Ross Wilcox’s offbeat, engaging short story collection, Golden Gate Jumper Survivors Society, cloaks the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Strange circumstances abound. In the title story, suicide survivors practice their bridge jumping skills each week at a local pool until their support group is turned into a yoga class after a leadership coup. In “Ransom,” a seventh grader announces to his new classmates that his parents are professional kidnappers; when a kidnapping occurs exactly as he’s described, it seems that half the town is in on the plot. “Year of Our Lawn” describes a community where families compete to create more and more elaborate taxidermy dioramas in their front yards.
Wilcox’s well-drawn characters engage in crisp, natural dialogues. In “Of Small Account,” after a woman creates a little boy with a 3D printer, her husband wonders whether it’s a good idea: “I mostly meant that we couldn’t afford to have a kid, not if we hoped to pay off the house.” In “Oliver Weston GBV,” an intriguing but delusional young man who dresses in a purple wizard costume believes that his life is being taped for a reality television show: “it does get tiring. Like when I’m in line to get a sandwich or a Twinkie and the cameras are rolling and everyone’s acting like they’re not on TV.”
The book’s many surreal elements are grounded in authentic, sometimes heartbreaking, details. In “Backwater,” a teenage girl whose parents are divorcing identifies with a classmate who tells the story, over and over, of how he nearly drowned: “with each retelling, I found myself pulled under, my own breath growing short as Riley reached the point in the story where he blacked out.”
Throughout the compelling, unexpected, and poignant stories of Golden Gate Jumper Survivors Society, the absurd is masked by the everyday.
KRISTEN RABE (June 27, 2020)
A Koa Kane Hawaiian Mystery
In Robert McCaw’s winding thriller, a conflicted cop wrangles a conspiracy and a family emergency.
When a volcanic vent explodes under an elementary school, it leaves ten children dead. There is evidence that people knew about the danger, but tried to hide it. Detective Koa is determined to get to the bottom of the cover-up; he has big name suspects in mind.
Information about Hawaii’s geological history and relationship with volcanic threats is dusted into conversations, while the conspiracy itself sparks outrage among media and parents. Koa traces its origins to five major players in Hawaii’s land development and political arenas, who are described in illustrative terms, their illicit motivations captured in sharp detail. Meanwhile, an unknown but powerful person connects the suspects to a dark secret from their past, and an action-packed confrontation brings clarity to Koa’s case.
Koa is a diligent detective whose exchanges with colleagues are infused with Hawaiian language and culture. He’s familiar with criminal minds and harbors guilt over a lingering secret of his own; his brother, Ikaika, has been in and out of jail for years. Koa struggles with his past, but the bonds of family are tight. His mother’s pleas to not give up on Ikaika are an emotional addition, and when it’s discovered that Ikaika has two large tumors, Koa sees an opportunity for redemption. Fascinating questions about how behavior is influenced by the brain’s functions and health challenges arise.
Balancing the elementary school explosion investigation with Koa’s family troubles, Fire and Vengeance is a meticulous mystery in which murders serve as messages to the elite members of society.
DELIA STANLEY (June 27, 2020)
Reema Rajbanshi’s debut novel-in-stories Sugar, Smoke, Song collects its thematically linked pieces into three clusters with recurring characters.
The first group, starting with “The Ruins,” centers on beautiful Indo-Burmese identical twins, Maina and Biju. Their intimacy is altered when Biju’s face is slashed and scarred by a knife-wielding stranger in a New York City subway, just after 9/11. Another set concerns Assamese American dancer Jumi and her on-again/off-again relationship, complicated by skin tone and class, with a Chinese and Indian American, Walter. The final three stories, starting with “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughter,” feature Nirmali, the daughter of impossible-to-please immigrants. Nirmali has also suffered from violence, and has scars on her hips. Later, grown up, she finds herself in a relationship with the darker-skinned Yusuf, an artist who tells her, “Never forget you are not black.”
