This week: an inquiry into the mystery and art of living, plus essays on love lost and found.


Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-544-57098-6

Alexander scores again with this sports-themed verse novel, a companion to his Newbery Medal–winning The Crossover. Eighth grader Nick, a devoted soccer player and fan, enjoys some friendly competition with his best friend, Coby. What Nick doesn't like is words—neither the ones in the dictionary that his linguistics professor father wrote (and is making him read) nor the ones he learns in his honors English class. But the school's quirky rapping librarian, Mr. Mac, helps Nick discover both a love of reading and a way to connect with the girl of his dreams. Alexander skillfully juggles verse styles to realistically capture Nick's humor and smarts (showcased in witty footnoted definitions of words like "cachinnate" and "mewling"), passion for soccer, and vulnerability when being bullied, having surgery, or facing his parents' troubled marriage.

Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does

Philip Ball. Univ. of Chicago, $35 (288p) ISBN 978-0-226-33242-0

Acclaimed English science writer Ball (Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen) curates a visually striking, riotously colorful photographic display of the most dramatic examples of the “sheer splendor” of physical patterns in the natural world. He lightly ties the work together with snippets of scientific history, using bits of physics, chemistry, and mathematics to show that although patterns in living beings can offer clear, functional evolutionary advantages, the small set of design elements that we can see—symmetries, branching fractals, spirals, flowing swirls, spots, and stripes—come from a basic set of organizing properties of growth and equilibrium seeking. Ball ranges across the whole spectrum of creation—from the living to the nonliving, and from the macroscopic to the microscopic—for displays of nature’s patterned beauty. He finds symmetry in grains of pollen, drops of falling water, and owl’s eyes. This is formidable eye candy for the I-love-science crowd, sure to spark a sense of impressed wonder at the beauty of our universe and our ability to photograph it.

The Wild Robot

Peter Brown. Little, Brown, $16.99 (282p) ISBN 978-0-316-38199-4

Brown’s middle-grade debut, an uplifting story about an unexpected visitor whose arrival disrupts the animal inhabitants of a rocky island, has a contemporary twist: the main character is a robot. A hurricane deposits Roz (short for ROZZUM unit 7134) on the island, where she is accidentally activated by a group of sea otters, who are terrified by the shiny monster awakening before their eyes. At first, Roz struggles to survive in an environment where she is treated as a frightening intruder, but after she adopts an abandoned gosling, she slowly becomes part of the island community, learning animal language and taking on motherhood and a leadership role. Brown (Mr. Tiger Goes Wild) convincingly builds a growing sense of cooperation among the animals and Roz as she blossoms in the wild. The allegory of otherness is clear but never heavy-handed, and Roz has just enough human attributes to make her sympathetic while retaining her robot characteristics.

I Will Find You

Joanna Connors. Atlantic Monthly, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2260-5

In this gripping memoir, Connors, a reporter for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, reckons with trauma after rape. In 1984, while Connors was on a reporting assignment in Cleveland, she was raped by a stranger. After 30 years, she goes on a quest to uncover the personal story of David, the man who raped her, and in the process encounters the stories of brutality faced by David’s family as they experience poverty and racism. Connors talks with David’s siblings, who reveal their own trauma and exposure to violence at the hands of an abusive father and a broken legal system that over-incarcerates poor people of color. She examines the racial politics of Cleveland as she crosses geographic divisions between rich and poor neighborhoods, seeking out David’s family. This book is a powerful story of exposing and confronting emotional scars in order to move forward. With emotional honesty and the precision of a seasoned journalist, Connors explores her own trials coping with the aftermath of rape, which leave the imprint of a constant fear and lead her to mistrust even close family members. Connors’s astute reflections on race, gender, and the personal plight of victimhood make this book a must-read.

Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto

Lesley Hazleton. Riverhead, $25.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-59463-413-0

Though Hazleton’s subtitle boasts a manifesto to follow, she advises readers early that this manifesto is “strange” in that it “makes no claims to truth, offers no certainties, eschews brashly confident answers to grand existential questions... because to be agnostic is to cherish both paradox and conundrum.” Hazleton immediately sets herself in relation (and in opposition) to the conversation among the four most prominent “new atheists” (she calls them H2D2)—Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett. Their “contemptuous” tone toward the religious is problematic, in her opinion, and they often substitute “wittily phrased generalizations for clarity of thought.” Hazleton flies through the history of various thinkers in concise and fluid prose, treating the reader to a quick yet thorough journey through theology and philosophy. To be agnostic is not to sidestep the question of belief, for Hazleton, or to commit to a wishy-washy moral framework. It is instead to have enough backbone to stand firm in the liminality of uncertainty. She wants readers to give agnosticism a fair shake, and many will be convinced by her appealing voice and accessible prose.

