Haley Herfurth

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Are you a sucker for a story that begins with “once upon a time”? This fall, two accomplished short-story writers are lending a kind of dark beauty to the season with their enthralling collections of modernized fairy tales.

Tuscon-based writer Kate Bernheimer has been called one of the fairy tale’s “living masters” —in addition to editing the World Fantasy Award-winning My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, she also founded and edits the literary journal Fairy Tale Review. Her second collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, is a remarkable compilation of stories: a girl’s relationship with her shadow, a librarian’s secret home, a solitary boy in a cardboard house.

The writing is deliberately sparse, intended, Bernheimer said, to leave “nonrepresentational space, meant to allow lucid encounters”—as fairy tales often do. The collection discusses various emotional tropes historically found in these iconic stories, like love, fear and hesitation. In “Babes in the Woods,” Bernheimer examines the tension between step-parents and step-children and explores physical and psychological abuse, using suspenseful language. A father remarries; his new wife dislikes his children, and she takes extreme measures to ensure their disappearances. Many of the stories in How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales intersect with each other, pulling readers through the pages as they piece together the puzzle Bernheimer created.

Taking a slightly different tack, New York Times best-selling author Jean Thompson uses an easily digestible narrative style to twist classic fairy tales into more recognizable shapes in her new collection, The Witch: And Other Tales Re-Told. Hansel and Gretel are put in a foster home. Cinderella leaves her shoe behind after a drunken one-night stand. Red Riding Hood’s iPod is stolen at a mall food court.

While prototypical fairy tales often couch difficult situations in mythology or magic Thompson seeks to strip that layer away, exposing characters’ true struggles. In the story “Your Secret’s Safe With Me,” Thompson explores an unusual relationship between a young woman and her new husband. As their marriage progresses, the woman discovers a long trail of lies and deceits, and what emerges is a realization to which many readers can relate: the problem of not knowing someone as well as you thought. 

Though the two books approach the modernization of fairy tales differently, readers of both will arrive at the same conclusion: The crises faced by a character in a classic fable are not always meant to be left behind in childhood. Rather, they can, and maybe should, be carried along through life, to give reassurance during troubled times, or at least lend poetry to where there would otherwise be none.

 

Haley Herfurth is a full-time writer and editor living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Are you a sucker for a story that begins with “once upon a time”? This fall, two accomplished short-story writers are lending a kind of dark beauty to the season with their enthralling collections of modernized fairy tales.

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As the winter of 1963 encroaches on Gunflint, Minnesota, Harry Eide and his 18-year-old son, Gustav, set off into the wilderness in a canoe. As the two face the ice and snow, they must also confront the demons, both real and metaphorical, that follow them from Gunflint. What happens to them out in the elements is a secret father and son will share for decades.

Thirty years later, an elderly Harry—demented by the passing years—heads out again into the cold, alone this time, vanishing into the vastness that could have so easily claimed both himself and his son many winters before. When Harry is pronounced dead, a troubled Gus finally shares the story of that first wilderness trek. 

Minneapolis author Peter Geye has touched on themes of family and wilderness in his previous novels, Safe from the Sea and The Lighthouse Road, both set in Minnesota. In Wintering, Geye has woven an artfully crafted tale of the special bond between father and son, the complexity of nature—both human and otherwise—and the idea that, sometimes, one must venture out to find a way back.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

As the winter of 1963 encroaches on Gunflint, Minnesota, Harry Eide and his 18-year-old son, Gustav, set off into the wilderness in a canoe. As the two face the ice and snow, they must also confront the demons, both real and metaphorical, that follow them from Gunflint. What happens to them out in the elements is a secret father and son will share for decades.
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In the small township of Bledsoe, Mississippi, sits Singer’s Trailer Park, a collection of trailers, campers and sometimes tents. Inside Singer’s lives a clever young girl named Solemn Redvine, whose family prefers to keep their distance from their neighbors—with the exception of Solemn’s father, whose occasional wanderings lead Solemn to believe the infant child of a couple down the way may be her half-sibling.

