My Favorite Books of 2014

Everything I Never Told You  The UnAmericans  The Hundred-Year House  The Home Place  Life Drawing    Now We Will Be Happy  Be Safe I Love You  Faulty Predictions   The Bees   Flashes of War

2014 was a very strong year for literary fiction by women. I tried to make a Top 10 list, but that proved impossible. So I decided instead to make a list of my favorite books of the year and ended up with 30. They are listed in alphabetical order rather than by ranking. I will say that a handful of books knocked my reading socks off and stayed with me for a long time. Those titles are noted with an asterisk. I think there is something for everyone here.

It should go without saying  that there were hundreds of books that I did not get around to reading (some are still on my to-be-read list), and I’m certain many of them would have made this list had I read them. So this is just a very idiosyncratic list of the best books one guy read in 2014. Make of that what you will.

The links will take you to my review of each book. I hope you will also take the time to read my interviews with many of these authors. You can find them by visiting the Index page or using the Search bar.

Molly Antopol — The UnAmericans: Stories*

Robin Black — Life Drawing

Vanessa Blakeslee — Train Shots: Stories

Katie Crouch — Abroad

Karen Joy Fowler — We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

Amina Gautier — Now We Will Be Happy: Stories*

Lisa Gornick — Tinderbox

Cristina Henriquez — The Book of Unknown Americans

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You*

Lacy Johnson — The Other Side: A Memoir*

Kristina Kahakauwila — This is Paradise: Stories*

Lily King — Euphoria*

Maya Lang — The Sixteenth of June

Carrie La Seur — The Home Place*

Lisa Lenzo — Strange Love: Stories

Jessica Levine — The Geometry of Love

Karin Lin-Greenberg — Faulty Predictions: Stories*

Rebecca Makkai — The Hundred-Year House*

Francesca Marciano — The Other Language 

Laura McBride — We Are Called to Rise

Celeste Ng — Everything I Never Told You*

Laline Paull — The Bees

Virginia Pye — River of Dust

Claudia Rankine — Citizen* (poetry-essay-memoir hybrid)

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War: Stories*

Brittani Sonnenberg — Home Leave

Emily St. John Mandel — Station Eleven*

Rene Steinke — Friendswood

Natalia Sylvester — Chasing the Sun

Tiphanie Yanique — Land of Love and Drowning



Hidden Gems: Author Celeste Ng recommends THE CELESTIALS by Karen Shepard

The Celestials  Karen Shepard

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU (Penguin Press), was published on June 26. The initial response from reviewers and early readers has been extremely positive, bordering on ecstatic. Several magazines have selected it as a recommended summer read. Today, Celeste drops by to share a recommendation for a book she loves and thinks you will, too. 

“Hidden gem” is exactly the right term for Karen Shepard’s fourth novel, The Celestials. I’ll admit it first caught my eye for the most superficial of reasons, the title’s similarity to my own name.  But once I’d picked up the book, I was immediately drawn in.

First, the “hidden” part: on the outside, The Celestials is an unassuming little book—the cover a demure tan, with a single black-and-white photo of a Chinese man to one side—put out by a small press, Tin House Books.  It’s based on a long-hidden story from history: in 1870, Calvin Sampson brings seventy-five Chinese workers—the “Celestials” of the title—to his factory in North Adams, Massachusetts.  The problem is, the Chinese workers are unwitting strikebreakers, and their presence stokes tension everywhere: between the laborers and the factory’s management, between the townspeople and the Celestials themselves.  In the novel, things soon reach a breaking point when Sampson’s wife, Julia, gives birth to a half-Chinese child.  Aren’t you intrigued already?

