January Books of Note: Six compelling new voices and one beloved storyteller

2019 may well have been the strongest year for books in the last decade. From all indications, 2020 looks to continue that trend, with more books being published, more diverse voices, and more books that sound like must-reads. These seven books — five novels and two memoirs — are due this month and worth your consideration.

Topics of Conversation – Miranda Popkey (Knopf, Jan. 7)

This small but potent book is likely to be the word-of-mouth winner of the month. Popkey’s debut presents a series of conversations with women — about sex, loneliness, self-loathing, art, pain, anger, guilt, motherhood, and feminism. It’s also an exploration of the stories women tell themselves and each other, especially about identity, desire, and relationships. The publisher’s description compares Topics of Conversation to the work of Rachel Cusk, Lydia Davis, and Jenny Offill, which should give you a clear idea of the compressed intensity and structural experimentation at work here.

The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir – E. J. Koh (Tin House Books, Jan. 7)

This memoir in letters concerns the experiences of 15-year-old Koh when her parents return to South Korea for work after living in the U.S. for over a decade. A fish out of water story about an American teenager? Nope. Her parents left Koh and her brother behind in California. Koh struggles, understandably, with issues of abandonment. But through her mother’s letters, which she only discovers years later, she begins to see how the lives of her grandmothers and mother were shaped by tragic events both personal and political in Korea’s history. Despite time, distance, and a different culture, Koh finds their lives have had an effect on her as well.

Little Gods – Meng Jin (Custom House, Jan. 14)

Liya, a 17-year-old American who was brought to the U.S. as a child, must travel to a China she has never known in order to return her mother’s ashes. Little Gods tells the story of her mother Su Lan, a brilliant physicist, through her last friend Zhu Wen and the father Liya never knew, Yongzong. Gina Apostol says it mixes science, politics, and art, which sounds like the best kind of novel to me. Not many debuts receive glowing blurbs from Colum McCann and Claire Messud.

Parents Under the Influence: Words of Wisdom from a Former Bad Mother — Cecile David-Weill (Other Press, Jan. 14)

In a combination memoir/parenting guide, David-Weill describes the experience of evolving from a “bad mother” influenced by the way she was raised into a good mother. Or at least one who is conscious of her “inherited” bad habits and determined to apply various experts’ advice on raising children with compassion, humor, and a focus on their needs. She explores the anxiety and imposter syndrome felt by most new parents, as well as the tendency to be all-knowing and domineering. She has written an intimate, self-effacing memoir and sensible guide to creating a strong relationship with your children.

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins (Flatiron Books, Jan. 21)

This may well be the most hyped book of the season. It’s timely and gripping page-turner that will rip your heart out repeatedly. Lydia owns a small bookstore in Acapulco; her husband Sebastian is an investigative journalist covering the drug cartels destroying Mexico. The cartel’s leader, incensed by a revealing profile of him, has Lydia’s extended family murdered as they celebrate a birthday. Only Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca escape. They embark on a cat-and-mouse escape from the city and head north, hoping to reach the United States and reunite with an uncle in Denver. What follows is a harrowing depiction of the migrant experience, as they ride la bestia, the freight trains to the border, with thousands of other migrants and refugees fleeing a variety of hardships and tragedies. Lydia is sheltered and naive in the early chapters, but she soon learns the reality of the migrant experience in Mexico. Cummins gives readers a wider view of the situation through other characters, particularly two young sisters who are fleeing threats to their previously peaceful lives in the mountains of Honduras.

A Long Petal of the Sea – Isabel Allende (Ballantine Books, Jan. 21)

Allende has written so many good books (novels, memoirs, YA) in the past 35 years that she’s a name author; people buy her books because they’re Allende books. And she’s almost always a sure bet. If you haven’t read her yet, start with her debut, The House of the Spirits (1982), and Paula (1994), a memoir of her daughter’s illness, coma, and death. Her new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, might be the book to read next. It’s the story of refugees who flee Spain when Franco takes control in the late 1930s. The protagonists, in a marriage of convenience, join 2,000 other refugees on a ship to Chile, where they attempt to build a new life while dreaming of their return to Spain.

Blue Flowers – Carola Saavedra (Riverhead Books, Jan. 28)

Reeling from his recent divorce and feeling disconnected from his own life, Marcos begins to receive letters at his new apartment from a woman who is writing to the former tenant, her ex-lover. Why he opens the letters is a fair question, but he does, and he becomes intrigued with the woman, who identifies herself as “A.” When he decides to find out who she is, matters get complicated very quickly. Blue Flowers is a provocative exploration of love, desire, and despair. Saavedra is a Brazilian writer with three previous novels and a story collection to her credit.


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