‘Little Family’ by Ishmael Beah: A Family Living in the Shadows

by Cade Johnson

Ishmael Beah’s new book, the novel Little Family (272 Pages; Riverhead Books), tells the story of a chosen family whose companionship and commitment to each other replaces their lost homes, working as an antidote to the slanted and violent institutional structures of a post-colonial nation. The story takes place in an unnamed African country, details about which indicate Beah’s native Sierra Leone, where bribery, political corruption, and class disparities characterize the social order. Beah’s understated storytelling gives the family’s camaraderie and mutual understanding the subtle warmth of ever-glowing embers.  Elimane, the book-smart, eldest member of the group, reads Shakespeare and […]

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‘Temporary’ by Hilary Leichter: Circling the Drain of the Gig Economy

by Alicia Long

In her first novel, Temporary (208 pages; Coffee House Press), Hilary Leichter creates a world that is all too familiar to readers, only askew. In this surreal tale of a nameless temp worker trying to find “a job that will stay,” Leichter conveys the absurdity of the job market, and the sentiments of the temporary, outward-looking workers who circle its drain. I consider my deepest wish. There are days I think I’ve achieved it, and then it’s gone, like a sneeze that gets swallowed. I’ve heard that at the first sign of permanence, the heart rate can increase, and blood […]

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‘Godshot’ by Chelsea Bieker: Prayers for Rain

by Cade Johnson

Prolonged periods of drought in recent years have resulted in a considerable diminishing of groundwater in the Central Valley of California, and temperatures are expected to rise by five or six degrees Fahrenheit in the region by the end of the century. It seems that, in less than a decade, the effects of climate change shifted from feared to felt. As corporations continue to aggressively resist responsibility, there is more pressure on the individual than ever to do their part. So what happens when a once-abundant, isolated agricultural community of roughly 1,000 people is drought-stricken and plagued with massive crop […]

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‘The Club’ by Takis Würger: A Secret Society

by Alecsander Zapata

Takis Würger’s The Club (224 pages; Grove Press, translated by Charlotte Collins), is a novel designed to spur conversation. Equal parts coming-of-age tale and thriller, the story features a well-known institution ripe for critique—the secretive societies of higher education—and is willing to tackle complex issues of elitism and misogyny, all while keeping the reader engaged. The Club follows Hans, a German orphan whose only living relative is his Aunt Alex, who teaches art history at Cambridge University. When Hans turns eighteen and graduates from boarding school, Aunt Alex recruits him to infiltrate Cambridge’s elite and mysterious Pitt Club, which she […]

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‘Little Constructions’ by Anna Burns: The Brink of Madness

by Alicia Long

Little Constructions (304 pages; Graywolf Press), Anna Burns’ second novel, but her most recent to be published in the U.S. following the success of her Man Booker Prize-winning Milkman, breaks into a run from its opening pages. Things at the former-best-gun shop in the town of Tiptoe Floorboard are looking a bit dicey as two men named Tom are pitted against the angry and quite likely murderous Jetty Doe. Jetty storms in like she owns the place, steals a gun, steals the wrong bullets for said gun, and then storms back out, impatiently hailing a taxi. As Jetty rides away […]

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‘Sleeping with Strangers’ by David Thomson: In Great Company

by Zack Ravas

Reading the latest book by acclaimed film critic David Thomson, Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire (348 pages; Vintage), now out in paperback, one can’t help but suspect the book’s thesis may have changed over the course of its writing. A mixture of memoir, criticism, and film theory (“Why am I giving you history and memoir?” Thomson asks early on. “Because you cannot get close to movies without grasping the mindset in which they were received. When you go to the movies, you take your history with you. The fantasy is about you.”), the book was prompted by […]

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‘Ledger’ by Jane Hirshfield: An Insightful Vision

by Meryl Natchez

In the early 1900s in St. Petersburg in Russia, a group of passionate young poets came together and formed a poetic movement they called Acmeism. Its object was to strip away the florid symbolism then standard in Russian poetry, and create poems based on “the word itself.” Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova were two of the most famous of these poets, but were they around today, they would welcome Jane Hirshfield into their coterie. Her stark, powerful poems are crafted so simply they seem effortless. Constructed largely of nouns and verbs, the very things the Acmeists valued most, it’s hard […]

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‘Child of Light’ by Madison Smartt Bell: Rolling Away the Stone

by Paul Wilner

Too many literary biographies are a waste of space–a cut-and-paste pastiche of previously published materials, random interviews, and unselectively edited quotes, put together in the apparent rush of getting from A to Zed and be done with things. The funeral is more important than what preceded it. Madison Smartt Bell largely avoids these obstacles in Child of Light (588 pages; Doubleday), his masterly new biography of Robert Stone, in which he adheres to the Joseph Conrad dictum that Stone liked to quote: “Fiction must justify itself in every line.’’ Bell is also the editor of The Eye You See With, […]

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‘You Will Never Be Forgotten’ by Mary South: Life in Front of the Screen

by Zack Ravas

Under typical circumstances, it’s likely the literary community would be celebrating the release of Mary South’s first book, You Will Never Be Forgotten (240 pages; FSG Originals), a collection of ten dark and crystalline stories that announces the arrival of a distinct voice in contemporary fiction. But these are not normal circumstances, and it’s difficult for any author to garner attention right now, let alone one making their debut. Yet the mordant wit and biting irony in You Will Never Be Forgotten, and its complex understanding of reality’s often cruel reversals, resonates with launching the book when the world is […]

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‘Born Slippy’ by Tom Lutz: Unchecked by Moral Scrutiny

by Michelle Latiolais

Tom Lutz novel Born Slippy

With great guilty pleasure I left off reading A Journal Of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and picked up Born Slippy (310 pages; Repeater Books) by the critic and scholar Tom Lutz. This is Lutz’s first novel, and on show are the wild and woolly qualities of the best first novels, I am happy to report. There is no bubonic plague to drive the narrative and to provide the agar within which we observe human behavior, no. Instead, there is in Born Slippy a character named Dmitry, a one-man plague. Frank, the novel’s central intelligence, regrets many, many times […]

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‘Barn 8’ by Deb Olin Unferth: A Comically Extreme Heist

by Zack Ravas

The premise of Deb Olin Unferth’s latest novel, Barn 8 (252 pages; Graywolf Press), involves the heist of a comically extreme number of chickens—yet to label the novel a mere comedy would be tantamount to calling Kurt Vonnegut a “humor writer.” Sure, the book is funny, quite funny, but it is much more. Unferth is tackling, with great wit and technical skill, topics as pressing as Big Agriculture, the humane treatment of animals, and the impossibility of maintaining ideological purity in any social movement. The reality is that Americans love eggs: free range or not, we will eat as many […]

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‘Here I Am!’ by Pauline Holdstock: The Messenger of an Urgent Truth

by Alecsander Zapata

Pauline Holdstock novel Here I Am!

The past years have seen a renewed interest in capturing the adolescent perspective. In shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things and films like Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit,  the earnestness of a child’s voice in a period when everyone in the audience seems to have something to say seems both timely and necessary. Pauline Holdstock’s latest novel Here I Am! (292 pages; Biblioasis) embraces this trend, shining its narrative spotlight on Frankie Walters, an incredibly intelligent six-year-old with Avoidant Personality Disorder. When his mother dies while his father is out of town, Frankie is left alone; the young boy attempts to tell […]

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