This week, we highlight an unusual, bittersweet coming-of-age novel from Saskia Sarginson; the second installment in Suzanne M. Wolfe's An Elizabethan Spy Mystery series; a contemporary romance from Colleen Hoover; an impressive and formally versatile poetry debut from Patrick Johnson; and a whole lot more.
The 19 unsettling, universally strong stories in this international anthology are connected by their urban settings and “weird” ethos, which editor Scott Gable defines as the “maybe state” between “the impossible of fantasy and the inevitable of science fiction.” Most of these tales could be classified as horror, but a few fall into other genres: Tariro Ndoro’s “The Cure” is a feminist tall tale, and Jeffrey Thomas’s “Vertices” offers up an alien invasion. All of the stories delve deeply into their geographical and cultural settings, and several manifest the city as a character in its own right, as with the postapocalyptic, psychedelic Portland, Ore., of Cody Goodfellow’s “The Sister City” and the human-rejecting Earth of Erica L. Satifka’s “Like Fleas on a Tired Dog’s Back.” Notably creepy tales include Stephen Graham Jones’s horrifying yet hilarious “My Lying Down Smiley Face,” and P. Djèli Clark’s eerie body horror piece, “Night Doctors.” Taken together, these stories create an uncanny, unpredictable hall of mirrors. These wonderfully strange takes on modern living are sure to resonate with fans of speculative fiction. (Dec.)
Betrayals, secrets, and shifting family loyalties keep the pages turning in this excellent contemporary from Hoover (All Your Perfects). Morgan Grant’s relationship with her 16-year-old daughter, Clara, is precarious. Clara, weary of her mother’s overprotective tendencies, relies on her Aunt Jenny as a confidant. When both Jenny and Morgan’s husband, Chris, die in a car crash, things become even more strained between the mother and daughter, as a confused and grieving Morgan contends with the discovery of a betrayal by Chris while trying to prevent Clara from learning the truth about her father and fighting feelings for Jenny’s baby daddy. Flashbacks to Morgan as a teenager reveal parallels between her and her daughter, adding depth to their relationship. Hoover expertly conveys complex character dynamics while avoiding sappiness and finding room for insight and love in the midst of tragedy. Though there is a romance, the real love story here is between Morgan and Clara. This is Hoover at her very best. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel & Goderich Agency. (Dec.)
In this impressive and formally versatile debut, Johnson places the lyric in dialogue with a host of nonpoetic forms, among them diagrams, numbered lists, and maps. “It’s different in the lab; dissection is bloodless,” he warns early in the collection. Johnson frames beauty and transcendence as a source of authority equal to the language of formal scientific inquiry. “Speak from a place of reversibilities,” he advises, as though describing the poems’ own provocative movements between types of discourse. Johnson’s strength lies in his ability to reflect on his own unexpected juxtapositions and wild associative leaps: “The dream has not only shown me history in reverse but somehow changed it,” he writes. Johnson calls attention to his own agency in inhabiting language, “In this moment I realize I have a level of control,” framing his practice as a poetics of intervention. The work is filled with self-aware poems like this one, which reflect on their own philosophical underpinnings, and Johnson’s formal experimentation compliments the poems, involving and implicating the reader in their critique of linguistic hierarchies. “The individual becomes invisible,” he observes, positioning the reader as collaborator and coconspirator in this thought-provoking collection. (Dec.)
Levithan (Someday) celebrates different aspects of love through song, verse, graphic art, and stories in this collection of “tracks,” many previously published in other anthologies, written with tenderness and humor. Most selections focus on gay male relationships, beginning with a story about a high school student’s “unarticulated crush” on a quiz bowl teammate and progressing on to an examination of a couple’s ups and downs through the changing seasons of one year. “Day 2934” offers a child’s perspective of his mother’s affection during one special Valentine’s Day. “We” captures the pervading atmosphere of warmth and kinship (“You are yourself and something much larger than yourself, all at once”) during a massive, peaceful protest march. Levithan’s voice resounds strongly throughout, communicating a passion for kindness, individuality, and storytelling, and frequently encapsulating the mood and profundity of single moments. Threads connect the diverse protagonists (some of whom have appeared in previous works): many characters are struggling to find their identity, and most possess a strong desire to feel understood and wanted in this optimistic reminder of the transforming power of love. Ages 14–up. (Jan.)
Six-year-old Aoife Scott, the narrator of Nellums’s impressive debut, worries about her mother, Siobhan, after Siobhan is sent to the hospital following a disturbance outside Michigan’s Westgate Mall. Aoife is puzzled about the delay in her mother’s return home and the vagueness of her beloved lawyer uncle, Donny Scott, about her mother’s situation. Aoife is equally mystified by conflicting information about her dead brother, Theo; the silence around Theo’s parentage and demise; the role of her mother’s “special friend,” Marine veteran Mac Corey; the hostility of her neighbor, Mr. Rutledge; and the odd nocturnal behavior of Uncle Donny. Inspired by her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her actual friend, eight-year-old fledgling detective Hannah, Aoife sets out on a path of discovery that entails risk to herself and her loved ones. Through the honest, winning, and convincing Aoife, Nellums provides ample evidence that the most important mysteries are those that lie closest to home. Fans of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels won’t want to miss this one. (Dec.)
Sarginson (The Other Me) crafts an unusual, bittersweet coming-of-age novel that’s also a fascinating mystery steeped in Cold War history. Ruby thought she had left her lonely, emotionally desolate childhood in Norfolk, England, behind when she married Todd, a dashing American fighter pilot. In 1957, however, Todd receives a new posting at a U.S. airbase in England, close to where Ruby grew up, and they move there with their 12-year-old twins, Hedy and Christopher. Hedy is tomboyish and brave, often sticking up for her fragile, dreamy brother, who avoids his painful scoliosis (and equally painful back brace) by escaping into an imaginary science fiction universe. Life on the base is lonely and claustrophobic—as Christopher claims to hear screams and see mysterious lights, and as Todd’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, the family arrives at a breaking point that leaves Hedy on her own, contending with profound losses. Over the following 20 years, Hedy gradually grasps—and then confronts—the lies and misperceptions that, she comes to realize, characterized her childhood. Sarginson effectively interrogates the power of storytelling to engender catharsis and healing but also to deceive others and destroy relationships. Portions of the early sections are presented from Ruby’s and Christopher’s points of view, but as the narrative develops, it becomes Hedy’s story of reclaiming the truth and redefining the past. Set against a historical backdrop that will surprise many readers, Sarginson’s novel movingly captures the private and at times painful evolution of a resilient and inventive protagonist. (Dec.)
Set in 1586 England, Wolfe’s excellent second mystery featuring Nicholas Holt, who works for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s legendary spymaster, delivers on the promise of 2018’s A Murder by Any Name. Holt’s assignment, to trail a possible Spanish agent, turns deadly when an attempt is made on his own life. When reporting to Walsingham, Holt learns that a fellow spy has already been tortured and murdered. Holt then goes undercover, pretending to join forces with the dangerously ambitious Earl of Essex, to find out who’s targeting Walsingham’s agents. Wolfe vividly brings London to life, from the raunchy taverns to the stages offering plays by Will Shakespeare. But the book’s greatest strength is its characters, starting with the clever but flawed Holt, and including a twin brother and sister team of Jewish healers and a young Irish woman with a talent for disguise. Despite some anachronistic dialogue (“Don’t be a stranger,” the queen calls out to Holt at one point), readers will look forward to spending more time in their company. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Mann Agency. (Dec.)