This week, "Dr. Jekyll" from Hyde's perspective, wrestling wildlife in the jungle, and Michael Rockefeller's disappearance.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (HMH) - Josh Bell, known on and off the court by the nickname Filthy McNasty, doesn’t lack self-confidence, but neither does he lack the skills to back up his own mental in-game commentary: “I rise like a Learjet—/ seventh-graders aren’t supposed to dunk./ But guess what?/ I snatch the ball out of the air and/ SLAM!/ YAM! IN YOUR MUG!” Josh is sure that he and his twin brother, JB, are going pro, following in the footsteps of their father, who played professional ball in Europe. But Alexander drops hints that Josh’s trajectory may be headed back toward Earth: his relationship with JB is strained by a new girl at school, and the boys’ father health is in increasingly shaky territory.
The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change by Adam Braun (Scribner) - Despite the subtitle, just a few pages into this exuberant testimony to the power of idealism, readers will realize that Braun is not an ordinary person. Raised in affluent Greenwich, Conn., by parents who embraced noncomformity and charity as sidelines to a good job and six-figure income, Braun struggled to reconcile the materialistic and spiritual. After graduating from Brown University, he worked at a prestigious consulting firm in New York City and at age 25, in the fall of 2008, started Pencils of Promise (PoP), a nonprofit organization that partners with local communities in Asia, Latin America, and Africa to build schools, train teachers, offer scholarships, and supply educational materials.
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov, trans. from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov (Counterpoint) - In Dovlatov’s posthumously translated short novel, Boris Alikhanov, a frustrated writer, recently divorced and low on money, takes up a menial tour-guide position at the Pushkin Hills Preserve. Feeling he’s entitled to a better life because of his self-ascribed literary brilliance, and the nagging thought that he picked up the pen for a reason, he spends much of his time mentally lampooning the people he meets and their undying devotion to Pushkin. This is a most satisfying read that sustains its humor and emotional resonance.
Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS by Martin Duberman (New Press) - In this insightful history, gay rights activist and distinguished historian Duberman attempts to revive AIDS awareness by detailing the early years of the epidemic, particularly the period of 1981–1995. He sets the details within a framework constructed around the experiences of two men: white singer/activist Michael Callen and black poet/cultural worker Essex Hemphill, both of whom lived with AIDS for years and died at age 38. Duberman pulls no punches in capturing the chaos, uncertainty, and ignorance of the era, looking at the sexual culture that allowed the disease to thrive; he also examines the fear and contradictions of the political environment.
Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman (Morrow) - Born into one of the world’s richest and most influential families, Michael Rockefeller was immersed in the art scene virtually from birth and eventually developed an affinity for primitive artwork that would lead to his disappearance in 1961 off the coast of New Guinea in an area populated by cannibals. Whether then-23-year-old Rockefeller was eaten by those inhabitants was the source of a tremendous amount of speculation and, as Hoffman shows, an intricate conspiracy involving the Dutch government and the Catholic Church. In an expertly told tale that is begging for a film adaptation, Hoffman travels to the area to speak with members of the Asmat tribe, hoping to gain insight about their practices and complex social structure.
The Dead of Summer by Mari Jungstedt, trans. from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally (Stockholm Text) - Add Jungstedt to the list of Scandinavian crime writers proficient at creating a dark mood for a complex whodunit featuring characters with genuine depth. In her fifth featuring Visby Det. Supt. Anders Knutas, Karin Jacobsson, his newly promoted deputy, starts a complex inquiry into a murder committed while Knutas is on holiday. Peter Bovide, the owner of a small construction company, has been camping on the island of Faro with his wife and children. One morning, Bovide fails to return from his regular morning jog, and his bullet-ridden body, including multiple stomach shots after one to the head, turns up shortly afterward.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn (Norton/Liveright) - In the summer of 1998, Kirn was a struggling writer, taking assignments where he could get them, when he accepted an odd task: transporting a crippled dog from a Montana animal shelter to New York City, where a wealthy benefactor from the Rockefeller family eagerly awaited its arrival. That alone could have made for a quirky riff on Steinbeck’s classic Travels with Charley, but Kirn’s road trip took another turn entirely as he entered a wild and murky 15-year friendship with the man who called himself “Clark Rockefeller”—a man who would eventually be the target of a nationwide FBI manhunt and charged with murder.
