This week: the Man Booker—shortlisted novel "His Bloody Project," plus an escape under the Berlin Wall.
In this stellar mystery from Beaufrand (The Rise and Fall of the Gallivanters), 17-year-old quintuplets investigate a death on Whidbey Island in Washington State. Marilyn Monroe “Pixie” Gray has a reputation for finding things (including missing people) with the help of her bloodhound, Patience, and her rough-and-tumble brothers, Dean, Lawford, Sammy, and Frank, all named after members of the Rat Pack. When 10-year-old Grant, the younger brother of Pixie’s friend Henry Shepherd, disappears, Grant’s millionaire father is frantic; Pixie’s discovery of a body kicks off a dangerous series of events with consequences for both families. The narrative alternates between the perspectives of Pixie and Henry, highlighting Pixie’s sly sense of humor, as well as her love for her family and their beloved island home; Henry, meanwhile, harbors a dark childhood secret that may come to the surface. Short in length but long on atmosphere, it’s a gripping mystery with a supernatural overlay that makes its setting all the more haunting. But it’s the irresistible Gray quints, subject to their own rumors and local mythos, who steal the show.
Burnet’s fascinating second novel (after The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau), which has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, purports to be an account of the celebrated case of Roderick Macrae, a 17-year-old crofter who was indicted for three brutal murders carried out in his native village of Culduie in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. The documents mentioned in the subtitle include statements from his neighbors; an account written by Roderick while awaiting trial; extracts from the delightfully titled Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy by J. Bruce Thomson, “a man of science” in the field of criminal anthropology; and coverage of the trial gleaned from newspaper accounts and transcripts. The Rashomon-like shifting of perspectives adds depth to the characters and gives readers the pleasure of repeatedly reinterpreting events. Although Burnet paints a disturbing picture of the hopelessness and hardships of tenant farmers, as well as providing an eye-opening introduction to the fallibility of so-called expert witnesses, this is not a bleak book. Rather, it is sly, poignant, gritty, thought-provoking, and sprinkled with wit.
The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., is primarily remembered for being the site of President William McKinley’s assassination by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, but there were many other notable moments during its five-month existence. In this engrossing study, Creighton (Colors of Courage), a professor of history at Bates College, chronicles the ups and downs of the colorful, fanciful, beleaguered fair, showing how it reflected the changing attitudes, social dynamics, cultural conflicts, and technological advances of the early 20th century. “They staged a spectacle of development,” he writes, “where, at every turn, they taught fairgoers about which sort of humans had advanced, and which had not.” It’s easy to read the story presented and see racism, sexism, and American-centric arrogance as defining that era, but Creighton skillfully maintains objectivity, showing the good and the bad, the fair’s pageantry as well as its seedy underbelly. Creighton sheds light on McKinley’s assassination, the midway’s tawdry animal acts, stunts involving barrels over Niagara Falls, and the Exposition’s final moments, skillfully depicting the “Rainbow City” where “the rich and powerful, the poor and the desperate, the human and the animal, and the natural world, in all its fragile fury, met in dynamic alchemy.”
Dombrowski (Earth Again), a poet and fly-fishing guide, pays a lyrical, genre-defying tribute to the angling legend largely responsible for popularizing the cultish sport of bonefishing: David Pinder Sr., “the head guide and cornerstone of one of the world’s most fabled sporting lodges.” In the throes of depression and financial hardship, Dombrowski accepts a friend’s invitation for an all-inclusive fishing expedition to Grand Bahama Island. He has little idea just how revelatory his journey will prove. Encountering local fishermen and stunning seascapes, as well as embarking on quests for the elusive bonefish—whose lightning speed and uncanny talent for camouflage have earned it the nickname “gray ghost”—Dombrowski gleans many lessons about ecology, economy, and the relationship between the two. Some are cautionary: decades of fishing have severely damaged Pinder’s eyesight, for example, and commercial overdevelopment has led to grave habitat loss for the bonefish and other local species. Yet there is also much to celebrate, including Pinder’s virtuosity with a fly rod and the “philosophical foundation” a life of fishing can provide. Drawing on Caribbean history and the evolution of fly-fishing, and interweaving Pinder’s miraculous memories with his own redemptive story, Dombrowski’s foray into nonfiction proves as thematically complex, finely wrought, and profoundly life-affirming as his poetry.