When Solemn witnesses a shocking event late one night in Singer’s, she struggles to reclaim the sense of innocence she felt before and find her balance. As more changes happen to Solemn’s family dynamic and within the community, she wonders who she will become as her life develops among such turmoil. She longs to leave Singer’s, where she feels trapped by her connection to a crime she saw and can’t forget. When Solemn’s father’s latest mistake leads to her removal from her parents’ custody, Solemn gets the escape she has been looking for, albeit under less-than-perfect circumstances. But she finds herself facing the same questions about her identity. There might not be an easy way to grow up.

Kalisha Buckhanon has presented realistic portraits of modern African-American life in her previous novels, Upstate and Conception. With Solemn, she has created an emotional and expressive novel about family, obligation and community. This twisting, expressive coming-of-age story not only offers readers a young girl’s experience of seeking her place in the world, but also illustrates the struggle of life in the rural South.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In the small township of Bledsoe, Mississippi, sits Singer’s Trailer Park, a collection of trailers, campers and sometimes tents. Inside Singer’s lives a clever young girl named Solemn Redvine, whose family prefers to keep their distance from their neighbors—with the exception of Solemn’s father, whose occasional wanderings lead Solemn to believe the infant child of a couple down the way may be her half-sibling.
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In post-World War II Thirroul, Australia, Annika Lachlan has grown a life that, to her, is perfect. In the years since the war, she and her family have found peace and purpose. But when her husband, Mac, is killed in a tragic accident, she must raise their daughter on her own, as two more grieving people in the postwar world. Annika accepts a job at the Railway Institute’s Library, searching there between the pages for a new meaning for her life.

Local poet Roy McKinnon is also searching for meaning in pages and words; during the war, he was prolific, sorting through the high emotions of the time by penning lines. In the years since it ended, however, he has found himself unable to find his voice and the inspiration that came so easily in the chaotic years. Meanwhile, local doctor Frank Draper just wants things to go back to the way they were before the war, but is haunted by the people he couldn’t help, despite his efforts: survivors of Nazi concentration camps.

The Railwayman’s Wife is a three-pronged story that explores life, grief, and how to cope with the intersection of the two, written in a sweeping, if at times overly lyrical, style that conveys the breadth of emotions the characters feel. Brisbane-based author Ashley Hay has published four nonfiction books and the novel The Body in the Clouds, and The Railwayman’s Wife received the Colin Roderick Award when it was published in Australia. While exploring how three different people experience life after war and loss, The Railwayman’s Wife uses beautiful prose and empathetic characters to tell a story of both hope and heartache.

In post-World War II Thirroul, Australia, Annika Lachlan has grown a life that, to her, is perfect. In the years since the war, she and her family have found peace and purpose. But when her husband, Mac, is killed in a tragic accident, she must raise their daughter on her own, as two more grieving people in the postwar world.
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BookPage Fiction Top Pick, March 2016

On a bleak, harsh winter afternoon in Chosen, a small town in upstate New York, local art history professor George Clare comes home to find his 3-year-old daughter, Franny, hiding in fear and his wife, Catherine, murdered. George becomes the chief suspect, and the investigation turns up details about his personal life—secret relationships, temper issues, a disintegrating marriage—that cast his innocence in doubt for everyone but his closest family. Still, the police investigating remain unable to pin his wife’s murder on George, and the crime goes unsolved for decades.

Death seems to hang over Chosen; the town is rural, close-knit and poor, with a dark history—the Clares’ own house was the site of a suicide not long before the family moved in. The community struggles not only to understand who killed Catherine, but also how and why. Years will pass—and Franny Clare will have to return to her childhood home, now long abandoned—before any justice is found.

In her third novel, Elizabeth Brundage, who has an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, combines a classic murder mystery with a gripping psychological thriller, exploring the complexities of grief, relationships—romantic, familial and friendly—and small-town life. All Things Cease to Appear is a smart, original take on the mystery genre, with nuanced depictions of rural New York, the people who inhabit it and the secrets they keep.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

On a bleak, harsh winter afternoon in Chosen, a small town in upstate New York, local art history professor George Clare comes home to find his 3-year-old daughter, Franny, hiding in fear and his wife, Catherine, murdered. George becomes the chief suspect, and the investigation turns up details about his personal life—secret relationships, temper issues, a disintegrating marriage—that cast his innocence in doubt for everyone but his closest family. Still, the police investigating remain unable to pin his wife’s murder on George, and the crime goes unsolved for decades.
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Outcasts alienated by their peers, Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead found each other in junior high, forming a tenuous friendship. Patricia was a budding witch and Laurence was a tech whiz, successfully developing a two-second time machine and a potentially sentient computer. But after a painful parting of ways, the two assumed they would never see each other again.

