This week: a literary adventure about a movie crew in the jungles of Honduras, plus the painting that shocked the world.
In this rowdy, thoroughly satisfying literary adventure, Beauman (Glow) takes readers deep into the jungle of Honduras. An eclectic Hollywood film crew sets out to film on location at a mysterious Mayan temple, but they arrive to find that another group of Americans got there the day before and is disassembling the temple in order to take it back as a trophy for their wealthy benefactor. There is a standoff between the two groups: the days turn into weeks and the weeks into years. After 18 years, the two factions have turned into minisocieties acting out a sort of proxy war on behalf of their two backers. The extensive cast includes a relentless newspaper gossip columnist on one side and a burgeoning ethnologist on the other. Somehow, the film crew uses the silver they find to manufacture film stock from scratch and produce millions of feet of footage that ultimately end up in a secret government archive. Yet, the mystery that eludes both camps—and the reason secret agents are circling the situation—is what’s inside the temple itself. Exquisitely comic and absurd, Beauman’s imaginative novel brims with the snappy dialogue, vivid scenery, and converging story lines of an old Hollywood classic; it also says something essential about the nature of film and memory.
In 2042, sentient spaceships called the Leviathan saved Earth from ruin by sharing their technology. In return, humans agreed to provide crew to assist with research and maintenance while imparting their knowledge and culture. A century later, it has become customary for the Leviathan to tap 100 skilled individuals, known as Honors, every 12 months for yearlong deployments. Homeless teenager Zara Cole isn’t good at anything but fighting and stealing, so she’s shocked when she’s selected to tour the stars with a Leviathan named Nadim. The experience proves transformative: the previously hard-bitten Zara befriends Beatriz Teixeira, the other human on board, and forms an ineffable bond with Nadim. Still, Zara can’t shake the feeling that the Leviathan are hiding something. This series opener from Caine (the Great Library series) and Aguirre (the Immortal Game trilogy) is both a thrilling SF novel and a deeply philosophical examination of the nature of love. Keenly wrought characters, imaginative worldbuilding, and an inventive plot engage and gratify while urging readers to stay curious, question authority, and fight injustice. Ages 13–up.
The Feds make Manhattan con-artist–turned-attorney Eddie Flynn, the hardboiled hero of Cavanagh’s criminally entertaining sequel to 2016’s The Defense, an offer he can’t refuse: unless Eddie hustles just-arrested young tech billionaire David Child (who isn’t even his client yet) into pleading guilty to murdering his girlfriend as part of their plan to flip him against the respected but corrupt firm currently representing him, they will arrest Eddie’s estranged wife, Christine White, a lawyer there, for participating (unwittingly) in a vast money-laundering conspiracy. Eddie quickly hits a huge problem: despite the superficially slam-dunk evidence against David, he’s not convinced the terrified 22-year-old did it. Especially after a hit attempt nearly takes out the techie while he’s still in a holding cell. From there the action turns fast and furious as, with the preliminary hearing and Feds’ deadline looming, Eddie employs his very particular set of skills to try to keep David, Christine, and himself alive long enough to figure out who the real killer is—and how he’s going to prove it. This is perfect for anyone who likes a locked-room mystery wrapped inside a legal thriller on steroids.
In this lush, emotional debut memoir, Irving tells of her life as a missionary’s daughter in Haiti. Irving was born in California, but in 1982, at age six, her parents moved her and her sister to Haiti. Years of destructive colonization had left Haiti with severe deforestation, and her father began an ambitious mission to plant trees. Irving unflinchingly evaluates the consequences of well-meaning humanitarian work, which often included the perpetuation of oppressive colonial structures. She writes, “There is, in colonial literature, a recurring image: a foreign man, emboldened by his authority and by the lack of accountability, takes on a native mistress as a token of both his unquestioned power and his affection.” Amid the poverty in Haiti, Irving finds a “more complicated world where sorrow and beauty lived under the same leaky roof.” There, Irving wrestled with the prescriptions of her Christian beliefs, ultimately discovering a deeper faith in something else—that of beauty. “Beauty, it seemed, had been here all along: a wild summons, a name for God that did not stick in my throat.” This is a beautiful memoir that shows how a family altered by its own ambitious philanthropy might ultimately find hope in their faith and love for each other, and for Haiti.
