This week: an account of the scandal and obsession behind Monopoly, which many readers will find more entertaining than the game itself.
Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom by Simon Barnes (Atria/Marble Arch) - Barnes (How to Be a Birdwatcher), an English sports writer, nature writer, and novelist, embarks on a vast survey of the animal kingdom. The 460 pages of descriptions of various phyla are a joy to read: funny, thoughtful, informative, and wise. Barnes divides the world’s creatures into vertebrates and invertebrates, alternating his 130 short chapters between the two. A superb writer, he packs an amazing amount of material into each brief chapter, and makes stories about tiny velvet worms, giant squid, peripatetic albatrosses, and sessile barnacles equally captivating. His scientific facts are well chosen and creatively mixed with firsthand descriptions of his travels across Africa, Great Britain, and beyond. Barnes is as comfortable discussing crickets as cricket and weaves literature with natural history. Without moralizing, Barnes also situates Homo sapiens as just one species within the animal kingdom, forcing readers to think about the damage we are doing to so many of our fellow species. The book is all but impossible to put down.
The Whites by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt (Holt) - Price (Lush Life) is one whale of a storyteller by any name, as evinced by the debut of his new brand—okay, Brandt—a gripping, gritty, Greek tragedy of cops, killers, and the sometimes-blurry line between them. The sprawling tale centers on stoic police sergeant Billy Graves, banished to the purgatory of the NYPD's night watch since his role in a racially charged, politically explosive double shooting a decade earlier. Despite the adrenaline-pumping emergencies that routinely erupt during his 1–8 a.m. tour, he has time to obsess over his troubled wife, Carmen; his increasingly demented father, Billy Sr., a retired former chief of patrol; and, most of all, his "White" (that's what Billy, with a harpoon salute to Melville's tormented mariner, calls the one who got away): triple-murderer Curtis Taft. He's the elusive monster Billy is fated to hunt, probably even after retirement—to judge from the way Billy's former colleagues in the Bronx, a group calling themselves the Wild Geese, continue to hunt their own Whites. Suddenly, one of Billy's friends' Whites turns up murdered amid a St. Patrick's Day scrum at Penn Station. Soon a second disappears. And then it starts to look as if someone is stalking Billy's family.
The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacci (Norton) - Filipacchi’s fourth novel blithely upends the social constructs of beauty, desire, and art in her signature brisk, darkly comic style. As usual, Filipacchi taps the sleaze at its source: Manhattan. The focus is on a successful costumer designer named Barb and her group of artsy friends, the Knights of Creation: Georgia, a bestselling novelist; Lily, a talented pianist; beautiful socialite and would-be potter Penelope, who was once kidnapped; and Penelope’s rescuer, ex-cop Jack. The fractured fairy tale of a plot turns on narrator Barb, who inherited her supermodel mother’s jaw-dropping looks but has dressed in an elaborate disguise since she learned that her beauty drove her friend Gabriel to suicide, and Lily, whose face is “simply extremely ugly—the kind of ugliness that is inoperable,” and who yearns to write a piece of music that will hypnotize her longtime crush, a bro-ish violinist named Strad. Filipacchi (Love Creeps) succeeds by loading this frothy plot with sharp surreal turns and layers of subversive meaning as Georgia’s lost laptop mysteriously reappears, Lily’s melodious powers of persuasion become supernaturally effective, and Gabriel warns in a postmortem letter to Barb that one of the Knights intends to kill Strad.
From the New World: Poems 1976-2014 by Jorie Graham (Ecco) - Graham’s second selected volume comes two decades after 1995’s Pulitzer-winning The Dream of the Unified Field and offers a well-curated representation of that period and her subsequent six books, along with four new poems. In culling from 11 collections, the volume is necessarily limited in scope, but it succeeds in giving readers—particularly new ones—a long view of the aesthetic development and ethical awakening of one of America’s most important and critically lauded contemporary poets. Here, the tightly composed lines from her early work in Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts and Erosion give way to The End of Beauty’s cinematics, mythologies, and time-exploding lyrics. These give way in turn to Graham’s middle-career search through form and fragmentation, into the burgeoning ethical consciousness of Never and Overlord, finally arriving at the zigzag, stacklike poems of her ecologically minded (and relatively restrained) previous two volumes.
