This week: Emma Glass's mind-bending debut novel, plus two remarkable scientists and their dueling visions to shape tomorrow’s world.
In this gripping and heartrending novel, Abawi (The Secret Sky) follows a family of Syrian refugees, whose lives are changed when one of the feared “bombs that fell indiscriminately from the sky” destroys their apartment building. Teenage Tareq, his father, and his four-year-old sister, Susan, survive, but his mother, grandmother, and three other siblings die in the blast. All three flee the country, joining the endless stream of refugees desperately seeking safety. Destiny itself serves as an omniscient narrator, a device that helps to buffer readers from the relentless terror, hunger, and danger plaguing Tareq’s family: “To me, you are all from the same world. You have the same hearts, needs, wants and desires.” As the family journeys through Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia on their way to Germany, its configuration varies, most poignantly when Fayed pays smugglers to take his children in a perilously overcrowded boat bound for Greece. Newfound friendships and stories of volunteers pulling refugees from the Aegean provide elements of hope in this upsetting yet beautifully rendered portrayal of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Ages 12–up.
In this sensitively written novel, Connor (All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook) introduces a learning-disabled 12-year-old who will warm readers’ hearts and earn their respect with his honesty and compassion. Mason Buttle may have trouble spelling words and be slow to understand some things, but he knows how to be a good friend. Ever since his best friend and neighbor Benny died in an accident in the Buttles’ apple orchard, Lieutenant Baird of the police department has been badgering Mason with questions. Writing from Mason’s point of view (including journal entries he composes using a speak-and-write computer program), Connor paints a vivid picture of Mason’s world and the people who inhabit it: the grief-stricken grandmother and uncle who raise him, the neighborhood boys who torment him, and social worker Ms. Blinny, who provides a safe haven in her office. When Mason’s new friend Calvin goes missing, Lieutenant Baird returns with more questions for Mason. Poignant and suspenseful, Mason’s story crystallizes an adolescent boy’s joys and fears as he comes into his own. Ages 8–12.
Telling a love story set in the midst of a 1970s Swedish winter, Furmark (The Mazes and Other Stories) captures both how fundamentally simple and irreparably complicated human relationships can be. The story shifts focus from one character to the next as it explores how Siv, a social democrat and married mother of three, falls for a Maoist named Ulrik who has come to northern Sweden to mobilize sympathy for his group’s platform at the local steelworker’s union. Both of them want something very similar and, at once, altogether different from each other. As the narrative perspective glides from Siv to her daughter, Marita, then to Ulrik and other principal characters, the complexity of the relationship deepens. Furmark’s palette is an emotive canvas of complementary colors, with the blues showing the beautiful but bleak cold of the northern landscape and oranges reserved for warmth generated by love, simple friendship, and the spark of human connection. Furmark’s success in this graphic novel is in making readers care, on some level, about everyone who wanders in and out of her splendid panels.
Glass’s fierce and mesmerizing debut straddles the line between fable and novel as it chronicles the effects of a sexual assault on a young woman by a depraved stranger named Lincoln. The book opens with teenage Peach walking home after the attack, battered and bruised. The lingering smells, sounds, and taste of the event are evoked in vivid detail: “charcoal breath,” “burnt flesh,” “crack crackly crackling” blood. Peach tells no one about what happened to her—neither her boyfriend, Green, nor her oversexed parents—and instead stitches her wounds up in the bath using a thread and sewing needle. In subsequent days, nightmares, hallucinations, and fear creep in alongside the evocative scent of roasting sausage and eerie sightings of Lincoln lurking in the woods near Peach’s school. Peach relishes the comfort of Green’s generous embrace while trying to ignore the psychological, emotional, and physical changes roiling within her. These surprisingly tender moments between Green and Peach offer respite from an otherwise challenging story as it leads up to its unforgettable twist ending. Making full use of metaphor, alliteration, and wordplay, Glass’s remarkable prose stretches the boundaries of storytelling throughout, adding depth and strange beauty to this vital novel.
