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U.S. Army veteran Zac Topping’s debut novel, Wake of War, is a fast-paced military thriller set in the year 2037, a time when the United States is collapsing under decades of public unrest due to partisan divisions and a malfunctioning economy.

A new rebel faction is gaining traction in Salt Lake City under the leadership of the charismatic Joseph Graham. A ragtag team of men and women, the Revolutionist Front has proven to be a haven for all those who are hellbent on justice and revenge. This includes Sam Cross, who at 14 saw government soldiers gun down her family as she ran for her life. Now 19, she’s become a deadly sniper.

Fighting for the other side is James Trent, who joined the U.S. Army not out of moral conviction but rather to earn a military scholarship for college. During his three years in the service, he has managed to be placed in noncombat administrative missions, but now an involuntary reassignment sends him to the bloodiest and most dangerous rebel territory in Salt Lake City, dropping him and his platoon directly in the line of fire from Sam and the Revolutionist Front.

Most stories of war have a clear indication of the good side and the bad, but Topping has other intentions, as the conflict unfolds in chapters that alternate between Sam’s and James’ perspectives. Through their stories, Topping grapples with the wonder and worry that many of us feel regarding the current state of our nation. 

Topping, who has served two tours in Iraq, does a phenomenal job of using dialogue and scene details to impart the raw and dangerous wartime conditions that surround his characters. He focuses on the impact that unrelenting pain and helplessness have on the human soul—and how the thirst for power can corrupt the best of intentions. Wake of War will resonate with all readers who enjoy thrillers that reflect real-world crises.

In his fast-paced debut novel, Zac Topping, who has served two tours in Iraq, focuses on the impact that unrelenting pain and helplessness have on the human soul—and how the thirst for power can corrupt the best of intentions.
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Albert Einstein is frequently—falsely—attributed with having said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It’s quite the line, but it does beg the question: How do you tell how smart a fish is? 

That’s the problem facing animal cognition scientist Karin Resaint in Venomous Lumpsucker, the fifth novel from award-winning British novelist Ned Beauman. In the novel’s dystopian near-future, Earth’s climate is in free fall, and species are disappearing faster than beers at a frat party. When Chiu Chiu, the final giant panda, chomps on his last tiny bamboo shoot, the outrage is so great that 197 nations, “acting basically at economic gunpoint, [sign] up to the newly formed World Commission on Species Extinction.”

“The giant panda will be the last species ever driven to extinction by human activity,” proclaims a Chinese official at the WCSE’s founding. Of course, that’s not what happens; instead comes the extinction industry.

Everybody in the free market world knows that if you want to make an economic omelet, you’ll have to break a few environmental eggs. In this future culture, extinct animals’ DNA is digitally stored in biobanks, and the disappearance of a species is treated like carbon emissions, with taxes offsetting the habitat destruction that goes hand-in-wallet with surging profits. 

As in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, though, some animals are more equal than others. It costs a lot more under this scheme to snuff out a sentient species, so Karin has been charged with evaluating the intelligence of the venomous lumpsucker, and she’s feeling pressure from Brahmasamudram Mining, who’s funding the analysis. When a mid-level executive shows up aboard Karin’s research vessel with a special plea, the stakes suddenly leapfrog into the stratosphere and set the two on a frantic hunt for the last living lumpsucker. 

If all this sounds heavy for a summer read, not to worry. Beauman’s acerbic outlook breezes through what could otherwise be a portentous plot; think Smilla’s Sense of Snow as percolated through an Andy Borowitz filter, a mid-apocalyptic comic thriller ideally suited for a post-pandemic audience.

The fifth novel from award-winning British novelist Ned Beauman is a mid-apocalyptic comic thriller ideally suited for a post-pandemic audience.
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At its heart, Vauhini Vara’s twisty, thoughtful debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, is a fascinating alternate history and eerily plausible imagined future of the internet—and the tech corporations that have shaped it. With a sureness to her prose and a sharp eye for the tiny details that shape human lives, Vara, who has worked as a Wall Street Journal technology reporter and as a business editor for The New Yorker, combines three distinct storylines into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.

