More Than Just a Pretty Face

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lee, Oyler, Hobson, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Chang-rae Lee, Lauren Oyler, Brandon Hobson, and more—that are publishing this week.

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My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about My Year Abroad: “Lee’s action-packed picaresque (after On Such a Full Sea) chronicles how an ordinary New Jersey college student ended up consorting with international criminals. As the novel opens, Tiller Bardmon is living with 30-something Val and her eight-year-old son, whom he met in the Hong Kong airport after a series of adventures in Macau and Shenzhen. Val and son are both in witness protection after Val cooperated with the U.S. government to bring down her gangster husband. The story of Tiller and Val runs parallel to Tiller’s recollections of the preceding year, when a day of caddying for a colorful foursome earns him an invitation from entrepreneur Pong Lou to join him on a business jaunt to Asia. The trip is not all work, though, as Tiller discovers he can surf, sing, assume difficult yoga positions, and make mad passionate love—but the great adventure turns into a nightmare when Pong abandons Tiller outside Shenzhen. In energetic prose, Lee nests stories within stories, such as the moving tales of a family torn apart by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and an immigrant family that reinvents itself for survival in America. The frenetic roller-coaster ride is impressively structured as the naive and sometimes reckless Tiller learns about trust and betrayal from his dealings with Pong, and gains a more mature understanding of his identity, culture, and values as his bond with Val develops. This literary whirlwind has Lee running on all cylinders.”

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fake Accounts: “In Oyler’s bold debut, a blogger discovers her boyfriend is an influential online conspiracy theorist. A suspicion that the unnamed narrator’s withdrawn boyfriend, Felix, might be cheating leads her to find his anonymous social media accounts, which stoke alt-right sentiments as Donald Trump’s inauguration looms. The narrative flashes back to show the couple’s meet-cute in Berlin—he’s a tour guide, she’s a tourist—and their burgeoning long-distance relationship, which changes for the worse after he joins her in New York. Felix is a habitual liar, prone to inventing alter egos for himself and the narrator when meeting strangers, and initially she plays along, but soon longs for the real Felix. She resolves to break up with him, but first she travels to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where she gets a phone call informing her Felix has died in a bike accident. Feeling adrift, she quits her job and moves to Berlin, where she leans into a lying life of her own—with the men she meets on dating apps, the mother of twins whom she nannies, even the German government. Oyler experiments with various forms along the way: there is a lengthy parody of fragmented novels, copious analysis of millennial internet habits, literary references from Dickens to Ashbery to Ben Lerner, a Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends, and direct address to the reader. Oyler wields all these devices freely, creating a unique, ferociously modern voice. This incisive, funny work brilliantly captures the claustrophobia of lives led online and personae tested in the real world.”

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Close to Okay: “Cross-Smith (So We Can Glow) explores fragility, grief, and the effects of mental illness in this wonderfully strange novel about new love between broken people. Tallie Clark is a divorced, childless therapist who sees a man about to jump from a bridge on her way home one night. She pulls over and talks him into joining her for a cup of coffee, then invites the man, who goes only by Emmett, to stay at her house. In the days that follow, Tallie and Emmett learn about each other’s divorces and the deaths, infidelities, and heartaches that have shaped their lives. All the while, Cross-Smith builds suspense by gradually alluding to each character’s ulterior motives as Tallie neglects to tell Emmett she’s a therapist, and Emmett emails Tallie’s ex-husband to get her the answers he thinks she needs. Alternating between Tallie and Emmett’s perspectives, the narrative cannily inhabits a space where Tallie calls danger a ‘frothing aphrodisiac,’ and the two characters at times learn, or fail, to cope with sorrow and depression. As dark and tense as it is flirty and humorous, this moving novel offers consistent surprises.”

