This week: new books from Roxane Gay, Teju Cole, and more.
Anderson (The Vanishing Season) interweaves the stories of three tenacious young women in this sprawling saga. In 2065, orphan Adri Ortiz has been accepted into a prestigious Mars colony program, where she will work to create a livable extraterrestrial world. In the weeks before relocation, she is set up to live with a long-lost relative, a lively and opinionated centenarian in Kansas. After discovering a cryptic postcard that dates back to the 1920s, Adri is drawn into a mystery involving an ancient tortoise—still alive and well—and a mystery woman. In 1934, Catherine Goodspeed finds the same postcard among her mother’s possessions; Catherine’s journal recounts her worries about the discovery, her younger sister’s declining health, and the dust storms raging around her. And in 1919 England, Lenore Allstock writes letters to her estranged childhood friend as she mourns the death of her brother during WWI. Each character’s resilience and independence shines brightly, creating a thread that ties them together even before the intersections of their lives are fully revealed. Anderson’s piercing prose ensures that these remarkable women will leave a lasting mark on readers. Ages 14–up.
Each of the 11 collaborative tales in this stellar sequel to the International Thriller Writers’ anthology FaceOff (2014) pairs a top-rank female thriller writer with a male counterpart. Sandra Brown’s Lee Coburn and C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett send testosterone levels soaring in “Honor &...”. British authors Val McDermid (known for Det. Chief Insp. Carol Jordan) and Peter James (Det. Supt. Roy Grace) match witticisms as they seek a foot fetishist criminal in “Footloose.” Child’s Jack Reacher’s past and Kathy Reich’s forensic expert Dr. Temperance Brennan’s present bring the two together in “Faking a Murderer.” In “Midnight Flame,” Lara Adrian’s vampire Lucan Thorne and Christopher Rice’s Lilliane meet in New Orleans in an adventure that threatens both their paranormal tribes. Other notable pairings include Diana Gabaldon (Jamie Fraser) and Steve Berry (Cotton Malone), Lisa Jackson (Regan Pescoli) and John Sandford (Virgil Flowers), and Gayle Lynds (Liz Sansborough) and David Morrell (Rambo). Child provides a brief, cogent intro to each selection. Highly recommended as entertainment, this anthology is a great place to start if you’ve not yet sampled some of these authors.
In this collection of photos, cultural critic Cole (Known and Strange Things) explores the construct and limitations of human perception using snapshots from his travels paired with his written interpretations. He transports readers around the world to the Congo, Germany, Lebanon, Libya, New Zealand, Nigeria, and elsewhere, turning his lens on quotidian and intimate scenes that are at once familiar and foreign. A photo of hotel-room draperies inspires in him thoughts of Albrecht Dürer and the relationship of the human and divine: “In the crumbles, pleats, gathers, creases, falls, twists, and billows of cloth is a regular irregularity that is like the surface of water, like channels of air, like God made visible.” Later, an image of tables draped in white plastic table cloths calls to mind the hotel-room drapes, and then thoughts of Dürer again. Each turn of the page brings a new pairing of written and visual record, and with it an impressionistic branch to what Cole refers to as “a tangled tree of meanings.” In the foreword, novelist Siri Hustvedt aptly describes the work as a study of “a person’s embodied consciousness in relation to the visual word.” This ambitious study deserves a spot on the shelf next to Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Susan Sontag’s On Photography.
Novelist and cultural critic Gay (Bad Feminist) writes of being morbidly obese in this absorbing and authentic memoir of her life as “a woman of size.” Born in l974 in Omaha, Neb., to Haitian immigrant parents, Gay initially lived a comfortable life in a loving family. After a group of boys raped her when she was 12 years old, Gay’s world began to unravel, and she turned to overeating as a way of making her violated body into a safe “fortress.” Ashamed to tell her Catholic parents what had occurred, she harbored her secret for more than 25 years. In the course of this memoir, Gay shares how her weight and size shade many topics, including relationships, fashion, food, family, the medical profession, and travel (the bigger her body became, the author notes, the smaller her world became). She suffered profound shame and self-loathing, and boldly confronts society’s cruelty toward and denigration of larger individuals (particularly women), its fear of “unruly bodies,” and the myth that equates happiness with thinness. This raw and graceful memoir digs deeply into what it means to be comfortable in one’s body. Gay denies that hers is a story of “triumph,” but readers will be hard pressed to find a better word.
