This week: new books from John le Carré, Jesmyn Ward, Salman Rushdie, and more.
In this pensive exploration of the American culture of fear, Abramsky (The House of 20,000 Books) identifies a variety of personal and societal ills, including widespread anxiety disorders, overstuffed prisons, income inequality, and Islamophobia, as “symptoms of a social system in deep crisis.” In eloquent and devastating terms, Abramsky shows, over and over, how fear hijacks rational decision making, empathy, and rational analysis, and instead plays on implicit bias and gut response. Yet the human brain is enormously prone to miscalculating risk, influenced, as Abramsky demonstrates, less often by statistics than by sensationalist news cycles or single, horrific acts. Modern American phenomena such as endemic gun violence and lockdown drills at elementary schools derive, Abramsky argues, from rising paranoia and a constant feeling of high alert, stressing our brains and our social psyche into following leaders who present a show of force at the cost of our privacy and dignity. It takes a strong stomach to handle all the stressors Abramsky investigates—the stories range from Kafkaesque absurdity to nauseating cruelty—but his mild tone and deep compassion ultimately guide the reader to the only rational response: resist inflammatory rhetoric and recover a “healthier way of living, a calmer, less vengeful notion of community.”
Every family has its secrets, but not every family has a secret pact with a demon. In a promising series opener, Bracken (Wayfarer) kicks off the darkly delicious story of Prosperity “Prosper” Redding and his powerful family’s efforts to protect its legacy. Hapless, unpopular Prosper and his twin sister, Prue, are on the cusp of turning 13 when their frosty grandmother holds an impromptu family reunion, with nefarious intent, while the children’s parents are away. Soon after, Prosper is whisked to a haunted house in Salem, where he learns that his body and mind are entangled with a fiend named Alastor (“I know all of thy fears, thy desires, thy jealousy—where thou hides thy collection of small porcelain ponies,” the demon informs him). The story’s mysteries, which involve the fates of multiple dimensions of reality, unfold slowly enough to build anticipation but quickly enough to keep readers furiously flipping pages. Prosper shows tremendous growth (his testy interactions with Alastor may remind some readers of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books), Bracken’s cast is drawn in loving detail, and her twisty plot will keep readers guessing. Ages 8–12.
Brewer descends the rabbit hole of opioid addiction and its cycles of despair in his penetrating debut. He covers the gamut of experiences from withdrawal to rehab to relapse, and the idle helplessness of watching friends and family succumb to the disease. Brewer’s expert descriptions of his hometown of Oceana, W.Va., (nicknamed “Oxyana” for the drug whose use has spread there) evoke a sinister, deathly presence, with “fog-strangled mornings” and “rain choking the throats of smokestacks,” a landscape Brewer penetratingly connects to the addict’s brain. “Smog from the steam engine/ of dementia tints your hair,” Brewer writes, “your synapses scatter// in the late December forest of your mind.” The stunning and spare “Resolution” captures the decisive moment of choosing sobriety, its pathos and clarity so strong it is compared to the invention of the window, “All that light bursting in.” Brewer’s creative syntax and line breaks bolster his dark and vivid imagery, especially in a few downright unforgettable instances. “Oxyana” is both a real place and a fantastical mental prison, a symbol for addiction with religious and mythological references scattered throughout. Anyone familiar with addiction will recognize Oxyana’s metaphorical scenery in all its absurd and devastating iterations. Despair-inducingly relevant as opioid deaths soar across America, Brewer’s depiction of his triumph over his “shrieking private want” is a revelation.
An Iraqi childhood is cherished, examined, and let go in this tender look at youth amid upheaval. The daughter of an Iraqi dentist and a French woman, Findakly recalls picnics alongside archaeological sites, memorizing verses of the Quran in school, and censored phone calls between family members, all with an adult’s heartfelt clarity. Though these memories are rendered whimsically, in delicate watercolors and a charmingly rounded style, terror is never far—she notes often which sites of her youth have been destroyed, rendered unrecognizable, or taken over by ISIS. This contrast is the book’s greatest strength: Findakly and cocreator Trondheim, her husband and an acclaimed French cartoonist himself, understand intimately that children do not stay children forever and innocence is not eternal. Neither, however, do they wallow—death is never far from the door in this book, but life still happens. Findakly’s story is an ode to a lost era, to be sure, but one with its feet planted securely in the present.
