All over the world, teenage girls develop the ability to send an electric charge from the tips of their fingers.
It might be a little jolt, as thrilling as it is frightening. It might be powerful enough to leave lightning-bolt traceries on the skin of people the girls touch. It might be deadly. And, soon, the girls learn that they can awaken this new—or dormant?—ability in older women, too. Needless to say, there are those who are alarmed by this development. There are efforts to segregate and protect boys, laws to ensure that women who possess this ability are banned from positions of authority. Girls are accused of witchcraft. Women are murdered. But, ultimately, there’s no stopping these women and girls once they have the power to kill with a touch. Framed as a historical novel written in the far future—long after rule by women has been established as normal and, indeed, natural—this is an inventive, thought-provoking work of science fiction that has already won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction in Britain. Alderman (The Liars’ Gospel, 2013, etc.) chronicles the early days of matriarchy’s rise through the experiences of four characters. Tunde is a young man studying to be a journalist who happens to capture one of the first recordings of a girl using the power; the video goes viral, and he devotes himself to capturing history in the making. After Margot’s daughter teaches her to use the power, Margot has to hide it if she wants to protect her political career. Allie takes refuge in a convent after running away from her latest foster home, and it’s here that she begins to understand how newly powerful young women might use—and transform—religious traditions. Roxy is the illegitimate daughter of a gangster; like Allie, she revels in strength after a lifetime of knowing the cost of weakness. Both the main story and the frame narrative ask interesting questions about gender, but this isn’t a dry philosophical exercise. It’s fast-paced, thrilling, and even funny.
Violent, often surrealistic Wild West yarn, Cormac McCarthy by way of Gabriel García Márquez.
Håkan Söderström is a force of nature, a wild giant whose name, in the frontier America in which he has landed, is rendered as the Hawk. On the docks back in Gothenburg he was separated from his brother, Linus, and he has sworn to find him in a land so big he can scarcely comprehend it. The Hawk lands in California and ventures eastward only to find himself in all kinds of odd company—crooks, con men, prophets, and the rare honest man—and a tide of history that keeps pushing him back to the west. Along the way, his exploits, literary scholar Diaz (Hispanic Institute/Columbia Univ.; Borges, Between History and Eternity, 2012) writes, are so numerous that he has become a legend in a frontier full of them; for one thing, says an awe-struck traveler, “He was offered his own territory by the Union, like a state, with his own laws and all. Just to keep him away.” The Hawk protests that most of what has been said about him is untrue—but not all of it. As Diaz, who delights in playful language, lists, and stream-of-consciousness prose, reconstructs his adventures, he evokes the multicultural nature of westward expansion, in which immigrants did the bulk of the hard labor and suffered the gravest dangers. One fine set piece is a version of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which religious fanatics dressed as Indians attack a pioneer party—save that in Diaz’s version, Håkan tears his way across the enemy force with a righteous fury befitting an avenging angel. “He knew he had killed and maimed several men,” Diaz writes, memorably, “but what remained most vividly in his mind was the feeling of sorrow and senselessness that came with each act: those worth defending were already dead, and each of his killings made his own struggle for self-preservation less justifiable.”
Not for the faint of heart, perhaps, but an ambitious and thoroughly realized work of revisionist historical fiction.
Seventeen wide-ranging and whimsical stories—with a typewriter tucked into each one.
Only one of the stories in Hanks’ debut features an actor: it’s a sharp satire with priceless insider details about a handsome dope on a press junket in Europe. The other 16 span a surprisingly wide spectrum. There’s a recently divorced mom who’s desperate to avoid the new neighbor who might be hitting on her; a billionaire inventor who’s become addicted to taking time-travel vacations; a World War II veteran whose Christmas Eve 1953 is disturbed by memories of Christmas Eve 1944; a young man who celebrates his 19th birthday by going surfing with his dad; a Bulgarian immigrant literally just off the boat, spending his first few days as a New Yorker. Three stories are editions of a small-town newspaper column called “Our Town Today with Hank Fiset.” Three others feature a group of pals named MDash, Anna, Steve Wong, and an unnamed first-person narrator. In one story, the friends go bowling; in another, they go to the moon; in the third, the narrator and Anna try dating for three weeks only to find that “being Anna’s boyfriend was like training to be a Navy SEAL while working full-time in an Amazon fulfillment center in the Oklahoma Panhandle in tornado season.” Or as Steve Wong puts it, “We are like a TV show with diversity casting. African guy, him. Asian guy, me. Mongrel Caucasoid, you. Strong, determined woman, Anna, who would never let a man define her. You and her pairing off is like a story line from season eleven when the network is trying to keep us on the air.” There’s a typewriter in every tale, be it IBM Selectric, Royal, Underwood, Hermes 2000, or some other model. Hanks can write the hell out of typing, and his dialogue is excellent, too. Has he read William Saroyan? He should.
