This week: a thriller set in the underbelly of North Korea, plus the powers, perversions, and potential of heredity.

Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty

Stephen Brumwell. Yale Univ, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-300-21099-6

Historian Brumwell (George Washington: Gentleman Warrior) offers a provocative explanation for one of the enduring mysteries of the American Revolution: why did Benedict Arnold, one of “Washington’s most celebrated and valued subordinates,” become a traitor in 1780? Brumwell rejects the most common theories: that Arnold felt disrespected by the Continental Congress, which passed him over for promotion despite his impressive track record as a military commander, or that greed was his primary motivator. Instead, Brumwell credits Arnold’s own statements that he felt that offers to the rebels to end the fighting were both genuine and satisfactory, and that his defection was intended to reunite the fractured British Empire. Supporting his case with evidence such as the writings of British officer John Simcoe, Brumwell makes plausible the counterintuitive notion that Arnold’s position was not a fringe one, but actually “symptomatic of a far wider discontent” among the colonials. He also narrates the arc of Arnold’s life and reminds nonspecialists that the Americans’ eventual victory was far from inevitable. Open-minded readers will appreciate his dissenting view that Arnold may have “genuinely had his country’s well-being at heart,” a view that Brumwell believes “merits careful consideration within any balanced re-examination of America’s most infamous traitor.”

Broken Places: A Chicago Mystery

Tracy Clark. Kensington, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4967-1487-9

Cass Raines, the intelligent, perceptive narrator of Clark’s unforgettable first novel and series launch, runs her own one-woman detective agency in Chicago. A former Chicago PD detective, Cass left the force after being shot during a confrontation with an armed suspect two years earlier. Soon after her old friend Fr. Ray “Pop” Heaton asks her to look into a vandalism incident at his church, she discovers him shot to death in the confessional. Near the altar lies the body of a young man wearing gang colors. The self-assured yet incompetent police detective assigned to the case sees this one as quickly closed. Since Cass owes so much to Pop, who helped her grandparents raise her after her mother died, she decides to investigate on her own. While Cass is busy fighting for justice in her neighborhood, she may also have a little time for a policeman she admires, a certain Detective Weber,who’s separated from his wife. Distinctive, vividly written characters lift this promising debut. Readers will be eager for the sequel.

Some Trick

Helen DeWitt. New Directions, $22.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2782-7

DeWitt (The Last Samurai) reasserts herself as one of contemporary fiction’s greatest minds in this dazzling collection of stories about misunderstood genius. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” a statistician flees from a lunch with his book agent, preferring instead an imagined conversation with a “robot, in which rationality carries no stigma.” Literary agents come under fire again in “Climbers,” about a group of Americans who seek to publish the work of a reclusive novelist. Heedless of the fact that he is a writer who “can feel his mind crackling” under social pressure, they secure an agent who decides his book may be “the next 2666.” The writer’s only response to the bombardment of emails that ensues is to close his laptop and go “off in search of a beer or maybe a Sachertorte.” The suffering of a brilliant mind is made most accessible by “Famous Last Words,” wherein DeWitt’s narrator glumly accepts the degeneration of a stimulating conversation about Barthes into a seduction that leaves her and her suitor “stripped of language, indifferent featherless bipeds.” DeWitt’s disdain for those who seek to profit off of genius is sharp and refreshing, and her ability to deliver such astounding prose and thought-provoking stories constitutes a minor miracle. This is a gem of a collection.

Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

Ken Jennings. Scribner, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5011-0058-1

Jeopardy! champion Jennings (Maphead) examines the evolution of humor, asserting that “today, in a clear sign of evolution totally sliding off the rails, our god is not strength, or efficiency... but funniness.” Rather than going down the rote historical path of key performances, movies, and sitcoms, Jennings goes deeper, attempting to nail down the slippery definition of “funny” and track how it’s evolved even though jokes often don’t age well or hold up to scrutiny. It’s a philosophical conundrum Jennings expertly navigates throughout the book, turning over concepts like the miasma of hipster irony (taken too far and “you wind up with a society so cynical that caring about anything seems suspect”), absurdity (a fragile and subjective sensibility “because we scarcely know what we’re laughing at ourselves”), and the accelerated frequency of jokes in modern sitcoms. He colors his narrative with fun and surprising asides, noting that Lincoln read a long-winded joke about a traveling salesman before introducing his revisions to the Emancipation Proclamation and the first celebrity roast was held in Athens in 423 B.C.E. Jennings’s remarkable research and clever hand make an impressive and highly entertaining work that pop culture enthusiasts will not want to miss.

