May 27, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

We Are Called to Rise

Current Status
In Season
Laura McBride
We gave it an A-

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. At least that’s the verbal handshake delivered in most Sin City stories. But then Laura McBride’s stirring first novel, We Are Called to Rise, set in suburban planned developments and trash-strewn rough neighborhoods, is unlike any Vegas tale I’ve ever read, mostly because it’s about the ordinary people who call it home. It is the story of second grader Bashkim, a sweet and nervous boy whose struggling Albanian parents own an ice cream truck. And of 53-year-old Avis, who fears that her only child, Nate, has been ruined by three deployments to Iraq. And of Luis, another broken soldier who starts exchanging letters with Bashkim through a school pen-pal program. And finally, though her sections are the weakest, of Roberta, a social worker who has lost more kids to Vegas’ hard streets than she’s saved.

Told in pitch-perfect alternating voices — I could read a whole novel just about Luis — Rise is reminiscent of the divisive movie Crash. But McBride loves her characters well, and one feels her own sense of anguish as they hurtle toward catastrophe. Her language is never trite, and the life lessons aren’t slick. It turns out that with all that luck and longing and surface transience, Las Vegas is the perfect backdrop for a universal story about the messy wonders of community. A-

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