This week: the horrifying realities of America’s nuclear-weapons apparatus, plus a novelist's guide to revision.
Business writer Bing (The Curriculum: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master of Business Arts) makes his first foray into speculative fiction with a clever and sly satire of a future that feels like it’s lurking just around the corner, shot through with dry humor and stark hopes in a conflict-blasted digital world. At age 127, late-21st-century corporate titan and trillionaire Arthur Vogel can do nothing more to his body to stave off death. He decides to create Gene, a body manufactured as a fresh young home for Arthur’s consciousness. But Gene’s mostly blank brain burns with the will to escape. After Arthur is implanted into the new body, Gene and Arthur fight to control it. Complicating matters is Arthur’s plan to dominate the world by controlling the central cloud that all humanity is plugged into, while Gene falls in with those who want to destroy the cloud and free humanity from its digital bondage. Arthur’s perspective humanizes the technocrat bogeyman; Gene starts out as a bland everyman and becomes a flawed human. Bing’s optimistic nightmare will appeal to any reader wanting a glimpse down the slippery slope of technological domination.
Ellsberg (Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers) mixes autobiography and history as he details the horrifying realities of America’s nuclear-weapons apparatus, with an aim to inspire future “courageous whistleblowers.” As a Harvard postgraduate fellow, Ellsberg’s work on decision theory attracted the RAND Corp.’s attention. In 1959 he joined a study of the communication of the “execute” message to launch nuclear strikes, coming to focus on how to ensure that no subordinate decided to attack without clear authorization. To Ellsberg’s amazement, the military’s vaunted “fail-safe” system didn’t work. He also learned that America’s pledge never to attack first is fiction; the U.S. would have struck if convinced that the U.S.S.R. was about to attack. He describes how a single, exquisitely detailed plan would have directed thousands of bombs onto Eastern Bloc targets, as well as China, even if China was not involved in a planned attack. America’s sole deterrence of the Soviet Union was to threaten Armageddon. Ellsberg recounts with precision both public and top secret arguments over American nuclear-war policy during the three decades after WWII. Despite modest improvements since, little has fundamentally changed. Ellsberg’s brilliant and unnerving account makes a convincing case for disarmament and shows that the mere existence of nuclear weapons is a serious threat to humanity.
Kaaberbøl’s exhilarating sequel to 2015’s Doctor Death finds budding forensic pathologist Madeleine Karno shaken by the discovery of a woman’s mutilated body in a coal yard, the corpse’s abdomen sliced open. As the streets of Varbourg, France, erupt in violence following the assassination of President Marie François Sadi Carnot by an Italian anarchist in 1894, Karno, who’s also just been accepted as a physiology student at the local university, and with the Commissaire des Morts attempt to first identify the victim, then solve the woman’s brutal murder. Newspapers jump on the similarities to the murders of London’s Jack the Ripper, and fear ripples through the community at the thought that France might have its own Ripper. Karno eventually identifies the victim as Rosalba Lombardi, one of the city’s numerous prostitutes. As her clandestine investigation continues, Karno discovers disturbing facts about the murder that bring up female rights issues as relevant then as they are today. Kaaberbøl has created a genuinely tough, empathetic female heroine in an era when women were meant to be seen and not heard.
Adult author Kinsella (Fight the Right) sets this riveting murder mystery in Portland, Maine, in the late 1970s. After the gruesome slaying of two of their friends, teenage punk musicians called the X gang are targeted by an unknown enemy and by “anti-punk hysteria” in their community. The group is named after its enigmatic leader, X, best friend to Kurt Lank, who narrates Kinsella’s novel with a hard edge that befits its overall brutality (“For me, punk rock opened up this fucking huge range of creative possibilities—for my art, for my photography, for my music—and it did not give one shit, not one, if I was gay”). Compelled to defend their underground culture and frustrated by the police’s inability to solve the murders, the X gang begins its own investigations, uncovering a neo-Nazi religious movement seeking to destroy punks and other undesirables; simultaneously, Kurt and the others try to discern which adults they can trust. Tension starts high and stays there in this unflinching page-turner, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the early punk scene and a moving testament to the power of friendship. Ages 14–up.
Lianke’s talent for the fantastical shines in this collection of two novellas. In the title piece, an elder stays behind after a long drought drives his fellow village residents to more amiable climates; he claims he’d “surely die of exhaustion” if he joined their pilgrimage. With only his blind dog by his side, and battling both the elements and encroaching wild beasts, the elder toils under the hot sun to survive, nursing a lone corn seedling and devising various schemes to stay alive. “Marrow,” the second novella, features a devoted mother who will stop at nothing to provide her disabled children with happiness. A widow, she speaks to her husband’s ghost as she wheels and deals to land suitors, promising grains and goods to potential mates and leaving herself with little to survive. Though they contain dark subject matter, Lianke’s fables of personal sacrifice are also sharply observed and funny. Lianke’s narratives feel much larger than their page count suggest, almost epic.
