In this story collection—which follows her debut novel, the well-received Atmospheric Disturbances (2008)—Galchen, one of the New Yorker’s20 Under 40, continues to plumb the unbelievable and unknowable mysteries of existence.
These are literary short stories, but there’s a detective lurking in their author, who peels back fine layers of life with close observation to uncover clues about the physics of daily living and how we process the world. In the title story, a woman wakes one morning to discover a third breast has grown on her back; she has to wrestle with societal expectations of beauty and identity. In "Once an Empire," the narrator says, “I’m a pretty normal woman…,” which immediately cues the reader to wonder what isn’t normal about her, or the story; soon she's watching the contents of her apartment—furniture, utensils and objects—get up and walk out. Do these things represent her life, and if they’re so important to her, why is she willing to watch them leave? And things get stranger in "The Region of Unlikeness": A woman discovers that her crush, a man she met at a cafe, is supposedly a time traveler, and his friend, whom she doesn’t much care for, is his father—and maybe her potential future husband. Not all the stories venture into the fantastic, though; many poke and prod at the challenges of the everyday, as in "Sticker Shock," which compares the finances of a mother and daughter and is written in the tone of an accountant’s review, and "The Lost Order," in which a woman obscures the fact that she’s lost her job from her husband and ponders what her life will be like as "a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed….”
Galchen’s stories feel remarkably believable, despite their suggestion of alternate worlds and lives. This is a collection to read and keep on the bookshelf. It will stand the test of time.
A Caribbean honeymoon turns into a media circus over a mermaid sighting in this laser-focused satire from Millet (Magnificence, 2012, etc.).
Deborah, the narrator of Millet’s smart and funny novel, her ninth, is an LA woman who’s snarky to the core: She’s skeptical of her fiance’s hard-core workout regimen, of the rituals of bachelorette parties, even of her best friend’s own snark. So when her new husband, Chip, proposes a honeymoon in the British Virgin Islands, she’s suspicious of tourism’s virtues. Deb’s early interactions seem to justify her defensiveness: One man gets the wrong idea when she accidentally brushes her foot against his leg over drinks: “He made me feel like my toes were prostitutes,” she tells her husband. “Like my toes, Chip, were dolled up in Frederick’s of Hollywood.” The comic, unbelieving tone Millet gives Deb helps sell what happens next: Roped into a scuba dive by an aquatic researcher, she and a small group spot a bunch of mermaids at a nearby reef. Despite the group’s efforts to keep the discovery hidden, the resort gets the news and rushes to capitalize on it, while Deb and her cohorts are eager to preserve the sole example of unadulterated wonder the 21st century has offered them. The novel has the shape and pace of a thriller—Deb is held by corporate goons, the researcher goes mysteriously missing, paramilitary men are called in—and it thrives on Deb’s witty, wise narration. Millet means to criticize a rapacious culture that wants to simplify and categorize everything, from the resort profiteers to churchy types who see the mermaids as symbols of godlessness. The ending underscores the consequences of such blinkered mindsets without losing its essential comedy.
An admirable example of a funny novel with a serious message that works swimmingly. Dive in.
In Malerman's chilling debut, an apocalyptic reality befalls a Michigan river community—and who knows how much of the rest of civilization—in the form of creatures that cause people who merely look at them to go mad and kill themselves.
Having lost her sister to this horrific fate, a young woman, Malorie, finds sanctuary with a group of strangers in a small house with covered windows. Like her co-inhabitants, she learns to perform essential outdoor tasks and even travel distances blindfolded. After discovering she's pregnant, she'll do anything to find a safer place to live. The novel (named after a collection of caged birds that coo whenever anything approaches) cuts back and forth between Malorie's life in the strangers' house, where only an analog phone promises contact with the outside world, and her escape four years later with her unnamed Boy and Girl. In both parts, she lives in fear. At any moment, one or both of the kids could remove their blindfolds and perish. And who's to say whether one of the men, upon returning from an expedition for food or supplies, was exposed to a creature or will usher one into the house? Malerman, leader of the appropriately named rock band The High Strung, keeps us tinglingly on edge with his cool, merciless storytelling. Just when you think he's going to disappoint with a Twilight Zone–like twist, he douses his tale in poetic gloom. One especially unsettling scene involves blasts of lightning, a dog barking wildly at the night, footsteps on creaky attic stairs and two women giving birth, unattended.
