This week: a mother abandons her family with $40,000 in a backpack, plus what science says about UFOs, chemtrails, and aliens.
Bontinck, a former Belgian soldier and U.N. peacekeeper in Slovenia, writes of his harrowing quest to find his radicalized son, who joined a group of ISIS terrorists. His pride in his son, Jay, born to a Nigerian mother, never wavers as Bontinck charts the evolution of a curious, Catholic boy into a 16-year-old jihadist, brainwashed by “hardline, pure Islamic views,” militant videos, and lectures on Islamophobia and “corrupt Christians.” In 2013, Jay joined a group of foreign fighters willing to die for Allah in Syria, while his father traveled to the war-ravaged region in desperate search of him. Following two fruitless trips, Bontinck learned that the group had accused his son of being a spy and that Jay was being held in an ISIS prison containing American journalist James Foley and British photographer John Cantlie. Bontinck’s dogged determination and meaningful contacts opened the door for Jay’s release months later. The rescue is one of the few success stories among parents who have lost their children to ISIS recruitment. Bontinck’s account is a loving and revealing tribute to the father-son bond.
It’s the fall of senior year, and Kennedy Rhodes has some regrets: blowing a college interview, trusting her boyfriend and best friend together, and—most profoundly—not enrolling in a prestigious private school when she had the chance. Then, while visiting the campus of the esteemed Windsor Academy, she falls and injures her head. When she regains consciousness, everything’s different. Kennedy is no longer the student editor of the Southwest Star at Southwest High. Instead, she’s the top-ranked student at Windsor, with no spare time to start up a school paper or go on dates. In a clever novel with a Sliding Doors–style setup, Brody (A Week of Mondays) examines “grass is greener” attitudes and the rippling ramifications of one’s choices. Through Kennedy’s eyes, readers see how the pressure to stay on top takes a toll on Kennedy and her family, despite her glamorous surroundings in this parallel universe. With realistically flawed characters, plenty of humor, and much to say about the perils of wish fulfillment, Brody’s novel will appeal to anyone longing for a second chance at success. Ages 12–up.
In this excellent essay collection, pop culture critic Chocano explores representations of women in books, movies, and television, with characters ranging in time and temperament from Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart to Mad Men’s Joan and Peggy. Remarkably comprehensive and enjoyably associative, the essays move quickly from the haunting performances of French actress Isabelle Adjani to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie as allegories for the potential of powerful women to “wreck civilization.” Chocano astutely observes that Thelma and Louise and Pretty Woman are “dueling metanarratives” from the same cultural moment, offering diametrically opposed messages about women’s aspirations. On a personal note, Chocano describes her laborious efforts to raise a daughter without the patriarchy’s cultural hangups via an extremely thorough examination of Disney’s Frozen and its famous aria, asking—“What exactly is she letting go of?” With Chocano’s incisive and witty approach, these essays will appeal to anyone interested in how women’s stories are told.
After a year at boarding school, 16-year-old Suzette is happy to be home for the summer, but that doesn’t mean life is simple. Her stepbrother, Lionel, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; Suzette has just had her first same-sex relationship (and first encounter with homophobia); and she’s attracted to both her longtime friend Emil and her flirtatious coworker Rafaela—whom Lionel also likes. Although love and sexuality are important to the story, its core is Suzette’s feelings of responsibility for Lionel and uncertainty about how to help him. Colbert (Pointe) powerfully depicts the difficulties that mental illness presents not just for those diagnosed but for the people around them, and her characters reflect the diversity of Los Angeles. Suzette and her mother are black, Lionel and his father are white, and Suzette’s friends and love interests are ethnically and sexually varied. While the characters occasionally feel slightly idealized—Suzette always tries to do the right thing, her parents are unfailingly accepting, and her friends have an impressive ability to articulate what they feel and why—it’s a moving and well-realized examination of secrecy, trust, and intimacy. Ages 15–up.
Culliton’s wonderful and sharp debut novel invites readers into the mind and motivations of an unlikable and remarkable woman. Marion has always lived on the cusp of poverty. She develops a talent for sticky fingers and doctoring numbers, assuring a respite from her despair. When Marion meets handsome, rich poet, Nathan Palm, she achieves a dream of financial security and stability. But reality is cruel and Nathan is not as wealthy as she thought, so Marion relies on her talents to support her family and the lifestyle they are accustomed to. Readers meet Marion on the day she abandons her family, headed on the run with $40,000 in a backpack. After years of embezzling funds from her daughters’ private school, Marion has been sent into a panic by a proposed audit. She leaves her husband comically paralyzed, and her daughters, Ginny and Jane, deal with Marion’s departure with angst, rage, and attachments to the imaginary. Culliton’s prose is effortless and wickedly clever; its ability to condone and condemn in the most succinct way is a testament to the author’s storytelling and characterization skills. Moments of empathy are erased by Marion’s entitlement, and her vanishing act is curiously irresistible. This debut novel signals the arrival of an exciting talent.
