This week: a murder mystery set in a remote town in Ghana, plus: are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?
In these seven short stories from Avi (Catch You Later, Traitor), the relationships among fathers, grandfathers, and sons are as varied as the clearly delineated characters themselves. There’s eighth-grader Paul, who is a virtual stranger to his war-veteran grandfather until they are unexpectedly thrown together for a week. In contrast, Luke, 12, is so connected to his father that they are able to communicate even after an accident physically tears them apart. Then there’s 11-year-old Ryan, who insists on interviewing his mother’s boyfriend for “the job of being my father” (“Two written references must be provided, one from kid,” reads the job description Ryan puts together). Whether good, bad, or indifferent, the feelings and outlooks of Avi’s young protagonists are deeply influenced by the men in their lives. Endings are not always happy or neat, but moments of discovery and recognition point the way to change. Avi’s deft incorporation of humor, heartache, and the occasional touch of the supernatural will draw readers in as they ponder how family ties bind in both positive and negative ways.
Today's readers are old hands at meta—stories that branch into other stories, stories that acknowledge the reader—but this one ups the ante. Boucher (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive) suggests that a place can be a text. That place is the town of Appleseed, Mass., and it's a world at risk. Things go bad for Appleseed when bookworms with "print-based" bodies that let them change into endless characters or ideas infest the town, ruining the apple crop. Main character ____, a melancholy kid, pals around with his pet sentence, "I am," and someone named Reader. Given the general weirdness—traffic cones run the town, for instance—actual readers can be forgiven for not realizing right away that Reader is, in fact, a reader, and specifically the reader of this book. When Appleseed spirals into a downturn and ____'s mother takes off to join the Mothers, who patrol Appleseed's perimeter looking for wayward words, the importance of readers/Reader becomes clear. Boucher literalizes the familiar (money is meaning, as in ideas and metaphor), and estranges readers from an act they do all time and are actually doing in that very moment—reading. It's an odd, clever, and thoroughly enjoyable experience.
In this thoroughly engaging, remarkably informative, and deeply insightful book, de Waal (The Bonobo and the Atheist), a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, investigates the intelligences of various animals and the ways that scientists have attempted to understand them. The book succeeds on many levels. De Waal provides ample documentation that animals—including the primates he studies, other mammals, octopuses, birds, and even insects—can be remarkably adept at solving problems. He also explains scientists’ experimental protocols, discussing how bias can creep into experiments and lead to erroneous conclusions. Reiterating Charles Darwin’s “well-known observation that the mental difference between humans and other animals is one of degree rather than kind,” de Waal augments the scientific perspective with a historical one, carefully considering the debates that have roiled the field of animal behavior science for over a century. He describes how chimps collaborate to evade electrified wire and how bonobos occasionally carry tools in anticipation of needing them in the future, telling fabulous stories that shed light on the differences and similarities between humans and other animals.
Quartey’s exceptional fourth Darko Dawson mystery (after 2014’s Murder at Cape Three Points) takes the Accra, Ghana, policeman, recently promoted to chief inspector, to the remote town of Obuasi. There he must work with the inept and undisciplined local police, whose deficiencies handicap him in investigating the murder of Bao Liu, a Chinese mine owner. Bao is but one of the many Chinese who have moved to Ghana to exploit, illegally, the country’s rich gold reserves, a practice the government is incapable of stopping, or else unwilling to. Dawson has a number of suspects to question, including Bao’s disgruntled workers, and a local who blames Bao for his son’s death. He gets an ally in a journalist, Akua Helmsley, who suspects government collusion in the environmental damage wrought by the illegal miners. The revelation of the key clue is especially clever, and fans of mysteries that offer a window into another culture will be more than satisfied.
“What a strange constellation they all were.” Such is Richard Gansey’s assessment of the teenage magical dreamers, psychic amplifiers, scryers, and ghosts who have been his closest companions in his efforts to find the sleeping Welsh king Glendower over the previous three books of the Raven Cycle. The search for that king—and the fact that Gansey is supposed to die this year, probably from a kiss from Blue—has hung over each novel, and it all comes to a head now. Despite Stiefvater’s use of repeating phrases (“Depending on where you began the story, it was about...”) to create an air of finality and heighten the mythic scope of Gansey’s quest, the path to what readers have always known was coming is swirling, chaotic, and unpredictable, drawing in robotic bees, real wasps, a cloven-hooved girl, a terrifically powerful demon, tree spirits, fast cars, and a couple of eagerly anticipated kisses. The playful, imaginative force of Stiefvater’s writing works its magic once again, and most readers will finish this saga not with regret or disappointment but with hope.
In Van Booy’s moving, redemptive new novel, a little girl grows into a talented and insightful young woman under the tutelage of her uncle, a disabled, unemployed ex-con with tremendous rage issues. The story unfolds in two timelines, the first of which begins when six-year-old Harvey becomes an orphan, and a rule-bending social worker convinces Harvey’s reluctant uncle Jason to take in a child he’s never met. The second story line, when Harvey is 26, revolves around Jason’s visit for Father’s Day in Paris, where Harvey lives and works. The novel fleshes out much of the intervening years, with a clean writing style that avoids any mawkishness. Harvey’s thoughts and feelings as a child, for instance, are age appropriate in content and expression; she never comes off as overly precocious. The third-person narrative gives both characters their own, distinctive voices that nonetheless change over time. Van Booy (The Illusion of Separateness) creates refreshing, humorous, yet poignant childhood milestones that the two reach with emotional honesty.
Echoing the tone and themes found in To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of My German Soldier, this WWII story traces the unlikely friendship between a country girl and a shell-shocked veteran. Most people in Wolf Hollow, Pa., don't know what to make of Toby and his habit of circling the hills with "three long guns slung across his back." But he has always been kind to Annabelle, now 12, and he comes to her rescue when a bully torments her. After Toby is accused of a crime he didn't commit, Annabelle knows she has to take action, but her attempt to hide him from authorities spurs a chain of events that could lead to disaster. In her first book for children, Wolk (Those Who Favor Fire) movingly expresses Annabelle's loss of innocence through the honest, clear voice of her protagonist. Annabelle's astute observations of the Pennsylvania woods and the people who populate Wolf Hollow will resonate with many readers as they present a profound view of a complex era tinged by prejudice and fear.
Veteran correspondent Worth traces the “Arab Spring” through five countries, from the heady idealism of 2011 to the largely grim aftermath. Significantly, he does so through the stories of individuals rather than groups or sects, challenging simplistic, monolithic conceptions of rival factions. Through this approach, readers can better understand, for example, why a charismatic Egyptian doctor remained a loyal member of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood even after its crude efforts to theocratize the country prompted a military coup backed by secular liberals. Elsewhere, Worth interviews Libyan militiamen who dream of a nation of laws while rounding up former Gadhafi loyalists at gunpoint. He tracks former best friends in Syria—one Alawi, one Sunni—as violence and fear undercut efforts to straddle sectarian divides. Worth recounts the story of Yemen, a failed state where decades of bitter local clashes presaged the region’s current agonies, through a longtime dissident’s eyes. Finally, he shows Islamist and secular Tunisian politicians haltingly attempt to compromise and avoid the upheavals afflicting other Arab states. Worth provides no easy path forward. Instead, he skillfully presents the competing perspectives in play to explain the daunting impediments to stable states in the present-day Middle East.