1. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Algonquin)
Tayari Jones’s immensely pleasurable new novel pulls off a minor miracle: She makes us care deeply for a company of morally ambiguous characters, even James Witherspoon, who happens to be a bigamist. Set in black, middle-class Atlanta in the 1980s, the story is narrated by James’s daughters—Dana Lyn Yarboro, the secret child who knows about her father’s “real” family, and Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon, the legitimate one who’s completely in the dark. Subtly exploring the power of labels (what it means to be thought of as a wife, a mistress, an unclaimed child), Jones crafts an affecting tale about the things, big and small, that we forfeit to forge a family. As Dana recalls after a rare public embrace with James, “You don’t need a dress rehearsal to know how to lay your head on your father’s shoulder, to inhale his tobacco scent. It takes no practice to know how to be someone’s daughter.” There are no winners in this empathetic and provocative story, just survivors—and Jones is wise enough to hint that in our complex times, that may be all the victory any of us can hope for. —Elaina Richardson
2. Indigo by Catherine E. McKinley (Bloomsbury)
Part vivid cultural history, part profound emotional journey, Catherine E. McKinley’s quirky memoir charts her decade-long obsession with indigo, the vibrant blue pigment used to dye fabric through an elaborate, nearly obsolete method. Her research takes her through nine African countries where beautiful and prized indigo cloths were once thought to ward off bad spirits and considered so valuable, they were traded for slaves. Seeking out rare, traditional indigo dyers, she rides a camel through Niger for five days and is trapped in Ivory Coast during an attempted coup. But her dramatic travels are infused with color of a different kind. Born to an African-American and Indian father and a white mother, then adopted by parents of Scottish descent, McKinley is also searching for links to her past. In Ghana she meets Eurama, a wise woman who welcomes her as if she were family and teaches her the true value of human kinship. Following Eurama’s advice, McKinley learns that wrapping a person you love in indigo cloth is its best use of all. —Caryn James
3. Orientation by Daniel Orozco (Faber and Faber)
These nine darkly funny, profoundly compassionate stories take as their subject the loneliness particular to contemporary culture: A woman stalks the cookie aisle in an open-all-night megastore, an exiled dictator urinates on a U.S. embassy, a bridge painter comes nose to nose with a female suicide. Constructed in layers that unfold like a game of whisper down the alley, each story is full of wholly unexpected yet entirely believable turns, as when a “chubby, moonfaced” girl bonds momentarily with a murderer over a carton of Ben & Jerry’s. “You can’t know anybody, not really, not in the brief overlaps of flimsy acquaintance, nor in the tenuous and fleeting opportunities for connection that we are afforded,” thinks a man about to be shot for the $60 in his wallet. But the real genius here is the subtle accumulation of evidence to the contrary—the insistence that even in the office cubicle, or between the lines of the police blotter, human contact is sought after and made.
4. I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl by Kelle Groom (Free Press)
In this lyrical memoir, poet Kelle Groom searches in every crease and corner of memory for her baby boy, Tommy, who died 27 years ago. Pregnant at 19, she gave up her son and, after learning of his early death, spiraled into alcohol addiction to block her pain. “I love the burning . . . The glow that spreads through my body like the moon on the ocean,” she writes. In a series of beautifully compressed narratives, Groom, who grapples here with the very meaning of motherhood, describes devastating binges, multiple assaults and rapes, several trips to rehab and a lengthy cast of abettors and abusers. She struggles in a vortex of grief, attempting time and again to paddle against it: “Pain has a gate to get through before your body makes its own opium, endorphins sounding like something that swims.” As heartbreaking as this book is, Groom writes with a captivating urgency. Her salvation, a result of her tireless quest for clarity, will leave you cheering. —Susanna Sonnenberg