This week: new books from Toni Morrison, Alice McDermott, and Nelson DeMille.
The subtitle barely captures the scope of this ambitious debut graphic novel, a mix of biography, history, social commentary, literary analysis, and more. It’s a multilayered exploration of the lives of Charlie Rizzo and his father Matt, a blind man with secrets. Charlie’s parents separated when he was young, but his mother’s death brings him back into his father’s life in Chicago. When Charlie becomes involved with petty criminals, Matt begins to reveal his past to his son, and this sweeps through the book like a tsunami of surprises and pure, dark emotion. Matt’s story involves a world of gangsters, too, but also jail, the truth of how he was blinded, and an unexpected pivotal person: thrill killer Nathan Leopold Jr., who shared his jail cell. Blair’s exceptional pen-and-ink work, which mixes the tangible world with the psychological, brings all the strands together seamlessly and powerfully.
Set in 2015 during the early days of the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, this action-packed, relentlessly paced thriller from bestseller DeMille (The Quest) introduces Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, a 35-year-old army veteran wounded in Afghanistan and now living in Key West, Fla., as a charter boat captain. Crippled by debt—he has a $250,000 bank loan on his boat—and feeling existentially adrift, Mac agrees to participate in a covert mission to Cuba for a substantial sum. Financed by a faction of Cuban-Americans bent on freeing their ancestral home from Castro’s oppression and returning millions of dollars and property to their rightful owners, the job entails accompanying a beautiful woman to Havana and recovering a cache of money and documents hidden in a cave. But the plan is risky at best, and soon Mac is on the run with a woman who could be manipulating him. A line from the novel perfectly describes this page-turner: “Sex, money, and adventure. Does it get any better than that?”
Griffin (When Friendship Followed Me Home) delivers a tender, sensitive portrayal of a boy beginning to wonder about his place in the world. Lorenzo Ventura, over six feet tall and 250 pounds at age 11, discovers a runt piglet left behind on his family’s Pennsylvania peach orchard. Bella, the family’s pet Lab, has just given birth to a litter of puppies, so she and Renzo both become caretakers of the small pig, which he names Marty after his late father, an Army sergeant. As the months pass, Renzo faces several life-changing situations, including his friend Paloma’s musical success and revelations about his father; Marty has become such a steadying force that Renzo can’t imagine life without him. Griffin infuses kindness into almost every scene, his well-drawn characters leave lasting impressions, and he gracefully delves into themes that include love, sacrifice, friendship, and accountability. Many readers will know a Renzo, the big-hearted kid who’s a little different and has both hardships and undiscovered talents. There are no easy solutions to the characters’ problems, nor outright villains, just struggling people navigating life. Ages 10–14.
Pioneering baseball analyst Bill James (he created the Sabermetrics statistical analysis system) successfully transfers his detail-oriented mind-set to true crime in this suspenseful historical account, cowritten with his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James. The authors’ focus is a series of murders, perhaps as many as 100, committed by a killer they call “the man from the train,” who slaughtered entire households, mostly in the Midwest, during the first two decades of the 20th century. Beginning with the best known of the crimes—the massacre of the Moore family in Villisca, Iowa, in 1912—the Jameses identify the signature elements of the crimes: the murderer struck near train tracks, used the blunt side of an axe, left valuables behind, covered his victims’ heads with cloth, and displayed a sexual interest in prepubescent females. The authors, who culled data from hundreds of thousands of small-town newspapers of the era to identify crimes not initially thought connected, build their case with an innovative mix of statistical analysis and primary sources. They conclude with a plausible identification of the culprit, but the strength of the book hangs on their diligent research and analysis connecting crimes into the closing years of the 19th century. Even those skeptical at the outset that one man was responsible for so much bloodshed are likely to be convinced.
The latest from McCormack (Notes from a Coma) is a beautifully constructed novel that blends Beckett’s torrential monologues with a realist portrait of small-town Ireland. The book opens with short, fragmented descriptions of the “systolic thump” of a church bell heard by a man, Marcus Conway, standing in his kitchen. He is a civil engineer and a one-time seminary student who lives on the west coast of Ireland, at “the edge of this known world.” Waiting for his wife and children to return home, Marcus is struck by the “twitchy energy in the ether,” mystified at being “swept up on a rush of words” and bombarded with “a hail of images.” Free of periods, the one-sentence novel is comprised of Marcus’s unceasing reflections and recollections, some lyrical and tender, others caustic, on his childhood, family, politics, and local building projects. He marvels at the miraculous construction of the world while feeling a sense of foreboding at its imminent unravelling. Bodies, minds, buildings, financial systems, the civic order, and the universe itself—“the whole vast assemblage of stars and galaxies in their wheeling rotations”—all seem poised of the brink of collapse. As Marcus waxes eloquent on everything from tractor parts to concrete foundations, the novel’s suspense derives from the mystery of why this “strange” day—All Souls’ Day, as it happens—occasions such an “unspooling” of the mind. This is an intelligent, striking work.
