This week: new books from Michael Ondaatje, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rachel Kushner.

Compulsory Games

Robert Aickman. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-68137-189-4

Aickman (1914–1981) was a master of the “strange story” whose nearly unclassifiable output relies neither on ghosts nor creaking castles. Each story in this collection is a small masterpiece of unease and psychological perplexity. In the title story, a mysterious woman gradually seduces and supplants both a husband and wife; in “Hand in Glove” a holiday in the country seems to cross over to a netherworld of carnivorous cows; and in “No Time Is Passing,” a man discovers a river behind his house that leads to an island seemingly outside of time. Other stories feature ancient wooden cabins, reclusive women of mystery, and “dreams... hard to recall in their particulars.” In “Residents Only,” a neglected graveyard becomes walled off from the living by its population of living dead. “Wood” follows a man entering into a strange marriage with the daughter of a sinister carpenter. “Le Miroir” introduces a young woman who falls out of step with her own reflection. Insidious, haunting, and brilliant, Aickman’s stories present dreamlike, inexplicable realities in prose both strangely sensual and entirely disarming, making this collection a treasure for fans of Poe, Kafka, and Lovecraft.


Mac Barnett, illus. by Jon Klassen. Candlewick, $15.99 (48p) ISBN 978-0-7636-9607-8

Square, who squabbled with Triangle in the first volume of Barnett and Klassen’s Shape trilogy, suffers from a case of imposter syndrome in this second picture book offering. Circle sees Square pushing stone blocks one after the other to the top of a hill among huge, ghostly boulders. She mistakes them for self-portraits—“You are a genius! I did not know you were a sculptor!”—and insists that Square must make a sculpture of her. Anxiety overwhelms him. Slashes of rain cut across the spreads as the stone disintegrates under his hammer and chisel, amid his growing despair. In the morning, his circular pile of rubble holds a pool of rainwater, which reflects Circle’s image as she gazes downward. “It is perfect,” Circle gushes. “You are a genius.” Is Circle a good friend who sees the worth in Square’s work that he can’t see himself? Or is she just a flatterer? Poor Square isn’t sure, and readers aren’t, either. Square’s efforts to please are equal parts hilarious and cringeworthy, and the moment he topples over in exhaustion is comic gold. The story’s decidedly ambiguous conclusion leaves the door open for questions about what it means to be an artist—and that’s the whole point. Ages 5–9.

Lost Empress

Sergio de la Pava. Pantheon, $28.95 (640p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4722-0

In his extraordinary new novel, de la Pava (A Naked Singularity) weaves together several story lines centered around Paterson, N.J. Nina Gill is a preternaturally gifted football strategist. She stands to inherit the Dallas Cowboys, but instead ends up with the family’s far less desirable Indoor Football League franchise, the Paterson Pork. However, an NFL lockout gives Nina the opportunity to build an absurd alternative for showcasing the sport she loves. A few miles from Paterson, Nuno DeAngeles sits imprisoned in Rikers Island. An out-of-place intellectual, Nuno is able to manipulate his lawyer and eventually lands in the somewhat cushier Bellevue Hospital while he conspires with his fellow inmate Solomon to commit a mysterious crime. Between these two worlds, de la Pava takes readers into the lives of ordinary Patersonians who work as EMTs, 911 operators, and a pig-suit-wearing mascot. Like his previous work, de la Pava’s novel employs a variety of narrative forms, including legal briefs, sermons, phone transcripts, and the text of a prison handbook. De la Pava is a maximalist worldbuilder, and the incredible multiverse he constructs in this book establishes him as one of the most fearsomely talented American novelists working today.

Flowers and Foul Play: A Magic Garden Mystery

Amanda Flower. Crooked Lane, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-68331-562-9

Fiona Knox, the heroine of this superior series launch from Flower (A Plain Malice), has good reason to leave Nashville, where her florist shop is failing and her fiancé is cheating on her, for Scotland, where her late godfather, Ian MacCallister, has left her his cottage, Duncreigan, near Aberdeen. There she reconnects with Hamish, her uncle’s elderly caretaker, whom she remembers fondly from childhood visits. While touring the cottage garden, Fiona and Hamish stumble across the dead body of Ian’s attorney, Alastair Croft. Chief Inspector Craig suspects Hamish may have had a motive to kill Croft, but Fiona believes otherwise. As she becomes acquainted with the local residents, she begins identifying others who may have held a grudge against the lawyer. The well-constructed plot, seasoned with humor, builds slowly toward a surprising conclusion. Cozy fans will look forward to Fiona’s further adventures.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Deborah G. Plant. Amistad, $24.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-06-274820-1

