Matthew Jackson

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Jess Kidd’s novels have an uncommonly stunning tactile quality, plunging the reader headlong into worlds that are both recognizable and strange, where just about anything seems possible. Her fourth book, The Night Ship, is the latest example of this gift. Part historical fiction, part coming-of-age story, it’s an elegantly told tale about two young people whose lives are divided by nearly four centuries but intertwined by circumstance, fate and one famous shipwreck. 

In the early 17th century, a girl named Mayken is on board the Batavia with her nursemaid, bound for the Dutch East Indies. Mayken isn’t interested in being a “fine young lady” for the duration of the voyage. She’d rather explore the underbelly of the ship and learn about the dark things lurking within the vessel. 

Centuries later, in the 1980s, a boy named Gil comes to the island where the Batavia crashed. Living with his detached uncle, Gil feels adrift and lonely. He finds comfort in new friendships and becomes fascinated by the story of the notorious shipwreck. 

Along the way, both children find something mythic to pursue. For Mayken, it’s a monster that may or may not be prowling the bowels of the ship. For Gil, it’s the ghost of a girl who wanders the island. 

Kidd develops these parallel narratives delicately and intricately, with a precision that’s offset by the emotional intensity of her writing. In the early chapters, she makes stylistic connections between Gil and Mayken within the prose itself, then builds upon these initial associations as the story progresses. It’s an impressive juggling act, especially because neither Gil’s story nor Mayken’s ever undermines the other. Instead, they nourish each other, guided along by Kidd’s deft stylistic flourishes. From the smells of the ship to the texture of the kitchen counter in Gil’s new home, it’s all deeply immersive. And through it all, magic always feels just around the corner. 

Whether you’re a fan of ghost stories, historical novels or both, The Night Ship stands a good chance of sweeping you along in its wake. 

Whether you're a fan of ghost stories, historical novels or both, The Night Ship stands a good chance of sweeping you along in its wake.
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Jordan Crane’s graphic novel Keeping Two, which took him 20 years to complete, pays very strict attention to form. Over the course of 300-plus pages, Crane rarely strays from a simple six-panel grid, arranging the action in neat squares that move down and across the page with an almost mesmeric energy and speed. With this structure, a rhythm builds, as does an understanding between cartoonist and reader, so that when Crane begins to blur the lines between past and present, reality and memory, truth and imagination, you lean forward and hold on for one of the most memorable comics-driven rides of the year. 

Keeping Two follows a couple in the midst of what seems to be a minor argument, driven in part by a book the pair read aloud to each other during a long car trip. This book-within-the-book is about a couple coping with a profound loss, and the story’s themes of heartbreak and recovery immediately impact the lives of the couple reading it. They begin to imagine tragedies unfolding in their own reality, tragedies that may turn out to be all too close. 

Crane uses vibrant, hypnotic color, with bright greens suggesting life, growth and rebirth but also illness, nausea and unease. As the story swings between these two tonal poles, Crane’s intense focus on form and composition allows him to transition seamlessly between perspectives, often within the space of a single panel. The boyfriend’s household chore becomes his girlfriend’s reading life, becomes the life of the story she’s paging through and then back again—and the reader is never lost in these shifts. It all feels like part of an ever-fluctuating meditation on life, loss, love and all the states of uncertainty, panic and longing in between. 

Beautifully realized and assembled, Keeping Two is a remarkable work and one of the year’s best graphic novels.

When Jordan Crane begins to blur the lines between past and present, reality and memory, truth and imagination, you must lean forward and hold on for one of the most memorable comics-driven rides of the year.
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Ten wayward people walk into an acting class, including a married couple who finds their relationship growing stale, a single mother who worries she’s not good enough and a man convinced he needs to be more assertive at work. In the class, a man named John Smith promises to draw out who each person really is, allowing them to reinvent themselves in the realm of make-believe so they can reshape their realities outside the classroom.

It’s this straightforward catalyst that launches Nick Drnaso’s mesmerizing graphic novel (after Sabrina, a finalist for the Booker Prize). But Acting Class is interested in more than just following a set of characters as they gain a new lease on life. Through clean, minimalist linework, Drnaso builds a world we think we understand. Then, slowly and methodically, he breaks it all down—and with it, our understanding of the human condition.

Certain imagery in Acting Class conjures up the poseable nature of toys, such as vignettes framed in cutesy, brightly colored storybook motifs, or doll heads surrounding a character’s portrait. As the students work to apply Smith’s teachings to their lives, Drnaso visually and narratively blurs the line between fantasy and fiction. Party “scenes” in the class become actual parties, with scope and dimension to match. In the same way, the characters begin to feel the class’ sense of play and fun blending with their own real-world desires, needs and insecurities. Exercises and experiments become charged with emotion, and make-believe becomes shockingly real.

