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All Speculative Fiction Coverage

With the passing of Ward Just in 2019, the literary world lost a fine writer who was comfortable grappling with the moral dilemmas surrounding the exercise of power and the lives of those who wield it. Journalist and novelist Elliot Ackerman’s fifth novel, Halcyon, suggests that he may be one of the inheritors of Just’s preoccupations. Blending alternative history with science fiction, Ackerman artfully explores several provocative issues that have become flash points in contemporary America.

The year is 2004, and the novel’s narrator, Martin Neumann, is a college history professor whose specialty is the American Civil War. He’s fitfully engaged in work on a book about the role of compromise in American life amid a society whose “grim national mood” he describes as “rage-ennui.” He’s spending his sabbatical ensconced in a comfortable guest cottage on the premises of the titular house in rural Virginia, owned by retired attorney and Washington power player Robert Ableson and his wife, Mary. 

In Ackerman’s imagined America, Al Gore edged out George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, following Bill Clinton’s resignation over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Although the country still sustained a terrorist attack on 9/11, there was no invasion of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden was killed in December 2001. But most startlingly, the public learned that the Gore administration quietly has been spearheading scientific research into the field of cryoregeneration—bringing humans back from the dead—and one of the participants in the experiment is none other than Martin’s host, Robert.

As he reemerges into the world five years after his death, following a year of social quarantine, Robert quickly becomes embroiled in current controversies, attempting to thwart a drive to remove a Confederate monument from the Gettysburg battlefield and defending a sexual harassment claim filed by one of his former subordinates. His revitalization also sparks a thorny legal dispute about the status of the inheritances received by the heirs of a person who was once dead but now is very much alive. Martin observes these events from the periphery, describing them with a detached but sympathetic curiosity.

Early in the novel, Martin asks what “were the minor events of today that would forever change the trajectory of the future?” Ackerman prefers challenging questions like these over convenient answers. With this choice, he leaves ample room for readers to engage in leaps of imagination as bold as the ones he’s undertaken. Anyone who accepts that invitation will come away from this ingenious story with fresh ideas of what past, present and future truly mean.

Elliot Ackerman prefers challenging questions over convenient answers, leaving ample room for readers to engage in leaps of imagination as bold as the ones he’s undertaken.
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Jennifer Neal’s debut novel is a haunting coming-of-age story, a melodic love letter to the language of music and a fierce, dark, rage-filled upbraiding of patriarchal violence. 

Gabrielle has the ability to change the color of her skin, a quality inherited from her mother, Tallulah. As a child, Gabrielle learns how to shift from her natural brown into vivid reds and blues and golds, as well as how to hide her skin tones from the world when needed. Chillingly, Gabrielle and Tallulah most often make their skin white to appease the family patriarch, a violent, abusive man who demands everything in the house, including his wife and daughter, be whitewashed.

When Gabrielle’s controlling father insists that she take a year off after high school to improve her piano playing and bulk up her resume for college applications, she finds an unexpected source of freedom and solace in her piano teacher, a queer woman named Dominique. Dominique and her mother, Niyala, fill their colorful home with love, music and food—so unlike the cold and fearful house where Gabrielle grew up. As Gabrielle spends more time with them, she slowly begins to face—and heal—her deep old wounds.

Notes on Her Color unfolds almost glacially at first, in a series of meandering scenes—some banal and domestic, others startling in their harsh depictions of violence. A series of events toward the end of the novel heightens the book’s emotional impact, and though the pacing may feel a bit dizzying to some readers, it also captures the often tumultuous whims of adolescence.

Neal’s prose is assured and evocative, and the magic of shifting skin tones enables a fascinating commentary on race, power, invisibility and desire. But where this novel truly shines is in its nuanced exploration of relationships between women. There’s a softness in the way Neal writes about Gabrielle and Dominique, and a hard-edged tenderness to how Dominique and Niyala bicker and tease. Gabrielle and Tallulah’s thorny, muddled relationship is described with prickly honesty: They are haunted by many of the same demons, and yet they struggle to see each other clearly. With small but devastating details, Neal paints a vivid picture of their close bond and, just as gracefully, depicts the ways the world frays it nearly to breaking. 