Small-town America in the aftermath of 9/11 is the setting for Dee’s engrossing new novel. His blue-collar characters, each of them pursuing the American Dream, are vividly developed, and his insights into how they think about the government (ineffective and corrupt) and their rights as citizens (ignored, trampled) are timely. Mark Firth’s family has lived in or near the fictional town of Howland in the Massachusetts Berkshires for generations. A hard worker in the construction trade, a devoted husband and father and a man of strong moral principles, he wants to parlay his earnings into stock market investments. As Mark’s wife, Karen, perceives, however, Mark is gullible and guileless, and he is devastated when he loses his savings to a con man. When the next opportunity to get rich seems possible, Mark reluctantly enlists his brother, Gerry, a feckless real estate salesman, as his partner. Gerry, meanwhile, has been writing a blog that criticizes the town’s new first selectman, a rich ex-Wall Street hedge fund manager who, postelection, is rapidly exerting his power as an authoritarian politician. A dozen or so more characters round out this picture of a community on the economic skids, whose citizens seethe with a sense of futility and resentment as old values and traditions fade. “I feel like the world is trying to get rid of me.... I feel threatened,” one character says. Alcohol in excess and secret sexual trysts help ease the pain, but jobs are scarce and families drift apart. Dee, who wrote about a wealthy segment of society in The Privileges, handles the plot with admirable skill, finding empathy for his bewildered characters. He creates tension as a reckoning day arrives, and strikes the perfect ending note.
Lewis, a research scholar at the University of Bristol, lifts from the shadows of history the fascinating story of James Parkinson (1755–1824), the Enlightenment-age surgeon-apothecary who first described the neurodegenerative condition that now bears his name. Parkinson emerges as a committed naturalist—he was among the founders of the Geological Society of London and compiled an unparalleled collection of fossils—and doctor (one of the first in London to offer smallpox vaccinations), as well as a fearless warrior for social justice during the turbulent dawning of the Industrial Revolution. Yet Parkinson’s name lives on because of his 1817 work “Essay on the Shaking Palsy,” a pamphlet favorably received in its day that nevertheless went on to be seen as “just another pamphlet in his long list of publications.” However, Parkinson’s groundbreaking work, as Lewis notes, represented a “farsighted, questioning approach” that “left us with a remarkable scientific and medical legacy.” Lewis’s lively, captivating biography illuminates the life and work of a pioneer who may have largely faded from medical history, but whose curiosity and passion are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.
The savage beating of Sharon McCone’s 82-year-old father by a gang of thugs kicks off MWA Grand Master Muller’s outstanding 34th mystery featuring the San Francisco PI (after 2016’s Someone Always Knows). McCone’s father, nationally known Native American painter Elwood Farmer, arrived in San Francisco from Montana two days earlier for the Christmas holidays. He was shopping for gifts in the city’s Marina district when he was assaulted in what may have been a racially motivated attack. SFPD Sgt. Priscilla Anders, however, suspects the beating may be tied to Farmer’s relationship to McCone, and that theory seems more and more plausible after a break-in at McCone’s office and vandalism directed at her employees. The stakes rise when McCone becomes the target of cyberattacks and death threats. She pursues a number of leads, many of which fail to pan out and others that are frustratingly vague, but she eventually discovers that a hate group may be involved after all. At the exciting climax, McCone valiantly arms herself and goes into action alone.
Israeli expat historian Pappe (The Idea of Israel), director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, boldly and persuasively argues for understanding the occupied territories as the world’s “largest ever mega-prison.” He begins by describing Israeli preparations made several years before 1967’s Six-Day War to control large portions of Palestine without formally annexing them and thereby granting civil rights to the Palestinians living there. Instead, with the imposition of Israeli rule, “the Palestinians living there were incarcerated for crimes they never committed and for offences that were never committed, confessed, or defined.” Pappe shows that the Israelis offered an “open-air prison” when the Palestinians were compliant and a “maximum security prison” when they offered any resistance. Both left them shorn of basic human rights but the latter also featured harsh punishments up to and including military attacks on civilians. Pappe cites numerous violations of international law as well as generally duplicitous behavior by Israeli leaders toward other nations and international bodies, particularly during the Oslo Accord negotiations. Moreover, according to a 2016 U.N. report, Israel’s actions toward the Gaza Strip will render life there “unsustainable” by 2020. Pappe’s conclusions won’t be welcome in all quarters but this detailed history is rigorously supported by primary sources.
