This week: a soon-to-be classic coming-of-age story, hanging out in the morgue, and a spooky book in the vein of Shirley Jackson. Plus: the story of the richest woman in America.
Sophia’s War: A Tale of the Revolution by Avi (S&S/Beach Lane) - Newbery Medalist Avi channels the mood, language, and danger of the Revolutionary War in this seamless blend of history and fiction, set in British-occupied New York City. Twelve-year-old Sophia Calderwood idolizes her older brother, William, a fervent Patriot soldier who has gone missing after the Battle of Brooklyn. In the first half of the book, Sophia’s desperate search for William leads her to several deplorable prisons where rebels are being held. The second half takes place when Sophia, now 15, becomes a spy who uncovers the truth about Benedict Arnold. The book is chockful of fascinating historical details, including the conditions for those stranded in New York and the failed meetings between Arnold and John André, his (real-life) British contact.
Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham (Delacorte) - Fans of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander will cotton to the heroine of British author Bingham’s highly entertaining U.S. debut, Det. Constable Fiona Griffiths, whose social awkwardness and intensity make her unpopular among her fellow officers in Cardiff, Wales. Fiona’s current assignment, which makes use of her paper work expertise in tracking money stolen from a Catholic boys’ school fund, allows her to worm her way into the murder investigation of a woman with a history of drugs and prostitution. Fiona believes that the platinum credit card of a wealthy, recently deceased tycoon found at the scene of the crime hints at a deeper conspiracy, especially when another prostitute is murdered. Fiona’s habit of spending time with the corpses in the morgue may be bizarre, but Bingham makes this quirk a believable and thoughtful way for her to process clues.
In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton) - The grossness quotient has gone up in Gidwitz’s companion to A Tale Dark and Grimm, his grisly reimagining of classic fairy tales. Translation: this second foray is even more enjoyable than the author’s acclaimed debut. The protagonists in this installment are Jack, Jill, and a talking frog, whose adventures begin separately in reworkings of “The Frog Prince” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” before the three join forces in “Jack and the Bean-stalk.” Parental cruelties are more ordinary this time—mockery, neglect, and recrimination—but what the children find in their quest for the Seeing Glass is horrifying enough to compensate for any perceived softness at the outset. Technically polished, and with more original content, this romp has lost none of the edge of its predecessor.
Railroads and the American People by H. Roger Grant (Indiana University Press) - In this delightful and informative study, Clemson University historian Grant (Iowa’s Railroads) explores America’s “love affair with the iron horse,” approaching the subject from a primarily social viewpoint. Drawing from memoirs and anecdotes supplemented with hundreds of photos and reproductions, Grant covers the golden age of railroading (1830–1930) plus the last heyday of the ’40s and ’50s. He shows just how the railroads influenced and shaped the country, even as they evolved over time. Grant never loses sight of the big picture and the essential role the railroads played in American life. He writes with authority and clarity in a work that can appeal to both casual and hardcore enthusiasts.
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye (Penguin) - Can a terrible history generate a terrible present? That is the question posed by German-born author Kiesbye’s dark second work of fiction (after Next Door Lived a Girl), composed of linked stories set in an archetypal rural German town in what seems to be the immediate postwar period. As in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the vague setting heightens the narrative tension, as Christian, first, provides us with a framing device in the funeral of Anke, one of a group of young friends now elderly and distant. Each tells their story in flashback, a perspective that suits the delicate prose. Extraordinary things happened to the villagers 40 years earlier. Some are tinged with the supernatural—a traveling carnival worker hints at mysterious origins; an annual cooking contest ends badly—and some are truly horrifying: incest, child murder, and a father’s brutal act of violence that leaves permanent scars. Why are these things happening in Hemmersmoor? Are tales of witches and curses to be believed? Or does the real reason lie at the end of the railroad tracks? Too subtle to be lurid yet too spooky for comfort, this book should appeal to readers of psychological fiction and literary tales of the supernatural. Read about Kiesbye's new discoveries in writing in his native language.
Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother by Molly McCloskey (Overlook) - Novelist McCloskey never really got to know her brother, Mike, 14 years her senior, before schizophrenia had taken hold of him, and decides to learn about his life before and everything he lost after in her clear-eyed and heartbreaking story. As she looks back on the charmed adolescence and promise Mike once had—adored by his parents, smart, good-looking and a basketball superstar who won a scholarship to Duke—and the wreckage from an illness that left him unmoored and unrecognizable, she charts her own unraveling. A heavy drinking habit dating back to high school and a crippling and growing fear that she is going the way of her brother leads to her own descent into depression and panic attacks. “My mind felt porous, as though the filters were disintegrating.” Living in rural Ireland where there’s little beyond two pubs and in the grip of a virulent paranoia, she is unable to be on her own or to even go to the store for bread. She finally quits drinking in her early 30s and feels profound relief. The depression and anxiety don’t disappear entirely, but the moments when they return don’t bring the same unending devastation. Although Mike, in his 50s and living in a group home, still feels “very, very present” to his sister, her tender tribute doesn’t bring about a relationship with him. And her tender tribute nevertheless brings healing, and grants her and her family a new way to connect to their son and brother.
The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne (Random/Hogarth) - Osborne’s rich new novel (after the nonfiction Bangkok Days) follows British couple David and Jo Henniger into the Moroccan desert for a debauched weekend at their friends’ palatial ksar. Driving to the estate, David is distracted while arguing with Jo, and consequently hits and kills a young Moroccan. When they arrive at the party, corpse in tow, their hosts help David deal with the police while the servants keep vigil with the body. The next morning, the dead boy’s father, Abdellah, arrives and demands that David return with him to help bury his son. With nods to Paul Bowles and Evelyn Waugh, Osborne portrays the vacuity of high society as gorgeously and incisively as he does the unease of cultures thrust together in the unforgiving desert.
Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas (Little, Brown) - Often derided as an inattentive national grandfather, Eisenhower emerges as a subtle, sharp-witted master statesman in this probing study of his foreign and security policies. Historian Thomas paints a colorful, richly detailed portrait of a man whose habit of hiding his cutting intellect, volcanic temper, and poker-player’s instincts behind public grins and vague pronouncements amounted to a profound political strategy. Eisenhower’s low-key nuclear brinkmanship anchors the book. Thomas argues that Ike’s deliberately ambiguous statements about using nuclear weapons caused the Soviets and Chinese to back off. His duplicity and indirection prevailed in everything from the Suez Crisis to his battle against bloated defense budgets. Thomas’s vivid, compelling profile of Eisenhower—the man and the shrewd operator—should spark reconsideration of his presidency.
The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age by Janet Wallach (Doubleday) - Hetty Robinson Green (1834–1916) was as rich as Rockefeller, worth $100 million at her death. Born to an emotionally withholding Quaker family that instilled in her the value of both wealth and thrift, she grew her inheritance into a massive fortune through shrewd investments in greenbacks, struggling railroads, and real estate. Wallach (Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell) makes a strong case that Green’s Quaker family valued financial shrewdness over physical affection, shaping their daughter into a supremely confident woman who overruled her husband’s and children’s desires for independence and sued business adversaries as a matter of course. Green also defied expectations of a wealthy woman, dressing, eating, and living simply according to her “starched New England values.” Wallach successfully portrays a compelling woman who kept her eyes on the glittering financial prize, using a commonsense philosophy regarding real estate and investment throughout the 19th century’s Wall Street roller-coaster.
Panorama City by Antoine Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - Wilson’s second novel (after Interloper) is fresh and flawlessly crafted as well as charmingly genuine. Oppen Porter is almost 30, a guileless man who lives in a small central California town with his reclusive father in a house overtaken by nature. Untouched by cynicism, Oppen’s interpretation of the world around him evokes both the sublime and the ridiculous. His daily routine consists of riding into town on his bicycle to find odd jobs, feeling sublime happiness at “the softest burring sound” his tires make on the asphalt, and playing a long-running game of chicken with Hector and Mike Alvarez. But the death of Oppen’s father changes Oppen’s life, sending him to live with his Aunt Liz in Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley, where he pursues two goals: to become a man of the world (he wants this) and to never again be the village idiot (his Aunt Liz wants this). This is a classic coming-of-age story delivered in the most unexpected way.