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The Testament of Jessie Lamb

Jane Rogers

(HarperCollins; US: May 2012)

The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Jane Rogers

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This has everything a good science fiction novel needs without any of the distractions. Jane Rogers doesn’t include any explosions or aliens. She doesn’t build any new or strange worlds. Instead, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is somewhat sparsely written with few details about time or place. The setting is uncomfortably familiar—this world, Jessie’s world, still has Facebook, laptops, websites, and cocoa. Teenagers, like Jessie, still sneak off to parties, drink too much, and think about sex. But, of course, there are some notable differences. In Jessie Lamb’s world, everyone has MDS—Maternal Death Syndrome, an incurable disease that turns pregnant women’s brains into “Swiss cheese” before eventually killing them. Although some may quibble, I consider this book to be science fiction because it’s what I want science fiction to be: thought-provoking, smart, real, disturbing, and well written (and of course, it includes believable science).  Catherine Ramsdell


 

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This Is How You Lose Her

Junot Díaz

(Penguin; US: Sep 2012)

This Is How You Lose Her
Junot Díaz


Junot Díaz is a literary rock star. His last novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and following the publication of This Is How You Lose Her earlier this year, he received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. A master stylist, Díaz combines vernacular speech patterns with evocative descriptions that reverberate on deeper levels of emotion and meaning with each reading. His work explores issues of race, class and cultural identity through the prism of his own experience as a first-generation, mixed-race Dominican-American, offering a vital perspective within the homogenous mainstream American literary landscape. In This Is How You Lose Her, Díaz returns to the short story form, and to his protagonist Yunior de las Casas, whose myriad romantic failings bind these stories together into one interconnected narrative. It can be a difficult book to read at times, as casual misogyny saturates Yunior’s language and his relationships with women. But as his behavior becomes increasingly ruinous, to both the women in his life and ultimately, to himself, these stories work to construct a powerful critique of the oppressive ideals of masculine privilege that Yunior embodies. Robert Alford


 

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The Vanishers

Heidi Julavits

(Doubleday; US: Mar 2012)

The Vanishers
Heidi Julavits


The Vanishers begins as Julia Severn, a gifted young clairvoyant studying at the prestigious Institute of Intergrated Parapsychology, falls victim to a mysterious and devastating psychic attack. The attack places Severn in the midst of an astral detective saga, leading back in time, across the globe and through inner reaches of the human mind to unravel the unexplained disappearance of a French performance artist whose fate intersects mysteriously with that of Severn’s own long-deceased mother. On its surface, The Vanishers spins a fantastical tale of psychic powers, transgressive art and a nebulous syndicate of guerrilla videographers who vanish people from their own lives. But beneath these layers of magic and esoterica there lies a deeply moving story of loss, grief and emotional scars that refuse to heal. Heidi Julavits weaves these worlds together with the precarious precision of a high-wire fire juggler, resulting in a simultaneously riveting, hilarious and devastating work of fiction.  Robert Alford


 

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The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer (eds.)

(Tor; US: May 2012)

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer (eds.)


The Weird contains many a glimpse into worlds terrible and wondrous and strange, but at 1,100+ pages, it’s so thick and heavy that if an elder god rose from its ancient slumber in front of you, your last act of defiance could be to brain it with this book even as your mind turned to jelly. In its mission of provide a Genesis-to-now overview, The Weird isn’t concerned about always startling the reader as it is in painting a complete picture of the genre’s growth. Spanning 110 stories from around the world, and covering just over 100 years of writing, The Weird is an ambitious, impressive undertaking. It’s a history lesson.  It’s a writing tutorial. It’s, by and large, excellent reading. It can also be, when a story rolls the dice just right and comes up with a reader’s own personal bogeyman (with this many stories, it’ll hit the jackpot on you eventually), pretty darn spooky and disturbing. Andrew Gilstrap


 

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When We Argued All Night

Alice Mattison

(HarperCollins; US: Jun 2012)

When We Argued All Night
Alice Mattison


Alice Mattison’s book is the most exquisite work of fiction I’ve read all year. It’s rare when the characters, their dialogue, their particular moment and place in time, is so vivid, and so realized that it simply leaps out at you from across the page. Mattison’s Artie Saltzman and Harold Abramovitz, the two great friends at the center of this novel, forge through the Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy witch-hunts. They’re so vividly realized by Mattison that they seem like they could be played onscreen by Ben Stiller and Scott Speedman. The novel spans across generations reaching into the early and mid-‘60s as Artie’s daughter Brenda attempts to come to terms with her identity and her particular needs and ambitions in life. In Maria Russo’s brilliant review of the book in the 31 August 2012 issue of The New York Times Book Review, she writes how expertly “Mattison captures that essence of city life, beginning with how New Yorkers talked and then moving on to the small details that speak volumes, like this one that comes at the beginning of a description of a city dinner party: ‘They had no hall closet.’” Mattison reads like the best of Roth, Malamud, and Doctorow, but with her own distinct gift for narrative. Farisa Khalid


 

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Wild Thing

Josh Bazell

(Little, Brown & Company; US: Feb 2012)

Wild Thing
Josh Bazell


Josh Bazell made waves in 2009 with his debut Beat the Reaper—a violent, bizarre collage of a novel that mixed the mafia, extensive medical knowledge, sharks, and a liberal usage of footnotes—and the sequel, Wild Thing, is even zanier. Dr. Pietro Biernwa, the mob hitman-turned-doctor, has gotten himself embroiled in a scheme to recover a mythical White Lake Monster in the Boundary Waters that unite Minnesota and Canada. At the behest of Rec Bill (short for “Reclusive Billionare”), Biernwa undergoes the quest with the aid of Violet Hurst, a paleontologist with a mysterious past. As if this plot weren’t already bizarre enough, Bazell rips loose on these pages, writing about anything from America’s ignorance of the metric system to a 50-page appendix that serves as an indictment of money in politics. Weirdest of all, however, is the inclusion of Sarah Palin; if you thought her larger-than-life FOX News personality was strange, her presence in Wild Thing will have you reeling. The ability to effectively mesh together disparate genres and tones is a difficult one, but it’s one that Bazell has shown mastery of only two novels into his career.. Brice Ezell


 

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The World Without You

Joshua Henkin

(Knopf Doubleday; US: Jun 2012)

The World Without You
Joshua Henkin


With the war in Afghanistan now the longest war in the history of the United States, the politicized landscape wrought from post-9/11 foreign policy is still tumultuous. It’s become all too easy to point fingers based on partisan lines, and in the process of shouting inflated rhetoric through megaphones what is often forgotten is the real weight of casualties brought about by war. Fortunately, Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You is a stark, affecting reminder that war and loss are not abstract notions; they cut families deep to the core, and in the case of the Frankel family, those cuts cause division. The World Without You is a document of the Frankel family’s fourth of July gathering, a year after Leo, the youngest sibling of parents Marilyn and David, is killed while reporting in Iraq. The grand family saga is a hard type of novel to pull off—especially considering that authors like Dostoyevsky are at the top of the heap—but Henkin makes the subgenre his own, stuffing these three hundred pages with a commanding amount of detail. However, while the novel is highly thorough in tangent and description, things never feel like they’re veering off into rabbit trails; every detail feels important, even when the topics splinter off from family ties to more difficult ones like Jewish identity and infertility. By the time you’ve left the world of The World Without You, you’ll likely know the Frankels better than you know your own family. Brice Ezell

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