The next CIA director could well be U.S. admiral Audrey Rowland, a mole working for the Russians, in bestseller Matthews’s stellar conclusion to his Red Sparrow trilogy. If selected, Rowland would learn the identity of Diva, the code name for Gen. Dominika Egorova, a spy for the Americans who has caught Vladimir Putin’s eye and is on track to head the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. The action shifts among such exotic locales as Istanbul, Khartoum, Hong Kong, and Putin’s compound on the Black Sea, where CIA agent Nate Nash goes undercover on a daring mission to prevent Dominika’s exposure. Dominika and Nate’s romance, which has been smoldering since they parted ways at the end of 2015’s Palace of Treason, creates complications. Meanwhile, back in the States, the CIA operation planners must contend with hostile politicians seeking to end the dirty, underhanded methods the agency uses against the country’s enemies. Matthews, a 33-year CIA veteran, provides a chilling portrait of the cold-blooded Putin, while saying almost nothing about the fictional current and previous U.S. presidents, in a suspenseful thriller that races to a heart-pounding and unexpected resolution. The March release of the film version of the first in the series, Red Sparrow, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is bound to give a boost.
In McIlvain’s splendid second novel (following Elders), the blissful rootlessness of narrator Eli, a 28-year-old graduate student, makes the novel a kind of adventure story of friendship and betrayal, in the same vein as On the Road. Eli is a socially conscious academic at NYU. His observations are casual but incisive, strewn with both scholarly and pop culture references including Sartre, Trotsky, Nadal, and Legoland. It’s in a Marxist theory class that Eli meets magnetic and impulsive Sam Westergard. Their friendship, fueled as much by adrenaline as righteousness, takes a leap when Eli flies with Sam to Phoenix to help single mother Maria Nava, who’s fighting eviction at the hands of an evil corporation named Soline. In no time, Eli is canvassing door-to-door, and activists of all stripes are pouring in, with disparate agendas. Heretofore, Eli’s stances on social justice and activism have been mostly theoretical; he’s totally unprepared for the mess and danger of real activism. Eli’s commitment attracts his volatile ex Alex, whose affair with Sam puts a wrench in the bromance, not to mention Eli’s engagement to his fiancee, Jen. McIlvain’s prose is effortless and sharply perceptive; this is a consistently engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable novel.
Olafsdottir’s charming novel of second chances and fateful journeys is filled with quiet hope. Icelandic handyman Jonas has decided to commit suicide after learning he is not his daughter’s biological father. To avoid his daughter discovering his body, he travels to Hotel Silence, a recently reopened hotel in an unnamed war-ravaged country, to hang himself. His skimpy luggage, with only the clothes on his back and a handful of tools draws the suspicion of the siblings, May and Fifi, who run the hotel, and the two other guests, an aging movie star and a shifty man with opaque but nefarious intentions. Jonas almost passively starts minor repairs on the hotel and wanders the city with blank nonchalance, disregarding warnings about hidden land mines. Jonas’s stoic implacability endears him to May as she recounts her gruesome traumas and he shows kindness to her young son. Soon, other city residents are calling on him for repairs, and Jonas’s suicidal intentions lift, even if he retains the same cool disconnection. Olafsdottir (Butterflies in November) captures the aimlessness of survivors and the long shadow of war in spare prose. The story moves at a consistently engaging pace, and Olafsdottir’s blend of sly humor and bleak realities makes for a life-affirming tale without any treacle.
This haunting masterpiece by Ørstavik, first published in 1997, follows Vibeke, a young single mother, and her son, Jon, over the course of one cold night in the isolated town in northern Norway to which they have recently moved. It is the day before Jon’s ninth birthday, and the boy leaves his home to give his mother time to prepare for his celebration. As Jon wanders, Vibeke forgets about her son and steps out herself to visit the library. From here, the narrative splits to monitor both characters separately as they encounter townsfolk and drift through the hours. Vibeke stops at a traveling carnival, where she strikes up a conversation with one of the employees, while Jon makes friends with a girl from school and later realizes he’s locked out of his home. Ørstavik shifts from Vibeke to Jon with incredible dexterity, often jumping perspective from one paragraph to the next, and, as their seemingly mundane nights progress, a creeping sense of dread builds. The deceptively simple novel is slow-burning, placing each character into situations associated with horror—entering an unfamiliar house, accepting a ride from a stranger—and the result is a magnificent tale.