An unsettling thriller, this earns comparisons to Hitchcock's The Birds, as well as the finer efforts of Stephen King and cult sci-fi fantasist Jonathan Carroll.
Mitchell’s latest could have been called The Rime of the Ancient Marinus—the “youthful ancient Marinus,” that is. Another exacting, challenging and deeply rewarding novel from logophile and time-travel master Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, 2004, etc.).
As this long (but not too long) tale opens, we’re in the familiar territory of Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (2006)—Thatcher’s England, that is. A few dozen pages in, and Mitchell has subverted all that. At first it’s 1984, and Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old suburban runaway, is just beginning to suss out that it’s a scary, weird place, if with no shortage of goodwilled protectors. She wants nothing but to get away: “The Thames is riffled and muddy blue today, and I walk and walk and walk away from Gravesend towards the Kent marshes and before I know it, it’s 11:30 and the town’s a little model of itself, a long way behind me.” Farther down the road, Holly has her first inkling of a strange world in which “Horologists” bound up with one Yu Leon Marinus and, well, sort-of-neo-Cathars are having it out, invited into Holly’s reality thanks to a tear in her psychic fabric. Are they real? As one strange inhabitant of a “daymare” asks, “But why would two dying, fleeing incorporeals blunder their way to you, Holly Sykes?” Why indeed? The next 600 pages explain why in a course that moves back and forth among places (Iceland, Switzerland, Iraq, New York), times and states of reality: Holly finds modest success in midlife even as we bone clocks tick our way down to a society of her old age that will remind readers of the world of Sloosha’s Crossin’ from Cloud Atlas: The oil supply has dried up, the poles are melting, gangs roam the land, and the old days are a long way behind us. “We live on,” says an ever unreliable narrator by way of resigned closing, “as long as there are people to live on in.”
If Thatcher’s 1984 is bleak, then get a load of what awaits us in 2030. Speculative, lyrical and unrelentingly dark—trademark Mitchell, in other words.
This adventurous, entertaining writer offers two distinctive takes on youth, art and death—and even two different editions of the book.
George, short for Georgia, is 16, whip-smart and seeking ways to honor her dead mother. She vows to dance the twist every day, as her mother did, and to wear something black for a year. She also inhabits a memory, a visit to Italy they made together to view a 15th-century mural her mother admired, and studies a painting by the same artist in London’s National Gallery. There, she sees a woman her mother knew and tries to study her as well. In the book’s other half, the ghost of the 15th-century artist pushes up through the earth to the present and finds himself in the museum behind George as she studies his painting and just before she spots the mystery woman. The painter’s own memories travel through his youth and apprenticeship in a voice utterly different from and as delightful as George’s. He—though gender is bending here too—also loses his mother when young and learns, like George, of the pain and joy of early friendship. He provides an intimate history for the mural in Italy and offers a very foreign take on George and modern times. The book is being published simultaneously in two editions—one begins with George's half, and the other begins with the painter's, which might be slightly more challenging for its diction and historical trappings. Both are remarkable depictions of the treasures of memory and the rich perceptions and creativity of youth, of how we see what’s around us and within us.
Comical, insightful and clever, Smith (There But for The, 2011, etc.) builds a thoughtful fun house with her many dualities and then risks being obvious in her structural mischief, but it adds perhaps the perfect frame to this marvelous diptych.
A hint of the supernatural spices the latest from a mystery master as two detectives try to probe the secrets teenage girls keep—and the lies they tell—after murder at a posh boarding school.
