Charlie Jane Anders hurls her latest book, The City in the Middle of the Night, against the boundary of imagination with her strange, beautiful alien world. In theory, this seems wild and confusing but in practice, Anders’ stylistic chocie helps the reader understand the strange lives led on the planet January. Crocodiles are definitely not crocodiles, I would not suggest trying to ride their cats, and most food is likely nothing like its terrestrial counterpart.
One side of January permanently faces the local star and one side faces entirely away. A thin band of land between “day” and “night” provides a barely hospitable patch for the human colonists. In this narrow band of life, humans struggle to regulate their sleep and wakefulness. When inadvertent revolutionary Sophie is banished into the bleak wilderness outside her city, her life is saved by the mysterious aliens who roam January’s surface and what she learns from them may change the planet’s society forever.
Time is a key theme of Anders’ novel—the human settlements visited by the two main characters, Sophie and Mouth, are defined by how they structure life around the endless dusk. Anders masterfully constructs both settings, using her protagonists’ reaction to the flow of time in each city to paint a different kind of claustrophobia. I never thought I would describe a book as painting a story entirely in different shades of anxiety, but Anders nails the feelings of claustrophobia, fear of acceptance, inferiority and loss of identity all in the span of 360 pages.
What do you do when a family member has a secret that is so terrible it changes the way you’ve experienced reality for the first 30 or so years of your life? This is but one of the dilemmas facing the narrator of Megan Collins’ latest novel.
Since she was a child, Sylvie O’Leary’s life has been darkened by her sister’s murder. Persephone—who was aptly named—was strangled on the one night that Sylvie, then age 14, refused to leave their bedroom window cracked open so Persephone could sneak into the house after an assignation with Ben Emory, the son of their town’s mayor. Their mother, Annie, forbade Persephone to date, even though she was already 18. And Annie definitely didn’t want Persephone running around with Ben. Too proud to ring the front doorbell, Persephone ran back to Ben’s car and was never seen alive by her family again.
The catastrophe causes Sylvie to skip town as soon as she’s able, leaving her feckless mother—unhinged from alcoholism and grief and recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer—in the care of Annie’s sister, Jill. When Jill must attend to her own daughter, who is about to give birth, Sylvie is forced to return not only to dying, bitter Annie but also to the town that was the scene of her sister’s murder. The case has been cold for the better part of two decades, but Sylvie is determined to get to the bottom of it. What she finds is more devastating than she even imagined.
Lee Miller is accustomed to the male gaze. She has stood in its light for decades, first as the subject of her father’s photos and then as a Voguecover model. But by the time she meets renowned photographer Man Ray in Paris, Lee has grown tired of being captured on film. Instead, she wants to step behind the camera. She wants to become the person wielding control, to tell stories instead of serving as a prop in someone else’s narrative. She convinces Man Ray to take her on as an assistant, but eventually Lee finds herself guided by her mentor’s instincts. She morphs from assistant to protégé, muse and lover.
Decades later, Lee has rewritten her story. She’s a domestic correspondent for Vogue, but she knows her editor has grown weary of the multicourse dinners she writes about and photographs. The editor offers her an ultimatum: Write about your years with Man Ray—or else your time at Vogue may end.