This previously unpublished manuscript from Hurston (1891–1960) is a remarkable account of the life of Kossola, also known as Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the last American slave ship. Before writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston was working as an anthropologist in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Ala., to interview 86-year-old Kossola. Returning to Plateau in 1931 for three months, Hurston documented Kossola’s life story in this short manuscript, whose brevity disguises its richness and depth. Consisting primarily of transcriptions from their conversations, Kossola recalls his capture in Africa, the Middle Passage, his five and a half years as a slave, the Civil War, the struggles following Emancipation, and the terrors after Reconstruction (his son was killed by a deputy sheriff in 1902). Kossola was 19 years old when he was sold into slavery; thus, his accounts of folkways and traditions (e.g., the decapitated heads hanging from the belts of the Dahomian warriors who captured him) offer more graphic and personal immediacy than other surviving narratives of the slave trade, like those of Equiano or Gronniosaw, who were small children at the time of their capture. While Hurston acknowledges that her account “makes no attempt to be a scientific document, but on the whole is rather accurate,” Kossola’s story—in the vernacular of his own words—is an invaluable addition to American social, cultural, and political history.

The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner. Scribner, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5655-4

Two-time National Book Award finalist Kushner (The Flamethrowers) delivers a heartbreaking and unforgettable novel set in a California women’s prison. Single mother Romy Leslie Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after murdering a stalker. From prison, she narrates her drug-addled, hard-bitten past in San Francisco, where she worked as a stripper at the legendary Mars Room, as well as her present, where she serves her sentence alongside inmates such as Conan (so masculine as to have been mistakenly sent to a men’s prison), the heavy metal-loving white supremacist known as the Norse, and loquacious baby-killer Laura Lipp. Readers slowly learn the circumstances of Romy’s conviction, and eventually glean a composite portrait of the justice system, including the story of Gordon Hauser, a well-meaning but naive English teacher assigned to Stanville, and a dirty LAPD cop, "Doc," who serves out a parallel sentence in the Sensitive Needs block of New Folsom Prison. But the focus is on the routine at Stanville, where Romy pines for her son, reads the books recommended to her by Gordon, recalls her past life in vivid and excruciating detail, and plans a daring escape. Kushner excels at capturing the minutiae of life behind bars and manages to critique the justice system, as well. Romy is a remarkable protagonist; her guilt is never in question, but her choices are understandable. Kushner’s novel is notable for its holistic depiction of who gets wrapped up in incarceration—families, lawyers, police, and prisoners; it deserves to be read with the same level of pathos, love, and humanity with which it clearly was written.


Julie Murphy. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99. (448p) ISBN 978-0-06-241838-8

Clover City High School in Texas has a clear social hierarchy: football on top, dance team members next, then everyone else. Junior Millie Michalchuk, who also appeared in Murphy’s Dumplin’, may be a lifer at fat camp, but that doesn’t mean she buys into how the world sees her. Callie Reyes dates a football player and is on course to become dance team captain. The girls’ paths rarely cross. Then the dance team loses its funder, a gym owned by Millie’s uncle, and its members break in and trash the business. When a sulky Callie starts working at the gym, Millie models not just friendship and forgiveness, but also tough-love examples of how to treat people. Through the girls’ alternating perspectives, Murphy develops their aspirations and struggles: Millie isn’t sure how to pursue her dream of being a TV anchor; Mexican-American Callie experiences stereotyping and yearns for friends, not frenemies. Murphy convincingly and satisfyingly portrays how their one-step-forward-two-steps-back bonding process helps them go for what they want rather than what others think is possible. Ages 13–up.


Michael Ondaatje. Knopf, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-525-52119-8

The term warlight was used to describe the dimmed lights that guided emergency traffic during London's wartime blackouts. The word aptly describes the atmosphere of this haunting, brilliant novel from Ondaatje (The Cat's Table), set in Britain in the decades after WWII, in which many significant facts are purposely shrouded in the semidarkness of history. The narrator, Nathaniel Williams, looks back at the year 1945, when he was 14 and "our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals." Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are stunned to discover that their mother's purported reason for leaving them was false. Her betrayal destroys their innocence; they learn to accept that "nothing was safe anymore." To the siblings' surprise, however, their designated guardian, their upstairs lodger, whom they call the Moth, turns out to be a kind and protective mentor. His friend, a former boxer nicknamed the Pimlico Darter, is also a kindly guide, albeit one engaged in illegal enterprises in which he enlists Nathaniel's help. The story reads like a nontraditional and fascinating coming-of-age saga until a violent event occurs midway through; the resulting shocking revelations open the novel's second half to more surprises. The central irony is Nathaniel's eventual realization that his mother's heroic acts of patriotism during and after the war left lasting repercussions that fractured their family. Mesmerizing from the first sentence, rife with poignant insights and satisfying subplots, this novel about secrets and loss may be Ondaatje's best work yet.


