This week: a vampire story mixed with a detective story, plus the latest from Mary Kubica and Paula McLain.
Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare by William M. Arkin (Little, Brown) - Intelligence expert Arkin argues that the digital revolution, combined with a reluctance to suffer casualties, is ushering in what military planners see as "perfect"—endless, casualty-free—warfare in this ingenious, if depressing, work. The U.S. military's use of drones is burgeoning, yet of America's more than 11,000 drones, only about 5% are of the large, armed "Predator-style" variety. An obsession with information technology has produced a zoo of "unarmed aerial vehicles" (UAVs) that includes everything from the 15-oz. Wasp Micro Air Vehicle to the seven-ton Global Hawk. Arkin also points out that "88 other nations operate drones," with over 90% of drones worldwide being "small, short-ranged, and unarmed." Meanwhile, the need for fighting personnel has shrunk as the need for civilian data analysts has grown. Thanks to "increasingly infinite stockpiles of data," high-value targets can be tracked almost anywhere, and since "the Data Machine doesn't care where it is fighting," Arkin insists that we must contemplates the "cost to society and humanity for even operating in this seemingly near-perfect way.
Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles (Norton) - Battles makes a dazzling foray into the history of text, from cuneiform to computer screens, narrating the evolution of the written word in captivating detail. The book begins with the appearance of writing in fourth-century B.C.E. Mesopotamia and proceeds through the invention of the codex by early Christians, the dissemination of manuscripts, and the history of printing. Drawing on accounts from varied cultures and eras, Battles finds that Socrates compared rhetoric to the planting and sowing of seeds, and that the fourth-century C.E. Chinese poet Su Hui conceived of writing as a “perceiving-through: a look through a window or a lens.” Battles also explores the insidious link between writing and power, using Great Expectations to illustrate writing’s liberating effects. Elsewhere, he quotes A Room of One’s Own on writing as a system that can “absorb the new into the old” without tearing the fabric of the whole. In the digital age, computer code represents a new kind of writing, though one not visible to most readers. In the end, Battles powerfully demonstrates that, though all forms of writing are imperfect, they have played a vital role in the cultures which have developed them.
Badlands by C.J. Box (Minotaur) - Edgar-winner Box’s superior thriller carries some characters and themes over from his two previous standalones, The Highway and Back of Beyond, as investigator Cassie Dewell relocates to North Dakota’s boomtown oil fields. In the subzero prairie, the little town of Grimstad is bursting with thousands of roughnecks, its infrastructure and law enforcement system are almost overwhelmed, and ruthless drug dealers are flocking to a wide-open new frontier. Cassie arrives just as a series of brutal murders signals a war between drug gangs—although the missing duffle bag the criminals are searching for has accidentally wound up in the hands of a special-needs paperboy, 12-year-old Kyle Westergaard. Kyle just wants a stable home life, but his possession of the bag full of drugs and money sets off more violent deaths. The story’s brisk action is broken into alternating sections as Cassie and Kyle try to figure out what’s going on and what they must do. The vulnerable boy’s plight gives emotional heft to the criminal investigation, balancing cynicism with warm empathy.
Adrift by Paul Griffin (Scholastic Press) - In a terrifying survival story in which past traumas are as visceral and intense as present circumstances, five teenagers try to stay alive after becoming lost off the Atlantic coast. Raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, friends Matt and John are working in Montauk, N.Y., for the summer when they meet 17-year-old Driana Gonzaga, her Brazilian cousin Estefania, and Estefania’s boyfriend, João. After Estefania attempts some daring night surfing, the other teenagers attempt to rescue her in a small, ill-equipped boat; engine problems soon strand them. Griffin (Burning Blue) gives his characters just enough know-how to keep them from being completely helpless, but the situation is clearly beyond their control. Police emails and other communications provide brief respites from the rapidly degrading situation on the boat. Profound moments such as when Matt realizes that the “cruel” sun “was just being what it was. A mindless, merciless star that would shine on whatever got in its way” will haunt readers as much as the lethal injuries, worsening weather, class friction, and psychological instability the teenagers face.
Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica (Mira) - Kubica follows her acclaimed debut, 2014’s The Good Girl, with a superb psychological thriller. Heidi Wood’s husband, Chris, and 12-year-old daughter, Zoe, are used to her rants about recycling, poverty, and literacy, as well as her endless, depressing stories about the immigrants and refugees she meets through the Chicago nonprofit for which she works. But her family didn’t expect Heidi to invite homeless teen Willow Greer and her infant, Ruby, to live with them. Heidi, whose dreams of a large family ended when she had a hysterectomy to save her life, becomes obsessed with Willow and especially Ruby, even as her marriage frays and she ignores Zoe. Afraid that Willow could be violent, Chris tries to find out her background and whether Ruby is even her baby. A series of flashbacks shift among the points of view of Heidi, Chris, and Willow as this heartbreaking tale about obsession, foster care, and the debilitating effects of unacknowledged grief builds to a stunning conclusion.