As Drnaso interrogates the ways in which we pretend, pose and allow ourselves to be the playthings of others and society at large—whether we want to admit it or not—Acting Class becomes a stirring, incisive exploration of human nature.

Nick Drnaso builds a world we think we understand. Then, methodically and slowly, he breaks it all down—and with it, our understanding of the human condition.
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There’s no guarantee that a writer who excels at short fiction will naturally succeed at novels, or vice versa, which is why it’s so exciting when a storyteller effortlessly crosses over. With her story collection, Bliss Montage, all the promise and power of Ling Ma’s 2018 novel, Severance, is gorgeously applied to the art of the short story. It’s a lyrical, potent anthology that blends fantasy and reality to dazzling effect. 

The eight tales in Bliss Montage are rooted in familiar, deeply human moments. For example: A pair of friends have an unhealthy relationship with drugs and each other, a woman is haunted by her romantic history, and a wife deals with losing track of her husband at an airport. But within these familiar beats, Ma inserts fantastical conceits, tilting our view of reality, until something strange and new creeps in. In “G,” the two friends take a drug that renders them temporarily invisible. In “Los Angeles,” the woman shares a house with her husband and 100 ex-boyfriends. And in “Returning,” the wife arrives in an unfamiliar country and learns about a burial ritual that might change her marriage forever. 

In each story, Ma seamlessly blends the real and the unreal with astonishing confidence and care. Laden with apt, surprising metaphors, her supernatural elements provide incisive, bittersweet commentary on human longing, loss and love. Her tightly structured sentences are little blades of wisdom and wit that slip into you when you least expect it, opening you up with bursts of raw, emotive power.

Bliss Montage is another triumph for Ma. Fans of elegant, well-crafted short fiction should not miss it.

In her first story collection, Ling Ma creates tightly structured sentences: little blades of wisdom and wit that slip into you when you least expect it, opening you up with bursts of raw, emotive power.
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Forging an entire short fiction collection around a single theme—and delivering one truly original tale after another—is trickier than it sounds. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of repetition and rhythm, making each tale read like the last one, just with the serial numbers filed off. Jane Campbell’s first book, which she’s publishing in her 80th year, maintains a thorough sense of originality while delivering a stunning range of works on the inner lives of older women. The stories in Cat Brushing cross genres and boundaries, daring the reader to meditate on previously unexplored (or at the very least, rarely explored) perspectives on aging, sexuality, violence and beyond.

In “Susan and Miffy,” a woman develops an unlikely sensual connection with her beautiful caregiver, challenging both of their notions about attraction. In “Lockdown Fantasms,” extreme pandemic isolation leads to a new program that sends government-sponsored spirits into the homes of the “over-seventies” to keep them company. In “Lamia,” a woman returns to the site of an old fling in an effort to recapture something in her own dangerous nature. In “Kindness,” a retired woman in a beachside retirement complex makes a choice that will change not one life, but three. And in the title story, a woman living with her son and his new wife explores the anxieties and uncertainties of existence while grooming her beloved pet. 

The baker’s dozen of tales that make up Cat Brushing are all delivered through lean, incisive, witty prose that calls to mind the calculated directness of Ernest Hemingway and the furious expressiveness of Joyce Carol Oates. Campbell’s sentences are solid, imposing, often free of adornment in terms of punctuation, and each one seems carefully crafted to get to the core of a certain emotional truth. Whether she’s writing a first-person or third-person narrative, Campbell’s wisdom, passion and honesty come through, imbuing the collection with an elegant, often lyrical power. 

Within these women’s stories of loss, desire, pain and memory, we discover the feeling of holding onto something primal even as the world seems determined to forget that side of us. To capture such complexity in one story is powerful, but for Campbell to do so 13 times makes Cat Brushing one of the most compelling fiction collections you’ll find this year.

In her first story collection, Jane Campbell's witty, lean prose calls to mind the calculated directness of Ernest Hemingway and the furious expressiveness of Joyce Carol Oates.
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For all the depth of expression in Monique Roffey’s writing, The Mermaid of Black Conch never feels like it dwells too long in the realm of the intangible. Full of lean, elegant, evocative prose that never overstays its welcome or drifts too far from its narrative, this finely honed novel about belonging, alienation and the enduring power of stories moves with the breathtaking rush of an ocean wave.

Roffey’s eponymous character, Aycayia, was once a woman but is now cursed to live her life as a creature of the sea—until a fisherman named David lures her to the shore with his song, inadvertently drawing her into the clutches of a group of wealthy American tourists. To save Aycayia the pain of becoming a tourist attraction or worse, David takes her into his home, where she slowly begins to shift back into human form. What happens next reverberates throughout the entire community on the island of Black Conch. 