Tommy Pico. Tin House, $15.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-941040-97-3

Pico (Nature Poem) concludes his stellar “Teebs” trilogy in this frenetic book-length poem, a visceral exorcism of personal and collective demons. He draws formal inspiration from A.R. Ammons’s Garbage, but “Junk isn’t/ garbage It’s not outlived its purpose.” Pico litters his text with physical, emotional, and psychological detritus: “A collision of corn dog bites and/ chunky salsa to achieve a spiritual escape velocity,” thrift store miscellanea, and the baggage of lost loves. The poem is also driven by pop culture references (Janet Jackson is the work’s patron saint); commentary on gay hookup culture; and allusions to such world events as the Syrian refugee crisis, the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, and the water protectors’ uprising at Standing Rock. These references build into an apocalyptic crescendo via Pico’s propulsive fervor, junk piling on junk. Junk also doubles as metaphor for the psychic state of terror one experiences as a target of persecution, in Pico’s case, as a gay “NDN.” “I’m from a place where ppl became/ garbage,” he writes. “Poverty is like this:/ you keep everything until the wheels fall off and then you eat// the wheels.” The poem is a therapeutic process for poet and reader alike; Pico demonstrates that a person’s many selves, traumas, anxieties, hookups, and breakups can become a marker of courage and survival.

Our Story: A Memoir of Love and Life in China

Rao Pingru, trans. from the Chinese by Nancy Harman. Pantheon, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-101-87149-2

Using spare prose and stunning, full-color illustrations, Pingru reveal his struggles, joys, and enduring love for his wife over the course of their lives in a dramatically changing China. Pingru, a 95-year-old living in Shanghai, recalls the fun-filled games of dominoes of his childhood and the singular beauty of an evening at the foot of the Peace Bridge in Nancheng when he was 16. Pingru artfully sketches his service as an artillery platoon leader in the nationalist army in the 1940s; his attempts to run his own business after the war; and his painful separation from his family during his “reeducation through labor” in 1958. Though Pingru met Meitang twice when they were children, it wasn’t until the spring of 1946, when Pingru was 25 years old, that his father accompanied Pingru to Meitang’s family’s house to arrange their marriage. He chronicles the pain of growing old and relives the utter devastation he feels when his wife Meitang’s diabetes leads slowly to her death in 2004. Pingru’s exquisite, visually dazzling memoir reveals an ordinary life lived in extraordinary times.


Justin Phillip Reed. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (70p) ISBN 978-1-56689-514-9

Reed’s visceral and teasingly cerebral debut probes black identity, sexuality, and violence and is inseparably personal and political. He displays a searing sense of injustice about dehumanizing systems, and his speakers evoke the quotidian with formidable eloquence: “from another little death sleep I rise to find/ the id well hidden and life’s slow states of/ matter still in place.” These impulses meet in Reed’s delight in sound and symbol, as when a speaker treats a stomachache with “ginger-mint tea in the/ inauguration memorabilia mug from Momma,/ monument-white but for Obama.” Reed startles with his renderings of oppressive institutional spaces (“You arrive at the university and stand out like a necrotic thumb”), while his poem “The Day ______ Died” operates both as a brilliant rebuke to Frank O’Hara’s famous elegy and as widely applicable commentary on ongoing genocide: “i disavowed ‘died’ but didn’t mutter ‘murdered’ in the direction of anyone who uttered it.” Reed’s voice is engaging and vulnerable; in “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me For Being a Faggot,” the speaker tempers his accusations with the admission that “What you don’t know is/ I needed someone like you but braver.” Abundantly brave, Reed’s debut finds language as “a body behaving// as will any dialect, lifting stranger and more/ urgent mouths to the same sentence.”

