This week: new books from Elizabeth Strout and China Mieville, and the fascinating world of brilliant con artists.
The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer (Grove) - Det. Chief Insp. John Marvel, the misanthropic policeman in this intricate, surprise-filled crime novel from British author Bauer (Blacklands), can “see the bad in anyone.” Marvel is still obsessed by his failure to solve the case of Edie Evans, a preteen who vanished on her way to school a year earlier. The inspector is drawn into another mystery when he crosses paths with Anna Buck, whose four-year-old son, Daniel, disappeared right in front of their home after her husband negligently left the front door open. The last tangible evidence of her child is footprints Daniel left in a newly laid patch of cement, which she dutifully cleans every day. Anna’s despair leads her to a psychic, who happens to have been the same person Marvel turned to at one point in the Evans case. The solution is fairly clued, but it’s Bauer’s talent at making the characters’ emotional lives (especially Anna’s) palpable that makes this a standout.
The Root of All Evil by Roberto Costantini, trans. from the Italian by N.S. Thompson (Quercus) - For decades, Michele Balistreri, the volatile veteran detective now heading Rome's homicide squad, has avoided investigating the only murder that really matters to him: his mother's. But the day of reckoning for what befell Italia Balistreri—on a windswept Libyan clifftop hours before the August 1969 coup that installed Muammar Al Gaddafi as the country's dictator—can no longer be dodged in Costantini's suspenseful, at times savage, thriller, the second in his ambitious, politically steeped Evil trilogy (after 2014's The Deliverance of Evil). Investigative journalist Linda Nardi, one of the few individuals Michele cares about, has been digging into a high-stakes fiscal scandal potentially involving several people he has spent a lifetime trying to forget—including his Sicilian industrialist father, Salvatore. Costantini takes his time skillfully planting the twisty, deep-lying roots of his narrative back in Libya, where young "Mike" Balistreri learns about love, brotherhood, and betrayal as well as his own darker side. He grows up with best friend Ahmed Al Bakri, the older son of his father's Libyan right-hand man, and lovely Laura Hunt, the daughter of an American CIA operative. Forty years later, with key figures from this past occupying crucial roles in global politics and business, some long-buried secrets start to explode with deadly consequences.
Truthwitch by Susan Dennard (Tor Teen) - Dynamic storytelling and a fully imagined magical world distinguish Dennard’s (the Something Strange and Deadly series) first book in the Witchlands series. Iseult and Safiya are as different as two young women can be—one is noble-born, the other is from a despised people; one has the ability to see the threads of emotions in people, while the other can see truth. Yet their friendship and shared learning create a familial bond between them, making them Threadsisters. On the eve of the renegotiation of the Twenty Year Truce, which has kept peace across the ravaged lands, a single announcement is all it takes to upend their lives, sending them careening across the world, pursued by royalty and evil and spurred by something more powerful than themselves. Their adventures are dashed with a hint of romance and deeply imbued with the concept of loyalty.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt (HMH) - Hunt’s ethereal third novel (after Orange Prize–finalist The Invention of Everything Else) is a nod to the mid-19th-century legend of the Fox sisters, mediums who conjured up a devilish spirit they called Mr. Splitfoot in order to separate the gullible from their money. The book deftly straddles the slippery line between fantasy and reality in a story that’s both gripping and wonderfully mystifying. Hailing from the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission—a halfway house filled with damaged souls and run by a conniving religious kook—Ruth and Nat occupy their turbulent adolescent years pretending they can talk to dead people. When they reach 18, the two latch on to a mysterious benefactor who convinces them to use their skill for cash. Decades later, a newly pregnant Cora—Ruth’s niece—awakens to find the long-absent Ruth standing by her bedside and is whisked off on a wild goose chase across New York. Where they’re going and why, the mute Ruth won’t say. Hunt’s use of a split narrative to measuredly disclose snippets of Ruth’s past and Cora’s present in alternating, interconnected chapters builds suspense while keeping readers guessing about what crazy turn might happen next. This spellbinder is storytelling at its best.
Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings (Random) - Jennings reexamines America’s 19th-century utopian projects, viewing them as a response to growing industry and competition in post-Enlightenment Europe, in this thoughtful history. He smartly organizes the book into five sections, each covering a major movement in the “Edenic void” of America: Shakers, New Harmony Owenists, Fourierists, Icarians, and the Perfectionists of the Oneida Community. These movements had many similarities—doing away with property and the family (except the Icarians), preaching cooperation, and focusing on bettering their members—while their fascinating differences owed much to the peculiarities of their founders’ motivating ideologies. Jennings dispels the pastoral image of an easy existence: labor was almost uniformly difficult and money was a consistent problem. But for many, utopian life also had its upsides: attention to education, better diets, fair wages, and sexual liberation were all components of these movements. Perhaps their greatest achievement was gender equality: women found equal rights in many of these communities, and many stepped outside the domestic sphere that confined many of America’s women.
