This week: Eowyn Ivey's outstanding new adventure novel, plus an account of the 1974 abduction of heiress Patty Hearst.
In this uproariously funny illustrated chapter book, the husband-and-wife team of Angleberger and Bell (Crankee Doodle) highlight the outrageous investigations of a Venus flytrap detective—think Inspector Clouseau as carnivorous plant. Inspector Flytrap won’t take just any mystery: it needs to be a “big deal” mystery. Luckily, he gets a few: Lulu Emu at the art museum is curious about a mysterious blob on a da Vinci painting; Koko Dodo’s bakery suddenly stinks; and a rose has been kidnapped from Mimi Kiwi at Snooty la Tooty Gardens. When Inspector Flytrap’s grouchy assistant, Nina the Goat, isn’t eating everything in sight (including evidence) she pushes his flowerpot on a skateboard to the scene of each investigation, however dangerous that may be (“She just shoves me out into the street, right in front of speeding traffic!”). Abundant punning and absurdity, Bell’s equally raucous cartooning, and the trail of destruction that Nina and the inspector leave in their wake make this series opener a “big deal” winner. Book two, Inspector Flytrap in the President’s Mane Is Missing, is available simultaneously.
In an introductory note, Cotterill warns readers that his highly entertaining 11th novel featuring Laotian coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun (after 2015’s Six and a Half Deadly Sins) is not for those who prefer their “mysteries dull and earthly.” A gripping opening follows, in which three women are murdered in three separate locations over one night in 1979. A flashback to two weeks earlier makes good on Cotterill’s disclaimer. The acerbic Siri and his redoubtable wife, Madam Daeng, who have plenty of experience with the supernatural, attend—and disrupt—a Communist Party seminar condemning spirit worship as part of the regime’s efforts to resolve conflicts between Communism and such faiths as Buddhism and animism. Meanwhile, Noo, a Thai monk whom the doctor has given refuge from the Thai military, vanishes, leaving a note asking Siri to smuggle a fellow monk back to Thailand, a mission that turns out to be connected to the murders of the three women. Cotterill’s subtle humor, coupled with the charm of his leads, will likely trump any discomfort with scenes with supernatural elements, even for readers who disapprove of such in their whodunits.
This essay collection from Han (Triple Door), China’s premier millennial blogger and cultural critic, brims with wit. The selections are arranged chronologically, documenting Han’s growth from a disaffected high school drop-out into a serious, politically engaged writer. Han covers a range of topics, including his experiences of growing up in the countryside, driving race cars, writing fiction, and becoming a father. In defense of democracy, he speaks out against elitism and corruption, taking China’s literati and officials to task. He declares, “Popular participation, brought about by the Internet, means the abandonment of the well-known public intellectuals who used to say what was on everyone else’s mind.” This is a groundbreaking book for Anglophone readers, offering an insider’s look into Chinese culture and politics. Han’s writing on every topic combines charming storytelling, wise aphorisms, and serious analysis.
In Honig’s scathing, dexterous debut, set about two decades in the future, former Russian president Vladimir Putin spends his final days in the throes of dementia at a dacha outside Moscow. Everyone in the dictator’s waning sphere of influence—the estate’s quarrelsome chef, the drivers in the car pool, the security detail, the conniving new housekeeper—schemes to benefit from Putin’s vast, ill-gotten wealth. “They were all the same, every single person in the dacha,” Putin’s longtime caretaker, Sheremetev, muses as he considers his own enigmatic honesty, which led indirectly to his wife’s death several years before and his eventual estrangement from his son, Vasily. “The only thing they cared about was how long the feast would go on, like fish gorging themselves on a whale’s flesh, even while the whale was still alive.” When Sheremetev receives news that his nephew has been jailed for speaking out against the current regime, he desperately wants to help the young man avoid a lengthy prison sentence. But the corruption at the heart of the Russian kleptocracy runs deeper than even Sheremetev—a rank amateur in such matters—can imagine. In a novel reminiscent of the meticulous visual art of a Robert Altman ensemble film, Honig showcases a keen eye for characters and set pieces and a pitch-perfect ear for satire. The flawed, naive Sheremetev, caught in the push and pull of his own outmoded beliefs, is at the center of this scintillating work of social commentary.