Notes on Her Color is about familial violence and the complex legacies of generational trauma. It’s also about queer joy and the hard, slow work of liberation. Musicians and artists will likely find it especially compelling—the women in this novel use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should look out for this debut.

Musicians and artists will likely find Jennifer Neal’s novel especially compelling—the female characters use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should read this debut.

In 1955, hundreds of thousands of women disappeared. They were oppressed mothers and wives. They were brides on their wedding days and switchboard operators harassed by their male managers. Later reports—at least, those that were publicly acknowledged—omitted a key detail about this mass disappearance. The women didn’t vanish; they became dragons.

As Kelly Barnhill writes in When Women Were Dragons, “people are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.” Just look at our own world, in which willful silence around the injustices of the past affects how history is taught (or isn’t taught) in American schools. The mass dragoning meets a similar fate, but despite her best efforts, Alex Green can’t forget: “I was four years old when I first saw a dragon. I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons. Perhaps this is how we learn silence—an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be.”

Alex’s Aunt Marla was one of the disappeared women. She was also one of the most influential people in Alex’s life; after all, Marla gave birth to Alex’s cousin and best friend, Beatrice. After Marla’s dragoning, Alex’s parents raised the two girls as sisters, but questions about Marla’s disappearance lingered at the edges of Alex’s consciousness.

Barnhill writes from Alex’s point of view as an adult, looking back on a remarkable period in history that coincided with her formative years. Through teenage Alex’s perspective, readers witness dragons marching with civil rights protesters—because if we aren’t all free, none of us are free. Some dragons seem drawn to one another, rather than to the men they left behind, in a way that young Alex accepts intuitively. Meanwhile, Alex examines her relationship with Beatrice while reflecting on their mothers’ complicated sisterhood. And interspersed throughout these events, Barnhill includes research documents that Marla left in Alex’s care, offering thoughtful context for this eerily familiar world.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill, bestselling and Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years. A close examination of the patriarchy and cultural inequalities, When Women Were Dragons is fantasy that is both political and personal.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years.
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In her second novel, Rachel Barenbaum (A Bend in the Stars) presents a 450-page epic spanning Philadelphia, Berlin, Moscow and the doomed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. At times, the novel is experimental, mixing imaginative science fiction with history, family drama, romance and political intrigue in a narrative structure as complex as the science in its backdrop. The story could’ve easily been told in graphic form (and indeed, comics play a large part in the story) and would make quite a film.

Atomic Anna moves among three generations of Soviet and American women, beginning at the moment when the Chernobyl reactor misfires on April 26, 1986. Scientist Anna Berkova, who seems to be asleep at the scene of the disaster, is caught in a time-travel ripple that sends her hurtling into the future. Anna’s genius-level scientific knowledge allows her to recognize the future world’s capabilities for devising a way of reversing time and remedying the man-made disaster in Chernobyl, but she is also given a horrifying look into the future.

In a parallel storyline—and there are many—Anna’s daughter, Molly, is on an odyssey through time, sent by Anna to 1950s Philadelphia as part of the exodus of Russian Jews fleeing the repressive Soviet system. Molly has no scientific abilities but is a born artist, and in a graphic series titled “Atomic Anna,” she tells a story based on the experiences of her mother and other researchers working on the nuclear program. Molly becomes a “wasted child” of the ’60s, falling prey to alcohol and drug abuse. She eventually gives birth to a gifted daughter, Raisa, who inherits her grandmother’s enormous scientific genius. 

Anna is a constant presence throughout the book. She constructs an actual time machine that enables her to journey between lives and decades in a frantic race to stop destruction and hold the generations of her family together. As her female descendants careen through time and space and across continents, deep and abiding love for family connections sustains them all.

Atomic Anna ultimately offers a utopian vision of salvation, but it does require slow and careful reading to get there. Big chunks of the novel fit together and then split apart. Hold on tight, as the space-time ride is challenging.