But let’s not forget the “gem” part: Shepard writes in the relatively uncommon omniscient voice, which is no less beautiful here for its authority and simplicity.  Instead, the voice allows her narrative to roam freely between characters, bringing insight into their fears, jealousies, and passions: the town of North Adams has “a peculiarly happy and peaceful look, as if a tea set were balanced in the hollow of God’s large hand; a mother, looking at her infant, feels “suddenly depleted, a wool blanket wet and wrung out.”  The narration is a particularly brilliant decision in the case of Charlie—the foreman of the Chinese workers—and the other Celestials: they may speak only pidgin English, but the omniscient point of view allows them to express their thoughts fluently and eloquently.  It also allows Shepard to weave in historical facts like landscape, giving context to the events in this tiny factory town.

Although she confronts weighty topics of bias, discrimination, and cultural clash, Shepard handles these topics delicately, without ever becoming didactic or moralistic.  Instead, the novel presents a nuanced group portrait of one community—townspeople and Celestials alike—wrestling with questions of identity, otherness, and the possibility of connection.  The portrait is literal as well as literary: photographs of Chinese workers from the era dot the text, challenging the reader to confront these forgotten images of the past. (For more on that, see Shepard’s “Research Notes” at Necessary Fiction).

The overall effect is indeed gemlike, multifaceted and gleaming.  Part historical study, part family story, The Celestials is an examination of love across lines of all kinds—racial, class, family, gender—that deserves a wider audience.

Everything I Never Told You  Celeste-Ng


CHASING THE SUN: wife’s kidnapping leads to dissection of marriage in suspenseful debut novel

Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun

By Natalia Sylvester

New Harvest (HMH/Amazon), 6/3/14

304 pages, $24.00

Andres appears to have it all. He owns a successful printing company, lives in a beautiful house in a wealthy neighborhood, and is married to Marabela, a beautiful and strong-willed woman who works as a freelance photojournalist and is a devoted mother to their two children.

But appearances can deceive. All is not well in the Lima, Peru home of the Jimenez family. Marabela recently left Andres, only to return after four days for the sake of their children, Ignacio and Cynthia. Andres still loves Marabela and tries to save their marriage, but she is uncooperative. She has grown tired of Andres’s workaholic lifestyle and resents having to give up most of her photojournalism work. They talk past each other; Andres is too eager to please, which Marabela interprets as weakness. She is often callous and self-absorbed. The tension is palpable.

This already difficult situation falls away instantly when Marabela is kidnapped and held for ransom by men who may be associated with Shining Path, a communist insurgent group that terrorized Peru in the 1980s and early 1990s. Andres is distraught but, with the help of Guillermo, a retired police officer-turned-negotiator, he begins to work toward Marabela’s release.

Andres and Guillermo work from Marabela’s darkroom, which they have converted into a custom-designed office wired to record calls and maintain records of all communications and activities regarding the kidnapping. With the hours of waiting stretching out before him, Andres has time to explore their failed marriage and home life. Through a series of flashbacks we learn how he and Marabela met and how his decision to marry her affected Andres’s lifelong friendship with Elena, the daughter of his father’s business partner. Their romantic history is full of complexities that have reverberated down through the years.

How far will Andres go to obtain the return of a woman he loves but believes may well leave him again? What does he owe her? What will be enough to free her and also convince her to stay and rebuild their marriage? Can he obtain her release without giving up everything they’ve achieved? Does he possess enough to satisfy these hardened and very professional kidnappers?

Andres also has his hands full caring for the children, whom he is trying to protect from the truth about Marabela’s sudden absence. Ignacio, who is in high school, suspects all is not as it seems and wants to know the truth — and to help his father. Andres is also trying to keep the kidnapping from colleagues, friends, and family, including his very shrewd mother, Lorena, from whom he has been estranged since he married Marabela.

After many years apart, Andres reestablishes contact with Elena. He has learned that she may have special knowledge and insight that could help him through his difficult situation. Can she help save Marabela and thus Andres?

