This week: new books from Lawrence Wright, Tomi Adeyemi, and more.
Harlem sophomore Xiomara Batista isn’t saintly like her virtuous twin brother. And her tough exterior—she’s always ready to fend off unwelcome advances and unkind words—hides questions and insecurities. As her confirmation nears (after two failed attempts), Xiomara begins to voice her uncertainties about the Catholic faith and patriarchal piety pressed on her by her mother and the church. Both intrigued and disgusted by the advances of her peers and older men, she begins a secret relationship with her lab partner Aman, who seems interested in more than her curves (“who knew words,/ when said by the right person,/ by a boy who raises your temperature,/ moves heat like nothing else?”). Xiomara pours her innermost self into poems and dreams of competing in poetry slams, a passion she’s certain her conservative Dominican parents will never accept. Debut novelist Acevedo’s free verse gives Xiomara’s coming-of-age story an undeniable pull, its emotionally charged bluntness reflecting her determination and strength. At its heart, this is a complex and sometimes painful exploration of love in its many forms, with Xiomara’s growing love for herself reigning supreme. Ages 13–up.
Eleven years ago, King Saran cemented his grip on the throne by banishing magic from Orïsha and slaughtering the realm’s maji—Zélie Adebola’s mother included. The maji’s descendants—dark-skinned, white-haired people called divîners—have lived under tyranny ever since, but now there is cause for hope. Thanks to information gleaned from Saran’s kindhearted daughter, Amari, 17-year-old Zélie has a chance to restore magic to Orïsha and activate a new generation of maji. First, though, Zélie, Amari, and Zélie’s brother Tzain must outrun the crown prince, Inan, who is determined to finish what his father started by eradicating magic for good. Book one in the Orïsha Legacy trilogy, Adeyemi’s devastating debut is a brutal, beautiful tale of revolution, faith, and star-crossed love. By making tangible the power that comes from embracing one’s heritage, Adeyemi conjures a story that resonates with magic both literal and figurative while condemning apathy in the face of injustice. Complex characters, colossal stakes, and a kaleidoscopic narrative captivate, and the book’s punishing pace catapults readers to a jaw-dropping conclusion that poses as many questions as it answers. Ages 14–up.
Ball’s latest (after How to Set a Fire and Why) is an intensely moving and dazzlingly imagined journey of a dying father and his disabled adult son as they make their way through a sometimes recognizable yet ultimately mysterious terrain. The unnamed father, a widower, narrates the novel as he travels with his son as a census taker for an obscure governmental agency, entering the homes of strangers and marking them with a tattoo on their ribs to indicate that they have been counted. For the narrator, the census is both a reckoning with the human world that he is about to leave behind and a way of saying goodbye to his son by finally taking the trip across the country that he and his late wife had often spoken of. As they head toward Z, the ultimate destination, their encounters with others along the way reveal the beautiful yet brutal range of human experience. A brief preface to the novel reveals that Ball’s older brother, who had Down syndrome, died at a young age, and the novel is an effort to create a portrait of the person he had been through the eyes of his caretaker, a role the young Ball imagined eventually inhabiting. This novel is a devastatingly powerful call for understanding and compassion.
After 12-year-old Ivy’s rural Georgia home is obliterated by a tornado, she heads to a shelter for the night with her parents, older sister, and twin baby brothers. There, Ivy ends up hanging out with her classmate June, a budding poet who admires Ivy’s drawing talent. The same night, Ivy’s treasured notebook goes missing—a book where she brought all her secrets to life, including the fact that Ivy thinks she likes girls. Worse, the person who has her notebook starts leaving notes in her locker, telling Ivy she should share her secret with someone she trusts. Blake (Suffer Love) gives Ivy the deep-thinking soul of an artist, gently examining the trauma of losing her home, Ivy’s excitement about her crush on June, and her fears that people will judge her if they discover her secret. Blake dots Ivy’s world with sensitive and knowing conversation partners, young and old, with whom Ivy shares her questions and worries. This is an emotionally sensitive and elegantly written novel about loss and the first stirrings of love. Ages 8–12.