An 1885 wilderness expedition, a female pioneer of photography, and Native American myths come to life make Ivey’s second novel (after The Snow Child) an entrancing, occasionally chilling, depiction of turn-of-the-century Alaska. Through diaries, letters, reports, newspaper clippings, drawings, and photographs, Ivey evokes an Indian Wars veteran’s expedition up the Wolverine River into Alaska’s northern interior. Colonel Allen Forrester’s mission is to map the territory, make contact with inhabitants, and collect information for future (military or commercial) enterprises. While his wife, Sophie, remains in Vancouver, Forrester sets off with the intellectually gifted Pruitt and Sergeant Tillman, a rough-and-tumble miner’s son. Others joining the party include a trapper, his partner, a Native American woman who claims to have slit her husband’s throat, and a dog. But the strangest traveling companion, more nemesis than guide, is an old Native American known as the Man Who Flies on Black Wings, who is reputed to be a raven who can take the form of man. Bogged down by the terrain and his own ignorance, loosening ties to civilization if not reality, Pruitt succumbs to memories, and Forrester refuses to shoot wild geese fearing they may be humans in animal form. Sophie, meanwhile, learns to use a camera, building her own darkroom and a hunter’s blind to photograph bird nests in the wild. Years later, a descendant of the Forresters donates their journals and artifacts to a museum in the small town now on the expedition route, site of rafting tours and a million-dollar fishing lodge. In this splendid adventure novel, Ivey captures Alaska’s beauty and brutality, not just preserving history, but keeping it alive.
Published in 2014 (the centennial of the start of WWI) in England, where it won the Costa Children’s Book Award, Saunders’s moving homage to E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It is an irresistible read for a wide range of readers. In a daring move, Saunders delivers a sequel to the classic fantasy, taking up the characters in 1914 (except for a few instances of time travel), adding a new sibling, and not just reviving the Psammead, but providing a backstory for the “senior sand fairy” that has its own suspenseful movement. Comfortably blending fantasy elements with an English period piece about a close family, Saunders (The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop) doesn’t shy from the tragedies of WWI, but handles them with a tender sadness, eschewing any hints of sentimentality or melodrama. While readers might be slightly incredulous at the outcome of one horrific event, Saunders casts it in realistic detail. A satisfying epilogue closes the book with the mix of notes that arise from its pages: family, magic, sorrow, and joie de vivre.
In Sem-Sandberg’s previous novel, The Emperor of Lies, the Swedish writer took as his subject the Łódz´ ghetto in Poland during WWII. In his latest, he revisits the savagery of that war by focusing on Am Spiegelgrund, a real-life Viennese clinic where children “diagnosed with mental illness, mental retardation, or severe malformations” were the victims of Nazi eugenics and euthanasia programs. Epic in scope, the novel follows Adrian Ziegler a “patient” of the institution, as he lives there off and on from January 1941 to May 1944, and Anna Katschenka, a nurse who works in the clinic from 1941 until the Russians reach the city at the war’s end. Adrian, thought to be of inferior racial stock, with a “Gypsy-type” skull and ears that exhibit a “Semitic curvature,” undergoes the brutal torment and abuse the staff inflict on their charges. He suffers endless cruelty and sexual abuse and bears witness to the murders committed within the clinic’s walls. Anna is a loyal disciple of Dr. Jekelius, the medical director, who unquestioningly becomes party to the Nazis’ state-sanctioned policy of euthanasia, which is, as the doctor tells her, “acts of mercy in the spirit that has always guided medical science, that is to ameliorate or remove sources of pain and suffering.” The novel’s horror is not merely that the crimes it relates are true but the way the most unspeakable atrocities can be committed by the state under the guise of science. With a gift for finding humanity in even the darkest of stories, Sem-Sanberg has written an indelible, moving novel.