You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz (Grand Central) - This excellent literary mystery by the author of 2009’s Admission unfolds with authentic detail in a rarified contemporary Manhattan. Therapist Grace Reinhart Sachs is about to embark on a publicity blitz to promote her buzzed-about book on why relationships fail, You Should Have Known. In the meantime, she cares for her 12-year-old son, Henry, who attends the same private school she went to as a child. She eventually learns that one of the mothers outside her social strata, Malaga Alves, was found murdered in her apartment by her young son. Grace, already tense and sad from these events, becomes more and more anxious as her husband, at a medical conference in the Midwest, proves unreachable over several days.
Hyde by Daniel Levine (HMH) - Narrated by Edward Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic embodiment of the dark side of the human consciousness, this ambitious first novel provides an alternate perspective on Dr. Jekyll’s chemical experiments on the split personality. Hyde first emerges independent of Jekyll on the streets of London in 1884—not as the malevolent brute that Stevenson conjured, but as a member of the lower classes who is fiercely protective of his and Hyde’s friends and interests. But over the course of two years, Hyde develops a reputation for evil that confounds him—and that he suspects is being engineered by Jekyll, whose consciousness lurks inside his own, steering him into certain assignations and possibly committing atrocities while in his form.
Murder at Cape Three Points by Kwei Quartey (Soho Crime) - Quartey’s mastery of the art of misdirection serves him well in his third mystery featuring Accra, Ghana, homicide detective Darko Dawson. At dawn one morning in the Gulf of Guinea, a crane operator on an oil rig spots a drifting canoe. In the canoe are the bodies of Charles and Fiona Smith-Aidoo, who have both been shot, but the murderer has also beheaded the husband, scooped out an eye, and displayed the head on a pole. When the investigation stalls, Dawson gets on the case after the Smith-Aidoos’ niece, Sapphire, a physician, petitions headquarters for a fresh look.
The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger (Crown) - In Rieger’s clever and funny debut—an epistolary novel told through memos, e-mails, and letters—Sophie Diehl is a criminal lawyer, working for a law firm in the fictional state of Narragansett in New England, similar to Massachusetts. As she says herself, “I like that most of my clients are in jail. They can’t get to me; I can only get to them.” One of the firm’s managing partners asks her to do an intake interview for Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim, daughter of one of the firm’s most important clients, whose husband served her with divorce papers at a local restaurant. Sophie reluctantly acquiesces and has to learn how to handle a divorce case (rather than a criminal one), while juggling family dynamics, nasty interoffice politics, and the ups and downs of her own romantic life, all as the year 2000 approaches.
Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon by Paul Rosolie (HarperCollins) - A young explorer finds his soul amid the trackless jungle in this rousing eco-adventure. Rosolie, a naturalist who runs (and subtly plugs) an eco-tourism outfit, recounts his exploits from the age of 18 when he escaped New Jersey and lit out for the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon basin, a paradise of primeval forest and riotous wildlife. Mentored by an Indian family, then graduating to solo treks to remote uninhabited areas, he wrestles with giant anacondas, faces down crocodiles, tenderly parents an orphaned anteater, feels the presence of jaguars panting over him in the night, and edges towards an encounter with possibly murderous tribesmen. Along the way he battles poachers and sounds the alarm against civilized encroachments that are obliterating the world’s wildernesses. This is old-school nature writing, unabashedly romantic and free of alienation.
The Riverman by Aaron Starmer (FSG) – Starmer explores the relationship between creation and theft, reality and fantasy in this haunting novel, narrated retrospectively by Alistair Cleary as he looks back at the autumn of 1989. It's then that a classmate, Fiona Loomis, invites him to write her biography. After 12-year-old Alistair tentatively agrees, Fiona tells him about her repeated trips to a land called Aquavania (via a cylinder of water in her house's boiler), where she and other children can shape reality as they choose. Alistair is understandably skeptical, believing that Fiona has invented this fantasy to cope with some kind of trauma, but the novel's strength is in the pervasive aura of unknowing that Starmer creates and sustains.
The Last Wild by Piers Torday (Viking) - n this offbeat semi-apocalyptic fantasy, debut novelist Torday introduces 12-year-old Kester Jaynes, a prisoner at Spectrum Hall Academy for Challenging Children. Kester’s world was turned upside down by the death of his mother six years earlier (he hasn’t spoken since). The larger world is in tumult, too, wrecked by global warming and “the red-eye,” which killed off most animal life and threatens humans with extinction. One day, Kester is stunned to discover he can communicate with cockroaches, pigeons, and other “varmints,” who ask him for help.