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.

I like the worlds and characters of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series a whole lot, and I like McGuire’s writing style: I mean, at one point in this book she describes how a skeleton “floated like a bath toy for the world’s most morbid child” (78). That said, this book was my least favorite of the series so far, I think because it’s a quest narrative, which made it feel both unputdownable and a bit less interesting to me. I mean, the mechanics of a quest narrative are pretty standard: a character or group sets out in search of something/trying to accomplish some goal, there are twists and setbacks along the way, there is a climax in which they fail (or probably more usually) succeed, and then things get wrapped up at the end. The nature of a quest narrative means that it’s pretty plot-driven, which is part of what made me read this book so quickly, but plot-driven isn’t my favorite kind of fiction. Still, this book was a fun read.

So, the plot: early in the book, a girl falls from the sky into the pond at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children (which is a school for kids who have traveled to other worlds and then ended up back in this one). The girl, Rini, is looking for her mother, who was a student there. But there’s a problem: her mother is dead. The fact of her mother’s death is making Rini herself disappear, and is also causing major problems in Rini’s home world, which her mother saved from an authoritarian ruler. So several students (Christopher and Kade, both of whom are great/both of whom we know from previous books in the series, and Nadya, who spends a lot of time at the turtle pond wishing she were back in the river-world she went to, and Cora, a new student who was a mermaid in an ocean-world) set out with Rini to try to set things right. This involves a trip to a cemetery and the Halls of the Dead (where they hope an ex-student of the school will be able to help them out) and then to Rini’s home world, Confection, where farmers grow candy corn and the ocean is made of strawberry-rhubarb soda. The details of the settings are pleasing, and the advances and setbacks are exciting, and I like Cora, who proves herself smart, perceptive, and capable, even as she finds herself on a quest she never really signed up for, helping people she doesn’t really know. I also like the narrative’s body-positivity, even if it can feel a little heavy-handed, and the way it emphasizes strength through difference/diversity: “Everyone’s lives prepared them for something different,” Cora thinks, at one point (76). And of course, in this kind of narrative, that means everyone has a part to play in the quest.

Winter is the second novel in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, and I initially found it less approachable than Autumn, though I think that’s absolutely by design. This is a story about a family, and about family memories and secrets and dysfunctions, and its characters aren’t as instantly likable as those in Autumn, but it’s also, eventually, a book about light and connection and generosity and warmth in a midwinter time of darkness, and as things got a little brighter I found myself enjoying the book more.

The book is set mostly in Cornwall, mostly around Christmas: an older woman, Sophia Cleves, is expecting her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte for a holiday visit. But Art and Charlotte have broken up, not that he wants to tell Sophia that, and since Sophia and Charlotte have never met, Art figures he can bring someone else, someone who will pretend to be Charlotte for a few days. But when Art and his companion arrive, it’s clear that all is not quite right with Sophia, so Art’s environmentalist/activist/ex-squatter aunt Iris is called in to help out, despite the fact that she and Sophia haven’t spoken for decades.

All of that, though, makes this book sound like more of a straightforward holiday family drama than it is. There’s various bits of strangeness throughout, like when Sophia sees something in her field of vision that seems to turn into the disembodied head of a child, which then keeps her company for several days, or when Art gets drunk at dinner and sees a bit of coastline looming in the air over the dining room table. And there’s lots of humor and wordplay and pleasingly-constructed passages (like a bit where we get a whole conversation first in terms of what one of the characters is saying, and then in terms of the other character’s replies) and thoughts about art and memory and emotion and nature and the current political moment and life in general, and bits of Autumn that come into play in this story, too, and it all ultimately really worked for me, despite the initial chilliness of it.

Malacqua is about what its subtitle says it’s about—”Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event”—but that only partly captures the mood and feel of this atmospheric novel. Malacqua is about four days of rain, yes, but it’s also about how things work or don’t work, about how the government works or doesn’t work, about how people are stuck or indecisive or unsure or resolved about things in their lives, and about how life goes on, and about how people move through their days, with their everyday frustrations and rebellions (or dreams thereof) and hopes and worries. There’s an introduction/prologue, and then a section of the book for each of the four days; the narration of each day is made of long sentences, long paragraphs, wonderful unspooling phrases about city-life, city-moments, with the focus shifting from place to place, character to character. The book starts and ends with a journalist, Carlo Andreoli (who’s 35, though I read him as ten or twenty years older and was surprised when his age was mentioned), and focuses partly on the direct consequences of the rain that starts and then continues for four days: a sinkhole opens in a road; buildings collapse; people die. But we also get little snippets of other inhabitants of Naples and their lives: a stenographer thinking about sex and her boyfriend, a girl in her late teens meeting up with a lover, a poet giving a reading, a café owner and his English wife, a mother whose son has just gotten married, a ten-year-old girl whose mother is difficult, a secretary waiting for a bus and thinking about her romantic relationships. We also get some magical realism, which is sort of loosely integrated into the story: a few weird/inexplicable things happen, but mostly we’re in a more or less realistic, if soggy, landscape.

I loved the descriptive passages about Naples and its water and its weather, from the first sentence of the book on: here’s how the book starts:

And through the windowpane steaming grey thoughts following the sea, with Santa Lucia huddled behind him, hands in his pockets, listening to the silence of his silence, the gusts of the coming wind, and those leaves twisting in the street, down into the asphalt (9)

A few pages later, we read about “the brackish air, the smell of diesel” (11). Later, night arrives “with inky streaks and sudden gusts” (13); later still, there’s this, which I think is great:

The harbour was peaceful and silent, with very few lights still burning, and only from time to time a train’s rattle in the silence, a rattling train and a few silent cars inside that silence. There was night, only night, floating over the telegraph poles, the neon signs. (61)

I also like the way that the narrative shifts from character to character, and the way that different characters’ thoughts and memories are explored: I like how a passage about a police officer looking at the sea turns into him thinking about swimming off a boat with his friends when he was a kid, which turns into him thinking about his marriage and his wife, who’s ill/anxious, so that you can’t help but reflect on the contrast between his childhood (all possibility and freedom) and his adult life, but in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed, in a way that just flows.

