A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian

A People’s History of Heaven is a novel about friendship, strength, and a fight for home as a group of young women fight to defend the slum they live in. Heaven is a Bangalore slum scheduled for destruction, but for five girls on the cusp of adulthood, it is the place they have been and become themselves. Banu knows how to build and create beautiful things but isn’t good at school, Padma wants to keep studying though first she needs to keep her mother in a job, Rukshana has carved out her version of womanhood and fell in a love with a girl in a tree, Joy isn’t sure what the future holds for a transgender Christian convert, and Deepa dances better than the rest of them but is treated differently due to her blindness. Despite their various circumstances, families, and religions, the five are a tight knit group, and they’re not going to let their home go without a fight.

The novel moves between their lives, past and present, using the first person plural to give a sense of their connectedness, an entity that celebrates one another and fights together. As much as it is about Heaven (the slum), it is also about how these girls have grown up and become who they are in that moment. The characters are vibrant and memorable, and Subramanian’s writing really creates a vivid picture of them and their lives. It makes you constantly want to know more about these characters and what might happen to them beyond the confines of the novel, but also carefully weaves together the stories to build up the narrative.

A People’s History of Heaven is a joyous and surprising novel that celebrates variation whilst not shying away from some of the realities that people face. It is the kind of book you can’t help but recommend to people or give as a gift to someone looking for something new and fresh.

In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a literary historical fairy tale that blends New England colonial morality with a strange magical game. A young woman leaves her man and son behind to go into the forest and pick berries, but she loses her way and her shoes. Or so it seems. She finds help in the woods and ends up in a house with a woman called Eliza who cares for her, but she knows she should return home. However, returning home might not be exactly as she thinks, and the horrors of the forest are not all they seem.

It feels important to go into this short novel with an awareness of the blurb or premise, as this sets up the right expectations of a style (eerie nature descriptions, uncertainty, confusion) and narrative (not something to be trusted). At first, it is mostly the kind of horror of being in a magical forest and not knowing what is going on, but as the book progresses it becomes both a weird dark game and, through clues about the characters’ pasts and depictions of literacy and the treatment of people, a New England gothic that highlights the horrors people can do. It isn’t really about witches, but does feel very much about the ways witches are tied to morality.

The novel is one that some people will find creepy and something to think about once the final pages are over, and others will find confusing and too ambiguous. Hunt does well to keep it moving forward and making sense as far as it is meant to, but also to give it a very unreal feeling that is why people are calling it a fairy tale as well as a kind of horror story. It calls to mind Angela Carter more than anything more New England and fans of books that are more allegorical or ambiguously unreal will want to give it a read.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson

Lie With Me is a novel about a first love and looking back at the past. A chance encounter in a hotel makes Philippe, a writer, think back to his teenage years in the 80s and the secret love between him and his classmate Thomas. Philippe reflects on how he was then and how Thomas saw him, particularly how Thomas saw that they were destined to go in different directions in life.

This short novel is lyrical and reflective, self-consciously about writing and memory. Its length gives it a real focus, with the sense of being told a very specific story from someone’s life rather than a wider narrative, and this brings it an intimacy that suits the love story and personal reflection at its heart. Comparisons with Call Me By Your Name and the fact the English translation of this French book is by Molly Ringwald will bring added interest to this short novel that can be read in one sitting, and you could imagine it as a film, with a backdrop of French countryside and 80s fashion.

Car Park Life by Gareth E. Rees

Car Park Life is a book about car parks. Not any old car parks, but the car parks found with supermarkets and other chain stores in retail parks. Yes, really. After something of an epiphany in a Morrison’s car park that car parks might be something more than they seem, Rees sets on a journey to explore car parks, on foot, and look at the landscapes we ignore, battle for spaces in, and dash across. There’s litter, wildlife, dodgy deals, fights, and a whole lot more, as Rees travels through car parks and also highlights the strangest news stories about them.

In its essence, this is very readable psychogeography combined with Brexit and capitalist horror, all covered in a wry and mocking veneer. Rees knows he’s just walking around car parks looking for meaning, but that doesn’t stop him doing it. The book is strangely fascinating, even to someone (like me) who doesn’t drive, and for whom car parks are always approached on foot. At times you might think ‘oh, another Sainsbury’s car park, fascinating’, but actually that feels like the point: these places should be so mundane, but so many things—sex, drugs, violence—happen in car parks. The ending brings together a bit of the environmental future with the fact that looking at car parks raises more questions than it answers, and leaves the reader open to taking what they want from it: an amusing tale of obsession, a chance to muse on what a landscape feature says about capitalism, or a bleak look at the country.