Debut novelist Harrison paints a lovely and memorable portrait of a desperate woman’s flight to a new life. In late 1904, Leda Cordelia Dulcinea Remfrey has been summoned to Seattle to attend to her dying syphilitic father, Walton. Dulcy must go, even though the summons comes from her father’s business partner and her ex-fiancé, Victor Maslingen, a man of violent rages who raped her. She is Victor’s only hope to find out what the increasingly deranged Walton has done with the profits of the sale of some African mines, money that Victor needs. After Walton’s death, as Dulcy and her sister, Carrie, travel back East to bury their father, Dulcy makes her way from the train to begin a new life in Livingston, Mont., as the Widow Maria Nash. Livingston is not without its own violence and drama, but it promises the safety of anonymity and possibly even real love. Harrison’s lead is a strong and clever woman who is easy to admire, while the rest of the heroes, villains, and ambiguous sorts are as vividly drawn as the raw and terrible scenery of Montana. Readers will treasure Harrison’s rich characterization and sharp turns of phrase.
Echoes of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca reverberate throughout British author Heathcote’s impressive debut. Londoners Carmen and Tom Cawton, who have been happily married for two years, talk about having a child while weathering the challenges of frequent weekend visits with Tom’s three children from his first marriage to Laura. Those visits usually occur at their second home, a beach bungalow in the Norfolk village of St. Jude’s that Tom once co-owned with his one-time mistress, Zena Johnson. Three years earlier, Zena disappeared after going for a swim. Days later her body washed up a mile from the bungalow. St. Jude’s is a gossipy place, and Carmen hears a rumor that some people think Tom murdered Zena. Carmen’s curiosity about Zena turns into an obsession. She snoops through Tom’s possessions and relentlessly compares herself to the charismatic Zena with her film-star looks, causing friction in her marriage. The intense psychological thriller is strengthened by an evocative isolated setting that seems ruled by Zena’s ghost.
In this brutal debut novel inspired by real-life events, Hutton addresses the horrors of the Ugandan civil war through two child soldiers. The narrative primarily follows Ricky Richard Anywar, kidnapped at age 14 and forcibly inducted into Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army alongside his brother and friends in 1989. Over the next few years, Ricky survives horrifying conditions, brutal training, and numerous combat missions, always looking for a chance to escape. Meanwhile, in 2006, 11-year-old Samuel recuperates from grievous injuries after falling in battle, unable to trust his caregivers or the strange man who insists on learning his story. Both boys are forced to confront the memories of lost friends and the things they did to stay alive. Hutton approaches the setting, conflict, and characters with unremitting honesty, drawing from Anywar’s own life (he contributes an afterword) while using the fictional Samuel as a stand-in for the current generation of unwilling soldiers. This isn’t an easy or pleasant read—Hutton doesn’t shy from discussions of rape, torture, and abuse—but it’s eye-opening and relevant. Ages 13–up.
In her harrowing third collection, Lynch (It Was a Terrible Cloud at Twilight) exhibits a steely bravery as she teases out the workings of the ecosystem of trauma. “The way to steady what unsteadied me/ was transformation:/ gash to star, wound to window,” Lynch writes, noting how for victims of sexual assault the crime scenes are their own bodies. Such an experience remains a part of them: “It hangs and hangs and hangs—/ not bell, not noose.// A case of walking paralysis.” Lynch writes, “There is a way the body weds memory—/ a marriage like that of a planet to light.” In several poems she describes a desire to unburden a body of its imprinted experience by willing the self to become “a vanished thing” or “aftersmoke—the eke of light in the marrow.” She also records an incident of post-trauma disembodiment: “the girl it happened to crawled out// of my body/ straight into the grass that bordered the lot/ where she lay face-up, a cloth/ doll.” As Lynch guides readers through these painful episodes, she retakes ownership of her body, sense of intimacy, and ability to bear witness: “It was not until the body/ floated off, incandescent, weak with want,/ that I thought to move towards it.”
Washington Post correspondent Mekhennet (The Eternal Nazi) offers a spellbinding fusion of history, memoir, and reportage in this enthralling account of her personal experience as a journalist and a Muslim on assignment in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The author’s unique perspective is informed by both her professional life as a reporter working for major publications and by her personal background—she was raised in Germany by a Turkish mother and Moroccan father and is fluent in Arabic. This combination of personal background and vocation provides her as if with insider access in her work to uncover and untangle the roots of Islamic radicalism. Journalistic coups abound here—for example when she recounts the uncovering of Jihadi John’s identity—and moments of historical importance to which Mekhennet was a witness are described in thrilling detail. Historic religious, internal political, and global conflicts are lucidly delineated. While Mekhennet’s modus vivendi as a reporter opened doors for her to rulers and important religious and political figures, here her focus is sharply on individual people, including on the family members of purported terrorists, who themselves experience profound loss. The value of this work lies in Mekhennet’s commitment to “not taking any side, but speaking to all sides and challenging them.”
