This week: the women who made an art of having an opinion, plus Hieu Minh Nguyen's brilliant and disquieting poetry collection.
Uproarious and ingenious, Burrows’s debut is more than 150 shorts composed entirely from example sentences taken from 12 different dictionaries. Burrows crafts tense postapocalyptic scenarios, moody noir, fantasy, erotic science fiction, and “the double life of a freelance secret agent.” Stories come in the form of recipes, eulogies, math problems, answering machine messages, cocktail menus, mix tapes, and a coach’s motivational speech to his team. Anything can happen when a sentence needs to account for words like phantasmagoria, meeple, and rock spider, or when a definition includes evocative prose like “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery,” the jarring “he is, in brief, the embodiment of evil,” or the hilarious “I never believed in love spells or magic until I met this spellcaster.” What sounds like mere novelty turns out to be a revelation in Burrows’s hands, as unlikely sentences generate even more unlikely narratives, oddball feats of lexicography inspire warped story snippets in which lions gossip, zombies intrude on a lackluster date night, and Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe makes a surprise appearance. This volume is a joyful celebration of idiosyncrasy and invention.
Few readers could fail to be impressed by both the research behind and readability of this first book by Dean, a journalist and critic. In it, she explores the lives and work of women writers of the 20th century, including Hannah Arendt, Janet Malcolm, Dorothy Parker, and Susan Sontag. She covers a dozen women, all considered “sharp” for their intelligence and insight, but also in that they were considered—particularly by male counterparts—cutting and threatening. Dean, fortunately, doesn’t keep these talented women in their own boxes, but shows many of them intersecting in the same intellectual circles, interacting and commenting—sometimes bitingly, sometimes supportingly—on each other’s work. Dean provides concise synopses and comparisons of their ideas and has an eye for similarities: both Mary McCarthy and Joan Didion, for example, objected to what they saw as J.D. Salinger’s triviality. The book has a few glitches—a short section on Zora Neale Hurston, for example, doesn’t quite mesh with the rest. Taken as a whole, however, this is a stunning and highly accessible introduction to a group of important writers.
At the start of Thriller Award–winner Deaver’s stellar 14th Lincoln Rhyme novel (after 2017’s The Burial Hour), William Sloane and Anna Markam, an engaged couple, enter the jewelry store of Jatin Patel, a master diamond cutter who works in Manhattan’s diamond district, to pick up a ring. Unfortunately, a gunman wearing a ski mask is right behind them. After the intruder shoots William and Anna dead, he tortures and kills Jatin with a box-cutter. Vimal Lahori, an employee, arrives at the store, takes a shot in the side from the killer, and manages to escape. Rhyme and his usual team—Det. Lon Sellitto of the NYPD, lover Amelia Sachs, patrol officer Ron Pulaski, and lab expert Mel Cooper—investigate. The tension rises as Vimal tries to stay hidden, the killer hunts more victims, and the media receive a note from “The Promisor” threatening the deaths of more engaged couples. Deaver keeps the twists and surprises coming in this roller-coaster ride of a thriller.
Set in 1921, Downing’s fitting conclusion to his superior quartet of WWI-era spy thrillers (after 2017’s Lenin’s Roller Coaster) finds series lead Jack McColl behind bars after he punched a London police constable for insulting an injured war veteran. Jack’s actions in rushing the comatose policeman to the hospital persuaded the judge to sentence him more leniently, but Jack still faces a seven-year stretch. He’s offered a reprieve by his old handler, Secret Service chief Mansfield Cumming, who makes Jack a deal: he’ll get him out of jail if he agrees to travel to Russia to figure out what MI5 is up to. “Five” has had covert contact with an Indian delegation that just settled a trade deal with Russia but has refused to share with Cumming what they’re planning. Jack takes the deal and ends up crossing paths with both an old love and an old foe as he races to derail a murder plot that could have catastrophic geopolitical consequences. As always, Downing’s intelligently constructed characters complement a plausible and pulse-pounding plotline.
It’s easy to pigeonhole books: this one’s an immigrant story, this will appeal to readers who have lost someone to suicide, here’s a doomed love story, and so on. Gilbert (Conviction) includes all these elements and more in this novel, masterfully negotiating plot twists and revelations while keeping the focus on her characters. Danny Cheng is an artist and one of the least wealthy kids at Silicon Valley High School; when he gets a full scholarship to RISD, he pictures his “whole life radiating like a sunbeam out from this one point.” But the sunbeam is shadowed by the guilt and grief that Danny, his best friend Harry, and Harry’s girlfriend feel about their friend Sandra’s death, and it fades entirely when his father’s job loss forces the family to move. The move dredges up secrets that Danny’s Chinese immigrant parents have been keeping and even threatens his college future. And the love story? It’s there too, in the interstices, another secret that Gilbert handles subtly and surprisingly. Ages 14–up.
