This week: Banville’s sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, plus chef Nobu Matsuhisa's memoir.
In a poor neighborhood in central Tampa, Fla., sophomore Marcos Rivas is more worried about avoiding his mother’s abusive, racist boyfriend than about getting good grades. But he also yearns to escape poverty and maybe even get a date with Amy, a classmate with blue-streaked hair and a no-nonsense attitude (“All my life I’ve seen how couples match, in skin or style, and then I get a crush on a white girl who listens to punk”). Aceves sets his first novel in a vividly described community plagued by the familiar demons of addiction, crime, and abuse, as well as rampant racism. Marcos’s narration springs to life as he struggles with complex problems. His best friend is dealing drugs, and his mother—who was 16 when she became pregnant—doesn’t really know how to take care of herself, much less him. Through new friends in Marcos’s after-school program, he realizes that he isn’t alone, an epiphany that permeates the balance of the novel. It’s a memorable, hard-hitting portrait of a teenager trying to shape his own destiny after being dealt a difficult hand. Ages 14–up.
Abdurraqib’s essay collection is mesmerizing and deeply perceptive. Most of the essays are about music, particularly live music, touching on how it acts as a balm in a time of fear and pain. One essay explores being an outsider among outsiders through Abdurraqib’s memory of being a black kid at an overwhelmingly white punk rock show, yet imbues this experience of loneliness with a sense of triumph. Not every music writer would think to connect the performative identities of the rap group Migos and Johnny Cash as Abdurraqib does, showing how both are based on an arguably inauthentic outlaw persona. All of the musicians discussed, including Carly Rae Jepsen and Chance the Rapper, are accorded respect, along with an understanding of what needs in their audience they satisfy. Abdurraqib’s essays linger on the black American experience, emphasizing the desire to be seen and the fear of being invisible. He doesn’t posit music as a cure-all for modern America’s societal ills—those he mentions include mass shootings, racial violence, and prejudice against Muslims—but also observes that it “isn’t only music” but a way of feeling a sense of belonging. Abdurraqib’s essays are filled with honesty, providing the reader with the sensation of seeing the world through fresh eyes.
Banville’s sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is a delightful tour de force that channels James with ease. The rich and measured prose style is quintessentially Jamesian: the long interior monologues perfectly capture the hum of human consciousness, and the characters are alive with psychological nuance. Readers join James’s heroine where his classic left her; Banville’s Isabel Archer Osmond is now a sedate, proper matron, who bitterly rues her marriage to deceitful Gilbert Osmond. She retains her high-minded principles, however, and has determined to live with her guilt at having ignored the advice she had received against marrying him. Gilbert is a cruel, arrogant man who condescends to Isabel in cutting language, lives off her fortune, and demands her complete loyalty. Having defied Gilbert when he forbade her to leave their home in Rome to hurry to her dying cousin’s bedside in England, Isabel feels the first stirrings of freedom. Almost capriciously, she withdraws a large amount of money from the bank in the hopes of having it free to spend as she sees fit without the interference of her husband and his malign mistress, Madame Merle. After Isabel’s redoubtable lady’s maid, Staines, discloses some astonishing news, the narrative takes a suspenseful turn. Some of the other characters from The Portrait of a Lady—including Isabel’s aunt, Mrs. Touchett; Pansy Osmond, Gilbert’s daughter; and American journalist Henrietta Stackpole—appear again. It is clear the freedom and social clout that money bestows in the 19th-century settings of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, all described in lush detail. As in James’s novel, Banville incorporates a wonderful sense of irony; the result is a novel that succeeds both as an unofficial sequel and as a bold, thoroughly satisfying standalone.
Combining humor and passion, science textbook writer Berwald investigates the strange world of the jellyfish in this captivating and informative science memoir. She reveals the ways these seemingly simple creatures are far more complex than many people imagine, examining how they communicate, how some sense light without eyes, and how some are virtually immortal. Berwald interviews leading jellyfish scientists around the world while sharing some of her own experiences with the animals, including searching for blooms in the eastern Mediterranean and tasting some at home in Austin, Tex. Her message transcends jellyfish themselves: Berwald makes clear that researching jellyfish “is not just to look at a creature unfamiliar and bizarre to most, but to study the planet and our place in it.” As oceans acidify and fisheries crash from overuse, jellyfish populations appear to be expanding: clogging cooling systems of power plants, disrupting tourism, and further damaging fish stock. Yet Berwald makes clear that the oceans are incredibly complex ecosystems and scientists aren’t fully certain what role jellyfish play, only that they are a critical component of the environment. Berwald details how focusing on jellyfish expanded her own intellectual horizons and she tells some awfully good stories along the way.
