This week: Russell Banks's travel writings, plus: the geek feminist revolution.
Although billed as “travel writings,” the 10 introspective essays collected in this volume explore their author’s emotional geography as much as the far-flung lands he visits. In the lengthy title piece, which recounts “a winter-long, island-hopping journey through the Caribbean,” Banks finds occasion to relate the details of his three failed marriages to his travel companion, his fourth-wife-to-be. Acknowledging that the wanderlust that spurs his travels is an outgrowth of his personal tendency to flee from those whose emotional needs he cannot satisfy, he observes, “I could see clearly that my courtship narrative and this peripatetic voyage through the archipelago ran parallel to each other in ways both exculpatory and condemning, the one reflecting, enabling, and explicating the other.” Banks’s descriptions are visually evocative, and his eye for detail is sharpened by the near-spiritual resonance that his travel destinations have for him. Recalling a Zen moment experienced while mountain-climbing in the Andes, he reflects that “one climbs a mountain for the same reason one enters a monastery: to pray.” Whether he’s traveling through the swamps of the Everglades, the former slaving grounds of Dakar, or the Russian settlement of Alaska (which he describes piquantly as “a Chekhov story waiting to be told”), Banks makes a magnificent tour guide for landscapes both within and without.
In a young readers' companion to The Winter Fortress, Bascomb offers a riveting account of Norwegian resistance efforts to prevent Germany from developing the atomic bomb by sabotaging a Norsk Hydro plant in Vemork, the world's sole producer in 1939 of "heavy water." Developing an explosive using nuclear fission depended on this critical ingredient, and on April 9, 1940—soon after the Nazis' increased orders for heavy water were refused by Norsk Hydro's management—Germany invaded and seized control of Norway's industrial sector. In response, Norwegian saboteurs trained in the U.K. to destroy Vemork's heavy water production, under the direction of the British Special Operations Executive and Capt. Leif Tronstad, an exiled Norwegian professor and well-connected informant. Bascomb's detailed narrative builds tension through each attempt, narrow escape, and comeback.
Cohen (War of the Wives) captures divorce with pin-point accuracy in this unsettling read, where ugliness reigns, amicability flies out the window, and accusations, broken promises, financial shenanigans, and hatred dominate. When Dan decides to leave his wife, Sasha, for a 24-year-old model, their closest friends, Josh and Hannah (whose four-year-old is their own little girl’s best friend), become part of the drama. Dan’s efforts to minimize his betrayal just makes things worse. Sasha’s refusal to accept that her marriage is irreparably broken morphs into bitterness and vindictiveness. As Josh and Hannah try to remain neutral, financial worries, intimacy problems, and other dilemmas strain their marriage and damage their careers. Peppered throughout are pages from a girl who exhibits signs of a dual personality as a result of her mother’s abuse. Who is she? The reader knows Sasha had a horrible upbringing, but Hannah’s may have been even worse. Cohen’s marital drama morphs into a psychological thriller, and a last-minute twist set into motion much earlier in the narrative is brilliant.
A master of the historical spy novel, Furst scores again with his 14th suspense story (after Midnight in Europe). This excellent spy thriller is set in Paris, March to August 1941, with the French Resistance movement covertly opposing the German occupation of the City of Light, early in World War II. Mathieu runs a Resistance cell that helps downed British airmen escape to Spain, always operating under the threat of exposure, betrayal, and arrest. Mathieu and the men and women of his cell are watchful and careful with their trust, for the Vichy police and the German Gestapo are sneaky, efficient, and brutal. The cell is small and well-organized, aided by an ethnology professor, a shady nightclub owner, a regal society matron, a Jewish schoolteacher, a female aristocrat, and a teenage girl. Their clandestine operations are very successful, attracting the unwelcome attention of a mysterious British spy, “a citizen of the shadows,” a French communist agent, a blackmailing underworld thug, and the most dangerous adversary of all, a German police inspector, Otto Broehm, sent specifically to Paris to destroy Mathieu’s cell.
