This week, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel, Erik Larson's account of the 'Lusitania,' and a coming-of-age novel about a girl...who's also a cannibal.
Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britain's Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WWII by Deborah Cadbury (PublicAffairs) - Former BBC television producer Cadbury (Chocolate Wars) provides a thrilling account of the fallout after Prince Edward, heir to the throne, abdicated to marry his American lover—as his brother, Prince Albert, became King George VI and attempted to save Europe from Nazi Germany. The outbreak of WWII forced George to set aside qualms with the prickly Winston Churchill and shelter royalty fleeing from invaded countries. Meanwhile, Edward and his wife, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, were suspected of collaborating with the enemy, given their former ties to Nazi leadership. Two more brothers also had to find their way in chaotic times: the Duke of Kent, a philandering playboy turned devoted RAF captain, and the Duke of Gloucester, who battled the perception that he had a “lack of spark or intelligence.” Cadbury artfully captures the exhilaration of Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk, where citizen volunteers escalated a massive evacuation of British troops, the devastation of the London blitz, and the suspenseful planning and execution of the Normandy invasion.
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, trans. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions) - Moya’s (Senselessness) lyrical meditation on memory and loss tells the story of Erasmo Aragon, an exiled journalist in Mexico City who suffers from ambiguous medical symptoms. Aragon visits an acupuncturist and holistic doctor named Don Chente, who prescribes hypnotherapy, with the side effect of producing vivid dreams. As the status quo of his life is disrupted, the narrator of this Bolañoesque novel dreams of leaving Mexico and returning to his native El Salvador. His plans to return, however, are repeatedly interrupted, and he finds himself twisted up in a state of fear and vulnerable paranoia. Further complications arise when the mysterious Don Chente himself flees to El Salvador without telling Aragon what he said while hypnotized. Yet Aragon’s dream is worth the risk of retribution, because it is the dream of all exiles: the return to a new life in a familiar setting. In this taut, mesmerizing story of the brain’s far-reaching functions, Moya once again proves to be a master storyteller.
Heliopause by Heather Christie (Wesleyan Univ.) - Christle (What Is Amazing) reveals further maturation in this, her fourth collection, as she breaks down the belief that to separate oneself from the world is to be safe from it. The book is named for the theoretical boundary between our solar system and the interstellar medium, and Christle transports readers—as if they were human Voyager spacecraft—into just such a liminal zone. Overwhelmed by stimuli yet present in a flux of knowing/not knowing, the poet pushes to the point where language fails, recognizing “the general uselessness/ of looking to words for answers.” Christle relates how “For a long time they did not know/ if Voyager had crossed the heliopause/ and we lived/ in the strange interim/ of an event perhaps having occurred/ ... without knowing what.” A long poem inspired by composer William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops incorporates lines from friends and artists, in a form that takes cues from the musical composition. Christle reminds us that to be alive is not to be safe from trauma, but to be aware of how intact one can remain in spite of pain and furious joy.
What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South's Tornado Valley by Kim Cross (Atria) - Expanding on an article first published in Southern Living magazine, Alabama-based journalist Cross’s gripping chronicle of the events of April 27, 2011—the deadliest day of the largest tornado outbreak in history—is divided into three parts: “The Storm,” “The Aftermath” and “The Recovery.” The first section introduces readers to various people on the scene when the storm hit, including veteran TV meteorologist James Spann, storm chasers Brian Peters and Tim Coleman, and the civilians—both survivors and soon-to-be victims—caught in nature’s path of destruction. All told, 252 Alabama residents lost their lives in one of the 62 tornadoes that terrorized the state that day. The gruesome second section re-creates the panic and despair that set in when the wind died and the dust settled, revealing wiped-out communities and mangled corpses while inspiring random acts of kindness among strangers. Cross conducted more than 100 hours of interviews, and her detail-oriented reporting anchors a novelist’s flair for drama.