In light of recent events, namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and occupation of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear site, there will be some evaluation of Atomic Anna for its “timeliness.” But readers should keep in mind the words of 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne that, long ago, provided a template for reading Barenbaum’s innovative book. Hawthorne’s preface to The House of Seven Gables (1851) famously set up the distinction between “novels,” which depict probable true events from the “ordinary” human experience, and “romances,” which “present the truth under circumstances . . . of the writer’s own choosing or creation.” Romances were Hawthorne’s aim, as his stories intended to reveal universal truths through crafted circumstances and an intensified atmosphere—often symbolic, and always beyond the ordinary.

Just as the romance of epic literature is timeless, Atomic Anna’s demonstration of what may be learned about the human heart is also outside of time, and certainly beyond the ordinary.

Hold on tight, as the space-time ride in Rachel Barenbaum’s second novel is far beyond the ordinary.

It’s incredible that a work of speculative fiction first outlined over a decade ago would require a content warning in its review. But it must be said that the subject matter of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s ambitious debut, an elegiac collection of interconnected stories centering on a global plague that decimates humanity, is particularly challenging in our current climate.

Beginning with a group of explorers who unwittingly unleash a mysterious virus that had long lain dormant beneath Siberian ice, How High We Go in the Dark chronicles humanity’s battle against the “Arctic plague” in the following decades and the ways in which society adapts and changes. Each chapter moves forward in time and features a different protagonist, giving readers the chance to inhabit multiple lives, realities and perspectives over the course of the narrative.

Among the varied cast of characters are a worker at a euthanasia theme park for terminally ill children; a scientist who, while cultivating organs for human transplant, unintentionally creates a talking pig; a physicist who gives humanity a second chance at life by opening a stable wormhole in his head, which will allow for interstellar space travel; and the eventual crew that leaves Earth to search for a new planet to colonize.

Early chapters feel self-contained, but as the novel progresses, it is satisfying to observe the ways the sections interconnect with and amplify one another. When the full scale of Nagamatsu’s vision comes into focus in the final chapter, the narrative resonance on display is thrilling in a manner reminiscent of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.

Still, despite the fantastical elements woven throughout, there is no real way of escaping or softening the novel’s inherently bleak and brutal reality, in which death, loss, trauma and grief are at the forefront. And while Nagamatsu explores resilience, love and our primal need for connection, there’s no denying that the process is a sad one. Any glimpses of hope are generally fleeting and bittersweet.

It’s unfair to penalize a book for being too relevant and ringing too true, but for readers who turn to fiction as a means of escaping the stress and worries of real life, How High We Go in the Dark might be best saved for a later date. However, those courageous enough to sit with the novel’s exquisite sorrows will be rewarded with gorgeous prose, memorable characters and, ultimately, catharsis.

The narrative resonance on display in Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut is thrilling in a manner reminiscent of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.
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With the boundaries between literary and genre fiction increasingly eroding, it’s never been a better time to explore the in-between world of speculative fiction. And these two books, one a lyrical, modern fairy tale and the other a sprawling adventure story, have deeper concerns bubbling under their magical surfaces than you might expect.

Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is, on the surface, a lyrical modern-day fairy tale. In the opening chapters, Apollo Kagwa meets, marries and has a baby with librarian Emma Valentine. Apollo, who is haunted by his absentee father, throws himself into raising baby Brian with gusto. But Emma becomes more and more withdrawn, and what initially looks like post-partum depression turns out to be a growing suspicion that Brian is not a real baby. When Emma goes to terrible lengths to prove herself right and then disappears, Apollo decides to hunt her down and take revenge on behalf of their son.

For most of the novel, LaValle sits at a distance, intruding into Apollo’s mind only in moments of great feeling or to take stock, and otherwise letting the tale play out. His remove prevents the whimsy inherent to such a tale from overshadowing the darkness at its heart, and stylistically ties his novel to the Grimms’ fairy tales that inspired it. Like those stories, The Changeling can be read as literal, symbolic or both, with moments that function better the more one accepts the dream logic of the novel.

Just when the novel begins to look like a disappointingly shallow update—a modern setting with retrograde themes bubbling beneath it—LaValle uses the reader’s assumptions against them, laying the foundation for a more complex take on the changeling myth. As Apollo travels further into the underworld of New York and the novel moves ever deeper into outright fantasy, LaValle’s true concerns slowly unfurl.