While these stories have the all-American sweetness, humor, and heart we associate with his screen roles, Hanks writes like a writer, not a movie star.
The world goes on indeed, and it’s not pretty: so Hungarian novelist Krasznahorkai (The Last Wolf and Herman, 2016, etc.) instructs in this existentialism-tinged set of linked stories.
It could just be the Rivotril talking, but when Krasznahorkai’s narrator gets going on the subject of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, it quickly turns into a conspiracy theory full of ominous warnings about shadowy doctors, vodka, and the KGB: “Gagarin had to disappear for good, and of course, the way in which he died—that one of the nations, indeed one of the world’s greatest heroes would perish due to such a simple test flight—was inconceivable, I had to understand this.…” The Gagarin story opens on an urgent note of leave-taking: “I don’t want to die,” Krasznahorkai writes, “just to leave the Earth,” which subtly echoes the opening words of the collection itself: “I have to leave this place, because this is not the place where anyone can be, and where it would be worthwhile to remain….” That echo sounds at many points throughout the book, a whirlwind of sentences that run on for 10 pages and more at a time and that evoke a world-weary pessimism over human beings and their strange ways. Renouncing the very promise of salvation, a bishop declares that “no one shall attain heavenly Jerusalem,” adding, “and the distance which leads to Your Son is unutterable,” while on a more terrestrial plane, a banker grumbles over audits and paper trails and fearful CEOs. The spirit of James Joyce hovers over Krasznahorkai’s pages, and Nietzsche is never far away, either; indeed, the German philosopher appears early on, breaking down into madness on witnessing a horse being whipped in a Turinese street. In dense, philosophically charged prose, Krasznahorkai questions language, history, and what we take to be facts, all the while rocketing from one corner of the world to the next, from Budapest to Varanasi and Okinawa, all places eminently worthy of being left behind.
Complex and difficult, as are all of Krasznahorkai’s works, but worth sticking with.
A woman seeking the approval of her foster mother takes a desperate gamble and finds herself in the middle of an interplanetary conspiracy.
To help her foster mother, Netano, shame a political rival, Ingray Aughskold of the planet Hwae bribes a broker to smuggle the notorious Pahlad Budrakim out of prison, hoping that Pahlad will reveal the location of the valuable family antiques e stole. (Pahlad is a “neman,” a gender using the pronouns e/eir/em.) This supposedly simple plan soon gets complicated thanks to Ingray's scheming foster brother, Danach, a neighboring planetary government that frames Pahlad for murder, an alien ambassador with a persistent interest in Ingray and her associates...and the fact that Pahlad never stole the antiques in the first place. Setting her new novel in the same universe as her previous books (Ancillary Mercy, 2015, etc.), Leckie again uses large-scale worldbuilding to tell a deeply personal story—in this case, to explore what binds children to their families. As always, she impels the reader to consider the power language, and specifically names, has to shape perception and reality. The title is meaningful in several senses. "Provenance" initially refers to vestiges, the antiques so highly valued on Hwae, many of which are probably fakes; but more importantly, it means the struggle to understand where people come from and how it made them what they are, how they will define themselves now, and what labels they will choose to bear going forward. In aid of that point, a deeper look into the relationship between Ingray and Netano might have strengthened the book, and so might evidence of Danach’s much-discussed political ability—all we see from him are smugness and petulance, while Ingray demonstrates far more political adeptness. But since the novel is told from Ingray’s perspective, which is that of a woman with poor self-esteem discovering her confidence and true worth, Danach may not have been all that brilliant to begin with.
More intriguing cultures to explore, more characters to care about, more Leckie to love.
In this one-of-a-kind Irish novel, consisting of a single sentence à la Molly Bloom's interior monologue in Ulysses, a middle-aged man reflects on his life.