Reunited unexpectedly as adults living in San Francisco, the pair discover they both now use their talents for the same cause: working to save the planet, each in their own way. Patricia attended a hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted and now works with a group of magicians to secretly fix the world’s problems, while Laurence is an engineering genius who works with a group trying to avert global catastrophe by technological intervention. Despite their separate paths, Patricia and Laurence keep being pushed together. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them is determined to force them to work together to save the world.

Author Charlie Jane Anders, editor-in-chief of io9.com, seamlessly melds science fiction and fantasy in All the Birds in the Sky. Anders’ debut novel, Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. In All the Birds in the Sky, Anders adeptly twines magic, surrealism, technological innovation and machinery into a quirky story that, at its base, is about searching for common ground in a world of differences.

This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Saving the world with science (and some magic) in All the Birds in the Sky.
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In the final year of the Civil War, 15-year-old horse thief Callum meets a girl who changes his life forever. Both he and the girl, Ava, are orphans—Callum is from Ireland and hasn’t seen his family in years, and Ava’s father and brother were casualties of war. After Callum’s band of marauders finds Ava in her crumbling, dilapidated home and threatens her, Callum sets out to rescue her, leaving the group of pillagers behind and stealing their leader’s horse as transport. 

Soon the two find themselves pursued across the savage, war-ridden wilderness by a ruthless slave hunter, with a bounty on their heads. With dreams of making it to Atlanta, if not the Florida coast, Callum and Ava barrel headlong through the bleak, cold landscape with little food and protection, pushing through disappointment after disappointment with the hope that peace lies just around the corner.

Taylor Brown grew up on the Georgia coast and has lived in Buenos Aires, San Francisco and western North Carolina, where much of Fallen Land is set. Filled with metaphor, poetic imagery and rich descriptions, Fallen Land is a beautifully written chronicle of love and hardship, following two people who are meant to be as they fight their way through a world seemingly set against them.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In the final year of the Civil War, 15-year-old horse thief Callum meets a girl who changes his life forever. Both he and the girl, Ava, are orphans—Callum is from Ireland and hasn’t seen his family in years, and Ava’s father and brother were casualties of war. After Callum’s band of marauders finds Ava in her crumbling, dilapidated home and threatens her, Callum sets out to rescue her, leaving the group of pillagers behind and stealing their leader’s horse as transport.
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BookPage Fiction Top Pick, December 2015

Decades after fleeing Japan and building a new life in America, Amaterasu Takahashi is confronted by a man claiming to be a missing piece of her past. Badly scarred and bearing a trove of family secrets, he stands on her doorstep claiming to be her grandson, Hideo, who died in the bombing at Nagasaki along with Ama’s daughter, Yuko. Ama knows her family is dead; she had spent countless hours searching the rubble and hospitals with her husband, Kenzo. She doesn’t believe the man at the door.

His proof of identity is a collection of sealed letters that carry not only the story of Hideo’s survival and how he came to find her in the States, but also the secrets of a seemingly ordinary family, opening up wounds Ama had long tried to pretend were healed. As chapters alternate between the past and the present, Ama confronts feelings of guilt and grief over her losses as well as hope that the future might hold more than loneliness.

In her debut novel, journalist Jackie Copleton—who lived in Nagasaki for two years—manages to sensitively portray Japanese culture as well as the utter horror and devastation of August 9, 1945, an angle often unexplored in Western writing. Characterized by heartache, memories and promise, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a gripping narrative about family and loss that will appeal to readers of historical and literary fiction.

This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Decades after fleeing Japan and building a new life in America, Amaterasu Takahashi is confronted by a missing piece of her past. Badly scarred and bearing a trove of family secrets, a man arrives on her doorstep claiming to be her grandson, Hideo, who died in the bombing at Nagasaki along with his mother, Yuko. Ama spent countless hours searching for them amid the rubble and in hospitals. She doesn’t believe the man at the door.
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In 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, leaving behind empty streets, ruined art and a skeleton crew of old-guard residents. The discovery of a dead body in a historic hotel couldn’t come at a worse time for the understaffed, struggling New Orleans police force. The murder reopens the investigation into the decades-old theft of a highly valued European painting, which causes the lives of four people to intersect. 