Milk, Blood, Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Milk, Blood, Heat: “Northern Florida looms large over the 11 stories that comprise Moniz’s smart debut collection, a comingling of themes of adolescent discovery, family strain, and temptation’s dangerous appeal. In the title story, a friendship between two eighth grade girls, complete with awkward companionship and blood pacts, turns to conversations on death, and ‘An Almanac of Bones’ sees another pair of tweens bonding over animal skulls and one girl’s family tradition of moon festivals. An absent mother figures in the latter story, and fractured relations populate several others. ‘Thicker Than Water’ follows estranged siblings as they reluctantly reunite to drive their father’s ashes to his final resting place. ‘The Loss of Heaven’ stars a 50-something man who begins spending more time at the local watering hole after his wife refuses chemotherapy treatments for her cancer, and in ‘Snow,’ the icy sexual relationship between a woman and her husband leads her to contemplate their future during a night of spiritual awakening while bartending. Some stories end abruptly, but Moniz knows her characters well and writes with confidence throughout, letting narratives meander without losing sight of their destinations. Each of these humanity-studying journeys through the Sunshine State easily stands on its own.”

100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about 100 Boyfriends: This stunning collection of vignettes from artist, punk rocker, and Whiting Award winner Purnell (Since I Laid My Burden Down) forms a delightfully crass, kaleidoscopic worldview. Each story introduces new heartbreaks and reminders that moments of intimacy often end in loneliness. In ‘Boyfriend #666/The Satanist’ the narrator describes disappointing sex with a man referred to as ‘Trench Coat Mafia dick.’ In ‘Boyfriend #4/4/The Drummer’ the narrator tenderly asks, ‘What else is a boyfriend for but to share in mutual epiphany?’ Whether falling apart during a punk band’s tour of Europe (‘Do They Exist If No One’s Watching?’), searching for sex in rural Alabama (‘Hooker Boys (Part Two)’), or sifting through a wealthy man’s drug stash in Hell’s Kitchen (‘Boyfriend #100/The Agent’), the characters are joined in their vulnerability and constant longing. The raw, confessional voice in ‘Meandering (Part Two)’ demonstrates the collection’s best quality, as the narrator remarks on the secretive delight of sex with strangers. Purnell brilliantly immerses the reader in Black, queer desire with humor, self-awareness, and just the right amount of vulgarity.”

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Milk Fed: “Broder (The Pisces) delivers a bittersweet and erotic account of a woman’s intertwining relationship to food, her mother, and her sexuality. Rachel, a lapsed Jew who works at a Los Angeles talent management agency by day and does stand-up comedy by night, has suffered from anorexia since childhood. But things begin to change after her therapist suggests she take a 90-day communication detox from her overbearing and controlling mother, whose own relationship with eating and fatphobic comments have long contributed to Rachel’s body image troubles. After Rachel meets Miriam, a food-loving Orthodox Jewish woman, and embarks on a passionate affair with her, Rachel breaks her self-imposed ‘Spartan regimen,’ rediscovers life’s simple pleasures, and tries to figure out what will bring her true happiness. With luscious descriptions of delectable foods and fantastical romps through Rachel’s imagination, the novel oscillates between serious and playful, obsessive and free, and explores the difficulties of loving oneself in a world that prizes thinness above all else. This poignant exploration of desire, religion, and daughterhood is hard to resist.”

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Bad Muslim Discount: “In this ambitious if flawed novel, Masood (More Than Just a Pretty Face) charts the unraveling lives of two Muslim immigrants. Anvar Faris moves with his family at 14 from Karachi, Pakistan, to San Francisco in 1996, after his father has had enough of the country’s growing conservatism and embrace of Islamic fundamentalism. Masood then introduces the reader to 10-year-old Azza bint Saqr in Baghdad, two years before the U.S. invasion. When Azza’s father is arrested and held by U.S. forces in 2005, Azza flees to an aunt’s house in Basra. Anvar, in college, grapples with the end of a sexual relationship with a Muslim woman (‘The more I study what Allah wants, the more I realize that I don’t want to sin anymore,’ she says). Later, as a young lawyer, Anvar grows disenchanted after failing to protect a Muslim client’s civil liberties. Azza and her father finally reach the U.S. in 2016, after Azza was sexually exploited by the man who provided their passports, and arrive as then-candidate Trump begins calling for a border wall and ban on Muslims. In their shared subsidized apartment block, Anvar and Azza meet and begin sleeping together, leading to an explosive conclusion. Despite many insightful moments, Masood’s characters never fully come to life. Still, the immersive story offers a rich meditation on religion and personal identity.”