Though the entire novel is narrated by Athena, the 17-year-old daughter of the most successful tech genius the world has ever seen, it shifts among three timelines. In a small village in 1950s India, King Rao, who will eventually become the most powerful man in the world, longs for a sense of belonging while growing up on his Dalit family’s sprawling coconut plantation. In 1970s Seattle, newly arrived in the U.S. for graduate school, King invents the device that will change the world forever: the Coconut computer. And in some unspecified near-future, a single corporation holds sway over the world’s citizens, who are referred to as Shareholders, and an all-powerful Board of Directors has expanded to replace all world governments. Within this imagined future, Athena recounts the events that led to her being imprisoned for her father’s murder.

This future is effortlessly believable, with irreversible global warming known as “Hothouse Earth,” capitalism running rampant, an unstoppable megacorp similar to an Apple-Google hybrid, and a mysterious computer algorithm controlling all aspects of public and private life. Yet for all its brilliant scope, The Immortal King Rao is also an intimate character study, offering an unflinching, close-up look at the complicated bonds of families.

There are no simple relationships in this book, and few moral absolutes. King is a ruthless, larger-than-life genius, but he’s also a scared, confused kid, a doting father and a lonely 20-something adrift in an unfamiliar world. As Athena pores over her memories of King—and parses through his memoirs, gifted directly to her brain through his final invention—she begins to understand all of these interlocking and sometimes contradictory pieces of him. What emerges is a remarkably tender and continually unpredictable story about familial and romantic love, ambition and greed, alienation and revolution, and one man’s unquenchable desire to leave a lasting mark on the world.

Satirical and heartbreaking, packed with historical detail and flawless dystopian world building, The Immortal King Rao is a striking multigenerational epic that tackles—and offers a surprising answer to—that age-old question: What are we here for?

In her striking multigenerational epic, Vauhini Vara combines three distinct stories into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.
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There is no shortage of parenting books about how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel, The School for Good Mothers, will make you want to throw them all out the window.

Chan’s protagonist, 39-year-old Frida Liu, is kind, smart, hardworking and beautiful. She is also divorced from a cheating husband and the mother of 1-year-old Harriet, who is her world. Overworked, overwhelmed and unsupported, Frida has a very bad day that changes the course of her entire life.

This single moment of poor parenting lands Frida in a type of detention center, housed on a former university campus. Imagine The Breakfast Club, only it’s 365 days long, cut off from the rest of the world and filled with mothers who have been penalized by the government for making questionable choices. Right away, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime.

The plot thickens when the reform school starts seeming more and more like a prison. The guards, the uniforms, the rigorous daily classes on mothering, the therapy sessions, the robots (yes, robots)—it all seems so preposterous, so over-the-top. Maybe even humorous. That is, until you realize that it’s all grounded in our culture’s absurd expectations that mothers should be superheroes.

Throughout Frida’s story, Chan intertwines supporting characters who are just as interesting, thrilling and desperate as she is. You will catch yourself laughing one minute and shaking your fist the next, demanding that we change the narrative of contemporary motherhood.

If good writing, gripping plot and provocative questions about the world we live in are your priorities, then The School for Good Mothers needs to be on your reading list, whether or not you are a parent, or someday want to be.

There is no shortage of parenting books on how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel will make you want to throw them all out the window.
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Natashia Deón’s The Perishing is a dark, gritty and slow-burning mystery involving an immortal protagonist.

In Depression-era Los Angeles, a Black girl wakes up naked and alone in a downtown alleyway. She doesn’t know who she is, not even her name. Her body and mind are bruised but not broken, her origins a mystery. She’s placed with a Black foster family, and her foster mother suggests the name Louise, which gets shortened to Lou.

Lou may not remember her previous life, but her intelligence and talent are evident. She goes to high school and becomes a trailblazing journalist at the Los Angeles Times. But her feelings are divided; she vaguely thinks there might be a birth family out there for her, and a face continually haunts her, showing up in her sketches and dreams.

This is just one part of a story that hops between various time periods, including the future. As an immortal being, the woman known as Lou has lived many lives and has seen many things. Her storytelling is peppered with social observations and grim philosophical pronouncements about gender, race and the inhumanity of humankind. “We fight among ourselves in this village of earth,” she says, “wars to maintain elitism and its bounty, wars we should have never been fighting, where both winners and losers are traumatized and not just in war. But in love.”

