Written with a ferocious energy that’s equal to details both gritty (a lot of sand) and tender (love enduring no matter what), Claire Vaye Watkins’s first novel starts as history hits bottom. California is out of water. Its residents have evacuated—or should have. Nature is a hollow shell of itself and even the dogs are “straw colored.” The shimmering promise of Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead, $27.95) that lured so many to the West has turned out to be a mirage. Late to join the exodus, Luz and Ray, a former child model and an army deserter, are surviving on “ration cola” and anything else they can find, while passing their days playing dress-up in a movie star’s abandoned mansion. Then they find a child, and as “be careful” enters their vocabulary, they head out to greener Seattle. But the challenges are immense, ranging from no gas for the car to deadly heat to government detention camps, conspiracy theorists, and sudden burial by the walking dune of “the desert sea.” To chart this odyssey, Watkins revises both the classic road trip as well as the usual immigrant story—Luz and Ray are American citizens but can’t cross state lines without papers, which Ray’s past makes impossible to get. As the novel follows this lost-and-found family into the desert, Watkins unleashes a virtuoso sequence of linear narratives, official documents, a cult leader’s bestiary, a Greek chorus of voices, and some of the most stunning sentences in any genre.
Welcome to Night Vale (Harper Perennial, $19.99)—the book! The many fans of the podcast will eagerly greet this literary incarnation, which is filled with familiar characters, places, references to the show—and even answers to some lingering questions about setting and backstory. Moreover, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor take care to orient newcomers and occasional Night Vale visitors. The story centers on two women: Jackie Fierro, nineteen-year-old pawn shop owner, and Diane Crayton, mother and PTA treasurer. Jackie’s predictable and routine life is thrown into confusion when a strange man in a tan jacket visits her shop. Meanwhile, Diane is tasked with caring for her shape-shifting son, but gets distracted when his estranged father starts showing up everywhere she goes, looking exactly as he did when he left years earlier. Each of these women has a separate story, but their lives are inextricably connected by two words: “King City.” Together, Fink and Cranor have an imagination like no other, and you’ll find it hard to put this eerie, dark, strange, and entertaining mystery.
It feels too limiting to call Three Moments of an Explosion (Del Rey Books, $27), China Miéville’s collection of short stories, strange, weird, or genre-bending. This volume is strange indeed, but strangeness often lies where a reader least expects it. Some of Miéville’s worlds are quite the same as ours, and yet there is touch of eeriness, a sense of things being askew… At times, one is reminded that Miéville is also a horror writer, as some of the stories are unsettling and outright chilling. Miéville is an incredibly versatile stylist as well, and he employs different formats and lengths for his narratives, demonstrating that there are many ways to write, and therefore enjoy, a short story. His imagination is endless and vivid, and his ability to navigate and bend different genres is impressive. In a year already full of amazing anthologies and collections, Three Moments of an Explosion still stands out as one of the most ingenious and mind-bending offerings.