This installment: two Black couples in London, in trouble (f); undocumented ills (nf); upper class, downward slide in Britain (f); Mexican-American teens grapple with eternal verities (f); and yet another pandemic tale, well-told (f).
Editor’s Note: The titles and links below will direct you to print when available, with occasional notes made of digital eBook and eAudiobook availability.
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
An ironic title, although when you get down to it, most people have their problems. But here the scale feels epic. Michael and Melissa’s house that first charmed them now seems inimical—possibly haunted—and their marriage is sorely strained, partly by the new baby. Their friends Damian and Stephanie are struggling as well though they’re nicely set up in a suburb with three children. London setting, both couples are Black, and discontents morph into ill-conceived actions with scary consequences. Like the nightmarish—but darkly funny—holiday in Spain. The Crystal Palace of 1821, now a ruin in their neighborhood, remains a symbol of big dreams gone awry. I read this book aquiver with excitement as Evans deftly draws connections between personal stories and societal ills.
Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
The author spent his youth in California trying to stay invisible so the family wouldn’t be deported. His mother toiled, his father went back and forth to Mexico, building a house there, but they never functioned as a couple. Finally when all options had run out, the father returned to Mexico for good. Castillo visited him there, trying to reconnect, but a bizarre (yet all too familiar) kidnapping ensued. With his poet’s sensibilities, Castillo conveys the constant tensions that afflict the undocumented and gives us a riveting tale filled with insights, sorrow, and suspense.
House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild
Ahh, schadenfreude…it’s so much fun when members of the upper class take a tumble. And the Trelawneys have been on a downward slide for decades, as their crumbling mansion and its inhabitants now display. Current heir Kitto has his head in dysfunctional clouds while his put-upon but loyal wife Jane does all the grunt work—including gardening, livestock, and tending to her aged in-laws who haven’t quite registered their dire straits. When young Ayesha bursts into the scene (her mother, an old friend of the family, has died and this is Ayesha’s only recourse), even more chaos ensues. Witty, charming, improbable, distracting—just the read I needed right now.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
I really enjoyed his teen book, The Inextricable Logic of My Life, and when I discovered this earlier novel in audio form was narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, I just had to listen and was duly rewarded. The eponymous 16-year olds bearing those heavy-duty names have Mexican roots but feel far from that culture as well as that of their peers in El Paso. Both outsiders, they become best friends. But when Ari saves Dante’s life , their relationship becomes severely strained. Dante is gay and emotional, Ari’s uneasy with that and tends to shut down. He also has a much older brother in prison whom the family never acknowledges. They both heal, literally and figuratively, and it’s quite a journey, worthy of the epic title. Touching and thought-provoking.
Afterland by Lauren Beukes
In this pandemic, only men are afflicted. Miles, 14, is immune and a very valuable commodity. The government is “protecting” him in what amounts to a lush prison, his fierce mother Cole is determined to spring him and get back fo their native Johannesburg, and her sister Billie is first accomplice and then obstacle when it turns out she has other plans for the boy. Disguised as “Mila,” he and mom embark on a crazy journey, embed themselves in bizarre religious cult (good cover), and a breathtaking chase across America plays out. Suspenseful as all get-out and not-so-weirdly apropos of our current situation.
See you next week.