In this lush historical fantasy set in a world reminiscent of the Renaissance-era Mediterranean, the discovery of a mysterious map triggers a search for the truth behind the tragic events of decades past. Young King Ulises of the island nation of St. John of del Mar only ascended the throne because his older brothers were kidnapped by agents of a neighboring nation 18 years earlier, and are presumed dead. Then several maps surface that appear to be the work of the supposedly long-dead royal navigator Lord Antoni, suggesting that he and the lost princes might still be alive after all. Antoni’s son Elias and Ulises’s cousin Mercedes set out to solve a riddle related to the maps that could change del Mar forever, only to encounter dangers both real and supernatural. Combining rich descriptions with a compelling mystery, Lucier (A Death-Struck Year) creates a vibrant world populated by appealing characters and enhances the story with subtle magical elements, a hint of romance, and a dose of political intrigue. The unusual inclusion of cartography as a plot device further distinguishes this satisfying adventure. Readers will cheer for the gender role–defying female characters and the bromance between Elias and Ulises. Ages 12–up.
With evident passion for endangered and common plant species alike, Magdalena, tropical senior botanical horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in England, shares his experiences traveling the world in his quest to save plant species before they go extinct. Magdalena details his exploits in a wide array of environments—including the Mascarene Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, the desert of Peru, the Amazonian region of Bolivia, and the Australian outback—while demonstrating the critical role plants play in all facets of human life. He consistently discusses the need for conservation efforts and says that he wants people “to understand the importance of plants so much that we are moved to do something about it.” Balancing the excitement of fieldwork with the rigors of plant propagation, Magdalena works to find new strategies for germinating seeds from plants that are on the brink of extinction and to keep the last seedlings of a species alive. He is equally articulate about the role that institutions such as Kew play in global conservation efforts, both by growing and preserving plants, as well as through education efforts in all corners of the world. Magdalena’s paean to flora is bound to enthrall readers and get them thinking more fully about plants.
Miller follows her impressive debut (The Song of Achilles) with a spirited novel about Circe’s evolution from insignificant nymph to formidable witch best known for turning Odysseus’s sailors into swine. Her narrative begins with a description of growing up the awkward daughter of Helios, the sun god. She does not discover her gift for pharmakeia (the art of using herbs and spells) until she transforms her first love, a poor fisherman, into a god. When he rejects her in favor of vain Scylla, Circe turns Scylla into a sea monster. Now considered dangerous, Circe is exiled to an island, where she experiments with local flora and fauna. After returning from a visit to Crete to help her sister give birth to the Minotaur, Circe is joined on the island by errant nymphs sentenced to do their penance in her service. By the time Odysseus’s ship arrives, winding its way home from the Trojan War, Circe reigns over a prosperous household. Welcome guests enjoy her hospitality; unwelcome guests are turned into wild pigs. Neither the goddess Athena nor the deadliest poison known to man makes Circe flinch. Weaving together Homer’s tale with other sources, Miller crafts a classic story of female empowerment. She paints an uncompromising portrait of a superheroine who learns to wield divine power while coming to understand what it means to be mortal.
Miller, fresh from his YA debut (The Art of Starving), makes the jump to adult SF with an ambitious, imaginative, and big-hearted dystopian ensemble story that’s by turns elegiac and angry. The floating city of Qaanaaq was constructed after many mainland cities burned or sank. The arrival of a woman with two unusual companions—an orca and a polar bear—draws a disparate group together. Ankit, a political aide, wants to free her institutionalized birth mother; her brother, Kaev, is a brain-damaged fighter at the end of his career; Fill, a rich playboy, has the breaks, an illness that throws sufferers into strangers’ memories; and Soq, an ambitious nonbinary street messenger, is trying to hustle their way into a better life. Together, they uncover a dramatic series of secrets, connections, and political plots. Miller has crafted a thriller that unflinchingly examines the ills of urban capitalism. Qaanaaq is a beautiful and brutal character in its own right, rendered in poetic interludes. The novel stumbles only at the very end, in a denouement that feels just a little too hurried for the characters’ twisting journey.
