This week, a spy thriller retelling of "King Lear," Francisco Goldman explores Mexico City, and a feminist spin on "Tom Sawyer."
Inside Man by Jeff Abbott (Grand Central) - Thriller Award–winner Abbott draws on Shakespeare’s King Lear for his outstanding fourth Sam Capra novel (after 2013’s Downfall). When Steve Robles, an old friend of Sam’s, is shot dead outside the Miami bar that Sam runs, Sam, a former CIA agent, resolves to find Steve’s killer. Under the name Sam Chevalier, Sam goes “inside” the luxurious Varela family compound in Puerto Rico, where Steve was working a security job for frightened Cordelia Varela. Meanwhile, Cordelia’s father, patriarch Rey Varela, is dividing his shipping empire—which is not entirely legitimate—among his three children, playing one against the other.
The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson (HarperTeen) - Anderson once again works her magic to conjure evocative settings and soulful protagonists in this modern gothic romance featuring a displaced adolescent and the ghost who is mysteriously drawn to her. The story begins shortly after homeschooled Maggie reluctantly bids goodbye to Chicago city life to move with her parents to a remote Victorian house on Lake Michigan in Door County, Wis. The tranquility of the community is disturbed by news of a serial killer in the area. Despite widespread fear and distrust in the area, Maggie enjoys moments of contentment with new friends Pauline and Liam, neighbors with a deep childhood bond. But when Maggie’s presence threatens to put a wedge between Pauline and Liam, all three must rethink their relationships with each other.
The Fracking King by James Browning (Little A/New Harvest) - Environmentalist Browning delivers a playful debut about a serious subject: fracking. High school junior Winston Crwth is a genius with words and a Scrabble prodigy. Win is friendless, however, and Scrabble is banned at his new school in Hale, Pa.—the most recent of three he’s attended in as many years. To make matters worse, he soon learns that at the less-than-loving school, class is mandatory on Saturdays, he must pass a swim test with his limbs bound, and there are no girls. The good news is that Win gets a full-ride “Dark Scholarship” to the school, endowed by the Dark Oil & Gas company, which is responsible for fracking in the area. Eventually, with the support of Mr. Urlacher, the poet laureate of Pennsylvania; Urlacher’s nearly illiterate son Rich; and the headmaster’s daughter, Thomasina, Win repeals the ban on Scrabble.
The Chemistry of Alchemy: From Dragon’s Blood to Donkey Dung, How Chemistry Was Forged by Cathy Cobb, Monty Fetterolf, and Harold Goldwhite (Prometheus) - The authors, all chemists, provide armchair alchemists with a series of tales showing the efforts across centuries to produce a method for changing a base metal into gold. They admit that they are not historians, and the apocryphal nature of their sketches demonstrates this. However, they write with wry humor and sympathy for those who endangered their lives—and souls—in the quest. The book’s real hook is the (al)chemical experiments at each chapter’s end. Beginning with the distillation of salt water to produce salt and potable water, the authors swiftly progress to more complicated transformations. They emphasize safety glasses and good air circulation—two things their predecessors lacked—and with standard high school lab equipment, a stove, a hibachi, and some care, amazing results can be reproduced.
The New Arabs: How the Wired and Global Youth of the Middle East Is Transforming It by Juan Cole (Simon & Schuster) - Young people and their smartphones overthrow dictatorships in this rousing study of the Arab Spring. University of Michigan historian Cole (Engaging the Muslim World) follows the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya from their roots in dissident organizing though the mass protests of 2011, the collapse of repressive regimes, and ensuing political turmoil. He focuses on the leadership of the “millennial” generation of young, urban, secular activists, their horizons broadened by the Internet and satellite TV, their “interactive networks and horizontal organizations” empowered by blogs and YouTube videos that spread ideas and rallied demonstrators. Cole’s exhilarating journalistic narrative of their exploits is enlivened by interviews with participants and his own colorful firsthand accounts of upheavals.
The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle by Francisco Goldman (Grove) - In this exquisite chronicle, novelist and journalist Goldman (Say Her Name) takes readers into the heart of Mexico City, showcasing its vibrant complexity and grit. Grieving for his young wife Aura’s death five years earlier, Goldman explores his relationship with her native city against the backdrop of its changing leadership—a result of the 2012 presidential elections that restored the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power after a 12-year absence. As Goldman notes, the Districto Federal (D.F.), as Mexico City is commonly known, mainly avoided the “catastrophe of the murderous narco war” because of the progressive leadership of mayors from the left-leaning opposing party, the PRD. Now with the PRI—and its ominous ties to the drug cartels—back in power, not even the D.F. seems immune to kidnappings and escalating violence. This remarkable book is driven by its perceptive, funny, and philosophical narrator.
Joe and Marilyn by C. David Heymann (Atria) - Although Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe’s marriage was short-lived, the late Heymann (Bobby and Jackie), in his final work, reveals why their Hollywood love affair remains one of the most famous in celebrity history. DiMaggio’s and Monroe’s dynamic personalities fueled romance and the attention of the media, and Heymann recounts with great skill the couple’s close, tumultuous, and tragic relationship. When they met (a double date Monroe almost skipped), DiMaggio had finished his baseball career and Monroe’s career was rising. Although their affection for one another was genuine, they were certainly not happily married. Celebrity gossip aficionados will thoroughly enjoy Heymann’s well-researched yet approachable style.
