This week: Ann Leckie's new novel, plus an outstanding true crime book set in Northern Ireland.

Vacuum in the Dark

Jen Beagin. Scribner, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-1-5011-8214-3

Beagin’s sharp and superb novel finds Mona, from previous novel Pretend I’m Dead, now 26, living in Taos, N.Mex., having followed the dying wishes of her ex-boyfriend, a man she met at a needle exchange and called Mr. Disgusting. Mona cleans houses for a living, shares a ranch house with an older married couple she calls Yoko and Yoko, and claims Fresh Air’s Terry Gross as imaginary friend-slash-therapist. Prone to falling in love with her clients’ furniture and taking advantage of their absences to create a series of photographic portraits in their homes, Mona often breaches the professional distance between her and her clients. There’s the beautiful and blind therapist Rose, who has given Mona leave to conduct an affair with her husband, whom Mona has nicknamed Dark, and there’s Hungarian artists Lena and Paul, who ask Mona to model for them. Deadpan and savage, Mona has a dark and complicated history she is not afraid to weaponize. When Mona’s mother asks Mona to return to the apartment where she grew up in L.A., Mona must come to terms both with her difficult past and where she can go from here. Beagin pulls no punches—this novel is viciously smart and morbidly funny.

The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction

Edited by Gardner Dozois. Griffin, $39.99 (720p) ISBN 978-1-250-29619-1

The 38 stories in this culling of the last 15 annual anthologies edited by the late Dozois testify to the breathtaking scope of science fiction and the diversity and talent of its writers. Eleanor Arnason’s “The Potter of Bones” concerns an artist in a primitive society applying the scientific method to her work. John Kessel’s “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” is set on a world where technology and religious superstition dovetail. Michael Swanwick’s “Tin Marsh” and John Barnes’s “Martian Heart” both elaborate on the challenges humans face in extraterrestrial environments, while Charles Stross’s “Rogue Farm” and Pat Cadigan’s “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” speculate on the strange forms future life might take. Forward-looking as all the stories are, several are tributes to the groundbreaking genre fiction of Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Rice Burroughs by, respectively, Kage Baker, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, and Allen M. Steele. Dozois was one of the great editors of science fiction over the last 50 years, and this book features some of the best science fiction written in the 21st century.

After She’s Gone

Camilla Grebe, trans. from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel. Ballantine, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-425-28440-7

In Grebe’s stellar crime novel, psychological profiler Hanne Lagerlind-Schön, last seen in 2016’s The Ice Beneath Her, is found suffering from hypothermia and amnesia in the forest outside Ormberg, Sweden, where she was investigating a cold case with her partner, Peter Lindgren. A young woman wearing a gold sequined dress who might have witnessed what happened to Hanne was spotted in the vicinity, but can’t be located. In fact, the potential witness is cross-dressing, bullied teenager Jake Olsson, who has found Hanne’s diary. Peter’s disappearance adds to the mystery. Police detective Malin Brundin, a native of Ormberg, returns to his hometown to help with the various inquiries, which reveal, in part through excerpts from Hanne’s diary, the betrayal that the locals feel after the government resettled a hundred Arab refugees in the forest. That all the factories have shut down and moved to Asia is another source of resentment. Grebe delivers an unflinching, heart-wrenching message about the plight of refugees in this scorching thriller.

Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement

David K. Johnson. Columbia Univ, $32 (320p) ISBN 978-0-231-18910-1

In this intelligent work, historian Johnson (The Lavender Scare) explores what he terms “the Physique Era” in American gay history, spanning 1951 through 1967, when now nearly forgotten bodybuilding beefcake magazines fostered a virtual community for gay men. Johnson makes a compelling case that, in contrast to the academic tendency to dismiss physique magazines as mere artifacts of closeted life, physique entrepreneurs went on to found other businesses and ultimately created “a gay market, by and for gay people” that “was crucial to the emergence and success of a gay movement,” wedding capitalism and social justice. The book profiles various enterprises, among them the bodybuilding magazine Physique Pictorial; the Cory Book Service, a gay book of the month club; the Grecian Guild, a gay social fraternity; the Adonis club, a pen pal service; Lynn Womack’s physique periodical and gay novel publishing and distribution “empire”; and Directory Services, Inc., which provided gay business directories (for example, lists of gay bars) and later furniture, books, greeting cards, and photo developing services, becoming profitable enough to finance (and win) a legal fight for the right to free expression in 1967. Johnson draws on archival evidence and original interviews in prose that remains accessible even as it demonstrates his scholarly chops. This excellent history brings to light a little-known subject with a well-supported, unusual argument.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday, $28.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-3855213-1-4

