This week: a brilliant espionage novel, and a look at the emotional turmoil veterans endure upon returning home from war.
Carse (The Religious Case Against Belief) makes his impressive fiction debut with a cerebral mystery that combines sophisticated puzzles (linguistic, mathematical, and literary) with a searing indictment of American education and business practices. The death of Oliver Ridley, the newly appointed dean of an unnamed university in upstate New York, is assumed to be a suicide until an emailed puzzle received by faculty and students is deciphered and ominously reads: “The first to go is the most recent of ten.” Jack Lister, the university’s president, appoints rhetorician Professor Carmody to head a commission to help the police identify the so-called Puzzler. A second puzzle arrives a month later. When solved, it reveals both the next victim and the victim’s ugly secret. Neither the police nor Carmody’s committee makes much progress unmasking the Puzzler. When the surprising killer is finally revealed, the choice of victims is fully explained and their sins detailed. Carse, an NYU emeritus professor, writes with wit and great insight into the workings of academe (“Like most academics, they were uncomfortable in the presence of real teachers”).
The Russian-built Bennkah (Russian for Goliath), the world’s largest commercial tanker, is filled with five million barrels of crude and a far more dangerous secret cargo. Early in Corridan and Waid’s riveting first novel, the supertanker catches fire in the southern Bering Sea near the Aleutians, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. The giant ship runs aground on an island, where the flaming hulk becomes officially salvage, leading to a race to claim her between good-guy Capt. Sonny Wade aboard the beat-up Skeleton, based in Dutch Harbor, and the greedy, unprincipled Dan Sharpe, owner of the ultramodern salvager Sharpe-Shooter in Anchorage. Sonny wins the race to the stricken ship, but soon finds a tsunami of troubles as he battles the still-burning fires, a threatening oil leak, his own rambunctious crew, a secret saboteur, and the unpredictable, vicious weather. Dan’s arrival adds to his woes. Fans of nautical adventures will be enthralled—and pleased to know that Corridan and Waid are teeing up another outing for Sonny and his motley crew.
Subhi hangs on his mother’s stories of her life in Burma as a Rohingya, a persecuted ethnic Muslim minority. Subhi’s Maá (mother) and his older sister were among the Rohingya exiled from their homeland and relegated to a detention center in Australia, where he was born. The 10-year-old’s imagination helps him survive in a refugee camp ruled by abusive guards as he watches Maá sink into catatonia and waits in vain for the arrival of his father, an outspoken poet. Australian author Fraillon crafts a harrowing vision of life in the detention center (shoes are rarities, rats and mold are rampant, children race lice for fun), yet Subhi finds solace in sensitively portrayed friendships with a rebellious older boy, a compassionate guard, and an intrepid girl named Jimmie who sneaks into the camp to hear Subhi read stories her late mother recorded in a notebook; though most of the story is told from Subhi’s first-person perspective, several third-person chapters focus on Jimmie’s life outside the camp. While addressing themes of loss, desperation, and injustice in an all-too-relevant setting, Fraillon’s resonant novel underscores the healing power of story.
Comprehensive is a word frequently used to describe meticulous biographies, but it doesn’t manage to evoke the level of detail in the Gelbs’ third book on the life of legendary playwright Eugene O’Neill. In the book, which includes a staggering 74 pages of endnotes, the Gelbs analyze O’Neill’s life from a different standpoint than in O’Neill and O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo: that of his tumultuous relationships with three wives, most notably his third, Carlotta Monterey. Though the authors find time to touch on O’Neill’s second marriage in an extended flashback (a bit confusing, given that the entire book is written in the present tense) and his complex history with his mother, his quarter-century with Carlotta dominates the text—years filled with alcoholic relapses and bitter antagonism. The authors shed new light on one especially terrifying night near the end of O’Neill’s life using previously unpublished diary entries. This is a compelling examination of one of the 20th century’s most passionate and troubled minds, and a prime example of expert, diligent, and wryly editorial biographical research.
Kay’s new book is a brilliant spy novel charged with existential dread. In 1981, as the Cold War sputters on and IRA bombs explode, Stephen Spencer is a listener for the Institute, a subsection of British Intelligence. He spends his days listening to taped conversations of peripheral enemies of the state. One day, he is given a new assignment: to listen to the domestic tapes of Phoenix, an Institute member who might also be a traitor. And as he begins his aural surveillance, Stephen, who leads a lonely existence, soon becomes obsessed with Phoenix’s unseen wife, Helen, imagining her life, and what his life could be like if they were together. He becomes a secret sharer in all the intimate details of her marriage. In order to keep the surveillance going, Stephen puts himself at great risk. He even goes so far as to stalk Helen and visit the apartment building in which she and Phoenix reside. At the same time, he becomes friendly with a mysterious foreigner named Alberic, who figures prominently in Stephen’s last-ditch attempt to meet Helen. Kay (The Translation of Bones) does an excellent job of portraying Stephen’s inner life and his descent into obsession. She also does well at delineating the covert society of Stephen and his fellow listeners. Filled with witty period references to Brideshead Revisited, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Another Country, this is a haunting work of espionage fiction.
