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Life on Mars

Lori McNulty. Goose Lane (UTP, dist.), $22.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-0-86492-888-7

McNulty knows how to subvert expectations in a way that leads her readers down literary paths at once familiar and unknowable. Her debut collection of short fiction, which includes two stories previously nominated for the Canadian Journey Prize, embarks on a lyrical, sometimes surreal descent into the unexpected, populated by people who “grew up on the wrong side of sane.” In this universe, a divorcée thinks nothing of saving the life of a cephalopod that communicates in ink-splattered prose, a cancer survivor living in the woods must survive a family intervention, a multi-armed god can’t figure out what to do with its life, and a mother laments being less pretty than her transgender daughter. There is true delight to be found in this menagerie of damaged individuals, all valiantly striving to hold on to their inherent dignity in the face of severe (sometimes ridiculous) obstacles. Sad and funny, delicate and ferocious, this is an intoxicating potpourri of marvelous stories that bears repeated readings to uncover every subtle nuance. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Substitute

Nicole Lundrigan. House of Anansi (PGW, U.S. dist., UTP, Canadian dist.), $15.95 trade paper (286p) ISBN 978-1-4870-0235-0

Warren Botts, a substitute teacher in a small unnamed Canadian town, is suspected of murder in this sly and clever thriller from Lundrigan (The Widow Tree). He discovers the victim, Amanda Fuller, a 13-year-old girl in one of his classes, hanging from a tree in his backyard. His shocked phone call to 911 and odd responses to the operator’s questions only further implicate him. Botts is socially awkward to begin with, and his scattered reaction to Amanda’s death makes readers wonder if he really is that way or if he is just an unreliable character in a third-person narrative. There’s also another first-person narrator, someone who seems to know all the secrets. Lundrigan’s use of the two alternating narrative styles deepens the suspense. This slow-burning thriller can be a bit too slow at times, weighed down by description, and beginning the story with the discovery of a dead teenage girl is an overused trope. Nevertheless, this book will keep readers guessing, and, for the most part, they’ll be surprised by how it all plays out. Agent: Hilary McMahon, Westwood Creative Artists. (June)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Dichronauts

Greg Egan. Night Shade, $26.99 (312p) ISBN 978-1-59780-892-7

Egan’s latest work of experimental science fiction (after the Orthogonal trilogy) is impressively bizarre. He takes some of the physics concepts explored in Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World and turns them up to 11, imagining a universe in which there are two dimensions each of time and space. Gravity works in wholly unfamiliar ways. Some people, called walkers, are born only able to look east and (if they bend backwards) west, but not north and south; they have a symbiotic relationship with siders, who live in walkers’ brains and can look north and south and relay what they detect. Seth is a walker who shares his brain with Theo, a sider. The two of them work as surveyors, searching for the properly habitable zones into which their city, Baharabad, can be moved as its current zone becomes inhabitable due to the planet’s rotation. (Baharabad is in constant motion, its forward edge being extended as its back edge is destroyed.) Egan provides copious and necessary papers on the math and physics of world (there’s less information on the staggeringly weird biology), but even with that help, much of the science will make the plotting borderline impenetrable for anyone not already immersed in the concepts. Nonphysicists hoping to stay afloat by clinging to the plot will find there’s little of it to hold onto. Egan may have out-Eganed himself with this one. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Chichak Galen Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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I Wish I Was Like You

S.P. Miskowski. JournalStone, $16.95 trade paper (252p) ISBN 978-1-945373-78-7

Through the eyes of a dead woman, Shirley Jackson Award–finalist Miskowski (Muscadines) reveals a fraught and unhappy world; black humor underneath the grit keeps the reader enthralled. When 20-something Greta Garver landed in Seattle, she befriended a theater maven and bluffed her way into a job as a theater reviewer for an alternative newspaper. She is living in a small apartment in 1994 when she finds her own dead body and realizes she’s become a ghost. Greta’s restless spirit haunts the good (and not-so-good) folks on the seamy side of Seattle, coaxing them to end their misery in various ways. Greta’s too smart for her own good and often too lazy to care, and the literally cutthroat world of alternative news just might be her undoing. Greta is an acerbic delight, and revenge is sweet, but the real question is whether she’ll ever be able to let go of the living world and find a measure of peace. This biting, sly gem of a novel shouldn’t be missed. (July)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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I Stole You: Stories from the Fae

Kristen Ringman. Handtype, $15 trade paper (116p) ISBN 978-1-941960-04-2

Ringman (Makara) has woven her recollections of personal experiences with “fae creatures” into these 14 lyrical, disturbing first-person tales, all told to victims by vampiric shape-shifting beings drawn from various mythological traditions. Ringman, who is Deaf, postulates telepathic fae-to-human connections as well as signed communication with emotional overtones that no auditory vibrations can match. Among the more unsettling of these stories, the touching “A Real Dog” presents a fae creature locked in the body of a shelter dog who steals a person with its eyes, and “Love Within Tangled Branches,” voiced by a birch tree spirit out of Icelandic saga lore, shows that love can make fae and human alike take risks. All fae creatures, Ringman suggests, come from humans, through dreams that are humans’ way of seeing other realities. Closing with a painful vision of suicidal humans who inevitably destroy themselves and their world, this fantasy collection poses otherness that simultaneously attracts and repels, couched in an occasionally brutal modern idiom. Ringman successfully brings readers a few steps out of everyday reality. (July)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Extinction Edge

