.” Borrowing the opening line of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier–“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”–Nunez confronts the reality of death without succumbing to despair. Whether she’s summarizing the improbable plot of a serial killer potboiler or recounting a conversation between the narrator and a “once beautiful woman” at the gym, she’s an economical, graceful storyteller. She also touches lightly but provocatively on subjects like climate change, the #MeToo movement and the malign influence of Fox News on one elderly woman’s psyche, then eases her story along almost before we realize it. Sooner than she would like, the narrator faces the reality that what she’s come to think of as a “fairy tale” will end, and that, paradoxically, “the saddest time that has also been one of the happiest times in my life will pass. And I’ll be alone.” It’s a good bet that most readers will share that same wistful feeling when they reach the novel’s final page.
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith: Written with precision, lyricism and compassion, I Talk Like a River is a story about stuttering drawn from author Jordan Scott’s personal experience. A boy is ashamed of his efforts to produce words and the resultant facial contortions: “All They see,” he says, referring to his classmates, “is how strange my face looks and that I can’t hide how scared I am.” The boy’s father recognizes that his son has had a “bad speech day” and takes him to a place where they can be quiet. At the river, the pair watches the water as it churns yet is “calm…beyond the rapids.” Pulling his son close, the father points to the water. “That’s how you speak,” he says. Illustrator Sydney Smith uses thick, impressionistic brushstrokes that dazzle as he represents the boy’s roiling interior world. In one gripping spread about the boy’s fear of public speaking, we see the classroom from his point of view. Students stare, their faces indistinct smudges of paint, the entire room distorted by the boy’s panic. But at the river–where Smith showcases the mesmerizing play of light on water in a dramatic double gatefold–the world becomes clearer. Smith also plays visually with some of the book’s figurative language. The boy cites elements from nature as examples of the letters he finds most challenging to pronounce (P, C and M). Smith incorporates them into a striking spread in which pine tree branches, a shrieking crow and the outline of a crescent moon cover the boy’s face. Without providing pat answers or resorting to sentimentality, I Talk Like a River reverently acknowledges the boy’s hardship. Scott’s story is as much about observant, loving parenting as it is about the struggle to speak fluently, as the boy’s father generously equips his son with a metaphorical framework to understand and even take pride in his stutter: “My dad says I talk like a river.” This is unquestionably one of the best picture books of 2020.
Pine Island Home by Polly Horvath: Stories of orphans making it on their own and finding family are a staple of children’s literature, and Newbery Honor author Polly Horvath’s Pine Island Home has an old-fashioned feel. It’s a comforting coming-of-age tale about four sisters whose missionary parents are killed in a tsunami. Their great-aunt Martha agrees to take them in, but when Fiona and her younger sisters, Marlin, Natasha and Charlie, arrive on Pine Island, they discover Martha has just died. The sisters move into her house anyway. Determined to keep her family together, Fiona negotiates with Al, the eccentric and often inebriated writer who lives on the property adjacent to Martha’s He agrees to pretend to be their guardian in exchange for beer money and dinners cooked by budding chef Marlin. Horvath is a master at creating winning characters, and each sister emerges as a distinct individual. In particular, Fiona is a study in resilience, shouldering the burden of financial responsibility and the insistent emails from their great-aunt’s attorney. The girls’ efforts at self-sufficiency are appealing, as are the cast of townsfolk and the bucolic setting, as the sisters discover that families can be created in surprising ways.
