Containing summer friendships, whispered secrets, and a dark, hidden truth, Felicity McLean’s The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is poignant and jarring. Cordelia, Hannah, and Ruth Van Apfel’s disappearances sear through the palpable heat of its Australian summer.
Tikka and Laura are sisters who carry heavy secrets from the summer when the Van Apfel girls vanished. Now adults, they try to untangle those secrets while battling deep guilt. Answers wait in the unopened mouths of the residents of their small community. Everyone has an opinion or clue regarding what became of the girls.
The missing girls have strikingly different personalities. Cordie is the sun whom everyone revolved around; Hannah, the wisest and most motherly; and Ruth is tiny but brave. Each girl’s personality played a pivotal role in their fates, and each is developed with well-maintained depth. McLean’s writing style is poetic and fluid, and her descriptions are tactile. Griping and beautiful in its sadness, the text conveys the girls’ fear and anxiety in a way that is tangible and eloquent.
The story weaves between the present day, where Tikka narrates and details her relationships with her family (especially her sister), and the past, with focus on the infamous summer when their lives changed forever. The Van Apfel household dichotomy is a blatant foreshadowing of events to come: patriarchal Mr. Van Apfel dominates, his behavior suffocating and his extreme religious beliefs and treatment of his wife and daughters appalling. The book’s unpredictable ending is ideal.
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is extraordinary—a warm flashback to summer with a dark underbelly. Reading it is like opening a beautifully wrapped package while holding a deep, irrational fear of what lies inside. It is a blazingly well-written, impressive, and deeply satisfying thriller.
KATIE ASHER (June 21, 2019)
Pam Jones’s Ivy Day is an eerie, vivid examination of minds warped by obsession and stardom. Jones conjures a deep journey into the heads of five characters, focusing on the particularly unpleasant journey of one JOHN MARK Waterman. With elements of literary, noir, and thriller fiction combined with skilled prose, this novel is adeptly off-putting and observant.
JOHN MARK Waterman works at the mortuary, spending his days handling the bodies of the dead. His only respite from this work are the films playing at the local cinema. Through them, he learns about Ivy Day, a beautiful Hollywood starlet and media figure. But very quickly his interest escalates to infatuation and finally complete obsession. In other threads of the novel, three teenage girls aim to emulate the supernaturally perfect Ivy Day by any means possible, and Ivy Day herself reveals the strange relationship she has to her sense of self and her body.
Ivy Day‘s strengths lie in the profound characterization of its cast. Jones uses dizzying free indirect discourse to completely inhabit the minds of these uncanny, exaggerated characters. The acutely introspective, nearly sociopathic mindset of JOHN MARK is particularly captivating. This, along with the book’s lack of a concrete setting or even static character names, makes for a dreamlike sensation while reading.
The technical elements of the novel are just as strong. Jones consistently provides the reader with arresting prose that turns even the most mundane events disturbing: “Transformations are never easy. Breast buds hurt when they blossom. Menstruation kills. [… But it] was worth it in the end, wasn’t it? Pain is beauty, all that?”
The three story lines eventually fuse during the stirring climax, providing an uncomfortable answer to the novel’s central question: What happens when superficial obsession doesn’t let us go? Pam Jones’s Ivy Day is a new, chilling look at the too prevalent, dark side of culture.
MYA ALEXICE (April 27, 2019)
The Story of the Celebrated Canine Cosmonauts
Martin Parr’s Space Dogs features a collection of Soviet memorabilia alongside a brief overview of the program that led to the eventual entry of humans into space. What began as a mere scientific experiment soon erupted into a celebrity phenomenon—ironically, blossoming in the heart of collectivist-minded Soviet Russia.
The Russian space dogs program was a vital precursor to human spaceflight; from a state standpoint, it was also an excellent source of propaganda to be aimed squarely at the United States, where NASA, too, was making attempts to reach the stars.
The Bolshevik Revolution left thousands of stray dogs on the streets of Russia, and scientists seized the opportunity for free test subjects. Far from thrusting them into a cruel laboratory, Russian scientists ensured the dogs’ well-being. Some even formed deep attachments to the canines.