The 1930s mystery of Lou’s family is a throughline in each era, as are recurrent themes of death and despair. As a new reporter, Lou’s beat is to report on the “tragic deaths of colored people,” and death touches her on a more personal level as well. In 2102, now named Sarah Shipley, the protagonist finds herself on trial. Acting as her own attorney, she pleads not guilty. “He got what he deserved,” she says. “I can defend all my lives. . . . And anyway, no woman kills unless in self-defense. If not in defense of a current wrong, for all the wrongs that came before without justice.”

Deón’s writing is beautiful, with a rat-a-tat quality, like brutal poetry mixed with fierce prose. The noirish plot is sometimes hard to penetrate, but fans of challenging and ambitious speculative fiction should be pleased.

Natashia Deón’s The Perishing is a dark, gritty and slow-burning mystery involving time travel and multiple lives.
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In the circumscribed dystopia of Laura Maylene Walter’s debut novel, Body of Stars, markings on girls’ bodies tell their futures, but one young woman learns to navigate in a new way—by using herself as constellation.

Celeste’s society operates under the rubric of a book titled Mapping the Future: An Interpretive Guide to Women and Girls, and the novel unfolds between excerpts and illustrations from this official guide. Hiding the markings is against the rules, even though the “changeling” markings on adolescents, before they finalize into adult markings, render the girls vulnerable to abduction. Girls are drugged and raped, and images of their markings are sold on black markets. Afterward, the girls are shunned.

The marks on teenager Celeste’s skin indicate that she will work with her brother, Miles, who has spent his whole life learning to read markings, a career forbidden to him because he’s a man. At first, Celeste is, like most girls, careful to fall in line with the plan laid out for her on her skin. But as she grows up, she questions the guide’s wisdom and wants to keep her markings private. By the time she is a changeling, Celeste commits to addressing the dangerous and too-common threat of abduction. When she receives her adult markings, she learns that her fate aligns with Miles’ in tragedy and hope.

The book’s fantastical premise is just distanced enough from reality to make Celeste’s story a tantalizing escape, and yet close enough that its implications are convincing. The characters are down-to-earth, average people, and both men and women face real gender challenges and work together to overcome them. The book’s palpable anger at injustice is met with love—a fierce, familial and able challenger. This is an exciting debut that fans of Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks will want to check out.

In the circumscribed dystopia of Laura Maylene Walter’s debut novel, Body of Stars, markings on girls’ bodies tell their futures, but one young woman learns to navigate in a new way—by using herself as constellation.

One must wonder while reading Fiona King Foster’s first novel, who is truly the captive? Is it fugitive Stephen Cawley, who spends the majority of the novel bound with rope and twist-ties, or is it protagonist Brooke Holland, who seems trapped by her past misdeeds? There is no easy answer, which makes the novel so beguiling.

The Captive is part adventure novel and part crime novel, set in a dystopian landscape where cellphones, the internet and vehicles are available to only certain people, particularly those in Federal-run cities. We slowly learn that Brooke is hiding a dark past from even her husband, Milo, and daughters, Holly and Sal. When she gets word that Stephen and his gang may be in the area, she immediately goes on high alert, certain that he has tracked her down and come to exact his revenge on her.

Brooke gets the drop on Stephen when he shows up at her rural cranberry farm, quickly overpowering him. Afraid the rest of his clan might not be far behind, she mobilizes her family, and together they set out on a punishing hike over rugged terrain, traversing more than a hundred miles to the nearest town, where she can turn Stephen over to the sheriff’s office and collect the reward.

Foster keeps the tension high as Brooke refuses to reveal why Stephen is so dangerous and why she is so hellbent on bringing him to justice. You have to admire Brooke’s determination and sense of concern for her family, but also Milo’s ability to keep it together as he tries to support Brooke and quell the kids’ simmering rebellion over her lack of answers. This initial stonewalling is, admittedly, a bit frustrating for readers as well, but as a credit to Foster’s writing, she effectively keeps readers in suspense all the way through.

One must wonder while reading Fiona King Foster’s first novel, who is truly the captive? Is it fugitive Stephen Cawley, who spends the majority of the novel bound with rope and twist-ties, or is it protagonist Brooke Holland, who seems trapped by her past misdeeds? There is no easy answer, which makes the novel so beguiling.

