Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
Lauren Redniss’ latest book is an odd duckling among graphic novels. Rather than following any kind of paneled format, it contains passages of text interspersed with vibrantly-colored photogravure etchings and atmospheric pastel drawings that take up the entire surface of the page, resulting in an effect that is more like a book of hours than Peanuts. Those who enjoyed Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain will find an evocative companion in Thunder & Lightning.
In Thunder & Lightning, Redniss seeks to depict how weather has shaped our world and how we have adapted in a constant attempt to better predict and manipulate the weather. She has gathered the research of a wide variety of historians, scientists and environmental activists, and heavily peppers the text with their quotations, always opting for clear, plain-spoken statements from the mouths of experts rather than a summary of their findings. From this, fantastic stories emerge — of how the US military experimented in making their own rain during the Vietnam War, of hidden utopias in an Icelandic archipelago covered in permafrost year round, of the outdoor air conditioning engineered to cool the Kaaba in Mecca — along with poignant anecdotes of the natural disasters that are still fresh in our memories — Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Irene, the Chilean mine collapse, the summer wildfires in California. Through these tales, one becomes infected with Reniss’ wonder towards the sky and what it might bring, for even as we deepen our understanding of the climate and learn to create clouds, the forecast remains mysterious.
The cover of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals leaves little doubt that this is a novel about partying. In fact, most of the book involves drinking and debauchery in engrossing detail. But what isn’t readily apparent from the cover is that this novel is a moving love letter to our best friends and their lasting impact on our lives. It also begs the question: Can our best friends and our significant others peacefully co-exist in the biggest spaces of our hearts?
Laura is engaged to Jim, a concert pianist. When Jim drops the bombshell on Laura that he’s stopping drinking forever, Laura tries to temper her partying ways. She is largely unsuccessful thanks to Tyler, her roommate and best friend. Tyler is a one-woman tornado of hilarious in-jokes, jaw-dropping nerve and quite a recreational drug habit. Laura finds it difficult to resist Tyler’s siren song of endless good times and, although her upcoming wedding hangs in the balance, she finds her late-night capers with her best friend a hard habit to break.
Animals explores the definition of what it means to emerge into one’s 30s and more solid adulthood. Laura’s choices about her career as a struggling writer, her relationship with Jim and her friendship with Tyler are in a state of flux; instead of moving forward, she refuses to move anywhere. This is not a novel for the squeamish, but one for those who can relate to Laura’s struggle in realizing that in her desperation to keep the party going, she may be erasing her best times ahead. Once we get on with the societal expectations of marriage and family, is the party truly over?
At the same time brash and literary, Unsworth’s writing style is an exciting treat for those looking for something a little different in 2016.
Paradise City by Elizabeth Day introduces us to four characters leading seemingly disparate lives: a businessman, a journalist, a maid and a widow.
Howard Pink owns a successful fashion brand in London. He immerses himself in his work and various sexual escapades to distract himself from his inward grieving — his 19-year-old daughter Ada went missing years ago, and at this point he has no choice but to presume she is dead. Stories of Howard Pink’s personal life are often splashed all over the pages of various London newspapers, as journalists are eager to show a glimpse into the tragic self-made millionaire’s life.
Esme Reade is one such journalist, though after years of unfulfilling work she lacks the motivation and passion she once had for her job — until her editor gives her a rare opportunity to take Howard Pink out for a formal lunch. Esme unexpectedly connects with Howard and learns that other journalists have barely scratched the surface of his tragic personal life.
Beatrice Kizza is a maid at the hotel where Howard Pink is staying. She fled her home in Uganda out of fear of being persecuted for her homosexuality. However, when she is assigned to clean Howard’s room, their interaction causes her to reevaluate her life, her misery and the opportunities she could take advantage of.
Recently widowed Carol Wetherington finds the loneliness unbearable. Carol wants to set up her daughter, a single mother, with her next door neighbor Alan in the hopes that her daughter will find the same love and companionship she once had. When Alan asks Carol if she can water his plants while he is out of town, she finds that he actually is far from the type of person her daughter should be with, and makes a discovery that changes the course of her grieving entirely.
Day weaves her characters’ stories together with universal themes of love, loss, fulfillment and redemption, showing innate connections of human experience that surpass outward appearance. Despite the differences in Howard's, Esme's, Beatrice's and Carol’s backgrounds, their stories each have a similar emotional resonance to them. Day’s character-driven novel has light mystery undertones, and becomes steadily more engrossing from start to finish.
Looking for a good mystery filled with offbeat characters and British wit? Then you must read The Man on the Washing Machine by Susan Cox. Winner of the 2014 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Competition, this story hooks you from the very first page and continues to keep you guessing to the very end. Not dark or brooding in the least, this story is lighthearted and definitely fun to read.
Life in the quaint San Francisco neighborhood of Fabian Gardens, with its friendly neighbors and shared private garden, is just what Theo Bogart needs. So she thinks. Having fled her socialite life in England after a family tragedy, Theo lives under an assumed name as a partner in a toiletries shop. Just what the doctor ordered — life filled with the mundane tasks of running a business, while enjoying the company of her neighbors. Normal people with normal problems, including a jewelry designer with thinning hair, an overconfident surgeon, a depressed bakery owner and a garden designer obsessed with compost. But then local handyman Tim Callahan falls to his death from a third story window. Was he pushed? Why and by whom? Then, a man mysteriously appears on Theo’s washing machine. Who is he? Why did he not attack her? Odd behavior for an intruder, to say the least. As Theo becomes obsessed with finding this mysterious man, yet another murder occurs. Meanwhile, her business partner disappears and strange crates belonging to her business emerge. What is going on in Fabian Gardens? How involved are Theo’s friends? Who can she trust? Perhaps she is not the only one with a secret.
