‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett: A Lonely Gift

by Cade Johnson

Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half (352 pages; Riverhead Books), is an enthralling addition to the literature of passing: novels about taking on an alternative racial identity that often explore the concept of race as performance. The Vanishing Half is powered by its reflections on deception, motherhood, and love, and where they intersect. Whereas other novels about passing, such as James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, focus on the arbitrariness of racial constructs, Bennett’s novel studies the self-inflicted psychological and social repercussions of passing and the alienation of self. Beginning in the 1960s, the […]

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‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor: Taboo of the Witch

by CJ Green

More than once did I consider abandoning Hurricane Season (224 pages; New Directions; translated by Sophia Hughes), Fernanda Melchor’s first novel. Sentences are pages long, and the ones that are not are often fragments. Many times I lost my place. I could barely see through the imagery, which is torrential yet constantly vivid. Even so, I turned its final page after only a few sittings. The story begins with a body. The Witch, she is called. Discovered by five boys wading through a canal, she lies floating beneath a “myriad of black snakes, smiling.” From there the next seven chapters […]

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Love, Longing, and Loss: Scott Spencer’s Journey to the Far Shores of Emotion

by Paul Wilner

Reading Scott Spencer’s work is an adventure in negative capability—an opportunity to fall, or dive, into a deeper world beyond good and evil, reason and faith, will and fate. The love, and acceptance he feels for his characters is endless, though not without a deep understanding of the many flaws— narcissism, inconstancy, faithlessness, greed—that flesh is heir to. His latest novel, An Ocean Without A Shore (341 pages; Ecco Press), is a sequel of sorts to River Under the Road (2017), which took a hard look at the multiple misfortunes of Thaddeus Kaufman, a struggling novelist and screenwriter manqué, living […]

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‘New Waves’ by Kevin Nguyen: Adapt or Be Left Behind

by Zack Ravas

Sometimes it seems as as though authors go out of their way to select the most academic or arcane-sounding quote (the older, the better) to serve as the preamble to their novel. Not so with Kevin Nguyen’s first novel, New Waves (303 pages; One World). The book opens with a familiar quote from the classic 1986 Nintendo game Legend of Zelda, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” which clues in readers to the millennial voice of this novel—warm, inviting, unpretentious—and underscores one of the themes of the book, that of friendship and solidarity, including the makeshift families we sometimes […]

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‘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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