The world is a curious place these days, but books are always with us. In honor of the new season, here are five new (or newish) novels that I curled up with, all of which distracted me nicely from the news.

Fall Arts Guide 2020

In autumn, when chill winds start to blow and darkness falls early, it feels right to be reading a gothic novel set in a mysterious old house, near an old cemetery where “gravestones rose like broken teeth from the earth.” That’s the setting for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s appropriately titled “Mexican Gothic” (Random House, $27), which I read on a bright day in August — and which nonetheless left me happily shivering. Like my favorite novel in this genre, Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” the story here involves a young woman brought to a strange, remote place full of stories she doesn’t yet understand. It’s 1950s Mexico, and the decaying ancestral mansion that Noemi Taboada visits is far from her comfortable Mexico City home: She’s been sent there, on a mission by her father, to find out why her newly married cousin Catalina has sent a desperate letter home pleading for help.

Moreno-Garcia, whose novels span several genres (and who’s a Northwest writer, living in Vancouver, B.C.), takes her reader on a skilled, darkly careening ride; weaving together fairy tales, gothic horror, period romance and dark fantasy. But it’s the house that takes hold of this book, from its initial image — “a great, quiet gargoyle that might have been foreboding … if it had not seemed so tired” — to its final, inevitable fate. It’s a place that breathes; a malodorous beast, waiting to strike. You don’t dare look away.

“Just Like You” by Nick Hornby (Penguin Random House)
“Just Like You” by Nick Hornby (Penguin Random House)

Stepping away from the darkness, we find a bard of light: Nick Hornby, known for his charming novels about nice Brits making their way through the obstacle course that is love (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy,” “Juliet, Naked” and others — all of which became equally charming movies), has a new one out. “Just Like You” (Riverhead, $27; on sale Sept. 29) introduces us to Lucy and Joseph, and the hook here, despite the title, is that they are extremely different people: She’s a 41-year-old white almost-divorced mom and teacher; he’s a 22-year-old Black butcher shop assistant and wannabe musician/DJ. Can this relationship, apart from its physical side (both Lucy and Joseph are, it’s made clear, very attractive), survive?

“Just Like You” is sometimes so light I feared the book might fly away, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing these days. Hornby’s got a sweet wit, and you can’t help but smile at Joseph’s horror upon realizing that Lucy is approximately the age of Penélope Cruz, Victoria Beckham — and his mum. (“Maybe if his mother had been a Spice Girl and married an England international, she’d be more like Victoria Beckham now. That was a weird idea, and Joseph didn’t want to spend much time thinking about it.”) The author weaves contemporary Brexit commentary into the story, and has fun watching his liberal white characters tie themselves into knots on issues of race. But ultimately, it’s about two nice people whom you root for, and whose company you quite enjoy. Bring on the movie!

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“The Weekend” by Charlotte Wood (Penguin Random House)
“The Weekend” by Charlotte Wood (Penguin Random House)

The Weekend” (Riverhead, $27), by Australian writer Charlotte Wood, has one of those premises you know you’ve seen before: Three older women, friends for many decades, gather for one last weekend after the death of a fourth. Jude, Wendy and Adele are grieving their friend Sylvie, and assemble at the latter’s beach house to clean it out, reminisce and move on. Familiar territory, but nonetheless it pulled me in; there’s something universally poignant about a friend group coping with a piece being missing. “Adele and Wendy and Jude did not fit properly anymore, without Sylvie. They’d been four, it was symmetrical.”

Curiously, “The Weekend” is described as “excruciatingly funny” on its book jacket; it’s not a description I’d have applied. This story of regret and grief and disappointment and one very, very old dog (for the record, I am a cat person and yet this dog did me in) mostly hits melancholy notes. But Wood’s descriptions — the laminate countertops of the beach house with “rounded wooden edges silky with years of being touched”; the toothpaste-splotched hodgepodge of Wendy’s toiletry bag — are vivid. And she beautifully captures the strange balance of a longtime three-way friendship, with alliances forever shifting and annoying habits hardening into stone. Wendy ponders, at one point, whether “the worn rubber band of their friendship might one day simply disintegrate”; luckily, it’s stronger than she thinks.

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett (Penguin Random House)
“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett (Penguin Random House)

I’m a little late to the table in reading Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half” (Riverhead, $27), which has been a bestseller since it came out early in the summer. But I loved her 2016 coming-of-age first novel, “The Mothers,” and have been holding her follow-up back a bit, for a late-season treat. I wasn’t disappointed. An even more sweeping and ambitious novel than her first, “The Vanishing Half” has at its center a pair of light-skinned Black twin sisters who leave their small Southern town as teenagers and forge new identities. Desiree returns to that small town 10 years later with her own dark-skinned daughter in tow; Stella vanishes into a new life, in which she passes for white in a California suburb. The story encompasses several decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s; things change, and things stay the same.

Bennett is a gorgeous writer, and there are moments when “The Vanishing Half” has the uncanny luminosity of a fairy tale: two beautiful twins leaving their home in the dark of night; two girls who, as they grew, “no longer seemed like one body split in two, but two bodies poured into one, each pulling it their own way.” I became completely lost in this book, following the twins as they forked off into their separate lives, both of them filled with secrets. “The Vanishing Half” has much to say about race and identity, about family and kinship (there are several layers of sisters here), about performance, about a woman realizing she could become “whichever woman she decided, whichever side of her face she tilted to the light.” And it says these things with a voice of quiet wisdom, a voice you miss when you realize the story is done — though, as with all good novels, you finish “The Vanishing Half” believing its characters’ lives continue on, somewhere.

“The Last Story of Mina Lee” by Nancy Jooyoun Kim (Harlequin)
“The Last Story of Mina Lee” by Nancy Jooyoun Kim (Harlequin)

Finally, I can rarely resist novels that entwine a mystery into a character-based plot; such a novel is Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s debut, “The Last Story of Mina Lee” (Park Row Books, $27.99). Told in alternating chapters, it’s the story of a mother and a daughter: Mina, a Korean immigrant who came to California as a young woman with tragedy in her past, and her daughter Margot, born the year after her mother’s arrival. Margot, now in her 20s, has a complex relationship with her single mother — she’s long resented Mina’s foreignness — but is devastated to learn, in the book’s early pages as she heads to Los Angeles for a visit, that Mina has died. (Kim, a graduate of the University of Washington, makes Margot’s home Seattle, but we mostly hear about it in terms of rain and depression — though her description of middle-class life in Seattle as “dishwashers, fleece, and stainless-steel water bottles” sounds about right.) Realizing how little she really knows about her mother, Margot begins to assemble details of Mina’s life, in hope of making sense of her death.

Kim has a gift for page-turning plot; I found myself getting into just-one-more-chapter reading mode, as the puzzle pieces of Mina’s story slowly began to drop into place. We begin to understand Mina at the same pace as Margot does: how Mina’s version of the American dream was shaped by loss and pain; how she hates speaking English because of how it sounds in her mouth (she didn’t want a language “that wasn’t big enough for her”), how she kept secrets from her daughter to spare her from heartbreak. While the details of Mina’s mysterious death occasionally veer a bit toward melodrama, Kim’s book is ultimately a moving tale of a mother and daughter finding each other, a reunion made all the more poignant by coming too late.