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Em Nordling

The Banality of the Country of Money: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel is a ghost story, but not in the ways you might expect. Our protagonist Vincent has lived many lives: as a wounded young girl, a trophy wife, a woman lost at sea, a ghost. She lives them in fragments told in 5-minute video clips and in the observations of those around her, always one step removed. Her faux husband, the charismatic and wealthy Jonathan Alkaitis, has his share of lives as well—from the splendor of the country of money, to the counterlife he imagines for himself from the confines of prison after his decades-long ponzi scheme collapses. They flicker in and out of each other’s lives—out of Vincent’s brother Paul’s life, out of Jonathan’s friend Olivia’s, out of countless outraged investors’—utterly unknowable.

Mandel’s last award-winning novel Station Eleven is making the rounds again due to its striking relevance to our current epidemic. It might not be the right moment to revisit a novel about viral apocalypse, but Mandel’s piercing eye for precarity and possibility is still a welcome one. The Glass Hotel is just as timely as its predecessor, with its flickering images of financial collapse, the opioid epidemic, and the genuinely different spheres of existence that different classes inhabit. A novel of disaster, guilt, and ephemeral human connection, it is a ghost story for a post-2008 world.

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Sex, Empire, and the Gothic in The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

It’s 1939 and London is preparing itself for an inevitable attack from the continent. Hetty Cartwright, once relegated to an assistant at a natural history museum, is tasked with overseeing the evacuation of countless specimens to a safe haven in the countryside. This is her chance to prove herself as a worker and as an expert—and Hetty is prepared to guard these taxidermied animals with her life. Their new home at Lockwood Manor, though, might not be so safe after all. Major Lockwood stalks through his home like a tyrant and a bully. His daughter Lucy, eerie and ethereal, walks the halls in search of ghosts and disappearing rooms. As animals begin to move and disappear in the night, and the air is cleaved apart by sirens and planes, Hetty becomes convinced of the manor’s danger. No amount of scientific reasoning can assuage her dread—or save Lucy from the very place she calls home.

Jane Healey’s debut novel, The Animals at Lockwood Manor, is a gothic queer love story with the backdrop of the Blitz rather than the moors and manners of the 18th or 19th century. But where your classic gothics more often than not portray the creeping horror and decay of the aristocracy, Lockwood Manor reveals the trauma still reverberating in its wake.

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Local Queer Witch Learns a Thing or Two: When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

It’s prom night of senior year, and Alexis has made a huge mistake. She left the afterparty with a boy she knew she didn’t like just to make her friend jealous. If only that were where her mistake ended—unfortunately for Alexis, her magic powers go a little haywire in the process, and the boy, well, let’s just say he doesn’t survive the experience. With blood in her mouth and a glittery dress she’ll never be able to look at again, Alexis does the only thing she knows to do: she calls her friends for help.

Secret powers and secret murder cover-ups are in good supply in Sarah Gailey’s new YA novel When We Were Magic, but love and friendship are the real stars of the show. As Alexis, Roya, Iris, Paulie, Maryam, and Marcelina attempt to dispose of the pieces of what-once-was-Josh, it becomes clear that the reverb of Alexis’ actions won’t be felt by her alone. She’s got to learn to share the burden if she wants any chance at all of returning to her normal life—unrequited crushes and all. But Alexis isn’t sure if she deserves to have a normal life. She isn’t even sure if she deserves the unconditional love of her friends.

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Finding Hope in King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender’s middle grade novel King and the Dragonflies is a stunning follow-up to their 2019 Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award-winning novel Hurricane Child. It deals with pain and with love and all the ways that they meet, and it makes something soaring and beautiful out of them. It’s the kind of book that I wish I’d read twenty years ago and I am so grateful that it exists today.

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Solitary Struggles in a World on Fire: The End of the Ocean, by Maja Lunde

It is 2017. A woman named Signe sails her beloved boat across the treacherous waters of the North Sea from her hometown in Norway to the idyllic city in France where her ex-lover lives. She has something to show him. Something about the life with her—and the survival of the world—that he has thrown away.

It is 2041. David and his young daughter Lou arrive at a refugee camp in Bordeaux. Their home in Southern France is in flames, besieged by years of drought that even the desalination factories can’t redress. David is sure his wife and baby son will find them there, is sure it will rain any day now. He just has to keep Lou distracted in the meantime.

It is 2020. The English translation of Norwegian author Maja Lunde’s sophomore novel, The End of the Ocean, is released as massive fires sweep Australia, destroying communities and ecosystems in their wake, and pumping 400 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Temperatures rise, precipitation patterns shift. Sea levels rise as ice sheets melt. Somehow, we are still calling this science fiction. Lunde’s novel attempts to provide a new way of seeing these horrors, one that recognizes the duality of a humanity that both forged and seeks to remedy their own destruction, sometimes simultaneously.