New York Review of Books editor Buruma reflects on his immersion in the artistic underworlds of late 1970s Tokyo in this lucid, engrossing memoir. A bored university student from the Netherlands, Buruma was intrigued by the exotic Japan of film and stage and moved to a country caught between dizzying economic growth and the student uprisings that followed. On his way to artistic maturity, Buruma befriended gay expat aesthetes, fashion photographers, Buto dancers, and underground theater troupes, his fluent Japanese providing access to milieus few Westerners ever encountered. Throughout the narrative, readers learn nearly as much about Buruma’s occasional male lovers as they do about a Japanese girlfriend he lived with (and later married). Bisexual and half “Anglo-German-Jewish,” Buruma had always felt remote from his Dutch countrymen, and he felt even more displaced among the Japanese. Of course, it was exactly his difference that made him intriguing to the fiercely tribal artistic enclaves he explored; as Buruma freely admits, having John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) for an uncle proved quite helpful in encounters with luminaries such as film directors Ju¯ro¯ Kara , Akira Kurosawa, and Shu¯ji Terayama. Yet even as this far-from-typical gaijin enjoyed the benefits of his ambiguous status, he came to understand that he would never be fully accepted. Buruma makes the archetypal quest for home in a foreign land both uniquely personal and deeply illuminating.
Dellaira’s debut novel, Love Letters to the Dead, was good; her second, which tells two connected tales set 18 years apart, is spectacular. First comes the story of 17-year-old Marilyn, whose mother is so committed to her daughter’s future stardom that she moves them into a tiny Los Angeles apartment with Marilyn’s unwelcoming, alcoholic uncle. But Marilyn’s vision of her future involves going to college, taking photos, and making a life with her smart and handsome new neighbor, James. Next comes the present-day story of Marilyn’s biracial daughter, Angie, also 17, who wonders about the father she never met. Did he really die in a car crash? Does she have relatives who look like her? Will knowing her past help her find her way forward? Past and present collide when Angie runs away from Albuquerque to L.A. to find the man she thinks may be her uncle. Readers will be left sobbing, both for the characters they’ve come to love and for the state of the country—Dellaira draws on persistent racial divides to craft an ending that is surprising yet inevitable, heartbreaking, and hopeful. Ages 12–up.
Unimpressed with the celebratory legend, British scholar Hollingsworth (The Borgias) builds on her previous work regarding the Italian Renaissance to show how the ambitious Medici family moved beyond their banking origins to acquire the power to essentially strangle burgeoning republicanism in Renaissance Florence. Each generation receives an unsentimental overview centering on its most prominent male member, showcasing the public achievements and transgressions that gave the family enormous power and wealth. Well-known figures such as Lorenzo the Magnificent and Duke Cosimo I appear in short, enjoyable chapters, but Hollingsworth strives for fairly equal representation, which benefits the later, lesser-known family members who rarely receive book-length treatments. Images of well-known period art, much of which resulted from Medici patronage or revealed a link to the family, adorn each chapter. The visuals provide a break from the never-ending machinations that Hollingsworth details, such as Cosimo’s manipulations of the electoral process and Lorenzo’s use of art “as a political tool.” She admirably handles political maneuvers elsewhere, especially in Central Europe. If there’s a flaw here, it’s a minor one—the odd decision to avoid discussing, beyond a mere mention, Henry VIII’s attempts to gain an annulment from Medici Pope Clement VII, which led to the English Reformation. Hollingsworth’s clear, concise family chronology serves as an excellent introduction or handy reference guide to one of the Renaissance’s most infamous families.
In Uzodinma’s staggering sophomore novel (after Beasts of No Nation), the untimely disclosure of a secret shared between two teens from different backgrounds sets off a cascade of heartbreaking consequences. The first of the book’s two sections follows Niru, a Nigerian-American high school senior and track star heading off to Harvard in the fall. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his immigrant parents, who are loving but traditional and strict. When they discover Tinder and Grindr messages from boys on Niru’s phone—apps Niru’s (white) best friend, Meredith, installed on a whim—a shocking, violent event occurs. To “undo this psychological and spiritual corruption,” Niru’s father beats him, then takes him to Nigeria to rid him of the “evil demonic spirit.” When Niru returns to school, he vows to stop his “sinful” behavior and make his father proud. But his desires still torment him—especially after he meets a handsome college-aged dancer named Damien. In the book’s devastating second half, a broken and haunted Meredith looks back on that tumultuous time six years later. Her Washington insider parents are moving to Massachusetts, and she’s returned from New York to help them move—and take care of unfinished business. The revelation of what happened the last time she saw Niru is devastating and speaks volumes about white heterosexual privilege. This novel is notable both for the raw force of Iweala’s prose and the moving, powerful story.
