When the novelist Maggie O’Farrell was 16, she was invited to a fancy-dress party and knew at once who to be. She put on a black shirt, with a ruffled paper collar, an inky cloak made out of a skirt, her Doc Martens and cheeky shorts over black leggings. To complete her ensemble, she borrowed a skull from her school’s biology lab. She had become obsessed with Hamlet: “He had got under my skin. I felt he was part of my DNA.” And while there is no mystery about Hamlet’s glamorous turbulence appealing to an adolescent, O’Farrell’s feeling was to be rekindled, as an adult, by her discovery of the play’s connection with Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. There was, she was sure, a novel in it. Over the years, she repeatedly tried to write that novel and almost gave up. Yet it was a story that refused to abandon her.
Granted, some poems are thorny, difficult tangles requiring significant work from the reader to comprehend. But some, like the ones in Jane Hirshfield’s new book, Ledger, are small gifts: morsels of meaning that slide right past your poetry defenses and lodge in your head.
Poets help you pay attention. They can look at something ordinary (a tree) and give you words to see it better, see it differently, appreciate it in a new way. Hirshfield has spent a long and award-filled career in poetry shining a light to show you, me, any reader something new about ourselves and the world we live in. Her poems are “tuned toward issues of consequence,” Ledger’s marketing copy proclaims, and I can find no better way to say it. She writes about what matters in the world.
The current landscape of speculative fiction is teeming with astounding innovations and lavish spectacles — from the lesbian necromancers of Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb books to the world-shaking power dynamics of N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy. In the midst of all that genre-expanding sprawl, however, there's still room for short, humble, understated works.
Eddie Robson's new novel, Hearts of Oak, is exactly such a story. Brief in page-count and quiet in voice, the book is a gleaming gem of offbeat weirdness and oddball humor, a work that blends fantasy and science fiction more cleverly than almost anything in recent memory. But underneath that quirky whimsicality beats a deeply thoughtful, even melancholy pulse.
Neda Disney's debut novel-in-stories, Planting Wolves, unfolds like a crossword puzzle drawn over a map of the Los Angeles freeway system. Winding, playful, and bloody, it keeps you slightly uncomfortable for the majority of the ride, unsure of what to expect or how things overlap. For an observant explorer, the connections between the six main characters, all of which get their own dedicated chapters, are easy enough to pinpoint, though just difficult enough so that the act of discovery itself feels like you’re a part of a tantalizing time warp. It is a delicious treat to see connections, to spot shared vibrations, even as we watch characters completely miss each other in the night.
“I had never seen a dying woman dance before,” Janie Brown writes in Radical Acts of Love – a book about her conversations and interactions with terminal cancer patients as an oncology nurse and counsellor. At a retreat – organised and led by Brown – where people with terminal cancer prepare themselves “to die with peace and acceptance”, this woman dances: “her large belly full of cancer and her laboured breathing didn’t seem to impede the ease and grace with which she swayed,” Brown writes. This story is one of 20 featured in the book, each of which centres on a different person’s unique experience of dying. Some of these people struggle with a fear of death, some are worried not for themselves but for the loved ones they will leave behind; others are consumed by regret, or rage, at what life has thrown at them, or the choices they have made. “Preparing for death is a radical act of love for ourselves, and for those close to us who live on after we’re gone,” Brown writes.
You are the angry valentine
and the envelope I cut
my tongue across while sealing
its flap shut. You are
the bumpy rash spreading
across my shoulder at four a.m.
and the tab of Claritin