This week: inside the epic first mission to Pluto, plus Sheila Heti's meditation on motherhood.
Abel’s politically and psychologically acute debut follows an inexperienced camp counselor, a teenaged camper, and an idealistic and self-deluded 20-something camp director through a summer of changes at a tiny, hippie-flavored camp in the high desert of Colorado in 1990. Caleb, who founded the camp several years earlier, has settled into a routine of introducing rich city and suburban kids to the wild and basking in their admiration. His cousin Rebecca, a student at Berkeley, is, despite her objections, shipped off to the camp by her father to be a counselor for the summer. The only saving grace is the presence of high school junior David, Rebecca’s childhood friend and secret crush. As David attempts to convince a distracted Caleb to allow him to live at the camp year-round and Rebecca is shaken to discover problems with her family back home, the camp is threatened by the son of the former owner of the property it’s on, who feels that Caleb has betrayed his family. Abel combines a wry sense of humor with compassion towards all of her misguided characters. A strong sense of time and place anchors the story, and Abel’s well-crafted plot brings all the strands of the story together into a suspenseful yet believable conclusion. Without landing heavily on any political side, and without abandoning hope, Abel’s novel lightly but firmly raises questions about how class and cultural conflicts play out in the rural West.
An escaped slave is hunted by a hound who “burst the bounds of utter slavering rage” in this heart-pounding novel from Chamoiseau (Texaco), Martinique’s great chronicler of the atrocity of Caribbean slavery. The old man, once believed to be the “most docile among the docile” slaves on an island plantation, slips away unnoticed, with “no ruminations, no grim glance toward the woods.” He has a head start on the plantation owner’s favored mastiff; by the time the animal that has already killed a half dozen fugitives is loosed, the old man is deep in the island’s forest, where “the leaves were many, green in infinite ways, as well as ochre, yellow, maroon, crinkled, dazzling.” The ensuing pursuit is electric and illuminating: for the old man, Chamoiseau writes, “the mastiff on his heels is showing him his own unknowns.” These insights into his mental strength show how the old man manages to persevere through a fall into a wellspring, branches that leave him “covered in bright blood and scabs,” and an encounter with a viper, en route to the book’s climactic confrontation. Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty—and is notable for its blending of French and Creole—and he ups the stakes by making this novel a breathtaking thriller, as well.
Crane’s ingenious debut follows the members of a sorority house at an unnamed Massachusetts college in the years before and after the death of sorority member Margot. Each chapter functions as a standalone story that ties back to the house. Some characters, like Margot’s roommate and lover Deirdre, have narratives that revolve largely around Margot’s life and death. For other characters, she’s a background figure as they navigate their fraught senior years of high school or their difficult post-college years. Anorexic Shannon and straight-edge Lucy grow up best friends, but pretend not to know one another as they get ready to rush. Wry, outspoken Twyla, whose dying mother wants to be euthanized, checks into a hospital after cutting herself. Hoping to end her pregnancy, Kyra goes to the first clinic she finds online and is dissuaded by its antiabortion staff. Crane’s prose is thoughtful and haunting; she expertly brings characters to life, especially in Jennifer’s chapter, in which a plain high school senior sees herself in her Crucible character Mary Warren: “I was rehearsing for many years of trying to be seen by the women I hated and adored,” she says. The multivoice structure fits the story perfectly, resulting in a stellar examination of female relationships.
In the opening pages of this fascinating memoir, first-time author Fontaine learns how to eat fire. This is just one of several “death-defying” feats she learned during her stint with the World of Wonders, “the very last traveling sideshow of its kind.” Intrigued by illusion and danger, Fontaine—a grad student studying writing—accepted a surprising invitation to join the show. Not only did she yearn for adventure but she also hoped to temporarily escape from assisting her mother after her mother suffered a debilitating stroke. Fontaine segues between hospital visits to her mother in California’s Bay Area and the fantastical world of the carnival, where Fontaine learned to handle snakes, swallow swords, free herself from handcuffs, and eventually master the role of “the electric woman,” lighting light bulbs with her tongue. Traveling state and county fairs, Fontaine shares the unusual stories of her fellow carnival workers, all of whom come across as devoted to the exhausting, grueling, yet inspiring work they do each day. Fontaine explores the history of the carnival (e.g., the first incubators were on display in a carnival sideshow in the early 20th century); its pecking order of performers, carnies, and foodies; its humor and dark underbelly. This remarkable, beautifully written memoir explores the depth of mother-daughter love and the courageous acts of overcoming fear and accepting change.