“Redemption arc?” asks Claudia’s best friend, Zoe, curious about Claudia’s unexpected new friendship with Iris, her private school’s class president and infamous mean girl. It all starts when Claudia is forced to spend time with Iris for a class project, just as Iris is reeling from a breakup with her longtime girlfriend, Paige. Claudia discovers that Iris is more complicated and vulnerable than everyone assumes, and the evolution of their relationship—from enemies to intimate friends who respect and rely on each other—is compelling and real. Mills (This Adventure Ends) thoughtfully explores the nuances of all kinds of relationships, both friendly and romantic, via Claudia and her circle of friends. Also in the mix: Zoe is falling in love with Claudia’s brother, Iris longs to get back together with Paige, and Claudia faces her own insecurities and hopes for a romance with popular Gideon. Through these friendship struggles and romances old and new, Mills evokes the high stakes and vast rewards of trust, intimacy, and honesty. Ages 14–up.
This fusion of mystery, police procedural, and noir thriller from CWA Dagger Award–winner Mosby (The Reckoning on Cane Hill) is pure crime fiction gold. A serial killer who has been abducting women from an unspecified area of England for almost two decades is identified after a car accidentally crashes into his garage and reveals a nearly-dead victim. Det. Insp. Will Turner, whose first love was one of the victims, vows to capture the man whom the media has dubbed the Red River Killer. The search is complicated by the husband of one of the victims, who appears to know more than he should about the case, and by a strange set of notes allegedly from the killer sent to the police that may indicate the involvement of another person. The narrative is powered by darkly lyrical prose and a cast of nuanced characters, but it’s the bombshell plot twists at novel’s end that will leave readers more than satisfied. This is one of those exceedingly rare novels that’s virtually impossible to put down.
Petrosino (Hymn for the Black Terrific) crackles in her stunning third collection, as she dives deep into the ephemeral powers of the body, particularly those of black women. She examines the ways in which one’s body plays a part in shaping personal identity and what it means to be a woman in modern society. In “Young,” Petrosino reflects on being a teenager, lushly detailing how during that tumultuous period emotions can feel inescapable. She writes, “& I, in my runny custard body/ with its buried corkscrew of hate/ tell the tree my story-songs/ & think God can really hear.” In other poems, such as “New South,” she discusses how histories passed down from mother to daughter manifest in the physical body. She says, “am born/ light girl, light girl/ each step blessed but slant/ born in procession/ already my mother, her mother/ the same her mother, then/ her mother the same.” Petrosino seems to speak of maternal history as something that is infused into a daughter at birth. A similar idea crops up in “Ghosts” and “Prospera,” in which mothers and daughters maintain dependent relationships with deep roots. Cosmic images blend with the familiar and domestic to create an all-encompassing reading experience. Petrosino situates the body as a vessel for stories of both being and becoming.
Schwartz (NATO’s Nuclear Dilemmas), a State Department alumnus, introduces a new generation to Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) with the first English-language biography of Fermi in 47 years. An Italian immigrant, Nobel laureate, and passionate outdoorsman, Fermi pioneered the physics breakthroughs that shaped the 20th century. Readers will find no equations here, only unfaltering, clear explanations of the science behind his discoveries relating to the weak and strong interactions, Fermi-Dirac statistics, computational physics, and nuclear reactors. Along with Fermi’s life in Italy and America, Schwartz ably resurrects his Los Alamos years, showing how “much of what was secret in the Manhattan Project originated in Fermi’s brain.” Uniquely, Fermi triply excelled in experimentation, theory, and teaching. By “stripping problems to their bare essentials and leading his students through step-by-step solutions,” Fermi “believed that anyone could learn what he knew.” Charismatic, confident, and approachable, he was beloved by students and peers alike. But Fermi showed reticence “in every aspect of his personal life,” writing “neither letters nor diaries.” Schwartz recreates Fermi’s story from the outside in, aided by the writings of his wife, Laura, and his colleagues. Told in a sure, steady voice, Schwartz’s book delivers a scrupulously researched and lovingly crafted portrait of the “greatest Italian scientist since Galileo.”
As Scofield (A Chance to See Egypt) cheerfully points out in this thorough and detailed writing guide, a novel is not finished until it has undergone a careful and thorough revision. Drawing deeply on her own teaching and writing and using a multitude of examples from classic and contemporary fiction, she offers a meticulous guide to revising a novel. Scofield suggests first thinking about “what kind of book you want to write” and being ambitious while doing so. She then moves to process, providing clear and thoughtful exercises for blocking out scenes, writing a capsule summary, identifying elements from the first draft to retain, and finding the novel’s “vision.” Scofield includes a helpful section of resources that includes an annotated list of books on the craft of writing, examples from “model novels,” and tips on storyboarding. Some of her best advice to would-be novelists is simply to read other novels and analyze them, so as to learn the craft of fiction from those who have come before you. The lasting messages of this inspiring book are “read, read, read,” “write the best prose you can,” and “love the process and what you learn.”