New Yorker staff writer Keefe (Snakehead) incorporates a real-life whodunit into a moving, accessible account of the violence that has afflicted Northern Ireland. The mystery concerns Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, who was snatched from her Belfast home by an IRA gang in 1972. While Keefe touches on historical antecedents, his real starting point is the 1960s, when advocates of a unified Ireland attempted to emulate the nonviolent methods of the American civil rights movement. The path from peaceful protests to terrorist bombings is framed by the story of Dolours Price, who became involved as a teenager and went on to become a central figure in the IRA. While formal charges were never brought against republican leader Gerry Adams in McConville’s murder, Keefe makes a persuasive case that McConville was killed at his order for being an informer to the British—and the author’s dogged detective work enables him to plausibly name those who literally pulled the trigger. Tinged with immense sadness, this work never loses sight of the humanity of even those who committed horrible acts in support of what they believed in.

The Raven Tower

Ann Leckie. Orbit, $26 (432p) ISBN 978-0-316-38869-6

In this complex novel, the first epic fantasy from SF author Leckie (Provenance), the best-laid plans of gods and mortals collide, throwing a nation into turmoil and setting the stage for a divine conflict that’s been brewing for centuries. The tale spins out in past and present, narrated by the rockbound god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill. The god is speaking to Eolo, a transgender warrior in service to Mawat, a young noble whose uncle has usurped his rightful role as ruler of Iraden. As the god recounts its ancient history (the narrative is told in second person, a technical challenge that Leckie surmounts with aplomb), it also relates Eolo’s attempts to determine what happened to Mawat’s supposedly vanished father and how this connects to their patron god, the Raven, whose power seems on the wane. With foreign gods taking an active interest in the kingdom, political intrigue brewing, and Mawat taking ever-bolder actions, Eolo must uncover Iraden’s greatest secret. Through this unorthodox approach to the relationships between gods and their followers, Leckie’s tale takes on a mythic, metafictional quality; the Strength and Eolo truly inhabit their roles, and the story’s elements weave into a stunning conclusion. This impressive piece of craftsmanship cements Leckie’s place as a powerful voice in both SF and fantasy.

We Set the Dark on Fire

Tehlor Kay Mejia. HarperCollins/Tegen, $17.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-269131-6

In this debut starring Latina teens, Mejia spins a complicated tale of love, intrigue, moral compromise, and action, with a prescient sensibility that echoes current headlines and political issues. In an island nation divided by a wall, where tradition dictates that upper-class women marry out of duty and that every man has two wives, two school rivals are matched with the ambitious scion of a political family. Danielle Vargas, 17, has trained for years to be the perfect Primera, the ideal intellectual partner for her husband-to-be, while her friend-turned-foe, Carmen Santos, was born to be a Segunda, the passionate nurturer of the family. But the husband they must share, Mateo Garcia, is cold, domineering, secretive, and utterly uninterested in Danielle’s desire to help. When a revolutionary group uncovers her greatest secret—she’s from the impoverished side of the walled country and holds forged identity papers—they blackmail her into spying on the Garcia family. Even as Danielle becomes further embroiled in conspiracy and subversion, she and Carmen forge an unexpected and intense relationship. The first in a duology, this fierce, feminist novel throws memorable characters into a provocative set of circumstances, and the constant twists will leave readers yearning for the conclusion. Ages 14–up.