Malacqua was originally published in Italian in 1977, and this is the first time it’s been published in English translation: as the back cover explains, it was withdrawn from publication until after Pugliese’s death, at his request. This was Pugliese’s only novel, but I wish he’d written others: I found myself thoroughly immersed in this book and its style, transported from a wintry New York existence to a rainy autumnal Neapolitan one.

Standard Deviation is a novel about married life and parenting, but also about life in general: it’s full of “all that stuff you do every day that sometimes seems pleasurable and sometimes seems pointless but never seems to end” (259). Those everyday moments, particularly the ones that are on the edge of ridiculous, are a big part of what I like about this book. The everyday moments we see are from the twelfth year of Graham and Audra’s marriage: he’s 56, she’s 41, and he cheated on his first wife, Elspeth, with her, but now they’ve been together for longer than he and Elspeth were, and they have a son, Matthew, who’s 10 and on the autism spectrum. I like that we see Graham and Audra going grocery shopping (where she runs into her yoga teacher and lies about why she missed class that morning) and going about their workdays (Graham’s young/clueless secretary is pretty great) and doing parental tasks they’d rather not (from a party for parents of kids in Matthew’s Cub Scout troop to an origami conference to a really great scene in which Graham and their doorman, Julio, rush around collecting food from various parents for a multicultural school event). I like the humor of scenes like a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, scenes which are often made funnier by Audra’s lack of a filter: she seems to say whatever she’s thinking, without any sense of whether or not it’s appropriate for the time/place/audience. And I like the way we see Graham and Audra, and then just Graham, interacting with Elspeth (who hasn’t been in their lives at all until now) after Graham runs into her by chance at a deli. I like the way Graham and Elspeth’s interactions, in particular, are used to explore friendship and intimacy and personhood and agency, and I also like the scenes where we see Graham and Audra and Elspeth together. I like how Heiny captures little things so well, like the “half-present, half-absent sort of voice people use when they’re looking at a computer screen and talking at the same time” (16), or like this:

Graham’s and Audra’s were not the only universes. There were also other universes—hidden ones, secret ones. Little pocket universes scattered around and you slipped into them unexpectedly, like when you stopped into a bodega for milk and discovered a cardboard display stand of Sucrets or Love’s Baby Soft perfume or some other long-defunct product. (43)

That said, I think I’m not really the ideal audience for this book, or maybe for books about marriage in general: I disliked how the question of infidelity kept coming up in various ways/for various people, without any recognition of the fact that monogamy is not the only relationship model (even though I realize that for a lot of people, it is).

All the Dirty Parts was an extremely fast and extremely fun read for me. The day I started it, I was reading it on the elevator en route to work, and a woman who I don’t know/who works elsewhere in the building asked what I was reading and how it was. I think I said it was funny, which it was, at that moment, but that is not, overall, a word I would use to describe this book. I also added that it was “by the guy who writes as Lemony Snicket, you know, the kids’ books, but this is not for kids.” I don’t know that I’d recommend All the Dirty Parts to that woman on the elevator without knowing anything about her, but if you are OK with reading a whole lot of explicit teenage sex scenes and are into stories told as a series of vignettes, this might be the book for you. One of the back cover blurbs is by Jenny Offill, and I can see how people who liked Dept. of Speculation might like this book, too: I definitely enjoyed them both.

So, right: All the Dirty Parts is pretty much what the title says, though it’s not only the dirty parts, just mostly. It’s narrated by Cole, a seventeen-year-old boy who runs cross-country and takes art class and sometimes fails tests and thinks about sex basically always. When the book opens, he’s slept with eleven girls, and has “a rep” around school for being into casual hookups. He’s eloquent about sex, about the delight of it and the hotness of it and the occasional humor of it and the way he constantly wants it. His eloquence feels more adult than adolescent, but I was willing to give the narrative the benefit of the doubt, particularly because it results in some lovely descriptions, like when Cole is talking about pretty girls and how he wants “to capture their whole bodies under a blanket with enough light to see the pleasure of what we are doing” (3).

I like all the little bits that make up this narrative, the way the story unfolds: Cole talking about sharing online porn with his best friend, Alec, and the unspoken code they have about it; Cole’s conversations with a female friend about sex and his rep and how he treats girls; Cole’s thoughts on the Kinsey scale, after he and Alec have messed around a bit; Cole meeting a girl, Grisaille, who wants sex as much as he does, and how he feels when he’s in the unfamiliar position of being more into the other person than the other person is into him. I like that Cole is knowledgable about sex, that he talks about things like knowing where a clitoris is and going down on girls; I like that Grisaille puts her own pleasure first sometimes. I really like the way the sentences flow, the way the tone is easy and conversational, like in this bit where Cole and Alec are watching porn together: “We both keep shifting, our jeans crackling, weird and hot to watch it together. More weird than hot, or the other way, I don’t know” (35). And I like the funny bits, too, like when Grisaille asks Cole if he has “a favorite German poet” and he replies, “Sorry, I thought you were kidding. Let me answer for everyone you will ever meet in this town, no, we don’t have favorite German poets. We have favorite dinners and beers” (54).