This week: a new story collection from James McBride, plus an excellent Scandinavian crime thriller.
The simplicity of Newbery Medalist Applegate’s graceful novel contrasts powerfully with the prejudice it confronts. Narration comes from Red, an enormous red oak near an elementary school that also serves as a “wishtree” for the neighborhood—once a year, residents deposit wishes in Red’s branches and hollows. Though trees aren’t supposed to talk to humans, Red cares for them deeply, especially when a lonely girl named Samar and her Muslim family move into the neighborhood and receive a chilly, then hostile, reception: a boy carves “Leave” into Red’s trunk, and the family endures taunts and other abuses. “I love people dearly,” Red muses. “And yet. Two hundred and sixteen rings, and I still haven’t figured them out.” Applegate creates strong parallel between these threats and those that Red faces, as neighborhood matriarch Francesca contemplates cutting the tree down. As tension escalates in both the natural and human realms, Red’s openhearted voice and generosity of spirit bring perspective gained over centuries of observation. It’s a distinctive call for kindness, delivered by an unforgettable narrator. Art not seen by PW. Ages 8–12.
Journalist Bruder (Burning Book) expands on an article originally published in Harper’s where she examined the phenomenon of aging Americans adjusting to an economic climate in which they can’t afford to retire. Many among them have discarded “stick and brick” traditional homes for “wheel estate” in the form of converted vans and RVs and have formed a nomadic culture of “workampers,” evoking the desperate resourcefulness of those who lived through the Great Depression. Bruder follows her subjects as they harvest sugar beets, work at Amazon fulfillment centers during the holidays, and act as campground hosts. She conducts extensive interviews, attends the workampers’ gatherings, and tests out survival tips, to the point where she makes “houselessness”—a lifestyle born out of necessity and compromise—seem like a new form of freedom, with its own kind of appeal. Of course, she also addresses the often-crushing financial and social circumstances in which these people live, and pointedly touches on the racial considerations that make this nomadic lifestyle a predominantly white trend. Tracing individuals throughout their journeys from coast to coast, Bruder conveys the phenomenon’s human element, making this sociological study intimate, personal, and entertaining, even as the author critiques the economic factors behind the trend.
The hero and heroine of this lively, likable tale cover a lot of territory and zigzag through a lot of history as they drive a Model A Ford through secret passages in time. After Eli Teague encounters Harriet “Harry” Pritchard fleeing from a murderous faceless man, he joins her on a road quest to recover the lost American Dream. They are part of a loose swarm of travelers who can move forward or back in time in their various vehicles, pursued by the ubiquitous, indistinguishable, and apparently indestructible government agents who want to stamp out individual freedom. The menace is convincing, as is Eli and Harry’s friendly romance. Like Eli, readers will be surprised by revelations about some characters’ true identities, and they’ll be pleased to see how Clines connects details that looked like mere decorative flourishes. This adventure makes no attempt to be deep; it’s a superior time-passer, a wonderfully amusing yarn.
New Jersey cop Nap Dumas, the hero of this outstanding standalone from bestseller Coben (Fool Me Once), is shocked to learn that fingerprints at the scene of a crime—the shooting death of a fellow cop and high school classmate during a traffic stop—belong to Maura Wells, Nap’s high school sweetheart, who disappeared 15 years earlier. Maura went missing at the same time that Nap’s twin, Leo, and Leo’s girlfriend, Diana Styles, were hit and killed by a train. Maura’s reappearance sends Nap to see Augie Styles, Diana’s father, a police captain and his mentor. Nap comes to suspect that the deaths of Leo and Diana may not have been an accident and are connected to a secret military base that they and a few other students called the Conspiracy Club were investigating at the time. When Nap begins tracking the surviving club members, it gradually becomes clear that someone or something is now trying to eliminate them. Coben keeps Nap and the reader blindly guessing as he peels back layers of deceit reaching back 15 years, revealing nesting dolls of deadly secrets.
