This week: werewolves in the Adirondacks, plus the thrilling story of Apollo 8.
Ahdieh delivers an elaborate fantasy set in feudal Japan, where a resilient young woman defies class conventions and gender roles in a quest for vengeance and autonomy. At 17, Mariko, the perceptive and intellectual daughter of a notable samurai, has been promised to the son of the emperor’s favorite consort. While en route to meet her betrothed, she narrowly survives an assassination attempt, which fuels her determination to unmask those responsible. Disguised as a boy, Mariko infiltrates the Black Clan, soon recognizing that its reclusive members are much more than thieves and murderers. Occasional chapters are told from the perspective of Mariko’s twin brother, Kenshin, a samurai known as the Dragon of Kai, adding complexity to Mariko’s actions and revelations. Ahdieh (The Wrath & the Dawn) is immensely skilled at crafting vibrant settings inhabited by sympathetic characters with rich pasts, and she also treats readers to a slow-burning romance that does not impede Mariko’s independence or goals, illustrating the power of a well-matched pairing. While the final pages provide some closure, readers will enthusiastically anticipate the next installment. Ages 12–up.
The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: Being an Absolutely Accurate Autobiographical Account of My Follies, Fortune, and Fate
With dry wit and a strong Dickensian flavor, this first installment in Avi’s Oliver Cromwell Pitts saga has an 18th-century British boy finding misfortune everywhere he turns. The adventure begins with a flood shaking 12-year-old Oliver awake in his home in Melcombe Regis, “a tenth of a mile from the sea.” Wading through the waterlogged rooms of his three-story house, Oliver discovers that his father is missing. The only clue to Mr. Pitts’s whereabouts is a drenched and almost illegible note that indicates he has rushed off to London to save Oliver’s sister from a disastrous situation. Left behind with no money and an evil man threatening to send him to the poorhouse, Oliver knows his prospects are dim. In the days that follow, they grow even dimmer as he endures a string of captures, risky escapes, and dangerous run-ins with strangers and family members. Every cliffhanger-ending chapter will leave readers on the edge of their seats, wondering how Oliver will manage to survive his latest dilemma. Brimming with fast-paced action, evocative settings, and villains, this book reveals yet another side of Avi’s talent. Ages 8–12.
In bestseller Childs’s scary, atmospheric fifth novel featuring Jeremy Logan, a Yale history professor and investigator of unexplained phenomena (after 2015’s The Forgotten Room), Logan looks for a rational explanation for rumors of werewolves. He has come to Cloudwater, a secluded Adirondacks retreat for creative people, to finish writing a monograph on heresy in the Middle Ages. But his plans are disrupted by a plea for help from an old college friend, forest ranger Randall Jessup. Jessup is worried by the deaths in recent months of two young, fit, highly experienced backpackers, each of whom was torn to pieces during a full moon near the small, isolated town of Pike Hollow. The official line is that the hikers were the victims of a bear, but Jessup doesn’t buy it. Logan agrees to help out and begins his inquiries in Pike Hollow, whose few stores are evocatively described as “pushed up close against the road as if grasping at a life preserver.” Fans of The X-Files will be enthralled.
Dearborn (Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim) revisits one of America's most popular writers with insight and finesse, in this rich, detailed biography of Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). Hemingway came to fame in 1920s Paris amid the fabled community of American expatriates that also included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. His sheer creative energy glowed as he wrote his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, in a little over six weeks. During the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway became a widely read, syndicated correspondent. His well-publicized African safaris and big-game hunting culminated in the celebrated short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Hemingway fired the public imagination, Dearborn shows, becoming a personification and even a caricature of virility for his generation. In 1954, he received the Nobel Prize for literature. Despite the achievements and celebrity, Hemingway led a troubled life complicated by alcohol and three failed marriages, increasingly spinning his wheels and losing his gifts. His 1961 suicide shocked the world. Dearborn speculates at length on what went wrong, attributing Hemingway's collapse to manic depression compounded by brain injuries. Her fluid narrative and careful research contribute to an impressive biography. Hemingway changed our language and the way we think, she asserts. Dearborn's account shines from beginning to end, helped by Hemingway's dramatic life and charismatic personality.
