This week, new Stephen King, new Herman Koch, and the best literary puzzle of the summer.
Night Heron by Adam Brookes (Hachette/Redhook) - Brookes, a correspondent for BBC News in Washington, D.C., who was formerly based in China, takes readers deep inside the culture and daily routines of that country in his outstanding fiction debut. Li Huasheng (aka Peanut) has recently escaped from a remote Chinese labor camp after nearly 20 years of confinement for selling military secrets—a livelihood that he has now resumed with the help of one of his former conspirators who evaded capture. Meanwhile, Philip Mangan, a freelance British journalist recruited by his own country’s spies to serve as a messenger for Peanut, wants to sell a software key that would give the West access to China’s national security secrets, including information about troubles with its new nuclear missiles.
The Explorers: A Story of Fearless Outcasts, Blundering Geniuses, and Impossible Success by Martin Dugard (S&S) - Dugard (The Training Ground) uses Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke’s quest to find the Nile’s source as a framing device to craft a fascinating examination of the seven key traits of history’s most famous explorers. Curiosity, hope, passion, courage, independence, self-discipline, and perseverance, Dugard says, are crucial traits explorers must possess in order to achieve their goals: “Take away one... and an expedition was doomed to failure.”
What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins (Twelve) - Laura Bridgman lost all her senses but that of touch due to a fever at age two. Though she was an internationally renowned figure in the mid-19th century, Laura has been all but forgotten by history. Fortunately, Elkins revives this historical figure with a wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched debut novel. Arriving at the Perkins Institution as a child, Laura learns to read, write, and “speak” through signing via the manual alphabet, with letters tapped out on her hand. Though she receives hundreds of visitors at “Exhibition Days,” Laura has few friends or family members who care about her. She is intensely attached to Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe from the institution, and suffers virtual abandonment when he marries to begin a family of his own. Laura comes across as a willful, mysterious marvel, showing “how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.”
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin Press) - In this wry, accessible, and entertaining exploration of everyday math, Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, shows readers how “knowing mathematics is like wearing a pair of X-ray specs” that reveal the hidden structure of the world. Too often, mathematics is taught as a “long list of rules” without any real-world application. Ellenberg stresses that even the most complex math is based on common sense and then proves it with examples that take the abstract and make it real. Lines and curves provide the foundation for explorations of the Affordable Care Act and the infamous Laffer curve (with a Ferris Bueller shout-out). The ancient and “extremely weird” Pythagoreans help us calculate the area of a tuna fish sandwich. Ellenberg finds the common-sense math at work in the everyday world, and his vivid examples and clear descriptions show how “math is woven into the way we reason.”
A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman (Harper) - The debut novel from Fishman shines with a love for language and craft. Minsk-born 25-year-old Slava Gelman has made it to the bottom of top-tier journalism. He’s junior staff at Century magazine, and he’s just been given a shot at a byline. But the death of his Holocaust-survivor grandmother throws self-involved Slava’s life out of focus. His grandfather—a quick-to-brag but resourceful man who “gets things”—pressures Slava into forging a restitution claim letter for Slava’s deceased grandmother, then spreads the news around his South Brooklyn neighborhood of Slava’s availability to write such fraudulent letters. Writers like Slava, and like Fishman, have a responsibility to do justice to the beauty in the details, and Fishman achieves that handily here.
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds (FSG) - Combining careful, considered prose with horrific realism, the latest from Foulds (Man Booker finalist for The Quickening Maze) expertly renders the Allied campaigns in Italy and North Africa during WWII through the experiences of a handful of bluntly human characters. Ciro Albanese, a well-connected criminal, fled Italy just before the Fascists took over 20 years ago. He returns as a guide for the liberators, his illicit skills only sharpened during his time away. Will Walker joined the English Field Security Service with grand designs. He's convinced he could change the world for the better, if only his superiors would listen to him. Ray Marfione, an infantryman from New York, finds community in his squadron, but even the tightest bonds seem fragile against the war's terrifying violence. Each of these characters is desperate in his own way, and Foulds follows them across rough, beautiful terrain, as the war, indifferent to their intentions, determines their fates.
The Stories of Jane Gardam by Jane Gardam (Europa) - The 28 short stories in this magnificent selection from British author Gardam date from 1977 to 2007, and span the length of her career. Some of these stories are connected to novels: “Old Filth,” like Gardam’s signature novel of the same name, is about Sir Edward Feathers, a British lawyer who spent his working years in Hong Kong (the title refers to the acronym, “Failed in London? Try Hong Kong”). Now retired and living in Dorset, Feathers, a symbol of the decline of the British Empire, reflects on his past, though Gardam elevates the story above allegory. “Hetty Sleeping” follows a young mother on a seaside holiday, where she encounters a former lover; the result is supremely wistful. The full range of Gardam’s talents is on display here, and readers will feel lucky to have so much good writing in one place.
The Director by David Ignatius (Norton) - In this frighteningly convincing spy thriller from Ignatius, former entrepreneur Graham Weber has a new job: director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization suffering in “the post-Snowden era” of whistle-blowers and cyberterrorism. During Weber’s first week on the job, Rudolf Biel walks into the U.S. consulate in Hamburg, Germany, and tells base chief K.J. “Kitten” Sandoval that “your messages can be read.” Weber sends his brilliant technologist, James Morris, director of the agency’s Information Operations Center, to Germany to meet with Biel, but Biel is shot and killed before he can be interviewed. The action revolves around the source of the leak Biel identified, which turns into a plot to hack and destroy the Bank of International Settlements.