The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World
Journalist Mann (1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created) clearly illustrates two opposing outlooks for dealing with major problems facing humankind, using two 20th-century scientists as exemplars. Mann straightforwardly states that this book does not provide “a blueprint for tomorrow.” Rather, it’s an account of difficulties facing humans and ways to approach them. William Vogt (1902–1968), who serves as Mann’s “prophet,” regarded human overconsumption as a potential source of humanity’s downfall and saw restraint as the only possible recourse. Mann’s “wizard” is Norman Borlaug (1914–2009), a leading figure in the “green revolution” of agricultural technology. For followers of Borlaug, science and technology hold the solutions to the problems that beset humankind. Mann juxtaposes these two lives and ideologies while briefly introducing a third viewpoint—that of biologist Lynn Margulis, who posited that humankind is doomed to extinction like any other “successful species.” In tracing the lives of Vogt and Borlaug, Mann describes how proponents of the two contrasting viewpoints that they epitomize suggest that humans should confront the challenges of providing food, clean water, and energy to an ever-growing population on a planet undergoing climate change. Neither ideology, he points out, is assured to bring humankind success. Without taking sides, Mann delivers a fine examination of two possible paths to a livable future.
Owens’s tense, rich debut follows the wide-ranging consequences of a brutal murder for the lives of three unconnected neighbors in sleepy Seven Springs, Fla.: widower Bernard, teenage waitress Maddie, and painter Amy. Bernard, a reclusive widower, convinces his cohort of fellow single retirees to pair up in a buddy system for safety, and the time he spends with his next-door neighbor prompts him to reevaluate his lifestyle and reopens the old wounds of his marriage. Fifteen-year-old Maddie, waiting tables and coping with her mother’s abandonment through expertly hidden self-harm, worries about the vagrant accused of the murder. Lastly, the victim’s next door neighbor Amy, whose creativity and marriage have been strained by her hysterectomy and double mastectomy, is inspired to paint again by the murder. Her creepy works make her a target of both the media and the murderer after she’s interviewed for a blog. Owens impressively captures the emotional landscape of three generations and the varying compromises required of women in each. Fans of crime fiction wanting literary flair and emotional depth will gladly follow this trio of complicated characters.
Phillips (Reconnaissance) hazards a visit to an emotional territory reminiscent of Dickinson’s “wild nights” in his 14th collection, in which he faces the unavoidable question: “Don’t you want to find happiness?” These 35 poems are as haunting and contemplative as the torch song for which the collection is named, and the work coheres through images of the sea and navigation, compasses and charts. The possibility of love is a risk taken under the “bright points of a constellation missed earlier,/ and just now seen clearly: pain; indifference;/ torn trust; permission.” The explorer must to “say no to despair.” The nautical conceit merges seamlessly with Phillips’s more familiar metaphorical terrain of earth and sky (“leaves swam the air”). He startles readers afresh with his talent for transcendent metaphor leavened by rueful humor—“The oars of the ship called Late Forgiveness lift,/ then fall. The slaves at the oars/ have done singing—it’s pure work, now”—and displays a well-honed ability to draw on varied literary sources in a register that’s both academic and vernacular. As ever in his work, emotional dynamics resist easy resolution and the speakers unsparingly evaluate both the self and exterior world. Skillfully balancing philosophical discourse and linguistic pleasure, Phillips’s much-admired capacity for nimble syntax unfurls like a sail, “each time, more surely.”
Silvis’s deeply satisfying sequel to 2017’s Two Days Gone finds Sgt. Ryan DeMarco of the Pennsylvania State Police reeling from events of the recent past: the death of his best friend in action, his baby son’s death, and the end of his marriage. On a visit to the hometown of his sweetheart, Trooper Jayne Matson, the pair are pulled by a trio of elderly vigilantes into an unofficial investigation into the deaths of seven young black women, whose skeletons were discovered behind a false wall in a local church several years earlier. Filled with the psychological language of memory and dreams, this solid procedural offers heart-pounding moments of suspense. Childhood history and relationship drama keep the lead’s personal life as interesting as the case he is chasing. Silvis smoothly blends moments of exquisite beauty into a sea of darker emotion to create a moving story heavy with the theme of the “past is never past.”
Cases don’t come much higher-profile than the potential career-maker assigned to driven British barrister Kate Woodcroft, QC: prosecuting golden boy junior Home Office minister James Whitehouse, the prime minister’s best friend since their boyhood at Eton, for raping the young parliamentary researcher with whom he recently ended a brief affair—in a lift at the House of Commons, no less. But the focus isn’t simply the he said–she said courtroom fencing match, but deeper truths about the nature of privilege and power. Skillfully interweaving the story of the unfolding scandal with James’s and his wife Sophie’s student days at Oxford—as well the drug-fueled, swept-under-the-carpet tragedy there that has informed his relationship with the PM ever since—Vaughan gradually reveals just how shockingly high the stakes are. Such is the strength of this sinewy novel from Vaughan (The Farm at the Edge of the World) that the glossy, tabloid-ready surface proves one of the less interesting facets of the engrossing, twist-filled tale that unspools.