This week: a thriller featuring a creepy DVD, plus an excellent essay collection about the beauty of everyday mundanities.
Bailey (The Creative Writer’s Craft) finds inspiration in everyday mundanities—buying a cup of coffee, helping his wife replace a duvet cover—to create short memoiristic essays that can jump, say, from his Michigan boyhood to the plays of Shakespeare. The essays read like the best of short stories: their significance extends beyond what is on the page. Bailey demonstrates a genius for locating a telling detail and employing it sparingly to evoke a setting or character trait, keeping the writing concise and the pace swift. Bailey’s voice is genial and ingratiating and he expertly mixes literary allusions from his career as an English scholar with his Midwestern charm. His humor is the type to inspire smiles of recognition rather than full-on belly laughs. The book encompasses a wide variety of tones, from the earthy, with essays inspired by toilets, nail biting, and the rising trend of vomit in TV and movies, to the picturesque, in travelogue vignettes about Bailey’s experiences visiting Italy. Not every entry in this collection of 40 essays (some previously published in literary journals) feels completely realized, but overall the book delights and will makes readers stop and notice the individual pieces of their everyday lives.
Set mostly in jails and prisons—the author is himself serving a sentence of life without parole—the 14 stories in this debut collection give a fascinating human dimension to the lives of prisoners and the world that they inhabit. In “A Human Number,” the convict narrator discovers that his random phone calls from jail reach outsiders who are as desperate as he is to communicate with another person. The narrator of “573543” ponders the fate foreordained for prisoners who inherit their identifying numbers from previously deceased inmates. “In the Dayroom with Stinky” sets the tone for its portrait of an eccentric prisoner with the narrator’s bracingly honest admission, “Most of my friends have killed someone.” Dawkins’s tales impress with the authenticity of real-life experience, and his prose is rich in metaphor and imagery—as when he describes one prisoner’s arraignment as “his courtroom wedding to the state of Michigan, till death do you part,” and how the fogged-up windows of a prison transport van “effectively erased us” from the outside world. His often wryly amusing observations about the routines of prison life make him a striking guide for navigating the terrain.
Drawing on exclusive interviews with Sarah Vaughan’s friends and former colleagues, jazz-historian Hayes (a former editor of Earshot Jazz magazine) has written a lively and moving portrait of the passionate and tenacious jazz singer. Hayes gracefully narrates Vaughan’s life, from her childhood-church-choir days in 1930s Newark, N.J., and her first major performance at age 18 at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem to her career of singing bebop with Billy Eckstine, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. Hayes traces Vaughan’s growth as a successful pop artist—which she dictated on her own terms—as well as her failed marriages and her canny ability to make a range of musical styles her own. Vaughan dealt with shady business managers and unscrupulous producers who wanted to shape her in their image, but she held strong and continued to focus on her singing, which, as Hayes astutely explains, represented for her “autonomy, independence, and an opportunity for self-realization... it was her salvation.” Hayes’s blending of the cultural history of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s with his lucid critical insights into Vaughan’s recordings and her life makes this book a detailed look at a fearless singer who constantly moved into new musical territories and left a legacy for younger musicians.
Jacobsen (When the Dead Awaken) launches a four-part Nordic thriller series with this harrowing account of the most dangerous big game hunting of all. When heiress and lawyer Elizabeth Caspersen-Behncke discovers a DVD that suggests that her late father killed a man for sport, she hires Michael Sander, a happily married PI who doesn’t usually carry a weapon, to investigate. Meanwhile, 40ish, divorced cop Lene Jensen, a superintendent in Denmark’s national police force, is looking into the death of highly decorated war veteran Kim Andersen, found hanging from a tree. That Andersen’s hands were handcuffed behind his back suggests he didn’t commit suicide. Michael and Lene join forces as their investigations intersect, leading to dark revelations of money laundering and drug smuggling, as well as the revival of Norse paganism among members of the Danish military. Worst of all, they discover that wealthy Danish businessmen, including Caspersen-Behncke’s father, were stalking and slaughtering human beings in the icy reaches of northern Norway. Jacobsen’s electrifying tale of personal morality pitted against ruthless inhumanity definitively negates the currently popular myth of Denmark as the happiest country in the world. Stieg Larsson fans will find much to like.
In his first novel, Klam (Sam the Cat) explores excess and penury, conspicuous consumption and tortured artistic production, as well as monogamy and its discontents in an acidly funny portrait of a has-been cartoonist. Some years having passed since his acclaimed graphic novel appeared, Rich works as an illustrator for a magazine (a thinly veiled New Republic), a gig that pays the bills, just barely, but doesn’t satisfy his artistic ambitions: “Illustration is to cartooning as prison sodomy is to pansexual orgy. Not the same thing at all.” As the novel opens, he is preparing to lead an illustration workshop at a Cape Cod summer arts conference, an “open-air loony bin” whose collection of teachers and megalomaniac sponsor Klam satirizes marvelously. Away from his wife and children, Rich carries on an affair with Amy, a painter and “emotionally stunted zillionaire” who is married to a banker funneling money to right-wing political causes. Two dilemmas arise: whether Rich should mine his “debasing experiences for the purposes of artistic advancement,” perhaps ruining his shaky marriage in the process, and whether he should sacrifice his self-respect and accept help from his “plutocrat” lover. Though there are stretches in which Rich’s middle-aged male angst can be stifling, the vibrant prose (accompanied by John Cuneo’s equally vibrant illustrations) enlivens the proceedings. Libidinous, impulsive, sarcastic, bitter, casually suicidal, and committed to his art—“I’d given up everything for cartooning, and for that alone I deserved to die”—Rich is a worthy addition to American literature’s distinguished line of hapless antiheroes.
