This might be my favorite WWII novel – partly because it takes its time getting to the war and is about so many other things (not least the whalebone theatre itself, in all its unlikely wonders), but also because of Quinn's nuanced exploration of her characters' particular war experiences. Cristabel Seagrave is a heroine for the ages, but most of the people in this wonderful novel are deeply engaging and heart-breakingly memorable. Quinn also has a remarkable talent for Place as Character – the drafty manor, the theatre, occupied France, the copses of the Dorset shore. I am hard pressed to believe this is a debut – Joanna Quinn's writing is incredibly assured and I loved how adroitly she shifts narrative forms and points of view while both thwarting and filling the reader's expectations. ~Rafe
From her lyrical and delectable prose to her endearing characters (not least Thistlefoot – a sentient house with chicken legs), GennaRose Nethercott's debut novel is a must-not-miss. Gorgeous, haunting, and devastating, it's hard to express how striking this novel is. On the sentence level, the writing is precise and luxurious, but Nethercott also has an astonishing gift for bringing the past to life. In Thistlefoot she has created a story as indelible as the memories her characters are fighting to preserve. This is a masterful examination of all the mechanisms people employ to avoid (and perhaps embrace) their potential, and the ways a generation's legacies and traumas shape and follow its descendants. We can't wait for readers to be ensnared by this book and the wonders that comprise it. ~Chloe & Rafe
Somewhere far north of the Scottish coast is an unnamed island made mostly of rocks and shadows. The island and its people are bound by grief (and the attendant rituals), as are the novel’s protagonists, Leigh Welles and Iain MacTavish. Nobody is untouched by the harrowing of World War II, and everyone is stuck in the past. But even more dreadful is the island’s curse – the yearly arrival of the vicious not-quite-birds known in Celtic mythology as the Sluagh. The Sluagh have come again for the islanders’ souls, and it is in the chaos they create that Leigh and Iain must come together to find a missing boy – if it’s not too late. Emma Seckel’s debut is eerie, haunting, and genuinely spooky. I probably should have read it in the height of summer! ~Rafe
This is a book about broken hearts and a broken world, but also about a woman whose drive to love is equaled only by her drive to escape. In an eerie near-future where humans have caused innumerable extinctions, Franny Stone joins a fishing crew in the Far North and cajoles them into sailing to the other end of the world in search of the last Arctic Terns on Earth. What she finds, or doesn't, collides with the past she's worked so hard to elude. Migrations is a powerful book about survival (or not) and a cautionary tale about what we've done to the planet despite all the warning signs.
American Gods gets a lot more attention (which, fair – it’s wonderful) but Anansi Boys is a sweeter, scarier, lonesomer story. It is epic, but in a more close-to-home way. As always, Neil Gaiman is a master of the not-quite-real-or-is-it, and this winding tale of Charlie Nancy, Charlie's mysterious brother, and their dead (?) deity of a father, engages on every level.
"There are places that haunt us," writes Kerri Ní Dochartaigh – the homes we've left behind, the countries or cities that have sundered while we lived there, the forests we explored with loved ones. Thin Places is a tender paean to the places the author has loved, left, or returned to, but it is also a deeply personal history of trauma and grief, of growing up in Ireland during the Troubles, and of the landscapes (both mythic and natural) that have been her places (and solaces) throughout. This is a remarkable book about borders and liminal spaces, about what it's like to come from a "hollowed-out place," and about coming to terms with the constant layering of grief. ~Rafe
