This week: a mind-bending exploration of time travel, plus a tense mystery set in northern Newfoundland.
In 2011, Ryan Speedo Green won a national competition sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Yet, as journalist Bergner (God of the Rodeo) points out in this gripping and inspiring mix of biography and cultural history, Green’s journey to international acclaim as an opera star was not an easy one. Raised in a home marred by domestic violence and his father’s abandonment of the family, Green grows up being shuttled from a trailer park to a shack in a neighborhood riddled with drugs and violence. He has difficulties in school and grows more and more unruly, until the moment he threatens his mother with a knife. Transported to a juvenile psychiatric detention center so he won’t be a threat to others or himself, Green discovers music as the force that calms his anger. When he returns to high school, he enrolls in the music program, meeting up with a teacher who takes him under his wing and helps Green develop his vocal talents. On a class visit to the Met, Green declares to his teacher that he’s going to sing there one day. Bergner chronicles the auditions and vocal contests as well as the struggles Green faces as a black man entering a musical world that is mostly white, delivering a moving portrait of a young man who succeeds, along with the help of encouraging teachers.
Fradkin, author of the Inspector Green series, two of which won Arthur Ellis awards, now introduces readers to a new mystery series. The adventurous Amanda Doucette was an international aid worker, but after surviving a horrific incident in Nigeria, she returned to Canada. When she learns that her fellow aid worker Phil Cousins has disappeared into northern Newfoundland with his young son, she embarks on a quest to find them. Fradkin does a marvelous job depicting the fierce beauty and isolation of Newfoundland and the post-traumatic stress both Amanda and Phil experience. Amanda is buoyed by her retriever Kaylee and RCMP officer Chris Tymko, who takes vacation time to assist her. Along the way there are many troubling developments: a dead foreigner fished out of the sea, the sighting of a lifeboat carrying several men hurrying away, and an old fisherman found ax murdered. Amanda’s task becomes more difficult and dangerous as she not only has to find Phil and his son in the wilderness but also has to figure out who the murderer is. Fradkin, a retired psychologist, creates well-drawn, complex characters, and she knows how to build tension and drama that hold readers to the end.
Literary critic Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses) renders a gripping and graceful portrait of the mind, life, and work of groundbreaking American author Shirley Jackson (1916–1965). Though Jackson is today largely known for the chilling novel The Haunting of Hill House and the supremely upsetting short parable “The Lottery,” Franklin brings forth her full oeuvre for careful study, including a prodigious number of short stories, books for young adults and children, and—perhaps improbably for a horror writer—two bestselling memoirs about life with her four children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Franklin’s adept readings of Jackson’s influences, formative relationships, and major works interweave the obsessions, fears, and life experiences that charge her writing with such wicked intensity. Treating her subject with a generous eye and gorgeous prose, Franklin describes one of Jackson’s chief themes, a “preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there,” as a product of her cultural moment, identifying Jackson’s “insistence on telling unpleasant truths” about women’s experience and her ability “to draw back the curtain on the darkness within the human psyche” as the elements that make Jackson a writer of lasting relevance who can still give today’s readers an impressive shiver.
British author Gallagher gives Sebastian Becker another puzzle worthy of his quirky sleuth’s acumen in his outstanding third pre-WWI mystery (after 2012’s The Bedlam Detective). As the special investigator to the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy, Becker is charged with investigating “the psychology of anyone with a fortune or an income that might be put at risk by their erratic behavior.” When a fatal arson at a Sussex theater claims the life of a German prince, Becker’s superior is eager for him to demolish any claim that the prime suspect, showman William James, was insane when he set the fire. After meeting James, Becker is prepared to give some credence to the man’s claims of innocence. That comes back to haunt him when James manipulates him into facilitating his escape, leading the detective on a search for the fugitive—and the truth—that takes him to Pennsylvania and an apparent dead end. Gallagher makes the most of his unusual concept in the service of a twisty but logical plot line.
In 1242 France, weary travelers at an inn trade stories about three miraculous children and their dog, Gwenforte, who has returned from the dead. The children—Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions of the future; William, an oblate of partial African heritage with uncanny strength; and Jacob, a Jewish boy with the power to heal the sick and injured—are the subject of much rumor and debate. Are they saints, frauds, or in league with the devil? Gidwitz (the Grimm trilogy) continues to toy with narrative in a well-researched and rambunctiously entertaining story that has as much to say about the present as it does the past. Evoking the oral storytelling traditions of the time, multiple characters including a nun, troubadour, and brewer alternately describe their encounters with the children to produce the whole story. Amid mugs upon mugs of ale, the tale that comes into focus is one of religious persecution and faith, friendships that transcend difference, and a dangerously flatulent dragon—Gidwitz continues to have no problem mixing high and low.
In a dazzling voyage through the concept of time, science chronicler Gleick (The Information) explains that, “like all words, time has boundaries, by which I don’t mean hard and impenetrable shells but porous edges,” challenging readers to consider the porousness of reality as depicted in philosophy, science, and literature. Beginning with an homage to H.G. Wells, whose 1895 novel The Time Machine influenced both writers and physicists, the book careens back and forth, “free to leap about in time.” The popularity of Wells’s story paved the way for a willingness to accept the paradoxes in the science of Einstein, Eddington, and Feynman, among others. Gleick explores the wealth of speculation that was set in motion when time became considered fluid. Can one go back in time and prevent one’s own birth? Does time travel create “forks” in the universe with alternate events? What does it mean to be outside of time? Gleick quotes from scientists and writers who have wrestled with these questions, and he explores the way novels, short stories, films, and television programs have handled eddies in time (his suggested reading list is priceless). Deeply philosophical and full of quirky humor—“The universe is like a river. It flows. (Or it doesn’t, if you’re Plato.)”—Gleick’s journey through the fourth dimension is a marvelous mind bender.
