Matthew Jackson

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.

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

Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich understands the sense of significance, whether subliminal or overt, that we can glean from stories—and what this offers our daily lives. The Sentence, Erdrich’s latest novel, unfolds over the course of one tumultuous year, and its persistent search for meaning reveals astonishing, sublime depths.

Tookie is an ex-convict turned bookseller working in a Minneapolis bookstore after years of reading for pure survival. Her voracious appetite for words has made her very good at what she does, but on All Souls’ Day in 2019, her world is thrown into disarray by an unlikely challenger. A customer who recently died has made her way back to the store, bringing along some revelations in a mysterious handwritten book, and she won’t leave until Tookie can figure out why she returned in the first place.

Though this often comically unpredictable ghost story forms the spine of The Sentence, Erdrich also branches out to explore the broader landscape of Minneapolis in 2019 and 2020, from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed. Yet her narrative never loses its grip. As vast as its scope may be, The Sentence doesn’t feel overstuffed because Erdrich roots it in Tookie’s own longings, beliefs and challenges.

Tookie isn’t just plagued by a literal ghost; she’s also haunted in other ways, and as she searches for the significance of these hauntings, she finds that she’s far from alone in her experience. Erdrich’s prose, layered with unforgettable flourishes of detail—from the mesmeric spinning of a ceiling fan to the quest for the perfect soup—enhances and deepens this growing sense of a larger, collective haunting.

The Sentence is an imaginative, boldly honest exploration of our ever-evolving search for truth in the stories we both consume and create. It’s a staggering addition to Erdrich’s already impressive body of work.

Unfolding over the course of one tumultuous year, Louise Erdrich’s novel searches for meaning and reveals astonishing, sublime depths.

The range of comic book storytelling is vast, and this selection of 2021’s best graphic novels, memoirs and histories runs the gamut in terms of artistic style and narrative approach, yet all of them have two things in common: a mastery of the form and a unique sense of expression.

Bubble

The stakes of the gig economy have never been higher than in Bubble, a graphic novel by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan with illustrations from Tony Cliff and colors by Natalie Riess. Adapted from the scripted podcast of the same name, Bubble is set in a world where corporate-funded cities have sprung up as domes of safety, walling off humanity from a monster-ridden wilderness known as the Brush. Morgan was born in the Brush, and though she’s grown accustomed to life in the bubble, she’s retained a few of her more useful Brush skills, including the ability to kill pesky mutated imps. Naturally, her employers have just the thing to help her monetize that ability.

Bubble crackles with wit and biting commentary on piecing together a living one app at a time. Cliff’s art enriches the whole wild affair, lending a grounding sense of reality to the reading experience despite the fantastical setting. He’s as adept at depicting action-packed scenes as he is at homing in on a character’s eyes at a key moment of personal discovery. There’s tremendous glee to be found in Bubble, but also tremendous heart.

Ballad for Sophie

A young woman talks her way into the mansion of one of the world’s most reclusive musicians and convinces him to give her an interview. That’s the premise from which Ballad for Sophie springs, and with a sense of adversarial yet whimsical tension, we are propelled into a world of bittersweet wonders, tragedy and music.

Written by jazz composer Filipe Melo, illustrated by Juan Cavia and translated from the original Spanish by Gabriela Soares, Ballad for Sophie unfolds as the aging pianist tells his story. We meet a lifelong rival, a lost love, a tormented mother, a devilish piano teacher and more, their rich narrative tapestry unfolding against backdrops that range from World War II to the luxury of 1960s Paris. 

Through it all, Melo’s characters are either constantly growing or constantly resisting growth, while Cavia’s art sweeps across the page with lithe figures and elegant depictions of bygone eras. When the story dips into the past, his art grows slightly more magical, turning piano teachers into great horned creatures and piano recitals into dramatically lit clashes of titans.

Emotionally dense, texturally rich and humming with humanity, Ballad for Sophie is a moving portrait of the ways in which art can both save and doom us.

Interior image from Ballad for Sophie
From Ballad for Sophie. Used with permission from Top Shelf.

Lore Olympus

Some elements of Greek mythology are simply timeless. In Lore Olympus: Volume One, Rachel Smythe reminds us of this using her acclaimed artistic magic. This is the first volume of her webcomic “Lore Olympus,” and it’s striking to see her work collected in such a lavish tome after its celebrated web release.

