This week, Ann Beattie's newest, plus a page-turner of the highest order.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt, trans. from the Danish by K.E. Semmel (Open Letter) - After his estranged father’s death, Thomas must cope with the lingering secrets and mysterious circumstances surrounding his imprisonment and passing. In this fascinating and erudite exploration of family life, Aidt (Baboon) manages to capture a slice of life, told mostly from diligent-but-dreaming Thomas’s point of view. In the days after his former-mobster father turns up dead, Thomas discovers something strange inside his father’s toaster. While Thomas is busy running his stationery shop with his partner, Maloney, his family debates the state of contemporary literature at dinner parties, memorizes poetry, and generally meditates on the melancholy nature of the human condition. During a lengthy, reflective excursion to his aunt’s house, Thomas concocts a scheme to help out his wayward niece and expand his business at the same time. And what Thomas discovers inside the toaster turns out to be less important than the potential he finds within himself for repeating his father’s legacy. Laced with sex, marital problems, family drama, and money woes, Aidt’s supremely cultivated novel is concerned with the struggle to connect with those we truly love and the consequences of remaining distant.

The State We're In by Ann Beattie (Scribner) - The 15 loosely connected stories in Beattie’s latest collection, set on Maine’s southern coast, feature drifting adults and their rootless offspring at seemingly unimportant moments that are in fact critical. In “What Magical Realism Would Be,” a high school student living with her aunt and uncle rants about summer school. “Writing essays was retarded,” Jocelyn asserts. “It totally was.” Jocelyn prefers nights on the beach with friends. “Road Movie” describes an unlucky tryst at a California hotel; “The Fledgling” shows an ungainly attempt to rescue a wayward bird; Elvis lamps are auctioned off in “The Repurposed Barn,” in which Jocelyn sees her teacher in a new light. “Adirondack Chairs” uses furniture to reflect a couple’s abandoned future; in “The Little Hutchinsons,” a wedding hosted by the titular characters goes awry. The collection demonstrates Beattie’s craftsmanship, precise language, and her knack for revealing psychological truths.

The Boundaries of Desire: A Century of Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identities by Eric Berkowitz (Counterpoint) - Berkowitz, a lawyer with experience in intellectual property, First Amendment, and business litigation, presents an immersive, sometimes shocking history of changing sexual mores, and the laws pertaining to them, in the U.S. He covers topics including homosexuality, pedophilia, interracial couples, and sex trafficking, maintaining a pragmatic, non-judgmental tone. The result is an eye-opening history of sexual legislation. Readers will learn of historical givens that strike us as barbaric now (such as the onetime acceptance of marital rape, not fully outlawed in the U.S. until 1993) and of controversial ongoing practices (such as the lifelong registration of minors in sex-offender registries). Berkowitz makes legal history readable, not relying on the subject matter being salacious (which this book is not) but accessibly conveying sophisticated topics and complex events with the assurance of an expert.

Bright Lights, Dark Nights by Stephen Emond (Roaring Brook) - Walter lives with his father in an apartment in a dangerous part of the city. When his father—a white police officer—arrests an African-American teen, claiming he matches the description of a burglar who robbed and assaulted his neighbor, Walter’s father quickly finds himself at the center of a racial controversy. Walter, who hates fighting and conflict, tries to stay uninvolved, even after a stolen picture of him kissing his new girlfriend Naomi, who is black, appears on Facebook, along with strangers making comments about their relationship. He soon learns he cannot keep his feelings bottled up inside and must figure out what it means to fight. Emond raises difficult questions about racism, crime, and civil rights, without promising or providing easy answers.

Collector of Secrets by Richard Goodfellow (Polis) - After living in Tokyo for a year, American Max Travers, the hero of Goodfellow’s stellar debut, wants to quit his job teaching English, but Yoko, the unethical and manipulative owner of the language school he works for, refuses to return his passport in a ploy to get him to stay in Japan. When Max breaks into Yoko’s office late one night in an attempt to retrieve it, he finds burglars already there ransacking the place. In the chaos that follows, he grabs a satchel that turns out to contain a journal kept by a prince who was Emperor Hirohito’s first cousin. It details decades of imperial Japan’s plunder of Southeast Asia’s most valuable treasures during WWII. Suddenly on the run from the Yakuza mob and the Japanese police, Travers must stay alive long enough to understand the mind-blowing scope of the conspiracies revealed within the diary. Relentlessly paced, meticulously plotted, and richly described, this is a page-turner of the highest order.

