Sing, Unburied, Sing opens on a boy named Jojo’s 13th birthday, which is also the day his mom gets a phone call from his dad to say he’s getting out of Parchman, the penitentiary where he’s been for the past three years. It’s a book about transitions (between childhood and adulthood, between life and death, between freedom and incarceration and vice versa) and family and memory and stories and history, and what we can and can’t do to protect people from the world, and it’s really well-written and sad and beautiful and there was a scene near the end that totally had me sitting on my couch in tears. The chapters are all narrated in the first person, mostly by Jojo and Leonie, though there are a few chapters narrated by another character, Richie. (I guess I’ll be vague about Richie and how he fits into the story, though the flap copy of the book isn’t.) The first-person narration really worked for me: I loved Jojo’s character/voice, but also liked that the book included Leonie’s perspective: she’s not a great parent to Jojo and his little sister Kayla, but it’s good to see some of her awareness of that, to see some of how she feels about that. (And it’s not like she’s in the easiest situation: she’s a Black woman in a relationship with a White man whose family won’t acknowledge her or her children; she had an older brother who died violently; she got pregnant young; her partner is/has been incarcerated.) I like how the action of this book takes place over the course of just a few days, even as we get a lot of backstory; I like the way this book combines a really tight focus on a few characters with a much bigger sense of family and history and the passage of time. And I like the lyricism of Ward’s style, like when Jojo describes the landscape he sees from a car window like this: “I like the heat. I like the way the highway cuts through the forests, curves over hills heading north, sure and rolling. I like the trees reaching out on both sides, the pines thicker and taller up here, spared the stormy beating the ones on the coast get that keeps them spindly and delicate” (63).

When I picked up Starlings I thought it was a collection of short stories, but it isn’t, not quite. For one thing, it also includes poems and a short play. And as Walton puts it in her introduction, the short fiction here is itself varied: there are short stories but also “extended jokes,” exercises/experiments, first chapters of unwritten books, and “some poems with the line breaks taken out” (20). The pieces vary in length and in style: there are some very short pieces (like those aforementioned extended jokes), and some longer ones; there are pieces with a fantasy/fairy tale feel, and pieces that are set in space, or that are about artificial intelligence. (There’s even a noir/hard-boiled detective story.) While I liked some pieces more than others, I had a whole lot of fun with the book as a whole. I liked the shifts in setting and tone and narrative style, and even though I don’t tend to read very many stories set in space, the ones in this book were pretty enjoyable. My favorite piece in the book, though, was probably the first one, “Three Twilight Tales,” which is gorgeous and full of magic and possibilities, and which is itself very much concerned with the shape of stories and the power of stories. Other highlights for me were “Jane Austen to Cassandra”, which is fun and funny, and The Panda Coin, whose structure I like a lot. And because I’d previously read Walton’s Small Change trilogy, I was glad to read “Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction” (though it feels weird to say I was glad to read something so dark).

Border Districts is one of those books that I admire, even though I didn’t love it: it feels well-constructed, and there’s a lot I appreciate about Murnane’s style, even as I feel like I’m maybe not the ideal reader for this book. It’s very much in its narrator’s head—if you’re looking for something plot-driven, look elsewhere—and it’s very concerned with memory and reading and thinking and seeing, with the life of the mind and with the imagined inner lives of others. All of which is pretty appealing to me, but there were times when I felt like this book was a slog, though it’s pretty short, and I’m not sure I can articulate why. It’s narrated by an older man who has moved from an unnamed Australian city to a more remote town; it’s full of recurring images and themes: stained glass, light, color, sight, interiority. The narrator thinks about praying in chapel in his days as a schoolboy at a Catholic school, and how he compared his own known thoughts/experience to the unknown thoughts/experience of his fellow-students: “I was never satisfied with my attempts to pray or to contemplate, and I often wondered what exactly was taking place in the mind of my devout-seeming classmate” (5). He thinks about “the life and death of mental entities” (17): how he remembers some bits of stories he read decades ago, or how he still has certain mental images relating to Catholicism even though he’s no longer a believer, or how other formerly-religious people end up realizing that they “no longer considered sacred some of the persons, places, and things that they had previously deemed so” (18).

