This week: a bizarre American history story, a must-read graphic novel, and a mouse with a tail shaped like a question mark. Plus: two perfect thrillers for summer.
Night Terrors: Sex, Dating, Puberty, and Other Alarming Things by Ashley Cardiff (Gotham) - In this riotous memoir, Cardiff turns a gimlet eye on sex—not the fun adult kind, but the horrible transition from innocence to experience, a passage she calls "a big purple Jungian k-hole... you don't know what it is, you know it's bad and you're obsessed with it." The book traces a kind of warped arc from youth to sexual maturity, and the best passages describe Cardiff's faltering first steps into sexuality, including her formative encounter with a skeevy New Age sexual athlete who'd "never had sex... but [had] made love at least a thousand times."
What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark (Little, Brown) - Clark’s debut, a complicated and often goofy SF fantasy about an evil power trying to take over the world, brandishes his background as a former Mad magazine contributor. Starring a Harry Potter–like triumvirate—two boys, Freak and River, and sharp, smart Fiona—the story begins with a sofa that has been mysteriously abandoned by their bus stop, in which the children find a rare zucchini-colored crayon. Those destined to become Douglas Adams fans will find lots to love.
Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison by Michael Daly (Atlantic Monthly) - In this bizarre and remarkable dual history, Daly weaves together the stories of two turn-of-the-century rivalries. Circus entrepreneurs P.T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh wrangle over who will be the biggest in the big-top business by flaunting their best pachyderms, while Thomas Edison, a proponent of direct-current (DC) electricity, fights to convince New York state to conduct its electrocutions via alternating current (AC) in an attempt to smear his rival, AC advocate George Westinghouse.
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget, trans. from the French by Steven Rendall (Europa) - Exquisite Gallic ennui wafts through France-3 TV news anchorman Georget’s first novel, but it doesn’t prevent his appealing hero, national police detective Gilles Sebag, from ferreting out the twisted motives of an apparent serial murderer believed to prey on female Dutch tourists in Perpignan, a bewitching Catalan city rife with history and local color.
The Crocodile by Maurizio de Giovanni, trans. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Europa) - De Giovanni manages to conjure up the terrifying darkness at the heart of a serial killer in this chilling procedural. A mob informant’s false accusation of corruption against Sicilian Insp. Giuseppe Lojacono not only derails a promising career but destroys his relationship with his wife and daughter. Exiled to Naples, to a police station “in the flabby belly of a city that was decomposing,” Lojacono spends his working days playing computer poker. He gets a chance to exercise his dormant gray cells when a gunman kills a 16-year-old boy.
Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh by Thomas Glave (Akashic) - Noting how important it is to recall “where one has come from,” O. Henry Award–winning author Glave wastes no time identifying himself as gay, black, and from Jamaica. A profound compassion for racial and sexual minorities, the oppressed, and the colonized, informs his searing, beautifully evocative collection of essays. Glave’s work spans a variety of topics, including an open letter to Jamaica’s prime minister protesting the country’s abhorrent violence toward gays; a meditation on his Jamaican ancestry (“the bloodpeople”); and a tribute to the writers who inspired him, such as Toni Morrison.
Deal with the Devil: The FBI’s Secret 30-Year Relationship with a Mob Killer by Peter Lance (Morrow) - When do the crimes of a Mafia informant outweigh the benefits of his cooperation with law enforcement? Lance’s thrilling account of the murderous career of Greg Scarpa Sr. engages with that complex question and makes a convincing case that the cost of utilizing the “Grim Reaper” was far too high. Among the numerous revelations that Lance’s dogged research turns up is that Scarpa actually provided the FBI with its first insider look at the Cosa Nostra, years before Joe Valachi did the same. Like candy for true crime fans.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ by Brett Martin (Penguin Press) - Martin (The Sopranos: The Book) names the period spanning 1999 to 2013 “the third golden age of television,” after those of the 1950s and the 1980s, and shows how it was made possible by a unique moment in entertainment history by focusing on shows like The Sopranos and The Wire subverted network formulas.
The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck, illus. by Kelly Murphy (Dial) - As endearing as Peck’s Secrets at Sea, this companion novel, also set during the Victorian era and accompanied by Murphy’s carefully detailed pencil illustrations, introduces a new cast of memorable mice born and bred in London. At center stage is narrator Mouse Minor, an undersize orphan with a question mark–shaped tail, who is uncertain of his heritage. Raised in the Royal Mews next to Buckingham Palace by skilled needlemice, Mouse Minor attends a prestigious school but is tormented by his classmates. When Mouse Minor learns that two bullies “meant to pound me into a jelly,” he flees beyond familiar territory and ends up in the palace, where the staff is frantically preparing for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
New School by Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics) - Shaw’s imaginative graphic novel is an unusual combination of bildungsroman, travelogue, and intellectual thriller. The narrator, Danny, is a precocious teenager whose older brother, Luke, is called away to work at a remote island theme park called Clockworld—a place whose cultish environment suggests Jonestown more strongly than Disneyland. When Danny arrives to “rescue” Luke, he is thrust into the alien world of the island nation of X, where Luke teaches English to the Xians who work at Clockworld. Take a look inside the pages of this gorgeous book.