Recommended for You by Laura Silverman: Working retail during the holiday season can be brutal, but Shoshanna is more than happy to spend her time at work as a bookseller. The independent bookstore Once Upon is her happy place–at least, it used to be. A holiday hire named Jake, who is both standoffish and good-looking, is making Shoshanna’s happy place a little more complicated than usual. Laura Silverman’s Recommended for You is a whipped cream dollop of a rom-com with an irresistible bookish setup. Silverman places several obstacles in Shoshanna’s path. Her moms are going through a rough patch in their marriage, Shoshanna is desperately trying to keep her dying car on the road, and then a competition to bring customers into Once Upon reveals the store’s poor financial state. Shoshanna charges at each problem in full attack mode, but her solo efforts are largely ineffective. Only when she leans on her friends does their collective power make waves. The bookstore staff forms a fantastic supporting cast and features in several scenes that play out hilariously. Silverman also smartly uses the bookstore’s shopping mall locale to her advantage, as her characters duke it out for table space in the overcrowded food court and draft the on-site Santa into their schemes. And then there’s Jake. Sigh. No sooner does Shoshanna meet a fellow Jewish person in her “midsize” Georgia town than she manages to offend him, then finds herself competing against him at work for a cash prize she desperately wants. The novel plays out over just one week, as the heightened circumstances of the holiday rush force Shoshanna and Jake to work together, at first begrudgingly, then as tentative friends and then…well, let’s not spoil it. Recommended for You is equally recommended for lovers of love stories and lovers of books and bookstores, as both are represented here delightfully.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante and Ann Goldstein (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Published in Italy in November 2019 (fans lined up outside bookstores to purchase their copies at the stroke of midnight), The Lying Life of Adults is the first novel from Elena Ferrante since the final installment of the Neapolitan quartet, the series that made her an international literary star, was published in 2016. Set in an upscale neighborhood in 1990s Naples, her new novel is a powerful coming-of-age story like no other. Dutiful, bookish and sweet, Giovanna is on the cusp of puberty when she overhears her father comparing her to his ugly sister. Used to receiving compliments, Giovanna is alarmed but curious, and despite her parents’ concerns, she initiates a relationship with her tempestuous Aunt Vittoria. As Giovanna learns more about her father’s background, she begins to see how her parents’ lies and treachery have impacted their lives as well as hers. Giovanna travels between areas of Naples so different, they might as well be opposing planets: from the comfortable, progressive household where she was raised with a secular education, including access to sex education, to her aunt’s working-class neighborhood, which is mired in violence, religion and superstitions, all expressed in the dialect that Giovanna’s parents forbade her to speak at home. Ferrante’s ability to draw in her reader remains unparalleled, and the emotional story is well served by Ann Goldstein’s smooth and engaging translation. The novel simmers with overt rage toward parental deception, teachers’ expectations and society’s impossible ideals of beauty and behavior. For readers who are familiar with Ferrante’s work, there will be much that is recognizable: the belief that poverty can be transcended through education, the power of a talismanic object (in this case, a bracelet that may or may not have belonged to Giovanna’s paternal grandmother) and the absurd linkage of physical beauty with purity and goodness. There is even an unattainable man who holds the promise of escape. But The Lying Life of Adults is very much its own story. Giovanna’s self-reliance and her efforts to become the kind of adult she has yet to meet will resonate with thoughtful readers.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, takes us deep into the heart of one woman’s struggle to make sense of her life and family. Gifty was born in Huntsville, Alabama, after her family emigrated from Ghana. Now she’s finishing up a Ph.D. at Stanford, studying addiction and reward-seeking behaviors in mice. She has a personal connection with her chosen subject: When she was 10, her adored older brother, Nana, died of a heroin overdose after a basketball injury left him hooked on opioids. Their mother spiraled into depression soon after. Over a decade later, Gifty brings her mother to California after the older woman shows signs of another approaching breakdown. As Gifty keeps a watchful eye on her mother and continues her research, she begins to experience the pull of the strong evangelical Christian faith of her childhood, which she’d intended to leave behind in Alabama. Gifty’s determination to better understand her family’s suffering and the tension between two opposing belief systems (faith and science) forms the heart of this empathetically written novel. As Gifty begins the final months of her experiments, the narrative shifts in time to include stories of Gifty’s father, known as the Chin-Chin Man, as well as Nana’s tragic tumble into addiction and Gifty’s single summer spent in Ghana. Gifty’s move from the tight embrace of organized faith to the wide-open questions of the sciences is depicted in exquisite detail. The casual but cutting racism of the all-white church of her childhood, the alienation she felt as a Black Christian woman pursuing a science degree and the unease with which she encounters other students in her lab are all unforgettable. Gyasi’s bestselling debut novel, Homegoing, was a multigenerational saga that traced the families and fortunes of two Ghanaian half sisters over three centuries. Despite its focus on a single family, Transcendent Kingdom has an expansive scope that ranges into fresh, relevant territories–much like the title, which suggests a better world beyond the life we inhabit.