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In the Shadow of Our Kin: Ormeshadow by Priya Sharma

A legend in the village of Ormeshadow tells of an orme (Norse for dragon) that fought in a battle against her own kind and fell fast asleep to heal herself. Over centuries, grass grew and homes were built, her body was hidden and her story all but forgotten. Gideon Belman arrives in Ormeshadow at seven years old, carried to his father’s childhood home for reasons he doesn’t yet understand. Slowly, his father reveals to him the story of the orme, and Gideon’s own ancestral ties to her. Faced with the banal cruelty of his new life on the farm, Gideon relies on the orme and confides in her, waiting for the day she’ll finally awake.

Priya Sharma’s new novella Ormeshadow is brooding and subtle, its stark realism set against the lure and power of legend. What might be too heavy in a longer novel is the perfect length here, a window into a life and a sketch of a possibility. It is the perfect autumnal read—moody, atmospheric, and readily paired with a cup of tea and a warm sweater.

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Spooks, Haunts, and the Patriarchy in Monster She Wrote by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

Just in time for Halloween, authors, academics, and podcast co-hosts Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson have released a compendium of just about every horror book recommendation you could possibly need. Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction features biographies of female horror authors dating from the 17th century to today, overviews of movements within the genre, and—perhaps most vitally—guides for who and what to start reading. From the classic Gothic tales of Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley to the modern chills of Helen Oyeyemi and Sarah Waters, Monster, She Wrote is the perfect introduction for fledgling readers of the genre, and a canon-expanding exercise for tried and true fans.

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An Uncanny Journey: The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall

Vasethe is a mysterious young man on a journey into the proverbial underworld, and like any other tourist, he needs a good guide: in this case, the destroyer of empires, mistress of the dead, and keeper of the border between Ahri and the 999 demonic realms of Mkalis. Vasethe just calls her Eris. And despite his obfuscation of his purposes in Mkalis, Eris agrees to help him. These journeys are always the same after all: to find a lost loved one, to bring them back to Ahri, to undo the grief and pain they feel at their passing. However, as they navigate the eerie creatures and antiquated rules and bureaucracy of Mkalis, the seams of Vasethe’s story start to come undone—just as Eris’ past rises up from the depths to seek justice upon her. In Kerstin Hall’s Border Keeper the characters are required by natural law to tell the truth, and yet no one is what they seem. Familiar mythology is turned on its head. And ruminations on grief and healing are whispered alongside a quest narrative that is at once traditional and anything but.

If this sounds like a lot for one little novella, it is. Hall’s economy of worldbuilding is nothing less than profound. The Border Keeper, even aside from its haunting prose and memorable characters, is a wonderful example of its form. It is short, sweet, and anything but shallow.

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The Boys are Back! The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited

The Adventure Zone returns this week with capers, magical items, and goofs galore. In the second volume of the series, we find Magnus, Taako, and Merle in a mystical world of exposition, followed up by an epic murder mystery slash train heist to retrieve a dangerous artifact. As always, though, it’s the comedic beats and the characters that drive the engine on this particular train. From the introduction of beloved podcast characters like Garfield the Deals Warlock and Boy Detective Angus McDonald, to the virtual demolishment of the fourth wall, Murder on the Rockport Limited delivers on every possible expectation. Fans of the original podcast will not be disappointed; in fact, if they’re like me, they will make embarrassing whoop-ing sounds while reading it in public.

All of this is to say that the McElroys still got it. But the real star here is artist Carey Pietsch.

[And Angus McDonald, obviously.]

What’s Wrong With Me? Finding the Cure in Jake Wolff’s The History of Living Forever

The search for immortality is not a thing of the past. From medieval alchemists to Big Pharma, from ancient Chinese medicine to modern nanotech, our quest has never really stopped. Sixteen-year-old Conrad Aybinder is just a part of this storied tradition. When his teacher and lover, Sammy Tampari, dies under mysterious circumstances, he leaves Conrad his legacy: twenty-two journals, a storage unit full of chemistry equipment, and a recipe for the elixir of life.

Jake Wolff’s debut novel, The History of Living Forever is an ambitious and emotionally raw thing, starting and ending with grief, with a twisting alchemical plot tying these human moments together. Its pages jump between Conrad’s youth and Sammy’s, histories of scientific discovery, and an older Conrad, reflecting on all of this and dealing with his beloved husband’s cancer diagnosis. Each point of view invariably asks the same questions: Will we find the elixir? Is it even possible? What sacrifices will we make to cure the very things that make us human?