The 20th century’s most infamous dictators were also authors, often prolific ones, complementing the atrocities they visited on humanity with crimes against literature. Kalder (Strange Telescopes), a journalist with a nimble style and an eye for leaden prose, read the significant works from this benighted subgenre, from the vast theoretical corpus of Lenin, through Stalin’s The Foundations of Leninism, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Mussolini’s My Life, and Mao’s Little Red Book. Kalder also extends his purview to the works of latter-day autocrats Fidel Castro, Mu’ammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, and Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, whose spiritual, autobiographical tome, The Rukhnama, which Kalder encountered while living in Moscow, began his fascination with the subject. The substance of these books is largely beside the point, since, as Kalder observes, these autocrats’ texts were not about thinking, but about repetition. Moreover, his zesty put-downs should discourage all but the most serious scholar from actually poring over them. Of Hitler’s “almost 400 pages of gibberish,” Mein Kampf, he says that it doesn’t need to be read; “to provoke unease, fear, hatred, and terror, it need only exist.” The enduring significance of these books, Kalder shows, is as totemic objects. Kalder’s work is quite an accomplishment, and is the one book people interested in the terrible writing of dictators should read.
Kepler (the pen name for the husband-and-wife writing team of Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril) proves that a gifted storyteller can make something memorable from an overused plot in his nail-biting fourth novel featuring Det. Insp. Joona Linna (after 2013’s The Fire Witness). Jurek Walter has been confined to an ultrasecure psychiatric ward near Stockholm for 13 years after being convicted of just two of the more than 20 murders he is suspected of having committed. Joona, who has always believed that Jurek had an accomplice, is vindicated when Mikael Kobler-Frost, a crime writer’s son who was thought to have been killed by Jurek, manages to escape captivity and provides some information about his captor, whom he calls the Sandman. Mikael’s revelation that his sister, who disappeared with him, is also still alive prompts the police to attempt a dangerous gambit: sending Insp. Saga Bauer into Jurek’s ward posing as a patient to try to get him to reveal enough information to rescue Felicia. Kepler doesn’t pull any punches, and his care in creating characters will make readers deeply invested in their fates.
In this spellbinding, adrenaline-fueled debut linked collection, Mackin pulls from his own time in the Navy to follow a team of SEALs who, from 2008 to 2011, serve and try to survive together, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each story explodes with dust and dread as the SEALs are sent to recover the bodies of missing soldiers who were kidnapped south of Kabul; come to blows over chocolate milk in the mess hall; and snub a fellow SEAL who, disoriented in a cornfield one night, accidentally shoots the team’s beloved bomb-sniffing dog. “We could forgive fear, but not the inability to control it,” the narrator explains when the unfortunate man sits waiting with his bags after the incident. Throughout the book, though, it is the language as much as the experience that drives the action, creating taut, almost terrifying suspense. Mackin’s masterful prose is both poetic and aggressive. In one of the collection’s most haunting stories, “Crossing the River No Name,” the men are preparing for an ambush against a group of Taliban fighters emerging from the mountains of Pakistan, “the type of mission that earlier in the war would have been fun.” Before the mission’s end, they will rediscover that, just because the war has become repetitive and futile, it doesn’t mean anyone is safe. In this story, and indeed in the whole unforgettable collection, the men fighting this war know better than anyone how tragic each loss is.
This outstanding career-capping volume combines McGuane’s three published story collections (To Skin a Cat, Gallatin Canyon, and Crow Fair) with eight new stories, together demonstrating how the Montana author’s portraits of people (mainly men) who fail to connect to or comprehend other people (mainly women) have grown darker, funnier, and more complex over time. In an early story, “The Road Atlas,” a couple’s relationship falters as they plan a road trip. In the more recent “Little Bighorn,” a splintering couple plans to join another splintering couple for a visit to the site of Custer’s Last Stand. Parental distraction leads to confusion in “Miracle Boy” and tragedy in “The Driver.” Like their predecessors, protagonists in later stories entrap themselves by making poor choices. The runaway parolee of “Kangaroo” heads home, his probation officer and a trigger-happy sniper close behind. Errol Headley of “The Refugee” sets sail again in “Papaya,” only to be washed ashore and put to work shoveling bat guano. In pursuit of lost causes, an aging California hippie refurbishes a rotting boat (“Viking Burial”); adult siblings recall their parents’ divorce (“Ghost Riders in the Sky”); and a premed student attends dance class (“Tango”). The last story, “Riddle,” in which a man becomes utterly perplexed after witnessing a joyous moment, exemplifies McGuane’s casual, conversational style and well-honed craftsmanship. Brief, stormy, and refreshing, McGuane’s stories erupt like the namesake of this marvelous collection.