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (Scribner) - In this suspenseful crime thriller from King, ex-detective Bill Hodges is settling badly into his retirement. Then he receives a taunting letter from someone who claims to be the Mercedes Killer—the media’s name for the hit-and-run driver who, a year earlier, deliberately plowed a stolen car into a crowd at a job fair, killing eight and maiming 15. Hoping to wrap up the unsolved case, Hodges follows the letter writer to an anonymous social media chat site, inaugurating a game of cat and mouse with escalating stakes and potentially fatal consequences. Bill’s antagonist is Brady Hartsfield, a sociopath who is skilled in computers and electronics and who—with a touch of brilliant irony—also operates the neighborhood ice cream truck.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, trans. from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random/Hogarth) - In Koch’s equally devious follow-up to The Dinner, civilization is once again only a thin cover-up for man’s baser instincts. This time out, we meet Dr. Marc Schlosser, whose practice includes a new patient, veteran TV and stage actor Ralph Meier. At a party, Marc doesn’t like the way Ralph looks at his wife, Caroline. So when Marc and his family are invited to spend part of their vacation at Ralph’s summer house (with swimming pool), Marc reluctantly accepts. There, his family mingles with Ralph’s family, as well as houseguests Stanley Forbes, a film director, and his much younger girlfriend. The air is rife with sexual tension as Ralph showers too much attention on Marc’s underage daughter, Julia, and Marc toys with having an affair with Ralph’s wife, Judith. Then tragedy strikes. Very few real-world events will distract readers from finishing this addictive book in one or two sittings.
Let Me See It by James Magruder (TriQuarterly) - In this witty, elegiac collection of linked stories, Magruder traces the paths of two gay cousins, Tom Amelio and Elliott Biddler, as they grow up in the Midwest and eventually become wised-up, crisis-addled adults. Spanning 1971 to 1992, and set in cities ranging from Madison, Wis., to Paris, the collection captures a critical chapter in gay history. The innocent crushes and clumsy sexual forays we witness in early stories (“Tenochtitlán,” “Use Your Head”) give way to darker entries (“Elliott Biddler’s Vie Bohème,” “Elbows and Legs”), in which the cousins, entering adulthood in the ’80s, begin to feel the threat of AIDS. Despite this occasionally morbid background, Magruder’s tales are consistently light-footed. “Buccellati” finds Elliott, “the first to take his shirt off on the dance floor,” and Tom, a “working stiff,” navigating gay romance in New York, while “Mistress of the Revels,” a perfect, acrid portrait of theater life, allows Magruder to put his experience as a playwright to use. This collection—especially its final, tragic entry—will leave readers moved.
Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (HarperTeen) - Cerebral palsy means Amy walks with difficulty and talks via a speech-enabled computer; Matthew’s life is increasingly limited by OCD. Although they’ve attended school together their entire lives, they’ve barely talked to each other. They’re also very different: super-achieving Amy is choosing between elite colleges, while Matthew can’t fill out his college applications. Amy’s an optimist, and Matthew’s a fearful worrier. They develop a relationship when Amy convinces her fiercely protective mother to let her have peer assistants. In her YA debut, adult author McGovern (Neighborhood Watch) avoids gooeyness or condescension by making Amy and Matthew individuals, not diagnoses, and their relationship not just plausible, but suspenseful, as they try to figure out what they can be to each other.
The Prince of Venice Beach by Blake Nelson (Little, Brown) - Nelson combines a hardboiled first-person narrative and a languid Southern California setting to establish a seductive surf noir atmosphere in the story of Robert “Cali” Callahan, a 17-year-old runaway who’s testing out a potential career as a private investigator on the streets of Venice Beach. Cali’s doing pretty well for himself: he has a rent-free treehouse to sleep in, is generally well-liked by the other denizens of the boardwalk, and can hold his own on Venice’s infamous streetball courts. When Cali starts getting quiet offers to track down persons of interest (a runaway kid here, a transient there), he’s thrilled by his early successes, but learns that not knowing where the money is coming from puts him on ethically murky ground.
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau, trans. from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan (Grove/Black Cat) - In this devilishly fun literary puzzle, psycholinguist Gustavo is contacted by his old friend Daniel, whom he hasn’t heard from in years. Daniel asks Gustavo to visit him in a nearby mental institution, where he’s being held for murdering his fiancée. Daniel, a mild-mannered eccentric who loves antique books, promises to reveal why he did what he did, and thus draws Gustavo into a search through the underground and back alleys of his unnamed South American country. This perfect blend of page-turning narrative and knockout prose is as good as it gets—Patriau’s book is pure pitch-black fun.
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central) - At the start of this superior psychological thriller from Thriller Award–winner Smith, the narrator, a Londoner known only as Daniel, receives a phone call from his father, who has retired with his wife to a farm in Sweden. The father tells Daniel that his mother is in the hospital. For months, she has been “imagining things—terrible, terrible things.” Before Daniel can fly to Sweden, his father calls again to inform him that she persuaded the doctors to authorize her discharge and has disappeared. As Daniel struggles to accept that news, his mother phones to announce that she’s flying to Heathrow and that everything his father has told him “is a lie.” When she arrives, she offers a complex tale to buttress her conviction that she has been plotted against, leaving Daniel uncertain as to whom and what to believe.
Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York by Ted Steinberg (S&S) - Describing an island estuary that became one of the world’s most densely populated cities, this fascinating, encyclopedic history views three centuries of continuous transformation of greater New York City through an ecological lens. Brooklyn-born Steinberg, a professor of law and history at Case Western Reserve University, offers plenty of fodder for New Yorkers’ dinnertime chatter, whether it’s getting to the origins of place names like the Meadowlands or the surprisingly controversial nature of the street grid layout. But his broad vision tells a story of common rights and private property, land grants and landfills, drainage and dams, plumbing and garbage, eutrophication and mosquito control, politics and doublespeak, salt marshes and wetlands, and the deep ecological importance of the points where land meets sea.