At its core, The Changeling is a story about colonization and oppression, with a clear awareness of racial and gender dynamics that reveals the ugliness of assuming Western European superiority over immigrants like Apollo’s Ugandan mother, or male superiority over women. And it does it all in a gritty, chilly New York City where monsters and warrior women lurk in dark corners—an alternate city that for all its fairy-tale wonder feels startlingly immediate.

Careful and deliberate in its setup, LaValle’s novel is a magic trick that earns every bit of wonder. It’s so compelling that you won’t be able to look away, even at its darkest moments.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
, a 700-page collaboration between master of sci-fi Neal Stephenson and historical fiction writer Nicole Galland, is about a secret government organization that sets out to use magic and time travel against America’s enemies. It’s a setup that absolutely should not work. And yet somehow, D.O.D.O. is entertaining and sprightly, gleefully skipping through its fast-paced plot, scattering character grace notes and barbed critiques of government overreach with aplomb.

Historian Melisande Stokes is approached by military intelligence operative Tristan Lyons to help the U.S. government in a seemingly insane quest—to bring back magic. Galland and Stephenson ground the premise of the novel in realistic science, which leads to a few fairly dry passages but may be necessary given how very silly the concept could have been in lesser hands. In the world of D.O.D.O., magic was real until the 19th century, when witches’ power rapidly decreased until it completely sputtered out. In the present day, the United States government wants to build a machine that allows witches to practice magic—specifically time travel so that operatives can make changes in the past that affect the future.

Stephenson and Galland construct a web of fascinating personalities, all with divergent motivations and moralities. Due to a framing device in the beginning of the novel, it is clear that at some point one or multiple characters will betray Mel and Tristan, stranding them in different eras. However, the reader may be so distracted by the sheer fun of D.O.D.O.’s time-traveling exploits—which include jaunts to Elizabethan England, Constantinople on the eve of the Fourth Crusade and, in one instance, a spectacular joke that’s quite literally hundreds of pages in the making—that they could forget that it’s coming.

Stephenson and Galland seed character development and lay the groundwork for the novel’s many twists within these trips through time, using their immersive renderings and deepening character development to direct their readers’ attention away from the growing danger that Tristan and Mel invite into their own organization. And when the villain is eventually revealed, it’s a character so deliciously entertaining and engaging that readers may very well find themselves sympathetic to their cause.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson for The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

With the boundaries between literary and genre fiction increasingly eroding, it’s never been a better time to explore the in-between world of speculative fiction. And these two books, one a lyrical, modern fairy tale and the other a sprawling adventure story, have deeper concerns bubbling under their magical surfaces than you might expect.

We’ve got our eyes on you: These emerging writers have stopped us dead in our tracks with their unforgettable first novels, from epic historical adventures to imaginative family sagas.

By Rachel Khong

For fans of: Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Stephanie Danler, Nell Zink.

First line: “Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights.”

About the book: A 30-year-old woman returns home to help care for her father, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

About the author: The former executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine, Rachel Khong lives in the Bay Area.

Read it for: Hilarious, insightful observations that balance well with bittersweet memories.

By Molly Patterson

For fans of: Jane Smiley, Jane Hamilton, Min Jin Lee.

First line: “Hazel is driving and damn her children and damn her eyesight and who cares where she’s going.”

About the book: During the Boxer Rebellion in China, American missionary Addie Bell disappears, an event that will echo through the years and the lives of three other women.

About the author: Molly Patterson, who won the Pushcart Prize for her 2012 short story “Don’t Let Them Catch You,” is a native of St. Louis and lived in China for several years.

Read it for: The author’s dazzling ability to capture disparate settings, from a turn-of-the-century American farm to present-day China, and to weave together the stories of four strong women.

By Jennie Melamed

For fans of: Tales of chilling societies like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

First line: “Vanessa dreams she is a grown woman, heavy with flesh and care.”

About the book: An isolated cult society ruled by men begins to crumble when young girls rebel against their preordained and doomed futures.