U UP? by Catie Disabato

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about U UP?: “Disabato (The Ghost Network) offers a poignant if strained story of grief, ghosts, and friendship. When Eve, a Los Angeles slacker and witch, finds out her best friend, Ezra, is going to Palm Springs with his girlfriend, Noz, on the anniversary weekend of their friend Miggy’s suicide, thus breaking Eve and Ezra’s initial plans to honor Miggy together, Eve is livid. Various text threads unspool through Eve’s narration, including one with Miggy’s ghost, who encourages Eve to let Ezra ‘deal with his grief in his own way.’ After Eve gets a ‘u up?’ text from Ezra, she learns Noz has just broken up with him, and by the next day, Ezra has stopped responding to her messages. Fearing Ezra has disappeared, Eve drops everything to find him. As she searches for clues to Ezra’s whereabouts, meeting up with various mutual friends amid texting and hooking up with her ex-girlfriend, Disabato makes clear—heavy-handedly—that Eve has some lessons to learn about selfishness and recognizing other people’s feelings. Though the ending’s twists are unsurprising, Disabato makes Eve’s friend group come alive on the page and in her texts. Still, other novels have done more with similar milieux.”

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Kindest Lie: “Johnson’s sharp debut takes a deep dive into the life of a Black Chicago woman after the 2008 presidential election. Ruth Tuttle, 29, feels like she’s made it: she’s married to a Pepsi exec and thriving in her own career as a chemical engineer. However, her marriage hits a rocky spot when, during a talk with her husband, Xavier, about having children, she reveals she had a son at age 17. Her grandmother, Mama, who raised her, encouraged Ruth to give up her son to fulfill her dreams, and now, after Ruth asks for help in finding him, Mama tells Ruth not to go digging up the past. Still, Ruth returns to Ganton, determined to find her son before she starts a family with Xavier. With the auto plant that employed her brother, Eli, and her grandfather now closed, the town is reeling. Here, Johnson’s lens widens to address the increasing racial divide following Obama’s election, and she dramatizes it through a friendship forged between Ruth and an 11-year-old white boy named Midnight, whose abusive father also lost his job. Midnight is friends with a Black boy named Corey Cunningham, who Ruth deduces is her son after Eli defends him from a racially motivated attack by a group of white boys. As Ruth learns more about what’s happened to her town and reckons with what she left behind, powerful insights emerge on the plurality of Black American experience and the divisions between rural and urban life, and the wealthy and the working class. Johnson’s clear-eyed saga hits hard.”

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Land of Big Numbers: “The often haunting stories in Chen’s strong debut follow characters striving for a better futures in China as buried memories begin to surface. The stories with an allegorical bent are some of the best, among them ‘New Fruit,’ in which a ‘peculiar’ agricultural offering, the qiguo, first intoxicates those who eat it, then kindles politically dangerous memories of the Cultural Revolution. Another standout is ‘Gubeikou Spirit,’ in which a train delay traps passengers below ground for months because regulations state that they ‘must exit at a different station from where they entered.’ The absurdism takes on a haunting quality as the passengers adapt to, and then come to prefer, their confinement. The more realist stories offer subtle portrayals of the costs of political activism (‘Lulu’), seemingly unbridgeable cultural and marital gulfs (‘Field Notes on a Marriage’), and, in the title story, the lure of wealth in China’s booming economy. ‘Shanghai Murmur,’ a melancholy vignette about a florist’s fascination with a rich client, is the most psychologically complex in a collection where the characters can occasionally be one-dimensional. Still, Chen’s sweeping collection comprises many small moments of beauty.”