The first of the dogs to go into space was Laika. She ended up dying during the expedition, but the Soviet government covered up that fact. Laika became an icon. Her heroic image graced clocks, cigarette cases, and even her own brand of cigarettes. It wasn’t until Belka and Strelka, a pair of pups who did survive their mission into orbit, that the space dogs merchandise craze exploded.
The book suggests that one of Strelka’s puppies, who took up residence in the White House after Jackie Kennedy playfully suggested to Khrushchev that he should send her one, may have helped keep the tensions between the two countries manageable enough to avoid a third world war.
The majority of the book contains pictures of Parr’s collection. Captured in vibrant color, the vintage items open a window onto this odd anomaly within a society that eschewed individualistic achievements. Complementing the items are black-and-white photos of the space dogs and scientists themselves.
Space Dogs is a short but charming look at the space race from a different, and fluffier, angle.
MEAGAN LOGSDON (April 27, 2019)
Cutting satire and humorous jeremiads expose the hypocrisies of keeping up with the Joneses in Erlend Loe’s novel Doppler.
After his father dies, Andreas Doppler suffers a breakdown, drops out of society, and goes to live in a tent in the forest. Though he’s seeking isolation from all other living beings, Doppler reluctantly befriends an orphaned moose calf, Bongo, whose mother he killed for meat. But then Doppler’s decision to become a recluse attracts attention, and other people move into the forest to join him. Doppler finds himself fighting against the pressures of society once again, asserting his right to live life on his own terms.
Doppler is a man with opinions, and his mind threatens to explode from all of the things that get him riled up. He expounds on everything from the expectations of a perfect life in the suburbs to the irritating veneer of niceness that pervades polite society to the benefits of a barter economy over the capitalist monetary system. Through his internal monologues and one-sided conversations with Bongo, Doppler repeatedly reveals, but does not recognize, his own blind spots, hypocrisies, and anger management issues. (He is of the opinion that he is doing motorists a service when he, an aggressive cyclist, gives them a piece of his mind.) Absurd juxtapositions expose the contradictions within Doppler as well as the people around him as they try to force him to conform.
Doppler’s wrangling with the outside world reads like a swift and precise whirlwind. Each tangent has a purpose, and a deadpan, occasionally dark, sense of humor is maintained throughout. The translation from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw retains the cadence and incisive naïveté of Erlend Loe’s high-strung original prose.
Doppler is a humorous satirical novel that cuts to the quick of what ails modern society.
ERIKA HARLITZ KERN (April 27, 2019)
How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet
Making Eden is a sweeping history of plant evolution that demonstrates both the development and fragility of plant life.
Natural sciences professor David Beerling’s book is a comprehensive evolutionary history that traces the birth and maturity of this planet’s plants. Sound and alluring, it exposes readers to phenomena like the remarkable complexity of plants, the genetic commonality that enables an incredible variety of flowers, and the fascinating biological secret behind the resilience of redwood trees that flourish despite their immense size.
One of the book’s key focuses is the interrelationship of plants and animals. “Our brains are wired to notice animals, not plants,” Beerling writes, yet plant life is “a prerequisite for sustaining a consumer society of land-dwelling animals.” He makes a strong case that plants “paved the way for the evolution of terrestrial animals, and ultimately led to the appearance of human beings.” Plants were, are, and will continue to be essential to the well-being of human beings, says Beerling.
The text also addresses the negative impact that humans have on plants and the Earth in general. Growing populations and increased agricultural production have imperiled the Earth to the extent that plant species are likely to risk extinction, albeit slow extinction. This reality, in combination with climate change, suggests the need for fundamental change.
One cannot help but be humbled by the sophistication and abundance of nature and plant life promulgated on Earth. That story unfolds with beauty in Making Eden. While David Beerling is cautiously optimistic, he also argues that we must “reject the grim alternative future of sending our emerald planet back to the drab world of the distant past.”
BARRY SILVERSTEIN (April 27, 2019)