Skin color is always an issue. In “One Tiny Thing,” Nirmali, whose mother refused to let her in the kitchen because “you don’t need to be like me,” winds up working simultaneously at the Delhi Delight restaurant and as a housekeeper and nanny for light-complected immigrants, taking care of a baby with “durian-stink diapers” while looking for a voice-coaching job.
Rajbanshi employs a wide range of motifs, including imagery from the Ramayana, from ballet, and from the kitchen via starfruit (including recipes) in “The Stars of Bollywood House.” These are not stories to rush through: Rajbanshi’s language is original and worthy of close attention. She frequently uses nouns as verbs to fresh effect: a character “zombies” through the American Civil War, another “mermaids” into water, and a girl “dervishes” into a rosebush.
Sensuous and surprising, Sugar, Smoke, Song presents variations on a theme of Assamese American women’s identities, including hardship with a dash of hope.
SUZANNE KAMATA (June 27, 2020)
The Search for a Sister Gone Missing
Once, riot grrrl Atlantis Black’s star was on the rise, but success evaded her, replaced by darkness. Still, the enigmatic musician had the perspicacity to ensure that her legacy would endure via unanswerable questions, many of which are wrangled in her sister Betsy Bonner’s piercing true crime investigation, The Book of Atlantis Black.
Though Bonner’s love for, and fascination with, her sister is apparent throughout the text, her shifting perceptions of charismatic Atlantis also reveal the degree to which Atlantis’s appeal rested on a dangerous edge. Atlantis, born Nancy but prone to personal reinvention, is variously shown to have been a survivor and a manipulator, stalked and obsessive, and protective and cruel. She may have inherited her mother’s depression; she is known to have attempted suicide; and she was vivacious and creative in ferocious bursts.
Bonner juggles Atlantis’s contradictions as she works to tell her sister’s story in an objective manner. Not even Atlantis’s end is approached with certainty: was the body that Bonner’s mother identified in a Tijuana morgue actually Atlantis’s, or did Atlantis manage a magnificent deception? Was Atlantis’s story a familiar tragedy, marked by abuse, drugs, and death, or was she more mythical than that: the victim of government conspiracies and a participant in grandiose love affairs? It becomes clear that people around Atlantis thirsted to believe her stories; it becomes certain that some element of her untamed spirit kept on roaming past her pronounced death.
Even more engrossing than the book’s persistent mysteries is Bonner’s hunger to understand her enigmatic sister, and to populate the empty spaces that Atlantis opened in the universe with truths. Resisting definitive pronouncements, The Book of Atlantis Black assumes the qualities of the departed musician herself: marked by yearning, it revolves around absences and is irresistible to the end.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (June 27, 2020)
A Graphic Memoir
A fictional alter ego channels a true-life account in Bishakh Som’s Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir.
Anjali, a former New York architect, serves as a visual substitute for Bishakh Som. Her history and personality also mirror Som’s—for storytelling purposes, Anjali is Som. A series of chronological chapters, most one or two pages long, detail Anjali’s attempts to pay bills and care for her aging parents while creating and publishing a graphic novel. A few chapters extend longer to suit their subjects, including the twenty-three page “Vampiric Caterpillars,” in which Anjali deals with the deaths of her parents in India. Events flow, one to the next, with ease.
The book has an unpredictable, lively, and enjoyable rhythm. Gender, orientation, and identity are prominent themes: Anjali explores the possibility of romance with a longtime woman friend before beginning a promising relationship with a transgender person. Her questioning is an additional source of internal conflict throughout the book.
Anjali is a smart lead: she balances occasional bouts of self-pity with genuine, self-effacing humor. She’s both admirable and relatable as a mature person who finds herself drawn in different directions, trying to find her place in the world and following her dreams without ignoring her responsibilities.
The art is appealing in its clean, clear style, and is rendered in beautiful colors, aided by an architect’s eye for layout, design, and details. Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir is an absorbing graphic novel that takes common struggles and examines them through an uncommon lens.
PETER DABBENE (August 22, 2020)