This ain’t no Louis L’Amour tale of the Wild West. Outlawed, the third novel by Anna North, is a gender-bending, genre-hopping yarn that’s part frontier novel, part Handmaid’s Tale and all ripsnorting fun.

North’s tale is set in a world in which women are expected to procreate and are persecuted if they don’t. Furthermore, a devastating flu-like illness has killed nine out of every 10 people. The women who survive and remain fruitful, it’s said, will be spared further sickness. Unfortunately, 18-year-old Ada, who assists her mother as a midwife, fails to bear a child for her husband after a year of marriage. Accused of witchcraft, she flees to a convent to atone for her “sin” but then learns of a place that may be more fitting, known as the Hole in the Wall.

It turns out to be less of a place and more of a cultlike gang of fellow outcast women. The leader of the group, who is regarded as “Not he, not she,” but simply the Kid, promises to build a nation of the “dispossessed, where we would not be barren women, but kings.” At first Ada is received with suspicion and skepticism, but when the Kid needs a doctor, her skills as a midwife and familiarity with medicines make her a useful addition to their clique. Before long, the Kid becomes a mentor figure to Ada, teaching her to ride, shoot and fight, while preaching the gospel of Christianity.

The novel takes its time in establishing the world and its characters, in particular Ada’s place in her new nonbinary world. But once the setup is complete, North picks up the pace with the Kid’s plan to rob a bank and, in doing so, take over an entire town. Ada becomes the tiebreaking vote among the gang in favor of the Kid’s plans, giving way to more customary Western shootout action against the sheriff who has been pursuing Ada from the start.

North, a renowned journalist who won a 2016 Lambda Literary Award for her novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, easily subverts expectations as her characters struggle to find their identites in a patriarchal world.

This ain’t no Louis L’Amour tale of the Wild West. Outlawed, the third novel by Anna North, is a gender-bending, genre-hopping yarn that’s part frontier novel, part Handmaid’s Tale and all ripsnorting fun.

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Catherine Hernandez’s sharp-eyed, queer dystopian fantasy is no gentle wake-up call. It is a blaring fire alarm and a call to arms against authoritarianism, white supremacy and transphobia. This surreal political nightmare unfolds in a near future in which an environmental disaster has ravaged the economy and amplified social tensions, clearing the way for a revanchist government to restore old-fashioned white patriarchal rule. It’s also the story of burgeoning awareness, resistance and uprising.

When Crosshairs begins, fascism is in full bloom in Toronto. With the police and military working arm in arm, the Others—people who are brown, Black, disabled or queer—are being rounded up and their property confiscated. Some are killed. The rest are forced into workhouses at gunpoint. The shift from subtle discrimination to outright oppression is swift, leaving many bewildered, as they can’t quite grasp what’s happening in their ostensibly liberal parliamentary democracy.

Readers experience the story primarily through Kay’s perspective. Kay stands smack-dab at the intersection of most of the identities targeted by this regime, and his initial objectives are simply, understandably, to stay alive and reunite with the love of his life, Evan. When the violence strikes too close to home, Kay and Evan temporarily separate so that Evan can secure his mother, with plans to meet in a safe place. As he waits in worry, Kay tells much of the story to his beloved in a “whisper letter,” writing, “My bed consists of two layers of cardboard boxes cut to fit in the corner of space behind the furnace, and a pile of Liv’s old winter coats, which I use as blankets and a pillow. The idea is, if I need to leave again and in a hurry, what remains behind won’t resemble a hideout for me: a Queer Femme Jamaican Filipino man. Anne Frank, minus the diary.”

As Kay indicates, the offenses carried about by the government have both literary and historical precedent. The events in Crosshairs feature both clear references and subtler parallels to the Holocaust. There are also echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Hernandez’s fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood. As in that feminist dystopian narrative, one of the first actions taken by the government against the Others is to restrict their finances without warning. The brutal shift to authoritarian rule is also blamed on terrorist action, just as in the earlier book.