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (Ballantine) - McLain's (The Paris Wife) latest showcases her immersive command of setting and character, fictionalizing the exploits of real-life aviator and author Beryl Markham in British Kenya in the early 20th century. Beryl marries young when her father's fortunes fall, but is determined to strike out independently as a horse trainer, even though there are no female horse trainers and she's only in her late teens. She succeeds, though her marriage suffers, and finds herself drawn into a love triangle with famed hunter Denys Finch Hatton and writer Karen Blixen. While her successes in the horse-racing business increase, the scandal around her makes her flee to England for a while. Upon her return to Kenya, her need for freedom has further personal consequences, but also leaves her as the first professional female pilot in the world at a time when flying was exceptionally dangerous, and a record-setter for crossing the Atlantic. McLain paints an intoxicatingly vivid portrait of colonial Kenya and its privileged inhabitants. Markham's true life was incredibly adventurous, and it's easy for readers to identify with this woman who refused to be pigeonholed by her gender.
Brush Back by Sara Paretsky (Putnam) - South Chicago provides the setting for MWA Grand Master Paretsky’s electrifying 18th novel featuring PI V.I. “Vic” Warshawski (after 2013’s Critical Mass). Vic thought she had left her old neighborhood—and her former teenage flame, Frank Guzzo—years ago, until he approaches her with a sensitive issue: his mother, Stella, just finished 25 years in prison for murdering Frank’s younger sister, Annie, and she’s now proclaiming her innocence. Reluctant to get involved—Stella always hated the Warshawski family—Vic agrees to look into the matter, but is floored when Stella accuses the detective’s beloved late cousin and Chicago hockey legend Boom-Boom (who was murdered in 1984’s Deadlock) of having a hand in Annie’s murder. Determined to clear Boom-Boom’s name, Vic throws herself into the investigation, which takes her into the murky political waters of her former stomping ground, with its back channels leading to the state’s highest echelons of power. Paretsky never shies from tackling social issues, and in this installment she targets political corruption without ever losing sight of her dogged sleuth’s very personal stake in the story.
Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (Viking) - Southard presents a vivid (if gruesome) group portrait of five hibakusha, or “atomic bomb affected people,” 70 years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her long acquaintance with the survivors and facility with the Japanese language result in an invaluable snapshot of that harrowing moment in history. Opening with a description of Nagasaki circa 1945, “an L-shaped city built along two rivers,” Southard dramatically depicts how its 240,000 residents toiled to support a hopeless military effort. The Japanese had been deluded into believing that Nagasaki would be spared, as it was home to “the largest Christian community in the nation.” Zeroing in on the crucial event, Southard movingly focuses on her subjects’ experiences against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project, the whitewashing of the bombing’s aftermath by the U.S. government, and the tug-of-war over autopsy specimens, which was finally resolved in 1973 by President Nixon. While the hibakusha initially chose to remain silent, a doctor named Akizuki Tatsuichiro pushed for transparency, organizing the Nagasaki Testimonial Society. This group, having reached old age, continues to share stories at public events around the world. Southard offers valuable new information and context, and her work complements John Hersey’s 1946 classic, Hiroshima.
The Fifth House of the Heart by Ben Tripp (S&S/Gallery) - Tripp melds the modern vampire myth with comic mystery and detective fiction in this intriguing and intelligent horror novel. Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang, an aging and immensely wealthy procurer of antiques, has a secret: his astonishing success has come from looting the hoards of vampires, ancient shapeshifting predators who kill with cunning and ruthlessness. When Sax learns of a dangerous unknown vampire attempting to rebuild her own trove, he realizes he’s been marked for death and sets off on a globe-trotting hunt to kill the beast and reclaim her treasure. Tripp’s crotchety, cowardly protagonist, reminiscent of Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy, is instantly appealing and provides a fascinating viewpoint for the novel’s diverse cast of vampire hunters. The story is exhaustively researched and the prose is rife with dry wit, all the funnier for scholars of history but easily accessible to others.
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann (Viking) - The Nez Perce War of 1877 lies at the center of Vollmann’s epic new novel, the fifth volume in his series Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, and the first since 2001’s Argall. Not surprisingly, given its length, it also offers a panoramic view of the era and the decades leading up to it. Seventy-plus years of abuse toward the Nez Perce are stingingly presented in a chapter of quotations from famous Americans of the time period. Vollmann’s prose is evocative and often lyrical, trailing down the pages like free verse. Scores of characters in different but interconnected settings contribute to a tapestry, much like that of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. In the spring of 1877, General Oliver Howard is viewing a “city of tents” called The Dalles, formerly a Native American stronghold and bazaar for various tribes. Howard becomes the nominal protagonist, more accurately the book’s linchpin, as the war proceeds on multiple fronts. By July, what has been projected as an easy fight becomes a nightmare of small skirmishes against the resourceful Nez Perce, led by Howard’s archenemy Chief Joseph. He and his tribesmen call the Americans bluecoats. Ultimately, the superior resources of the U.S. Army prevail, in a war of attrition hastened by infighting among the tribes.