Prothero (Rhinoceros Giants), a geologist and paleontologist, and Callahan, religion editor for Skeptic Magazine, explore popular paranormal notions and conspiracy theories while explaining the best ways to evaluate them. The first step, the authors advise, is a healthy dose of skepticism: take a close look at the evidence. Humans’ “believing” brains work overtime to fashion random events into patterns, such as finding false data correlations between vaccination and autism or seeing the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. Combine that pattern-making survival skill with a need to have control over a threatening world and the result is often the kind of conspiratorial thinking that proliferates across the internet. Prothero and Callahan explore the modern myths of UFO sightings and alien encounters and the evidence for them that never quite adds up. They look into the reality—or lack thereof—of New World Order efforts to maintain a docile population, rapacious reptilian aliens disguised as humans, extraterrestrial-based religions premised on aliens seeding Earth with human life, and a crystal skull that is supposedly an ancient microchip for storing alien wisdom. With their book’s brisk pace and energetic writing, Prothero and Callahan offer entertainment as well as wisdom for everyone who’s ever wondered what’s behind so many conspiracy theories and paranormal phenomena.
Honey Deschamps, the heroine of this richly imagined WWII-era thriller from Ribchester (The Hourglass Factory), serves the war effort by typing decrypted German messages at England’s Bletchley Park. Walking in the blackout one night, she’s startled to encounter a stranger, Felix Plaidstow, who hands her a package he says was misdelivered to his intelligence unit at Bletchley. The parcel, postmarked in Nazi-controlled Leningrad and holding pieces of amber marked with mysterious letters, is followed by similar mailings. Honey is baffled until she thinks of her artistic Russian father, Ivan Korichnev, who left the family just before she was born and whom she knows about only from her brother, Dickie. Ivan became the curator of the Catherine Palace, whose Amber Room has been looted by the Nazis. Is he reaching out, or are Bletchley authorities testing her? When Dickie is murdered and Honey’s attraction to Felix deepens, Honey must disentangle love from danger, falsity from truth. Ribchester movingly reflects on trust, illusion, and the stories that connect us to our pasts.
This brilliant novel from German author Rothmann (Knife Edge) follows Walter Urban and his close friend Friedrich, two adolescent dairy farm workers in northern Germany, during the waning months of World War II. While out drinking at a local beer hall, they were coerced into enlisting in the German army by SS officers. The unnamed narrator, Walter’s son, pieces together his father’s wartime experience in the present day, after Walter’s death, by constructing the few factual details available to him into a vivid narrative that reveals the horrors of war and a traumatic event that changed Walter’s life. Spare and elegant, the novel paints a quietly harrowing picture of the lasting effects of human violence and offers brief, poignant glimpses into the natural world (especially when members of the animal kingdom wander unknowingly into the war zone). Directly confronting issues of responsibility, accountability, and legacy, this is an undeniably powerful work.
Film critic and historian Thomson (Television: A Biography) returns with a masterful look at one of early Hollywood’s preeminent families and the studio they built on their name. This story of Sam, Albert, Harry, and Jack Warner is the latest in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, and in it Thomson is just as at home writing biography as he is chronicling the institutional history of the Warner Bros. studio. He does an admirable job of using the studio’s films to examine the family’s internal dynamics, early in the text setting up a particularly trenchant comparison of the Warner siblings’ rivalries—which culminated in Jack seizing control of the company from his brothers, and possibly triggering Harry’s fatal heart attack—to that of Aaron and Cal in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Other characters beyond the Warners themselves float in and out of the text, the meatiest cameos going to two of the studio’s most famous contract players, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, both of whom fought the studio’s control tooth and nail. Thomson has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, demonstrated here by the familiarity with which he relates his subject. Anything new from Thomson is worth taking notice of, and this book is no exception.
When Eugenia “Genie” Lo, a 16-year-old Chinese-American overachiever, discovers that she’s the reincarnation of the Monkey King’s legendary weapon, the Ruyi Jingu Bang, it throws her carefully ordered life into upheaval. It turns out that there has been a massive jailbreak from Diyu, the Chinese hell, and only Genie has the power to defeat the escaped demons. Charged by the goddess Guanyin to work with Quentin Sun, the annoying (yet alluring) teenage manifestation of the Monkey King, Genie has to master her newfound powers and return dozens of demons to Diyu, while still making time for her best friend and staying on top of homework—too bad Harvard doesn’t offer scholarships for fighting evil. In this dazzlingly fun debut, Yee mixes humor, Chinese folklore, and action to deliver a rousing, irreverent adventure packed with sharp-edged banter. Genie is resourceful and ferocious as she juggles her tyrannically strict mother’s demands while holding the fate of the world in her hands, and her fiery love-hate relationship with Quentin steals the show. Ages 13–up.