Cannabis culture goes mainstream in this lavishly illustrated artisanal guide to cultivating and consuming marijuana. Food writer Crain (The Food Lover’s Guide to Portland) and Nichole Graf, Micah Sherman, and David Stein— the team behind Raven Grass, a cannabis grow operation in Olympia, Wash.—fashion marijuana cultivation as a high-end, enjoyable hobby in the style of brewing beer or growing orchids. Their guide includes short profiles on a variety of popular strains—with notes on flavor, growing tips, and effects of consumption—before getting into the basics of growing your own. The authors provide blueprints for four types of greenhouses (or “growing rooms”) along with requirements for humidity, light, airflow, propagation clones, and flowering cycles. The sections on soil composition and pest management address the needs of certain strains, but are also broadly relevant to home greenhouses in general. The instructions for making hash, rosin, and tincture are easy enough for hobbyists. Parts of the book, particularly the chapters on harvest and culinary use, are more art than practical guide; still there’s plenty of useful information for newbies. The stylish presentation of the book and its useful information give it broad appeal among open-minded gardeners and 420-friendly readers.
This debut collection of verse from TV writer/producer Harris hits a poetry trifecta: high energy, rhymes that can rival Cole Porter’s (“Nothing is impossible.... Every tooth is flossable”), and a torrent of ideas. Some poems turn on simple wordplay (“The Ice Cream Mondae”); others are surprisingly introspective (“I’m shy on the outside, but inside my head?/ I’m not at all shy—I’m outgoing instead”) or appear sappy on the surface, only to catch readers off guard with an ironic swerve. Parodies of nursery rhymes, meta-poetry that builds on earlier poems à la nesting dolls (“Read me the poem that’s titled ‘The Poem That’s Titled “The Poem That’s Titled ‘The Door’ ” ’ ”), and comments stuck to the pages provide more surprises. Smith’s homage to the 1950s aesthetic of artists such as Cliff Roberts is updated with diverse characters and loaded with over-the-top raucousness, and he includes some visual jokes all his own. The whole production is a worthy heir to Silverstein, Seuss, and even Ogden Nash: “If I ever find myself holding a gecko.../ I’ll lecko.” Ages 6–up.
Humming with invention and energy, the stories collected in McBride’s first fiction book since his National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird again affirm his storytelling gifts. In the opening story, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” vintage toy dealer Leo Banskoff gets a lead on a priceless collectible: the long-lost train set made for Robert E. Lee’s son Graham by one of Smith & Wesson’s founders. In one of several surprises that upend his assumptions about value, Banskoff prepares for fierce negotiation but finds that the train’s impoverished, devoutly evangelical owner wants to give it away. In “The Fish Man Angel,” a weary President Lincoln makes a late-night visit to his dead son Willie’s horse, weeping alone before overhearing words that change history. In “The Christmas Dance,” a Ph.D. candidate begs two of the only surviving members of the African-American Ninety-Second Infantry Division to describe its role in a senselessly bloody World War II encounter; though their reluctance jeopardizes his thesis, ultimately the men—unlike the government they served—honor even unspoken promises. One of two groups of linked stories reimagines the animal world, while the other visits a gritty neighborhood of Uniontown, Penn., during the Vietnam War as teenagers grapple with limitation and longing. McBride adopts a variety of dictions without losing his own distinctively supple, musical voice; as identities shift, “truths” are challenged, and justice is done or, more often, subverted.
When Perry was 12, her mother, Crystal, was murdered in their home in rural Maine, outside Perry’s bedroom. Her riveting memoir navigates the absences, silences, and solitudes that follow trauma. Perry, who now lives in Brooklyn and was the publisher of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, wonderfully evokes her mother even as she struggles to unravel the mystery of her death. In the 12 years between Crystal’s murder and the killer’s conviction, Perry tried to move forward, even as she faced police interrogations and scrutiny from officers who believed she remembered more from the night than she was telling. Perry reveals a family shattered in the wake of tragedy. She was shuttled among relatives and friends, living in Texas and then in Maine again, where she worried the killer still lived, haunting her small-town streets. Perry vividly portrays her mother, and she introduces the troubled men in her mother’s life: her estranged husband, Tom; her ex-boyfriends Dale and Tim; and her fiancé, Dennis. Other men and women move in this circle, all with secrets of their own, such as Teresa, Tom’s new girlfriend. Perry’s memoir is a testament to one child’s ability to survive the unspeakable, one woman’s ability to recapture what was lost, and a fascinating small-town mystery with breathtaking revelations at the end.