As Smythe unveils her retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth, her gorgeous art elevates each scene. She uses precise color and shading to bathe the Greek gods in neon hues of purple and blue, like they’re perpetually in some mythic nightclub. Readers will revel in how seamlessly Smythe has adapted this classic story, and in no time at all, they’ll find themselves utterly lost in her beautifully dark, often startlingly timely world of sex, lies and immortality. 

The Middle Ages

You’ve probably heard that the Middle Ages wasn’t really the period of darkness and ignorance that popular culture has made it out to be, but you’ve never seen that truth demonstrated quite like in The Middle Ages: A Graphic History. Medieval historian Eleanor Janega and illustrator Neil Max Emmanuel set out to reveal how this period took shape and why it became so consequential, and they never miss in that mission. 

Rather than attempting a strictly linear dissection of centuries of human history, The Middle Ages unfolds almost as an illustrated textbook, with sections devoted to everything from the fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne to the growth of major European cities. Janega’s prose is precise, informative, digestible and witty. Emmanuel’s simple but effective black-and-white art carries that same wit through to the visuals, alternating between modern compositions and homages to medieval aesthetics, with amusing revisions to the Bayeux Tapestry and clever representations of church schisms.

It all adds up to an utterly essential volume for history buffs, whether they’re diving into the medieval period for the first time or just brushing up on a few things. 

★ Run

The follow-up to Congressman John Lewis’ monumental, award-winning March series, Run: Book One kicks off a new graphic trilogy that further establishes Lewis as a fundamental, undeniable force in the mid-1960s American civil rights movement.

Lewis completed work on the script for Run before his death in 2020, and illustrator L. Fury joins writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell (both of whom collaborated on the March trilogy) in carefully layering Lewis’ recollections with vivid depictions of celebrations and violence, hope and heartbreak, despair and determination. The story picks up after the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, as Lewis encountered new roadblocks and hurdles in the wake of that legislative victory. Through dramatic composition and movement, Powell and Fury’s illustrations capture the same energy as the March trilogy, while also conveying Lewis’ maturation as he grows out of his student organizing era and enters the realm of American statesmanship.

Run is another indispensable chronicle of the life and work of one of 20th-century America’s most exceptional figures, but it’s also a mission statement for the work yet to come.

Interior image from Run: Book One
From Run: Book One. Used with permission from Abrams ComicArts.

★ Seek You

It might sound like a cliche to say that a book delving into America’s loneliness epidemic will make you feel more connected to the world around you, but that’s exactly what writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke achieves in this ambitious book. 

Part memoir, part sociological study and part cultural history, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness digs deep into the many ways that loneliness affects our daily lives. Through incisive, often disarmingly confessional writing, Radtke gets to the core of what loneliness is and what it does to our bodies and minds, exploring everything from its neurological roots to the impact of the sitcom studio audience laugh track. 

Throughout Seek You, we are guided by Radtke’s beautifully muted art. Some pages are powerful in their simplicity, such as a wide view of a massive apartment complex with a single lit window, while others are effective in their complexity, such as a spread showing a lone figure amid a fog of words describing their most alienating experiences. 

Seek You is a captivating combination of raw emotional exploration and thoughtful, sophisticated imagination.

The Waiting

A chance encounter with a dog on a city street pulls a character back through decades of memories and serves as the launching point for a stirring graphic novel by author-illustrator Keum Suk Gendry-Kim.

Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, The Waiting explores a very particular kind of loss on the Korean peninsula. In bold, fluid black-and-white imagery, Gendry-Kim tells a story inspired by her own mother, who lived under Japanese occupation in Korea before World War II, then was forced to migrate during the Korean War and the permanent division of Korea along the 38th parallel. Many Koreans fled their homes amid the fighting, causing a surge of family separations that led to lifetimes of waiting and hoping. 

Though The Waiting is set amid some of the most consequential events of the 20th century, Gendry-Kim never makes the book’s scope wider than it needs to be. The Waiting is better for it, succeeding as a deeply intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to not only survive but also keep some measure of hope and determination alive. It’s also about the broader goal of an entire culture to somehow come back together after war, through individual efforts and massive group reunions. 

In depicting a people’s efforts to find each other, The Waiting is one of the most moving graphic novels of the year.