The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell (Two Dollar Radio) - Dibbell’s debut novel chillingly imagines the world in the wake of a global pandemic in the latter part of the 21st century, when much of the population has been wiped out by a potent combination of viruses and bacterial infections that includes tuberculosis, polio, and Ebola. The reader views this apocalyptic abyss through the eyes of Inez Kissena Fardo, a young woman from Queens, N.Y., who has never known a normal existence—she has never even seen a baby. Reproductive ability has been annihilated, and fetuses are made in a lab. Instead of parents there are “clients”; mothers have become “hosts,” and fathers are now “male product.” Inez, who is immune to infection, becomes part of Rauden Sach’s team of baby makers for paying customers. When other methods fail, Rauden resorts to cloning her, and complications ensue. The futuristic trials of motherhood are eerily familiar; Inez spends her days rushing from one low-wage job to the next to pay for her daughter’s schooling, clothes, and the things she needs to keep up with her friends. The book illuminates present-day paranoias, but it is further elevated by Dibbell’s trenchant attention to the corrosive nature of social and economic inequality.
Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis (St. Martin's) - DeAngelis (Mary Modern), who coincidentally went vegan shortly before starting work on this novel, serves up a cannibal story that successfully blends metaphor with the macabre. Maren's 16th birthday seems too good to be true—and sure enough, she awakens the morning after a near-perfect celebration with her mother to find an envelope of cash and a note from her mom: "I love you but I can't do this anymore." Ever since Maren literally devoured her babysitter when she was a little girl, her family has been on the run—Maren doesn't let people get too close to her, but when they do, they're liable to get eaten. The other thing Maren's mother left her is her birth certificate, which includes the name of the father she's never known. Hopeful that she might find acceptance and answers, Maren embarks on a cross-country journey in search of her dad. Along the way she discovers—often under gruesome circumstances—that she is not the only one of her kind, but she is, in a very real way, destined to be alone. It's a genuinely entertaining (though occasionally stomach-turning) story of a young ghoul's coming of age. Delicious fun.
Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman (Random) - In this strong follow-up to 2012’s Seraphina, Hartman continues the adventures of that book’s eponymous half-dragon, who is now assigned with finding and uniting her fellow “ityasaari” before the full-blooded dragons can resolve their civil war and mobilize to wipe out the southern human kingdoms. But some ityasaari don’t want to be found, and one, who has the power to enter and control minds, would rather see them united for her own bitter purpose. With numerous factions jockeying for power and war on the horizon, Seraphina must unlock her own long-dormant potential and find a way to save everyone she loves. As the page count attests, Hartman’s style is leisurely; she builds her epic fantasy carefully, with attention to detail and atmosphere, while letting the plot simmer and allowing just as much to happen off-screen as in Seraphina’s presence. This is a worthy and wholly satisfying continuation of Seraphina’s tale.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Dial) - When Astrid’s mother takes her and her best friend Nicole to a roller derby event, Astrid is intrigued, but Nicole is left cold. The rift between them grows as Astrid signs up for derby camp, while Nicole opts for ballet. Astrid works her tail off, makes friends, finds a mentor in a star skater named Rainbow Bite, and, at last, appears in her first bout. She also undergoes some uncomfortable preadolescent ordeals before reconciling with Nicole, in scenes that Jamieson (Pest in Show), in her first graphic novel, keeps blessedly free of smarminess. Jamieson’s full-color cartooning has a Sunday comics vibe, and her pacing is faultless. Astrid struggles to do right as she tries to understand her soured friendship with Nicole, and she narrates her own failures with heartwarming candor (“I don’t know why I did it. I didn’t mean to hit them”). When she comes up with an elaborate scheme to bolster a teammate’s failing confidence and carries it off despite the pressure of their upcoming bout, readers will want to stand up and cheer.
Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow (Boyds Mills) - Jarrow follows Red Madness with a second captivating book in her planned trilogy on deadly diseases. This time the culprit is typhoid fever with the focus on Mary Mallon (aka Typhoid Mary), the infamous Irish immigrant cook who helped spread it in the early 20th century. The author’s extensive research results in a compelling narrative about the feared infection and the stubborn Mallon, who twice ran from officials and was twice banished from New York City. It also weaves her story into that of sanitation engineer George Soper, Dr. S. Josephine Baker, and other public health officials who worked to track her down and improve the conditions under which typhoid thrives: “Scores of outhouses sat on the creek banks. Their contents oozed into the running water and turned the streams into sewers.” Replete with archival photos, this thorough account brings readers to the present day and modern medicine’s fight against what is still a scourge in many countries.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the 'Lusitania' by Erik Larson (Crown) - With a narrative as smooth as the titular passenger liner, Larson (In the Garden of Beasts) delivers a riveting account of one of the most tragic events of WWI. The fact a German U-boat sank the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915 is undisputed, so Larson crafts the story as historical suspense by weaving information about the war and the development of submarine technology with an interesting cast of characters. He expertly builds tension up to the final encounter. An unanticipated sequence of events put the Lusitania in the path of Capt. Walther Schwieger’s U-20, and he didn’t hesitate to open fire. The Lusitania’s captain, the capable and accomplished William Thomas Turner, did everything in his power to avert the catastrophe, but fate intervened, taking the lives of 1,195 passengers and crew members, including 123 Americans. Despite the stunning loss of life, President Woodrow Wilson held firm to American neutrality in the war, at least in 1915. Larson convincingly constructs his case for what happened and why.
Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey A. Lieberman (Little, Brown) - Lieberman (co-author of Essentials of Schizophrenia), former president of the American Psychiatric Association, does a stellar job of recounting the history of his profession, warts and all, in a way that is easily accessible to lay readers and full of surprising facts. While people are "more likely to need services from psychiatry than any other medical specialty," the stigma attached to mental illness means that most sufferers "consciously avoid the very treatments now proven to relieve their symptoms." But the path from defining a mental illness to finding a consistently effective treatment for it is far from linear, and Lieberman pulls no punches while demonstrating how many psychiatrists, including Freud, made serious missteps that harmed patients and discredited the field in the eyes of the general public. He ends on an upbeat note, however, convincingly arguing that the shame of admitting to mental illness may become a thing of the past, because sufferers can be "diagnosed and treated very effectively," although he notes that the public still needs to be educated about recent advances.
Data-ism: The Revolution Transforming Decision Making, Consumer Behavior, and Almost Everything Else by Steve Lohr (Harper Business) - New York Times technology correspondent and Bits Blog columnist Lohr (To Go) offers a nuanced look at the rise of big data, and the challenges the world faces in maximizing the “technological payoff” while minimizing the risk to personal privacy. He starts by illustrating the need for better ways to manage huge amounts of data, with a visit to the intensive-care unit at Emory University Hospital, noting that a typical 20-bed unit generates an estimated 160,000 data points a second. The sheer volume overwhelms human capacity for processing, but analyzing “vast amounts of data and spotting seemingly subtle patterns is where computers and software algorithms excel.” Data technology also has the potential to dramatically improve efficiency in industries such as energy and agriculture. But Lohr is not a mere cheerleader for the power of information, and he suggests that enthusiasm for “big-data decision making” must be tempered with humility, given the important aspects of life that cannot be quantified, and the power of complex algorithms to make harmful, and mistaken, data-based predictions. In this accessible introduction to a complex topic, Lohr offers insight valuable to both businesses and everyday people.
