The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Available for purchase here.

A family patriarch who made his wealth in the private sector, hated by his employees and subordinates, notorious for his vicious temper, an unabashed rapist and known abuser, who turns to Conservative politics in his later years. Oh, and his last name starts with T-R-U.

I’m fully convinced in light of reading this in 2016 that Isabel Allende had psychic powers. Or, more likely, the tendency of history to repeat itself and the archetypical personalities associated with those who have an unbridled lust for power are as unchanging as the path of the Earth around the sun.

Allende’s story is a saga of the rise and fall of the Trueba family in a country that’s totally not Chile, chronicling the trends, movements, and mores of the ever-changing culture of the twentieth century. All the points are hit: two World Wars, the spread of first-wave feminism, communist ideology, a peaceful revolution, the underpinning of the accomplishments of the masses by the wealthy one percent, a military coup, the brutality of the regime. The House of the Spirits would be a grim read if its primary focus weren’t the rich lives of its women characters, both their magical prowess and the more earthly matters which concern them. They are rich in their passions, diverse in their characters, and blissfully faulty, real despite the fantasy that blurs the edges of their world.

The House of the Spirits was born in a letter from Allende to her aged grandfather, and inspired by her own life, twinned with political exile and her friendship with such key figures as Pablo Neruda, of whom the unnamed Poet is a clear expy.

Ideology ebbs and flows, but extremism is a fundamental human flaw, and in the United States is reaching its own tipping point. Every four years our presidential elections are deeply divisive, building on the excess of the preceding one, and here we are, less than a month away from casting our votes, the entire country adhering almost blindly to one candidate or another, turning neighbors into enemies and putting ugly words out into the public where they cannot be shirked or removed in a moment of clarity.

We all like to believe that the events that occupy the final third of Allende’s debut novel cannot happen here, that they do not happen in places like this or countries like ours, but this thought process is shared by everyone who lived before bloody coups and drowned in the aftermath. We ignore precedents set by history at our own peril, and now seems the most prescient time to pick up a copy of The House of the Spirits and learn the lesson crafted so beautifully within its pages.

Everyday Monsters by Ellie Robbins

Available for purchase here.

The fantastic racism of X-Men is perhaps the most famous modern example of superpowers-as-allegory regarding the way we exploit the marginalized members of our society while still relegating them to the sidelines. Everyday Monsters clearly draws inspiration from X-Men: the isolated school for the young and gifted, the murky and mythical explanations for “talent”. But there are roots of another story of a seemingly mundane child being thrust into a world of magic flexing its influence as well.

Assume that Harry Potter, instead of being a famous hero who had been bequeathed a fortune, was instead an ordinary orphan, without so much as a Dursley standing between him and homelessness. Imagine if instead of being resigned and snarky he was aloof and resourceful, because he’d had to parent himself on the streets. Imagine if he had to navigate Hogwarts without the benefit of his name, trying to suss out friend and foe without a guide. Imagine him as a 15 year old girl from Austin and you’ll have something approaching Taylor Brock, the protagonist of Everyday Monsters.

Taylor is a street kid earning cash from impromptu fight clubs to keep herself afloat when she’s hunted down, both by a recruiter for the school that can help her harness the powers she didn’t know she had and by creatures who see her as prey. She finds education and allies, if not actual safety, in the mountains of Colorado, where she learns how deep her talents run and discovers the cross section of dimensions, and the magic creatures that live in the hidden corners of the world.

Unfortunately, though, Taylor’s ultimate discovery is that even though she is sequestered away from the troubles that plagued her in Austin–uncertainty of shelter, the violence of the streets, being profiled for crimes because she’s young and dirty and transient, authorities doing more harm than good, all the other problems faced by real life American homeless people–human nature is what it is and her greatest tribulations come in the form of bullies and blowhards.

It’s twisty enough to keep readers engaged, but the best part of Everyday Monsters is how well it lives up to both its roots and its title. Power aside, the problems faced by Taylor are ones real young girls and teens in general face every day.

The Recital by Kyle V. Hiller

Available for purchase here.

Witchcraft, whether the clear dichotomy between Glinda and the named-by-another-author-a-century-later Elphaba, the rich spectacle of Harry Potter, or the cheesy lightness of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, has been one of fantasy fiction’s primary go-to’s to illustrate not only female power, but how it is perceived by society (Both the “good witch” and the “bad witch” are outranked by a fraudulent balloon man, the most impressive witch of her generation is the sidekick to the famous main character, and the pretty, bubbly blonde is somehow a social outcast).