Sylvester turns what could have been a soap opera into a suspenseful and literary novel through a tightly controlled narrative that provides a detailed view into the main characters’ hearts and minds. She has tamped down the melodrama in favor of a more subtle emotional intensity that builds as the story progresses. The nature of the plot alone provides plenty of conflict and page-turning suspense; Sylvester had the good sense and discipline to opt for a thoughtful, probing approach that will remind some readers of Ann Patchett and Graham Greene, with the elegant prose to match.

Chasing the Sun is a summer novel for readers who want something to think deeply about as their hearts pound and they turn the pages, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves examines unique family, loss, memory


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

By Karen Joy Fowler

Marian Wood Books/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

320 pages, $26.95

It’s quite likely that you have never read a book look We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It is the story of a two sisters — and a family — seemingly like many others and yet unlike any other.

The story is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, who is both a charming and eccentric storyteller and an unreliable narrator. Fowler’s achievement in crafting Rosemary’s persona and narrative voice is impressive. She is smart, self-effacing, witty, sardonic — and heartbroken. More importantly, her tale, and her way of telling it, is spellbinding.

The narrative moves back and forth between Rosemary’s childhood and her college and adult years, as she recalls the brief years of innocent childhood before tragedy struck the Cookes. For the first 75 pages, we are introduced to the lives of, and relationships between, the various family members: Rosemary’s research scientist parents (her father is a professor at Indiana University), aloof older brother Lowell, and fun-loving sister Fern.

There is a strong sense of foreboding in the first part of the book, a black cloud looming over Rosemary and the Cooke family, but it is mentioned only in vague terms. Something happened to Fern; she “disappeared” from their lives and no one has ever been the same. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves describes the effects of Fern’s disappearance on the family, each of whom copes with the loss in a unique way, one that confounds the other family members.

The events in this novel might seem far-fetched were it not for the fact that they are based on actual events. Fowler’s story reminds us that humans are capable of both amazing and shameful things, and that our hubris often leads us into uncharted and dangerous territory. Even when we do our best with what we know, and with good intentions, it is often not good enough; the damage is done.

Fowler received the PEN/Faulkner Award for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves on April 2. In a statement announcing the award, Manuel Muñoz, one of the three judges, said, “This superb novel is not only comic and smart, it packs a surprising emotional punch. Fowler captures an altogether new dimension of the meaning—and heartbreak—of family dynamics.” Judge Madison Smartt Bell added, “This is a book that really does tell us something new about what it is to be human—and what it is not to be.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an example of a novel that is both critically acclaimed and embraced by readers. It was a bestseller when published in May 2013 and was issued in paperback in late February. Fowler is best known as the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, her most accessible work, which was a huge hit in 2004.

MARY COIN imagines the lives behind Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photo

Mary Coin paperback


By Marisa Silver


Published March 2013; paperback published Feb. 25, 2014

336 pages, $16.00

It is one of the most familiar photos of the 20th century: a haggard woman seated in front of a tent and surrounded by her small children looks off into the distance, seemingly pondering her circumstances. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is the iconic image of the Great Depression. We’ve all stared at it, almost willing it to come to life so we can see beyond the lens, talk to the mother, check on the children.

Novelist Marisa Silver followed that impulse and has brought Lange’s photo to fictional life in MARY COIN. In her latest novel, the award-winning author of BABE IN PARADISE and THE GOD OF WAR answers the questions viewers of this photo have asked for the past 75 years: Who is this woman? How did she end up in a tent by the roadside? What is she thinking about? What will happen to her? Will her children be OK?

MARY COIN features three protagonists: Mary Coin (the woman in the photo), Vera Dare (a fictionalized Lange), and Walker Dodge (“a present-day professor of cultural history” at a California university). Alternating their stories, Silver provides an explanation for how Lange and Coin came to meet that day in 1936, as Florence Owens Thompson sat by the road in Nipomo, California.

