The United States of Europe needs oil, so it’s off to the New World for Eddie Cantrell, his wife Anne Catherine, a company of Irish mercenaries and the local Dutch fleet. Welcome to the Ring of Fire Universe, where a small West Virginian town was dropped into the middle of the Germanies in the Thirty Years’ War, founding the United States over a hundred years early. It is a massive shared universe in 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies by Eric Flint and Chuck Gannon.
When Eric Flint wrote 1632, it was a simple lark — throwing modern machinery and freedom of religion in Europe, hitting blend and seeing what amusing anachronisms popped out. The universe runs off of three main rules. First, modern technology runs into Arthur C. Clarke’s Superiority paradox. It may be superior, but if it can’t be repaired or replaced easily, it’s no good in the long term. Second, history books have given all the major players an idea of who’s going to matter over the next few decades, and they can alter their plans accordingly. Third, small people can change the course of empires too, especially as Europe struggles with the ideas of democracy and freedom of religion. To add the kind of depth this premise is capable of, Flint threw open the doors, allowing other authors to first write short stories and collaborative novels. The universe got even bigger, and now there are over 20 novels focused on a wide variety of plot threads, and anthologies of meticulously researched fan stories. Quite a few authors got their starts writing for the Ring of Fire universe. It is living history.
1636 takes place around the Tar Lake of Trinidad, one of the more easily accessible oil fields of the world. Real politik leads the Wild Geese of Ireland, late of Spain, to found a new Irish Kingdom. Expect lengthy explanations of technology and politics, often more than plot or forward momentum. But that’s a big part of the reason the universe exists: to watch things being built in different directions.
Follow a year in the life of Lauren Cunningham, a single 28-year-old looking for change, in Love by the Book by Melissa Pimentel. She moves from Maine to London, leaving a serious relationship behind, and embarks on an active social life consisting of casually dating a multitude of sexy Brits.
Despite her declarations of liberation and wish for sexual adventures, her partners are disbelieving and disappear even as Lauren insists she is not interested in a serious relationship. Lauren decides to approach the problem analytically and resolves to follow a different dating guide each month of the year to learn the spicy secrets behind becoming a successful siren. Once those lessons are learned, she knows she will be more appealing to those men looking for plenty of sex without any relationship drama. From modern manuals such as The Rules to the Victorian-era Manners for Women, and even a handbook intended for guys, Lauren applies the tenets of each guide to her potential paramours such as “Top Hat” and “Sleepy Eyes” and journals the outcomes. The comic results are entertaining as Lauren documents some colossal failures, surprising successes and insightful life lessons from each experiment.
Pimentel’s debut is a humorous look at a fresh and likeable young woman longing to embrace independence and sexual freedom. Humorous and realistic, this frothy fun will appeal to fans of Bridget Jones and HBO’s Girls.
For Lady, Vee and Delph Alter, suicide runs in the family. Now, the clock is ticking for the three sisters in Judith Claire Mitchell's dynamic turn-of-the-century family saga A Reunion of Ghosts. The Alter siblings believe their fates are sealed and have selected midnight, December 31, 1999 as the date they, too, will end their lives. But first, they want to chronicle the story of four generations of Alters in a sort of tell-all group memoir that is also their suicide note.
The Alter sisters come from a long, complicated line of suicidal tendencies going back to their great-grandmother, Iris. Iris was married to Lenz Alter, a Jewish Nobel prize-winning chemist who ironically developed the poison gas used by the Germans in World War II. Eventually, the scientist, their son Richard and his children (including the sisters' mother), also killed themselves. (Readers will find it helpful to refer to the detailed family tree included in the front of the book to keep track of who's who.)
Now, the Alter siblings are stuck. "The truth is, we all fell through the cracks, and that's where we've stayed," they said. They even live in the same inherited Upper West Side apartment, complete with a "death and dying room" no one has slept in for years. Lady, divorced and miserable, has already attempted suicide once. Vee, whose husband died, is facing a cancer recurrence. The youngest Delph contemplates what being cursed really means. They want to hasten what they feel is the inevitable course of events.
Mitchell has crafted here a stylistically complex, intertwining narrative through the unified voice of the three protagonists. It is their pragmatism and wry, dark humor that lend this family portrait its memorable quality. While Ghosts is about an imaginary family, Mitchell does use some historical material. The German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber and his first wife, Clara, were the inspiration for Lenz and Iris Alter. Readers interested in Mitchell's research will find a thorough bibliography at the end of this achingly elegant story.