Part story of a weird obsession, part look at neoliberalism and capitalism through a psychogeography lens, and part satirical image of modern Britain, this is a book that forces you to think about car parks and why so many strange things happen in them. And it can’t help but make you think about the major car parks in your life, too.

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

The Art of Dying is a historical medical mystery about unexplained deaths and medical rivalries set in Edinburgh, the follow up to The Way of All Flesh by husband and wife writing team Ambrose Parry. Will Raven and Sarah Fisher are back, with Will now Dr Simpson’s assistant and Sarah trying to expand her position giving medical help to the doctor despite the limitations placed on women. Dr Simpson’s reputation is in trouble after one of his patients died in circumstances that other doctors have claimed are suspicious, but looking into this causes Raven and Sarah to uncover a lot more mysterious deaths and find some unlikely possible causes for them. At the same time, Raven continues to evade his pursuers and worry about his own nature, whilst Sarah has new troubles to worry about.

The first in the series was most interesting for its look at class and gender in the period, and the sequel certainly focuses on the latter, looking at the position of women in society and in the roles they can take. Once again, anaesthesia plays an important role in the novel, with Simpson’s focus on chloroform still present, though there is slightly less of the medical focus as in the first one (or at least it feels like there is). The mystery narrative is unravelled using a good trope that allows for a few twists, and a wide cast of characters are kept up (though it feels very much like a book in a series for not resolving a number of side plots).

Historical mystery fans will likely enjoy this follow up, which combines a range of interesting characters with some real historical inspiration and a dark series of murders. Not one for the squeamish, but for people who like some historical research alongside the mystery.

We Hunt The Flame by Hafsah Faizal

We Hunt The Flame is a gripping young adult novel that explores the light and dark in people and forging your own identity. Zafira is the Hunter, a mysterious figure who hunts for food in a magical forest no one else can navigate, but no one would care how she feeds her people if they knew the Hunter was female. Nasir is the Prince of Death, forced to obey his father the sultan and kill on order. Though very different, they both find themselves on a similar mission: to retrieve magic from a dangerous island; Zafira for the people and Nasir for his father. And though Nasir has been ordered to kill the Hunter, they both end up part of an unlikely gang, all untrusting but united in a common goal, and then it turns out they have a bigger enemy than any one of them.

As someone who doesn’t tend to read fantasy (but saw someone raving about this book), We Hunt The Flame was a revelation: a fantasy novel that is carefully woven to dig deep into character and motivation, and without excessive or unnecessary world-building. Moving between Zafira and Nasir’s perspectives, the narrative is fast-paced and balances surprises with emotion. Both of the protagonists are engrossing characters, with Zafira learning that people’s morals and lives aren’t black and white whilst she looks to who she is outside of the ‘Hunter’ legend, and Nasir battling with the fact that emotion and relationships with others might stretch beyond who he’s been told to kill next. The coming together of the whole crew doesn’t feel forced and works well, leaving an intriguing mix of characters for the second part of the duology.

This is a novel that is really centred around its characters and the ragtag band of fighters that they form. It also emphasises the importance of taking control of your own identity and how that might not always be an easy task in relation to the society or rules you live with. At the same time, it is a fun fantasy story with a lot of banter and characters learning to work together.

The Falconer by Dana Czapnik

The Falconer is a coming of age novel with a vivid New York City in the early 90s setting. Lucy Adler is seventeen, a basketball player, applying to college, and in unrequited love with her best friend, the rich and self-assured Percy. She’s searching for how she can be herself—not one of the ‘girl’ stereotypes but a rounded, complex person—whilst discovering philosophy and feminism and realising she has a supportive network of similarly complex women.

The novel is exciting and sharp, with Lucy’s narrative voice capturing her personality as someone torn between contradictions, trying to be cynical and romantic, self-confident and insecure. The importance of New York City as the place she has grown up, a place full of memories, and a place she will eventually leave is vital, and Czapnik uses almost stream of consciousness parts to show Lucy’s thoughts as she travels down familiar streets, building up a rich layer of memory. Lucy tries to work out her desire for male approval and the difficulty of wanting to be seen for who she is, not either as a sports-playing ‘one of the boys’ or as a girl who doesn’t fit what she feels are usual standards of beauty, and this element of the novel gives it a powerful message about growing up, identity, and gender.