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When Everyone’s a Monster, No One Is: The Ugly Everyday in My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

In 2017, Emil Ferris and Fantagraphics published the first volume of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, and I have been waiting for the second volume ever since. It’s not often that you find a graphic novel quite this ambitious: not only does it cross genres and decades, it also explores the ugliness of love and grief and, well, monsters.

[My favorite thing is My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.]

Out of Place, Out of Time: Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess

A lot can happen in a century. No one knows this more than the 156 thousand Universally Displaced Persons (UDPs) that stepped through a rift in space-time to arrive in our timeline. The UDPs may have entered the twenty-first century alongside us, but their history—diverging from our own in around 1910—is another matter entirely. No longer are the Beatles, but instead Baccarat; KomSos instead of Nazis; a different New York by the same name: an entire alternative repertoire of slang, pop culture, politics, and technology. But now, trapped in a timeline so alike and yet so different from their own, that history simply never happened.

In K. Chess’ new novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, Helen Nash attempts to open a museum dedicated to the history lost during her migration. In particular, she wants to pay homage to Ezra Sleight, the author of a science fiction novel called The Pyronauts, and a man whose fate she is convinced is tied to the divergence of the timelines. Unlike her partner Vikram, Hel has no interest in assimilating or in learning about this strange new world that seems equal-parts repulsed by and indifferent to them. So when the only known copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel will do whatever it takes to get it back.

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Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade and The Monster Nationalism

Baru Cormorant hasn’t always been a traitor, and she hasn’t always been a monster. In another life, she is an islander and a prodigy, a lover and a daughter. She is a subject and a citizen, or something in between. When the empire of the Masquerade invades and seduces her home, Baru is reduced to her heritage, even as her opportunities and worldview expand. She is torn between a multitude of selves, some faithful and some masked, but none of them untrue. This is the stuff of empire: not just to unmake a people, but to remake them.

Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade series doesn’t explain our political moment, nor is it a metaphor for 20th century fascism. It instead approaches a much earlier form of despotism, rooted mostly in 19th century imperialism and Enlightenment science. Dickinson deftly rearranges these historical elements into a thrilling second-world fantasy series, taking them away from the realm of allegory and allowing the story to weave new interpretations into old ideologies. The Masquerade has received accolades from reviewers for its world-building, diversity, brutal consequences, and compelling characters, and all of this is right and true. But I’d like to address the elephant in the room.

[The elephant is Foucault.]

We Could Have Had It All: Studio Ghibli’s Tales of Earthsea

The Studio Ghibli adaptation of the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series is notoriously bad. I’d heard the same reviews from Le Guin and Ghibli fans alike, long before I ever watched the 2006 film, and even long before I read the Earthsea novels themselves. Whitewashed, plodding pace, and a bizarre mash-up of four novels, a graphic novel, and a host of short fiction, the film seemed to garner even more vitriol than the average book-to-film adaptation (which is, let’s be real, a high bar).

When I finally sat down to watch this dark horse of the Ghibli oeuvre, my inclination wasn’t to like or dislike the thing, but to understand why the meeting of these worlds could fail so spectacularly in the eyes of the creators’ fans. After all, so much of what makes Ghibli and Le Guin wonderful is shared, the absolute beauty of their artforms aside. I’ve loved Ghibli since before I could read, and loved Le Guin since the first sentence of The Left Hand of Darkness. So why, within the first five minutes of their meeting, was I filled with more dread than excitement?

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Starting Over with Le Guin’s The Beginning Place and The Eye of the Heron

The Beginning Place and The Eye of the Heron are among the first of Ursula K. Le Guin novels to be re-released since her death in January 2018. They’re also two of her lesser-known works; published in 1980 and 1978 respectively, and each clocking in at around 200 pages, it’s not surprising that they’d be so easily lost in an oeuvre of 22 novels and countless shorter pieces, including seminal pieces like The Dispossessed and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The novels are “lesser” in other ways as well, which is not a thing that pleases me to say, since this is also the first review of her work that I’ve written since January.

Jonathan Lethem once said of Le Guin that she “can lift fiction to the level of poetry and compress it to the density of allegory.” And this is true of all her works, regardless of their greater or lesser qualities. The closer they lean into their allegorical structures, though, the more didactic they become, the less pleasure their poetry elicits. The Beginning Place—about two lost modern souls finding love in a pre-modern alternate universe—and The Eye of the Heron—about a nonviolent revolt on a former prison colony—are firmly in the category of allegory. They wear their themes on their sleeves; their characters are mouthpieces for ideas. But in spite of all that, the novels are still Le Guin, still full to burst with hope and truth—not just socio-political, but emotional. It’s a testament as much to Le Guin’s character and ethic as it is to her writing that these morality tales are still, well, not bad.

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