This week: new books from Megan Abbott, Jules Feiffer, and Liz Moore.
Thriller Award–winner Abbott (The Fever) takes a piercing look at what one family will sacrifice in the name of making their daughter a champion. For Katie and Eric Knox, nothing is more important than ensuring that their 16-year-old daughter, Devon, has everything she needs to pursue a possible Olympic berth in gymnastics, from round-the-clock training with coach Teddy Belfour at BelStars Gym to a plethora of high-performance leotards and hand grips. Despite a childhood foot injury, Devon is the obvious star of the gym, something the other parents both appreciate (because it raises BelStars’s profile) and quietly resent (because it makes their own daughters look second-rate). When an unexpected death rocks the gym community, Katie is determined not only to shield her daughter from the fallout but also to make sure that Devon’s elite trajectory doesn’t falter. But she can’t help being inexorably drawn to the tragedy and the young man who died, and in the process Katie learns that what she thought she knew about Devon only scratches the surface. Abbott keenly examines the pressures put on girls’ bodies and the fierce, often misguided love parents have for their children.
Excellent characterization and well-crafted tension do much to redeem the outlandish plot of this SF thriller from Crouch (the Wayward Pines trilogy). Jason Dessen, a quantum physicist, once had a brilliant research career ahead of him. But after a girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy and the birth of a son, this future was derailed. Now Jason is a professor at a small Chicago college, content with his warm and loving family life until he’s abducted into a world in which his quantum many-worlds theory has become a fully realized technology for inter-dimensional transfer. In this world, Jason didn’t marry his girlfriend and never had a son. Jason is determined to get back to his family and his own world, but nefarious powers in the alternate reality conspire to stop him from revealing the criminal lengths they have gone to create the world-hopping technology. A rousing and heartfelt ending will leave readers cheering.
Master cartoonist Feiffer has crafted a worthy noir thriller prequel to the critically acclaimed Kill My Mother. The year is 1931. Det. Sam Hannigan is a proud American and a member of fictional Bay City’s finest. When he and his partner aren’t fighting crime or getting their “Red Squad” to suppress the local trade unions, he’s off to do the bidding of the mysterious Cousin Joseph, an unidentified bigwig who wants to rid Hollywood of what he considers anti-American propaganda films. Soon, Sam finds himself in over his head and on both sides of the law as he tries to keep track of the various forces at work against him. Feiffer’s strength as a graphic novelist is in creating a range of fascinating characters, from Sam’s partner, Neil Hammond, who’s planning to retire from the force and become a PI, to Valerie Knox, the daughter of the local factory owner, who has a pathological interest in young men. This complex series of character studies forms a densely woven narrative that is deftly written and expertly illustrated.
Kent combines time travel, mystery, and romance in a delightful sequel to Persistence of Memory that’s easily accessible for new readers. Shaun Deeley of the 19th century and Charlie Collins (or Mrs. Collins, as Shaun insists on calling her) of the 21st century, a pair of unpracticed, accidental time travelers, have returned to Charlie’s present-day English-countryside home to begin their lives together. However, as they are putting together an exhibit at the Stoneford Village Museum, they unexpectedly transport back to 1940 London during the Blitz, where they meet Charlie’s grandmother, then a young woman. They quickly understand that this meeting is not a chance occurrence: Charlie and Shaun’s family history and the future they’ve already lived all depend on protecting Charlie’s grandmother from a killer who is crisscrossing through the centuries. Kent’s wonderfully complex and charming mystery asks interesting questions about how individual actions might change outcomes, but these heavy thoughts do not detract from Charlie and Shaun’s romance as their delightful banter reveals their solid devotion to each other.
In her third novel, Moore (Heft) delivers a striking examination of family, memory, and technology. Leaping from the 1980s to the early 2000s, this is the story of young Ada Sibelius and her brilliant computer scientist father, David, who runs a lab at a prestigious college in Boston, working to develop a lifelike artificial intelligence program, ELIXIR. Ada is being raised nontraditionally—educated by David and his lab colleagues, treated as one of the team, without kid gloves—but when David begins showing signs of Alzheimer’s, her life is upended. She is sent to a local junior high school, where she is forced to interact with children her own age, and when David can no longer remain unsupervised, she is taken in by Diana Liston, David’s closest associate. Moore’s exploration of David’s decline is remarkable and heartbreaking, and she shifts gears deftly as the story is complicated further: when Liston tries to become Ada’s legal guardian, questions about David’s identity arise. Since David can no longer answer for himself, Ada takes charge and tries to unravel her father’s cryptic past, leading to the discovery of a hidden file, titled “The Unseen World,” on David’s computer. Mysteries build, and Moore’s gift for storytelling excels. This is a smart, emotionally powerful literary page-turner.
Debut novelist Stewart creates a fantastical world packed with magic and monsters, set on the fictional shores of the Danék River. Wulliam, 15, is to become the new Riverkeep, a job that generations of men in his family have done without complaint. Though an obedient child, Wull plans on running away before he can take up the oars of the family bäta and follow in his father’s footsteps of keeping the river free of corpses. After Pappa is attacked by a bohdan, which inhabits the bodies of its victims, Wull attempts to save his father by going after the mormorach, an enormous, magical aquatic creature that might hold a cure. Stewart assembles a slew of imaginative and memorable characters, including Mix, a stowaway girl with strange markings on her barklike skin; Tillinghast, a “not technic’ly alive” homunculus made from human parts; and Remedie, a witch who hopes to bring her wooden child back to life. Filled with wild adventure and hilarious dialogue (Tillinghast has a particularly saucy mouth), this vivid, engrossing fantasy will delight readers, even those who occasionally find the dialect tricky to navigate.