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Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a stirring novel about the power of stories and the sense of connection they provide. Ruth, a writer living on an island in British Columbia, comes across an old lunchbox on the beach one day. The lunchbox, which has clearly logged many miles, contains letters and a journal belonging to a Tokyo teenager named Nao. Fascinated by the journal, Ruth learns that Nao, driven to despair by loneliness, plans to kill herself. Ozeki skillfully develops tandem narratives, shifting from British Columbia to Tokyo and presenting a vivid portrait of Nao’s unhappy life. Her father, a failed businessman, attempts suicide, while Nao herself is physically abused by bullying classmates. The story she recounts in her journal—of her daily existence and the history of her family in Japan—causes ripples in Ruth’s own life, changing her in unexpected ways. Written with compassion and insight, this masterful narrative displays Ozeki’s many gifts. Her command of history and understanding of the human heart are among the book’s numerous pleasures.
A masterful mix of fact and fantasy, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is set in Manhattan at the end of the 19th century. Chava is a female clay figure—or golem—from Poland who was given life by a rabbi involved in kabbalistic rituals. When Chava finds herself stranded in New York City after a long sea voyage, she is overwhelmed and confused. She eventually meets a kindred spirit—Ahmad, a jinni created from fire in Syria, who was imprisoned in a flask and freed in New York City. Ahmad is trapped in human form and unable to access his magic gifts, which include the power to turn himself into fire. Although their dispositions are poles apart and they come from different countries, Chava and Ahmad become allies as they adapt to life in America. But their greatest challenge is the strange demonic power that threatens both their destinies. In this innovative take on the traditional immigrant story, Wecker brings old New York to vivid life. She wields her own special kind of magic in this remarkable debut.
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The captivating Life After Life is a bit of a departure for Kate Atkinson, who is best known as a mystery writer. The novel’s heroine, Ursula Todd, is born into a privileged British family in 1910. Her fate is a curious one: When she dies, she is born all over again. A number of accidents occur at various points in her life (drowning, a fall from a roof), all of which lead to her demise and the incredible opportunity to start life anew. Each version of Ursula’s life gives her character new dimension and fleshes out the story of her family, including her fastidious mother, Sylvie, and her adoring father, Hugh. Atkinson skillfully weaves historical events into the narrative. The London Blitz, during which Ursula serves on a rescue squad, is recounted in all its horror, and an encounter with Hitler gives Ursula the chance to influence the course of history. Atkinson writes with perfect poise, creating an entirely convincing narrative. With this cleverly speculative work of fiction, she proves there’s nothing she can’t do as a novelist.