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All Literary Fiction Coverage

Like her hit 2020 debut, Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy’s second novel spirals into the recesses of the heart, exploring climate change and human behavior through the story of one woman’s fraught life.

In Once There Were Wolves (8.5 hours), Inti keeps more company with animals than with people. Her work involves releasing wolves into the Scottish Highlands, a controversial venture that arouses suspicion—and then violence—from farmers. The wolves’ presence will allow forests to regrow by forcing deer to keep moving, but the local villagers can’t see beyond the threat to their lives and livestock. Having grown up between a hardline, back-to-the-land father and a mother whose professional expertise is in domestic abuse, Inti’s nurtured cynicism competes with the kindness and goodness she experiences from her sister and a handful of other close relationships.

In the audiobook, master voice actor Saskia Maarleveld keeps the book’s intrigue high. Her breathless delivery captures Inti’s sensitivity and other characters’ misgivings of one another, heightening the tension between domesticity and wildness. Maarleveld also drives home the book’s global expanse through a medley of expert accents, including Canadian, Australian and Scottish.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Once There Were Wolves.

Master voice actor Saskia Maarleveld keeps the intrigue high in Charlotte McConaghy’s second novel, which spirals into the recesses of the heart.

Taking on questions of race, sexual identity or class in a work of barely 200 pages would be an ambitious project for any writer. Asali Solomon’s second novel, The Days of Afrekete, tackles all three with insight, wit and grace—a tribute to her considerable talent.

At the core of the novel, whose title refers to a character in Audre Lorde’s Zami, is the story of Liselle Belmont and Selena Octave, two Black women who meet at Bryn Mawr College in the 1990s and enter into a brief, intense relationship; each ascribes the fault for its end to the other. Even at a distance of some 20 years, it’s clear that neither woman has been able to shed the memory of their four months as lovers, scenes of which Solomon sketches in vivid, economical flashbacks.

As their college years recede, Liselle’s and Selena’s lives proceed in opposite directions. Selena undergoes a series of psychiatric hospitalizations and moves through a succession of downwardly mobile jobs. Liselle, in contrast, marries Winn Anderson, a white lawyer from a wealthy Connecticut family whose primary campaign against an incumbent Black state representative has ended in defeat, a disappointment compounded by Winn’s entanglement with an unscrupulous real estate developer that has made him the subject of an FBI investigation.

Most of the novel’s present-day action unfolds at a dinner party hosted by Liselle and Winn at their 150-year-old home in an upscale neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia. The racially mixed gathering, intended to thank Winn’s core supporters, subtly dissects Liselle’s profound unease over the state of her marriage alongside her almost comical discomfort in the presence of Xochitl, the highly educated daughter of Liselle’s Latina cleaning woman.

Solomon doesn’t offer a tidy resolution to the story, but her novel doesn’t demand one. The Days of Afrekete’s strength lies in its well-drawn characters and its realistic portrait of how old desires sometimes refuse to remain buried.

With insight, wit and grace, Asali Solomon’s second novel offers a realistic portrait of how old desires sometimes refuse to remain buried.

Readers first fell in love with Lucy Barton in Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, a gentle reflection on the titular character’s life and parental influence during an extended hospitalization. In Oh William!, it’s been years since Lucy left her first husband, William. But despite the many affairs he conducted during their marriage and her own affair that prompted her departure, they remain each other’s confidants.

As the novel opens, Lucy has been widowed for a year after the death of her second husband, David. She explores her grief throughout the book, but her devotion to William also demands her attention. As in each of Strout’s novels about Lucy, her narration is nearly a stream of consciousness. The novel’s lack of chapter breaks reinforces its interior nature and invites readers to immerse themselves in Lucy’s ruminations.

As Lucy contemplates her lasting bond with William, she considers their marriage and the ways their relationship has affected their daughters. She also takes the reader through the pair’s misadventures in their later years. It isn’t always clear whether Lucy likes or respects her ex-husband, but her tie to him is unbreakable, her curiosity about him unwavering: “I wondered who William was. I have wondered this before. Many times I have wondered this.”
Likewise, William turns to Lucy, rather than to his current wife, when his sleep is disrupted by night terrors involving his late mother. And it’s Lucy he seeks when he confronts a secret his mother kept from him.

Pulitzer Prize winner Strout is a master of quiet, reflective stories that are driven more by their characters than by events. Her fans will find plenty to love as Lucy and William set out to explore his family history. At each step, Lucy contemplates her relationships to the people around her. Though she often feels invisible, her ties to William, their daughters and the strangers they encounter remind her that she has a place in the world.

Strout is a master of reflective stories that are driven more by characters than by events. Her fans will find plenty more to love about Lucy and William.

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s novel Reprieve, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.” On its surface, Reprieve is about four ordinary people who venture into a haunted house for the chance of a monetary reward. You could say it’s a story adjacent to The Haunting of Hill House, but even more disturbing. 

Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a full-contact escape room, in which staff are allowed to physically engage with contestants. A group of participants enters and passes through several “cells” in the old mansion, collecting a number of envelopes in the allotted time and then moving to the next cell. If things get too intense, a member of the group can shout, “Reprieve!” at which point the game and its torment ends, though no one wins the prize money. It’s all perfectly safe, according to John, the man who runs the haunted house.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Leave the lights on! We picked seven books for Halloween reading, rated from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.