Emmy-, Golden Globe–, and Peabody Award–winning television producer and screenwriter Hawley’s fifth novel is a masterly blend of mystery, suspense, tragedy, and shameful media hype. When a corporate jet carrying 11 crashes into the ocean just 16 minutes into a nighttime flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York in August 2015, only two people survive—Scott Burroughs, a middle-aged former drunk and minor artist, and a four-year-old boy. Scott saves the boy, swimming to shore and into a frenzy of media-shaped hero worship, federal investigations of terrorism and criminal activity, and sudden media-driven accusations of financial exploitation. Hawley cleverly uses flashback chapters for each of the passengers to reveal that one victim was a wealthy mogul, head of a 24-hour cable news network that didn’t just report the news, but proudly manufactured it; one victim was a Wall Street financier about to be indicted for money laundering; and the other victims, including an armed bodyguard, also had curious pasts. Scott’s life is an escalating nightmare of media hounding and federal suspicion. His only salvation is a thoughtful, deliberate NTSB investigator who focuses on facts, not speculation. This is a gritty tale of a man overwhelmed by unwelcome notoriety, with a stunning, thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
Hugo Award–winning writer Hurley (Empire Ascendant) places some of her best previously published essays and nine new pieces into a collection that loudly highlights the limiting, raw deal women get in the science fiction and fantasy genre as authors, readers, and characters. She points out the dangers of trying to subvert gender norms rather than overturning them, and the impact that the science fiction writing tropes of the 1980s still have on today’s popular imagination, while encouraging writers to create, and readers to demand, stories that really push the edges of what we can imagine. She writes in an exquisitely crafted yet deceptively casual, profanity-laced style, linking her experiences to universal issues with rousing conviction. Hurley is certainly not the first to point out the deep misogyny in 21st-century popular culture, but she articulates the problems in an incisive, opinionated, and demanding blend of analysis and personal storytelling that will inspire her readers and peers in the science fiction community to work toward change.
Three accordion-style board books expand to showcase food chains on land, underwater, and in the air. Gorgeously composed dioramas present toylike animals against crisp paper backdrops, with birds and leaping predators suspended in midair by string. During the forest chain, a beetle is eaten by a shrew, feeding a skunk, which is eaten by a fox that can’t escape a bobcat. “No one is hungry anymore!” ends the text accompanying each chain (mainly because the players are almost all dead). The reverse of each book highlights other things eaten by the creatures in black-and-white silhouettes. Playful yet matter-of-fact, it’s an excellent introduction to the eat-and-be-eaten realities of life in the wild.
Lehmann (Rich People Things) describes, in entertaining and erudite terms, the evolution of a uniquely American Protestantism linked with a uniquely American market capitalism into a "theology of abundance" that exalts wealth, stigmatizes poverty, and regards capital gains as a mark of divine favor. Through a series of spiritual revivals and awakenings and their corresponding economic booms and busts, Lehmann explains how the strong communal vision of the early Puritans gave way to biblical truths more adapted to the market revolution and a rising commercial ethos. The surprisingly early roots of the "intensely individualist American gospel of self-help" flower quite logically, as Lehmann shows, into an evangelical piety that eschews social causes or reform crusades, preferring to sanctify the more market-friendly values of personal striving and portray "worldly gain as the just reward of the faithful." With engaging forays into Mormonism, self-help and management literature, and end-times prophecy, Lehmann persuasively posits the modern prosperity gospel as an inevitable development in the American religious landscape.
McCammon’s rousing sixth yarn featuring Matthew Corbett (after 2014’s The River of Souls) transports the early 18th-century American problem solver across the Atlantic to London, where he’s clapped into hellish Newgate Prison on murder charges. Matthew quickly becomes embroiled in mysteries involving fellow inmate Daniel Defoe; a gin-running street gang, the Black-Eyed Broodies; a kidnapped Italian opera singer; and a masked avenger named Albion, whose exploits are sensationalized (along with Matthew’s) in a penny dreadful broadsheet, the Pin—all the while with Matthew’s patron, Hudson Greathouse, and Matthew’s sweetheart, Berry Grigsby, in hot pursuit. McCammon’s intricate and intersecting subplots keep the story twisting unpredictably, and he adds menace to the mayhem with hellish descriptions of London straight out of a Hogarth engraving: all bawds and brutes a-wallow in the squalor of the city’s seamy street life. Fans of the series will race through this hefty page-turner to see where Matthew’s latest adventure leads him.
The protagonists in Ulman's debut story collection, all in their teens and 20s, feel intensely real. Set in Melbourne, Australia; San Francisco; New York; and Vladivostok, Russia, these stories explore the complexities of ambition, the intricacies of relationships, and, perhaps most of all, the distance between expectations and reality. In the opening story, "Jewish History," a young girl in Melbourne attempts to fit in with her classmates by sharing the story of her family's emigration from Russia. In "Chagall's Wife," a student seeks her science teacher's attention outside the classroom. With compelling honesty and humor, "The Withdrawal Method" introduces Claire, a Ph.D. student in San Francisco, as she deals with an unwanted pregnancy. And "Warm-Ups," one of the most arresting stories in the collection, depicts a young Russian gymnastics student who travels to California with the hope of gaining international recognition. The stories have a cumulative effect: themes of friendship, infatuation, self-discovery, and disillusionment intensify with each subsequent tale. Though some stories are more powerful than others, all the captivating women in this collection leave a lasting impression.