This week: Don Winslow's latest novel, plus what happens between life and death.
Carroll’s poignant and unsentimental debut, about an unnamed homeless girl and her alcoholic Ma, offers an unfiltered glimpse into the daily realities of life on the streets and, for much of the book, in an abandoned mill the twosome dub the “Castle.” The protagonist holds fond memories of the comforting routines of Gran’s house, where she and Ma once lived, going to school, sleeping in her own bed, and never being hungry; Ma’s drinking only minimally affected her. That secure life ends when Ma, for an unrevealed reason, fights with Gran and takes off with her daughter. Living in constant fear of run-ins with the “Authorities” who will take her away from Ma, and of a ghost she is sure haunts the Castle, the girl spends much of her time observing other people’s lives with a pair of cast-off binoculars and drawing on the Castle walls. Carroll is especially perceptive about the mix of deep love and anger a child bears for an abusive parent. The unsettling story’s chronological jumps make for an ambiguous, though moving, ending. Ages 12–up.
In an excellent first novel, Davis channels the idiosyncratic perspective and voice of Lester, a 10-year-old stargazer, as he makes the difficult transition from homeschooling to fifth grade. Layers of unspoken grief for Lester’s astronaut father, who died five years earlier, loom large, especially because Lester’s mother resists her son’s avid interest in space. When she takes a job at the library and Lester starts school, Davis strongly sketches how his personality and quirks make for a difficult adjustment: Lester struggles with a bully, can’t stand the cacophony of the cafeteria, lacks tact and social skills, calls out in class, and doesn’t handle schedule changes well. Lester is an immensely sympathetic narrator as he navigates a friendship with a fashion-forward classmate, competes in the science fair, and participates in a kickball game. When he opens an official letter addressed to his mother, he discovers that he’s been diagnosed with “autism spectrum disorder” and works to understand what that means. This unsentimental portrait of an endearing and memorable protagonist offers powerful insight into living with autism. Ages 8–12.
This terrific debut from Latson, a journalist, takes up the story of Eli and his mom, Gayle, when Eli is 12 years old. Any parent will recognize the factors in play: hormones, parental expectations for school, concerns about bullying, and so on. The multiplier effect for Gayle is her son’s genetic disorder, known as Williams syndrome. Since Williams amps up the oxytocin in Eli’s system, making him love everyone indiscriminately, Gayle has to teach her son skills that run counter to his nature—but that may keep him safe. Eli’s slowed development and stiff joints mean that complete independence from his mother at any future point is unlikely. Gayle, a single mom, confides, “I want him to live a long, happy life. I just want to be there for him.... If I could live just five minutes longer than he does, I’d be happy.” The author skillfully interweaves the science—what we do and don’t know about genetic disorders such as Williams—with a powerful story line. Eli and especially Gayle are beautifully drawn, and their struggles with an unknown future are both unique to their situation and universal to all parents. As the book’s perspective deliberately pans out to include teachers, counselors, family, friends, and, finally, Eli’s entire eighth-grade class, Latson delivers some unforgettable lessons about inclusion and parenthood.
In this vivid, emotional, and thought-provoking account, Owen, research chair in cognitive neuroscience and imaging at the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute, surveys his research on the human brain in a non-responsive state. Case by case, Owen probes the limits of human consciousness while taking readers bedside to observe trauma victims, many who have been in coma-like states for years, but whose severely damaged brains show clear signs of responding to his bizarre tests. As technology advances from PET scans to fMRIs, Owen and his colleagues devise more complicated means of communicating with “gray zone” patients. International headlines are made and ethical questions are raised. One patient, who regains her ability to speak and walk, shares what it was like to be treated as vegetative despite her awareness of everything going on around her. Using an experiment involving a Hitchcock film, Owen finds that several subjects believed to be vegetative are fully aware. “It was a haunting reminder of the resiliency of consciousness,” Owen writes, reflecting on “the meaning of what it means to be alive and whether anyone can be said to be irretrievably lost.” Owen’s story of horror and hope will long haunt readers.