In her astounding debut, Kelly, winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Prize, catalogs creatures familiar and mythical as she turns monsters into recognizable portraits of humankind . The poems employ language that sinks its teeth in at vulnerable moments, easily piercing the tenderest spots: “Freedom is a thread of light snaking/ the canyon like an ant through a conch.” Despite the collection’s eponymous grounding theme, Kelly doesn’t strictly use mythology to teach a moral lesson. She sets the tone with “Catalogue,” outlining with care the anxiety and excitement of growing up: “You grow. You are large./ You are a 19th century poem./ All of America is inside you.” Poems such as “Fourth Grade Autobiography” explore childhood memories with precision and clarity. Kelly’s speaker recalls flashes of neighborhood parties at a time when youthful innocence starts to crack. “My favorite things are cartwheels, salted plums,/ and playing catch with my dad,” she writes. “I am afraid/ of riots and falling and the dark.” The compact scenes of the poem “How to Be Alone” burn like a hot knife to an open wound; the speaker’s loneliness becomes armor in the wake of her mother’s death and father’s violent transgressions. Kelly’s creatures howl and whimper as she imparts emotional truths: “Love,/ I pound the Earth for you. I pound the Earth.”
The five stories in Lawson’s superb debut collection explore youth in extremis, through voices at once elegant in their phrasing and unrestrained in their emotion. In the title story, a young husband suspects his emotionally unavailable wife of infidelity, only to find himself tempted by the same at a society party. “The Way You Must Play Always” recalls the power dynamics of Carson McCullers’s “Wunderkind,” detailing a teenage piano student’s infatuation with her instructor’s sickly homebound brother. “Three Friends in a Hammock” measures the growing interpersonal distances among three longtime friends who reunite at a birthday party. A boy wrestles with his mother’s complicated relationship with a recently deceased transgender woman in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” and, in the collection’s longest and most freewheeling story, “Vulnerability,” a talented painter contemplates and eventually consummates an affair with a peculiar but charming art dealer. The precision of Lawson’s prose brilliantly contrasts with the messy inner lives of her characters. These are stories that dare to tread where they shouldn’t, on uncertain ground that feels, in the hands of this talented young writer, remarkably concrete.
Thanks to family connections, a recent graduate from college gets a position as the personal assistant of a mid-ranking film director. The job description includes script correction, entertaining guests, and keeping company with the director’s mentally abused wife. The novel takes off when the director asks the assistant to embark on a murky investigation to find out whether some ugly rumors about one of his friends are true. The research takes the young man through the last phases of his coming-of-age as he discovers that the liberties his generation enjoys are based on an agreement of silence between the winners and losers of the Spanish Civil War. This agreement translated into a humiliator/humiliated relationship during the unbearable 36 years of Franco’s fundamentalist regime. The director’s household—his miserable marriage, which can’t be dissolved, and the court of literati and celebrities who make up his regular entourage—becomes a metaphor of the bigger house of Spain and the decisions taken by the political and cultural elites to rush into an open society, skipping all effort to bring any closure to past wounds. Marías's storytelling has evolved into a more reflexive, denser, meditative voice. Thus Bad Begins is a novel, of course, but it could be perfectly read, too, as a beautiful, savage essay on hypocrisy.
Miller (It’s Not Rocket Science), an English comedian and science writer, celebrates the human fascination with the search for extraterrestrial life and grounds it with equally fascinating science. The place to start studying aliens, Miller assures readers, is right here on Earth. Extremophiles—microorganisms that live in seemingly inimical environments such as inside rocks around deep-sea volcanic vents or frigid Antarctic lakes—show that life is “tenacious, commonplace, and infinitely adaptable.” Such strange life forms might even be as nearby as the icy oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa or the methane slush on Saturn’s moon Titan. Miller covers a lot of ground with humor and insight, addressing how scientists define life and how it evolved on Earth, and offering a short history of UFO sightings and scientists’ continued search for life-bearing exoplanets and signals from alien civilizations. Miller’s book is a lively and accessible blend of pop culture and science in which a Dire Straits encore explains the Drake Equation, the platypus introduces evolution, the second law of thermodynamics gets a workout, and readers meet Mazlan Othman, the UN’s official ambassador for Earth. Pop science readers will have fun with this energetic look at the hunt for alien life.
Brimming with exquisite detail and clever humor, PEN/Faulkner winner Murray’s wondrously written historical novel ferries a vivid cast of characters across continents and decades, from the sweltering jungles of 19th-century Africa to cosmopolitan Paris in the wake of World War I. Here the close-knit avatars of history are Roger Casement, an Irish revolutionary, and Herbert Ward, a former circus performer turned devoted husband and father. Early chapters follow the two friends into cannibalistic villages and Manhattan’s earliest gay bars, along the Continental Railroad and speaking tours of the West Coast, eventually to Ward’s marriage to Sarita Sanford, a headstrong Argentinian-American heiress. The cracks in the central friendship fissure at the advent of the Great War, with Ward fighting alongside his son for England, Casement lending his talents to the Germans, who promise to free Ireland from British control. As in Tales of the New World and The Caprices, the author maintains an impressive balance of historical accuracy and dramatic momentum, crafting a stellar fiction that shows how the grand course of history can be shaped by the smallest disagreements between friends.