Silver keeps the narratives separate, adding to the tension as we wait to see how the characters’ lives intersect. Each character is facing struggles both internal and external. Coin has been buffeted by the dusty winds of change in Oklahoma, a difficult home life, and a series of encounters with men that have left her heartbroken and burdened with children and dreams. Dare overcomes a disability caused by childhood polio to discover her passion in photography. Her romantic and marital experiences are a counter-weight to those of Mary Coin.

Despite their wildly different cultural milieus, they have some experiences in common. Both are underestimated by the men and women around them. What Dare lacks in leg strength she makes up for with a spine of steel. What Coin lacks in domestic stability she makes up for with a steely gaze that captures her determination. And through Coin, we experience anew the daily battle to maintain family unity amidst the ongoing effort to find work and feed the children. Coin is likely to join Steinbeck’s Joad family as representatives of the Okie migrant experience that is indelibly etched in our minds. (I have recommended to the chair of my high school English department that MARY COIN be added to the 11th grade American Literature curriculum as a supplemental reading to the required GRAPES OF WRATH.)

Walker Dodge is our time machine back to the 1920s and 1930s. In the present, he is caught up in a common family situation, trying to maintain balance among his ex-wife, children, and work life. His father has recently passed away, forcing Dodge to return to his home in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, to attend to his father’s personal business. They were never close, and Dodge yearns to know more about his father’s childhood and the life of his grandfather before him. The family has always been tight-lipped about their history.

In his scholarly capacity, Dodge studies photographs in an effort to explore the universal experience through particular lives. When he returns home and sorts through the mundane belongings of his father, he finds his way, ever so methodically, to Dare’s photo of Mary Coin. Rather than having Dodge tell us the story of Coin and Dare, however, Silver’s narrator fulfills that task, leaving Dodge to serve as a proxy of sorts for the reader, connecting the characters and their lives into a unifying whole. Just as Dodge’s work involves piecing together the zeitgeist of an era through the lives of ordinary people and the artifacts they left behind, the reader pieces together the lives of these three characters to create a satisfying and enlightening story.

The quality of Silver’s writing was a revelation to me. Her prose is elegant and, at times, poetic. Readers will be hard-pressed to find a single clunky sentence in the entire book. While the pace of the narrative is measured, the sentences themselves are seamless and a pleasure to read. MARY COIN is not a fast read; instead, it is as intense and thoughtful as the expression on the face of the Migrant Mother in Dorothea Lange’s legendary photo.

Marisa Silver is an insightful student of human nature and an impressive prose stylist who knows how to tell a compelling story that resonates far beyond the lives of the characters.

BOY, SNOW, BIRD shatters Snow White to examine beauty in a multi-racial world

Boy, Snow, Bird  Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird

By Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead Books, 2014

308 pages, $27.95

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that is as challenging to review as Boy, Snow, Bird. A summary of the premise would utterly fail to do it justice. I read several short reviews and summaries before I started the book; they only touched on what this story is about and none captured the essence of Oyeyemi’s brilliant, occasionally astounding novel. I’m sure my short review will suffer the same failures. So, if you want to stop reading now, at least know this much: This is a special book by a uniquely gifted author, and you should read it.

Here’s the premise: It’s 1953 and Boy Novak, a 20-year-old girl from the Lower East Side of Manhattan flees her abusive father, the Rat Catcher, ending up in the small Massachusetts town of Flax Hill, where she hopes to make a new start on a life with some beauty instead of the sordid poverty and suffering of the life she ran from. Staying in a boarding house for similarly situated young women, she befriends fellow guests Veronica Webster (always called Webster) and Mia Cabrini. She obtains a job working at the bookstore owned by the eccentric but kind-hearted Mrs. Fletcher.

I loved Oyeyemi’s descriptions and her two-character first-person narrative, although Boy remains a questionable and possibly unreliable narrator in her sections. Early on, Boy describes her first days in town. “As for Flax Hill itself, I was on shaky terms with it for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner. I kept passing park benches and telephone booths and entrances to alleyways that I was absolutely certain hadn’t been there the evening before.”

