This week, a dangerous game in small-town America, a book that will get you obsessed with dinosaurs, and an extreme survival camp.
Three Short Novels by Gina Berriault (Counterpoint) - Known for her short stories, Berriault (who died in 1999) had a reputation as an extraordinarily sensitive writer, which should be further bolstered by the three groundbreaking novellas collected here, originally published separately in the 1960s. Like Virginia Woolf, Berriault examines the inner lives of ordinary women. In “The Son,” Vivian seeks upward mobility through ultimately unsatisfying marriages, but never finds the happiness and connection she desires. “The Lights of Earth” features Ilona, a writer for whom “each story [is] a refuge into which she escaped and where no one recognized her,” and who loses her lover and her estranged only brother. In the last selection, “Conference of Victims,” Naomi struggles to give her life meaning after the suicide of her politician brother, their mother’s favorite.
The Humanities and Public Life edited by Peter Brooks, with Hilary Jewett (Fordham Univ.) - This superb collection, edited by Yale University emeritus professor Brooks and lawyer and literary scholar Jewett, asks: What is the relationship between the humanities and public life? Though the book requires sustained attention from even the most invested reader, commitment will be rewarded. The collection moves between the articles presented by each contributor and “responses and discussion” sections that highlight each contributor’s belief in the importance of the humanities. In “Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading,” Elaine Scarry argues for a concrete relationship between reading literature and becoming better human beings; literature’s “invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty,” Scarry claims, “reduce harm.”
Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment by Robert A. Ferguson (Harvard Univ.) - Columbia Univ. professor Ferguson succeeds in his aim of provoking thought in this broad assault on the American approach to punishing crime. He limns the scope of the problem by using some shocking comparative statistics, such as the fact that "America has less than 5 percent of the world's population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners," or that Congress "averages more than fifty-six new federal crimes a year." Ferguson also manages to make the reader identify with the incarcerated, no mean feat in a society where many are more likely to view themselves as a potential victim of crime than a potential inmate; he does so with an opening paragraph depicting the violence and despair at the heart of the day-to-day experience of most prisoners.
Black Horizon by James Grippando (Harper) - Bestseller Grippando draws inspiration from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill for his fantastic 11th Jack Swyteck novel. Criminal defense lawyer Jack Swyteck and his new wife, FBI agent Andie Henning, cut short their honeymoon in the Florida Keys after an explosion on Scarborough 8, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, results in a massive crude oil spill. Andie returns to Washington, D.C., where FBI higher-ups suspect sabotage was involved in the disaster. Back in Florida, Jack agrees to represent Bianca Lopez, the widow of a Cuban man killed on the rig, in a wrongful-death suit. In a concerted effort to get the case dismissed, the Chinese-Russian-Cuban oil consortium that owns the rig claims that Bianca’s marriage doesn’t exist. As Jack pursues the truth, he is kidnapped in Cuba and later threatened with disbarment by the FBI.
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley (Harper) - Hadley’s latest is told from the point of view of Stella, a lower-middle-class British girl born in the 1950s, whose experiences coming of age mirror the broader cultural development of her times. The child of divorced parents, Stella is clever in school and seems destined to go on to a university. But after being abandoned by a boyfriend and discovering she is pregnant (her son, Luke, eventually goes on to be a teacher), Stella’s life takes a series of left turns. In the end, this carefully wrought novel transcends mere character study, offering up Stella’s story as a portrait of how accidents and happenstance can cohere into a life.
The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston (Carolrhoda Lab) - Debut novelist Johnston envisions an Earth nearly identical to our own, with one key difference: dragons, whose attraction to carbon emissions—whether from campfires or cars—makes them a persistent threat. Everything from pop music to industry, literature, and the historical record has been influenced. The Sahara desert has its roots in a botched dragon slaying after Rome conquered Carthage; centuries later, the logo for the Detroit Red Wings symbolizes the loss of an entire state: “the wheel, for the car that had brought Michigan up, and the wing, for the dragons that had brought it down.” After 16-year-old Siobhan McQuaid agrees to become the bard for dragon-slayer-in-training Owen Thorskard, who has moved with his famous dragon-slaying family to her small Ontario town, she winds up at the center of a grassroots effort to understand an odd spike in dragon numbers.
Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils by Anthony J. Martin (Norton) - Martin’s popular, non-academic debut bubbles over with the joy of scientific discovery as he shares his natural enthusiasm for the blend of sleuthing and imagination that he brings to the field of ichnology—the study of trace fossils and features left by organismal behavior, such as tracks, nests, and burrows. These yield evidence that is both more abundant than the bones, which Martin playfully disparages as “body fossils,” and reveal more about how, where, and when dinosaurs live, moved, ate, and raised their young. The book is great fun for anyone looking to revive their childhood dinosaur obsessions.
Panic by Lauren Oliver (Harper) - Heather and Dodge live in Carp, N.Y., a down-on-its-heels town where graduating seniors can participate in a secret annual game called Panic. Everyone contributes to the pot, with winner take all when the game begins. Players have died in the past, and Dodge’s older sister was paralyzed two years earlier; this year’s prize is $67,000. The stakes of Panic are extraordinarily high; an early challenge has competitors crossing between two water towers on a narrow plank, and things only escalate. Oliver brings a high-concept, high-stakes conceit to Main Street USA, and the result is as uncomfortable as it is thrilling.
I Have a Bad Feeling About This by Jeff Strand (Sourcebooks Fire) - n this gleefully over-the-top, wickedly funny adventure, Strand pits several teens against the hazards of an extreme survival camp and a band of thugs. Sixteen-year-old Henry Lambert is sent to Strongwoods Survival Camp after his father decides he needs to be more of a man. What Henry discovers is a place with horrible food, an unspeakable outhouse, and a gun-toting nutjob of an instructor. When the end-of-camp paintball exercise is interrupted by violent criminals looking to collect on a debt, Henry and his fellow campers—as well as Monica, a resourceful girl from the music camp down the road—are thrust into a life-and-death struggle.
Death in Sardinia: An Inspector Bordelli Mystery by Marco Vichi, trans. from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli (Pegasus Crime) - Set in December 1965, Vichi’s exceptional third Inspector Bordelli mystery (after 2013’s Death and the Olive Grove) finds the 55-year-old Florentine policeman worried about his looming retirement. Bordelli, who has a compelling need for resolution, spends a couple of weeks investigating the death of a loan shark that no else really cares about. As the inspector methodically homes in on a suspect, his sidekick, Piras, who’s recovering from a gunshot wound, privately pokes holes into what appears at first to be a suicide, but turns out to be something much darker.