This week: a thrilling book within a book, the end of the U.S. space program, and solitude in New York City.
From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess by Meg Cabot (Feiwel and Friends) - The nation of Genovia gains a new resident in this amusing spin-off of Cabot’s Princess Diaries series: self-effacing, biracial Olivia, a 12-year-old aspiring wildlife artist who discovers that she is the half-sister of Princess Mia Thermopolis. Because Olivia’s long-dead mother insisted that Olivia live in New Jersey with her aunt and uncle (who are only slightly more benign than Harry Potter’s kin), Olivia doesn’t know that the father she has never met is the prince of Genovia. Princess Mia dramatically appears at Olivia’s private school just as an angry classmate, Annabelle, is preparing to pummel her; she whisks Olivia off to Manhattan to meet her father and Grandmère, who wastes no time in informing Olivia how a princess ought to comport herself. Though there’s a bump in the road to Olivia’s new royal digs, she at last lands in Genovia, where plans for Mia’s wedding are in full swing.
The Well by Catherine Chanter (Atria) - British author Chanter’s extraordinary first novel envisions the U.K. so ravaged by drought that personal and civic life fracture. At midlife, Ruth and Mark Ardingly leave London for a small farm in the west of England called the Well, where they cherish nature and long visits with their five-year-old grandson, Lucien, the child of their troubled daughter Angie. As drought deepens into national disaster, the Well remains inexplicably verdant. Under the pressure from local attacks, government interventions, and media uproar, the couple’s marriage collapses. Then the Sisters of the Rose, a tiny extremist sect, arrives, claiming that Ruth is the chosen one who helps bring rain and demanding the Well be cleared of men. Thousands start following their worship online. Ruth is drawn so deeply into their beliefs that she begins to have religious visions. Might she have committed a murder in a mystical state? Combining gripping mystery, nuanced psychological drama, and striking prose, this debut is a mesmerizing read.
Death Ex Machina by Gary Corby (Soho Crime) - In Australian author Corby’s superior fifth whodunit set in ancient Greece (after 2014’s The Marathon Conspiracy), the city of Athens is preparing to host the Great Dionysia, “the largest and most important arts festival in the world.” But the success of the event is in doubt after a series of accidents on the set of Sophocles’s play Sisyphus. The cast members believe this is the work of a ghost. Pericles, the city’s most powerful man, asks Nicolaos, his inquiry agent, to get rid of the ghost. Unfortunately, not long after Nico arranges for an exorcism ritual, one of the actors is murdered, suspended from the machine designed to hold the character of Thanatos, the god of death, in midair during the performance.
Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Space Flight by Margaret Lazarus Dean (Graywolf) - Dean asks, “What does it mean that we have been going to space for 50 years and have decided to stop?” That question haunts her thoughtful and provocative book, a history and elegy not just for the U.S. space program, but also for the optimism and sense of wonder it inspired in a nation. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 heralded a realization that space exploration was more than science fiction, leading to the creation of NASA and the start of the “space race.” Dean takes readers through NASA’s “heroic era” to the “shuttle era,” as the military crewcuts and larger-than-life personalities of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs gave way to astronauts who “took the time to enjoy it.” She weaves her mesmerizing history around her trips to see the last three shuttle launches, meeting such characters as the folks who travel to watch every launch; astronaut emeritus Buzz Aldrin; and Omar Izquierdo, Kennedy Space Center’s “orbiter integrity clerk,” whose job title barely covers his role as “lay historian” and “ambassador” for American space flight.
Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock's Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) by Jon Fine (Viking) - In this memoir of a cantankerous idealist, journalist and Inc. editor, Fine chronicles his career as a rock-star manqué, and the unlikely resurrection of his college band, Bitch Magnet. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Fine chafed at being a nerdy outsider in the 1980's era of cover and hair-metal bands. His discovery of punk rock (and mind-altering drugs) led him to like-minded outsiders and the electric guitar. At Oberlin College he found his musical soul mates and their On the Road–style odyssey dropped them into the burgeoning indie-rock scene. Poverty, personality clashes, and a minimal following broke up the band, but 21 years later they discovered that lives can have a second act. A deft stylist, Fine captures the uncompromising drive of 20-something men on a mission to change the world through music played at high volume. The return of Bitch Magnet is equally entertaining. Fine has provided an immersion into a lost indie world so vivid that you can smell the tour van.
The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick (FSG) - Gornick, a discerning and sharp-tongued literary critic, writes of her lifelong love affair with her native New York City. Gornick, who was born in the Bronx, introduces her prickly friend Leonard, a perpetually disgruntled gay man about her own age who shares with her “a penchant for the negative,” and employs him as a “mirror image witness” to her melancholy, solitary nature. Compulsively judgmental of friends and family (including her aged mother, who was the focus of her Fierce Attachments), Gornick delights above all in reporting snatches of dialogue and startling encounters that reveal a human expressiveness. Such raw moments include a conversation with her 90-year-old neighbor, Vera, who bemoans the sexual ineptitude of the men of her generation, and a lively exchange of sign language on the subway between a father and his disabled son.
Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab by Steve Inskeep (Penguin Press) - So large has Andrew Jackson loomed in American history that an entire era is named for him, but NPR Morning Edition cohost Inskeep (Instant City) tames this outsized personality and brings fresh insight to the events leading to the Trail of Tears. Inskeep sets Jackson alongside the Cherokee leader John Ross in a nuanced dual biography that tells a compelling story of how democracy in the early-19th-century United States developed at the expense of Native American rights and land. The narrative alternates between the lives of Jackson and Ross, leading up to their final confrontation over Cherokee land in the state of Georgia, and Inskeep takes into consideration their “two different and mutually exclusive maps” of the territory. Ross believed he could secure a place for his people within the growing U.S. by emphasizing what Cherokees and whites had in common. But once gold was discovered in Georgia around 1829, this became a moot point, and Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act with a chilling ease.
Disclaimer by Renee Knight (Harper) - A mysterious book within a book, which contains potentially damning information about the protagonist, jump starts this remarkable debut by British scriptwriter Knight. On the bedroom nightstand in the new apartment documentary filmmaker Catherine Ravenscroft shares with her husband, Robert, Catherine finds a self-published novel, The Perfect Stranger, which describes an incident that Catherine never told Robert about. Over 20 years earlier in Spain, 19-year-old Jonathan Brigstocke drowned while saving the couple’s five-year-old son, Nicholas. The book suggests that Catherine was to blame because she and Jonathan were having an affair, and it concludes with her death. Meanwhile, widower and retired teacher Stephen Brigstocke, who found the book’s manuscript among his late wife’s possessions and believes it to be true, begins to try to dismantle Catherine’s seemingly perfect life by humiliating her professionally and personally. This unsettling psychological thriller about guilt and grief briskly moves to a shocking finale enhanced by its strong characters.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey) - In this breathtaking departure from her Temeraire alternate history series, Novik drops readers into an instantly immersive Polish fairy tale. The so-called Dragon is actually a man—a wizard who takes young women from a rural village as payment for protecting the region from the poisonous influence of the evil Wood. When Agnieszka is chosen to serve the Dragon for 10 years, she finds within herself a rare and incredible talent for magic. She is disaster prone and homesick, but nonetheless steps up to the role of heroine when the situation demands it. Soon, Agnieszka's fabulous journey expands to encompass a deadly quest, the terrible glamor of a royal court, a true and unbreakable friendship, and just a touch of romance. Novik's use of language is supremely skillful as she weaves a tale that is both elegantly grand and earthily humble, familiar as a Grimm fairy tale yet fresh, original, and totally irresistible. This will be a must-read for fantasy fans for years to come.
Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins by James Runcie (Bloomsbury) - Set in the 1960s, British author Runcie’s outstanding fourth collection of clerical mysteries (after 2014’s Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil) smoothly mixes clever puzzles with meditations on spiritual issues. The title story presents a truly baffling problem: Josef Madara, the principal violinist in a quartet, comes to Canon Sidney Chambers’s Cambridge church seeking sanctuary; Madara claims that he woke up that morning in his hotel room to find his wife covered in blood. When Sidney’s friend on the force, Geordie Keating, accompanies Sidney to the hotel, the room is empty and spotless. In later entries, Sidney attempts to help a woman escape an abusive husband and to show that a death caused by a falling piano was no accident. Sidney and the entire supporting cast, including a new curate with a fondness for cake, are all vividly portrayed, and comparisons to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown books are amply justified.
The Ice Twins by S. K. Tremayne (Grand Central) - The death of one of the twin daughters of Sarah and Angus Moorcroft jump-starts this superb tale from the pseudonymous Tremayne. A year after the tragedy, the once well-to-do Moorcroft family leaves London to live in a lighthouse on Eilean Torran, a remote Scottish island that Angus inherited from his grandmother. Angus’s fond memories of the island give way to harsh reality: the place, accessible only by boat, is nearly uninhabitable with rats, leaks, and mold. But the dilapidated building and the island’s eeriness pale next to the family’s deterioration. The surviving twin, seven-year-old Kirstie, insists she is Lydia, the child who fell to her death. The girls were monozygotic, or perfectly identical twins, but Sarah could tell them apart. Did the parents, whose fragile marriage continues to corrode, misidentify the deceased child? Tremayne delivers an effective psychological gothic thriller.
Mislaid by Nell Zink (Harper) - In Zink’s second novel (following The Wallcreeper, named one of the best books of 2014 by PW), a gay man and a gay woman meet at Virginia’s Stillwater College in the 1960s, marry and have children, and eventually separate—it’s a deceptively slim epic of family life that rivals a Greek tragedy in drama and wisdom. The mother, Meg, goes on the lam, taking the identity of a deceased black girl for her daughter, Karen, to start a new life in the rural South (Meg tells the community that she and her daughter are of African-American lineage, though they are white), while her son, Byrdie, remains with the father, Lee. Years later, the kids’ paths cross in a confluence of events at the University of Virginia. The novel deftly handles race, sexuality, and coming of age. Zink’s insight is beautifully braided into understated prose that never lets the tension subside; the narrator’s third-person voice is wry, and the dialogue is snappy.