Girl in the Blue Coat

Monica Hesse. Little, Brown, $17.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-26060-2

In this riveting Holocaust novel, Hesse, a journalist for the Washington Post, brings readers to 1943 Nazi-occupied Amsterdam as teenage Hanneke Bakker learns more than she ever wanted to know about the atrocities committed against her Jewish neighbors. When Hanneke, who supports her family by delivering black market goods, is enlisted by a customer to search for a disappeared 15-year-old Jewish girl named Mirjam, she tries to keep her quest an isolated concern. As Hanneke’s investigation draws her into the web of systematized degradation and brutality afflicting all Jews, she recognizes that refusing to participate in the underground resistance would make her complicit with evil. Hanneke forcefully conveys the tortured emotions of citizens and city: “Fear. That’s right. That was the odor I couldn’t place before. That’s the smell of my beautiful, breaking country.” Themes of guilt and betrayal, ingenuity and courage, and the divisive effect of the occupation on friendship and community weave through a gripping historical mystery in which people and places, including the title character, are often not what they appear.

The Nameless City

Faith Erin Hicks. First Second, $14.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-62672-156-2

Hicks (Friends with Boys) sets this trilogy opener in an imaginary city whose architecture and dress have a Tibetan air. The city has been conquered by successive nations who grind its native inhabitants underfoot; it’s now ruled by the Dao. Kaidu, a Dao boy, arrives for military training and befriends a street girl named Rat. Despite her resentment (“I don’t want to know the name of any Dao,” she snarls when he introduces himself), she agrees to teach Kaidu how to traverse the city’s rooftops in exchange for food. Their secret forays expose Kaidu to the city’s darker truths, while Rat struggles with a sense that their friendship betrays the memory of her parents, who were killed by the Dao. When the two learn of an assassination plot, loyalties shift and the pace vaults from brisk to blazing.

The Golden Condom: And Other Essays on Love Lost and Found

Jeanne Safer. Picador, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-05575-0

Psychotherapist Safer (Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret) offers valuable advice for dealing with the pitfalls of love in this thought-provoking and deeply useful self-help title. This is far from the typical “how to find a lover” type of book; Safer probes topics such as traumatic friendships and frenemies, unrequited love, and mentor/mentee breakdowns before examining the fulfillment that true and enduring love can bring. The book is divided into three sections—Hopeless Love, Difficult Love, and Fulfilled Love—that are punctuated with stories from both Safer’s personal life (the book’s title refers to an actual condom the author gilded and sent to a former lover) and the lives of her patients. “There are many ways to become mistress (or master) of one’s fate after a betrayal, but they all have things in common: conscious effort and a fighting spirit,” the author muses before giving advice on coping skills. For anyone dealing with the intense pain caused by unrequited love, false friendships, or romantic obsessions, this book offers comfort and solid coping strategies.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City

Laura Tillman. Scribner, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5011-0425-1

When Tillman moved to Brownsville, Tex., in 2008 for a job at a local newspaper, she was assigned to write a story about the local debate over whether to demolish an apartment building where, in 2003, John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered and decapitated their three small children. Tillman becomes increasingly interested in the crime and how the proposed destruction of the building was the catalyst for the community to wrestle with it. In order to fully understand the family involved in the crime, she traces their place in their south Texas community and explores the violent history of the region. Did Rubio, who orchestrated the murders, truly believe his children were possessed by demons? Why did Camacho go along with it? Tillman's persistent, gritty journalism reveals that the case is more complicated and nuanced than the headlines would indicate. But still another question persists: how does a community cope with the long lasting effects of such a revolting crime? This thought-provoking portrait of a murder implicates the community at large and forces the reader to grapple with the death penalty, which Rubio is sentenced to. Tillman's book exemplifies provocative long-form journalism that does not settle for easy answers.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living

Krista Tippett. Penguin Press, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59420-680-1

Artful listening is Tippett's (Einstein's God) trademark. Her mellifluous voice, adored by listeners of her radio program and podcast On Being, floats off the pages of this deftly woven collection of interviews. For over a decade, Tippett has interviewed "geniuses in the art of living": scientists, philosophers, poets, playwrights, theologians—anyone who delves deeply into what it means to be human. "I love the deep savvy about hope that religion tends," she writes, "its reverence for the undervalued virtue of beauty, its seriousness about the common human experience of mystery. Our spiritual lives are where we reckon head-on with the mystery of ourselves, and the mystery of each other." But this is not just a selection of greatest hits. Instead, rooted in Tippett's own keen insight, she provides an interlocking frame based on five themes: words, the body, love, faith, and hope.