Picks for Friday

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (346 pages)

At a birthday party on a sweltering day in the 1970s, 17 people consume poisoned sake and soft drinks that were delivered as a gift to the wealthy Aosawa family. Only the blind daughter of the household, Hisako Aosawa, doesn’t partake. Instead, she sits and listens as everyone around her moans, vomits and dies in agony. Who instigated this massacre? Why? How? You will finish Onda’s “The Aosawa Murders” more puzzled than you began, and that’s the beauty of this stubbornly nonlinear novel.
Indeed, why should answers to mysteries that implicate and devastate scores of people over decades ever come easily? “The Aosawa Murders” all but demands rereading. Fortunately, that’s no hardship. After turning the last page, it’s a delight to plunge back into the dark, intoxicating world Onda conjures and discover pieces of the puzzle that you missed the first time.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (210 pages)

When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (384 pages)

The body–especially the body in pain–blazes on the pages of Shuggie Bain . . . This is the world of Shuggie Bain, a little boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. And this is the world of Agnes Bain, his glamorous, calamitous mother, drinking herself ever so slowly to death. The wonder is how crazily, improbably alive it all is . . . The book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love. He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster–only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains . . . The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar (293 pages)

After witnessing a terrorist attack, Jivan, a poor Muslim woman living in the slums of Kolkata, makes a comment on Facebook criticizing her government’s response to the tragic event. It’s an action with terrible consequences, as she’s taken into custody and accused of aiding the attackers. In her exquisitely plotted debut novel, Megha Majumdar writes with absorbing urgency as she details Jivan’s plight. Beyond Jivan, Majumdar introduces two key perspectives: the protagonist’s former gym teacher, PT Sir, who has ties to the right-wing political party that seeks to seal her fate, and Lovely, an outcast with dreams of being an actor and the only person who can prove Jivan’s innocence. In moving between their three voices, Majumdar reveals the intersections of their ambitions and fears, coalescing into an unnerving investigation of corruption, class and tragedy.

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