This week, the Rapture, an alien probe at the bottom of Lake Michigan, and Hitchcockian suspense at a museum.
The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era by Douglas R. Egerton (Bloomsbury) - In this challenging history of America’s first age of “progressive reform,” Egerton, a professor of history at Le Moyne College, argues that the era of Reconstruction constituted the “most democratic” decades of the 19th century. Following the wartime contributions of African-American soldiers who “learned to march and read at the same time,” came demands for suffrage and equality. The result is a chaotic nation reshaped by political activism, land reclamation, the reuniting of freed families, the creation of new unions and banking institutions, and, especially, the establishment of educational opportunities for African-Americans—a community that “everywhere emphasized cooperation” in the post-bellum period.
Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming by McKenzie Funk (Penguin Press) - For most of the planet, the specter of global warming is ominous, but as journalist Funk reveals in this startling book, there are those who view the Earth’s dangerous meltdown as a golden opportunity. Funk, who for traveled six years studying climate change, saw beyond the ecological disaster, profiling individuals and companies with an ambitious goal of turning a profit from a distressed planet—one overwhelmed by carbon emissions at higher concentrations than at any time in the last 800,000 years. In alarming terms, he lists three major categories of global warming that need very little explanation—the melt, the drought, and the deluge—all of which have nations and citizens jockeying for position to cash in on the world’s dwindling resources.
The Ways of Evil Men by Leighton Gage (Soho Crime) - Chief Insp. Mario Silva investigates the suspicious deaths of 39 members of an indigenous tribe in the remote Brazilian state of Pará, in Gage’s riveting seventh and final police procedural. When Jade Calmon, an agent with the FUNAI (the federal government’s National Indian Foundation), discovers that all but two—Amati and his eight-year-old son, Raoni—of the fast-dwindling members of the native Awana tribe have died, she immediately suspects foul play.
Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China by Yu Hua, trans. from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr (Pantheon) - The subtitle of Hua’s (To Live: A Novel) collection, “Stories of the Hidden China,” appears to refer to the China of ordinary people, not that of the new plutocrats, corrupt officials and their spoiled children, or high-profile political artists like Ai Wei Wei. The prolific Hua is interested in unimportant people—mostly men—and the events (sometimes small, sometimes large) that force them to reconsider their situations. In “Their Son,” a factory worker who frequently finds himself stuck on overcrowded buses finds out that the son he’s putting through college casually takes taxis; in “Why There Was No Music,” a man borrows some videos from a friend only to find out they’re homemade.
The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely (S&S/McElderry) - Kiely’s impressive debut takes a controversial topic—sexual abuse in the Catholic Church—and addresses it head-on with sensitivity and finesse. Sixteen-year-old social outcast Aidan Donovan is from a privileged but broken family. While his philandering father has decamped to Europe and his mother is planning her latest high-society bash in their suburban Connecticut neighborhood, Aidan is busy snorting Adderall and getting wasted with a trio of new friends. Aidan’s discontent builds to a masterfully disquieting roar as he buckles under the weight of the secret he no longer wants to keep, but is too afraid to tell.
The Last Days of California by Mary Miller (Norton/Liveright) - The Metcalf family may be road-tripping toward the Rapture in California in Miller’s debut novel, but the cross-country journey marks the beginning, rather than the end, of an examined life for her 15-year-old narrator, Jess. Between discovering that her prayer-happy father has lost his job and finding the positive pregnancy test that her 17-year-old sister, Elise, took in a Biloxi hotel bathroom, young Jess has plenty on her mind, as middle America speeds past the windows of the family’s Taurus. Miller has created a narrator worthy of comparison with those of contemporaries such as Karen Thompson Walker and of greats such as Carson McCullers.
The First True Lie by Marina Mander, trans. from the Italian by Stephen Twilley (Hogarth) - Mander’s English-language debut is narrated by the ebullient Luca, whose voice is every bit as engaging as the best child narrators out there: imagine a blend of Oskar (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Blue (Special Topics in Calamity Physics), and Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). This slim novel smartly focuses on the cranks and gears of Luca’s imagination. The child—who lives alone with his depressed mother and his “amazing” cat, Blue—is hiding a terrible secret: his mother won’t wake up. Luca’s fear of being an orphan is greater than his fear of living with his mother’s dead body, even as it decomposes.
Alena by Rachel Pastan (Riverhead) - Hitchcockian suspense infiltrates the cloistered contemporary art scene in Pastan’s riveting third novel. On her first trip to the Venice Biennale, the unnamed narrator, a naïve young curator, is taken under the wing of a wealthy, well-bred man named Bernard Augustin, who offers her the job of a lifetime at the Nauquasset, his jewel-box museum on Cape Cod, Mass. She seizes the opportunity, but not without some hesitation: all she knows about “the Nauk,” as it’s called, is that its previous curator, an enigmatic Russian beauty named Alena, disappeared two years ago under mysterious circumstances, and that her disappearance broke Bernard’s heart.
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook) - Sheinkin delivers another meticulously researched WWII story, one he discovered while working on his Newbery Honor book, Bomb. The accidental explosion at Port Chicago, a California Navy base where African-American servicemen loaded ammunition onto ships, killed more than 300 soldiers and injured nearly 400. The author carefully details how this long-forgotten event from 1944 was pivotal in helping end segregation in the military.
Pandemic by Scott Sigler (Crown) - Bestseller Sigler’s conclusion to his Infected trilogy, a terrifying horror thriller, improves on its predecessor, 2008’s Contagious. A brief prologue brings newcomers up to speed: an alien race known as the Creators launched a machine to Earth that sent out probes containing seeds with the capacity to infiltrate human bodies and convert them into violent zombielike creatures. Humanity has managed to destroy most of the probes, but one remains intact at the bottom of Lake Michigan. The aliens depend on “three existing, proven designs”: hatchlings, whose main purpose is to kill; crawlers, which use hive intelligence to infect; and mommies, which turn people into spore-distribution systems.