Before long, she encounters widower Arturo Whitman, who decides to woo the young, icily beautiful, and mysterious Boy. Whitman has an eight-year-old daughter, Snow, who is adored by everyone for her beauty, charm, and utter goodness. She is the perfect child. Boy walks in the shadow of Arturo’s dead wife, Julia, but appears to make her peace with Julia’s ongoing presence in the lives of Arturo and Snow. It is not giving away anything significant to reveal that Boy agrees to marry Arturo and become Snow’s stepmother. For it is here that the plot reaches critical mass and the action starts to rise. Their relationship starts off on a promising note but soon becomes complicated by jealousy and an almost sibling rivalry. Snow seems mostly oblivious to her effect on people and the impact she has on Boy and her marriage to Arturo. She is young, of course. But as time goes on, Snow becomes more self-aware and her relationships increasingly curious. It is as if her friends and family members worship her rather than love her.

Boy explains, “If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it. She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it. She’d pat your arm and say, “Everything is okay. Everything is normal,” and you took her word for it. Sometimes I think it was a trick of hers, deciding aloud what was going on so that everyone who loved her fell over themselves to make it so. Sometimes I think we needed her to be like that and she obliged.”

Later, Bird offers a description of how the people of Flax Hill treat her older half-sister. “Everybody agreed that Snow was valuable, but she was far too valuable to have around for keeps. Nice to look at for an afternoon, but we’ll all breathe easier once she’s safely back at the museum. I was beginning to hate people because of the way they talked about my sister, because of the way they didn’t really want her.”

Clearly, Snow is not your typical girl. But why? Is she inherently different and special? Or is it that she is just remarkably beautiful and everyone has treated her differently for so long that she has become different?

At one point, Bird observes Snow reading note cards left for her by visitors to the family home. “She was used to being treated like this. It was nothing to her. I had a moment of hating her, or at least understanding why Mom did. Thankfully it came and went really quickly, like a dizzy spell, or a three-second blizzard. Does she know that she does this to people? Dumb question. This is something we do to her.”

Much has been made of the obvious parallels between Oyeyemi’s story and that of Snow White. Boy is the “wicked stepmother.” But that simplifies a complex and multi-level character and plot. Certainly, the inspiration is there, but Boy, Snow, Bird is not simply a modern retelling of Snow White. There is a lot of mirror imagery and “magic” of sorts involved here, and several characters are obsessed with what constitutes beauty. The plot turns on the birth of Boy and Arturo’s daughter, whom they name Bird. To everyone’s surprise, she is dark-skinned. The Whitman family secret is revealed: they are light-skinned African-Americans who have been “passing” for white for a few generations, a situation that has been zealously protected by Arturo’s mother and family matriarch Olivia, ostensibly for the benefit of her descendants. Remember, the story begins in 1953. What will Arturo and Boy do with Bird? Should they send her away, perhaps to live with Arturo’s older sister, Clara, who was banished to Boston long ago for some unrevealed behavior?

Half-sisters Snow and Bird are indeed separated, but not in the way one might expect. They yearn for each other and manage to make contact and develop something of a sisterly relationship as the years pass. The family dynamics, particularly between Boy and Olivia, increase in difficulty and tension. Arturo goes about his business as a custom jewelry maker. Issues of race, culture, beauty, and ethics permeate the second half of the novel. To describe them is to shortchange their subtlety and the accomplishment of Oyeyemi’s thinking and writing. Just when you think you have sorted out the melodrama and symbolism, there is a dramatic (yet plausible) plot development that will make readers stop short, with their mouths hanging open.

One of the joys of Boy, Snow, Bird is Oyeyemi’s sparkling writing. It is full of wit, intelligence, unusual turns of phrase, and a unique sensibility, perhaps the result of her being born in Nigeria and raised and educated in the UK. She is only 29 and has already published five well-received novels. It’s no wonder that Granta chose her as one of Britain’s best young novelists in 2013.

