Combining fish-out-of-water humor and historical detail, time-travel stories must deftly balance magic and reality. A bestseller when it was published in 1978, Marlys Millhiser’s novel The Mirror is now something of a cult classic, and it’s easy to see why. On the eve of her wedding, 20-year-old Shay falls through an antique mirror into the body of her grandmother, Brandy, whose life on the Colorado frontier in 1900 involves strict gender roles, physical danger and structured undergarments. In exchange, Brandy is transported to Shay’s body in 1978 and must deal with that era’s comparatively lawless (and braless) abandon. This sounds like a prosaic setup, but The Mirror is a wild ride that almost never hits the expected beats. Shay and Brandy are fully realized characters, and the details of both settings are spot on and evocative, lending a sense of reality to the novel despite its absolutely chaotic premise. Along the way, Millhiser digs up some timeless truths about mother-daughter relationships and how the women who came before us are often reflected in the ones who come after.
My reading preferences vary widely, but I rarely gravitate toward fantasy novels whose first few pages consist of maps, family trees, timelines and other hallmarks of extensive world building. I get too overwhelmed! But I love when a work of fiction contains just a touch of the supernatural. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief if the magical or otherworldly elements are woven into the story in a way that feels effortless. Kevin Wilson’s 2019 novel, Nothing to See Here, is about two children who burst into flames when they’re upset. The kids’ newly hired nanny, Lillian, transitions from reluctant caretaker to fiercely protective parental figure over the course of the book. A note for other fantasy-averse readers like myself: If the whole catching-on-fire thing seems like too much, don’t let it deter you. You’ll miss out on a delightful story that’s as funny as it is moving.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
It may seem unusual to single out a nonfiction book for having a sprinkle of magic, but Alexander Chee’s exceptional essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is the first title that comes to mind when I think of books with an undercurrent of enchantment. In 16 spellbinding pieces, Chee explores the stuff of everyday life—work, writing, family, activism—alongside more supernatural subjects, such as his lifelong pursuit of tarot and being tested for psychic abilities as a child. These brushes with the mystical elevate Chee’s more commonplace topics until the whole book seems to hover in that liminal space between the sacred and the profane. Suddenly, as you read about his stint as a cater waiter for William F. Buckley or his recollections of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the sense that you’re encountering something extraordinary (that is, out of the ordinary) is heightened. Magic is all around us, Chee seems to say. Read it in the cards. Produce it with your mind. Find it in a well-tended rosebush in your own backyard.
—Christy, Associate Editor
The Raven Boys
The first time I read The Raven Boys, the first novel in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series, I was a high school junior in the midst of a reading slump. I occasionally found a book that I enjoyed, but not with the same ferocity that kept me plowing through stories in my childhood. Although I had seen fan-made content for Stiefvater’s series online, I didn’t know the plot until a friend described it to me. By the time I finished reading the first chapter, I was electrified by the prose and already attached to the characters. While I love fiction that includes speculative elements, I have a harder time feeling immersed in the worlds of high fantasy or sci-fi novels. The Raven Boys kept me rooted in reality while introducing me to Welsh mythology and women with psychic powers. These elements are expanded in the series’ subsequent three novels, but the foundational connection to the real world is never severed.
—Jessie, Editorial Intern
In the tender reading year of 2020, Matt Haig published what a friend of mine called a “cheerful book about suicide.” I had recommended The Midnight Library to her, but she was skeptical about reading it—understandably so, as so many of us were picky about the types of books we were willing to read while riding out the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Haig has been open about his experiences with depression for years, and all of his books have explored the terrain of mental health for both children and adults. In this gentle novel, a woman dies by suicide and is transported to a special library between life and death. There, with help from a kind librarian, she is able to step into the different lives she could’ve lived, as a rock star, intrepid explorer, parent and more. It’s such a smart and empathetic story, and exactly what it needs to be: a cheerful book about depression, yes, but also about making it through.
—Cat, Deputy Editor