At one point in Hallinan’s outstanding eighth thriller set in Bangkok and featuring American expat Poke Rafferty (after 2015’s The Hot Countries), Rose, Poke’s Thai wife, muses, “People never knew until it was too late... whether the place where they pitched their tent was on the banks of some Fools’ River.” That noirish metaphor is central to the missing-persons case that travel writer Poke, who has a reputation for solving problems outside official channels, takes on through his teenage daughter, Miaow. Buddy Dell, the independently wealthy father of Edward, a school friend of Miaow’s, has vanished. Since Buddy maintains four separate houses, each presided over by a different “auntie,” his absence from Edward’s home is not unusual—except that it’s been 12 days. Poke soon learns that a dozen other men, most of them foreigners, have recently disappeared, only to be found floating in a canal with casts on at least one leg. Perhaps Buddy has fallen victim to the same criminal or criminals. Hallinan makes the most of his chosen setting, as well as the challenges his ethical lead faces to save a life, despite the indifference of a corrupt police force. Fans of hard-boiled detective fiction will feel right at home.
The very concept of black Tudors may sound unlikely, but in this highly readable yet intensively researched book, Kaufmann, senior research fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, makes clear that people of African descent were residing in England centuries before the postwar Windrush generation and were not necessarily enslaved. By examining in detail the lives of 10 previously obscure men and women, Kaufmann depicts the great diversity of their experiences in 16th- and early-17th-century England. John Blanke, a trumpeter to Henry VII, lived at the Tudor court and earned twice the annual wage of a white agricultural laborer, while mariner John Anthony’s travels took him to Virginia just as the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colony. The exotically named Cattelena of Almondsbury was an unmarried African woman who managed to make a life for herself in rural Gloucestershire. Kaufman also persuasively argues that the enslavement of Africans emerged as a response to the socioeconomic conditions of England’s Caribbean and North American colonies, rather than as an inevitable result of a supposedly inherent racism within early modern English culture. Kaufmann’s crucial contention, in conjunction with her lively prose and fascinating microhistories, should draw some well-deserved attention.
In this outstanding memoir, chef and restaurateur Matsuhisa tells of his rise from being a dishwasher and deliveryman to becoming synonymous with top-notch sushi and Japanese-inspired cuisine. Matsuhisa writes about how he took inspiration from master chefs as well as his culinary travels. Stints working in Alaska, Argentina, Japan, and Peru proved to be both educational and frustrating for him. Those experiences paid off when he reached Los Angeles in 1977, where he created some of his signature dishes, such as black cod with miso, and opened his first restaurant, Matsuhisa. That, in turn, led to the opening of his flagship Nobu restaurant in New York City in 1993 and, soon after, locations around the world. Unconcerned with accolades and uninterested in chest thumping—his prime motivation for running a restaurant, he says, is delighting customers—Matsuhisa focuses here on his approach to maintaining high-quality service. He offers insight into the leeway he gives to chefs at his various restaurants, how to minimize tensions when reprimanding staff, and how to promote mutual learning, not rivalry, to make his organization stronger. A passionate chef with an open mind and a big heart, Matsuhisa shares lessons in humility, gratitude, and empathy that will stick with readers long after they’ve finished the final chapter.
The night that Nova’s parents and infant sister were murdered, the Renegades—superheroes who protect her city—never came to save the day. Ten years later, the time has come for 16-year-old Nova to infiltrate the Renegades and exact her revenge: her power to induce sleep has been honed by the Anarchists, the so-called villains of her world. In a vividly dark and fully imagined universe where special abilities are feared unless they can be strictly controlled and labeled, Meyer (the Lunar Chronicles) celebrates and subverts popular superhero tropes while mining the gray area between malevolence and virtue. Third-person narration builds suspense as it shifts between Nova and Adrian, a Renegade with his own secrets; the worldbuilding details and many combat sequences will captivate devotees of superhero comics. Beyond the capes and masks is a strikingly grounded story of star-crossed would-be lovers, deception, and the recognition that most of humanity exists between the extremes of good and evil. A twist ending casts doubt on a key aspect of the story’s history and leaves the door open for future exploration. Ages 12–up.
Human rights activist Murad recounts her captivity in Iraq as a sabiya, or sex slave, held by ISIS in this brilliant and intense memoir. Murad and her entire Yazidi village in Kocho were kidnapped by members of ISIS on August 3, 2014. Yazidis are a Kurdish religious minority, traditionally farmers who settled in the outskirts of cities, Murad lived outside of Mosul, which was also captured by ISIS militants in 2014. In the early morning of August 3rd, ISIS rounded up Murad’s village, killed the men, and kidnapped the women. The young women and girls were separated from their mothers and trafficked as sex slaves for ISIS, and Murad was forced to convert to Islam by her vicious captor Haji Salman. Sabiyas are used by ISIS to recruit more ISIS militants. Murad writes, “Every Sabiya has a story like mine. You can’t imagine the atrocities ISIS is capable of until you hear about them from your sisters and cousins, your neighbors and your schoolmates.... The men were all the same: they were all terrorists who thought it was their right to hurt us.” Murad miraculously managed to escape her captivity and reunite with what remained of her family to become a refugee in Kurdistan. She is now an advocate who speaks out for protection and justice to be restored to all the women kidnapped, trafficked, and enslaved by ISIS. This book is a clear-eyed account of ISIS’s cruelty and the devastation caused by the war in Iraq.