Agent Franks has been a part of the Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia since the beginning. When Owen Pitt killed his first werewolf, Agent Franks was the bad cop sent in to try and make him play nice. When the things that go bump in the night try to bump the United States, Agent Franks is the bloodiest line of defense. When demons need punching, when eldritch horrors try to sneak into our reality, Agent Franks lays down the firepower. He’s the sort of character who gets respect, not out of any charisma, but because he’s the hardest man in the fight. Monster Hunter: Nemesis is Franks’ time in the spotlight.
Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter has always been a series about taking down horrors through superior firepower. It’s a red-blooded fantasy where the guns are described in loving detail, the gore splatters all over the page and combat is frequently about punching until there’s only one thing left standing. Franks has always been one of the most interesting parts of that, a die-hard take on Frankenstein’s monster, but he’s spent most of his time in the series as a spectacularly awesome roadblock and sometimes ally.
There has always been one line that couldn’t be crossed with Franks. Actually, there have been a lot of lines, because he’s pretty unpleasant to everyone around him, but only one hard line that allows Franks to go rogue. No others like Franks are allowed to be created. Naturally, that is also a line that is charged over with abandon. So what does a six-foot-something, 300-pound wall of muscle and regeneration do when faced with a frame job and betrayal? If your hope was blow it up and punch it out, not necessarily in that order, you’re in for a treat.
There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but for Anna Benz there is only one way to meet your lover…and that's by train. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel, Hausfrau, watches Anna’s downward spiral as she grasps at physical intimacies in an attempt to fill the gaping emotional void of her life.
Anna, an American living in a hamlet in Switzerland, is profoundly unhappy. She finds the Swiss — including her banker husband Bruno — remote, and her few friendships with expats are unfulfilling. Her struggles with the local Schwiizerdütsch dialect increase her feelings of alienation, even from her three children. The train leaving the village beckons Anna with an escape. She enrolls in a German class, but quickly finds herself in an extramarital affair with a classmate. Soon after, she drifts into another sexual relationship with a family friend.
Essbaum writes Anna as a passive woman with little will, or does she? Anna enters into liaisons readily, yet resists female friendship. Frustrated with her sadness, her husband suggests psychotherapy. As her Jungian analyst probes Anna’s psyche and interprets her dreams and her language teacher parses grammar, Anna holds back, refusing to fully participate in the very activities she’s chosen to allay her distress. Essbaum’s use of language is precise as she slowly reveals Anna’s story by cycling between past and present, illuminating the nature of her discontent as her decisions become increasingly reckless and self-destructive. Doktor Messerli tells Anna in a therapy session, “…there’s no need to seek out those mistakes. For now it is they who seek you.” Intense and disconcerting, Hausfrau is an unforgettable portrait of a desperate woman.
Meghan Daum's new essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion starts off with an emotional stab. In her opening essay, Daum speaks about her complicated relationship with her mother and her ho-hum reaction to her death. "I was as relieved as I planned to be," she says, when her mother finally stops breathing. It’s this honesty that you should expect from Daum as she explores a hodgepodge of subjects from her flawed family to her obsession with Joni Mitchell. The L.A. Times columnist and author of three previous books, ruminates on what makes her tick, even when it is far from flattering.
Daum isn't afraid to say what many might feel but would never utter aloud. Her 10 essays range from light and insignificant to a catharsis for the 40-something as she traverses life's weightier decisions. She's at her best early on with her character-driven portrait of her mother whose behavior her daughter could not abide.
Intelligent and candid, Daum exudes an unapologetic tone as she grapples with creeping midlife and what to make of it. There are moments of eloquent internal clarity that reach across the page. Her thought-provoking essay "Difference Maker," about her experience mentoring in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, delves into the underbelly of foster care. It's an observant gem that does not pretend to have the answers. That's what rises to the top of Daum’s latest effort. For all the self-analysis and "unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor," life is still often about the intangibles.
Sally Hepworth’s new novel The Secrets of Midwives is realistic fiction set in present day Rhode Island with periodic glimpses of 1950s rural England. This novel is a heartfelt look at the relationships of mothers and daughters while at the same time giving a general glimpse at the profession of midwifery. While not Sally Hepworth’s debut novel, it is her first to be published in the U.S.
This charming novel looks at three generations of women who have all chosen to pursue the career of midwife, each pursuing the profession in a different way. Floss, the matriarch of the family, is a bit late in years to practice so she has taken to teaching. Gloss, her daughter, prefers to provide midwife services for home births while Gloss’s daughter Neva practices at a birthing center housed in a hospital.
Midwifery isn’t the only thing these women share. All three carry the heavy weight of a life altering-secret. When Neva learns she is pregnant, she pretends that there is no father. Her mother Grace is challenged by the board of nursing and her mystery could cost her license. Then there is Floss, who carries the heaviest burden of them all…because what she is hiding affects them all.