Small surprise then, that the dawn of witchcraft in the life of a previously perceived “muggle” girl, so often coincides with puberty. For all I love YA, I would never relive my teenage years. Teens have the bodies of adults and are pressured to have their same wisdom, but are constantly told to occupy the same roles they held as children. It’s just like witches–all the power, minus the free will.

Kyle Hiller writes a stunning first person narrative of a girl caught in the worlds of young adolescence and witchcraft, with incredible insight. In The Recital, Edith Solstice is an ordinary girl, with a father who is revealed to be less and less extraordinary through her eyes as the story unfolds. She’s a middle child living a life so typical of Philadelphia Catholic girlhood I could’ve been reading about my own family. Hiller nails how even in a city as large and diverse as Philly, neighborhoods function, for both good and ill, as small towns. Edith is sheltered and occasionally innocently insensitive, and her problems are the problems of typical kids: an unrequited crush, a dramatic falling out between her parents, the gawkiness of being torn between childish needs and adult desires. And she’s a witch.

Edith has two mentors on her path to mastering magic: her best friend Lenore, and Lenore’s mother, Miss Karen. The crux of the conflict in Edith’s story is both magical and mundane–she hurt a classmate with her powers during an argument, and seeks to make amends. It’s a telling theme for the story–we are responsible for cleaning up our own messes, even the ones we didn’t intend to make. Edith relays a microaggression she once showed this classmate early on, by the end of the novel recognizing it as such and owing up to the fact that she was a bully, whether or not she intended to be.

There are many intriguing subplots to The Recital: what qualifies as “good”, what grief does to our mindset, especially when left unprocessed, the agony of first romance, the double agony of a first romance being a recognition of one’s own queerness. There’s a sequel hook, perhaps even a series hook, towards the end, and I am eager to delve deeper into Edith’s powers.

The Never Weres by Fiona Smyth

Available for purchase here.

Minor spoiler: the buoyant tone of Fiona Smyth’s The Never Weres pretty much establishes from page one that the dystopic setting is destined for a happy ending. It’s riddled with charm and a satisfying amount of quirk for a graphic novel that deals with a reproductive crisis, genetic cloning, and mythic camps where responsible parents send their children to prepare for the troubles brewing in the immediate future.

At the heart of the story are three city kids: Mia, a gentle artist whose family is wary of the liability her sweet and generous nature will prove to be, Xian, an orphan whose brother/caregiver is a planet away, leaving her to roam the city in search of materials for her science experiments, and Jesse, a budding geneticist hoping to follow in the footsteps of his brilliant but distant mother.

The teens are the youngest and final generation of humanity, living in a post-virus world which has all but condemned them to witness the last days of the human race, but they remain hopeful, Jesse and Xian devoted to their scientific pursuits and Mia entwined in her dual passions of art and community service, spending most of her afternoons with the elderly Mrs. C.

Of the many ways that The Never Weres hits all the feminist high marks–fully fleshed female characters, male characters who aren’t intimidated by powerful women, a diverse ethnic makeup of a major city, full marks on the Bechdel Test–one of the greatest ways is the way traditional male and female archetypes are treated: Mia is the most stereotypically feminine, Xian is fairly masculine, and Jesse falls somewhere in the middle, yet all of them are equally important to both the story and the resolution–and no one is made out to be less than for not fulfilling their predetermined archetypes.

The salvation of the human race turns out to be found within scientific endeavors, inspired by artistic ones, and made possible by an act of (non-romantic) love. It’s also in the hands of the youngest generation–much like real life. And I’m pretty confident in the teens of today, given how much passion they show despite how routinely they’re criticized for being lazy and entitled. Especially if they read The Never Weres.

The Marriage Pact by MJ Pullen

Available for purchase here.

“Strong women don’t need validation from anyone.”–I may not actually be a strong woman. To be clear, that’s a commonly repeated quote I see bouncing around on the interwebs, not something culled from the book itself. And at thirty, my life looks markedly different from how little me imagined it. It costs way more than I anticipated, for instance, I don’t have seven children (and don’t even want one) and I’m not married to Taylor Hanson (don’t judge, don’t even pretend you didn’t love him back in the day). Instead, I live paycheck to paycheck, have no kids (although that’s less a lament than a blessing), and am trying to figure out how one goes from being single to not without enduring the horror of dating. Seriously, dating is the worst.