In this grisly fantasy from Kirby (the Dark Gravity Sequence), the year is 1888 and London’s slums are soon to be terrorized by Leather Apron (later known as Jack the Ripper), who murders prostitutes in the most gruesome manner possible. In a nearby East End hospital resides a monster of a gentler sort: Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who has a new maid, 17-year-old Evelyn Fallows. Some would label Evelyn a monster as well, her jaw destroyed by phosphorus necrosis from working in a match factory. Evelyn is initially repulsed by Merrick’s deformity, but she soon recognizes him as a gentle soul. After the murders commence, the ghosts of Leather Apron’s victims begin to appear in Merrick’s room. Concerned about the effect of these monstrous apparitions on Merrick’s health, Evelyn ventures into the slums in an attempt to put the suffering ghosts to rest. Evelyn—all grit, anger, and distrust—is a complex and engaging character, the slums and slang of Victorian-era London are carefully delineated, and the eventual revelation of Leather Apron’s identity and fate will leave readers gasping.
"The Last Wolf” and “Herman,” two thematically linked novellas from the Man Booker International Prize–winning Hungarian writer Krasznahorkai, may be far shorter than his past masterworks Sátántangó and The Melancholy of Resistance, but they provide a showcase for the density and lucidity that made those works great. “The Last Wolf” is the weightier of the two, concerning a washed-up professor who recounts, in one long sentence addressed to a barman, the story of how, in a case of mistaken identity, he was invited to the Spanish region of Extramadura and offered his choice of subjects to write about by the foundation paying for the trip. He chooses to report on the story of the area’s last wolf pack and unearths a saga of extinction, told by a succession of hunters and wardens, that is by turns comic, absurd, tragic, and harrowingly beautiful. “Herman” is a two-part story beginning with the game warden of the title who, despairing of the bureaucracy and disregard of the human world, abruptly switches sides and begins laying his traps for men instead. And in the bizarre second part, a group of hedonists come to town for a little saturnalia and to contemplate “the dreadful beauty” of existence, only to be swept up in the manhunt for Herman. On their own, both volumes are slender storytelling jewels, but together they are an existential inquiry into the human animal by a unique and ingenious writer.
Despite widespread invocations of the separation of church and state in the United States, “the upper hand very much belongs to the God-affirming, not the God-denying, in American civic life,” according to historian Schmidt (Heaven’s Bride), who persuasively argues that the citizenship of atheists in America has been suspect from the colonial period and remains unresolved to the present day. The book offers biographical sketches of four exemplary “village atheist” types whose uneven fortunes are chronicled in a nuanced exploration of the lived reality of nonbelief in a nation of the faithful. Readers are introduced to Samuel Porter Putnam (1838–1896), a minister who wrestled with faith on his journey to secularism; Watson Heston (1846–1905), a political cartoonist whose anti-religious art enjoyed far more success than its creator; Charles B. Reynolds (1832–1896), whose experience as a revivalist preacher led to fiery notoriety on the secular lecture circuit; and finally Elmina Drake Slenker (1827–1908), whose atheist beliefs combined with her sexual radicalism brought her to the attention of moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Schmidt, a historian of religion, approaches his subject with the confidence of an expert well-grounded in his sources. He’s sensitive to the intersection of secular identity with the politics of race, class, and gender. Framed by a robust introduction and conclusion that provide a pre- and post-history of 19th-century atheism, this well-written and lively text will be of interest to both scholars and more general readers with an interest in American irreligion.
It’s summer vacation for 12-year-old Reuben Pedley, a resident of a rundown neighborhood in New Umbra, a city ruled by a mysterious figure known as the Smoke and his minions, the Directions, who constantly patrol the city. While Reuben’s mother is at work, he spends his days exploring; one afternoon, he finds a leather pouch containing a strange antique watch. In attempting to discover the secret of the watch, Reuben attracts the unwanted attention of the Smoke and the Directions. Reuben teams up with Penny and Jack Meyers, descendants of one of the original owners of the watch and keepers of a dark family secret, to outsmart the Smoke and free New Umbra from his clutches. Stewart (the Mysterious Benedict Society series) has created an exciting, fully imagined world filled with mystery and danger, where children can have real adventures without parental supervision. He doesn’t shy from putting the children in true danger, both physical and moral, keeping readers on tenterhooks until the final page.
Nearly five decades into his career, Spanish author Vila-Matas’s (Bartleby & Co.) wonderful short fiction is collected for the first time in English, with 19 career-spanning tales expertly translated by Costa. These stories swerve in unexpected directions. “Torre Del Mirador” unfolds when a phone call from a desperate stranger leads the call’s recipient to secretly uncover the stranger’s past. “In Search of the Electrifying Double Act” concerns a once-famous actor, now overweight and unemployed, looking for a thin partner to join him in an Abbott-and-Costello-type undertaking, only to accidentally find himself dealing with a dangerous secret society when he approaches the wrong man. “They Say I Should Say Who I Am” begins as a man tries to introduce himself to an unknown audience, and deviates into a funny and detailed story concerning the man and the moment he caused a famous painter to go mad. “An Idle Soul” seems to be a simple morning conversation between a husband and wife until the narrator reveals itself to be the mosquito netting covering the couple’s bed. Vila-Matas fills his fiction with forlorn characters—the title story, for example, follows a depressed, hunchbacked vampire—yet never have so many stories about distressed personalities been so incredibly amusing.