Some of the narrative feels very dry and a bit tedious to me (like when the narrator is describing a mental image he had that was prompted by an author photograph on the back of a book), but I found other sections to be a delight, like this:

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine… I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being. I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground. (54-55)

Animals Eat Each Other is short and dark and intense, the kind of book it was easy to read in a day, even though being immersed in its narrator’s world made me feel a little queasy. It’s a story about obsession and insecurity and need and emptiness, and if you’re bothered by the idea of reading about people in their late teens/early twenties drinking and doing drugs and getting tattoos and having kinky group sex, this is not the book for you. It’s a story about post-high-school indirection and suburban boredom: our narrator, “Lilith,” whose real name we never learn, works at RadioShack, sneaks pills from her mom’s supply of painkillers, and drinks cough syrup for a good time. She also embarks on a relationship with a male/female couple around her age to whom she’s introduced by a friend, sleeps with her manager at work, and ends up having sex with her closest female friend, too. As the title of one chapter puts it, “the thing about boundary issues is that you end up fucking your friends or maybe everyone you know” (29).

The story is told with the benefit of distance (an older Lilith looking back at her younger self), but you get the sense that she’s self-aware in the midst of it, too. “I was more attracted to a person’s interest in me than to the particulars of their personalities, or the things they liked to eat, or what they liked to do when they weren’t texting me or sleeping with me,” she says at one point (22). And then, later: “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk” (61). Even as Lilith is trying and failing to use sex and relationships to feel validated and wanted and needed, she can see how she’s messing things up, and that, rather than the subject matter, was what made me feel queasy: that uncomfortable combination of self-knowledge and self-destructiveness, that sense of compulsion.

(Note: though Eileen Myles used the pronoun “she” at the time this book was written, they now use the singular “they,” so that’s what I’m using here.)

Near the end of Inferno (which is split into three sections, each one loosely corresponding to a section of Dante’s Divine Comedy), Eileen Myles writes that “poetry is most of all a mastery of places, not the world but the weather of the states that form in your life and what you read and how things were taken and what came back” (260). That’s also a pretty good description of this book, which is an autobiographical novel about the narrator’s coming of age as a writer and a queer person. It’s also about New York in the late 1960s and 1970s (and onward), and it’s smart and wryly funny and really satisfying, maybe especially the first section, which mostly alternates between the narrator’s experience in a literature class at U Mass Boston and a story about going out on a double date of sorts with a near-stranger and two visiting Italian businessmen, fairly early in the narrator’s NYC life. The second section is partly structured as a grant application, partly as a series of vignettes about being a writer (among other things); the last section is another series of vignettes, about being a writer and sex and life.

I love Myles’s descriptions of New York: “Millions of little covens. It’s not a big city at all,” they write (51). Or, later in the book: “It’s the way New York is: all the realities blinking next to each other” (203). Myles captures a feeling of possibility related to being young in the city and to being a writer and to being queer, and that feeling is probably all the more pronounced because of the way that New York’s openness contrasts with the narrator’s Boston-adjacent childhood and adolescence. Myles writes this, about Catholic school: “the nuns enclosed the world with sanity and god. The rules flowed up and down the calendar and around the clock and in the day the sky, the world was rules—known by god the nuns said” (8). And then Myles writes about the city, about “being completely open to the world” in a “temporary way,” “notebook open to all the light coming in” (33). I also love this, about poetry readings at the West End bar by Columbia: “The light poured in from Broadway behind the poet so you could see it was winter and the trees were skinny and the cars on Broadway were moving fast and a reading was going on. The world was a movie” (53).

(I also totally love the sweet and tender and observant way Myles writes about their dog Rosie in this book—I’d already wanted to read Afterglow, Myles’s “dog memoir”, and now I’m even more excited about it.)

I don’t know what to say about Concluding other than that I agree with the quote from Deborah Eisenberg on the cover of the edition I read: “Uncanny, gorgeous, enigmatic.”

Concluding takes place over the course of a single day at an all-girls boarding school for future state servants, somewhere in England, in a vague and vaguely dystopian future. Two of the school’s students have gone missing, and the question of what exactly happened to them is an element of the book, but maybe not the central one. The book more closely focuses on one Mr Rock, a retired scientist of some sort who lives in a cottage on the school grounds with his granddaughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who’s 35 years old, is dating one of the school’s male teachers and recovering from a nervous breakdown. Rock is (rightly) worried that the school’s principals, Edge and Baker (well, mostly Edge) are scheming to get him out of the cottage, and the question of what’s going to happen to Rock is kind of the central question, but it isn’t exactly, either.