Jamieson doesn’t disappoint in her first graphic novel since her Newbery Honor–winning Roller Girl. Imogen Vega’s parents perform at a Renaissance fair in Florida, immersing the family in a world of jousting and archaic language (“Thou qualling toad-spotted clack-dish!”). Imogen has been homeschooled all her life; now, at 11, she’s headed to public school. In her first weeks, she falls victim to the wiles of a mean girl, hurts a girl who might have been a good friend, and throws her younger brother’s treasured stuffed animal into the lake. As Imogen undergoes a period of self-enforced solitude, the extended family of the fair community offers unexpected support. Jamieson’s sturdy artwork (her figures are decidedly unglamorous, as if to offer regular kids reassurance) and sharp dialogue make it easy to care about her characters. Readers will also appreciate the irreverent humor of the fair’s adults: as a treatment for bullies, one recommends “a large quantity of chicken feathers and a few pots of honey.” The fair emphasizes adventure and theater, but its unconventional performers teach Imogen about kindness, too. Ages 9–12.
In this engrossing travelogue, poet and memoirist Kassabova (Twelve Minutes of Love) returns to her native Bulgaria after 25 years to explore its borders with Turkey and Greece, illuminating the area’s often dark history and the lives of the people living in its shadows. Remembering her country as a site of refuge for individuals fleeing Communist East Germany, she interviews a man who was caught, tortured, and imprisoned by the Stasi in 1971. In Strandja she witnesses the ritualistic bathing of religious icons accompanied by bagpipes and fire walkers and chronicles the unbelievable story of a (supposedly) cursed Thracian archaeological site believed to be an “intergalactic portal.” Throughout, Kassabova presents the border as a metaphor for the threshold of human callousness: once the line has been crossed into cruelty, there is no returning to the country of innocence. Wild animals abound, myths mingle with reality, and Kassabova proves to be a penetrating and contemplative guide through rough terrain.
Last seen in 1991’s The Secret Pilgrim, George Smiley returns in this stunning spy novel from MWA Grand Master le Carré, though it’s Peter Guillam, Smiley’s devoted assistant from MI6, who takes center stage. Guillam, who’s retired to Brittany, is summoned to London to answer questions about allegations of malfeasance in Windfall, an old operation involving a particularly enthusiastic East German source who needed exfiltration to England. The case has reared up because a couple of descendants of Cold War casualties are threatening an expensive and public legal action against the British government. The story of Windfall comes out through interrogations, old files, and Guillam’s memories. The result is both a riveting reprise of the Smiley novels and a new articulation of le Carré’s theme: spying is as morally bankrupt as the ideologies it serves. Readers familiar with le Carré will recognize allusions everywhere; those who aren’t won’t be left out, given the power of the storytelling and le Carré’s inimitable prose. He can convey a character in a sentence, land an emotional insight in the smallest phrase—and demolish an ideology in a paragraph.
Three Irish brothers tumble through New York during an eventful two weeks in June 1939, in Mathews’s masterful debut novel. Francis, temporarily released to attend his father’s funeral from the prison where he was being held for distributing pornographic literature, is in possession of some IRA cash he bungled into in the wake of a bomb blast. Francis has conceived an audacious plan to make it to America posing as a Scottish aristocrat, and is turning a few American heiresses’ heads in the process. With him is his brother Michael, on leave from the seminary for the same funeral, who was shell-shocked by the explosion that netted Francis his money and has struck up a friendship with the ghost of Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Their older brother, Martin, is already in New York, where he is trying to make a living as a jazz musician, to the chagrin of his politically connected in-laws. Once reunited, the brothers are pursued by Cronin, a former IRA hit man who has retired to a farm on the Hudson River, and his menacing boss Gavigan, who concocts a sinister plan involving the visit of the British royalty to the World’s Fair being held at that time in New York. Despite its length, this novel is a remarkably fast and exhilarating read, reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Like a juggler keeping multiple balls in the air, Mathews regularly adds new characters and their complicated stories to the volatile mix, without losing track of the original ones. With the wit of a ’30s screwball comedy and the depth of a thoroughly researched historical novel, this one grabs the reader from the beginning to its suspenseful climax.
Lockhart blends the privileged glamour of We Were Liars with a twisty, backward-running plot that’s slick with cinematic violence. Calling to mind her own The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, she offers a shrewd critique of the roles traditionally available to female characters in literature and film. This striking exploration of the nature of identity revolves around the relationship between Jule and Immie, two similar-looking orphans. Jule—a fierce physical fighter and self-taught expert at disguise—will do whatever it takes to escape her bleak past. Wealthy and charismatic Immie, by contrast, wafts pleasantly through life, living on Martha’s Vineyard while taking time off from college. Pushed into Immie’s privileged inner circle via a case of mistaken identity, Jule is swept into an intense friendship—and a series of events that play intentional tribute to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, among other literary precedents. A bracing pace, a slew of far-flung locations, and a storyline that runs mostly in reverse will keep readers on their toes, never entirely sure of what these girls are responsible for or capable of. Ages 12–up.