With The Falconer, Czapnik seems to have captured a character who will resonate with a lot of people whilst also creating a depiction of NYC from the perspective of someone who has grown up there and both loves and hates it.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is a tense and memorable novel about an awful reform school and an idealistic boy who finds himself there. Elwood Curtis, an outsider brought up by his strict grandmother and stirred up by the words of Martin Luther King, is about to start taking college level classes and dreams of something better. But one unlucky circumstance in the face of prejudice lands Elwood in The Nickel Academy, which purports to improve and reform its inmates, but really is a horrific place where abuse, corruption, and students disappearing are the norm. Elwood looks for a way to keep his idealism in spite of this which his friend Turner thinks is unmanageable, and the violence of The Nickel Academy will affect them all.

This is a masterful novel, carefully weaving together the past and present of the narrative and the history of a real reform school similar to Whitehead’s depiction of Nickel Academy. It uses a single personal story with terrible consequences to expose what happened to children, with the backdrop of segregation and the civil rights movement. As with Colson’s previous novel The Underground Railroad, it is quietly devastating whilst looking at a specific piece of US history and the resonances with contemporary America.

The Nickel Boys is a much anticipated novel that lives up to the anticipation and will no doubt be one that people will be talking about, not only due to the subject matter and writing style, but also the memorable and gripping character of Elwood himself. It is an intense and powerful novel that is cleverly written and carefully plotted.

The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood

The Hiding Game is a novel about a group of friends and their rivalries in a dangerous time. Paul Beckermann starts at the Bauhaus art school in Germany in 1922 and finds himself amidst a new way of thinking about creating art, with Kandinsky and Klee as the stars they all dream of reaching. He forms a group of friends and seems to be falling into something with Charlotte, a woman from Prague. However, their group has divided loyalties and love and obsession will divide them as the Bauhaus moves location and the political situation becomes dangerous. As Paul looks back at this time, now much older and in England, he must confess the truth of what ultimately happened to their group.

The reader is drawn into the world of the Bauhaus and the combination of fictional friends and real life historical figures, with the narrative moving between their original time together and Paul’s viewpoint and recollection much later on. He is the somewhat unreliable narrator finally telling the truth, but not wanting to reveal it too early. The characters are interesting, the kind of flawed, sometimes unlikeable people that work well in this kind of novel about obsession (both of people and art) and the cracks that form in intense friendship groups (though, despite comparisons, they don’t reach the level of compelling that the group in The Secret History do).

The novel is a blend of the ‘group of friends intensely studying something in a specific way and having a lot of drama’ kind of narrative and a historical book that looks at the consequences of personal actions and decisions in the face of larger political danger. Without much knowledge of the artistic history or real life figures in the book, it was a good read though without a completely immersive spark.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War is a love story across the battlegrounds of time, sci-fi turned into an epistolary romance. Red, an agent of the Commandant, finds a letter bearing the instruction ‘Burn before reading’. It is from Blue, an agent from the rival side, and it sparks off a correspondence, taunting to begin with, then growing into something more, something romantic and world-defying. Soon—or not, as this is the Time War—their bond is deep and discovery would be the end of them, and the question remains, who will win the war?

Written as a collaboration between two writers and featuring two protagonists known by colours and pronouns (both ‘she’), this is not your usual sci-fi story. Though there are teased out descriptions of the circumstances of each side, it is really focused on love and time and the myths and quirks of the multiverse. Packed with referenced despite its short length, it is a book that rewards its readers for spotting references and witty names as its protagonists do the same with each other. The creation of an aching love story told in improbably letters is an impressive feat, and the lyrical prose suits it well, particularly as the protagonists devolve into poetry and metaphor to try and explain their love across time through written words.

This is not your typical sci-fi, and those who aren’t fans of the genre should give the book a chance, though its unusual style and worldbuilding won’t be for everyone. It is forbidden love, Romeo and Juliet style, but with the complications of cause and effect and a war that seems insurmountable. It is playful and clever, almost unbearably short, and it is the pull of and between the two protagonists that brings it together.