This week: David Sedaris's diaries, plus the complete Jack Reacher stories.
Since the start of the Civil War, Mariah has dreamed of a Yankee victory that will grant her and her fellow enslaved men, women, and children their freedom. After Union soldiers show up to loot her Georgia plantation in November 1864, she, her younger brother Zeke, and many others join the 14th Army Corps of the left wing of General Sherman’s army as it marches through Georgia. When a kind black man named Caleb invites her and Zeke to ride in his wagon, Mariah—generous hearted herself—accepts, bringing along a traumatized woman who cannot care for herself. The attraction between Caleb and Mariah is allowed to grow slowly and quietly, expressed only in each one’s thoughts, over 12 days on the march. Readers learn, along with Mariah, about the war through Caleb’s stories; the close-knit ties among the formerly enslaved members of the company are depicted through their experiences on the march, while the trials of their daily lives are revealed through Mariah’s mostly silent memories. Bolden (Capital Days) bravely concludes this concise, moving story with a historically accurate and horrifying ending. Ages 13–up.
Bestseller Child’s captivating collection includes 12 stories, some of novella length, which cover a lot of Jack Reacher’s life, before, during, and after his military career. In “Too Much Time,” the one tale not previously published, Reacher witnesses a robbery and deftly halts the thief in small-town Maine. The authorities want a statement, but soon Reacher’s charged with “felonious involvement”—a classic Child mash-up of deduction and action. In “Second Son,” set in 1974 in Guam, where the Reacher family has just been posted, 13-year-old Jack already knows how to deal with bullies and demonstrates his nascent investigative gifts. In “High Heat,” set on the night of the 1977 New York City blackout, teenage Reacher has a date, helps the FBI make a case against a mob boss/drug lord, and provides clues to the identity of serial killer Son of Sam. Though Child (Night School) is at his best in the longer entries, this volume demonstrates what his fans already know: he’s a born storyteller and an astute observer.
Desi Lee, 17, is a smart, ambitious, and athletic Korean-American girl headed toward becoming valedictorian, then to Stanford to study premed. Desi excels at pretty much everything she puts her mind to—except landing a boyfriend. Her best friends, Fiona and Wes, have coined a phrase to describe Desi’s haplessness: “Flirt + failure = flailure.” But when Luca Drakos, 17, shows up at school, Desi turns to the serialized Korean TV shows (“K dramas”) that her father is forever watching. Taking notes on the series’ romantic formulas, Desi creates a blueprint to winning Luca’s heart, with steps that include “Find Out the Guy’s Big Secret, Preferably Through Excruciatingly Repetitive Flashbacks” and “Reveal Your Vulnerabilities in a Heartbreaking Manner.” Desi’s plan launches her down a path that’s as cringe inducing as it is hilarious. The art-centric romance that develops between Desi and Luca is rewarding to follow, as are their parental relationships, particularly that between Desi and her widowed Appa. Goo (Since You Asked...) simultaneously honors and deconstructs romantic tropes, both in general and specific to K dramas, and does so using a wonderfully diverse cast. Ages 14–up.
Former ER nurse Amelia Winn, the gutsy narrator of this moving thriller from Edgar-finalist Gudenkauf (Missing Pieces), is struggling to rebuild her life in rural Iowa, digitizing patient files in her new clerical job at the area’s largest cancer clinic, two years after an unsolved hit-and-run destroyed her hearing. Then, while paddle boarding along the deserted Five Mines River not far from her isolated cabin, Amelia and her service dog, Stitch, discover the strangled corpse of a woman: nurse Gwen Locke, a colleague of Amelia’s who was once a good friend. When Amelia’s dramatic 911 call airs, she becomes a potential sitting duck for a killer concerned about just how much she may have seen. Although friend since childhood Det. Jake Schroeder urges her to leave the investigating to pros, she can’t resist any more than she can stop delving into anomalies in patient files. As increasingly frightening events menace the heart-tuggingly vulnerable Amelia and her fiercely loyal four-legged protector, Gudenkauf maximizes tension all the way through the literally cliff-hanging finale.
The ominous opening sentence, “I met the man who would save my life twice—and ultimately destroy it—on a potholed road in the arse-end of the Welsh countryside,” sets the stage perfectly for South African author Lotz’s outstanding thriller. The haunted speaker is Simon Newman, who fractured his skull in a climbing accident and now works as a barista. Simon seeks to add more adventure to his life by cofounding a new website, Journey to the Dark Side, which features spooky and scary images and videos. His search for unique content takes him to the wilds of Wales so he can enter the Cwm Pot cave system, where three previous explorers have met their deaths. His perilous exploit, aided by a possibly unbalanced guide, proves to be just the prologue to an attempt to scale Mount Everest, where other bodies await exploitation for profit. Lotz (Day Four) excels at making you feel like you’re there and her flawed lead sympathetic. Fans of Dan Simmons’s The Terror will be pleased.