Boy befriends some students who spend a lot of time in the bookstore. One day she walks two of the girls home. “As usual, Phoebe’s siblings were waiting for us outside the elementary school, three rowdy girls of indeterminate age and the shortest of short-term memories. Every school day they asked if they could play with my hair, and I let them. Every school day they squealed: “It’s just like sunshine!” and I wished they’d find a new sensation.”

In a flashback to earlier in her teens, when a young man named Charlie took a fancy to her, Boy describes Charlie’s meeting with her father, the rat catcher.

“I’ve seen the way you look at my daughter. You think she’s pretty, don’t you?”

Charlie said: “More than just pretty, sir. I think she’s beautiful.”

They both turned to me and went on a looking spree. I left them to it and wished I could sail over their heads and into the acid blue sky. They didn’t look for long, it was more a practiced series of glances; they knew what they were looking for  and seemed to find it. It was a wonder there was anything left by the time they were through looking.”

In part two of the story, Bird assumes the narration, and within 10 pages reveals the following:

“Sometimes mirrors can’t find me. I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough. Sometimes when other people are there, but nobody ever notices that my reflection’s a no-show. Or maybe they decide not to notice because it’s too weird.”

On the next page, she describes an encounter with her mirror, in which she is not present.

“[S]o I broke the mirror, and kept right on hitting it long after it broke, a cartoon mouse squeak coming out of my mouth, loud, loud. And the oval glass, that dear old glass that used to stand on my dresser, it tried to give me what I wanted, tried to give me my face, but it kept showing me bits of faces that weren’t mine. There were slivers of Mom’s face, and Dad’s, and Aunt Mia’s, and Grammy Olivia’s, and others, some shreds no wider than my index finger. I don’t know who they were, there was even a man or two, faces chasing other like photographic slides when someone’s trying to show you their vacation in a hurry — in the end I had to knock the frame flat and  run for Mom [Boy], who vanished all the broken glass with no questions asked.”

Late in the novel, Snow, now in her early 20’s, writes a letter to 13-year-old Bird, explaining about her recent job search. At one point, she visits an employment agency.

“There was an additional cover sheet that asked you to declare your race. The woman at the front desk said that it was just for the agency records, that it wasn’t information they passed on to employers, but the girl next to me said to her: ‘You people need to think about what you’re doing to us. You’re bad people…you’re making us paranoid. You’re driving us crazy. Every time I don’t make it through to interviews, I’ll be wondering whether it’s because there are better candidates or because of color. Color, color, color; what you’re doing is illegal and you know it. I should find myself a lawyer who’s ready to make an example of you.’

The woman at the front desk had heard it all before and she recited something about it being impossible to obtain any proof that employers were shown the information agency clients provided on the additional cover sheet….I left mine blank; I knew that I was within my legal rights not to say. Ms. Front Desk pushed my forms back across the table to me and said I had to fulfill all of the requirements. I told her, ‘None of these options say what I am,” and she rolled her eyes. ‘Every day. Every day a philosopher walks in off the street and makes my job that little bit harder to do.’  Then she said, ‘Why won’t you say? Hmmm?'”

Another example of Oyeyemi’s laser-like observations is made by Boy early one morning near the story’s powerful conclusion. “The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough. You die before it’s ready and then your ghost pours the resurrection potion out of the moka pot.”

Boy, Snow, Bird is so complex, such a fractured fairy tale, that it is like the shattered mirror described by Bird. I have been pondering its points in the two days since I finished it, and I know it will occupy a corner of my mind for some time to come, prodding me to think about it again, more deeply. I suspect this may be the first book on which I will write a second review once I sort out my thoughts about it. That is the sign of a special novel and possibly a great one.