★ Wake

Writer and activist Rebecca Hall and illustrator Hugo Martínez present a powerful meditation on hidden history that transforms into a haunting, necessary statement on exactly why that history has been hidden, and how much of it still lives with us.

In Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, Hall, whose grandparents were enslaved, recounts her process of researching several 18th-century revolts that were led by enslaved women. Though some of the book’s most affecting sequences re-create these revolts, much of Wake is a memoir of Hall’s search for the brave, rebellious women who led them, the punishments they suffered and what, if anything, they managed to leave behind. In the process of constructing their stories, Hall tells much of her own, laying bare how the echoes of enslavement inform our political world as well as her own daily interactions.

Hall’s prose is stunning, and Martínez’s art takes it to another level, delivering expressive representations of the history Hall carries with her and of the reminders of slavery’s cruelty that are etched into the landscapes we walk now. His artwork bleeds past and present together, depicting the city streets around Hall as shadowy memorials of the slave markets that once stood there. When he projects the images of enslaved men and women onto the facades of skyscrapers, he transforms these feats of architecture into monuments to atrocities.

Wake is as poetic as it is powerful. Readers who adored the March trilogy and the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred will find it to be an essential addition to their shelves.

A sampling of the year’s best graphics and comics includes a neon-bright retelling of a Greek myth and the continued memoirs of a civil rights legend.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia has a knack for re-envisioning familiar, even comforting genre territory in vital new ways, something she proved with her last novel, the incredible Mexican Gothic. In that book, Moreno-Garcia turned her gift for evolving classic tropes toward gothic tales full of spooky houses and spookier families. For her next trick, the author moves into pulp adventure territory for a novel that evokes the best conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. 

Set in the wake of the brutal murders of dozens of student protestors in Mexico City in June 1971, Velvet Was the Night follows two lost characters in a world that seems determined to suppress their spirits. Maite and Elvis are both dreamers of a sort, in love with music and stories and adventure, though their day-to-day existences could be not more disparate. Maite wants a more exciting life; she spends her days in a dull office job, is constantly reminded by her mother that she'll never live up to her sister's achievements, and loses herself in the romantic adventure tales she finds at the local newsstand. Elvis longs to escape the brutality of the paramilitary group he’s been roped into. 

When the case of a missing woman and an incriminating roll of film enters their lives, Maite and Elvis find themselves on a winding collision course, one that could open both their eyes to the ways in which their lives might change. 

As always, Moreno-Garcia couches all her riffs on genre conventions within a deeply ingrained sense of character. Before we can fully grasp the many angles of the tangled, noir-tinged web she’s weaving, we must first get to know Maite and Elvis and their different forms of ache and longing. Through precise, accessible yet poetic prose, these characters instantly come alive, and when they begin venturing into Mexico City’s darker corners, we are eager to follow them. The result is another triumph for one of genre fiction’s brightest voices, a book that will keep you up late into the night—not just for its intricate plotting but also for the two souls pulsing at its core. 

For her next trick, Silvia Moreno-Garcia moves into pulp adventure territory for a novel that evokes the best conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

With her 2020 debut, Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy established herself as a powerful new voice in fiction. With her follow-up, Once There Were Wolves, the Australian author proves that her particular brand of deeply evocative literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Intense, emotional and rich with beautifully rendered prose, McConaghy’s novel is a powerful meditation on humanity, nature and the often frightening animalistic impulses lurking within us all.

Inti Flynn and her sister, Aggie, were raised in two different households by two different parents who each had their own very specific reasons to distrust humanity. Inti turned to the wild for inspiration, comfort and fulfillment. Now grown and working in conservation, Inti arrives in Scotland to release the first gray wolves, absent from the region for centuries, back into the country’s Highlands. As local farmers respond with resistance and the wolves struggle to adjust to their new home, Inti finds herself caught between a sister who needs her, a man who wants her and a community that perhaps wants her gone for good, and that’s all before the dead body shows up.

As McConaghy navigates Inti’s emotional state through past and present, from the wilds of Alaska to the town halls of Scotland, it becomes clear that Once There Were Wolves is as much concerned with charting Inti’s own wild nature as it is with the wild nature of the wolves she so loves. Whether McConaghy is writing about the deep, wordless connection between two sisters or the strange respect that forms between ideological enemies, her prose never feels overwhelmed or even particularly hurried. There’s a density of meaning to her language, filling every paragraph with poignant, poetic life, and it’s clear even in the opening chapters that she’s mastered this world and these characters.