Young women and girls take the measure of themselves in Hadley’s remarkably precise and perceptive collection of short stories, set in the middle-class Britain of the 1950s and ’60s and in the present day. Chance encounters disrupt the punctiliously observed rituals of daily life, often leading to a lifetime of consequence for Hadley’s characters. In the excellent “An Abduction,” Jane Allsop’s first sexual experience, at 15, is not traumatic in any ordinary sense, but affects her deeply—whereas the Oxford student she sleeps with retains no memory of it. In “Experience,” Laura, a new divorcée, finds that “letting go of the strain of yearning” is “a relief,” moving on with her life precisely because her attempt at seduction is unsuccessful. In loving families, too, differing viewpoints can lead to resentment and misunderstanding: “Her Share of Sorrow” is the account of an artist—the awkward 10-year-old daughter of an elegant couple—discovering her vocation in writing; in “Bad Dreams,” a bookish girl plays a prank that may have lasting repercussions for her parents’ marriage. And the young designer making a wedding dress for a classmate in “Silk Brocade” becomes witness to the impact of time and happenstance on even the richest and most beautiful material. In subtly insightful and observant prose, Hadley writes brilliantly of the words and gestures that pass unnoticed “in the intensity of [the] present” but echo without cease.
Hunter’s outstanding 10th Bob Lee Swagger novel (after 2014’s Sniper’s Honor) takes readers back to the gangster days of the 1930s. In the present, Swagger investigates the murky past of his grandfather, Charles, a hard, taciturn man who spent most of his life as the sheriff of Polk County, Ark. Flashbacks reveal that Charles was also a skilled marksman who took a leading role in the Justice Department’s 1934 manhunt for bank robbers John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and, most importantly, the frighteningly violent Les Gillis (aka Baby Face Nelson). The problem for Swagger is the lack of any record of Charles ever working as a G-man, though there’s ample rumor and hearsay that he was deeply immersed in the campaign to hunt down and kill the outlaws. Hunter’s skilled ear for dialogue and idiom has never been better, and some of the action scenes—especially a chapter describing the famous robbery of the Merchants National Bank in South Bend, Ind., on June 30, 1934—are as elegant as they are disturbing.
In spare yet vivid prose, Kluger (with Jim Lovell, coauthor of Apollo 13), senior writer at Time, captures the nostalgia and excitement of a “space-drunk nation” in this gripping account of the first lunar mission. Beginning years before the 1968 launch, the story revolves around Apollo 8’s crew: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. Slated for Apollo 9, they were switched to the first moonshot in an ambitious bid to meet President Kennedy’s timetable. Kluger sets the crew’s personal histories amid the space race, NASA’s early days, and the Gemini 7 program, in which Borman and Lovell orbited Earth in their underwear, eating “lots of fruitcake—packaged like unholy sausage links.” Kluger’s extensive research and relatable analogies show how “the levers of the great American moon machine were being thrown.” Launching a “mass of foil origami” takes a village, and such major players as Chris Kraft as well as the crew’s families are brilliantly sketched. Readers will relish Kluger’s multisensory prose, and the whole gamut of space flight comes alive in the details. Moreover, extensive interviews lend authenticity to the dialogue and character sketches. Kluger’s laudable storytelling novelistically conveys the charged politics of the era while revealing difficult technical concepts.
“All of the stories we tell ourselves are wrong,” says a character in Lennon’s (See You in Paradise) novel, a family drama and murder mystery whose metafictional flourishes bear out the truth of that observation. When Brooklyn artist Karl Jandek moves with his novelist wife, Eleanor, to an upstate home in Broken River, N.Y., to save their failing marriage, they neglect to tell their adolescent daughter, Irina, that the house’s previous owners were brutally murdered on its grounds a decade earlier. Bored with her new home and writing a novel herself, Irina begins poking around the Internet, participating in chat groups devoted to the unsolved crime and posting a photo of Sam Fike, a young woman in town whom she is convinced is really Samantha Geary, the grown daughter of the murdered couple. When the murderers get wind of the renewed interest in their cold case, the stage is set for their violent return to the scene of their crime. Lennon alternates the scenes of his coalescing crime drama with asides involving the Observer, a silent, substanceless embodiment of the all-seeing omniscient narrative viewpoint that is powerless to prevent the snowballing misinterpretations and misunderstandings each character sees from his or her own perspective. The result is a finely tuned tragedy whose well-developed characters are all the more sympathetic for the inexorability of their fates.
