‘The Manningtree Witches’ by A.K. Blakemore: Compelled to Torture

by Supriya Saxena

The Manningtree Witches (320 pages; Catapult) is about all the ugliness that comes with being a woman in a society in which they are oppressed and deemed inferior. Set in the small English town of Manningtree, A. K. Blakemore’s first novel illustrates the anti-witch hysteria sweeping the townspeople as related by Rebecca West, a young woman who lives in Manningtree with her widowed mother. It is a picture both vivid and ugly, and though the book is set in the 17th century it feels relevant to our present day.  Rebecca makes for an insightful protagonist, describing the extraordinary and horrific […]

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‘Death Fugue’ by Sheng Keyi: A Tower of…What?

by Colton Alstatt

In Sheng Keyi’s absurdist novel, Death Fugue (translated by Shelly Bryant; 376 pages; Restless Books), a tower made of feces appears in Round Square in the fictional capital of Beiping, much to the intrigue of young people who do not believe, as the government and media say, that the nine-story heap is composed of gorilla excrement. Concerned with more than sphincter logistics and scatological expertise, this excitable group demands answers from an unaccountable government. In response, protesters are rounded up, thinkers put on watchlists, and the movement’s final gathering quashed with incredible force. Banned in China’s bookstores and circulating in […]

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‘Afterparties’ by Anthony Veasna So: Born from Incongruence

by Peter Schlachte

The stories in Anthony Veasna So’s debut collection, Afterparties (272 pages; Ecco), are stories of humor and wit, of loud-mouths and bad-mouthers, of queer kids and chain-smoking monks and parties and sex, sometimes all squashed together in a few whirlwind pages. They are also stories of genocide and diaspora, of making ends meet and meeting ends. It’s a tight line to walk—the balance of the sometimes tragic with the often comical—but for So, who died in 2020 at the age of 28, it seemed second nature. “I think humor is a particularly important tool in immigrant literature and stories, or […]

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‘Something New Under the Sun’ by Alexandra Kleeman: Don’t Drink the WAT-R

by Shelby Hinte

Imagine for a moment that the power to your city has been turned off for an undisclosed amount of time—a precautionary measure to ensure that homes are not engulfed in flames by the fires that rage just outside the city limits. A heat wave invades the city and in the darkness of a blacked-out night, no air conditioners hum. People open their windows to let in air, any air, to cool themselves amid the scorching heat, even if it is full of smoke from nearby fires. The state has issued water restrictions due to drought and, oh yes, people are […]

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‘Appleseed’ by Matt Bell: From Antiquity to Apocalypse

by Colton Alstatt

From novelist Matt Bell comes his newest book, Appleseed (480 pages; Custom House), a story about the linked fates of three Ohioans: a malformed brother in pre-colonial America hunting the Tree of Forgetting, hoping to forget pasts he does and does not know; a near-future ecoterrorist resisting his former lover’s corporate dystopia across an abandoned United States; and a haunted cyborg crossing an icy, post-human purgatory to re-cultivate the Earth, which, despite lacking the vocabulary or Keatsian tradition, he instinctually knows is beautiful. Sentence-level epics form on every page, the prose floating between beatific and elegiac: This overripe abundance all […]

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‘Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead’ by Emily Austin: Return to Dust

by Oriana Christ

Life is, as some are already too aware, absurdly fragile and relatively meaningless. This certitude saturates nearly every page of Emily Austin’s debut novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead (243 pages; Atria Books). Though the book’s title makes it fairly clear what is to follow, its cover, with its delicate cursive lettering and pastel bunnies, might mislead one to expect an ultimately lighthearted or uplifting story. This is not the case. Readers should go in with a few warnings: the novel is fundamentally about severe anxiety and thus severely anxiety-inducing; it contains heavy suicidal ideation and is […]

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‘Ghost Forest’ by Pik-Shuen Fung: What We Say to the Dying

by Ray Levy Uyeda

In Ghost Forest (251 pages; Random House), the novel’s title is also the name of a painting created by the protagonist, an unnamed daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong. As an adult, the narrator takes her father, who throughout her childhood split his time between Hong Kong and Vancouver, to see her painting in a juried show. “In the painting, I am riding a brown bird,” she describes. “We are soaring above tree after tree, and each one is white and translucent. I washed white watercolor on gray rice paper to create that effect.” Her father’s reaction is not what […]

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‘The Five Wounds’ by Kirstin Valdez Quade: No Such Thing as Sacred Performance

by CJ Green

Amadeo Padilla is preparing for his starring role as Jesus in a Good Friday procession when his estranged 15-year-old daughter, Angel, shows up on his doorstep—eight months pregnant. So begins Kirstin Valdez Quade’s exceptional first novel, The Five Wounds (416 pages; Norton), which she arranges in three sections according to the Church calendar: “Holy Week,” “Ordinary Time,” and “Lent.” We begin in Holy Week, with Amadeo, adrift. He and his daughter have been estranged, and we learn that for weeks at a time, he has forgotten that he has a daughter at all. He is in his thirties, unemployed, lives […]

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‘Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California’ by Matthew Specktor: Blood Sports

by Paul Wilner

As the Beat poet Lew Welch pithily put it, “More people know you than you know. Fame.” Welch was someone who knew whereof he spoke. He disappeared from his friend Gary Snyder’s house into a nearby mountain range in May 1971, leaving behind a cryptic farewell note that read, in part: “I had great visions but could never bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s gone.’’ Matthew Specktor explores the pulls—and perils—of chasing success in Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California (300 pages; Tin House), an eloquent account of […]

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‘All the Water I’ve Seen is Running’ by Elias Rodriques: The Unlikeliness of Life

by Ray Levy Uyeda

Elias Rodriques’s All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running (255 pages; Norton) tells the story of Daniel Henriquez, a high school English teacher working in New York who returns home to Florida after he receives news that a friend from his teen years has passed away. The book’s plot takes place in the present, mostly over the course of a few days on the Palm Coast, though Daniel’s interiority takes the reader back in time with him as he retraces memories of his friend Aubrey. Daniel, the mixed-race son of Jamaican immigrants, and Aubrey, a white Southerner whose family proudly […]

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‘To Write as If Already Dead’ by Kate Zambreno: The Body of the Author

by Alana Frances Baer

Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” saw a challenge, two years later, with Michel Foucault’s lecture “What Is an Author?” Kate Zambreno abbreviates the distinction between these two works: “Barthes wants to kill the author, Foucault wants the author to take on the appearance of a dead man.” Zambreno’s two-part book, To Write as If Already Dead (158 pages; Columbia University Press), meditates on its title throughout, circumscribing death in its consideration of the author as a living and breathing body, flesh behind words. Zambreno is the author of the novel Drifts and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow […]

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‘In the Event of Contact’ by Ethel Rohan: The Law of Life

by Oriana Christ

People are shaped by people. In In the Event of Contact (180 pages; Dzanc Books), San Francisco author Ethel Rohan cements this broad maxim into a specific and learned law of life via the host of complicated characters she creates in her fourteen stories. Each character navigates distinct anguishes, from irreparable guilt to insatiable longing to persistent disappointment, linked only by a home country of Ireland and the theme of human connection. The first story in the collection, after which the book is titled, introduces this theme in its most literal sense via Ruth, a character with a debilitating phobia […]

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