Star of the North

D.B. John. Crown, $27 (416p) ISBN 978-0-525-57329-6

This outstanding thriller from John (Flight from Berlin) brings to life the seldom-seen underbelly of North Korea, which the author visited in 2012. In 2010, Jenna (born Jee-min), an academic at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., joins the CIA in part to find her twin sister, Soo-min, whom North Korean commandos abducted off a South Korean island in 1998. Meanwhile, Cho Sang-ho, a lieutenant colonel in North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who knows about Pyongyang’s kidnapping program (and many of the country’s other dark episodes), travels on a diplomatic mission to New York. There, at a reception at the 21 Club, he meets Jenna, who tells him about Soo-min. Cho is initially unhelpful, but in the end he agrees to assist Jenna in her quest to locate her sister. As an undercover CIA agent, Jenna goes to North Korea, where she poses as a translator for a U.N. peace mission while engaging in a dangerous search for her sister. John excels at drawing the everyday details of life in a closed society—the drug use of the lower classes, the paranoia and fear of those who have gained access to the upper ranks, the omnipotence of the Bowibu, the state security force. Those seeking a realistic, highly readable look at North Korea will be richly rewarded.

The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I

Carolyn Mackler. Bloomsbury, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-68119-599-5

Virginia Shreves is back in Mackler’s sequel to her award-winning 2003 novel, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. She’s still worried about her weight, still worried about boys and finding love, but most of all worried because her brother, Byron, has just been arrested. Mackler infuses momentum into Virginia’s story by returning to the alleged sexual assault Byron committed at Columbia, for which he faces trial and possible jail time. Virginia must parse her feelings about her brother and what he did (or may not have done)—not an easy subject, but one that Mackler handles with sensitivity and complexity. Meanwhile, Virginia resists getting her driver’s license and embarks on a secret romance with the brother of the woman who accused Byron of rape. Though a sense of impending doom looms over their new relationship because of the circumstances, the tension doesn’t lead to predictable conflict. Mackler provides Virginia with plenty of opportunity for growth as she navigates romance, family difficulties, and relatable struggles with self-image. A thoughtful and engaging read. Ages 14–up.

No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America

Darnell L. Moore. Nation, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5685-8948-0

Moore, an editor-at-large at the content distributor Urban One and a columnist at Logo, describes his bold and candid memoir as “snapshots of my life,” molded by forces of “brutality, poverty, and self-hatred.” During the 1980s, he is one of a family of 11 in a three-bedroom home in Camden, N.J.; he shares memories of barbecues, dance contests, hip-hop music, and dark family secrets. One grim secret is his abusive father, a regular resident of jails in the 1970s and ’80s, who routinely abused his wife. Moore’s most eye-opening event occurred when neighborhood boys yelled gay slurs at the 14-year-old Moore and tried to set him on fire before an aunt came to the rescue. At age 19, Moore suffered a near-fatal heart attack, which quickened his resolve to succeed at Seton Hall University even while dealing with the stigma of being gay. Moore offers insightful comments on racism and sexual identity throughout (“The consequences of black queer desire seemed more lethal than poetic. And I did everything in my power to resist becoming what I sensed society hated”); eventually, he moved past self-hatred to a firm commitment to service and activism as a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. Moore’s well-crafted book is a stunning tribute to affirmation, forgiveness, and healing—and serves as an invigorating emotional tonic.