About the author: A psychiatric nurse practitioner specializing in working with traumatized children, Jennie Melamed lives in Seattle with her husband and two dogs.

Read it for: The gripping, haunting portrayal of girls coming of age and questioning everything they’ve ever been taught.

By Sarah Schmidt

For fans of: Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, literary horror like Stephen King.

First line: “He was still bleeding.”

About the book: This fictional retelling of the Lizzie Borden murders is a domestic nightmare, unfolding through multiple perspectives to reveal a claustrophobic household laden with dread.

About the author: Sarah Schmidt lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her partner and daughter, and works at a regional public library.

Read it for: Staggeringly gorgeous, feverish prose and the thrill of deep, dark, gruesome detail.

By Ladee Hubbard

For fans of: Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Colson Whitehead.

First line: “He only came back because Melvin said he would kill him if he didn’t pay off his debt by the end of the week.”

About the book: Antiques dealer Johnny Ribkin journeys through Florida where he meets with other members of the Ribkin family, whose special abilities were used to further the civil rights movement.

About the author: Ladee Hubbard lives in New Orleans with her husband and three children. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read it for: An intimate portrait of a black family battling against segregation and inequality whose strength literally turns them into comic book-worthy superheroes.

By Linnea Hartsuyker

For fans of: Ken Follett, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin.

First line: “Ragnvald danced on the oars, leaping from one to the next as the crew rowed.”

About the book: A brother and sister fight to seize power and control of their own fate in the harsh, beautiful and unpredictable world of medieval Norway.

About the author: A descendant of the first king of Norway, Linnea Hartsuyker grew up in the woods of upstate New York and turned to writing after a decade working at internet startups.

Read it for: A spellbinding evocation of a long-lost world of magic and blood feuds, populated by characters riddled with doubt and human failing beneath their epic exteriors.


Khong photo credit Andria Lo.
Patterson photo credit Elaine Sheng.
Melamed photo credit Jennifer Boyle.

Schmidt photo credit Nicholas Purcell Studio.
Hubbard credit Vilma Samulionyte.
Hartsuyker credit Nina Subin.

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

We’ve got our eyes on you: These emerging writers have stopped us dead in our tracks with their unforgettable first novels, from epic historical adventures to imaginative family sagas.

When it comes to things that go bump in the night, are you a straight-shooting skeptic who wants the evidence behind the enigmas, or do you revel in tales of the supernatural? Whatever you fancy, we’ve got a grab bag of five new Halloween-appropriate reads. Leave the lamp on!

Our favorite mortician is back to tell us all about corpses! In From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty, the bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, explores the variety of ways cultures around the world deal with their dead. As she travels across the globe, stopping everywhere from Bolivia to Japan, Colorado to Spain, Doughty is a respectful observer of all that unfolds, even when confronted with death rites that appear strange to eyes accustomed to the Western practices of burial and cremation. In a remote region of Indonesia, families make sure their loved ones are never forgotten by regularly visiting their graves, retrieving the body to be washed and redressed, and filling them in on the latest goings-on. In the U.S., a movement to normalize more natural ways of handling the dead—sans chemicals, sans coffin—has gained traction. Yet each tradition from every culture Doughty observes is an expression of respect—what may seem ghoulish to one is the ultimate form of love for another.

In the mid-1800s, the Spiritualism movement and the belief in communication beyond the grave gripped American minds. In a time when technology—like telegrams and photography—was rapidly creating miracles, the ability to communicate with the dead didn’t seem too far-fetched. The Civil War further fanned the flames of Spiritualism, as grief-stricken families sought to speak to their loved ones one last time. But as the excitement of Spiritualism swept the nation, William Mumler was dubious. So when a self-portrait he took while alone in a photography studio showed a girl sitting beside him, he assumed it was a technical error. But then he realized that he recognized the girl in the photo. It was his cousin, who had died 12 years prior. Thus begins the bizarre story of photography, ghosts, grief and lies that plays out in Peter Manseau’s fascinating The Apparitionists. Mumler, aided by his wife, who called herself a healing medium, went on to create a business based on these “spirit photographs,” even taking a photo of the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln that showed her dead husband’s hands lovingly resting on her shoulders. In the battle between science and Spiritualism, science eventually won. But the desire to peek beyond the veil of the living may never die.