At times, Hernandez’s prose style is gorgeously poetic. At other points, as when critiquing the authoritarian regime or the privilege of allies, the writing is openly didactic toward secondary characters who are little more than symbols and vehicles for argument. In these scenes, dialogue unfurls like political discourse rather than as urgent conversation about events happening around them. The subject absolutely merits impassioned appeal, but this aspect of the execution undermines its aim somewhat. Rhetorical appeals in fiction rely on two key things for effect: the reader’s absorption into the narrative and their identification with the protagonist. These phenomena encourage readers to let go of their defenses, effectively shutting down counterarguments, even when the story’s message conflicts with the reader’s prior beliefs. Kay is a brilliantly nuanced, fully formed character, both tender and brave, so identifying with him is easy. Where Crosshairs sometimes falls short, however, is in letting the reader fully engage and feel absorbed into the story. It’s hard not to see the forceful political appeal at work.

Catherine Hernandez’s sharp-eyed, queer dystopian fantasy is no gentle wake-up call. It is a blaring fire alarm and a call to arms against authoritarianism, white supremacy and transphobia.

Bea hunches over the earth, burying her stillborn daughter. She’s broken with grief, even for this child she did not want, whom she couldn’t envision bringing into such a hopeless world. But there’s no time to linger, as Bea lives in the wilderness. Animals are circling, hoping to find food for their own young, and Bea’s community is about to move on. She must redirect her attention to her living daughter, 8-year-old Agnes.

“They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living.”

In The New Wilderness, Diane Cook deepens her study of the relationship between humans and the earth, which she previously explored in the short story collection Man V. Nature. Bea and her husband, Glen, are part of a nomadic community in a wilderness state. Life in the City was untenable, especially after Agnes became so ill that Bea was prepared for her daughter’s death.

“The Community” starts out with 20 people, though its numbers fluctuate as members die and others procreate. There isn’t a lot of privacy—even young Agnes is aware of the adults’ copulation—and community members know they must stick together, even with those they dislike. Community members submit to being fingerprinted, having their cheeks swabbed and other tests. They’re being studied, but for what, they can’t say.

The wilderness feels dystopian to Bea, but it’s nearly all Agnes can recall. As they navigate a changing terrain and their own emotional landscapes, Cook incorporates the whole of human experience. The New Wilderness examines our relationships to place and to others as the Community considers its right to be on the land and whether others have any business sharing the space.

The New Wilderness examines our relationships to place and to others as the Community considers its right to be on the land and whether others have any business sharing the space.
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Is it possible to compose a satisfying sequel to a novel that’s become a modern classic? That’s a challenge in itself, but the difficulty goes up exponentially if said novel has also been turned into a blockbuster TV series. 

In her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which outlined a near future in which women’s freedom had been completely curtailed, celebrated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood leaps these hurdles with Olympian ease. The Testaments is a crowd-pleasing page turner. Atwood leans in to the attractions of both her original novel, with its Scheherazade-style narration, and the TV series, with its resistance-minded heroine. 

The Testaments is told in the first person by three narrators, allowing for a more panoramic view of Gilead than the cloistered Handmaid Offred could provide. The voice that flows with the most relish from Atwood’s pen, and that will be the most familiar to readers, is the Machiavellian Aunt Lydia. In Gilead’s patriarchal society, which categorizes women according to their function (Handmaids, for example, exist solely to bear children), Aunts are responsible for enforcing these roles. As a privileged member of an oppressed class, Aunt Lydia makes every decision with maintaining her status in mind. 

The other two narrators are young girls: one raised within Gilead’s walls by a powerful Commander and his wife, and the other raised in Canada as the child of Mayday resistance operatives. As their stories unfold, it becomes clear that the power to bring Gilead down may be in their hands. 

If a book must be groundbreaking to be a true classic, The Testaments can’t be ranked alongside its predecessor. Today, the divide between genre and literary fiction is more porous, and dystopian fiction is an established genre—in large part thanks to novels like The Handmaid’s Tale. But just as The Handmaid’s Tale was a response to the backlash against the women’s movements of the 1970s, The Testaments is equally of its time, drawing from contemporary politics in ways that resonate. Atwood remains a keen chronicler of power and the way status (or lack thereof) affects how it is leveraged, and seeing her explore that issue in Gilead once again is a pleasure.

Is it possible to compose a satisfying sequel to a novel that’s become a modern classic? That’s a challenge in itself, but the difficulty goes up exponentially if said novel has also been turned into a blockbuster TV series.  In her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which outlined a near future in which women’s […]

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