This week: Judy Blume's first novel for adults in 17 years, Stephen King's latest, and the absolutely incredible story of Stalin's daughter.
Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley (Dial) - Knot-tying fifth grader Micah Tuttle has grown up on his grandfather’s stories of the magical Circus Mirandus, but when Grandpa Ephraim gets sick, the parentless Micah learns just how much power there can be in illusion. Beasley’s debut is a bit of its own three-ring circus, masterfully diverting readers’ attention among the pressing matter of Ephraim’s illness, the inventive descriptions of Circus Mirandus in Ephraim’s flashbacks and Micah’s visits, and the larger, more serious tragedy of those who refuse to believe. As Micah and his fact-loving friend, Jenny, search for a miracle to save his grandfather, the Lightbender and the rest of the acts at the circus fight “to keep enchantment alive in the world” while protecting children from the darker side of magic. From the seemingly small magic of Micah’s knot tricks to the life-changing illusions created by the Lightbender, readers will be left with the reminder that “just because a magic is small doesn’t mean it is unimportant” and the hope, reminiscent of Peter Pan, that those who still believe will always have magic in their lives.
Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, illus. by Sarah Watts (Holt/Ottaviano) - When your parents’ blog is called 50 Homes in 50 States, you had better be able to make new friends easily, but Emily Crane, 12, is shy. Still, there are two positives about her latest address: James, the fellow puzzle-lover downstairs, and the location—San Francisco, home to Garrison Griswold, the “Willy Wonka of book publishing.” Griswold is the mastermind behind Book Scavenger, a book-trading game with half a million followers, Emily included. After Griswold is gravely wounded by thieves who are after his special edition of Poe’s The Gold-Bug, the book winds up in Emily’s possession; she and James must solve the mystery surrounding the book before the bad guys do. Full of heart and replete with challenging ciphers for readers to decode, Bertman’s debut is literary cousin to classic puzzlers like The Westing Game, and a story that values books and reading above other pursuits.
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume (Knopf) - The three fatal plane crashes that hit Elizabeth, N.J., during the winter of 1951–52 are the inspiration for Elizabeth-native Blume's latest adult novel (the first since 1998's Summer Sisters), in which young and old alike must learn to come to terms with technological disaster and social change. The novel opens in 1987, when Miri Ammerman's return to Elizabeth for a commemorative ceremony brings back memories of the year she turned 15. In flashback, readers are brought back to the 1950s—Kate Smith, Lilly Dache, J.D. Salinger, Korea—from a variety of perspectives: Miri; her single mom; her supportive uncle; her wise grandmother; Miri's best friend, Natalie, daughter of a workaholic dentist and his shopaholic wife; Christina, a Greek girl secretly dating an Irish boy; passengers on the ill-fated planes. Miri's uncle earns recognition for reporting on the crashes in the local newspaper, but when Miri writes about the reactions at school she lands in the principal's office. Disaster produces other unexpected developments: Miri's boyfriend saves lives, while Natalie hears dead people. Maintaining her knack for personal detail, Blume mixes Miri's familiar coming-of-age melodrama with an exploration of how disasters test character, alter relationships, and reveal undercurrents of a seemingly simple world.
Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War by Brandon R. Brown (Oxford Univ.) - Max Planck (1858–1947) was Germany’s most influential scientist at a time when German science led the world. Brown, a professor of physics at the University of San Francisco, combines the story of Planck’s lucid, thoughtful life with that of physics’ golden age. In 1900, Planck—a 42-year-old middle-class Prussian professor, respected though not considered a prodigy—solved a major problem in physics. Researchers assumed that radiation emitted from any object increases smoothly with temperature, but their equations never worked. The equation Planck developed worked beautifully, yet it assumed that radiation emerged in discrete clumps. This made no sense according to classical physics and marked the beginning of the quantum revolution. Brown emphasizes that while Planck remained conservative in character, he possessed the rare quality of never allowing prejudice to overrule facts. Planck had his flaws, but readers of this engrossing, insightful, and definitive biography will share Brown’s admiration and agree that he deserves his iconic reputation.
Single Digits: In Praise of Small Numbers by Marc Chamberland (Princeton Univ.) - Chamberland, professor of mathematics at Grinnell College, produces a fascinating, compact set of entries on mathematical problems, conjectures, and theorems. The theme of single digits provides a novel framework for all the mathematics, tying together disparate theorems in sections related to a single number. Each brief entry is clearly explained, making the problems comprehensible and accessible to math lovers of all backgrounds, though they do vary in difficulty and complexity. Chamberland addresses a wide array of elegant mathematical concepts that are generally foreign or obscure to the lay public, including the Stern sequence, Thue-Morse sequences, and Marden’s Theorem. More serious math lovers may want to supplement the introductions given in the book with further research, not because of any lack of critical information, but because Chamberland offers enticing explanations that will leave readers hungry to know more. This wonderful book never loses its focus or momentum, and readers may dip into it for a few entries or read straight through.