Once There Were Wolves is another triumph for a rising fiction star, offering an intensely realized world for readers to get lost in.

With her second novel, Charlotte McConaghy proves that her particular brand of deeply evocative literary lightning can indeed strike twice.

Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book is a dazzling, perfectly balanced novel that mixes fantasy with devastating reality, wit with sorrow, loss with wisdom and hope. BookPage reached out to Mott to talk about how he crafted this novel about an unnamed author whose novel is also titled Hell of a Book, and who has a strange relationship with a possibly imaginary boy.

Your protagonist has an unusual relationship with his own imagination. Does this sense of fantasy and reality bleeding together come from your own experience as a writer?
Most definitely. For myself, and for many others I’d bet, the real world gets a bit overwhelming most days. That’s what led me to books and, later, to writing. The real world was more bearable if I could escape into imagination on a regular basis. 

Fast forward a few decades, and I’ve been living in imaginary worlds so often and for so long that, well, it’s sorta hard to turn the dream machine off! But I wouldn’t change that for anything. I feel bad for people who only live in the real world when there are entire universes waiting to be imagined.

What’s behind the decision to keep your narrator unnamed? Was there ever a time when you considered offering a name, even a generic one, to the reader?
The nameless narrator component is a pretty complex one. It serves a lot of purposes for the goals of the novel. Two of this novel’s themes are identity and hiding. Characters are struggling with who they are, who other people think they are and their desire—or lack of desire—to be seen. And so, it followed that the narrator would function beneath this veil of anonymity. I wanted him to be specific in his character but generic in his role, and so having him remain nameless served that goal.

I spent a lot of time debating on whether or not to give him a name. Honestly, naming him felt like a much safer bet. Unnamed narrators generally don’t have a good track record when it comes to how readers respond to them! People want to know who they’re investing their time and emotions into. So for a few revisions, the character did have a name. (And I’ll never tell what it was! Haha!) 

But the more time I spent with him having a name, the less I liked it, and eventually I decided that this novel was going to be the one in which I let my creative side fully work on its own terms. And so the name went away.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Hell of a Book.


Your author contends with the very specific anxiety of never really feeling like he knows what his book is about, at least not in the way that other people would like him to. Is that something you’ve experienced, now that you’ve been through the publishing promotional machine a few times?
Once art is created, it no longer solely belongs to its creator. It becomes a shared commodity that, over time, is owned more and more by those who engage with it. That took me a while to learn. I’ve met readers over the years—both industry professionals and regular readers—who have told me what they saw in my books, and sometimes they would see things very differently than I intended, or they would find things I never intended. That took some getting used to. I think it’s a component of every author’s or artist’s life that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. In Hell of a Book, this gets magnified and even becomes a bit of a running gag at moments.

There’s a sense (avoiding spoilers here) that the narrative gets away from the author over the course of the book, that he was hoping to tell a different kind of story. What is that disconnect? Does this happen to you when you’re writing a book?
My goal for Hell of a Book was for it to function in the way that I believe Impressionist paintings work: to forgo realism and verisimilitude in favor of evocative richness and empathy. In general, my books often end up somewhat different than I expect when I first begin writing them. The way I describe the process is this: When I start a novel, all I know for sure is that I’m taking a cross-country road trip, and eventually I’m gonna end up at the Pacific Ocean. Maybe that’ll be in California, maybe that’ll be in Canada, or maybe even in Peru. Who knows? I just look forward to the journey!

“I feel bad for people who only live in the real world when there are entire universes waiting to be imagined.”

The novel’s descriptions of book touring are surreal. What’s the strangest book tour experience you’ve had as an author?
Oh man . . . this is a loaded question. I’ve had quite a few strange book tour experiences ranging from a man very obsessed with my teeth, to having a media escort who was driving me to a venue come terrifyingly close to plowing over a pedestrian, to finding love—briefly—to passing out in the middle of an airplane aisle from exhaustion. So . . . which of those stories do I tell? I should save some of the strangest stories for future writing projects, so how about a more heartwarming story about a mix-up caused by the letter “e”?