Nao’s (The Old Philosopher) probing, wrenching novel follows a married couple after the deaths of their two children. Two years following the deaths, husband Ethos and wife Catholic have drifted apart: Catholic is sleeping with the couple’s neighbor, Callisto; Ethos has left his job as a school principal and spends his days wandering around their seaside New England home and trying to mend their marriage. The couple’s searching and sometimes troubled psychological states manifest themselves in strange ways: Ethos builds small coffins and buries dead jellyfish; Catholic fashions outfits for their two fish (“I am behaving so strangely. I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches”). Midway through, Ethos’s mother, Charleen, visits them with her own troubled baggage. The novel’s language can become too abstract, but Nao skillfully grounds the story through mundane objects (Ethos methodically constructs aquariums for their fish, while Catholic at one point imagines deconstructing a bike into its individual parts), and direct, often funny dialogue: one particularly memorable exchange occurs when a boy asks Catholic why all their pictures are hung backward, and she replies they’re in time-out for capturing too much. The result is a novel that forges a new vocabulary for the routine of grief, as well as the process of healing.
In this inventive and arrestingly funny debut, Roveto unequivocally makes the familiar strange as she places human bodies in a seemingly endless array of contexts to produce striking and even disturbing juxtapositions. She proves to be a master of the overlay. In these untitled prose poems, Roveto presents familiar settings or propositions—such as going on a date, using a computer, or lying on a hospital bed—that she then double exposes in the manner of a photograph: “It began as they moved into the ward, moved out of the would. He made a sound with her, balling up a cheese, putting their bodies into an incredible organization of one lump.” Roveto takes a democratic stance on which body parts and images deserve attention, and unexpected intrusions of the bizarre help shape a surreal and emotionally charged space where eating, sex, and even surgical dissection can overlap. “I wear my buckle to the side so that no one looks at my crotch, she chained to me. I looked at her crotch,” Roveto writes. She delivers jolts of sexually electric language and apt critiques of social media: “Connection had grown into a dumb incest television.” Through imaginative poems linked by voice and theme, Roveto takes the spectacle of modern consumption and flips it all upside-down.
Erhard, the 60ish hero of Rydahl’s brilliant, scathing debut, which won the Glass Key Award in 2015 for best Nordic crime novel, is a down-at-heels expatriate Danish cabbie and sometime piano tuner. This “old man with tired eyes” has lived in a shack on Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands, with only two skittish goats for company for about 20 years. He sends much of his meager earnings to his ex-wife and daughters in Denmark, drinks too much, and occasionally scavenges dumpsters for food. When a three-month-old baby boy is found starved to death in a cardboard box in a car that washes up on the beach, Erhard is outraged. With virtually no resources, lacking a computer and the savvy to use one, but drawing on his own wits and calling in a multitude of favors, Erhard doggedly traces the dead baby’s mother and uncovers a complex smuggling scheme. Stunningly conceived and expertly executed, this portrayal of one man’s thirst for justice in the face of human corruption proves that not even a self-isolated hermit can be an island unto himself.
Wood, a longtime war correspondent, takes on the monumental task of conveying to civilians the emotional turmoil veterans endure upon returning home from war. Post-traumatic stress disorder tends to dominate headlines, but Wood focuses upon “moral injury”: the deep-rooted psychic trauma that grips people when they believe they have violated the profound taboo of killing another human. Though the book touches on other conflicts, including soldiers’ responses to discovering concentration camp survivors during WWII, this is primarily a powerful and gut-wrenching look at the 21st-century Americans who have faced multiple deployments in Afghanistan. Even as drill sergeants train soldiers in the dark arts of killing and surviving encounters with the enemy, the American military barely acknowledges the long-term repercussions. Wood probes how soldiers learn to cope with—or fail to recover from—these debilitating experiences and reveals how a few stalwart medical professionals help them deal with the types of profound pain that leave no visible scars. He also covers the work of chaplains tending to spiritually wounded veterans and grapples with the experiences of soldiers who have been sexually assaulted by comrades-in-arms. Wood delivers searing, elegantly told reportage on a little-understood and long-ignored facet of war.
Is it fate or chance that brings people together? This is the question posed in this impressively multilayered tale of a one-day romance featuring practical Natasha, whose family is facing deportation to Jamaica, and Daniel, a first-generation Korean American with a poet’s sensibility. The teens’ eventful day begins at a New York City record store, where they see someone shoplifting. It’s the first of many significant moments that occur as Natasha desperately seeks aid to stay in America and Daniel prepares for a college interview with a Yale alum. Drawn together, separated, and converging again, both teens recognize with startling clarity that they are falling in love. With a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of every character she introduces, Yoon (Everything, Everything) weaves an intricate web of threads connecting strangers as she delves into the personal histories of her protagonists, as well as the emotions and conflicts of others who cross their paths. A moving and suspenseful portrayal of a fleeting relationship.