A young woman struggles to take the reins of her father's failing taxidermy shop after his suicide.
Jessa-Lynn Morton only feels comfortable when she's scraping out the guts of a dead baby raccoon with delicate precision or drinking to forget the girl who got away. When her beloved father unexpectedly commits suicide, Jessa must carry the weight of her broken family on her own. "My father molded me to assist him; to be the one who helped shoulder the load," Jessa recalls. In the wake of his death, it doesn't take long before everything unravels. Jessa's mother starts placing stuffed and mounted animals in flagrante delicto in the shop window as well as "a parade of animals decked out in lingerie and posed in front of boudoir mirrors, alligator skulls with panties stuffed in their open mouths and dangling from their teeth." Meanwhile, Jessa's brother, Milo, sleeps through shifts at the local car dealership; Brynn, Jessa's first love and Milo's wife, is nowhere to be found; and the couple's children suffer from inattention and abandonment. Things begin to shift when Lucinda, an ambitious gallery owner, takes note of the strange, sexual displays in the taxidermy shop window, forcing Jessa to confront her childish anger about her mother's artwork as well as her chronic fear of intimacy with other women. Arnett's debut switchbacks through time, slowly skinning the pelt of Jessa's formative obsession with Brynn and her tragic relationship with her father, forged over preserving animals scraped off deserted Central Florida highways. Arnett writes in clear, perceptive prose, tracing Jessa's struggles growing up queer in the Deep South, yet the pacing and climax of this deeply psychological novel remain off-kilter. Jessa is stuck playing the eternal, repressed "straight" man to her creator's wry sense of humor—with mixed results. For all of Arnett's insights, the outsize mother-daughter conflict at the heart of the book feels as if a bear skin were draped over the skeleton of a much smaller mammal. Still, there's much to admire in Arnett's vision of Florida as a creative swamp of well-meaning misfits and in the sweet hopefulness of finding your way back to yourself through family.
An ambitious debut writer with extraordinary promise, Arnett brings all of Florida's strangeness to life through the lens of a family snowed under with grief.
In Davies’ exceedingly charming adult fiction debut, a romantically frustrated 20-something Londoner realizes maybe the problem isn’t her—maybe the problem is men.
It’s been three years since Julia has had sex herself, although she is frequently privy to sex—adjacent to sex, subjected to sex—living with her best friend, Alice, and Alice’s boyfriend in a flat with unfortunately thin walls. But her own sex life has been, to date, lackluster. “I’d always preferred the idea of sex to sex itself,” she muses. “The thing is, sex had never been particularly high on my list of priorities.” Dance had been her priority, but then she was injured, and so, instead of the ballet career she’d dreamed of, she has an uninspiring government job, a very opinionated therapist, and a total lack of romantic intrigue. Until, at a cool warehouse party, she meets Jane. Sex is different with Jane; everything is different with Jane. Julia is overcome with ecstatic relief: She’s a lesbian. “I felt like I belonged, at last, in the world of the sexually fulfilled,” she declares. “Now I had a sense of purpose. I was going to find someone to be a lesbian with.” And quickly, she does—not one of the women from her new queer swing-dance group (she immediately joins a queer swing-dance group), but Sam, an artist she meets at a club. But as their relationship intensifies, Sam’s one-sided demands start to feel increasingly stifling—leaving Julia to define the kind of relationship she wants for herself. Davies recounts the progression of Julia and Sam’s relationship in such detail, and with such focus, that it’s occasionally exhausting, like listening to a friend obsess over the plodding minutiae of a fundamentally doomed relationship for years. (And who among us has not?) But Davies’ writing is so breezy and effortless—and her characters so delightful—that to spend time in her world is a pleasure.
Sweet but never saccharine; a literary rom-com about the importance of knowing yourself.
A challenging literary experiment about the shifting nature of human consciousness, inspired by English computer scientist Alan Turing, who was persecuted for being gay.