The Dublin novelist (Broken Harbor,2012, etc.) has few peers in her combination of literary stylishness and intricate, clockwork plotting. Here, French challenges herself and her readers with a narrative strategy that finds chapters alternating between two different time frames and points of view. One strand concerns four girls at exclusive St. Kilda’s who are so close they vow they won’t even have boyfriends. Four other girls from the school are their archrivals, more conventional and socially active. The novel pits the girls against each other almost as two gangs, with the plot pivoting on the death of a rich boy from a nearby school who had been sneaking out to see at least two of the girls. The second strand features the two detectives who spend a long day and night at the school, many months after the unsolved murder. Narrating these chapters is Stephen, a detective assigned to cold cases, who receives an unexpected visit from one of the girls, Holly, a daughter of one of Stephen’s colleagues on the force, who brings a postcard she’d found on a bulletin board known as “The Secret Place” that says “I know who killed him.” The ambitious Stephen, who has a history with both the girl and her father, brings the postcard to Conway, a hard-bitten female detective whose case this had been. The chapters narrated by Stephen concern their day of interrogation and investigation at the school, while the alternating ones from the girls’ perspectives cover the school year leading up to the murder and its aftermath. Beyond the murder mystery, which leaves the reader in suspense throughout, the novel explores the mysteries of friendship, loyalty and betrayal, not only among adolescents, but within the police force as well.
Everyone is this meticulously crafted novel might be playing—or being played by—everyone else.
A genuinely unsettling—in all the best ways—blend of suspense and the supernatural makes this a serial-killer tale like you’ve never seen.
Set in a crumbling contemporary Detroit, Beukes’ fourth novel (The Shining Girls, 2013, etc.) seamlessly alternates between the points of view of a single mother homicide detective; her 15-year-old daughter; a wannabe journalist; a homeless man; and an artist with deep-seated psychological issues. At the scene of the crime, Detective Gabriella Versado can’t remember the last time she’s seen something so brutal: The top half of 11-year-old Daveyton Lafonte is fused with the hind legs of a fawn in a hideous display of human taxidermy. While it’s obvious that the five storylines will eventually join together, Beukes never takes the easy route, letting each character develop organically. Versado’s daughter, Layla, cautiously navigates high school in the digital age; homeless scavenger Thomas “TK” Keen warily patrols the streets; Detroit transplant Jonno Haim tries to make a name for himself by chronicling first the city’s art scene and then the hunt for the killer dubbed the Detroit Monster; and sculptor Clayton Broom’s creations begin to take on lives of their own. Versado’s dogged pursuit of the killer, under the glare of the media spotlight, is as compelling a police procedural narrative as Broom’s descent into madness and the horrors of his dream world are a truly terrifying horror story.
Beukes gave us a time traveling serial killer in The Shining Girls, and the monsters in her latest tale, whether they’re real or imagined, will keep you up all night.
A man badly disfigured in a gun accident ponders gaming, heavy metal, family, love and the crazed emotions that tend to surround our obsessions.
As the singer-songwriter of the band the Mountain Goats, Darnielle specializes in impressionistic, highly literate lyrics delivered in a stark, declamatory voice. Much the same is true of Sean Phillips, the narrator of Darnielle’s second novel, who has been largely housebound since his accident at 17 and is prone to imaginative flights of fancy. (Similarly, Darnielle's first novel was a consideration of the Black Sabbath album “Master of Reality” as told by an institutionalized teenage boy.) We know early on that Sean makes a modest income as the inventor of Trace Italian, a role-playing game conducted through the mail about a post-apocalyptic America; and we know that he was implicated in the death of a woman who obsessively played the game with her boyfriend. The novel shifts back and forth in time as Sean recalls a geeky boyhood of Conan the Barbarian novels, metal albums, and other swords-and-sorcery fare; its tension comes from Darnielle’s careful and strategic withholding of the details behind the woman’s death and Sean’s disfigurement. In the meantime, the mazelike paths of Trace Italian serve as a metaphor for the difficulty (if not impossibility) of finding closure, and they also reveal Sean’s ingenuity and wit. The book’s title refers to a diabolical subliminal message on a metal record, a topic Sean is particularly interested in. (The novel seems partly inspired by a teenager’s failed suicide attempt in 1985 that led to reconstructive facial surgeries and a lawsuit against the band Judas Priest.) Sean is a consistently generous and sympathetic hero, and if the novel’s closing pages substitute ambiguity for plainspokenness, they highlight the book's theme of finding things worth living for within physical and psychological despair.
A pop culture–infused novel that thoughtfully and nonjudgmentally considers the dark side of nerddom.