This week, dirty Seinfeld fan fiction, a David Lynchian campus novel, and Kim Stanley Robinson's latest.
Chord by Rick Barot (Sarabande) - Barot (Want) demonstrates his mastery of image throughout this collection of meditative, personal poems in which language is a boat that "cuts the water, like scissors/ into fabric." At his best, Barot seamlessly weaves history, image, and etymology in ways that offer the reader new eyes to see language and the world it describes. In one poem, gardens become maps to explore the various incarnations of colonization, specifically the story of the speaker's grandmother and the Spanish friar who "fucked her." Barot's poems transfix and transform through his remarkable ability to pack and unpack narratives within the space of an image.
Green Hell by Ken Bruen (Grove/Mysterious) - American Rhodes scholar Boru Kennedy, who narrates much of Shamus Award–winner Bruen’s sketchy 11th Jack Taylor novel (after 2013’s Purgatory), has come to Galway to write a treatise on Samuel Beckett. When muggers start kicking in Boru’s teeth, Jack comes to the rescue, and Boru’s interest shifts to the brooding former member of the Garda, the Irish national police, as a subject of study. Boru becomes Jack’s Boswell, involved in his effort to take down a Galway university professor who’s getting away with violent crimes. About half the book consists of Jack’s trademark reveries on rage and drinking, his comments on binge-watching TV crime shows, and name-dropping mystery writers. In one metafictional scene, Jack buys an unnamed Ken Bruen a drink in a bar.
Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb (Basic) - Cobb, a professor of zoology at the University of Manchester (U.K.), simply and comprehensively explains the history and basics of modern genetics. In the first half of his book, Cobb explores the personalities and the experiments that led to the discovery of the genetic code and how it works. He offers insight into the nature of science, how hypotheses are created and tested, and the collaborations and antagonisms that are common among scientists. Cobb follows breakthroughs up through the 1966 Cold Spring Harbor symposium, which "was entirely devoted to the genetic code." In the second part of the book, he covers the story from 1967 to the present, discussing how much more scientists have learned about the intricacies of DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. Cobb touches on both pure and applied research, the complexities of epigenetics and gene regulation, possibilities arising from knowledge learned through the Human Genome Project, the use of DNA for computing and data storage, and prospects associated with synthetic biology.
A, B, C: Three Short Novels by Samuel R Delany (Vintage) - SFWA Grand Master Delany’s collection of three early works is essential not just for the classics it contains but for the author’s riveting 40-page afterword (as well as his shorter but equally entertaining preface). “The Jewels of Aptor,” Delany’s first published novel, is an entertaining postapocalyptic fantasy adventure in which a young poet named Geo and his friend Urson go on a quest for the high priestess of the goddess Argo. In the shortest work, “The Ballad of Beta-2,” a student tries to discover what happened to a failed galactic expedition. In the final novel, “They Fly at Çiron” (one of Delany’s earliest works, later substantially revised and eventually published in 1993), the titular fantasy-realm village is attacked by the army of a cruel prince, though one soldier questions their actions. All of the novels are excellent and must-reads for anyone interested in science fiction.
The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E Hoffman (Doubleday) - Pulitzer-winner Hoffman (The Dead Hand) returns to the Cold War era in his latest biography, proving that nonfiction can read like a John le Carre thriller. The opening sets a grim tone for what will follow, casting a pall over the account of the successes the CIA enjoyed from a Russian spy, Adolf Tolkachev. Hoffman warns early on that Tolkachev (code-named CKSphere), “the most successful and valued agent the United States had run inside the Soviet Union in two decades,” will be destroyed by “betrayal from within.” But, as in the best genre fiction, giving away the ending actually heightens the suspense. Hoffman recounts the history of the CIA’s efforts to learn what the Kremlin was up to, building up to the moment in 1977 when Tolkachev, an engineer, approaches them to provide incredibly valuable intelligence. This real-life tale of espionage will hook readers from the get-go.