The fantastic fourth novel (after Curtain Call) from former Independent film critic Quinn is a testament to women who fought for what they wanted in a time of little personal and professional autonomy. Fresh out of military service, Freya Wyley meets affable Nancy Holdaway during VE Day celebrations on the streets of London. Freya and Nancy, both aspiring writers, form an immediate bond and later attend Oxford, where their friendship is tested by professional and romantic entanglements. The women reunite during the social revolution of 1960s London. Their bohemian lifestyle of parties, sexual exploration, and drug experimentation is juxtaposed with their fight to be taken seriously in a world dominated by men. While Nancy struggles to get a novel published, Freya breaks news and gender barriers as an outspoken journalist who exposes discrimination against homosexuals (as she grapples with her own sexuality). Clever dialogue (Freya, speaking of the wife of an overweight man she disliked: “Let us call her the lesser of two ovals”) wonderfully captures the personalities, strengths, and weaknesses of major and minor characters alike. Fans of Tom Wolfe and Patricia Highsmith will embrace Quinn’s swashbuckling Freya.
Actress Ritter (Marvel’s Jessica Jones) makes a triumphant fiction debut with this pulse-pounding thriller featuring a sympathetic, broken lead character. Ten years after leaving her hometown of Barrens, Ind., Chicago attorney Abby Williams returns as part of a legal team considering civil litigation against Optimal Plastics, a corporation whose chemicals may have caused illness and damaged crops. The professional challenge is daunting: Optimal has bought off much of the town, including a prosecutor who began a case against the company, until it swelled his campaign coffers for political office. Abby finds links to a case from more than a decade earlier, the disappearance of popular Kaycee Mitchell. On the personal side, Abby is unable to escape the grip of the past: a claque of mean girls relentlessly bullied her during high school, and her one surviving relative is her abusive father, who’s declining mentally and physically. Abby’s noirish worldview (she divides humanity into “the people of the world who squeeze and the ones who suffocate”) is pitch-perfect, and Ritter effectively uses Abby’s present-tense narration to create immediacy.
This astounding and thought-provoking novel from Rivera Garza (No One Will See Me Cry) opens during a stormy night: two women visit an unnamed narrator at his oceanside home and gradually unravel his life. The first woman, whom the narrator has never met before, shares the name of neglected Mexican author Amparo Dávila. The second woman arrives shortly after and promptly faints—it’s the narrator’s former partner, whom he refers to as the Betrayed. The narrator, who works at a hospital for terminal patients (“My life among the dead was boring, to be sure, but at least it had the merit of being routine”), becomes increasingly disturbed by the two women, who claim to know his secret. Amparo, meanwhile, says a patient at the narrator’s hospital stole her manuscript, and she wants the narrator to retrieve it for her. This leads the narrator on a journey through his unnamed country (though it’s clearly Mexico) that fractures his sense of reality and shifts his understanding of his own gender. Rivera Garza’s novel succeeds as a suspenseful psychological horror story in the vein of a David Lynch film or Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, as a dissolver of the space between genders, and as a challenge to the cultural erasure of the real-life Dávila. The result is mind-bending.
Swanson and Behr—the husband-wife creators of Everywhere, Wonder and Babies Ruin Everything—track a delightfully topsy-turvy day at Tiddlywhump Elementary in this heavily illustrated and impressively designed story. Their heroine is the hugely self-confident and aptly named Moxie McCoy, a 10-year-old aspiring sleuth inspired by an intrepid fictional detective. As the novel unfolds, Moxie interviews candidates to replace a best friend who moved away, attempts to identify the person who stole school mascot Eddie the Owl, and expects to clinch the award given to the student “who has best lived up to Eddie’s ideals of courage, patience, and wisdom.” Quick to judge and jump to conclusions, she doesn’t mince words: a pair of twins vying for the award “are about as lovable as the bumps on the end of an alligator’s nose.” Snappy analogies, similes, and double entendres play out in Behr’s energetic illustrations, a rambunctious jumble of cartoons, fonts, and dialogue balloons. At the heart of the story is Moxie’s deepening rapport with her bookish younger brother, Milton, and readers will hope to see more of both siblings soon. Ages 8–12.