This week: new Margaret Atwood, new J. M. Coetzee, new Daniel Woodrell. Also, a must-read poetry collection.
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (Doubleday) - The final entry in Atwood’s brilliant MaddAddam trilogy roils with spectacular and furious satire. The novel begins just after most of the human species has been eradicated by a man-made plague. The early books explore a world of terrifying corporate tyranny, horrifying brutality, and the relentless rape of women and the planet. In Oryx and Crake, the pandemic leaves wounded protagonist Jimmy to watch over the Crakers, a humanoid species bioengineered to replace humankind by the man responsible for unleashing the plague. In The Year of the Flood, MaddAddamites wield science to terrorize corporate villains while God’s Gardeners use prayer and devotion to the Earth to prepare for the approaching cataclysm. Toby, a God’s Gardener and key character in the second book, narrates the third installment, in which a few survivors, including MaddAddamites, God’s Gardeners, Jimmy, and the Crakers, navigate a postapocalyptic world.
A Blind Goddess: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery by James R. Benn (Soho Crime) - Pervasive racism in the U.S. Army during WWII frames Benn’s excellent eighth Billy Boyle whodunit (after 2012’s Death’s Door). In March 1944, Billy receives an appeal from an old estranged friend, Sgt. Eugene “Tree” Jackson. A member of Tree’s “colored” battalion has been arrested for the murder of Thomas Eastman, an English policeman, who was found with his head bashed in on his father’s grave in the village of Chilton Foliat. Tree is positive that the accused was mistakenly arrested.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black (Little, Brown) - In Black’s exquisitely imagined contribution to vampire lore, the creatures have shaken off centuries of clandestine existence and gone public, turning thousands into bloodsuckers like themselves. In an attempt to control their spread, the U.S. government has restricted vampires to ghettolike Coldtowns, where a glamorous, high-octane culture has developed, broadcasting its debauched parties to the world and creating a subculture of humans who fetishize eternal life and long to be turned themselves.
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee (Viking) - In this captivating and provocative new novel, a small boy who has been renamed David, and Simón, the man who has become David’s caretaker since David was separated from his mother, have immigrated to a nameless country. Simón soon finds work on the docks, is given an apartment for new arrivals, and sets about the impossible task of finding David’s mother, whose name they do not know and whose face the boy does not remember. Precise, rich, and wonderful.
The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer (S&S/Atheneum/Jackson) - This highly anticipated sequel to Farmer’s National Book Award–winning The House of the Scorpion (2002) begins soon after the funeral of the drug lord El Patrón and the murder of nearly everyone who attended the event. Fourteen-year-old Matt, the dead drug lord’s clone, was originally created to provide spare parts for El Patrón, but is now the Lord of Opium.
Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde (Harcourt) - “Big Magic,” which had been in serious decline in the Ununited Kingdom, returned at the end of The Last Dragonslayer, the first installment in Fforde’s Chronicles of Kazam. Now that magical power is on the rise again, the despotic King Snodd IV hopes to cash in, specifically by putting the wizards who work at Kazam Mystical Arts Management under his control by proposing they merge with iMagic, the rival house led by the Amazing Blix, a questionable character with a new royal appointment: Court Mystician.
How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks, illus. by Sarah Watts (Harcourt) - Orphan Birdie McAdam, age 10, is apprenticed to Alfred the Bogler, who uses Birdie’s angelic singing voice to lure monsters out of their hiding spots in sewer pipes or fire grates, then kills them with Finn MacCool’s spear before they can kill Birdie. As risky as that sounds, Birdie loves her job, and she feels threatened when Miss Eames, an academic studying English folklore, starts accompanying Alfred and Birdie on their rounds and points out that Birdie’s occupation makes other Dickensian-era job opportunities for children seem positively wholesome by comparison. This is top-notch storytelling.
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir (Times) - The struggle for insufficient resources—time, money, food, companionship—concentrates the mind for better and, mostly, worse, according to this revelatory treatise on the psychology of scarcity. Mullainathan and Shafir examine how scarcity in many forms, from poverty and scheduling pressures to dieters’ food cravings and loneliness—a kind of “social scarcity”—force the brain to focus on alleviating pressing shortages and thus reduce the mental “bandwidth” available to address other needs, plan ahead, exert self-control, and solve problems.
Into That Forest by Louis Nowra (Amazon/Skyscape) - A distinctive narrative voice opens this startling and mesmerizing tale, which is told as one long story with minimal breaks: “Me name be Hannah O’Brien and I be seventy-six years old.” Recalling her early life in the same Tasmanian house that now crumbles around her, Hannah describes the fateful day 70 years ago when her parents took her and another girl, Becky, for a picnic. A sudden storm, the drowning of Hannah’s parents, and the girls’ dramatic rescue by tigers lead to their gradual transformation.
Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History by Paul Schneider (Holt) - Older than the Atlantic Ocean, fought over by the French, Spanish, and English, birthplace of Washington and Grant’s military careers—the Mississippi River, as Schneider tells it, is the central character in the story of America. In this stunning tale, Schneider documents the rich history of the Mighty Mississipp and its watershed. An astonishing journey.
3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri (Graywolf) - Deft yet direct, often funny and yet alert to existential quandaries, this third outing from regular New Yorker contributor Seshadri could be the most versatile, as well as one of the most successful, volumes this year. The fluid, disarming short poems take in modern consumer culture and age-old angst, Seshadri’s South Asian heritage, his contemporary New York (“the more punishing blocks of Park Avenue”), and our surveillance society, in which nobody really knows anyone, yet anybody can find out where you are: “Why I wanted to escape experience is nobody’s business but my own,/ but I always believed I could.”
Let Him Go by Larry Watson (Milkweed) - A consummate chronicler of the American West, Watson (American Boy) sets his slyly suspenseful, highly engaging new novel in the early 1950s in rural Dalton, N.Dak., where George Blackledge, a retired sheriff, returns home to find his wife Margaret packing to leave—with or without him. She's embarking on an honorable, valiant journey to reclaim her young grandson Jimmy from Lorna, the widow of her tragically deceased son, and Lorna's sketchy new husband, Donnie Weboy. Margaret, who witnessed but didn't immediately act on the couple's cruelty toward Jimmy, is sure that he deserves better than Donnie and Lorna. George joins his determined wife for the long road trip across the Dakota Badlands into Montana, where they become embroiled in the violence of the Weboy clan.
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown) - Woodrell’s (Winter’s Bone) evocative, lyrical ninth novel is deceptively brief and packs a shimmering, resonant, literary punch. In a grand “gesture of reconciliation” from his father, young Alek is sent to West Table, Mo., to spend the summer of 1965 with his grandmother, Alma Dunahew, a hardworking maid to a wealthy local. The bad blood between Alek’s father and Alma stems from her opinion of what transpired just before the 1929 Arbor Dance Hall explosion, a tragedy that claimed her outspoken sister Ruby and 41 others.