Conversion by Katherine Howe (Putnam) - As she did in her adult novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Howe draws thrilling connections between the Salem witch trials and the present day in her YA debut. Colleen Rowley and her friends attend St. Joan’s Academy, a private Catholic high school in Boston that caters to girls with Harvard-size aspirations. After Colleen’s classmate Clara has a strange seizure during class, Clara develops shocking, Tourette’s-like verbal and facial tics. The condition soon spreads through the school until there are dozens of girls with inexplicable and divergent symptoms—Colleen’s friend Anjali has started coughing up pins. The school nurse and local medical professionals scroll futilely through diagnoses, and the media descends on St. Joan’s, making life a circus for the girls and their families.
The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher by Jessica Lawson, illus. by Iacopo Bruno (Simon & Schuster) - Lawson makes a delightfully clever debut with what at first seems to be a feminist spin on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: What if Becky Thatcher were the troublemaker and adventurer, and Tom a goody-goody tattletale? But the presence of a character named Sam Clemens, “the story man,” as Becky dubs him, taking constant notes, adds a deeper metafictional layer to the story. Lawson delivers an entertaining tale, but also writes movingly about grief. Becky is struggling with the death of her older brother, Jon, a year earlier, and with the simultaneous loss of her mother, now a silent mourning shadow, incapable of showing love for Becky. There is plenty of small-town adventure involving escaped thieves, graveyard escapades, and a possible witch.
How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer (St. Martin’s) - Netzer’s second novel (after Shine Shine Shine) ties together cosmology, astronomy, and astrology into a dense but absorbing meditation on destiny. After making a career-defining discovery, astrophysicist Irene Sparks is leaving Pittsburgh, Pa., to take a job at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy in her old Ohio hometown. Returning to Toledo means confronting her complex relationship with her recently deceased mother, a lifelong alcoholic who worked as a professional psychic. Most of the staff at TIA is indifferent to Irene’s arrival or outright unwelcoming, but when Irene meets her new colleague, George Dermont, they immediately feel a powerful connection to one another. But what Irene and George don’t know is that 29 years prior, their mothers—both astrology enthusiasts—made a pact to conceive a pair of cosmically ordained soulmates, then separate them so that they can find each other again.
A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States by Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz (Basic) - Following up the creators’ Latino USA: A Cartoon History, this book demonstrates that comics may be the ideal form to express contrarian thinking—in this case, alternate views of American history. One panel shows a straight portrait of John Quincy Adams penning an 1811 passage that justifies U.S. domination of all North America based on “divine providence,” juxtaposed with a modern Latino who observes, “And you Gringos wonder why everyone hates you....” Throughout the book, Amherst professor Stavans and L.A. cartoonist Alcaraz cast their skeptical, sarcastic eyes on the accepted notion of America’s steady progress as capably managed by upright white males.
Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara J. Taylor (Akashic) - Taylor’s debut novel is set in her native city of Scranton, Penn., during the early part of the 20th century. When Daisy, the oldest daughter of miner Owen Morgan and his housemaid wife Grace, dies in a fireworks accident, her parents are devastated: Grace’s melancholy becomes so overwhelming that she conjures up the creepy, destructive figment she calls Grief; Owen has a violent drunken quarrel with Grace, moves out to live above a tavern, and leaves their church. Meanwhile, the Morgans’ eight-year-old daughter, Violet, is weighed down by her guilt and starts cutting school with older boy Stanley Adamski, whose own life changes after a mining accident.
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil (Grove) - Twin brothers find themselves on opposite sides of an ideological divide in this ambitious debut novel from the author of the novella collection The New Valley. Yarik and Dima grew up together in Russia, thick as thieves. As adults, they work at the Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in the town of Petroplavilsk, which is bathed in perpetual daylight by space mirrors. Under the mirrors, the town becomes ceaselessly productive, a place where “sleep was freed from nature’s hours, breakfast was what happened before work,” and “stores never closed.” Longing for more time with his brother, Dima becomes increasingly disenchanted with this new, overly productive society, while an encounter between Yarik and Russian billionaire Boris Bazarov—the oligarch behind the Oranzheria—leads to the Yarik’s ascension through the ranks.
Alice Paul: Claiming Power by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry (Oxford Univ.) - Zahniser and Fry’s biography shines a bright light on the “elusive” figure of suffragist Alice Paul (1885–1977). A woman whose life bridged the “first” and “second waves” of feminism, Paul was once a towering figure in American suffragist politics, having cut her teeth on the battle for women’s voting rights in Britain. The elegantly constructed narrative combines the filaments of Paul’s precocious life into an incisive tale, beginning with her Quaker upbringing and following her as she emerges as an activist and agitator. The book shows how Paul navigated the shoals of propriety, respectability, and the necessity of forthright activist tactics. This is not only the story of one person, but of her epoch and culture.