This week, Huck Finn and Jim travel through time, twins named Boy and Girl, and The Shining meets Glee.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, trans. from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories) - Dones’s deft and lively novel finds its sweet spot in a handful of dualities. Aspiring writer Hana Doda, newly arrived in Washington, D.C., from her native Albania, suffers sensory overload. Before coming to America, Hana returned to her mountain home, from her university in the capital city of Tirana, to take care of her Uncle Gjergj, who was dying of cancer; his wife Katrina died not long before. Gjergj presses Hana to find a husband so that she will be provided for after he’s gone, unaware that Hana has been flirting with his doctor, Artan, while also being pursued by a fellow student, Ben. But Hana is not inclined to be tied down. Her rejection of marriage triggers a bizarre but time-honored Albanian custom: she promises, in exchange for her independence, to live a celibate life as a man, using the name “Mark.”
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris (It Books) - In this engaging narrative, Harris recounts one of the fundamental pop culture rivalries of the ‘90s, the so-called "Console Wars," which saw Sega and Nintendo vying for market dominance in the early days of the home entertainment console industry. Harris portrays Nintendo as the distinguished incumbent, obsessed with quality control and perfection, while Sega is painted as the ambitious upstart willing to rewrite the rules of engagement. At the heart of it all is underdog businessman Tom Kalinske. This is an essential read for any interested in the evolution of video games, and the rise and fall of Sega as a console contender.
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings (Simon & Schuster) - A grieving mother tries to make peace with her son’s death in this wry and heartwarming second novel from the author of The Descendants. Sarah St. John, a talk show host in the seasonal ski town of Breckenridge, Colo., is devastated when her 22-year-old son, Cully, is killed by an avalanche. She seeks solace in an unorthodox support group: her impolitic father, who lives with her; her best friend, Suzanne, whose own divorce occupies her attention; and Billy, Cully’s father, whose distance from Sarah’s life diminishes as they grieve for their son together. On the cusp of emotional recovery, Sarah and her family are thrown again when they meet a young woman whose story raises new questions about Cully’s life.
Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda (Harper) - In this exhaustive study, Korda examines the life of Robert E. Lee from start to finish, illuminating not just the man, but his extended family and the society which produced him. While Korda's treatment verges on hero worship, he explores Lee's qualities and contradictions thoroughly, approaching him first and foremost as a state patriot, loyal to Virginia before any other cause. He further presents Lee as a military genius, a brilliant engineer (Lee re-channeled the Mississippi River near St. Louis), a spiritual descendant of George Washington, an embodiment of Napoleonic tactics, and a living legend in his own time.
The Boy in His Winter by Norman Lock (Bellevue) - Inspired by Mark Twain and propelled by the currents of the Mississippi River, this is a tall tale that Lock has abducted and handed over to Huck Finn. In Lock’s fantastical iteration, Huck and his old friend Jim set off from Hannibal, Mo., in 1835 and raft through the rest of the 19th century. Along the way they meet Tom Sawyer, grown up to become a Confederate soldier, view piles of Union dead, and help a Choctaw chief die with dignity. Jim is inconsolable when he hears John Wilkes Booth has shot Abe Lincoln. By the time they reach Baton Rouge, they’ve entered the 20th century, with horseless travel and the first motion pictures. The time travelers make their way through American history without aging a day, until Jim decides to leave the raft in 1960, sure that it is a good time to reenter the world.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Delacorte) - Cadence Sinclair Eastman, heiress to a fortune her grandfather amassed “doing business I never bothered to understand,” is the highly unreliable narrator of this searing story from National Book Award finalist Lockhart (The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks), which begins during her 15th summer when she suffers a head injury on the private island Granddad owns off Cape Cod. The book unfolds two summers later, with Cadence trying to piece together the memories she lost after the accident while up against crippling headaches, a brain that feels “broken in countless medically diagnosed ways,” and family members who refuse to speak on the subject (or have been cautioned not to).
Bird Box by Josh Malerman (Ecco) - The sight of something unknown drives people to savagely attack others before taking their own lives in Malerman’s terrific debut, a sophisticated update of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. First reported in Russia, the mysterious plague spreads to the U.S., where it takes a devastating toll on humanity. The only defense against the madness is to avoid looking at the outside world. Four years after the initial outbreak, Malorie lives with her four-year-old twins, known as Boy and Girl, in a suburban Detroit house with sealed windows that has been prepared for long-term survival, stocked with food and other necessary supplies. When Malorie and her children go outside for brief periods, they do so blindfolded. Now Malorie has decided that the time is right for them to flee their refuge.