Thriller Award–winner Freeman’s excellent ninth Jonathan Stride novel (after 2017’s Marathon) finds the Duluth, Minn., police lieutenant revisiting difficult memories when a movie based on a serial killer case that left Stride emotionally scarred begins filming in Duluth. Stride only caught the killer, reporter Art Leipold, after he starved three women to death inside a cage. An intern on the film set, Haley Adams, disappears, only to be found shot to death, apparently by an unidentified hit man who himself has been killed in a freak accident. The mystery deepens when Stride and his team learn that Haley was using a stolen identity and spying on Hollywood megastar Dean Casperson, who’s playing the role based on Stride. The dramatic developments unfold naturally, and Freeman doesn’t shy away from giving his lead character feet of clay. A cleverly constructed, page-turning plot and fleshed-out primary and secondary characters make this a winner.
The subject of the new novel from Heti (How Should a Person Be?) is neither birth nor child-rearing, but the question of whether to want a child, which the unnamed narrator calls “the greatest secret I keep from myself.” To find the answer, she practices techniques cribbed from the I Ching, consults a psychic and Tarot cards, contemplates her mother’s experiences as a woman, counts her periods, and considers freezing her eggs. In the meantime, she and her partner, Miles, are going through a rough patch, only partly due to her indecision, which is exacerbated by visits with her friends (all of whom seem to have newborn babies), recurrent and bittersweet fantasies of raising a family, and her knowledge that she is reaching the end of the window when maternity is possible. A book of sex (the real, unsensational kind), mood swings, and deep feminist thought, this volume is essentially a chronicle of vacillating ruminations on this big question. Although readers shouldn’t go in expecting clean-cut epiphanies, this lively, exhilaratingly smart, and deliberately, appropriately frustrating affair asks difficult questions about women’s responsibilities and desires, and society’s expectations.
Kiely’s (American Boys) newest alternates perspectives between jock Jamie “Bax” Baxter, a new student at Fullbrook Academy who is escaping tragedy and determined to start over, and feminist activist Jules, who is fed up with Fullbrook’s social politics and its traditions based on hierarchy and privilege. The novel focuses on a nonconsensual encounter between Jules and her ex, Ethan, after both have been drinking at a party. Jules is left wondering whether what happened to her was sexual assault. Kiely explores the reactions to Jules’s claim from multiple angles; everyone has a different opinion about what happened. Gillian, who is Ethan’s current girlfriend and Jules’s ex-best friend, witnessed the incident and believes that Jules lured Ethan into cheating. Other people also blame Jules and label her a slut, seeing Ethan and Gillian as victims, and there are further reprisals after Jules comes forward. In his portrayal of Jamie, Kiely writes against jock stereotypes, presenting him as sensitive, understanding, and courageous—a good guy for all women (and men) to have in their corner. A novel to discuss, this takes up timely issues about privilege, problematic school “traditions,” and how institutions can in some cases protect their athletes and discourage women from reporting assault. Ages 14–up.
When 12-year-old Lucy was struck by lightning at age eight, her brain was damaged, resulting in her acquired savant syndrome. She becomes a mathematical genius and develops obsessive-compulsive disorder; she’s been homeschooled ever since. She feels safe at home with her uncle and grandmother, but Nana wants Lucy to become better integrated with her peers and enrolls her in seventh grade. Lucy hides her math abilities to blend in, and she’s bullied by popular girl Maddie, but when she and another student, Windy, team up with classmate Levi for a community service project, a true friendship grows. The three help out at the Pet Hut, a no-kill shelter where Lucy, who has never liked animals, bonds with Cutie Pi. After Cutie Pi is diagnosed with cancer—which means that she will likely be transferred to a state shelter and put down—and Windy betrays Lucy by revealing a secret, Lucy must learn how to solve problems of the heart. McAnulty realistically portrays Lucy’s OCD, and her struggles in middle school also ring true. Every character is fully formed, and Lucy’s journey is beautifully authentic in this debut brimming with warmth, wisdom, and math. Ages 8–12.
In this powerful and immersive memoir, Pataki relives the harrowing year that followed her husband’s stroke in June 2015. “Does my right eye look weird?” 30-year-old Dave Levy asked his pregnant wife, novelist Pataki (The Accidental Empress), during a flight to Hawaii. Levy soon fell into a coma; he awakened the next day outwardly unchanged, but a part of his brain that coordinated mental activity had been severely damaged. Suffering from amnesia, he seemed like a different person to Pataki. “It was scary to see my brilliant husband’s body and mind kidnapped by this new, helpless, disoriented foreigner.” She began writing him daily letters to her husband “so that if Dave ever came back to me, he could read them.” With a faith embodied in the proverb “Through hottest fire is forged the strongest steel,” Pataki cared for her husband while raising their newborn daughter and often wondered, “How is it possible for my heart to hold such overwhelming feelings of joy and grief at the same time?” Interspersing details of Levy’s ongoing progress toward recovery, Pataki delivers an insightful look at how two people faced a life-altering test as a team “fighting to make the dreams of our future possible.”
