“The White Devil’s Daughters: The Fight Against Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown,” by Julia Flynn Siler (Alfred A. Knopf)
Julia Flynn Siler vividly captures the atmosphere of sex trafficking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when boatloads of Asian girls were enticed to America and, under pressure from criminal syndicates, ended up as prostitutes and indentured servants. Christian missionaries in San Francisco responded by sheltering them in a home and equipping them with skills at a time when anti-immigration sentiment ran high. A wonderful storyteller, Stiles places determined Dolly Cameron, leader of the Presbyterian Mission Home, and her assistant Tien Fuh Wu at the center of the struggle and brings to light a little-known chapter in U.S. history.
“Miracle Creek,” by Angie Kim (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Take a bit of Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” (repressed suburban tension, immigration, parenting) and add the deft suspense of Scott Turow’s courtroom thrillers and the issue of autism: The result is Angie Kim’s engrossing debut novel. Kim, who, like Turow, graduated from Harvard Law School and was a high-powered litigator before turning to fiction, centers her story on the trial following a deadly fire at a Korean-owned alternative health facility that provides therapy intended to treat autism and male infertility. Kim’s keen insights into the pressures and the often competitive dynamics of parenting special-needs children infuse this tense drama.
“Rules for Visiting,” by Jessica Francis Kane (Penguin Press)
Jessica Kane subverts the “Eat Pray Love” mantra with a bit of E.M. Forster — “Only connect.” May is a slightly eccentric, cerebral landscape gardener at a local university who lives at home with her father and relates better to plants than people. When she receives the unexpected gift of a mini-sabbatical, she sets off on a sojourn to see four long-distance friends she has neglected. Informed by Emily Post and travel etiquette, May is determined to meet the standard of the ideal guest. “Rules for Visiting” is a sharp, observant social novel about friendship, domestic arrangements and what connection really means.
“The Apology,” by Eve Ensler (Bloomsbury)
Playwright Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” debuted in 1996 and became an international phenomenon, with women recounting their stories about sexuality and body image. Now she turns to prose in her slender fever dream of a book to give herself something she couldn’t get any other way. Assuming the voice of her late father, Ensler imagines his apology for raping, molesting and abusing her throughout her childhood and conjures a reckoning with himself and what led him to these atrocities.
“Dawson’s Fall,” by Roxana Robinson (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
As a nation grapples with the legacy of slavery, some South Carolinians remain unrepentant, a local newspaper loses subscribers in fraught times, and a few stalwarts struggle to maintain their moral centers. That may sound eerily similar to today, yet it is the context of Roxana Robinson’s brilliant new novel, which doesn’t so much reflect the historical record as enhance and reframe it. Drawing from the experiences and archives of her ancestors, Robinson brings to life the world of her great-great-grandparents in the waning days of the contentious Reconstruction era. Panoramic and yet intimate, “Dawson’s Fall” elegantly explores moral choices and consequences, and is a rich, rewarding novel of great imagination.
Elizabeth Taylor and Adam Cohen are co-editors of the National Book Review.