Ellis’s (Home) bewitching creation stars a lively company of insects who speak a language unrelated to English, and working out what they are saying is one of the story’s delights. In the first spread, two slender, elegantly winged creatures stand over a green shoot. “Du iz tak?” says the first, pointing. The other puts a hand to its mouth in puzzlement. “Ma nazoot,” it says. The insects marvel at the plant as it grows, build a fort in it (complete with pirate flag), exclaim as it produces a spectacular flower (“Unk scrivadelly gladdenboot!”), then disappear one by one, like actors exiting the stage. Observant readers will notice other changes over the course of the seasons: a fabulously hairy caterpillar spins a cocoon on a dead log, the log opens to reveal a cozy dwelling, and what looks like a twig atop the log is not a twig at all. Ellis renders the insects with exquisite, baroque precision, outfitting them with hats, eyeglasses, and tweed jackets; in a romantic interlude one serenades another with a violin. Generous expanses of cream-colored empty space emphasize the smallness and fragility of these living beings, who move busily along the forest floor at the bottom edge of the pages. Very gently, Ellis suggests that humans have no idea what wonders are unfolding at their feet—and that what takes place in the lives of insects is not so different from their own. Has there ever been anything quite like it? Ma nazoot.
Romance, social bonding, and self-definition are readily available for the price of a Victrola cylinder, record, CD, or iTunes download, posits music critic Hajdu in this illuminating, idiosyncratic history of pop music. Hajdu (Positively Fourth Street) goes back to Tin Pan Alley sheet-music hits, then forward through jazz and swing, Elvis and rock, disco, rap, and electronica, along with many quirky detours down forgotten byroads. (Singing movie cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, he contends, held a profound sway over later country-western innovators such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.) There’s a modicum of influence-tracing here to explain the evolution of pop styles, leavened with the author’s colorful reminiscences of stars he has interviewed and his presence at the birth of the 1970s New York punk scene at CBGB. But Hajdu is more interested in how changes in music and musical technology affect listeners—the transistor radio, he writes in a tour de force section, turned listening to music into a solitary, ruminative pursuit rather than a social pastime—and how songs shape teens’ memories and tribal mores. Writing in graceful prose, Hajdu nicely balances brisk historical narrative, shrewd cultural analysis, and opinionated personal reflection in an absorbing account of shifting musical landscapes.
Ide successfully makes his detective’s brilliance plausible in this gripping and moving debut, which makes effective use of flashbacks. Isaiah Quintabe, whose reasoning scores on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test are near genius levels, has his life upended while in high school in East Long Beach, Calif. His beloved older brother and surrogate parent, Marcus, is killed by a hit-and-run driver, a tragedy that Isaiah witnesses firsthand. Isaiah, who becomes known by his initials because of his intellect, devotes himself to trying to identify the man who killed Marcus. With money running short, Isaiah takes in an unlikely roommate, schoolmate Juanell Dodson, who leads him into a life of crime. Eventually, Isaiah finds his calling on the right side of the law. He develops a reputation as an expert problem solver and takes on a high-profile assignment, to identify the person who ordered an unusual hit on Calvin Wright, the rapper known as Black the Knife.
At the start of this terrific novel of suspense from Lasdun (Seven Lies), Matthew, an unemployed chef, and his cousin Charlie, a successful Wall Streeter, drive from New York City to Charlie’s vacation house in the Catskills. Charlie has invited Matthew, who’s almost like a brother, to spend the summer with him and his wife, Chloe. Matthew believes that the summer will be restorative, but the pastoral retreat is anything but as the gap in social status between him and Charlie becomes more pronounced. The tension rises when Matthew, essentially a private chef for the couple, begins to suspect Chloe of infidelity. The verboten topics of class and money hover over this literate tale of love, jealousy, and revenge. As one character notes, money is “inextricably linked to the one source of guilt and shame... the sense that you’ve stolen another person’s labor.” An undercurrent of menace and threat finally erupts, and Lasdun presents the inexorable turnings of fate in a subtle and disconcerting way.
Created as part of 14–18 Now, a U.K. arts program commemorating the centenary of WWI, McKean’s (Cages) latest illuminates the life and work of British artist Paul Nash. Nash’s paintings as an official War Office artist on the frontlines of France are savage, bleak, and angry, and his letters and diaries spotlight his frustration and fury at the bureaucracy and waste of war. The pictorial journey into Nash’s mind and experiences is tailor-made for McKean’s expressive work: a dark, surreal vision that depicts intense revulsion rather than merely representing Nash’s nightmarish landscapes literally. McKean’s escalating pace, vivid and grotesque caricatures, and skillful panel placement fuse into a macabre history. One especially masterly passage covers Nash’s boat departure from England for Ypres, Belgium, the scene of some of the most intense battles of WWI. Hazy black shadows of soldiers, sailors, and ships rise against a dark, sickly green-brown sea and sky. Beautifully produced and immensely affecting, McKean’s art illuminates a dreadful era and its tortured chronicler.
