Barbara’s Picks, Jan. 2013, Pt. 4: Askew, Barry, Hensher, Nugent, Self, Hazleton, Sonnenberg

Askew, Rilla. Kind of Kin. Ecco: HarperCollins. Jan. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9780062198792. $25.99; eISBN 9780062198815. LITERARY
In her latest, Askew ambitiously takes on our tightening immigration laws. Her heroine, Sweet, has enough on her hands raising troublemaker son Carl along with nephew Dustin, whose mother is dead and whose older sister is looking for her recently deported husband. Now Sweet’s father, the devout Bob Brown, has been arrested with his friend, Pastor Jesus Garcia, for sheltering a large group of undocumented Mexican workers‚ a felony in the state of Oklahoma. A Pen/Faulkner Award and Dublin IMPAC Prize nominee (impressive, that), Askew moves from the rigorous lyricism of works like Harpsong to a larger arena. With a 50,000-copy first printing.

Barry, Dave. Insane City. Putnam. Jan. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780399158681. $26.95. POP FICTION
A Pulitzer Prize winner for his side-splitting columns and the New York Times best-selling author of two dozen nonfiction titles, as well as numerous fiction titles with Ridley Pearson (yes, they did the fabulous Peter and the Starcatchers), Barry here offers one of his rare solo adult novels‚ and the first in more than a decade. Even as Seth boards a plan for a destination wedding in Florida, he can’t believe that luscious Tina is consenting to marry him. And he won’t believe the trouble he’ll encounter when he gets there, including rioters, strippers, Russian gangsters, a mammoth pimp, a desperate Haitian refugee, and an 11-foot albino Burmese python named Blossom. And that’s before the wedding. Barry-bred mayhem; fun for all.

Hensher, Philip. Scenes from Early Life. Faber & Faber. Jan. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780865477612. $27. LITERARY
Like Ali Smith’s Artful (previewed in Nonfiction), this new work by Man Booker nominee Hensher offers a cross-genre experience. Categorized as fiction, it’s as much a biography of an upper-middle-class Bengali family and a history of the virulent 1971 civil war that gave birth to the nation Bangladesh. Hensher is on solid ground because his husband, Zaved Mahmood, was born at that time in Dacca, the administrative capital of East Pakistan and now the capital of Bangladesh. The book takes the form of a memoir in Mahmood’s voice and relates both real suffering and familial love, so that Hensher shows for the first time what [he] has largely concealed in the past: his heart (the Independent). Go ahead, read it and find out why Hensher was named one of Granta‘s Best of Young Novelists in 2003.

Nugent, Benjamin. Good Kids. Scribner. Jan. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9781439136591. $23. POP FICTION
It’s not altogether surprising that the author of American Nerd would write a debut novel about good kids encountering awkward trouble. When 15-year-olds Josh Paquette and Khadijah Silverglate-Dunn see Josh’s father and Khadijah’s mother kissing, they swear that they will tell no one and will never betray a partner themselves. So what happens when they meet 13 years later, each engaged to another and each facing issues? Not just love and generational conflict but class and ethnicity evidently enter into this aching mix. Pretty cool.

Self, Will. Umbrella. Grove. Jan. 2013. 448p. ISBN 9780802120724. $25. LITERARY
In Self’s new novel, just long listed for the Man Booker Prize, cutting-edge psychiatrist Zachary Busner is puzzled by some of the patients at a suburban north London mental hospital in the 1970s, who exhibit odd tics but are otherwise completely unresponsive. In particular, he’s drawn to Audrey Dearth, born in the slums in 1890, who unfolds the story of her life in alternate passages ranging from clip-clopping horse-drawn carriages to her work in the munitions factory during World War II. Busner’s efforts to reach these patients don’t end well, with the James Joyce epigraph suggesting the mood here: A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.

Hazleton, Lesley. The First Muslim. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Jan. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781594487286. $27.95. BIOGRAPHY
Understanding Islam would seem to mean understanding the life, the times, and the beliefs of its founder, but there don’t seem to be a lot of universally acknowledged biographies of Muhammad around. I’ll go out on a limb to highlight this one, because Hazleton, who reported on the Middle East for over a dozen years, wrote the well-regarded After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, a PEN USA Book Award finalist that won praise from several quarters. Hazleton aims to examine how the man Muhammad‚ an orphan, a merchant, and an exile‚ upended the established order and became the Prophet. Keep your eyes peeled.

Sonnenberg, Susanna. She Matters. Scribner. Jan. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9781439190586. $24. RELATIONSHIPS
Having written affectingly about her mother in Her Last Death, Sonnenberg returns with a new work that expands to all female relationships‚ in particular, hers, from childhood friendships to friendships with older women to the friendships between new mothers. As she shows, relationships between women can have the burning intensity of love affairs. Highlighted at the Day of Dialog Editors’ Picks panel as a mesmerizing and meticulously written work.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.