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, trans. from the French by John Cullen (Other Press) - Camus’s The Stranger is vividly reimagined in Daoud’s intensely atmospheric novel (a finalist for the Prix Goncourt), which is told in a meandering monologue by the adult Harun, over the course of several visits to a bar in Oran, Algeria. Harun’s older brother, Musa, an Algerian Arab, was shot by the Frenchman Meursault on an Algiers beach in 1942; his body was never recovered. Musa’s missing corpse casts a long shadow over Harun, “condemned to a secondary role” by his widowed mother as she drags him on an interminable investigation into the death, taking the two from the Bab-el-Oued neighborhood of Algiers to the town of Hadjout, in northern Algeria. Determined to “organize the world” through language, the teenage Harun masters French in flashback, and he is 27 by the time a chance encounter offers him an opportunity to irrevocably alter his fate. Readers will be captivated by this haunting novel.
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein (Bloomsbury) - In Dinerstein’s captivating debut novel, an isolated island above the Arctic Circle is the setting for two people trying to surmount grief and find love. After being jilted by her boyfriend, 21-year-old Frances flees Manhattan to apprentice with a laconic Norwegian artist in a remote community called Lofoten, where she learns to adjust to the unending daylight of a Scandinavian summer. Meanwhile, Yasha Gregoriov, five years Frances’s junior, comes there to bury his father, Vassily, a Russian immigrant to the U.S. whose wish was to be interred in a peaceful place “at the top of the world.” Both Frances and Yasha are products of dysfunctional families. Frances’s parents bicker continually and use their high-minded principles to try to destroy the engagement of Sarah, Frances’s sister. Yasha’s mother, gorgeous Olyana, abandoned Yasha and Vassily, the kindly proprietor of a Brooklyn bakery, a decade earlier. With provocative insights about the cruelty of abandonment, the concept of home, and the limits of parental and filial love, Dinerstein’s novel is a rich reading experience.
Finders Keepers by Stephen King (Scribner) - Bill Hodges, the retired detective hero of King’s Mr. Mercedes (2014), stars in this taut thriller about the thin line separating fandom from fanaticism. In 1978, Morris Bellamy murders his literary idol, John Rothstein (clearly modeled on J.D. Salinger), and pilfers more than 100 notebooks filled with Rothstein’s unpublished writing. After serving 35 years in the clink for another crime, Bellamy returns to the Midwestern everyville of Northfield to reclaim the stashed notebooks—only to discover that they’ve fallen into the hands of teenage Rothstein fan Pete Saubers, who’s in dire need of Hodges’s protective services when the murder-minded Bellamy comes after him. Bellamy is one of King’s creepiest creations—a literate and intelligent character whom any passionate reader will both identify with and be repelled by. His relentless pursuit of a treasure that his twisted thinking has determined is rightfully his generates the nail-biting suspense that’s the hallmark of King’s best work.
The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time by Jonathan Kozol (Crown) - Kozol (Savage Inequalities), a celebrated crusader for a balanced public school education, shifts his gaze to old age and the heartbreaking but strangely consoling decline of his parents in this luminous memoir. Kozol recounts the last years of his father, Harry, when Alzheimer’s robbed him of his wits but not entirely of his personality. During this period, Kozol got to know his parents better than ever, despite their diminished capacities. Much of the book is an absorbing retrospective of Harry’s career as a neuropsychiatrist, including his work with playwright Eugene O’Neill, heiress-turned-revolutionary Patricia Hearst, and suspected “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo. Mainly, though, it’s about Kozol coping with Harry’s growing helplessness as his mind dims: helping him complete his thoughts, deciphering the incoherent medical memos he issues, and arranging for companions, pets, and small pleasures that give his father’s existence meaning. This is a clear-eyed and deeply felt meditation on the aspects of family that age does not ravage.
Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson, illus. by Natalie Andrewson (S&S) - Packed with the delicious elements—hidden passages, unexplained noises, suspicious servants—of a traditional British mystery, Lawson’s (The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher) story, set in 1907 England, will keep readers engagingly puzzled throughout its multilayered twists and tangles. Six children on the cusp of turning 12 are summoned to the country estate of Countess Camilla DeMoss, who soon reveals the competition she has planned. Among them is Tabitha Crum, whose parents plan to abandon her to an orphanage, and whose only friend is her pet mouse. Tabitha is obsessed with mystery books and dreams of working for Scotland Yard; as unnerving events unfold, she is in her element. The Dahl-esque story, humorously peopled by distinctive children and adults, poignantly captures the loneliness and longing of an unwanted child.