The characters of Concluding go through the book talking to each other and mishearing or misunderstanding each other, and those misunderstandings and lapses in communication or connection are maybe the central thing about this book. But what I like most about Concluding is the way it captures the rhythms of a day, the way it shows various characters doing all the ordinary (or slightly out of the ordinary) daily things: having breakfast and talking about the weather, taking an afternoon nap, getting ready for tea, getting ready for the school’s annual Founder’s Day dance. I like the descriptive passages, too, especially the ones about light and shadow, the way light divides or transforms a space, or about motion: starlings swirling through the sky at dawn and dusk, or this, from just before the dance starts: “what had been formless became a group, by music, merged to a line of white in pairs, white faces, to the flowers and lighted ballroom, each pair of lips open to the spiralling dance” (179).

In an author’s note at the start of the book, The Iliac Crest is described as “a novel delving into the fluid nature of gender dis/identifications,” “set in a time in which disappearance has become a plague,” and a book in which “borders are a subtle but pervasive force” (vii). That all sounded pretty exciting to me but, alas, I didn’t end up loving this book. I think the problem is just as likely to be with me as with it: maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for this kind of vague and allusive story; maybe I would have appreciated it more if I knew more about Mexican history and literature; maybe I like weird books more when I feel like I have more to somehow hold onto. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like this book, just that I didn’t quite connect with it as much as I’d hoped to.

The start of the book felt promising: an unnamed narrator thinks back to a stormy night, a knock at his door. He’d been waiting for an ex-lover to arrive, but the woman outside is a stranger. It’s raining; she’s soaked; he lets her in. He recounts their meeting as a moment in which he saw her and wanted her, but then backtracks: “that’s not how it went,” he says: “I did not feel desire but fear” (6). The woman, who has introduced herself as Amparo Dávila, tells the narrator she knows him, but not in any way we can make sense of: “I know you from when you were a tree,” she says (8). And then the narrator’s ex arrives, and promptly faints. The stranger who introduced herself as Amparo Dávila stays with the narrator and his ex (he calls her the Betrayed), nursing her back to health, though it’s the narrator who’s a doctor: he’s busy at work, though, at a nearby hospital for the terminally ill. The narrator worries about the weird situation at home: he wonders if the stranger and his ex know each other; if they’re plotting against him somehow. He worries more when he realizes the two of them are speaking what seems to be a private language: it’s nothing he’s ever heard or can make sense of. The plot gets more complicated, with a missing manuscript and questions of identity and disappearance; in addition to saying she knows him from when he was a tree, the stranger also tells the narrator she knows his secret. “I know you are a woman,” she says, though the narrator is pretty sure he isn’t (40). Things get weird in various ways, with the narrator hunting through the hospital archives, looking up Amparo Dávila in the phone book, and getting into trouble with his boss. Maybe things have always been weird: the narrator’s story of how the Betrayed came to be called that has something of the feeling of a fable. The narrator reads about Amparo Dávila’s writing and notes that it’s full of “wickedness, the fantastical, the inescapable”—and at least some of those elements are present in this book, too, go figure (53). There are dreams and images that are like dreams, and adding to the dreamy atmosphere is the ocean by which the narrator lives and works: the ocean and its shifting light, the ocean and its shifting weather.

I think my favorite part of this book, though, is a multipage list near the end of things that can be done from a hospital bed, maybe because it’s funny and concrete and fairly straightforward, a little bit of relative clarity in the midst of a story that felt intriguing but also bewildering, though I realize that the feeling of being adrift may be part of the point.

I find Charles Finch’s mysteries to be a reliable pleasure, and Home by Nightfall lived up to my expectations. It’s set in the fall/winter of 1876, in London and in Sussex. Detective Charles Lenox finds himself investigating a pair of (unrelated) crimes: one in the city, and the other in the country village where he and his brother Edmund grew up. In London, a famous German pianist has gone missing: he played a show, then went to his dressing room, and then, apparently, vanished into thin air. In the village of Markethouse, where Lenox goes to keep his brother company, the crime is equally mysterious: an insurance salesman comes home to see a creepy drawing chalked on his stoop and swears he also sees a figure in the window, but when he goes inside, no one’s there and nothing seems to have been taken. The next day, though, he gets an urgent telegram summoning him to a nearby town; when he gets home, he finds that a bottle of sherry has been stolen, though everything else (including his collection of gemstones) is exactly where it should be.

I like the way the book’s action switches between the city and the country: it has a momentum that worked for me. I also, as I always do with this series, appreciate the many bits of historical detail that are included, and I really like Finch’s style overall. I like the way we get to see Lenox interacting with his wife and daughter and brother and friends, not just solving crimes, and I like the descriptive passages about going horseback riding early on a misty morning in the country, or about the pleasures of coffee or tea or cake or ale, or about “the secret regularity that exists within [the] commotion” of London’s busy streets (8), or about the canary circus that Lenox takes his daughter to see.