The Son by Jo Nesbø, trans. from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Knopf) - This excellent standalone from Nesbø centers on Sonny Lofthus (aka the Son), who’s serving a sentence at Oslo’s Staten Maximum Security Prison for two murders to which he confessed but which he did not commit. Sonny began using drugs before his incarceration, after his police officer father, Ab, hanged himself, leaving a note in which Ab confessed to having been a dirty cop. To manipulate Sonny, prison officials, lawyers, and police enable Sonny’s habit. When another inmate, Johannes Halden, who’s dying of cancer, begs for Sonny’s forgiveness after admitting a role in framing Ab and making his murder look like suicide, Sonny stops taking drugs and later escapes from prison with Johannes’s help. He launches a killing spree targeting those he suspects of having destroyed his father.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (FSG) - Two potent, antagonistic forces—a swelling individualism and a political structure intent on controlling it—shape a rising superpower in this revealing journalistic portrait. New Yorker staff writer Osnos, the magazine’s former Beijing correspondent, hangs his panorama on vivid first-hand profiles of artists, writers, editors, economists, Internet dating entrepreneurs, conservative nationalists, liberal students, and dissidents, including imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and exiled lawyer-activist Chen Guangcheng. Through their stories, he depicts a people navigating a dizzying shift from socialist austerity, conformity, and idealism to capitalist materialism and self-promotion; it’s a society steeped in vehement dogmas—the author spies examples in everything from English-language instruction to tour-guide patter—but full of private doubt as they struggle to find fulfillment and social connection in a cutthroat market economy.
Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia (HMH) - This rich brew of a novel from Racculia (This Must Be the Place) mixes together murder, music, and eccentric humor. In 1982, in Clinton’s Kill, N.Y., a new bride murdered her husband, then killed herself, shortly after checking into Room 712 of the Bellweather Hotel. In 1997, high school drama queen Alice Hatmaker checks into the same room to perform at the statewide music festival, along with her talented twin brother, Rabbit. Alice’s roommate is virtuoso flautist Jill Faccelli, whose overbearing mother, Viola Fabian, runs the festival. As a snow storm looms, Alice finds Jill hanged in one of the rooms. But when she returns with help, the body is missing, replaced by a note reading, “NOW SHE IS MINE.”
The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds (Norton) – Reynolds proposes “to shift our view of the Great War out of the trenches” and establish the 1920s and ’30s as postwar years, rather than an interwar preliminary to a greater conflict. The war “undermined civilization itself”; nevertheless Europe “was not frozen in perpetual mourning.” In the postwar years liberal democracy appeared politically triumphant, but the question remained whether still-endemic violence could be sufficiently contained to avert another great war. Reynolds also presents the process of “refracting” the Great War in the context of WWII, which “finished the job apparently botched in 1918.” WWII manifested evil in ways that “sanctified [victory] by morality”: a sharp contrast to the Great War’s “equivocal ending and moral ambiguity.”
Girl in Reverse by Barbara Stuber (S&S/McElderry) - Ever since age four when Lily joined the Firestone household, where “hard topics are... wrapped in sandpaper and swallowed,” she has wondered why her parents adopted her. When the advent of the Korean War exacerbates the barrage of ethnic slurs 17-year-old Lily, her school’s only Asian student, endures (“Now prejudice is free to eat in the lunchroom, ride the bus, join fraternities, sneeze, cough, speak up”), she is increasingly less able to “make a joke of it,” as her father advises. Lily’s determination to resist her tormenters sparks a search for her pre-adoption origins and core identity.
The Very Best of Tad Williams by Tad Williams (Tachyon) - This marvelous short fiction retrospective testifies to the breadth of Williams’s creativity. All but one of these 17 otherworldly tales have appeared in magazines or anthologies, but fans will welcome the chance to have them all in one place. Several of the earlier pieces are particularly charming, including “The Old Scale Game,” with its thoroughly modern monsters, and “Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air”, a chortling version of the book of Genesis. Williams effectively portrays poignant human regrets and longings in “Three Duets for Virgin and Nosehorn,” a miniature masterpiece, and explores the paradoxes of religious belief in “The Stranger’s Hands” and “And Ministers of Grace.”