With immaculate detail and eloquence, Roffman (From the Modernist Annex) has written the first in-depth biography of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Her narrative follows Ashbery, who was born in 1927, up to 1955, when W.H. Auden awarded Ashbery's debut collection, Some Trees, the Yale Younger Poets prize. Roffman expertly analyzes his poems, revealing the nuanced imprint of his personal life on his work. She explores Ashbery's friendships (with painter Jane Freilicher and poets Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, among others), his influences (including W.H. Auden and Marianne Moore), and his ventures into acting, prose writing, and painting. In addition to describing his triumphs, she reveals the darker parts of Ashbery's life: the childhood death of his brother, the specter cast by his era's homophobia, and his ongoing battle with depression. Roffman excels in her recreation of Ashbery's early years because she does not waver from firsthand sources and never attempts to interpret his life or poetry through pure speculation. This is an educational, comforting, inspiring book that will satisfy Ashbery's curious fans.
Sauma’s confident debut centers around André, a Brazilian doctor and father who’s living in London and recently separated from his British wife. When the first of several letters from Luana, the daughter of his father’s former live-in maid, arrives from across the ocean, André thinks back to the mid-1980s, when he was a wealthy teenager living in Rio de Janeiro. On the cusp of his 18th birthday, having recently lost his mother to a tragic car accident, the younger André spends his time working at his father’s plastic surgery firm, hanging with friends, and supporting his younger brother, Thiago. When he travels with his family to the Amazonian cities of Belém and Marajó to visit family and celebrate Christmas, however, young André begins to find himself drawn to the beautiful Luana, and it isn’t long before this attraction blossoms into a secret romance. Sauma’s excellent prose is thoroughly consuming, bouncing between continents and eras to create a complicated tale of class, ancestry, and love in which happy endings are difficult to find but hope remains.
Pioneering English heart surgeon Westaby champions the extraordinary accomplishments of artificial heart technology in his dazzling memoir. He chronicles his own swashbuckling role in advancing their use, reflecting on a few of the 12,000 “desperately sick” patients for whom he refused to give up hope. They include Julie, a 21-year-old student-teacher for whom an implanted device marked the start of an alternative treatment to a heart transplant; 10-year-old Stephan, whose Berlin Heart device kept him alive until a donor heart was found; 58-year-old Peter, whose eight years of life with a “Jarvik 2000” mechanical heart proved “that extra life is not ordinary life”; and six-month-old Kristy, whose failing heart was “reconfigured,” in the process demonstrating that an infant’s cardiac stem cells can regenerate heart muscle. Westaby energetically details these life-and-death battles, conceding that he follows the advice of his hero, Winston Churchill: “Never surrender.” Westaby grew up poor and decided to become a heart surgeon at age seven after watching American doctors on TV close a hole in someone’s heart. After witnessing a catastrophic and haunting operation as a med student, he realized that “it is tomorrow that matters.” For this trailblazing surgeon, saving lives means keeping an unflinching eye on the future.
Edgar-finalist Winslow (The Cartel) peers into the soul of modern America through the eyes of a supremely skilled and corrupt police officer, in this epic novel of devastating moral complexity. Dennis Malone, a veteran NYPD detective sergeant, leads the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite unit established to combat drugs, gangs, and guns. Keeping the citizens safe is often messy work and sometimes requires unorthodox methods to get results. Gradually, however, Malone and his crew have slipped over the edge, stealing millions in drugs and cash over the years, including a massive amount of heroin seized in the city’s biggest-ever drug bust. Now the feds have built a case against Malone, and they threaten to take him down if he doesn’t help bring in bigger players in the criminal food chain, even if it means betraying his partners. As the reader discovers, Malone’s corruption is but a tiny part of a much larger system that extends into the highest reaches of New York’s power structure, where the real business is done, and everyone on the chain takes a cut. Fans of modern masters such as Don DeLillo, Richard Price, and George Pelecanos will be richly rewarded.