Nobody Walks by Mick Herron (Soho Crime) - In this superb thriller, CWA Gold Dagger Award–winner Herron returns to the secretive world of British intelligence featured in his two Slough House novels, Slow Horses and Dead Lions. Thomas Bettany, a former undercover specialist who came apart after his wife’s death, is doing menial labor in a European slaughterhouse, estranged from everyone—including his grown son, Liam. When Liam falls to his death from the balcony of his London flat, apparently under the influence of a new drug called muskrat, Bettany returns to England to find out what really happened. His quest leads him to the shadowy Vincent Driscoll, head of the software-design firm Liam worked for, and to the bizarre Dame Ingrid Tearney, head of the Intelligence Service, who is either worried that Bettany will discover something better kept under wraps or else wants Bettany to do some dirty work on her behalf.
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (Morrow) - In his second novel, Johnson (Hold It ’Til It Hurts) delivers a funny and tragic coming-of-age story that spares no one its satirical eye. D’aron Little May Davenport, a misfit in his small Georgia town, enrolls at UC Berkeley to get as far away from home as he can. His new roommate, Louis Chang, is an irrepressible fellow completely at home in California, whose fearless determination to be a stand-up comedian offers a “refreshing antidote to the somber, tense mood sweeping campus.” Soon they meet Candice, a pretty white Iowan with hair that “glowed like butter on burned toast,” and Charlie, a black prep school kid, while they are all being scolded for supposed insensitivity at a dorm party. They quickly become close and call themselves the “4 Little Indians.” When D’aron mentions that Braggsville has an annual Civil War reenactment in their American history class, Candice and Louis persuade the group to stage a “performative intervention” over spring break. This is D’aron’s story, told from his perspective, but there’s a secondary voice, an impish interloper, challenging D’aron and the reader to delve deeper, asking again and again, “Por qué?” Johnson’s prose has a sketched-out and dreamlike quality, a private shorthand that adds to the feeling of intimacy, an apt trick when dealing with subject matter like race and class.
Doctor Death: A Madeleine Karno Mystery by Lene Kaaberbol, trans. from the Danish by Elisabeth Dyssegaard (Atria) - Set mainly in 1894 in provincial Varbourg, France, Kaaberbøl’s excellent first in a new historical series introduces Dr. Albert Karno and his scalpel-sharp 20-year-old daughter, Madeleine, who must figure out who murdered lovely 17-year-old Cecile Montaine. Days later, Father Abigore, the Montaine family priest, is murdered as well, and his body is stolen during a violent attack on the hearse transporting it. The investigation pushes passionate aspiring physician Madeleine well beyond conventional expectations for a proper young woman. She goes to Heidelberg to seek the aid of a dashing academic, and later to the forest-ringed Bernardine convent where Cecile was attending school until her disappearance. Deftly exploring such themes as the struggles between mind and body, science and spirit—without detracting from a gripping plot—the novel transcends its period to contemplate the eternal.
The Room by Jonas Karlsson, trans. from the Swedish by Neil Smith (Hogarth) - Karlsson’s short novel offers a monologue that builds from simple office satire to a reality-bending psychological profile with insights into the nature and importance of personal space. Bjorn, a Stockholm bureaucrat, is a meticulous but unreliable narrator whose sense of superiority comes in conflict with the facts. When his boss eases him into another job, a demotion in several ways, Bjorn sees it as his chance to blossom into his full potential, which unfolds in a series of short, often humorous, and increasingly disturbing narratives. Bjorn begins the new job by organizing his days into 55-minute intervals with five-minute breaks. During one such break, he sees a door. When he steps inside, he finds a small, tidy, unused office. The problem with this room is no one else sees it—and it’s not the only thing Bjorn sees that others do not. In the receptionist’s smile Bjorn sees an invitation; in his desk-mate’s pile of papers he sees encroachment; in his coworkers’ denial of the room he sees conspiracy. Bjorn visits a psychiatrist, promises to never reenter the room, and meanwhile devises a strategy to defeat his adversaries.
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai (Harper) - All high-achieving 12-year-old Mai wants is to hang out at home in Laguna Beach with her best friend and her crush-that-shall-not-be-named: “This is the summer I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” she explains. Instead, she is forced to accompany her father and her grandmother (Bà) to Vietnam to determine whether her grandfather (Ông) might still be alive. (He disappeared during “THE WAR,” as Mai thinks of it, and has long been presumed dead.) Mai’s self-interested annoyance gives way to fascination as she becomes swept up in her Vietnamese heritage, helps find out what happened to Ông, befriends a headstrong girl named Út, and enjoys a deepening relationship with Bà. As she did in her National Book Award–winning Inside Out & Back Again, Lai offers a memorable heroine and cultural journey—ones that are clever near-opposites of those in that book, as Lai trades verse for prose and an immigrant’s story for one of a girl fully immersed in American culture.