The Captive Condition by Kevin P. Keating (Pantheon) - Keating’s novel is a black comedy that transcends its own offbeat energy and becomes truly disturbing. Jesuit-educated Edmund Campion is attending graduate school in the small Midwestern town of Normandy Falls. When his master’s thesis topic is rejected by his self-important advisor, Dr. Kingsley, Edmund drops out and takes a job as a campus groundskeeper, working for a brutal supervisor known only as the Gonk. Meanwhile, Kingsley’s lover, Emily Ryan, is found dead in her swimming pool, and Kingsley and his amateur bodybuilder wife end up taking in Emily’s disturbed twin daughters. Morgan Fey, Edmund’s ex-girlfriend, takes a job in a French restaurant, where the chef brews up the hallucinogenic carrot juice that is the town’s drug of choice. This is only the beginning: hauntings, murders, live burials, and imprisonment in underground chambers are just some of the fates that lie in store for various unsuspecting townsfolk. The comically formal tone of the first two-thirds shows Keating to be an astute student of spooky scene-setters from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King to David Lynch. But in many of the final passages, such as a horrific building fire, he proves to be at least their equal. A stylistic tour de force.
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (Holt) - Six years after debuting in Kelly’s Newbery Honor–winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, the budding Texas scientist returns, as curious and charming as ever, and now preoccupied with fauna instead of flora. Travis, one of Callie’s six brothers, continually needs her help because of his bad choices in pets (armadillo, blue jay, raccoon, etc.). Callie’s training under the tutelage of her gruff, beloved grandfather continues with increasingly complex dissections. Meanwhile, the devastating 1900 Galveston hurricane sends refugees to Fentress that include an injured veterinarian, who finds an eager assistant in 13-year-old Callie, despite his reservations about a young lady working in an often gruesome field. Undeterred, Callie finds her passion at precisely the same moment she realizes how unfairly the deck is stacked against girls of her era. But if anybody can figure a way around studying the domestic arts, it’s whip-smart Callie, literary cousin to Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce, and just as sharp an observer.
Taking Pity by David Mark (Blue Rider) - In Mark’s excellent fourth novel featuring Det. Sgt. Aector McAvoy of the Humberside Police, McAvoy’s boss, Det. Supt. Trish Pharaoh, feels the pressure from London to eliminate the powerful Headhunters, the group responsible for the attack in 2014’s Sorrow Bound that injured McAvoy’s wife and daughter and forced them into hiding. Meanwhile, McAvoy is tasked with reviewing a decades-old case the Home Office is concerned could be appealed. Since 1966 it’s been assumed that Peter Coles, considered mentally unfit for trial, murdered four members of the Winn family in cold blood on their farm; Coles confessed and has been locked away in psychiatric institutions. After sifting through the minimal evidence, McAvoy notices enough discrepancies to question the official version. McAvoy and Pharaoh make unsettling connections between the still-lethal 81-year-old Francis Nock, who’s one of the area’s last criminals to rebuff the Headhunters, and the Winn murders. Mark weaves a complicated web of deception, betrayal, and violence as the action builds to a stunning conclusion.
Tender Data by Monica McClure (Birds LLC) - Quick-witted and bold, McClure’s full-length debut enters the culturally constructed arenas of identity in order to resist and refuse them, arriving at consistently fresh takes on gender, race, and reproduction (among other topics). “Words are there to stop us/ from getting too intimate with continuity/ and recognition,” the title poem announces, and in turn McClure crafts identities that have their own defiant amusement as they rupture that continuity. “I’m brown and yet my whiteness is laminate/ making me a bright smear of a girl over wood,” she declares. “When I’m with a man I feel/ like a gay man/ When I’m with a woman I feel/ like a gay man who is into women.” Wild and witty, McClure uses menses and cum alongside various intoxicants to summon the kind of depravity that can undo structures of power (the entirety of the poem “Straight Dudes” challenges “Why are you/ still here”). It’s an effective form of irreverence, in which the debate over birth control dissipate in the same way “The plan B pill fizzed when I dropped it/ in my dirty martini.” It’s also an irreverence that pushes the boundaries of poetry and persona, with crude drawings, photographs, and poetry-prose hybrids rounding out a multimodal collection. No gesture wasted, McClure’s debut is as smart as it is fun.
Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont (Random) - The perennial theme of marital infidelity is given a brisk, insightful, and sophisticated turn in Pierpont’s impressive debut. When their father’s emails to his former mistress are inadvertently discovered by siblings Kay Shanley, 11, and Simon, 15, the result is the unraveling of the family. Their father, Jack Shanley, is a well-known conceptual artist and self-indulgent seducer, and he sees his career go downhill due to a variety of circumstances. Deb, his wife, carries guilt from having broken up Jack’s first marriage, only to realize that he’s an inveterate womanizer who feels his indiscretions should be forgiven. Pierpont’s keen observational gaze illuminates a strata of Manhattan society in which money and privilege abide alongside the gritty, drug-and-alcohol-fueled margins of social behavior. She is also particularly adept at portraying alienation in the young (Kay starts writing dirty Seinfeld fan fiction in a notebook; Simon reads The Fountainhead because he knows his mother doesn’t want him to) and the parents’ awkward attempts to communicate with their self-protective children. Pierpont throws an audacious twist midway through the book, giving the slow, painful denouement a heartbreaking inevitability. This novel leaves an indelible portrait of lives blown off course by bad choices, loss of trust, and an essential inability to communicate.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit) - This ambitious hard SF epic shows Robinson (Shaman) at the top of his game. Freya and her parents live aboard a starship that has traveled for generations and will soon reach Tau Ceti, a star about 12 light years from Earth’s solar system. Freya’s mother, Devi, is the de facto chief engineer, struggling to keep the ship’s environment balanced until they reach a new world and, they hope, survive on it. But ecologies are delicate, resources are limited, and the laws of physics are immutable. Over the course of Freya’s life, her community faces genuinely surprising struggles for survival, leading Freya to wonder whether it is too late to reconsider a question initially decided millions of miles away and centuries ago: should this ship have been launched in the first place? This poignant story admirably stretches the limits of human imagination.
The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer (FSG/Faber) - Taseer's sprawling epic about two generations of a privileged Indian family will leave readers intoxicated. Toby, a maharaja, has immersed himself in the study of Sanskrit; this intellectualism is, for a time, exciting to his wife, Uma, but it's soon revealed to be a way of distancing himself from Indian life. The story begins with Toby's death and his son Skanda's return to India from Manhattan to carry out the funeral rites, and it moves back and forth over a 30-year period, mirroring the unrest of the country from the state of emergency declared by Indira Gandhi to the present. Skanda is forced to confront the fact that he has inherited his father's detachment and must try to make sense of his own broken childhood. He resolves to move forward without repeating his father's mistakes and makes peace with his history. Authors often attempt to frame a given period of a country's history through a single family's story, but Taseer's book is a cut above the rest. Colonialism, racism, sectarian violence, class tension, and the rise of the Indian nouveau riche are all handled with a delicate touch. This is a difficult book to put down, and readers will enjoy every minute of it, as well as learning about contemporary Indian culture.
Secessia by Kent Wascom (Grove) - Wascom's second novel takes place in beguiling, fetid, and unruly New Orleans in the year 1862, as the city is overtaken by Union troops. Mayhem ensues, since the Big Easy is in no mood to comply with the blue-belly Gen. Butler, sent by the North to take control. The streets are rife with dissent as Butler tries to restore order, imprisoning city fathers and hanging agitators. Not long after the city falls, Angel Woolsack, an abusive, murderous rogue from Wascom's first novel, The Blood of Heaven, is found with his brains blown out. Other than his son, 12-year-old Joseph, no one cares much whether it was suicide, and the body is tidied up by household slaves before anyone is the wiser. Joseph and his mother, Elise, a descendant of slaves, must navigate a world turned inside out but still unsympathetic to the rights of women and people of African descent. Joseph becomes enamored with a Cuban refugee girl rescued from a shipwreck by Union soldiers, who lives with the madams next door, while Elise is caught in the snares of the sinister Dr. Sabatier, a mysterious figure from her past. This is such a good yarn that readers will be totally on board with the whole rambunctious package.