This week: an eerie, dilapidated former orphanage, plus the Portuguese masterpiece 'The Book of Disquiet.'
This excellent anthology showcases up-and-coming speculative fiction writers, many of whom have received award nominations and critical attention to support their status as future influencers of the genre. The anthology opens with Alyssa Wong’s Nebula-winning “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” a gripping story of creatures who walk among humans and feed on ugliness. The stories vary in tone: Amal El-Mohtar’s “Wing” is lyrical, A.C. Wise’s “The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” is gently humorous, and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” is haunting. Some, such as E. Lily Yu’s beautiful “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” eschew the well-worn Western setting that is the English-language-fantasy default; others, such as Brooke Bolander’s “Tornado’s Siren,” thoughtfully embrace their American and European settings. Fantasy legend Beagle and Tachyon publisher Weisman have provided a valuable snapshot of SF/F’s newest generation of writers.
For generations, members of the Montgomery family have received supernatural “fates” that rule their lives; some are wonderful, such as a powerful affinity for animals, while others are not, such as one’s husbands always dying. Blue Montgomery fits into the latter category: his fate is that he is cursed to always lose, no matter the situation. After his father leaves him at his grandmother’s house in Murky Branch, Ga., for the summer, Blue is determined to break the curse, even if it means venturing into the Okefenokee Swamp to find a fabled golden alligator named Munch. Eleven-year-old Tumble Wilson, new to Murky Branch and obsessed with being a hero, is immediately drawn to Blue and his bad luck, and she makes it her mission to help him. In their quest to alter Blue’s fate, he and Tumble learn that their families are inextricably linked, and that the line between a gift and a curse is easily blurred. Interludes from the wise and intimidating Munch keep the supernatural aspects of the novel at the forefront of readers’ minds, while Tumble and Blue muddle through issues of abandonment, failure, grief, and loss. Blue’s extended family, many of whom have also traveled to Murky Branch for a chance to change their own fates, creates a vibrant ensemble. Granny Eve is particularly noteworthy; her dedication to her family leaves a lasting mark on Blue, whose father is distracted at best and absent at worst. A tender message about sacrifice—for loved ones and the greater good—underlies this magical story of fate and family. Ages 8–12.
Samantha Brinkman, Clark’s flawed but sympathetic L.A. defense attorney protagonist, must deal with more than one explosive case in her highly suspenseful third outing (after 2016’s Moral Defense). When someone slashes the throat of USC freshman Alicia Hutchins, the natural suspect is Roan Sutton, Alicia’s ex-boyfriend. Roan allegedly posted nude pictures of Alicia online, along with her address and an invitation for site visitors to help Alicia realize her rape fantasies. But before the evidence establishing whether Roan’s guilty of either the revenge porn posting or the murder can be found, he turns up dead, an apparent suicide. Alicia’s father, a prominent litigator, turns to his friend Sam for help, in anticipation of the LAPD considering him a person of interest in Roan’s death. Meanwhile, gangster Javier Cabazon, who knows of Sam’s role in arranging the death of a thug who killed a baby, insists that she lead him to a witness he wants dead. Clark keeps up the frenetic pace, but never allows the plot’s tricky developments to overwhelm her characterizations.
Trying to console her heartbroken daughter, Julia Robinson’s mother muses, “Everyone loses a best friend at some point.” Julia is the narrator of Messud’s beautiful novel about two young girls, inseparable since nursery school in a small Massachusetts town, who feel they’re “joined by an invisible thread,” but who drift apart as they come of age. For years, Julia and Cassie Burnes have shared adventures and dreams, but as they cross the pivotal threshold into seventh grade, Julia feels betrayed when Cassie is drawn to boys, alcohol, and drugs. To the reader, the split seems inevitable. Julia is the product of a stable household, but Cassie’s blowsy, unreliable mother transfers her affection to a brutally controlling lover who destroys Cassie’s sense of security. Desperately unhappy, Cassie sets out to find the father she has never known and begins a spiral of self-destruction that Julia, now no longer Cassie’s intimate friend, must hear about from the boy they both love. Messud shines a tender gaze on her protagonists and sustains an elegiac tone as she conveys the volatile emotions of adolescent behavior and the dawning of female vulnerability (“being a girl is about learning to be afraid”). Julia voices the novel’s leitmotif: that everyone’s life is essentially a mysterious story, distorted by myths. Although it reverberates with astute insights, in some ways this simple tale is less ambitious but more heartfelt than Messud’s previous work. The Emperor’s Children was a many-charactered, satiric study of Ivy League–educated, entitled young people making it in New York. The Woman Upstairs was a clever, audacious portrayal of an untrustworthy protagonist. Informed by the same sophisticated intelligence and elegant prose, but gaining new poignant depths, this novel is haunting and emotionally gripping.