Toobin (The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson), a New Yorker staff writer and CNN senior legal analyst, provides another definitive and nuanced look at a notorious crime case—this time, the 1974 abduction of heiress Patty Hearst in San Francisco by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and its sensational aftermath. Two months into the kidnapping, in a tape released by the SLA, Hearst declared that she’d joined the group; two years later, she faced a federal trial for armed bank robbery. Toobin’s rigorous detective work is enhanced by his placement of the Hearst case in the context of its times, with the U.S. shaken by the continuing Watergate revelations as well as the devastating OAPEC oil embargo, and his expert critique of the work of both prosecution and defense in Hearst’s 1976 trial. His thorough research, careful parsing of all the evidence, and superior prose make the book read like a summertime thriller.
When Vica, a Russian immigrant, brings her son to take an entrance exam for an elite Manhattan high school, she observes the other parents: “You could easily divide them into two categories: Susan Sontag types and Outer Borough types.” Such discernments reflect Vapnyar’s (Memoirs of a Muse) hilarious and weighty insights as she explores familiar yet endlessly fascinating territory: the banalities of American life through the lens of Russians who may not think coming to the U.S. was actually the best choice. In this novel, Vica, who was a promising medical student in Moscow but now works as a sonogram technician, is one of four main characters. Her husband, Sergey, who has been “steadily losing his looks for the last year or two,” is fixated on creating an app he hopes will make him rich and redeem his general mediocrity. The app, a potential gold mine, as well as the inherent loneliness of social media, is a powerful theme throughout the book, as Vapnyar writes convincingly about technology’s impact on her characters, offering a brilliant critique of it. As Vica and Sergey’s marriage unravels, the book also explores their friendship with two other Russians: Vadik, a lonesome computer programmer, and Regina, who had been a highly sought-after translator in Russia but whose American life has left her despondent and watching lots of TV. The novel provides a lively view of a group of friends navigating their early 40s, juggling mistakes of their past and trying to remain hopeful about the future. Once again, Vapnyar illustrates her incredible ability to create rich and entertaining narratives.
In this timely collection of essays and poems, Ward (Men We Reaped) gathers the voices of a new generation whose essays work together as one to present a kaleidoscopic performance of race in America. The 18 contributions (10 of which were written specifically for this collection) cover topics deep in history as well as those in the current culture. One, for example, reveals fresh insight about Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, and her husband, while other essays are situated in the present, taking readers on a tour of street murals in N.Y.C. and exploring the music of hip-hop duo OutKast. One entry evokes the experience of a young college student exploring the streets of a new city as he learns “what no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.” Over the course of the collection, readers engage with the challenge of white rage, and learn about the painful links between Emmet Till’s open casket and the black bodies on today’s streets. The two concluding pieces provide a profoundly moving view of the future deeply affected by the past, through a husband’s letter to his expectant wife, followed by a mother’s message to her daughters. Ward’s remarkable achievement is the gift of freshly minted perspectives on a tale that may seem old and twice-told. Readers in search of conversations about race in America should start here.
Believably exploring body issues, crushes, popularity, and friendship, Young (Doodlebug) captures the confused and charming voice of a 12-year-old girl who isn’t sure about much, including what she wants to be called. Sixth-grader Christine “Tink” Gouda’s school year is not going well. She feels too tall, too physically mature, and just too different from the cute, petite girls and crush-worthy boys who make up what Tink refers to as “the circle.” Tink’s best friend Jackie has decided that this year, Tink will be known as “Chris” because it sounds more grown up, but Tink isn’t sure that this new name fits her any better than her old one. Uncertainty fills each page as Tink begins a budding friendship with class clown Matthew “Bushwhack” Alva and watches Jackie try on different personas to fit in. Clever banter and some made-up words, including the “almost rude” “bushwah,” help Young’s characters jump off the page in a thoughtful and realistic look at what it means to be on the precipice of adolescence.