Brilliant scientist and biotech startup founder Jordan Parrish, the hero of songwriter and producer Pettus’s terrific first novel, is in despair. His marriage to Stephanie, his Harvard professor wife, is falling apart after the recent death of their baby, and his company is failing. Jordan decides it’s in the best interest of Stephanie and his two surviving children to call on Exit Strategy, a service that helps wealthy people in trouble disappear. When he steps out of his Boston office, he’s immediately spirited away to a new life under a different name. Jordan comes to regret his choice to separate permanently from his loved ones, and, with a single “like” of Stephanie’s Instagram photo, sets in motion a cascade of events that he can barely control. By violating Exit Strategy’s no-contact rule, he puts his own life at risk, as well as those of his wife and kids. Jordan is no trained assassin like Bourne or Bond, but he does push his body and mind to the limit in his attempt to return to his family. Cerebral and visceral, this is a top-notch thriller.
Historian Sheffer (Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain) examines the confounding legacy of Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger, who worked with autistic children during the 1930s and ’40s, unveiling a figure who initially offered benevolent support to some autistic children, but then death to others. In 1937, Asperger advocated a nonjudgmental approach toward children’s differences; a year later, following the Nazi annexation of Austria, he publicly recommended “the overhaul of medicine according to guiding principles of National Socialism”—with its emphases on group assimilation and physical perfection as determinants of whether people deserved to live or die—and introduced his concept of “autistic psychopathy,” which forms the basis of the present-day diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Asperger was likely involved in sending 44 children to the Vienna Municipal Youth Welfare Institution at Spiegelgrund, where at least 789 children died, inhumane neglect and brutal punishments were daily rituals, and euthanasia was considered a treatment. “Evil [was] just a part of life” there, one survivor later wrote; “it was everyday life, and nobody questioned it.” At the end of the war, Asperger was cleared of wrongdoing and even described his war service as somewhat heroic; he continued an illustrious career in child psychiatry. This is a revelatory, haunting biography of a gifted practitioner who chose to fall in line with the Nazi regime and the far-reaching consequences of that choice, for his own patients and for those still using and being labeled with the diagnostic concepts he originated.
This well-crafted and gripping account lays out the circumstances which led to the deaths of 33 crew members of the container ship El Faro when it sank east of the Bahamas in 2015 during a hurricane. Journalist Slade frames the tragedy with a meticulous review of all the ways in which it could have been avoided. Deregulation was a major factor, she concludes; El Faro was allowed to embark from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico, despite numerous vulnerabilities, including outdated lifeboats and design flaws that left it prone to being flooded in bad weather. The push to minimize oversight was driven by shipping companies such as El Faro’s owner, Tote, whose profits depended on making speedy delivery of goods. Capt. Michael Davidson, meanwhile, repeatedly ignored advice from his crew to take a route that would keep the vessel further away from the powerful storm, perhaps out of fear that his professional future hinged on an on-time delivery. Slade had access to 26 hours of audio on the ship’s voyage data recorder, and she presents the actual conversations crew members had before the end, highlighting their stoicism. This is a painful and poignant narrative.
Stern, the leader of the NASA mission to send the first probe to Pluto, and astrobiologist Grinspoon (Earth in Human Hands), who played a small part in the project, manage to make its many technical and bureaucratic roadblocks into a thrilling narrative, despite readers’ awareness of their ultimate success. The science involved in sending the spacecraft, New Horizons, over three billion miles from earth is certainly impressive, representing over two decades of work by a legion of devoted scientists. Their diligence and creativity paid off spectacularly when, in 2015, New Horizons flew by Pluto at 32,000 miles per hour and transmitted spectacular images back to Earth, reawakening a dormant public fascination with space exploration and dramatically increasing scientific knowledge. Stern’s hands-on and passionate involvement with the project from its inception enables him to make potentially dull material—seeking committee approvals, battling for funding, and managing relationships with superiors—as interesting as the science, and he provides a valuable perspective on the practical aspects of getting a venture like this off the ground. This is a future classic of popular science, full of twists and turns and unexpected heroes (a teenager’s passion for Pluto helped influence NASA administrators at a crucial moment), with a dramatic and profound payoff.