Plain language and straightforward writing make ambiguity the exception instead of the rule in Radium Girl. In twelve whiplash-fast stories, Sofi Papamarko tackles belonging, grief, delusion, and consent with deftness and unique situations.
Breaking boundaries to explore ideas of othering, “Margie and Lu” follows a set of conjoined twins who are trying to fit in with their young adult peers. The story culminates with an impactful scene where one sister plunges their shared body into a sexual encounter.
A lighthearted, whimsical woman reaches her breaking point in “White Cake,” taking an unlikely course in dealing with her foes. A career-boosting dinner party spirals in “The Pollinators” because of a relentless, obsessive conversation and the alienated host’s sudden disclosure of marital tribulations.
A family follows a nuclear attack survival guide to the letter in the fascinating tale “Something to Cry About,” filling a fallout shelter with food and water and preparing an exercise program. A single missing item leads to the family’s unmitigated fracturing and a bizarre revelation. “Radium Girl” is wistful, powerful, and breathtaking—a fictionalization of real-life events and a tribute, all at once. Its cast works with the revolutionary material Undark. As they fall ill, one by one, a young woman finds strength in the radium, using it to defeat her oppressors.
Moving between Canadian and United States locales, the stories are all distinct, yet share a tension and darkness that’s not always apparent at the outset. Hints of the supernatural surprise, as in the changing photographs of deceased parents whose deaths both devastate their daughter and release her from their expectations. Attractiveness, inexperience, youth, and women’s issues are frequent themes, but are approached from dissimilar angles.
Easy and engrossing, the short stories of Radium Girl provoke unease and careful thought about diverse human experiences. They won’t easily be forgotten.
TANISHA RULE (April 27, 2021)
Lost Worlds of Early Australia
Grace Karskens’s engrossing history People of the River illuminates Australia’s distant past.
The book opens in deep history, describing the topography and course of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, a waterway that curves like a giant parenthesis around western Sydney, and around which Aboriginal people settled 50,000 years ago.
The book introduces Aboriginal groups first, so that their bond to their ancestral lands is palpable. This also sets the stage for conflicts to come—as do chapters like “Forests and Clearings,” which opens by describing the spiritual and symbolic roles that trees fill in Aboriginal life, turning its benign title into an act dark foreshadowing.
British convicts begin arriving in the region as 1790s, regarded by those who sent them as convenient, if unwilling, immigrants, charged with colonizing a land that was thought uninhabitable in Europe. Aboriginal people and these deported convicts ended up together in the small, rich land embraced by the river’s crescent, and tension mounted as farms pushed against Indigenous lands.
Grand sweeps of drama are expressed in human terms in the book’s focused, swift narration. When other disciplines are brought in, including archaeology and botany, they keep interest strong, showing how complex systems and macro factors affected human lives in the region. As time moves forward, diaries, records, and letters come into play, weaving distinct individuals into the broad canvas of events. The book lets the curtain drop near the end of the nineteenth century, at a time when the Hawkesbury-Nepean area was still recognizable as separate from the lands surrounding it.
People of the River is a meticulous history whose exciting writing reveals the history of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, the Aboriginal people who settled there, and the English and Irish convicts who arrived and built its farmlands.
SUSAN WAGGONER (May 28, 2021)
Although science fiction imagines diverse, imaginative, and frightening futures, genre anthologies rarely achieve the brilliant range and diversity of voices of The Best of World SF: Volume 1. Edited by Lavie Tidhar, this labor of love includes twenty-six stories that run the global gamut of contemporary science fiction’s best writers. From Ghana to India, from Mexico to France, from Israel to Cuba, the stories are ambitious in breadth and vision; they portend what’s still possible in the beloved genre.
With contributions from Gerardo Horacio Porcayo, Kuzhali Manickavel, and Zen Cho, this anthology includes every conceivable iteration of the fantastic future. Robots, spaceships, weird stories, speculative and near-future fiction, and time travel are all reimagined in terrifying, visceral ways. Each story is a gem that contains unforgettable images.