Mortician Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, the hero of this stellar series launch from bestseller Meltzer (The Book of Lies), works the U.S. government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases at Dover Air Force base in present-day Delaware. Zig’s world changes when a military plane mysteriously crashes in the Alaskan wilderness and the body of soldier Nola Brown, who as a child saved his daughter from an explosion at a Girl Scout camp years before, arrives on his table. As Zig prepares the body, he discovers that the scars Nola sustained at camp are missing, and he becomes suspicious. When he finds a crumpled piece of paper in the woman’s stomach, a warning for Nola, his suspicions are confirmed: this isn’t Nola. Zig is determined to discover what happened to her and whether she’s safe. The closer he gets to the truth, the more dangerous it becomes. Soon he finds himself in the middle of Operation Bluebook, a secret government program that goes back to Harry Houdini. With its remarkable plot and complex characters, this page-turner not only entertains but also provides a fascinating glimpse into American history.
Greenburg, a media and entertainment editor at Forbes who focused on the business success of Jay-Z in his previous book, Empire State of Mind, here widens his scope for a detailed look at the rise of the financial empires built by Jay-Z and his hip-hop contemporaries Diddy and Dr. Dre. Incorporating interviews with such early hip-hop pioneers as Fab 5 Freddy and Starski, as well as many of his subjects’ current business partners, Greenburg follows the growth of hip-hop from New York City’s “dysfunctional housing projects” in the 1960s and 1970s to Diddy’s Revolt network, which brought hip-hop “to fifty-million people between cable, Web, and mobile.” Greenburg provides sharp looks at the intricate ways in which Diddy, “the flashy impresario”; Jay-Z, “the brainy lyricist”; and Dre, “the quiet perfectionist..obsessed with sound quality” parlayed their unique skills into hugely successful business deals, such as Dre’s cofounding of an electronics company, Beats, that Apple bought in 2014 for $3 billion, and Jay-Z’s investment in the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. It’s an excellent look at hip-hop that combines cultural and financial history to show what Greenburg, referencing rapper KRS-One, calls “the hip-hopitization of corporate America.”
Despite the story’s foregone conclusion, historian Weiss (Fruits of Victory) orchestrates a page-turning reconstruction of the last push to ratify the 19th Amendment in Tennessee in 1920. The drama reaches hair-raising heights in the last half of the book as support for the so-called “suffs” falls away under pressure from corporate lobbyists, outraged “antis,” and Tennessee’s unique state constitution. Weiss nimbly organizes a large ensemble of suffragettes, protesters, and politicians, and she smoothly punctuates her scenes of high-stakes action with history of the recent world war and the 70-year battle for legalizing votes for women. Weiss doesn’t flinch from depicting the political machinations on all sides. If suffragette leaders Carrie Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Sue White of Alice Paul’s Women’s Party get more attention than Josephine Pearson and the antis, it is perhaps because the anti tactics of bribes, threats, intimidation, ruses, liquor, and relentless appeals to racism are less moving than the suffs’ pleas for real democracy. Readers will find in the political landscape of 1920 features familiar today: corporate shaping of legislation, bitter partisanship, and the intense effort by some groups to obstruct what looks from most angles like simple justice. Weiss’s remarkably entertaining work of scholarship provides a thorough and timely examination of a shining moment in the ongoing fight to achieve a more perfect union.
Wright (The Terror Years), a Pulitzer winner and New Yorker staff writer, takes an unflinching look at Texas—the state where he has spent most of his life—in all its grandeur and contradictions. A clear-sighted and often witty reporter, Wright highlights the state’s past and present political figures (among them Lyndon Johnson, both Bush presidents, Ann Richards, and Ted Cruz); entrenched belief in low taxes and minimal regulation; booming economy of oil and technology exports; and track record of subpar social services and legislative accomplishments (redistricting, open carry and concealed carry gun laws). Wright also showcases three of the state’s fastest-growing cities: Houston, the only major U.S. metropolis without zoning laws; Dallas, with its history of reinvention after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and currently hot market for commercial construction; and Austin, with its high rate of start-up companies and its citizenry devoted to “quirky passions.” Interspersed throughout are the author’s personal reflections on growing up in Texas and on why he continues to live there. The demographics of this vast and diverse state suggest it’s far more progressive than its representatives, and its population is increasing at an astonishing rate. Wright’s large-scale portrait, which reveals how Texas is only growing in influence, is comprehensive, insightful, and compulsively entertaining.