Unlike Hill House, Quigley House is not a nefarious entity, but something or someone within it is. Is it John, or perhaps one of the actors hired to play ghouls and freaks? Maybe it’s the folks responsible for the house’s ghastly special effects, if they are indeed special effects. Or is it someone among the latest group of thrill-seekers who have taken on the challenge of this grisly obstacle course?

Local college student Bryan is the leader of this group of contestants. Jaidee, his roommate, is an entitled Thai student who developed a crush on his English teacher, Victor, and followed him all the way to Nebraska. Victor and his fiancée, Jane, round out the foursome. We also meet Kendra, Bryan’s cousin and an avid fan of horror, who works for John. And though he’s not a member of the group, we also learn about Leonard, whose first action toward the woman he’s attracted to is to mow her down (accidentally or on purpose?) with a shopping cart. 

There are many ways to look at a book with so many flavors of madness. It could be a study of the effects of thwarted desire on people who are basically incapable of empathy, which we see in Jaidee and Leonard. John goes out of his way to befriend Kendra, to get her to enlist Bryan to endure a whole lot of trauma for a chance to win what, in the end, isn’t a whole lot of money. After all, there aren’t that many African Americans in Lincoln, and Quigley House needs the press that would follow Brian’s win.

As the book’s horrifying events unfold, Reprieve can be read as a commentary on, or even an allegory of, American racism. Are we fighting to succeed in a fun house whose rewards aren’t worth the pain? As a study of systems of power at their most perverse, Reprieve is a horror story, certainly, but it’s not as scary as it is deeply disturbing.

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s harrowing novel, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.”

“Part of our friendship, of any relationship really, is the tacit agreement to allow a generous latitude for flaws and grievances.” These are the words of Riley Wilson, speaking about her lifelong bond with her best friend, Jenny Murphy. But while this agreement has worked for them in the past, it won’t anymore. 

In We Are Not Like Them, written by co-authors Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, we meet Riley and Jenny as their friendship is tested as never before: Riley is a Black journalist covering the recent murder of a Black teenage boy by a white police officer, who turns out to be Jenny’s husband, Kevin. 

In chapters that alternate between Riley’s and Jenny’s points of view, we begin to understand each woman’s perspective on events. Through Riley, we see how traumatizing it is for a Black journalist to cover police-involved killings, and we see her unease in broadcasting other people’s trauma in order to further her career. Through Jenny, we understand the private fears of a police officer’s spouse and the relentless pressure on cops and their families to “back the blue,” no matter what. 

While We Are Not Like Them is fundamentally about the loyalties and betrayals among their communities—and each other—Riley and Jenny are not caricatures. Pride, a Black writer, editor and publishing veteran, and Piazza, a white journalist and podcast host, have written these women as complex, layered people who do their best to navigate infertility, shame, absent maternal figures and the generational trauma wrought by racist violence. 

Hopelessness is certainly a theme in the novel, especially in the epilogue that centers on Tamara, the murdered boy’s grieving mother. But We Are Not Like Them is ultimately about the inherently hopeful act of having grace when the people we love make mistakes—even terrible ones. This is an excellent book club selection or a starting point for interracial friend groups or families to talk candidly about race. 

Hopelessness is certainly a theme in We Are Not Like Them, but it’s ultimately about having grace when the people we love make mistakes—even terrible ones.

Award-winning Lebanese American author Rabih Alameddine’s sixth novel, The Wrong End of the Telescope, is as complex and multifaceted as its narrator. The story is a shape-shifting kaleidoscope, a collection of moments—funny, devastating, absurd—that bear witness to the violence of war and displacement without sensationalizing it.

Mina Simpson, a transgender Lebanese American doctor, arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos to volunteer at a refugee camp. It’s the closest she’s been to Lebanon since she left her home country decades ago, and the first time she’s seen her brother (who flies in to visit her) in years. On Lesbos, Mina meets a family from Syria and becomes close with the family’s mother, who is dying of cancer and whom Mina steps in to help however she can.

As Mina struggles to make sense of the crisis unfolding before her, she recounts the winding path of her life: her Lebanese childhood, her experiences in medical school in the U.S. and her comfortable middle age in Chicago with her wife. Moving between past and present, the novel unfolds in short chapters with whimsical titles that perfectly encapsulate Mina’s dry humor, wisdom and compassion (e.g., “When You Don’t Know What to Say, Have a Cookie”). 

Interspersed with these chapters are sections addressed to a gay Lebanese writer whose work has had a profound impact on Mina’s life, and who seems to be a reflection of Alameddine himself. “Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative,” Mina tells the unnamed writer in one of these chapters, an unsettling truth that Alameddine embraces in this novel. He refuses to offer easy solutions to impossible situations; his characters do not learn lessons. This is not a novel about transformation. Its strength lies in its slipperiness, its thoughtful engagement with the messy in-betweens and the harsh but revelatory realities of liminality.

Mina, her fellow volunteers and the refugees they meet are all seeking something: safety or wholeness, a new home, old friends, a different narrative through which to understand their lives. The Wrong End of the Telescope is a gorgeously written, darkly funny and refreshingly queer witness to that seeking.

“Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative,” Rabih Alameddine writes in his latest novel, a slippery tale of seeking and messy in-betweens.

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It seems that more and more books, films and TV shows feature relationships between mothers and children who despise each other and seek each other’s slow death. In Zoje Stage’s debut novel, you can’t blame put-upon Suzette Jensen for wanting to be free from her monstrous daughter, Hanna. Indeed, by page five you’re praying for the little horror to eat it in the worst way possible.

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