Journalist Mitchell (Atomic Cover-Up) illuminates a half-forgotten but nasty episode in the annals of Cold War history. In August 1961, infuriated by the exodus of its citizens, Soviet-backed East Germany built a 96-mile-long barrier around West Berlin. In response, Berliners, mostly students and ordinary workers, set to work tunneling underneath. Local American TV journalists loved the idea, paying tunnelers who needed money for supplies and sending cameramen. Warning that the stories would poison Soviet-American relations, the Kennedy administration pressured CBS to drop its planned coverage. NBC persisted, however, and Mitchell delivers a gripping, blow-by-blow account of one grueling dig and dramatic rescue of 29 East Germans, all caught on film. Despite the intense appeals from the Kennedy administration, which soft- pedaled the suppression of free speech in favor of deploring “checkbook journalism,” an Emmy Award–winning documentary eventually appeared. NBC had gotten lucky. Most of the tunnels failed as a result of ubiquitous East German informers and technical difficulties. More East Germans were caught and imprisoned than escaped, and by 1970 the practice of tunneling died out. Mitchell’s tense, fascinating account reveals how the U.S. undermined a freedom struggle for the sake of diplomacy.
Farmer and shepherd Rebanks (The Shepherd’s Life) returns readers to the enduring traditions and daunting landscapes of England’s Lake District, this time with a special emphasis on sight. A torrent of images, bare journal entries, and essayistic vignettes creates constant vistas of this place and its people. Readers follow Rebanks through memories of buying tups (rams), mastering the shepherding dialect, and learning about composition and light in photography from the paintings of Bruegel, Constable, Van Gogh, and Turner. Rebanks provides glimpses in photos and words of sheep sales and shepherd meets, the landscape’s rarely depicted harshness, the shepherds’ baking competition, and the Lake District’s inhabitants—their wisdom, clothes, and “wild kids.” These photos demonstrate how the lifestyle and landscape shape people, how birds and shepherds cherish their freedom, and how pausing to gaze might unlock some crucial discovery. Rebanks invites readers to share his views, guided by his refreshing mischief, a seasoned respect for the place and people who shepherd, and a measured, genuine fondness for this life.
By placing stunning scientific advances into historical context, this engaging biography of Nobel Prize–winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) captures the life and times of one of the 20th century’s most creative and hard-working scientists. Husband-and-wife authors Segrè (Ordinary Geniuses), emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Hoerlin (Steps of Courage), a former Philadelphia health commissioner, quickly construct a captivating image of Fermi, addressing such elements as his love of hands-on work and his long friendship with fellow student and practical joker Franco Rasetti. Drawn to theoretical physics, Fermi helped advance quantum mechanics from mathematical abstraction to experiment, yielding a clearer picture of the atom and explaining beta decay—the Nobel-winning work that laid the foundations for nuclear physics and the modern device-dependent world. The authors describe how Fermi and Laura, his Jewish wife, sought refuge from European fascism and anti-Semitism in the U.S., where Fermi’s efforts produced the first nuclear chain reaction and fueled the Manhattan Project. Segrè and Hoerlin draw an engaging portrait of a man with boundless curiosity who delighted in his work; fans of pop science and history will thoroughly enjoy this entertaining and accessible biography of a scientist who deserves to be better understood.
In this refreshing departure from Smith’s popular international thrillers, the 15th novel from this two-time Hammett Award–winner (Gorky Park) is a clever, well-crafted, and exciting blend of WWII romance, suspense, and intrigue. Set in Nazi-occupied Venice, Italy, in 1945, just weeks before Germany’s surrender to the Allies, Cenzo the fisherman finds a young woman floating in the lagoon. He rescues her and kills a German officer to protect her. Eighteen-year-old Giulia is the sole surviving daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, now sought by the Germans, Fascists, and partisans because she can identify the traitor who betrayed her family. Cenzo is a simple fisherman, a veteran of Mussolini’s war in Ethiopia, and wants nothing to do with this war. He feels obligated to help Giulia escape her pursuers but must rely on people he cannot trust, especially his older brother, Giorgio, a handsome Italian movie star and Fascist collaborator, as well as a Nazi colonel with a curious interest in Giulia’s family. As Cenzo and Giulia wind their way through a maze of deceit, danger, and betrayal, they fall in love amid the turmoil of German retreat, Fascist brutality, and partisan reprisal. Capture, escape, a hoard of stolen gold, a forger, and a Swiss movie producer add action and passion to the novel’s unexpected plot twists, and its most satisfying conclusion.