Fiction

LEAVING RICHARD'S VALLEY

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LEAVING RICHARD’S VALLEY BY MICHAEL DEFORGE

Michael DeForge’s Leaving Richard’s Valley invites you in with its quirky style and zany characters—keeps you reading with unexpected turns, insights into city living, and subtle commentary on modern capitalism. “Do you ever get this feeling that living in a city is kind of like being at a party that’s gone on too long?” asks Paul the Spider, one of the many creatures that has joined Richard’s Valley, a health-obsessed cult that has turned its back on the “toxicity” (both metaphorical and literal) of the city and has made a home in a Toronto public park. Their leader, Richard, is vapid, enigmatic, and slowly growing bored of his followers and the life he has built for them. When a group of friends breaks Richard’s strict rules to save Lyle the Raccoon from a mysterious illness, they are exiled by Richard and his fanatical lackey, Caroline the Frog. Forced to make their way in a city plagued with cults and gentrification, the animal friends quest for a home, a community, and a purpose in their new world.

Michael DeForge’s simple, delightfully bizarre style opens the mind to new interpretations of faith, the hero’s journey, and the purpose of art in the modern world. Entirely black and white, this is a world in which spiders become masseuses and supermodels, snakes fall in love with raccoons, and butterflies interrupt the narrative to provide the history of fictional places. A witty and strange rumination on cult mentality, obsessive love, and city life, Leaving Richard’s Valley surprises the reader with each page.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS

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THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS BY LINDSEY DRAGER

Lindsey Drager’s latest novel, The Archive of Alternate Endings, makes a needle of Halley’s Comet and a thread of its tail, along which are strung the beads of myth and history. Hansel and Gretel, Edmund Halley, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Johannes Gutenberg, a dancer, a programmer, multiple witches, and a space probe that transmits folktales into the abyss, all shuffle across the novel’s stage, which spans a millennium, taking place in the years that the comet returns. “[N]othing in this life is unbent,” Wilhelm Grimm remarks one evening in 1835, “and as such all things intersect.” These intersections, somehow, make the novel cohere.

Drager has managed to synthesize the meta abstractions and intricate structures of experimental fiction with the rich, warm, living essence of good, old-fashioned, character-driven prose. Alternate Endings is unapologetically Borgesian, at once a library of Babel and a garden of forking paths, but its ideas hold meaning because real people live and die by them, caught up in spirals of shame and compassion, always on the verge of—but never quite tipping over into—understanding. Always siblings strive to protect each other. Always outcasts lose themselves in murky woods. Always the same story with different endings—or different stories with the same one. You get the distinct impression, upon closing the novel, that you could open it again and find that the stories inside have been evolving and metastasizing, new concepts cropping up on every page. You might be tempted to try this. Do.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA

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SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA BY SARAH PINSKER

Sarah Pinsker’s stories nestle in the cracks of our world with strange concepts that resound emotionally with the reader. Some of the realities found here contain more verisimilitude. In “Talking With Dead People,” a woman constructs replicas of murder houses and, powered by A.I., the houses speak in the voices of the dead. Other realities convey distorted or futuristic visions of Earth. In the title story, “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” cruise ships peopled by the wealthy sail endlessly to avoid the contaminated land. A scavenger finds Gabby, one of the ships’ musicians, washed up on the shore. Gabby relearns the earth and its relics of civilization. “Funny how you don’t realize the last time you see something is going to be the last time,” she says of turtles, now likely extinct.

An atmosphere of nostalgia and doom pervades the collection. The characters act out of deep wells of fear, hope, and longing, as the environment collapses or is transformed unrecognizably. In “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” a man who loses his arm in a farming accident wakes up with a bionic replacement and becomes convinced that he is a road in Colorado. By some glitch in the technology, his self is twinned. The concept is whimsical but the story, like all of Pinsker’s stories, considers what it means to be human when the circumstances we associate with humanity have changed. A longer story, “Wind Will Rove,” considers the value of human history out of context. A history teacher aboard an intergenerational colony ship finds that art, especially music, is meant to thrive with creative synthesis. The defamiliarization of the ship, reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Paradises Lost,” allows Pinsker to explore how the past is lived in the present, and whether humans are resilient enough to secure a future beyond our polluted planet.

Small Beer Press.

—Review by Sara Ramey

FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED

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FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED BY K CHESS

They shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t even exist. UPDs, or Universally-Displaced Persons, are the refugees from an alternate world destroyed by acts of terrorism against nuclear plants who have crossed over into our world in hopes of survival. K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived follows Hel and Vikram, two of the 156,000 UPDs that make it through before contact with their world mysteriously vanishes. Hel, a former surgeon, left behind an ex-husband and young son, while Vikram mourns not his family, but that he could not bring more books with him. Hel and Vikram wrestle with how to integrate into our strange world and they create a space for remembering their own, a museum. The words on these pages now belong to the men and women who’ve never before existed in our world. Chess’ reflections on choice, survival, and fate illuminate her characters’ decisions: how they will live in a world that does not want them, a world that worries they have shown up to ruin this world’s timeline as well. The debut novel is absorbing and quick-paced, full of loss and surprising reversals, and with it, K Chess has crafted a story that is universally relevant.

Tin House.