Set in 1920, Mukherjee’s impressive sequel to 2017’s A Rising Man finds Capt. Sam Wyndham, a former Scotland Yard officer, and his astute sidekick, Sgt. “Surrender-Not” Banerjee of the Bengal Police, transporting Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai, of the small kingdom of Sambalpore, back to the prince’s Calcutta hotel after a conference. The royal, who attended boarding school with Surrender-Not, wants his advice about notes that were left for him in his rooms. But before he can discuss their contents, a religious procession forces their car to take a detour, placing them in the path of an assassin who fatally shoots the prince. Sam and Surrender-Not’s failure to apprehend the killer only makes things worse, and, though they eventually track the man down, he takes his own life, leaving the investigators still in the dark about his motives. The road to the truth takes them to Sambalpore, a hive of intrigue and suspects. This successful evocation of the Raj in the service of a brilliant whodunit demonstrates that Mukherjee’s debut was no fluke.
In this uplifting, multifaceted historical novel set in 1941, Nesbet (Cloud and Wallfish) creates an arrestingly strong and sympathetic character in nearsighted 11-year-old Augusta “Gusta” Hoopes Neubronner. Financial strains force Gusta to leave her parents and New York City for her grandmother’s home in Springdale, Maine, where the townsfolk are wary of anyone different—especially someone with an unusual name or unusual talent, both of which Gusta, a passionate French horn player, possesses. Gusta is surprised by much in Springdale (including that her grandmother runs an orphanage), though nothing is more astonishing than her German-born union organizer father’s sudden disappearance during their bus trip to Maine and the men who subsequently board the bus searching for “fugitive” August Neubronner. Buoyed by memories of his encouraging words (“In war and struggle, we do what we must!”), Gusta adjusts to her new life, instinctively standing up for what she believes is right. Nesbet deftly weaves disparate elements—music, orphans, labor unions, carrier pigeons, and a magic wish—into a richly developed story set during a pivotal era in American history. Ages 10–14.
Nguyen (This Way to the Sugar) attempts a courageous exorcism of shame in his brilliant and disquieting second collection, exposing the baggage of living as a queer person of color in a white-supremacist, classist, heteronormative society. He illuminates how one can find a home inside self-hate, how "grief can taste of sugar if you run/ your tongue along the right edge." Nguyen's fearful mother symbolizes the wider world, her homophobia and internalized racism evident in her response to a picture of his white boyfriend who "will keep you safe." Nguyen articulates feelings of inadequacy engendered by his mother's judgment in heartrending detail: "she knelt in front of a shrine & asked// to be blessed with a daughter & here I am: the wrong/ monster; truck stop prom queen in his dirt gown." Another specter lurks, of Nguyen's memories of sexual abuse. "Somewhere in this story I am nine years old/ filling the loud hollows with cement to drown out the ghost," Nguyen writes. And a series of poems titled "White Boy Time Machine" contends with xenophobia and imperialism: "I look out the window/ & I don't see a sunset, I see a man's// pink tongue razing the horizon." Nguyen communicates with stunning clarity the ambivalence of shame, how it can commandeer one's life and become almost a comfort.
Set in both British Columbia and Southern California, Robertson’s searing debut novel (following the story collection Wallflowers) is a richly layered coming-of-age story exploring the thrills and dangers of a young girl named Willa and her adolescent sexual awakening. The novel takes the form of an impressionistic montage of Willa’s memories, in which she retrospectively interrogates her formative years, beginning in the summer of 1950 when she is nine years old. Willa’s hard-drinking and distant mother invites her Californian boyfriend and his two sons, Kenneth and Patrick, to stay at the family’s Salt Spring Island, B.C., beach house. Willa and her 12-year-old sister, Joan, are left to fend for themselves while the two parents are largely distracted by their own bickering, and while Joan and Kenneth form an immediate bond—they will marry only seven years later—Willa and Patrick’s relationship develops over the subsequent decade through a series of increasingly fraught and experimental sexual encounters and shared secrets, culminating in a devastating tragedy off the San Diego coast that severs their intimate yet often twisted bond. Willa’s memories, from the vantage point of four decades after the accident, map her gradually becoming aware of her own body and how the repercussions of untamed desire can shape futures. Robertson’s deliciously enigmatic style is the perfect analogue to Willa’s absorbing yet deeply haunting journey of self-discovery.