Newbery Medalist MacLachlan’s incantatory picture book memoir draws readers in from its first words: “If you were a little girl/ who listened to stories/ over and over/ and over...” Using delicate shading and pale hues, Sheban (What to Do with a Box) draws a girl listening as an elderly woman talks, then shows the child seated at the feet of a man in a feed cap, his arms stretched wide, as if describing a prize catch. MacLachlan journeys through her past—a girl who read constantly, climbed trees, and tried “to teach her dog to talk by moving his lips like hers”—to see what made her the person she became, who “writes about talking dogs/ and chickens who scratch stories in the dirt.” Sheban’s scenes are bathed in golden light, and his faded palette and soft textures evoke a spare upbringing: simple clothing, old cars, a worn-out suitcase. MacLachlan suggests that it isn’t extensive travels or grand experiences that make a writer; all that’s needed is the willingness to watch and listen. Ages 4–8.
Set in New England in 1942, Murphy’s debut novel opens with 16-year-old Aila Quinn and her younger brother, Miles, saying farewell to their father, who has been drafted. Their mother, Juliet, died recently, so Aila and Miles must move to Sterling to live with Juliet’s childhood friends, the Clifftons. Malcolm, Matilda, and their son are gracious hosts, but other residents of Juliet’s hometown prove less than welcoming, and it’s not long before the siblings find out why. Every seven years, the townspeople lose something, such as the ability to see reflections or smell. Nobody knows why the “Disappearances” happen, but they started the year Juliet was born, and she’s the only one to have shed their effects upon leaving Sterling, so many believe that she’s somehow responsible. With the next Disappearance Day rapidly approaching, Aila vows to discover the curse’s cause, vindicate her family, and end the Disappearances for good. Sumptuous worldbuilding, richly developed characters, and a swoon-worthy romance elevate this delightful, fantasy-tinged mystery. Ages 12–up.
Ryan (The Spinning Heart) crafts a beautiful morality play that recalls the pastoral dramas of William Trevor or Edna O’Brien. When we first meet Melody Shee, she is 33 years old and 12 weeks pregnant by a 17-year-old Irish Traveller named Martin Toppy; now, deserted by her husband, Pat, and with Martin nowhere to be found, Melody is left alone to contemplate her shame and her unborn child, even as “dying seems as unreasonable as living.” But her spirits are revitalized by a friendship kindled in the Travellers’ camps: 19-year-old Mary Crothery, a free spirit who “speaks in streams” and whose own scandalous divorce has triggered a vicious feud. Scorned by their respective communities, these two women come to rely on one another and save each other’s lives in unforeseen ways. But as Melody nears her due date, she recalls another betrayal, that of a childhood friend, and wonders whether she is “a woman divorced from decency, without restraint,” destined to fall short of all who love her. In this story of moral redemption and blood rivalries, Ryan is fair to each of his characters, as well as vivid in his evocation of Traveller culture. The result is a lush and lively novel that fascinates from its opening words to its tender last lines.
In his first book, St. Germain, cofounder of the nonprofit group Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, describes growing up in Brooklyn’s violent Crown Heights neighborhood. St. Germain was born in Haiti but moved to the U.S. with his siblings in 2000. Writing with journalist Sternfeld (Crisis Point), he vividly describes the fear and loneliness of life in Brooklyn without his parents, the adjustment to his grandmother’s cramped apartment, and, as he got older, how he negotiated the violent gangster world of the Crips and Bloods. St. Germain longed for a male role model, and concedes that his grandmother, as hard as she tried, couldn’t keep him honest amid the “tight-jeaned girls and hustling corner dudes.” He describes himself as follows: “From a young age, I’d been a social chameleon with a survival mentality.” He began stealing, robbing, dealing drugs, and allowing “the game to suck him in like a vacuum.” At age 15 he was arrested for dealing crack cocaine, but instead of going to prison he was sent to a detention and rehabilitation facility, where he was mentored, educated, and learned to embrace a sense of self-worth. He soon became an advocate for at-risk children. Like Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore, St. Germain’s gritty and self-reflective memoir is an excellent and informative cautionary tale.
Echoing the premise and structure of Flowers for Algernon, this frank and inspiring novel shows how a teen’s life changes after he is given an experimental medication to treat symptoms of schizophrenia. Since age 12, Adam has been tormented by voices and hallucinations. He’s lost friends, as well as the hope that he’ll ever be normal. Now that he’s 16 and has started a clinical trial for miracle drug ToZaPrex, things are changing. Adam still hears voices and hallucinates, but for the first time, he can delineate what’s real and what’s not, and that makes all the difference. His journal entries, written to his therapist during the drug trial, draw readers into the mind of an intelligent, witty young man as he embraces the pleasures of finding a new friend, being accepted on an academic team, and winning a girl’s heart. But as the quality of Adam’s life improves, so do his anxieties. First-time author Walton creates a psychologically tense story with sympathetic characters while dispelling myths about a much-feared condition. Ages 12–up.