Mother Country

Irina Reyn. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $27.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-07604-5

In Reyn’s excellent exploration of the immigrant experience, a Ukrainian transplant to the United States grapples with the convoluted legacy of her home country. Once head bookkeeper at an important gas pipe factory in east Ukraine, Nadia Andreevna now nannies for a family in Brooklyn, navigating an unfamiliar land of artisanal mayonnaise and American parenting. Nadia had fled the politically destabilized country in 2008, aiming to send for her daughter, Larissa—detained due to a bureaucratic loophole—immediately. But six years have passed, and she spends her days writing pleading letters to senators and obsessively tracking news reports that document mounting violence in her home region. As Nadia resorts to increasingly extreme measures to reunite with her daughter—including scouting American suitors for Larissa at nightclubs—the narrative periodically flips back to Nadia’s raw, affecting life as a single mother in Ukraine, fighting to carve out an existence for herself and her daughter amid a rapidly changing country. When Larissa’s immigration suddenly looms closer, Nadia must reckon with how her memories of Larissa—whom she has not seen for seven years—abut against reality, and learn to forge her way in a culture that poses frequent affronts to her identity. In beautiful and emotionally perceptive prose, Reyn (The Imperial Wife) probes the intimate ways cultures clash within individuals, forcing them to knit together disparate truths to make sense of the world, and provides a tender depiction of how mother-daughter bonds morph over time and space.


Guillaume Singelin. First Second, $24.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-626723-18-4

Huddled in the empty, rain-soaked street under the awning of a noodle shop, pink-haired ex-sniper Jun lets out a groan: “I just want some peace.” After a lifetime spent at war, peace is far from possible for the abandoned army of veterans who haunt French-Laotian artist Singelin’s grim urban landscape. Returning from a jungle war homeless, friendless, and deeply scarred, Jun’s new battlegrounds are the neon-lit alleyways where the decorated crack shot is reduced to stealing drugs that dull her nightmarish flashbacks. Singelin’s lush watercolors bring rich, tropical texture to the infinitely detailed, Tokyo-inspired cityscape. The spiraling city and vibrant colors give the world a surreal, out-of-time quality, like a violent dream. Unlike in macho tales of grit and glory, Singelin infuses his story and characters with deep, simmering warmth. Jun finds companionship in the form of a stubborn dog and a gold-hearted soup-seller, both of who refuse to abandon her despite Jun’s insistence that she’s too damaged to help. An older veteran croaks sagely to her as he dies, “I never let anyone help me... I fled from reality, and now I’m paying for it with my life.” Peace doesn’t come from pills or power, Jun slowly learns, but from vulnerability. This is a gorgeous meditation on the lingering horrors of war.

Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America

Michael P. Winship. Yale Univ., $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-300-12628-0

The rise and fall of the transatlantic puritanism is told through political, theological, and personal conflict in this exceptional history from Univ. of Georgia history professor Winship (Godly Republicanism). Spanning from the 1540s to the 1690s, Winship’s overview covers extensive physical ground—Bermuda, England, New England, and Switzerland, among other locations—while emphasizing the movement of people and ideas. Inevitably, the mixing of cultures that accompanied the rise of mercantilism, Winship writes, provided the incremental and unpredictable processes necessary for religious and political reformation. Central to this change was widespread questioning of the nature of authority (and asserting the right to redefine it), sparking debates over a bishop’s investiture garments, the independence of the congregation, and the authority of the British monarchy. The book’s episodic treatment of themes also serves to emphasize how personal choices can shape the course of puritan history. Highlights are Winship’s explanations of Jeremiah Dyke’s “God is departing from us” address to the House of Commons and the religious tensions that led to the Second English Civil War in 1648. Winship concludes with a discussion of the Salem witch trials, an overreach of authority that, for him, signaled the twilight of puritanism. With a clear narrative tied together with helpful clarifications, Winship’s cogent work nicely lays out the history of how puritans emerged from Protestantism.

Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee

Jeff Zentner. Crown, $17.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-5247-2020-9

In Jackson, Tenn., best friends and high school seniors Josie and Delia host a public access show called Midnight Matinee. Every Friday night, their alter egos, Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood, screen low-budget horror films, hamming it up in comedic segments. Delia’s father left the videos behind when he abandoned the family, and she’s eager to both track him down and make the show a success. Meanwhile, Josie’s family is pressuring her to attend college and accept a television internship in Knoxville—something she’d have to quit the show to do. When the girls get a flyer to ShiverCon in Orlando, Fla., they agree to attend. If they can persuade creature-feature legend Jack Devine to help them take their show to the next level, Josie will go to college close to home. But things go awry in Orlando, and Delia learns her father is also in Florida. Zentner (The Serpent King) expertly channels the voices of two young women, one convinced she will always be left behind and one certain she is destined for greatness. Written in alternating perspectives, Zentner’s quick-witted, charming characters tackle real-life issues with snappy dialogue and engaging levity. Ages 14–up.