Aaron Mahnke’s “Lore” is one of the most popular podcasts out there. Of course, entertainment with a supernatural or mythological bent has always drawn listeners, but Mahnke’s talent and appeal come from his desire to put stories about creatures such as the wendigo and haunted dolls in context. He caters to both the Mulder and the Scully inside us all by presenting these fantastical tales alongside impeccable historical research. The first of a planned trilogy, The World of Lore: Monstrous Creatures follows a very similar format to the podcast—for fans, these stories may be a bit too familiar, but the uninitiated will find much to explore. Pick almost any mythical monster, and you’ll find it via organized chapters: For records of vampires, try “The Dead Returned”; you’ll find skin-crawling historical tales of doppelgängers in “Our Other Halves”; and if you’re into specters, try “Beyond the Veil.” Mahnke’s tongue-in-cheek asides make these tales great fun, and the book is wonderfully designed with Edward Gorey-inspired pencil illustrations. And for fans who just can’t get enough Lore, a television series is on its way to Amazon.

Literary horror fans know that there are few authors as deft at marrying pulse-pounding action and a sense of inescapable dread than Joe Hill. Fans of his masterful thrillers NOS4A2 and The Fireman will find plenty to love in his new collection of four short novels, Strange Weather. The unifying theme here is the sheer terror that the unapologetic forces of nature can instill in us, but Hill cleverly sets the detached whims of the weather against the calculated, deliberate actions of sinister individuals. In “Loaded,” a shooter attacks a shopping mall while a wildfire propelled by wind decimates thousands of acres outside. “Rain” follows a group of survivors in Boulder, Colorado, after an apocalyptic rainfall of “needle-sharp amber glass . . . hard as quartz.” With each story spanning around 100 pages, this is the perfect collection to split up into a few satisfying chunks as we creep closer to Allhallows Eve.

“Just because you can’t see a thing doesn’t mean she isn’t there.” But who is she, and what is she? When she was alive, she was Emma Rose, an Irish immigrant who found her way to a small logging town in Northern California. But even now, after her death, she still feels like Emma, though she’s more of a spectator now—taking in the church bells each morning, the seals on the shore and the scent of wildflowers on Evergreen Hill. Emma has been lingering in her mortal home known as the Lambry House for 100 years, and she’s determined to remain there (much to the horror of the home’s new residents), even when a supernatural hunter comes to forcibly scrape her out. M Dressler paints a moving, chilly portrait of a woman’s afterlife in The Last to See Me, perfect for fans of Lauren Oliver’s quietly haunting ghost story Rooms.


This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When it comes to things that go bump in the night, are you a straight-shooting skeptic who wants the evidence behind the enigmas, or do you revel in tales of the supernatural? Whatever you fancy, we’ve got a grab bag of five new Halloween-appropriate reads. Leave the lamp on!

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Acclaimed author Amy Bloom dramatizes the love that blossomed between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena “Hick” Hickok in her well-crafted novel White Houses. In 1945, following a separation of eight years, Hick pays Eleanor a visit. Franklin Roosevelt is dead, and World War II is nearing an end. The reunion sparks memories for Hick, who looks back on her life. After a rough upbringing in South Dakota, she becomes a successful journalist, covering politics for The Associated Press. She meets Eleanor in 1932, and their connection intensifies over time. Hick moves into the White House and eventually works for the Roosevelt administration. As chaotic political events unfold, the love between the two women proves to be a lasting force. Skillfully mixing fact and fiction, Bloom creates a poignant portrait of the pair—two kindred spirits who were ahead of their time. Fans of historical novels will find much to savor in Bloom’s moving book.