Scego showcases a talent for portraying intense and quiet suffering in this intergenerational novel tackling European colonialism and the continued mistreatment of migrants. Faced with the possibility of returning to claim an ancestral home in Somalia during a tenuous break in the civil war, Adua reflects on her original journey to Italy 40 years ago. Her abusive, exploitative treatment by the makers of a film she was in soured her dream of becoming a movie star. Her current life as a wife to a much younger Somali refugee who nearly died crossing to Europe disappoints, too; their relationship is more mother-son than husband-wife. Her father, Zoppe, came to Rome on the brink of World War II to work as a translator. His firsthand experience of racial violence in the shadow of rising fascism resulted in his return to Somalia as the servant of a count that altered the rest of his adult life. In between their two stories, Scego includes brief “Talking-To” chapters that capture Zoppe berating Adua, distilling their tense relationship and inability to connect in impressive shorthand. Scego reveals the horrifying details of both characters’ stories in unornamented prose, from Zoppe’s extreme experience of police brutality to Adua’s infibulation. The measured and calm presentation amplifies the impact of these traumas. The lovely prose and memorable characters make this novel a thought-provoking and moving consideration of the wreckage of European oppression.
Shawn (Essays), an actor and Obie-winning playwright, reflects on civilization, morality, Beethoven, 11th-century Japanese court poetry, and his hopes for a better world, among other topics. Acerbic yet compassionate, Shawn’s meditations epitomize qualities he admires—curiosity, thoughtfulness, sharp logic, deep emotion—and sees getting short shrift in a United States abandoning “the cultivation of the intellect.” Born to privilege, he admits to being one of the “lucky,” a group encompassing “a very large number of the citizens of the United States and Great Britain and most European countries” who largely owe their prosperity to the “unjust exploitation” of the “unlucky.” And although he, for various reasons, proved “downwardly mobile” (his position in society is lower than his parents’), he knows his “luck has held.” With impeccable logic, he gently, but lethally, skewers the complacency of the lucky while highlighting the plight of the less fortunate, including the Muslims living in the slums of European cities, the maid of a wealthy friend, and a boy at a dance who shoots someone flirting with his girlfriend. And he is quick to confront his own privileged status after a “big storm” when he’s faced with days of no running water or heat—and no one coming to fix things—and feels disoriented, “as if a lifetime’s worth of assumptions were uncontrollably unspooling.”
In his latest exemplary collection, Simic (The Lunatic), one of American poetry’s most revered and acclaimed figures, reveals a mysterious world that is simultaneously sinister and whimsical, observable through the minute details trailing in the wake of life’s most fleeting moments: “For a mind full of disquiet/ A trembling roadside weed is Cassandra,/ And so is the sight/ Of a boarded up public library.” The book’s references to mortality, the undertaker, and the graveyard could easily mark these as typical late poems, but Simic has always had a knack for channeling the morbid—and managing to blend it with the joyous. It is in navigating those kinds of opposing emotions that he is at his most clever and profound: “I came here in my youth./ A wind toy on a string./ Saw a street in hell and one in paradise.” Something similar could be said of how he handles isolation and the theatricality of the mundane: “The woman I love is a saint/ Who deserves to have/ People falling on their knees,” he writes, “Instead, here she is on the floor/ Hitting a mouse with a shoe/ As tears run down her face.” Image by image, Simic composes miniature masterpieces, offering what appears as a seemingly effortless study in language’s cinematic possibilities.
Stanley (The Chosen Prince) deftly infuses magic and mystery into this uplifting story about friendship and second chances. After the death of fifth-grader Joplin Danforth’s estranged grandfather, who was a famous author, Joplin and her mother trek from New York City to his remote cabin in Maine to salvage his final writing. There, Joplin finds a beautiful but broken antique platter. Once repaired, the platter reveals a lovely scene: a girl standing by a pond. Joplin, tired of constant ridicule by classmates, wishes for the girl in the image to be her friend, and is stunned to find Sofie sitting in her garden the next morning. Along with new friend Barrett, the children undertake the daunting task of getting Sofie back to her home—a small Dutch village 400 years in the past. Stanley’s clever premise will quickly capture the imaginations of young readers, but it’s Joplin, with her headstrong determination; Sofie, with her soft-spoken resolve; and Barrett, with his enthusiasm and logic, who make this story special, exemplifying true friendship and sacrifice. Ages 8–12.