Nicholas Sansbury Smith. Orbit, $9.99 mass market (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-55803-7

This blood-drenched sequel to Extinction Horizon shows the perils of good intentions. Billions of humans became carnivorous when a U.S. military attempt to develop unstoppable supersoldiers went haywire. Dr. Kate Lovato developed a virus intended to wipe out the creatures; it killed most of them, but millions of “variants” survived. Now they’re mutating, becoming more threatening physically and mentally. They’ve even become smart enough to ambush the overconfident soldiers sent to retake America’s cities. Special Forces Master Sgt. Reed Beckham, Kate’s lover, is part of that mission, and the novel ends with him trapped in the ruins of New York. The only thing that may save him is that the Extinction series has at least five more books to go. Smith is ingenious in evolving the threat and escalating the action, but after a while the reader becomes numb to the ultraviolence. Agent: David Fugate, Launch Books. (June)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Extinction Horizon

Nicholas Sansbury Smith. Orbit, $5.99 mass market (368p) ISBN 978-0-316-55799-3

After impressive sales as self-published e-books, the Extinction novels are finally making their mass market debut. Smith has realized that the way to rekindle interest in zombie apocalypse fiction is to make it louder, longer, and bloodier. This first volume narrates the disastrous escape of a bioweapon that combines the worst features of Ebola with a drug the U.S. Army developed to create supersoldiers. Infected people mutate into cunning, fast-moving, ravenously carnivorous monsters. As the virus spreads and society collapses, the story focusses on rugged, sensitive Master Sgt. Reed Beckham, leader of Delta Force Team Ghost, and beautiful, brilliant Dr. Kate Lovato, whom Beckham rescues from the besieged Center for Disease Control in Atlanta so that she can continue trying to find a way to fight the swarms of infected. Smith intensifies the disaster efficiently as the pages flip by, and readers who enjoy juicy blood-and-guts action will find a lot of it here. Agent: David Fugate, Launch Books. (May)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Doll for Throwing

Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-55597-781-8

Bang (The Last Two Seconds) draws inspiration from the Bauhaus movement in this book-length sequence of prose poems. The Bauhaus School was a locus of early 20th-century high modernism, particularly its stark geometric architectural designs. Bang’s beguiling poems, presented in well-ordered boxes, consider the relationship between the spaces people inhabit and narratives of self, nation, and identity. These carefully constructed and curated rooms display shifting cultural definitions of beauty, efficiency, and order. Bang calls readers’ attention to the inherently unstable nature of both “a well-defined building” and the mythologies that justify its glass and metal. What’s more, she reminds readers that these ostensibly private spaces function as stages for transforming shared beliefs about the external world. “They said without saying that what we were building must be destroyed,” she writes, evoking the danger and necessity that this kind of metaphysical transfiguration entails. Bang describes the work of the builder as simultaneously aesthetic and philosophical, artistic and ethical. “It was the façade no self could be without,” she asserts, illuminating how identity develops in response to environment—and its implicit politics. Bang’s impeccable collection reads as a “circular mirror of the social order,” reflecting the historicity of our current moment with wit, subtlety, and grace. Agent: Bill Clegg, Clegg Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Noumenon

Marina J. Lostetter. Harper Voyager, $15.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-249784-0

In Lostetter’s ambitious and stunning debut, the Planet United Missions of a near-future Earth send a convoy off to investigate an anomalous star. Astronomical observation shows that LQ Pyxidis is variable in a way that suggests it’s either a unique opportunity to learn about solar system development or something created by intelligent beings. Convoy Seven travels faster than light, but the journey still takes generations, so it is crewed by clones of Reginald Straifer, the star’s discoverer; Akane Nakamura, the principal engineer; and Jamal Kaeden, who creates an artificial intelligence to help maintain the fleet. Given the dizzying timespan of the journey, Convoy Seven itself is in one sense the protagonist. As time passes, grappling with the individuality of different iterations of the various clone lines becomes as vital and necessary to the crew as figuring out what is going on at the star. Lostetter handles a complex and fractured narrative masterfully, never allowing her novel to become confusing or unconvincing. There are no easy answers to the book’s questions, but the lingering sense of wonder and discovery thoroughly justifies its title. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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In His Hands

Adriana Anders. Sourcebooks, $7.99 mass market (416p) ISBN 978-1-4926-3390-7

Anders’s engrossing third Blank Canvas contemporary (after By Her Touch) brings romance and suspense to the mountains outside Blackwood, Va. Young widow Abby Merkley belongs to the cultish Church of the Apocalyptic Faith—led by her stepfather, Isaiah—but she defies the church’s teachings to seek a job from her gruff, grape-growing, loner neighbor, Luc Stanek, whom she recognizes as a kindred spirit. Abby is willing to break multiple rules to acquire medicine for her young friend Sammy, who’s epileptic, but she can’t bring herself to tell Luc that she finds him attractive. When Isaiah announces his plan to marry her, Abby resists and is tortured by Isaiah’s devout followers, who brand her with hot irons. She successfully escapes to Luc’s farmhouse under the cover of a winter storm, and he shows her kindness and erotic passion—both of which are completely new to her. Wanting to protect Abby and help her heal, Luc reaches out to Sheriff Clay Navarro and dermatologist Georgette Hadley, whom Anders’s fans will enjoy meeting again. Anders excels at creating sympathetic characters who will win the reader’s heart. A nail-biting incursion into the cult to rescue children concludes this sterling tale of two lost souls finding true love. Agent: Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/23/2017 | Details & Permalink

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