Formally/stylistically, Talking It Over is a whole lot of fun. In each chapter, we get alternating first-person narratives—mostly from the three main characters (Gillian, Oliver, and Stuart), but from others as well (Gillian’s mother, Oliver’s landlady, et cetera). Each character has a distinct voice, and we often hear about the same events from different characters’ perspectives, with the result that everyone’s unreliability/subjectivity is emphasized: both Gillian and Oliver remember him flipping through a phone book on the day that Gillian and Stuart got married, but she describes it as him looking for “people with silly names” while he talks about trying to make everyone laugh “by looking up relevant professionals like Divorce Lawyers and Rubber Goods Purveyors” (10, 13). The text often addresses the reader directly, and is playful in other ways as well: in the first chapter, we read about a disagreement that Gillian, Oliver, and Stuart had about pronouns, and in their sections of narration in that chapter, each one uses pronouns in the way that he or she had argued for. All this is excellent, and makes me want to read more by Julian Barnes.

In terms of plot, though, this was not quite the book for me. It’s a love triangle: Stuart and Oliver have known each other since they were teenagers, and are basically best friends (they’re now in their early 30s). Stuart works in a bank and is practical, somewhat staid, and financially comfortable; Oliver teaches English as a Foreign Language, fills his conversations with references to opera and literature, and never has enough money. Despite his bravado, Oliver isn’t actually all that self-confident, and despite his occasional awkwardness, Stuart isn’t necessarily as dull as he seems, but Stuart and Oliver play off one another, each emphasizing certain things about himself in opposition to the other, because that’s the kind of friendship they have. Stuart meets Gillian and the two of them start dating, and they have a summer where they spend a whole lot of time with Oliver, too. After which Stuart and Gillian get married, after which Oliver realizes he’s in love with Gillian, after which Gillian realizes that maybe marriage to Stuart is not what she wants after all. I think my patience for monogamous-relationship-problems in contemporary-ish fiction is pretty limited, and as the book went on I found the characters’ dilemmas more tedious than moving.

Still, there were lots of pleasing things in this book, like a great conversation between Oliver and Gillian’s mother about tomatoes on Gillian and Stuart’s wedding day, or Gillian’s description of when she realized she was falling in love with Stuart (not, she says, that you can really point to a single moment), or Oliver’s description of the summer in which he and Stuart and Gillian spent a lot of time together as being “like one perfectly held note, one exact and translucent colour” (42).

This Kindle-edition short story fits, chronologically, between A Stranger in Mayfair and A Burial at Sea in the Charles Lenox mystery series by Charles Finch, and is probably really only worth reading if you’re already into the series and a completist. It’s not that this is bad, it’s just that the full-length novels in this series are so much better.

An East End Murder begins, not surprisingly, with a body: it’s 1865 and Charles Lenox, detective, is at a crime scene in the Seven Dials neighborhood of London, looking at the corpse of a man named Phil Jiggs, who seems to have been strangled. Lenox knows a woman in the area from a previous case, so he goes to talk to her the next day; she points him to the Plug brothers, proprietors of a clothing shop: she says they were friends with Jiggs and would know more about him. Lenox learns from the Plugs that Jiggs didn’t have any enemies, but was recently robbed twice: it’s a rough neighborhood, though, with lots of crime. Because he was broke after the robberies, Jiggs had been staying at a nearby church, so Lenox heads there next and talks to the Reverend Tilton, who echoes what the Plug brothers said: Jiggs kept out of trouble. Everyone Lenox talks to agrees, except for one man, James Mason, who says Jiggs was a troublemaker who didn’t mind his own business. Lenox carries on investigating, and figures things out pretty quickly: this is quite a short story. Because of the story’s brevity, there’s not much room for character development, though there is some good historical detail/scene-setting, like when the Plug brothers explain the sign in their shop for “ratty pockets” (they’re large-pocketed pants for rat catchers, it turns out, and Jiggs was a rat catcher).

The short story is bundled with the first four chapters of A Burial at Sea, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed, even having already read that book: when he’s writing at greater length, Finch’s style is satisfyingly descriptive. Re-reading those four chapters prompted me to go place a hold on Home by Nightfall (number nine in the series) at the library: I’d read the eighth book in 2014 but didn’t pick up the ninth when it came out the following year, and now I’m in the mood for more of this series and its world.