—Review by Lucas Palmer

HONEY IN THE CARCASE

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HONEY IN THE CARCASE BY JOSIP NOVAKOVICH

In his newest collection of short prose, Josip Novakovich takes the reader on unexpected and familiar journeys: from hitchhiking through the American heartland; to one man’s modification of his body to procure a near-perfect likeness to a sibling rival, in the arena of love; and a war-torn eastern European village, where bombs drop as frequently as rain, and one resident, teetering on the edge of losing everything, just wants to be reunited with his beloved bees. Novakovich’s stories are rife with brilliant and keen observations. His unique brand of moral exploration and honed wit is often coupled with horrendous acts of violence, appearing and concluding as quick as light glints off the edge of a blade. These drastic shifts from the lighthearted to disturbing (sometimes in the physical sense, other times in the cerebral), while they shock and surprise, are an inevitable and necessary driving force behind his 14 stories that provide the reader with characters plucked from everyday life and demonstrate the breadth and elasticity of Novakovich’s ability as a master storyteller. Reading each of the stories in Honey in the Carcase is like traveling a winding country highway at night, taking in what the headlights shine upon, never certain of what they will illuminate around the next turn.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Nicholas John-Francis Claro

OFF SEASON

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OFF SEASON BY JAMES STURM

Originally released serially, during the fraught and divisive days leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, James Sturm’s graphic novel Off Season tells the story of a marriage as it crumbles. Mark and Lisa are divided by their failed attempts at understanding and comforting one another’s inner despair; each chapter is a short vignette, taking on one moment at a time. The mundane springs to the surface—snow tires, kids demanding cookies, a cold beach; meanwhile the fraught backdrop of the election, economic instability, the universal pains of watching someone you love die—all take the background as American burdens: impossible to look at directly, impossible not to carry.

Sturm’s art is muted in shades of grey and blue, sometimes so soft it seems perceived through tears. All the characters are drawn with cartoon dog faces, which lends a gaze of kindness to their worst moments, and also reminds us how much one struggling, broken-hearted person resembles another. The story moves slowly, through present-day and memory, showing the reader how the moving pieces of a life can work in harmony or grate against one another. In one scene, Mark (who is the focalizer of the story) lies awake listening to his wife sob, and admits being, “. . . slow to recognize what I am hearing.” Confessional moments like these offer mirrors of our own moments of missed connection, slow-to-start empathy. Through close examination of these moments, Sturm offers a meditation on where things go wrong, and the difficult self-reflection we must employ to steer them right again.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Joy Clark

RAIN AND OTHER STORIES

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RAIN AND OTHER STORIES BY MIA COUTO, TRANSLATED BY ERIC M. B. BECKER

Mia Couto’s Rain and Other Stories maps out a Mozambique that’s torn with war, heartbreak, and loss. While some of the stories read as fables, offering meditations on the lives of men and women grappling with displacement and rebirth, a Chekhovian subtly is achieved, even when their realism turns to the magical: “The flowers, the one’s with a blue glimmer, began to swell and soar toward the sky. Then, all together, they plucked the girl. . . She was swept away into the same womb where she’d seen her father extinguished, out of sight and out of time.” In other stories, readers witness the departure of characters as Couto’s narrators suggest an uncertainty of their return. And it’s this uncertainty, and the motif of rain and all of its implications, that connects one story to the next.

However, what’s most successful about this collection are the ways in which Couto repeatedly asks unanswerable questions, piquing reader curiosity. Take “War of the Clowns,” a story of two manipulative clowns who, through their arguing and violence, profit off an entire city and incite war and inquiry. “What’s going on?” ask the spectators of the clowns, and although Couto describes to readers what occurs, he never tells us why. Instead, confusion swells among spectators until the “supporters divided into two camps, [and] little by little, two battlefields began to form.” By the end of the story, answers manifest through subtext, and the effect is both chilling and tragic. In this collection, Mia Couto, via Eric M. B. Becker’s aesthetically rich translation, packs an emotional resonance in each story—despite brevity, many only reaching five pages—that lingers with readers long after putting the book down.

Biblioasis.

—Review by Patrick Font

RIDDANCE

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RIDDANCE: OR: THE SYBIL JOINES VOCATIONAL SCHOOL FOR GHOST SPEAKERS & HEARING-MOUTH CHILDREN BY SHELLEY JACKSON

Shelley Jackson’s postmodern gothic novel, Riddance, covers the lives of headmistress Sybil Joines and her new pupil, turned stenographer, Jane Grandison at the Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children in late 19th century Boston. Each woman’s life is marked with travesty from childhood, largely due to their speech impediment, but Sybil is determined to use what society sees as a disability as a tool to communicate with the dead. Throughout the novel, Jackson builds a world of necrophysics where mouth objects and language are explored as avenues of existence and communion between the living and the dead: “Death is not departure but arrival. We are latchkeys kept by wanderers against a future homing. With our last strength, we fit our bodies into this locked world, and turn.”

Later, the loss of a student and murder of a school inspector cause speculation over the school’s competence, moral standards, and the headmistress’s mental health. And as Sybil and Jane become closer, their voices become less distinguishable from each other, as well as the dead they interact with more and more. Jackson’s experimental frame of poetic prose, documentation, and photographs, which describe the minutiae of how her characters experience the world around them, is carefully wrought, showing a deep love of language, both for herself and the world she’s created.

Catapult.

—Review by Jenee Skinner