Ali Smith follows up her acclaimed 2017 title, Autumn, with Winter, the second entry in her series of season-inspired novels. It’s Christmas 2016, and Art is headed to Cornwall, where his mother, Sophia, awaits him and his girlfriend—with whom he just broke up. So when Art meets Lux, a lesbian Croatian woman, he pays her to pretend to be his ex, and they arrive at Sophia’s for what turns out to be an unforgettable holiday. The presence of Sophia’s radical, estranged sister, Iris, creates friction as the foursome debate Brexit and the state of politics in America. Past events come into play through scenes of Iris’ involvement in protests and the first meeting between Sophia and Art’s father. Smith employs a daring narrative style in this book that is at once a powerful family novel and a shrewd exploration of the Trumpian era. Readers will be eager for the next installment in Smith’s compelling series.

Award-winning novelist Louise Erdrich, known for her realistic portrayals of American Indian life, moves into the realm of speculative fiction with Future Home of the Living God. Twenty-six and pregnant, Cedar Hawk Songmaker is living in a dying world. Instead of progressing, evolution appears to be moving in reverse: Plants have a prehistoric quality, and pregnant women are bearing primitive infants. Cedar was adopted by a kind, forward-thinking couple in Minneapolis, but she hopes to connect with her Ojibwe birth mother. Presented as a letter written by Cedar to the child she carries, this haunting tale portrays America as a police state in which pregnant women are imprisoned. When Cedar is captured and held in a hospital, she must fight to survive. Convincingly rendered and filled with suspense, this futuristic tale is a remarkable departure for Erdrich. Her storytelling skills are on full display in this all-too-resonant narrative.


This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

We know it's a cliché, but it's true—this month's book club picks couldn't be more timely.
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Reinvention and apprehension abound in two surreal new short story collections.

In the introduction to her new collection A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, Kat Howard declares her ambition to “hang a skin of myth on the skeleton of the strange.” If you’re inclined to overlook this phrase as a bit of airy lyricism, don’t. The bone first pokes through the mythical skin in “Translatio Corporis,” in which a young girl’s slow physical decline gives life and dimension to a city of her own creation. By “The Speaking Bone,” a meditation on an imagined island manned by bone-divining oracles, the physical structure and its mythic overlay are indistinguishable. Like the protagonist of another strange short story, Ray Bradbury’s “Skeleton,” Howard is obsessed with the human frame and returns to it again and again.

It’s a fitting motif for a writer as preoccupied by the construction of myth as by its content. “When I wrote my versions of these stories,” Howard writes, “I wanted to . . . break them out of the frames they had been displayed in.” The opening story, “A Life in Fictions,” gives the reader a taste of her intention, depicting a woman whose reality is profoundly altered when she becomes a recurring protagonist in her boyfriend’s writings. The fascinating novella “Once, Future,” published here for the first time, sees an English project turn sinister when college students find themselves helplessly reenacting the fall of King Arthur. (Fans of the short form may wonder if the knowing “Professor Link” heading the experiment is really veteran slipstream writer Kelly Link.) And “Returned,” which is more contemporary thriller than ancient epic, throws a wrench into the Eurydice myth by asking whether our heroine really wanted to be resurrected.

Howard’s myths are independent sallies, some mutually exclusive, not all effective. Her evocation of Catholic imagery sometimes seems as surface-level as a Sacred Heart on the wall of a tattoo parlor. (It’s at its best in “The Calendar of Saints,” which explores doubt by alluding to real hagiography.) Further, her attempts to shatter the frame of myth fail to contend with the fact that such subversion is a common frame in itself. The last story, fittingly titled “Breaking the Frame,” self-consciously describes a gallery of feminist reinterpretation (think Beauty holding the head of the Beast) that would be at home in any college art building. But if Howard’s ringing challenges aren’t always surprising, her more wholehearted investigations may drag you in their wake. The most moving tale in the collection, “All of Our Past Places,” keeps its myth at the edges, using fantastic cartography to explore the history of a longstanding friendship.

If Cathedral speaks for the adolescent rebelling against the prescriptions of its elders, Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds is decidedly grown-up, its wildest surrealism rife with parental anxiety. (The fetching abstraction of its translated title doesn’t quite capture the violent punch of the Spanish Pájaros en la boca, “Birds in the mouth”—a fitting header for a story detailing a father’s struggle to accept a teenaged daughter’s bizarre appetite.) In “Preserves,” a young couple discovers an unusual way to put an unplanned pregnancy on hold. No harm is done to the child, but the success of their trick can’t deliver them from the reeking guilt they feel at having played it. “On the Steppe” hits the opposite end of the adult terror spectrum, dealing with the pain of infertility by taking baby fever to feral extremes. Between these points lie a breathtaking range of misgivings and inadequacies, from a lethal mistake comprehended a heartbeat too late in the nightmarish “Butterflies” to a child’s misunderstanding of a broken marriage in “Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House” to a haunting reverberation of the Pied Piper in “Underground.”