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It...Every Time by Maria Konnikova (Viking) - Konnikova (Mastermind) opens a door to the fascinating world of truly brilliant con artists—not the quotidian hustlers, but the Madoffs of the world. She asks whether they are psychopaths, epic narcissists, or just regular Joes with extraordinary confidence and a skill for telling a good story. Konnikova provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of some of recent history’s smoothest talkers, covering the setups and executions of some of their extraordinary scams. From consumer fraud and online scams to complex, multiyear grifts and bald-faced lies, readers are reminded that these scams could happen to anyone and are far more common than is commonly realized—no one, after all, wants to admit to having been duped. As for why people fall for these cons, Konnikova shows that it’s because humans want to believe great stories and don’t necessarily recognize the fine line between a legitimate story and an illegitimate one. Told with vigor and enthusiasm, this study of the psychology of the con artist is riveting.
This Census-Taker by China Mieville (Del Rey) - New Weird exemplar Miéville (Three Moments of an Explosion) evokes fantasy from the emotional currents of daily life, eradicating differences between self and other and between reality and dream. An anonymous narrator, who’s currently a prisoner but spoken of as an “honored guest,” relates a tragic childhood in a nameless, war-ravaged society. His isolated life is shattered when his father, a so-called keymaker whose keys open clients’ hidden desires, murders his mother. His claims that his father buried his mother in a pit don’t prevent the adult authorities from returning him to his father’s care. The only glimmer of joy in his life is his chance friendship with two orphans, motherly Samma and tough Drobe. The narrative of guilt and justice is accelerated by the appearance of the Census-Taker, an official who “counts people and things” and whose relentless probing leads the narrator to become the stranger’s assistant, searching for his own personality by recording the lives of others. Miéville’s Kafkaesque narrator is a man without identity who delves for meaning in other people’s stories, statistics, and untrustworthy memories. Fans of Miéville’s work will recognize and relish his sharp, probing storytelling.
Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris (Little, Brown) - Expertly refurbishing an old structure, this haunted-hotel novel generates some genuine chills. A heavy snowstorm leads Prof. Tonio Addison to pull off the highway and look for a place to stay in Good Night, Id. The huge, eponymous old lodge somehow tempts members of his party—Tonio himself; his wife, Julia; their 10-year-old son, Dewey; and Tonio’s shiftless younger brother, Robbie—to follow impulses and wander off on separate missions. Soon they find themselves alone, catching only odd, disturbing glimpses of one another in or around the hotel. Smart, clever Dewey is the least befuddled, but even he loses control as the action accumulates echoes of increasingly uncanny past events. The characters appear to coexist more or less consciously and willingly with people who lived and died in the hotel years ago, and the elements of an old tragedy are gathering themselves for a reenactment. Morris (The Dart League King) handles the spooky materials deftly, but his writing is what makes the story really scary: quiet and languorous, sweeping steadily and inexorably along like a curtain of drifting snow identified too late as an avalanche.
City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence (Picador) - Rawlence (Radio Congo), who worked in Africa for Human Rights Watch between 2006 and 2012, brings to horrifying life the conditions in the U.N.-administered refugee camp in Dadaab, a town in northern Kenya. By combining his own experiences with interviews with residents of Dadaab, he makes the human rights crisis—rarely covered in the media—vivid and immediate for readers. Rawlence delves into the stories of nine people, putting particular emphasis on Guled, who was born in Mogadishu in 1993 at the same time as the downing of two American Black Hawk helicopters. Rawlence describes how the Black Hawk wreckage became a play area for Guled, foreshadowing his life of deprivation and struggle, mostly within the confines of Dadaab. These and other telling details will resonate with readers long after they finish the book. Rawlence eloquently expresses his moral outrage at the conditions Guled and others endure, as when he notes that a “refugee camp has the structure of punishment without the crime,” running on “visibility and control—the same principles that guide a prison.” This is a compelling examination of the tragedy of a place where one “can only survive... by imagining a life elsewhere.”
