Sisters by Daisy Johnson (Riverhead Books 2020)
Reviewed by Nora Poole
Sisters, the chilling second novel from British writer Daisy Johnson, is about, well, sisters: a pair of them, named September and July, who leave their home in Oxford with their mother Sheela after a terrible incident occurs at their school. The three retreat to a ramshackle family home near the seaside, where the girls go about their days listless and inseparable, seemingly waiting out the depression that has settled on their mother. We enter the story in what feels like the aftermath, a climax already nestled in the past. The entirety of the novel feels like it’s both building toward the moment we find out what happened at the girls’ school, and like it’s fleeing that same moment. The book is an unsettling portrait of the teenage sisters’ troubled- and troubling- relationship, asking how much of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice for love, groping for the line between protecting your loved ones and consuming them.
The Seep by Chana Porter (Soho Books 2020)
Reviewed by Edmondson Cole
In Chana Porter’s debut novel, an alien life form known as the Seep doesn’t conquer the planet in a military sense –instead it infiltrates humankind via their drinking water, achieving the “softest invasion” (9) earth (or the sci-fi genre) has ever seen. The effect of this invasion is not what one might expect. Not mind-control or bodily harm, but instead a oneness with the world, the ability to touch objects and feel their past, present, and future. For those under the influence of the Seep, “it was impossible to feel anything except expansive joy, peace, tenderness, and love.” (11) So begins an unconventional take on a classic sci-fi premise, a novel about grief and identity and those hardships of the human condition that persist even in a world where death is an “opt-in procedure” (44) and humanity has been freed to live outside “the old scarcity paradigm.” (13)
Library of Legends by Janie Chang (William Morrow and Co. 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
In her latest novel, The Library of Legends, Janie Chang blends Chinese history with fantasy elements, adding a dash of romance.
Set in 1937 China, the Japanese aerial attacks begin to close in, forcing students at Minghua University to flee from Nanking to Chengtu. They carry with them the Library of Legends, a 147-volume record of myth and folklore from the Ming dynasty, 500 years ago. A priceless treasure, the Library of Legends brought students far and wide to Minghua, including Hu Lian. Lian is an introverted scholar fascinated with the historic tomes. Throughout the 1000-mile journey, Lian is torn between locating her mother and her duty to her school. She soon finds herself at the center of controversy when one student is murdered and another arrested. Knowing she must escape, Lian chooses to travel back to Shanghai in hopes of finding her mother. Along the way, she uncovers a special connection between the Library of Legends and two of her companions.
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, trans. by Jen Calleja (Coach House Books 2020)
Reviewed by Aramis Grant
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja from German, follows middle-aged German professor Gilbert Silvester. Silvester is a researcher on beard styles in film, who, after dreaming of his wife cheating on him, reacts in his waking life as if his dream reveals an unquestionable truth. He allows his anger and disappointment to carry him overseas to Japan, where he meets a suicidal young man named Yosa Tamagotchi.
Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, trans. by Ken Liu (Saga Press 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
Slow burn stories rarely find their place in modern storytelling. It is even rarer when a slow burn has so much thought and detail in its world-building that it warrants dissection of the most minute details. The novel Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang achieves this feat by taking its time revealing Jingfang’s extensive research of physics, economics, and social systems.
Sparrow by Mary Cecilia Jackson (Tor Teen, 2020)
Reviewed by Maayan D’Antonio
Jackson’s debut novel tells the story of 17-year-old ballerina Savannah Rose—“Sparrow” to her friends and family. Sparrow has been chosen to dance the role of the Swan Queen, with her best friend and dance partner Lucas as the prince. But dancing isn’t Sparrow’s only talent. Her real talent is keeping secrets—a practice distilled into her by her long dead mother.
OBIT by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
I wrote my first and only obituary in 2018, for my uncle. His name was Thom. He died quite suddenly, at 48, after decade-old cancer cells appeared again in his colon, took over his liver, swallowed him up.
Which is to say that I am no expert in the articulation of existence. And anyway, how do you go about writing a single document that might convey the precious, imperfect, complicated, wonderful nuances of an entire life? For Victoria Chang, the obituary is not just a death notice, but a mode. In her latest collection, OBIT, she asks: What continues to live when someone we love dies? What dies with them?
“I used to think that a dead person’s words die with them. Now I know that they scatter, looking for meaning to attach to a scent” (18)
This Close To Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin (Farrar, straus, and giroux 2017)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
Not glamorous, not an artistically-hued state of suffering for the more sensitive souls on earth. Not a story that can be told with the dramatic climax and victorious transcendency that characterizes heroic tales. No. Depression is unabated suffering whose victims, often blamed for self-absorption, shunned as social pariahs, writhe in silence. Daphne Merkin, the writer and literary critic, tells her depression tale in the dark memoir, This Close To Happy: A Reckoning With Depression.
The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper (bloomsbury 2020)
Reviewed by Madeleine Nowak
If I really wanted to do Phil Stamper’s debut YA novel The Gravity of Us justice, I’d pull out my phone and video myself live walking through the streets of New York City while I shared my thoughts with you. To review the book this way would be the best homage to Cal, the wonderful narrator Stamper has crafted, a social-media-savvy, budding seventeen year-old reporter from Brooklyn who suddenly finds himself transplanted to Clear Lake, Texas when his dad is picked as an astronaut candidate for NASA’s first mission to Mars. In Clear Lake, Cal is pulled away from everything he loves from Brooklyn, but unexpectedly brought closer to Leon, the son of another astronaut and the perfect love match for Cal.