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson: Daisy Johnson’s control of language keeps the reader utterly engaged in her new novel, Sisters, from the story’s opening words–a list in which each item begins with “My sister is” and ranges from “a black hole” to “a forest on fire”–all the way to the final searing sentences. July and her older sister, September, have moved with their mother to the coast of England and into the old, deteriorating home where both September and her father were born. In this house, we see the ways that setting shapes everything that can, or might, unfold. We see where boundaries are and where they all but disappear. The concept of boundaries is at the center of July and September’s relationship. So much of their interaction is predicated on September’s control. Interesting, too, is the mother’s voice and perspective in this story: when we hear from her and when we don’t; what she knows and what is hidden from her view. As the novel unfolds, Johnson brings readers more fully into the complexities and contradictions of the sisters’ relationship. Where does one girl stop and the other begin? How does biology bind us? How do our actions impact someone else’s life? And how does a person find their own voice? The novel raises many questions, and even as it poses some answers through July and September’s story, many other curiosities–delightfully–remain. Sisters casts a spell, and Johnson’s ability to make her language twist and turn, to hint and suggest at something much larger, is truly remarkable.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam: Prison is a box. Once a person is trapped inside, the box’s hard lines and confines become their entire world. The box presses down on the people it holds captive and tries to destroy what makes them unique, what makes them human, all in the interests of conformity, survival and the comfort of others. In Punching the Air, 16-year-old Amal Shahid finds himself slammed inside the cold, concrete box of a juvenile detention center after a false accusation. Amal is a talented visual artist, an aspiring poet and rapper, a well-read scholar and a skilled skater, beloved by his Muslim family. He’s never fit easily into any box. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Amal and his friends got into a fight with a group of white kids at the basketball court in Amal’s gentrifying neighborhood. Amal admits to throwing the first punch, but he definitely didn’t throw the punch that put one of the white kids in a coma. That doesn’t save him from becoming the victim of an unjust, racist system that punishes him for it anyway. As Amal serves out his sentence, he tries to write and paint his way out of the box, even as the box itself–and many of those trapped inside it with him–try to break him. In spite of his surroundings, he clings to hope and saves himself by finding his truth through art and creativity. A fast-paced novel in verse co-authored by National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi and activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, Punching the Air is an intimate and moving portrait of the realities and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline. Amal’s first-person narration is an extraordinary achievement of characterization. His voice on the page is youthful but wise, cutting but inviting, quiet but resonant; his words read effortlessly, but that effortlessness is clearly the result of skilled effort. Punching the Air more than deserves a place among both outstanding YA novels in verse, including Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X and Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, and among YA novels that explore the intersection of race and justice, including Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Kim Johnson’s This Is My America. This is vital reading for every teen.
The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): The last words Nora says to her father are “I hate you.” Moments later, she watches in disbelief as a flash flood whisks her father away, down the canyon where they’re hiking. A year ago, Nora’s mother was killed in a random shooting; now she fears she has lost her father, too. Most of all, Nora wonders whether she has lost herself and her will to survive in the brutal and unforgiving Arizona desert. Although she and her father are both knowledgeable, experienced hikers, Nora is lost and totally alone. She must face venomous snakes, scorpions, heat and thirst–and the Beast that has haunted her for the last year. As she wanders, never finding more than temporary shelter but always holding out hope of finding her father, her therapist’s voice echoes in her mind: “Focusing on what ifs helps nothing.” Nora discovers it’s the small things that cause the most hardship. A pesky braid that won’t stay put. A mesquite bean that barely offers a calorie of sustenance. The slicing pain of a stone cutting her skin. The words we say that hurt each other. A tiny bullet that can shatter lives. Nora confronts each one, continuing to focus all her effort on her next step, driving herself onward. The Canyon’s Edge begins and ends in prose, but the wall of water that sweeps Nora’s father away also shifts the narrative into suspenseful, propulsive free verse. It’s thrilling to witness the courage and fortitude Nora displays (not to mention sheer strength and will) as she battles the elements and learns that invisible demons can be the hardest to conquer. Her story will resonate with readers who understand that the key to survival is finding something to live for.