KIND OF KIN addresses immigration issues with powerful, multiple-narrative story

Kind of Kin  Kind of Kin paperback  Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin

By Rilla Askew

Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013

432 pages, $14.99

The recent attempts by conservative-governed states to demonize illegal aliens (or undocumented immigrants, if you prefer) and drive them out are no surprise to those who understand the undesirable consequences of an economic downturn. When the jobs disappear, someone must be blamed, and The Other is the convenient scapegoat. Legislation of this sort raised important moral, ethical, and legal issues that need to be settled for the good of our economy and sense of community. “E Pluribus Unum,” yes?

Oklahoma novelist Rilla Askew decided to examine these questions, and the result is a terrific novel, Kind of Kin (published in hardcover in Jan. 2013 and in paperback in Jan. 2014). She deserves high praise for managing to explore the lives of those on both sides of the immigration issue without turning it into a one-sided screed. While Askew’s position is clear, Kind of Kin uses multiple narratives to put us inside the kaleidoscope of immigration politics at the national, state, and local levels.

The novel’s protagonist is Georgia “Sweet” Kirkendall. Her father, Bob Brown, a taciturn but respected local mainstay in the tiny town of Cedar, Oklahoma, has been arrested for harboring illegal aliens in his barn, to the surprise and disappointment of friends and family. Even more strange is the fact that he refuses to hire a lawyer or put up a defense. The formerly apolitical Brown appears to want to make a political statement. What inspired this change so late in life? His parentless grandson, 10-year-old Dustin, is forced to stay with Sweet, who is already struggling with her own son, a young bully named Carl Albert, and her husband, who works long hours out of town and has grown emotionally distant from Sweet and Carl Albert. At the same time, Luis Celayo has entered the U.S. illegally to search for his long-lost sons, who went north to work. The plot is enriched considerably by the fact that Sweet’s niece, Misty, is married to an illegal alien who has been deported but has made his way back into the country. Then Dustin disappears, and the hunt for him drives the story to its dramatic conclusion.

On the other side of the legal and social divide are three less sympathetic characters. Oklahoma state senator Monica Moorhouse is a political opportunist who sees a harsh anti-immigrant bill as her ticket to national notoriety and Congress. Local sheriff Arvin Holloway is a blustery Joe Arpaio-inspired  lawman who has never met a camera or microphone he didn’t like. Logan Morgan is a young TV reporter looking for a big story and a move to a larger market. They all have their own agendas, which involve little concern for the effects of such a law — or their actions — on real people’s lives. Moorhouse is advised by her husband, a canny but amoral political strategist in the Karl Rove mold. Holloway is used to running the town of Cedar the way he bullied kids in his school days. Morgan is a zealous believer in the TV news motto, “If it bleeds, it leads,” so she looks (and hopes) for continuing drama and even some tragedy in the story at the heart of the novel.

At the center of this sociocultural, political, and legal tornado is Sweet Kirkendall, who struggles to hold her extended and very dysfunctional family together through her father’s imprisonment and Dustin’s disappearance, despite having no knowledge of, or experience in, such situations, no financial resources, and no emotional support from her family members. Yet everyone looks to her to solve their problems. She is the believable and likable heroine of this multi-faceted novel.

While on paper the plot may sound melodramatic, it does not read that way. Instead, it comes across as a realistic depiction of the many lives affected by the political decisions made on the issue of immigration and immigrants’ rights. The narrative is fast-moving, the various viewpoints are woven together smoothly and logically, and the characters act like real people, not cardboard cut-outs intended to stand in for points in a political or legal argument.

What really makes Kind of Kin stand out, though, is Askew’s obvious compassion for the characters who deserve it, her ear for realistic dialogue, and her ability to write a deeply involving story whose headlong momentum makes you turn the pages faster as the novel progresses. Kind of Kin would make a great choice for book clubs, as there is much to chew on within its 400 pages of powerful prose. For everyone else, it is worthy of this high praise: It is a terrific, thought-provoking book that you won’t be able to put down or soon forget.