I was in St. Louis, and this woman comes out to my event with her 11-year-old son, dressed in a beautiful St. Louis Cardinals jersey. It was a few minutes before my reading was to begin, and I saw the two of them lingering around the store, obviously waiting for things to start. Everyone takes their seats, and the bookstore owner gives me a wonderful introduction. As soon as I step up to the podium, the boy wearing the baseball jersey raises his hand. He says, with a mixture of confusion and annoyance in his voice, “You’re not Jason Mott.”

And well, obviously I was Jason Mott. But it turned out that I wasn’t Jason Motte, the relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals whom the boy had convinced his mother to bring him out to see in the hopes of getting his baseball signed. Pretty strange how something as small as an “e” at the end of a name can ruin a boy’s dreams for the evening.

After figuring out about the mix-up, the boy and his mother actually stayed for my reading and wound up buying my book anyhow. I autographed it for him and basically kept trying to apologize for not being the Jason Motte he’d hoped I was. Luckily, he was a nice kid and seemed to take it all pretty well.

 “I’ve gained a new confidence as a writer, and I hope that it leads to more creative exploration and new paths of storytelling in the future.”

What did you learn about yourself as a writer, from a craft perspective or a personal perspective, through the writing of this book?
This might be the most difficult question for me to answer. Honestly, I’m still unpacking what I learned from this novel, particularly from the personal perspective. If I had to give an answer, I would say that I’ve learned to lean into who I am as a person and as a writer. I’ve wanted to write this type of novel for years but avoided it for various reasons. And there was a time when almost no one believed this novel could work. (Full disclosure: A lot of that could be due to how terrible I am at describing my works in progress.) I’ve gained a new confidence as a writer, and I hope that it leads to more creative exploration and new paths of storytelling in the future.

In that same vein, Hell of a Book is obviously contending with a lot of Black Americans’ pain at various points in the story. How did the writing of this novel serve you?
There was a lot of meditation and catharsis in this novel. A massive amount of its creation was simply the act of me trying to figure out my thoughts on life as a Black American. While countless others have added to this conversation, I felt that there were still parts of this topic going undiscussed and, even more, not explored through fantasy/absurdist methods. So this novel served to help me find my own way of—hopefully—contributing to America’s ongoing conversations on race, identity and healing.

Hell of a Book allowed me, finally, to play with language in a way that I hadn’t been able to before, which made for some of the most challenging and fun writing I’ve ever done.”

The snappiness of the novel’s language sometimes feels like the story is set within the world of a black-and-white film, like His Girl Friday. You’ve said that using this style gave you some distance from the events of the novel. How did that work for you?
So glad you asked this! The first thing you need to know is that there are three great loves in my life: language, writing and movies. I’m a film junkie. I have been for my whole life, and I always will be. And one of my favorite genres is the film noir that emerged in Hollywood from about the 1940s to the late 1960s. The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Night and the City, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly—the list goes on.

Hell of a BookWhen I was writing this novel, I wanted to include my love of that genre and its use of language. Film noir is a beautiful time capsule of language. Its use of slang, its pacing and cadence—film noir treats the American English lexicon in ways that few other media have, and that fascinates me. Hell of a Book allowed me, finally, to play with language in a way that I hadn’t been able to before, which made for some of the most challenging and fun writing I’ve ever done.

How do you hope readers will approach this book, and then leave it?
My hope is that they’ll approach the book with openness. One of the mottos I live by is that you have to be willing to meet others where they live. I believe that mindset leads to better understanding and empathy overall. So I hope that readers come to this book willing to meet it where it lives, which is a place of absurdity, tragedy and uncertainty. I know that can be a lot to ask of a reader, which is why I worked hard to try and offer something rewarding for the readers who come to this book: sometimes comedy, sometimes catharsis, or if I got lucky enough in the writing, maybe even joy once in a while.

As for when the reader leaves? Well, I hope they never leave. I hope this book stays with people. I hope the Author, the Kid, Soot and the world they live in bleeds into the world of the reader for years to come. Because, if that happens, maybe the real-world events that these characters are so haunted by can be changed in the real world. And then maybe these types of stories won’t need to be written anymore. Wouldn’t that be something?

 

Author photo by Michael Becker Photography

Bestselling author Jason Mott embraces comedy, absurdity and catharsis in his revelatory new novel, Hell of a Book.

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