Shame and Wonder: Essays by David Searcy (Random) - Hangdog dejection and unlikely epiphanies infuse these offbeat, beguiling essays by novelist Searcy (Last Things). He rattles around the Dallas hinterland (with an overseas excursion to Turkey’s St. Nick tourist circuit) and stumbles across oddball stories and subjects: a rancher who uses a recording of his crying baby daughter to lure a troublesome coyote within rifleshot; a giant boulder topped by a scraggly tree covered with pocketknife-carved hearts; the barely-remembered tragedy of a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana, Tex., in 1884. Many pieces recall a sunlit Eisenhower-era boyhood filled with baseball, paper airplanes, woodland excursions with a homemade slingshot, and TV space operas. Others explore Searcy’s lifelong fascination with the emotional valence of hard science, which he indulges by repurposing the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, which tested the speed of light, as a symbol of the quest for meaning. Searcy’s writing is by sharp turns goofy, wry, and melancholy, tentative at times but always curious and superbly evocative.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Random) - Despite its slim length, Strout’s (The Burgess Boys) tender and moving novel should be read slowly, to savor the depths beneath what at first seems a simple story of a mother-daughter reconciliation. Lucy Barton is shocked when her mother, from whom she’s been estranged for years, flies from tiny Amgash, Ill., to be at Lucy’s hospital bedside in New York. Convalescing from a postsurgery infection, Lucy is tentative about making conversation, gently inquiring about people back home while avoiding the real reason why there’s been no contact with her parents. Strout develops the story in short chapters in which the reader intuits the emotional complexity of Lucy’s life as she reveals long-buried memories of an isolated, profoundly impoverished childhood and the sexual secrets, “the knowledge of darkness,” that shrouded her life. Though her mother calls her Wizzle, an endearing childhood name that implies warmth and closeness, she is unable to tell Lucy that she loves her. Running counter to the memories of her harsh, stoic upbringing is Lucy’s anguish at missing her own two daughters, waiting for her at home.
The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) - Wonder and imagination abound in Tanquary’s debut, a fantasy set in a contemporary Japanese mountain village; filled with respect and admiration for cultural tradition, it evokes both Grimm’s fairy tales and Miyazaki’s films. Saki, a city girl from Tokyo, isn’t looking forward to traveling with her family to her grandmother’s remote village for the festival of Obon, which celebrates the spirits of the dead. She quickly finds herself in trouble—and fighting a “death curse”—after playing a dangerous game with a group of local kids in her ancestors’ graveyard. The next three nights find Saki as part of the Night Parade, the spirit tradition running parallel to the Obon festival—and her only chance for redemption, if she can survive her encounters with three spirit guides. Saki’s decided love for technology (she’s glued to her phone) is a perfect foil for an examination of how the present can be influenced by the past, and vice versa, with both coexisting peacefully. Vivid details and realistic situations ensure accessibility, and subtle teaching moments are wrapped in wide-eyed enchantment.
My Name Is Not Friday by Jon Walter (Scholastic/Fickling) - Middle-grade author Walter (Close to the Wind), writing his first book for teens, pulls readers into life on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the final years of the Civil War. Twelve-year-old Samuel is a free-born, orphaned, and literate black boy who is sold into slavery. He's renamed Friday by a slave trader and bought by a relatively progressive slave owner whose young stepson befriends him. Samuel quickly realizes that he cannot escape the plantation and becomes a dutiful, hardworking member of the slave community. Sustained by his religious faith, Samuel is thoughtful, intelligent, and compassionate, and he soon gains the respect of both the white owners and his fellow slaves. When he decides to teach the slaves to read and write, in spite of his conflicts about "lying and cheating to do God's work"—as well as breaking the law—the story's movement and suspense escalate. Walter masterfully constructs the world of the plantation and presents a large population of complex and distinctive characters, resulting in a rich, thought-provoking, and deeply satisfying book.
The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner (Flatiron) - Wariner is her mother’s fourth daughter and her father’s 39th child. So begins this intense memoir of growing up in a sect of polygamous Mormons who are striving to build a utopia in the Mexican desert. The men tend the cows and do odd jobs in the States, while the women tend their children and their pregnancies and make regular trips into El Paso to pick up welfare benefits. Wariner’s dad is murdered by a rival when the author is three, and her mom replaces him with Lane, whom Wariner comes to abhor. Poverty and jealousy are enormous stressors. Sister-wives fight for resources, and Lane isn’t much of a provider. A fight over which wife deserves a new showerhead leads to Lane viciously beating Wariner’s mother, and she flees with the kids to her parents’ home in California. The author spends blissful months enjoying chocolate ice cream and hot showers before her mother succumbs to Lane’s charms and her own convictions and returns the family to the colony. Squalor and child abuse follow, and the family grinds apathetically along until Lane’s mismanagement of life brings a final crisis.