With every book, Emily St. John Mandel adds more layers to the utterly unique literary landscape she's been crafting for years. In the stunning Sea of Tranquility (a companion and sort-of-sequel to The Glass Hotel, with spoilers inherent to the plot) she has outdone herself. As in her earlier works, she explores Art as our salvation, our burden, and our ontological concern, but there is so much more awaiting readers in this centuries-spanning story. In Station Eleven, Mandel posits that “survival is insufficient” and in this book she goes deeper into that theme. The characters in this novel are intensely alone—an exile, an author on tour, a time-traveling sleuth—and there are not a lot of writers who delve so painstakingly into what "alone" can mean, or what loneliness is. The story Mandel unspools to frame that examination is compelling, intriguing, and spectacular. ~Rafe
Ornithologist/indie musician Jonathan Meiburg is wholly besotted, bemused, and bewitched by the striated caracara and it shows throughout this marvelous, deeply charming book. In addition to the Johnny Rook—as the striated caracara is called in its Falkland Island homeland—Meiburg writes with heart, intelligence, and boundless enthusiasm about Charles Darwin, dinosaur extinction, terrifyingly large spiders, William Henry Hudson, continental shifts, why there are marsupials in Australia, the dangers of colonialism, very alarming ants, and a host of other topics. But he always comes back to the various species of caracara, especially his beloved Johnny Rook. It's quite a journey—and a beautiful labor of love—and I enjoyed it immensely. ~Rafe
This book is haunting and elegiac, not least because Death herself is one of the narrators. Our other main narrator, Wolf, is a liminal entity, as befits someone who has survived Death more than once and now serves as her chronicler (and possibly more). Godden challenges readers both structurally and stylistically, equally confronting and easing our own very personal heartaches. Sections deal with public grief, the inequalities of death and grieving, and the losses (ancestral and present-day) suffered by both Mrs. Death and Wolf. Godden's book is lyric, relentless, and surprising. ~Rafe
Readers of polar exploration narratives are familiar with Franklin's fatal search for the Northwest Passage and Shackleton's unhappy results at the South Pole. Happily, we now have Andrea Pitzer's Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, the story of the doomed 16th century Dutch efforts to find a path through, around, or over the North Pole to open trade routes to the Far East. Centered on the outsized ego (and mostly matching navigational prowess) of William Barents, Icebound presents both a critique of the frequent bad behaviors of European explorers and a riveting perspective on surviving (or not) a sub-zero winter, scurvy, and hungry polar bears.
In The House on Vesper Sands, Paraic O'Donnell pulls together all the best tropes of Victorian-ish Gothic literature -- including intrepid lady journalists, earnest young detectives, glowing Spiritualist miasmas, decrepit mansions and their decrepit inhabitants -- and crafts them into something unique, engaging, and occasionally a little grisly. With pervasive spookiness and an over-the-top-in-all-the-right-ways villain, The House on Vesper Sands is tremendous fun.
I first discovered Jackie Morris via her collaborations with mythologist/naturalist Robert Macfarlane (see especially their book The Lost Spells) and I was awfully glad to see a book that gave her art even more room to wind its way into readers' hearts. The Unwinding goes deep into a poetic exploration of creativity and the power of dreams, but there are elements as well of magic, love, and our human relationship to the animals that were here before us.
It takes quite an author to both tell a whole story in a paragraph and also create a novel that kaleidoscopes out from that paragraph in dizzying and often heartbreaking detail. The Book of Form and Emptiness is mostly the story of Benny Oh, a boy surrounded by the voices of the inanimate objects he encounters, and the Book, which functions as his narrator, guide, and sometimes-friend. But it is also a story about grief, street art, libraries, crows, mental health, and that one perfect clarinet note that lingers equally in a smoky room or a broken heart.