British novelist and poet Eaves (The Absent Therapist, 2014, etc.) tells the story of Alec Pryor, an English mathematician modeled after Turing, in three sections. Part of a top-secret effort to decrypt coded German communications during World War II, Pryor is a prominent member of scientific and government circles after the war. He is also, however, a gay man at a time when homosexuality is a punishable offense under British law. Searching for intimacy under these conditions, he wanders a fairground and meets a man named Cyril, with whom he strikes up a sexual relationship. This is his downfall: A friend of Cyril's breaks into Pryor's apartment, and when he reports the crime, he's taken in for suspicion of homosexual acts. Soon, he finds himself under the control of Dr. Stallbrook, an analyst who oversees the chemical castration to which he's been sentenced. Stallbrook encourages Pryor to write, and these "notes to pass the time" become the hallucinatory dreamscapes of the book's second and third parts. As the synthetic estrogen does its work, Pryor's consciousness ranges back and forth in time, from Britain's hunter-gatherer past to a future in which machines replace human consciousness. Watching himself as if from afar, he comes to terms with the loss of control he suffers as his body changes. All the while, he is haunted by the memory of a figure from his schoolboy days, Christopher Molyneaux, a fellow student Pryor loved but whose friendship gradually faded. "I think he was told no good could come of our friendship, because of what I am, or rather, because of what, then, it was suggested I would become." In careful prose, Eaves prods at the limits of human consciousness as Pryor comes to grips with the changes wracking his body. All the while Eaves asks important questions about our ability to communicate our innermost thoughts to those we love. "What would a conversation be with instant, mutual apprehension of its themes?" Pryor wonders. Eaves has delivered a gripping narrative experiment that gives us a sense of what such an intimacy would be like.
A wildly inventive and moving exploration of the human mind under conditions of duress.
A sprawling, ambitious debut novel traces the fates of a handful of characters, each one caught up in the lives of the others.
Eddie, a black Navy man, steals a copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead from an officer during the Vietnam War. For the rest of his life, he carries it with him, reciting lines. His youngest daughter, Claudia, grows up to be a Shakespeare scholar. She marries Rufus, the white son of a philanderer, who finds out, as an adult, that he has a half brother named Hank who grew up in Buckner County, Georgia. Agnes is black and came from Buckner County, too, but left after a traumatic incident on a dark road involving two white policemen and her boyfriend. Agnes marries Eddie, the Navy man, and moves to New York. Porter’s fantastic debut novel is a whirl of characters spidering outward through time and space. The novel tracks a half dozen of them, all connected to each other, more or less, in one way or another, from the 1950s through 2010. Agnes and the thing that happened to her one night on Damascus Road form the dark heart of the book. Everything else seems to radiate, at least tangentially, from that. When she was a girl, Agnes’ parents took in an almost-orphan, Eloise, with whom Agnes grows up, sharing a bedroom and, eventually, a bed. Agnes is Eloise’s one true love, but Agnes eventually refuses to see Eloise, and they grow distant. But this is just one of Porter’s storylines. There are several, and while they are each gripping and vivid in their own ways, so much action crowds the book. There isn’t enough space to get to know the characters; put another way, there’s a distancing between the narrator and the characters—Agnes in particular—as though they are being held at arm’s length. We see them from the outside, not the inside, even when they are narrating their own stories.
Beautifully written and intricately plotted, Porter’s novel falters only when she seems to step back from her characters, to stand at the edge of the water instead of jumping in.
The first in a series featuring romance between women.
Lucy Muchelney’s father was a celebrated astronomer. No one knows that she was responsible for much of the math behind his most significant work. Catherine Kenwick St. Day, Countess of Moth, traveled the world to look at the stars with her husband, but his death leaves her without a sense of purpose. When Catherine decides to fund the translation of a revolutionary new text by a French scientist, these two women become accomplices—and much, much more. The Regency novel was long one of romance’s most rulebound subgenres. Waite is one of a number of authors who are proving able to satisfy Regency’s demands while getting creative with some of its tropes, and the fact that this novel depicts two women falling in love and developing an unabashedly satisfying sexual relationship is among the least of its delightful surprises. Catherine, for example, is fully aware that the era in which she lives offers less freedom to women than the Enlightenment period just past, and she recognizes that many of the male scholars she knows are supported and assisted by their wives. There’s a moment when Catherine realizes that Lucy doesn’t have the right clothes for London, a moment in which a seasoned Regency fan might expect a shopping spree. Instead, Catherine realizes that buying gowns for Lucy might make Lucy feel obligated to return her affections. The first time Lucy kisses Catherine, she asks for—and receives—affirmative consent. The passion between these women is exciting, but their thoughtfulness and kindness are just as satisfying. There are, of course, some difficult moments in their relationship, but Waite has chosen for the most part to let her heroines face real vicissitudes together instead of manufacturing melodrama.