Johanna owns a studio in the city’s Lower Quarter, where she restores paintings by both local and notable artists. Work represents reinvention to Johanna, who has a dark past and owes her career to Clay Fontenot, a disreputable, wealthy young man from an old-money New Orleans family.

Bartending pays Marion’s bills, but hiring herself out to men with a taste for BDSM comes in handy when cash is tight. It’s in the second role that she meets Clay. She doesn’t allow herself much time for reflection—except on her love of painting, and how it might factor into her future.

Elizam, who goes by Eli for short, is an art thief, fresh out of prison. His skills landed him a job at an art recovery office, where he is assigned the task of finding a missing painting in New Orleans—the same painting tied to the dead body found in the old hotel. More than Eli’s job is on the line should he not recover the painting: They will send him back to jail if he fails.

The characters are all vivid, but the star of the show is New Orleans itself, which author Elise Blackwell (Hunger) brings forth in all its steamy, noir-ish glory. The Lower Quarter is a riveting narrative about crime, art, violence and renewal in a city that embodies all four. 

 

This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Art and crime in the Big Easy
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Constance Kopp has never quite fit in: She is tall and broad-shouldered, and she doesn’t care much for keeping house—a rarity for women in 1914. She sticks close to her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, and together they form an odd but functional trio. Norma is stoic and reserved; Constance is bold and proud; and Fleurette, the youngest, is wide-eyed and excitable. Since the death of their mother, the sisters have become closer than ever, living in the countryside after the need to keep secrets forced their move from the city more than 15 years prior.

On a rare trip into town, the sisters have an altercation with a powerful silk factory owner, Henry Kaufman, who refuses to assume responsibility for the damage he caused to the family wagon. Constance seeks restitution and raises Kaufman’s ire. As Constance defends her family, she is forced to confront her past and brace for a new future.

Author Amy Stewart is best known for her nonfiction (The Drunken Botanist; Wicked Plants). Her first novel, Girl Waits with Gun, grew out of a newspaper clipping about the Kopps that she discovered during her research on a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman. While Stewart never learned if the smuggler Kaufman was the same man who antagonized the sisters, she was intrigued by the little-known Constance Kopp, who later became one of the first female deputy sheriffs.

Through painstaking attention to detail, Stewart has created an elegant, moving narrative of an unusual real-life woman who dared defy the odds to ensure the safety of her family.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Constance Kopp has never quite fit in: She is tall and broad-shouldered, and she doesn’t care much for keeping house—a rarity for women in 1914. She sticks close to her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, and together they form an odd but functional trio. Norma is stoic and reserved; Constance is bold and proud; and Fleurette, the youngest, is wide-eyed and excitable. Since the death of their mother, the sisters have become closer than ever, living in the countryside after the need to keep secrets forced their move from the city more than 15 years prior.
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After the struggle of extended unemployment, Josephine is finally hired by a large, aloof corporation that occupies a windowless building in a secluded part of town. Her job: Input seemingly random strings of numbers and names into a computer program known as The Database. Josephine’s co-workers—the few that she actually meets—are either standoffish, sinister or manic, and she wonders if the job will turn her like that, too.

Josephine’s relief at finding employment fades quickly, and after noticing connections between the names and numbers she inputs and local and national events, she struggles with the realization and new understanding of what her job might actually be. To add to her stress, she and her husband, Joseph, are evicted from their apartment, and forced to move from one slummy sublet to another.

The hours inch by and the stacks of files pile up at Josephine’s office, and she approaches each workday with increasing dread. After Joseph begins disappearing for days at a time and Josephine makes a poignant discovery regarding her own health, she sees a potential solution: Infiltrate the corporation, whose power, with every discovery, seems to grow and extend.

Brooklyn writer Helen Phillips is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the Italo Calvino Prize, among others, and The Beautiful Bureaucrat was inspired by her own data-entry job. Her surreal and entertaining debut is a concise, imaginative novel that explores life and death, work and home, personality and professionalism in an almost Orwellian fashion. Precisely chosen language and a fast-paced structure leave readers feeling Josephine’s fear along with her, and contemplating their own world.

 

This surreal and entertaining debut is a concise, imaginative novel that explores life and death, work and home, personality and professionalism in an almost Orwellian fashion.

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