The intertwining of the personal and the political is at the heart of Christie Hodgen’s Boy Meets Girl, a smart, funny novel.
In 1992, rich Ben meets poor-ish Sam in a New Hampshire sandwich shop. Ben is working on a political campaign with Kurtz and Boris, two colorful characters whose bickering adds energy to his observations of American campaign politics. Days before, Sam met Bill Clinton; these two meetings become glowing etchings in her mind.
This is a tender, humanistic dissection of the on-again, off-again romance between Ben and Sam. Ben becomes a New York therapist and almost gets married; Sam becomes a literature professor in a Midwest college and has an unplanned pregnancy. They love each other, but can’t seem to meet on equal grounds. They toggle between love and friendship.
And Ben and Sam’s circumstances are shared against manifold accounts of American politics: the book covers Bill Clinton’s election, September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq, the housing-bubble burst, Occupy Wall Street, Guantanamo, and Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency. Ben and Sam’s ruminations and exchanges include trenchant commentary on these events, incorporating references from culture and literature and subtle, often mordant humor.
As the novel zigzags between 1992 and 2017, its temporal interludes become evocative of conversations with a therapist. They are poignant in revealing Ben’s emotional paralysis and inability to risk his heart for love, as well as Sam’s patient, almost pathetic, yearning and years of waiting for him. As they pursue happiness, they become aware of how unbridgeable the chasms between them are.
Portraying American political life through the prism of romantic realism, Boy Meets Girl is an ambitious and beautiful trawl through liberal, middle-class America that captures the deep emotional rifts between the haves and the have-nots.
ELAINE CHIEW (February 27, 2022)
Eerie and unsettling, Masatsugu Ono’s novel At the Edge of the Woods is a disturbing family story and a surreal tale of a world torn apart by disaster.
An unnamed father and son live in their isolated house near the woods. The mother has gone to stay with her family to await her new baby. Strange noises—coughing, laughing, and talking—emerge from the woods. Bizarre events pile up. The trees seem to move; someone has propped up the branches of an apple tree, but no one knows who. Then the son brings an old, half-naked woman home from the woods; she vanishes. Neighbors tells stories of imps who steal livestock and children.
A chill permeates the book, in which the lines between reality and illusion are blurred. Television news programs report floods and endless lines of refugees; the lines also appear on nearby roads, or seem to. Nature has gone haywire. The woods are full of menace and danger, shapeshifting and alive. The few people whom the family sees are hostile and grotesque.
The father narrates, expressing bewilderment over the world around him. He stops short of seeking answers, resulting in a sense of passivity and helplessness. His son is moody and distant, but there is little that the father can do for him. His wife, who traveled to seek safety with her family, also encounters menaces. There is no escape; these characters can only hope for survival.
The novel emphasizes atmosphere and incidents over plot, implying that the pleasures of narrative resolution are out of reach. Occasional flashbacks fill in the family’s history, but offer no explanation of their predicament.
Written in startling, imaginative vignettes, At the Edge of the Woods is an evocative, terrifying story about a family’s efforts to survive a crisis.
REBECCA HUSSEY (February 27, 2022)
Softcover $19.99 (350pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound)
In Jackson Bliss’s vibrant and intense novel Amnesia of June Bugs, four people cross paths on a stalled New York subway train during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.
With a cyclical, reverse-time structure, the novel follows Aziz, a Moroccan French literary translator; Suzanne, an Indian American tourist; Ginger, a multiracial graphic designer; and Winnie, a Chinese American graffiti artist. Winnie and Ginger live in New York and have a longstanding romantic involvement, while Suzanne and Aziz meet as distressed visitors. After boarding the same train line, they become trapped within an underground purgatory, like a “steel sarcophagus” in the middle of a “storm cloud.”
Though the harrowing subway ride is pivotal, the heft of the novel involves the characters’ intriguing backstories. Streetwise Winnie is a “cement poet” and “student of the artistic revolution.” Millions of Instagram followers adore the mystical, random appearances of his political graffiti creation, the Buddha Mao, throughout the city. Ginger loves children and wants her condominium “jam-packed with precocious bambini,” but her pregnancy tests are always negative.
Suzanne sometimes misses her family life in Chicago, but she’s also reluctant to accept her parents’ cultural expectations. She is generous in tipping taxi drivers and food service workers, and sports a ladybug backpack and “Bleeding Commie” red lipstick. Aziz affects intellectual cynicism to hide his romantic vulnerability and feelings of emotional and racial displacement.
Lovely moments, as with Winnie and Ginger’s rooftop picnic amid “gold candlelight,” contrast with the harsher aspects of urban life, such as violent crime and economic disparity. The flow of observations, from Williamsburg hipsters to Bronx classrooms and Chinatown domino games, is both agitated and poetic, resulting in a multicultural, shifting perspective.
Beyond its four “prisoners of darkness and coincidence,” Amnesia of June Bugs recalls the boundless, ruthless, and exhilarating energy of a pre-pandemic New York.
MEG NOLA (April 21, 2022)
Emma Carlson Berne’s clever mystery novel Shabbat Sabotage is about friendship, community, and facing one’s fears.
Maya doesn’t want to go to summer camp. She’s not athletic, she doesn’t enjoy the outdoors, and she has difficulties making friends. But when she arrives at Camp Shalom and meets her counselor, Tamar, and fellow cabin members of Team Akko—Dani, Gracie, Marisa, and Yael—she immediately fits in. At the camp opening ceremony, she is swept up in the feeling of community; now, there is nowhere she’d rather be. To top it all off, Team Akko are chosen to lead Camp Shalom’s first Shabbat service.
But then the valuable objects used for Shabbat are stolen. Team Akko bands together to solve the crime so that they can lead the Shabbat service as planned; they set out to find the thief hiding in the campers’ midst. They confront unforeseen challenges where the clues point to one of Team Akko’s own members, though.
The mystery centers the intelligence and friendship of the girls. Maya is the heart of the crime-solving crew, while Sherlock Holmes-obsessed Dani is its mastermind. Gracie and Marisa are the foot soldiers, and Yael is more elusive. These relatable characters overcome personal fears connected to the activities at the camp; these also tie in with the mystery they are working to solve. They move with speed toward a satisfying resolution to their sleuthing, with important lessons learned by all.
Shabbat Sabotage is an engaging mystery about the achievements of girls through friendship, teamwork, and support.
ERIKA HARLITZ KERN (February 27, 2022)
Northern Lights Photography
Spirits in the Sky showcases photographer Paul Zizka’s stunning portraits of the aurora borealis in places including Banff National Park, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland.
The Northern Lights have long been the subject of Finnish and Inuit legends. Although Zizka gives a succinct explanation of the science behind the phenomenon, it remains mysterious, and the unearthly green, white, and purple swirls that populate his photographs are enrapturing. There are long exposures and self-portraits against breathtaking landscapes of mountains and lakes; other people appear climbing glaciers or in ice caves, revealing the true scale of the aurora. Animals are captured, too, including a horned owl and wood bison. Cave mouths frame memorable shots. The book’s human-made structures, including an abandoned truck and Zizka’s tent, are all the more striking in contrast with the impressionistic colors above.
The book also represents a behind-the-scenes look at a photographer’s work. If the weather and viewing conditions allow—if “the data is good,” as in Zizka’s shorthand—Zizka knows he’ll be going out in the wee hours. One “needs to be committed to a long, potentially sleepless night,” he notes. His family’s understanding is a given, and his toddler daughter’s first glimpse of the aurora makes for a poignant ending.
The gorgeous photographs of the northern lights in Spirits in the Sky are magical and transportive.
REBECCA FOSTER (April 21, 2022)