Roffey’s tale alternates among different points of view with the lithe dexterity of a fishtail, revealing David’s perspective on the present as well as his reflections on the past, while giving voice to a local matriarch who learns the secret of the mermaid’s presence. We also hear from Aycayia herself, who speaks to the reader in raw, deeply emotional bursts of verse. 

Like her title character, Roffey’s prose is a shape-shifting, living thing, moving through emotional highs and lows with an almost mercurial grace. Roffey achieves this flow state with astonishing economy, which enables her to linger on existential questions: Who are you if everyone who remembers you is gone? Who do you become if people choose to reshape you? Such questions—as well as the remarkable way Roffey explores them through the eyes of a compelling cast of characters—make The Mermaid of Black Conch, winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year Award, a gripping dark fairy tale that any fan of contemporary fantasy will happily swim through. 

Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year Award, is a gripping dark fairy tale that any fan of contemporary fantasy will happily swim through.
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There are many pieces of fiction that attempt to capture and explore our collective fascination with true crime, but while those stories manage to convey at least some of the truths surrounding that obsession, few ever reach its emotional core. Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel, More Than You’ll Ever Know, joins those select ranks, as this elegant, evocative tale of suspense burrows straight to the heart of our cultural true crime fixation through an intense emotional dance between two seemingly different women.

Cassie Bowman is a true crime blogger who dreams of more. After years of trafficking in the seediest corners of the genre, she wants to take her journalism prowess to new heights and prove that she has something to say about the ways people hurt each other. When she stumbles upon the story of Dolores “Lore” Rivera—a banker whose double life led to one of her husbands murdering the other in 1985—Cassie thinks she might have finally found a tale worth telling. When the two women finally meet, though, the tension between their personalities kicks off a series of conversations that reveals the truth about both of their pasts.

Told across two time periods set decades apart and narrated through both Cassie’s and Lore’s perspectives, More Than You’ll Ever Know has all the ingredients necessary for a good thriller. Gutierrez writes with an instinctive understanding of the scaffolding necessary to keep readers turning the pages, and the narrative flies by as the dramatic and emotional tensions in both women’s lives ratchet up.

Beyond the novel’s well-executed, suspenseful structure, Gutierrez also clearly understands her characters, where they’ve come from and what they want and need. Both women are searching for something, longing for understanding in a world full of mysteries that are never solved. Whether it’s Lore’s emotional journey or Cassie’s deep dive into her chosen journalistic genre, Gutierrez has crafted detailed, vulnerable portraits of women searching for clues to their own survival. In the process, she unearths some truly compelling insights about our cultural obsession with true crime.

Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel burrows straight to the heart of our true crime fixation through an intense emotional dance between two seemingly different women.
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The undeniable warmth that permeates Kim Michele Richardson’s fiction is rooted in a love for her home state of Kentucky, her characters and, it seems, the art of writing itself. Her narratives are immersive exercises in character development and world building that are wholly capable of enveloping readers, pulling us deeper with each page until we are happily lost.

The Book Woman’s Daughter, Richardson’s companion novel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, does this from the very beginning, whether you’ve read the original novel or not. Through the eyes of Honey Lovett, daughter of legendary blue-skinned “Book Woman” Cussy Mary Carter, Richardson tells a rewarding story of determination and hope set in the Kentucky woods of a bygone era.

In 1953, Honey’s mother and father are imprisoned for miscegenation, and the 16-year-old girl is left to scrape by on her own, running from the law while attempting to build a life for herself with the few resources she has left. She and her trusty mule, Junia, take up Cussy’s former route as a packhorse librarian, and in doing so, Honey not only honors her mother’s legacy but also begins to carve a path for herself through a world that continually pushes women aside. Honey discovers that her community’s thirst for knowledge is vast, often dangerous and full of big questions she’d never expected to ask.

Throughout The Book Woman’s Daughter, Richardson pushes Honey forward into new states of evolution, desire, grit and spirit while constructing a beautiful vision of 1950s Appalachia in all its natural splendor and complicated humanity. Honey starts out as someone who knows where she belongs, but as she begins to encounter setbacks and challenges, her story transforms into a meditation on womanhood, literature, resilience and freedom. It’s a spellbinding tale.

Kim Michele Richardson’s companion novel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is immersive from the very beginning.
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As she has consistently proven in historical novels such as The Alice Network and The Rose Code, Kate Quinn is a master at crafting an intoxicating, well-balanced blend of immersive period details and deft character work. With The Diamond Eye, she returns to the fertile storytelling terrain of World War II for a tale inspired by the extraordinary life of Russian sniper Lyudmila “Mila” Pavlichenko, known as “Lady Death.”