In essence, I have a lot in common with Marci Thompson, protagonist of The Marriage Pact. She’s at an age where conventional wisdom dictates she should have her shit together, but all she really has to show for her life is a crappy apartment and an affair with her married boss.

Of course, Marci ends the novel having got the guy (the handsome childhood friend with whom she made the titular marriage pact), sloughed off the rough edges of her miserable life, and with a lot to look forward to. I don’t anticipate such neat, tidy resolutions for my own woes, because this is chick lit, a predetermined happy ending lurking on the last page of every book of its breed. And this isn’t a scree against chick lit, although a post in defense of it is forthcoming, just a note that some books inspire and some are for escape. This is very much the latter.

Less than ten years ago, most of the chick lit I was reading featured protagonists who had locked down their dream jobs, dream real estate, dream squad goals (or whatever we referred to as squad goals in those halcyon days before hashtagging. What was that? It was friendship? Sounds a little precious, but ok.)

The implied theme was clear–love was the penultimate piece you got in the puzzle of life, preceding only children as you assembled the whole picture. And it was a very linear and locked in sort of thinking that cropped up time and time again, so the fact that Pullen allows her protagonist to be messy and frayed, and maybe even a little bit of a bitch before she ends up with the rich guy–it is a fantasy, after all–is a comforting message. You’re allowed to fall in love, and still be a mess, and to maybe not love or even like yourself very much some days, or have a terrible job, and not have your goals accomplished by 27, and still be the type of dynamic, interesting, worthy person that ends up a character in a book about wish fulfillment.

The Hanged Man by P.N. Elrod

Available for purchase here.

What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman? What if her inductive powers (not deductive, despite what Sir A.C. Doyle wants us to believe) were a combination of both native intelligence and psychic abilities? What if she managed to save Queen and Country while still making time for the blessed brew?

What if you read The Hanged Man? You’d get the answers to all those questions. And you’d be salivating for more, which is lucky because The Hanged Man is the first of a forthcoming series starring Alexandra Pendlebury, goddaughter to Queen Victoria and enrolled in Her Majesty’s Psychic Service, using her unique abilities to assist in the investigations of murders.

Alexandra’s–or rather, Alex’s–greatest strength is that while being a woman in Victorian society is a major characteristic, it’s not the sole definer of her role in the story. Alex has far worse to worry about other than gender stereotypes–she’s embroiled in a murder case that hits far too close to home and her involvement leads to her being targeted by villainous forces.

It can’t be a coincidence that of all the periods of British history, Elrod sets her story under the reign of Queen Victoria, notable not only for her own place in history as a powerful monarch, but for the time itself being the era that history would eventually recognize as the first wave of feminism. It’s what enables the character of Alex to fit so seamlessly into the setting but feel so incredibly modern.

Alex is, as typical for a real life Victorian detective, a soul alone among the men, but Elrod gives her fascinating women characters to surround herself with, both as friends and foils. Even bit characters get little pellets of rich characterization–a passing acquaintance who brings Alex a change of clothes has the foresight to bring her a few necessary items, for instance. As the series progresses, I can’t wait to see more from Miss Pendlebury’s intriguing life.

The Great Hunger by Kitty Shields

Can be read here.

I’ve been so focused on long form literature for this project that I’ve been neglecting my favorite beloved genre–the short story. Crafting one of these requires all the skills of a novelist with the added restraint of minimal word counts. There are a lot of bad short stories out there.

Luckily, there are also some great ones, and “The Great Hunger” is one of them. In short order it subverts every trope and expectation that it introduces. In a dark fantasy that almost has a vampiric villain as a given, Shields draws on lesser known and (to my mind) more compelling folklore to give her story more flavor and venom. She uses lush, sexually charged language when discussing anticipated violence, and the result is profoundly, deliberately disturbing.

That “The Great Hunger” takes place among real historical events–mass Irish immigration and quarantine on American shores–is more noteworthy than ever given the current political climate. We have ample historical examples of the danger of allowing people to be corralled and categorized based on some arbitrarily chosen facet of their identity. Shields alludes to the harsh conditions faced by the Irish in 19th century America. The true horror of the story is how close we are to having it happen again.