Porcellino’s minicomic King-Cat, launched in 1989, is the most quietly vital of modern comics, evolving over the years from punk zine to minimalist meditation. This volume, which collects issues 62–68, mixes autobio strips, illustrated memories (“Barbers I Have Known”), confessions, Zen riddles, Top 40 lists, and letters from readers, many of whom have been following King-Cat long enough that for them reading this collection is like checking in with an old, wise friend. Big things happen in these issues—Porcellino gets married and moves from Colorado to San Francisco—but they mostly happen around the edges. Instead, Porcellino focuses on moments such as watching an anthill, talking to his wife on a long drive, or vividly remembering long-past evenings at home. Both art and text are pared to the bone, Porcellino’s sparse line work providing the perfect complement to simple, haiku-like captions: “Sunlight slips through cracks in the buildings/ you can’t take a single thing with you.” “Please Read Slowly,” asks one page, and each installment of King-Cat rewards a slowly savored read.
Ancient myth and contemporary detection collide in this highly impressive thriller from Sundstøl (the Minnesota Trilogy), set in Norway’s Telemark region, the author’s own home. After 30 years in Florida, Norwegian PI Max Fjellanger returns for the funeral of Knut Abrahamsen, once his friend and fellow sheriff’s deputy. Knut drowned in a river, an apparent suicide, but his skeptical widow indicates that she suspects something criminal might have happened. Prolonging his stay, Max also becomes enmeshed in the case of college student Cecilie Wiborg, who vanished the previous Midsummer Eve, an echo of the similar 1985 disappearance of doctoral student Peter Schram. Like Cecilie, Peter was studying the strange pagan legends surrounding the 13th-century Eidsborg church and its statue of Saint Nikuls. Fjellanger joins forces with an unlikely ally, detective novel–loving librarian Tirill Vesterli, to pursue the truth. Together they uncover the vicious secrets that lurk beneath the area’s deceptively serene surface. Fans of Scandinavian crime fiction will hope that Sundstøl continues Max’s story in a sequel.
Working from notes Twain made after telling an especially successful bedtime story, Philip C. Stead completes the tale of gentle Johnny, whose heart is pure despite his bleak surroundings and cruel grandfather. A magic flower gives him the power to understand the speech of animals, and a menagerie of kindly creatures helps him win the reward for finding the kingdom’s lost Prince Oleomargarine—an insufferable twit, as it turns out. In postmodern fashion, Johnny’s odyssey is often interrupted by imagined banter between Twain and Stead, who sit outside an island cabin and argue about how to proceed. Erin Stead’s exquisite woodblock-and-pencil prints give the creamy pages an ethereal feel; her detailed close-up portraits of the main characters create a sense of intimate acquaintance. Even the action spreads have the stately appearance of medieval tapestries, as when Johnny and his animal family appear before the king: the tiny monarch, a tad defensive about his stature, sits on a throne that elevates him almost to the ceiling, putting him face-to-face with the delegation’s giraffe. At the story’s heart is a plea for honesty and kindness, expressed in its purest form by Johnny, who—unlike his voluble authors—doesn’t say much. “Then he opened his mouth and discovered the words that could save mankind from all its silly, ceaseless violence.... He said: ‘I am glad to know you.’ ” Stead stays faithful to Twain with a cast of eccentric characters, celestially fine writing, and a crusade against pomp that doesn’t sacrifice humor. Ages 8–12.