This relentlessly paced series launch from Sigurdardottir (The Undesired) is as stark and horrifying as any of the ancient Icelandic sagas. In 1987, three orphaned siblings fall victim to bureaucratic exigency: the sister, because she is more desirable to potential adoptive parents, is separated from her two older brothers. Flash forward to 2015, when an intruder slips into the Reykjavík home of Elisa, a young mother, while her husband is away and brutally murders her. Huldar, a police detective shakily directing his first homicide investigation, joins forces with Freyja, a psychologist specializing in the care of traumatized children. Margrét, Elisa’s unhappy eldest child who was cowering under the bed where her mother was killed, gradually reveals clues to the killer’s identity. Meanwhile, Karl, a reclusive loner, untangles clues he hears on his ham radio. Sigurdardottir’s trademark sly ironies, often directed at official fumbling, can be downright ghoulish. Others are deliciously hilarious: Huldar and Freyja, pulled together for the case, realize they had a “well-oiled” one-night stand a little earlier. Each character is brilliantly conceived. Few readers will be able to put down this powerful tale of revenge.
Describing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—the 1907 painting alluded to in the title—as the canvas that “splits art historical time into an old and new epoch, BC and AD,” the author of this riveting biocritical study makes a case that Picasso’s seminal work serves as both the linchpin for modernism in the pictorial arts and the primary focus through which people view Picasso’s artistic legacy today. Unger (Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces) vividly recreates the scene of early 20th-century Montmartre and Picasso’s studio in the Bateau Lavor, where the artist held court with a devoted band that included the writers Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob, a host of struggling fellow artists, and the visionary collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein. He describes how Picasso synthesized the ideas of artists who influenced him (especially El Greco, Gauguin, and Cézanne) into the underpinnings of Cubism. Unger even imparts an element of drama to the artist’s rivalry with Henri Matisse, as Picasso strives to find a form of expression that will capture “the technological and social innovations associated with modernity” (“a crucial task of the avant-garde”)—an effort that culminated in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This engrossing book chronicles with precision and enthusiasm a painting with lasting impact in today’s art world.
A political debate familiar to American readers undergirds Swiss author Verdan’s stellar U.S. debut. In 2010, the Greeks are considering building a wall on the border with Turkey, a government project with “both practical and symbolic value, being intended simultaneously to discourage illegal immigration and to send the message that Greece could not be entered at will.” Euros from Brussels are required for its construction, and the discovery of a headless male corpse near the border threatens to imperil the plan. Given the high stakes, the Greek leaders want Evangelos, the agent of the National Intelligence Service investigating the murder, to act quietly and identify the victim as soon as possible. Evangelos, a new grandfather who considers the truth sacred, pursues the few leads doggedly, wherever they might lead. Verdan effectively uses a less-than-omniscient third-person narrator (“But is that really the history of [Evangelos’s] family? His own family?”). The outcome will bring solace to those opposed to the construction of border walls.
A talented seamstress and a prince with a secret will win readers’ hearts in Wang’s utterly charming graphic novel, which is set in a playfully tweaked version of 19th-century Paris and highlights identity, acceptance, and fashion. After creating a scandalous dress for an attendee of Prince Sebastian’s 16th birthday party, Frances—an overlooked seamstress with big dreams—accepts a position as personal seamstress for a mystery client. She soon discovers that her employer is none other than Prince Sebastian, who wants her to create dazzling gowns for Lady Crystallia, Sebastian’s alter ego, who quickly becomes a fashion icon. Despite Frances’s connection with Sebastian, she worries that being part of the prince’s secret is limiting her dreams of finding success as a designer. The relationship between Frances and Sebastian—both as a conflicted prince and the glamorous Crystallia—glows; Frances understands that Sebastian and Crystallia are two halves of a brilliant whole. “It’s weird, I don’t feel like Prince Sebastian could lead a nation into battle, but Lady Crystallia could,” admits the prince, inspiring Frances to create an armor-themed dress for their next midnight escapade. Frances’s daring designs shine in Wang’s elegantly drafted and gorgeously colored illustrations, and the irreverently anachronistic approach to the setting provides a lovely and humorous counterbalance to the seriousness of the prince’s situation (“Prepare to get your lady groove on,” insists the burly, bearded king, who is eager for Sebastian to be betrothed). It’s all but certain to deliver grins, gasps, and some happy tears. Ages 12–up.