This week: new novels from Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, and more.
In this fascinating and well-researched book, Conaway delivers an unpleasant portrait of California’s Napa Valley in the 21st century. Conaway knows his subject well, having written two previous narratives chronicling the valley’s metamorphosis over the decades (including Napa: The Story of an American Eden). Several sections of the book explore “specific struggles similar to those all over the country but heightened by Napa’s fame and outsized concentrations of wealth and notoriety.” The 1960s through the ’80s were a golden age for Napa. Newcomers filled with idealism flocked to the valley wanting to learn the art of wine making, all the while respecting sound conservation principles. But once big money arrived, personal bonds among the community members began disintegrating and land-zoning and water-use issues divided Napa residents. Once a mainly mixed-agriculture region that also happened to produce wine, Napa morphed into an oenophile Disneyland, according to Conaway, where new-millionaire winemakers have little regard for the natural environment or quality of life for longtime valley residents. This is a stunning and sad look at how an idyllic community (which has recently been ravaged by fire) became a victim of its own success.
Children’s author (A Million Miles from Boston) Day’s excellent first foray into adult fiction chronicles three periods in the life of Clare Michaels, the aimless daughter of a famous writer. The first is her intense, college-years friendship with her best friend, Lee Sumner, which is irrevocably altered during a Daytona Beach trip when they are cornered by three men. Lee agrees she’ll willingly stay if they let Clare go. Lee is later saved, but she won’t discuss what happened to her, and as the years go by, Clare is haunted by the event. The second period covers the post-college years as Clare finishes her master’s degree and Lee, once confident, falls aimlessly in and out of jobs. The third period involves Clare’s mother, Eleanor, a self-involved writer. When confronted by a fan who claims that Eleanor stole her short story and turned it into Eleanor’s most famous book, Clare, who has mixed feelings about her mother, begins to wonder whether this is the reason why her mother remains mum about her novel’s origins. The novel is an intricate study of loyalty and guilt, providing full character arcs for both Clare and Lee, and it’s a page-turner from beginning to end.
The latest from Hobson (Deep Ellum) is a smart, dark novel of adolescence, death, and rural secrets set in late-1980s Oklahoma. After his mother is jailed for drug charges, 15-year-old Sequoyah becomes the foster child of Harold and Agnes Troutt, a middle-aged couple already fostering 13-year-old George and 17-year-old Rosemary. Sequoyah shares a bedroom with the quirky George, who sleepwalks and sometimes communicates via handwritten notes, and bonds with Rosemary over their shared Native American heritages—he is Cherokee, she Kiowa. As the pair grows close, Sequoyah falls for Rosemary’s charm and fantasizes about both hurting and becoming his foster sister (“We shared no physical attraction but something else, something deeper. I saw myself in her.”), who has a history of self-harm. Sequoyah also learns of Harold’s illegal sports bookie business from his foster siblings, and the lure of Harold’s hidden sacks of rolled hundred-dollar bills, tucked safely in a backyard shed, tempt all three children with the possibility for trouble, excess, and freedom, which drives the novel’s second half. Hobson’s narrative control is stunning, carrying the reader through scenes and timelines with verbal grace and sparse detail. Far more than a mere coming-of-age story, this is a remarkable and moving novel.
Set in Delaware in 1995, this scorching tale of the gray area between betrayal, lust, and murder from Edgar-winner Lippman (Wilde Lake) will resonate with fans of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. When Polly Costello walks out on her husband and young daughter during their beach vacation, she gets as far as Belleville, a town with a main drag and not much else, except the High-Ho diner, where she lands a job waitressing, at least for now. Enter Adam Bosk, who knows more than he’s telling—of course, so does Polly—but who can cook a mean burger. Soon Polly and Adam, who is exactly the kind of inquisitive guy a woman with secrets should avoid, are dancing around a relationship when Polly’s checkered past—another husband, insurance money, and now a suspicious death in Belleville—comes crawling back. Lippman ratchets up the suspense the way the mercury in a thermometer creeps up on a hot August day, until everything—Polly’s carefully laid plans of revenge and redemption, Adam’s part in her potential downfall—comes to a boiling point. This is Lippman at her observant, fiercest best, a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction.