Freedom's Child by Jax Miller (Crown) - Boozing, brawling, and fierce but emotionally fragile, Freedom Oliver has been pissing away her life in witness protection like someone with nothing left to lose—until fate unexpectedly offers her one last long shot at redemption in this debut thriller, which hits like a beer bottle to the head. Freedom, a heavily inked redhead known in a former life as Nessa Delaney, is shaken out of her stupor slinging drinks at a biker bar in Painter, Ore., by the release from prison of her vengeance-bent brother-in-law, Matthew. Matthew is a member of the spectacularly sociopathic Delaney clan, headed by a 600-pound coke-dealing matriarch, and he lusts for payback from the woman he blames for framing him for murder. Even worse, the Delaneys may get their hands on the two now-grown children Freedom gave up for adoption, Mason and Rebekah. When Freedom learns that Rebekah has disappeared from her adoptive home in Goshen, Ky., she's but a stolen bike and Glock away from a desperate race to save the daughter she never knew.
Tin Sky by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon) - Set in the spring of 1943, Pastor’s excellent fourth mystery featuring Maj. Martin Bora (after 2014’s Dark Song of Blood) takes the German army counterintelligence officer to Ukraine. In Krasny Yar, a place shunned by the locals, someone has been savagely killing peasants for no apparent reason. Bora has little time to investigate before a higher-profile case claims his attention. Gen. Ghenrikh “Khan” Tibyetsky, a tank corps commander with access to the highest level of Soviet military planning, has offered to defect to the Germans. Khan’s information could be crucial to the battle looming in the Kursk salient. Bora handles Khan’s surrender, but the Gestapo later takes control of the prisoner. When Khan dies in Gestapo custody, an apparent poisoning victim, no one besides Bora, a decent man, seems interested in solving the crime, which may be linked to the murders at Krasny Yar. Pastor effectively melds a well-constructed whodunit with a grim portrayal of the Eastern front.
Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist's Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World by Mark Haskell Smith (Grove) - Throwing both caution and clothing to the wind, novelist and journalist Haskell Smith strikes a winning combination of personal and journalistic narrative as he investigates the appeal of nudism. Though he’s not above making more than a few jokes about swinging genitalia, Haskell Smith does an admirable job of keeping the narrative respectful as he conducts numerous interviews with naked people to find out why they like nudism so much. Its origins are murky: nudism has been a popular pastime since the late 19th century, and Haskell Smith charts its evolution from nudist clubs in the 1920s to the estimated $440 million industry it is today. Haskell Smith visits nudist colonies and nude beaches, embarks on nude hikes, and even takes a nude cruise. What he expected to be salacious quickly becomes boring but ultimately refreshing, from both a physical perspective and an emotional one—over time, everybody’s body issues seem to dissipate. Haskell Smith’s empathy and genuine interest in nudism and its appeal make this account both informative and entertaining.
Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper) - Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926–2011), Stalin’s only daughter, lived an almost impossible life at the edges of 20th-century history. Poet and biographer Sullivan (Villa Air-Bel) masterfully employs interviews, Alliluyeva’s own letters, and the contents of CIA, KGB, and Soviet archives to stitch together a coherent narrative of her fractured life. Its first act—Sullivan depicts her lonely existence as the motherless “princess in the Kremlin”—is remarkable enough, but as Alliluyeva slowly came to understand the extent of her father’s cruelty, she began to resent the U.S.S.R. and her role in its mythology, abandoning her two children and defecting to America in 1967. In her startling second life, Alliluyeva made a fortune by publishing her memoir, only to lose it through a disastrous marriage orchestrated by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow. Alliluyeva also formed and dissolved countless friendships as she moved nomadically around America and England, even briefly returning to the U.S.S.R., before settling in Wisconsin to live out the rest of her days in anonymity. This is an astounding journey.
The Fellowship: The Literary Live of the Inklings--J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski (FSG) - J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that the name “Inklings” suggested “people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” Yet it’s difficult to overstate the influence of the two most famous Inklings, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, on varied fields including Christian apologetics and fantasy writing. The Zaleskis trace the history of this informal club of Oxford-educated, Christian intellectuals, which first coalesced in the early 1930s, by focusing on four of the most prominent Inklings: Tolkien, Lewis, mystic Charles Williams, and philosopher Owen Barfield. As scholarship, the book is immensely successful, describing its protagonists’ strengths and shortcomings with insight and facility. Understandably, the Zaleskis spend more time on Lewis and Tolkien than on their fellows (mainly due to the amount of material available), but their portraits of Williams, “a swirling mass of contradictions,” and Barfield, dedicated “to unraveling the secret life of words,” are no less nuanced.