American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest by Hannah Nordhaus (Harper) - Journalist Nordhaus (The Beekeeper’s Lament) embarks on a “ghost hunt” for her great-great-grandmother, German immigrant Julia Schuster Staab, in this unique collision of family history, Wild West adventure, and ghost story. Since the 1970s, the grand La Posada hotel in Santa Fe has been subject to sightings of a ghost resembling Julia, who lived there with her husband, Abraham, and their seven children in the late 19th century. Nordhaus, who comes from a long line of skeptics, decides to investigate these rumors. She consults a variety of self-appointed supernatural experts—psychics, tarot-card readers, mediums, and dowsers—as well as more traditional sources such as newspaper archives, family diaries, and aging relatives. She also visits the settings of her grandmother’s life, from villages in Germany to the deserts of New Mexico where the Staabs lived alongside “Spanish settlers and Pueblo Indians... Navajos, Apaches, freed slaves, soldiers... cowboys, dry-land farmers... land-grabbers, miners, and shysters.” In the process, Nordhaus uncovers a strain of mental illness that runs through one branch of her family, delves into the lore of the 19th-century spiritualist movement, and discovers how a true-life story can become a paranormal one. Perceptive, witty, and engaging, Nordhaus observes that “it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive... as it is the story.”
Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver (Harper) - Sisters Dara and Nick had grown up as “the Two Musketeers, the Dynamic Duo, Light and Dark, two sides of the same cookie,” but after a serious car accident, the two sisters are irrevocably distanced. As older, more reliable sister Nick tries to find her way back into Dara’s graces, their strained relationship, the boy who came between them, and the sudden disappearance of a nine-year-old girl bring secrets of a local underworld too close to home. The novel alternates between the sisters’ perspectives, both before and after the accident, while news reports, diaries, and blog posts and comments from the community create a narrative full of shades of grey. Oliver (Panic) is in top form in this psychological family drama that investigates the complicated nature of sisterhood. Perfect for readers who devoured We Were Liars, it’s the sort of novel that readers will race to finish, then return to the beginning to marvel at how it was constructed—and at everything they missed.
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (FSG) - Nobel laureate Llosa (The Feast of the Goat) returns to smalltown Peru in this lyrical and witty new novel. The story revolves around two men: Felicíto Yanaque in Piura and Ismael Carrera in Lima. Don Felicíto, owner of a small transport company, is extorted for protection money, but steadfastly refuses to pay. Ismael is a wealthy septuagenarian who marries his housekeeper partly to spite his avaricious sons. After Ismael and his new wife disappear on a long honeymoon, his longtime employee Don Rigoberto is left to deal with the aftermath—and Ismael’s sons, appropriately dubbed “the hyenas.” Don Felicíto finds some consolation with his mistress, Mabel, until she, too, disappears. The alternating story lines eventually converge amid scandal, kidnapping, and death. Llosa populates the novel with many down-home characters from his previous novels—Lituma, Don Rigoberto, Lucrecia, Fonchito—and modern-day Peru itself plays an important role. Throughout, Llosa is a master of the slow build: he layers disparate, suspenseful, and competing stories into a larger, fuller narrative that seamlessly arrives at its satisfying conclusion.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday) - Yanagihara follows her 2013 debut novel, The People in the Trees, with an epic American tragedy. The story begins with four college friends moving to New York City to begin their careers: architect Malcolm, artist JB, actor Willem, and lawyer Jude. Early on, their concerns are money and job related as they try to find footholds in their respective fields. Over the course of the book, which spans three decades, we witness their highs and lows as they face addiction, deception, and abuse, and their relationships falter and strengthen. The focus narrows as the story unspools—and really, this is Jude's story. Unlike his friends, who have largely ordinary lives, Jude has a horrific trauma in his past, and his inner demons are central to the story. Throughout the years, Jude struggles to keep his terrible childhood secret and to trust those who love him. He cuts himself and contemplates suicide, even as his career flourishes and his friends support him. This is a novel that values the everyday over the extraordinary, the push and pull of human relationships—and the book's effect is cumulative. There is real pleasure in following characters over such a long period, as they react to setbacks and successes, and, in some cases, change.