Former NYPD detective Joe King Oliver, now the owner-operator of King Detective Service, investigates two cases of gross injustice in this excellent standalone from MWA Grand Master Mosley (Charcoal Joe and 13 other Easy Rawlins novels). Thirteen years earlier, Oliver was convicted on bogus assault charges, which ended his police career and his marriage. He spent nine months in jail before the charges were dropped and he was released without explanation. Oliver now learns that a crooked cop was behind the frame. Meanwhile, he is approached by Willa Portman, an intern for the lawyer representing Leonard Compton, a militant journalist who’s on death row for the murder of two policemen three years earlier. Portman says the killings were self-defense. Oliver, who faces a corrupt world with unflinching honesty and ruthlessness, enlists the aid of Melquarth Frost, a hardened career criminal, to even the odds in both cases. The novel’s dedication—to Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin—underlines the difference that one man can make in the fight for justice.
In this comprehensive and insightful biography, Paul (Unlikely Allies), professor of constitutional and international law at UC-Hastings Law School, asserts that John Marshall (1755–1835), the fourth chief justice of the U.S., did more than anyone to “preserve the delicate unity of the fledgling republic.” While clearly a fan of his subject, Paul questions Marshall’s behavior, particularly his approach to slavery before and after he assumed the bench. Born of humble Virginia frontier origins, Marshall’s formal education was limited to a year of grammar school and six weeks of law school. Prior to his time on the high court, Marshall served under Washington at Valley Forge and was briefly a Virginia state representative before becoming secretary of state under John Adams. Marshall’s most famous decision during his record 34-year tenure as chief justice was Marbury v. Madison, which established the fundamental principle that courts had the authority to assess the constitutionality of a law. Positing that the decision was based on perjured testimony by Marshall’s brother James and that “the chief justice not only knew this but probably asked him to lie,” Paul explains and contextualizes the shocking ethical breach. Paul has produced an excellent treatment of an unquestionably impressive life.
A delicate touch and passionately humanist sensibilities sweep through this magnificent collection, which ranges from the near future of our world to eras far away in space and time. Highlights include “With Fate Conspire,” in which Gargi, taken from slum life because of her ability to use a device which lets her look through time, has more power to influence history than the scientists around her suspect; “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra,” about an 11th-century Indian poet who has become the companion of a spacefaring folklorist; and “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” a story in the form of a test that pushes the limits of narrative by trying to define what is not possible rather than what is. The short piece “Indra’s Web” is more interested in depicting its solar-powered utopia than in plot or characterization, but in general this collection is full of risky experiments that turn out beautifully: colorful, emotionally resonant, and consistently entertaining. Refreshingly for this flavor of SF, the protagonists are often bright, passionate women in middle life, driven by some kind of art or science or cause and in no way defined by their relationships with men. Those not familiar with physicist and SF author Singh (Younguncle Comes to Town) will find this a perfect introduction to her work.
Stamper’s exceptionally moving debut goes beyond recounting the suffering inflicted on Jews during the Holocaust to explore a young woman’s conflict between love and artistic ambition. Fourteen-year-old Gerta Richter, a talented singer and daughter of a violist in the Würzburg Orchestra, learned that she is actually Gerta Rausch, a Jew, when she and her father were forcibly removed from Würzburg by the Nazis one night in June 1944. The novel opens with the British liberation of German concentration camps in 1945 and moves smoothly among Gerta’s prewar life, her stay in concentration camps and the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp, and her postwar flight to Palestine. Focusing on Gerta’s transitional time as a displaced person, Stamper delves into her fight to regain her musical gift, her deepening relationship with a fellow survivor, her growing identity as a Jew, and her struggle to make decisions about her future. Generously illustrated with Stamper’s haunting spot images and larger scenes, all in deep brown hues that evoke profound emotion, the book is a strong addition to the bookshelf of Holocaust fiction. Ages 12–up.
A girl claws her way out of a claustrophobic, violent fundamentalist family into an elite academic career in this searing debut memoir. Westover recounts her upbringing with six siblings on an Idaho farm dominated by her father Gene (a pseudonym), a devout Mormon with a paranoid streak who tried to live off the grid, kept four children (including the author) out of school, refused to countenance doctors (Westover’s mother, Faye, was an unlicensed midwife who sold homeopathic medicines), and stockpiled supplies and guns for the end-time. Westover was forced to work from the age of 11 in Gene’s scrap and construction businesses under incredibly dangerous conditions; the grisly narrative includes lost fingers, several cases of severe brain trauma, and two horrible burns that Faye treated with herbal remedies. Thickening the dysfunction was the author’s bullying brother, who physically brutalized her for wearing makeup and other immodest behaviors. When she finally escaped the toxic atmosphere of dogma, suspicion, and patriarchy to attend college and then grad school at Cambridge, her identity crisis precipitated a heartbreaking rupture. Westover’s vivid prose makes this saga of the pressures of conformity and self-assertion that warp a family seem both terrifying and ordinary.