Mila becomes a mother at 15; six years later, amid an impending divorce, she promises her son that she’ll teach him to shoot. In between working on her dissertation at Kiev University and raising Alexei, she finds that she’s brilliant with a rifle. When the Nazis invade the Soviet Union, her elite skill becomes a key asset in the Red Army’s fight to defend the motherland. Mila sets off for war and marches into her own legend.

In each of her novels, Quinn displays an innate awareness of how history can be warped by time and power. In The Diamond Eye, we don’t just follow Mila’s journey into war; we see her actions in sharp contrast to what the Soviet government will later say she’s done. Mila’s perceptions of events are shown in relief to those of the men around her, and even to the perceptions of the American public, thanks to a 1942 press tour hosted by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. That press tour forms the novel’s narrative spine, unfolding in sections that alternate with Mila’s larger wartime odyssey. This structure steadily ratchets up the suspense as it becomes clear that Mila is not as welcome in the U.S. as she was led to believe.

The Diamond Eye is a remarkable combination of immersive wartime storytelling, rich detailing and wonderful pacing. What really makes The Diamond Eye land, though, goes beyond Quinn’s mastery of her chosen genre. This is, first and foremost, an exceptional character piece, a study of a woman who is a killer, a mother, a lover and, above all else, a survivor.

Kate Quinn’s track record for delivering captivating historical fiction continues with the remarkable story of the notorious Russian sniper known as Lady Death.
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There’s a magic to Isaac Fellman’s fiction, born of his depth of perception, precise prose and straightforward sense of expression. In his second novel, Dead Collections, his characters’ earnestness and warmth make even the darkest moments beautiful, in a way that will remind the reader of the work of Anne Rice and Stephen Graham Jones. Fellman tells the tale of two souls searching the depths of their experiences for something—and seemingly finding it in each other.

Sol is a trans archivist who manages his vampirism by living among the collections in the basement of his workplace. His carefully cultivated isolation begins to shift when he meets Elsie, an alluring widow who brings in her late wife’s papers for archiving. As Sol digs into the writer’s work, he also begins to discover Elsie’s curious spirit. Elsie reciprocates, and as their spark kindles into something more, Sol must contend not just with the possibility of venturing out into the world but also with a newfound blight that seems to be seeping into his professional life.

Through a combination of Sol’s incisive narration, message board entries, script books and other formalist flights of experimentation, Fellman lays out Sol’s and Elsie’s parallel journeys with propulsive, intense focus. The prose unfolds with notable determination, and there’s not a single wasted word, even when Fellman plays with format and frame of reference.

Whether he’s conjuring the image of Sol soaking his hands in warm water to give the illusion of body heat or the way Elsie uses light to mimic the experience of daylight for her vampire friend, Fellman’s style is vivid, specific and deeply evocative. On a sentence level, Dead Collections is a sensual, tactile work, and when combined with Fellman’s confident grasp of his characters, it becomes a wonderful, bittersweet journey in which you may get happily lost.

Isaac Fellman’s characters make even the darkest moments beautiful, in a way that will remind the reader of the work of Anne Rice and Stephen Graham Jones.
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John Darnielle’s stories, whether on the page (Wolf in White Van, Universal Harvester) or set to music (the Mountain Goats), have a tendency to transcend easy classification and simple genre labels. And yet there’s always a clarity to them, a feeling that the creator’s mind and heart are at work in tandem. With Devil House, his extraordinarily ambitious third novel, Darnielle proves his versatility yet again. This remarkable shapeshifter of a tale changes form, perspective and even relative truth as it pleases, but never loses its voice.

Bestselling true crime writer Gage Chandler thinks he’s found his next book in the form of a 1980s cold case that revolves around an adult video store, a group of teens interested in the occult and two victims who never received justice after one brutal Halloween night. Hoping to absorb the atmosphere of the crime scene and drill down to the truth, Gage moves into the site of the murders, the titular “Devil House.” But the deeper he descends, the slipperier the truth becomes.

Though the novel begins with Gage’s point of view and moves seamlessly into the affable, straightforward style of a true crime writer laying out the facts, Darnielle doesn’t stop there. Chapters unfold from various perspectives, including that of the subject of one of Gage’s past books and those of the principals in the Devil House case. There are even sections that drift into stylized Middle English and an entire chapter documenting the life of a king.

And yet, Devil House never feels like a book steeped in gimmicks, because Darnielle steers his dark vessel with dexterity, wit and stunning inventiveness. This novel will lure in true crime fans and readers of experimental fiction alike, then blow them all away with its determined exploration of the nature of truth and what we want to hear versus what we need to hear. It’s a triumph from an always exciting storyteller.

Read more: John Darnielle narrates the audiobook for ‘Devil House,’ his most bizarre novel to date.

In his shapeshifting, extraordinarily ambitious third novel, musician and writer John Darnielle proves his versatility yet again.

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