February-April fiction preview: 11 books to add to your TBR list

February 1: Charmaine Wilkerson – Black Cake (Ballantine)

When Eleanor Bennett dies, she leaves her children, Byron and Benny, an audio recording and an old family recipe for black cake, a Caribbean specialty. Eleanor tells a cryptic story of murder, romance, and a lost child, upending the family history and identity Byron and Benny previously believed. They have to patch up their fraught relationship to figure out the whole story of their family’s life from the Caribbean to California.

February 22: Julie Otsuka – The Swimmers (Knopf)

The author of The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor is Divine is a master of the short, compressed novel that resonates like a pebble dropped on the surface of a placid pond. Here, Otsuka depicts the effect on a group of recreational swimmers when the pool becomes unavailable. Alice had used her daily lap swimming to hold off encroaching dementia and without this anchor in her routine, she drifts off into memory, including her time in an internment camp during World War II. The Swimmers features a dual narrative that moves between a close look at the relationship of Alice and her caregiver daughter and the lives of Alice’s friends from the pool.

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March 8: Karen Joy Fowler – Booth (Putnam)

Fowler returns with a historical novel examining the family of John Wilkes Booth, giving readers an alternate perspective on the life of one of American history’s most infamous assassins. The Booths, led by a larger-than-life father, were a famous Shakespearean troupe in the years before the Civil War, but politics and fanaticism began to tear the family apart. As usual with a Fowler novel, she finds a unique vantage point from which to tell her story, which makes this nearly 500-page book an absorbing read. A friend commented that Booth reminded her of Lincoln in the Bardo and Hamnet.

March 8: NoViolet Bulawayo – Glory (Viking)

Bulawayo’s second novel (after 2013’s We Need New Names) was inspired by the fall of Robert Mugabe, the tyrant who led Zimbabwe for several decades. She applies her distinctive voice to a range of animals who narrate this unflinching look at a country that has been left in ruins. It’s a surreal, satirical parable of life during and after Mugabe’s reign.

March 15: Eloghosa Osunde – Vagabonds! (Riverhead)

Osunde takes us deep into life in Lagos, Nigeria, focusing on the teeming city’s outsiders, particularly the poor and the LGBTQ community. There are spirits at work in this alternately realistic and fantastic depiction of complicated lives. This is a powerful debut from a writer worth watching. T Kira Madden sums up Vagabonds! well: “Vagabonds! offers a dazzling, hypnotic portrait of lives lived on the margins. Through Eloghosa Osunde’s supreme imagination, the binary of reality and fantasy is shattered in poetic, kaleidoscopic color.”

March 22: Anne Tyler – French Braid (Knopf)

Tyler has been a blessing to lovers of closely observed family dramas for more than 40 years. Her two dozen tragicomic depictions of the lives of quirky families (usually in Baltimore) constitute an impressive and distinctive body of work. I especially liked Ladder of Years, Saint Maybe, and Digging to America (and those aren’t even considered her classics; Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant hold that place). French Braid introduces us to the Garrett family as they take their first (and last) vacation in 1959. We follow the shifting nature of the parents’ marriage and their three very different children for the next few decades.

April 5: Cara Hoffman – Ruin: Short Stories (PM Press)

Hoffman is one of our most underrated writers. Her novels So Much Pretty, Be Safe I Love You, and Running proved that she was a fearless storyteller of great insight. Ruin is her first story collection and it’s a good introduction to her determination to expose the lives of people struggling with the harsh reality of our culture and social order. Hoffman’s stories are dark but not hopeless; she brilliantly captures the desperation, yearning, and violence that animate her characters in these gritty stories.

April 5: Lisa Bird-Wilson – Probably Ruby (Hogarth)

When we meet Ruby, she is a 30-something Metis woman at loose ends, struggling to put her life together. But the real story is how she got to this point. Adopted by white parents, she was raised without being introduced to her Indigenous heritage. Not surprisingly, this leads her to feel disconnected, between cultures and identities. Bird-Wilson uses a variety of voices from people in Ruby’s life – her birth parents, adoptive parents, relatives, friends, lovers — to fill in the gaps in her life story as she sorts out who she is and what her path is going forward.

April 5: Sara Novic – True Biz (Random House)

Sara Novic’s first novel, Girl at War, the story of a child soldier in Croatia, was one of my favorite books of 2015. It received the ALA Alex Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. True Biz takes us inside a boarding school for the deaf, where we follow the coming-of-age stories of Charlie and Austin, as well as the administration’s struggles to keep the school open. It’s also a much-needed depiction of the deaf community, at both the individual and collective level. Novic explores issues of language and communication and the forging of identity within the deaf community and the world at large.

April 5: Jennifer Egan – The Candy House (Scribner)

The Candy House is being presented as a “sister novel” to her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011). Where the previous novel explored the music industry, this time Egan probes the high-tech industry. Using a variety of narrators and narrative forms (shifting points of view, letters, tweets), Egan shows the far-reaching effects of a new technology called Own Your Unconscious that gives users access to a lifetime of memories. The Candy House is another mind-bending story that will captivate and concern readers in equal measure.  

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