Patric’s suspenseful and harrowing debut brilliantly explores life as a refugee in Melbourne, Australia. Jovan Brakochevich works as a janitor at Sandringham Hospital while his wife, Suzana, earns money housekeeping for upper-middle class families in the suburb of Black Rock. Graffiti begins to appear around the hospital, and Jovan is ordered to clear the vandalism. David Dickens, a psychologist hired to study the graffiti in order to deduce the identity of the vandal, believes an employee in emotional crisis might be the perpetrator. The vandalism grows in severity, and so does Jovan’s obsession with it. He begins to suspect the messages are meant for him. Tensions rise as the hospital’s defacement leads Jovan to reflect on his past pain and his old life as a poet and educator in the former Yugoslavia, which he and Suzana fled in the chaos of the war and which has strained their relationship. These conflicts within them aggravate memories of their shared pain and manifest as damaging behavior. A sense of dread builds throughout, culminating in a shocking and unforgettable ending. Patric tackles the pressure to assimilate and the longing for one’s former life. The book is littered with quotes from Miloš Tsernianski and Ivo Andric´, and nods to Meša Selimovic´, Danilo Kiš, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky; the inclusion of these voices and narratives, along with the novel’s shifting tones and points of view, help articulate the experience of many forced migrants. This is a heartbreaking yet hopeful work about how trauma can erase identity and drive people to reinvent themselves.
Crash Override: How GamerGate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate
In 2014, indie game developer Quinn became the target of death threats, hate mail, and other online abuse after an internet vendetta devised by her abusive ex-boyfriend spiraled into a harassment campaign that came to be known as Gamergate, in which several women in the video game industry become the targets of largescale, coordinated online abuse. Quinn uses her personal experiences to advocate practical steps toward creating a safe and open internet culture. She rejects tired advice such as “don’t feed the trolls” and “just go offline,” instead advising social media users to secure passwords and to keep active records of any incidents of abuse and contact law enforcement. She calls on readers to resist the temptation toward vigilante justice. Instead of using the same tactics as the internet trolls, which just feeds the online outrage culture, Quinn encourages readers to focus their efforts on restorative justice by seeking out perspectives of people—particularly voices of trans women and women of color who are often targets of online abuse. For Quinn, winning the “cultural battle for the web” starts with reframing the issue as not a matter of good vs. bad people fueling hate culture on the internet, but rather “acceptable and unacceptable ways to treat each other.” It’s a remarkably clear-eyed view that’s all the more powerful in light of Quinn’s backstory.
In Rushdie’s ambitious and rewarding novel, a mysterious billionaire and his three adult sons change their names and move to New York City in an attempt to reinvent themselves after tragedy. Spanning the years from the Obama inauguration to the current political moment, the main story is narrated by René, an aspiring filmmaker who resides in the Gardens, the same fictional downtown Manhattan neighborhood as the pseudonymous “Golden” family of the book’s title. Each of the Golden sons is introduced in turn—the intellectual Petya, the artistically inclined Apu, their searching half-brother “D”—as René gradually comes to understand their origins and implicate himself in their dramas. After the patriarch, Nero, marries a much younger woman named Vasilia, her increasingly intimate relationship with René drags the Goldens’ history violently into the present. Replete with allusions to literature, film, mythology, and politics, the novel simultaneously channels the calamities of Greek drama and the information overload of the internet. The result is a distinctively rich epic of the immigrant experience in modern America, where no amount of money or self-abnegation can truly free a family from the sins of the past.
Soon after Rufus Emeterio, 17, and Mateo Torrez, 18, receive midnight phone calls from Death-Cast, a service that notifies those with less than 24 hours to live, the New York City teenagers connect via the Last Friend app and decide to spend their final hours together. Both have been dealt harsh hands even before getting the call: Mateo’s mother died giving birth to him and his father’s in a coma. Rufus is the only survivor of a car crash that killed his entire family. Over the course of an eventful day, these thoughtful young men speak honestly and movingly about their fate, their anger at its unfairness, and what it means to be alive, until their budding friendship organically turns into something more. Each tells his part of the story in alternating, time-stamped chapters. Other voices—mostly friends from Rufus’s foster home and people they encounter—fill out the narrative, revealing the influence both boys have had on those around them. It hardly matters that the title telegraphs the ending; it’s still heartbreaking when it arrives. Ages 14–up.
