Maaza Mengiste, born in Ethiopia, made a memorable literary debut with Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, which won an NAACP Image Award and was named one of the Guardian's Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her highly anticipated second novel, The Shadow King (W.W. Norton, $26.95), is set in mid-1930s Ethiopia, where Mengiste reimagines Mussolini’s invasion from the perspectives of a sadistic Italian colonel, a Jewish Venetian photographer, and, most prominently, Hirut, an orphaned servant girl working for a wealthy family. A compelling and richly drawn character, Hirut is not content to watch history unfold but turns her considerable intelligence and resourcefulness to taking an active role in events, first by nursing the wounded, then by joining Hailie Selassie’s formidable force of female warriors. In a stroke brilliantly her own, she bolsters flagging hope among her compatriots by disguising a peasant as Haile Selassie when the emperor goes into exile. Facing rape and imprisonment, Hirut not only survives but inspires other women to actively resist the forces that threaten their homeland. Whether describing battlefi elds, domestic life, or interpersonal relationships, Mengiste’s cinematic prose evokes the full sensory experience of the time and place.
Red at the Bone (Riverhead, $26) is yet another amazing work of literary fiction by the award-winning Jacqueline Woodson. This novel is for the reader on your list who loves a good family saga. Woodson masterfully illustrates the life of a Black family in Brooklyn, New York, whose lives are all shaped by a teenage pregnancy. The reader is introduced to the family through Melody’s coming-of-age party, which leads us into the many memories surrounding her childhood and the entire family’s history of love, loss, and parenthood. This was the first time I’ve read any of Woodson’s work and it is because of this novel I am eager to read more by her. I loved this novel because Woodson is able to craft such a powerful story in under 200 pages. Anyone who is given this novel for the holidays will take the lessons from this book and into 2020 with them.
Ben Lerner is one of the smartest and most ambitious authors working today. His novel The Topeka School (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), like his previous 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, is a semiautobiographical, metafictional narrative, this time following Adam Gordon, a senior in a Topeka, Kansas, high school and, like the author, a nationally ranked debater, an aspiring poet, and a young man coming to grips with his role in a society imbued with toxic masculinity. Adam’s father is a psychiatrist specializing in treatments for “lost boys,” and his mother is a famous feminist author. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of this family, as well as that of Darren Eberheart, a violence-prone loner at the high school and one of the father’s “lost boys.” This is another Lerner novel about language; we watch as Adam’s speech evolves through spreading an opponent’s arguments in policy debate, engaging in freestyle rap battles with his classmates, and following the free association of memories that surface in therapy. This is also a look at childhood, and at the heartland of America and how the country has morphed along with the language into the current political atmosphere. Lerner’s latest work is brilliant, poetic, and introspective.