Hepworth skillfully uncovers each woman’s secret little by little, culminating in an emotional final few chapters. If the novel leaves you longing for something similar, Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah is another read about uncovering secrets and the relationships of mother and daughter.
Short stories are usually read in a single sitting. Pick up either of these new collections, This House Is Not for Sale by E. C. Osondu or Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood, and find that sitting stretching out as one story leads to the next.
This House Is Not for Sale is set in a nameless African village. The main character of each story lives in Grandpa’s grand family house and so falls under his powerful, and perhaps corrupt, domain. Some of the stories feature ordinary problems, like Abule and his serially cheating wife or Uncle Currency’s workplace embezzlement. Other problems are more closely tied to African folklore, such as the soul-stealer who prevents Tata from carrying pregnancies to term. Conflicts are illuminated by anonymous villagers’ gossipy commentary reminiscent of a fragmented Greek chorus, and when necessary, the godfather-like Grandpa steps in to deliver a final judgment. Esondu, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, captures both the joy and pain of everyday life in these thoughtful vignettes.
Bitingly irreverent wit, an unsentimental use of aging protagonists and unpredictable plots mark the wonderful Stone Mattress. The first three stories form a sort of trilogy. In “Alphinland,” widowed Constance, author of a cult classic fantasy series, is guided through a blizzard by the blow-by-blow verbal instructions issued by her dead husband. At the same time, she is also remembering her first love, the pompous and ever-randy poet Gavin, who betrayed Constance with another woman. “Revenent” features Gavin, now an impotent curmudgeon married to his third, much younger wife who is heavily invested in preserving Gavin’s legacy, if not necessarily Gavin himself. Finally, in “Dark Lady,” all the players — including the “other woman” — meet again. Other stories revisit the friends from “The Robber Bride,” find a predatory widow meeting up with her rapist prom date of 50 years ago or track a one-trick pony author determined to snuff out old friends living off his royalties. Atwood is a master wordsmith and excels when revealing her characters’ internal dialogue. The only disappointment here is that by their nature, these stories are short so the pleasure of reading them ends too quickly.
Katie’s having a rough time in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds. Her restaurant just keeps getting farther and farther behind, her ex-boyfriend has started showing up at her job and, in one phenomenally disastrous evening, one of her waitresses gets burned — and it’s her fault. She gets lucky, though. In a small box in the back of her dresser, she finds a mushroom and a notepad that allow her to rewrite a day that went wrong. Things improve so much that she ignores the rule about only making one wish. That’s when things start to get weird.
O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series was one of the biggest comics of the past decade, a rampaging tour-de-force that fused relationships, video game mechanics, a Toronto setting and indie music. Seconds is a quieter story, more focused on the tail end of one’s 20s. Reality may warp, but this is a story about homes, families and making a place in the world, not just falling into one. When Katie uses a mushroom to undo all the time apart from her boyfriend, she winds up in a relationship that doesn’t work because she hasn’t been present for it. Homes need to be built, not cheated into.
When O’Malley created Scott Pilgrim, he published in black and white, creating art that went for dynamism over nuance. Seconds is a full-color print in soft reds and pinks, navy blues and ochres. Even though Seconds is set during a Canadian winter, this is a warm book. Scott Pilgrim made fighting a metaphor for personal history. Seconds toys more with security and running away, using that soft palette to shade in the nuances of what it means to both screw up a home and grow up enough to fix your mistakes.
When composed by a gifted writer, creative nonfiction can be a magical vessel capable of alchemizing the mundane into the enthralling. Lifelong-Chicagoan Peggy Shinner is one such sorceress; in her collection You Feel So Mortal, she reflects on the elemental aesthetics and feelings of the human body, touching on the ideas of awkward feet, poor posture, proper fit and even plastic surgery.
In “The Fitting(s),” Shinner recounts a harrowing trip to an upscale department store to purchase new bras with the aid of a professional fitter. Her tale is laced with memories of shopping with her mother, and her own ponderings on the implications of choosing the alluring over the practical as a sort of gratuity to the fitter’s expertise. Shinner chronicles her experiences training as an advanced martial artist in “The Knife,” an essay about the myriad reciprocities between our bodies and the tools we use. “Elective” is a soul-bearing debate on the merits of plastic surgery: Does the empowerment of perceived beauty outweigh the emotional strain born from the defilement of one’s natural state?
Blended with sentimental storytelling in a lighter literary voice, Shinner’s factual anecdotes help characterize her worldly observations. She treasures her rare vantage and shares her assembled insights in nine accessible essays brimming with equal parts nostalgia and profundity. You Feel So Mortal is perfect for literary essay enthusiasts, for nonfiction lovers looking for something endearing and sentimental, or for readers interested in a Jewish or lesbian perspective.