In these worlds, blood floats in jellyfish-shaped zero gravity globules, and courtesans perform snake dances with miniature albino sandworms. In Chen Qiufan’s “Debtless,” space miners are enslaved to pay off inescapable “debt that is encrypted and embedded in your genes.” In Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion,” the future retains traces of a rich cultural past that is just out of reach, smelling of lemongrass and fish sauce. Separated from her roots, the narrator feels “like a field of sugar canes after the harvest—burnt out, all cutting edges with no sweetness left inside.”
By shifting the focus of “the future” from New York or London, global science fiction honors a vast diversity of visions and experience, backgrounds and culture. The anthology brings a fresh, revolutionary perspective in that its selections are intentionally curated to suggest that the horizon is both closer and brighter than Western readers might think.
Vital and exciting, The Best of World SF blows the blast panels off the dusty, well-worn tropes of popular science fiction and lets in a dazzling burst of lunar light.
CLAIRE FOSTER (April 27, 2021)
The Magic of Exploring the Outdoors after Dark
Chris Salisbury’s Wild Nights Out is a fun, inventive adventure guide about helping children explore nature after dark.
This comprehensive handbook is loaded with activities and information to enrich children’s experiences of the nighttime world. Detailed instructions explain how to walk like a fox, practice “deer ears” to sharpen senses, watch for owls, or play “bat and mouse” to learn about echolocation. Describing twenty-five outdoor activities in all, the book urges parents, grandparents, and teachers “to pause and imagine what it’s like to be a child in an unfamiliar place, like a forest, under the enchantment of nighttime.”
While some activities may require a road trip, most would work in a backyard or neighborhood park. To spur confidence, the book includes practical tips for tracking nocturnal animals, observing constellations, and telling stories around the campfire. Who knew before that an otter’s scat smells like jasmine tea? Or that the best time to view the moon’s craters is when it’s waxing or waning, not when it’s full? Or that there are approximately 1.4 billion insects—many of them nocturnal–for every human being that’s alive? Or that a Finnish folk tale explains that the northern lights are sparked by the tail of an Arctic fox? Citing an array of science, lore, literature, and personal experience, the book makes a powerful case that darkness is essential to our health and a full experience of life on this planet.
With engaging illustrations and a helpful list of resources, Wild Nights Out provides tools and instructions that will spur parents’ creativity and help transform children’s perceptions of the natural world. Its activities are a great excuse to turn off the television, set down smartphones, and explore the rich, mysterious world of darkness just beyond the back door.
KRISTEN RABE (April 27, 2021)
In Lana Bastašić’s inventive, passionate novel Catch the Rabbit, childhood friends reunite for a road trip from Bosnia to Vienna.
Sara fled Bosnia to build a new life in Dublin with her boyfriend, Michael. Ensconced in an apartment with Leonard Cohen records and a stubborn avocado tree, Sara is now a writer and translator, while Michael writes computer code. When Sara receives an unexpected call from her childhood friend, Lejla, it lures her back to Bosnia, and to drive across Eastern Europe and visit Lejla’s exiled brother, Armin.
The women travel the Bosnian countryside, including the village where they grew up, on their way to Zagreb and Vienna. Though they were inseparable when young, Sara is now startled by her wild, impulsive friend, with her “fake blonde hair” and “icy throne.” One night, Lejla convinces their kind hostess that Sara doesn’t speak Bosnian, and then offers mutilated English translations that mock the woman.
In powerful flashbacks, Sara reconsiders her school days, and her infatuations with both Lejla and Armin. The foreboding scenes include a crushed sparrow, poisoned dogs, and a stolen bunny. Walking the streets where she grew up, Sara notes the darkness is a “living, tangible substance,” and that the street lamps flicker like the “shy girl at a nightclub.” The book’s images are evocative and captivating:
Memories might be like a frozen lake to me—blurry and slippery—but every now and then there’s a crack in its surface and I can put my hand through it and catch a detail, a recollection in the cold water.
Set against the striking backdrop of post-war Bosnia, Catch the Rabbit is a poignant, wrenching novel about the power of memory and the challenges of knowing another person.
KRISTEN RABE (April 27, 2021)