Why I Am a Salafi by Michael Muhammad Knight (Soft Skull) - Knight invites readers into “the desert of the real Islam,” offering a deconstructionist take on Islamic texts, tradition, transmission, and theology. Known for celebrating “an Islam of rejected possibilities and subaltern voices,” Knight takes a different tack here by focusing on the fundamentalist perspective. What he discovers is a personalized Salafism that focuses on his individual quest for spiritual origins. For much of the book Knight explains his personal evolution as a converted Muslim through discussions of his early, formative reading experiences (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Yusuf Ali’s The Meanings of the Holy Qur’an) simultaneously introducing readers to many narratives, names, and notables from Islamic history. Yet his conclusion lacks insightful commentary on the habits of this lived and communal “post-authentic Islam,” which does the practicing Muslim reader little good. For Knight, there is no authentic, orthodox, or authoritative Islam, but instead a tangle of traditions.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips (Holt) - Phillips's (And Yet They Were Happy) novel incisively depicts the corporate hell in which young drones toil in faceless buildings, sorting meaningless files according to inscrutable policies. Josephine Anne Newbury takes a data-entry job and finds she can't quite leave her work at the office; her husband and friends suddenly seem less real than Room 9997, where Josephine compiles a mysterious and massive database that seems to dictate reality itself, while warding off Trishiffany, her workplace "frenemy” from the so-called Department of Processing Errors. Discovering that she can't quit—the rules don't allow it—and realizing that she never caught her direct superior's name, Josephine wonders if she's losing her mind, fears she's somehow pregnant by data, then becomes convinced of her husband's imminent demise because a file contains the date of his death. Phillips's black comedy of white-collar life doesn't reinvent the meaning of the word Kafkaesque, and to its credit, it doesn't try. The novel has enough horror and mordant humor to carry the reader effortlessly through its punchy send-up of entry-level institutionalization.

Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City by Paul Strathern (Pegasus) - Eschewing a one-sided approach, Strathern (The Venetians) fashions an engrossing portrayal of the two legendary 15th-century figures who shaped Renaissance Florence: Lorenzo (the Magnificent) de’ Medici and Girolamo Savonarola. Lorenzo, self-indulgent yet capable, was head of the city-state’s most powerful family, and used his “diplomatic skill” to cement Florence as a major power and forge an alliance with Pope Innocent VIII. Savonarola was a fiery monk whose severe shift toward a charismatic asceticism ironically placed him in direct conflict with multiple popes. Strathern demonstrates a thorough understanding of the city-state’s internal and external influences, and he walks readers through the tumultuous transition from the Medieval era to the Renaissance’s “new vision of humanism.” In well-considered prose, Strathern argues that these two figures battled for the “direction that humanity should take,” further illustrating the struggle for Florence’s soul via Savonarola-convert Sandro Botticelli’s artistic descent from exuberant classicism to brimstone imagery.

America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States by Stuart Wexler (Counterpoint) - Wexler convincingly makes the case that America has been victimized by significant domestic terrorism for over half a century, much of it inspired by Christian Identity, a theology that “identifies Jews as the spawn of the devil.” He links atrocities familiar (the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995) and less so (attacks on synagogues in the South during the 1950s) to paint a disturbing picture with practical implications for the War on Terror. Most readers will be surprised by the book’s contention that since 9/11, more people in the U.S. have been killed by far right extremists than by those linked or sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Wexler’s deliberate and critical review of the evidence is also likely to prompt reconsideration of the possibility of wider conspiracies behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the Atlanta child murders of 1979–1981. His careful documentation of a religious—as opposed to exclusively racist—motivation for these acts of terror buttresses those, like President Obama, who refuse to recast the War on Terror as a War on Radical Islam.