Alone in his kitchen on All Souls’ Day, Marcus Conway free-associates on everything from his pained family history to his physical surroundings in rural County Mayo to local politics to an unspeakable health crisis that hits home. And then there is the role he may have played as a civil engineer in the local building boom gone bust. For all his high artistic aims, McCormack is a wonderfully accessible, quick-witted writer—and, with references to Radiohead, Mad Max, and the post-millennial Battlestar Galactica, a smartly contemporary one. The book is alive with startling connections between the exterior and interior worlds (a dismantled wind turbine being hauled down the main drag "might well have been God himself") and Marcus' former and current selves. He is inspired to reappraise himself as a man and a father by the "inner harrowing" he experiences at his artist daughter's first solo exhibition, for which she duplicated, in the medium of her own blood, court reports from local newspapers. Had he failed her? McCormack breaks up his nonstop sentence with brief poetic spurts ("who made the world/God made the world/and who is God/God is our father in heaven/and so on and so on/to infinity") that give the book an irresistible driving rhythm. It's a book that demands a second reading and readings of the author's other books, including Getting it in the Head (1998) and Notes from a Coma (20013).
This transcendent novel should expand McCormack's following on this side of the Atlantic and further establish him as a heavyweight of contemporary Irish fiction along with the likes of Anne Enright and Kevin Barry.
Machado’s debut collection brings together eight stories that showcase her fluency in the bizarre, magical, and sharply frightening depths of the imagination.
Each of the stories in this collection has, at its center, a strange and surprising idea that communicates, in a shockingly visceral way, the experience of living inside a woman's body. In “The Husband Stitch,” Machado turns the well-known horror story about a girl who wears a green ribbon around her neck inside out, transforming the worn childhood nightmare into a blistering exploration of female desire and the insidious entitlement that society claims over the female body. “Especially Heinous” turns 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit into a disorienting, lonely, and oddly hopeful crime procedural crammed with ghosts and doppelgängers. “Difficult at Parties” depicts a woman trying to recover from a sexual assault. She watches porn in the hope that it will help her reconnect with her boyfriend and discovers that she can somehow hear the thoughts of the actors on the screen. Women fade out of their physical bodies and get incorporated into prom dresses. They get gastric bypass surgery, suffer epidemics, have children, go to artist residencies. They have a lot of sex. The fierceness and abundance of sex and desire in these stories, the way emotion is inextricably connected with the concerns of the body, makes even the most outlandish imaginings strangely familiar. Machado writes with furious grace. She plays with form and expectation in ways that are both funny and elegant but never obscure. “If you are reading this story out loud,” one story suggests, “give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb.” With Machado’s skill, this feels not like a quirk or a flourish but like a perfectly appropriate direction.
An exceptional and pungently inventive first book.
Mathews' colorful debut novel examines the legacy of Irish political violence for a family in both the old country and New York during one busy week in 1939.
Francis Dempsey, who has been jailed for selling banned books and luxury items, gets a furlough from Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail for his father’s funeral. There, he is joined by his unhappy seminarian brother, Michael, and several old Irish Republican Army buddies of his father’s, who rig an escape for the brothers that involves an IRA bomb factory. There, an accidental explosion leaves Michael shellshocked and the brothers in possession of a Republican war chest. Francis uses the money to present himself as a Scottish lord and books passage for himself and his brother to New York on the RMS Britannic. His fake title leads Francis to a wealthy Manhattan girlfriend and a dangerous role in a New York mob boss’s plans. Michael's dazed state leads to a fascinating relationship with the restless ghost of the recently deceased William Butler Yeats. Meanwhile—and there’s a lot of meanwhile in this busy doorstop—a third Dempsey brother, Martin, who has been in New York for 10 years, is trying to get a jazz band together for his sister-in-law’s wedding reception and impress recording legend John Hammond. But the bride-to-be, who performs synchronized swimming as an AquaBelle at the World’s Fair, is having second thoughts about her nuptials after a night at the Plaza Hotel with Francis. Among the many splashes of New York atmosphere, the strongest are snapshots of the city’s prewar musical frenzy. Weaving through it all is an old IRA enforcer with a tragic tie to the Dempseys who found escape on an upstate New York farm until the mob boss forces him to find the war chest and Francis. Mathews’ debut shows impressive control of this narrative cornucopia, although his reliance on characters’ thoughts to propel the plot can be tiresome.
It’s not Doctorow’s Ragtime, but there’s a similar feel in this impressive, wide-ranging debut.