Smith follows the Lambda Literary Award–winning debut [insert] boy with a further display of transcendent talent for close-to-the bone articulation, celebrating the lives of “we citizens/ of an unpopular heaven// & low-attended crucifixions.” Poised at the bruising intersection of black and queer identity, poems such as “dear white america” (“I tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch”) lose no impact moving from spoken-word stage to page. Smith brilliantly metaphorizes the experience of receiving an HIV diagnosis in Lorca-esque fashion, as becoming “a book of antonyms” and leavens the gravity with moments of mordant wit. An erasure of Diana Ross lyrics leaves the message “if there’s a cure for this/ i want it,” capturing camp’s confrontation with the intolerable. Though visually and formally varied, the collection’s most striking pyrotechnics are rhetorical: “& he will say tonight, I want to take you/ how the police do, unarmed & sudden.” Describing a “down-low house party,” a speaker observes: “we say yo meaning let my body// be a falcon’s talon & your body be the soft innards of goats.” Luminous and piercing, this collection reassembles shattering realities into a shimmering and sharp mosaic.
Taubman (Khrushchev), emeritus professor of political science at Amherst College, retraces Mikhail Gorbachev’s strenuous climb up the Communist Party ladder to focus on his turmoil-ridden years as last general secretary from 1985 to 1991. A tragic hero who struggled to reject the “Bolsheviks’ bloody way of doing things” and nonviolently reconstruct his country’s political system and ideology, Gorbachev found himself head of a state over which he had no control. Relying on transcripts of Politburo meetings, Taubman writes energetically of Kremlin hard-liners’ attempts to derail the reformer as he coped with rising regional nationalism, economic collapse, and other disasters. Gorbachev was caught off guard by the fall of the Berlin Wall and bewildered by Boris Yeltsin’s rising popular appeal. Desperate for support he traveled to the West with his stylish and erudite wife, Raisa, whose charm helped take some chill off the Cold War. Meanwhile, political rifts deepened at home. In August 1991, a military junta tried to oust him. Under house arrest and fearing for his life, Gorbachev faced the bitter truth that though the West hailed him as statesman of the century, his own citizens despised him. Taubman suggests that Gorbachev might have Westernized Russia had the West given enough support at critical moments. Such conclusions require scrutiny, but do not detract from this definitive volume.
Valente (Radiance) delivers a linguistically dazzling novel that draws on the Brontë siblings’ real-life childhood writings about Glass Town, an invented land where they escaped the difficulties of their lives. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell are grieving the deaths of two older sisters and dreading the “Beastliest Day” when Charlotte and Emily are forced to go off to school. As Branwell and Anne accompany them to the carriage, a detour to the local train station leads them to escape to Glass Town, which turns out to be even wilder and more bizarre than they ever imagined. “Don’t worry, Em,” Charlotte reassures her sister. “We’re only in an insane, upside-down world populated by our toys, our stories, and Napoleon riding a giant chicken on fire. Nothing so bad as School.” The plot picks up after Anne and Branwell get kidnapped, but the story’s real delights come from the wit and cleverness woven into every description and conversation, as well as the sharp insights Valente brings to the children’s insecurities, longings, and hidden desires, which burst to the surface in this magical and perilous world. Ages 10–up.
Ward (Salvage the Bones) tells the story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family in this astonishing novel. “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.” This is the explanation 13-year-old Jojo is provided by his grandmother, the family matriarch, on her deathbed. “I’ll be on the other side of the door,” she reassures him, “With everybody else that’s gone before.” Jojo and his little sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, while Leonie, their mother, drifts in and out of their lives, causing chaos. Snorting coke one night, Leonie explains, “A clean burning shot through my bones, and then I forgot. The shoes I didn’t buy, the melted cake...” Leonie wants to be a better mother, and when Jojo’s and Kayla’s father is released from prison, Leonie takes the kids with her, hoping for a loving reunion, but what she gets instead is a harrowing drive across a muggy landscape haunted by hatred. Throughout the novel, though, are beautifully crafted moments of tenderness. When the dead, including Leonie’s murdered brother, make their appearances and their demands, no one in the family’s surprised. But their stories are deeply affecting, in no small part because of Ward’s brilliant writing and compassionate eye.