Fans of Agatha Christie novels and British comedies will enjoy Cox’s debut offering. She fills her pages with characters who keep you guessing and wit galore. Figuring out the mystery is only half the fun of this read. Learning about the residents of Fabian Gardens is definitely the other half.
In his engrossing new novel The Great Forgetting, James Renner takes us on a part sci-fi, part-conspiracy, part-thriller journey with Jack Felter, a 30-something-year-old history teacher who tries to have as little to do with his family and hometown as possible. Jack doesn’t want to see his father, who is suffering from severe dementia. He feels guilty for not helping his older sister, who has become their father’s primary caretaker. Most of all, he doesn’t want to see his ex-girlfriend Sam, who just dumped him for his childhood best friend Tony.
However, when Jack gets a phone call from his sister saying that their father’s dementia is getting even worse, Jack feels that he has no choice but to return home and help out. Once there, Jack finds some surprising news: not only are Sam and Tony no longer together, but Tony has gone missing and is presumably dead. Sam refuses to believe the police’s claims that Tony committed suicide and pleads for Jack’s help in solving the mystery. Sam claims that Tony was behaving oddly just before he went missing, and through looking at Tony’s journals and notes as a psychologist, Sam realizes that Tony may have been more than just a little influenced by one of his last patients. Jack investigates further and decides to meet with this patient, a 15-year-old teenage boy who believes the government has been brainwashing citizens and altering their memories to forget certain historical events they would rather keep secret.
Through Tony’s journal entries, his meetings with Tony’s last patient and flashbacks to his childhood, Jack slowly starts learning about the conspiracies Tony believed and starts wondering if the impossible is actually possible. If the government was brainwashing us in an elaborate conspiracy to make us forget what would have otherwise been a major historical event, who would be able to confirm or deny it? How much can we even trust our own memories, when our brains can be so selective about what to remember and what to forget? Renner’s book is fast-paced and intriguing as it answers these questions, seamlessly blending history, psychology and science fiction into one compelling read.
A Wild Swan is Michael Cunningham’s new collection of reimagined fairy tales, and though they may look familiar at first glance, Cunningham offers a completely new angle. He examines the flat characters who have been doing the same things for centuries, and gives them motives, neuroses and secrets.
In the chapter “Beasts,” Cunningham offers up a very different interpretation of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, Beauty is not some impossibly selfless ingénue. It is her vanity, her sense that she is too good for her village, and in fact her family, that leads her to the beast’s castle. She believes that anything that happens to her there can be no worse than the tedium of her daily chores and the dull assortment of village men she is expected to choose a husband from. When she finds that the beast means to ignore her, she becomes bored with life at the enchanted castle. Released, she goes back to her village only to find that everyone believes she has actually been away to hide some sort of disgrace, and she is treated like a social pariah. This is truly what makes her decide she can love the beast. Once transformed, we discover the beast hadn’t been the unfortunate victim of a horrible curse by an unreasonable old shrew either.
Cunningham peels back the layers behind each character to offer up a completely different kind of tale for modern readers. He delves a little deeper, beyond the happily ever after and into the hasty marriages, the toll a wish granted can take and the occasional need for a curse.
Like the originals by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, there is an enchanting combination of hope and horror in each tale. The stories take place in a hybrid of folktale villages and the modern world. The characters face old-world problems with modern sensibilities to delightful effect.
The prologue, aptly titled “Dis. Enchant,” reminds readers that at least a part of fairy tales’ timeless appeal is the cruel justice in them. They are often about terrible things happening to those who have been too lavishly blessed with beauty or good luck. In that sense, there is a certain kind of balance restored when these characters are cursed with wings and whatnot. This collection is wickedly fun and will appeal to fans of fairy tales or simply well told short stories.
The illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are a perfect accompaniment, both lovely and haunting.
In her debut novel Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman took it upon herself to focus not on the mythological and lauded Cleopatra herself, but rather her two sisters — one younger, one elder. One her beloved, one her father’s enemy. The two focal characters are the usurping queen Berenice the Shining, and the small, almost entirely neglected Arsinoe. Weaving back and forth fluidly in alternating chapters named “Elder” and “Younger,” Holleman tells the tale of a tense three-year period in the fading Ptolemaic dynasty as Berenice orders a coup on her own father in order to claim his throne as her own and rule Egypt as she believes is her right. As Berenice reigns, she takes on every luxury and every horror her station can provide, all with determination to be seen as a strong and unwavering ruler. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Arsinoe attempts to make peace with the fact that anyone she ever loved abandoned her during the coup, reaching out at first meekly and then with desperation to the few caretakers and friends still within the palace walls. Despite her efforts, her nights are dogged with dreams that seem to predict not her own destruction, but the destruction she may cause.
Holleman has done a fantastic job focusing in closely and personally on characters that history leaves mostly to our imagination. Her efforts to bring humanity and empathy to these two lives lived and actions committed in such an era are remarkable. If you’re looking to indulge in some Game of Thrones-esque dramatic history led by two strong female narrators, Cleopatra’s Shadows is an excellent choice.