This debut work by the co-founder of sci-fi website io9 explores issues of free will and property in a corporate-run future.
In 2144, genetics engineer–turned–drug pirate Judith “Jack” Chen has reverse-engineered and distributed her own version of Zacuity, the latest drug from the Zaxy corporation. Zacuity is supposed to get people feeling good about working; unfortunately, what it actually does is addict people to their jobs to the point of insanity. With agents from the International Property Coalition on her tail, Jack does her best to manufacture an antidote and find a way to alert the public about Zacuity’s effects. She also tries to find a future for Threezed, a young man previously indentured to an addict she killed. Meanwhile, those IPC agents, the human Eliasz and his new partner, the indentured military bot Paladin, grow physically and emotionally closer together as they ruthlessly track down Jack. Paladin’s feelings for Eliasz, partially programmed, partially personally generated, seem believable, because the bot is new, naïve, and hasn’t experienced a great deal of kind human contact, but Eliasz’s feelings for Paladin, which begin so quickly, seem more like sexual kink than true love; one almost gets the sense that any bot of Paladin’s type would’ve sparked his interest. And Eliasz’s insistence that the obviously genderless Paladin is female seems deluded. Newitz does an excellent job of drawing out the disturbing aspects of this power-imbalanced relationship. There’s also something very real about the shaky foundation of this unorthodox union and the uncertain future facing all the characters. In life, sometimes all we get is an ending we can accept, in which not all loose ends are tied up and villains never get their comeuppance. Ultimately, the novel is a vehicle for some very interesting questions: is there a difference between owning a human being or a mechanical being if both possess sentience and feelings and both desire agency? What are our rights in a world where the guiding principle is protection for the owner?
A strong and cerebral start if perhaps a little too open-ended.
Catalan writer Sales tells a multilayered story of loves, faith, friendships, and ideals tested by the Spanish Civil War in this novel banned by Franco's censors, then published in 1956 after the author's return from exile.
Former school friends Lt. Lluís Ruscalleda and Juli Soleràs are reunited in a republican brigade on the Aragon front, fighting "for hygiene and culture" against the fascist forces. In a sacked monastery, Lluís salvages books and searches for a missing certificate for the mysterious lady of the castle. When tins of condensed milk go missing, Soleràs brags of stealing "from soldiers on the front line to give to whores in the rearguard." Sales draws on his own experience in a similar brigade, fighting for Catalan independence; he brings a new perspective to the civil war and writes with authority about "half-burnt bread" and "the sad, obscene songs the recruits sang." But it is the compelling depth of the varied, complex, human characters that shows his true mastery. Lluís wonders, "Which part of us must remain unchangeable? Are we so sure it's more valuable than the part that leaves us at every moment? Or are we entirely ghostlike, clouds whose single hope is to live a moment of glory, one solitary moment, and then vanish?" In Barcelona, Trini Milmany, a geologist and mother of Lluís' son, considers "what the success of these winners represents in terms of geology—less perhaps than that of a mosquito from the Carboniferous Age." The glorious possibility of a Catalan republic devolves into what one disillusioned anarchist calls this "sinister revolutionary carnival," adding, "Our ideals were so beautiful...when nobody had tried to put them into practice!" Amid the horror, the thirst for glory persists: "We have acted like men and we've acted like wild beasts...how can anyone now ever become a notary?" There are moments of transcendent beauty: a castle imagined as "a frigate of stone, people and animals all on board, all sailing together in this huge ship that seems still but is moving across the ocean of time"; a character walking through a town's snow-covered ruins as if "wading through the remnants of a shipwreck." And of humor: "The worst side to wars is the fact they're turned into novels," Soleràs complains. "Foreigners will turn this huge mess into stirring stories of bullfighters and gypsies."
Philosophical and earthy, tragic and funny, honest, raw, superb: Sales makes Hemingway seem thin, even anemic, in comparison. This book is a rich and highly recommended feast.
A multigenerational exploration of systemic racism in America.