Nobel Prize–winner Modiano (Suspended Sentences) does more with less in this subtle and haunting noir. He places the reader in uncertain terrain from the outset, as his unnamed narrator has an unexpected encounter in Nice with a man he hates and hasn’t seen in seven years, Frédéric Villecourt. Villecourt is now selling coats and jackets on the street, and the pair have an enigmatic conversation about a woman named Sylvia, who lied to the narrator about having married Villecourt. After they part, the narrator, whose ambitions to be a successful photographer have resulted in a dead-end job running a garage that’s about to go out of business, is curious about Villecourt, but subsequent efforts to locate him are fruitless. Flashbacks incrementally reveal something of the narrator’s past with Sylvia and their attempts to sell a diamond necklace known as the Southern Cross that they somehow got hold of. Modiano makes the reader work to put the puzzle pieces in order, while maintaining a convincing atmosphere of tension and dread.
A triumph of scholarship and translation, this collaboration between editor Pizarro and translator Jull Costa presents in English one of the greatest works of Portuguese fiction in its entirety for the first time. Composed mostly on the eve and during the aftermath of World War I, The Book of Disquiet looks movingly at inertia and refusal; it’s the Portuguese cousin of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Waiting for Godot. First published in 1982, 47 years after Pessoa’s death, The Book of Disquiet presents a series of “random impressions,” diarylike passages that double as articulations of personal philosophy. Arranging these fragments chronologically for the first time, Pizarro reveals that Pessoa composed them in the voices of two distinct characters: the office clerk Vicente Guedes and the bookkeeper Bernardo Soares. Pessoa created more than 70 authorial characters, or “heteronyms,” over his lifetime, but Soares was the one most similar to the author. His final entries were composed in 1934, a year before Pessoa’s death. Through Soares, we can begin to fathom why Pessoa produced trunks full of manuscripts that were published only after he died. Pursuing anything in this world is folly, Soares thinks, but “to know how to exist through the written voice and the intellectual image! That’s what life is about.”
Saxena (Dad Magazine) and Zimmerman, editor at Establishment, encourage women to reject the pressure to be feminine, clear away hopelessness, and feel sexy in their own bodies in this compact collection of feel-good spells, rituals, and talismans. They speak to powerful, defiant women who want to “dismantle the cultural conditioning that trains women to be weak and small.” In cheerful, humorous, and sometimes gossipy prose, they offer women magical “witchspiration” for navigating mental obstacles and encourage readers to strive beyond societal “shoulds” to be happier. The easy-to-assemble, user-friendly spells—such as writing and thought exercises, mantras, and “incantations” that normally involve candles and perfume—help readers feel in control, affirm intentions, adopt ambitious attitudes, and rebel a little. Chapters cover appearance, healing, companionship, romance, dispelling adversity, and divination. Saxena and Zimmerman promise to teach readers how to strengthen friendships with hot chocolate, braid colored string to remember lost loved ones, and replace ancient runes with hip emojis. “Witch History” sidebars discuss old attitudes and beliefs about witches and witchcraft. Making use of mundane but helpful exercises, this is a handy guide to boosting self-confidence and reaching positive outcomes.
Near the start of British illustrator Smy’s harrowing debut novel, Ella Clarke and her father move to a house that overlooks a dilapidated former orphanage, the Thornhill Institute. Ella’s father is never home, so when the lonely teen spies a girl wandering Thornhill’s grounds, she decides to crawl through the gate and introduce herself. Thirty-five years earlier, in 1982, 13-year-old Thornhill resident Mary Baines is being tormented day and night by a fellow orphan. When the facility begins “rehoming” children and laying off staff as part of a planned closure, her bully’s persecution intensifies, and an increasingly miserable Mary contemplates revenge. Her actions will have ramifications for decades to come. The girls’ stories intertwine as they unfold in tandem; heartbreaking entries from Mary’s diary alternate with eerie b&w illustrated sequences, which silently follow Ella’s exploration of Thornhill and her interactions with Mary’s ghost (newspaper clippings and other bits of text provide context for these otherwise wordless sections). Smy uses this hybrid format to weave a chilling tale that highlights the importance of kindness and child advocacy while emphasizing the lasting damage wrought by abuse and neglect. Ages 10–14.