National Book Award winner McDermott (Someone) delivers an immense, brilliant novel about the limits of faith, the power of sacrifice, and the cost of forgiveness. Set in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, the story begins in tragedy as young and pregnant Annie, an Irish immigrant, returns home to her shabby tenement apartment to find her 32-year-old husband dead from intentional carbon monoxide poisoning. In order to make money, Annie takes a job doing laundry at the local convent. In turn, the nuns of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor help Annie raise her daughter, Sally, after she is born. As Sally pushes through adolescence, the influence of the strict yet benevolent sisters and the church’s teachings takes hold. At 18, Sally embarks on her own novitiate journey, accompanying Sister Lucy and bubbly Sister Jeanne to the cluttered homes and sickbeds of New York’s most poor and wretched. The novel jumps around in time and spans three generations, exploring the paths of Annie, Sally, and Sally’s children. But it’s the thread that follows Sally’s coming of age and eventual lapse of faith that is the most absorbing. Scenes detailing her benevolent encounters, especially her stint taking care of cantankerous and one-legged Mrs. Costello, are paradoxically grotesque and irresistible. As in her other novels, McDermott exhibits a keen eye for character, especially regarding the nuns (Sister Lucy, who “lived with a small, tight knot of fury at the center of her chest,” is most memorable).
Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul, 12, is still reeling from the murder of his older brother, Jermaine. The only thing that makes him feel better is building with Legos, and after his mother’s girlfriend, Yvonne, gives him two trash bags full of loose Legos for Christmas, he lets his imagination soar. When Lolly’s creation outgrows his West Indian family’s Harlem apartment, he moves it to the rec center. Encouraged by the facility’s director, Mr. Ali, Lolly and Big Rose, a girl with autism, begin to build “the alien metropolis of Harmonee.” Outside the safety of the rec center, life for Lolly and his best friend Vega is getting more complicated. Two older boys, Harp and Gully, are hassling them, and their menacing presence escalates into an act of violence. Debut author Moore delivers a realistic and at times brutal portrait of life for young people of color who are living on the edge of poverty. At the same time, Moore infuses the story with hope and aspiration, giving Lolly the chance to find salvation through creativity. Ages 10–up.
Based on the 2016 Charles Norton Lecture series at Harvard University, the latest work of nonfiction by Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize–winning novelist Morrison analyzes the language of race and racism and the classification of people into dehumanizing racial categories in American culture. “The necessity of rendering a slave a foreign species appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal,” she writes, and draws on numerous examples from history and literature that expose the psychological work of “othering.” Two particularly chilling instances of this dehumanization come from the 19th century: Southern physician Samuel Cartwright’s invention of an illness he called “drapetomania” that he used to account for why slaves ran away, and planter Thomas Thistlewood’s diary entries describing the callous rape of slaves with the cold detachment of scientific notation. Morrison also shows the ways white authors romanticized slavery in fiction, pointing to the scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin where Tom and Chloe’s slave children happily eat under the table. She includes discussions of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” and many of her own novels. Lyrically written and intelligently argued, this book is on par with Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and The Black Book.
A heartbreaking dual narrative follows Adam, a gay teenager with homophobic parents, and the ghost of a classmate murdered by her meth-addicted boyfriend, over the course of one, defining day. In the hours before a going-away party for his first love, Adam Thorn has fateful confrontations with his evangelical pastor father and with the creepy boss who has been sexually harassing him. But the real bombshell is dropped when Angela, a friend Adam relies on, announces that she’s moving from Washington State to the Netherlands for senior year. Ness (The Rest of Us Just Live Here) interleaves Adam’s multipronged crisis with a strand tracking the murdered girl’s spirit as it seeks revenge (in the company of a seven-foot-tall faun) against her killer. Adam’s story dominates the narrative and provides a frank, riveting portrayal of a gay teenager’s sexual awakening (an endnote acknowledges the influence of both Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Blume’s Forever). The paranormal storyline isn’t quite as affecting as the plotline that follows Adam, but it conveys a sense of the mystery that can infuse ordinary lives. Ages 14–up.
British author Robins (The Trial of Queen Caroline) makes her fiction debut with a deliciously creepy psychological thriller. Callie Farrow, who works in a London bookstore, becomes obsessed with every aspect of the life of her glamourous twin sister, Tilda, a well-known actress, after Tilda marries the controlling Felix Nordberg, a wealthy financier. Callie believes that Felix’s mania for perfection, from the order of his silverware to his volatile reaction to a minor error, signals a penchant for domestic violence. Convinced that Tilda is in danger, the increasingly unstable Callie monitors Tilda, snoops in her home, and reads her hidden diary. Callie also contributes to a website about domestic abuse and becomes fixated on women killed by their partners. As she teeters on the brink of insanity, Callie considers taking drastic measures to save her sister. The plot slowly but forcefully builds to a shocking finale as Robins skillfully explores the dynamics between sisters, mental health issues, and manipulative behavior.