Evelyn is 22 and studying to be a nurse. Her family is well-known in New Orleans’ 7th Ward. Her mother is a beautiful Creole woman. Her father’s distinctly African features are offset by the fact that he’s a doctor. It’s 1944, and Evelyn, her family, and her peers are unabashed in their colorism. Evelyn and her sister, Ruby, assess men and other women by the lightness of their skin and the natural straightness of their hair. Among other Negroes—the preferred term in this time and place—Evelyn’s appearance and relative wealth shield her from some of the harsh realities of the Jim Crow South. But what privilege she enjoys becomes an impediment when she falls in love with a man with no money and no family. Over the course of the novel, Sexton follows Evelyn, her daughter, Jackie, and her grandson, T.C., as they negotiate the realities of race and class in the United States. Jackie loses her husband—and her solidly middle-class life—to the crack epidemic of the 1980s. T.C. starts dealing weed after the world he knows is destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Some of the dilemmas these characters face would have been—and will be—recognizable to many African-Americans. For example, Evelyn’s beau (and, eventually, her husband) doesn’t want to risk his life fighting for a country in which he is not a full citizen. And, even though Jackie knows the devastating impact of crack firsthand, she also recognizes that the war on drugs has a disproportionate impact on black people. Some of the nuances are particular to New Orleans—which has a distinct and complicated history with regard to race—but Sexton’s choice of this unique setting is effective, too. There aren’t many places in the country where three generations can take an African-American family from life in an established, upper-middle-class enclave to a hand-to-mouth existence in public housing. Sexton's debut novel shows us that hard work does not guarantee success and that progress doesn’t always move in a straight line.
A 14-year-old girl struggles to escape her father’s emotional and physical abuse in this harrowing debut.
Turtle (born Julia) lives with her father, Martin, in the woods near the Mendocino coast. Their home is equipped like a separatist camp, and Martin opines officiously about climate change when he isn’t training Turtle in gun skills or, at night, raping her. Unsurprisingly, Turtle is isolated, self-hating, and cruel to her classmates. She also possesses the kind of strength that suggests she could leave Martin if she had help, but her concerned teacher and grandfather are unsure what to do, and once Martin pulls her out of school and her grandfather dies, the point is moot. Can she get out? Tallent delays the answer to that question, of course, but before the climax he’s written a fearless adventure tale that’s as savvy about internal emotional storms as it is about wrangling with family and nature. Turtle gets a glimpse of a better life through Jacob, a classmate from a well-off family (“she feels brilliantly included within that province of things she wants”), and her efforts to save him in the woods earn his admiration. But when Martin brings another young girl home, Turtle can’t leave for fear of history repeating. Tallent often stretches out visceral, violent scenes—Turtle forced to sustain a pull-up as Martin holds a knife beneath her, homebrew surgery, eating scorpions—to a point that is nearly sadistic. But he plainly means to explore how such moments seem to slow time, imprinting his young characters deeply. And he also takes care with Martin’s character, showing how the autodidact, hard-edged attitude that makes him so monstrous also gives Turtle the means to plot against him. Ultimately, though, this is Turtle’s story, and she is a remarkable teenage hero, heavily damaged but admirably persistent.
A powerful, well-turned story about abuse, its consequences, and what it takes to survive it.
A literary prodigy allows her husband to convince her to reverse their decision not to have children.
Can you be a mother and also be an artist—or, by extension, pursue any serious ambition at all? This is the question taken up with urgency and all due complexity in lawyer and film producer Wolas' debut novel. The book opens with a hugely laudatory magazine profile of a fictional writer named Joan Ashby, revealing that at age 13 Ashby articulated nine rules for herself. No. 7 was “Do not entertain any offer of marriage,” and No. 8 was “Never ever have children.” Then, the article explains, after having taken the world by storm with two story collections, Ashby got married and became pregnant at 25—and that was the last she was heard from for nearly three decades. After revealing this much, and providing reprints of two of Ashby’s famous stories, the article cuts off with this line: “Continued after the break.” The “break” is a 500-plus–page narrative exploring Ashby’s struggles during these decades. It’s a tribute to Wolas’ plot that most of it cannot be decently revealed. And heaven knows, a book this big needs its plot. Wolas provides not only the main story, but several more excerpts from Ashby’s work. Maybe she goes a little too far with these digressions, but even in a scene where Ashby is teaching a writing class and the first lines of a dozen student stories are included—they're all great first lines! Like John Irving’s The World According to Garp, this is a look at the life of a writer that will entertain many nonwriters. Like Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, it's a sharp-eyed portrait of the artist as spouse and householder.
From the start, one wonders how Wolas is possibly going to pay off the idea that her heroine is such a genius. Verdict: few could do better.