Makumbi’s debut novel is a sprawling family chronicle that explores Uganda’s national identity through a brilliant interlacing of history, politics, and myth. In 2004, a man named Kamu Kintu is branded a thief and killed by a vicious crowd. While his body lies unclaimed in the mortuary, we follow Kintu’s lineage back to 1750, when the ambitious Kintu Kidda journeys with his tribe to pay tribute to the new regent of the Kingdom of Buganda, with whom he hopes to gain favor. Instead, he inadvertently causes the death of his own son and awakens a curse that will plague his offspring for generations. There’s Suubi Nnakintu, who takes a taxi bound for the village of her youth, hoping to find the biological father who abandoned her; the Christian convert Kanani Kintu who, with his wife, stakes his place in heaven on Ugandan Independence; precocious Isaac Newton Kintu, whose future depends on the results of an HIV test; and the slain Kamu’s father, Miisi Kintu, a western-educated doctor struggling against both negative stereotypes of Africans abroad and prejudice among his countrymen at home. All of the members of the Kintu bloodline must come together and reckon with the past and their place in their country if they are ever to be free of the curse that claimed Kamu. A masterpiece of cultural memory, Kintu is elegantly poised on the crossroads of tradition and modernity.
Renowned biographer Safranski (Romanticism: A German Affair) offers a learned and arguably definitive account of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). His life of the celebrated author and statesman abounds with stormy love affairs and illustrious friendships, but Safranski minimizes court gossip and personal foibles to focus on Goethe’s ideas and thoughts. Goethe was a charismatic polymath who weathered several life-threatening illnesses, and was a leading figure in Weimar politics; Safranski calls him a “bureaucratic draft horse and a poetic Pegasus.” After his immensely successful first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was published when he was 25, Goethe dominated Europe’s literary culture. His early triumph stoked in him a lifelong sense of his own genius. Goethe intersected with his era’s leading figures, including Mozart, Voltaire, Schiller, and the brash, brilliant Schopenhauer, the student who would be master. After a life-changing journey to Italy, Goethe embraced classical ideals of order that he never abandoned. His interest in the natural sciences and pull toward pantheism, meanwhile, led him to be skeptical of monotheism. His “life as a work of art” culminated in the play Faust, the ultimate tale of worldly ambition. Safranski’s lyrical style, many speculative passages, and abundant details will daunt some casual readers. Scholars will welcome this intellectual biography, richly embellished by primary sources and aided by the strong Dollenmayer translation.
Even minor characters in Turner’s Queen’s Thief saga have fascinating stories to tell, as she proves in this fifth installment, seven years in the making. This volume centers on Kamet, head slave and secretary to the Emperor of Medes’s out-of-favor nephew, who left Attolia when his scheme to seize power failed. Kamet is relieved to be home until he gets word that his master has been poisoned. Before he can process what that means for him (probably death), he is kidnapped by a beefy Attolian guard. (The author’s stock-in-trade includes the suspenseful reveal, so the guard’s name is withheld until the end.) The journey back to Attolia poses challenges, including bounty hunters, slave catchers, bandits, near starvation, rugged terrain, and miserable weather. Kidnapper and victim come to know each other, overturning many of Kamet’s assumptions. As with the previous books, Turner writes with complete authority about her richly imagined landscape. Although this immersive treat is billed as a standalone, those who have read the previous books in the series will get the most from it, as Turner fills out and enriches the expansive canvas on which she stitches her epic tale. Ages 13–up.
Winawer’s debut is a detailed historical novel, a multifaceted mystery, and a moving tale of improbable love. When Beatrice Trovato’s brother suddenly passes away in Italy, she leaves her New York home and demanding work as a neurosurgeon to sort out his affairs and retrieve his research on the Black Death in Siena. What she doesn’t expect is to be pulled into his studies, as she compulsively attempts to complete what he started. Stumbling across fresco painter Gabriele Accorsi, who mysteriously seems to have painted her into his work, she finds herself physically transported across time into the 14th century, just before the plague strike. The vivid descriptions of the people, way of life, food, and other details of medieval Italy deepen the plot, making the book a truly immersive experience. The novel dramatically brings to life a period in Siena’s history that is still overwhelmingly neglected by historians—it is still unclear why Siena was ravaged by the plague in ways unseen in other Italian cities. Winawer has created a prodigious, vibrant tale of past and present that transports readers and fills in the historical gaps. This is a marvelous work of research and invention.