Category Archives: New fiction

** How Much of These Hills Is Gold by Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills Is Gold follows two orphans in the Gold Rush years of the American West who pick their way through a hostile climate and even more hostile residents who can’t abide their Chinese origins. Dreams and symbolism figure strongly along with tigers (really!), which made it difficult for me to get into the  well-crafted family story but it felt arms-length to the end, which is not ideal for a novel.

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*** The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee

The Last Taxi Driver stars a cab driver who works for an unscrupulous taxi company and ferries people with lots of problems, from poverty to addiction to, well, complicated lives. His personal story is forgettable but the stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the passengers is not.

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* The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

The premise of The Vanishing Half is soap opera fodder: twins from a small Louisiana town split up. One will pass for white, the other not, and live out their lives in complete isolation, until of course they don’t The result is not quite as bad as I had feared, as the plot brings in plenty of extra characters and the women, at least, are nicely layered. (The men seem to come in two varieties only: perfect husbands and batterers, so we may have a bit of a nuance gap here.) The story is full of small details and historical references but I just could not see past that unlikely premise.

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* Friend by Nam-nyong Paek

I know I’m giving Friend: A Novel from North Korea only one star, because it’s pretty bad (I shall explain), but you may also want to read it, because it’s from North Korea and how many books from North Korea have you read? Almost everything about it is truly exotic, as in “characteristic of a distant foreign country”, distant in beliefs and organization of society, and perhaps in the definition of what’s beautiful, too.

The story centers on a couple who requests a divorce, and on the judge who must grant the divorce (the law clearly does not allow the couple to make this important decision by themselves!). As the story moves along, slowly, we relive their stilted courtship, the sexist division of labor in the home, and of course the heavy control of the police state in which they live. Read it as a political and historical artifact instead of the novel.

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** How To Be A Family by Dan Kois

Another family-around-around-the-world story, as was Dirt, but this time we are taking an express tour through 4 different locations in a year: New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and Kansas (this for a DC-based family, so Kansas is exotic, and yes it was pretty weird to read this during shelter-in-place restrictions). How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together is a pleasant enough read, although I could not ignore for more than a few moments (1) the sheer arrogance of thinking that one can understand another country in a few months, let alone its child education climate, let alone when the author does not speak the local language and refuses to do so, and (2) the delusion that family habits will change drastically as a a result of such a trip. You will not be surprised to hear New Zealand and Kansas are super friendly (for English speakers), and that most locales have a less hectic lifestyle than the DC suburbs.

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*** Writers and Lovers by Lily King

Writers and Lovers follows a struggling writer who is in her sixth year of writing a novel, earns her (modest) keep by waitressing in a fancy restaurant, and judges, harshly, her college friends who betrayed the cause of writing and went to law school or found other more financially stable careers. She valiantly muddles through and falls in love with both an established writer and a student of the same, prompting much internal confusion at the same time the famous novel is, finally, sent to a publisher. Most of the book is about her inner thoughts, perfectly rendered in a mix of practical details (the allocation of tables at the restaurant, the tactics of student loan companies) and artistic considerations about her book and others.

The ending is abrupt and, to me, not satisfying, but the rest of the story was delightfully observed.

 

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** Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

Days of Distraction follows a young Chinese-American journalist who follows her white boyfriend from California to the East Coast so he can start graduate school–and she can escape her low-paying job in a dysfunctional office.

It’s tough to be the trailing spouse, it’s tough to find herself as one of the few Asians in town (there’s little hope that the locals will see beyond “Asian”), and her busy boyfriend seems blind to her questioning of their biracial relationship.The story reads like a diary.

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*** The Girl with a Louding Voice by Abi Daré

The Girl with a Louding Voice is resourceful, ambitious, and shrewd. She is also sold to an older husband in quest of a son, then trafficked into hard labor (and worse, if she did not keep her wits about her). She tells her story in a convincing young and ESL voice and makes it hopeful and brave. Maybe too hopeful but you will for sure root for her.

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*** Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

 

The heroine of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is losing her mind. Her make psychiatrist seems more interested in making her fit the severely restricted life that South Korean women are expected to lead rather than hearing her story. The book is told in his notes, which miss the point so utterly that we know she will never get better, not through his ministrations at least.The story oozes drama even as the style remains clinically dry. It’s chilling.

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* Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Trust Exercise follows a group of high-school students in a performing art school whose theater teacher uses highly suspect techniques, to predictably disastrous results for the students. It could be a wise and tender look at adolescence, or a tough investigation of adult failings. It is neither, just elaborately boring teenage shenanigans  laced with adults taking advantage of them. Avoid.

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