In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China by Michael Meyer (Bloomsbury) - The Chinese countryside struggles to preserve its soul while edging toward modern capitalism in this vivid snapshot of China’s far northeastern region of Manchuria. Journalist Meyer spent three years living in his in-laws’ village of Wasteland—which, despite the name, turns out to be a lively place. With delightful character sketches and casual but sharp-eyed reporting, his portrait of Wasteland captures the close-knit warmth of rural life—everyone knows everything about Meyer’s business, especially the village “aunties” who are forever kibitzing his parenting plans—as well as the hilarious ways that Chinese and American cultures mistranslate each other. Along the way he tours Manchuria’s historical sites and stilted museum exhibitions, while recounting its tumultuous past as a battleground fought over by Japan, Russia, and Chinese Nationalists and Communists. In Wasteland, he observes a quieter upheaval as the town is gradually taken over by an agribusiness that wants to move farmers off the land and into apartment complexes, a development that promises advantages—steadier incomes, indoor plumbing instead of frigid outhouses—while threatening to unravel the social fabric.
The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon (Bloomsbury) - With more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie mystery, reporter Pilon reveals the tumultuous history of Monopoly, the iconic board game first created by Elizabeth Magie to draw attention to the economic theories of Henry George (a 19th-century politician and economist who advocated that land was not meant to be seized and couldn’t be owned). Pilon chronicles the game’s evolution through pop culture, including its crucial adoption by Quakers in Atlantic City, and the fervent players who modified the game to include local landmarks such as Ventnor Avenue and Boardwalk. The product then fell into the hands of an unemployed Charles Darrow, who patented it; Parker Brothers propagated his rags-to-riches story as though he were the originator of the game. To add to the drama, Pilon also relates the story of Ralph Anspach’s Anti-Monopoly, a game designed to present a different point of view, which Parker Brothers went out of its way to squash (including a very public burial of 40,000 copies of Anspach’s version). Many readers will find more entertaining than the game itself.
Making Nice by Matt Sumell (Holt) - From the first page, Sumell’s exceptional novel in stories unleashes one of the most comically arresting voices this side of Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland. Alby is congenitally violent, frequently intoxicated, eloquently abusive, a 30-year-old “loser” (according to his sister), and unmistakably American. Even on her deathbed, Alby’s mother can’t think of anything nice to say about him, and so Alby spirals into barely concealed rage, lashing out at his sister (whom he punches, noting, “Siblings don’t count as ladies”), his father (who lives mostly on Hot Pockets), and his girlfriends—including one whom he compulsively humiliates in “Toast” (originally published in the Paris Review) and a waitress who out-matures him in “The Block, Twice.” But Alby’s biggest victim is himself; essentially a hostage to his temper and grief, he is a sort of every-bro. He also emerges as the protector of a helpless bird (although he hopes to train it to “bite people’s dicks off in the dark”), cares for his bedridden grandmother (though he makes a bet that she “wouldn’t make it past December”), and feels genuine remorse for all the people he’s punched in the face (like the guy who said he “should be nicer to people”).
Plague Land by S. D. Sykes (Pegasus Crime) - Set in 1350, British author Sykes’s debut provides everything a reader would want in a historical mystery: a gripping plot, vivid language, living and breathing characters, and an immersive depiction of the past. With England still in the grip of the plague, callow 18-year-old Oswald de Lacy unwillingly assumes the mantle of Lord Somershill after the disease claims his father and brothers. Oswald departs the monastery where he’s been residing and returns home to Kent, where the burdens of overseeing his estate are complicated by the discovery of the body of Alison Starvecrow, a tenant’s daughter, in a neighboring wood. The parish priest, John of Cornwall, insists that a dog-headed man, an emissary of Satan himself, slit the girl’s throat. Cornwall whips the locals into a hysterical fury, impeding Oswald’s efforts to discover the truth. From the opening line, “If I preserve but one memory at my own death, it shall be the burning of the dog-headed beast,” Sykes grabs the reader by the throat.