Readers may relate to the hearer of the latter tale, who, abandoned without an ending, squints at the landscape, “searching for some revelatory detail.” Schweblin doesn’t offer that easy solution, preferring to dispense discomfort. Her art lies in setting up a problem and letting the reader sit with it. “The Size of Things” gets to the bitter heart of onlooker helplessness, and the title story is a particular highlight, asking (but not quite settling) the question of how far parental love can go.

Reinvention and apprehension abound in two surreal new short story collections.

Feature by

Speculative fiction allows the constants of our reality to change, giving readers a glimpse of how those shifts might affect their own lives. This trio of novels use time travel and prophesy to craft compelling, all-too-human stories.

In Kate Mascarenhas’ superb debut novel, The Psychology of Time Travel, four female scientists in 1967 discover the secret of time travel. At the news conference announcing their discovery, however, one of the women, Barbara, has a mental breakdown that threatens to undermine the value of their discovery. To protect their work, the other three scientists exile Barbara from the project. 

Jumping to 2017, Barbara, now a grandmother, receives a newspaper clipping of a murder that will occur in the future. Her granddaughter, Ruby, is convinced that one of the scientists is trying to warn Barbara of her impending murder. Ruby must follow this clue from the future to unravel the mystery and save her grandmother.

Mascarenhas conjures a world in which time travel not only exists but also has its own legal system, currency and lingo. She meticulously weaves the stories of multiple female characters as they—both older and younger versions of themselves—jump back and forth in time to create a delightfully complex, multilayered plot. To all of this, Mascarenhas adds a thoroughly satisfying murder mystery. The Psychology of Time Travel heralds the arrival of a master storyteller. 

Mike Chen’s Here and Now and Then provides another enjoyable venture into time travel. In this novel, Kin Stewart is caught between two worlds separated by almost 150 years. Originally a time-traveling agent with the Temporal Corruption Bureau in 2142, Kin becomes stranded in 1996 when a mission goes awry. Breaking bureau rules, Kin takes a job in IT and starts a family as his memories of 2142 degrade. When an accident alerts a retriever agent to return Kin to 2142, where only two weeks have passed, Kin must confront his divided loyalties between his adolescent daughter, who may be eliminated as a timeline corruption, and the family he cannot remember in 2142. 

Although Chen’s novel is set in a futuristic world, it is ultimately about the bond between a father and his daughter. While Kin’s dilemma is one that readers will never face, they will be drawn in by the human questions at its heart.

In Sharma Shields’ The Cassandra, young Mildred Groves has the gift of prophesy—and the curse that no one wants to heed her warnings. Mildred escapes an abusive home and takes a job as a secretary at Washington’s Hanford research facility in 1945, where workers are sworn to secrecy as scientists create “the product”—plutonium for the first atomic bombs. At first, Mildred is happy to be a part of something so big and important. However, as the product comes closer to completion, she begins to have nightmarish visions of the destruction that will be wrought on the people of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Hanford facility. She feels compelled to warn those in power, even as her own well-being disintegrates. But to what end? 

Shields has written a brilliant modern retelling of the classic myth of Cassandra. While this is not an easy novel to read, as the imagery becomes increasingly gruesome, it is a pleasure to be immersed in a myth so deftly woven into an apt historical context. The Cassandra should not be missed by those interested in Greek mythology, the Hanford project or beautifully crafted stories. 


This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Speculative fiction allows the constants of our reality to change, giving readers a glimpse of how those shifts might affect their own lives. This trio of novels use time travel and prophesy to craft compelling, all-too-human stories. In Kate Mascarenhas’ superb debut novel, The Psychology of Time Travel, four female scientists in 1967 discover the […]

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