Maum’s trenchant satirical novel is about the intersection of modern technology and human interaction. Sloane Jacobsen, a highly influential trend forecaster who predicted the “swipe,” moves from Paris to Manhattan for a six-month collaboration with tech company Mammoth. Accompanying her is long-term life partner Roman Bellard, a Frenchman and Zentai-wearing intellectual obsessed with “sensuality in the digital age.” Sloane’s outspoken views on childbearing as ecoterrorism dovetail with her Mammoth assignment to guide product creation for the intentionally childless. Soon, though, she concludes that the next trend will be a return to intimacy and interpersonal, in-person interaction, so when Roman publishes a New York Times op-ed advocating virtual sex over real sex, she kicks him out. Meanwhile, her attempts at reconnecting with her estranged family are not going well, and a company designer attracted to Sloane challenges her to redefine herself. Maum (I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You), who also names products for MAC Cosmetics, has such a incisive grasp of where tech and culture meet that she could add sociologist to her resume. The book also captures the mid-life crisis of a woman at the top of her game, resulting in a perceptive, thought-provoking read.
In this deeply felt and well-supported argument for avians’ value to humankind, science writer Robbins (The Man Who Planted Trees) hits the full trifecta for engrossing and satisfying nature writing. He displays a personal involvement with and “soul-stirring wonder” about his subject, a fondness for the sometimes-obsessed researchers who dive deeply into specifics of anatomy and behavior, and a smooth and engaging writing style through which he conveys a huge amount of factual information while keeping his narrative flowing. Robbins credits birds with helping researchers to better understand flight, metacognition, and the process of learning. Through birds we’ve learned more about the history of dinosaurs and ecological equilibrium (birds act as ecological sentinels). Birds provide humans with meat, feathers, and guano. And humans have long been simply enchanted by birdsong. Robbins keeps his focus as much on field laboratories and urban areas as on wild nature, and he values the insights of indigenous peoples gleaned in the field of ethno-ornithology. The world “is fantastically rich and alive with meaning,” Robbins reminds readers, offering correctives to “our inability to sense it” as well as pointers on where to look.
This American Life and New Yorker humorist Sedaris (Naked) displays the raw material for his celebrated essays with these scintillating excerpts from his personal journals. Sedaris collects entries stretching back to his penniless salad days working odd jobs (apple picker, construction worker, house cleaner, a now-famous stint as a Christmas elf), hanging out at the International House of Pancakes and wrestling half-heartedly with drink and drugs. He moves on to his breakthrough as a memoirist and playwright and then to later embroilments and obsessions, including a fixation on feeding flies to pet spiders. Here as elsewhere, Sedaris is a latter-day Charlie Chaplin: droll, put-upon but not innocent, and besieged by all sorts of obstreperous or menacing folks. The frequent appearance of colorful weirdos spouting pithy dialogue may strike some readers as unlikely to be entirely true. But Sedaris’s storytelling, even in diary jottings, is so consistently well-crafted and hilarious that few will care whether it’s embroidered.
Jinny is the oldest of nine orphans living on an idyllic island. New children are delivered to the island by a mysterious boat, and whenever one arrives, the eldest on the island takes the arrival’s place aboard the vessel to leave the only home he or she has ever known, with no knowledge of what the future holds. It’s Jinny’s responsibility, as the elder, to care for the newly arrived Ess, despite the fact that Jinny is heartbroken over losing the previous elder, Deen, her best friend. As Jinny teaches Ess to contribute and uphold the cryptic rules that promise chaos if broken, she begins to question the unexplained dictates, opting to take charge of her actions and destiny. Through the precocious Jinny, Snyder (Seven Stories Up) delivers a contemplative commentary on the transition from childhood to adolescence, and from ignorance to awareness. Although the children’s ages are unspecified, the eldest islander is on the cusp of adolescence, beginning to yearn for more than the small island can provide, even while dreading to leave the comfort and stability it provides. The dissonance Jinny feels is universal, and Snyder’s skillful storytelling and lyrical writing heighten its impact. Ages 8–12.
In this tender and disturbing hybrid of memoir and biography, former heavyweight boxing champion Tyson examines one of the most unusual characters in boxing history. The story begins in 1979 with boxing trainer Cus D’Amato watching Tyson, then a 13-year-old gangster, batter a former pro in a sparring session. At the time, it had been over 20 years since D’Amato guided Floyd Patterson to a title and almost as long since his exile to pugilistic Siberia (aka upstate New York). The resentful street kid’s rage and power reinvigorated D’Amato, and seven years later he helped Tyson become the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history. Tyson’s narrative alternates between recollections of his discipleship with D’Amato and narration of the manager’s earlier years, including his upbringing in the Bronx and his battles with the Mafia, which controlled boxing in the decades after WWII. D’Amato, a brilliant autodidact whose training methods incorporated Zen, hypnotism, and the psychoanalytic practices of Wilhelm Reich, had forged other champions before Tyson, only to lose them through an odd mixture of paranoia and principle. This book is no hagiography, and descriptions of D’Amato’s brutal psychological manipulation of damaged teenagers like Tyson makes for unpleasant reading. As hypercritical and manipulative as D’Amato could be, he nevertheless drew remarkable accomplishments from boys others had forgotten. Tyson’s love for D’Amato is more than apparent, but it doesn’t lead him to downplay his teacher’s myriad faults.