Blood Grove by Walter Mosely

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Blood Grove: “Early in MWA Grand Master Mosley’s strong 15th Easy Rawlins mystery (after 2016’s Charcoal Joe), Craig Kilian, a vet traumatized by combat experiences in Vietnam, arrives unannounced one day in 1969 at the L.A. detective agency that employs Easy. Craig, a white man, tells Easy he got into a fight with a knife-wielding Black man who was about to attack a white woman tied to a tree at a remote campsite. After fatally stabbing the Black man, Craig was hit in the head and lost consciousness. When he woke up, the body and the woman were gone. WWII vet Easy feels sympathy for Craig, and agrees to help find out what happened at the campsite. The upright detective soon becomes caught in a web of trouble involving stolen money, grisly murders, and weird sex clubs. Amid all the twists and turns and double-crosses, Easy confronts racism, an enduring feature ‘of the America I loved and hated.’ Mosley does a fine job highlighting a world of Black survivors who know how difficult their struggle remains, every day of every decade. This marvelous series is as relevant as ever.”

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House: “Jones’s intense debut explores the poverty and crime in Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, amid an explosive collision between tourists and locals. The place, called Paradise by foreigners and residents alike, turns out to be a living hell for two women whose lives are changed by one horrific incident. Lala, a local hair braider, is stuck in a turbulent marriage to Adan, a burglar. Mira Whalen, a former local who now lives in London, is vacationing with her English husband, Peter, at their beachfront villa. One night, Lala is on the beach, in labor and about to give birth. Adan, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found. Lala stumbles upon the Whalens’ mansion and presses the buzzer for help. She hears a gunshot and Adan rushes out, an ear-piercing shriek following on his heels. A parallel narrative follows Mira dealing with the aftermath of Peter’s murder by Adan, while a detective works the case, and more violence ensues as Lala and Mira’s lives eventually collide. Rich characters and pulsing backstories add a great deal of flavor to the drama. Jones is off to a strong start.”

The Removed by Brandon Hobson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Removed: “National Book Award–finalist Hobson (Where the Dead Sit Talking) depicts a Cherokee family’s grief and resilience 15 years after a police officer unjustly kills one of the family’s three children in Quah, Okla. Maria Echota, a retired social worker in her 70s, battles depression and watches as her adult children struggle and her husband, Ernest, develops Alzheimer’s. Their oldest, 31-year-old Sonja, works at Quah’s public library, and they fear she’s taken an unhealthy fixation on Vin Hoff, a younger white man. Edgar, the youngest, lives in Albuquerque and is addicted to meth. The family’s plan to reunite for an annual bonfire to celebrate Cherokee independence in Quah—an event always shaped for them by memories of Ray Ray, who was killed the same day at 15 after a cop wrongly believed Ray Ray had shot a gun—are complicated when Edgar won’t answer the phone. Instead, he’s taken a train to the mysterious Darkening Land, where the spirits of David Foster Wallace and Jimi Hendrix appear, leaving the reader to wonder if Edgar has died as well. There’s hope, though, as Maria and Ernest’s foster child, Wyatt, stimulates Ernest’s decaying mind, reminding him of Ray-Ray—and Sonja’s obsession with Vin turns out to be part of a wonderfully twisted plan to heal her grief. The alternating first-person narration is punctuated by the powerful voice of Tsala, a family ancestor who died before he was forced onto the Trail of Tears. Hobson is a master storyteller and illustrates in gently poetic prose how for many Native Americans the line between this world and the next isn’t so sharp. This will stay long in readers’ minds.”

Also on shelves this week: Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar.

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