A Brotherhood of Spies: The U-2 and the CIA’s Secret War

Monte Reel. Doubleday, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-385-54020-9

This gripping work of narrative nonfiction tells the extraordinary story of the U-2—the ultralightweight high-altitude spy plane that was the CIA’s “first technological development project”—and the 1960 U-2 crash in the Soviet Union that made public the U.S.’s first peacetime espionage program. The plot revolves around four characters: Edwin Land, the “brilliant scientist,” inventor, and corporate leader of Polaroid who threw himself into clandestine work; Clarence Johnson, the “fiery engineer” behind the U-2’s unconventional design; Richard Bissell, the “bookish bureaucrat” tasked with overseeing the covert project; and Francis Powers, the U-2 pilot who was shot down and captured in the Soviet Union. Drawing on interviews, declassified documents, and secondary sources, Reel (Between Man and Beast) captures the secrecy involved in developing the plane (including hiding an emergency-landed prototype from the occupants of a military base), the wrangling between the old covert operations guard and the innovators from outside of espionage, and the international scandal engendered by the revelation that the U.S. had given up its former aversion to peacetime spying. Along the way, Reel seamlessly integrates other related narrative threads: the birth of the military-industrial complex, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other technological innovations spurred by the U-2 project. This exemplary work provides a wholly satisfying take on a central chapter of the Cold War—a dramatic story of zeal and adventure.

Amal Unbound

Aisha Saeed. Penguin/Paulsen, $17.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-399-54468-2

Saeed (Written in the Stars) infuses this true-to-life story of unjust power dynamics in a poor Pakistani village with a palpable sense of dread regarding the fate of the inquisitive, industrious, poetry-loving titular character. Twelve-year-old Amal is troubled by her parents’ obvious distress that her newborn sibling is yet another girl, and she is vexed that her responsibilities as eldest daughter require her to run the household while her mother is bedridden. Amal unleashes her frustration on the wrong person when she talks back to Jawad Sahib, the wealthy landowner, who demands she work off her debt for the insult . Amal’s experience navigating an unfamiliar social hierarchy in the landlord’s lavish estate exposes her to pervasive gender inequities and unfair labor practices, like being charged for room and board but receiving no pay. While her growing indebtedness makes it unlikely she will ever leave, Amal’s ability to read grants her a dangerous opportunity to expose the landlord’s extensive corruption, if she dares. Saeed’s eloquent, suspenseful, eye-opening tale offers a window into the contemporary practice of indentured servitude and makes a compelling case for the power of girls’ education to transform systemic injustice. Ages 10–up.

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticism

Michelle Tea. Feminist, $18.95 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-1-936932-18-4

Tea (The Chelsea Whistle) takes readers on a raucous tour through American counterculture, instructing readers in what it means, and has meant, to be a queer feminist in the United States. The essay collection pulses with frequently dark and often hilarious anecdotes from Tea’s life, such as the difficulties of maintaining her punk-goth style of whiteface and mohawks. Her voice and message are brightest in her less personal essays, such as “Hags in Your Face,” about a gang of punk rock lesbians­ (many of whom would transition to male later in life) who roamed in packs in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood in the 1990s. In “Summer of Lost Jobs,” Tea tactfully weaves tales of her teenage angst, alcoholism, and an encounter with Joey Ramone into an essay about the summer she was 16 and obsessed with fitting into the goth scene. Tea’s prose is conversational, whether writing about her stint traveling the country as part of a lesbian spoken-word collective or delving into complex topics such as the harassment of young women as a product of misogynist culture. Queer counterculture beats loud and proud in Tea’s stellar collection.

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Simon Winchester. Harper, $29.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-265255-3

Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) smoothly mixes history, science, and biographical sketches to pay homage to the work of precision engineers, whom he credits with the creation of everything from unpickable locks to gravity wave detectors and the Hubble Telescope. He credits the start of modern precision engineering to “iron-mad” John Wilkinson, an eccentric 18th-century English engineer whose method for casting and boring iron cannons led to the manufacture of smooth-running pistons and cylinders that were then used in the steam engines of James Watt. The son of a precision engineer, Winchester clearly delights in the topic, relating his stories with verve, enthusiasm, and wit. Henry Royce and the Rolls-Royce automobiles he designed contrast with Henry Ford’s inexpensive, “reliably unreliable” bare-bones assembly line cars. The author paints historic characters vividly, including engineer Joseph Whitworth, described as “large and bearded and oyster-eyed”; cabinet-maker Joseph Bramah, who patented the flush toilet; tech aficionado Prince Albert; and rapacious businessman Eli Whitney, who lied about using Frenchman Honoré Blanc’s idea for standardized parts for flintlocks in his winning bid for a U.S. government contract for 10,000 muskets. Winchester’s latest is a rollicking work of pop science that entertains and informs.