This is a story about faith -- finding it, losing it, sublimating it, and craving it in equal measure -- and also a story about identity. Agatha is a young nun dedicated to her sisterhood and to service, simultaneously determined to find her place and avoid her own questions about who she is and where she belongs. Her internal conflict is beautifully examined; through the prism of a rich cast of characters that conflict becomes the key to something else deeply necessary. Claire Luchette's debut is crystalline and precise, and I can't wait to see what they write next. ~ Rafe
One of my indispensable books, The Essex Serpent is fantastic and fantastical, equal parts a love story, an excavation of Victorian gender roles and social norms, and an unflinching look at the costs of true belief. Cora Seaborne is a terrific heroine, and her exploration of the liminal spaces where faith, love, and magic intersect is beautifully drawn and expertly examined. Perry has a gift for making the setting matter as much as any other character and also makes each character's story feel important, compelling, and sympathetic. ~ Rafe
With In the Distance Hernan Diaz unravels a lot of our myths about who was doing what to whom in the Old West, all through the eyes of a protagonist who often has no context at all for the horrors (both manmade and natural) unfolding around him. This is Håkan, a young Swede who arrives in San Francisco by accident in the 1840s and for whom things go instantly, disastrously wrong -- and mostly don't go right again. In the Distance is a brutal story, a little like Borges by way of McCarthy, but even the most scaldingly hard parts of the novel are gorgeously rendered. ~ Rafe
A drowned book, a collapsing house, a traveling carnival (or two!) – these are just a few of the astonishments awaiting readers in The Book of Speculation. In one timeline, librarian Simon Watson tries to find the key to ending the curse that's sent generations of the mermaid-performing women of his family to their drowning deaths; in another, an 18th century ringmaster tries to navigate the mysterious events that have befallen his circus since taking on a feral boy and a tarot-reading girl. The narrative strands weave together like strands of drifting kelp, or like the chains holding fast a trunk full of secrets, as Erika Swyler's gorgeous debut novel grabs you hard and pulls you under. ~Rafe
First, an important spoiler: This book has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie by the same title. Rather, Helen DeWitt has written an elegant novel about an American woman in England and her precocious son Ludo, raised on the full gamut of philosophers, mathematicians, and linguists. What he has most lacked, she feels, is a father figure, but she has found Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai fills that gap well enough. Or it does until Ludo, determined to learn his father's identity, embarks on a strangely perilous quest for information, using the film (not to mention Icelandic sagas, mathematical formulae, & more) to light his path. ~Rafe
This one's a long-time favorite. Sammy Clay is a comics-obsessed Brooklyn boy; Josef Kavalier is his cousin, a magician-in-training refugee from Europe. Together they are budding entrepreneurs and the creator of The Escapist, a comic book superhero whose daring deeds will eventually elevate Sam and Joe from the tenements of Brooklyn to the elite upper reaches of the Empire State Building. This is an incredibly thoughtful novel about where comic books came from and what they were for, but also about what comic books can mean to us as individuals or as a society. Chabon turns a loving and unflinching eye on the trials, tribulations, and choices of his protagonists and the superheroes they invent. ~ Rafe
This is the kind of story that might as well begin with "Once upon a time" as Obreht delves into the intersection of grief and mythology (both personal and national) with a keen eye toward what is most human about the fantastical (and vice versa). A theme that runs through Obreht's work is the tension that emerges when a family's history contradicts or is in conflict with its stories, and in this novel she's drawn the layers of that tension with particular care. One of my all-time favorites. ~ Rafe
Colson Whitehead's first novel is the story of Lila Mae Watson, the first Black woman to be an elevator inspector in an unnamed and somewhat dystopian city one assumes to be an alternate New York. When elevators start falling, it's up to Lila Mae to find out who is sabotaging them (not to mention her career), and why. The Intuitionist is an intriguing mystery novel, but it's also an allegory about systemic racism and a strange, compelling trip along a slightly different timeline than our own. ~Rafe
As in all his best work, Ondaatje spends most of this text unpacking a popular mythology – in this case the heavily romanticized and whitewashed "Wild West." By focusing on the classic antihero / archetype / lost boy Billy the Kid, he's able to delve into everything from the early days of tabloid journalism to a very American form of toxic masculinity. But because it's Michael Ondaatje, this is not a cold retelling of familiar facts. Rather, it’s a pastiche of characterizations, forms, and voices – the way light falls on Billy’s hands is as important as how newspapers reported on the violence those same hands did. This is several kinds of books at once, bundled into a marvelous exploration of one man’s life – real, perceived, and imagined. ~Rafe
Retellings of Greek mythology are often a good bet, especially when Anne Carson is involved, and Autobiography of Red is my favorite of that ilk. This novel in verse is sort of a quasi-modern iteration of one element of the Tenth Labor of Hercules, but it's really something else more extraordinary -- the story of a red monster named Geryon who uses his art to find his way through abuse, heartbreak, and the various juxtapositions of mythology and contemporary life. ~Rafe
It would not be inaccurate to say this is one of my most important texts. How Woolf uses language and time almost as characters in all her books is a marvelous bafflement, but in this book, she takes it a step further in the person of Orlando. It's a joy to follow the story of a sensitive, bold protagonist who is creating a life beyond the ken of most of us. This book is a romp and a heartache and a love letter, all at once, and I would not be who I am now without it. ~Rafe