The Council of Twelve: A Hangman’s Daughter Tale

Oliver Pötzsch, trans. from the German by Lee Chadeayne. Mariner, $18 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-1-328-50831-7

Set in 1672, Pötzsch’s enthralling seventh Hangman’s Daughter whodunit (after 2017’s The Play of Death) takes Bavarian hangman Jakob Kuisl, daughter Magdalena, and other family members to Munich, where Jakob and 11 fellow professionals are meeting to discuss such business as standardizing fees and changes threatening their livelihood, including a push by physicians in the German empire to bar hangmen from acting as healers. Meanwhile, Jakob is looking to marry off his unmarried daughter, Barbara, and Magdalena’s husband, Simon Fronwiesser, hopes that his medical treatise will find a publisher, but these efforts are sidelined by the discovery of the bodies of three young women. One victim was impaled, one drowned, and one sealed behind a wall—all methods commonly used by executioners. The superstitious locals blame the hangmen, and Jakob, Magdalena, and Simon must act fast to identify the killer. Pötzsch does his usual excellent job of making the period vivid, while offering surprising twists en route to an eminently fair solution. This is a superior historical mystery.


Fiona Smyth. Koyama, $29.95 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-927668-54-2

This delightful career-spanning omnibus from Smyth (Sex is a Funny Word) collects work from indie comics and zines like Fabulous Babes, Twisted Sisters, and Nocturnal Emissions—the titles of which give an indication of the provocative nature of Smyth’s oeuvre. The stories are presented chronologically, from student work in 1985 to the present, providing a map of Smyth’s artistic trajectory. Her instantly recognizable maximalist style throbs with diverse patterns, thick brushy lines, and bold splashes of color. The short tales feature half-naked, half-human female libertines and anthropomorphic familiars, hungry for sexual joy and reveling in transgressive abandon. In “Toad in the Hole,” a metalhead dude is tasked with finding a magical breast in the surreal “land where wet dreams live,” leading to strange adventures, while in “Foxy,” images of hard-bitten female strippers are juxtaposed with a happy young woman making bland pronouncements about “when you wake up with smeared mascara.” Smyth draws from a feminist, spiritual perspective that posits a mystic sexual enlightenment awaiting those bold enough to reach for it. This generous collection offers new readers and her fans the case for her inclusion in the feminist art comics canon.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution

Peter Watts. Tachyon, $14.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-61696-252-4

In this short, tight novel that contains vast science-fictional speculation, the human crew of the construction ship Eriophora spends 66 million years building interstellar wormhole gates, so they have lots of time to ponder issues of purpose. Sunday Ahzmundin, on a quest to find a missing crewmate, has to deal with another coworker, Lian, who is traumatized after the ship is damaged by one of the “occasional demons” that pop out of newly opened gates. Dropping in and out of suspended animation as scheduled by the Chimp, the AI that runs the ship, Sunday begins to uncover the secrets behind Lian’s subsequent death and the disappearances of other crew members, learning what hides beneath the ship’s closed and rigidly structured society. Watts (Echopraxis) puts the concept of humanity under the knife, teasing out how Chimp’s programming and Sunday’s loyalty can both tie them together and set them at odds. Watts pits the drive toward success against the need for connection, leading to an ending as open and as expansive as the universe. SF fans will love this tale of bizarre future employment and genuine wonder.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

Carl Zimmer. Dutton, $30 (672p) ISBN 978-1-101-98459-8

In a magnificent work exploring virtually all aspects of heredity, journalist Zimmer (Parasite Rex), masterfully blends exciting storytelling with first-rate science reporting. Although he lucidly explains the basics of Mendelian genetics—which address inheritance and biological diversity—he goes far beyond that topic to explore the complexities of genetic inheritance. For example he notes that there are at least 800 genes influencing height in humans, but collectively they explain only about one-quarter of the heritability of that trait. Zimmer is not shy about taking on controversial topics like the genetics of race, arguing that there aren’t genetic fingerprints for race (“Ancient DNA doesn’t simply debunk the notion of white purity. It debunks the very name white”), and making the case that it is currently all but impossible to draw significant conclusions about the roles genes play in overall intelligence. He also probes developing field of epigenetics (changes in gene expression rather than alteration of genetic code) as well as the role of genetics in developmental and cancer biologies. Zimmer’s writing is rich, whether he’s describing the history of the field or examining the latest research and ethical issues certain to arise. His book is as engrossing as it is enlightening.